Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Guests in Zhangye, More Camels

I'm now back home in Binghamton, New York, for a month during the extensive break we receive for the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival. But before I go into that, allow me to recap my last two weeks in China, which were spent with Stefanie and Nissa, my American friends I met up with in Xi'an in October. Around the time I finished my final exams, they came up to hang out for a week or so in Zhangye (or the "desert" as they've been fond of calling it), partly to see me, but mostly to ride the camels in nearby Jiayuguan. The two-humpers do have their charms, I'll admit. They also wanted to see what my school is like, and meet my friends, especially Andrew. People from Britain seem to grossly underestimate how many American girls like their accents.

I was mildly worried about entertaining friends for an entire week in Zhangye, which has exactly one tourist draw (and the Buddha was not even taking visitors, as it turned out). They braved a soft sleeper train compartment with chain-smoking middle-aged men in purple underwear for 30 hours to get there, so I figured it had damn well better be a good time.

Much of the time was spent as a foursome with Andrew, who was gracious enough to allow Stefanie to stay at his place, and was often in a state of bewilderment at our American slang, pop culture references, and peculiarities. Stefanie is a master of humorous accents, and at one point Andrew had to admit "I'm ashamed that you can do a better Scottish accent than I can." Somewhere in the midst of his mastery of Chinese language, his renditions of "Scotland the Brave" on harmonica and accordion, and his quaint use of words like "bloomin'" and "good job!", he won a place in their hearts.

Most of the items on our to-do list involved food, from Big Plate of Chicken to Spring Rolls, and there was involved discussion at the end of the week about which meal was the best. Some of my students, namely Art, Roger, Hope, and Ann cooked for us one evening, which was old habit for me and Andrew but a novelty for Stef and Nissa, who live in hotel rooms and aren't allowed guests. They excitedly told us English jokes and stories about elephants in freezers and the like, and we ended by treating them to rousing sing-alongs of 90's classics. I don't know if this sounds very exciting to everyone back in America, but don't underestimate the entertainment of a sing-along after a year away from home. At other points they met a few other students we teach or are friends with, including Joy, who was of course elated to meet them. I wish I had pictures of the way she walked down the street with my friends, holding hands and smiling away. At one point she stopped and looked very closely at Nissa's face, and proclaimed "your eyebrows... they're yellow!"

We also visited China Fire no less than four times and otherwise showed the girls what life in Zhangye is about, but certainly the highlight for my two friends was the day trip to Jiayuguan, a tourist draw 3 hours from me I wrote about when I visited back in May. It was their first visit to the Great Wall of China, but more importantly, their first camel experience. During our hour-and-a-half tour of the fort (7 hours round trip on the train; didn't arrive till 4pm), we clambered over stairs and the reconstructed Great walls, the two of them barely controlling their excitement as we searched the horizon for two-humpers. They were ready for the day, not only researching the diets and life expectancies of camels on the internet but preparing a "while on the Great Wall" to-do list that included "play nose flutes" and "do the sexy dance". When at last I spotted the camels, unrestrained joy poured from their hearts, and we quickly descended the stairs so they could, at long last, mount their camels. After the 10 or 15 minutes riding around the area on camels and taking photos, we eventually made our ways back to Zhangye having accomplished what was, from the sound of it, one of the highlights of my friends' entire lives. A couple of days later we said goodbye to Zhangye, and continued our planned journey to the east of China.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

New Year's (in my Least Favorite Chinese City)

I've been too busy to write in my blog lately, so I have a little catching up to do. Going back several weeks, to the weekend after the one in which I went skiing, I spent the weekend in my least favorite Chinese city, Lanzhou. As you may or may not recall (rather, as you probably don't recall), Lanzhou is the capital city of Gansu, the province I live in. It's the only big city in Gansu, with perhaps 1 million residents. I've had a general disinterest in Lanzhou when I've been before, but after my most recent trip I've decided I really don't like it, for the following reasons:

1. polluted - Lanzhou has some of the worst air pollution in China, which in turn has some of the worst air pollution in the world. Visibility was shockingly bad at times. Statistics vary but I've seen one source give it the distinction of worst air quality in the world.
2. unfriendly - in Zhangye I get a sense of well-meaning curiosity when I go out in public. In Lanzhou I don't like the way people are looking at me.
3. unsafe - in the past 6 months I know of two foreign teachers being stabbed in Lanzhou. And on one bus ride in the middle of the afternoon, a fight broke out inside the bus. The bus stopped and let them out, and as we rode away we watched about 10 young men beating the hell out of one guy who was crouching on the pavement. I've never seen anything like it.
4. too large - we spent hours upon hours on buses that weekend just getting around the city. I spent 35 yuan on a taxi ride from a club back to the university we were staying at - a typical taxi ride in Zhangye is 3 yuan.
5. dishonest - my dislike of the city was sealed when I was almost massively ripped off as I tried to leave. I couldn't find my bus at first, because I didn't realize it was in the back parking lot. Normally the various workers hanging about are helpful and point you in the right direction, but this time an unscrupulous bus operator led me to the wrong bus, namely, his. I was a little alarmed to see I was on a sleeper bus, which was also empty, and even more so when he started telling me we'd be leaving at 8pm and wanted my ticket. I told him no, my bus leaves at 2pm, and he told me that bus had already left because it was full. I decided to have a look for myself, and at that point he did actually lead me to the right bus, which I caught by only a couple of minutes. If that had been my first month in China I might easily not have known better.

Anyway, moving on, the reason I went to Lanzhou (Danielle, Stephen, and Phillip went as well) was to attend a formal dinner for all foreign teachers in Gansu on Friday to celebrate the impending (Western) New Year. The food was nice enough, but not really worth the 8-hour trip, and at that point I found it more than a little odd to be surrounded by 100+ foreigners in one room. Danielle and Stephen convinced me to stay and attend the New Year's Party being held by Peace Corps volunteers on Sunday night, so it turned into a long weekend.

Saturday night was the most enjoyable part of the weekend for me. We treated ourselves to the first genuinely good pizza I have had in China, and had a decent time at a bar with a few of their Peace Corps friends and an amusing young Chinese man named David. He was fluent in English to the point that he could keep up with our conversation, got our sarcasm, and even swore, all very unusual.

We ended the night at a dance club, something I've actually warmed up to over the course of the past few months. I'd like to think that I am now simply unimpressive on the dance floor, rather than an absolute disaster, just another unexpected result of my life in China. At any rate, after we split a bottle of Jack Daniels I was feeling pretty confident, and meandered away from my group and towards the attractive Chinese girls. At first none of them seemed overly concerned with me and my 3 repetitive dance moves, but before long a particularly good-looking girl I hadn't seen "accidentally" bumped into me and started dancing with me. I never did rejoin my friends. She was a tease, periodically going over to dance with other guys with a sly smile and making me win her back. Eventually my friends left, but I was about 60% confident I remembered the name of the school and could find our friend's apartment in the dark, so I stayed. Once it got pretty late she left, but before that we exchanged numbers. At that point I realized I needed a cell phone, as I seem to be forming a habit of giving girls in other cities my apartment number in Zhangye and never talking to them again. There was afterwards a mystery about what her name could possibly be - she had written it so carelessly that even Chinese people couldn't read either character.

At that point in the weekend I was obligated to stay for the New Year's party, or rather the "white trash" party, as all the Peace Corps parties apparently have a theme. It was pretty much as I imagined, with cans of imported Pabst Blue Ribbon, everyone imitating a hick Southern accent, lots of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, toilet seats hung on the walls, dirty messages in the bathroom, and a general drunkenness and lack of clothing, including a guy wearing only underwear with toilet paper sticking out. And yet despite the charming atmosphere, I managed not to have a good time. I counted myself out relatively early, but I didn't miss much of the party, as it ended with a big trip to the hospital because a volunteer turned out to have appendicitis. I'm not sure it's possible to have a normal Western holiday in China.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Winter has by now come to Zhangye, and with it, Chinese snot rockets. It’s no secret to anyone who has been outdoors in China for more than 20 minutes that Chinese people like to spit. And they do the job, too—no quiet, subtle spit, but rather a nasal-cleansing, monstrous loogie, the preparation of which can be heard a kilometer away. The floors of buildings, including restaurants, are by no means out of bounds, and women join in too. The spitting I can nearly get used to, even laugh at a particularly powerful one, but the snot rockets still bother me. This is a special treat of wintertime, in which a pedestrian feels that a normal spit won’t get the job done, and keeps one nostril closed with his finger while the other launches a mucous missile onto the pavement. But you’re unlikely to see a Chinese person blow his or her nose, especially at a meal—that would be rude.

Skiing with Chinese Characteristics

Since Christmas fell on a Monday, we decided to celebrate over the weekend. Danielle and Stephen being as ambitious as they are, we ended up traveling 9 hours to the city of Hami in the province of Xinjiang, mostly to see our British friend Tracy and to go skiing. This was well worth the trip. Hami is perhaps slightly bigger than Zhangye, with a similarly small foreign population (meaning you can count them on your fingers), and an eccentric group at that. Two are married to Chinese – an American girl who addresses her own husband as “Mr. Tian” and seems to speak at least some Chinese, and a 60+ year-old man who is married to a 35-year old Chinese woman, and who speaks approximately 8 words of Chinese from the look of it. However, since she was taught English by her smart-ass husband, she had one of the best Chinese-English senses of humor I’ve seen. She seemed a feisty woman, and in fact not only yelled at Tracy to “go back to England and find your own husband!” recently in a fit of jealousy, but started a short fist-fight with her.

Skiing outside of Hami was definitely Skiing With Chinese Characteristics. Me and Stephen at least were well amused to arrive and see this ski “resort” we had traveled so far to reach—a total of one slope, which was no more than a quarter of the size of the smallest bunny hill I’ve seen in America. Which was probably just as well—I may have been the only person in the place who had skied more than twice, and the well-to-do Chinese women who arrived seemed interested mostly in giggling, falling a lot, and getting personal assistance from the “fit” employees (to use a British-ism/Tracy-ism). I would call them ski instructors, had I seen any instructing whatsoever going on. There was also tubing on offer, which was generally agreed to be more fun than the skiing.

That night we went out on the town, and Tracy made plans to meet a Chinese women she knows and her group of friends. This was at a rather up-scale dance club, in which there was no dance floor and everyone danced in their little personal space around their table. Danielle fixed her eyes on a Chinese guy in the group, and Stephen simply likes to dance, so I began to feel a little bored. Tracy then practically pushed me into dancing with a small group of attractive girls, which was suddenly going quite well—until approximately 3 minutes later, when it was time to leave. The obviously interested one asked in (Chinese-)English, “your phone number is how much?” as I left, but I’ll add another check to the “missed opportunities with Chinese girls” column. Zhangye is unfortunately so small, conservative, and aware of the smallest move we make that I think girls here are off-limits (and married by 20 anyway). And everyone knows where we live - one off-balance girl having my phone number is probably enough (more on that another day). The second bar we went to was dull for me and Stephen, who mostly contained our irritation at the stunning beauties in the group being spoken for and watched the recreational activities going on around us in confusion.

The main activity of our last day in Hami was for the four of us to get massages. Not just a massage, but a three-hour marathon on the 15th floor of an expensive hotel, which would be Tracy’s style. So, I sat in a robe and long underwear for hours as a cute but rather young-looking girl soaked my feet. Now I know how to say “ticklish” in Chinese. I’ve never done that before but supposedly it’s very expensive in America; here it ran us about $9 each.

We returned to Zhangye at about 5:30am on Monday morning, Christmas morning. We were offered the day off but it was much too complicated to rearrange our final exams; hopefully I won’t make a habit of working on Christmas day. It didn’t particularly feel like Christmas, though a number of students stopped by my home with gifts, including a scarf from me and Andrew’s friends “the daughters”, which they knitted themselves. And what is Christmas without eating Beef Noodles with Andrew and two of the daughters. In the evening me, Gary, Danielle, and Andrew celebrated at China Fire (where else lately), where I fought off a sudden case of home-sickness, followed by fighting off the urge to inflict physical harm on a few excruciatingly annoying new Chinese “friends” who had had a bit too much Christmas cheer.

More fun than Christmas itself was the English Department’s Christmas Party the week before. The Party, which included 50 guests and the renting out of an entire restaurant/bar/music hall in town, was moved up to Thursday solely so that me and Danielle would be able to attend. It turned out that it was also the first day the place was open, so they had likely moved up their first day of business simply because me and Danielle were going to be gone during the weekend. Certainly you’re never starved for attention here. Though I must admit we did help the party along—I’m always willing to sabotage the poor music, and Danielle got the dancing started as per usual. A few of our students came to sing songs for us, which was sweet, including a very endearing student of Danielle’s whose name is Bamboo. That’s a new contender for my favorite English student name, along with recent favorites Accident, Black, and Jedi, or rather Jedi Dawson Shi. The food was tasty, the dancing was genuinely enjoyable (dancing with my students, who are almost my age…. appropriate?), and we only had to sing one song (My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, chosen by our fair Scotsman).

Peace Corps and Amity: Volunteers of a Different Color

I’ve been behind on my blog lately, partly due to the end of term and exams, and partly due to being too busy with things I should write about in the blog to actually have the time to write about them. So going back a couple of weekends, there were foreign visitors to Zhangye, as in Danielle and Stephen being visited by other Peace Corps volunteers in our province, and Andrew and Gary being visited by a friend also in China through their organization, Amity. The Peace Corps teachers can be seen in the pictures - Emily and Thomas, me and Danielle, Cary and Stephen. I spent a little bit of time with both groups, and this is a brief run-down of the activities:

Peace Corps:


-met volunteers around 6pm, at a bar
-dinner, with drinks
-back to Stephen’s apartment, to drink


-met them at Danielle’s apartment roughly 5:30pm, where I was apparently just in time for the drinking
-went to dinner, then a bar
-dirty dancing at Hot Ball Place
-a round at another bar to end the night



-went to Gary’s apartment, and listened to him and their friend Rae perform religious hymns
on the piano while we gently sipped homemade wine and discussed watching a movie from perhaps the 1950’s called Miss Marple

Being around Peace Corps teachers is like being at a frat party; being around Amity teachers is like being at church. Our Chinese friend He Le, owner of our new favorite bar China Fire, was at Gary’s apartment, being his usual entertaining self. We decided he would like Sex and the City better than Miss Marple, and in the interest of politeness I won’t repeat some of the funniest lines, but at any rate by the third pair of breasts nothing was disproved about the preconceptions of “easy” Western women.

So me and the Peace Corps teachers thought it would be fun to dance American-style at the dance club, in which boys actually touch the girls rather than keeping a safe 18-inch barrier between themselves and anything with breasts. However, we realized only too late that we were opening Pandora’s Box on this one. We immediately received loud cheers and whoops from the men, who formed a circle around us while we danced in the middle, exactly like the kind of scene from a movie that seems so cheesy because you’ve never seen it happen in real life. This circle drew closer and closer, like a pack of hyenas closing in on a wounded gazelle. There was nary a female in sight, besides the pole-dancing girls manning their usual stations. Emily, one of the visitors and an attractive blonde, had to actually sit most of the night out due to the unwanted attention. Very much to my dismay, I was also receiving too much attention—from men. Particularly Red Sweater Vest Man, an unwanted friend who happily bounded up to me every time I got on the dance, or rather into me. You need to build up a tolerance for discomfort when living in another culture, but I still have a line somewhere, and it was definitely crossed. It would seem Reform and Opening has yet to cover “dirty dancing in small provincial towns”.