Monday, July 23, 2007

Host Family Weekend

This weekend, I stayed with a host family here in Tianjin. Their daughter, "Suzi," is a multinational business student at Tianjin Foreign Studies University, and just about the sweetest person I've ever met. From the minute I met her on Friday afternoon, I knew it was going to be a good weekend: she's very skinny, very friendly, and very very giggly. :)

After Suzi and her friend picked me up from campus, the three of us rode the subway about 25 minutes to her apartment, which was nicer than I expected and very, very clean. Suzi's family lives on the sixth floor of a building inside a gigantic apartment complex. Her bedroom is up in a loft; the kitchen, bathroom, master bedroom, living room, and a spacious balcony are located on the first floor. They had a computer and air conditioning (which unfortunately they didn't turn on much!) Suzi and I shared the queen-sized bed in her parents' room- they slept upstairs in her room so that I wouldn't be too hot.

I met her parents and gave them the Florida coffee table book and FSU souveneirs I'd brought as gifts. They politely looked through the book and displayed the Ziploc bag containing an FSU lanyard (yes I just said lanyard), garnet and gold juggling balls, and Seminole tattoos prominently on the living room table. After a chat, we all had dinner together: a duck and mushroom dish, rice, soup, fish, and several different vegetables. I made sure to exclaim "Hao Chi!" (Delicious!) on a regular basis. Suzi, her friend and I went for a walk down the street and wandered through the supermarket for a while. Later, I looked through some of the family's photo albums- there were several black and white pictures of Suzi's father and grandfather in Mao jackets and caps and tons of a little chubby-faced Suzi doing various cute things.

Saturday started bright and early at 7 am. After an interesting breakfast (a bowl of grease with egg floating in it), Suzi, another friend named "Anny," and I rode the light rail for about an hour to Tianjin's Economic Development Area, which also has a very nice riverside park. We met up with a fellow FSU student, her host family's daughter, and two more of Suzi's friends; the six of us wandered around the park and took tons of pictures. Later, we tried to go ice skating in a nearby soccer arena. The rink was closed, but the guard was nice enough to let us into the arena for a few minutes... everybody scampered around for a while, giggling and taking more pictures.

When we got back to Suzi's house, Anny decided to stay for dinner; we all sat down to a delicious dumpling dinner with her parents. After dinner, I chatted with her father for about two hours while Suzi translated for us. After a flurry of picture-taking with the family (including one of me for her dad's cell phone), we went to bed around 12.

In the morning, Anny came over for breakfast and brought some soup to share. The soup was colorless with a Jello-like consistency and olives and nuts added in. The girls served me a huge bowlful and watched me take my first bite. I almost gagged.. but put on a good face for them. As soon as they went into the kitchen for a moment, I scooped most of the soup back into the container and continued to talk about how good it was when the girls returned. Whew! Suzi made us a second dish- her favorite food- for breakfast, which I actually really enjoyed. It was kind of like a whole bowlful of hardboiled egg whites with salt, pepper, and another kind of seasoning added in. Sounds gross but I loved it!

After breakfast, the girls took me back to campus. We all parted ways with tons of hugs, air kisses, and promises to keep in touch through e-mail.

My chat with Suzie's father was the most interesting part of the visit for me. Her dad is a very intelligent man with a good knowledge of international news and current events, so it was really interesting to hear all of his impressions. He's worked as an electrician at a nearby factory for the past 20 years. Suzi's dad asked me all sorts of question about Americans' impressions of Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Japan, Pearl Harbor, WWII, the Korean War, Iraq, Taiwan, Virginia Tech, Chinese in the United States, Chairman Mao, and more. I tried to give diplomatic but honest answers, and I hope that I represented my country well! A couple of the tricky ones (Mao, Taiwan) I avoided answering for fear of giving an offensive response.

Suzi's dad told me the first phrase he learned to say in school was "Long live Chairman Mao." When I asked him about the modern Chinese impression of Chairman Mao, he responded with the standard Party line, "He was a great leader, but he made some mistakes." Interestingly, this is the same answer he gave when I asked him about his impressions of President Bush. I decided to be daring and asked what he thought about Tibet; he had no idea what I was talking about.

I also had a lot of fun hanging out with the girls. They were all just so sweet and full of questions about my life in the United States. After I told them about my house in Winter Springs, "three cats, one dog, four people" became a catch phrase for the rest of the weekend: every few hours, one girl would say it and set everybody off giggling. I taught them all how to French braid, we gossiped about boys, and did plenty of laughing. The whole weekend felt like an 8th grade sleepover!

On Friday night, Suzi decided that it was time for "girl talk." She told me about her "idol," a Korean pop singer; we talked about my boyfriend- she's never had one, although there are lots of boys are school who like her; she said her father is another one of her idols: he reminds her of a panda but he's also a very wise, learned man. Saturday night before we went to sleep, she sang me a good night song, which was so adorable I almost started to cry. At one point this weekend, she told me, "I am a very happy girl. I am almost never sad. My parents love me and my friends love me. What do I have to be sad about?"

It was so touching- and a lesson to my spoiled self- to see someone who had so few material possessions but yet was so content. Suzi and most of her friends all had some sort of link with the Western world: one girl's cousin studies at UC-Berkeley; another's relative is currently in London; another's father lives in Paris. They were so excited when I told them I'd been to Europe- I even showed them some of my pictures online. The girls seemed hungry for knowledge about the United States and life outside of China. I really couldn't help but wonder how their lives would have been different had they been born in the United States.

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