Thursday, December 14, 2006

Italian Noodles, Chinese Fire

Lately we seem to be seeing a lot of He Le, the young and charismatic owner of the bar China Fire. Last Saturday he invited us to invade his bar in the afternoon to cook Western food, and stay all night to hang out and drink. The menu included spaghetti, steak (of sorts), fruit salad, fish, and kebabs. I haven't had pasta (or "Italian noodles" as it is known here) for around 11 months, so I was pretty thrilled. He Le provided the spaghetti and other ingredients that you can't find here, and was suspiciously unwilling to give away his source. I suppose somewhere in the back alleys of Lanzhou there is an illicit trade in Oregano.

China Fire is getting well ready for Christmas, and luckily Stephen was able to provide us with accompanying music on his iPod. It turns out I love Christmas music when it hasn't been shadowing my every step for 8 weeks. We've become fond of He Le; when he has a free moment, he loves to come over and play cards, chat, and encourage drinking games. His girlfriend also seems to be among the friendliest and most approachable girls I've met in Zhangye.

My Chinese teacher Lina was also in attendance, and was responsible for probably my favorite moment of the evening. As is her habit, Danielle was overly excited about something or other during a drinking game, and said "shit!". So Lina (who is an extraordinarly polite young Chinese woman) said "Danny is always saying 'shit'. What does 'shit' mean?" Maybe you had to be there. Altogether I spent around 7 hours at China Fire, and in fact we were there last night, only to be invited again tonight for Danielle's birthday. I think my social life in Zhangye is probably more enjoyable than at college.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Chinese "Friends" in Bars

With the addition of two young American Peace Corps teachers in Zhangye this term, the "Friday Nights for Foreigners" tradition that began last term has been much more lively. We always meet for dinner on Friday, and this term we generally end the evening bar-hopping on European Street. Yes, that was "bar-hopping"; Zhangye, with its nearest international neighbor being Mongolia, has a cooler bar scene than my American hometown. In particular we've come to like two: "Gary's Friend's Bar", with the owner's girlfriend being a generally agreed front-runner for Most Beautiful Woman in Zhangye, and China Fire. China Fire has a good logo to go with a great name: the place is covered in posters with a flaming huo, the character for "fire".

Strange and amusing things usually happen when foreigners stay up past the time that decent people go to bed in Zhangye. Last time I went out, we attracted an unwelcome, but not unusual, amount of attention at Gary's Friend's Bar. This was, of course, focused on Danielle, who is not only foreign but a young female with blonde hair. She was double-teamed or triple-teamed this time, with a guy on each side, one of whom Gary was sure was Japanese. To this he would only respond confusingly, in English, "I am Japanese guide-o!". By the end of the night, Danielle told me "I think I've been told 'I love you' more times tonight than during the rest of my life combined". I had my own new best friend, who was drunk and mostly repeated the same conversation about seeing me play guitar at Hexi University, occasionally adding emphasis by playing air-guitar and saying "very beautiful!" in English.

Stephen also got a lot of attention, as his beard and long hair also make him a particular novelty. The owner of the bar, Gary's friend, insisted he looked like someone, whose Chinese name didn't make sense to any of us. Finally he found a photo in a magazine: Viggo Mortensen, best known for playing "Aragorn" in The Lord of the Rings. Apparently worried that the hero among us might be under-armed, he fetched a large and expensive-looking dagger (from where, I have no idea) and insisted that Stephen accept it as a gift. Someone soon pointed out that "hey, you look like him too!", referring to the poster of Kurt Cobain on the back wall. To anyone who has felt embarrassed about not being able to tell Chinese people apart, I assure you that they can't tell us apart, and are probably less embarrassed about it. As the swarming of weird, drunk Chinese men began, Stephen, who normally leaves early because his school is farther away, asked "is it usually like this after I leave?", and we assured him it was nothing out of the ordinary.

In an earlier night at the "Halloween Bar" (giant fake spiderweb on the wall), Danielle attracted a particularly persistent friend. As can be seen from the picture (which Danielle may or may not appreciate me putting on the internet), he had had a fair share of alcohol, and was getting a little too close for her comfort. Interacting with locals who pay no attention to the language barrier is generally a good thing, but possibly Danielle finds an exception in sweet nothings being whispered into her ear in unintelligible Chinese, peppered with the occasional "I love you" in English. But then again I could be wrong.

Live in Zhangye Prison

As probably goes without saying, performing rock music inside a prison to a crowd of Chinese criminals was memorable. For some reason, none of the Chinese people I was with seemed to find it as amusing as I did. The daily stares from Chinese people haven't fazed me for a long time, but as we walked through the room towards the stage, I couldn't help but feel self-conscious about a few hundred convicts turning in unison to watch my every move. The performance was on a rather official-looking stage in the cafeteria, with a red banner about World Aids Day; it seems the prison has a decent entertainment budget.

I hadn't practiced with them for months, and even on the stage I had not the slightest idea what songs we were playing. I finally asked Little Ma what song we were going to play first, and he just said "don't worry, we're playing the songs you know". For some reason the Guitar Club is not keen on learning new songs. The music went over pretty well with the audience, which included the guards at the front, and Little Ma knows how to entertain a crowd (not that I ever know what he's saying). The power went out during the middle of a song, which was slightly awkward (I'll refrain from making any cheesy comments about our "rocking out" here), but otherwise things went well. A few of the inmates actually performed, with mixed results, and I was unfortunately talked into a poor performance of an English song. I refuse to sing in front of a crowd of three in America, yet in China somehow I'm willing to sing in front of more than 200 prisoners. And Hotel California reared its monstrous, outdated head again, with just me and Little Ma playing guitar. I hope there aren't any serious long-term effects on my taste in music from my stay in China. But I think my favorite moment was near the end, when my friend encouraged the crowd to join him in a sing-along of a song that everyone but me seemed to know by heart, and I was treated to the spectacle of dozens of hardened young men singing their hearts out to a daydreamy Chinese song from the inside of a prison. Just when I think there are few surprises left in Zhangye...

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Very Chinese Ticket Hall

Anyone who has traveled in China will appreciate this:

Jawdropper, Showstopper, Collarpopper

Little Ma, the "rock star" of Zhangye, called me this afternoon for the first time in a while. He told me he wanted my help translating something that was in English. The idea of trying to translate Chinese for someone sounded exciting, although I was sure I was in over my head, whatever it was. That's him in the picture, which is from an earlier night at a dance club (and Gary can be seen doing what he does best in the background). When I arrived at his shop, there was an amusing scene: Little Ma and several of his friends hunched with furrowed brows over a big, fancy effects pedal for electric guitar, which had instructions and markings that were entirely in English. It was an elaborate, complicated effects pedal which would take me a couple of long afternoons in a basement to master even in English, so I wasn't of much use at all. Oddly, the Chinese for things like "flanger" and "effects parameters" haven't come up in my textbooks yet. However, I did get the chance to pick up a few useful guitar-related words along the way. I'm meant to go back tomorrow afternoon for practice, and then perform with his band at 3:00. I asked where the performance was, and he laughed and said at a jianlao, a word I didn't know. So, I looked it up in the dictionary: prison. Apparently a policeman invited him to perform there (he seems to know a lot of people). He also mentioned 1000 something-something which I didn't understand, and I can only hope he meant there would be one thousand inmates there. This should be interesting. I've been getting bored of his guitar shop, but maybe he's worth staying friends with after all.

Beef Noodles and Hot Pot: A Very Chinese Evening

On Tuesday night a man that me and Andrew have befriended invited us to come down to his noodle shop, and I will describe the night to give an idea of a typical evening of hanging out with Andrew and his Chinese friends (who, due to his previously mentioned conversation skills and friendliness, are numerous). We started off with a couple of bowls of Beef Noodles, the specialty of his and many other small noodle shops. Beef Noodles originally come from the capital of this province, so our students are proud of them and easily excited by their mere mention. Andrew had the idea of us watching him make the noodles and taking pictures and video of the process with my camera, which more than pleased him. When asked if that would be ok, he loudly said something very similar to "Of course you can take pictures! I am very happy!" I've always wanted to get a better view of the noodle-making, and it turned out to be picture-worthy in all its noodle-wacking and cauldron-bubbling glory.

After cleaning up (I decided against documenting the dish "washing" process) with his wife, he took us out for a second meal further down the road. His mother-in-law also came, a jovial and meddling woman who I found amusing. She spent much of the evening trying to talk us into letting her fix us up with a wife or two, possibly her unmarried daughter. Despite our protests and excuses, our friend (who I'll call Little Liu, as in the Chinese habit of putting xiao, little, in front of a friend's surname) insisted on taking us for hot pot. However, it was a simple place with a hot plate for every table and not the usual two-hour extravaganza in a fancy restaurant. The owner of the place, who had a used-car salesman cheesyness I kind of liked, was delighted to see two foreign and Chinese-speaking customers. He soon requested a picture with us, and jetted off to borrow a camera. He presented us with a plate of fruit (gifts are not unusual, but in all cases previous have been something I don't want), and tried very hard to treat us to some beers with him. But it was a school night, and we are, of course, responsible teachers.

After saying goodbye to our Chinese friends Andrew suggested a quick stop for naicha, "milk tea", at a place we like in front of the school. I had been fairly quiet during the evening, because Andrew's Chinese ability is well ahead of mine and I think and speak too slowly even when I do understand the conversation, and liked the idea of ending things in English. It's actually Andrew who usually carries the Chinese conversations, and there are few pauses. This didn't last long, however, as a man who was obviously drinking with his friends got wind of Andrew's Chinese, and was especially amused by a few words of Zhangyehua (Zhangye dialect) we could muster. He invited himself to sit down with us, and this time we didn't get out of drinking, as he had bottles ordered and glasses poured before we had time to protest. We insisted on leaving after just a few glasses (and mind you, in China they drink beer out of shot glasses), but he managed to exchange numbers with Andrew and promise to invite him out to eat sometime. Luckily he didn't take to me, mostly asking me what I was thinking about so quietly and why I insisted on saying things to Andrew in English. In those four hours, me and Andrew paid exactly 4 yuan, for the milk tea, which is the equivalent of 50 cents US. On the walk back home, Andrew complained about the hassle of having given this stranger his telephone number. And then we thought about that for a second, and marvelled at having a life in which the big annoyance of the day was agreeing to being taken out for a free meal.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

English Plays: Chinese Students Are Not Shy

I have often thought when doing role-plays in class that many of my students would make fine actors. So, I was happy to discover that all classes in the English Department would perform plays. They worked on the plays for weeks, and a final set of the 12 best were selected, down from the original number of perhaps twice that.

To my surprise, I was invited by one of my classes to take a part in their play. The role was that of a guitar-playing father, and out of 270 students I know of one who plays guitar (in another class), so I suppose I was right for the role. This was class 6, one of the most outgoing I've taught, and though the script was kind of weird, they turned it into an entertaining performance. The story, which they took from the internet but judging from the script was definitely written by Chinese English students, is about a dishonest candy salesman in front of the school gate, who makes dirty candy that makes the students ill. It was highlighted by talking, dancing candy ("I'm dirty!" "I'm ugly!" "I'm dirty and ugly!"), no less than two Aqua songs ("Barbie Girl" and a song that repeated, loudly, "come on let's go get it on!"), and the charismatic performance of Alice, the candy salesman with a drawn-on mustache. In the play I have two daughters, who ask me to play guitar in a ploy to get money from me, and were appropriately whiny. My students are better actors than me, and they had to encourage me to really get angry at the daughters when they trick me.

The final performances took place last Friday evening in the music hall. Many students went all-out when renting costumes and having their hair done, and some of them I had a lot of trouble even recognizing. After several "no"s, I finally got it across that I was not interested in wearing makeup. The picture below is from rehearsal; none of my pictures of the actual performances came out decently. Half of the plays were put on by classes that I teach, and I had seen rehearsals of several of them, so I had been looking forward to it for a while. The first play was Snow White, which I knew from rehearsal was one of the best, and I was very impressed. This was put on by a class which sometimes irritates me this term, due to their lack of enthusiasm on Friday, but in fact their English is very good. Another class, who are a teacher's dream and my favorite to teach as of late, did a very successful rendition of Cinderella. This class has always done amazing things with role-plays, and they love the stage. The student who played the wicked stepmother was perfect; Andrew has admitted to being afraid of her in the past. There was full-on ballroom dancing featuring the entire class in costume, and in true Chinese style, Cinderella was taken away on the back of a bicycle at the end. Another highlight was a Chinese story about two lovers (both played by girls) and a severe, disapproving mother, which was written by the class and did well with the judges.

Phillip, the teacher from England, was confident that the play I was in would win first prize simply because it had a foreign teacher in it. I doubted it very much, because although our play was good several others clearly deserved it more, and I figured he was just being cynical. However, sure enough, when the results came in it was our play, The Pocket Money, which was victorious. I was happy for that class, but also quite annoyed at how much I seemed to have affected the outcome. I disagreed with the results in general (Cinderella didn't even place), but it was an exciting night, and easily one of the highlights of this term.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Censorship? What Censorship?

I was simply stupified when I read this:

As it mentions, China has the most sophisticated internet censorship in the world. You can't even read this blog in China (I can only access the page for updating it). I also like the comment about the "legal problems" of journalists.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Admiration for My Students

I've come to the conclusion that my students are better people than me. A few days ago some of my students came to my home because they wanted to cook dinner (a win-win situation, as they like to cook and I rather enjoy eating), and told me how they spent their day: by visiting an orphanage to see a small boy with mental problems. They heard he didn't have any money for art supplies, so they pooled together some money (of which I'm sure they have very little) to buy him art supplies. I truly enjoy spending time with my students - many of them converse quite easily in English, and seeing them outside of class feels more like spending time with Chinese friends than English students. I see them slightly more often since I decided to cancel my formal office hours and just give them all my phone number, and that evening I spent an enjoyable few hours watching Chinese cooking and being taught Chinese idioms. Art, one of my funniest male students, can be seen in the photo. On another day this past week, I watched The Wizard of Oz with a student, which had Chinese subtitles and the added benefit of learning useful phrases like "Toto, I think we're not in Kansas anymore".

Before arriving, I worried that my salary was low even for China (a trainer on my training course with China experience scoffed at me, said I was selling myself short, and declared he wouldn't work for less than 12,000 RMB/month, four times what I'm paid). My wage would actually be illegal at home, because translated into US dollars it is easily under minimum wage. However, upon living here I realize how over-paid I am by Chinese standards, and it's difficult not to feel guilty about it sometimes, especially when students tell me about their parents who work as teachers and make less than half as much as me, and are struggling with putting their kids through college. A friend of Andrew's, after graduating and making a long, unsuccessful attempt at getting a good job in Shanghai, has come back and settled for a job in a computer store that pays 400 RMB/month, or roughly $50. Many of my students wear the same clothes everyday, and one of my hardest-working students casually mentioned how she has to walk for miles to get to the nearest phone in her hometown. A bicycle at school is a luxury only some of my students can manage; I don't think even the President of the university has a personal car. This is one of the poorest provinces in China, where many live under the official poverty line of $86 per year (yes, per year; I've spend that much on concert tickets), and my students are so good-natured that it's easy to forget what kind of difficulties they and their families must face in life. The Chinese have an admirable life attitude and overcome difficulties without complaint that would drive most Americans into depression, or at least chronic complaining. A student I've come to know is an only child whose father has died from cancer, and whose mother has recently gone blind, but has to bribe doctors to get any treatment - sadly, not uncommon. And I only know this second-hand, not because the student has even mentioned it. Many shop-owners and vendors I know work roughly 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, and yet greet everyone with a supremely satifisfied smile day in and day out. A girl who was a friend last term when she was a senior, and has one of the highest levels of English I've seen in anyone at the school, now works 15 or 16 hours every day for a dishonestly run middle school. She was whispering over Skype because they aren't permitted to chat on the internet, and the phone cut off suddenly because a leader was walking by. Whatever "difficulties" I face in the future when I return to America, it's fair to say I don't have the right to complain about anything ever again.

Speech Competition

Recently I was asked to judge another speaking competition. These have their benefit, but I would like to see a competition in which the students write their own speeches. Or at the very least, don't give the word-for-word same speech that was given 8 contestants previously. The rousing nationalism of "I Am Chinese" ('who can say we don't have nuclear weapons!!') was slightly less affecting second-time around, and its hallow anecdote about meeting an arrogant American tourist was more grating the second listen. Otherwise the speech contents got no more controversial than "you should love your parents". By far, the best moment came early on during a speech titled "If I Were a Boy Again", which used the word "boy" in the first person repeatedly and would have been forgettable, if it weren't for the fact that the student giving the speech was a female.

One of the foreign teachers, when told as were waiting there would be 26 speeches (there were 19 as it turned out) simply made a break for it, not to return. This led to a mildly awkward moment when he was asked to stand up and greet the crowd and he wasn't there. There was another moment at the end when a foreign teacher was called on to make a speech and it turned out he had stepped out into the hall. But I suppose that's bound to happen when you expect teachers to make impromptu speeches about learning English without giving us the slightest warning. For some reason I'm usually not asked; I suppose it pays to keep a low profile. Finally, there was a moment as we were waiting that dimmed mine and Andrew's already low level of enthusiasm for the evening. A student asked Andrew if he could read the Chinese characters being displayed, and he very easily read out the English translation, which was along the lines of "Hexi University Management Department Student Magazine's First English Speech Competition". An English teacher turned around and said "oh you can't read that! A student must have told you". Andrew's been here long enough to be cynical about these condescending attitudes and very sarcastically replied "yes, of course, because foreigners can't speak Chinese!", to which she just nodded and smiled. I've had Chinese conversations interrupted by passers-by shouting to the other person, "oh, he doesn't understand Chinese!" In China, it's easy to vent your irritation through sarcasm, because no one understands it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sickness and Joy

Sometimes I have the feeling people in town want to talk to me, but are hesitant at first. I generally eat out by myself (when I say "generally eat out", I mean every single day, twice), which is of great amusement to my students because 1. I freely admit to having no cooking ability and 2. doing anything without the company of at least 1-3 other people is perplexing to most Chinese people. Sometimes I try to initiate conversation in restaurants by asking what a character is called that I've seen on a sign and written on my notepad, which generally fails but at least is educational. Tonight I ate at a restaurant with no customers but a friendly-looking staff of one, who was happy to identify a character called tie and recommend a dish but opted for 15 minutes of awkward silence afterwards. But just as I was about to leave she excitedly came up to me with a magazine, in which she found that character used in a sentence. I'm constantly wishing I was a better conversationalist; this led to all of 20 seconds of speaking practice in wish I confirmed that yep, I teach at Hexi University, and could think of nothing more interesting to say than "studying Chinese is hard, but I like it". Chinese is a wonderfully practical language though; learning the mystery character of this outing confirmed that the little stick-on photo booth pictures that are popular here are called tie zhi xiang, "paste-paper-pictures". The dish I ate had cashews in the name, which I had to look up, but are literally "fruit waist"; sometimes the logic escapes me.

During the last few days I've been sick, for perhaps the first time that I can blame food, though I have no idea what the culprit was. I cancelled my Monday morning class halfway through, as me and my stomach weren't really in the mood for the unenthusiastic class 8, an announcement which was met by great indifference. But as I suspected, motivated student Charlie volunteered to help me visit the doctor on campus. The staff was of course amused to see me, and after 1.5 minutes of translated consultation, loaded with me up with no less than four medications, setting me back approximately $1.12. Seeing my bottle of water, they also warned me at least 5 times that cold water is bad for my health, and to drink only hot water. Chinese people are very insistent in general that cold drinks are bad for you, making them annoyingly difficult to buy sometimes. On our way out, Charlie prevented me from buying fruit ("it's too cold! You must eat hot food"), so I had go out again later to stock up on fruit. The two Chinese medicines looked deceptively like balls of chocolate, but my taste buds were quick to suggest otherwise; they did warn me "it will be bitter". It worked, at any rate.

And in the interest of including a colorful picture in this post, allow me to introduce you to Joy (on the left, Dr. Seuss outfit), the least jaded person I know. Joy is one of the most appropriately named Chinese students I've met, and I recall her saying something like "everyday is sunshine and happiness!" when I first met her. She apparently has been fearing for my warmth and ability to survive by myself, as last visit she presented me with a gift of long underwear and a note that ended "forever and pure friendship!" My cynical nature was wary of her at first, but I've decided I like her after all. She is one of a group of excitable non-English major students me and Andrew are friends with and affectionately refer to as the "teenage daughters", who now that I think about it I think I've mentioned before. Now she is also a second Chinese teacher to me and Andrew, along with our demanding and quick-talking Lina. I like lessons with Joy because she refuses to speak English unless I am hopelessly lost, and because I can say "now let's just chat" after I run out of questions after 11 minutes. Lina's two-hour lessons from my textbook can be intense. Joy is often accompanied by daughter Fiona, who tends to say "I'd like to use your computer!" and disappear for 40 minutes, and never knows what I'm saying in Chinese.

Foreigners speaking Chinese seem to encourage one of two extreme reactions: 1. very complimentary, and very patronizing congratulations on being able to utter "hello" or "I want a bottle of water" (most common response), or 2. the assumption that you are fluent. A few students in one of my most likeable classes announced "let's have a meeting!" to me during the break, and the monitor went on for several minutes to me in Chinese about a plan the school had for helping poor students, of which I understood almost nothing. My guzheng music lessons are made that much more difficult by attempting to process both Chinese and a new instrument, but I do like that they treat me like a person and have the patience to explain everything and help me look up words in the dictionary. I like the girl who teaches me (who, like all the students there, is very pretty, which is kind of distracting to the intense concentration necessary), who has begun going so far as to try to explain the old Chinese stories behind many of the songs. Of course, I infinitely prefer conversations above my level to reaction #1; as Andrew said after seeing a foreigner who spoke little Chinese get showered with praise for saying ni hao! (hello), "sometimes I wonder, what's the point of studying?"

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Silly Chinese Sun Visors

I came across a good post from Sinosplice, a popular China blog, I thought I'd share. It concerns one of the many funny things Chinese people do which I don't think I've mentioned or gotten any good pictures of, which is to wear enormous face-shielding visors on sunny days. In China, and it seems most Asian countries, girls in particular are obsessed with getting lighter skin, not darker. Girls are often seen using sun umbrellas or holding their books in front of their face on the way to class, but nothing beats the Mega visors that can be seen everywhere:

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Night at the (Chinese) Opera

I just had my first viewing of Chinese Opera, which seems to get mixed reviews from foreigners and young Chinese. I went with Danielle and Stephen, the two Peace Corps volunteers, and we weren't quite sure if we'd enjoy it or stay the whole time. Obviously, we weren't going to understand anything that was going on, and Chinese Opera is notorious for its high-pitched, grating style of singing.

We arrived at the music hall no more than 10 minutes before the performance started, which meant there were no seats left and there were many students standing in the aisles. So we were prepared to stand quietly in the back for the opera, but the school would of course be having none of that. A man apparently in charge of seating arrangements immediately spotted us and ushered us right up to the front row, into a set of empty seats that were obviously reserved and were equipped with programs and water bottles. In fact the front row was clearly marked with a sign that read "Seats for Leaders", and thus we spent the duration of the performance next to humorless Communist Party leaders in suits.

As it turned out, the performance was a lot of fun to watch. The singing was tolerable and the accompanying live music was genuinely enjoyable, and watching the performance was still entertaining even when understanding every 20th word or so. Besides the singing and music there was a lot of choreography with impressive acrobatic moves, comedy of some sort, and a fight with a fire-wielding demon. At the end there was an act of modern opera, which involved the same style of music but with drab People's Liberation Army uniforms replacing the colorful costumes of classical opera. At several points during the opera an old man with a cane behind me, who was by my guess 112 years old, tried to give me explanations in English about what was going on. The best of these was when he tried to explain a character who he said was like Venus, and having some kind of affair with humankind, ending simply with the words "make love!" and chuckling softly to himself.

For no other reason than our being foreign, relatively friendly, and unmarried, rumors seem to be flying about me and Danielle. An old guard at one of the school gates who loves to talk to us despite the difficulties of doing so (I've discovered a strong relationship between how friendly someone is and how thick their Zhangye accent is) beckoned me and Danielle into his security room this afternoon after we returned to school together because we ran into each other on the street. I watched him flip through a book with English phrases and then close it quickly, after which he spewed out some sounds at me that, I take it, were a form of language. I had a guess at what he was saying from his gestures and what I thought he was asking me earlier that day, and he shook his head "yes" when I said "are you asking if we're married?". We get a kick out of this, and it's tempting to play with our students' minds.

For this week's lesson, I was definitely playing to my audience. Food being one of the prime obsessions of Chinese people, our in-class "reading" was English recipes. I then had them write out recipes for food they knew how to cook in English, which I think was genuinely good in that it required giving specific directions, involved new vocabulary, and got them motivated, but it certainly didn't hurt that in the end I now have a large collection of Chinese recipes written in English. Have I mentioned that I really like my job?

Saturday, November 04, 2006


On this past October 31st, I think we gave Zhangye the best Halloween it's ever seen. My students didn't know all that much about it, so I enlightened them in class during the week before Halloween about what it was all about. This segued nicely into having the students tell scary stories. I wasn't sure how that would go, but a number of students were actually pretty good at it, and a few stories got genuine screams from the girls in class (meaning, the majority of the class). Knowing full well that if there was time at the end of class I would be asked to tell a story, I brushed up on "The Tell-Tale Heart" and ended up telling it to a few classes. I don't think any lesson I've done has gotten the students paying more attention to their classmates' presentations than this one.

Danielle, a Halloween fan, also had the idea of holding a Halloween party in her apartment with one of her favorite classes. Me and Gary teach that class as well, and we showed up in costume fashionably late. We could hear the party going on from several floors below, and everyone screamed (in delight?) when we came in. We came in at the tail-end of two students being wrapped in toilet paper, which the students would not tire of during the two hours, at one point wrapping their three foreign teachers together. We had previously had a foreign teacher pumpkin-carving party, and the students liked the pumpkins so much they asked to take them home. It was overall a big success, with bobbing for apples, numerous people being locked in the bathroom (for instance, me), and dancing to suggestive Jamie Fox songs.

After the party the three of us went out to give candy to strangers and visit Gary's friend's bar. Gary took the lead with the bowl of candy, and would approach random people on the street, especially those walking alone, and say nothing while holding out a piece of candy to them. He had the best and most frightening costume and the foreigners tend to be stared at uncertainly anyway, so he got mixed reactions. Some were amused and thanked him for the candy (to which he wouldn't respond), while many were having none of it and stayed at a safe distance. One English-speaking young man wanted to know where he was from, and he silently pointed up slowly towards the moon in response. There is a young boy who always stares at me with a worried expression in a restaurant I eat at regularly, and when we stopped in there he looked absolutely terrified.

But the best moment came when we brought Halloween to a recently opened restaurant nearby. This is probably one of the nicest restaurants in the city now, with three floors and a guard to keep an eye on the many cars. Me and Danielle hung back as Gary went in, and I saw what was coming, because the three uniformed young girls at the entrance had their heads turned the other way and at first didn't see us at all. When Gary was directly in front of them with arm outstretched, they turned around and simultaneously screamed at the top of their lungs and literally ran away. This of course had the full attention of the room full of businessmen and Party cadres, and a young man wearing a suit came over to Gary and said "thank you.... now leave quickly", while shooing him away with his hand. I felt it was quite an accomplishment for foreigners to be kicked out of a restaurant in small-town China.

It turned out that Gary's friend was not at his bar, and to our disappointment there were no other customers for us to freak out. I suppose it was a Tuesday night after all. However, the boss's gorgeous and very likeable girlfriend was there, and she got a great kick out of us, and hung out and took some photos with us. Most likely I'll be in Zhangye for Halloween next year, and if all goes well my American friends I met up with in Xi'an will be here as well, so I can only hope we top this year.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Short Dramatic Story

There is a car in front of apartment building 9 on campus, the building in which Andrew, Gary, and Phillip live. This car has four flat tires, and a small scandalous story behind it. Apparently, the man who owns the car is (or was) cheating on his wife, and some kind of drama broke out that ended with the mistress (concubine?) slashing the tires of the car. It's been there for a weeks now, and doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

On a separate occasion, a Chinese woman said to a foreign teacher, "it must be hard for Chinese women who marry foreign men, because they cheat on their wives".

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Take Me To Your Heart

Today I had my second English Corner, the after-class English extravaganza that gets held sporadically at schools throughout China. My own students organized it, so I had too many invitations to get out of it had I wanted to. Actually, I'm always game for the things they throw at me here; I like the mystery of not knowing what I'm getting myself into. They had insisted that I play and sing a song, so I prepared the easy "Wishlist" by Pearl Jam, but managed to get out of it when they didn't give me a microphone for my voice, and I instead did a quick instrumental. They of course put the foreign teachers up on a platform, filming us and taking our pictures, and handing us microphones with no warning whatsoever to make speeches with instructions like "talk about life". I fielded questions from the crowd about how to learn English (you get to be a pro after answering similar questions 200 times) and why Americans are "crazy", helped Phillip through a questionable version of "Wonderwall", and was taken to dinner by students afterwards.

I forgot to mention an incident that happened a couple of weeks ago. I was waiting at the school gates on Tracy who was visiting, when a boy came out of nowhere and announced "I want to sing an English song for you". He promptly launched into "Take Me To Your Heart", one of the two or three most popular English songs in all of China, and also one of the worst songs you might ever have the displeasure of hearing. It's actually a translation of a Chinese song, and the band Michael Learns to Rock (who I'm told are a "rock" band, hah) are making completely unfair amounts of money in Asia. I had to physically bite my lip not to laugh at the silliness of it, and then thanked him very politely for his song. The moral of the story is: if you are a foreigner in China, try not to stand in one place for a long time.

I was coerced into dancing again by Danielle, but this time with four mutual students of ours. To my amusement this included Hank and Sunshine, two students in different classes who are dating. Hank is very tall, wears a shirt that says "Caution You Are Leaving the Security Semir [no, I don't know what a 'semir' is either]", and looks like a mechanic. Sunshine is fully deserving of her English name, and has one of the most unceasingly bright smiles I've ever seen. She's hard to look at straight in the eye. I think they make a funny couple, and it's a little unusual to see dating students present themselves in front of me, rather than immediately dropping hands and walking in different directions in the hope that I didn't notice. Once a student actually gasped at seeing me, dropped her boyfriend's hand like so much dead fish, and hid behind him as he walked (I was sure to give a friendly hello).

Because we didn't realize the place didn't open until 9:30, we had a lot of time to kill. I thought I'd take them to Xiao Ma's guitar shop (I'll now refer to him as Little Ma because that is what "xiao" means and it's more amusing) because I hadn't been in a while, but this turned out to be incredibly awkward, with none of them saying a word to us and a drum lesson going on in the background. We then went to our bar with our students, which proudly proclaims itself the "Drear Bar" in English (misspelling of "dream") and features swings instead of seats. When we finally arrived at the dance club (English name: Hot Ball Place), it was in full swing, and I was positively shocked to see the two poles being occupied by very scantily clad dancers from the club. Not in Our Zhangye, surely.

Within four minutes of being on the dance floor, a middle-aged man in a suit grabbed my hand, and held it tightly as he danced along with me. Sadly, this is more likely than my hand being grabbed by any young females in Zhangye, where close same-sex physical contact by males or females doesn't raise an eyebrow but public kissing is scandalous. He then passed me onto his "friend", who I would've assume to be his wife, who seemed to be casting too many glances in my direction during the night after our awkward 40-second dance. At 11:00 sharp, Dance Time was over, and Sing-Song Time/Male Dancer in Amazing Puffy Pink Outfit Time/Weird Skits Involving Angry Kitchen Staffs Time commenced. This was our cue to leave, not to mention that the student dorms are locked and the lights turned off at 11:30 (I should mention this was Saturday night).

I'll end with a selection from the English Menu extravaganza that graces the food markets in a certain spot in Zhangye, which I enjoyed the other day: Braising in soy sauce the meat rubs the fish. That it does.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Friendliest Man in the World

There are a few characters on the school campus and around town that me and Andrew and a few of the other teachers know. We tend not to learn their Chinese names, and instead they are referred to by titles such as the Friendly Man, the Friendly Man's Daughter, the Apricot Tea Lady, Mr. My-Head's-Going-to-Explode, the Honest Widow, Fruit Man, The Man Who Pretends He Doesn't Speak English, or the Cool Girl in the Photocopy Shop. Mostly I've befriended a few of these people through Andrew, who talks to absolutely everybody in Chinese and on most days will have hours of random conversations. In quite a number of my Chinese conversations, maybe most of them, I am asked "where is Tian Ming [his Chinese name]?", "why didn't you call your Scottish friend?", or simply reminded "Andrew's Chinese is really good!" in case I had forgotten or not noticed. However, this works out well for me, as I am so poor at starting conversation with strangers in any language, and being friends with Andrew is definitely good for my Chinese.

Two days ago I was walking across campus to get some lunch, when I ran into the Friendly Man going in the other direction. The Friendly Man owns a convenience store near our apartments and is just as excited to see you the 42nd time you enter his store as he is on the first visit. I can't go in there if I actually intend to buy something and leave within 5 minutes, because he insists I have a seat and attempt to chat for at least 20 minutes. He is a good source of conversation practice because, as Andrew once said, "he doesn't mind having a boring conversation".

He was in a particularly friendly mood that day, so friendly that he actually invited me to his home to have lunch with him. This was the first time I had seen his home, and one of a fairly small number of invites to homes. His apartment wasn't half bad at all, and as is common was decorated with a few odd bits of Western culture, including a calendar with sports cars and a large framed picture next to the television of two Western children kissing. Chinese hospitality to a foreigner is often excessive by foreign standards - of the three dishes he made one was an entire fish, which he refused to touch and encouraged me to eat to the point of annoyance. I would have really rather he didn't, since I don't even like fish in China (usually too spicy and dealing with a thousand deadly bones with chopsticks is not my idea of a good time). The fish was probably for the family dinner, and though the generosity is appreciated I wish more Chinese people realized that most foreigners would prefer to have less of a fuss made out of us.

Last weekend an English speech competition was held in Lanzhou, with competitors from all over Gansu province. Three students were sent from Hexi University - two third-year students and a second-year student of mine named Catherine. To my surprise and delight, of the 53 competitors 2nd and 3rd place were taken by two of the Hexi students, with Catherine coming in 3rd with her speech about the Olympics. Me, Gary, and Danielle had all helped them with their speeches and pronounciation, and it was a nice "teaching is rewarding" moment to hear of their success.

In last week's attempt to have the students think creatively (and with any luck amuse me at the same time), I followed up a reading about a digital project to contact life in space by asking them to discuss what they would send into space to represent their lives, and then write their lists on the blackboard. Many of the ideas involved photos of friends, family, babies, and the ever-popular "delicious food", and a few that me and the class got a kick out of included "a love letter to a dashing man of outer space", "beef noodles [popular local dish]", "to send Nancy and her Mr. Right to outer space", "Zhangye's mosquitoes", and "Dan's big head photo [as in the miniature photobooth photos that are popular here]". I also had them write poems in the style of a poem written by an 8-year old called "What I Would Take Out of the World". Most of the things the students would take out of the world were idealistic and serious, such as poverty and war, but there was one that made me smile written by four girls:

We would take men
Out of the world
So we don't have sad
and tears
and no marriage

Monday, October 16, 2006

To the Countryside

There are certain things I've prolonged doing in China as long as I could, and dancing is one of them. Given my awkwardness on the dance floor, it's not something I'm quick to do in a country where all eyes are on me pretty much every time I'm in public. But I'm easily talked into embarrassing myself, and the new Peace Corps teachers Danielle and Stephen convinced me and a fair number of foreign teachers to go out clubbing in Zhangye. When we arrived there were exactly four people on the dance floor, but Danielle and Stephen were having none of that and pulled people from the crowd until the dance floor was packed in all its smoke-machine drenched glory. Secretly I was sort of enjoying myself, and even Gary (pictured feeding a donkey) got out and tore up the dance floor, though the three Brits didn't muster up quite as much enthusiasm. Andrew and Phillip were in attendance, and Tracy who taught at the Middle School last term was visiting for the weekend. She stayed at my apartment, my first hosting of a friend in my own place, making me feel vaguely like an adult.

After late-night food and "bubble tea" I went to bed around 2am, and was feeling a little unmotivated for the morning trip the next day to the countryside. But with Miss Mao in charge I knew it would be worth going, wherever it was we were going this time. This time some of the Chinese English teachers were invited along with the foreign teachers, so I even had the rare chance of making slightly awkward conversation with the Chinese teachers. Whether through lack of self-confidence or uncertainty about our foreign ways, they tend to shy away from us and few Chinese-Western friendships have struck up in the English Department. There was only one random, unexplained stop during the two-hour journey, in which we were surrounded by mostly auto shops and I saw Miss Mao disappear with a stranger on a motorcycle for 25 minutes, to return later with apples from his home ("he was a very nice man").

It ended up being a very, very pleasant day in the remote hills of Gansu province. Intense climbs were rewarded with wonderful views and a hill-top picnic, and there were no living things but some shepherds flocking sheep and a few donkeys to disturb us. Miss Mao was in top form, dashing up steep hills with two shopping bags, a fur coat and high heels, and swiftly dismissing any second-guessing of the paths she chose. Happily, the day ended with two rounds of the colossal danpanji: Big Plate of Chicken. It's tempting to open a danpanji restaurant when I return to America. I'm certain it would be a hit with the late-night college crowd.

And reaching back over the last few weeks to things I had wanted to mention, there were a few shining moments in my most ambitious class activity thus far: a trial. I wanted to teach about the American jury system, so I gave students the roles of judge, prosecution, defense, defendants, jurists, witnesses, and journalists with instructions, and watched with amusement for 30 minutes (or in some cases, strained patience). The back-and-forth arguing was heated and often clever in the likeable Class 6 (the classes are all numbered since they stay with the same classmates in every class for all 4 years). After a primary witness gave her emotional testimony of the bank robbery, the defense team began questioning her state of mind at the time. The prosecution suddenly provided medical evidence of her sound mind, to which the defense shot back "but we know the doctor who provided that evidence happens to be her husband!" The lawyers were more motivated to win than I expected, piling on more and more last-minute evidence, and I was amazed at the English level that came out when it was time to argue.

And in the realm of getting things repaired the Chinese Way, a computer repairman very nearly erased every computer file I've created in the last 7 months. My internet wasn't working, and his problem-solving "method" was thus: hit the "refresh" button on the desktop around 50 times and empty the Recycle Bin (shockingly, still no internet), check to see if the wire is plugged in (I know at least that much about computers), and reset the computer. Still not having succeeded, he promptly just re-installed Windows, erasing the old one and all its programs, without the slightest hint to me of what he was doing. The internet did work after that, but I had to re-install every program I had. I'm assuming that if I didn't have all my photos, lessons plans, music, etc. on a different drive because it had more room, he would have erased absolutely everything I had. I had a previous adventure that involved fixing my computer's sound, which also involved erasing Windows; I then went without an anti-virus program for weeks, and when I finally installed one after having some problems, it found a record 1,432 viruses on my computer. I still recall a comment Miss Mao made to me at the very beginning: "in China.... many people are not very careful about their jobs".

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Xi'an: Warriors, Temples, and a Monk on a Mountain

In China, October 1st is National Day, and schools tend to rearrange the weekends so that the three days of vacation become seven days off in a row. Feeling ambitious, I decided to visit the city of Xi’an [pronounced “shee-ahn”], a capital of China under the name Chang’an in former times of glory. It is full of history, and is now most famous for the Terracotta Warriors, one of China’s most-visited tourist attractions and one of the biggest moments in archaeology in the last century. This is the army of thousands of life-size, realistic soldiers made of clay that were buried with the Qin emperor who united China and began the Great Wall (and appears in the awesome Zhang Yimou movie Hero). It was completely unknown until the 1970’s, when peasants digging a well happened upon it, and excavation is still going on.

But as I’ve discovered already, China makes you earn your right to travel through her during holidays, and I endured periods of inconvenience, annoyance, and misery just to get from Zhangye to Xi’an. This is largely the school’s fault, because for reasons left unexplained no one would decide exactly what seven days we would have off until roughly three days before the holiday. I knew getting sleeper tickets on the train for a holiday would mean buying them within 5 minutes of them going on sale, and of course there no were train tickets to Xi’an when I finally had the chance to try. To make a long story short, I took a bus to Lanzhou, couldn’t get a bus to Xi’an that night and slept in a hotel in Lanzhou, failed to get a bus ticket after fighting through a thick crowd for an hour the next morning, mistakenly bought a hard seat train ticket for 2am instead of 2pm and paid for another night at the hotel, returned to the bus station and managed to get an 8pm sleeper bus to Xi’an, returned my train ticket but got no refund at the hotel, and arrived in Xi’an a full day later than the friends I was meeting. The one uplifting moment was the buying of that sleeper bus ticket; a man with a walkie-talkie and a random English speaker in tow asked where I was going, took me out of the line, and came out of the back office immediately with the ticket to Xi’an I needed. I had heard of these “rescue the helpless foreigner” operations at ticket offices before, and I would hear that my friends had a similar experience. It was certainly welcome at the time. They claimed a 6am arrival in Xi’an, and on the bus they claimed 7:30am, but I figured 11am by my guidebook’s time estimate was the best case scenario; we in fact arrived at 1:45pm. And luckily the friends I was meeting in Xi’an have cell phones, because when I finally arrived, exhausted and aggravated, the hostel we booked was nowhere to be found, and through a phone call they explained the mix-up and I finally ended up in the right place. What should have been one 19-hour train journey was a 48-hour fiasco that cost a lot of wasted time and money, and it wouldn’t have been worth going had I been going to Xi’an alone.

But as it happened I was going to Xi’an for the unexpected chance of meeting up with a friend from America. My friend Stefanie, who I met at the five-week archaeology field school in Denmark in the summer of 2004, now teaches English in Yangzhou in eastern China, and Xi’an happened to be halfway between us. Her college friend Nissa is also with her in China, and the three of us had an excellent time that justified the headache of traveling (in the picture, Stefanie is on the right, and Nissa is on the left). After returning from a failed attempt to get train tickets back to Zhangye, I finally met the two of them back in our hostel bar, which was as good a place as any after being irritated for 2 days straight. They had also met a random Canadian named Don, and we spent the night eating chicken and squid on sticks and drinking Hans, apparently the choice budget beer of that region. There was a street of bars near our hostel, every one of which called to us desperately in basic English (“the atmosphere is really great!”) as we walked the street and finally settled on the poorly named Touch Bar.

It was good to be among my kind again, by which I mean fun-loving American dorks. There was much silliness throughout the trip, such as Nissa reading The Fellowship of the Ring aloud on the train, frequent quoting of Lost in Translation and an amazing English-learning video on the buses featuring chickens, and finding their souvenir statues of the Terracotta Warriors under my sheets every time I left the room for two minutes. They also had built up a number of amusing misadventures in China in the short time they’ve spent in China. They’ve only been in Yangzhou a month, so I enjoyed my role of China “expert” while it lasted. They have a mild obsession with Peter Hessler, author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, so I had a few “Pete” moments when I did something particularly competent. After seven months in China, it was a little difficult to keep up with talkative Americans, but I fully took advantage of the chance to make references and inside jokes only pop-culture obsessed Americans of my generation would appreciate.

Xi’an is so far my favorite large Chinese city. Of course, China has 40 cities with over a million people, so I haven’t seen much. But Xi’an still has a number of buildings that include “dynasty” in the date of construction, and a healthy amount of pagodas and temples. I was very fond of sitting in the top row of the double-decker buses, though less fond of dodging five lanes of busy traffic with nothing but a zebra crossing to protect us. And of course, with so many Western tourists about we were a target for every street seller and taxi driver within sight. Despite the huge number of foreigners in Xi’an, we were still an oddity, with the familiar shouts of “waiguoren! (foreigner)” and “helloooo!”. Andrew is considering studying Chinese at an institution in the near future, and mentioned going to Taiwan partly because “I hear that they think of foreigners as normal people, not aliens”.

On Tuesday, the first full day we had together, we decided to go right for the Terracotta Warriors. As amazing as they are, we would later be glad to have gotten it “out of the way” on the first day, because seeing them on a holiday was an exercise in patience. First we took the 20+ minute bus to the train station, and discovered a massive line waiting just to get on the buses to the site, which was 90 minutes away. We spend an hour shuffling through the outdoor line, not quite what we had in mind after a night of drinking, which was highlighted only by our spotting of our “stunt doubles”, a group of three foreigners who were eerily like us (but goofier and less attractive), a la the scene from Spaceballs. When we entered the first pit of warriors at the site, there were so many people that we had to fight for spaces somewhere along the sides to get a decent look. Like so many of the world-famous sites I’ve been to, it was interesting and well worth seeing, but underwhelming due to the number of tourists murmuring around us and the number of pictures I’ve already seen of it, and not the highlight of the trip.

When we got back it was too late to see any other tourist sites, so we spent the evening wandering the Muslim quarter, a series of narrow back-streets brimming with people and street-food stalls. My friends were enthusiastic about trying a vaguely noodle-esque dish that would translate literally as “cold skin”, which even I didn’t finish. There were a number of meat and sweet dishes that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and we sidled along into a chaotic kebab restaurant while trying to ignore the threatening shouts of “beef! beef! beef!” going on around us. Back at the hostel bar we were excited to spy the Stunt Doubles over at the next table, but in the end we were too shy to do anything but talk about them while stealing glances in their direction, and attempt to the end the night in a more quiet and dignified fashion than on our first excitable night.

For Wednesday we plotted what would soon become known as the Temple Extravaganza, a pleasant day that didn’t involve leaving the city limits or visiting buildings less than 500 years old. We started off with the Temple of the Eight Immortals, an important Taoist temple in honor of eight important figures in Taoist mythology who were supposedly seen dining on the spot. As it turned out our timing was spectacularly good, and we were the only foreigners of the few tourists at the temple. Birds sang, Taoist priests went about their business (whatever exactly that is), and all was right with the world. There was a notable bridge in the first courtyard, with two bells suspended that would bring good fortune to anyone who could hit one with a coin. We tried a few times in vain, and Nissa eventually succeeded. As we were finishing our walk of the grounds, a group of priests in the main building began a musical performance that seemed to double as a ceremony, and though I tend not to use words like “magical” or “spellbinding”, that’s exactly what it was. The dozen or so tourists were looking on, but there was nothing about it that seemed for show as “cultural” things sometimes are in China. None of us spoke for perhaps the longest stretch of the trip, taking in the incense and hypnotic notes floating through the temple and leaving the place in the most satisfied mood of the week to that point.

After passing through the market of fake antiques outside the temple, we headed back into the depths of the Muslim Quarter to visit the Great Mosque. Our cab driver was refreshingly honest, asking immediately if I could help because he didn’t know where it was. I showed him the inadequate guidebook map I had, but he still stopped to ask about three people where it was when we got close. In the alley before the entrance to the mosque, there was a gauntlet of souvenir stalls to pass through, which I didn’t take much notice of until I saw the Little Red Book. The Little Red Book is the infamous collection of Mao Zedong’s sayings that served as the Bible of China’s youth during the Cultural Revolution, and I’ve always been curious about what it actually says. I knocked down the inflated asking price and we each picked up a copy. Amusingly, the first page of each shiny plastic book proclaims “First Edition, 1966”. I went through it in the hostel room later that night, looking for inflammatory statements about “capitalist roaders” and the “running dogs” of capitalism, but its defining characteristic soon proved to be that it’s absolutely, staggeringly boring. To amuse ourselves we had a face-off between the Little Red Book and The Brothers Karamazov, which I for some reason brought for “light” reading on the bus. Nissa read from Mao and I read from Dostoevsky on the same page of each book to see which was more interesting, and I have to say me and the Brothers K won a fairly handy victory.

The Great Mosque of Xi’an is so Chinese in character that except for the scattered Arabic, we might never have known it was Islamic had we randomly stumbled upon it. The buildings are all in the sloped-roof style of ancient Chinese architecture, and it was unlike any of the few mosques I’ve yet seen. Our timing was not as good this time, and we were surrounded by a French tour group and a number of other tourists. It was still a very peaceful and enjoyable spot, but in the end it didn’t leave as deep an impression as the Temple of Eight Immortals.

Next on the agenda was the Forest of Steles Museum, the heaviest book collection in the world. It’s a collection of numerous ancient Chinese classics preserved in their entirety on massive stone slabs, which are a sight to see even when you have no idea what the characters mean. On the way we passed a man proudly standing behind his incredibly long calligraphy scroll, who shouted to us in English “look at my work! I’m the best in China!”, which was refreshingly cocky for a Chinese person. Because they were the farthest away, we had saved the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and Big Wild Goose Pagoda for last, and were a little disappointed when we showed up at the Small Pagoda only to find the entrance closed, and made our exit through a shady back alley after getting just a peek of it over a distant fence.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, however, greeted us in grand fashion. There was a fancy water fountain show with accompanying music, and four elaborately dressed woman on horseback strolled the grounds for no apparent reason. We finished the walk to the pagoda entrance itself around 6:30pm – the exact time the gates closed. However, we were happy enough to relax amongst the crowd of tourists and ponder the goings-on in the still-lit pagoda. As I mentioned even in a city with as many foreigners as Xi’an we are a constant curiosity, and one of the few things that will attract more attention than a foreigner in China is three of them sitting down together, tired and defenseless. Several groups of students asked Nissa, and only Nissa, to pose for pictures with them, while me and Stefanie stayed on the sidelines like high school losers. They gushed things like “you are very beautiful, can you take pictures with us??” but I’ll chalk it up to the novelty of her red hair rather than me and Stefanie being physically repulsive.

At this point, I ought to mention the pollution. Large Chinese cities are notoriously polluted, but at first I didn’t take much notice other than the eternally gray sky. However, as evening set on our Temple Extravaganza, an apocalyptic cloud of death descended over the city. Visibility dropped, our eyes stung a little, and we felt like we had been sniffing glue and began to question what was going on around us. The moon sometimes disappeared altogether, and we were wondering if there was a massive volcanic eruption we were unaware of. It felt like the end of the age of the dinosaurs, and was quite eerie at the time. I don’t know if it was a weird mutated reaction between the fog and pollution or what, but for the sake of the lungs of the citizens of Xi’an I hope it doesn’t happen too often.

We did little that night, besides eat our only proper restaurant meal in Xi’an, catch sight of one of the better English t-shirts I’ve seen (“Friend with Privileges”, made all the funnier because of the certainty the Chinese girl didn’t properly understand it), and question our resolve in going to Hua Shan the next day. Hua Shan is one of the five sacred Taoist mountains in China, and is around two and a half hours outside of Xi’an. It is also described in guidebooks with words like “treacherous”, “dangerous”, “exhausting”, and causing “a few deaths each year”. China had tired us out that week, so in the back of our minds we were all debating whether a day of nothing at all might be nicer. However, in addition to the two paths to the first peak of 2-6 hours climbing that involved scaling vertical cliff faces while grasping a metal chain, there was an Austrian-built cable car that takes approximately ten minutes, so we were feeling fairly confident we could handle that and set our alarms for the early morning. When we were still planning the trip the week before, there was talk of doing the night climb to catch the sunrise, but no one brought that up again.

Getting to the mountain was fairly straightforward, involving a train ride followed by a taxi ride to the site of the mountain itself. We were bemused to find on arrival that the fog was so thick we could not actually see the rather large mountain from the ticket center. As we waited on the long cable car line, I began to wonder if we were totally chickening out, and whether visiting a mountain without doing any climbing was a little silly. But when we boarded our car and began the swift climb over the deep valley, I was definitely on edge, and amused my companions with my epiphany that “actually, I forgot I’m a little afraid of heights”. However, Nissa was definitely more nervous, and the Chinese girl in the car with us was definitely more nervous than her, and making the least attempt to hide it. I quickly relaxed, and the ride was pretty amazing (though not even 10 minutes).

When we reached the top, it became obvious we had made the right decision about the cable car. That was only the first peak, still mobbed with tourists, and it would have been really disappointing to struggle for hours only to reach that point and not have the strength to get to higher and more secluded spots. Emboldened by the rare circumstance of being in the best shape of a group of people, I went on ahead of them towards the next peak. It was hard to tell when the path was going to end, and after about 45 or 50 minutes I paused to rest and see if the other two would show up. After a little while Nissa came along, but we had no idea where Stefanie was, so after a short wait we decided to see what was up ahead. It wasn’t much further, but the path unexpectedly went in two directions, so we followed the one that the most competent-looking Chinese people were choosing. We then had another choice of the “Ladder of Clouds” or the “Central Peak”, so we went for the one that said “peak” and sounded like it actually ended.

The Central Peak was apparently not one of the highest and the one least liked by Chinese people; in other words, it was wonderfully, wonderfully lacking in people. We were even alone for around 10 minutes, which was totally unexpected after herding through hundreds of tourists and escaping the aggressive kiosk stands every 100 feet on the way up. We didn’t know if Stefanie would know where we went, and I envisioned meeting her on the way down exhausted, sweaty, and pissed off, but luckily a Chinese man had seen us and pointed her towards our direction as she pondered which way to go down below (gee, I wonder how he knew she was with us). We shared some moon cakes and some relaxing times, as well as an immense relief we hadn’t skipped Hua Shan. The view was magnificent, and was relatively peaceful, at least between the frequent shouts from idiotic males who had reached the tops of distant peaks. I’ve complained elsewhere about Chinese “appreciation” of nature, so I’ll contain myself here and just say the mountain is no longer the mystical refuge of Taoist hermits it once was.

The most conspicuous part of the peak itself was the modest Taoist temple behind us. The girls had a fear the cable cars closed at 4pm and wanted me to double-check, so I figured who better to ask than a lonely Taoist priest at the top of a mountain. He seemed pretty confident they closed at 7pm, and invited me into the temple to have a look and a drink of water. I was more than happy to look around, but declined on the water – I’ll assume he didn’t realize the cup on offer had a used cigarette floating in the bottom. The focus of the temple was a statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy that appears often in China (Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism have intermingled in Chinese history, and he said the temple could also be considered Buddhist). He asked me to light some sticks of incense and place them on the altar, and demonstrated a short bowing routine he wanted me to perform. I burned myself while planting the incense, which earned a smile of amusement from the priest. This is not the first time I’ve been asked to bow in a temple, and though it seems inappropriate for me to be doing it, I’ve decided it should be taken mostly as just a sign of respect, as none of the Chinese people who do it believe in the religion either. I’ve also since been told you are supposed to make a wish when you do this, which might have been among the many comments from the priest that went right over my head.

I returned to my friends, and asked the silly question “would you like to look inside the Taoist temple?” As the three of us looked around, the priest gave me an explanation of our surroundings for several minutes, pretty much the only part of which was intelligible to me was at the end when he said “okay, now translate for them”. So I turned to my friends and said “well, I didn’t understand any of that but I’m supposed to translate for you, so I’m going to keep talking now and pretend like I’m giving a really intelligent explanation of Taoism. So what do you think he would be called in English, a priest? What about scribe? I like that word, I think I’ll call him a scribe…”, and so on.

Next, the priest offered my friends large candles wrapped in plastic, which they accepted with some confusion. I had a suspicion this would end with him asking for money but I figured I’d stay out of it. He had them perform a similar but slightly more involved set of bowing while facing in each direction before motioning for them to place their oversized incense sticks, trying to explain a few things to me with which I got as far as “good meaning”. He then motioned towards the donation box, and decided to leave out the guesswork – “they should each give 200 yuan”. 200 yuan was an absolutely outrageous amount of money. You can buy a new bicycle for 200 yuan. “Excuse me, how much did you say?” I asked. “200 yuan” he confirmed. “Why so much?” I said, a little irritated, and he said something about “good meaning”. So I turned to the girls and told them “well he says you should each give 200 yuan, but that’s totally ridiculous, so give whatever you want and cover your hand so he can’t see when you put it in the box”. To my list of unexpected accomplishments in China, I can now add “deceiving a Taoist priest”. Of course, I suspect the donation amount goes up in relation to the whiteness of one’s skin and the poorness of one’s Chinese.

He was so pleased after their “donation” of what would have been probably more than he lives on in a month that he went further into his bag of Taoist tricks and decided to tell our fortunes. This involved shaking a topless, cylindrical container of sticks until one fell onto the floor. The sticks all had writing on them, and corresponded to pieces of paper that told one’s fortune. Stefanie went first, and apparently has a baby boy in her future. The fortunes were actually fairly lengthy, but I couldn’t catch much and wished dearly that there was a proper translator among us. Nissa was second, and can expect two children and a husband with money who sells jewelry. I went last, and all I understood was that I will get sick and I should be careful, possibly in 2008, though surely the rest of it was good. I had to wonder if my anti-climactic fortune was in any way related to my anti-climactic donation to the temple earlier.

Despite the communication barrier the priest seemed to more or less enjoy our company, and after the fortune-telling he asked us to sit and brought us hard-boiled eggs and moon cakes. Moon cakes are delicious Chinese sweets associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, which was on October 6th this year and is when the moon is supposedly at its brightest. The eggs were simply random, and he only gave them to the girls. The few Chinese who ascended the Central Peak seemed less than enthralled with the temple, and he might not get many visitors as curious and bumbling as us. We made our exit as he performed a small ceremony while lighting candles and bowing in each direction.

The path down the mountain was considerably quicker and easier than the way up, though we must have waited an hour in the line for the cable car. Me and Nissa were put in a separate car, and enjoyed our last spectacular mountain views while pretending to be totally unconcerned with the height. The day had been a resounding success. However… we still had to get back to Xi’an, and China would not be content to let us off so easily. First, we got off too early on the bus back to the ticket office, and took an overpriced taxi back to the spot. Possibly in the evening the bus goes to a different spot with actual buses to Xi’an, but in any case there were neither people nor buses at the main entrance no matter how much we wanted them to be there. I found two employees inside the ticket office who said we better take the train, so I bargained with an unscrupulous taxi driver and off we went to the train station through a back way so shady we had to exchange worried glances.

At the train station, I bought tickets for the next train to Xi’an, which was not until 10:15pm. Then we let that sink in for a few minutes; it was then 7:30pm, we were in the middle of nowhere, and it would take two hours by train and twenty minutes by local bus to get to our hostel. It was our last night together, and we had planned a grand finale at the hostel bar involving champagne and cheesecake. Arriving after midnight was unacceptable. We desperately explored other options; the woman at the train ticket office assured me there were no buses now, but in China that doesn’t necessarily mean there are no buses. I asked a handy policeman in the parking lot, and he told me the same. Things were looking grim. However, the crowd of bored taxi drivers edged towards me when they heard me speak some Chinese, and started making offers to take us to Xi’an. Taking a private taxi all the way to Xi’an sounded totally ridiculous, especially for 400 yuan. But as I began walking back to my friends, I began weighing whether saving money or eating cheesecake and not spending three hours in a dark parking lot was more important to me, and remembered we had just spent 100 yuan each for a total of about 16 minutes in a cable car. We had a short conference and decided we would go for the taxi if they would go down to 200 yuan. As it turned out they refused to go below 300 for the car, and during our second short huddle we quickly gave in to that. So it was 100 each to get to Xi’an, or 5 times the cost of the train (plus the fee for returning the train tickets). The woman at the train station ticket counter was the only good-natured train ticket seller I’ve seen in all China, and she was curious if he had found a bus after all when I returned the tickets. When I explained the spoiled foreigners were taking a taxi, I sheepishly added “it’s expensive… but we don’t want to wait”, to which she gave a friendly head-shake that said “oh, you crazy foreigners”.

It was now a question not of if the taxi driver would try to pull a little bit of nonsense, but just how much of it. He didn’t wait long – two minutes and thirty seconds into the grand journey, he pulled into a car repair shop and explained he needed to get his tire fixed. It took the promised five minutes, and we were back on our merry way – in the other direction, where he then stopped in front of a restaurant mere feet from where we started. He stopped and promptly went into the restaurant, while we envisioned him sitting down for a nice two-course dinner before we got going. He merely bought a beverage, and when he returned he cheerily explained it was his little brother’s restaurant. That’s wonderful – now get your ass to the highway. But I was certain he needed something else, and sure enough to pulled into a gas station about four minutes later, which I suppose we couldn’t protest too loudly if we planned on actually making it to Xi’an. He then pulled onto the highway, and thankfully made no more stops during the journey until we got to Xi’an.

The problem was, he literally stopped when we got to Xi’an. As in, he pulled over to the side of the road as soon as we hit the city limits and declared “we’re here!”. To which I replied “well, yes, but we want to go to our hostel”. “Oh, I know, but you need to get another taxi. I’m just taking you to Xi’an. So that will be 300 yuan”. To avoid or at least minimize the dishonest tactics of taxi drivers I had been very specific about the deal being 300 yuan total for the three of us to go to Xi’an by taxi, but I never specifically said “our hostel in Xi’an” and he scored a victory in the end. There wasn’t much we could do, so we paid, got out, and began to wonder exactly where we were. However, as Laozi teaches the best results are achieved by yielding and adapting to the circumstances dealt you, and the Tao was with us at that moment. We were at a bus stop, and as a bus pulled up I checked its route and realized it was going straight to the stop outside our hostel. So we all paid our 1 yuan, boarded the bus, and spent a full 30 minutes on the roads of Xi’an before reaching our stop, quite satisfied we didn’t pay for another taxi for that distance. It was then straight to our beds, the shower, and the bar, in that order.

To our great disappointment the kitchen was closed and our cheesecake dreams were crushed, so we settled down at a table with our new friend Hans the beer. Feeling the need for a celebratory drink I suggested a round of shots of Jack Daniels, which each happened to cost approximately what I make in an hour, but were delicious. We didn’t begin the night until perhaps after 11pm, and before we knew it they were closing the hostel bar. A good 40 minutes before the closing time of 2am, the girl behind the counter came over to us and innocently but suggestively joked to me “wo zai zher shuijiao, hao ma? (I’m going to sleep right here, is that ok?)”, and we were too kind to deprive a sweet Chinese girl of sleep for the sake of alcohol consumption.

Knowing I had nothing scheduled for the next day besides lying down on a bus for 16 hours, and knowing it was the end of my time with two quite likeable friends who spoke really good English, I was up for keeping the night going. Nissa was of the same mind but Stefanie counted herself out, so the two of us went out in search of Xi’an nightlife. We headed for the street of bars right near our hostel, and wondered for a good many minutes why it now consisted of closed stores until we realized it was the next street over. Apparently even Binghamton parties later than Xi’an, and we took our seats in one of the only open bars, which was deserted. One of the employees was sleeping on a couch, and the black-and-white Communist war movie on the television made for a weird ambiance.

The next morning, we perused the hostel breakfast menu and spied a grand American Breakfast, with eggs, sausage, toast, and the works. After finishing these off I jokingly suggested we also get the cheesecake we missed out on the previous night, but before I finished my sentence they were out of their seats and ordering three pieces. That was probably the best decision of the day. It was genuine cheesecake, impossible to find in China (the closest cheese of any kind is eight hours from me in Lanzhou), and so good I was left speechless. However, we never did have champagne.

Stefanie and Nissa’s bus left a few hours before mine, so the fun ended at that point and we had to say our goodbyes in the hostel. I had accomplished everything I set out to do in Xi’an, but one or two more days would have been really nice. Or, not wasting an entire day on the way from Zhangye, either way. With a few hours to kill by myself, I ascended the impressive city walls and took a leisurely walk for an hour or so while looking out over the city, and then gathered my things and headed for my sleeper bus back home to Zhangye.

On the bus, I was quickly driven to a practically homicidal irritation by a mix of the aftermath of a funny lunch, a slight hangover, cramped conditions, and in particular the awful music blasting from my personal speaker on the ceiling, which was almost but not quite a foot above my head. However, I somehow fell asleep eventually and the return journey went considerably more smoothly than my trip to Xi’an. I waited for a bus in Lanzhou perhaps only an hour, rather than nearly twenty-four, and there was only one near-catastrophe. I awoke around 7 in the morning to see that we were pulled over on the side of a road, and a man on the bus was repeating “Lanzhou, Lanzhou!” However, we were obviously not at the bus station and I was also a little out of it still, so I assumed they were driving around looking to fill empty seats by calling out their destination to passers-by, a common situation. But a few minutes after we took off it dawned on me that we were definitely leaving a large city, and I said to the woman nearest me “I’m going to Lanzhou. We still haven’t arrived there, right?” to which she said in surprise “You’re going to Lanzhou?? We just passed there! Hey, the foreigner is going to Lanzhou!” Now the whole bus was able to get a good laugh at the incompetent foreigner who missed his stop, with the usual remarks of “ah, he doesn’t understand Chinese language!” So they pulled over with no small amount of amusement and retrieved my bag, while I added “sorry… I was sleeping”. So luckily I had to walk merely a half-hour back into Lanzhou with all of my luggage before catching a taxi to the bus station, and didn’t end up in Qinghai Province.

I would later hear the tale of Nissa and Stefanie’s travel difficulties on the way home, which involved being tossed into a moving bus they almost missed and later being woken up and dumped on the side of the road at 1am near, but not that near, the bus station that was their destination. It’s difficult not to have a love-hate relationship with China, and she’s a particularly tempestuous lover during long-distance travel. But truly there is more love than hate, and I’m coming back for more; I plan to stay at Hexi University at least one more semester, and likely one more year.