Spring Cleaning - a Re-Cap of my Seven Months in China

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April 7th 2010
Published: April 10th 2010
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I didn't get a picture of the strawberries at the market, but they looked almost as delicious as these beauties in Beijing's 798 art district.

Time to take stock

It's definitely Springtime; although the high altitude and low humidity mean it still gets really cold here at night, during the day my eider-down coat is way too heavy. Time to invest in a cool sweatshirt or a nice leather jacket.

I got outside for a bit to go to the market and window-shop. I had spotted a shop selling "tea things" next to my building; the very same day I was treated to cha dao, (a form of tea ceremony) by one of my managers. It's a very enjoyable experience because it takes time to prepare the tea, and more than one kind is used, one after the other, to contrast and bring out the flavors. I want to learn how to do it, but buying my first set of "tea things" from this shop turned out to be infeasible: out of my price-range and level of experience.

Fruit vendors were out in force near the grocery store. They chant the price and the kind of fruit they are selling; like many other kinds of vendors, some will actually record their chants and play them over loud-speakers. Today for the first time I saw fresh strawberries, bright red in the afternoon sun. Two weeks ago, the pineapples arrived.

I had thought to rearrange my room after getting back, as my way of doing some spring cleaning. I finally did rearrange my room late in the day. I am a very messy person; there is no order to how I do things or how I keep my room. To compensate for this, I am endlessly making lists: To-do. To-buy. Goals. On and on.

I think I need to make a new list taking stock of my experience in China. Inspired by another blogger who did an annual review of his travels, I will try to recount my several months here in China, although hopefully it will also serve as an assessment of what has impacted me most.

Where I've been: Mostly in Huhehaote, but I have made trips to Beijing (en route to Hushi, actually) and Shanghai.

High points:

• Visiting the Summer Palace and 798 in Beijing.

The weather for going to the Summer Palace was perfect, cool and breezy, and there weren't many tourists around the South Gate. Lots of older people go there for exercise, so as the afternoon turned to dusk we began to see lots of men and women walking briskly and swinging their arms in a way that's completely different than the warm-ups I've seen in the U.S. This was one of the big differences that struck me when I first came to China three years ago: the elderly are more visible, and seem to have more self-efficacy when it comes to maintaining their health. One of best things I saw at the Summer Palace was the chang lang, a long, outdoor corridor with vignettes painted on the crossbeams. Each vignette is different and tells a story.

798 Originality Square was like catnip for me. I am really into art, although I am shamefully out of practice. If you want to see Modern art that defies the connotations and stereotypes that go along with that term by being high-quality, innovative and powerful, 798 is the place to go. It is bulit around an old closed-down factory (hence the name) that became the site of a gallery that has since expanded into several city blocks filled with art galleries, cafes, small crafts stores and a myriad of outdoor installation pieces. I took
Walking the "Chang lang"Walking the "Chang lang"Walking the "Chang lang"

That's me, the blondie
about a million photos and then had an excellent dinner with my friends at a French-style cafe called La Case.

• Visiting the temples in Huhehaote: fascinating and spiritual.

During my vacation for 中秋节 (Zhong Qiu Jie, Mid-Autumn Festival), I was shown around town by some of my managers. We focused on the major temples and the museum (I'll get to that later). The first temple we visited was 五塔寺 (Wu Ta Si, Five Tower Temple), a fairly small temple that nonetheless has one of the most notable architectural achievements in the city: the namesake building crowned by five pagoda-like towers. It is decorated with a frieze of over 1,500 Buddha figures in high relief, with no two figures being exactly alike. People have made offerings of small change placed in the palms of the meditative figures; most of the reachable areas of the pagodas glitter with silver coins. Aside from the interesting architecture and unique blend of Mongolian cosmology with Himalayan Buddhism, what I loved most about 五塔寺 was the quiet, peaceful atmosphere. I always pay my respects at temples, and I felt truly moved in the worship halls: there was a potent sense of the devotions that have been made here for hundreds of years, similar to the feeling I get in cathedrals in Europe.

Dazhao (大召) was bigger and busier, but still intensely spiritual, and Himalayan in flavor. I think the Silk Road is the most likely source of this influence in the steppes of central Asia. My favorite part was a large worshp hall that was filled with prayer wheels: one enters and turns to the left, touching the prayer wheels as one works around the periphery of the room. Opposite the entrance is a recessed area with statues of boddhisatvas where one pays devotion, with a beautiful statue of 千手观音 (Qian shou Guanyin, a god/goddess of many hands) as the central point for worship. Back out in the hall one completes the circuit passing and touching the prayer wheels. Inside the boundary made by the prayer wheels are cots where monks sleep; when I visited, there were about a dozen monks sitting on the cots, eating their lunch. It was perhaps not the most spiritual thing to think, but it smelled really good!

• Visiting the Inner Mongolia Museum.
Words can't do it justice, really. But a good start would be to say that it is highly comprehensive, convenient, large and engaging, with good interactive aspects where appropriate and lots of authentic cultural articles and paleontological specimens that are simply breathtaking. It isn't as jaw-dropping as the Shanghai Museum, perhaps, but it was a good way to spend the afternoon. Many of the employees dressed in traditional Mongolian garb are actually Mongolian; I met the cousin of a friend who turned out to be one of the employees there. Highlights included:

A near-complete brontosaurus skeleton suspended in its own cavernous exhibition hall, with multiple levels from which to view it. (I don't remember seeing the name of the dino in English; it may have been a brachiosaur or one of the other big vegetarians, but I'm pretty sure it was a bronto).

The clothing hall. Lots of preserved articles of clothing of incredibly high levels of craftsmanship.

The musical intruments hall. I love traditional Chinese musical instruments to begin with, and this included beautiful examples of old and new traditional Mongolian instruments as well, expanding my familiarity with Asian music.

• Eating supper with an ethnic Mongolian family and hearing them switch between languages at the dinner table.

Food is always a good introduction to a culture. I had made firends with a girl studying at a local university, and I was fascinated to discover she could speak Mongolian. Mongolian is a beautiful language and most if not all of the folksongs in this region are Mongolian in origin. Most of the Han Chinese I know in this city can sing at least the Chinese-translation version of the songs. I was first introduced to the language and the music when our concierge began teaching me a song called "Hongaru" in Mongolian ("Hongyan" in Chinese).

When my friend invited me to have dinner at her parents' house, I was thrilled. We took one of the local buses toward the outskirts of the city, and when we got off to walk through her neighborhood, we ran smack into her mother and cousin, just finished with their marketing for dinner. We helped them carry the groceries and headed to their home through a street that reminds me of the traditional alleys in Shanghai for some reason: it was bordered by walls on either side. My friend speaks fluent English in addition to Mongolian and Chinese; her mother turned out to

Wutasi: the Five Tower Temple, as seen from an arbor in the temple complex.
be equally impressive: she speaks Japanese, Mongolian and Chinese and is obviously a quick study since she had picked up some English from her daughter's foreign friends.

The first order of business upon getting indoors was to set up snacks, so the girls and I could talk while the mother cooked dinner. Mongolian food is hearty, very meat-and-potatoes but with an emphasis on 奶品 - dairy products. The snacks we ate were mostly 奶品, with bowls of Mongolian milk tea (which is salty rather than sweet), into which we put "Mongolian cheese" (which really is much lighter and sweeter than most cheese I've ever had, almost bread-like), and with which we ate one of the components of milk which had been purified through boiling and freezing and had some sort of grain added to it for texture.

After snacks we had hot-pot with mutton (the local specialty is thinly-sliced mutton that cooks quickly in the hot-pot); the condiments were pepper sauce and spicy sesame sauce (a staple of local hot-pot meals). The father invited me and my friend to join him in drinking 奶酒, a clear liquor which is made from - guess what? - milk.

Wishing PoolWishing PoolWishing Pool

Some of these large basins are usable for making wishes, by first rubbing a coin to heat it, then placing it flat on the water surface before letting it go
after-dinner entertainment consisted mainly of my friend and I putting on traditional Mongolian dresses and posing for photos. My friend lent me her fur hat to complete the effect, and I realized that about 90%!o(MISSING)f the locals who try to guess my nationality are onto something: I do look Russian!

So much for that; but perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was hearing code-switching in action. Code-switching is the linguistics name for a phenomenon where multi-linguals switch between languages mid-conversation, and even mid-sentence. There are many theories for why this happens, including status, context, content and suitability of the language. I loved hearing it; I was lost in the Mongolian parts, of course.

• Shanghai. All of it; at least, all of it that I saw. Huhehaote is small but crowded, traffic is crazy and clogged, going anywhere just a mile away can take hours; Shanghai was a breath of fresh air. Not to mention being fantastic in its own right without relation to anything else. I need to dedicate a more organized and well-written blog to Shanghai.

• Climbing my first mountain in China. Covered for the most part in "Easter Sunday Mountain Hike."
Two ScriptsTwo ScriptsTwo Scripts

On one of the corners of the Five Tower Temple, near the entrance: Mongolian script and what appears to be an Indic script, perhaps Sanskrit

• Strolling down the oldest street in Huhehaote and seeing some really authentic crafts like tooled leather and leather art, hand-made locks, sheep hides, and saddles. There were also many not-so-authentic items, like "Mongolian" hats and shoes of very low quality and a mostly bad-costume effect. I'm hoping to go back for one of the locks: there were metal-workers who had made locks in the shapes of animals, violins, etc. I think one of them would make a wonderful symbolic keepsake.

Low points:

• Getting sick enough to pass out (but not sick enough to want to risk getting quarantined by going to a hospital).

This was during the H1N1 scare; I heard no end of the rumors that there were several students from local universites who had been quarantined; the only things that made bigger news in the hotel rumor-mill were a local prison-break and the taxi-cab drivers' strike. Getting quarantined was not in my plans, so I monitored myself as carefully as I could and stalwartly answered "no" to any coworkers asking if I needed to stay in a hospital.

• Language problems.
It's bad enough when you're painfully shy; add feeling totally inept when speaking and you've got a major obstacle to overcome. And that's just reckoning with your own shortcomings and not including the assumptions of others. I had heard that social isolation was major risk when going to live alone in a foreign country. For me it hasn't been so bad, but very up-and-down as friends have come and gone in the workplace (turn-over seems very high in the hotel industry). I've had to make big changes at times to adapt. I think this is good in the long run but sometimes the short-term feels pretty crappy.

• Being an outsider.
This goes hand-in-hand with language problems. But being blonde in China is an entirely different aspect of the experience. In this city, lots of staring was the first thing I had to get used to. Not even the food or the smells; just being looked at a LOT. I'd be walking with a friend and they'd say, "How does it feel to be stared at everywhere you go?" So I know it's not just self-consiousness: at least, not all of the time. Sometimes you hear unkind things being said about you; other times, it's more that people feel just as shy of you as you do of them. I will tell you it makes dating weird: lots of unwanted attention, and with the wanted attention you're always wondering if they like you just because you look different or come from somewhere else.

But I think I'm finally getting a sense of what being an outsider means: it means facing a challenge. It means having to be strong. It means sometimes failing, but learning things that hopefully make you a better person. I value the time I have spent in China, and I hope to keep going strong and see and feel even more amazing things.

Signing off - Sam

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


Rabbit HatRabbit Hat
Rabbit Hat

Detail of this rather striking headpiece
Musical Instruments CaseMusical Instruments Case
Musical Instruments Case

One of many in the music hall
马头琴 - Horse Head Violin马头琴 - Horse Head Violin
马头琴 - Horse Head Violin

A modern and beautiful example of the traditional Mongolian instrument

Detail of the horse head woodwork at the top of the instrument

6th December 2010
Walking the "Chang lang"

This photo is now on the Front Page. The Featured Photos only stay there for a short period, so likely you will miss it. They show on the top right of the Front Page. :)
7th December 2010

Thanks for letting me know, Mell. It is an unexpected honor! :)

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