How strange that I took a hiatus of exactly one year before returning to blogging. My last post was a year ago tomorrow...
In the mean time, we've had another awesome trip to China! In January of this year, J and I embarked on another Chinese adventure. My very good friend, X, was getting married in Tianjin, which is just a few hours east of Beijing. We were invited to come up for the wedding and to stay with X's family, who didn't speak English (although her father did speak it a bit, but in a very, very limited way-we certainly could not have a conversation). We were in China for two weeks (including the 4 days we took a little trip into Beijing) and were there for Chinese New Year. It was a wonderful adventure, during which we got to the Great Wall again (but this time at Mutianyu instead of Badaling, which we found to be less esthetically pleasing but wayyyyy more fun!) and to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was a cool adventure, mostly because of the fact that the last time I went there, in 2008, we didn't want to be there. We just went because it was on the same day as Tiananmen Square, and we wanted to see the Square (in the end, we had ended up missing it because we thought it would be at the end of the tour and ended up being at the beginning as a result of the new rules about entering only at the South entrance-but that is a blog for another day). This time, we researched it, had a map of it on my tablet, and made conscious decisions about what we were going to take time to look at. As a lawyer, seeing where historically the court used to be held was quite thrilling for me (and for J) and J developped a new obsession with Empresses (leading to an Empress-themed birthday party upon our return in February). and all my research about the potential scams was very useful in not getting caught in them!
Chinese New Year in Tianjin is all about the firecrackers. They are everywhere and they went off pretty much the whole time we were there, with the peak being from 10pm on New Year's Eve until about 1 am on New Year's day. And if the air quality wasn't bad enough before then, ohhhhhh boy, did it ever get nasty around that time! Speaking of which, this was the first time that I travelled with a pollution mask and with a preventative puffer for my asthma, and it was awesome. Healthiest trip to China so far, despite the air quality being worse this year than pretty much ever. That is, until a few days before we came home when J and I both came down with a cold. We were very feverish for a couple of days, so we were worried that we may not be able to board the plane home, but it all worked out.
Our Hotel in Beijing was a neat little spot where we paid $27 per night for a basic room with two single beds, a desk, a kettle, a tv and a private bathroom. It was the Jade International Youth Hotel and Hostel (meaning they had hotel and hostel/dorm type rooms). Although it was $27 per night, we had 2 $25 hotel vouchers from Flight Network (who, btw, were awesome, including matching a very very low price of a competitor after their price went up substantially and I wanted to add my daughter to my flight), so the room was basically almost free for 2 of our 3 nights there. It was right amongst the hutongs just a couple of blocks outside the Forbidden City. I couldn't believe how lucky we were to have found this little gem. It was a disaster to find geographically, fairly far from the subway, and getting a cab to come to the hotel to pick us up was pretty much impossible, but we had the best walks and the neighbourhood was ridiculously cool. There were lots of stores and restaurants nearby and when we were in our room or in the lobby, we were comfortable. I would highly recommend it (but be careful as there are some other similarly named hotels that are often confused for this one, especially by taxi drivers).
One of the coolest things I got to do while in Beijing was spend some time at the New Day Foster Home just south of Beijing. New day is an exceptionally well-run foster home, caring for children who have special needs and who are referred to them when others (including some orphanages) cannot care for them. They raise funds to pay for life-saving surgeries and have excellent rehabilitation programs and staff to provide excellent care to the children in the home. I had been following them on Facebook for a couple of years, and I was so very excited to go visit them. Before I went, I had just regained some of my mobility in my hands, so I started knitting again. I decided I would make scarves for the children in the home. As I progressed, i realized I might need help. So I appealed to friends and fellow church goers for funds to pay for some medical supplies for the home as well as for knitters to help me knit scarves for the children, and for the nannies too. The outpouring of generosity was amazing! We raised hundreds of dollars for medical supplies, and brought over a hundred items of warm clothing (hats, scarves, mittens, etc) as well as toys for the children, costumes, clothing, etc. Our donations took up an entire large suitcase and a second bag.
I had hoped to volunteer at the home for a couple of days, but once I decided to take J with me, that was the end of that, as outside children under 12 are not permitted in the home. I nevertheless had a great opportunity to spend time there and fell in love with Lucy and Melinda (now named Cora-Jo), and was fortunate enough to witness the mischievous escapades of Brandon and Daniel (now named Lucas). It was so great to also meet kids like Esther and Austin, whose progress makes me so happy to support such a wonderful cause.
It was nice to experience another part of China, although it was much less meaningful for us than our previous trip to the south of China. I did, however, find it easier to communicate because I have been taught by Northern (Beijing) Mandarin teachers (a fact which had made Guangzhou quite difficult to navigate at times). We were also spoiled by my friend's family who cooked elaborate meals for us, gave us gifts and patiently listened to me blubber away in my broken Mandarin complimenting me on how well I was doing (even though we were all painfully aware that I wasn't, lol!)
I also learned that in addition to dialect differences, one of the differences in language between communities can be something as simple as tone of voice and expression. For example, everyone laughed when I claimed that I felt people were mad at me in Tianjin stores. Turns out that when Tianjin people talk, they speak very roughly and in a loud and forceful manner. It's got nothing to do with how they feel. It's just the way they speak.
There was one day when I was a bit frustrated at my hosts, but it's a difficult thing because I was upset with them being "too" nice to us. When I travel, i like to take matters into my own hands. I am a very independent and sometimes adventurous (although generally safe) traveler. I enjoy planning out an itinerary and figuring out how to use public transit. Sometimes, I get lost. But because, especially in China, I tend to stay in very populated areas, getting lost is no big deal as there are always people around who can help me find my way, even when they don't speak English. I love the feeling of finding my way after being lost! It is so exhilarating! and I spend a lot of time doing research before I travel so that if I do get lost, I have numerous points of reference, for example, on maps. I always print out out (or ave on my tablet or phone) maps of the area in which I will be wandering so that I can point to it if I am lost. And my basic Mandarin is enough for me to be able to communicate if I do get lost, to at least get myself to a familiar spot (especially when I've brushed up on it, which I always do before every trip).
So on this particular day, I had spent hours researching the area in which I was going to be shopping and mastering the key words I needed to find a particular item I was looking for. I had maps and instructions from the front door of the building I was staying at to the location I wanted to get to, to another location, and back to our building. It was all laid out on individual cue cards, with alternatives if I decided to change the order, etc, etc.
When I got to the breakfast table, I was told that the family I was staying with had made arrangements for us to be accompanied by the daughter of a friend of the family, who was studying English at University. We would be driven wherever we wished to go and she would be with us the whole day. Ugh! Nooooooooo!!!!!! I wanted some alone-time with my daughter! At this point we had been with other people for a week and a half, except our 4 days in Beijing, and I really, really wanted to experience Tianjin on my own with J! But arrangements had been made. So we went out with this delightful young lady who was fantastic. Although I felt we did not do what we had wanted to do, she was great at helping us with whatever we were looking for and really did what she had been asked to do by our host family. Unfortunately, I don't think I showed enough gratitude towards her. I was visibly upset and I wish I had been more appreciative towards her. She was a very sweet and wonderful young lady, with awesome prospects ahead of her, based on her great command of English. I hope I will get to meet her again someday, to tell her how much I really did appreciate her help finding my daughter some elusive red Chinese dance shoes....
We are so thankful to have had all of the opportunities we have had this time around. For years, I thought that I had left a part of my heart in China and that's why I had to go back. Now I see that I just get more and more smitten with it every time I go.
We're planning another trip to China, this time with hubby! It will be in late 2015 or early 2016. This time, we will go back to our daughter's birth city (Guigang), explore more of her province of Guangxi (especially Guilin, which everyone keeps telling us we are fools for having missed) and a visit to our former exchange student in Hong Kong. We're already planning that one, and that is what will keep me same until we get there again :-)
Have I mentioned how much I love China?