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!
The small things I really, really love about China:

1. The Hair Affair: All the really "hip" Chinese boys style their hair in the most ridiculous way. It's usually grown out and wild, sometimes curled, sometimes straightened. Many chose to die their hair different colors, but some go beyond and actually bleach their hair, which turns their hair color into an interesting orange. I wish I had a collection of photos demonstrating the various styles. These styles can most commonly be found in hair salons; it is an absolute must for hair stylists to rock these styles. The best part of it all is that all these boys think they are being "Western," but that is not the case at all. The only Westerner that could pull of the Hair Affair is a rock star, and even then it's a little bit ridiculous.

2. Nighttime Walking: At Xingtan College, all the student couples walk around the track at night and hold hands. It makes me feel as if I'm at camp and all the campers sneak away from their cabins to meet their secret lover. The truth is that the nighttime walk makes sense because all the students have seven other roommates, so there is obviously no privacy. I love taking walks at night and seeing all the silhouettes of the couples walking around the track. When the weather is really nice (like it was last night), it seems like all of campus is coupled up and having their moment at the track. 

3. Musical China: Everywhere I go, there is some sort of music blaring. When all the classes on campus are finished for the day, the speakers play an assortment of loud music for half an hour. The selection is quite interesting, ranging from Chinese pop to Christmas carols to Faith Hill. The bell that signifies class being over is an Irish jig; it makes me laugh every time, but my students just don't see the humor in it. Every store in China seems to think that it will attract customers by playing obnoxiously loud music with the door open. So, when you walk down the street, you are completely overwhelmed with a variety of music as you pass each store. There is also a KTV (karaoke) bar every direction I turn. So far, we have discovered 4 in our small town. One of them is the size of a very large building. It might have something to do with the Chinese loving to sing, and not being shy about it. All my students burst into song whenever they feel like it, and of course ask me to sing as well. I tried to explain to them that Americans are very shy about singing in public, especially when it's a known fact that you don't have a very good singing voice.

4. My Freshmen Students: Out of all four grades, the freshmen are the most excited about learning. They are also very excited to be speaking to a foreigner for the first time in their lives. On the first day of class, everyone in one of my freshmen classes told me I had beautiful golden hair and amazing big, blue eyes. All the boys told me I was very attractive. It may have boosted my confidence a little, but it was very awkward standing in front of the class and having students throw these compliments at me. A couple of my male students have stopped by my apartment to talk to me, and it was really nice getting to know them outside of the classroom. We talked about a variety of things, including their lives and what they hope to accomplish by learning English, but also spent time looking at their Chinese Facebook accounts. They were really determined to download QQ for me, which is a Chinese instant messenger, so I could talk to them online. It's been difficult for me to figure out how to approach being friends with a student; I have to make sure they respect me as a teacher, but as the same time, I am only three years older than them (the senior students are all 23, which is actually older than me!) and enjoy their company as friends. It seems to be working out so far, but we'll see how it all develops.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Tough love

A blog from Nick is always a tough act to follow, but here goes. Two days ago we got back from our five-day trip to Shanghai, which was an incredible change of pace from our rather slow life in Qufu. It was both comforting and exciting to be in a more Westernized city (think Starbucks, pizza, a night life of any sort...) but it is also nice to be back home in Qufu (I've noticed I've been calling Qufu "home" quite a bit lately). However I am not going to post about Shanghai but I am sure other teachers will soon.

Lately I have been struggling to pinpoint my feelings towards China thus far. I guess the best way to put it is that I have a love/hate relationship with China. For example, I love my students, I love teaching and I love the jidan bing egg sandwich that I eat 1-2 times daily. For the most part, I love my life in China. But I can't help but feel frustrated towards my new "home" when I realize that I am denied some of the things I previously assumed to be universally available. For instance, about a week before we left for Shanghai, our Skype stopped working. One by one, we all eventually lost the ability to log on, receiving only a message stating that there was a problem with our server or network. Frustrated, many of us have been writing to Skype and filing complaints, all to no avail. We assumed that it was due to the weather, the spotty Internet connections, etc. Yet about two weeks later we have come to suspect that something much larger and more calculated has caused our Skype to suddenly disappear. Not only is Skype no longer working, but also other forms of online communication, such as Yahoo Messenger and iChat. It becomes incredibly frustrating dealing with these issues and not being able to access certain things that have become blocked.

I realize that this is one of the greatest benefits of living in a place so different: learning how to adapt and learning to be grateful for the things I didn't appreciate until I no longer had them. When I think about it, I have the same type of love/hate relationship with the U.S. When I am in the U.S. in social work classes, reading the newspapers or discussing the upcoming election, it is easy to find the fault and criticize the country's policies. However when I am abroad I realize the many civil liberties I had in the U.S. that I was blind to until I was without them. I suppose that is one of my favorite things about being abroad: not only learning about a new culture, but also discovering new things about my old culture. It is never until I am abroad that I count my blessings and realize how good I had it back at home.