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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?