Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Train Wreck of A Day Trip

It all started to go bad when I went to visit my waiban (my handler in the International Exchange Office - IEO) to wrap a few things up. I mentioned that I needed to mail things on Thursday as on Friday, we were planning on taking a day trip out to Hangzhou. Most tourists, when they do a longer stay in Shanghai, usually head out to one of the outlying tourist towns; Hangzhou is probably the most visited of these towns. The chief attraction is West Lake, a famous picturesque site and the inspiration for the Summer Palace in Beijing. While we weren’t really all that gung-ho about going, we feel like we’ve seen pretty much everything we wanted to see in Shanghai and that we ought to take at least one of those side trips, so the plan was made. When I mentioned this, my waiban told me that they were bringing a group of American law students there for the weekend, and we were welcome to tag along for a ride.

Sensing an opportunity to save some money and thinking it would not be that much more time than taking the fast train, we agreed to go along. We showed up at the appointed time, but we didn’t leave on schedule this time (we left on the dot when the IEO did a similar tour to Ningbo for faculty), probably because these were a group of young students who are new to Shanghai, not really early risers. Things got worse from there. We were told it would take about 2 hours with no traffic; we hit a little traffic, but when we stopped for a rest break at approximately the 2 hour mark, we knew it wasn’t a good sign. We might have been able to go with the flow if it weren’t for the fact that there was some know-it-all law student sitting a row behind us, educating her row mate about all sorts of topics. For two hours, the one-sided “conversation” continued. I nearly lost it – now approximately three hours into the two hour drive – when she started giving a really simple history of WWII. At that point though, I wasn’t sure which was worse – the fact that she was giving this lecture or the fact that her seatmate seemed to be asking a few questions to indicate that this was all new to her.

We were finally able to bail and catch a cab when the group stopped at the hotel to check in. We arrived at the lake, hours later than planned, famished and already completely overheated. The temperature situation would get worse, as it was well into the 90s and there was little breeze or shade, and the food situation wouldn’t stabilize until after a bit of bickering (between Doug and me, not the boys) and several rounds of snacks.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The sights of Hangzhou were lovely, as you can see below.

Had this trip been completed after just two weeks in China, we would have been amazed. But I think the thing is – we’re just tired of touring China. We’ve seen many beautiful things here, so we’re getting a big jaded: it takes a lot to wow us. It’s not China – it’s us. We’re really just ready for a more normal life. So we packed up a bit early (and with a rare bit of good luck for the day managed to find an excellent pasta restaurant that served us the best pesto we’ve had all year) and hit the train station (after an exasperating exchange with a cabbie who steadfastly refused to accept our pronunciations of either train station or street names), where we were greeted with slowly moving lines 40 deep throughout the ticket hall. Good luck once again came to a screeching halt – or so we thought. I queued up with the locals, while Doug regrouped and scouted the station. Our luck returned in the form of a foreign guests ticket window, with less than 5 people in line. Tickets secured, we sprinted to catch our train, leaving less than 5 minutes to spare after we settled into our seats. As our fast train left Hangzhou in the distance, there were no mixed emotions - only relief that our relentless march through China was coming to a close. I’m sure in a few months, I’ll remember this day more fondly, but for now, I am glad to be back in our own apartment, preparing to head off to Vietnam and Cambodia and then HOME.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


After our time in Chengdu, we boarded a plane for a short flight and landed at 11,500 feet in the Jiuzhaigou area of Sichuan province. Jiuzhaigou, which is pronounced like “joe-jye-go,” translates as Nine Village Valley. It is part of an autonomous prefecture in Sichuan for the Qiang and Tibetan people. Sitting at the edge of the Tibetan plateau, it is imbued with the culture of Tibet.

The main attraction for most people here is the Jiuzhaigou National Park, which is a spectacular place filled with unbelievable mountain vistas…

 Shannon and Quin demonstrate the classic Chinese photo pose 
(and how to keep your legs warm when you're woefully underdressed)


…crystal clear lakes with dazzling colors…




…and nine traditional Tibetan villages.

Prayer wheels were almost as common as prayer flags; the colors were amazing

One of many, many photos Berkley posed for, this one with local Tibetan girls

The park was truly amazing. But while the views were inspiring, the hiking was rather mundane, taking place completely on wooden boardwalks generally overcrowded with Chinese tourists. One effect of the crowds was the continual need to stop so people could take pictures of Quin and Berkley; they were easily photographed 300 times that day. We decided the following day we would just set out for some hiking in the mountains around the Cairang Hostel, which we stayed at the first three nights.

Cairang Hostel

After lunch in a little Sichuan restaurant filled with jovial Buddhist monks very interested in pictures with the boys…

…and a pair of adorable Tibetan twins…

…we found a nice little hut in the hills…

…and an amazing Buddhist worship area, festooned with reams of prayer flags strung around a sort of teepee and then up along the mountain ridge. This place was one of the most beautiful things we’ve seen in our time away this year. The ground was paved with paper prayer offerings and the colors were stunningly beautiful. The place inspired calm and reflection.

For our last night we relocated to a homestay/hostel in a traditional Tibetan village. While the Cairang Hostel was nice, it was in a touristy part of town, along the main road and surrounded by hotels and shops. The Zhuo Ma Homestay was out on a mountain side away from everything. We were able to explore on foot…

This prayer wheel was driven by water like a mill

…and on horse.

The host, Ama, and her grandson were gracious and fun. Ama cooked traditional Tibetan food using vegetables from the garden, eggs from the chicken coop and honey from the beehives out back. Had we been so inclined, we could have had yak meat from the local herd. We did try yak butter, which has a bitter, earthy flavor much like blue cheese. Very good on barley bread, but not so good in yak butter tea.

Though the yak butter tea was, ahem, not our cup of tea, the food all week was our favorite kind of Chinese—very spicy, but balanced with the numbing, citrusy taste of Sichuan peppercorns. We saw the source of the peppercorns—the prickly ash tree—while out hiking. They sold it in bulk at the airport.

Jiuzhaigou was one of our favorite destinations in China. The food, the scenery, the people and the colors were truly spectacular. I think we loved it so much because of the combination of stunning natural beauty and vibrant Tibetan colors. It's difficult to convey this in a blog; I hope this post gives you a taste of what it was like.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Two Days in Chengdu

We just returned from our last hurrah trip in China. Can’t believe I’m writing that, but it’s true. The trip was really a two-part deal, so Doug and I have decided to split up the blogging duties. I drew the first part of the trip to Chengdu, which is probably good because the second part of the trip, to Jiuzhaigou, was so mind-blowingly amazing, I don’t know how I would do it justice. Which is not to say that the first part of the trip was shabby - it wasn’t at all. In fact, it was pretty awesome; it’s just that the second part was probably our best trip of all of the ones we’ve done here in China.

But enough about Jiuzhaigou - it’s my job to blog about our time in Chengdu. Initially, we weren’t going to spend any time in Chengdu as we were pretty much done with Chinese cities, but it turned out we were going to have to fly though there to get to Jiuzhaigou, so we decided to stop over for a few days. In order to keep costs down (as we ended up having to take 4 flights to make this trip happen), we decided to stay in hostels the whole time. Luckily for us, the hostels were great (our hostel in Chengdu – Sim’s Cozy Garden - even had private bathrooms in the room for about $30 a night for all of us), so the boys are now accustomed to something other than plush resorts, much to my relief. The boys actually really loved the staying at the hostels, much to the relief of our wallets and our mental state.

Using Sim’s as our base, we managed to hit the highlights of Chengdu, including the panda research center. We were actually organized enough to get there early in the morning, which meant we saw them as they were eating. As a result, they were fairly active; as they are pandas, active is a relative term. In this case, it meant they were lying on their backs, munching away, as opposed to lying on their stomachs sleeping. Nonetheless, it was really impressive and far better than the other Chinese animal exhibits we’ve visited.

Watching a red panda stroll by

We also checked out a little market street. Meh – much like others we’ve seen although we did score some delicious noodles at a shop packed with Chinese tourists and catch a short Sichuan opera.

Quin eating noodles like a local

Enjoying some tea before the opera

Face changing masks and fire breathing were hits with all the boys

Finally, to round out the day, we hit the Tibetan market place; although I suppose on some level it makes sense that Buddhist monks have to buy things somewhere, it was strange to see so many of them out shopping, an activity I don’t really associate with Buddhist monks!

The next day, we drove close to two hours (and experienced possibly the worst bathroom I’ve ever seen in China along the way, which is saying a lot, at a local rest stop – think squatter toilets with no doors or dividers) to see the Leshan Buddha. Despite the fairly long lines to descend to see the Buddha, it was really impressive as it’s over 1,000 years old and over 71 meters tall. 

Quin at the top of the line near the Buddha head

Berkley entertains the Chinese tourists waiting in line to descend

The line to descend

 Berkley and Doug are almost to the bottom

 The whole family, partway down the steps

Looking up at Buddha from his feet

On our return, we closed out our visit to Chengdu with a dinner of hotpot (which really originates from Chongqing, but that’s a whole different story), at a restaurant recommended by our hostel. At a hotpot restaurant, they basically place a vat of boiling liquid in your table which you use to cook meat and veggies of your choosing. Obviously, we stuck to the latter, although Klaus, a German who tagged along with us to Leshan and then to dinner, did make a go at some of the mystery meats. Luckily, the servers were really helpful to the Laowai as setting everything up was a mystery to us. First, you dump a pouch of oil into your bowl. Then, you add a little of the cooking liquid to your bowl. We went with a mix of spicy and mild liquid so the boys could try as well; I made the mistake of dipping my chopsticks directly into the spicy liquid and couldn’t feel my tongue for a minute or so. But the spicy liquid mixed with the oil was perfect for the adults. After adding some fresh garlic and cilantro (or parsley as they call it here) to your bowl, you drop your eats into the liquid until it’s cooked, then cool it off by dropping it in the oil. Messy – yes, but delicious too.

All in all then, even though we only spent two days in Chengdu, we felt like we got to see a good slice of the city. And while I probably won’t be hightailing it back to Chengdu, I will say that so far, Sichuan food is definitely my favorite style of Chinese food, and I would go back to explore more of the rural parts of the province in a heartbeat.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Last Word on Hong Kong?

I've been back in Hong Kong this week attending a conference that served as the culminating event for the four-year Gen Ed Fulbright program.  I helped in the early planning and design of the conference, and was proud to have been part of a great gathering of over 400 people from all over the globe committed to liberal education and excellence in higher education.

But while I was here in a professional capacity, and was very charged up by the debate and exchange of ideas that happens at a good academic conference, I kept finding myself reflecting on the personal dimensions of my time here last fall and how I felt about being back.

There was, of course, the sense that a chapter of life was ending.  And this made me nostalgic and sentimental.  Though not the quickest way to get into Central for a dinner with friends, I took the Star Ferry.  One last time.  The jingles in the MTR trains, drilled into my head over all those months last fall, made me smile this time.  The blocs of high rises, so characterless before, now seemed iconic.  And then there were the good-byes.

But I came to realize this visit wasn't really like the end of a story.  In reality, that happened in January when we said our farewells—plenty of sentimentality then, too—packed up all our stuff and moved away.  This time I was just visiting.  So I felt a bit detached and objective, reflective and retrospective.  It took me some time to work out the odd feeling I had about the visit.

What it was, what I was feeling, was epilogue.

When the story is over, a good epilogue lets the reader gain an alternative perspective on the story.  It's not really a part of the story, but rather lets the author and the reader have a kind of side discussion about the story.  But this doesn't make it less important to the overall book.  I think a good epilogue does two critical things.  First, it reveals answers to questions readers naturally have developed reading the story.  Second, it provides closure.

What questions did this epilogue visit answer?  I’ve realized how much I like Hong Kongers, who are gentle, kind, warm, diligent, elegant, orderly and passionate about ideas.  And I've realized how much I like the poppy, twangy, sounds of Cantonese.  I also realize now how much I learned about general education and the art of teaching.  Before I came, I suspected I would take away more about higher education than I’d leave, and now I see that has been true. 

I also know now that I can navigate a foreign culture.  Hong Kong did much to boost my confidence about traveling and getting along in exotic locations.  Living in Tuen Mun, way out in the New Territories, was challenging in many ways, but it was also satisfying to get along without the Western comforts of Hong Kong Island.  And the confidence I’ve gained in Hong Kong, and China too, has fed my travel bug.

Did this epilogue bring closure? 

We had kept our Octopus cards—the stored-value cards used on the MTR trains and in many stores.  The boys wanted theirs as souvenirs, but I brought the adult cards back to Hong Kong, intending to use them while here and then return them for the HK$50 (US$6) deposit.  I didn't want the souvenirs—I have other, more meaningful memorabilia. 

After cashing one card in when I arrived, I started to have an internal debate about turning in the other when I got to the airport to depart.  It would be good to have the cash, why not?  But having a charged Octopus would be handy if I returned... 

When I returned?

I kept the card.  And so epilogue becomes prologue.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mixed Emotions

Lately, I’ve been feeling a lot of mixed emotions as our impending departure draws nearer. As we hit major milestones (like the last day of school on Wednesday), I’m starting to feel not just nostalgic, but outright sad. It’s as if I want time to stand still because every “last” that we hit means that this chapter in our life is drawing to a close. Conversely, there’s a part of me that wants to just skip over the next month or so, and just be home – now. As we all think of heading home, we’re starting to think about and name the things that we miss and are looking forward to returning to (aside from friends, family and pets – those are given) including dryers (both for clothes and hair – the latter broke a few days ago, and I just can’t justify shelling out for a new one when I’ll only be here to use it a few weeks), dishwashers, cars (yes – I finally do miss it, particularly for grocery shopping), and so on. The boys have started talking about their first meals home, which include linguine and clam sauce, veggie chicken nuggets, and “ham” and cheddar loaf.

But while I miss home so very much right now, I can’t help but reflect on this past year and what it’s taught me. I’m sure I’ll be contemplating this for quite a while after I get back, but even now, I can see how life here has really taught me to live in the present. Before we came here, I was a bundle of nerves; I was even on medication for acid reflux issues, stemming from my constant worrying. While living in China, I’ve actually been able to wean myself from that medication (thankfully as one recent government survey found that ~12% of all pills sold here had some sort of toxic substance in the casing – if that’s the government figure, you can bet the reality is far worse). Now – that may seem strange as life in China can be insanely stressful. The language barrier and cultural differences play a major role, but there are all sorts of other minor, daily irritations. Nonetheless, you really have to live in the present here. This is partially due to the fact that if you’re not truly focused on what’s going on around you, you may be mowed over by an SBD (silent but deadly – the boys’ name for electric scooters here). But even more so, I am so much more present because I never know what’s going to happen around me. Not focusing on the here and now would mean missing so much of the amazing daily life that’s going on around me. I know for sure that I will miss the sense that any weekend is an opportunity for amazing adventure and the feeling that I never can know exactly what I’ll see on any given day.

As we prepare to head home, I am glad that we’ve taken full advantage of these opportunities for adventure. Sure, I wish I’d done more to pick up Putonghua, and I wish I’d done more work. The latter doesn’t bother me that much (I don’t think I’ll regret having explored Hong Kong and Shanghai and visited so many countries here in Asia as opposed to pushing out another book chapter or article); the former does though. But what I’ve realized in living my life in the present is that I want to try to do the same when I return home. So I won’t focus on regrets, but on the amazing adventures we have left, like our trip to the Sichuan province this week. I know I won’t be able to live entirely in the present as all these mixed emotions have had me doing some serious navel gazing. In doing so, I’ll try to make sense of what I’ve experienced and determine what exactly it is that I’ll take away from our time here. I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I do know one thing for certain: my time here has changed me in ways that will probably take years for me to fully comprehend.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Goodbye Rainbow Bridge

Blogging has been light as it’s been a trying week for us to say the least. Dealing with the death of a great friend and major illness for my father and Doug’s mother have taken an emotional toll, made all the worse by being halfway around the world. But as is always the case, life moves forward, and there are times of happiness even during our darkest moments, whether they are showing your mother around the city you've lived in for the past four months or spending an afternoon at an elementary school watching kids put on plays.

On the Bund

For us, the boys’ school, Rainbow Bridge (RBIS), has been a real source of joy this semester. Not that there haven’t been other really enjoyable things here too, but the extent to which the boys have been accepted and embraced at school has been good for us to watch. Gigamind, their school in Hong Kong, was good, but it was not a perfect fit for us. Rather, it was a good fit because it was available. But since it served primarily local children, they weren’t as accepting of the boys (they’re not used to dealing with foreign kids or kids coming and going) and the workload was immense. The schoolwork was really Chinese in focus – lots of drilling, lots of worksheets and busy work at home. While the boys learned a great deal there, they were also starting to learn to dislike school – not a good outcome.

At RBIS though, the kids have learned to love school again. As they’ve counted down the final days of school, they’ve been truly sad, as they’ll miss their friends and their routine. And even though the workload is not as burdensome, they’ve still learned a lot. Berkley has discovered a new love of the arts. He used to hate art class; in fact, on the first day of art at RBIS, Berkley told Mr. Alex that art really wasn’t his thing. But yesterday, on the way home, the boys discussed what their ideal school day would look like which was basically multiple periods of recess before lunch, followed by P.E. and then art. To hear Berkley say that was music to our ears. Quin has blossomed under the project/inquiry based focus of RBIS too. The feature article that he produced (which we saw yesterday) was really impressive. Each student wrote the materials and laid out their own article themselves; if I saw it without knowing anything about it, there is no way that I would have ever guessed that a third grader produced it. And it’s not just Quin – the other articles in the class were great too.

Honestly, if we could move RBIS to Dartmouth, we would love to. We’ve been accepted into the community, having visited the school for numerous events (Literacy Week, Earth Day, Poetry Readings, Festival of the Arts, and Spring Performance).

 From the Festival of the Arts (note the 7:21 slot)

 A Sample Poem from Berkley's Poetry Reading

Quin narrating his class play
The boys have been accepted as well (being an international school, they are far more used to dealing with students coming and going) and have made tremendous friendships. They’ve already been begging us to take trips to visit their friends when they return to homelands in South Korea, Japan and Holland, to name a few.

Berkley's birthday party

 We are thrilled over the extent to which the school embraces and integrates the arts into the curriculum. Add to that the fact that the boys receive an hour of foreign language instruction daily, and we couldn’t be happier. So, while we are eagerly looking forward to our return home to be closer to family and friends, we will be sad to leave this part of our life behind.

 Berkley with Ms. Michelle

Quin with Mr. Franco