Saturday, June 26, 2010

Aunt Ant

Two days ago I went for a run on the track here at the school. I brought my phone and my keys with me to the track and set them on the ground while I ran. Afterward, I headed back home, and I went to check one of my text messages when I noticed some curious movement on the screen.

Turns out an ant had somehow crawled its way into my phone and was now stuck in between the LCD display and the plastic outer layer, with seemingly no way to get out. This was quite an interesting turn of events in an otherwise ordinary day, so Jean and I took some pictures of the little critter:

Over the next couple hours she remained in my phone until she somehow finally made her way out.

Mmmm... Thousand Island Dressing...

A couple weeks ago, Web International English (a school I work out part-time) was having some sort of promotion with BMW where some students and staff would take a weekend and go to a place called Qian Dao Hu, or "Thousand Island Lake." They wanted a foreign teacher to come along, and they asked me if I'd like to go, saying that all the expenses (travel, hotel, admissions, etc) would be covered. Since Jean had only just returned from a week visiting her best friend in Beijing, and having been gone for a month with her parents in Harbin before that, I wasn't really sure I wanted to spend a weekend without her. So, I asked them if it would be alright if Jean came along. It might not have been totally appropriate to ask that, but I figured, the worst they could say is "No," in which case I wouldn't go, and instead spend my time more happily with Jean.

To my surprise they said yes, and so we went. When leaving the group of us crammed into 4 BMW vehicles and began the three-hour drive to Chun An, the town that Qian Dao Hu belongs to. We arrived on a Friday night (I guess that would've been June 11, because the first game of the World Cup was that night), went out to dinner, and then went back to the hotel, as we'd be getting up early the next day to sight-see.

There's not a lot to say about the trip, but there was a lot to see so I'll put some pictures up here.

There are literally 1023 little islands or "islets" on this lake, and some of them are specialized. For example, there is a Snake Island:

(In these two pictures above, if you look closely you'll see there are a lot more snakes than at first glance.)

There is a Bird Island as well:

Also during the tour, on the snake island, we saw a show of some women dancing and singing, but they weren't exactly "women"... they were Thai lady-boys. It was a little weird (no photos allowed, unless you paid) and at one point one of them was singing a song, performing both the alto female part, and the tenor male part... disturbing.

In all, though, Qian Dao Hu was one of the more beautiful places I'd seen in China, and I'm glad we had the chance to go.

I did though come across a couple interesting instances of "Chinglish."

This was in front of the elevator in our hotel. Just a little incorrect grammar, but it still gets the message across.

This was taken on the boat on Qian Dao Hu. This one is not technically wrong. I looked it up in a dictionary, and "to speel" means "to climb, ascend, or mount." But I'd never heard it before and it sounds really funny.

(I came across a similar situation to the one above when I visited a Dinosaur Theme Park last year. There was a notice that said "Burgling is Forbidden Here." Not wrong, just sounds funny.)

This was in the bathroom in our hotel. Consume the Green!

This one we saw in the downtown area of Chun An. Many western stores' names becomes "Chinese-ified" in China. For example Adidas becomes "A Di Da Si" and Armani becomes "A Ma Ni." The store is supposed to be Manhattan (which in Chinese "should" be "Man Ha Dun") but as you can see here, its a far more hilarious transliteration.

This was not taken at Qian Dao Hu, rather in Huzhou. This is the name of a chain of stores that sells leather bags. I will make no comments.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sing It!

So, about a month and a half ago I got a call from one of my Chinese friends named Annie. Annie is woman in her 40s and is married to a Canadian man named Paul. She has an 18 year old daughter named Susan. Anyhow she called me telling me (in Chinese first, because her English is so-so) that there was going to be a singing contest the next day at the TV station, and wanted to know if I'd like to participate together with her daughter. I wasn't exactly sure what this contest was about, but I said sure.

The next day Susan contacted me at about noon saying that the contest would be at the local TV station at 2. At least we needed to be there at 2 that is. I met Susan at the Huzhou Teacher's College (about a mile from my school) at 1:30 and from there we walked the remaining half a mile to the TV station. On the way I asked her what exactly this competition was about. She explained to me that they would play part of a song, perhaps 30 seconds or so, and then they would stop the music and you would have to sing the next couple of lines. You didn't have to sing on key, only the lyrics mattered. I asked her if we'd be competing together and she said she thought so. She had a list of the 30 or so songs that they might give to the contestants to sing (about half English songs, half Chinese songs), but unfortunately I didn't have enough time to really study it. I only had even heard of maybe 4 or 5 of the songs, and beyond that only knew the words to 2 of them (Poker Face by Lady Gaga and Venus by some-band-in-the-80s-that-I-don't-know). I wasn't very concerned, however, because Susan knew the songs fairly well.

When we arrived at the TV station we discovered that it was in fact NOT a team competition, but an individual one. Further we found that it would only be me competing and not Susan. Then I started to get worried because I had no idea about the vast majority of these songs and further I still wasn't clear on what exactly the format of this competition was. I did, however, learn that this would be broadcast on local Huzhou television that Saturday evening (this was a Tuesday), and that it would be posted for viewing online the following week.

Then we entered the studio and I realized this was not some low-production, one-off competition. This was a real TV game show, with a full set and live studio audience and everything. This upped the ante a bit as now if I embarrassed myself, it would be in a more formal setting. There we learned there'd be a total of 8 contestants. As it turned out one of the planned contestants didn't show up, so they let Susan compete after all. When the show began we went back stage and they called out each of the contestants one-by-one to do a short introduction with him or her and the hosts. On a side note, I wasn't the only foreigner competing. There was a Filipino man also competing. I learned that he was a musician and had been living and working in China for about 5 years. He was currently working (with his fellow Filipino group) as the entertainment of a Southeast Asian style restaurant here in Huzhou. His English was great, but even more surprising, his Chinese was unbelievably good. Not only fluent, but really authentic sounding as well. My Chinese is alright, Ellis's Chinese is much better than mine, but in either case we still sound like foreigners speaking Chinese. This guy didn't.

Anyway I was contestant #5 and Susan was contestant #6 and when I went up for my introduction Susan went out with me. There was a brief back and forth with the hosts and us, and... normally my Chinese is not bad, or when listening maybe I need a moment or two to process what was said to me. But in this on-the-spot situation, needing a moment to process instead looks like I didn't understand, and so Susan did a brief spot of translating for me (this ended up getting cut, thank goodness).

When the competition began they had all the competitors standing in a row at about mid-stage, and whoever's turn it was would come up stage. At this time, standing there, I became increasingly aware of my hands, realizing I didn't know exactly what to do with them. This in turn reminded me of a scene from a movie called “Talladega Nights” where a character wins a race and is being interviewed and he keeps raising his hands to his face because he doesn't know what to do with them.

When my turn came, I had an English song, but I'd never heard it before and thus had no prayer of being able to finish singing it. On my 2nd turn, it was a Chinese song, and I do know a select few Chinese songs, but this was not among them, so strike 2. On my final turn I again was given an English song which I'd never heard and thus failed again. After telling them I didn't know, the host asked me in Chinese “You really don't know?” to which I was thinking, “No, I've been holding out on you,” but actually replied, “I really don't know.” That was that and I was done. The most face-losing part of it was not that I didn't make it to the 2nd round or that I got all the songs wrong. In fact there were 3 other contestants who didn't make it to the 2nd round. The difference is that when the other contestants would answer incorrectly, at least they had a decent guess, something very close, but was perhaps off by a word or two. I was the only one who was completely ignorant on every try.

Anyhow, I was done and off and my friend Susan actually ended up winning the whole thing, for which she was given a 2000 yuan prize. I received a stuffed “Haibao” as a parting gift. (For those that don't know, “Haibao”, literally “Sea baby”, is the mascot of the Shanghai 2010 World Expo. If you haven't heard of the Shanghai Expo, it's basically a World's Fair, except modern and the most expensive one by far in the history of World Fairs. In fact, setting up this expo in Shanghai was more expensive than the Olympics in Beijing.)

Now I intended to post about this outing shortly after it happened but I was hoping to be able to provide a link to watch it. In fact, I didn't bother watching on TV, because I figured I'd watch it online a few days. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to watch it, and then ended up procrastinating on getting this post done. I'd asked some Chinese friends to help me find it to watch it, but to no avail. Finally today I asked Susan if she knew how to watch it. Turns out I had found the right link, but you can ONLY view it with Internet Explorer. So without further ado, here is my not-so-spectacular television debut:

Remember you can only use Internet Explorer to view this. Also, to play it, there is an image that shows a hand pointing to a play button and it says "PLAY" next to it. You don't click that, you click the Chinese words next to it, “我爱红歌汇 (十七)” to play it. The whole thing is in Chinese, and its kind of long, but I made my first appearance at 17:20, so if you want to skip forward to that, feel free to. Furthermore, I have no idea how fast or slow this will stream out of China, so if it's unplayable stateside, sorry.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Several months ago, shortly after I had bought my bike here in China, I regretted not having spent more and gotten a multi-speed bike. Since going downtown from my school is a 5 km affair, I figured having a multi-speed bike would speed things up nicely.

I secretly told myself that I wouldn't mind if my bike got stolen so that I could splurge and get a new one. However, after 19 months in China, it was never lost... until now.

Thursday evening I rode my bicycle to Web (the English training center that I work at part-time) and parked it near the exit of the grocery store in the center of town, since I had a few things (like milk) that I needed to pick up before I went home. However, my plans changed because my American co-worker at Web, Brandon, would be leaving China in a few days. I decided to go out with him and have a few drinks. Afterward, I decided to go back directly and took a cab home.

The next day I went to work at Web again, but took the bus to downtown since I didn't have my bike. Now at that point, it IS possible that my bicycle was still there, but I neglected to check. Anyhow, after work he and I and a few others again went out.

When I went into town on Saturday to finally get my needed groceries, I found that my bike was gone. At first, I had looked in the wrong place, as I don't usually park outside the exit of the grocery store, but near the office building Web is in. But after tracing my steps, I went back to where it should've been, but still (maybe still isn't the right word... again? actually?) my bicycle was lost.

So, in total, my bike was out in public for at least two nights. I shouldn't have been as careless as I had been. I had occasionally left it out for one night before and hadn't lost it. But on those occasions I had parked it in a somewhat more secure area. That's what I should've done Thursday night once I realized I wouldn't be riding it home.

In any case, with just under two months left, I can't NOT have a bike, so now I'm gonna have to go buy a new one. The only other ways to get around are buses and taxis.

Taxis would actually be a reasonable option (for two months) since the taxis here aren't terribly expensive (basically anywhere from $1 to $2 per trip depending on where I'm leaving from or going to). The problem is, my school is just on the outside of town, and finding a taxi isn't a very reliable proposition. Often the only way you can get a taxi leaving the school is to take one that had just dropped some returning students off.

The buses are more regular, but the problem with them is that it's not so convenient. If I need to go to the center of the city (where Web is) and I take a bus, I need to allow about 35-40 minutes, because of walking to the bus stop, waiting for the bus (hoping I won't JUST miss one), going through traffic, taking an indirect route, and stopping at several stops in between. Conversely, riding my bike I can make it from my front door to web in 18-20 minutes (depending on traffic lights). Furthermore the buses stop running at 9 pm, so the evenings I work at Web, I'd have to catch a cab home anyway.

But truth be told, perhaps the most significant reason I need a bicycle from where I'm living is this: The distance from my apartment door to the front gate of my school is about 0.65 km (about 0.4 miles). And that's if you wanted to catch a cab. For the bus stop the total is about 0.9 km (about 0.55 miles). Now I have to traverse this strip at least twice if not several times daily and if I had to walk it each and every time... It's not that I'm lazy; it's that I'm impatient. I'd get sick of wasting nearly ten minutes retreading this path so many times every single day. With a bike, even if I wanted to take a taxi someplace, I could at least hop on the bike and and park it at the front gate with the guards.

Anyhow, I don't want spend a whole lot of money on a new bike because I'll just leave it or give it to someone after two months, but on the other hand, it's just WAY too inconvenient for me to not have it. And I don't want to buy a cheap one and have to suffer it for two months.

A new bike will run me about $50 American, so it's not like I am going in to financial straits because of it... just not a wad of money I want to spend on something that I will be getting rid of two months later.

On a lighter note, a student sent me an instant message today, just wanting to practice his English. However, at the time he was chatting with me I had gotten up to make a sandwich. During that time, because I hadn't responded to his message, he guessed I was busy and typed, "Your excellency is very busy?"

Haha, now he just wanted to use a respectful address, and the equivalent translation of "your excellency" (阁下 ge2 xia4) in Chinese can be used to show respect with teachers, but he wasn't aware of the formality or "royal" tone of it. I told him "sir" would be just fine.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kids on the Bus

Well, last Friday Jean left for Harbin to visit her parents for a month before she leaves for America. In the meantime I've pretty much been going on business as usual.

The World Expo begins in Shanghai today. If you haven't heard of it, it's basically a World's Fair kind of deal... except they really are doing it something special. I read they spent like $44 billion dollars preparing Shanghai for it... that's more than they spent on the Olympics.

I'm not going to see it this month, A) because Jean's not here and won't get back till near the end of May, and 2) because it's going to be SO crowded. Shanghai is already a pretty busy, crowded city, and I don't want to think what it's going to be like for the early part of this Expo. In any case it lasts about 6 months so Jean and I should be able to go in June before we leave.

Other than that, nothing really interesting has happened recently except something on the bus few days ago.

So Jean and I were sitting on the bus heading for downtown Huzhou. As we drew closer to one of the stops along the way, a little girl, maybe 7 years old, got up from her seat and waited in front of the door so she could get off.

While she was waiting she noticed me and said to me (in Chinese, in fact this whole exchange took place in Chinese): “Excuse me, are you Chinese or a foreigner”

At this many of the other people on the bus around us chuckled and I replied to her: “I'm a foreigner.”

She then said somewhat indignantly, “Then why have you come to our China, huh?”

Everyone around us laughed again, louder this time.

“I teach English.”

And finally, with a sense of doubt about her she responded, “But... you don't look like a teacher.”

As she finished her sentence the bus came to a stop and she hopped off, leaving the remaining bus passengers laughing; the woman sitting in front of me laughed and commented, “Naughty little kid.”

I thought it was pretty funny, but Jean disagreed.

Friday, April 9, 2010

C'est la visa!

In February Jean got the letter of approval for her visa to come back with me to the states, which left only the "simple" matter of collecting the visa.

As it turns out this is not as simple as it seems. She had her interview at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou back in January. To get an idea of the geography here, if Huzhou is a town about 60 miles north of Atlanta, and if Hangzhou is Atlanta (large city with an airport), then Guangzhou would be Miami. Not exceedingly far, but requires one to fly.

Anyhow, the consulate "can" mail the visa to the visa applicant IF you live in select large cities (like Shanghai or Beijing), but if not you have to go down to Guangzhou to collect it yourself. Neither Huzhou nor Hangzhou can receive these visas, but Jean DOES have a cousin who lives in Shanghai who could receive it.


Even if you have it mailed to you, you must FIRST go down to the consulate in Guangzhou in person to fill out the forms to have it sent to you. Then why, you might ask, would you ever choose to have it mailed to you? Well I'll tell you why. It's because after you go down to Guangzhou there is still some processing and then they mail it to a local post office, so you'd have to stay for at least 4 business days in total.

That being the case, since we'd have to go down to Guangzhou anyway, we decided just to get it all done in one fell swoop, and have a nice long weekend vacationing in Guangzhou to boot.

Jean actually left before I did, because the consulate is only open Monday through Thursday. That Monday was actually a Chinese holiday (Tomb Sweeping Festival) and so was only open three days that week. She left early so that she could get the processing started as soon as possible. I left a day later because I had to work, and was already taking off two days for the long weekend anyway.

On a side note, my flight to Guangzhou was scheduled to leave Hangzhou at 3pm and arrive two hours later on Wednesday the 7th. Because I was starting out in Huzhou, not in Hangzhou, and because I was dependent on buses and bus schedules, I had to leave my house around 8am to be there in time. When I arrived at the airport, I was about 3 hours early, so I had to kill some time. As the time got closer I found that my flight was delayed to 4:30pm. No big deal, just more time I had to wait. We finally began boarding the airplane at 4:30, which would've put us in line for a 5pm departure, but unfortunately, even after everyone had boarded the plane, we were told that due to inclement weather in Guangzhou, we hadn't yet been given landing clearance in Guangzhou, and so would wait to take off.

Flash forward to 8:10pm and we were finally taking off. Oh yes, about 3 and a half hours sitting waiting ON the airplane. You know it seems to me that nearly every, and I'd have to say all but maybe one domestic flight I've had in China has been delayed by some time. Maybe as little as 20 minutes to as much as 2 or even in this case 5 hours. The only flights that I haven't had this problem with are the international ones I've had going home. Then again, those were American air lines, not Chinese ones.

Eventually I arrived in Guangzhou and Jean and I went back to the hotel.

Getting back on track from that diversion, Friday the 9th, Jean and I headed to the particular post office where the consulate sends the visa packets are sent. We weren't sure if it would have arrived yet, but it would've been possible. To our delight, it was there! It'd actually arrived the day before according to the mail stamp.

So finally, Jean has her visa and we'll be flying back stateside this summer!

Let's Go Fly a Kite!

A couple weekends ago Jean and I went to the grocery store for a few things and as we left we sawr a park across the street where some people were selling and flying kites.

Having been in China this long (almost a year and a half now) and having not flown a kite here yet, I figured no time like the present, so we bought one, went home to put the groceries away and then went out to the school's field to have a go.

One normally annoying thing about Huzhou is that it's often quite windy. If it's cold outside the wind makes it colder, and if you're riding a bike and can add quite a resistance to your ride. But for flying a kite it makes for pretty agreeable conditions.

Here are a few pics and a low-quality video taken with my phone of our gusty goofiness:

If the above video doesn't load correctly, you can also see the clip at:

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Harbin, at Last

For those that have been following my blog, it has been awhile since I’ve posted an update. I got back from Harbin a little over a month ago, and that week after returning I did have some time, but just got lazy about posting and updating. The following week however, the new semester started and since then I have been fairly busy.

But I do need to update this before I forget. On a side note, I never did finish posting about last summer’s travels with my uncle, aunt, and cousins. The difference between that and this, however, is that at that time I did Write the posts, I just didn’t take the time to edit them and upload and insert the pictures. BUT, those writings are saved, not merely lost to the abyss that is my memory. The Harbin trip however, is now a month gone, and I need to get it on paper, or on disk as it were, before the memories finally blend together into an ambiguous memory blob.

So the flight was scheduled for Saturday, February 13 to go to Harbin. That day was actually itself Chinese New Year’s Eve, so we’d be arriving just in time. We bought the plane tickets well in advance, back at the end of November in fact, so that we’d have it squared away. Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year as many of you may know it, is the largest movement of people on the planet. Some millions of Chinese people head home for Spring Festival. It’s their BIG holiday, like Christmas to us in the West. The tickets to Harbin from Hangzhou ran a little on the expensive side for domestic flights in China, 3800 RMB for two tickets (about $560), but it was what it was and in buying them nearly 3 months early, we wouldn't have to worry about it later.

Flash forward to February 9, four days before our scheduled flight, and Jean suggested to check and confirm the flight. After a discovering that our tickets were for a flight two days later, we scrambled to call the airline and find out what happened. As it turns out, that Saturday flight had been canceled and we were bumped to a Monday flight. What's more, this had happened back in the middle of January and no one had ever contacted us, either by e-mail or phone (the two contact methods available). The airline wouldn't refund the tickets because they weren't bought directly through them, so we contacted the online vendor through whom we purchased the tickets. The woman that Jean talked to said that if the flight had indeed been cancelled without notifying us that they would refund our tickets. The only problem was that the seller said their accountant had already taken leave and wouldn't be able to process the refund until after the holiday. In the meantime we searched for some other tickets to fly up to Harbin on the 13th. We did find some tickets, and despite the time being so short, the tickets were actually a great deal cheaper, 2800 RMB (about $415) for the pair. This was actually good news provided we could get the refund on the first set of tickets, because we'd save money. Fortunately, the return flight tickets had no such problems.

So Friday, February 12 I left for Hangzhou and the next morning Jean and I made our way to the Hangzhou airport. We arrived that afternoon in Harbin without incident. We hitched a cab to Jean's parents and arrived some 45 or so minutes later. I met her mom for the second time and her father for the first. Her mother had bought some pajamas for both Jean and I so we could wear something warm and comfortable around the apartment.

That night we all ate dinner together. Her father and I were the first ones to sit down and he offered me a glass of bai jiu (literally “white liquor”, pronounced “bye joe”). There are other variants of this stuff with SUPER high percentages of alcohol (70%), but luckily this variety was only 35%, not dissimilar to the alcohol content in vodka or rum. As it was served in a shot glass, I mistakenly thought that we were to begin with a shot, so I downed it one gulp, as did her father right after me. Walking into the dining room at that moment, Jean scoldingly informed me that it was to be sipped at, not shot. She asked her dad why he drank it like that, and he said he did it because I did it. I was actually kind of relieved to hear that it was to be sipped, especially seeing how quickly her father refilled our glasses. After that I sipped at it, drinking when her father drank. Near the end of dinner I had finished off my third glass and her father went to re-fill it yet again, at which point I had to decline. In all our subsequent meals (except breakfast) I drank with her father, but had to limit myself to only one or two shot glasses of the stuff, while he usually drank a little bit more. Bai jiu isn't the harshest or most terrible liquor in the world, but I'm not a big drinker to begin with, so it was something I had to adjust to. The Chinese, however, are generally big drinkers.

On a side note, Jean's mother was such a generous cook; she had prepared so much food, and Jean and I ate so much at every meal that at no point during this trip did we ever feel even remotely hungry. Whenever the next meal time would approach, both Jean and I still were still kind of full, didn't really feel like eating, but did anyway. I think finally the 5th or 6th day we were there we (Jean and I) finally ended up skipping one meal, because we both had no room for food, and were fairly tired.

After dinner the first night I hooked up the Wii to their TV, and we all played it for a little while. Jean's mom seemed to enjoy it, but I'm not sure her father has as good a time. After that we tuned to the TV to the “Spring Festival Celebration Gala,” an event held and televised every New Year's Eve, and is also a sort of modern tradition in China. It's a show where they hold skits, sing songs, and put on dances, and is watched by almost all the Chinese on New Year's Eve. As a result, the live viewing audience for this program is higher than for any other event on television in the world, including the Super Bowl. As the time grew later, we all made dumplings to be cooked and eaten. Eating dumplings (also known in the states as pot stickers) on Chinese New Year's is a tradition, meant to bring good fortune, and are eaten often throughout the holiday. At about 11:30 Jean's parents said they were tired and were going to turn in. Jean asked me what I wanted to do, and although I was tired, I felt we were too close to midnight to go to sleep. So, we stayed up and rang in the new year, followed by a steady cacophony of fireworks going off (maybe at least 15 minutes straight).

The next day Jean and I went to downtown Harbin, saw the completely frozen solid river, did a bit of shopping, and ate some “bing tang hu lu”, something lik candied apples except there are a variety of fruits (grapes, bananas, strawberries, or most traditionally, Chinese hawthorn), and they are cut into small pieces and skewered. Also, they're not coated with caramel, but some other sugar-based liquid that hardens around the fruits shortly (like 10 seconds) after being heated and poured.

Here with a strawberry and a banana "Bing Tang Hu Lu"
We walked along one of Harbin's most famous (and touristy) streets, Zhong Yang Avenue, and saw some ice carvings there, as well as a “hedge” maze made using blocks of ice instead of hedges.

I was fascinated by the ice blocks since they were so clear and so hard and so DRY. It's not as if I've never seen ice before, but whenever I see ice it has already begun melting, so at least the exterior is already or beginning to get wet. So, call me a bumpkin, but seeing such dry ice was a little unusual to me, as if it was just the solid form of any chemical we'd use in a chemistry lab.

While out Jean and I also made our way to a Wal-Mart so that I could get supplies to make spaghetti as Jean had suggested to her parents previously. I didn't make it that night, but we wanted to have the stuff ready.

When we got home we got we ended up watching the beginnings of the Winter Olympics, something we did quite a lot of during our stay, because it happened to coincide.

The next day we spent most of the day warm inside at home, but that evening Jean and I left to go see the Harbin Snow and Ice World, a park where they had dozens of enormous and elaborate ice buildings, ice sculptures, and snow sculptures. It was quite impressive and my words will do it no justice, so here are some of the pictures. There would've been more pictures but both Jean's camera's battery and mine ended up dying on us while there.

The structure behind me here is made entirely of ice blocks.

An ice terra cotta warrior

An ice sphinx and a beautiful girl.

These were two GIGANTIC snow sculptures

On the giant icy chess board

Mutual Photos through a Block of Ice

This one we saw on the side of the road in downtown Harbin.

The day after that the four of us went out to a restaurant for lunch as we were going to meet with some of Jean's mother's aunts. All total there were 9 people, Jean's mom, Jean's father, Jean's mother's eldest aunt (on her father's side) with her daughter (40s) and granddaughter (perhaps 13), another of Jean's mother's aunts (again on her father's side) with her husband, and then Jean and I.

An interesting point to note about Chinese is that while it is slightly complicated to explain these relationships in English (due to the ambiguity of the words “aunt” and “uncle”), in Chinese there is a different word to describe a variety of different relationships. There's a word for aunt who is your father's sister (gugu), a different word for an aunt who is your father's younger brother's wife (shenshen), and yet a different word for an aunt who is your father's OLDest brother's wife (dama), let alone the terms for your mother's sisters (ayi). While difficult to learn all these different terms, the nature of one's familial relationships is far clearer based on their addresses alone.

At the meal, I of course had to use Chinese to try and communicate (with Jean translating when things got hairy), but I have to say it was so much more difficult for me to communicate then than even just at home with Jean's parents. Part of it could've been I was not as sharp that day, part of it could've been the vocabulary they were using, and part still could have been their accents and pronunciation. I have found that in China I have a FAR easier time speaking with younger people, under the age of about 40, than those over, especially so in the South (where I live). There are exceptions of course, Jean's mother thankfully being a notable one, and I am NOT saying that it is because they are older, but the fact remains that by and large pronunciation of the younger generations is a great deal more uniform and proper than the older generations. If I had to hypothesize as to why, I'd most likely go with the availability of television from childhood. It would make sense that uniform national programming serves not only to homogenize a nation's culture, but also a nation's speech.

During the meal Jean mentioned that she and I were considering going skiing, and as it turned out, Jean's mother's cousin (the 40-something year old woman) was a tour guide. It so happened that she was arranging a group to go skiing the next day, and it was easy enough for us to join them. Jean also invited her best friend (a middle school classmate of hers) and her friend's friend.

The next day we woke up early to meet Jean's mom's cousin's tour group. We met them at a hotel, boarded a large van (or small bus?), and set off. The ride was three and a half hours to the mountainside and the first place we stopped was a restaurant, as it was lunchtime, and it was included in the tour fare.

After that we were taken to a ski resort where we didn't actually go skiing, but instead rode a cart down a metal track. They called it a luge, but really... if Uncle Jack or Aunt Mary are reading this, it was essentially exactly the same thing we rode to come down from the great wall except longer.

After that diversion the tour group finally headed to a different place to go skiing. Jean, despite having grown up in the far North had never actually gone skiing, so it was her first time. The slope we were on was quite a gentle grade, but despite this, poor Jean, she was quite nervous and once she started sliding, she didn't know how to stop, save for simply falling... which is what she did... quite often. This was before she finally decided to give up entirely.

As for me, the slope was too gentle. I didn't fall one time. And believe me, I'm not saying I'm just so good that I didn't fall. I've only ever been skiing twice before in my life, so I'm no pro... which is in fact how I know that it was too easy. Unfortunately, the place we were at, there was only this slope to play on. Additionally, we were only there for about two hours before we had to leave, at which time we hopped back into the van/bus and spent the next four hours going back to Harbin.

(The next week after we returned, Jean's company went on a ski trip to a mountain town in Zhejiang province, the province where we live. This time, I'm told, she did much better.)
Jean skiing in Anji

The next day we rested a bit, mostly stayed home watching the Olympics, playing cards or mahjong, and playing Wii.

The following day Jean and I decided to go skating and so Jean's mom went with us to show us where a park was where we could skate. The park was along the river and the ice-skating circle was actually on the river itself! We arrived there at maybe 10 o'clock and we were the only ones there, and skated for about 30 minutes before heading home.

The next day Jean went out shopping with her best friend, while I stayed home, watched the Olympics with her parents, nursed a slight cold, and, in the late afternoon, began preparing the pasta.

Jean's parents hadn't eaten Italian pasta before, so mine was their first, and they said it was alright, but it didn't really suit their tastes. I've found there're quite a few Chinese for whom this is the case. Luckily Jean likes it :D

The next day we boarded a cab, headed for the Harbin airport and (after a flight delay, which seems to be the norm for me in China) began the journey home.

Overall, my impression of Harbin was that it is culturally quite an interesting city, being both Chinese, but also having architectural influence from neighboring Russia. Quite a few buildings were not Chinese in style, but rather 19th century Russian, which was quite a departure from the rest of China that I've seen.

I have to say, finally, that while it was really fun to visit... I just don't know if I could handle winters like that. With daytime highs between -5 and zero degrees Fahrenheit, and lows even colder, it was always a big todo just to go out and fetch a simple something. Inside the house it was quite comfortable and warm, but after about 2 minutes outside, my face and ears would begin to hurt. I'm a southern kid, and I'm simply not cut out for that kind of weather. It never snowed very heavily while I was there, so I didn't have a chance to build my as yet unbuilt first snowman. Also, Jean's parents were quite inviting and very gracious and hospitable and I hope I'll soon have the chance to return their hospitality.

Oh, and there was some good news both during and after the trip. A few days after we got back we contacted the ticket seller again and they did indeed refund our tickets. But more importantly, while in Harbin, Jean at one point received a phone call saying that she received a packet from the U.S. Embassy; this turned out to be her visa approval! So after we go down to Guangzhou again to fetch and affix her visa, she'll officially be headed stateside!

And FYI for those that don't know yet, the tickets going back are purchased, and we'll be arriving June 29.