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.

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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.

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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.

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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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