The weekend brought an opportunity to explore Beijing, so we found a bicycle rental place online (www.bikebeijing.com). They offer guided tours in English of the Forbidden City and ancient alleyways (Hutongs), and nighttime tours. We arrived at the shop (No. 81 – 3 Beiheyan Street, Beijing) too late for a tour, so we rented two bikes for 100 RMB each and took off on our own. We biked a hutong (ancient alleyway). It was very cool and crowded. We would love to go back there again. We biked around the Forbidden City and in front of Tian’anmen Square. There legislature/congress must be in session, because there were a lot of policeman and soldiers everywhere.

The bikes were GIANT brand city bikes, i.e., one-speed with a basket on the front handle bars. We biked a couple of ancient alleys, went around a series of lakes, then biked around the Forbidden City. It was a leisurely pace. We stopped often and took pictures. It took us about 2 hours.

We witnessed an altercation between a street vendor and policeman. We were on a bike path on the main street in front of Tian’anmen Square, which the police had barricaded at checkpoints. The street vendor was on his 3-wheel mini truck and gave the police offer a piece of his mind and tried to push his way through. I was waiting for a taser gun to come out, but the policeman held his cool. The vendor dislodged the movable, accordian-style, extending barricade enough to open a space on the other end, which another vendor promptly took advantage of and snuck through. Then as the policeman turned, the vendor also pushed his way through. Nothing happened. I don’t think the police officer was wearing a weapon.

Once we stopped to take a couple of pictures of Tian’amen Square but a police officer quickly came over and told us not to take pictures. But, these are the few I was able to take before I knew better.

Tian’amen Square

Forbidden City and the widest and most unobstructed bike path in all of Beijing

Here is our assignment for tomorrow in Han zi and Pinyin. It is a simple dialogue:

Hello!
Hello!
What is your name?
My name is Ryan. And you?
My name is Sun Wen.

Just a sample of how we spend our weeknight evenings.

Our teacher, Li Hong, is using flash cards appropriate for ages 3-6 to drill us in correct pronunciation for vowels and consonants. After three days, we still have some trouble with a couple of sounds, but we are getting better. We still struggle with “e”.

Pictured below is our teacher Yang Yu, she is teaching us how to read and write Chinese characters. We are focusing on the learning 50 common radicals used in 80 percent of most Chinese characters, which either help in pronunciation or in determining the meaning. She uses pictograms to describe the evolution of the character to present form and stories to describe its meaning. Today we read our first simple dialogue all in Chinese character. The last picture below are my scribblings in our notebooks.

My favorite story is the one depicting the characters for “I” and “you.” The character for “I” has two parts: hand + weapon. The character for “You” has three parts: people + roof (home) + small. The story goes like this: “I have a weapon in my hand, so you should be afraid and hide in your house.” It sure helps us remember how to write the characters.

We are just recently enrolled in language school in Beijing, but we have been living in China for over 30 days. We thought we could negotiate restaurants by pointing at pictures in menus or prepared items on display. Those places, however, are expensive, and, we are on a budget. This means we need to search out those local culinary treasures in neighborhood “hole-in-the-wall” places. The overhead is low and they focus on the food.

Can you read and understand this menu? (See above photo.) No? Neither can I. I thought I could get by with a phrase book, or Chinese dictionary app on my iPhone, but it is hit and miss, especially when you enter a restaurant that specializes in noodles and serves them 50 different ways. My pronunciation needs to improve. My tones are off, which changes the meaning of the word. Numerous times the person behind the counter has looked at me with blank incomprehension and I was sure I got the words right, but I must have mispronounced either the tone or the vowel. Rather than hold up the line at lunch time, I finally resort to pointing at a number, just to order something.

So, until I can pronounce my vowels and tones, I had better get started on learning how to read Chinese so that I can order. We have never missed a meal, but every eating out is an adventure as we order a “mystery” dish. Today, we had number #4. It turned out to be cooked and drained thin noodles in peanut sauce. My goal is to learn this menu within 2 weeks or less.

Chinese Burrito Shop

Our language school is in the middle of a business complex of modern high-rise buildings. The ground-level floors are mostly devoted to retail and food, with the upper stores reserved for business. You can imagine hundreds of workers pouring out of their buildings for lunch at nearly the same time. There are lots of Chinese noodle shops and these little snack shops (far left). My wife noticed this sign “Flash Burritos” (middle photo) so we went inside to a mini-version of Chipotle’s (far right photo). They even had guacamole. I ordered the mutton burrito. You don’t get that every day in the USA. It was good.

At the counter, near the cash register, they had this photo caricaturing Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food restaurants. I have seen several McD’s and KFC in China, and, were they are, I have also discovered fatter Chinese people. It truly is in the diet and lifestyle. Being Westernized through fast-food is not good.

We were so excited to report the progress we are making after only two days of language school to our young Chinese colleagues in Henan by phone. One of them remarked affirmingly, “Oh, good! You are learning Chinese the traditional way at the pre-primary level.” We had a good laugh, but she was right. We are beginners. This is just fine with us. We are learning quickly and having fun.

The traditional way is to learn the 6 basic strokes and 22 compound strokes in forming a Chinese character. We are learning their names and how to make them. Today we learned 15 characters, which are commonly recurrent in speech and writing, 11 of which also form radicals. We we learned their meaning and pronunciation, how to write them in both character form and in Pinyin, and determined which ones serve also as radicals and how to write them. Today we learned the characters for: middle, door, person, female, mountain, sun/day, mouth, moon/month, small, big, king, tree, water, fire, and earth. Our teacher showed us how these basic characters are used in compounds to form other common words.

Chinese characters have undergone four evolutions. Originally pictographs, the early characters actually make a lot of sense. For example, imagine an eye. Look at the photo below.

The first two pictographs are obvious but the last two are not. In the 1950’s Chairman Mao launched a simplified Chinese character reform to help the average peasant/famer to read. Literacy, up to that point was the privilege of the elite classes, who had time and money to spend on education. This literacy program simplified the characters. The more complicated, traditional characters are still used to day in Japan, Taiwan, and even Hong Kong.

In addition to the characters, we reviewed the Pinyin system’s 21 initials (consonants) and 36 finals (vowels) and 4 tones (plus a neutral tone). Our teacher informed us that native English speakers actually have an easier time learning Chinese pronunciation, since all the sounds within the Chinese language are contained within the English language. Japanese and Korean native speakers have to learn new sounds for which they are unaccustomed. It is a matter, however, of training our ears. Each person has their own way of speaking with a slight accent.

We learned grammar points involving tone placement when it involves the finals: “a,” combinations of “e/i/u” (always goes on the “e”), and combinations of “o/u/i” (goes on the “o” or most open vowel, and combinations of “u/i” (goes on the last vowel). Another grammar point involves how to write vowels starting uen (un), uei (ui), iou (iu), uo (wo), ia (ya), and u-umlaut + e (yue).

We practiced pronunciation using phonetics and places of articulation. I have never watched a person’s mouth so intently as I am now trying to pick up how our teacher makes certain sounds with her the tongue, vocal chords, and glottal express of air.

Lot’s of fun! Lot’s of work.

Today was our first day of language learning as we enrolled in the Chinese Language Education (www.chinaledu.com) of Beijing. It is a top-rated Mandarin language institute that has taught diplomats, business professionals, and educators and their families for several years. It is a results-oriented program. Instruction includes reading, writing, speaking, communicating, and grammar.

This was our first day, but already, we are impressed with the quality of both our instructors and the program. In just four hours, we covered the Pinyin system and its 21 initials, 36 finals, and 4 tones (plus neutral). We spent a good deal of time of correct pronunciation of a selection of basic initials (syllables) and simple finals (vowels) with correction tones (inflections). We also learned the 6 basic stories and 22 compound strokes, their names, and the correct order to make them (L-R, Top-Bottom). We were introduced to a set of useful vocabulary words, both in pinyin and in Chinese simplified character, along with basic dialogue structures to practice for homework.

The website has plenty of information on the institute, but we were first introduced to the owner/founder two years ago and were impressed. We also learned of people who gave very positive testimonials of the staff and program. We are glad to be part of it.

We have finally completed the process with the provincial government and local authorities to secure my wife’s alien worker’s permit, health permit, work VISA, and residency permit as a professional educational consultant to Mei Wen, Inc., a fledgling Chinese hybrid social enterprise that focuses on both for profit ventures and nonprofit service to the rural student. My wife’s permits and VISA are good for three years, but renewable in one-year increments. This is the culmination of many letters of invitation, supporting documents substantiating the need for a foreign worker/expert, work vitae and notarized educational diplomas and additional certification of passport and government approval. Each process required different forms and application process, a health screening, and interview. Without the help of our Chinese Mei Wen colleagues, this would have been impossible. Fortunately, only one work VISA is required for a couple. The next step is to change my tourist VISA to a spouse VISA designation. My tourist VISA is valid for 10-years, multiple entries, 60-day durations. This will require additional documentation and application process, without which, I will need to leave the country and reenter after 60-day stints.

We now have permission to travel to Beijing to being our formal instruction in the Chinese language for the next six weeks. We are very excited. The VISAs allow us to enter the country, but language study allows us to enter the culture and make friends.

We have reached a stage of culture shock, after 30-days of being in country during the Spring Festival celebrations, in which we were largely inept in communicating even basic needs because of our lack of Chinese language skills. Now we can attempt to let go of our ethnocentrism and cultural biases and start to embrace a new culture and new way of living and being as we transition through the doorway of language into a new level of understanding and inquiry. (You can only accomplish so much through eating the food).

We leave tomorrow for Beijing!

We would like to thank our hosts, Coco and Kiki (and their parents), for welcoming us into their Spring Festival celebration.  They live in Xinyang, Henan, but they grew up in a small village to the NW of Xinyang, about a 45-minutes drive.  It was a beautiful experience, one for which we are deeply grateful.  It reminds us of how Americans celebrate Christmas.  In China, people make the effort to return home, to their places of origin, to reconnect with family and the land.  In the last 30 years, China’s industrialization initiatives have produced more jobs in the cities, but at the expense of depleting its human work force in the countryside.  People are moving out of the country and into the cities where there are jobs.  The results are diminished villages as China becomes less agrarian than it was.

This experience hearkened back to simpler days: the house had electricity and a well and gravity plumbing.  The nights were cold and we slept in all of our clothing (us in our sleeping bags) under a mound of blankets.  Yet, the hearts of the village people were warm and inviting.  The morning after, the tradition is for neighbors to welcome each other with a glass of hot green tea and to offer some sunflower seeds, peanuts, pine nuts, or watermelon seeds, and occasional sweet — or even better, a slice of sugar cane!

We watched a beautiful, four-hour pageant show on CCTV 1, which featured drama, singing, and choreography with feats of athleticism, precision, and balance.  Though there was no English captioning, we were able to recognize famous personalities from Chinese films and billboards.  It was a count-down gala event to midnight, when the skies erupted with lightning and sounds of thunder as every household across China, in villages, towns, and cities, ignited their fireworks at the same time.  WOW!!  It was an incredible, unforgettable experience.  Thank you!

Our host's front entrance to their village compound

Our host’s front entrance to their village compound

The view from the porch looking at the front entrance

The view from the porch looking at the front entrance

Traditional Rites Observed - Altar to Ancestors

Traditional Rites Observed – Altar to Ancestors

Requisite Fireworks to Announce Celebrations

Requisite Fireworks to Announce Celebrations

Traditional Reunion Meal featuring fish soup

Traditional Reunion Meal featuring fish soup

Keeping warm after the meal with coal briquets

Keeping warm after the meal with coal briquettes

Preparing the traditional New's Day Breakfast with Dumplings (Jiaozi).

Preparing the traditional New’s Day Breakfast with Dumplings (Jiaozi).

What makes a home? Family!

What makes a home? Family!

Fireworks to welcome in the New Year of the Sheep 2015!

Fireworks to welcome in the New Year of the Sheep 2015!

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Feb. 18, 2015 marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year.  2015 is the Year of the Sheep.  Today is also Ash Wednesday in the 2015 Liturgical Calendar of the Church, which began with the season of Advent on Nov. 30, 2014.   The Gregorian calendar celebrates the New Year as beginning on Jan. 1st.

The streets of Xinyang are relatively quiet for a city.  Bus and Taxi services are still running, the lifeblood of the city.  The main markets are closed.  I can hear a street sweeper nearby broadcasting “Happy Birthday” to alert pedestrians and motorists of its presence.

Whether we mark time by the moon or the sun or change in seasons, may this new approaching time cycle in your life be full of God’s love, joy, and peace.

Happy New Year!

Spring Festival, aka Chinese New Year is Feb. 18th this year. There is a lot of buildup anticipating this event. Lot’s of food preparations for special meals. I’ve enclosed a couple of photos of men waiting for the same bus we took. One has a leg of lamb, the other has two, live roosters. It makes sense. It’s just not what I am accustomed to seeing on a bus.

This is our favorite potato “Christmas Tree” vendor. The tree is one, delicately, spirally sliced potato, dipped in special flour/egg batter, deep fried to golden perfection and sprinkled with special herbs and spices. And, of course, the requisite four striped slather of ketchup — all on one, long bamboo skewer! The thinness of the slice makes it a hybrid somewhere between one very long french fry and one very long potato chip. We are not sure how to eat it. If you eat it like boiled, corn on the cob, you will get ketchup on your face somewhere. If you pick at it, tearing off pieces, remember it is one slice. Some pieces may crumble and fall. Be aware, too, of ketchup drip. One thing is for sure, always stand upwind to avoid ketchup splatter and be sure to get some napkins. They aren’t offered with the product, so you may have to ask for them or bring along your own supply.

This time a side story was developing. Whenever we stop at vendor, we usually attract a small crowd. What do the Americans think is so good? What are they eating? A woman stops with her white dog. My wife is a dog lover. She starts interacting with the dog, talking to it and tussling with it. The owner is initially pleased, but soon the dog wants to play and talks back (dogs bark when they get excited and playful). The woman wanting to hush the dog decides to buy the vendor’s deep-fried chicken item on the menu. She offers the dog first bite, but is sniff and licks and decides “no.” The woman almost absent-mindedly puts the piece in her mouth, but checks herself at the last minute and asks the vendor for an additional skewer, one for her and one for the dog. The dog, however, is not interested in the food. It wants to play. She is having troubled handling the dog in one hand, her purse, and the food with skewers in the other. She becomes flustered and makes some remarks (in Chinese) to the vendor, which I guess is something like: “He doesn’t like your food. Hey, what kind of food are you selling? Is the meat bad? I want my money back.” He laughs and holds up both hand and replies (also in Chinese), and, again, I’m guessing something like, “No the meat’s good. All sales are final. I have lots of happy customers.” I think, however, that there must be lots of MSG in the seasoning and spices and the dog just wanted to eat natural.

So, as this dialogue is happening, I’m hurriedly trying to video all this on my iPhone, because the vendor is about to hand us our potato “Christmas Tree.” Suddenly, I hear Mim say behind me, “Better watch out, the dog wants to pee.” So, I look down to locate the dog, at the same time the owner is handing me the finished product. I’m trying to stop the video on my iPhone with one hand while balancing the precious potato “Christmas Tree” in the other, hoping not to drop it, while trying to locate the dog so that he doesn’t pee on my shoes. I turn to give the product to Mim who has back away and I momentarily forget to pay the vendor, my hands and attentions full with other things.

I go back to pay, just as the dog quietly saunters over to the corner front, raises his leg and pees on the front of the vendor’s store, which is a roll-down, steel box (like for storage) container, except with upgrades for electricity, machinery, counter-tops, and even wall papering. All the businesses are equipped like these. Was the dog excited and just needed to pee or did it just post his review of the product — like putting it on YELP — for future reference?

Without language training and a cultural guide we are still trying to decode the everyday scripts people say and use when they interact with each other, like purchasing a potato “Christmas Tree” or interacting with dog culture or business culture. It can be fun and frustrating at the same time.

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