Posted by: andrewcockerham | February 13, 2010

Remembering Home

try eating mashed potatoes with chopsticks

Hong Kong skyline

(originally posted July 21, 2009)

Thursday July 9, 2009 Tianjin, China 10:08 am

Remembering Home Away from Home

Another Country

Chasing Trains

Great Wall

So I realized that I am terrible at blogging. I have a tiresomely long list of things to blog about, and therefore always put it off. But I had a few really good days lately, so I decided to make time to put down my experiences in writing. I hadn’t realized how long it has been. So many of these stories will be quite old, but hopefully still interesting.

When living abroad, in my opinion, remembering and keeping your own culture is just as important as learning and delving into the culture in which you’re living. So here are a few examples of that.

Last fall, I of course was closely following the college football season, as every American guy my age does. I found a way to watch games online here, so I would invite my other American buddies over to hang out, drink Dr Pepper from the import store and watch good old American pigskin games. It was a nice taste of home that was really needed. One of my good buddies here went to Tech, and another was from Ohio, so we definitely had a little of trash talking, which just made it more fun.

Holidays often seem even more important when you are away from home. Thanksgiving was a good one because most of my Chinese friends, and even lots of Europeans, didn’t know much about it. So we got to share our culture with them, which is a sweet reversal of roles.Our Chinese boss graciously allowed us to order a Turkey from an American restaurant here, and so we had turkey and gravy and stuffing! It wasn’t nearly as good as my Mom’s stuffing, but all things considered, it hit the spot nicely. We even finished it off with some cheesecake. I brought my laptop up so we could watch some football and educate some of the Chinese staff about our Thanksgiving traditions. So all in all, it wasn’t that different than a Thanksgiving at home except for the fact that I couldn’t see my family. And as you can see in the picture, we had to eat Thanksgiving dinner with chopsticks!! That definitely tested our proficiency.

July 4th was another holiday where we got to share our American culture. Mandi, another American teacher and I taught the non-American Westerners on our staff how to eat s’mores. We had a little grill on our balcony, and roasted marshmallows using chopsticks and made makeshift s’mores, which some Chinese cracker things to replace graham crackers. Everyone agreed that s’mores are delicious and a great tradition. We couldn’t have any fireworks because apparently they are illegal except during Chinese New Year, but we did sing the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. I had some good Belgian beer that I got in Beijing, and afterwards Mandi and I went to an American restaurant for a good ole American burger.It was a good 4th.

For my birthday my boss bought some cake and chocolate, and they sang Happy Birthday. One of the other teacher’s wife knitted me a neck scarf, which was really kind and surprised me. I made daily use of it during the brutal (to a Texan) winter here. It was terrible. A few times I biked home in 0 degrees F (-15 C)!! That’s bloody cold, especially on a bike! For the first time in my life I purchased long underwear, and used it. I don’t like it, but its necessary in those temperatures. It only snowed twice, but it was just painfully cold all winter. I went running in the snow a few times, which was actually fun. The worst was actually in March. The all-knowing Chinese government controls all central heating, and they decide that on March 15, the people no longer need heat. However, on March 24, it snowed. And we had no central heat. I was wearing all of my skiing clothes in my room, and watching my breath as I tried to type on my computer with ski gloves. Its not easy in case you haven’t tried it.Needless to say, this is one of the primary motivations for me moving to a southern and warmer city next year!

Also in the spirit of sharing my culture, I did a lesson about American football traditions. I taught about Midnight Yell, Yell leaders, football traditions, flyovers, and a few famous schools like FSU’s horse Osceola. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I think the students were a bit lost and a bit shocked that we made such a deal out of sports. Here sports are not a big thing at all, with maybe the one exception being the recent youth’s interest in the NBA. So to see a hundred thousand people in a stadium for just a weekly football game I think was quite hard for them to understand. Although I didn’t have nearly enough time to cover everything, I think they got a good taste of some important American culture. And I had a blast teaching it. I would rather teach football than the past perfect progressive tense any day!

I did another lesson on Texas culture which was equally as fun. I taught them about cowboy terminology and a bit of their history. I taught about a brief history of Texas, Remember the Alamo, our flag, flower, and a bit about Texas music, Texas jargon like yall, ain’t, I’m fixin to do something, etc, most of which I didn’t realize were Texasisms until I started traveling. I also showed them some rodeo videos, and they really got a kick out of mutton busting and calf roping. I also showed a video of the Aggie Wranglers. Again I think they had no idea how much culture we had, and they were really interested. I love talking about Texas!

Here are other assorted oddities/stories in no particular order.

Yesterday me, my Australian boss, and a few other teachers went to see where the Great Wall goes into the sea. We had to get an early start and catch the 6am train. However, since I had gone out with a few friends the night before, I uncharacteristically went to bed late. I must have slept right through my alarm, because my friends called me at 5:37 to see why I hadn’t arrived yet, and I got out of bed to answer. So I had 20 minutes to make the train. I was praying like crazy, and it was a total miracle that I sprinted onto the train as the whistle was blowing. The train itself was a cultural experience. They simply sell tickets until the train leaves, with no regard to the number of people or seats on the train. Consequently, the trains are frequently packed like cattle cars with people standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisles and you can barely even walk to another car because of all the people. It took us almost 10 minutes to walk from one end of the car to the other. Eventually someone got off and offered us some seats. The people next to us were snacking on bear and chicken feet for breakfast. Just what I crave at 6am in the morning! We went to Beidaihe, a famous tourist spot on the way, and my boss who is into geocaching led us to find our first geocache. It was quite exciting and we had a ‘first find’. Geocaching is when people hide things somewhere and post the GPS coordinates online so other people can find it. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geocaching http://www.geocaching.com) It was good fun. Then we went to Qinhuangdao where the Great Wall meets the sea. It was really beautiful, despite the bad weather. It was my first time to see the Great Wall even though I’ve been in China almost a year now. We dressed up in some traditional clothing and got our pictures taken as you can see in the photo. When we tried to get the train home, there was an unbelievably ridiculous line of people waiting to buy tickets.We probably would have waited for several hours to find a ticket, to then stand on the train for 4 hours. Not exactly what we preferred to do. So I found a bus that was leaving now with seats, and we ran to catch it. It was pulling out of the station and stopped so we could run on. Another close call, but we made it. Then about halfway home a belt in the engine snapped and we had to stop for an hour to repair it.Thank God they carried extra belts otherwise we would have been stranded.

(continued July 13th 2009, 2pm, Tianjin)

A few weeks ago I went with some people from school to see the Shi family courtyard, a big house of a ancient powerful Chinese family.Then on the way back we went up the 450 meter (almost 1500ft for you Americans) TV tower to see the view. It was a rare clear day in Tianjin, and cool to see our school and house from the air.

Sometimes after my early morning swims, I stop to play what they locals call ‘jian zi’ with a bunch of old ladies. It’s fairly similar to a ‘birdie’ used to play badminton, but they use their feet to ‘juggle’ it like a soccer ball. We play in a circle, and the old ladies are surprisingly fit and nimble. They are very welcoming and friendly, and its quite fun. Speaking of swimming, a few times I have had some of the old men at the pool offer to pay me to teach them how to swim. I have declined so far for reasons of logistics and language, but perhaps this could be something I could pursue in the future. I think they rarely see someone who actually knows how to swim properly. At their request a few other teachers and I attempted to teach some of our Chinese staff at school how to swim, but they gave up after a few lessons.

Also at the pool, I have made friends with one of the lifeguards as she often asks me to help her with her English. She brings in some sentences and I just quickly correct them for her. She also asks me how to say swimming things in English. I don’t mind as its only a few minutes, and she is really nice. Occasionally she will bring me small gifts, I guess as a way to ‘pay’ me. I have had some chances to share with her. I think she is taking some kind of new lifeguard certification, and also coaching swimming somehow. She has introduced me to a few of the swimmers at the university here who also want to practice their English, and ask about swimming in the States. I have seen them practice a few times, and have learned useful swimming vocab from them. The Tianjin University swim team consists of a measly 5 people. That tells you about the status of sports here. Still nothing like back home. They are friendly and I enjoyed talking to them about swimming. Brings back lots of memories.

A few weeks ago, one of my buddies had to make a ‘Hong Kong visa run’ to renew his visa. So I decide to join him for a few days. I had my temperature checked for swine flu at the border, but had no problems. Hong Kong is another world from mainland China. I don’t think you can really appreciate it unless you have lived on the mainland, but its amazing. It was owned by the British until 1997, and was never under Communist rule. Its very cosmopolitan, and I didn’t feel like a foreigner at all. It was much cleaner and really felt like another country. There really isn’t much to see as far as tourism goes, but I hope to return to some of the islands near there that are supposed to be beautiful. One night we found a really high class rooftop bar on the 30th floor of one of the sky scrapers, that offers a view of the whole Hong Kong skyline. We went up to check it out, but then decided to eat first and come back. As food is really expensive in Hong Kong, we ended up just eating at Burger King, so there are none in Tianjin where we live. When we went back up, the lady asked us where we had eaten, and we laughed and just discreetly said we ate downstairs somewhere. The cocktails at this place were 100HKD, which is only about 14USD, but is VERY expensive for China. And they were quite exotic. My buddy had a cocktail with lemongrass and a chili pepper. I had one with passion fruit and blackberries. They also had some with wasabi and bleu cheese. It was quite a fun jaunt into the ‘high life’ for a short time. Other than the fact that I had stomach trouble during the whole trip, it was a nice respite into something more ‘western’ than mainland China.

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