Archive for June, 2010
Rather than the normal morning of character quizzes and chapter reviewing, we met at 6:15 this morning to trek our way to southern Beijing to visit the Pugongying Zhongxue (Dandelion Middle School).
Here’s a peak at one of the kids dorms (personal space doesn’t quite exist in a country of 1.3 billion people):
Here’s the kids lined up outside the front of the school for announcements (we each had to introduce ourselves with a microphone in front of this group!):
Pugongying is a non-profit boarding school for kids whose parents have moved to Beijing to find work. These “immigrant” families face a lot of economic and social challenges, and this school aims to give these kids who come from these situations a chance at an education. I was pretty excited that the school existed and was fascinated as our tour around campus led us to better understand not only how the school works, but also the challenges they face. The most prominent being that many of the students who graduate from our equivalent of 8th grade are stuck without any means to attend high school or more.
In China, every citizen is given what’s called a hu kou. I don’t actually know what it translates to in English, but it’s basically an identification that ties a person to the geographic area where they are from. These children have spent most of their lives in Beijing, but they are still technically tied to their hometown. In order to be eligible for high school or to be able to later test into college, students must apply in the region where their hu kou is registered. Many of these kids either can’t get back there or don’t have family there anymore and are left without a way to continue their education. What I found most interesting is that some of these kids didn’t even have their hu kou yet because their families haven’t yet had a chance to register them in their hometowns. In some cases, kids haven’t been registered because they are chao sheng, meaning their parents have “over-birthed” their quota per the one child policy. Every once in a while there is a loophole and a student will get accepted to high school, but for the majority of kids this isn’t the case. The school has since started a program where those who have graduated can stay at the school and work while they continue to study, but it doesn’t count in the Chinese education system.
Apart from this glimpse into Chinese culture, the goal of the trip was to give us some exposure to English and Chinese instruction in China, as well as give us a chance to interact with their students. We observed an English class where the kids were learning about describing one’s features related to looks “He is handsome”, weight “My sister is heavy”, and other specifics like “I have big ears”, etc. It was enough to make a lot of us smile.
We also got a chance to become teachers again (and to take a break from our Chinese language pledge) to speak English with some students in a different class. I had a group of 14 and 15 year olds, and their English was good enough for basic conversation. We talked about a variety of things from our families to our future plans. After being introduced to the problems that lie ahead for these students after middle school, I was particularly moved hearing about their “dreams” (their words) to be doctors, lawyers, writers, artists and reporters. It really made me hope that they find a way to make them a reality.
We ended the visit with some impromptu basketball and hand clapping games and each bought our own Pugongying Zhongxue t-shirts before the kids presented us with printouts of photos they had taken of us while we were working in the English class with a handwritten note thanking us. Today was one of those days where I thought to myself, Wow, I am so glad I learned Chinese. Chinese specifically has opened so many doors for me, big and small, but sometimes just the value of an hour conversation with Chinese teenagers is enough to make all the hours I spent copying characters in college worthwhile.
There are so many moments where I find myself thinking Wow, I’m definitely in China. I’m not sure whether it’s the men with perms or the heinously wonderful clashing outfits or the staggeringly choking air pollution, but I definitely have a deep fondness for this place. Beijing is very urban and modernized, but I smile when there are examples of things more reminiscent of my earlier trips here pre-2008 Olympic craziness. For example, street vendors for the most part were kicked out of the city, but I’m happy to report that many of them have come back in full force, lining the streets with all kinds of questionable meat and cheap trinkets. It’s little things like that that really give Beijing it’s own flavor.
I also relish in the things that I only get to enjoy here like bubble tea for less than a dollar and hour-long massages for $10. I knew from my disability research that I did while abroad in 2006 that in China, the only employment opportunities for blind people are in massage parlors. The fact that you can get a full body massage for an hour for $10 and you’re supporting disabled employment is a win-win situation, not to mention amazingly relaxing and rejuvenating. And as it turns out, there’s a blind massage parlor just outside the western gate of our university– I’ve had two since I got here….but can you really blame me?
I’ve spoken more Chinese in the last two days than I have in the last two years combined. This afternoon we had our orientation meeting and I signed a language pledge, promising to not speak English at all for the duration of the program. I instinctively spouted off a few sentences in English right before I signed my name and then let it go. Despite the challenges, it’s pretty fun, but talk to me in a few weeks and maybe I’ll have a different perspective. I will say it’s pretty interesting using Chinese to speak to other Americans, and I end up learning a lot really quickly too. Some of the people in the program I’ve never even heard speak English.
I also checked out the local Bally Total Fitness (I didn’t think they would be here but they are) because they’re offering us a deal while we’re in Beijing. The gym was nicer than many I’ve seen in the US– individual TVs with every treadmill, weight machines, free weights and a whole bunch of classes! All of the classes are of course taught in Chinese, so I’m thinking it might be an interesting way to learn new words. I’d finally learn how to say downward facing dog….
Anyway- no more procrastinating online or watching the World Cup with Chinese commentary because Chinese boot camp (ie. language class) starts tomorrow at 8am. I just have to memorize 83 vocab words and characters for our first quiz between now and then while still trying to fight off the last remains of jet lag… wish me luck!
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I bought his book two days before I left for China, and I finished the last pages as I walked to immigration to have my passport checked in Beijing. I was sucked into the thought-provoking, intense, and completely captivating life story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and read almost the entire flight.
Infidel had been recommended to me by an American friend in Senegal, who said the book gave an interesting perspective on women, Islam and human rights. In reality it does that and so much more. Ayaan describes her life growing up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya under the strict rules of Islam, struggling to make sense of her identity as a woman and reconcile it with her devout faith in Allah. She eloquently writes about incredibly disturbing and challenging struggles in her life from being beaten to female genital mutilation to arranged marriage. She spoke of horrors I believe many of us would rather pretend didn’t happen in real life. In addition to that, she very clearly explains the complexity of clan structure in Somalian culture and the implication it had on all of her life decisions.
Her core focus in dissecting Islam is the idea of submission and how it is ingrained in a Muslim’s relationship with Allah and a woman’s relationship to her husband. After living in a Muslim country for as long as I did, I felt like I had some experience with some of the things she described that oppress Muslim women. Senegal wasn’t as violent or unpredictable as the places described in her story, but I still was aware of the expectations of women and their inherent lack of freedom in the culture.
I thoroughly recommend the book. It had a profound effect on my perception of multiculturalism and religion. I’m fascinated that she was able to end up where she did, writing books and speaking out for human rights, after reading what she grew up around. Few people are bold enough to broach the topics that she has risked her life to bring to the forefront, and she makes quite a compelling argument.
If anyone has read it, let me know! It’d be a great book for discussion.
I MADE IT!
After leaving my grandma’s house at 4am this morning (or yesterday?) I’ve completed the long journey and am now relaxing in my hotel room in Beijing complete with swollen ankles from a long flight. Travelling from New Jersey to Beijing was actually pretty seamless. I slept through most of my flight to San Francisco and tried to stay awake most of the flight to Beijing so I can go to bed at a normal hour tonight here and get a jump on jet lag recovery.
I’m sharing a hotel room with another girl from my program. Here’s my new home away from home for the next 3 weeks! (I didn’t bring as much as it looks like. My backpacks are in the bottom right corner and on the bed. The rest of the stuff is my roommate’s, but she’s been in China for over a year so she’s allowed)
I still can’t believe I’m here. I can’t quite figure out yet what exact emotions I’m feeling being back for the first time in almost 2 years. It made me smile to have Chinese be the ambient language around me. Walking the streets through the pollution-induced haze, seeing tons of street vendors lining the streets and flooding it with smoke and steam, and shirtless pot-bellied men squatting on the sides of the road….Even seeing my first Chinese t-shirt with misspelled English and absolutely indecipherable phrases, got me excited and nostalgic for the memories I’ve had in this country. Things are familiar, but definitely foreign at the same time.
I’ve only been on the ground for a few hours, and I already feel the challenge ahead. I’m not going to lie…my Chinese is rusty. Teaching beginner Chinese to 6th, 7th and 8th graders has been great for getting me back in the Chinese groove, but it hasn’t necessarily prepared my listening comprehension for active life in China. Also, having a few other languages swirling around in my brain (I got to speak French on the subway!) has made me a little less comfortable with my Chinese word order in more involved conversations. Even in my few interactions so far, I’m already finding myself questioning my Chinese. The fact that this is already apparent to me, only makes me imagine the brain-aches that will accompany these first few days. But, I welcome these brain-aches because I’m very eager to get my Chinese back to where it was when I graduated college and beyond. Assuming I challenge myself in my upcoming course and abide by the language pledge of speaking only Chinese, I believe I can get there.
I have one more free day before the program begins, so I’m going to be sure to soak up as much as possible before I dive into intense Chinese mode!
Guess what! I’m still in the US. I announced my departure on Monday, but have not made it in a plane yet. The reason? Overbooked flights, which for me, have become cause for celebration.
I’m due in Beijing no later than Friday to start my summer program, but I had booked my flight a few days early to Hong Kong in hopes of seeing my old host family. It wasn’t until after I had booked my tickets that my program changed the dates and crushed my chances of doing any pre-program travelling. It was almost $800 to back my flight up and give me a few extra days in the US, so I was just planning on entertaining myself for a few days in Beijing before the weekend. In normal circumstances, I’d be totally content with this, but that was before I was presented with the perks offered to passengers who give up their seat on an overbooked flight.
Continental sold more tickets than seats on the plane and I offered to give mine up. A $700 flight voucher, $26 meal voucher, a few fist pumps, and a free taxi ride to my grandma’s house later, they also informed me that they could re-book me to fly straight to Beijing the next day (meaning I didn’t need to book my own flight from Hong Kong). Needless to say, I was feeling pretty good at this point. After all the annoying details I omitted earlier about the start date of my program, I finally felt like I had caught a break. I hopped in the cab and headed back to my grandma’s house, excited to squeak a little more time with family (including introducing Grandma to some of youtube’s funniest videos, like this one: httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXXm696UbKY)
So I woke up this morning still radiating the euphoria I was feeling from my good luck and took the train to the airport to restart the process. With my pre-printed boarding pass in hand, I cruised through security and got in line to check in at the gate. I had managed to befriend the deliverers of good news (aka the Continental employees) at the counter yesterday, and checked with them again. I said (only partly in jest) “Well you know where to find me if you need someone to volunteer their seat today!”, and it was then that a new woman leaned over and said, “Well actually we are overbooked again…” My heart leapt a little as I immediately filled out the necessary paperwork (remember I don’t have to be anywhere until Friday), and became the first person on their list to be re-booked for tomorrow, opening up my seat for another passenger. SCORE!! Cue round two of vouchers and cab rides and badda bing badda boom, I’m back on Grandma’s couch, eating ice cream and enjoying some quality family time. For me and my vagabonding tendencies, $1400 worth of flight vouchers is good as gold. Not to mention the $26 worth of sushi I got at the airport and the sorbet I bought with one of my new vouchers on my way to my taxi today (and I still have $18 to spend tomorrow!) All I had to do was find Continental’s international route map and my brain’s been spinning with possibilities!
Apparently, I’m leaving for Beijing tomorrow, but as you can guess, if Continental feels like they want to be particularly benevolent and bump me again, I’ll be the first to volunteer. I’m sure they’re happy to have me too because I’m much more amenable to having my flight arrangements tweaked than the standard traveler.
Finding myself a month since my last post has made me realize that somehow it’s already June 18th… where did the time go!?
This week, the first of my official “summer vacation”, has been a bit crazy, even by Brittany standards. Our last official faculty meetings finished on Monday. I then hightailed it to visit the family for a whirlwind visit before boarding a train for Richmond to attend an education conference. That conference ended this afternoon, and it wasn’t a few hours before I was back on a train (where I am right now) en route to New Hampshire. Why New Hampshire? I was lucky enough to be invited to (road trip) Katelyn’s sister’s wedding, and everyone knows I love a good wedding. Once the wedding festivities are over, I’ll be back on a train bound for Jersey in order to catch my flight to China on Monday. I’ve been told that sometimes the activities I fit into a length of time can make other people exhausted, but thankfully for me, I’ve got a lot of energy and I’m a light packer. So despite the fact that I’m hauling everything I need for a work conference, a wedding and 6 weeks in China to a variety of other states, I’m feeling pretty good.
My hotel reservations for this conference had been taken care of by my school and trusty google maps informed me that the Amtrak station was a mere 2.4 miles from my hotel. Yes, I had two bags. Yes, a cab was affordable. Yes, it was mid afternoon on a sweltering, sunny day in the south. But for some reason (and not just because I’m a frugal Franny), I was overcome by my desire to walk. In Madagascar and Senegal, where public transportation was either undecipherable, unreliable, or unavailable, I would always walk over taking a cab. In Madagascar, I could navigate myself on foot all over the city. In Senegal, I’d have to walk 45 minutes just to get internet. I couldn’t even begin to estimate the number of miles I must have walked while I was there, yet it’s something that has been more or less absent in my American existence.
Work obligations, social commitments and respite requirements fight for the precious hours of the day, often making walking an impossible option when pitted against the convenience of my own vehicle or the speed of the metro. To be honest, it wasn’t until considering my options to walk to my hotel in Richmond that I even realized how little I walk anymore. Perhaps it was my first time in months that I had found myself in that similar African scenario: in a new place, I knew where I would arrive and I knew where I want to go, but I had no idea how the public transportation worked or if it existed. That, plus the fact that I had no real time constraints for the first time in recent memory, made walking that much more appealing. I saw it as an adventure, maybe not of epic proportions, but an adventure nonetheless. So when I arrived in Richmond, I gathered up my bags and set out with my printed out map and directions and started walking.
Google does walking directions, but only in beta….ie. not every road they might put is “walkable”. I knew it was a gamble, but definitely do-able. It wasn’t long before I was chuckling at myself as high grass itched my legs and stop lights had no crosswalks. Despite the minor inconveniences, I enjoyed the quaint, residential beauty of Richmond and I enjoyed the solitude of my walk (a luxury I never got in Africa). Surely the majority of people zooming by in their cars thought I was insane, but no one bothered me.
I wondered as I left the Amtrak station parking lot if I would regret not flagging a taxi waiting patiently at the main door. I’ll admit that that thought re-entered my head in the last few tenths of a mile as my bags dug into my shoulders, but it never took root and I marched onwards. I was just a short distance from my hotel when I heard a car honk. I looked up as I saw a taxi. Just like Africa, I thought. Never could I walk the streets without having every passing taxi honk in hopes my obviously foreign self might crack and hail a cab. So close to my destination, I continued on, committed to reaching my hotel. I had made it so far.
A few minutes later, I looked up and saw a cab pulled over up ahead. A persistent one! I thought. I hadn’t expected that on this side of the Atlantic, and accustomed to rejecting thousands of cabs before, I shrugged and kept walking. However, as I passed the cab’s window, the driver offered me a free ride to my hotel. Despite my attempts to reject, Tipu from Bangladesh was insistent and I eventually accepted. Call me a sucker for Asian hospitality or a victim of slight heat stroke, I enjoyed an air conditioned cab for the .2 miles that remained. True to his word, Tipu rejected my attempt to give him a tip for his kindness, insisting he just wanted to help. Well Tipu, I wish you all the good karma in the world. Adding to the positivity of my afternoon, I realized that since I covered the first 2.2 miles on my own two feet, I still got the feeling of triumph for my afternoon’s adventure.
Now it’s time to get some rest on this overnight train and soak in my last few days of life in the USA before departing on my Asian adventure!