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.

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