Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Chinese Cruciverbalists?

I'm a crossword puzzle fan. I think it must be genetic since my Grandma works the crossword puzzle in her newspaper everyday and my dad frequently likes a crossword puzzle challenge too. One of my favorite things to do when I'm home in the summers is to wake up in the morning, get some coffee and a bagel, turn on the Today show (which I usually end up ignoring) and sit at the kitchen table and work the daily crossword puzzle from the Indianapolis Star. The Star's crosswords seem to be right at my level--hard enough to challenge me, but not so hard that I get frustrated and start to feel like an idiot. And, if I ever get stuck, my dad is always more than willing to show me how much he knows by putting in a word or two to "help" me. Dad and mom even sent me several crossword puzzles in the last box they mailed me.

I've always assumed that crossword puzzles in Chinese would be impossible due to the fact that words are usually comprised of only one or two characters rather than letters that could overlap. A few times, I've used online crossword puzzle generators to make puzzles in English for my students since I thought they'd enjoy trying a word puzzle in English that they can't do in Chinese. But, not too long ago, I saw my first Chinese crossword puzzle in the back of the "Student Diary" that the school gave us (for the 30th anniversary, we all got free HHU t-shirts, caps, bags, and student planners).

I don't know enough Chinese to actually work the puzzle, but from what I can tell it seems like the clues are mostly about famous people, well-known companies, and city names . . . most of which use 3 - 5 Chinese characters. I was rather intrigued by this finding and am going to keep my eye out for more crossword puzzles in Chinese.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Neither Height, Nor Depth . . .

Nor rivers, nor rickety Chinese plank bridges . . . nor any other thing shall be able to keep us from meeting together on Sundays!

This morning, Katie, Dave, and I decided to ride our bikes to the Rice's house for our Sunday church meeting. Just last week, the new road connecting the university to the highway was supposedly completed. That new road saves us about 10 minutes of riding, so we thought we'd go that way this morning. But, when we got to the newly opened section, we were met with a concrete barrier. I guess, they had just poured more cement so we couldn't ride on the new road. Not wanting to waste time having to backtrack and ride through town, we decided to take the dirt path "shortcut" through the field. We've actually ridden down the dirt path before, but this time we met up with a small river which . . . um . . . wasn't there last time. So here we are on our way to have church at the Rice's this morning.

Right after we "walked the planks" and were on the other side, Dave accidentally put his foot into some sort of quicksand-mud-goop up to his ankle which we all thought was dry and solid but turned out to be quite soft.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Vietnamese Students

Here at Hong He University, there are several hundred Vietnamese students. Brian and I are each teaching an English class once a week to a group of Vietnamese students. The Vietnamese students we have in our class are motivated and fun-loving. I've enjoyed getting to know them. But since their English level is still rather low, we end up using Chinese to communicate most of the time. Americans and Vietnamese communicating to each other in Chinese . . . I just think it's a little funny. People say that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn, but listening to my Vietnamese students speak to each other, I wonder if Vietnamese would be harder (pronunciation, not writing). There are six tones in Vietnamese as opposed to four in Chinese and it seems that the sounds of Vietnamese are more throaty and glottal which I think is harder to get used to. But maybe I'm just comfortable with Chinese now and it doesn't sound so foreign to me anymore. Brian and Caleb are thinking about getting someone to teach them some basic Vietnamese. They have my admiration for even considering it.

Here's a picture of me, Brian, Caleb, and Rachel with some of the Vietnamese girls that are in my class. (And in case you're wondering, no, I can't tell the difference between the Chinese students and the Vietnamese students. Neither can they until they hear each other speaking.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Squirrel Fish

I had this dish twice last week at one of our favorite restaurants near the university. It's called "squirrel fish" . . . I guess because it's cut to look like a squirrel? The head is actually split in half and flattened out. Despite the odd name and slightly disturbing presentation, it actually taste really good. Unlike most fish in China, this fish was filleted and didn't have a million tiny fish bones to try to eat around and it has a tasty sweet-and-sour sauce. I recommend the squirrel fish!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

20-Legged Race

On Saturday, Hong He University celebrated its 30th anniversary. There were games and activities on campus all day with a concert and fireworks in the evening. In the morning, at the stadium, there were some races. One of the races was a 20-legged race (well, about 20 people with their legs tied together, I'm not exactly sure how many "legs" that makes). The teams practice quite extensively to be able to do this without falling down. Sadly though, a few teams did end up wiping-out. I didn't actually see any bad falls, but Katie and the Rices did. I guess this is supposed to promote teamwork and camaraderie and coordination? I've never seen anyone attempt anything like this in the States . . . makes our 3-legged races look kind of wimpy.

Friday, October 17, 2008

First Mengzi Package

Just when I was down on the mail delivery here in Mengzi, I got a package from dad and mom that made really good time. Some of the letters that Katie and I have gotten seemed like they were taking a long time to get here (like more than 3 weeks). So, when dad and mom sent me a box I was worried that I'd have to wait forever to get it. But it came in about 10 days!

Besides sending me a book that I really wanted, dad and mom stocked me up on coffee, mac 'n cheese, tuna, brownie mixes, sugar-free drink mixes, and Reeses! Yum! All stuff I can't get here. Plus I got a magazine and crossword puzzles. Thanks so much mom and dad . . . you send the best boxes!

I'm still having trouble sending international mail from Mengzi. The Mengzi China Post seems baffled as to how to send something overseas. The Rices say they usually save their international mail and send it when they go to Kunming. That's fine, but that means only being able to mail stuff about once a month. Feels a little like the days of the Pony Express and stage coach deliveries.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Day in Hanoi

After staying a few days in Sapa, Katie, Dave, and I took a train to Hanoi. We arrived in Hanoi at 5:30 a.m. and after getting cleaned up at the hotel, we had one of the best travel days I've ever had in a new city. We got to see all of the main things we wanted to do, we had good food, didn't get lost, and didn't get stressed out about where to go.

Motorcycles everywhere! Darting and swerving and honking their way through the narrow streets in the Old Quarter.

St. Joseph's Cathedral

A walk around the lake that separates the Old Quarter and the French Quarter. I thought this little girl was just too cute with her pointed Vietnamese hat and her missing front teeth.

Lunch at a bustling, crowded restaurant which seemed to be a favorite of the locals. Street food for the middle class is how Lonely Planet described this place. It was really delicious!

Visit to the Vietnamese Military History Museum. It was a little unsettling to see the wreckage of American planes, tanks, and helicopters that had been captured or shot down during the Vietnamese War. The museum definitely portrayed history from a Vietnamese perspective, but it was still interesting.

The Citadel, part of the Military Museum Site. That's me and Katie in the windows of the tower in the second picture.

Temple of Literature

Trying a local specialty for supper. On Fish Street, the restaurants all have very simple menus, "Only one dish in our restaurant: Grilled Fish. Price 90,000 VND/person. Drinks not included."

We thought the grilled fish tasted delicious, but the portions were tiny! Katie, Dave, and I all left hungry.

We ended the day by going to a water puppet show. Never having heard of water puppets before, we didn't know what to expect, but it was a very fun show. Musicians sing and play traditional Vietnamese instruments, while the puppets (people, dragons, boats, fish, etc.) pop in and out and seem to swim and dance on the water. The puppets are manipulated by people standing in the waist-deep pool behind a bamboo curtain. I guess water puppets are uniquely Vietnamese and highly valued folk art in Vietnam.

And still watch out for the motorcyles at the end of the day on your way back to the hotel!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Afternoon Ride in Sapa

Motorcycles are definitely the preferred travel mode in Vietnam, so one afternoon while we were in Sapa we rented motorcycles to drive around in the mountains and see some of the scenery.

Checking out the bikes. Be careful not to get ripped off (as we all found out later!)

Brian, Caleb, and Dave were the drivers and Rachel, Katie, and I were the passengers. I wished I could have driven myself, but since I haven't driven motorcycles before, I decided that it was better not to learn on curvy, narrow mountainous roads in a country with crazy-aggressive bike drivers.

Making sure we didn't run out of gas.

Dave was my driver.

Women harvesting rice in the terraced fields.

When we stopped to take photos, a minority women and her kids ran after us trying to sell us jewelry.

Terraced fields surrounding Sapa

We had to drive through water and mud and around large potholes the size of craters while being careful not to go careening off the side of the mountain, since, of course, there aren't any guardrails.

Relax! . . . This isn't real!!! At one point, Brian and Rachel had gotten in front of me and Dave. Dave and I drove around a corner and this is what we saw. Just before Dave and I started panicking, we heard laughing. Brian and Rachel got in front of us and then decided to stage an accident. The Vietnamese people who were watching thought it was quite funny. You have to always be ready for a joke when you're with Brian.

View of Sapa as we drove back into town.

Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sapa, Vietnam

Crossing the border into Vietnam

It was rather fun to arrive "on foot" which is what we you write on your Customs arrival form.

Sapa Rooms, our hotel in Sapa

Sapa is a laid-back mountain town with winding roads and lots of interesting hotels, restaurants, and shops.
Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Do You Like Dog?

One of the best parts on any vacation is coming back home. I enjoyed Sapa and Hanoi and was glad for the chance to go to Vietnam, but after a rickety, smelly overnight train ride followed by a shoving match to get through customs and then followed by a jarring 5 hour-long bus ride, I was more than happy to be back in my own apartment. After a shower and a pot of coffee, life was good again.

I'm still consolidating photos from the trip so I'll post photos later.

A funny story to share . . . When we got back to the border, my phone service came back and I had a text message from Robin, a student-friend. I had spent time helping Robin prepare a speech for a competition a few weeks ago. After the competition, she went back home to see her family. Here's the text message she sent me:

"Dear Kim. I'm coming back tomorrow. If you like dog, I can bring a small one to you, there are three in my house."

Knowing that dog meat is available in the Mengzi markets and after a week of hearing about all kinds of strange food that people in Vietnam eat, I just assumed that when she said "if you like dog," she meant "if you like to eat dog." So my reply was:

Thanks for the offer but actually I think it's a little strange to eat dog. Maybe it's a cultural difference.

Then I got another message from Robin:

You made a mistake. I mean I will bring a small dog to you to keep, not eat. Because you said you like dog.

Oops! My mistake, but as much as I like dogs and as relieved as I was that it wasn't dog meat, I still didn't want her to bring me a puppy. I just don't think having a dog in China is a good idea for me since I travel a lot and don't want to have to give a dog up whenever I end up going home. So, I politely declined Robin's offer to bring me a dog and laughed about assuming that she was bringing me dog meat! I guess I never thought about the difference between saying, "do you like dogs?" and "do you like dog?" . . . maybe I should point that out to Robin . . .

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Adding another place to the my life's list of "Places I Never Expected to Visit" . . . I'm in Vietnam (other places on that list include Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia). With all the history and negative connotations associated with Vietnam, it's a little surreal to actually be here.

To celebrate Chinese National Day, we got a "week" off school (please see previous post about "making up" the holiday). Since Mengzi is only a couple hours from the border of China and Vietnam, we--me, Katie, Dave, and the whole Rice family--decided to escape the pandomonium and the crowds that characterize all Chinese holidays and come to Vietnam.

We all went to the beautiful French-influenced mountain village of Sapa and enjoyed great scenery and cool weather. Yesterday Katie, Dave, and I ventured off on our own and took a train to Hanoi. We'll be in Hanoi until tomorrow night and then we train back to the border and repeat the not-so-pleasant bus ride back to Mengzi.

I'll have lots of pictures and more stories to post once I get back home to my computer. For now, here's a little incident that happened when I was crossing the border:

At the border, the Customs officials asked all of us if we had any books so I took out the two books I brought to read and my Bible. The one book I brought is called Red Dust and it's a travelogue from an free-spirited artist/vagabond who wondered China in the 1980s. Anyways, there's a map in the front of the book outlining the author's travels and although it's in grayscale, Taiwan was a slightly darker shade than China. The border guard took my book and went and had a discussion about it and then came back and told me that I had to tear out the page with the map and it was a very serious issue. I couldn't help laughing because I bought the book at a bookstore in Beijing and the author is Chinese (the book is translated into English). I offered to write "Taiwan is a part of China" on the map page. After a few minutes, the guard just gave a sheepish look and finally just said it was ok since the book came from Beijing. My book and its map remained intact. Sadly, the book turned out to be just an average read, so I swapped it at our Sapa Hotel book exchange for two other books to read during the rest of my trip. Maybe some other traveler will find the contraband and attempt to take it back across the border.

I'm off to have the local specialty grilled fish dish. I really am loving the food.