Day 28: Shopping

Today students went shopping. I, unfortunately, could not join them because I had to return home to go shopping with my host family. However, I know that the Maret students went to the Silk Market which I’ve been to, so I can give you an idea of what it’s like.

When you go in the building, you see lots of cubicles all filled with different kinds of merchandise (from t-shirts, to suits, to knick-knacks) depending on which floor you are on. If you are a foreigner, sellers call to you from all over the store. They call you their friend and then proceed to offer you a very outrageous price. As all of the Maret students are pros at bargaining now, this poses no problem. Many of the students have already been to this market, so some may decide to go to Wangfujing (another market very close by with much better quality goods). I’m sure they will get some great souvenirs.

Tomorrow, after the students take their luggage to Lotus, they will take their exams and then, as a last hurrah, make dumplings or ‘bao jiaozi!’ After a delicious lunch we will head to the airport and back to home.

This is my last post. I hope that you have enjoyed what I have written, and I’m sure you’re as ready to see your kids as they are ready to see you. I’m sure they will have lots of stories to tell you about the amazing places they have to been, and about the many experiences they’ve had.

Day 27: Chinese Movie

Today Lotus treated us to see Chinese movie in the movie theater.  I think the Chinese name was Wuxia, which means master of gongfu or something like that. It was in Chinese with Chinese subtitles, but people got what was going on in the end and enjoyed it.

Afterwards people either stayed in the shopping mall to do some shopping or went home. Even though our trip is winding down to a close, there does not seem to be any less enthusiasm.

The Maret students have a Chinese exam Wednesday and, after having talked to Natalie, Evan, and others, I know they’re preparing for that as well.

Day 25: Zen

Today we took a long drive out of Beijing to visit a Zen meditation center in the mountains. As soon as we got out of Beijing,  it immediately became much cleaner and green. When we pulled into a driveway of one of the highway roads, there were only a couple of buildings surrounded by woods. In every direction were lush green mountains, all very beautiful. Once out of the bus we had to take a little bit of a hike up a mountain to the retreat. It was actually a very nice area. There were little boarding rooms next to the main couple of wooden buildings. I guess the best way to describe it is that it was very Zen-like (lots of very friendly butterflies), and a lake where you could float on some bamboo rafts.

The first meditation we did was walking meditation. The Zen master said that meditation is all about focusing on the inner self and blocking out all other distractions of the senses. This walking meditation was practice. Then we went inside to discuss our experiences shortly followed by a stagnant meditation (the kind you’re used to seeing on TV).

There was lots of interesting philosophy connected with meditation. One comparison the master made was that your mind is a lot like a driver of a car. If the driver gets distracted, the car might crash or is in greater danger of doing so. In the same way, your mind needs to pay attention to the body to make sure it is doing the right things. At this point Eric turned to me and said “That’s a really good analogy.”

When we finished our lesson we had a wonderfully tasty lunch and then some time off to walk around the grounds. Most everyone ended up down by a very small dammed lake to go float around on the rafts for a little while. The water was surprisingly clean compared to the Beijing water we’re used to. Then we piled back on the bus for the long trek back home.

Day 24: Calligraphy

Today we all met in the Lotus office to learn calligraphy from a professor, I think he said, of Beijing University (or at least one of the colleges in the area). First, he gave us some background of calligraphy and where it came from. The oldest Chinese characters were inscribed on tortoise shells and animal hide something like, 4,000 years ago. Later, during the Han Dynasty (206BC to 220AD) calligraphy started to bloom as an art, and it has been a very important art in China ever since then.

The calligraphy professor showed us how to hold the maobi or paintbrush and then taught us how to make the different types of strokes that make up the characters. We practiced these and then practiced writing characters. Chinese calligraphy is very difficult because it requires lots of practice and lot of patience. It was hard but whenever someone wanted a break, a little doodle on the side of the page was welcome. The Professor himself showed some of his doodles…slightly better than ours of course.

Day 23: Confucian Temple

Today was a very laid back day. Several took the day off to rest but, for the others still brave at heart and strong in will, it was off to the Confucian Temple and its next door neighbor, the Imperial College, an institute of higher learning in imperial times.

This complex is actually very close to the Lama Temple that we went to earlier on this trip.  At the Imperial College, candidates from all over the country came to take the civil service exams.  Their exam results would decide whether and how they were going to serve the government. The better one did, the higher their position and the closer they were to the emperor.

At the Confucian temple, originally built in 1302 and expanded in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, memorial services were held in honor of Confucius by the Emperor and other people. I read on one of the signs that they actually did dances there. The more influence you had, the more dancers you could hire.

One of the aspects I liked the most about this place was the old trees. Many of Beijing’s temples and palaces have these. They are often twisted and crooked but beautiful. There are quite a few that are over 300 years old.

After that, Andy, Evan, Ben, Austin, Olivia M. and other Lotus students decided to hit the Hutongs to do some shopping and relaxing. The others returned for some well earned rest.

Day 22: Beijing Opera

Today, at Kelsey’s suggestion, we went to see the Beijing Opera. Everyone met at the QianMen Hotel at around 6:55pm and then went up the stairs to our seats.

This particular performance did not show one whole opera but segments from two different operas. I do not remember the names, but the first was about a noble lady trying to catch her love (a nobleman) who took a boat down the river. The whole scene involved her interacting with a boatman who, after playing some jokes on the noble lady, finally takes her to find the nobleman down the river.

The second was a scene from an opera about the Monkey King. This is a very famous story which I have just been informed about, but basically the Monkey king is a very kooky, mischievous but powerful being that escaped from the prison where Buddha in heaven was holding him. Buddha sends his servants out to try and capture the Monkey king only for them to be dominated by the Monkey King’s complete and utter awesomeness. They did flips and crazy tricks I can’t even begin to explain. In addition to the action, there was lots of great humor too.

I think that Ms. Cohan was worried people weren’t going to like it but, from what I heard, everyone enjoyed parts if not the whole thing. This might not have been the case if we had to watch a whole opera but changing the plot and shortened duration of the show kept the audience interested.

After that people either went home or out to grab a bite.

Day 21: Tai ji (taijiquan)

After lunch today, Maret and other Lotus students gathered in the courtyard of the Lotus building to learn Taijiquan from a two masters. We started with the tradition slow taiji warm-up (it looks a lot like a dance with waving arms).

It looked kind of silly, but then the masters started showing us how it worked (using other peoples energy against them), and it was very impressive. Basically, everyone first practiced with a classmate, then went to spar with a master who, of course, made them look silly, then they went back to their partner to practice more. It was very challenging but very fun.

One of the masters explained that every person should be like water and not use force on the other person and, in tern, not let the other person’s force influence them (for instance, push them off balance). The reason is that if you use force, then the other person can, in turn, use your force against you. There were lots of flailing arms and awkward stand-offs, but it was still a lot of fun. I saw Andy and Evan created their own taiji routine, which included karate chops and no physical contact what so ever. It was quite amusing to watch. I sparred with Austin and ended up doing some very awkward pirouettes, not quite sure what acting like water is supposed to look like. The master walked over to me laughing saying I was doing it all wrong. I glad to say I got better.

Day 18: The Senior Center

Today was our second community service trip. We took the Lotus bus to a senior center. This is not like an American senior center, however: its facilities are not nearly as good. The only reason these people are there is because they have nowhere else to go. Family is very important in Chinese culture. Grandparents often live with their grandkids, but occasionally one thing leads to another, and the grandparents are left without that close-knit family support.

Because of this, it was our desire to give them smiles and entertainment for a whole 2 ½ hour period. First we played a game of ‘hit the balloon really hard in any random direction,’ then we did our performances. Eric and Will displayed some American culture with a rap song. Other volunteers who had joined our group performed as well. One guy played violin, many others sang songs. Then a couple of old folks performed, too.

Afterwards, we celebrated birthdays for anyone born in June, July, or August. Lisa brought out a big, beautiful cake and Maret students and Lotus volunteers served everyone.

After the elderly had returned to their rooms, we split up into groups and gave each elderly person a gift from Lotus. It was an anti-itch ointment for mosquito bites.

Everyone went back to Lotus for an organic vegetarian lunch (very tasty I must say!) followed by a discussion about the day’s events.

Day 17: Prep for Senior Center

Today was a very relaxed day. After lunch we went back to Lotus to learn a couple of songs for the senior center that we will be visiting tomorrow. Some students, including Eric, Will, and I, prepared individual performances for the old folks.

Afterwards, we went to a big shopping mall to have DQ and then Karaoke. I went along for a while but had to leave early because my ankle started to hurt (don’t worry it’s fine now). I heard that everyone had a lot of fun.

Day 16: Migrant School

This is one of two community service trips that Lotus hosts and one of the more special activities that we will get to participate in on this trip. Today we all loaded onto the Lotus bus, along with many other Lotus volunteers, and headed to our destination.

Before I go into more depth of what we did, let me first give you some background on what a migrant school is. Lotus provided us with a handout that I will quote. According to this handout, “since the 1990s, rapid economical development of China attracts a mass of rural population flow to big cities, especially Beijing.” But, as things are, these migrant workers are not considered legal residents by the Beijing government. Because of this, the kids of these families are not entitled to an education. This means that these kids depend on “school[s that are] generally run by private persons. There is no special standard for teachers,” so any person who is willing and able can be a teacher. Lotus says, “there are more than 200 schools for children of migrant workers in Beijing and about 200,000 students.” If you do the math, this is roughly 1000 students per school. And, of course, since these are not official schools, they are “in poor conditions and few teaching equipments.”

Our job for this trip was to teach these kids several English words (head, shoulders, knees, hands, and face) and then a song (“If you’re happy and you know it”) for them to remember them by (we changed the words).

Upon arrival at the school, volunteers were assigned to work with various group sof Chinese kids.  My group was wonderful. All of the kids were very bright (ranging from age 10-13), and several knew how to introduce themselves in English. Teaching in another language is not easy, but everyone managed. After practicing the words several times we did a game of ‘Simon says.’ Evan was in my group and the three girls that he taught were astonishingly confident, but this was not always the case. Some of the girls seemed intimidated by their friends’ capabilities and were more timid because of it.

In my group there was one girl who could not answer as quickly as the others and so was deterred a little. Noticing this, I switched up my teaching method and had it so only one person answered my question at a time. After I did this, the girl picked it up very quickly. I can’t help but think, though, that this kind of attention to a single student is not always possible. I wonder how she will fare in the future. No doubt she has a better chance than most in her position.

The school is a one story building with a 50 foot or so courtyard placed in the center. Once inside the courtyard there are about 8 or so doorways to classrooms. Each classroom was about 10’ by 15’ if I were to guess, all crammed with wooden desks and garnished by one very unattractive chalkboard.

After having class, everyone’s groups came together in front of the school to sing “If you’re happy and you know it,” first in English and then in Chinese. After that we got to take pictures and talk with the kids for a little while before we had to leave. Olivia, Kelsey…well actually all of the girls I believe, had made little Chinese boyfriends and the guys were very popular as well.

I have to say it was a wonderful experience and, after having talked with the Maret students, I know that they were all moved. This is surely an experience they will remember for a very long time. I think they had more influence on the kids than they realize.