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Thursday, September 07, 2006

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.

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