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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Getting on the Bus

Dammit, I just missed it. Now I gotta wait like an hour for the next one. Must be a hundred of those damn buses, but none of them come down here, they all stop at the top of the hill at the main gate. Well, screw it, I'll just read until the next one comes.

Honking. Always honking. No, I don't want your stupid cab, if I wanted a cab I would take one of the five idling in front of me, no need to sprint through oncoming traffic to grab your precious gem of a vehicle. Just standing here does not mean I need a cab, having white skin does not mean I am utterly lost and in need of your unhelpful "assistance." I swear, these cabbies. Like a honking horn communicates anything here, where everyone is always honking at something. If an alien race were observing the movements of cars in China, they would go insane trying to unravel the mysteries of the honk. "Yes, but what does it mean?!" they would cry, before throwing themselves into a space incinerator. It can mean get the hell outta the way, it can mean I'm backing up, it can mean I'm turning and don't want to break, and, apparently, it can be a proposition for a ride, a proffering of services, conditions of carriage. How can one sound mean so many things, the aliens would cry. Go insane trying to figure it out.

OK, looks like another one is coming. Jesus it's crowded today. Usually no one's on the bus down here, route starts just a half mile away. Ah well, here it comes ... and there it goes. Precision brakes on this well-maintained fleet. You'd think whoever owns these buses would hire competent drives and take care of the buses in what is clearly a low-profit-margin gig. But no, cattle cars with wheels, the steel plates that are technically floors rotting away beneath you, the engine encased in a womb of plastic right there in the middle of the bus for all to breath and smell. Pop one kuai in and it'll take me in to the city, me and thirty other people on a bus designed for fifteen. Sardines have it easy.

Up the hill, stopping at the main gate of campus. All these students going home for the May Day holiday. What'd Autumn say in class today? Like "Worker's Day" or something. Labor day, more or less. Or as the British say: Labour Day. Lotta students trying to get on this bus. No cabs here. Student's must've taken 'em. More crowded then usual. Ah, and the classic conundrum: do I offer my seat to the inevitable old lady that's going to get on, looking all helpless and predeceased? Or do I let one of the Chinese on the bus do the right thing? Screw it, I'm not giving up my seat. One of the other five men on the bus, young "men," students, so hip and bored with their finger-in-the-socket haircuts and painfully hip fashion that's so weird it feels like it's from some bad sci-fi movie, THEY can get off their ass and offer THEIR seat to the 老人. It's their goddamn country. Where's that veneration of elders when it counts?

No. If you don't give up your seat, you're just as bad as they are. What do you care if you stand? It's a twenty minute ride to the gym, you can read standing up. Be the bigger man. Set an example for them. Show them Americans, foreigners, take that respect of elders seriously, that we'll make those polite little sacrifices while the Chinese "men" on the bus sit there all smug and entitled, endlessly playing on their conspicuously-consumptive mobile phones. Show them how easy it is to be better.

Oh screw this. There must be forty people on this stupid bus. Their country, their old people, their problem. I'm staying in my damn seat.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

(More) Spring in Jilin; Also, Jim's Birthday

Springtime for Jilin and China. (Winter for ... *sigh* Jilin and 东北 Dongbei.) Yes, what better way to welcome spring than with one of those casual April snowfalls?

It was Jim's birthday on Wednesday, so we took him out for the usual birthday meal (well, usual for us at least): dumplings. We also made him an awesome chocolate pudding cake, complete with double-layer oreo cookie crust. The bizarre April snowshower began after days, almost a week of spring-worthy warmth. It may be hard to tell in the picture, but we're outside the restaurant, and it is indeed snowing.

Hands off, ladies, he's engaged. The cake was approximately three hundred percent more satisfying to eat than it was to look at.

The restaurant where we seem to end up for every birthday (well, mine ... and now, uh, Jim's) takes pride in being one of the oldest jiaozi restaurants in Jilin. A lot of that "legacy" is manufactured: old cannons that couldn't shoot the breeze litter the facade, while 服务员 fuwuyuan (that is, waiters and waitresses) scurry about in carefully-orchestrated anachronistic frocks. (God I love that word, "frock.") But they do put on a nice little tea-pouring show.

James loves tea!

Now that's impressive.


Sanae and Wakana love tea, too!

The weeks here in Jilin seem to be slowly but surely slipping through the ether, an invisible clock that you nonetheless feel ticking down to June. I can't believe it's almost May! (And now, because I had it written already, is another clumsy timepiece metaphor:) The sand in the China hourglass is dwindling, and life seems locked in a predictable pattern of class, tutoring, gym, and never finding enough time to study.

I've made a real effort this term to spend more time with my students, and so far, it's been a total wash. I could walk out my door on any random Zhanjiang afternoon and spend more quality time with students in half a day than I've spent with my students here all year. I've offered them chances to come over and cook, talk, try some fresh coffee, watch a movie, damn near anything, and I get nothing, no response, or at least no real response beyond a lot of empty enthusiasm. Not just me, either, but all of the other teachers here as well. I had one group of girls set to come over this afternoon, we were all set to cook, until ... someone's mother called and asked her to come home. Well, she'll be home next week, Mom ... and so one girl bails, and the whole afternoon was scrapped. Two weeks ago another student, Maureen, stopped by Sunday afternoon and stuck around for a good long chat. She asked if we could meet like that every Sunday; sure, I said, bring your classmates, let's do it! Sunday came and went, no call from Maureen; I saw her in class that week, asked he what was up, she told me she snuck (hmm, FireFox's spell checker is telling me I should write "sneaked") out of her Sunday computer class, went back to the dorm, and slept all day. And now it's after midnight on Saturday "night," and something tells me I won't be seeing Maureen tomorrow.

So there it is, folks. I guess I shouldn't complain; anywhere else on the planet, the last thing a student wants to do is spend their free time with their teacher. But it's different here, dammit, or at least it should be, when I'm a young disposable foreign teacher whose class is a joke by default. I shouldn't be angry, the students can do whatever the hell they want with their free time, but when the job has long since become a farce, the pay is just enough to keep you from going broke, and you live in a half-frozen armpit of China for nearly a year, well, you kind of start wanting a reason for it all, something to make it all worth it. That human connection with my students was there in Zhanjiang; it's proving elusive here up north.

On the bright side, apathetic students have given me plenty of time to study Chinese. But that, in turn, has only helped me realize that I don't want to spend the next half-decade of my life learning this language that is long on frustration and short on any kind of sexiness. Mastering Chinese is a noble goal, and if you have a handful of years to throw at it, be my guest. But after two years here, I've had my fill of China, and while I'll continue to study the language and its fascinating intersections of symbols, abstracts, and a peculiar if not consistent logic, I am dismayed that no other aspects of China can match the promise of the language.

Whoo boy. It was supposed to be a short blog for photos. I need to learn when to shut up.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

201st post!

OK, I guess it kind of loses its effect coming right on the heels of that big fat "200th post!" entry, but whatever, this is post 201! An exciting post, the first in the next one hundred! Hmm, we'll see where this blog goes after China.

I've been blogging since August 2006. Sometimes that feels hours away, sometimes decades. I started this blog quite literally the night before I left for China near the beginning of August 2006, a languid-yet-tense night of post-packing second-guessing and pre-voyage rumination, with a side of family drama and emotional numbing from the enormity of it all. I was a bundle of nerves and hubris and paranoia and a strange kind of over-confidence, and some times I look back on that night, the pan-Pacific trip, that first bus ride to Zhanjiang, and wonder where the hell the courage and/or lack of sanity came from, to just up and do it. I had only the faintest idea of what the hell I was getting myself in to, and now, nearly two years later, I couldn't have imagined that China would become what it has become, I couldn't have hoped for such an amazing, formative time, I couldn't have guessed how much I would have changed and grown. It has been hard at times, mind-numbing at times, damn near unbearable and isolating at times, but also exhilarating and enlightening and I am just so incredibly happy that I've come this far, pushed myself kicking and screaming to this new precipice, done what I've done seen what I have seen. And if I have seen farther, understood better, because of it, well ...

Last weekend I (we) made jiaozi, again, and now I can actually roll them into a decent-looking snack; plus I got the ingredients written down, and should be able to make 'em back home. It was James Kevin and I, as well as Jenny, and our Japanese foreign teacher friends Wakana and Sanae.

Let the deliciousness begin!

So ... many ... jiaozi.

Roll 'em up carefully.

And to finish it off ... Kevin's chocolate tofu pie! Much tastier than that sounds.

What else? Ah, yes: just the other night, the foreign teachers here at BeiHua were all taken out for a meal by the Powers That Be here on campus. "Why" was a mystery, until we were informed at dinner that the unannounced mystery-guest we were eating with, who as far as I could tell didn't speak a word of English, was a police officer; the topic of conversation was awkwardly yet purposefully shifted toward Tibet and the Olympic-related protests the world over; and we all more or less had our political pulse taken on the whole thing. But hey, free meal!

The "cop" is taking the picture.

And this evening I had a long home-cooked meal with my MBA students, and I was able to go to the home and meet the family of one of them, Brian. Over the course of a huge meat-filled dinner with seemingly endless cups of 白酒 baijiu, beer, and tea, we talked about everything going on in the world re: China, from pro-Tibet/anti-China rallies in France to rising food prices the world over to Clinton's/Obama's answer to the imploding American financial market, all in a truly bizarre cocktail of English and Chinese. It was the most honest conversation I've had with students, with damn near anyone in China, in a long time.

One weekend. Three meals. Students, friends, teachers. Challenges and strangeness and culture shock and China being China. The trip to 201 has been well worth it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

200th post!

Wow, two hundred posts here on Matt's Myth! Well, what can I say? It's been a helluva ride, huh folks? FOUR MORE YEARS! FOUR MORE YE-

Well, not in China, anyway.

I actually just popped in to berate myself (and the approximately zero other people who read this thing who find Chinese language lessons interesting) for writing a bit of the song that my students taught me incorrectly. I wrote:

快 / Pao de kuai / Basically this makes no sense.

When I should have written:

快 / Pao de kuai / Quickly run.

So maybe this can be a glimpse into the special madness that is learning Chinese. The words I used are both pronounced "de," same sound, same tone (well, lack to tone, actually), and both are used commonly. The first de (的) is the attributive for a noun, kind of like Spanish: 我的大衣, Wo de dayi, my coat (the coat of mine). The second de (得), the correct one for the song, is a complement of result or degree, like 跑得快, pao de kuai, running quickly, or 说得好, shuo de hao, speak well. It's not unique to Chinese I'm sure, but it's a huge pain in the ass to have so many vitally important bits of speech sound exactly alike.

Wow, that's about as dry as a celebratory 200th post can get. I promise I'll be back soon with something good for post 201.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Two Tigers (See How They Run)

Today my students taught me a song before class, and to my complete surprise, I understood every word of it (except one). Ahem (sung to the tune of "Frere Jacka"):

两只老虎 / Liang zhi laohu / Two tigers
两只老虎 / Liang zhi laohu / Two tigers
跑的快 / Pao de kuai / Quickly run
跑的快 / Pao de kuai / Quickly run
一只没有眼睛 / Yi zhi mei you yanjing / One has no eye
一只没有尾巴 / Yi zhi mei you weiba / One has no tail
真奇怪 / Zhen qiguai / Very strange
真奇怪 / Zhen qiguai / Very strange

The one word I didn't get was ... tail. Weiba. But otherwise, it all clicked. Pretty amazing for me. I often see in my students, and see in my own use of my vocabulary, a reiteration of various core words that can be grouped with other simple yet powerful words to express complex ideas; basically, talking around what you want, but defining it more or less within comprehension. I've used that word qiguai, strange, so often to comment on a million things that are weird, rude, unsettling, vulgar, and unusual. And he it comes back at me in this simple kid's song.

Then I was humbled when my students sang it back to me in English and in French.

Great day of class today. And then a great tutor session where I was able to derive the meaning of a lot of new words based solely on the character. The weather is gorgeous, sunny and warm, and I think I'll go run to the gym, rather than running at the gym.

I told Jenny a while ago, some days I love China, and some days I hate it. Today, I love China.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

清明节 (Qing Ming Jie), or "Tomb Sweeping Day"

Last year China gave the, uh, country, a whole week off in May, around the "May Day" (first of May) holiday. The result was another typical Chinese holiday of skyrocketing prices, mind-boggling congestion, and basically billions of people all trying to travel and go to the same places at the same time. Not ideal.

So this year it looks like The Powers That Be have axed that week off in May, and have instead decided to parcel out that week off in discrete three-day-weekend increments, by "embracing" more regional and/or low key holidays. The first of those happened last weekend: Qing Ming Jie (清明节), a holiday popularly translated as "Tomb Sweeping Day."

(A side note: it is kind of strange to live in a place where a government decree suddenly changes how over a billion people celebrate a tradition. Can you imagine the government in the states trying to tell people to cancel one holiday and take those days off another time? It seems incredibly odd to me, but hey, most people, myself included, were just happy for the day off, and were using the time to be with friends and family ... which seems to be what people the world over do with their holidays, regardless of the underlying reason for the day off ... six one way, half a dozen the other.)

Jenny, Kevin, and Michelle browsing one of the innumerable stalls selling Qing Ming Jie paraphernalia.

"Tomb Sweeping" is really only a small part of the holiday, but the day seems to be comprised of all the elements of that classical Chinese veneration of ancestors. The tomb sweeping sees families visiting the graves of their relatives, giving them a little spring cleaning, and leaving flowers, fruit, and other savories at the grave. There's also a lot of money-burning, but more on that later.

You've probably already seen pictures of my good friend Jenny. She's eating pizza with us below, she's traveled to 长白山 (Chang Bai Shan) with us, she's tutored us, she's helped us in countless ways: Jenny is a true friend here in Jilin.

Jenny has also lost both of her parents. Her father when she was younger, her mother much more recently. She's an incredibly strong woman, and she is so outgoing and cheerful that it's easy to forget what she's been through. She invited me, along with Kevin and our friend Michelle, to visit the graves of her parents this past Qing Ming Jie, and I was honored to be there with her.

Jenny's mother was baptized (with Jenny's consent) before she passed away, and her mother and father were interred together in a Christian cemetery.

I know it sounds insane, but sometimes I just forget that Jenny speaks to us in her second language. I mean, I know it, I know it in an academic sense, I can hear her accent and all, but still. When Jenny finished cleaning the dirt off of her parents's grave, she started speaking to her mother, and of course it was in Chinese, and I've heard Jenny speak Chinese a million times before ... but it was strange, different this time. She wasn't speaking simple Chinese for my learner's ears, she was talking, praying, to her mother, with all the beautiful fluency of your native tongue.

Jenny brought some fruit, flowers, and pastries from a local bakery. She left some on the grave, the rest she brought with her as we left. I don't know if she bought those pastries because her mom liked them, or because she likes them.

Outside the cemetery, we began to burn the (fake) paper money. I think it's to offer wealth and fortune to those we've lost. Jenny bought a large pile of big yellow money, old money (as in, deep-in-the-past-dynasties old) that looked more like bills of exchange or property deeds than money. No one really knew how to burn the money, what ritual we were supposed to observe, so we made a little stove with some nearby rocks and burned two big piles, one for Jenny's mother and one for her father.

Michelle helps Jenny finish off the paper.

I felt incredibly honored to spend Qing Ming Jie with Jenny, to see first hand how this day is celebrated. But I don't really know what else I can add, so I'll stop.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

eFreedom (And: I Want Pizza)

Huh. That's weird.

My blog, it ... loaded. In China. Without incident. Hm. No Tor, no Anonymouse, no proxy of any kind.

A few weeks ago, YouTube was unblocked. Then I heard that BBC was, at long last, accessible. Now Blogger ... wait a minute, maybe this means ...!

Holy shit! Wikipedia! It loads!

What's happening to China? Is the government at long last trusting people with information? Is this all just to earn some face for the Olympics? Will the Great FireWall come crashing down in a matter of hours, weeks, months?

Regardless, it's nice to enjoy some eFreedom, at least for now.

It hasn't hit me anywhere near as hard as it hit me last year in Zhanjiang, but the pangs for good Western food are upon me something fierce yet again. I was gChatting with Lawler and somehow the idea of food around Villanova came up, and I would be lying if I said I didn't start to salivate at the idea of big juicy greasy cheesy Garrett Hill pizza with those beer-battered fries and a icy-cold DFH90 to wash it down.

Bah, stop this nonsense Matt, food porn is poison.

But you don't realize how important simple things are like good food and tasty beer are until you go without. Kevin likes to cook, as did Nicki last year, and though we usually eat out (in China, where great food is so cheap, how can you not?), sometimes you get a taste of home-cooked food, food just unlike all the other food in China, and you realize there's a whole paradigm of preparation and ingredients and style and snacks on the other side of the Pacific, and you miss it in a different way from friends or family but just as deeply (OK, not just as deeply, but deep), and before you know it the foodlust is upon you.

I know I'm repeating myself, you can find these yearnings is previous entires, but screw it, I want pizza and beer, and I'm just desperate enough to close my eyes and march into Jilin's newly-opened Pizza Hut and pretend it's the same thing. And I assure you, that itch will be only very slightly scratched, "fulfilled" the same way a man in a desert is "thirsty," because my friends I say to you, the same thing they are not.