A Travellerspoint blog

Chinese New Years

Last Chinese New Year, my host family did not do much. It was a relief back then not to be overwhelmed by random relatives and large feasts, but this time I wanted to have that experience. I visited my teacher, Caroline, at her home in Yun Cheng Shanxi and, from there we went to her family’s home in the countryside, Ji Shan. My appetite was slowly, but surely returning to me, but I still struggled to stay up past nine. This meant watching only an hour of the New Year Gala, which was fine because I have yet to understand a word of it (I thought maybe after three years I would find it more comprehendible…maybe even catch some jokes, but no, not really). As usual, I sat in silence as everyone around me periodically burst into laughter. I would say the highlight of the hour I saw, and probably the whole show, was when Celine Dion appeared and tried to sing Mo Li Hua with a Chinese singer, and then sang My Heart Will Go On…weird. The family made dumplings for dinner, tons of dumplings, which was also something I missed last time I was here. My host grandfather in Beijing often made dumplings, but I never really appreciated how much effort must have gone into it. Trying to make a few myself certainly changed that.

The actual visiting of the family is exhausting. You see everyone on the father’s side the first day of the New Year, and then the mother’s side the second day. We visited the father’s family, went to a temple with a giant Buddha made of earth and mud, saw a thousand year old wall paintings, and then went to the old theater in the family’s village. It was an amazing building made completely out of wood and also had some paintings. It reminded me a lot of the Polish synagogue I worked on a reconstruction of this summer. Caroline remembers the theater functioning when she was little, but it was now quite dilapidated because there are no funds to preserve it. A painting of a tiger on the outer wall had math problems scribbled on it. I can’t imagine a cultural relic being used like scrap paper in America. This whole trip has made me think a lot about preservation of art and historical relics. China and America seem to be on to opposite ends of the spectrum. Dong Dong, Caroline’s brother, immediately touched the Buddha’s foot (the Buddha was also at least a thousand years old), and he also rubbed his hands against the walls of the ancient wall paintings (the light and temperature were not at all regulated either). People here have a different attitude about historical objects. They do not seem to think much about preservation, these kinds of objects are all over and people are used to being exposed to them. Maybe part of it is the history of defacing such objects. First the Japanese took whatever, or parts of whatever they wanted. Then people defaced anything traditional-looking during the Cultural Revolution. People did whatever they could to protect objects from destruction, though their methods still did not always allow for full preservation. For instance, people had covered the wall paintings with mud, to protect them during the Cultural Revolution. So there is a history of people taking the fate of these objects into their own hands and I think people have maintained this kind of attitude. Now, there is nothing significant guarding the objects and, I guess, who is to say that displaying objects in this way is wrong. Maybe they won’t last as long or remain as well in tact, but people can really get up close and interact instead of staring at a distance at something behind glass rigged with alarms. Still it’s a little horrifying to me when something like the theater is disrespected. Aside from the doodles of math problems etc. someone had recently stolen some of the wooden decorations. It’s sad that something the village prizes so much has no way of being protected and easily enjoyed.

Anyway back to New Years. On the second day, we visited the mother’s side of the family and headed back home. The next day was my last day in Yun Cheng. Caroline and I biked to the high school. It was WAY bigger than Jingshan or any American high school and provided an interesting contrast. All the students live in dorms and the classrooms were not nearly as nice as those at Jingshan. We then went to a fancy set of apartments and joined a group being shown the inside. I felt like I was on House Hunters…We decided the rooms were fancy, but too small. I am really grateful to Caroline and her family for taking care of me and making me feel like part of the family these past few days. I leave for Shanghai tomorrow and will finally start my orientation in Hangzhou the day after.

Posted by Maia L 06:46 Comments (0)

Beijing

overcast

Arriving in Beijing was anti-climatic. I was alone and it was 1:30 am. Instead of being rounded up with the other exchange students, given flowers and having cameras flashing all around us like we were celebrities, I quietly dragged my things to the meeting area to wait for the shuttle to my hotel. Beijing was exactly the same as I remembered, except with more subway lines and worse smog. The hotel I stayed at is on the outskirts of the city, like really the outskirts. I thought I was living on the outskirts last time, but when I told Mi Wa where my hotel was, she said a lot of people don't even consider it part of the city. The location is a little creepy with the grey hazy sky, large areas of nothing, and random uniform communist buildings. Apparently, there is now a subway close to Mi Wa's and it only takes her 40 minutes to get to the center of Beijing...that would have been nice back in the day, oh well. I went with Mi Wa to Qianmen where we went into various shops, I had some green tea ice cream and then we ate an enormous lunch. Mi Wa is the same as always except now she is kind of into shopping and watches a bunch of those trashy cw t.v. shows. I am happy that now she actually has time to do things aside from study. She is also taking driving lessons and will hopefully get her license soon. We took a bus from Qianmen to Wangfujing and went inside the last mall on the street. That was a weird experience because I had been to that mall so many times with my friends three years ago, and here I was, shopping there again. Walking through one store I had flashbacks to when I bought some funky capris, though of course the store did not carry them three years later. The same bakery was there that, three years ago, to the fascination of me and the other American students, carried bread with weird shavings called flosss sprinkled on it. Beijing was the same, but it no longer was new and exciting. This time it was like returning to an old and familiar place. Now I am on my second, final day in Beijing and unfortunately I am sick and using it to rest and recover. However, the hotel room is pretty sweet and I haven't had an actual day of rest since before I left, so aside from the discomfort of being sick, I'm not really complaining. Tomorrow I will fly to Yuncheng to visit the Chinese fellow from last year who was also my teacher. Hopefully I will have recovered by then.

Posted by Maia L 18:58 Archived in China Comments (0)

Aceh

4 days in Indonesia

I feel that a large part my visit to Aceh Indonesia is how much I learned about Acehenese history and culture, so I want to tell everyone about what I found out. If you want to skip to my specific experiences, you can go to the next paragraph.
Arriving in Indonesia, I did not know what to expect. I was, in fact, staying in Banda Aceh a city on the island of Sumatra. The majority of Acehnese people are Muslim. In addition to the distinct Islamic culture, there is a blend of Indian, Malaysian, Chinese and other influences. Java, the Indonesia that foreigners first think of, is on a completely different island and, I learned, has a very different culture. In Aceh, almost every woman covers her head, arms, and legs. At various times throughout the day prayers from the Quran, sounding from mosque loud speakers can be heard all through the city. I think the laidback attitude I found most locals to have was, in part, a result of the slower lifestyle needed for people to be able to stop and pray (at 5 times a day). Another factor is that it is so hot there that people tend to just lie on their mattresses and avoid going outside during midday. The Acehnese have a history of rebelliousness. They are proud to have continually thwarted the Dutch, who colonized the rest of Indonesia. After Indonesia was united, they fought for independence, and the situation was dangerous up until the tsunami in 2004. In many ways, the tsunami shaped current day Aceh. The rebels have pretty much seized to operate since then (though people were mad at the lack of support the Indonesian government gave during the tsunami). The coast of Sumatra was decimated and much of Aceh needed to be rebuilt. I visited the tsunami museum and heard people’s stories about the tsunami. There were pictures of mass burials in the museum. So many had died that they had to throw thousands of unidentified bodies wrapped in garbage bags into ditches. One of my friend’s cousin said she never knew what happened to her uncle and I rode past houses near the beach where there were once bigger houses where whole families were wiped out. My friend’s father heard someone yelling about water coming and ran upstairs (so many died because they did not know what a tsunami was and so chose to stay low to the ground after the earthquake). The father later painted the downstairs wall to mark where the water had been and it was above my head. One more thing that I found important about my trip was my discussions with Fithri, usually about culture and religion. She explained that Islam has rules that are meant to be followed by everyone, but different people and cultures adapt them and alter them in their own way. She said this is why it doesn't make sense for Americans to label all Muslims as terrorists. Arab Muslims have some very different rules and customs from Indonesian Muslims, for example, and, obviously, not every Arab Muslim is an extremist. I explained to Fithri that maybe part of the reason these people are so ignorant, is that it's really confusing to tell from the outside, what behaviors can be attributed to local custom and what is a result of Islamic law. It is also quite convoluted as the separation between the two is obviously not always black and white. It reminded me of Judaism and how I consider myself to be ethnically and culturally Jewish, but am not really connected to the religion. For me, it is easy to tell the difference between the two, but I can see how separating them could be confusing for someone who is not Jewish. And then you add on the different types of Judaism, plus local influences and, eventually, putting people under one label really just doesn't make since. Anyway, thats just my thinking, now for my activities.

Aceh Day 1: On the United flight to Hong Kong, I discovered there were many movie options, but the touch screen was not very sensitive. To select a movie, people ended up having to fiercely poke at the screen over and over, essentially punching the seat of the person in front of them. The frustration of the unresponsive screen combined with being punched in the back of the head put everyone on edge. It was amusing to watch, but not so amusing to experience. After being picked up from the airport in Aceh, many hours later, I was promptly brought to a strange house and was plopped on a couch while my friend Fithri, who was a lecturer at a university and had spent a semester as a fellow at Oberlin, went to finish up work in her office. Immediately, an energetic little boy, Fithri’s nephew, Ramadan, trotted up to me and proceeded to show me his action figures. I found out he spoke hardly a word of English: His repertoire included “game over” (he loved video games), “not cool, man”, and “it’s awesome” (the second two he learned from me). He also didn’t really get the concept that I couldn’t speak Indonesian. I don't think anything else happened that day, except I was introduced to the weird Indonesian bathroom where you dump water on yourself with a bucket to shower and in the toilet to manually provide a flush. The floor is always wet and I wiped out hard the first time I showered.

Day 2: Fithri had to work all day because she was going to take Friday and the weekend off to go with me to Sabang to visit another of the Oberlin fellows from last year, Linda. I’ll describe that later, that’s day three. I went to the tsunami museum with Fina, who is Fithri’s cousin, one of Fina’s friends, and Rama. The museum was eerie, but was a worthwhile visit. We went out to lunch were Rama and I found our food to be too spicy, (I guess Indonesian children don’t appreciate spice yet?). Then I rode around with Fithri and Rama in the evening and tried durian. I had never tried it before because it’s gross, but Fithri insisted because it is Indonesian…it tasted like sweet B.O.

Day 3: Off to Sabang with Fithri and her friend and colleague Safrina! Sabang is on Wei Island at the very tip of Indonesia. The ferry over had a cheap pirated copy of the new Karate Kid playing where everything was fuzzy and red. At the port we met up with Linda, her husband, and her adorable baby (who cried every time he looked at my, but I’m pretending it’s nothing personal). They drove us to lunch and then to the beach where we reserved a night at a bungalow over the water…about $25 dollars for all three of us. I put on my bathing suit and went for a swim with Fithri, who since taking four lessons at Oberlin, was in the process of learning how (hardly anyone seemed to know how to swim despite the tsunami).

Day 4: Snorkeling! Emily will be jealous, but I got to snorkel, and right under my bungalow too. I saw some weird fish, some huge starfish, and lots of coral. We then headed back to the harbor to catch the ferry home. This time the crappy pirated movie was Rush Hour 2 and I decided to fight off my boredom by brushing up on my Indonesian. I asked Fithri what the word “Apa” mean’t. She said it meant “what”. I then learned “Ada apa abang?”, meaning “what’s up, bro?”. Finally, I loudly recited the words of Chris Tucker, proud that I recognized them all, but in a typical fashion, before I really knew what I was saying. “Hey Fithri, apa itu ganja?”, or “is that marijuana?”….oops. Amazingly, despite Indonesia’s strict drug trafficking laws, nothing happened except Fithri was kind of pissed. After arriving back in Banda Aceh, Fithri and I headed to the spa to have milk baths. I don’t know if that’s a think in America, but they treat your hear with oily stuff that smells good and has vitamins and also massage your head and arms. At the end, I watched as Fithri got her hair blow dried and combed, and made the decision I would too, because why not. I watched the person doing my hair, trying to see if she would be upset, perhaps horrified, with the frizzy mess that would inevitably result. I wondered what she thought after combing the first bit of hair and realizing that the rest of my head would look like that too. She showed no emotion and I left with Fithri and my new fro.

Day 5: We went to a park where we walked and I played volleyball, and then went to a rebuilt traditional Achenese house, which had belonged to two hero’s who led revolts against the Dutch. The next morning I left Aceh, pretty carefree, until the end of my connection flight to Kuala Lumpur, where, as we landed, I begged the flight attendant to use the bathroom, raced inside and vomited twice. Sorry if that’s TMI.
Anyway, still recovering from my annual dose of travelers bug, and I’ll update on my two days in Beijing as soon as I can.
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Posted by Maia L 05:10 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia aceh Comments (0)

Preparing to Leave

Summary: I travel a lot.

About the trip:
Three years ago, at around this time, I was preparing to leave for Beijing, China for the first time. In Beijing, I lived with a host family, attended a Chinese high school and, after the four month semester ended, I made a promise to myself to improve my Chinese and return in the near future. I am now preparing to return to China for a semester of intensive language immersion. I will be living in Hangzhou, a city an hour outside of Shanghai. The city has been described as a sort of paradise on earth by travelers in the past. The people that I know who have been there have not given such rave reviews, but so far I haven't heard anything too negative. The city is a cultural hub and is built around a large lake, 西湖, aka west lake. I have heard the lake is beautiful, touristy, and of course swimming is a bad idea. I will be taking Chinese-related classes through the CET-Middlebury program and will be living in a dorm at the Zhejiang University of Technology with a Chinese roommate. There are supposedly about ten of us on the program, and we are required to take a language pledge to only speak Chinese for the semester....we will see how that goes.

Stops along the way:
My program starts on Feb. 14th, but I am leaving Boston on January 28th. I will first go to Banda Aceh, a not so touristy city in Indonesia, where, last year, three of Oberlin's international fellows were from. I am really excited to see them again and don't know much about Indonesia, except that the people there seem to be awesome, so that will be an interesting experience. I will then fly to Beijing for two days to visit my friends from my last semester abroad and see how the city has changed. Finally, I will visit Oberlin's Chinese fellow from last year, who was also one of my teachers. I will stay with her family in Shanxi province during the Chinese New Year and then, from there, fly to Shanghai to meet my roommate.

Things I will miss:
bagels, pizza, chocolate, icecream, spaghetti, salad, burritos, taco (the cat) and biggles
Well, that's it. Sorry if you did not make that list, it's nothing personal.

Posted by Maia L 07:38 Archived in USA Tagged china new_blog semester_abroad Comments (0)

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