Sunday, September 25, 2011

Welcome to Beijing! Day One

Here's Simon, our Tour Director

On June 23rd, 2011, we arrive in Beijing, surprisingly hardy after a 15 hour flight. We are the NEA Foundation, Awards of Teaching Excellence winners and we come from all over the United States to meet here in China. Simon, our Chinese Tour Director, is waiting for us at the airport.

We gather in a big circle, once we get our bags. Simon's easy and open way of relating is immediately clear to all of us.

I half listen to Simon while also thinking, "Ah, I need money - now what is the currency here? Oh, yeah, it's Yuan....hmmm...I remember that 6 and a half Yuan are a dollar."

I scoot over to an ATM just behind the group. My legs have a way of running while my arms hang stiff at my side. I get to the ATM and see Chinese symbols written all over the machine, but something is wrong. Oh, no! This isn't an ATM, it's fresh drinking water. English is written on the machine too and there is a clear line drawing of a cup.

But nearby I see an ATM and I successfully manage to get some Yuan. Yahoo! Bill after bill pops out with Mao's picture.

Simon follows up by explaining the currency to us, on the bus.

"Here we have a five Yuan note and you can see Mao's picture. Here is a 20 Yuan note and guess what? Mao's picture. Actually, every Yuan note has Mao's picture. He's an important guy."

That's Simon. He lays out the facts with passion and humor. His English is really good and it's clear that his tourism gig has the focus of a great teacher.

We get into our hotel and shower off the dust of the day. Some folks get money and others venture right out, for coffee, tea, whatever.

Debbie Calvino, the Awards of Teaching Excellence winner from New York (also the New York State Teacher of the Year for 2010) is my roommate for this trip. I appreciate having a smart New York roomie with a sense of humor for this trip.

Debbie and I are both pretty tired, but we settle into our room and quickly change clothes to get ready for dinner with the group. I'm not too hungry, but we are breaking out into real China by going to an actual Chinese restaurant. What will that be like? Will my favorite local Chinese restaurant - Bo Bo kitchen in Teaneck - have compared to real Chinese food?

A while later, we leave the hotel and walk to the restaurant, feeling better for the change of clothes and a quick splash of water. Once inside, we notice that every table has a gigantic Lazy Susan - a kind of rotating glass center portion of the table which spins, giving each person at the table a chance at the food offerings.

Soon, I see why this is necessary.

Dish after dish arrives along with a couple of liter bottles of beer and pitchers of soda. There are noodles, swimming in sauce, a tureen of vegetable soup, fish with their heads in thick soy, tiny chunks of chicken and veggies, strips of beef, fried rice, white rice, something that looks like translucent noodles, sprinkled with greens, a large bowl of thick chopped cabbage and carrots, cut on a diagonal.

We spin and grab - some of us struggling with getting slippery food from the bowls with chop sticks. Some teachers dive in and try over and over again to do it with the chop sticks and others just reach for the big spoon.

Once we're sitting down, we feel the energy starting to drain from our bodies, but the hot food in this local restaurant still feels good and welcoming to eat.

I look around and I see that almost all the tables are filled with Chinese people. They are indeed looking at us, but in a very friendly, open way - the way a mother looks at a child who has just tasted a favorite desert, which took her hours sweating in the kitchen to prepare. The Chinese diners are smiling in an encouraging way, and I think they seem relieved to see us dig into the food.

Not every teacher is happy with the food, but most are at least good sports. Traveling to a new country is challenging to one's cultural norms, especially if one's culinary experience is locally limited and unchallenged.

So this food thing is hard for a couple of us from day one.

"Oh, I'll have some white rice," says one tall and friendly looking teacher, with crystal blue eyes. "And some noodles."

I withhold judgment. I have a lot of advice about how you have to just throw yourself into a new culture, starting with food, but food limitations are tricky for people. It's hard to push out of one's comfort zone and personal experience to break through certain, previously invisible barriers.

Still, everyone's challenge is different. I am food open, for example, and like to taste my way through culture, but that doesn't mean that everything is easy for me on my cultural road.

I feel, for example, sad that I cannot speak Chinese right now. I would like to chat to the waitress about the food or ask questions about the ingredients, tell her that it's good to be here, in CHINA, on our first day - all about my flight and about how I did some toe touches in the back of the plane and mini leaps in a space between the last seat and the bathroom, so that I could keep the blood flowing.

Not that this polite waitress would care about my prattle, but I like to chat with people who cross my path about matters, both profound and mundane. I've learned too that the homeliest of topics can produce great insight for those conversing. But it's not happening today.

Instead, I say, "Sheah, sheah" which means "thank you" and waitress nods, looking at me with a tiny smile.

OK, that's something.

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