My first hike in Beijing — incredible splendor

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Just when we were all ready to scratch out our eyeballs, a gorgeous day arrived and we hit the road! The whole team drove about 90 kilometers to Yunmengshan, or Cloud-Covered Mountain, where we had an incredible day of hiking. This was by far the hardest hike that I have ever done, and it felt SO GOOD to reach that summit for those views! What an experience.

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Times they are a-changin’

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Hello and how are you from a very cloudy Beijing. The pollution has been high-ish this last week, no especially gorgeous days to boast of, and my opportunities for any major exploration of the city have been limited. A lot of the highlights of this week are centered on the Base and getting our community programming up and running! CP is basically bonus afterschool time for the kids participating in Stage and Page to build community and work further on projects we start during the weekend curriculum. Community programming is Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings – curriculum is Saturday and Sunday evenings. (You can see now why my opportunities for exploring are a little low at the moment.) We have two kids signed up on top of F and E, the two we work with day in day out, and with the four of them we have been able to test out several ideas for story-telling and theater activities that we want to roll with during the official curriculum part of our programming. I have loved seeing them take to Readers Theater, where we work with scripted versions of children’s stories, usually chock-full of good vocabulary and potential to get on our feet with it and have fun! Other highlights from this week included borrowing B’s bike to ride with B and K over to Sanlitun (hip expat area); going to a Couchsurfing get-together where I met several French guys and got to use some rusty French; finding a very Chinese outdoor market where I enjoyed just walking around and taking in all the sights and smells (you can imagine); finding and making an account at the Institut Français, or French cultural center, where I can borrow books, attend movie screenings, and hope to find some friends with whom I can continue to parler un peu en français; and meeting up with a couple Whitties and their friends for a delicious Taiwanese meal.

I would like to tell you a bit more of how this week has really impacted me, though. I have mentioned feeling overwhelmed with all the changes, both in my new city environment and with helping to develop a new program, ever in flux, with a team that I am just getting to know. With all of it I am still having trouble feeling totally present in brainstorming meetings or completely jazzed to adjust our plans for the program to change focus, follow a new path. I remember being in this position when directing “Shooting Simone” for my Senior Project, reaching a point where we needed to redirect if the play was to really take off, yet feeling a sense of fear to throw out the old scheme we had been working with. It is hard to face change in situations like that, even if the potential reward of trying something totally fresh is huge. Especially then, I was so tempted to cling to what we had already built, both familiar and comforting, because switching felt like throwing away a lot of energy and ideas we had worked with until then. But now, here I am, working on developing an educational program with a team that has gobs of ideas, lots of research behind them, and anything ahead of us. From the beginning I have felt excited, sure, but also very scared. How do I operate in this environment where the script is changing daily? A big part of me wants a steady plan to hold onto, at least for a while to get my bearings, but it is clear that progress can only go forward by embracing the concept, “out with the old, in with the new.” Most meetings are a mix of pure brainstorming and someone presenting a “brick,” or rough draft of sorts, to be discussed, picked over, pulled apart and pieced together again, hopefully arriving at “jade” – or at least the jade for the moment, until we decide to tweak the plans again! I have found this so hard this week, and realize more than ever that I need to embrace change as a positive and necessary part of life. I don’t mean to say that I don’t know what it is to live with change. I would that say between college, my year in France and now moving to Beijing, I have experienced a lot of change, and get a huge pleasure from changing environments, newness, and testing my boundaries and pushing myself in different surroundings. But, at the same time, altering my thinking, to change in how I understand the projects I am working on, how to operate within them, think about them, and how I relate to others on the project, the general how and why of things… this is something I find challenging unto no end, and yet it is so essential to my work as a team player here. I need to embrace change like a good friend, a helpful hand in everything we do, constantly moving this ship forward. If there were no change, we would be static and stuck, and that is no fun.

Along with change, I need to work more generally on embracing process over product. Creative person though I am, I would say that in many ways I love the sense of accomplishment, of checking things off my to-do list. In fact, to-do lists are my staple for doing anything. I relish crossing every item off a long list until I can toss away that sucker! (Or recycle it, more like.) I am finding this tendency for uber-productivity really hindering my work at the moment, especially as it relates to embracing change. In this kind of creative, collaborative work, you can try to be efficient with meetings, you can try to focus on the tasks at hand, sure, but trying to finish projects, trying to cross things off your list and nicely wrap up the task at hand, doesn’t always play out so well. We have so many ongoing projects – and happily so, multi-tasking is something I am great at! – and they are ongoing for a reason. We want to brainstorm, and test out, and tweak, and revise, and retry, and reexamine, and maybe head in a whole new direction, on a lot of things we work on between the Base and Stage and Page. A big part of me cringes knowing that it is near impossible to really cross anything off my mental or physical lists here. But maybe I should look at the silver lining! The projects themselves bring stability. They aren’t going away. Every project, even if put on hold, hangs in the atmosphere like a floating cloud, just ideas percolating in the background while other projects take the foreground for a time. Even if we constantly change and alter and adapt the projects themselves, they are stable. As are my colleagues. Even if our ideas are ever shifting, this team and our long-term goals are a focus that I know are the backbone to any changes we make.

Speaking of long-term goals… to be continued in another post!

Views from Above: Jingshan Park

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My day off this week, I had plans to relax. My agenda included sleeping in, light exercise, getting a massage, and attending a yoga class in the late evening. I thought maybe I would shoot for a little bit of art today, head to a museum or art gallery. Calm things. Instead, I woke up at my normal 6:40, saw that it was BEAUTIFUL today, and got my butt in gear. Quick breakfast. Longer jog around the embassy neighborhood and Ritan Park, got ready and took the subway to Tiananmen Square. I stopped for baozi, had a special language barrier moment while ordering. Was approached by a friendly Chinese woman upon exiting the subway. After several questions and compliments, she suggested we either go get a coffee together or explore the Forbidden City together. Hmm. This happened again later, when a college student tried to become buddy-buddy and invited me for a coffee, and suggested I come visit him in Hong Kong. I had been asked to pose for photos before, but this is something else! It’s bizarre, but would maybe be perceived as totally normal by a Chinese person.. It’s odd to get approached just because I am white, but I think it comes from sincere friendliness and curiosity, and a desire to speak English of course.  Still, I dodged both times, and went to pose in front of Mao:

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And somehow, following the crowd, managed to work my way around the Forbidden City instead of entering it.

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(It’s like they’re TRYING to keep me out!)

It actually ended up being a lovely walk. I got away from the crowd and saw some interesting alleyways:

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Just when I began to suspect that I was not far from the Forbidden City entrance on the opposite side…

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…I also realized I was at the entrance to the Jingshan Park, known for beautiful pavilions high up on Jingshan Hill with a fantastic view over the Forbidden City and greater Beijing. Win! I opted for the great views and exceptional greenery and passed a couple hours leisurely walking around the park. Also hiking up to Wanshun Pavilion at the peak, which was a little less leisurely!

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Wanshun Pavilion translates to “All Time Spring Pavilion,” and is where you can see all the pretty things!!! (says the sign) I was once again so into the pavilion names in Beijing’s parks. The four pavilions scaling the hill translate to Wonder Appreciation Pavilion, Pavilion of Fragrance Gathering, All Round View Pavilion, and Eye Feasting Pavilion. Too cool. The pavilions were incredibly beautiful, and had great views to boot!

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The park is also known as the spot where Chongzhen, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, hung himself following a peasant uprising in 1644. Tired of starvation, the peasants invaded the Forbidden City, and Chongzhen fled to Jingshan. According to the sign by the tree where he did away with himself, the emperor was at least sorry – he bit his finger and wrote out with his blood that the uprising was the fault of his own and his advisors’ ineptitude.

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Another generally wonderful day. It’s hard, on gorgeous days like this, not to feel a Beijing high. The city is so beautiful and has incredible things to offer! Unfortunately tomorrow might be the flip opposite, hazardous pollution levels once again, and we’ll all be a little bluesy. C’est la vie à Pékin, qu’est-ce qu’on peut bien faire?

Outing to Chaoyang Park

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Great weather this Saturday called for another group outing! I love that my coworkers have this unpredictable side. Despite the good deal of work we are tackling, on a moment’s notice they offer to take us to the movies, karaoke, or, like today, suggest an afternoon in the park. We went to Chaoyang Park, Beijing’s largest, and pedaled (raced) around on group bicycles, then played a game of kickball. I have some pretty hilarious photos of kickball, but doubt my friends would be happy with me if I post them… 🙂

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Karaoke Time

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Okay, not the best quality photo I’ll admit, but nevertheless check us out at Chinese-style karaoke, or KTV! We had a goodbye party for the kids’ German instructor, pictured front and center, who headed home this week after working with the group for a year. Karaoke in China is something to be experienced! We headed over Tuesday around 8 p.m. after post-dinner crafts and role-playing with the kids. I was already a little surprised we could take the kids out for karaoke, which to my mind is always in bars with a crowd of who-knows-how-drunk strangers. Not the case here. We went to karaoke in one of the most gaudy places I have ever been, the “Music Box” in the Russian neighborhood a few blocks from where I live. The lobby was gigantic, featuring multiple fountains and glimmering chandeliers, and also some beer and Hello Kitty displays. Interesting combo. 😉  Soon we were taken to a private room, pirate-themed and featuring a prominent Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow poster above our couch. They brought us snacks and drinks, and we had this comfy space to ourselves for non-stop singing and silliness until our voices went out! It was a truly fantastic night, and a hilarious mash-up of English, Chinese, and Korean songs. And if you’re curious, and because I haven’t yet this brought up yet in my blogs… for as glitzy as this place was, they still only offered squat toilets!

A Phenomenal Day Out

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Monday being my day off (as well as the Mid-Autumn Festival – happy holidays!), I had to make a day of it, and boy did I ever. I started by hunting down The Bookworm, a great Anglophone bookstore not too far from my apartment (about 30 minutes by foot, nearly next door by Beijing standards). They hold all kinds of workshops, readings, concerts, and discussions, and I had heard so many good things about this place that I was itching to go! When I read that a coffee meet-and-greet was scheduled for 10 a.m. today, I was sold. When I got there, I learned that only one other bloke had shown up, probably due to it being a holiday, but we had a great talk nonetheless and he offered tons of advice about cell phones, live music venues, Chinese language-learning podcasts… super helpful stuff! Next I went to Nanluoguxiang subway stop to meet wonderful Mykhanh, who showed me around that hutong neighborhood. We got delicious noodles in a cute little restaurant…

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Got bubble tea, my obsession…

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And just generally caught up and popped into shops.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too funny!

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General ambiance of the hutong we were exploring (pretty touristy and packed, due to the festival, but still pretty dang cool).

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A quiet and charming corner on this busy hutong.

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Even in China.

I also bought a replacement wallet, so I am feeling more like an adult again! Compare my new one with what I’ve been operating with. Big step up, yeah?

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After saying goodbye to M, I went to Beihai Park just next to the Forbidden City. The pollution count was only 16 when I left the apartment today (basically better than I have seen it in my three weeks here), and I was PSYCHED to get my dose of nature in! Check out how beautiful this place is:

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No trip would be complete without solo selfie attempts 😉

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People were dancing in the beautiful pagoda-like structures on the lake.

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What a beautiful day!!!   

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Like at the Summer Palaces, I had a good laugh at the philosophical but also confusing translations of hall and temple names.

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What a fantastic day! We have a big week coming up, including the start of our after-school supplemental offerings for the kids participating in Stage and Page (the arts-based programs I am developing to help Chinese children improve their English skills, creativity/innovation, and teamwork/EQ). We are moving forward in an exciting way, but I expect it to be a potentially draining week. I am so thankful to have gotten to blow off steam with a Whittie friend, delicious food and good old-fashioned tourism!

Just for fun, I want to share this sign from the courtyard of my apartment complex. As you can see, there are not flowers, nor is this a garden.

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 Happy week, everyone!

 

Spoiled in Beijing

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As a great end to a very overwhelming week, E’s family (E is one of our learners at the Base) treated us to a really fancy dinner in celebration of Mid-Autumn Festival. You can see just a sample of the deliciousness we got to try in the photo below, including soup-filled dumpling, mooncakes, frothy juice and champagne that just kept flowing.

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We also got to try okra, cubes of pork belly-like meat with a crunchy top and served with mustard, scallops, giant shrimp, pigeon and duck with a crunchy caramelized skin, soup upon soup upon soup (even the straight-up broth they served us was incredibly flavorful), lots of other veggies, a pastry that resembled mochi meets a cream puff, and a warm almond milk-like soup. Plus fruit to finish. Goodness!

Waiters constantly brought out new dishes and set them on the revolving center piece of the table, which kept rotating to drift on past everybody. Since I am still developing my chopstick skills, it was a bit daunting to have to grab food from plates in motion. I may have dropped food repeatedly. Right as waitresses were serving me. I felt like such a newb. And this place was so fancy, each person had two pairs of chopsticks – one to take food from the communal plates, and another to actually eat with. I am so lucky (and spoiled) to be treated to restaurants like this!

Check out the group photo of the goofy bunch I work with and E’s family. If I look mildly sick to my stomach, it’s because I might have over-indulged in mooncakes. Wouldn’t you? 😉

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Overwhelmed in Beijing

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I feel like I could be writing to one of those “Dear Abby” advice columnists. “Dear Abby, I recently moved to Beijing with barely any Mandarin under my belt, little knowledge of Chinese culture, and very few connections in the city. I am feeling overwhelmed and don’t know what to do, although I acknowledge that I brought this confusion on myself. How do I cope here? How do I work to become independent again and feel like a happy, fulfilled individual? Yours gratefully, Overwhelmed in Beijing.”

This weekend was a case study in the phrase, “when it rains, it pours.” One overwhelming event followed another, predominately narrated in Chinese…

Saturday, to begin with, was a big day. We had our first Sample Show, the shortened preview of our Story Show event for younger English learners. This will be a weekly performed reading of a children’s book, teaching vocabulary through the show, the kids’ interactions, and games or other art projects in connection with the story. It was awesome! We performed our 20-minute Sample Show four times in the afternoon for different groups and met some really sweet, goofy, energetic kids — what a blast to have all that energy in our Base!

Following the Sample Show we celebrated with some karaoke because we are cool like that, and K happens to have karaoke-style music with lyrics that we can project in our big performance room. Such fun! Then we went out for a big night in the city to celebrate B’s one-year anniversary of his arrival in China. We went to a part of Beijing that has maintained the old hutongs, turning many into bars and restaurants. First we had dinner at a Guilin restaurant serving some of the most spicy food I have ever eaten. It was delicious, but K and I had crazy reactions, and lips and mouths literally tingled for the next hour. Once we left the restaurant and I put my mask back on, I felt like I was breathing fire 🙂 a kind of hilarious and intense food experience.

I should note, too, that pollution was worse this weekend than I have seen it so far. It really shocked me Saturday to see and feel pollution in a real way. And I know that it’s only going to get worse from here as winter approaches. Bring it on, Beijing!

After dinner, we went to an awesome beer bar where I met tons of B’s friends and had some interesting conversations, getting advice about English teaching opportunities in China and how to make connections with foreigners in the city. Overall I felt great, but when we moved to a concert venue with a crazy amount of people and really loud Ska band, things got a little nuts. Everyone in this concert space were clearly ex-pats, so all I heard was English, but I didn’t feel too comforted by this. I barely knew the group I came with, so I couldn’t really turn to anyone to express how overwhelmed I felt, and as the night went on I started to dwell more and more on how vulnerable I am in the city. In this maze of hutongs and small alleyways, how could I find a cab, and how then could I communicate to the driver how to get to my home if he didn’t recognize the address? Ugh.

Thankfully, the friends I live with are very sensitive and kind people. At about the moment when I found myself retreating to the corner of the bar, isolating myself from the party around me, B showed up to check in, offering immediately to go home if I wanted to. While it is great to have him there to save the day and get me home just fine, this really made me start to reflect on what I want from these outings in Beijing. My plan for the week is to take more time to explore my neighborhood, taking daily walks to build a mental map of my area. I want to find the gems in my small part of Beijing and feel comfortable here before I join my friends, more experienced with Beijing and city living in general, on their bigger adventures.

My first step toward building better familiarity with my area took me to “The Place,” our neighboring mall. I went both to explore, see what shopping was available (H&M baby!) and hunt for dinner options. I call this episode “looking like a fool in the Chinese mall food court.” I noticed while checking out the various fresh juice bars and noodle options that basically every sign was only in Chinese, and starting to think this might be a bad idea, I was just beginning to retreat to the mall’s grocery store when I passed a guy making what I would describe as a mix between a French galette and a Mexican burrito. Man did it look good! So against my better judgment, I head over to this fellow, and he looks at me and tells me something in Chinese. I pick out what sounds like “kaw,” meaning card in Chinese, so I figure he’s trying to tell me I can only pay in cash, but when I pull out my Yuan to show him I can pay he explains (again, not in English) what I need to do to pay for this tasty dinner. I am starting, again, to think that I should back out at this point, but he already started to make the Chinese burrito, so I feel trapped! He points to some counter where I guess I am supposed to pay, but I first go to the wrong place, then he accompanies me to the correct counter where I cannot communicate to the woman there that I need to pay for my burrito, can she please tell me how much it costs? We finally get the point across through gestures, but somewhere in the process I didn’t get the correct card that I think I needed to pay the burrito man for my dinner… I am still not sure what happened there, or if I paid enough Yuan, but in the end we all gave up and I came away with a delicious Chinese burrito that cost me a little over one U.S. dollar. And it was delicious. I think, however, that I will avoid the Chinese mall food court until I have a few Chinese expressions under my belt.

On a hugely positive note, my new laptop arrived, and it is sleek and fun to use the touchscreen and phenomenal to be able to use my own computer again anytime! But of course, things cannot be so simple. Because ordered in China, Windows 8 came as default in Chinese, and against all logic the language cannot be simply switched without upgrading to a Pro version or buying the whole Windows 8 program again. Ugh. But again, thankfully, I work with kind people who are generous with their time. N worked hard on it last night to figure out how to get around the system (shhh), and he installed a VPN for me, so I am back in business and active on WordPress, Facebook and Gmail!

I was also happy that during my day off, I got to Skype with the Campeau/Zier clan and at least wave to the baby and grown-up cousins, aunts, uncles, grandma, and close family that I miss. It’s fair weekend in the Wallas, which has historically been our special annual reunion along with Thanksgiving. While it was great to see them, an iffy Wifi connection made a real conversation difficult, and understandably I felt rather blue afterward that I cannot be with them. Conclusion of the week: teleportation needs to get a move on and be invented already. Jeez!

Overwhelmed much? Yes. But I have barely finished two weeks of living in Beijing. I am going to give myself a break, and solidly move forward this week in exploring my surroundings, taking baby steps, building a mental map alongside my confidence in the city. Thank you for following along with me. Your support is ever appreciated!

XOXO/bises