Monday, January 30, 2012

There is Not a Whole Lot to See in Shanghai

When it comes to seeing Chinese culture in Shanghai, there isn’t really that much to see.  Shanghai is more of a modern city and there are no famous city walls or palaces to see.  When you come to visit Shanghai you come to see its modern marvels and historical sites that mostly date back to the 1900s.  Jess and I were able to see all that we wanted to see in the city in just two days.

On day one of sight-seeing in Shanghai we first went to see the Jade Buddha temple.  It is a temple in the downtown area of Shanghai that has a beautifully carved, jade Buddha statue.  We were allowed to take photos of the temples but not of the jade statue.  The temple’s religious ceremonies and tourist activities are organized by the many Buddhist monks that live in the monastery.  It was very neat to see that this temple was still in use.

After leaving the temple we took the subway to one of the city centers along Nanjing Rd to experience all of the shopping malls.  It reminded me of pictures that I have seen of New York City with all of the foreigners, western restaurants and shops, skyscrapers and big screen TVs.  After that we walked down the road until we got to Shanghai’s famous waterfront.  On one side of the river there is the Bund, which contains old skyscrapers from the early 1900s and on the other side there is the Pudong Skyline.  The Pudong Skyline has Shanghai’s modern skyscrapers, some of which rank among the tallest in the world. 

Lastly we went to another famous area in Shanghai called the Old city which contains the Yuyuan Garden and a Ming dynasty style bazaar.  The garden was a beautiful example of on old traditional Chinese garden with many coy ponds, and great pieces of Chinese architecture.  The bazaar was also a lot of fun.  There were many different types of food that you could buy and eat off of a stick and there were countless shops to buy souvenirs from.  We really enjoyed Old Town because it had character and a festive atmosphere.

On day two of site-seeing we walked around in the French Concession and were able to see the building where the first Communist Youth League was started.  Other than shopping malls, there wasn’t too much to the French Concession (at least of what we were able to see) so we didn’t stay there too long.  We next went to a major shopping mall back on Nanjing Rd to do some bargain shopping for fake goods and were able to get Jess some souvenirs for her family members.  

Then after that we got back on the subway to go to a station that was near an old Spanish church in the old part of the city.  Finding this place was a bit of a task because we kept getting lost and its location was in the middle of where the local lived.  Eventually we found it and went inside.  It kind of reminded me of home because I had not been inside a church in being at home in Wisconsin.  It was a little tough getting back to a subway station to get back to Reid and June’s apartment, but we still made it back in time for dinner.  The next day we said our goodbyes and then took a bullet train to Beijing.   

Over all Shanghai was good to see so I could better experience China’s skewed money distribution, but other than that, there wasn’t too much to see.  And it was good to get to know Reid and June.  

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Arriving in Shanghai

Shanghai is one of China’s most populated and developed cities.  Historically Shanghai has been one of the major port cities for foreigners to visit and do business.  Even today Shanghai is still the most favorable port for international business interests.  Also many travelers from all over the world come to Shanghai to see its famous skyline and witness how western culture has influenced it. 

Jess and I arrived at the Shanghai Hong Qiao Airport at midnight.  Since it was too late to use the subways, we had to take a taxi to our hostel (The Rock and Wood International Youth Hostel).  Immediately after exiting the airport a man came up to me telling me he was a taxi driver and wanted to know where I was going.  After telling him where I wanted to go he very quickly told me his price was two hundred Yuan.  I thought this was strange so I walked away from him and then he lowered his price to one hundred and fifty Yuan.  I still thought that his price was too high so we waited in the taxi line to try a different taxi.  I ended up only paying seventy Yuan for the taxi ride to the hostel.  I later learned that unlicensed taxi drivers try to take advantage of tourists at the airports.  After we paid for our room and dropped our bags off, we went out to see if there were any restaurants open at two in the morning so we could get something to eat.  After finding a restaurant and we ate some Kung Pao Chicken and then went back to our hostel to get some sleep. 

The next morning we were able to have a very nice American style breakfast and then set out to the subway station to head over to Reid and June’s apartment.  This was Jess’s first experience with subway systems.  We arrived at their apartment in the early afternoon and were welcomed by their Ai Yi (maid).  Then we waited for Reid and June to arrive home from work by going to a Carrefour Supermarket to walk around in.  That night we ate a delicious dinner that their Ai Yi had prepared for us, drank some wine and talked about China. 

We went to bed pretty early that evening because we were going to wake up early the next morning to do some sight-seeing.    

Monkey Island

The most memorable day trip that we took during our vacation in Sanya was our visit to Monkey Island.  Monkey Island is quite literally an island full of monkeys that live in a nature reserve that is open to the public.  This story is another example that sometimes nothing seems to go to plan in China. 

We left our hostel (Peter, Jess, and I) after lunch to walk to a bus station so we could catch a ride up to Ling Xue so we could go to Monkey Island.  It took us about an hour and a half to find the station because we kept getting lost.  When we got there the bus station was in pretty bad shape; smelled like gasoline, exhaust, sewage, and cigarettes.  Luckily we only had to wait inside for about ten minutes after purchasing our tickets to board the busses.  We arrived in Ling Xue after about an hour and a half of driving and started to look around for another bus that would take us to Monkey Island.  We couldn’t find the bus that we needed, so instead we crammed into the carriage of a motorcycle taxi.  The forty five minute ride was both pleasant and unpleasant.  We seemed to hit all of the potholes in the road even though I could tell the driver was doing his best to avoid them.  The air we were breathing was a combination of fuel exhaust from the motorcycle, dust from the road and whatever rural China smell was alongside the road.  But we did get to see what most of China (rural and poor) is really like; pigs, chickens, ducks, and gnus roaming freely, lots of demolished buildings and small farm plots.  I kind of enjoyed the ride, but unfortunately for Jess, the ride did not help her migraine head ache that she had acquired earlier in the day.  By late afternoon we arrived at the entrance to Monkey Island. 

We were not too pleased with the price of the entrance tickets once we had arrived, (25 US dollars per person) especially after what we had to go through to get there.  What they are doing is smart; after traveling all the way out in the middle of nowhere they force you to pay a lot of money.  Despite the high price we tried to enjoy our experience at the park.  To get on the island we had to take a spectacular cable car ride that looked out over a beautiful ocean view. 

Monkey Island has tons of monkeys and almost none of them are actually in cages.  Part of the fun is trying to get as close as you can to the monkeys and take a good photo without making them feel too uncomfortable.  Since the monkeys kept going after Jess, Peter and I had to keep scaring them off.  Unfortunately we had arrived so late to the park, so we were only able to stay there for about an hour and a half before it closed.  Now we were going to have to figure out how to get back to Sanya. 

We waited outside of the park for a bus that may or may not come to bring us back into Ling Xue but no bus came.  We started walking up and down the road asking random Chinese people where a bus was but they would each point us in a different direction.  Eventually we asked a motorcycle taxi where the bus was and he told us to get in.  He drove us directly to the bus that we needed after driving us around for a little while.  The bus was an old rickety piece of machinery but we didn’t really have any other choice.  The bus winded its way back to Ling Xue, stopping at severs places in the countryside to drop people off.  We were very relieved to arrive in Ling Xue again, but to add to our imperfect day, we discovered that the bus station was closed.  How were we going to get back to Sanya?  What we had to do was find a taxi (which was rare in this town) and haggle a driver down to a reasonable price to bring us back to Sanya.  After finding a driver, we haggled him down to $33 to drive the three of us the hour and a half drive back to Sanya.  When we got back to our hostel I needed to drink a couple of cold Tsingdao beers to finally relax.

What a day!  Even though nothing seemed to go right, and Monkey Island was not worth the amount of money we had to spend on it, I still enjoy looking back at this adventure.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Arriving in Sanya

Finally after submitting grades and celebrating Christmas in Beibei, it was time to start doing some traveling.  The first destination was Sanya, a city on the southern tip of the island of Hainan located in the South China Sea.  We started our journey by going to China’s tropical paradise.  (December, 27th)

After packing our bags, Jess, Peter and I set out to the Chongqing airport to begin our adventure.  After two and a half hours of flying, we finally landed in Sanya.  Immediately after getting off of the plane I started over heating because I was still wearing my several layers of clothing.  Eventually I was able to change into warm weather clothing after we picked up our bags.  Then we headed out to find our hostel, Joes Seaside Inn.  We chose this hostel because of it low price (13 dollars per private double room per night) and because the owner was quite knowledgeable and helpful with going to visit places.  By using his help and advice we were able to visit a couple of places within and outside of Sanya.  

On our first day, we just explored the near-by beach where the local people visited, and then walked around to get a good idea of what was around the area.  Sanya, just like cities in Chongqing is going through quite a bit a of development.  But, over all the beaches in Sanya were our favorite.  There were the beaches that the local people went to exercise wushu in the early morning and evenings, dance at sunset, sunbathe in the sand during the day, or just take a stroll.  Our favorite beach was in a tourist area called Da Dong Hai.  In Da Dong Hai you could either find spot on the sand to lie down or rent a thatched umbrella with a folding beach chair.   For a couple of the days we would just go to this beach and find a nice piece of sand to lay our towels down on, get a cold beer or a fruit smoothie to drink and then just listen to the waves as we soaked in the sun.  Why would anyone want to leave here?

Sanya was just was I needed after finishing a long semester of teaching, but after staying there for a week, we departed to Shanghai to stay with some relatives of mine (my brother in law’s aunt and uncle) who are teachers at Shanghai American School.  I hope to someday come back to Sanya.   

The Holidays in Beibei

Celebrating the holidays in China are a little different celebrating them in the United States.  The biggest problem when it comes to celebrating the holidays is the lack of certain food items and other decorations that you might need.  But, that lack of certain items is what makes celebrating the holidays in China memorable.  The adventure of finding what you need from the store or being creative and making substitutes is all part of the fun.    

Thanksgiving was the most difficult Holiday to celebrate in China because it requires a lot of cooking and many of the food items that we consume in the U.S. either can’t be found or require planning way in advance and a lot of money.  So to prepare for the big meal, the Foreign Students Office transported me and the rest of the English teachers to a big supermarket in Chongqing called Metro to buy what we needed.  We were able to find everything but cranberry filling and a turkey.  Not having a turkey wasn’t so bad, we decided to substitute some roast chickens and ducks that could be bought on Thanksgiving Day.  The food situation was figured out.

We still had classes to teach on Thanksgiving, so we did not have the luxury of having the full day to cook and prepare for the big meal.  But, because everyone had split up responsibilities for cooking or acquiring certain dishes, the feast was organized on time.  This was the most diverse Thanksgiving dinner I had ever consumed.  We had stuffing, gravy, rolls, roast duck, roast chicken, some Indian dishes (cooked by a Pakistani teacher), roasted sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, rice porridge, and carameled apples.  It was quite a feast.      
Celebrating Christmas in China wasn’t too difficult, the Christmas season had arrived in Beibei.  All of the shops, supermarkets, etc….. all had Christmas decorations, Christmas music and staff dressed in Christmas outfits.  I had never seen Christmas in Beibei before.  When I studied abroad in Beibei two years ago I couldn’t even tell that Christmas was around the corner.  From my understanding, Christmas is the new fad in China (at least in rural China now).  

To celebrate Christmas Jess (my girlfriend remember) and I started the day with a nice breakfast and then opened the Christmas presents that we got each other and then presents that my mom sent both of us.  Then we relaxed for the rest of the day watching Christmas movies.  In the evening Jess and I participated in a Secret Santa get together with many of the other teachers in our building and then went out to eat a fancy Chinese meal. 

It is easy to get home sick during the holidays (I have experienced my fair share of it) when you don’t have your close friends and family around.  But, celebrating the holidays in China has allowed me to get away from tradition a little bit and make some unforgettable memories.        

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Final Exams

After experiencing giving final exams to my students at the end of the fall semester, I decided that I would not give final exams during spring semester.  Now before you start thinking I am a lazy teacher or something, I will tell you what happened.  So remember that weekend excursion that I went on with the other foreign teachers and Chinese professors?  I was able to have many of my questions concerning the final exams answered during that time.  What I found out was not very uplifting.

To start things off, I found out my Oral English class is only worth ten percent of the total English grade of each student (that explains why I only have a twenty five percent class attendance).  So by estimates I should have about four hundred students combined in my eight classes that I teach.  WOW! That means I have to give about four hundred oral exams within one week.  So I asked questions concerning time and space to be able to give all of the exams.  Can we have a room reserved for each of us to take these exams?  Can we have students use class time, lunch time and the early afternoon to take their exams?  These requests were simply out of the question (there goes my idea of a three minute final per student).  We got laughed at when we asked for a reserved room and my question concerning using out of class time to give the exams was answered with another question “But when will the students be able eat their lunch and take their nap?”  At this point it really dawned to me that we were not being taken seriously by anyone so I was not going to give a final exam that could be taken seriously.  So I decided to give each student a one minute oral final exam with me.  It was the only way I could get through all of the students within the class periods.  It was a bad idea.

Now the final exam was only sixty percent of the total grade and the remainder was class attendance.  So how was I going to remember the students who have either shown up to class all of the time, most of the time, some of the time, or never.  All I could do was estimate because we were never given a class list for any of our classes.  I knew I was going to see many unfamiliar faces and the best I could give them was a D if they completed the final exam.  I thought I was very fair.  I gave better grade to students I recognized and I only failed students who did not show up for the final (I wouldn’t know who they were otherwise), if they didn’t complete the final, if they couldn’t understand my very simple questions or if they just were silent beside the occasional “umm”.  I have some very memorable examples of each.

There were only a couple students who did not complete the final exam.  One student tried to recite a paragraph that he had memorized (very commonly occurred by many students who all tried to talk about their hometown) but had run out of material after thirty seconds.  I tried to engage him in conversation by asking him simple questions but he just didn’t understand anything that I said.  He would just respond with, “Thank you teacher, bye bye”.  Eventually he walked away from me even after I told him that he had not finished the exam.  Another student who walked away from me was a very weird fellow. He was one of my students who would just use my class as a study hall and would try to pretend that I was not there when I would try to get him to talk.  During his exam he spoke gibberish for twenty seconds before stopping mid-gibberish, twitched his neck and then stormed out of the building after a brief second of awkward silence.   

I also did have some fun with the students who would stick around for the full minute but would only recite a short twenty second speech about their hometown.  I would try to help them by asking them simple questions about their home time like, “What is the food like”, or “what is famous in your hometown?”  But usually they would just stare off into the corners of their eyes in silence or mumble “na’ge…….na’ge……” (“um” in Chinese). 

Like I said earlier, giving a one minute oral final exam to four hundred students is a bad idea.  I had to have the oral exams be taken outside the classroom in the freezing cold hallway (and usually I was for 60-90 minutes at a time before I got through all of them).  Also giving determining sixty percent of someone’s total grade based off of a one minute oral exam is ridiculous.  I have decided that I will not give a final exam next semester, but instead I will make attendance the one hundred percent of the grade by randomly taking attendance. 

Since submitting grades I look back at this experience I see both agony and humor.  I also now have a tremendous amount of respect for college professors.  

Lil Minnesota Comes to China

Saying goodbye to friends and family before leaving to live in another country for an extended period of time can be very difficult, but saying goodbye to your girlfriend can be even more difficult.  Friends and family will always be there for you when you return, but can the person that you are in a relationship with do the same?  Long distance relationships tend to have very low success rates, but on the positive side, that is the only kind of relationship that I have known with my girlfriend Jessica (Jess).  Ever since we started dating our relationship was a long distance one.  She went to college four hours away from mine and her home in Shoreview, MN is four hours away from my home in Ashland, WI.  Every time we got together we would go on a trip somewhere or put together an itinerary to maximize our stay with each other.  Now since I have moved even farther away to live in China, our relationship has really been put to the test.  We would have to go three and a half months before we could be together again.  So we made travel arrangement for her to come and visit me so we could travel around China together.  Finally the day of her arrival, December 14th had finally come around and I needed to go to Chongqing to pick her up at the airport.

Going to the airport by myself was going to be interesting.  I had to take one of the last busses leaving Beibei to Chongqing, get off at a specific bus stop, and then find a taxi to take me to the airport.  A Chinese friend of mine taught me a couple of useful phrases to help me along my journey, such as “Driver please tell me when we have arrived at Jia Zhou Hua Yuan”.  Eventually I arrived at the airport but had four hours of waiting to do before she would arrive, so in the meantime I camped out in the airport’s KFC to eat a snack and played games on my laptop.  Finally, at 1:45am, she walked through the terminal where she found me waiting (if you want to know the romantic details just ask Jess or me in person).  Getting back to Beibei was quite the journey too.  We had to take a bus to a specific bus stop to catch a taxi to bring us back to Beibei.  We arrived back at my apartment at 2:30am. 

Finally our China adventure together had begun and with the starting point being in Beibei.  I still had a week of teaching to do (finals week) when Jess arrived but this gave her a good opportunity to experience where I lived and get a little bit more acclimated to being China before we departed.