Sunday, January 6, 2013

Don’t Mess with Christmas: Holidays and Coups

So far, we have not encountered too many holidays.  Thanksgiving was nice, but because Kelsey and I were the only two Americans in our Team Lidu family, we did not cancel classes or do anything particularly special.  I made taro root sweet potatoes with marshmallows, stuffing, and mashed potatoes.  Matt and Michael brought over some vegetable dishes and Molly brought over some wine.  We also purchased a small chicken.  It was all rather cozy and peaceful. The holiday passed and we moved on towards the next major holiday, Christmas.  We immediately started gathering Christmas decorations and thinking about presents for each other.

Now, Christmas is a big deal to most Westerners.  Even though it is predominantly thought of as a Christian celebration it is also a time for people to be with their families, give each other things and generally feel warm and fuzzy.  This year Christmas fell on a Tuesday.  Realizing this, Kelsey and I decided that we would hold one giant cultural experience class in lieu of classes for the week.  All of our students would be given Secret Santa partners, listen to English Christmas songs, and practice their English conversation skills.  We spent the preceding weeks talking about Christmas, planning the “party,” and assigning tasks to the students.  Everyone was all very excited.  About a week and a half before the party I went into the department office and asked the secretary about getting a room.  I explained that we were having a party for Christmas and that we needed a classroom that could hold about 180 students.  The secretary thought that this was an excellent idea and proceeded to find me a room.  However, the original date that we had wanted was not possible because it was during the week and we are not allowed to hold functions during the week in the evenings, only class.  I explained that it was class and that it was a cultural experience class, but she only smiled and nodded and told me the new date, time, and location.  I then relayed this information to my students and went on preparing for Christmas as happy as can be.

The week of the party came and on Tuesday of that week the foreign affairs department dropped some things off at our apartment and happened to mention that  we would be going on a trip that weekend, that we would be leaving Thursday afternoon and then, that we would be having dinner with them that Monday, on Christmas Eve.  Shocked, and a little frustrated, we explained that we had a very important party with our students that Sunday and that Kelsey taught classes all day Thursday.  They said that they could not guarantee that we would be back in time on Sunday and that it was okay, they would cancel Kelsey’s classes for her.  Now, this has happened a few times before.  We are always told at the last minute that something is happening and they are frequently canceling our classes.  We have simply been left to reschedule our classes whenever and wherever we could.  This has created a lot of stress. 

When, at the beginning of the semester, I asked how to reschedule missed classes, the secretary explained to me that we were to do it on our own.  I now know that we had an error in communication and that by “on your own” she really meant that I, on my own, go to one office and talk to someone.  That someone gives me paperwork.  I then take that paperwork to another person.  That person then processes that paperwork and talks to another group of people.  That group of people gets back to that person and then that person gets back to me.  I then reserve a room and relay this information to the secretary who takes note of it.  However, this process is incredibly complicated and full of bureaucratic nonsense and no one uses this method to reschedule classes.  All of the other teachers simply tell their class monitors to reserve a classroom at a time that is convenient for both the teacher and the students.  This is the method that we had been using so far and this is the method that we thought was the right method.  Oh, were we wrong.     

Originally, we were told that we were leaving on a Thursday and that we were going to be on a boat cruise down the Yangtze River.  We were also told that we would be picking fruit on Sunday morning.  However, plans changed, and we ended up leaving Friday morning so Kelsey did not need to cancel classes and she avoided unknown wrong doing.  Over the course of the weekend it was also decided that we would not pick fruit in the morning on Saturday because we were all cold, Kelsey was really sick, most of us had climbed a mountain (literally) the day before, and we were all too tired.  We got home in plenty of time to have our Christmas class and we were incredibly happy and ready to celebrate Christmas with our students.  The Christmas party went off without a hitch.  Everyone brought their Secret Santa gifts and all of the students showed up.  There was food, everyone was talking in English, laughing and having a great time.  The evening ended early, Kelsey and I gathered our things and headed home.  Now, you will recall that we had cancelled classes that week and instead had this one large class, which, ironically, is very much like a smaller version of the school’s sanctioned weekly event called English Corner. 

Monday came and it went by fairly smooth.  I woke up, and not having to go to class, went into Fuling with Kelsey to do our last minute Christmas shopping for the rest of Team Lidu.  We came home, wrapped presents, and saw or heard nothing from anyone until our special Christmas Eve dinner with the department.  It was really very kind of them to take us out on Christmas Eve.  I truly appreciate the attempt to make us feel like we were at home.  However, this was like Christmas dinner the Fear Factor edition.  We walked into the banquet hall of a hotel and everything was filled with bright, flashing lights.  There were speakers playing Christmas music loudly.  Directly across from the entrance was a stage.  The stage was huge and had a catwalk that extended almost all the way through the room.  Eventually, everyone arrived and a Christmas show started that was put on by the staff members of the hotel.  It was a lot of dancing and singing, all in Chinese.  There was a raffle to win money and other prizes that continued throughout the night. Then, the food started to arrive.  Now, I love food and I will eat almost anything, but much of this dinner was questionable.  It was multiple courses, each one a little bit more disgusting than the previous one.  None of it was Chinese food, which is wonderful and would have been welcome.  It was an attempt at some other cuisine, but I am not sure which.  The worst and most hideous thing that found its way in front of us was a sea cucumber.  It looked like a slug, jiggled like a slug, and was covered in slimy gravy.  I took one, tiny bite and almost spit it out.  It was disgusting.  This was followed by desert, which was an onion-paste filled pastry.   Then, the real reason that we were invited to dinner became apparent.  They wanted us, the foreigners, to get up on stage and sing and draw raffle tickets.  We were, again, being exploited.  Every time our school “takes us on a trip” or does something for us, there are cameras or there is an audience present.  I get it, it’s good publicity for the school, but sometimes I really just want someone to do something nice just to be nice, especially on Christmas Eve.  Kelsey took one for the team though and went on up.  She did a lovely job.

Matt, Michael, Molly, Kelsey, and I all ended up staying in Fuling that night.  We went to a nice, quiet, empty bar and had a beer or two.  Then we ended up at this really crazy club where we were given Santa hats and counted down to Christmas.  Really, there was a count down.  It was a great deal of fun and then we all went home.  The next day we planned to reconvene for Christmas dinner. 

Imagine my surprise, after hearing nothing on Monday about any of those cancelled classes, upon receiving a text from Michael about the secretary giving him an angry call about cancelling his classes for Tuesday.  We had all canceled classes before either because we were sick or because the school forced us to so that they could take us somewhere.  So we were very confused as to why Christmas Day of all days was suddenly a concern.  Also, why were they checking to make sure we were there?  We had never been checked on before.  Sure enough, about an hour later I got a call from the secretary asking me why I was not in my classroom.  I explained to her that it was Christmas, that my contract said that I got Christmas off, and that I had already had a makeup lesson for this day on Sunday.  She told me that I did not get Christmas off unless I already did not have class on Christmas, that my makeup lesson only counted as a class activity, and that it was forbidden.  I am certain she does not understand Western culture very well, because otherwise I do not think she would have used the words, “It is forbidden.”  I am far too stubborn and it was Christmas Day.  I was not coming into work, neither were the others, and she could talk to me about this later.  Grumpy, but awake, I proceeded to get up and get ready for Christmas.  I desperately tried not to be a Grinch and go about my day.  However, she called a second time.  I am a kind and patient person, but I am also very stubborn.  Once I am annoyed and once you give me a reason to be stubborn about something you had better not argue with me or give me any more reason to be annoyed.  That poor woman.  All I can say is that she did not try to call me again after that conversation as she realized that I was most displeased with her.  Thoroughly Grinched, I tried my best to recover.  I later commiserated with the others at dinner over their Christmas wakeup calls. 

Christmas dinner was lovely.  We brought all of our presents over to the boys’ apartment and put them under the fabulous Christmas tree that they had found.  We had another potluck dinner.  Michael made a lovely roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, and broccoli; Molly made a salad; and I made a green bean dish and donuts. Everything was warm and merry and we drank mulled wine, listened to music, ate dinner exchanged gifts and chatted.  Later that evening, we went out for a quiet drink and then came home.  It was a lovely and quiet evening full of warmth and fuzziness, just what Christmas should be.  Although we were well aware that we had staged a Christmas Coup and that we were going to get into trouble for this.  China does not take too kindly to groups of people forming together and resisting authority. 

Sure enough, the administration called a meeting for Friday about the “misunderstanding.”  We were then instructed: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.  We were also told the appropriate procedure for rescheduling class and to be more careful in the future.  We took this opportunity to talk about the level of communication between the administration and us.  We explained that we would appreciate it if we were told things more than a few days in advance and that if one of us was told something that does not mean that all of us know about it.  It was actually a very good meeting and we talked about a lot of important things that we had previously all been confused about.   The meeting also allowed the administration to save face and reestablish their authority, which is important in China.  I understand where they were coming from and respect their right to authority.  I just do not agree that being upset with us over Christmas Day is how they should choose to show it.  Funny enough, they did not care about the fact that Kelsey had cancelled all of her Thursday classes or that I had cancelled all of my Monday class, just the Tuesday ones.  

We then had a dinner Sunday night with all of our administrators at a local restaurant.  It was a great deal of fun and all of our superiors got quite drunk.  It is a rule that they must toast to everyone in the room and the poor gentlemen were drinking bai jiu[i].  As a woman, I do not have to drink bai jiu, but as a Western woman I am expected to drink beer.  Luckily, I can sip and I don’t have to ganbei (bottoms up).  The men frequently do and they are obligated to drink.  We all quickly made amends and got to know and respect each other more.  I have to say, I am rather fond of our department and I hope that I can witness many more dinners.  I will certainly work harder to communicate better with them in the future and discuss my cancellation plans with them well in advance.  However, I hope that they have learned something about us too and I certainly hope that they have learned to leave Christmas alone. 

[i] Bai jiu is a terrible invention.  At first, I thought that it was like a Chinese version of vodka, but no, even the cheapest vodka in a plastic bottle from sketchy gas station is better than bai jiu.  It is really strong.  It ranges from 60-100 proof and I am fairly certain parts of the United States, especially during the era of prohibition, would recognize it as moon shine.  Be forewarned, even the British boys from New Castle -who drink quite a lot and quite often-can’t drink too much bai jiu.  


November 8th-11th 
The weekend after Kelsey’s birthday, we decided to head to Chengdu.  The goal was to see the pandas because Kelsey is obsessed with them.  Also, my friend Tao lives there and I had been promising to visit since before I came to China.  So, I -with the help of Team Lidu and our friend Madi- meticulously planned our trip.  We booked hotels, purchased train tickets and planned yummy treats for Kelsey.

Thursday night Molly, Matt, Kelsey, Madi and I piled into Mr. Chen’s car and headed to the train station.  Although Mr. Chen is very kind and I appreciate the fact that the school pays him to drive us around, I was incredibly annoyed when he pulled out his phone and started showing us video that he had taken of the Chengdu pandas.  This, of course, ruined the surprise that we had worked so hard to conceal from Kelsey.  Kelsey was a good sport though and continued on as if she knew nothing.  Shortly after that brief interlude of ruining, he drove us to the train station. 

Unfortunately, our train was late so we got stuck waiting in the station.  Leave it to the westerners to find crazy ways to entertain themselves.  Molly immediately pulled out a bottle of liquor that she had stowed away.  Meanwhile, I pulled out some PB&J sandwiches so that we wouldn’t be total drunkies (See, Mom and Dad!  I am responsible . . .).  Alas, the bottle was small (about the size of a flask) and was soon gone.  We went to the little snack stores in the station and asked around.  Apparently, it is illegal to sell hard liquor inside the train station[i].  Anyway, we wandered into one of the little stores and Matt, who speaks really good Mandarin, managed to find someone to sell him liquor under the table.  Literally, he slipped it to Matt under the table, while I presumably purchased some legal beverage items (Again, Mom & Dad, responsible.  I’m keeping everyone fed and hydrated.).  Victory was ours!  We took our new treasure back to the others and commenced merry making. 

The train arrived and we all pushed through the mass of people and loaded on to the train.  Remember that whole thing about no lines while shopping?  The same is true for trains.  Except that there are tons more people who are all carrying luggage trying to shove through the same three exits.  Then, everyone begins frantically walking or running to the cars even though there is plenty of time to get inside and sit down.  It is quite a lot of fun actually.  It’s like an obstacle course, may the best shover win! After escaping from the mass of shovers, we got in our car, claimed our seats and headed to Chongqing.  Initially, we were heading to Chongqing as a diversion maneuver so that Kelsey would suspect that maybe we were not actually going to Chengdu (Seriously, this was an elaborate operation.  There were code names and there was even double-speak.  Curse you, Mr. Chen, curses!).  However, that quickly changed and then because our train was late we were unable to meet up with our Chongqing friends anyway.  We ended up checking in at our hotel and then heading to McDonalds[ii].  We then ended up at this strange, low-key bar.  There were Christmas decorations and pictures of Barack Obama on the walls. There was a karaoke room in one corner, which was more like a small closet with glass walls, a TV, a couple of chairs and two microphones.  There were TVs tastefully scattered throughout the rest of the bar so that the non-singing patrons could watch the music videos and see the karaoke words as they listened to the singer sing.  After sitting for some time, we finally convinced Madi to sing.  Shortly thereafter, we convinced Kelsey to sing a touching rendition of “My Heart Will Go On.”  This greatly pleased the bar attendants and the patrons.  We then decided to call it a night and head back to our hotel.  The next morning, after a rather satisfying McDonalds breakfast (God, thank you for creating hash browns.  Amen), we all went back to the train station.  Matt and Molly were on their way back to Lidu and Madi, Kelsey and I headed towards Chengdu[iii].  

Friday afternoon we arrived in Chengdu, and after briefly getting lost, showed up at our hotel.  The hotel was actually pretty nice.  Hotels in China are strange places.  They are cheaper and safer than hostels.  However, every night someone (at almost every single hotel we have been to) will slip little business cards with pictures of women on them that you can pay to come “spend time with you.”  Now, prostitution is super illegal in China and sex is a taboo subject so I am not quite sure how this custom became so popular.  I think that it would be really interesting to talk to these women.  According to a friend of mine, many of these women are university students.  It’s not that I don’t understand the motives for prostitution, it’s just that being a prostitute in a society where talking freely in public about sex (especially for women) is frowned upon must be hard. 

Shortly after dropping our things, we visited a Starbucks.  I know, I know, so much Western food!  This trip was more of Western binge than anything else.  We were in the city so we took advantage of that.  Sometimes, you just need to feel like your back home, so to Starbucks we went. Next we met up with Tao.  Tao went to Knox College in Galesburg Illinois (for you, Roger Taylor!) with me and is a native of Chengdu.  Wonderful man that he is he immediately supplied us with Tex Mex and then took us to a club that plays current Western music, had Western bartenders, and was filled with other Westerners.  Like I said, Western binge.  It was really nice to not be the only Westerners within a fifty mile radius.  In Lidu, we are the only ones so everywhere we go we get stared at or asked a number of questions.  It is particularly hard for Kelsey because she has long, blonde hair and bright blue eyes.  We had a lot of fun dancing and talking.  It was super nice and relaxing to know that we could dance or drink without being watched or accosted by strangers. 

Tao grabbed us a taxi and we all headed back to the hotel.  Sadly, tired and tipsy me left my camera in the taxi L.  Oh, well.  You win some and you lose some.  It was old and starting to act strange anyway.  Besides, if I am going to pretend to be an adult, then I should be more responsible for my things.  Lesson learned. 

The next day, we woke up and went straight to Starbucks for coffee and cinnamon rolls.  We then hopped back on the metro, met up with Tao, and headed to the panda reserve.  It was everything that we had dreamed of and more.  Pandas are adorable.  The red pandas were even cuter.  They look like little foxes!  Kelsey and the rest of us had a brief conversation about whether she should steal one, but she decided that it would be a bad idea and that China would probably frown upon that. 

After a few hours at the panda place, Tao, Kelsey and I headed back into the city.  Madi went to go visit some of her friends.  We wandered around Chengdu for a bit and then ended up at Pizza Hut for dinner.  At which place, we introduced Tao to all the wonders of stuffed crust.  Tao then walked us back to our hotel and we all said goodbye.    

Sunday morning Kelsey and I met up with Madi and got on the six-hour non-bullet train back to Fuling.  Chengdu was wonderful and I cannot wait to go back there.  It is a fairly clean, relaxed, beautiful city and I highly recommend going there.  Everyone was pleasant and I felt completely comfortable.  I had a great time and sincerely hope that I get a chance to spend more time there than just one crazy weekend.[iv]

[i] Although, it should be noted that public drinking is allowed in China and you will not get in trouble for having an open bottle of alcohol with you.  It is frowned upon to be drunk in public, especially women.  You can be drunk, but you need to be a classy drunk. 
[ii] I hadn’t eaten McDonalds in almost two years.  It was heavenly. Never has a cheeseburger and fries been more loved than these were. 
[iii] I need to point out here that the bullet trains in China are super nice.  Not only are the seats incredibly comfortable, but the bathrooms are nicer than any train bathroom I have ever seen.  You know you have lived in China when you rate everything based on how nice the bathroom is . . .

[iv] A special thanks to Tao for being awesome! .  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Da Mu Crazy Bus!!!

On Tuesday, I ran into two of my co-workers.  They asked me, “has so and so told you about the outing we’re going on this weekend?”  To which I responded that I hadn’t and that it sounded like fun.  The next day, our Foreign Affairs Officer told the other foreign English teachers and me that we would meet the other teachers at the north gate to the school.  I thought that this was strange because the other teachers had told us to meet the bus at the administration building.  However, as we are often the last to know anything and times and places frequently change, I didn’t question this new information. 

The day of the outing came and I stumbled out of bed, quickly packed some last minute things in my backpack, grabbed some breakfast and checked in with Kelsey.  Kelsey and I then headed to the gate.  It was a cold, wet and rainy day and we stood at the gate for a while before receiving a call from another teacher to go to another gate.  We marched on over and found the other foreign teachers all huddled together in a damp heap.  Since no one had shown up yet, we called around and were informed that we were in the wrong place, but to stay where we were because they would soon come to get us.  About five minutes later a tour bus pulled up.  We got on and headed on our way.

I would like to say that the bus ride was calm and not worth mentioning.  However, I must say that it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.  The mountains in China are beautiful; filled with lush forests, waterfalls, streams, and beautiful cliff faces.  It is a bit hard to appreciate these things when you are on a tour bus careening up and down a mountain on an incredibly narrow road.  A road that was frequently filled with cars, vans and trucks that were coming straight towards us. At which point, our bus driver would slam on the breaks and honk his horn.  I could not help but think that though the stream beneath the small ledge of mountain we were on was beautiful, it would certainly mean a swift and painful death for us if we got even a few inches closer to the edge.  At one point, I screamed.  It was more of a wail, really.  However, everyone heard it and went quiet for a few seconds.  I was mortified.  After about two hours of near-death-experience, we finally arrived at our destination.

We, the other teachers from the English department and I, were staying at a local hotel.  Kelsey and I were put in a neat room with two beds, lavender curtains, and a television.  The bathroom was a bit scary though.  Chinese bathrooms are not for the faint of heart.  This particular bathroom consisted of nothing more than a tiny sink, a squatty potty, and a moveable shower head all in the confined space of a rather small closet.  It was also filled with mosquitos, the toilet did not flush (we had to use the shower head to wash everything down…), and had a picture of a half-naked woman smack in the center of the wall opposite the door.  Needless to say, we tried to spend as little time in that particular room as possible.  However, the beds were comfortable and the hotel owners we kind so we genuinely enjoyed every other aspect of our stay there.
Shortly after arriving, some of the other teachers and I went for a brief walk and then we returned to the hotel for a lunch with all of the others.  After lunch, we piled back into the dreaded bus and drove further into the woods and mountain.  Now, I am still not quite sure how the bus managed to get up that narrow pathway.  I was instantly concerned when we were all instructed to sit in the front of the bus so that the driver would have more control.  At one point, the men in our party even had to pull a tree down that had fallen across the “road.” This was quite a hilarious sight to all of us women and many took pictures of the poor guys grunting and straining to move the tree. 

We quickly ended up at a farm where we picked kiwi and watermelon for about one or two hours.  It was a lot of fun.  Although that day was cold and damp, the breathtaking view of the mountains surrounded in mist, deep green forests, and vines of fruit made the damp completely worth weathering.  We then loaded up our fruit, got back on the bus and went to the Da Mu Flower Valley.

The flower valley was gorgeous.  I have never seen so many flowers in one place before; yellow, purple, blue, red, orange, you name a color and it was there.  I was also interested in the scarecrows.  There were scarecrows everywhere, but these weren’t your average scarecrows.  They were all of different shapes and sizes.  Each one had a unique face.  Some were in pairs, some were alone, some were people, and some were animals.  I was particularly fond of a wedding procession of life-sized mice.  It was all very nice.  When we couldn’t stand the beauty anymore, we walked back to our hotel. 

It was about three or four in the afternoon when we got back.  The teachers from our department had gathered to play mahjong in one of the rooms.  It was fascinating to watch them play.  They were all so fast and they played on this really cool table that shuffled and set up the tiles for them.  They showed us to another table and another teacher, Andy and two student reporters who came on the trip for the school newspaper, showed us how to play.  I already knew, so they spent most of their time helping Molly, Kelsey and Matt.  Kelsey and Molly did a great job and won quite frequently, whereas poor Matt had a hard time.  His helper also did not seem as good of a player as the other two helpers.  They also taught us how to gamble.  I have always wanted to know how to gamble at mahjong, but my Chinese friends would never tell me.  It was a lot fun and we ended up playing until dinner time. 

After dinner, we all went for a brief walk and then sat down with a deck of cards.  We taught Andy how to play Go Fish and Bullshit.  We played for several hours and enjoyed good conversation, company, and snacks.  I went to the room next door and watched some of the teachers play mahjong for a bit.  It is my goal to get good enough at this game to consistently beat some of my friends (you know who you are!) when I get back home.

The next day I woke up early and went with Matt and some of the other English teachers to the fair they were having that morning.  It was just like a farmer’s market back home. The local farmers set up tables of produce or laid out their wares on a canvas matt on the ground.  There were also a number of squawking geese, chickens, and ducks waiting to meet their sad fate.  It was pretty noisy.  Other than the noises of the unfortunate animals, there were also people bartering over prices, talking with their friends, pushing carts, and driving around on motorcycles.  We wandered around and people watched.  The best part of the fair was watching a group of people prepare a feast for some type of large event.  My guess is that they were preparing for a wedding.  They had these huge woks on the side of the street, sitting over huge fires and filled with vast quantities of meat.  A man stood behind them tending it.  Occasionally, he would take a large hunk of meat out with a big hook and place it on a table where an assembly line of people were slicing and processing it.  Across the street, there were tables set up with bowls and spices.  It looked to me like they were preparing to make dumplings (Jiaozi).  Although I could have stayed and watched this for quite some time, it was time for breakfast and we were instructed to head back to the hotel. 

After breakfast, we got back on the bus and headed to our lunch location.  I have no idea what this place is called, but apparently it is a famous place that government officials often come to eat at despite the fact that it is a bit difficult to get to.  It was some sort of fish farm in the mountains.  The fish from this part of the mountain are said to be so tender and pure, because of the stream water that they are raised in, that they can be eaten raw.  The farm was very pretty and we got to explore the cement ponds of fish and see the complex way they filtered the stream water into and around the ponds.  The fish were pretty and we got to sit near the ponds, relax, and drink hot flower tea (hua cha) while we waited for lunch.  The lunch was super tasty and I enjoyed the fish (both raw and cooked).  With full stomachs, we were loaded back onto the bus and headed back down the mountain.  By this time, I was used to the terrifying mountain roads and was more able to focus on all of the pretty scenery.

Overall, this was a lovely outing.  Even though the trip began with a rocky start, I had a great deal of fun and got to know my fellow teachers better than before.  Picking fruit was enjoyable and we all got some to take home.  I probably have more kiwi than I know what to do with, but it tastes good and I am happy to have it.  This trip only further endeared China to me.  China is a beautiful place full of astounding beauty and wonderful people.  I am so happy that I have this chance to experience it.  Even though there are a lot of people here and I spend most of my time in the city, it is nice to know that I can escape to places like Da Mu and enjoy fresh air, kind people, good food, and breathtaking sights.  

The Residency Scramble

Getting our residency permits has proven to be a difficult and bureaucratic process.  One of the requirements of getting said permits is having a thorough physical examination that proves that we are healthy and capable of teaching for a year in China.  Although we had all gotten these examinations done in the states before we came and brought the paperwork with us, it turned out that this was not enough.  We needed to have the physical exam redone in China.  Thus began our adventures at the International Travel Healthcare Center of Chongqing.

The visit to the International Healthcare Center was perhaps one of the most dizzying and confusing experiences of my life.  We had to leave early in the morning so all of us slept on the way into the city.  When we arrived, we were hastily woken up and rushed through the rain into a loud office.  At this point my mind was just waking up and I could not understand everyone was shouting at us and pointing to a small, sitting area in the corner. I finally understood that the other teachers and I were to go over to that area to fill out paperwork.  Bob and Mr. Chen immediately started handing out papers.  Bob was frantically running around shouting in broken English and Chinese.  He kept running back and forth from one desk to another.  Meanwhile, my half-asleep self was desperately trying to figure out what was going on and what I needed to do. 

By the time I finished filling out the forms, I had woken up.  I was then whisked by a frantic, and somewhat rough, Mr. Chen (who speaks no English) to a window.  Before I knew what was happening, some lady behind a counter was taking my picture.  I was pushed along to yet another window where they pointed a laser at my head and, the next thing I knew, Mr. Chen was assertively guiding me up the stairs.  Bob, at this point, had completely disappeared.  This was actually preferred because I honestly think he was making all of us very anxious.  We later found out that he left to go to the British Consulate to take care of another teacher who had lost his passport.  However, at this point, his disappearance was a mystery to us.
The next stage of our health check-up was more exciting.  We were shepherded into chairs while Mr. Chen exclaimed loudly in Chinese.  They took our blood and then we were herded into a hallway.  We were separated and pushed toward separate rooms.  First, I had an eye exam.  This was the most confusing eye exam of my life.  I was given one of those things you cover one eye with and told to look at a chart.  Well, not told exactly, it was more like motioned at.  Consequently, It took a long time for me to understand that I needed to indicate whether the lines went up, down, right or left rather than say, “W,” “M,” etc.  The woman giving the exam initialed my paper and I was sent back into the hallway.  I rejoined the others briefly and then was pushed into a room labeled, “internal medicine.”  There was a thin curtain with a young Chinese girl lying down on the other side.  I was instructed by a very stern and cold Chinese woman to put my things down and take of my bra.  She said this in a barking, angry tone that did not help my already frazzled self-control.  A few moments later, she practically forced me onto the bed and began to examine me with a stethoscope.  It was as if she was trying to impale me with the thing!  She dug it, rather hard, into my stomach and my chest.  She finished with that and forced me to a chair and literally pushed my arm into a blood pressure machine.  I was very surprised at how low my blood pressure was considering the amount of stress I was under at this point (108/72).  I was then pushed back into the hall, bra still unlatched and my things jumbled in my arms.

About three minutes later, Kelsey appeared from the same room I had just managed to help her with her bra when a woman appeared and shepherded the two of us to the “ECG room.”  Getting the ECG was short and easy.  They had these weird suction cup, plunger shaped things that they attached to my chest.  The woman administering the test clamped pinchers (that looked like the pinchers you attach to your car battery when it dies) to my legs and arms.  I felt like Frankenstein’s monster.  I waited for Kelsey to finish her ECG and then the two of us were sent to have an ultra sound.  Now, I am a pretty ticklish person and that goo they put us was really cold.  I felt so sorry for the young woman examining me because I was rolling with laughter.  I couldn’t help it!  My experiences that day had just been so bazar and then this woman was tickling me.  What was I supposed to do?  Kelsey was unable to take my laughter and started laughing behind the curtain.  This, of course, only made the situation more funny and inspired even more laughter.  Kelsey had her exam and we were ushered back into the hallway.

We were pointed to the bathroom and told to take a urine test and then sent to the basement for an x-ray.  I have a chest expander in my right chest and I was rather concerned about how I was going to explain this to the x-ray technician who obviously did not speak English.  Apparently, it didn’t matter.  I was pulled into the room, told to raise my arms over my head and the x-ray commenced.  Now, I have had a lot of x-rays and, quite frankly, this was the strangest x-ray experience that I have ever had.  I did not have to take off my clothes, my piercings, or my glasses.  There was also not any sort of protection for the lower half of my body from radiation.  I am pretty sure this was not an entirely safe way to have an x-ray.  However, considering that I have already been through six weeks and then three boosts of radiation treatment I figured, “Eh what’s the harm in a little more radiation?”  We were then sent back up upstairs to the main lobby and registration area. 

The other teachers and I reconvened in the lobby.  At this point we all realized that both Bob and Mr. Chen had both disappeared.  We chatted for a brief period with other foreign teachers from other schools receiving the same tests, got some water, and waited.  After about an hour we all became nervous.  Finally, we called Bob.  Bob explained that we had six hours, “to play” as we liked.  We had not been told that we had this time and thus, had a brief discussion about what we should do.  We decided to go into the main square of the city and kill some time.  It was pouring rain and one of the teachers, a Japanese man who spoke Chinese, procured some umbrellas from the main desk.  We then got on a bus for about an hour.  By this point, I was pretty cranky.  We knew that we were going to have blood tests done so none of us had eaten since the night before.  We were tired, hungry and wet.  The first thing that we did when we got off of the bus was go to KFC. 

KFC is popular in China.  In fact, it is probably more liked in China than in the United States.  Stepping out of the cold into that KFC was like breathing fresh air.  Although there are many culture specific foods on the menu, there were also things that can be found in the states.  Kelsey and I were ecstatic to find chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes and ice cream sundaes.  I think we needed this.  The food in China is wonderful, but we needed a bit of home after our stressful day and KFC hit the spot.  We proceeded to spend the rest of our time in a bookstore and then took a taxi to meet Bob at the British Consulate for some last minute errands before heading home. 

About two weeks later we were again herded into a car and taken to Chongqing.  Mr. Chen looked after us and made sure that we got breakfast before going to the Visa office.  Bob gave us some forms to fill out.  This time we were ready for stressed out Bob and were not as easily affected by his frantic rambling.  We filled out our forms calmly and moved from window to window at the desk.  The whole process took about an hour.  In about one week I shall have my residency permit.  I am super excited because this will make traveling in, out and around China much easier.  I cannot wait to get to see more of China.  Although the experience of getting our residency permits has been a bit hectic, and might have almost given poor Bob a heart attack, it was all worth it.  I love China and couldn’t be happier to be considered a legitimate part of my new community.    

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Always Carry an Umbrella

Over the last couple of weeks I have learned a few things about living in China.  First, you always need to understand the Chinese Way.  Secondly, nothing is ever as it seems and you will frequently be pleasantly surprised.  Finally, always, and I mean always, bring an umbrella.

After I finish class or at the end of my day Kelsey and I usually go in search of food.  There are restaurants everywhere, but we have two that we particularly like.  Mrs. Yang’s noodle shop (this is not the title, but it is a noodle shop and it does belong to Mrs. Yang) and another little restaurant owned by a couple on the opposite side of the school.  On a particularly nice day after one of our first few days in Lidu (Lidu is a kind of suburb of Chongqing where our school is located), the other two boys, Matthew and Michael, and Kelsey and I decided to go out for dinner.  It is pretty cheap to go out and get food and because all of the food tastes so good here we often go out to eat.  We ended up at the couple’s restaurant and it started to rain.  At first we were unconcerned because it did not seem to be raining that much and we figured that, by the time we had finished eating, it would stop.  We were wrong.  In fact, the rain continued and got even harder.  The husband, realizing our predicament, gave us an umbrella.  Luckily the rain slowed down as we were leaving.  The boys, always interested in exploring new places, pointed us to a bar nearby and said that they had been there before and that it was a good time. 

It was not a good time at all.  Kelsey and I were immediately met with what looked like a bad disco from the seventies.  There was an empty dance floor/stage to our right and centered in the room with a pole set of to the side.  On our left was a bar and near the bar there was a young man sitting on a stool with a microphone singing.  To the singing man’s credit he was not that bad.  There was a cigarette haze that became heavier as we ventured further into the room.  Kelsey and I immediately sat on some vinyl seats in a booth while the boys got drinks.  Shortly after we arrived, it was around 9 p.m., the few young women that were present all left.  Kelsey and I were left sitting there while every man in the room stared at us.  Kelsey speaks absolutely no Chinese and the boys were occupied at the bar.  This left all conversation to me and boy did those boys try to have conversations.  Let me just say that I now understand why young women do not go to bars in Lidu.  We stayed for a short period of time and Kelsey and I explained to the boys that it was time to go home.  They finished their drinks and we left. 

I wish I could say that everything got better after we left, but it didn’t.   It was pouring rain and pitch dark.  We had one, little umbrella and the minute we stepped outside we remembered that we did not know our way around yet.  Fortuitously, two young women took pity on us and helped us find our way back.  One of the more pleasant surprises of living in China is that someone is always willing to go out of their way to help you out.  By the time we arrived home, all of us were sopping wet and shivering.  However, we did make it home and from that point on, I make sure to always carry an umbrella wherever I go.  

Getting Accustomed to the Customs

The other CIEE instructors and I have been here for just a couple of weeks.  We have been paired with a Foreign Affairs Officer named Bob, who is a bit on the timid side.  It is my understanding that the poor man is overworked and has been tasked with dealing with 9 foreign teachers most of whom do not speak enough Chinese to get by.  His English is not the best and this leads to some conflict on both ends.  Other than the language barrier between Bob and us, everything has gone pretty well.   We have managed to go on a couple of adventures and made friends with our favorite restaurant owners.  Everyone is kind and willing to help and our students are absolutely wonderful. 

When we first arrived at the Chongqing airport we gathered our things and met three men at the airport who were waiting for us; Ferris, Bob, and Mr. Chen.  Mr. Chen is our driver, Ferris was the Foreign Affairs Officer (he has since left the school) and Bob is our current Foreign Affairs Officer.  Bob is a very polite young man of about 30 or so who tries really hard to speak English, but has difficulty speaking.  He is much better at reading and writing.  He was tasked with the job at the last minute and started exactly the same day we did.  We piled into two separate cars Kelsey and I in a car with Mr. Chen and Bob, and the two boys in the other with Ferris.  After some rather intense effort at conversation we finally decided to get some sleep.  About half-way to our destination we were awoken by Bob.  He, in faltering English, finally managed to get out the sentence, “Do you have any problems that you want to take care of in the bathroom?”  Both of us looked at each other horrified and then asked Bob, “Do you mean do we need to use the bathroom?”  To which he said, “Yes” and we breathed a sigh of relief.  This was the beginning of our relationship with Bob.  
Although he has gotten much better at communicating with us and we are slowly figuring things out, it has been a bit difficult.  Bob’s favorite words are, “I will fix all problem (grand pause), tomorrow.”    

The next day we were sent to the main office in the Foreign Languages Department to get our schedules and books.  We were to begin teaching the Monday after we arrived and none of us knew what classes we would be teaching.  I am teaching two writing classes from 8:30 to noon on Monday and then I teach from 8:30a.m. until 6p.m. on Tuesday.  Class is a lot of fun.  All of my students are eager to learn and seem to like me.  The first classes all received the same presentation about me and were able to ask me questions and tell me something about them.  They pretty much all asked the same questions: "Are you married," "How old are you," "Do you have a boyfriend," "Are you interested in finding a boyfriend in China,"  "Do you like Chinese boys or American boys better," and so on.  However, on the second day of my writing class, I am pretty sure all of my students were a bit overwhelmed.  The writing process can be a bit daunting and although all of them have covered various aspects of writing such as grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure none of them have had to write a coherent, structured essay before.  We went over thought webs, lists, and outlines.  I plan to continue to stress the importance of planning papers before writing them and slowly incorporate more about grammar as we go along. 

Another aspect of living here is learning how to shop.  Those who know me know that I am usually a pretty good shopper.  I go in with a set list and a budget and I usually come out with more or less what I intended to get.  Shopping here is a bit hectic.  Speed is important; particularly in the checkout line.  It does not help that our Chinese is not good enough yet to ask clear questions about the things we need.  I usually end up doing a lot of acting, which the store clerks think is hilarious, and getting led to something that is not quite what I am looking for, such as face wash instead of lotion.  

On a particularly ambitious day the boys, Kelsey, another teacher, and I decided to go into Fuling, a larger town nearby, in order to purchase phones, cleaning supplies, and cooking supplies.  The phone shopping was terrible.  Our driver, Mr. Chen (who we believe, but are not sure, is a regular driver paid by the school), took us into the store and tried his best to help us.  What ensued was a frantic frenzy of pointing, bad Chinese and confusion.  Most of us managed to get the phone thing sorted out and then we went into the shopping complex.  Now, I have seen malls before, but in China mall takes on a whole new meaning.  There are floors and floors of stores.  Sometimes one department store has multiple floors with different types of items on each floor.  Except, if you wish to exit a floor you must purchase your items from the floor you are on before going to the next.  Kelsey and I had a list and we thought that we were prepared.  However, we were not ready for the large amount of people in the store, let alone the confusing placement of items.  On more than one occasion we found a saleswoman and acted out the things we needed.  By the end of our shopping the women were all standing nearby and watching us out of pure amusement.  Finally, we made it to the checkout lane.  

The checkout lane is a battlefield.  First of all, there is no such thing as a line in China.  I mean, it looks like there is a line and people seem to be acting as if there is an organized structure, but there isn’t.  At least it is not the same type of organized structure that we are used to being a part of.  Also, if you do not stand your ground you will be cut.  You must be ready to make your point and if that little old lady wants your spot, she’s aggressive enough to get it and you cannot be afraid to assert your position.  Kelsey and I have taken turns shielding each other’s line position.  When you finally get to the checkout register it is of utmost importance that you have your money ready.  If you do not have it ready everyone else gets pretty annoyed with you.  Also, they will start scanning and bagging other people’s items while you are fumbling through your wallet and trying to remember how the money works.  That was not a good day.  The phones were much more expensive than they should be and most of us had spent all of our cash.  I had also forgotten my debit card.  Kelsey assumed hers would be okay, but she didn’t have her pin number and needed to run it as credit.  Sadly, no one spoke good enough Chinese to make this understood and they refused to run it as credit.  One of the boys, Mathew, ended up helping us out and we paid him back later.  However, this was quite frustrating and all of the people “in line” behind us were not happy.  Shortly thereafter, we caught a taxi and went back to the school. 

Overall, life in Lidu is nice.  I like my students, Bob tries his best to do what he can, and the shopping has gotten easier.  Kelsey and I have had time to acclimate ourselves and getting lost does not happen as often.  We have also made friends with our favorite restaurant owners and they are more than happy to help us when we need it. Although the first couple of weeks have been a bit hectic, I am sure that over time everything will calm down.  I am very excited to be here and cannot wait to discover more about China.  



The trip to Shanghai was pretty uneventful.  My parents and I woke up at 2 a.m., rolled into the car, and headed to Moline. Once there, the strap broke on my bag, which was pretty unfortunate.  As a result, I was forced to lug my little book bag around on my hip while simultaneously working with my carry on and checked luggage.  At the gate for my flight from O-hare I met up with four other girls in the CIEE program.  Happily, we all had seats close to each other on the plane.

The twelve hour plane ride was rather boring.  I hadn’t brought any books with me and the movie player wasn’t working.  I slept through most of it.  The food was kind of off, but what more can you expect from American Airlines? I pretty much slept the entire time.

We all arrived at the Shanghai, Pudong Airport in a desperate, sweaty jumble.  We found one of our guides, Sharon, holding a sign and flocked to her like lost kittens.  We then met with several other CIEE teachers and filtered out of the airport into the bus.  Our hotel is clean and fairly quiet.  The first thing I did once I got my key was rush into my room and take a shower.  Following my shower, I retrieved something from the front desk and met up with some other CIEE people.  We decided to go exploring and walked around the quart yard in front of the hotel.  We briefly went back to our rooms to pick up some items, collected a couple more people and exited the campus in search of food.  We ended up at a mall a couple of blocks away from the campus.  We stopped at a brightly colored, and very full, hot pot place.  Between the five of us and a very patient waiter we managed to order a decent meal.  The two young men in our party did not do as well as the three girls; they ended up with more food than they could possibly think of eating.  We then relocated to the hotel.  I wandered around a bit more and then returned to my room.

Once I got back to my room, I immediately noticed a conglomeration of luggage that had not been there before as well as a hairbrush on the sink that clearly did not belong to me.  About fifteen minutes later my new roommate, Kelsey, came in.  She is super cheerful and we quickly realized that we have a lot in common with each other.  Shortly thereafter we went to bed.

Breakfast the next morning was a bit of an adventure.  There was some normal food such as tea, toast, and rolls and then some more interesting items.  Among the interesting items were noodles, dumplings, sticky buns with red bean paste and many other new food stuffs that we weren’t used to seeing; especially at breakfast.  I tried a bit of the unusual stuff and then a couple of normal items.  We met up with some more CIEE members and then headed back to the room.

It doesn’t feel weird being here yet.  In fact, it feels quite normal.  I am not sure how long this will last, because it is obvious to me that my Chinese is poor and that getting in and around places is going to be a bit complicated.  However, it feels right.  I am very happy to be here, relieved even.  I am sure that culture shock will hit sooner or later, but this is definitely a different experience from Africa or America.  Perhaps this is because I am more used to traveling at this point.  It is not strange, I like living out of my suitcase, and meeting new people is always exciting.

I am also fascinated by the sheer number of people.  People are everywhere! Apartment complexes fill the city.  There are clothes drying in several windows and balconies.  People are out jogging, practicing Taichi, and children are everywhere.  It’s all really hard to take in at once.  I find myself staring at them and frequently have to remind myself that this is rude.  Shanghai has been a lovely experience so far.  There are a lot of new things to look at and jet lag certainly hasn't hit yet.  I hope the next few days are fun and I cannot wait to get to Chongqing.  I am desperately hoping to see the place that I will be living for the next year.