Thursday, June 9, 2011

Qingdao, the city where they brew Tsingtao: the first in a series of postscripts, reflections, or with-hindsight travelogues

"If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it." — Willy Wonka, as played by Gene Wilder, in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971), music and lyrics for "Pure Imagination" by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

I've already said goodbye to you, and yet here I am, writing. I suppose this is because I realized, after making my last post, that I can't really say I've wrapped this blog up yet. At the height of my maniacally busy last month in China, I experienced a lot, but I wasn't putting any of it down onto paper or, more aptly, computer hard drive. I was digesting it and processing the information, but anything going on around me remained untold to you, my sweetest reader, who is still here after knowing full well that I have returned to America. Today is a summertime day, and I am feeling industrious as I so often do during summer when the responsibility and therefore desire not to be industrious is gone; I'll write, then, and fill you in. For anyone still out there with an interest, I present to you the untold stories (beginning where I left off: spring break).

The last leg of my (and my dear travel companion's) spring break three-city monstertruckjam megatour was Qingdao, the coastal city in Shandong province known primarily for its chief export: the ubiquitous (in China) and less-oft-found-but-still-known-about (and-definitely-less-highly-regarded) (in America) Tsingtao. Each spelling of the beer/city leads to the same pronunciation: Ching (like the onomatopoeic sound of a cash register)-dow (as in DOW Jones). Ching-dow. Tsingtao. Qingdao. What's in a name? The beer's spelling follows the old Wade-Giles system of Chinese romanization now really only seen in reruns of Monty Python where they spell Mao Zedong "Mao Tsetung" and proceed to confuse the hell out of everybody. The city's name, Qingdao, uses the superseder-system of romanization known as Pinyin, the system by-and-large used when foreigners learn Chinese or whenever necessary, really. The beer, known in some necks of some woods as Local Hero, is a sharp-tasting, hollow draught that will not tickle your taste buds into amour; however, after a few bottles, the beer's sleeve-card is its ability to deceive you into thinking it's good, and, after a few more bottles, it doesn't matter what you're thinking, as the beer has administered its medicine and already had its intended effect. The city, on the other hand, manages to charm without such trickery.

To be fair, my travel companion and I didn't get to venture out for long enough into the bowels of Qingdao to really get to know the innards of the place. Our hostel, a great and highly recommended place called the Old Observatory Youth Hostel, was situated decently close to the ocean, though we didn't know it upon arrival. The cab driver complained as we pulled in at what must have been one or two AM that the hostel's location was inconvenient and too far from the city's center. The next day, though, as we walked through the haze of the town, we saw something off in the distance—something big and blue and watery. Yes, watery. We neared the big watery thing, and as the haze distanced not only did we realize the watery thing was water but that it was the ocean [ed. note: actually Qingdao Bay], perhaps the wateriest thing there is! Our cab driver, I remarked, what a jokester! He thinks we want to be near concrete and steel; this is where it's at! Sand and water! *I looked at the beach* And also rocks. Yes, rocks! Lots and lots of rocks! (the child-geologist in me fought my sarcasm and actually enjoyed said rocks) We all just want to go to the beach and look at some rocks!

My alabaster travel companion and I flew a kite on one of those clearer Qingdao days. We climbed monkey bars and ate the juiciest baozi you ever did see. We sat on a sandy beach, relaxing, our toes dipped in cold spring oceanwater, and a child approached. This little adventurer jumped in the water (up to his knees) and ran back up to where we sat, smiling, repeating his previous circuit. The tiny young man spoke to us in Chinese, but children (to my ears) are rather hard to understand, so I simply asked, when he told me I was a foreigner, if he was Chinese. He responded positively and jumped into water. His mother found him and smacked his legs up on higher ground. He cried as she changed his pants. An old man laughed at the scene uproariously with great heaving guffaws, spittle flying, and we assumed this must be Grandfather. But the old man left, still laughing, and we realized he was simply enjoying the misfortunes of a small boy. My milky travel companion† and I reminisced on this scene later and thought that one day, in this boy's future, he will remember a tableaux of a mother above him, angry, an old man in mid-laugh, a sparkling ocean, and two waiguoren (foreigners) sitting near the water in the background, and he will remember having spoken with us, and perhaps this will have made some impression upon him.

The city of Qingdao was, by us, largely unexplored. We were too busy meeting new and interesting characters (an English-speaking German man of South-Chinese descent, bespectacled hostel hosts, mountain-climbing women) and lounging about at the beach to check everything out, yet the short time spent in this city stands out to me as a wonderful time in my study abroad independent travel experience. My only regret is that, in the waning days of travel, we were unable to enter the Willy Wonka factory that is Qingdao brewery††. There is always, though, another day.

†Apologies to my pale travel companion, whose very white skin is only remarkable because Chinese people remarked upon it.

††Apologies to my all-wavelengths-of-visible-light-reflecting travel companion, who made a similar comment already in her blog.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Upon arrival in America, during a six-our layover in Seattle, after tearful Goodbyes (or, the End)

"Oh, I love you" – Simon & Garfunkel, "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her" (1966)

I haven't posted in a month—technically just over a month now—and that's due, I suppose, to myriad things: trips to Tianjin and Tai Shan, internet going down for a while, final papers being due, a big Chinese final, trying to cram everything we wanted to do and hadn't yet done into frantic final weeks, spending time with close friends—and now, finally, here I am, posting, but not from China. 
I'm currently sitting at Gate S6 of the Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Washington, USA, charging my computer and my phone and waiting (for only 3.5 more hours!) to get on a flight to Minneapolis, where I'll wait another hour for a flight to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where family members await me and I truly return home. I don't quite know what to say in this post. It's too early to really tell how I feel about leaving China, but I can say with certainty that leaving the people I met in China—friends, teachers, language partners, and a very special lady—is one of the hardest things I've done in a long time. To everyone who may read this who I spent time with in China: thank you. Thank you for simply being there. Thank you for making this study abroad semester so so so worth it, and thank you for being you. You're amazing. I love you all.

There's a Southern gentleman with two children near me (at the airport) speaking in an awesome accent, which leads me to say I better knock out all the personal stuff because I do believe I'm gettin' the vapors. My Chinese improved greatly over the course of the last four months (our director equated my progress to roughly three American semesters of Chinese), but I feel like I'm at a crucial stage in my studies, so I need to keep practicing. I feel like I've grown as a person for too many reasons to write about, some of which I probably wouldn't want to write anyway and some of which I cannot put into words.

Alliance friends:
We climbed mountains.
We biked through a banana plantation.
We stalked city streets.
We shoved on the subway.
We rode cross-country night trains.
We ate duck heads.
We lived in China.
We loved each other.

Advice for those considering studying abroad: do it and don't think twice about it. You'll have no regrets.
Advice for those who met me in China: keep in touch, please.
Advice for all others: As trite as it may be and as saccharine as this whole post will end up being: love each other.

Again, I cannot express what I'm trying to get at, here. This was an amazing experience I'll never forget. I am a changed person. What else is there to say?

(endnote: And to you—yes, you—you who know: keep carrying it)