Christmas in China

My first Christmas away from home was successful! Because the semester ends on January 5th, we are in the middle of finals right now, which meant that going home for the holidays just wasn’t in the cards. The demands of work and school have made the past several weeks seem to fly right by, and before I knew it, Christmas was right around the corner. As to be expected, Christmas is not a holiday traditionally celebrated in China. However, more and more young people in China observe Christmas (either religiously or just with holiday spirit) so there were decorations, parties, and festivities to be had for my first holiday away from home!

Christmas trees sprouted in the most unusual places – in store shop windows, shopping squares, and curiously in the entryway of my lecture hall. In the week before Christmas, Wudaokou (the main shopping district near BLCU) was decorated with some of the fanciest lights I’ve ever seen! If nothing else, the Chinese are very enthusiastic about Christmas lights. They are everywhere, and they brighten even the darkest, coldest nights in Beijing.

So, swapping Christmas ham for dumplings, a family celebration for one with a bunch of my Chinese friends, and opening Christmas presents for sending Christmas cards and e-mails, my holiday was both untraditional and unconventional, but I had a fantastic time and it was an experience that I will certainly never forget.

圣诞快乐!(Merry Christmas!)

Hit that Tone

As anyone who has studied Chinese will tell you, the tones will give any newcomer to the language trouble after trouble after trouble. With five different tones (a high, rising, low, falling, and neutral tone), even just hearing the difference between words that are phonetically identically but have a different inflection (and thus are entirely different words) can be incredibly difficult. I was again reminded of the confusion tones can cause just recently.

On Saturday I was watching the lunar eclipse (月食 yuè shí) with a Chinese friend and to pass the time while we waited for the impending red moon, he started telling me the legend of 吴刚 (Wu Gang). It is said in legend that吴刚angered the gods in an attempt to gain immortality and as a result, he was banished to the moon. He was condemned to spend eternity cutting down a tree, which – as soon as he cut it down, would grow instantly anew.

My understanding of the legend was totally fine until discussing吴刚’s punishment. Instead of hearing kǎn shù (“chopping down a tree”), I distractedly took his words as kàn shū (“reading a book”) and laughingly replied that an eternity of reading book after book after book on the moon couldn’t be all that bad.

Rest assured that such a minor slip isn’t the only one I’ve made. They happen every day, and luckily most Chinese people are very understanding and usually laugh it off with me.

Some of my better slips:

Rabbit (兔子: tùzi) –> Bald Head (秃子: tūzi)

Steamed Bun (包子: bāozi) –>  Leopard (豹子: bàozi)

Taxi Driver (司机: sījī) –> Dead Chicken (死鸡: sǐjī)

You can probably guess all of the contexts that I tried to use these words in…. Needless to say, “What a cute rabbit!” didn’t come off as affectionate when I said “What a cute bald head!” My two-year-old host sister BURST out laughing one morning when I meant to tell her, “These steamed buns are so delicious!” and I actually told her that I had a thing for eating leopard. She went straight to her mother in a fit of giggles to tell her that Americans liked to eat wild animals. And my taxi driver just rolled his eyes with a chuckle when I handed him my cab fare and thanked him by calling him a dead chicken.

Needless to say – if life in China wasn’t exciting enough, the language provides that last little piece of everyday adventure. Quite often, you never know what you’re going to get – perhaps most especially if you’re the one asking for it.

A White Winter

The weather’s change from a brisk fall into winter has been one of sharp descent – the temperature has fallen swiftly and curtly, and left everyone bundled up with scarves, hats, and mittens. Where the streets were littered with fruit vendors in the summer and into the fall, they have changed with the weather and are now selling baked yams. It’s a pleasant, if not foreign experience, to purchase a roasted yam during a long walk in the cold or during the daily commute to work and school. Steaming and warm, it is definitely is a welcome reprieve from the cold.

The cold weather has given way to small bursts of snowstorms. Indeed, I have woken to a white Beijing on more than one occasion. However, the arid nature of Beijing dries the snow up before it has a chance to cause too much trouble or become too slushy. It’s fantastic – all the beauty of snow without all the trouble it can cause!

As I’ve discovered with the drop in temperature, it’s not the snow that is to be feared – it’s the wind. Beijing is known for its sandstorms, and during the winter, the wind whips up the cold air and if you don’t have a fierce jacket prepared to fight it off, it is absolutely chilling. Without extreme temperatures back home, I thought I would be able to weather the winter with just a thick jacket or two – after my first week with the wind and the cold, however, I’m already prepared to spend my weekend procuring a number of scarves, mittens, and hats to make the winter more weather-able.

A Trip to the Senior Centre

My first volunteer excursion with Lotus involved a trip to the nearby senior centre by bus to visit, chat with and generally entertain the elderly folks who live there.

This particular day was chosen as it was the 重阳节 (Chóngyáng jié – Double Ninth Festival), which as of 1989 has also been known as ‘Seniors’ Day’, when the elderly should be visited and should enjoy themselves.

The first activity upon our arrival was to give balloons to the elderly and play with them. The game essentially involved hitting the balloons back and forth, and whether they were cherishing them, hitting them back or just popping the balloons, the elderly folks seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Next came the entertainment. Each volunteer performed a routine for the elderly spectators. One was Taijiquan, one was a violin recital, a few people demonstrated their superb solo vocal skills while I myself joined in with a group rendition of 北京欢迎你 (Beijing Welcomes You). It wasn’t only us that performed however, as a few of the elderly folks also gave a performance of some kind. Following this, it was cake time, as all the seniors with birthdays in the last three months were wished happy birthday with a huge cake and celebration – a truly heart-warming sight.

After this the seniors retired to their rooms, and it was time for the volunteers to visit each room with gifts of bananas and apples. They all seemed thoroughly thrilled to see us, and I even had the pleasure of meeting one lady who said she 110 years old!!

 

Homestay in Beijing – the food!

It is fairly safe to say that eating in Chinese restaurants in the West does not make you an expert on Chinese cuisine. Although I knew that the food I would be eating out in China would be a far cry from the ‘Chinese’ food I was accustomed to in London, I did not realize quite how far.

In Beijing, and indeed in most of China, it is not customary for each person at the dinner table to have only their own plate of food to eat from. Rather, each person has their own small bowl of  主食 (Zhǔshí – staple food of rice or another form of grain), and the  菜 (Cài – dishes of vegetables and meat and everything else!) are placed in the middle of the table for everyone to tuck into. I have to say that to me this form of eating not only seems more sociable and friendly, but makes much more sense, as rather than having a set amount of food to tackle each meal, you can pick and choose what you eat and how much of it you eat depending on your appetite at the time.

I never imagined that I could eat something three times a day without becoming sick of it, as in the UK I guess we don’t have anything that you could call a 主食 (Zhǔshí). However, I guess being in China has changed that, as I’ve been eating rice at least twice a day and have never once felt sick of it. This may be because of the wonderful variety of all the different  菜 (Cài) that my homestay family prepare every evening. They keep asking me which of the various dishes they have prepared for me is my favourite, but it’s impossible to answer as there are so many and I can honestly say every single one is fantastic. Hardly a single dish I’ve had with my host family has been similar to what I would normally eat in England. This is most apparent to me when I think of the vegetables. Back home growing up vegetables was always something you ate because you had to, and it usually consisted of plain steamed broccoli or something else equally bland. In China it’s a different story, as every vegetable dish is flavoured wonderfully and has its own unique tastes.

I’ve no doubt that when the time comes to return to England, the food is going to be sorely missed, perhaps above all else.

 

Lotus Does Karaoke

As Monday was Mid-Autumn Festival, I was told on Friday that we were going to celebrate it that night with Karaoke. I had been well aware that as I was in China, it was only a matter of time before I’d find myself standing in front of a TV with a microphone in my hand. This however made the prospect no less daunting. I have always possessed a horrible singing voice, and so although I was looking forward to having fun with all the others at Lotus, I was a little apprehensive too.

No one knows for sure why karaoke is such a huge part of popular culture in the Far East compared with the rest of the world, but one thing is for sure – it is huge. You only have to walk down a street in Beijing to notice how popular the pastime is, as everywhere you look you will see ‘KTV’ written in large neon letters.

The venue we chose to go to was enormous. It had a large bar area, with a buffet restaurant and a huge corridor running from the restaurant. On either side of the corridor you could see people belting out classics in private rooms. It was interesting to see that in some rooms the audience were rolling around in laughter while the singer(s) crooned, yet in others they sat still and sober, diligently listening to the man or woman with the microphone. It seemed to me that the atmosphere of KTV can vary hugely, and it can be both a laid-back and serious affair.

I am pleased to say that after we were shown to our karaoke room, and a few drinks had been had, I took my turn to sing a song and had a great time. It didn’t seem to matter that I followed some of the excellent singing of my Lotus colleagues with tone-deaf screeching.

I would thoroughly recommend anyone who spends time in China to go to a KTV bar and try it out, as not only is it an important part of Chinese popular culture, but it’s also a lot of fun. I would also however recommend that they choose their songs carefully, as I experienced firsthand the terrible moment of realisation that the song you have chosen to sing has a chorus with a brutally long and sustained high-note…

Notice of Master Lin’s speech in America from Sep.8th to Sep.14th 2011

Master Lin, Hsien-Tsung, invited by Lotus Educational Foundation, will give a lecture tour in San Francisco Bay area of America from Sep.8th .2011 to Sep.14th 2011.For many years, Master Lin Hsien-Tsung has been devoted to solving the mind of human being itself. He has traveled all over the world and studied this aspect from a broader field. At last, he saw a light after studying Buddhism for decades. So far, he has made great achievements in his career ,including:1. Communication with Mind《與靈溝通》2. Listen to the Voice of a Little Soul《傾聽小心靈的心聲》3. Amaquarius《水悅星》etc.

Note:If you are intersted in it, please have a conference for the detailed information on this website: http://www.lotuseducation.org/news/Master-Lin.html

 

Visiting Confucius Hometown

A few weeks ago I took a weekend trip to Qufu, the hometown of one of China’s greatest philosophers, Confucius. Confucius was a philosopher in the Spring and Autumn Period. I first heard about Confucius at the age of 12 when my parents returned from a trip to China, having spent two days in Qufu studying Confucian thought. Until I went to Qufu, I figured pretty much everyone in the world had at least heard of Confucius, being one of the most famous Chinese philosophers and all. As it turns out, westerners either haven’t heard of him, or just aren’t that interested in visiting his hometown. In Qufu I got as many stares from people, on account of being a foreigner, as I normally get in small villages in China.

[singlepic id=156 w=320 h=240 float=left]In Qufu there are three major sites: the Confucian temple; the family mansion occupied by his descendants after Confucian thought became the basis of Chinese society and the basis on which emperors maintained power. There’s also the wooded graveyard where Confucius and many of his descendants are buried. I got a part-English, part-Mandarin tour of the Confucian temple, from a 76th generation descendant of the man himself. That was good Mandarin practice for me, and my guide’s English competence meant that I could get clarification on anything I didn’t understand. It seems Confucius has provided well for his descendants. They have a whole city to themselves with an endless supply of domestic tourists. Who says studying philosophy doesn’t pay? Bill Gates will never be able to provide this kind of endless economic opportunity to his descendants.

Though Confucian thought originated in China, I don’t think there’s much of it left here. It was exported from China a long time ago, to neighbouring countries such as Korea and Japan. It still remains strong in those countries, but as a result of the Cultural Revolution in China, it’s just not that strong anymore. My tour guide at the temple told me of how the majority of the temple was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. One of the tablets that was not destroyed had a red mark on it, placed there by a student, indicating that this particular tablet should not be destroyed. The reason he marked it as such, was because that tablet was written by an emperor who had grown up as a farmer. During the communist days, farmers and labourers were held up as the most important members of society. That that one tablet was not destroyed seemed a bit random to me. Why save it, just because it was written by a former farmer turned emperor? Sounds like typical ideologically-driven thinking to me and also sounds like it could have gone either way, as mobs roamed through the Confucian temple.

[singlepic id=155 w=320 h=240 float=right]Then I started to wonder. How did that student, in the middle of all the destruction, come to mark that tablet and save it from destruction? He or she was obviously educated enough to know what the tablet meant. As someone who was educated, he risked being a target of the mobs destroying things during the Cultural Revolution, not a participant. Who was this person? Did he agree with what was going on, but also think this tablet deserved to be saved? Or was he participating because he had no choice, but when he saw the opportunity to save a piece of history, he took it? Was there a debate among the students at the time about the merits of saving something written by a feudal emperor praising Confucius, given that they were trying to destroy both feudalism and Confucian thought? Did that student get denounced as a counter-revolutionary because of his suggestion? Did he survive the Cultural Revolution? I bet there are a lot of stories like this, with anonymous actors and unanswered questions, throughout China and throughout history.

[singlepic id=173 w=320 h=240 float=left]Among the notable sights at the Confucian temple are the ten dragon pillars. In imperial China nobody except the emperor could claim to have any affiliation with dragons. Not only were there ten dragon pillars in the Confucian temple, but they were considered to be even more elaborate than anything in the Forbidden City. Any time an emperor came to visit (and several did, some of them several times) the pillars were covered up, so that nobody would wind up losing their heads.

In the evening, back at my hostel, I found they stocked a bottle of fine French liquor called Pernod. I’ve rarely seen good liquor in hostel bars, and I never seen Pernod anywhere. I guess the Confucians have good taste. However, I had to teach the bar tender how to serve it. I sat there that evening, in the hometown of Confucius, who lived 2,500 years ago, drinking French liquor and talking to my friends online. The next morning I took a bus to Jinan, and then the bullet train back to Beijing.

[nggallery id=13]

Up to the Mountain

Longquan Temple

[singlepic id=87 w=320 h=240 float=right]It seems that a lot of religions have stories about mountains. Moses went up Mt. Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments, the Yellow Emperor studied Daoism at Qingcheng Mountain (there are an awful lot of holy mountains in China), and who doesn’t love to build a monastery or a retreat house in the mountains? This story, which is long overdue, is about three days I spent at Longquan Temple at Phoenix Mountain (凤凰岭自然风景公园), northwest of Beijing.

Lonquan Temple (龙泉寺) is a Buddhist temple that dates from the Liao Dynasty. These days it’s a lot bigger than it was back then. Recently a lot of new buildings have been added and more are planned. It’s a kind of modern monastery. The current abbot runs a translation centre, translating his own writings into various languages for global consumption. There seems to be an active evangelism component to the mission of Longquan, though the extent of this mission is not quite clear to me. Longquan Temple maintains an active online presence through a blog, and a network of volunteers using QQ (a Chinese social networking site and popular chat client). It also has a well-equipped media room for audio and video production.

New Year’s Eve

I went up to Longquan (or up to the mountain, as everyone who goes there says) at the suggestion of my colleague Holly. Holly is a big fan of the abbot and the work they do there. It was Chinese New Year, and I had nowhere else to go. Honestly, my preference was to spend some time with friends, setting off firecrackers and drinking baijiu (a Chinese liquor), but that plan didn’t work out. Holly told me the monastery would be ‘bustling’ for the Chinese New Year. I very much doubted her. In fact, I was right, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun or interesting.

Holly and I went up the mountain together on New Year’s Eve (that was February 2). Lonquan was hosting a “Multi-lingual Dharma Assembly” during the week-long New Year holiday. She told me I could go up there to volunteer and to recite the Sutras in my own language. I wasn’t terribly interested in reciting the Sutras, but I did think volunteering for a few days would be fun. That way I could do some manual labour and wouldn’t have to stress about my day job or my studies. I was assigned to the kitchen (大寮) which suited me quite fine.

[singlepic id=62 w=320 h=240 float=left]As usual with many new experiences, on arrival I just had to follow the crowd. Bow when they bow, clap when they clap, etc. I basically had no idea what was going on for about six hours. There was a New Year’s Eve show put on, with various short skits about living the Buddhist life, singing, musical performances, a speech by the abbot, and a year-in-review video of the monastery’s activities over the past year. At the end of the festivities, we recited a Buddhist text as the clock struck midnight. Then we all received our lucky money from the abbot as we went outside. Outside everyone had their chance to ring the temple bell for good luck in the new year. From Phoenix Mountain there is a great view of Beijing, and there were fireworks going off everywhere across the entire city.

A note about fireworks in Beijing. I was told fireworks and firecrackers are banned inside the fifth ring road in Beijing, due to population density and fire hazards. The fifth ring road encloses most of the city. Outside that there’s a sixth and maybe seventh ring road. However the term “ban” is relative in China. Whatever ban there may or may not be, nobody cares. There are fireworks and firecrackers everywhere, every day of the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, even up to the first morning back at work. You might as well say the Communist Party is banned in Beijing. It’s complete nonsense.

After taking my turn at ringing the bell and watching fireworks for a while, I went back into the monastery and chatted to a few people for a bit. I met Hongmei, who was in charge of the kitchen. She wasn’t actually who I was told to find, and I never did find my kitchen contact the whole time I was there, but I did get where I needed to be. Hongmei told me the wake up call would be at 4 AM and work starts at 4:30 AM. I found my bunk in what looked like a gymnasium turned into sectioned dormitories. My dorm had at least 40 beds. Others were bigger. I think I got to bed after 1AM that first night.

The Monks Run a Tight Ship

[singlepic id=76 w=320 h=240 float=right]On the first morning, someone’s alarm sounded at 3 AM. Then he put it on snooze and it sounded again at 3:15 AM. If you know me, you know I don’t like to be disturbed in the morning hours before my planned time to get up. The Chinese philosophy is that “early to bed and early to rise” is good for your health. Fine, I can go along with that, but how healthy do I really need to be? Isn’t 4 AM early enough?

I made my way to the kitchen at 4:30 AM as directed. I wasn’t actually doing any cooking, I was working under Hongmei doing food preparation. We’d retrieve vegetables from the various food stores around the monastery, clean them, chop them, and then deliver them to the chefs for the next meal. We were always preparing food one meal in advance. So at 4:30 in the morning we were preparing the food for lunch. At any given time there were between four and twenty people working on food preparation. I always seemed to be in an awkward position with work assignments. First of all, my Mandarin is mediocre at best so giving me instructions isn’t that easy, and second, I don’t think anyone ever expected to see a white man do manual labour, so they were afraid I’d injure myself or something.

The monks run a massive kitchen operation. It’s exactly the kind of thing I like: organized, logical and efficient. Hongmei ran a tight show as head of food preparation. There are huge pantries and food stores all over the monastery and it has its own tofu-making facility. The kitchen is a full industrial kitchen except it has no dishwashers. Dish washing is all done by hand. The monk in charge of the kitchen, who I really liked, told me that the monastery acts as a place of refuge in case of emergency. They have their own water supply from a spring in the mountain and their own farm at another location. Though there is electricity there, the stoves are wood-fired. I believe the monastery can support 1000 people without any outside resources, and there were about 800 there during the Chinese New Year holiday.

[singlepic id=74 w=320 h=240 float=left]I spent most of the day in the kitchen. At some point Hongmei told me they would need help distributing food at meal time. I wound up doing this every meal time for the next few days, and I quite enjoyed it. I had to do a quick study in hand signals. At meal time we’re not allowed to talk. If you want more or less of some food being distributed, you have to indicate what you want with a hand signal, and the guy distributing food (me) needs to know what you’re talking about. Food is distributed in large buckets. By the way, the food is fantastic. I’m not vegetarian but these were the tastiest vegetarian meals I’ve ever had.

Food distribution was an interesting experience. In China, people sometimes ignore all the rules (see above, about fireworks) and sometimes they queue up and follow instructions military (communist?) style. This was more of the latter. The food servers worse blue aprons and a white hat. There was a young man in charge who lined us up and marched us up to the dinning hall. We lined up all the buckets and he assigned each person a bucket to distribute and told us which rows in the dining hall we were responsible for feeding. He then said a prayer and we all went to work. When we were not distributing food we were supposed to be standing neatly in a line by the wall waiting for further instructions. We were not allowed to engage in idle chit-chat. Distributing food to a few hundred men only served to make me famous. Before that I was the white guy mysteriously doing manual labour in the kitchen, and only known to whoever else might have been working in the kitchen. Now I was the white guy mysteriously serving other people.

[singlepic id=86 w=320 h=240 float=left]Meal times are also interesting because they’re gender-separated. I believe everything is gender-separated at the monastery, not just the dormitories, but also meal times and prayer and scripture reading times too. We all worked together in the kitchen though. As a consequence of the gender separation, from New Year’s Eve, when we all went out to ring the bell, I didn’t see Holly again until we both returned to work in Beijing. In fact, she left the monastery before me and I didn’t even know she was gone.

The Abbot of Longquan Temple is somewhat of a hero for the many young people who were there. It’s a big place, so we didn’t see him often, but on the first night I accidentally had a quick one-on-one chat with him, which made some of my kitchen workmates a bit envious. I was coming back down to the kitchen after serving dinner and saw that there were a lot of people blocking the kitchen door. When people stand around doing nothing in front of doors or at the top of the stairs in a subway station, it drives me nuts. Can’s they go gossip in a corner somewhere? I just pushed right through the crowd. That’s how you get by in Beijing, with lots of elbow, so I’m good at it now. After pushing through I suddenly found myself in the middle of a circle of people surrounding the abbot. At this point I felt a bit embarrassed. There wasn’t much of substance to our simple chat, just him asking me where I’m from and how I came to be at the monastery. My impression of the abbot is that he’s a very sincere guy, dedicated to his work. He’s always got a big smile on his face.

An Ordinary Day at Longquan Temple

Day two at the monastery started at 3 AM, just like the first. I really wouldn’t have minded the extra hour of sleep until 4 AM, but at this point I had to resign myself to getting up at 3 AM because after that alarm went off, many other people started to stir too. Let me tell you this, if I had been able to figure out whose alarm that was, I would have made sure he didn’t get any breakfast. I’m not very zen.

The second day went by like the previous. I worked in the kitchen, discovered new food stores, which continuously amazed me, and helped in food distribution at every meal. The monk running the kitchen invited me to take some time off from the kitchen to go recite the Sutras. I told him I probably wouldn’t understand what was going on, so I might as well just stay in the kitchen. I think he understood, both the reality that my Mandarin just isn’t good enough for that, and the fact that I wasn’t really interested. In Chinese culture, you don’t often say “no” directly, so saying I wouldn’t understand was the perfect way to decline the invitation. In the afternoon I went hiking on Phoenix Mountain with Linyu and Zhibing, a couple of friends I’d made in my dormitory. It wasn’t quite as cold out there as it was in Beijing and the sun was shining so it was a fantastic hike.

[singlepic id=88 w=320 h=240 float=right]The Buddhist Retreat

Before I went up the mountain, Holly had been asking me to help with some translation. The organizers of the week-long “Multi-Lingual Dharma Assembly” needed some terms on the schedule and program introduction translated into English. There was some discussion between us about whether the word ‘assembly’ was the right word or not. I don’t know much about Buddhism, I only have a vague notion of what the Dharma is, and before I went to Longquan I really didn’t know what was going to be happening, so I didn’t know what to call it.

After two days at the monastery, I started to figure out that it was essentially a Buddhist retreat. It had all the hallmarks of any church retreat I’ve ever been on: sleeping in dorms; a massive kitchen operation running to feed hundreds of people; everyone early to bed and early to rise; lots of prayer times; and people addressing each other in ways they would never do on the street. We all addressed each other using a form of the word “brother” (师兄) which is typically only used among those studying Buddhism, Taichi, or other such things. There is a word for sister (师姐) but I was told that it typically isn’t used. It reminded me of Star Trek, where everyone addresses their commanding officers as “Sir” even if the CO is a woman. One thing that did distinguish this retreat from church retreats I’ve been on, was the number of young people. There were a lot of enthusiastic young Buddhists at the monastery that week. That’s good, because every religion like every society, needs new life to pass its values onto the next generation and to carry the torch. Obviously the Longquan Temple’s evangelism work and online outreach programs are effective.

A lot of people assumed I was a Buddhist when they met me. A perfectly reasonable assumption, else why was I hanging out at a Buddhist retreat when I could have been drinking baijiu and lighting fireworks? Others didn’t really know whether I was a Christian (as Chinese people assume all westerners are) or whether I had no religion at all. Some tried to encourage me to become a Buddhist. As is typical of people engaging in evangelism, some of them were more more pushy, and others were more tactful and respectful. I tried variously telling people nothing at all, and telling them I’m Catholic, but it didn’t seem to make any difference in how they reacted to me.

Coming Down the Mountain

My third day at Longquan Temple started at 3AM just like the previous two days. What can you do? I worked in the kitchen in the morning and then made preparations to leave in the afternoon.

[singlepic id=90 w=320 h=240 float=left]As I was trying to leave, I was approached by one of the volunteers and a friend of Holly’s who told me to follow her quickly to some unknown destination with a purpose she didn’t seem to have time to explain to me. We arrived at a room somewhere in the back of the monastery where I’d never previously gone, which was full of young people. These people, who I think were all volunteers, had been invited to have a quick audience with the abbot. He wasn’t there at this point, but we were being briefed by a monk on what to do when we met him. We were all given “lucky money” envelopes to give to the abbot when we saw him. As usual, I didn’t understand a great deal of what was going on. At some point everyone got up and filed out of the room to meet the abbot. I think things got a bit mixed up, because we ran into him outside the monastery on our way to the appointed meeting room. We all handed over our lucky money gifts, and then paid our respects to the abbot by kneeling down and bowing with our heads touching the ground. We did this three times.

On the second day at Longquan Temple, I had been interviewed by the volunteer journalist for an article on the Longquan Temple blog. He asked me what I thought of the place and the people there. I told him that Christians believe our faith should be shown through our actions, that it’s not just words and prayers. I said that it was clear by the way they welcomed me and made me a part of their retreat without hesitation, that the people I met at Longquan Temple were sincerely living out their faith. I’m not sure if he understood what I meant, because that quote didn’t wind up in the article, but it’s the highest compliment I can offer them.

That afternoon I walked down the hill to the bus stop and caught the bus back into Beijing. The city was still empty and quiet, most people having not yet returned from the Chinese New Year holiday. But there were definitely fireworks.

[nggallery id=10]

Last Good-bye and Home Again

It has been almost two weeks since I posted my last blog. In the meantime, I have said good-bye to the Jin family, the children at the school, my friends at Lotus Education in Beijing, have gotten into hot water with the USDA for importing Chinese dried beef sticks and have slept in my own bed for the first time in almost a month.

Last Tuesday I went to the school for the last time.  The kids were as rowdy as usual, but I was afforded a bit more attention on my final day.  I did my best to tell them that I appreciated their patience with my poor Chinese and that I would miss them very much.  At recess time, I was given little gifts.  There was a handmade yellow bead bracelet  (lots of Chinese guys wear these – I was assured by the little girl who made it that it was just a bracelet and not of any religious significance), several drawings of girls in fancy gowns,  a chalk rendering of a sunset at sea, drawings of cartoon animals (possibly traced, but it’s the thought that counts), a handsome red ballpoint pen (which was permanently ‘barrowed’ by the end of school that day), a small ring set with a plastic red stone (“for your Chinese daughter because she’ll know that red is lucky and it’s the color of her flag”) and sort of an abstract multi-media painting with stars, birds, lightning bolts and  quotes by Zhou En Lai and Deng Xiao Ping on the bottom.   I love the gifts and I love the kids- even the rowdy ones who wouldn’t pay attention no matter how loud I yelled.

Toward the end of class, I looked out the window and saw Director Wang.  I had not expected to see him again as he had gone home to Central China for the Qing Ming festival.   After class he came over and told me that he had come directly from the train station to school in order to see me before I left.  He invited me into his office and quickly brewed me a glass of tea. He produced a new, unopened can of green tea of the same sort he had given me before.  He had bought it in his home town and wanted me to have it.  We talked about my next visit, the school, the students (who I thought was best and who had who had not paid attention – fortunately for the slackers, I couldn’t remember their Chinese names).  I thanked him for his support and kindness.  In the meantime, my tea glass had been filled for the third time and some of the kids were standing outside the door making motions which clearly meant that they couldn’t wait for me any longer.  Not wanting to offend my host, I remained seated and waved good bye to the children.  This was not exactly how I had pictured my farewell, but things never turn out how we expect them to – good or bad.   Director Wang is a very dear man who truly has the children’s best interest at heart and he scares the holy heck out of them. After my last glass of tea and my last barrage of thank you ‘s, he led me to the school gates and gave me a very ‘un-Chinese’ pat on the back.  Outside, my usual entourage was still waiting for me after all.

Henry, Diana and Lily, some of my walking palsThe twins, Lilly and Jessica, little Henry and Diana (all the kids had English names which I found much easier to remember) walked slowly down the dirt road with me, asking some last minute questions like: “Are you sad to leave us?”,  “Are you going to be happy to see your family” and the very Chinese question “How much money do you make?”  (No, I didn’t tell them)  “Can you use chopsticks” and “Do you like Chinese food better than hamburgers, etc. etc”.   Our little group always caused people on the street to stop and stare (old white man with Chinese kids speaking Chinese to him didn’t compute for most passer bys).  But that last day, it seemed that the neighborhood had actually got used to our little parade and we had fewer gawkers.   Diana (who had given me the yellow bracelet) held my hand most of the way.

Unlike other days, the moment we got to the main road, a taxi pulled up.  I hailed him.  “Your mingpian, your calling card, teacher!  Do you have a calling card?  We don’t know your address!   How can we write you?” I didn’t have any cards with me and I promised that I would write them soon and they would get my address then.   I got a quick hug, I think, and I got into the car.  “When are you coming back?”  “Next year,” I yelled through with window. Until that moment,  I had been very guarded about saying if and when I’d be back, but my four ‘protectors’ looked so genuinely sad that I couldn’t have told them anything else.

That night, the Jins fed me my favorite dinner and I played on the floor with Dudu who had told his parents earlier that day, they shouldn’t let Yeye (grandpa) go home.   On the wall in their dining area, they had a very large scroll on which was written a verse by an 11th century poet,  Su Shi

For thousands of years, the waves of the eastward flowing Yangtse have been washing away all the great heroes of the past… Around uneven steeps of the rocky walls which reach the sky, the huge waves beat against the banks, bursting like thousands of layers of snow.

On the first day, I had commented on the beautiful calligraphy. That night, after dinner, the scroll was taken off the wall, rolled up and given to me.  This left a huge empty spot on the wall, a perfect expression of the generosity and kindness afforded me by my hosts, the Jins.

On Wednesday, Livia from Lotus came and picked me up.  I got hugs from the neighbor, and was accompanied to the car by the Jins.   With the thank you’s  and hugging over (hugging is not particularly Chinese), we departed on one last wild taxi ride through Beijing.

Now I’m back home with my wonderful family and China seems surreal and far away. It’s sort of difficult to write about it now.   In the end, the experience far exceeded my expectations and frankly, I never would have believed adventures like this were possible at this point in my life.

Thanks for reading this long blog.  I’ll be back.