See Matt. See Matt blog. Blog, Matt, blog.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I'm Still Here

A profound sense of ennui has set in here in Zhanjiang.

What could it be? The heat, for one. It's really no fun to be talking to a class of disinterested students who are falling asleep in front of my eyes (the "arm-on-desk, head-down-in-sweet-oblivion" move is especially infuriating) while a constant stream of sweat keeps my undershirt nice and moist. Hair like you're just outta the shower, beads trickling down your neck (or forehead or back or ... ), long pauses waiting for answers ... not my ideal teaching environment.

Or maybe it's the subjects. Sure, I'm having fun pretending I know all the facets of British, American, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand culture, but it gets old when I have to cover something like the British economy or Welsh festivals, something where my knowledge is limited to what I've read in the book. I can't even pronounce Eisteddfod, let alone explain what it is.

Maybe I'm just numbed by the overwhelming response to my post asking for advice. I guess what surprised me wasn't the breadth of discourse, but the depth. Rarely have I enjoyed such illuminating suggestions that strive to ignite passion in the soul of the reader. Thank you, sincerely, one and all, for your tireless participation.

Been going to the gym lately. Feels good to work some energy out, to be lifting again. Running on the unlit track at night, anonymous groups of shadows walking/jogging alongside me (I've never lapped so many people in my life!), has become something I relish.

Trying to think of what to do for the May holiday. Traveling out of the country is expensive. Traveling within the country is expensive. Yangshou could be a good one ... Hong Kong is always fun ... we'll see.

And because I can:

A panoramic view of Stanley, Hong Kong, taken by yours truly!

Ta Prohm tree.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Look what I can do!


A panoramic view of Stanley, Hong Kong, taken by yours truly!

Oh yeah! Pan-o-rama! I know it's been posted before, but that's Stanley, Hong Kong, taken by yours truly!

The full-sized image can be found here.

Then and Now

The Temple of Heaven, 2004:

The Temple of Heaven, 2007:

It's been a strange three years.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Beijing Goes Clean

Courtesy of Nicki, I'd like to share with you an article about Beijing, and its attempts to go clean, orderly, and Chinglish-free for the 2008 Olympic games.

Here's an idea, China. Now, I know this is gonna sound crazy. I know, I know, it's nuts, but listen to me. No, listen to me. No, really. OK, ok, here goes: make this shit a permanent priority in your culture. Do it now, and do it forever.

Orderly lines, public decency like not smoking or spitting everywhere (and I don't mean polite, occasional "peh-tewey" little girl spits, I mean colon-clearing loogies that take loud ugly minutes to gestate), cleanliness, all that stuff. Hiding it all for a few briefs months during the Olympics isn't going to solve anything unless these habits are internalized, and not just policed for the games and then forgotten.

Wouldn't it be an all-around nicer China if people actually adopted these behaviors every day? If there were negative reinforcement all the time, everywhere in the country, to curb this foolishness? I may come from a society whose greatest contribution to Western culture ranks somewhere between Coke and iPods, but at least it's clean and orderly. You know, the way a civilization should be.

Don't give the world a false impression of yourself, China, don't hide who you really are. Movements to stop spitting wouldn't exist if people didn't already recognize it as ugly and stupid; you've taken the necessary first step in admitting the problem. So keep that crackdown going strong well after that torch has burned out, those medals have been draped on necks, and that last tourist leaves.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Pictures, Decisions

The rest of my pictures from Beijing, Xi'an, and Hong Kong are up. Enjoy.

And it looks like I have to make a decision soon. In about a week, I'll need to decide whether to come back to China for a second year. Likely a different campus, likely in the north.

If you have any advice, feel free to comment.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Oh yeah, and pictures ...

I finally got all those neat-o Cambodia pics uploaded, and I've begun to upload the photos from the recent trip with "the sibs" as well. Right now I've only been able to upload the pictures of us in Zhanjiang, but Beijing, Xi'an, and Hong Kong are on the way.

And I've also started a little album with my panoramic shots. This one of Stanley, Hong Kong, I am especially proud of:

The Family in Zhanjiang

The only video I had left on my camera of the family in China ... plenty of pictures, but this is the only video that made it.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

My Great Wall Story

It was a great trip. Our hotel in Beijing, by total and accidental chance, happened to be across from the Catholic church in Beijing. We awoke early on Easter Sunday to take in bits and pieces of mass before heading to the Great Wall, the whole service being an awkward, trilingual affair, equal parts piety and spectacle. After Christmas in Zhanjiang, I’ve learned to enjoy foreign holidays celebrated in China in decidedly different ways, but the subdued sobriety of the whole affair felt too, well, normal. It didn’t matter, though, because we were going to spend the afternoon on The Great Wall of China.

Trusty Lonely Planet informed us that one could easily access the most popular section of the wall, Badaling, by gonggongqiche (that is, public bus) 919. So we follow “the guide’s” directions to get to the 919 buses, and sure enough, the terminal was right where they said it would be. As we approached the chaotic sea of exhaust-spewing buses and scattered groups of people, I noticed a dearth of Great Wall-hungry foreigners boarding the buses. I began to fear that a route change or some other Olympic-preparing chicanery had rendered the LP inaccurate. But then, just as I was about to give up hope for a quick-and-easy trip to the Great Wall, a helpful bus driver informed me that the last 919 bus to the Badaling left at eleven, and, it now being nearly noon, we would have to find another route.

Well, wouldn't you know it, but this friendly bus driver (I could tell he was a bus driver by the ID necklace he wore around his neck, written in indecipherable Chinese but stuck behind a thick, official-looking wedge of plastic) informed us that it would have be a full 80 yuan to go to and return from the Wall, had we caught the bus, meaning a total of 320 yuan for the whole trip; far more than LP’s quoted 12 kuai a head, one way! This kindly old man, who we affectionately began to call “Bob,” offered to take us to Badaling (in his own personal car no less! He must be a great bus driver!) and back into Beijing for a mere 350 kuai. What a bargain! It was his day off, you see, and he loved nothing more than to help travelers thirsting for China lay lip to the overflowing font of the Great Wall!

The danger of trusting strangers while traveling in a foreign country, I have come to find, is almost always aimed at your wallet, and not your life. There was not a doubt in my mind that we would be safe with seed-eatin’ Bob (he always spewed a cloud of well-chewed sunflower seeds when he spoke), which was why I was so inclined to get into that car, convince Meghan, Deirdre, and Patrick that it was safe, and write off the steep bill in favor of convenience. In retrospect, it was a dumb decision. ‘Ol Bob wouldn’t have been able to hurt a large group like the four of us even if he wanted to. But I didn’t investigate the situation before agreeing to his offer; I took this helpful man at his word, that the busses really had been changed, and that this was the easiest of the scant few options available to us for getting to the Great Wall on last day in Beijing.

We set out on the road, I got to talking to Snake Oil Bob, and I came to understand that in order to get to Badaling quickly, we would have to take the Badaling Expressway; to do that, I would have to foot the twenty kuai toll. Okay, Watergate Bob, you old jokester you, it woulda been nice to let me know about that before we got in the car. I agreed, and we popped on the expressway. We drove for a bit, Slick Bobby and I bullshitting in primitive putonghua, and soon we’re all wonderstruck by the tall mountains and small chunks of decrepit yellow wall that we spy clinging to the mountainside. As we drove closer, we could see more of the wall, towering up the sheer face of hills and cliffs.

We got off the expressway, but Meghan said that this wasn’t Badaling, pointing to a sign that most certainly did not say Badaling; I queried Honest Bob, and he responded with what I could only understand as “wait and see.” We got out of the car, and Bob insisted that this was Badaling, and that we pay him 250 kuai to wait. I eventually bargained him down to accept 150 kuai, but as we walked toward the ticket booth, we could see clearly that this was some other part of the wall. We returned to the car and told Bob that this was not Badaling; Bob had another “cabbie” translate to us no, “this is no Badaling,” but “this wall better.” No dice, Hotpants Bob; this is not Badaling; “bu shi ba da ling!”; take us to Badaling, Unflattering Adjective Bob! After some grumbling, we piled back into the car, got back on the expressway (five more kuai, Bob, you son of a bitch), and finally arrived at Badaling. I should have remembered, the name should have struck a chord, but it didn’t; it was the same section of wall I had climbed three years previous, during my first foray into China, complete with aggressive hawkers, steep inclines, impressive views, and bear pits. That’s right: bear pits.

Climbing the wall was truly breathtaking. You begin on a low section of wall, low despite it being at the top of hill. You begin to climb, and you realize the wall casually snakes around the mountains, rising steeply to surf the ridge and dipping precipitously to block the valleys. Any time you turned from the long, steep road to the top, you’d be struck by the immensity of the landscape, the jagged mountains that stretch out into the impenetrable haze, each lipped with a quiet, proud bastion of wall. You climb higher, turn and look; where you began is a tiny splotch of activity in a huge frozen landscape of hills and trees and wall; higher still, and you can turn to see the section of the wall you just completed, marveling at how it was built right on the very edge of some precariously rocky crest that would be nearly impossible to build anything on today, let alone thousands of years ago. It was a crisp and cool late-winter day, a beaming, cloudless blue sky, just cold enough to dress warmly but too warm for that jacket to last as you exert yourself climbing the wall. We made our way up the hill leisurely, pausing for pictures, often just staring silently into the colossal expanse below, and when we finally got to the “top” that had loomed over us from the beginning, it was easy to hear us all say, at one time or another, that this was one of the greatest moments of our lives.

On the way up, I happened to ask a (for lack of a more precise adjective) European woman how she got to the wall. By now you can probably guess: she took the 919 bus, of course. The wall conquered, we now had to figure out how to get home without paying Good ‘Ol Bob that 200 yuan balance. Knowing that the 919 bus was out there, somewhere, ferrying people to and from the wall for a pittance, just made me angry: at that asshole Bob, at all those other assholes waiting outside the wall to offer you some outrageously expensive ride back into the city (or some outrageously cheap ride that magically turns into an outrageously expensive ride after hidden tolls and fees are paid); at all the other asshole cons that people try to get you with while traveling; and, most of all, at assholes like myself, that stupidly play right into their hands when they should know better.

I snuck into the parking lot alone, looking for the 919 bus as Meghan, Deirdre, and Patrick waited inside the souvenir-and-bear-pit area. But I found Bob first. I can’t find my family, I lied; let me check down there. We’ll drive around and look for them in the car, Bob insisted, but I knew if I stepped foot in that car, that 200 kuai was as good as his. No, no, it’s OK, they’re probably just down here; I’ll come back. I walked down, out of sight of Bob, and found the 919 bus; and yes, it was the cheap twelve kuai express into the city. But to get to the bus, we’d have to walk right in front of Bob, and there’d be … trouble. I walk back up the hill, past Bob – Don’t worry, they’re just buying things and looking at the bears (hey, I remembered the word for bear!), I’ll look for them, I’ll come back – and I made my way back to the group to report. We needed to get on that 919 bus, we all decided; screw Douchebag Bob. That 150 kuai we already paid him was more than enough for the ride there, and not getting the other 200 would deliver some long-overdue karma.

Standing at the top of the hill, trying to decided what to do, preparing to go back and bargain with Bitches Brew Bobby for an honest fare, we spied another sign for the 919 bus; a sign that lead to another parking lot, near another part of the wall; a sign that lead us away from Bob. We followed the endless parade of signs for probably a half mile, expecting at any minute for Bob to come speeding past, spitting seeds and sweating in his ugly monochrome tracksuit, insisting we get in the car. At last, after even more ambiguous signs promising deliverance and some mind-bogglingly idiotic security “guards,” we found it: the 919 bus stop, an island promising home amid a sea of push-and-shove Chinese eager to swamp the bus. One bus pulls up, and we drink in the modus operandi: push-kick-tackle, rinse-wash-repeat, do whatever the hell you have to do to make sure you’re on the right side (that is, the inside) of that bus’s door when it closes.

I prepped the siblings like a general preparing for war, and we made a mad dash at the next bus, lifting smaller Chinese so they wouldn’t get crushed, boxing out, and generally pushing ourselves aboard until everyone was contorted in Dr. Seuss positions, standing in the aisle, the doorway, hell, behind the driver. We were all in, and the bus finally took off as a cute big-cheeked Chinese girl squirmed like a worm in limestone through the solid mass of humanity to collect money and dispense tickets.

Sure, it was an uncomfortable hour-and-a-half ride back into Beijing; and yeah, we should have told Old Con Bob to take a long walk before boarding that bus; but we got to have another “this is China” moment on that bus oozing with people, a bus packed so tight that you could barely exhale. We had little sympathy for Bob, and we reveled in cheating the conman.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Bliss of Hong Kong (also: pictures)

Meghan is sunning herself on the balcony outside our room as Patrick soaks in the view overlooking Maryknoll's manicured lawn and the sea-green vista of Stanley "Harbour." High atop Stanley Knoll, the palm trees whisper lazily in the breeze and exotic South Chinese birds sing their strange songs, and even though you can see the bustle of the plaza and roads and streets below, you're insulated from all that, the noise and activity just faint echoes, and on a beautiful day like today, you sit quietly, humbly, and look far into the sea.

As you may have guessed, we're in Hong Kong, and we're winding down after an intense march through Zhanjiang, Beijing, and Xi'an. Hong Kong is, I think, the perfect complement to all that Mainland jazz, and, selfishly, it gives me a chance to rest before I return to campus on Sunday. Not having to stumble through my infantile Mandarin to make requests for more toilet paper or wake-up calls is a huge mental burden that doesn't exist here in HK, and we can all get around easily, speak English, and relax.

Anyway, I'm sure some would like to see some pictures. Just a few pictures of the family in various places in China; classrooms, Tianan'men Square, the Great Wall, etc. I'll upload the (high-resolution) lot to my Picasa space sometime soon.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Xi'an Ma'am

So we arrived in Xi'an after learning, late the night before, that the hotel we had booked before leaving Zhanjiang had canceled our reservation.

So that was fun.

But I gotta hand it to Meghan, Deirdre, and Patrick: they took it in stride, travel-weary and all, and we just decided that, well, we'd have to find a hotel when we got there. Stepping off the plane with only a fistful of ideas was a ... unique experience.

So we now cut to a scene of four young Americans getting off the airport shuttle, in the middle of bustling, shuffling Xi'an, the fireapple red and deep-shock blue of their suitcases clamoring for attention in the dust-muted cityscape. I set off to look for bargains, the others waiting patiently, taking all the weirdness and unpredictability in stride. It makes me proud, so see 'em all going with it, no complaints. That's good travelin'.

Just as we're about to get in a cab to go to some three-star money hole, Meghan spies the YMCA sign, and tucked behind the sprawling DongDaJie (that's "East Big Street" to you, patient reader), we find a bargain: two hundred kuai a night for four beds in a windowless room, private bathroom to boot. You can't beat that, considering the next best thing was over two hundred sixty a night for one room with two beds.

Tomorrow, bright and early, is the Army of the Terra Cotta Warriors, and a whole lot more. This trip is so much fun.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Oh, what's one more ...

Why not post another email about how awesome the Smith kids were in Zhanjiang?

"Hi, Matt!

Your family are very friendly and all of my classmates like them very much! We learned a lot from the talking with them. Pat likes films very much and he talked very very excited!! But what a pity we are familiar with the English name of the films, although we know the Chinese name of them. So I feel it is very necessary for us to know more about the other things out of our textbooks! Especially the latest films and international news! It is very important for us to communicate with other people! The games we played in the class are very funny and we liked them very much!! I hope you enjoy your trip with your family in China! We learned a lot indeed in that class. You are a very good and kind teacher indeed!!"

OK, I'll stop now.

We're awesome.

Note from Beijing

We're in Beijing right now, and we're having a great time in a fantastic fun city. This place is so much more fun than I remember it, most likely because I was too timid to just walk around in the city and get lost the last time I was here. It's nice to have cool weather, see naked trees, decipher that rolling-r Beijing accent, and escort my family around town like I know what I'm doing. Lonely Planet, you're the best friend a guy could have on this trip.

Not enough time to really go into detail about what's up at the moment, other than to say the trip is truly an amazing once-in-a-lifetime deal. Most of the in-the-city stuff is off the checklist, with only the Great Wall left. I'm not even put out after having discovered the Belgian bar I was pining for months ago has been torn down (well, the whole block has been demololished). For now, enjoy an email I received right as we left for Beijing, from my student Joy:

"It's the first time for me to meet four Americans in a classroom in
person,and i think the whole class as well as i felt great and excited
about it.we had a good time talking and learing from your sisters and
brother.It's a kind of good experience too.Thanks for bringing them in with

On the other hand,i am quite impressed by the way you and your brother
and sister get along.You are geting along very well and eveyone who see you
together wil have a feeling of family.That really give me a clearerr idea
of American family.I used to think that American didn't stick to their
family members the way we chinese do.But you just proved that i was are more sticky than i with my sisters and brother. And you seem to be the one who have the greatest power over your sisters and brother.when
your brother was going to start to talk to us,he was kind of nervious and
kept staring at you.It seemed to me that he was afraid of telling the things
that he was not expected to coz you were there.It made all the other
students in my group laugh by seeing the fidgety expression on your
brother's face.Truely,you have a great family.

Hope you will have a wonderful trip in China in the following
days.Take more pictures and show them to us when you are back."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

I'm tired and my place is a mess

and it's awesome because my family is here and we're having a great time.

Meg and Deirdge missed their connection to Hong Kong, Patch and I waited four long awesome hours in the airport, sipping coffee (me) and water (him) and just having a great time talking to one another again in person. Girls arrived at last, Airport Express train into the heart of Hong Kong, bus to Stanley (Maryknoll's neck of the woods), a short cab ride up that goliath of a hill, a long relaxing chat over sandwiches at three in the morning, bed. They slept, I stayed awake, wasting the hour and half before we had to catch another bus drinking coffee and checking the net.

Monday was A Very Long Bus Ride. Had I blogged, that'd been the title. All day on the bus, a brief lunch where I learned that Meghan and Deirdre can't use chopsticks (they're already getting better), a large group of bemused Chinese watching these four foreigners eating taproot and tofu and bitter melon pork with them. Being forced to navigate these situations with my primordial Chinese makes me feel great, learning as I go, lunch is over, back on the bus, finally in Zhanjiang, we collapse for a group nap and eat dinner, talking and watching Talladega Nights.

An early start to the morning, Deirdre and Meghan coming in to make pancakes, I show them the park, campus, open-air market, Walking Street and more. Afternoon, lunch at the Sichuan place that we all love, and then they came to class, a sea of excited Chinese students staring wide-eyed and smiling at so many new and young foreign faces, small groups chatting together with my siblings and I have to tear them away so we can rotate speakers. The girls love Patch (think he's cute), love Deirdre (same age and grade), and love Meghan (the successful college graduate about to begin a lucrative career). I try to control the exuberant madness, no point, just let it go and let the energy of the room dictate what comes next. A four dollar massage to end the night and we come home to sleep thats like a coma.

Today it was a long morning of class, sophomores and juniors, we finish around noon and arrive hungry and exhausted to over three hundred home-made dumplings at Shang's house, us and Steve and his mother Angie. We get drunk on dumplings, rush back for some coffee (me) and water/internet (the others), sprint to class and have one more marathon meet and greet. They go over like rock stars, who knew Heads Up Seven Up could be so fun?, we take more pictures, and now they're all napping before we head out to the hot spring spa for a night of hot tubs and tea baths.

My place is dirty, in the real, lived in way. The cleanliness and order of droll routine has been replaced by haphazard and disorganized life. Funny how my family has to travel around the world for this place to finally look and feel like home.