Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Day at Universe Academy

A Day at Universe Academy

I currently teach at Universe Academy in Miyakonojo, Japan. Universe Academy is a pre-school for children age two through six, as well as an English conversation school (called “Eikaiwa”) for older children and adults who want to practice their speaking and listening abilities. When we initially moved to Japan, I wanted a job at a University….but now I’m in charge of two, three, and four year old kids! When I looked for Universities to apply to I realized that they all wanted two years experience teaching in Japan and conversational Japanese speaking ability. Also, the vast majority of job openings occur in March or April, and we were applying for jobs in June through September. Jon and I also have student loans to pay back, so I couldn’t be too picky and pass up a job offer when another one might not come along for awhile, so I decided to take this offer to teach at Universe.

It’s a cute little school and the perks that come with working there are pretty good.

 We have a nice, big apartment (easily four times the size of any place we would live in if we were in a larger city).
 It’s only a five minute bike ride from home to school, rather than 40 minutes each way on the train which is pretty standard in larger cities.
 It’s a small town, which I really like.
 The pay is good and the rent is reasonable.
 There are places to go camping and swimming in the ocean nearby.

At first I was pretty nervous that I wouldn’t like the job, but from day one, it’s been really fun. My plan is to teach here for the next year and a half and really study my Japanese. In 18 months it will be April, so it will be a good time to switch to a new job and by then my Japanese will (hopefully) be up to par to get a job which requires “conversational Japanese ability.”


The kids are soooooo little! The little two-year olds still have that cute baby waddle. My day is like a mixture of a daycare where I just happen to speak English to the kids and a preschool. The kids arrive by bus or drop-off between 7:30 and 9:00 and play inside until everyone has arrived. The kids sure have a lot of uniforms that we have to help them change between. They get to school in their “Arrival” uniform, then we help them change into their “Playtime” uniform, which they wear all day, and at the end of the day they change back into their “Arrival” uniform. How many times have I wished they just arrived in their play uniform? Every day. They literally wear their arrival uniform on the bus and that’s it. 90% of the time they are carrying their hats and then it’s a hassle keeping each kid’s hat separate from the other kids’ hats.

The kids are pretty independent. Although they take a long time, all the kids except for the littlest ones can change and dress themselves, go to the bathroom, and put their cup/chopsticks/notebook/bag/naptime blanket/etc in the their various nooks and crannies throughout the classroom.

Once all the students are there, they get to play outside for 45 minutes. The playground is big, with hollow logs to crawl through, swings, slides, playhouses, and a tiny running track about a 50th of a mile around. Once recess is over, the other foreign teacher (the one who teaches the 4 through 6 year olds), and I lead exercises, stretches, jumping jacks, etc. I don’t think there’s a person alive who wouldn’t think it was the most adorable *#@%-ing thing in the world to see the little two year olds jumping up and down flopping their arms around, trying to do jumping jacks with the older kids. Then we run for about three minutes and the kids get really into it. They all try to tear around as fast as they can the whole time, which is nice because immediately after running time it’s time to sit quietly in their seats for 70 minutes so they can have an English lesson.

This is the part of the day that is the most challenging for me. Not challenging in a bad way, but because I really have to plan carefully what I’m going to do. You’d think it would be as easy as showing some weather flashcards, having the kids repeat the words after you and then handing out a picture of a rainy day for them to color….but it’s much more complex than that. There is a huge gap between the four year old kids and the two year old kids both mentally and physically. The littlest ones are just beginning to be able to color on a piece of paper without scribbling all over the table while the older ones are already trying to write their names on their papers. The younger ones zone out after three minutes while the older ones start chatting with their desk mate after four minutes. The two year olds have only been coming to preschool for a few months while the four year olds have been coming for two years.

I try to plan lessons that every child can understand and participate in—whatever their level of English. I want every child to learn something and improve a specific skill, no matter their age. I try to change what we’re doing at least every five minutes so the kids stay interested. I want the kids to have a good time and keep a good attitude about class time and learning English. I try to let the kids be creative. I want them to create things they can take home and proudly show their parents.

With this in mind, we sing a lot of songs with corresponding movements, do a lot of crafts, play a lot of language games, and so forth. When we do the craft or activity, I break the class into younger and older sections because the older ones can (for example) trace their names while the younger ones can draw a line connecting one letter A to another letter A. I have about fifteen “helpers” throughout class time, because this helps keep the more advanced students from getting bored and it keeps the “naughty” students too busy to cause trouble!

I apply the same rules of language teaching for the kids that I learned to use for adults at University. For example, (some educational buzzwords for the teachers out there): I begin each class by activating their schema by reading a story about putting together the pieces of a teddy bear and then talking about the parts of a teddy bear before we talk about people body parts. Although I don’t write it on the board, I have two “students will be able to” goals in my head. I differentiate learning by providing scaffolding, repetition, pictures, realia, etc. I make sure all the kids get a chance to see writing, write or color something, listen, and speak, so all four skills are practiced. I ask the kids to show a thumbs up or thumbs down so they can all answer. I make sure the kids can see, listen and actively move around to reach all different types of learners…..

Through all this, I am trying to teach lifelong skills like sharing, helping one another, keeping clean, and so forth. It makes planning a lesson a pretty damn demanding experience!

This is not to say that every class is an insightful period of amazing language learning and growth of critical thinking…..sometimes I do “1-2-3 everyone shhhhh!” about fifty times. Sometimes the two-year olds fall asleep. And then, right after we’ve studied action verbs and playground words, the kids will run up to me and say, “Hiroki… Yushi…” and then clap their hands to explain that they ran into each other. …It can be pretty discouraging.

After class time it is lunchtime, and the kids are pretty good eaters. They are so good at their routine that even the youngest ones know to finish eating all their food, show their plate to the teacher, put it in the dirty dishes pan, put their own chopsticks and cup away in their cubby and get their toothbrush to brush their teeth. That said, although they KNOW exactly what to do, this is the hardest hour of day. It’s right before naptime. I am hungry and ready for my lunch break so I’m not as willing to be patient with the kids, and they are sleepy and cranky and wound-up and running around all at the same time. Trying to get them to lie down to sleep is a nightmare EVERY SINGLE DAY.

The kids just want to giggle and run around with their blankets as capes (of course) and it takes a full 30 minutes to get the kids to sleep. In fact one half hour into naptime I have my lunch break, and sometimes the kids aren’t even settled by then, but I still leave! I have two helper teachers. Both of them are Japanese and they speak mostly Japanese to the kids. There is no way I could do it without them. All three of us are always running around breaking up fights over toys, making sure every two year old uses the potty every 90 minutes, cleaning up accidents after naptime, sweeping up after lunch, getting the kids off of the roof of the playhouse, etc. etc.

After naptime it is time to play outside again. Then they have snack time and after that I have story time. Story-time is about 15 minutes, and the Japanese teachers sometimes help make sure the kids are sitting quietly, not pushing or shoving. Other times they are busy getting bags ready to go home or pulling kids away to give them medicine. Every single one of these kids has a terrible cold and sometimes worse, but they still go to school so they can spread it to all the other little snot monsters (…and me- I’ve had a sore throat for a few days now). I’m happy to say that the kids love story time and the biggest issue is keeping them from shoving each other to get closer to the front or kneeling too high once they do wiggle their way to the front.

I try to run a very active story time. Every book I read has a lot of, “The dinosaur is sad! Lets all be sad! Show me your sad face! The butterfly is hungry, what will he eat? Tanako, what do you like to eat? Where is froggy? Who can point to where froggy is? etc. etc.” The kids love to participate. Sometimes I get myself in trouble because they ALL want to participate and then cry when they don’t get to or the kids shove each other to get to the front so they can help point to froggy…I’m learning how to keep those things from happening. Then we sing the goodbye song and the kids go home!

School is over at 3:25. About half of the kids leave right away, either on the bus or their parents picking them up, but some kids don’t get picked up until six. The teachers take turns riding the bus with the kids in the morning and afternoon or arriving early or staying late to watch and play with the kids before school and after. I ride the morning bus twice a week, the afternoon bus twice a week, I watch the kids before school twice a week and I stay late to watch them till 6:00 once per week. Although the day goes by quickly, and I have a lot of fun with the kids, I am EXHAUSTED at the end of the day.

What this means for me is that I need to suck it up and get used to the busy day, because I still need to be studying Japanese for an hour or more every day if I want to be able to have conversations in a year!

Look at this awesome playground!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Camping on the Great Wall

When Jon and I traveled to China to student teach in March of 2010, I had a few goals. I wanted to

A) Improve my ability to speak and understand Chinese
B) Have a great experience teaching English
C) Go camping on the Great Wall

I did not accomplish every goal…this belated blog concerns goal number three. We took a lot of things with us to China- two full suitcases each. Part of the reason our bags were so full was that we brought a tent and a sleeping bag with us. After serious research on the internet (reading one blog, I knew that my trip to China would not be complete without a camping trip to the Great Wall, and maybe a few camping trips on weekends too! However, after talking with a few people (every Chinese person, including my host family, Jon’s host family, our cooperating teachers, the other teachers at the school, our contact person), we found out that Chinese people don’t camp. I scoffed at first because there were camping stores all over the place—camping stores that sold TENTS. Then I found out that camping to an American person and to a Chinese person means something very different. To me, it means spending the night outdoors. To them it means going to a park in the morning, setting up a tent, playing at the park all day, and then taking down the tent and going home before dinnertime. To Chinese people, “my” style of camping sounds horrifically dangerous.

A conversation we both had on many occasions:

Chinese Person: Camping is too dangerous. You can’t go camping.
Me: What’s so dangerous?
Chinese Person: It’s just dangerous! You’re alone!
Me: What’s dangerous? Is it animals? Is it criminals?
Chinese Person: You have no one to help you if something happens!
Me: What would happen? Bad weather?
Chinese: Anything! Anything could happen! And then you’d be alone!
Me: But WHAT? What bad thing could happen?!?!

Both of us throw our hands up in frustration.

So, while Jon and I were teaching, we didn’t have any weekend camping trips. This only strengthened my desire to camp on the Great Wall—we didn’t haul that tent and sleeping bag halfway around the world for nothing! After finishing our teaching contract we had about 10 days off to travel around China. We took the train up to Beijing to see the Great Wall. It’s not easy getting to the authentic Great Wall if you’re a foreigner who hasn’t fully accomplished goal number one (improving my ability to speak and understand Chinese). This is especially true if you’re the type of person to sleep or play video games on the bus. See, Jon and I had to take a bus from Beijing to a small city called Miyun, where, after eating lunch and buying supplies, we would have to get a taxi to take us the rest of the way from Miyun to a small village called Jinshanling. The part of the Great Wall we wanted to see was supposed to be the most well-preserved section of the Great Wall. The most popular parts of the Great Wall are a lot closer to Beijing and easier to get to, but consequently, they are in pretty bad repair, or they’ve been “reconstructed” with lots of modern-day cement. We wanted to visit the Jinshanling section of the wall and then hike to the Simatai section, camping out somewhere in between. It’s supposed to be a grueling four hour hike (7.5 miles) from one end to the other, the whole way along the top of the Great Wall of China! So, we figured we would start our hike near closing time and take it as a leisurely stroll. We’d find a good place to pitch our tent after about three hours and the next morning we would have another three hours worth of a leisurely strolling to go. Nothing simpler, right?

Well, just getting there was a nightmare. You may remember that Jon and I tend to either fall asleep on long bus rides or play video games, so we weren’t paying attention when the bus jerked to a stop and someone was shaking us awake, asking, “Jinshanling? Jinshanling?” Obviously, as the only foreigners on the bus, we were going to the Great Wall and they were nice enough to let us know we were at our destination. We quickly gathered our gear and dashed off the bus…..only to look around and realize that we weren’t near ANYTHING. We were at a bus stop on the middle of the highway and some guy was standing there pointing at his car. Obviously, we had just been hoodwinked. This guy had put his head in the bus, shouted at us, and we had gotten off like idiots, and now he wanted to charge us $100 to drive us to Jinshanling. We scoffed at him and walked away. A half mile away it looked like there was a town and there we would find lunch, buy supplies for the camping trip and figure out how to get the rest of the way to Miyun. The guy kept following us and shouting at us, getting angrier and angrier that his plan hadn’t worked. This was a fairly common occurrence in China, venders getting pissed that you are walking away from them instead of buying their T-shirt/kite/cell phone charm/silk scarf/terracotta statue/oil print that they will swear up and down they painted themselves that morning (even though every shop up and down the street sells the exact same one). We shouted at the guy that we wanted to get something to eat, so maybe we would come back later… this was a ruse to get him to leave us alone. He responds, “You can’t. There is nowhere to eat food anywhere.” At this point we just laughed at him and he drove off in his car. This was a pretty common trick that the vendors would use too, if we were waiting at a bus stop, a taxi would drive up and tell us that the bus wasn’t running anymore, if we wanted to take a train to another city, a private tour company would try to get us to go on their bus by telling us there weren’t any more trains that day. By this point we were almost at the little town and we could see that it was a good sized town with fairly big buildings….nowhere to eat? What a joke.
An hour later we realized that in this huge town filled with buildings, maybe there really wasn’t a place to eat. We had our heavy packs on and we were already getting hungry and tired…before we stepped foot on the wall. We had ten days to travel all over China, so we didn’t just have a tent, two sleeping bags, and the other things we would need for a one night stay on the wall, we had everything we would need for a ten day trip across China in our bags. We couldn’t leave anything behind anywhere.
Well, we finally found a tiny, poorly-lit, dusty little shop where we could buy our camping supplies. We wandered up and down the aisles trying to figure out if we would rather have sandy dried fish, canned strange vegetables, or frozen catfish. We weren’t bringing a cooler and we weren’t going to start a fire, so our options were limited. Finally we found what we needed and we also bought two ramen bowls for lunch. Everywhere in China you can find hot water—for drinking, for tea, for noodle bowls, so that part of the lunch went smoothly.
Then we asked some construction worker when the next bus to the downtown station was and we waited at the stop he pointed to for 40 minutes before giving up because not one single bus had gone by. At this point we’re starting to get worried. Were we going to spend the whole day just waiting around places and trying to get to the wall only to get there after closing time? By now it was 1:00, we only had three more hours. We decided to trudge back to where we had originally gotten off the bus and just get back on. We were happy to see that the guy who had tricked us into getting off the bus in the first place was gone and we only had to wait a few minutes until another bus came along and we got back on.
After a few more hi-jinx we finally made it to the wall at around 3:00. After all the bus rides and private taxis, this was shaping up to be a pretty expensive trip. The Great Wall better be worth it! We got out of our taxi at the entrance to the wall and looked around uncertainly….had we been hoodwinked again? Was it closed? What was going on? The place was deserted. The entire huge parking lot was empty and there wasn’t a soul in sight. We asked the taxi driver to wait while we ran up to the gate and saw someone working the door who assured us they were open and we were at the right place. We grabbed our gear out of the taxi and immediately had to set about re-packing it. See, camping on the wall is forbidden unless you are with a formal camping tour group. We were not with a formal group, so we were going to have to camp on the down-low. So, we couldn’t very well have our sleeping bags hanging on the outside of our bags like they were!

After ten minutes of organizing (was it less subtle to have two meals worth of food hanging on the outside of our giant, swollen frame-packs than two sleeping bags?), we were ready to go! We also noticed a big tour bus pulling into the parking lot with about 20 people getting out of it, so we wouldn’t be alone. After we had walked for about ten minutes, we came to a sign that showed us that we could either walk up the mountain or take a ride up the mountain. We were standing there debating which to do when a sweet old Chinese lady standing nearby told us that it was a really hard hike up to the top, so we should take the ride. That sold us- our bags were heavy and we’d already had a long day. We walked up to the counter and had the following conversation all in Chinese:

Jon - "Are you open?"
Ticket Lady - "Yes, we're open until five."
Jon - "Can we go now?"
Ticket Lady - "Yes, you can go until five."
Jon - "Does it leave right now?"
Ticket Lady - "What?"
Sara - "When can we go up the mountain? When does the transport leave?"
Ticket Lady - "You can go up anytime between eight and five!"
Jon - "Can we go now?"
Ticket Lady - "You need a ticket!!"
Sara - "But, if we buy a ticket, will it leave now, or at least soon?"
Ticket Lady - "You can go up anytime between eight and five!"
Jon - "Will it leave soon?"
Sara - "When does it leave?"

We bought our tickets skeptically and walked around the corner to see a cable line with cars going up the mountain continuously. Now we understood why the ticket lady thought our questions were so stupid! We listened to the people from the bus tour group speak Japanese to each other as we waited in line for a few minutes.

As we were going up in the cable car, I looked down and couldn’t believe my eyes, “Jon! Is that a person running straight up the mountain?” He looked down and stared, “No, it can’t be….but it is!” I couldn’t believe how quickly this person was clambering up the mountainside, but then we got our first glimpse of the wall and I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

The Great Wall is so different in person from anything I expected it to be. I just can’t explain it. I have seen hundreds of pictures of the Great Wall, I knew exactly what it would look like, but somehow seeing it with my own eyes made it look bigger, stronger, older, more impressive. I knew that this trip was going to be worth all the hassle of getting there. As I was standing there, frozen with my mouth open, I realized that the same sweet old lady from the bottom of the mountain was standing next to Jon trying to hustle him along to the first guard tower. Had she followed us? She definitely hadn’t been in line with us to take the cable car…had SHE BEEN THE PERSON RUNNING UP THE MOUNTAIN?? She HAD! Now she was going to be our personal guide. Jon and I had to put a stop to this immediately. We didn’t need a guide, we didn’t want a guide, we only wanted to be left alone, and we didn’t want this old lay to give herself a heart attack.
She was very persistent. If we didn’t want a guide, then maybe we wanted some postcards or a T-shirt? She pulled a whole store out of her bag and started showing us everything as we tried to get her to stop and told her we didn’t want to buy anything. Once she found out that we had plans to ignore her, she explained to us very clearly that she had no job. She had nowhere she had to be, she would just follow us around until we bought something, and only then would she go home. These were supposed to be our first wondrous moments on the Great Wall and we were arguing with a vendor who refused to stop standing directly in front of us!

After vigorous arguing in Chinese, Jon finally bought some postcards and then we realized that there was no end to vendors on the wall- we would be running into this same issue again and again. Were we going to buy 25 different packs of postcards?

The lady left us and went to try to sell her wares to the Japanese tour bus people who were ALREADY LEAVING THE WALL!!

Was there no end to my shock? We had been on the cable car only minutes behind them and then argued with the vendor lady for ten minutes and they already had their fill? They had taken a bus for over two hours away from Beijing, taken a cable car to the wall, walked to the first guard tower, shouted from it, taken a few pictures, and they were finished. They certainly weren’t wearing sensible shoes.

I shook my head as the rest of the other tourists walked back to the cable car and Jon and I started our hike. After a few more minutes we started to see more vendors and a few more tourists. The tourists were all foreigners who sounded from their accents to be British, American, or German. I thought that was funny. Everywhere Jon and I had traveled in China so far, there had been more Chinese tourists than foreigners, obviously, they want to travel around their own country too! But here, we saw only the first busload of Japanese tourists and now it was nothing but Europeans and Americans (As far as I could tell from accents). The vendors seemed to outnumber the tourists about two to one and the two most popular things they were peddling were coffee and beer. Exactly what you want during a long, hot, dangerous hike!

The day must have been winding down because we were the only people leaving Jinshanling and for the first 30 minutes we only saw tourists coming from Simatai going the other direction. Almost immediately we ran into the same problem we had earlier—vendors who planned to follow us around telling us to buy their wares or use their guide service until we bought something. I was pretty torn. I knew they had a hard life and depended on tourism to supplement their meager income from farming. I knew that I had been privileged enough to be born in a country where I could afford to travel and live a decent life. I knew I shouldn’t be so pissed at them for trying to make a buck, and that I would surely do the same thing myself if we were to trade positions. On the other hand, I knew they wouldn’t believe me that I literally had only enough money for the taxi and bus ride back into Beijing in my pocket. We had already bought postcards and two bottles of water. I couldn’t spend any more money or I would risk not having enough to get back into the city where there would be more ATMs. I decided to just ignore them, which is hard when the men are trying to be chivalrous and boost me up the steep parts, but I (like many people) don’t like strangers touching me, much less hauling me around. Every time we stopped to take a picture they would surround us, and every time we started walking, they would casually follow us. They were used to the thin air and didn’t have huge packs, so they could have followed us all day. At this point I was worried that the whole trip would be ruined. They would follow us and pester us all afternoon, ruining our hike and then when the sun started to go down, they would still be following us and we didn’t want to camp out and sleep if people knew we were there, not only for legal reasons, but also for safety reasons.
Finally we walked far enough ahead that we were away from them and we sat down, hiding behind a chunk in the wall to discuss our strategy. We decided to sit there a while and rest and just see what happened. What happened is that the Great Wall official ticket-checker came walking up and asked us what we were doing!! See, when you walk from Jinshanling to Simitai, you have to pay another fee when you cross the border between the villages. This person’s job was to stay at the border and collect the fees from people walking back and forth. At this point the wall was supposed to be closed, so she was walking home. She saw us and asked us if we were planning to walk all the way to Simitai…after closing hours. We said yes, we were planning to walk the whole way yet that same evening. She smiled and said have a nice trip and we needed to pay her the fee. She gave us our ticket and receipt and continued walking. At that point we heard something amazing. Down, off to the side of the wall- people talking and walking. We couldn’t believe our luck! After two hours of dodging venders, they were just going to leave! They were talking and laughing loudly as they followed a path at the base of the Wall and we sighed in relief to hear them leave. We really almost couldn’t believe it! The Great Wall curator had seen us and let us pass, and the vendors were going home for the night! We stayed where we were for a while longer, then poked our heads up and scanned the surrounding wall and guard towers. It seemed they were really gone! We were really alone on the wall, with about 4 hours of daylight left! Holy cow, we were totally alone on the wall. It stretched as far as we could see in both directions, standing at the very top of the highest mountains- we were really going to pull this off!

The rest of the hike that afternoon was a mixture of exhausting and exhilarating. We found a good guard tower to spend the night in. The stones on the floor were flat and not too broken up, the ceiling didn’t look like it was going to cave in on us, and the walls were sturdy with big windows for viewing. We didn’t set up our tent right away in case some stragglers came wandering through and saw us there with a tent. Instead we walked around, admired the view, and took pictures. As it started to get dark, we played some card games and ate dinner.

I opened my can of corn and drained it so I could scoop it on Ritz crackers while Jon did the same except he scooped canned tomato fish. We also had some bananas, Jello, and a bottle of Great Wall-brand merlot, aged 2 years. It was a delicious dinner, although anything would have been good after hiking so far and carrying such heavy packs. Once it was completely dark we set up the tent and went to sleep, planning to wake up early and get a move on before any early hikers came past and wondered what we were doing.

I thought I would sleep like a rock that night, but the stone floor was so hard and our sleeping bags were so thin that I slept pretty poorly and was very stiff the next day. I woke up pretty early and decided to read a book as the sun came up. I didn’t spend much time actually reading- I spent more time just watching the sun rise to dissolve the mist as I thought deep thoughts about the person I wanted to become and what I wanted to do with my life. Watching the sun rise over a symbol of an ancient civilization will do that to you.

What’s especially strange about the Wall is that it was never a success in terms of keeping invaders out. Every time they built more onto the great wall, the invaders would just go around the edge or bribe the guards to go straight over it. The only way it helped China at all was as a sort of road to help transport goods across treacherous terrain. I don’t know that our particular section of the wall was any good at that, because the wall itself was so treacherous, the steps were so tall and steep that I had a hard time lifting myself up them, and lots of times I had to go up the steps on my hands and knees.

You can tell the wall probably won’t be around much longer. In the guidebooks they say the biggest threat to the wall is poor farmers who pull it apart to use the stones. I think another big problem is the plants that are growing all over it. I think the plant roots will weaken the wall considerably.

Once Jon and I hid the tent away and felt sufficiently awake we laid out a sleeping bag and had a picnic breakfast in the sun.

It was mostly fruit and crackers, but again, delicious. We had shoved the tent and everything else into our packs (amazing how much better everything fits once you eat two meals and drink two liters of water and then crush the trash), so we weren’t worried about people stumbling upon us anymore. We surprised a number of early morning hikers (again, all American/European), and then hiked the rest of the way to Simatai.

After a few hours we got closer to Simatai and the vendors came out in full force, but it wasn’t so bad this time. Once we hit Simatai we saw all sorts of tourists everywhere and the beauty of the Great Wall dissolved. People were running around, shouting, complaining about the hike, eating popsicles, and jammed together elbow to elbow. You could see that people would usually walk from the place where they first see the Wall to another guard tower or two and then turn around. There weren’t hardly any people farther away than a twenty minute walk.
Once we hit all those people, we were eager to get away from it all. I couldn’t believe that people would travel all this way to the Great Wall and then just hang out, take a few pictures, shout back and forth to some friends and then take a zip line back down to the bus. Although, I imagine if more people had wanted to see the Great Wall how I had wanted to, then we wouldn’t have had the peaceful, private experience we had, so I’m grateful for that.
In the end, it was the most amazing part of my trip to China. I will always remember my first time standing on the Great Wall and watching the sun come up over the mountains in the morning. I recommend that anyone who travels to China and has an adventurous streak goes camping on the Wall.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Trying New Things

The other day Jon and I were grocery shopping and I saw something I hadn’t wanted when we came in the store but now couldn’t live without. It was tomato soup. They don’t have cans of soup like back home, but they had little powder packets that looked really good. Plus, the packets were made by Knorr, so at least I could trust it not to be super sweet or have squid or crickets in it. This is something you learn early when you live in Asia.
I’ve lived in South Korea for a year, Taiwan for a month, and China for three months and I’ve learned that you never take anything for granted in Asia. That mint ice cream looks delicious? It’s green-tea flavored and it’s gross. Oh look! Is that an American restaurant with a baked potato and sour cream on the menu? It’s a baked potato with whipped cream and honey butter and it’s gross. That carton of milk with a happy cow on the side? Oh no! A bowl of cereal just got ruined because it’s liquid yogurt and it’s gross. Are you hiking in the mountains and you’re starving and you see someone cooking something? It’s roasted maggots and tiny snails you suck out of their shell and I think you can guess that I thought it was gross and didn’t eat any.
Anyhow, this was a familiar brand of tomato soup, so I knew that once we got past the fact that the instructions were A) in Japanese and B) used milliliters instead of cups, it would hit the spot. Wait! What is that I see in the next aisle? Oyster crackers! I love those! Grab that bag!

Jon and I went home and eagerly made the soup. I stirred it up and it seemed a little thin....good thing we got those crackers to add. Jon and I sat down with our veggies, chicken, and soup. I tossed a handful of crackers in both our bowls and stirred mine up before I took a big bite. I immediately let it dribble back out of my mouth and grabbed Jon’s bowl away from him. I tried to quickly spoon out the crackers, but they had started to disintegrate on contact and I couldn’t get them all out of his bowl. I didn’t understand! What was wrong with these crackers? I grabbed more crackers from the bag and felt them. They looked like oyster crackers, they felt like oyster crackers, they tasted like….powdered sugar. Yep, they were supposed to be some sort of sweet treat, but they were gross.
I am pretty open to trying new foods. I always try to taste new foods and keep an open mind to decide if I like it or not. For example, I think octopus and squid taste good, if they are cooked a certain way. But these crackers were pretty much inedible. We decided to save the “crackers” to feed the fish. We saved this bag for a full week until we finally made it to the park where there were hungry fish. We saw a couple of fish in the water and threw out a handful of “crackers.” There were a few turtles swimming around too and they each came up to try some and then swam away. One of the fish swam around for a while ignoring the food, then left. The other one, a fat cow-print fish, went up to each individual (I can’t really say cracker, because of the disintegration) floating island of chemical preservatives and refined sugars, put his mouth out and then swam around it without eating it. This fish went up to every single island of sugar cracker and either smelled it or tasted it and moved on. Finally he swam away too. Every living being in the pond swam away.
That’s how gross these “crackers” are. The fish won’t even eat them; and I’m pretty sure that the cow-print fish ate a pebble I threw in the water!

Maybe this time I learned my lesson about trying new things in Asia.