Old Style Hotel in the Hutong
Old Style Hotel in the Hutong ‘Hood

Beijing Time!

Great food everywhere!
Great food everywhere!

By Friday Nov. 18th we landed and after amazingly long lines to take a taxi to our web-found hotel, we were walking the streets of Beijing again. We landed at night and as the downpour of rain began, we zig-zagged our way through flooded tight alleys of a hutong (traditional, old style Chinese neighborhood). We were starving since United fed us 2 tiny meals 11 hours apart, and so had our first evening meal of steamed dumplings (jiaoza), a dish of snow peas, red bell pepper and garlic, and a sliced chicken with chive dish.

Full and tired, we returned to this hotel converted from an 1800’s Qing dynasty period court house with tiled roof and painted in lots of red. You know, like the ones you see in kung-fu movies! We slept off jet lag on the box springs they think use for mattresses. Ouch…

Purpose of Trip

This month-long trip will include teaching storytelling theater to hundreds of middle school students at the International School of Beijing. This introduction to our storytelling course is a result of last year’s storytelling workshops and a very successful student field trip. About 14 of their students accompanied us to the storytelling village of Gengcun. Though this particular group of students will not be able to visit the village this chilly December, we will brave the wintry farm town with warm smiles for the storytellers of this traditional village.

Since this was a quick come-lately gig, both the teachers and we will be improvising. They aren’t sure what we do and we aren’t sure how they want it organized. But we’ll find out soon enough!

Perusing the Streets

Saturday, after a full night’s sleep, we found the rain had subsided to a clear sunny day – in the 50’s with that famous Beijing dry wind. It turns out our hotel is situated in a neighborhood filled with shops and restaurants – not those touristy places, but the real thing! Alleys and alleys of fruit stands, trinkets stalls, silk and tea stores, and lots of restaurants to choose from.

And Chinese everywhere!!!

As we walked and walked, it almost felt like SF’s Chinatown… but, no…. we’re really in China!

Five hours later, we’re back in bed! Jetlag, Chinese TV and zzzzzz…..

Sunday’s Trip to Temple of Heaven

train of composting bicyclists
This train of composting bicyclists were on parade was eye-catching however…

In 2007’s trip to China, our group found people scattered along the parks of the Temple of Heaven doing Tai Chi, Chi Gung, fan dancing, ball balancing, exercising on several different kinds of exercise equipment, kite flying, whip cracking, and on and on on this one day of rest for many. We even saw mothers sitting under a tree sporting albums and photographs of their unmarried son or daughter to match-make. The Temple of Heaven is just that… a place to have a heavenly time and hope for a heavenly match!

So in 2010, we searched for it again, but our group didn’t find it. This time, 2011, we thought, we’ll go where it has to be!! We walked from the west gate to the north gate, from there to the east gate and then to the south gate. Once again, feet about to fall off, we didn’t find what we found in 2007.

Brigadoon… a missed portal …

Teaching Begins

Nancy training young storytellers
Nancy training young storytellers

Wow! Only the first day Monday, and we are exhausted! We were on our feet for 6-7 hours teaching storytelling skills, movement and gesture, vocal tricks and eventually we will be coaching their projects. These middle school kids are so wonderful to work with – imagine this age as still very un-jaded, pure of heart youngsters at age 11-13!

The First Week Teaching

Hold that shape! Shapes tell stories!
Hold that shape! Shapes tell stories!

It has been exhausting, but so rewarding to work in this amazingly posh school where all the middle schoolers are given free iMac laptops to work on while they’re here. There are 7 stations of different kinds of foods to choose from for lunch, tea rooms for studying in, couch areas scattered in the hallways for teens to gather in and dialogue or work on projects. The art here is amazing, and best of all is that we are working in a school that supports their teachers who in turn support our work (vs. compete with us in some of the California schools we use to do residencies in) and where the physical structures of the school support the students. This is a very student-centered school and it shows.

We get to work in the ‘Glass Room’ or the ‘Black Box’ or the ‘Teachers Lounge’ or the ‘theater’. Everything is kept up and so the students experience that they are very worthy.

Here’s what we’re teaching: Focus and concentration, body shapes and gesture, add voice and facial expressions, use the 8 working kinds of movement and apply them to interpretation of character and their voices. And since we only see each group 2-3 times, the final session is spent on coaching their own poetry, Chinese folktales or their own original ‘folktales’ based on a value or moral they’ve chosen, or their travelogues about different provinces in China. Some classes will perform just for each other, others will perform for orphanages or other schools.

We didn’t get any turkey for Thanksgiving… just more Chinese food … Still it was yummy!


The Weekend

Ahhh…. Sore feet, sore legs, sore backs… standing for 6-7 hours everyday… The voice is starting to go, too… So, did we venture out this weekend? Well, yes, a short stint to the ‘Europlaza’ for changing traveler’s checks to RMB. This small but 4-floor mall was pretty empty and didn’t offer much in way of our interests, but there were several restaurants: Papa Johns, Yoshinaya, McDonalds … wait! There’s a Yunan Restaurant! And wow, was the food great!

Out here in this 5th ring area of Beijing, there is not much. The streets are quiet, and most people end up being inside because the coal dust in the air from coal cooking is so bad, that it just isn’t healthy to be out in it. It even seeps into our hotel and both of us have some effects from it already.

As an asthma baby, I (Nancy) find myself slightly wheezing and coughing. Robert keeps having to clear his throat. So we aren’t eager to get out there.

So what did we do? Robert is continuing to research the Kojiki, the Japanese mythology around how Japan came into being. It’s a very large task funded in part by National Storytelling Network and Going Deep. This piece will eventually be performed in April at ENT for the Going Deep Retreat and Concert Series.

I on the other hand have read novels on my iPad, am answering emails when the internet works, taking care of bills long distance, writing grants, there’s still our kids’ lives via skype and email, and we’re both making sure the office is working smoothly, though Diana is doing a great job.

I did research and write a new piece for the Year of the Dragon coming up! That was interesting. Did you know that there are hundreds of different kinds of Chinese Dragons? That some can even glow in the dark? The new piece is called ‘Dragon Pearl’.

Our Hotel

Not too shabby!
Not too shabby!

Now the hotel we are in across from the school has been an interesting adventure. A mix-up in the reservation ended in no reservation, but after 30 minutes, we finally got a room. But the next day we were told we couldn’t have it but for 2 nights instead of the 12 that was suppose to be reserved by the school for us. We were told we’d have to leave for one night and then could return. What?!

Then they said “…ok… we’ll give you free upgrade for one night, you change next night back to old room.”

“Oh no…we’re not packing and unpacking again over and over again!”

“Ok… you stay in upgrade whole time, ok? Don’t change hotels.”

So, the 3rd day we were led to the upgrade… Upgrade?! Noooo…. It may have looked like a 2 room suite, but it was absolutely filthy! Huge stains on the filthy rugs everywhere, it was smelly, the wallpaper was peeling, the wood had chips… the rooms had old stained furniture and there was no where to put our clothes for 2 weeks.

We were shown 2 other choices – the same filth.

“No… we will not stay in any of these rooms… If we have to stay in any of these rooms, we should not have to pay for it! Have you seen the 3rd floor Mr. Manager?”

Maybe hold one of our “Salon! You’re On!” events on this?
Maybe hold one of our “Salon! You’re On!” events on this? That’d be fun… hmmm but would any one come?

“No… oh… old… Ok I give you new upgrade. Trust me…”

When the next door was opened for our perusal… boy was it new! And it wasn’t just new, it was the penthouse!!

So we are staying for the entire time in a 2 story gorgeously designed penthouse. It is saving our lives!! We can’t imagine now being in one room for 2 weeks and teaching all day, then working all evening on our other projects.

The floors are either off-white tiled or shiny wood floors, and there is a study, a huge bedroom with stereo and tv, 2 bathrooms – one with a sauna and bidet, a large dining area and living room with stereo and tv, and a very large 2 story roofed – did we say huge balcony… which of course we don’t use because it is getting to be winter here and the coal dust… but as Robert says, one could have a tennis match on it!

We are so very grateful! Being clear on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and being able to communicate the need to have what is right is a good thing!! And what a way to have one’s residence support the work we are doing!

Back to work!
Back to work! It’s time for kids to work those stories!

This article has 12 Comments

  1. Remember that travel is dancing lessons from god. I have read every word and it sounds like you are dancing up a storm.  All the best yo you and the lucky children.  Karin McClune

    1. Thank you Karen,

      Indeed dancing lessons upon this swirling globe!  As we’ve walked the streets, plazas, and marketplaces- we see the children, elderly, the families in their everyday life- each person with a different kind of smile, or stare, or frown or gaze.  Sometimes I wonder: What’s their story?  What have they experienced? If only we could hold all of humanities experiences into one story- we realize that we are dancing one story with many colored shoes.

      Robert & Nancy

      1. Special, heartwarming, dedication, vivid! Thank you for sharing your adventure and your flexible, but clear boundaries, as you lift up the art of storytelling. Love you guys…Suzanne

  2. Nancy, your writing is so vivid, I feel I was/am there!  Of course, the work with
    bright, unjaded students is familiar, always familiar, gratifying.  Trust this will all continue to go beautifully!

  3. Wow!  Phooey on the coal dust  but Yay for the acomodations you deserve and the great kids!  Are any of them from the group we took to Gengcun last year?
    I love to read your comments…almost like being there!
    Kathy Hunter

  4. Wow, such tales accumulated while telling tales! I know what we can work on this summer on Orcas. I’m sure it would be a commercial success given the global nature!
    Amazing how much you communicate beyond language obstacles. Can you understand their stories when they tell them? These posts are so nourishing to those reading them!
    love wrapped around you,

  5. Brings back China memories to hear your adventures.  Tellingly written, Nancy!  I appreciate the focus of the stories of travel or morals.  I will need such advice next year when I teach story to high schoolers for the first time.  Thanks for sharing the day to day reality of such a project. 

  6. Sounds like you had a fun time. The dragon story sounds interesting, I’d love to hear the finished version.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this great experience with us.
    I enjoy your descriptions so much. And good job on the hotel space.
    We never know where challenges may lead.

  8. Hi Everyone!  We’re still in China!  The next blog is on the way. So much to tell you! And then there will be a last one before we depart for California!  What a time it has been!  Thank you so much for all your thoughts and well wishes.  

  9. This is way fun to read. It is getting me excited about our upcoming trip. I can”t wait to hear more about your experiences there.
    I am thrilled to be taking my five youngest children 17,14.13,11,10  to China for a month in January! I am taking (my four Guangxi kids)  to Shanghai, (to see friends and sites) Xian (to see sites and visit the Starfish baby home for children with special needs) Beijing sites and history and visiting Holt international’s Beijing Peace Baby home (for special needs children), Then on to Guangxi province to visit friends and my children’s foster parents,their  finding sites and orphanages, then on to Nanning to visit school children who need financial assistance to stay in school, as usual I will do storytelling for the school children there in Nanning.Then onto Liuzhou to visit two of my children’s orphanage to do a CNY celebration and outings with the older children at the orphange (abandoned at later ages),along with foster children with special needs,then Guilin/Yangshou for more siteseeing, another foster parent/orphange/finding site visitand then back to Nanning and on to Hong Kong!

  10. Wow! What an adventure! Were the rooms dirtier than the hotel in Makati City? Remember that place? How would that school like a combination storytelling/ puppetry residency? ;o) I hope to see you both sometime soon.

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