Sunday, August 14, 2011

'My Heart Will Go On'.. and other Chinese Favourites

Down in Guangxi Province, in Southern China is the wonderful tourist mecca of Yangshuo. It is dubbed the 'English Corner of China,' and with good reason. Yangshuo, with its fantastic scenery, western comforts and plethora of English Schools has been a popular spot for foreign tourists since the '80s when it was the backpacker hangout. When word got out about how fabulous this backwater town was, inevitably the town's popularity grew past the backpacker crowd to include just about everyone and their mother, both foreign and Chinese. Usually this alone would be a reason to cross a place off our 'to-visit' list. Over-touristed places can rarely deliver on the reasons they became popular in the first place. Our guidebook suggested that if you were after the sublime scenery as opposed to the 'banana-oreo-peanut butter milkshakes' (or something) to consider staying out in the countryside. But, no, as I mentioned in a few previous blogs we were looking for a 'banana-oreo-peanut butter' type experience at this point. Because, really, if they had peanut butter, they were bound to have decent toilets, right? Well, that was my (disturbing) train of thought anyways. We were so looking forward to Yanghsuo that I began to really worry that it couldn't possibly live up to the oasis it was in my head. Locals that speak English, food variety, good value accommodation, bike paths through spectacular mountain-scape that require no sweaty hill climbing... It couldn't possibly have it all.

Ohhh, but it did. And more.

The people who we really owe our fantastic Yangshuo experience to are a local Hungarian-Chinese couple, Atilla and Candy, whom we met through couchsurfing. And no, Atilla wasn't even the Han (pronounced 'Hun') of the pair, much to the chagrin of Jonathan's nickname scheming mind! Atilla is an English teacher at one of the biggest English Colleges in Yangshuo: Zhou Yue English College. If we volunteered a mere two hours a night to chat with a small English class, then the school would provide free lunch, dinner and a room! What a deal! In the end, we only took advantage of the free dinner, but for any traveller whose budget needs a break, its a really great offer. The students at Zhou Yue are all adults and very, VERY dedicated to learning English. They are from all over China, and have quit their jobs to improve their English. They want better jobs and more opportunities and see English as an essential skill. Their day starts at 8am and the learning doesn't stop until 8:30pm! As with our other volunteering experiences, we really feel as though we got much more out of our time with the students than they could have possibly gotten from us.

Our weekday evenings started with dinner at 530pm. We joined the students at big round tables in the dining hall and tried our very best to keep up with their swift chopstick mastery. They eat SO fast. Within twenty minutes the students would be gone and only us volunteers would be left, overwhelmed by the whirlwind, wondering what happened to all that food that had been piled on the table mere moments earlier. It vanished. By the last week, one of the students, Gunner, who had taken a particular liking to Jonathan (don't they all?) had decided that he was going to personally make sure that Jonathan left the dinner table full. Usually only two of the five dishes on the table were vegetarian. In China, the dishes are set in the middle of the table. Everyone has a small bowl of rice in front of them and uses the chopsticks to pick the food from the communal dishes, a bite or two at a time and put it into their rice bowl. Gunner didn't like that Jonathan only got to pick from two of the fast-disappearing dishes. How could he get enough? Gunner would get extra little bowls for Jonathan and fill them with the vegetarian dishes and put them in front of Jonathan. He would then instruct the rest of the table that they were only to eat from Jonathan's dishes as a last choice, if they happened to still be hungry when all the other food on the table was gone. It was really sweet, and really funny.

The most amazing thing for us was actually being able to communicate with Chinese people. After dinner all the volunteers were sent to different classes, armed with a nightly topic with the only instructions being to 'just talk.' It could have been a painful and awkward two hours, but it never was. The minutes flew by and by 830 I was making lists of all the questions and topics I wanted to discuss the next night with my next group of victims..ahem, students. We had come half way across the world to visit China and because of our lack of Chinese and their lack of English, we hadn't really had the opportunity to communicate with many folks, expect one couple we met in Fenghuang. Until now. Every night for two hours we sat in different classrooms and discussed various topics with the students. They got to practice their speaking and listening to our different accents and we got to hear so many fascinating opinions, life stories, insights and legends of the Chinese.

I can't say enough good things about our experience at Zhou Yue. We talked to real people about what it was like to work in Chinese factories, the conditions, the pay, the hours, the clients. We talked about Chinese geography and all the small towns or ginormous cities the students came from. We talked about politics, religion, food and family. We covered life aspirations, marriage, kids and the generation gap between young adults and their parents. We discussed China's one child policy, it's 52 minority groups, its 1.3 billion strong population and the languages that all these people speak. For example, every person spoke a local dialect from their village (they are so modest that they don't even consider this a language, since its not usable outside their village) and Chinese (Mandarin), many spoke Cantonese and now English as well. 'How many languages do you speak?' they asked me. 'One, just English' I said. 'One and a half if you are willing to be generous enough to count my smattering of French,' I added to make myself feel better. 'No, but what about your mother tongue?' They asked, like I didn't quite get their question. 'No, just English,' I confirmed, 'That is my mother tongue.' 'No,' they persisted, 'Like what language did your parents teach you in your town when you were a child. What do they speak in your town?' And so on. I think by the time I left that night they still weren't sure if I was still just pulling their leg, trying to hide some dialect of secret obscure 'Canadiana Canoe' language from them or something. We talked about travel, how hard it is for Chinese to obtain passports, and what they think of the ballooning western influence. They were fascinated by every detail of our lives. Where we worked, how many people were in our family, how much money we made, what kind of car we drove, why we came to China, where we came from, where we were going, did we like Chinese food, what do people eat in Canada, do they like Chinese food, what is this 'Chinatown' they have heard about, what did we think of China before we came here, what do we think about it now, could we speak Chinese, did we think it would be hard to learn, why are my eyes green, were my parent's eyes green, what about my sister's, no, why not? Most importantly, did we like the movie 'Titanic' and did we know every word to Celine's classic 'My heart will go on?' (Seriously, they are obsessed with this movie and this song). Romantics, all of them. When we told them that James Cameron, the director of the film was from our home town and that Celine was a fellow Canadian we were pretty much promoted to celebrities ourselves. Who'd have thought... only in China. haha

PS. Just an update on our postal situation: So far four of the five packages have made it safely home, and the only one that hasn't, isn't due to arrive until next month, so we still have high hopes for that one too! (ya!) Thanks for those who let me know that their China postcards have been arriving! That's exciting. Turns out the stamps do work! Now just for some Nepal arrivals. I wonder as well, Gina, where does this lost mail go? I mean, it must be somewhere...

1 comment:

Mom and Dad Mooney said...

Glad to hear you were able to experience communicating with the Chinese students. As you say, you probably learned more from them, as you were able to compare what you had envisionsed about their culture, versus what they actually told you. Luv you.