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

Friday, June 29, 2007

And if you should find, upon your return

And so it ends. Tomorrow morning, I will rise early, briefly clean my apartment one final time, enjoy a leisurely lunch with Liam and Steve, say goodbye to some friends and students, and take a cab to the airport around two o'clock.

Tomorrow, I'm going home. I almost don't believe it.

I begin typing the tired old sentence "this year has been ..." and I pause, the blank cursor staring at me in dead white space. How does that sentence end again?

There was no way I could have prepared for all I saw and learned and came to understand this past year. I remember being absolutely terrified before I came. I can remember clearly my panicked phone calls to Liam in Canada at the end of July, I can see vividly me arriving at Maryknoll at six in the morning back in August, to a house still asleep, locked out, wondering how I could have fucked up so badly to find myself here?

And now I know just how right my decision has been, because I now know how helpful and informative and amazing and difficult and enjoyable and taxing this year has been. But the only way you can do something like this, this beautiful and painful and wonderful eye-opening metamorphosis, is to jump in. Optimism and good faith and being surrounded by great people of course helps, but before you can even decide on you attitude or see who you'll be working with, you have to be brave enough, smart enough, dumb enough to take the initial leap. And I look back to those moments of doubt (and oh there were many) and just can't explain how glad I am that I followed through.

So, what have I learned? Well, how much time do you have? Really, a reflection of that kind comes in spurts, as your work your way through the return, as you look at things back home with new eyes. The things you have taught in class have paled in comparison to all that you have learned about yourself, the "things they have taught you," and as cliché as that sounds, it's true. I'll never be able to write coherently about this trip, like real life a discussion would branch into countless digressions, shifting topics. But one thing I think I have learned that I just need to say: you can do this.

It's something I said to myself quite a bit. You can do this, you are well-equipped to handle this situation, and when things get bogged down in bureaucracy or language barriers or just general bullshit, just remember that you can do this. I wanted to go to Cambodia, and beyond booking a flight, I didn't know what the hell I was getting myself into, but that's OK because I can do this. I wanted to get my exams done early so that I could go home at the end of June, and it was a lot of bullshit with the administration and more work in the short term, but I made up my mind and got it all to work because I can do this. Well, Nicki helped a lot with that last one.

So now I want to say it to you, dear reader: you can do this too. There is nothing special about me that allowed me to come here and do what I have done, to see what I have seen. Traveling, seeing the world outside the narrow confines of culture and country, experiencing another culture and way of life; all of these are things you can do too.

And I think they are things you should do. Things you should kick your own ass to do. Retired? Go teach English to poor students in Africa, China, Cambodia, Vietnam. Fresh out of college? Get on the plane, you're ready to go. Working, mid-career? Take a working holiday and see the world so you can better understand our privileged place within it. If you have a degree, you can do this. All you need is the desire.

Well, what was supposed to be a nice little bit of goodbye blogging turned into some retrospective soapboxing. Alas and alack.

It's two in the morning. In twelve hours, I'll be on the the last plane outta town.

I am indescribably happy.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Native Speaker

Steve was marking some homework the other day, and one of his students seems to have grasped a bit of slang:

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Random Images to Make My Blog More Impressive II

And the march of breathtaking photography goes on unabated.

Let me show you the roof.

Living on the top floor has its advantages. One of which includes the oh-so-enticing hole in the roof of the stairwell, covered by a simple square of weather-worn wood and metal. After wondering what the view was like on the other side of that piece of wood, I decided to stack some furniture (chair, another chair, and a stool) and use those big heavy green iron doors to get up there and take a look. Of course it was the roof, and it was an empty, inviting place with a cool breeze and a great view of the stars. So Steve and I went and bought a bamboo ladder, and it became a choice place for marking papers, reading, and a drink or five at the end of the week.

Steve loved bringing his guitar up there, too. And he plays classical guitar, which he studied in Spain, so there was a great Matadorian spice on the (somewhat) cooling breeze whenever he was up there playing.

And you can also get a great view of the sunset.

Click here (and scroll down) few more roof-dwellin' pics.

Random Images to Make My Blog More Impressive

I guess that title doesn't leave much to the imagination.

Well, here it is:

I took that photo back in late September. After only a month in China, I crumbled, weak man that I am, and had to move swiftly in the direction of the nearest Mickey D's. It was mid-way through this meal, cold slab of McMeat in hand, that greasy-sponge feeling in your stomach growing until it feels like you've been impregnated by something from Alien, that I sat there and thought: remember how this feels; remember how this tastes; and maybe next time you crave Western food, you'll go somewhere the actually serves food.

Ugh. I managed to stay away from McDonald's for a long time after that. I think I've caved and eaten there a total of four times in the past year. Which might not sound too impressive, but hey, this is China, and there is only so much meat-slop piled upon rice-slop that a man can take. So I was feeling pretty good at avoiding the golden arches for a while. Then I read Fast Food Nation and and saw Super Size Me and read about the McLibel trial and realized I never want to eat there or support that monstrosity of a corporation ever again.

What makes this photo all the more "impressive" is the barely-read copy of Ulysses. I think I am still on the same page.

And yes, I realize the hypocrisy of trash talking McDonald's while at the same time lusting after an In-N-Out Burger. Sue me.

PS: I love hyperlinks.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Any time you feel the pain ... Hey, Jude! (New Year) Refrain

Gah. Been meaning to write about this for quite some time. So, ya'know how Chinese New Year/Spring Festival is usually around January or February? Yeah, well, down here in the south-western most city of the entire country, there are local village traditions that predate a lot of the bigger national celebrations. Case in point, Jude and her village have a tradition that celebrates the New Year in mid-May. It's a village tradition that has survived into modern times, and hey, if someone wants to throw a New Years party in the middle of May, who am I to disagree? It's really strange and wonderful that these old traditions that were begun when Zhanjiang was little more than rice paddies and a harbor still survive today, albeit with Nike hats and KFC incense buckets.

You see those young guys carrying those long metal poles? Yeah, well, if you look closely, you'll see they are piercing their cheek with the needle-like end that's in their mouths. Why? Why do we cut down a tree, drag it inside and cover it with lights during Christmas? Exactly. Jude told me it's a sign of godliness, to be able to endure it. The boys fast for about three days while that thing is in their mouth. And they're heavy! With one end sticking outta your maw, it's gotta be damn near impossible to do much.

Each "segment" of young god-men was followed by dragon dances, impromptu eardrum-piercing fireworks, tribal rhythmic music, and a lot of other really unique cultural artifacts. We just don't have this stuff in America: we don't have regional traditions and inexplicable customs that have roots hundreds of years old. An American holiday with roots in any kind of history usually involves a gift of aged scotch.

Some more random pics there. That girl is really cute. And nothing beats the ancient Chinese custom of KFC incense buckets. The Colonel would be proud. The fruit and tea are meant to welcome guests from all over. After the parades, everyone literally opens their doors and the whole neighborhood more or less turns into a buffet. You're greeted with open arms and mountains of amazing food wherever you go, and the more people that come to partake in your hours-long banquet, the luckier your New Year will be. Jude's father welcomed us, and we had so much food we were literally stacking plates full of food atop other plates full of food. Seriously, we had at one time probably two or three whole ducks on our table, and that was just one of three tables in the room. We were invited back for dinner, but lunch was enough to make you hibernate.

Anyway, it was a great meal and a great celebration, one of those totally unique moments where you're enmeshed in the culture so thoroughly that you forget all those blinders you use to box in your reality and everything is stripped away, leaving only raw, jubilant experience.

More pics can be found in this album.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Giving Exams

So I've been giving my exams lately. In my American Literature exam, I had four classes in one room. That's over one-hundred forty (140) students.

Who is that dark bastion of academic integrity stalking the aisle? He sure is handsome. I'd like to get to know him. I'd like to know what makes him tick. I wonder if he'd like to know what makes me tick?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Blank Walls and Birthdays

My room has devolved back into this white empty nothing. The maps and posters and pictures stripped from the wall, it looks ugly and vacant and un-lived in. My bookshelves are barren, with only a few boring stragglers left behind, the rest packed. As I get ready to leave, the feeling of this place having been a part of me for a year is disappearing with quiet force, like poison sucked from a wound.

I snapped this photo during the beginning of sunset yesterday.

It was Nicki's birthday last night, and it was a good one. It's interesting: we were all together for my birthday when this whole thing began, and now a year later we've gathered for Nicki's birthday to usher things out. It's impossible to measure just how much things have changed since that dinner in September. But the feeling during the meal was distinct: a meal between colleagues, peers, and friends.

So: my walls are naked, my shit is packed up, I'm about to go and enjoy my final durian with Steve, and my exams are well underway. I've got a brief stop in Hong Kong come Monday, and then it's back to Zhanjiang for some final goodbyes and, come next Saturday, I'm comin' home.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Now with 100% more myth

Ah, June. You devil of a month. It seemed like only yesterday you were beginning, and now like that tickle in the nose that doesn't quite become a sneeze until it seizes you unexpectedly hours later, you're swiftly yawning your way to a close. Yesterday was the end of May, and it was going to be a grueling crawl until finals came around and I started to pack. And now I give my second final tomorrow, the entirety of my possessions here in China are neatly packed in two small boxes, and in just over a week, I'll be on a plane back to the United States.

I'm excited to go home. Indescribably, really. I realize my life has followed a pattern of fairly frequent change; months at school, a summer; jobs taken up and left behind; even when it was years of school on the same campus, things changed: people, classes, apartments, friends. China has certainly been a change, but it's also been a constant: an uninterrupted year of being in The Same Place, more or less, even with a month of traveling to break it up. So I need a change, a proper change, and going back home will be so perfect.

I leave China June 30. I'll arrive in LA also on June 30, and I'll spend a week there with Rick and Marilyn. I can't wait to see them, to talk with them and write with them and eat the In-N-Out Burgers I've been lusting after with them. And then July 6, it's back to the east coast. Back to family, back to friends, back to driving and dairy and good beer and real food and set prices and public anonymity, back to a language I can understand.

Back home.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Evaluations (or: The School Has Gone Insane)

Zhanjiang Normal University, in Chinese, is "Zhanjiang Shi Fan Xue Yuan." Which means, more or less, Zhanjiang Teacher Training College. For some reason, the Chinese powers-that-be have decided that "normal" is a good translation for "teacher training" (cue the inevitable, "as opposed to abnormal?"). And we can also see that this school is a college, not a university. Semantics, perhaps, but next week, ZNU has it's shot at becoming a full-fledged, big-boy University. And the people who will decide that are the "experts" who will come next week to evaluate the school.

Immediately I dislike that word "experts." It's thrown around all over town, the way a Brother's Grimm story is used to scare kids into shape. Experts, huh? At what? Getting their ass kissed by the river of guanxi and "favors" that's about to kick in to high gear? I thought "officials" or (going out on a limb here) "evaluators" would be fine. But in the meantime, everyone (except, it seems, the foreign teachers) are working under insane pressure and with inane rules as the "experts" prepare to come to town. This is most visible with the torrent of construction that is going on ceaselessly all over campus, all to beautify the school for our "expert" visitors.

Insane rules, you ask? Like what? Well, for starters: students are being forced to wake up at half past six and ushered in front of the classrooms, where they have to pretend they're practicing their English. Remember, content doesn't matter here, so long as the illusion is maintained. They're being forced to learn about the history of the school, the founders and all that, as if any of the "experts" are gonna ask about that (or give a shit). The electricity to their dorms (including their much-coveted internet access) is being cut at midnight. They can no longer eat in class (which makes those eight-in-the-morning classes oh-so-energetic). And, most asinine of all, the girls can't wear anything "inappropriate" to class, which means no skirts, sleeveless shirts, and the like. None of these rules matter, you understand, because as soon as the "experts" leave, everything is going to go right back to normal.

So much time, money, and energy spent on pointless things. Terraforming (ahem, "landscaping"), students being forced to go over old exams and recheck the answers and marks, rules and projects and stress that is just wasting time and draining everyone, all without any thought to the actual learning that's going on here.

The biggest obstacle to anyone's education around here is the school.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Beaches of Beihai

I've been really lucky here in China to be surrounded by a really great group of friendly people that have been colleagues as well as friends. It's a crap shoot, expecting to find people you genuinely like in any place you work, but when that work involves traveling to the other side of this pale blue dot to teach and do work that is in no way financially rewarding ... well, the odds that your attitudes and values and goals match up (at least somewhat) seems to greatly increase.

And this weekend, a group of good-minded folks - Nicki and Shang, Steve and Mimi and Jude, Eric (a trilingual Chinese teacher that speaks both English and Japanese) and Leslie, and myself - all set off for Beihai, the "North Sea" of Southern Guangxi province. A short bus ride and we arrived to a warm sea breeze, a sea choppy with tall waves and biting salty foam, and a new city to explore.

Beihai means "north sea," but we're talking North the same way South Dakota is South, the way Northern Ireland is Ireland: it's all relative, baby. It turns out that Beihai's seas are the same waters that, further south, are known in Vietnam as the Gulf of Tonkin. Brings a little history to a simple beach trip, don't it?

We didn't have much time there, really. We woke up early(ish) for a late(ish) breakfast of Beihai's signature soup-noodles, stuffed with meat and spices and veggies and peanuts. Oh yes, it was a slurpy-delicious meal. After lunch (did I say breakfast?), we visited the old, decaying parts of Beihai, the ports and the almost-colonial looking architecture. We weren't there long before we had to haul ass and catch our bus back to Zhanjiang. A great, albeit short, weekend; the kind of weekend you'll remember long after the torment of marking papers and preparing lessons have faded into oblivion.

More pics can be found here.