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.

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