Teaching and Living in China
--from Louisa and Richard Wright
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It was all like a dream to us. The minute we arrived in China it was like we had been through some sort of time warp. Owen met us at the Guilin airport and picked up one of our very heavy bags. We shared the load of the second bag together. We had tried to rent a cart, but we didn't have small change for them and were not familiar with Chinese currency yet. So there we went through the airport to the car. We loaded the bags in the taxi and got in. We had no idea where we were actually going and how long it would take to get there. Owen told us many things about what to expect when teaching and he asked us some questions about our backgrounds. He was very honest and offered us the realism of China: it is very beautiful, but it can't all be good. So far the only thing we have foundthat will take some getting used to is the public washrooms. Our hotel and our apartment have North American style toilets, so there really isn't a problem.
About an hour or so after getting into the taxi, we arrived at Yangshuo. Along the way we had seen merchants along the roadside, but it was dark when we arrived, so it wasn't easy to see the countryside. Our flights had been all at night, first from San Francisco to Hong Kong, the longest night we have ever spent, and then after a day in Hong Kong, we flew to Guilin in the evening. Needless to say, our internal clocks were doing a number on us or else had stopped completely. Once in Yangshuo, we went to the Buckland School for some quick introductions. We met Jennifer and Tracey and then were taken to our hotel room. It was on the fourth floor and there was no elevator, so we recruited some help to get our bags up to the room.
The room was very comfortable. Two western style beds, TV, beautiful draperies and matching bedspreads, bathroom with shower and western style toilet and sink. It was clean and well looked after. Every day we were given a new supply of soap and shampoo as well as a package with toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. Just like western hotels. Hot water is provided in thermoses and tea bags laid on the tray.
Owen offered to buy us supper, but we were quite tired. We opted for tea. We walked down to West Street, the famous hangout for foreigners. It is a typical tourist area in some ways, and yet very Chinese. There are all kinds of shops selling food and souvenirs. There are internet cafe's and restaurants and pubs. Western food is readily available in this area, but it is cooked in the Chinese style -- kind of cute. We went to Minnie Mao's (say it out loud!) and the tea was ordered as well as french fries. We drank our tea and were introduced to Trevor. He was a young man in his 20's who had travelled to the area on his way to Viet Nam. The day before he was to leave, he was introduced to Owen and was convinced to teach. He was on his third month and was loving every minute. His Chinese was quite good.
The following day we handed our passports to Tracey with extra pictures so that our work visas could be obtained. Then Tracey walked us over to West Street and bought us breakfast. While we were sitting in the Red Capitalist Restaurant, she motioned for someone to join us. It was Marcel. He was to be our guide for the day for the price of 100 Yuan, which is about 20 Cdn and apparently half the price that some other guides charge. We rented bikes for 20 Yuan each and went on our sightseeing tour. It was quite hot and we didn't have any sunscreen, needless to say we got a little burnt. But it was well worth it. Marcel took us to see the local mountains which Dick had always wanted to see. He always thought that the pictures were just paintings, nothing could be this beautiful. But they do exist and are every bit as breathtaking as the photos. The route was sometimes pavement and mostly a rough sort of gravel, and we rode through the little villages of tiny farm houses that seemed nothing more than a concrete shack. There aren't really any doors, the openings are like garage door openings. Friends and families sit on tiny stools(like children's furniture) on their concrete floors and visit and share their food. Marcel was very familiar with the locals and knew where to buy water. It is bottled and usually cold and costs 2 Yuan per bottle. During the morning Dick and Marcel had some great discussions and they became pretty good friends right off the bat. We had lunch at one of the little farm houses: noodles with green beans cut into tiny pieces (we found out that these were soy beans) and peanuts. Then Marcel asked us if we wanted some chilies and of course Dick was game. The lady brought us a bowl of ginger slices and chilies and we added these to our noodles -- outstanding! The best noodles we ever ate. While the conditions at this little farm house were not at all what we expect in our restaurants, the food was good and Chinese people are clean about their food and dishes. In the afternoon we stopped at the Dragon river and went on abamboo raft ride. They use long bamboo poles to push the raft through the water. Our pilot was an older man who smiled a lot and didn't mind having his picture taken. A few times he would gesture that we should take a picture of a certain mountain and a couple of times he volunteered to take our picture. Then he told us he wouldturn around and take us to the Banyan tree. This is a very wellknown tree that is apparently over 1,000 years old. It is huge and obviously very beautiful. Quite the Kodak moment trip!!
It's interesting to note that even though we hadn't ridden bikes for a number of years, because we come from the higher altitude of Calgary, we found that we were able to ride a great distance without our lungs giving us problems. Eventually the heat and activity did catch up with me, and we had to stop a few times. Marcel took us to his house where he lives with his mother and his sister and her family. His mother cooked us the most fabulous meal. At breakfast we had discussed the bittermelon that Dick had tasted many years ago, and so the meal was Duck with Bittermelon, Beerfish (a local specialty) and a vegetable that we think resembles Okra. There was so much food and it was so good, we felt very bad that we couldn't eat very much. Being in the hot sun all day and quite tired at this point. We tried the local beer, and even though I don't drink beer at home, I quite enjoyed the taste of this rice beer. Marcel brought out his mother to meet us. She was a tiny, bent over lady who had a great big toothless smile. Dick thanked her for the wonderful food, even though she didn't understand a word of what he said, and he pinned a Canadian flag pin on her collar. We apologized for not being able to eat all the food (it was cooked just for us, so we were expected to eat it all) and then decided to head back to town. Marcel said it was only 20 minutes, but I think it was a little longer. We had to stop a couple of times for me, but we did make it to town. However, at this point I had reached my limit and we walked our bikes back to West Street and then Marcel recruited a motorcycle taxi to take us back to the hotel. We had the best time and made a great new friend in Marcel.
We went back to the hotel room and slept soundly. The sun rises at 5 in China and that's when you can start hearing the people gathering on the street to start selling their wares. The traffic also picksup by then, and you can definitely hear that. Chinese traffic is not at all like in the west, but what is so amazing is that it works for them. They honk when they are going to pass, and they always pass, and everyone just blends in. If you don't get out of the way, they do slow down, but only at the last minute. I have to say, though, that we didn't really witness any accidents or close calls and there wasn't any squealing of tires.
The following morning we went for breakfast at West Street and then decided to take the bus to Guilin. We had been told how much the fare would be, so we were prepared. We caught the bus and sat on the tiny seats. There are two or three people manning the buses, and I'm not sure if they are privately owned. There is a driver of course and a man or woman who opens the door and collects the money -- it's all cash only.. People get on along the roadside, there don't appear to be assigned stops. Farmers (men and women) get on with their baskets of vegetables or chickens,workmen with their tools. It's all very quaint. The people are very friendly and helpful, even if they don't know the English language. Some of the older people don't say anything, but we could 'not tell if that was negative reaction or just not knowing how to communicate.
Guilin is a big city by our standards and it was quite metropolitan. We were approached by 2 men at the bus station (obviously trying to sell us something), but we told them we were going shopping. We needed to get an adapter for our camera's battery charger and they told us that the department stores would be the best place to get that. They gave us directions on where to catch the #1 bus and told us to go 4 stops. The bus was a double decker and we rode in the upper part which was open. Four stops later we got off and looked around at all the tall buildings. We tried to guess which one might be the department store, since the writing was mostly in Chinese except for words like Kodak and Sony. We walked a short distance, and then stopped to get our bearings. That's when young lady approached us and asked in very good English if we needed some help. She had been in Canada and was planning on going to University in Vancouver in the fall -- just waiting for her work visa. She took us to the department store and we told her what we wanted. She came with us to the electronics department on the sixth floor, but no one seem to know what we were after. We looked around for a while, and then spotted a battery charger. We pointed at it and explained that the plug on ours was a 2 prong and the hotel suite had 3 prong outlets. There was a lot of sign language and translating by our young friend. Eventually, one of the sales ladies held up a power bar and showed that the two prong plug go in there. After a few moments we realized that what we really needed was the power bar. So we asked where those might be and they directed us to that section. We found one that suited our needs and purchased it. Our young escort showed us the way to the third floor because she thought we needed men's wear (something Dick said that was misinterpreted). We thanked her for her help and proceeded our shopping excursion. We went back to the fifth floor because we had noticed a food court. There were all kinds of video machines in long rows in the center of the area and a number of noisy riding toys for the kids. It was loud, but people were having fun. There was a sort of bakery off to one side that looked interesting. We went to the counter to make our selection, and two of the staff assisted us. They placed our tarts on the plates and escorted us to our seats and served our drinks. You never get service like that in Canadian food courts.
On the way down we stopped at the third floor because Dick really wanted some socks. A nice clerk helped us by pointing out that they are arranged by size. We made our selection and bought two pairs. That was enough exitement for one day, so we decided to go back. When we got outside, we decided that we would like to walk back to the bus station. It was longer than 4 blocks, but quite a nice walk. On every corner there are little kiosks that sell juice, water and snacks. Along the way we encountered a blind man playing a 2 stringed Chinese instrument that sounds somewhat like a whiney violin. It looks like it's made from a soupcan and a large reed, but the sound is quite melancholy and very beautiful. We stayed for a few minutes to listen and watch, gave him a little money and went on our way.
We managed to find the bus back to Yangshuo quite easliy, paid our fare and got on. Women on the bus were quite chatty, and even though we didn't know what was being said, enjoyed the conversation and the ride.
Back in town we went to the hotel, plugged in the battery charger and then decided to walk to West Street for supper. All in all a good day. We were proud of our accomplishment. We went for supper on West Street and took a walk to look at all the shops and carts. Of course you're always being approached to buy things or to take a ride in the little taxi's, but that's the charm of the area. Bargaining is an art I haven't quite developed yet, but I did deal on a couple of things. As we were walking on our way home we heard a girl call "Dick, Dick". It was Tracey. She said Owen wanted to see us. So we went back to Minnie Mao's and there Owen told us that we were leaving to go to our new school the day after tomorrow. We were to be at the office at 11:00 and the train was leaving Guilin at 2:00. We still didn't know the name of the town we were going to, but we put our trust in these people. They haven't let us down yet.
The next morning we were to meet Marcel for another guided trip. This time a boat ride on the Li River. We went to West Street for breakfast and after thatwe would meet Marcel at nine. We got to West Street about eight and there was Marcel. He told us not to have breakfast at the restaurant, he would take us to have real Chinese breakfast. So we went to a tent behind a bicycle rental that seemed to serve the guides and other locals. Marcel watched the woman cook the noodles for us to make sure it was done right. They were spicy and ,as usual, there was way too much, but they were delicious.
Then we took a very bumpy bus ride. About ten to fifteen kiometers of the road was under construction. It's very interesting that all the work is done manually. Very few times do you see heavy machinery. Even the materials are delivered by small trucks and tractors. The road was being relined with rocks and sand. Once packed down, we assume it would be paved. They also don't do one area at a time, rather they employ numerous crews to work on several areas at a time. Needless to say, the road was a mess and the busdriver had quite a challenge negotiating all the obstacles. Not too good on the kidneys either. We got to a town that I don't know the name of, but it was quite charming. Marcel took us to a little teahouse run by a friend of his. There he made arrangements for the boattrip. We got a deal of course because he liked us. We were served tea and after we drank it and the rain subsided, we took a walk through the little town. Through some of the open doors I could see sewing machines and in others old men sitting or eating. Vendors on the street were selling goodies and Marcel asked if we wanted to try some. The first was a pastry made from rice flour and had a peanut filling. It was steamed orboiled, I can't remember which. It was actually quite tasty. Marcel told us the name was PanPan. Then we came to a lady making the Chinese version of a cinnamon knot. I don't remember the name of it, but it had cinnamon so of course Dick was a happy camper.
After sauntering around for a while we walked over to the dock. We had to wait for the boat. We're not sure what the delay was, but we waited quite a while. We walked up some stairs to a kind of pagoda. It gave us an excellent view of the river and the mountains around it. After several pictures, including one of a giant spider, we went back down to the dock. The lady apologized for the delay but we really didn't mind. We enjoyed watching her little boy. He was quite precocious, six years old, and always after his "ma". Finally someone gave him these little firebombs. They make a loud noise if you throw them down hard, but I was told they 're not dangerous. He had a blast with them, literally. He also repeated a lot of our English phrases and his mother helped him respond to some questions. Cute kid!!
Finally the boat arrived and we could board. There were three other women on board as well, two of them were a Dutch mother and daughter. The other one we aren't sure about - she was kind of quiet.. I think we got more out of the tour than these ladies did because of Marcel. He had given us the pamphlet about the mountains along the river. These have been named based on their shapes or the color of the rockface. It was interesting to see the Nine Supernaturals Crossing the River, etc. The captain of the boat also kept coming over to show us which mountain we were at. It is amazing how much these people want to communicate and how easy it is even with very limited language. I was able to sit at the front of the boat (Marcel spread out a newspaper for me to sit on) and the Dutch daughter sat beside me. We took quite a lot of pictures.
The scenery along the Li River is absolutely awesome, but I think what I like best about China is the people. They are so warm and accepting of us. They are always willing to help and we have never been ripped off as far as money is concerned. Little children will call out "Hello" and when we respond they laugh or smile or are in a state of disbelief. It's quite humorous.
The following morning we went for breakfast and then back to the hotel room to pack. Tracey was going to help us with our bags, but I don't think she realized how heavy they were. We had dragged the purple one to the lobby of the school and she and the young man who worked at the hotel carried the other one downstairs. Somehow we managed to get everything into the trunk of the taxi and we said goodby to Tracey.
It took about an hour to get to the train station in Guilin. We waited in the taxi for Owen. Everyone has cellphones in China, so the taxidriver was able to let Owen know that we had
arrived. We got the luggage into the train station and then we went to the waiting room. We were given some tea and then Owen took Dick outside for lunch while I stayed with the bags. Once they returned, Dick and I went so that I could eat.
We had bought some pastries in the morning from a bakery in Yangshuo. We offered Owen some cake and at first he refused. But then Dick told him that it was our first wedding anniversary andthen Owen had some. He got up to go to the counter and bought us some souvenirs from Guilin as well as some postcards. What a sweetheart!
When it was time to board the train we said our goodbyes to Owen and we hugged him. A couple of porters were helping us get our bags on the train and we paid them 20 Yuan. We had hard beds, which means you get a mattress but it's fairly thin. It wasn't all that uncomfortable. There are six beds in a berth and I had the middle and Dick the top. There were already some people accross from us. They looked strangely at our luggage, but I don't think anyone in China travels for an entire year. Not only that, but we brought quite a number of books with us.
The train ride was interesting. At first we decidedto do some writing in our journals and people looked at our pages to see what we were doing. The Chinese are curious and not shy about wanting to know something. At the same time were taking the occasional picture. One of the gentlemen in our section was quite interested in the camera in that you could look at the picture right away. This soon gathered a few more people including one young lady who spoke some English. People would noticed the Maple Leaf crest on our bags and would often point and say "Canada!" and smile. Very soon in these conversation you would be asked if you heard of Mao and Dr. Bethune. Dr. Bethune is still a very great hero to the Chinese People.
We had been having this little gathering when one of the members of the train crew suddenly leaned over to look at the screen on the camera. He took the camera and went to a small room at the end of the car and very excitedly showed the other crew members the camera. We took a picture of one of the female staff and then the camera was taken to the other end of the car so the rest of the crew could see the screen and the picture. Between the camera, theMaple Leaf, and our appearance, attention and conversations have been very easy, even though not neccessarily completely understood. Supper on the train was noodles and pork ribs from the Newsy (Dick remembers this term from his train travels as a youth ). Soon after everyone had eaten another young ladycame along to ask a few questions and very quickly became the second translator. Again the questions, laughter and more conversation. A most enjoyable time. Suddenly the lights went out! Power failure? No. It was ten o'clock and time for bed. Our introduction to a typical Chinese mattress.

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