There are a few characters on the school campus and around town that me and Andrew and a few of the other teachers know. We tend not to learn their Chinese names, and instead they are referred to by titles such as the Friendly Man, the Friendly Man's Daughter, the Apricot Tea Lady, Mr. My-Head's-Going-to-Explode, the Honest Widow, Fruit Man, The Man Who Pretends He Doesn't Speak English, or the Cool Girl in the Photocopy Shop. Mostly I've befriended a few of these people through Andrew, who talks to absolutely everybody in Chinese and on most days will have hours of random conversations. In quite a number of my Chinese conversations, maybe most of them, I am asked "where is Tian Ming [his Chinese name]?", "why didn't you call your Scottish friend?", or simply reminded "Andrew's Chinese is really good!" in case I had forgotten or not noticed. However, this works out well for me, as I am so poor at starting conversation with strangers in any language, and being friends with Andrew is definitely good for my Chinese.
Two days ago I was walking across campus to get some lunch, when I ran into the Friendly Man going in the other direction. The Friendly Man owns a convenience store near our apartments and is just as excited to see you the 42nd time you enter his store as he is on the first visit. I can't go in there if I actually intend to buy something and leave within 5 minutes, because he insists I have a seat and attempt to chat for at least 20 minutes. He is a good source of conversation practice because, as Andrew once said, "he doesn't mind having a boring conversation".
He was in a particularly friendly mood that day, so friendly that he actually invited me to his home to have lunch with him. This was the first time I had seen his home, and one of a fairly small number of invites to homes. His apartment wasn't half bad at all, and as is common was decorated with a few odd bits of Western culture, including a calendar with sports cars and a large framed picture next to the television of two Western children kissing. Chinese hospitality to a foreigner is often excessive by foreign standards - of the three dishes he made one was an entire fish, which he refused to touch and encouraged me to eat to the point of annoyance. I would have really rather he didn't, since I don't even like fish in China (usually too spicy and dealing with a thousand deadly bones with chopsticks is not my idea of a good time). The fish was probably for the family dinner, and though the generosity is appreciated I wish more Chinese people realized that most foreigners would prefer to have less of a fuss made out of us.
Last weekend an English speech competition was held in Lanzhou, with competitors from all over Gansu province. Three students were sent from Hexi University - two third-year students and a second-year student of mine named Catherine. To my surprise and delight, of the 53 competitors 2nd and 3rd place were taken by two of the Hexi students, with Catherine coming in 3rd with her speech about the Olympics. Me, Gary, and Danielle had all helped them with their speeches and pronounciation, and it was a nice "teaching is rewarding" moment to hear of their success.
In last week's attempt to have the students think creatively (and with any luck amuse me at the same time), I followed up a reading about a digital project to contact life in space by asking them to discuss what they would send into space to represent their lives, and then write their lists on the blackboard. Many of the ideas involved photos of friends, family, babies, and the ever-popular "delicious food", and a few that me and the class got a kick out of included "a love letter to a dashing man of outer space", "beef noodles [popular local dish]", "to send Nancy and her Mr. Right to outer space", "Zhangye's mosquitoes", and "Dan's big head photo [as in the miniature photobooth photos that are popular here]". I also had them write poems in the style of a poem written by an 8-year old called "What I Would Take Out of the World". Most of the things the students would take out of the world were idealistic and serious, such as poverty and war, but there was one that made me smile written by four girls:
We would take men
Out of the world
So we don't have sad
and no marriage