Saturday, February 25, 2012

Christmas in China

Finally, the posts about the holidays can begin!

Christmas and the Christmas season were pretty hard for me to spend away from friends and family. Being surrounded by it my whole life, I didn't realize how much I missed things like hearing Christmas music around town or seeing Christmas decorations out in stores.

The whole month of December was really difficult to spend away from family, and I tried to ration my Facebook time so I wasn't constantly bombarded by people posting about wrapping gifts or drinking Starbucks Christmas specials. I hit a low point when I obsessively downloaded Christmas music and made my kids listen to it at the end of class with me. But, hey, I'll own it. (They hated it, by the way.)

It was especially hard to see everyone posting about finishing finals and going home for the holidays when we still had three weeks of teaching to go until our break. I didn't realize how wired my brain was to be "done" when the semester was done. We were pretty burnt out at the end of the semester. It didn't help that Mr. Dong initially wasn't going to give us the day after Christmas off, but expected us to perform in a city-wide banquet for the school.

The "performance" started this way: First, Mr. Dong told us that the school wanted to invite us to a Christmas celebration banquet. Of course, we said we would love to go. Then, the next week, he told us that we would be doing a "small performance". We still were under the assumption that this was just a banquet that the school was putting on for us. We were a little put out that they basically just wanted us to put on a show for them, but whatever. We figured we'd just throw together a little song and dance a few days before and we'd be fine. Two weeks passed and no one mentioned it to us. Then, we're informed that it would be a banquet for the whole city, and all of the foreign teachers would be there and would be performing. A few days later, we were harassed by Miss Li, who asked us to come practice our performance in one of the auditoriums. We found the American students there, who had been taken out of their Chinese language classes to learn a dance to perform at the banquet.

I ended up not going to the banquet and performance because Russell was in town. I didn't want to leave him alone, and Mr. Dong didn't get him a ticket. At the banquet, the American and Thai students were forced to come and perform, but not allowed to stay and eat at the banquet. The teachers had to do their song and dance to "Jingle Bell Rock" twice because Miss Li decided that the first time wasn't adequate.

Russell and I had to go to a dinner with Mr. Fu and Iraise's parents and cousin. Mr. Fu made that dinner probably the most awkward experience of my life.


Russell got to China on December 19th, which was perfect timing. I don't think I would have made it through the holidays without a guest here to keep my mind off of being away from my family. Although I'm 23, this is by far the longest I've gone without seeing any member of my family - extended family and cousins included. I know that I've always taken my close-knit family for granted, but it really took moving to China to realize the work that my parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents put into keeping us together. It's hard for me to imagine a life without having all of them around me, and I will continue to Facebook stalk all members of my family until I return home. (Sorry I'm not sorry, guys.)

The day that Russell got to Beijing was a Monday. I took a personal day and booked myself a train ticket to the city in the morning and two tickets on a later train back for us. The plan was for us to be back teaching on Tuesday morning since his plane got in at 4. However, Russell's plane ended up being delayed until 8pm, which was about 5 minutes before our train was supposed to leave.

After numerous frantic phone calls and text messages to Mr. Dong, in addition to both Emily and Lauren asking him to pick up his phone or call me back, I realized that he was in no way going to assist me. Thankfully, I had the phone number to the Happy Dragon Hostel, which has been my saving grace in this country. I have never encountered anyone so helpful and friendly anywhere in my life. They were able to immediately book me a room and return tickets for the following day.

We stayed in Beijing for the night and left for Shijiazhuang that afternoon, after spending the earlier part of the day exploring Tian'anmen Square, the National Museum, and my favorite bouza restaurant nearby. Russell got a wonderful tutorial on how to use chopsticks from the owner of the restaurant, which was one of the funniest things I've ever seen. His skill did improve greatly over the next two and a half weeks, though.

After fighting through the usual crowd to take the train, the first thing he said upon his arrival in Shijiazhuang was, "Oh my God, it smells terrible here." It was a particularly smelly night, but I thought it was an adequate introduction to my life in China.

He spent the rest of that week and the following week attending classes with me. My only lesson plan for most of that time was, "Ask the American some questions!!" We had practiced forming questions the week before and I was really excited to hear the hilarious things they came up with. I had been warning them for a few weeks that I was going to have a guest, because I knew they would go crazy as soon as he walked in the classroom. We had also discussed questions that were not appropriate to ask someone you just met, but that was a lesson that did not sink in.

Here are some gems of things that Russell was asked/told:

- Sir, why are you so tall? Will I grow to be tall like you?
- How big are your feet? (It took us a full ten minutes to calm the class down after he took off a shoe and held it up for size.)
- Why do you have a beard? (They were obsessed with the fact that he had facial hair. They even created a sign where they hold their hands up under their chin to signify a beard.)
- Do you like the Japanese?
- Did you bring your gun to China? Do you own a gun in America?
- Give me five dollars.
- I will give you seven yuan for one dollar.

And my favorite: 

- Do you think you are handsome? I think you are handsome. That means you are a Jew.

I clearly failed at remembering the other funny things they said. Sorry.

After spending Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in the Shiz, we headed back to Beijing on Friday night to spend the weekend in Beijing. Mr. Dong had finally agreed to let us have Monday off since it was the day after Christmas.

We stayed at the Happy Dragon Courtyard, which is the sister hostel of the Happy Dragon. I'd definitely recommend both of them, because the staff is amazing. The Courtyard was just a little too cold for the winter, since the rooms are set up around a courtyard, so directly against the wind and cold. In the spring or summer, though, I'm sure it would be beautiful.

Anyway, we ended up booking a tour through Happy Dragon instead of having to deal with the subway, buses, and gypsy cabs. When we got up in the morning and boarded the bus, we were actually on the same tour as Byron, Emily, Tyler, and Tyler's family.

Once we got to the wall, we both decided immediately that we would take the toboggans down the Great Wall. There really was no other way to do it. As soon as we got the go-ahead from our tour guide to head out, we booked it to the ski lift to head up.

We went to the same part of the wall I'd been to previously, Mutianyu, because it's beautiful, and supposed to not have as many tours as some of the other parts. We headed to the right once we got up to the wall. That section has a shorter part that's open for tourists, but the unrestored part continues out pretty far.

We walked the part that was open to tourists pretty quickly, even with lots of stops for pictures. Since we got there so early, and because it was December, there were only about five other people with us on that section of the wall. It seemed like everyone else on our tour decided to go to the left. Better for us! Of course, we decided to keep walking to the unrestored part of the wall, and made it to the first guard tower. There was a man there from Germany taking pictures to enter in a contest and two girls from Russia there. We all took turns taking pictures for each other. Then the guy took some pictures of Russell looking out over the mountains, when he wasn't looking. Who knows, maybe he'll end up in some sort of photo contest. Haha.

After stopping there, we kept going to the next guard tower, which was the last part I made it to with Lauren, Emily, Matt, and Dan. We were the only people out on that part of the wall, which was really awesome. I also found all of the places where we had written our names on the wall from the first time we climbed it.

We could have kept hiking to the next tower, but decided to head back since we wanted to make sure we made it back in time to make it to the group lunch. And, of course, we had to take the toboggans down! Unfortunately, we got stuck behind a girl who was scared and went super slow. We kept stopping on the corners to let her get a head start so we could zoom ahead for awhile. Once we got to the bottom, we got Russell his awesome fuzzy Mao hat and I bought my big furry hat.

After lunch, we headed back to the hostel. We had enough time to get ready and then headed out to a Kung-Fu show tour. There was popcorn and Diet Coke at the theater, so I was quite happy with finding those things on Christmas Eve. The show itself was alright. It started off pretty slow, but at the end they broke stuff over their heads, so that was pretty cool.

We spent Christmas walking through the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was huge, and really cool. I'm glad we went, but it was kind of like Tian'anmen Square for me. I'd heard all this hype about it, but I wasn't as impressed as I thought I was going to be. Of course, I'm still really glad I went and it was absolutely beautiful. After the Forbidden City, we had a few hours to kill, so we saw on the subway map that there was a military museum in town. We decided to check it out and see what it was like since the National Museum had been such an interesting experience. (For those who haven't been, the National Museum completely leaves out the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Oh, and China is a "democracy with Chinese characteristics".) We were not disappointed with the military museum. Most of it was under construction, so there was only one floor open at the time, but it was the floor that was dedicated to the Japanese occupation - which wasn't surprising. We ended up spending a few hours there reading the descriptions of the displays. We stayed until closing before we headed back to the hostel.

We decided that our Christmas dinner was going to be Peking Duck, since we were in Beijing. I hadn't had the famous specialty yet, so I was pretty excited. We looked up a few restaurants online and then went to ask the front desk what their recommendation was. We got directions from the girl working for what subway stops to take, but when we got there, we realized that we had no idea where she was attempting to direct us. After spending about a half hour wandering up and down the street with no luck, we just decided to go into the nicest looking place on the street. It was definitely Christmas luck, because it was probably the most delicious meal I've had since getting to China. We ordered a duck and a side dish, and they came and cut up the duck at our table. Between the two of us, we finished off the entire duck. It was beyond delicious.

The last thing we did for Christmas was head to Wangfujing Street to eat some crazy things from the street vendors. I knew this was the one place in Beijing that I needed to take Russell before he left. At our first stop, we got a skewer of scorpions, a skewer of seahorses, a skewer of snake, and a starfish. The guy tried to rip me off and charge me 100 kuai. False. I bargained him down. We bought some water from another vendor and stood in the alleyway to try our crazy purchases. I was the first one to go, since I had finally mustered up the courage to do what I said I wanted to do in China - eat a scorpion. I was prepared with the scorpions in one hand and an open bottle of water in the other. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised. They were delicious. I think most of it was the seasoning they were in. I've had bugs before - locusts and grasshoppers - and they have about the same crunchy consistency. Next, we tried the snake. We both agreed that it was delicious as well. It just tasted like regular meat, with the really good seasoning. The seahorses and starfish were another story completely. They were awful. They just tasted really nasty and fishy. We polished off two bottles of water trying to get the taste out of our mouths. Then, we continued on. The next things we bought were silkworms, locusts, and sparrows. The street was closing then, so we got two more waters and walked down to the main road to eat the last of our crazy foods. The silkworms were the first we tried. They were pretty bad. They were really mushy and a very odd consistency. The grand finale was the sparrows. We were standing by a trash can getting ready to eat them when this lady and her daughter came up to ask us for money. They weren't beggars though; they had shopping bags with them. We ignored them and I took the first bite of the sparrow. I don't know what I was thinking when I did it, but I just bit the head off. Yes, just the head. The brains immediately exploded into my mouth and I couldn't handle it. I spat it out on the ground as fast as I could and started chugging water while I shoved the stick of sparrows at Russell. I don't think I can express in words how disgusting that experience was for me. The lady was still watching when Russell, being a champ, still tried the sparrow after my terrible experience. Unfortunately for him, a bone got stuck in the back of his throat and he choked on what he had eaten and had to spit it out. The lady and her daughter were still there. After watching the whole thing, I decided to just give them the sparrow and locusts, since that was clearly what they were after...and we were clearly done for the night.

The next day was our last day in Beijing and we had a late train booked back to Shijiazhuang. We spent the day walking through the Temple of Heaven and we went to the Olympic Park before heading back.

When we got back to school, we taught Tuesday through Saturday morning, since Saturday was New Years Eve. Then, we had Monday and Tuesday off for the holiday. Since Russell was leaving on Wednesday, we decided to go to Xi'an for the weekend to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. We took an overnight soft sleeper train to Xi'an on the night of New Years Eve. That kind of sucked, but it was worth it to get to Xi'an.

Our train itself was perfectly fine. We had soft sleepers, so we were in a cabin with two other people - four bunks total. The two roommates just slept the whole time. We stayed up long enough to see the New Year before trying to get some sleep. The cabin was HOT, though. At least 80 degrees or hotter. It was pretty uncomfortable, but we got some sleep. We got into Xi'an around 9am and headed to the hostel. The hostel was pretty nice. Our room was like a hotel room, and they came in and cleaned it for us. We booked a tour to see the warriors the next day, got a map of the city from the front desk, and went exploring.

Xi'an is amazing. It's so beautiful. It's either the only city or one of the only cities in China that still has most of its city wall left standing, and it's super easy to get around just walking. We walked all over the city that day. We saw the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, and walked through the Muslim Quarter. We did some shopping and then headed to the old mosque that's still left in the city. It was really pretty to walk through. After that, we did a little more looking around in the shops and walked around the city.

We also stopped at one of the hilarious costume shops that they have set up everywhere around China. For only $5 we could dress up in these elaborate "emperor" costumes and get our picture taken. Of course, we couldn't pass up the opportunity. Russell wore a hilarious gold emperor outfit that was way too short on him, and shoes that they had to leave unzipped in the back because his feet were too big. I had to wear a dress and this huge, elaborate headdress. We had to sit on this throne and do about five or six poses before we chose the picture we wanted. It was awesome.

The next morning we got up really early to meet our tour to the warriors. We had the most hilarious tour guide. Her name was Zha Zha and she was obsessed with British boys, as she told us. Luckily for her, there were two British boys on our trip, and she followed one of them, Chris, everywhere. We always knew where she was because we could hear her yelling, "Chris! Chris! Where are you?! Chris!!" At the end of the tour she bought him a small replica set of the Terra Cotta Warriors to remember her by.

The warriors were really neat to see. We walked through three different "pits" where they were discovered. The story of how they were found was really interesting. It was pure luck that the first warrior found was the only one that has been found fully intact.

After the tour, we had lunch nearby. We were with a family from America, Chris, an Italian guy, and a family of two Italian women and a younger girl. I think Russell and I were the only ones who didn't complain about the meal. The Italian women used the tea to re-clean all of their dishes and chopsticks by pouring the boiling water over them. I just sat and drank my cup of tea while I watched everyone else at our table trying to sterilize their utensils with hot water.

When we got back to the city, we went to the city wall. You could go up on the wall and walk around the entire city. We only had a few hours before it closed for the night, but we walked along the entire North and West portions before heading out. After walking around the city, we walked back through the Muslim Quarter because one of my head teachers had told us that they had some of the best lamb dishes in the city. We walked and tried a bunch of different skewers and things from the street vendors before heading back for the night. We flew back to Beijing the next day.

It was really hard to say goodbye to him, knowing that I still had another five months left for my time in China. But I'm really thankful that Russell came to China during the holidays, because I probably would have had a complete emotional breakdown if I didn't have someone here to keep my mind off of missing my family.

I got to Skype with both sides of the family when they were together for Christmas Eve and Christmas, but it was really hard to see everyone together while I wasn't there. It was really hard not to cry when I was talking to everyone because I miss them all so much. I can't believe how incredibly lucky I've been my whole life to have so many important people so close to me all of the time. It made me realize how much I can't wait to get home and see them. I miss being able to just stop by my grandparents house to just sit and talk. I miss a lot of things about being home, and I never thought that I would say that I miss Iowa this much.

Congratulations! You made it all the way through. Now here are some pictures:

(Note: I haven't had time or an adequate internet connection to actually update the website. But at least the pictures are there.)

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