August 31, 2009

Fall is in the Air and Ari is in School

The last week and a bit has given us some of the most delightful smells, temperatures and tastes that we have enjoyed since being here.  If don't know if it will stay in this fall-like bliss, or if it is too early, we are certainly loving it!  We are watching as the scorching heat of a very long summer melts away into cool breezes and pleasant temperatures of only 25C.  I've even worn some long sleeved shirts.  The Chinese have a word for this weather that I think perfectly sums it up.  Liang kuai means comfortably cool.  I think it is great that they have one word that describes a perfectly pleasant temperature.  The smog that hung low over us for most of August is starting to dissipate a little, and I feel a little less like a claustrophobic.  

Along with it is the stunning (and welcome) realization that many of the smells are reminiscent of home fall-smells.  Beijing seems to undergo massive fall and spring cleanings.  In the spring we watched as armies (that is not an exaggeration) of people trimmed unruly tree branches, raked up debris, mowed the scattered patches of grass etc.  But all summer long, there has not been much grass mowing and as a result, some sidewalks are fairly overgrown with long grass and weeds.  But now it is time to start fall cleanup!  The mowing has started again and the smell of grass clippings is in the air.  Breath it in deep Jessica!  That's the smell of my dad in some of my earliest memories, and the smell of my earliest money making endeavors!  I have also caught hints of woodsmoke in the air (not coal smoke, there's a big difference!), and it reminds me of the farmers burning their fields, right across the street from my house.  I remember watching the fires blaze across a whole field (not 100 yards away from my living room window) as the sun set and darkness fell, with shadowy figures of the farmers passing to and fro in front of the flames.  For some reason, the smell of earth/mud also figures heavily into the equation, and I have come to the conclusion that I love the smell of clean mud!  There's an oxymoron!

The cherry on top was the other day on the bus when we drove past something that smelled like spice cookies baking in the oven!  If I could bottle the smells of fall I would!  (Am I writing a poem or a blog entry?).  The summer smells here were quite foreign, but fall, so far, has been different.  

The market is now selling in huge quantities corn on the cob and crab apples!  Home sweet home!  I plan on buying bushels of those small apples and freezing them.  I have not found anything else here that is tart enough to make apple pies or apple crisp with.  It is a welcome discovery!  That first bite puckered my face into tiny little lines, just like the apples from my parents' backyard!  I haven't been overtly homesick at all, but these experiences have been mightily comforting in a strange and unexpected way.  

I have also been working on sewing my winter coat, which I mentioned a while back.  I have so far sewn the outer shell and the lining.  Now I need to put them together with the filling and sew the collar and cuffs.  So far and I am very pleased with the way it looks.

Today is Ari's first day of school.  This picture at the top was taken not 20 minutes ago.  The other picture is of his school.  Having just been woken up, Ari was still a little confused, especially when I showed him the spare change of clothes that I had tucked into his backpack and stitched his name on to (the school requires this).  I saw a hint of tears in his eyes and he said "Am I going to stay there for all the rest of the days?".  I was quick to reassure him that Jude and I will be there to pick him up at lunch time, but I was somewhat relieved to see that despite his obvious restlessness at home, it is still a place that he wants to be.  

We recently had a routine visit from our landlady.  We had never met her before.  We prepared a list of things we wanted her to know.  One was that the TV stopped working shortly after we arrive, and that we were not responsible for breaking it.  We were not asking for a new one, so it was a surprise to us yesterday when she arrived with a new TV for us... a monstrous, brand new flatscreen TV.  I was very alarmed when I saw the delivery man lugging a box almost as tall as I am.  We have never been TV watchers.  In Canada, we kept a very old TV stored somewhere in the basement and never used it, and now here in China we have this monstrosity.  Because it sits on a rickety stand and is a flatscreen, we were terrified that the boys would knock it over.  So it is now in our bedroom, which now officially feels like a hotel room.  This TV is so big that even when you are sitting as far away from it as possible, you wish you could sink deep into the wall, just to put a little more distance between you and it.  At 15 out of 100 volume capacity, it is starting to get uncomfortably loud.  The good thing is that we can actually practice hearing Chinese more now (although a small short wave radio probably would have accomplished the same purpose!).  

In other news, it seems that we narrowly escaped gaining a cat as a pet. Aiyi came in last week asking my permission for something having to do with the boys and a kitten. I thought she was asking if she could bring them somewhere to see a cat, so I gave my permission. Well, thank goodness she also thought to mention it to James, who after much clarification, discerned that she actually wanted to bring us a pet cat. Thankfully, he was able to divert this disaster before it happened. She seems bound and determined that the boys must have a pet for entertainment. Just think how entertaining it would have been if the boys had been able to watch the cat stalk and feast upon their precious baby chicks! Watch out! If you come to visit us, Aiyi might have already stabled a horse in the guest room! Come prepared to sleep on bed of hay!
Farewell from the Mainland!

August 19, 2009

The First Effective Advertisement We have Seen Here

When  we saw this, it took us a while to realize that it really is quite a clever advertisement.  We are very used to seeing strange (by North American standards) advertisements.  

For example: 
Some "demon" in a bad costume is being fought by Jackie Chan.  The demon pauses to laugh at Jackie Chan's clothes.  Jackie looks embarrassed, but then has an idea and snaps his fingers.  Instantly he starts on fire and the fire "clenses" him from his ugly clothes, leaving slick dress clothing (with a special emphasis on his styling shoes).  The demon screams in terror and Jackie (with extremely old Superman special effects) flies after the demon.
By the way, Jackie Chan sells everything out here and James and I have begun to think of him as quite the sellout.  He sells juice drinks, ice cream, electronics, clothing and  much much more. 

Another example (this one is just ineffective and self defeating)
The bus TV always plays a tea advertisement that James and I think is very funny.  It shows water being washed through a super grimy, disgusting looking pipe, covered in green sludge.  The very next frame (and I do mean immediately after seeing that), someone is drinking green tea out of a clear tea cup and serving it to her guests!  That slime tea does wonders!

But this advertisement with the light bulb is truely a clever advertisement.  A pat on the back goes to whoever thought of it!

August 13, 2009


We've reached a few landmarks in last little while (or just discovered them!).

1) Ari will be attending school as of August 1. It actually is school, not just play. We visited the school last week and saw:
  • the math department (where they learn an early version of exponents and other likewise things!)
  • a language corner (where they learn Chinese and English, reading Chinese characters etc),
  • a small kitchen where they learn simple food preparation, dish washing etc,
  • a small bathroom where they learn to do all bathroom related things by themselves
  • a cleaning corner, where they learn things like washing windows (Yes! He'll be a perfect little slave!)
  • Dance! Ballet to be specific. Before we know it Ari will be begging to perform in the Nutcracker Suite!
  • Art
It is a little on the pricey side (I won't say how many pretty pennies but there are some we've heard of that are a good three or four times more). But Ari has really had a bit of a hard time adjusting here. He is such a social boy and he has no opportunities to make friends here. All the children seem to be hidden, and when we do see them, they all have no patience for a foreign boy who doesn't speak Chinese. It's a little heartbreaking to watch him sometimes.

2) In preparation for school, Ari needed to have a doctor check him and pronounce him healthy. In the checkup room, Ari showed an amazing ability to understand what the doctor was saying. We had a friend there to translate, because doctor visit is fairly technical, but with each command, Ari did it without the translation. He stuck out his tongue at the right time. He lifted his shirt when the doctor wanted to check his stomach. He opened wide when the doctor wanted to check his teeth. And when the doctor commented on how pretty his eyes are, Ari opened his eyes wide and leaned toward the doctor.

3) Today on the bus I (Jess) had just finished two hours of Chinese grammar, vocabulary and listening comprehension and another hour of reading and writing characters. I had to stand on the bus because there were no seats and I found myself staring inanely at the Chinese sign over the door in front of me. To my shock, I suddenly realized that I could read all of the characters on the sign and understand it: Qing qian hou men xia che "Please get off the bus at the front or back doors". I knew in theory that is what it was, but this is the first time I knew all the characters I saw on any sign. I have never really tried that hard to read the characters out on the street, because I figured it was pointless when there are about 3000 of them in everyday use. As long as I could read them in my textbook, I figured that was fine. But I must say, this has given me the incentive to work a little harder at it.

4) I'm also learning to "elbow swim" when I am riding the bus. This is a very technical move that is required when there are so many people on the bus that you have no handholds and stand only by the power of the pressure and counter pressure of other people. It is unpleasant to be the recipient of elbow swimming (I admit to silently screaming at people who are actually using their elbows on me to keep standing or get to the door). But when my turn comes, I find it surprisingly easy to lift my elbows both to nose height and do a swimming maneuver to propel myself through the crowd. At times like this, I am also very grateful that I am a somewhat smallish human and I can fit through nonexistent spaces (given enough jabbing and pushing of course!).

And last but not least, yet another embarrassing story. This does not belong on the landmarks list. Today in my Chinese Characters class, my teacher had just taught me a new character, and told me to then instruct her how to write the character. All the different types off strokes have different names, so I was supposed to dictate which strokes she was to write and in what order. The first stroke of this character was pie (third tone), which starts from the north and travels west in a curve. Unfortunately I told her pi (fourth tone). She laughed so hard that she was bent double and her face was turning almost purple. I was filled with a humored dread to know what horrible thing I had just commanded her to do. When she could finally speak again, I found out that I had just told her to fart.


August 02, 2009

Back Online

Jess Speaking: Greetings from the Mainland!  It took us a full two weeks to come to a simple solution that outsmarts the "protective" mechanisms in place here!  A big thanks goes to our human proxy and good friend who is doing the work for us!

The last three days involved the following:

1) We welcomed another family to China from Chicago and seen them on to Chengdu.  They have three kids, two of whom are the boys' ages and they were all able to play together.

 2) We were surprised on Friday when Aiyi arrived and put down on the table a tiny cage (about 2x3 inches) with two baby chicks in it.  She paid 2 kwai for them and thought they would make good presents for the boys.  Hmmm... I won't say I was happy to think that we had just been committed to raising two baby chicks to grown chicken size in our enclosed third floor apartment.  It is also possible that James and I enclosed ourselves in another room (after having put the chicks into a slightly larger temporary home with some water and cornmeal, a rock and some leaves) to have an unpleasant, married couple discussion about what to do about these chicks.  After all, our apartment did not come with a build in chicken coop. 

 3) We were relieved the next morning when we saw that the chicks had died overnight.  One drowned in the 1/2 centimeter of water that we gave them and the other flopped feebly around the bowl rasping and eventually just stopped moving.  They must have been barely hatched before some man decided that he needed the two kwai their sale provided for his own needs.  I confess to feeling sorry for them (but I also confess that during that unpleasant married couple discussion, I was trying to convince James that the most merciful thing we could do was throw them out the window onto the concrete as hard as we could!).  I know, I'm a brute!  But the alternative in my mind was giving them free reign of the house and leaving cornmeal around the house so that they could cluck around and beat the boys with their wings!

 4) We lived through the whole family (minus James) being sick.  Jude woke up vomiting one night and proceeded to wake up every 20 minutes after that.  The next afternoon it was Ari's turn.  There was no fever, and it seems to have been some random episode.  We have no idea where it came from.  I meanwhile came down with a bladder infection.  I know, no one wants to hear about this (just like no one likes to read descriptions about parasites).  So I'll suffice it to say that I was in extreme pain all weekend, somewhat feverish, and drank about 4 gallons of water and 2  gallons of cranberry/pomegranite juice, and eventually self prescribed amoxicillin.

 5) Between cleaning up vomit and spending most of the day in the bathroom, I got to think about the fact that I was missing one of my best friends since childhood's wedding this last Saturday.  Since I didn't even have the benefit of sleeping through it (having to use the bathroom all night long), I became quite homesick.

 6) James and I spent most of Sunday strategizing for his book trilogy that he started so many years ago.  For those of you who have read the first book, the whole thing has been overturned and reworked.  We are both very excited about it!

 7) I started teaching myself Debussy's Clair de la Lune on my new piano.  I have always hesitated to learn classic and well known songs (Moonlight Sonata etc), because everyone knows what they should sound like.  Then they can all hear my mistakes as I learn.  But I have decided that I do not care and my neighbors can criticize me in Chinese all they want.  I have always enjoyed these songs and I think I'll enjoy playing them even more than hearing them.

 8)  Monday morning finds us all healthy and in fairly good spirits and thankful that God gives us the strength to get through these kinds of weekends!

Last weekend after I got back from Cambodia, I had two days to learn 6 songs for my first Sunday of playing piano at the International Church here.  It is mostly hymns, but I have never played hymns before.  I can play a lot of music, but I find the hymn style to be challenging to play well.  I have done a lot of accompaniment in the past, but usually had more than two days to learn and perfect.  Well, I didn't perfect and made a lot of mistakes.  I was tempted to be horrified.  The perfect accompanist should play so well that no one notices her/him.  But I was certainly noticed!  Better next time!

 James was laughing as I was practicing because one the songs I was learning was the classic Doxology (Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow).  He said that anyone listening to me would think that we were constantly taking church offerings in our apartment.

More next week...