Experiences in Photos

A little reflection on my time in China, regarding pictures… no pictures are posted because I’m lazy, the Internet here is bad, and they’re likely somewhere on the blog already.

A couple days ago I took some time to sort through all my China pictures and mark down on my calendar just when everything happened. I was honestly pretty surprised by a few things. Periods of time that seemed to stretch into infinity were only a matter of weeks.

That first week of orientation of course had a multitude of pictures, because at that point it was all new and there was nothing really distinguishing it from a vacation tour of the area. The sheer number of bronze drum photos is astounding, considering how soon we determined it was the main cultural export of the region and grew sick of them.

That first time Alex, Dessa, Sarah, and I gave in and got some KFC in Liuzhou wasn’t after a long, grueling time in China with no Western food as I had remembered. It wasn’t even two weeks after our arrival to China, five days after meeting up with the people at New Standard. I guess the stress and culture shock seemed long at the time.

And the very first terrible apartment we were put into, with a busted lock, cockroaches everywhere, horrific growing things on the kitchen walls, and no Western toilet in sight… we were (thankfully!) only there for 12 days until we pushed them enough to get a better place.

When I broke my foot, I was only in a cast with wheelchair and crutches for about 3 weeks, but it felt like an eternity. From photos alone, there’s almost no sign at all that I was ever injured.

Even at our time in Liuzhou, rarely did a week or two pass by without something of interest happening (the Golden Week trip to Yangshuo, visiting Wendy’s brother at the teahouse, going to the Confucian temple, heading to various parks, heading to the village with Nina and Amanda and Annie to pick oranges. The first 2-3 months had a lot of that. The best pictures, in my opinion, remarked on the amazing pizza that Ken in Nanning could order, after only 5 weeks without cheese. Though the birthday cake I got with the poor English was a close second.

The true bulk of my photos came when hanging out with Chinese friends, as they focus a lot more on getting pictures of things (rather, getting pictures of themselves in front of things). Example: when going to the horticultural expo, every flower and cardboard cutout required every possible permutation of people in the picture, in various poses. Most of what I took on my own were essentially references of architectural design.

Things really deteriorated in the following month, with little in the way of photograph-worthy memories. From the ill-conceived idea to spend a morning advertising creepily to families having picnics in the park, there was the Thanksgiving “party” where tensions between us all and William finally grew intolerable, CIEE got involved (to whatever degree of involvement we got in the end). The only real memorable things were the performance Sarah and I were up to for the Liuzhou Foreign Affairs Office (with rehearsals nothing but an excuse to do something other than New Standard), and finding a guy outside our apartment area selling awesome popcorn made with a popcorn hammer.

Soon after, Alex and Dessa made their secret “escape,” and Sarah and I had our 30 days notice. There’s almost no photos here as we hunkered down and focused on getting through each annoying day while we waited to make our exit. Most of the pictures here were from Christmas — both the Catholic service we attended on Christmas Eve, and our own gift-exchange the next day.

It was a little shocking to look at the pictures we took when we said goodbye to Tory and Natalie right before leaving Liuzhou in mid-January. The boss hadn’t wanted us to tell anyone we were leaving out of fear of things getting unstable, so it had come out of nowhere for them. There’s a sad contrast in our expressions in the pictures, between how happy Sarah and I were just to be leaving New Standard and the promises of something new in the future, and the hidden emotion on our Chinese friends’ faces as everyone knew we’d likely not see each other again.

Hanging out in Ken’s apartment in Nanning while he was off doing his southeast Asian adventures was simply a time to decompress. Nothing really happened in life as we waited around to hear about new placements from CIEE. We watched movies and studied some Chinese on Rosetta Stone. The big thing, by the sheer number of pictures, was going up to Ye’s home in Beijing for the Spring Festival, and it’s still one of my big regrets that we ended up not staying another week.

The only other picture I have from that point is when we took Ken to the hospital to see if the splitting headache he had gotten in Vietnam was from malaria (it wasn’t). I just had to record for posterity the strange combination blood-test-results kiosk / ATM. Needless to say, we weren’t focused so much on sightseeing as on trying to explain to the nurse in broken Chinese why it was important that she use a new needle and put on gloves before drawing Ken’s blood… you know, considering this region is the AIDS capital of the world and all.

Eventually, I went to teach in Guilin, and after the customary million photos of the campus, settled down into a rather nice routine of photos at local parks or old villages every couple weeks. The big one was Hong Kong, with hundreds of megabytes dedicated to the clean streets, tall buildings, and accessible culture and history on that island.

There’s a part of me that wishes I had taken more pictures at various times. But then I also know that the simple absence of pictures tells a story too, of times when there was no opportunity or urge to capture those moments of life. I’ve got about 5 weeks left before heading back to the States (and I now know how simultaneously long and short that is), and I think I’ve got a good picture of what it’ll be like, photowise. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

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