Had a very decent weekend, and the most Chinese so far. On Friday me and four of the other foreign teachers (Andrew, Mohammed, Cynthia, and Gary) met for dinner and had some good conversation, mostly at the expense of our students. The main dish was a local favorite that would translate literally as "big plate of chicken", which is exactly what it was. I was excited to find not only the chicken's claws but the head within the mess; the Chinese are not a people to waste anything. I tried my best to eat the claw, but there wasn't too much meat and it was a little disturbing anyway. We took turns playing with the chicken parts and taking pictures, which I thought might be a little rude until I remembered just how much we are stared at and generally made a spectacle of. Towards the end of the meal we were all shocked into silence as we watched an unknown foreigner walk into the restaurant, an older man and the only non-teacher I have seen so far. It was our turn to stare at the foreigner, who pretended not to see us and sat far away. Like proper Chinese spectators, we all wanted to know where he was from and why he was here but no one wanted to ask.
On Saturday I went down to Xiao Ma's guitar shop again, this time with Gary, the Canadian foreign teacher who's been in China 14 years and knows Xiao Ma. My friend Wang Ya Mo, the primary school teacher and "translator" between me and Xiao Ma was there again as well, although Gary sometimes had to actually translate between me and her. As always there were a lot of students hanging out there, and I ended up performing "Hey Jude" against my will twice, the first time with Gary at least. Two high school girls kept giving requests and were mystified that I didn't know anything by Shakira, Mariah Carey, or China's all-time favorite Western pop group, The Carpenters. Xiao Ma's girlfriend cooked dinner for about 10 of us in the back room (this is where the picture above is from), a spectacular meal with 13 dishes besides the rice. The Chinese often play games during dinner, and this time it was rock, paper, scissors. I'm not sure how our hosts were able to destroy us at a game that doesn't involve skill, but they did. It's easy to get the impression that the Chinese don't have as much fun as us because they work long hours and don't do much of what I think of as "entertainment" (movies, bars, rock shows etc.), but I'm starting to notice how much they enjoy each other's company. I can only picture a group of Westerners getting that excited about rock, paper, scissors if they hadn't seen each other in 8 years or were on drugs, which I think is a compliment to the Chinese. During some of the rounds the losers had to sing a song, which few Chinese have any reservations about. Me and Gary, on the other hand, were struggling to think of something when we lost, and of all the songs we knew we ended up singing a rousing rendition of "Oh My Darlin' Clemetine" (not my pick). On the walk home (at about 11pm, after about 7 hours at the shop) there was a man from Xinjiang Autonomous Region (the large, Muslim, northwestern-most part of China) out in front of his restaurant playing a Xinjiang two-stringed sitar-like instrument. He was happy to sing us a few traditional songs, and seeing my guitar, let me play the instrument for a minute, which made for a memorable end to the night.
On Sunday I socialized only with Chinese people for the first time. I spent the morning and early afternoon with Wang Ya Mo, who called me at 9:30am to invite me to fly kites in the city square, which is such a wonderfully innocent thing for one 22-year old to ask another that I couldn't possibly say no. Her "little brother" (cousin) was there flying his kite, but I don't think he said a word, certainly not to me. Ya Mo's kite was broken as it turned out, so I bought one and made pitiful attempts at getting it to fly in the slight wind. Going back to what I said about the Chinese enjoying each other's company, I was amused to see a middle-aged couple in the square sharing one jump-rope and obviously having a blast. Of all the things to be going on in Zhangye there was what looked like a small pop concert going on on the other side of the square, so we went to investigate. A crowd of mostly straight-faced middle-aged men in suits was watching a girl singing on a stage that was set up, with a giant pink banner behind her and suspicious-looking pink umbrellas set up all around. At the end of each song, there was an eerie silence, and I didn't know whether to take that as a sign that they hated the music or pop concerts are so new that they didn't know they were supposed to clap. Ya Mo explained to me what the elaborate set-up was for: to advertise a brand of milk. The People's Republic your parents knew and feared is gone indeed.
Once the entertainment potential of flying a kite with someone you have trouble communicating with was exhausted, we wandered around town for a bit, highlighted by the sight of two ridiculous costumed cartoon characters walking around to advertise something or other. Ya Mo invited me to have lunch with her mother in her apartment, my first invite into a Chinese home. I think her mother was a bit surprised to see me, and the first thing she said was "I don't speak English" in Chinese, as if I were accustomed to English speakers in Zhangye and this would come as a shock. Lunch was quite good and more than adequate, as can be expected. I will not be cooking for any Chinese until I become a master chef, which is not in my foreseeable future. Typically when I eat with Chinese people they will eat little while insisting I have more and more, which I don't object to but feels a little strange to my Western concepts of politeness. After lunch Ya Mo played some music for me that she likes on the computer. The Chinese love their sentimental music (meaning, all of it) to come with slow video montages of mountains and river valleys, and the traditional-style music was pretty good if you ignored the "fashionable" drum samples and guitar riffs layered on top of it. She wants to work on her English and I am obviously in need of learning more Chinese, so I'm glad that we will "make good friends".
Even earlier than Wang Ya Mo, a few of my students had called me in the morning to see if I wanted to play badminton in the gym with them. They suggested 3:30 for a time, and said they would call again at 3. At precisely 3:00 my phone rang, and it was "Sonya", one of my students. She had obviously been running and was completely out of breath, and wanted to know if I wanted to meet with her and her friends. I said sure and wanted to know when to meet, so she replied "oh, right now. I am waiting for you outside of your building". I had only just gotten home and intended to relax for 10 minutes, but instead had to rush out the door to meet my students. She was in fact not standing outside of my building, and I correctly guessed she thought I lived in the same building as Andrew and some of the other teachers. She was still out of breath when I found her, and we met some of her classmates and went to the gym.
For the next hour or so I faced an unending series of my students on a ping-pong table, a match-up I have long awaited. They were almost all better than me but not by too much, which made for some good matches, though the only person interested in keeping score was a very serious and very random man who took over for 10 minutes and was definitely not my student. I finally quit the ping-pong for the basketball court, where a pick-up game was started and I realized how woefully out of shape I am. However, on this side of the world I am definitely a better basketball player than at home. The gym also had badminton, which I tried briefly, and Chinese chess, which I did not.
After exhausting myself, the students invited me to eat at the canteen with them, and refused to let me pay for my meal. I hadn't been there before, and the large cafeteria atmosphere won't be drawing me back too often. After this I invited the three students who were left, some of my most outgoing and talented at English, to see my apartment. Or rather, they invited themselves, but I was happy to accomodate. They thought it was too big and lonely, and not homely enough for their tastes. I was told by "Vivien" that when she heard they would have a new American teacher this term, she thought I would wear very fashionable clothes. Obviously, I am a poor representative of my country in that department. I was also asked why I don't dress "very open" like the American pop stars they see on TV, and they are convinced that most Americans must be completely different than me. They played me music they like, typical Chinese pop which I tactfully described as "not my style", and I was surprised when they took to the Pavement and Morrissey I played for them, and more surprised when they claimed to know Chinese singers who sounded similar. I will likely spend more time with students in the future, which should be interesting, or at the very least sharpen my ping-pong skills.