Sunday, June 27, 2010

And I'm proud to be in America, where at least I know there's cheese...

Hi all!  I'm back in the USA for my two month summer leave; thanks to those of you who prayed for safe travels.  Sometime soon I will tell you about the sweet girl in Beijing who helped me on my way.

I arrived in Cedar Rapids just before lunch today and was greeted by my parents and two friends from grad school.  We ate in Czech Village and then drove home to Cedar Falls, where we watched the USA beat Ghana.  (A little wishful thinking there.)  The rest of my day has been devoted to trying to stay awake until this very blessed moment: Bedtime.  9 pm.  Yesssssss.

So what does it feel like to come back after eleven months away?  I'm not sure.  I liked flying in and seeing gravel roads criss-crossing vibrant green fields and small Iowa towns.  The view from the air is as beautiful as any you could find in China (or elsewhere).  So far, I have noticed that the streets here are quieter, the toilets have more water in the bowl, and everything seems cleaner.  I am suddenly extremely literate and can speak the local language like a pro.  Near-native, even. 

I'm happy to see my parents, I'm looking forward to seeing my friends, and I wonder what this summer holds for me.

P.S.  There have been reports that my new blog layout doesn't work as well as the old one.  True?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Packing Awaits

I just got back from my teammate Lisa's book club farewell, which was probably my last hang-out with Chinese friends before I leave Qufu tomorrow.  The book club is a group of about 15 junior students, and I'm close with most of them after teaching them for a year and studying the Word with a few of them. 

The students are very sweet and funny.  For example, I was cleaning my apartment today, so I showed up wearing a baggy red T-shirt and a high ponytail.  I looked like I had been scrubbing toilets, which I had.  Apparently I should rock the cleaning lady look more often -- the students kept saying I looked younger and prettier.

Lisa's boyfriend, Merle, is visiting from China.  He is a music professor and gave the students a little living room violin concert (which they loved) and then taught them to sing a round (which they also loved, although their rendition was a little hard on the ears). 

The students went around and shared their memories of Lisa, who taught them for two years.  Lisa is a fun teacher with a big heart, and the students love her.  I enjoyed listening to them talk about making enchiladas with her in culture class, having a "wedding" in their classroom, playing baseball, going biking, and talking on banana "telephones" in class.  Lisa, you're great!  I'll miss you next year!

My train to Beijing leaves at 4:30 tomorrow, so all that's left to do here is clean and pack.  See you soon!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It's 9:00 on a Wednesday evening...

...and I'm tired.  I stayed up late last night to finish some grading and then woke up to a morning thunderstorm so powerful it had car alarms going off.  We rarely get storms in Qufu, so I was delighted.

Today I gave back some exams and turned in my grades, thus ending my teaching duties for the year.  I've been saying some small goodbyes here and there, but no big parties or celebrations.

Tonight the school had a banquet for the foreign teachers.  There were many dishes, as usual.  The Japanese teacher got drunk and made several loud and entertaining toasts, as usual.  I sat there trying to think of things to say to the people next to me and feeling sort of awkward, as usual.

Sometime in the next day and a half, I need to pack for America and clean my apartment.  Maybe I'm just tired, but the word that best describes my feelings about finishing the teaching year and heading home is "anticlimactic."

I'll let you know if I feel any differently after a good night's sleep.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Amber Waves of Grain

It's harvest time!  Lisa's boyfriend is here from Canada, so we took him biking to see the wheat harvest outside Qufu.

Will I ever get tired of biking through the countryside and taking pictures?  Probably not.  Will you ever get tired of looking at those pictures on my blog?  Probably.  But maybe my more agriculturally minded friends will appreciate seeing some of this work done the way it's been done for centuries -- with many hands and lots of manual labor.  A few families use machinery, but many seem to do most of their work by hand.

When we started our ride at 7 am, there were already tons of people out in the fields:

This machine pulled up and a dozen people crowded around to empty the wheat onto the road:

My teammates Lisa and Tarah decided to lend a hand bagging the wheat:

("Help" would be a strong word for what the foreigners were doing there.)  I saw these cute girls looking on:

Here's how you harvest by hand:  Grab a bunch, cut, grab another bunch, cut... until your hand is full, and then you set it on top of the unharvested wheat:

Now I will reveal my farming ignorance.  The farmers put the stalks of wheat on the ground for people to walk and drive over them, thus shaking out the wheat.  Is this "threshing"?

This guy seemed to be skimming the chaff off the top with his broom:

And this guy was winnowing ("winnowing"?) his grain by hand:

A man spreads out a fresh batch of wheat (which is surprisingly easy and fun to bike through):

Another glorious day in the countryside.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

We be Grillin'

A few of our Chinese colleagues in the English department had long been making plans for a barbecue by the river.  Last Saturday, the plan finally came to fruition, and they were kind enough to invite me along.  I've gotten to know a couple of my fellow teachers better this spring, which is a big answer to prayer, since I hadn't even met most of the other teachers in my department before this semester.

Here's a quick summary:  Nice day, tons of food, good view of the river, teachers having no idea what they were doing, teachers trying to light the charcoal with Kleenex and grass.  Success.  Grilled chicken wings, grilled pork, grilled lamb, grilled eggplant.  I'll let you enjoy the pictures and not interrupt with any boring commentary. 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Great Wall of China: Great, as Always

This will be my final post on my family's visit to China.

After Qufu, we popped up to Beijing for the weekend, where we saw Tian'anmen Square, the Forbidden City, a Peking Duck, Houhai, the Olympic Village annnnddddd....

...the Great Wall of China.  It was my fourth visit to the wall, and I am now convinced that it is almost impossible to have a bad time at the Great Wall.  Somehow the combination of scenery, history, and apparent endlessness makes it magical every time.

We went to Jinshanling, a site about 3 hours outside Beijing, and hiked the 10 km stretch to Simatai.  We didn't see any Mongols, but I'm pretty sure they were lurking in the woods somewhere, just waiting invade China as soon as we vacated the wall.

China: Where Saturday is Monday

Chinese universities love:

1)  Waiting until the last minute to decide when and how long their holidays will be, and
2)  Making up vacation days on the weekend.

Therefore, today (Saturday) is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, and the following three days are our Dragon Boat holiday.  The first time such scheduling shenanigans happened, I was all, "Whaaaaa?"  Now I've been through it a few times so I can be more, "This is how we do."

I'm sure you'll all have wonderful, relaxing weekends while I'm busy working and giving finals.  But when Monday rolls around and feels like a Saturday, I'll be the one laughing.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Introducing Qufu

Qufu is my town in China.  Qufu is a bit scruffy (other than the tourist sites), but doggone -- I like it.  It's not too big, there are markets outside two of the three school gates, we have a centuries-old city wall, and the countryside is less than 10 minutes away from my door. 

When my brother and sister were here, we all spent three days in Qufu.  If we would have had three weeks, maybe I would have had time to introduce them to all the snacks and students and corners of town I wanted them to experience.  But three days was all we had, and this is how we spent it:

Fielding student questions


Touring campus

Buying (and laughing at) couple's T-shirts

Seeing the town

Other activities included renting bicycles, doing laundry, eating street food, hanging out in the East Market, touring the Confucius sites, and getting sick, but I guess I didn't take any pictures of those.

A message to my family:  Please come back to Qufu.  Every day I discover something else that I forgot to show you.  A message to everyone else:  Please come to Qufu.  There are some roasted critters on a stick I want you to try. :)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Yak Meadow with my Family

This is the cable car that took us up to Yak Meadow, an hour outside Lijiang.

This is the precious 78-year-old woman I talked to for awhile after getting off the cable car.

And here we have some Chinglish:  "Please do not around."  But it was too tempting; we wandered off the trail, risking a livestock Wounding.

There were flowers and mountains and yaks:

There was an abandoned cabin which begged for us to explore it.

Bryan and Sachi walked over the crest of a hill, giving me one of my favorite photos of the trip:

And then it was time to leave Yak Meadow.  Spruce Meadow was calling our name, and we hopped another cable car to go visit the spruces.  Trees turned out to be less exciting than yaks, but the cable car was nice.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What's your skill?

Here's one thing I learned about my brother and sister and company while traveling together: We each have a special skill.

Bryan's skill (which I haven't yet seen demonstrated) is hitting ducks in the head with rocks.
Sachi's skill is waking up before her alarm clock.
Stefan's skill is hanging from trees over steep precipices.
Emily's skill is forgetting to answer me when I e-mail her and ask her to remind me what her skill is.
My skill is going down stairs two at a time without holding the railing.

What's your skill?

Monday, June 7, 2010


It's time for GaoKao -- the "big exam" -- the national college entrance exam.  Today and tomorrow, almost 10 million high school seniors will take the test in hopes of scoring well enough to go to college, especially one of the first-tier universities.

It is impossible to over-state the importance of this exam, which leads to such insanities as suicides, 12-hour school days, tricky cheating, and more.  Scoring well is seen as a ticket to success; scoring poorly is one of the biggest failures of a young person's life.  Some of my students arrive at university unable to even boil water because their parents did everything for them during high school to allow more time for studying for the exam.  Other girls kept their hair short for years to devote those extra few minutes of hair care to studying.  Some of my freshman students are 21 or 22 years old because they scored poorly the first time, took a couple years off to just study for the exam, and then tried again.

Students across China are taking the exam today and tomorrow.  In this short article, translates some of the essay questions from the exam.

Cocky Confidence

In the last two months, I've experienced a little Chinese language burst.  In a short time, I went from stumbling through short phrases to stumbling through short conversations.  This makes a huge difference in quality of life in China.  When I was traveling with my family, I was surprised at how often I could find some way to ask the question I was thinking of, and sometimes even understand the answer! 

By the way, travel is great language practice.  It takes you away from your comfortable routines and from the people who normally translate for you.  Partly for this reason, I try to travel about once a month (if only to Beijing).

I returned from my recent travels feeling pretty confident with my blossoming Chineze skillz.  True, I am still illiterate, can barely write my own name, and do most of my communication with some combination of the words "this," "that," "what," and "OK?"  True, I often smile and nod when I have no idea what the person just said.  (Example: A woman at the Great Wall asked me if I liked to smoke. I smiled and said yes.)  But, nonetheless, I got cocky.

...for about a day.  This week, my Chinese doesn't seem to be working for me at all.  I bought sunglasses today and didn't catch even one full sentence that the salesgirl said in my 15 minutes in the store.  In my Chinese lesson on Friday, my tutor would teach me a word only to have me forget it .3 seconds later.  "We just, just studied this!" she kept saying in friendly exasperation.

So, while I'm thankful for my improving communiation skills, I think God may be teaching me a lesson about humility.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Death on the Road

In this post, I will describe our experience of coming upon a motorcycle-bus accident on the road from Lijiang to Qiaotou.

The drive was supposed to be 2.5 hours.  We had been driving for about an hour and a half along the narrow mountain roads when we came upon the accident.  We saw the vehicle in front of us slow down, and I caught a glimpse of a body on the road -- clearly dead, with blood and entrails everywhere and the motorcycle lying several feet away.  The driver talked to a witness, who said a bus to Shangri-La somehow ran over the man and then just kept going. 

There was no way around the body and traffic began backing up on both sides.  The police came, but no one made any effort to clear the scene of the accident.  Minutes and then hours began ticking by.

The man's wife was led up to the site, where the mangled body lay cruelly uncovered.  When she saw it, she melted into the pavement and immediately started wailing and sobbing.  Friends helped her away, although we heard her intermittent wails for a long time.  Someone brought up a rooster and tied it to a rock by the side of the road.

Meanwhile, spectators from the long line of parked vehicles sauntered up to the site -- smoking, chatting, taking pictures, or squatting by the side of the road to wait.  An American man who lives in Shangri-La walked up to see what was going on.  He shook his head at the sad situation and noted that it could be 6 or 7 hours before the scene was cleaned up.  "No one will touch the body until someone in authority comes around and makes them do it," he concluded.

We sat in the van and waited.  I was a little shaken by the immediacy of the man's death and his wife's fresh grief exploding in front of us.

Three or four hours passed with no change, and we still had no idea when we could continue.   Another tourist in our van talked to the driver and arranged transport for us on the other side.  We had to skirt the accident site, so the driver walked us through the brush by the roadside to the top of a hill.  Then we met up with the road again and walked 20 minutes.  As we walked, our driver seemed to take a sort of macabre delight in relaying the gory details of the accident site to drivers waiting further down the road.  A different van picked us up at the end of the stopped traffic and we continued on our way.

A Door for the Word

Our team recently listened to a John Piper message on Col. 4:2-4.

According to Piper, the passage lists two goals for prayer:
1) a door for the Word
2) the speaker's message

and three ways to pray:
1) steadfastly
2) alert and watchfully
3) thankfully

I confess I'm often 0/3 on those last ones -- lackadaisical instead of steadfast, forgetful instead of alert, apathetic instead of thankful.  For those of you who remember China in your prayers, can I invite you to join me in trying to intercede more faithfully, watchfully, and thankfully?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tiger Leaping Gorge

While in southwest China, we decided to spend two days hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.  The Yangtze River runs through this deep canyon, and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain rises nearby.  If you believe the legends, a tiger once leapt 25 meters across the river to escape a hunter.  Guidebooks call Tiger Leaping Gorge one of the best hikes in China.

We began by taking a minibus from Lijiang to the trailhead at a town named Qiatou.  We were delayed for several hours by a terrible accident on the road and finally arrived at Qiaotou around 4:30 to begin hiking.

We began our hike.

After an hour and a half, we arrived here, the Naxi Family Guesthouse, where we roomed for the night.  There were hikers from Hong Kong, Germany, Canada, and China staying there that night.

Morning arrived and we had our breakfasts of eggs, tea, porridge, and pancakes.  The next section was the hardest part of the hike, called 28 Bends.  It's about an hour or two of uphill climbing, with lots of switchbacks.  With only one day to adjust to the altitude, I was breathing hard.

28 Bends eventually ended and we got to walk along the side of the gorge with peaks all around and the river below.  Local people raise corn and other crops in beautiful terraced fields, but everything was dry because of the drought.  (We sometimes saw farmers with hoses in their fields, trying to rain some life into their anemic looking crops.)

We knew we wanted to spend 2 nights in the gorge, so we took our time hiking and ended the day at the Halfway Guesthouse.

Sign on the Halfway House terrace.  Check out those mountains!

Village surrounding Halfway Guesthouse

Unfortunately, there was some bad magic in the food, and two of our group got really nauseated over the night.  So the next morning found some of us (including me) watching the sun rise over some of the most stunning views in the gorge while others languished in bed.

 Guidebooks always praise the view from Halfway's toilets.

Finally at noon we decided we better just start hiking, although it was rough going for the sick ones.  It was another 2 hours (at our pace) to Tina's Guesthouse, where we arranged a ride back out of the gorge.

The ride home was a harrowing ride indeed.  They are widening the lower road where you can drive back to Qiaotou.  This meant maneuvering around bulldozers, workers, rock slides, and even explosions in addition to the oncoming traffic.  Even the driver looked a little scared.  (And the bumpiness did no good for the queasy kids in the back.)

Final assessment of Tiger Leaping Gorge: One of my favorite travel experiences ever.  The hike is tiring but not too hard, especially if you go slow like we did.  It hasn't (yet) been over developed, and there aren't too many tourists.  Every inch of the hike is surrounded by beautiful views -- an awesome display of the Creator's handiwork.