We are writing this from an Internet Cafe in the picturesque town of Lijiang in Yunnan Province.  Our Plan B is working out very well; we are enjoying our exploration of other regions of China.  The next letter will provide details.  First, we want to tell you all about some of our other activities in Xi'an and our overall experiences with the local people.

 

Teaching

We both enjoyed the experience of teaching at Northwest University.  When I (Fran) went to Dr. Cao's office (he is the Dean of the Environmental Science Department) to give him a thank you gift for arranging the teaching position for her, he was very complimentary about my teaching and invited me to return to Northwest University to teach again next year.  I don't think that is feasible, but I felt very good about the positive reports that Dr. Cao had received from my students and other Environmental Science faculty and I appreciated the invitation.  I think that the door is now open for my colleagues who might be interested in a teaching sabbatical at Northwest University.

 

As we indicated in our previous letter, we had a delicious and warm farewell lunch.   The university president asked us about differences between Chinese and American university students.  We replied that Chinese students do not ask questions during class (they ask questions privately after the class is over).  The president and one of the computer science faculty said that Northwest University wants to encourage more creativity and question-asking in their students, but the students have been told since grade school that they shouldn't ask questions in class and students who have asked questions have often been told that their questions are silly and are wasting everyone's time.  There is a lot of cultural conditioning to reverse here!

 

English Editing

In addition to teaching, I have been a free-lance editor.  One of my new friends is Ivy, a recent university graduate who works in the International Student Services office at Northwest University.  She helped Tyler and me to set up the internet connection in our apartments and has provided us with travel information for our weekend trips.  She speaks and writes English well and was assigned to co-author a brochure in English on Northwest University.  She asked me to edit the brochure for correct word usage.  It was fun to work with her on this project.  Tyler and I each have a copy of the brand new brochure.

 

Sarah (the graduate student in English who attended some of my classes) asked me to edit some Chinese poetry translations that she prepared for one of her classes.  Dr. Wang in the Environmental Science Department asked me to edit two journal articles that he wrote about the ecological advantages of crop rotation in central China (where Xi'an is located).  It was interesting to read the articles and learn more about his research, and then discuss my suggested edits with him.  He surprised me with a thank you gift for editing the articles; this was a beautiful Chinese chess set.  It is common to see people playing chess, mah jong, and various card games on low tables on the streets of Xi'an and other Chinese cities.

 

Other Activities

We enjoyed attending weekly tai chi classes offered through the Computer Science Department.  The teacher did not speak English, but we followed his motions.  If we were doing poses incorrectly, he would come around and put us in the right positions.

 

We also did some swimming in the Northwest University outdoor pool.  Arranging this activity was a three step process.  First, we paid five yuan (about 60 cents) each for a swim card.  Step two involved going to a photo shop in our neighborhood for personal photos that could be attached to the cards.  The final step was a health exam in the university clinic.  This health exam was a full employment act, conducted by three doctors and requiring about five minutes of our time.  The first doctor examined our ears, probably to make sure that we did not have ear infections.  The second doctor listened to our hearts with a stethoscope.  The third doctor glanced quickly at Fran's sandaled feet (for athlete's foot? for pretty toenails?), did not bother to look at Tyler's feet, nodded his approval, and then our cards were stamped and we were officially allowed to enter the pool.

 

The swimming pool is a huge concrete structure that is twice the length and twice the width of a standard size swimming pool in the U.S., but the water is the same depth throughout the pool (up to Fran's neck or Tyler's chest).  The pool would be great for swimming laps except that there are  are no lanes and the swimming pool traffic is similar to the street traffic, i.e., crowded and chaotic.  People swim in every direction and many just stand around and chat with their friends.  However, the Chinese students, faculty, and staff who use the pool do not push, splash or swim quickly so it is possible to find spaces in between people and sort of swim laps.  The water temperature is very pleasant and we did appreciate our swims on hot July days in Xi'an. 

 

We spent a few weekends exploring various neighborhoods and sightseeing attractions in Xi'an.  Some of this exploration was done by bicycle.  Tyler has gotten accustomed to the chaos of the bike lanes.  I (Fran) would be a liar if I made the same claim, but I have chosen to be entertained rather than frightened by the bike lane scene.  Bicycling on the streets of Seattle is going to be a piece of cake by comparison!  Another thing that is different about biking in China is that I am usually one of the fastest bicyclists, which is the exact opposite of my experience on the Burke Gilman trail in Seattle.  This is not because I have increased my biking speed in China; it is because most Chinese bike at a speed of about five miles per hour.  I find myself passing many other bicyclists, when possible.

 

Our favorite local sightseeing included bicycling around the walls of the Old City en route to the Neolithic Age village of Banpo, attending a performance of Tang Dynasty (6th to 8th century) music and dance, visiting the Tang Dynasty Arts Museum, and of course making frequent visits to Bai Cao Tang for two hour, $12 professional massages.  On our most recent visit, we treated Gao Yuan and her husband to massages, which they appreciated.  We feel at home in Xi'an.  It is an interesting and friendly city and has been a good place to live because it is the cradle of Chinese civilization.

 

People

The people at Northwest University have treated us very well.  Many students and young faculty have a good command of English; therefore, we have been able to have in-depth conversations about life in China and in the U.S.  In general, Americans receive a warm reception in China.  When people ask us where we are from and we reply "Mei Guo," (which is Chinese for America and literally means "beautiful country"), the body language of the questioner is usually positive.  The Chinese see our country as a land of freedom and opportunity and many have expressed the desire to study or work in the U.S.  American movies and music are very popular and are often the sources of information (and mis-information) about the U.S.   Fran has been asked "is it true that everyone in America owns a gun?" and "is it true that sixteen year olds in America are expected to totally support themselves?"  "No, not exactly..." (and another opportunity has just opened for an interesting exchange of ideas).

 

Social customs are changing in Chinese cities.  When we were in China in 1984, couples who wanted to marry sought permission from their parents and danwei (work groups).  After they married, they usually lived with the husband's parents.  Now, in 2004, we have talked with many young couples who did not ask anyone's permission to marry (for example, Gao Yuan told us that her parents and her husband's parents were not pleased that she is two years older than her husband, but they all "got over it") and who live near their parents, but in their own apartment (they say they want more freedom and privacy and their parents have old-fashioned ideas).  Another change is that some well-educated, urban Chinese couples are following the "zero child policy," i.e., they are choosing not to have children.  A few people have asked us "how many children do you have?"  When we replied that we chose not to have children, their responses have generally been "Oh, that's good.  You have more freedom," or "you have more time for each other" or "we are thinking that we will not have children either."  We were surprised at these responses because China is very family-oriented, but Fran especially was pleased that she did not need to try to explain this very personal decision across a cultural divide.

 

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