Tuesday, 26 August 2014

My Name is Colour

One of the wonderful things about spending time in China is getting to muck about with the Chinese language, and conversely getting to hear delightful versions of not-quite-English. Both ways, Chinglish abounds.
 oo00oo

I can read a smattering of Chinese characters, so when we attended church, I tried to follow along in the Chinese hymnal that the congregation lent us. To my great consternation, I encountered these characters together: 主面, or zhu mian. In English, that's, "God noodles". The Lord's Supper like you've never had it before!

"Christina!" I whispered in horror to our team's assistant leader, "What are we singing about?!"

"Oh, don't worry," she said. "Mian can mean things besides just noodles."

Google Translate says 主面 means "main surface". Chinese is so confusing.

oo00oo

Rob and Cathy were representatives from our organization who came part way through the program to check up on us. We were with them in a pizza restaurant. Rob had recently noticed the poster plastered above our booth, which declared that this restaurant had successfully earned the lowest passable grade possible in food safety, a C. The C grade was accompanied by a red smiley face that actually wasn't smiley at all. This poster was proving to make both Rob and Cathy rather nervous, especially since someone had just died of bubonic plague the next province over.

By this point in the program, we had been eating regularly in C grade restaurants for several weeks. There wasn't any option, really. Hardly anywhere earned above a C grade, but we'd had no major gastrointestinal (or plague-related) problems to speak of, so the rest of us weren't particularly concerned.

Rather unfortunately, it came to pass that while we were in the process of trying to convince Rob and Cathy that everything would be fine, I saw a mouse skitter across the floor. It was the only mouse I saw during the entire trip.

"Oh," I interrupted the conversation, "I'm pretty sure that was a mouse that just ran by."

No sooner did I finish speaking than it darted under our table and ran over Cathy's feet. She shrieked. I shrieked. Everybody shrieked. The mouse turned a frantic 180 and darted into a back corner. By the time the shrieking subsided, a Chinese server had arrived to see what catastrophe had befallen our table. He found us all sitting with our feet tucked up under us, eyes wide in shock.

Cathy used to live in China and speaks some Chinese. "Fuyuan," she declared, which is the word for 'server', "There's a laohu running around!"

The fuyuan wisely figured it was not at all probable that a tiger was running freely about the restaurant, and surmised it was much more likely a mouse, or laoshu, causing our terror. He expressed embarrassment on behalf of management and then the restaurant offered us free drinks.

"Well," said Rob, "I guess that explains the C rating." He ate the pizza and fries, regardless. We encountered no more tigers and all escaped unmauled.

oo00oo

I told my class that we were going to have a debate: Which city in Ningxia is better, Yinchuan or Qingtongxia? "It's such a long name," I mused out loud, "Qingtongxia."

My class burst out in ill-concealed snickers.

"I beg your pardon," I said. "I meant, Qingtongxia."

They all applauded me.

For the record, Qingtongxia is pronounced with one first tone and two second tones, not two first tones and a very pronounced fourth tone. Now you know.

oo00oo

Of course, we westerners weren't the only ones running into problems speaking.

My station in a cooperative multi-class activity involved coaching groups of Chinese students to say "Willy's real rear wheel". The idea was that once they said it correctly, I would give them some information they needed to complete a puzzle. Unfortunately, the more they focused on getting the L and the R sounds correct, the more they altered the vowels. We just couldn't have both. Sometimes we had neither.

Me: You must say, "Willy's real rear wheel."

Any Chinese student, pick a student: Veely's reer reer reer.

Me: Willy's real rear wheel.

Students: Veely's rahr rahr rahr.

Me: Real. Not Rahr. Real.

Students: Zheel! Zhee-ar! Uhzhar!

Me: Uh, real?

Students: Rah.....e.....l?

Me: Rear.

Students: Rahr.

Me: REEEEAAAARRRR.

Students: *giggle*

Me: Rear, rear.

Students: Zhahr, zhahr.

Me: Wheel.

Students: Rear.

Me: Oh, good heavens, just take the information and go.

I got flashbacks to the most recent Pink Panther movie, where Inspector Clouseau wants to buy a dabaga.

oo00oo

This same L/R issue also surfaced with regards to my name. A particularly skilled student or so would call me Cah-la, or even on occasion, Carla, but the vast majority called me Colour. For a while, I halfheartedly tried to correct it, but eventually gave in and allowed Colour to become part of my identity.

A Chinese official at the closing ceremonies took it upon himself to read aloud all our transcribed names. He spoke no English and knew he wasn't going to get our names anywhere near correct, but still he was willing to embarrass himself because he wanted to show us all respect by acknowledging us. In Canada, we might not consider it especially respectful to mangle someone's name, but in China, in this situation, it meant a lot. So I can sit happily with the name Colour. It's all I've got, since despite all his intentions, the official couldn't quite bring himself to even try my last name.

oo00oo

Speaking of linguistic issues:

“You had nothing to say about it and yet made the nothing up into words.” - from C.S. Lewis's Perelandra

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Skoki: Happy Feet

A couple years ago, my dad, my sister, and I went on a backpacking adventure with our church's outdoor club (see August 2012). That escapade involved both emotional highs and emotional lows, but the highs must have outweighed the lows overall, because this summer when my dad asked whether we wanted to go again, we agreed. This time, we took on Skoki Trail at Lake Louise, which involved two nights in tents and 16 kilometers of hiking in and 16 kilometers of hiking back out. Our group was largely the same as last time, minus a few marathon runners, plus a few of their family members.
The primary difference between this hike and the last one is that I wore different hiking shoes in hopes of avoiding the blisters of doom and despair that I suffered last time. These were new shoes, and although I had broken them in, they were still clean and spiffy looking when we got to the trail head. Finding this to be unacceptable, Mike scuffed them up with his own shoes and kicked a rock at them before we set off.

Beyond the shoes, my outfit differed from last time in that I chose to bring a red bandana instead of a white one. Even my socks were the same. Then, just before we left, my cousin Jordan, who lives with us, lent me a thin but warm sports sweater that he often wears hiking. Adding it to the dry-wear sweater I had stolen from my brother's closet, I was decked out like a man for most of the weekend. Given how personal hygiene tends to go on backpacking trips, I probably smelled like one, too.

The beginning of the hike was a long trek uphill on a fire road. It caused me to remember that a hike in a national park is a very different thing from a plain old walk in the park. Yet, when I wasn't wheezing for breath, the conversations were pleasant.

"Carla! How has your summer been?!" Jessica exclaimed, coming alongside me on the trail.

"Hi," I said, noticing that she was hunched over like a goblin of some sort, struggling against her backpack. "I went to China."

She was in severe pain, but she looked up at me from her stooped position, smiling. "Oh my goodness! Yes! China! I remember that. You have to tell me all about it!"

We stopped a few times to try to adjust her pack, but it was too short for her torso and too heavy. Nevertheless, she continued to chat cheerily with whoever was beside her and you wouldn't know she was about to die except for her strange posture.

She didn't die but arrived with us at the first campsite, called Hidden Lake. The lake was so hidden we never found it. Anyway, I was more interested in how Gillian was teaching me to set up the camp stove. The first time I tried to start it, I let the gas run a little long so she gasped and told me it was going to explode. Then she had me try again until I got it right. Eventually I did manage it, made a cup of hot chocolate, and then completely counteracted the warming effect of said hot chocolate by washing the cup in a freezing cold stream of water. Following that ill-planned attempt at getting warm, it was bedtime. We crawled into our tents and listened as the skies opened up and poured all night long.

There was evening and there was morning - the first day.

As a rule, I don't sleep well in tents. As a result, I was the first person up the next morning. Being entirely without a timekeeping device, there was no way to tell whether it was closer to five in the morning or nine, but I was awake, hungry, and feeling independent, so I retrieved our bear bag, set up of the camp stove and cooked breakfast all by myself. I almost got lost only once in the process, and was not eaten by a bear, despite my believing that I heard one in the bush every time I turned my back. We always believed there was a bear nearby; notmybrother!Justin was wearing those barefoot shoes that are essentially a rubber version of toe socks. Whenever he left prints in the mud, someone (usually Brianna) would be momentarily very startled.

At any rate, bear or no bear, everyone else woke up in due time and joined me, standing around the soggy picnic table to eat breakfast. It turns out that Ann doesn't sleep very well in tents, either. She told us about her night while waiting for her food.

"All night," she said, "I was wondering why I like to do this. It's cold, wet, and every time I can't sleep at all!"

"But you do like doing it?" I said.

"Oh, I love it," she exclaimed, "but it's miserable!"

We repacked after breakfast and continued up the trail. I say "up the trail" and not "down the trail" for a reason. We climbed two passes that day. The first one, Boulder Pass, was aptly named because it was full of boulders. Ann helped Jessica and James climb one by groping them as they tried to pull themselves up, Mike and Clary performed acrobatics on another, and we just hung around a while having fun.
The second pass was called Deception Pass. This particular pass inspired in my mind a chase scene that should be in a movie somewhere. It would be simultaneously the most painful and most wonderful chase scene ever, with the bonus of incredible scenery. Car chases are so cliche; instead, put your foot-bound prey and pursuers on a steep mountain pass. The prey takes three steps, stops, and wheezes. The pursuers take three steps, stop, and double over on their knees, heaving breaths. The prey resume running, makes it two steps further and stops to pant. The chasers make a surge for their target, get in three more steps, then need a water break. Would this not be an epic scene?

The scene would be comedic, but standing on the peak of a mountain pass is not. It's a desolate place to be. It's all grey rock shards, where chill winds whip through and clouds settle. The air is thin. It's barren and dangerously exposed. There is nothing to see, but there is everything to see. It's empty, except for the crazy human beings who routinely decide to throw themselves against nature and hoist themselves up there for the sole purpose of looking down on everything else. The view takes their breath away, and they throw up their arms in exhilaration at having conquered.

Just following the pass was the most scenic part of the hike - a view of two lakes and some waterfalls, framed by several mountains, the names of which I have forgotten. The clouds that day happened to channel sunlight in such a way that the wall with the largest waterfall was spotlighted. It was gorgeous. My family and I were trailing behind the rest of the group a bit, because we were busy taking poor pictures of it. Eventually, though, everybody else also realized how beautiful it was and stopped to eat lunch in front of it.
After making it over both passes, the path sloped downward again and we eventually found ourselves at Skoki Lodge, in which, once upon a time, Prince William and Kate stayed the night. As proof, in the lodge's dining room there is a picture of them standing on the threshold. Apparently they helicoptered in with their own bathroom trailer. Upon learning this, my dad indignantly set off in search of the "bathroom for the masses" and spent the rest of the way to the campsite discussing how the US president also always takes his own bathroom with him, so people can't steal his pee and analyze it.
No, lounging on comfy window seats is not typical of backpacking trips.

This hike was easier for me than the last one because even after hiking over two passes, my feet were happy and blister free. Justin made a point of asking about my feet every kilometer or so on the second day, and kindly took a picture of my heels to prove their satisfactory condition:
The second campsite, Merlin Meadows, wasn't far from Skoki Lodge. We arrived, set up camp, played cards and dice and did the usual things you do in campsites. This campsite was special because it included a fire pit, so the men in the group took turns picking up huge dead logs and smashing them into trees, usually with a running start. We used the pieces to fuel the flames. Once Brianna thought she saw a bear, but the bear turned out to be wearing a yellow shirt, so we decided it was James collecting firewood instead. We stayed up late to our legal roaring fire, made all our clothes smell like smoke, watched a deer amble through the campsite, and then shuffled off to bed.

There was evening and there was morning - the second day.

I made up for being the first awake the day before by now being the last. Clary woke all three of us up, saying from outside our tent that Mike and Duane were "winning" the race to be the first ready to go. Duane already had his tent packed, but Mike had a cup of coffee, so she wasn't sure how to call it. We groaned, pulled ourselves out of bed, and sluggishly prepared for the day to come.

Here I must insert a comment about the weather during this trip. It was cloudy. The whole time. On the third day, I wasn't quite convinced that the sun was up until noon. Throughout the entire weekend, the clouds threatened rain, and did in fact rain during the nights. As a result, most of the group shielded their backpacks with waterproof covers. Most of these covers were bright yellow. Also, it was cold out, but hiking tends to warm you up and can make you uncomfortably warm, even in the cold. The end result was that our group trekked along the trail looking like a line of molting ducklings. Yellow, semi-waterproof, and not sure whether we should be adding plumage or tucking it away. For most of the third day I wore mittens, several sweaters, and shorts. Everyone else wore about the same, except for Deanna, who decided she was only cold and dressed accordingly.

Now you can imagine the lot of us retracing our steps to return the way we came. Going back seemed easier than coming in had been. We made good time and stopped for lunch at a halfway hut that had been built in the 1930s. It was a nice find because it meant we didn't have to sit in the mud to eat. The third day was was largely uneventful, but there was something comforting about recognizing the places we passed. Knowing where you're going is less exciting than facing the unknown, but it gives you a sense of control. It's all just an illusion of control, of course. First, there's no controlling the weather. Just because it could, the sun finally shone and we saw our shadows for the first time all weekend during the last hour we were hiking out. And second, you might feel like you know where you're headed and where you're putting your feet down, but a thirty pound backpack really kills your balance and agility. You might think you're going to leap lightly off a rock only to find that you're falling flat backwards on your bum instead.

Anyway, we covered the entire distance in a single day and still could have hiked a lot longer. Somehow, I remained blister free. Here is the picture proof of our good condition as we made it back to the trail head. Mike said he was proud of me for how dirty my shoes ended up.
Here are a few more shots from along the trail.
 
After everyone made it to the end of Skoki Trail, we piled into our vehicles and drove home. Although my dad and sister and I had been just fine at the end of the trail, by the time we jumped out of the car at Dairy Queen in Canmore, we very nearly crumpled into three bumps in the parking lot. I guess it only takes an hour or so of rest for your muscles to start seizing up. I fancy that our simultaneous groans of surprise were rather melodic, which is serendipitous, because wouldn't that be appropriate music to roll under the end credits?

oo00oo

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of the easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

poem by Robert Frost

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Two Very Important Videos

I never heard a door in China go beep beep beep like doors in Canada do when they're attached to a security system. The Chinese have a different way of making sure intruders don't get into a place without being noticed.

video

This door served additional purposes. More than once it inspired me to bray like a diseased donkey as I strolled down the hall. It always made sure we were awake before we began our walk to class. More than that, however, the sound of this door came to signify the end of an intense, hot day in the classroom and re-entry into the sweet air conditioned relaxation of our hotel rooms. WD-40 is so overrated.

In China, they also have a superior way of making noodles. The gracious staff at this restaurant turned on the machine just for us when they saw we were standing there pathetically, waiting with our cameras pulled out.

video

A third wonderful thing about China is the Chinglish. So, for the quote today, let's go with the instructions found on the "Security Scattering Route" of our hotel:

"Please don"t worry if fire is occurring .Our hotel have owned succer scattering facilities to sure you transmitted safely. Please follow the direction route to the informationg corridor and there safeguards will take you out to the seccurity belts. Point profess your excellency seat."

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Culture Shock in China

Surprisingly, the largest culture shock causing issue in China was not the bathroom at the school:
It was not the food, which was so good despite the grimacing faces on the safety rating posters of the many C-grade restaurants we ate at. It was not the diaper-less babies with split pants and bare bottoms doing potty training in the middle of the sidewalk. It was not the clear "if you walk off this ledge it's your own darn fault" mentality that results in a dearth of safety rails in public spaces. It was not the fat men shamelessly strutting around with their shirts pulled up to rest on their exposed bellies as a way to beat the heat. No.

It was the group of ninety or so Americans we were trained with in Beijing.

I am a Canadian whose cumulative time spent in the USA amounts to about 3 weeks of my entire life. Those three weeks were split between places like Yellowstone Park and Disney World, which are surely representative of American culture at large, right? However, despite my lack of actual experience in the great land beneath the 49th parallel, I've seen a lot of it on TV. Therefore, I considered myself knowledgeable about American culture.

A couple years ago, when we gained a new American professor at my school, he came in armed to the teeth, metaphorically, with cultural sensitivity. He expected culture shock. As far as I can tell, he functions just fine in Canada, but in class he would commonly tell us of his experiences adjusting to life in a new culture. Even after nearly two years, he was still finding things that surprised him. Admittedly, I eventually rolled my eyes a bit because everyone knows the two cultures aren't that different and I wondered if he might be a little overly sensitive culturally.

Nope. I have since repented of this heresy. I suppose that to a Chinese person, our cultures will appear virtually the same, but to someone who grew up in just one or the other.... wow. Not so much.

Let's not think that I'm trying to propound stereotypes. I have known Canadians that behave like I'll describe the Americans, while the Americans who were on team with us in Ningxia province better fit the Canadian stereotype. However, culture pertains to groups of people, en masse, not to any particular individuals, and individuals aside, this group of ninety Americans did not behave like a group of ninety Canadians.

There were several cultural differences that immediately rocked me off kilter, but here's just one of them: Americans (in my very limited experience), are aggressive. Not in a bad way, necessarily. They weren't aggressive in such a way that I'd make a break for the hall at the end of each training session in order to avoid getting mauled. They were aggressively friendly, and aggressively helpful.

There is something incredibly confusing about feeling angry with people for being too friendly and helpful. It's downright disorienting.

You may think that "aggressively friendly" should be an oxymoron, but it's not quite. It's the kind of thing where I, being the apologetic Canadian, would apologize to someone for forgetting her name, and she would, with a hard to describe snap to her voice, tell me that I don't dare be sorry because I've never learned her name to begin with so I absolutely should not feel bad at all and don't worry. I'd say one thing, and get an excited earful in reply. Not a nasty earful; they were all friendly earfuls, but I know I wasn't the only Canadian who was blown over by the energy, noise, and assertiveness. Several of us just wanted to crawl into our hotel rooms where we could disengage for a while.

Part of being "aggressively helpful" means that they made sure we knew everything we could possibly want to know about every possible situation we might encounter during our training in Beijing, whether we had expressed a desire for this information or not. It was simply assumed that we wanted to know. At one point, one of our leaders remarked that, "North Americans love information," and proceeded to spend an entire morning of our limited training time explaining, with many personal anecdotes, everything from the multiple ways to do laundry at the hotel (and the individual steps involved), to what the hospital would be like if we broke our legs.

While it was kind of the speaker to remember the eight or nine Canadians in their midst, and alter her language to say, "North Americans love information," instead of "Americans love information," it seems that it's not quite true. The Americans appeared to appreciate, or at least tolerate, the information sessions, but I think all the Canadians were just trying not to shriek and pull out their hair. We did not want any more information; I literally became twitchy, feeling my precious hours in China slip away.

I asked my roommate, a feisty five-foot Texan with strawberry blonde hair, if this felt like standard behaviour to her. She said yes, and Americans love to talk, they can't get enough information. I said that in Canada, we probably would have drawn everyone's attention to their informational handouts, pointed out a few of the particularly important points, given five to ten minutes of helpful tips, and told people who to ask if they had questions. She said, no, this seems pretty normal to her and once at a political meeting she attended, they spent an hour just explaining how the meeting was going to work.

The aggressively friendly and aggressively helpful things were beautifully combined by a nice couple that I had breakfast with the morning after arriving in Beijing. I was dopey and blah and jet-lagged and didn't feel particularly conversational. I think I said my name was Carla and asked them where they were from. They answered, made jokes about each other to me, explained to me a good deal about themselves, and advised me on how to conduct myself in China.

With China, I expected unexpected things to happen, so when they did, they didn't knock me off balance. With the Americans, I hadn't expected anything particularly unexpected, so it knocked my upside the head. And now, I just find it ironic that the most uncomfortable place for me in China so far has been in a roomful of Americans.

“The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day he was born.” G. K. Chesterton  

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

I Blog to Kill Jet Lag

No, it doesn't work.

I am back from China. Naturally, as I am fighting jet lag and therefore a wee bit cross-eyed at the moment, my writing may be a bit rough. Nevertheless, I am eager to begin documenting my travels, as this blog is named "The Wanderer". Happily, this year, I am allowed to post things to "You Twit Face" as one of our group kindly refers to social media.

However, China being China, and Ningxia being Ningxia in particular, I will still censor myself somewhat. While nothing about the trip is secret, there are certain issues that remain very sensitive - for example, religion and politics. So if you don't see much here about either, it's not because they're unimportant or because my opinions are particularly private. It's because this is the Internet, and the Internet tends to misbehave, and I'd like to not cause trouble for anyone.

That said, as an introductory post (more to come), I shall now regale you with a compilation of  interview questions and answers. Let's see how well I can predict the questions you're likely to ask first.

You: So where were you, exactly?

Me: Qingtongxia, Ningxia.... China. That's pronounced something like "Cheeng-tōng-shyah, Neeng-shyah".

You: Um, where is that in relation to Beijing or Hong Kong?

Me: Ningxia is the red thing. Qingtongxia is south of the provincial capitol, Yinchuan, and just to the west of the Yellow River.

You: How was the food?

Me: Delicious. I rarely eat eggplant in Canada, but in China, it's SO GOOD. In Canada, eggplant isn't that awesome, but in China, it's called qiezi, and I've yet to find a qiezi dish I don't like.

You: Was there a lot of rice?

Me: Yes. Also, a lot of noodles and a ton of delectable dumplings, or rather, jiaozi.

You: Was it really hot? What was the weather like?

Me: The temperature varied between about 22 degrees Celsius to just over 40. Qingtongxia wasn't very humid, and happily, much less smoggy than Beijing.

You: So.... what were you doing there?

Me: Teaching English. More specifically, I was helping with an English teacher training program, and taught a class of primary school English teachers, bringing up their English level and teaching them about communicative activities.

You: How many people were in your class?

Me: Eleven. Twelve at first, but one had a family emergency and needed to leave the program.

You: Were they good at English?

Me: The proficiency level in my class varied rather dramatically. There were three that were quite good - I sometimes forgot that they didn't understand everything - and one that I would say didn't speak more than a word or two of English. The rest were somewhere in between.

You: Huh. Happy to be home?

Me: Yes.

You: Do you miss China?

Me: Yes.

You: Both at the same time?

Me: Yes.

You: You want to go back sometime?

Me: I would be happy to. 

My deep thanks to those who supported me in this adventure. Your prayers and your willingness to help with finances have been very much appreciated. I'm blessed with opportunity and blessed to have so many wonderful people behind me!

"Sometimes you look like a child, laughed a lot and feel happy. Sometimes you look like my friend, help me how to pronuce at the difficut words. Sometimes you like our sister. I'm very happy talk about with you! We had a lovely time." -from a thank you note one of my students wrote