Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Children's Day

Children's Day is June 1st in China, so every Sunday evening this month there will be a performance in the square from a different school. Last Sunday was the start, with very entertaining dance and music performances from small children in silly costumes. A group of children milling around the audience in costume noticed me, so I ended up getting 20 children interrogating me from every direction.

In the interest of saving money (this being a school which takes its students out of class to clean the campus) there are sometimes power cuts, another item on the long list of "things you will never be told about in advance". This is usually in the afternoon, because the Chinese like to have a "xiuxi" (rest) and sleep during the three-hour lunch break in the afternoon (yes, three hours). So, they assume you couldn't possibly have a good use for electricity in the afternoon, such as, say, being in the middle of a final exam on the computer that's due that afternoon, as I was yesterday. Luckily I had saved my work, and I waited around for two-and-a-half hours until the power was turned back on. I called Miss Mao to ask when they might be turning the power on, and she obviously had no idea they had turned it off in the first place. It's a pretty good lifestyle here, as long as you don't expect things to be run half as smoothly as they are back home. Cynthia, the American professor, probably gets the most frustrated here, and Gary joked that "she thinks she's still at a university".

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Welcome Aboard!

I had my birthday this past Tuesday, and since even ages in China are different (add roughly a year to your Western age), I feel like I've jumped from 22 straight to 24. Where have the years gone. Me and Cynthia went all out and ate at Zhangye's one and only Western restaurant, an overpoweringly classy place in the city center meant for Zhangye's "see-and-be-seen" set, assuming there is one. It's a quite expensive place, by which I mean the beer is $1.50 instead of 25 cents. Out of some sort of principle I was avoiding the place and I think we were the first teachers I know to go, but it had its charms, not the least of which being the "Welcome Aboard!" lifesaver at the entrance. I also liked the sign on the stairs that said "watch your head" in Chinese only, the only people who would possibly need to watch their head being foreign visitors. After about five minutes one of the unnecessarily numerous waitresses came over to switch our forks and knives because they were on the wrong sides (obviously, we had noticed immediately and were completely outraged). This would be the first fork I've seen in a restaurant in China, and the temptation to obnoxiously demand chopsticks when the meal came was very strong. The pizza we ordered, my first in months, was not all it could have been, but I did love the chance to order a Carlsberg beer for the first time since Denmark.

That evening me and several foreign teachers, along with Miss Mao and three students Andrew knows, met at our Xinjiang restaurant hangout. Our dutar-playing friend Aqbar has sadly returned to Xinjiang permanently, but the kebabs will keep us coming back. I received some good gifts, such an enormous bouquet from Miss Mao, an appealingly ridiculous Steaven Segal film called "The Foreigner" from Andrew, not one but two model boats, and a book of old Chinese songs from Gary that includes such stirring hits as "The East is Red" and "Our Leader Mao Zedong". One of my male students stopped by my home earlier in the evening to give me a gift as well: a DVD of Disney cartoons, which he may actually want back as far as I can tell. I also got a call from a group of students to wish me happy birthday (Andrew obviously spread the word), which was very nice but I might have preferred they didn't call at midnight when I was already asleep.

Some general thoughts I'm forming on Chinese education: something needs to be changed when you put your high school students in school until 10:30pm for six and a half days a week, but when I ask University students "what is this article about?" after they've just read it, there is 30 seconds of silence while they look down at the paper and then just quote from it. They don't seem to be taught things like "summarize this in your own words", or thinking critically, forming your own opinions and backing them up, or even raising your hand to volunteer the answer when you know it. I find many things I respect about Chinese culture, some of them being superior to the West (moral and family values, attitudes to life and working, attention to food, knowing how to relax), but education is one area I see no sense in the way things are done here. Memorization is king, and education is seen as the accumulation of more and more knowledge rather than thinking for yourself. During my office hours today I was asked, "what is the number of words I need to know in order to master English?"; when's the last time you sat back and counted how many words you know in English, or thought it had anything to do with how well you can speak English? Another student told me he was actually criticized by a Chinese teacher because he likes to practice English outside of the classroom. From what I'm told, in a Chinese English teacher's classroom there is more lecturing than communicating going on, and students are quickly and frequently criticized for mistakes. It's no wonder that many of them are so shy about speaking up, and it's so difficult to get a response when I ask general questions to the class. Probably of more use than the English I can teach the students are the Western ideas I can expose them to, and I was glad to see some students in office hours today getting beyond the usual "can you cook Chinese food?"-type questions to find out more about American culture and education.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

A Chinese Funeral

We had Wednesday-Friday off from school this week, because the students had a "sports meeting"; three days of competition in things like running, long jump, and my favorite, the slow bicycle race, which was done in teams and apparently took 45 minutes. Other than the slow bicycle race my students weren't really involved, and I didn't hang around the field too long. I was also given the usual run-around in the school's attempts to get me involved. Wednesday morning I was told I was to compete in basketball Thursday morning by the Foreign Affairs Department. After five minutes passed, I was called again and told that she was mistaken and in fact I had to come immediately to the gym to compete. After getting out of my pajamas and rushing to the gym I was informed that sure enough, she was mistaken and it was still Thursday morning, but I was meant to compete in the boomerang in the afternoon. Surprised that the school not only knew what a boomerang was but owned one and for some reason wanted me to compete in it, I showed up, only to see the gym was securely locked and no one was around. Thursday morning I woke up early to compete in basketball at 8am, and in a shocking turn of events, the gym was locked and no one was there.

On Wednesday, after teaching a student "Jingle Bells" on the guitar (they adore this song in China) and generally doing nothing, Andrew invited me to have dinner with him and two of his Chinese friends, a young man who owns a computer school me and Andrew were volunteered to give one lesson in last week and his wife. Some people see the foreigners as a curiosity or a means to practice English, but they seemed quite genuine in their friendliness and I liked them a lot, despite being able to participate in little of the conversation.

The husband invited us to a relative's funeral on Thursday, which was to be one of the most memorable things I've seen here so far. In the morning me and Andrew had the chance to ride their motorbikes to his parent's home, a wonderful Chinese home of the traditional one-story variety, with a courtyard, donkeys, and few signs of modernity. Now that I work with a Peace Corps volunteer and have met several others, I'm glad I didn't join; they are doing the same thing as me but with loads of bureaucratic, lawsuit-fearing restrictions like getting kicked out if you ride a motorbike or even a bicycle without a helmet, and of course less pay and travel opportunities. Literally the only person who wears a bicycle helmet in Zhangye is the Peace Corps teacher at the Medical College.

We didn't join the funeral procession until around noon. At this time, the casket was being carried by family members to the gravesite, surrounded by grieving relatives in white hats and trumpet players who kept up a loud, dischordant musical accompaniment. The casket was draped in red, and led by long white cloths in front. There was also a fire set on the side of the road, and large colorful decorations I have often seen in stores but didn't know the purpose of.

At the gravesite, several men lowered the casket into the grave, and when it was ready, everyone around the grave began madly throwing or shoveling dirt onto the casket while the immediate family wept loudly on their knees nearby. The trumpets continued throughout, quite loudly and now with a drum, and rounds of fireworks were set off. Once there was a tall mound of dirt over the grave, yellow paper was secured to the top, the colorful decorations were set on fire along with some paper puppets, and wine and baijiu were poured around the grave as we took our leave. Overall, it was not quite as solemn and certainly not as quiet as a Western funeral. Many of the people attending were in good spirits and wanted to meet me and Andrew, and we were encouraged to take pictures. It was difficult to find out what the meaning of everything was as it was happening, but from what I've found out the Chinese are intensely afraid of ghosts and the music and noise are meant to keep away bad spirits. Red is the color of luck and joy and only used in funerals in which the person died after a long life. There were paper models of a house and car in the procession, which represented the person's wealth in life. And although the grieving from the immediate family seemed pretty genuine, in any case they are obligated to make a public display of their grief. I know there are more traditions before and after the funeral which we didn't see, and from what I've seen in Chinese movies weddings in Imperial times were extremely elaborate. It was an interesting chance to take part in real Chinese life, and definitely Andrew's doing; I don't understand the teachers that come to China and don't bother with learning the language, as this more than anything leads to the most memorable experiences.

Monday, May 15, 2006

3 Little Devils

I think I had my first real "conversation" in Chinese tonight, at the Friendliest Man in the World's store that is right near my home that me and Andrew frequent. There was a woman there tonight who teaches Culture and Russian that was keen to talk to me, and as she is originally from Shanghai her Chinese was much clearer to me than the local Zhangye residents. She said she can't understand the local dialect either. That's not to say I understood even half of what she said, but we talked for perhaps a half hour and exchanged more than the basic "I'm from America and yes, I can use chopsticks and I like Chinese food".

I socialized for the first time with my co-teacher, the Chinese English teacher assigned to me that, in theory only, tells me what's going on. He wanted to take me to dinner, which sure enough was at a very fancy restaurant, with a taxi ride there and back despite the walk being only 10 minutes. We had some decent conversation and his English was surprisingly good (if that sounds like a strange thing to say about an English teacher, you obviously haven't been to China), and he had had some experience with foreigners when he spent a month in some sort of cultural camp with Americans. Perhaps to display his familiarity with our alien customs, when the food came he asked if it would be alright if he ate straight from the same dishes as me - in China the dishes are communal without exception, and this would be as absurd as asking a Chinese person in America if it was alright if we used forks.

Last week there was a knock on my door when I wasn't expecting anyone. To my surprise, when I opened it three small girls came running excitedly into my apartment, and casually took their seats on my furniture and made themselves at home. They didn't speak English, and the fact that I didn't understand much of what they said didn't stop them from addressing me as waiguoren (foreigner) and asking constant questions. I (foolishly) took out my camera, which somehow didn't get smashed to bits in their excitement. After a whirlwind five minutes, they left as quickly as they came. And then another five minutes passed, and they reappeared at my door, but with a ping-pong paddle to give me. This time I was sucked into at least 15 minutes of hide and seek in my apartment, with the girl I could tell was the ringleader continually pulling my sleeve and whispering long suggestions in Chinese that I didn't understand.

And finally, in things possibly worth mentioning that come to mind, in a very Chinese shopping experience I bought a pair of pants that had no pockets whatsoever. I didn't realize this until the next day when I tried them on, because they had what appeared to be pockets, only they were securely sewn into the pants. I was unsure if this was the Chinese lack of attention to detail, a new fashion trend, or a company that relied on fools who didn't look very carefully in the store. When I took them back and explained my pants had no pockets, the woman said "they do so have pockets!" before taking a look and exclaiming "oh!" (well, a Chinese equivalent), and then fixing them with her scissors. So, it was my first guess after all. China is best enjoyed by the good-humored, and I'm always amused by the way things are done here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Great Wall and Camel Riding

There is a saying in China that "you aren't a real man until you've stood on the Great Wall", so after last weekend I'm happy to know I'm a real man in the eyes of the Chinese. I went with MoMo, and it was a big trip for her - only the second time in her life she has left Zhangye. At first she had to cancel because her mother didn't trust a foreigner going to another city overnight with her daughter (she's 22 with a job and likely supporting her mother), but I smoothed things out and got train tickets going there and back the same day. It's a three-hour trip to Jiayuguan, the city near the fort that marks the traditional west end of the wall, and the morning train was certainly that - 5:30am. It was still dark when we met in the square to get a taxi to the train station. When we arrived taxi drivers, seeing a foreigner and a quiet Chinese girl, persisted in trying to talk us into "four places, for 140 yuan", or "3 places, 160 yuan"; God knows where, but when I finally got across that we were only going to the Great Wall it was, lo and behold, 11 yuan on the meter. The first taxi driver had actually cut in front of the line to buy us our return train tickets, and I can make an educated guess what he was shouting at us after we turned him down and he then saw us getting into another taxi.

The Great Wall was not disappointing, and I like the idea of seeing the most remote end of it. All around Jiayuguan is a backdrop of desert and mountains, and there was a beautiful blue sky that day. The site at Jiayuguan is a fort compound, so along the wall are a number of the Chinese-style tiered-roof buildings. Most of it must have been reconstructed, because it didn't look very old at all. Because of the May Day holiday I was afraid it would be crowded with people, but it wasn't bad at all, and I was surprised to see only one other foreigner. There was an area outside of the wall where camel and horse owners let you ride or pose for pictures for a small fee, so the two of us spent 5 or 10 minutes with a camel, a very cool experience. Me and MoMo don't talk much, but I was glad not to go alone and I've always been of the opinion that talking is overrated.

The afternoon was spent in the city, killing time until our train at 5pm and fighting off exhaustion. Jiayuguan is a very clean but unspectacular city, very new and more similar to an American city than Zhangye. We found a decent enough park in which to sit down and fall asleep before it was time to go. Usually I take advantage of the opportunity to learn some Chinese from MoMo but I didn't really have the energy to talk at that point. On the train back all I wanted to do was sleep, but China thought otherwise. A young man sitting across the aisle from us started talking to me, as they tend to do, and being too polite to tell him off I gave the least enthusiastic one-word answers I could, not that subtle hints like that are ever taken. He then got out his video camera and said "hey, look over here!" so he could get me on film; I can sort of tolerate people I don't know wanting pictures with me, but that was just too much. Unfortunately, the mother sitting in the seat directly across from us left and the young man and his buddy took the chance to sit closer. Then they started a card game with us, the last thing I felt like doing, but of course I am too polite for my own good, especially on a train when there'll be no escaping the person for the next two hours. The loser of each round had to do absurd things like lick the window; my enthusiasm then hit a new low when it turned out he was from Zhangye and was talking about keeping in touch and having me to his house, but perhaps he got the hint after all, because he didn't follow through.

That night I ate alone at one of the best restaurants I know, which like most classy restaurants is on the second floor with windows overlooking the street. I could see the waitress standing next to my table starting as if to say something and then hesitating, and then finally asking what I did. At first I thought she was saying "what are you doing", but I realized that would be a pretty stupid question at a restaurant, and I told her what my job was. We only made one other exchange, but towards the end of the meal she handed me a piece of paper and told me to look. It was a note, in Chinese, which read "Make friends? (something) (something) telephone number?". That's the first time a waitress has asked for my telephone number since... ah, that's right, that doesn't ever happen to me. I was flattered, and I gave it to her. I didn't get her name but it shouldn't be hard to place the nervous girl speaking Chinese if she calls. I think staying in small-town China too long must give you an inflated opinion of yourself, so I like being grounded by brutal honesty, such as say, my Chinese lessons (I'm starting to hand her pen after writing a character before she even says "no, that isn't right" or "hm, that doesn't look good"). I like being occupied in my own world so I have to adjust to being so public; I was at the ATM with MoMo on campus, and when I left the booth she said "a man says to wait for him". Two minutes later, a young man I'm certain I've never met gave me a photo of me and Xiao Ma at the first music competition, which apparently he had handy at his place. He smiled at me very enthusiastically but didn't really say anything, so I thanked him and we sat in awkward silence until he left. I asked MoMo if she knew him, and she said "no, but I think everyone knows you".

An Explosive Re-Opening

Friday was the grand re-opening of Xiao Ma's guitar shop after he renovated the place, not something to be done with subtlety in China. The extravaganza got started around 11 in the morning with the largest fireworks display I've yet seen in Zhangye. The Chinese like to announce things like store openings and weddings with a round of firecrackers in front of their store, and in this case they set out an excessive amount of fireworks in the shape of a guitar. Once it got going we had to run for cover, with shrapnel flying in every direction and the smoke making it hard to breath. Then a truck arrived with tables and they set about making what was obviously a stage in front of the store, and a few of them summoned me away for lunch. Lunch was in several private rooms on the third floor of a luxurious hotel, and became a three hour event with a revolving table of dishes. I was coerced into 10 shots of baijiu, the most suspicious being the three shots I had to do because the fish on the table was pointing at me. There was no one with a decent standard of English in my room so by the end of lunch I was as bored as I was drunk.

Around 4pm the music performances began, and didn't end until 10pm. I was under the impression a few of us would play a couple of songs at some point, and was surprised by the hours-long parade of mostly talented musicians I had never seen before. I was called to the stage four times, usually with little to no warning, including the time I was told "go up and play a song by yourself". Gary had also come down by that time and they also called him onstage and set him on the drumset, where he sat there looking bewildered until he finally got down. That may well be the extent of my concert-going experiences in China, so I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Music Competition

I was looking forward to a relaxing week's vacation, but despite leaving Zhangye for only one day I had a busy May Day holiday in which among other things I saw the Great Wall, took second place at a music competition with Xiao Ma, took part in the grand re-opening of his store, and had my bicycle stolen.

I was originally planning to visit the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang and the Great Wall at Jiayuguan with the Cynthia, the Peace Corps volunteer at Hexi, and four teachers from Lanzhou and Chongqing she knows. However, the final rounds of the Hexi University music competition I had promised Xiao Ma I would see through to the end with him were inconveniently scheduled for the same time, and I ended up cancelling so I could play. I could tell Xiao Ma's spirit was crushed when I told him I would go to Dunhuang at that time, and he had previously made me pinkie-swear I would play with him (which he would remind me of by raising his pinkie with a disapproving look). I did spend a day with the Peace Corps teachers when they came to Zhangye, which was fun and highlighted by bowling (Zhangye actually has bowling, to my great surprise) made unnecessarily complicated by communication difficulties with the staff. The place was completely dark until we came, so they had to spend five minutes turning everything on, and for some reason set the machine for one bowler; our best explanation was that in the true collectivist spirit, bowlers don't compete in China but rather take turns sharing one score for the good of the group. Before dinner I had also been dragged to a rather theme-parky public park in Zhangye with Xiao Ma's gang, in which my camera was commandeered and no less than 70 pictures were taken in the half-hour I was there.

I was a little hesitant to cancel my travels for a competition I knew little about, but it ended up being good fun. It wasn't at the university like the first round, but on a fashionable walking street near the city center. I have trouble understanding the title of the song we played even though I know all of the words, and my best guess at translation is "How Could You Not Care About How Sad I Am?". It uses a lot of jazzy chords and I like it quite a bit for a Chinese song. We were the only ones to play instruments again, and actually came in first place on the first day. I'm not sure how many competitors there were to start with but on the next and final day there were still 25. This time they stepped the fanfare, starting the whole thing off with a round of cannon fire that surely didn't go unnoticed in about a third of the city. The night before we went over a new song for no more than 20 minutes, which I wasn't remotely familiar with, so I was glad when Xiao Ma made a last minute change and wanted to play the same song as the day before. They also insisted I greet the crowd in Chinese, and gave me two sentences of new words right before going on, which I botched horribly when I tried to say it on stage. Three of Xiao Ma's friends I see often at the shop also performed and did well, and for a while we were in first and second place, but were overtaken at the end by a girl who did a Middle-Eastern style dance routine and came in first. The ending ceremony was long and elaborate, as we were summoned the stage one by one and men I didn't know in suits shook our hands and handed us our trophy. We also got a certificate (which says "Ma Yu Long" but not my name) and an enormous winter blanket, all in bright pink with embroidered flowers. Xiao Ma got the trophy and certificate, I got the blanket. The whole event was filmed, for local TV I believe, and an unnecessarily friendly man who owns a sports clothing shop on that street keeps giving me gifts and asking me to play guitar in his store.