Tuesday, May 27, 2008

2,008 Pianos??

My news-savvy, ever-observant fellow Yichanger, Brad Ellis, picked up on this bizarre piece of Yichang news.

The Olympic torch is coming through Yichang this weekend. It goes to the Three Gorges Dam and then makes it's way along the Yangtze river to Yichang. An article Brad found from the offical torch relay website has one sentence about the torch coming to Yichang and here's what it says:

"In Yichang city, 2,008 pianos will accompany the torch along the Yangtze River."

2,008 pianos??!! What?? Really?? Lining the river??? Where in the world do you get 2,008 pianos?? How are they going to transport them all?? How are 2,008 pianos outside along the river going to play together?? And they chose pianos because pianos are so . . . portable?? Why pianos?! Wouldn't just about any other instrument be easier--2,008 trumpets, 2,008 bells, 2,008 Chinese erhus, 2,008 drums, 2,008 member marching band. So, I wonder if they'll be grand pianos or uprights? Can I volunteer to play one? Maybe next time they can try 2,008 pipe organs . . .

So, I guess we'll have to see this to believe it. Hopefully the 2,008 pianos can even be seen/heard through what I'm sure is going to be an insanely huge crowd that will try to see the torch. Hopefully I'll have a follow-up post with pictures.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Tone Deaf

As you might know, Chinese has four tones: high-flat tone, rising tone, falling-rising tone, and forceful-down tone--marked by these symbols: mā, má, mă, mà. There is also a neutral tone.

When I first started studying Chinese, I felt more than a little trepidation at the thought of having to speak in "tones." But after a short time of familiarizing myself with the sound and idea of tones, the tones became much less intimidating. Most of the time, you just memorize the tone while you're learning the word and after not too long, wrong tones sound as wrong to your ear as they do to Chinese people. It's like accents and stress in English. Context helps a lot too and most of the time, Chinese people are willing to play along when it comes to listening to our "tone deaf" Chinese.

That is NOT to say that I have in any way mastered Chinese and it's tones. I still have quite a few daily frustrations when it comes to tones.

A few of my Chinese studying woes . . .

The word for "supermarket" and the word for "humid" or "humidity" are exactly the same pronunciation, just different tones. Supermarket is chōu shì and humid is chóu shī. No matter how many times I practice, I always seem to forget which word is which. "Taxi! Yes, please take me to the humidity."

The word for "book" and the word for "tree" differ only in tones: shū and shù. I'm pretty sure Katie and I both made this mistake leaving our Chinese friends quite confused at Christmas time. Today we got out our tall Christmas book and put lights and decorations on it.

Katie and I both have trouble remembering the difference between the word "surprise" (jīng qí) and the word for "relative" (qīn qi). Hi! Guess what!! I have a relative to give you!

Another pair of words that I have trouble remembering are the verbs "to drop" something diào le and "to lose" something diū le. In many sentences, both words can apply. Hey you dropped/lost your pen! . . . so I'm lazy with those words. But that doesn't always apply: Have you seen my friends? I think I dropped them.

There are two Chinese provinces that are pronounced exactly the same with only a tonal difference: Shăn xī and Shān xī. To avoid confusion, the first province is spelled Shaanxi to differentiate without tone markings. Let's hope those two provinces' basketball teams never meet. Think of how confusing the radio broadcast would get.

Last week in our Chinese class, we were talking about Chinese Dragon Boat Festival which is coming up in a couple weeks. Dragon Boat Festival is Duān wǔ jié. Katie and I were asking our teacher which day Duān wǔ jié is this year, but we got a little confused and asked when China celebrated Dòng wǔ jié . . . which translates to "animal festival." Our teacher was confused: Animal festival?? How do you celebrate Animal Festival in America? We were confused: We don't celebrate Dragon Boat Festival (thinking we're saying Dragon Boat but still saying animal) in America. That's a Chinese holiday.

One of the first things you learn to say in any language is "I don't understand." In Chinese, "Wŏ tīng bú dŏng" or you can also just say "Wŏ bú dŏng." But change it to " Wŏ bǔ dòng." and the translation comes out as "I patch/fix holes." Now, granted, context would hopefully clarify some confusion, but the idea of how many times I said, "Sorry, I'm a foreigner. I patch holes." before I realized the difference, is so funny to me.

Oh for the day when I cease fixing holes . . .

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Money Matters

Since the earthquake, there have been massive fund-raising drives to raise money for the China Red Cross and other organizations trying to provide relief to the victims. Here at the university, the Foreign Affairs Office informed all of us that if we wanted to donate to the China Red Cross, we could drop off the money at the FAO and they'd take care of it. Great . . . I think most of the foreign teachers were eager to give and the Red Cross seemed like a reliable source to give to.

So last week, I stopped by the FAO with some money. I also had money that Katie wanted to donate because she was busy so I took it for her. When I handed the money to Yang, one of the FAO staff, he wanted me to clearly say how much of it was from me and how much of it was from Katie. He had a chart to keep track of what each individual gave. The list of who gave how much for each school department was going to be posted on the school intranet! Then he wanted me to pose for a photo with Mr. Tian, the FAO Director, handing him the donation so they could post the photo on the school website to show how willing their foreign teachers were to donate money. I was just about to protest the idea of using my donation as a PR opportunity (I wished my donation could just be anonymous!), but then Yang told me that Mr. Tian was not available. I heard later though that a couple other foreign teachers had had to pose for photos with their donations.

I read this story on another China-related blog that I follow:

A Chinese friend of mine told me that at her workplace, there was a fund-raising effort going on for the victims of the recent earthquake. Most employees contributed 100 RMB. My friend wanted to give a bit more, so she was about to put in 500 RMB when a co-worker pulled her aside.

“What are you doing?”
“I’m giving 500 RMB.”
“Everyone else gave 100. The boss only gave 300. Who do you think you are, giving 500?”

My friend ended up giving 100.

There are lists posted around campus of how much each class has given to the relief effort.

My students told me that they might change their cell phone service because China Mobile hasn't donated as much money as China Unicom.

It's very public how much famous people have given--people like Yao Ming and other Chinese celebrities. While they might be willing and eager to donate money, image-conscious celebrities don't really have a choice not to give.

We've heard people praising Taiwan for how much money the Taiwanese have donated; however, I have a feeling that there is a lot of internal and external pressure on Taiwan to make a large donation. Taiwan can show how wealthy and generous it is; China can gain face because Taiwan is willing to help the motherland.

Last night, Katie and I stopped at the convenient store by our apartment. Grandpa Liu was there (the cutest, sweetest old man you'll ever meet . . . he calls us his grown-up granddaughters) and all the store workers were just hanging out so we started talking about the earthquake. They asked us point blank how much money we had donated. Katie and I both looked at each other and tried to avoid the question knowing that our donations put together might be almost as much as their monthly salary. We tried to explain that we don't usually ask specific questions about money in order to avoid making either side embarrassed that their donation was too large/small in comparison. The store workers and Grandpa said that in China you can ask about money and not be embarrassed because we all understand people have different abilities and it's understood that some people can and should give more, while others will only be able to give less ("from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" . . . hmmm, seems like I have heard that somewhere before).

So everyone gives "freely" according to their ability. But be careful not to give more than your boss. Or less than your competition. Good thing all of that info is public in case you need to check.

There are huge cultural differences between the Western mindset and Chinese mentality when it comes to money. I have, however, been impressed with how quickly China has been able to mobilize funds, manpower, and supplies for the relief effort. And, cultural differences aside, I just hope that the money that's collected actually makes it to the areas in need and doesn't end up lining the pockets of corrupt officials.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Saturday morning Dawson, Katie, and I (I was late, but did make it) got together with some students who were interested in baseball. It's quite entertaining to watch kids attempt baseball who not only have never played before, but have never even watched baseball before. Honestly, for being that inexperienced, they all did pretty well and seemed to have a great time. We used a tennis ball instead of a real baseball since there was a shortage of gloves. There were several funny moments--once a kid ran from second base out into left field since he didn't realize where third base was. Sometimes the hitter got a default homerun just because the outfield didn't realize where to throw the ball. I actually hit the ball both times I was up to bat, which is pretty good for me since I'm athletically challenged.

(I can't take any credit for organizing this. Katie's the athletically minded one who's willing to take the time to organize baseball games for students)

Panda Worries

A day or two ago, I had the TV on and was watching CCTV9 (China's English channel) report about the earthquake. I saw a headline scroll along the bottom of the screen that said, "Three giant pandas missing from the Cheng Du panda reserve and research center after earthquake." I know this might sound shallow considering how many people have died and are suffering, but I was especially upset at the thought of three pandas being lost (I tend to be like that . . . very sensitive about animal stories . . . especially dogs)! Obviously, I'm upset and saddened when I hear about the people who are hurting and suffering, but I was quite relieved to read this in the news this morning.

Panda Finds Way Home After Quake

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Yesterday afternoon, exactly one week after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, China stopped for three minutes of mourning. The three minutes was supposed to be "three minutes of silence;" however, it wasn't silent. While people stood silent, sirens blarred; trains, buses, and cars all sounded their horns; the school bells rang for three minutes straight--as if the entire country was wailing in grief. The Olympic torch relay has been suspended for three days. Flags are being flown at half-staff. Activities, events, and entertainment programs have been suspended. The earthquake really has shaken this country. Pray for China.

China Comes to a Halt to Honor Quake Victims

Monday, May 19, 2008

New Yichang Find!

Thanks to a tip from my friend Oswin, I found bottled Starbucks Frappiccino drinks . . . . IN YICHANG! I've always longingly wished for a Starbucks in Yichang; however I know I'd be much poorer and probably a few pounds heavier if we did have a Starbucks here (so maybe it's just as well). A new bakery opened in Yiling Square downtown Yichang and they carry these drinks. They're really expensive, just like they are in the States. So they'll have to be a rare, special treat, but it's fun to know we can buy them now. The closest real Starbucks to us is a newly opened Starbucks in Wuhan, our province's capital about 4 or 5 hours away by train.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Graduation Performance

Friday night we had the annual graduation ceremony/performance for the Foreign Language College. I ended up participating in it last year by playing a piano duet with Dawson. This year I got asked to play the piano again. One of my junior students, Rufus, wanted to sing a well-known Chinese song and he talked Katie into singing it in Chinese with him and I played the piano for them (side note . . . there's a huge cultural difference between us and Chinese people when it comes to performing . . . we foreigner teachers generally try to avoid getting roped into performances; however, this time we agreed, especially Katie, because the students really do just absolutely love it if you ever get up on stage). The song is called "The Moon Represents My Heart" and, in my opinion, would be similar to a song like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in English.

If it hadn't been our students, then this year's performance would have just been deja vu of every other Chinese performance I've ever been to, but because we knew all the kids who were up there singing or dancing or playing instruments, it was much more meaningful and entertaining and fun. I feel a little like a mom with several dozen kids who all wanted me to watch their part of the show.

Welcome Sign

Our audience . . . most of the students and faculty from the Foreign Language College

Me playing the introduction as Rufus walked on stage. This year I got to play a grand piano! This year, like last year, they used a bubble machine on stage. Bubbles are distracting when you're trying to play or sing in front of people!

Katie and Rufus singing "The Moon Represent My Heart." (Sorry mom . . . I know you're sad that you can't see me . . . I'm there playing the piano behind Katie, I promise!)

Dawson played the piano while he sang a fun, upbeat song in Chinese. Quite the multi-talented performer. The students loved it.
I think the fan dance is my favorite. It's a combination of tradition and modern dance and music and the fans and costumes give it a dramatic affect. Video would be better than just a picture but for now pictures are all I have.
The women faculty members did a tradition Mongolian-style dance.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Another Chinese Poem

After learning the poem 锄禾 (Chú Hú), my student Shine, who's taken a particular interest in helping me with my Chinese and my knowledge of Chinese history and literature, gave me another poem. This poem is from 李白 Lǐ Bái, who is one of the greatest poets in all of Chinese literary history.

静夜思 Jìng Yè Sī

床前明月光 Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng
疑是地上霜 Yí shì dì shàng shuāng
举头望明月 Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè
低头思故乡 Dī tóu sī gù xiāng

Quiet Night Thoughts

Before my bed,
There is bright-lit moonlight.
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground.

Lifting my head,
I watch the bright moon.
Lowering my head,
I dream that I am home.

Shine wanted to introduce this poem to me since I'm far from home and my family. The poem suggests the idea that no matter where you are, every one is looking up at the same moon. It made me think of Fifel the mouse singing "Somewhere Out There" in An American Tale which isn't quite of the same literary caliber, but I do like the poem and I can feel my Chinese cultural and literary horizons broadening as I figuratively gaze up at the bright moon.

Monday, May 12, 2008

All Shook Up

A few weeks ago, Dad and Mom told me they'd felt an earthquake at home in Indiana. I remember saying to them that I wished I could experience an earthquake sometime (just the shaking, not the destruction or danger). Today I got my wish. I think nearly the entire country of China felt it. I was at home with Katie and of our students just sitting on the couch in front of the window. My first thought was "Wow, the wind is really strong." Katie thought a rat was under her chair for a second. Then we noticed the living room light fixture swaying precariously (I don't think that fixture will survive much more shaking). What we felt in Yichang wasn't strong enough to do any damage; however, in Sichuan province (to the west a few hundred miles) there are hundreds dead, thousands injured, and many people still trapped under collapsed buildings.

I heard from several other teachers who were having class that once the students realized what was happening, they all immediately ran out of the classroom which effectively just cancelled all afternoon classes. Too bad I didn't get to have a class cancelled due to the earthquake. Considering what I've heard and seen regarding the structural integrity of Chinese buildings, I guess running outside should have been my first thought too. Actually my biggest fear wouldn't be the collapsing buildings or the resulting fires if a bigger earthquake were to ever be centered in Yichang--my biggest fear would be the tsunami that would come if the Three Gorges Dam ever broke.

It's definitely been the talk of the day. I now know the Chinese word for earthquake (地震 di zhen) which I didn't know before today.

Basic China Guide

For my fellow waiguoren or for anyone who has or might visit China, I found this amusing and dead-on accurate. The images are from the U.S. Dept of Homeland Security terrorist preparation page and it's meant as a satire.

A Pictorial Guide to Life in China

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Made in China

I think I've mentioned before that I teach an English class twice a week at a L'Oreal branch factory. The plant is a 15 minute walk from my apartment. I have 4 - 6 students who are upper level office workers working in their accounting and quality control departments. Katie and Beth have also been teaching there doing one-on-one classes with two of the managers. We usually just have our class in a conference room or office, but last night, Katie and I talked them into giving us a tour of the factory (they had to try to explain everything to us in English as we walked around so it was great practice for the students and they were excited to show us where they work . . . and Katie and I were happy to get a break from actually teaching).

As much as I know that Chinese factories must exist all around me making all of those "Made in China" goods, I hadn't ever gotten to see one in operation. It was so interesting. This factory makes cosmetics products like face cleansers, lotion, toner, lipstick, whitening cream (quite the popular cosmetic item in China . . . they can't believe that we buy products to make our skin darker), and other products for the L'Oreal brand as well as Maybelline and Garnier and two other Chinese brands. We got to see their raw materials warehouse, the huge vats they use to mix the products, workers filling bottles and tubes, conveyor belts sending out the finished product that was then packaged and boxed up. The manager explained to us that some of their production lines are automated but most of them are still manually run by a number of employees who handle each item as it's produced. The manager also said that L'Oreal's factories in France and America are completely automated but that outfitting one automatic production line can cost 10 million RMB (US$ 1.4 million). Interesting to get such a real life illustration of why companies outsource their factories to places where manual labor is still affordable and in demand.
I'm currently halfway through Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat in which he talks a lot about outsourcing and off-shoring and the way that globalization has flattened the world through the great leaps and bounds in communication and transportation development that the world has seen in the last 10 years. If you're at all interested in the subject of globalization, it's definitely worth the read. I felt like I put the book down, stepped out my front door and got to see for myself exactly what he was explaining in the book.
It's company policy not to allow photos inside the actual plant, but here are a few pictures of Katie and me with the students who are in our class before we got our plant tour. We had to wear white lab coats, safety shoes and glasses, and hairnets to be allowed inside.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Brief Window of Connectivity

Quick get a blog post in before the internet goes out!

For the last three weeks, my internet connection has gone from completely and randomly broken, to repaired, to on the fritz, to broken (again), to repaired (again), to reconfigured, to intermittently working, to working for 30 minutes at a time, to slow, to . . .

I'm beyond frustrated with the whole mess. Anyway, blogging capability is minimal right now and indefinitely since no one seems to be able to figure out what happened to our internet or as soon as someone comes and "fixes" the connections (spending two hours in my apartment), the connection is immediately lost.

As I learned to say tonight in my Chinese class, 伤脑筋!! (shang nao jin), directly translated "this is injuring my brain!!" but with a more figurative meaning of "so trying and troublesome!"

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tibet = Hawaii??

While I generally adhere to a strict personal policy of not engaging in futile debate attempts with Chinese people about sensitive political issues, I did end up voicing my option about Tibet in one of my classes this week. I think having nearly five years of China residence and experience as well as being a student of history and international relations gives me legitimate grounds to say that I see both sides of the issue. Plus, I've been to Tibet. My students listened intently to my opinion and seemed to take what I had to say into account. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I had a "breakthrough" with them but I think what I had to say did make an impact or else they were at least willing to consider an "outsider's" take on the situation. I wish I could say a whole lot more because I could write pages about my thoughts on this issue and the observations I've made while talking to Chinese people, but I'd rather not have my blog deleted so I'm trying to not be too vocal. However, I do want to point out something that I read this morning:

There was a movement this morning in Honolulu by native Hawaiians who consider themselves the legitimate government of the Hawaiian islands and who are seeking Hawaiian independence. The group seized control of one of the former palaces, now a tourist attraction. As many as 60 people may be arrested. Is this a case of a double standard? I'm not saying that the U.S. would deal with protests in Hawaii the same way in which China deals with any sort of uprising; however, I find myself hoping that none of my Chinese students or friends read about this because I might have a hard time explaining how most Americans support Tibetan independence but would balk at the idea of Hawaiian independence. Admittedly, I am still quite ignorant on the topic of the Hawaiian independence movement and need to do more reading about it before I can fairly make any comparisons to Tibet (perhaps comparisons can also be made with Taiwan?), but it did catch my attention since it was just a day after my frank discussion in class with my students.

Anyone have any thoughts? Leave me a comment . . .

Here's the article that I read this morning.