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Friday, March 4, 2011

Tones are Everything

                March 3 & 4. Classes started this morning at 8:30am. I woke up to another glorious, but bitingly cold morning. The temperature change is drastic between Fiji and China. I can no longer wear shorts and I constantly need a sweatshirt. It’s to be expected, however, because this is China’s winter season. Breakfast was made by the dorm staff. A warm bowl of meat and vegetable noodles greeted me as I sat down to eat. They also served us hot milk, which went surprisingly well with the meal. After breakfast, we quickly went back to our room to grab pens and notebooks and then we trekked down to class. The campus seems even larger than it had done when we were driving through it. We are at the top of the University and class is held at the bottom entrance. It takes 30 minutes to hike down to class. Erik and Leung accompanied us the entire way, but Anna had left that morning to go into Shanghai.
                Our class building is the main building and is the largest. Leung, who had gone to school here, had to guide us through the halls and doors until we wound up at room 4-19. Our teacher was waiting inside and got up to shake our hands. I could already tell that she has a very limited knowledge of English, but, as Erik had explained, that comes as an advantage because this way you must immerse yourself completely in the Chinese Language. We were handed textbooks and sat down as she pointed to the first 3 chairs. It was only the 4 of us in the classroom. The textbooks are labeled Elementary Grade 1. When you’re a high school graduate and you’re handed an Elementary book, you have the feeling that you’re slightly moronic. She wrote her name in Mandarin on the board and repeated it out loud. It is so hard to pronounce that I can’t even try to communicate it through my blog.
                Then, class started. We began with the simplest words, like Ni Hao and Xie Xie, but then progressed to tones. There are 4 tones in the Chinese language and each can change the meaning of the word. Ma (in Chinese) has 4 meanings: horse, scold, mum, or numb each depending on which tone you say it in. The first 3 hours weren’t difficult and I felt that learning Mandarin isn’t as hard as everyone states it is. That was my first big mistake.
                I wasn’t hungry for lunch today, but went with everyone all the same. There is a small main street on campus that is lined with several restaurants and tourist shops. Leung recommended a restaurant, which he said serves the greatest fish in Dali. I’m not a huge fan of fish, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try some more local food. Circular tables made up most of the space in the restaurant, with little room to slide in and out of your seat. A revolving centerpiece was used to pass items across the table and is used in most of the restaurants that I have been to so far. The fish, vegetables, and rice came out almost at once and the owner shook the hand of Leung vigorously. Obviously, they were good friends. The fish wasn’t chopped up into friendly pieces that you would normally see, but it came as the entire fish. Even the scales needed peeling back in order to access the meat. There were also several small bones that you had to look out for. The fish, however, was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. It had a slight spicy, barbeque flavor to it that made us devour it to the last morsel. The skeletal fish, with only its head and tail still intact, lay before us, while the rice and vegetables had been scoffed down.
Leung’s friend, who teaches Taekwondo, showed for the last hour before class and offered to teach me Taekwondo self-defense. I was all for it, but David and Christen were hesitant. I wanted to start straight away, but he hadn’t taught lessons in over 5 years. He explained that he needed to draw up a class schedule before we could start. We decided that in the next few days I could start my lessons. With nothing left to do and little time before our second part of Chinese lessons began, we headed back to class. It was only an hour long and consisted of us reviewing our past lesson. We weren’t given homework, thankfully. I had too much writing to do before I could dedicate more focus to Mandarin.
I felt sluggish and tired after many days of too much Chinese food and too little exercise. Don’t get me wrong, the food here is incomparable, but that’s the problem. You can’t stop eating. So I forced myself to run around the soccer field until I felt safe enough to eat dinner. After dinner, however, I was back at square 1. We had more dumplings that night. The skinny ones are my favorite, but the fatter ones are like donuts. You eat them until you throw up. I crawled into bed that night, grateful for some escape from the tempting aromas of food.
The next day was almost exactly the same as the last. However, we learned how to introduce ourselves in Chinese and were thrown into vocabulary that sent my head spinning. Any other language and I would be able to follow the class with ease. For Mandarin you have to translate the characters into Chinese words and then translate them into English words. It’s rigorous and time consuming. I spent the afternoon writing again and finally caught up to date on all my blog posts. We even had dumplings for dinner. I swear, if I eat anymore dumplings I will come back wrapped in dough with a pork center.
Thanks for the patience concerning my posts. Hopefully these last few entries make up for the wait. Also, thanks for all the comments; they make every post worth it.

Old Dali

                March 2. Waking in China at 7:30 has its advantages. I was able to watch the sunrise from my window. It was gorgeous to see the sun’s silhouette crawling up the peak of a distant mountain. When it reached the top, it seemed to pause for a few seconds in a triumphant stance. We didn’t need to get up at any particular time today, but I was wide awake and ready for another adventure, which I had become accustomed to last month. I walked out of the room and was surprised to see Anna on the balcony with 3 cups of green tea. She offered one to me with her motherly smile and brought one in for David, but set it by his bed. She exited the room and started giving me details about what not to do in China. For instance, you’re not supposed to touch someone’s head. It’s considered extremely rude. Don’t put your chopsticks into your bowl as you set them down. Always put them across the edges. Lastly, never accuse someone of staring at you because it is perfectly normal to stare at a foreigner here. She didn’t need to tell me this last rule, but I humored her all the same.
                After I had talked with Anna some more about China, David had finally woken up. He was in a good mood and ready for a meal, as I was. 10am was checkout time here, and we doubted that we could make it back after breakfast in time. We checked out and put our belongings into Anna’s room (who would be staying another night), but I took my backpack. I’m not taking any chances here when there is plenty of thieving.
                Old Dali is a beautiful city with plenty of activities to do during down time. There are massage parlors, horseback riding, hiking, and Taekwondo lessons. I wanted to do them all today, but Anna had different plans for us. We were shown the city and how to get to specific landmarks in case we ever got lost or separated. She also showed us where to buy snacks and any supplies we might need. I could tell she was doing it out of her good nature, but it was slightly unnecessary. I wondered if she was accustomed to high school students and my beliefs were confirmed as she told me she usually led the summer high school Rustic Pathways programs.
                During this tour of the city, we picked up some dumplings along the way for breakfast. They were delicious and came in 2 varieties. One was skinny and longer, more like the dumplings seen in America. The other was fatter and much doughier. Anna showed us how to make the perfect sauce for dumplings, with 1/8 soy sauce, 7/8 vinegar, and a dash of chilies. I could have eaten them until I burst. I began to wonder how healthy they were and voiced my concern to Anna. She told me that the ingredients were locally harvested and grown so it would be much better than any Chinese food bought in the States. On that note, I ate them greedily.
                We walked around town a bit more and saw many stray dogs and puppies. It was sad, but they seemed well fed. At noon we had to meet up with Erik, Leung, and Christen for lunch so we stayed in town and explored it thoroughly. I was excited to see Christen and to have someone close on this trip.
                Café de Jack was the meeting place, and it was a western style food restaurant. We met the rest of our group and I was right in believing that my spirits would rise at the sight of my cousin. She was perfect for this situation. Someone I could talk too freely, but not someone who would latch onto me like a lifeline. She handled the situation perfectly. David introduced himself and everyone started talking to her about themselves. Immediately, I could see that she would be a great fit for this trip.
                I ordered a burger because I missed the taste and scent of American beef. Yet, I was slightly disappointed. Something of the Chinese food lingered upon the burger’s taste and scent and the fries were soft and undercooked. I tried to enjoy the meal, but it was difficult. After lunch, we went back to the hotel to pick up our luggage. From there we took a taxi to Dali University. Oddly enough we didn’t go through the main entrance, but through a side street. We wound our way up to the top of the hill overlooking the University. The campus is enormous, with many modern buildings and dorms. There is little grass around the roads, but when we came to the place where we will be staying, we were awed to see miles of tea gardens stretched out before us.
                The dorm rooms that we are staying at for the first 3 nights are very comfortable looking, much more so than the previous hotels at least. The beds are slightly more comfortable and the surrounding decorations are beautifully native to the culture here. We have all stretched out on our beds and are relaxing before we set out for dinner. Hopefully it will be better than lunch.

A Foreigner

March 1. I awoke stiff necked, bleary eyed, and troubled this morning. It was strange to wake up knowing only one person near me. I showered for what felt like the first time in a week. It brought a new feeling of warmth and comfort to my body and I felt a little better as I waited for Leung and David to wake up. I sat down on the uncushioned sofa with a groan and watched TV to take my mind off my discomfort. There are 50 channels in Kunming and over half feature a military program. The rest are either soap operas or plays that seem slightly silly to watch, from the eyes of a foreigner that is. The only channel I felt some relation to was the one playing Spongebob Squarepants in Chinese, which took no less enjoyment out of the show.
                When Leung and David finally awoke, I greeted them only halfheartedly. After they were ready to leave, we headed downstairs for breakfast. We walked down at 8am and the concierge told us we didn’t need to check out until 11am, so we had some time to kill. Striding out the door, Leung, David, and I entered the morning world of China. There were masses of people going this way and that. Some were conversing with shop merchants; others were working outside their perspective shops, and the rest rushed furiously to begin their day jobs. Leung knew the city surprisingly well and led us through many back alleys and side streets where we came to a small, but friendly American café. He explained that we would have plenty of time for Chinese breakfast later on and that we should enjoy some bacon while we can. I ordered eggs, bacon, potatoes, a bagel, and chai tea. It was all delicious and brought even more life back in me than the shower had.
                After breakfast we walked slightly in the direction of the hotel, but zigzagged through many streets with makeshift shops. We learned to bargain from Leung and he taught us the best way to communicate with the shop owners. The world has one universal language: numbers. He handed us both a pen and paper and told us to bargain whatever item we wanted down to a quarter of the price. Since I had forgotten my sleeping bag in the Hong Kong airport (the first item I have lost all month) I entered an outdoors shop. The owner rushed towards me and asked what I would like (or at least I guessed he asked that). I pointed to the smallest sleeping bag I could find and asked for the price. His asking price was 100 yen (roughly $17 US). I wrote down half that on my pad. He seemed to consider for a moment then nodded. I took out my money and faked to show I only had 25 yen. I showed him the money and he shook his head in disgust. In response, I turned and walked straight out the door. He yelled me back furiously and snatched the money out of my hand, while at the same time shoving the sleeping bag angrily into my hands. Grinning to myself, I walked away with Leung and David.
                We spent the rest of our time peering into several shops, while rarely buying anything because we would feel terrible if we asked for more money on our first day in China. I came back to the hotel feeling happier then when I had left. I had one idea formed in my mind: “China might not be so bad after all.” So we packed our things together and walked out the door. We looked ridiculous as we walked down the streets, with our backpacks on the front of our bodies and David and I staring suspiciously at anyone who passed too close to us. The bus stop to Dali was a 45 minute walk, but we decided to take cabs instead. Even cab prices can be bargained in China. Leung passed up several expensive cabs (taking much longer than 45 minutes), but then came to a completely ordinary car, parked on the side of the road, and asked for a ride. They bargained a price and Leung agreed. Perplexed, I threw my luggage into the trunk and slid into the car. Only when I asked did Leung tell me that some people are private taxi drivers who sit on the curb all day looking for fares.
                So we came to the bus stop and were immediately greeted by Anna, the Rustic Pathways China director. You could instantly sense her good nature and her innocent demeanor gave her a motherly aura. She hugged us both, waving our handshakes away. Leung caught us off guard as he said goodbye to us and we shouted why he had to leave. I had grown accustomed to his presence, even in the past day. His bouncy attitude and constant smile were infectious. He said not to worry, however. That he would see us within 2 days because he needed to pick up Christen and Erik. Relieved, I started to feel hunger pangs again. We bought local Chinese snacks for the bus ride while Anna bought our bus tickets. The snacks were exotic and I was willing to try most, except for chicken feet and packaged eels. We bought vanilla tootsie rolls, fake Oreos, crackers, bread, and corn chips. We met up with Anna and she looked over our snacks with an approving gaze. Then we walked through the ticket barrier and security machine.
The station was just as packed as the city had been. People still wore flu masks, while some led sheep and caged chickens around. So it seems understandable why some people would wear masks. The security checkpoint was a joke. The metal detector didn’t work (I know because I had my phone, my belt, and my camera on my person when I walked through) and the security officer didn’t even bother looking at the screen for the x-ray machine while our bags were passing through. In fact, I doubt there was even anything on the screen. We piled onto the bus, but it wasn’t crowded. I was able to stretch out in the back and before I knew it, I fell fast asleep.
I was awoken by the bus as it came to a screeching halt directly in front of the hotel we were staying at tonight. It was called Sam’s Hotel in old Dali and was surprisingly rustic, yet comfortable. Sam, who knew very good English, welcomed us with 3 steaming cups of green tea as we dragged our luggage into reception. The warm liquid felt welcome after a long bus ride and was unsurprisingly bitter. When I asked for sugar, Sam just laughed at me and strode away to get our keys. He was nice enough to see that we were not in the mood for any talking. Even though we had done almost nothing today, we were drained from the travels. He said he would order noodles for us and have them sent up to our rooms. We thanked him graciously and lugged our baggage upstairs.
The room resembled much of our previous night’s room. The shower was slightly moldy and there was no shower curtain. The beds were as stiff as ever and the TV had not one American friendly channel. I talked with David for the rest of the night and we stopped for a while to eat our noodles, which were good enough to make up for the room. David fell asleep mid conversation and I cracked one of the first genuine smiles since I had left New Zealand. It was time for me to go to sleep as well and with that, I crawled into bed and tried to make an adequately comfortable mattress. I didn’t succeed however, and fell asleep grimacing.