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Monday, May 26, 2008

Is it June yet? (And: Thoughts on a Chinese party)

I feel intense hatred toward linear time right now, because I cannot honestly believe it's still May and I'm still here. This has been the slowest month in China by far, and while the days seem busy enough, the fact that it's only May 26 and not, oh, I dunno, June 11, really pisses me off.

This term, in addition to my freshmen, I've been teaching a class of prospective post-graduate MBA students who will (if all things visa-related go well) travel to Madison, Wisconsin to study at Edgewood College in September. I use that word "class" loosely, though, since it's really only been two men (and a third student, a woman who is perpetually coming next time). I've given them the English names Paul (a mid-twenties office-type who studied and worked in Beijing) and Brian (a mid-thirties bank clerk who has risen to the top of Jilin's Bank of China). It was supposed to be Mike and Brian, after my uncles, but Paul didn't like the name Mike (blame some NBA player named Mike who fouled Yao Ming once). So I asked Paul what his name meant in Chinese, and he told me stone, and so I got all biblical and gave him Paul. Then I realized two weeks later that I'd mixed my Christian P's, it should have been Peter, but he liked Paul so the name stuck.

This class has been an interesting way to meet some Chinese who don't fall under the umbrella of obscenely sheltered undergraduate English majors. Brian has a family and a damn good job as the president (or something ... important, he assures me) of the Bank of China in Jilin, and when we had dinner at his home and I met his parents, I realized Brian is the ideal of the new upwardly mobile generations in China, a man from humble origins whose parents were laborers who has gone on to a good job, a nice home, a car, money, affluence ... he's like a poster-child for what most people in China shoot for, of the success China hopes the white-hot economy and its one-child policy can create. Paul, a little younger but also educated, has lived in the capital and seen more of China in his twenty-odd years than most of my other students will ever see. They're both smart guys that have the money and clout to get into a program that will send them abroad and earn them a bona-fide American diploma, and that's a write-your-own-ticket kind of deal here.

The class has been good, if awkward. Brian began the class pretty much incapable of speaking English, whereas Paul was pretty good from the start. Through a lot of effort on his part, Brian has improved a great deal, but I still think he'll have a rough go of it in the states (that's assuming he passes the English interview for his visa). Our class has been a four-hour block of class on Saturday afternoon for the past ten weeks, with no book, no material, no final exam, no help whatsoever from the "school" I'm supposedly employed at that keeps cashing all those tuition checks. I asked the jackass in charge what I was supposed to teach in this class, and he told to just show them a movie each week, or have them take me out to eat. First class, BeiHua. Anyway, I've been doing my best to make the class useful for them, but as anyone that's ever tried to study a language can tell you, a once-a-week four-hour cram session is, shall we say, less than ideal.

In class I've tried to balance practical vocabulary (like directions, eating, shopping, and dealing with every-day problems) with concerns about their medical insurance, costs of living, work-study jobs, and life in America. We've looked at the maps of Edgewood and Madison and tried to get a feel for where they'll be living, alongside learning how to order a drink in a bar and not get a glass of chardonnay (all alcohol in China is called 酒, jiu, which translates to wine, so I've had to explain what "wine" is in the West and how to make sure you get whiskey or beer when you want it). We've met outside of class as much as we've met in class, for meals or at Brian's home to meet his family, and this has really been an extraordinary glimpse of real life in China. And last Saturday, in lieu of our final class being another dull round of vocabulary in a classroom, Brian invited Paul and I out to a party for his co-worker's wife's father's sixtieth birthday. A tenuous connection, that, but why not?

Brian and his son, who calls me Superman.

He also talks to me in Chinese like we're best pals. All I can do is nod and smile.

Paul, me, and Brian, and 弟弟, didi, little brother.

Why not? The puddle was already there! (Bonus caption: man that kid had to go!)

Paul, 弟弟, and Paul's girlfriend.

For the party, they chartered a boat at the Song Hua Hu (松花湖), the same lake where I was camping a few weeks ago.

The boat landed on an island, and after we walked a ways, we came up to a tiny restaurant that seemed like the closest China has had to Woodloch. The whole restaurant was rented out for the big party.

Balance beams!

Made it there and back!

At the party, Brian pours us some 白酒, baijiu, "white wine." This unspeakably horrid drink is the drink of China; it is to China what vodka is to Russia, Guinness to Ireland, Coke to America. This "white wine" is closer to nail-polish remover (or, barring that, hard alcohol) than it is cab-sauv, but herein lies the root of the wine =/= alcohol conundrum for Chinese learning English.

Those two plastic cups are water. I swear.

At the party, the host had to go to each table and make a toast, probably several. Brian, being a higher-up at the bank, had to do the same. Thankfully they had switched to beer at this point, because ...

... yours truly got in on the next toast. The man on the right of the picture is Brian's co-worker, and it's his wife's father whose birthday was being celebrated. Which means he was toasting all day, and getting quite drunk.

After the big meal, we waited out the rain on the porch of a tiny cabin. Paul and his girlfriend along with Brian and his wife. I can never say her name correctly so I just call her 姐姐, jiejie, big sister.

Back to the boat.

Naturally beauty, where you been all my life? (那个地方有山有水.)

And back again.

I realized at the party that it's not Jilin that's getting to me, it's not China. (Well, it is, but that's only half of it.) It's missing home. It's wanting to spend my Saturday at a birthday party for someone I actually know, someone I can have a meaningful conversation with. It's wanting to spend time with my friends and family back home, and not flop around awkwardly like a fish in a bucket of milk at a dinner party where I can barely speak the language. It's an incredibly isolating experience sometimes, being here and having no one to really talk to. I have the other Maryknollers here at BeiHua, true, but it's hard talking to the same people in such a small group for so long without any outside input. It's hard to live in a place where no one speaks the language well enough to have an honest talk, where you sit there and are amazed at the pat tripe you spew out to students and other English learners, because they can't handle or understand how you really feel. That's what I felt at this party: it was nice, it was a good experience, and I was happy to go, but being there just made me realize how forever alien this place will be to me, and I to it.

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