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Vientiane, Laos

As we progressed from China, to Vietnam, to Laos on our three-week journey, Asia became more and more fascinating to me.  Hanoi was very different from cities in China for many reasons, but it still didn’t seem too far off the grid.  Hoi An had a different feel altogether–no big city crush of people, no traffic to speak of, gorgeous countryside undamaged by industrial factories.   And when we got off our 22 hour long sleeper bus in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, it was an almost surreal experience.  I felt like I could be anywhere, in India, or Africa.  The air was hot and humid, the roads were packed red dirt, at least until we got into the tiny city center.  We got our backpacks out of the bus and piled into a tuk-tuk that was headed for the center, and I held my backpack, trying not to hit the two little Lao boys sitting next to me when we went over pot holes in the road.

When the tuk-tuk stopped, I was surprised.  The city was tiny–no high-rises, a two-lane highway running through it with lots of little alleys and one-way streets, and hardly any traffic at all.  But, this is one of the things that I loved Vientiane for, because it was so easy to get around and explore, and because it was wonderful to be away from big-city life.  Like Vietnam, Laos used to be a French colony, so there is a noticeably French influence in some of the architecture and cuisine, especially in Vientiane.  I have never seen so much Western food in China or Vietnam; even in its little supermarkets, Vientiane had cream soda, cheese, smoked salmon, pastries, freshly made pesto, and so many other treats that I have missed while living in China.  For lunch one day, I had a delicious mozzarella, tomato, pesto, and ham baguette sandwich that almost brought tears to my eyes, it was so good.  I know this sounds overly dramatic, but I love a good sandwich, and I have yet to find one of those in China.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Chinese food, but being without certain foods, especially comfort foods,  has made me crave them.

We walked around quite a bit in Vientiane, enjoying the hot weather, looking at the elaborate temples that were scattered all throughout the city.  The temples in Laos are much different from the ones we saw in China and Vietnam.  The workmanship on Lao temples is even more brightly colored and seems very opulent.  We saw monks in bright orange garb walking through town and praying in the temples.  We drove a motorbike to the most famous temple in the city, and it was colored almost completely gold.  I was wearing shorts that day, so when we arrived at the temple entrance, a few other similarly-clad women and I were asked to use the wrap-around skirts they had for tourists at the gate.  I was expecting this to happen, but the weather was so hot that I couldn’t bear to wear jeans that day, and when you’ve been traveling for three weeks you run out of clothing options.

One day, we rented a motorbike and drove 4o minutes out of Vientiane to Buddha Park, a garden full of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures.  The road there was riddled with potholes, but we made it there in one piece and enjoyed walking around  the statues.  One of them, included in the pictures below, was huge–you could go inside the fearsome mouth and climb up some tight stairs into something that reminded me strongly of Dante’s Inferno.  There were several levels inside, and on each level,  statues of people were fraught with  hellish torment, and gods sneered out of dark corners.  Looking at and being puzzled by the statues in Buddha Park, I wished that I knew more about the deities that were being depicted, and the people that worshiped them.  Three short days wasn’t near enough to get acclimated to the unique culture in Laos that felt so different from anywhere else I’d been.

Our last night in Vientiane, we ate at a fabulous restaurant where street children learn skills to work and support themselves.  It was exciting to see something like this in operation, and seemingly working out so well.  I hope those kids can continue to work in such a safe, caring environment, something that is not a trademark of South Asian workplaces, especially where children and teens are concerned.   There is a sobering amount of human trafficking that exploits the young, poor, and vulnerable in that part of the world.  I hope that more places like this will spring up and get the support they need.  I can’t find the name of the place, but if I do, I’ll post some more information about it.

This post wraps up my journey through southern China, Vietnam, and Laos–I don’t know if I will ever return to these places again, but I really hope to someday.  If I come back to Asia, Vietnam and Laos especially will be on the top of my list!


The Incarnation (the timeless enters time for us)

“The Dry Salvages” part V, from Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot


To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behaviour of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures, evoke
Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from fingers; release omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors-
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:
And always will be, some of them especially
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road,
Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of evidence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.

A few pictures from Qingdao

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I’ve wanted to write about my trip to Qingdao a couple weeks ago during the National Holiday, but it’s been hard to find time to write.  China’s National Day falls on October 1st every year, and we got seven days off to celebrate 62 years of the P.R.C. and its glorious one-party rule.  We celebrated by getting out of dodge for a few days, hopping on a 9 hour train bound for the seaside city of Qingdao.

One of the things that I can successfully get through with my hit-or-miss Chinese is booking train tickets, because during last year’s Chinese class, we practiced it over and over.  The problem is, traveling during any public holiday in China is crazy, because thousands upon thousands are all traveling at the same time.   At the train ticket office, Elijah and I waited in line to buy our tickets as soon as the office opened, and we made it inside in good time.  We were only able to get standing-room tickets though, which were super cheap but made the prospect of the trip sink a bit in my imagination.  It was still too early to buy return tickets, so I returned two days later with Alan to buy more tickets, and we were so annoyed when person after person cut the long line to rush to the front and buy their tickets.  After a while, the security guard on duty started turning the line-cutters away to the back of the line.  Nobody here queues for anything, unless they’re forced to queue with metal gates or something.  At Starbucks, they have yellow guiding ropes from the cash register to the pick-up area so that no one will crowd around.  Lining up is as big a novelty as getting a mocha frappuccino at Starbucks.  Before I lose myself on this rabbit trail, suffice it to say that we managed to at least get seats on the train back home, even if we only had standing room tickets to Qingdao!

The train journey was…interesting.  We had tickets for the train car right behind the engine, so we had some space at the front of the car to sit down and stretch out on the floor the whole night, which was better than some people had on the more crowded cars.  No one had to step over us, and after popping a Nyquil, I dozed a little bit and read a bit as well.

Qingdao was a refreshing change from our dusty Shijiazhuang, and it was nice to see the ocean and the old German architecture mixed in with modern buildings.  It’s a very hilly city, so we wore out our legs each day walking around and taking in the scenery.  We visited the brewery museum of China’s most famous beer, Tsingtao, which was begun when Qingdao still belonged to Germany, and has since passed from German to Chinese to Japanese and back again into Chinese ownership.  The museum was pretty cool, and our ticket price included a few samples of Tsingto draught beer.

Walking around and getting lost on side-streets and in parks was nice, but finding a restaurant became one of the most frustrating tasks.  Finding a place to eat that didn’t involve pointing at fish and crustaceans in pails on the floor to order was difficult.  I like some seafood very much, but a lot of those little places looked a bit sketchy.  I didn’t fancy spending a day in Qingdao within short leaping distance of the bathroom.  Despite the difficulty in hunting down restaurants, I think we ate really well over those few days.  We started just looking for the Muslim restaurants, because we knew they’d be cheap, delicious, and simple to order from.  We also went to the district of the city that houses all the international restaurants, and had some delicious Vietnamese food for lunch…which fueled my interest in visiting Vietnam even more.  We also visited a tiny island called Little Qingdao with a German-built lighthouse.   It had a great view of the old battleships and submarine anchored in the harbor at the Naval Museum, and also a gorgeous coffee shop with the most amazing coffee I have ever had in China.  It was a surreal experience to stumble upon the little place, hidden behind some trees, and feel like I had just walked into a European coffee shop.  It was expensive, and I was about to walk out without buying, but Elijah was very kind and bought me a Snow White Mocha.

The best part of the trip for me was our day-long excursion to Laoshan, a mountain next to the sea a couple hours bus ride from Qingdao.  We bought tickets at the entrance that were twice as much as my Lonely Planet book said (shame, shame), but I think it was all worth it.  With the tickets, we had access to the tour buses going to the end of the park and back, so we did a combination of riding in the bus, looking out at the fishing villages and tea farm terraces nestled between the mountain and the sea, and hiking the trails above the villages.  We walked I don’t know how many stone stairs to the top of one mountain area and enjoyed some truly breath-taking views of the villages and ocean far below.  We were all three dressed in shorts and t-shirts, and I was amazed (you’d think I’d be used to this by now) at the outfits the other tourists were wearing.  I think I lost count of all the Chinese women mincing up stone steps and over mountain trails in high heels, little skirts and crazy tights, and heavy sweaters.  I don’t know how they do it—the high heels or the warm clothes in such lovely weather as we had that day.  Maybe it’s because of that strange phenomenon we have today, of going to beautiful places with the intent only of taking cute pictures to show you’ve been there, and not just taking in and enjoying the beauty for its sake.  Too many things become a photo opp instead of an experience.  Pictures are great, but if you take pictures without taking time to just look with your own eyes, then it’s a shame.

I’m glad I got to visit another city in China to broaden my perspective of what this huge country looks like, since I’ve yet to see more than four cities.  I can’t wait to travel in January and February!

I hope to write again soon about how my classes and tutoring students have been lately.  Besides that, I’ve been reading Mansfield Park  in snatches when I have a break between classes, trying to cook, and trying to snuggle with our street-kitty, who prefers to snuggle with Elijah.  She likes to jump on things, wrestle with plastic bags, knock things over, wrap herself in tinsel, and steal my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  She is also an affectionate, sweet little kitty, so I forgive her for tromping on my groceries and trying to eat my food.

“You could be a part time model…

…but you’d probably have to keep your normal job.” –Flight of the Conchords

This song has been amusing me lately because, though I am sure I would not survive in America’s modeling world, being a minority in a Chinese city means that I get asked to do modeling jobs here and there. But it’s not my real job, clearly. The first show I did here was for a wedding photography place in town, and I basically just sat in a fancy chair with a huge, poufy wedding dress on with three other foreign models. I had no idea what I was doing, so I sneaked glances at the other models to see how they were posing, and tried to do my best. My problem is, I get the wild urge to laugh at the wrong moments, so I probably looked like I was just wincing half the time. Or maybe that was because the dress was a couple sizes too small.

I did another show for winter coats a few weeks ago, and that started out terribly but ended okay. The agent told me not to bring high heels, because he didn’t want me too tall next to the Chinese models. As the only foreigner in the show, they didn’t want me to enhance that by being gargantuan. So, I brought flats only. The boss-lady in charge of the store was not pleased. I think every time she walked past me she glared at my shoes and muttered imprecations under her breath. So, we had to line up inside the store, don big winter coats over our clothes, and then walk the runway outside, turn around, come back in, and switch to another coat. I felt like a fool in my flats, and the very weird leather pants they decided I should wear, so the first few gos were less than great. But after awhile, I decided to just not care about it. It’s not my real job. I’m just doing it for fun, and I don’t plan to be a professional model. So, I changed my attitude and probably did a bit better after that. Plus, there were some little village boys, probably 7 years old, in front of the crowd at the runway who would cheer and dance around whenever I came out, and yell WAI GUO REN!!! whenever I was inside, just in case I forgot to come out (?). The boss-lady started to smile at me and ignore my shoes after that.

I have very mixed views on modeling and all that it can entail, but one thing is for sure–modeling in China is absolutely nothing like it is in America. And for that, I am grateful in a way, but it also gives it an extra dose of crazy. Next modeling job I decide to accept, I’m definitely bringing my heels, even if it does strike terror into their hearts.

Teaching at last

It’s been nearly two weeks since I returned to China, and I finally have had my first official day of teaching for the semester. I had butterflies as I walked to the first class, but by the end of it, the butterflies were gone and I felt up to the task again. 7th graders can only be so scary, right?

My schedule this year is so much better than that of last year. Instead of my harried 7 on Tuesday, 5 on Wednesday, 6 on Thursday, and 4 on Friday schedule, they evened it out this time. Now, I have 3 days of teaching 5 classes each day, and 1 day of teaching 6 classes. No more terrible Tuesdays!

They have been renovating our classroom building, which is pretty wonderful, but that also means that this week, we can’t use the small language classrooms yet. So, Elijah and I co-taught all of our classes today–full rooms of 70 students each. Hopefully next week, we’ll be able to split the classes into two sections like we normally do.

The classes we taught today seem like they could be a handful, but their English level is higher than our Junior 1 students from last year, so I am hoping that Oral English will be fun and engaging for them. Until next time…

I came back

It’s been over a week since I came back to China, and I am happy to be back in my familiar apartment and school surroundings.  It is much nicer being in China since I more or less know what to expect from teaching this time around, and I am excited to get started with my classes.  It was understood that we should be back in time to start teaching September 1st, but because the Junior 1 students are receiving their military training this week, I don’t start teaching until September 13th! So this week, I’m going to relax as much as possible before the semester kicks in.  It’s going to be a busy one.

I still don’t have my class schedule for Junior 1, but I think I should be teaching 18-20 classes, and I already know that I will be teaching 6 kindergarten classes as well.  I am so thrilled to be in the kindergarten one day a week this year.  Having a variance in age groups will be so wonderful.  I have the smallest of the kindergarteners–they’ll only be 3 years old, and as the head teacher told me, the first month will mostly consist of them crying because they miss their mothers.  Each class is only 15 minutes long for the little ones, because it’s not easy to sit still and listen to any grown-up, especially one that’s speaking a foreign language, for longer than that.  🙂

Along with teaching the kindergarten classes, I have one class period most Mondays with the kindergarten teachers, where I am supposed to help them with pronunciation and teach them about English usage.  I got to teach the first of those classes today, and it was relaxed and pretty fun.

Tonight, I have a high school student coming over for a tutoring session.  It’s looking like that job will be about ten hours per week for the next two months.  It’s a great opportunity that I am very grateful for, but I know that I will be tired once everything begins next week.  I hope that this year, because of the variety of ages I will be teaching, that it’ll become clearer what age I enjoy teaching the most, and if there is any age that I could stand never to teach again.  We shall see.

I had better go and plan something for the tutoring lesson, because carrying on a conversation for two hours with a very, very shy Chinese high school girl does not fly.

Here is a picture of the Great Wall.  I walked on it last week.  I will let Elijah post the rest of the Great Wall pictures, because he took them and has posting rights. 🙂