05 August 2009

Women in China

On Monday, we visited the one and only museum in China focused exclusively on women. I have to say it was one of the most fascinating museums that we’ve seen so far, and most of the participants agreed. This museum is actually at Shaanxi Normal University, but at the new campus to the south west of town.

The first display that we saw was all about the tradition of foot binding. The ideal of feminine beauty was to have incredibly small feet, so starting at the age of five, parents would start to

bind their daughters’ feet so that they would not grow. This of course led to incredibly deformed feet and women had a hard time walking; they basically had to shuffle around. Now, this tradition did not apply to everyone. It was basically done by just the upper classes and by prostitutes. Why prostitutes?? Well, if they did not bind their feet, they would not be seen as beautiful and therefore would receive no customers. Middle class and peasant women did not traditionally bind their feet, as they needed to be able to move around in the fields for their survival. This practice also only really applied to the Han Chinese, or the “real” Chinese people. The 54 other ethnic groups in China realized that the practice was not the smartest thing to do. However, towards the beginning of the 1900s, lower class women did start binding their feet in an effort to appear upper class. Once the Communists firmly took over in China, the practice died out. The tour guide likened the practice to what Victorian women did with corsets in the west. I would have to agree with her assessment. Working class women did not constrict themselves with corsets. They still wore them, as they were a vital part of supporting their clothing, but they didn’t try for the wasp-like figures as the upper class women did.

The next exhibit focused on women’s contribution to the war effort during World War II. Women in China, as elsewhere, had to fill in for the men who were off fighting against the Japanese and having to take care of their families. As the Communists rose to power in that period, the party advocated a one gender policy where everyone was treated the same, everyone dressed the same, whether man or woman. Women cropped off their hair and wore clothing that flattened their breasts in order to fit that mold. Some women took it a step further by refusing to marry, which was a huge break with Chinese custom. There was a big sisterhood of unmarried women who looked out for one another. However, upon their deaths, their families would not bury them unless they could find an unmarried dead man to whom the dead women could be married to before burial. If not, the woman was bound for an eternity of suffering in the afterlife.

We then saw an exhibit on a female script used by a certain ethic group within China. It differed from traditional Chinese script, was passed down from generation to generation of females, yet no man was ever taught the language, until recently as scholars started studying the language. It was a way for women to transmit their thoughts, hopes, dreams, and complaints about their lot in life without worrying that the men in their lives would read it. Several of the female teachers commented that they wished that they had had that in high school for writing notes! Then we saw an exhibit of handicrafts that women traditionally made in China. The better a women sewed and was able to create beautiful objects, the more attractive she was in the marriage market. From the time that she was young, a typical Chinese woman would be sewing things for her future husband as part of her dowry.

The final exhibit that we saw was a display of the wedding outfits of the 55 ethnic groups of China. There were some amazingly beautiful dresses there. The amount of work that goes into each one is mind boggling. You’ll notice that there is a lack of white dresses. That is because in Chinese culture, white is the colour of death. Red is the traditional colour of weddings.

Yesterday evening, I had to wash a couple shirts to have enough clean clothes to get me through the flight home this weekend. Normally I go to the laundry service and they have my clothes done the next afternoon. Yesterday, I walked down to the laundry with my little bag of clothes. They pulled them out, counted them and started to write up my order. They informed me that the clothing wouldn’t be ready until the 6th! That’s three full days! It’s also the day we leave Xi’an to fly back to Beijing. So I put my stuff back in the bag and tried to explain that I was leaving that day and left the building. When I got on the bus to go to the museum that afternoon, I was telling Rene what had happened. Pam, who was sitting across the aisle from my said that she had just dropped off her stuff at the laundry and that her stuff would be ready by 8 am the next day! Things make no sense here sometimes. (Well, frequently…) So my roommate, George, took me to the laundry room last night and showed me how to operate the machine. Now I have enough to get me home, which is coming quicker than I could imagine!

04 August 2009

Yan’an: Communist Theme Park

Okay, so it’s not really a theme park, but Yan’an is the city in which Mao Zedong and the Communist forces entrenched themselves during World War II after the famous Long March. Since we are fairly close, China Institute planned an overnight trip

there to explore the Communist sites, as this is part of modern China. Coincidentally, we were there on the 60th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Liberation Army.

So we had to get up especially early on Saturday to have breakfast at 6.30 am and be on the bus by 7 am. Yan’an is 300 kilometers away, which under normal circumstances would take about 3 hours or less to drive, since 100 km/h is the equivalent of 66 mph. But of course, we’re in China; circumstances are never normal! Two things slow traffic up here. First there is the inordinate amount of construction on the highway. It seems like something is always

been repaired or added to. But the highways here put those in Michigan to shame (which really doesn’t take much of an effort). Secondly, they let ANYTHING on the highway. There are tons of trucks moving at probably 25 miles per hour. Plus, as I may have already mentioned, traffic regulations are really just a mere suggestion here. So even though the highway is officially two lanes, cars and trucks make their own lanes as they chose. So all that being said, it took about 5 hours to arrive in Yan’an. Fortunately the drive is through some pretty amazing country. The entire highway is flanked by loess hills and valleys.

After checking into our “four star” hotel, the quotation marks are there for good reason, we had a large lunch at the hotel’s restaurant and then we headed off to Yan’an University. On the site of the university are many of the caves that the Communists used as headquarters during World War II. The caves have now been turned into faculty housing! On the trip with us was the president of the English Club at Shaanxi Normal University, who has arranged so much assistance for us over the past five weeks. We asked what his impressions of the site were, as it was his first time there. He said it was sad to him that it wasn’t better preserved and more reverent to the cause. He told us that his is a member of the Communist Party and that it’s really a necessity to advance in society in China. Next we went to the Communist Party Museum, which was a big Mao fest. The artwork

was cool, and I loved the statues. If only working so hard made people smile so much in the US! Then we went to visit the pagoda where Mao would often sit and do his writings during air raids, since the Japanese typically avoided attacking religious sites. It was quite the hike up the hill to get to it, but it was all worth it. It was an amazing view of the town, and there was ice cream up there. J

After another large meal for dinner (which included goat meat!), four of us decided to go to the hotel spa and get a foot bath. It was in the second of the two hotel buildings, and as no one spoke any English there, I carefully copied down the characters for foot bath from the hotel directory and we went over. We found it and was it ever fun! We had no clue what they were saying as they worked on our feet, but it was all good. As our feet were soaking, we got arm and hand massages, then they worked on our feet, legs and then flipped us over and did our backs. They were laughing when they started working on our feet, and we think we figured it was from the size of our feet. They asked where we were from. For the three women I was with, they asked, in Chinese, if they were American. When the woman working on my feet asked me, she asked if I were Canadian! I thought that was rather odd. It was also odd feeling when my masseuse climbed on my back and used her knees to massage my shoulders while the masseuse was kicking me with her feet! (By the way, massages in China are fully clothed.) I couldn’t help but to laugh as she was doing it, as my friends did as they saw it. When it was all done, they worked on us for about an hour, then we lounged in the room sipping our water as we just talked about our day. For the service, we each paid only 88 Yuan or $13!

The next day we were out of the hotel around 8.30 am with the plans of visiting two more communist sites. We visited more cave homes. Believe me, after a while one cave home really starts to look like another. After the cave homes we went to a revolutionary village. These places were jam packed with Chinese. In fact, we were the only westerners at any of the sites. On top of that, we were the only westerners that we saw in Yan’an! We came to the conclusion that not many westerners visit Yan’an, because people were literally dropping what they were doing as we would go anyplace. We all had multiple Chinese people come up to us and ask if they could get their pictures taken with us. It was all quite amusing.

31 July 2009

Excursion Fun!

We’ve been out enjoying the fairly cool weather the past two days. This is a relative term, of course. By cool I mean upper 80s with low humidity. I’ll be freezing when I get home! Anyway, yesterday we went to the northeast of town to Huaqing Hot Springs. These were former imperials baths that served as a retreat for the imperial court. I can tell why they would choose this spot. There’s a beautiful mountain and the scenery is so tranquil. That being said, it wasn’t the most exciting visit in the world. Our Chinese guide was a little hard to understand and really didn’t go into any depth. We were basically led from one hole to another, “this is where water would have been.” The one interesting tidbit that I learned was that the imperial staff also bathed there. The cooks could not touch their feet since they prepared the emperor’s food, so they had to develop a series of holes in the bottom of the

bath in which pumice stone was placed for them to scrub their feet. Two thoughts came to mind: 1) it’s always a good rule of thumb not to touch your feet and then cook, even if you’re not serving the emperor, and 2) what I wouldn’t give for that type of foot bath right then and there! The visit wasn’t a total wash (get it, bath, wash…work with me people) as this served also Chiang Kai-Shek’s headquarters. So we got to see Chiang’s office, bedroom, bathroom, etc. The bullet holes where the communists fired at him are even preserved.

Today my roommate, George had an interesting cultural experience. He got to visit a Chinese doctor. Like many of us, he developed a nagging cough. I had the same thing last week, losing my voice. Most of us brought antibiotics with us. I took mine and felt a difference within hours. George unfortunately didn’t have any, so he got worse. The “internalist” (a doctor who deals with what goes on inside) wasn’t in the office, so the “externalist” had to see him. Basically he was told, “well, this isn’t my area of expertise, but I think you have a sinus infection. Here’s an antibiotic.” The cost of the doctor’s visit and the medicine was 5.8 Yuan.

Today’s excursion made us feel like typical tourists, and it was great! We visited the Bell Tower, which is the heart of the city. Traditionally, all Chinese cities had a drum tower to wake the citizens up in the morning and a bell tower to tell people when curfew was going into effect in the evening. So we walked up into the bell tower and watched the traffic swirling around the base. The traffic here is just mind-boggling. After a half hour there, we went to the city wall. While the city has been walled since ancient times, this wall dates from the Ming Dynasty, being built in the 1300s and had a major restoration in the late 1700s. It’s the only city wall in the world where you can ride a bike all the way around it. And that’s what we did! It was a great way to see the city. It was hot, but not unbearable. Of course, the strategically placed ice cream stands helped with that. I made it about 1/3 of the way around the 14 kilometer wall, but turned around. I know, I know. I should have toughed it out, but these bikes were not made for anyone over 5 foot 6! My legs were getting worn out. I still had an amazing time though and would do it again in a heartbeat.

28 July 2009

Time Moves Quickly

Wow, it’s hard to believe that in less than two weeks I’ll be home and suffering from jetlag. The end of this past week was jam packed. Today I was planning on just doing nothing, but 6 ½ hours walking around town isn’t exactly doing nothing.

I actually slept in until about 7 am this morning. Oh it was so nice! It’s a good thing I woke up then, because shortly thereafter a whole series of firecrackers were set off across the lane at the apartment building for staff of the university. Firecrackers are set off here for any occasion for well wishes: weddings (which was the reason for today’s round), moving in to a new apartment/home,

birthdays, a cool day, a good dish of pork…(okay, I made those last two up). The point is, they set them off continually and never at opportune times, i.e. they shoot them off between 7 am to 8 am. At 10 I met up with Rene and Katrina and Rene’s Chinese student, Sharon, to go into town. We had two main goals: find silk and pick up our tailor made clothing. Even though this is the end/beginning of the famous Silk Road, silk is hard to find here. Silk isn’t particularly made here, nor is “Silk Road” a particularly historically accurate term. That term wasn’t used to describe the trade between China until the early 1900s when a German archaeologist by the name of Richtofen (the Red Baron’s uncle) used the term. Silk was just one of many items going from China towards the West. Anyway, Rene had found a blog entry online about this ONE shop that sells quality silks in Xi’an. So off we went. It was in a huge hangar-like building with stall after stall of fabrics. Sharon just asked people where the silk store was and they pointed us in the right direction. It’s hard to believe that there’s only one in the entire place. I couldn’t believe the great selection that they had. I got two different silks, Katrina got three and Rene got eight! The asking price was 65 Yuan per meter, but we were able to get it for 50 Yuan ($7.35 per meter). That’s an amazing deal for silk.

By the time we were done silk shopping it was already almost one o’clock, so we had lunch of spicy pork noodles and plum juice. Total cost: 7 Yuan per person. The noodles were the right thing to hit the spot. Then it

was off in the rain to the Muslim quarter to find our tailor and pick up our clothing. Walking through the narrow streets of the Muslim quarter was a challenge with vendors lined on both sides of the street and in the middle plus throngs of people carrying umbrellas AND bikes, carts, motorcycles, cars, etc. also competing for space. In China, the bigger the vehicle, the more right of way you have. The pedestrian is last in that pecking order, even in a supposed pedestrian area. It’s crazy, but you learn very quickly to constantly listen for horns. We made it to the tailor and got our clothing. It turned out so great. It’s amazing that such quality clothing could be made so quickly and so cheaply! After they

packaged up our clothing nice and neatly, we continued our wandering to find more gifts for people back home. I bought a lot of stuff today, but will refrain from mentioning any of it because some of you may be getting the stuff.

Finally we made it home by about five o’clock this afternoon. I am not going anywhere the rest of the evening. I’m just relaxing with a cold beer, chatting with my roommate George from Okemos and blogging for you.

27 July 2009

Tang: Not Just the Orange Juice of Astronauts

Saturday was one of our marathon Saturdays with a ton of activities. It was actually a great day full of nice weather, tombs, and the cheesiest dinner theatre you could imagine.

With our ambitious agenda, we had to rise early to make a 7 am breakfast. During the week, our breakfast is at 7.30 and at 8.30 on the weekends. We had to be to our classroom by 8 to hear our new lead historian, Dr. Zhou Xiuqin (pronounced like Joe Shoe-Chin, with Xiuqin being her first name) talk to us about the beginnings of the Tang Dynasty. (By the way, Tang rhymes with gong, just so we have that clear.) We learned of the scandal and intrigue of the beginnings of the most prosperous dynasty in Chinese history. At 9.20 we were done and hustled back to our rooms to pack up for the day and to get ready to leave at 10. I filled my back pack with water, snack crackers, lemon wafers, Kleenex, hand sanitizer (thanks Mom!), postcards, etc. I made one last stop at the convenience store across the lane to buy some ice cream (30 cents), and then got on the bus.

We spent about an hour and a half on the expressways heading west of Xi’an. By the way, the highways here are far better than anything that Michigan has. China has been pumping tons of money into its infrastructure to cope with an expanding economy. Then the last half hour was spent on winding roads going up into the mountains. They looked like the types of roads where you’d see the “chicken bus,” you know the one full of locals, their chickens, possibly goats and has a top full of luggage, baskets and things. Unfortunately, we did not see the chicken bus.

Our first stop was the tomb of the first Tang emperor, Gaozu. This was kind of the gold standard and the mold that all Tang mausoleums would follow afterwards. Instead of building burial mounds as in the past, the Tang used actual mountains. While the tallest mount of the Qin emperors was 60 meters, Gaozu’s was over 1000 meters! Of course, geology gave him a head start. There really is nothing original at Gaozu’s mausoleum, but the Chinese are rebuilding it to give people an idea of what it would have looked like had it been untouched. We had 45 minutes there to soak it in the ambience. Some raced to the top of the mountain; I chose to remain a little lower and enjoy the cool breezes sweeping over the mountain.

Next we drove to the tomb/mausoleum (or ling in Chinese) of the third Tang emperor, Gaozong and his wife, the Empress Wu. The Empress was the only woman to ever rule China in her own right. There have been several who acted as regent for their young sons upon the death of their husbands, but Empress Wu ruled for a good chunk of her husband’s reign and then continued to rule in her own right after his death. Their tomb is interesting in the fact that the Spirit Road leading to the tomb still has the original sculpture lining it. Plus, most historians think that the tombs themselves have been untouched. As with many imperial tombs, though, the Chinese are not opening them because they simply don’t have enough trained people to process what would be found and to safely manage the treasures. So we walked the Spirit Road and part way up the mountain before we turned back. Annette then led us through a small farming village that is directly below the Spirit Road, built into the Loess soil. Most of the farmers have moved on since Annette has last visited the village about 20 years ago. We heard two conflicting reports. One was that the farmers moved away to get better housing. The other report was that the government moved them. Either way, it was still interesting to peer into their world.

Next we were off to the tomb of one of the Tang princesses whom the emperor had executed at the age of 17. (I teach teenage girls; I can see where he was coming from…) This tomb had been totally excavated and we were able to descend to the dark depths below the mountain. It was very cool looking at the paintings and burial figurines lining the way. (All were reproductions though, as the originals were removed to museums for safe keeping.) At the bottom was her large stone coffin. I’m not sure if it was original or reproduction, though.

Then we hopped back into the bus to head back to town for a 7 pm dinner reservation at the Tang Dinner Theatre back in Xi’an. The ride was nice. I was able to write postcards, listen to music, nap a bit and enjoy the scenes of the countryside. We arrived to the theatre at 7 pm on the dot. Now, let me preface this by saying I had no desire to go to this thing from the get-go. One of the members had proposed going to this show and dinner at the very beginning as he had found info on it at the tourist bureau. The cost was 800 Yuan! First of all, that’s way too much money; secondly, I hate tourist shows, because they are aimed at tourists so there’s nothing really authentic about them; thirdly, the food is typically bland, tasteless versions of the real thing to appeal to the tourist palate. Well, last week, at a curriculum meeting I missed because I wasn’t feeling well, our leader, Kevin, said that if we all agreed to go, that the China Institute would pick up the tab as it was a cultural excursion. So a vote was taken and it was agreed we’d all go. I’m sure they got a much better deal than the 800 Yuan price. Well, I was right on all counts. I think the only Chinese there were the servers; everyone else was Western, mostly German. The food was bland. I had to dunk everything into plum sauce to give it some flavour. The show, well, I was told that there was no cheese in China, but I saw plenty of it last night. I think the highlight was during the military dance when the big monster’s eyes started flashing red. I thought I was in the red light district all of a sudden. (Plus, the monster was smiling. Monsters don’t smile.) Even though we were treating it as a comedy show and were laughing accordingly, we couldn’t wait to get out of there. We didn’t make it home until nearly 10.30, so that was a 15 ½ hour day. Yeah, it was long. Would I change anything about it? Nah…

Things I Miss/Things I Appreciate

Things I Miss…
Being able to read packaging
Low humidity
Cold beverages
Curling up with a cat
Hot breakfast
St. Laurent’s peanut butter
Clean air

Things I Appreciate…
Cheap public transport
Convenient public transport
Real Chinese food
Sesame snacks
Bend-over backwards helpful people
Clerks and servers who are patient and kind as I practice my Chinese
My colleagues
Plum juice
Local handcrafts

22 July 2009

The Kindness of Strangers

The last couple days have gone by so quickly. I have the feeling that before I know it, we’ll be boarding the plane to head back to the U.S. I am so not ready to go yet; there’s so much more I want to see, do and learn before leaving. Of course, I may feel differently in a couple weeks, so check back then.

Tuesday was, surprise, hot! With the combination heat, busy schedule, etc, I was not feeling the greatest during the morning lecture from Annette, our lead historian from Rutgers. There was nothing wrong stomach-wise, which I wish were true for many of my colleagues. I just didn’t feel right. In fact, Annette’s lecture was on Buddhism in China, a subject that I am really interested in, and I couldn’t focus nor keep my eyes open. So at the lunch break, I went back to the room and slept for three hours, skipping the afternoon curriculum session. When I woke up, I felt much better. The heat and the rigourous schedule have gotten to many of us, so our group coordinator, Kevin, has been pretty understanding if we need to duck out for a bit.

In the evening, Rene, Katrina and I took a taxi to Annette’s hotel, about a 10 minute ride from here, and it cost us 7 Yuan. Annette was a little late meeting us, because she had spent the day at the Beilin Museum in their basement going through objects. She was as giddy as a school girl. She showed us around the gardens at her hotel and then we all walked to a local Japanese restaurant and had an amazing meal. It was a bit pricier than what we’re used to paying, about 65 Yuan a piece, but well worth it! It was so much fun just relaxing and chatting with Annette and hearing her take on the program. She spoke frankly with us about things she wishes were better, but at the same time spoke about the strengths. After dinner, we walked her back to her hotel and then we took a taxi back home.

This morning (Wednesday) I was shocked when I walked outside to head to class. Not only was it not slap-you-in-the-face hot, it was cool! There was a breeze!! I made it all the way to class without breaking a sweat. I could tell it was going to be a good day. On the way to class, I met up with John and we decided to treat ourselves to some real coffee and an American style coffee shop on Shi Da Lu (the name of the street heading out of the campus). Some members of our group go there every morning. It was a nice treat, but at 19 Yuan, it was much more expensive than the 2.80 Yuan melon or mango juice that I get at the grocery store every morning.

Chinese class went well. We practiced our numbers and the hand gestures that go with each number. This has been especially helpful in bargaining in the local markets. Our vocab still basic, but we’re learning useful stuff. I think that once I get home, I will certainly keep up with learning Chinese. It will be especially nice having a new Chinese teacher at Central this coming year. For Annette’s lecture today, we continued our talk on Buddhism and examined Buddhist art. Today I was able to focus. Lunch was a couple of bao ze, pieces of steamed bread filled with pork and green onions. As we often say to one another, it’s all about the pig here in China. (It’s kind of like Bavaria in that sense.) After lunch, our excursion was to the Beilin Museum with Annette leading as our tour guide. We visited Buddhist sculpture and the stele. Steles are large black stones in which Chinese scholars used to inscribe their books, sketches, portraits, etc. They were basically libraries on stones. It’s not as inconvenient as you’d think. The idea was that anyone could put paper on the stones, make rubbings and bring the book home. We saw that process today and I actually got a scroll of a scene of Taishan, an important mountain in the region.

Instead of taking the motor coach back to the campus, Rene, Katrina and I decided to stay in the old city to do some shopping, since it was such a nice day. For myself, I bought a name chop, which is a stone with your name carved in it. It’s what the Chinese use to sign their names to documents. If you ever see a painting by a Chinese artist, you’ll see the red stamp of the artist’s name. Rene already had one made, so she helped Katrina and I pick out stones. I chose one for the year of the rat, which is my sign. (Funny thing is, here they refer to it as year of the mouse.) We both then got our Chinese names inscribed on the stones. I also bought a variety of gifts for people back home. (You’ll have to figure out who you are and what you got!)

It was dinner time, and we thought we’d try finding this restaurant called Little Sheep, which is a hot pot restaurant similar to the one I had been to last week. We thought there was one downtown, but we couldn’t find it. So we decided to ask people. Rene and Katrina were asking people and no one seemed to know where it was. As I was walking around trying to see if I could spot it, I heard a polite voice, “Excuse me, excuse me.” I turned around and there was a young woman there and a young man with her. She continued, “I am a high school student here and would like to practice my English. May I talk to you?” Of course, I told her. So we struck up a conversation and the young man took part as well. Her English was quite good for just three years in high school. He apologized for his English, but it was still good enough to get his ideas across. The five of us chit chatted a bit and we asked if they knew where the Little Sheep restaurant was. They didn’t know, but the young man started calling people on his cell phone until he found out. He told us that there wasn’t one close by, that the nearest one was quite a distance away. We were disappointed, but said we’d just head back to where we were staying to find something near there. “Oh, where are you staying?” “Shaanxi Shi Da,” we replied. The girl got very excited. “My high school is attached to the Shi Da! The Little Sheep restaurant is close to that. We will take you there!” So they lead us to the bus stop, we rode the bus together for about a half hour while talking. The young man had to leave us when we got off the bus as he had a class to go to, but the young woman walked us to the restaurant, brought us inside, got a private room for us, went through the menu, which had no English, helped us order, and was just genuinely going out of her way to be helpful. We asked her to join us for dinner, but she said that she needed to get home because her mother would be worried about her. She just wanted to be sure that we had what we needed. So she left and we had our hot pot for dinner. I think that this can be a lesson to anyone who travels abroad. Yes, you need to be careful, but there are so many wonderful, generous, kind people out there who want to help visitors to their regions. So many Americans travel with the mentality that every person is out to get them or that everyone hates Americans. I can tell you from experience, it’s just not so.