Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Xiamen Halloween

The Halloween festivities began this morning at Xiada you er yuan (kindergarten) when I brought in Helen's costume for her to put on, and in my halting Chinese and with a little help from the teacher I explained a few Halloween customs, like costumes, putting the face on the pumpkin, and children getting candy. I brought in some masks and headbands, crowns etc. for the children to put on and in groups of 5-6 they came up to me and with Helen's help said "trick or treat" and "thank you" as I gave out candy. Finally, I had made holes in paper plates for each child to make a mask..afterwards the teacher took their picture but my camera batteries died (have got to stop buying Chinese brand batteries for the camera) so maybe I will post it when she emails it.

At out home we had some decorations going, including this major find- a Chinese lantern with a pumpkin face -- I hung a flashlight inside and ta-da -- our jack o'lantern.

Sophia was some kind of a kitty/fairy, Helen a princess, of course, and Thomas a frightful monster in the scream mask. He enjoyed scaring some local folks on our way to and from the restaurant. Pizza Hut has been pushing Halloween all month, even making their employees dress in costume, so it was the perfect place for our Halloween party, which included us and our neighbors and an American teacher at the International School and her two daughters.

There was another family in the restaurant with a child in a very classy pirate costume, and his father got him to pose with Helen, who was skipping through the restaurant quite happily showing off her costume.

Then back to the guesthouse for trick or treating between our two apartments and down the hall to one of our friends, a German woman who spent 8 years in the US and was well prepared. Also the woman who babysits for us dropped off a bag full of candy.

Our neighbor Kate definitely had the most original costume -- a pop up book about herself.

To top off the fun, our Chinese tutor and her young son stopped by and we taught him to trick or treat..he also played Gameboy with Thomas..the international language of young boys everywhere. They stayed quite a while and we had a great time talking to our tutor about all kids of things, including adoption, child raising, why Chinese people dress their kids so warm, etc. Good times. Our expectations for Halloween were pretty low, but I think we had a pretty good one after all.. miss all our Buffalo Parkside neighbors -- hope you have a good night for it tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Photos of reunion with Alvin and fun in Seoul

This fountain is at the heart of downtown Seoul. I realized as I was uploading today's pictures that we are light on travelogue and heavy on pictures of the kids...please remember my primary blog target is still grandparents, so I have to prove to them that I am keeping their grandkids happy. As the blog visitors have mounted I realize there are a lot of other folks reading along, too, which is surprising but fun for me. I hope our experiences encourage others to take the plunge into travel in Asia. Our tour of Seoul was planned by a 21 year old, so we were light on culture and heavy on FUN! So of course we went to Lotte World, a Disney-esque indoor and outdoor amusement park. It was the Halloween special weekend, so each of the kids got a mini-costume included with admission and the place was decorated for my favorite holiday -- which has definitely penetrated here more than China.

Can you guess who this is?

We really had a blast in the attractions, especially the "Ball Battle" featuring foam balls and air cannons -- but Sophia and I took refuge away from the fray..

Sophia had her first experience at the wheel..

Even Mr. Kim, Alvin's dad joined us for some fun (only Michael missed out, since he was off giving his paper to the American studies conference).

Attached to Lotte World was a folk museum which we saw at the end of the day...wished we had more time because we were quite amazed by it, especially the enormous room full of miniature dioramas of Korean life -- quite impressive and very engaging. Thomas and I kept thinking about "Night at the Museum" and imagining them come to life.

And some hands on practice at grinding grain the old fashioned way...

Korean royal court in miniature...

On Sunday we visited the Kims at their home, which is a really spacious luxury apartment, including a lovely greenhouse running the whole length of the apartment -- Mrs. Kim loves plants and flowers.

The home was fairly Western in style, but less cluttered, and we removed our shoes at the door and were given slippers to wear. In the living room the coffee table was also surrounded by cushions for sitting on the floor in the traditional manner of Koreans (and Japanese also do this). In fact, Korean homes are heated through the floor boards, so a lot of activity happens on the floor -- including sleeping. (In the Kims' case, the parents have a Western bed but the kids still sleep on the floor)

We enjoyed spending time with Alvin's family, since he really became part of our family during the 2 years he spent living with us through the NACEL program. He graduated from Canisius High School while with us, and got into a good college, and while it was not always easy having an adolescent from around the world in our home, the lifelong friendship is well established. For Helen especially, it is like seeing her long lost sibling, since he lived with us when she was so young. And the Kims treated us like visiting royalty.

This is the backyard of their complex -- it was a beautiful fall weekend.

Here we are at Mrs. Kim's favorite Korean restaurant. We are sitting on cushions at a low table. The meal involves lots of small dishes, salads, kimchee (hot and spicy pickled cabbage) and meats.

We also had rice cooked with nuts and served in bamboo cups. The lettuce in the picture was used to make a roll with meat and lots of Kimchee and rice.

In the afternoon, Alvin's big surprise was revealed as tickets to "Nanta", which means "Cookin'" in English. This show appealed to all ages, from Sophia on up, and was very funny, and easy to follow the story as much of it was nonverbal and a few words of English were provided here and there to keep the meaning in clear. Have any of you seen this show? It has toured New York and Toronto. The rhythmic chopping and banging of kitchen utensils makes up the soundtrack for the story of the antics of the chefs in a Korean restaurant preparing a wedding banquet. There is also a lot of audience participation. Our previous day at the museum gave us just enough Korean culture to appreciate the historical references and jokes. I would really recommend it to anyone!

Afterwards we had autographs and a photo with the cast,of course!

Our last outing was to the Seoul Tower, atop Namsan Mountain, which rises up in the midst of a wooded area in the heart of the city. Unfortunately it was a bit rainy and foggy at the top, but on the way down we saw a lovely cityscape to cap off our visit to Seoul.

Our trip home was our first air travel mishap so far in Asia, as our stroller never appeared in Beijing, so we were late through customs and got to the check in counter after the connecting flight was officially closed...with some pitiful begging by me, they got us on the flight by upgrading 3 of us to business class and giving us 2 single seats in coach. So we ran and they held the flight for us. Of course I had to sit with the I had a lovely flight with real silver ware, English papers and a bread basket, while Michael and Thomas suffered...maybe a small price to pay for a $25 stroller with a broken footrest? Maybe it will still turn up, I did file a claim, so we shall see.

Monday, October 29, 2007

More Seoul photos -- shopping and thoughts on being outside of China

Just to add some more photos to the ones I posted on Friday -- these are traditional Korean hanbok's hanging in the marketplace. One thing we discovered quickly is that there really is not the artificial mark up and the corresponding bargaining that there is in China. When I suggested a lower price to a merchant, he walked away and said, "well, you don't have to buy it!" I kept saying thank you in Chinese, to the amusement of the shopkeepers, although "Kamsamnida" (thank you) is the only word of Korean I know. I heard lots of Japanese spoken while in Seoul as well...I recently learned that Japan occupied Korea for more than 50 years, including half of the 20th century.

Above is one of the remaining gates of the original city wall of Seoul -- it is a rare sight in this thoroughly modern city. I think I mentioned Myendong Cathedral the other day when I posted. Does anyone have a clue who this Korean saint might be? We met a very nice nun who walked me into the church office to get a Mass schedule (although we didn't end up making it to Mass) and while I was in there, saw the standard picture of Pope Benedict in the office. And it made an impression on me because of the uneasy status of the church in China which is not allowed to acknowledge papal authority openly (I encourage you to google "Hong Kong Bishops letter" to read recent developments on this topic). Later out in the neighborhood we passed a poster protest related to religious freedom, located in the vicinity of the Chinese Embassy and I got it ...oh yeah speech here in the first world....

On a lighter note -- Thomas, Helen and Sophia enjoyed tall ice creams to cap off international Western Food Day for the kids in the Myendong shopping area -- the "gold coast" shopping area we spent time in -- tons of international brands, even Starbucks for me, oh joy.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Exciting weekend in Seoul

We have had the most wonderful two days here...our friend Jae yoon (Alvin) and his parents really outdid themselves showing us around...we have so many photos I will wait until we get back to Xiamen and can resize them and upload them properly..we went to an amusement park called Lotte World, a folk museum, lots of delicious meals, saw their home, a really funny play set in a Korean restaurant called "Nanta" (it has toured the US -- maybe some of you have seen it) and went to the top of the Seoul to follow tomorrow when we get home. It was a sad goodbye but temporary, since he will be back in the US around the same time we move home and may spend a college break with us next year. We fly out early so I must pack.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A day in Seoul at the Namdaemun Market

We arrived safely in Seoul last night and said goodbye to Michael this morning, He is traveling with other scholars for the American Studies conference outside Seoul at a mountain resort. The kids and I will meet our former Korean exchange student, Jae Yoon (aka Alvin) tomorrow after he is dismissed for the weekend from the army. Today we were on our own and explored a huge open air market near the hotel -- which has been around a long time and survived a lot of history. The kids picked up trinkets and I found a shirt that fit me for only $10. We do miss those Chinese prices -- even Thomas is complaining about how expensive everything is! We are enjoying the free and free market world, also toilet paper, CNBC news and little things that makes Korea seem more like the US. We are right downtown and its really terrific, although the hotel is circa 1978, decor, muzak and all. Not sure how often I can post -- had to chase someone away as it was from the one computer in the lobby.

By the way , the first photo above is from the Myedong Cathedral (Catholic) -- I was touched by this Korean Jesus -- I took more photos -- will post more later.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

XiaDa you er yuan (Xiada Kindergarden)

Before I get to today's post -- just want to highlight some comments recently posted. Many of you have read Malinda's blog, Xiamen Adventure, or have heard me refer to it. She was a Fulbright scholar here last year and lived in this apartment with her 2 little girls. Her mother has posted a comment to update about her health -- she has had emergency brain surgery back in Texas due to an infection, and is now recovering. Please keep her and her family in your thoughts and prayers -- hopefully her mom will keep us updated.

It was actually Malinda who turned me on to the idea of offering to teach English at Helen's kindergarten -- which has led to my new Xiamen "career" as an after school English teacher and great fame among the 5 and 6 year olds on campus. I have been visiting Helen's class every week. Today I brought my camera. Helen and her classmates were each told to make a bird out of household items for the tree in the classroom -- Helen's is the one covered in aluminum foil, pictured below.

When I arrive each week, the children are having their mid morning "milk drink," which is hot soy milk, in little tin cups, which they each wash out. Helen is sitting between her 2 best friends, Rouen, whom you know from previous entries and another girl (in profile) whose name we both have trouble with, but who rides the bus with Helen in the morning, along with her twin brother, who is one of my English star students -- he knows all the animals, body parts and other vocabulary I have been teaching the class.

Today we learned body parts and sang that great American classic -- "Head, shoulders, knees and feet" along with our favorite -- "When you're happy and you know it"

I always bring my turtle puppet along to say hello and greet them individually.

Here is the class -- there are about 32 students, but everything runs very orderly, thanks to the teachers. Cai laoshi (Teacher Cai) showed me the projects they are working on, a mural of Xiamen and a unit on the foods special to Xiamen (lots of seafood dishes) and they are learning to read the names of common foods. Maybe I should be sticking around to learn more Chinese. She also told me about the school's web site, which I am adding to the links above --there are photos posted on the site -- you have to click around a bout to get past all the words -- Helen was not in any of the recent pictures, but they are cute and show what an active school it is.

Hopefully Helen will make some progress on the Chinese comprehension -- this 6 week point is a hard one -- she is getting a little impatient with not understanding -- and a little hard to motivate to do homework in the evenings to keep up with 1st grade. I am taking a relaxed approach with her on both fronts, but maybe we will get a tutor for her (and Thomas needs some help, too -- his 1st Mandarin test is coming up and the teacher has put me on notice that he is having some trouble memorizing characters).
We leave for Seoul tomorrow morning. Michael will give a paper at an American Studies conference and the rest of us will sight-see. On Saturday morning we will meet up with our friend Jaeyoon, aka Alvin, who used to live with us in the US for 2 years while he finished high school. We haven't seen him for a year and a half, because he has been back in Korea completing his military service, but we are really looking forward to seeing him. Helen especially, considers him her brother, since he was with us from as far back as she can remember (when she was ages 2-4). We will also see his family and take a whirlwind tour of Seoul. I know very little about Korean culture so it should be interesting...hoping to keep up the blog but not sure what the set up will be for the internet so we'll update when we get back.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Random thoughts and musings on the life of monks and other topics

The last few days have been pretty uneventful. It is abundantly clear that we are officially settled in, that aspects of our lives here are becoming routine, and that I have lost the will to blog every day. Although I can also blame that on the stack of John Grisham books that were left here in the apartment which I have been working my way through each night -- finally too sick of the lone English language channel here -- CCTV , or as Michael and I like to call it -- "The Good News Channel". The nightly news is a steady stream of good news about "Bilateral Cooperation" between China and whatever foreign official happened to be in Beijing that day. This week has been even more good news than usual due to the Communist Party Congress, an every 5 year event meant to "plan the course" of the country for the next five years. The capital is flooded with local party officials reporting on the amazing success of the economy, with a rare reference to social challenges such as poverty and rising unemployment, lack of education in the rural provinces, etc. Of course there is lots of good news about life in the Tibetan autonomous region, if you get my meaning. Environmental concerns do get some airtime.

Anyway -- back to the monks. I have mentioned that our next door neighbor is the Nanputuo Temple. In addition to being a large temple with a long history in southern China (and thus a major destination for pilgrims as well as regular tourists), what is a little different about Nanputuo is that it is a working temple with a large school. So the place is full of monks, like the ones above, and the one who made friends with Sophia a while back. Actually we saw him yesterday when we went for a walk in the temple with the wife of one of the other foreign professors. I was just telling her the story of his meeting with Sophia when he came along and scooped Sophia up for a big hug, asked after Michael (the laoshi -teacher) and went on his way to whatever gathering he was headed for. A few minutes later I took the pictures above. These monks must either be senior or on there way to some ritual because they were more formally dressed. There are monks of all ages here, and Buddhist nuns, too. Most of the time the monks we see riding bicycles, eating in the vegetarian restaurant, grocery shopping, etc. are not wearing the brown robes over their other attire. Best of all are the young novices playing basketball every morning on the Xiada basketball court where I practice Tai chi (great mental picture -- the foreigner doing Tai chi while the monks play basketball). If I get up the nerve I will snap a picture of them. Another funny story is from our first days here. One day in the supermarket I was fumbling in my wallet at the cash register looking for change at the cashier's request so she wouldn't have to give me change for a 100 yuan bill and the monks behind me in line gave the cashier the coins I needed (probably from their street fundraising bowls !)

Enough musing for now -- Sophia is at my knees begging for attention and I have a full day planned with preparations for our Korea trip. We leave on Thursday and will be gone until Monday the 29th. Not sure about internet access during that time.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Xiamen International School anniversary, etc.

On Friday we spent the day at Thomas's school, for their 10th anniversary celebration, quite a festive affair. The international school has about 350 students in grades pre K- 12. It was started in the hopes of luring more international companies to Xiamen, since their managers would have a place to sent their kids to school in English, although many of these companies, such as Kodak and Dell, no longer bring many employees here, as their holdings are managed by local partners or subsidiaries. So the school has also become a place where well-off Chinese with at least one parent with a foreign passport can get their kids educated in an English immersion environment in the hopes of getting them into an American or European university. Anyway, the day began with the inflatable dragons at the gate (above) --a must for any happy occasion in China, even the opening of a new supermarket -- followed by the expected boring speeches by local officials ( Thomas quote : "I might have survived these long boring speeches, IF they didn't have to be heard twice, once in Chinese and then in English AND if I didn't have to sit in the direct sun the whole time. ")

We arrived toward the end of the official program, having taken a 40 minute taxi ride to get there...the school is on the mainland in Xinglin, a suburb of Xiamen, not the easiest place to get to, but we were really aiming to arrive in time for the carnival to follow. At the end of the program there were small fireworks shot over the heads of the crowd..quite exciting. Not sure what our pastor or principal back home would say if I suggested we shoot off fireworks during our next school event!

Had to take a picture of these kids in their uniforms. They are from the choir of the exclusive boarding school across the street from XIS. Its called Ying Cai, and is apparently one of the best private schools in Asia. We agreed they looked like Madeline and the rest of Miss Clavell's students.

Parents had worked to set up booths with food and demonstrations from each of the home countries represented at the school -- really a very diverse group, including Spain, Australia Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, England, Saudi Arabia, and this parent from Ethiopia roasting coffee over a little coal fire. Canada and the US also had tables, but these were pretty halfhearted affairs.

On the soccer field was a carnival set up with games run by each class of the upper school. Of course there were balloons...

Here is Thomas in the 6th grade water balloon toss booth with one of his friends, James (most of the kids have English names they're known by at school) from South Korea.

Here is Thomas with another one of his friends, Daniel, who's from Taiwan. Thomas says he has about four kids that he considers good friends, though not well enough yet to see them outside of school -- plus the logistics are difficult.

In one of the booths a man was making animals of the Chinese zodiac by dribbling melted rock candy, which hardened as it cooled.

The finished product -- a rooster.

It was a full day, and at night I went to teach again at Join Kids, the English training school, and got up again to do it this morning. This morning I took Helen with me and while she was a little bored after a while, she found it interesting to see other kids learning English the way she learns Chinese in the US. Some of my students are in her class at the kindergarten, which was fun, and helped because they were familiar with the lesson, since I had used it on Thursday morning in her class. A parent of one of the younger kids told me that his son had been a classmate of Maya's last year (daughter of the previous Fulbright family here). So it was really a busy week of teaching for me as a non-teacher! Usually I will be going into each of their classes once a month for an oral English lesson to supplement what they are doing, but we squeezed all of October into one week. Its really a very professionally run place, and I am enjoying the other teachers.

This afternoon Helen and I went to the big shopping mall for some warmer clothes for our Korea trip coming up next week, and found her a bike as well -- just as pink as the one she left now we all have our own wheels at last!

We really have a nice courtyard in front of the building for riding and playing, and the next six days are forecast 82 and sunny. Of course, Thursday we leave for a weekend in Seoul, where I think it will really feel like fall.

By the way, for the curious, Yes I am still faithfully doing Tai chi every day, missing only occasionally. We do three styles, the first is the most basic, 24 positions, and while I don't have it memorized, I follow the main flow pretty well. then we do the "42" positions (complicated) and 48 positions (which generally leaves me muddled). The retirees who make up this group have accepted that I am not a nine day wonder and have started to greet me, even speak to me a bit, until I run out of Chinese after the third sentence or so. Of course my professor friend who welcomed me in the first place always has some ideas, feedback or greeting for me in English.
One more random, thought...yesterday was double 9 day (ninth day of the ninth lunar month) and that means, time to tell your elders -- parents and grandparents -- how much you love them and wish them good health. So one day late I send loving thoughts out to our families..we really are enjoying all the comments, questions and updates. Even though we are contented here for the most part -- we do miss you all!