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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.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Chang Bai Shan (If only I had pictures ...)

In a third-floor internet cafe in Erdao/Baihe, the two sister citites at the northern foot of the Changbai Mountains. Cigarettes on an ash-ridden floor, horns honking faintly outside, a warm glow from a pleasant walk in a beautiful sculpture-filled autumnal-leaved park, a feeling of contentment and happienss. It's been a fantastic trip, made all the better with friends to share it all with.

Yesterday was a full day on the mountainside, up early for a busride at half past six, on the mountain near seven, arriving at the fog-shrowded summit soon afterward. Thick fog, heavy with moisture and cold, thin air, perched along the very edge of the mountain, looking down into the unknown abyss and searching, for any sign, of the TianChi ("Heaven Lake") and rock below. Suddenly the wind changed, and if you looked hard enough, you saw a slight glimmer of pearl-blue water, a shoreline so thin and pure you could see the rocky ground delve into the water and then sharply plummet, dropping like the rim of a giant bowl, into the volcanic crater below.

The wind continued to change. Slowly the fog peeled back, and as more and more of the lake was revealed, the crowd on the mountainside thundered, cheering nature on. Like a rockstar coming on stage, the entire process of the lifting of the fog was a moment, a show worth experienceing, and more rewarding than simply coming upon the lake and seeing it in its simply, enourmous beauty. We all watched and yelled together as the final whisps of fog burned off, and as the last finger of cloud lifted away, mad cheering erupted as the lake was revealed in all its glory, the water a kind of blue you think of in cartoons, the blue all water should be, with sun-warmed rock and gray-white mountains in the distance, a colossus of beauty and nature standing silently before us.

Truly beautiful. What traveling should be. The mountain view on the lake was worth the trip alone. If only I could upload pictures ...

Tomorrow will be a traveling day, back to Yanji, then back to Jilin. In Yanji I took a bus to Tumen, and stood mere yards away from North Korea. At night, Tumen had lights and karoke and life along the river, while the entirety of North Korea was black. A border, and arbitrary line that in this part of the world just happens to be drawn down this thin muddy river, creating a duality that it's hard to even imagine.

When I'm back in Jilin, I'll tell (and show) more.