Things Aren't Always What They Seem

Monday, March 8, 2010

In China sometimes it's hard to tell whether you are going insane or if everything around you is simply out to make you into a walking parody of yourself. As a foreigner in rural China, you are automatically a circus attraction. But what if it was Chinese society itself that was more worthy of wide-eyed bewilderment than your foreign stardom? It makes me linger on one of Brittany's old blog posts, which begs the question: “Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you are the only sane person in the room? Where basic logic is defied? You look to your friend, or the person standing next to you to confirm that the events unfolding are real, that you are not imagining this totally nonsensical situation.”

Being away for two months was almost enough to make me forget about the truly logic-defying aspects of living in China. With that I give you a few short vignettes of my first two weeks back.

*

Sometimes a wall is just a wall. For every other time, there's China.

As longtime readers of this blog will know, the college shut down North Yard last semester in response to the outbreak of H1N1. At first, they simply locked the gate. Then, when they realized that students could still use the gaps in the grating to climb over the gate, they filled them in with bricks. After a wall of bricks adjacent to the wall still wasn't enough, they posted a guard at the gate to watch for intruders.

When it was clear that no more students would violate this final act of resistance on the part of the college, many shops were forced to close early for the winter. However, there were still loopholes. One rice and noodle joint at the juncture of the wall made use of a side entrance still on campus to direct business that was previously only used by employees. The gate covering the entrance was kept half-closed and patrons had to sneak under a line of yellow tape and navigate a maze of laundry lines, make-shift kitchen pits, and tenement apartments before eventually reaching the restaurant.

When we got back to campus, the brick wall still loomed large on the near side of North Yard, and the gate on the opposing side was still locked. Dejected, we were all but ready to go elsewhere for lunch when we saw two girls saunter up toward the gate with no signs of stopping. We followed, and eventually noticed them squeeze through a hole between the gate and the rest of the wall—exactly perpendicular to the gate and invisible from where we had previously been standing. The restaurant owners evidently got the memo too. Chinese ingenuity continues to stick it to the man.

*

Two days before the start of the new semester, our boss held a meeting for all of the foreign teachers. This itself was nothing new. We had a number of meetings last semester mostly to discuss teaching schedules and deadlines for grades (though, notably, never to talk about the content of our curriculum). At the onset, there didn't seem to be anything peculiar about this one—simply a routine check-in and a chance for us to pick-up our new schedules for the semester. After some brief remarks, we were all but ready to leave when Dave noticed a different class number for one set of English majors that he teaches on his schedule. When he addressed it to our boss, she simply shrugged and said, “Oh yes, and you have all switched your classes of English majors.” Me and James now have Dave's old classes, Anne and Nick have mine and James', and Dave has Anne and Nick's.

When asked for the reason for the switch, our boss told us that it was an issue having to do with the classrooms. They wanted to continue to have us use the classrooms that had computer and projector capabilities for our English majors, but were unable to coordinate the schedules in their current forms. So instead of settling for regular classrooms, they opted to swap all of our students. What's worse is that all of the classes of English majors are different grade years, and some are now forced to have repeat English teachers. Only in China does a classroom hold more clout than a professor. The ironic thing is that we hated those classrooms to begin with—there is no blackboard to write on and more than half the time the computers are completely non-functional. A semester of work teaching and remembering names is now down the tubes, but at least we start with a clean slate.

By the end, I don't really know who looked worse—our boss for having broke the news so late, or us, considering that only three of the seven teachers showed up to the meeting because the other four hadn't yet returned to Taigu.

*

There's something about being abroad that makes me take great comfort in eating any excuse for American food. But with the possibility of non-Chinese food completely out of the picture without a trip to Taiyuan or Beijing, we have had to make do with the few vestiges of American cuisine that have somehow found their way to Taigu. Oreos have been no exception. Though I could care less for the Nabisco flagship in the states, I have found Oreos to be nearly irresistible here in China. If ever I am in the mood for a snack, my mind gravitates almost instinctively to those packets of unspeakable gluttony. I get cravings for them the same way I would for a cream cheese and lox bagel or an order of beef and broccoli back home. It's really quite sad, actually.


Enter Ocops. Looking to score some Oreos one night, we stumbled across a package that bore a striking resemblance—same blue and white wrapper and font script—save for the name. Curious, we decided to snatch up a sleeve of the knock-offs and give them a try at the bargain price of 15 cents. Not only were they one-sixth the price of Oreos, but they were also significantly lighter in weight. We soon discovered why. The “real chocolate” interior tastes more like wafer-thin stale cardboard, and the cookie itself disintegrates in one's mouth like a mealy fiber supplement. They were no match for the epicurean delights of the real thing. One of the most interesting features of Ocops is the name printed on the cookie itself. It is not 'Ocop' or 'Oreo,' but 'Ore.' Though the wrapper says they are made in Hong Kong, we speculate that they are manufactured package by package in someone's basement.


As a result of their horrendous taste but decidedly good humor potential, we have coined a new term as a result:

ocop
vb
: to humiliate, trick, or make the butt of a practical joke, often in the company of friends. Also see punked.

*

The best way to get a sense of how exhilarating our life is here is to take a glimpse into the sorts of conversations we had in the first few days since coming back from break. In that time, the campus had seen a few changes, and nearly all of our talks centered solely on those minor cosmetic touch-ups that storefronts and buildings had undergone, as well as the gradual re-opening of restaurants in North Yard in the post-H1N1 era. The underground supermarket was one such establishment.

In addition to being a fairly comprehensive supermarket, the underground is also home to an athletics store, two cellphone offices, a bookstore, and a number of smaller vendor stands selling everything from MP3 players to school stationary. It is also one of the only places on campus to do copying and printing late at night, and thus, we got used to spending a portion of our evenings in its cramped copy shop shoving papers and USB sticks through the crowds of students to get our teaching materials prepared. But when we came back to campus, not only were we surprised that the underground was closed for renovations, but also that all of the little stores previously located inside had disappeared.

With no locks on the door and the outside sign still illuminated, we casually sauntered up to the building late one Friday evening and discovered that the entire inside of the complex was gutted. Food goods were still neatly stocked along the shelves, but all around, workers were in the process of erecting plaster walls, hammering down new floorboards, and building glass display cases. No one seemed to care that we were inside, nor would anyone give us an estimate on when construction would be finished. Four days later, the underground reopened, and two days after that, the copy shop was back in business, forty feet from its old location. Long overtime hours or shoddy building—I'll let you be the judge.

*

Just when we thought things were finally getting back to normal and we were settling back into our old routine in Taigu, the administration threw another curve ball at us. Dave and Gerald got called in to talk with the director of the Foreign Affairs Office thinking that it would be an offer to try to get them to return next year to teach (since they only have one-year contracts). Instead, they were informed that they had 48 hours to move out of their house to make way for a major renovation of the school.

The house they had been living in would be renovated and given to the vice president of the school and all of the buildings in a .2-mile radius would be completely torn down to make way for a man-made lake (yes, lake) that the college will be building in their place. Why the administration would bulldoze perfectly good buildings to construct a lake that will most likely just start teeming with garbage is far beyond my comprehension. As it is, they will be evicting a number of businesses that we often frequent, including an ice cream stand, a restaurant, a computer store, and a tailor, and be tearing down a number of residential houses. The construction will also include the cafeteria where we currently take our lunches (of which they have yet to find a replacement space) and the old AV classroom that we had hoped to use as a resource library and space for dance parties. Though the news came as a surprise to us, it was certainly much more of a shock to the people who lived in the area, many of whom are children and relatives of professors who the school wants to stop freeloading on its property.

Dave and Gerald's house about a week after the demolition crew moved in (photo courtesy of Dave Brown).

Dave and Gerald got the news on Thursday and by Saturday afternoon we were helping them move all of their stuff over to their temporary new digs. Gerald is now living on his own in the spare guesthouse and Dave has moved in with Matthias. Eventually they will be sharing a house together again, one that is a carbon copy of the houses we all live in, but which is currently being renovated. Just mere hours after they were moved out, construction began—appliances were being taken out of their old house and bricks began being removed. This is one saga that I will certainly be continuing to follow for the rest of my time in Taigu.

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