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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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Coffee and Tea and Language Without Me

When you have to boil a pot of water (“put the kettle on”) to make coffee, you stop and pause, grab that half-forgotten bag of premium wulong cha (black dragon tea), and (if you’re me and you feel oddly uneasy at six thirty in the evening), you end up making both. So I’m sitting here at my desk, a tall mug of black Nescafe cooling alongside a tiny glass and accompanying teapot. I’m drinking them in tandem. Maybe it’s me, maybe I think I am turning Chinese, or maybe the instant coffee is just awful, but I am finding my taste leaning heavily in favor of the tea.

Sink full of dishes, a tiny cup of tea orbited by an empty glass, a tiny teapot (the dragon changes color when the tea is ready!), a big mug of Nescafe instant coffee (mixed with a lone chopstick), and a tiny "mixing" glass for the tea (more useful than it sounds, stop by and have a cup and I'll show you).

It seems like it’s been a while since I got a good blog in, and I mean that in both the noun and the verb “way.” Pay attention folks, I am unraveling the language before your very eyes. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Blogger. Someone smack me, I am too pretentious for my own good.

I had a decidedly Dedalus moment the other day, as I (surprise, surprise) wandered the streets of Zhanjiang. (I don’t do as much wandering as I would like, but that’s mostly my fault, and not for lack of time.)


More wandering.

And yet more wandering.

I was reviewing some basic Chinese words in my head, when it hit me: the superfluous egocentricity of language (notice the I at the beginning of this sentence). Always in English, you’re referring to yourself, be it to describe action, state a preference, or what have you. Shouldn’t the subject [I] be understood by the very fact that you say it? I imagine that clarification may be necessary when writing (again with the I), but it’s much more simple in Chinese. You can ask, do you have dumplings? You mei you jiaozi? And if dumplings are not to be had, you will hear in response, I/we do not have them; or, in Chinese, mei you, which, simply, is “not have.” It strikes me as a much more inclusive statement, never separating the speaker from the collective. There’s an unspoken yet understood group that does not have dumplings; likewise, you rarely need to add the “I” in Chinese. I like dumplings; formally, “wo xihuan jiaozi,” but a simple “xihuan jiaozi” will do.

It’s simple, and I like it. Grammar, at least, shouldn’t be a problem. I look forward to eating these words as I learn more Chinese, of course, but for now, it’s an interesting observation on the language.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Along an Unseen Path

It’s been overcast and blustery here in Zhanjiang these past few days, and even though the rain has stopped, the ground is wet, the sky is a vague gray, and I just don’t feel like going outside too much, despite the cool air.

I told you it's been rainy.

I’m beginning to get used to the fact that my novelty in this city will never wear off. Every day, I wade through torrents of new faces, on campus and off, and even if people begin to recognize me, they remain wide-eyed as I move through their life, always pausing and stealing secret glances, snapping “subtle” photos with their camera phones. No matter how long I am here, I know I will never become ordinary or routine for the people of Zhanjiang. That used to annoy me, even scare me, but now, I can’t help but laugh and smile. They stare and I smile; the more I smile, the more they stare. I spend most of my time walking around with a big toothy grin, and I’m OK with that.

I should have updated the entry I began on my birthday, but I didn’t. Here, briefly, is the rest of the story.

All of the foreign teachers, along with some of my local faculty friends, all gathered outside my apartment on Tuesday; we were going out to celebrate the birth of yours truly. We went to a fantastic Sichuan restaurant, with some of the spiciest food I’ve had yet in China (my Uncle Mike would love it here). All told, there were thirteen of us gathered to celebrate what I like to call “Christmas in September.”

Starting with me, and going clockwise: Jude, Anne (hidden behind Brenda’s hair), Kevin (in the green shirt), Lynn, May, Liam, Brenda, Nicki, Steve, Fr. Bobby, Dragon, and Sheng.

There are more chilies in this food than there is actual food.

You get a bowl of long "life" noodles on your birthday. The long noodles are meant to give you a long life!

The Rookies.

A meal well done.

As I was writing this, I received a call from Michelle, informing me that the school has set up a bank account for me and deposited my first paycheck. Cool beans! I walked over to the Administrative Building, picked up my bank book (I’ll have to remember to have a student come with me to get an ATM card … I’m told any Chinese bank is more or less good anywhere in China), and headed back to my apartment. But then I decided to explore, and found something wonderful.

The park is huge, accessible from campus only through a tiny, almost invisible footpath that runs in front of two small, unassuming, and out-of-the-way shops. Walking to class every morning, I never would have imagined this barely-discernable trail that runs between the retaining wall that forms the sidewalk and roadway would open up into such a massive and extraordinary park. It roughly borders a large lake that every now and then decides to be a river, and I connected the mental dots in my head to form a far more complete picture of the city with the park to fill in the black edges of my inner map. It was beautifully quiet in the park today, and I was able to leisurely stroll up and down both banks of the lake. There are fantastic little bits of distinctly Chinese architecture everywhere, from the gentle arches of massive stone bridges to the distinctly round, orange-tiled roofs of simple pagodas. Everywhere there were benches, magnificent scenery, impossible trees, and rarely-used footpaths, daring you to venture further. I was able to view only a small portion of the park before it got dark, but I think I’ll be spending a lot of time there. It’s a very quiet and relaxing area, and I could grade papers, write, or read virtually anywhere.

Well, that’s another week done. My comfort level here has grown alarmingly fast; I never thought I would feel this comfortable here, that this place would begin to feel like some kind of home; and I certainly didn’t expect this place to feel so familiar so quickly. But thankfully, it has. I can’t wait to begin my Chinese lessons next week, and I can’t wait to discover more of this city.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Birfday and Class (I can't believe I have to go to class on my birthday!)

Sunday was Teacher’s Day, a national holiday here in China. It says something about a culture, and the importance they place on education and the respect conferred upon teachers, when there’s an entire day set out to honor you. But, as my friend Father Michael said, “the other 364 days belong to the students.” Oh, how right you are.

I was feeling rather ill on Saturday, but by Sunday morning I was feeling much better. I was awake early (well, for a Sunday, at least), was able to clean my apartment, and just sat down in time to be visited by a small group of students, four senior girls from my thesis writing class. They stopped by to spend some time with me (I guess they didn’t hear how boring I am ... Lawler, I need a link to that!), and they gave me a really nice, elaborate tea set.

A few more students stopped by, swelling the ranks to ten. I received a very sweet card, and a dolphin wind chime, from this group, along with a huge bundle of fruit (which I really do need to eat more of). The whind chime is outside, on my balcony, and provides some soft music as I hang my laundry to dry. In explaining how I used to work at a store (Home and Garden Culture) that sold very large wind chimes, the girls blurted out, “but that was the biggest one they had!” So somehow I managed to sound ungrateful … way to go, Teacher Matt.

My students wanted to take me out to lunch, but I knew that wasn’t fair: I had just received an 800 kuai (about $100US) bonus from the school during Friday’s teachers banquet (the banquet that made me feel awful), and I knew that the students were on very tight budgets. So I treated them to lunch.

And now today is my birthday. The big two-two. My early morning class knew it was my birthday, and I walked in to a blackboard covered in a giant colorful “Happy Birthday!” adorned with flowers and hearts. Before I peel my eyes away, the whole class was singing happy birthday and clapping. They really are the best. Of course, I didn’t bring my camera (after promising myself I would bring it everywhere), so I have no pictures to show; the class monitor erased the board (before I could stop her), so that I could use it during class. I had a big bag full of candy that I passed out, and the kids were thrilled to be able to eat the candy—gasp!—during class!

That bag of candy was supposed to last both classes, but it was empty by the time I left the first. Oh well; I just stopped by the corner shop on my way to my next class and bought a ton of cookies. This class didn’t know it was my birthday, and I started by telling them that today was the MOST IMPORTANT day in all of literature; did anyone know what it was? I was hoping someone would yell out Bloomsday (no one did), so I told them: today was my birthday. The clapped and laughed, wanted to sing, but I told them that first, they had very important class work that could cause them to fail if they didn’t finish it: eat some cookies! … right? Guys? The mock severity must have gone over their heads: they thought I was really about to give them a grade-breaking bit of class work. “OK, that was a joke, you guys,” I laughed, “you’re not going to fail if you don’t eat the cookies.” They got it, I guess, and started laughing the nervous laugh of Chinese students. They sang “happy birthday,” loud and with pride; I’m sure I was “interrupting” one of the other foreign teachers classes. Oh well. Good kids.

Kids. Ha! I told them I turned twenty two today, and they exploded in laughter. They were all mostly twenty three, some of the “young’ins” were twenty two, some were already twenty four. And I’m calling them “kids.”

Two odd things happened in class today. We were finishing The Canterbury Tales, and in a very male-dominated text (we focused mostly on the Knight), I decided to tell my classes about one of the poem’s strong female characters, the Wife of Bath. Now, I’m lucky to have three or four guys in a class of forty; my students are virtually all young women. And it was a revelation for them to be told that Chaucer, nearly seven hundred years ago, wrote of a strong, intelligent, and independent woman. As soon as I mentioned her, faces that had been slouching in boredom immediately pricked up and began to pay attention. She was an older woman (the girls shake their heads in disapproval), yet still very beautiful (nodding in agreement); she had four or five husbands (strong looks of shock and disgust, even a few hushed calls of “bad woman!”), and yet she was well traveled and wealthy (some begrudging admiration); but above all, the Wife of Bath was able to earn independence and in some respects equality with men (huge, wide-eyed agreement). To see them connect so well with a character really makes me wish for a better text book; the Wife of Bath wasn’t even mentioned in ours. And after mentioning her, it was difficult to go back to the boring old chivalric boy scout that is the Knight.

The second interesting thing happened during an activity, where I let the students break into groups, small groups of three to six; I told them we were going to write our own (brief) Canterbury Tale about spring. In the first class, it was totally unstructured. I wanted to go for at least some rhyming, but any attempt to control their energy was moot. The class constructed a pretty straightforward poem, but man, they loved it! They couldn’t stop laughing and, I guess, it was really enjoyable to voice their opinions and frustrations in class. The two poems are below.

From my 8:00 class:

The flower is smiling and the bird is singing,
I sleep on the bed and listen to the melody of the birds,
The breezing wind makes my face comfortable and suddenly my mother wakes
me up.
Although I’m tired, it is a good day to have a picnic.
I want to have a picnic, but my mother said, “Today is the start of the new
term, go to school!”
In this new term, I met my Mr. Right,
I find he’s handsome and I try to talk to him.
At that moment, I asked for his telephone number.
Because I want to have a day out with him, he refused!
So I called and said, “The most romantic thing I can imagine is holding a
small umbrella with him in a rain shower.”
Finally, we listened to the rhythm of the falling rain together.

For my 9:00 class, I “tweaked” the formula a bit: I gave each team one word that they had to use in their sentence. This dictated their topic, and cut out some of their own creativity, so this one wasn’t quite as successful:

We all like ice cream very much,
And ice cream is melting in the sunshine.
The ice cream dropped on my mobile phone!
And my boyfriend hates the mobile phone,
And he loves playing basketball.
When we play basketball, we wear sunglasses, because they are cool.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think they’re fantastic! They have never used that many adjectives, or even alliteration, in their in-class writing. This experiment was truly as success.

So that’s a pretty good birthday so far: two successful literature classes, and some much-undeserved praise from my students. And later tonight, a big group of foreign teachers and faculty will take me out for dinner.

Yeah. Twenty two is starting out just right.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

My Apartment in Zhanjiang

Here's a little video tour of my apartment in Zhanjiang. Yes, the doorways are very low, and yes, I'm up on the fifth floor, but there's a lot of room and it's quite comfortable.

Hong Kong Leftovers

Yeah, so, I documented one very fun night out on the town in Hong Kong, and only now realized that I never posted the video. So here it is!

See! The delicious Taj Mahal Indian restaurant, tucked away somewhere in some strange industrial buidling! Enjoy! The beautiful sights of the Hong Kong skyline as seen from the ferry between Kowloon and central Hong Kong! Laugh! As your humble narrator buys beer in a Hong Kong 7-11 and the Maryknoll bunch dance and sing at a karaoke bar! Hear! The sounds of the busy city and the night life of Lan Kwai Fong! Listen! As I stumble over adjectives and sound like a pretentious ass as I attempt to describe the architecture and sights of the night!

And yes, and one more:

Despite me calling this place "The Smuggeler's Den" throughout the video (and ignoring confirmations to the contrary), it is indeed named "The Smuggler's Inn." A great little watering hole-in-the-wall, and only $30HK for a pint of Tsing Tao. Not bad!

As the green trees dance in the rain

I feel awful.

Last night, I attended a dinner with our waiban (the head of the foreign teachers office), some other university higher-ups, and the other foreign teachers. Our waiban, Mr Deng, introduced himself, we made some toasts, and enjoyed a pleasant meal. They gave us some Dove chocolates and 800 kuai (about $100) as a bonus for the upcoming Teacher’s Day on Sunday. It was all very nice and pleasant, good to meet the people that hired me and whatnot, but something from dinner didn’t sit right, and this morning I feel like utter garbage, like I ate nothing but razor blades.

It hurts to move, and I make all-too-frequent trips to the bathroom. I was laying in bed at 9:30 this morning, whishing anything could make this horrible stomach-churning pain go away, when one of my students stopped by. Without even realize what was going on, "Mike" was in my apartment, in my room, at my computer, installing some garbage, asking me to help them.

What the … ?

I couldn’t protest, I couldn’t tell him to get the hell out of my apartment. That’s just not done; it’s not polite, it’s not the Chinese way, and it’s certainly no way for a teacher to treat a student. So I sat and watched, grimacing and making my pain evident, as “Mike” helped install some music and movies he thought I would like. He dropped a few files from his MP3 player/USB drive on to my computer: Growing Pains Episode 109 (Carol’s Crush), some Ace of Base, and Groove Coverage’s (?) “Far Away from Home.”

Thanks, “Mike.”

I walked into the main room, hoping some movement and air would make me feel better. Muzak thundered in through the windows, and as I looked out into the overcast sky, a swell of voices from the street overwhelmed me. What the hell was going on? Why were there so many people?

“The new students, they are moving in,” "Mike" informed me. I looked from my kitchen window onto on of the athletic fields, and saw that it was choked with cars. I looked again at the brooding gray sky: wel, are you going to rain, or are you going to rain? Do it, you coward!

Nicki called, came upstairs; she brought her medpack, and gave me some anti-diarrheal pills, and thankfully, “Mike” left. Some more students stopped by, to hand me their graduation thesis outlines; I took them gratefully, but made sure I didn’t open my door wide enough for them to take it as an invitation to come in. They left, along with Nicki, and now I’ve been in my room, slowly feeling better but still feeling quite ill.

It’s almost the fifth anniversary of September 11. I spent some time this morning reading through a thread over at Evil Avatar, about what you were doing the day of. It’s strange and unsettling that I remember the emotions of that day so strongly. Just staring at the television, hearing the reporters mention that people were jumping from the rooftops … what unimaginable horror and pain was there, where jumping was the better alternative? And honestly, I remember thinking (and still feeling): what madness drove these people to do this? They were young men, not much older than I am now. Shouldn’t they be at home, raising a family, doing something good with their lives, living for happiness and love rather than dedicating themselves so strongly to death and violence? Their deaths are all the more sad, because they died so willingly, and for nothing.

I continued to feel awful. I wasted some time on the net, and was reminded of a very interesting game being developed by the good folks at Valve (they made a game you may have heard of, Half-Life) called Portal. The game was originally designed by students at DigiPen, a game design school in Washington state. They demoed the game for Valve, and were immediately hired. That’s a great story and all, but what’s interesting is the concept: one of the most unique game mechanics I’ve ever seen, one with limitless potential. If you haven’t already, click those links and check it out.

It’s raining now, and the thunder is echoing deep from within the city. It’s one of those tropical rains, that manage to be very wet and very long and yet not refreshing in the least. It will stop raining in a few hours, maybe a day or two, and when it’s clear, everything will be hot and wet, just as it was before.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The First Pizza Entry

Wrote this when a great song played randomly on the evening of September 05.

The things you remember. I'm sitting at my desk in China, enjoying the struggle through Ulysses yet again (up to Lystregonians), when “Wrong Place Right Time / I Can Hear the Grass Grow” by The Fall randomly plays in iTunes (a rip, as it turns out, from the Complete Peels Sessions boxed set that Rob and Juice got me for my birthday last year). And I’m immediately transported back to October 2005 – Jesus, almost a year ago now, isn’t it? – and I played nothing but The Fall on my trip up to Rhode Island, to visit Eric at Brown. I parked, met up with Rick and Marilyn, and we had a great weekend together. I remember that we got a lot of solid work done on The Hopeless Movements that week – a memory flashes of us talking about golf for the Decompression Chamber Golf sketch – and once, we went for a drive, and I played them a few “sneak peak” tracks from the (at the time) upcoming Fall album, Fall Heads Roll. I think we toured the campus a bit, got lost on and off the highway, and then went for some late night pizza.

That was a good memory. That was a good time with good friends.

I never thought I’d be one to suffer from appetite loss as a result of stress, but I haven’t eaten much at all in the past few days. One actual meal, maybe, in the last three days: the rest has been odds and ends, peanut butter spread over foully-sweet bread or a bag of M&Ms.

I want to be back in Rhode Island eating pizza with my friends.

M:I III by the fading moonlight

And I wrote this, feeling really lousy, on Sunday, September 03.

I left my room for all of two hours today. I slept late, almost until 11:00, waiting for some reason to stir me out of bed. What’s better out there? How can walking out in the hot sun, thousands staring at me and laughing, sweating bullets as I attempt to converse in a language I can’t help but drown in possibly be a better alternative to me sleeping in this nice, cool bed, the shades drawn and the outside world (for all intents and purposes) not even there? But I did get up, eventually. I showered, dressed, and began to prepare for my first class tomorrow. Steve, a British guy who’s taught here for two years and who lives across the “hall,” stopped by and asked if I wanted to go with him to “Sha Shan,” the other city in Zhanjiang. I said sure, and we agreed to meet at two. So I continued to sit in my room, listening to the Velvet Underground, preparing for tomorrow, and quietly dreading having to go out into the great big sea of people that is China.

Two rolled around quickly, and Steve and I headed out. We talked as we made our way toward the bus stop, intermittent bits of conversation bookending the long and significant silences. I kept bringing up ideas I had for teaching (and by ideas, I mean the ones I intend to use that were carefully fed to me during orientation in Hong Kong), and at every turn, it seemed Steve was unable or unwilling to really help. We’re both teaching three sections of English Thesis Writing, so what do you think about an exam where they formulate a thesis, write a brief paper, and annotate it in class? No? Bit too much? Ah, ok, well, since it’s a writing class, I was thinking about having the students keep a journal, you know, five hundred words a week or so, just so I know where they need help? No? Too much work, huh? For me. Oh. Well, I was also thinking about having the kids do some in-class writing, maybe, you know, mark them formally, so they can prepare for the final exam? Hmm, too much work again, huh?

Eventually we ended up talking about computers; my new laptop, his overclocked desktop, Age of Empires. We got to Sha Shan, and went straight for the DVDs: I bought over twenty, all (more or less) flawless bootlegs. The selection was pretty interesting: random Ingmar Bergman films alongside Hollywood schlock, Master and Commander next to The Squid and the Whale and Zombie Honeymoon. We tooled around these massive farmer’s market-esque malls, all hot and messy and informal, as Steve attempted to track down a good graphics card for his PC. I simply followed, bored, smiling at the gawkers beneath by sunglasses. Hungry, too; I hadn’t eaten anything all day, and here it is, already eight in the evening, and I still haven’t. My hunger is exponentially less than my desire to go out there and deal with people.

Steve wanted to look around a while, but I wanted to get home; why, I don’t know, because I knew that as soon as I did, I’d simply hide in my room again. And that’s exactly what I did: I left, took the eleven bus back to campus, eventually recognized where I was in time to get off at the right stop. I got home around, oh, five or so, and in short order, I checked my DVDs and ended up watching a crappy bootleg of Mission: Impossible 3. And now it’s eight o’clock; I’ve spent all of 3 hours outside this single room in the course of the day; and I just don’t care enough to eat, to talk to someone, or to do much of anything.

Tomorrow I begin teaching. I only have one class, at 10:00, but I’m going to try to wake up early, maybe run, and then be in the class room a good half hour ahead of time. I think I can handle the first fifty minutes fairly well, but when I have to actually begin teaching the class, in the second fifty-minute period, I’m going to be struggling like a fish on the dock. I hope I can throw myself completely into teaching; I hope it can motivate me to enjoy my time here in China; I hope my students enjoy my class; I hope it all gets better, starting tomorrow.

Whew, man, I was one negative nancy! It's amazing how much the first week of teaching his invigorated me. I enjoyed it so much, I learned so much, and I really like my students. I've got a lot of work to do, preparing for next week and reading these senior thesis proposals, but having some work to do is a nice change. I'll try to write about my first week of class very soon; it's a marked difference between now and when I wrote this last entry.

I am become Jim, Destroyer of T-Shirts

Dating from September 1, 2006, you can tell that the heat was begining to get to me.

It is so goddamn hot here. It’s not humid, it’s not blazing, it’s just HOT. The kind of hot where you step out side and think “Ah, this isn’t so bad,” but when you find yourself standing still twenty minutes later, the waves of sweat course down your back, the bottom of your shirt turns white with salty perspiration, and you’ve slicked back the hair from your face again and it feels like you’ve just stepped out of the shower; that’s how hot it is. I wipe the sweat that beads on my wrists as I write this, in an air conditioned room, after spending twenty minutes simply moving things in the other room and walking around the rest of the apartment. I’m sitting here, no t-shirt, basking in the glorious AC, and I realize: I have become Jim, or Demetrius, my big fat Greek room mate from Beijing in 2004. He had no shame, no pointless pretense: he was hot, sweating to the point that you’d change your shirt three or four times a day; and when he got that hot, he whipped off his shirt and just let the jellyrolls cool.

Well, at least this will be (more) incentive to lose weight.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Gandalf Syndrome (or, The Exploding Plastic Predictable)

I logged this entry some time between the end of August and September 1. And here we go:

Everything in this country is leisurely. It's a slower pace, a more laid-back way of life; just recognize that you don't have as much to do, and you can then take your time to do it. No one is on the tight schedule that everyone in the west forces themselves into. The Chinese even have a siesta, of sorts: everyone takes a nap around noon, and nothing much is open before two. Any culture that places such importance on napping clearly has its priorities straight.

Waking up this morning, I felt much the same as I did going to bed: I was in China; this is going to last for a year, and its going to take every scrap of mental stamina to survive the year of isolation that is coming.

Oh what a difference a day makes.

I don’t know what I was expecting coming here – I had spent time in off-center Chinese cities before – but for some reason, arriving here yesterday left me with an immeasurable sense of shock. Hong Kong isn’t China, I had been saying since I arrived, and yet when I stepped out of the taxi in the dry heat of yesterday afternoon, all that flashed through my head was: this isn’t Hong Kong. This isn't HONG KONG!

And so I awoke late today, lounging in bed until almost 10:00, kidding myself into thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could sleep all day and that China could just come back tomorrow. I talked myself into showering, dressing, of overcoming the sheer exhaustion and numbing depression of having arrived, and I began to clean. I listened to some great music as I cleaned: sweeping to Llano del Rio, doing dishes to Sister Ray, cleaning the stove to The Gash. And I just felt ... better. Making my home my own, letting any worries I had just fade as I focused on a task; it made me feel better, made this place feel comfortable; I just may enjoy this after all.

Man, I wish I had season 2 of Little Britain to watch right now. I got through all of season 1 at the Maryknoll house, and I’d give anything to put on season 2 right now.

Nicki, who is turning out to be braver than I, the experienced China traveler, suggested we go out "for lunch or something” this afternoon; we had both spent the morning cleaning our apartments and we both, I guessed, really wanted a break from the monotony.

And so we walked, out past the muddy turf of the campus track, through the gnarled metal teeth of broken fences and the long wispy fingers of the gigantic trees, out the front gate of the university and down into the exploding plastic predictable of the city of Zhanjiang.

And lo, it was decreed that the staring shall commence.

You know, having spent a summer in China, having gone through a week and a half of orientation and preparation, having been personally pulled aside by one of the larger brothers at Maryknoll and told specifically to get ready for the inevitable staring, I was still unnerved, annoyed, and ANGRY at all the staring. We’re lucky in the US; we have so much freedom, so much opportunity to just do whatever the hell we want, and we’re good enough to even extend that freedom to anyone (well, nearly anyone) who can get here. And that’s why we have every ethnicity in the world, why you can walk down Main Street in Delaware (DELAWARE, for Christ’s sake) and see an Indian restaurant, a Chinese grocery store, and a handful of the worlds other ethnicities represented. But in China, it’s (obviously) Chinese; waiguoren are as odd to us as, well, talking apes, I guess. It just doesn’t happen: everyone is five-foot-something, black hair, bronzed skin, and that’s that. Nicki, at 5’9” and with long blond hair, is just alien; me, at 6’3”, wide, brown-haired and blue-eyed, is just unheard of.

It’s the Gandalf Syndrome: you’re in a land of hobbits, of small, similar-looking people, polite and helpful and good, if a little naïve; and you are this great wizard, towering over them, with all the esoteric knowledge of The West; and just walking down the street, they tail behind, curious and staring; I can almost hear their faint cries, “Fireworks, Gandalf, fireworks!”

Those Chinese aren’t so bad. The staring isn’t malicious, it isn’t hurtful or disrespectful; it's simple curiosity, and it’s exactly what we’d do if everything in our country was the same, too.

We walked a few blocks away from the main highway, the artery that connects the endless stream of taxies and motorbikes with the far-off malls and department stores. And suddenly I decided that I wanted - no, needed! - an alarm clock. Which I was able to buy with a minimal amount of pointing and grunting. On our way back to campus - the heat was just brutal - Nicki and I stumbled into an internet café, and decided to check our email. That is to say, we saw a computer, went in, and asked to use it; 4 kuai for an hour’s worth, or $.50 per hour. Looking around the shop, there were two computers, a printer, and large spools of various fabrics; I’m pretty sure the guy was a tailor, and was just too polite to refuse.

Back at the apartment, putting away some groceries and continuing the cleaning, and the responsibility and freedom of living, fully and completely, on my own, began to sink in. I can do whatever I want! I can walk around the room naked, I can finally have a clean kitchen (after living with slobs for the past four years), I can stock my fridge and all that other cool stuff. Money permitting, of course, the responsibility is both enjoyable and welcome.

So, there you go. The beginning of - dare I say it?! - me enjoying my time in China. And it's only been getting better.

Blastoise from the Past-tense

August 31, 2006 - Short and sweet, (more of my negative) thoughts after spending a day in Zhanjiang:

Matt’s Chinese Diet:

Step 1: Move to China, where no one can understand a goddamn thing you say.
Step 2: Allow your hopeless inability to communicate to grow into a crippling case of agoraphobia.
Step 3: Rinse and repeat for a year!

If you’re not dead, you’ll be in the best shape of your life!

This place isn’t so bad. If and when I can speak the language, I’ll be much more at home.

I can’t wait for winter.

Welcome to Zhanjiang

I wrote this overlong entry after having a stressful and harried arrival in Zhanjiang on August 30th; in short, I was quite put out, so this isn't me at my happiest. But it's preserved, warts and all, because it's what I wrote.

The bus ride to Zhanjiang was a long stretch of empty China: rolling grey-green mountains in the distance, endless fields between the empty highway and those towering monstrous mist-cloaked hills.

I'll stop "writing" and begin "blogging" ... now.

We stopped three or four times, at seemingly the same rest stop: one, maybe two stories at the most, plain cement buildings covered by ugly orange-tiled roofs. Always the same gas attendants, keeping the day’s record on a clipboard; always the same restaurant, full of foul-smelling eggplant and mincemeat and stale tea; always the same faces, behind the register at the “convenience” shop that sold unrecognizable candies and noodles alongside giant butcher knives and the ever-present Koke Kele; and always, always the stares of Chinese who have now lived a full life after seeing a giant waiguoren.

There was an angry and indulgent rant that I just typed and decided to delete, because I’m not really that angry. I’m just hot, and tired, and the enormity of a year in this place is sinking in; and while that’s not at all a bad thing, and I’m finding more reasons to be excited for it every minute, I still couldn’t help but look out at the endless passing green along the highway and think: that could be a patch of road from Orlando, Fitz as my co-pilot, the two of us making fart noises and annoying everyone in the car, and just up here on the right will be a gas station, and I’ll get out and I’ll be 19 again, and I won’t have live and work here in China and I won’t force myself to do anything remotely challenging because, hey, I’m only 19, right? That patch of road right before that overpass, that could be the exit off of 202, right before West Chester, on my way to Granny’s, everything nice and simple and familiar.

But: no; I’m in China; I wanted to come to China; and here I am; so let’s go.

The long stretches of farmland, seemingly plucked from some cliché databank in my brain, full of rice paddies and straw hats and livestock, came to an abrupt end: the trees and mountains were replaced by flat land and an endless number of simple, utilitarian, tile-covered buildings. Good lord, the tile; so ugly, so industrial, so everywhere. I couldn’t imagine how a country that in the previous century had some of the most over-developed architecture in human history could make such a complete shift to pathetic, empty, soul-crushing tile. I felt a strong desire to rent a car and just drive through as many building as I could before I was a) arrested or b) killed. Would they shatter into dust like I imagined? Were they really as fragile as clay pots?

The bus turned into a large, gaudy (tile-covered) hotel, and in a disorienting flash, I was off the bus, loading my bags in the back of a van, and meeting Michelle (the liaison between the foreign teachers and the University brass). In the dry heat of the afternoon, choking on the singing fumes of bus exhaust, it was a whirl of handshakes, names, hellos and goodbyes. The door to the little minibus slammed shut, and I began my trip to Zhanjiang Normal University.

Driving through Zhanjiang, everything was a mix: old massive pig-iron Soviet-style bicycles gliding alongside brand-new motor scooters; ugly tile high-rises dwarfing old French colonial buildings. Everywhere, fruit stands, butcher shops, malls, mobile phones and people. Like everywhere else in China, Zhanjiang is at once old and at the same time new: everything is expanding, growing, with a sense of barely-organized chaos; and everywhere the old is cropping up, like a popped zit that scabs over and becomes a blemish, laughing, taunting them to keep destroying the history to put up yet more tile.

The minibus stopped outside a small and unassuming building, big thick slabs of cement jutting out into the air every ten or fifteen feet; the stairs. I looked up into the bright afternoon sun, up to the fifth floor. My room: 501. I threw my bags over my shoulders, began to waddle up the narrow square stairs; the shoulder strap to my duffle bag popped, I dropped the bags, took them up one by one, sweating. Dragon, the “landlord,” let me in, and the raw heat of the afternoon choked the room.

Whoever lived there before – I don’t know if it was a student from last spring, or the summer semester – had left useful supplies alongside useless garbage. And nothing seemed to work: no hot water, no internet; the ceiling fan was broken, and the water cooler they gave me (the tap water is simply too dirty to drink) was infested with ants.

I was very, very angry, and mostly, angry with myself. I felt suddenly very unprepared. But in short order, I met the other foreign teachers, I was invited for dinner, and it was really nice to be out to a meal with people 5, 20, 50 years older than me, and to be treated like a peer. It has its perks, this growing up.

Dinner was nice; octopus balls (not testicles), some yummy yet spicy tofu and noodles, “Chinese hamburgers” that looked like mincemeat quesadillas, and a bunch of other dishes. Nicki and I were directed to the university xinhua, went immediately after dinner to buy “just a few things,” and I walked out of the store with a bucket of cleaning supplies, tatami mats, a broom and toilet paper and a whole mess of other stuff. I desperately wanted my apartment to look and feel like some kind of home, and soon. I don’t know how long it will take, but with a few of those mats on the floor, it’s already well on the way there.

So instead of cleaning, I went to my laptop, blogging without the internet, snooping in Sarah’s old pictures (left on the school-supplied computer), wishing I were somewhere else or playing my DS or basically doing anything to avoid the cleaning that I need to do.

Too much change for one day; the bubble of Hong Kong has burst (oh what a mess), and here I am, right where I wanted to be, in the middle of China. Again. And it’s just not flowing right yet. Maybe some music, some Mario, and some rest will make tomorrow a better day for life-altering change.

The chapter ends, you turn the page, and here we are, back in the present.

Looking back (all this happened a week ago yesterday), I'm surprised at how upset I was. Maybe it was the travel, maybe it was being dropped off at my apartment and more or less left to my own devices for everything I would need to clean and orient myself; I was just bitter and angry and upset. But the water cooler has been cleaned, the ceiling fan spins with quiet ferocity in the other room, and all is cool and clean here in Zhanjiang.

Internet > Food

Finally! I have regular access to the internet again, after have only sporadic access since I left Hong Kong a little over a week ago.

It's embarrassing how much I rely on the internet: email, news, keeping in touch with friends and family, outlets for simple laziness and curiosity. And it’s strange how disconnected I feel when I can't jump on Google or the myriad other sites I frequent to look up information, do research, or just simply waste time. The internet is both a tool and a source of entertainment that's been heavily used by me and my generation for the past decade, and it's only going to become more integrated into our habits and sense of normalcy. Without it, I feel very much out of the loop.

Well, in short: Zhanjiang is great. My students are wonderful, teaching is fun and interesting, the city is fascinating, and my Chinese is improving (slowly buy surely). But it’s hot here, hot as all hell, and not knowing the language makes even simple things - like grocery shopping or speaking to students with poor English - very difficult. If we were up north, where people on the street speak and understand Mandarin, perhaps I could get around; but here in southern China, Cantonese is the language of the people, and only the young and educated respond to Mandarin.

I have a ton of work to do, and I'll post more later, but it's good to be back, connected with the world, and blogging once again.