Friday, January 22, 2010

These Shoes Were Not Made For Walking

Two days before I left to visit my sister in China, I bought a pair of Converse sneakers to replace the ones through which I had worn a hole (for the second time). I was in China for approximately two weeks, and those shoes came home looking a lot like the ones I had just replaced. Horizontal surfaces are dirty there--I'm not sure if my shoes suffered more from the unmentionable substances on bathroom floors, the other unmentionable substances on the street, or the snow that was suspiciously dirty just after falling. Maybe it was the indignity of being so frozen.

In spite of these things, though, I really did enjoy my trip. It was the first time I've seen my sister since August, and now I can bargain in Chinese! I climbed a mountain, came down it in the dark, (accidentally) ate soup with bugs in it, hiked the Great Wall with snow on it, saw too many temples to count, survived the slippery surfaces of the Forbidden City, and met some amazing people. I also happened to be reading Reading Lolita in Tehran at the time. Learning about China and its history while reading about Iran added an interesting dimension to the trip.

Miriam and I also had some great discussions about language and the way that it affects people's methods of learning, in language classes and otherwise. (Short aside: My sister is brilliant. She's an amazing teacher, no matter how much she doubts it. Kunming is lucky to have her.) She taught me the four tones of Mandarin and I started to learn Pin Yin, which is actually pronounced Peen Yeen. Who knew? We talked about the way that Chinese is structured, with the written ideographs completely separate from the spoken words, and the difficulties that this creates in the classroom. Her students have trouble grasping the fact that English does not have to be separated into Speaking, Reading, and Writing, and that memorization is not always the best way to learn. With English, if you know the alphabet, you can sound out words that you don't know, but this is impossible in Chinese. We talked about the tonal system, too, and the way that it affects self-expression--for example, if you're speaking English, the tone of your voice adds nuance and connotation to what you're saying, while in Chinese the tones change the literal meaning of the words. This means that there's no way to add things like happiness, frustration, or jealousy to your words without directly expressing those emotions. Our conversations just about blew my mind.

If anyone out there reading this is thinking of visiting China, please please PLEASE go to the southern provinces. Check out Kunming, the city where Miriam lives. It's greener than cities like Beijing, less polluted, warmer, and people on the street are friendly. They may have pointed at me a bit when I first arrived, but there was nothing mean behind it, just curiosity and surprise. I'm tall! And my hair curls! It was quite the scandal. When my sister and I took a trip to Lijiang (smaller tourist destination) some guy actually took video footage of us. Also go to Lijiang, a maze-like city built on canals. Avoid the overnight bus, unless you want to use an open-air squat toilet in the middle of a sleepless night, on the roof of a building that may or may not have been a brothel (true story). Eat at Boiled Dumpling Aunty and Lamu's House of Tibet, where we had tea with yak butter in it. Visit Dragon Pool Park, but if you want to climb the hill, make sure that you're not two females who are obviously not Chinese. The guards there won't let you. Bargain for everything and smell the yak meat.

The second half of the trip took place in Beijing, where Miriam and I met up with our parents. Unfortunately, our plane sat on the runway in Kunming for seven hours because of the massive snow storm in Beijing. The city was covered in snow when we got there, and even though the army literally worked around the clock to clear the sidewalks, there was no way to get around the fact that it was -15 degrees Celsius almost every day. Beijing was an interesting place, but I spent most of my time there with my nose glued to the ground, looking for the best footing. I got to know Chinese flooring options really well.

In Beijing, I visited the Forbidden City, which was interesting but not as spectacular as I'd heard--although this was probably because they hadn't shoveled yet and I was trying to avoid braining myself. The Hall of Clocks was incredible, with so many mechanisms I never would have thought would work even now, let alone two hundred years ago. One of the clocks had a human figure that wrote out Chinese characters at certain times of day! If you ever go to Beijing, I'd recommend checking out the Temple of Heavenly Peace as well as the Dongyue Temple. Dongyue is smaller, but it's very different. The central courtyard is surrounded by 'departments' at which you can pray for specific things, and these departments demonstrate their functions with life-size dioramas. My favorite was the Department for Implementing Fifteen Kinds of Violent Death. These monks mean business. And of course, go to the Great Wall, preferably one of the less touristy sections like Mutianyu or Simatai.

One of my strangest experiences was actually an acrobat show that we saw in Beijing. The performers were all skilled, and their stunts made me hold my breath, but I couldn't stop thinking about the sadder aspects of the show; all of the acrobats had been recruited at a young age, to train relentlessly for years only to end up in the chorus. There were two or three female principals, and the rest of the female performers didn't do much more than make pretty hand gestures. I spent the majority of the show worrying about the kids who messed up their routines and imagining the older performers as their younger selves. The auditorium was smaller and shabbier than the one at my hometown's public high school. Maybe I'm too sensitive about stuff like this, but it bothered me--just like the child beggars, the taxis that wouldn't accept our business, the higher priced menus, and the strangers that told me I was beautiful simply because I didn't look like them.

If you're really interested in China, though, you should read what my sister's been writing. I was only there as a visitor for two weeks, while she's been living in Kunming for months. One blog post can't really cover it, as you might be able to tell from my scattered thoughts. If you do visit, I have one piece of advice: don't put anything on the floor.

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