Saturday, May 29, 2010

Children's Day

By Ruth
This morning Kevin and I were the special guests at a primary school outside Weinan. Today is Children's Day, and one of my students had asked us to come to the school she works at on the weekends. They were having a special celebration and could we come sing songs and play games with 100 children?

This morning we piled into a van to begin the bumpy “1 hour” trip to Dali, a small town which is actually at least an hour and a half away. It's funny, because things always take longer than expected, always, but for some reason I still set out thinking, “One hour.” I never learn.

When we walked in the small school building, a group of students sat inside the door, staring at us interestedly through their makeup and costumes. “Later they will perform for you!” my student said. She said they told the students to come at 9:30am (about when we arrived), but many of them were so excited they had arrived at 7:30am. “They hadn't even eaten breakfast! We tried to get them to go back home and eat, but they didn't want to miss anything.”
[Waiting Eagerly]

We went upstairs to where the students were waiting, crowded around the walls of a small room. It looked like less than 100, but then they were all pretty small and sitting very close together. The headmaster said there were 90 students at the school, and I doubt any of them missed our visit.

We started with B-I-N-G-O, which some of them already knew. Actually, when we started singing, “There was a farmer had a dog...” they all cried out “EI-EI-O!” So later we sang that song as well. We did Hokey-Pokey, Simon Says, Ten in a Bed, and some other songs, with my student helping to translate the instructions for the students. If nothing else, they loved to do the actions and shout out the words they could remember. After about half an hour, my student said, “Okay, we can take a break and watch their performance.” Two groups of little girls came and danced, first a Chinese dance and then a cha-cha. They were all decked out and mostly very serious, quite good for 8-12 year olds.

Then it was time for more games and songs, another half hour until I ran out of items on my list. I was pretty tired by that point, from all the singing and shouting and jumping up and down. The students then began to process up with little gifts for us – pictures and cards they had drawn, paper-folded shapes and animals – it was really quite cute. Then they gathered round for group pictures with us before being sent off.

And seven hours later, we were back. Naptime!
 [The little girl in orange I just thought was too cute!]
 [This little boy is holding the folded paper bird he made for us.]

[One of the classes getting arranged for picture time with the foreigners.]

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Keys to a Healthy Pregnancy: The China Guide

by Ruth
Our student Kiki was admiring the little bouncy baby seat she helped us buy from (sort of like a Chinese Amazon). “In China, we don't have seats like these. We don't put the baby down.” She said when her mother was alone and trying to get something done, she didn't know what to do with Kiki because she had no where to put her. So she put her in the washing machine to hang out while she did housework! I laughed and laughed. I guess it works... (Chinese washers don't have a post in the middle and are smaller than American washers).

About a week ago, Kiki and some other students were over visiting and started doling out pregnancy advice. Once they got rolling, they were unstoppable. It was great fun, and we learned all kinds of interesting things. In China, there are an awful lot of rules for what you can and can't do, and especially what you should and shouldn't eat while pregnant and after the baby is born.

We learned that some foods are “yin” and some are “yang,” and only yang foods should be eaten during pregnancy. Yang foods include beef, chicken, apples, green beans, and potatoes, while yin foods are things like pears, bananas, spinach, watermelon, seafood, and pig liver (oh darn).

Some of their advice was a bit contradictory though, since at one point they said not to eat “yin” bananas, but earlier they I should eat bananas since they are good for the baby's brain. Incidentally, walnuts are also good for the baby's brain because the nuts look like a brain.

Drinking cold water is, of course, a death wish. If it's bad for you in normal life, imagine the harm it could do while you're pregnant! This continues to be important after giving birth. In fact, you shouldn't even touch cold water in the first month because your joints have loosened and if cold gets into the joints, you will have arthritis later. This is also why you should wear lots of layers (and a hat) after having a baby, because cold wind can have the same detrimental effect.

The first month after giving birth is extremely important for recovery. If possible, the woman should stay in bed for the full month. If she does not recover adequately, she will have many health problems later in life. Traditionally, the new mother should not wash her hair for one month after giving birth – but now one week is considered passable. To aid with recovery, the students recommended several things.  First, black chicken. I don't think we have black chicken in America but here you can find it at the supermarket – little chickens with black skin. Something about them is very good for the blood. Kiki said her aunt ate 15 chickens in the month after having a baby!  Also good for the blood is a potion translated as “donkey hide gelatin.” Kiki graciously offered to buy some for me to eat after giving birth.
    Of course they are all very curious if it is a boy or a girl and gave various theories for being able to tell. Do I crave spicy or sour food? Spicy means a boy and sour means a girl. They're always a little let down when I tell them I don't really like either. Also, if your belly is rounder it means a boy, whereas a “pointy” belly means a girl.
    The students were going at it for probably about an hour, while I alternately smiled and nodded and laughed outright. Fortunately we know and like these students a lot, so their advice wasn't annoying, just amusing. One of the girls was sitting quietly for most of the time and after a while she calmly said to the others, “I'm sure her doctor will tell her what to do. These things will probably be helpful when you are pregnant, but I doubt that Ruth will follow your advice.” I told her it was okay; they were having so much fun dishing out the advice, it seemed like a shame to stop them.

    Monday, May 17, 2010

    50 Year Celebration

    Kung Fu Dance
    Originally uploaded by kevsunblush
    By Kevin

    Last weekend, our school celebrated its 50th anniversary with a massive gala. Students spent much of the last several weeks preparing for it. Even those who weren't going to be performing had to practice sitting out in the sun for several hours on Friday afternoon.

    We traveled to Beijing earlier in the weekend, and in spite of two trips to the doctor's office and multiple ultrasounds, they weren't able to tell us if it's a boy or a girl. But they were able to tell us that the baby looks healthy. We managed to stop by Pete's for Tex-Mex, Annie's for Italian, Ikea for Swedish baby furniture, Jenny Lou's for awesome groceries, a steak and burger barbecue potluck and Coldstone in celebration of Ruth's 27th birthday. To Beijing, we wound up taking a soft-sleeper train car for the first time in a long time and we were shocked to open the door to our compartment (4-bed soft-sleepers have doors, unlike 6-bed hard sleepers) and find, sitting in front of us, Americans who had been traveling to see Xi'an from their home in Changchun. On the way back, in our noisy hard-sleeper, we noticed how much softer the beds truly are on the soft sleeper and how much smoother the train ride was.

    Back to the celebration: we were tired and cranky when we got back to Weinan, but we hauled ourselves out to the morning's speeches in time. Unfortunately, the school had "invited" us (meaning "you will be there") to come at 9 a.m., although the festivities wouldn't kick off until 10. But we caught a break: other teachers had to come at 8 a.m. Who knows how early the students had to arrive. We got to sit there listening to a pair of announcers reading a list of hundreds of schools in China that had sent congratulations on our school's 50 years.

    Strangely, when I paged through an old book listing statistics on all the universities in China that they had at our organization's headquarters in Beijing, it said the school was founded in 1978, so somebody is mistaken about some dates.

    Anyway, for the ensuing two hours we sat quietly and tried not to doze off during long speeches by dignitaries, hoping that the small orchestra would play the opening bars of the "Star Wars" theme before the next speech (they alternated this with a Chinese piece of music). Just before the ceremony began, hundreds of alumni filed in to fill the pink chairs right in front of us. This was interesting because in China alumni events are rare, particularly at schools that aren't among the top tier, so it was good to see that many who may not have ever set foot on this campus before came (the school only moved here from its old campus several years ago).

    While we waited, we learned that two slightly strange new statues (one is a hand relasing doves and the other is a communications satellite) that were erected on campus the week before cost the school no less than 500,000 RMB ($75,000) apiece and wondered where the money came from. Later, city officials announced a 500,000 RMB donation to the school.

    Throughout the morning's speeches and performances, a giant camera crane swooped back and forth in front of us, making sure to frequently show the token foreigners on the giant screen up front for all to see. Since the stage was strangely positioned behind us, we had to crane our necks to see or resort to the big screen in the front. I kept waiting for the school to show the footage they shot of me teaching from class sometime last month, but didn't see it (I heard later that it was shown before the evening's performances).

    Thankfully, the speeches were interspersed with various performances by musicians, ranging from a diva-esque opera singer in a massive white dress accompanied by green-clad dancers, to another diva-esque opera singer in a massive pink dress. In between, there was a traditional dance by peacock-like dancers, performances by musicians wearing marching band uniforms and a parade of students who had passed graduate school exams and a marching band. Unfortunately, most of the singers were so ear-splittingly loud for those of us with the "good fortune" of sitting directly in front of the speakers at the front that even Chinese people (who are able to tolerate amazingly high levels of noise) were wincing during parts. At one point, a toddler sitting in front of us wearing a shirt that said "musician" on it covered his ears with both hands and started wailing. Near the end, they released hundreds of doves into the sky. (follow this link for more pics:

    During one of the musical performances, there were a pair of loud explosions. At first, we guessed that the explosions were just firecrackers accompanying the release of small balloons, but we found out later that several students had been burned during the performance, some of them severely, when one of the large blue-and-white China Mobile balloons exploded.

    "It was horrible," said one student, adding that their injuries were serious. "They need to have surgery."

    "Now our school is famous," said the student, explaining that the media had picked up on the story. "Or maybe I should say notorious."

    Xinhua ( has reported that 12 people were burned on the face, neck and arms after decorative balloons filled with hydrogen exploded during the ceremony. Eight were hospitalized. The article said 20,000 people attended the ceremony. A witness said he saw the balloons blow up and catch fire mid-air.

    According to Xinhua, the hydrogen-filled balloons, which are banned from use in school activities by the Chinese ministry of education, exploded while being released from a bag. "The sack had a small opening and the balloons rubbed against each other. It was static electricity that caused the balloons to explode," said the meteorological bureau, which regulates the use of advertising balloons in a report.

    Students speculated that a worker may have been unable to cut a hydrogen-filled balloon, so he instead used a lighter to burn a hole in it.

    But that day we were completely unaware.

    That evening at 8 p.m., it was celebration part two. The massive stage was now filled with performers. Thankfully, they weren't they kind of mediocre, but well-meaning performances we are subjected to during departmental holiday shows. These were teachers, students and alumni from the "art" department (which includes music and dance). This meant that many of them actually had performing talent. Thousands of people filled the square to watch. The morning's divas returned, performing the same songs again, but they were joined by a pair of groups emulating China's popular 12-Girls Band, pop singers, dancers, kung-fu, even a short fashion show.

    By the time I crept home at 10:30 p.m., the performances showed no sign of letting up. Indeed, when we went to bed after 11, we could still hear music. Students asked us if we had to attend similar celebrations when we were in college. Thankfully no. The closest comparison would be that it was like a graduation ceremony followed several hours later by a variety show/concert.

    Monday, May 3, 2010

    Village Life

    I wanted to share a link to an interesting blog post.  One of our former students is dating a British guy who teaches at another school in Weinan.  Over the Spring Festival ("Chinese New Year"), he went to visit her hometown and wrote a post (mostly pictures - he's a very good photographer) about it.  It gives an interesting look at what life is like for many of our students who come from small villages. Check it out here.