Sunday, December 21, 2008

Chinese Solstice

The howling, bitter wind awoke me this morning - December 21st - long before the sun attempted its daily token effort at warming the world. Mildly startled, I found myself awake, peering from the safety and warmth of my comforter at the hazy black and white shadows hiding in the corners - things that send small boys shivering for the depths of colorful car-and-truck bedspreads - and which have a knack for appearing at ungodly hours, no matter where you are in the world. It seems fated that the arctic wind finds me today; the shortest day of the year. Qufu is a sunny place and today will be no exception, but the darkness which, day after day, week after week, has been encroaching on all of our spirits takes its toll, and the icy bitterness the wind brings will not lift with the sun today, no matter how brilliant and cloudless the day may be.

My bed is comfortable and warm, but the howling wind - a sound not yet heard since moving to China nearly four months a go - sends a cold shudder straight through me, and serves as a reminder of the dark, cold winter I hide from, existing just inches outside my window. It's Sunday and I have no where to be for hours, so the prospect of burying myself in the heart-warming security of blankets, a pillow, and my imagination is so scintillating I'm happy to be awake to savor the moment. Somebody awesome once said that winter is best witnessed through a window with a glass of wine and a fireplace, but I prefer my trio this time.

I drift in and out of sleep, encountering a half-awake state which on most days would leave me ragged and annoyed, but today finds me happily accepting. I get up to pee - who knows what time it is, but it's still dark - and quickly make my way back, smiling, to bed until it's time to go shopping. Today Olivia, Rachel, and I eat jiaozi, or dumplings, with our Chinese tutor Wish. My eyes water on the way to the store, and Wish suddenly gets concerned, thinking I am upset. "No no," I joke, "my Western eyes just can't take the cold." Apparently watering eyes aren't common in China, or at least Wish hasn't experienced it - or not from cold anyway. I always did have sensitive eyes.

After we eat, Wish tells us that you eat jiaozi on the shortest day of the year for good luck. Like all Chinese traditions, there is a story, and Wish explains that, long ago, there was a woman named Zhang Zhong Jing, who noticed that during the winters many poor people's ears froze, and she wished to find a way to prevent and cure this. Zhang Zhong Jing came up with a special medicine (Wish explains that it is jiaozi, or something she put in the jiaozi, I'm not sure which) to help the poor people keep their ears from freezing, and you eat jiaozi in honor of her on this, the shortest day of the year. The tradition does not seem to be a major one, as it is the first any of us have heard it mentioned, but we enjoy it nonetheless.

I later googled Zhang Zhong Jing, and Wikipedia explained that Zhang Zhong Jing was actually a man, and he is considered to be the founder of "cold damage or 'Cold Disease' school of Chinese medicine." I liked the version Wish told better, but you always tend to like what you hear first, I suppose.

As this, the shortest day of the year, comes to a close, the failing sun reminds me of a "hang in there baby" poster; trying to offer some desperate sense of hope. The wind subsides with the sun, but the effects have been felt: "you're not out yet," it seems to taunt, with one last icy blast. In its bitterness, however, the wind becomes the salvation - with it comes change. I have never felt so connected to the solstice as I do here in this now familiar place. The celebrations, the ceremonies, the parties; I guess I always knew why, but I never understood. Not until now. Tomorrow will be longer, if even for a moment. And that...? That will make all the difference.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Teaching and Travel

Today is my last real “teaching” day of the semester, and it couldn’t have come fast enough. It seems that being a teacher in front of the classroom has not changed the attitude that regularly took hold of me as a student at this time of year. I need a break. In some ways I need the break simply in order to get out of Qufu. I love it here, I really do, but having not left Qufu for 3 months I am going a little stir crazy. I also need the break to get excited about teaching again. I need to relax, regroup and then instill my teaching with some energy once again.

As you may tell, I am eager to get out of Qufu, and I have already begun planning what I will do for my 2 months of vacation—it has not been an easy process. Travel in China, and the process of arranging travel in China, is like nothing I have ever experienced before. In America, even in Europe, it is easy to arrange round trip tickets and to buy tickets for multiple destinations on a trip. Not so in China. You purchase train and bus tickets usually just a day or two before you wish to travel, and you can only buy one way tickets. You can also only buy tickets in the city of your departure. So I will go to Shanghai, then Zhuhai, then Guangzhou, then Macau, then Guangzhou, and then Hainan. But at this point, if I hope to travel only by train and bus, I can only purchase my ticket from Qufu to Shanghai. You really have no choice but to “fly by the seat of your pants” and hope that tickets will match hotel reservations (if you have been bold enough to book them).

At this point it seem that I will be traveling for about 7 weeks straight, and I’m sure my vacation will not be that relaxing, but I am excited to see more of China. The first week of January I will take a 23 hour train north to Harbin. This Russian-influenced city is home to a spectacular snow and ice festival each winter. I will admit, however, that I am a little worried about the cold. My weather widget tells me that this Sunday’s low is -19F. Yes, you read correctly, I did not mistake an F for a C. -19 Fahrenheit. Wish me luck.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Trying to make sense of it all

I noticed that I haven't blogged in quite some time. I used to try and blog every Wednesday, on my day off, so I began to think about why this change had occurred. I suppose the answer is that I am finally (after three and a half months) beginning to settle into Qufu. We have developed a comfortable daily routine and certain things that I once would normally have blogged about, don't startle or shock me anymore. This isn't to say that China doesn't challenge and surprise me anymore. Quite the contrary; it does so everyday. I think the difference is that I am learning to roll with the punches and learning to expect the unexpected. When unusual or confusing occurrences happen, I think to myself "just another day in Qufu..."

I haven't yet mentioned the fact that I went home to the U.S. for a month due to a serious and urgent family matter. Having been back in China for about two weeks, I have felt some element of culture shock that I almost didn't feel the first time I came here in August. Similarly, I didn't feel homesick when I came in August, but I did feel homesick coming to China this time around. I think the difference was that the first time I came to China, I didn't know what lay ahead of me. It was a mysterious adventure that I could not envision in my mind. This time, I knew exactly what I was coming back to. I was excited to go back, but not like the first time around. I also thought I would have some profound realizations about China during my time home, but I didn't; sorry to disappoint. I felt like two months in China was not a sufficient amount of time for me to have been able to make sense of my time there. Right now I almost feel as if I am not cognisant of what I am really experiencing. It won't be until after I get home and look back upon my time here that I will really say "wow" and begin to start understanding all the complexities that it held. For now, I am on what we like to call here "sensory overload." At all times in Qufu, our five senses are constantly being stimulated by the vibrant and nonstop world around us. It will take a serious calm from the storm for me to regain a steady sense of understanding of my life in China.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Things That blindside You at 1:30 on an Idle Tuesday...

In previous posts (you might have to look a ways back, but it's there) I had mentioned the "street food" available just outside the school gates (think plastic bags). Right outside Xintan's main gate, seven days a week, rain or shine, a small collection of food carts and vendors do business. Small little markets and collections of street vendors exist all over Qufu - we see them everywhere we go. Well, for the last month and a half or so there have been some interesting events regarding the street vendors located outside Xintan College, and today I was the unfortunate witness to the latest of these "interesting" events. Read on - this ones crazy.

But let's start at the beginning. About a month and a half ago I walked out to buy fried noodles from the guy I do the most business with, and was surprised to find that the area normally containing the street vendors was eerily vacant, whereas just the night before it had been slammin' busy. Turns out that almost all of the carts had moved about a hundred yards down the road, and there were police officers shouting at the few remaining carts telling them to move. Nothing else much came of this - the market moved down the street for a day, and slowly worked its way back to just outside the gate. I talked it over with some of my students who explained that the area where the carts had been stationed, right outside the gate, was Xintan property, and the college didn't want the carts there because they took away business from the on-campus canteen. It is important to note that the students don't look highly upon the canteen - one of Karrin's students mentioned flies in soup, and we routinely see stray cats running through there.

Well, after a while the police officers' presence became more routine, and slowly but surely the street vendors stopped setting up shop directly on the sidewalk outside Xintan, and instead moved into a nice uniform group lining the edge of the road, catering exclusively to those who happened to be on the very same sidewalk where they had set up shop before... I thought it was clever, really - carts, people, donkeys, and bicycles hanging out in the road is quite common in the streets of Qufu, as my previous post can attest, so simply moving the whole operation ten feet to the edge of the road (it's a big sidewalk) fixed their problem. Business went on as usual.

Now this is where all of us buy our fruit and occasionally our lunches (not as much as we used to - it's just too oily to eat all the time), including the ever infamous Jidan Bing. Rachel and Olivia love the Jidan Bing. We simply call it the "bing." It's a fried egg with vegetables placed inside something resembling a warm pita, with sauces. My point being, we're out there buying food generally on a regular basis. It is also, incidentally, exactly where the bus stops.

Today at about 1:30 I happened to be waiting for the bus for my weekly trip to Qushida to teach the Korean students. Now, this is a downtime for the market - the lunch rush is over and the vendors are all, in general, relaxing. Well, today, just before the bus rolled up, two taxis sped up alongside the vendors and stopped - about 10 feet in front of the bus stop, and thus, me. Immediately, six young men (they looked anywhere between 18 to 24) jumped out of the cabs, each one of them holding some form of a large steel pipe (Naturally). Immediately the shouting began, quickly followed by the men turning the large steel pipes on the vendors' carts. Now, many of the vendors are old women, who of course are completely defenseless against six men wielding steel pipes and the element of surprise. One woman's entire cart was completely destroyed; a chaotic mangled mess of broken glass, bicycle, and vegetables. There really wasn't anything the vendors could do but watch. Directly in front of me (about 8 feet, give or take a few) a Bing vendor had the entire top half of her cart smashed in. I noticed an old, rickety propane tank with a large dent in it about 15 feet away, luckily intact - that could have ended extremely poorly.

There isn't much else to it - as quick as they came the left. The men and their pipes got back in the cabs and sped off, leaving the rest of us to contemplate what the hell had just happened. Total time elapsed, 45 seconds. Most of the vendors were quite calm as they mulled over what happened - some combination of stunned, stoic, and understanding. They didn't really seem that surprised, although it's hard to tell how much actual anger/emotion was lost in translation, plus I immediately got on the bus.

Now I am not suggesting that this act of violence-as-intimidation is related to the school. I find it very hard to believe that the school would in fact hire a goon squad to intimidate some food vendors, and at this time I don't have any reason to think the incidents are related, but the thought crossed all of our minds. Whoever it was, they definitely wanted to send a clear message. Thankfully the pipes were directed solely at property - they didn't go for any of the vendors themselves, and they definitely didn't pay any attention to me standing at the bus stop. So on I went with my Tuesday. The Koreans, thankfully, didn't light anything on fire today.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Another day, another competition

It has been quite some time since I last wrote about my experiences in china, and really not much has happened. As has been mentioned before, we have settled into our routines here. My days follow roughly the same pattern—wake up, put water on to boil while I wash up, drink coffee, eat breakfast, teach class, go online, pretend to grade, lunch, nap, Chinese lesson or free talk with students, pretend to grade watch tv or a movie online, dinner, read, grade, go for a run, shower, watch tv or a movie, sleep. There is very little variation to these habits. I should also mention that frequently thrown into the pattern is “judge.” As a foreign teacher, I am asked to judge competitions on a near weekly basis. China is obsessed with competitions, an obsession that I am sure was not helped by this summers Olympic games. They use competitions to assess almost every single skill. Singing, acting, basketball playing, dancing, speaking, movie “voice-overing”.

Two weeks ago I began my morning sitting in the back of a police car and ended it by getting 600 yuan. A day that should have been filled with new and exciting experiences, really felt not too different. Granted I was judging a police officers speaking competition but still. Very little about China shocks me anymore. That it should be different and “shocking” has become almost expected. Of course they would drive me to the competition in a police car. Of course the police car would be a Mercedes. Of course it would have black leather interior. Of course a plastic pink comb would be sitting on the black leather back seat of the Mercedes cop car. Of course – I would expect nothing else than to be “shocked” by the strangeness of the experience.

This particular speech contest was a bit more of a to-do. It was a contest for all of Shandong province and a contest of government employees so a bit more ceremony existed. It was also not in a classroom but a rather plush hotel in Jining. The hotel was perhaps the nicest one I had been in a few years. I even got my own hotel room, complete with cushy bed, down pillows and duvet, and HBO, for naptime after lunch.
The competition itself was and English speech competition for the immigration bureau of Shandong. The participants could speech on any topic they wished for a length of up to 8 minutes. Most speeches had similar themes: duty, respect, responsibility, Olympics, service, etc. What I found most interesting was how many speeches gave examples of experiences in which the police officers had to put aside family for their job. Women in their mid 20s spoke about sobbing as they left their sick baby in the hospital to go to the office to expedite a visa for a foreign businessman. This was one of the few things about the day that actually did shock me. These women were not leaving to bust a drug lord or rescue a child from a kidnapper; they were leaving to issue a form. Further, this act was one that they deemed honorable and noteworthy enough to include in a speech, but then this type of act speech to the society in which they live and the government under which they live. And so, upon thinking about the speeches some more, I am no longer shock. I am in China—of course this would be the subject of a speech.

The competition also included some skits. This one was about Swedish athletes who were in Qingdao for the sailing competitions for the Olymics. Their visas were expiring the next day but they wanted to visit Beijing.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Golden Chariot of Qufu

I feel that it is safe to say that, for all of us here in Qufu, our daily routines have become, well, routine. We know what to expect. We know what our students get excited for, and that their blood pressures seemingly spike 15 points at the mere utterance of the word "exam." We know that we all need to get more exercise, and that sometimes it's just not in the cards. Okay so usually it's not in the cards (although we're doing better). My point being, we have become quite comfortable with our daily lives; China is no longer a strange and foreign land - at least Qufu isn't, and this means that I know, in general, what to expect during a given week.

I may or may not have mentioned this before, but my typical weekly schedule has come to include a once-a-week trip across town to Qushida (where Lucy and Eliza work), to "tutor" two groups of middle-school and high-school aged Korean exchange students. While this weekly occurrence may or may not be an eventful one (read: the students recently started using the electric heaters in the rooms to try and set the hand outs I gave them on fire...), it has caused me to become extremely familiar with what I consider to be the most important asset of Qufu: the bus.

Enter the #5. This modern marvel of public transportation, while not being the quickest way around town, is by far the preferred method of transportation between the hours of wake up o'clock and 6:00 pm. The bus may not be direct, and it may be a rough ride at times (this is usually because of rough roads), but it is always entertaining. Okay let me re-phrase: somewhere between entertaining and dear-god-I-might-pee-myself-terrifying, but lets be honest, sometimes that is a very blurry line.

The #5 is perfect for the college student (or foreign laoshi, depending on who you are...). It costs only a single yuan (roughly 14 cents) and, at one end, starts at the Qufu train station just past Xintan college, and runs all the way across town to Qushida. Along the way it passes the the Bank of China, two very large shopping centers, the center of the city (where you can find shopping, food, and the Confucius Temple), the bus station, a cool park, and my personal favorite, a clothing store named "Romanticbeaut" (photo pending). What else could a person need?

One reason the bus is usually entertaining is because of the people we sometimes encounter there. The weekend before last I met Lucy at Silver Plaza (the bigger of the two big shopping centers) on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Now, the bus is easy enough to catch as long as you flag it down, but it is important to notice when it is coming so that you can step out into the street and let the driver know you want to get on (you can do this just about anywhere along the streets the bus runs, bus stops optional), and usually we are on top of this - particularly because the bus ALWAYS stops at Xintan, but also we tend to keep an eye out. Well, on this particular afternoon I was finishing up sending a massive text message (thanks to a recently acquired cell phone), and failed to see the bus until it was whizzing past me. Not wishing to wait another 15 minutes I chased the big-twinkie-of-a-bus down. This was, apparently, the funniest thing since sliced bread to two women riding the bus, as immediately after boarding they proceeded to laugh and attempt to speak to me in loud Chinese. Once they realized (or at least I think they realized, but I'm not really sure) that I could not understand them, they simply started speaking slower... One would say something, enunciating every syllable, the other would laugh, I'd ignore them, the cycle would repeat. They got off the bus before me luckily - however when I returned to Xintan going the other direction, they passed me again (shouting loudly of course) in another bus. Ahh Qufu.

There is also always a decent "hair-affair" on the bus, or a person with a ridiculous and/or amazing hair cut. They love the wild hair here. Recently there was a guy with an MP3 player BLASTING some hilarious Chinese pop/slow dance song. Good times.

A couple of weeks ago Olivia, Karrin and myself headed over to Qushida for a nice dinner with Eliza and Lucy, only to find ourselves stuck at a four way intersection just down the road for literally 10-15 minutes. There wasn't an accident and the road wasn't closed. Rather, there were simply too many vehicles/people, and no one was paying any mind to the traffic lights, let alone the 8 police officers standing helplessly in the middle of it all, angrily blowing their whistles and waving their arms as if to put on the illusion of actually having control of the intersection. Cars and buses were forcing their nose only inches from the vehicle in front of them and would creep inch by inch as soon as they possibly could, ensuring that there was no space for anyone else to nudge in (which they would have, given the opportunity). This of course was converging on the intersection from 4 directions, rendering it impossible for any one set of vehicles to move at all. Pedestrians, seeing the chaos, and being unable to use any form of a sidewalk because there were too many cars, simply decided to walk right through the middle of the intersection, only compounding the already hilarious jigsaw puzzle of vehicles which existed. One bus driver was agitated enough to nudge a man on a bicycle who attempted to get between his bus and the car in front of him. Add to the image in your mind the donkey who was, in a futile attempt to clear the intersection by its owner, headbutting a bus, and you might start to get an idea of why the #5 can be so much fun.

My absolute favorite part about the bus, and the reason I think it always proves to be entertaining/terrifying, is because of the traffic patterns in Qufu, and the complete familiarity of the streets that only comes from driving a bus up and down the same roads day in and day out. You can tell that these drivers are totally on auto pilot. That is all well and good - I like a confident, experienced driver. It does mean, however, that sometimes they tend to drive a little too fast for the traffic patterns, and thus it gets a little scary, as we are constantly afraid that the bus is going to get into an accident. for example, lets consider the following picture:

As you can see, the lane is quite crowded - there really isn't anywhere for a large bus to go - or is there? Hmm, there seems to be some space on the left... well why not?! WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? The driver of course, seeing the open lane will immediately shoot for it, resulting in a scenario, while not taken on the same bus ride, similar to this:

Yes, that is a mother and her small child darting across going the other direction, while the bus careens toward the woman on the cart with the yellow cover and the mini truck. Good times had by all. Lanes in general just don't seem to have much meaning, even when turning corners, as witnessed by this particular picture:

look closely - that is actually the lane boundary for the left side of the road. Yes, the driver did in fact turn directly into oncoming traffic. I must say however, it is not entirely the bus drivers' fault that they drive so insanely. For one, this is simply the norm over here. Roads are pretty much every man for themselves. This of course, means for pedestrians too, as is witnessed here:

I took this picture from the inside of the bus. Right next to the door (it was really crowded). The woman is simply casually walking her bike down the middle of the street as if no one else existed. Now, this doesn't necessarily pose a problem - if a moving vehicle sees another person ahead walking down the middle of the street it is typically easy to slow down and avoid. I've noticed one problem in particular as to why this usually can't happen as it should, and that is that people don't travel in straight lines. ever. In fact, bicycles, electric bikes, three wheeled carts, and people all tend to take a route closely resembling the red line below:

While this happens, a car may come careening down the road in the opposite direction, in a pattern similar to the one shown in purple:

Seemingly at the same time, and from the depths of no where, a dog/car/donkey/bike/pedestrian/chicken will decide they need to cross the road, as illustrated by the teal line:

Casually, all three sentient beings will seemingly pass through the highlighted space at the same time:Miraculously, all parties involved emerge completely unscathed. We can use these diagrams to answer the question, "why did the dog/car/donkey/bike/pedestrian/chicken cross the road?" Simply put, to deny the laws of physics.

As you can very well see, the bus here in Qufu is not only a fantastic way to get around town, it is also cool because it simply does not obey the laws of physics. This may not be all of the fun stories and events we have encountered on the number 5 this year so far, but I'll do my best to update the blog with any further hilarious encounters/pictures of donkeys head-butting buses.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Day! (Take 2)

It is a bit strange to be so far away, in such a foreign place (where they don't even have turkeys), during a holiday where the tradition involves a gathering of friends and family.  I am happy, though, to have some Skidmore friends to share the holiday with.

I have been receiving text messages on my cell phone, since yesterday evening, from my favorite freshman class, all wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving and thanking me for being their teacher.  It's funny, I often don't think of myself as a teacher, since I am so inexperienced, but I must be doing something right.  Yesterday evening, two of my freshmen invited me to dinner with them.  We enjoyed a really nice meal together (I tried a pamelo for the first time...delicious), and we sat and talked for two hours.

It's another sunshiney, beautiful, Autumn-feeling day here in Qufu. On rare days like this, when we can actually see the blue of the sky, we can also see more clearly the thick, billowing clouds of black coal smoke that spew from the old-fashioned industrial chimneys.  We can see the wisps of smoke dissolve into the blue, but we know that we have already inhaled the fine dust into our lungs, and it is already forming another layer of gray/black dust over everything.

I often find myself in disbelief that we have now been here for only three months.  It feels like so much longer.  And upon this realization, my initial reaction is that I can't believe we have another seven months to go here; it's going to drag by.  But then I stop and think, wonder why I seem to be in such a hurry to return home (other than, of course, the fact that I miss my loved ones).  I remind myself that this is exactly where I want to be.  Last night I sat at a table, enjoying a meal with two students who were sharing with me their future dreams.  We discussed the great cultural differences between China and America, specifically within the educational system.  We laughed.  They eagerly practiced speaking my native language, and I theirs.  They thanked me genuinely and heartily for coming all the way to China to teach them.  Here, I am a teacher (whether I feel like one or not).  They appreciate me, respect me, and I am in awe of the things I see around me and the people I meet every day.  I am in China.  Not just in China, but in China--for eleven months I am a resident of this quickly developing, dusty little city; a teacher at this quickly developing, somewhat disorganized private college.  I am living one of my great dreams: to be inside the bubble of a foreign place and culture, to see and know it from the inside, not just gloss over it with a camera around my neck as I hope a plane from city to city, trying to hit all the tourist hot spots.  So for this, I am thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Day!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Their very first foreigner

On Sunday Lucy and I went to a town near by--about 30 minutes drive from Qufu--to teach children between the ages of 5 and 12. We really didn't know anything more than that when we were picked up at 7am. During the ride there I was tired and not really looking forward to spending my Sunday in a classroom teaching. We arrived in the center of town and split up; Lucy would go to 3 schools and I would go to another 4 all in surrounding villages. Once I walked into the school my feelings about the day radically changed. The children were all so incredibly energetic and enthusiastic. I think Lucy described it best when she said she felt like Santa. Because we were the first foreigners that they had even met they were shy and hesitant in deciding what to make of me at first. Was I real?  And then, moments later, once they decided that I was not someone--or something--to be afraid of they swarmed. For 3 hours I moved from class to class, school to school. The children had been taking English for anywhere from 2 months to 4 years so their levels varied. After introducing myself to each class, I would answer their questions--all the basic phrases they had learned: what is your favorite color; what is your favorite food; do you like oranges; what is your favorite sport? Then they would sing me a song or chant a song or two. I would then teach them a song and play a game with them. For most classes I taught them "Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes" and they all learned very quickly. After singing the song and doing the motions together a few times, I would point to a part on my body and they would have to say it correctly or I would say a part of my body and they would have to point to it. Though some were a moment or two behind the others, most learned quickly--we'll see if they retain any of it. 

After 3 hours of teaching Lucy and I met up again and taught a large group of very young children ring around the rosie. Holding hands with one little girl in a pink puffy jacket, I really noticed just how curious, enthusiastic, yet shy many of them were. She wouldn't really look me in the eye when I asked her questions, yet she clung to my hand, not wanted to let me go. We signed dozens of "autographs" in their textbooks in a frenzy of pushing and shoving and then said good bye. Following teaching, we were treated to a feast for lunch. Six or so dishes of food came out and we ate quickly, hungry and worn out by the long day. Having stuffed ourselves we forced ourselves to make room as another 5 dishes appeared. We did our best not to appear rude in refusing to eat more. We arrived back at our apartments at about 1:30 in the afternoon, exhausted from the morning but grateful for the experience. 

The conditions of each school varied dramatically. Some were a large complex with larger, clean classrooms while others really nothing more than a single room in a rapidly aging building. From what I could gather, the each school was part of the larger single organization that had brought us there. Most seemed to have to do with educating the children of coal miners as the town is supported largely by coal mining. The children were all adorable though--I have to say Chinese children really are the cutest. Some were dressed in school track suites while others, mostly the girls, wore tweed jackets and knee high boots, making them appear almost as miniature adults. In the spring, when my Juniors go to their hometowns to do student teaching for a 5 weeks, I hope to be able to go back to the schools more regularly and really interact with the children. 

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Enjoying Life in Zhuhai

Well, it has been much too long since I last wrote on this blog. Travis and I are settling into our lives here in Zhuhai. We are very busy during the week; we both teach 8 classes, host an English movie night, receive tutoring in Chinese, and tutor in English. On top of that, there are always events for us to go to, papers to grade, and emails to respond to. While we are amazingly busy, we are pretty happy. Life in Zhuhai is always full of fun excursions and great meals (we eat very, very well here!) This weekend it finally got cool (70 degrees Fahrrenheit) and so we had our first hot pot experience. I know that our Northern friends have been enjoying hot pot for months, but in Zhuhai it was too warm to really enjoy it. We went out with three of the Chinese teachers in our department: Vincent, Kaitlyn, and Tom. We had a great time eating everything in sight and talking about Chinese accents, Obama, hand-holding in China, and our department. I really feel that the longer I am here, the more I love the people around me. Travis and I really lucked out coming to Sun Yat-sen University; everyone has been amazingly kind and generous. We have been very well taken care of. This Tuesday we are going with some of the other foreign teachers on an excursion to Sun Yat-sen's hometown. There always seems to be some excuse for a fun event or a big meal, and I am loving it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Day

I think I can speak for all of us in Qufu when I say that today (the 4th and 5th here really) was the first day we really wished we were in the US. We've gone without the comforts of home for just over two months now but it is today that we really feel an almost painful desire to be home.  In Qufu people for the most part went about their days not just indifferent but oblivious. Though almost all my students have at some point expressed their support for Obama, there is no sense here of the monumental nature of the day. We can only image the atmosphere that stemmed from the many varying emotions in response to the election results. Joy, relief, hope, disbelief that we would ever finally see the day when a black man was elected president. We have in large part enjoyed every single day here in China, but today I think we are all more than a little jealous. So try your hardest to remember the day for us. It's one for the history books. 

Thursday, October 30, 2008


  So for the past three weeks or so I have been really awful at keeping my blog updated. Perhaps it is because I have truly settled into my life here. I have my routines down, I am no longer really making new friends but developing the friendship I have, and classes have become somewhat predictable. Nothing much exciting has happened for me in Qufu since I returned from Shanghai; yet, I still notice differences in culture each day. I will have to make more of an effort to get my observations down each day.

This past week I have been reading and grading "Autobiographies" from my junior sections. Though many of them are the same, and the same cliched language is use throughout, it has been fascinating to get a look into the life of a typical Chinese student. How they spend their childhood and adolescence is so remarkably different from not only how I spent my own but also how the majority of Americans spend theirs. For my students scores and ranks among their class have been a part of their life since the age of 7 or so. Their schooling is not so much a means to develop an independent and creative individual but someone who will continue to past tests so as to make it to college. The pressure to advance in education here is so strong that often it seems as if children really miss out on a childhood. Nearly all of my students have included vignettes of a playful youth who had to push her innocence aside as a result of a bad test score. So many of my students have regard their time in middle and senior high school as the worst time in their life.

It is strange for me to look back my own experience as a teenager and remember anything other than inspiring teachers, supportive friends, and parents who encouraged me to believe that the possibilities for my future were endless. I am not so naive as to believe that my experiences are the same as every other American--I know that I have been blessed in my family, friends and education--but I to look at our teenage years as whole life altering in how depressed is something very different from the culture that I have grown up in.

It is strange, too, how many of the autobiographies I have read that have included losing a parent by illness or accident. Having only read through a third of my students' papers, or about thirty autobiographies, at least five have experience the painful loss of a loved one. Again, this is a characteristic of their lives that I find very different from Americans'.

Their stories are not with out inspiration though. Many write beautiful descriptions of their love for their parents and their gratitude for all that they have given up in order to provide them an education. For many of my students, they are the first of their family to study in college or even graduate from high school. They recognized the opportunities that education will afford them and their motivation is inspiring. Though only about 40 percent of students graduating will be able to find jobs in the fields and at the levels they have studied, they are all hopeful for a prosperous and fulfilling future.

I think what has been most rewarding about reading these autobiographies is not simply hearing their stories but seeing the work and effort my students put into them and the enjoyment they have taken from writing. When I told my students that they would be writing autobiographies, or at least parts of an autobiography, many responded with a look of doubt on their faces, saying, "But we haven't done anything. Our lives are not important." I told them that people write autobiographies, not because they are important but because there are people, places and events that are important to them. In that way, their stories have value. I like to think that in assigning them each to write an autobiography, I have helped them see themselves and their lives as meaningful because they have happened. Perhaps I have, in some small part, moved them out of the "group" for a moment and allowed them to see themselves as worthy of a story.

You've Got to Read It to Believe It

As is the case at most college campuses both here in China and back in the states, Midterm season has arrived. By U.S. standards, the importance of the midterm exam varies greatly - at Skidmore, at least in the Philosophy department, they really weren't all that important, or didn't exist at all. Usually it served simply as a good half way point for a major paper to be due. Here at Xintan however, midterm exams are a very big deal. The student's grades are heavily influenced by the outcome of the midterm, and thus they become very agitated and nervous whenever the topic manages to rear its ugly head.

On the whole, we as a group of foreign teachers have placed far less emphasis on the importance of the mid-term than the students are used to, largely because most all of us prefer to base grades on class participation and assignments than on tests - unfortunately, no matter how much we re-assure them that the midterms in our classes really aren't that big of a deal, it is really, really difficult to go against 15 years of schooling telling them otherwise.

One of the most important things I've been reminding myself while grading midterms is that, when taking a test, you are almost always nervous and rushing. My students have done very well on the whole, which I am happy about - however some of the answers have been either odd, out of context, or just plain wrong; and sometimes in distinctly hilarious and shocking ways. Karrin and myself were grading papers several nights ago, and were so taken aback by some of the answers we received, that we decided to post a blog segment about them. So much so, that this may even become a re-occurring segment: "You've Got to Read it to Believe it."

I would like to make one disclaimer: these quotes, while hilarious, are not the majority of our students' work, and are largely taken out of context. Many of the writers here are extremely talented, some more so than many American students, so don't think we are simply making fun of our students, claiming they are of low caliber. Some things just tend to get lost in translation...

So, without further adieu, let the quotes begin:

In an essay on the topic of beggars, the following sentence appeared: "...he [the beggar] stretched out his hand with a broken bowel in it."

In an essay where a student wrote a letter to themselves, 10 years in the future (actually a very well written essay): "Go to your parents home twice a month. Buy them one or two pieces of gift, not valuable but right to their taste."

On one of my tests, I asked students to provide several definitions from or about the movies we've watched...

Desegregation: "An act of treating a group of people with sexes, faces, its unfair." (I'm still not exactly sure what they were trying to say)

"That's the whole ball of wax:" "The everything from your ear."

"Cold Feet:" "The Cold War."

"That's the whole ball of wax:" "An imaginary place."

I will leave you all with a passage from the clear winner in the game of "shock the foreign teachers," from one of Karrin's writing classes, in an essay titled: "Be For Death Penalty."

"In addition, he [someone who commits a murder] has no life aims in the rest of life. So why not gust advance his lifetime and end his meaningless life earlier ... Whats more, Death Penalty can also let the criminals pure their devilish spirit and comfort the victims hearts in the heaven."

We've all still got a lot of grading left to do, so we'll keep a running list of quirky, hilarious, and sometimes downright shocking answers. That's all for now!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Let's Talk Fireworks

On my personal blog I have been posting with some regularity a segment I like to call "Picture of The Week." While this segment is not always best suited for the purpose of this blog, I feel that this weeks installment discusses a topic which deserves to be posted here as well, because this is most certainly one of the things that all of us here in Qufu have experienced: fireworks.

I say fireworks, but really this is an unjust description of the mind numbing explosions - which can only be described as automatic-machine-gun-esque eruptions (they call them fire crackers), quickly followed by small bombs, often in the form of something similar to a flash-bang grenade on steroids, maliciously cavitating across the night sky, destroying the ear drums of the denizens of Qufu without prejudice - that have become a tri-weekly/quad-weekly/nightly occurrence here in the city. Fun for the whole family, I promise.

In the U.S., large fireworks are often known as "mortar shells." A description that I always thought made sense - a loud thud as the firework leaves the tube in a smoking display of chest-vibrating awesomeness, quickly followed by the brilliant and colorful explosions we all so dearly know and love. I always thought the description accurate, but of course not exact - a real mortar causes way more human dismemberment and has only about half the cool colors... it would be a total ripoff. I mean let's be honest, who in their right mind would actually use MORTARS to launch fireworks?Enter the Chinese. What better way to celebrate a wedding than to light off fireworks? Alright, I can get behind that. However, when your fireworks begin involving SIX LARGE MORTAR CANNONS which seemingly are military surplus from the KOREAN WAR, you begin to lose me... Oh what the hell, I guess if you put red bows on them so the kids know they are fun to play with too, I'm okay with it... who am I kidding, I LOVE being woken up at 4 in the morning to the event I have deemed "The Battle for Qufu." Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that. Local custom in Qufu dictates that the earlier you light off fireworks on the day of a wedding, the luckier the couple will be. Or something like that. ...hence the 4 a.m. (3 a.m. central) start time to "The Battle for Qufu." The first time it happened, Karrin later informed us she had literally rolled out of bed and taken cover on the far side of her bed.

Sorry if this week was more rant than picture, but it had to be said. Have a great week everyone!

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Eagle Has Finally Landed...

Below- Carrie and I on a bbq/amusement park excursion with one of our classes.
Above- Me with some of my students... they're English names are Queenie, Scarly, Susan, and Violet.

Wow! Almost two months into my trip in China and this is my FIRST post. Unfortunately, there were plenty of technical difficulties that lead to this delayed post, but no matter...

I'm enjoying myself quite well as a foreign teacher at Sun Yat-sen University. The course schedule has been very hectic, with 8 classes a week at 80 minutes a piece. Three are writing, three are speaking, one is on American culture, and the last is for a exam prep class i co-teach with Ms. Carrie von Glahn.

I seem to be noticing ups and downs with the students moods. Last week, i started had two writing classes on a Monday morning, and these kids were barely functional. We all know how it feels when you are a student in a class and you cannot stop your eyes from closing. It was frustrating to say the least, but I found some simple solutions to the problem this week, which involved standing-in-place warm-up exercises at the beginning of class.

Let's see what else... I miss being on my road bicycle at home and have probably made Carrie crazy talking about bike-related things so much. We all know how difficult it is to just stop taking part in a sport or hobby that you are used to doing daily, so I'm trying to find other outlets for my energy. I purchased a standard badminton racket and have been able to play with some of my students, so I hope that continues.

That's all that I'm going to post for now. I wish a warm hello to all the other teacher in China right now who are kicking butt and, hopefully, having a great time. All the best,

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Last night was the best night I have had so far in China. Now I realize that doesn't mean much because we usually do nothing but sit around and watch movies at night, but even so, last night was amazing, incredible and ridiculous. After a long day of classes, I was looking forward to going out to dinner with Peter and Li Zhao, whom we had invited out to a Korean barbecue restaurant. Karrin and Nick had been there once before, but for Olivia and I it was the first time. It is similar to a hot pot restaurant, in that there is a central cooking area in the middle of the table and the meat is brought to the table raw and prepared in front of you. Peter ordered for us and we had pork, beef, calamari and vegetables. The food is cooked, then dipped in a variety of sauces and then wrapped in lettuce and eaten in one, big bite. Peter explained that in Korea it is a tradition to feed your good friends. So as yet another attempt to experience something new, we took turns feeding each other. It was fun. And strange.

It was a delicious and lighter alternative to the greasy, fried food we have become accustomed to eating here. Of course, with a dinner like this comes a great deal of beer. What starts as six bottles usually progresses to twenty-six, and before we know it everyone is singling and laughing, followed by a plethora of stares from onlookers. About fifteen beers in, we decided to give Li Zhao an English name. While Nick was adamant about "Thomas," he was outvoted by us girls, who felt that such a beautiful personality, such as Li Zhao's, deserves something a little more exquisite. So we went with "Elvis" and decided his full name was "Elvis Thomas Li." He was ecstatic and we heard about it the rest of the night. We'll see if he remembers it two days from now...

Towards the end of the meal, it was somehow or other suggested that we go to KTV. In case it has not been explained, KTV means karaoke. However karaoke is quite different here than in the U.S., we learned. In the U.S. it is typically done in bars, where an unfortunate and usually intoxicated soul comes to the incoherent decision to sing Celine Dion or Shania Twain to a group of mocking strangers. Here, however, KTV is done in a private room, just you and your friends. This surprised me very much because we have all noticed that Chinese people love to sing. We constantly catch people singing and they never seem embarrassed about it. Our students, almost on a daily basis, ask us to sing. We have even been asked to sing at the upcoming freshman showcase party. It seems to be a singing culture.

We walked into the building and it looked like a cheesy hotel from the seventies, with neon lights everywhere and psychedelic wallpaper. "Where am I?" I ask myself. "Ahh, yes, China," the answer I so often find myself remembering. Once inside the building, you are brought to a small room which contains a computer, two microphones, a screen for the music videos and couches. Almost immediately we were brought more beer and interestingly enough, kettle corn, which was a pleasant surprise. The majority of the songs were in Chinese but we were able to locate a rather random list of English songs from the selections. These were the English songs offered:
1. Fergalicious - Fergie
2. It's My Life - Bon Jovi
3. Beat It - Michael Jackson
4. Billie Jean - Michael Jackson
5. Butterfly - Mariah Carey
6. White Flag - Dido
7. Bailamos - Enrique Iglesias
8. Burn - Usher
9. Stop - Spice Girls

Of course, we sang them all. It was funny to see what had been designated as "American" music. We sang horribly, danced clumsily and a few of us sat on the couch unable to move (won't mention names, you know who you are...) Peter and Li Zhao also sang some Chinese songs, which we could not recognize or understood, but still enjoyed witnessing. It was truly a sight to see. Before we knew it, it was time to leave.

Just when we thought it was going to end, Peter suggested we get more beer. He disappeared for a few minutes and came back with about twenty large bottles and two bags of spicy peanuts. Li Zhao proceeded to open about six bottles using only chopsticks to pry off the cap. We thought this was so miraculous and encouraged him to keep going. He continued to open more and more bottles, none of which got drank. Next it was suggested that we go take a walk on the track, an area frequented by students at this time of night. So with beers and bowls of peanuts in hand, we headed out. On the way however, I began to feel tired and decided to head back with Karrin. The rest of the group walked the track and soon retired to their own rooms. It was over.

I woke up the next morning around eight to the sound of the badminton tournament outside my window. Not only were there many, MANY students outside, but there were also cheerleaders. Yes, badminton cheerleaders, shouting "ji yo!" at the top of their lungs. "Ji yo" literally translates to "add oil" or "add fuel" but is considered the English equivalent of saying "common!" or "let's go!" Who needs an alarm clock when you can have screaming cheerleaders at eight a.m.? I pulled myself out of bed, realizing my students would be here to cook dumplings in only a few hours. I felt like a high schooler who had thrown a party and had only a few hours to clean before their parents came home from their weekend vacation. The remnants of last night still lingered, and the did not smell good. As much as I wanted to crawl back in bed, it was time to mop, scrub, rinse and wash.

Looking back on the night, it's hard for me to explain what was so amazing about it. First, I think it was really exciting for us to finally see Peter and Li Zhao let loose a bit. We are used to seeing them in their business suits, typing away at their computers and disciplining students. We learned last night that they can party just as hard as anyone else. Secondly, I realize this blog entry isn't especially profound or insightful, but I still value these experiences in China just as much as I value my experiences in the classroom, my time at the Shanghai Art Museum, or my cooking lessons with my students. It is moments like these that connect us on such a simple level. We some times have communication barriers with Li Zhao and sometimes we don't always understand exactly what Peter expects from us as teachers, but last night all of those obstacles seemed to disappear. No, not just because we all had a few too many. It was much more complex than that. It was the first time we let down our guards and were not concerned with "losing face."

"that magic moment"...

            Well, I haven’t blogged in quite a while which means I have quite a lot to say.  I’ll try not to make it too long but considering it’s 9:14 on a Saturday night and I am already ready for bed I have loads of time.  The first thing I want to write about is the moment when I coined a term I like to use when I can’t describe things in any other way; I call it an “Oh yeah, I’m in China” moment. 

For the first few days of being in China everything seemed new but nothing had thrust me into an out of body experience like speaking for 6,000 freshmen plus about 5,000 or so spectators.  The higher-ups of the school like to have a foreign teacher officially welcome the freshmen every year and because I am teaching the most freshmen classes it seemed appropriate for me to do the job.  To be honest I wasn’t nervous.  I saw it as an interesting topic to write home about and I got over stage freight a long time ago.  Even when I was on stage with the soviet–style march music blaring over the loud speaker and I was looking at the crowd of thousands I was so overwhelmed with the question “how did I get here?” that I didn’t have time to be nervous.  The entire front half of the audience was the freshmen in their military uniforms sitting straight up with their hands on their knees as they had been told to do. (Military training is mandatory for all university freshmen.) From a distance they looked a little severe but when you looked at each individual face they just looked like sweaty kids who couldn’t wait to get back to their dorms to surf (or “suffer” as my students often incorrectly call it) the internet.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the girls in their military uniforms around campus holding a pink water bottle and a lacy umbrella to keep the sun off their faces as they headed off to training.  Anyway, as I sat at the long table of bored looking Chinese officials and it got closer to my time to speak I thought the only thing that would make this scene anymore ridiculous would be to stand up and beat my arms on the podium and speak in low shouts in a style so popular around WWII. I could rile up the crowd until they threw their hats in the air and the girls wept with the beauty and power of my words.  Well, that didn’t happen but it went smoothly.  For the most part I didn’t really know exactly what they thought I said because it was all translated anyway.  Count that as “Oh yeah, I’m in China” experience #1.

The second one came soon after.  The climate, my apartment, or both don’t agree with me here so my allergies have been pretty bad.  I was much worse at the beginning and finally went to the clinic I had been avoiding for so long.  I have to say mom, if your reading this, it wasn’t exactly how I described it.  I won’t say anything directly, but if you have ever seen the movie The Pianist, he camps out in a hospital at one point.  The movie could have easily been filmed in this hospital.  It was only made worse by the fact that they were doing some kind of welding work outside my room so sparks were flying in the dim, unlit hall while I got an I.V. Yes, I had an I.V. and I have to say it wasn’t half bad.  About halfway through the first of the four vials they prescribed I felt a million times better.  If I were a bit more of a germ-a-phobe I wouldn’t have had such a good time laughing to myself, soaking up the experience in all its exoticism.  I have to say it was also helpful that the freshmen were doing their military training outside my window because I really got to know my Chinese numbers.  YI-ER-SAN-SI!  YI-ER!  SAN-SI!  During my second round of I.V.s the next morning I met a really nice professor who was waiting with his little girl while she got an I.V. for her cold/fever.  (Everyone associated with the school lives on the campus so it wasn’t unusual to see a family at the clinic.  In fact, you see families everywhere at all times.) We had some interesting, enlightening conversation and his hopefulness for the China his daughter will grow up in was cautious but hopeful.  Overall, the clinic was an unexpectedly great experience in all.  Next time you come to China pencil in an I.V. and a pedicure. 

 After those two experiences everything has been rather routine but I am hardly ever bored!  I am teaching two sections of post-graduate non-English majors  once a week and one group of non-English doctorate students twice a week.  I also teach one section of sophomore speech and debate and five sections of freshmen speaking and listening.  Each group truly brings something special to my time here in China.  I feel I can relate to the post-grads the best because they are all around my age.  They are extremely intelligent students and are studying things such as ancient Chinese literature and applied psychology etc.  I am probably a lot stupider than them but the fact that I speak English fluently will keep them off my scent for a few more classes.  Actually I really like all of them and there are so many I want to be closer friends with but that in its self is a problem.  THERE ARE SO MANY!!!  Mostly I walk home from class with a few of them and we have conversations about cultural differences between people our age.  Wendy, one of my monitors, is adorably responsible and has been really helpful in telling me what the students need and want.  As for the Ph.D.s I enjoy their company because they are much older.   Because I had much older siblings and parents that never shied away from having me around their adult friends I like being around older people and I feel their responses to my questions and our discussions are very genuine.  Unfortunately their English is probably the weakest of all my students. I haven’t gotten up the confidence to ask if I can meet their kids!  I see so many Chinese children everyday but mostly the closest interaction we have is them staring at me while I try unsuccessfully to make them laugh.  As for the freshmen, I don’t know any of them well enough yet to say much but they are very interested in me because I am the closest they will ever get to Kobe Bryant.  I have to say though being in a class with them gives me a lot of energy because they are very eager to learn.  It almost feels like there is a vacuum in the room because they are so curious!  They are always pulling for more and more information.  I can’t wait to get to know more about them and get past the teasing and giggling relationship we have now.   My end of the semester goal is to get the girls and boys to actually touch when they shake hands in their skits.  (For now some of them just put their pens together because they are too shy to touch each other.)  What a differences from the hormonal freshmen at Skidmore who can’t wait to get their hands on anything mammal!

I guess I will end my blog with two of my most recent “oh yeah, I’m in China” memories.  The first was last night when my tutor and Eliza’s tutor took us to a dance.  Dancing is very communal on college campuses.  They played the same three songs over and over again and everyone knew the steps.  At one point I felt like I was at a huge Bat Mitzvah.  We worked off quite a few calories and had a great time but all in all it wasn’t anything like the bumping and grinding at American dances.

My final memory happened this afternoon and might be one of my favorites so far. On Friday I took a few of my sophomores to lunch and we were discussing what we do in our free time.  Two of them said they are in a Peking Opera club or at least that’s what their description sounded like.  The government suggested these clubs because interest in Peking Opera in younger generations is dropping but it is a very important cultural relic.  My students said there would be old people singing and playing instruments.  Old people singing and playing instruments! Next to puppies and babies that is my favorite thing!  They invited me to come, so this afternoon I found myself at the senior center tapping my foot and nodding my head along to some of the funkiest looking and sounding instruments I’ve ever seen.  The singing aspect is even more surprising.  They make one character (or part of a word) last for about 50 high-pitched notes.  It was incredible!  I truly felt like I was having an intercultural experience.  I am definitely going back next week.

So far, all of this has taken place in Qufu, I will write about our travelling experiences some other time!  I made it to 10:30!  Time for bed!

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Sun is Shining & The Flies are Buzzing

Today is a beautiful, warm day here in Qufu. The sun is shining in a blue sky, and it feels like Spring. It is a nice reprieve from the cold, grey weather we have been experiencing for the past several days. It was beginning to feel as if we had skipped Autumn altogether and went straight to Winter. Thank goodness for an unexpectedly nice day.
Along with the sunshine have come small black flies, by the hordes. Olivia and Rachel have complained of fly infestations in their apartments, and while enjoying our lunch in the canteen this afternoon, Nick and I were continuously bothered by flies. In fact, upon leaving the canteen, we noticed a swarm of flies socializing on all of the chopsticks used in the canteen. NICE! Who needs a health code? Good for the immune system (at least, that's what we all tell ourselves so that we don't fast in fear of getting incredibly sick).
Today has been a wonderful day. I have no Friday class, so I slept in a bit and read in bed for a while. I did some laundry, and after lunch I went to the post office with Rachel to mail some important documents home. I wanted to be sure they would not be lost in the regular mail, so Connie suggested I send them EMS (some version of express mail). Well that sounded like an excellent plan, until I went thru the entire process and was handed the receipt telling me I owed the post office 184 yuan. Yikes! Important, but not that important. Rachel had to leave before this point to get to class on time, so in my panic I called Connie and asked her to explain to the nice lady that I did not have the kind of money with me. Connie, being the kind and helpful person she is, rushed to my rescue at the post office. When she arrived she explained to me that there was a cheaper option for mailing my important documents, which would still be safe but would take a little longer. When she said this would cost only around 20 yuan I was relieved. But the post office by our school did not have this option, so I had to go downtown to the larger post office to mail my documents. Oy. Thankfully, one of my wonderful students happily agreed to escort me to the post office downtown. Since it is such a nice day, I suggested that we take a small, 3-wheeled motorized car (kind of like a souped up rickshaw). After speaking with the driver for a few minutes, Yolanda explained to me that it would cost 3 yuan each for him to take us where we needed to go because the vehicle he drives is illegal in that part of the city. I said that was fine. So we climbed into the rickety little van/car/rickshaw and buzzed and bounced our way downtown. Just to clarify: speedbumps + potholes = bruised tailbone. It was by no means a comfortable ride, but it was certainly thrilling. And by thrilling I mean I feared for my life, both there and back (as the kind driver offered to wait for us while we mailed my envelope so he could drive us back to Xingtan). I have decided there is no amount of money that would convince me to ever drive a car or ride a bike in this city. Even walking on the streets, one is putting his/her life at risk. But it's all part of the fun. I mean, the most excitement we get around here is drinking beer while playing Uno and watching a movie. So I enjoy a terrifying rickshaw/cab ride every now and then.
I am looking forward to the plans I made with Yolanda for tomorrow evening. She will be coming to my apartment with Mika, again. We will cook dinner, again, and watch a movie. Yolanda has also offered to tutor me in Chinese. Hooray for lovely Chinese friends!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Trains, Plains, and Paninis - A tale of Shanghai

The city of Shanghai is a bustling metropolis; fast paced, crowded, beautiful at times, skeezy (a combination of sketchy and sleezy, we'll say) at others. On the whole it makes for an amazing place to visit, due in part to the magnificent tourist attractions, the existence of a nightlife (something Qufu is in desperate need of), and a wonderful selection of western products such as sandwiches and wine. I also felt however, that part of what made Shanghai so fun to experience this past week was the "skeezier" side - the back alley behind our hostel, the kabab vendors who quietly whisper in a questioning manner "hashish? hashish?" as you walk past, and the knock off goods market (well, some are knock offs, some look like originals that "fell off the truck...") located in the subway stop underneath the Science and Technology Museum. Sticking with my recent theme of "the contrast," a.k.a. the giant two sided coin I have found China to be, I have found myself seeking out the contrasts in the few places I have visited - I feel it's good to find oneself somewhere in the middle of the two extremes a place like Shanghai has to offer. Stick with just the tourist traps and sightseeing and, while enjoyable, one feels like an ignorant American who is unwilling to see the "real" China; however spend too much time shopping in back alleys and sneaking around the streets of Shanghai late at night and the cheap shoes you couldn't resist buying will fall apart right after you get food poisoning - both literally and metaphorically. In part I feel it's almost that I simply enjoy seeing that these places really exist - almost to marvel at them; relishing in the experience of a world dissimilar to one I am all too comfortable with. But a delicious tuna panini with a glass of freshly made apple juice (the woman literally had a juicer and some apples - I almost peed myself) on the side doesn't hurt at all. In fact, after a month of almost nothing familiar to eat and over sweetened half-juice, it's kind of like the first time you hear The Beatles (to quote Superbad).

Random Wednesday evening musings aside, I will do my best to share with all of you out there in blog-land last weeks adventure to Shanghai. The six of us left Qufu on Monday the 29th, or the week of the national holiday (celebrated October 1st). Lucy and Eliza arranged through Andy at Qushida to purchase our train tickets, and we were lucky enough to get afternoon tickets on the express train (a very comfortable ride - the seats where similar to an airplane but with more leg room), which, with a group of six traveling during the national holiday, was great. Not wishing to leave Eliza and Lucy to do all of the planning for our trip (Lucy had booked the hostel as well) Karrin, with the help of Kathy (another English teacher here at Xintan College), graciously arranged for a van taxi to take us to the train station in Yanzhou, about 30 to 35 minutes away. Unfortunately, the driver arrived almost 20 minutes late, drove a broken down pill-box of a van, and was somewhere in the realm of a Will Farrell in that movie about race car driving yelling "I WANNA GO FAST!" (what else is new). Kathy explained that we were in a hurry, so Rachel, Olivia, Karrin and I all piled in and were quickly at the front gates of Qushida where Lucy and Eliza met us, and off we went to Yanzhou; all the while desperately trying to breathe something other than the nauseating stench of exhaust mixed with the acrid taste of burnt oil quickly filling the back of the van. Knowing we were short on time, our driver took us on a frantic tear through downtown Qufu traffic, causing us to wonder if we were, in addition to missing our train, in fact destined to die horrifically in a head on collision with the smog monster brewing in the back of the van which I was convinced would take beastly form and lunge out in front of the van. Standard driving jitters aside, all seemed to be going according to plan - until of course the van broke down in the tollbooth... What would the trip be without some crazy travel adventure (Don't worry, more of that to come)? We were half way to bailing on the guy (there happened to be several other cabs waiting nearby) when he finally got the van started again after adding several gallons of oil to the tank underneath his seat, and we managed to make it to the train station without further incident. As a side note, up until the hair razing cab ride I had not been on pins and needles in anticipation for Shanghai - not that I didn't want to go, I just hadn't gotten overly excited yet. The cab ride did it for me - I was ready to go. call me a sucker for action. Despite the lack luster service provided by the driver and his young daughter who accompanied us, I smiled a little bit as we were leaving because he did in fact seem like a very nice man, and the overall impression that I got from him was that he was happy to have the passengers (I'm still unclear whether he was a full time driver or if it was a side gig he has set up because he owns a van). Hopefully he wasn't stuck at the train station with a dead van all afternoon.

Our hostel was located in the north-eastern section of the city, a few blocks above The Bund, and, just far enough out of town to really get a good feel for back street Shanghai. The location I actually thought was very neat, as we could walk two blocks and be at a Starbucks and the local metro stop (The Shanghai subway system is a model for any city: immaculately clean, on time, and well thought out) which daily stole us away to visit all that Shanghai had to offer; while at the same time walk 30 seconds to the street behind the hostel and buy just about anything anyone would ever want to purchase for anywhere from 5 to 50 quai. to the left is a picture of the intersection of two streets. My favorite was the vendor who simply pushed a cart with his computer with a random assortment of USB, IPOD, and Flash Memory reader connections out to the middle of the intersection and put up a sign advertising MP3's and MP4's. Apparently this is a standard way to purchase music.

That first night Karrin, Olivia, Rachel, and Lucy all went in search of a nightlife (I'll let them tell you that story) while Eliza and I stayed back in the hostel and talked with some other people staying for the week. There was a group of Canadian English teachers from Shenzhen (or Guangzhou? Near Hong Kong, anyway), some other random groups of people whom I can't remember, and Tom, a very relaxed Brit who, after recently graduating university was taking the better part of a year to travel to China, South Korea, Japan, and finally to spend six months as a snowboard bum in Whistler, B.C. He reminded me a bit of my cousin Zach. The six of us ended up traveling around with Tom for the better part of the trip, and he made a welcome addition to the group (not that, you know, I don't love spending every waking minute traveling for a year with five girls).

The next day we attempted to purchase return tickets to Qufu, which ended up being a completely ridiculous adventure. We returned to the train station where we had arrived the night before, and went in search of the ticketing window. After wandering aimlessly into buildings, rooms, standing in the wrong line for a while, and in general walking around without any idea of where we were going, we finally asked for directions and slowly but surely made our way to the ticketing building. A completely separate complex with some of the most massive lines I have ever seen (with the exception of the museum we tried to visit later). The good news was that there was an English speaking counter - however it also was the window that had a special statement explaining that soldiers in the PLA could cut the rest of the line. This didn't happen until we were almost at the counter - the polite American tourists disappeared, and we delicately explained that they should all go to the end of the *>!$ing line. When we finally did get to the counter, we were faced with an exceptionally lame outcome to our morning of searching - sold out. All that remained as standing room only tickets on a 9 hour overnight train Saturday evening. Afraid we would lose even that option if we waited, we purchased the tickets and decided to sort it out later.

That afternoon we headed into the city and explored a bit around the museums and People's Park, as well as East Nanjing Road. The museums we were unable to visit that day because we failed to get there soon enough - the national holiday marked a "Golden Week" on the Chinese travel calendar and in celebration almost all of the museums were free for the week. This of course meant MASSIVE lines, so we opted to postpone the Shanghai Museum until the following day rather than stand for an hour and a half waiting to get in. East Nanjing Road proved to be a giant tourist trap. A complete sea of people, (see photo) in order to stay together we were forced to walk at a relatively slow pace and even stop at times. The only problem with this was that, whenever we were walking, let alone even thought about stopping, the barbarian hordes of the cheap goods underworld would accost us with little laminated cards advertising their shitty wares while all the while shouting some variation of "HELLO! HEY HELLO! WATCH? BAG? BELT? YOU WANT TO BUY WATCH?" The pushy ones even followed us after we began moving again, even though we very obviously were completely ignoring the fact that they were standing so close to us it was very obvious that they placed little value on toothpaste. The urge to throw the occasional elbow was not far from the surface, especially near the end of the first day. Later on in the week Tom and I returned to East Nanjing Lu (street) and toyed with the idea of walking into the middle of the crowded square and shouting, "FOR GOD SAKES WHY CAN'T I FIND A WATCH?!?" Just to see what would happen, but we were never brave enough.

That night we all went out to a bar near Xintandi (the trendy section of the French Concession, a mesmerizing neighborhood on the south western side of Shanghai proper). Eliza, Karrin, Rachel and myself decided to call it a night after a while, as we had plans to get up early for the museums the following day, leaving Olivia, Lucy and Tom to their own devices with nothing but the nightlife of Shanghai in front of them. Karrin found them giggling in the hall at 6 am the next morning. Apparently they had gone to a hip-hop dance club which stayed open until seven. They also, oddly enough, happened to run into recent Skidmore grads Ben Gallagher and John Wolfberg. You know, country of 1.3 billion - you're bound to run into somebody you know.

The next day Rachel, Karrin, and Eliza headed off to the museums and I was left to my own devices, as Lucy and Olivia were sound asleep from their long night, so I rode the metro across town to the back side of the french concession in search of a burrito restaurant/bar I had read about. Alas, it was too good to be true - I located the place with little trouble, however either because it was October 1st or simply because they decided to not serve lunch tat day, they were closed. Desperately hungry, I wandered the French Concession in search of something resembling a western meal until after about an hour I stumbled upon a magnificent coffee shop named "Saturday Coffee." A menu completely in English, options for spaghetti, sandwiches, cheesecake - yes cheesecake - and freshly made juice. Jackpot. I sat and enjoyed my sandwich in a dream like state, savoring every bight.

Still on a mild high from my lunch I continued my aimless meander through the French Concession, completely losing myself in the process. This was actually very fun, and after a while I simply started heading north and east, and after finding an amazing DVD store which I spent a good amount of time in, I finally made my way back to the subway station in peoples park, via another french bakery which sold RASPBERRY cheesecake (which I promptly purchased) and a wonderful garden oasis where I sat by a quiet pond and enjoyed my dessert. That night we all went back to the same club where Lucy and Olivia had met Ben and John the next night and had a grand time (there are some interesting pictures of me dancing, but what else is new), although I didn't stay out until 6 am (Lucy, Olivia, and Rachel took care of that for the rest of us).

Somewhere in all of this the girls had been able to locate plane tickets from Shanghai back to Jinan, and decided that instead of taking their chances on the standing only train (we had heard some horror stories about not being able to use the bathroom, or really move at all for that matter), it was better to shell out the 400 yuan to fly home. Being unable to purchase anything costing more than a few dollars without having given a solid month to consider it(I blame this character trait on my dad), and half thinking it sounded like an adventure (like I said, I'm a sucker for action), I decided to take my chances with the Saturday evening, standing only, all night, nine hour train ride. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to Shanghai.

The next day was Thursday and I slept in a bit while Karrin, Rachel, Eliza, and Tom went off to explore the french concession. Olivia and Lucy wanted to see it as well, so the three of us set out to do the same. Despite being a repeat of the previous day I had a very nice afternoon walking around with Olivia and Lucy - and wouldn't you know it, we miraculously ended up back at Saturday Coffee! Oh hell, I guess we'll just have to settle for sandwiches and fresh squeezed juice again won't we...

That night we ate on the street. This is a good time I feel to mention some of the amazing Chinese food we found in Shanghai... While Karrin I felt was most fond of the "soupy dumplings" (pork dumplings with a delicious broth inside, oddly resembling the experience of eating a gusher), I personally was all about these personal soup hot pot style vendors we located on the first night. basically, you pick out skewers of vegetables, tofu, and meat (if you dare), combine with dried noodles of your choice, and put it all in a basket which they cook in this DELICIOUS broth and hand to you in a bowl. Amazing. Other big favorites was the morning fry-bred (if only we had cinnamon and sugar with us), and SATSUMAS! It took me a while to realize what exactly they were, but am now convinced they are a very close relative of the Satsuma oranges which you can get on the west coast around the holidays. They are also available now on the streets of Qufu, and have made our daily lunches ten times better.

The next day was Friday, and while the girls all packed up and prepared for their afternoon flight, Tom and I took to the city. First we traveled to the Shanghai Urban Planning and Exhibition Museum - an absolutely stunning five story exhibit of the city of Shanghai, past, present, and future. In 2010 the city of Shanghai hosts something called the "World Exhibition," and it looks simply amazing. The city is in the process of completing a completely new section of the city near the Pudong area of Shanghai - complete urban planning from the ground up. Tom and I agreed that it will be exciting to visit in 2010 and see some of these buildings which look to develop into just behemoth structures of modern urban architecture. Tom was looking to buy a sweater, so after spending the morning and part of the afternoon in the museum we went in search of a "cheap goods" market which we thought was located underneath the Urban Planning Museum. We of course were confused - the market we were looking for was located under the "Shanghai Science and Technology Museum," located across the water in a completely different part of the city. We spent the rest of the afternoon wondering around on a wild goose chase for the market, although I did almost buy a sweet coat (complete with belt buckle neck) in a store we found. That night Tom headed off as well, and I was left to myself in Shanghai for the evening and remaining day. That night on a whim I walked down the street until I found a beautiful little park on the water overlooking Pudong (where all the tall well lit buildings are - it made for an incredible night scene), and after enjoying the view for a while wandered back to the hostel, but not before purchasing a murse (man purse... it's really just a messenger bag) - an item I had been in search of all week.

I actually really enjoyed exploring Shanghai on my own for the better part of Saturday. I located the cheap good market Tom and I were in search of the day before (It was insane - you could buy everything from camera accessories to Chinese souvenirs to tailored suits to north face down jackets... some of the stuff total fakes, other stuff real, which just made you wonder how they were managing to sell authentic north face down jackets for insane, bargainable, prices), I sat and watched people fly kites near century park, took alot of really artsy fartsy photos of the steel structure located on the walk up to the Science and Technology Museum, bought a journal, and sat and considered the obnoxious train ride I had ahead of me.

I returned to the hostel, prepared, ate a quick dinner, wrote, and headed out. The train left from Shanghai South Station which was a good 45 minute subway ride away (I ended up standing for the subway ride as well, which I was less than thrilled about), but I arrived with plenty of time. The train itself could have been a lot worse - when the group of us had heard the description previously in the week, we were all (myself included) imagining a cattle car filled to the brim with people. In actuality, it was a normal train car with seats - the only difference were people located in the isles. I spent the first four hours or so leaning against a seat, writing off and on and listening to music. It actually went by quickly. Around midnight a string of three different students, all from Shandong University in Jinan approached me to have conversations (always the same conversation; always awkward, never interesting) with me, and that took me up to about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning. One of them gave me a teapot "so we could be friends." Such is China. At around 4, after the Zhaozhuang train station, some seats opened up and I spent the last 45 minutes passed out.

I'm very happy to be back in Qufu - I think a city like Shanghai, filled with excitement and nightlife and many of the comforts of home I had been missing here in the Shandong countryside, is made all the more enjoyable to visit when you have a city like Qufu to return to. On the same coin, I'm very happy with Qufu and the quieter life I lead here, having experienced the fast paced China. Well that's all for now. I'm not going to apologize for a long post, I think they are quickly becoming the norm. One of these days I promise I'll get around to writing about the haphazard experiences/daily adventures of being a first time teacher - there are no travel plans in order for the near future, so have hope!