Hometown (Jia Xiang)

The lack of sleep may be playing a part in it, or it could be the jet-lag. Either way, I’m back in my hometown and I feel a bit like Frodo after he returned to the Shire: bored, homesick for a home that no longer exists, and ready for something to happen.

The drive through the place that was home not so long ago felt vacant of meaning and alien as we cruised through empty streets at two am. Suburbs in NE Ohio are truly suburbs. Except for the shopping areas, neighborhoods and communities seemed almost too spaced out—a yard for everyone and plenty of room between the roads and the front doors.

For the last two and a half years I’ve been living in a culture that doesn’t really comprehend the idea of a suburban, or urban for that matter, area that has room enough for all its inhabitants. Parking lots are afterthoughts for building designers, and most cities are filled with residential complexes instead of individual homes. Unlike Japan, where the overcrowding has given rise to a very polite society, Chinese public interaction customs have evolved to exclude the words “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and even, “thank you,” in all but the most direct of situations.

That guy who stepped on your foot and hawked a loogie on the bus floor right next to you? Yeah, he ain’t wasting his breath apologizin’ for nothin’.

In stark contrast to the crowds I’ve gotten used to, we traveled back to my parents’ home without seeing barely a soul on the road for more than an hour. True, it was late, but even when places are closed down in Dalian, there are always people around. I honestly hadn’t realized that I liked that. It’s amazing what you can get used to.

Time is a tricky son of a gun. It’s not so Frostian as nothing gold sticking around for long, it’s just that there’s so much gold out there that once you see a hint of it you want to see more.

Going home is important. Two Christmases away called for a return home, but there is that part of me that just won’t go away. It’s what got me out of Ohio and what is digging at me now to keep moving. Someone once called me a wanderer, but I don’t think it’s as poetic as that. Nor is it as simple as being restless. I think I just can’t sit my ass down in one place for too long.

Christmas and this time of year, as it tends to do for others, puts me in a reflective mood, and I suppose that’s why I’m rambling now. I feel supremely blessed to be living the life that I want, and to have a family that supports that chosen life. It’s not every parent that would tolerate their oldest living on the other side of the globe for long periods at a time.

I’ve still got a lot of folks to see, so I better stop wasting time on here and get moving.

Family Christmas tree for this year. I haven't had one the last two years...nice to see it this time around.
Family Christmas tree for this year. I haven’t had one the last two years…nice to see it this time around.

Home for the Holidays

Culture shock’s got four stages that expats can pinball back and forth through, the experts say. That honeymoon period gives way to frustrations and annoyances faster for some and a bit slower for others. The irritations of the next stage can seem like interesting eccentricities of the culture once you’ve endured them and come to some sort of adjustment. And then, right when you think you’re about to assimilate, one of those quaint quarks sends you over the edge and you’re snuggly back in the frustration stage.

It takes years for most to get to the upper levels of the “adjustment” part, and most never actually assimilate, even if they’ve embraced the new culture.

http://www.thelandscapeoflearning.com/2013/02/culture-shock.html

All that is culture shock for ya, but there is a flip side: reverse culture shock.

I’m going home at the end of the week for the first time in two and a half years. My mother cried when I told her a few months ago about my decision to visit for the holidays, and friends have talked about meeting up whenever my schedule will allow it, but the trip is not all leisure.

When I got my wallet stolen more than a year ago, I didn’t replace my driver’s license, and then I just simply let it expire. Now I have to retake the written and driving test to get it back. I’ve also got a handful of other assorted official To-Dos while back.

All that aside, the thoughts taking up the most cognitive square-footage seem to be about simply being back. In general, I haven’t really wanted to go back home since I got here. This admission invariably invites reproach from Chinese friends, and most of them follow up their scowls with, “Don’t you miss your mother and father?” I try to explain that in our culture when the kids grow up it’s normal for them to branch out and make their way in the world without needing to tether themselves to mom and dad for support. Some respond by shaking their head and others just call me a bad son.

Now that my return is eminent, I’m just wondering what it’s going to be like. The North-East area of China, old Manchuria, has a lot of “Chinese” qualities, but Dalian also has an abundance of western perks. It’s not that I think I’m going to stick out when I walk through Wal-Mart, or that I’ll somehow forget how to order a Little Caesar’s Five dollar pizza—no, it’s actually the opposite. I’m worried that, after the rush of seeing family and friends those first few days, when they have to go back to work and I’m hanging around with no car, bus or Qinggui station to hop on, it’s all going to be…boring.

I’ve written about how common and routine life can get living abroad for extended periods, and I’ve even written about losing a bit of my objectivity concerning a lot of cultural details, but the truth is, even sitting in Starbucks becomes more interesting when you have to order in Chinese and you are having conversations with people in other languages.

Knowing everything that’s going on around me will be a nice benefit, but that lack of mystery can also lend itself to a rather lackluster outing when just walking down Hongmei street here for vegetables can be a fun and challenging experience. At this point, there are probably elements of American culture that I’ve demonized and other parts that I’ve inflated and championed way out of proportion, and truth be told, I don’t necessarily want my fantasies shaken just yet.

Don’t get me wrong; I know it’s time for me to go back. Two Christmases away is enough.

I’m probably just thinking too much about this.

Culture Shock – World Travel Syndrome

culture shock

Weekend with the guys

More than a month ago a colleague of mine, the High School Science teacher, sent out an e-mail detailing a bunch of Wikipediaed (it’s a verb, too!) info about Tianjin. The last line quoted plane tickets to the place at around 90 RMB from Dalian, one way—pretty freaking cheap.

I read it, said, “Hmm. That’s interesting,” and honestly didn’t think about it again for an entire week, until one night on the bus ride back to KFQ, another HS teacher asked me if I was heading to Tianjin with some of the guys in a few weeks. We talked it over, and, even though I went to Tibet not long ago, just purchased my tickets back to America, and was already planning a trip to Cambodia for February, I decided to head down to Tianjin with them.

This is what he sent:

Tianjin is a city in northern China and one of the five national central cities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is governed as one of the four direct-controlled municipalities of the PRC, and is thus under direct administration of the central government. Tianjin borders Hebei Province and Beijing Municipality, bounded to the east by the Bohai Gulf portion of the Yellow Sea. Part of the Bohai Economic Rim, it is the largest coastal city in northern China.

In terms of urban population, Tianjin is the fourth largest in China, after Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Tianjin is a dual-core city, with its main urban area (including the old city) located along the Hai River, which connects to the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers via the Grand Canal; and Binhai, a New Area urban core located east of the old city, on the coast of Bohai Sea. As of the end of 2010, around 285 Fortune 500 companies have set up base in Binhai, which is a new growth pole in China and is a hub of advanced industry and financial activity. Since the mid-19th century, Tianjin has been a major seaport and gateway to the nation’s capital. Tianjin also has an active night club and live music scene. 

Air fare to Tianjin is as low as 90 RMB one way from Dalian.  Contact M. Baldwin for more information about this thriving metropolis.

We all grabbed different flights, and they all got delayed…

It was passed midnight by the time we touched down in Tianjin, and almost one by the time the five of us regrouped and found a club.

By 4:30 most of the group had called it a night, but I stuck around a bit longer.

There were a ton of Russians, Ukrainians, Sri Lankens, Persians, and of course Europeans at the club.  I have no clue why there were so many there, but on the second night Ryan and I caught a glimpse of some clashing of cultures.

That second day, morning came around one in the afternoon for some of us, but then the group caught up with each other and wandered for a bit until we found Hank’s Sport Bar and Grill. Hands down, best food I’ve had in a while. It’s an American-owned place, and Hank himself talked with us a while during our late lunch.

The consensus was that we’d go back to our respective hotels and nap away a few hours, and then regroup around nine to catch some live music at another club. Though I felt a bit like roadkill most of the day, I didn’t want to sleep. Instead, I wanted to go see Xiao Ming’s undergraduate university—Tianjin University.

I’d chosen my hotel because of its price and proximity to the school, and when I went off on my own I wandered around the campus a while. It’s a pretty campus, but in the evening, wind blowing like mad, there weren’t a lot of students just hanging around. Still, I managed to find myself—two times—engaged in conversation with curious Chinese kids. One girl and I talked a while about Tianjin and the school, and about Dalian. Another guy wanted to just follow me around for a bit. I’m pretty sure he wanted to follow me as I met up with the other four, but I indirectly told him to take a hike.

Day time shot from the next morning. This is in the open area of the campus
Day time shot from the next morning. This is in the open area of the campus

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We found the Italian Style Street not long after nine, and then Club 13. The place had that local hang out vibe, the interior inspired by industrial warehouses and T.G.I. Fridays. Eventually I asked the owner why she chose the name, and she reminded me that 13, in the West, is considered a bad omen, so she wanted her patrons to think it a bit dangerous as they stepped into the place. She said this all with a smirk and thick sarcasm, so I have no way of knowing if it held any truth.

When the band took a break their buddy hopped on the stage and sang a few.
When the band took a break their buddy hopped on the stage and sang a few.

The band playing—a trio of young guys—turned out to be pretty good. The lead singer, a fast-talking local, seemed to constantly exaggerate the well-known Tianjin accent just to get a rise out of the audience. Another guy, the bongo drummer, wore a Jamaican-style shirt and Sesame Street pants. The guitar player drank a lot of water and told jokes between songs. They sang songs with lyrics more than mildly anti-government. It was great.

The place had communist murals all over the walls. They looked like traditional images, but they had a sarcastic feel to them.
The place had communist murals all over the walls. They looked like traditional images, but they had a sarcastic feel to them.

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After a while it was pushing elevenish and there was a decision to call it an early night. The workers and I had been talking throughout the evening and one even bought me a drink, so before we left I asked if they knew of any other places where we could hang out. They gave me animated instructions and recommendations (and a handful of their customer-friends chimed in) and eventually we got a lead on two more clubs to check out. Before everyone left, though, we realized Ryan was missing.

The place was closing down, so there wasn’t much noise at all. What we did hear, however, was the sound of two hand-drums being played. Following the sound, we found Ryan cradling a drum between his knees and jamming right next to the drummer from the band. They sounded great. It was completely improvised, but they really had a rhythm.

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On the way out Ryan and I chatted with the workers and basically secured the opportunity to come back and actually play for the club. He gave him one of his CDs and as we all walked out of the club Ryan’s one-man-band Cronkite Satelite blared out into the Tianjin city streets as the girl played it over their system.

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A look from the balcony of Club 13
A look from the balcony of Club 13

Once the others left, Ryan and I followed the directions to a place called Helen’s, a restaurant by day and bar by night.

After taking an elevator to the third floor, we grabbed a table and ordered some food, taking in the crowd of dancers and diners. Once again, a large Sri Lankan presence could be seen, but this time things didn’t stay harmonious for long. About thirty minutes later, our conversation got interrupted as some of the sober Sri Lankans tried to help drunk ones to their tables. A Chinese guy got in the way, and then got decked, hard–twice. He sort of stood there a minute without doing much, but after his lady friend and his buddy checked on him he seemed to realize he needed to do something to exert his awesome manness. He went crazy.

Chinese and Sri Lankan alike duked it out in the restaurant while the staff and other hungry folks just ignored them—for like 15 minutes. Eventually, the Sri Lankans left, and the Chinese guy who got clocked settled. For a minute. At one point he tried to use a beer bottle as a club, but his group took it away. Somehow he managed to convince his table he had calmed enough to go out for a smoke.

About this time Ryan and I decided the show was over and also thought calling it a night sounded good. As we walked out of the building hollering and screaming reached our ears. Sure enough, the fight had migrated to the street. This time the swings were more furious and the rage a bit more entertaining. We watched a while, but when the cops showed we grabbed the nearest cab.

In China, the cops like to just collect anyone and everyone at a fight scene, even the gawkers. Often a fee exchanges hands before anyone can leave the police station. We avoided that.

The morning came quickly, and another teacher and I were on the same flight back, so we grabbed a cab and hung out till boarding time. Xiao Ming met us in Dalian, and drove us back, concluding our weekend away.

Although not a traditional tourist city, Tianjin proved a good place just to visit and get to know some of my coworkers. I’m sure we’ll go back again at some point, or maybe to another nearby city.

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Guanggun Jie

Tabao sales, Korean Pocky stick treats symbolizing one, and a full Starbucks…must be Singles’ Day in China.

If you’re a cynical person, you might call this the highly commercialized polar opposite of Valentine’s Day, or you could just focus on eating bland tasting, chocolate covered sticks and go with the flow.

11/11 every year is when singledom is celebrated like the bittersweet Warheads you used to shovel into your mouth just to say you could. Don’t know about that anology.

It started in China not long ago when a bunch of the guys looked around and said, “Crap, there sure are a lot of us with no girlfriends. Let’s buy Korean candy, go to Karaoke, and pretend to be happy about this fact.” It may also have gone a different way.

Though I have it on good authority (my Korean students, Chinese friends, and girlfriend) that Guanggun Jie, Bare Sticks Festival, is a Chinese pop culture holiday that got its kick off in the early 90s in Nanjing universities.

Speaking of students, three of my Korean middle schoolers gave me boxes of Pocky sticks today and wished me a happy “Pocky Day.” Interestingly, the three kids who gave these little sugary symbols of being a bachelor all saw me with my girlfriend yesterday at an orchestra concert. Don’t know if they’re trying to tell me anything there…

Though it’s mainly an Asian thing, Pocky Day, or Singles Day seems to be gaining momentum each year. Who’s to say by this time next year folks back home in the States won’t be opting for a fun Nov. 11 instead of that annoying Feb. 14…

Still don’t know Jack…

I’m losing perspective. I can feel this; the elusive sensation that what I believe to be is not as it is.

(Pic found: onpoint.wbur.org/2011/01/20/china-america-question)

It’s been more than two years since I’ve been home, and with my imminent return to the States for a holiday visit, I find myself trying to recall American life in its most minute details. I’ve fielded so many culture questions, answered the most absurd inquiries regarding social aspects of life for Westerners, and debated the validity of either nations being more open or conservative than the other with college students, drunk Asian businessmen, colleagues, and my girlfriend that I actually think I can’t remain objective any longer.

The fault is my own, not China’s, though there are many days I feel blaming this place is the easier route. Expats here have a tendency to be viewed as vast information repositories of the culture from which they come. People routinely ask questions and then whatever answer you provide is considered Gospel, not a biased opinion. I’d like to think I’ve never let myself be pulled in by that sort of perceived power and authority, but I have been.

I’m sure I’ve told someone things like, “We don’t ever worry about our reputation,” in response to the topic of mianzi, or “In America workplaces never have a problem with nepotism,” only to later realize I care a great deal how I’m viewed, and that classmates of mine have walked into cake jobs because of daddy’s help.

And then, when I’m on the receiving end of deep guanxi, I don’t bat my eyes at all, just smile and make a joke and accept the offered service or gift. As a rule, it is hard for someone like me to gain meaningful guanxi, but when you have close Chinese friends or a girlfriend whose uncle happens to be some sort of industrial leader, there are certain perks you can take advantage of.

Cut lines, forged documents, lowered prices—parts of China I can’t be bothered to form objective thoughts about any longer. Does that say something about me?

It’s not like I’ve been here that long—just under two and a half years.

Just when I begin to feel that China can’t faze me anymore, a ridiculous driver will decide the left lane is a good place to park, a worker will refuse to do something that fits their job description because he doesn’t know you, or a man with no scruples will make a move on a girl fully aware of his friend being her boyfriend, and I lose it. I lambast China with the worst vitriol I can conjure (which is usually a statement of comparison between it and the US, where China is degraded to a nation of imbeciles and chaos).

When I take a step back from that, I can see that I am the one who has taken all that culture and understanding I’ve gained these past few years and thrown them out the flippin’ window. The cathartic release is quite satisfying at times, but then I listen to another stubborn foreigner griping about the Chinese having no manners or traditions of nonsense and I feel like a heel.

There was one older guy I met, from Liverpool, who actually choked a man when he was cut in line. Another Englishman who’s been here for about six years—a bar fly everyone knows—routinely yells foul Chinese obscenities to people. Others come and go on 3-6 month contracts and use every opportunity they have to tell others that they know China. Some of the stories are amusing and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, true, but others are complete bull. From Chinese economics to bedding the locals, I’ve heard just about every piece of crap adage and advice the Expat community here has to offer, and I still know jack-all about the place I’ve called home since 2011.

If there is anything I’ve learned, and by extension, the point to this rant, it’s that I will never reach a moment of complete clarity or catch that concrete understanding of Chinese culture. Ever. It will bend, wiggle, snap, and break, but it will never just occur to me conclusively that I can say, with authority: I know China.

Traveling in the Rain

It’s raining as I type this, so I suppose that is only fitting.

At the end of June Xiao Ming and I traveled to Guilin and Yangshuo in the southwestern part of China. At the end of July, we traveled to Changbai Shan in the Northeast of the country. Both places seemed bent on soaking every set of clothing we brought.

Yes, Guilin and Yangshuo’s natural scenery were spectacular and truly breathtaking, but rain can be quite annoying. We ducked into Reed Cave that first day in town, just to seek shelter from the storm, had our basement level accommodations changed to the second floor on day two, and then finally just sucked it up and enjoyed an awesome half-day bike ride across Yangshuo’s countryside in the rain on the third.

The bamboo raft ride down the Li River got the ax, but the big yacht worked out all right. Moving from our first room to the next seemed irritating, until we were put up in a private room with a shower. The rainy bike ride appeared less than ideal, but then we realized the rain cooled us down when the area is usually painfully humid most times of the year. The hostel, Riverside Hostel, actually sat along the banks of the river, and the young staff, helpful and tolerant of my accented Mandarin, was fun to talk to.

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If you say these numbers in Chinese they sound like "I will love you forever."
If you say these numbers in Chinese they sound like “I will love you forever.”
Longji Rice Terraces.
Longji Rice Terraces.

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Landslides in the area cleared these small villages out not long ago...
Landslides in the area cleared these small villages out not long ago…

Changbai Shan (mountain), the spiritual home of the Qing Dynasty, is an old volcano that sits along the China-N.Korean border in the Jilin province. Beautiful countryside begins just north of Dalian, and continues, interrupted only a few times by cities, until you reach the protected land of the Changbai range.

The seventeen hour train ride there through this landscape surprised me. I’d almost forgotten that most of China’s population still lived in rural areas, not the fast-developing major cities. At night the stars were beautiful.

Being the only Westerner on the train provided the usual amusements: stares, giggles, and curious children that continually walked by our car. One boy forgot to keep walking. He stopped dead in his tracks and just stared at me. I asked him in Chinese what he was doing, but he just smirked, and then ran away. He walked by once more, quickly. I saw him coming the time after that, and as he walked by I jumped out of the car and grabbed him, bearhugging him and laughing. When I released him he stepped away and said, in English, “Bad man!” He didn’t walk by again.

The rain began in a haze, then precipitated into a sprinkle until finally, dropping all pretense, the clouds released their bounty and drenched the mountain. We trekked up and down the north and west side of the mountains the first two days, taking in the scenery and clean air even though it continued to rain. Our goal was to see the famed Tian Chi, Heaven Lake, but the ubiquitous fog sabotaged that mission those first two attempts. The small town we stayed in right next to the mountain lucked out and most of the rain passed over it, leaving us free to wander about between excursions up to the lake.

Dirt roads, mobile merchant karts, and small packs of semi-wild dogs playing with filthy looking kids wearing slit-pants made up the town, Bai He, White River.

On the third day there, it stopped raining long enough for us to summit the top. We set out early, and then realized it hadn’t been early enough. Ten thousand or more (easily more) crowded around the outside and inside of the check-in building. A few thousand more packed in tight as they herded themselves through corrals that led to little shuttle busses that rocketed up the side of the mountain to another spot where the people had to queue up again…then they boarded tiny white vans that shot up the narrow road to the top of Changbai Shan. Every van sped up and down the roads, always keeping a distance of a car and a half between themselves, much like the worker bugs in a giant ant farm. We waited in lines for hours that day, and then, when we got to the top: Fog.

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The trip, while full of pretty trees and no actual emergencies, seriously teetered on becoming a complete waste if we couldn’t at least see those blue-green turquoise waters of Heaven Lake. The murky white of the fog clung thick in the air and taunted us as we gazed around at the peak. Once again, another ten-plus thousand travelers greeted us at the top, but we waded through the throngs and found a spot along the rim of the caldera.

Right as we were getting ready to throw in the towel the breeze picked up. Slowly, slowly, the fog rose from the surface of the lake, granting the faintest hint at a color other than gray. The winds continued to lift the mass of fog, revealing more and more green and blue. As one, the entire population of the summit howled and hollered, cheered, and gasped. I laughed like a mad man.

We could see Heaven Lake.

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And just two weeks ago we took a week long trip to Tibet. I’ll write about that soon enough…

Thinking about going abroad? (My thoughts)

The other day someone asked me six different questions about being here, my work, and just what I thought….I decided to post my article on here as well.

I’ve also posted this in the “What you need to know” section of my blog because I think it fits there nicely.

My name is Jordan and I’m from Ohio, but for nearly two years I’ve been calling Dalian, China my home. I came over here with the expectation of staying for one year before returning home and getting an “adult” job. One and done, that’s what I kept telling myself, but before long that mantra became like a propaganda tactic that I really didn’t need or want to listen to. When my one year contract came to a close, I decided to stick around another six months. My coworkers were excited, and my supervisors didn’t need to replace a Western teacher (an arduous process here). So I settled back in and enjoyed the time.

I absolutely loved the training school I worked in for the first year and a half—the other teachers, the Chinese staff, the students, and even the building had a unique appeal to it that I will never forget. I enjoyed the walk into work on the nice days, and the convenience of my apartment’s central location. Dalian proper is definitely an urban setting with all the pros and cons of one. You’ve got access to just about any kind of cuisine, attractions, shopping, good public transportation, and parks. You also get great big whiffs of exhaust from all the traffic, the grit and grime of a city getting over populated, and the general chaos associated with a metropolis on the rise. But I don’t live in the actual Dalian city.

Dalian’s Development Zone, or Kaifaqu, is a twenty minute Light Rail Train ride north of the city, and has a much slower, almost quasi-urban-suburban feel to it. I love it. Everything I need is within walking distance, but for those lazy moments the ubiquitous taxi or bus is always available, too. While still technically a part of Dalian, Kaifaqu has its own aura. Seriously. Stationed so close to the coast, there’s always a sea breeze to cool you down, and though the beach is rocky, there’s plenty of swimming in the summer. When I first got here I wandered around, a lot. I took walks almost every evening, just to get a good look at the place. I walked at all hours, usually by my self even though a few coworkers chastised me for doing so at late hours. Even with their warnings, I felt safe. I still feel safer here than I did in my home town.

In the summer, when the heat is too much and you don’t want the stony beach of Kaifaqu, Golden Pebble Beach to the north is the place to go. Just a fifteen minute Light Rail Train away is the “ritzy” side of Dalian. All of Dalian has a large amount of foreigners from all around the world working with many different companies, but in Golden Pebble Beach there are a lot of North American teachers of all disciplines. Two international schools with great reputations entice them to stay a few years, but the area also has a few other cool features. There’s a nice beach, an amusement park, and it’s one of the only places you can escape the curse of one of China’s most well-known idioms—People, mountain, people, sea (ren shan ren hai). The crowds haven’t quite made it up there, but in a few years we’ll see. Plans to move Kaifaqu’s center closer to Golden Pebble Beach have been put into motion, and China loves construction.

My certification as a Secondary Integrated Language Arts teacher has come in quite handy, and is really the big reason I’ve been able to seek other employment opportunities in the area. To get here, however, you don’t necessarily need anything but a Bachelors degree. China has been making it hard to get over here for anything more than tourism, but it is possible. Get your degree, passport, and jump online and start applying. I went through Footprints Recruiting, and they worked as a liaison between me and the first school I worked at. Not only that, but their website www.footprintsrecruiting.com and their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/FootprintsRecruiting  have a wealth of information about China and other areas around the world that regularly have postings for teachers. Going through an agency like Footprints put me in contact with a trustworthy school in the smoothest way possible.

Though I hold credentials for the high school English classroom, the majority of my students the first year were under the age of twelve. At first I wondered if I had what it took to be in that age range, but after just a few classes my hesitancy fell to the wayside. Learners here are a different breed of student, and for the most part that actually works to a new teacher’s benefit. Respect for elders, the desire to earn the teacher’s praise, and their peers’ admiration are three elements I’ve noticed that sort of collude to make the classroom a politely controlled and often hassle-free space. I had to design classes around asking questions just to get them to raise their hands and let me know what they were thinking! Once they get to know you, though, it’s anybody’s guess how they’re going to behave. I have kids hug me, poke me, try to use qigong to (play) fight me, and ask me to throw them into the air between classes or when we have a break. They like to give gifts, and it was only after a few stomachaches and colds that I realized I needed to stop accepting the damp cookies and candies they were handing me with their dirty hands.

I’ve gotten to teach some memorable lessons, including one about Mexican food like tacos. At the end of the unit about Mexico, I decided to have the class make tacos for real. I readied the ingredients: lettuce, tomatoes, tortillas, cheese, olives, and I even fried up some beef. After teaching the vocabulary and the instructions for the receipt we dug in and made them. We snapped photos and the kids had a good time putting their tacos together, but not all of them grasped the concept of how to eat them. Some students nibbled on the very top of the tortilla where there’s no filling at all while others munched on the middle of the bottom. The ladder resulted in a few messes as the filling just spilled out! Still, others placed the taco on a plate and used a fork and butter knife to cut into it. I let them play around until finally I showed them the right way to eat them. After that, we all enjoyed our tacos the right way.

Seriously...one of my favorite classes I've taught here at Jayland this year.
Seriously…one of my favorite classes I’ve taught here at Jayland this year.

My time here has been filled with experiences like that, some inside the classroom and many outside. The clash of the cultures isn’t so much a clash as it is a constant blending that a lot of the times results in humorous misunderstandings and always something learned. Everyone will have a different experience, though. No two are ever the same, and the location will affect this in a multitude of ways. Depending on what province or city you’re in, China will present you with plenty of opportunities to make your own stories.

During my time here I’ve gotten to see a handful of pretty cool places. I’ve visited Beijing and seen the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors, and even Luoyang and the Longmen Grottoes. Natural sights such as sacred Hua Mountain and the beautiful scenery of Guilin and Yangshuo are fantastic, too. Even old Song Mountain where the Shaolin Temple has stood for hundreds of years is a wonderful destination. But if you’re going to live in China, I truly believe that Dalian, and even more, Kaifaqu, is one of the best places you can be. Dalian is a young city by Chinese standards, but it has an interesting history, great parks to see, a nice zoo, some beaches, a lot of job opportunities, some friendly and open people, and I would recommend this coastal city to anyone. No matter where you go, people will always want to get out, to travel. I talk with people all the time here who just want to see different areas of China. They don’t know why I like it here so much, but I tell them that one man’s back yard is another man’s adventure. And I’m still having a great time.

Getting the qualifications and choosing a destination are two big steps to moving abroad, but I would offer a few pieces of advice if you’re looking to take the plunge for an extended period. Before going to a country check out their internet set up. Is it monitored a lot? Get a VPN (Virtual Private Network). This can be the thing that saves your soul, or at the very least allows you to get accurate world news. There are plenty of options available to people for this kind of service.

My second piece of advice is, that even before you arrive, cultivate a habit of observation. Read about the country you’re going to. Do research. Then when you get there just watch and listen. A lot. Do a lot of observing with all your senses, and just try to refrain from passing judgments of any kind. This is a much harder task than you’d imagine, but I challenge you to do it. I’ve heard a ton of foreigners here complaining about one thing or another, but many of them haven’t been here more than three months. Don’t get me wrong, some of the complaints are valid, but certainly their day would improve if they spent the time trying to understand what confused them instead of immediately venting about it. The reward for this? Understanding, awareness, changed or improved perspectives, and you could quite easily make a bunch more friends by being willing to learn all the angles to this new culture in which you find yourself.

Developing and maintaining a sense of humor is paramount. Smiling when you want to curse the world is a skill not only useful for becoming a saint, but for dealing with the other seven billion people roaming around on this Earth. Laughing at an exchange that sees you shorted 50 RMB or on the wrong side of the city at an inconvenient time is, I would argue, the most versatile and practical skill you could have in your arsenal.

I didn’t come to China to get rich; I came to learn something about the world and myself. I have succeeded in ways I could never have imagined, and I know I am not an anomaly in the abroad community. Living and learning in a place that is so different from where you used to call home has a mystifying way of altering you, changing you into something new. My last piece of advice is a fun thing that you can only do when you make a big change. By moving abroad and settling into a different place you get the unique chance to reinvent yourself. That person you’ve always wanted to be? Now’s your chance.

The Taxi Ride: Chinese Style

Once you get in, you're mine, sucker!
Once you get in, you’re mine, sucker!

Taxi drivers in KaiFaQu, the development zone just outside of Dalian city can run the gamut. They can be complete turds so vile that they require special instructions for disposal or you could end up singing duets with them (see previous entry). I’ve had my fair share of experiences with taxis, and in September I will have been here for two years, so I can at least offer my insights with a tiny bit of credibility on the subject.

As you travel, though, you run across many more turds in the taxi biz than you do possible singing partners.

First night in China: an 8 RMB ride becomes a 10RMB ride just because. I remember being suspicious of the price right off the bat, but powerless to tell the driver I thought he was being a bit turdlike, so I paid the fare.

Not a specific because it happens every times, but holiday hikes in prices. If it’s two days before Tombsweeping Festival chances are you’ll be charged a flat rate of 10 RMB no matter what time of day, and the price will continue until a day after the holiday. And if you know holidays here you know it’s not even a big deal! I can see Spring Festival or National Day Holiday (Which is like a week long despite the name), but there are times when I swear these buggers are making this stuff up. And these prices are non-negotiable. I’ve tried, going as far as even opening the door while still moving and just telling him to let me out.

The other near-constant is when it’s raining, has been raining, or has just stopped raining. They will charge you 10 RMB because they’ve spilled water on their windshield and called it rain. Okay, not that bad, but just about. They will also try this crap when it’s snowing, but you can wiggle with them during the winter. Is it because it’s more dangerous to drive in the rain? Does the two extra yuan really justify the risk they’re taking driving me three minutes? And isn’t it their job to drive? In all weather? If I don’t pay the extra two yuan will they become more reckless? What exactly is the extra charge covering? Oh, and did I mention, it can be considered rude to put on your seat belt with drivers because they can take it as a judgment on their driving prowess?

It's like the movie Taxi Driver...without guns, Deniro, or English...
It’s like the movie Taxi Driver…without guns, Deniro, or English…

Let’s see, we have simple cheats, holidays, rain and snow…what else?

If you’re traveling a distance that’s not a part of their immediate territory there’s gonna be a little battle, too. For example, if I were to get a cab from Kaifaqu to either Dalian or JinShitan (Golden Pebble Beach) both about 20-30 minutes away they won’t even turn on their meter. Instead, you must wheel and deal before he starts driving. Of course, this is only a need if it’s at a time when the Light Rail Train is closed.

Remember that one time when I helped that couple find their boat and we had to drive around for a while, looking at the docks and ports? Well the meter said something like 63.40RMB, but he charged the couple 100RMB. When I asked why, he just said it was because he had to drive around a lot and it was so far from he next passenger. Hogwash, considering I was his next fare and I was right in front of him. On the way back I got him to agree to 50, and the couple paid it for me, so that wasn’t one that directly cheated me.

The most common answer to the long-distance taxi ride is to call a sharecab. It’s what it sounds like. Multiple folks sharing the cost. They actually have that specific service, and I do have the number for the local one.

However, if you are out for the night, hanging with your friends at a restaurant or a bar, the share cab isn’t always an easy thing to secure. Then it’s just you and the driver going back and forth until he beats you into submission. Because they almost always win. I’ve seen gorgeous women try to bat their eyelashes and flirt with them in perfect Chinese, just to get like five RMB off the original price. And if you’re inebriated in the least, and they can see it, you’ll need to be able to negotiate or have someone who can do it for you.

I saw what should have been a 10RMB ride become a 50RMB because someone was visibly drunk.

Some easy solutions I’ve found for a few of these situations include simply asking the driver to turn on the meter (a phrase you can say like, “Ni neng da kai biao ma?” or “Biao, da kai.”), asking for a receipt (I usually say my boss wants it. “Wo xuyao fapiao. Wo de jingli xuyao.”), or just talk a lot about how much you like China (The goal here being that you’ll persuade him not to cheat you too much just because you’re a foreigner).

Ah, he looks hammered...If I play my cards right, maybe he'll give me his wallet.
Ah, he looks hammered…If I play my cards right, maybe he’ll give me his wallet.

I’ve traveled a little bit lately. Not too much, but enough to see different types of drivers in different cities. When you travel in China and want to avoid being cheated the best thing to do is be Chinese. If you’re not, you’ll probably get ripped off in some way, somehow. That’s not just a Chinese thing. I’ve seen it happen in America and heard about it everywhere. Travelers just need to resign themselves to having targets painted on them. Your goal is to make that a smaller target anyway you can. Good luck.

But being an American in China, it doesn’t matter. I have a target. And what’s more, it’s not only because I’m white. Some Chinese drivers will just cheat EVERYONE.

A few tales from the road, if you’ll indulge me.

Almost two years ago Noelle and I were in Beijing during the October National Day holiday I mentioned a second ago. It was the last day of our trip and we were trying to get to some of the must-see places. We were somewhere on the street and we wanted to be at Tienanmen Square. We declined a few crazy looking fellows, but then got won over by an unassuming old dude on a rickshaw. We went back and forth for just a moment about price, but then agreed on something like 30RMB. The price was already outrageous, but, you know, whatever.

Rickshaw Sample

We both climb into the seat and off the guys goes, not even peddling because his was a hybrid peddle/engine rickshaw, I guess. A minute or so goes by and another rickshaw driver, a bit younger, rides up pointing at one of the back tires frantically and basically just being a very concerned rickshaw driver. Turns out the back tire was too flat and one of us needed to get in the rickshaw with him. This is sounding funny to me, yeah, but I really have no way to convey my thoughts, so I just repeat the price we agreed on and the old driver nods passionately.

Well, off we go again, this time in two rickshaws, careening through dirty alleys, neighborhoods that are definitely not on the must-see list, and then we pull up in a dark, empty alley the man says is right next to the square. We hop off and then things get loopy.

They pull out a laminated chart with prices—all much more than 30 RMB. What ensues is a flurry of frantic gestures and raised voices in Chinese and English, and more and more furious pointing at the prices on the oh-so-official laminated sign. The gist: he wants us to pay 600RMB. Three for each cart. My first thought is, I can take these two little shits. And I give it more than just a cursory look before passing on the option of knocking them both over their rickshaws and just taking off. After all, it’s National Day, as in, Chinese patriotism out the butt, and we’re in the capitol—an alley in the capitol. We open our wallets to pay something, not the whole thing, but something, and what does one of them do? He literally snatches the money out of Noelle’s hand. Seriously. It was tantamount to being mugged, the way it wall went down. In the end he got around 300 or something from us, maybe 400RMB. And as we walked away he still huffed and puffed.

Things we could have done differently: be Chinese, not ride a rickshaw, jump off the rickshaw, push the man over the rickshaw, give him the agreed upon amount and walk away from the man and his rickshaw…

Sometimes, even now, when I think about the whole situation, I get royally irritated and want to go find a rickshaw driver, pretend I know nothing of Chinese, get him to agree to a price, and then wait for him to cheat me…just so I can curse him and yell at him in Chinese, or, maybe just knock him over his rickshaw. But not in Beijing and not during the National Day week.

And then when we got back into Dalian from that very trip we almost let ourselves get picked up by a black taxi.

We had just gotten off the plane and were walking around the terminal looking like lost laowai (informal name for foreigners) when a dude with the Chinese version of swagger just casually approaches us and offers us a ride back to Kaifaqu. I ask him if he’s a taxi driver and he assures us that he is. We ask how much, but he busies himself with looking official and leads us deeper into the terminal and away from people. We descend two flights of stairs with not a human in sight, and finally agreed on a price—something like 80-90 RMB.

At the ground level, we walked out to a dark part of the parking lot and he motioned for us to stay put while he goes to get his car. Noelle and I are exchanging worrisome glances, but it’s when I see him reach his black car that I make the call. We pick up our bags and speedwalk to the front of the terminal, about two hundred feet away. We make it there just as he comes up behind us and tries to motion us in. We stand firm and step in line with the other people waiting for actual taxis.

In the end, the ride home was 100 RMB, so chances are we might have saved money with the black taxi, but probably not. And if he had tried any funny crap we’d have had no way to combat him. The whole thing with him just had a strange vibe, so I’m still pretty certain we made the right decision by ditching him.

Two more recent ones…

On our way to the airport in Zhengzhou on our last day of vacation, Xiao Ming and I fell into a pretty elaborate trap.

We got off the train, and then walked to the bus stop. Tons of people everywhere, some standing in line, others gawking at nothin’ in particular, a few mothers holding their babies out in front of them so the kid can pee right on the street, and of course taxi drivers trying to catch fares.

As we approach the bus a taxi driver intercepts us and offers to take us anywhere, but we push past him and ask the bus worker about bus ticket prices. They’re not expensive at all. Then we ask him how long it takes to get to the airport. At this point the taxi driver we pushed through is right next to us. The bus worker looks from him to us and says, with a straight face, that it takes four hours. Four hours! That’s absurd. We ask why and he says because the bus must drive around the city first, collecting others from different stops.

Well, that is unacceptable. Our plane takes off in less than three.

The taxi driver then says, no problem, he can get us there in less than an hour. We reluctantly play the negotiating game with the man and eventually settle on 80 RMB. It’s a bit more than we’d normally pay, but whatever.

We get into his cab and find to others—a young Chinese man with big round eyes, and a man who looks old enough to set some sort of record—already waiting to go. We quickly ascertain that we’re all going to the airport, so that’s good. I feared that he’d do something shady if we all had different destinations. Yes, I’m that jaded.

So we push off. At first it’s all good, but then the situation deteriorates quickly. He begins to talk in rapid-fire dialect that I can’t follow. Turns out that he now want 20RMB more. Xiao Ming says that he will kick us out if we don’t pay now.

The two of them go back and forth for a while, both yelling. She tells him that he already agreed upon a price and that business is carried out that way everywhere. He counters that, no, it’s not.

She then assails his manhood. She tells him that a real business man, but specifically, she adds, a man, would not lie like this.

While they’re going at it the other two in the car are just silent. I’m adding in my own commentary on how much of a moron this guy is, but I’m not making much of a dent. And the driver is just meandering through back streets, threatening to leave us.

Finally Xiao Ming calls him out. She tells him that he purposely cheated us. He doesn’t want to admit it. Instead, he claims that, of course he had to agree to our price or we wouldn’t have gotten in his cab. We tell him, no shit. He somehow doesn’t see this as a cheat or a lie…

And then Xiao Ming hit him with mianzi. Mianzi, or Face, is a big deal in China, especially among men. It is respect, influence, peer admiration, clout—all rolled up into one. At this point Xiao Ming has gotten the guy to admit that, yes, he deceived us on purpose. He actually says it, “Wo pian ni le.” I cheated you.

He still wants his money, though, so Xiao Ming asks him one final question: Will 20 RMB buy your face?

Oh, that was great. The old man is staring at Xiao Ming like he’s witnessing a crazed animal spirit strike. The driver is resolutely staring straight ahead, avoiding my gaze in the rear view mirror.

She asks him again.

And he says, yes.

I can’t believe it, but then again, by this point it was obvious that he only worshipped at the altar of the dollar, or Ren Minbi, and wasn’t a man of any value himself. Even so, I couldn’t help add something to the moment.

As I passed him the 20 RMB note I said, “Hen pianyi mianzi.” Very Cheap Face.

About ten minutes later we’re on the highway and the driver pipes up again. He says we’re all getting off. I’m like, what the heck now?

He pulls up next to another taxi and they exchange a few words. We get out and the drivers help us haul our crap into the second taxi. After a parting glance, the first driver is gone like a fart in the wind.

Once in the second cab we get the story. Turns out, the first driver had called the second one an hour ago and told him to meet him there, on the highway. The second driver was always the one who was going to take us the rest of the way, apparently. We asked him if he did this often and how much he got paid. He said, yes, this was a common thing for him, and that he got paid 70RMB each time.

For a twenty minute ride, that’s not bad, but the first driver had collected 100 from us, 160 from the old man, and 120 from the other young Chinese guy. We then learned that the taxi driver is friends with a bus driver back at the bus stop, and that the bus actually got to the airport in one hour, not four. In fact, taxi drivers aren’t even legally allowed to be at the bus stop where we were picked up.

The Taxi Relay Scam, ladies and gents.

Sometimes you just have to take off your clothes to really express how pissed you are....
Sometimes you just have to take off your clothes to really express how pissed you are….

And the one thing that happened on our last trip to Guilin also happened on our way out of the city. Though it wasn’t as bad, and much less elaborate, it still annoyed me.

Before hailing a cab we were assured of a certain price, or at least what a ride should cost, to our destination. The driver we got, however, only saw me as a white face with zeros attached somewhere. He wants a ridiculous amount, and when we counter he basically just says, foreigners are all rich, that what he’s asking is nothing. This is, sadly, a way of thinking here. It gets a lot of foreigners in tight spots. People just think we all have money. When you claim you don’t most won’t believe you.

At first, the driver only talks to Xiao Ming and I stay silent, just listen. They go on a bit, but then I finally interrupt. I ask him why he’s giving us trouble. He is surprised I’m speaking Chinese, but not for long. He asks me, “What trouble?” I tell him that he knows, “what trouble.” I add that if he doesn’t want to take us then he can just stop and we’ll get out. I tell him we’re not in a hurry and that we don’t need him. Wo men bu zhaoji. Bu xu yao ni song wo men.

He then changes his tune a bit. He offers to take us to a bus stop nearby. At a normal price, we get there. Then, as we’re getting out, he says something I don’t catch. I ask Xiao Ming what it is, but she doesn’t tell me until we’re on the bus. Chinese girl with a foreigner—what does she thing? His tone, she said, had a lot of venom in it. When she told me all I kept thinking was, “I want to break his face”—the one with a nose and eyes on it, not mianzi.” I wanted to chase the narrow-minded buttnugget down and…But she calmed me down, and soon we were driving away from Guilin and to the airport.

These have been a few of my experiences with the Chinese Taxi Driver, a species of worker who sometimes sees every fare as an opportunity to practice their own special style of kung-fu: the art of the grubby paws.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some pleasant ones (singing with a cabbie, a driver who gave great local descriptions, and even one who saved me money), but the bad ones are just more plentiful, and they have the potential to ruin your trip to some degree.

Some of the foreign teachers I met when I first got here had a phrase that helped them see their way through the hard, inconvenient, and downright strange times: T.I.C-This is China.

Wo Xiang Qu Guilin

We traveled to Guilin, Yangshuo, and Chongqing two weeks ago…

But a few days before I traveled to Guilin I was in a taxi talking with the driver about music. On my way to my business English class the topic of what kind of music I liked somehow came up.

Taxi drivers are a strange breed; you can have very annoying experiences with them or pretty entertaining ones. You just never know.

After I told him where I wanted to go he made a comment about my Chinese. That turned into a conversation about me not liking Lady Gaga. I really am not sure how that happened.

When I asked about his music tastes he said he liked Eminem. He asked if I liked “Mei Guo Hip Hop.” I told him I liked some, but not a lot. My brother used to listen to it a lot. I prefer 80s rock, I said. He smiled and said, “Hotel California!” I humored him and agreed, that yes, The Eagles were great.

This carried on for a few more moments until he asked about Chinese music I liked. In truth, I don’t like much (any). I mentioned that I had recently begun learning some of the lyrics to an old Chinese song—“Wo Xiang Qu Guilin” (I want to go to Guilin)—since I was going to be visiting the place at the end of the week. He perked up and laughed when I quoted a few lines from the song.

After a few laughs, and him coaching me on the melody, he and I did a duet. Seriously. We sang the song’s chorus and a few lines after…

Of course he asked me what other songs I knew. I mentioned the, “Yin Wei Ai Qing,” (Because of Love) song and the other one, “Wo zui qinaide,” (My greatest love).  These two songs are EVERYWHERE here. Along with Adele, Michael Jackson, and a strange Western boy band called West Life, these are two Chinese songs I hear constantly. I was at a bar one night and the Chinese business men who were hanging out there requested the two Chinese songs to be played—on loop. Really. Anyway…

As soon as I said the Greatest Love song the taxi driver busted out with several lines from the song. “Qin ai de, ni guo de zen me yang?” And he kept going. He serenaded me until we came to a stop at my destination. And what’s really funny—he had a great voice.

As I climbed out of the cab he shook my hand and said, “Zai Jian, Pengyou.” Goodbye, friend.

A few days later, I boarded another plane; this time to beautiful Guilin. I’ll tell you about it soon.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0N7yIychcM

–This is the Guilin Song… Wo Xiang Qu Guilin.

Wo Zui Qin Ai De (My Dearest Love. By Zhuang Hui Mei (Ah-Mei) (This version is not sung by A-Mei. For some reason I CANNOT find a video of her singing it on American internet. Go figure. Usually I use the VPN to access stuff I can’t get on Chinese net. Never thought it’d go the other way.) The original is more beautiful, but this is a good cover….

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjSHDULwyjM

Yin Wei Ai Qing (Because of Love) By Eason Chan and Faye Wong

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYdMNECbDUY

Song Shan Days 6, 7, and 8

Rain lazily poured down the sides of the bus as Xiao Ming and I settled in to our uncomfortable seats and prepared for the few hours ride to Song Mountain.

I could barely keep my eyes open, and my head wasn’t all that clear thanks to the cold I picked up in either Luoyang or Zhengzhou, however, as the bus took to the road the small TVs descended and a classic began to play—Shaolin Temple. (Shao lin Si)

The world-famous temple known for the almost supernatural Shaolin Monks is located on Song Mountain and it was definitely on our agenda. Having never seen the old film, my eyes were glued to the screen despite my fatigue. A few early surprises—finding a young Jet Li in the lead role, and watching as his character kills a pretty innocent dog by smothering it on accident only to then cook it and share the meat with his fellow monks (who aren’t supposed to eat meat in the first place) in an effort to hide his misstep from the cute shepherd girl—kept me awake enough to follow the whole thing despite there being no English subtitles.

The movie’s credits rolled up the screen just as the bus came to a stop in Deng Feng, at the foot of Song Shan. We disembarked and hailed a cab, ignoring the ubiquitous “Black Taxis” that are everywhere in China. Those are people who are, as you can probably guess, not legal Cab drivers. They all appear to have black Volvos or BMWs or Volkswagens, and are really good at cheating folks. They like to target foreigners, but also snare their compatriots just as easily. Stay away. I’ll tell you more about Taxi Mishaps I’ve been privy to another time, just to elucidate the full range of my disdain for them, but right now we’re in Song Shan.

We outran the rain sometime a few miles back, so we could appreciate the small town without needing to duck for cover. The presence of the Shaolin Temple very obviously is the heart from which the community draws its lifeblood. Everywhere around the town frescos and murals of monks training or captured in some crazy aerial maneuver can be seen. Shops sell porcelain monks with styles ranging from traditional to down right gaudy.

The narrow streets and small shops don’t really scream tourist destination, but what really made the place feel like a quiet village mostly forgotten was the lack of people—Chinese and foreign. We had chosen to travel during this week because it was a normal work week for most and not a national holiday, but it still seemed like Deng Feng was more vacant than it should be.

Even the hostel we checked into had an empty feel to it. Don’t get me wrong, the little restaurant/hostel combo was very comfortable—especially the restaurant/café part. The interior had a decidedly international theme going. Flags strung up around the ceiling, pictures from different countries, and even the ever-present American country music rounded out the ambiance (I’ve asked before, but, seriously, what is with American Country Music in Chinese Hostel?). But we were two of what I later realized was probably less than ten guests. The people were nice, and in the evenings they show movies for free, so it’s a place I recommend.

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It wasn’t too late in the day, still around lunchtime, so we decided to make plans. We bought tickets to the Shaolin Zen Performance for later that night, and then headed out to the famous Song Yang Academy and hike along Song Shan’s trails.

The ancient academy turned out to be pretty docile, but still worth a look. Truly ancient, the structure had first been used as a temple way back around 484 AD, but then became an establishment of higher learning for Confucian scholars hundreds of years later. Song Shan is a symbolic area not just because of Shaolin fame, but because it is on the mountain and its surrounding areas that three belief systems more or less peacefully coexisted—Buddhism, Taoism, and the art of Zen.

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We walked through the open courtyard design and I couldn’t help but think of the Great Mosque in Xi’an, the one with similar open courtyards. Ancient tablets with faded inscriptions and tombstones with faded names were everywhere. Two gianormous Cyprus trees also hung out in the courtyards. These suckers were huge, and old, apparently.

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I took some snapshots with Confucius and some bamboo graffiti, and then we found a little room where a man sold charcoal prints he claimed were taken from tombstones and frescos at the Shaolin Temple. I wasn’t supposed to take a picture…but I did anyways. He even sold five together in a pack, and after some serious bartering, I managed to get him to sell us one set for 100 RMB. Xiao Ming and I split them three and two. One of the prints I eventually had set into a scroll and gave to a friend as a gift. It was an old Chinese poem, but the characters were created from the leaves dangling from a bamboo tree. Pretty cool image. The other two I kept were also very interesting. One, a face made up of three people’s face was symbolic of the three beliefs on the mountain, and the other one, a representation of the five sacred mountains of China written in ancient characters. But what made them all even more interesting was knowing that the designs had actually all come from the Shaolin Temple, which we’d be seeing the next day.

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Xi'an and Henan 631                                       This is the one that represents the three beliefs in one figure. The figure is comprised of three people, the big cheeses of Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen.

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Chinglish!
Because when grass smiles at you the fit is gonna hit the shan, man.

Thirty minutes into the hike, I realized two things: All of the people visiting the area had apparently congregated on the trails, and there was no way I was going to make it off the mountain alive if I didn’t turn back. The climb is really easy. Song Shan is a very old mountain, and it’s kinda got a globular shape more than a mountainous one. They even frequently refer to the mountain as an Old Man or Grandpa. It’s not steep at all, is what I’m saying. NO, it was my cold that had suddenly decided to kick my ass.

So in a move so out of character it was basically against my morals, I went back to the hostel and took a nap.

I look like a zombie, man. I was wiped out..
I look like a zombie, man. I was wiped out..

Later that night, though, I felt better.

We were driven about fifteen minutes away, to this outdoor theater of sorts, where the Zen Performance is held. The air held a chill that we hadn’t felt all vacation. Luckily, we packed anticipating a night or two of colder weather so we just enjoyed the brisk breeze and watched the show.

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The “stage” is really an elaborately designed set that is modeled after a village. Not just any village, either, but the one from the film, Shaolin Temple. And the show itself seems to model every act on scenes from the movie. First thing the audience is treated to is the sight of five elderly men in dark orange/yellow robes sitting in rigid positions about thirty feet in front of the area the audience is sitting. The men, we are led to believe, are traditional followers of the Zen practice. For the entire duration of the show they DO NOT MOVE. It’s cold, windy, and they are in robes, but they do not flinch, not even to pick their nose or scratch an itch. At different points in the show Xiao Ming and I questioned their very humanity, finding it hard to believe that modern geriatrics could pull off what we were witnessing.

The rest of the actual show progressed just as the movie had. We watch as a beautiful shepherd girl takes her flock to some fresh grass (they use real sheep and goats and seriously lead them to patches of grass on the stage). Then a bunch of young monks-in-training toting buckets held out to their sides come racing along the “village,” chanting all the way. Lights and music swirl around in the open air, and what’s probably the most impressive sight of all is the natural face of the mountain in the background, above and behind a temple. In the night the temple and mountain would normally be impossible to see, but they have incorporated both into the show as part of the set by having landscaping lights cast ethereal glows of greens, blues, reds, and purples all along both at different times. I found it difficult to constantly follow the show instead of just marvel at the scene and let the music fill me.

From young monks carrying water the show moves to slightly older monks going through fighting stances. The group seems to be in their early teens and much more focused. They through punches and kicks, and grunt and holler like true warriors, mostly. More dramatic music and dazzling lights. Then another group, older, going through more techniques, this time with weapons. The show continues on like this for a while, with small groups of monks performing various skills with an array of weapons. They pop up at all places, fully making use of every inch of the set, and making it easy for every audience member to see them. They never stay in one part too long.

At one point a portion of the stage actually lifts into the air and three electrified monks give an exhibition that looks like Christmas trees seeking revenge for being chopped down. Simulation battles, traditional Chinese songs, crazy light work, and five or six old monks who probably didn’t even blink the whole darn time—that about sums up the show.

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This image really just utterly fails to do any form of mild justice to the beauty of the actual scene…I’m sorry.

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When the lights dimmed and the woman on the speaker politely kicked us all out, then, under the cover of near-pitch black conditions, I saw the monk statue closest to us turn and look at the audience. They’re alive!

That night, back at the hostel, we hung out in the café/restaurant part and watched the movie, The Way. I had seen the flick before, but watching while you’re traveling gives it a different perspective. It’s about a father who goes to retrieve his deceased son’s possessions at the beginning of the Camino de Santiago. If you don’t know what that particular road is I recommend you do a little Googling. In the film the father, Martin Sheen, doesn’t just collect his son’s (Emilio Estevez) stuff, but travels along the old pilgrim’s road in an attempt to…just finish his son’s last goal. It’s a great movie that asks you to just take a look at what you’re doing and decide if that’s what you really want to be doing. Of course, the lead is a doctor who has the financial freedom to take more vacations than most of us, but the main thoughts are pretty accessible to all socio-economic levels.

In fact, when I began telling people that I was moving to China for a while a huge majority of them sighed and expressed a desire to do something similar, only to amend the wish with the words, “But I can’t.” I’ve not got much to my name, I’ve made scores of mistakes, and I’m still too young to be qualified to give advice, but when I think about all the people who have desires to change their lives, that want to do something else, only to crap on their own dreams with sentiments like, “someday,” “I can’t,” or “I don’t have the time,” I just want to make a blanket statement, the same answer to all of them: “Yes, you can.” That’s not a political reference but a basic building block of a simple belief. You can change yourself and your world.

Okay. That’s it. Pulpit is being burned down and used to cook come good Korean barbecue.

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The next day we took a bus to the Shaolin Temple bright and early. The temple area is more like a very big campus. You are greeted by a giant statue of a muscular monk, and then must walk a gauntlet of souvenir shops before you get to the actual grounds of the temple and its surrounding structures.

We took a cable car ride up the mountain to check out the scenery. I picked up a medallion as a souvenir for my step-dad and had the merchant carve his name into it. After having negotiated rather expertly for the prints earlier, I was disappointed when I only got the guy to take five RMB off the original price. Then we came back down and wandered around the Pagoda Forest for a while.

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We nearly missed the Shaolin Monk performance, but we raced down the narrow paths to the building and squeezed through the crowd in the dark theater and made our own seats at the base of the stairs. Creating our front row seats was surprisingly simple and a small kid thought it was a good idea, too, so he sat right next to me and periodically chatted with me in Chinese throughout the show.

The show itself turned out to be fun, but less genuine than an American kung-fu flick. Sure, the young monks had great skill and twirled their swords, staffs, and chains with precision, but the whole feel of it seemed a bit affected, a little too commercialized. A funny part of the half-hour performance included three young monks teaching three audience members a few steps and tumbles in the Monkey, Snake, and Tiger styles. The three audience members, young Chinese guys about my age, took to the tasks with about as much grace as a Hippo on a pogo stick.

A few demonstrations of qi were also part of the whole thing. One monk threw a needle through glass to pop a balloon. Another bent some metal bars with his neck. A third one did push-ups with one finger. All to rounds of applause.

After the show Xiao Ming bought a cheap DVD with more demonstrations and then we left the building. On the way out visitors were given the opportunity to pose for photos with young and old monks in fighting stances, or even allowed to hold blunted weapons and pantomime gestures for the camera.

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Finally, we headed to the actual Shaolin Temple.

It looked just like the movie! Only…smaller, in some way.

We entered into the temple, another open courtyard design (What is it the Chinese have against roofs?), and wandered around taking it all in. There were tons of other foreigners and Chinese tourists, some in small groups and others in larger ones led by tour guides. One group of French travelers had a Chinese guide with great French, so Xiao Ming (who got her PhD in France) kinda stalked them to get as much info as she could.

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A tree where monks practiced the sacred technique of poking.
A tree where monks practiced the sacred technique of poking.

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One of the famous monks from history Da Mo, is said to have been the one who gave Chan Zong or Zen to the Shaolin Temple. Legend says Da Mo traveled to India and back to learn the secrets of Buddha and that when he got back in town the current leader of the temple, otherwise known by his title as the Fang Zhang, wanted to become his disciple. Da Mo didn’t like the guy’s face or his arrogance or something, and said, “nope.” Instead, Da Mo found a cave and spent the next 8-9 years staring at a wall. The Fang Zhang, however, spent the better part of the next decade bringing food to the crazy guy in the cave so that he didn’t just rot away before he could pass on his teachings. Da Mo apparently psychically teleported the food from the bowls to his bowels because the legend says he just sat there, without moving. The Fang Zhang eventually got around to asking Da Mo what the hell, and the crazy man’s reply came out as something like, “Until the snows that fall become red, I will not train you.”

Having no regard whatsoever for himself or a rather inflamed sense of trust in men who spend every waking moment staring at walls, the Fang Zhang took the words to heart and chopped off his arm. He sprinkled his blood on a snow bank and then promptly tried to spell his name before giving a shout to Da Mo. When Da Mo got there he realized that the Fang Zhang’s crazy was that special little something that had been missing from his cave-staring days, and decided to take him on as a disciple.

The Fang Zhang’s masochistic nature is why Zen monks still walk around with their right hands in front of their chest. That, or it represents devotion and discipline. Either one.

Like this...
Like this…

Another story, about kung-fu, says that it was the fighting prowess of the Shaolin monks that helped soon-to-be emperor Li Shi Min defend China against an evil opposing army. Of course, this is the story that’s depicted in the film Shaolin Temple. In the end, after the bad guys are vanquished, the emperor grants the fighting monks of the Shaolin temple the right to eat meat and drink alcohol. So basically, he gave China’s bodyguards the right to get plastered. Nice guy. Also, throughout history the monks show up to help emperors—always on the side of justice, of course.

Da Mo himself, ladies and gents.
Da Mo himself, ladies and gents.

Unfortunately, a lot of the structures of the temple are not that old. Fame didn’t really do the temple any favors over the centuries. At different times, various walls and courtyards of the temple have been destroyed and burned down. The most recent was sometime in the 1930s. Just like the Longmen Grottoes, the place has fallen victim to the crashing, volatile waves of political unrest, and iconoclast tyrants.

Back at the hostel we grabbed some grub and chatted with some of the locals. We turned in early in order to wake refreshed the next day. My cold still clung to me with a vengeance, but it had been a great trip regardless.

The next morning we caught a bus back to lovely Zhengzhou and then a cab to the airport. The taxi driver turned out to be a huge conman, but we made it to the airport in time to board the plane despite his over-the-top disregard for human decency.

On the flight back to Dalian Xiao Ming and I talked about Chinese history, and I outlined a story idea I’d been nursing for the last few days inspired by the places we visited. I reviewed some of the new words I’d learned and tried to sleep a bit.