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.

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