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.