Category Archives: Uncategorized

I’m staring across an ocean at you

I’m no longer in Jiangshan, so I don’t imagine I will continue to update this blog much longer, but I just have to write about my current location. I’m in the island city of Xiamen, in the southeast corner of China. Right in the rooster’s belly. It’s gorgeous, gorgeous. We’re the only people staying in a little guest house, the owners of which are very kind. We have been able to manage all right with their little knowledge of English and our little knowledge of Chinese. The house is beautiful and seems to turn into some kind of little home restaurant at night. The best part is its proximity to the ocean. We can throw on bathing suits, walk across the street, and plunge into the Pacific. It’s hard to imagine how far away we are from home. All the way on the other side of that great big ocean is America–or more likely Mexico, given our latitude– and home is still a continent away from there.

There was a Buddhist monk sitting at the next table when we brunched at a vegetarian restaurant this morning. We subsequently trolled around Xiamen University (夏门大学),which looks a lot like a Chinese Stanford. I would not mind at all spending more time here. After all, the mangosteens are cheap and plentiful.

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Leaving Jiangshan Behind

It’s early Sunday morning and we are back in Hangzhou, the garden city. The last few days in Jiangshan were fun and included what I believe was a government mandated field trip on Wednesday. It was really quite bizarre: in buses borrowed from the city, the entire school drove almost an hour to a residential development called “New Socialist Countryside.” While the children–so energetic and mischievous in English class–lined up like little soldiers and listened to the yelling and lecturing of an official looking man, Dawson and I wandered through a little building that seemed to be some kind of headquarters. It had information about the development in Chinese, a pool table, and, on the wall, portraits of Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Engels, and one other man I didn’t recognize.

We walked around the land for about 10 or fifteen minutes. It was quite pretty and looked like a nice place to live, but I was baffled as to why we had driven nearly two hours to see it. Dawson suggests it’s the government letting its students know what it is up to and perhaps we should have more of that in the US. I, however, think that that would be nearly impossible without being propaganda, as it is so unlikely that many American students would discuss what they had seen with their parents to come to a thought out conclusion.

On the last day of school, there was a goodbye assembly and we were swamped with presents from the school, including huge, beautiful bouquets of flowers–silly because we were leaving the next day. Although I was pleased to leave and get on with traveling, I must admit I will miss some of my students. I can only hope what I have taught them goes to good use in their future lives.

Back in Hangzhou, we were brought, with all our luggage, to the headquarters of Zhejiang University Global TEFL Network, where we met with John Zhou, with whom we had been communicating prior to departure, in his swanky office. He gave us our salary in cash. What a great feeling. We treated ourselves to a wonderful dinner at a 150 year old restaurant right on the waters of West Lake. This afternoon, we leave for Xiamen.

Out of Jiangshan and Into the Unknown

There are a lot of reasons to be frightened of Chinese roads–crossing them or driving on them. All the people driving on the wrong side, for instance. Or the constant honking: honking trucks, honking scooters, honking for you to move, move, get out of the way! Everyone has right of way in their own mind, and if  you inadvertently make eye contact with another soul braving the road, well, you’ve practically given them an invitation to go right ahead. The people who inexplicably park in the bike lane don’t make life easier either, forcing me to have to veer my rusty borrowed bicycle into the car lane, and probably into some oncoming traffic doing the same on the other side. Yes, there are certainly a lot of things to be afraid of on these roads, but I seemed to be the only one freaking out on Sunday, as Dawson and I embarked,  bellies full of noodles, dumplings, and cold beer (usually easier to find than cold water, I swear), on our journey into the countryside.

We started by riding across the river–a good point of departure from the urban landscape, it seemed. We soon found a highway going directly away from Jiangshan–exactly what we wanted. The highway was rather scenic, with huge stretches of farm land exuding the sweet smell of manure on either side, but terribly polluted with the honking of all the trucks carrying their cargo. Some even honked at us, perhaps out of habit, though the bicycle lane is blocked off by a barrier. After a few kilometers of riding, I heard a loud and ominous “POP!” It was my back tire, totally obliterated by some anonymous object. After asking for directions from some road workers, we headed off down a small country road in search of a repair shop. It was, in the end, a rather fortunate turn of events. The scenery down this lane was gorgeous, and we were soon far away from the sounds of the highway. We passed numerous  lunch gatherings–here, it seems, every meal is an excuse for a party.

The bicycle repairman was extremely affable and curious about America. He asked us–this took some time to decipher–how many people live there, and then how many in China. To replace the tire, including the inner tube, and tune up the nuts and bolts on the bike cost a little less than 4 dollars.

We were good and tired when we got home that evening, after between four and five hours of exploring the area. I was so pleased to see all the happy looking chickens and ducks (I took a picture of some particularly cute baby ducks), the occasional cow, as well as all the small scale farming: we saw several instances of rice harvesting and tons of fruit trees.

Tomorrow is the last day of classes! We are planning our journey for the next week or so–it promises to be an adventure and a half.

Harry Potter and the Bootleg Copy

I don’t have much time to write this entry, as I have just received confirmation from Laura that the PDF I downloaded of Harry Potter 7 is real! Dawson and I borrowed some bikes and rode around the countryside today, far away from Jiangshan and into the heart of this area’s agriculture. It was quite an adventure. But now onto the greater adventures of Harry and Co…I foresee a long night.

The Dark Side of Jiangshan

Much has happened since my last update. First, in hanging out with my fellow teacher Douglas, who, by the way, had a passport extension, I learned of the darker side of Jiangshan Hotel, where we are staying. According to the hotel directory, there is a sauna on the third floor. Douglas told us he went to the third floor and asked for the sauna. He was then led through a bizarre labyrinth into what surely is another building connected to the main one, into a hallway of rooms, each with a woman inside, sitting on a bed, waiting. He told us that the man who led him made an obscene gesture and told him “300 quai” (about $38). Douglas refused and got the hell out of there. Now, curious as we are, Dawson and I decided to explore this tale for ourselves. On Saturday night, we went up to the third floor, which is, in the front, a karaoke bar, and asked for the sauna. Sure enough, we were led through the same labyrinth to a room with a hot tub, a very shallow pool, and a would-be sauna. As we were left alone, we decided to explore down a nearby hallway and saw just what Douglas had described–rooms with wooden beds covered in blankets and young women inside. An older woman came out of one of the rooms and chased us away. We ran all the way back to our room.

On our one day off, Sunday, our overbearing “chaperon”–I’m not sure what you would call her totally unnecessary position– had a trip planned for us to Jiangshan Mountain, the tallest mountain in the area, and about an hour away by bus. For a variety of reasons–we didn’t want to hang out with the other people, I didn’t bring proper shoes, and we wanted to sleep late–Dawsona and I opted out of going. I later learned how lucky I had been to make this decision. The mountain is apparently about 2500 feet straight up, with very dangerous ladders and passes the whole way up. I never would have made it with my fear of heights. Instead of going, we slept in, and then explored around Jiangshan. There is a river running through the middle of the town, and we walked across a red arched bridge called the rainbow bridge to the other side, with the goal of reaching the pagoda visible in the distance. We found the pagoda all right–it’s inside a beautiful park that is bizarrely juxtaposed next to an amusement park which blares loud American techno music, almost impossible to escape while wandering around the scenic acreage. After climbing to the top of the pagoda, we took a break on a stone bench and ate a pomegranate and some mangosteens. Yum.

We’re halfway through with teaching and I must say I’m relieved. It’s tiring and yesterday we were informed that we should go slower for some of our students because they can’t read. The levels in my fourth grade class are so incredibly disparate! If I go any slower, the smarter students will be bored out of their skulls even more than they already are–a position I sympathize with. Also, if these kids have been taking English for four years and still can’t read, is that my responsibility or the teachers who have had them for four years??? At any rate, I will be glad to get on with our travels.

Double Transcendence

Yesterday after school, we hiked up a short pass into the lowest part of the mountains to a Buddhist temple. It is far enough away from civilization to, nestled as it is in the lush green of the mountains, seem truly spiritual–in contrast to the Christian church in town, which has a car dealership on its first floor. From afar, the temple looked really old, but when we arrived there, we learned it is newly constructed and part of a planned development of a whole, for lack of a better word, complex of religious buildings. In a house next to the temple lives a family with a number of dogs whose job it is, I conjectured, to watch over the temple, there in the outskirts of the city. Although not truly far away from a sizably populated area, I imagine such a secluded life as peaceful: a true path to transcendence.

The path up to the temple is lined with soybean plants: I stooped to pluck a few of the beans from the stalk on the way back to town. They still sit, alone but not forgotten, much like the caretakers of the temple, in the bottom of my “Prada” tote bag.

Speaking of transcendence, I tasted the most amazing fruit yesterday. I purchased two mangosteens at the supermarket for what I thought at the time was a relative splurge: about 50 cents each. After some research, I discovered that they are banned in the continental US because they can carry pests. They are now available from specialty restaurants like Per Se as delicacy deserts and in juice form for about $32 a bottle. I think I tasted one last summer when visiting Susan, but the memory in no way prepared me for the barrage of sweetness and flavor that hit my taste buds last night as I bit into a sweet, white segment.

That’s all for now, I think. I’m definitely not looking forward to teaching on Saturday.

Trendy Laundry

Teaching is turning into a taxing profession; my respect for the underpaid and often overworked women who introduced me to basic knowledge has increased tenfold. The frustrating thing, however, is that I am not sure how much good I am doing. When I follow the lesson plans given to me, the children don’t seem to be learning anything. The texts seem culturally insensitive (they were written in America and–this is pure conjecture–seemingly designed for native Spanish speakers) and poorly organized. How can the children be expected to learn grammar if it is not explicitly taught to them? When I don’t follow the lessons, on the other hand, my TA sits in the corner looking sullen. I think she cannot completely understand what I am saying when it doesn’t come out of the book.

Being in this part of China is still fascinating. The grapes here are enormous: each is almost the same size as a lychee, the succulent fruit we have also been enjoying. The grapes have thick, flavorful skin that completely detaches itself from the rest of fruit when you pierce it with your teeth, and the strong, tart flavor tastes much more like wine than any grapes I have had in the US.

I’ve noticed that many people here don’t seem to have many items of clothing. The teachers at school alternate their outfits regularly–I’ve only been here a few days and I have noticed the same  ensembles twice over in some cases. It makes sense, though: they can wash an outfit one evening, hang it to dry during the day, and wear it the next day. Really, without the cultural taboo against wearing the same clothes too many times in place, it is very practical. It seems almost paradoxical that the streets are lined with far more clothing shops than I’ve seen in the US, each selling trendy dresses with bubble skirts, t-shirts with nonsensical English phrases (I bought a great one for 19 quai that says “The Irony of Fate: SexPot Revenge. Never Be the Last, Keep on Kicking Ass” with a big skull and crossbones. Nice.) and lots and lots of frilly things. Considering the amount of tourism this town probably gets (almost none), I don’t understand how the stores stay alive.

It’s 2:30 and my first graders await, I should be getting back to school.