“Do you believe in God?”: How religion surprised me in Zhengzhou, China

This post is a remembrance of my experiences with religion during my first year in China — 1999 — when I taught English in Zhengzhou.

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It was an early week in September, just as China’s Autumn Tiger — the fierce summer heat that claws its way into September — was in full force when a college-age Chinese girl with a ponytail approached me on the streets of Zhengzhou. I had been looking for the Indian restaurant in town with my friends, and had fallen behind when this girl stepped out of a group of young people and spoke English to me.

“Hello! Are you a Christian?” the girl blurted out as naturally as if she was asking how my day was.

She had hit me with the 64,000 yuan question — religion. Continue reading ““Do you believe in God?”: How religion surprised me in Zhengzhou, China”

It’s Henan College of Education, but not as we know it — looking back on 10 years of China

I first came to China in 1999, so 2009 is a big year for me, just as the Chinese government is gearing up to celebrate its 60th anniversary. So here’s one of my articles looking back on those 10 years, and considering how things have changed, and impacted my life. Enjoy!

Henan College of Education — located in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China — has a certain nostalgic pull for me. It was the place where I began learning Chinese, thanks to Wang Bin. It was where I first kissed Christian, my first Chinese boyfriend, and, from my perspective, first real love. It was where China schooled me in its rhythms and ways — always something new, always a learning experience. Even long after I left Zhengzhou, my mind often returned to Henan College of Education, and I even felt a certain allegiance to the people of Henan Province (some of whom would even call me a townsman, or  老乡).

But all of that is changing because, at the end of this year, Henan College of Education will not be the same. Oh, the institution will still survive, but it won’t be the Henan College of Education that we knew.

I discovered the shocking news when I casually wandered onto the campus in early July. It was 5pm and I had agreed to meet with Shelly and Lisa, two of the Foreign Affairs Office employees who remembered me when I was an English teacher there 10 years ago.

Shelly and Lisa had hardly changed. Shelly, the senior of the two who was planning on retiring at the end of the year, still had the same stout face, short permed hair, dyed black with an almost carefree flyaway pinned down with a bobby pin, and air of correctitude right down to her perfectly folded hands. Lisa, the younger and more warm of the two, had the same cap of short straight hair around her head, a smart gray belted dress that reached to her knees, and the same friendly sparkle in her eyes behind her glasses.

“You came just in time,” said Shelly as she sat behind her mahogany desk, a reminder of the authority she had accumulated over the years. “Henan College of Education will be closed for good at the end of this year — and moved to the new campus.”

Indeed I came just in time. Over all of these years, I had lost contact with these people, never knowing that the school in its present form would no longer exist at the end of 2009.

But why? It all comes down to two Chinese characters: 改制, which essentially stands for “change form.” Continue reading “It’s Henan College of Education, but not as we know it — looking back on 10 years of China”

Shaolin Shi…er…Temple — Adventures in Dengfeng, Henan Tourism

I’m in Xi’an, just having arrived from Henan Province — and my old stomping grounds in Zhengzhou. While my husband and I had a spectacular time reconnecting with my roots and enjoying the cultural sites, we’re still recovering from the kungfu punch of Shaolin Temple. Yes, that Shaolin Temple, the one famous for martial arts. The reason? It’s one empty kick of a site that doesn’t merit a 105 RMB (approximately 15-16 USD) ticket price.

Yes, Shaolin is enshrouded in some extraordinary history (including the fact that Boddhidharma spent several ponderous years at the temple). But most of that has been cheerfully restored out of the place, giving the actual temple grounds more of a Disneyland feel (complete with the crowds of tourists), apart from a smattering of steeles throughout the grounds. As a historical site, it’s a most average looking temple otherwise with nothing distinguishing whatsoever.

The forest of pagodas is truly the coolest part of it — but it hardly merits the entrance price.

Worse is the fact that all tour buses dump you off in a parking lot far removed from the site itself. I don’t mind a long walk, however the pathway itself first passes through a conglomeration of souvenir shops, restaurants, a hotel, the kungfu demo area, and hawkers before you even get to the temple. The mountain w/ the cable car is also a joke, especially since, after forking over such a big sum, they still want you to pay for the cable car.

Admittedly, I was already left with a bruise by the bus ride over. We bought the tickets to Shaolin from the Zhengzhou bus station, the ticket said it was going to Shaolin Temple. But no, the bus has to stop first at Songyang Academy (not really worth the time, either — go to Yuelu Academy, a much more authentic place in Changsha, instead), then to Fawang Temple, then to a lunch spot where the tour guides obviously get a commission, then Shaolin. We eventually forked over our money for the “less expensive” tour group ticket (175 RMB) which gave us entrance to all of the places we visited (Songyang Academy, Songyue Temple Pagoda, and Shaolin). Nevertheless we couldn’t help but feel ripped off by how average the sites were, and we were especially perplexed when, after our tour guide told us that the pagoda cost 50 RMB to enter, not a single person there checked our ticket.

So, we decided to stop at a government office with oversight of the tourist area, and find out if we got cheated. Turns out, the ticket checkers were apparently “on lunch break”. However, we learned an interesting fact: locals from Dengfeng can visit all of the sites in the area by just getting a yearly tour card for only 20 RMB!!!

So it goes. As for us, we drop-kicked it out of there, and are happy to say, we’ve been there, done that, and aren’t going back anytime soon.

Ten years of friendship from Zhengzhou to Beijing — thanks, Peter

For those of you who don’t know, this year marks the tenth anniversary of my first landing in China — August 27, 1999. That day, when I stumbled into Beijing’s old international airport, never did I realize it would change my life entirely. That I would spend the majority of the next ten years living and working in this country; that I would find my husband here, and get married here; that I would find myself so entirely captivated by a country so drastically different from what I’ve known.

Truly, though, it’s the people in China that I love the most. I’ve discovered friendships in this country so deep, and precious, and strong. These friendships sustain and nourish me, and help me to rise above all of the difficulties one encounters in this country.

Besides my husband, there is one friend in China who stands out from all the rest — and this year marks 10 years of friendship together. That friend is Peter Pi, who I had the privilege of spending five days with in Beijing. Continue reading “Ten years of friendship from Zhengzhou to Beijing — thanks, Peter”