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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.



deirge said...

BWOTHEW!! you made a girl cry?! what a jerk! Haha just kidding. That is really awesome that one of your student's played the violin for their Romeo and Juliet Act. By the anyone going with you to Portugal? Maybe deeja could come? Oh and I got your comment about the pizza eating contest...I don't hate you, I simply wanted you to know I was doing something you would be proud of! Tomorrow night at 6:30...I won't let you or your students down. Maybe if we take pictures I'll send them to you and you can show your class haha.
mmk well thats you lots.
Hing Hong Hing

<3 deeja.

Matthew said...

smiff, nice work on making someone cry. i miss you.