Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Today we got up early, as it was our last day in Beijing. We have been constantly surprised, ever since we left Canada, at the amount of drinking that goes on among our peers. I like a drink as much as the next person but if I am in Beijing, I want to see Beijing...not the inside of the Hotel bar! Oh well, whatever floats your boat!

We started the day with one of the hotels delicious breakfasts. I was vegetarian when I left for Korea and was forced to abandon it once I arrived there and realized I didn't know what I was eating half the time. So, I have to admit, I was very happy to see bacon this morning. Yummy!

We headed out first thing to see the Hutongs. Our tour guide told us yesterday that for 250 yuan we could go on a rickshaw tour of the Hutongs and even visit a
real Chinese home and school. Something tells me I have seen enough little Asian children performing for adults to last me a life time. We decided to be a little sneaky though and jumped on the bus which took the tour to the Hutongs. The we hoped off the bus, skipped the rickshaw line and headed for our own homemade (and free) Hutong adventure. Hee, hee.

The Hutongs are essentially the "old" Beijing. When the city was built, it consisted of quadrangles separated into courtyards by small alleys. Over time, the alleys themselves became home to thousands of people. Some of the buildings go back to the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1341) but are slowly being replaced by highrises. Like a lot of things in Beijing, they are being torn down in order to prepare for the upcoming Olympics.
"Hi, welcome to Beijing. All the things that made us China have been replaced with large, plastic American icons. I hope you don't mind."
"Mind? Oh, not at all! That's what the Olympics are for!"

In the centre of the Hutongs is an old bell tower that would sound the time before most people had clocks. It was a dull day today but it was nice in a way. We walked through the Hutongs and for the first time on this trip, I felt as though I had been dropped into China proper. There were no tourists and no neon. Just people going about their daily business. The Hutongs consist of hundreds of shops - tea shops, grocery stores, butchers, bakeries. Hidden behind the shops are the homes that have made the Hutongs famous. As we were walking along one of the many streets, an old man stopped us to say "Hello." His English was quite good and so we started to talk. He invited us back to visit his home and we agreed. We followed him as he shuffled down the street and led us through a maze of doorways and small halls until we reached his home.

He welcomed us in and offered us some tea. His home was tiny and dark and damp. He was obviously very poor. The house consisted of a storage room, a living area and a bedroom. He used the communal bathroom located in the square near his house. We sat with him and talked. As it turns out, his brother immigrated to Canada and is living in Windsor. He started to pull out every letter he had and asked me to read to him. I read his letters to him and he showed me his collection of pictures and magazine cutouts. He has lived in his house for 42 years! I asked him what he had done before he retired and it turns out he was a magazine editor. I was so intrigued by his stories and his life. He used to translate and edit a Chinese magazine into English (would explain his proficiency with the language)...it was almost too much to handle. And, being the intrepid journalist that I am I didn't have my mini disc. I had brought it all over China and on my last day out I left it at the hotel. That'll teach me.

Miao Hang Sheng was so sweet and so kind, and so obviously lonely. He shared moon cakes with us (which made me feel bad because it didn't look like he had a lot of food) and held my hand the entire time. I felt as though I had known him my whole life. Eventually, we had to leave and when we did, he made us promise to write him. He hugged both Brian and I and walked us back out to the street. We said our good-byes and when we had turned the corner I burst into tears. It is moments like these that make traveling so wonderful. I had shared more than a moment with Miao, I had become a part of his story, and he of mine. When I left I felt lucky to have met him and heartbroken to have left him.

We left the Hutongs and headed back to Tiananmen Square - we just didn't get enough of it on Sunday. We tried to catch a taxi but couldn't find any, so we ended up getting a ride in a death box. At least that's what I call them. They are basically small motorbikes equipped with a tin box that can sit two people. The one we rode in had a bungee cord keeping the door on! It was great. For 20 yuan we got a bumpy, rickety ride through Beijing traffic, trapped in a box that probably would have flown off the bike in the slightest collision. It was perfect.

Tiananmen Square wasn't the same today as it was the last time we were there. There were no white people there today and I got a completely different vibe from the place. Creepy wouldn't even begin to describe it. It looked like all of Beijing's hoodlums had convened in the square. Which is so weird because on Sunday it was full of families and flowers and soldiers. Today it was just muggers and rapists. Ok, I'm exaggerating but not by much. We met a really neat little Chinese boy who spoke perfect English. We chatted to him for awhile and Brian bought a Mao watch and the Mao "Bible" from the boy's father/uncle. We ran into an American girl who took a picture of Brian to show her boyfriend. I guess her boyfriend is a huge North Carolina basketball fan and Brian was wearing his Carolina t-shirt. Too funny.

We were mobbed by people wanting there pictures taken with us today. It has happened here (and in Korea) before but today was like nothing I had ever seen. People were literally lining up to stand next to us. At first it was just me, but then it was Brian too and then both of us. After a while we took off and left the square. Very odd.

We grabbed some street food (very delicious!) and headed off to the Silk Market to do some shopping. We bumped into a bunch of people from our tour when we first arrived and they had been at it for hours already. The market is huge and has everything you can think of. Shoes, clothes, silks, pottery, leather goods, art...You name it. Each stall is watched over by one or two people who are there to bargain. It was ridiculous but fun. I have bartered before in markets in Korea and in Africa but nothing like in China. They say "Fifty dollars", you say "Five dollars" and you go from there. They start so high that they have to be counterbalanced with a ridiculously low offer. They seem to enjoy it though and we quickly learned the whole "put on a show like you are walking away" technique. It works wonders! "Nice lady, nice lady! Please come back!" It was so much fun! They would go on saying things like, "Fair price, fair price. Only for you....(Yah right) You are killing me! Ok, 5 dollars, it's yours." I got some great deals and so did Brian. We bumped into a few people who had been royally screwed and we realized that is how these people make a lot of their money. They screw those they can and deal with those who can't. It must all even out in the end. We figure if they were a little bit mad when we left than we got a good bargain. I bought a beautiful Chinese tea set, some sneakers (since they don't carry my size in Korea), some silk, wall hangings and a really funky Mao t-shirt. All in all, it was a good time at the market. I could have spent SO much money there but I didn't. Maybe I can go back tomorrow before we leave?

I am heading to bed now as we have a 4 a.m. wake up call tomorrow. We still haven't received any pillows and are sleeping on our makeshift camp-roll. We had our tour guide talk to the front desk yesterday and they assured us that they would bring us non-feather pillows. The same bell-boy (the hotel must only have one!) showed up with, yup, you guessed it, two feather pillows. Brian started trying to explain the situation, again, and resorted to gesticulations. He kept pointing to the pillow and then would put his hands around his throat (the universal sign of choking - or so we thought) and proceed to hack and cough like mad. The bell boy did not get it. I would love to know what he was thinking. "If you bring me any more pillows, I am going to kill you!"

Goodnight from Beijing.

Monday, September 27, 2004

This morning we went to the Ming Tombs, which are located about 50 km outside of Beijing. The tombs are essentially mausoleums of the 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty. I know this Dynasty thing can get a little confusing but they are essentially a series of emperors who have all chosen their successor, until they are overthrown and a new dynasty begins. So, the Ming Dynasty had 13 emperors and lasted from 1368-1644. The biggest tomb is the Changling tomb, but we visited the Dingling tomb which is 50 feet underground. What impressed me (once again!) was the size and scale of the structures...massive stone doors, 2 feet thick and 10 feet high. It was all very, well, impressive. Apparently, when the emperor had the tombs built he later killed all the workers and designers that contributed to the project. It took years for people to open the tombs when they did finally find them, and they were rigged with all kind of Indiana Jones type of stuff. Pretty cool.

After the Ming Tombs we went to the Badaling Friendship store. The store is a government-run souvenir shop basically, where the prices are controlled (ie. jacked up) but the quality is supposedly better. I don't know. It was cool to look around the store since it had all kinds of neat stuff - full-sized terra cotta warriors, jade dragons, pearls, silk. I refrained from buying anything because we are planning on going to the silk market on the last day we are here. We had a nice lunch at the store restaurant (again on a giant lazy susan)and headed off for our big day at the Great Wall.

We pulled up to the Great Wall at Badaling at about 2:00 on the afternoon. It was a stunning fall day and the leaves were just starting to change...they had that shimmery look to them. The sun was shining and Brian and I were both very excited to be at the Great Wall. (I won't give you any mumbo-jumbo about the wall being visible from space - because it isn't.) When you first step on to the wall you have the choice of going either left or right. The right way is easier and the left is more difficult. Brian and I went left, assuming that there would be fewer people on the harder route and we were right.

It is quite a steep climb at the beginning but it evens out after a while. The further up the wall you go, the less people you encounter and you start to feel the presence of your surroundings. The wall is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The idea that people could conceive of such a venture, let alone succeed in it, left me in awe. The countryside is very steep and I couldn't imagine how anyone could have carried so many rocks up so steep a hillside. Maybe they mined the rocks locally and built it that way. Either way it must have been very labour intensive. A workforce of nearly a million, representing one fifth of the whole labour force of the country (at that time), was used to build it.

The stone itself seems to change colour in the light, from grey to sand coloured to brilliant orange. The area around the wall is so beautiful and you are so high up (600 metres) that you can see for miles. The sky was a brilliant blue and at certain points on our walk you could hear nothing but your own breath and footsteps. It was amazing.

Construction of the Great Wall began in 200 B.C. and was essentially a massive defense project. After that, different emperors would add on to different parts of the wall, as China grew and enemies changed. The Great Wall at Badaling was constructed in 1505 and is said to be the best preserved section of the wall. Along its length are 19 watch towers which earned Badaling the name of "key to the North Gate".

If you take the harder route on Badaling you will find that the wall comes to an end. After the final watch tower, it crumbles away and you have to turn around and go back. Or you can do what we did and jump off the watch tower. After some maneuvering, Brian and I were able to climb off the tower onto a rickety old fence and over some barbed wire. (No problem!) Beyond the tower it is silent. It was just Brian and I, and with our backs to the tower, all we could see was miles of wall stretching out in front of us. We sat on the ruins for a while and enjoyed the isolation and beauty of the ancient wall. I kept trying to imagine what it would have been like hundreds of years ago and realized, it would have been much the same (only less crumbled!). It was one of those days in my life life that I will never forget. It was peaceful and hot and quiet. The sky was a brilliant blue and for the time we were there, it felt as though Brian and I were the only two people in the world.

We eventually had to turn back and managed to get back on to the wall. I thought I saw some Chinese soldiers at the top of the watch tower and had visions of being carted off the jail. Brian says they were only vendors but I am maintaining that they were soldiers. I guess we will never know for sure. We started our walk back down the wall and were lucky to have that perfect light that occurs late in the afternoon. It was a warm light and it cast dark shadows on the wall. As we rounded a corner we bumped into a group of about 20 soldiers running a drill. (This just served to confirm my earlier sighting, at least in my mind.) The soldiers were running up the hill with batons and had rigged a finish line across the width of the wall. We stood and watched for a while and got a very stern warning that we were to take "no photos." I took some anyway and ended up with blur. Typical. Brian however, with his fancy lens, managed to get a shot of the soldiers crossing the finish line, arms in the air. I have a digital but Brian has a 30mm so we will have to wait until we get the film back to see if it worked out. I hope it did - it was great shot.

After we finished at the Great Wall we went for a "traditional" Chinese foot massage. It consisted of 20 people being seated in a room together, soaking our feet in a big tub of warm tea. So far so good. As if on cue, a team of masseurs walked into the room, each one filing over to their customer. Again, in unison, the masseurs begin massaging our feet. Now, by massage I do not mean firm but soothing rubbing. No. I mean a hard knuckle down the middle of your foot combined with some slapping and yanking. They were like an army. They did everything in unison. They ignored any polite attempts to communicate pain and laughed at more blatant attempts to struggle free. After our feet, the leader (who thank God, was not working on either Brian or I) and his minions worked on our legs, necks and shoulders. It was amusing and frightening all at the same time. One thing it was not was relaxing. I must admit though, that once the robot army was finished, my feet did feel more relaxed. Maybe it was the relief more than the massage.

Today confirmed two rules I have always tried to apply to my life:
1. Never take the easy way. It's easier but there might be a cable car at the top and a camel wearing a sign that says "I climbed the Great Wall and saw a camel."
2. Break the rules. You will either get in big trouble or chance upon the most amazing thing in your life.
On Sunday we got up early and headed to Tiananmen Square. It was a really hazy morning and the sky was white. Our tour guide, Wally, gave us a little talk on the way to the square. He told us how he had been attending the student protests that led to the events of June 4th, 1989. On the night that the tanks rolled in, Wally stayed home at his wife's request. He also proceeded to tell us that we could ask him anything we wanted about the 1989 massacre, tomorrow, but that we shouldn't ask him about it on the day we were visiting the square. Very odd.

It was far more emotional being at Tiananmen Square than I thought it would be. I remember watching the events of 89 unfold and I know it was probably one of the first major news stories that I remember. Being on the spot where it all happened sent shivers up my spine.

The Square is huge. It was busy when we arrived and it was still not even 9:00 am. In the centre of the square is a huge (36 metres tall)obelisk called Renmin Yinxiong Jinian Bei, or "Monument to the People's Heroes". The monument is dedicated to the people who died trying to secure China's nationhood and has acted as a lightening rod for dissent ever since it was erected in 1949. Most recently it was cordoned off during the Falungong demonstrations.

On one side of the square is a Mausoleum where the embalmed body of Chairman Mao is kept. Those Chinese sure love their Mao. We were told on the way to the square how "powerful" and "smart" Mao was and how all the Chinese "love and honour their dear Chairman." Yah...okay. I'm quite sure that not every Chinese person loves Mao. It is all a little creepy.

On the other side of the square you can see the entrance to the Forbidden city with a picture of, you guessed it...Mao. Above his giant photograph are two slogans:
1. Long live the People's Republic of China
2. Workers of the world unite.

There are a lot of soldiers standing at attention all over the square but it is next to impossible to get a picture of them. It's eerie how good they are at turning away from a camera! We tried staging pictures behind them, snapping digital pictures from 30 feet away...you name it. All I got was the side of a soldiers face.

There is a huge countdown clock set up at one end of the square. On the morning we were there, there were only 1412 days left until the Olympics! Everything in Beijing is geared towards 2008 right now and they are selling Olympic hats and shirts everywhere you look. One of the guys we spoke with told us a funny story. He bought two Olympic hats for 80 yuan (about 12 dollars Canadian) and felt pretty chuffed with himself. Two minutes after he walked away, he heard the guy start yelling "Two for ten! Two for ten!" The poor sap went back and bought two more, just so he could average out at four for 90 yuan. Too funny.

After Tiananmen Square, we headed to the Forbidden City. I don't think I can even describe how amazing it was. That is the one problem I keep running into with this China trip. I can't talk about it, or write about it and do it justice. It's spectacular. The Forbidden City is so huge and so ornately detailed and beautiful that you have to see it to appreciate it. Construction on the city first started in 1406 and it served at the political centre for both the Ming and Quing Dynasties. The city consists of parks, courtyards and over 800 different buildings. Brian and I just kept imagining what it would be like to live there hundreds of years ago. If I had been called before the Emperor and had to report to him while he was sitting on his gold and marble throne in a massive building in a massive courtyard I would have been petrified, or at the very least, extremely humbled.

One thing I have seen here which is very cute are the kaidangku, or "open-crotch pants" that the kids wear. It makes sense to me! Rather than wear diapers the kids run around in these pants and if they have to go to the bathroom the parents lift them up over a toilet or a garbage can. Keep in mind that urinating in the streets is still done here, despite the efforts to crack down on it. Makes more sense than landfills full of old diapers.

For lunch we went for Peking duck. Now, before we go any further, let's get the whole Peking/Beijing thing out of the way. I have to admit that before I came here I thought Peking was the old name for Beijing (sort of like Leningrad/St.Petersburg) but I was wrong. Peking is the Cantonese word and Beijing is the Mandarin word. They are still used interchangeably (our plane tickets had Peking as our destination) but the city is known internationally as Beijing. Glad we got that cleared up! Now back to the duck...it was delicious. First we had some appetizers which turned out to be duck intestines, tongues and livers. I didn't know what they were until after I ate them and I have to say that they were pretty good. From vegetarian to tongue-eater in three short months. After that came the main course, a golden roasted duck. My Mom always taught me not to eat the skin on chicken or turkey but I threw caution to the wind! It was excellent.

The restaurants here are huge, incidentally. The last few we have been to have consisted of three or four floors! They have elevators between dining areas and they can sit hundreds and hundreds of people. I guess you need to think big if you live in China.

After lunch we headed to the Summer Palace. The palace is the largest imperial garden in the world and was first built in 1750 as a gift to the Emperor's mother. The Palace covers 290 hectares of park land and lake area. It was one of the most peaceful and beautiful places I have ever been. The lake is covered with huge multi-coloured Chinese boats. The moat around the palace is crossed by several bridges, many of them made of marble. The palace grounds are covered in beautiful trees and thousands of flowers. There is a 700 metre long corridor, aptly named the "long corridor", which runs along the lake and is absolutely stunning in its detailed beauty.

Wally, our tour guide, told us a very interesting story while we were on the bus today. In China, education is available for those living in major cities. But the further away you are from a metropolitan area, the harder it is to go to school. This is true for many reasons, many of which exist all over the world. In rural areas, education is less valued and less needed since it doesn't have any immediate effect on their lives except to take them away from more important work. Also, the government is less able (or willing) to provide materials and teachers to isolated areas. So, many Chinese people will "adopt" a student and donate money to provide for their educations. Wally told us of how he adopted a young girl from Inner Mongolia and how he had recently met her for the first time. She came to Beijing to visit her "foster" family and was overwhelmed by the city. When Wally gave her Coca-Cola for the first time, she told him that she was not sick and couldn't understand why he was trying to give her medicine. Apparently she eventually developed a real taste for the drink during her stay in Beijing though! It was a really neat story and made me feel all gushy...which isn't hard to do.

After the Summer Palace we made our way to the Theatre of Heaven and Earth to watch the Chinese Acrobatics show. The show, called "Reverie", was the most amazing display of human - I don't know what. Human ability? Human bendability? Useless but impressive skills? They had young girls who could bend themselves into pretzels, women who balanced spinning plates on their heads and fingers and parasols on their feet. There were 12 women riding one bike at one point and boys who could flip themselves through hoops that were 15 feet off the ground! The music was great (I bought the CD) and the costumes and set were dazzling. I just sat there in awe for the whole length of the show.

During the intermission, we met a young couple from England. They had arrived the day of the show and had taken a train from St.Petersburg, Russia, to Beijing. It was so weird, because Brian and I had been talking about that exact trip (but in reverse) the same day! We really want to take the train from Beijing through Mongolia and Siberia to Moscow. The couple said it was good but long. Anyway, it was neat. I also went down to use the bathroom at intermission, only to find out that I had to line up at the concession to buy a pack of toilet paper. Peanuts and TP please.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

We arrived in China yesterday afternoon at about 12:30 Beijing time. The smog was really bad and a white haze hung over the tarmac. We found our guide and our group and the bus took us in to the city. Beijing is nothing like what I had imagined. Given it’s huge size (over 16 million people live in the city and 1.3 billion live in China) I assumed it would be congested, dirty and chaotic. It is none of these things. The first thing I noticed driving into the city was how green it was. The city has built a windbreak around the entire municipality in an effort to keep out the yellow sand from the Gobi desert. Apparently it has been successful so far. The expressway from the airport is lined with huge trees and all different kinds of flowers, vines and bushes. As we drove through the “Manhattan” area of Beijing we were all impressed with how organized and clean everything is. There are garbage cans along the streets (something Korea has yet to institute) and people employed to sweep the streets all day long. Everywhere I looked there were flowers. The interesting thing is that all of the flowers are in small, individual pots. They are then arranged into different shapes and designs. I just kept trying to imagine how long something like that would last at home. I am quite sure that the designs would be ruined sooner than later and that a lot of people would have their own little pots of flowers at home!

Beijing is surrounded by a huge moat built hundreds of years ago to protect the city. It is also guarded by massive stone gates and towers. The city seems to be well designed (admittedly they have had a long time to work on it) and there are separate bike paths that run parallel to many of the main roads. They are often more congested with bikes than the streets are with cars. Everywhere we looked we could see some kind of construction going on. The preparations for the 2008 Olympics are in full swing. Already I am excited to see the Olympics – I am sure that the world will be as impressed as I am with the beauty of Beijing.

The first place we visited was the Temple of Heaven. It was built in 1420 A.D during the Ming Dynasty, as an offering to Heaven. It is magnificent. The temple walls and floors are covered in marble and the pillars in gold. The main temple has three levels reaching up into the sky. Each level represents a level of life: the earth, the sky and the people. At the time the temple was built, people believed that the earth was square and that heaven was round. To represent this idea, there are two walls inclosing the temple. An inner circular wall and an outer square wall. The inner circular wall was built so that if you speak into it, a person on the opposite side of the courtyard should be able to hear you quickly. The Chinese were very skilled at architecture with function - in this case, making use of echoes. Brian went up to the wall and yelled “I love Caroline” at the top of his lungs. It was so funny. Everyone in the temple heard him and it had nothing to do with echoes!

The central temple area is surrounded by beautiful parks and courtyards. Everything is so green and beautiful. The skies were very blue today and there were dozens of kites dotting the sky. The kites here are almost as impressive as the temples! They have long kites with a line of faces heading towards the clouds and huge kites shaped like birds and planes. It was great to watch the old men and little children fly their kites in such a beautiful sky and in such a beautiful place. The courtyards were full of people selling “Rolex” watches and postcards. We managed to buy a Beijing book for only 20 yuan which works out to about three dollars Canadian. Not a bad deal.

We bumped into an older couple at the Temple who had "motorhomed" to Beijing from Holland! We couldn't believe it! I hope I can do something like that when I am retired. Which hopefully should happen in the next five years.

We went to a dai restaurant for dinner last night. The Dai are a Chinese culture located on the borders between China and Myanmar. The restaurant was really neat and all of the servers were dressed in traditional Dai costumes. They had a stage set up with dancing and traditional musicians. It was all very colourful and beautiful. We ate our first Chinese meal and I was very impressed. They brought all sorts of dishes to our table and set them on what is basically a large, glass lazy Susan. You just spin the centre of the table and take whatever you want. One of the dishes was a bird (I have no idea what kind of bird!) in a wooden tube. They cook the bird in what looks like bamboo and then empty it onto a plate. It was really good!

After dinner we headed to the Beijing opera. The opera has existed for over 200 years and is a large part of Chinese art culture. It was banned during the cultural revolution (1966-1976) but was re-introduced in 1978. By then, the world had changed and the opera no longer drew the crowds it once did. The opera has been referred to as a dying art. It started off kind of slow but it got better as the the show progressed. The makeup and dancing was really beautiful and I knew I was watching something from an entirely different time and an entirely different culture.

We were exhausted after such a busy day and headed to bed as soon as we booked into our hotel, the Garden View Beijing Hotel. The first thing I noticed were the fluffy pillows…feather-filled fluffy pillows. Now, I am deathly allergic to feathers and cannot sleep on down pillows so we called the front desk to ask for synthetic pillows. They sent a bell-boy up to help us out. We explained the situation as best we could and waited for him to come back with our new pillows. He was very prompt. He returned shortly with…two new feather pillows. We thanked him and smiled. Now we had six feather pillows! We made a pillow out an extra blanket and some towels. We were so tired we were asleep before our heads hit the...blanket.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Things at work have been crazy this week. Our new teacher, who started last week, just quit. Her Grandma died suddenly and when she told the school she was leaving and wasn't coming back, things went from bad to worse. The school doesn't believe that her Grandma is the real reason she is leaving and they had a meeting with her where everyone ended up screaming. The new teacher went home and the Korean teachers went to chase her down. They tried to secure a key to her apartment and had every intention of evicting her onto the street. Too late. By the time they arrived, she had packed her bags and left. It was stressful and very tense around the office. We were supposed to have the welcome dinner for our new staff last night but it was cancelled. Mainly for lack of the new staff.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

You would think, that if you were going to point and yell "foreigner" at someone as they walked down the street, that you wouldn't do it in English. Just goes to show you. It's always funny when that happens here. Yesterday I was walking to school and I passed the schoolyard I pass everyday on my way to Ding Ding Dang. The boys and girls were in the courtyard doing their daily exercises. The girls in pink, the boys in blue. A group of girls looked my direction and one of them saw me, started grabbing her friends arms and yelling "Foreigner! Foreigner!" It's weird. I am positive they have seen white people before, and I wasn't wearing a loin cloth or a bone in my nose or anything at all exotic. I just waved and said "Hello". This of course resulted in the same peals of laughter that we get everywhere.

I was talking to one of my older students the other day about the school system here in Korea. She started telling me how when she turned 14 she had to cut her hair. "Had to?" I asked, "You mean your Mum made you cut your hair?" Nope. The school made her cut it off. Once girls start middle school they have to chop their hair into this ear-length bob. It is supposedly to prevent vanity and to save time. I was shocked. This is not the first time I have encountered this same approach to education. I attended a high school in South Africa (only as a visiting student) and they were shocked that at 16 I was aloud to wear makeup to school or have pierced ears, let alone a nose ring. It is just such a different perspective on the role of the schools and teachers.

Speaking of which, as I was walking past the school yesterday I also witnessed a student being smacked across the face. Hard. By a teacher. The student looked about 13 and the teacher was a full grown man. The kid hardly even reacted, despite the fact that he was slapped so hard I could hear it from across the street. One more reason why I won't be emigrating here to school my children!

Monday, September 20, 2004

It is just after 7:00 on Tuesday morning and I haven't slept yet. Not because I was up all night partying or because I am sick. My bedroom is a comfortable temperature and I did not nap yesterday. Nope. It's because of a mosquito. One, tiny but loud buzzing biting machine that drove me to seek refuge in the living room. It's not even the prospect of being bitten that concerns me. (Although I will say that mosquito bites here are far worse than they are at home.) It's the knowledge that a silly little thing like a bug can bother me so much. It had me tossing and turning. I was suffocating myself by sleeping under the blankets just to avoid it. Slapping my face every time a piece of hair brushed my skin. It was ridiculous. Now I am writing about it. It has won. That little bugger has gotten the best of me. That is, until I smash it into oblivion.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

It’s funny how unimportant this date is in other places in the world. If I were at home today I know that turning on the television would mean constant stories of 9/11. Flashback images, updates on survivors, news on the commission’s report, updates on the “progress” in Iraq and general remembrance of the attacks of September 11th. Here? It’s like it never happened. I would venture to guess that the same is true for most countries in the world. Some countries in Europe might be marking it but nobody in Asia is and neither is Africa, Eastern Europe, or India. That’s a lot of the world. It maker sense though that if you were in Darfur, watching your family starve to death in front of your eyes, or if you had just witnessed Chechen rebels kill hundreds of children, that the death of 3,000 Americans, three years ago might not raise much concern. If people in America had any idea of the magnitude of death and suffering that goes on in the rest of the world they would never question the apparent indifference that greets their anniversary.

Sometimes my tendency to swing from one extreme to another infuriates me. Last month I had virtually decided that I was destined to become an independent recluse journalist. A Pulitzer prize winning explorer, narrowly escaping cannibals in the Amazon and dodging bullets in Baghdad. Now I am feeling much better about a comfortable life in Vancouver or Calgary, with a nice house, a couple of kids and a job at a local newspaper. How do you go from one thing to another within a matter of weeks? How do the people around you cope with such indecision? Is there a happy medium between the two? Would I be happy with living my life in the middle? This is where my knowledge of physics comforts me. If I know anything about life and the natural order of things, it’s that perpetual motion remains impossible. Sooner or later, a swinging pendulum, no matter how violent, will stop.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Today we went to E-Mart with the preschool kids on an outing. Don’t ask me whey E-Mart is an outing…I don’t come up with this stuff. I just supervise it. Our string of six Ding Ding Dang buses pulled up in front of the store at about 10:30 in the morning. About hundred kids, ranging from 4 to 7 years old, and a half dozen teachers traipsed into the unsuspecting store. All the kids were wearing their little Ding Ding Dang outfits, which are orange and sport cartoon ducks on the front. (*Interesting sidenote: The man who founded and owns Ding Ding Dang also owns a chain of Chinese schools, aptly named Ping Ping Pang. This man recently had a baby boy. The boy’s name is Bing. Bing the future president of the P/Ding P/Ding P/Dang empire. Ahem.) The idea behind this excursion was that each child would have a 1,000 won note to spend on whatever their hearts desired. We went to the grocery section first to secure Leo’s Cheetos and then on to find Mark’s ruler and Hoya’s pens. We stopped at the seafood market and looked at the King crabs and of course partook in all the samples available. We read books, played with toys, ran amok, went pee, drank water, cried, fought, complained about our rulers/pens/cheetos, and disturbed all the other patrons in the store. It was great. I had a raging headache by the end of it and I didn’t even get a Cheeto. Humph.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

We are considered real rebels here in Korea. We cross several main streets on our walk to and from work and oftentimes, if there are no cars coming, we will cross before the light turns green. Well, we have actually had people stop us and point to the crosswalk sign, “Red! Red!” We smile and nod, look up and down at the empty streets and proceed to cross. The Koreans just stand there, marooned on their respective sidewalks, and stare at the “crazy” foreigners who have just walked to their certain death. It’s quite funny to me that they would be so rigid. I understand safety and I am deathly afraid of cars and of being hit by them but at the same time, I would feel silly standing for 10 minutes for the light to change on an empty street. It always feels like a weird social experiment when that happens. Like surely there must be a two-way mirror somewhere watching to see how well-socialized the guinea pigs have become. You know, when you pull up to a traffic light late at night on an abandoned rural road and you sit there waiting for it to turn green. With every minute I feel sillier and sillier. I start to wonder where my willingness to suspend logic and obey rules has actually come from and it makes me wonder how deep it really goes. Then I usually just ignore the light and drive on into the darkness…wondering if my obvious attempt to disobey the rules is really just another symptom of my struggle with convention.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

We are going to China! We just found out today that two spots have opened up on the Chuseok tour to Beijing and that we will be going. I am so excited!

The Korean work ethic is such that there aren’t very many holidays during the year. When we first applied to come and work here we were told that Korea celebrates over 22 National holidays. While true, almost all of the holidays fall on Saturday or Sunday, so we don’t really gain anything from them. The people here work like mad. Many of my students attend as many as eight or nine schools and attend classes six days a week. They learn from the crack of dawn until late in the evening and are usually exhausted by the time I teach them at 7:00 or 8:00.
There are only three or four major holidays in Korea and Ch
useok is perhaps the biggest of them. It is basically the equivalent of Thanksgiving and falls over three days at the end of September. Usually it falls mid-week but this year it falls from Monday to Wednesday so we actually get five days off with the weekend. We were a little hesitant to spend the money since this is our first full paycheck but at the same time, we don’t get another holiday until the Chinese New Year in January or February. We will be in Beijing for five days and will be going to the Great Wall, Tianemen Square, the Forbidden City, to the Chinese Opera and of course to markets and several temples. We are also going for a nice Peking duck dinner and for a Chinese foot massage. All of my life I have dreamt of going to China and now it’s going to happen. That’s what is so wonderful about dreams…they can come true.
I was stopped on the street today by two old women intent on touching my face. It was pouring rain and I was running late for work but they started to talk to me while we were waiting for the crosswalk sign to turn green and I couldn’t very well walk away. They asked me questions in Korean and I responded with my well rehearsed smile and nod. They kept reaching out and touching my cheeks. Their hands were old and wrinkled and very soft. They clucked and smiled toothless smiles and I let them touch to their hearts content. When would they ever touch a white girls face again? It was one of those moments in life where differences in age, culture and race seems to disappear in one emotion or one common experience. I looked into their eyes and when they turned to walk the opposite direction from me I felt warm and full of love. I had missed the crosswalk and was late for work but it was well worth it.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

I knew when I first heard about the siege in Beslan that it couldn't possible end well. When I heard on the radio today that the school had exploded and that so many people had died I sat down on the bed and I just bawled. I felt sick to my stomach. It is always horrible when these things happen but when it involves children it's that much more terrible. I just can't imagine how those parents and family members must feel. I felt sad and angry. I felt angry at the Chechens and I felt angry at Putin. That man is so bloody stubborn. When the submarine went down, countries from around the globe offered their assistance. He refused it and all of the men trapped inside died. Now they went in unprepared and ill-equipped and they could have maybe prevented such carnage. I feel angry at the rebels for getting kids involved and being so ruthless. I feel angry at Putin for putting them in such a position that they felt they had no choice. Chechnens are dying and nobody is listening. Children are being murdered by Russian soldiers and by pro-Moscow militants and no media is covering it. They can't. They aren't allowed in. I get angry at the way the world's leaders are so insistent that they not give in to terrorism that they fail to see they are taking on the role of terrorist. I feel hopelessness in the face of testosterone driven policy headed by no other than George W. Bush. Maybe it isn't about winning and losing and maybe terrorism is too narrow a word. Maybe the leaders need to sit down with the mothers of the children in Beslan and ask them if they think the 15,800 sq km of disputed land are worth their children's lives.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Happy anniversary Mom and Dad!