Traveling to Xi’an and Huashan

Xi’an(西安) is an ancient city spanning thousands of years, and was once the capital of China. Emperor Qin Shi Huang had his Terracotta Army built near Xi’an, and dates back to 246 BCE. The warriors were not found until 1974, and excavation and restoration is an ongoing project to continue for decades. Today Xi’an is the capital of the Shaanxi Province and a blend of ancient and modern. Since last December, the high speed rail now operates in Xi’an, thus greatly reducing the travel time from my home from 14+ hours to between 3 and 3.5 hours. I used the national holiday over the Lunar New Year to travel there (as did many thousands of others).

People Mountain People Sea

After living in China for more than a year and a half, I’m used to dealing with crowds of people, but there’s nothing like traveling when a billion people have the same holiday. The best decision was visiting the Terracotta Army on the actual New Years day, since most Chinese people will spend it with family. The crowds were noticeably lighter in the city, at least just for that one day. There’s an expression in Chinese, 人山人海, which when translated literally has become the Chinglish phrase, “People mountain people sea.” Meaning, a huge crowd of people. That sums up a lot of the experience living in China. One of the most crowded areas in Xi’an was the Muslim Quarter, because while most restaurants remained closed during the week of holiday for New Year, they were open for business. But man, was it worth it to eat some amazing food.

Nearby Xi’an, and also connected on the high speed rail, is Huashan (华山) or, Mt. Hua, one of China’s 5 sacred mountains. The panorama of its peaks are stunning, even in a bit of haze. I hiked up the trail from the west gate, a 6km path of many stone steps with a stretch of steep climbing. Because of the crowds and my two companions, we only ascended to the North Peak and then took the cable car back down. But I plan to go back–there are trails around the peaks and a dangerous side-of-the-mountain trail called the plank walk. Stay tuned, hopefully in Spring or early Summer I’ll have another shot to hike around Huashan.

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A Look Back to December

After a blog break, I’m back, and now with photos from December. It was a busy month and end of the semester. The highlights were hosting another excellent Christmas party and once again sharing my cookie baking tradition (see my post from the previous year). Then on Christmas Day a few other foreign teachers and I went out to a local restaurant that serves Thai food. I did have to teach on Christmas Day, but as we had already finished our final exams, I showed a movie.

The next semester starts in March. Between now and then is the Chinese New Year and a bit of traveling for me.

Taipei, Idul Fitri, and the Indonesian Migrant Community

I was lost in a sea of people. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence after one year in China and two past years in Indonesia–but this time was different. This time my physical body was in Taipei Main Station–a sprawling transportation hub connected by passageways to an underground mall–but my eyes tricked me into thinking I was back in Indonesia.

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri (Eid al-fitr). Sunday June 25th, 2017 marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims across the world. Indonesia, the world’s 4th most populous nation, also has the world’s largest population of Muslims, and I just happened to be in the midst of the Indonesian community in Taiwan on this great holiday.

Walking through the station and shopping area, I felt as if I was back in Indonesia. Indonesian women in their beautifully colored and stylish hijabs passed me by the hundreds. I heard Indonesian spoken in public for the first time in nearly three years since I left the country. I even ate Indonesian food that burned my mouth the only way Indonesian cuisine can. In fact, thousands of Indonesians–men and women–gathered at the Taipei Main Station that day eating, shopping, and sitting on the floor for lack of other places.

I sat among them and listened to their stories. A woman shared with me her own story and poetry she wrote.

My reason for traveling to Taipei during my semester break was to visit a former Indonesian student of mine. After university in Indonesia, she further studied in Taipei. It was great to see how she has matured in the past few years. She is not Muslim, nevertheless sees it as important to be with her fellow Indonesians, connecting to them and sharing in this important holiday. The fact that I visited during Idul Fitri was a coincidence, but it only felt natural to take part in festivities.

I was told there are more than 250,000 Indonesian migrants in Taiwan. On Idul Fitri I saw so many women; they come usually as domestic workers, taking care of elderly and children, leaving their own families behind. The men work in Taiwan, too, in factories and as fishermen.

The Indonesians I met were as welcoming and friendly as I remember from my time there. I had my fill of food and fellowship. Unfortunately, it is not always good for the migrants, and they work very hard to have a better life for themselves and their families, sometimes with little reward. I am, however, grateful for the new friends I met and the stories I heard.

The rest of my short time in Taipei was filled with a lot of good food and experiencing various sights around Taipei. I hope someday I can return.


May in Pictures

This post is a little late into June, but there are a few experiences worth detailing about events in May:

The month of May brought the Dragon Boat festival in China. Unfortunately, there was no dragon boat race in my city, but I did eat the traditional Zongzi (粽子) a glutinous rice dumpling steamed in bamboo leaves.

Then, there’s a couple photos of what it’s like eating out in China–BBQ outside on a hotplate surrounded by crowds of people. The hot plate is heated by white-hot coals placed underneath, which waiters bring out on tongs through the crowd.

I was asked to be one of the judges for a speech competition with the theme “The definition of happiness.” I’m proud to report that one of my students won the competition.

Finally, I don’t run as often as I used to, but one morning when I ventured out, I got caught in a rainstorm. People around me stared; I imagine their inner thoughts about what the heck that foreigner is doing. I shrugged my shoulders, as I spent a lot of time in Seattle’s rainy climate, the rain-soaked run was welcome.

 

October in Pictures

October was a busy month as I further settled into life in Mianyang and my teaching schedule. An event of note was held to welcome the freshmen on the 21st. Each department of the university has one, complete with dancing, music, emcees, games, and flashy lights. Many of my students were involved in planning, performing, and the behind-the-scenes work. When students had first mentioned to me about this event, I thought it was just an activity for the English Corner, but as I’m learning, performances, competitions, and events are often big productions. Without knowing how these things usually go, I told my students I’d give a short speech. Well, I did, and it felt a little out of place to all the performances of the night, but my words were nevertheless meaningful. Then to my surprise, during an actual English Corner activity about Halloween the following week, the Dean of the Foreign Languages Department kicked off the night by name-dropping me in his speech and paraphrasing to them what I had said before.

Earlier in the month I attended an “international” food festival that mostly comprised of Chinese street food. The students I went with were also disappointed, but we went out for a good lunch.

I also starting using my toaster oven more often and made rolls, banana bread, apple oat crisp, cookies, and pumpkin scones.

At the Market

It is Friday. I’m a little bit tired and homesick. I decide against spending the afternoon alone. The students also have a free afternoon, so I soon I find myself walking through Balige’s streets with a small group of students to the traditional market. Every day there are people selling their wares, but one day a week there is a special market. The streets in town are lined with people selling everything from fish to fruit to vegetables to shoes to used clothes and traditional Batak clothes.

Market in BaligeAs one of the students takes my arm, enthusiastically guiding me across the street, she asks about culture. “Is the market in your country like this?” At first, I struggle to answer, not because the question is difficult, rather my attention is elsewhere—at my feet, looking for potholes or other obstacles; beside me, careful of the cars, motorbikes, and people passing by; and all around, as we pass piles of dried fish next to a table of fruit next to a seller of toiletries and soap.

I answer something like, “yes, but no.” My hometown of Seattle is blessed to have the famous Pike Place Market and even better markets throughout the neighborhoods. I note, as we stop to wait for the group to look through a pile of shirts, that our outdoor markets don’t have clothes, and things are ordered. Well, at least, you won’t find a bar of soap being sold next to a pile of dried fish in America. And most people in America buy their food in stores, with sections of produce and aisles of pre-packaged goods.

Here in Indonesia, the street market is the lifeblood for the people. There are no supermarkets in small towns and villages here. The people buy their week’s worth of food—fish, rice, fruit, vegetables, chilis, and meat—as well as get shoes repaired or buy coffee or any number of items.

buying oranges at the market in baligeSomehow a small pile of apples from Washington state found its way to this small town in the middle of an island in SE Asia. Balige is quite the trek through mountainous and windy roads dotted with potholes; I know how far those apples have come. I had never given much thought to how significant the apple is in American culture until I came to Indonesia. Sure, we say something is “American as apple pie.” But we take for granted the plentiful bounty of apples all year round. Me especially, being from Washington state near a source of orchards and a major exporter of the fruit.

In Indonesia, apples do not grow and thus are very expensive, so they are not eaten often. My students pick up some fruit I’ve never seen before and ask, “Sister, this is (fruit name in Bahasa Indonesia or Batak, which I soon forget), what is it in English?”

“ahh. uhmm. We don’t have that in America”. I find myself stammering more than once (at the market, and in the kitchen). Their eyes grow wide with surprise. So different we are—skin color, language, and food. I tell my students that where I live in America we do not have fresh papaya, nor guava nor starfruit. Yes, so much different between us, and yet we share a common love of God and neighbor.

America: Apple pie. Apple juice. Apple cider. Caramel apples. Fruit salad with apples. Apple cake. Apple crisp. Apple turnovers. Apple dumplings. Bobbing for apples. Apples 2 Apples. How about them apples? You are the apple of my eye. The Big Apple. (in Washington State) The Apple Cup. Cinnamon and apple in your oatmeal. Fuji apples. Granny Smith Apples. Red Delicious Apples. Honeycrisp Apples. Braeburn Apples. … …

I don’t talk about apples with the students (maybe another time) but it comes to my mind as I continue to see the differences in our cultures and foods. I make note to have a conversation class about food. I am learning about food here: bakso, mie goreng, sak sang, ikan jahir, and more. Much for me to learn, too.

Refocusing myself back to the market again, I delight in the company of my cheery students and observe the bustle around us. We walk past a butcher with a sliced up pig and over to a stand selling fried banana. We eat and they continue to ask me questions. My presence here is not only to teach in the classroom, but to be in the community. The bonus is we come to know each other more deeply. And this is a learning experience for all of us—they practice their English and I learn about Indonesia and the Batak people.

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We continue to laugh about the differences.

And below are photos from another market, in nearby Siborong borong:
dried fish
buying pineapple
siborongborong market