The Night Market

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.

We Build for China

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.

I smile.

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.

Later everybody,


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)

A Birthday Present from the Universe

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.

"P-O-E-T-R-Y, poetry."

"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.

Goodnight world.