Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Gansu Travels: Part II

Day 4

Spent the morning at Maijishan, the mountain near Tianshui with Buddhist carvings. Interesting place, with fairly large Buddhist images carved impossibly high on a mountain, and beautiful surrounding scenery, although 6 hours out of my way in each direction was a lot for a half-day's sight-seeing. On the bus ride to Maijishan, I was off-guard and readily agreed to 20 yuan for the ride. Then I heard the people behind me saying things in Chinese like "20 yuan? Ah, they charge the foreigner more than the local people". I turned around and asked how much they paid, but they went silent. On the way back I was charged 5 yuan.

I often see things in China that make me think, "ah, Mao must be turning in his grave". On the way back from the internet cafe the night before, there were four dancing girls on the street baring their stomachs in matching outfits and dancing badly to techno music. I think it was some kind of advertisement, and there was an enthusiastic announcer who would occasionally say something in English like "1, 2, 3, go!".

Then, at around 9 or 10pm there was a phone call in my hotel room. I answered with curiosity, but I didn't understand what the girl on the other end was trying to say, and I apologized and hung up. I figured it was mostly likely the front desk, but was curious what it was they wanted. Then she called back again, and I explained that I still didn't understand what she wanted, but I started to guess when I caught phrases like "take a look at your room". She finally came up with two words in English, so there was no question what she was asking: "ni xiang bu xiang [would you like] Chinese girl?". I politely turned her down, laughing to myself about it. She then called a third time later on, letting it ring many times before I finally answered. I think this time she was mostly amused that she had a foreigner on the other end of line, greeting me in English with "Hello English boy!" and then giggling. Long gone is the China in which people were sometimes sent to jail just for sleeping together before marriage.

Failing again to get any train tickets at all heading to my next destination, I got a hard seat ticket to Lanzhou and figured I would have better luck there. On the train I met a couple of university students, who were shockingly obvious about dating each other (about two weeks ago in Zhangye I saw a couple kiss in public for the first time, the most open behavior I've seen though they were still crouching in the dark). We had a minor conversation as best as I could manage before keeping to ourselves for a few hours, but when we arrived at Lanzhou they took it upon themselves to look after me, in typical Chinese fashion (they said they were worried about "bad people" that might be around). Despite the very long line, they helped me to try to buy a train ticket (denied again, though I at least knew it wasn't my fault). I would otherwise have felt completely defeated, but they then made a phone call at a nearby store to find out about buses to Dunhuang, finding a bus leaving the next day and writing down the information for me. Three or four other people had noticed the foreigner needing assistance and gathered around, and informed my new friends that in fact there was a sleeper bus for Dunhuang I could catch leaving in an hour. So they negotiated the ticket with the bus driver for me, which probably saved me some money. When he found out it was just me going and not them, he gave them a higher price in a low voice, which really irritated me, but they got a lower price than his original asking price. We then had a quick meal, which I succeeded in paying despite their efforts, and they made sure I bought some water and got on the bus safely before going on their way. They went more than an hour out of their way to help me; sometimes, I adore Chinese people.

Day 5

The bus ride was not fun. It was meant to leave at 9pm, but because there weren't enough on board, they didn't take off until 11pm, a very common situation on Chinese buses. I was told it would arrive at Dunhuang at 4:30pm the next day, and the university students for some reason told me 12pm, but I've been in China long enough to assume we would arrive by 7pm with any luck. The sleeper bus was acceptable, though anyone bigger than me would have been physically unable to fit in the bunk and it was rather tight. There was a woman from Zhangye on the bus, which I noticed when I overheard a man ask her what good food is in Zhangye, and she was going on about the peaches ("they're this big!"). However, we suddenly had to change to a bus with seats around 9am in the morning, which I didn't mind because the seats were comfortable. Unfortunately, around 1pm we had to change again, to a very uncomfortable bus with small seats and no air-conditioning. This was just in time for the worst part of the journey, a very rough road that lasted for at least 6 hours. This was the road that Cynthia, who had been to Dunhuang before, was talking about when she said "ah good, you won't have to take the road that doesn't exist" when I told her I planned on getting the train. We were bounced around to the point that my stomach hurt and it was impossible to read or concentrate on anything, and the dust was so thick inside the bus that a mother had her daughter breath into a plastic bag. Probably at some point in my life my ass has hurt more, but I couldn't say when. I was starting to feel a little let-down, thinking it surely could get worse, so luckily the bus also broke down, in the desert with no civilization for miles. No one seemed annoyed or at all surprised by this, so we just caught some fresh air for 20 minutes before they got it running again. Eventually many of the passengers got off and the road smoothed out, so I was actually in a rather good mood when we pulled into Dunhuang - at 10 pm, 25 hours after I boarded the first bus.

Day 6 - Dunhuang

The reason people come to Dunhuang is to see the nearby Mogao grottoes, a collection of more than 700 caves filled with Buddhist art created during several dynasties in ancient China. It's one of the best-known sites in the northwest of China, and was well worth visiting. I had a wonderfully competent English tour guide, who brought us to perhaps 10 of the most interesting caves, filled with Buddha and bodhisatva statues, wall paintings, and other interesting works of art. With me on the English tour were 3 French speakers, an eccentric old German and his wife, and an Indonesian family. Pictures are forbidden, so I only managed one quick, mediocre picture of an enormous Buddha statue, the third largest in China. It's feet were almost the height of a person, and it towered over us in a very tall cave. Apparently it was carved out of the rock from top to bottom over the course of 30 years. Dunhuang as a city seems a decent place to hang out, and for the first time on the trip I'll spend the entire day without changing cities.

That evening I went to the Crescent Moon Lake, a national park of sorts immediately outside of Dunhuang. The lake itself is not thrilling, but the whole area is made up of enormous sand dunes, which for me was quite a thrill. Camel rides of an hour or two are offered for a hefty price, which was well worth doing. Me and a Chinese family were put into a camel team, which the father got a big kick out of. Riding a camel is nice and laid-back, and to me better than riding a horse. It's also not extremely comfortable, and I couldn't imagine crossing the Sahara on one. When you ride one you realize just how big they are, and the dismount involves a sudden plummet to the ground as the camel lowers its front legs first.

At night, relieved to not have to wake up early, I went in search of the night market I had heard about, which was a lively scene. There was a lot of nice hand-made artwork, but I'll wait for the famous market in Kashgar rather than loading myself down with four weeks to go. There was also a crowd of stalls selling lamb kebabs and beer, with the annoying, pushy types of vendors that congregate in tourist areas. Fighting every day to not get ripped off is getting on my nerves - Western tourists have comparitively so much more money than people here I can partly understand it, and I expect few of them notice, but I work in China and am paid Chinese money. I picked one vendor randomly, and he immediately brought out the most expensive beer he had, and even so suggested an outrageous price - 35 yuan; it was maybe worth 10, and the brand everyone drinks in this area normally costs 2. So I asked for Xiliang brand, which he said was 10 yuan, and I lazily just agreed to it. But then he charged the Chinese people that started coming 5 yuan, as if I wouldn't understand or notice. 5 yuan isn't much but out of principle I was really irritated. But before I paid and could complain three men sat down next to me, and we struck up a conversation; it turned out one was from Zhangye, and with the usual generosity I was then treated to more kebabs and beer on him. During the usual scramble between them to decide who would pay the whole bill, I thought it might likely include what I had ordered before but I wasn't sure. At any rate I was so irritated at being cheated again I just walked off, since the vendor wasn't paying attention. He quickly found me, quite annoyed and saying I hadn't paid, but at least I made him chase me down. As I gave him the money I told him the beer was 5 yuan, but he had to make change for me and stuck with the higher price, trying to get rid of me as quickly as possible. I didn't make a further issue of it, but I'll have to be more vigilant against all the cheats along the tourist routes.

My hostel room in Dunhuang had three beds, and I knew I had a roommate when I checked in because someone's stuff was all over the room. I couldn't decide if it must be a male or female, because there was both a Disney towel and a dozen used cigarettes. I figured it must be a male, because in China a man with a Disney towel is much more likely than a woman who smokes. However, when I entered the room that night I walked in on a young girl in her underwear changing her clothes. Oops. I returned a few minutes later, apologizing and trying to start a conversation by asking which city she was from. She looked confused so I tried asking a different way, thinking my pronounciation was poor, but this time she said "I'm Japanese". Oops. But I do have a fascination with Japan so I had a conversation with "Yoshi" (yes, as in the Mario character) as best her English could handle. She handed me her card, which basically said "photography student", as is the Japanese custom. She is traveling for six months so I can only imagine how many cards she brought. I guess in China she does ok because she can write down the characters for people to see, which they got from the Chinese although the spoken language is completely different. I wonder what kind of reactions Japanese tourists get here; the Chinese hate them, mostly because of WWII, but they're also terrible at identifying where foreigners are from. Even if I didn't want to save money I would still stay in hostels; it's fascinating meeting people from countries I may or may not ever see.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Gansu Travels: Part I

Traveling in China, like living in China, is proving to be a mix of adventure, frustrations, unexpected surprises and unexpected difficulties, but magnified a bit. I'll be gone five weeks so it's dawned on me that more than the most time I've traveled at once it will be the most time I've gone without seeing anyone I know. It's definitely manageable, and cheaper than expected, but I couldn't imagine doing this when I first arrived in China. After being regularly taken advantage of in Thailand and especially Cambodia and my day in Beijing, it's satisfying to travel as an insider who knows the prices and some of the language. I'll give a day-by-day breakdown of the trip as I go along.

Day 1 (Thursday, the 20th) - Xiahe

I arrived around 7am in the provincial capital of Lanzhou on an overnight sleeper train. Lanzhou isn't of any interest but this is where I needed to catch the 5-hour bus to Xiahe, a small town in the east of this province that was my first destination. I was quick to judge the middle-aged men in the surrounding sleeper bunks of the train as "typical" Chinese men, pudgy men in suits smoking and talking loudly into the night, but then they spent a good 5 or 10 minutes finding out where I needed to catch my bus without my even asking. It seems my guidebook was wrong in the first place, so the first adventure was busing across Lanzhou to two different bus stations before finally getting on a bus to Xiahe just after 9am. I was the last one on and didn't have a true seat, rather a fold-out stool in the aisle with my enormous travel bag on my lap for the trip. I was surrounded by 8 traveling Lithuanians, who reminded me just how good Europeans are at learning English. I was indignant at being overcharged at the lunch stop, which has never happened in Zhangye. I knew it was worth about 3.5 kuai but he dishonestly charged for tea and asked for 10, but it turned out the Lithuanians, who speak no Chinese, were charged 15 each.

Xiahe is a village of around 40,000 people in a remote mountain area, which is of interest because of the Labrang Monastery and the fact that outside of Tibet, it's one of the most important sites of Tibetan Buddhism. It has a beautiful mountain backdrop and more character than any ethnically Chinese city I've yet seen, and is absolutely packed with monks in robes and Tibetans who are local or on pilgrimage, wearing cowboy-style hats and very bright clothes vaguely reminiscent of Southwest Native Americans. There were also more Westerners than I've seen anywhere in China yet; during the guided tour of the monastery there were about three times as many foreigners as live in Zhangye. While I wandered through the Tibetan part of town, three young excitable children followed me and sheltered from the rain with an umbrella. As I suspected they did ask for money, but were very passive about it and perfectly happy with the equivalent of about a dime. For my accomodation I stayed in a simple hostel, which was quite cheap (roughly $3). When I checked into my room there was a Chinese girl in another of the four beds, who then quickly packed up and left. The tall Swede I shared the room with said when she walked in and saw him earlier, she froze and said "Oh my God!" in English and walked out. She probably didn't know what a hostel was like, and knowing China I'm not surprised that it freaked her out.

Day 2

I woke up early to explore to the monastery area, partly because the guidebooks claim that the monks sometimes make friends with travelers and invite them into their homes. I had no such luck, though it was wonderfully peaceful and the sound of monks chanting could be heard periodically (I particularly enjoyed the sound of child monks chanting). With some time before the English tour at 10:15am I climbed a nearby hill, which gave an incredible view over the entire city. The monk who lead the tour spoke only very basic English, and there was a moment about five minutes in when he actually said "My English isn't very good; is there anyone here who would can give some more explanation about this?". There was a long, awkward pause before he continued.

For lunch I treated myself to the common Chinese dish of tudousi chaorou, meat with shredded potato, with the Tibetan twist of Yak meat. A beggar passed by and had the audacity to hit up a monk at the next table for money, which he did give with obvious irritation. After spending just a bit more time hanging around the streets, I caught a 2pm bus back to Lanzhou, which was highlighted by good scenery and helpful English signs like "Don't drive tireply" and "Forbidden to chuck jetsam". Xiahe was an exciting city to visit, but seeing as it's a center of religious devotion, I had to wonder how the Tibetans feel about us making it into a tourist attraction. There were photogenic moments everywhere, but most were very inappropriate to actually take pictures of, such as Tibetans prostrating themselves in prayer. It would have been nice to understand more of Tibetan Buddhism, such as the meaning of prayer wheels (long rows of revolving cylinders they spin as the circle them clockwise).

The room I stayed in in Lanzhou was at least a one-person room, though the bathrooms were shared and like almost all Chinese public bathrooms, left something to be desired. As I approached the men's shower room on the floor below I had a bad feeling I was about to see some full-frontal nudity. I hate being right. The showers were separated by low cement walls, but they felt no need to include doors and there wasn't the least bit of privacy. Chinese people get enough amusement from my long eyelashes and hairy arms, so the two other men showering probably had a story to tell after seeing a foreigner in all his glory. But after five months in China, I think being naked in front of strangers didn't bother me as much as it normally would. And I just really needed a shower.

Day 3 - Tianshui

This morning was spent on a 5 1/2 hour train ride from Lanzhou to Tianshui, another city in Gansu Province. Throughout the ride I noticed what looked very much like man-made cave openings in the mountains, and was reminded of stories I've heard of people in Gansu living in caves in the very recent past (as in, the 1980's). I know my colleague Gary has met someone that told him he lives in a cave (it must be fascinating to talk to people with a high level of Chinese). The point of going to Tianshui is to see a nearby mountain with Buddhist art, so when I arrived in the afternoon it was too late to do anything but wander the city and eat cake in a rare Chinese sweet shop (it was "just so-so" to use a tired Chinglish phrase, and the milk was room-temperature). Oh, and fail to buy a train ticket and wonder if and when I can leave this city. When I tried to buy a ticket to the next city for two days later I was told "no tickets" by the grumpy woman behind the counter, so I tried saying "next ticket to Liuyuan" and was quickly told again "no tickets". Train tickets in China work on an amazingly inconvenient system in which you have to have physically buy tickets at the station in the actual city the train leaves from, no more than a few days early, so during busy times (ie. the whole summer) you have to plan to buy onward tickets as soon as you arrive and hope you don't get screwed. So far here I'm screwed, so I'll try to find someway to get a train ticket or else get a ticket to Lanzhou again and then take a horrible-sounding 22-hour bus. I know of desperate travelers who have stood in the aisles with just a few inches of space around them for overnight trips halfway across the country. Ah, the joys and agonies of traveling in China.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Token Foreigner

Tomorrow I will finally hand in my grades and hopefully take off traveling, some weeks after many foreign teachers have gone home. With classes over people have been coming out of the woodwork to invite me to their school/English function/whatever, which can make you feel like the token foreigner after a while. I've turned down summer jobs from both students and random people in the street I don't know. On Wednesday, I got a phone call in Chinese that I finally realized was a woman from the guzheng school asking if I could come then for a lesson. Usually the lesson is on Thursday and I just practice whenever I feel like it, and I had this strange feeling I was going to be videotaped or photographed at this lesson. Obviously I'm getting a sense for China, because sure enough they filmed a short promotional film of Teacher Zhang giving me a lesson as soon as I arrived. Which was fine, but it was a little irritating that she didn't have time to give me an actual lesson and handed me off to one of her students.

On Friday I was invited by two of my students to visit a private school in a nearby town called Gaotai. They will work at the school over the summer, and the headmaster asked them if I could come to talk to the students, who were about 8-11 years old. After hearing some stories from other foreign teachers about vaguely worded invitations that actually involve giving lessons or an hour-long speech I was hesitant, but decided to give it a chance. We took a "one-hour" bus (over two hours) to Gaotai, and the first seat I tried was so small that more than being uncomfortable, there was physically not enough room for my legs. When the bus stopped in Gaotai, someone threw a bag from the roof of the bus, which landed with a heavy thud; it was full of parts of animals, with a few legs sticking out. Upon arrival, I met the extremely young headmaster of the English school (who speaks no English) and the teachers, all hilariously dressed in matching zebra-like outfits. As it turned out very little was required of me - I went from classroom to classroom greeting groups of students and answering questions they had prepared, such as "what is your favorite color?" and "can you sing us a Chinese song?" (for better or worse I know the chorus of one of the pop songs now). More than one student stood up and said only, "you are cool!". I would actually have been happy to do more, and I spent no more than 20 minutes in the classroom that day. And of course, there were a few rounds of pictures to be taken at the end. I only told my students that I would definitely come late the night before, but they were obviously expecting me; there was one of the ubiquitous red banners set up, this one saying something like "Welcome foreign teacher, who has come to our school to communicate with the students".

After a lot of resting (they have a talent for this which I admire) and the "work" of the day, they didn't have to tell me what was coming next: the round-table banquet in a classy restaurant with all the teachers, with leftovers fit for a sumo wrestler. There was one mysterious dish I couldn't identity, until someone translated it: "pig's feet". It was.... worth trying once, I suppose. They wanted to know which dish was my favorite, and lo and behold another round of it came after about five minutes, which was totally unncessary. The afternoon was leisurely, including a visit to the park, fruit market, and most surprising, a Red Army memorial (some interesting Communist army artwork). I asked my student Jason to translate one of the propaganda sentences I noticed on a city wall (I've seen them in each city, in huge characters), which meant something like "The reason you're able to relax is because we're taking care of everything". The headmaster insisted we take a taxi back so it would be quicker, even though this was certainly more than ten times the cost of the bus. When we reached the gate of the university an unidentified woman got into the taxi, and when we reached my home the headmaster, the woman, and one of my students all followed me inside. The whole day they had been unusually generous and if this wasn't something arranged by my students I would have had a bad feeling they were about to strong-arm me into something terrible. But no, the woman introduced herself as the headmaster's brother (she could speak English) and explained that "I'm sorry to be so forward, but... we don't know how much to pay you for today". The thought hadn't really occurred to me that in addition to the pampering I should be paid, and I tried to refuse in light of all the money they had spent, but they would have none of it. I told them to just give me 20 yuan if they really had to, but they just laughed and insisted I take 100 yuan, an excessive amount for the actual work I did. I suspect that for foreign teachers who choose to work at a school that's never had a foreign teacher, the special treatment gets out of hand.

The next day was outrageously busy from 8am-11pm. Xiao Ma and his "guitar club" put on an extravagant all-day party, which involved bringing drums and a full band setup, a generator, banners, tents, stools, massive amounts of food, cooking supplies, and 60 people on a bus to the Black River. Xiao Ma made his most blatant "let's show off the foreigner" move yet, so I started off the day a little irritated. He had repeatedly encouraged me to bring friends, but when I showed up with three of my student friends he was visibly annoyed, and said "I thought you were going to bring foreign friends". They also hadn't joined the "M-Club" and contributed money like everyone else, so it was obvious they were not welcome, and they left to look for jobs. However, the day was generally fun and the idea of setting up a full-band performance in the middle of nowhere appealed to me, but without a single English-speaker in attendance there were long stretches of boredom for me. We were put into groups for some strange games, the most bizarre being a game that I would describe as "gather as much mud, stones, watermelon shells and whatever the hell else you can find and make something out of it, and do it better than the other groups". This quickly escalated into chaos as each group tried to destroy the other sculptures, and soon mud and water jugs were being tossed in every direction while they laughed hysterically. I stayed out of it, as much as I enjoy being covered in mud, but they had other ideas. A little later in the afternoon they grabbed a party-goer by each limb and threw him into the river. This was going on in the background and I didn't pay much attention until I heard them say laowai, which means "foreigner", and as I turned around I saw they were coming for me, and sure enough I also got my turn in the river. At the end of the afternoon I also made my public singing debut, performing The White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground", which was unspectacular. I didn't so much want to sing as to finally perform a song I enjoyed and wasn't completely boring to play. However, the keyboard player decided to spontaneously join me even though he's never heard the song, which sounded terrible, not to mention my poor singing voice in the first place.

I left the party early, in time for another English event I was talked into, by an English teacher I've met at the guzheng school. This one wasn't nearly as rewarding, and involved reading out questions in English that the young students had memorized the answers to (pages and pages of them) and had to recite. When I was told it would be in the square I had a bad feeling it would be on the big stage in front of 1,000 people, but it was on a small stage setup with only a couple of hundred onlookers. The teacher, Shirley, would translate into Chinese, and she was almost as nervous as the students. They were going as fast as humanly possible in order to ensure that all the meaning of the sentences was definitely lost, so I tried to maintain a reasonable speaking voice, but was told several times I was going too slow. The questions were often quite random for beginning English learners, such as "Why do you want to study English?" "Because I want to join a joint-venture", or "Do you want some whiskey?" "Sure, I would also like some, thank you". There were also a few blatant mistakes in the script, such as "How fat is it?" instead of "far" and my favorite, a statement read by Shirley that went "Don't go out! Shut up!". This is how learning goes on in China, rote memorization, and I'm sure the audience was impressed with the "English level" of the students, though I doubt any of them were capable of holding any kind of real conversation. As an example, today a high school student walked up to me looking to practice her English, and the conversation went something like this:

Me: "So... do you live on this campus?"
Her: (blank stare)
Me: "Do you live at this university? Do your parents work here?"
Her: "Yes, my father is a teacher and my mother works at the library."
Me: "Oh, I have a question you could help me with. I had trouble buying a train ticket today, and they wrote this down. What does this sentence mean?"
Her: (blank stare)
Me (pointing again to a Chinese sentence): "What does this sentence mean?"
Her (after a long pause): "Have you ever been to Beijing?"
Me: "Um... yes, I was there for a day."
Her: "Is China better?"
Me: "Is China better than what?"
Her: "Thank you, goodbye."

Tonight was Round 2 of the English competition, and it must have been obvious how much I didn't feel like being there, because Shirley immediately said "oh, you look so serious!". During the inevitable pictures, I obviously wasn't smiling enough, because the photographer walked up to me and physically raised my mouth into a smile with his hand. Of course, the whole thing was also filmed. Shirley asked me, "so have you taken many pictures in China?", and I had to control my laughter. On the first day the announcer unexpectedly turned around and asked me a question in Chinese, which I didn't understand at first and completely stumbled over an answer for, but I fared slightly better tonight, coming up with such witty remarks as "Yes, I like studying guzheng" and "no, I can't play a song for you". The guzheng school made guest performances each night, and the announcer was obviously telling the audience about my studying there and asking the performers about how I was doing. Hopefully I don't do anything in China I want to keep a secret.

After so much over-exposure this week during my holiday I'm exhausted, and feeling particularly foreign. Friday night I watched Lost in Translation with Cynthia, and the movie carried a whole new meaning after having the experience. My travels will involve hours upon hours on the train and bus, but I'm rather looking forward to having nothing to do and no one being able to do a thing about it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

You Foreigners All Look the Same!

One of the most charming features of my new apartment is that it is absolutely infested with mosquitoes and flies, and it's been difficult to sleep an entire night without being woken. This morning I was awoken by a mosquito at 5am, and after it was obvious I wasn't getting back to sleep I decided to at least get up and see what Zhangye looked like at 6:30 in the morning. Of course in China the day was getting started by then, with students studying outside or walking across campus, and in town the old folks were getting their morning exercise throughout the streets. I was pretty sure I knew where the Tai Chi (Taijiquan) routines would be going on, and after proving myself right I was entertained for a while by a small group of elderly Chinese doing Tai Chi with the help of swords and a stereo. The Tai Chi was dignified but there were other scattered groups of the elderly doing exercises that were wonderfully ridiculous looking. I think China is the place to be when you get old - sit outside and plays cards, play with swords, write calligraphy on the ground, and get a bit of respect from the people around you. The open restaurants were packed with middle/high school students in their uniforms but I managed to have my first Chinese-style breakfast (been going strong on fruit and bread as I am very lazy), a warm broth with soggy bread. It grew on me by the end of the meal, I'll give it that much.

Speaking of restaurants and Chinese people doing odd things outdoors, a few times recently I've witnessed the phenomenon of restaurant staff training here. The big restaurants, which will have 3-5 waitresses more than necessary on staff at all times, will train their large staff by lining them up military style on the pavement, with boys standing on attention on one side and girls on the other. A manager will pace up and down the space between the ranks and lecture while the staff stand motionless and silent. Apparently restaurant staffs are often given daily pep talks in this manner as well, and Phillip showed me some photos of the identical-looking staff of an upscale restaurant in another city doing a choreographed dance ritual and practicing balancing bricks on serving trays.

Speaking of people looking identical, I was stopped in the street yesterday by a group of middle school teachers I've never seen before, who smiled and shouted "Gary!". I told them that in fact I was Dan, not Gary (who is in his 50's), but they didn't hear me and went on to talk about their day. After a few minutes one of them said, "oh, we are still waiting for the photos - you said you were going to e-mail them to us but you haven't done so". I panicked briefly that I had taken photos with these people and still had no idea who they were, but finally said "are you thinking of Gary? I'm not Gary, I'm Dan". They said "oh.... ah, actually Andrew, that's right, sorry. You look so much alike". Anyone who has seen Andrew in my photos will note that he is most definitely not me and is the only person in Zhangye with naturally blonde hair, but that doesn't stop people from asking if we are twins. I shouldn't feel bad when I forget or mix up the dozens/hundreds of Chinese people I meet when they can't get a handle on the three or four foreigners they've ever seen.

And in the continuing adventures of trying, and failing, to get something completely mundane and ordinary accomplished, I had to come to terms with the new washing machine I have before me. It looked simple enough to manage but I utterly failed on my own, and just left the clothes for future cleaning. Later that day Sarah and Fiona came over (by which I mean they stopped by unexpectedly without calling) and I enlisted their help. I couldn't understand the characters on the machine or most of what they were saying and they can neither speak English or use a washing machine in the first place, so we spent an absurd amount of time involving a few phone calls to get the thing working. A had a small insight into why Chinese students like taking pictures so much the other day: the first picture of Sarah was taken when she was four years old because her family never had any money.

My students took my final exam yesterday, and the grades seem to be good, mostly 80's, which is what I was aiming for. I asked for feedback from some students I passed and one told me that it was "not too difficult, but not too easy... it was much like autumn weather" - when I'm asked here "how are American students different from Chinese students?" I don't know where to begin. The other day I was taking issue with the fact that the students don't use notebooks, they only scribble things all over their textbook when I write something on the board, never to be found or probably thought about again. The student replied, "oh, we have notebooks, but we don't take them to class so we won't lose them". When Su from OWDC told me on my arrival that I would have to teach them how to take notes, I didn't really believe her at the time.

Finally, Mohamed (known as 'Saber' to the people of Zhangye) has returned to Egypt, where his parents hope to find him a job and a wife. There is talk of him continuing his contract sometime next year but I don't expect him to come back. He was very popular with the students and his farewell at the train station was sad and well-attended. Mohamed, Andrew, and I were the three young teachers and all had the same students this term so we were the subject of particular attention. I found him interesting as the first Muslim friend I've had, and he was generous to the point of putting my American manners to shame.

Friday, July 07, 2006

That Juice Is Also Not There

This week I was moved from my luxurious apartment into a smaller one, as I was warned about from the beginning. The new one is fine, but is smaller and older and built with the Chinese work ethic of "eh, good enough". The bathroom is a bit larger than a closet, and so thin that I hit the wall when I bend down to use the sink. The toilet seat is placed at a 45 degree angle, but there's still no room for the legs of anyone but an infant so you must sit at an uncomfortable angle that's actually perpendicular to the wall. But it's on the first floor with a (very) small backyard, and I have an automatic washing machine rather than the dreaded "twin-tub" time-consumer I had at first.

With classes over, several groups of students have taken me, Andrew, and Mohamed out to dinner or cooked us dinner (dumplings are the classic student dinner). Since Mohamed is leaving, it seems every time I step outside I have seen him taking photos with a different class. Chinese students are fond of digital cameras to say the least, so each dinner usually involves about 50 photos being taken, most of them almost exactly the same but with a different student posing with their teachers. Wednesday was Mohamed's birthday, so lunch and dinner were taken care of by two different groups of students. From experience I'm guessing it's a Chinese thing to get cake all over everyone's face at the end of a birthday meal. Like children, honestly.

On Saturday I saw 5 of my students on their first job, a single day of handing out advertisements in front of the opening of a store that sells mp3 players. For my own amusement I grabbed a few flyers and tried to help them hand them out to people passing by, with mixed results. I asked if they were getting well paid, and they replied "yes, 20 yuan [about $2.50]!". When I responded "oh, per hour? That's pretty good", they said "no, for the day!". They also cooked for me that evening, proving that even the guys here put me to shame in the kitchen. Spending time with students is fun; they obviously aren't interested in "could you help me use the past tense correctly?" so much as "play us a song!" or "what kind of girls do you like?".

Later that night I saw MoMo for the first time in a couple of weeks. The fact that their daughter is friends with not only a boy but a foreigner has worried them enough that they've told her not to see me anymore. Her parents' friends saw us walking on the street and talking and said we are "too close". As Andrew sarcastically put it, "yes, you are too close because you talk to her and listen to what she says; when you see her you ought to have your arms draped around another guy friend, smoking and drinking and ignoring her". The worlds of males and females are much more separate here; if you are seen with a single female everyone assumes you plan on marrying her. MoMo's parents told her she should stop being friends with me and find a boy to marry, as if she is allowed one male at a time only to talk to.

On Sunday I finally got around to visiting the Great Buddha Temple, the one tourist draw of Zhangye and the reason it is mentioned in the Lonely Planet China Guide. I went with Joy, Fiona, and Sarah, who tend to call or randomly show up at my door more often now that Andrew is gone (Joy: "do you miss Andrew?" Me: "um... he's only been gone one day" Joy: "but we miss him very much!"). The tickets were a special price of 5 yuan, which as it turns out was because you couldn't see the big Budda statue at all (the largest reclining Buddha statue in China), only the surrounding buildings. There was a procession of monks and Buddhist laypersons walking a circle and repeating a prayer (mantra perhaps?), something about Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy who is popular in China. Because Chinese words sound so similar, to my ears I was hearing "that juice is also not there", which I was simply shocked to find wasn't correct.