Friday, December 10, 2010

The First Seven: 5

Day Five
This was the day that I began to feel like I had some sort of routine. I continued getting up rather early and taking a walk by the sea. Climbing up on the outcropping of rocks to the east, I sat and watched the waves shine in the light of the newly risen sun. I love having a nice place to go and find solitude among nature. It was one of things I missed most in Kissimmee, being surrounded by cars and sprawl all the time, always hearing the clamor of civilization. Sitting on the rocks with only the ocean and God for company lets me think and read and pray.

It was a good thing that I had time to clear my head in the early morning, because from 9:00-12:00 I had my first language training session--and I needed all the room I could get! The method they use for learning is simply fantastic, and by the end of that one session I could comprehend and speak a host of different sentences. Flight is a natural teacher, and we had fun laughing at my mistakes.

The rest of the day’s activity involved running errands with Flight. I still needed my own sheets and blankets and towels, in addition to my own key for the apartment (the Joneses and Whitneys were nice enough to lend me some upon arrival). Flight wanted to take me somewhere we could get sheets made for cheap (she is always very concerned about saving money), so we went off across town to an area called Tai Dong. I wished I had my camera! Tai Dong is a large section of the city devoted to all different kinds of shopping. Think along the lines of a Chinese Citywalk or Downtown Disney, but full of a greater variety of shops with a greater disparity in pricing. Broad footpaths criss-cross each other and people stream from everywhere to everywhere. We got fabric cut for sheets, went to Walmart, and tried to get a key copied. I say tried because we found a man to do it, but when he saw that I was foreign he wanted to charge me more: 10 kuai instead of 5. So a little over a dollar, rather than a little under a dollar. I personally didn’t care, since I expect that to happen when I go to street shops and because it was only about 70 cents difference, but Flight wouldn’t stand for it. She decided she would just go and get a key copied on her own, and save the 5 kuai.

On our way out of Tai Dong Flight wanted me to try Chu Tofu, or Dofu Tofu-- Stinky Tofu. I had heard stories about this particular tofu back in the States, with everyone bemoaning how horrible it is and how awful it smells. But my policy in China has been “I will try anything once.” So I agreed and we got a cup of small tofu squares sprinkled with pepper. It didn't smell nearly as bad as I thought it would, nor taste as bad! After a bite Flight asked me if I liked it. I said, “Eh, it is ok.” Her eyes widened and she said “You are Chinese!” I don't think she knows how much of a compliment that was.

~J.L. Smith

The First Seven: 4

Day Four
This might have been the most interesting day yet! Jerry decided to step up the culture training to a whole new level. He wouldn’t tell me where we were going, but when he told the Whitney’s their faces lit up and they said how they wished they could go, so I was pretty confident that where we were going, wherever that ended up being, would be an Experience with a capital E. Jerry, Lawanda, Judah, Flight, and myself all crammed into a taxi and headed across town.

The taxi driver was one of the chatty variety, so naturally Jerry was talking with him in Mandarin. Somehow the conversation turned to me. We happened to be driving by “Beer Street”, which is famous throughout China because it is the home of the Qingdao Beer Brand (like Bud or Busch in America). I am single. I am young. I am in business. So naturally the taxi driver asks: “Have you had the famous Qingdao beer?” “No” “Oh, you have to have it! Its famous!” “He doesn't drink” “Whaaaaaa? No drink?” It just astounded him. You must drink to be a man he said. Over and over again he came back to it in the ride. “No drink? Really? Never?” And he would just shake his head and laugh... and shake his head some more.

There is an amazing amount of cultural insight to be had in just that taxi ride. To see myself from his eyes: in order to be a man, I must be someone who drinks, and I must be someone who drinks a lot. The male community here is brought together and united by drinking. It is how trust is formed. So excellence at drinking is excellence at being a man. Refusal to drink is refusal to be a man. Why would I ever not want to drink, then?

Well, beer taxi aside, we arrived at our destination. Winding through some small streets crowded with vendors, we entered a very nice restaurant, full of decorations, great smells, and miniature waterfalls. One area was a concave rectangle outlined with tables filled with different dishes. That was the menu. You go over and look at what you want, and then order it to the hostess who follows you. Around a small corner you come into a large open room, full of tables and people, all facing a stage for... the Qingdao Opera! Reds and Golds and yellows and flash covered most everything, matching the gaudy (but not in a bad way) costumes and make up of those on stage. Columns lined the walls, crowned with grinning golden dragons in full rampant, and people filled the tables all eating and talking and dipping and drinking as the performance went on. The opera itself was far more a piece of atmosphere than an engaging performance. To be honest, I didn’t pay all that much attention since 1) They mostly just stood around and talked, sometimes in a singsong way 2) I couldn't understand them 3) I was much more focused on the food!

Jerry ordered enough food to feed a small army: sprigs of lettuce like greenery with tangy sauce, mixed vegetables prepared cold and sour, broccoli warm and soft, pork with chewy sea-growth, hot and spicy and flavorful skewered pork, warm and satisfying onion bread (though really more of a tortilla), and more pork mixed with yellow and black something (I assume vegetable, maybe squash) which you pack into a tiny tortilla. The only thing I didn't enjoy was the mixed vegetables-- I bit into a large piece of ginger and I felt like a novacaine pill had exploded in my mouth! And I almost forgot the other dish we ordered: Duck head! Jerry and I were the only adventurous ones. I can see why its not popular in America... and it really has nothing to do with taste. I mean we eat hot dogs and sausage for crying out loud! We are not averse to weird food as long is it tastes good enough and is hearty enough. This tasted ok, but was decidedly lacking in heartiness: there just wasn't much there to eat, and hardly worth the effort. After stuffing myself to the brim with wildly delicious food, THEN Jerry tells me: save room for dessert. But he said it with a glint of mischievousness in his eyes that immediately put me on my guard. We headed outside to one of the many street stalls. This particular stall specializes in frying insects. ordered a fried scorpion for each of us (and by each of us I mean Jerry and I-- Lawanda wouldn't touch that with a ten foot pole, and I guess Flight didn't want one). The man flipped one of the many live and scurrying scorpions from a bowl right onto the fryer, cooked it up good and covered it in spice. We each took a bite at the same time. That is definitely the weirdest thing I have ever eaten-- but not that bad. I would get it again. After its fried and there are spices on it, there isn't much to it.

Day Four = Success!

~J.L Smith

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The First Seven: 3

Day Three

This day started off great. Despite the fact that I used my extra days stateside to begin switching timezones, the little cuckoo clock in my head definitely still thought I lived in North America. I gave up trying to sleep anymore around 6:30, and went for a walk instead. Living right next to a beautiful ocean, I naturally decided to walk along the seaside toward a park with some spectacular rocks. A busier seaside you have never seen! Ok, that might be an exaggeration, but it is certainly not an exaggeration to say that you would NEVER see that many people out and about and exercising at 6:30 in the morning back in the States. The only people up that early are people that have to be. It is funny how Carrefour and the morning of day3 stand in contrast in my mind. If Carrefour was China shocking and imposing, this morning was China glowing and glittering, alive and beautiful. The sun was already well risen by 6:30, breaking through the clouds and haze to make the sea abreast of Qingdao a fair lady crowned with sparkling jewels. Men and women, old and young, were walking forwards or walking backwards or running quickly or doggedly running, or stretching or pacing or talking or waving or clapping or rubbing their hands. Multiple groups were doing Tai Chi as I came into the park on the hill, moving gently with the music that matched them. On the sudden rocks that lift sharply from the sea by the park, one man was stretching and performing forms―like something out of a movie. And last but not least, a man I shall not forget: the Laughing Man. This man was down on the big rocks by the water, pacing back in forth with arms clasped behind his back. Every once in a while he would stop and face the sea, start into a loud aaaaaAAAAAAAAHHHHHH---- and then just let loose the most cathartic guffaw I have ever heard in my life. It was, to say the least, fantastic.

I didn't do much else that morning. Mostly I took the time to read a combination of Lord of the Rings and the Bible. Later that morning I did a little bit of language with JD and learned about their specialized program and the theory behind it. Basically micMac has distilled some interesting language research into a practical program that approaches language learning the same way you learn language as a kid. Since I am something of a nerd, I found the lesson very interesting, and it whetted my appetite for really digging into the language later.

I spent the rest of the day with Jerry. He had an informal business meeting that morning so I tagged along with him to a small coffee shop in May Fourth Square (which some of you may know is the place with the giant red swirling thing that Qingdao is famous for). He was meeting with Preeti, an Indian expat who knows pretty much everyone in the expat community by virtue of her sociality and her position as Communications Executive for Qingdao Ex-Pat online magazine. I was pretty much just a fly on the wall, but it was good to observe and watch and listen.

Then we went for some random strolling in the city. We hopped on a random bus, rode it till we got kicked off, and then just walked around. I love the sights and sounds of China. Really there was nothing spectacular to report from that walk, but that is kinda the point isn’t it? Men and women walking to and fro, shopkeepers selling their wares, taxis swerving and honking and dashing about as buses meander to their destinations, men play cards while others stand smoking and watching the game-- all the mundane everyday things are what really make up China. China isn’t a fantastical land, nor some movie set or landscape. It is a real place with real people with real jobs and real lives. After a while we came to an underground market, which we explored. When I say underground I mean it felt like it was underground, since it was down some steps in the dim and wet basement floor of some building. I couldn't have felt much more out of place walking through an open fish market, what with my white skin and fancy clothes. Maybe that is what Jerry was going for?

Well, we got back from our random excursion, and I met Lotus who is the owner of the small vegetable market at the entrance to Jin Hai. She has pretty good and English, and like most any chinese person I have met so far, seems very nice when you make the effort to talk to them. Then went with him to pick-up Rachel from the bus stop. We ended up going down to the rocks, and Rachel and I invented MOOQC (Moo-qwa) as we play. MOOQC is of course and imaginary land that we own, and which only shows up when the tide is low. And what does any newly formed land need? An altar to Jesus! At least Rachel thought so. So we made one out of rocks and then skipped stones on the ocean. She is a chatty little girl, but I just love her. Then I went over to the Joneses for dinner: pasta! And broccoli! Yum!