31 Days of Reading Well: Day 16

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It thrills me to find new authors that I love. It’s so fun to discover a new-to-me author and start devouring his or her books. All the better if they already have many published.

I was in China for six weeks in 2002, after my sophomore year of college. I was in a study abroad program where we went to class for a half a day and then had the rest of the time for exploring. Sure, we had lots of activities to do, lots of area of Beijing to traverse. But we weren’t in the most central part of Beijing; we had to hire a cab to go anywhere and then try to give directions in Mandarin; and, honestly, it was thirteen trillion degrees outside and six thousand percent humidity.

I brought a few books with me (The Saving Graces, I remember, which I read at least twice during that time) but zoomed through them with the abundance of free time we seemed to have. So we made what seemed to be a pilgrimage to the English bookstore.

English books are expensive in China. The book I bought was probably the single most expensive thing I procured while in the country. And it was a copy of Tara Road by Maeve Binchy.

I didn’t know Maeve Binchy was Irish, or that she had written a lot of books. I didn’t know Tara Road was an Oprah book club pick. All I knew was that it was the longest book there that looked readable to me.

It still makes me laugh, a little, to think that I was trying to find a lengthy tome to occupy my time … in China. And that in a bookstore brim-full with American authors I managed to find a book written and set in Ireland. But I am so glad that I picked up that particular novel, because in it I found a new favorite author.

Tara Road is not my favorite of Binchy’s novels, by far. But it holds a dear place in my heart and I won’t be letting go of my China copy anytime soon.

[Want to hear more about my China adventure? You might like Why I Studied Chinese, Souvenirs, or Chinese Fairytale.]

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Why I Studied Chinese

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Beijing Tiananmen Square

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You should see the look on people’s faces when I tell them I took seven years of Chinese, studied abroad in China, and was a Chinese minor. Obviously that’s not what you expect to hear from someone who spends most of her time changing two kids’ dirty diapers and wiping spit-up off her shirt.

It’s not something I bring up a lot, because I am afraid someone might force me to try to speak Chinese. After seven years of not using the language, I’m afraid my level is right up there with Ni Hao Kai Lan – if not lower. Mostly I only divulge my studies if I am talking about travel with someone. It makes me feel pretty cool (something I am not) to say, “Oh, well, I’ve been to China, Thailand, Brazil, and Taiwan.”

(Strangely, I’ve never been to New England, although that will be remedied this summer! I’ve also never been farther West in the US than Montana, unless you count airports.)

So why did I take Chinese? It was simple: I was scared of confusion.

I went to a magnet school for government and international studies for high school, and we had to have a total of six years of language studies for graduation—at least four years of one language and at least two years of another. I started French in eighth grade, and that was my four-year language. I was worried if I picked another Latin-based language I would confuse the two.

That left me Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and sign language as choices. I probably would have picked Japanese, except the teacher was also the woman who taught Chinese and was from China herself. Supposedly her Japanese class consisted mostly of, “Now the Chinese created this and then the Japanese stole it!”

Although my Chinese teacher in high-school was a little bit of a nut job, she introduced the Chinese culture to me in a way I found fascinating. We visited Chinese grocery stores, sang children’s songs, made sushi, and learned characters with flourish. The lei I wore around my neck on graduation day was LaoShi’s contribution to making sure the whole school knew Chinese students were different and special.

hsgraduation

Three years of high-school Chinese allowed me to skip … the first semester of college Chinese I. Yes, ONE semester. But in the next three-and-a-half years, I grew to love the crazy people in my class. I went to China for six weeks to study the language (and shop … and learn how to berate taxi drivers in Chinese).

No, I haven’t used it since I graduated. But I still feel like God put a love for all things China in my heart for a reason. Like many things in life, I will just wait and see how it works itself out.

So for now: zaijian, pengyoumen.

Tiananmen Square entrance to the Forbidden City.

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[Other possible answers to why I studied Chinese include: Lottie Moon, I really like Chinese take-out food, and I wanted to marry an Asian guy and have cute Asian babies.]
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A Grateful Heart and a Stack of Coats

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Most of the time now, I feel poor.

If I sit back, it feels silly. We have enough money to pay a mortgage and a rent, drive back and forth to Chattanooga, pay a baby-sitter, all of our utilities, for groceries, and for a little fun. We eat out every Sunday after church–that’s built into our budget.

I’ve seen true poverty. In 1999, I took my very first plane trip ever at the age of 17 to the Dominic Republic for a mission trip. There, as a part of World Changers, my group helped construct the second story of a small green church with cinderblocks and cement. We walked through the neighborhood, feeling the desperation. We saw the slums, houses made of tin caked together with mud. I saw a Haitian family of 10 living in a hut with pigs and chickens.

Since then, I’ve been to Thailand, where I saw the aftermath of a terrible tsunami. I saw where five people slept on one bed and had to pee in a hole in the ground. I’ve been to rural China, where there are no lights after dark and I slept on the guest bed–made of logs and bags of rice. I’ve seen hungry children in Nashville who just want to find the safe place their home isn’t.

Considering all these things, feeling poor is almost indulgent.

One of my friends gave me a coat for Libbie yesterday. I sat there, staring at it, thinking about how she would have five coats by Christmas (I know my parents have purchased one for her)–including a boutique one, one from Mini Boden, and two from Gymboree. There are little girls out there Libbie’s age who don’t have one coat.

I am so thankful for the abundance we have been given. I am learning more and more to embrace simplicity and let God plan our lives. And I want to share what we have been given. That’s why we sponsor a child with Compassion. And that’s why I hope you’ll give me some ideas as to where I could donate a few precious little girl’s coats.

Mary is hosting a carnival each Thursday through Thanksgiving on giving thanks. I hope you’ll consider going and reading her post on Compassion today.

Souvenirs

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I ran across this post this morning asking the question: What is the quirkiest thing in your house you will never give away?

(I am seriously hoping Mr. V doesn’t tell me he’s already thrown this away since I am going to get sentimental about it. But I don’t think he has!! LOL.)

Mr. V and I started dating in November 2001, our sophomore year of college. That summer, he went to Geneva, Switzerland to work in a physics lab for 10 weeks. I went to Beijing, China to study abroad for 6 weeks. It was a grand adventure in long-distance romance. Mr. V really hates talking on the phone, so we mostly subsisted by e-mail and IM (just e-mail and one phone conversation when I was in China–Internet usage was slim and had to be paid for there!).

I got to hear about all his trips to Italy, Austria, and France; about how he hitchhiked back to Brussels, Belgium with four girls (grrrr). Meanwhile, I was trying to cram all the Chinese I could into my brain while suffering 110 degree, 30000% humidity weather, trying to figure out how to order food that was edible in restaurants, bargaining for random stuff, and learning to yell at taxi drivers in Chinese when they went the wrong way and wanted to be paid for it anyway.

One of the first days we were in China, we went to the grocery store, one of the few places where things were priced and you had to pay that price. It was a strange store, a small Wal-Mart sort of place, where you could buy groceries, shoes, bootleg DVDs, and decorated cakes. And on one of these first days, I bought Mr. V a souvenir. I guess China had just found out they were hosting the 2008 Olympics, because it was a big thing already.

I bought him a soccer ball with the Olympic rings, the Chinese characters for double happiness, and that said (I thought), “It’s Double Happiness!” in English. He played soccer in high school, and for some reason this was the only thing I could think of that he might like.

When I gave it to him, he immediately started laughing. The soccer ball did NOT say, “It’s Double Happiness.” It said, “It’s Double Happineass!” (This is a common problem among things translated from Chinese to English. In China I saw a travel brochure advertising a trip to “Jesus Christ City.” My best guess is Jerusalem, but who knows?)

Yay! We still have it. I stand corrected, though, it doesn’t have the characters on it, just the words.

To this day, we laugh over the “Double Happ-i-nee-ass” soccer ball.

[From Switzerland, he brought me a beautiful music box that plays the theme from "Love Story." I would also never get rid of that!]

Chinese Fairytale

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I’m kind of a random person, and I enjoy following my train of thought wherever it wishes to take me. I had a dream last night about Brazil and some of the people I met there. I guess this was causing my mind to wander and led me to think about China. Today I was remembering climbing the Great Wall.

A Mini Chinese Fairytale

This is nothing like Mulan.

Obviously, the ancient Chinese had no idea how to build even stairs. These jagged pieces of rock are the most difficult steps I’ve ever traversed. Some are so close together it’s like climbing a consistent incline. Others are more like mountain climbing, having to hoist oneself up to the next level. After an hour of this, I am pouring sweat. And we didn’t even go up the “more difficult” side of the Wall.

It is July in China, 2002, somewhere between Beijing and the Emperor’s summer abode at Chengde. The palace was magnificent, we saw an incredible temple, but this is the piece de resistance, of course. One of the wonders of the world. And all I remember is those stairs. Being sweaty. And the Idiot we brought from Richmond who wanted to take a picture with his American flag on the stinking Great Wall of China. Hello, has he never heard of Communism? Seen the men with giant guns everywhere? Heard of Tiananmen Square and even more recent shootings at Mao’s memorial? But he did it. I have pictures to prove it.

Back to the Future

The six weeks I spent in China were so enlightening and strange. It was my first experience being away from church for any length of time (and only experience ever, even since then). I roomed with a blonde Jewish girl, and we had the best conversations about Judaism and Christianity and everything else in life. She became a very sweet friend throughout college, and she actually lives in China now doing business. During the time we were there, Danny and I got much closer, between hitting the Chinese karaoke bars, trying to order food at the Red Lantern restaurant, and yelling at taxi drivers as we traveled all over Beijing (including the sixteen trips to the garment district as they made my qipao dress).

I could go on and on with China stories, but I am sure if anyone reads this, they probably would be less than interesting! Sweet memories, though. I sometimes have a hard time believing I am the same person who bartered at Beijing markets, or saw the tsunami memorial in Thailand, or even discoursed with Arabs in the streets of Brazil, even though that’s been only a few months. I feel like a different person in my life here, a much more boring person! I guess the travel bug is deeply embedded in me and is not easily forgotten.