Thursday, November 29, 2007

We arrived in Xi’an on a very very rainy day in late August 2007. This was an inauspicious start to an otherwise pleasant beginning. The rain lasted for one week and we began wondering if it ever stopped raining in this city of VERY poor drainage! Many wet feet and soggy groceries later, the sun finally came out and, to our great relief, exposed an industrial city that nonetheless had many charming nooks and crannies.

Our plan is to remain in Xi’an through June 2008. While we are here, Linda is teaching English at Xian International Studies University in the International Relations program – the same place I, Yoni, am teaching. This is a first – for us both to work in the same department!

We are in Xi’an as a result of a Fulbright scholarship that is intended to enable me (Yoni) to conduct research into China’s epidemic response capabilities at the sub-provincial level, while also teaching a couple of courses in international relations and working with the department to strengthen its program.

Our two sons – Tal (11) and Noam (7) are enrolled in the local international school where all instruction is, thankfully, in English (odd, since most of the students seem to be S. Korean – the result: lots of weird sentence structures can be heard in the hallways). They are taken to, and returned from school by a private driver (wonderful guy, though speaks no English) since the school’s own bus doesn’t come near our home (on campus of the university where we teach). The boys begin their day at 7:45 when they get in the car. School starts at 8:30 and runs to 3:30. Their school is housed in a larger school for Chinese kids – THEY seem to spend most of their day in school. Indeed, we have learned that the average Chinese kid starts school at 7:30 and doesn’t get home until 5-6 PM only to then do homework (daily) until 10:00 or so. THEN, on Saturdays, many attend cram schools to ensure they keep their grades up. The goal is to ensure they eventually get into a good middle school and then high school and finally, university (for each level the children must take a brutal national exam).

I guess it is therefore no surprise that, by the time students are accepted to university, they have pretty much had it with studying and prefer to “coast”. We have encountered many students like this. Another factor is probably the fact that students are not free to choose their majors. Indeed, their major is decided based on their university entry exams. If they score high enough, they can choose among a variety of programs. Otherwise, they are slotted in to whichever program they qualify to attend. So, guess what percentage of students in the international studies program actually wished to be in the international studies program???? About 5-10 percent! The rest began international studies students because they were given no real choice.

All of us our busily working on our Chinese – the boys study daily at school, while Linda has private lessons and I make do with a weekly language exchange and a very good electronic dictionary. It has been a real source of satisfaction to observe how all of us are steadily improving. Another source of satisfaction is that, as Linda’s Chinese improves, it becomes less necessary for me to do all the food ordering at restaurants!

Indeed, we eat out at least once a day – the food in Shaanxi province (where Xi’an is located) is famous in China as being among the best – and we can tell. Lots of delicious things to eat and even the boys have yet to complain. Also, it has proved much cheaper to eat out than to buy food at the supermarkets (invariably we purchase western food) and cook at home. Not to mention the somewhat primitive cooking facilities!

We can feed our family a very nice, multi-course meal with drinks for about $6-8 – so why bother eating at home?? Of course, we observe with some trepidation as the US dollar continues to disintegrate against other currencies. I am being paid in US and am concerned that the Chinese government may finally capitulate to rising pressure from the international community on the over-valuation of their currency. If they allow the Chinese Renminbi to “float” I suspect our purchasing power will decline by 40% or so.

In other words – pray that the Chinese government can withstand the pressure for at least 8 more months!!!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

First Blog

Here’s my first attempt at blogging. It’s been awhile since we last wrote, and life has been busy at times and at other times rather ordinary, in an unordinary place.

Within the past month or so we’ve had some interesting traveling experiences. I went with the boys to Shanghai in order to meet up with my parents. We took an overnight train, which was surprisingly comfortable and convenient, even though we only bought “hard sleeper” tickets (they were sold out of soft sleeper). Basically a long car of triple decker bunk beds. Tal got the top, Noam was in the middle and I was on the bottom. Not much sleeping due to lots of snoring throughout the car but it was fairly clean and orderly, all things considered. Shanghai was a different world than Xi’an, completely. Modern skyscrapers, tons of foreigners, Starbucks and Haagen Dazs on every corner. One of the best things we did was go to a Chinese acrobat show – we were on the edge of our seats throughout most of the performance. Truly amazing.

Showing my folks around Xi’an was also lots of fun, and they even put up with our 3 star (barely 2, according to my dad) guest house on campus. For Hallowe’en we did some trick or treating around campus. There’s a variety of foreigners who live here and about 10 of them said they would be happy to have trick or treaters. So the kids went out with some other foreign kids and one local friend brought her daughter as well. The mother was quite taken aback by the amount of candy the kids gathered and asked for advice about how to regulate it. Luckily, this was not such a problem for us as much of the candy had red bean filling or some other local delicacy and my kids were happy to donate a good portion of theirs to my students (who were equally happy to have it). Yoni developed a new tradition of getting invited to drink alcohol at some of the houses that gave out candy. And a good time was had by all.

We also went to visit Western China with my folks; the Silk Road. That's where the pictures are from. We saw the furthest West outpost of the Great Wall (that's the picture of us and my folks - and the one where me, Yoni, and Noam are dressed up in Mongolian warrior costume), and then went to a desert oasis called Dunhuang with huge sand dunes (the background in the picture of us and my mom), where we also went camel riding on two-humped camels. I'm also including the best picture of my dad EVER! sliding down the dunes. We rented these mini sleds for sliding once, but quickly realized that sliding down snow was much funner and faster . . so we reverted to jumping, running, walking, and falling down (and up, grunt) the dunes. Much more fun. Of course, #1 fall was Noam's. A head over heels blunder with his mouth wide open (why can't that kid learn to close his mouth when he falls?). He had a mouth full of sand for the rest of the day. Just outside of Dunhuang we went to the Mogao caves, the best collection of Buddhist art in the world, according to the locals. It was truly spectacular - paintings, statues, frescoes, over 300 caves in all (we were allowed to see about 12) all relatively untouched by the Cultural Revolution. Only one cave had remnants of a fire in it as some Soviet soldiers (according to the story) built one to keep warm. There was a large section dedicated to how savagely Westerners had stolen artifacts from the caves (and other parts of China). Made me feel bad, but I think that was the point. Nice part was we had an excellent, very knowledgeable guide, who was relatively easy to understand. Not a given around here.

Other news is more day to day. Tal has begun trumpet lessons with a local teacher. His English is limited, but they seem to do OK communicating through music. When Tal first started we spoke to the teacher about time dedicated to practicing - the teacher said at least one hour a day, every day. We had to (gently) explain to him that Western kids were not as disciplined as Chinese kids (nor are their parents, for that matter). So we're down to something we can manage. Despite initial protests, we think Tal is doing quite well. The teacher seems more focussed on his sound than his tutor in NP.

I saw a pig on a motorcycle the other day, maybe it was a vespa. He was strapped down in front of the driver and none too pleased with the ride.

Been slowly trying to get my kids adjusted to local snacks, as opposed to feeding them some of the various foreign crap that I could find. Mostly stuff that I would NEVER buy back home but we were struggling with food for awhile. I've met other foreigners who also claim that they used to eat relatively healthy back home but things kind of deteriorate here. So now my kids snack on seaweed, and rice crackers with either a sweet or seaweed coating, and then there's these eggroll biscuits. We've stayed away from the new varieties of potato chips: mexican meat, sweet prawn, savoury prawn, italian meat, and others.

Teaching is going well; the students are so young sometimes, so eager and gung-ho. They had a "decorate your classroom" competition (my students surprised me in this competition by putting up a huge poster of Mao in the classroom - what does the foreign teacher say when greeted with that???). They giggle incessantly and I can see some of them playing "pat a cake" at breaks. Mention anything about sex, love, or romance and the giggles and whispers explode again. My colleagues attended a party of some of their students and were amazed that they spent most of the evening playing musical chairs. Not exactly the decadent behaviour of some of our finest young minds in the US or Canada, eh?

Tal and Noam continue at school, with more absences for travelling than we would allow back at home. Tal identifies himself as an American with his peers, and Noam says he feels more Canadian. But Noam can change his allegiances on any given day. I've begun to help the school library organize their books (their classification system was pretty much non-existent). They have both become rather fond of yo-yos, and it seems there are some pretty expensive yoyos at their school. Tal has begun learning tricks and Noam is working hard to keep up. It's pretty amazing.

You'll have to let me know how this blog is working. I can't view it from China (blogging is censored) unless I use a proxy server and this is slow and cumbersome. We already struggle with the speed of our internet connection so I can't imagine doing this on a regular basis. But do let me know if I forget to add pictures, or the text is difficult to read, or the pictures are way over-sized, or anything else I should know about how this blog is working. I do believe that there's a way you can register with the blog so that you will know if there's a new post. And any comments you send to the blog also comes to my email (at least that's how I tried to set it up) so I should receive it no problem.

By the way, the picture at the beginning of this blog is of me and the boys in front of the old city wall in Xi'an shortly after we arrived.

Over and out.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Opening Blog

Welcome friends and family; I've been somewhat dissatisfied with the general email format with which I've been communicating with you all. So let's try this blogging. We're currently in sunny Xiamen visiting with friends and supremely jealous of their air quality. Will write more after we return to our place in Xi'an.