Sunday, April 14, 2013

Running in China

It has been a long time since I have posted.

It has not been due to the lack of things to write about, or time to do it, but rather I have never felt like I could put everything that I have been feeling, experiencing & seeing into words.

That is, until today.

Today is what I like to call the calm before the storm.  The day before we start mock exams at school and our students are at home revising and working hard for their exams this week.  Us teachers, on the other hand, have a carefree weekend with nothing to prepare for.  Our work comes during the week when we have to grade all of the exams the students take.

On weekends like this I like to go running.

I have had to adapt my outdoor running quite a bit since coming here nearly 2 years ago.  I used to never run with headphones; now they are a must.  I used to have at least 2 dozen different routes I could choose from with differing lengths and gradients; now I have 2 in-complex runs and 3 out-of-complex runs, all but one are as flat as a pancake.  I used to never think about the air quality before I went running; now I am dependent on my iPad app that gets hourly air quality updates from the US consulate in Guangzhou.  I used to NEVER run on a treadmill; now I run on one at least 2 times a week if not more.

Despite the challenges of running in China.  I have never regretted it.  Sure, there have been times when, like today, an entire family slows down their car as the father points out the window at me so the children can see the "strange foreigner" who is running.  I smiled and waved back at the stunned 8-year old boy who was straining his neck to gawk at me.  Or other times when I come back and blow my nose and it is grey (sorry if that is too much information).  But I always come back from my runs with a new story or a better understanding of where I live.

One thing has become very apparent to me while on these runs.  China is two very different worlds.

One of my runs I call the "River Run", as it takes me down to a small channel off of the main Pearl River.  Along this run I see the entire spectrum that makes up China's population.  From poor to rich, educated to unable to speak and understand Mandarin, and city slicker to country bumpkin.

My run starts out in my gated complex where I can see people talking on their iPhones wearing their Prada and running laps around the lake in their new Nike running shoes.  As I go out of my complex I see the roads full with traffic.  Mercedes, Fiat, & BMW along side old men peddling their bikes with fresh fruit to sell near the entrance of our complex.

Next, I run through a park across the road from my complex.  It is filled with people young and old getting their daily exercise.  Some jog while others prefer to follow what seems to be decades old Mao Era tapes  that count out yi-er-san-si-wu-liu-qi-ba yi-er-san-si-wu-liu-qi-ba over and over again as the crowd of people follow the exercises being shouted over the counting.

After the park comes the foreign primary English schools and large high schools.  After those are the gated working communities.  Although not as big and well known as the Foxconn work communities, these gated work communities still house many young working age rural migrants who have come from all over rural China to the east coast to make money.  Many of them spend the majority of their time in these places.  They work long hours, eat & sleep here in order to save as much money as they can to send home.  On some evenings you can see these young workers (18 - 24years old) walking around outside with their friends before they have to be inside its walls for curfew.

After the working complexes is when I get to the area of urban renewal.  Last year this area was full of small shanty dwellings and little garden plots.  Now, most of the gardens & shacks have been bulldozed into the ground.  A few still linger on the far side.  Late in the day the people who live in the remaining dwellings usually burn their trash and you can see curls of smoke coming from their 'yards'.  Today it looked and smelled like they were burning plastic with the distinctive black smoke and chemical smell.  I ran by fast as I held my breath.

Oposite these dwellings is a high-tec financial zone.  It seems like it doesn't belong.  a group of about 5 20 story shiny glass covered buildings clustered together around well maintained water features.  The occasional man or woman usually strolls by in business attire while young people tend to flock to the water features to take each other's photo to post on the social networking sites Weibo or QQ.  

Finally, I reach the river.  There are paths along either side of the river channel along the top of the levees that flank either side.  Here, you will find families strolling together, people fishing in the murky, polluted waters, the occasional runner and the more frequent motorbike.  On the far side of the channel there are even a few squatter homes made out of tarps and bamboo.  There are only 2 now as 3 of them got moved, most likely by water after the last round of hard rain.  There are even a few hand-made house boats that look like something straight out of a Mark Twain novel.

The entire loop I do along the river is paved with either bricks or slate.  Not very good for the shins, so occasionally, I go off the trail and onto some of the grass.  This seems to really confuse people as I run by along the trail.  But I just smile and nod and make my way back home.

China is full of haves and have-nots.  Coming from a place like the United States I was just not use to seeing the stark contrast of the two.  At home, poverty tends to be in certain areas and people tend to avoid those areas if they can.  Here in China the extremely rich are next to the devastatingly poor and they are forced to see each other.

Over the last 2 years I may have damaged my lungs more than I have improved my health by running on the streets of Foshan, but I have slowly started to understand this mysterious ever changing place called China.  



Sunday, August 19, 2012

Back Home in China

Well, we are China.

Just typing it still looks strange.  But as I settle into my 4th week back after visiting my real home, Minnesota, I find myself easily transitioning back into life in China.  

While at home I enjoyed catching up with friends, who I had not seen for almost a year, and hugging my Grandma and Grandpa Edlund.  I got to hold my 16 year old 'puppy' Hudson, only to say goodbye to him 2 days after I got back.  I ate cheese curds, drank good red wine and watched the blue Minnesota prairie skies turn into clear starlit nights.  I dipped my toes into the cool waters of  Lake Superior and had a blueberry milkshake at Trail Center.  I rock jumped into Loon Lake and swam across Birch Lake at dusk.  I raced in the North Mankato Triathlon and ran through the Gustavus Adolphus Arb.  I biked along the Minnesota River and walked to the St. Peter Food Co-op.  I also ate a lot of Mexican food.  

I needed to go to Minnesota, but I also needed to come back to China. 

In Minnesota I enjoyed walking down the streets with a sense of anonymity.  But I surprisingly missed the young children who would tug at their grandmother's sleeve to point out the "Gweilo" walking by.  

At home I enjoyed all of my comfort food, like brie, heirloom tomatoes and good baked bread.  However, I missed the excitement  that is eating out in never quite know what you might get. 

Today, while I was running around Qiandeng Lake near my apartment, I had a "China Moment' that made me smile.  It was near the end of my loop around the lake and I noticed a mother, grandmother and grandson looking up at one of the banyon trees lining the walkway.  As I came closer I noticed that the mother was holding a broom up in the air and was trying to knock something out of the tree.  

I had to chuckle a bit to myself as her five-foot-nothing height made it very difficult to  even reach the lower branches of the tree yet along the object she was trying to dislodge from it. When I was about 6 yards away I saw the badminton rackets in their hand and the birdie (or shuttlecock) nestled amongst the leaves of the tree. 

Then, without really thinking, I stopped running. 

In the US, this might be thought of as rude.  But, this is not an uncommon thing to do in China, as people will often just stop and watch an event, such as this, unfold.  As I quickly assessed the situation, I realized that I - a five-foot-nine-inch person - should help this woman.  I calmly walked over, not wanting to get hit by an errant broom swipe to the head, and held out my hand.  The small mother looked up at me for a moment and then instantly realized what I was offering to do, (*note: my Chinese skills are improving but I have yet to learn how to ask "Can I help you get your shuttlecock out of the Banyan Tree?" so a gesture had to do in this instance)

She handed me the broom and I reached up and with the second swipe the birdie came falling out of the tree.  I caught it and handed it over to the mother.  

We all started to laugh at the situation as she thanked me for the help.    

I couldn't help but smile the rest of the day.

As hard as it is to leave home,  It is nice to be back in my second home.   

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reflections On Year One

I can hardy believe it.  Ten months ago my husband and I boarded a plane in Minneapolis, took 2 flights (17 hours of flight time and 20-hours of travel time) and landed in Guangzhou, China.  I can still vividly remember the car ride from Baiyun Airport to Foshan.  My head was on a swivel as I tried to soak in every sight, sound and smell my senses could take in.  Every things was so new, so foreign so...not Minnesota.

Now, I sit gazing out my living room window at the garden of our beautiful apartment complex.  This is a view that I have grown accustomed to as I have sat working on my papers, emailing friends and family, and trying to learn chinese.  Today, I sit here thinking about going back 'home' in under two weeks.

I am excited thinking about catching up with old friends, as thinking about all the milestones I missed at home over the year have been difficult at times.  I am thrilled to see family that I have only been able to see with the aid of Skype (thank you 21st century technology) .  But this hardship of moving away from friends, family and familiarity does not come without its rewards.  These rewards, for me at least, have not always been the tangible.  They have been in the form of lessons learned about myself, the amazing people that I share this world with and the beauty of our planet.

So what lessons have I learned?

Kids are kids.  Perhaps I haven't paid much attention to all the children in the US as much as I have here, as they are everywhere.  During the weekends, grandparents will bring their young grandchild(ren) (yes, there are many people in Foshan who are wealthy and therefore have more than one) out to the ponds and play areas in our complex.  I can even sit on my porch and hear the kindergarteners at the school in our complex go through their morning exercises.  Kids have been the easiest for me to start talking to in chinese, even though their vocabulary is MUCH better than mine.  Kids won't judge you if you make a mistake, they just laugh and smile and go back to playing.

The Value of Family.  Now, I have always valued my family and I love them and miss them dearly.  In China, most families live all together.  A household often consists of the mother, father, both sets of grand parents and then the child or children.  This set up often leaves the grandparents in charge of raising the children.  Everyday I see moments with grandparents and their grandchildren that make my heart melt.  From watching a grandmother netting minnows in a pond with her grandson to a grandfather dancing with his granddaughter at one of the many evening dances, it is just so beautiful.  It makes me miss my grandparents and parents very much.  If you are reading this, I love you and miss you!

Exercise is not just something you do for 45min a day.  Now, I have always been known to be on the move. Running, skiing, biking, swimming and tennis have always been a part of my life.  Coming here to china has made me really have to think about how I 'workout'.  I have been lucky enough to have a great complex to run in and access to a park and river route where I can run when the air is clean enough.  Also, every Tuesday I go to a competition pool (where the 2010 Asia Games where held) to swim laps.  There is even a gym about a 5min walk away that has spin classes, yoga class and all the workout equipment of a gym back in the states.  However, on my runs here I have noticed something that I do not see back in the states, people of all ages out moving, dancing and walking.  Each morning on my way to work I walk by several people doing these crazy exercises where they are swiveling their hips and clapping their hands.  At first I could not stop giggling in my head as I went by thinking how funny these people look.  Regardless of the humor of watching a 75 year old man walking around a path and slapping his rear end, he gets it.  The importance of moving everyday regardless of your age or fitness level.  It is no wonder why China's life expectancy is rising so quickly.  Now, if we could just get the men to stop smoking...

Chinese is hard...really hard.  Now, let me be honest with you.  I never thought learning Chinese was going to be easy.  But being a tonal language I have yet to develop the ear for hearing the difference between jiao (small money), jiao (old) & jiao (glue).  In fact, if you are not careful, you could accidentally call your mother (ma) a horse (also ma).  YIKES!  I have, however, been surprised at how much I enjoy learning the characters.  Their stories and meaning are often so beautiful and have so much meaning.  Plus, walking around town and being able to read where the woman's bathroom is has come in handy a few times!

Traveling is the best education I have ever had.  Before coming to China, I had only been to a few places abroad, Jamaica, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and yes, Canada.  But in each of those places I 'fit in'.  Even in Jamaica, with its colonial history and longtime openness to foreign travelers, I felt it was easy to get around.
          Traveling in China is different.  Everywhere I go, before I open my mouth, people know I am not from here.  There have been times where the staring, pointing and 'guilo' comments have been a bit too much.  However, for every uncomfortable moment there are countless ones where a person will come up to you and want to talk.  Perhaps people come to talk to us just to practice their english, or just to see Nikolai's 'strange' blue eyes up close.  Whatever the initial reason, the people that I have meet have helped me understand this country and its people so much better.
          I could read all the books in the world, but nothing would compare to the small discussion about age we had with a Naxi woman in Yunnan.   With our very limited Chinese and her broken Chinese, it took very little to understand how physically demanding her 80 year-old life had been.  The smile on her face when she announced her age was a testament to how proud she was to have made it this far and still be carrying around loads of bricks and crops from the field on her back everyday.  Simply amazing!

Unintentional humor is underrated.  The majority of this humor stems from cultural differences.  From butt slapping exercises to 4 adult men on a motorcycle to a woman doing a dance routine on a treadmill, these are things you just do not see back at home.  It is moments like this, that have gotten me through the tough times of being away from home.  I know when I eventually leave China, this is one of the things I will miss the most...after hot pot, of course!

I have always learned more from my students than I could ever teach them.  The students here are just lovely.  Now, don't get me wrong, they are still kids.  So, there are the ones who will miss class, not turn in their homework, or try to text in class.  But over all, they are really amazing.  The students here have pushed me to become a better teacher.  Regardless of where I am teaching, the kids is why I do this job.

This list could go on and on, but I feel that these points are the strongest.  I am looking forward to going home next week.  However, I am also looking forward to coming back and learning some more about myself and the world I live in.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Making Small Talk

Well, it has been a very long time since my last post.  Life has gotten very busy.  My parents & aunt came to visit and we took a trip back to Yangshuo in Guangxi province, as well.  I can hardly believe that we will be going back to the states in about 6 weeks.  Time has gone by so fast.

Over the past 9 months, I have been slowly, very slowly, learning Mandarin.  With its tones and odd sounds it is a very difficult language to master let alone even start to learn.  I try to practice a little bit each day with online tutorials, asking my chinese friends lots of questions and doing fun games/apps on my iPad (Nikolai loves it when I do those).

I now feel very comfortable ordering food, purchasing items at a store and doing simple greetings, goodbyes and thank yous.  However, I have still been too nervous to actually practice starting a conversation.

Yesterday, I stepped out of my comfort zone.

While taking the bus home after work I happened to be standing next to a little girl ( who was with her mom.  Based on her backpack and lunch pale, I assumed she was going home from pre-school (They start very young here).  She had a cute bowl haircut and a barrette in her hair and when she looked up at me I smiled and said, "Ni hao ma?".

Her face lit up and a smile slowly spread from one ear to the other.

"Hen hao, ni ne?", she replied.

"Wo hen hao."  I smiled back.

Usually, this is where most of my casual street or elevator conversations end.  However, today I thought I would go out on a limb.

"Ni jiao shenme mingzi?" I asked in chinese. - What is your name?

"Wo jiao Zhe Zhe, ni ne?"  she replied.  - I am called Zhe Zhe, and you?

"Wo jiao Jen." - I think you can figure this one out. :)

"Ni duo da le?" - How old are you? 

"Wo san sui." - I am three years old. 

There was a pause in your conversation as she leaned in to get a better look at my face.  She pointed at me and said something about "meimao".

I looked back with a quizzical look and said, "Shenme?" - What?

"Maimao" she said pointing to my eyebrows.

I laughed and looked at her mother who had started to laugh as well.

"Ni lai zi nali?"Her mom asked. - Where do you come from? 

I had to pause for a moment and think about what she was asking.  ...oh yes,"Meiguo." (America...but the direct translation Mei = beautiful & guo = country)

She then leaned over to her daughter and told her that I came from America.  Her daughter turned to her and asked her something about my hair (toufa).  I can only assume it was about the strange color of my hair.  From the bits and pieces I could pick up between the two of them, the mother told her daughter that all people from America look like me and have hair like I do just like all people in China have hair like she does.

Unfortunately, my chinese language skills are not even close enough to begin to explain to her that not everyone in the US looks the same.    This is a common topic that comes up with chinese people, so I guess I better learn how to explain it.

The little girl giggled and nodded at her mother as my bus stop was approaching.

"Zaijian", I said as I waved goodbye and headed towards the exit.

"Byebye", the little girl replied.

Even though I did not understand every word, I had officially started my first conversation in Chinese!  Granted, the little girl had yet to enter kindergarten, but I was still happy with what I had done.  Perhaps in about 6 years I will finally be able to talk to people my own age.  :)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Chinese New Year & Grandmas with Fireworks

January, 23rd of last week was officially the 1st day of the Chinese New Year: The Year of the Dragon. For this splendid occasion, Nikolai and I decided to get the heck out of Dodge, as they say, and head to Thailand. I will post soon about our trip to the Land of Smiles, but I had to share some insight and a short story of our first exposure to the biggest celebration on the Chinese calendar.

To start off, Chinese people like fireworks.

No, I take that back. Chinese people LOVE fireworks and the New Year is a perfect time for many of them to demonstrate and express this love. Fire works were traditionally used to scare away evil spirits and to bring good luck to one and one's loved ones in the new year. There are many more traditions that come along with the new year, like lanterns, large feasts and family gatherings. If you are interested, you can go to Wikipedia to learn more about it. That is, if its English version is still up and running. ;)

Because Nikolai and I were in Thailand until the 27th, we thought we would miss much of the loud celebration and crowds. Now, the crowds we did miss. Most Chinese tend to take trains to travel home to see their families, so the airport and the metro system were not crowded at all - comparatively speaking - the day we came home. We even got a seat on the metro!

The fireworks, however, were a different story.

As I am typing this I have heard at least 4 separate, eardrum-rattling rounds of fireworks go off in 4 different locations. I think I might be a bit delusional, but I feel like each one was slightly louder than the last! Oh...make that 5 now, another one just started.

Now, my image of fireworks comes mostly from all my years of either sitting on the roof of my parents' house or along the lake in Forest Lake, Minnesota on the Fourth Of July. There would be a flash of brilliant colors in the sky, mostly in the shapes of weeping willows, and then a loud BANG! People would OooOoo and AHhhh at each explosion, eagerly anticipating the next. However, the whole thing was not over until the Grand Finale, where they would send up about 2 or 3 dozen fireworks in a matter of 15 seconds or so. Reds, whites and blues with a smattering of yellows, greens and the coveted sparkly gold ones would light up the sky like it was midday. We would then all clap and cheer and compare this year's finale to years past and wait again until the next 4th of July (or at least the State Fair) to see them again.

In China, it is about 2 weeks of constant Grand Finales, only about half of the fireworks are actually the pretty ones you can see. Most of them are just loud! Don't get me wrong, they are quite beautiful. I even remember the beautiful colors of the ones we saw on our first night back in China as I was looking out our dining room window. But now, they are just loud!

(By the way we are up to 6...and these ones are the colorful AND loud ones)

So, now for the quick story.

As I have said, Chinese people love fireworks. Young, old, men and women, they love them. I did however, happen upon the one young girl in China who might not like fireworks anymore. As Nikolai and I were taking a walk along a lake near our apartment we heard these loud POP! POP! POP! noises coming from the path in front of us. We noticed the noise was coming from a group of 3 people (a father, a 4 or 5 year old girl and what we assumed was her grandmother). POP! POP! POP! They were really loud now and sounded like those little rock pops that people would through during parades at the feet of the marching band. Strangely, it seemed as if they were coming from the ground near the feet of the little girl.

I watched for a moment to assess the situation and then I stepped back in shock. The grandmother had a pocket full of those "poppers" and was throwing them at the feet of her granddaughter. "Bu Hao! Bu Hao! Ting! Ting!", the little girl giggled/screamed. The grandmother threw in a few pump fakes and then continued to throw them, laughing as her granddaughter danced around to avoid them. She then reached in her pocket for more.

Just another day in China.

(Note: As I was typing, rounds 7, 8 & 9 of fireworks went off...oh wait...make that 10.)

Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Trip to Penang, Malaysia

Yesterday we (Myself, Nikolai and a friend, Lucien) got back from a week trip to the Island of Penang, Malaysia. We stayed in the city of Georgetown, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to what some say is the best street food in Southeast Asia.

Georgetown is a very diverse city, with many different cultural/religious groups living in close quarters to each other. Many days as we walked through the city and I was amazed at how on one street you could pass a Chinese buddhist temple, a Hindu Temple, a Baptist Church and a Mosque in about 4 city blocks. Now, this is not some splendid utopia where everyone lives in perfect harmony. But it was amazing to watch the level of religious tolerance/acceptance as people went about on their day to day lives.

As we wondered the streets of Georgetown and the jungles of the island we found ourself coming back many evenings to eat at the Red Garden. This is a hawkers place where various food stands sell their food along the outside of a sea of 100+ tables. The first night we went there, we perused through the stands to see all of our options. There was Thai food, western food, Japanese food, Vietnamese food, Malay food and much more. We all decided to skip on the Chinese food, since we get enough at home.

After much debate, I settled with some fabulous Japanese BBQ skewers of lamb, lobster and a jumbo prawn while Nikolai and Lucien continued to look. Finally, tucked away in the corner, they found what they had been looking for...Indian Curry. I would say that all in all, Nikolai and Lucien had a total of no fewer than 20 curries between the 2 of them. Butter chicken curry, chicken vindaloo, tikka masala & a Penang style curry were just a few that they sampled throughout our stay. You could say that the two of them were in food heaven!

I did thoroughly enjoy the food, as the morning street food was outstanding, with samosas, egg roti & cheese baked bread, but I found the nature on the island fascinating. We took several hikes through the jungle in both a national park and the highlands above the city. Along these hikes we saw much of the flora and fauna that made this island so important to the Malay natives and fascinating to the British that arrived here in the 1700s. From 7-foot water monitor lizards to dusky leaf monkeys to century old trees, I was in awe of the natural beauty of the island. It was quite a respite from the concrete jungle that we live in back in Foshan.

We have 8 days of work and then another almost 3 weeks of vacation where we are heading to Thailand (Chiang Mai & Koh Samui). We can hardly wait!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Clear skies, Running & Smiles

The last few days here have been beautiful. At least if you are a Minnesotan living in a Sub-tropical climate. Strong winds have carried away virtually all of the air pollution and the skies are a bright and vibrant blue. With these wind has come cooler, dare I even say cold, temperatures in the upper 40s low 50s.

While weather like this makes many chinese natives run for their parkas and winter gear, it makes me throw on a pair of running shoes and head outside.

Yesterday, I did an evening run under the full moon. The crisp air had me reminiscing of fall back home. I was beginning to get sad thinking that I was going to miss my favorite season when I realized that winter here is like one long fall...BEAUTIFUL!

I knew I had to take advantage of these beautiful clear days because, as you probably know, not all days are like this here. So, this morning, I decided to take a run around the lake near our apartment.

Getting to the park is not the greatest, I have to run on sidewalks along a busy road. Granted, the sidewalks are all granite and gleaming in the sun, but this means I must pass by dozens of cars, vans and motorcycles. I don't want to paint an unfair picture of the people here, as most of them are very polite as this strange tall, blond foreigner is running down a busy chinese road. Not a sight that many see here everyday...or ever. Yet, there are always a few who will stop their car in the middle of a busy intersection to stop and look. No harm being done, just looking or rather staring.

Once I get to the park it is great! I can find anonymity amongst the quiet trails on the wooded hillside or along the lake and surrounding ponds. It is beautiful. I even caught myself stoping along the lake and thinking of how much it felt like Como Park at home. However, once I heard the chinese flute music being played on an elderly man's personal radio (yes, they are everywhere here...radios and elderly chinese men, usually together) I quickly was reminded of where I was.

On my way out of the park, I noticed a man on a motorcycle coming towards me on the path. I quickly skirted out of the way to avoid being hit, but as he passed me I noticed a young boy about the age of 6 sitting backwards on the motorcycle. His arms were crossed on the carrier on the back of the cycle and he was attempting to rest his head on his hands. His tiny legs were splayed out on either side. When he noticed me, he smiled with his head bobbing up and down with every bump on the road. I couldn't help but smile back. Perhaps stares are not all bad, when complimented with a smile, they can be quite welcoming in this strange new home of mine.