Sunday, April 3, 2011

Xuzhou mama hoo hoo.

So I mentioned last time that I was getting ready to go on a business trip to Xuzhou, China. I’m going to say right now that you should ignore everything I said in the previous blog. So many surprises can happen when you agree to go with a foreign person to a foreign place, without a real sense of why you are going, and when you will return.

But it was certainly an experience. First of all, two of the American girls, Judith and Daniela went with me. They, going for the vacation aspect of the trip, started planning out what we were going to do between my work hours. In their guidebooks they read that the city we were visiting was one of the most beautiful in China. It had festivals, gardens, grand mountains, ancient artifacts, and something called the Temple of Wonders. So we were excited when we found out we were headed to one of the most sacred and famous places in all of China. Everywhere we went people kept saying how wonderful our trip was going to be.

Unfortunately, I had been pronouncing the name of the city incorrectly. I had been calling the place Suzhou. But we were not headed to Suzhou, but Xuzhou.

Now Xuzhou has some decent things about it but it’s not in the same league as Suzhou. It’s like eating a Pop Tart when you know there are artery-clogging biscuits and gravy in the next room. When we told our Chinese Laoshi where we were actually headed he gave us a sigh of pity. He said, “Xuzhou mama hoo hoo.” Basically this means that Xuzhou isn’t terrible but it’s not fantastic either.

Next, we didn’t take a train like I thought. We took a sleeping bus. It was supposed to have beds, pillows, and blankets for us to utilize while we enjoyed our peaceful journey through the night. When I heard about this vehicle I imagined it would look something like the Night Bus from the third Harry Potter movie.

But unlike the British wizards, we got this rickety-looking deathtrap. It was behind all the other nice busses at the bus station. The one that they try to hide in the back so customers are forced to feel committed by the time they walk out and see it.

When we got on, there were about forty bunk-beds crammed together; some full of sleeping Chinese men. It felt like a morgue as we walked through the line of still bodies.

The girls and I took the place in the back. Within thirty minutes of our eight hour luxury bus ride, we started to itch as bugs from the blankets and pillows began biting us. We’re lice free though so that’s good. The bugs in our hair must have already eaten the lice.

Oh, and once nine o’clock hit the temperature dropped about twenty degrees. But there was nothing we could do so we just laughed at our situation until we reached the nearly nice city of Xuzhou.

The next morning I started working for Shen. He had invited me to his home-town so he could use me for an experiment he was working on. That day he recorded me saying the sentences the Americans and I had edited for him. He is going to play those recordings back to people and see how their brains react to those words. I’m not really sure how it all works but it seems very interesting.

After work, Shen took the three of us out to see the sights of Xuzhou. It’s actually a fascinating place. We flew kites in a park, saw a mountain, and visited the ancient tomb of a prince from the Han Dynasty. The tomb was looted several years ago but many of the ancient writings and statues remained in museums nearby. What’s amazing about China is that many of the characters used in their writing thousands of years ago are still being used today.

At one point Shen also taught me the rules of Chinese Chess. It’s an exciting game that has many similar rules and pieces as the Chess we play in the states. Someday I want to play the old Chinese men in the parks. They get really serious about this and large crowds form and start chanting for their favorite player. It's like extreme Chess.

Finally, as the trip was ending, Shen took us out to eat with his family. We got to meet his daughter and wife. Many Chinese people want English names when you meet them so I was given the opportunity to name his daughter. I called her Maria after my sister.

On the way home we took a normal bus. There were no beds, freezing temperatures, or insects. So all together, I’d say it was a great trip. I got to work with a scientist, take tours through tombs, and see all the sights of this mama hoo hoo city.

I could go for a Cheesy Gordita Crunch

I found out today that the closest Taco Bell is in South Korea. I am a country away digestional happiness. So if anyone has a sudden urge to overnight me a package please have it include one of everything from the TB menu. And maybe a few of those hot sauce packets with the friendly messages on them. It’s practically as good as writing a letter.



We went to the Laoshan Mountains today. They are some of the most famous mountains in China. It was a good climb that lasted about two hours and we reached a Bogotá at one of the larger peaks. I’ll load some pictures when I get a chance. It was one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever taken.

Korean food

A Korean girl named Nabi invited my roommate Florien, Judith, Kim, and I to her house for dinner. She lives with her brother, his wife, and their two sons. This was my first experience to eat with a Korean family.

I mentioned earlier that Koreans are extremely giggly people. However, I neglected to say how amazing they are. All of the Korean’s I’ve met have done everything in their power to make me feel comfortable and welcome in all situations. Like on Laoshan I was complaining about being hungry. Almost immediately a group of Koreans rushed me with egg salad, sandwiches, and some kind of processed meat substance on a stick. They the nicest people I’ve ever met.

The Koreans we had dinner with were no exception. They treated us like family. And it was interesting to experience the cultural differences. For example, we had to wear special shoes when we entered the doorway. Koreans consider walking into a home with shoes to be rude and dirty. So we all got to wear Korean flip flops. Big fan.

And the food was amazing. There was some kind of black bread, a meat and pasta dish, and a chewy yellow thing that ended up being squid. It was the second best meal I’ve had since I’ve been here. The first would be Pizza Hut.

Another interesting part about the Koreans is that they eat on the floor. They have these little tables that come about a foot-and-a-half off the ground. The family sits on the carpet around these tables and enjoys the food. Most Korean households have heated floors that they use during meals to keep themselves warm. I felt honored to have such an experience.

The Most Bravest

In Chinese class we had to read a passage out of the textbook to the entire class. We were supposed to read it like lines from a script so everyone was partnered up the night before. Judith was my partner. Ma Laoshi told us he would pick out the best group in the class.

Not that I’m competitive or anything, but I told Judith that we were going to win at all costs. She, being the kind of girl who will likely take over the world in a few years, agreed with me. So we went home and practiced for hours. I will admit right now that I’m not the best at Chinese and memorizing the characters along with their tones is a struggle. But we worked really hard. I even ripped an audio version of the text onto Audacity and listened to it while I slept. We were positive that we would be good, if not be the best, during the presentation.

As the next day rolled around though, Judith and I went up and presented. I thought we did alright; not as good as I had expected, but alright. Then the Laoshi went around and told us how each group ranked in the class. This is a terrible thing that Chinese people do. It’s supposed to encourage students to put all of their effort into not being humiliated in front of their peers. Ranked first was the American and Russian team from the back row. But that was okay, we didn’t have to be at the very top of the class. But when we weren’t the second or third best I started to get a little worried. And when the seventy-four-year-old Korean man who recently decided he wanted to be a Chinese translator when he “grew up” was chosen before us, I kind of slouched in my seat all defeated like. Judith just laughed. She’ll be a good politician someday.

Finally, when everyone BUT Judith and I had been ranked from first to last, the Laoshi turned to us. He gave a smile of pity and waved his arm while saying the least encouraging words possible. “And I think that you two deserve the title of Most Bravest.”

He smiled once more like the name he had reserved for us would make the situation better. Basically we received the Chinese version of the best effort award. That’s the worst award you can get no matter what culture you’re living in. And it wasn’t even in proper English!

So, I ate a Snicker Bar to ease the cold chill of defeat. On the bright side, this event and others like it have given me the drive to excel in my studies. When I tell my Laoshi I don’t understand something in class he simply looks me in the face and tells me to “work harder.” It’s a heartless strategy but I can’t say it’s not working. Between class and homework I’m doing at least eight to ten hours of studying a day. I’ve never felt more Chinese.

What Happened to the Hole?

I was thinking the other day that Chinese people are just like ants in an ant hill. They are always scurrying about doing different jobs but all for the common goal of the making the whole (China) better. And their work ethic makes us Americans look like we’re running in slow motion.

Last week I walked to class and there was a pothole in the road. It was new hole. A few hours later I came down for a break and the hole was gone. New stone and everything. Do you know how long it takes to fill a hole in Southwest Missouri? It could take months! Sometimes entire traffic routes seem permanently changed because people are working on the road. This hole took a few hours.

And some days I’ll wake up and see an entirely new building outside my window. Where did it come from? Was that building there before? This is a fair question, seeing as I’m not the overly-observant type. But it still seems strange at how quickly things get done here.

It really is amazing. They’re like the elves from that shoemaker story. But instead of shoes they make roads. I’ll take a picture if I’m ever fast enough to catch them in mid-project.

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