Friday, September 26, 2008

It should have been simple, but then a hospital got involved

By Ruth (sorry - this is really long)

I was looking forward to getting into a normal schedule, but even though it's the first full week of classes, the "normalcy" part hasn't quite kicked in. To begin with, I missed my first three classes the week and spent half of Monday and Tuesday at the hospital. Don't worry - I'm okay. In the end, I was able to get some antibiotics to clear up an infection and everything seems to be returning to normal. It just took five tests and way too much familiarity with the local hospital to get there…

Day One

I was feeling bad on Sunday, so we asked a student helper (June) to go with us to see a doctor. Unfortunately, there are no doctors in the hospital on Sunday, so we had to wait for Monday morning. Monday morning is a very busy time at the hospital, and this day was extra busy because of all the parents bringing in their children to get tested for melamine. Hundreds of parents and children were stretched in a long line outside the hospital door (I'd estimate at least 300). The doctor we needed to see was on the same hallway as were all these parents were trying to go. The hall was so crowded we couldn't get through and had to find another door. Two nurses stood on chairs above the crowd yelling information through loudspeakers, but they were having little success establishing any sort of order.

We pushed our way into the small doctor's office, a 12x12 ft room that held 19 people. All of them crowded around the doctor's desk as one of the patients shared their medical problems. I thought about all the stringent privacy acts in American medical care. That's not so much a concern here. Kevin, June and I pushed our way back out into the hallway to wait our turn. We could breathe a little easier out there. When we were called back into the room, only about 8 people remained. I sat down on a small wooden stool as June explained my symptoms to the doctor. It probably should have been a little embarrassing to have all those people learning personal information about me, but for some reason it wasn't. Several people were sitting waiting on the examining table, and the doctor made them leave so he could examine me. That was nice of him. He said I should do the ever popular "pee in a cup" test, so we headed downstairs.

First stop, the pay station. Second stop, the table where a nurse handed out tiny, flimsy plastic cups slightly larger than a tablespoon. Third, down the hall to the bathroom, a squatty-potty which had not been cleaned in quite a while. There was no little metal door to put the cup through, like in America. Instead, you carry your little cup back across the hospital to the nurses station. A little awkward, except that I wasn't the only one wandering down the hallway pee-cup in hand. We had to wait 40 minutes for the nurses to do the test. Rather than standing around by the nurses window where little kids were doing their pee tests right there on the floor, June suggested that we walk to a nearby park. It was a relief to get outside of the hospital into the fresher air. By the time we got to the park it was time to turn around and head back to the hospital. We went back to the doctor to show the results and he said, “Nothing looks wrong so we will have to do other tests.” Actually, he must have said some other things since he talked for several minutes, but that was the part of the communication that came through translation. The rest of the time he may have been talking about how odd the foreigners looked or what he planned to eat for dinner or sharing some vital piece of information about my health. Who knows. He wrote a prescription for some kind of tea that will “clear out your system,” so to speak. I took it home, drank two glasses of the bitter tea, and waited for the system clearing to begin.

Day Two

With my system adequately cleared and myself feeling worse than before, we headed off for the hospital once again. I had spent the last day worrying a bit because the doctor said he wanted to check my appendix. While I didn’t appear to be having appendicitis-like symptoms, I was afraid it would end up being something bad. The last thing I wanted was for some Chinese doctor to start cutting me open. Our last experience of that kind is not really one we’d like to repeat.

Let me describe for you our progression around the hospital (which again was crowded with a slightly smaller crowd -- around 200 -- of slightly better organized parents waiting to have their children tested). Up to the second floor doctor’s office, down to the first floor payment window, over to the nurses window, back to the nurses window, up to the second floor testing room, across to the other side of the hospital, back down to the payment window, across the street to buy TP (I’ll explain in a minute), back up to the testing room, down to the nurses window, back up to another testing room, down to the payment room, back up to the first testing room, back over to the second testing room, back to the doctor’s room, down to the pharmacy, over to the payment window, back to the pharmacy and finally – out the door. For some reason, Chinese hospitals always seem to require this back and forth zigzagging puzzle.

So when we went to the first testing room where they did some kind of ct-scan but different thing, they told us to go buy a roll of TP and then come back. This made me nervous and confused. What the heck was about to happen? This is the part where we walked across the street, and when we came back, we waited for a while in the dim hallway. They often don’t turn on hallway lights in public buildings to save on energy costs. A doctor walked by with his face masked pulled down to his chin so he could enjoy a cigarette. There was something incongruous about that picture.

They finally called me into the testing room, along with June, my trusty interpreter. They unrolled some of the toilet paper to put down on the examining table and then had me lay down. So I guess they just didn’t want the trouble of keeping the table sanitary? Might as well just have everyone bring their own covering. Right. I won’t describe the whole process to you. Let’s just say it was…invasive. Extremely awkward both in essence and due to the fact that my poor student was standing by. But at the same time, it was hilarious. Though I was not enjoying myself at all at the time, I knew already that it would make a great story. Too bad I can’t tell you all the gory details. It’s much funnier that way.

Anyway, moving on, we went back out and waited for a while, then went to have this other test done. This was an ultrasound to check my kidneys. Eight or ten people were shoved up against the exam room door trying to push their way to the front. We pushed our way right in with them and got the test done. We took all the various results back to the doctor and he said a bunch of stuff out of which we gathered, “It is appendicitis, but not serious.” What? What the heck does that mean. He didn’t want to cut me up though, which is good, he just gave us a prescription for some antibiotic. Pretty much what I had been seeking in the first place, the day before. We got the medicine and gladly left.

When I got back I talked to my doctor sister who laughed at the “mild appendicitis” diagnosis saying, “There is no such thing.” We concluded that none of my symptoms seem like appendicitis or colitis (which was the other option they gave) or anything imminently threatening. So all those tests and hours later, I was pretty much back at the same spot where I started – except with antibiotics. I took the antibiotics. And now I am almost completely better. That wasn’t too hard. At least, it shouldn’t have been.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Quotes before launch

Students in China are excited about the launch of China's Shenzhou 7 mission tonight. Just as we got back home after doing our "Meet the Foreigners" culture lecture, a student sent Christina a message saying that the rocket would launch at precisely 9:09.

"What time is it?" she asked.


So we hurried to the TV and turned it on. Unfortunately, our cable, which worked when we moved in, seems to have gone out, so we don't get any TV stations. Otherwise, we may have been able to just barely catch the rocket just after takeoff. Oh well. Another historic moment missed. That's what the Internet's for, nowadays.

Anyway, people are excited and proud that China's first spacewalk is about to happen. It's a pretty big accomplishment. Very cool.

But it seems that the journalism here is a little shaky. I also read that news of the launch, including detailed quotes about things that had yet to happen, also got posted to the Xinhua website. Here's an AP article about it:
BEIJING – A news story describing a successful launch of China's long-awaited space mission and including detailed dialogue between astronauts launched on the Internet Thursday, hours before the rocket had even left the ground.

The country's official news agency Xinhua posted the article on its Web site Thursday, and remained there for much of the day before it was taken down.

A staffer from the Web site who answered the phone Thursday said the posting of the article was a "technical error" by a technician. The staffer refused to give his name as is common among Chinese officials. Read on...

Leaking a pre-written obit is one thing, but making up quotes about things that haven't yet happened? Big no-no. Newspapers in America often create files of obits on celebrities they think may die , so they can just add a few details about the cause of death, get a couple quotes and file it right away, which leads to big embarassment if someone accidentally runs it before the person dies (here's one example, and another). But it's gotta be even worse for the guy who runs the made-up story.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Tainted milk

By Kevin

I haven't heard from anyone in the U.S. asking about the China milk scandal, in which more than 6,000 infants have been hospitalized, include more than 150 with acute kidney failure and at least four have died after ingesting milk contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical used in fertilizers, plastics and cleaning products, which makes milk appear to have more protein. Apparently, it's the same chemical that was in the pet food recall last year.

Actually, I haven't heard from anyone in China about it either.

At first, the recall focused on dry baby milk, but now it's spread to two of the biggest manufacturers of regular milk, yogurt and ice cream.

After hearing that one of the companies whose products have been tainted -- Inner Mongolia Yili -- was an Olympic sponsor, I began wondering about the milk we've been buying (the only “low fat” milk we've found), because I remembered seeing Olympic rings on the packaging. Sure enough, it's Yili milk. We probably haven't ingested enough to get sick (pretty much just on cereal).

Apparently so far, 8 of Yili's 30 products have been found to have the chemical, but I haven't been able to find a list of which products specifically, so I suppose we need to try some other milk brands.

Then, I inspected the yogurt. Sure enough, it's another brand – Mengniu. Apparently 10 percent of their products have proven to be tainted so far.

Apparently, these are China's two largest dairies.

I continued to the Chinese-made butter and cheese. Recalls haven't made mention of either of these, but sure enough, they were manufactured by yet another tainted brand – Bright Dairy. I'm wondering if they've tested butter and cheese at all yet, because they're really not all that commonly used in China.

In any case, it does put you on edge a bit about buying any sort of food containing dairy products.

“Maybe we should just eat imported food,” Ruth joked.

The milk powder we bought doesn't seem to be among of potentially contaminated products. "If I made oatmeal cookies with the milk powder would you still eat them? she asked.

"I think so."

Some news sites are insinuating that the companies have known about the harmful effects of the chemical for months, or even years, but they kept it quiet during preparation for the Olympics.

Sadly, I'm reminded of stories from Tonghua, where I learned that, often poor families in China they rely on baby formula because they think that it is better for their children than breast milk. Now these babies are winding up with kidney stones and kidney failure because companies dilute products to make a small profit. Sad. I heard stories that even poorer families sometimes fed their babies Coke because the sugar would help to fatten them up, even if its nutritional value is negligible.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

All Things Considered

by Ruth

On Tuesday we heard a rumor that Freshmen classes might be starting soon. The rumor was confirmed when Wes got the official call on Tuesday night: classes would be starting on Thursday. I was a little surprised. I half expected to get an early Wednesday morning call saying, “By the way, classes start today.”

Today was the first day of classes, and my day started with a 7:30am class. I would complain-a lot, but it is the only day of the week I have class first thing. The day went pretty well, all things considered. The “all things” part included:

1. I arrived at what should have been my classroom and of course it wasn’t. Fortunately, a student recognized me and showed me which room my class had been moved to according to the new schedule which we hadn’t received.

2. I went to the new classroom and the door was locked. Even though the door “should” have been unlocked, I wasn’t really expecting it to be. I sent a student up to the office to find someone with a key. The bell rang. The group of freshmen huddled in the hallway smiled nervously. Eventually an apologetic woman arrived with a key and we all filed into the classroom.

3. The Phonetics class took place in a computer classroom. The computers may or may not have worked, but since I didn’t know how to use them, I decided to just leave them alone. Wes was going to get someone to come and explain it to me, but I forgot to tell him I had class this morning. I thought he knew. After all, I knew, and sometimes I assume people can read my mind. That never works out well.

4. I realized early on that the students did not have the textbook I was told they would have. They stared up at me with blank looks. After showing me several different books they did have, they decided none of those were for this class. I had one of those nervous moments when I thought, “Crap, now what do I do? At least half of my lesson is from this book!” But then I recovered and thought, “Oh well, I can always make stuff up.” One of the students stumblingly said something that I took to be “Our teacher will give us those books soon.” But since I was prompting half the words, I can’t really be sure. It could just be my wishful thinking.

5. The class went okay and I made do by writing a lot of stuff on the board. As another class of students came in for my second class, I noticed a large group of students congregated outside my door. I thought they were probably just wanting a look at the foreigner…until Wes came in and said, “Apparently you are supposed to be teaching this class too. At the same time. So if you could just run up and down between the two, that would be great…” I said, “I love multitasking.” I’ve just got to get better at the teleporting. So apparently this whole schedule thing hadn’t quite been worked out. I never did find out what happened to the other class. They disappeared before I could talk to them. I hope they don't hold it against me.

Really though, my other two classes went okay. After my second phonetics class, a crowd of students came up to take pictures with me. One girl bounded up and threw her arms all the way around me for a picture. I was like, “Well hello.” Of course she was the girl who, when introducing herself said, “I chose my name because it means cheerful! And I am very cheerful!! I want to always be cheerful!! I want my classmates to be cheerful!! I want the whole world to be cheerful!!!!” With that many exclamation points.

My third class was Oral English, and that is pretty easy. You just say some stuff and then tell them to talk about things. Maybe there are a few other elements involved, but no computers and very few pronunciation symbols. Which makes it easy in my book.

Kevin’s first day of classes began after mine ended: he had a late afternoon and an evening class. We each teach 16 hours a week and have managed to have no classes at the same time. Amazing how that works out. So it’s a little bit of a bummer, but there are still some times when we will get to see each other.

So the first day of classes is over. I feel like I actually have a job again, which is nice except for the sore feet and scratchy throat. I was happy today though, thinking about how much easier it was to handle all those crazy confusions now than it would have been several years ago. I guess I have progressed in the flexibility factor. Or I have lowered my expectations. Either way, it works out about the same in the end.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Guitar troubadours and Moonlight serenades (a belated Moon Festival post)

By Kevin

To celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival we opted to spend the evening outdoors, dining on “ethnic foods street.”

Ok, maybe the whole street isn't really a big variety of ethnic foods. It's mostly chuars – meat on a stick. So it's mostly Uyiger or Hui food. Good Muslim food.

As we ate our meat on a stick, no less than four guitar playing troubadours set out upon the crowd, toting amplifiers.

One guy carried his amp on his back, as he strummed his Fender Strat and sang into the evening breeze.

A girl, who was pretty good actually, handed diners a song list. After they picked a song, she went to work, strumming away on her Ibanez guitar for a few kuai.

Another guy, who was particularly tone deaf, repeatedly strummed one chord on his amplified acoustic guitar as he sang. Yet people politely listened.

It reminded me of the various street performers on Venice Beach or on the 3rd Street Promenade, but they were completely mobile.

“I wonder what songs they sing,” I asked, wondering if they knew any U2...perhaps “It's a beautiful day,” I thought.

“Maybe they sing moon songs.”

One of the traditions this day is to gaze at the big, round full moon, and eat round moon cakes with friends and family.

“Are there many moon songs?” Christina asked.

In unison, Wes, Ruth and I broke into three different moon songs...

“There's a bad moon rising,” Wes belted, evoking Credence Clearwater Revival.

“Moon River,” Ruth crooned, evoking Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany's.” “ Huckleberry friend.”

I opted for the Waterboy's cover of Victoria Williams from the “Sweet Relief” compilation: “Why look at that moon, a-way up high, seeing everything, that goes by, why look at that moon...”

Eventually, we headed back home, grabbing ice cream bars for the trip. On the way, we were coaxed to inspect a new spa with a sign declaring, “Physical Therapy.”

We found out that they'd do a 90-minute foot massage for 48 RMB, but if three of us got it, they'd give us the fourth free. However, they said prices range from 48 RMB for feet to 180 RMB for a full treatment.

They lured us in to inspect the posh surroundings, which were the nicest of any massage parlor I've seen yet in China.

But my bruised back just wasn't up for it today.

Two days ago, Ruth and I decided to check out the little massage clinic we'd walked by last week. She got a 15 RMB half-hour massage by a halfway blind guy. I was transferred to another guy for an hour of abuse.

Massages in China aren't about relaxation, I've learned. They're about healing.

So while we anticipated full-body massages, when they asked what hurts, we said “hou bei” - our backs....and they went to work on them.

By the time I left, my masseuse had grinded his elbow into almost every part of my back, done some chiropractic jujitsu moves to work out some kinks and left me feeling bruised and beaten. On the way home, I felt good, but by that evening, I could feel the bruises rising. They haven't made it to the surface, though, so maybe it'll be OK. Lots of soreness.

The “Physical Therapy” place however, seemed more focused on pampering and actually making you feel BETTER after you leave, so maybe we'll have to try it once our last massage heals. We'll see...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Biker names

By Kevin

We were on a mission: if we are to properly know Weinan, we would need bikes. Our destination was bike row: the place everyone in town goes to buy and sell bikes. Generally Sunday mornings are the time to go, we'd learned, because there are more bike-sellers on hand those days.

Unfortunately we have no idea how many of these bikes are legitimately being sold by their owners and how many were stolen and are now being resold.

I gazed for bikes that looked both sturdy and tall enough for my 6'3" frame.

A few bikes rode smoothly, but the people trying to sell them didn't want to go the extra step of adjusting the seat height so I could be sure I was getting something tall enough, so I moved on.

The opening price on my favorite bike, a lightweight 12 speed mountain bike was a little steep: 600 RMB (about $85). Figuring that Ruth went through three bikes in Yangzhou (two were stolen), I decided I'd better opt for a lower-priced model. But continued clutching onto it for another five minutes, inspecting it, considering if there was any way I could justify the purchase.

Eventually, Wes and Ruth found bikes for 240 RMB ($35) and 180 RMB ($26) respectively. Unfortunately, my hopes of getting something for less were shot by then. Word spread about how much they'd paid. "This one is newer," the seller would claim, when I offered 150 RMB for the bike I'd settled on, oblivious to the fact that it had a few rusty parts and more scratches than the others. "220."

He offered to raise the seat as high as it would go. Finally, someone who was willing to work with me.

I raised my offer to 180. He moved down to 210. 190, I offered. "200," he said. Probably could have bought it for 190, but I was ready to just get it. "Ok."

So then we set off on our half-hour ride back across the city.

On the way, Wes decided we needed biker names to use whenever we ride, in addition to naming our bikes.

Ruth became Zorba. Wes's biker name became Meat. I became Tank.

Ruth's bike? Sunshine. Wes' is T-Bone. Mine is Pedro.

We suggested that Christina's biker name should be Peggy or Peggy sue, but she didn't seem too enthused with the idea. We'll see... (for some reason firefox is crashing whenever I try to upload photos, so those may have to wait a bit)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Scattered Anecdotes

By Ruth

The freshmen have arrived on campus but are doing their military training. We expect them to start classes the end of next week or the following week, but we aren’t quite sure. Yesterday Wes asked the Vice Dean of the English Department when the freshmen classes will start. He said, “I don’t know yet. I will tell you when I find out.” That just seems to be how things work here.

Christina and I went to a vegetable market the other day. Lots of sellers were lined up along the muddy alleyways with tables and carts of fruits and vegetables and some raw meat. Among them were some guys selling teeth. They kept trying to get Christina and me to come over and have a look. We already have teeth, thank you.

Wes, Kevin, and I were looking over the Phonetics book we will be teaching from. It has a CD that goes along with it. A very British CD. Have you ever noticed that British pronunciation is a wee bit different from American pronunciation? This will be tricky since the main point of the book is pronunciation. Our students may end up even more confused than we are. On the plus side, I will learn a lot about English this semester.

Last night we were walking through the city square and saw a group of middle aged to elderly adults doing some kind of Mid-Autumn Festival dance to drum and cymbals. They were march/dancing around in a circle waving pink and purple fans. Several guys were dancing around holding purple flowery parasols. You just never know what you will see in China.

p.s. Guess how many times it took me to spell "anecdotes." Well, several.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Minibus adventures (part II of our Hua Shan trip)

By Kevin

As Wes and Ruth boarded our minibus back from Hua Shan to Weinan, I hurried over to a little store to buy us some water, figuring a shop in town would sell it for significantly less than the 5 RMB they charged on the mountain. 1.5 RMB bottles in hand, I hurried back to the bus, discovering that Wes had needed to use his “angry voice” to insist that the bus wait one minute for me to return before the driver left. That would have stunk, being left behind. I could have found my way back, but I was tired and it didn't sound very appealing.

We were surprised that the driver would want to leave with empty seats, since the bus only had seats for maybe 16. At 12 RMB apiece, the 10 passengers would only bring in 120 RMB (like $17). Surely they'd have a hard time breaking even on gas on the 2-hour drive.

Disappointingly, about 10 minutes down the road, in the next town, the driver pulled to the side of the road. At first, I thought he was picking up more passengers, but he wasn't. Instead he went into a store and sat down, poured some water and proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes eating a bowl of noodles while our stomachs growled, anticipating our first trip to Weinan's famed McDonald's (the only stand-alone McDonald's I've ever seen in China, let alone the only one with a drive-through). So this is why he was in a hurry to leave the bus was dinnertime.

I thought back to our journey to Hua Shan in the morning. Just before we got to the mountain, a policeman standing in the center of the road stopped our bus and made the driver pull to the side of the road. Angrily muttering something under his voice, he did.

The driver got out and hurried over to the police car parked at the side of the road and began bargaining with the police officer as the ticket-taker on the bus pulled a bag out of a locked compartment in front of us and brought it to him. She said something to the half-dozen passengers who had boarded mid-trip: the ones without seats, who were standing in the aisles. A few muttered things under their voices, but they exited the bus without a fuss. They knew the risk they were taking when they boarded the full bus: it's illegal for long-distance buses to fill the aisles with extra passengers. The trick is that 9 times out of 10, the law isn't enforced. The fines aren't stiff enough to stop the practice, so usually it is worthwhile for the driver to take on extra passengers. Clearly this sort of thing had happened before and the driver was prepared.

Wes overheard a passenger explaining to us what was happening.

“There were too many people on the bus,” he lamented, explaining that the driver was bribing the police officer with “several packages of cigarettes” so he wouldn't have to pay a fine.

“China isn't like America. In America you have laws, don't you?” the passenger said, going into a diatribe about the state of law and order in China.

He said he didn't mind buses taking on extra passengers. He was only frustrated that enforcement is inconsistent. Some officers enforce the prescribed fines, while others can be paid off with cigarettes.

By the time the evening driver returned to the bus and revved it up, we the sun had nearly set. We were ready to be back. Midway through the two-hour journey, the 18-year-old ticket-taker realized that Wes spoke Chinese. So she struck up a conversation with him.

In the middle, he asked us about what minimum wage is in America. Apparently, she was curious if most people in America worked on contracts or some other basis. He explained that he was excited to talk with her because usually blue collar workers in China don't speak very good Putonghua—standard Chinese--just the local dialect, so it's hard to talk with them.

He learned that the girl's family owned the bus, so she doesn't get paid at all, but her family earns anywhere from 4,000 RMB to 10,000 RMB per month in profit by operating it – a really good chunk of change for a family in small town China. He also discovered that the girl actually had a foreign teacher in high school. Apparently, there have been a handful of schools in the rural areas who employed foreign teachers.

When we got back, our legs ached. Even though we've made a point of using the stairs rather than the elevator most of the time to get to our third-floor apartment, our stiff legs told us we'd had enough exercise for the day. So we pushed the third floor button and staggered back to our apartment, exhausted. “I'm glad we went,” I told Wes. “At least I think I am.”

“Yeah, give me a couple days,” he admitted with a grimace, figuring that he'd appreciate our trip more after our legs healed a bit.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Steep mountain, sore calves (part I of our Hua Shan adventure)

By Kevin

Wes, Ruth and I slowly made our way past the peddlers selling 1 yuan gloves and entered the oddly empty temple at the base of Hua Shan. We knew it wasn't supposed to be as crowded as usual because school was in session, but this was still a Saturday. Only when we made it to the top of the temple did we find out we'd entered the wrong gate, because we wanted to ride the cable car halfway up the mountain.

So we made our way back down the street. Peddlers, thinking we were fresh off an all-night hike offered us beds at their hotels and meals. We just shook our heads and plodded on, disappointed that we'd wasted several hundred steps of muscle power.

We hopped in a 10 yuan taxi to cover the short distance to the other entrance to the National Park, where conveniently no local buses seemed to go. Then we plopped down 20 yuan for the absolutely essential 15-minute bus ride up to the cable car. Then another 100 yuan for an entrance ticket and another 110 yuan for the also absolutely essential cable car ride. Why they don't just combine these all into one 230 yuan ticket is beyond me. I didn't see a single person walking up the bus route to the cable car, though there were a few brave souls who opted directly for the stairs once we got there. So maybe just combine the entrance ticket with the bus ticket.

Anyway, as we waited in the 10 minute line for the cable car, we admired the 60 degree climb it took up the mountain, knocking perhaps 1,500 stair steps off of our journey. We marveled at the blue skies and wondered how many accidents the cable car had had, figuring they wouldn't want to risk paying the 50,000 RMB life insurance policy that came with the ticket should they lose one of us. As we sat down, we were grateful to see that the cable car had been in fact made by an Austrian company. We felt more secure.

After 5-10 minutes ascending the mountain in a cable car, we began our climb. We admired locks that had been attached to chain railings. Adoring couples supposedly buy a lock, shackle it to the chain and throw away the key, symbolically locking their love for eternity, or at least until the lock rusts off. And of course, there were numerous shopkeepers peddling locks, alongside various Hua Shan trinkets, including a special Hua Shan Olympic gold medal (they had silver and bronze as well, but I didn't see anyone buying those.

We trudged up stair after stair for a good half hour, including ascending the “Heavenly Ladder,” a stone ladder ascending a rock on an 80 degree vertical with only two-inch divots in the rocks and chains to help pull you up, before we got a good glimpse of it: “Black Dragon Ridge” (I think that was it's name, at least, though one sign changed the color, calling it “Blue Dragon Ridge.”) Anyone who wants to see the North, East or West peaks at Hua Shan has to ascend the perilous Black Dragon Ridge, which takes you up a perhaps 70 degree vertical climb for a few hundred stairs.

As we gazed at it from afar, we debated whether or not to attempt the ridge. We were a bit out of shape after a year back in the states, so we were already huffing and puffing.

“Are we going to regret climbing it or are we going to regret not climbing it?” Wes asked.

“Probably both.”

After worried looks, we began trudging up the steep staircase, bolstered on both sides by chain railing. By the time we reached a rest area overlooking the stairs from the top,we were exhausted. Our calves burned. Our lungs hurt. My Achilles ached. After a few minutes of regathering our breath in the thin mountain air, we continued up the slope into a series of switchbacks surrounded by trees. Little did we realize, we were only a little more than halfway up the peak and that we'd be hiking for a couple more hours before we reached the tip of the Western Peak, which we aimed for.

My legs began to shake with each step and I began to think about how we were going to have to go back down all these steep embankments to get back to the cable car.

I'd estimate that the climbing population was 99 percent Chinese. In our entire time on the mountain, we saw only a handful of foreigners. Probably less than 10. There were thousands of Chinese. Some smiled and shouted “ZhaiYou,” encouraging us up the mountain. “Only 10 more minutes to the top,” one said with a smile, seeing us resting our aching bodies at the side of the stairs. “You are very close.”

We reached the peak and soaked in the cold breeze, amazed at the beauty of the peaks, mostly below us now. Shocked that we could see the Yellow River in the distance through the haze.

But for every few encouraging comment we heard on the way up, Wes translated the snickers and probably unintentional jabs that stabbed our pride as we descended the mountain, with seemingly fresh-legged Chinese people racing ahead of us, taking the uneven steps lightly, seemingly unconcerned that heavy legs might betray them and send them hurling over the cliffs.

“If they can do it, I can do it,” a woman in her 60s said to her companion, nodding to Wes and I.

On the way down, we moved much more quickly. However, stabbing pain made my left knee throb every 15-minutes. As we rested for a moment, several groups flew down the steps beside us.

“Are you going up or down?” one girl asked.

“Down,” said Wes.

“Look, the fat foreigners made it,” she said to her companion, perhaps forgetting that Wes had just answered her question, demonstrating that he could understand Chinese.

“It can't be that hard if they can do it,” said another.

Inside I fumed, wanting to shout my amazement that someone with absolutely no muscle mass could accomplish the feat. Immediately, I was convicted about my pride and my need to (as Henri Nowen would put it in today's Wheaton reading) "shake off (my) compulsions and dwell in the gentle healing presence of the Lord," but instead I fumed. I dreamed of ways to lash out, to regain my self-respect. But inside, I heard Dad saying, "no, let this go. I'll fight for you. The next morning, the recorded message we listened to reminded me that pride is our enemy because it blares in our ear: "fight for your rights, fight for your self-respect," when in truth we need humility. Then again today, reading a passage in Henri Nowen's "The Way of the Heart," the topic returned in his discussion of our need for daily solitude to fight our compulsion toward anger and greed: "What else is anger than the ipulsive response to the experience of being deprived," he writes. "When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word."

Harsh, perhaps, but so true.

Aching, we approached the cable car, grateful that we'd have the opportunity to sit soon. I tried to lift the hearts of the people around us and stand in awe of the Maker of this beauty, but it was a struggle. Finally, during our half-hour wait to ride back to the base, my heart was calmed. I was grateful to be spared anymore climbing.

Xian Shopping Trip, AKA, how much Western food can you buy in China for $100?

By Ruth

Yesterday we took a team shopping trip to Xi'an, the big city about an hour west of here. The bus there only takes about an hour, but then it takes another hour to get across town because there is so much traffic. It was raining and cool, a perfect day for Starbucks. Fortunately, Xian has several. The main focus of our trip was a wonderful store called Metro. It is a wholesale store, kind of a mix between Costco and a supermarket. It has two long aisles of imported foods plus other surprising treasures.

My first hope was to find a crockpot, which I did. It is a beautiful crockpot at that, decorated with scenes of Chinese life. At least half of the things I know how to make are in a crockpot, so this will be quite helpful. We will also have mostly afternoon and evening classes, so it will be helpful to have something already made.

Metro has even more good foods than I expected. We found cereal (we got 4 boxes), hot chocolate, bacon, popcorn, frozen bagels, refried beans, and salsa. We also got a huge 12lb block of cheddar cheese to split amongst the team. We spent a lot of money. Probably as much money as I’ve ever spent at a supermarket in America, but it seems like a ton more when in China. Kevin scoped out some grill options to check out on a future trip. I even saw a plastic swing set, which was a little strange, because who has a yard to put a swing set in? The only people who seem to have outside space are country people, who wouldn’t be buying a swing set.

Anyway, it was a wonderful store. I am glad to not live in Xian because it is so busy and crowded, but I am happy to live conveniently nearby.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Singing and Dancing

By Kevin

“Man, the ... party is fierce,” Wes said with a grin as we left the karaoke bar.

We rode home, astonished at what we just took part in.

“That was just bizarre,” he repeated, as we got out of the taxi returning home. “You had 40 and 50 year old professionals, most of whom are members of the party. That was somethin' else.”

"It was fun," Christina said. "Thanks for coming with me."

Just after noon, the foreign affairs official (FAO) told us that there would be a banquet tonight.

When we got there, the dean of the English department told us, in English, that the banquet was being held in honor of teacher's day and Mid-Autumn festival, which are both coming up in the next couple weeks.

We enjoyed an array of delicious dishes and met several teachers and deans in the department, most of whom seemed genuinely excited to meet us. We learned that the dean at one point in time spent a year in Florida as part of a teacher exchange. We also discovered that one of the teachers in the department is about to go to Cuba to learn Spanish. The school hopes to begin offering Spanish classes. “But that plan might be a bit ambitious,” she confided to us after saying that “Espanol” is the only Spanish word she knew. We tripled her vocabulary, adding “hola” and “adios.”

After the banquet, we were invited for "singing and dancing" at a nearby karaoke bar.

Initially, we turned down the offer because we wanted to go downtown for ice cream and to explore the square, which Christina said is fun at night. But Christina felt a tug on her heart. “Do you think we should go?” she asked. “They've never invited us to do anything like this before. Maybe we should go. Show our solidarity...We don't have to stay long.”

By the time we got halfway across the street, we were hedging on the ice cream. By the time we made it across the street, guilt had set in. So we turned back.

“We changed our minds,” we told a couple teachers.

When we entered, the other teachers greeted us warmly and hurriedly escorted us to a table. One teacher was already singing a famous Chinese pop song. When she sat down, Wes decided to dive in, to the delight of the 20 teachers and deans who came to the afterparty. Wes sang a popular Chinese song, and several teachers gleefully sang along with him. Later, the dean asked Christina to a slow dance in the middle of the dance floor, twirling her around a couple times before the song was over.

The FAO then brought a long list of karaoke songs for Ruth and I to sing. All the pages but one were in Chinese. But the one page of English songs wasn't much help. The best prospects for Ruth and I to sing in the list of 20-plus-year-old hits seemed to be “Yesterday Once More,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Not exactly high on our list. They said we could chose something else if we wanted and they would search for it. We settled on the Titanic hit, “My Heart Will Go On,” figuring that our foreignness would outweigh my partial tonedeafness (I can hear the right notes, just can't always produce them well unless I'm singing in a group). Again, teachers sang with us and applauded loudly at the finish.

Since we'd done our duty, we made an exit plan: one or two more songs. But the dean of the department had other plans, pleading for us to stay for one more song.

As a dancing baby came onto the screen, he raised his arms to the roof to a driving dance beat and dragged us into the middle of the room. We found out why he didn't want us to leave just yet: this was a "singing AND dancing party."

Thankfully, we weren't the only ones. A dozen teachers, most in their 30s, 40s and 50s, grabbed hands and made a throbbing circle, swinging arms back and forth stepping forward and back with the beat. Before long they pulled Wes into the center, prompting him to strut his stuff, to the delight of everyone. Within the next several sweaty minutes, each of us had been pulled into the middle to spin around and shake our hips like crazy people. They did the same with the Chinese teachers. It was odd, but kinda fun.

Like Christina said, it was a good chance to bond a little both as a team and with the other teachers at the school. Maybe this will be an opening to get to know them a bit better.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Video apartment tour

We thought that some of you might enjoy a video walk-through of our apartment...

Here it is...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Week 1 in Weinan

by Ruth

I'm not really "feeling" the writing, but I did promise we will update more, so I will give it a go. You already saw Kevin's story about our interesting travel adventure, but in the end everything worked out okay. We arrived at our apartments not long before 2am, brushed the top layer of dust off the bed before falling asleep, and then woke up at 6am (jetlag). We hired some cleaning ladies to come and clean our apartment, which was totally worth it. They worked for about five hours and cleaned pretty thoroughly while we worked at unpacking.

The previous teachers left a boxes and boxes of stuff for us, lots of useful things like linens, kitchen supplies, and a printer, plus some top rate food. Most of the basics, a whole box of spices, bags of chocolate chips, cake mixes, pudding...and 25 boxes of jello. Picture it. That's a lot of jello.

After about a week here, we have gotten most of our things organized and the apartment has acquired a new layer of dust. And it even rained this week. The weather has been "very changeable" (Chinese students' catch-phrase). The first few days were pretty hot and overcast/smoggy. After the rain and wind, the sky cleared up a lot and the air got cooler. Kevin and I walked to the hills behind campus. The campus is on the edge of the city, so we followed some railroad tracks to some small paths to some smaller paths and after about 20 minutes found ourselves in the middle of corn fields and fruit trees. We climbed high enough to look down over the city, and the air was clear enough that we could see the whole thing, plus some surrounding trees and hills.

Even though classes started last week, Kevin and I will not start teaching for two and a half weeks! We are both going to be teaching freshmen classes, and the freshmen start later than the other students. They will come to campus this weekend and then have two weeks of military training before beginning classes. So we have plenty of time to settle in, explore the area, plan lessons, and hopefully visit Yangzhou. We are going to be teaching Oral English, which we've taught lots of in the past, and Phonetics, which we don't know much about. The good thing is, we actually have textbooks, which appear to be decent. The bad thing is, when I look through the textbook I see words like "fricatives" and "approximants" and "dipthongs," and I have no idea what those mean. They sound like quasi-swear words. "Oh fricatives!" or "Those dipthongs!" I guess I will be learning some phonetics as I go.

We have started our office hours. About a dozen students piled into the office to talk and ask questions. They were very interested in us, of course, since we are the new teachers. It was pretty tiring (especially the first night when we were there until 9:30pm, which was really past our jetlagged bedtime), but we've had some interesting conversations. Yesterday they were telling me about all the ways they were naughty as children. It was pretty fun. The students are all very friendly.

We have been out and about a little bit. We have been to two different supermarkets. The other day, two little girls followed Christina and I around the entire supermarket just smiling and watching us. We have been to several restaurants. We have found some good food (Kevin was especially excited about the DongBei Restaurant (Northeast style food). Since we aren't familiar with the restaurants yet, we have had a bit of difficulty. We keep ending up in these specialty places and not knowing what we just ordered. Nothing has been bad so far, but it has definitely been confusing and a little frustrating. A lot of the food is spicy, which makes sense due to the proximity to Sichuan. There are a lot of Muslim restaurants around. There is a larger Muslim population in the area and even a mosque in town.

So, that's about all I can think of. We have pretty much gotten over jetlag but are still tired. I'm still ready to go to bed at 9pm. :) I guess all the confusion and wandering around and figuring things out takes energy. But it has been much, much easier than the first time. When we arrived back in China, it felt like we hadn't really been gone that long. It will be nice to get started with classes and into the routine of things, but for now, it's good to have time to settle in.

Check out new photos at Apartment video walk-through also coming soon!

Monday, September 1, 2008

When a paper ticket isn't a paper ticket

Aug. 26, 2008, posted on Sept. 1

(this post is a little delayed because we just finally got set up with Internet on one of our computers – the other one may take a bit longer, judging by the numerous times the computer tech guy muttered a string of curse words after the word “Vista.” However, I thought it might be best to blog at least somewhat chronologically).

By Kevin

“Do you have your ticket?” she asked, looking skeptically at our boarding passes.

“Yes, this is it,” I replied. “This is our boarding pass.”

The woman at the Air China gate crinkled her nose and blurted something to her partner. “Something, something Meiguo piao,” she said. “...America ticket.”

Indeed, our boarding passes were printed in the U.S. by United.

Then she asked us to stand to the side of the line and wait a moment while she let other passengers board the plane from Beijing to Xi'an. Our apprehension level increased.

“Do you have your paper ticket?” one of the airline workers asked.

“They did not give us a paper ticket,” said Ruth. “Just an electronic ticket.”

More furrowed brows. Apparently a ticket from America wasn't the standard protocol in China, which perhaps we should have figured out when both the woman who re-checked our bags and the security guard asked similar questions five hours before. Yet, both of them let us pass, perhaps thinking that it would be better to let the airline deal with it at the absolute last minute, rather than five hours before our flight.

“We have a paper printout of the electronic ticket,” we offered, handing them the paper we got when we did online check-in before our flight left Atlanta about 24 hours before. Initially, they seem pleased, perhaps because it does resemble a ticket and it is on paper, but when they realized it had no Chinese on it, they repeated, “please wait a moment.”

Christina, our teammate, who is also teaching in Weinan, waited alongside us in our designated place just behind the counter. There are still 15 minutes until the plane is scheduled to take off. “I'm sure they'll figure it out,” she says. She waits to make sure.

We continued to wait. Curious, we glanced on the computer screen. Our names were at the top, easy to recognize because they were two of the only names in English on the list. Each time a passenger's boarding pass was scanned, their name disappeared from the list and a recored voice chimed, “Xie xie.” “Thank you.”

As the line disappeared, no less than three people frantically went to work trying to figure out what to do with us and our United-issued, all-in-English boarding pass for seats 30 B and C. Should they let us onto the plane?

“Clearly we're in the computer,” we mentioned to one another at least three or four times. Once we even pointed it out on the screen to one of the workers, but that's not the information they needed. We began to wonder if they would let us on at all. About this time, we convinced Christina to go ahead and board the plane. “I'm sure they will let us on,” we assured her, but our confidence was waning a bit.

With about five minutes before takeoff, I had a thought: “What about our baggage tags, maybe they can tell we're properly checked in if they see that our baggage tags are scheduled to go all the way to Xi'an.”

Ruth dug them out of her purse, but the airline worker smiled and said that's not what they needed.

Much later than I should have, I admit, I began to ask Dad for help, I asked that he would resolve the situation and get us to Xi'an, tonight if at all possible.

At 8:30, the time the plane was scheduled to take-off, there were still six or seven names left on the computer screen, a man began walking toward us. Apparently someone with authority, because the workers excitedly began explaining the situation to him. Perhaps he was one of the people they had called. He asked for our boarding passes. After glancing at them for a moment, he tore them and they let us board the plane.

We crawled to our seats all the way in the back of the plane and scrunched into the tiny seats and waited, longing for the emergency exit row seats we'd been given on the trans-pacific flight hours before. After about 15 minutes of waiting, the pilot made an announcement in Chinese. The Europeans seated across the aisle from us asked a flight attendant what the delay was. “We are waiting for clearance,” she said, pointing out the window at the heavy rain that was falling.

They began serving drinks. We continued to wait. After a good 45 minutes of waiting, another announcement came. The flight attendants rushed to their seats and we darted into the air. Finally, we were off to Xi'an. Only one leg of the trip to go.

The FAO at the school was tired, so she sent her husband, a student and a driver to meet us at the airport at 12:30. We piled into a hot van and sauntered off to Weinan, trying not to choke on the thick air. By the time we were home, it was 2 a.m. Exhausted isn't a strong enough word, seeing as how I think I'd dozed off for a total of 15 minutes in the past day and a half...