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"YingHua in Beijing" Summer Program Announcement

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by Liao,Bonnie on 2010-10-15

Our cooler and overcast weather persisted through today: comfortable weather for an all-day outing where we would be required to wear pants.  The students woke early for morning exercise, and gathered at 7:15 to practice their "guangbo ticao” (the set of morning exercises they have learned only twice).  We then boarded the bus at 8:45 for our first stop of the day: a home for the elderly (jinglaoyuan), which literally means “a place for respecting the old.”

For the past week, the students have been preparing to perform at this home, and they had their music with them to practice songs on the bus.  I was sitting in the front of the bus and could hear a beautiful duet by Max and Benoit as they spontaneously opened their notebooks and began warming up.  Rebecca, sitting across the aisle from me, leaned over and said of her friend from Class A, “Max is such a great singer!”  I had no idea, but what a voice!

The staff and volunteers lined up along the walkway leading to the entrance clapping and saying "welcome" to us as we arrived. We were impressed with the facilities of this place as soon as we entered the brightly lit courtyard.  The home just opened in April and there are about thirty residents, some of whom are prominent scientists who are well regarded as having contributed to China’s development.  Many of the residents and staff were gathered in the courtyard as we arrived, and this was a wonderful opportunity for your children to learn something about Chinese traditional values of respecting elders and to also participate in an official reception as guests.  There were a series of speeches given which included a welcome by a local government official, an introduction to YingHua by Liao Laoshi explaining our students’ interest in learning about Chinese culture, an introduction to the facility by the manager, and finally—most moving of all—a welcome by one of the residents.  This resident was an elderly gentleman who was wheelchair bound and clad in pajamas, and who must have been close to ninety years old.  He was wheeled up front and was handed a microphone and gave a very clear and warm speech about his appreciation of our students’ efforts to travel to China and learn more about Chinese culture.  Everyone listened quietly—it was clear this man had the respect of all the residents and staff at this facility.  I was very moved by his presence and couldn’t help but marvel at the lack of any attempt to disguise his aging or to pretty him up for a crowd of visitors.  It was hard for me to imagine an equivalent scene in the U.S., where someone as apparently frail and aged as this man would be given a microphone and asked to be the official welcome.  I was happy our students had a chance to witness this.

Our students then gave some outstanding performances to entertain our hosts.  We started out with a skit from the D Class: the first story from Shuihu Zhuan (the Outlaws of the Marsh, also known as The Water Margin ), which the class has been reading as part of their curriculum.  Class D speaks very fluently, and they gave a very amusing rendition of this tale of an outlawed band of brothers, drawing plenty of chuckles from the students and grandparents alike.  We followed this up with a song sung by a combined chorus and Class A and Class B, singing “Tongyi Shouge” (including a duet performed by Max and Rebecca).  Then all the students came on stage and sung a song they have been practicing called “Pengyou” (a beautiful song about the endurance of life-long friendships, despite distance and the passing of time).  Your children then performed their morning exercise set to music (the residents loved this, and some of them remembered this particular set!).  They ended with a demonstration of the martial arts form they have learned together.

After all of these performances there was an exchange of gifts: we brought fruit and we were given beautiful hand-held fans.  The students then mixed and socialized with the residents, greeting them, introducing themselves, shaking or holding their hands, offering and feeding them fruit.  Some of the elderly gentlemen were so appreciative of having us there  (and of your children’s efforts to learn Chinese) that they cried, tears streaming down their faces, as they held your children’s hands.  We were reluctant to leave, and as we headed out into a drizzly morning I better understood the traditional Chinese parting, ”Manman zou” (slowly, slowly go…).

Our day was still young, as it wasn’t yet 11:00 am.  Our next stop was Fa Yuan Si: the oldest Buddhist temple in Beijing, which is also an active temple and where the National Buddhist Institute resides.  It was built during the Tang Dynasty, but had a special patron during the High Qing: the Qianlong Emperor himself, who did the calligraphy in one of the center halls.  The students had pages in their workbooks that helped focus them during this visit and they may be able to tell you about some of the trees and inscriptions in this sacred historic site.

From the temple we went for lunch at a hot pot restaurant: De Shun Lou.  Each student had their own small pot placed before them and they got to cook a variety of vegetables, tofu, noodles and meats and dip these in a wonderful sesame-based sauce. Your children LOVED the hot pot!

We then crossed the street to visit another holy site: the Niu Jie Mosque which was first built during the Liao Dynasty in 996 and which houses the tombs of Muslim tutors who came to Beijing during the Yuan.  This is also and active religious sites and no one is permitted to enter who is not wearing pants. We arrived just before the 1:30 call for prayer and were able to hear the beautiful singing of the Imam as he called believers for prayer.

Was our day over yet?  Not quite.  We headed back towards our neighborhood—the Maizidian district of Chaoyang, but we stopped short of “home” making a detour to the Zao Ying Bei Li Community Center where the local party leader gave us a tour of the community’s social services.  In all of my years traveling and living in China, I have never had a backroom tour such as this one!  We learned that the government has brought all social services into the community level so that people don’t need to travel far to have their various social needs met.  These services include the Red Cross and other emergency relief and charity organizations, rehab facilities and other services for the disabled, services for women and children, family planning, labor and social security, legal aid, civil dispute resolution.  All of these are housed under one local government facility.

Several older boys got a little excited with their "discovery" in the office. They started taking pictures and chuckled among themselves (almost with some shyness and did not want the girls to notice) ... There was an open-shelf of neatly placed condoms! Liao Laoshi told them that they were free for the residents to use because of the government's promotion and advocacy for family planning. Your children's first reaction was to take a few with them to make water balloons. Liao Laoshi stopped them and they all respectfully left empty handed.

We were then brought to the juweihui (neighborhood committee) where we were shown a glass case that ran the length of a wall filled with binders organized by building: the official records kept on all residents of Zao Ying Bei Li. These include records on both permanent and temporary residents (no wonder my previous landlords in China insisted we register with the local police within days of moving into our residences!).  Keeping with our theme of elder care in China, we learned that among other records kept is a log of all elderly residents who don’t have children living with them.  These records help the neighborhood committee —which is responsible for more than 4,400 families housed in thirty-one buildings!—provide better services to the elderly.

Before we ducked out of this building, the party leader brought us to another amazing room where we got to see “the Map” of all maps.  We were shown a wall-sized electronic map with streets and buildings.  With the push of a button, the party leader could show us, among other things, where all the dry cleaners in the neighborhood were located, all the fruit and vegetable vendors, all the ATMs, newspaper stands, dry cleaners, or haircut stores. Each of these categories of interest would simply light up with the push of a button.  Most amazing of all were the lights that lit up when he pushed the button to show us where the video cameras in the neighborhood are.  I can assure you there are a lot of cameras in maizidian.

After a brief detour through the foreign language library (which includes two sets of the Harry Potter series), we arrived at the community activities center itself, which has a number of offerings for senior residents of the neighborhood. The facilities are beautiful and modern—this is no doubt a model community.  No bingo for these elders.  We were invited into a beautiful dance studio where women were dressed in gorgeous costumes practicing a fan dance.  We were also able to see a wonderful performance by a drama and dance troupe that did a well-choreographed rendition of Old Beijing teahouse culture.  We were shown a large movie theater where free movies are shown weekly and a beautiful storytelling room modeled after an old teahouse, where storytellers come regularly to practice this traditional art while residents sit at wooden tables and sip tea.  Finally, we ended up in an art and calligraphy studio where a handful of men were painting at long tables, who meet regularly 2-3 times a week. They assisted our students in painting and practicing their calligraphy, and then surprised us all by writing poems in their beautiful script for those students who wanted them, personalizing each and adding the student’s name to their work of art.  We were again reluctant to leave.

We’ve noticed your children like potatoes, meat, noodles, and almost any variety of bing, so we ended our day with dinner at a Dongbei restaurant (north-east China cuisine).  Can you guess it was a hit?  

We pulled up back at “campus” shortly before 7:00, and gathered at 7:15 for reflection.  Your children were quite moved by their experience with elders today.  Many noted how touched they were by the tears of some of the men they shook hands with, as they had never realized our presence here could mean so much to them.  Some noted the generosity of all of the hosts, especially the dancers who showed us how to dance with their fans and the fan dance and the artists who spent their time sharing their paintings and calligraphy with us.

This was an amazing day, and I still can’t believe we experienced as much as we did during these few short hours.  So much happened, that I think it will take awhile for your children to fully process it all.  You may ask you child if they chose to circulate amongst the elderly residents and talk with them or feed them fruit. What was that like for them?  You may ask them what made the deepest impression on them at either the temple or the mosque (I noticed some of your children were especially quiet and observant at these sites).  You might also ask them what they think of the social services (and social control) that we saw in the neighborhood we visited.  What do they think both the benefits and costs might be to having such a strong government administrative presence in one’s daily life?  Would they like to live in such a community?  Why or why not?

We are really enjoying our time together.  Thank you again for sharing your children.

Best from Beijing,


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