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Thursday, December 27, 2007

December Ends

Today was ... strange. I gave my Oral English exams, a five-minute oral interview that really ended up being seven to ten minutes per student. I've been doing these all week, and I have over 180 students, so you can imagine how the mind can wander. Some of the odds and ends I've mulled over recently:

Not only is it supposed to snow for the next two days, but by Saturday it's supposed to be snowy and twenty degrees below zero.

China has once again blocked Blogger, but this time, they've even blocked the main page. Used to be, in previous Blogger crackdowns, you'd be at least able to access the blog and update it, if not view it. Now it seems it's totally blocked, leaving some less tech-savvy bloggers in trouble. How do I access Blogger, you ask? Magic.

If you're reading this and also happen to be someone who often downloads music (that is, if you're Patrick), you should really check out the band Neutral Milk Hotel. They are sublime.

My student Dorothy plays a mean piano, and I asked her to teach me how to play next term.

I have a huge, audacious journey ahead of me come January: Haerbin along the China/Russian border, then a flight to Hong Kong, another flight to Singapore, and overland into Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and Souther China ... can I really do all that in two months?

Today, during exams, I reflected on the year, the lessons we've studied, the content of my class. To be honest, I feel I am a mediocre teacher. I think I lack the imagination and dedication to really ignite the kindling of learning. The best I can do is fan the flames that are already there. (Wow, that was a somewhat forced metaphor that dovetailed nicely into something somewhat meaningful.) I don't plan my lessons as well as I should, I don't have the spontaneity in the classroom that my favorite teachers have always had, and I usually find myself either scrambling to flesh out the two-hour running time of the class or repeating something from rote, highlight for highlight, stupid joke by stupid joke, without any deviation. Hey, if it worked on Monday ...

It doesn't help that the powers that be in both of the universities I have worked for in China have tried their best to beat any kind of passion you may have for the job out of you by making simple things needlessly difficult and difficult things impossible. From being forced to use awful textbooks, to being locked out of otherwise idle multimedia rooms for no reason at all, to just outright indifference, pointless evasiveness, and outstanding incompetence, the people in charge of the schools have been the least helpful in getting anything done. In my favorite plagiarism of Mark Twain, I'll say again: the biggest impediment to anyone's education around here is the school.

But despite all of that, giving my finals today was a really powerful moment. I know some of it was brown-nosing, but I got so many compliments about my class and my teaching. One student, who makes up for his lack of English with unbridled confidence, spent the entire interview-exam telling me how my class was so different from his other classes, how a smiling teacher who speaks slowly has boosted his confidence, how using things that aren't in the book has enriched his learning. Some other students dropped other platitudes, and at the end of the whole thing I was invited to "take photos" with some students (pictures below), but that one student's speech really made me feel great; however middling my teaching, he has grown and improved from it.

Ah, this short blog became long fast. Here are the pictures I took with my students. These little photomarts are everywhere in China, and it seems like most girls love nothing more than taking glamor shots of one another. This isn't the first time I've been invited for these kinds of photos, either. Please note that while I am pale as all hell (blame not seeing real sun for a few months), the colors are pretty washed out (they're preset this way to give the girls the pure white skin they all want). The two girls in these pictures are April and Ariel.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fat Cats in Freak Suits

He was a benzene freak, doing anything for his next high. You asked him, jump; he said how high. Look here, caffeine hounds, this thing goes deep: CIA, FDA, LCD, MGM. There's a whole lot of fire in this hillside and it's about to blow. That's what they told Old Man Trombone Jackson, but he set them right: a high-powered scrotal punch, make your ancestors' gums bleed and their knees crack like firewood during summer camp at Lake Wankikpooka. Hoo boy that stuff was potent: arts and crafts, archery near the old grain silo, and oh how those children cried as the chainsaw roared and the dust danced in the long shadows of the sunset. How long you got here, partner, she asked tonguing the gummy gap between her teeth, and he just smiled, lifted his eye patch, and said, "Honey, you just made my fiesta."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Shenyang 沈阳

James and I spent the weekend in Shenyang, a huge city here in China's northeast, visiting our friend Patrick and some other Maryknollers. A place like Shenyang makes your realize just how small and backwoods-y Jilin is. There's things to do, variety, the sun doesn't set at four thirty and places stay open past eight. The city is big; being there felt like being in Beijing, totally unlike the last two Chinese cities I've lived in. We spent the long weekend doing a walking tour of the city (which was impressive, kinda, since it was cold as hell), sipping coffee in Starbucks (!) while we took in the skyline and sights of the city. Ostensibly James and I were there to get some visa pages added to our passports, a free service offered by Shenyang's small but incredibly well-guarded US embassy. The final product was pretty sloppy, just some pages thrown in there with tape, but hey, it gets me into Thailand, so ...

A graham cracker Great Wall. How's that for a gingerbread house?

In a city this large, Patrick's campus felt like an actual campus, tress, open spaces, a bubble environment that keeps the loud city at bay. Strange art and snowy fields, too.

Our days invariably ended trekking through a frozen park, crossing an ice-slicked bridge spanning a frozen lake, the sun setting behind an immobile ferris wheel that's as dead as the trees: in his two years living in Shenyang, Patrick said he'd never seen it move.

Something about Shenyang was seductive, hence (perhaps) the last blog entry. The city inspired me, in those micro-epiphanies that I sometimes call "inspiration," that if only I lived there, could I really get a grasp on the language, could I see a third year of language study, sipping coffee and studying Chinese in a huge anonymous city and setting that goal ahead of myself and thus being content, happy. For me it's seductive, dangerously so, to set down on that path, that is at once both difficult and the path of least resistance. A fun weekend hanging out with a good group of like-minded young foreigners, of bowling and chatting with an Italian girl whose number I desperately wanted to get, of using my Chinese to get by and make new friends and just being happy to be there.

Novel; a change of pace; fun. For the weekend. But I think about a year from now, and if I'm still in China, still being a Maryknoll "volunteer," I can't help but think of one word: stagnation. I need a challenge, I need a change, I need a new direction. Where I go and what I do to find those, well, that is the big mystery.

Monday, December 17, 2007

What's A Year?

Planning this pan-Asia trip has got me thinking a bit toward the future. This past weekend in Shenyang has got me thinking a lot about the past. Why did I come to China, why have I stayed in China, and what I will do next year.

A lot of it ties in with the language. A lot of it ties in with doing something interesting and challenging and not wanting to "tread water." A lot of it is fear of the unknown, of what I will do and how I will live if I were to come back to America next year.

Is a third year possible? Is it something I want? What do I need? What would be best for me? Why don't I know what I want?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Blog Neglect: The #1 Source of Blogger Anxiety

So this blog is here and I don't have much to say at the moment. I am going to be teaching a class this week that uses a lot of music, a bunch of classic Christmas tunes but also some cool songs that aren't very Christmas-y, like "Sweet Jane" by the Velvet Underground, some great ukulele songs from none other than Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, and "In My Life" by The Beatles. (That one's good for teaching the word "bittersweet.") I'm also preparing to end the term, with finals, a trip to Shengyang on Thursday to get some more pages added to my passport, and some other term-ending jazz. So what to blog about when nothing too amazing is going on?

Like a copy of People, I'll just throw a bunch of pictures out there and pretend it's worthwhile content!

The pipe leitmotif continues.

I got lost walking the streets of Jilin the other day, and just for fun, I walked around in the alleyways between the apartment buildings. These things spiral in on one another like a fractal, there's always another corner to turn that opens into another alcove hidden away, more turns awaiting, ready to reveal even deeper realms of apartmentalism. I didn't just make that word up, honestly. So tucked behind one corner, as if thrown out with the garbage, were these two giant phoenix and dragon sculptures.

Kobe Bryant's reach is indeed long. Just shows you how insanely popular basketball is here in China.

I went to my friend Jenny's elementary school to be a guest for her students. Unfortunately, I got bumped: new uniforms had arrived, and the class was taken over for some kind of instructional about said new uniforms. Maybe next time. Snapped a nice little pic of sunset over the school though.

We're not tripping over canons in the streets of Jilin, but any time a new store needs to be opened with fanfare, a couple are brought out and shoot loud booming blanks that leave behind mountains of shredded red paper. We heard these fire from a block away and got there in time to see women dressed like extras from Outbreak cleaning up the red paper.

哎呀, it's closer to one that it is to twelve, which means it's time for bed.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Blogging Some December Miles

So yeah, December has been an uninspiring month here in Jilin. Nothing in particular stands out, just a lot of the same familiar, and as the weather gets colder and it gets dark earlier, so it's harder to be chipper and clever here on the blog. So be it.

Lately, I've been obsessed with finding the Chinese equivalent of "c'est la vie." I guess in English we can say, "such is life," or to get a little more Vonneguty, "so it goes." I don't know why I'm compelled to find this phrase in Chinese. So far, the best I can do is a literal translation: "这是生活," zhe shi sheng huo, which just literally means "this is life," but my Chinese friends and students that I've asked say it doesn't have the same meaning as what I'm looking for. I've gone so far to enlist a student to ask the French teacher (who is Chinese) what it could be, or at least what the proper translation ought to be. And if I can't figure it out, well, c'est la vie.

One of the cooler things going on in Jilin (and, if you wait for it, the pun will become deliciously clear) is the rime frost that forms on the trees near the Songhua River. The river that seems to snake around the entire city is warmed, either naturally as some Chinese say, or by the myriad local chemical plants (as cynical foreigners are wont to believe), and as the warm vapor rises from the river, it meets the frigid air and cools in thin white ice crystals on the trees along the river.

It makes for a spectacularly frosty view in the morning. The rime frost is quite elusive, though, as I've only seen it a few times, and it melts pretty quickly.

And, what the hell, how about some more pics. Please note that the pics with snow are from the first snowfall a few weeks ago; most of the snow has already disappeared.

The poor guys adding the fifth floor to the dorm had to sleep in this pitiful tent, even in the snow. The snow got heavy enough that a whole side collapsed, and then one night, there was no light radiating through the small front flap. Now the fifth floor is finished, and the tent remains empty.

A typical lunch for me here in Jilin: 鸡蛋刀削面, jidan dao xiao mian, or "knife-cut" noodles with egg. Nothing beats the cold like slurping a steamy bowl of fresh-made soup noodles; so steamy it makes your nose run. Can't beat the price, either, only four kuai (about fifty cents) for a big bowl. Note the copious cloves of garlic; I usually go through four or five per bowl. It's the spinach to my Popeye.

Guess the swing is off limits.

Kevin said these pipes look right out of Brazil. I'm inclined to agree.

Always good to be prepared.

This statue is the unofficial icon of Jilin. It's there in the heart of the city, I pass it every time I take the bus into town, and you can see it in miniature on cabs and elsewhere in the city.

All for now.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Time Flies When You're Having China

Where have the past two months gone? Like so much overheard Chinese chatter on the bus, October and November just dissolved into the ether: I was paying attention, I was trying really hard, but in the end, they just slipped through my fingers.

Forced metaphors aside, I really cannot believe how quickly these past two months have come and gone. The dangers of routine, I suppose, or maybe the joy of keeping yourself busy. I've been studying a lot of Chinese, and improving to the point where even I can say without modesty that I no longer suck. Of course, I've spent a lot of time in class and with students as well; noticeably less time with my students this year than last, something I both regret and enjoy. My Freshmen have blossomed into real people, but they are so busy with class (even on Saturday) that we've seen little of each other outside of class, and just as they are often too shy to make the first move toward a meeting, I often selfishly keep my weekends free to do whatever I want, which is rarely anything special. Other than giving class, it's been time in Chinese class and with Chinese tutors and studying.

The truth is that living in China, or, I suspect, living abroad anywhere, begins with a wave of novelty and soon settles into a trickle of normalcy: you fall into a routine, you get into ruts, you have lazy weekends, and you don't do anything worth writing home (or blogging) about. Part of me feels bad for being lazy, for being boring, for being normal, for not seizing every moment of living abroad to travel to a new city or see a new sight. But as much as I love traveling and seeing and doing new things, it's impossible to live like that all the time. Just being abroad doesn't magically change how you go about life. And so for all the wondrous things and people and experiences in China, there's just as much downtime, hanging out with James, Kevin, and Jim, or sitting alone in my room studying or planning or just doing nothing at all.

I can write about my "boring" life here, and at the same time look back on the last few months and remember the little moments of joy and happiness that have given texture to my life here in Jilin, moments that aren't worth writing about, or moments so strange and funny and different that to explain them here would be useless. So it goes, c'est la vie, etc. (I'm sure there's a similar phrase in Chinese, just haven't learned it yet.)

The long holiday for the Spring Festival will be here soon. I'm looking at nearly a month and a half off, from about mid-January to the very beginning of March. Aaron and other Maryknollers have taken that time and returned to America, but I just can't afford that. What I can afford is a cheap flight from Hong Kong to Singapore, and once in Singapore, I'm thinking of making my way through Malaysia and into Thailand. I think I can spend a month or so doing that. That month won't slip away.

Monday, November 26, 2007

My Pictures, Let Me Show Them To You

There's been a back-catalog of photos I'd like to share of the past few months and weeks here in Jilin. Some are boring and ordinary sights from life around here, others are more exciting moments (like Halloween), and still others fall squarely into that "miscellaneous" category I'm so fond of.

Pacifist, eh? Well that's nice. This is one of the many visually loud stores on Jilin's "walking street," He Nan Jie (河南街). Think outdoor mall, only spread along one street that cars can't drive on. These are the kinds of stores that sell inexplicable fashion while blaring the muzak to get your attention. Which is odd, because every store does the same thing, and the whole thing is just a loud wash of muzak-noise that would be just as effective as everyone turning the damn muzak off.

Those characters are not the Chinese for pacifist, by the way: it must be a phonetic translation. (Phonetic as in: Coca-Cola is Kekou Kele, "可口可了.") Pei (沛) meaning "abundant," and ke (客) meaning "visitor" or "guest." So "abundant guest" is what the Chinese are reading when they go shopping there. Hmm. Moving along ...

Jenny came over a while ago and helped us make some dumplings.


The dumpling "stuffing:" we made a few different kinds, as you can see. We had 1.) egg and mushroom, 2.) beef, potato, and cilantro, 3.) pork and celery, and 4.) pork and chives and cilantro. Good eats!

A view from within campus during sunset. It's getting that dark around here at about 4:30. I think I am developing SAD.

Once of my Chinese teachers, Yu laoshi ("Teacher Yu"), also happens to be my tutor. Our "Beginner's Level 2" class (初级二班) is a small class of four or six (depending on who shows up) friends from Korea and, well, me. (And Jason, but he's not important to this story.) Whether they were friends beforehand or are just fast friends here in Jilin remains a mystery. Anyway, Yu laoshi invited us all along for a meal at her house. Fresh from grad school, Yu laoshi lives with her mom and dad (as is the norm in China, usually until you get married), and together the Korean girls cooked up a great dinner (Jim and I were willing and eager to help, but were barred from the very traditional kitchen and told to knock some drinks back with Mr. Yu).

Mr. Yu (left), Yu laoshi (middle, in green), and some of my Korean classmates. Mr. Yu can drink like a fish for such a small guy; he was knocking back shots of 白酒 (baijue, a horrendously powerful and awful-tasting Chinese liquor) and beer all night.

Cheers! Anyone ... ?

My awesome jack-o-lantern.

We had a Halloween potluck dinner, and what started as a small meal became a pretty huge, beer-soaked party that brought a lot of shy faces out of the Beihua woodwork. Names for the soiree vary: I was happy with Ni Haolloween, while some charlatans out there insist on calling it Chillin' Jilin Halloween Bash. Without being divisive on the issue, I am right and James is wrong.

Mummies: both terrifying and convenient.

And with that, I move on to studying some Chinese. More pictures can be found here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

It Really Is That Cold

Once again, Calvin can say it better than I can:

It really is that cold. This morning, walking to class, I itched what felt like a perpetually runny nose. Through my mammoth catcher's mitt gloves, I flicked the tip of my nose to the side, and felt a small tug from the other side, a cold pull. Tiny, barely perceptible, but it was there, like a swab of glue in my nostrils, cementing them together.

My boogers really had frozen.

Monday, November 19, 2007

What Can I Say? I Like Coffee

Have you heard? I like coffee. A lot. Since college it's been a borderline passion. I love the taste, the smell, the history of the drink. And the caffeine rush doesn't hurt at all.

China is, shall we say, firmly in the tea-drinking camp. Coffee is here, sure, but a good cup of joe isn't easy to come by. So despite my distaste for the Golden Arches, I find myself venturing into McDonald's for a cup of coffee every now and then, because it's the only place you can get reasonably-priced java. And for some strange (strangely awesome) reason, McDonalds in China give free refills on their coffee.

听说还加咖啡免费, 对不对?

I'm not complaining. In fact, McDonalds is one of the few clean, well-lit places here where you can sit, relax, and be left alone. The café just doesn't exist here, not in the sense that you can buy a drink and lounge. So I find myself hunkering down in a corner of Mickey D's, sipping on a decent cup of hot coffee, and I may just sit there and read or study for a while. In fact, my Thursday afternoon/early-evening routine has been to finish classes, go to my tutor, and bus it into town for a protracted relaxation with some hot coffee, a book, and some 生词 (new words).

Only problem is every refill, they give you another creamer and another packet of sugar. I drink my coffee black, I'm not about to throw this stuff out, so ...

Yeah. I like coffee.

Oh yeah, and it's snowing here. 下雪! It's pretty funny to see people from Pakistan and Africa playing in the snow for the first time. One of my classmates, a native French speaker from Africa, asked me (in Chinese): "Can you eat the snow?"

Here's a picture James snapped of the front of campus. It started snowing around eleven this morning and has not yet stopped. Click the photo to go to his blog.

From Jivin' in Jilin


Sunday, November 18, 2007

What a Pity: You Fail

Last week I gave a class with two goals: to teach my students a few popular English idioms, and to get them to stop saying "what a pity" anytime something goes wrong.

"What a pity" is one of a myriad of phrases that, while accurate, are maddeningly overused here in China by English students. If something is even remotely palatable, it is "delicious." If someone barely passes fugly on the attractiveness scale, they are deemed "beautiful." So I wanted to try eradicating this asinine "what a pity" paradigm and replace it with something English speakers actually say.

I typed up an idiom worksheet, keeping the language as simple as possible: cold shoulder, butter someone up, Eureka!, once in a blue moon ... all of these and more. Each sheet had the idiom in bold, a simple explanation underneath, and an example sentence to show the idiom "in the wild." I had students pair up, with one reading the idiom and the example, while the other guessed it's meaning. I had a lot of idiom worksheets, too, so after a few minutes, the sheets were swapped, the guesser became the reader, with the former reader now having to guess a new set of idioms. The reading and "teaching" of the idioms to one another helped them practice speaking, the guessing helped them think in English, and overall, I think it all worked out pretty well.

I also had some vocabulary on the board, all meant to replace "what a pity:" What a shame, how disappointing, I'm really sorry to hear that, etc. We followed this vocabulary up with readings from the (otherwise disgracefully useless) textbook and a dialog of my own design. At the end of this part of class, we had a fat list of alternatives on the board, and even more in our book. Not new vocabulary, really, just new phrases and patterns. Simple, really.

So, the first half of class: reading, speaking, and practicing dialogs with "what a pity" alternatives. Slow, steady, but drilled deep into their skulls.

The second half of class: idioms.

Now class: idioms are on the worksheet. "What a pity" alternatives are on the board and your textbook. Everyone got it? Really? No questions? Good. Let's review one more time.

OK. Now: make a dialog with your partner. Use one idiom, and one of our new "what a pity" alternatives.

Now remember: idioms, paper. Alternatives, textbook and blackboard. Got it? Any questions? OK, go to it.

Two girls in the back of one class, two extraordinarily lazy students who have done nothing but sleep, talk, and text message for the months we've been in class, were going to be in trouble when it came time to read the dialogs in front of the class. So I spent a lot of time helping them with this: we went over nearly a whole page of idioms, we talked about the dialog in our book and review the new phrases: despite all the evidence to the contrary, they assured me they "明白" (understood).

As the other groups worked busily, I saw both of these girls sitting, heads down on the desk, arms dejectedly covering their head, in that totally exhausted "I don't give a shit" look so common with Chinese students. I was really hoping they'd pull it off, because I'd given them as much help as I could give two lazy students in a class of thirty, and in the end there were no new words, only new phrases and new ways to use very simple vocabulary.

Prep time finished, groups began presenting. I emphasized a short dialog to everyone (a necessity if everyone was to go), and they all delivered: terse, lean dialogs that gave the idiom and the "what a pity" alternative with little fluff. Some of the idioms were a little rusty (money "burning a hole in your pocket" seemed especially troublesome), but overall, not bad at all.

The two girls in the back looked as dead as ever. I couldn't avoid it any more: I had to give them their turn. I called their names, and they slowly stood, came timidly to the front, and began:

"So, this evening, how about it? Would you like to come to my dormitory to study?"
"Oh, I am sorry, but I have no time."
"Oh, what a pity."

Heads up, eyes on me, expectant smiles.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

When Did America Become A Bunch of Bastards?

A passingly interesting article about John McCain on the campaign trail is up over at the New York Times.

The article sees McCain come in to a coffee shop in middle America, and without getting into all aspects of the political spectrum, he starts condemning torture. And Joe Sixpack in Middle of Nowhere, Iowa, has the stones to disagree with McCain.

For one, I find it darkly hilarious that a bunch of middle Americans disagree with McCain on torture. The one man who can speak to the futility of torture from first-hand experience, from five years (five goddamn years) of torture in Vietnam, is called into question; meanwhile, the guy from Law and Order, who thinks torture is OK, isn't being questioned. As you can see, this makes total sense.

I just have to ask: when did America become a bunch of bastards? When did torture become something we ever wanted to let happen even in rare circumstances? When did we join ranks with the darkest, most perverse swine that human history has ever produced, by allowing torture, by allowing the idea of torture, to even be considered?

Torture makes us the equals of Pol Pot (Cambodian madman, "Brother Number 1," all told responsible for more than one million deaths; see our peer's handwork here), of the Spanish Inquisition. Torture makes us into the bloodthirsty monsters that the people who hate America want us to be.

When did we become a bunch of bastards? America was firebombing Vietnam and Cambodia in the name of democracy well before we were invading countries in the Middle East in the name of, oh, uh, democracy, again, I think. So our government have been bastards for a while. But when did Joe Sixpack in an Iowa coffee shop become a bloodthirsty, pro-torture bastard? When did the American zeal for pain and hate equal that of the bastards who boarded those planes on that September morning six years ago?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Apple For Teacher

I was just given my first apple by a student.

I've been given small gifts before, even fruit before, but there was something special about being given a single apple by a student.

Her name was Valentina, and we were chatting about her victory in a speech competition last night. Jim and Kevin were among the judges, and they were able to tell me first-hand that she just blew everyone else out of the water. Her class was about to being (mine had ended), and I was headed out the door when she stopped me, smiled that giant smile of hers, and handed me an yellow apple.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Welcome to BeiHua

Last Friday, the new Freshmen here at BeiHua (read: my students) invited us foreign teachers to a welcoming ceremony/talent show thingy. Some of my students sang, some danced, while students in other majors provided some performances. It was a really special little get together, because so rarely do I see my students (hell, any students here) cut loose and just go crazy. Plus James was roped into performing a "boldly unorthodox" rendition of Sleeping Beauty. And I now share it all here with you. Just remember that I was only one in an audience of at least 200, likely well more.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Guangdong Wedding

Kevin Clancy, friend and Maryknoller Extraordinaire, is getting married this month. I've had the pleasure of meeting the Future Mrs. Clancy, Kaishan "Snow White" Kong. The Zhanjiang crew of last year (Kevin and Kaishan's former colleagues and friends) got together for a meal, we drank baiju out of glass hand grenades, and the night ended with some topless KTV debauchery. (Mind outta the gutter, folks, only a few of the guys relieved themselves of their shirts.) Kaishan is a great lady, Kevin's a great guy, and I'm really happy for them both.

Sadly, China being what it is (that is, massive), I will not be able to make the trip south and join in the matrimonial festivities. Besides, I've got nothing to wear; no way the jeans, buttoned shirt, and sneakers combo I squeak by with in class would cut it at a wedding.

Anyway, Kevin and Kaishan have been wedding-blogging (wogging?), and recently they posted some really great photos. I swear, the sheer number of traditional Chinese formalities Kevin has gone through officially takes me out of the running of a cross-cultural marriage. But Kevin's weathered it all with a smile, and I can only hope that he doesn't hate me for sharing these pictures with (more) of the world.

Kevin and Kaishan's Wedding Blog Thingy

And for the record, I always thought that Kevin and Kaishan should have called their blog "Snow White and the Kevin Dwarves." But that's just me. (And yes, I know it's "dwarfs," but I like Tolkien's spelling better.)

Monday, November 05, 2007

It's Funny What Makes You Laugh

I've been listening to some Buena Vista Social Club lately. It's strange to hear Latin jazz in an American's dorm in China.

I was meeting with my tutor today, and I asked her one of those "why haven't I learned how to say this yet?!" questions: what's the word for picture, as in, from your (or my) digital camera? She had already told me that camera was 照相机 ("zhaoxiangji"), with that last character 机 ("ji") being a kind of catch-all word for machine. (Mobile phone, for example, is 手机, "shouji," which is literally "hand machine.") I wanted to know what my camera could do; my camera takes/makes what? She explained that a camera takes 照片("zhaopian"), photographs.

OK, I thought, I'm all set: I've got my vocab for camera, vocab for photographs ... wait, I just need the verb: my camera what photographs?

She looks at me with that "this should be painfully obvious" look: your camera 照相, "zhaoxiang," takes photographs.

Dig it, I thought: 我的照相机照相. "Wo de zhaoxiangji zhaoxiang."

Literally: My photograph-taking machine takes photographs.

I laughed for ten minutes.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Dolphin Slaughter

Sometimes you hear nothing but bad news about China: the environment, tainted exports, and the various everyday bitching about daily life in the Middle Kingdom by yours truly. But every country has its share of problems. Take Japan, for example:

So are dolphins just another fish? If we're outraged by this, shouldn't be be outraged when a cow is killed for meat? I love dolphins and think that everything in this video is a travesty, but can you put all the blame on the fisherman from the sleepy fishing village that are tying to feed their families by simply sating a demand of the market?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Halloween in Jilin

I hope there are more pictures to come by the end of the week (the three-room Halloween party/potluck dinner we're holding on Saturday better bleed pictures), but for now, here's a taste of Halloween here in Jilin.

Maybe you can't see it in that last pic, but that little pumpkin is pretty sweet. It took a while to carve, mostly because the pumpkins here are as thick as tires, about as carve-able, and there's approximately one square inch of room within them to maneuver your knife and scoop out the guts.

I just showed one class Sleepy Hollow, a movie that is quickly becoming my de facto Halloween movie here in China. I mean, what other movie has the spooky look, evil spirits, autumn motif, and comedy kicker? I think it went well.

With luck, more later

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Look what I can do! Pt. 2/第二次

Last time is was all about photos ...


(Now it's all Chinese characters!)


(Really! My computer can write a little Chinese!)

I knew my computer could do this for ages, but it wasn't until James and Jenny started chatting to me via Gmail using characters that I was motivated enough to figure out how! And now that my Chinese is getting better, this feature is actually useful!


(I'm so happy!)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

After a Long Week

China banned YouTube this past week. While this time a year ago that would have been an unforgivable sin, I've found a way around it. Maybe it would be imprudent to name it here, but using this nameless program opens a torrent of new, previously blocked information.

If you had asked me Tuesday how things were going here in Jilin, I'd have responded with an enthusiasm that might have shocked you. Things were going so well. Too well to last, I guess, because by Thursday I was in a bitter mood, and I couldn't really explain why. Even giving my good, useful, and fun lesson on Halloween, complete with jack-o-lanterns and Dracula cape and Halloween songs, couldn't cheer me up. For the most part, the lesson was well-received, too, so I can't quite place it. Maybe it was hundreds of small frustrations, inert students, a lack of free time, and a general failing to study all the Chinese I was hoping to, that all conspired to simply wear me out by week's end. Now it's a shitty rainy day here in Jilin, I woke up early only to waste my morning doing a bunch of nothing on the internet, and now after sweeping and cleaning and doing some laundry I am off to the city to find some stimulation. (Please, Zeus, let the pirated Xbox guy have Portal.)

How could a good week have ended so drearily?

Last weekend Jenny, Kevin, James, and I went hiking. We were supposed to see a forest famous for it's crimson leaves. We hired the services of a shady cab driver who just drove us through the gate without buying tickets, blowing past the "guards" with a suspicious honk, and as we hiked the well-worn trail on the coldest day in Jilin so far, we realized that all the leaves had fallen, and only barren trees remained. Still a nice hike, but far less red than we were expecting.

So here's a pic from the hike. More can be found here.

Off to town.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Of Garlic and Visitors

Garlic. It's good for you, it makes virtually everything taste better, and I've been eating a hell of a lot of it these days. How much? Today Kevin Clancy, the Big Boss of the Maryknoll teaching "volunteers" in China, had lunch with Kevin, James, Jim, and myself, and over a simple bowl of noodles, I was able to consume five raw cloves of fresh garlic.

That's five cloves, in one sitting. And raw: I peel the cloves and nibble a little bit off to chew with my food. I should probably chew more gum.

Kevin has been up here checking in on us Dong Bei'ers (Northeasterners). He's here to make sure we're doing our job, but also making sure we're being taken care of by our school, and to just check up on Maryknoll's people in general. Kevin taught four years in Zhanjiang (where I taught last year, for those keep score at home), and I was lucky enough to know some of the very people he taught with before he transitioned into a more official role in Hong Kong. Kevin's insight and advice has been invaluable to me personally and Maryknoll teachers generally, so it's been great having him up here in the north. Kevin's also getting married in a month, to Kaishan "Snow White" Kong, and if I can, I'll be attempting to travel to Guangzhou for the wedding.

Anyway, Kevin came to sit in on one of my classes today, and it was the dreaded "crashing blood sugar levels" post-lunch 1:30 class.

Fortunately, Kevin's mere presence seemed to perk everyone up, and as he and I walked from group to chattering group and engaged the students in a discussion of the story we had just heard, I was really happy that my students, shy as they are, perked up just when they did. Christ knows they didn't keep that energy up for the second half of class (when Kevin was off visiting another teacher), but it was great to see them talking and genuinely discussing things in English when normally they lapse all too easily into Chinese. I realize now that the class I had prepared was a bit too free-talk heavy, and the nebulous structure saw interest wane toward the end. They were probably sore that I didn't teach them a song like I promised, too.

I feel bad that October is already half over, and there have been scant few updates on my blog of late. I've been doing more Chinese, more reading, more everything, and the blog just kinda tends to get pushed back. Oh well. Here's to "more to come."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Rambling Entry that you Should Probably Just Ignore

The promised power outage never came. It was a smooth, electrified Friday and Saturday here in Jilin; I came back from a long day in town (but more on that later) to a pitch-black apartment, but a quick trip to the "front desk" solved that problem.

I felt compelled to write something here today, in fact I was thinking about it all afternoon. What brilliant insights into China shall I deign to unleash upon my frothing readership today, I asked myself rhetorically. But now I can't for the life of me remember what it was I wanted to write. Guess it just works that way some times.

This morning and afternoon was spent with Jenny, James, and Kevin walking about Zhanjiang.

Wait, what? I honestly just wrote Zhanjiang without realizing it. It's been on my mind lately. I miss it, if you can believe that, and if you'd been reading this blog for any amount of time, about the only constant has been the inhuman amount of bitching I did about the place. But I do miss it: many things that were comfortable there, and familiar, that are now so far away; the e-mails I've recently swapped with students that take me back to hot classrooms, belabored lessons, Cantonese frustrations; and above all it's hearing from friends from down there, the people that made Zhanjiang what it was.

Home for the summer, it's almost as if I never really thought about Zhanjiang, or China, or what any of it meant to me, until I got back to China. Talking through it with friends and family was the begging of a process that only accelerated upon my return. I remember arriving in Hong Kong this August, a self-assured swagger as I moved through the familiar city, feeling that this country was old hat, well-worn territory. And as I watched the images of Hong Kong flash by through the windows of the double-decker 6X, a year's worth of luggage and memory shifting in the seats next to me, the bus crested that first amazing, familiar view of Repulse Bay in August and turned that slow obtuse turn around the beach toward Stanley, and my first year in China hit me, a mental fist with Zhanjiang fingers. Hong Kong, Zhanjiang, teaching, friends, traveling, Meghan and Deirdre and Patrick, the final weeks of the term, leaving; it hit me, and I was alone, trying to put it together before I got off the bus.

(I could have said a mental fist with a Zhanjiang brass knuckle, but I decided not to. I have too much respect for you, reader. You're above that.)

Anyway, I spent the day in Jilin, and I bought my first Chinese mobile phone today, going for the cheapest dependable one I could find, and in a sick twist of fate it appears to be the exact same model that Nic had in Zhanjiang last year. So it goes. I have absolutely no idea how much calling me on this thing costs, or if talking for a moment to someone in America will wipe clean my supply of minutes, but my number is 159.442.44.117.

I got the phone out of necessity (kinda), because having one just makes life easier here in Jilin. There seems to be a much more disparate social scene here when compared to Zhanjiang, a lot more people my age, a lot more people, period, and having a cell phone simply works. At the same time, the vastly different social scene makes this place feel far more like college and less like the "rugged" individualism of last year.

And here it is, nearly four in the morning. Good old blog: I never need anything to say to say it on here. I knew I needed to blog, and, well, you got a first-year memory dump. So it goes.

I'll leave you with what appears to be a new (?) brand of chips here in China. I first spied this brand in Yanji, but saw it here today in the building's little convenience store. I can only imagine what the people that came up with it were thinking: "Well, foreigners love Lonely Planet, and they seem to talk about God a lot, so ..."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I Blog Because Tomorrow I Lose Power

For about the third or fourth time since I've arrived in Jilin, they're cutting the power to the entire building (and I think the entire campus), as well as the water. As fun as that may sound, it's getting a little old to have my power cut at random intervals, and tomorrow, it's going to be slightly harder to swallow: no power or water, starting at seven in the morning, and ending sometime Saturday. That is to say, over 24 hours later.

So, I've learned to take showers at night, to say the least.

Blog ... I remember the first time I heard that word. I hated it. Reviled it. "Blog" sounded like some kind of artifact from the future, an anachronism just waiting to happen, some stupid anagram from a bad sci-fi novel, something from the far-flung future so strange and new the world couldn't help but make up a stupid name for it. But I guess when zorbing is real and you can actually buy a canine abomination like a groodle, blog is tame by comparison.

Well, I guess I should tell you about Change Bai Shan and that?

It was a fantastic trip. The two extra days in Yanji, along with Kevin and James, were great. We toured all over Yanji, and took a fantastic trip to Tumen, where I came as close as I wanted to North Korea.

A serene mountain sunset in Yanji.

And here I am on the top of that very mountain ... God I loved that stick.

I wonder what they serve here? (Yanji is a very Korean part of China.) That character to the right/underneath the dog's head means "meat."

Some well-used kebab skewers. No relationship to the dog. Honest.

Looking into North Korea.

I paid a guy two kuai to look through his (relatively) high-powered telescope, and snapped this pic of some North Korean farmers. Dirt roads, no machines, all by hand, it seems ...

Right there at the very edge of the border. We can safely assume that it says something along the lines of "Don't cross."

James, Kevin, and I left the border area, rented a three-person tandem bike, and drove along the river, watching the dusk slowly creep over the lightlessness of North Korea.

A great trip, made all the better by three foreigners making their way through China using their shaky Chinese. (More pics here, by the way.) Finished in Tumen, Kevin, James, and I hopped a train back to Yanji, and shortly thereafter, made our way to Erdao/Baihe, the towns near the Change Bai Mountains. After getting situated in a hostel that was little more than a family's spare room (we played cards late into the night as their daughter slept on a cot in the kitchen), we woke up early for a full day on the mountainside.

Careful, James.

The lake was huge, an unreal blue, and breathtaking.

Ready, set ... pull a stupid face, Matt! OK, cheese! The mountain's famed waterfall. Sadly, the stairs for climbing to the top were closed due to rock slides. Maybe next time.

The famous hot springs ... eggs and veggies boiled in the water, available on demand.

I made new friends, Patty and Amy. I think we said "goodbye" twenty times.

At the "Xiao Tian Chi," or Small Heaven Lake (Heavenly Pond?), the white trees, stripped of their leaves, beamed in the water's mirrored surface. Very peaceful, that pond.

Off the mountain, back in town, there was a fantastic, sculpture-filled park. Set amid a forest burning all Fall-orange and dying red, it was a great afternoon for saying goodbye to the mountain.

Our driver to Chang Bai Shan and back to our hotel, and around town and all that, was a local man we dubbed Chuckles. Chuckles was the happiest man I have ever met: pure joy in his eyes, he was so happy to meet us, to listen to use speak our bad Chinese, and inform us of all there was to see in the beautiful town, that he simply couldn't stop laughing. Literally, laughing, as in, guffaws marred his speech to the point of incomprehension. Of course, our photographer defied the laws of the universe and managed to take a picture at the only moment in time Chuckles wasn't smiling.

And that's Chang Bai Shan. Plenty more pictures here, if you care to peruse. I'm gonna go shower now, because I won't be able to in the morning.