Friday, September 30, 2011

Leaving the Bubble

This past weekend we finally left the SIP (Suzhou Industrial Park) bubble.  Jamie’s company is sponsoring a new school building in a village about four hours north of SIP and asked for volunteers to attend the ground breaking ceremony.  I was excited about going, but I had no idea how special the weekend would be.
We left Friday night to stay at a hotel about an hour from the village.  Our driver drove us and it was the first long car trip we’d taken since leaving the States.  I was a little nervous about the trip.  Where would eat dinner?  What about bathroom breaks with a potty-training toddler?  What kind of hotel would it be?  What are we getting ourselves into?
As with most things, I shouldn’t have worried about it.  I packed lots of snacks and drinks and a friend shared they’re travel potty chair with us.  We did stop once each way and the roadside restrooms were no worse or better than Central Illinois.  Thank goodness for Jamie’s phone that can “speak” Chinese and shout out “toilet” when we needed it.
We arrived at the hotel around 9:30 and the hotel was really nice and our girls were a little disappointed that we didn’t get to stay longer.  On drive up and again in the morning I tried to prepare LBean for what might happen the next day.  People were going to be very excited to see her because she was a blondie and they were going to want to take her picture and touch her hair.  I also tried to prep her for the formal Chinese lunch that would follow the groundbreaking.  We talked about leaving food we didn’t like on our plates and just saying “thank you” and that if she had any questions about anything to please, please whisper it in my ear!
After a short night’s sleep and a buffet breakfast we drove to the meeting point for the caravan.  We did have a slight detour; GPS difficulties are the same in any country.  I really enjoyed looking out the window and catching glimpses of the Chinese countryside.  In some respects it looked very much like central Illinois with fields of corn dotting the countryside and where soybeans would have been, there were rice paddies instead.  Some of the homes and outbuildings reminded me of buildings I’d seen in the German or Scottish countryside.  Not so much in architectural details, but I imagine many of the buildings were built around the same era and had a similar “feeling” to them.  Many of the homes had a courtyard in front of the home with a large gate at the entrance and many of the central courtyards had family gardens in them.  Where gardens might be “quaint” or a fun “hobby” in the States, you know...getting back to organic food, here it is a means of survival.


A police escort had been arranged for all of the company workers, management, media and local dignitaries.  Our van got in the caravan line and we made our way to the future school building site.  On our way there, we drove through the center of town and because it was a Saturday morning, there was a lot of activity.  With all of the stalls selling shoes, clothing, food, comforters, and the entertainment, the first thought that popped in my head was, “I’ve found the Chinese Spoon River Drive.”  We passed by many buildings were there were logs and thin wood sheets drying in the sun, so I’m assuming this is a major industry for them.

Not sure what the "decorative" golden
cannons are for, but they were interesting.
Some local entertainment.

It's a bit out of focus, but I
love this picture.

It's hard to see, those are rows and rows
of thin sheets of wood drying upright in the sun.

We drove down the dirt lane past some of the village homes and arrived at the school building site.  It was a bit overwhelming when we arrived.  Jamie was given a red carnation and a ribbon to wear on his jacket.  The school children started chanting and we walked to the “stage” and waited for the ceremony to start.  It seems like the entire village was there, it was incredible.  I was a bit stunned at first because I was trying to take pictures and hold on to EBean and keep both girls happy and take in the events of the day.  It wasn’t like we could blend into the background, where ever we went, we were followed by curious folks.  Jamie’s bosses wife was a great example to me and she just went up and started talking to the babies, complementing the girls on their pretty hair bows and smiling to everyone.  It snapped me out of my stupor and I followed her lead.

Local home on the road to the school.

Looking through the rice paddy to a local home.

After the official speeches had been given, the girls and I (along with some of Jamie’s co-workers) gave some of the students new backpacks and hats.  After that I had to excuse myself and the girls off to the side.  EBean was getting tired and hot and we needed to get out of the middle of things.  As we stepped to the side, we drew a crowd of about a dozen people that wanted to touch the girls, play with their hair, take their pictures, one teenage girl was fascinated with the feathers in my hair and a few of the local women tried to talk to me.  I don’t know a lot of Chinese yet, but I did understand that one woman asked if their baba (father) was up on stage, one wanted to know their ages (she then passed the info on to all the other women), and I knew when they were telling me that my girls were beautiful (and then I could say thank you).

The special guests getting ready to start the groundbreaking.

The students of the school.

Jamie listening to the speeches.

Is she not the cutest?  She followed LBean & EBean where ever
they were.  She was also curious about the feathers in my hair
and so desperately wanted to practice her English.

I loved being there!  I could have stayed all day and in fact, I was disappointed when I found out that lunch wasn’t going to be served there at the school.  I really would have liked to have spent more time with the school children and their families.
I think the girls were relaxed once they got on the bus to leave for the lunch.  They handled the attention well (meaning, no one cried), but it was very overwhelming for them.  I had a chance to talk with one of the school officials and the interpreter on the bus ride.  I even managed to impress the interpreter with my meager Chinese.  She asked about our children and I said yes, “lian ga hai tza” (two children).  The shocked expression on her faced I think meant that I had used the correct tones.  It was priceless!  My language teacher would be so proud and I’m glad that Jamie caught the look on her face too!
We had lunch in a banquet facility and the meal was complete with lots of local Chinese dishes and ceremonial toasts.  I shouldn’t have worried about my girls, they did fantastic.  LBean used her chopsticks and both girls tried several of the dishes put in front of them.  We just tried not to focus too much on what was actually in the dishes!  They received compliments from a few people at the table about their willingness to try things.  The government official asked if I knew how to use chopsticks and I whipped out one of my new Chinese words, “mama huhu”  (so-so) and that got a good chuckle out of him.  Things must have gone okay because we were asked back for the grand opening, which will probably be in December.  I don’t know if we’ll be able to make it specifically for that, but we will go back again.  Thinking about the school gets the wheels in my mind turning and I want to our family to help in any way we can.

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