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Monday, March 31, 2008

The Good Times Just Keep On Coming (Or: Twinkiemeat)

Oh China! Just when I'm down and out, ready to burn you to the ground and dance on a mountain of ashes, you go and charm me like you did this afternoon. Was it the phone tag between me and my "boss" to get the rooms he promised last week (that suddenly became unavailable) to finally show a film for the first time *ever* in Jilin? No. Was it the whole city looking at my like I had three heads as I walked to the gym in my shorts? No, but close!

It was not telling me that the water would be off all night until I got back from the gym! Yes China, that's the little feather in your cap that got me today.

China seems to have an obsession with over-packaged hot dog wannabe mystery meat, which I will now call "twinkiemeat," a neologism that I just made up as I sat here writing this blog and a name that I will now use forever and ever because it's awesome. It's really gross, and this from the guy that used to eat hot dogs like I was trying to win a prize. But I see this twinkiemeat all over the place: plastic-wrapped hot dog-looking way-too-pink meat stuff that I don't need to eat to know it's cow brain and pig hoof and, well, probably a good bit of plastic in there too, plus god knows what else. And, confession: I think I ate some, once, but I was new in China and I didn't know better and I needed the money. And as you'd expect, this twinkiemeat has no substance in your mouth at all, it's just filler and crap barely held together by whatever glue they processed it with.

And this twinkiemeat is everywhere. At Chang Bai Shan, we saw them being boiled in their little PVC-plastic packaging:

Part of the repugnance, I think, comes from the awful overuse of plastic and packaging materials, to make sure you know this is as synthetic a "meat" product as is possible to make by known human food processing methods.

I see them being slowly turned on little gas-powered skillets at the various food stalls around Jilin, I see them stuck on kebabs and eaten, like it makes sense to just put this congealed paste that once was meat on a stick and eat it, and not have the decency for even a bun, or mustard. Chinese food can be some of the most savory food on the planet, and yet there seems to be an insatiable appetite for this garbage.

And every day I walk out of the gym, and there's my girl, Fried Hotdog Lady, grillin' up a frying pan of twinkiemeat, ready to inject that protein back in to ya, because what's better after a hard workout than a stick of rat dick and pigeon skull? Mmm-mm!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Poor Performance

Well hot damn, it's nearly the end of March and I've got a deadline: blog, at least a little bit, so that this month doesn't go down as the worst month for blogging in Matt's Myth history! A deep prestigious history at that. Yes, the internet itself may very well crumble if this beachhead of a blog doesn't improve it's performance!

I guess what's been weighing on my mind of late has been China, and how I can't seem to think about much else other than leaving it, and one of the main reasons being just how pointless trying to teach here can be sometimes.

Last year in Zhanjiang, Nicki once said that she thinks China doesn't need foreign teachers. But while I think there will always be room for native speakers as teachers for anyone trying to learn a foreign language, for the most part, she's right. Because China has no clue what to do with foreign teachers.

Allow me to first say: I am not a good teacher. I try, I do a middling job, and the students who care seem to like me, and I can notice an increase in confidence and skill in some, but I am not a good teacher, and I realize I am sorely lacking a background in TESL to make my job go smoothly. But these problems exist regardless of me.

I look back at the classes I have given here in China, and they have been a mix of well-intentioned but trouble, and utterly pointless. The British and American literature classes I taught in Zhanjiang? That was a great class, a fun class, a class to share with students (even though maybe only handful ever engaged on any meaningful level) some of the important stories of the English language. The other classes I taught in Zhanjiang? Much more in the pointless category. A writing class with a rubbish textbook, a class that no one bothered to tell me was really supposed to prepare my students for a big nation-wide test; in the end, I was left without any direction for the class, and the students were done a disservice because they weren't given a class to basically learn how to take the test (since China more or less teaches to the test for everything). Another class, a thesis writing class that was all for one big fuck-all thesis paper at the end of the term: Steve and I trying to actually teach some students how to do research and take notes and do MLA citations and stuff, a term's worth of work, and then, shrug, the school has some student from last year give a two-hour speech on How The Papers Are Meant to be Done, and that's all they should listen to; ignore everything the teacher has told you.

And here: a simple Oral English class for Freshmen. Only problem is, the Freshmen's English is bad. Really bad. So bad that more than half need a bilingual teacher much more than a foreign teacher. Maybe the junior students I've met, they might benefit from a foreign teacher, but the school deems it unnecessary to give them an Oral English class. (Meanwhile, my Freshmen, so woefully unskilled in English, are now being forced to begin a new foreign language, either French of Japanese.)

So I teach Freshmen, many of whom honestly cannot understand what I am saying, and on top of that, I have a textbook that is absolute shit, couldn't teach a book to read. Fine, whatever, same old, all last term I wrote up my own dialogs, made photocopies every week, bought magazines and other things to use in class, all outta pocket, at least those who engage and try will get some useful experience, and hopefully improve, and my grades will reflect that, right?

No. Wrong. Come to find out, the people here at BeiHua changed my grades last term.

They didn't tell me. They didn't ask me to adjust my grades to fit their "oh you have to many students in the eighties" so-called "requirements." Just changed the grades. Gave the top three in the class 90s, the middle of the curve got 80s, most got 70s. The shithead kid who couldn't say his name and skipped class nearly every week? 70. The girl who came and tried hard and got a 90 on my final despite doing poorly all term, whou could lose her scholarship if she scores below an 85 in any class? She got a 70, too.

She'll lose her scholarship because of my bullshit grade, and the school refuses to do anything about it.

And here is where I make some reconciliation, where I drop a little pearl of understanding, or I slough it all off and just say I'm China-jaded or culture-shocked or something to sweep the whole ordeal under the rug with a happy "isn't China great!" smile. But no.

I am tired of teaching and living in this country. I'm tired of the truly amazing levels of incompetence I have encountered at every level of both universities where I've worked. I'm tired of lazy, disinterested waibans and lying, misleading bosses whose constant inaction and refusal to DO THEIR GODDAMN JOB slowly kills even the best intentions. I am tired of the games you have to play to get anything done here. I'm tired of even playing these ridiculous games, because just playing lends them some kind of legitimacy. And I'm tired of pretending there is something of value to be had from such pointless frustration.

It is very clearly time to go.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Way You Once Were

Any time I'm sick, I try to make a mental snapshot of how I feel (quietly saying to myself, remember how this feels, REMEMBER), so that when I feel better I can look back on that moment, recall said snapshot, and appreciate being well. It never works, of course, until I get sick again and find myself muttering "remember!" on the bathroom floor through a nose full of stomach acid and snot.

I don't know how it happened, but I feel awful, fever, chills, the works. I'm leaky at both ends, if you get my meaning, and the worst part is that I made it through class just fine, the stomach only beginning to churn like a drop of lemon in a glass of milk by mid-class. I came home and felt the pile of oatmeal, yogurt, and coffee sitting in my stomach, demanding to be released, and it was a boring mid-day of the fever rising and just waiting for the sick to come.

And then the vomit burst forth, flowing like obscure words in a long-winded dam metaphor, and I felt a bit better, but here I am at 8:30, feverish, chilly, stomach ready to evacuate again, unable to go an hour without having to run to the bathroom. I sat down to write this blog about something else entirely, but here I am drolling on about being sick, and suddenly I don't want to write anymore. So that's that.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Thoughts in a Chinese Gym

The gym I belong to in Jilin is approximately 300% better than the gym I belonged to in Zhanjiang last year. It has a lot of modern equipment, from treadmills to dumbbells (where you can actually read the weight!) to cable machines. They're all plastered with the brand "Impulse Fitness," which also (coincidently?) happens to be the name of the gym, and this name is everywhere you look, plastered on the walls and mirrors like they're trying to indoctrinate you or something. I find myself just staring emptily into the company's logo on the support beams in front of me as I try to make it through the last five minutes, sweat streaming down my face like tears, telling myself I won't look to see how much time is left until this song is over, OK-now-look, FIVE MINUTES?! WHAT THE?!

Chinese men appear to have no qualms with nudity, and they like to strut around the locker room at what I consider to be absurd levels of nakedness. Nakedness that is so constant that it seems like it's trying to say something, like a point is trying to be made or some kind of silent protest is underway. There's always one guy, fresh out of the shower and yet somehow without even the decency of a towel, gingerly laying out his clothes on the bench, carefully weighing the decision of what to put on first with nude pacing that orbits the entire locker room; or another guy naked in front of the mirror, one leg sprawled high on the counter like he's stretching for a marathon, using a hair dryer to fluff his pubes and dry between each toe, because if any part of you is at all wet, YOU WILL GET SICK; all the while his ass crack broadcasts a vertical smile for all to see.

I was changing in the locker room and overheard three guys, late-twenties-early-thirties guys, joking as they got dressed to leave. And what was funny is how it sounded like my friends: I could tell by the change in one guy's voice that he was doing some line for a show, a sitcom catchphrase or something, and they were talking about what all guys talk about, farts and dumps, saying something about how one guy farts too much and the other guy's farts don't smell. I felt like these guys could have been my room mates, and it was a special if strange moment for my Chinese.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Return

So it's been a while, hasn't it? At least a mile in the Memento-esque non-memory of the internet, where the "what have you done for me lately" mentality is measured in seconds.

I have returned to Jilin. I'm finding it very difficult to get a good routine of studying down, mostly because every tutor I have sought has fallen through: one tutor, Lotus, has been given the chance of a lifetime to go teach Chinese at a Confucius Center in South Korea; my tutor from last year, Yu Laoshi (于老师), is overburdened with classes this term; and the other teachers that I've approached all seem to have schedules that conflict with when I teach. So it's been just over a week back here in the "lucky forest," and I still don't have a routine for studying. Which, for me at least, means I barely study. Damn it.

I do have one good routine going, but it's hardly a week old and I hate to jinx it, but I've joined a gym (a good, modern, Western gym, too, at steep, modern, Western prices), and I've been going consistently, if you can call a week "consistent." Every time I step on that treadmill it's punishment for every Ben and Jerry solo I've ever played (or maybe it's more honest to say Ben and Jerry duet). For me, it's always been a matter tricking myself into a financial obligation to get my ass to the gym: if I put a large sum of money down, up front, on a mad whim of healthy self-improvement, I'll have no choice but to get my money's worth and go to the gym. So that's what I did, and here's hoping it works out. (Oh, the puns, they are so delicious!)

James, Carolyn (taking the photo), and I crossing the mouth of the waterfall at Tat Kuang Si, Luang Prabang, Laos.

Yeah. That waterfall.

I am sitting here, in this sleepy smoky little pocket of northeast China, and I am still in awe of this trip, this Trip of Trips, from which I have just returned. It was, quite simply, audacious. Epic. In the true sense of the word, awesome. A lifetime of memories in a brief two months of travel, the journey against which all other travel will be judged. To come back and just, ugh, stay in one place ... it feels ... wrong. To use a pompous word I love, it's anathema after such a long time on the road. But Jilin is where I will be until the summer, a slow steady toil of teaching and studying and gym'ing, and come the end of June I will leave Jilin (and most likely China) behind me.

Talking about China of late has led to me vomiting a lot of hateful vitriol, a mixture of resentment of having to come back here after so much wanderlust liberation, of frustration with learning the language and all-too-quiet students, of desiring something great and challenging and interesting to come next, and deciding whatever that next step will be. But you get me going on China, on Zhanjiang and Hong Kong and Jilin and friends and Maryknollers, and I'll have that glazed real-men-don't-cry look in my eyes. I will miss this place. I'll miss everything so much. But, for now at least, it's time for me to go.