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.

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