Sunday, September 30, 2007

More from Xi'an

We are really eating well here. Yoni has been to China many times (one of our hosts) and really knows where to get the good stuff. For breakfast we go to a street stand they have nicknamed "the hopping lady" for her rapid cooking style for a crepe-like wrap full of eggs and other goodies. Here is another picture of the warriors: we bought quite a few souvenir guys to bring back with us! Last night Thomas's warriors got knocked off the table and now look like they have just been dug out of the pit with some heads missing. We'll get some more today.

For dinner we had hot pot -- where you pick things to simmer in the hot pots which are over lit flames right at your table -- good fun in this chilly place. It is really fall here -- cool and rainy and feels cold after Xiamen!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

We're in Xi'an!

We're in Xi'an, in the Shaanxi province -- Western China. We arrived yesterday by plane -- very easy travel -- the Golden Week crowds have not emerged yet, I guess. We are staying at the guesthouse of Xi'an International Studies University, where our friends, another Fulbright family live. The kids love Noam and Tal, and Kate and her mother came with its a big Fulbright reunion. Today we visited the terra cotta warriors site. It was amazing! I will try to upload a picture, but our friends' internet is slow. This will be my last post for the week, probably...on Monday we leave on our bus trip to the mountains with the gang.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Last moon party and we leave for Xi'an

Well, we finally went to our last Mid-autumn festival celebration last night. After a week of parties, Sophia was quite unruly at this one. Fortunately, Uncle Tian was there to keep the girls occupied. He is quite amused at how attached they are to him. This party was sponsored by the International Faculty office, so all the foreign teachers were there. We sat with Roger who is a retired American engineer teaching English in the business school -- and our neighbor in the guest house, and Bronislav, a Swiss lawyer teaching international business law. His wife is coming soon and he was happy to hear that I had found lots to do in Xiamen. We also sat with the daughter of the director and other staff at the office. We had a great time, but we are all gambled out and have enough toothpaste to last for our whole year here.

Earlier in the day I taught English in Helen's class. I didn't bring the camera because I didn't want to distract them too much. I brought one of my therapy puppets with me on the trip ( a turtle) and Tommy and I went around to every child saying "hello" and "my name is.." The kids seemed to know these simple words, which amazed me. We also sang a song. I think I could have gone on longer, but that was all I had prepared. Helen didn't want me to leave -- she obviously was VERY EXCITED I was there and could hardly stay in her seat. The girls are quite kind to her, and she has 2 very good friends already. The teacher is very patient with me when I need to communicate using my few words of Chinese and sign language! Helen came home proud to tell me that she knows how to say water..:"mommy its 'he shue'" which means "drink water" actually -- but I was pleased to see that some words are emerging for her.

We leave in 3 hours for the airport, so time to finish packing. I may be able to post on our friends' computer, but we are not bringing the laptop, so if you don't hear from me for a while -- check back on October 6th for lots of pictures!!! We are living in China, but really on the very edge of the country! I can't wait to spend some time in the interior.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Open house at the Xiamen International School

Tonight was the open house at Thomas's school. It took a cab ride to meet the school bus picking up in midtown to get out there, but I am glad I went. We were there early so I took a few pictures of the library (above) and the cafeteria (below), as well as the playground, which Thomas doesn't really get to much but it was a cool moonrise! His teachers are interesting, mostly Americans (the principal is from the East side of Detroit!) but many have been in the international school system for years. Of course they said all things about Thomas that his teachers in the US would say -- bright but too talkative and messy handwriting. The too talkative part came a more of a relief to me, as it was clear that he is fitting in well and is not too miserable during the day.

On the way back I got to see Xiamen downtown after dark, which was a treat as it is all lit up at night. Tomorrow is my first English lesson in Helen's class, and I have only a loose plan in my mind -- we'll have to see how that goes! On Friday we leave for our October holiday trip to Xi'an and Sichuan -- not sure how much blogging I will be able to do next week.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sophia's Birthday and the Moon Festival continues

After three trips to various stores: supermarket, bakery and the "beer store" corner market, and an afternoon of preparation -- we were ready for our big event : Sophia's birthday party and Mid-Autumn festival celebration. Today is both her 2nd birthday and the actual day of the festival by the lunar calendar, although people are celebrating all week long, as you can tell. Above is Sophia posing with her giant wrapped cake (since it was only $7, I had no idea it would be so huge), and the prizes for our moon festival gambling game to make the evening even more festive. We had some guests -- Deborah and her daughter Kate (the other Fulbright family), Tian (from the international faculty office -- he escorted us from Beijing to Xiamen and has become a friend, especially to the children), and Simone, a German teacher who lives downstairs and has just arrived in Xiamen. So it was a real party. I made dinner in our tiny kitchen, which was a bit of a challenge. I did manage to make pesto with no food processor by chopping everything and then wrapping our hammer in a plastic bag and pounding it for a looong time. Thomas was amazed, which made it worth it , and the birthday girl had three helpings. I also made a fruit salad with watermelon and dragon fruit (I have not seen this fruit in the US -- the inside is white with black seeds like a kiwi and the peel is red and rather outlandish looking -- I'll take a picture next time). I also made a meat stir fry which didn't turn out so well, and oversteamed the dumplings, so it was a little embarrassing, but no one but me seemed to mind too much.

Finally it was time for the elaborately frosted birthday cake -- the bakery sold me the candles too. Sophia was a little concerned with our singing.

But she did manage to eat quite a bit of cake! She got some presents, including a baby doll we brought from the US, blocks, a bell which she loves to ring and....

A tricycle! this is the typical kind around here -- quite elaborate, with a sun shade, parent handle, and even foot rests when the kid is tired of pedaling or before they are old enough to. After the birthday festivities, Michael had to go to class and Tian to another party, so the rest of us settled in for dice rolling in true Mid-autumn in southeastern Fujian style! When the pencils, erasers, candy, treats, and grand prize pillow were all won, moon cakes distributed (OK,these were a little better -- still rather fruit cake-like) our guests left and we went for a walk to look at the MOON!

And here, peeking through the clouds is the full moon shining over China tonight -- a time for giving thanks.. and I am surely thankful for the abundance in our lives this year -- the chance to be here, the good friends we have already made, the outpouring of support from our family and friends and even strangers who have been reading this blog and sending their thoughts. Most of all I am thankful for Michael and the kids and the family we have made together which can withstand this much adventure!

Monday, September 24, 2007

More Gulanyu photos

Since today was a " no photo" day, spent primarily on the bus going across town to the Metro (bulk and western food store) for coffee and other items, I though I would catch you up on the rest of Sunday. As Michael posted yesterday, we spent the evening at a Moon Festival party with the Philosophy Department (by the way -- I have been to 2 parties already without eating a single moon cake, yet everyone is carrying gift boxes of them around -- could it be the equivalent of the fruitcake that is passed around, but never consumed?

Before the party, we had gone in the morning to church again on Gulanyu -- which is feeling more familiar each week. For my Catholic readers, I will tell you that other than the fact that they say the Apostles Creed instead of the Nicene creed, and do not mention the pope during the Eucharistic prayer, you would never know that you were at a Mass in another country, and one where there have been disputes over the sovereignty of the church. Our pastor's English pronunciation is hard to follow sometimes. There are a number of families in attendance regularly. After church, we walked along the shore, admiring the crew of a fishing boat which was doing some maintenance. (That is Thomas's look like a pirate face for his Uncle Dave, by the way)

At Thomas's urging, we set out to see the giant stone warrior statue up closer. This huge structure is easily visible from Xiamen, and we had admired it before, as sort of a Fujianese statue of liberty. Zheng Chengong drove the dutch traders out of the Taiwan straits in the 1600s and now has a place in history and in the architecture of the island, where a lot of huge boulders also have names.

Here the kids are sitting on his foot. It was a great day for being by the water, windy and cloudy, but not too hot for a little climbing.

We were impressed with his giant sword and the monument below. Another day of discovery on Gulanyu!

Tomorrow is Sophia's birthday and I think I ordered a cake for her, but since we were speaking Chinese -- I am never sure! Check back and see!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Food and Gambling with the Philosophy Department

Michael again. This evening at 5:00 we were just about to cook dinner when we got a phone call from Zhou, a colleague in the Philosophy Department, inviting us to the department dinner tonight at 6:00. In fact, we were honored guests and I even made a short speech over the PA system (which Zhou translated). We thought it all humorous since weren't aware of anything just an hour before.

The Philosophy department at Xiamen University has about 40 full-time faculty members (and no part-timers!), so the room was packed with current and retired professors. The occasion, of course, was the Autumn Moon Festival that Ann has mentioned in past posts. The Moon Festival is progressively taking over Xiamen and all aspects of life here.

Another funny thing was that the event was at a restaurant that is almost connected to our building but we were completely unaware of. The closed end of the restaurant faces our buildings front door. It is under construction so we just assumed the whole place was closed. Not so. We really played the dumb foreigners when we had to be walked to a place 50 yards from our apartment.

The banquet was our biggest so far, with a ridiculous number of dishes brought out. Most of them were fish dishes (the Fujian specialty) or vegetables. Quite delicious, even Thomas had his fill of food and pop. Then . . . the tables were cleared and the room lapsed into some serious gambling.
Here you can see people hunched over the tables gambling away. It's a dice roll into a bowl. You are throwing 6 dice and hoping to get as many 4's as you can. In the absence of 4's, you can also win by getting 4 dice with 2's, or 3's, etc. Prizes are handed out based on a sheet that I didn't bother trying to fathom.

Here Ann is throwing into a bowl while Helen, Sophia and Professor Chen (Contemporary Epistemology and Kant) look on. The game is peculiar to Xiamen. Everybody celebrates the Moon Festival, but only in Xiamen do people gamble. Ann asked Chen why people do this here and he said "it's been going on for so long nobody knows. Maybe it started before people were writing things down."
The other side of the table had Thomas (who amused the table by blowing on the dice before he rolled), myself, Zhou (seated; Philosophy of History), another colleague (Philosophy of Science and Technology), and the man rolling who I never met but showed up just for the gambling. I also asked Zhou how long it's been going on, and he thought probably longer than the Ching dynasty. "Very likely back to the Ming Dynasty."

The loot is, maybe, not so impressive after the desire for victory has subsided. Here Thomas and Helen show off our bags.

The final tally included 16 bars of soap, 5 packages with a kitchen towel and scouring pad, 4 double-toothbrush packages, 6 packages of tissues, and the really impressive prize (won by a particularly good throw from Ann): a very large bottle of cooking oil (made of what, I have no clue).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Thomas's new bike

It's only my great love for my son that would have taken me to Walmart on the Saturday before a holiday with the goal of buying a bicycle and transporting it by taxi back to campus. Last weekend Michael and I got bicycles -- haven't gotten photos of them yet, and Michael is the one with the exciting story of the journey to acquire them at the used bike market. As soon as I take some photos we'll have a bike themed post. Anyway, with seats for the girls on the back of ours, we need Thomas to have his own if we want to be a mobile family. While there is some traffic on the campus it is flat and generally a pretty low stress place to ride, so we had promised Thomas a bike (Helen will get one, too eventually, but she will mostly be confined to the courtyard). After long consultation in my broken Chinese and the salesman's slightly better English, we settled on an unusual bike which is all the rage here. It has smaller tires than expected, but an adjustable seat and handle bars for any height person. Most amazingly of all it actually folds in two and fits in the trunk of a car. It is a wonder. We attracted the attentions of the security guard and some construction workers getting it all adjusted, and they talked price with us a bit, through signs and the few words I know in Chinese. Everyone is pretty satisfied. The other Fulbright kid in the building got one, too. At $50 it was a bit steep, but since it adjusts into an adult bike, we can always give it as a gift to a student when we leave (unless it folds small enough to fit in the duffel bag...hmm its possible. After the Great Bicycle Event in the courtyard, Sophia finally rewarded her "favorite" security guard -- who has been courting her with peek a boo and smiles for weeks-- with a hug and sat on his lap ! We are growing fond of the staff, who are patient with us. This morning we ran out of propane for the stove. when 2 dictionaries did not have the Chinese word for propane...I finally went down to the maids and showed them a picture I had drawn of the tank and a hose to a little flame. They understood right away -- but it won't arrive until tomorrow, so we had McDonald's for lunch and our favorite vegetarian restaurant (affiliated with the Buddhist temple) for dinner. At dinner we were joined by an American named Roger who has just moved into the guesthouse -- he is newly retired and will be teaching English here at Xiada for a year. Considering the day began before 7 with Tai chi, which I am trying to stick with -- this was really a full day.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Moon festival build up

One of the blog's loyal readers has asked me about the Moon festival or Mid-autumn festival, as it is also known. The date is set by the lunar calendar, and no one seems to be able to tell me whether is the 25th or 26th of the month, but in fact the festivities seem to be ongoing. First of all, we have the display of moon cake gift boxes at my local supermarket -- which in the true capitalist spirit -- have been up since we arrived in Xiamen. People buy gift boxes of moon cakes for family, friends, business associates, etc., like this one:

The cakes are round like the full moon and filled with various fillings. I have to confess, as much as I like most new foods, especially sweets -- I just don't care for the texture of the filling, which is kind of mealy, though sweet.. Of course I am not sure if the ones we bought to try were "good ones" or not. There is a religious/ mythological basis for this festival -- involving giving thanks to the Moon Goddess, who saved people from a tyrannical ruler. Generally the festival is celebrated by a meal with family and maybe a moonlit stroll in a park. However, in Xiamen, the moon has all but disappeared form the festival -- in favor of a mid autumn festival custom unique only to southern Fujian province..gambling with dice. This afternoon I was invited to join a group of female foreign teachers who were invited to the Women's Federation of Xiamen Mid -Autumn party. A lot of prominent women in Xiamen from different fields were apparently there. I enjoyed meeting the teachers at our table -- some have been here 2 or 3 years, others have just arrived, and they are from all different countries : Germany, Lebanon, Canada, Australia, and the US, even one woman who was born in Buffalo! After dim sum and fruit and a long exercise demonstration that was the main entertainment, the tables were quickly cleared to make way for the prizes and the gambling began..and it was a serious business, with assorted prizes large and small. Here we are just getting under way:

Love the dice decorations??

How to play - with 6 dice, and the goal is to get fours, or four or five of a kind, or a run of 1-6. the prizes are designated for the different combinations. Like all newcomers, I had quite a bit of luck, and walked away with the big prize -- a set of the five friendlies (Olympic mascots), as well as an assortment of other small things. One was face whitening cream -- after a few laughs with the group I gave it to one of the Chinese women -- because amazingly they actually use it -- its very popular. One of the teachers, the one from Buffalo, is an African American woman and she and I had an interesting talk about what it has been like for her as a black woman in China, and we talked a little about my reactions to all the people coming up and touching Sophia and taking pictures everywhere she goes. She was clear that there have been a lot of difficulties feeling accepted and taken seriously. She had a lot of insights but we didn't have a very long time to talk so we exchanged phone numbers.

When I got home -- everyone was glad to see me. Here is Sophia with my winnings --

We are going to another party on Thursday with the kids -- hope our luck holds. There are bowls with dice all over the place and if you are shopping in a store -- you can stop and throw a few and maybe get a coupon or something if you win.
By the way, some readers of the blog asked me about what the Chinese eat for breakfast -- I think there is a wide variety of choices. There is a lot of yogurt and hot and cold cereals, also pastries in the stores. A traditional breakfast is steamed buns and maybe some fried noodles. We can and do buy milk here, mostly the ultra pasteurized kind that we used to take camping in the US (like Parmalat) but a few stores have fresh milk. And really there are a lot of food choices in the stores and almost everything can be bought here -- only it might look or taste slightly different. One exception is Mexican food -- haven't seen many tortilla chips! Western food items are quite expensive, but everything else is cheap. And while we do go out to restaurants, including the ones on campus, we have not yet eaten in the cafeteria for the students. We cook most nights because with a 2 year old its easier! I would like to vary the stir fry routine with some better tasting sauces and dishes, but hard to experiment because I can't read most of the labels!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Helen Huan-huan blogs

Rouen is a girl. I like her in school, so I am her friend now and she will be my friend forever. Today she went to the museum with me and I had some fun with a boy, too. The museum was playing parts about science -- sun and bugs, water, rainbows, and other kinds of stuff. I had lots of fun. For lunch I had a sandwich from McDonalds and a whole water. I got there in a bus. There's lots of kids in my school and I am always shy. I am shy because I don't know what they are saying. They talk to me and they call me Huan-huan ALL the time. I have a long nap in the afternoon. I sleep on a bamboo shoot carpet with a blanket on me and a pillow. The kids all fool around in their beds first. They speak to me and I just SMILE when they speak and I say nothing. I like going there because of there's lots of kids and lots of toys and I have soup all the time with bread and the milk thing. The toys are very good: dinosaurs, yo-yos, airplanes, and other toys. I don't have any homework from my school. At home I do homework for Mommy. I have math, phonics and Chinese workbook. I also have books --the girls who lived here left some behind! Its better in China than Buffalo because its beautiful and its a bigger country. I miss my kitties and my friends.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

One month already

Tomorrow it will be four weeks since we arrived in China. Hard to believe how fast time is going by. I have been feeling this week that we have settled into an almost ordinary routine with dishes, homework, shopping for food and walking around campus taking on an eerily familiar quality. At first it was all new!!

Things even seem cleaner -- but I know they aren't -- I am just getting used to it! A few observations on life:
Energy level -- the people here seem much more energetic. Up early, walking, biking to where they are going or running to catch buses. Many more things being done by hand here that are done by machine in the US and a lot of goods still being transported by bicycle. An interesting sight is that between 12 and 2 every day -- most people nap. Construction workers, the maids in the guest house, even clerks in stores will put their heads right down where they are and take a nap..then they go back to work until 6 or later. Of course -- lots of people go home for lunch and a rest, including all elementary school children. Then the children go back to school and don't get home until after 5:30. Thomas's school is run American style so there is no rest period, just as well, we are so far away. Now that I am primarily a housewife caring for a 2 year old I plan to take full advantage of quiet time!! Especially because we are getting up pretty early -- by 6 to get everyone off where they are going.

Today we have finally made our plans for the fall holiday, the first week of October, also known as "Golden week" and a time for travelling within China! We are flying to Xi'an where another Fulbright family is spending the year -- we spent a lot of time with this family in Beijing. Their waiban (University liaison for foreign scholars) has organized a bus trip to a nature preserve in Sichuan. So after the weekend in Xi'an (famous for the ancient tomb containing lifelike replicas of the emperor's entire army) we will head up into the mountains with the rest of the Chinese population on an organized tour. It should be quite a long bus ride, but we will be with people we like ( the other Xiamen Fulbright scholar and her daughter are going as well), and there will be plenty of kids. Its a little crazy to travel during Golden Week, but this seemed like a good chance to do something we wouldn't do otherwise. Although after spending about $8 a day to feed the entire family ($10) if we eat out, it seemed incredibly extravagant to blow so much money on 5 plane tickets! The difference between our day to day Chinese lifestyle and our US income was suddenly clear.
I have been recruited to teach English to as an extracurricular activity to young children and am considering picking it up as a little side job -- not sure about the schedule but the experience sounds fun!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Pictures of Huan-huan at school

I understand that Michael posted to the blog last night while I slept. So forgive me if I am repetitive...we are still having trouble viewing the blog. Helen was so excited to start school that she was up at 6 am and ready to go. She wore her Huan-huan shirt to help her classmates learn her name. This is the Kindergarten building. It's quite large -- children ages 3-5 go here and there are multiple classrooms.

Helen's classroom is on the roof level, since the oldest kids are at the top. It is quite close to the ocean. Various games and toys centers are scattered around the building, but its pretty sparse.

This is Helen in the doorway of her new classroom. There are about 30-35 students. In addition to this room, there is a bathroom and Helen says the toilet is a squat one, but in a long row so that 3 students use it at a time. Beyond that is a sleeping room with bunk beds, each with a bamboo mat and small pillow. The teachers were very welcoming. We had 2 philosophy students with us, and the teachers took some time to explain what Helen would need -- a cup, toothbrush and toothpaste (I had brought a toothbrush but not the other items) and a change of clothes labeled with her name. So I labeled her supplies last night in Chinese! At school she is known as Huan-huan with no last name since its not a Chinese one. Fortunately the character huan is an easy one. You know, this is a common word, meaning "happy", as in "seeing butterflies makes me happy". Helen said that some of the children were calling her by name. My proudest moment as Helen's parent was one she greeted the teacher in Chinese "Nin hao laoshi" (Hello teacher) and when the teacher asked her name she answered "Wo jiao Huan-huan" We had been practicing this dialogue all week. The teacher showed her to a seat and sat another girl near her. Helen was so calm and matter of fact about the whole thing! She apparently had a great day, liked the lunch (noodles and some hot milky drink) and playing all day. She takes a nap for a while in the afternoon and doesn't get home until almost 5. Until now we have been taking her and picking her up, but maybe soon she will be taking the bus -- we did sign up for it. One thing that went well is that I asked the teacher through the philosophy students if any of the parents in the class spoke English. They called one of the parents and the mother agreed that whenever there is a notice home she will call and explain it to me, and already she has done this to tell me about the field trip on Thursday to the science museum.

So we all survived a busy day, and Michael taught his first class, see yesterday's entry for more details.

Monday, September 17, 2007

In Which Helen goes to School, Michael gets an Office and then Actually Teaches

Michael here: so Ann went to bed guilty that she did not post and handed responsibility to me. It is quite late but it was a big day so I'll briefly mention a few items. First, Helen started school today and pulled it off in glorious fashion! It looked a little touchy when she was sitting in the classroom full of squealing children without knowing any of them. But by the time I picked her up she was her usual beaming self (and had somehow scored a handful of candy). I took her to my office which was (finally!) being arranged by a kind colleague and a graduate student. They asked her what she learned in school that day: she just giggled and laughed "we don't learn anything, we just play" while she chomped on the candy. How bad can that be?

I finally got an office today. When they opened the room (and the grad student had to ram his shoulder into the door to open it) it had not been inhabited for quite a while. Dust and dirt all around and a broken window. The poor graduate student then had to spend the next hour cleaning it with buckets and rags. They then put a computer in, but it hadn't been connected to the net when I left to take Helen home for dinner. No phone yet (they hadn't anticipated that) but I finally have some free space to work.

I taught my first class: Modern Philosophy from Descartes to Kant from 7-9:30 pm. Of course I kept them to 9:30 even on the first day, blabbing on and on about the era. There were only a handful of students (more will come next week, they said, after everyone registers). They were mostly graduate students with at least one undergraduate. The main issue is my instruction in English. They struggle with the language, but they also clearly desired the instruction in English. I did everything with PowerPoint slides to help them manage my lectures. I think it worked, but some of you will surely remember my claim that "PowerPoint is the Antichrist" and use it against me. I have little defense.

Ann will likely tell you all this again tomorrow and even include pictures. Cheers!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday and the students return

Helen and Thomas talked me into another round of souvenirs on Gulanyu. Adorable, of course.

Thomas thought I should take a photo of this Sprite can at lunch to show how everything looks so different, yet you can kind of recognize it.

Now we had thought there were a lot of people here on campus and there were plenty of students about. But today they have started to arrive in droves and our quiet neighborhood is getting more crowded!! It has a nice carnival atmosphere, though. We have random photos today, along with the interior of Christ the King church, where we attended again today. Even that was crowded and with more Western tourists than the past few weeks. We even had the experience of answering a question for them -- they had arrived during the Mass and were trying to ask someone when the Mass started, but when they saw us they immediately came up to us. I've noticed that other westerners always greet us and make eye contact and I find myself doing the same thing. Its kind of a group identity thing -- we are the outsiders so we seek each other out. Although there are lots of Japanese and Filipino people here too who don't speak Chinese. It caused me to think about whether Helen may instinctively look for other Asians in a crowd back in Buffalo? Or is it more about language than race?? But I digress. We ran into one of the staff at XIS (Xiamen International School) who moderates the film club he joined, and she was very nice. Finally a photo of the lovely Foreign Scholars Guest House. Love that Soviet inspired architecture!!
Other outings today -- day 2 of Tai chi for Ann and Michael set out by bus across the city with a grad student and returned with 2 used bikes with child seats on them for about $26...four hours later. Apparently it was a long ride back. We'll have to christen them tomorrow, after getting Helen off to school and having our first Chinese tutoring.