啊呀！It’s been well over a month since last posting in this blog. Since classes have started my life has been centered on learning Chinese and I haven’t had enough time to write a new post. However this past weekend was the Tomb Sweeping Festival and I managed to squeeze some time out of our long weekend to catch up my writing. I have a great deal to write about, so here we go.
Towards the end of February I last wrote about my trip to Emei Mountain which actually took place in January. After hiking the snowy trails of Emei I flew to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, for a week of sweet relaxation in the tropical 60 degree weather.
My plan was to travel westward from Kunming to Dali and Lijiang, two “must sees” of Yunnan province. Unfortunately, my plans coincided with the Chinese Lunar New Year making train a bus tickets in China as hard to come by as breathable air. Nevertheless I enjoyed the early spring in Kunming where I got into a good groove of studying Chinese, ventured out into the city, made some new friends at the hostel, and watched the jaw-dropping display of fireworks that exploded over the city in celebration of the New Year.
It’s quite amazing how the largest celebration celebrated by the largest group of humans on the planet is barely a thought in the minds of most Americans. And what a celebration it was. From the early evening on the eve of the New Year, people all over the city began popping off explosions of color and light from the streets, hill tops, and buildings. Sparks splashed against the side of a nearby building as a resident from the adjacent building fired off round after round of fireworks from his apartment window. The cacophony continued well into the night and was still resonating through the city streets early in the morning. And the fireworks continued for the next fifteen days of the Chinese Lunar Festival. Would you expected anything less from the birthplace of gunpowder?
On the first day of the New Year I took a city bus to a local park to watch the locals gather for the festivities. The place was packed with people of all ages enjoying the beautiful weather on their day off. Singers accompanied by groups of musicians chanted out traditional Chinese tunes while wrinkly old men crowded around park benches playing cards.
I stayed in Kunming till Feb. 5th when I took a 36 hour train back to Shanghai. While boarding a long distance train in China, it’s very easy to feel a great sense of frustration towards the Chinese and what seems to be their general complete lack of respect and concern for the people around them. For as soon as the ticket taker opens up the gate hundreds of people rush forward into what is more of a pile than a line, everyone squeezing their way to get to the front as fast as possible yet moving at the pace of dripping molasses, pushing and bumping, compressing one another into an indistinguishable mass of bodies and luggage. It’s times like this when I am amazed at the complete lack of concern in China for the person standing right next to you. And then my opinions of the Chinese are turned completely upside down when the people in my train compartment take me in as one of their own and never hesitate to offer me whatever food, tea, and friendliness they have. Similarly, when walking down a crowded street in an overpopulated city, slightly lost, meandering through the crowds of people who bump and push without concern, faces forward in their unyielding focus on everything except the street and the people there. And then I ask someone for directions and it’s as if I breached a barrier between two humans and they realize, oh you’re a person, and not only do they give me directions, but will walk me to the right bus stop and decipher the map and explain it to me to ensure I get off at the right stop. I wonder if my foreign status has something to do with it. I wonder how the Chinese people would treat one another in a similar situation.
Anyways, after spending a few days in Shanghai I hopped on a train to Nanjing. They have high-speed trains that run between Shanghai and Nanjing that complete the one way trip in just over an hour. They are brand new, sleek, clean, and comfortable. I did not take one of those trains. Instead I had to take one of the older, dirtier, and much less comfortable trains that made the trip in four hours. No big deal, I’ve experienced similar transportation situations before in this country. But what really made this trip special was the woman sitting next to me who let her young child pee right there in the middle of the aisle. And what’s more is nobody says anything, nobody around me even bats an eye at what this woman is doing. I think to myself this country has a serious sanitation problem and I would love to give this woman a piece of my mind. But I keep my mouth shut to keep the words in and the pee out and look forward to the moment when I can just get off the train.
I arrived in Nanjing late at night and took a taxi to the Jasmine Hostel, a quaint old home converted into a guest house and run by an eccentric young Chinese girl named, of course, Jasmine. It was snowing that night and the old home was bitterly cold. I made a few Chinese friends at the hostel who invited me to go hiking with them on the Purple Mountain.
Me and my new friend Joseph standing in front of the Jasmine Hostel.
February 15th marked the first full moon of the new lunar year, the day known as the Lantern Festival. A few Chinese friends and planned to eat some traditional Nanjing food and visit a local temple to celebrate the festival. Before getting there my friend Joseph asks me: “What is China most well know for?” “People,” I said. “You’re about to find out why.” Never before had I seen so many people crowded together in an open public area. Thousands of people funneled through the open courtyard into the narrow veins of Nanjing’s Fuzimiao district.
Once inside the crowd the only thing you could do was move, and officers stood along the roadside making sure people didn’t stop to take pictures. The temple we hoped to get into was far to congested so we instead took a stroll along the top of Nanjing’s city wall where we watched red lanterns rise in the sky against the sparkling backdrop of fireworks bursting into color over the expanse of city.
By then I had already moved into the dorms at Nanjing University and was living with my temporary roommate who also happened to be named Max and whose Chinese name is strikingly similar to my own. By the 17th, all of the students in our program had arrived and settled into the dorms. All together there are about 24 of us, which is a nice contrast to the almost 80 people last semester in Shanghai. Plus we all seem to get along pretty well; I would say it’s a good group of people. The first weekend of the semester, we went on a trip to Xiamen which is an Island off of China’s southeast coast.
Shark fin soup anyone?
The island of Xiamen is half bustling commercial and tourist center, half military outpost (it happens to be very close to Taiwan).
We also ventured up north into the countryside of Xiamen’s nearby Fujian province.
Due to a mistake made by our travel agency, we got upgraded to one of the island’s nicest five star hotels that overlooked the beach. Thank you. That Saturday night we celebrated my birthday on the beach, drinking red wine under the stars. Perfect.
When we returned to Nanjing that Sunday, I moved out of the dorm and in with my host family. I’m living with an older couple, probably in their 50s or 60s, who have a daughter who now lives and works in France. They were the first people to work with CIEE in Nanjing as a host family. They have been doing this for ten years now so they have a pretty good sense of what Westerners are like. They don’t speak a lick of English which made communication extremely difficult at first (it doesn’t help that they have pretty heavy accents too). But my Chinese is improving everyday so the situation gets better and better. They’re super nice, respect my privacy, and feed me like a fat kid. We got a good thing going on.
Since classes started my days have been almost entirely committed to learning and studying Chinese. Last semester in Shanghai I was in the Beginner level-2 class. However this semester I tested into the Advanced Chinese class. I think the weeks of traveling and interacting with Chinese people was key to my progress. I have no doubt in my mind that I’m in the right class but I did technically skip a level of Chinese and all of the vocab and grammar structures taught in those lessons. So while learning our new lessons I am also catching up with what I would have learned in the other classes. It’s a challenge to say the least. I am working harder right now than I have ever worked in all of my 16 years of education. And never before have my academic efforts produced results like the ones I experience now. It feels great!
Oh yes, I have also been teaching American English to a Chinese kid and his mom. Here’s a picture of me and Owen:
That’s all for now. I have midterms this week and have to get to studying. I’ve got about two months left in China before going home. I hope to learn as much Chinese as I possibly can and enjoy my final days in this perplexing and adventure filled country.