2013: A year of Adventures

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The first of the year always brings with it reflections of the previous year.  I started to get down on myself for not accomplishing everything on my lofty “to do” list for the year.  I may not have lost the weight I wanted, wrote a book, or learned a new language…but as I reflect on the things I did accomplish I realized it might not have been as unproductive as I originally thought.  It turns out I had quite the year!

Things I Accomplished in 2013

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1)  I finished my Master’s Degree and Graduated from Purdue University, ( I ran a race the day after I finished my degree.)

 

2)  I ran a two 5k races, two 10k races and my second 1/2 marathon!   13.1 Miles!

 

IMG_29923)  I returned to Spain….and it was even more beautiful and meaningful than the first visit. I visited my favorite parts of Madrid and we were reunited like the old dear friends that we are.  I also had the chance to make “New Friends” of the enigmatic Granada, the majestic Alhambra, and the leisurely Mallorca.  Most importantly, God spoke directly to me during this return pilgrimage to Spain, and I learned how to Abide in His love and through that, my joy was made complete.  This return to Spain last April was one of the most spiritually rewarding experiences of my life.  I will always treasure this trip, as I will always treasure Spain.

 

4)  2013 will be the year that I lived with my brother.  We shared an apartment this year and on top of being the best brother anyone could ask for, he has also been a great roommate! I respect and admire him so much for the incredible man he is. it has been great fun living together!   I will be forever grateful for the this time we spent together here at Ashley Place.  Derrek is more than my brother, he is one of my best friends.

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5)  I attended my first professional soccer game… a Quarter final championship league game at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium in Madrid.  I  wanted to go but I couldn’t afford even the cheap tickets.  However, God provided above and beyond my expectations!  He took the opportunity to show off and I was GIVEN 14th row VIP tickets!  It was an incredible once-in a lifetime experience!

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6) I was awarded the Lilly Grant witch funded my summer research trip to Asia. I planed and organized this massive 2 month expedition.  I found the schools, teachers, and translators necessary to complete my research, as well as plan all the travels, get my visas, and arrange all my 19 different flights.  It was a massive undertaking that included 15 different cities.  In two months I didn’t spend more than three nights in a row in the same bed. A large part of my year was dedicated to planning and implementing this project, but I learned so much about the Asian academic systems and the unique Asian Culture.   This trip also allowed me to add seven new countries to my map which include; Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, China, South Korea, and Japan.  It even extended my total country count to 25!  (I only have 5 more to go in my whole “Thirty before I’m Thirty” plan!)

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7)  It has been an amazing year of adventurous firsts! I walked the great wall of China and I explored the ancient temple complexes in the Cambodian Jungle.  I got a real Thai massage in Thailand. I navigated seas off the coast of Phuket in my Cave Canoeing adventure.  I rode (and fell in love with) an elephant named “Sabo”. I saw the most beautiful orchids in the world at the Singapore Botanical gardens and I journaled in front of my hotel room window that displayed the mighty Petronas towers of Kuala Lumpur.  I saw an epic light show dance across the Hong Kong Skyline,  I stood in attention with the ancient Terra-cotta warriors of Xi’An,  I explored the streets of old Beijing, ran to the birds nest and visited a real silk factory.  I attended both a dumpling feast and a tea ceremony.  I sailed down the river Li and witnessed its glorious 20,000 peaks!  I met the kindest people I will ever know in a South Korean coffee shop.  I ate a black egg that had been boiled underground in the sulfuric waters under Mt Fuji.  I attended a festival in Kyoto, saw the Golden Pavilion, stayed in a traditional Japanese Ryokan (inn) by the sea where I slept on mats on the floor and bathed in (public) natural hot springs.  I also visited a real Ninja House!

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8)  I also dated someone for the first time…it turns out I am not really good at that sort of thing. I really prefer my independence it seems.  However, it was a great learning experience and I am glad that I went on my first real date in 2013…..finally!

9)  I had a student teacher teach in my classroom. (I know! When did I become old enough to be the one imparting wisdom to future teachers?!)   I did not enjoy this experience as much as I had expected as it was more difficult for me to give up control of my classroom than I had anticipated.  Maybe there is a theme here and in 2014 I should work on being less independent and more collaborative.

10)  This year I also took a chance and applied for a Fulbright Fellowship in Finland.  This is perhaps the biggest adventure I have dared to pursue.  It would mean me leaving my teaching position in Westfield for a few months to head to the Nordic Country of Finland for a 4-5 month research project.  I will not know until April if I will be accepted into the prestigious Fulbright community, but I put myself out there and dared to dream.  Who knows what the next year will bring, but I think I can content that 2013 was an amazing year.       Image

HERE is to another great Year!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Why Asia?

IMG_7549Ancient shrines, elegant arch bridges, divine cherry blossoms, artistic pagodas, spiritual temples, and breathtaking landscapes are all images one congers of the Asian continent.  Beyond these captivating and soul stirring landmarks, there exists a delicate culture based in beauty, honor, tradition, and a quiet strength that gives this unique society its understated power.   This culture, who highly values discipline and educational development, has lead the world in scientific and mathematical discovery for thousands of years.  Asia is still the champion of academics today.  According to international educational studies, Asian students out perform all other nations in their understanding of mathematical concepts.    As a math teacher, I proposed a grant to visit several math classrooms across Asia, meet with teachers and learn about the rich Asian culture in order to gain insight on how we can achieve similar academic success in the United States.  I proposed and was awarded a large sum to fund a six-week journey across seven Asian countries which helped me gain insight and develop an appreciation for the Asian culture and heritage with which I can share and inspire my students.

1002861_792807057756_1214827841_nI teach 7th grade and I know how first hand accounts and personal experiences have helped my students gain perspective and broaden their understanding of the world in which they live.  This age group does not connect to mere facts listed in a book, but are easily engaged with authentic accounts and personal reflections.   Asian history is a major standard of the 7th grade curriculum.   Throughout the year they will learn about all of the countries I visited this summer.  I have already had the opportunity to share my prospective and experiences with them on the subject.  I cherish opportunities that help me use my knowledge of various civilizations to teach my students and make them more informed and aware citizens of the world.

1010822_786267198686_1042957626_nAlthough I have traveled extensively in the past, this trip was my first experience in an eastern culture and it challenged me personally as an explorer.  It literally broadened my horizon and helped me realize that, with God’s amazing grace, love and provision, I can accomplish even more than I could ever imagine.   I relish the growth and experience this summer provided.  I tell my students that if your goals don’t scare you a little, then you are not thinking big enough.   This summer I took this motto to heart!  This summer was the definition of intimidating.  In the course of 7 weeks I visited 7 Asian countries, 15 cities, slept in 18 different hotels/ hostels, took over 19 different flights, and experienced 22 custom check in/ outs.   I accomplished all of this with ease without knowing the language or the traditions and customs of this incredibly unfamiliar  land.  Most importantly I loved every  minute of it.  This summer, I overlooked the incredible skylines of Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.  I explored sea caves in Thailand.   I rode an elephant in Cambodia and explored ancient temples at the Angkor Wat complex.  I hiked up The Great Wall of China, and visited the ancient and mysterious Terracotta Warriors of Xi’An. I visited Guiline, and its awe-inspiring 20,000 peaks along the River Li.  I experienced true hospitality in Korea, and saw the tranquil golden pavilion of Japan.  Instead of staying in my comfort zone, I dared to dream big,  I aimed high, I sought out opportunities, and God provided in each and every way!

1045135_787561360176_517422190_nThis summer was both intellectually stimulating, professionally motivating, and emotionally renewing.  It not only provided  me with new teaching tools, concepts and applications for my classroom, but it also developed my understanding of the world.   This project gave me inspiration, direction and a renewed enthusiasm for the mathematics content that I love so dearly.  It also challenged me as a world explorer and transformed me into a more informed, well-rounded person and teacher.  Overall my goal is to inspire my students to be productive, informed citizens that feel connected to the world around them.  This project helped me accomplish that goal.  In the next few weeks I hope to share some of those lessons and experiences with you.  So stay tuned!

Top 15 Things About Asia that Surprised Me.

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1. ASIA- The Land of Hot Dogs, Corn on the Cob, Ice Cream and KFC?????
Be it Thailand, Cambodia, China, Korea or Japan, what did I find on every street corner, in every market, cafeteria, street vender or convenience store? Hot Dogs and corn on the cob! Ice cream cones were always nearby as well. Top that with the fact that KFC’s are more common than McDonalds and Starbucks combined, your mind just might explode. But it is the truth. For every 1 McDonalds there was at least 4 KFC’s My cambodian driver had never even heard of McDonalds or Starbucks, but there were 2 KFC’s in his small city! A month ago I would have told you nothing screams US of A to me more than Hot Dogs, Corn on the Cob, Fried Chicken and Ice Cream. I mean, all of them are literally dripping with so much American tradition it is ridiculous. However, I would say that more Chinese eat Kentucky Fried Chicken than do Americans. I mean, when was the last time YOU went to a KFC? I am not even sure if there is one in my city. Now I understand why they are on the demise in the US. KFC is concentrating all of their efforts on the Billion people in China! And don’t get me started on the number of Ice cream shops in Asia. They LOVE I mean LOOOOVVVE Ice cream over here.

2. Where’s the Sauce?
I have yet to find Soy Sauce on any restaurant table. It is nowhere to be found. Apparently adding more salt to already salty food is just an American phenomenon. As are Fortune Cookies. I have had amazing Chinese meals, and not a single one of them ended with a cookie telling me helpful advice like “He who does not drink is thirsty.”

3. A Red Light does not mean Stop
Well… It does, but not for long. I found it surprising that a culture that is so trained to follow rules and not question authority have NO problem violating every traffic rule known to man. Crossing the street in Shanghai was always a life and death type of experience. And there were several moments in various Chinese cities where I felt like I was Frogger. The red light on a stop light apparently does not mean stop. It means slow down, check that no one else is coming and then keep going. But, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. If I grew up in Red China, maybe I would think Red was “go” as well. (Too soon?) Also, they have trouble with waiting in line. I don’t know how many middle aged Chinese women pushed right in front of me in various types of what I assumed to be line situations. Apparently a line is of little significance. I finally learned that you have to just respectfully push your way in. If you try to wait politely for your turn, you may be waiting a long time.

4. The Happy Room- Not so Happy.
The guide at the Forbidden Palace kept calling the bathroom the “Happy Room”. And with such a cheerful nomenclature, how could I not go utilize its services. However, this was my first experience with the public bathrooms of China and I didn’t find it quite so happy. There are two things you should know before you enter a public restroom in China. The first being that there are no toilet seats- they are all squat style toilets.

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This seemed shocking to me at first, but I can see the logic behind these types of public toilets. There is no contact with the actual device- therefore in a way it is more hygienic. You just aim for the hole in the ground. The problem is that I am a westerner who is not accustomed to such a system and there are other westerners here as well and the floor was COVERED with…well lets call it “happy” water. The smell was quite over powering. The second thing you should know is that public bathrooms are BYOTP. Thats right. Bring your own Toilet Paper. If you are used to that system it isn’t a problem. You come prepared. However, if you are not used to this system you are kind of left in the lurch. Thankfully before I entered the stall for the first time,a Chinese woman gave me some of her tissues. In the rare event that you did run across a western style toilet seat there are helpful (illustrated) instructions on how to use such a device!

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PHEW! I am so glad those were there. I almost forgot that you are not supposed to stand backwards on the toilet seat. That would have been embarrassing. Not to mention difficult! I don’t think I am that talented. I got use to the Chinese bathrooms….kind of. But I was really glad to see the Happy Rooms in Korea and Japan. Their seats not only existed, but were heated! However they had so many bells and whistles on them I found them quite intimidating.

5. Chinese prefer Blonds
For a bit in Asia I was traveling with a family from Australia. They were all blond and caused quite the stir amongst the Chinese tourists. Those who were traveling from the Chinese countryside were especially fascinated with the family’s daughter because of her light skin, blond hair and blue eyes. They would run up to her, grab her and take a photo with her. At first she was quite scared, as you understandably would be, then she got use to it. However, about 100 pictures later she got annoyed. My friend Karyn once had a lady come right up to handed her baby over to Karyn and took a picture of the two of them. It was quite funny! My friend Karyn was like…she just handed me her baby! He was the cutest little happy Chinese baby you have ever seen. ( side note, this trip has really made me want a chubby little Asian baby!). This reverse photo bombing never happened to me because I don’t look Western enough.

6. They are scared of the Sun
If the sun is out, the Asian Women are under umbrellas. Their culture loves fair skin and they go to great lengths to stay pale. The hotter the weather the more covered they are. They wear long sleeves, hats, gloves, sunglasses, scarfs, even face masks to protect their skin. I almost got the feeling I was living amongst a community of vampires. The truth is that they think white skin is beautiful and that darker skin means that you are part of the working class. Therefore they will go do almost anything, to stay pale. I even saw a woman wear a full face mass and cover every inch of their body while going on their morning run. They carry their umbrellas everywhere. Some are even very talented at holding the umbrella while riding their bike, with two kids in tow. This aversion to the sun is not just for vanity, but also helps them improve their station in life. It is harder for a tan woman to get a good job in China. This is very different than the American philosophy that views tan women as relaxed, healthy and vibrant. While this Chinese practice seems to be painfully warm, perhaps this is much healthier than those who spend their summer frying their skin in an effort to look like an Oompa Lumpa.

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7. “High” Style
Fashion was very interesting and varied from city to city however there was one common thread. The girls wore: high heels, High collars, and High skirts. Seriously. Everyone wore high heels. I mean my feet ached just to look at some of these shoes! And the skirt and shorts were very short, but the neck lines were ULTRA conservative. I mean It was very rare to see a collar bone and absolutely NO cleavage. Almost every man in Korea dressed and looked like a math professor (Nice slacks, shoes, button down shirt and big glasses)- It drove me wild!

8. The half shirt compromise
In contrast to the women who cover up to avoid the sun, when it was hot it was very common to see men, especially old men, in China roll up their shirts up to their armpits and walk around the city, eat dinner in a restaurant, or ride the subway, fully exposing their stomachs. Up until 2008 it was not uncommon for men to go about their day without shirts. When the olympics came to Beijing, the government, in an effort to appear westernized, made it law that men had to wear shirts at all times. Therefore, this half shirt on-half shirt off is a way for the older men to cling to their past without disobeying the government. I call this the half-shirt compromise.

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9. Remove your Shoes!
I now know why it is very important to remove your shoes before you enter a house, or restaurant or school. Between the squat toilets, the poor drainage systems, and the fact that it is culturally accepted in China to spit anywhere at anytime (I mean, big honking spits right in front of people. I think I almost got spit on a couple of times.) your shoes get quite filthy. I still forget to take of my shoes sometimes and I hate when I realize how rude that is to their culture. The school I visited in Korea requires its students to remove their shoes when they enter the building and wear special slippers around the school complex. And the hotel workers where shocked when I entered my hotel room before first removing my shoes. One of the spas I visited in Thailand made us leave our shoes outside of the store before we entered. It is very important to them and after living here I see why.

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10. It’s not the same.
The Letters and Characters of Thai, Khmer, Malay, Chinese, Korean and Japanese all look VERY different. Below is the same sentence (They do not look the same.) translated into the different languages. You can see how different they are.

Thai: พวกเขาไม่ได้มีลักษณะเดียวกัน
Malay: أنها لا تبدو هي نفسها.
Chinese: 他們看起來不一樣的。
Korean: 그들은 같은 보이지 않는.
Japanese: 彼らは同じように見えません。

Khmer- The Language of Cambodia is my 2nd favorite ( only after Thai). However, it is not easily translated. Below is a sample of its beautiful writing. I have no idea what this says.

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11. Which side of the road?
There is a major discrepancy on which side of the road is used for driving. This caused me a lot of difficulty. I never knew which side of the side walk, stairs, escalators to walk on or which way to look before I crossed the road because it kept switching on me. In Singapore and Thailand they drive on the left, but Cambodia was right. Hong Kong was left but Mainland China and Korea were right. And then Japan was left again. It is probably a good thing I wasn’t driving.

12. Breakfast is just a meal in the morning.
The breakfast buffet at my hotels were always interesting. They put a mix of “western” breakfast food in there for the tourists, but the rest was filled with Chicken Terriaki, Salads, Noodles, Soup, Sautéed cabbage, fried rice, sushi, ect. I am sure it is strange to them that we have to have a “special” kind of food in the morning. To them breakfast is no different than any other meal…it is just the first one of the day.

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13. The Cost is the Same.
The prices may be different due to the conversion rate, but overall I have noticed that the cost of items in China and Korea are fairly similar to the costs found in the US. This was shocking to me. If something is inexpensive, it is usually made in China. Logic then follows that all of the products in China would be inexpensive. This is not the case. If you go into a mall in china and factor in the conversion rate, the price of ordinary items are pretty much exactly what they would cost in the US. Now,I will concede that food is less expensive. You can go out to eat with your friends and the cost of the meal is less than what you would pay for one meal in the US. But, products are not as cheap as I thought. In the markets I was able to barter a bit and get some prices down, but I think I was still paying the tourist price for most items. However, some items I found more expensive in Asia. Coffee, for example, is much more expensive in many parts of Asia. (And not very good. Seoul was the exception.) And EVERYTHING was expensive in Singapore and Japan.

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14. Seoul- The Seattle of the East
There were more coffee shops in Seoul than just about any city I have visited in the US. Almost every other building was a multiple story coffee shop. It was wonderful! Mix that with the fact that it was drizzly 4 of the 5 days I was there and you can see why I kept forgetting that I wasn’t in Seattle. However, I found out that it isn’t usually customary to have friends over to your house in Asia. You don’t often entertain guests at home- you get together at a resturant or in this case a coffee shop! Also, people are so friendly in Korea. I actually met a few people while I was at a coffee shop. I noticed a guy wearing a cap with the American flag on it. I am sure I said a cheesy joke and we started talking, I helped him with his English lessons and we became instant friends! We met up for dinner the next evening and they even brought me a gift of special Korean cookies! I was quite touched! They are great people and I am so blessed to have met them!

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15.Soap Operas- the Universal Show.
One day in Shanghai I took it easy and stayed in my room. I ended up watching a bit of a marathon of a Chinese Soap Opera. To my amazement, after only 30 mins I pretty much figured out the entire plot-line without understanding a word of what they were saying. I also realized in about the third epesoid each one has exactly the same plot with only subtle variations. I found out that there about three things on the television in China; very dramatic soap operas, Old time China period shows or really, complicated and hysterical game shows that seemed pretty random and therefore impossible for me to follow.

Mainland China- Beijing Day One

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Beijing surprised me. Coming from Hong Kong’s concrete Jungle I expect Beijing to be a similar crowded city where people walked shoulder to shoulder with busy tiny roads, crazy traffic, and loud dirty streets filled to its brim with people. (can you tell Hong Kong was not my favorite) Instead I found the capital to have a MUCH more relaxed feel to it. Its roads, that had been restructured for the 2008 Olympics, were wide, efficient and allowed traffic to flow freely. Something that also added to the improved traffic was the fact that when you get a license plate to drive you are also given travel restrictions. For example, if your plate number starts with a six you can’t drive on Tuesdays during the month of July. The restricted days switch according to the month. It definitely helps with traffic, but I would find the system to be quite confusing. I suppose you get use to it after a while.

While the Beijing skyline perspective is not nearly as impressive as Hong Kong, Beijings buildings do not suffocate the city. Instead they were spread out and gave it and its inhabitants room to breath. Yet, Hong Kong is hardly to blame for its crammed nature. Because it is an island covered with Mountains, useable land is limited. However, the contrast between the two cities is not soley due to physical limitations. There are also huge cultural differences that contribute to the city design. Unlike Hong Kong, which was developed by the English, Beijing has been purposefully and carefully developed over hundreds of years according sacred concept of Feng Shui.

Growing up in the Midwest, the concept of Feng Shui was never taken too seriously. Perhaps it would be casually and comically mentioned when rearranging furniture, but never really considered to be truly important. However, I didn’t need to spend very much time in Beijing to see that Feng Shui is no joking matter to the Chinese culture. It is taken into careful consideration for almost any designed element from city design to food placement, and even a woman’s jewelry. The art of Feng Shui started thousands of years ago and was used as a way to balance one’s Qi (Ch’i). The words mean Wind/Water and represent the polarity between heaven ( wind represented by a circle) and earth (water represented by a square). Beijing is designed as a series of several concentric squares all stemming from the central 250 acre square that is The Forbidden City.

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This palace complex, which is the heart of the city of Beijing, was built in 1406 at the start of the Ming Dynasty. It was designed as a square in the new capital of China to represent the fact that it was the center of the earth according to Feng Shui. To the North of the palace there resides a man made mountain or Prospect Hill. It is the Feng Shui belief that a mountain should reside to the north of a city to promote good Qi. This massive and mysterious city housed 24 emperors and their families for over 600 years during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Forbidden to outsiders, any common citizen or foreigner who entered into the city gates were painfully executed. The mystery of the unknown has therefore captivated the minds and curiosity of outsiders for generations.
Due to changes in political powers the Qing Dynasty ended, the last emperor of China was overthrown and the palace was opened to the public in the early 20th century, however much of the city was destroyed during the cultural revolution to follow. Now days this ancient palace is filled daily with thousands of tourist who wish to see the temples and palaces of their ancient past.

The complex is simply massive. It has over 800 buildings and exactly 9,999 rooms. It could have had more, but the emperor dared not to disrupt his Qi by building a complex with more rooms than the supposed 10,000 rooms of heaven. But, I personally think 9,999 rooms is plenty. It would take a person 27 years to spend one night in each of the rooms. As I walked around the ornate city I found it incredible that such a place with such amazing detail was constructed in only 14 years. Yet, I suppose you can accomplish a lot with over 1 million builders. The color scheme was much the same throughout the complex. Red which wards off Evil, Gold which represents royalty, blue represents heaven and green represents earth were used carefully to create good Feng Shui. Careful attention to detail was shown throughout the construction with careful consideration for the number of represented elements. The number 9 represents long life, therefore many buildings were constructed with 9 windows, 9 archways, ect. Every door had a series of 9 by 9 golden nobs that promoted long life and harmony. There were also 9 animals represented at the top of the palace to represent the fact that this was the most important building. No other building has that many animals represented.

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There were also large golden pots positioned throughout the complex. These were filled with water to use in case of a fire, but even these were designed to promote proper Feng Shui. They were positioned over fire pits to keep the water from freezing in the winter and therefore symbolized all 5 natural elements, earth, wood, fire, metal and water.

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To the south of The Forbidden city is the famous Tienamen Square. This square who’s name means the Gate of Heavenly Peace, is known for something quite different in the United States. It was difficult to get answers about what happened on the square in 1989. I asked my guide about it and either she couldn’t say or really did not know the truth about the event, but her account of what happened was not what I had learned in school. I tried looking it up while I was in China but the content was blocked. What striked me most about the square was its size. It is the third largest city square in the world. (109 acres and 960 by 550 yd). Another interesting element was the fact that you can visit the preserved body of Chairman Mao in a nearby government building. The line to see him was longer than any line I had seen before. It was quite the site and something that was difficult for me to understand.

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