Friday, June 6, 2014

Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, Goddess of Mercy, and Reflection on Time in China

It's been a while since I last blogged, but let me share with you some of our recent experiences.  We had a really fun Easter and the kids decorated small baskets for the Easter bunny.  Evelynn and Lucy kept asking if the Easter bunny would come to China.  I explained that I was fairly certain he would be coming to China.  They then said, "Isn't the Easter bunny a girl?"  I told them no and that he looked a lot like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.  Stacie says I use too much humor that goes way over their heads, but I'm doing it to amuse myself, not them.  We ended up having three different Easter parties.  The first was done through the American Studies Center.  We invited students from HNU and other members of the community and their children to dye Easter eggs and to do an Easter egg hunt.  Our egg hunt got rained out and we had to do it indoors, but it was still fun.  The better Easter egg party was done at a local park called Wang Ling near our apartment.  All of the small children from Annie's class and their families got together to dye eggs and again to have an egg hunt.  It was really fun.  There's not much to say about it as it was very much like something we would do in America, except with Chinese people everywhere.  I've posted some pictures of it below. We also went down to the Parreno's house in Xiangtan and did an Easter egg hunt with them.  It was really a nice visit because spring was in the air and there were these beautiful pink blossoms on many of the trees.  After such a freezing winter, we have all been very happy to see so much vegetation coming back.

We also had the opportunity to travel to another city in Hunan province called Loudi.  It is the hometown of a former student of mine, Xue Fang (Alice), who I recruited two years ago to come to SUU.  For some reason, she felt so grateful for me "making her dream come true" to go to study in America and wanted to repay our family somehow.  We really tried to be her family and help her feel comfortable when she was at SUU and she REALLY wanted us to go to Loudi to meet her family so they could show us some things in their area.  To be honest, it is sometimes hard to travel on these smaller excursions with all the children and they get really tired, but we try to be strong because these opportunities will not come again.  Although we had some reservations about traveling to Loudi (which we really knew nothing about other than that Alice's family lived there), we ended up having such a wonderful time.  It was a beautiful city that was very clean by Chinese standards and not as crowded as other places we have been.  Also, being in the heart of Hunan province, it was very green and lush.  We were surprised and very impressed.

The train ride to Loudi was about 2 hours and Lucy and Evelynn were thrilled to take the slow train.  They were really disappointed when we took the high speed train to Beijing and then the slow train from Beijing to the Great Wall was set up like airplane or bus seating.  They wanted to ride on the slow train that has the bunk beds stacked up and they jam huge crowds of people into them.  In essence, they wanted the REAL Chinese train experience. Well, they got their wish.  We ended up riding the whole way to Loudi on these bunks and we all faced each other and talked.  Alice brought some duck meat that we snacked on and it was super spicy, but delicious.

When we got to Loudi, we were greeted by Alice's parents and they were immediately super sweet and hospitable.  They drove us to our hotel and we discovered that it was more expensive than we thought and they paid the difference.  Then, Alice's dad picked up a giant suitcase we packed for the whole family (very heavy) and he would not let me help him at all.  They were so concerned about how comfortable we were.  The rooms were very nice and spacious and we were very comfortable.  We did so many things while we were in Loudi that it's hard to list them all, but let me give you some highlights.  The most extravagant thing we did was took a paid tour from the city of Loudi to this incredible cave system.  The bus ride there was so fun because the entire tour was booked out by Alice's dad, who brought all of his friends and their family.  So, everyone was comfortable with each other.  The tour guide wanted us to entertain the guests by singing.  I'm sure my face exhibited complete shock when the tour guide wanted me to sing an American song to the passengers.  I think Stacie jumped in and helped me because I was struggling, but we managed to belt out Jingle Bells.  They loved it, cracking voices and all!

Once we arrived at the cave, we had to take a boat to get inside and then we could walk once we were inside.  The cave is said to have like a thousand buddha faces inside.  We saw many that were man-made and others were apparently "natural."  It kind of reminded me of the people seeing mother Mary's face in the grilled cheese sandwich.  If you look hard enough, you can see anything.  Alice kept telling me that this rock or that rock had Buddha's face in it.  I kept saying, "I don't see it" or "I think that's a bit of a stretch."  I know Alice pretty well now and feel comfortable telling her what I think, but I think Stacie might have thought I should just humor her.  It was a pretty impressive cave system with many unique and beautiful rock formations.  Sometimes the ceiling would drop very low and I would walk hunched over for hundreds of yards at a time.  That was a bit of challenge.  After the cave, we went to this enormous statue of the Goddess of Mercy.  As soon as we got out of the car, we all said "Wow, look at that huge statue!"  In the beginning, we had no idea where they were even taking us or that this statue even existed.  I had never heard of it before.  You can see from some of my pictures how spectacular it is.  Alice's parents told us that it hasn't been open to the public for more than a couple of years, so it's still new and not crowded.  I even tried to look up some information on it when I got home to our apartment and there wasn't much about it.  We felt privileged to be able to see it.  We had to climb hundreds of stairs to get to the top.  Once we were up there, we relaxed for a while and Nicolas did a wushu (kung fu) demonstration for all the other people at the top.  I thought it was very social of him and they loved his performance.  He had people clapping and congratulating him on having such good skills for a foreigner.  The view from the top was amazing.  There is a giant pond below the statue and we did not realize until we got to the top that the pond is in the shape of a giant lotus flower.  We've seen some beautiful things in China (especially with Zhangjiajie), but this view from the mountains outside of Loudi was some of the most stunning scenery we have witnessed.

We also did some other really unique and fun things.  We went to a 5D movie, which might be a little unfamiliar to you.  They also have 7D movies here.  If you have ever been on the Star Tours ride at Disneyland, you know something about how this works.  They put you in some seats that move mechanically with the motions on the screen.  During one movie scene where we flew over a volcano, we could smell something burning and when we went through a blizzard, they would blow snow out the ceiling at us.  The children absolutely loved it.  We also rented four seat bicycles and rode up and down the main river in Loudi.  We also had some quiet and more intimate moments with Alice's family.  They are such good people.  Alice's mom was very affectionate with the little girls and would hold Evelynn's hand as we walked various places.  Alice's dad would perform magic tricks for the boys.  And, Alice' grandparents invited us over for some delicious food at their house.  In short, we are so glad we went.

In terms of work and school, things have been much smoother this semester for me.  They dropped my course load down to a reasonable 3 classes (120 students) as opposed to the 7 classes (350 students) last semester.  I could totally handle it and manage my ASC responsibilities.  My student assistant, Karisa Rosander, has been amazing and all I really need to do this semester is be helpful at various activities and address any concerns that the higher ups might have about what we are trying to accomplish.  The highlight of the semester at the ASC in my opinion was a mother's day event that we held where we invited a Chinese mother and an American mother to speak to HNU students and members of the community about cultural differences in attitudes about motherhood.  Stacie and her dear friend, Lily, were outstanding.  I was so proud of Stacie for how much confidence she exhibited in talking to these young students about the importance of families and how much joy she gets from mothering our children.  At one point, a girl said "I'm afraid to have a baby because it's so painful and my body will change" or something like that.  Stacie looked right at her and said: "Let me tell you something...motherhood is NOT a disease!"  She said it with so much passion I was really proud of her.  She explained to these girls that they should not worry about the potential difficulties of pregnancy and that in the end it was all worth it.   I recorded the entire presentation and plan to transcribe it for our children. They did not attend the event because we wanted Stacie to be able to focus on her speech and the children would be absolutely bombarded at an activity like this. Unfortunately, the American Studies Center has persuaded some schlup from America to be the Father's Day speaker this month.  Any guesses who that might be?

I know this is a long blog already, but since we are winding down and I'm not sure I will have time to write another blog, I want to reflect a little on our overall experience here.    We have had a wonderful time overall in China, but our life here as been fraught with many difficulties as well.  I think it would be challenging for a single individual to adapt to a new culture, but it magnifies the challenge when you bring young children into the equation.   We were surprised to find that our children adapted much easier to their surroundings than we thought they would.  Now that we are in our last 3 weeks here of a ten month journey, we often reflect about what we have learned here.  First, we feel that we have experienced a level of kindness here that we have not seen before in America. There has been an outpouring of love and hospitality toward our family that truly makes us want to be better people when we return to the U.S.  We have also learned that there are specific nuances within American culture that we never think about that guide how we behave, how we make decisions, and how we communicate with others. I brought this unique set of assumptions about the world with me when I came to China and some of these attitudes clearly did not jive with the people in China.  I was initially surprised at how rude and inflexible the Chinese were in negotiating certain aspects of my job here, but over time I realized that I needed to adjust my thinking to accommodate a different worldview.  Now, I find the experience of communicating with the Chinese to be only slightly aggravating rather than completely paralyzing (joking a little obviously).  When I asked Stacie about her experience in China overall, she simply said she was "really glad she came" and that "she grew so much from the experience."  We often discussed certain metaphors in our family to help us cope with the challenges.  We describe our time in China as sort of like panning for gold.  You have to scoop up a great deal of seemingly useless dirt and mud to start extracting the gold flakes.  At times, it seemed our experience was all dirt and mud (such as freezing to death in our apartment with uninsulated walls  and trying to cook in our kitchen with a single hot plate), but then we would see these great aspects of Chinese culture that will forever change us.  We've seen the natural beauty of the physical surroundings here (Zhangjiajie--the inspiration for the film Avatar), learned to speak Mandarin very poorly, visited historic sites like the Great Wall, and spent time with real Chinese families and friends.  As a homeschooling family back in the U.S., we could not think of a better way to teach our children about their place in the world and how they can impact others in positive ways.

I also think my perspective on the world has actually broadened in a variety of ways. I now realize that there are some absolutely beautiful things about American and Chinese cultures, but also some less desirable things about each culture.  The Chinese have security and safety, but less personal freedom than Americans.  Americans have a great deal of freedom, but sometimes abuse that freedom.  Our family is squarely in the camp that chooses freedom in spite of its limitations, but it has been fascinating to live amongst a people that are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.  We knew once we started hearing Chinese people compare the tyrant and architect of the Chinese cultural revolution, Mao Zedong, to George Washington that we were clearly not on the same page politically or culturally.  We also discovered that the Chinese lead a much more simple life and I believe the simplicity can sometimes lead to greater happiness.  However, it's also difficult to live in a country that doesn't have the conveniences that we were used to back home.  The lessons we learned from this are: 1) We freely admit that we can't wait to go back home to have some of those conveniences; and 2) We could do with a lot less in our life and still be happy. It's an interesting sort of contradiction. The experience also refined my personal perspective on life and what is important. There is an incessant need in Chinese culture to be as successful as possible and this usually means monetarily.  I think it comes from most families having only one child and it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the one child to earn enough money to take care of his/her parents and also grandparents.  Seeing this really solidified my previous outlook that our relationships with others (particularly our family) is the most important thing and that success is a means of cultivating some happiness, but is not paramount when it detracts from other life pursuits.

I think I've also changed a great deal as a teacher too because China has such a drastically different educational system, it has really forced me out of my comfort zone.   The style of teaching and learning are completely different from America.  The Chinese teachers stand at the front of the room and talk (well I guess some teachers still do this in America) and the students simply listen.  There is typically very little, if any, participation from the students.  They will not raise their hands to ask questions and a class "discussion" is a really painful endeavor to try to instigate.  My teaching style in America consists of lecture, discussion, and many examples to illustrate key concepts. I try to make it an engaging environment when I can by bringing in news clips, videos, and popular culture examples to help student make connections.  In China, I tried to do the same thing, but was met with abysmal failure in the beginning.  I could not get the students to laugh at any of my jokes, discussions were painfully one-sided, and students had little interest in applying any of their new knowledge (they just want to memorize and regurgitate for the exam).  However, over time, the students warmed to my unorthodox and very foreign teaching style and would eventually speak up, albeit somewhat reluctantly, in class.  We ended up meeting in the middle and they learned some things about not only my discipline of Communication, but about alternative styles of learning.  And, consequently, I learned how to be a better teacher by realizing not all my students are alike even back home and that I need to be a bit more flexible in my approach to education. 

Today is Annie's last day of teaching her class and last day of tutoring her Chinese friend.  I finish my oral examinations on Monday and then will take about a week to grade them.  But, it's still a very busy month.  Our family is taking one last trip to Feng Huang (an ancient Chinese city) next week for 3 days.  Then, I go to an academic conference in Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) the week after that.  Once I return home to Changsha, I will conduct a few focus groups with Chinese students for a research project I'm working on and then we come home to America.  Everyone is a little anxious to return.   We are still having fun here, but it's hard not to think about our life back in America after being here for 9 1/2 month.  We only have 18 days to go, which seems crazy soon. 

They have grown a lot, but still no match for the strength of dad.
Lucy still not cooperating with pictures.
I'm always trying to convince these half Spanish half Ecuadorian children that America is the best country in the world.  Seems to be working.  Check at that flag she is waving.
Steins and Parrenos at Taozi Lake.
Lucy just loves Karisa and will follow her anywhere.

Newspaper clipping of first trip on the Changsha subway line.  They let all foreigners ride as a special promotion before the official grand opening.
Who invited the press?  Why are we such a big deal everywhere we go?

Decorating baskets for the Easter bunny.
The face says it all.

Annie teaching these children how to dye Easter eggs.

This guy in the middle is a total stranger.  He's just curious about what we are doing with these eggs.

Yep, we didn't invite them either.  Welcome to the party, pal.

Obstacle course at Wang Ling park is no problem for me even at 39 years old.

Stacie's first time trying stinky tofu.

Nicolas' first time trying stinky tofu.

Evelynn's first time trying stinky tofu.

Lucy refusing to try stinky tofu.

Cooking vegetables in a stone pot covered with foil.

Our makeshift ping pong table.

China is so second nature now.  Here we are in the train station waiting to go to Loudi.

Alice needed to take us to Loudi during the May Grave Sweeping holiday (like our Memorial Day) because she has school.  It was super crowded in the train station.

Here are the bunks on the slow train.

I nibbled a little on this turtle foot, but I kept hearing my cousin Lisa's voice in my heading saying, "How could you, Kevin?!" so I stopped. 

Nicolas eating squid in Loudi.

I love this picture.  It reminds me of the movie Reservoir Dogs.  If you haven't seen it, there is no hope for you.

Riding bicycles down by the river in Loudi.

The Chinese are very superstitious about the number 4.  Everywhere there would be a 4, they just put "f" for "four."

Beautiful spread of food at Alice's grandparent's house.  Wow!

Another picture with the grandparents.  Such sweet and kind people!

Well, if I forgot my underwear, I know my fancy hotel has me "covered."

We always run our kids around so much on these trips that by the end of the day they are wiped out.

View of the lotus-shaped pond from the top of the mountain near the Goddess of Mercy statue.

It's apparently good luck to rub Buddha's belly.

One goddess next to me and one behind me.

This Buddhist temple has like a thousand of these gold Buddha's.  Apparently, Chairman Mao with his supernatural powers (according to the Chinese) was able to determine which single one of these statues was real gold and the rest are fake.  Stacie must also have supernatural powers because she simply said, "I bet it's the one behind the glass."  It WAS.

Here, we are learning a little about the Buddhist temple.  People are inside praying, so it seems like it would be inappropriate to take pictures, but I did get permission in case you thought I was a total dunce.

Beautiful view of the Goddess of Mercy from the Lotus pond.

I'm not sure what Nicolas did to irritate this Chinese soldier.

The entrance to the cave about 2 hours from Loudi.

The Xue Family.  We have never received so much hospitality in our lives.

Two years ago, I met Alice when I came to HNU to teach for a month.  I recruited her to come to SUU where she came for a year and we got to see her there too.  Now, we are here in her home town.  It's nice to have good friends in China and America.
Ezra has an infected tooth and will need a root canal.  This picture is at our second visit to the Chinese dentist.  The first two trips were a little drilling and some treatment of an infection.  Then, next Friday they will do the root canal.  I hope they know what they are doing.  I have a little mistrust of Chinese medicine since nothing they have done for us all year has helped even a bit.  If it works, though, all three treatments cost 1000 RMB (about $150).  Pretty cheap for a root canal, right?  But, expensive if it doesn't work at all.  Poor Ezra! The picture above is Ezra holding the anesthetic that we had to purchase separately and bring to the dentist.  When they first started drilling without it, I was like "What the heck do you think you're doing?"  I had my friend who was translating tell them never again to drill without numbing.  They were like, "Well, if we want to be pampered, you'll have to pay extra for that!"  So, here is Ezra with his well worth it bottle of anesthetic for 40 RMB ($6.50).
I snapped this photo outside the window of a bus.  I just had to capture one of the hundreds of ladies riding around on scooters in their dresses and high heels.  A very frequent sight here in Changsha.
We see a lot of strange things in China.  This guys is headed to the market to sell his eels and he's just chillin' on the bus next to me.  Freaky.
I know public speaking and this one was awesome.

During the holidays, the trains are so crowded in China.  These guys don't have a seat so they have to stand for hours.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Touring Changsha and Beijing with Garrett and Bethany

I deliberately waited to post an entry until after my brother Garrett and his wife Bethany came to visit us.  I knew I would have plenty to write about since they had never been to China (or anywhere in the Eastern hemisphere).  Plus, Stacie, the kids, and I had yet to venture outside of the Hunan Province since we arrived last August.  We had been to a few place in Hunan and I have written about those (Zhangjiajie, Jinggang, and Xiangtan), but never farther than that.  We were all looking forward to the visit from family and the opportunity to share in this experience with them. 

Garrett and Bethany arrived on a super late Sunday night flight on China Eastern Airlines that went through Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and then our new home city of Changsha.  I hired a driver to take me to the airport to pick them up.  Well, my fluent-in-Mandarin SUU assistant, Karisa, made the call initially.  I simply had to get picked up, tell the guy in Chinese what the flight number was (I'm getting very good at numbers) and that they were coming in on China Eastern.  I basically said in Chinese "China East airplane," but I think he got the idea.  The conversation was very limited for the 45 minutes to the airport.  I burned through all my Chinese in about 2 minutes and then watched a movie on my iPad while we drove.  When we got to the airport, the plane was delayed.  The driver seemed a little impatient, but he was very nice.  There were a few other foreigners wandering through the airport from other flights and my driver kept looking at me as if to say "Hey, there are some foreigners, how about them?" as if any foreigners would do.

Finally, after waiting an extra hour, Garrett and Bethany finally came through the gate.  I was so excited to see them.  It had been so long since we've seen any family that it was a bit emotional for me.  We had a difficult first semester adjusting to life in China and were just starting to do well in about January.  Personally, I worried a little that seeing family would trigger that "I want to go home now" impulse in me.  But, that didn't happen.  I was just excited to see my brother, who just dropped a fortune to come visit me.  Plus, anyone who thinks he may have come to Changsha for the vacation and planned to see our family on the side has never been to this place.  I did discover later that it was kind of their big anniversary trip.  How romantic!  I'm sure that staying in a small apartment with a family of 7 in a less-than-hygienic country killed the mood pretty quickly.  However, Garrett assured me that after all the island, Mexican, and Alaskan cruises they've been on, they were ready for a new kind of experience.

The morning after the arrival (Monday), they were pretty jet lagged.  I was kind enough to not plan anything that morning.  We woke them up just before noon and took them to Liu Jie's.  Garrett and Bethany had been reading about our favorite restaurant in this blog (we eat there about 4 times a week) and his favorite SUU teacher (besides me of course), Earl Mulderink, had just come to Hunan Normal University for a guest lecture and raved about the great hole in the wall restaurant I had taken him to.  So, Garrett was primed and ready to try the food there.  And the verdict...they loved it of course.  We ended up eating there twice during his stay because it's so good and so cheap.  After lunch, we took him over to the university and showed him the scenic spot on campus with the pagoda and the pond with the goldfish just at the base of Yuelu mountain.  We hiked the back side of the mountain and showed Garrett and Bethany the interesting grave sites and monuments on the mountain.  The Japanese had invaded many parts of China during what they call the War of Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), including the city of Changsha.  On the top of Yuelu is a monument of a Japanese soldier kneeling in apology.  Stacie's friend, Lily, told her that the monument was created by the Chinese to show what they think the Japanese response should be following the war.  We found it interesting and thought Garrett would too since he is a huge history buff.  Plus, Stacie and I have been a little surprised by the continuing level of hostility the older Chinese exhibit toward the Japanese people.  In fact, our friend Wouldbe told us that the characters for Japanese person (日本人) also mean (go f*&# yourself).  So, if you say "Japanese person" in the right context, you are using a profane expression.  And, it's probably no coincidence that they chose the Japanese as the basis for this slur.  

After we hiked the back side of Yuelu, we went down the mountain and walked over to east entrance of the mountain, which is very near to our apartment.  We took the cable car to the top, enjoyed the views of the city since it was such a clear beautiful day, and then took the mountain chute/slide down to the bottom.  We kept joking that Garrett and Bethany were such good luck with the weather.  It was supposed to be raining the entire time they were in Changsha, but it didn't really rain at all.  Plus, the sky was blue and the pollution was minimal.  When you book a flight months in advance, you can't possibly know what kind of weather you're in for, so we were very fortunate in that regard.  After the mountain, everyone was tired.  We chose a very unique kind of dining experience for dinner, the local Pizza Hut.  Garrett really wanted to try this pizza they had with salmon and wasabi on it, but they were all out.  Must be in high demand or something!  Anyway, the food was very good and the Pizza Huts here in China are considered upscale dining.  The people look a bit better dressed when you go in there, which is strange compared to how the restaurants are in America.  

The next morning (Tuesday), we left very early to catch a high speed train to Beijing.  None of us had ever been on the high speed train before and it was quite a nice experience.  There was plenty of leg room, the chairs were pretty comfortable, and the ride was very smooth since we are obviously traveling on rails.  Plus, the security lines are a joke in China.  They figure that nobody would really dare do anything so they make you just put your bag on a conveyer belt and walk through the metal detector.  It takes about 5 seconds.  Then, you go right to your gate.  It's much easier than airport travel.  I was a little nervous about traveling so soon after the knife attack at the railway station in Kunming that killed 29 people and injured a 130 more, but most places in China are fairly safe. The high speed to Beijing takes about 6 hours compared to the slow train, which is more like 20 hours.  Stacie and I had talked about taking the slow train, but thought Garrett and Bethany would probably not want a 20 hour train ride after just getting off an 18 hour flight.  Originally, I thought we would be going to Beijing without a Chinese guide and I was scared to death.  My Chinese is NOT sufficient to get around, but I hoped the subway system would be easy (in most cities it is) and I thought the hotel staff could help us find our tours to the various sites.  However, we lucked out and our friend Wouldbe agreed to take us around Beijing.  He is from Changsha and couldn't afford the high speed train (and we couldn't afford to pay his fare), so he left a day early on the slow train and met us at the train station when we arrived.  Actually, he wasn't waiting for us when we got there.  We exited the train station and stood right out front for about 45 minutes as I tried to call Wouldbe and figure out where he was.  He kept saying, "I'm in the South Plaza" and I would reply "I'm in the South Plaza, just look for me."  Then, he would say "Tell me what you see" and then I would describe the surroundings.  Eventually, we discovered that Wouldbe had gone to the wrong train station and had to take the subway back to where we were.  It was frustrating at the time, but how do you get mad at a guy who slept on a wood slat for 20 hours so he could help your family have an easier time in Beijing.  Wouldbe is the best!  

We found our hotel, which is in a university district where Wouldbe's cousin Wu Kai is going to school.  We thought it would be easier for Wouldbe to be near his cousin and the subway provided very easy access to the city center.  We were very happy with our hotel accommodations, especially considering how cheap it was.  We paid 100 yuan per room per night (about $33).  Since we had three rooms for three nights, our total hotel bill was $300.  So cheap!  Plus, the beds were softer than the ones we've been sleeping on for 7 months and the toilet and shower were Western-style if you know what I mean (no squatting).  Garrett, Bethany, and Nicolas slept in one room (again, damper on any anniversary getaway stuff), Ezra, Wouldbe and I in one room, and all the girls in the other.  First thing Wouldbe said to me when we got in the room is "Do you care if I sleep in just my underwear?"  I said "Knock yourself out."  Wouldbe then said, "Huh?"  Wouldbe also very much enjoyed using the shower.  I think he showered morning and night during our stay because the water was "free."  In China, he explained to me that the students usually only shower once a week because they have to go to a special place and pay to shower.  Otherwise, they just clean themselves in the sink at their dorm room.  So, Wouldbe was living it up with his twice per day showers.  

That first night after we checked in, we headed over to the famous Wangfujing Snack Street where they sell all kinds of delicacies like silkworms, sea horses, star fish, and scorpions.  The place was at the very top of Ezra's To-Do list.  He REALLY wanted to go here and we all wanted to take him.  He made a special deal with his Uncle Garrett that he had to try everything that Ezra would eat.  I told him he needed to make a deal that he would eat anything Lucy would eat.  It's a much safer bet.  But, he was stuck.  If the kids ate it, he would have to man up and eat it too.  When we got to the snack street, I had a harder time wrapping my mind around what we were about to do.  I guess seeing the live scorpions squirming around on those sticks really brought it home for me.  I was carrying Lucy and she buried her face in my neck and said "I don't want to eat it."  I told her she didn't have to eat anything she didn't want to eat.  She felt better, but still would not look at the bugs.  We purchased a stick of scorpions for 25 yuan (about $6).  That's pretty pricey for food in China, but they know the foreigners will come and pay it.  And guess what, they were right.  Ezra took the first nibble and said he thought it was pretty good.  Then, it was my turn and I nearly put it in my mouth about 4 times before finally sticking it in there and chewing.  Then, Garrett ate one, Annie, and then Nicolas.  We all agreed that it tasted a lot like a potato chip and the battle was more psychological than anything else.  Next, we tried the starfish.  We all took a bite, but it was kind of hard to chew.  The consensus on that one was that it tasted like tree bark or wood of some kind.  That's all we tried.  We guessed the fried sea horses would probably also taste like potato chips and nobody really wanted to try the giant juicy looking bugs.  So, that was that.

The next morning (Wednesday), we got on the subway and headed to the train station to catch a train to the Badaling area of the Great Wall.  Wouldbe and Wu Kai (the boys and I kept calling him Wookie) were our guides.  I was concerned about going to the Badaling area since it is the most heavily visited part of the wall, but we were willing to go wherever they wanted to take us.  We waited at the train station for about an hour since we barely missed the earlier train.  As we waited, we noticed people forming a huge line to get to the train.  I asked Wouldbe what they were doing and he said that the seats were first come first serve.  This always makes me nervous since we had such a big group and the children needed to sit close to us on the train.  We got in line, but were kind of far back.  When they opened the gate everyone started pushing and shoving and running to the train.  Stacie told me not to worry and that we would get seats.  So, we walked quickly to the train, got on a car and there were still plenty of seats. I'm still not sure why the Chinese are so averse to forming real lines and to having reserved seating.  It's just nuts over here sometimes when you are trying to get on a bus, hail a cab, or do anything that normally requires a little bit of etiquette.

When we got to the entrance area to the wall, it was about 1 p.m. and everyone was hungry.  There really wasn't much to eat at the bottom of the wall since it was mostly souvenir shops.  We did find some fried rice and fried noodles that were pretty terrible, but we ate them anyway.  Plus, everything is overpriced as you might expect, like having to pay $1.25 for your noodles instead of 75 cents.  My favorite part of going to the tourist sites (apart from the sites themselves) is bartering for souvenirs.  I think the children would agree as we always give them their own money and let them loose to negotiate.  They've gotten really good at it too.  Annie and Nicol got a sweatshirt that says "I climbed the Great Wall,"  Lucy got a shirt that says "I love China" (she SO doesn't love China), Evelynn got a shirt that says "I love Beijing," Nicol and Ezra both got those conical straw peasant hats, and Lucy and Evelynn both got little stuffed animal Pandas (Lucy appropriately named hers Souvenir). Oh, the little girls also got a version of those Russian Matryoshka dolls (nesting dolls) that were Pandas (did I mention they love Pandas).  Lucy is so good at naming her souvenirs.  This one was called "Tons of Heads."  

Oh, so the highlight of the Great Wall was not souvenir shopping and eating bad fried rice.  The wall was absolutely incredible.  It's hard to describe how amazing it was.  The climb was pretty steep in places, but the weather was moderate, the crowd was pretty minimal, and we very much enjoyed the scenery in the area outside of Beijing.  It's always nice to get out of the city a little.  When we were in Zhangjiajie back in September, we felt rushed by our tour guide.  This time, we were able to go very slowly with the children and just enjoy the fact that we were on the FREAKIN' GREAT WALL OF CHINA.  I felt like father of the year taking my children to this glorious place.  You can look at pictures in a book or on the internet, but I was really looking forward to seeing how high the wall was and making some snap judgments about the viability of climbing over the thing during a siege.  Plus, the amount of labor that would go into building a wall that size that stretched across all of China is astounding.  As I walked along it, I kept thinking about how many of the workers were killed during its construction, either from exhaustion or from trying to run away and getting buried alive in the wall by their masters.  We kept asking Wouldbe questions about the wall and apparently he knows as much about his country's history as American students know about theirs. Anyway, we spent all day at the wall, which is what we really wanted to do.  When we got home, everyone commented that this was their favorite part of the trip.  After we returned to the city of Beijing, we found a very nice Japanese restaurant and had Japanese style tofu, hot pot, fresh sashimi, and some other dishes that were suspiciously like American dishes but we loved them.  For example, what kind of Japanese restaurant serves chicken fingers? Also, who serves tuna salad with garlic on white toast? We liked it, but the national origins of the food were a bit puzzling.  The restaurant owners took our picture with a Polaroid camera, we wrote some English sentiments on it, and posted it on the wall.  The Stein family is forever enshrined on the wall of a restaurant in Beijing.

The next day (Thursday), we intended to hit the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.  We ended up spending far too much time at the Forbidden City and never had the chance to get to the Summer Palace.  I really wanted to see it, but I've never been too big on rushing things.  Often what happens is you barely see a few things instead of seeing one thing really well.  Plus, everyone was enjoying the walk around the Forbidden City.  There was so much to see there and so many interesting stories about events that happened in each of the buildings.  The site is absolutely massive and I know we barely scratched the surface of what was there, but we feel like we saw a great deal.  One of our favorites was touring the Treasure Gallery where we got to see some really old relics from different dynasties.  I think sometimes I forget just how little history there is with my country compared to China.  I remember traveling to London in 2006 with Eric and we were amazed at some of the architecture from the 1500s.  The Forbidden City was even more fascinating because of the design of the buildings and the age of course.   My favorite moment from the Forbidden City, though, was when someone came up to Garrett and Bethany and tried to sell them a souvenir book with pictures of the Forbidden City.  I had taught Garrett that "Wo bu yao" means "I don't want" in Chinese.  With great confidence, Garrett said to the man, "Wo bu wow."  The man laughed and corrected him.  Then, I started helping Garrett to negotiate.  The man was persistent, but we ended up getting Garrett a pretty good deal on the book.  Then, the man made the mistake of trying to sell to me, but I'm a seasoned professional barterer now.  I'll tell you how the conversation went in English, but we spoke in Chinese (as much as I could anyway).  He said, "Do you want a book?"  I said, "I already have one."  He said, "Do you have this one?"  I said no and he offered to give it to me for 20 yuan.  I told him, "I'll give you 1 jiao for it" (less than a penny).  He pulled a coin out of his pocket and said "This is one jiao!"  I said, "I know!"  Then, he said something in Chinese I couldn't understand (probably called me a Japanese person if you know what I mean) and stormed off.  Maybe it was rude of me, but they are so pushy at these tourist sites and think they can take advantage of the foreigners.  One person actually tried to barter with Annie on some item and Annie offered her 50 yuan when the lady wanted a hundred.  Finally, she agreed to give it to Annie for 50, so Annie gave her a 100 yuan bill expecting change.  The lady gave her fake money in return.  But, Annie has been using Chinese money for months, so she refused to take it until the lady gave her the real change.  So, I don't really feel badly about offering the guy one penny for his book.  I do want to add that Garrett was picking up Chinese pretty well for only being here for just a few days.  Some of the words I heard him use in Chinese were: this, excuse me, thank you, hello, goodbye, one, I want, and how much is this?  Not bad, eh.  It was kind of funny how Garrett and Bethany thought our Chinese was good.  I tried to explain to him that it's terrible, but I guess a guy that knows a couple hundred words probably looks impressive to a guy who knows like 5 words.

After we saw the Forbidden City, we took a bus to Tiananmen Square.  I really wanted to see the scene of the 1989 student demonstrations.  We had to go through security to get into the square.  The square looked very massive and we could see Mao's mausoleum in the distance.  However, we took a wrong turn and ended up back inside the Forbidden City.  Unfortunately, once you've entered the Forbidden City, they will not allow you to go back through to Tiananmen.  So, we were stuck and said "Well, at least we kind of saw Tiananmen Square.  That night for dinner, we went to an amazing restaurant and had Peking Duck. Stacie really wanted to try the world famous Peking Duck and so we made it a priority to try this.  In the end, we all loved it, but Stacie thought it was just ok.  She said, "Next to the bacon wrapped duck at the Painted Pony in St. George, this is nothing."  I would probably agree, but this was pretty good stuff. Also, the duck came with a sauce that everyone thought was amazing.  They were like "What is this sauce???"  Finally, I told them "It's just hoisin sauce, haven't you ever had that before."  Apparently, they hadn't.  

The next morning (Friday), we departed from Beijing.  I won't bore you with the details about how we missed our first train and had to take a later train.  It was quite stressful, but I refused to let it ruin the trip.  We had a glorious time and nothing will ever take away from it.  I think this blog has gotten long enough, so I won't tell you about our Saturday outing to Orange Island in Changsha, the Hunan University barbecue where we ate oysters, snails, eggplant, and stinky tofu, or Garrett and Bethany's first experience having church by conference call.  I'll let them tell you about it if you ever have a chance to ask them.  Garrett tells me he is working on a blog entry himself to add to my commentary.  I think that will be wonderful to hear his perspective on the trip too.  When he sends it to me, I will add it to the bottom of this blog and repost the link for everyone. 

Garrett, Bethany and I with Liu Jie and her husband.  They own the restaurant together and they work very long hours. 

Evelynn apparently LOVES Beijing.  We like how her shirt has English and Chinese or what we call "Chinglish."

Garrett and Bethany on Orange Island in Changsha.

Our entire travel party at the bottom of the Great Wall.

It's not often I get a picture with so much love between these two.  They do like each other, but arms draped around each other?  A definite keeper.

Out to eat with Garrett and Beth.  The chopsticks were difficult for them and I think they started getting mad every time we would ask for a spoon for them to use.

The view from the top of Yuelu Mountain in Changsha.  It was such a nice day even though the forecast predicted rain.

We gave up our bedroom to our guests.  Hope they enjoyed the most comfortable bed in the house with it's whopping 2 inches of padding on top of a wood slat.

Kids are obviously psyched about our hotel in Beijing.

Here we are at the Forbidden City.

Maybe their anniversary was a bit romantic after all.

I introduced Garrett to my motto for China, which is "close enough."  The maps, the translations on T-shirts, the quality of products.  Everything to me seems to point to this motto that close is good enough.  In this case, calling South America "South Afarica" is clearly NOT close enough.

Of course we had to play ping pong while Garrett was here.  We often had people walk by and watch us as we played.  For those wondering the score.  I won the first two games and Garrett won the third.  His argument was that he was just getting warmed up those first two games.  My argument was that I started getting tired the third game and that's why he won. 

The cable car ride up to the top of Yuelu Mountain is always so beautiful and relaxing.

It's always nice to have a little English on the menus.  It helps you know what you are in for.  In this case, Garrett and I really wanted to try this pizza, but they were all out of them.

Something tells me Ezra will remember this for the rest of his life.

We had to eat something and to our not so great surprise, they had noodles and rice.  It wasn't very good.

We got this a lot in Zhangjiajie National Park too.  People are at one of the most popular tourist sites in the entire world and what do they want to take a picture of?  That's right, the famous Stein family children!

Our wonderful guides.  That's Wouldbe on the left and Wu Kai aka Wookie on the right.

Uncle Garrett was absolutely amazing with his little nieces.  They absolutely adored him and cried when they had to say goodbye. 

The children wanted to touch the Great Wall.  You can walk on top (which we did most of the time) and you can walk on these sidewalks next to the wall.

It cost us 20 yuan to dress each kid up in traditional Chinese clothing.  Everyone liked it except for Lucy, of course. 

Garrett found this shop with all these traditional Chinese instruments.  He ended up purchasing this one and bringing it home to America.  The guy also had a regular violin hanging on the wall to the left of where Garrett is in this picture.  Garrett motioned to the man that he knew how to play it and the guy pulled it off the wall and handed it to him.  Garrett played a little music for him (even though he had a hard time with it being out of tune), but the people around us were all impressed.  I think it gave Garrett some added credibility in buying this Chinese instrument that he at least has some familiarity with music and isn't just another dumb tourist.  The man taught Garrett some techniques for playing and he plans to practice when he gets home.