29 December 2012

Christmas in Qinzhou

December was a busy month of finishing teaching, visiting with friends, and celebrating Christmas.
Students organize an English Corner on Friday evenings, and we have gone once a month -- they always appreciate the foreign teachers, and most of the students are non-English majors, so don't see us in the classroom. 
We had open house each Sunday afternoon, with different groups of friends. We couldn't invite all our students, just the monitors from each class, and they cleaned up the Western-style food we had prepared. 
We did a short play of the Christmas story with each class, students taking the roles of Mary, Joseph, innkeepers, shepherds, angels, the star, and wisemen. With 18 roles, there were often fewer left in the audience, and with little time to rehearse everyone read from the script.
Many stores decorate for Christmas, like this supermarket downtown. The commercial opportunity of the season is not lost on business here, and Christmas launches shopping for the Chinese Lunar New Year in February, much as Thanksgiving launches the season in the US.
We were very happy with our tree, for which we paid less than $5 including ornaments, although we spent more on lights.
All our guests enjoyed our tree and decorations, especially the children of the Chinese teachers who came.
Christmas Eve at the church was unlike any Christmas service at home, and was a variety talent show with singing and dancing.
The Technical English Corner that Daniel organized with a couple of the Chinese teachers met every Friday afternoon and included teachers from different departments as well as business people and others from the community. We wrapped up with a banquet in one of our university's dining rooms. Now our teaching and entertaining is behind us, and we'll be off to Hong Kong at New Year for a short vacation before exams. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

11 December 2012

Normal for now

After Thanksgiving we realize there are only a few more classes, and our normal routine has a short fuse.
We buy fruit and vegetables in the local market a couple times a week. At home we'd call it a farmers market, but here without the upscale connotation.
All dressed up with no place to go -- we were invited to an event in the city center so wore our newly tailor-made suits to class, but an hour before got a phone call saying it was cancelled. But we were still smiling, one needs to be flexible in China.
We call the alley across from campus Restaurant Row, and have a couple favorite places that we'll miss when we leave.
Students do most of the campus maintenance here. The trees in front of our apartment got a fresh coat of white, not so much aesthetic as to protect from bugs.
But the campus is also getting spiffed up to look good for an evaluation team from the national ministry of education. This statue of a famous local educator didn't used to be shiny black, so caught our attention.
We took a walk behind the campus, across the farm fields and past the neighboring cement plant, towering and a little ominous. The road in front was upgraded since last semester, from gravel to concrete pavement, so now many more cars and trucks zoom along at highway speed right to the campus gate, where there's no traffic light, just a zebra crossing to get to Restaurant Row. All this seems normal, for now.

23 November 2012

Around home

That phrase, "around home," rolls off the tongue too easily even though we're halfway around the world from our Texas home. But we're in countdown mode, and trying to experience everything here before we leave in January.
Our university had Sports Day, for which we had to reschedule our Friday classes. Fortunately the students alerted us the week before -- the official announcement of no classes on Friday reached us Thursday evening.
North of the campus is a range of hills, and we wondered what's up there. We found a reservoir behind a dam with a lake full of ducks.
A newly built home, in the skinny style that's popular here. In Vietnam we learned that taxes are based on footprint, so better to build up than spread out. But it has that essential modern feature, a garage.
Our balcony overlooks farm fields, but this is a new feature in our field of view, trash for landfill almost right below us. The trash collectors pedal up their tricycle cart, dump, and shovel over the edge.
We ask our Chinese colleagues if there are any concerts or other performances in the city, but we never hear of any. So we were surprised walking past the campus auditorium to find a full orchestra playing classical favorites. It must have been announced somehow, since it was full, but no one told us.
We don't teach on Thursdays, so it was easy for us to take a holiday for Thanksgiving. A knock on the door surprised us and Mei, the woman who studied English here but now has a flower shop in town, was there all dressed up with a big bouquet, a gift from her and our favorite student. Of course we invited her in for tea -- she said opening the flower shop could wait.
Thanksgiving dinner -- no turkey but excellent chicken breast from Walmart, scalloped potatoes, squash, beans, salad, wine from Chile and fresh bread -- what a feast!

11 November 2012

In the Neighborhood

This week we did different things in our neighborhood.
Our Chinese friend Ivy is a partner in a Herbalife shop. She invited us for lunch, where her customers came to cook together, making Chinese dumplings, jiaozi (饺子). Ivy is a graduate of Qinzhou University, not an English major but did travel in the US and worked at Chick-fil-A in Florida on a J-1 visa so speaks English fluently and is eager to keep it up. She's been helping us order clothes from the tailors in the old market, very affordable.
We often get lunch from the street vendors across from our unversity gate. A favorite is a kind of wrap made from rice flour steamed into a thin pancake and with a choice of fillings. Diane lifts the covers and points to our favorites, a smooth process now that the couple who run this stand know us. 
We visited a soybean processing plant in the Qinzhou port area, part of a worldwide conglomerate the Noble Group. The general manager is a Chinese-Canadian woman who heard there were Canadians in Qinzhou. She encourages her managers to come to our technical English corner on Friday afternoons to improve their English.
There is a new museum in the provincial capital of Nanning, the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities, with architecture in the form of ancient bronze drums. We took a day trip on Saturday to visit, as well as shop downtown for Western food that we can't get in Qinzhou.
Guangxi is home to 12 minority ethnic groups, the "nationalities" which the museum displays outside as playful cartoon characters. Daniel is wearing his Remembrance Day poppy, and in Culture classes last week we taught about the holiday and recited "In Flanders Fields". The students told us that in China, Nov. 11 is Singles Day, from the numbers of the date, 11-11.
The rotunda of the museum has murals that remind us of Aztec figures. The stairs and escalator lead up to the main galleries on the third floor.
Dragons from rice straw and bamboo are some of the many exhibits. The museum is modern and nicely arranged, so we hope it soon attracts many more visitors. It's in a large park, but a ways from the city center so takes a deliberate effort to get there.
We had lunch in the old museum garden downtown, a quiet retreat from the surrounding busy city. The restaurant is in a traditional "wind and rain" covered wooden bridge, and the garden is a favorite spot for couples to get wedding photos.

01 November 2012


Halloween is new to most Chinese, so it is a chance for us to teach while having fun with the students.
We started last week teaching about the history of Halloween, and then having the students do a short Halloween skit with 8 roles, that was written by one of the other Amity teachers. A family of 4 (seated) prepare for the 4 trick-or-treater who arrive at the door.
This week we've been having a Halloween party with each class. The students have been very creative with costumes, like the Chinese tiger complete with paws.
We brought costumes for ourselves from the US, a Star Trek character for Daniel and a witch's hat for Diane. The rustic Chinese broom completed her outfit perfectly. We had the students judge the best costume, and gave a prize to the winner.
We played games, like stick the nose on the pumpkin ...
 ... and bobbing for apples, which we did as a speed competition with two students trying to get the first apple.
There were a lot of wet but happy faces.
The students really enjoyed the parties, and we think Halloween will catch on here. It's quite different than tradtional Chinese festivals, and has something for both children and adults. Our students may become teachers of Halloween to the next generation of Chinese.

26 October 2012

Volcanic Island

We've been teaching about Canada in our culture class, and also made a weekend trip to a unique volcanic island which has a large Catholic church.
With a couple jigsaw puzzle maps of Canada, groups of 4 students race to do them and they're very happy when all the pieces go together.
The first Sunday of the month is communion at the one Christian (Protestant) church in Qinzhou. The santuary is quite plain, but we are pleased that they have a new digital projector, so we could decipher enough Chinese to see that the pastor was preaching on Romans 7:23-25 "... but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." Without our bilingual Bible we'd be lost, since no one has spoken to us in English.
It was quite a contrast to visit the large Catholic church on Weizhou Island this past weekend. The island is a recent (in geologic time) volcano, and the church was built from local lava and coral by French entrepreneurs in the 19th century.
The interior is nicely restored, and we attended Sunday morning worship with a couple hundred Chinese.
The island has a lot of Christians, and the service began with antiphonal chanting, alternating between the men on the right side of the congregation and the women on the left. We recorded some video of what was our most uplifting church experience since we left Houston: http://persjohn.net/DSCN1021.AVI (The video link is temporary, we'll delete it after a few weeks to save file space.)
This looked like a little impromptu rosary training after the worship service. The service was lead by two nuns, and with no communion we figured they didn't have a priest that morning.
Weizhou Island is only about 5 km across, and has nice beaches and great seafood.
We stayed over Saturday night at one of the many tourist hotels, and saw the sights on Sunday after church.
The volcanic soil is good for bananas, the main crop on the island, and also for flowers. But we had to make our way back to the ferry for the 40 km crossing to the mainland, and a couple hours on buses to get back home and be ready to teach on Monday morning.

08 October 2012

Golden Week

China's National Day is October 1, and combined with the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival this year most Chinese had an 8-day holiday, called Golden Week. We joined the traveling throngs to see some of the highlights of the province of Sichuan. We flew to Chengdu and joined a Chinese tour, with help from friendly English speakers.
The Leshan Giant Buddha is said to be the largest Buddha statue in the world, 71 meters, seated, carved from a cliff. People crowd around the face at the top, then climb down to the feet.
Looking up, Giant is the word. They say his fingernails are taller than an average human.
The next day we got up at 3:00 am to go to the top of Mount Emei, one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China, with a golden statue of a 4-faced Buddha on top. It's best on a clear day when the mountain top is above the clouds and you can watch the sun rise, but the weather didn't cooperate for us, and we were in the clouds and mist. And with all the crowds it was long after sunrise when we got to the top, but no matter, we didn't even see the sun all day.
Wednesday we got to sleep in until 4:00 am, before a short flight north from Chengdu to see Huanglong and Jiuzhaigou. Huanglong means "Golden Dragon" in Chinese, named for the colorful travertine formations and pools streching down an 8 km long valley. The tour bus stopped on the way up to buy altitude medication, since the elevation is high, over 11000 feet.
We sea-level dwellers were puffing, but the weather was sunny, and it was the most beautiful day of our Golden Week. The mountains of northern Sichuan connect with Tibet and host a similar culture.
The tour guide didn't speak English, but asked the Chinese tourists if anyone could help us. We were lucky to meet a young Chinese couple who quickly became friends as we realized how much we had in common, in spite of the age and culture differences.
Even more famous than Huanglong is Jiuzhaigou, Chinese for "Nine Villages Valley" with more travertine formations, waterfalls, and colorful lakes. We weren't as fortunate with the weather, although it didn't rain enough to keep us and thousands of Chinese tourists off the trails. But it was a long march getting there, including a 3-and-a-half hour traffic jam before we got to our hotel. Early mornings, long hikes, and late nights -- we don't think we can take much more of Chinese touring, and all the travel books suggest foreigners avoid Chinese holidays, but we joined the crowds for the same reason many Chinese do, it was the only time that we could get away from work.
Finally a chance to relax on Friday afternoon after the tour delivered us back to Chengdu. We wandered around a temple and garden at our own leisurely pace, then found a great Tibetan restaurant and had the best meal of our trip. Saturday was our first chance to sleep in, before flying back to our home province of Guangxi and catching the bus back to Qinzhou, where we put away the warm clothes and tour books, and are back to preparing lessons in the tropical south.