China JournalŠThursday, February 21, 2002


            These computers do amaze me.  Somehow it got the message that I was in China and changed the date and time itself!

            This morning daughter Zhang Jie and I had a date.  We got out at 7:00 to go for a fast walk and do some Tai Chi down in the park right outside the apartment.  She and her mother both change into sort of a quilted pants outfit that looks like pajamas when they get home.  Zhang  Jie just slipped a coat on over that and out we went.  I was fascinated by the lady doing some sort of Tai Chi with a fan which gets whipped open and closed.  Thatıs the one I want to learn!  Another lady was near her and trying to follow what she did (without a fan).  Obviously she had worked with her before but was still learning.  I guess that is how one person becomes a disciple and learns and another one becomes a master when someone learns from them.

            Breakfast started with very salty little green beans, very spicy hot tofu chunks, and pickled gherkins.  Later came a breakfast soupŠlike what I had in the hotel.  It is the cooked rice mixed with lots of hot water and is very tasty.  The bread was a fancy cake-like type of concoction, almost a white corn meal but decorated and with a non-sweet chocolate-looking but not chocolate-tasting filling.

            Having worn my long skirted jumper yesterday and been on the chilly side, today I went back to my long polartec pants with the black sweat shirt.  Again I have no idea what is on the docket when I start out in the morning.  Jian Guo picked us up.  Zhi Hong was already in the car.  Remembering the four hours I spent yesterday in the office with nothing to do or read, I took my computer along today. Smart move!  First we stopped at the Bohan elementary school.  Fu Ling was so delighted with the way I had greeted everyone in the morning by name in the car (after I consulted my little paper) that she practiced me on every name before I would meet a new person so I could do my trick, at which they all beamed.  We walked around that school and looked in the windows, etc.  Then we left and climbed back in the car.  After quite a drive we ended up at another schoolŠbut it was not Bohan.  Iım not sure of our purpose thereŠ but it has gotten to be a joke how I could tell when Zhi Hong proudly whispered to the headmaster there and his wife what my age was and they all Ooohed and Aaahed with a look of disbelief and Fu Ling and I laughed. 

            Finally we went to Bohan Middle School which is, I believe, where I will be.  We walked upstairs into a room with a great big ³no smoking² sign on it.  It was the conference room with everyone (about 14 people, evenly divided between men and women) gathered around a large conference table.  They all stood up when we came in.  Fu Ling and I sat on a couch and Zhi Hong took his place at the head of the tableŠ and promptly lit up a cigarette.  Pretty soon, of course, other men followed suit though slowly and in the order of position it appeared to me. Soon the meeting was over and there was much hustle and bustle.  The men left and the women at the other end of the room started putting on white caps and pulling on work pants over their other clothes.  I had thought when we first walked in that this was the teaching staff, which may yet prove to be true, but for today they were the cleaning staff readying the building for the students to return.  Much hard fast work went onŠcleaning the windows (the women climbed on the radiators and over the window sills to get to the outside to clean every pane), mopping the floors, dusting the walls, fixing the non-working lights, moving the plain all-wood bunk beds into the proper rooms, etc.

            At one point while I was taking this all in, some older students came walking and talking through the halls.  They looked about the ages I will have.  So I slipped upstairs to see where they were coming from.  Iım not sure who they are and why they were in classes now, but they were.  It was apparently between classes.  Iıve never heard such a din in one classroom.  I would love to have stood around to see what happens when the teacher arrives.  I did see some English written on one black board (and they are very well used, no longer black, boards).  I had figured out how I would ask Fu Ling where I would sleep, but decided that should wait until she is ready to show me which is, seeing how the rooms looked when we arrived, probably a good idea.

            Eventually we came back to the central office and I pulled out the computer and worked until lunch time trying to figure out how to get on the internet through their connection.  I finally figured that out in the afternoon and spent the afternoon catching up on email and my journal.  What a joy email is going to be!

            One of my observations about the culture stems from an observation I am making about the Mandarin language.  There are sounds in the language, like the Z (dj) sound which sound correct only when pushed out with force.  The result is a language that is forceful sounding and, as a result, tends to get very loud.  It has the volume but not the emotional quality of Italian. Conversations within a group are quite loud.  A serious discussion gets louder, and an argument almost goes off the scale.  On the other hand, the laughter is just as strong.  What I have been part of is a very happy group of people who obviously enjoy humor and smile and laugh a lot.  (Which reminds me, my teeth are the other part of me that gets lots of compliments.)

            For lunch today we walked as a group to a restaurant.  There were seven of us from the office.  I have just registered that one of the good accomplishments of the cultural revolution is that when the office goes to lunch it includes the accountant and the driver which would not always be true in the states.  We went to a restaurant on the ³restaurant street² which is next to the ³hotel street².  When the first three of us walked in together the hostess seemed very enthusiastic and took my hand and shook it vigorously for quite awhile.  She was already to seat us at a table for eight where three people were already seated.  When Zhi Hong said there were seven of us, she flustered aroundŠand then apparently unseated five men from a side room who had already ordered, placed them at another table in the main room, and put the seven of us in the vacated room.  Pretty amazing.  Our room was totally closed.  There was a loud sound like a train seeming to surround the room.  When I asked what it was, Zhin Yuan said it was the ventilator.  It was all noise and no action.  Two of the men smoked (and today I had forgotten my little air purifier) so the room was pretty hot and stuffy.  Again we started with cold dishes of pickled purple turnips in soy sauce with sesame seeds, tofu, and a jicama type of vegetable with tiny gooseberry type of fruit in a sweet juice, all of which were delicious.  They also had two kinds of pork.  We ended with a big bowl of one of their kinds of noodle soups.  The noodles look like big hollow, white spaghetti the size of a hollow lily flower stem and are very slippery to capture (even for those more proficient with chopsticks than I), so much of it gets sort of shuffled into the mouth from the bowl with the head down close to the bowl.  Each person gets a soup bowl of the noodles with chives and some greens in them.  Then separately you get a bowl of whatever you orderedŠa meat sauce, tomato and egg sauce, or, in my case, a tomato and vegetable sauce that was very tasty.  They are really taking care of me in terms of ordering.  Iım glad I explained my vegetarianism to Hua right away.  One of the funny cultural differences is that, from my Western standpoint, I should clean my plate, but, from their Eastern standpoint, if my plate is clean it means that I am still hungry and so they reach over and put something on my plate!  Just as in the office, you are given a cup of tea when you come in and it is never allowed to go unfilled all day.  At least I donıt have to worry about my liquid intake.

            It is 5:20 p.m. and I am sitting at the office desk looking out the window at streams of bicycles going by about four abreast.  Apparently it is quitting timeŠ and so I will quit until after we go home.

            Again Jian Guo drove us home and Hua, Zhang Jie and I worked on English together until dinner was served around 8 oıclock.  Iım not sure whether Hua normally eats with them (she and Zhang Jie are the same age and obviously get along well) or whether Hua is being included as the token English speaker. (And, believe me, her token English is much appreciated.)  When we work we keep Zhang Jieıs English Chinese dictionary handy since there are times I can look up one word to get across my point and Hua doesnıt understand that word.  Just as in our dictionaries, a sentence using the word is given to illustrate each special meaning.  I had to laugh when looking up the word ³necessary² and the illustrative sentence was ³It is necessary for intellectuals to be reeducated by workers, peasants, and soldiers.²  The dictionary was printed in 1978.

            Zhang Ji Sheng is a great cook.  Dinner had more different vegetables and a delicious concoction of what I grew up calling Chinese cabbage, but is now known as Napa cabbage.  I canıt wait to get lessons on making the variety of sauces he makes.  During dinner Fu Ling filled up her little saucer with food and disappeared into their bedroom.  Zhang Jie laughed and said, ³TV.²  Apparently her mother has a particular soap opera she likes because she came out after awhile making motions that it was a program that made her cry.  Tonight it was rice that appeared at the end of the meal.  Orange juice is the drink served at most meals.  Earlier when I was working with the girls on their English, Fu Ling brought in a plate of cut star fruit and some tiny (malted milk ball size) oranges that had been preserved.  They tasted like qumquats.

            This is within the period of Chinese New Year (year of the horse as seen in some of the red decorations).  Every day and night we hear some firecrackers going off.  In their case, one firecracker is really a bundle of many firecrackers which keep going off for about 45 seconds and are quite loud. Iıve seen only one strand that was attached up high and you could see the sparks travel up.  That and the red paper cut-out banners in the window have been the only signs of the New Year that I have observed.

            This night I got smart and, before Hua left, I asked what the plans were for tomorrow.  She went in to ask Fu Ling and reported back that tomorrow there would be a group meeting to go over all our plans and there would be a ³real² interpreter.  Off to bed.