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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bye Bye Bobby

On Wednesday, May 30, Bobby Baines left Zhanjiang Normal College. The man that started the Maryknoll program at this school oh so many years ago went out with an appropriate bang: a cookout, throngs of admirers (students, faculty, co-workers), happy and loud joyous and fun. After a few hours of eating and toasting and remembering, he dashed off into a cab, leaving his own party early and quietly, to avoid those long teary goodbyes, leaving everyone with memories of Bobby in his element.

Liam called me to make a toast last night. What could I say? Bobby'd been in Zhanjiang for years, as had many others. I was as much a blip on the Zhanjiang radar as its possible for a foreigner to make. So I just said what I felt: Bobby was a new friend, and it's sad to see him go; I'll miss those Sunday "meetings" and those breakfasts, sharing durian and pancakes; but I couldn't be too sad, because Bobby was simply leaving here; I know he's got a lot of work ahead of him.

It was a great night. Plenty of beer and wine to help with the reminiscing. It's a fun, unique, and great thing to drink with these people. So many lifetimes of experience and stories. We've all come from different parts of the world, different beginnings, but we're all here now, and last night, we got to share in Bobby's leaving. With Liam's Irish ballads, Anne's years of experience, and all the other talented people gathered there, I think we remembered Bobby just the way he'd want us to: loud and happy 'till nearly midnight.

Oh, and PS: 100th post! Whow!

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Lightening is Tearing the Sky

I'm sitting here typing in the first bit of pleasant weather Zhanjiang has had in these past few weeks of hot humid stickiness: a thunderstorm. Lightening is doing some really crazy curls and swirls outside my window, and it's throbbing all white and ethereal behind the buildings on campus and the shadowy trees. It's nice to sit here and listen to music (Animal Collective) and just watch the lightening do streaking somersaults across the sky.

I've been making great progress toward my exit (and all-too-immediate return) to China these past few days. Scheduling rooms for finals, writing finals, honing the lessons plans for the last hurrah, and all that. Been making up some classes, too, which is never fun, especially on a hot damn morning like this morning when all I wanted to do was sleep late and take long cold showers. Having that end in sight is good, though: it lets you pace yourself, it makes you aware of just how far you have to go and just how quickly you will get there.

A group of students came up to me the other day, and told me how much they loved today's class in a way I was very unprepared for but profoundly touched by. We were doing a poetry lesson, but it was different this week: Robert Frost, those beautiful classics Fire and Ice, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, and (of course) The Road Not Taken. I know these poems have been Hallmarked and JCPennied into meaninglessness now, but this material is genuinely fresh to their ears, and Frost's poems are so elegantly simple. They really got into it, and a small group came up to me after class and told me how they had never read or enjoyed a poem like we had just done in class, in Chinese or in English. Yeah, teaching can be fun, but helping them feel something from these words is a feeling I won't soon forget. They're my Class 3 fanclub.

I look back at the list of things I wanted to do here in China, and a lot remains undone. But then, a lot has been accomplished, too, and these more internal accomplishments were never written down but were needed. I sense my own change and growth this past year, and I am excited to return home to a world that I am fully aware has been going on without me. I still have a lot to do before I get there.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dog and Duck is Friends!

I didn't make this video, but it's topical because ... it came from somewhere within China. So there.

That' so cute, I feel like I'm about to fall into a diabetic coma ...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Smells Like Summer

A damp and familiar smell just wafted up to my window.

It’s the smell of a Delaware summer, of Erockfest in Garrett’s backyard, of late night drives on rain-slicked roads through the half-countryside of Newark, of parking lots and summer warmth after a blockbuster movie, of poolside jivin’ to Kenny Loggins (which everyone can agree on) or Frank Black (which only Patch and I like), of barbecues and cold IPAs and lazy afternoons, of grass clippings and edge trimmings and all the trappings of summertime at home.

Amazing, really, the power of a simple scent. It can take me from zero to homesick in two seconds.

The End of Breakfast

Bobby Baines is Maryknoll's priest here in Zhanjiang. His is seventy-four years old, an aggressive chain smoker, and in his long career as a priest, he has found himself kicked out of various countries, preaching in a Filipino maximum-security prison, and presiding over various revolutions, elections, and changing-of-hands in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia. He's a friendly guy who curses more in one homily than most priests do in their entire lives, he can talk for hours about the fascinating experiences that have comprised his life, and in little more than a week, he will be kicked out of this university and then out of China.

Bobby's in pretty good health for a man his age, but more importantly, he can do his job just fine. But he's passed some arbitrary line that says he is too old (and thus incapable) of teaching, and so he can't renew his visa, and the school is sending him packing. Never mind the success he's had with his students. Never mind the fact that never once has anyone from Zhanjiang's joke of a business school passed the much-coveted BEC exam (Business English ... Competency?), but Bobby was able to work with five students for a few months and they all passed. Never mind the desperate need for competent teachers in a place like this, as they toss one of their best out of the country while he's perfectly capable of doing his job.

So I guess this idea of China having great respect for their elders is just so much more crumbling veneer. The more time you spend here, the more you realize this place is just the same as anywhere else in the world, that the myths and differences of "The East" are simply a different take on the same old familiar, human nature. For all the lip service about honesty, respect, and tradition I hear, there's twice as many examples that tell me all that talk doesn't mean shit. It's enough to stomp the naïve idea of this place being Different, I mean Really Different, out of ya for good.

For the past few weeks we've been having a quiet, informal mass in Bobby's apartment on Sunday morning. Nothing big, usually just Bobby and his bible, with Nicki, Liam, and I in attendance. We do the readings together, we chat about the gospel in genuine dialog, and we create a humanity and relevance to this dusty old institution called Catholicism that I haven't felt in years. Then we make pancakes.

I'm not gonna lie: I think I go there as much for the breakfast and the company as I do the mass. Should I make pancakes or French toast this morning, I think, as the mass goes on; do we have enough bacon? These are the important theological questions I ponder as we all instinctively (mechanically) repeat the Nicene Creed.

But there is something unique in these breakfasts, something genuine about them that has been absent in religion for me for quite some time. There's something trite and hypocritical about Lexus-driving suburban priests that get all fire-and-brimstone on you. And there's something especially wrong with all the people that do the weekly religious lip service and then are just evil rotten bastards the rest of the week. Politicians, yeah, but also the petty and vindictive people that go to church every Sunday in Anytown, USA. These meals bring Bobby's life experiences as a priest (that has seen more of the world than most could imagine) together with Liam's life as an Irish-Canadian father-of-three, Nicki's time in Minnesota and South Africa, and my, um, my aura. Talking to these people about faith and life and the world is as insightful as it is entertaining.

Next Sunday will be our last breakfast mass with Bobby before he leaves the Mainland. It's a small and minor thing, I guess, meaningful to only a small handful, but it is the end of something special.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

May Malaise

I'm sitting here in my flat, eating a gooey stinky delicious durian (a feat with one hand), listening to some great music (Love's "Forever Changes" at the moment), I just had dinner with my friends Kaly and Dez (haven't seen much of either of them lately, Kaly especially, what with her working in Shenzhen and all), and I gotta say: I feel quite content at the moment. So content, in fact, that for the first time, well, ever, the thought of shaking this all up by going back to the states in a month and a half doesn't sound sublimely perfect.

So it goes. You need change in life, I think, and it'll be good to get out of Zhanjiang and into somewhere new. That new place will be America, Delaware, "home" for the summer, then come August: Jilin.

It's too hot in Zhanjiang. Really damn hot. Two showers and shirts a day are normal. I'm not especially complaining, but I've for so long divorced myself from the relationship between climate and geography. Any kind of travel was in America, and it was simple: south is hotter, north is colder, and you're living in that nice cozy temperate zone. Now I've got seasonal rains and bizarre mercury spikes that I notice but don't take the time to understand.

To offset that heat: swimming. Oddly enough, this school actually has a damn good Olympic-sized pool. After the gym, Steve and I have been meeting up with Liam and taking a dip. Since most Chinese can't swim, that big lap pool is pretty empty, with only a few fakers hanging around the edge, pretending they're just about to/just finished doing laps. All the guys that can actually swim are off in the kiddie pool trying to teach the girls. Only problem, of course, is staring.

Ah, staring. Like an ingrown toenail that keeps biting at your inside, asserting itself ever so painfully, people still stare. Something is supremely strange about being a foreigner in a place like China, especially when you come from a place like America. I'm almost oblivious to it now, but if you try, you can still feel all those eyes on you when you walk around, you can still decipher the intent behind the unintelligible Chinese whisper that turns a handful of heads your way.

So this weekend I've been planning the rest of the term: shoring up the traveling loose ends, planning my finals, getting a lock on what chapters I'll cover as we wind down to the end of the term, and marking. Nothing exciting, but the work has a calm routine to it that I am almost beginning to enjoy. I guess it's just the pace here. It can be boring, but nothing's too rushed.

Ah, well, this is one hell of a meandering post, isn't it? It's kind of a strange malaise here in Zhanjiang, the inevitable end winding down as the tourist-cum-teacher prepares to return home. There's an unmistakable lull at the moment, but the whirlwind of activity that's to come in the next six weeks is clearly on the horizon, the eye of the storm staring back in calm inexorability.

Man I love those long pretentious words.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Smiths go to China: Special Video Edition

My brother, the auteur, and his video of our trip in China. Great job, Patch.

Reading Papers

I know the teaching I do here is not real English teaching, in the sense of teaching literature and writing at an American university. I'm an ESL teacher (we all know that that means "English as a Second Language," right?), and so I can hardly expect my American Literature class here to bear any resemblance to a literature course given to native speakers. Probably the best correlation would be the Chinese literature class I took at Villanova, but even then, we read Chinese essays, poems, and short stories that were translated into English.

So: ESL teaching != English teaching. Different students, different goals, different everything.

But I am losing my goddamn mind reading (and re-reading, and re-re-reading, etc.) my nine (now it's ten) "thesis" student's essays. These papers run the gamut from unintentionally racist (and hilarious) discussions of Toni Morrison's Beloved, to sophomoric pseudo-analysis ("The theme of the story is love. Just as the main characters loved each other, that is what the author wanted to show with love.") to the truly terrible and outright stolen ("Mark Twain QUOTE, three paragraphs of text from Sparknotes, ENDQUOTE. Citation.")

It's a laborious process, because the order has come down from on high that these papers "have to be perfect." Meaning I have to literally correct every single mistake in these papers. Which sometimes feels like you've been asked to count the sand at the beach. After having discovered Google Docs, I thought the whole process would just become easier: in terms of man hours reading each paper, in terms of scheduling, and without having to juggle ten dog-eared papers and match which Maple is doing which paper on Mark Twain and Lu Xun.

Maybe it is easier, but it's still hell. I sink hours into each essay, giving notes and making corrections, and after I'm done, I get an email from the student (nary a half hour later) saying they've made all the corrections and would like me to re-read the essay. Impossible, I say, you couldn't have implemented the changes in just minutes. So I go to check the paper, only to find that my suggestions are ignored, or outright deleted; none of the changes I specified have been made. And in the process of writing more, I find that my corrections have been de-corrected: after hours decoding the original and hammering it into some kind of coherent English, I see it's been devolved back into some kind of mutant Chinglish version.


I now have a lot more sympathy for English teachers in America. Reading a class's worth of five-page essays at the end of the term has gotta take a lot of time and energy, and really tax your sanity. I like to think I always tried to write unique and at least somewhat inspired essays, but I can only imagine how trite yet another paper on a book you've re-read twenty times can be.

I asked Liam, the retired Irish-Canadian teacher, when he knew he wanted to be a teacher. Well, he didn't, he said; he kind of just stumbled into it, enjoyed it, and stuck with it. But he said he was immensely happy with his decision: the satisfaction of inspiring and teaching, the generous holidays and long summers that let you go abroad to teach in interesting corners of the earth, the joy of loving what you teach and getting involved with a younger generation.

All good points in favor of teaching as a career, and I'm inclined to agree. But these fucking papers ...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Director's Cut (or: Apparently, You Can Kill the Dog)

I've been watching a lot of movies lately. Hewdig and the Angry Inch. Hot Fuzz. Shortbus (a John Cameron Mitchell double feature!). The Holy Mountain. And, oddly enough, Payback. Now I won't talk about Holy Mountain, there's a doctorate thesis in there somewhere, nor will I talk about Shortbus, because that's a very R-rated conversation and I like to pretend this is a family-friendly blog, but I would like to talk about Payback. Mostly because Payback, the monochromatic blue-tinged dark-humor noir that was seen in theaters in 1999 (and, if you're like me, repeated on HBO for months at a time a few years later), is very different from the new cut of Payback I just picked up.

What's different? Well, if 1999's Payback is a comedy-noir antihero action flick, 2007's Payback is an overly-serious hard-boiled grit-noir with little in the way of anything we haven't already seen in a million detective and revenge movies. The newly-released director's cut is darker (thematically), lighter (visually; so long blue-bleach washout), and looks and feels far more generic. But it's the director's film and it's good that it's out there ... right?

The original writer/director, Brian Helgelend, says that he could not, creatively, do anything different with his film when the Hollywood powers-that-be asked for a new ending. So he (willingly?) walked away, which left producer and star Mel Gibson (and, I presume, some others) to write a new ending and add a punchy and sarcastic voice over, all while substantially re-editing the entire film. The result is a far more palatable, funny, and engaging film that delivers the hard-boiled goods with some style and comedy. Helgelend's film, well ... it certainly deliverers the palatable funny engaging hard-boiled goods with style and comedy. Well, at least it's hard-boiled.

The director's cut is a humorless movie filled with people you don't like. Which is fine, no one's pretending to be a hero in the movie. But there isn't even an antihero, there's no one to root for or even care about, and the film simply becomes lost by the third act since you could give a shit about the characters, the story, and the outcome. Additionally, the look to the film, the "bleach bypass" that turned everything into a cool shade of blue, was part of the original package back when Helgelend was still in charge, and it went a long way toward making the film work. So it's a little disingenuous to have the director remove that blue tint in the director's cut, since it clearly was part of his plan years ago. The new cut now feels changed just for the hell of it, and you start to wonder how much of the director's vision was really worth seeing if he'd change something the worked so well just to be different.

Gibson, did he take control of the film? Yeah. Did he take the film from the writer/director? Kinda, yeah, but he's a producer and the star and that's his prerogative. The original film, with it's dust-dry, humorless tone and generic big-city setting, plays out like a Tracer Bullet comic (but with no punchlines). I'll keep the funny blue-hued original, thanks.

OK. Just had to get that out there. I know no one else on the planet cares about the differences between the two versions of Payback. Now you can ask me why I chose to write about Payback after seeing all those other, far more provocative, films. Well, the reason was I, oh look, outta room.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

My Flaming Lips

So I've just returned from a night of Ting Tao debauchery to slowly lay lip to two of the most perfect beers ever brewed by humans ... that's right, a Dogfish Head 90 Minute and 120 Minute IPA. They are sublime, they are delicious, and they make this life something worth living. To those that may roll their eyes at such a comment, I suggest you live a year in a country like China, where even the best beer makes Budweiser taste like Dom Perignon.

I am listening to The Flaming Lips, drinking some superb beer, and enjoying the schedule of nothing that is my May Holiday.