Living in China - part II: apples, visas, mountains, cooking and more

We are in Korea now and just a short stretch of the Yellow Sea away from Qingdao in China. Time in China has passed really fast. It always does when you are happy. Now we are back to travelling and again each day is different, so a month accomodates so many unique experiences, it's like a short lifetime. China has been our first real stretch of settled life since May 2010, in the sense that we got our own place, made our own food and our alarm would go off at 6 am. I must admit, in the three months that we lived there we did grow a few roots. Oh, the sweet charm of routine living after months and months on the road :-)!

I think like pretty much everybody out there, we left for this trip to escape from routine. My biggest fear has always been weightless days: days with no memorable experiences, no insights, no memories. But even scarier are weightless months and years. That can happen if the mind falls asleep, lulled by comfort and routine. And not that there is anything wrong with either comfort or routine, but from time to time they should be shaken up and at least replaced with the new comfort and routine :-), as only in this transition do we have a chance to challenge the status quo on the subject of just how much it really serves our life objectives.

But I think at the end of the day, it's not what you are doing that really matters, it's with what state of mind you are doing it. Going on a trip doesn't guarantee an escape from a routine, as you can simply switch from an office to a road routine. And living a settled life doesn't mean you are living a routine: if your mind is sharp enough to still notice the beauty of the simple things around you, then every day can be meaningful. The thing is, travelling is the easiest and most straightforward way to wake up the mind. But it's by no means the only one, and I will never agree with the line most commonly quoted by seasoned travellers: "The world is like a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." I think, even if you've never left your hometown but your mind is never bored or sleeping, then your hometown is your universe, and this universe can be many volumes richer than the book of a traveller who might be spending more time on Facebook than on the road.

Regarding the state of mind, I have this theory of flashes, which goes like this. Our life is a succession of periods during which we have certain routines and occasional highlights. But if we are trying to remember those periods, we don't remember them as a movie - instead we see random snapshots. So I think what happens is that sometimes for some reason our mind enters a state of utmost concentration, and an event or an emotion that we experience at that moment gets stored as a really deep memory. This memory is so vivid, it's like a multi-sensoric snapshot of that moment. Later on, when thinking of a specific period of our life, it's these memory flashes that spring to mind, reviving the whole situation: the image, the light, sometimes the sound, the smell, the touch, but most importantly - the feeling. But these flashes are rare and only occur when the mind is very sharp. And it's these moments that bring about a heightened sense of being alive... I believe that when they say that just before you die your whole life passes before your eyes, they actually mean that you see your life as a succession of all these flashes, as if scrolling through a film of negatives of your life's deepest memories.

Well, in the past three months in China we did have a routine, but since the period was so short, it never even had a chance of turning into a weightless one. As to multi-sensoric snapshots, we did take some :-), but alas there's yet no technology in this world which would make sharing those snapshots possible. So here is a very brief account of some of the things we did in the past couple of months in China, in between our comfortable routine of kungfu and learning Chinese, and some normal - strictly visual - photos.

1) Picking apples: Shangdong has a great climate for apples, persimmon, mandarins and all sorts of vegetables, and a lot of people around Laixi work on their plots of land. It turns out our Shifu Renqiang also inherited some land from his father, including an apple orchard of more than a hundred trees. October being the harvest time, we gladly volunteered our two pairs of hands. We spent two unforgettable days in that apple paradise, picking ripe and delicious apples together with Renqiang's family and friends. We heard that tons of apples that we collected would end up at the fruit stalls in the richer Shanghai.

2) Korean visa: was the first one among the twenty something I've received within the past 19 months that had a hickup in the process. We applied with all the standard documents in the Korean consulate in Qingdao and were asked to wait for a week. When we showed up a week later, a timid employee apologetically told me that my application had been declined. I asked for an explanation and he got overwhelmed, so instead he let me talk the Consul via the phone. The Consulsounded angry as he started to explain that my application had been denied as "he didn't see enough reasons for me to want to travel Korea" (good one :-). I suggested that maybe I might have reasons to want to travel Korea as part of a round-the-world trip, in which me and my husband Jordi had already travelled over 20 countries in about a year and a half. "Husband" was the magic word that opened the visa door. The Consul invited us for a face-to-face interview and after a brief talk we established that the whole thing was a misunderstanding and that the fact that I would travel to Korea accompanied by a husband gives the Consul sufficient reasons to issue me a visa. As it turned out, my initial application was denied since there are a lot of girls from the countries of the former USSR engaging in illegal work in Korea. Well, who could blame him: I also believe in normal distribution (and so does Sherlock Holmes). We left copies of our marriage certificate and Jordi's passport, paid the 30-dollar fee once again, and next day picked up my passport. This time the same timid employee was beaming as he handed me the passport with the pretty sticker.

3) Kungfu: We finished learning Taijiquan and Taiji Single Sword form. Both forms were created by the Chen dynasty and the Sword form is also a type of Taiji form (as is obvious from its name). As to Taijiquan, we perform it once during each training (it takes about 10 minutes). And after we learnt the Sword form, for two weeks we practiced it 20 times during each training (each execution takes about 2.5 minutes). So now we are 200 times down out of the 10000 times necessary to achieve mastery over this form :-)

4) Our Chinese friend and his American dream: At some point our zealous learning of kungfu was a little bit interrupted (only for a short while) when one day Renqiang showed up with a bunch of people who were all accompanying a young Chinese guy. He was introduced to us as the new student. Little Xue Lei (we will omit his last name) is 23, is big and has no interest in kungfu, but he would like to spend time around foreigners as he desperately needs to pick up some conversational English. This is the key that will unlock the heart of his interviewer at the US Embassy, and this interviewer will then make a positive decision regarding his application for a student visa. And this positive decision will mean that he can go to the prosperous America on a student visa, change it to a work visa, work at some Chinese restaurant, make a lot of money in a short time and then maybe come back and marry a nice Chinese girl (the richer you are, the nicer the girl you are eligible for), or maybe, if he gets a green card he could stay in America and increase the Chinese diaspora in the US with a few more Chinese people (his family and offspring). There's many young people like him in the modern China and their parents are willing to spend all their life savings on paying the super expensive services of the agencies that support their child during the application process. The support basically means that the child is given a few pages of the "good" answers for the standard interview questions and gets help with compiling the application folder and "issuing" of the missing documents. Little Xue Lei confided to us that "some guy got it after 9 times!" And of course, the agency gets the money irregardless of whether the applicant succeeds (in case of a negative result applicants pay half the money they'd pay if they actually receive the visa, which is still over a thousand dollars). Little Xue Lei joined us for the English / kungfu training just a couple of weeks before we had to leave for Korea, so although he did pick up some spoken English during that time, we heard that "they denied" him again, but he won't give up! (that's the spirit!)

5) Tai Shan: We climbed the sacred mountain of Tai Shan. Little Xue Lei joined us (again not out of love for climbing mountains but for the love of what English can bring into his life). We made it to Tai'an from Laixi by afternoon on a Friday, then teamed up with a bunch of young Chinese people who we met in our hostel dorm and all of us (something like 8) left at midnight to start the hike in order to be at the summit by sunrise. The thing is, it was a much shorter hike (something like 2-3 hours), so even with all the breaks we took (mostly to stay synchronized in such a big group on the totally dark Tai Shan stairs), we made it to the summit long before sunrise. In one of the breaks we had a really fascinating surprise, as we stumbled upon these two giant absolutely white cats which looked like fancy cat ghosts, with their luminescent fur shining so bright, it split the darkness of Tai Shan stairs... The summit of the mountain was full of people, many of whom were "bundled" together" in small human piles to keep warm :-). Another way to stay warm on that mountain was to rent a Chinese army uniform - really long coats with many layers of cotton inside. Since "bundling" was not really an option for us (especially since Xue Lei left us at the Middle Gate half way down the mountain as the hike was too difficult for him), we rented a couple of uniforms (1 euro each) and a space inside a cafe (another couple of euros) - this one was not on the cafe's menu, but was the only thing they were serving at that time of night. Soon the sunrise came and we saw the pink ball gradually ascend from a cloud and then fall back into a cloud. It's a lovely sight, but difficult to see and even more difficult to silently appreciate in a crowd of people. Actually, after a few previous attempts at summit sunrise viewing, we'd decided that we didn't really need a mountain to appreciate a sunrise, since the mountain sunrise usually comes bundled with the crowd I mentioned. But this time we made an exception for the opportunity to join local people for the night hike. It was worth it. And the mountain is without a doubt really beautiful.

6) Ma Chao and Hua Mulan: We finally got our Chinese names. The "baptism" took place during one of our lessons of Chinese with Renqiang (who kindly suggested helping us with conversation practice a couple of times a week). So Jordi became Ma Chao (马超) - after a legendary warrior from the Three Books (an ancient Chinese classic). And I became Mulan (木兰) - after the brave girl who saved China from Mongols in the famous Disney cartoon. We can safely state now that Chinese people do pick up "Ma Chao and Mulan" much faster than their western counterparts "Jordi and Olga".

7) Cooking lessons: Since Jordi got a crush on Chinese buns (baozi) and dumplings (jiaozi), we started collecting Chinese families recipes for those two specialties. We had our first lesson of making dumplings with Renqiang's sister and made a lot of ugly but tasty dumplings (well, to give us full justice they were not so ugly, but we are still very clumsy compared to any average Chinese person, no matter what age :-). Our next lesson was with Little Xue Lei's mum who actually teaches this at a vocational college, so we couldn't have had a more professional instructor. (Making bao is a little easier than making dumplings as the pieces of dough that you have to pinch together are bigger so it's not such fine work). Our last lesson in the bao/jiao making series was another lesson with Little Xue Lei's mum - this time we practised making dumplings. There was a little progress on our side, but it would probably take at least a couple of Chinese New Years (as that's when they make hundreds of dumplings for the celebration days) to master the skill - luckily we'll be in China for at least the next one.

8) Picnic at Laixi Lake: We suggested making a picnic out of the dumplings we made at our last lesson. The idea was really alien to the whole family in the beginning, but then the father who is obviously the adventurous one of the family, said that it was ok. So together with Little Xue Lei's father and a few friends we went to the beautiful Laixi lake just outside the city. It was a lovely day and these were the best dumplings we've ever eaten (as always, open air is the secret ingredient).

9) Introduction to calligraphy: Renqiang showed us how to practice Chinese calligraphy. In a nutshell, it works like this. You soak a brush in ink, straighten it, then holding it very straight, you draw the hieroglyph. To draw it, you use the few standard stroke types that should cover you for pretty much all characters. So the trick is to master these stroke types as well as have an overall feeling for the geometrical balance of characters. Umm, a long way to go, but we bought a few brushes as the first step :-)

10) Chinese karaoke experience: And that's where I'll finish, as we've reached a round number and it's just impossible to list everything anyway. In one of our last weekends in China we had a Chinese karaoke experience (Little Xue Lei invited us together with his friends). Here's how it works: a bunch of people rent a big box (it's quite expensive by the way) and sing a bunch of songs for something like 5 hours! I am not sure if it's possible to rent a box for shorter time slots, but no Chinese people would dream of doing so - otherwise how would you be able to sing all the songs you know and some you don't know in one go? A Korean person told us that a Chinese karaoke experience is totally different from a Chinese one in this respect, as in Korea you only get 2 hours, so you stress a lot about squeezing in as many songs as possible into this time, as a result of which people hardly talk at such outings. Chinese people don't stress - they pay the 5 hours and take it real easy, having ample time to chat in between the songs. Well, karaoke being the favourite "go-out" pastime of Chinese people, booking 5-hours at a time is a perfectly sound approach. Actually, the time we went to karaoke, time passed really fast so we wouldn't have minded to stay even longer :-).

Plans: In another two weeks, exactly on Christmas Eve, we are flying back to China. In Qingdao airport we are meeting Jordi's mum (yep, really efficient) who will spend her Christmas holidays with us in China. We don't have a Christmas tree at our Chinese home, but at least unlike last year in the sunny and empty Brunei, we do have a kind of home, we will have friends and family and we have downloaded a huge collection of Christmas songs :-). So I'm guessing this year as a Christmas greeting we'll have to come up with something else, rather than just how much we envy you for all the Christmasy vibe...

First day trip to Qingdao to apply for the Korean visa

No matter what day of the week we go to Qingdao, this square in front of the church is always full of weddings:

Picking apples

Breakfast in the Garden of Eden. In the morning the apples are still cold from the night. Picking the perfect apple from a tree and biting into its juicy crunchy pulp is an exquisite treat we'll never forget:

In the village, at Renqiang's home:

The second day trip to Qingdao - to pick up the Korean visa

Cooking lesson #1: making jiaozi with Renqiang's sister

Trip to Tai'an to hike Tai Shan

Hiking to the summit of Tai Shan

Playing basketball with Xue Lei

Cooking lesson #2: making baozi with Xue Lei's mum


And some visual proof that we are really studying it :-)

Calligraphy lesson


Cooking lesson #3: making jiaozi with Xue Lei's mum

Picnic at Laixi lake with Xue Lei's friends and family

Other posts about China:

Traveling China, part I.

Traveling China, part II.

China - impressions after travelling.

China - impressions after first months of living.

Why we decided to learn kungfu.