Thursday, April 27, 2006

Black River, Drinking in a Yurt

So imagine that at your job in America, there is a national holiday that gives you three days off, Monday-Wednesday. In order to let everyone enjoy a full week's vacation, Thursday and Friday are re-scheduled so that you work the previous Saturday and Sunday instead. How far in advance do you think you would know about this? Two months? Six months? In China, make that two days. Tonight my "co-teacher" (the Chinese teacher in charge of telling me what's going on, who I had forgotten about because this is the first time he's contacted me) called to inform me that we will work this Saturday and Sunday so we can take seven days off next week. Luckily I am not the only foreign teacher, and I found out about this about a week ago from my better-informed colleagues; it would have been slightly inconvenient to have made plans and bought train tickets starting this weekend. Chinese people don't plan ahead because they simply can't with the way things are run here - you can't even buy train tickets until a few days in advance, and there can be so much competition for train tickets that you can't set an itinerary in stone for a long trip. Someone is camping out an hour before the ticket booth opens tomorrow morning for our train tickets, as if it were a Rolling Stones show.

Last weekend me and other foreign teachers went on an organized trip to the Black River, about a half-hour bike ride out of the city. The Black River is almost, but not quite, as majestic as the Susquehana River in Binghamton (if you're not from Binghamton, yes, that is sarcasm). But it was a perfectly nice place and I suppose any river is cause for excitement in a desert province. My students have been very excitable when I've mentioned going to the Black River (they are also just generally excitable; when I asked "what do you want to talk about?" at the beginning of my office hours today the reply was "your new clothes!"), and one student's plans for the week-long holiday are "go to the Black River".

For lunch we ate at a pseudo-Mongolian restaurant, in a "yurt" (the Mongolian-style hut) that had a big-screen tv. Public bathrooms in China are generally a nightmare but this was one of my favorites so far, basically a room with three walls and a dirt floor where you picked a good spot to pee on. After we finished eating they wheeled out a monstrosity of a karaoke machine in front of the yurt entrance, effectively blocking any escape, and one of the waitresses launched into song at more-than-adequate volume. The trick was, while she was singing one of us would be picked to drink a cup of baijiu, not the weakest liquor I've had, and in the likely case we were coaxed into finishing it before the song ended they would refill it and we would have to finish that cup as well. That's Sam in the picture, the foreign teacher from America by way of India. After the karaoke came the drinking games, a favorite mealtime activity among Chinese men. I can't actually talk to the head of the Foreign Affairs Office, so I'll have to be satisfied with playing a drinking game with him that begins with showing each other the middle finger for friendship.

That evening 7 of my most social students had made plans to cook dinner at my apartment, which turned out to be a somewhat chaotic three-hour extravaganza which was fun but did not inspire me to take up Chinese cooking. Along with the heapfuls of dumplings there were 7 different dishes, which after the extravagant lunch brought my dish total for the day to around 15 or 16. I really wonder now whether the Chinese don't have more fun with life than us; more than the British, at any rate. Dinner was of course excessive and left-overs were dealt with in the usual rounds of rock-paper-scissors, with losers eating to the point of bursting.

I was invited to eat with students a second time early this week, from my only year-two class which I was beginning to think hated me. They only got into the two-year program (testing decides basically your entire life here) and are soon graduating, and know for a fact they are graduating, so they are a bit ambivalent about coming to class or actually talking when they do come. Out of 35 students, 16 came last time, so I took attendance for my own amusement and personally thanked them for coming. Phillip has the same class and apparently he had 6 of them show up for his lesson in the afternoon. Of the four students I ate with, I hadn't actually seen three of them in weeks, including the student whose very spartan one-room dorm we were in.

This week's lesson has been an attempt to teach about American humor, which has not been as successful as hoped. I segued from the reading that mentions Mark Twain into some humorous Twain quotes, and the sarcasm and cynicism simply go over their heads despite my attempts to teach what "sarcasm" is. In the hands of a Chinese English student the quote "It is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt" becomes an uplifting message about not letting peoples' opinions get you down. I've also been trying to teach what "satire" is, and I don't think I've caught even a smile at The Onion article I've passed out for them to read. I guess it takes more than a two-hour lesson to teach American humor to the least-cynical people I have ever met, although the comic strips at least have gotten a few laughs.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Yellow Submarine

Last Thursday night me, Andrew, and Phillip stopped at the Xinjiang restaurant where my friend plays the dutar for some lamb kebabs and music. This time I brought my guitar, much to their delight, and of course I had to sing many an English song. Me and Ehkbet attempted a guitar-dutar duet, with mixed results, and as we were outside we attracted an audience that reached 30 during the night. Me and Andrew have the same students, and a large group of them who passed by stayed to listen and take loads of photographs (that's Andrew in the picture). They fed us three platefuls of kebabs and a few beers, and refused to take payment at the end of the night.

I have finally claimed the bicycle the school gave me, in time for a bike ride with Andrew, Mohammed, two students Mohammed knows, and Miss Mao from the Foreign Affairs Office and her husband. Miss Mao is always full of personality, and usually wearing the brightest red clothing I have probably ever seen. She clearly had no plan but eventually led us to a fishing pond outside the city, where Mohammed failed to outsmart the Chinese fish, and through the Muslim quarter to a good restaurant. I had pictured every Chinese town having a street of half-dead sheep lying on the pavement and unidentifiable animal parts, and now I have seen Zhangye's, complete with sheep's heads and bloodied wool coats. I had asked Miss Mao about the possibility of a cleaning service for my apartment, and she unexpectedly recruited the two English students with us, which is good news but feels exploitive somehow.

Saturday night MoMo called to invite me to a "party" of Xiao Ma's, which I figured could mean anything after the "game" at Hexi University. It turned out to be a big get-together at a restaurant (hot pot as per usual), which wasn't too thrilling after having already eaten and not understanding any of the conversation. The next day MoMo helped me with some shopping I had to do, and in true Chinese style I was able to ride my bike with a small girl on the back. After I was finished and about ready to go home she suggested he go for a hike, in a place that "wasn't far". After 20 or 30 minutes of riding against a strong wind with a second person on the back, I was getting rather tired, and I asked how much farther it was. She said another 20 minutes; it was also about 5pm, an awkward time to be arriving somewhere 40 minutes out of the city for a hike. Sometimes I wonder if the Chinese think we are as illogical as we think they are.

This week in class I'm doing a lesson on music, and I do love a job in which I can bring my guitar to work. Most of my students don't so much as know who The Beatles are, so I figured it was time to educate them. It's been a fun lesson so far, perhaps highlighted for me by having the students write out on the blackboard what they think the words are to Yellow Submarine after listening to it ("and he told The Beatles' life" instead of "and he told us of his life", "and our friends all live in a stone" instead of "and our friends are all aboard" etc.). I get asked to sing so often here that it no longer bothers me to do it, and leading the students in "Let It Be" with their sweet angelic voices has been worth it. I'm not too bothered about public speaking anymore either, or the fact that a male friend is likely to leave his hand on my knee while talking; I guess it takes something like living in China to break down some barriers.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Dust Storm

With so few clouds the weather can change very dramatically here, but so far never as severely as in the last few days. Up until three days ago, there was a streak of t-shirt weather that left me with some color on my face, and I confidently retired my winter coat out of the main closet. However, I woke up yesterday to see my first sandstorm raging outside. These are not uncommon in the spring around here, but I was quite taken by surprise. Basic visibility was fine but the horizon was lost in a hazy screen of dust and sand, and with the sun completely out of sight the temperature absolutely plummeted. I could smell dust all day, and sand has infiltrated every room of my apartment. Today there is no sandstorm, but the weather is absolutely freezing, to the point of seeing my breath and shivering in my winter coat this afternoon. Last Thursday there was also an earthquake during my office hours, and though I felt the building shake briefly it was so minor that I wasn't certain it was really an earthquake.

I had another "only in China" moment the other day. I had purchased a backpack from one of the bigger stores in town, and had a sizeable tear in it in less than one week (you get what you pay for). At the guitar shop I asked where I could get it fixed, and lo and behold there was a dusty old man in his blue Mao suit sitting on the next street over with an ancient sewing machine and thread. He repaired the bag, which set me back about 7 cents US. I also finally concluded the adventure that has been setting up office hours. The first five weeks, I had the following conversation with the English Department every week:
"I'd like to set up my office hours"
"Oh..... ah, well we haven't been able to set those up for you yet. Come back next week"
Finally, the head of the Office told me to just set them for whenever I wanted to, exactly what I knew would happen since week 1. When I showed up for my first office hours, the door was locked. I kindly asked across the hall in the English Department if they would unlock the door for me, to which I was told "ah, well we don't have a key. Other teachers have all the keys. I know this is very inconvenient for you". They then set about calling all the foreign teachers, who were all in class. It had obviously not occurred to them at any point previously that I might need a key.

My Chinese is slowly improving, such that I can make such intelligent observations as "the weather is really cold today!". My vocabulary is a bit selective; I can say "fly a kite" and "play this part on the guitar four times, but more slowly" but not "menu". And if I still don't understand people very well, at least my vocabulary has improved for telling them so. It's still frustrating not being able to really communicate with Chinese locals, especially when they are really keen to. About a month ago I went into a restaurant across from the school where the older couple running it were really friendly, and after about 7 misfires I finally found it again today. If you don't read Chinese well, it's astounding how difficult it is to find a place again, even if you know the street it's on. Every place looks the same, and the little noodle restaurants will have a heavy curtain, characters all over the window, and the minimum of lighting inside in order to effectively prevent you from knowing what's inside. Anyway, after stopping in only once about a month ago I got warm smiles of recognition from them and some attempted conversation, and I'll be sure to stop in more often. Zhangye is small but I still find small surprises (I was shocked to discover an entire street of classy wine bars, and there is a street with bizarre Michael Jackson video-esque neon pillars that change colors), and I expect I'll miss it when I'm gone.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A "Game" with the "Music Team"

Well, I knew the time I was spending with Xiao Ma at his guitar shop would lead to something unusual, but I very surprised to find myself performing with him on-stage at a singing competition last night at the university in front of hundreds of students. We had been practicing a song he wrote and through an English-speaking student he had asked if I would promise to join his "guitar club" and take part in a "game" with him, but I often don't know what they are talking about and didn't pay much attention to it. Even as late as yesterday evening I didn't realize what was going on, until they suddenly announced we were going to Hexi University for the "game", and when we arrived at the school there was a large stage set up with a crowd cheering on the performing students. It was generally karaoke-style and I think we were the only ones to play instruments, but we didn't win. That was one of the largest audiences I've played for, and I've definitely never gotten that much applause for taking the stage. There was a big laugh when I finally looked up from setting up my guitar into the crowd and the lights with a bewildered look. His song is pretty good as far as the singing goes, but my attempts to suggest that three guitar solos might be too many and that the music should change at some point were either not understood or ignored. Actually, apparently not satisfied with the amount of soloing that would go on, he added an additional minute-long introduction at the last minute. There is another competition soon, and he is pretty well set on us playing "Hotel California" (universally adored throughout Asia) and trading singing on the verses with me. No amount of explaining that I neither can nor want to sing on a stage in front of 400 people has worked so far, so we'll see what happens here. And it's best if I just keep the fact that I don't like "Hotel California" in the first place to myself.

There was a singing competition Friday night as well, and it's been satisfying to see some kind of entertainment going on on the campus. I was there with Mohammed, the teacher from Egypt, and I was glad to overhear some students he had been talking to taking their leave to go to a party, the first sign of some students letting loose on the weekend. However, what it turned out to be was a Communist Party meeting; they had joined the Party and were going to attend a two-hour lecture on the virtues of the Socialist Motherland, at 9pm on a Friday. Even Xiao Ma, the living Spinal Tap stereotype of the hard-rocker, brought everyone back to his store after our performance only to have noodles and go to bed at 11:30. And also to put a muzak version of "Hotel California" on repeat for about 40 minutes.

Yesterday I was also invited to fly kites again by my friend Wang Ya Mo, or "Mo Mo" as her friends apparently call her. The way she pronounces it it sounds like "Mama", so I'm not sure how often I will be calling her that. The city square was taken over by a serious-looking military procession, so she took me to a park instead, which turned out to be well outside the city by bus. With her limited English and very quiet personality I often don't know what's going on; after walking about two minutes into the park we had gone out of our way to get to she said only "I think we are wrong" and turned back. So we went across the street into a dusty, barren landscape with nothing but a telephone pole and a few farmers while I silently wondered "where the hell are you taking me?". I eventually got it out from her that there were too many trees in the park for the kite, so after having as much fun as you can with a kite in a desert we headed back into the park to basically walk around and try to think of things to say. She wants me to help her with her English but like most Chinese will not get more specific than "my oral English", and this is definitely a good way to learn Chinese words. When we were almost at the guitar shop where she would again act as translator, she said not to mention we had gone to the park, and waited to enter the store 20 minutes after me. I didn't press her about that but I'm not sure how common it is for men and women to be friends in China, and Xiao Ma is the type to tease her endlessly. She's very hard to read and she knows my stay here is limited and we can barely communicate, but I'm hoping she doesn't have any ulterior motives besides kite-flying and learning English, knowing that the Chinese idea of dating is only of the "Romeo and Juliet" one-love forever variety. That's probably the biggest negative of my stay here; in a city of traditional Chinese values and only two Western women (in their 40's), my dating life isn't looking too promising.

Monday, April 03, 2006

An Unusual Instrument

I went out of town this weekend and saw Lanzhou, the provincial capital, for the first time. Gansu is a good-sized province and it's a nine-hour overnight train trip to Lanzhou. With 3 million or so people it is considerably bigger than Zhangye, and has considerably more foreigners. I even passed Westerners on the street, always a head-turning experience. There is a Western grocery store where you can get exotic imports like cereal, cheese, and coffee (at Western prices), but I was more interested in the DVD and CD shopping. I was also thrilled to get a new book in English, a collection of translated Chinese short stories actually. At least one study has given Lanzhou the honors of "most polluted city in the world", and though the shopping is superior to Zhangye it's a crowded and mostly character-less city and I didn't come away wishing I had chosen my job offer in Lanzhou.

The reason I went to Lanzhou was because I was invited by Julian, the Peace Corps volunteer who teaches at the Zhangye Medical College. We met his friends there on Saturday, who were having a birthday party for a girl turning 23. It was basically like being in college again, playing frisbee and drinking with young Americans. Most of them are near the end of the two years and trying to get out early; you don't get to pick where you are sent by the Peace Corps and I don't know how many of them adored China ("I think we've seen enough cultural things... I'm all about the beach next trip"). They spend their weekends partying and the straight-edge, vegetarian image I had in mind for Peace Corps volunteers was thoroughly destroyed Saturday night. There are a lot of Peace Corps teachers in Lanzhou, and about 15 in one room during the party - more than all the foreigners in Zhangye. The party was fun for sure, but I'm still glad to be in a place cut off from Americans, and would hate to spend my time abroad watching seasons of Six Feet Under on DVD and making homemade kegs. I did get to hear more about teaching at International Schools however, since a teacher named Meredith expects to do that in Africa after she's done with the Peace Corps. International Schools are schools abroad for children of diplomats and other ex-pats, such as the children of Su and Chris from OWDC, where all the students speak English and the classes are regular curriculum, but it happens to be in another country. I would need to get a Master's in education, but this is something I have considered doing, and much more of a serious career possibility than what I am doing now.

While shopping and wandering the streets on my own Sunday, I was reminded that I wasn't in sleepy Zhangye anymore. There was a row of street sellers lined up next to each others, and I bought a number of posters with Chinese paintings for my apartment. I was then looking at the selection of the next seller when all of them suddenly grabbed their carpets of goods and started making a break for it, like something out of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. I looked behind me, and several men in suits in an unmarked van were getting and grabbing the street sellers. Still holding my posters, I didn't wait to find out if they were ununiformed police or thugs or what, and casually walked on down the street to get my bus. It hadn't really occurred to me that the goods were likely stolen, and I smiled as I pictured the scene of police in western China trying to figure out what to do with a foreigner they have to arrest.

Back on Thursday night, me and Phillip stopped by the Xinjiang restaurant with the young man who plays the two-stringed instrument (called the dutar, literally "two strings" in Persian) for some kebabs and music. Andrew, Gary, and a friend of theirs from Lanzhou also saw us and stopped by, and we ended up staying several hours, while Andrew talked with our new friend Aqbar and I started to get the hang of playing the dutar. Xinjiang being the Muslim Autonomous Region, it's traditional music is much more Middle-Eastern than Chinese, and the dutar is played mostly on one string while the other is left open to act as a drone. After playing guitar for so long and watching Aqbar (who can be seen in the photo in this post) play it, I can improvise songs in my own way on the dutar and learned a few good melodic runs from Aqbar, though I certainly am not playing it the way he does. I expect to visit Xinjiang during the week-long May holiday and am tempted to buy a dutar if one is affordable enough, though I think taking it back home on a plane might be mildly tricky. Aqbar of course does not speak English, and once again music has become a great in to making local friends despite my fledgling Chinese skills.