Dear Friends and Family!
It seems like forever since Joe's last note to you. Sorry for the delay - we've settled down to routine now and time seems to go so fast. How are you all doing?
Lately we've spent most of our time studying for examinations, which we just finished writing today. I think they went okay although this is definitely a tough program. Both Joe and I find it humorous that we still get nervous about being tested even though there are no repercussions to doing poorly.
We've learned just over 750 Chinese words now and we're about one third of the way toward basic functional literacy (reading a newspaper). By summer break, we'll probably be able to read the equivalent of simple Nancy Drew mysteries. As we walk down the streets, store signs constantly draw our attention. Words in Chinese are made up of either single characters or multiple character combinations - the word "hobby", "aihao", is composed of two characters, the character for "love" (ai) and the character for "good" (hao). Sometimes we can read an entire sign aloud because we know the characters but we don't understand the sign because we don't know the meaning of the words created by the combination of the characters. It's exactly like a child who is able to phonetically read a word, but doesn't know its meaning. Anyway, it's mesmerizing for us as our brains try to create sensible patterns with the partial information it's receiving.
Frequently in class we're required to read or listen to a passage and then answer questions on it. Occasionally we stumble on a cultural difference. For example, a simple passage would be "Mike has bought a new bike." Followed by the question "True or False: Mike likes his new bike." The school says the answer to this should be "false" -- the text doesn't provide this information and the absence of information is "false". However, to Joe and I it seems wrong to equate "don't know" with "false" and we have the instinct to deduce and infer. ("Of course he likes it - otherwise why did he buy it!"). As a result we are very inclined to answer "true" in these cases, to everyone's mystification.
We've spent a great deal of time at home studying over the last few weeks and our apartment continues to feel comfortable. The construction in neighboring apartments has finished and there's less noise now, but we're still frequently reminded that we're living in a third world country. Every afternoon there seems to be an exhaust back draft up our drains and the bathrooms smell like an outhouse for about two hours. Also, Joe (who gave me permission to tell you about this) seems to plug the toilet every time he uses it. I'm not sure what's different about him, but everywhere he goes, it's the kiss of death to local plumbing. Other people don't do this - just Joe. I have made several creative suggestions about things he can do (involving sticks, screens or Grape Nuts) but he seems to not greatly appreciate my creative input. If you have any suggestions for him, I'm sure he'd be happy to hear from you. :)
We visited a local video store and bought the first season of The West Wing and have become addicted. On nights when our brains are tired, we enjoy watching a few episodes. We also enjoy the occasional stroll in the evenings around Beijing University, which has just lovely grounds and is not far away. As you can see, life has gotten pretty normal!
It's now quite warm (about 25-30+ degrees) and the wisteria and lilac are blooming now, as well as a tree that gives off big white fluffy things (just like dandelions but bigger). There are so many of these trees that some days it looks like it's snowing. In some areas the fluff gathers in soft drifts and covers the grass. It actually reminds me of the Alian Spore episode of Swiss Family Robinson (a SFR low point, let me tell you).
We have started tutoring English to two five year old girls. We met their parents a few weeks ago and had our first "class" last week. Starting after the May holidays we'll go once a week. One of the families is planning a move to Calgary but their daughter is very nervous about it. So mostly the parents want the kids to be comfortable around two Canadians and to learn a few words. We get paid but the chance to have sustained interaction with a Chinese family is what motivates us. The girls are really cute, well behaved, and bright. They are frankly doing as much tutoring of us as we are of them since they laugh at our Chinese pronunciation, especially when we get our tones wrong. Their mothers are kind and interesting.
In the last few weeks, Joe's aunt Antonia visited Beijing with her Tai Chi class to do an intensive Tai Chi conference. Even though she didn't have tons of time, it was great to see her! One time in particular was fun as we joined her group for a tour of the Drum Tower and a rickshaw tour of a hutong (a local housing area with narrow streets and courtyard houses). The best part was at the end when we got to visit an actual hutong courtyard house. The host, a vivacious man in his 50s, kept beautiful song birds in the courtyard, fed us quite well and kept the beer flowing. Best of all, he showed us his crickets. People raise crickets to fight - a lot of gambling happens around cricket fights and it's a time honored and serious hobby. First of all, he has a lot of special equipment - a little cricket fighting ring, a cricket scale (they have weight categories), and tools for the feeding and caring of his crickets. They have ornate little cricket houses carefully carved out of stone, and little cricket carrying cases. In the winter, he has special decorated cricket gourds that he wears on his body to keep the crickets warm. As for the crickets themselves, he had a great many. Some were very ordinary looking crickets such as we might find in our basement. But some were big and spectacularly colored. Our host had opinions on which crickets were the best fighters, how to train them and feed them, and what characteristics to look for in a good fighting cricket (red teeth, not white, etc.). He fed his losers to his birds, but some of his cricket-fighting friends buy beautiful little caskets for their dearly departed crickets. I got a great big kick out of this.
This week, some friends of ours from Canada will be here. It will be great to see them! At the end of next week, we're off on holidays to Shanghai and Putuoshan for a week (the first week of May is a public holiday here). I'm really looking forward to this - Shanghai is supposedly very European and I'm ready for a change, the beaches and temples at Putuoshan are supposed to be great, as well as the fish restaurants.
Speaking of fish restaurants I was just reminded that I do have one more story. We recently went to a well-known local restaurant and the people at the table next to us ordered fish. As is the custom, the waitress brings the live fish to the table, so you can ascertain it's still living, check it's size and say a few last words to one another. This is very typical in Chinese fish restaurants. Anyways, after showing the fish to the couple, there was a bit of a mix up since, simultaneously as the woman entered the Kitchen "in" door bearing one very concerned flounder, from the kitchen "out" door emerged a fully cooked flounder dish destined for the same table. How embarrasing! Bu hao yisi! The scandal this caused! I reckon that the restaurant has a freezer full of flounders and a small aquarium with one handsome live flounder swimming in it. That same poor flounder probably gets hauled out for every customer. I reckon he has a really lousy job, but he's still probably thankful that he's not in the freezer.
I think that's it folks! I hope that you are all healthy, happy and enjoying spring!
- Kim (and Joe)
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