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Monday, June 30, 2008

Paris Purée

I'm trying to get this out and these photos up on a German QWERTZ keyboard, and please note the lack of Y. So here are some photos of Paris. More on the digicam but hey, Picasa is only so generous with free space.

I did this trip eight years ago, and I gotta say, I loved Paris immeasurably more than I did last time. In fact, I hated is first time through. But the sense of history is immense, and I know that history much better now, and how it fits in my whole scheme for the system of the world. The Louvre is still impossiblz big, Paris cafes are still far too relaxing for their own good, the pace of life strolling through streets and meandering over bridges is still far too slow for a city with so much to see, and even with a lot of museum-hopping and a compressed schedule, the list of things to see remains huge. We were lucky enough to arrive during a minor holidaz, a Fete de Musical (or something), and I met a girl from Luxemborg who speaks French, German, English, the local Luxemborg dialect, and had just finished her Chinese exam. She was cute, we shared a beer by the Seine, and we chatted in Chinese for a while. Ah, Paris ...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

London: Kaly and Sandwiches

Its been a great three days in London, but we have to go. Gotta catch a train to Paris ... how many times do you get to say that? Photos!

Of the many great things in London, two stood out. First, I was able to spend the afternoon with Kaly, my friend and former student from Zhanjiang. She's studying in England, in Warwick, for her masters degree. She took a day trip in to London and hung out with us for a bit. I took her and a group to the Tower of London, and we saw the Crown Jewels. I was able to help explain a few things about them to Kaly, who probably never would have seen them if she hadn't gone with me.

Another great thing about London: sandwiches. After (literally!) months and years of nothing but Chinese food, which in case you didn't know doesn't make for good sandwiches, I've been eating a steady lunch of fantastic sandwiches and double espressos. Bread with cheese and herbs, cheese with names I can't even pronounce, meats and other fixings that sound like something from a mead-hall in Beowulf ... none of that bland crap English food here, I'm all sandwiches and smiles. Good sandwiches and coffee on every corner! It's like I'm in a real place again.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Surprise! Home Early (Father's Day Presence)

Maybe you know, maybe you don't ... but I came home from China early, to surprise mom and dad and Patrick, in time for Father's Day, but also before this month-long pan-European trip I'm about to take. The lie was that I was going to meet Patrick, Deirdre, and the rest of the trip in London ... but really, I snuck (sneaked?) back home early, from Changchun to Hong Kong to Vancouver to Philadelphia, to spend just a few days with the family before flying out for this Europe trip. Rough life, I know, traveling the world and finding time to squeeze in visit home with the family ... but somehow I manage. The surprise was a total success, except for mom, who got a call from the moronic voicemail service of US Airways, who informed her that my flight from Vancouver to Philly was delayed. So to let me know my flight was delayed in Canada, they called someone else in America. Brilliant as always! So mom kinda knew, but dad and Patrick had no idea, as you can see. Some give Father's Day presents ... I give Father's Day Presence. Thanks for not groaning too loudly on that one.

And now for a few pictures (Vancouver pics and a few from first coming home here):

Deirdre holding a "Welcome Home Ashole" sign ... she says "ashole" with a fake lisp ... long story ... inside joke ... moving home ...

Meghan wearing her Chinese scrubs. The sisters made the entire surprise possible, helping me plan and buy tickets and keep everyone in the dark. Thanks shidders!

Just coming off the plane.

Sweet sweet milk ...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

When will the farewell end?

My last week of classes were simple: finals finished, I had some music loaded on my MP3 player to share, lyrics printed up, and I just went in, ready to talk. There were a lot of questions for me, questions about Europe and finding a job when I'm back home and the inevitable girlfriend (it's bound to happen some time, right?). We took a lot of photos, and I was glad that my truncated week included two classes that were a particular joy to teach this term.

These jokers ...

... and these characters.

As per usual, on Wednesday evening we attended the weekly English Corner, and for almost all the students there, it was their last time to see me. I didn't plan a big dramatic goodbye, but it kinda turned into one, as a lot gave me gifts, took (more) photos, started to tear up, and many worked up the guts to ask for a hug. (I ended just hugging everyone there ... it felt good.) It was a nice way to say goodbye, the week of classes to bring our time to a close, but always with the "oh but we can see each other at English Corner on Wednesday!" corollary to keep them a little chipper on their way out the door of our final class together. Only a handful could actually make it to English corner, but those who did were the students that I actually connected with in some way over the term, in or out of class, and so it was an effective if unintentional thinning of the so-long herd. So I wasn't having teary-eyed goodbyes to Student #16 of Class 7.3, but I was saying goodbye to Memento and David, Atlus and Amber, Hawaii and Maureen and Cassie and Violent and a whole lot more. It was personal, the students came because they wanted to, and that's what made it feel special.

I also did something that I hope will set a blazing inferno to whatever bridge connected me with BeiHua: I gave my students their final marks. Not the school's official bullshit final marks, but *my* marks, the real marks, the ones I kept and calculated based on their actual performance in class all term. Since the jackasses in charge just threw my grades out the window last term, with no regard for my assessment of the students or the student's performance, I got a little sneaky this term by making a photocopy of all of my grades, and handing them both their grades as well as the marked finals papers. With any luck, the powers that be at Bei Hua will be furious, and the students will either have enough leverage to keep my grades, or solid proof that those in charge of the school are crooks. Strong words, perhaps, but I'm never gonna see them again, so I don't care! In all seriousness, what will happen is this: BeiHua will continue to be oblivious to me and my actions, they will change the students grades, and despite having proof, the students will remain impotent. Sad that I can already see what will come, but that's Bei Hua.

On a lighter note, here's my little beer collection as per my leaving:

Those beers are: North Coast Brewing Company's Red Seal Ale, Rouge's Dead Guy Ale, Rouge's American Pale Ale, Harpoon IPA, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Duvel Belgian golden ale, another North Coast ale, this one the American Pale Ale, Bucanero, a cheapy Spanish lager, and finally, a Belgian white many may know, Hoegaarden. There are two big bottles of some unspectacular Russian beers hiding in the back there, too. I don't know why, but I am both proud and ashamed of this picture.

And here's Jenny taking a nap:

Aw, lookit 'er! She's exhausted from playing with a roll of tape, like a kitten with a ball of string!

What? This isn't Jilin ... is it? Cold blue skies, ice-capped green mountains ... where could Matthew be?! Tune in next time ...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

So long, Farewell, Auf wiedersehen, Zai Jian

Two years in China: check. Grades are in, salaries are paid, tickets are booked, and its only a matter of hours before I leave this mysterious, baffling, wonderful, terrible country. And now it's time to say so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, zai jian, to all things China, good and bad.

Goodbye homicidal cab drivers. Drivers who would not just be arrested, but beaten to death by angry mobs back in the states, and yet somehow still manage to get offended when you put on your seatbelt when they try to play chicken with a bus. And that seatbelt, so filthy from never being used, covered in dust and cigarette ash and god knows what else from countless other passengers, that it leaves a stain like bacon grease on the front of your shirt.

Goodbye cheap eats. I am still amazed at how cheap it is to eat out, and eat well, in China. A group of four can go out and have a small feast of three of four dishes and beer (sometimes it's even cold ... but more on that in a moment) for less than $2US a person, no tax, no tip. It's going to be painful getting used to dining out in America again, assuming I ever have the money to do so.

Goodbye, freshmen. It was a very strange year of not really knowing if you were learning a damn thing. What small glimpses of success I had were outside of class, never within, as even good students who were chatterboxes face to face were as passive as wet dirt in class. Only when students talked with me outside of class, students who before couldn't or didn't have the confidence to speak three words clearly, it was when they started having meaningful conversations, started voicing ideas that weren't just lifted from some textbook, that I knew I was at least having some impact. But goodbye none the less, students who at turns delighted and frustrated me, who made up such a large proportion of what life was about in Jilin.

Goodbye bad beer. If I never have another piss-warm rice-grain Snow beer again, I will be a happy man.

Goodbye Jenny, my dear friend, who was such a huge part of making Jilin what it was. She'll have good people with here next year, Kevin and Aaron and the other two Maryknollers who will be going north to Jilin.

Goodbye gateway travel. Before China, I knew of travel as an EF package tour through Europe. Post-China, travel to me is doing everything on my own, taking the run-down local buses, eating where the locals eat, avoiding the crowds of the beaten path, and finding joy in getting lost and getting around in a new country, in a crowd of new faces and languages. China has helped me realize this, and it's been a gateway for traveling throughout Asia. I'll never be able to travel so far and so frequently again.

Goodbye loud disgusting loogies. No place on earth will ever match the loud throat-emptying frequency of China's spitters and hockers. On the bus, in a restaurant, snot rockets on the ground or wiping it on the bus seat next to you, China will always remain the king of phlegm.

Goodbye dog on the menu. For shame.

Goodbye dumplings on the menu. You will be dearly missed.

Goodbye plentiful photo ops. I could walk around Jilin, or any city in China, and I'd run out of steam before my camera ran out of things to snap. So many strange, stupid, bizarre, and funny things going on when you cram billions of people together.

Goodbye Bus 32, the sole bus to and from campus, that was never empty, often times more than full, horribly maintained dirty ugly uncomfortable terrible buses. Goodbye the refusal to make a line to get on, goodbye idiotic and meaningless bullrushes to get on an already overcrowded bus, goodbye moronic drivers, horn honking that'd make the taxi drivers blush, slamming on the brakes, and goodbye hot cramped crowded human cattle cars. If I ever become a millionaire, I'm going to buy a whole new fleet of buses just for that route. I hated that bus, and I rode it all the time, and will be so happy to never ride it again.

And finally (for now, at least), goodbye crowds. Goodbye crush of billions of people, goodbye never having any personal space in public, goodbye gawkers and staring and yelling "Hello!" and people remarkably oblivious to others' and their own bodies position in three-dimensional space. Goodbye yelling spitting loud laughing hot and sweaty pushing shoving angry awestruck oblivious charming annoying Chinese crowds.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bei Shan and the Flaming Bride

Sunday was "Dragon Boat" festival, a holiday I remember fondly from Zhanjiang, where there actually were dragon boats and races in said boats. Guess the boats don't make it this far north, but the holiday sure does, and so Sunday was a holiday (with the bonus of having Monday classes canceled!), and to celebrate, Jenny, Kevin, and I climbed 北山Bei Shan, a "mountain" that is really little more than a hill, and so centrally located that I must have walked past this "mountain" park a hundred times this past year without realizing it. Jenny also invited me to her co-worker's wedding, but more on that in a minute.

The entrance to the park. A lot of people were there to celebrate the holiday, which seemed to be lacking both dragons and boats. I asked Jenny why people came to Bei Shan to celebrate, and she said that every year people get up really early and climb the mountain and go to the 早市, zao shi, the morning market the springs up around the park. Again I asked "why," and Jenny said, well, she didn't know.

This old man is like China's version of Cupid. He goes around weaving a red thread between lovers. He's the only one that can see the read thread, of course, but once you're threaded, you're together, for good or ill. He's old and prone to narcolepsy or something, because "bad matches" are when the old man with the thread falls asleep at the wheel (at the needle?). Young couples came and tied red ribbons and heart-shaped locks around him and the chain-link fence that surrounded him.

See? Ribbons and heart-shaped locks.

Couples that want a baby come and tie red ribbons around this statue of a baby. I don't know if there's any relation to the old man.

A small Chinese temple, one of many within the park. Jenny gave me a good little history lesson on how a lot of quasi-historical people from China's (far too long) history eventually became revered and deified. Like Greek gods, each now is an "immortal" and has his or her own little provenance in the universe, and you pray to different ones for different fortunes.

More red good luck paper stuff.

At the top of Bei Shan, looking down on Jilin. A nice goodbye panorama ... on to the wedding!

The groom owned a nightclub, and so the whole ceremony went down in (one of?) his club(s), with all the trappings of the night club scene: loud music, fireworks, magic shows, and singing, all with that unmistakably Chinese penchant for the loud and fiery.

Jenny and one of her co-workers at the wedding.

In a rain of confetti, the groom asked (again) for her hand. I couldn't really understand why, there was a lot of spectacle going on, a really loud MC who guided the couple through candle-lighting, wine-pouring, and a bunch of other ceremonies. It was all really flashy.

You can see the candles and the heart-shaped array of cascading wine glasses.

That looks both professional and safe, and in no way poses a fire hazard.

She looks really happy here.

Whoops! Just as the ceremony was drawing to a close, with the bride and groom and the MC standing shoulder to shoulder at the front of the stage, bowing and saying thanks, a string of fireworks right above them began vomiting sparks and confetti. Clearly, this wasn't planned very well. The confetti immediately caught fire and came down in sheets of flame, like someone threw a buck of fire on the stage. The result ...

... the bride's (rented) dress caught fire. It wasn't a tiny little fire, either; the entire train was a mess of confetti and ash and melting nylon. I've seen a lot of indiscriminate fireworks in China, and swore one day it's end in tears, I just never thought I'd live to see it end with a flaming bride.

Well, an afternoon at Bei Shan and a truly incendiary wedding. Not a bad final weekend in China!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Video Redux

I've made a few videos in these last two years in China, and some of them are total crap. But there are a few I'm really proud of, and would like to share them with you (again).

My first time traveling solo, a long weekend in Macau in October 2006. Little did I know this trip would be the seed that would blossom with me going to Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and a bunch of other Southeast Asian countries. I got a real taste for being on the road on my own, and this is kind of where it all started.

Making dumplings with my students and friends in Zhanjiang. My first time making dumplings ... I think I've gotten better now.

I love this guy making cotton candy on the back of his bike.

A cameo from Flargin in this one, Patch made a great video of my trip all over China with my siblings last year.

And for some reason, I really love this one, from New Years. Probably the music.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

♪♫ You Can Never Hold Back Spring ♫♪

♪♫ Remember everything that spring can bring ♫♪

Thank you, Tom Waits. You never cease to amaze me. What a shame I won't be able to see you on tour this summer. But if I had to miss it for anything, I'm glad it's for a month of travel in Europe with my brother and sister. (The real sting is how he'll be just about a week behind me in European tour dates ... but so many things have come together for this trip, I can't possibly complain.)

The weather is beautiful here in Jilin, warm sunny days and (believe it or not) a blue sky or two. My finals are finished, a pile of notes on performances and pronunciation waiting to be deciphered into legible marks so that I may turn in honest grades next week, despite the fact that I know BeiHua is going to just toss them in the trash and make up their own marks anyway.

And so the term comes to a close. The warm weather brought a sports "meeting" (as in track "meet") last weekend, an all-day affair where students ran and jumped and threw disuses (not disci, surprisingly). Each class also prepared a performance, a dance number or something. But when you have so many classes performing and so many students running, they all got jumbled into a big mess, the gun for the next race sounding in the middle of a performance (effectively cutting them off), an ADD crowd that couldn't be bothered to watch anything for longer than two minutes before they switched focus to a new race or dance. Typical China, I guess.

Kennedy represents the foreign students at Bei Hua.

The nurses in their retro uniforms. (They're not being ironic. It's what they wear.)

My student Alvin looks on as his classmates (the girls in the black and gold dresses) do a dance in front of hundreds of ambivalent students.

My finals were really great this year. The "exam" itself was simple: groups of four to five students had seven to ten minutes to do a performance. Anything goes. And I demanded costumes, props, music, vocabulary, and creativity. Probably the best thing I've done as a teacher in China, because it forced students to actually create, tweak, and speak a piece of English, while also letting their imagination run wild. Short of a few rouges who tried to get by on crap stories fished from the internet, they were great. I spent two weeks doing the exam: the first week was a "practice" exam, a dry run to make sure people were actually doing work, and as expected, nearly half of the students hadn't done a damn thing. So some stern talking-to's from Matthew, etc., and within a week everyone was on the same page, work had actually been done, practice and improvement was evident, and in the end the plays were spectacular. I wanted some photos of the costumes, but it was also our next-to-last-class for many (final class for some), so there was a lot of photo-taking and fond farewells.

Be warned: the students are (to be gentle) goofy. And there are some goofy/cute/ridiculous things being done in these photos that no twenty-three year old should be proud of. But they say China changes you, and at first you scoff, and then two years later you find yourself doing this:

Yeah. Giving myself dimples.

The girl on the left, in white? She was God.

Some students even made sets.

These girls took a Chinese story, and turned it into an English comedy. Well done.

Three little pigs ...

... and the big bad wolf.

Far too many embarrassing pictures here.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

My Walls are Naked (Oh, it's June!)

My walls are naked, the posters promising me Chinese words and characters I never learned taken down, the art projects I fished from the art room's trash have been peeled away, and now I walk into a big ugly white room with soot-framed boxes on the wall where cool colorful things used to be.

I am getting ready to leave Jilin, and I am happy.

I almost wrote "and I have mixed feelings," but I don't, because the surge of good times and goodbyes can swell inside you and make you forget how difficult and long the year has been. It can create an almost false sense of happiness. False isn't the right word, because it's real: when you take photos with students and you talk to them for the last time, when you eat meals with Jim and James and Kevin and Jenny for the last time, when you run by the Song Hua river for that last glimpse of a Jilin afternoon. It's real, and it's strong, and it reminds you of all the good times this last year, and you thankfully forget the long cold empty months of winter, the isolation and the dislocation and all that other bad stuff. So in some ways it's really nice to trick yourself into thinking Jilin was easy and a breeze and maybe even worth doing again ... but year two in China is all I have patience for. That same tricked worked in Zhanjiang, and I came back to China and realized just what another year entails, only the second year has lost the glimmer of the new and has nothing but a slow fading afterglow.

So I've got naked walls, an empty wardrobe, a pile of clothes that are too big for me that I'll be dropping off at the seminary soon, and a long list of to-dos before I go. I can't believe this year is drawing to a close. I can't believe by the end of this month Zhanjiang, Jilin, China will be in my past, I can't believe all the stuff I have to pack and do before I leave, and I can't wait to see what I'll be doing next.