Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Dragon Boat Festival, sans Boats or Dragons

There happened to be back-to-back holidays last week: first the Dragon Boat Festival, and then Children's Day on June 1st. The main feature of the Dragon Boat Festival are the dragon boat races, which in the middle of a desert are of course non-existent, so people here just eat the traditional zongzi (glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) and tie string around friends' wrists for good luck (no one told me I was supposed to wear it for a month so I cut the first one off immediately the next morning). For Children's Day I spent the afternoon in Ganquan Park, for the first time in Zhangye fighting through a crowd, for tickets into the park. One of the more maddening Chinese habits is the lack of lines: if a lot of people want something at once it turns into complete chaos. I told my students we should have had the day off because they are often as excitable as children. Last week also had a few amusing moments in class as I taught them American slang and had them use it; there's something wonderful about a job that involves hearing "let's go the canteen, it's totally fabulous. The food is to die for" from a Chinese English student. There was also a group that had obviously learned some slang from somewhere else, but God knows where, as they ended a skit about a bothersome friend by telling him "Fuck off!". Me and Andrew also finally saw the student dorms: eight beds to a room, no desks (certainly not things like computers), and washing clothes by hand in a basin (they often just wear the same clothes everyday).

It's always entertaining to be at the mercy of non-native English speakers. On Saturday a trip was arranged for the foreign teachers by Miss Mao, and we didn't really know what was coming next until we saw it with our own eyes. She had first told me only "we will go to an interesting place... meet at the big tree at 8:30", so she had me hooked from the start. On the bus (we had no idea we were taking a private bus, even after seeing the bus sitting on the campus) she expanded that to "we will go to the countryside.... the hills are different colors". If I had any reservations before, now I was definitely excited. The second and most random stop (there would be many) involved us getting out to look at an office building for a farmer's union for approximately 2.5 minutes, and then getting right back on the bus. After a number of short stops at farmers' homes (more interesting than the union building), we eventually arrived at our destination, which after all was a pretty spectacular landspace of large multi-colored clay formations out in the middle of nowhere (well, even more out in the middle of nowhere). That's the closest thing I've seen to the American West; most likely I'll end up being better travelled in China than America. Lunch was fancy and elaborate (wouldn't have it any other way) - two of the notorious "big plate of chicken" dishes were just the appetizers. I also met Miss Chen, the reclusive teacher from Hong Kong, for the first time. I had had three dramatic sitings of her without seeing her face, and I half-hoped I would go the entire term without meeting one of the foreign teachers (and no one is sure why she is considered a foreign teacher).

In the continuing series of children's performances in the square, I caught a few minutes of what turned out to be Snow White. Chinese children are amusing when dressed in silly costumes, but I think none more so than as the Seven Dwarves. I was mobbed by about 15 senior middle school students in the audience, who fetched another 15 or so and their teacher to come talk to me. Chinese people are probably the most complimentary on Earth; foreigners that can speak any Chinese in China are praised with "your Chinese is great!"; foreigners in America that have any trouble speaking English are often despised.

Also in the square, I had one of my better language adventures so far. An old man was writing calligraphy on the pavement with a water brush, so me and MoMo went to watch. When he found out I knew a little Chinese he and a few passer-bys watched in amusement as I wrote some characters on the pavement. So he started writing sentences to me, such as "which country are you from?", which I in turn answered with the brush. It certainly didn't hurt that MoMo was there to help me. When he left, he didn't say anything, writing only "goodbye, American friend".

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