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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.