"He who would travel happily must travel light."
- Antoine De Saint-Exupery
What am I doing here? This is a question that surfaces from time to time, as I sit in my room, walk to class, or relax with the other teachers from the university. Its words are the same, but the tone of voice is usually different. Sometimes its curious, other times angry, or despairing. Sometimes it's filled with wonder.
I was watching my friend, Daniel, today. It's his birthday, and I think he's going through what I was a few months ago when it was my birthday. I've spoken to my students on the subject of birthdays. In China, birthdays aren't the same as they are in the States. Birthdays are usually quiet days, when you can relax, days that didn't seem that important to my students. I wish I could speak Chinese so I could try and get a better understanding. There seemed to be something sad just beneath the surface.
To me, birthdays have never been about getting older. I will admit that they are sometimes about the presents. But more importantly, they're about friends and family. They're an excuse to get together and celebrate with people that mean something to you. They're also days that let you know you mean something to other people. I watched Dan mope about, poking at his lunch, normally smiling face passive, contemplative. I think Daniel is missing his friends today. I'm going to get some people and take him out later tonight. Birthdays in a foreign country are bad times to be alone.
For most of us, I think life is a bit of a blur, moving from one thing to the next, our heads down in the trenches. We rarely have the chance to stop long enough to straighten our backs and take a look at what's really going on around us. It takes something special to stir us up from our work, perhaps even our drudgery, and reflect on things as they really are.
I've been doing a lot of reflecting lately, and the cause of it was surprising to me: I've started writing a novel. The novel itself is not of that great of significance. In some ways it has been inevitable, something I've been intending to do for a long time. But writing is something that's becoming intertwined with my soul, something that's becoming apart of me in ways that are wonderful, enlivening, breathtaking. Sometimes when I think about putting words down onto the page I feel my blood vessels open up, and my heart beats a little faster. Possibility, sweet possibility, like the morning dew, like honey from the comb. Anything can slip from my fingers. On some level I think everyone wants to do something that MAKES A DIFFERENCE, and when I've got a keyboard under my hands I know that if I persevere, someday I'll be able to do things. Crazy awesome things.
But possibility is a double edged sword.
Traveling has one rather amazing quality, especially traveling for extended periods of time. It forces you to look up from the trenches far more often than you might like. I talk with my neighbor Ben, a fellow Eagle scout, about camping trips and when I find myself back in my room I miss my father. I think about the trips he's going on with kids from the States, and I realize that if I were there, I could be going with him. I watch a movie and want to phone some of my best friends, Mark, Chris, Drew, Steven (the list carries on) and tell them about the great thing I just saw. I want to share, but I realize I can't. They're out of reach.
I look at my life to this point from the vantage of Dan's day. No doubt he's thought at least once about the decisions that brought him here. What things might be like if he'd made others. I consider my choices. My relationships, and my future have been shaped by them. They form a tapestry, a web that defines my life. For a moment I feel trapped by them.
At lunch today, while I was considering all these things, Henry, another friend brought up a trip to southern China some of the guys have been planning for our upcoming break. He'd asked me to go a week or so ago, but I'd turned him down. Too much money, I'd told him. I need to save what I've got. What I really meant was that I was feeling so distracted by other things, thoughts of what could be, that I didn't feel up to going anywhere. I felt like sitting in my apartment and brooding. But as I was sitting there, listening to him talk about the trip, and what would be happening on it, I couldn't help myself but lean forward, and gape a little at him. We'll be heading to a place called Tiger Leaping Gorge on the 23rd of January and spend almost two weeks hiking through some of the most extraordinary scenery in China, chilly windswept mountains and lush green valleys, with clean crystalline water.
Isn't the choice obvious? Brood in my room or go hiking in a beautiful stretch of southern China shouldn't even require consideration. But neither should a lot of things.
Writing is a lot like flaying open your chest so the world can peak in and get a good look at your soul. Every word you write is a potential judgement of your ability, and unless a writer is particularly soulless, criticizing an author's writing is a lot like poking fun at a child to their parent, or making a joke out of somebody's brother, sister, or spouse. Except that you're the child and the parent all at the same time.
Traveling has taught me a lot of things. It's reminded me that life is short. That sometimes the hard things are worth doing. That you should always remember to pack your toothbrush, because if you don't your teeth are going to grow hair by the fourth day of your trip.
But what traveling has really taught me is that every choice is a potential sacrifice.
You can't have it all, and neither can I. I cannot fit both a gigantic barbeque sauce slathered steak and a large meat lover's pizza into my stomach at the same time. I can't get much out of the book I'm reading while watching a movie. I can't spend all my time hanging out with the other English teachers if I expect to get any writing done. I can't see the world and develop my relationships back home. And I can't write a novel without putting my very self out there on display, for passers by to do with as they please.
One of the first things you learn about traveling, for girls who may be reading this blog, is that you can't take with you everything that you own. It's better to take the essentials, and worry about the few missed baths later. Your back will thank you. Life is much the same way. Right now I could be in the army, or I could be in medical school, or a thousand other places, but I'm not. I'm right here, right now, and I need to drop all the things I've been carrying because my back is killing me. And I'm missing the view.
"He who would travel happily must travel light."
From time to time it becomes necessary to go shopping. I'll run out of laundry detergent, or need some supplies for class..... or whatever. There are several options for getting the essentials, but the easiest place to go is what the foreign teachers have dubbed JK. The Chinese character for the shopping mall resembles those two letters. We're a clever lot.
Just outside of the campus there are these golf cart looking things, little shuttle buses that run off nearly silent electric motors. The various carts run to different places in the nearby city, taking the back roads to avoid any real traffic, considering the cart can do maybe 15-20 miles per hour. I usually will take one to get to JK. On the way the cart passes through a poorer section of town, and it's when you're here that you get a look at what China is really like.
The first stop on the way to the mall is a huge open air food market that none of the Lao Wai are brave enough to shop at. I've stopped and looked around a few times, but I've never bought anything. Stretching though an open building that roughly resembles a giant hanger are vendors selling all types of food from meat, to fruits and vegetables. And they're fresh. Like really really fresh. The fish are still flopping around in a tank when you buy them. What's sorta creepy (yet admittedly fascinating in that eight year old boy sort of way) is watching the vendors gut an clean the fish after you've selected one. One of my favorite China moments so far came when I heard a chicken squawking in the distance in rising frenzy only to have the squawks suddenly cut off by a loud *KuThuck*.
What's really interesting is the various tidbits of land that line the road on the way to the mall. I kid you not, you know that two foot wide section of grass that lines the edge of the road in a lot of cities? Well, the industrious people of Wuhan have turned those little chunks of land into crop fields. Stretching through most of the back roads are fields of various types of vegetables, some of which, will no doubt go to be sold at the previously mentioned market.
I've seen a lot of things that have reminded me of how good I've got it. I drove through one section of Wuhan in a taxi, and during the drive we passed by a massive lumbar yard. What was amazing is about one of every three buildings looked like it housed a family on the lumber yard, rather than housing work space. Cloths hung out on lines and children ran and played amongst the lumber.
I could go on.
What's really interesting is that these parts of the city seem to me to be almost deliberately hidden from the eyes of people who travel through the city. The major throughways of the city always look "nice", but stray off the main roads too far... and its like walking into a whole 'nother city.
I think that's all for now. It's a nice Sunday night and my lesson plans are done. I recently got my xbox repaired, and I've discovered a source of nearly unlimited games to play. This may have had something to do with my recent absence. I've just finished the Best Short Stories of Issac Asimov, and I'll be going back to finish off Light soon. Catch you later.
No, not that Jackie Chan.
On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I drag my tired (and probably lazy)body down from my apartment and walk the hundred feet between my building and the gym. The gym is an unassuming place located on the second story of a large square building, the bottom floor of which serves as a water drum (the five gallon ones you see used as the stereotypical office "water cooler") distribution center for the campus. Always waiting there to greet me is a middled aged man who wears glasses as thick as Michigan ice, the gym's owner and sole personal trainer, Jackie Chan.
This is not likely his real name. Being the dumb westerners that we are, many Chinese people have discovered that it's more expedient to come up with a western sounding name rather than trying to teach us their Chinese ones. Thus, many of my students go by such illustrious names as Albert, Bill, Alice, John, Mike and my personal favorite: Boy Gaga. Real name or not, Jackie always waves hello, and assures me that if I need anything I only need to ask for it.
The gym is split into three sections. One section, which isn't gym-like at all, has a group of pool tables that attract Chinese students and western teachers alike for late night games of 8-ball. Another section consists of a large open space with hardwood floors walled off by glass. This section of the gym serves as the dance and yoga room for the girls as well as the kung fu room for the guys. It also houses Jackie's motley collection of treadmills and exercise bikes. The last room houses the things you'd be most likely to find in a gym: the free weights and machines.
All kinds show up there to work out, from scrawny boys that look like they might still be passing through the middle school stage of puberty to enormous guys who have mountains of muscle upon their low lying plains of muscle. There's even this seventy year old ex-champion weight lifter who comes in from time to time and puts us all to shame. The gym also has a cat, which belongs to Jackie, who will come out of Jackie's office and watch the weight lifters from time to time. As Jackie points out, "he knows that (and acts like) he is king here."
While the gym isn't the nicest place I've ever worked out in (the floor is dangerously uneven in places, and some of the machinery was probably in use back when Noah had his midlife crisis), it's certainly the most interesting. What really gives the place it's life is it's owner, Jackie.
When we all signed up for the gym early in the fall, Jackie offered each of us his services as a personal trainer. Most of us turned him down, but a few took him up on it. Word of mouth has spread Jackie's popularity. Jackie has his kung fu masters in training come in every day of the week and rotates through back, arm, leg, and chest exercises that leave his poor students ready to die afterwards. Then he takes them into the dance room to learn the fundamentals of kung fu.
If you watch Jackie at work, you lose a lot of incorrect pre-assumptions about him. He dresses well, usually in a nice sweater and a sharp pair of jeans, but he doesn't strike you as the macho, "I vill paump you aup!" type. At least until you see him roll up his sleeves.
One of Jackie's weight lifting strategies is to put way more weight than you could possibly lift into your hands. He helps you get it up in the air, and makes you let it back down. Inevitably, when you're getting ready to grunt, Jackie will roll up his sleeves (which always seem to fall back down between lifts) and grasps the weight with you. It's then that you spot the iron rods the man has for arms.
"If you here," (he points at your arm, while demonstrating a lifting technique) "and here," (he shows the next position and how to get there) " you will let out the power."
"But. If you do like this..." (he does an oddly apt impersonation of other people you've seen working in the gym, an impersonation that can often reduce even the bulkiest of men to gawky children again) "and this.." (he flops around a little more for added comic effect) "no good."
There's something about Jackie that makes you like him, one of those things that stolidly defies description. When Jackie gives you praise, you can't help but be pleased, and when he criticizes you, you can't help but feel disappointed in yourself.
I personally haven't gotten into Jackie's weight lifting routines (I have long established methods of my own which work to my satisfaction), but I've been drawn into his kung fu lessons like a moth to the flame. Between those and weight lifting, I usually spend two hours in the gym, getting the fat out, as Jackie says.
When the night's over, I wave to Jackie, and his cat, whose name translates into English as Stupid Bowl (Jackie says that if you give your pet a derogatory name it will live longer)before I go back to my apartment and drag myself back up the five flights of stairs to my room. It's weird how satisfied beating the crap out of your body can feel.
Life goes on. I'm reading through Danse Macabre, a piece of nonfiction by Stephen King dealing with the horror genre between the years of 1950 and 1980. I have to recommend Stephen's nonfiction, which is some of the most entertaining I've ever read, especially if you're interested in what he's talking about. I'd sometimes pick it up over a piece of fiction. Sorry Chris; Light will have to wait a few more days. I'm also stewing on other writing projects now that my time has been freed up.
Catch you all later.
PS: (The famous Jackie Chan's Chinese name is Cheng Long, for those of you who were wondering.)
If you walk out of the front gate of Jiang Han University and take a right you'll only need walk a block down before you find one of my favorite parts of China: what the local teachers call "The Night Market".
At five o'clock the street corner is empty. Cars streak by, weaving in and out of legal and illegal lanes. If you walk away for a little while you'll be surprised when you come back. Less than twenty minutes later food stands, tables, and chairs have all appeared in their places ready to serve customers. The vendors stretch almost a hundred feet, and you can buy all sorts of different kinds of food, from noodles, to spring rolls, to my personal favorite: meat on a stick. (probably lamb kabobs, but I couldn't really tell you)The vendors will be there, rain or shine, and so far the October weather hasn't kept them away either.
My favorite part of going down there is establishing a relationship of sorts with the vendors. When I arrive each night and scan the stalls to see whats for sale all the vendors will wave, and say Hello!. I like to think that their just friendly, but it probably has more to do with the fact that I'm a lao wai, and of course, all lao wai are rich beyond imagining. I don't think they'd be too shocked if I decided to pay in gold coins one night. The vendors I visit regularly however, know what I want without really needing to ask, which is entertaining. I usually walk up, wave hello, then hand them money without a word and they cook up my regular order.
One vendor sells me spring rolls. He has a little stall three to four feet wide and three feet deep on which he has a big wok filled with cooking oil. He fries up spring rolls, some sort of tofu, and rice balls (filled with meat or tofu, I'm not sure which). I usually get some spring rolls off him.
The next person I visit is the Kabob Man. He has a long narrow grill, lit with propane which he cooks kabobs over. I get the meat kabobs, though I've seen a few other kinds. I couldn't tell you what they were exactly. This is a common theme when ordering food: you often wonder what it was you just ate.
My last stop is at the Muslim vendor. A pair of young men work there, I believe they're brothers, and they also sell various kabobs. More important is their grilled bread. The bread has already been baked once: it's shaped like a cooked pizza crust, thin on the inside and raised around the edge, just slightly brown. They put this between some sort of metal grilling apparatus and baste the thing with oil. While its cooking over the coals they put on various herbs and spices, liberally applying more oil with a brush. When it's done its cut up into four pieces and brought on a metal plate covered in plastic. The frying action of the oil while the bread is on the grill makes the thin middle of the bread sort of crunchy, while the outside stays soft in the middle. This is on the list of best food I've had in China.
The only downside to The Night Market is that it often makes the westerners sick. While I wouldn't trade the place for the world, it's not the most sanitary, and eating at the market is a good way to ensure that you'll have the runs the next day. Even my iron bowls have gotten irritable after eating there. I've only gotten the toilet troubles once, but I've been close often. I can only go two days in a row before my intestines begin to growl and complain.
Life goes on in the greater world. My classes are progressing smoothly, and I'm getting involved in all sorts of new and interesting things. I'm learning how to play Chinese chess with some of the other teachers and next week I'm going to start taking Chinese lessons. Still slacking of on starting Light: I'm still a little burnt out on reading since the Count of Monte Cristo.
Every living place has its own distinctive background noise. When you're away from home on a long trip, its one of those things that prevents you from getting proper sleep at night: you miss the sounds of home. The sound of cars going by in the city, or the chirping critters and windy nights of the country. I sleep best to the sound of thunderstorms.
I've learned that China's sort of hostile to the whole notion of peaceful sleep. You've got to get to bed at decent hour if you want a good night's rest. Take a night from a few days ago as an example.
I've finished classes for the day. As I walk out of the building where I teach, J16, I listen to the buzz of incomprehensible voices that surround me like a river, each heading to their own destinations for the evening. The buzzing fades to a helter skelter percussion beat as I walk by the basketball courts: the footfalls and bouncing basketballs of over a hundred Chinese students sometimes brings me to a stop, and I watch them.
I get home and my key rattles in the front door. My footsteps echo as I climb up to my fifth floor apartment. My door always opens and shuts with a metallic thunderclap. It looks a lot like a bank vault door, and has six pins that slide into the wall. (I don't worry about thieves much) I strip off my outer dress shirt and change into a pair of shorts. In the distance you can hear the nasal, high pitched yells of Chinese women, which never really fade. Some poor henpecked husband somewhere is getting told what for. I bust out my laptop and start my work for the night, usually planning future lessons or getting a little writing done. AC/DC keeps me going, reminding me that when you "work, work," "money made." When ten o'clock rolls around, its time for bed, regardless of whether I've got work the next day or not.
I doze off. Sometimes sleep is delayed by the buzzing of mosquitoes if I've forgotten to close the door to my balcony. The hours tick by and I sleep the sleep of the dead, restful and care free.
One o'clock in the morning:
I wake up to the sound of barking dogs. Barking dogs?, I ask. I the middle of the campus? I try to ignore it, but it's not just any dog, its the shrill bark of a bunch of little yappy dogs. Where did they come from? Who knows? I finally get up and go out onto the balcony. Sure enough, there's a pack of four of them down there, running in circles, chasing each other, wagging their devilishly cute little tails.
"Shut up," I yell. Unfortunately, Chinese dogs, like Chinese people, don't speak much English. They keep barking.
I lay back down. To get rid of the dogs I'd have to walk down five flights of stairs in the middle of the night. I hope they will go away. I'm disappointed for the next half hour. If you could see my face in the dark you'd see my brows, which start off relatively straight, forming a steeper and steeper V shape. My mind, naturally morbid to begin with, starts concocting a plan. In the evenings, the English teachers from the apartment sit up on the roof and have a few beers. There are a lot of empty bottles up there.
Whistling "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", I grab my keys and head up to the roof. I'd forgotten. Not only are there beer bottles, but there is the occasional rock as well. Perfect.
I look around and select a palm sized rock, no sense in making some poor Chinese street cleaner pick up a bunch of broken glass. I look over the edge of the roof and find the dogs. I cock my arm back, taking aim.
"Shuuuuuuuuuuuut Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup!" I yell again. I've found that you can sometimes penetrate the language barrier if you repeat yourself slowly and more distinctly.
The rock (more like a hunk of roofing material) explodes when it hits the ground, and all the dogs simultaneously jump in the air, landing to look in the direction where the rock landed. I throw a few more, hoping to scare them off, but it doesn't. Now they just have something to bark at, rather than barking randomly.
Defeated, I go back to my room. I encourage myself by thinking about a restaurant nearby that serves dog. The dogs did go away eventually, though it was something like three o'clock by the time they did. I dropped off immediately after they left, drifting back into the wonderland of dreams.
Six o'clock in the morning:
Groggy mumble. Ten seconds pass.
BANG. This bang literally reverberates through my room. It sounds like somebody is up on the roof with a sledge hammer. Randomly hitting things. This doesn't surprise you much after you've lived in China for a while.
There may have been some yelling in my room. Perhaps some indistinct swearing and oath taking, but it didn't make man with hammer stop what he was doing. There wasn't anything I could do about it. I got up, showered, dressed, and got ready for class. Then I left for class so I wouldn't have to listen to the pounding above me. I thought about going up to see what was going on, but I thought better of it. An encounter involving myself and man with hammer may have ended in him accidentally falling off the roof.
Later that day, I was coming back with one of the other Engish teachers, Daniel. He lives on the floor above me, the top floor. Whatever man with hammer is doing it's right above Daniel's head.
"I thought about going up there and pushing him off the roof," Daniel confided to me, sounding a little ashamed. We decided that our tempers had cooled off to a point where we might be able to visit man with hammer, so we went up to the roof to take a look around.
Now, you have to know a bit about the layout of our roof before I can continue. The room is divided into flat sections with high walls that connect a row of three apartment buildings. Each building has a tower situated on top, this is where the door is located to go back down into the apartments.
We got up to the door, and looked out to see that man with hammer had been busy while we'd been teaching. I kid you not, he'd dug a trench a little over a foot wide and a foot and a half deep around the tower. I couldn't tell you why. When we got out onto the roof we discovered man with hammer had two companions, man with pickax, and man with hardhat who watches man with hammer and man with pickax, but doesn't seem to do anything. Man with hammer and man with pickax were crouched around the trench they'd dug and were pulling out the concrete they'd broken up while man with hardhat looked on, occasionally pointing and giving suggestions. I suspect man with hardhat is management. Some things stay the same, no matter where you go.
When I look back I'll always remember man with hammer. It's not because of the trench he dug (and will hopefully fill with water and piranhas as a defense against crafty wall climbing thieves), but because he personifies the sound of China so well, the sound of construction. I've taken a number of walks around the school, and on those walks I can think of at least eleven buildings that I've seen that are under construction. There are probably more. Everywhere you go, China is absolutely exploding, not just in population, but in infrastructure as well. Three of the "buildings" (one of them is a football pitch) out of the eleven I've mentioned are being put up directly around my apartment. To say the least, I've gotten used to the sound of jackhammers and construction machinery during the day.
It's mid morning on Sunday. I got all of my work for next week done on Saturday, so it's going to be a relaxing day. I think I'll go down by the lake and read a book. Maybe take a walk afterwards. I've been devilishly busy lately, so it will be nice to be able to kick back for a while. The one thing I've neglected while I've been here is my intention to get involved in the stock market. I probably won't dig into that today, but I just might sometime during the week. The university has asked the English teachers to do a two hour lecture on a topic of our choice, (mine was western fairy tales and folk lore) so I'll probably get some of that done as well. I really need to get started on Light, the book I'm currently reading. I've only gotten a chapter in so far.
PS: I've noticed a lack of material from certain blogs that I follow. I find this lack of material disturbing.
Maybe you guys should get on that *hint, wink, nudge, poke, prod*. (Kudos to Chris though)
One of these days I'm going to have enough spare time in conjunction with high levels of motivation to write a substantial post on China, or on some of the things I've seen. I'm hoping it may happen sometime before the next planetary alignment.
Today I was wandering about campus, as I sometimes do. It's my birthday today, and as a result I was feeling a bit melancholy and lonely. Birthday's, after all, just aren't the same without friends and family to make them something special. I missed you all pretty badly today.
I went and visited the boss, asked her some random questions. Then I wandered over to the campus library. I'm not really sure why. After all, what good does a library in a foreign language do me?
It was raining, so it was nice to step under the shelter of the library's roof. There were a group of art students gathered around the entrance, sketching passers by and various campus buildings that could be seen in the distance. Inside, the library was nice and quiet, and the first floor surprisingly empty. The first floor consists of a lobby and various nooks and crannies filled with pictures and Chinese words.
I went up to the second floor since I couldn't find any books on the first, and was amazed (though I can't imagine why at this point) at the sudden change. The temperature rose nearly ten degrees from the first floor, and it's not because the heating was mysteriously working there. From wall to wall, Chinese students sat at desks in various states of study, some looking at books, others learning by osmosis, and others reciting things they no doubt needed to memorize for class. I looked around, and found that floor two seemed to be where the periodicals and magazines were stored. What was weird is that the actual library is separate from the study area. The magazines were in a pristine room separated from the rest of the library by glass walls. Only a single librarian was inside. The more time I spent in the library, the more I got the impression that the books were mostly for show. Eventually I got bored looking through the windows into the periodicals section and summoned an elevator to take me to the third floor.
The third floor was basically the same deal, except the periodicals had given way to actual text books. I had though about looking for a place to sit down, but gave up on the idea, there was no chance of becoming comfortable with so many people crammed into the the room. I was amused as students who looked up from their studies caught sight of me and began to stare, as Chinese people are wont to do when they spot a lau wai (a foreigner).
Floor four? I asked myself.
Why not? I replied.
The elevator dinged. Doors closed and opened. Sadly, the Chinese don't believe in elevator music.
I wasn't planning on spending much time of the forth floor, but as I was gazing through the windows into the book stacks, I noticed a book that had a title written in English.
I don't really think I can do justice to the desire a person living in a foreign country begins to feel for things familiar to their own language and customs. Suffice it to say I was suddenly excited. I may have let out an ecstatic laugh or two. Once again the Chinese kids stared at the mysterious lau wai.
"Do you think he's seen a cute girl? Or maybe a squirrel?"
"Who knows, Lau wai laugh for strange reasons. I've heard they're all mad. Too many of those potato chips make their brains fat."
"I've heard that they eat their young."
"I don't think that's actually true, but I do know that they can all juggle, sing, and dance. I always watch them closely, hoping they will do a trick for me. So far I've been disappointed."
I walked through the opening in the glass walls, and was practically punched in the face with that musty book smell that all old tomes seem to acquire. It was lovely. Almost as good as the smell of gunpowder.
"Uh, hello," the librarian tending this section said. There is a peculiar manner in which the Chinese say hello. We typically say it with an emphasis on the first syllable, where they place no emphasis at all. It feels like more of a statement than a greeting.
"Hi, do you mind if I," I made a circle gesture with my hand, "look around?"
I let him process for a few moments. It's likely been a while since he's heard or spoken English.
"Oh. Um. Why?"
"I saw a book that was in English. I just want to look" -- I tried to gesture to my eyes without appearing rude or condescending-- "around." I have a feeling that he understood me, since I spoke to him a bit more, I think he was just hesitant to let me into his section.
"Uh... okay." He gestured to the room, as if to say, "the place is yours."
Past the first possible hurdle, I turned to the book stacks on my right. I figured I'd have to go looking for the book I'd seen outside amongst the others. You can imagine my surprise when I noticed that the entire shelf was filled with English books. And so was the second. And the third. And the forth.
"Can I help find something?" His voice was devoid of emotion in the way stereotypically attributed to librarians. It was all a little surreal.
"Yeah, sure," I told him. History books, art books, business management.... I'd seen a decent variety so far. Why not put the library to the test?
"I'm looking for some books on poetry."
My other boss, Dr. Zho is getting his doctorate in contemporary poetry (he's doing it through Purdue University no less), so I had poetry on the brain.
"Po?" The librarian held out his hand, and wrote in it, as if trying to spell the word, I helped him out.
"Ah." He took me over to his computer and typed the word into a word search. He referenced the results and then led me down the book stacks to the left. He stopped halfway down a row and leaned over searching through titles. It was this moment that the lights chose to go out. It wasn't the power for the building that failed. Just for the room. Somehow.
The librarian made an irritated noise in a manner that only the Chinese can.
"Wait here," he told me. I heard some banging in the background, and what may have been swearing in Chinese. A few moments later he returned and began flipping circuit breakers. One at a time the lights in the room came back on, at least until he got to my row. When he flipped that switch, the lights came on for half a second, then I heard a popping noise and they went out again. This was followed by more muttering in Chinese. Eventually the lights came back on, and he came back.
He'd led me into the library's literature section. I was surrounded by contemporary and classic literature of high caliber, and I had been drooling all over the floor since he'd left.
"Did you..." he paused "... find it?"
"Yeah." I pointed to some books. Poetry was scattered throughout the shelves. "Thanks," I told him. "There are many good books here."
"Tell your students," he said, with a look that was almost wry.
I spent most of the afternoon perusing the library. It has anything I could possibly want to study, from economics to psychology to whatnot. It also has a good literature section that I'd not likely finish in the next ten years, not to mention one or two. This discovery made my day. While I can't check out books (yet) I'm free to sit in the library and read all I like between the hours of 9:00 am and 4:30 pm. The librarian told me that I could borrow books if I got a library card, but that's not going to be as easy as it sound. Nothing involving Chinese bureaucracy ever is.
All in all though, the universe was pretty good to me today. Part of the stress of working this job has been the lack of research materials to improve my English and teaching skills. Not a problem now. I also have tons of intersting Chinese legend and lore that I can delve into without needing to learn the language, not to mention most of the famous works of literature and philosophy from the 19th and early 20th century.
"The libary is closing," the librarian told me at four thirty. I was saddened. I'd started reading through the introduction of a college writing book.
"Will you come back tomorrow?" He looked strangely hopeful. I suspect that he gets lonely by himself in the stacks. I told him I would.
"What's your name?" he asked me. I told him and asked him his. I really need to start carrying a notebook with me so I can write these names down. Chinese names are hard.
That's about all for now. I'm feeling pretty frazzled at the moment. I should probably hit the sack. I need to start reading the new book I'm reading, something one of the other English teachers lent me, Light by M. John Harrison.
The engine shifts from a high wine to a low growl as a foot presses down the clutch and slams the gear shift into third. Tires screech as the car weaves nimbly, back and forth, back and forth. The clock ticks as the driver races to his destination. You'd think this was a formula one race, but you'd be wrong.
Welcome to the inside of a Chinese taxi cab.
"Oh God, we're dead," my friend Barry says as the taxi driver tries to slip between a pair of buses. The bus on the right doesn't seem to see us and is merging into our lane. This doesn't phase our driver, who speeds up and lays on the horn, waving his other hand in the air, muttering in Chinese.
"What's he doing?!" Dan, asks. After narrowly escaping being crushed to a smooth paste, we've emerged from between the two buses only to swerve across four lanes of traffic to dodge a clump of slow moving cars. The four lanes are rapidly becoming two as the outer lanes are blocked off by a concrete wall, protecting workers who do road repairs during the day. Just as deftly as the driver dodged the cars from behind, he slips in front of them now, with under a hundred feet to spare between us and the wall.
You'd think I was describing a one time event, something that happened to the group of us once while we were riding through Wuhan. You'd be wrong again. It'd be more accurate to say that I'm describing a weekly ritual.
On the weekends several of the boys, including myself, enjoy going out to an Irish pub called the Toucan. Being British, most of my friends are die hard futbal fanatics and take any opportunity they can get to catch games, which are regularly shown at the pub.
By the time we arrive wide eyed, dizzy, and somewhat pale, we stumble out of the cab and pay the drivers, who we must admit, often save us a little money by getting us to the pub so quickly. Too bad they don't realize that we're probably trading years off the end of our lives. One of these days I'm going to learn how to say slow down in Chinese.
The Toucan is an interesting pub; it's a hotel pub nestled in the back of a gigantic Holiday Inn. It's a draw for a lot of ex-pats in the area, giving westerners a place to congregate with people of like culture and language. There are also a surprising number of Chinese people who come to the bar as well, about half of them women, likely looking for a western husband. A live band also comes to the pub, which is universally hated by our group since they drown out the futbal game half the time, and are terrible on top of it. There's also a fuse-ball table (the most common fixture of western bars in China) and a lovely outer room, where we can usually sit and watch the games unmolested by the pub's other patrons.
The best part about the pub, other then the futbal, is the western food they serve. It's crazy expensive, but it's a nice change of pace from the typical Chinese cuisine we subsist on normally. I ordered a pizza there one week with pepperoni, sausage, ham, and two other meats that I can't think of right now on top. It was epic. Next month, I'm going to try the steak sandwich.
What's really going to be fun is when the Six nations and Tri nations cups start up, the big rugby matches in Europe and the Pacific respectively. I haven't watched rugby in nearly four years, but I have fond memories of it from my time in Australia.
It's quiet right now at my apartment, other then the barking of a pack of stray dogs which sometimes rove around the campus. I mentioned a while back that I was reading Wuthering Heights. I've since finished it (it was good by the way) and moved on to The Count of Monte Cristo. The Count is a monster of a book, and I'll probably be on that one for a while, though I don't mind by any means. It's been great so far.
Tomorrow I'm leaving for Hangzhou and Nanjing, so it will be a while before you hear from me again. Take care everybody.
Chinese weather is funny. Since I arrived here in late August, the weather has been hot. When I go outside, it looks like I've just taken a shower by the time I get anywhere. It's especially noticeable when I go jogging, or play sports with the other English teachers. I get so hot that sweat runs down in between my fingers. As a person who doesn't sweat much, that's crazy hot.
Last night, autumn just showed up, all at once. The temperature dropped around twenty degrees. A high wind kicked up as we (the English teachers) sat on the roof talking and drinking. This morning it is much cooler, and rain is steadily falling outside my apartment.
We're getting ready to take our first trip now that the autumn season has begun. This week marks the moon festival here in China, a celebration of the incoming harvest and the autumn equinox. I don't actually work this week. Two weeks from now (October first through the seventh) we receive even more time off for the double nines festival. Nine is considered to be a positive number in Chinese culture (standing for the yang in yin yang of Taoism), so during the ninth day of the ninth month (according to the Chinese calendar) the Chinese celebrate this auspicious omen of good fortune.
A week from now twelve of us will be boarding a train for a pair of ancient cities in eastern China, Nanjing and Hangzhou. I'm pretty pumped for it. It will be my first real chance to look around since I've been here.
On Thursday morning I woke up with all the excitement of a zombie rising from the grave in a world without brains. It was time to teach my first two English classes, and while the first day is supposed to be easy, (Just introduce yourself right? Yeah. Right.)I was still feeling nervous.
Here were, in essence, my expectations when I arrived from the states: I will have a room filled with students who can understand and speak basic English. Furthermore, there will be a nice book that gives me a general outline for the course. It will give me a foundation to lay my own lesson plans upon. There will also be some nice Chinese teachers who can help me with planning my lessons and provide me with a curriculum to follow for the class.
I'm beginning to notice an alarming note of madness in my laughter these days. Who can say what's causing it?
The first thing that I found out was that the book is nearly useless as far as the class that I am teaching goes. There are some good topics inside, but most of the activities are all wrong for an ORAL English class. The idea of the class is to get the students to talk aloud and practice their English word use and pronunciation. The book on the other hand is half filled with listening and grammar activities.
The second thing I found out is that the advice I received for the class usually went something along the lines of "get them talking." Wow, thanks. The co-teachers, meanwhile, handed us the books for the class and told us to have at it. This was about as far as they went in helping us plan a curriculum.
I beat my head against the wall during the days before trying to figure out something I could teach my students if my introduction and syllabus speech ran out. (which they inevitably would, I didn't want to waist my student's time blabbing for two hours)
Now back to Thursday.
I walked across campus in the poring rain to my classroom. I had no umbrella. I was wrapped in my shower curtain which isn't exactly water proof. There are dolphins printed on it in bright colors.
I arrived early to an empty classroom. I plugged in my external hard drive, pulled up my power point, and waited for the bell to ring. Slowly my students filed into the room. I shuffled to the front in my waterlogged shoes.
"Hello," I said to them.
"Hello," they replied.
This was the bright point of the class.
From there on I proceeded to introduce myself. I received glazed looks from the class. Then I had the class do its first activity. I walked around to several students and tried to get them to introduce themselves to me. Four out of the first five students I spoke to couldn't understand a word that I said. They got a neighboring student to help them say "my name is" when I wouldn't leave them alone. This of course destroyed every lesson plan that I had prepared for the day.
I managed to stumble through two forty five minute class periods with these guys. I poked and prodded, trying to get them to speak English in as many ways as I, a completely untrained English teacher, could invent. I had wisely bought along my ESL book and in it were a series of simple English words that we could practice.
Add to the lack of English ability, Chinese culture. There is a term in Chinese that I can't recall at the moment, but it can be translated as "face". The concept of face can be related to that of reputation. Chinese culture practically worships face, especially the earning and maintaining of it. You know what a great way to lose face is? Give the wrong answer to the teacher while in class! This insured that I met with stony silence any time I asked them a question to which I hoped they would respond.
By the time it was over, I was feeling pretty depressed, and as I mentioned in the last post, overwhelmed. One of the veteran English teachers tried to encourage me afterwards, telling me that he had a similar experience when he first started.
"Everyone has to go through the initial trial by fire," he told me.
I thought it might be better to compare it to skinny dipping in lava, but you know, whatever. Apples, oranges.
Fortunately, I thrive under stress. Failing the first day only caused me to redouble my efforts for the next. And I did learn some extremely useful lessons. (all told I taught four separate classes)
The first thing that I learned is that you must break the ice between yourself and the students. The easiest way to do this is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Be willing to make a fool of yourself. The easiest way to do that is to try and say Chinese words. The students find this hilarious.
The second thing is to build up to desired outcomes slowly. My personality isn't one to do things by degrees naturally. I wanted the students to speak to each other and to me, and I wanted them to do it right away. I've spent some time helping them build confidence in this area this week, and the results have been phenomenal. I will spend even more time doing it in the future. I'm hoping that by the last two weeks we might have some full blown class discussions.
The rest of it is technical enough to be boring, even to me, so I won't tell you about it. Suffice it to say that when week two came, I was back with a vengeance. English class didn't know what hit it. I actually got my students laughing and having a good time, which is more important than you would think.
I think the best way to sum up the last two weeks, teaching wise, is this. Teaching was much like a toaster. It left me feeling like a piece of toast that got left in just a little too long, and now is a black around the edges. But don't worry. I'm still edible. Things are settling down. Overall, I feel optimistic having met with some success, and I'm beginning to shift gears from thinking about teaching all the time to thinking about other things like writing and leisure activities. I'm also trying to figure out where I want to go for Chinese new year so I can start putting money away.
Before I go I've got to give some shout outs.
First, Chris Mckeever gets a shout out for setting me up with the Harbrace Handbook. That thing has been my constant friend and companion, reminding me about lots of important grammar stuff. Thanks Chris.
Second is Mark Wagner. I just like that guy.
Don't y'all be strangers now. See ya later.
Between lesson planning, exercise (which I have been doing a lot of), and hanging with the other western teachers, I've been trying to distill my experiences so far into a single word.
I think that word is overwhelming.
Now, don't think that I'm feeling discouraged. I'm actually in high spirits today. But the word stands. As someone who enjoys the routine when it comes to doing a job I haven't had anything so far that resembles one. But as each day passes, I feel more comfortable. (or perhaps I've just been jogging and weight lifting so much that I'm too tired to feel stressed out. heh, heh) I'll try to tell you a little about my time here now that I've got a couple of weeks of Chinese residence under my belt.
Where to begin? I guess I'll start with my mornings.
So far, I only work two days a week, Thursday and Friday. Every other day of the week I can get up any hour I want and do whatever I want. Usually, my first morning activity is to go for a jog (or go to the weight room, I alternate). For starters, it's been a great way to burn off stress, and second, I've been using my jogs to explore the university campus. A lake lies about a hundred feet from my apartment building. There is a brick path that lines it for two or three miles, so I usually go for a jog on that. It's not as crowded during the day as the streets of the campus. As far as urban China goes, the path is scenic. Trees and grass line it every step of the way. Little Chinese men in straw hats sit on the bank amongst the lotus flowers and fish with great big fishing poles. I'm talking fifteen feet long. Some of them have stools that they take out into the water and perch on. It's also amusing to try and sneak up on Chinese couples (while jogging) that are cuddling or making out. This is especially easy to do at night.
There are a few neat landmarks that line the path. The first is a paved stone circle with some sort of huge metal ball in the center mutating into a pair of bird wings. (maybe?) I think that marks the center of campus, but I'm not really sure. There's an important building (likely the ministry of propaganda) that lies a few hundred feet beyond it. One day when I was getting close to the ball and wings I saw a couple cows grazing in the nearby grass (which is about knee to waist high at times). Those, no doubt, belong to the agricultural department.
A quarter of a mile past that is this neat open air stone building that serves as a cover for the path for about twenty feet. The floor of the building raises up a foot off the path and provides a smooth (read dangerous) surface to jog on. The building doesn't have any walls, only columns that hold the roof up. The roof itself is triangular and made of plaster and stone. On one of the columns is a poster of Santa Claus. I suspect that its a wanted poster, but I can't read Chinese. (likely Santa failed to pay the tax for wearing red last year.) This doesn't seem to have deflated Santa's spirits as he is still smiling and waving merely in the picture.
I want to get up early enough one morning to sit on one of the squat stone benches inside it and watch the sun come up.
Further down the path, probably another quarter of a mile, there is another paved stone circle. This is one of the cooler monuments on campus so far. One side of the circle contains seven stone pillars that rise along the circle's edge. They go up seven feet or so, and are about a foot thick. Carved into them are images of dragons, demons, birds, and other things I can't identify, all done in the Chinese style. On the other side of the circle is a large square monument with a half sphere mounted on top. held in/over the sphere is what I'm guessing is a depiction of an old school Chinese coin that is bigger than my torso. The whole thing is covered in Chinese characters, some still visible, others worn down to obscurity.
The last thing on the trail is the golf college, which, in China, is a monument unto itself. Apparently, its one of the few in the entire province, not to mention the country as a whole. For now, the college is basically a driving range with a few holes that the students can practice on, but I'm told they will be expanding it in the future.
The golf college is usually the place where I stop, turn around, and walk back to my apartment. Today was the first day that I ran all the way there. It hasn't been easy. Some mornings the smog is thick enough that you can barely see across the lake. The lake isn't really that wide either.
I'd like to continue to ramble about all the things that have gone on so far, but I'm getting a little antsy about my lesson plans. I'll go get those done, and then maybe I'll get on again and do another post. Maybe I'll do one tomorrow. Who knows.
That's all for now.
Hey everybody. I thought I'd drop by to say hello. Things are going very well here in China, and I seem to have access to blogger for now. I've been itching to write up a post on some of my experiences to date, but alas, such desires must wait.
The Chinese have a much different idea of forewarning than we do in the western world (something which our Chinese boss has joked with us about). I begin teaching classes tomorrow. I received my teaching materials on Tuesday. I've been going a little crazy over the last few days trying to determine both long and short term lesson plans. The short term is of obvious necessity, but it would be nice for the students to understand the overall objectives of the course.
Have I ever mentioned that I've never taught formally?
The next couple of days should be interesting. Wish me luck.
- ► September (5)