Moshe

A Great, New Way to Learn Chinese

September 12, 2008 · No Comments

I recently tried a new way of practicing and learning Chinese, and I came out rather impressed.

Even though I have plenty of friends that I can practice Chinese with, the teachers at eChineseLearning helped me improve my Chinese like no friends could. The teachers are very nice and cater the material just for your language level and preferences. This is much better for me than a standard Chinese class because I can move at my own pace.

I encourage anyone interested in studying Chinese to try a free trial lesson at http://www.echineselearning.com/

Enjoy!

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Tibetan Family Life (Part 2)

August 22, 2008 · No Comments

We woke up the next morning around 9, and spent two hours arguing/discussing the situation in Tibet. Afterwards, we decided to visit one of the nearby monasteries with a monk from the inn. There were plenty of Chinese restaurants in Yushu, and we took the monk out to lunch to thank him for driving us around. Surprisingly, a picture of President Bush was hung on the wall of the inn. Despite his unpopularity in many parts of the world, Bush is extremely popular among Tibetans. This is because Bush recently met with the Dalai Lama and America is seen as a sort of counter to China.

After lunch, the Monk dropped us off at a small village surrounding the temple. A family was washing prayer flags when we arrived, so I decided to approach them and help out. Unfortunately, no one in the family spoke mandarin, and we didn’t have anyone who could translate at the time. Because of this language barrier, we didn’t have a chance to genuinely bond with the family.

We first entered the historic temple and then toured the surrounding area. Many Tibetans make pilgrimages to the temple and circle the mountain nearby. However, it is important to circle clockwise (we learned this the hard way). The mountain was full of yaks and sheep, and the entire circle took about an hour and a half. As we walked down from the mountain, we found ourselves in a small settlement of mud houses. Luckily, I realized that one of the mud houses also served as a sort of convenience store. In many small Yushu villages the convenience store is very small, and customers select and buy products from the window. However, I walked right through into the house because I didn’t see the window. The vendor spoke very little Chinese, but we started having a friendly conversation communicating nonverbally. As we became more and more friendly, the vendor sat us in his house and showed us his collection of rocks and deformed animal skulls.

Touched by the vendor’s hospitality, I wanted to leave something with him as a souvenir of his new foreign friend. However, the only thing I could find in my pocket was a very small passport-sized picture of me. Most Tibetans hang pictures of religious leaders in their homes, and this vendor was no exception; except that now he also has a picture of Moshe Itzhakov on his wall.

The reaction of the vendor is representative of the local mentality in Yushu. Even though the majority of residents are not considered poor, they are very closed off from the rest of the world. Almost no Yushu Tibetan families own their own camera, and most people there would be rather excited to see photographs. Especially photographs coming from/of a foreigner. For example, we went to another temple later that day. This temple is known to attract pilgrims at dusk. The pilgrims start arriving late afternoon, and circle the temple for a few hours. We thought the best way to bond with the locals would be to join them in circling the khora. Naturally, we circled for about an hour and became friendly with almost all of the pilgrims. While sitting down and resting, I showed some of the pilgrims pictures from my lonely planet travel book. We attracted a crowd within a minute or so, and I was surprised at how excited many of the locals were to see pictures. The pictures were of major tourist sites in China, but Tibetans have no sense of other cities in China. For example, most locals had no idea about Beijing or Shanghai. Their unfamiliarity with Beijing or Shanghai was similar to western unfamiliarity with Tajikistan. Overall, the locals we encountered were very closed off from the outside world, and maintained a sense of simple innocence in whatever they did.

Later that night, we discovered a shower spa right next door to our hotel. It costs 7 RMB per person, and people who come together are sometimes asked to share a room with two shower heads. Up until that point, I had gone over 80 hours without showering. It goes without saying that the shower was absolutely phenomenal.

Hoping to see more of the surrounding temples and villages, we took a north bound bus the next morning. We didn’t have any concrete plans because our main goal was to stay in a village and better understand Tibetan culture. Thankfully, we met Laozhu as soon as we got on the bus; a friendly Tibetan man who spoke fluent Mandarin. Laozhu lives in a village far north of Yushu and sells caterpillars for a living. He generally looks for caterpillars in the mountains during May and June, while he spends the rest of the year trying to sell them. Surprisingly, this means of making a living is rather common in Yushu. We told Laozhu about our plan of living in a village, and he immediately invited us to live in his.

Despite his fluency in mandarin, Laozhu is in no way assimilated or “Chinanized.” On the contrary, from his physical appearance to his lifestyle, Laozhu is very Tibetan. He has a Tibetan-style knife braided into his hair, and he is rather open about his respect and devotion to the Dalai Lama. (It is illegal to openly support the Dalai Lama in China).

Even though Laozhu’s village is only a 4 hour drive from Yushu, it took us over 7 hours to get there. Why did it take us so long? Lunch.

Because the area is so undeveloped, we had to drive an hour past the village to find restaurants. Interestingly, the rest area was filled with Tibetans playing pool. Moreover, we saw several pool tables at every rest area in Yushu.

There is only one highway in the Yushu area, and Laozhu told us his village was right off of the highway. In reality, we drove 2 hours on a gravel road that was off the highway until we finally arrived at the village. After seeing how remote the village actually was, I asked Laozhu about where we would get our drinking water. Laozhu pointed to the river surrounding us. At this point, I was both nervous and excited. Even though I was thrilled to be experiencing Tibetan life, I had very real concerns about how my stomach would handle the food and water there. Also, it’s important to be aware that foreigners are not generally allowed to socialize with Tibetans unless there is a tour guide present. However, since we were technically not in Tibet, that rule didn’t apply. To say the least, living with a Tibetan family is an incredible opportunity that few foreigners experience.

After we pulled into the village, people began getting off the bus and unloading their things. People in Yushu generally load their belongings on the top of the bus, and later climb up and throw them down whenever they want to get off. The entire process is rather chaotic. Imagine bags of flour and clothes all being thrown off a bus without any semblance order at all. Wanting to make a good impression, I offered to help unload the bus. Someone threw me 2 huge bags that left my entire upper body brown and full of dust. It was at this point that I decided to watch from the side instead of directly helping. Shortly after, I saw someone try to unload a wooden desk. Instead of slowly moving it down, the man just threw it to the ground. Naturally, the desk broke and the drawers came flying out. As one can tell, Tibetan culture is very laid back, as people focus on the spiritual more than the physical world.

We finally arrived at Laozhu’s home, and I was very surprised at how nice everything looked. Unlike some of the other villages that I visited, Laozhu’s home seemed rather clean and his family did a very nice job of decorating. Also, Laozhu has a rather nice TV set, as well as a subwoofer and CD player. Laozhu has two daughters, one is 18 while the other is 10. He also lives with his brother, who is a monk. Besides Laozhu, no one in the family speaks any Mandarin. This made communication rather challenging, as we learned to rely on our hand gestures and facial expressions for pretty much everything.

Hungry after the long bus ride, Laozhu immediately offered us Tibetan snacks before he ate himself. Before the meal, we were first served a glass of tea that was salted for taste. The meal was an interesting combination of vegetable oil, yak butter, and flour. Each of us was given a bowl that was filled with those three, and then each of us would mix it ourselves with our hands. Even though it caused a mess because flour was flying across the living room, I actually enjoyed helping make my food. After we mixed for about 20 minutes, the combination turned into a dough-like substance. I assumed we would now put the dough in the oven, but Tibetans eat the dough raw. This is called Zangba and is one of the most common foods in Tibet.

Wanting to be even more hospitable, our host placed several cubes of yak butter into our tea cups. At this point, I could almost feel my body slow down from all the butter and flour. After our snack, Laozhu and his brother took us around the village in Laozhu’s car. It turns out that the village is home to about 4,000 Tibetans, and that the Chinese government used to send workers there to dig up gold.

We then arrived at a hot spring, and Laozhu explained to us that he would come here to shower. Although most Yushu Tibetans don’t have an understanding of showers, Laozhu said that he showers in the cities once or twice a year before holidays. Because I was coming down with a cold, I didn’t hesitate to bathe myself in the hot spring. While we were bathing, I asked Laozhu if he had ever been to Lhasa (the capital of Tibet). Laozhu explained that he had been 11 times, and that he had walked each time. He went on to explain that it usually takes him a year to walk there, and that he brings no money but simply stays in villages that he passes by. While Laozhu’s awesome faith and devotion seem unique, he is a rather typical Tibetan. In fact, what separates Laozhu from most Tibetans is that he has mastered Mandarin as well as different Tibetan dialects.

After bathing in the hot spring, we hiked up a mountain and wound up at a sky burial spot. Sky burial is the method that Tibetans use to dispose of a human corpse after death. Generally, 4 monks take the body to a mountain top and allow vultures to eat the body. They believe that this is part of the circle of life, as it allows the body to serve a natural purpose. Because of this custom, we saw an assortment of body parts scattered across the mountain top.

Our last stop was the local temple, which was rather large and impressed me with the number of monks. However, the temple also had a large number of wild dogs that hung out all around the temple grounds. Laozhu was a little hesitant to enter, but did so after his brother grabbed some rocks to throw at any attacking dogs. The natural scenery was phenomenal and Laozhu was an amazing guide. For example, each time we passed an edible plant, Laozhu made each of us take a bite (this happened close to 10 times).

As dusk approached, we finally returned to Laozhu’s home. On the way back, I noticed that Laozhu had a dog chained directly below his house. This is a popular Tibetan custom, and the dogs are raised to attack anyone who is not part of the household. As we were walking back, I asked Laozhu about the closest bathroom. Surprisingly, Laozhu answered that there wasn’t an official bathroom, but that I could go behind the house. Naturally, it was raining and I had to bring an umbrella and flash light each time I wanted to squat behind his house. I couldn’t understand how a family could have a TV, car, and subwoofers before they had any kind of toilet. Globalization doesn’t spread evenly or predictably. For example, I’ve met people who have a flushing toilet and shower, but would never dream of buying a car. The key is looking at the environment of a particular area. Because of the history and geography of Yushu, the government has little control over its people. Likewise, the people have no expectations from the government, and are accustomed to looking towards the temples for leadership. While this is not necessarily bad, it often leads to a dichotomy in which people can become wealthier without raising their standard of living. Simply put, someone may buy a car with an internal dvd player, but still only shower once a year and poop in his own backyard.

While we waited for a sumptuous dinner with Laozhu’s family, I made a couple of observations that are rather representative of many Tibetan families. First, Laozhu called his oldest daughter ya tou, which means slave girl. While the meaning isn’t as bad as the English translation, it is undeniably a very sexist word which sees the woman as a type of servant. Ironically, many Tibetans expect most of the housework to be done by the oldest daughter.

Secondly, the oven used in Laozhu’s home requires cow dung to function. Someone from the family would use a shovel and place cow dung in the oven every so often. Despite this, there was no foul smell from the cow dung. I suspect the reason for this is that yaks outnumber humans in Yushu.

Thirdly, Besides Laozhu, no one in Laozhu’s family spoke Mandarin or the official Tibetan dialect. They all only spoke their local dialect. Unfortunately, the majority of the television channels were in mandarin, and there was only one Tibetan channel. This Tibetan channel was run by the Chinese government and all the programs were in the Lhasa dialect. Consequently, Laozhu’s family members were very isolated from the outside world, and had no idea what was going on anywhere outside of their village.

A nice vegetarian meal was prepared for me and we finally ate. However, our hosts ate raw yak meat. After dinner, we spent a few hours discussing life with Laozhu until we went to bed. Laozhu’s apartment was quite small, and it was decided that his brother would sleep on the floor. We argued and tried to convince the brother to switch with us, but he claimed that as a monk he preferred to sleep close to the ground. Before we fell asleep, I gave Laozhu a picture of me with my contact information in the states. I told him that he could contact me if he ever needed help or knew of any Tibetans visiting the states.

The next morning, Laozhu called the bus driver to make sure the bus didn’t leave without us. As we were leaving, Laozhu and his brother carried our luggage to the bus for us. The entire stay was very reflective of Eastern and especially Tibetan hospitality.

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A 17 hour car ride with 13 Tibetans

August 13, 2008 · No Comments

Before I returned to the states, I traveled around rural Western China for over 2 weeks.  Hoping to understand the area from a Chinese perspective, I traveled with my close Chinese friend Weiwei.  Firstly, because of the distance and remote location, simply getting to the west was an experience in itself.  We took a 24-hour train ride to Lanzhou, and then literally jumped onto another train heading towards Xining.  The train ride to Xining was about 4 hours.  We stayed the night in Xining, and the next morning took a 17 hour car ride to Tibetan Yushu.

A Brief Introduction of Qinghai

Xining is the capital of rural province Qinghai.  The province lies between Muslim Xinjiang and Buddhist Tibet, and is known as the Siberia of China.  Why would someone voluntarily travel to a province known for its cold winters, prisons, and nuclear waste sites?  The answer is pretty simple: A chance to see how far China’s economic development has actually spread, while at the same time experiencing Tibetan culture first-hand.  Since Qinghai is over 2,000 kilometers west of Shanghai and China’s prosperous Eastern coast line, I was also able to experience how deep the forces of globalization have actually spread.

As mentioned above, I traveled with my close friend Weiwei.  For those active readers, Weiwei is the same friend who took me to the Chinese countryside in late January.  Weiwei’s Mother works in the local government, and naturally he is a Chinese nationalist with a deep knowledge of Chinese politics. Unlike me, Weiwei’s primary goal was to understand Tibetan culture and the source of Tibetan animosity towards Han Chinese. Consequently, the collision of cultures, religions, and lifestyles made for an awesome trip that opened my mind like nothing ever has before.

The Long 3,000 km Trek to Yushu/Jyekondo

As mentioned above, we began our trip with a 24 hour train ride from Shanghai to Lanzhou. Lanzhou is the capital of the Gansu province, and would be a very quick stopping point for us so we could switch trains. The train ride from Lanzhou to Xining takes around 3 hours, so several people on our train were also heading towards Xining. Since the Shanghai-Lanzhou train is high-speed, Lanzhou serves as a sort of western hub for people traveling through the west.

Before I left for my trip, I made an effort to ask my Chinese friends about Qinghai. The answers were all the same: Qinghai is very poor and underdeveloped. Naturally, I was surprised to hear that people from a well-developed trading town would move to Qinghai to do business. In reality, I quickly realized that few Chinese people come in touch with people from Qinghai. One reason for this is that the entire province has a population of under 6 million. Another reason is that those that do make it over are from the poorest areas and all work in Muslim noodle restaurants.

On the train, we met a loosely-related family that was also heading to Xining, and their situation was quite interesting. They traveled with 5 children and 3 adults, and I was completely confused about how they were all related. However, I did pick up that they were from the trading town Yiwu and had moved to Xining for business. This was the first of many times when I encountered something that went entirely against the stereotype that I had heard. Because some areas in the west are closed to foreigners, I pretended that I was a Muslim from Xinjiang. Surprisingly, the family from Yiwu assumed I was from Xinjiang before I even spoke with them, and this gave me confidence that I could pull it off.

As the train got closer to Lanzhou, the family told us that we would probably miss the train to Xining. Our only option was getting off our train and getting on to another one as soon as we arrived. Not wanting to miss the train to Xining, we moved our luggage and waited by the door about 30 minutes before we arrived. Then, after we arrived we were told by the family to literally run onto the train at the other end of the platform. I was surprised that we were allowed on a train when the train had no seats left and we had no tickets. But, this is China, where life is organized chaos.

Since relatively few foreigners travel to Xining, I was completely stared at the entire train ride. Not wanting to be seen as a Westerner, I sat on the steps with a Muslim guy and told everyone my dad was from Xinjiang. Nonetheless, not everyone bought my story.

We arrived in Xining around 7:00 p.m. Xining is in a valley and has an elevation of 2,600 meters. Moreover, the high elevation causes the air to be extremely dry. For example, my eyes were tearing for about 30 minutes after we arrived.

China has a law that foreigners cannot stay in any hotel that is 2 stars or lower (by Chinese standards). While this law is almost never enforced in the larger cities, the government is strict about it in the more remote areas. Weiwei said that the reason for this law is to protect foreigners, while I believe it’s to protect China’s image from foreigners. As a result, I disguised myself by wearing sunglasses and a face mask. I also made an effort to speak Chinese as loudly as possible around hotels or guesthouses. Unfortunately, I was rejected from the first hotel because I looked foreign. The hotel was government owned and charged 18 yuan a person (about $2.50). We continued on the street until we found a guest house willing to accept us. The guest house we stayed at was 50 Yuan per room, but the room had no bathroom. Also, we weren’t given a room key, and had to call an employee every time we wanted to get in. Tired from a 28-hour train ride, we both wanted to shower. However, we were told that hot water isn’t usually available and that we should check later. We spent the rest of the evening walking around and occasionally attracting stares.

Even though Xining is over 2,000 km west of Shanghai, all of China is considered to be in one time zone. While this may promote political unity, it creates a very tiring lifestyle for those living out west. For example, our plan was to stay the night in Xining, and take an 18 hour bus ride to Yushu the next morning. We woke up the next morning around 6:30 and headed towards the bus station. Because the sun sets around 11 p.m., we were expecting the city to start the day a little bit later than eastern China. After all, the sun doesn’t rise until 7 or 8. Unfortunately, to our surprise, the station opened at 6 and was completely packed with people when we got there. The woman at the counter told us all buses leaving to Yushu that day were entirely sold out. We asked her for tickets for the next day, but were told to come back tomorrow morning.

Since we didn’t think we’d be able to buy bus tickets, we planned to hitch hike. Fortunately, I was stopped in the street by a tall Tibetan man. He grabbed me by the arm and asked where I was heading in broken Chinese. I told him I was going to Yushu, and he told me he could drive us. He told us that he would be driving 9 people in his minivan, and that he was waiting to find other passengers. We told him we wanted to eat breakfast and go back to our inn to get our luggage. Since Yushu is an 18 hour car ride, we wanted to go to a supermarket and buy some snacks before we left. However, the driver called us as soon as we finished breakfast, so we only had time to go back and get our luggage.

Most of the route to Yushu is over 4,200 meters high, and it is important to stay hydrated to avoid getting ill. Consequently, I stopped on the way to the car and bought 9 average sized water bottles and a box of crackers.

We got to the car and saw that every seat was full but our two. Just as the driver had said, the car had 9 people. Until 7 more people came from the bathroom. My row had 3 seats but 4 people, and naturally I was stuck between two of the seats. To make the experience even more authentic, everyone but us was Tibetan and only one spoke Chinese. While we were waiting to head out, Weiwei was eating these small chocolate bars he brought. All of a sudden, the driver came over and grabbed a handful of the chocolates. Tibetan culture is even less individualistic than Chinese culture, and we felt it throughout the trip. Every time someone ate food or smoked a cigarette, he would offer the rest of the car.

We finally headed out around 9:30 a.m., and had to keep our windows down so the authorities couldn’t see how many people were stuffed in the car. Luckily, I was seated next to a religious Tibetan man traveling with two monks. He prayed the majority of the trip by mumbling prayers. Also, every time we passed a holy area, the entire car would start screaming and throw slips of paper out the window. While the screaming seemed rather chaotic, I later discovered that the entire process was very ordered. Each word that the men screamed was part of an important prayer, while the paper was a form of respect to Buddha.

Another Tibetan cultural trait is a deep love for music. While the car was too old to play CD’s, almost every passenger either sang or played Tibetan music on his cell phone. After numerous bathroom stops (I drank a lot of water), we stopped for lunch around 1. The monk and driver kissed me as soon as they discovered I was American. They offered to show us around Yushu and recommended that we stay in their monastery. As we finished our meal, I asked the monk what he thought about the different ethnic groups living in the area. Even though Yushu was 90% Tibetan, the area was home to many Muslim ethnic groups as well as Han Chinese. Surprisingly, the monk said he only had a major problem with people from Xinjiang. He said that they are all criminals and have no respect for his religion. After that, I stopped pretending to be a Xinjiang Muslim when I was around Tibetans.

As we passed through Qinghai, I was quite mesmerized by the scenery. We saw no cities and very few people. Most of the people we did see lived in tents, while the only towns we saw were bathroom stops with a few restaurants. Keep in mind that the places we passed were on the highway and were probably the most developed in that area. The area was so rural that we saw many more yaks than we saw people. There were several instances when we had to stop and let yaks cross the road. Apart from yaks, we also saw some wild antelope and eagles from the car. Overall, the first 10 hours of the car ride were absolutely incredible. It didn’t matter that the car was crowded and the roads were a little bumpy, I was just happy to experience such a different culture and lifestyle first hand.

However, it didn’t take long before my positive attitude was tested. All of a sudden I felt very nauseous and my entire body was sore from sitting like a sardine for 10 hours. Our driver decided to skip dinner in order to arrive a little earlier, and we all felt the same way. Nonetheless, my stomach felt full from all the water I drank, while my head felt like it was going to explode. Seeing that I felt ill, the driver reassured me and told me that we would arrive by 10:30. At this point it was already 8, and I felt confident that I could arrive without fainting or vomiting.

Every minute became a struggle as I felt weaker and weaker. Suddenly, Weiwei threw up all over the floor of the car, which included my shoes. I spent the next two hours miserable simply trying not to pass out. Because of how I felt, I knew that we were at a high altitude but wasn’t sure exactly how high. As it got closer to 10:30, the driver said we would actually arrive around 11:30. However, at 11:30 the driver changed his approach and told us it would be at least 3 more hours.

As my condition became more and more miserable, we passed a sign that stated the exact altitude: 4,856 meters. We had ascended over 2,000 meters in several hours. Many people can begin to feel altitude sickness at 3,000 meters. We were now at close to 5,000 meters. Since we were on a mountain, we had to drive very slowly and curve around to prevent sharp turns. Shortly after we saw the sign, we hit a pothole and I knew what was next. I yelled for the driver to stop the car and jumped out. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of nowhere and it was pitch black. All I heard was the sound of dogs barking. Weak from the lack of oxygen, I slipped onto the grass when I threw up. Weiwei ran out of the car to help me up, and we continued for a few more hours until we finally arrived to Tibetan Yushu after 3 a.m.

After the exhausting experience, we wanted to stay in a nicer hotel and be able to shower. Unfortunately, even the nicer hotels had no hot water, so we decided to stay in the monastery run inn. We paid for a room with a bathroom, but our sink had no water and toilet couldn’t flush. The room looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in months. Clothes were all over the floor, and our beds were covered with stains and peanuts. Also, like the hotel in Xining, keys were not given to guests. For anyone counting, this made it 60 plus hours without showering.

I’ll post the rest of the adventure and pictures in the upcoming days.

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Visiting a farmer in Shanghai

July 7, 2008 · No Comments

I spent most of the day yesterday visiting a farmer living in Shanghai, and was surprised to learn that most of the farmers in Shanghai are actually from other provinces.  These farmers come for a few years to work the lands because they can sell produce at higher prices in Shanghai.  However, their living conditions are quite dire and those hoping to live in something other than a shack have to pay monthly rent to the native Shanghai residents. 

Yesterday was incredibly hot here.  Since most of these farmers have no air conditioning, they could be found sleeping on the floor half-naked in their shacks.  As I approached one of the shacks, I saw a man sleeping in his underwear on the floor.  Feeling bad for possibly invading his privacy, I started to walk away from the shack.  The farmer wouldn’t allow it.  He immediately got up and started cleaning up his little shack and tried to look presentable.  It really impressed me how much pride this man took in his home and his appearance.  While he was obviously very poor, he even offered me his only cold beer (it was being held in a well to keep cold).  He ended up showing me around the little concentration of shacks and was very hospitable throughout.  Sometimes even to fault.  For example, he led me into his son’s shack to show me around, even though the entire family was sleeping and was woken up by him talking to me. 

While talking with the farmer, I discovered his annual income is around 6,000 Yuan (less than $1,000).  This was unquestionably the poorest person I had encountered in China.  He barely had enough money for food, and he lived in a shack that he built himself.  Interestingly, he didn’t complain and had no visible bitterness towards society or the government.  When I asked him if the government provided him with subsidies, he simply laughed and said that the government doesn’t take care of people like him.  While this may sound slightly hostile, he said it with a resigned tone that indicated he was just accepting the truth. 

A strength of the Chinese people is their dedication to hard work and unquestioning attitude.  This farmer is a perfect example of both those traits. 

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Public Speaking in China

June 24, 2008 · 1 Comment

It has been a busy month since I last wrote, and I can’t help but begin to feel sentimental about leaving China.  First, I have given three formal speeches in Chinese the past few weeks.  Fortunately, the first speech I gave was so painful and uncomfortable that I had nowhere to go but up. 

 

A student had asked me if I would be willing to discuss American college life with a few Chinese students.  I accepted without hesitation and she sent me an email telling me where to meet her.  Because of the rain and humid weather, I felt sick and congested for a good three weeks.  The week of the speech was no exception, so I was hoping to finish the speech as quickly as possible to get back home and rest.  I met her outside one of the school classrooms and asked her how many students she was expecting.  She told me she would be surprised if more than 10 students showed up.  Naturally, I was a bit surprised when I saw about 50 students and a photographer waiting for me behind the podium.  The informal discussion was so informal that it involved a microphone, podium, and photographer.  Even worse, I was exhausted and had absolutely no idea what I was going to speak about.  While I am quite comfortable giving impromptu speeches in English, I don’t have the same confidence in Chinese.  Despite some awkward moments, the speech was not a total failure and I learned to prepare a little more for my next speech in Chinese. 

 

Aside from giving speeches in Chinese, I have also been busy becoming friendly with the locals.  One incident especially sticks out.  I was buying train tickets to Nanjing a few weeks ago when a young Chinese man approached me.  Excited that he heard a white guy speak Chinese, he decided to start a conversation and asked me where I was from.  I told him I was American but he didn’t seem convinced.  He told me that I didn’t look American.  Because I meet so many Chinese people who claim they know what Americans do and don’t look like, I was getting ready to hear more of the same comments.  However, he surprised me by telling me that I looked Jewish.  Jewish?  How did he know anything about Jews?  More importantly, how did he know that I was Jewish?  The majority of Chinese cannot differentiate between different groups of non Asians.  In fact, most Americans could probably not look at someone and immediately know that he is Jewish.  For a Chinese person who has never met a Jewish person to immediately know is beyond impressive.  I have friends from Yemen and Syria who thought that I was either Syrian or Yemenite.  My friends from France all thought that I was France, and my friends from Latin America ask if I am from South America.  But my friend from a small village in Central China knows immediately that I am Jewish.  The irony is that he doesn’t know anything about Jews.  He asked me if we were centered in Iraq and whether we believe in Jesus or Mohamed. 

 

Consequently, I have been eating dinner with him quite often and will keep you updated on his story.  I have a few more topics I’ll write about in the next two weeks.  Stay posted

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Hangzhou Pictures

June 5, 2008 · No Comments

I posted some pictures of my recent trips to Hangzhou.  Also, get ready for a much needed update in the next few days.

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Authentic Chinese Life Part II

May 13, 2008 · 2 Comments

Here is the second part of the trip:

Our first meal in the the small town of Fuding was not what we had hoped for.  Since there were no restaurants in the area, we had no choice but to eat at the hotel restaurant.  After close to 20 hours of traveling, we were all ready for a nice meal. 

Besides the 15 waiters and waitresses, the restaurant was entirely empty.  We walked in and asked for a menu.  A waitress pointed to the fish, crabs, and shrimp swimming around behind us.  We spent a few minutes looking for a kosher fish, but were only able to find a piece of filet.  I thought the skin looked strange and decided not to eat it.  It turns out the “kosher fish” was actually a huge stingray.  For those that aren’t aware, Stingrays are not very kosher.

After a crazy bus ride, we finally arrived to the mountain the next day.  The mountain was beautiful and quite a hike. 
Some interesting things about the mountain:
1) Cucumbers were sold as snacks and were available all around the mountain.  (I wish cucumbers were more available as snacks in the West)
2) On one side of the mountain there was only one trial.  This meant that once we walked in one direction, we would have to walk for over an hour just to get back.  Unfortunately, that one trial was a bad combination of very narrow caves and very many tourists. 
3) People could pay to be taken up the mountain in a chair on a man’s back.  The whole thing reminded me of Old China, and I was surprised the government still allows it to go on.  Just think about it for a second.  Poor people carrying rich people up a mountain.  On their backs.  Mao and the early Communists came to power specifically to change those type of situations.

The next morning we traveled to a nearby island.  Since the area is not very developed, taxis are usually people who have cars and are willing to drive someone around.  For example, we would be approached by a man in a truck and jump in after we agreed on a price.  After we got to the dock, we took a boat to the island that last about 45 minutes.  The island was not very developed; it had 2 inns and 2 restaurants.  Conveniently, our inn was part inn and part restaurant.  However, it was hard to tell which part was the inn and which the restaurant.  For example, the inn “lobby” was located in the middle of the kitchen.  As a result, we had several customers knock on our door expecting to be seated and have their orders taken.  

Our inn was called “Seafood Inn.”  It’s restaurant had no menu and people were in shock when I asked about vegetarian dishes.  After explaining for 20 minutes that I am vegetarian and can’t eat meat, we sat down and waited for the food.  The inn owner thought that I wasn’t eating meat because it was too expensive, so as a sign of a goodwill he added sliced pork to our dish.  I didn’t want to embarrass the owner, so as a sign of goodwill I ate white rice for lunch. 

The island was full of mountains, and we took a bus up the mountain after lunch.  While the scenery was phenomenal, I would have felt much safer if we weren’t on a one-lane road.  Our bus had to move when another bus was coming down, and the bus driver moved us off the road towards a cliff.  After 10 minutes of panic, the bus finally dropped us off in front of a beautiful lake and we roamed the area for a few hours.  We found a Buddhist temple/vegetarian restaurant hidden on the mountain, and we decided to eat there.  The temple had a very homey feel.  Several women that must have been grandmothers cooked us 8 dishes.  I was so impressed by the food that I volunteered to help peel bamboo.  Customers walking in were greeted by a random white guy peeling bamboo with a group of 60 year-old women. 

As soon as we got back to our inn, the owner explained that the inn had no hot water and we would have to shower somewhere else.  Following in the tradition of Chinese hospitality, the owner took us to his home so we could shower.  This was very symbolic of the people we encountered, as almost everyone seemed very warm and welcoming.  Complete strangers would invite us for meals as soon as I they saw that we spoke Chinese.  It felt as if people were proud to meet foreigners.  We took a rickshaw when we arrived in Wenzhou, and the driver made sure everyone knew that his passengers were Americans.  He even took a longer way so he could impress his coworkers.

Once we got back from the island, we couldn’t find any bus to take us back.  So, we decided to ride in the back of a truck filled with locals.  The truck dropped us in a very small rural town.  Even tough we were the only foreigners everywhere we went, we never felt any hostility until we arrived to this small town.  I was looking for a restroom and no one would even acknowledge that I was talking.  People would literally walk right past me and avoid eye contact.  It was as if no one wanted anything to do with me.  The friendliest residents were the kids, and even they asked me if I knew that I was a Laowai (foreigner). 

This is what China must have felt like 30 or 40 years ago.  I can’t believe that a place so hostile to foreigners can still exist right on the coast.  People were ignoring me when I asked about a bathroom in Chinese.  If we stopped at a place about an hour further, I would be ignoring Chinese salesmen yelling in English (Watch, bags, shoes, DVD, etc).  It seems that some areas were left out of the economic reforms and development.  While I have been to poor places in China before, this was my first time to see a place that was obviously resisting change and foreign influence.

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Authentic Chinese Life

May 6, 2008 · No Comments

My trip to the Fujian Province gave me hope that China could eventually become a “normal” country.  While many other Chinese scenic spots felt too touristy, the Northeastern Fujian Province was largely unspoilt.  I have been to several areas in China where you hear love songs while riding a lift to the peak of a mountain.   However, every place we visited in Fujian seemed very authentic. 

We spent our first night in a small coastal town called Fuding.  The town felt relatively quiet besides the literally nonstop construction all around the city.  Because the city looked underdeveloped, modern buildings felt completely out of place; specifically our hotel.  Imagine a nice looking building in the middle of a relatively poor Chinese neighborhood.  The town was undergoing a transformation, and the entire neighborhood felt like a big construction site.  Even though we traveled on one of the busiest days of the year, we did not see any tourists in the area.  As a result, we were able to haggle for our hotel room.  The woman at the reception asked for 350 Yuan. 

We gave her 100 and called it a deal.

Since few foreigners ever make it to Fuding, we attracted plenty of attention wherever we went.  People would literally laugh in my face and loudly call their friends to look at the laowai.  A group of twenty men were playing cards right below our hotel, and they tried to convince us to gamble with them.  Fortunately, we didn’t know how to play and decided not to gamble. 

Later on, we were bombarded by illegal taxi drivers wanting to drive us around.  We found someone to drive us to the beach.  While the beach scenery was phenomenal, the ocean was quite polluted and it took away from the experience.   I was really surprised by the number of illegal taxis around town.  It was as if most people in the town were either in construction or had nothing to do.

We decided to travel to the mountain the next day, and just getting to the mountain was quite the experience.  Locals told us we could take a bus from the bus station next door.  However, the problem was that 35 people wanted to ride a tiny bus with 15 seats and almost no standing room.  To make matters worse, this tiny bus was the only bus that would be traveling to the mountain that day.  Consequently, all 35 of us followed the bus around until it completely stopped and opened its doors.  Chaos ensued.  A man blocked the door to make sure his baby could board, but he was pushed out of the way after a minute.  Despite all the tense pushing, shoving, and yelling; everyone sat on each other once we were on the bus.  It was as if we became a big family once we got on the bus.

I’ll post more about the trip tomorrow. 

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Fujian Pictures

May 4, 2008 · No Comments

I just got back to Shanghai after backpacking around the Fujian Province for a few days.  We traveled to the more under-developed part of the province, and it was nice to catch a glimpse of local life.  

I posted some pictures, so feel free to check them out.  I will post more soon about my experience.

 

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Chinese Nationalism

April 28, 2008 · No Comments

After spending 2 nights in westernized Hong Kong, I have come to the conclusion that I am a socialist.  Spending 8 months in Mainland China can have that effect on someone.  Maybe it was all the visits I made to Tiananmen Square, or all the time I spent talking to cab drivers about the wealth gap.  Whatever the causes are, the result is still the same: I feel more at home in Mainland China than I do in Hong Kong.  While I am used to seeing local life, Hong Kong seemed entirely commercialized.  Also, it felt as if the only thing any one cared about was shopping or stock quotes. I have grown to appreciate the more crude aspects of local life in Mainland.  The fact that everything was so clean and perfect in Hong Kong only turned me off.  I am not used to people waiting patiently in line and understanding English wherever I go.  Ironically, going to Hong Kong only made me appreciate Mainland China.

Ever since the international community began criticizing China’s handling of the protests in Tibet, Chinese nationalism has been steadily on the rise.  Naturally, most Chinese only became more patriotic after seeing the Olympic torch protested all over the world.  They were especially upset with France because they had considered it a very close ally.  Paris recently declared the Dali Lama an honorary citizen, and French President Sarkozy has decided to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. The situation has escalated to the point that the government is doing whatever it can to control the anti-foreign sentiment.  For example, many Chinese have boycotted the French supermarket chain Carrefour.  Moreover,  this past week an American student was attacked in a town in the Hunan province.  A mob assumed he was French and started punching his head.  The student then ran to the nearest cab, but it was surrounded by the mob while people chanted “Kill the Frenchman!”  Police intervention saved his life, and he left China shortly after. 

These type of anti-foreign movements seem to occur periodically in Chinese history.  In 2005, nationalist Chinese students took part in passionate Anti-Japanese protests, while many Chinese were angry with America after the 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.  Going even farther back, the Boxer rebellion was a much more intense anti-foreign movement in the early 20th century. 

Most Chinese that I have spoken to seem somewhat rational about the whole situation, but almost all plan on boycotting Carrefour.  To help cool things down, my university has demanded that no students take part in any protests. 

I will be traveling to a small mountain town in Fujian tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see how local people treat us.   I’ll post pictures when I get back next week. 

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