Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Shandong Province, China, home of my 'Conversation Partner'

China today.
The ancient and the modern in Jing'na exist side-by-side.
Image from Chinese Culture and Education Center in Spartanburg, SC.
Fenghua Xu, from northern China, is my "conversation partner" through the faith-based nonprofit international program Water for Ishmael in Toledo.  This outreach program is a way to help foreign students, new immigrants, and refugees who are studying English to practice with native speakers. It's also a wonderful way to promote cultural exchange.

Fenghua's English is excellent, so we learn from each other.  We meet weekly, explore different sites around town, share gifts, and talk about wide-ranging subjects. Fenghua has a PhD in a science field, as does her husband, a post-doctorate fellow in physical chemistry at the University of Toledo. Our university is noted for its diverse student body and its attraction to many students from abroad, a majority from the Middle East, many from China and the Far East. Fenghua is now pregnant with their first child, a happy occasion.
Elissa with her conversation
partner Negin, from Iran,
and Fenghua at TMA

Fenghua knows more about the USA than I know about China.  I find this to be true wherever I am in the world, by the way. People in other countries study American history, study our language, and are curious about who we are, how we live, and especially our popular culture. They follow us on TV and on the internet, no doubt getting all kinds of mixed messages.  There's a curiosity about America. I remember conversations in Ukraine about the first time most people were able to watch American TV, after 1991. "Pow, America popped out at us!" a young counselor at Sosnovy summer camp outside of Starobelsk said to me, international hip hop music blaring loudly in the background. For many, I was the first real American they had ever met.

Fenghua is from Shandong(山东province on the northeast coast of China, situated on the Bohai Sea to the North and the Yellow (Huanghe) River to the south. It's about halfway between Beijing and Shanghai.

Jinai (wikimedia image) 

The history of Shandong goes back to before 6500 BC. It embraces layers upon layers of cities, provinces, and dynasties. This complex layered mosaic of cultural, economic and political threads continued up to 1945-1949, when the People's Republic of China was created. Another layer was added to the mosaic and continues into the present.

Shandong Coastal Vineyards 
(wikimedia/Alan Korol)
Shandong is one of the most populous provinces in China (there are 22 provinces), with almost 96,000,000 people. Jinai is the province's economic and cultural hub. The modern cities of Quindao, Wechai, and Yantai dominate the coastline. They are surrounded by vast vineyards that provide almost 50% of China's wine, the Tuscany of China. Fenhghua added that Quindao is known for its beer, Wochai for its many Korean companies, and Yantai for its university.

The Confucious Temple, Qufu
I did some online research to learn more and read that Shandong province "is a major cultural and religious center for three religions: Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, and Confucianism....Mount Tai is a revered Taoism site; Jinai, the provincial capital, is a Buddhist site; the city of Qufu is the birthplace of Confucious."  I asked Fenghua about this. She shook her head. No this is not the way we view these places. Not at all.  China is a secular society, she noted, and these are different philosophies and not foremost, not like religion in the West, more like guides to daily life for some people but certainly not all. The Chinese view Mount Tai not as a Taoism site but as a recreation and vacation destination known for its beauty and mountain climbing. Jinai is noted for many things, but Buddhism is the least of them. Yes, Qufu is the birthplace of Confucious, but it is not in any sense a religious shrine.

It seems that my research offered more a tourist's point of view than a native's insight, and it made Fenghua uncomfortable.  Maybe I was on conflicted ground here, so I backed off and asked her how she would describe her country. She hesitated. She talked about geography, environment, and regional variations, which she said are vast. Life is different in the mountains, in the plains, in the northern desert region, on the coast, she explained.  Cuisine is very different from one place to another.  So is language.  The Chinese value education and study very hard to get into universities, which are highly competitive and require passing a difficult multi-day exam called the "gaokao." Students spend their young lives preparing for this test.  The high school years are exceedingly intense since test scores determine whether or not students will go to university.   Fenghua praised this educational system.

So my first Chinese lesson ended. I realized the huge cultural differences between us, an eye-opener in itself.  I must admit the views and images I have in my head about China are one-sided and limited, and even outdated.  Life is an adventure and we learn as we go, I thought to myself. The Water for Ishmael program is a good reminder of this.
Mount Tai, China
I think of China this way....
....But it's actually more this way today!  Quindao skyline 2016 (wikimedia image)

There's a restaurant called Shandong in Portland, Oregon,
which specializes in northern Chinese cuisine. Fenghua
says northern cooking is different from southern cooking,
like regional variations here in the US, in Italy, or anywhere in the world actually.
This is Pork Soup Shao Loong Bao from the Shandong restaurant menu.
Fenghua made me a similar dish.  Delicious! 

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