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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Xin Nian Kuai Le

Happy New Year! Or, in Chinese: Xin Nian Kuai Le!

We all remember how to say Merry Christmas, right? "Sheng dan," meaning Christmas, and "kuai le," meaning happy or merry. It's easy to throw "kuai le" around and make a couple of useful phrases, like, for example, happy birthday (sheng ri kuai le).

"Xin" is literally "new," while "nian" is literally "year." So "xin nian kuai le" is ... that's right, happy new year. You can also say "yuan dan kuai le," which is an alternate way to say happy new year that means something slightly different (what the difference is, I do not know).

I spent last night at the rock-climbing bar, ringing in the New Year with Nicki, Steve, Kevin De Palma (KDP, KDP15, etc.), Shang, and Lynn. There was drinking, jenga, that Chinese drinking game where you bluff the number of dice on the table (they play it in Pirates of the Caribbean 2), and (of course) rock climbing.

It was a great night, the beer was cheap, and buying a single round of vodka shots toward the end resulted in a happy manager giving us a free round of beers and a free seventh shot. As were prepared to go, there was a drunken round of darts, a bicycle or quadracycle that sat three people, and two Chinese girls that kept asking for pictures.

We made our way to a taxi, and while I don't much remember the ride back (that seventh vodka shot), the last picture in my camera shows Nicki and Shang riding one of the big stone lions in front of the school. Any night that ends with riding lions is a good night.

So, new years resolutions? Ah, I've got a ton. Rather than go through all the ways I want to change my life, I'll just list three simple big ones:

1. Exercise more. I've lost some weight here, but not enough, and the key to good health is more exercise.

2. Study Chinese. I've made some great strides in understanding Mandarin, but there's still a long way to go. Na li, na li.

3. Be a better teacher. I've got to put in more time and energy into my teaching in the future, so that I'm better organized and better prepared, and so that my students learn more and learn more easily.

So, welcome, 2007: this is the first year where I really have no idea what to expect. That is very exciting, and I think great things await.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

And yet Blogger still works?

I got no tubes!

I am , of course, referring to the internet; I've been without internet access for a couple of days now, and I've been using the metaphor of inept Senator Ted Stevens to describe my plight to, well, myself.

Basically, two underwater earthquakes off the coast of Taiwan on Tuesday severed some really important cables that keep North American internets connected to Asian internets. My usual sources of news are all unreachable now, because the data just can't get to China fast enough before timing out. Interestingly, Google and its associated programs (Gmail, Blogger, etc.) seem to be unaffected; most likely this is due to Google working closely with the Chinese government (that's right) and some of Google's stuff undoubtedly being hosted (cheaply) in China. So with a lot of the links on Google News connecting to hosts in the US, a bulk of my news has been incomplete two-sentence headlines that link to unreachable articles.

So Gerald Ford has been eaten by wolves as the senseless age of 93? And Saddam Hussein had his date with the hangman's noose? Along with James Brown, that should complete the trifecta!

It's Saturday afternoon, but I just finished classes. The News Years holiday was supposed to be just one day off, News Years Day (that is, January first ... this is not the fabled Chinese New Year, not yet at least). But some jackass with a lot of power decided he wanted a five-day weekend, so the order was handed down from on high: we'll have Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off, but we have to make up our Tuesday and Wednesday classes on Saturday and Sunday.


I've come to expect some insane shit here, but this is just beyond asinine. For most people, it just shuffles around the same three days off, while adding all sorts of trouble for those that actually do things on the weekend. Many of my students, for example, use their free weekends to tutor high/middle/elementary school students; so now they're income for the week is screwed because the weekend was effectively canceled.

A few deep, calming breaths; let's move on.

I've finished writing my exams, and I've been reviewing with my classes for the past week or so, so that they'll know what to expect come January. Even after all this time, I still can't understand some of my classes. Take today for example: two literature classes, a morning class (at eight) and a mid-morning class (at ten). My eight o'clock class is, consistently, fantastic. They always come prepared, they engage in the class, they laugh and talk and actually do something in class.

But then I'll show up to the ten o'clock class, same topic, same preparation on my part, and I will be faced with absolute silence and apathy. It's not a difference of ability; if anything, my ten o'clock class seems to have a better vocabulary and can express themselves easier (if they ever want to). They just choose to not do a damn thing in my class, they just leave me hanging for ten minutes at a time as a bunch of expressionless faces pretend to feverishly hunt for the right answer in the book.

I don't hate them, I don't even dislike them; they're a good bunch of kids, my ten o'clock, and I know they have all just transfered in to this school (despite being juniors), so they are still unfamiliar with a lot of things here. But dammit, it's been a whole term, and there is no excuse for them to be so tacit and shy. Their utter lack of effort seems to only make a hard course (literature in a foreign language) all the more difficult and boring.

So, New Years is ... well, tomorrow. Guess I should do something to celebrate. Nicki and I have talked all term about going to a bar in Xia Shan that has a rock-climbing wall; maybe we'll go there and celebrate the New Year with some of the other foreigners. I can't imagine a place like that staying open for more than ten minutes in the states before getting sued into oblivion, but then, having the (shall we say) more lax regulations of China does have its benefits.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Maple Syrup Is Only Good on Certain Things

On Christmas Eve, I was kind of slobbing it up around the apartment, in a weird Christmas funk, but suddenly my day brightened when I got a call from the Foreign Affairs office: they had a package for me. Now, would this mark the arrival of The October Package, Beowulf I've heard him called, whose mythic two-month journey over the sea via slow boat is only whispered of in story in song within the great mead-halls of our fathers? Or would this be the express mid-December package that promised to deliver all sorts of "Do Not Open 'Till Xmas" goodies?

Well, it turned out to be the Christmas one. I laid the presents out in front of the tree until Christmas morning, honoring (with some comments on my tremendous willpower) the whole Christmas morning tradition; and my family is so great and lame that they actually had me open them in front of the Skype webcam chat we had going Christmas morning. Yeah, it felt like an astronaut opening presents "live via satellite," but it was still pretty cool. I got an Patrick's ld GameCube, with Resident Evil 4 and Metroid Prime, and as soon as I can, I'm getting The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess over here. I also got some nice shirts, and a few DS games (Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney). Not a bad haul for being half way around the world!

So when Christmas day rolled around, in what appears to be tradition for any kind of holiday here, the Western teachers, demanding Western food, made our way to the Crown Plaza hotel for their five-star Western buffet. They had turkey (with some really lousy chestnut stuffing) and some Christmas ham and desserts and a bunch of other seasonal things, but the cost was raised to a sticker-shocking 158 yuan. Damn. That's a ton of money for what is really hit-or-miss food and mediocre dessert. If it weren't for the free beer and coffee, I don't think I'd return.

Just before we went to dinner, I was notified that I had another package - yes, the Beowulf whale-road parcel - ready to be picked up at the local post office. It was too late to grab it after the meal, so I went today after my classes. There was a big to-do about me actually being who I claim to be, and it took four postal workers scrutinizing and name-checking to determine that I am indeed Matthew. The problem? When *they* received the package, *they* notified the school (via a slip that *they* wrote) that there was a package for "Mathew." So when this Matthew character shows up, flaunting that extra t, well, he's clearly trying to steal something, matching signature and passport be damned!

Acquiescence came at last, and I was given my big, heavy package. It was covered in a thin black plastic bag, and upon peeling it away I saw a white package stained all over with thick ugly rotten brown. And a sweet smell ... Uh-oh. Maple syrup. My pancake lust had finally gotten the best of me.

So it was a long, slow walk from the post office to the nearest bus stop, and once off the bus, it was a ponderous walk up to my apartment, until I finally opened the box and found that everything - and I mean everything - was soaked with maple syrup. Reese's, birthday cards, newspapers, mail, cans of tuna fish, you name it. A lot was salvageable; the cans of tuna only needed a quick rinse, bags of mac and cheese were rinsed and rebagged, my new Dogfish Head t-shirt I let soak in the wash for a few hours and I think it'll be fine. But let this be a warning to you all: maple syrup isn't as innocent as it appears.

All the trees around here are being painted with a thick matte white, from the ground to about three feet up, to protect them from insects or disease or something; Nicki says it looks like they're all wearing socks. So I'll leave you with a picture of that.

Friday, December 22, 2006

My Christmas Tree

As Patch said, it looks like it's the most lonely Christmas tree in China ...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Working for that Cotton Candy

I was shopping for Christmas gifts a week or so ago, and I saw this guy running his own cotton candy "stand." Gotta give it to him, he earns that two yuan a pop.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Breakfast and Literalism

I miss breakfast. Immensely. I'm having impure thoughts about a large stack of pancakes, some sausage and/or bacon, and a big cup of good coffee. And perhaps some ... dare I say it? ... milk.

Thinking about it only makes it more torturous, but I can't stop.

In other news, literalism is quite "in" here in China. Steve Irwin, "The Crocodile Hunter," apparently really hunted crocodiles. Despite five news articles to the contrary and four weeks of classes where "wildlife," "conservationist," and "preservation" were important, oft-defined vocabulary terms, I am a liar and Steve Irwin preyed on innocent crocodiles, murdering them in cold blood.

That is all.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Old Man Christmas

Christmas in Chinese is "sheng dan jie." Sheng dan meaning Christmas, jie meaning festival.

Merry Christmas, then, is "sheng dan kaui le." Christmas + kuai le, a phrase that means happy for joyful.

And Santa Claus is "sheng dan lao ren." Christmas + lao ren, literally "old man," and so (with a little naturalization and reorganization for English), Santa Claus is "Old Man Christmas." A lot like the British Father Christmas, when you think about it.

"The holidays" in China are a disorienting time. None of the traditional cues exist here; it's a bright and sunny sixty-six degrees outside as I write this, there's no Christmas music or ornaments assaulting my senses in the shops, and I don't watch TV (although I should, it'd help with my Chinese), so the idea of "ChristmasBUYBUYBUY" isn't being hammered into my head. So it was kind of a shock when I realized that it's already the middle of December, that Christmas will in fact be here soon, and that it's going to be an unusual and unavoidably lonely Christmas in China, without the family and friends that I've shared this time of year with in the past.

They say Christmas is when most foreigners crack; if I can make it to New Years, I think I'll be OK.

I taught some classes the full "Twas the Night Before Christmas" poem this past week, and it went over well. Interestingly, my freshmen, thirsty for culture and vocabulary, really ate it up (I think my drawings (with color!) of Santa Claus, reindeer, stockings over the fireplace and wreaths on the board helped). My juniors, who are in my literature class, were as disaffected as normal; I might as well have been reading stereo instructions. I explained that this poem helped define the American image of Santa Claus: flying reindeer, red-nosed and red-cheeked and red-coated (although red isn't mentioned anywhere in the poem) and bowlful-of-jelly-shaking, and all that jazz. And then I told them that, when you think about it, this poem's image of Santa Claus is the one that has become world-famous; this poem is the reason the people working at the supermarket wear pointy red hats in December.

I thought that was pretty amazing, how this American poem from two hundred years ago has come all the way to China and effected their daily lives, if only in such a small way. I think some students were with me, shaking their heads in awe of the impossibility of it all; others just wanted me to draw more funny pictures on fat red men on the board.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sometimes you get defensive

I was talking with a student the other day, and we found ourselves discussing and comparing the writing styles of America (and, thus, the West) versus the writing styles of China (and, perhaps less thusly, the East). This is a matter that's oh-so-dear to my pedantic littler heart, what with part of my job being to teach students how to research and organize a thesis (not to mention write, quote, and cite a paper). I always try to give the ego ten bucks for a quick trip to the corner store when these talks begin, because you'd be surprised how innocent little conversations like this can turn on you, when you suddenly find yourself rabidly defending something you don't really care about simply because it's How Things are Done at Home. One of the things I didn't like about Hessler's "River Town" (although I would still recommend his book to any teacher or traveler) was how often he couldn't just smile and nod, how often her took things, well, personally. But today even my eunuch-like sense of pride started to get inflamed, and what annoys me is I still don't understand why.

The Chinese style, my quasi-compatriot opined, is all about "the big picture." A Chinese essay about the necessity for a new stop sign might begin on the cosmic level, detailing how important the cessation of inertia is galactically. Somewhere around page three, I guess, they'd get down to the here-and-now and actually mention the stop sign. But only in passing.

And so I found myself butting heads against this idea with arguments for the elegant simplicity of an essay with a focused topic, one that cuts the grand macroscopic litany and just gets to the goddamn point. I tried to explain how an audience (or, for you fine folks at home, a reader) in the West would think such protracted blustering reveals that the writer simply doesn't know anything; my student was shocked how anyone could so artlessly present their ideas without grand, sweeping metaphors that all come together in the end. "And so you see, the planets have aligned, and Behold! A new stopsign is vital to the success of the nation and the spirit of the people!"

For some reason, this aggravated me. Then we began to discuss American education, and the idea in China that American's can't do math. And again, this made me defensive, and I can't explain why, because a) I know it's true and b) me no do math good. And I found myself spouting off some nonsense, "Oh, well, you see, in America, we focus on, well, um, computers," my mind a few steps behind me, baffled at why I was allowing this crap to get at me, reeling as to why I would vigorously defend this point that I didn't care about.


What bothers me the most is that there's no neat, simple, bloggical (read: trite) answer. I still don't know why it got to me.

On the bright side, I just finished sharing with some students a few Christmas songs (it sure is nice to hear Lennon's Happy X-Mas (War is Over) followed by Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer), an excerpt from Dickens's A Christmas Carol (it's odd how few people have actually read this), and showed them Disney's Mickey's Christmas Carol, a true classic. I'm going to feel old saying (writing) this for the first time and actually meaning it, but man, they really just don't make them like this anymore. It was great to share some real Christmas stuff with my students (the commercialization of the whole thing has turned it into a Valentine's Day Part II kind of holiday here), and on my way home, I bought a plastic twelve-inch mini Christmas tree.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

I can't do math and speak Chinese at the same time, dammit!

Walking and shopping today to pick up some gifts and the remaining bits and pieces for my external hard drive (like, you know, the hard drive), I ran into a bunch of street vendors selling some maps and language posters. Just some simple, everyday pictures with the Chinese name and character written underneath. They seemed like good things to throw up on my wall, and I know of others that have done the same to help build vocabulary and all that, so I waded through a large pile of 'em to grab three that I wanted. I asked the guy selling 'em, how much for one? He said five yuan. OK, how about ten yuan for three? Oh no, no, fifteen. How about ten? And so on, for a bit, until I wanted to sweeten the deal with a large map of China (in Chinese, of course), which was twenty yuan. So in the confusion of bargaining for a good price on the small posters, trying to bargain for the map, speaking the right thing and making sure I was doing all the language stuff correctly, I walked away happily with three posters and the map for thirty-five yuan. Score! I'm the best bargainer in the world!

... hey wait a minute!

I was half a block away before I realized I hadn't saved any money. Damn you, savvy Chinese street vendors! I can't do simple addition and speak Chinese at the same time! Oh well. Got a few interesting pictures on the walk, tried a new noodle restaurant (still can't top Mohammed's right around the corner from campus), and now I have a nice hefty 250GB external hard drive.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Get a Good Stereo

I was shopping for an external hard drive this afternoon (with Steve's help, both in technical knowledge and communication, although I was quite proud that I was able to understand a majority of the conversations, if only at a painfully slow pace), and I saw a nice 2.1 (read: front speakers and sub woofer) set of speakers that I was eying when I bought my router a few months ago. It's a sleek NEC branded (whether or not it's actually NEC will forever be a mystery) set, some solid and loud front speakers and a nice hefty sub that outputs strong, heavy bass. Back then, with my even more crippled Chinese, I was able to bargain the price down to about 300 yuan, from an initial 350. Well, today, I was quite proud of myself when I walked in and, asking for the price in Chinese, was quoted by a quite shocked clerk a price of 250. And then I was able to bargain it down to 200! So I got these really nice, sharp, loud speakers for about $25 US.

And let me tell you ... you really need to listen to your favorite music with a decent set of speakers. Putting iTunes on random just reveals a layer of vibrancy and richness you don't get out of tiny, tinny speakers. Tom Waits went from sounding gravely to sounding like a goddamn quarry. Subtle bass lines that are just lost through headphones or on crappy stereo speakers sound fantastic.

I felt great getting these speakers so cheaply, and for bargaining and understanding a decent amount from the vendors. But I also had some great classes today, and not coincidentally, they were about music. My freshmen read about, wrote about, talked about, and finally listened to some music, and it was great. It's so strange to hear The Velvet Underground being piped into a classroom in the middle of China, and the weird combination of events that brought it here. And it was really interesting to see the faces of listeners that love the music of Sweet Jane, but just have no idea what to make of the rushed, idiosyncratic vocals.

We read a long, vocabulary-packed history of a popular Taiwanese pop group, S.H.E., and I gave them the lyrics to a Beatles classic "In My Life" as I explained the concept of "bittersweet." And then we had the incomprehensible, angelic Hawaiian and joyful ukulele of good 'ol Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. It was great to introduce my students to some new music. They loved the Beatles, I think seeing the lyrics in front of them really helped, and though no one could understand Iz's words, the amazing music in Panini Pua Kea had them dancing and smiling and just loving it. And asking them to put those thoughts and feelings into words, well ... it was a good day of teaching.

Yeah, so, S.H.E. Here's one of their more popular songs, "Superstar." Their similarities to Western pop (and music videos) are so scary, it's almost like they've got it down to a FORMULA or something!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I am such a teacher.

Today I gave my first pop quiz. The mortal terror on the faces of the intended victims slaked some vicious and primal thirst that I didn't even know existed until I drank deeply from the chalice of fear.

Not quite.

Teaching poetry and classic English literature like Shakespeare or Wordsworth is really difficult when you're teaching it to people who are learning English as a second language. It's hard enough to get students to read with interest literature in their native language (as some of my droll literature classes at Villanova can attest); it's a whole other set of problems when you add in the myriad barriers presented by literature to non-native readers. And the skills necessary to speak another language have no correlation to understanding or enjoying an artistic work in that language. That is to say: just because you can read it doesn't mean you can understand it.

It's amazing just how much is taken for granted in language and literature. Anyone that speaks English shares a hugely similar background in terms of history, education, and religion. Even if you were a home-schooled atheistic nomad, simply speaking English has inured you to the pillars and traditions of The West. You know, Greece and Rome, Latin and Greek, Christianity, European history, Renaissance and Enlightenment and pointless, bloody fighting over religion. So how do you explain all of the allusions to Hellenistic culture and history and society in Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn? How can you expect them to enjoy Shakespeare or Wilde when the concept of a pun doesn't exist in Chinese? The whole point of "The Importance of Being Earnest" is lost, and explaining it doesn't make it funny, it just reinforces the idea of English literature as this obtuse and difficult subject that, in the end, isn't going to help anyone when they get a job teaching conversational English.

So my first quiz wasn't about interpreting a deep piece of poetry or explaining Hamlet's existential dilemma. It was five simple, plot-based questions about Robinson Crusoe. We spent all of last class reading it, discussing it, and making sure every little nook and cranny of the short excerpt was understood. And I told the class ("hint hint") be ready to discuss (wink wink) this story next class. That is your homework (ahem wink): be (wink wink) prepared (wink wink). So with as much warning as I could possibly give for a supposed "pop quiz," I still met with stifled complaints. Some tried to explain that they weren't here the last two classes, and all I could say was the obvious: making up classwork is your responsibility, you've made no effort to contact me for information about the missed classes, and the course doesn't stop when you're not here, now does it? This is, you know, a UNIVERSITY. Not kindergarten. After taking a look at the quiz, I got a lot of complaints: "this is too difficult" and such. No, it's not; if you came prepared to discuss this story, if your DID your HOMEWORK, this quiz should be no problem.

But what is this?! Foreign teachers are supposed to be our singing, dancing monkeys! They aren't supposed to actually teach us anything! I have no delusions of being the savior of the English language for anyone here, but I am teaching a real literature class, and you can bet your ass that if it were a Chinese literature class, they'd have quizzes and be expected to talk and come prepared, just like any other university class. And this was just a simple quiz about plot points in a story!

So I went over the rules (no talking, no book, no notes), the answers (short, complete sentences; spelling and grammar, while important, will not be held against you), the grading (five short-answer questions worth twenty points each, bonus definitions offering a total of ten bonus points), I read each question aloud so there could be no confusion as to what I was asking, ensured there we no questions and that everyone's name was in the top right-hand corner, and we began. As if to foretell the inevitable, I saw many students cheerfully and promptly put their name on the top left.

And lo did he humbly understand the proverb: the best-laid plans of mice and men do oft go awry.

I guess I should have anticipated just how long it would take them write down the short answers I was looking for; shifting all those mental gears obviously takes time. I should have thought ahead, in case the class wasn't finished in the first forty-five minute period. But the bell rang for our ten-minute break, and no one in the class was finished. So here was a nice big window for the whole class to talk about the quiz, in Chinese of course, me oblivious and powerless to stop them. I warned them: no talking about the quiz, no writing on your papers, no looking in your book during the break. But it was futile. As soon as the bell rang to begin our second period, I heard the incessant tearing of tape on paper, happily, gingerly lifting the incorrect answers off the page and leaving fresh pulpy scar tissue, perfect for jotting down the class's consensual answer.

God dammit.

The quiz wasn't hard, and I had no desire to trick anyone; and the quiz was more preparing them for the questions they'll see on the final than anything. I guess it's just too much to ask for an honest quiz. I wanted to bitterly scream "I'll get you fuckers on the final!" but really, I just want them to read carefully and understand the damn book. I'll make sure to trim the quiz for next week's classes, so it's doable in the first half of class. Live, as they say, and learn.

Pop quizzes, love for an unappreciated subject, bitterness toward thankless students, pettiness clouding the genuine aim of education ... man, I am such a teacher!

Lazy Wednesday

Ugh. Lazy Wednesday is right. This week my seniors have been off in Guangzhou (taking their first timid steps into the crushing Chinese job market), and I spent a classless Wednesday sleeping in and wasting time. Grading some papers (not enough), playing some emulated Majora's Mask (too much), doing laundry and a little cleaning and neglecting the Robinson Crusoe quiz and interviews I'm to prepare for tomorrow's classes. And I still have mountains of papers to grade, finals to write, and classes to prepare. Ugh, indeed.

Even on the other side of the planet, with a whole city to explore and culture to experience and language to practice and learn, I can still be a lazy shut-in bum. Oh well. To borrow one of the (nauseatingly overused) phrases from my student's journals, "tomorrow is another day!"

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Zhanjiang Superstar pt. II

The rock stars that are the foreign teachers - well, Steve, Kevin, and myself (along with foreign student Fulihan, and yes that's his Chinese name and no I can't be bothered to look up how you spell his real name) - were all interviewed and pictured in a local newspaper recently, when we attended a local Zhanjiang Beer Festival. They had kabobs of all kinds of meat: venison, ostrich, mutton, you name it. They also had lots and lots of cheap beer.

Delicious ostrich, and our beer festival spread.

Kevin (in blue, on the far right) ran into a group of his students at the festival, and it was a lot of fun practicing my Chinese and helping them practice English. On top of the food and the beer, there were some fireworks and a lot of obnoxious muzak! A fun night indeed.

The caption reads "Foreign friends (lit: foreign friend people) celebrate beer festival." Damn I'm good! Be sure to check out a lot more pictures here.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Last one ... promise.

So I've done a lot of blogging today. Yeah, yeah, I know. One more can't hurt.

Today, after a balmy morning that kept me sweating all through class, and then a sudden torrential rain in the middle of the afternoon, Zhanjiang had its first genuinely cold day. It feels like, finally, this place is real: it has weather, it changes, and it's at last changing to something cooler. For some reason, this cold weather really makes me happy, optimistic even. It's almost as if I can feel at home, feel a sense of permanency and progress, when I live somewhere long enough to experience seasonal change.

I love the cold weather, and finally having it cooler here fills me with real joy. And walking out tonight to get some crossword puzzles ("The Importance of Being Earnest" vocabulary) photocopied for my classes tomorrow, I felt hopeful and somehow energized.

I don't know why a chilly evening can make me feel this way; I just hope I can channel this energy into useful causes. I still have a language to learn, after all.

Sports Meeting: DoublePlusGood!

I woke up early enough to catch the opening ceremonies of the Student Sports Day/School Sports Meeting/Friday Off, but just as I was about to run out the door, I remembered that it was Thanksgiving (at least, it still was back at home), and that I promised to call. So I got on my computer, Skyped home, and was able to chat to everyone, including Granny, Sherry and Craig (happy birthday, Uncle Craig), Shannon and Peter. Deirdre's slightly touched friend Mallory was even there, and it sounds like she finally got over that drooling problem! Truly, we are all thankful.

So I missed the opening ceremonies, which I hear plays host to goose-stepping freshmen and all sorts of pageantry. Oh well. After a nice long chat with "the fam" (as the kids are saying these days), I walked down to the new campus to see what this "sport" thing was all about. Little did I know the entire school was going to be there.

As I walked outside the field, around the gate and toward the main entrance, there was a huge long line of students, clubs, and other goings-on, proudly advertising their support for their peers. I took a video as I walked by. The whole thing had a real "homecoming" quality to it.

Before I could enter the sports complex, I had to wade through a bizarre collection of students in crisp white lab coats. They were staffing what looked like a low-tech infirmary: bottles of water, tape for ankles and joints and other aches and pains, big boxes with red crosses and other medical-looking things. I guessed it was for the exhausted participants, and I recalled the dramatic finish-line collapse of many a Fuling student in Hessler's River Town. Thanks, Kate.

I finally made my way into the sports complex, which was packed with students (both in the stands and in disorganized but calm queues). Out in the open air, the field glimmered a dull, hazy green, and it seemed on either end of the track - at the start and finish lines - there was a tiny, loosely-organized sea of people, judges, competitors, and well-wishers all packed together. And in the large expanse of bright orange track, there were the runners.

The whole thing was very unlike anything I've ever seen on college campuses in the states, and much more like a high school track meet that everyone in school had to attend. Granted, we don't have gym class in college back home, either. The students were divided by college, and each college, it seemed, had at least a handful of competitors. All I could make out were a few different track races: hurdles, dashes, and laps (oh my!). With so many people, there seemed to be a feeling of barely-contained chaos, as runners were lining up for a race as others were being awarded with bouquets, crossing the track seconds before a new volley of runners was launched, the crowd's attention never fully focused on the awards or the racers but somehow each college always knew when one of their own was running.

It was great to watch the (relatively unceremonious) medaling and awards. Amid the noise and chaos, winners were quietly led (by blue-suited "attendants") to the winner's podium, given their award (usually just a bouquet of flowers), and swiftly marched off. I laughed when I saw that they had to give the fake plastic bouquet back to the blue-suited girls, so that they could be handed out to the next group of winners. Don't know if they got to keep the medallions, though.

Constant chatter over the loudspeaker made if very difficult for me to understand what was going on (not like a single clear voice would have helped). So I simply wandered around, snapped some photos, and eventually found the Foreign Language College (that is to say, my students).

So when I finally found my students, I chatted with some of them, met some of Steve's and Nicki's, and got a quick bite to eat with some new "friends." It's so rewarding, easy, and fun to talk to students, because I can talk about whatever I want, and just being raised in such a different world is enough to keep any audience captivated. And all the talking, questions, and answers help them practice their English, too; the language is all over campus, but a foreign teacher has this Jedi-like mystique of respect and awe for being so helpful by just talking and listening well. Plus it's an easy way for me to sneak in some Putonghua practice.

Later that night, I went into Xia Shan, for a great food and beer festival. But, alas and alak, I'm done blogging for now.

Zhanjiang Turkey

Thanksgiving found the American foreign teachers – Steve (the Brit) and Liam (the Irish Canadian) were of course both welcome but felt under the weather and decided to stay at home – making a more or less last minute decision to celebrate Turkey Day at the Crown Plaza, Zhanjiang’s only five-star hotel.

It’s a great place, very Western (and, yeah, on Thanksgiving, it’s nice to revel in Western stuff), with probably the best variety of food in town: five or six Western dishes, in addition to five or six Chinese dishes, and always a great assortment of breads (with ample butter), soups, sushi, appetizers, and desserts. Ah yes, the desserts: very good cakes (chocolate!), bread and butter puddings, crème brulée, and ice cream. It’s all buffet, and the meal comes with a (we can’t be sure, but it seems like bottomless) glass of beer, as well as tea (Lipton … of course they serve the expensive crappy Western tea at this high-class Chinese restaurant; never mind that the best tea in the world can be found a block away) and real, fresh-brewed coffee. It’s as fine a dining experience as you’d want in China, and while it’s by no means expensive by Western standards, dropping one hundred yuan (per person!) on a single meal seams absolutely ridiculous considering I can go to a great local Sichuan restaurant and have an embarrassingly good five-course meal (complete with beer), a meal that easily feeds four or five people, and then split the fifty yuan bill.

Whew. That paragraph reads like a mouthful. Anyway, we knew the Crown Plaza would be a good fit for a proper Thanksgiving feast. What we didn’t know was that they must’ve known we were coming.

They had turkey. A big, juicy, delicious turkey, complete with stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce. It was an unexpected and totally delicious surprise. Beer, turkey, desserts and real coffee: now that’s Thanksgiving.

I explained to some of my students what Thanksgiving is like in the states. I told them that hokum "Pilgrims and Indians" crap - if it's a good enough lie to teach in American schools, it's good enough to teach in China - and I also explained the preparation for the meal, the special dishes we cook only during Thanksgiving. And I found myself also telling them about football games, Black Friday, the Macy's parade, and all the other nonsense we do to "celebrate." But ultimately I just told them that Thanksgiving was like any other holiday, Chinese or American: it's a time to be with your friends and family, and be thankful that you are able to be with them.

And to top it all off, I had the next day off (School Sports Meeting ... ah, but that's a blog of a different color!), Nicki made some pumpkin pie, I enjoyed a delicious Punkin' Ale (from Dogfish Head, of course), and I was able to Skype home and talk to the whole family (well, immediate and dad's extended) just as they finished their meal.

That's about as good a Thanksgiving as you can hope to have when you're on the other side of the planet.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


If and when I return to America, I want to go camping.

I want to drive, far away from humanity. I want to spend a few days in the cold, green expanses of Mei Guo - China's name for America, which means "beautiful country." I want to look up into the sky and see the darkness explode with the indescribable majesty of stars in a clear mountain sky, I want the moon's glow to be the strong pale white you can only experience when you're far away from the noise and light and pollution of humanity.

I want to take in big greedy lungfuls of fresh crisp air and be alone in the cold stillness of the new morning.

Friday, November 24, 2006

My Students Rock

I occasionally get email from students that just feel the need to tell me they love my class. It's embarrassing how great my students are. I'd like to share one email I received recently. Now, realize that Jennifer here is a college freshman. So her English isn't perfect. But then, how was your Chinese when you were a freshman in college?

Dear Matthew,

Hello! I am Jennifer,who comes from Business and Translation class 1. Don't you forget about me ? :)
Today is Thanksgiving Day .You told us last week,so I remember it.I want to show my great thanks to you! Thanks for teaching me and encouraging me to speak English.
Our class is so vivid thatI really enjoy it!
I think you are a good teacher,knowing how to make us learn more,and also have a good time in your class.
It's really very kind of you!Thank you very much.Thank god to send you here.
By the way,will you attend our school sports meet tomorrow? That would be rather wonderful.
It's possible that we will be the winners.
Thanks again.
PS:Have a splendid weekend!
Best Wishes.

Yours sincerely

Aw, they're the best. Thanks, Jennifer.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Dumplings

Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends and family; or, more accurately for this blog readership, Happy Thanksgiving, Patch. I’ll be giving that Punkin Ale a good sippin’ tonight.

While you’re all gorging yourselves with turkey, and mashed potatoes, and Granny’s mac and cheese, and all the other delicious food that I would rather not think about right now, look in envy at my culinary treat: fresh, home-made dumplings, about as authentic and delicious as you can get. Now, anyone who knows me will tell you: I love me some dumplings. That goes double for good dumplings. And I can say, without exaggeration, that these were the best dumplings I’ve ever tasted! Keep in mind this is coming from a guy that’s been living in China for the past three months, where you can’t even walk down the street without tripping over good dumplings.

Now, even good dumplings have a kind of grey-matter paste of meat, veggies, and mushroom (yeah, you’d be surprised how often mushrooms are used to pad out a dumpling). That itself isn’t bad. Some dumplings just have a damn tasty brainpaste, others just kind of hopelessly throw in whatever garbage is lying around and hope you don’t notice. But these dumplings were different, because I went to one of Chikan’s (my local part of Zhanjiang) best markets. And let me tell you, shopping for groceries at Acme will forever pale in comparison.

Fresh. That’s the order of the day at Chinese markets. Farmers, butchers, fishermen, and other provender-providing folk travel into the city every day to hawk their wares. The result is an aggressive assault of sights and smells that make me want to give it all up and go to culinary school. Fresh veggies still dripping with water, whole pigs (and goats and cows and ducks and chickens and …) still bleeding on the butcher block, eggs – real, brown, small and large – nestled carefully in crates of hay, live chickens waiting for the guillotine of your finger to drop on them, tissue-thin wheat and rice noodles being rolled, chopped, and twisted, roots and herbs and all sorts of amazing-smelling things that make you pause, stop, smell, and appreciate the sensual mugging that is real food in a real market.

I can’t imagine making a meal without this element, and it makes me realize how sanitized and plastic food is in America. These markets provide such an intimate look at your food; it was a lot more gratifying to eat the pork dumplings when I saw the face of the pig that provided the pork, when I gave the cash for the onions and mushrooms and shrimp to the lady who (likely) planted, picked, harvested, and sold them.

Imagine putting Thanksgiving dinner together this way.

So with an arm full of fresh supplies, we brought the food back to my apartment and began to make dumplings, dough and stuffing and all. The afternoon was educational and a lot of fun, as I helped cook, chatted with students/friends, and even helped nudge a shy meimei (little sister) into speaking some English. (Amazed how much I could talk to her in my Putonghua, actually.) The finished product was simply delicious: chunks of real pork, tangible veggies, additions like carrots, mushrooms, and shrimp creating a totally different taste … simply sublime. No grey mush here, just solid, fresh deliciousness. And, bonus!, we had enough dough left over to make some great miantiao (noodles). You can check out some pictures if you like.

So Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I may not be home to celebrate with you, but in my own way, I’ve been celebrating here with my friends.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Free at Last ... Maybe.

For the love of God! Finally, it appears I can post to this damn blog again. Blogger went ahead and decided to sync my Gmail account with my blogger account, without telling me. So that's why I've been out of touch for most of November.

Things are going well. November has been a month of slow changes: I'm getting to know some of my students really well, and I'm beginning to have some real patience for some classes I thought were lost causes; I'm realizing that what I can do and what I want to do are two very different things when it comes to teaching; I'm learning when to give in to the oblivion of so many students, and when to resist them. And it's finally (finally!) getting cooler here. It can still climb toward eighty around noon, but the nights are cool and the air just feels better.

A lot has happened, so be sure to check out some pictures, if that's your thing. I'll try to update with some substance soon.

I'll close by saying that I think I've found a good maybe. I think I’ve hit a wall, something I’ve wanted to hit, prayed to hit, needed to hit for a long time. And I hope – think – that I’ve hit it now. A wall whee I can stop acting like a child, stop focusing on childish things, and I stop allowing the lazy idleness of childhood. There is so much to do, so little time to do it. So much to enjoy, to see, to learn, to understand. So much to love. And this childish laziness is not improving me in any way. Maybe … maybe is a word I find new meaning for here. Maybe used to be my polite no. It used to be a way for me to mitigate things I didn’t want to face with full attention. Slip in a maybe, and watch it slide away into no. But here, maybe is an opportunity, an invitation, a call to really open yourself, to really be or do something. I’ve got to stop living the maybe of old, and embrace the maybe of now. It’s a real world out there that I known I’ve been dying to see, to live, and maybe, just maybe, I can still see it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

I am amazed.

Zhanjiang Normal University is preparing to send a small group of students (five from the English school, five from other schools) abroad, to study for one month at the College of St. Ben’s/St. John’s University, in Minnesota. That’s Nicki’s alma mater, as well as Kevin “Maryknoll” Clancy’s, and pretty much all the other Maryknoll teachers here in China except me. The Lone Villanovan.

So when I was asked to take part in the judging of these students, I replied with an enthusiastic “what the hell.” It would be a nice change to feel like I’m actually part of a cohesive faculty, to interact with my supposed “colleagues.” But I didn’t know the whole thing was going to be a thinly-veiled talent show.

As I entered the building where the judging was to take place, I discovered that at least three of my students were there, vying for one of the few chances to go to the states. I did not appreciate being put in such a position, and I felt that the school should have known about this before they asked for my help. I told them I simply would not sit and judge my own students, and so to accommodate me and my outrageous sense of ?, they placed me as judge for the students from the other colleges: humanities, business, sciences, etc. I felt all right about that, so I threw down my weapons and prepared to be a judge.

What, no one appreciates Judge Dredd references anymore?

I was instructed, in a hastily-muttered translation, to judge the students on three criterion: on their oral English (possible total: sixty points), their “talents” (another twenty points), and their manners, poise, etc. (again, another possible twenty points). I wasn’t sure what they meant by “talents” – I had an unspoken foreboding, but I dismissed it as just too ludicrous, even for China – and proceeded to endure three of the most surreal hours of my life.

Every student entered the room and bowed meekly before launching into a heavily-rehearsed speech. Some were nervous, some were quite calm, but it was all well-prepared patter peppered with meaningless clichés: “I’ve always lived my life by the motto, no pains no gains.” They were a real joy to watch, actually, because these students (most about my age) could speak fantastic English. I have never met anyone in America with such a mastery of a foreign language, especially at such a young age. I knew other people studying languages at Villanova – some Arabic, some Spanish, me and some others with Chinese – and our command of the language outside of school was and is a joke compared to these kids. It seems every student in every field had a more-than-adequate grasp of basic English, and many of them have gained this proficiency in their spare time. In short, their English is far better than my Chinese.

But then any sense of reality went out the window when each student was forced to perform their “talents.” “So what talents have you prepared for us tonight?” the other teachers would ask, and the student in question was forced to parade some arbitrary skill that had no bearing on their competency to study in America. This reduced the whole interview into an absurd spectacle of knot-tying, magic tricks, origami, singing – oh, how the other judges loved the singing – dancing, kung fu, and tai chi. Laudable talents? Certainly. Relevance to their ability to study in America? None.

It was awkward and simply stupid to see these otherwise serious students reduced to singing songs from Pocahontas, or performing some ballet/club music fusion dance. (Stone-faced pirouettes giving way to exaggerated booty-shakin’ cha-cha-chas, the teachers looking on with equally sober faces, nodding in silent approval as I bite my tongue to avoid the mounting gut laugh.) And more than once, the other teachers encouraged students to bring me into the act: perform the magic trick for the foreigner, dance with the foreigner. If it was politeness, I didn’t feel it: it felt like they just wanted to ramp up the insanity to eleven.

Surreal. Really the only word to describe it. A pointless waste of time that would have been inappropriate in the third grade. And what really killed me was how often those twenty “talent” points were the deciding factor. There were some students that spoke with fantastic, fluent, and above all natural and unscripted English, and on more than one occasion I heard the excuse, “yes, their oral English was very good, but … their talent was not that impressive.” We’re not sending students over to sing “Colors of the Wind,” god dammit.

But in the end, the talents didn’t seem to matter. The students with the best English abilities were selected, and there was debate on only one or two. None of the students that I argued would thrive in America (despite their “poor talents”) were chosen. So it goes.

And now I think I can’t access Blogger’s main site. So I can upload this, but I can’t read it. Thank you, Great Fire-Wall of China.

Despite the strange oddities that sometimes make life here hell, despite the cultural quirks that I have to simply learn to accept, it really is a great honor to teach. I cannot express how happy I am, to be able to do this, to have these eye-opening and profound (for good and ill) experiences; how lucky I am that I was crazy enough to take this risk, and how enjoyably it is paying off. I’ve entertained delusions of touring the globe, teaching English for a year in China here, maybe a few years in Japan or India or Russia there. Maybe. It’s indescribable, really, but all I know is that I love it. To talk and learn and understand a wholly different culture, another person’s way of life … it’s truly amazing, and I mean that in the full spirit of that word.

I am amazed.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Matt in Macau

Finally, I've gotten around to putting together a little video of my trip to Macau. It's nothing spectacular, but it's a nice combination of video footage and pictures, and I got to feel all warm and fuzzy about my great trip as I edited them all together. I took more pictures and more video than I could possibly put in the video, and of course the video can't provide you with my witty poignancy that you all crave with an unholy thirst, but I don't think blogging about this trip would do much good: it'd just be fragmented snatches of memory that wouldn't really gel into a cohesive whole. So enjoy the video, and be sure to ask me about Macau if you're interested.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

I Am Legend

Today I was a movie star in Zhanjiang.

Well, a TV star, at least. Extra; an extra in a Chinese TV show. Shut up, it was a lot of fun.

Kevin Clancy, Maryknoll’s GiCoMStFTATF’s, arrived in Zhanjiang last night. And what was set to be a small enjoyable private dinner for Kevin, Nicki and I – you know, a simple little catch-up, how’s the teaching going, all that stuff – ended up ballooning into a large dinner party. Liam, Brenda, Kudo, Jude, Lynn, Sheng, Nicki, Steve, Kevin, and myself clambered into some cabs in the less hectic half of eight o’clock, drove for a bit in the scotch-guarded cabs into Chi Kan (one of the small satellite-sister-cities that makes up the whole of Zhanjiang), made our way into a nondescript-but-much-recommended restaurant, and proceeded to have a beer-soaked feast of yet even more awesome Chinese food. Dining in this country never fails to disappoint; I’ve yet to go out and not encounter at least one or two new (superb) dishes, and the variety ranges from mutton chow mein at a local Muslim noodle shop to the hot and slightly gooey chicken and rice-noodle soup we tried in this place. Anyway, about mid-way through dinner, Lynn (a Chinese teacher at Zhanjiang) gets a call from someone looking for foreigners to act in a TV production. Amid half-drunk joke-ramblings (“Is there any nudity? No? Then I won’t do it.”), Steve, Liam, and I agreed to “help out.” We’re team players, and when you’re this gifted, I mean, acting is like, well, like breathing, you know? I feel like I’m choking, like, literary asphyxiating, and only the sweet air of the theater can buoy my crushed soul. We were to meet the next morning at the school’s front gate, and the production would take care of the rest.

One o’clock, at the front gate; Steve and I walked over and met Liam, Sheng, Lynn, and Jude, and idling quietly nearby was a nondescript silver van. As we gathered near the tall arches of the school “gate,” a short, late-twenties Chinese hopped exuberantly out of the car, his long, thin beard clinging precariously to his boyish face. He was the director, we were told (or assistant director, I guessed, since we never saw this guy again after the car ride), and as we met one another through our friends/interpreters, a short uniformed man quietly began passing out small bottles of water, wordlessly, his terse nods of acknowledgement offset by his broad, toothy smile. In quick succession, we were introduced, loaded in the care, and given an informal naval escort into a nearby naval base, where we boarded a (naval) gunship. The pictures are pretty unreal: we go off out of the van, the cool swift breeze mingling with the smell of the rubber bumpers on the dock and the inexplicably clean (for China) ship. We boarded the ship and took some pictures in the gun turret, and very shortly we were picked up by the Chinese coast guard and ferried out to sea, to board the yacht where they were filming.

The first thing I notice as we drifted into docking position with the yacht is the swarm of orange-vested soldiers all over the boat: there were a ton of (coast guardians?), in full jungle cameo (for the ocean?) and belted with blazing neon orange life vests. And they were all armed, with (unloaded) Chinese machine guns and small concealed pistols. I felt a sudden rush of panic, that I must’ve done something wrong to be surrounded by so many armed soldiers, and that my family would soon be getting a receipt for the bullet they just bought. But no, relax, breath; it'll at least be painless. We got off the small speedboat, boarded the yacht, and were herded into the open lower deck. The yacht was one of those “see the Zhanjiang coast in an afternoon!” yachts, kinda luxurious, plenty of legroom, open areas for walking and mingling down the middle, large restaurant-style booths bordering the edges, with a wide spiral staircase leading upstairs to a viewing deck and the outdoor seating area. We sat down and got our bearings, and were welcomed with some warm (and actually tasty!) tea as the cost guards suited, boarded their boat, and sped away. They weren’t going far; they were beginning to film, and the first scene on the schedule was the high-speed chase.

We looked around the boat as they began filming: the coast guard boats were filled with the soldiers (the highest ranking officer allowing a cigarette to hang dramatically from his jaws), and when they were at a good distance, suddenly, action! The boats sped past, circling as their choppy wake crashed against our ship, people falling in random directions like old episodes of Star Trek, sirens blaring and harsh Cantonese being barked from an unseen intercom as the large gunships dramatically sped forward and unloaded a small group of soldiers. All of this, of course, was filmed, and as we extras – ahem, background artists – watched this unfold, the camerman’s (that’s right, just one) assistants were yelling, frantic and confused, at anyone that might happen to fall into frame, snapping at us to clear the siderail or the deck and to just generally get the hell outta the way as they attempted to film as much of this cool stuff from as many different angles as possible.

So, with the initial shots of the docking taken care of, the speedboats and gunships disappeared, leaving a small number of coast guardians with us, so that we could get on with filming and the coast could get back to guarding.

Now it was time for real acting. The crew set up some tables and chairs out on the outdoor deck, and as we took our places and were arranged by the director, we were given more tea and bowls full of peanuts. To make everything look “real,” someone on the crew came by and smashed a handful of peanuts on each table. Because peanut shells = reality. So Steve, Liam and I – the only foreigners on set – were arranged conspicuously in the middle of these tables, the three of us surrounded by a periphery of fifteen Chinese. We were encouraged to just talk, to make conversation, and when the director said the word, we’d turn, look out at the (empty) sea at the rear of the boat, and act terrified. I sensed the camera being on me quite a bit, actually, during the “small talk,” and I tried to give an honest little performance of looking terrified. Liam, meanwhile, was hamming it up, screaming a really campy “Well Jesus fookin’ Christ whut the fook is goin’ on?! (said, of course, in his elegant Galway lilt). We did a second take, now the direction being actively yelled (and yes, in English): “Get down!” “More scared!” “They are shooting at you, with guns!, get down!” So I ducked down, looking fearful, acting my ass off, and I sense the camera is on this Chinese couple and me as we huddle behind the waist-high railing, and the director yells at us, “now, run inside! Scared!” and we do, but the water was still choppy as hell and so as I scramble in the boat, I take a nice little spill, right in front of the camera, and give (I think a very professional) “I am so scared shitless!” look as I hobble into the interior of the yacht. The director seemed to love it.

That is acting, people. Goddamn right.

The next few scenes didn’t really make sense to me, but hey, I’m just an extra, right? So minutes ago, I was Scared Tourist(/Unbeknownst Drug Smuggler/Innocent Bystander?) number three outside, running scared into the ship from the hellacious gunfire of the (apparently pro-active) coast guard. Yet for some reason, the director asked me to do a scene where I walked up the spiral staircase and casually sat down next to another actress (that actress being Lynn, who was so funny trying to ensure that her film debut wasn’t as a villain: “This is my virgin film, I cam am not a bad guy!”) So a few takes of that and I’m asked to run up the stairs, this time with some coast guardians chasing me. Wait, wasn’t I outside when the coast guard “attacked”? And even assuming I’m inside (twice), why am I back downstairs to run from the soldiers? None of this seemed to matter, and there was no way I knew enough vocabulary to explain past, future, and fictitious states of being in Chinese. I did as I was told, and on my third take of running up the stairs, I (again) tripped on the final step, nearly fell but caught myself at the last moment. I didn’t really fall, it was acting. We then filmed two or three dramatic entrances for the Coast Guard Captain (the closest thing we had to a “hero”), but with my disparate scenes and the other discontinuous snippets they filmed, I just didn’t know how the whole thing was going to fit together. But I was getting paid, and having a great time on the water, waiting around for my few brief seconds of small-screen glory, so I wasn’t complaining.

After that, I was more or less done filming, and watched them choreograph various fight scenes and such. Watching the fighting from an angle other than the camera’s (a perspective you can share in the video), you can see just how much they pull most of those kicks and punches. But you can’t mime being thrown over a table or being pile-drived (pile-driven?) into the deck of the ship. And those stunt guys did three or four takes of each (not including the spontaneous rehearsals, where they took even more spills), but they gave those table-crashing throws their all. No safety mats, no rubber tables, just pain and grit, all for the art of film(tv). Bravo, stunt guys. In between shots we weren’t in, Steve and I got to play with the coast guard’s (unloaded) guns, and we were free to explore the ship or relax as the finished filming.

It was nice, because all the extras had their own “moments;” Lynn and Jude had a great scream-queen segment, running and screaming off-camera to escape one of the many martial arts melees; Liam and Steve had a “run from the onrushing coast guardians!” moment; and Sheng had a brilliant introspective moment of eating peanuts and sipping tea, the veritable calm before the storm. But our real moment to shine came during the last shot of the day.

The last scene required Steve, Liam, Sheng, and myself; it was going to be a showcase moment, all three foreigners acting their goddamn hearts out. The director wanted all the foreign actors to crouch down behind glass tables and tremble in fear as the Coast Guard Captain burst in and exclaimed “Is OK! Dunna be’fraid!” So Steve and I got down on all fours and commenced cowering, but Liam protested; he has a bad knee, and couldn’t get down easily. The solution? Sheng would cower behind me, leaning over me so he could actually be seen (“Don’t fart!”). And Liam was told to lay on one of the couches and “act scared.” The result was brilliance: Liam hilariously cowering in the fetal position on a couch in the background, whimpering like an octogenaraian that’s just dropped their keys down a storm drain, as Steve, Sheng, and I acted terrified in the foreground. To add just the right touch of camp, the director gave Steve a small plastic trash basket, and ordered him to cower underneath it. Our fear was palpable (well, we left stains of something on the carpet), and between my “scared face,” Steve’s idiotic hiding underneath the waste basket, and Liam’s insane mumblings, it was ridiculous to see the Coast Guard Captain burst in, cry “Is OK! Dunna be’fraid!” and jump-kick a guy across the ship.

That, my friends, is acting.

Monday, October 16, 2006

I'm Tired

I'm tired. Not just, "Oh, I didn't get enough sleep last night" tired. I mean that I am inexplicably exhausted, almost every day. I try to sleep, and I think I get enough, but the heat (it's almost ninety degrees out there and it's mid October!), the everyday psychological stresses of living in a foreign country that I don't even notice anymore, and not being able to do simple things without head butting that damned language barrier ... well, it's draining me. I am beginning to nap (all of Zhanjiang, in fact, enjoys a short siesta, usually from noon to three), but the naps screw up my sleep schedule, they don't really make me feel refreshed, and I find that when I jolt awake at six in the evening, I've wasted a large chunk of my day. But even after a nap I am just so drained, I can't seem to find the strength to do much.

On a happier note, I just downloaded Cat Steven's full discography. It's good stuff, give it a listen.

Yeah, so remember, last post, when I said I won't blog on little odds and ends? That my bloggings have to be big fancy metablogs, littered with meaning and poignancy? Well, forget all that. I want to blog more often, I want to write more often, but so long as I hold myself to some counter-productive standard, I find that I just skip the blogging or writing all together. So now I'm just going to blog and write and hopefully I'll get better at both.

I've been slowly filling the journal Marilyn bought me as a going away present. It's quite nice. Nicki told me she's already on her second journal. I really need to do that stuff more often. My journal is a sketchbook, a language and character repository, and occasionally, a place where I right stuff down. I need to force myself to write more fiction. I began writing some stories, they're awful retreads of what I've written before. But I'm writing for myself. I'm not worrying about who is going to read this; finally, I am able to just write and not care. I'm just writing, and I don't care if they're awful or bland or warmed-over thoughts from before. Practice makes ... me slightly less awful.

I am so tired. I really want to spend more time writing, blogging, preparing for my lessons (instead of having them come together at one in the morning the night before class, as is too often the case), marking (mountains upon mountains of journals yet to grade!), running, lifting, exploring Zhanjiang, reading, doing any number of things I want to do. But I feel this crippling exhaustion setting in, and everyday around noon, I just can't keep my eyes open.

This week, I am being visited by Maryknoll's Guy in Charge of Making Sure the Foreign Teacher's Aren't Total Fuck-ups, Kevin Clancy. Kevin actually used to teach here in Zhanjiang. It'll be nice to have a visitor (us Maryknoll folk last saw Kevin in Hong Kong at the end of August), Kevin will hopefully have some advice to give and suggest some cool nooks and crannies of the city to explore, and we should be able to get at least one decent meal on Maryknoll's tab. And if all goes well, I'll be taking some students to try their first pizza this weekend, at the newly-opened Pizza Hut in Xia Shan.

And I just discovered that Wikipedia isn't blocked in China anymore! Pizza and Wikis? There may be hope for me here yet ...

Friday, October 13, 2006

Friday Night in a Zhanjiang Bar

I have not blogged in quite a while. Part of it is the immense duty I feel to you, gentle reader. The strict standards of "quality" that I attempt to hold myself to will not allow a simple collection of terse blurbs or unpolished drivel to be lazily blogged. I craft my posts with the care a vintner might craft a fine wine, if the vintner were to pluck the grapes with great delicacy and then brew them with tangible extracts of inadequacy. I don’t let anything short of solid gold nuggets drop into this here digital bowl, and I so I obviously couldn’t come back from Macau and vomit my thoughts haphazardly onto the web. My lord, what would the blogosphere think? So I’ll work on a good writeup and collection of pics for that, all the while painfully aware that the more time I let pass, the less vivid my memories become. Wait, what?

If the “bar” I visited tonight is any indication of what Zhanjiang bars are like in general, then it is clear to me that all of bars in this fine city have been modeled after the clubs in bad American action films. Intense over-sexing was squeezed into every inch of the place, with every laser-pointing discoball and bead curtain and balloon (yes, balloon) reminding you that this place was indeed shit hot. Not convinced? Well how about some rib-shattering, heart-murmuring bass from some of the most generic and uninspired (Michael Bay) club music ever created!? Ostentatious row upon product-placing row of brand-name liquor decorating the clubs in Bad Boys II (you know, right before the guy OD’s on “eXtasy”)? Fear not: every wall has been lined with bottles, countless bottles, a pillar of nameless vodka piled high like something out of a Dr. Seuss mescaline binge. A scantily clad young lady dancing provocatively in Swordfish? Well, this bar has four scantily clad women (and one decidedly metrosexual man, if I can be forgiven for using that word), dancing on poorly-positioned “stages” throughout the bar. The dancers provide mild amusement as you sip your Kingway (Guangdong province’s homegrown lager, from Shenzhen I think; it doesn’t quite have the watery pizzazz of good ‘ol TsingTao, but hey, buy six get two free!), eat your complimentary plate of fruit, and play with the dice, in backgammon-esque tumblers, found on every table. (Some kind of Chinese drinking game that I haven’t quite gotten the hang of yet, but it involves calling out pairs of numbers and bluffing your opponent on how many pairs you share between your dice and theirs.)

All the bartenders wore necktie-thick bandanas, and everyone’s hair was crazy tall spiky like rejected Japanese anime characters. In between loud music and louder music, there was a brief bit of karaoke/KTV from some kind of MC; I wasn’t sure who he was, actually, all I knew was that he had the biggest brownest hair in the bar and must have assumed some kind of coiffure-based alpha male position. He was pretty terrible at singing, but the good thing was that he had to take any and all drinks bought for him. One table (person) in particular kept buying him drinks and toasting him with a loud ganbei! (which means, literally, "dry glass!"), and his swagger and bravado slowly gave way to queasy off-balanced "singing," deep breaths into the mic before finally disappearing for good. And always the dancers appearing suddenly at the start of a new lightshow, doing the same repetitive dance moves over and over on their tiny little patch of stage. The small platforms for the dancers were placed in such a way that you could ignore them if you wished, but they were isolated just enough for fat white American businessmen, stumbling from some dark corner of the bar and at least five or six shots deep, to pause just long enough to give me, their estranged white brother, a solemn and reassuring pat on the shoulder before moving in to grope, ensnare, and otherwise disgust the dancers. He even grabbed a waitress – you know, the thin svelte porcelain waitress in the traditional red dress, slits on the side that run nearly to the waist – and it was painful to see this big meaty hand clenched with drunken lustful intensity around a petite and helpless wrist, the waitress scrambling to get away, clear the table, do her job while Businessman McFat pawed at other patrons, women or girls or anything without a dick to entertain him.

Thank you, fat white businessman, for continuing America’s legacy abroad.

The only thing that made the whole thing bearable was the company: Nicki and Steve, along with some of Nicki’s students, Kawaii (Japanese for beauty, I think) and Betty. Other than that, it was a loud and obnoxious cliché of a bar.

Oh well. I need to get to sleep.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

(Very) Odds and (No) Ends

I went to the gym the other day, a quiet(ish) little off-campus place. Plan to join there soon. I got a good lift in, despite the constant attention of “coaches,” that is, spotters, thinking I was some crazy uninformed foreigner who had no idea how to use the equipment. They kept spotting me when I was doing fairly light weight, which was kind (of annoying). All the weights were unmarked: few machines had any markings at all, it was all up to guesswork, and the free weights were a bizarre mix of color-coded nonsense and a small set of glaringly new unmakred pieces. So when I finally found a dumbbell that hadn’t been through a nuclear winter, I had to do a rough conversion of kilograms to pounds, which means that in the end I simply just “hefted” each dumbbell until I found something that felt right. A lousy way to lift, but hey, it's better than nothing. I was able to meet and speak with a few gym-goers. Three of them, I learned, were police officers, while another was a fellow English teacher at Zhanjiang University. The gym was a large open-air astroturf arena, with a small enclosed area for wushu (kung fu) and other training. The Chinese men there (only one woman) work out exclusively in small navy blue short-shorts, shoeless and rarely with shirts, and in between sets on the bench they might take a break to kick the shit out of the centerpiece punching bags, or maybe if they’re a bit tense they’ll relax between exercises with a quick game of ping pong.

Stray cats meow and whine outside my window at 1:56 am on a late Tuesday night. The amount of stray animals here breaks your heart; the other day I saw an emaciated Dalmatian, barely a puppy, rummaging through rat-infested garbage. He was also trying to hump something, either another stray dog or a really bit rat.

I left the gym and had a leisurely walk home. I felt more or less at ease walking the streets: I had enough Chinese under my belt to ask any important questions, I felt but almost completely ignored the stares, I began chatting with two young students and, for the first time ever, my Chinese was a bit better than their English. So as we walked toward the ZNU gates, we practiced my Chinese, rather than them practicing their English. We exchanged email addresses, I bounded up the steps to my apartment, and agreed to watch (another) Jackie Chan film with Steve. And as I sat there, marking my student’s work and thinking about some new ideas for class this week, I felt comfortable, at ease, in a way I hadn't felt for some time.

I have somehow managed to find a delivery service for fresh (read: not chemically-treated) milk. If all goes well, I’ll have four tiny bottles of fresh low-fat milk delivered to my door every morning. This is easily some of the best news I’ve heard in a long time.

My literature classes performed the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet yesterday. Some of them were amazing, some of them were total ass. My first class was all-around good, if a little uninspired at times. The second class was trouble. Two groups informed me that they had not prepared well, and assured me that “we’ll do the performance next week.” No. No, you won’t. We’re doing Romeo and Juliet this week. Then we have the October holiday, and then we’re on to Francis Bacon. No, you’re doing Romeo and Juliet today or you’re not doing Romeo and Juliet at all. A bit harsh for them, I guess; the first time the foreign teacher, who is supposed to be a “fun guy” with a relaxed class, actually had them do an assignment beyond “reading for next time.” When I had to yell at the class that the assignments weren’t suggestions, but, well, you know, assignments, I could see one of the girls that didn’t prepare hang her head and begin to cry. But what really confounded me was that in that very same class, I had a group that not only performed the balcony scene, but did a fastforward to the finale, complete with sword fights, apothecary poison, and violin accompaniment! No joke, this girl brought her violin to class and played music throughout the whole performance. I was blown away, and it made the bitterness of making a student cry go down easier when I knew some of them actually cared about the class.

I was chewing gum in class today, and my students thought it was hilarious. I also tend to wear my sunglasses a lot – and I somehow get stares when everyone else has an umbrella and it’s not even raining! – and my students think I look “so cool and so handsome.” If someone genuinely attractive were to come here, there’d be riots in the street.

I’ve been on an odd Rickey Gervais kick of late. I downloaded all the “Ricky Gervais Show” podcasts (about to begin Season 3), and with Extras returning for the second season on the BBC, I’ve been downloading them as soon as they appear online (the first season, too, which is much better than I remembered). I was warned before I left Hong Kong that the downtime you have on campus (what with everything shutting off at eleven and all) will make you a total bitch to some of the (very few) American shows they broadcast on Chinese television. Already I have begun to hate myself for watching The Apprentice – the images of American businesspeople that that show projects makes me realize what shallow and awful people they are, especially all the women fawning over that douchey Brit – but I watch that garbage all the same. At least with the internet, I can choose what mass-market crap I imbibe, and I’ll take the comedic poignancy of Gervais and Merchant over CSI any day.

I got a late (“because I’m in China” late, not “oh shit” late) birthday present from my good friend Eric Mayer, whose blog would be hyperlinked to his name if I knew where to find it. I had been reading a lot of the German writer Heinrich Heine before I left that states (I’d love to finish “Journey to Italy,” in fact), and Eric somehow got Amazon to ship me a book. It’s a wonderful bilingual collection of Heine’s poetry, “Songs of Love and Grief.” I’ve just begun the book and I can’t wait to read more. So thanks, Rick.

Last Christmas was the music of Pet Sounds. It was a magical soundscape of love, optimism, and happiness. I remember driving down the darkly lit backroads of Villanova after a long day of work, class, and the gym. I may have just finished going to some career fair that might as well have been in Dutch: the "careers" on offer were so far from where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, some fat jackass in an ill-fitting blazer asking if I liked sports radio as he (again) wiped the sweat from his brow, me nodding vaguely and wishing I wasn’t talking to him and praying that my “China thing” would come together. I turned from the corpulent newscasting shitkicker and ran into some classmates from my creative fiction class, acquaintances that I felt creatively competitive with at the time but now realize were good writers and good people, better than most that I actually “knew.” And then I was walking alone in the empty, ice-slicked parking lot, loving the cold air blowing over the cracked windswirled asphalt, and as I got into my car and waited for the engine to warm, I can remember “Only God Knows Why” and “Hang on to Your Ego” playing. I drove the quiet drive down into Narberth, past Garret Hill for fun, just to smell faintly their warm pizza cooking, past the hospital and over Lancaster and under the R5 and on down Montgomery Ave., past the PVP (late night Sierra Nevadas and pub food with some of my best friends), my windows rolled down, the biting wind clawing at my arm as my frozen breath fogged the windshield, knowing that I was going home a cold apartment warm with friends; this brief and fading memory, an entire night recollected from the stinging cold on my left arm is it hung stupid and numb out the window.

I have the first week of October off, for the National Liberation Day/Autumn Festival/Moon Festival/Paid Vacation Holiday. I am going to Macau, the former Portuguese settlement; I just booked my bus and hotel today, and it’s going to be three days of adventure! I loved my time in Portugal, the food and the optimistic architecture really were, in a word, endearing, and I can’t wait to get a taste of the Macanese culture and the old colonial buildings. I’m only going to spend about two or three days of my holiday in Macau (it is after all a fairly small island, the hotels are a bit pricey, and the casinos that the island is becoming famous for hold no interest for me), and depending on what I’m up for, I may hop over to Hong Kong (the fine Maryknoll folk have assured me that room is quite available) or I may simply return to Zhanjiang and see if I can spend some time with my students.


Sunday, September 24, 2006

Teaching, Durian, and Cheese

It’s been a week since I volunteered at a local high school to help teach English. It was a very poor school and unlikely to receive any outside help from native speakers or even Chinese who have gone abroad. Our superintendent/grad student/English teacher friend Dragon asked Nicki and I if we’d like to come along, and we accepted. When we arrived at the school, there were a lot of (not unpleasant) formalities, such as tea with the principal and meeting the staff. As our tea cooled and we introduced ourselves, we were forced to keep the class waiting, the principal offering us some strong black tea and grapes, small pea-sized green ones and thick, plum-like purple ones.

Hot tea with the principal.

When we finally entered the classroom, it was simply unreal: merely walking into the room spurred a thunderous round of applause; just the presence of these two young foreigners (my lord, they’re also teachers! At the university!) was deemed an honor. Nicki and I tried (in vain) to hide in the back, sitting quietly so that Dragon could do his thing and get the class started (the kids were much more comfortable speaking to him in Chinese). We snapped pictures of the class as other teachers darted into the room to snap pictures of us. The students really got into Dragon’s teaching, mimicking the rhythm and tones of the English phrases we were teaching with their arms. Dragon abruptly asked Nicki to take over the class, and she went to the front and did quite well; I followed, awkwardly at first, and helped with some tricky “th” sounds, like “thank you,” “this” or “that,” and "weather/whether."

Up front, teachin'.

Dragon finished the class by translating any questions the students had for us; I learned that everyone was a big fan of basketball, and that I was welcome in China (many times over). As we were leaving, the kids wanted pictures: pictures they would likely never see, but pictures that nonetheless offered some kind of photographic proof, somewhere in the world, that this had happened, that they really had met these two foreigners. The boys were particularly taken with Nicki, and they actually asked her for autographs in their textbooks.

Signing autographs.

Quite popular.

We left after another brief tea with the administrators. Nicki and I were given gifts, small matching girl and boy Buddha piggy banks and cards signed by the staff. I complemented the principal on his excellent tea, and before we got in our cab, he forced a giant bag of it into my arms, refusing to let me leave without it. Quite generous people, those Chinese. I almost feel like putting an “emoticon” smiley face at the end of this paragraph. Almost.

The class.

Later that night, I was invited to enjoy some durian fruit (liu lian) with Father Bobby, the senior Maryknoll priest here on the mainland. He invited Nicki, Steve, and myself into his room, and on his balcony, we destroyed the spiked ball of death (imagine one of these falling from a tree and hitting someone!) in search of its delicious, foul-smelling fruit. (Durian the Deathless, a fitting allusion for this fruit: it certainly has Dwarven features, such as its stone-hard surface and ability to withstand a helluva lot of damage from a butcher knife.) Durian fruit is quite possibly the most bizarre fruit in the world: a watermelon-sized oval covered in spikes that would make a cactus blush, it smells awful (not just odd, but really bad; if you didn’t know the smell’s source, you’d swear someone had left spam out in the sun for a few days) and you really have to work to get at the good bits. You hack away at this thing (and if you’re having it for the first time, you go all-out Lizzy Borden, without mercy), hopefully cutting it into quadrants or fifths.

Durian fruit, courtesy of Google Image Search.

Only the truly fearless attempt a frontal assault on a full grown durian!

Beneath the needled husk, you encounter flesh of a melon-esque consistency. But wait, you’re not done yet: that stuff barely has any taste. For the true prize, you have to dig deeper. Within each quadrant or fifth are two pockets of spongy, rotten-smelling mush, surrounding a large inedible pit, or seed. You want to scrape (hack) away the protective melon, plunge your fingers deep into the foul yolky pockets, anchor them on the pit, and pull. If you’re lucky, and your durian fruit is ripe (that is, the mush is nice, slimy, and wet), you’ll rip out a seed covered in the awful-smelling creamy yellow yolk. And that yolk is exactly what you want to eat. The taste is simply unlike any other food I’ve ever had. I’ve since had durian fruit pastries, and they simply can’t compare. It’s a food you’ll never see canned or dried or on the shelf: the only way to enjoy it is right off the tree and freshly cut. It’s an odd taste, and the smell hardly helps it go down smoothly (after a while, though, the smell of the edible bits has an edge of unqiue ripeness), but if you eat the really good stuff, right up around the pit, it’s absolutely delicious.

Steve and the savaged durian.

Sadly, Nicki was brutally mauled by the durian mere seconds after this photo was taken.

We cleaned up the crime scene, disposed of the durian corpse, washed the oily yellow blood from our hands and put away the dulled knives. We sat around a small glass table on Bobby’s back porch, savoring the lasting flavor of the durian, mementos of inaudible and internal burps slipping silently up through my mouth. But the evening was far from over. Bobby had even more prizes hidden in his larders: a fresh bottle of Coke, and (dearest of all!) some sharp white aged cheddar, smuggled in from Hong Kong. Comfortable in the cool dim evening, we sat talking, eating small wedges of forgotten cheese and cracked parmesan on small crackers pockmarked with black pits of sesame seeds. Bobby talked of his time in the Philippines (he’s got two lifetime’s worth of stories), I munched contentedly on the cheese and crackers, sipped my Coke, and was happy.