Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sorry about the mess.

I have a new roommate. I'm not exactly sure when he moved in but he seems to be making himself comfortable in my apartment. I discovered him last night when I was closing my door for the evening. A small greyish creature streaked across the floor under one of my cabinets. I was not sure exactly what the creature was it had moved so fast, I thought it was too quick to be a bug and moved in a more reptilian fashion. A lizard? Nah, never seen one of those in Baoding of all places... This morning I was preparing to leave for lunch and I met my new roommate for a second time when he jumped on my outstretched hand as I plunged it into an open drawer. I think we were both quite surprised at each other and quickly disengaged contact as I jumped about a foot off the ground and he scrurried back into my drawer under some paperwork. I quickly emptied the contents of the drawer and was luckily able to corner my gecko companion into my hands. But what should I do with him? Throw him out? How inhospitable that would be of me. Unfortunately, before I could solve my little dilemma, my new roommate had leaped out of my hands and returned to the deep recesses behind my kitchen counter. There is nothing I can do now but wait and hope that my little companion will decide to show again. This time I am ready, fully prepared with a proper living space/box for him.

Lizard news aside things in China are going along fantastically. The semester is speeding up, literally. Me and three fellow musketeers have collaborated in purchasing four small mopeds to dramatically increase our mobility here in our small Chinese corner of the world. After a very confusing day of deciphering motorized bicycles licensing laws and how they pertain to foreigners we settled on our beauteous new bikes, my own an electric blue. It is a bit faster than my previous electric bike with an easy cruising speed of 40-60 km per hour. A simple errand becomes an excuse for a little joyride and it is impossible to supress a smile when I look back and see one of my buddies in my side mirrors speeding along behind me. The honeymoon ended all too quickly unfortunately though as the 'Made in China' curse began to take its toll. A twice repaired flat tire, broken gas gauge, gas leak, oil change, missing lock, and engine stall and I am still loving riding it but definitely aware of the fragility of my new transport.

The past week has been the 60th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China. They call it National Day but I call it just plain awesome. It has been great to be able to take an extended break after the first 5 weeks of teaching. I joined in with the rest of the whole country as on October 8th the National Day parade marched on all morning with much fanfare that greatly resembled the extravagance of the recent Beijing Olympics. My favorite part of the holiday though was a side trip to the Great Wall outside of Beijing. We decided to take a chance on a hint that a guidebook had offered about camping overnight on the great wall. Amazingly, we found a great 'outdoorsy' store in Baoding that let us rent tents and sleeping bags for our camping trip. I was a little nervous about the regulations that the Chinese may have about letting people camp on the wall as they are especially strict on where they let foreigners stay but thankfully our plan was pulled off without a hitch even though the gate which we entered the wall said specifically 'No Camping.' The experience was one of my favorite memories in China to date. The weather was clear and the moon was full for our night spent in a guard tower in the middle of the mountains. We drank Great Wall Wine (not as 'great' as you may think but it warmed us up at least) and ate tuna fish sandwiches by the lights of our headlamps. In the morning we were able to see the sun come up over the mountains and light up everything around us. It was the most amazing sunrise of my life, granted I have not seen that many sunrises but still, you get the idea.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Return of the Jedi

I know it's not exactly a quote but it just seemed so fitting. And yes I suppose if the title is implying that anybody would be the referred to Jedi than I suppose it would be myself. Although I'm no jedi, I have been working a little magic over on the far East side of the world. I recently discovered a way to blast straight through the great firewall of China and reestablish contact with the rest of the web savvy community. All thanks to a handy little download called a VPN (I have no idea what it stands for much less how it works) and a mere $60 later...abracadabra. I now have full access to blogspot, facebook, youtube, twitter, and even (drumroll please) hulu! It really is good news to have blog access as it was a frustrating thing to have subject to the whims of the Chinese government.

Internet news aside, I returned to China on August 28th. I journeyed over once again with my IECS cohorts, including two new additions to Team Baoding. Bethany and Kerry are the newbies who will be teaching at the Hebei College of Finance and Hebei University respectively. We are still unfortunately one short as Jon has encountered some Visa problems* and will not be able to return until September 12th (*An ultrasound from a Chinese physical discovered an anomoly on his kidney which Jon got checked out in the states, nothing serious, but unfortunately had to reapply for visas all over again). Summer life has altered to school life in a tornado like fashion here in Baoding as I stepped off a plane on Friday night and into the classroom a very jet-lagged Monday morning. Luckily, I happen to be teaching the same students this semester and it was great to see so many familiar faces. Unluckily, after some failed attemps at shmoozing with the officials, I happen to be teaching the same course, a riveting Business Writing, with no new material to draw from. It will definitely be a challenge to get my now senior students engaged into the classroom this semester.

Outside the classroom it has been great to see the familiar sights and pungent smells of the city. The week has been full of catching up over meals with friends, both Chinese and foreign. It has been great to experience China anew through the fresh eyes of the new teachers. I couldn't help but smile a bit as Kerry screamed after a live fish flew out of the hands of the waiter and proceeded to flop around the room. Another of my favorite new experiences was a high class Korean Barbecue restaurant that we enjoyed with our New Zealand friends Mike and Wen Jia. The meal was stylized in a cook-it-in-front-of-you type fashion and the meat was absolutely excellent. Almost like a Japanese steakhouse but in China at a Korean restaurant, not to be confusing or anything. After our first week of classes a big group of foreigners got together to have a welcome back meal. All told I think 18 people from countries all around the world showed up and sat at a large circle table to share a Chinese meal together. It was a special thing to be able to interact with so many people who share such different cultural backgrounds than my own.

Yesterday, in front of the Yesbuy (like a convenience store...but Chinese) I met a bright eyed youth, freshly completed with his military training, who introduced himself to me as "Rubbish" and then proceeded to ask for my phone number. How could I resist? I'm sure Rubbish and I will be getting lunch and perhaps sharing a game of ping-pong quite soon. And so it goes, life is not without obstacles here just as in the rest of the world. But as our fearless leader so fervently quoted "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead." Nothing out of the ordinary about it, just business as usual here in Baoding.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

You've got a lot of guts comin' here, after what you pulled.

Long time no see! This commonly used English phrase is actually derived from an ancient Chinese saying (which explains the lack of grammar infused within). Its common to hear these phrases or many like it thrown out but oftentimes the meaning can come out less than perfect. "People mountain, people sea," for example makes one think of bigfoot and mermaids rather than an idiom used to express the fact that there are people everywhere. "No three, no four" and "I'll give you some color to see, see," make even less sense when translated and simply leaves a confused foreigner with the feeling that some sort of joke must be being played on them...

Needless to say, a lot has happened since my last blog post. The last two months of school were a whirlwind, encompassing exciting events such as Melissa's trip to China, my travels to Xingtai (a student's hometown), multiple English Club excursions, and much much more. Unfortunately, due to my internet negligence and the great firewall of China (China banned all blogging websites for about a month and a half), these historical periods have gone unblogged and therefore have passed out of all knowledge... On a brighter note, I have added two Picasa slide shows that document some of these things for your viewing pleasure.

The last week of the Spring semester in China may have been the most social week of my life. As we were leaving on Monday the 22nd, I had to both give and grade my exams to approximately 160 overeager essay writers. Between classes, grading, and saying goodbyes to everyone I had met over the past ten months, things got a bit hectic. Despite the busyness, it was a great time to be able to have some deeper conversations with students. This semester has been blessed with tons of great times with students and it has been amazing to see the progression of our team's relationships with so many of the people here.

With that said, it was really not too hard to leave my home of the past school year. I know quite well that it will be right there waiting for me once my brief stint in America ends in about two months. I am looking forward to a summer full of reconnecting with friends and family who I have missed so much more than those little things like driving, movie theatres, and even Panera. Thank you so much for supporting me during my time abroad and I hope you will continue to tune in next year. Hope to see you soon!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!

An inevitable question that I get when first meeting a new students is, "What is the difference between Americans and Chinese people?" Usually, I give a very cookie-cutter answer about something such as college life, study habits, or work ethic but the truth is that the differences are so vast and complete that a true collection of my reflections on the subject would require volumes of discussion.

During this new semester I have had the chance to spend even more time with students and friends than in the previous one. Amid this flurry of eating at restaurants, sipping on tea, gaming at internet bars, and just general "hanging out," I feel that I have gleaned even more insight into the clashing of my culture with that of the Chinese. Take the other night for example. The Baoding team was out to dinner with some new students and Ryan's camera batteries had run out. Upon realizing this, a student quietly commandeered the batteries, went into the bathroom, and came out a short while later with some severely disfigured remains of the original batteries. When questioned as to what exactly happened to alter the shape of the empty batteries, he calmly replied that of course he had bitten them so that they would last longer. The other Chinese students at the table accepted this as a general fact while the rest of us were unsurprisingly quite shocked. Not only would we never consider putting a battery in our mouth's but biting a metallic entity that contains acid was frankly beyond the scope of our imagination. I turned to my student (coincidentally also named Tim) and further questioned him about the risks involved in "battery-biting." He replied seriously that one must not bite the batteries in excess of three times or risk bursting open the dangerous interior contents. Judging by the seriousness of his remark I asked him whether this was an action that he regurlarly took with his own batteries. With joy he told me that when he was younger he used to read under his bedsheets with a flashlight so that his mother wouldn't realize he was still awake (this resonated with me for obvious reasons). Oftentimes his batteries would run out and of course he could not simply stop reading at an exciting point in the story so he would engage in "battery-biting" in order to continue his nightly ritual. Amazing.

Last week we went out to celebrate my friend Scofield's 22nd birthday. Consequently it was actually his 21st birthday if you aren't counting by the lunar calendar (don't ask me to explain that one, still trying to wrap my mind around the concept). From what little I can grasp of the subject, Chinese people count the year prior to their birth (stretching conception from 9 months to a full year??) as their first year of life. Therefore, my friend Scofield who was born in 1988 is turning 22 in 2009 in some way due to the lunar calendar reckoning. Go figure. We went out to our favorite dumpling restaurant, lovingly called The Golden Dumpling. in China, the birthday-person always treats his/her guests to dinner as opposed to being treated themselves. Not only this, but they also ridiculously overcalculate the amount of food required to feed the amount of people present in order to show their generosity to their friends. A delightful idea but also one that ends with yours truly feeling sick from overstuffing myself with far too many dumplings for this little doughboy to handle. The evening really was perfect though and one of the many times where I am just so thankful to be in such an amazing place as this. We got to see "happy birthday" in English and Chinese and they even had an electronic candle that blossomed in the shape of a flower when lit, playing a happy birthday melody for us to sing in unison to. Consequently, the cute flower got on my bad side when the melody would not cease playing for the next 30 minutes until its small battery was playing a garbled mockery of the song itself into nothingness.

I could tell a hundred stories about these funny side notes that happen in daily life here. It has been a fun and growing experience to learn to adapt to the differences that arise from interacting with people who come from an entirely different culture from your own. I relish the opportunity to be an encouraging and uplifting influence on the lives of the people I interact with here and ask for your thoughts as I continue to live life to the full with my exponentially growing amount of friends here!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Great, kid. Don't get cocky!

"You work too hard." That's one of a handful of phrases that I keep in my pocket, reserved for any kind of situation where I can get a few giggles from an unsuspecting Chinese person. Other phrases that I have picked of for the same effect include but are not limited to: "My name is Bruce Lee", "I'm so full I'm going to explode", "I want to eat fried ice cream" (only works in the winter), and "Robot."

While its great to know some fun phrases, my desire to learn Chinese has grown further than just being able to get by. My current knowledge allows me to get around relatively easily and to handle almost all of the day to day challenges like shopping, finding things, and eating out. But when it comes to getting past the initial 3 or 4 questions after meeting someone my knowledge becomes severely limited. On top of this I can read only a tiny bit and cannot write at all. To me it seems like the entire country is playing a big game of pictionary rather that using an actual written language. What I really desire is to be able to interact with people who don't speak English on a deeper level and to experience and understand the culture more clearly. It's for this reason that I have decided to make learning Chinese this semester a higher priority.

With these clear visions in my head I got up early and went to my first Chinese class at 8a.m. last Monday! I was determined to start this semester out on the right foot, setting up good habits to follow throughout the rest of the year. Unfortunately, the Chinese class was starting this week and I had showed up a week to early to a building of empty classrooms, much to my dismay. However, my resolve was not to be deterred and I managed to crawl out of bed early again this morning and attend my first Chinese class, the real thing this time. As I peeked into my classroom the first thing I noticed was that once again there was nobody else there. This is even more strange in China when its common for students to show up as much as 30 minutes before class. Unlike the last week though, the other classrooms all had people in them but they were for the higher level students. With a little hesitation I went ahead and took a seat, determined not to be discouraged by this somewhat surprising outcome. As it turned out, not too many students were taking the first level Chinese course this semester and by the time 8 a.m. rolled around only 4 students were seated in the class. The group was comprised of myself, an older New Zealand gentleman whose Chinese was way worse than my own (that bad), a younger Asian student from one of the -stan countries (Uzbekistan?), and a Russian girl named Kyashavenka (yeah, you try saying it). Needless to say it was with a strange combination of awkward interactions and poignant silences that we awaited the arrival of our teacher. And wait we did. After close to 25 minutes of waiting, a young woman arrived and between breaths told us in broken English that the other teacher was either: A. Having a baby or B. Watching his wife have a baby. A big mistake among Chinese speakers when talking in English is confusing he/she, this makes for some disconcerting dialogue. After these minor hiccups the rest of the class went off beautifully. It was a welcome change to have my teacher position suddenly reversed again to that of a student and I really enjoyed learning Chinese in a more formal setting as opposed to just repeating things I pick up from people.

The best way I can describe the start of this semester over the past two weeks is busy, busy, busy. Going from almost two months of zero responsibilities to a full teaching workload and campuses crawling with students has resulted in a (expectedly) drastic change in lifestyle. I have all new students this time around and have made some big changes to the courses I am teaching which have required a heavy amount of planning in these beginning weeks. The Baoding team and I have also begun to coordinate having English Club events on both schools campuses once a month. These English nights are full of songs, games, skits, and end in a lecture about a topic of some interest to the students. Our first one of the semester occurred last Friday at Jon and Ryan's Financial College and it was a blast. A few of my favorite moments were:
1. Singing "Country Road," an obscure favorite among the entire country of China.
2. Dressing up like a Kung Fu master named the Magic Master Magical Master of Magic.
3. Hiding my head under a box to scare unsuspecting students in a game of "Name that thing!"

The night really was a fantastic success that all of us were honored to be apart of. It feels wonderful to be able to host events for people are as fun and grateful as our students. When we told them that we would be holding another English night the following month, their excitement was almost palpable. I am excited to hold the same event next week for the students at the campus of Hebei University.

This semester is looking to be full of promise. Though last semester was more of a learning experience than the current one will be, I have lived in China long enough to know that one must always expect the unexpected here. One can only be so comfortable on the other side of the world (and in a place that calls sitting toilets "western").

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Didn't we just leave this party?

I love fireworks. If anyone had ever asked me how many fireworks are too many? I would've undoubtedly replied that, of course, there is no such thing as too many fireworks. I would've been wrong. In America we value the beauty and visual effects of the fireworks. The sparkles, the changing colors, the shapes and sizes. The Chinese firework decide to bypass such silly fanfare and go for a different sense altogether, sound. It doesn't matter if its pretty as long as it pierces/splits your eardrums. Yesterday was the end of the two week long Spring Festival which welcomes the Chinese New Year. The ending day is called the Lantern Festival but a more appropriate name would've been the Day of the Endless Firecracker. From dawn to far past dusk our home city of Baoding was transformed into a pyrotechnic warzone. The craziest part about it is that there are rarely any main shows put on by any kind of organization. There are no carefully planned displays for people to show up and watch. Instead, every Chinese seems bent on contributing their own personal effort to the chaotic orchestra of sound. We quickly became very wary foreigners as any street corner could be transformed into bombshell of fire and sound almost instantaneously.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I and my 4 fellow Baoding teacher counterparts just returned from a nearly three week trip to southern China. Our travels consisted of three main destinations. The first was the westernized Chinese city of Shenzhen. This city is described as the birthplace of western society's entry into China and it shows. Shenzhen proved to be a large bustling city with a healthy mix of business and pleasure. While the main focus of our stay was attending our IECS conference we had a chance to enjoy some of Shenzhen's attractions including the beach, delicious southern style food, and even a small Chinese theme park! The conference was a chance to enjoy some much coveted fellowship time with all the other American teachers from Langfang and Tianjin. It was an awesome time to be gain a respite from the frigid north and be able to experience some teaching and wisdom from our superior officers.

After a week in Shenzhen we parted ways with many of our friends and departed for the southernmost part of China in the province of Hainan. Hainan used to be known throughout China as the "Hell's doorstep" but now is much more commonly referred to as the "Hawaii of China." I tend to agree more with the latter description. Evidently Hainan used to be a place where China's criminals and riff-raff were exiled to a slow hot demise. However, in the past few decades the island has been hastily converted into a booming haven of seaside resorts for China's growing middle class. Our destination was the southwestern city of Sanya where there was a host of beaches at our fingertips. We found an excellent and very modestly priced hostel (about $20 a night and that was the boosted holiday price) with a single room consisting of six beds and a small attached bathroom. It wasn't the Ritz Carlton but it suited us just fine as we spent little time besides sleeping in the room anyway. The hostel is run by a jokester named Peter "Funny" and his name is aptly chosen. His escapades throughout the week constantly amused us and included but were not limited to lighting Chinese lanterns into the sky with socks drenched in motor oil, repeatedly entreating us to try a scary seedlike drug that he claimed would provide a calm and soothing effect (uh huh), and encouraging the guests to pet a taciturn dog that only bites people "gently." Besides our enjoyable hostel experiences I took to the beach as much as possible. We were lucky enough to have perfect beach weather as the temperatures frequently reached the mid to high 70's during the heat of the day. The beaches were busy but not too crowded and turned out to be every bit as beautiful as we had anticipated with picturesque white sand and sparkling blue water. Unsurprisingly, I was often found half buried in the sand and fully buried in a book (Fyodor Dostoevsky's, The Idiot was my weapon of choice for the week). I would be remiss to not mention one of the crown jewels of the trip was a small restaurant we found nearby humbly called Rainbow Bar & Grill. The menu and quality closely resembled that of a Chili's back in the states and while this may not sound quite impressive to all you idlers back at home it was a little slice of paradise for my 5 month rice infused pallet. Honestly, it was a bit of a struggle not to eat there every night but we did force ourselves (or maybe I was forced...) into trying other cuisines that the island had to offer. After a week of island adventures we sadly embarked on our last leg of the journey.

While we were loath to leave Sanya's sunny beaches, I was eagerly anticipating our final destination of Hong Kong. Our only real business to take care of during our three day visit to this international city included the renewing of our 180 day visas into full working visas complemented by our very own foreign experts card. The rest of our stay was free for sightseeing and shopping (and by shopping I really mean window-shopping). While this was the goal of our comrades, Jon and I both harbored a deeper secret mission that fueled us both. We shared a burning desire to buy a real Hong Kong style Mahjong set. To offer a bit of backstory here, I must confess that during our winter break from teaching I have become more and more engrossed into this famous Chinese game. While I have described the game a small amount in a previous post I believe I have failed to capture the true greatness of this game. It is a game of nearly limitless possibilities that can engross both heart and soul. It is for this reason that both Jon and I wanted to find a set to satisfy our hearts desire and have a Hong Kong Mahjong set of our very own. Finding a set proved a little more difficult task than we envisioned as this is not a popular thing for many foreigners to buy. The shops that sold Mahjong were not in the malls or beautifully decorated high end stores but turned out to be just a handful of small street side stands that were tailored to Mahjong and a few other random Chinese games. In the end, our journey turned out to be a circular one as the best bargain we found turned out to be the first of some four or five stores that we labored to locate. The prize was well worth the paltry price as Jon and I are both well pleased with our precious purchases. But I digress, Hong Kong was more than just a few Mahjong tiles. It was truly an international experience and the only time in China where I have not felt completely like a foreigner. The main language of the city is English with a mix of the southern Chinese dialect called Cantonese. We traveled all over the city marked by it's excessively tall buildings by means of bus, subway, and ferry. Every night at 8 o'clock in Hong Kong there is a light show put on by the enormous skyscrapers that fence the coastline between the island and the mainland. We traveled up to the island's mountain peak and received a bird's eye view of the beautiful illuminated skyline. With all too much quickness our quick stay in Hong Kong had evaporated and we again found ourselves taking to the skies and returning to Baoding just before the end of the 2 week long Spring Festival.

The very second we alighted from our plane we were greeted by the sharp northern chill. I thoroughly enjoyed our southern sojourn but I am glad to be back in our Chinese home town, anticipating the return of our college friends and the beginning of the year of the ox!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

It's all a bunch of simple tricks and nonsense.

Winter break has become a field day of new experiences for me and my American co-workers. With exams finished the campus has become a ghost town and our list of things to do has gone further negative than the temperature here(in degrees celsius that is, who still uses fahrenheit anyways?). The weather has reached a new level of coldness and my beach-trained body has repeatedly groaned in protest to its harsh new surroundings. One who is well-versed in my history might argue, "But Tim, didn't you go to college in Harrisonburg VA, right along the blue ridge mountains? Wasn't it cold there too?" An excellent point to with I have given some thought and to which I already have 2 counter points prepared.
1. It was indeed not as cold in Harrisonburg as in Baoding (which can be more aptly compared to a Massachusetts demographic)
2. In America, when cold weather struck my likely response included, staying indoors and turning up the heat and only experiencing the actual "outside" weather on the minute or less walk to and from my vehichle equipped with an easily heated interior. I find myself in quite a different situation in China. There is simply no getting around the weather here. If it is cold outside one day, I know that I will be doing a good amount of walking, biking, bussing, or taxiing (at best) in the middle of that cold weather. Luckily, I have been saved from a frozen demise by the ingenious invention of long underwear which I rarely leave my apartment without these days.

The cold isn't all bad though. Last week we discovered a frozen lake complete with ice skaters! Anxious to partake, a group of us walked over to admire the skaters. We soon discovered an even more exciting activity that is slightly less known than its skating counterpart. Ice chairing! It's a hybrid mix between skating and skiing while sitting comfortably in an iron chair. With a small set of oversized chopsticks you can propel yourself at mindnumbing speeds across the ice until the memory of feeling in your fingers has departed completely. We quickly took to activity and began to create all kinds of games such as relay races, congo lines, and propelling each other into various fences, innocent bystanders, etc. The evening was made complete with the rare treat of ordering some pizza and watching Roman Holiday.

Besides our outdoor excursions we have taken to playing all kinds of games to occupy our indoor times. While card games have been fun (specifically Dutch Blitz) our new favorite passtime has been the ancient Chinese game mahjong! Mahjong has been described as a strange combination of poker and rummy with a lot of strange Chinese rules (and dragons) thrown into the mix. It basically comes down to trying to maximize your points through the various tiles (like cards) that you hold through matching or making straights. While confusing at times, I have really begun to take to it and even am beginning to prefer it over poker due to the multitude of strategies that open up to holding a hand of 13 tiles.

Our mahjong playing will be discontinued for the next few weeks as tomorrow we leave for southern China. Our team will be meeting up with the rest of the IECS crew in Beijing and flying down to Shenzhen for a week long staff conference. It is going to be an awesome time of fellowship with the rest of the teachers and I cannot wait put my sandals back on and experience the warm weather of the south! After the first week, some of us will continue our travels and proceed to the most southern point of China in the Hainan province. Our destination is the city of Sanya which can be compared to basically the Hawaii of China. After another week there we will be spending a few delightful days in Hong Kong renewing our visas before returning back to Baoding before the new semester starts. With any luck I will be significantly tanner in any impending pictures you see of me!