We have had an exciting morning! We woke up and booked our flights to spend the May holiday in Hong Kong, and our friend Matt Busa let us know that he plans to visit at the end of summer! David and I are already brainstorming as to how we can show Busa the best time possible. Yes, Thailand is out because the package ended up being much more expensive than expected, which I suppose is fortunate given their current political situation. So…we are flying into Shenzhen (Southernmost city in mainland China) because it’s much cheaper, and then taking a train to Hong Kong (considered an “international destination” from Beijing), where we will spend 9 nights! This will be our big trip for the first 6 months, and we leave in 2 weeks, so we need to start planning.

I’m VERY excited because the second night of our trip involves attending a St. Baldrick’s Hong Kong event (http://www.stbaldricks.org/events/mypage/eventid/4154/eventyear/2010) at the Dublin Jack in Central Hong Kong. I have already been in touch with the incredible event organizer over there. His name is Richard and has a son who survived childhood cancer. Richard is from New York but his family now lives/works/goes to school in Hong Kong. They have actually met and been invited to Jackie Chan’s charitable events, and they host 4 events in Hong Kong every year! We have heard about some of the best things to do in Hong Kong, but would appreciate any suggestions or connections. So far we haven’t booked or lodging, as we will probably stay in a few different spots, but please let us know if you have any contacts that are looking to host some American teachers!

*Forewarning, the next paragraph contains literal potty humor and a mention of being nude:
I want to recount a few funny moments in the bathrooms around here. Per these stories, I think there should be a sign in the Chinese airport that says, “Attention foreigners, please leave your modesty on the plane!” Luckily, I’m not a very modest person, but even these situations have challenged my comfort zone:
1. I went to a public bathroom in the Hou Hai area of Beijing…which wasn’t too dirty, but none of the toilets had doors/stalls. Basically you walk-in and there are 4 metal rectangles with a circle in the middle that serve as your toilet. OK, no problem, we all have the same stuff, and luckily I only had to go number 1. The woman beside me, however, had a different plan. As she was going number two, squatting in a public facility without walls, she reached into her purse and lit up a cigarette! Haha, I thought this was hysterical. Maybe next time I should brew a cup of tea for the occasion?
2. The bathrooms at the gym have walls but no doors. So…I went, and as I looked up I found three other women coming over just to look at me because I was a foreigner. Modesty 0, Erin 2.
3. The showers at the gym are nice and warm and relatively clean, but they are open/shared style. You also can’t really bring a towel into the shower, because there is not place to put it where it won’t get wet. So, you quickly run to the shower with just your shower shoes and shampoo and hop in. Yesterday, however, the gym was really crowded and you had to wait in line for the shower. Talk about uncomfortable, I was waiting in the nude line for about 5 minutes with every Chinese woman staring at me/whispering to their friends before I could take my shower. I really didn’t find it too bad though, especially because no one was laughing TOO loud.

OK, hopefully you all found those stories funny and not too distasteful. C’mon though, we’re just humans everywhere in the world!

I also wanted to give you a little history lesson on the Chinese language. As you may know, Chinese characters represent the oldest continuously used writing system in the world. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that literate Chinese people all over the country can read and write the same complex character system, despite the fact that there are a variety of spoken languages throughout the country. Of these dialects, Mandarin is spoken by the greatest number of people (in China and the whole world), which is one of the reasons we chose Tangshan instead of Southern China, where Cantonese is the dominant dialect. Since the character system is so complex and does not lend itself extremely well to technological advancements like typing and international communication, the People’s Republic of China created the “Pinyin” system in 1958, which is a romanization of Chinese sounds. In other words, the A-Z alphabet was assigned to all the sounds of the characters and spoken Chinese language. Although many older people in China do not know how to read or write Pinyin, we have learned Pinyin almost exclusively in our classes. I’m sure from a historical and linguistic perspective it would be considered a shame that we aren’t learning more characters, but since we only have a year in China, our emphasis has been on learning to speak rather than to read Chinese. I only know a handful of characters at this point, including some numbers, man/woman for the bathrooms and the word “entrance” since it’s on everything.

From a grammatical perspective, Chinese is very simple. First of all, there aren’t any conjugations! The past tense is created by adding the modifier “le” after a verb. For example, “chi” is to eat, and “chi le” is ate. Additionally, a question is made simply by adding the modifier “ma” at the end of a sentence. “Ni hao” is “hello” or literally “you good” while “Ni hao ma” is “how are you?” (literally means “you good?”) This may shed some light on the common grammar mistakes you often hear from the Chinese as they are speaking English, and can give you extreme empathy for our students, as they are learning a new language that is so grammatically different from their own. Can you imagine trying to understand the past tense of a verb when you have never used anything like it? My students also have a really hard time with “his and her” because they are the same word, “ta”, in Chinese. I could give many more examples like this, as I find it really interesting, but I will save some for another time.

One last linguistic difference that I wanted to mention are the Chinese tones. Since nearly all Chinese words are monosyllabic (one syllable), one may assume that there simply aren’t many words in the language. However, the 4 tones in Mandarin can change the meaning of a word from “horse” to “hemp” or “pig” to the verb “to live” depending on the inflection. (Yet another advantage of learning Mandarin over Cantonese is that there are 9 tones in Cantonese!) While this allows many words that are spelled the same in pinyin to have different meanings…it gets really confusing. On top of this, many of the exact same words with the exact same tones DO have different meanings depending on context. We have some of this in English, for example “a windy road” or “windy day,” but nothing like they have in Chinese. To illustrate this point, I just opened up a dictionary to a random page. The word lui with and upward tone/accent on the “i” means to stay or to keep, to flow or to run, and sulfur. Additionally, the first tone of this word means six and to walk, and the third tone means willow. Although these complexities are difficult, I am lucky that I don’t have to learn Chinese in any particular time-frame, for any particular goal, so David and I just take it as it comes and try not to get discouraged.

Our classes are helping us to pick-up words spoken on the street and in the classroom, and we can now ask for about 20 different types of food and vegetables from street vendors and restaurants, say that we are American teachers, attempt most question words, count, give cab drivers basic instructions and ask some basic questions.

Try this one: Ni chi le ma? (Ni=you, chi=eat, le=past tense modifier, ma=question word)
Have you eaten?

The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it; not having it, to confess your ignorance. -Confucius