Ē Mí Tuó Fó
Now that the third week of classes has finished, we are really hitting our stride. The students are learning new words, becoming more confident, and seem to be on the right track. We even are beginning to learn the students’ names, no small feat as we each have almost 300 students under our tutelage.
Last weekend, we went down to the train station with Shelley and Amanda for a shopping extravaganza. Although we came away empty-handed, venturing out into the town is always a treat. There is order in the chaos, curiosity in every gaze that turns our way, and an indefatigable helpfulness from even the oldest of staff. We stopped for lunch at a stall outside the shopping “mall” and when we tried to order a vegetarian meal, we managed to draw a crowd of people eager to help or just to observe. This is a frequent aspect of our outings; whenever we try to communicate using the few Chinese words we have learned, and mime the rest, people surround us. Some try to help but mostly they just watch, each with an amused little smile that we know means, “oh those silly foreigners are at it again.”
On Thursday, we had to miss our afternoon classes in order to go to the government offices to get our work visas. Our visitor visas last for the first 30-days that we’re here, and then we have to get long-term ones. Unfortunately, due to poor planning on either the school’s or the government’s part, we had to miss yet more classes which we will ultimately have to make up at some point. At 2 o’clock, we headed over to meet with Christina, our liaison from the foreign affairs office.
She was in her office with her adorable baby boy, who has seen us enough times to no longer be afraid of us. At first, though, he, like many Chinese children who see us for the first time, was afraid and shied away. We must look like aliens or ghosts to them. Before we could leave for the government office, Christina had some business to attend to with the teachers from the Chengdu campus so she handed her baby to Michael, her bass-voiced counterpart. Before long, the baby, whose name we haven’t learned yet, began to squirm because he was out of sight of his mom. A moment later, we got the answer to a question that we had been asking ourselves for some time: what happens when a baby, who is wearing pants with a slit, has to pee while being held? The answer? Michael gets wet pants.
This amused Christina to no end. Usually, when you ask her how her baby is she will respond with an exasperated growl and the common Chinese idiom, “I kill him!” Quite a few of our Chinese friends will respond to pestering or frustration by shaking their fists and playfully shouting “I kill you!”, which comes out more like “I keeeel you!”
After a few laughs, we all jumped into taxis and headed down to the government offices where we spent a few hours filling out paperwork, getting our photos taken, and waiting.
Most of the time when we go somewhere we need the help of a translator. Although we have only learned a handful of words, our Chinese lessons are progressing nicely. Kelly sees fourth-year student, Erin, for lessons on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays while Mi sees third-year student, Victoria, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In addition to teaching us this difficult but intellectually stimulating language, which utilizes both halves of the brain, the girls have also suggested that they be our personal assistants as well.
We had originally intended to pay them 50 Yuan an hour, which is a mere pittance compared with the prices charged for language tutoring elsewhere, but they argued that it was too high to accept. They insisted that by tutoring us they also have the opportunity to practice their English, so they see the arrangement as more of an exchange. After some debating, we all finally agreed that 100 a week each was acceptable for tutoring and personal assistance. However, we insisted that if we were to pay them so little that we pay their way whenever we go on excursions.
Erin and Victoria are not only bright and eager to please; they are also delightful to be around. They are gentle and kind and boisterous. They are energetic, respectful, and make no demands- they even refuse water, snacks, and bathroom breaks during our lessons. The other day, Kelly asked them to help us label things in our apartment so we could begin learning the vocabulary, so now the whole place is plastered with green Post-It notes with Pinyin (phonetic pronunciations) and Chinese characters.
On Friday, our tutors/PAs guided us on a tour of the largest Buddhist temple in Mianyang, the Holy Water Temple. Their knowledge and assistance in translating was invaluable. They spoke with monks and translated their stories and instructions for moving through the temple respectfully. For instance, we could not take photos inside the buildings and we had to step over thresholds with our left feet first.
As we approached the temple, we knew immediately that it was a special place. We had seen it once before from the road, but standing at the base of the first of many staircases we could fully take in the powerful scene. The multi-tiered Holy Water Temple is situated on a hill above Mianyang overlooking the river and city. It sits among bright green trees and is still expanding up the hillside.
Although, like many buildings in this area, it suffered damage in the massive, tragic 2008 earthquake, we saw artisans diligently rebuilding and retouching the immaculate sculptures that cover many of the temple’s walls. This is a relatively new temple, especially by Chinese standards, and it appears far from complete, as many of the structures need to be rebuilt after the quake. Behind the completed buildings stand the skeletons of new additions.
Erin and Victoria explained what each statue represents and how to address the monks. When greeting a monk, you are to hold your hands in a prayer position in front of your chest, bow slightly, and say “ē mí tuó fó,” which means may Buddha preserve us. Whenever we did this, the monks would stand and return the greeting, looking both surprised and pleased to hear a presumably ignorant Westerner respecting their customs. Each of the buildings houses at least one huge statue of Buddha, each at least 15-feet tall, beneath a ceiling painted in incredible detail.
Every surface displays incredible craftsmanship. Long walls are covered with hundreds of life-sized statues called luó hàn; each one represents a Buddhist fable, and is vibrantly painted. Erin told us that if you count the number of statues from anywhere you like up to your current age, you would find one that is pertinent to your life.
Mi found one called Bān Rè that is riding a donkey, with one hand in a fist, wearing red, and smiling. As we stood admiring the statue, a woman came by and offered to explain the story, for a price. Mi handed over 1 Yuan and listened as Erin translated the tale. The figure’s red robes are auspicious, the clenched fist means that he can hold onto any money that comes to him, the smile means that he will have much happiness in his life, and the donkey means that he will have assistance in carrying his burdens. According to the woman, who didn’t look like a nun but was associated with the temple in some way, this figure is the best one and the dreams of anyone who chooses it will come true if they do good things in their life.
We then moved on to admire the piece-de-resistance, the Sleeping Buddha. This giant statue is one of the highlights of the temple. This humungous statue is brilliant white with red lips and dark eyes. It is lying on its side wearing robes and the expression of someone who just woke from a satisfying dream. Its absence of color looks all the more pure in stark contrast to the vibrantly painted luó hàn at its base.
The rest of the day was spent shopping. We took the bus down to the bookstore in search of dictionaries to help our studies, but were unsuccessful. We found a few books in English and a few others of interest, including one with a big photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the cover. As we walked by it, Victoria pointed it out and mentioned that in high school she and her classmates were required to memorize and present the “I have a dream” speech in school. Learning that warmed our hearts and impressed us with how much of an impact King had, and continues to have, all around the world.
Next, we looked for shoes but that search was fruitless as well. All our hunting yielded one prize, though. We found a nice backpacking backpack to use for our upcoming travels. Our first trip with the new bag will be with our tutors as Erin and Victoria have graciously offered to show us around their hometowns.
Our students have all told us how much they love our hometowns and that they want to be our guides, so when Erin and Victoria said they would be happy to show us around they were both lit up like Christmas trees. They argued playfully about whose family cooks better food and their volume grew as they excitedly told us about the wonders of their hometowns. So for part of our break, which lasts from September 28th to October 7th, we will travel with Erin to her hometown. Then, we are on our own to see the famous Leshan Giant Buddha and Mount Emei, which boasts 30 Buddhist temples inhabited by monks and monkeys.
Our weekend was spent in planning our trip and the upcoming week’s lessons as well as spending time with new friends. After brainstorming for a while at a student-run coffee shop called the 1991 Club, we found an Uno deck and proceeded to teach the students how to play. We played a few hands and were joined occasionally by other students who wanted in on the action. After much laughter, shouting, and Victoria threatening to kill everyone at the table who had foiled her efforts at victory, we called it a night.
The forecast calls for rain for most of this upcoming week so we are in for some wet toes, indoor dinners, and baseball-sized toads that hop across the paths when it rains. The rain may also offer us a rare opportunity to see the Tibetan Plateaus. Here in Mianyang, it is often humid and the sky is usually overcast – Kelly’s parents have described it as “living in a cloud.” After the rain, however, the sky is clear for a few hours. Because we live on the fourth floor, we can see above the buildings to the Plateaus in the distance. We have only seen them once but hopefully this week the clouds will open up for us again.