Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My homestay was DA BOMB

I apologize, there is just no better way to describe how amazingly awesome my homestay was.

I admit, though, that my initial impression was not anywhere near this great. I was absolutely 100% terrified. We were picked by our majors, and being an international relations and politics major, I knew this was going to get me an interesting homestay "sibling". I was correct. A quick rundown of the first topics my homestay "sister" touched on within the first half hour of meeting me…

1. The US financial crisis. I'm not even kidding here. She asked me about it, my opinions of it, which party's plan I agreed with, what I would do if I were in charge of changing our financial crisis around, how I think the US is going to be able to handle our debt into the future, etc. She also was able to tell me her opinion, but it quickly turned into a better conversation. She had some ideas that she talked about that she thought her government should implement so they wouldn't fall as deeply into the same financial crunch that the US and Europe are in right now. I was extremely impressed with both her ability to formulate ideas on what she thought the government should do, and on her ability to express them so well in English. This leads me to the second topic of conversation....

2. Since she had so many great ideas, I asked what she wanted to do after high school and college (she is 16. Funny story, actually, her birthday is the same as Domenic's. She'll be turning 17 the same day he turns 18). She wants to work for the government.... Immediately, my brain went.. "Oh, God, what have I gotten myself into? She's a young party member." I was wrong, though. She wants to go into economics and be able to help her country. I don't think the pairing of the two of us could have been better. Yes, our countries are completely different, with different outlooks on life and governance, but I think that the desire to want to be able to improve upon your country and government is the same regardless of where you are from. Although I kept my answers to her questions about China as diplomatic and unbiased as possible, we were able to have some really great conversations. I told her I was extremely impressed with her English and her ability to express herself and have these political conversations/debates in another language. It was really sad to see her view of herself, because she said that she doesn't think her English is good enough to ever get a job with the government, even though that's her dream. It really put China's population crunch into perspective for me, because if the roles were reversed and this was an American girl who spoke English and Chinese as fluently as my homestay sister does, our government would jump at the opportunity to have her on board. All in all, I think we both agreed that, looking to the future, the cooperation of our governments is a necessity.

3. Then, we talked about China's former One Child Policy. God, talk about having to stay as neutral and unbiased as possible when trying to answer a question. It wasn’t too bad.

4. Next up on uncomfortable topics to talk about in China was religion. Not even joking, she asked me what I thought about so many people in China being unreligious. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to tell me that I shouldn’t proselytize or what, but I danced around that topic pretty quickly. Any conversation that includes the words “religion” and “our party” in one sentence is a conversation I want to steer clear of in China.

5. Thennnnn, Justin Beiber. She told me he is “very beautiful”. My mind went, “Young party member who loves Justin Beiber. How is my night going to go?!” But then I saw that she had on Harry Potter glasses and we had a wonderful conversation about Professor Snape.

6. The tax structures of the U.S. and China. This girl is SMART. Her mom is an MBA professor and her dad is an engineer, so I guess that is part of the reason why she wants to go into economics. She did ask me what I thought about a country’s right to take taxes, and we had a really interesting debate. Although she wants to work for her government, she is very open-minded and we had some really good discussions.

Okay, so that was the beginning of my homestay adventure. I was a little nervous with all of the politics talk, just because I don’t know what I’m at liberty to comment on or not yet. I mean, I quite obviously wouldn’t say anything outwardly negative about the government, but I don’t know how people react to making comparisons between China and the US.

We took a taxi back to her apartment. It was just her and her mom for the time being, because her dad is working on a project in Tianjin. Her mom doesn’t speak any English, so it was just the two of us talking, or her acting as an interpreter. Their apartment was A LOT bigger than I expected it to be, and freaking pristine. It looked like it had been scrubbed top to bottom for the last week and a half. There were three bedrooms, so I had a guest bedroom, and the bathroom was pretty big. There wasn’t a separate area for the shower, but they had this weird plastic contraption that they placed over the toilet while using the shower so the toilet didn’t get drenched. It was interesting.

Oh, and an embarrassing moment. They had three sets of house shoes when I first went in. They pointed to one of the pink pairs to have me try on. My foot was definitely too big. I’m pretty sure I ended up having to wear her dad’s house shoes. Whatever, Americans have big feet. Cool.

While her mom made dinner, we went to this garden nearby. It was SO COOL. It was six stories up, in this walkway between two tall buildings. It was beautiful! They had about every kind of plant there, from palm trees to cacti, to flowers. There were paddle boats that you could take down this lazy river, and waterfalls, and (we found out later) and entire huge swimming pool area.

We walked around the garden for a bit, and then went to see this film. It was advertised in English as a “4D film”, but it was basically just kind of a jankier version of our 3D movies, complete with really hot yellow 3D goggles. At first, we watched these really lame videos about dinosaurs and rocks.. There were no words, just music. Not like I would have understood the words, anyway. The last one we got to watch was really cool, though. It was about ten or fifteen minutes, and the only way I can really describe it was that the main guy was kind of like a Chinese version of Dracula. At the beginning, he came out of this coffin and the whole story was about how he killed people and made them the marionettes for the Beijing Opera. I got pretty into it.

The “4D” movie was definitely not the best part of the garden, though. There was, suspended above the garden, a rope and bridge obstacle course! Despite the fact that I was wearing a dress and flip flops, I knew I HAD to go on it. My homestay “sister” and I got in the harnesses (don’t worry, the harnesses held my dress in place!) and headed up to the top. The first one we went across was just a rope bridge, so it was pretty easy. Then, we got on another rope bridge, except instead of being placed straight, they were all crooked and you had to balance where you put your feet so the whole thing didn’t teeter to one side. It was really awesome, but took a LOT of work. My hands were red and covered in rust from gripping the sides so hard. It was really trippy, too, because when you looked down, the obstacle course was over the part of the garden that had a glass floor. Not only was I suspended in air over a garden, I was suspended in air over a garden that was suspended six stories high. I thought that was the end of it, but we had one more left – and it proved to be the hardest to do in flip flops! It was a metal tightrope type thing surrounded by a rope net that we had to balance our way across. There were ropes on both sides for us to hang on to, but it was REALLY hard to keep my flip flops on the rope in the middle without sliding anywhere. Once we finally got across, I was drenched in sweat and I thought I might have given Charlotte a mild heart attack. She just said to me, “My English teacher from New York said American women were very active. I didn’t know what that meant when he said it…but now I do.”

Alright, so we got lost in this huge garden, and once we found our way back to an elevator, it took us down to the International Foreign Goods Mall. It was SO COOL. I’m taking everyone in Shijiazhuang back there! First, it was freaking HUGE. I’m pretty sure we’re going to get lost when we go there ourselves. Next, it had just about everything you could possibly want to find shopping there. The coolest part, though, is that each hall or wing is modeled after a different city from around the world. There’s London, and it’s modeled after the Sherlock Holmes books/movies. There’s Rome, and the Vatican. There’s France. There’s Greece. There’s Egypt. That’s just what I saw, but I’m sure there is more.

After we found our way out, we went back to her apartment for dinner. It was SO GOOD. There was a ton of food to choose from, and I think her mom kept the foods pretty tame on purpose because she knew there was going to be an American. There was sweet and sour pork, spring rolls with something really sweet in them, a shrimp dish, soup, rice, corn, another chicken dish, a dish with pork and vegetables…it was all delicious. Then, there were these pickeled or carmelized or something duck eggs. They were really weird, but I ate them. They were slimy, but the taste actually wasn’t too bad. The funniest part about dinner was that it took forever for me to convince the mom that I actually knew how to use chopsticks! For the first half of the meal, every time I tried to use my chopsticks, she would take them out of my hands and replace them with a spoon. I didn’t know if she was offended that I was trying to use the chopsticks instead of the spoon she had set out for me, or if she thought it was polite because she didn’t think I knew how to use them. Finally, she asked if I had ever used chopsticks before coming to China, and when I said yes, she let me use them for the rest of the meal.

This next section I want to remember so I can e-mail to my grandma Cahill when I get a better internet connection. China and Google aren’t exactly BFFs right now, hence a very slow gmail connection.

Charlotte’s school schedule is CRAZY. Her regular day: school starts at 7:20 AM. From 7:20 to 9:20, they have what she calls “reading” and she says they can read in either English or Chinese. I think this might be a time for studying, but I could be wrong. Then they have five classes that go until noon, when they have lunch. Then they have “reading” and “soft study” until 2:20, when they start up the second half of their classes. I think she said that she takes nine classes total. The end of regular classes is 5:40, but then they have a break for studying time and/or night classes. They’re finally done at 9:20 PM. They eat lunch and dinner at school. From what I’ve heard other people say about their homestay children, it isn’t uncommon for these kids to stay up past midnight, studying. One girl said that she usually goes to bed between midnight and one, unless there are exams. Then, she stays up until three in the morning. They’re killing these kids.

Okay, after dinner, we looked online at some pictures of her school, and I showed her some pictures of my family on my laptop. When I was ready to go to bed and everyone was going into their rooms, her mom brought me a glass of regular water in case I got thirsty in the middle of the night. I took it, of course, but didn’t drink any. Quite honestly, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. I know I had problems in Mexico when I would tell people I would like bottled water instead of tap, because they would get offended that Americans thought their water was “dirty”. I just took it, thanked her, and put it in my room. Oh well.

Another thing I wasn’t sure about was the bed. The bed was flawlessly made… very, very tightly tucked in. Then, there were two pillows and a pile of blankets on top. They had informed me that they had two types of pillows. One was soft, which they called the “Western” pillow, and one was hard and felt like it was filled with little balls. And by hard, I don’t mean firm. I mean I pushed my hand down on it with quite a bit of force and I barely made it move. That was apparently the “Chinese” pillow. (Side note: beds in China are not soft. Not firm, but hard. Like you’re sleeping on a floor. It doesn’t move. It is just straight. Apparently it’s good for your spine alignment or something. A lot of people have had problems sleeping, but I don’t really mind it too much). So, my dilemma was this: do I sleep under the covers, or do I sleep on top of them with the blankets they brought me?

I ended up sleeping on top of the comforter because it was pretty hot, with one of the lighter blankets on top of me and the western pillow.

All in all, my homestay was really good. Charlotte and I are even QQ friends!

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