Of Transitions, New Friends, and Underwear

Friends, family, mes amis, mis amigos, 家人,حبيبتي , and all other beings who stumble onto my humble blog,

Greetings 😉

Fun fact: When I am awakened suddenly from sleep (a nap, nodding off, or whatever), I have found that I am unable to communicate in Chinese. I’m quite sure that this humorous phenomenon extends to all other languages as well, excepting English, obviously. Despite the fact that this is in no way surprising or unpredictable, after all, seconds after you are awakened you are still slightly disoriented and your brain is in the process of restarting, much like a computer that was put to sleep, I still adjudge it to be a startling discovery, owing to the fact that there is a large gulf of difference between knowing this fact and experiencing this fact, an adventure in and of itself that I have undergone several times in the past week. Yes, I give you leave to laugh at my expense as you imagine a confused Chinese speaker trying to make sense of my babbling as I attempt to sort out what words belong to which language and in what order.

But I must apologize, for I am rambling and no doubt you are waiting impatiently for the meat of the story.

Most of you are no doubt aware of my current circumstances, but please be patient for a little while yet while I give a brief synopsis for those unfortunate souls who have not kept up with my most recent activities (shame on them, I am, after all, the absolute center of the universe ;). My name is Lydia Thomas, or more correctly at the moment Tong Lei 佟磊, a not common, but not uncommon Chinese name of no particular meaning or significance. I am currently residing in the foreign student dorms of the Qingdao University in Qingdao China (on the east coast of China between Beijing and Shanghai for those individuals who weren’t paying attention in geography class in the fifth grade). I am here participating in a study abroad program of the Ohio State University (which is the university I attend during the normal school year). My purpose here is to study the Chinese language for eight weeks, as well as learn more about the culture and way of life of the Chinese people. Nice to meet you too.

My classes, all in Chinese of course, are four in number: media class, reading class, writing class, and movie class. They begin daily, Monday to Thursday, at 8:30 and continue until 12:30. Friday is a culture day and, excepting this past week, being a holiday we did not have class Monday and therefor did have class Friday, it is the day in which we venture fourth in various groups to study, experience, and become one with our Chinese surroundings. My teachers are all native Chinese, and my classmates are all American, some from OSU and some from Ole Miss University (Mississippi). The classrooms, dorms, and grounds of the college are really not that much different from any US college in the middle of a city, though with a few differences.

The most obvious at the moment, as I sit on my bed and stare toward one of my windows (I have two very large ones praise the Lord, he knows how much I love sunlight and wind, and the view), I gaze upon rows of my underwear and socks hung on the window railing to dry, as machine dryers are virtually non-existent in China, being considered expensive and a waste of space and energy. I would take a picture of them but, well, maybe you are better off just imagining them ;).

The university, and actually all of Qingdao, is situated on mountain slopes, Fu mountain specifically in the case of university campus. This is advantageous in the exercise department, a well as in the “getting an amazing view of everything when in the right place” department, with only one minor setback. Qingdao is still in the lingering grip of the spring season, which is, as a whole, cool and extremely foggy. about 70 percent of the time this past week, Qingdao has been enveloped in fog and there is no view to be had at all, save that of indistinct shapes in the distance. I have been cold most of the time, owing to the fact that I was told Qingdao would be HOT and veeeeery humid, and consequently packed capris and tank-tops. I did, however bring one long-sleeve shirt and a jacket, so no harm has been done and I dare say it has built my character (as my younger sister will be glad to know). It will not last much longer though, as I have been told Qingdao will soon be hot and humid as promised as it moves into the summer season of July and August.

Qingdao itself is an absolutely wonderful city. If you take my advice, do NOT go to Beijing if you want to visit China. Or at least if you do get ready for a shock. I tell you everything you have heard is true, it is dirty. Not entirely the people’s fault, as the hazy, polluted air is much to blame on the large amount of dust that blows in from the mongolian desert region to the northwest. Qingdao is very beautiful, with pleasant weather, a wonderful beach, many wonderful attractions, and most of all, mountains. I love heights, as some of you may or may not know. Nothing pleases me more than to climb to a very high and precarious place and just let the wind blow around me as I survey the beautiful world below me that God has so graciously gifted to his creations. I also love the sea (and seaside). It calls to me and soothes me, and is most fascinating to explore. It is a most wonderful manifestation of immeasurable power, untamable spirit, and at the same time, a peace and mystery that can neither be described nor reproduced. Despite my love of people and school, I am called to the wild and enjoy nature always, no matter how little or much I am surrounded with. But where was I…ah, Qingdao. It is a beautiful place, suffice it to say, and you should visit it if you have the chance.

Now I must make a mention of the people. I have found, in just one week, the people of China to be the most hospitable, hardworking, generous, and self-sacrificing people I have ever come across in my life. I have constantly been showered with help and gifts of time and money by people who barely know me but seem determined to treat me as their own family. These people (mostly the older generation) are also so hard working, doing so much for so little, and with an optimism and joy in life that would put many a more wealthy and comfortably off Americans to shame. Their old people are incredibly healthy, and sadly as you have heard the news speak of, there are many more of them than children or young people. Fu mountain, right behind my dorm, has many trails that lead up it and every day masses of old ones go climbing up and down it, seemingly with more ease than our young people could. I would say not one in 50 Americans older than 50 years could do the same as these Chinese elders.

But now I supposed you would like to hear of me, would you not? Perhaps, perhaps not, it is not as if I’m forcing you to read this in any case.
I am very well and happy, thank you, if a bit tired and weighed down by homework (all as a result of my own folly, I assure you. I won’t go into the particulars but it involved a very good, large book and several packs of oreo cookies). My classes can be a trial to sit through when I don’t concentrate on enjoying myself and learning, since they are one after another for four hours. However, when I engage in the afore mentioned activities, my classes are very interesting and very good practice. The media and reading classes mostly consist of reading passages and then discussing them, the movie class involves watching a movie and then discussing it (with a short passage reenactment at the end of the week), and my writing class involves, you guessed it, singing……er sorry I meant writing. We have to write three short papers every week (only a page or two) and then we get together with our Chinese tutors/mentors and correct it while discussing the variosities of Chinese grammar and syntax.

I supposed I should mention my tutor. Her name is Wang Chen 王晨,and she is a most delightful, intelligent, and helpful girl. Not exactly girl of course, she is 22, hads a boyfriend of 3 years (that’s how long they have been together, not how old he is), and is majoring in Chinese (the same as if one of us were majoring in English). She is an excellent teacher, doing a very good job of helping me understand the grammar and the why/why not’s of Chinese composition. She is also very active and engaging, not just being a passive resource, but instead actively asking me questions, reviewing what we have learned, and testing me on my retention. She has apparently more or less adopted me, and Thursday she showed me around campus and then took me out to eat (I did not realize she was treating me until we had almost returned to my dorm and I remembered that I had not paid for my food and tried to compensate her. She, of course, refused quite staunchly and so I ceased pressing her and simply accepted the gift with much gratitude).

Speaking of food, it is dirt cheep here. Yes of course there are nice and expensive restaurants, but the other day I purchased a very tasty and filling meal, the leftovers of which I actually ate for breakfast the next morning, for a mere 11 kuai, the equivient of about 1.75$. This, I am sure, will please my father, since he gave me money for food for the duration of my stay in China and I dare say it was too much, now that I have discovered the cheapness of dining in China. However *with a twinkle in my eye*, I would ask him to let me keep the extra, to pay for household supplies, and to buy him a bigger and/or more present/s here in China. What say you dearest father? Praise the Lord, and thank you my friends for your prayers, I have yet to get sick in any way from anything I have eaten. That doesn’t mean it will not happen, it just has not happened yet and it seems that I have not suffered any ‘transition’ sickness as a result of my switch from American food to Chinese food. I am of course careful, I try to avoid overly questionable things as well as things that I know from experience will not set well with my stomach. This includes all seafood save shrimp and most fish, an unfortunate state of affairs since Qingdao is most famous for its seafood. Keep praying, those of you who do, and God willing I will stay sickness free while I am here in this city, literally halfway around the world from you.

Lastly I must mention my activities outside of classes. My class days usually consist of class in the morning, and a small activity in the afternoon followed by homework until bedtime. Monday was orientation and the HSK test, the Chinese equivalent to the American TOEFLL test (did I spell that right). It is a Chinese proficiency test, and it took three hours to do. As a matter of fact I took another one of the same kind this morning (Sunday morning much to my displeasure). These are both practice test to prepare us for the real HSK test to be take next Sunday (even more to my displeasure). After that sore trial, which I was completely blind-sided with I might add, we had a free afternoon (I walked around campus to get used to the layout) and then had an opening ceremony followed by a welcome feast. The food was excellent and the Qingdao beer flowed freely. Most of the Chinese drank and quite a few American students as well. There are really no restrictions on drinking age in China. I politely refused and instead nursed a glass of sprite.

An interesting cultural fact, Chinese do not drink cold water, and as a rule drink very little or no water at all during a meal. They consider it bad for the health, as the water dilutes the food in your stomach and messes up digestion. I am very confused by this (or at least by this explanation from a Chinese friend) as I have always been taught by American doctors that it is most healthy to drink a lot of water with a meal, especially since it helps to fill you up so you won’t eat so much. This has been a sore trial for me, since I am used to drinking copious amounts of water with my meals. I have grown quite thirsty during the restaurant meals I have had with various Chinese friends and have learned to never go anywhere without a bottle of water, since I can not drink from the taps and water is not readily available at the restaurants. When Chinese do drink water, they usually drink it hot. If I do ask for water, they give it to me in a tiny cup (that is meant for tea) and it is always hot. This is another Chinese belief, that you should not mix hot and cold when eating. The food is always hot, so of course the drink should be hot as well. For you alcohol drinkers, you should know that they do not chill their beer or wine at all, you have to specially request it to be chilled.

Tuesday was the first day of classes, and along with Wednesday and Thursday passed pretty quickly with nothing too exciting to report (if just being in China isn’t exciting enough ;). This week we had classes on Friday, as I explained above, and after class, at 2:30, we reassembled to take a bus tour of Qingdao and then go to the beach for a cookout with our Chinese classmates/tutors. The bus tour took us southwest, around the curve of the bay, and we eventually ended up in the old german section. The german houses looked welcoming and familiar to me, mostly because of the large amount of german heritage that can be found in Columbus, most notably german style houses, that I have gotten used to seeing. We stopped at a place where a dock shot out from the sore, forming a long quay at the end of which was a medium size Chinese pagoda. W were given 20 minutes to explore and I literally ran down the very long quay, wanting to get a good look at the sea and knowing that our time would be up all too soon. As I have said before, I love the sea, and I must admit I didn’t even go in the pagoda or take the slightest interest in it. I was pulled over to the stone railing that leaned out over the sea where I could survey the vast reaches of the bay that surrounded me. I thought this was THE bay of Qingdao, but oh no. I noticed, way off in the distance and so shrouded in haze that they could just barely be seen, huge mountains where it looked like there should be open sea. I then realized (and my suspicion was confirmed after I had a quick look at my map back at the bus), that THE bay of Qingdao was vast compared to what I had imagined, so large that you could no see the other side. What I was in was one of a series of small bays contained within the larger bay, created by small juts of land that stuck out in the water (not actually small at all, but small compared to the vastness of THE bay).

The bus tour was soon over and we were carted back northeast toward the upper regions of Qingdao where one of the better beaches was located. Here we were met by a large group of very enthusiastic and excited Chinese students, and soon games were organized and everyone was happily mingling. My mentor, Wang Chen, was there of course, and the moment I arrived she honed in on me and latched on to my arm, steering me everywhere with the air of an excited friend, and overbearing older sister, and a loving mother all rolled into one. The first order of the day was games, which were actually team contests. About half of the students went off and organized a soccer game (Americans against Chinese, we won by the way, it comes from us living so close to Mexico and South America where soccer is in their blood), and the rest off us played volleyball. I endured this as long as I could (volleyball is neither my strong point or of any interest to me), before I managed to coax my mentor into accompanying me down to the seaside, where we took pictures, but where she only allowed me a few minutes of blissful wading in the ocean before she dragged me back to the other students. Please understand that I do not mean any of this in a complaining or unhappy way, I am not implying any displeasure with my mentor. I recall her actions with an amused fondness, for she did literally drag me everywhere, and she a head shorter than I and no more than 120 pounds. I let her of course, because it would have been very rude not to. She was simply trying to make me feel welcome and involved in everything. I did manage, finally, to slip away and was drawn back to the ocean, where I played in the waves and searched for critters along the tide for a good ten minutes before she came running back to summon me to dinner. The Chinese students cooked strips of meat and hotdogs for us over a small brazier, and we ate them wrapped with bread and accompanied by peaches and cherry tomatoes. After dinner we had more games, this time much less of a structured sport in nature, and these I enjoyed immensely and we all played till it was well dark (they involved relay races and a very fun version of tag).

Saturday I arose at 5 am. This is not at all strange, since the daily schedule of people is different here in China. It is already fully light by five am here, and full dark by about eight. There is very little night life and people rise very early. This I think reflects the still very agricultural nature of China, where farmers rose and retired with the sun. So back to my tale. I arose at 5, and went running. I was not just running, though, I was running somewhere, I was running to the sea. It only took me about a half an hour to get there, after some slight confusion, but mostly successful navigation through the Chinese labeled streets with the help of my trusty map. Then, I proceeded to spend the next four hours following the sea coast about three miles north and eastward, finally stopping at 9 am and taking a bus back to the university (I must admit I was exhausted and couldn’t have walked back if I had wanted to). In the beginning of the morning, I had the rather naive and mistaken notion that all of the seaside would be beach, and I would be a simple and pleasant walk. However, the part of the shoreline that was closes to the university was actually very rocky. This was much more interesting, beautiful, and exciting to explore, but also very tiring and slow to navigate. I decided at the outset that it would be out of the question to remove my shoes and traverse the rocks barefoot. Much too dangerous and I probably would have ended up with very bloody feet. So I left my running shoes on and proceeded to clamber and wade my way up the coast, finding interesting shells, taking wonderful pictures, catching crabs and discovering other, less savory critters, and finally getting very very dirty. I have not had such an adventure since I graduated from highschool and one was long overdue. I was watched with much amusement by the local Chinese fishermen and several groups of peasants gathering seaweed to sell (I actually helped them for a while and told them that no, the water was not cold and I did not need rubber boots, thanks for asking). Besides getting very wet (of course) slightly slimy, garnering a few scrapes to the knees, and I won’t mention what kind of condition my poor shoes are in, I was finally forced to climb back up to the nearest road and seek out a bus to take me back, since I had an engagement at 10:30 and needed to clean up.

My engagement was with the friend I have mentioned, Hongmei, who’s uncle put me up in Beijing. She, accompanied by her husband and eight year old son, took me out to eat and then shopping. I had a very lovely time talking with them in Chinese and English (Hongmei speaks english, though needs practice and has asked me to help her). We ate at a nice seafood restaurant, though at my request we did not eat the seafood. We shared dishes of pork, mushroom soup, dried tofu, egg and seaweed omelet, and a traditional chinese desert which can best be described as fried potato chunks covered in some specially made honey that stretched like cheese on Italian pizza and formed golden strings as each piece was pulled from the sticky mass.

This morning I had another HSK practice test, not as trying as the last one since I was ready for this one, and since then I have been lounging around, doing laundry, and trying to avoid homework like the plague. It will, in the end, have to be done, so I am loath to stop writing because that would mean I have no other excuse to not do it. But oh yes, now I remember, I promised pictures, so they at lest will stave off the inevitable for a little while. I am going through a spell of anti homework at the moment, as often happens after I do something particularly enjoyable and can’t get back in the mood to be studious.

So farewell, I suppose, until next week. I’m too busy doing important and exciting things during the week to post, and plus I have limited access to the internet, so that hinders my effort as well. But I promise I will post something every weekend at lest. I do not apologize for the length of this post. If you don’t want to read it, fine by me, but I have certain friends and family who delight in the details of my everyday dealings, and so this is for them and whoever else can bear through my ramblings (I suspect they only like it because they love me, and I honestly have no idea if my post would hold any interest to a stranger who did not know me or have a relationship with me).

Serving Him,
Loving You (you know who you are)
Farewell

P.S. Mother, don’t you dare fuss at me for incredibly long and rambling sentences. I find that I enjoy this style of writing and I promise it will not leak over into my school papers.

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