March 25, 2010

29-Year-Old Sack of Bones

Its always interesting hear what self imposed title James gives to himself on his birthday.  On this, the morning of his 29th birthday, he referred to himself as a 29-Year-Old Sack of Bones.  

Very nice, James.  Very nice.

Happy Birthday!

March 24, 2010


Yesterday, because there were some visitors in town, we all packed up and went to see the China National Acrobatic Troupe.  When I told one of my teachers that today, she commented that going to see them was one of the top three things to do on Beijing tours: see the Great Wall of China, eat Peking Duck, and see the China National Acrobatic Troupe.  If I was making a top touristy list, I probably would have probably would have included Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Emperor's Summer Palace.  None the less, it would explain why there were so many foreign faces in the crowd.

Touristy or not, it was certainly interesting.  Considering that we have not done many touristy things in the last year, it was probably long since overdue.  We weren't actually allowed to take pictures, but thanks to the tourist nature of this event, all I had to do was find a couple tourist websites to show you what we saw.  

We watched a man juggle ten balls while tap dancing up and down stairs.  He somehow managed to create what looked like a net in front of him out of whizzing balls all the while tap dancing (picture, but not as crazy as it was).  We watched a woman juggle four umbrellas with her toes in the air and two more in her hands (picture).  We saw very energetic martial arts like young men scrambling up poles like moneys and leaping through all kinds of hoops.  We saw ten girls all riding the same bike (of course while flipping over each other and doing all sorts of strange things).  There was also the glass contortionists (picture), the guy riding a bike on his head on the slack wire, the girl who did a balancing act of holding herself up with one arm for about five minutes on a 1.5m wobbly stand (again doing crazy moves all the while) and much much more.  

The Beijing bus system really likes playing videos of these types of acts.  When riding the bus it is just annoying to watch people do things like that with apparent ease and a large fake smile plastered on their face.  But live and very close to the stage, it really was something to behold.  We could see the shakiness of overly exerted limbs, the slight (but well hidden) look of strained faces, the sway for balance that was quickly caught and corrected.  I appreciated all those little glimpses of humanity.  It made the show more interesting and physically challenging than watching a flawless and seemingly effortless performance.

The boys were quite excited.  However, half way through the show, it occurred to me what sort of influence watching 10 people flip around on one moving bicycle might have a on a four year old boy (who is, incidentally, also learning to ride his bike).  Ari was excitedly grabbing my arm and saying "Look Mommy! They are all on the same bike!".  It occurred to me that it might be appropriate to initiate a little discussion about how long it had taken those performers to learn how to do those things.  Searching for a frame of reference that he would understand, I told him that it had taken them even longer to learn to do that then it would take him to grow up.  He loves talking about how long it will take him to grow up.  

However, instead of taking the take home message that I intended, he drew this conclusion... "If it took them that long, then you must be able to do that Mommy!"  No, no, no son, mommy can't do that.  "Oh well then Papa must be able to do that!"  At this everyone shared a chuckle, saying again, "No Ari, even Papa can't do that."  At this he was really bewildered that even someone as "old" as Papa couldn't do it.  After that he came to the solid conclusion that any one over the age of 50 MUST be able to do what those acrobats did. Using that logic, the best acrobats are those who are 80 years old or more!

On a final note: Yesterday, Ari came to me and said, "Mommy, my tongue is really tired.  I've been talking ever since you picked me up from school!"  To which Mother responded wisely, "Rest my boy, rest!"

March 20, 2010

Sandstorm in the News

This is a follow up to yesterday's orange post.  Here is a link to a BBC article about the storm.  There is a pretty good picture of Tiananmen Square shrouded in dust.

March 19, 2010

Living on Perelandra

Normally in the morning our bedroom is filled with streaming morning light (unless its smoggy, aka 25% of the time).  Today, I wondered why waking up felt so strange.  I wondered if I was still in a orange tinted dream.  But no, it was our bedroom. All of the light coming into our house had (and still has) a deep orange/pink hue.  It was very creepy to move from dreamland into orange land.  We knew that spring is the season of dust storms here, but that still doesn't mean that you expect to see one when you wake up in the morning.  Last spring, everyone was amazed that we didn't have any.

I don't think this would even be considered a dust storm, but there is certainly a lot of dust in the air and the wind is blowing.  The tint reminds me of when the skies turn downright green before a bad hail storm in Manitoba.   It has also made me think of C.S. Lewis' description of Venus (Perelandra) in Voyage to Venus.  He has a lengthy discussion on what it is like to live in an orange/pink world.  It doesn't help that all of the buildings around us are a pinkish color as well, which reflects the pink/orange light into our apartment and makes it even more pink/orange. 

The forecast is calling for rain today.  It would be interesting to watch it all get washed away.

March 12, 2010

Shameless, Downright Shameless

Yesterday I pulled my most overt stunt of pretending not to understand what was being said to me.  After dropping Ari off at school, I was in a hurry to get home but the bus was taking forever to come.  When it finally did come, there was a solid wall of people at the front door and no way to get on the bus.  Story to be continued...

This is how the bus system works.  You can buy a ticket with cash if you want to, but most people have a bus card with money on it.  When you get on the bus, you swipe your card and it instantly takes the money off.  On many buses, there is also a machine to swipe your card at the back door.  If there is, then you can also swipe your card when you get off the bus.  If you do this, you get a kind of a "discount".  Normally people get on at the front door, swipe their card at the front door, and then get off at the back.  If there is a machine at the back you can swipe your card on the way out and get the "discount".  If there is no machine at the back, there is no "discount". (If you are wondering why I am putting the word discount in quotes, it is because that is just the easiest way to describe it).

Sometimes people will get on the bus at the back door and swipe their card on the "going out" machine.  This was my plan when the bus came and there was no room at the front.  So I ran to the back and got on, ready to swipe my card... but there was no "going out" machine on this bus.  I made the split second, less honest, decision to stay on the bus anyway (what a shameful MCCer!).  I figured that with such a packed bus they wouldn't notice the loss of my $0.06, and besides "it's not my fault that there is room at the back and not at the front!"

Well, as sly as I was, there is a camera on the back door and the driver saw me pulling my little stunt.  Over the loudspeaker system, he told me that I would have to get off the bus and refused to close the door or drive the bus until I did so.  Maybe I have absorbed the Chinese concept of "saving face", or maybe I really just didn't want to get off the bus and wait for another one.  All I know was that in that moment, all I could think was how embarrassing it would be to get kicked off the bus.  So I blandly pretended to be completely unaware of what was being said.  I pretended to be confused that the door was not closing, then stared blandly into space and stood my ground, well aware that everyone on the bus was staring at me (some of them chuckling into their sleeves).  After a very long and very awkward moment, the door closed and the bus started to drive.  

Only then did I realized what an embarrassing position I had put myself in, and that I had probably just reinforced the other passenger's beliefs that foreigners are completely inept.  I felt the type of stinging guilt that a seven-year-old might feel at stealing a 5 cent candy.  And to make matters worse, I hadn't even done it secretly, but bold faced in the witness of 50 or more people!  I feel a wave of embarrassment just thinking about it!  I got off the bus one stop early and made myself walk the remaining distance.

If I were my own parent in this situation, I would probably admonish myself with this ageless piece of wisdom...  "Oh little Jessica, this experience was its own reward.  I think you have learned your lesson!"

March 10, 2010

Learning English from Ari - Poor Aiyi

I realize this is two posts in one day, but hey, things happen!

Today Aiyi told me that she had learned the English word for blowing one's nose: "Schlottang".  I was pretty confused as to what she was trying to say until Ari told me what he had told her: "snotting".  I don't know where he picked that up, its certainly not what we have taught him.  But now that Aiyi is calling it "schlottang", Ari is now also calling it that.

One day I came home early and heard them talking in the boys room.  Ari was teaching Aiyi English words, but he was doing it with a weirdo accent.  For example, she pointed to the bed and instead of saying bed or even just wood, Ari said "Wooo duh".  Then Aiyi, in her accent said it even more strangely. Now she thinks the English word for bed is "Woo duh".  Then he told her that the table is called "Taabool" and chair "chah ruh".  

I'm grateful that she probably doesn't have contact with any other English speakers.  But if they have fun doing it, so be it.  They have laughing about "schlotting" on and off for the last half hour.  I've been laughing too!  


Much as we have not mentioned our studies much of late, they have continued with the usual force.  It is not nearly as tiring as it used to be.  It think we have learned a large proportion of the words that make up the basics of most sentences.  It used to be that when I didn't understand someone, all of their words would rush together into non comprehension, even the ones I did know.  Now it has mostly flipped, and I am able to immediately identify which words I don't know in a person's sentence.  What a relief!  The worst used to be when the phone would ring and someone would instantly jabber Chinese.  Now I am able to roll my eyes when yet another marketing call comes.  

All of this increased comprehension is of course dependent on the person's accent, which is actually a real gamble.  A huge proportion of the people living in Beijing are from all over the country and they all have their own dialect.  Even when speaking Standard Mandarin, they have a heavy accent.  Recently James and I were approached by woman who really wanted to talk about the boys and know how much money we made.  But we could only catch about 50% of what she said at best.  It was very embarrassing.

Ari has also overcome his shyness with speaking Chinese. This last year, he would mostly refuse to speak Chinese when we were around.  He would speak for Chinese people, but never for us.  It was a little bizarre and we never knew if he actually was learning much or not.  However, he has recently gotten over this.  The other night as we ate supper, James and I quizzed him on some phrases.  "How do you say 'my dad went to Hangzhou' or 'when I go home my brother and I play' etc.  We gave him some really strange and difficult ones, and he mostly knew how to say them.  There were some differences of course, but even James and I have those.  It seems that I am learning Chinese  with a woman's tilt, James is learning it with a men's tilt and Ari is getting the kids version.  Sometimes we all disagree on how to say something, but we eventually learn that everyone is "right".

Ari has also begun playing with his toys in Chinese.  He'll make up extensive conversations between his toys in Chinese (although for some reason they are usually fighting about something).  I asked Aiyi the other day if the things he said sound normal, and she said yes.  

Jude speaks to Aiyi in Chinese the same way he speaks English.  For example "There was a HUGE DINO SAUR!", usually with his arms spread as wide as possible and eyes wide open.  He also understands what is said to him.

Aiyi has been spending hours telling them stories lately.  Ari has told me a few of them.  I wanted to go and check with her to see if he told me the right version 
(forgot until now), because in my opinion, the stories are sometimes a little gruesome for young boys!  Its a good thing that the boys don't have a closet in their room, because all the stories seem to revolve around something hiding in the closet waiting to eat little children (followed by a description of how they get eaten).  From other children's stories I've heard, I'm now under the impression that Chinese stories for children are all like this.  There have been a few nice ones too though.  There was some story about penguins recently.  It seems like she would have a hard time pulling off a story about penguins hiding in the closet and eating little children.

Above are some pictures of my recent homework.  I was copying a lesson dialogue down on paper.  I have found this to be a more effective way to learn Chinese characters.  Even if I write a character ten times, I can never recognize it when I see it in context.  But for every lesson I learn there are ten new characters, which I never remember.  This all culminates in a dialogue at the end of the lesson which is written mostly in about 60% characters and 40% pinyin (the way of writing Chinese using our alphabet).  However, if I write out the characters in a story or in context, it is much easier to recognize them.  There are five pages shown in three pictures.  On the first page I didn't translate them to English at all, but on the other four pages I did.  If you follow the translation you can even catch a little bit of the dialogue.  Since study comprises such a large portion of our lives still, I thought it might be interesting to give you a glimpse into what it looks like on paper.  One of the pages also shows a little bit of Ari's writing.

If you have Chinese friends and instantly feel that you must put my writing to the test, please go easy on me!  Between checking the characters I didn't know and trying to write them in the correct stroke order, this took me about three hours to do!  It probably takes me between 3 and 5 seconds to write most non-simple characters.  Chinese people take pride in having beautiful calligraphy...I believe I could be accused of having Chinese "chicken scratch".