Wednesday, April 17, 2013

April Appropriate Clothing

Juliana and her friend Ting Ting.  Juliana was dressed warmer that day (awesome outfit, huh?) because it was cooler.  Ting Ting was dressed the same because it was April appropriate clothing.

The weather in Yinchuan has turned quite warm recently.  While last week we pulled back out the thick blankets, this week is more-or-less perfect springtime weather.  The temperature would be just about perfect too if we weren't a touch worried about two warmer months to follow. The trees and bushes are blooming and spring-green is finally wining the battle over winter-dead.  The obsessive watering has begun but our apartment still has water most of the time.  It's a good time of year.

The other day I took Juliana outside to enjoy the warmth and sunshine.  This weekend was up to about 80*F.  Juliana was wearing a long-sleeve shirt and I had on a light sweater, which I promptly shed, thereby becoming the only one around in short-sleeves.  After a few minutes we met up with some other little kids out with their mothers and grandmothers.  Not surprisingly, they commented on the fact that Juliana was only wearing one layer and wasn't it a bit cool?  In Chinese mindset temperature is measured less in degrees and more in time of year.  Come May 1st, jackets are suddenly traded in for short-sleeves and sandles.  But right now "mid April" matters more than "80 degrees".

What did surprise me is when we saw Juliana's friend Ting Ting, her auntie was busy taking off one of her pants layers.  "She is wearing too many clothes!" she commented to me.  "Her mama always says she will get a cold, but look at how much she is wearing!"  With the jeans removed, Ting Ting still had on another pair of pants plus long underwear.  On the top she was wearing two shirts and a sweatshirt.  "Look at An-An," her auntie told Ting Ting.  "She is only wearing one layer."  I must say, I never expected to be (indirectly) complimented on Juliana not wearing layers!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Walking advertisements

By Kevin

Once again, we were an advertisement. In exchange for the use of one of the first 70 degree Spring afternoons of the year, we were giving  the University "face." But that's not what we were told going in. All we were told was that there would  be an activity (活动) in the afternoon involving sports. And that we must come and participate. There's no asking:  when you are a student, the school often tells you what to do.
The cameraman we had to wait for before starting

When we arrived with around 150 of the other foreign students on campus, the teacher in charge divided us into four rows of people and explained that we were going to be filmed by CCTV (China's national TV station) and the local Ningxia TV station because Ning Da is participating in 留动中国 (meaning "stay active China," I think) -- an activity meant to promote "healthy exercise" (redundant, I know), cultural exchange and "joining hands in  the sun" for foreign students living in China. It sounds like participating schools were supposed to arrange 3-on-3 basketball  tournaments, ping-pong matches and 毽子 (jianzi) (a sort of traditional Chinese hacky-sack) exhibitions,  in addition to other cultural activities. While we waited for the videographer to show up, a reporter  started making the rounds, interviewing several students, including our teammate about all sorts of  things. I heard a few questions about food and studies and why he came to China. Nothing could start  until the videographer was there.

3-on-3 basketball "trials"

It really came as no surprise that our sports activity, which the school's website called "trials" for a national competition featuring foreign students didn't actually involve most of us doing something we wanted to do or really learning anything. After all, this was a made-for-TV event. Not an actual activity for  our enjoyment or enrichment, no matter what the propaganda said. At the root, I figured it would be some sort of face-giving publicity stunt, no matter how much it had been dressed up as a fun outing. In fact, though we were told it would involve playing  sports, very few were chosen to don University t-shirts and compete. The school chose six guys they'd heard could play basketball (two of them our teammates), gave them T-shirts and split them into two teams. The rest of us were just told to  be there.

A handful of students played. The rest of us were the audience.

Foreign students holding signs
We were supposed to simulate a "real" competition. The athletes would play their hearts out. The rest  of us were told to 拉拉手, which I took to mean, be cheerleaders (the closest dictionary entry I could  find to this says "to shake hands" -- either that or maybe I got the tones wrong and she meant 辣手,  which means "troublesome" or "vicious" -- I'm guessing that none of these are what she was going for).  We were to mimic the way Chinese students constantly cheer on their classmates at sports meets and basketball games , shouting the traditional Chinese cheer of “加油” (add oil! -- meaning  something like "more effort" or "go team"). But few joined in. Most  just watched. We just weren't  naturals. Teachers repeatedly attempted to start a chant, but it would die before the third or fourth repetition. A few chanted cheers in Russian or other native languages. Students who were given an assignment to hold four signs reading 留动中国 held the signs with less and less enthusiasm as the game went on. The student  tasked with holding up the 宁夏大学 sign tried to prop it up using a package of water bottles, then later by attaching it to another student's backpack.

Student shows off his prowess at jianzi, a Chinese hacky-sack-like game
The basketball players played a fierce half-court game for 15-20 minutes, long enough for our teammate to get a  bloody nose and hurt his knee. Then, as they finished their  game, the teachers pointed the rest of us to the other end of the court and told us to watch and learn how to pay 毽子 (jianzi). In this game, which has been around since the fifth century, we all spent a few minutes attempting to use long-dormant or non-existent hacky-sack skills as we kicked around a shuttle-cock made from four brightly colored feathers attached to two or three small quarter-sized pieces of metal. A few  students from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had obviously played something similar before because soon they  were jumping in the air, tapping the feathered hacky sack back and forth, showing off for the cameras.  A teacher tried to get the rest of the students to gather around and again cheer them on for the  cameras. By this time the crowd had shrunk to maybe 100 students. And half weren't interested in  anything more than chatting with friends.

By the time we made it to the third activity, the ping-pong "tournament," only 50 or 60 students were left to crowd around the ping-pong tables in the  classroom building. But still the cameras rolled.
Wang Hui, school director, interviewed by NXTV.
In the end, I don't know if it had the desired effect. Perhaps if the competitions were real, rather than made-for-TV, people would have gotten into it.  Perhaps if everything didn't feel so staged and manipulated it would have worked. But it didn't. It  felt forced because it was. But maybe that's not how the school saw it. After all, the local news did run a report on the event, trimming out the fat and concentrating on the action and conveying the message the school was going for: "The primary (goal is) to offer our foreign students and Chinese university students a platform to interact and at the same time give them more opportunities to experience Chinese culture," said Wang Hui, the director of the School of International Education.

The only interaction we had with Chinese University students was with the three who served as referees of the basketball and ping pong matches. We probably could have gleaned the Chinese love for ping-pong or basketball without attending a staged event. The jianzi activity was interesting, but most of what I learned about Chinese culture came from reading Wikipedia after learning that the sport isn't actually called "Chinese hacky-sack."

So I guess I learned two things - the importance of giving face and the name of the hacky-sack-like sport.Being the foreign faces in the crowd often gets us roped into events ostensibly for education's sake. But really it's all about giving face or  publicity sake. We often go along with the publicity shoots because they "give face" to our hosts. "Face" is a huge thing in Chinese culture, so our hosts are generally more appreciative (at least when we were teachers they were -- as students, it's more of an expectation). Surely the school didn't gain as much face as it  wanted. I wonder what we'll be roped into next.
Farmers work the fields at Ningxia University's experimental farm

As students, we've been taken to a  farm owned by the university so we could be photographed by  local media among the fields, we've given New Year's performances for University and governmental leaders from China and several other countries and gone to teach Christmas lessons at a local  university. As teachers, we've had colleagues and students ask if they could take our photo so they could advertise their school (even though we didn't work there), invite us to spend a day playing at the  kindergarten (meaning teaching the kids some English songs), ask us to give high school students an  impromptu English lesson and invite us to be interviewed for school radio programs, among other  things. The difference between the two was that as students, we tend to be told to participate, whereas  as teachers, it's a request. Often it's a very urgent request because they've already told others that  we will participate, but at least it gets phrased as a request. We then must decipher how urgent it is.

But sometimes, as students, when told that we must participate, it's just not feasible: there was the  2-1/2-to-three-hour one way bus ride last Spring to Shapotou,
Shapotou, sand dunes along the Yellow River in Ningxia.

a scenic sand dune along the Yellow  River. I went alone. It was interesting, but the full-day trip just wouldn't have worked with then 1- and-a-half-year old Juliana skipping all naps. Then there was the 5K our first fall in Yinchuan. Students were told that  they would be going to a small city an hour away, where there would be a 5K run. We were assured that we wouldn't have to run it if we didn't want to do so. We foreigners were also encouraged to bring our kids and assured that we wouldn't need a stroller. Thankfully, we declined the invitation, using the baby excuse. The bus dropped everyone off at the starting line, then drove to the finish line, forcing everyone to at least walk the route. Glad we decided not to go to that one. Carrying then 1-year-old Juliana for the whole route would have been terrible.
I can't help but wonder what the next face-giving event will be.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

April: A Little Family Update

You may have noticed I haven't been doing a lot of blogging recently.  I haven't been doing a lot of things recently, and if it's a choice between blogging or say, showering, people around me would probably prefer I shower.  It's not really that I don't have time - since my last post I have polished off two seasons of Downton Abbey (if you can really call 7 episodes a season), a little Gilmore Girls, and several books, but typing requires mental effort as well as a tiny bit of physical exertion.  Tiring, so tiring.

However, I thought I would take advantage of this little holiday we are having right now (Qing Ming Jie or "Tomb Sweeping Day") to give a general update on our lives.

Kevin: Recently celebrated his 35th birthday with a yummy Mexican potluck and a team game of Pandemic (sorry to say the world was lost to disease one turn before we could save it).  Since then, he has been busy taking care of Juliana.  He has been getting up with her in the morning, playing with her during the day, and putting her to bed at night. He often makes eggs for me in the morning and does most of the chores involving food (grocery shopping, dishes), gross smells (trash, diapers), and an unreasonable amount of physical exertion (hanging up laundry, biking to get milk).  In his free time he does fun things like taxes.  The Royal Shakespeare Company just asked to use one of his pictures in a program, so that's pretty cool.  He'll even get paid!

Oh yes, he's also studying Chinese.  His class has recently expanded in both size and Koreans.  His textbook this year is a series of pictures and vocabulary lists to help describe the pictures.  Yesterday his teacher told him that if a woman is talking to her friend or relative, she might call her own husband "jiefu" - the term for your older sister's husband.  Chinese makes lots of sense.
Kevin's picture...does it look Shakespeare-esque?
Ruth: The good news is I have dropped from daily to weekly throwing up.  I really am doing better than a few weeks ago.  I've even been doing some things like cooking occasionally.  While I'm still eternally grateful to live in a city where we can get cheese and fresh milk, I have also expanded my food repetoir to include lots of Mexican food and three fruits.  Unfortunately I still have a fair share of bad days.  Usually I will have a good day or two, do too much, and then feel sick for a couple of days.  I keep reading about how I should be feeling better now and have that "pregnancy glow;" strangely nobody mentions the pregnancy cynicism (maybe that's my own contribution).  According to Mayo, my blood volume is increasing 30-50%, my pulse is increasing, my blood pressure is dropping, I'm breathing 30-40% more air, and approximately all of my joints and muscles are moving around.  Now that I believe.

Oh yes, I'm also studying Chinese.  We spent quite a bit of time reviewing measure words recently.  We have a few measure words, like a pair of pants, a flock of geese, or a can of Coke.  Approximately every Chinese noun has a distinct measure word (or two or three).  Chinese measure words are so numerous they could almost form their own language.  We also spent some time in general review last week which was very helpful since I had no recollection of some of the things I had technically learned.

16 Weeks Pregnant

Juliana:  My lack of energy is more than made up for in Juliana.  She has been in very high (not to mention loud) spirits lately.  She talks a LOT, says lots of funny things, and rather frequently breaks out into song.  Her favorite type of play is "make them talk": dolls, cars, pieces of train track, silverware - anything can talk.  She's gotten pretty used to immobile mama and now goes straight to daddy for, "Do you want to play with me?  Do you want to play with me??!"  When she misses mama she climbs on top of me and jumps around.  Her vegetable intake has suffered with my food intolerances, but I'd say she's not too close to scurvy.  She doesn't seem to mind all the extra quesadillas she's been eating.

A few weeks ago Juliana's foot got caught in Kevin's bike wheel resulting in two weeks of bandaged foot.  Kevin had to take her back to the hospital every couple of days to get the bandage changed, a process Juliana did not exactly love.  She also couldn't wear her shoe, which meant two weeks of no outside play.  Fortunately the foot is all healed up now except for a bit of remaining scab and scar.  Juliana is more concerned about the "hurt fingers" she gets three times a day since she got new Mickey Mouse band-aids.

Juliana does an Easter dance to "Up From the Grave He Arose"

Ruvin the Second:  Now around 4.5 inches long (the size of an avacado or grenade, whichever image you prefer), baby has doubled in size in the last couple of weeks.  In the next couple of weeks he'll also double in weight.  She can now hear and is sensitive to light.  Probably also sensitive to older sisterly pokes and jabs.  He is making facial expressions and moving around; I may have felt him, but I'm never paying enough attention to be sure.  While Ruvin is having an ever-present impact on my life and body, I guess all that growing is keeping her pretty quiet.
I suppose these days baby looks something like this
So that's what's been happening in our lives.  I'll just leave you with an anecdote from the morning.  Juliana worriedly examined a loose hair in her hand, "My hair!  That's my hair!  Can you put it back in?"  I tried to explain to her that hair falls out and grows back in all the time and you can't put it back, but she solved her own problem.  She placed the hair back on top of her head and said, "I put it back!"  I didn't argue.