Things I learned in Vietnam

In July, we spent three weeks traveling in Vietnam with four of our special kiwi friends. It was an amazing, wonderful, fun, informative time. Traveling is always eye-opening, but I think Raymond’s and my learning antennae are sharper because of our permanent state of being different. Also, we six friends all enjoy reflecting on similarities and differences, and we had a lot of time to do this together. So, I came away with a number of lessons learned.

Enoughness

We went on a number of tours with local guides who all talked about how much is enough to live on – loosely translated as ‘you can feed and house your family and look after your parents’. I think New Zealanders tend to be more content than other western cultures, because most of us grow up with enough, we tend to prioritise lifestyle and family over things within our environment of having enough, and many amazing experiences are affordable for the majority. However, our group discussed how enoughness is not a conversation one has in New Zealand, even though we tend to have much more than the Vietnamese we saw around us. We thought it is probably a consequence of a history of not having enough, followed by relatively recent equal distribution of things under the communist government. Given recent moves by the communist government to have a system where individual effort brings rewards and there is equality but not sameness, it will be interesting to see if enoughness continues within this more free market environment.

Some things are worth fighting for

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh made me reflect on how I might have responded to the same situation. For 20 years, the locals resisted the US forces and their fellow countrymen fighting with them. Over this time, men and women lived in a claustrophobic network of underground tunnels. I could hardly handle being in there for 10 minutes.  They would have been in perpetual heightened awareness from continually being at risk of their lives. And they had to keep evolving new ways of resisting, attacking and surviving to keep their country. And it must have been discouraging seeing so much of the countryside you know and love destroyed by Agent Orange etc. For 20 years! I am not sure I would have been able to do it. But, it worked, it was worth it, and now both sides are rebuilding their country together.

Some things are worth forgiving

Given the relatively recent history of north fighting south, you might expect hints of lingering resentment.  But it was not apparent – when in the north or the south. Our guides were younger and would not have fought themselves, but relatives would still be alive who fought on either side. Maybe guides tend to toe the party line, or people who are resentful don’t become guides. It seemed that ethnicity was a stronger factor in peoples’ identities than which side you were on in the American War. Our guides tended to be Kinh, Vietnam’s dominant ethnicity, and genuine in seeming proud of Vietnam as one great country. We also visited Sapa in the far north where various other ethnicities live together. Our Hmong guide focused on explaining local culture, and didn’t communicate any resentment.

Winners eventually become losers

I have a smattering of European history and tend to be quite ignorant of Asian history, having been primarily exposed to European history through school and readily available books. But traveling helps embed things for me. For example, when we were in a museum in Vienna last Christmas, I truly understood for the first time why killing an Austrian ruler started World War 1. Being surrounded by evidence of the power of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time, I finally got it.

Our guide to the My Son Sanctuary , out from Hoi An, showed us an infographic map of the area when this amazing building was built. The map changed to show how the situation changed when they were conquered (I did search for it to share here, but to no avail.).  I had one of those epiphany moments where I thought – of course, the borders kept changing here just like in Europe. Duh!

And I hadn’t realised that the Chinese ruled Vietnam for just over 1,000 years – from 111BC to 938AD. That explains the Chinese characters on the older buildings. Chinese characters were used until the 19th Century when the French changed everyone over to a phonetic system using the Roman alphabet – the change being accelerated by education becoming more prevalent. And I recognised several words, for example, when my dressmaker told her colleague to ask Ros to come and give me advice on the dress I was getting made, I understood her say ‘friend’ because it is the same as Chinese. Given my small Chinese vocabulary, I was surprised to know any, but it turns out over a third of modern Vietnamese has naturalised word borrowings from Chinese.

This Champa kingdom of My Son, which I had never heard of, ruled for about 1200 years, before being forced off their land and into the hill country by north Vietnamese who came down and invaded.  The collection of buildings at My Son was built over a 1,000 year period – 4th to 14th centuries AD, rediscovered in an almost pristine state in the early 1900’s, and then almost destroyed by a week of US bombing in the War.

And then the French control of Vietnam, the bit I already knew about, was such a blip in Vietnam’s history – 1885 to mid 1900s – not even 100 years in a country with 5,000 years of chronicled history.

This lesson seems particularly poignant now, as we seem to have a changing of the guard globally with the balance of power shifting from the West where I grew up, to the East where I am living now.

Age alone is not an excuse

One of the highlights of the trip for me was canyoning in Da Lat. When I read about it, I thought at least five of us would want to do it, so was surprised when only Christine and I did. I was standing with Raymond when I told the guy behind the counter that only two of our group would do the trip. He looked at Raymond and asked if it was him. I said ‘No, me and that woman’, pointing to Christine. He didn’t bat an eyelid (and I know because I was looking closely at them).

The day after the canyoning trip, we had the same person as our guide for the weasel coffee, cricket and silkworm eating, cycling trip. I asked him if he had been concerned when he understood who was going to do the canyoning trip. He confessed ‘yes’. But he hastened to add that when his colleague returned, his colleague had told him that we had been fine and had been better at walking through the bush than the younger people in our group. He then asked me how old I was and, when I told him, said that my age made me the oldest woman to do the trip with his company. I felt pleased, but also glad I had not told myself that I might be too old for it, because I toyed with thinking that.

I am similarly pleased that I did not listen to the voice in my head that says I might be too old to live in China, or to learn Chinese. Research is coming out saying that voices like that might contribute to people getting dementia because we stop learning and laying down new neural pathways to give our brains a better chance of finding an alternative route to damaged pathways. And I think learning and doing new stuff is much more fun.

My good friend Trish sent me an article about a female astronaut our age who holds a number of records and just broke another one earlier this month. And Julian, our friend here who is a fount of all knowledge, said that the guy who is presently winning veteran marathons didn’t start running marathons until he was in his 60s.

There will be things I can’t do as I get older. For example, I decided not to enter a fun run next month because my achilles tendons started to hurt when I was training. But I want to be a person who does not listen to any voice in my head where the only reason not to do something is ‘my age’.

Special friends are … well … special

In one way it was a bit risky deciding to travel for three weeks with our four friends.  We have counted Christine and Lawrie as special friends for nearly 30 years. We raised our children together, including our families holidaying together over Labour Weekend for many of those years. We have known Ros and Colin for half that time but also count them as two of our most special friends.

We only introduced the four of them to one another a couple of years ago and the longest we had holidayed together was for one weekend. But, yes we could trust our instincts. It was so lovely to see them again after being away from New Zealand for a year, and we had one of the best holidays of our lives.

We only had one tense moment – when I had not checked my emails, and our flight to Da Lat turned out to be changed to an hour earlier (who does that?), so we only just made it onto the plane, and Lawrie lost his Swiss army knife because we couldn’t take it on to the plane as carry on. I apologised, and he forgave me. It was not helped by the fact that I had also not booked extra luggage for that flight so had to go off to pay extra when we had so little time, and when we got to our hotel it turned out that I had misunderstood another email and not paid a 50% deposit to hold the rooms. So we had nowhere to stay – and it was raining. We soon found somewhere up the road but three ‘fails’ in the space of a few hours was definitely the lowest point of the trip for me – but my special friends forgave me, made me a cup of tea, joked, left Raymond and me alone to solve it, and mentioned it over the rest of the trip just enough times to still be funny.

I remember my mum, after she was retired, talking about her travels with her special friends – in New Zealand and overseas. We are not quite retired, but we do have more discretionary time and independent children. While we still love holidaying with our children, it is a different experience traveling with others our age and stage. Having  had such a marvelous time, I am thrilled to know that we also have four special people with whom we can build memories – for up to at least four weeks at a time anyway.

So, an eclectic bunch of new insights – some personal and could be learned anywhere, others Vietnam specific, I continue to learn and grow. What a privilege!

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Learning Chinese – 12 months

I am now six months further into my Chinese language learning journey than when I wrote Learning Chinese – six months. When I reread my six months post, I thought ‘oh, how discouraging, not much has changed’ because I would use similar words to describe my situation

  • most of my Chinese lessons speaking Chinese with grammar or culture in English
  • people tend to understand me, but I don’t understand them very well
  • I still tend to remember the pinyin but struggle with which is the correct tone
  • I can read some characters but not most of them
  • I can write characters that I know and copy those I don’t know neatly (more neatly than locals, in the same way that my written English is almost illegible to other people).

But I have improved in small ways

  • The sentences that I use and understand in my lessons are longer, more complicated and more frequently accurate
  • People understand me better than six months ago. When I give our address to taxi drivers, I don’t need to ask if they understand because I know they will. If I know all the words and have my sentence structure right, locals just reply.
  • I understand more than six months ago, even if it is still not very much. Sometimes, I can pick out tonal differences and I can understand numbers at the market or shopping. When people speak to me, my mind sometimes works out what they were saying a few seconds (or minutes) later. I know some words immediately but my poor brain keeps whirring – assessing the context, filling in gaps, determining the missing words and which sounds and ones they might be (sometimes needing to look them up in my dictionary) and then working out the whole sentence. This does not make for flowing conversation, but I can now stretch to mini conversations with those willing to practice.
  • Compared to six months ago, I know the pinyin and tones for more words and can read and write more characters.

So my overwhelming sense is ‘slow and steady’. I need to persevere and trust the process. When traveling, dining and shopping, my language learning is encouraging. In these situations, I am tending to speak in Chinese even if locals speak to me in English. Their English tends to be a similar level to my Chinese. Both sides have stock sentences we can say effectively, and we are both excellent at understanding our own language. I feel most discouraged at work when I am part of natural conversations and understand virtually nothing.

One encouraging thing is that I now have a base to which it is easier to add new bits. The sounds are all familiar so that I can recognise the difference between ‘zh’ and ‘j’ or ‘z’ and ‘c’. This means I can look it up, and can have a go at guessing what tone was being used, so I can learn for next time. I can remember place names easily because I have the bank of sounds to call upon. When I read, I can sometimes work out from the two characters that I know what the word might be. I break characters down into primitives in my mind so can write them quickly to work out what they are.

We are now confident that I can work it out if we travel to remote places. Last year, in the national October holiday, when we went to 九寨溝 (Jiŭzhàigōu) National Park, I researched places to stay with English speaking staff. This year, as we plan our trip to another national park –  張家界 (Zhāngjiājié or Avatar Mountains) – it is all about location and value for money.

How am I learning Chinese?

Much of the ‘how’ is the same as six months ago. I still have online classes with Tutorming most week days before I go to work, use Pleco dictionary to look up things wherever I am to communicate and keep stuffing new things into my brain, and am using the Heisig ‘develop stories using primitives’ method to learn the 3,000 most frequently used Chinese characters (nearly a third of the way).

However, as I have continued to research and talk to others about what they find helpful, I have found three new activities and resources helpful.

Firstly, I have worked on improving my pronunciation by reviewing several resources intended to help English speakers pronounce pinyin. My Chinese teachers are the best at saying things properly, but they do not always know how to help me say things better. They say it again to help me and I think it sounds the same as what I am saying. An English speaker recommending a similar English word, or saying ‘put your tongue here, not there’ is a good supplement. Some people say you need to get your pronunciation right early on so you don’t develop bad habits. I agree that would be great, and I did try. But given that I am where I am, I find when I go back to these resources one bit of theory sticks and I can work on that, whereas working on all the sounds at once was too overwhelming. Also, I can know where to focus my improvement because my teachers point out something or a local struggled to understand me say a specific word. I can go to my Pleco dictionary too and listen to it over and over again to try and understand where I went wrong.

Secondly, a friend introduced me to the Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series. I gave up on Chinese language children’s books quite soon after my last blog post. They are intended for people who speak Chinese but can’t read. The Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series are for people like me, who can read but not speak Chinese. The first books assume you know 300 Chinese characters – most of which I do now. If they use words outside those 300, they write it as a footnote with the pinyin and English translation. The stories manage to be interesting for adults – so far, a murder mystery, kidnapped children, challenges of being conjoined twins, and the romantic dilemma of a software engineer developing the first Chinese software in 1988.

Reading these books has helped me reflect on how much I learned English through reading. I tended to think I learned it all from my parents, but I realise devouring all those books (we did only have one TV channel that started in the afternoon) helped so much. I am reinforcing existing knowledge, picking up new language structures, and gaining new vocabulary. For example, ‘policeman’ has cropped up a bit, given kidnapping and murder themes, and was useful when our regular driver asked me what jobs our sons do. I could say ‘My younger son wants to be a policeman’ just like that.

The best thing about the series is that each one comes with a CD with a slow and normal speed soundtrack. I have copied them onto my phone, and now I listen to the slow audios of these books whenever I walk somewhere on my own, such as to and from the bus. Listening continues to be the weakest part of my language learning and this has helped so much. One day I hope to graduate to normal speed.

Thirdly, I have discovered Anki – a flashcard software system that uses ‘spaced repetition’. I really wish I had discovered this much earlier on, but at least I have found it now. This is thanks to an opera singing polyglot – Gabe from Fluent Forever. He has developed a system that really rang true for me when I tripped over it a couple of months ago. I was realising that I was struggling to revise all my vocabulary, and for the characters I was good at revising, my revision did not take into account that I knew some really well and others not so well. I was going through them just the same whatever category they were in. Enter Anki!

Anki is free (for Android and Windows) or cheap (for Apple) software that you can use to make flashcards for anything. Once created, it gives me the cards to review at shorter or longer intervals depending on my assessment of remembering it as ‘again’ (I can’t remember this), ‘hard’, ‘good’ or ‘easy’. I can create cards on my computer, revise them on my phone, and everything I have done syncs up to the cloud and back down to each device (I know baffling you with technical jargon).

And people have created all sorts of cards already. I downloaded over 3,000 pre-made cards for my Heisig method of learning characters. Fluent Forever offers a free template relevant for languages such as Chinese with characters, and a set of pre-made cards to help me with Mandarin pronunciation for only $12.

This pronunciation guide shows me that I can differentiate between most Mandarin consonant and vowel sounds, but am terrible at recognising tone differences. However, the guide gives me the chance to keep revising these differences until I can spot them. It is quite magical to not hear a difference, then be able to, and then wonder how I ever missed it and not be able to imagine thinking they sound the same.

The second thing I like about Gabe’s method is the idea of using pictures for flashcards so you miss out the translation step in your brain. Again, because I have been at this a year, I can see how much better it is when I operate like that, and that it is desirable to remove the English step if possible. So, I am in the process of developing vocabulary cards for about 1,000 words. Gabe recommends 650, and my friend’s professor has a list of the 1,000 most commonly used words. I naively assumed the 650 would be a subset of the 1,000 – not so. So, I have developed my own list, based on both of theirs and things I have wished I could say while I am here. I am now creating my own cards using the free template from Fluent Forever. Gabe also recommends including personal meaning, so they are quite fun to develop, and revise with pictures of special places and people dotted through. Example card for ‘dark’ being created below.

ank eg

I can revise most of my flashcards on my daily bus trip to and from work, and, if need be, finish up any last bits at home. (Example screenshots from my mobile phone below.)

The third thing Gabe suggests, which I will do once I have my 1,000ish initial vocabulary cards made and being revised, is grammar/sentences flashcards, again using images rather than English. I will be able to get sentences and key grammar points from revising my lessons (I confess I am falling behind on revision of my lessons, with all this cards focus). I have already captured some of these in my book of notes. Now I want to be able to remember them. Making grammar cards is one of those things that as soon as I read it, I thought ‘that is obvious, why didn’t I think of that?’

The final thing that I am experimenting with (again from the famous Gabe’s book) is mnemonics to help me remember tones. Specifically, I have assigned a tone to each of my four children and am now linking the relevant child into my stories for characters when I struggle to remember the tone. So for  委 (wĕi, committee) I had a story of women (lower primitive in the character 女) bringing their paper bag tree (upper primitive 禾) fruit tarts to a committee meeting. Now I have added the image of Andrew (my up and down/third tone child) sitting with the women on the committee who were comparing their paper bag tree fruit tarts – dishing up his tart, which is of course agreed to be the nicest by far. This sounds very cumbersome when I describe it but is surprisingly effective when I picture it.

You may be wondering how I got to paper bag tree for a primitive – not Heisig’s idea. He uses wild rice for 禾, but I got that confused with another primitive 米 ‘rice’ that he also suggests, so I changed to ‘paper bag tree’. We went camping at the same time as I was getting confused between wild rice and rice, and from the bus I noticed trees with paper bags. I think they were covering fruit. It seemed a good alternative, and has worked well. It illustrates how I take others’ systems and make them my own, and how a stupid idea is often more memorable than a sensible one.

Another new thing is trying to talk with locals. When I am in Chéngdū, I have weekly lunch with Veena, a Chinese colleague who wants to improve her English. This has been a bit helpful for Chinese learning and lovely for getting to know someone at work. However, I think we have been too back and forth between Chinese and English. A few weeks ago, I met a Chinese woman who has lived in Sydney for five years. She said that she and her language partner found it helpful to speak in one language for half an hour, and then switch to speaking the other. This forced them both to push through communicating whole ideas in their difficult language each session. I will suggest that to Veena going forward. I also feel ready to retry connecting via an online site called Language Exchange, with locals who want to improve their English. I tried late last year, but when we met it was hard work when we used Chinese and that language partner did not seem keen to continue. Several have approached me online so we will see how that goes.

So, the last six months have been a lot of learning, and learning about learning, particularly taking from others’ experiences and finding what works for me. I continue to make progress and am reasonably encouraged. I still feel discouraged when I think how far I have to go to achieve my goal of conversational fluency. It helps to remind myself how little I used to know, and that I will definitely know more if I persevere than if I give up.

And think of all those neuronal pathways I am building to offer alternative routes as my brain starts losing some of its existing ones.

Ten things I love/hate about you

Recently we passed our one year anniversary of being in China. It has been interesting to welcome the new teachers to Raymond’s school and realise how different it is to be returning rather than arriving.

So it seems a good time to summarise the year with a list of ten things I like and ten things I do not like about living here. In no particular order:

I like:

  1. various transport options. I like having buses, metro and rental bikes to choose form for any route. It is wonderful not having to know the timetable for, or having to run to catch, the bus or metro, because I know another one will arrive within five minutes, if not sooner. Some locals run, which fascinates me and shows that we are all products of what we experience as normal. They should never move to New Zealand.
  2. living in such a technology rich environment. Chinese have apps for everything. Our favourite apps that make such a difference to our lives here are:
    • Alipay, to scan a barcode with our phone and pay for everything however big or small
    • Pandabus, uses GPS to works out where in the city or country we are and then tell us what buses are nearby and their routes
    • Beaver Home, means I can book and pay for beauticians to come and offer a wide range of beauty treatments in my apartment
    • Mobike, enables us to unlock one of the bikes dotted all over the city, ride it for as long as we want, automatically pay a small fee (20-60c), and stop paying as soon as we lock it.
  3. shopping at the market where fruit and vegetables are seasonal, and we interact with human beings each purchase. After a year, we are still to settle on regular places to buy our pork and vegetables. For other things, our regular suppliers, primarily selected because of their friendliness to struggling foreigners, are
    • hardware store couple
    • potatoes and kumara man
    • several fruit women – none of them have everything we like
    • walnuts and fruit woman
    • the chicken lady, and the duck man
    • peanuts and oatmeal young woman
    • biscuit and cake couple who bake our Saturday morning tea on site.
  4. our slower pace of life. Most evenings, Raymond and I sit out on our balcony, in sleeping bags in the cool months, enjoy our beautiful  view over the (man-made)lake and river, people watching in the park and talking. I am working part-time, and he has small classes and doesn’t manage lots of football teams. And apartment living doesn’t take much time.
  5. learning Chinese. I have always wanted to learn a language. I was good at languages at school and have sometimes regretted that I did not continue with that part of my academic study. So I am loving tapping into this side of me and it is so obviously useful. I am particularly enjoying learning the Chinese characters, which, at the beginning, I assumed I would not do.
  6. making new friends. We have met some lovely people, both local, kiwi and from other parts of the world. As in New Zealand, we click better with a subset of those, and have forged some fun, deep connections. The transient nature of ex-pat lives means they tend to be open to socialize with us, but locals are harder to get to know well, With both ex-pats and locals, there are cross-cultural aspects to navigate, and it is always nice to meet up with kiwis.
  7. being half way between the two places where our children live. With two daughters in London and two sons in Wellington, it is nice to be able to travel north or south to meet up with them. Last Christmas, we met the girls and their partners in Germany, and this Christmas plan to meet them in Russia. We couldn’t do that if we were still in New Zealand. At the same time, we have been able to go back to New Zealand twice. Raymond’s school gives us one trip, and we have made the most of the new super cheap flights direct to Auckland.
  8. being able to travel. As well as being half way to Europe, China in particular, and Asia generally, fascinate us. We enjoyed going to Laos and Vietnam this year, and are loving traveling in China. As my Chinese language grows, and we build our knowledge of how things work, we can travel more like locals, on trains and buses, and selecting accommodation on price for quality rather than having an English speaker. This then helps keep prices down. I have planned out our next two longer holidays with fascinating trips and there is still so much more to see in China.
  9. new experiences every day. After a year, we feel like we have only just begun. Just this week, I have been out with a colleague twice for lunch and had two types of food I have not had before – one was some Korean dish, and the other a very fine pancake with egg swirled on it, and a chicken, lettuce and crunchy things filling. Even when we do things we have done before, they can be new experiences, like taking our kiwi friends to have hot pot and being the experts rather than the trainees, or going to the large shops in town and taking a different route which means we discovered a lovely tranquil temple environment.
  10. feeling so alive. Linked to number 9, we are continually being surprised, amused, challenged, or a mixture of all three. Just as a day in Wellington can include four seasons, a day here often includes a full range of emotions.

I don’t like:

  1. struggling to communicate at work and play. As my Chinese improves, the play part is becoming less frustrating. Now I can usually say enough to shop and travel. However, at work, my language is woefully inadequate. After 12 months, I tend to sit in a meeting where Chinese is being spoken (entirely reasonable given where we are) and only understand pronouns and conjunctions – “We … but she can … New Zealand … and they … so … .Yes.” This is solid progress compared to a year ago, but does not give me much more information.
  2. being so dependent on others at work. Right now this is my biggest ‘hate’. When Brightsparks began, I could work relatively independently, and only relied on my business partners with their good English – strategizing, developing our services, writing marketing materials in English, working with the English speaking web designer, and connecting with NZ institutions. Our next steps involve working with local staff to translate and do graphic design of print materials, researching the Chinese market, and communicating with Chinese partners and customers. I cannot do this because I do not read, understand or speak the language. My partners and staff in their other company are there to help but I have to wait for them to fit it in between their paying work. I am used to being able to solve problems myself and really struggle with this one.
  3. not earning money yet. When I decided to start Brightsparks, I did not think everything would take so long, but it has – see above. We have set ourselves a financial target for the middle of next year, so it is early days yet. Raymond and I have food on the table and a roof over our heads, and can still travel. But, our anniversary of being here has amplified this aspect, and I am still working it through.
  4. missing friends and family. I miss our special people, especially not being there for our granddaughter’s milestones. Although, technology really helps. I feel like we are keeping up with family developments, and it can mean that we all share thoughts and pictures with one another that we might not know about if we lived in the same city.
  5. grey skies and pollution in winter. People who leave Chengdu often say they are leaving because of the cold, damp, grey winters where your first activity in the morning is to look at the air pollution level on your phone. I was relatively protected from this last winter because I ended up being away for eight weeks. But it does affect you emotionally. At the moment, the sky is often blue which is a frequent topic of conversation.
  6. taking half an hour to find something to watch on TV. We haven’t really mastered movie watching here. We have cable option which is very cheap and ahs one English news cahnnel, one English move channel with titles in Chinese so it has toahve started to know what it is, and many back channels which change their content regularly. A decision to ‘watch TV’ means clicking through these back channels to try to find a movie that we might want to watch. Our pattern is that we decide we want to watch TV, I start clicking while Raymond cooks dinner and hopefully I have found something by the time he is finished. Sometimes, we then start watching only to find 20 minutes in that we need to pay to watch it. We have just worked out how to do this on Alipay which is very simple, and nto that expensive.
  7. vpn and slow internet. Our internet speed in our apartment is not that bad, but once we use vpn it slows right down. And western countries tend to be so Google, Facebook and YouTube dependent. Quite a few websites are Google based in how they work. In the west, you don’t notice because they just work. I have learned that if the circle keeps spinning, the site probably uses some Google system as part of its functionality. We tend not to miss the actual apps because now we use Chinese alternatives. But sometimes we can’t, such as watching our children’s ultimate games live streamed or recorded, from Europe and Australia. Watching our boys play in the Australian Nationals, I coud see the comments about the end of the game when I still had ten minutes left to watch. While Raymond was in New Zealand, to view Marah’s recorded games, I watched a minute, reviewed Chinese for ten minutes while the next minute downloaded, then repeated. And slowness over vpn makes it difficult to use sites like Netflix. Luckily, we like sitting on our balcony too.
  8. things can be so far away. We have shops, restaurants and our market nearby and friends in the same apartment block. However, anything else tends to be ‘miles away’, as you would expect in a city of 18 million people. We have two responses to this – ridiculous optimism, where we underestimate the travel time by about an hour; and reluctance, where we wonder if it is worth it, and consider sitting on the balcony instead. We have a few routes that we know well and can predict accurately, but off those routes, we can still get hopelessly lost and double the time. And even when we map it out well and go straight there, an hour can have flown by because it is just a long way away.
  9. crowded metro and buses. We live half way between the centre of the city and the southern extremity,  next to a park. So, most of the time, it doesn’t feel like we are in a city with four times the population of New Zealand. However, when we catch the metro, it does. Most times of the day or night, it is crowded, often claustrophobically so. I have no idea where all the people are going, but it can be hard to handle for a Wellingtonian. We often take the bus because it tends to be emptier, but occasionally buses get incredibly crowded too. I  think the bus is full and then ten more people squeeze on.
  10. only being able to think of nine things I don’t like – not such a bad thing.

 

端午节 Dragon Boat Festival

It is now four weeks since Dragon Boat Festival and I finally have a chance to blog about it, before the memories fade completely.

端午节 means ‘double fifth festival’ and is so called because it falls on the fifth day of the fifth month. However, the date follows the moon driven Chinese calendar so this year it fell on 30 May. Raymond had four days off school – Sat 27 May to Tues 30 May.

Saturday we blobbed as for any weekend, went out for dinner with a couple of kiwis from one of  Brightsparks’ partner schools, and packed for our first ever camping expedition.

Raymond is on holiday in New Zealand as I write, but has promised to blog next week, before we both go to Vietnam, about his work experiences in China. However (spoiler alert), I can tell you that he is finding new opportunities for professional development stimulating and enjoyable. One of those new things is being part of the team introducing the Duke of Edinburgh (D of E) award to Lemàn.

Raymond and the other two members of the D of E team had organised this camping trip to check out a possible location to which to take the students. I along with sundry other camping-interested staff and various significant others tagged along for the experience.  As always, not speaking the language introduces challenges and the teachers need to go with a local guide for ease and safety, so she also was being checked out. This is about taking 20 students away overnight, with the aim of stretching and developing but still bringing them back alive.

So we got up early Sunday morning and headed in on the metro to where we were all meeting the van, setting off from town about 8am, aiming to stop for lunch on the way and, based on it being a four hour trip, arrive early afternoon. Lesson #1, do not travel during a national holiday. Our 4+1 hour trip doubled to ten hours.

Initially, we made good progress, but the first clue things would take longer was when the off ramp we wanted to take was closed because of work being done in a tunnel on that road. So, we, along with all the other people who would have preferred to go that way, inched forward, eventually coming to a stand still. We played cards, talked, joked together, and people watched. Some people got out and stretched their legs, or took their children for a stroll. One elderly woman found the wait too long, and climbed over the metal railing beside the road to relieve herself behind her daughter’s strategically held umbrella. It turned out we were merging from one lane to two, to go through another tunnel which was also being worked on – not while we were going through, but the big earth moving equipment sat there meaning no vehicles could go in the right hand lane.

After we were through the tunnel, the traffic moved well. Our next delay, close to our final destination was when a couple of guards stopped us to check our tickets for the tourist area we were heading into. Our guide, a petite young woman, who much of the way had been snoozing up the front by our driver, was very impressive the way she stood up to the three men in uniform. She insisted that we were not going as far as the area for which you need tickets, so should not pay for them. The stand off continued for a while, ending with a compromise where she bought some tickets that we did not need, and they did not insist that we purchase the full number.

 

So, we arrived about 6pm. We explored down by the river, then all chose flattish spaces without rocks to put up our tents, and gathered firewood for our campfire. We drove in the van back to the nearby village to eat dinner in a small local restaurant, with meat hanging overhead and the warmth of the big wood oven heating the room. Back to our campsite and toasting marshmallows over the fire, before all heading to our tents to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable with just a thin bed roll between us and the ground. The grassish plant was quite spongy and added softness, and we managed to avoid the stones – and snakes! Coming from a country without snakes, Raymond was a bit startled when a student found, and shared, a massive snake at school. It made him rethink camping in China – but so far so good.

 

Raymond and I were first up (mainly because he felt a bit nauseous and started the day throwing up – we never did work out why, as everyone else was ok), and we enjoyed a brisk morning walk along the road before the others got up. Then we all packed up our overnight homes and returned to the village for breakfast. Afterwards, our hosts brought our horses and we set off up the mountain, some walking and some riding. Raymond still wasn’t feeling 100%, so he walked the whole way, and I was feeling lazy so I rode the whole way. At the top, I still got enough opportunity to exercise to enjoy the stunning views of the valley and snow covered mountains. We relaxed up the top for a while, then meandered down the hill before rejoining the horses for the final flat section, and back to the village.

 

Lunch was Sìchuān Hotpot – a mild version for we westerners at one table and a spicier version for locals at the other table. Hotpot is very popular over here in the south west, and the ultimate in Sìchuān food. It is like a spicy fondue. You have hot oil and chillies in a large centrally heated container on the table. The restaurant brings finely sliced meat and vegetables, which you pick up with your chopsticks and put in the shared vat until they are cooked, then pick them out and eat them. As you might imagine, we novice chopstick users sometimes lose our treasures or cook them for longer than we need to while we fish around for where they might have gone. One of our group does not like any spiciness. Our guide said that she could do what locals do with children – have a bowl of hot water by her plate and wash the spicy oil off the meat and vegetables. She did this until her water turned red, replacing it with clear water as required. I asked when locals introduce their children to the hot spicy food. “At least by four years old, because they need to eat in the cafeteria when they start school.” When eating with locals, we have learned to say that we don’t like hot food. If we say, as we did at the beginning, that we like a bit of heat, they provide food that we think is really hot. If we say, we don’t like it hot, we get food that we think has a nice kick to it.

(To give an idea of hotpot’s popularity, I recently took a kiwi visitor to the Tibetan Quarter. We wanted to try Tibetan food for dinner. However, all we could find were hotpot restaurants full of people. We finally found a Tibetan restaurant with a couple of customers but nobody appeared to serve us. Eventually, we made do with steak, and fish and chips, in a restaurant that turned out to be less Tibetan than it looked from the outside.)

Back in the van and a six hour trip back. The same tunnel was a bit of a bottle neck and we slowed down as we got near the city, but it was not nearly as long as our journey there.

Tuesday was the official holiday. Like me, you might have thought that this festival would include seeing dragon boating. Possibly there was some happening, but we never heard of it. Our only festival specific activity was eating 粽子(zòngzi) – pyramid-shaped dumplings made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. We had both been given them from our workplaces, in their not so traditional vacuum sealed plastic wrapping. We looked on the internet to see how to cook them, using our steamer that we bought for making steamed dumplings with the dumpling casings we see at our local market. Zòngzi were okay – glad we tried them, but won’t rush to buy them. I did wonder if little children remember them fondly because they are little parcels tied up with string and have different fillings so you don’t know what will be inside them – like my memory of my grandmother’s Christmas pudding.

 

Raymond’s school also gave us a salted duck egg, another festival delicacy. Our egg was salted by being packed in damp, salted charcoal, which we had to chip off. We read online that salting it not only preserves it, but is a way to disguise the strong duck egg smell – not in our experience! I nearly threw up when I breathed just after the charcoal came off, and Raymond, who is usually more willing to give things a go, rejected it immediately.

 

So, our first dragon boat festival was interesting and pleasant, but did not remotely resemble the images, based on our daughter’s dragon boating in New Zealand, that my mind conjured up when I read the words on Raymond’s school calendar.

We have been here almost a year. It has gone so quickly. We have experienced the full cycle of festivals, seasons, and events. So much seems normal, so much still to learn. What surprises are in store for us in our second year?

 

Roller coaster low

Last week on Wednesday, about ten months in to our adventure, I hit a low and I don’t fully understand why. It came out of the blue and this blog is written on Thursday  – me processing what was happening inside me as part of helping myself through it. I needed to wait a couple of days to post it.  I wanted to provide the context of my Working in China #1 post, which I was part way through writing. And  it seemed prudent to check I had not written things I would later regret when I felt more positive – but no editing, this is how it was.

roller-coaster

Symptoms

The last few days I have been fragile and getting weepy at everything – Sally sending a link to their beautiful wedding photos from February, mothers day messages from my children, a messaging conversation with my son, my business partners postponing a meeting, the air conditioning not working at work and struggling to find a fan, a Chinese colleague not able to understand my English then telling me not to use my Chinese to talk to him, being alone in my office because my colleague is away, Raymond being caring, Raymond not being caring, my Chinese friend postponing lunch, still working on Brightsparks marketing materials after six months.

Reasons

I think it is harder than I admit to myself to navigate the various things I am having to navigate while we are here. My strength is that I relish taking on new things, attack them with vigour, am quite self-motivated, and persevere when they get difficult. My weakness is that I am not good at reading signs of stress in myself or being honest with myself when things are difficult. Weepiness is the only way I realise it is happening.

I had already admitted to myself a couple of things were a bit tricky for me at work – working across cultures and language, and starting a business from scratch.  Last time I set up a company, I had a partner with similar expertise who was also a good friend, a few big jobs to start us off, and a wide support network, some of whom were also starting out on their own. And I knew the language and all the rules, so I could work quickly and efficiently on my own or with others. This time, I am the only one with the specialist knowledge of New Zealand education, so I need to work at a level of detail that I find emotionally draining. I am still building my network here, so my fewer connections are not so able to offer ‘help, I am struggling’ support in the way my New Zealand colleagues who were also friends could. Some of my colleagues do not have good English, and understandably, they have other priorities. And I don’t know the language or rules.

However, I have different support here. I have two great business partners with expertise that I can never have to help me navigate China, an amazing colleague who is working for love like I am while we have no revenue, a wonderful graphic designer who is also my daughter to develop our website, and my business partners’ wider team who are researching, translating, applying, and designing, as well as giving me a business roof over my head and standard office support.

I think the straw that has broken the camels’ back is moving office space to be just the two of us, rather than in a larger office with all the other ex-pats chatting around me, followed by my colleague going back to the US for a few weeks. I find people energising, and writing marketing materials de-energising. And, my closest people connections, the conversations through the wall, are in Chinese so I can’t even sneak some energy through eaves-dropping. Above a certain volume, it becomes irritating noise distracting me from my writing.

So I am feeling lonely during the week. Raymond and I are in the groove of arranging social activities each weekend.  These friendships are at the new and exciting stage, which is nice, but different to the comfortable, we have known you guys for years, friendships we enjoy in New Zealand and Australia.

Post weepiness reflection, I think my ‘but I love new things and puzzles’ brain might be a bit worn out too. I am spending every spare moment trying to learn Chinese on top of my work challenges and my ‘moving to a very different country’ challenges. Sometimes driving along on the bus, I say to my brain ‘stop, just relax, don’t keep trying to work out those characters, or what she (the automated woman voice, not the woman in the next seat) is saying’. But, with all the stimuli, it seems hard to turn my brain off.  (Although, generally Chinese language learning is quite energising for me – I have always liked doing puzzles to relax.) Maybe not knowing what is going on is more what is taking its toll. I do like to know what is going on.

And, things are more normal. We have our weekly routine, we are traveling regularly, but spend weekends just blobbing here as we would anywhere. It is good and important to do this, but it might mean less adrenaline to keep me going.

And I miss my special people – say no more.

Solutions

Blog – to help me analyse what is happening, listen to my body, accept I am who I am, remember what really matters to me, and act to achieve that. (Been very therapeutic.)

Use my support network, be honest and ask for help. I have the best husband I could hope for, friends and family here and across the world to call on, others here who are going, or have gone, through similar things – and my belief in a God who is always with me, cares and will listen.

Remind myself most of the work stuff is temporary. My colleague will be back in a week or two, the marketing materials are almost done, the next stage is much more relational, we might be moving offices soon.

Remember what I have achieved, and set realistic goals. Obviously, the timelines for having the materials done, and for being able to relate effectively to others in Chinese were unrealistic. I am making progress.

Embrace the learning – that is a big part of why we are here!

Post-script

By Friday I was much better – blogging, talking to my friend in NZ for over two hours (mixture of laughing and crying), good progress on our partners booklet, lunch and a positive meeting about a new opportunity with my business partners, and Raymond’s support, all did the trick.

Dūjiāngyàn irrigation project

I have already posted about my fascination with China’s amazing history. This includes the more than two thousand year old irrigation system in Dūjiāngyàn, about an hour train ride from Chéngdū. This engineering feat was key to the Sìchuān region in which we live becoming the food basket of China and consequently important in China’s history.

As shown in the animation below, during the ‘Warring States’ period (453-221BC), the Qín province gradually took over the rest of China, unifying it for the first time and creating the short-lived Qín dynasty (221-207BC). The Emperor of this dynasty was the one with the ego massive enough to conquer the whole country and employ millions of people to create the terracotta army to look after him in the next life. It doesn’t seem that he was a very pleasant man. For example, when visiting the terracotta soldiers in Xīān, we heard that the advanced chrome plating technology died when he did because he made sure that the technical experts were buried alive in his tomb. However, he clearly encouraged and drew upon technological advances and we can thank his ego for contributing to our present understanding of the sophistication of Chinese culture and technology at that time.

Towards the end of this Warring States period, around 256 BC, the state of Qín, which by this time was large and aggressive, created the Dūjiāngyàn irrigation system to conserve water in the dry season and manage floods in the wet season.

Originally, each spring as the snow melted, the Mínjiāng (‘jiāng’ means river) rushed down from the Mínshān (shān means mountains) flooding the Chéngdū Plains, once it hit the silt filled flatlands. Traditionally, the solution would have been to build a dam, but the river needed to stay open to allow boats to take food to the troops conquering more lands in the east. The irrigation project harnessed the river for growing food, using a new method of channeling and dividing the water rather than simply following the old way of dam building. It took four years to build an embankment to divert the water, using stone filled bamboo baskets held in place with tripods. It took a further eight years to gouge out a 20 meter wide channel through the mountain. The Chinese had not yet invented gunpowder – they waited about a thousand years to do that. So, once they discovered how hard the rock was, the 256 BC engineers had to invent a way to split the rock. They used a combination of fire and water to heat and cool the rocks until they cracked and could be removed. It also took thousands of people to do the work. Lí Bīng, the governor of the time, was the master mind behind the whole thing, and is commemorated by a statue at the top of the hill. (I did not take a photo of his statue so you will have to make do with my photo of the plaque nearby, taken because I was struck by the quote saying this was more inspiring than the Great Wall.)

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The system is still in use today and irrigates over 5,300 square kilometers of land in the region. It is one of “three great hydraulic engineering projects” of the Qin Dynasty.

This project enabled the Qín region to produce three crops a year to feed its massive armies, and allow them to keep transporting the food to those armies, thus changing the history of China. The abundance of food the system enabled is also credited with leading to more free time and the subsequent laid back rich culture for which Sichuanese are now famous – and we have experienced and continue to enjoy.

As well as being historically interesting, we had heard it is beautiful, so it was on our list of things to do while here. A couple of weekends ago we, and a couple of friends, traveled to check it out. We enjoyed ourselves for several reasons:

  • it was nice to get out of the city and walk in a beautiful, interesting place – so different to a New Zealand experience because China’s beauty spots have been inhabited for thousands of years
  • we were getting to know friends better – making friends continues to be important to us – having arrived in a new country where the only person either of us know is each other
  • we were encouraged by being more skilled, and therefore more relaxed, travelers than our first time using public transport.

We caught the train. The general rule here is to buy tickets at least one day early to be sure you get a seat, and one of our friends did that for us – one way it was more relaxing. We got up early and traveled the 15 stops from our nearest metro station to the North Railway Station where our train would leave from. This was a new venue for us but we know the time to walk to our station, know where to look to see how long the metro would take, and were confident we could find our way to the boarding gate if we arrived a bit early – which proved to be the case. Last time, I checked out the bus station route beforehand to be sure.

The train was very pleasant. We almost missed our stop because we were so busy chatting – but I noticed it just in time. We followed the crowds to the bus stop, caught a bus into Dūjiāngyàn town, got off where it looked familiar to our friends who had been here once before, but didn’t remember details, and explored. It was a lovely mixture of historical buildings, traditional looking shops, street food and bush walking. We climbed up the hill, took the escalator to the very top, climbed up the high pagoda, enjoying the stunning views, then walked down the hill, across the swinging bridge, through the manicured gardens, and back to the quaint shopping area. We enjoyed drinks by the river and walked back to find somewhere for dinner by the river and bridge that was just being lit up, before heading back to catch the train.

It is an indicator of how much more relaxed we are becoming, that we nearly missed the train. To be safe we would have foregone dinner, but we wanted it. We thought we were fine, but the bus took longer than we predicted (all the time not being 100% sure that we were on the right one, despite my having asked the driver in Chinese if it went to the railway station and having been encouraged by his seeming to understand me and me him). We ran the short distance from the bus stop to the station, went straight through check in because by then nobody else was there, scrambled onto the train at the first open door, walked through a couple of carriages, and sat down in our seats literally one minute before the train pulled away. We had to ask a woman to move from our seats. She had reasonably assumed nobody would be using those four seats. Once I calmed down, I felt decidedly local!

Okay not local yet, but we feel we are on the way.

 

Some of the tea in China

I am an avid tea drinker. I have more cups of tea a day than I have cups of coffee a year. And, I am fascinated by the history and culture of China, which has to include understanding tea – 茶 (chá). So, when the Chéngdū Foreign Affairs Office, Chéngdū Education Bureau and PŭJiāng County Government invited teachers from Raymond’s school to a tea picking event, I (and therefore we) jumped at the chance.

There are Chinese records of tea consumption dating back to the 10th century, and the world’s earliest physical record indicates that Hàn Dynasty emperors were drinking tea for medicinal purposes in 2nd century BC. A popular Chinese tale takes it further, saying that in 2737 BC the legendary Emperor of China was drinking a bowl of just boiled water (interestingly, having decreed that his subjects must boil water before drinking it) and leaves from a nearby tree blew into his water. He took a sip, liked the flavour and tea was born. The first record of cultivation of tea, also from the 10th century, shows tea being cultivated on Méng Mountain (蒙山) near our beloved Chéngdū .

Tea spread to the rest of Asia from 6th century BC, was introduced from China to Portuguese priests and merchants in the 16th century and made it to Britain (and my ancestors) during the 17th century. Then the British, as they tended to do, actively changed the order of things, by introducing tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India, in order to compete with China’s monopoly on tea.

Last Saturday, at 7.50am, with some of  Raymond’s colleagues and their family members, we hopped on a bus the school provided, and traveled 1.5 hours from Chéngdū to PŭJiāng. I had that kiwi assumption thing going on – visiting tea plantations would mean a  rural environment. So when the bus stopped in an urban environment, I was quite surprised. We were ushered to a registration table with people everywhere, then into a nearby room with long log tables and two women performing a synchronised tea ceremony. We were given cups of tea in not-so-traditional paper cups, and some interesting looking biscuits that tasted very nice. A Chinese gentleman siting nearby told us, in broken English, that we were drinking the sparrow tongue tea famous in this region. It didn’t look like it was made from real sparrow tongues.

Next we were led out to a large number of seats and taken to those with the school’s name on. We were quite bemused by all of this because we had only skimmed the invitation email and had missed the fact that we were being invited to the opening ceremony for the annual Pu Jiang Tea Picking Festival. Luckily, we are getting used to going with the flow. We had translation headsets so could understand what was happening. We watched the Festival officially opened, the best tea pickers given their awards, a couple of contracts signed, and a number of dances.

Then we followed the crowd to the restaurant where we had an amazing lunch. We must have only eaten half of what was crammed onto our table. There were the usual local dishes, with our usual coping strategies. Avoid the dishes with the reddest sauce, pick out the chillies where necessary, only take the vegetables when unsure of the animal part in the meat dishes, and enjoy the dumplings and plain vegetables. The four foreigners at our table enjoyed the meatballs, which we have not seen here before. They tasted like I might have made (a few herbs, no spice, gravy rather than oily sauce) and the locals did not touch them. Maybe the chef made them specially.

After lunch, we followed the crowd again, donned our hats and tied on our tea picking baskets. Then we went behind the manicured gardens around the restaurant and there was a tea plantation – hiding behind all the buildings. We picked our way past the basketball court, through the mud and to the bushes. We were with Raymond’s colleague who speaks Chinese and his Chinese wife, so we found out exactly which bits to pick – take the sparrow tongue shaped bud in the centre and leave the outer leaves. When we reconvened others had not been so well trained. Most had picked the leaves and the centre, and one guy had only taken the leaves, leaving the central bud so the plant could survive. We laugh a lot here.

We handed in our leaves and traveled in the bus to a local school where they teach tea craft. We learned a bit of theory from sculptures depicting the eight steps of tea making. I remember three things. Traditionally, only young virgins were allowed to pick tea thanks to their purity. The leaves were rolled in bags using feet and hands – now they use machines. And, the text by the sculptures linked tea making and approaches to education – but I don’t remember the details – sorry.

Then we went into the school’s small factory, and saw the machines they use. We had a go at drying leaves in large electric heating bowls – wearing gloves to protect our hands. Fascinating, but luckily, we did not have to wait until our tea was dry enough to use. It got very repetitive after a short time. It must have been even more so for those doing it by hand over fires years ago.Then we were taken to try our hands at calligraphy and watch school children perform a short tàijí session.

Our last stop was a classroom set up to train students in tea ceremony. We were taken through a ceremony in all its detail. I don’t think we managed such graceful flourishes as our teacher, although I tried – and got rewarded by the official photographer grabbing his camera to capture the moment. I hope they got a good laugh from it later. And I am sure we spilled more tea into the tray below the beautiful wooden stand. However, we did glimpse the tradition and sense of occasion that a tea ceremony brings. We must appear boorish with our quick jiggle of a tea bag in our massive cups, and even more so if they saw my system in our kitchen for reusing tea bags. Even I think this looks unseemly – but it is practical in a world of limited tea bag access.

 

As we left, we were given a beautiful box with four types of tea in it.I tend to be set in my ways with tea. In our apartment, I usually use Liptons or Twinings English Breakfast, Early Grey or ‘gumboot’ teabags, just like back in New Zealand. We did buy some barley tea after enjoying it during our trip north east, and we occasionally drink that – but need to be in the mood. When I first started at work, my business partner gave me some Chinese black tea (hóng chá, literally red tea – it is as red as it is black if you think about it). I have branched out enough to drink this like a Chinese person – putting my leaves in a cup each morning and topping it up with water all through the day. One day I tried another colleague’s chrysanthemum tea – literally dried chrysanthemums in hot water. Mine was too weak for me to taste anything, but now I know what those things are that I see floating in others’ plastic bottles.

I have almost finished my box of black tea at work, so will take our new ones in and see if I can become more adventurous as well as more informed.