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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

[FINAL POST of 2015 Exchange] Making Our Way Downtown


Last week, we four travelers decided to take a day off from school and venture back to Hefang Street. Because we went at a bright and early 8 am, the road was void of shoppers and most of the stores were still closed. It was nice to get this perspective of the usually bustling shopping mecca because we got to see the magic of the shopkeepers walking past us in the morning sunlight and step up to their storefronts to open their doors to another day of big sales. I did enjoy seeing the gradual escalation of people and movement during the first hour we were there. Every time you turned your head, more people would appear in every direction.

Halfway through our adventures down the street, a mass of lime green and white uniforms that turned out to be a group of school children surged the crowds and soon made up half the population on Hefang Street. I was not only shocked at the fact that a school would take a group of middle schoolers to this street, but also that these kids were all walking around unsupervised. These kids were also not the most courteous beings on this earth and I had to push my way through several packs of them because they were unresponsive to my various pleas of “excuse me”.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Return of the Duck Tongue


Today Abby's family planned our activities: we would ride horses and then pick and dry Longjing tea. The day was beautiful; sunny with thin wispy clouds and not too hot.

When I was told I would be riding horses, here's what I imagined. Driving to an idyllic country village, saddling a wild horse in a colorful, well crafted saddle, and taking off after a trail guide for a half hour ride through nature. After driving out into the suburbs, we came to the elite-sounding Hangzhou Equestrian Club, where a dispute over where to park delayed us a good half hour. Ola's dad then took us to a nearby restaurant for refreshments: fruit, tea, and tea derived snacks. The group made the acquaintance with the owner's nine-year old son who charmed us so much we invited him to ride the horses with us. Also in attendance was Ola's brother's lady friend from last weekend.

Hospitality and Harmony


Last summer, in preparation for two months in China, I took an online course through Primary Source on Chinese history and culture. One segment of the course was on traditional music and it directed students to several websites, including a YouTube video of a pipa concert. The pipa is a 4-stringed instrument that looks something like an elongated and shallow mandolin and sounds a little like a dulcimer. You wouldn’t think that you could get much virtuosity out of four strings, but the concert in the video was a fancy-dress affair featuring the pipa with a full orchestra of traditional Chinese instruments to back it up, and I was amazed by the pipa’s range and swept away by the beauty of its music. On my list of experiences I hoped for in coming to China, a pipa concert moved into first place. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Tranquil" Suzhou


On our last Saturday in Hangzhou, we adventured to see the gorgeous gardens of Suzhou. When we hopped into the van and heard that it would be a three hour drive each way, we almost hopped out. We suffered through the long sojourn and arrived at the Humble Administrator's Garden. Out of the 200+ gardens in Suzhou, this is one of the most famous. It took 16 years to build and is called the best example of Chinese private gardens.

Alas, it was anything but private. Out of all the places we've been in China, I think it's safe to say that this one was the most populated. There was also more foreigners than we had seen in any other place. Our guide informed us that the garden was once closed off to the public. I can definitely see why, considering the scenery and atmosphere were affected by the hoards.

Friday, April 10, 2015

"Actually, that's Duck Tongue"


This past Sunday was a return to the feel our our traveling days; sunlit hours jam-packed with activities, long walks, and of course, a lunch of mammoth proportions. Our families planned three activities for us: first, a nature walk through a nature preserve , followed by a visit to a panda enclosure and a harvest of bamboo roots.

While Xixi Wetlands (from last weekend) is a conservation project like the wetlands we visited this Sunday, this swamp's aims are a bit more scientific. The park includes an endangered species, the crested ibis, protected areas ostensibly for them to nest in, and a facility to breed them. Xixi, with it's picturesque traditional town and nice adjacent hotel, is a conservation project that focuses perhaps more strongly on the integration of the human and the wild into a fun, luxurious, money-making operation in comparison to this one, where the few buildings are viewing platforms and a museum of taxidermy specimens of swamp wildlife. This swamp did, however, have another jolly oyster vendor offering an unknown number of pearls for ¥150, and many older folks selling various forms of organic matter both alive and dead that they caught or picked. Many vendors sold turtles, some as a meal, some young ones for children's pets. Ola's host family purchased two baby turtles, one of their young son, and one for their son's female friend who tagged along with us. The turtles, suspended from the children's hands in red mesh bags, seemed mildly alarmed but calmed down dramatically when released on a tea table in the lunch place (more on this later).

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Cursed by Suitcase Ladies


After our day off on Monday, we arrived at school only to find that no one even glanced at us.The Swiss had come and we were old news. We expected the group of Swiss exchange students to be about our size. However, when we saw the size of the lunch buffet we knew that was not the case. All of a sudden, 20 kids walked in. We were hoping to make some new pals but apart from Pablo and David who were later amazed by our tai chi skills, no one else was feeling friendly

Something we've noticed with both the Swiss and the Chinese is that they will wear the same outfit for several days. When we first noticed this with our tour guides, we assumed they were staying at hotels and didn't want to pack a lot. Upon arriving at Hanggao, we realized that it was not uncommon to wear the same shirt two or three days in a row. Although surprising, it is understandable considering that the kids' daily activities which consist of homework, do not cause them to sweat at all. While traveling, Abby, Nik and I have realized that you don't always have to look super glamorous and it's okay. A majority of students here could care less about their hair or their outfit and they all seem to be content and accepted.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Clip Joint


Our third Saturday in Hangzhou was dedicated to visiting the old water town, Wuzhen. Now, I thought that this place was going to be a real town where we observe how the inhabitants go about their daily lives. I was proved wrong, however, when we arrived at an amusement park gate. Wuzhen is a town that was built over 1,000 years ago, but was made into a tourist attraction recently. Although it's not what I originally expected, the overall experience there was very fun, especially seeing all of the breathtaking scenery along the rivers and flower fields. There were also many specialty shops, which were pretty much the main attraction of the park. Each one was dedicated to something different and ranged from woodcarving to delicately packaged tea bags. We also witnessed a wedding ceremony (a staged one) that happened on one of the rivers. Many boats manned by people dressed in orange glided down the river while gongs were sounded to attract everyone’s attention. Everyone in the town knew that a newlywed couple was gliding down the river.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tomb Sweeping Day


“Tomb Sweeping” is the festival when the Chinese honor their ancestors. Known as Qingming, the holiday is observed with a day off—this year on April 5th—to visit cemeteries. Traditionally, the Chinese bury their more recently deceased loved ones next to their ancestors, and the roads are clogged on this day with relatives journeying to visit their hometown cemeteries in order to pay homage. In the past, people have burned incense, money and paper houses as part of this ritual remembrance, and now entrepreneurs are offering paper models of iPhones and USBs as well so that people can keep their ancestors up to date with the latest technology. And if you can’t make it to your home town to visit your ancestors’ actual graves, there are now online memorial sites that you can visit all day every day. Another alternative is to hire a “proxy tomb-sweeper” to care for your ancestors with a three-minute visit, costing 100¥ ($16.00).

A Little Frazzled but not Bamboozled by a Breeze


Bamboo has to be one of the most useful of plants. It is far more pliable and has greater tensile strength than steel. Besides being an ornamental grass, it is an effective hedgerow. On Chinese rivers, lengths of bamboo are tied together to make rafts. It is sliced into strips that are used to weave baskets, and wider strips that are used to make straps from which to carry the baskets. It is lashed together to form fences, scaffolding, even entire buildings. Bamboo shoots are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. You can carve bamboo into flutes and figurines, it is woven into steamers for cooking and it can be cut into 10-inch lengths and hollowed out to make tea caddies.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Shipping Off to Boston


Just as we were getting into the swing of things, we were introduced to new host families. We moved in after the Sakura festival on Sunday and have loved getting to know them. Maggie and Ivy, Abby and my host sisters, both live in the dorms at school but moved back home for two weeks to host us. Unfortunately, I am no longer able to bike to and from school as Ivy lives 40 minutes away from the school, across the Qiantang river.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bubbling (Many Exclamation Points)


This past weekend the good folks at Hanggao had a lot on their plate: on Saturday, While we enjoyed the Xixi wetlands and their river pearls, the school was administering several sections of the Gaokao, or college entrance exam, and on Sunday, the student-run Sakura was to be held. Wode Tian! (My heavens)

Shakespearean Cues?


But old folks, many feign as they were dead;
Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead.

Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 5

Though it is highly unlikely that the Chinese government takes its cues from Shakespeare, in China women must retire at the age of 55, and the theory behind this mandate is that women who are 55 and older tire easily. Really? Walk through any public square in China and you will find more than enough evidence to easily debunk such a cockamamie idea. Everywhere there are women lined up in rows, dancing to music either played by live musicians or blasted from boom boxes. And they aren’t just dancing; they’re moving and grooving. Some of them even put John Travolta to shame.