Friday, 29 March 2013

Snow & Suprises

Christmas came late to China!

When I woke up this morning I opened my window to see giant clumps of snow clinging to the tree branches. I was so taken by surprise that I imagined I was back at home waking up on Christmas day.

I haven’t seen so much snow, the wet and heavy type, throughout my whole time being here. In December there was only now and then a light dusting, so the change of scenery is quiet something.

There is also the little incident that happened yesterday that when put together make me feel that indeed Christmas did come to me and my roommate.

Yesterday I came home from class just in time to run into my roommate headed out. She hurriedly motioned me to follow her, and having nothing else better to do, I did. I asked her, with as simple questions as I could, where we were going and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the answer. She tried a bit to use Chinese, but eventually fell back into Mongolian. It was a bit cold outside so I just rubbed my hands together trying to keep warm.

After walking halfway through campus she stopped suddenly at a building and motioned me to follow her in. The lady at the front desk looked questioningly at us and all I could was give a puzzled look back. Often mistaken for Chinese herself, my roommate unknowingly causes a lot of disruption and then I have to smooth it over, the best I can, in broken sentences. Luckily we didn’t go too far because right around the corner was a giant black duffle bag that was obviously meant for us. She then told me “我的朋友回国了给我们很多东!” Turns out her friend had returned home and had left us all of her kitchen supplies. This was great news other then the fact that there were only two of us and one giant bag. We awkwardly carried it out of the building and onto the sidewalk.
This is when my misery began.

For some indescribable reason my roommate decided to take the longest way possible to our dorm. Not only that she refused to walk in a straight line, and instead was constantly pulling us into scooters, bikes, and other inanimate objects. I several times had to put down the bag and ask her what in the world she was doing. Patiently she would stare at me, with her big dark eyes, and when I was finished pick up the bag and do the exact same thing over again.

 This was one of those times when I really wished she could understand English. Usually the language barrier isn’t a big deal for us, I just imagine she is saying and thinking all sort of nice things about me, but for today it was a hassle. Not only that, but we didn’t run into a single person I knew well enough to guilt them into sharing the burden (I really don’t see the purpose in making these friendships when they don’t come with guarantee clauses of mandatory help). 
By the time we got to the dorm my hands were numb and I could only turn left.

Once in the privacy of our room, we opened up the duffle bag and equally divided the contents in half. I was bestowed with new utensils, silverware and a kettle. Combined we have enough supplies to create a small dinner and that’s not including food storage. Over all it was worth the trek and I was very happy to get new kitchen supplies. Next time though, it wouldn’t hurt to have another set of hands and perhaps a translator.

                                                                                                                 2013 年 320

Monday, 18 March 2013

A Glimpse

On Saturday I was able to recapture the novelty of living in Beijing.

So often we stick to what we know and refuse to go out. Or if we do go out, we go out in a group as a herd, loud and boisterous, easily missing the beauty surrounding us.

To combat my own tendencies of complacency I’m making it a goal to get out more on my own and explore. Saturday I did just this and it’s surprising what can come out of it. The best part of my day was when I went to a well-known subway stop and got off to walk around. Little did I know there was a big festival going on so the streets were filled with Chinese men and women. There where streamers and red lanterns hanging from all the buildings windows. On the side of the main road were stalls filled with small treats and toys to buy. I especially liked the flying paper airplanes that you had to rotate with your hands and then send them spinning off. I asked how much it was for one and they said 14 kuai, nonetheless I received two for 10 and we were both happy.

After walking around I sat down on a bench and started on my homework which was to write a letter in Chinese. I had only gotten a quarter through it when I noticed how much attraction I was drawing. People would walk by and then suddenly turn around peer over my shoulder. Not minding the company I would try to engage them in conversation. Some would reply, while others were convinced I could only write it and not truly speak. I had one lady and her family come and sit beside me. She was leaning heavily on one crutch and I noticed it was to make-up for the loss of her right leg. Making room for them to sit, they noticed what I was writing. The following conversation went a lot like this;

Father : “Hey, she’s writing in Chinese”

Mother: “What? What was that??”

Father : “look, look, Chinese characters”

Mother: “ohh, Foreigners these days”

The Mother then started reading my letter out-loud and correcting my mistakes. I edited my letter accordingly hoping she wasn't going to leave anytime soon. After a quick appraisal she nodded her head approvingly and left me to my own musings. Whenever I had a question I would gently get her attention and have her proof-read a sentence. Their child would just stare at me with big eyes and then shyly duck his head under his Father’s arm. After 20 minutes or so they figured they had rested enough and got up to leave. I thanked them for their help and within seconds they were gone, just one of the dozens ambling through the crowd.

Though it was such a little thing it made a big impression. I was able to be more than a passive observer of those around me. Being able to interact brought the atmosphere to life and made the day more vivid. For me it was a glimpse of what is, and what is still yet to come. If I’m dedicated enough to learning the language I will not only be able to understand, but I will be able to comprehend.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Works

I’m trying to branch out with my language skills and order more food on my own as of late. What happens is I end up eating a lot of dishes I don’t want.

The first time I tried this tactic was at a little Chinese restaurant down the block. I had been there before with a group of friends and the food was really good. I decided to play it safe and order rice with some sort of meat dish to put on top. What I ended up eating was rice with 20 dumplings that were stuffed with cabbage. The dumplings on their own were good, and the rice on it’s on, of course, was good but together it made for a dry combo. Also 20 dumplings is a lot and I didn’t sign up for that. Of course I pretended it was exactly what I meant to order and thanked the waitress profusely, I ended up taking half of it home, and surprised my roommate with free food; we do these types of exchanges a lot.

The second time I decided to order was at a trusted place within our cafeteria. The lady their knows me well, and hopefully knows by now the type of food I prefer seeing as I always order the same 4 dishes (I have them memorized and switch between them to keep her guessing).

This time I went for something completely new that I could read off of the menu, I decided on韩国鸡肉盖饭. The first two characters (
Hánguó) mean South Korea, the middle two (jīròu) mean chicken, and the last two (gàifàn) mean with rice added.I was pretty sure this time I was going to get chicken, with rice, which you can’t really go wrong with. What I ended up getting was huge portion of rice with three itty pieces of chicken and a lot of green peppers. I don’t know where the green peppers came from or the extra spices for that matter. I basically drank water that entire meal.

Today though is a new day, I went to the café inside of the library to get food for lunch. I didn’t intend on speaking Chinese but as soon as I entered I realized it was full of people and worse, they were all going to be eavesdropping on my conversation. If you go to a language school there’s a certain amount of ego in who can speak the best. You can tell from someone’s speech where they’re from, how long they’ve studied, if they’re in a relationship, and what their middle name is. It’s very comprehensive.

Being aware of this, my pride does get in the way sometimes. I ordered a sub sandwich and sprite to drink which is pretty easy for starters. I was feeling sort of smug until I realized I had to tell her what to put on the sandwich. I haven’t taken the time to memorize vegetables or fruits so I was at a lost. The one thing I could say is 除了(
chúle)which means with the exception of, and I didn’t want to be one of those people, the ones who order a cheeseburger then ask for no onions, pickles, cheese or a bun. So instead I said asked for the works and contemplated how long my hunger strike will last.

The sub was quite big and being stuffed with everything imaginable it was a big portion to eat. I think my Mom would be pleased to know that I ate all of it, olives, and onions, pickles etc. Everything that I would usually pick off my pizza I ate in one bite. It was probably because I was hungry from class, but the sandwich tasted delicious, I completely finished it off without having to mentally urge myself to chew and swallow. I wouldn’t say I’m in love with onions now, they tend to make me cry, but I was able to expand my taste pallet and that’s always a good thing, especially when you’re living in a foreign country.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

This Moment

This moment, right now, I am incredibly happy.

I just got back from dinner with a close friend and we talked about everything under the sun. One of the things I brought up is how I feel much more sure as to why I am in China studying this language. It’s not that I had no clue before, but my recent travels home, and to Ethiopia, seem to have helped a lot in cementing my decision, I no longer feel as drifted out to sea, but on course for the horizon.

I’m struck at how choices I’ve made previously are concurrent with my present feelings even though they were made with differing goals and with much less information.

As changeable as my nature is, I’m confident that if I was to meet myself at any age I would like the person I see. For some reason this thought gives me a lot of satisfaction. As an eight, fourteen and eighteen year-old, I was so different compared to who I am now, yet I was still able to take the steps that led me here. At eight I affirmed my convictions, at fourteen I brushed myself off and drastically changed the course of my life, and at eighteen I headed wide eyed and eager into University and the beginnings of my adult life.

To be as self-assured as I am about the current course of my life requires either a firm belief in the fruits of the future, or a large amount of naivety on my part. I don’t believe it’s going to be easy sailing but believing its possible makes all the difference.

I was reading recently about setting goals of long-term worth, more than what can be achieved in a lifetime. These aspirations were ones that had no monetary measurements or boxes to check off but were dynamic and the pay-off was counted in lives touched. As difficult as they are to keep together I think putting in the effort to maintain family ties, marriages, and pursuit of knowledge is well worth the energy; it’s within these spheres of influences I find myself at my best. There’s a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which I adore and I think accurately sums up my emotions. Whether now, or ten years from now, I believe I will be able to attain all that I set my heart upon.

“We have not wings, we cannot soar; 
But we have feet to scale and climb 
By slow degrees, by more and more,  
The cloudy summits of our time.”
~The Ladder of St. Augustine

Food to Share

A big part of Ethiopian culture is sharing food. If you want to show comradeship, or respect, you will share your meal with those around you.

Since food is generally eaten just with your hands, sharing it can be taken as an intimate gesture by some since in Western culture you keep touching to a minimal. I for one enjoy eating with my hands, since it’s intuitive, and the less fuss about utensils allows for more concentration on the meal. For the most part I will accept food from others but won’t offer any. This is my first trip were I’ve decided to reverse roles. I’ve become close to my friends there and I wanted to share my love for them by sharing.

I’m sure for the average Ethiopian sharing food off a plate is normal and an everyday occurrence, but for someone who only shares food with family or close friends, it can seem like a big deal. I’m sure many of them were wondering why I was beaming so much. At first it seems very strange and as if all eyes are on you, so many things could go wrong. You could drop the food before getting it to them, or you could grab too much food and make it uneatable in one bite. I also think somewhere hidden in there is the fear of being rejected, but I’ve yet to see that happen.

So you have more of an idea of the type of food, I’ll describe in general terms what Ethiopian food mostly consists of. Traditionally Ethiopian food is served on injera. Injera is made out of teff, and can come in light and dark shades. This is basically the bread of the meal, and you use it to eat with the rest of the food. On top of the Injera is a combination of meats and vegetables.

It might surprise you to know that many Ethiopian dishes are vegan. Since many people are Christian Orthodox they go without meat (or any animal-by products) for set periods of time and all of Lent. The Majority of Ethiopia’s population is Christian, not Muslim as is often assumed. It’s unique since it was one of the only Christian practicing countries in Africa before colonialism, and has so remained.

A popular vegan dish is Shiro, which is a combination of chickpeas and broad beans; it’s orange in color and smooth to the taste. Added to fir-fir it becomes a new dish called shiro fir-fir and eaten primarily for breakfast in the morning. There are a handful of other chickpeas and lentil dishes, but on the opposite side of the spectrum you have the raw beef like Kifto, Gored gored, and for cooked meat you have Tibs and Doro wot. Most of the meat dishes are spicy which make them my favourite to eat. They often use a special powder to season the meat called berbere.

I remember at an Ethiopian restaurant once I asked for more berbere. They brought me out a little container with the hot powder inside. After adding some to the meat, I accidently rubbed my eye with the same hand. The instant I did it tears came to my eyes and for the rest of the meal I couldn’t see out of it. It looked as if I was secretly sobbing and people kept asking me what was wrong. Since then I’ve learned to be a bit more careful around spices.

All the dishes are delicious and very filling. The only bad part is that foreigners in general have trouble digesting the food. It disagrees with their stomach and can make for a long night. I find it’s no problem for me, so it’s a little bit hard to empathize. I suggest you start with small mouthfuls, and if it’s really giving you a hard time share it with the person next to you. This way you can make a new friend while scrupulously avoiding your meal.