Herald JournalHerald Journal, Aug. 2, 2004

China trip a ‘priceless experience’ for the Epple family of Montrose

By Sandy Williams

“People are people, even on the other side of the globe,” and “there are many different ways of doing things.” These are basic nuggets of truth that Leonard Epple brought back from China this summer.

Epple, 42, a Montrose native currently residing in Niles, Ill., and his family spent 10 months in Dawukou, a small city in the tiny region of Ningxia, in central China.

He and his wife, Julie, were among five teachers hired by the Chinese government to teach English at the Shizuishan Vocational Technical College in Dawukou.

The Epples’ children, Kari, 16, Ethan, 14, Mateja, 9, and Renata, 6, were able to accompany their parents on their trip.

“It was a priceless learning experience for all of us,” Epple commented.

Epple, a Lutheran elementary school teacher, attended a teachers’ conference three years ago where he met Loran Steele, a representative from “Friends of China,” an organization whose objective is to send English teachers to China. This led to the Epple family’s adventure.

After arriving at the YinChuan Airport, two college-sponsored vans transported the Epples and their substantial luggage approximately 150 miles to Dawukou, where they settled into the top two floors of an apartment building. “They (Friends of China) decided on this particular location basically because of the size of the apartment, I think,” Epple said.

Duwukoa is a city of 125,000, considered small by Chinese standards. It is located in the tiny providence of Ningxia in central China, just south of Mongolia. An autonomous region, it is quite remote and isolated from the areas commonly visited by tourists.

“I was secretly hoping we’d end up there,” Epple confided.

It was not important for the teachers from the Friends of China to speak Chinese, necessarily. Of the many dialects, mostly related to the standard Manadrin, spoken in that region, the Epples knew only a few words to begin with.

“The (Chinese) students there already had basic English,” Epple explained, “and an eager interest in American culture.”

He brought many pictures to his classes and worked in conjunction with student translators. “People everywhere wanted to speak English, so it wasn’t that hard,” he said.

One of the first surprises for the Americans was Chinese food. “Our perception of Chinese food has changed,” said Epple.

“1t’s very different from the pre-conceived notions we had.”

The basic staple in that area is wheat noodles, not rice, which is only served occasionally or by request in restaurants. The main meat is mutton, sheep or goat, prepared in a wide variety of ways.

Some of the more exotic dishes served were jellyfish, camel’s feet, and a dried cranberry-like fruit called “wolf berries,” which contain a blood thinner said to cause nosebleeds if more than 10 berries are consumed, according to Epple.

“We never tried eating too many of them,” he added.

The Chinese people proved to be very accommodating hosts. “Everyone went out of their way to make us feel comfortable,” Epple said. “They had a wonderful, kind, welcoming way about them.”

One slightly embarrassing, but amusing challenge the Americans met at their first meal was the use of chopsticks to transfer food from the serving dishes.

“There are no serving spoons in China,” Epple stated with a laugh, “Not much food made it to our plates.”

The American visitors settled into Chinese life without much difficulty, thanks to this hospitality.

“Our only real inconvenience with the apartment was that the electricity occasionally went off and on for no apparent reason,” Epple said. “Also, the water might decide to stop running now and then. We kept a five-gallon supply on hand to be ready when we needed it.”

They shopped every other day to stock the small refrigerator/freezer in the apartment, learning to find a bargain and haggle over prices, as was expected and is common in many foreign countries.

“They think we’re all rich,” Epple commented, “It’s the number one misconception they had about us.”

Such sights as tubs full of carp and other fish flopping about, and chickens for sale with head and feet intact were common at the marketplace.

Epple had the quaint experience of having his tennis shoes sewn up by hand on the side of the street as he watched. “They were falling apart;” he explained. “My size eights were considered big over there. I don’t think there were many shoes larger than that. There were some unusual shoes, though,” he added, “some with really long toes. Other than that, people dressed pretty much the same as here, especially the younger generation.”

The thing that surprised Epple most, he said, was that there is still such a wide variance in the cultural development of the country, vividly evident in everyday life. “Bicycles definitely rule,” Epple observed.

“Taxi service only came to the area within the past seven years, yet Internet service in commonplace and cell phone usage even more prominent than here in the States,” he said.

High technology exists side by side with the most primitive of inventions. For instance, Epple told of a street vendor who ran an ancient-looking popcorn machine.

“It was egg-shaped, with a crank,” he explained, “set over a cast iron stove which burned a cylinder block of black coal. It looked as old as the hills.

“The guy kept on patiently turning it and finally opened it with a shotgun-like bang. Then, out poured popcorn or puffed corn, wheat or rice. Walking past this primitive-looking sight would be people in modern western clothes, all talking on their cell phones.”

The Ningxia region is a heavy coal producing area with lots of coal dust and smoke stacks, according to Epple.

“The people were apologetic about that,” he said, “and also about the weather, which was actually quite pleasant most of the time, compared to Minnesota – only a dust storm now and then to put up with.”

Epple remembers life in the Ningxia providence as peaceful and harmonious. Bicycle theft was usually the biggest crime reported, and the dangers of the street consisted of the possibility of an open, unmarked manhole.

Early morning sounds included the tinkling of little bells hung around the necks of little Pekinese and Chinese pugs being walked by their elderly owners.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment Epple and his wife had to make in China was learning to “go with the flow.” “They have a different way of operating over there,” Epple said. “They are not very scheduled in advance. For instance, they might offhandedly announce that we are to give a speech the next morning.”

Cultural differences were evident to the visiting Americans when they attended a fancy Hui minority wedding. The bride did not appear to be happy, nor was she expected to be.

Also, Epple noticed, the Hui women, when greeted by a man, backed off shyly instead of responding.

Epple reported encountering no hostility or resentment and little, if any, government interference while visiting China. Although a significant number of the population, the Hui minority, are of the Islamic religion, there was virtually none of the unrest or militant activity one hears about from other parts of the world, according to Epple.

“There is some Buddhism, I saw one temple in the mountains,” Epple stated, “but most people claim no religion. There is also a small, but strongly active Christian community,” he said. “They put many of our churches here to shame. It’s so easy to take that freedom for granted.”

Every memory related by Epple of their venture into China seems to center around his obvious love for the Chinese people.

He searched for words to convey his feelings. “They are a hardy, tough, and hard-working people,” he began. “They have endured much over the centuries, and they’ve always treasured the arts – art, music, dance, even writing.”

“I think the people of this area consider themselves so remote and poorer than other regions,” he continued. “They are constantly apologetic, as if humbled that Westerners would even come to their remote area and endure their weather and hardships.”

One colorful memory Epple shared was a 10-hour mountain hiking expedition. Along with the picturesque sights of the classic rounded mountains of China, he reported seeing wild mountain sheep and numerous chukars, or “mountain chickens.”

But what stands out in his memory is the 77-year-old gentleman who went with them. Epple tells of him sitting cross-legged and, with ease, lifting his body up off the ground to balance on his fingertips.

“He was no more than five feet tall with a grip of steel . . . and he drank from the river,” Epple remembered fondly.

Their 10 months in China was an unforgettable experience for the Epple children, as well. “They were the first foreign children to visit the area as far as I know,” Epple said, “We all had to get used to being looked at. Everyone stared.”

Being one of four siblings was a novelty also, in a country where one child per family is the normal policy, with only a few exceptions to allow two.

Perhaps the high point for nine-year-old Mateja was the opportunity to participate in a traditional Chinese fan dance competition and performance. Ethan, who is at age14 already a talented musician, got his chance to shine while playing piano before a congregation of more than 1,000.

The Epples’ eldest, Kari, age 16, learned the most Chinese while they were there. She attended classes regularly to learn to speak, read, and even write the Chinese language, while teaching English in a cultural trade.

The Epples took three sight-seeing trips during normal school breaks in October, January, and May, when the children got to do things such as riding Bactrian (two hump) camels, zipping across the famous Yellow River on a cable slide, and handling a vile-looking reptile. Other memorable activities included flying Chinese kites in the March wind.

As for six-year-old Renata, just playing with the Chinese children seemed to be her favorite activity, according to her father. “Her most requested item was good old American peanut butter.” he added.

The lives of Leonard and Julie Epple and their children have most definitely been enriched by their trip to China. When asked if they plan to return, Leonard replied with an emphatic, “I would love to!”

For now, he will be taking a position as a staff minister in a Lutheran elementary school in Niles, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. Julie will be teaching kindergarten at the same school.

“The whole trip was one neat adventure, with no time to be homesick,” Epple concluded. “I’ll always think of Dawukou as one of my ‘hometowns.”’

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