Sunday, September 26, 2010

Continuum Break 3 – Personally…

“Chinese people are like porcupines: they get close enough to huddle for warmth, but too close and they will prick each other.” – Song Xian Sheng, AKA Sam.

My good and faithful friend and advisor Sam and I were having a conversation about personal space while we were out one day. I explained to him that in America, the idea of personal space is that each person is entitled to approximately one square meter of space around him/her. Any crowding results in an invasion of personal space and constitutes a grave insult or an act of aggression. That is when Sam told me about the ‘Porcupine Theory’ above.

After years of living in America I understand, and have even come to accept the idea of personal space even though I think a whole square meter for each person is a little bit much. However, America is a big country…

Instinctively I expect to have less personal space, and thus all of the crowding and hand-holding and arm-holding that I’ve experienced here does not bother me. What I’m having a hard time dealing with is the ‘invasion’ of my psychical space.

I am a loner. Always have been, most likely always will be. I don’t want to be a loner, most of the time. I yearn to have company, I like being around people, I enjoy being social. But I don’t know how to be social. It just drains me to be around people all of the time.

I was not ‘socialized’ during that crucial window of growth in childhood. My mother had disdain for society in general and relationships in particular, and she raised us with that disdain. Cuddling? Not on your life! Playing games together? When the moon tumbles from the sky! Invite friends over? Are you insane? (Besides, did we really want to show potential friends what our home life was really like?) How does one even be a friend? As a result I do not know how to reach out to people or ask for (or accept) help, and I certainly do not know how to share or accept goodness, warmth, honesty and open friendship. At least not comfortably.

I moved here with the intent of learning how to do this. Note: This should not reflect badly on the good, dear friends I have made over the years who live in America. You understand me and allow me my quirks and my space… and maybe that is the problem. Too much space.

This society minimizes the space between people. Here there is not only but a blinking regard to the concept of personal space, but there is sometimes a downright invasion of space that forces one to accept said invasion, or deny the invader ‘face’ (respect).

When my students started inviting me out I was immediately tempted to duck and hide behind my position as teacher. ‘Why, we couldn’t possibly fraternize together: a teacher and some students? NEVER!’ But I came here to learn how to accept warmth and friendship and return it in kind – not just the appearance of it. So I accepted these invitations.

When one student or the other grabbed my hand to walk with me, as is the custom here, I allowed it even though it disturbed me profoundly. I don’t think it was because my personal space had been invaded, I think it was because they were freely, openly and publicly demonstrating warmth and affection for me, and it frightened me. So badly that I nearly withdrew my hand and reclaimed my space.

I am officially between a rock and a hard place: I will either learn to accept and return warmth and affection, or I will disrespect those that offer it to me. To learn this lesson means to unlearn 40+ years of conditioning in the art of being an island, to disrespect means to ignore the rules of this society and insult the very people I came here to learn from and teach. I deliberately set myself up to be in this position because I want to stop being alone, but I am finding that this education is much more difficult than I had anticipated.

Another very personal observation: These past 30 days I have caught myself perpetuating incredible acts of selfishness. Besides feeling the overwhelming need to withdraw my hand from being held: Sam and his wife had a baby recently and I have yet to buy them a gift, but I have indulged myself in all the junk food I wanted. My grandson just had his birthday but I’ve yet to find him a gift, let alone try to mail it to him. And its not like I haven’t had the money.

Sure, some of this can be blamed on my feelings of dislocation and my efforts to seek comfort, but still: I find my behavior to be very selfish, which begs the question: Am I selfish because I never learned to share or do I not share because I am selfish?

That is a question I came here to answer. Of all the people in the world that I know of, the Chinese are the least selfish. Not very long ago, their very survival was predicated on sharing: food, scarce material goods, shelter, warmth from the coal stoves in the winter. To this day a standard greeting here is ‘Have you eaten?’ If I can’t learn to share here, I may well have to declare myself hopeless in learning to share.

I do not want to be hopeless in the art of sharing because there are so many people whom I genuinely care about that have shared true and positive emotion with me over the years that I have been incapable of returning, even though I feel great affection and caring for them. I hope you know who you are.

In these past 30 days, I have learned the exact depth of my problem. I have done nothing to fix it yet. I have to learn how. That will be the focus of the next 30 days: forced sharing, until sharing comes as naturally as breathing.

Whew! These last two posts were incredibly difficult to write! I’m going back to light-hearted observations in the next one. It is more fun to write them, and more fun for you to read them.

Continuum Break 2 – Re-evaluating the Yuan

Catchy title, no? Not only is it currently a topic of global discussion – what with America accusing China of not stabilizing its currency and all, but it has a profound meaning to my exploits as I learn to live here. I’ll elucidate:

I consider it very expensive to live in the Western world, and all of you who pay taxes and buy… anything might feel compelled to agree with me. The current estimate is that a person must save approximately $1 Million by retirement age in order to live comfortably in America after retirement, and even now the experts are saying that is not enough. Furthermore, at my age, I would not make that target no matter how frugally I lived in America.

By contrast it is very inexpensive to live in China. With the Yuan currently trading at a rate of 6.78 to 1 against the dollar, and with the knowledge that one can eat on less than 10yuan a day, that loosely translates to the idea that one can eat well for a little over $1 a day. Follow the logic?

I made this move with my focus partly on my finances by retirement time. My plan is to allow what money (dollars) I have in my retirement and various savings accounts accrue interest while saving as much money as possible while I work here. By the time society says I am too old to work (in any country) I should have a tidy sum of Yuan to live cheaply on between my savings here and my savings there.

I get paid a little over 4000yuan to teach here. My apartment and utilities are covered by the University, as well as my medical insurance. With no car, insurance or taxes to pay, I postulate I can live off a quarter of what I earn here and save the rest. 2800 to 3000yuan saved over the year makes for a net savings of 36,000yuan: a handsome profit for the work I do. Make sense? Bear with me, I’m getting to the point!

In thinking about these past 30 days, I remember that Sam had taken me to exchange money within my first few days of being here. I was able to exchange $140. So, I started my life here with a little over 900yuan in my pocket. I’ve had minimal capital expenses: a SIM card for my cell phone, a few household goods… and everything else went to food. I finished this 30-day period with 250yuan still unspent.

I’ll admit I was seeking to alleviate my depression and culture shock. When I reached for that pack of Chinese Oreos (3.8yuan), when I bought all that comfort food, when I bought food simply because it had a brand name that was familiar to me and familiarity was of paramount importance to me this past month, I wasted a lot of money. The junk food that I bought did not taste the same and indeed was not conducive to comfort or good health. I wouldn’t buy such food in America.

Yet my thinking was: 3.8yuan for 14 Oreo cookies – less than a dollar! Great! I’m buying! What I failed to connect is that I gave up the right to think of my money in American currency when I formulated my plan to come here. As a matter of fact, should I continue to automatically convert every Yuan I spend into U.S. Dollars my plan will backfire and I will not have the tidy sum I expect to have in a few years.

I bought a high quality dustmop for 58yuan – about $8.65. A great price in American currency… but would I pay $58 for a dustmop? Probably not. I spent 26yuan in a restaurant eating Western food – about $3.87, which sounds very reasonable. But think of it this way: would you pay $26 for a fast food meal? That’s downright unreasonable.

The point of all of this is: I’m still living as though I have a $75K/yr income and retirement is far over the horizon. Furthermore, I’m thinking of the Yuan as ‘not a real currency’ and maintaining the Dollar as my base currency. Realistically I only have maybe a good 20 years until society declares I am too old to work, and quite frankly, I don’t want to have to work that long. Even at this gravy job! That was kind of the whole point of my moving here, from a financial perspective. If I persist in my thinking about the Yuan, I will be a burden to my children and to society because I will not have enough money to live self-sufficiently come retirement time.
I need to think differently about the Yuan. Maybe I need to think of it in terms of Dollars. Not converting it to Dollars, but as though I were actually spending Dollars instead of Yuan. At least until I get used to the Yuan being my principal currency.

I lived on $140 dollars for one month. Not bad at all. Until you consider that all of my expenses save food were met by the University and I had nothing else to spend that money on but food. Until you consider that $140 is 938yuan.

Who spends $938 in one month with nothing but a few Oreo crumbs to show for it?

Continuum Break1 – 30-Day Checkup

Today marks the one month anniversary of my arrival in China. Although it is out of sequence, I thought it would be appropriate to take time to review these last 30 days. What have I learned? What have I done? How far do I have to go before being able to be self-sufficient in Chinese society? This will again be a 3-parter, as there are 3 distinct areas of observation to be discussed. This first one concerns general observations.

My job: I do not think I am the be-all and end-all of teaching English. I do think I have a long way to go before I can say I’m good at this job. This is one of those things that will come with experience so I’m not beating myself up too terribly about it. I am more impressed with my progress gaining my students’ trust than I am about my teaching ability. Or maybe they are just naturally trusting? Besides, with no benchmarks to evaluate my teaching, how do I even know I’m a good teacher?

Getting around: I am now old hat at getting around town now that I have figured out the bus system. If I’m looking for a specific destination – say Wal-Mart, I simply look it up online and get an address. Then, I plug that address into a website I found that tells me which bus to take, complete with transfers. If I have no specific destination but want to bum around anyway, I simply go to the train station, a main transportation hub, jump on any given bus and see where it takes me. I have bought a bus schedule that tells me which bus goes where and where it stops in between; with the few characters I can read I can generally muddle my way through. Recently I’ve figured out how to interpret the bus itineraries so that now when I’m at a bus stop I am not totally clueless about which way a bus runs and what side of the street I should be on. Getting home is the inverse of going out: this is a very logical bus system; if a given bus runs up the street it also runs down the street. If all else fails, I know/understand enough Chinese to ask someone where bus #??? (whichever bus I’m looking for) stops, or which bus goes back to the train station. I can always get myself home from the train station! Extra bonus points: I’ve not gotten lost or stranded yet!

Reloading the bus pass: As in certain cities in America, Chinese cities have a bus pass system. Purchasing a pass costs 20yuan, and then you ‘preload’ it with a certain amount of money. Each bus has a ‘speedpass’ type card reader that you wave your bus pass in front of and it not only deducts the current ride’s fare but also tells you how much is left on your card. It is cheaper to ride busses with a bus pass – each boarding costs 1.2 to 1.8yuan no matter how far you travel, depending on which bus you ride. If you pay cash for your bus ride, each boarding costs a flat 2yuan. Minimal savings I grant you, but we’ll discuss this topic in the next post. For now, I have ridden so many busses that I have depleted the 30yuan that my bus card was pre-loaded with and must wait for someone to come back to campus to show me how to recharge it.

Grocery shopping: I can now grocery shop for myself with a minimum of pain and embarrassment. I’m still a bit clueless about vegetables and how to use them, but fruit and eggs are a cinch. Same for the occasional piece of meat I might buy to flavor my assays into cooking. The sauces and condiments are still a little difficult, so for now I stick with cooking simple dishes flavored with soy sauce, cooking wine and that odd chicken seasoning that the Chinese use instead of salt. Also, I’ve had enough visibility in the local stores that the merchants help me and do not try to up their prices. I’ve got Sam to thank for that for that last part.

In the kitchen: I’ve figured out how to use my electronic hot plate as well as my washing machine (you’ll remember that the legends for both appliances are strictly in Chinese). I am able to fix simple meals, and to that end have bought a new wok because the old one’s bottom was warped. I’ve learned that I have to wipe down my countertops (and other horizontal surfaces) every day as grit and dirt blows in constantly. I’ve also learned to not leave water in the kettle overnight unless I want silica-flavored tea in the morning.

Postal/Bank protocol: I know virtually nothing about how to conduct business at either one of these establishments. I know that only Construction Bank of China can exchange currency, and then only select, larger branches. I have yet to step foot in a Chinese Post office and couldn’t tell you how to buy a stamp or mail a letter. I’m seriously going to have to get on learning that. On the other hand, I know that receiving a package is an exercise: the postmen do not deliver packages, couriers do. They do not come on campus, they call your cell phone and ask you to meet them at the front gate of the school to pick up your package. I do not know if they expect a tip, but from my one encounter with this procedure, I get the feeling they do.

Health: My stomach has stabilized and gotten conditioned to the food and the environment. As long as I stay with Chinese food, I do not have to reach for any Tagamet. If I gobble Western food such as KFC or the dreaded McDonald’s, I will swell up and bloat.

There is less of me than there was when I first came here. I don’t think Montezuma is exclusively responsible for that; Chinese food being oddly filling even in small amounts, I am not compelled to eat as much as I was eating in the States, or eat as fast. Another reason for the slow eating is chopsticks: it is difficult to shovel food in your mouth with two thin pieces of bamboo -–unless you tilt the bowl to your mouth and use the chopsticks to rake food in.
I’m pretty much done with my forays into Chinese junk food aisles. None of it tastes very good even though some of it may bear familiar brand names, and it is very expensive. More on this in the next post as well.
The final reason I believe my girth is shrinking: climbing stairs. Each of my classes are on the 5th floor or above, so at least twice a week I am climbing 5 to six flights of stairs. And, I walk all over campus and if I’m not on campus, I’m walking all over town.
My size 12s, which were admittedly snug when I got here are now comfortably loose. If I keep this up, I might actually be able to wear thermal underwear beneath them come winter!

Waste: I find I am rather wasteful, especially in the kitchen and where money is concerned. I’ll address money in the next post, so for now, let’s discuss kitchen waste. Rice is an excellent case in point: I will generally cook 2 cups of rice at a time – about enough for 4 meals. However, due to improper storage or simply deciding the street vendor fare is more appealing for my next few meals than cooking for myself, the cooked rice will go bad and I have to throw it out. Granted, rice is not terribly expensive, but it is terribly wasteful of me to just let all that rice go to waste, right? This is a habit that I carried over from my life in the States. I’ve got to do better.

These are general observations. Have I forgotten anything? Do you have any questions? If not, the next two posts will deal with more specific issues. BEWARE!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Montezuma’s Family Reunion

Being over the moon at finally living in China, naturally I embraced all aspects of being here with gusto. Eating traditional foods from street vendors was my main manifestation of such elan.

Oh, did I pay for that!

I am not blaming my gastrointestinal woes on that single bite of fish from the luncheon, or even on all the beer. I am blaming myself for not taking it easy, for not giving myself time to acclimate, for not remembering that, even before leaving the States I was having stomach problems. That sounds all very honorable now, but I was not so rational while writhing in pain from stomach cramps and not being able to eat anything for days. Self-evisceration was more like the thoughts that crossed my mind during those days.

I normally have a very healthy constitution. I usually can eat anything with no negative impact or any suffering of any type. For that reason I was completely taken by surprise at the violence of my stomach ills, and at the longevity of it.

You see, I didn’t know that Montezuma had a family reunion planned, and the selected location was my gut. For days my abdomen was distended, painful, cramping with such force as to wake me up from sleep. Fearing accidents, I found myself running to the bathroom every time I felt a twinge in my stomach, no matter what time of the day or night. It was quite fortuitous that I did.

I found no solace in Gas-X or Tagamet, both medications that I had remembered to bring ample amounts of. I did not need the laxatives that I had brought; I needed the opposite of a laxative, which I had brought none of.

In agony I forsook the street vendor stalls in favor of something milder to eat: bread and fruit. That’s when Montezuma’s grandchildren visited. Their contribution to the reunion was my total inability to be any further than 25 feet from a bathroom at all times. Anything I ate manifested itself in a near-immediate discharge; sometimes painful, always humiliating. Silly me for thinking bread and fruit were rich in fiber, substance and bulk!

As I could not think of anything more innocuous to eat than bread and fruit, in desperation I elected to swear food off completely. The great-grandchildren of Montezuma then put on their show. Dehydration became a real concern. So far, this had gone on for 5 days. Sam stopped by, only to find me sweating and wrung out. He was so concerned he thought he should take me to a doctor. Fever set in; chills caused me to dive into a hot bathtub, with my overhead heat lamps burning (it was 27 degrees Celsius outside that day).

For some reason, while in the tub, the thought of a ginger infusion popped in my head. A hot ginger beverage is an excellent homeopathic remedy for stomach ills; I had read that somewhere, not too long ago. After my bath brought my fever down, I felt strong enough to stumble out to the farmer’s market and buy some fresh ginger to make the infusion with.

Finally, some relief! Within the first few sips I could already feel the calming effects of the ginger. For my third or fourth cup I decided to add a spoonful of honey to the brew, to help with my sore throat. Surely all that hacking and coughing I was doing because of the air quality was not helping my stomach muscles rest.

I can’t exactly say that I felt like a new penny the day after sipping the ginger/honey mixture but I am pleased to report that I made it to class without falling on my face from the exertion of climbing 6 flights of stairs on an empty stomach. Furthermore, I made it all the way through the class without having to run to the rest room. I did have my trusty bottle of ginger water though, and I sipped it regularly, as a religious devout would chant a mantra.

The end result was that, after class I discovered I was ravenous! Always one to listen when my body tells me something, I mentally ran through my food options. Bread and fruit weren’t going to cut it. I was out of eggs and had no rice cooked, so I had to venture out to shop. As long as I had to go out, I decided to explore those options. All street vendor fare was ruled out. Ditto the local sit-down restaurant: too many unknowns on the menu. There was this chicken fast food place that had roast chicken… that would probably be the best choice. And it is in fact chicken, smaller than chickens in America but recognizable as edible fowl of the barnyard kind. NOTE: that restaurant also has fried chicken that is recognizable as such, but I thought it prudent to stay away from the fried variety.

Consensus: roast chicken!

I was nearly salivating as I walked the quarter mile or so to this restaurant. I had never actually patronized it; just looked at the menu board while walking by – I must have been planning for this. Now comes the acid test: ace-in-the-hole food source, or another disappointment?

My friends, this little chicken restaurant did not disappoint! I was fairly moaning with anticipation by the time I made it home with my little chicken, and I did grunt with pleasure as my body responded – nearly instantly, and favorably to the food.

Thus ended the siege of Montezuma and his relations. All it took was a lot of ginger water with honey, and an undersized roast chicken which I ate all in one sitting. I’m still careful about what I eat, but I have been venturing back to the vendor stalls.

There’s this one guy that makes these stuffed batter cakes… they resemble crepes, and they’re stuffed with egg, green onion, crispy fried tofu, sausage and lettuce, all wrapped up like a burrito.

Oh, Lordy! I’m hooked again!

A Great Honor: the Formal Luncheon

On Monday, after teaching my first class, Sam informed me that the school’s officials would like to have a luncheon the following day in our honor – mine and Victor’s honor. Victor is the other foreign language teacher. Dirty apartment notwithstanding, I was excited and touched at the lengths the school was going to make me feel wanted and welcome.

Although I had anticipated some sort of formal meeting with the school’s officials, I did not anticipate a luncheon. Planning for such an occasion while still in the States, I had remembered to pack at least one formal outfit: a skirt with matching blouse, hose and appropriate shoes. My friend Lisa and I also had gone shopping to buy small gifts for any dignitary or official I might meet. It is proper Chinese custom for visitors to offer such gifts, and she and I had a great time selecting a variety of key chains and lapel pins depicting Texas for me to offer my hosts. Come time for the luncheon I loaded my trinkets into my purse and Sam escorted Victor and me to the teacher’s cafeteria, where the feast was to be held in a private dining room.

Finally, I learn where the teacher’s cafeteria is!

But that’s beside the point.

A server asked what I would like to drink; erring on the side of moderation (and culture), I asked for hot tea. Victor quickly sided with my choice, and then we were immediately trumped by an official looking man who had just entered the room and proclaimed that we would all drink beer. Who am I to argue with the man that turned out to be the Communist Party Chairman assigned to the school? As he was the most important figure, I presented him with one of the nicer key chains Lisa and I had selected after shaking his hand.

In short order, the other dignitaries arrived: the University President – harried and pressured, the Dean of Languages - a gracious and beautiful woman, the Secretary of Foreign Teacher Affairs who struck me as rather bawdy but fun to be around, and, to my delight and surprise, the Head of Maintenance. Only a former maintenance technician knows how often maintenance is overlooked! Each got a Lisa-picked trinket, their importance within the school hierarchy denoting the substance of the gift they received.

After that, beer flowed like water. We toasted each other, our joint venture, our friendship, my being left-handed, our apartments and the promise that, if Victor and I stay next year we would get new apartments. We toasted the Chairman’s recent return from France, and the fact that he and I could speak French together. We toasted the English language… we might have even toasted the flies buzzing around; I’m not exactly sure. After so many toasts, I, a non-drinker, ended up pretty toasted myself! I do remember toasting the maintenance man and telling him we have a similar background. I even ventured a toast to the whole group in Chinese: Let’s drink to our friendship!

Poor Sam! He is also a non-drinker, and it showed: his youthful face suddenly grew haggard and red around the eyes; spots of red also bloomed on his cheeks. He whispered on the sly if I could tell he was getting smashed; I took one look at him and gravely nodded my assent. We made a pact to help each other down the stairs and back to our apartments after lunch was over. Victor is maybe of hardier stock, he did not appear to suffer from all of the drinking.

And then came the food. This private dining room boasted a typical Chinese large-gathering set up: a big, round table with a glass lazy susan covering most of it; allowing just enough room for each diner’s place setting comprising of a tea cup, a glass, a rice bowl, a sauce dish, chopsticks and chopstick rest – a little bench for your chopsticks to rest on when you’re not using them. The food was placed on the lazy susan one dish at a time, the glass was then gently spun and another dish brought in and placed. As is customary, the dishes stop in front of the guests so that they might have the first sampling of the food being offered.

Oh, bad news! The first dish was fish! A whole fish, pan-fried and cut up in chunks: head, tail, fins, bones and all. Familiar dread coursed through me: fish has not crossed my lips but maybe a handful of times since I got so horribly sick as a child after eating a bad piece of fish and being sick for days afterward. As the glass turntable advanced past the maintenance man, past Sam, slowing… slowing… in front of me I decided to ‘give my hosts face’ and eat at least one bite of this local specialty, prepared for this special meal.

I grabbed my chopsticks and reached for the smallest piece possible, which to me looked like a huge chunk. Everyone was thrilled that I knew how to use chopsticks; I heard their approving comments and felt their eyes on my suddenly sweating face as I put the bite of fish in my mouth…

And I discovered a unique problem that will forever absolve me of eating fish! It is a condition completely beyond my control! Much to my joy and relief, I am prevented from eating fish because I cannot feel the bones in my teeth. I wear full dentures and anyone knows that dentures are insentient pieces of plastic held in your mouth by suction. If the inside of my mouth had been stabbed by 20 fish bones I would not have known it, protected as I am by my dentures. Elation! Rapture! I have discovered a reason to never attempt to eat fish again!

Maybe my hosts thought I was drunk, careless or foolish as I ate the fish with no regard for bones. They urged Sam to caution me of the bones. Bones? What bones? I didn’t feel a thing… in my mouth! But I was giddy with relief that I had passed the ‘fish test’ almost as much as with the fact that I will never have to eat fish again.

The rest of the meal passed uneventfully. The officials made conversation; it turns out that they do not get to see each other very often as they are busy with important matters while running the school, and this get-together was as much for them as for Victor and I. Sam, Victor and I entertained ourselves. The food was delicious – fish notwithstanding, and after a time, we wrapped things up by… you guessed it: toasting each other farewell!

I went back to my apartment and napped substantially. After a meal like that, who wouldn’t? Poor Sam still had a lot of work to do, so no nap for him!

Normally that would be my closing line, but I have to add one more: Lisa, you were on my mind that day, and a shadow of you was by my side as I reflected on your good sense in suggesting the variety of key chains. I’m very glad I went with your choices; you have great taste and sure know how to pick out a gift! Thanks for being there with me, in spirit.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Noteworthy Iconic Idiosyncrasies of Chinese People

As I experience life in China – mainly on campus – I’ve noted some things that I was not familiar with, with regard to Chinese society. Two of note that I was informed of, the rest picked out by my astute eye. I’ll try to not break my arm as I pat myself on the back for my powers of observation; I kind of need it to type. Here are my observations (and the two nuggets I received), in no particular order:

Chinese people, unlike Chinese movies, do not come with subtitles: Intellectually I was aware of this, and you may be too. However, I spent a great deal of time in the States preparing for this Chinese adventure by watching Chinese movies with English subtitles so I could get used to the rhythm and pattern of speech, thus subtitles became an integral part of my understanding Chinese dialog. Also, I study Putonghua – the common language, and that is what I can speak a little of. Unfortunately I cannot make heads or tails of this regional dialect. The older citizens speak it freely; the younger citizens speak a mishmash of dialect and Putonghua. If I have to ask for directions, I usually approach a younger person. They are more likely to respond using the Common Language, and if I’m really lucky, they might even try out their English skills.

Women protect themselves from the sun using an umbrella: On any given sunny (or hazy) day, someone of my height will have to dodge the seemingly continuous roof of umbrellas that women use to protect themselves from the sun. Chinese women being a bit shorter than I am, their unfurled umbrellas are usually at my eye level; if I’m not careful I could easily incur an eye injury. Interesting culture difference: in America, tanned is healthy, in China tanned is indicative of peasantry. Refined folk – women, are to be fair-skinned. I later learned that most women own two different umbrellas; one for sunny days and one to use in the rain. When I asked my informant what happens if the day starts out sunny and then turns to rain: do they carry two umbrellas? She laughed and said that then they only use one umbrella; usually the one reserved for rain so that the more ornate ‘sun’ umbrella does not get water damaged.

Women are not to go about unescorted at night: I was informed of this tidbit and the next one shortly after arriving on campus, much to my dismay. Chinese life ‘happens’ at night; that is when the street vendors hawk their wares, when the people hit the streets and parade around, when housewives bring out the boomboxes and dance in the square. Apparently my former lone nighttime wanderings were tolerated because I was a foreigner and a tourist, but as a member of this teaching institution I am to set a good example and do nothing to deny/decry Chinese culture. It would not be appropriate for my female students (who do go out in pairs or gaggles) to see their esteemed professor flout Chinese culture by stepping out by her lonesome. Unless I have an escort, I am compelled by this social edict to spend evenings in my apartment. (That seriously impacts my ability to establish social contacts, but it is a great time to blog).

Women are not to smoke in public, with or without an escort: While this particular social more is neither here nor there considering the air quality itself causes me to hack like a chain smoker, I find it quite the double standard that men can puff away anywhere their lungs desire but women cannot, even though statistically, equal numbers of men and women in China smoke. Again, in order to set a good example for my students, I do not light up anywhere on or in the vicinity of campus, even though Chinese custom dictates that, upon meeting someone for the first time, you offer them a cigarette whether they are male or female. Thus I have been offered cigarettes, but was not allowed to smoke them. Right now, I don’t think my lungs could stand it, anyway! (NOTE: never thought China would be a deterrent to smoking!)

Physical affection is commonly expressed between members of the same gender: Boys (or men) together, or girls (or women) together commonly walk along arm in arm or hand in hand. Or, the more elegant ‘hand on the crook of the elbow’ hold is used, generally practiced by more mature women. It would be natural to think that this is certainly a non-homophobic society for all of these displays of same-sex affection, but in fact China considers homosexuality a crime. So if you see people of the same sex walking hand in hand or hanging on each other, it does not mean they are lovers, it just means they are observing their cultural right to express same-sex affection. Or, they are hanging onto each other so that they don’t get lost in a crowd.

8.9 million Chinese who work the same schedule: What do 8.9 million (population of Wuhan) Chinese people who work the same 9 to 5 schedule 5 days a week do on weekends? They all go out… at the same time. On weekends, you can forget leisurely travel through the city or the hope of a seat on the bus. You can forget strolling down wide avenues; the avenues are still wide but now are crowded by a sea of bobbing, black, shiny-haired heads (and umbrellas). And remember: they hold hands or drape their arms around one another, giving an additional challenge to navigating pedestrian traffic without breaking up a physically linked group. It seems nobody stays home in Wuhan on the weekend; everyone is out in the streets, in the malls, on the busses, on the ferry. If traffic is heinous during the week, it is flat murder on the weekend. Any plans for outings must start at 7AM or earlier or you run the risk of not being able to realize your plans. That would mean that I wouldn’t get back to campus before dark… shame on me for flouting rules!

Chinese people will do anything to approach a foreigner: Young or old, regional or migrant, male or female there seems to be no restraint when it comes to approaching a foreigner. Especially a tall, blond, big-boned female foreigner. While out, I’ve had my arm and other body parts touched, my hair tousled, my clothing tugged on, and have been shouted ‘Hello’ more often than I care to count. I have stopped traffic, literally. While standing at a street corner to waiting to cross, more often than not traffic stops, car windows are rolled down and gape-mouthed stares are directed at me, resulting in angry honking from the vehicles behind the starer… until they get a load of what is being stared at. I know I am no raving beauty, nor am I particularly noteworthy in appearance other than my 6’ height, but I am treated like a combination of royalty, beauty queen and freak of the day. Some days I’m used to it and shrug it off, other days it is nothing short of annoying. Like the time I entered a restaurant and two small children pointed up at me and shouted ‘wai guo ren!’ – ‘foreigner!’ I felt like pointing at them and shouting back ‘xiao hai zi!’ – ‘small child!’ It was one of those days. I suppose I would damage community relations if I mocked China’s most precious resource – children, so I stopped just short of teasing them. I simply smiled and waved. They were either terrified or elated, but they quit shouting and ran back to their mother. Beggars are no exception; whereas they stand idly rattling their few coins in tin or paper cups while Chinese citizenry pass by, I am chased down, prodded and have their collection cup shoved directly beneath my nose. I do not like the stench of that.

So there you have a few idle observations of Chinese idiosyncrasies. Next post, we’ll go back to chronology and I’ll tell you about my first class, where people are actually supposed to stare and pay attention to me.

The First Day of Class

Monday morning, 8:00AM: my first day of class, my first session as a teacher at a University. I am eager to meet my students, to help them learn English, to do a good job.

Of course, that is a daunting prospect. I’ve received no orientation from the school, I have no textbooks to work from, no assigned curriculum and, as I found out upon seeing my classroom for the first time, no resources such as projectors, computers, flipcharts, wall charts or teaching aids. I do have a blackboard and a rich supply of chalk, both white and multi-colored. I have a lectern from which to address my class, which is set on a podium 12 inches off the ground. As if I need to be taller! I resolved to teach class from ground level as much as possible, so that I’m not such a dominant figure to my students.

The classroom is set up ‘lecture style’: one bench row of seats after the other, all bolted to the tile floor. Moving the desks around into various groupings, as suggested by my recently completed TESOL course will be impossible. The classroom is not air conditioned, but the windows are open and there are fans that twirl noisily overhead. Thankfully a student knew how to turn them on; I couldn’t have located the switches for them if I tried.

And speaking of located: let me back up and tell you about where my classroom is located. Building 2, 6th floor. Fortunately I could identify building 2 by the big golden “2” on the front of the building. I followed the stream of students in, turned right and followed the masses up the staircase. By the time I hit the 3rd floor, I was panting; 4th floor I was sweating, 5th floor I was frantic. Not for my health, but because that is where the stairs ended. How do I get to the 6th floor? I’m so confused…

I brave the tide of students climbing up to go back down the stairs and ask the kindly campus policeman sitting at the door how to get to the 6th floor. He did not understand me, even though I used my best broken Chinese. Again saved by serendipity, one of my students came by and offered to lead me to my classroom, directly accessible by climbing the back staircase, whose existence I knew nothing about. There really should have been some orientation!

Class starts at 8AM sharp and the bell doesn’t let you forget that. Each session consists of two 45 minutes instruction sessions, with a 5-minute break in between. The bell doesn’t let you forget the break, either. Doing quick math reveals that I am in fact teaching for one hour and a half per session. The 9:35 bell releases the students to their next lesson, and me of my teaching obligations for the rest of the day. For my first 3 weeks, I only have 2 sessions per week, until the freshmen hit campus.

I ‘mapped’ the board as I was taught in my TESOL class: a greeting in the center with open space to write notes and instructions for the lesson, the day’s agenda on the left and the class rules on the right. I made sure to include an extra section for questions and feedback. At five minutes till 8, with the board set up, I was ready to start class. Well… ready?

I am not, and have never been a morning person, even now that I’ve been off coffee for 2 years. Yet here I am, bright and early, confronting 28 curious and eager faces that express wonder about this strange, foreign giant. I, with only a TESOL certificate under my belt and virtually no classroom experience, certainly none teaching languages or university students in general, wondered how to begin.

I was informed my class monitor would have my class roster, and Lily did not disappoint. She passed the list around, and everyone wrote their English name on it. I knew to expect 28 students, so this first day I counted heads instead of taking roll, because the students had the list.

I gave a rousing ‘Good Morning’, which the students returned enthusiastically. I then explained the agenda, led the class through the rules, explaining my reason for each rule as I went along: Speak English, no cell phones, ask questions, ask for help/help others, give feedback, have fun. And then, I introduced the day’s activity: each student was to introduce him/herself, and tell us something about themselves. I kicked off the activity by introducing myself: My name is Sophia, my Chinese name is Le Si (meaning happy thoughts), I like to travel and meet new people. Each student introduced themselves in kind.

The strange thing about Chinese people is that they are so agreeable. “Do you understand the rules?” Everyone nods or vocalizes assent. “Do you understand the instructions?” Nods all around again. I have yet to meet any dissent or disagreement in my students; they are all eager to agree to anything I say, whether they understand or not. That leads to some confusion; if they don’t tell me they don’t understand the instructions for any given activity, come time to call on them to take part in the activity I am met with a lot of stalling and general confusion on their part. This is a cultural gap that I must somehow breach.

Another one is the girls’ demeanor in class. They are not badly behaved or otherwise undesirable as students, it is the fact that they are taught to be demure and gentle. Speaking up is for peasants and boys; young ladies speak quietly. So quietly that my poor old ears, damaged from the rock’n’roll concerts I shamelessly partook of in my youth, can barely hear them over the noise of the fans overhead and the noise coming in from the open windows and the noise coming in from the hall. I have yet to find my way around that problem as well: encouraging them to speak up does nothing. Currently I stand as close as possible to them and listen as they whisper their answers. Sometimes I feel like I’m eavesdropping, but I have the sneaky suspicion they are enjoying the closeness.

Before I knew it, it was 9:35 and the bell was ringing! I was surprised at how the time flew, at how the students responded, at how they left the room: each paraded past me, smiling and wishing me a good day. That was my first clue that I had made a positive impact.

After cleaning the board off and policing my room, I descended the back stairwell and left Building 2. Walking among students rushing to their next class and feeling the sunshine on my face, I thought, for the first time, that maybe I didn’t make a horrible mistake coming here.

First Outing

This title is actually a misnomer, for it combines two outings with my sponsor, Sam. The first being on the night of my arrival, the second the following day, to start processing my work visa paperwork. I think I can combine both experiences into one post of average length (for me). So, picking up where I left off on the last post:

I slept until 9PM that night. When I woke up and turned on a light, Sam immediately came by and expressed his concern for me. He had been by several times to check on me but hearing no noise from my apartment correctly presumed I was still asleep and left me be. After all, I had earned such a sleep, don’t you think?

He invited me out to eat, which I gratefully accepted. Even though he had stocked my fridge with a loaf of bread, some fruit and some soft drinks, I didn’t see that as being a sufficient dinner… even if I added my 6 remaining plums from the train and the snacks I had left over from the early morning binge at the train station convenience store.

I realized I was ravenous as soon as we hit the small shopping area just outside of campus. He asked me what I wanted to eat. The answer: EVERYTHING! And with gusto! Of course I didn’t tell him that, I demurely asked what was available, to which he countered “What do you like to eat?” It was like playing gastronomical tennis. As we lobbed those questions back and forth I spied a dumpling stand. I really like Chinese dumplings, so I suggested we eat some. He had eaten at a ‘decent hour’ and thus did not partake, instead he sat patiently and made conversation while I tried to muster some decorum and not shove the food in my face as fast as I could. I think I did a respectable job; Sam did not run away horrified and the other patrons only stared at me because I am a foreigner using chopsticks. A left-handed one, at that. Somewhat of a novelty in this area I was to later discover; not many foreigners in this corner of Wuhan and even fewer lefties (I might have said that before).

Feeling sated by the tasty dumplings, we went foraging for some cleaning supplies and more food to stock my fridge with. Sam took me to a nice market or two where I bought a mop, a broom and dustpan, some dish soap, sponges and Mr. Muscle (the equivalent of America’s Mr. Clean). On the way back, we stopped at the farmers’ market and bought some soy sauce, vegetables, rice and a few eggs. I was already imagining the meals I could make with this bare stock. We got home at 11PM and I started cleaning my little house.

End of first outing. Incidentally, it took me nearly 4 days to clean my apartment with the bare supplies I had. I’m not going to blog about that; everyone knows that cleaning is the pits! I will say that the broom and mop handles are dismally short; again I have to stoop to make use of them. Sigh!

The next outing was more involved as it called for us to be dropped off at the regional hospital. The ride into town took nearly one hour – apparently traffic is an issue in this city. We had to take the bus back the campus because the school-appointed driver had other errands to run. No problem for me, I am up to adventure! Eyes all agog, trying to look everywhere at once, take it all in… it was overwhelming.

The medical examination was rather short: an EKG, an eye exam, measuring my vital signs, giving a blood sample and posing for a chest X-ray. We were out of the hospital in the space of 1 hour. After that we hit the streets and that’s when the real adventure began!

We walked past a Taoist temple that was being renovated; no visit possible. Then we walked through a park whose name I don’t recall. It was not particularly noteworthy other than the foliage appearing limp and discouraged, as appears to be the norm in this particularly grimy town. We went to a bank to exchange money – I was running a little low on Yuan. Off to buy a cell phone and then Sam treated me to an excellent lunch before boarding the bus home.

The only real image of note was a small dog, curled up tight and sound asleep on the sidewalk while cars and motorcycles thundered by, and pedestrians stepped right over him. This little puppy was the epitome of serenity and I sorely wish that I had brought my camera: he was the only picturesque subject of the whole jaunt.

Unfortunately, being away from campus and all of the construction did nothing to change my mind about Wuhan being a very dirty, ugly city. The buildings still bore the telltale façade of Sino/Soviet cooperation: narrow white tiles, narrow, barred windows, no air conditioning. There was very little in the way of charm and no iconic Chinese architecture around. The faces of the people were hard and lean; obviously life is more difficult in Wuhan than other Chinese cities I have traveled to and enjoyed. Or maybe the people had some other struggle I do not yet understand.

Like breathing this air. If that is their struggle, I completely understand. By the time we got back to campus I felt my chest constricted, and it was a struggle to draw breath. I was forced to clean out my nose with a Q-tip as soon as I opened my front door because I could not breathe through my nose. I was appalled at what the Q-tip revealed: charcoal black dirt!

Clayton (and everyone else who would like to see pictures), I’m sorry I haven’t sent you any pictures yet. I’ve not found much of anything worth shooting, and I haven’t really ventured out much. Breathing is still a challenge, now exacerbated by this hacking cough I’ve developed and can’t seem to get rid of. I’m sure I’ll get better; I am a Darwinian creature, at least I’d like to think so. Surely I’ll adapt, right?

If not, I’m in some serious trouble…

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Those First Few Hours

Let’s see: we left each other while I was connecting my trusty laptop, right? So now I have everything connected after puzzling out the various wires, and I’m powered up, and I click on Firefox and… no connection established! What could be wrong? I went over my connections again, reset the modem and… no connection established! I couldn’t get online!

This may sound strange, but I was more frantic over this than my need for sleep or the state the apartment was in. I just had to get online! I was missing people! I needed to open my inbox and see some emails! I needed a connection to the outside world! Somehow, not being able to connect to the internet just capped this trying travel adventure for me; it was an inglorious end to a miserable trip. I felt alone, disconnected, abandoned.

I tried the university-provided computer, and after several tries, I was able to establish a connection to a server. I literally cried with relief and kept my fingers crossed that I would be able to access g-mail. Triumph! The page loaded! I logged in and settled in to read the 20-some odd emails that had accumulated. People missed me! People wondered about me! In this hyper-filthy apartment where I was having second thoughts about laying my head down (even though the pillow was brand new), I felt not quite so alone. I sent my ‘Got Here Safely’ message and then decided against unpacking my footlockers with my linens in them. I just had to clean this place up before I unpacked anything.

So I made use of the linens provided to me to make up the bed and take a shower. A short digging expedition into my suitcase yielded my soap and shampoo, a little more digging and I had clean clothes to wear after my shower. Either I was moving in slow motion because of fatigue or I just really enjoyed that shower, because I ran it until the water ran cold. (Only later did I find out that the water heater is a small capacity unit; I’m going to have to learn to shower quickly!) When I pulled back the shower curtain I found a substantial puddle on the floor directly in front of the bathtub; stepping out of the tub meant stepping into dirty water. I couldn't figure how to get around the problem, so I stepped into the puddle on the floor and then threw the towel down after I was done drying myself. I decided then and there that, from now on, that towel would do for my floor mat, and I would have to call maintenance to fix the plumbing.

I had no sense of time by now: minutes or hours flew by; I’m not sure which. After making up the bed and cleaning myself up, I wanted to unwind in the little park I saw out my bathroom window. I decided to go for a short walk before napping, but unbeknownst to me, Sam’s apartment is two doors down from mine. He came rushing out in a panic when he saw me walk by, wondering if something was wrong. I neglected to mention the plumbing problem, but slurred that I had to relax a little bit before I could go to sleep.

Besides, I had an ulterior motive. Considering the time difference, my significant other would still be awake and he would have received my message on his BlackBerry. I desperately needed to hear from him before I could consider sleeping. As always immediately after separating from him, the hunger and need for him was overwhelming but now even more so now that I was on the other side of the world. Some reassurance from him would go a long way to help me feel more… balanced, so I could actually go to sleep. He hadn’t written anything while I was in the shower, and I wanted to give him time to respond.

It was a very short walk. I might have known this before, but suddenly I was made aware of how hard it is to walk on rubbery legs and swollen feet. On the other hand, the park was lovely in the morning sunshine. One short lap around it and I headed home, no doubt to Sam’s relief.

There were new emails! I read them all, saving his for last. His genuine concern over the length of the trip, and his expression of discomfort and unease about my living in a foreign country was exactly what I needed to hear; I responded to him with sincerity. Sure, I had put on a brave front for everyone else when I sent my original, blanket notification email, but to him I confessed my true feelings: ‘You have no idea how alone and scared I feel right now…”, to which he responded, immediately and comfortingly: “We have email, we have communication, you now have a bed to sleep in and a roof over your head. There’s a lot to be said for that. Sleep comfortably.”

What better advice could he have given me? I crawled into my strange new bed and cried myself to sleep.

Welcome Home: Sophia, meet your new apartment!

I was admittedly a bit dubious when we pulled up to the building; it looked like a dorm building. I thought I was getting an apartment. As it turns out, the apartments for the foreign teachers are in fact on the first floor of the girls’ dorm building. Not that that bothered me; everything seemed rather quiet… at 6:00 in the morning.

Full of anticipation and somewhat excited, I let Sam lead me to apartment 4108, my new home. He was chattering all the while, commenting on how young I looked and the like. Quite complimentary is Young Sam; I felt anything but young after traveling for 36 hours. Matter of fact, I was feeling decidedly used up, wrung out, in need of a shower and some fresh clothes and some sleep! I was looking forward to a quick tour of my new digs, a shower and a long nap.

At first glance, the apartment was quite charming. Laminate floors in the living room and bedroom, and both rooms of generous size: 12’ ceilings lending the illusion of extra space, but even so plenty of floor space and sparsely but adequately furnished. An air conditioner stood silently by in each room, ready to afford me comfortable temperature. A queen-sized bed with dual nightstands and a wardrobe in the ‘bedroom area’; two desks and a book case in the office area. Two lamps completed the décor: one at the desk, and the other by the bed. There were brand-new linens piled on the bed, and a thick winter quilt waiting to keep me warm in the closet.

The only drawback in the living room was the world’s most hideous couch: a low-slung affair made up of white faux snakeskin with a tan cushion to sit on and two leopard print pillows for reclining; wooden accents formed the legs. All other furniture was not a decorator’s nightmare: a television stand with TV and DVD player, two more book cases, a small dinette set and a miscellaneous cabinet. I already had plans for how I would arrange the furniture, and for all my things.

My things! My two foot lockers had arrived, and had been carted to my apartment! How I wanted to tear into them right then and there, and reacquaint myself with the few things I packed for myself! It would be just like Christmas, and what a perfect way to welcome myself home! But Sam was still here, showing off the virtues of the apartment. I had to wait a little longer for that Christmas morning feeling.

The kitchen was next. Brand new dishes and chopsticks, still in the package. A serviceable wok, a single, electronic hotplate with directions in Chinese, and electric rice cooker. A washer with cycle selections in Chinese and dryer with cycle selections in English, a microwave with symbols and pictures for directions, and a bottled water dispenser, sans bottled water. Blue cabinet doors. Granite counter tops! How thrilled I was! Now, if only I could get them set at higher than mid-thigh. There would clearly be a lot of stooping while cooking; luckily I had my back fixed before I left the States. I silently thanked my wonderful acupuncturist; I was going to be testing out her efforts in short order, I sensed. All of this AND an attractive tile floor. How lucky could a girl get?

The bathroom floor is also tiled, with a granite vanity. Very attractive! An added bonus: a full-sized bathtub with adjustable height shower: not a bad coup for a tall girl like me. My own water heater – very important in China; you do not want to be at the mercy of the community boiler, or worse, a solar-powered water heating unit mounted on the roof. They’re not bad in the summer, but they function miserably in the winter!

The guided tour finished, Sam declared he would leave me alone to get some rest. He took his leave after giving me my key and inviting me to dinner after I’ve rested. Rest? I had things to do! Finally alone, I took off my now hurtful shoes and prowled my new digs: each room had a window, each window was coated so that no one could look in and also had a screen. Each window apparently allowed its share of dirt to be blown in… but I didn’t make that connection immediately.

After just a few steps barefooted, I could feel the dirt and grit on the soles of my feet. I dug into my suitcase for a pair of slippers, thinking that the floors probably would be dusty if no one had occupied the apartment for a month or so. But looking beyond the initial charm of the apartment I found it… absolutely filthy!

Cobwebs hanging from the ceiling! Dust Great Danes prowled the floor and growled at my intrusion! They really could not have been called dust bunnies or even dust kitties, they had surpassed that stage of growth and gone smack into pony-size. The tub had a ring around it, and not the nice kind, either! And the kitchen! Oh, my Stars! The accumulated grease in the kitchen! How could any kitchen be that greasy! I dared touch one of the cabinet handles and it was greasy; while I was at it I opened the cabinet and found the shelves inside brown with dirt and grease. The vent hood alone was going to take me days to clean; you couldn’t even see the filter mesh pattern for all of the caked-on grease!

That’s it; I’m too tired to take all of this in. I need a shower and a bed. “Oh, NO!” I moaned! ‘The bed!” The mattress was gray with dirt in the seams and its corners. “No big deal” I thought, “I’ll just turn it over” I should not have had that thought; the other side was in even worse shape. A wordless moan escaped me, and I resolved to do something about it soon… but not right now, I had other business to take care of.

I had to ‘touch my peeps’ – get in touch with everyone and let them know I was safe. Many of my friends did not anticipate this journey taking days and surely they were worried about me. As my hiring-in prospectus promised, there was a computer with a DSL modem just waiting for me, but I wanted my faithful laptop. I installed it on one of the desks, made the connection and prepared to log in and send a blanket email, letting everyone know I was OK.

And that’s where I’ll leave this one; again a super long post, but necessary in its length… unless you don’t think so? I’m open to feedback; just let me know.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A tale out of Sequence: Talking about Teacher’s Day

I wanted to tell my tale in chronological order. Logically, describing my apartment and my subsequent feelings of loss and devastation should be the next post. However, as new experiences flood in, I think I will have no choice but to occasionally skip back and forth between chronology and current events. You will see the reason for this in short order. Maybe I can make the two blend together, perhaps akin to walking ahead while looking over your shoulder. Nothing to do but try, right? Let me know what you think.

September 10th is Teachers’ Day in China. That is the day teachers all over the country are showered with gifts, veneration and respect by parents and students alike. Traditionally, parents give the teachers money or gifts in the hope that the teacher would give their children favorable attention and better grades.

By the time this year’s Teachers’ Day rolled around, I had been a teacher in China for 2 weeks. Although I have always enjoyed teaching, and indeed enjoy my current post as a University language teacher, I have to confess that I am a bit confused as to the reception I’m getting from my students.

Some of them are eager participants in the class activities, and some would probably prefer to be anywhere but in class. I suppose that that behavior is typical in classrooms universally. But, because it is very important for me to be well received – not for my ego, but for the purpose I serve as foreign language teacher, I often wonder if I’ve made the proper impact, or if I’m making an impact at all.

After the first session, every student filed past me and said ‘Bye Bye’ or wished me a good day. The second session, some students sat further back in the class, and then ducked out the back door when the session was over, extending no greeting whatsoever. Have I lost those students in just two weeks?

I have no curriculum to teach by. I use no books, have no resources other than the board and some chalk, file no lesson plans, follow no guidelines and I do not work in conjunction with the English teachers that teach the kids grammar, spelling or sentence structure. In fact, I’ve yet to meet those other teachers. My job is to provide panache: I am the Native English speaker, there for the students to hear what a native English speaker sounds like. Along the way, I’m supposed to get the students to practice their oral English skills, which I do by playing games such as 20 questions or get them to imagine they are running a business, and present their business to the class.

But this is about Teachers’ Day. The Chinese government is currently encouraging parents to stop lavishing gifts and money on the teachers so that the teachers are more impartial. Is there such thing as an absolutely impartial teacher, I wonder? I like the kids who participate in class, and don’t care for the ones that flaunt disrespect by constantly tapping on their cell phones and looking out the window. I think it is just human nature to enjoy someone who responds positively to you. I’m not sure a gift of money or candy would change my mind with regard to a recalcitrant student. Besides, doesn’t that seem unethical to you? It does to me, too.

On Teachers’ Day, I was invited to participate in the English Corner for the first time. The English Corner is a group of students who get together for the sole purpose of exploring all things that have to do with the English language. Sometimes they watch a movie, sometimes they just have debates. It is also an open forum, where students with language questions or homework woes can come for help, solace or succor. I was quite honored to be invited.

During this particular meeting, the group was signing up newly arrived Freshmen. What a spectacle that was! We had a booth set up along an avenue by the dorms that was crowded with other clubs’ booths, and as the freshmen streamed by we would attract their attention, explain the rules and guidelines of membership and collect a 10yuan dues fee. My function was to drum up business.

As many of the new students had come from the far regions of Western China and had never seen a foreigner before, I was quite the draw. The draw? I was gawked at, thronged around, held up as an object of curiosity! Many people who had absolutely no interest in English stopped by our booth just to see me and talk with me. I can’t tell you how often a student asked if they could take a picture with me. Of course, I complied; that was my role in this whole affair. And, OH! The amazed looks when I opened my mouth and spoke Chinese! In short, as far as the English club and all of its members are concerned, I was a hit!

For days afterward, I was showered with gifts and attention. A plant from Zhenni. Tea from Lily. A bracelet from one of the freshmen who did not join the club but really enjoyed talking with me. Fresh fruit from Claudia. Invitations for dinner, for dessert, to go out… what a showing of devotion from my students and prospective students!

The Government may want to do away with gift giving on Teachers’ Day, and I can kind of understand that. A teacher should teach every student, whether there is a gift involved or not. But in my case, these University students spending their own money and time to show their appreciation… I don’t think the Government would be able to curtail these students’ gift giving. As a teacher, I wouldn’t want them to.

As a lonely human being on the opposite side of the planet to everything familiar to me, it was a balm on my aching heart. I would have been happy receiving no gifts whatsoever, I just thank my students for including me in their activities!

Friday, September 10, 2010

First Impressions

My first snapshot of Wuhan came as the train slowed within the city limits. It was going slow enough that I had occasion to glimpse outside the window at this city I’d never been to. Rain poured down as though to clean the town up for me, and lent a patina of shine to the tiled façade of the buildings. Other than that, it looked like China: power lines everywhere, people riding bikes and scurrying off to unknown directions, hopelessly snarled traffic and street sweepers sweeping with twig brooms whether rain was falling or not.

When the train stopped, I followed the crowds to the station exit, wondering what Sam, my sponsor looked like and how I would find him. I would be easy to identify being the only foreigner in the entire station, but how was I to find him amongst all the Chinese men there? I had no clue what he looked like. I hoped he would be right at the platform exit, bearing a sign with my name on it. So such luck.

As I progressed through the station I was accosted by porters wanting to carry my bags for me and offering me a ride to my destination in hopes of a fat tip. That would have been welcome yesterday, but now I was on homestretch and I could certainly manage my two wheeled bags on level ground. “Bu yao” I told them – “Don’t want”. Still no Sam. Now I’m getting worried.

I turned around and there, standing maybe 5’6” and looking all of 16 was a bespectacled young man holding my name placard in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Thus I made Sam’s acquaintance. Don’t let his little size fool you, the man can move at marathon pace! He shook my hand, grabbed my laptop bag and took off for the parking garage like a blue streak, talking all the while.

We were looking for a Buick minivan, and ran around the parking garage before calling the driver several times to get a location on him. Finally we connected and loaded my bags up. I was offered a bottle of water, which I gratefully accepted, climbed in the back seat and took my first swallow of water of as we broke toward open air from the underground garage.

Eyes glued to the window I made a perfunctory but sincere apology for being such trouble because of my travel arrangements. I was assured that I was no trouble at all and that they (the driver and Sam) were glad I had made it safely. I still don’t know who the driver was, but he must have qualified at the Indy 500 and had no care whatsoever about his suspension or blowing a tire. He sped down what I suppose were roads, turning here and veering there, never slowing down much. I could not tell how the roads were marked; with no lane markings or curbs they seemed indistinguishable from the ground 5 or even 10 meters away.

The roads in Wuhan are in terrible shape! We are not talking potholes here; I’m trying to convey the image of holes so big that ½” thick sheets of steel are required to cover the deepest part of them! To make things worse, the steadily pouring rain caused a lot of these ‘road traps’ to be invisible under puddles so that the minivan jounced and bounced down the road. Everything appeared muddy brown and defeated: the rain, the ground, the puddles, the people. I did not see any trees. The driver made no concession to the condition of the roads and I found myself being tossed around like a rag doll in the back of the van. It was hard to keep looking out the window, but on the other hand, there didn’t seem much worth looking at.

Wuhan is a very dirty city. Everything is either in a state of construction or destruction, adding a layer of dust and grime to an already depressingly gray environment. Part of the traverse through town involved driving down a stretch of road between two construction retaining walls painted blue. That, along with the scaffolding they were supposed to hide, and rain constituted most of what I saw from the back seat of the jouncing van. Not an inspiring picture.

We took a back road to the college. This is a relatively new campus, some buildings still under construction so the roads leading to it were dirt and… you guessed it: potholed. We passed farmers on bicycles, more advanced farmers on motorcycles, and some pushcarts, sometimes leaving only a few centimeters clearance between them and us. Pedestrians abounded, but got out of the way when our driver sounded his horn. At least here he slowed down a little bit. Approximately ½ mile and the campus stood before us. Finally a decently paved road, but we only drove on it for a moment before backing up to a yellowish-tinged building with iron bars on it, which housed my apartment.

For better or worse, I was home.

Monday, September 6, 2010

3-Part Disharmony – The Train Ride

Before boarding that train, let me apologize to you. In reviewing my previous post (to pick up the thread to this one), I noticed I had made several grammar mistakes. It is not usually my style to write using dysfunctional English, and I have no reason or excuse for it. I apologize sincerely, and I will do my best to not let it happen again.

Another thing I’d like to make perfectly clear: This is an adventure I sought out and welcomed (while I was planning it). Other than the hostesses, the temperature, and the food problems on the plane, I was in control/in charge of every single aspect of this trip. Although it does sound grueling, I take full responsibility for it and all the mishaps that happened along the way. I hope that I’m relaying these events in such a way that you will see it as a sometimes humorous but always factual narrative, not a ploy for sympathy or pity. I was definitely not a victim of some evil travel demon who had me in his sights, I was merely a victim of a soul that thirsts for adventure. This time, I got more than I was ready for, that’s all.

OK: it is now 13:20. All Aboard! Final Destination: Wuchang Railway Station!

Boarding a train in China is somewhat akin to the cattle rushes of yore. Once those gates open you (the cattle) rush through and hope to not get trampled or separated from your luggage, and then you have to go downstairs to the platform. Nothing so genteel as an elevator, such as the ones available at the Amtrak stations in the States, and definitely no porters around to help you! By now I saw my luggage as extensions of my own arms and heaved them effortlessly down the stairs, racing to car #7 so that I might get to my reserved seat (#117) and get settled in before too many people crowded the platform or the train car.

I was in luck! Being the only foreigner on the platform, many people stopped and stared, or deferred to me and I got to sail through the crowds like a ship sailing into harbor. I boarded the train with the approval of the conductor. And then, my suitcase zipper broke, right in the doorway of the train between cars 7 and 8. I got to block the way for several moments while I picked up my things. Fortunately it was a smaller pocket at the side of the suitcase, and it only held some health/beauty aids. I had moved out of the way and kicked everything over so that others could board, and I thought I had everything picked up until I noticed a young lady with one of my razor cartridges in her hand. She was laughing and wondering what it was. Shamelessly, I plucked it out of her hand and told her in Chinese ‘It is mine’. She immediately stopped grinning and hurried along. I was too tired to care if I had offended her.

Because of my zipper mishap, I had lost my ‘early boarding’ advantage and was now in the mainstream of boarding traffic. Not an enviable position for someone as big and as burdened as I. Another problem; although I am intellectually aware that there is not much in the way of niceties when it comes to public transportation in China, I could not bring myself to bully my way into the line of people streaming on. A kindly gentleman allowed me to go before him, and once again I was carrying suitcases down the narrow aisle to my seat.

All luggage is to go overhead; there are no vacant seats to store your suitcase on and there is no aisle space. Somehow I managed to lift two of my three bags (remember their weight/size) over my head - one at a time of course! - and heave them onto the luggage racks above. The people already seated marveled at the feat and commented on my great strength – and my great size. I wish I could have been amused, but for the sake of their good mood and to maintain companionability, I mimed an Iron Man – So Strong! – gesture. Everyone in the vicinity burst out laughing, and then asked me to hoist their bags overhead. Just what I needed. I sighed and sat down after hoisting 2 of their bags to prove I’m game. My third bag I kept cradled on my lap for the entire journey.

I should have written about the Amtrak trains, and maybe I’ll make up that omission in a later post. For now I’ll just say that Amtrak train seats are luxurious, wide, clean and comfortable. Chinese train seats have nothing in common with them. They are just wide enough to accommodate a Chinese posterior, hard, uncomfortable and covered by a dust cloth that does not stay on. People step on the seats to put their luggage overhead; some even remove their shoes or move the dust cover before climbing up. No wonder I was such a hit storing baggage!

I finally got my coveted aisle seat, but in this context that was not a good thing because my posterior is modestly – no, substantially! – larger than a Chinese one. My right side, hanging over the seat and into the aisle, was flogged/beaten by all manner of baggage and appendage as people progressed down the aisle to their seat. “Par for the course” I whimpered, feeling sorry for myself. I let myself get beat; there was nowhere else to move to.

Soon enough the whistle sounded, the last few passengers scurried on board or flat out sprinted down the platform and hustled through the car. And now, we’re moving… but wait! I had a reserved seat: #117. What are all these people doing, standing in the aisle? How could the ticket taker authorize 150 people in a car designed for occupancy of 118? I still don’t have an answer.

And then, madness ensued. Not my own, personal madness – I think I’ve already established a measure of personal madness by undertaking this journey, but madness in the train car. People broke out food, games, little stools so they could sit in the aisles, only to have to get up and move so the push-cart vendors could make their way through, hawking their wares. Some vendors had food, some had fruit, some were renting computers for 20 yuan per half hour. Others were selling trinkets and newspapers which were eagerly bought, not to be read but to line the floor so people could sit down in the wake of the pushcarts. Every vendor cart that came through caused a throng of people to push themselves into the seated passengers. I was nothing special anymore; I was crowded/banged into just like everyone else. This went on for hours. And hours. For 17 of them, to be exact.

At 7:00pm, my hunger vulture returned. It had been 12 hours since KFC. The food vendor had all manner of unrecognizable food and I no longer felt adventurous, but the fruit cart had appealing stuff, so I bought 8 plums for 10 yuan – about $1.50. I eagerly bit into the first plum, even though it was hard, bitter and unripe. I lost my appetite again, and saved the other 7 for later, when they would ripen.

Being unable to sleep in this ruckus and confinement, again I watched. There were riotous moments, like when the youth and the train official got into an argument and it escalated into blows. Yes, he actually balled up his fist and tried to hit her. Fortunately, several passengers intervened and the fight ended quickly. There were families who did not get seats together, negotiating with passengers near them so they could sit with their loved ones. A married couple who looked more like father and daughter, she cross-stitched while they talked and laughed a blue streak, gazing lovingly at each other. There was the father who removed his shirt to wrap around his son, who was shivering in his sleep. When the shirt did not do the trick, he took drapes off the train windows to wrap the boy up. There was a mother who stood sleepily in the aisle for hours so that her son could sprawl out on the double seat. Every so often, she made sure he was covered, and then she went back to dozing while standing. There were two girls who did not look more than 14 years old, traveling together, huddled for warmth and curled up around each other. This greatly annoyed the businessman sitting next to them, as they occasionally leaned on him and rumpled his suit. He pushed them away every time they slumped on him.

Somewhere around 4:00 in the morning, I could not stand being hungry anymore. I carefully looked at the wares on the vendor cart: vacuum packed fowl leg – chicken or duck, who knew? Some sausages, some other things I couldn’t identify, AH! Vacuum packed peanuts! I snatched them, and a can of what looked like soup. Grand total: 15 yuan. The soup turned out to be a sweet peanut soup, which wasn’t that bad once I put some of the salty vacuum packed peanuts into it. All of the passengers who were awake watched me eat; maybe it was weird to them that I put peanuts in the peanut soup.

I have to admit that the soup, while not satisfying, certainly helped with the hunger pangs. Add an unripe plum for dessert, and I felt at least fortified. Which was a good thing, because Wuchang station was coming up, and I had to get the luggage down and get ready to meet my sponsor.

This is again a rather long post, isn’t it? But, I had to tell this story in one ‘breath’ so that you would get the full impact of this journey. If you come to China, you must experience riding the train; it is a microcosm of humanity that is absolutely alien to the American way of life. Through the discomfort, the cold, the hunger, the cramped confines and the hard seat that made my back and backside ache, I kept thinking how fortunate I am to have the strength to experience this. I hope, by this narration, that you experience it too.

Come on! Let’s get off the train, meet our sponsor and get our first glimpse of our new home!