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Thursday, December 27, 2007

December Ends

Today was ... strange. I gave my Oral English exams, a five-minute oral interview that really ended up being seven to ten minutes per student. I've been doing these all week, and I have over 180 students, so you can imagine how the mind can wander. Some of the odds and ends I've mulled over recently:

Not only is it supposed to snow for the next two days, but by Saturday it's supposed to be snowy and twenty degrees below zero.

China has once again blocked Blogger, but this time, they've even blocked the main page. Used to be, in previous Blogger crackdowns, you'd be at least able to access the blog and update it, if not view it. Now it seems it's totally blocked, leaving some less tech-savvy bloggers in trouble. How do I access Blogger, you ask? Magic.

If you're reading this and also happen to be someone who often downloads music (that is, if you're Patrick), you should really check out the band Neutral Milk Hotel. They are sublime.

My student Dorothy plays a mean piano, and I asked her to teach me how to play next term.

I have a huge, audacious journey ahead of me come January: Haerbin along the China/Russian border, then a flight to Hong Kong, another flight to Singapore, and overland into Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and Souther China ... can I really do all that in two months?

Today, during exams, I reflected on the year, the lessons we've studied, the content of my class. To be honest, I feel I am a mediocre teacher. I think I lack the imagination and dedication to really ignite the kindling of learning. The best I can do is fan the flames that are already there. (Wow, that was a somewhat forced metaphor that dovetailed nicely into something somewhat meaningful.) I don't plan my lessons as well as I should, I don't have the spontaneity in the classroom that my favorite teachers have always had, and I usually find myself either scrambling to flesh out the two-hour running time of the class or repeating something from rote, highlight for highlight, stupid joke by stupid joke, without any deviation. Hey, if it worked on Monday ...

It doesn't help that the powers that be in both of the universities I have worked for in China have tried their best to beat any kind of passion you may have for the job out of you by making simple things needlessly difficult and difficult things impossible. From being forced to use awful textbooks, to being locked out of otherwise idle multimedia rooms for no reason at all, to just outright indifference, pointless evasiveness, and outstanding incompetence, the people in charge of the schools have been the least helpful in getting anything done. In my favorite plagiarism of Mark Twain, I'll say again: the biggest impediment to anyone's education around here is the school.

But despite all of that, giving my finals today was a really powerful moment. I know some of it was brown-nosing, but I got so many compliments about my class and my teaching. One student, who makes up for his lack of English with unbridled confidence, spent the entire interview-exam telling me how my class was so different from his other classes, how a smiling teacher who speaks slowly has boosted his confidence, how using things that aren't in the book has enriched his learning. Some other students dropped other platitudes, and at the end of the whole thing I was invited to "take photos" with some students (pictures below), but that one student's speech really made me feel great; however middling my teaching, he has grown and improved from it.

Ah, this short blog became long fast. Here are the pictures I took with my students. These little photomarts are everywhere in China, and it seems like most girls love nothing more than taking glamor shots of one another. This isn't the first time I've been invited for these kinds of photos, either. Please note that while I am pale as all hell (blame not seeing real sun for a few months), the colors are pretty washed out (they're preset this way to give the girls the pure white skin they all want). The two girls in these pictures are April and Ariel.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fat Cats in Freak Suits

He was a benzene freak, doing anything for his next high. You asked him, jump; he said how high. Look here, caffeine hounds, this thing goes deep: CIA, FDA, LCD, MGM. There's a whole lot of fire in this hillside and it's about to blow. That's what they told Old Man Trombone Jackson, but he set them right: a high-powered scrotal punch, make your ancestors' gums bleed and their knees crack like firewood during summer camp at Lake Wankikpooka. Hoo boy that stuff was potent: arts and crafts, archery near the old grain silo, and oh how those children cried as the chainsaw roared and the dust danced in the long shadows of the sunset. How long you got here, partner, she asked tonguing the gummy gap between her teeth, and he just smiled, lifted his eye patch, and said, "Honey, you just made my fiesta."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Shenyang 沈阳

James and I spent the weekend in Shenyang, a huge city here in China's northeast, visiting our friend Patrick and some other Maryknollers. A place like Shenyang makes your realize just how small and backwoods-y Jilin is. There's things to do, variety, the sun doesn't set at four thirty and places stay open past eight. The city is big; being there felt like being in Beijing, totally unlike the last two Chinese cities I've lived in. We spent the long weekend doing a walking tour of the city (which was impressive, kinda, since it was cold as hell), sipping coffee in Starbucks (!) while we took in the skyline and sights of the city. Ostensibly James and I were there to get some visa pages added to our passports, a free service offered by Shenyang's small but incredibly well-guarded US embassy. The final product was pretty sloppy, just some pages thrown in there with tape, but hey, it gets me into Thailand, so ...

A graham cracker Great Wall. How's that for a gingerbread house?

In a city this large, Patrick's campus felt like an actual campus, tress, open spaces, a bubble environment that keeps the loud city at bay. Strange art and snowy fields, too.

Our days invariably ended trekking through a frozen park, crossing an ice-slicked bridge spanning a frozen lake, the sun setting behind an immobile ferris wheel that's as dead as the trees: in his two years living in Shenyang, Patrick said he'd never seen it move.

Something about Shenyang was seductive, hence (perhaps) the last blog entry. The city inspired me, in those micro-epiphanies that I sometimes call "inspiration," that if only I lived there, could I really get a grasp on the language, could I see a third year of language study, sipping coffee and studying Chinese in a huge anonymous city and setting that goal ahead of myself and thus being content, happy. For me it's seductive, dangerously so, to set down on that path, that is at once both difficult and the path of least resistance. A fun weekend hanging out with a good group of like-minded young foreigners, of bowling and chatting with an Italian girl whose number I desperately wanted to get, of using my Chinese to get by and make new friends and just being happy to be there.

Novel; a change of pace; fun. For the weekend. But I think about a year from now, and if I'm still in China, still being a Maryknoll "volunteer," I can't help but think of one word: stagnation. I need a challenge, I need a change, I need a new direction. Where I go and what I do to find those, well, that is the big mystery.

Monday, December 17, 2007

What's A Year?

Planning this pan-Asia trip has got me thinking a bit toward the future. This past weekend in Shenyang has got me thinking a lot about the past. Why did I come to China, why have I stayed in China, and what I will do next year.

A lot of it ties in with the language. A lot of it ties in with doing something interesting and challenging and not wanting to "tread water." A lot of it is fear of the unknown, of what I will do and how I will live if I were to come back to America next year.

Is a third year possible? Is it something I want? What do I need? What would be best for me? Why don't I know what I want?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Blog Neglect: The #1 Source of Blogger Anxiety

So this blog is here and I don't have much to say at the moment. I am going to be teaching a class this week that uses a lot of music, a bunch of classic Christmas tunes but also some cool songs that aren't very Christmas-y, like "Sweet Jane" by the Velvet Underground, some great ukulele songs from none other than Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, and "In My Life" by The Beatles. (That one's good for teaching the word "bittersweet.") I'm also preparing to end the term, with finals, a trip to Shengyang on Thursday to get some more pages added to my passport, and some other term-ending jazz. So what to blog about when nothing too amazing is going on?

Like a copy of People, I'll just throw a bunch of pictures out there and pretend it's worthwhile content!

The pipe leitmotif continues.

I got lost walking the streets of Jilin the other day, and just for fun, I walked around in the alleyways between the apartment buildings. These things spiral in on one another like a fractal, there's always another corner to turn that opens into another alcove hidden away, more turns awaiting, ready to reveal even deeper realms of apartmentalism. I didn't just make that word up, honestly. So tucked behind one corner, as if thrown out with the garbage, were these two giant phoenix and dragon sculptures.

Kobe Bryant's reach is indeed long. Just shows you how insanely popular basketball is here in China.

I went to my friend Jenny's elementary school to be a guest for her students. Unfortunately, I got bumped: new uniforms had arrived, and the class was taken over for some kind of instructional about said new uniforms. Maybe next time. Snapped a nice little pic of sunset over the school though.

We're not tripping over canons in the streets of Jilin, but any time a new store needs to be opened with fanfare, a couple are brought out and shoot loud booming blanks that leave behind mountains of shredded red paper. We heard these fire from a block away and got there in time to see women dressed like extras from Outbreak cleaning up the red paper.

哎呀, it's closer to one that it is to twelve, which means it's time for bed.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Blogging Some December Miles

So yeah, December has been an uninspiring month here in Jilin. Nothing in particular stands out, just a lot of the same familiar, and as the weather gets colder and it gets dark earlier, so it's harder to be chipper and clever here on the blog. So be it.

Lately, I've been obsessed with finding the Chinese equivalent of "c'est la vie." I guess in English we can say, "such is life," or to get a little more Vonneguty, "so it goes." I don't know why I'm compelled to find this phrase in Chinese. So far, the best I can do is a literal translation: "这是生活," zhe shi sheng huo, which just literally means "this is life," but my Chinese friends and students that I've asked say it doesn't have the same meaning as what I'm looking for. I've gone so far to enlist a student to ask the French teacher (who is Chinese) what it could be, or at least what the proper translation ought to be. And if I can't figure it out, well, c'est la vie.

One of the cooler things going on in Jilin (and, if you wait for it, the pun will become deliciously clear) is the rime frost that forms on the trees near the Songhua River. The river that seems to snake around the entire city is warmed, either naturally as some Chinese say, or by the myriad local chemical plants (as cynical foreigners are wont to believe), and as the warm vapor rises from the river, it meets the frigid air and cools in thin white ice crystals on the trees along the river.

It makes for a spectacularly frosty view in the morning. The rime frost is quite elusive, though, as I've only seen it a few times, and it melts pretty quickly.

And, what the hell, how about some more pics. Please note that the pics with snow are from the first snowfall a few weeks ago; most of the snow has already disappeared.

The poor guys adding the fifth floor to the dorm had to sleep in this pitiful tent, even in the snow. The snow got heavy enough that a whole side collapsed, and then one night, there was no light radiating through the small front flap. Now the fifth floor is finished, and the tent remains empty.

A typical lunch for me here in Jilin: 鸡蛋刀削面, jidan dao xiao mian, or "knife-cut" noodles with egg. Nothing beats the cold like slurping a steamy bowl of fresh-made soup noodles; so steamy it makes your nose run. Can't beat the price, either, only four kuai (about fifty cents) for a big bowl. Note the copious cloves of garlic; I usually go through four or five per bowl. It's the spinach to my Popeye.

Guess the swing is off limits.

Kevin said these pipes look right out of Brazil. I'm inclined to agree.

Always good to be prepared.

This statue is the unofficial icon of Jilin. It's there in the heart of the city, I pass it every time I take the bus into town, and you can see it in miniature on cabs and elsewhere in the city.

All for now.