Just Past the Horizon
Or so my students say.
Its dead around here. Like, no sound of traffic and crows cawing dead.
Free China souvenir and irrevocable BFF status to the person who can guess the oblique reference in the title. And who isn't named Andrew. He has an unfair advantage.
The first time I have a class, I like to start things off with a question and answer session. I go around the class and require every student to ask me one (or more) question (s). There are some common themes.
The girls typically ask:
Do you have a girlfriend? (I'm debating photoshopping one together for next semester. Or trying to convince them that I'm dating Scarlet Johanson. It wouldn't be as hard as you'd think.)
Do you like Chinese girls? (Guys. I've got nearly a decade on most of you. And I'm your teacher. Weird.)
There's the mandatory questions:
Do you like Chinese food? (I don't know. I mean, does Chinese food like me? Because Chinese food is kinda cute.)
What do you think of China? (I love China. Yes I do. And the Chinese government. And most of all, history's greatest leader, Chairman Mao. Taiwan is a province of the People's Republic!)
After your standard stock questions run out, things get a bit more interesting. One of the weirder questions I was posed: A boy rose and asked me to point out the girl in the class that I thought was the hottest. One of the most interesting: What do you think about Tienanmen square?
On day one, you've got to be on your feet.
I think, more than anything, students are curious about us foreigners: How do we survive in China? What are our live like compared to theirs? (they're endlessly asking me to compare things like Chinese students vs American students) One question that pops up with some regularity is:
Can you speak Chinese?
And when I answer no, it's usually followed, without pause and with genuine curiosity:
But how do you buy things?
I could tell you about a dozen stories about interesting/hilarious shopping excursions, but the following is my favorite.
When I first got to China, I went through a period of temporary insanity. I brought my X-box over here from the States, and after a week of searching, I couldn't find the power converter that I needed to get the thing working. Video games used to be pretty good stress relief for me, and I was really wanting to plug my console in and shoot some terrorists, or aliens, or whatever. Anything that would let me slip away for a little while.
Have you ever done something, not because you actually believed it would work, but because you really wanted it to work? Don't do that. Its a bad idea.
I may have plugged in my X-box without the power converter. I really wanted it to work. Maybe the power supply really could handle Chinese power, but it wasn't labeled as such. Right? Right?
My power supply, of course, made a loud popping sound. The “powered” light glowed for a few overly bright moments before dying away. My lower lip quivered a little.
A month or so later, my then neighbor and wingman, Benjamin Williams, told me about something he'd found in Wuchang, one of the three (or maybe four) cities that have formed into the mega-city of Wuhan. It was an X-box shop, and from what he could tell, the guys who ran it not only sold X-box supplies, but repaired stuff as well. That weekend, I packed my X-box up and Ben and I took the two hour bus ride out there, hoping that I could get the thing fixed.
How do you explain to a Chinese person that you'd played the fool and plugged your American power supply into a Chinese power outlet? That one wasn't as hard as you'd think. First, I used one of the few Chinese words I knew, the word for American, and pointed at the power supply. Once he caught on, I mimed plugging it into the wall and then made an explosion sound. He thought this was hilarious. When I tried to mime out him fixing the thing, however, he couldn't follow me.
A lady working in the shop came up with a pretty ingenious solution to our problem. She pulled up Google translate.
Guys, this was like a scene out of Star Trek.
The keyboard had the software capacity to type in both Chinese characters and English letters, so I would type in my half of the conversation, Google would translate it, the other guy would read it, and then repeat what I had done. Google translate was crude, but it did the job. Two people, who didn't share more than a handful of words with each other held a conversation.
If I didn't already have a religion, I'd probably start worshiping Google.
Think about this for a second though. If you have an internet connection and a computer, you can now have a conversation with anyone who can read and write one of the languages in Google's database. For free. There is no longer such a thing as a language barrier. Or if there is, we've punched an awful big hole in it.
In a decade, I wouldn't be surprised if you could get something like Google translate on a hand-held device (If you can't already). And how long after that would it be before a hand-held could understand speech patterns and translate them?
We take so much for granted. We really do live in an age of wonders.
Howdy folks! Life goes on. I apologize again for being away. The last two weeks have been a little busy with final exams and things of that nature. To be honest though? I may have been having a wild and tempestuous love affair... with another blog! Gasp. But don't worry, I still love this one. The separation was only temporary. I've promised I'll stop seeing that other blog.
I'm still writing and reading my way along. Various writing projects have been set upon and defeated. I polished off Stephen King's Eye's of the Dragon (which I enjoyed), and also read Issac Asimov's Foundation. That was good too. It was even more of an interesting read because of how much other fiction Foundation has influenced. Asimov really was a visionary. I'm now reading two books side by side: Night Shift (a short story collection by Stephen King) and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The idea is that when Moby Dick gets to be too dense and crunchy, I can take a break and dive into a Stephen King short story. The problem is I've made it a hundred pages into Night shift and one into Moby Dick. Oops.
Its also the new year. Crazy huh?
I better wrap things up for this post. It's already four o'clock and I've still got three writing projects to polish off/ work on today. Onwards and upwards.
Hope life is treating you well.
Drop me a line sometime if you like. I love to hear from you all.
PS: 11 months, 7 days, 7 hours, 59 minutes, and 35, 34, 33... seconds until The Hobbit premiers in theaters.
Its amazing to me the changes a year can wreak. In terms of job proficiency, I have skyrocketed. No longer is Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin my theme song, but instead Black Sabbath's Wheels of Confusion.
Wait, that doesn't sound better. I'll keep working on my metaphors.
I now have a pretty good formula for class: vocabulary and pronunciation practice, followed by work out of the student's text book. This usually takes up the first forty five minutes. During the second period, I like to have some sort of activity, and this changes on a week by week basis. Whatever I have them do, I like getting them to turn on their brains as well as exercise their mouths. One week we did a unit on poetry, another American folk tales. I also have one week where I make them invent and act out a skit.
The prompt for the skit making on this particular occasion was “weird family”. As the week went on, results varied wildly, mostly by class. Its weird, but classes tend to perform on the same level. If the first skit for the day is a dud, its pretty likely the rest will be bad as well. If the first skit is hilarious, you're in for a fun period.
There aren't a lot of skits that I remember, but some of them... well, they stick with you.
The period started off well. It was probably the first time I'd laughed out loud at anything the students had done. As the last group finished up, the next group got up to present. I wiped a few tears from my eyes. The class and I had burst a collective gut.
The group had nine members in it. Their spokesperson stepped forward and told us that they'd be performing Snow White and the Four Dwarfs. I was not amused. I'm usually unhappy when the students rip off their work from another source. But, I changed my mind pretty quickly.
The students went down the line and introduced themselves, first Snow White, the Four Dwarfs, the magic mirror, the queen, and the huntsman. One girl acted as the narrator. When they finished going down the line, I leaned back, expecting the skit to begin. Instead one more cast member was introduced.
“And Derek will be playing the Prince Charming.”
Before we continue, I should inform you that out of a group of seven girls and two guys, a dude had been chosen to play Snow White. I gave them all a suspicious eyebrow raise.
The story progressed as normal at first. Snow white lives in the castle with the queen, has to scrub the floors, boring, boring, yadda, yadda. Then comes the magic mirror scene.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the most beautiful of all?” the student/queen asked. Mind you the queen is being played by the other dude in the group.
“You are, my queen. But although you are beautiful, there is one who is still more beautiful. It is Snow White, and you love Snow White!”
Follow the scene where the queen orders the huntsman to take Snow White out into the woods and kill her/him. When he (one of the girl students, actually) comes back with the pig's heart (a crumpled up piece of paper), the queen once again quizzes the mirror about who is the most beautiful.
“Your love, Snow White, is the most beautiful!”
Now wait a minute. Is the queen trying to kill Snow White because she/he (gender was getting really ambiguous by this point) is beautiful, or because she (or is it supposed to be a he? You guys know a queen is a she right?) is in love with Snow White?
The queen kills the huntsman and goes to do the job herself. When she succeeds, the four dwarfs (played by the giggliest group of girls I have ever met) come skipping over to me, hoping I'll give Snow White a kiss to bring her back to life. The dwarfs looked at me expectantly, the class held its breath.
I totally kissed Snow White. Well, sort of.
Snow White was laying dead behind one of the tables where the class (except for the front row) couldn't see him/her. I leaned down, out of eyesight, and made the loudest, wettest kissing sound I could manage. After the howls of laughter had subsided, and Snow White had been revivified (that's right, my kisses can bring chicks/dudes back from the dead), the narrator continued.
“And then, the Prince took Snow White back to his castle.”
Without missing a beat, I grabbed Snow White, threw him/her over my shoulder, and marched triumphantly across the room to my castle. When we got there, I was in for a surprise. I set Snow White down, and he/she spoke to me.
“Thank you for saving my life. But I don't think you are my one, true love.” Snow White turned to look at the old hag who'd just poisoned him/her with an apple standing on the other side of the room. “I am really in love with the queen!” And Snow White rushed into the arms of her murderer. The treacherous harpy.
I still feel really confused. On multiple levels. A big part of this confusion stems from the question of Snow White's gender.
Option A) Snow White is a dude.
Ramification: I kissed a dude.
Option B) Snow White is a girl.
Ramification: My kiss drove Snow White, the mythic incarnation of beauty and love, to lesbianism. Maybe.
Really, this whole situation is a great metaphor for wider life in China.
I guess that wraps things up for this week. Life goes on. I have read a book and a fourth in the week that has passed. I devoured Eric Brown's Kings of Eternity (which was good), and I've started Stephen King's Eyes of the Dragon (which promises to be even better). Eyes of the Dragon is a fantasy novel no less, something that surprised me when I picked it up. Stephen writes it in a style that's somewhere between a children's fairytale and a campfire story with your grandfather. A change of pace from his usual approach.
Writing continues. My daily word counts are increasing, but not as quickly as I would like. I progress, but slowly. In fact, I still have yet to have begun today's work, and its nearly 5:30. Stupid teaching. It always seems to be getting in the way of things I'd rather be doing.
Only 366 days, 6 hours, and 21 minutes remain until the Hobbit premiers in theaters. Can you tell that I'm excited?
Oh, and by the way. I am now obsessed with the idea of learning the cello. I don't have any idea if this conviction will hold out until I get back to the States (or if it will survive the incredibly low income level I'll likely be living at), but right now, I'm pretty pumped. I found this awesome web video a few days back (shout out to Bethany Howell!), and by extension a really talented cello player whose music blew my mind. I may have gone out on iTunes and bought up everything he's ever done after-wards. I also might have a slight man crush on him. I'm still feeling confused after that skit, alright?
Hope life is treating you all well. (Really, this cello music is incredible. Steven Sharp Nelson. Learn who he be!)
Hello everyone. I'm back. I apologize for being away. The good ship Derek hit a rough patch recently, but never fear. He's still afloat.
Yes, I have been reading/watching a great deal of Tolkien, as my title reflects. By the way, there are only 374 days left until The Hobbit comes out in theaters. I am not lying: I would come back to America just to watch that film on opening night. But don't worry. I'll be coming back because I miss you all too.
A lot of interesting things have happened to me this year, and I'd like to chronicle them, if for no other reason than the excuse to write. But so much time has passed. Where do I begin, how do I sort out all that has happened? I think its only fair that I start at the beginning.
It seems like a decade ago. Drew, a friend of mine since time out of mind, and I sat waiting in the Indianapolis airport. There's a feeling that I get when I sense change in the air. It balls up just below and around my heart, nestled there like a blanket on a cold winter evening when the windows are fogged up and steam rises off of hot drinks shared in good company. I would say that its indescribable, but isn't it my job to describe things? The feeling is that of high school graduations, of going away parties. Its the feeling of one last college get together before those years of bliss are finally up. Its how you feel when the road beckons and you must say goodbye.
Drew and I were on separate flights out to New York, so we parted ways each to our own terminals. I settled down in the empty waiting area and propped my feet up using my backpack. At the time, I believe I had just started reading IT. I pulled it out and thumbed through a few pages, but I didn't read much. I was feeling too restless.
Six hours or so later, I had landed in JFK and was making my way from the domestic to the international terminal. I had plenty of time, but I was nervous. Switching terminals involved rechecking bags. Drew and I were on the same flight going to China, but Drew was coming in two hours behind me. I've done a good deal of traveling. To that point, Drew had done none. The first time you go through one, a big international airport can feel a bit overwhelming. Add to that a short time schedule (It can sometimes take hours to get your bags checked if you're standing in a long and understaffed line)? It can be a bit much for your first trip.
I sat down in the waiting area for the China Eastern flight to Shanghai and I waited, watching. The hours ticked by and no sign of Drew.
This was when our troubles began.
Drew's flight had been delayed. Fortunately, so had the China Eastern flight to Shanghai. When Drew came sprinting into the waiting area, bags floundering behind him, I was relieved. This was the flight we needed to board most. If he hadn't shown up, I'm not sure what I would have done. There was a big storm coming into New York, and if we didn't get out, we could have been stuck there eating cheap airport food and sleeping on the cold airport floors for days. The good news was that he was here. The bad news was that they hadn't given him his boarding pass for the Wuhan flight. There was only a two hour layover in Shanghai, and we lost an hour and a half from the JFK to Shanghai flight delay. It was going to be close.
We didn't make it.
We landed in Shanghai and raced to get on our next flight. The check-in line for the flight had long since closed by the time we got to it and the men manning it refused to print Drew a boarding pass. We argued with them . We gestured angrily for effect. The check-in men were not impressed. They told us that we could pick up our bags at baggage claim number sixteen.
We waited for a while, watching bags come down the conveyer belt and get drug off by various travel weary Chinese. My bags came and I loaded them on a cart. Slowly, the crowd died away leaving Drew and I to watch the near empty conveyer continue spinning.
“Where are my bags?” Drew asked. Because this is a family friendly blog, this comment has undergone some editing. It was originally a bit longer.
We watched and waited. No bags came. Drew stood there, tired, mandolin case in hand and backpack over his shoulder. My bags sat next to me on a pushcart. It was over twelve hours until the next flight to Wuhan.
If you've ever missed a flight, you know that there is often a complimentary hotel room given out if you have to wait until the next day to catch another. It was here that I made a bit of a dumb.
“Should we ask them for a room?” Drew asked me.
I debated internally for a while. If you know me, you know I don't have that much of a problem with sleeping on floors.
“Nah. Who knows how far away the thing is. It could be an hour into Shanghai. I don't really want to be away from the airport. If we had bad luck coming back we could miss another flight.”
In my defense, Drew never argued this point with me until much later. A lot of things make sense when you haven't slept in a day or two.
We wandered around the airport looking for somewhere to get some food. There were none considering it was after ten o'clock local time. Next, we tried to find a good place to lay down and sleep. That also proved impossible. For some bizarre reason a group of Chinese men had brought a jackhammer into the airport and were in the process of digging up the floor on the eastern side of the building. Since the airport was one giant room, their work followed us where ever we went. Eventually we gave up and went outside. Drew wanted to have a smoke and I was tired of listening to the jackhammer.
We sat for a while. Drew talking, me listening. Drew talks a lot, and more often than not I tend to be quiet. It makes for a good relationship. As we sat our eyes wandered the skyline of Shanghai. I don't remember who saw it first.
If someone said oh crap, then it was probably me who saw it first.
There, across from us, sitting directly opposite from our terminal, was a big shiny building labled in clear white English letters: Airport Hotel. There was a lovely sky bridge that passed between the two buildings, connecting them. You wouldn't even have to go down to the street to get over there.
We went down to the help desk for China Eastern, hoping to get some help, but the people manning the desk were gone. We even went over to the hotel, hoping to bluff our way into a few hours of sleep, but it was not to be. They wanted a piece of paper. No amount of charm, wit, persuasiveness, or anger will convince a Chinese person to do something in the face of an all-powerful, omnipresent directive of a piece of paper.
So we slept in the airport. Well, Drew slept. I just sort of laid there for a few hours and then wandered around. When I was in high school, I could sleep at any hour of the day, and do so on any surface. That ability is now gone. In fact, I'm starting to turn into a bit of an insomniac. I blame China.
Its December here. Believe it or not, its still fairly warm outside. Cold weather, real cold weather, only arrived just this week, and was gone again just as quickly. Life as it ever has, goes on. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
I've not gotten much reading done since I've been here, and in the last few weeks, I've been trying to make up for it. Recently, I polished off A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. I'm currently reading both the Silmarillion (for the humpteenth time) and The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown. Next up, either Foundation by Issac Asimov or something by Stephen King.
On the writing front, things go.... okay. I have gotten some writing done. But it hasn't been as much as I would like. That's part of the reason for the return of the blog. I'm having trouble on the fiction front, and writing non-fiction always seems to help smooth out the kinks. I have been having a good time at it though.
I've also been doing a lot of looking to the future lately, and I've decided that I've had my fill of China. I'll be coming home this summer to stay for a while. How long, or where I will go in America? Who knows. The thought of getting a job is a bit depressing, but I guess I've always had good luck in that department. Hopefully I can get something that doesn't involve flipping hamburgers. I think I'd rather go back to construction.
I hope life is treating you well. Until next time.