Sunday, September 11, 2011

Summer part 3: language study

Immediately after summer project Leo and I hopped a train to Lijiang in Yunnan Province (just south of Sichuan). It is one of the most beautiful provinces in China—the sky always being blue, the air fresh and unpolluted, and the weather spring like almost all year.
Lijiang is located on a mountain at a higher altitude, I think 3000 meters or maybe 3000 feet. It was pretty high. The first couple of days I had a little trouble breathing, but by the third day it was easier. The weather was amazing, though. In Dazhou it was humid and in the 90s F then in Lijiang I needed a sweater in order to be comfortable.
Leo and I joined our good friends Katie and Richy (remember from our Vietnam trip in the winter?) and two other volunteers (Kate, who teaches in Guizhou Province, south of Sichuan, and Aftan, who teaches north of Sichuan in Gansu Province) for two weeks of Chinese language study. It was…a bit of an adventure, to say the least. Getting there was a nightmare. Leo and I took two 8 hour nightmarish bus rides. The first was from Yibin to Kunming (the capital of Yunnan). For some reason there were no trains going from Yibin to Kunming. The train was long, hot, cramped, and stifling. We were so relieved to arrive in Kunming. We spent one night of recovery in a hostel, and planned to take, what we thought, was a short bus ride to Lijiang. Well, no. It was another 8 hour bus ride, in a hot, cramped bus with a crazy driver that was speeding around the mountain passes. At first I thought we might die. Then I was too nauseous to even think. Why I didn’t bring the Dramamine my parents brought me from America, I have no idea, but I was quite sick after that bus ride. But, alas, we arrived. It was a cute little school on the edge of the old city (a nice touristy area of Lijiang with old stone-paved streets, shops, pedestrian walkways, and other touristy things of interest). Lijiang is a favorite place for Chinese people to vacation. Many of my Chinese friends that have been there say it’s the best place they have ever been, and those that haven’t gone dream of going. It is nice. There are many things to do, and see. There are fun mountains to climb. The Tiger Leaping Gorge is only a day trip away, too. Most foreigners would say that Dali (4 hours south) is much better. It is quieter, more relaxing, peaceful and easier to navigate. I much prefer Dali to Lijiang. Dali was Leo, Katie, Richy and my first stop during the winter vacation.
Anyways, so we were all in Lijiang to study. I said the school was cute. That’s about it. It was a brand new school and they had very little experience teaching foreigners, particularly foreigners in our situation. What situation might that be, Katie? Well, the fact that we have been in China for one year and have a fairly decent speaking vocabulary, and even better listening comprehension, but a limited knowledge of characters (i.e. reading and writing). Katie, Richy and Leo have a better character vocabulary, so they were put in one class together. Aftan, Kate, and I have nearly none, so we were put in class together. Kate, Aftan, and my teacher (Stephen) was willing to listen and adapt the teaching to meet our needs, however he just graduated from university and didn’t really know how to teach. Leo, Katie and Richy’s teacher was accustomed to teaching Chinese students Chinese and was less willing to adapt her lessons, but was quite knowledgeable about Chinese grammar, pronunciation, and everything Chinese (but she didn’t know any English and could only explain these concepts in Chinese). The other issue plaguing our language study was that the teachers didn’t know how to teach a multilevel class. Katie, Richy and Leo are all at completely different levels. Also I ended up joining their class the last 2 days because Kate and Aftan left early and it was a bit of a struggle to understand all the grammar points she was making. Both teachers were very nice and willing to help us, but not being used to our Chinese studying methods, found it a bit difficult teaching. But how do you teach people that can speak and listen at an intermediate level, but read and write at a beginner’s level? How do you teach a class with 2 intermediate-high level students and one advanced student? It is a conundrum, but a situation that all foreign English teachers face in China. Every English class in China is multileveled because it is easy enough to pass to the next level not having learned anything. Oh and this isn’t a problem, just funny. Katie, Richy and Leo’s teacher laughed nonstop. For some reason she thought everything was funny. I don’t think I have ever met anyone that laughs as much as this woman laughed.
Problem two facing us during language study was that the volunteer that planned everything for us (the pricing, the classes, etc.) had something come up and wasn’t able to come. Then when we arrived there was a big misunderstanding about the pricing. The one volunteer told us the price would be one thing, and the people at the school said another. The issue with the pricing is that Peace Corps will only reimburse us a certain amount of money for summer language study, so naturally we wanted the pricing to fall under that umbrella. Everything ended up okay in the end. We ended up paying more than the volunteer originally said we would, but less than too much.
It wasn’t all bad. We got to spend two weeks in a great city, and practice our Chinese. It also motivated us to study so that, hopefully, all of us return back to our sites and study up on our Chinese regularly. During the two weeks we spent nearly every afternoon in a restaurant drinking coffee and studying Chinese. It was quite perfect actually. We also had some fascinating adventures while we were there. One night we decided we wanted to eat western food. Katie remembered that there was a hostel with decent prices (called Mama Naxi—Naxi is a minority people in China that mostly live in Yunnan. The Naxi people are a matriarchal society, with the women running the businesses, calling the shots, and leading, while the men follow. Anyways the owner of the hostel is the sweetest old Naxi woman who calls herself Mama Naxi). So we meander our ways through the confusing old streets of Lijiang Old Town and find ourselves at the doorstep of Mama Naxi’s greeted by two little dogs. The food was amazing and cheap, but that wasn’t all. The night we decided to go to Mama Naxi’s for dinner also happened to be the night of her grandson’s 17th birthday, and guess what? We were on the guest list! She insisted that we stay and sing happy birthday to her grandson and join in the festivities, so we did. There was a big cake, and lots of fruit. I wonder if it is strange that her grandson celebrates his birthday with a bunch of random foreigners that he doesn’t know, but he was sweet. I think his grandmother particularly liked us (maybe because we could speak Chinese) because she kept taking pictures of us with her grandson.
Our favorite restaurant to go in Lijiang, which we visited at least 5 times, was a little Korean restaurant. Katie and Richy had lived in Korea for 1 year prior to joining Peace Corps and insisted Korean food was really good. Well they weren’t lying. It was better than good. There was one dish served in a hot pot with rice, vegetables, meat, one egg, and hot sauce. It is sizzling when it arrives, and you stir it so that the egg, and vegetables cook together by the heat of the rice and bowl. Then there is another dish which was a cold soup with barley noodles, cucumbers, a boiled egg, watermelon in a spicy vinegar broth. Maybe it sounds weird, but it was amazing. It is so fresh. Chinese food can be really oily, but the Korean food wasn’t oily at all. Another reason we frequented this restaurant was because there was the cutest little white dog that the owners kept. His name in Chinese is “xiao bai gou” or “little white dog.” He was so cute. The 2nd to last time we came to the restaurant, she offered to let Leo keep it. As tempting as that was, we had to say no.
My last food story for this trip. One afternoon Katie, Richy, Leo, and I are just wandering around the Old town, stopping here and there to check things out, then all of a sudden I see a sign! A sign?? A sign. What kind of sign? A sign for pizza. Yes, there, on the edge of Old town, there was a pizza restaurant. But that's not all. The pizza was cheap. The cheapest pizza price we’ve ever seen in China. So what else could we do, but stop and eat some pizza. It was mediocre at best, but amazing.
One morning Leo and I were taking a jog and we happened across this magnificent hidden lake. It was obvious that it was just for the local crowd because of its location. Later that day we returned with Katie and Richy. In the morning there was no one there. We thought it might be a great place to study and get fresh air, rather than another restaurant. However, when we get there it is packed with Chinese people (mostly men) swimming. It is the local swimming hole. If only we had known and brought our bathing suits. Well that isn’t going to stop Leo and Richy, who jump in and race each other to the other side. Meanwhile Katie and I set up a nice area for us to relax and study, with the few snacks we brought along from the bakery. It might have been a nice area for us to relax if it weren’t for the creeper that started walking back and forth behind us. At first we thought nothing of it, just some middle aged Chinese man walking around. But then we suddenly realize he is in his underwear, and they aren’t exactly hugging him where they should be hugging him. We keep a mind to just stare straight in front of us and not pay him any attention, since it is obvious that is what he was craving. That doesn’t seem to be working out for him, though, so he start stretching and waving his arms, and proceeds to sprawl out on a nearby bench to stretch. Out of the corner of my eye I see that he has taken his manhood out of his underwear and pointed it in our direction! I don’t make any moves that I have noticed (I am wearing sunglasses, so that is easy enough to manage), and notify Katie of what is happening to our right. Without looking around she picks up her phone and calls Richy and tells him that he and Leo need to return, which they quickly do. The fact that Katie took out her phone scared the creeper enough so that he was gone by the time the boys returned. Gross.
After language study ended, Leo, Katie, Richy and I stayed two extra nights in Lijiang while we waited for Richy’s sister and fiancĂ© to arrive. Remember Mama Naxi? Well we ended up staying at her hostel. It was decent, but remember that I was saying that I was having stomach issues? Apparently when my stomach hurts during the night I have a tendency to talk in my sleep, or so my friends told me. One night Katie said she woke up because she heard a Chinese woman in our room, but when she looked around she didn’t see any Chinese woman. Instead she saw me, talking with perfect Chinese. She said I was saying “qing zuo” or “please sit.” I wonder how it is I can have good pronunciation in my sleep, but when awake, my Chinese pronunciation is terrible. Any guesses? There was also the funniest teenage Chinese boy working at the hostel that talked to us one night. We ended up giving him an English name (Lee Young—it resembled the sound of his Chinese name, which coincidentally enough was Lijiang. Anyways it turned out he was a Bai minority (fyi, there are 56 recorded minorities in China, and in actuality there are even more that the government doesn’t recognize) and in school his name is Lijiang. He doesn’t go by his given Bai name.). Anyways, this Lee Young wanted to know how to say love lines in English so that he could say them to foreign girls he sees. So Leo wrote down “You are more beautiful than a flower, and also the moon.” This was good enough for him. Then this Korean girl that we had gotten to know from the Korean cafĂ© next door (another prime study spot), came into the hostel and was hanging out with us, and Lee Young proceeded to interrogate her on how to say hello and I love you in Korean. Funny, funny boy.
Leo and I left Lijiang a little earlier since I had to be back in Chengdu to give a talk to the new volunteers. Since it was such a long trip back, we stopped overnight in Dali. If only we could have stayed longer! But the next morning we left for Kunming and our 18 hour overnight hard seat train ride to Chengdu. That’s right. 18 hours, overnight, on a hard seat. It was uncomfortable. At most I slept 5 hours, but we made it. It wasn’t unbearable.

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