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Monday, November 27, 2006

Last one ... promise.

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

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

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

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

Sports Meeting: DoublePlusGood!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zhanjiang Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2006


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

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

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

Friday, November 24, 2006

My Students Rock

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

Dear Matthew,

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

Yours sincerely

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

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Dumplings

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine putting Thanksgiving dinner together this way.

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Free at Last ... Maybe.

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

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

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

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