Travel Breeds Stressful, Crippling Discontent

Thursday, December 31, 2009

I may have just come up with a new namesake for this blog. The word “travel,” at once synonymous with incredible freedom and exhilaration, is also implicated with a fair degree of contempt. Simply reading a few other travel blogs of late has made me increasingly aware of the joys and perils that travel can take, and how easily one might become burnt out by the very thought of it—opting to spend a lazy evening abroad, for example, eating microwave popcorn and watching re-runs of Seinfeld, for want of visiting yet another tourist site or ancient ruin. Whenever you travel, you run the risk of having everything you planned for go horribly wrong at a moment’s notice. But you also learn how to roll with the punches. Take travel in China for instance. For anyone who hasn’t experienced the great Chinese rail network already, I urge you to try it out. I can assure you that it is an once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The first thing you notice on the train is the stares—wide-eyed, bewildered glances from people of all kinds, looking you over and whispering about your foreignness to their seatmates as soon as you’ve passed. Then comes the smell—an incredibly pungent combination of waste, human refuse, and cigarette smoke. The smoking section on the trains is technically confined to the areas between cars, but opening doors and a general carelessness about smoking in China on the whole hardly confines it in the least. Once the train begins moving, you start to get an uncomfortable cold feeling in the toes of your feet. That's because overcrowding and a routine lack of heating translate to long standing train rides where your feet are most vulnerable to the elements. To top it all off, blaring on loop from the speakers on overnight trains is the same, wretched Kenny G “jazz” ballad that is criminally popular in China (according to Wikipedia: [Kenny G's] music is noticeably popular in China. His recording "Going Home" is often played at closing time at public places or at the end of classes at schools), leaving you feeling as a passenger that you would rather be propelling toward the end of the universe than stand to be on the train any longer.

This all brings me, of course, to my upcoming plans for winter break. I feel so extremely fortunate to have not one, but two two-month long vacations during the year as a teacher at Shanxi Agricultural University, and privileged to have the luxury of a $1500 check each year to supplement travel just for being a Shansi Fellow. One break is in the winter from the end of December to March and the other is in the summer from the end of June through September. Never again in my wildest dreams will I have a job that pays me to travel for four months out of the year, so you can be sure that I will be making the most of it. This winter, I will be traveling to three countries, and at least seven major cities/regions. I will be spending three weeks in Japan, two weeks in India, and the rest of my time in China.

But there is one key problem: India. The Indian Visa is notoriously hard to obtain, even for U.S. citizens living in the states, let alone for U.S. nationals who don’t. After an interminable poring over of online materials—documents, rules, regulations, exceptions—I was essentially left with two options. The first would be to have my visa done in Beijing—using my work permit as proof of residency—but that process would have taken five to six days, more time than I would be spending in Beijing before my plan to go to India. The second was to express mail my passport back to the states and get it processed in New York. This too had its own share of difficulties, though this time largely due to my own lack of foresight. My only proof of identity besides my passport is my driver’s license—needed for the visa application—which upon recent inspection, expired five months ago, and requires an in-person eye exam to get renewed. So it looked as if both options were no-gos. It was especially frustrating because this issue could have easily been resolved with just the slightest bit of planning on my part—going to Beijing one week earlier to drop off my passport and get it processed before my trip to Japan, or renewing my driver’s license when I was at home during the summer. As a person who prides himself on his prudence (though admittedly, not my punctuality), this came as an incredible blow to nearly everything that I stand for. Miraculously, however, a third option arose.

After a few calls to the Visa Application Center in Beijing and a great deal of hoop-jumping, it turned out that I could have a proxy deliver visa materials to be processed on my behalf. I enlisted the generous help of my friend Jordan who I was staying with in Beijing and got to work. After a day spent printing, copying, and meticulously filling out application materials, I left a stack of papers, a wad of 100 yuan bills (the visa to India is expensive), a pre-paid express mail envelope, and a list of instructions in Jordan’s care. The process, ideally, will look something to this effect: I fly to Japan. Almost immediately upon landing, I express mail my passport to Jordan’s apartment in Beijing. Jordan goes to the Visa Application Center and delivers my application on my behalf. He receives the passport back in five to six business days. He then express mails my passport to the house in Machida, Tokyo, where I will be boarding with two of the other Shansi Fellows. I fly back to China.

All of this is supposed to happen over the course of a short three weeks. It is incredibly risky and riddled with any number of potential mishaps along the way. But what’s the fun of being young without taking some absurd risks? And thus, with the hope that everything goes smoothly, here is the tentative breakdown of my winter itinerary:

12.28-12.31.09: Chaoyang, Beijing

12.31.09-1.4.10: Shinjuku, Tokyo
1.4-1.8.10: Kutchan & Sapporo, Hokkaido
1.8-1.16.10: Machida, Tokyo
1.16-1.22.10: Hirakata, Osaka
1.22-1.23.10: Machida, Tokyo

1.23-1.26.10: Chaoyang, Beijing

1.26-1.27.10: Delhi, Haryana
1.27-2.3.10: Madurai, Tamil Nadu
2.3-2.5.10: (a series of overnight buses and trains from Madurai to Jagori)
2.5-2.9.10: Jagori, Himachal Pradesh
2.9-2.11.10: Delhi, Haryana

In India, there is also a chance of going to visit Goa, Mumbai, Kolkata, or Chennai while in the Madurai area, but they are all train rides away and have yet to be fully mapped out. I get back to China on February 11th, and from there don’t have any really concrete plans as to what to do until school starts up again at the beginning of March. I might decide to stay in Beijing, visit Anne’s extended family in Shandong Province, or travel to any number of my students’ hometowns who have invited me to stay with them for Spring Festival. Spring Festival in China is better known to the outside world as Chinese New Year, which takes place this year on February 14th.

All of this traveling is exciting, but at the same time, incredibly ambitious—more work perhaps than a rightful “vacation” should be, where the only two bullet points on my daily agenda consist of (a) sitting in the sun and (b) sipping mojitos. Needless to say, I’m not even going to a warm enough place that the first option is possible. And everyone knows that mojitos are poorly made in Asia. Travel will largely be stressful because I’ll be alone in Japan and don’t have a phone that works outside of China. In Japan, I will be traveling on my own, but in India, I’ll have a travel partner in Anne, and in both places, I’ll be staying in the company of incredibly hospitable friends at each leg of the journey. I have set a budget for myself of $1000 each for both Japan and India, not including the cost of airfare, but including all requisite travel within the country, in addition to the usual staples of food, lodging, and souvenirs. However, for some reason, I have a feeling that that money will go quite a bit farther in India than it will in Japan.

In spite of all of my nay-saying, I am reminded now, on the eve of my long vacation, of why I love to travel in the first place. At first it was an excuse to see landmarks and touristy sights, but quite frankly, I like to travel now simply to see the people I care about seeing. Visiting other countries interests me infinitely more when there is someone I know living there that I can make the journey to see. To that end, I am proud to say that by mid-February, and if all goes well regarding the Indian Visa, I will have seen all 18 of the Shansi Fellows currently in Asia, save for the five in Indonesia. I have already seen Adam and Alex when I went to visit Kunming over Chinese National Week in October. I just saw Mia at her new digs at Beijing Normal University. I will be staying with Sam, Erika, and Ben in Tokyo. I will first see Kelly in Madurai and then travel up to northern India to see Jenna and Anya. And I’m in the process of scheduling my next big trip—to Indonesia in August to see the rest of the Shansi folks there. By all accounts, it’s really just an exercise in opportunism, in which I am already well versed. Shansi, rightly, has done its job—placing us all in sites across Asia and giving us money to visit each other during holiday breaks. With most all of the Fellows working at below-minimum wage salaries (including yours truly), the prospect of free housing—not to mention a warm, familiar face—in a land abroad is an enticing one indeed.


A Very Taigu Christmas

Sunday, December 27, 2009

It occurred to me recently that receiving coal for Christmas in Taigu might not be the worst thing in the world. Coal powers everything here, and a stocking-full could at least heat a moderately-sized home for the majority of a day. Come to think of it, I think we all got coal in our stockings this year. Coal dust in the air, coal energy in our pipes, coal stacked high in mounds where we live, and even coal on the trains from workers who shovel the black stuff into furnaces at stop points.

The holidays came and went this year with little more than a blip on the radar. It was almost the complete antithesis of my childhood yearnings of Christmas. Full of Miracle on 42nd Street-mirth, I used to window-shop down Fifth Avenue with my mom, taking careful note of the elaborate displays in storefront windows. Growing up with my family in Brooklyn, we didn’t have many traditions—no tree past age ten (it became too much of a hassle in our small apartment), no church services, and no holiday ham. Hell, we didn’t even put milk and cookies out for Santa. In fact, the only real Christmas tradition I’ve had in recent years is walking with my friends Scott, Xavier, and Julie to the gigantic tree on 48th Street from Scott’s house in Greenwich Village, all while swigging warm brandy eggnog and dirty White Russians to keep from freezing on the four-mile roundtrip trek. We were an unlikely bunch of foreigners to be holiday ambassadors to Taigu. With at least two atheists/agnostics, a couple Jews, and only one dedicated Christian, we may not have all had the most traditional Christmas upbringing, but all of us save for Anne had celebrated it in one way or another.

Religious discord aside, it certainly didn’t mean that we were any less capable of bringing authentic Christmas cheer to China. In Taigu, the holidays took a few different forms. First came the start of Hanukkah, where Anne made doughnuts (sufganiyot) and potato pancakes (latkes) as traditional foods for the Jewish holiday. The oil that both foods are fried in is symbolic of the miracle of oil that lasted for eight days instead of one. Cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products are also very prevalent on Hanukkah—the reason for which is quite interesting, though more than a bit gruesome. Anne brought those latkes as her contribution to the Christmas party we had on the Sunday night before Christmas. The party itself had two aims. The first was to have another home-cooked dinner reminiscent of the weekly tradition of Open Mic Night. And the second was to use a dinner together as a festive occasion to exchange our Secret Santa gifts.

Weeks before, we decided to do Secret Santa between the six Americans and our German friend Matthias, due largely to the exuberant urging of 2nd year Fellows Nick and Anne who had much success with the outing last year. But with an overwhelming lack of suitable gift-buying establishments in Taigu city, we all decided to make a trip out to Taiyuan to test our luck. Inevitably, we ended up at Walmart, the conglomerate-to-end-all-conglomerates, which is quickly becoming a mainstay of China’s major metropolitan cities (and in this case, Taiyuan too). But you really know you’re in another country when Walmart is less a human rights blemish than it is a model of progressivism. With legalized work unions and above average salaries, Walmart in China is doing its part to reverse some of the traditional work condition stereotypes that foreigners have of China. They’re even helping to save the planet—abiding by Beijing’s law to charge extra money for plastic bags in order to discourage their use. It’s too bad, though, that few, if any, of those same policies are carrying over stateside.

Just one of the many apple gift boxes that we received from our students on Christmas Eve.

Like a bad made-for-TV family Christmas movie, no Christmas party would be complete without its fair share of high jinx. And I certainly had mine. On the day of the party, I spent the well-below-zero afternoon at both the supermarket in town and the local open air vegetable market with a couple of the other foreigners, trying to prepare ingredients for the night’s dinner. I came out of it with armloads of stuff—a huge carafe of oil, flour, fresh tofu, eggs, garlic, and more vegetables than I could use in one meal. We made it back to the house and got to work. Since me and James’ kitchens are equipped with hot plates instead of gas stoves, we have since moved all cooking operations to Anne’s room and Dave and Gerald’s house. Responsibilities divided, we split up camps and got to work. I started working on my dish of choice—honey garlic tofu, inspired by the one infamously served up at the Mandarin in Oberlin. Things started out well—I got the tofu, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, laid out to dry on a bouquet of napkins. But as I was getting them ready to be honeyed and garlic-ed, something went wrong, and I was left with a swirling vat of burnt garlic, liquid honey, and oil-heavy tofu. After a little patchwork, the tofu came to be edible again, but it was definitely not my best effort.

What was worse was after I left Anne’s house to retrieve my Secret Santa gift…from my refrigerator. For you see, my Secret Santa recipient was none other than our German friend Matthias, whose love of alcohol is unparalleled among anyone I’ve ever known. I got him a gift I knew he would love—German beer—and enough of it to max out our 100 yuan limit for gifts. I put the beers in my freezer to stay cold after we got back from Walmart, and it was only until that moment, minutes before the start of the Christmas party, that I discovered that alcohol can indeed freeze. The carbonation from the beer had forced some of the liquid to break the seals from the tops of the bottles and spill out (and subsequently freeze) against the walls of my fridge. Quickly, and almost instinctively, I threw the bottles under hot water in my bathroom sink and started praying. I know it’s the thought that counts, but this was pushing it. 100 yuan worth of beer deemed almost undrinkable, for a person who loves the stuff more than most things in this world. It seemed more cruel than it was charitable. Thankfully, most of the ice liquefied fast, and after drying them off and boxing them up, we were off to David and Gerald’s house, where I left my topsy-turvy present parked right next to the space heater all throughout dinner.

If the lead-up to Christmas dinner was full of Jingle All the Way-schadenfreude, then the meal itself was like the heartwarming A Christmas Carol-ending. We ate and drank merrily, all to a playlist filled with equal parts “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Wham!, The Ventures, and Mariah Carey (you can guess which one was my contribution). In addition to the beers I got for Matthias, Nick bought an entire keg from Walmart back to Taigu for all of us to share. Finally, it was time to open the gifts. All of them were remarkably well-chosen—I think demonstrating how much we’ve really learned about each other since coming here. It’s crazy to think about how far we’ve come from complete strangers to family in a matter of a few short months. For the last gift, we even had to leave the house—part of a scavenger hunt that Anne concocted for Nick, all with a fair share of edible delights and limericks along the way.

The incredibly thoughtful presents that Nick got me for Secret Santa: (1) A yoga mat, as I had been lamenting the lack of suitable exercise equipment in Taigu; (2) A jump rope, for having stolen his to use on one occasion; (3) A bottle of hand lotion, since the incredible dryness of Taigu has made my skin itchy; and (4) A USB vacuum cleaner, because I am so OCD-meticulous about the cleanliness of my workspace.

Christmas Eve itself was similarly nontraditional. On James’ suggestion, and in spite of a fair degree of skepticism on my part, we decided to sing Christmas carols. At first we had debated caroling door-to-door, but seeing as how cold it was, we opted to stay in one place. The locale of choice turned out to be the graduate students’ dormitory, where the majority of our students live. After downloading and printing out copies of the lyrics, we set-up shop in the first floor lobby. We had everything from “Winter Wonderland” to “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” to “Jingle Bell Rock.” It started out slow, but a crowd quickly gathered through word of mouth, and by the time we were finished singing, about 60 people, many of whom were our students, had congregated in the lobby to see us. Several of them bombarded us afterwards with apples, a tradition on Christmas Eve in China presumably because its name, pingan jie, shares the first character with the Chinese word for apple (pingguo). The caroling itself was more fun than I could have imagined. For someone who can barely hold a tune normally, I was remarkably unselfconscious—probably owing to the positive and tolerant attitude that everyone had about the occasion. As sad as it is to say, it was probably the closest I’ll ever get to being a rock star in China. Post-caroling, a couple of my students invited me up to their room and we continued to sing and chat well into the evening until the dorms closed at midnight.

After caroling and cajoling with my students, I headed back with Anne, Lynn, and Gerald to Anne’s house. We made smoothies using the enormous array of fruits we had received as gifts from our students, and some yogurt we had in our fridges that we wanted to use up before leaving Taigu. They turned out miraculously well and proved to be just what my Vitamin C-starved body was in the market for. After our smoothies, I opened up the sky lantern package that one of my students had given me as a Christmas gift. She told me that it would be most fortuitous to fly it on Christmas Eve. It was a remarkably simple contraption—basically a huge sheet of paper fashioned around a metal frame that sits atop a square-sized piece of wax. The idea is that you write your wishes on the paper, light the wax, and once the balloon is full of air, send it up into the sky. Though, logistically, the lantern is an environmental nightmare (you don’t know where the lantern will land, and if it will potentially set fire to anything), it is also an extremely romantic notion—a group of friends jotting down their hopes for the New Year and sending them off into the cool night air. At about 1am we walked to the middle of the street just outside of our houses, and in a clearing bereft of trees, sent our sky lantern—now just the newest in a line of holiday traditions—up into the sky, taken by the wind past the tops of houses, and eventually out of sight.

Mind you, this was not the four of us in Taigu, but it may as well have been, holding the sky lantern just moments before sending it off (photo courtesy of


Banquets, Bribes, and Other Excuses for Grade Inflation

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

As teachers at SAU, we don’t make a whole lot of money.  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it so explicitly before, but the monthly haul amounts to just under the American equivalent of $400.  But it’s not all bad.  Since it’s far below the minimum-wage level in the states, it’s the reason why I got approved on a deferment from my student loans for the next two years.  And because there isn’t an actual check to cash, it also writes me off from taxes.  Our pay is essentially a translucent slip of paper—more suitable perhaps for making rice candy than accounting—on which is written our name, the date, and the sum of money we are entitled to, along with our boss’s signature.  Once a month, we turn that slip over to the reception desk at the building that handles expenses in exchange for a stack of crisp 100 yuan notes, counted and neatly re-counted by a charming man seated next to a vault, of which both the room to the vault and the vault itself are unlocked, often with stacks of money pooled casually over the various tables in the office.

Although it’s not nearly enough to live on in a place like New York, in Taigu it does me just fine, and I often find myself saving at least ¾ of that paycheck every month.  After all, with rent and utilities paid for, our only real expenses are for food and everyday living necessities.  But with that said, if some of my students decide to supplement that paycheck with some extra money of their own accord, who am I to stop them?  Heading into grading season, we thought up a little joke.  Give students the option of paying 10 yuan for every extra point they want added to their final semester grade.  That translates to about $15 to go from a B to an A and $90 to go from a zero to a passing 60.  Counting at least five students in each of my classes whose names have been on the roster but who have never once attended class, I fancied myself becoming a much richer man as I scrimped to save money for a two-month vacation outside of China.

A sampling of some of the food and gifts that my students presented me with on my last day of class.

In truth, grading was the hardest part of the end-of-semester work obligations.  I now understand all too well the pressures that teachers face having to cope with students who desperately implore you to raise their grade against all rationale.  At the beginning of the year, one of the central tenets in my syllabus was that, “if you ask me to raise your grade without good reason, I will lower it.”  Most of my students' grades ended up falling in the A/B range, with a few notable D and F exceptions.  As it turned out, I ended up giving the worst grade in one of my classes to the student who came in with the highest English level.  My reasoning?  50% of my grading criteria is for attendance and participation, and though his English was superb, he rarely ever came to class.  Though prior English knowledge is preferred for more interesting and lively classes, my primary objective is to reward effort and improvement in a student's English fluency.  Luckily for me, many of my students are making noticeable gains in that department. 

At the end of Semester One as a teacher, I can safely say that I've really begun to get a hang for the job.  By now, my classes are also home to a fair share of stragglers—students who aren't on my roster, but who want free English lessons—who I am happy to invite to sit in on my classes, so long as they don't try to dominate discussions.  Everything from lesson planning to the actual teaching itself has gotten easier too.  Whereas before I'd spend whole afternoons and evenings racking my brain over what to teach, I can often wake up a couple of hours before class with a vague idea and be able to plan out a cohesive and (sometimes) engaging 2-hour lesson over breakfast and a morning podcast.  Time management during class itself has gotten better too.  I no longer need to cue myself on when to start and stop activities, but instead, let them grow organically depending on a class's interest and relative ability.  I am proud to say that I now know all 120 of my students' names by heart and can take attendance without calling on them.  I've also begun to realize that teaching is a lot like comedy.  With three more-or-less identical classes dedicated to each new lesson, by the third class you start to figure out what works and what doesn't.  Every class is an opportunity to try out your best material and see what your students respond most to.

As an end-of-semester gift, one of my students got me a set of Chinese shot glasses and another brought me an expensive bottle of mare's-milk wine from her hometown of Inner Mongolia.  I still haven't brought up the nerve to try it yet, but it sure came in a nice package.

Trusting the advice of my Senior Fellows, I decided to administer an oral skit as a substitute for a written final examination at the end of the semester.  Our bosses only really care that we have some sort of exam to close out the year, but never specify what kind.  What's more, an oral skit makes it that much harder for our students to cheat in a country where plagiarism is hardly frowned upon.  As a result, I was eager to see how the students I had come to really know and respect over the last four months would handle a year-end staple that has been utilized in nearly every language class I've ever taken.  I gave them about two weeks to prepare for the 15-minute skit—letting them choose small groups of four or five to work with, having them write a script of the appropriate length from scratch, workshop it with me one-on-one to go over errors, and finally perform it in class.  The topic I gave them was simple.  You and your group-mates find yourselves on a hot air balloon and it is only during mid-flight that you notice it has begun to sink.  The big question: What do you do?

For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised with the kinds of skits my students came up with.  Most were not the most creative I had ever seen, but there were definitely more than a few gems.  Given the material I taught them over the course of the semester—with dating, marriage, and food all making the Top Ten—it's no surprise how some of them turned out.  As one might expect, there was plenty of mid-air hi-jinx, divine intervention, jilted weddings, vengeful lovers, and inter-planetary revelations.  Many borrowed themes from popular American movies like Dirty Harry and Titanic.  In fact, at least a third of them featured a re-working of the scene in Titanic where Jack is standing behind a blind-folded Rose at the ship's bow with her arms spread out before her.  Though I never made props or clothing mandatory for the skit, I was surprised by the lengths to which students “dressed” the part, including one group that brought in a real-life wedding dress with a train.  Many other groups decided to use cross-dressing for comedic effect.  It was particularly hilarious to see some of my normally shyer male students come to life under a delicate coat of blush and eye shadow.  To top it all off, nearly every group employed a carefully-selected playlist of MIDI music tracks from their cell phones, including “Wedding March” and the seminal “My Heart Will Go On.”

Many of my students dressed up to give mock-weddings on board the hot-air balloon before it began to sink.

Having to grade the skits also gave me some unexpected insight into the secrets of teaching.  Take, for instance, your average presentation.  My grading criteria consisted of four parts—clarity, smoothness, vocabulary, and creativity—each weighed differently, and together totaling 100 points.  When it comes down to it, the final was worth about 40% of my students' final grades, which should mean that there is little room for subjective error.  But barring downright unpreparedness on the parts of my students, so much of the skit's grading was left to my own subjective interpretation.  If a skit goes two minutes under the slated time, how many points should you deduct?  Can you really give a number grade for creativity?  How can you rightfully compare presentations that took place four days apart from each other?  How do you cope with your own biases and prevent them from influencing your judgment?  Can you rectify the fact that the first skit will always be graded more conservatively than the last?  I discovered that in the end, my students weren't the only ones to have to trust that I was making a fair and balanced assessment of a semester's worth of their effort in my class.

Me at my first banquet, well before the alcohol really started flowing.

On the days leading up to the end of the semester and the last day of class itself—which I split between performing the last of the skits and having a celebratory party—my students bombarded me with food and gifts.  Needless to say, it's a custom that teachers in America can only dream of.  Teachers are highly respected here in China and it is reflected in both their salary (which is high relative to other non-government jobs) and in the respect it comands from students.  The best that most of my college professors got was a round of applause at their last lecture, and here I was being presented with bags overflowing with fruits, enough packaged snack foods to outlast a nuclear winter, and a number of more pricey gifts including alcohol and porcelain glasses.  One of the sweetest gifts I got was a set of pictures taken of the campus, each signed with a message from one of my students on the back.  At first I figured it was just a ploy to get me to raise their grades, but when practically everyone in my class didn't leave without giving me something, I knew that it was more a token of their appreciation for having me as a teacher, oftentimes the first foreigner they have ever interacted with first-hand.

In addition to all the food and gifts, I was also treated to lavish, end-of-semester banquets with each of my three graduate student classes.  In retrospect, it's hard to tell whether it was as thanks for their final grades or in spite of them.  Going out with some of my students in the past was nothing new.  I had been to more than a few dinners with students and had done karaoke on a few occasions over the course of the past four months.  Even during H1N1 and the campus lock-down, we still managed to find a way out.  Though SAU is contained within a gigantic wall (like all but two universities in all of China), elsewhere on campus, other loopholes were found.  Graduate students were able to climb over shorter sections of the wall and exploit the long section of gravel and trash on the far side of campus that eventually emptied out onto street level.  We even helped to aid and abet Chinese friends by physically belaying them over the wall ourselves.

The entire class managed to squeeze in together at one table during my second banquet.

What was different about the end-of-semester banquets, though, was that it was not simply a handful of students that I would be eating with, but an entire class of 35. In each case, students rented out space in a restaurant for the evening and financed the entire operation themselves. There was more food and drink available than I ever thought possible—indeed, fitting well with the Chinese saying of “eat well, drink well.” It felt incredibly odd to be such a celebrated guest, but it may very well be the only time in my life when, upon my arrival, an entire roomful of people stands up and cheers for me before ushering me into the vacant seat at the head of the table. Being as naive to the situation as I was, I agreed to having the banquets on three back-to-back days over the weekend. Each night started out simple enough with the lot of us eating, laughing, and reminiscing in English and Chinese, but it wasn't long before things got a little dicey, and I quickly realized the ulterior motive of the Chinese banquet—to get the guest-of-honor as wasted as humanly possible. In all three cases, that person was me.

I never anticipated that as a teacher I would be getting drunk with my students, but custom dictated that it was actually disrespectful if I didn't cheers with each of them. At first, we started out with short glasses of beer, but when the beer ran out, we started using bai jiu, the toxic fire liquor that I have become all too familiar with since coming to China. Though my tolerance has improved in China largely because of the heavy drinking culture, I was still in no shape to handle more than 20 shots of 40-proof alcohol over a two-hour dinner, despite how much food I was eating. But try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to refuse since that would make my students lose face. As a result, I did the best that I could, and in most cases, stopped myself at the ultimate extent of my limit. But that wasn't before my students got me to sing both the theme song to Titanic and the first two verses of Biz Markie's “Just a Friend” (before I forgot the rest of the words). Luckily it wasn't just me—when Chinese people get drunk, they sing, and a few of my braver students went on to garner rave applause. At the end of each night—and despite how well-meaning my students were for wanting fun and revelry—for three-nights-in-a-row, I ended up stumbling home more drunk than I'd ever thought possible, having a date with the porcelain goddess, and immediately passing out on my bed. My liver had never more strongly longed to secede from my body. To my students, you might call it a success, but not if you were the expensive dinners that kept getting expelled from my stomach. Still, all of this was just practice. Now that I know the score, the real test will be how well I fare come the end of Semester Two as a teacher at SAU.


Reflections from the Bottom of a Swimming Pool

Friday, December 18, 2009

Actually, this post title is a bit of a misnomer. There weren’t any physical reflections at the bottom of the pool. Instead of having a sheet of glass stretched beneath its surface, the pool is outfitted with a dingy, off-white tiled floor that simply collects debris for lack of an adequate filtration system. Luckily, it’s piled up predominantly on the shallow end, where scores of Chinese students waded all through October during a sorry excuse for P.E. class. Their lifeguard “instructors” stood on the sidelines shouting commands at them—of which even the simplest could rarely be completed successfully. Most of the students here don’t know how to float, let alone swim. Swimming is definitely a marker of status in China. If you know how to swim, you probably come from a relatively privileged background, in that you had access to a swimming facility and the means to have been taught at a young age.

The lifeguards themselves are a gaggle of 30-somethings, who, in my experience, might just as well be older men who like hanging out at the pool. I have never once seen any of them enter the water. They wear swimsuits and occasionally robes when it’s colder and lounge on beach chairs that are lopsidedly perched at various intervals over the pool’s length. But they prefer to stay by the deep end, smoking, playing cards, and eating sunflower seeds, every once in a while taking a glance up to see the happenings on the other side. The reason filtration is so bad in the pool is because it is purposely not filled to capacity so that students have a less likely chance of drowning. The filtering turbines are located at the very tops of the walls of the pool and are in a perpetually dry state. As it is now, the lifeguards certainly have their work cut out for them—the water level just reaches my chest in the deep end and on the shallow side barely makes it past my knees.

Today, the pool closed early for the second day in a row—a combination of not enough students showing up that late, and the fact that the entire swimming complex was plagued with dense mist. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. By the time I noticed it, the handful of Chinese students in the Olympic-size pool had already gone and me and James were the only ones left, silently counting laps and staring at the rust on the white tiled floor. Standing on one end, you literally couldn’t see past the middle of the pool to anything on the other side. That half of the pool just dropped off from view, like a scene out of Pirates of the Caribbean during the ominous moment before an enemy ship comes into frame. Anne reasoned that this was because the warm air from the water collides with the cold air from outside that seeps in through the badly insulated walls to create fog. But rather than simply posting a lifeguard on the other side, or multiple ones at the intervals in between, the lifeguards opted to shut the place down, leaving the pool like Taigu in the early morning—a veritable ghost town, the fog reminiscent of trips to the cemetery in Flushing, Queens on particularly spooky days.

This newest setback was particularly disheartening because I had been diligently going to the pool all week, as this week, unlike in weeks past, I had a revelation. But first, a quick anecdote. I wear huge goggles when I swim—goggles that, if they were sunglasses, would almost certainly be in the aviator family. In reality, though, there is a very practical reason for why I own them. When I was younger, and before I could even swim that well, I became very interested in scuba diving, for which these goggles are ideally suited. My dad bought them for me and my sister in lieu of more traditional swimming goggles, and I have used them ever since. I can almost unilaterally guarantee that no one at SAU, and I daresay no one in all of Shanxi Province, owns these kind of goggles. Unlike aviator sunglasses, they also aren’t earning me any cool points with the ladies—as living in China has made abundantly clear. Recently, a female student of mine approached me at an informal gathering. Since practically all Chinese students spread gossip like mad about the foreigners as it is, she told me a story that she had heard about us. It was something to the effect of: the foreigners go swimming a lot and one of them wears these ridiculously huge goggles (which she demonstrated with her hands as if she were holding a shoebox in front of her eyes). Eventually I told her that that ridiculous-looking foreigner was in fact her teacher. But it’s like the old saying goes: the funnier you look in swim goggles, the better you do in real life. Or did I just make that up?

I have never been a good swimmer, and I don’t consider myself one now, but I think that I’ve finally had a breakthrough moment when it comes to the sport. My mechanics are better now than they have ever been before—I’m learning to keep my head low enough in the water that my legs stay buoyed and I end up relatively straight. This in turn, has made it much easier to get my breathing down and also has increased my endurance at least three-fold (I’m taking breaks every 3-4 laps now instead of after every one). My aviator goggles do present a bit of a challenge, though, in that their extra pocket of air tends to propel my head above water—like having a tiny swim float wrapped around my head like a bandana. But I’m learning to cope with it well, dipping my head under water after each breath and kicking my feet up so that they just graze the surface. Even my racing turns are getting smoother. I’m confident that if I keep up this pace, I will eventually be able to swim a mile at a time—a feat I never thought I was capable of accomplishing in my life.

Staring at the bottom of the pool, you have a lot of time for meditative thought, as unlike other exercises, there's no one to communicate with and almost nothing worthwhile to look at. And so, not surprisingly, I have been thinking a lot about blogging. Yitka, one of my best friends, wrote a great piece recently on why she keeps a blog, even though (like my own) it makes no money, can be awfully time-consuming, and has no real quantitative benefit in terms of a future career. She gave a lot of good reasons, most that I too would agree with, but I could especially relate to the last one: “It keeps me out and about, making the most of Seattle and my life, if for nothing else than thinking of it all in terms of being able to write about it later…Perhaps that's a good thing to aim for in life, then: a life worth writing about.” And it’s true. Keeping a blog in Japan and even at Oberlin forced me to do things that I perhaps would never have thought to do before—or at least would never have found the significance in to write about. Blogging makes it easy to share those things I do and find interesting with the rest of the world. Even relatively mundane activities like cooking or exercise became subjects of long, sprawling posts. I found myself hungry for new experiences, at times for no other reason than the chance to write in detail about them later.

In all of this reflection came a small epiphany. Oftentimes, I find myself bogged down—wanting to write perfectly about a particular event, crafting it countless times in my head, and taking days and weeks just to finish typing it out. This obsession with polished writing for some nebulous “posterity” has resulted in a few long and detailed posts, but ones that come without the spontaneity and newness of an on-the-spot thought. I have been in the habit of grouping experiences into broader categories, which I can then tackle completely as a full-length story at a later time. Sometimes, though, experiences are best expressed simply, without the fanfare of transitions or flowery language. It’s not to say that I will stop using them (quite the contrary), but I will try to be more flexible about what I allow myself to write about. For example, I have been very averse to shorter posts that consist of no more than a bulleted-list of observations, but I realize that in many ways they are just as valid. As my friend Xavier pointed out recently, some people will read long-form essays, but others who perhaps don’t know a person as well will just want to keep tabs on them by reading shorter snippets here and there. He cited the remarkable online diary of George Orwell as a prime example, and though I don’t plan to go into such minute details about my own everyday, a few shorter, more frequent posts would probably do this blog well. After all, frequent posts retain visitors better and shorter posts are more likely to be read to completion (anyone out there still with me?).

In short, blogging keeps me connected to the people I care about and also keeps me in the habit of writing, both of which have been made more difficult since graduating from Oberlin. I hope that in the same way that this blog recently underwent an aesthetic makeover, its content too will better be able to reflect those sentiments, especially as I head into a long stretch of vacation come January.

[EDIT: 12.21.09] I just completed my first mile-long swim this afternoon! It wasn't always pretty, and it certainly wasn't fast, but I did it! My body's been thanking me all night for it, too—even after two dinners and a late-night nap, I'm still hungry and tired. Plus, I'm waiting until the morning for the real soreness to kick in. Here's to the next milestone—two miles under my belt before my time in Shanxi is up!


A Change Is Gonna Come

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I'm pretty sure this is what Sam Cooke had in mind when he coined those words.

With a recent redesign by friend and fellow blogger Brittany, I decided that my little corner of the internet could use a face-lift since it’s inception over six months ago. To be sure, it was just minor cosmetic surgery, as almost all of the original elements are still intact. And at least to the naked eye, it would seem as if nothing save for the color scheme changed at all. But for the obsessive compulsive (i.e. me), design is truly in the details. Almost all of the elements have actually been modified in one small way or another, most just to minute degrees only visible to the utterly insane. For you see, instead of actually updating this blog with any sort of regularity, I end up spending all of my time tinkering with the "Layout" tab on Blogger until everything looks right. And then I wake up the next day and go right back to playing with it some more.

And so with that, and no further interruption, I am pleased to announce the first-ever Travel Breeds Content Reader Participation Survey!

Change has never looked so...ordinary (at least since Obama took office). It's almost as thrilling as scrolling up and looking at the top of this page!

Is the new template a revelation? Should I stick with the original? Didn't even notice? Couldn't care less? Whaddya think? I want to hear from you!


The World Outside Is Dying...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

…But inside, the stovetop ramen’s frying,
Beyond the tall gates, an entire city outlying.
Clouds of coal dust in the air keep flying,
As we try to suppress our loneliness by smiling.

I’ve been doing a lot of freestyle lately. And that ain’t even lyin’.


Prior to my arrival, I received no shortage of warnings about winters in Taigu. Taigu is not only the one Shansi site to get yearly snow, but it’s also the only one that comes at a significant risk to one’s respiratory health—a number of previous Fellows have developed asthma as a result of the air quality, especially during colder months. It was one of the first indications that my two years in China wouldn’t come without its fair share of adversity. After all, there had to be something about the place that prompted Beth, former Shansi Fellow and previous occupant of my house, to write, that: “The initial adjustment to living in rural China, really the whole first year, was hard for me. I made lots of friends pretty early on, which helped, but the new environment made me sick all the time, and the poverty and idleness of Taigu was palpable. This place, though charming and very special, is a dilapidated coal-dust covered town in the middle of northern nowhere, and sometimes I feel like we're literally on the edge of the world.” Despite any degree of cynicism I had about having lived through four Ohio winters at that point, I knew that I would be in for something life-changing, and, at the same time, almost caustically different.

After the big snow that hit Taigu shortly after Halloween, there’s been a big freeze—snow has been cleared from the major streets, but all of the smaller paths are still glazed over with a thick sheet of ice built up from compacted snow and temperatures routinely below freezing. Winter is officially in full swing. The SAU campus is masked in a perpetual haze like silky gauze, veiling everything as blunted outlines and shapes. We speculate that part of it is from winter fog in general, but we attribute a lot to the coal dust that billows out of Shanxi’s famously abundant factories and goes toward powering our heat and electricity. In addition, people here routinely burn garbage, as incineration is one of the most popular forms of waste management. The smell is almost palpable at times—the scent of burning plastic, compost, and filament slowly peppering the air with black pockmarks. Without exception, every restaurant on campus has now closed its doors—a combination of the swine flu scare and the snowfall creating an insufficient amount of business. In the mornings, the smog is so thick that seeing twenty feet in front of me on my way to class is sometimes infeasible. I routinely hawk up black phlegm and now find myself drinking twice the amount of water I normally do to cope with the excessive dryness. On good days and when the sun is out, we have slightly off-color blue skies and the smell of Shanxi vinegar to dilute pollutants in the air. Temperatures tend to dip from a sultry 32° in midday down to the teens at night. Thankfully, the classrooms are moderately heated, but I still find myself wearing my coat in most indoor places.

As a result, the cold has unfortunately brought with it a pretty heady depression—indicative of most winters for most people everywhere—but here again, there are a few differences. As China doesn’t believe in daylight savings time (or time zones in general), it gets dark before 5:30pm every night, and the night air is so thick that it sometimes feels like we are wandering through a haunted graveyard. The pervasive gloominess, coupled with the fact that we still can’t really leave campus due to H1N1, has made for solitary nights in our segregated foreign homes. In those homes, we have become landlords to a sizeable population of rats. Even non-perishable food had been regulated to the fridge in an effort to deter the rodents, but they still come because of the heat. The incessant scurrying and squeaking kept me awake at nights until we began cracking down. Though snap traps have proven to be wholly ineffective, we often come home to find a new baby rat, yelping, stuck to one side of a glue trap, and do the nasty deed of disposal. On the rare occasions when we catch a live one, we leave it to Mumu or Boots (Anne and Nick’s cats) and let nature run its course. Sometimes we let the cats roam our house in the day to let the feline smell serve as a warning—just enough not to aggravate James’ allergies. I have even caught myself picking off cat dander and heaping it in spots where I have found rat excrement and sawdust filings from where the rats chewed through our walls.

Everyday seeds the same familiar mainstays. Motorcyclists pass with their hands thrust into giant arm warmers and surplus cargo tied precariously to their backs. The Chinese couples who routinely made out on park benches and in the so-called “Lover’s Forest” have now had to double their efforts because of the cold. They brush away ice and sit statuesque, girl atop boy, and carry on as no more than a rough silhouette of insulated jackets. The underground supermarket on campus has effectively become the social hub for the entire student body. Essentially no more than a heated indoor space with shops and a few tables, its main draw is that it is more spacious than the overwrought dormitories where students are crammed four to eight to a room. We have come to make almost daily trips ourselves, stocking up on yogurt and fruit for lack of more meaningful activities. The cult known as “Crazy English”—an immense group of students dedicated to learning English through a method of repetitive shouting and memorization—is still in full force, setting up shop behind the now-abandoned bus depot. It’s amazing how much their zealous yelling sounds like a student uprising not unlike the Tiananmen Square protests—except this time, in English. As native speakers, we keep a low profile when we pass, careful not to be cajoled into their unorthodox language study.

For the vast majority of the time, I am happy, content, and constantly inundated with things to do. But especially with the holiday season coming up, I have been thinking more and more about home. It’s been difficult embarking on a journey like this so fresh out of college. On the one hand, you are coping with the usual amount of loneliness at losing contact with the people you’ve spent the last four years. And on top of that, there’s the entire culture shock of being in a new place, getting used to the changing relationships you will inevitably have with everyone you’ve ever known. I imagine how easy it would have been to spend an FTL year at Oberlin or to be living rent-free (and jobless) in Brooklyn. It’s certainly not what I would truly want for myself, but in times like these, it’s an incredibly comforting thought. I brought a slew of mementos from family and friends in an attempt to stave off homesickness—a teapot from my dad, a Peru souvenir from Lauren, an Olympics-themed money pouch from Margaret, a journal from Yitka, a handful of letters from Aishe, the blue tapestry from my room in Oberlin, and a number of photos taken at Oberlin Commencement. But inevitably, every time I talk to someone, the familiar nostalgia tugs at my heart, and I am again forced to remind myself that college is over and I won’t be going back home for at least another seven months.


Thankfully, though, there have been a few respites from the winter grind. Exercise, as always, has been the first. Since the Taigu air has made it hard for my prissy, fair-weather running self to exercise outside, it is fortunate that the indoor swimming pool has finally reopened after its one-month hiatus from the H1N1 panic. We were all beginning to feel the weight (literally) of the measly indoor floor exercises and the rare outdoor sports that we managed to accomplish. But since the Chinese seem to be even more reactionary than I about physical activity in the cold, the pool has been nearly deserted. Though the pool is heated, it’s definitely not what one would call comfortable by most means. The water is downright frigid, requiring us to constantly do laps for fear of freezing. I realized that the majority of the reason why the pool felt warm in the fall was because it was packed end-to-end with students. And even then, more than half of them forewent real swimming of any kind in favor of holding conversation—like having a board meeting in a body of water. But on the plus side, it’s getting me to swim like I never have before. I’m still terribly slow, but at least I’m pulling in a half-mile a day—the silent, almost meditative quality to repetitive laps coursing over my body with each intake of breath.

The same can be said about the dance parties that we throw every other week at my house. First conceived as a way to give our students an outlet to relax and release their pent up anxieties, it’s now just as much a reason for us as teachers to let loose—seeing as how the winter has made us all slightly more crazed and short-fused than usual. At first I was extremely hesitant to invite my students, but it’s ended up working out really well. My students get to see a side of me that is reserved for friends, but back in the classroom, we’re back to being teacher and students, all without the slightest hitch. Because of the curfew instated by the school, the parties start at the ungodly hour of 8pm and end just before midnight—quite different from a traditional “night life” taken in the states. Additionally, the concept of “fashionably late” must purely be a Western notion—by 8:15 the room is already packed with students swirling to the disco ball lights and the bass from the massively-large, inherited speakers in my living room. We have had a handful of issues with drunk students getting out of hand, but by and large, it’s been tremendously fun. The playlist is a complete mix of songs from previous Fellows, Chinese friends, Korean and Japanese top-ten hits, and my iTunes collection—I still play “Love Me Down” and pretend that I’m at a dance party at my house in Oberlin.

But far and away, the greatest boon has been the incarnation of Taigu’s first ever “Open Mic Night.” Without classes to deter us from staying up late on Thursday nights, after dinner we have started a once-weekly tradition of performing spoken and musical acts reminiscent of a fifth-grade talent show. Gerald, who lives with the only other non-Obie, David, and who has been generous enough to offer up his living room for the occasion, came up with the idea because of the absurd amount of studio equipment he brought with him to Taigu, including two mics, a mic stand, an electric guitar, a preset, and an amp—not to mention a slew of expensive audio software that can play instrument samples, create beats, and utilize auto tune. This, combined with the fact that a mic is nearly irresistible to fiddle around with when left in the open, was how Open Mic Night came to be a bastion of otherwise ordinary Thursday evenings in Taigu.

Open Mic Night in Taigu! From left to right: Melody, Susan, Cathy, Lucy, David, James, Nick, and me (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee)!

We started out slow at first, keeping it limited to the six foreigners (plus our German friend Matthias) at our weekly get-togethers. We would buy a 24-pack of beer and a few snacks from the supermarket, and entertain each other for perhaps more time than we should have been able to. Eventually, we all got to be pretty creative. Matthias read his poetry in German (followed by an attempt at translation), Anne sang folk songs, David told jokes, James recited poetry, Gerald rocked out on his guitar, and Nick performed stand-up comedy. As for me, I did freestyle rap. The inspiration didn’t come from a single source. To be sure, a lot of it originated from my memories as a first-year at Oberlin, rapping in the dining hall while my friend Niels provided the beat. But I’ve also found myself listening to a lot of hip-hop lately, paying an unusual amount of attention to the lyrics (though this has had the unfortunate consequence of putting to rest my extensive collection of Ja Rule and Mystikal). Ever since watching the ground-breaking and Academy Award-worthy film Notorious, I have been inspired to try my hand at rap—not as any kind of career but, somewhat ironically, as a way to stretch my capacity as a writer. And so when Gerald, who is in the business of producing content for up-and-coming musical artists, came to me with the idea of doing a rap song, I jumped at the chance.

The song is still in the works, but Open Mic Night lives on. What’s most interesting, I think, is how much we are all beginning to stretch our comfort zones. I started to do a little stand-up for the first time since being in the “Stand-Up Comedy Club” (an actual student organization) with Scott during my senior year of high school. James has gotten into freestyle and has proven to be surprisingly adept, prompting Nick, who is also known to drop rhymes, to comment on his flow. Gerald has transitioned from playing Green Day punk ballads to performing his own songs. And even Anne has begun utilizing Gerald’s audio software, with a tradition of performing her student’s essays to a rap beat. In a place like Taigu, it helps that your audience and the people you live with are one and the same—and you know that no matter what happens, they will always be there to support you. In recent weeks, we have even begun to pair Open Mic Night with a home-cooked dinner, and the company of some of our Chinese friends. It’s the best we can do, at a time when wanting a family and the comforts of home are the most precious things we could ask for.


It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like November

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I keep my window shades closed for the majority of each day, due largely to a general lack of privacy when it comes to the foreign houses here. Chinese students routinely cross paths by my house to get to other places on campus and have even been known to stop on the front porch right outside my window to chat with friends and take photos. Oftentimes, leaving the blinds open is an invitation for peering visitors, and the occasional knock on the door from pathetic undergraduate students asking to “be their friend and practice English.” It’s the kind of attention that I am happier not receiving. And so, it came as a total shock to me when last week I opened my front door, fully dressed for class in black shoes and a light jacket, to discover that everything in my sight lines was covered in a foot-and-a-half of powdery snow.

The view of campus from outside my window.

I knew that snow was not uncommon in Taigu, thanks to the video Guy showed us during Winter Term Orientation as a brief introduction to the different Shansi sites in Asia. The old film clips of Taigu couldn’t have been less than 20 years old—grainy footage of snow falling on red-topped pagodas and gathering in clumps around the courtyard of the university. But yet, since having moved to Taigu, I realized that not much about that scene has changed. The “old” sections of Taigu still look, well, old, and the people here seem to go about life in more or less the same way. The addition of cars hasn’t done away with a significant percentage of bicycles, three-wheeled buggies, and motorcycles from the road. The majority of people still rely on agriculture to sustain their livelihood. And the winter still brings with it the stuff of schoolchildren’s dreams and commuters’ worst nightmares.

Whoever said this town didn’t get snow must never have heard of global warming. The snow this year didn’t stop with the initial 10 inches. Over the next few days, Taigu saw quite a bit more snowfall—sheets of white that covered tree boughs and blanketed narrow stone walkways. Our boss, Xiao Fan, told me that he talked to a man who had lived in Taigu his whole life—over 60 years—and had not once seen snowfall as heavy as the one we received this year. But that enigmatic old man wasn’t the only one to be flabbergasted at the sudden appearance of snow. Authorities and civilians all throughout Northern China were astonished at the swiftness and intensity of the snowfall. Cars were stranded from Beijing to Shijiazhuang in the north, and there were a number of casualties, predominantly dotting Shanxi Province. News sources corroborated the old man’s story, citing that snowstorms were the worst since 1955 in some places. And according to David’s mom, record-breaking snowfall in Taiyuan (the capital of Shanxi) even made headlines on CBS News in America.

Snowfall on my walk to class.

But thankfully, the situation wasn’t nearly as dire on SAU’s campus as it was in the real world. Like Oberlin, college in general tends to frame a bubble where all of the world’s problems become secondary to one’s own. And thus, the snowfall here was seen less as a scourge than as a godsend. Students and teachers alike, needing some kind of respite from the terribly suffocating restrictions imposed by the college thanks to H1N1, found their savior in fluffy clumps of water vapor falling from the sky. With no means to escape campus, snow provided students the chance to fill their otherwise monotonous weekends with an outdoor activity that could still be enjoyed within the safe boundaries of the university walls. And enjoy it they did. Within a few days, the campus was transformed into a winter wonderland, with snow sculptures, messages in the snow, and snowball fights turning up in every direction. The two outdoor tracks and the basketball courts, though completely unsuitable for their original purposes, became the closest things Taigu’s had to an ice show, with meticulous pieces of art lining their circumference.

A Chinese birthday cake, complete with fruit and a chocolate cookie, fashioned out of snow (photo courtesy of Rebecca).

Not surprisingly, that kind of boundless excitement and enthusiasm also turned up in the classroom. My students, hungry for the chance to get outside and play, seemed almost American in their relentless pleading to have a snow day. Only this time, I had switched roles—from the anxious student fidgeting in class to the pensive teacher debating how best to satisfy both my responsibilities and the whims of my pupils. In the end, I did what I had wished every teacher of mine from 1st through 12th grade would have done. With twenty minutes to spare at the end of class, I marched outside with an entire class of 30 graduate students, and proceeded to have a snowball fight. In the first moments, everyone was extremely hesitant, and it took the raucous young hot shot, Alva, to throw the first snowball at his teacher. But once that was done, there was no stopping my other students. The tentative air quickly turned tenacious, as I found myself greatly outnumbered, eventually getting help from some of the male students who initially turned against me. I walked home from class that day, my shoes more than a bit soppy and my blazer in dire need of a trip to the dry cleaners, but with a lightness I hadn’t had in weeks.

It wouldn’t be the last time I had a snowball fight either. With the help of the other foreign teachers, I was able to get back at some of my students. After class one day, Nick, Anne, and I organized a small outing with a few of each of our students and a couple of our Chinese friends. The snow was remarkably good for forming snowballs, and I got to make use of my Northeastern upbringing to the fullest extent. Teams rotated organically for the most part until the very end, when Nick, me, and our two Chinese friends, Duncan and Tiger, were pitted against four of my students. By the time we were finished, we had their backs up against a wall—me, Duncan, and Tiger were sporting remarkable (and uncharacteristic) long-distance aim, and Nick got himself armed with a bucketful of pre-made snowballs—enough to eventually force their surrender.

Students aside, even we as teachers couldn’t help reveling in the snowy weather. For an entire week, we played tricks on each other, ambushing each other’s classes with armfuls of snowballs aimed squarely at the front podium. In addition to eliciting much amusement on the part of my students, I came out of the surprise attacks with a half-soaked lesson plan to boot. Anne and our friend Lynn also made delicious hot chocolate one afternoon, using some of the stock chocolate available at the supermarket, paired with a generous helping of cocoa powder brought back from the states. They even constructed a snowman in front of Anne’s house, using anise stars for the eyes, twigs for the eyebrows and mouth, a sun hat and a bandana as accessories, and all topped off with a cigarette. Students from far and wide came to pose with the unconventional snowman, along with the sprinkling of others set-up around campus.

The precocious-looking snowman outside of Anne's house.

For, as I learned, Chinese students love to take pictures of themselves and their friends in any snow-related context. One needn't walk far before spotting a couple or a group of friends posing with their cell phone cameras. This was made all the more apparent when a group of students (who I adore) asked if I would join them one Saturday afternoon to take pictures in the snow. Not knowing what I was in for, I agreed, only to be led for two hours through every “scenic spot” that the university had to offer. We paused at old buildings, in front of interesting architecture-work, and by each of the university’s ornate gates. We were modeled by master photographer and previous snowball fight-instigator, Alva, who thought up many of the creative poses on display. By the end, each of my students was trying to one-up the last in their individual pose pictures with me. Finally, when all the picture-taking was said and done, I followed the students back to their dormitory and relished the chance to rest for a bit and incite some warmth back into my extremities.

One of a few dozen staged photographs concocted by my graduate students (photo courtesy of Alva).

I find it incredibly interesting that Chinese people clear snow on the roads with sheer manpower—as there are no snowplows, snow blowers, or any other similar machines at their disposal. Students and workers armed with shovels scoop away at embankments of snow meter by meter until they are gone, just as they did for leaves in the fall with rakes and brooms. They don’t even use salt to break down sheets of ice—probably hard-pressed to use it in food served in the cafeterias instead. At times, workers even go so far as to chop away at it with metal dustpans, but those efforts are often futile. Thus, ice, perhaps the most hazardous consequence of the snow cycle, is the part that perpetually remains on all of the roads and walkways after the snow is cleared.

It's no wonder then that students are getting injured all the time. One texted me recently when she couldn’t make it to class. It was shortly after we had a lesson on clothing, and I sauntered into the classroom looking like a regular Salvation Army—wearing hats, scarves, gloves, ties, and almost every conceivable type of shirt and jacket combination you can imagine. After granting her leave, her message back to me read: “Thank you very much. The weather is so cold. I suggest you to wear coat, scarf and glove.” I’m thankful that even in this festive weather, my students are still absorbing what I teach—or at the very least, trying.


Mostly Better News: Halloween and H1N1 (Pt. II)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

One of the other setbacks of the H1N1 situation was the cancellation of the annual Halloween party. For as long as there are Fellows to report, every Halloween has been met with an all-out crunk fest. We’re talking ordering in hundreds of bottles of beer from a wholesaler in Taiyuan, vats full of bai jiu cocktails (that’s Chinese liquor mixed with from-concentrate fruit juices), and a ton of guests. Each of us teachers (there are six of us) was expected to invite all of our students, and with over a hundred students to a teacher, you don’t have to do a lot of math to figure out the crowd-size. Not only was it a way for our students to relax, it was also a chance for them to see us as teachers in a more informal light. It is the one time every year that the Foreign Affairs Office begrudgingly gives us the key to the old AV classroom, a space big enough to accommodate at least the first few hundred off the lengthy guest list (with the rest either pushing their way in or opting to go back home). We were all so excited that we came up with live performances to boot. Dave, Nick, and I were planning to do our own rendition of Biz Markie’s seminal “Just a Friend,” Anne and a couple of her Chinese friends wanted to cover a C-pop song, and Gerald was going to rock out on his electric guitar. We joked that this year we could wear N95 face masks, in addition to the myriad of creative costumes we had schemed.

Two more students posing with their newly-carved pumpkin.

That was until our boss told us that the biggest party of the year was canceled due to H1N1. It was like telling Delta fraternity in Animal House that they had all been put on double secret probation. The school administration was worried that so many people in such a crowded indoor space would make for easy spreading of the disease, regardless of the state of some of their other institutions. But unlike the gang in Animal House, we did not have our revenge. Instead, we ended up spending Halloween night sequestered in our own homes, with even the possibility of a smaller house party ruled out because of the scare. With our spirits and excitement crushed, we relegated the possibility of a party to the backs of our minds—as we did the return of the campus to pre-H1N1 normalcy—with the hopes that perhaps by December we could entertain the idea of a Halloween-Christmas celebration on an open and safe campus.

But as we soon learned, parties are not the only way to have fun during Halloween. On Nick’s suggestion, I decided to bring some of the holiday spirit to my classes, as they were some of the few things not disturbed too greatly by the scare. I spent the first class before Halloween going over the requisite vocabulary, being careful to include “trick-or-treat,” “costume party,” and “bobbing for apples,” before having my students write and present ghost stories to the class. With no subtle hint of irony, I spent the week after Halloween talking about vocabulary for symptoms and illnesses, in addition to performing a skit about patients going to the see both a Western doctor and a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. But the class immediately preceding Halloween was when things really got interesting—when I walked into class carrying a huge drawstring bag of pumpkins and a shoebox full of spoons and knives.

Some of the pumpkins carved in my Group K class. I am particularly fond of the rabbit design in about the middle of the picture.

Procuring said pumpkins was no small task. The only place to buy them was at a quaint little vegetable market a bit of a ways off campus, which also featured a plethora of other stands selling everything from eggs to vegetables to fresh meat. But with the campus recently closed and my having forgot my identification, I had to really hound the guards to let me through the gates—citing my bad Chinese and the fact that I didn’t look like any of the actual students. Eventually I made it through and spotted the woman whom I had ordered 45 pumpkins from the day before (fifteen for each of my three graduate student classes). However, having not fully put this plan into motion previously, the fact that 45 pumpkins could be quite heavy seemed to have slipped my mind (though they were astoundingly cheap). And so, I left the vegetable market in two trips, each time with a drawstring bag in excess of 70 pounds slumped over my shoulder as I made my way back to campus. Ironically, this was when I seemed to engender the fewest stares from passersby—probably assuming I was just another Chinese farmer, doubled over wearing a plain brown jacket and slacks.

The classes dedicated to pumpkin carving were perhaps the best I’ve had so far. I started with a lesson on knife safety and a rough impromptu step-by-step on to how to actually do the carving. Having not done it myself in well over ten years and with the internet temporarily out of commission, I was worried that my slapdash directions would prove ineffectual, but my students quickly proved me wrong. After a lottery system to decide who would go first, each pumpkin was doled out randomly to groups of two students—some big, some small, some long, and some downright ugly. Unlike pumpkins in America, Chinese pumpkins are all green on the outside, though some students shaved away at the outer layer to reveal a yellow-orange hue beneath. With hardly any direction from me (I brought a book into class to read for the second-half while my students carved away), my students jumped wholeheartedly into the project—wowing me with the extent to which they removed the seeds, scooped out the inside, and drew and gutted the face. More than that, I was incredibly impressed with the creativity they exhibited. Though a fair bit were what one might call “normal,” others were decadent specimens with delicate attention to detail, careful pre-planning, and the addition of outside props. And all this from students who had not only never carved a pumpkin before, but who had probably never seen a jack-o’-lantern in real life.

But perhaps even more can be said of the old saying that “the real learning takes place outside of the classroom.” Since indoor gatherings were strictly off-limits, we decided to turn the tables on the administration’s orders. On the morning of Halloween we organized a huge pumpkin carving party with Anne, Dave, and James’ classes in the little courtyard area outside of Dave’s house. Since Nick and I already did carving during our classes, our students didn’t make an appearance, but we got to meet a whole bunch of other eager youngsters, most of whom were completely enthralled with the notion of other foreigners, as we reluctantly posed for one photo-op after another. In between being used for my native English by some enterprising, and more than a bit obnoxious, non-students who were drawn to the party, I ended up carving my own pumpkin, taking some cues from my students who gave me no shortage of inspiration. Since the face was admittedly a little plain, I decided to go ahead and carve my Chinese name in the back using a slightly smaller knife and some finesse. All in all, over sixty students showed up at various points during the four-hour jaunt. In addition to a lot of misplaced paint (that we brought for students to further decorate the pumpkins), we only had two knife-related injuries, which, considering the circumstances, was pretty good.

My Chinese name that I carved into the back of the pumpkin (Da Lin read top to bottom).

In the last couple of days, the school finally received its share of the H1N1 vaccines and has begun distributing them to its faculty and students. First came the first- and second-year undergrads who were presumed to be the most at risk (mostly because the first student to be hospitalized came from an undergraduate dorm), and next came all of the graduate students. On Friday, all of us foreign teachers were woken up early and marched out to the reasonably shady campus hospital to get administered for our own shots. Prior to going, we got a short briefing in Chinese about the protocol and a handful of English photocopies off the WHO website. For all intents and purposes, it seemed safe enough (there have been no reported vaccine-related deaths in China) and it was said that the vaccine is even safer in China than it is in America. Along with a small prick in the arm, we were instructed not to shower, eat spicy food, eat lamb, or drink alcohol for the next three days. Needless to say, China has a lot of interesting customs when it comes to sick-culture (not to mention pregnancy and child rearing) that I hope to address more in a forthcoming post. And so, a slightly smellier and sober Daniel will stumble his way through Taigu for the next few days, but after a full week, the vaccine will have run its course. With any luck, the collective immunity of the campus will gradually start to usher back a return to the way things were.


Why Blogger Is Banned in China: Halloween and H1N1 (Pt. I)

Friday, November 6, 2009

During Shansi orientation in January, we heard a lot of horror stories—from hostage situations in airports and emergency helicopter evacuations to outbreaks of infectious diseases and prolonged hospitalizations. In China in 2003 during the thick of the SARS epidemic, all of the Shansi Fellows were airlifted back to the U.S. for four months before the situation settled and they could return to their teaching posts. Yet through all of the warnings and nay-sayings, never did I think that I would be one of the lucky few appointed Fellows to say they were abroad during such a trying time.

H1N1 (better known as swine flu in the states) is quickly becoming a global crisis. In China, specifically, there seems to be a divide—in the south, due largely to a warmer climate, the situation is apparently under control, but in the north, it is making daily headlines. Two dead at Peking University in Beijing and many more dropping off in the countryside. As of about two weeks ago, H1N1 has developed into a full-blown pandemic closer to home—on the campus of Shanxi Agricultural University (SAU). According to hearsay, the whole situation started when one undergraduate student came to the higher-ups on suspicion of having H1N1 and was immediately rushed to the hospital. Almost in exactly the same breath, his dormitory was quarantined, and the entire rest of the school was put on lock-down—no students could enter or exit any of the gates on campus, effectively trapping them inside.

Ironically (and more than a bit nonsensically), though, teachers and other staff were able to leave at will. The first night that we got word of the new regulations, I had planned to go with some of my students and the other foreigners to do some karaoke singing off-campus. Meanwhile, every entrance to the school was swarming with confused students, bewildered as to why they couldn’t leave. My students came to me with the bad news shortly before we were about to go to dinner, but in a stroke of spur-of-the-moment thinking, we swooped them up, and, citing them as our translators, made it safely out of the gates. After that first day of commotion, though, the administration got wise, and that was the last time my students, or any, saw daylight outside of campus.

My Group I class and their collection of pumpkins. It was with a few of these students that I went to sing karaoke prior to the lock-down.

Within days, other freedoms started to give. There was an earlier curfew instated for when students were to return to their dormitories. Another whole dormitory was quarantined, such that crews of bio-hazard clad personnel were forced to deliver pre-packaged food and water to those students’ rooms three times a day. The swimming pool was closed, as were most indoor spaces where large clusters of people could congregate. Even luxuries we had not considered luxuries started to fade. Because students couldn’t leave the gates on campus, the neighboring and outlying businesses began to go under. Bei yuan (North Yard), where we had previously frequented to eat dinner, buy fruit, and shop at local vendor stands, became completely deserted, with all of those individuals and families out of a job. This may have been the most heartbreaking consequence of the entire scare. After two days or so when vendors realized that the situation wouldn’t improve, they left, and the school went so far as to erect a brick wall on the opposing side of the gate so that students literally couldn’t “slip through the cracks.” We now affectionately refer to it as “The Great Wall of Taigu.”

I’m being made increasingly more aware every day that I’m living in China. It's hard to imagine that anything to this scale could ever really happen in the states. If we were all trapped at Oberlin, there would literally have been riots, not to mention innumerable attempts to cheat the system. Posted at every entrance at SAU there is a security guard who carefully monitors the flow of traffic (or lack thereof) into and out of the school. Each is armed with a device that resembles a speed detector more than it does its actual function—a thermometer. All of us teachers are required to carry our “Foreign Expert Certificates” every time we want to leave campus, because apparently our white faces are not always sufficient enough to elucidate the fact that we are not students. More still, we must ask permission from our bosses if we want to go past the main gate, and are virtually prohibited from traveling any further than the Taigu city limit. We can often leave without a hitch, but on our return, we get a speed gun to the head to make sure we are still well enough not to infect the twenty thousand students made completely vulnerable by being cooped up on campus.

It all feels a little bit like a war zone. Red tape litters considerable stretches of campus and beyond the closed gates is an almost visceral feeling of desolation. Even those who live nearby can’t go home and loved ones have to greet sons and daughters at the main gate to deliver food and other care packages. With the number of nearby restaurants literally limited to the handful that are located on-campus as opposed to off-, exiting into town is really the only way to go out for a meal. As a result, we have all been eating much more frequently at the Foreign Affairs Office, where the hired cook now works evenings and weekends when previously she had off. This on-off divide is further exemplified in establishments like the campus-affiliated underground supermarket, cafeterias, and bathhouse. Sometimes I feel like this whole lock-down is effectively a measure to increase the school’s own in-house economy, as these institutions are getting three and four times the business they used to prior to the scare.

Two students posing with their creations. I thought that the skull head made particularly good use of the oblong-shaped pumpkin.

It makes me question a lot of the measures China, and more specifically, this university, is taking to ensure safety. In many ways, they seem more hypocritical than they do helpful. Firstly, the very fact that some people can leave and others cannot is preposterous. If we were all truly at risk of getting H1N1, teachers are just as likely to carry and spread the disease as students (though admittedly, there are less of us). Not that I’m knocking being allowed out, but I believe that privilege should be extended to everyone. Secondly, some indoor establishments like the swimming pool are closed, but giant breeding grounds like the supermarket and the cafeterias are quickly becoming over-capacity to accommodate for the lack of other dining options. Additionally, all classes with 50 or more students have been cancelled, but student dorms are routinely overcrowded, sometimes fitting eight students to a single room—not exactly the best way to censure the transfer of disease. This has led in recent days to the new edict that all third- and fourth-year university students be sent home to free up room for other students. As a result, these students will miss four months of classes and cannot return until the start of the spring semester in late February. Though much of the costs associated with Chinese education are subsidized by the government, there is no tuition reduction, and for many this has meant a later graduation date, not to mention a heavier burden on families.

All students are required to take their temperature twice a day, at 7:30 and 11am, and to report to the authorities if their readings are abnormally high. But especially with winter approaching, high temperatures often mean nothing more than a seasonal cold, or, at worst, a routine flu. But because of the looming fear of hospitalization (with an unspecified return date), students are understandably more and more wary of letting on if they are feeling under the weather, even to their peers. It’s like something out of the McCarthy hearings—the school administration counts on students to turn their friends in for the sake of their own presumed wellness. What’s more, the students are as ignorant of the details of the situation as we are, if not more so, as many do not own computers and almost all do not have access to the news on TV. This in itself is hugely different from the way global epidemics are talked about in America. All that many students (and teachers) are left with is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness—we have no real defense against catching the disease, and with the school locked down, we can’t do much else but sit around and wait for the whole mess to blow over.

(More on Biz Markie, Animal House, bench-pressing pumpkins, knife-related injuries, my Chinese name, the WHO, and sobriety in Pt. II of this post).


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