Sunday, October 16, 2016

Memorable Hoi An

Charming streets of Hoi An
One reason we were enticed to move to Nanning, Guangxi is that, just 100 miles from the Vietnam border, it's the Chinese gateway to Southeast Asia.

Due to a national holiday, I had a few days off from my teaching job at the beginning of October. So we decided to travel to Hoi An, Vietnam, to meet up with our friends Karen and Widi. Happily, they were headed there during a break from their teaching jobs in India. It had been three years since we last saw them in Chennai.

Dave and I flew from Hanoi into Danang, where at the airport he posed for this picture:

"Danang" is a song by the Radiators, a band he has followed for years. Here, his passion for music and travel collided. (As did his love of friends and community when he posted this picture on a fan website and received many fun responses.)

The Danang airport is small, so it was easy to connect with Karen and Widi when their plane landed. A car provided by our Airbnb was waiting to zip us down to Hoi An, an hour drive.

friends reunite
Before coming to China, we spent a couple of weeks in Vietnam, in cities and the countryside. Hoi An provided us with another side of Vietnam: a gorgeous beach and a quaint, ancient village. Having survived modernization and war, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It's definitely set up for tourists. We were approached by more people trying to sell us things than anywhere else in Vietnam. However, they weren't terribly aggressive--and many had things worth buying. Talented seamstresses are everywhere in the town. It's a great place to buy custom clothes at good prices.

On our day spent exploring the town, we sat in a small, crowded theater for a sweet hour of music and dance.

Then we explored some historical sites. At one time, Hoi An was a port city filled with not only Vietnamese but Chinese and Japanese families, which influenced the architecture.

Japanese bridge

Chinese assembly hall.

The day was hot. Cold fruit drinks, fresh fruit and spring rolls helped us re-energize.
Everywhere we went, people were fascinated with Widi. Because he speaks their language, they were convinced he was Vietnamese. He's actually Indonesian. He learned the language when he taught English in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Sumatra. That's where he and Karen met almost 30 years ago.
street food
The next day, we hopped on bikes and rode to Hidden Beach.

It lives up to its name: not overly developed and not crowded. But with lounge chairs, umbrellas, and good food. Oh, and one of the best massages I've ever had (for only about $7). They were able to massage all four of us at one time, while an ocean breeze blew over our bodies.
Dave and Widi getting their Tai Chi on at Hidden Beach.
At the end of the day, Dave and I were both a bit sunburned. We'd neglected to reapply sunscreen after lounging in the warm water. The whole experience had been so heavenly, it was easy to forget. Fortunately, aloe vera gel from the pharmacy came to the rescue.

We took the trip back all in one day, which involved an exhausting mélange of taxis, flights, airport waiting and a confusing transfer. When we hit the Nanning airport, a Vietnamese-American woman at the taxi stand asked if we might be able to help her. The taxi driver didn't know where her hotel was--and she didn't know how to say it, as it was written in Chinese on a piece of paper. Dave had her get in our taxi and said perhaps a taxi driver at the university gate would know, since the university is close to downtown. His genius plan worked.

In the cab, we soon learned we all used to live in San Jose! And when she heard I'm a writing coach, she said she wants my help writing a book about her family's journey from Vietnam to America. Just my kind of gig.

That experience was like an exclamation point on the week of the divine rendezvous. How sweet it was to have a travel experience with friends, making Hoi An even more memorable.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

First Month in China

Flowering lotus pond and campus seen from our living room window.
I asked Dave what three things he'd tell people about our experience in China. He said:

1. It's more organized and less chaotic than anticipated.
2. The food is amazing.
3. And so are the people.

A month in, I agree. But the first week didn't quite feel like that. It was shocking to walk into our campus apartment and see cockroaches crawling over the dead carcasses of their brethren, a rotting hole under the kitchen sink, black crud on the floor of the bathroom, stains streaking the walls. Etcetera.

After cleaning like crazy people, we fell into bed that night--feeling like we'd dropped onto a concrete sidewalk. I missed my memory foam mattress like never before. The cushion-less wood furniture in the living room was just as unyielding.

With the help of some new friends, we were able to buy cushions and pads. And the Dean came over to show us how to use the washing machine--although he wasn't sure about a few settings and laughingly said he usually doesn't do the laundry.

Dave rustled up some light blue paint and transformed our living room. The bedroom will be next.

A man of action.
Once things were clean and comfy, I began to appreciate the spaciousness of our place. And it has two bedrooms--one of which we use as an office and guest room (hint, hint).

Living on campus is great. With its food courts and canteens, two farmers' markets, sports fields, basketball and tennis courts, many apartments and dorms, it's like a city within a city. Everyone who works for the university--students, faculty, and staff--lives here, including retired employees. There are people of all ages around, including elderly and children. And on campus are schools (from preschool through middle school) for the kids.

The Chinese love exercise. On my way to class in the mornings (a five-minute walk), I see retired people playing volleyball and badminton. There are big sports fields here where people play on the equipment, kick balls around, practice Kung Fu, walk, jog, stretch.

In the evenings, groups of (mostly women) gather to "square dance"--which is more like line dancing to a boom box that's blasting anything from traditional Chinese music to pop songs.
Dancing like mama.
Soon I'm going to join one of the dancing groups. People tell me the women will show you the steps. They may laugh, but it's all in good fun.

People also ride bikes and motorbikes everywhere, which adds to the feeling that China = movement. All motorbikes here, by law, are electric. This has the pleasant effect of keeping down air and noise pollution. Some days are hazy here, but for the most part, it's pretty clean and green.


just outside campus
We are in Nanning, in the southeast--just 100 miles from the Vietnam border. Yes, there's an active vibe here--but also a laid-back one. I was surprised to discover that siesta isn't just for Spanish-speaking countries; it's a thing here, too. From noon to 2 p.m.-ish, campus offices close down as do many businesses. I'm beginning to get into the afternoon peace and quiet. I even nap now and then, not my usual forte.

I'm finding I need the rest. My body and mind are adjusting to my new job: teaching creative writing, literature, and yoga to college kids. For three years, "going to work" has meant editing books in my yoga pants. It's been an adjustment putting on real clothes and being "on" in the morning.

Class on the American Memoir
For the most part, the students are eager, kind, and thoughtful. "Class discussion" isn't what I'm used to; they don't like to talk unless called upon. However, when I structure discussion and activities using my bag of tricks (such as letting them write or talk out ideas with a partner before talking to the whole class), they get into it. They also love games and role playing.

With Charles, the son of our new French friends
who are here for the husband's postdoc.
My colleagues have been great, sharing information with us, showing us around and inviting us over. For mid-Autumn festival, we went to a mooncake-making party at the home of Li Ji (an administrative assistant) and Sophie (who runs a campus preschool).

Li Ji playing a song for the kids.

Weighing the dough and rolling into balls, mooncake-making preparation.

We were also invited to a mid-Autumn festival meal, where everyone participated in making pork dumplings. All the food was delicious--except the snake, which according to Dave was too spicy. I couldn't get past the fact that it still had the skin on. More suitable for boots than appetizers, if you ask me.
Soup, greens, two kinds of chicken, dumplings and snake.
After dinner, Peter made us tea at his special tea table. A connoisseur, he pulled out many little packets of tea, some of which had been aged for years. We sipped and compared ala wine tasting.

Everywhere we go, the food is fantastic (and cheap). We are especially fond of Nanning's dumplings and noodles.

Fat noodles with bits of fried pork.

 We're happy to have discovered a music scene. Paul (from Liverpool) and Ricky (from Singapore) play at an ex-pat bar on the weekends--and they have opened a café called the Ukulele Club, where they plan to run music and literary events.

At the Queen's Head.
Walking around the parks, you can hear lots of music, too. Much of it's from boom boxes, but sometimes you stumble across live instruments.

People's Park
One of the greatest joys for us has been getting to know Tina, our student assistant. She has helped us with so many things, from getting wifi and opening a bank account, to shopping for specific items, to translating labels so we can figure out if we bought, say, toothpaste or hemorrhoid cream!

We gave Tina one of the mooncakes we made.
She's extremely bright and capable. We've spent so much time with her that she's beginning to feel like our adopted daughter.

You've probably noticed that most of the Chinese people I've been talking about have English names. Many choose to use one with foreigners, a name that is similar to their Chinese name. I'm taking Mandarin lessons and hoping that once I learn to speak it well enough I'll be able to call them by their Chinese names. And maybe I'll have them use mine: 凱特 (Kǎi tè).

I feel like I have a million more things to say about China, even though it's been only a month. Stay tuned.