Sunday, August 30, 2009

Noticing the details

Aug. 30, 2009

By Kevin

She'd been standing in the middle of our living room for several minutes gazing at the photograph.

"It's wonderful," she repeatedly said with wonder. "So beautiful."

Lily, our Chinese tutor, marveled at the trees surrounding Ruth's parent's home in Georgia. She stroked the grass with her finger. Everything about it was so different from her experience. The home is on several acres of land, surrounded by lush green grass and trees.

"Is it made of wood?" she asked, noticing the texture of the walls in the background of a family photo. Many of her questions are things we simply take for granted.

She explained how most Chinese homes are made of brick or cement. Most Chinese people live in multi-story apartment buildings unless they live in the countryside. I thought about how I've seen Chinese builders frequently pull the rebar out as concrete hardens so they can reuse it to erect the next level of an apartment building. I wonder whether or not they left the rebar in our walls.

She was amazed that Ruth's parent's home was somewhat typical in America.

"Kevin, what about your family's home?" I'd forgotten to print out a photograph, but I explained that it too was made of wood, noting that the prevalence of earthquakes in California means more wooden homes because they handle the shaking better. My mind flashes to pictures of the damage done in the Sichuan earthquake two years ago and compare it to the comparatively light damage I've seen when the ground shakes in California.

"Is that your car?" Lily asked Ruth, pointing to the foreground.

"My mother's."

"Does everyone in America have a car?"

"Not everyone, but probably most people."

Her friend Cherry was amazed to discover that our families don't all live in the same city and that many Americans, particularly in more rural areas don't know their neighbors well because they hop into cars and travel from place to place rather than walking or taking the bus. "In my hometown there are 300 who all know each other," Cherry said.

Just before this, as they were paging through our America photographs, they gasped when they saw the skyscrapers of Chicago. "Did you take this?" She asked. We couldn't remember if it was one I snapped or if Ruth took it. "The sky is so blue," Lily said. "So beautiful."

She was shocked. "I had heard that most developed countries do not have clean air," she said. but the sky here is very clean."

It's interesting how they noticed all the little details in photos that we never think of.

They spotted the castle-like administration building in the background of Wheaton graduation photos, wondered why a skyscraper would be labeled "Westin," and giggled at photos of Abby and Hannah playing with a magnifying glass, remembering how they too played dress-up as young girls. Seeing photographs of family, they were shocked to discover that both of our grandmothers still wear makeup. "In China, most women stop wearing makeup when they are 60," Lily explained. They were also amazed that our grandparents are still independent that they don't want to live with their children, even though they are in their 80s. In a photos of family, their eyes were drawn to the fireplaces in the background. "Do people burn wood in America?" Cherry asked. "In China we usually burn coal."

After convincing Lily to set the photos down, we played a game of Uno. I was amazed because these were the first two Chinese students we've played with who actually pronounced the word correctly "Oooh-no" not "You-no."

Then, as we chatted, Cherry sat down and began to play with Ruth's stuffed giraffes Geoffrey and Gloria, teaching us the animal's Chinese name: cháng jǐng lù - which means "long-necked deer."

Finally, though, the temptation to return to their studies set in and we parted ways. These girls are seniors hoping to study Chinese as post-graduate students in Beijing next year, so they spend most of their waking hours studying for January's post-graduate exam. It's good to be back getting into the flow of China life.

Friday, August 28, 2009


by Ruth

When I was home this summer, I thought about how nice it was to listen to the symphony of crickets as I fell asleep at night. It was such a summer-in-the-south, woodsy,country sort of sound. Well, the past few nights we've had a cricket take up residence on the laundry porch next to our bedroom and start it's own little little symphony. It's not quite the same.

Moral #1: Some things which are beautiful from a far are annoying up close.
Moral #2: Just because you sound fine singing in a group doesn't mean you should try it alone.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Coming "Home"

by Ruth

We have made it back to Weinan, after various means of travels and two days of meetings in Beijing. We arrived on the train this morning and have already gotten settled back in, plus had a cleaning crew come in to deep clean the apartment. It's such a nice feeling to be in a clean house (Although, half an hour after they cleaned, the dining table was already covered with enough dust to run your finger through. That's what happens when the windows are open, which is what happens when your A/C still doesn't work.) Now we are just trying to press through the exhaustion/jetlag for long enough until we can justify going to bed.

While we were in Beijing with other teachers, I kept hearing people talking about "going home" to their schools. For some people, who have lived here a long time, that seems legitimate. This is probably their home more than anywhere else. With other people, it seemed kind of campers calling their cabin "home" or something like that. But perhaps that's just me being judgmental.

It was nice to come back to Weinan, to our familiar apartment with all our things. It is nice to know our way around, to greet the guard at the gate and the owners of our favorite restaurants. But would I really call this home? It still seems too temporary. Only slightly more permanent than college. Sometimes I even feel like I'm not quite telling the truth when I tell people I live in China. Because I still go back to the states every year, I am still away from here for 3-4 months a year, I still have a US passport and a white face to show I don't belong. So does it count to say that I really live here?

I guess, after moving to so many different places in the past few years, I hold things more loosely. I know I can't quite get settled in. I never forget that anything I bring home I will soon have to pack up and move out. I wonder what "home" really means? After you live in a place for X months/years, does it automatically become home? Does it mean a place where you hang up pictures and put down rugs? I have those things. But to me, home signifies a certain sense of belonging; whether through ownership or memories or family, you have a claim to the place. Home means stability. Roots. Depth that doesn't come with one or two years. That's not what I have here.

It's not such a bad thing, just the way things are. And still, I felt satisfied when I opened my wardrobe and saw all my clothes hung neatly inside. It is a good feeling to come back to a desk drawer that is as cluttered as I left it. Maybe that means I do belong here, even if it's only for a few years, even if it's not quite home.

I am almost up to the 9pm mark, which means I am completely justified in going to bed. Good thing too, because my brain just went on standby. Which means, this is the end.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


by Ruth

I have been thinking lately about how rich we are. I heard recently that if you make $25,000 a year, you are in the top 5% of the world’s population (If you make $50,000, you jump up to the top 1%). We don’t make that much money. In fact, in America we would be considered below the poverty line, which is ridiculous because we are rich.

Admittedly, I don’t think that much about being rich. I’m much more likely to notice all the things we don’t have. I get jealous of people who have houses and nice furniture and new clothes. I usually compare myself to that other 5% and feel sorry for myself.

I have been thinking about richness especially in light of all the economic struggles here. A lot of people have lost their jobs, have lower salaries, or have lost their homes. And yet, most of them aren’t living on the street. Most of them still have food to eat and clothes to wear and cars to drive. Most of them are still rich.

I often feel poorer when I come back to America and remember the things I don’t have. Recently I have been thinking more about everything I do have.

I will steal an idea from a friend in Honduras, Will Meeks, who recently made a list of the things that make him feel rich. These are a few of my own:

-Going to McDonalds in China
-Driving a car
-Owning a computer
-Flying instead of taking 30 hour train rides
-Not wearing the same clothes every day (unless I want to… )
-Eating meat
-Having heat and (sometimes) A/C
-Drinking purified water
-Owning a whole collection of books
-Having belongings that are stored away
-A savings account
-Buying imported food in China
-Having more than a car full of belongings
-Being able to give money away without real sacrifice
-Rugs, throw pillows, and items that are just for decoration
-Eating out
-Being able to travel back and forth to America