Hong Kong

So this week we had some extra time off and Ken, Liz, and I decided to make a trip to Hong Kong for a few days. Monday night we got ourselves onto a sleeper bus from Nanning, and while it was a 10-hour trip the beds were sufficiently large and comfy even for our American-sized frames.

At about 7 in the morning, we blearily stumbled out of the bus to complete the border crossing on foot. Since Hong Kong is still not fully integrated into mainland China (thank heavens) there’s the “one country, two systems” setup where we get our passport stamped a couple times, walk through customs easily, and then get on a new bus on the Hong Kong side. It’s actually pretty impressive how simple they’ve made the process despite the requisite bureaucracy.

The first thing I noticed upon arriving at Hong Kong, after the whole British “driving on the left” thing, was how clean and orderly it all is. In China, all roads are a mess of e-bikes and constantly ignoring every traffic rule. In HK, we didn’t see a single e-bike, didn’t hear a single car/bike alarm, and traffic moved smoothly and quickly along all roads. We arrived at the HK airport, where we hit up the local Starbuck’s, enjoyed having someone speaking English on the other side of the transaction, and got on one of the frequent buses into Kowloon.

Kowloon in particular is extremely international, the streets full of people from America, Europe, Africa, and various parts of Asia. Buddhist monks and Indonesian Muslims can be seen in their own typical outfits, and every street corner has about five Indians trying to sell — in a strong accent — “copy watches, copy handbags, tailor, suits”.

We found ourselves a tiny room in a hostel; it had only two small beds, one of which Ken and Liz had to share, but apparently that’s the nature of finding space in HK. I will say at the very least that it was all decently clean.

Having found a place to safely deposit our belongings, we took to exploring the city, marveling at all the hideously expensive Gucci and Armani and Louis Vutton stores and just appreciating a city that’s more Westernized. It’s interesting, I think that a typical American traveler to Hong Kong goes to see a taste of Asia and Chinese culture, but for us it’s a wonderful breath of Western fresh air.

Littering, jaywalking, and spitting all carry heavy fines, from the many signs posted around town, and together with proper enforcement (we saw some police officers actually checking someone’s residence papers at one point) it made for an orderly place.

After getting approached by some students from a local private Christian middle school to help fill out a survey about tourists in HK for a class assignment (and man their English was impeccable!), we hopped on the ferry to Hong Kong Island proper, the heart of the city and basically a monumental city-wide cathedral to the almighty Dollar. Raised walkways pass the giant Apple Store and transition directly into malls which blend seamlessly into banks and financial institutions in what feels like a combined island-wide building. And yet there’s a sense of order in all of this.

At Ken’s insistence we had to stop at the International Finance Centre, mainly because of its fame as the building Batman jumped off of in “The Dark Knight.”

Up on the 55th floor there was a public museum of the HK Monetary Authority which showed off the security features of the banknotes here and was a rather nicely arranged exhibit. After going there I felt a previously-unknown desire to understand financial policy.

It’s refreshing to see a society here in China where the rules and freedoms are more relaxed. Companies proudly advertise their Facebook or Twitter pages, political protest billboards are present, and there’s even a host of tents steadfastly hanging outside one of the bank skyscrapers in a sort of “Occupy Hong Kong” demonstration.

Certainly things one wouldn’t see in mainland China. And the wealth is very visible here, with everyone dressed fashionable as to make Ken and me, in our T-shirts and shorts, feel like horribly underdressed country bumpkins who actually do need a “copy suit” and tailor from one of the Indian salesmen.

And after the SARS scares in the past, HK takes public health very seriously, with bathrooms cleaned literally right after each use and hand sanitizers placed regularly around the city.

In the evening we met up with a couple other CIEE teachers, whom we had spied completely by surprise (small world!), and sat by the harbor on Kowloon to watch the city lights.

The next day we picked up some excellent Western food. I used to look down on foreigners in China eating at places like McDonald’s instead of immersing themselves in the local flavor, and I bet the typical American taking a trip to HK would want all the Chinese food, but we found an amazing pizza place and savored the taste of cheese that is all too rare where we live. There was a Ben and Jerry’s too, which while expensive was completely worth it.

Probably the best part of Wednesday for me was going to the HK art museum. All the museums are free on Wednesdays, but even if we had to pay it would have been a great deal. When traveling, museums are always a favorite of mine, and this one showed it from a very rewarding perspective.

There was an exhibit of various traditional Chinese arts, but — surprise! — there was actual historical context present. One of the great failings of the Capital Museum in Beijing is that its exhibit on traditional Chinese arts is devoid of historical context, the descriptions instead focusing on its beauty and awesomeness as if it’s trying to sell it to the viewer and as if it’s so insecure that it can’t let the piece speak for itself. The Hong Kong museum has no need to propagandize about the glory of Chinese culture beyond what is self-evident.

There was also an exhibit about the history of Chinese “export art,” paintings done in Chinese studios a couple centuries ago that imitated European styles or existing paintings or scenes. It compared the European originals with the Chinese imitations and honestly remarked about the skill or shortcomings in either one; sometimes the Chinese paintings were more amateurish but sometimes they surpassed the European one it had copied. Such an exhibit would never be found in Beijing, out of fear or showing any perceived inferiority to something foreign.

Finally there was a modern art exhibit by Wu Guanzhong, whose work really merged more traditional Chinese art with Western approaches in a way that mirrors Hong Kong itself, if I do say so myself.

Finally, in the evening we made the long touristy sojourn up the “Peak Tram” to the highest point of Hong Kong. The lines are long and the waits are longer, but it was worth it to go up that steep incline (so steep that the floors of the tram are tilted, as they have been ever since the tram’s creation a hundred years ago) to the very top. Ignoring all the gaudy overpriced souvenir shops, we got some marvelous pictures.

Thursday was basically spent on the journey home. We hadn’t previously arranged transport, but it turned out alright. We took the subway from Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon, and got on the high-speed train up north to the border. Clean, orderly, and with advertised fines for spitting or sitting on the floor. We walked through the border easily back into mainland China (the “special economic zone” city called Shenzhen) and was hit at once with the stark contrast. Gray, uninspired architecture, filthy floors, smoking indoors, and the most questionable trip back to Nanning.

We paid for passage on a night bus, but the first bit of our journey was us getting led through dark streets of Shenzhen to a creepy-looking van in a parking lot, overfilled with passengers stuffed into the back. Thankfully there was a fellow traveler who spoke English and Chinese and was able to reassure us (after reassuring himself) that the van itself wasn’t the transport to Nanning, but rather just a short trip to the bus station. We got to the station and onto the bus, which was a sleeper bus too but I kind of wish it wasn’t. The beds were tinier and too short for our poor long American legs, with no place to store my backpack except on top of me… and then the additional passengers arrived. Apparently the bus was overbooked, leading to hordes of Chinese passengers sleeping in the aisles to either side of me. The boundaries between my bed and the “communal bed” that was the bus floor got blurrier and blurrier as the hours went on.

(the sleeper bus upon arrival in Nanning… quite the difference!)

But finally we got to Nanning, paid an unmarked taxi entirely too much money, and collapsed in our apartment to get some real rest.

All I can say is I wish I could be there longer, and that it’s really hard to come back to mainland China just because in comparison… this place has so far to go in so many ways. Hong Kong seems like a decent model for how to properly meld East and West and I hope that in the future the rest of China can start to approximate it.

Some fun observations

My life has gotten into a relatively nice routine. I haven’t done too much exploring of the city yet, but plan to once it’s warm enough to really enjoy being outside in the parks. I went to Elephant Trunk Park with a few of my students, but since I hadn’t learned the process for getting the teacher discount (which involves going to a different park near the uni with my teacher ID to get a discounted park pass), I paid 40 yuan while they each paid 1. Talk about tourist prices! There was a peak we could climb to see the whole city of Guilin, which was rather stunning.

Other than that I’ve just been doing classes. I’ve been enjoying showing them clips from the film “Life in a Day” because of their reactions to everyday lives of people around the world. It often shows cultural differences I wouldn’t have anticipated. For example, when one section of the film showed a man who had had a major heart operation talking about how the nurses had cared for him, several papers showed students wondering why the family wasn’t taking care of him. Perhaps actual stays in hospitals, being cared for by medical professionals, isn’t a common thing here.

In my time off I’ve been looking for ways to amuse and improve myself. The weather’s finally good enough that I can go running on the track, and every day it’s dry I do about 45 minutes on it. One of my students pointed out the weight room, but it looks just like bar weights for certain gym classes, more intimidating than the place at Ken’s uni! I’ve also been doing a tad of Chinese study, but I admit that as I look to heading back to the US in less than 4 months, I’m trying to regain my programming skills that have grown rusty over here. Being a teacher over here is something I can do and seemingly do well, but in the end I think I need a focus where I’m really building/designing something.

Oh, and I thought that while I’m writing on this blog (a rare occurrence it seems) I should mention an upcoming show that I’ll have to recommend. It’s a cartoon called “The Legend of Korra.” A few years back there was a Nickelodeon action cartoon called “Avatar: The Last Airbender” that was really stunning, great animation, strong characters, an ongoing storyline with relatively complex characters (stuff that’s sadly rare in a lot of our cartoons). What’s neat in particular is that it was all based heavily off of Chinese culture; all the writing in the show, for example, was done in authentic classical Chinese. It’s actually one of the things that first interested me in China, as geeky as it is to admit that. But now there’s going to be a spinoff, with a higher animation budget, a slightly higher target demographic, and a more modern setting (it’s supposed to feel like 1920′s Shanghai, with all the music being “if the Chinese invented jazz”). I saw the first episode and I’m really excited. So I thought I’d just mention that too.

Old New Look

If the blog looks different, don’t be alarmed, I just decided to switch to a more standard theme. The “EVERYTHING IS CHINA” one is fun but I don’t like how it handles text and block quotes, and I’m too lazy to manually fiddle with it.


Now that I have Internet in my apartment and can bask in the glow of the Webs (even if foreign traffic is throttled like always), I thought I’d throw up some more stuff onto the blog.

First, some panoramas of questionable quality. Here’s the track on campus, haven’t yet seen anyone on it except a few romantic couples walking on what is probably the largest patch of open quiet grass for miles:

The view outside my apartment, specifically the balcony where I hang my freshly-washed laundry and wait a week for it to dry:

I live and teach on one of the newer campuses of GXNU, so here are some pictures from a quick visit to the old campus, which actually used to be a large estate from a relative of the Emperor during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Anyway, about the teaching. So far I’ve been giving pretty basic topics like “tell me about a time you wrote to your family or friends” or “what did you do over the winter holiday?” just to get a feel for their writing level. The students’ ability to write subtly really varies from person to person, and it’s hard to find writing with a lot of analysis, partially because their writing isn’t so developed, and also because the educational system over here really values technical competence in writing rather than the sort of independent-thinking analysis that we get in our Western literary/artistic/political criticism. I know it’s still there, but a lot of the creative writing isn’t focused on at all. So often, I get the sense that English education in China is promoted because it’s economically important to engage with the rest of the world, but with hesitation at engaging global culture or perspectives. Reminds me a bit of the half-hearted attempts at reform during the last Chinese imperial dynasty, where a struggling China thought it could succeed by merely embracing Western technology without any of the cultural or societal reforms that come with it.

I don’t think of myself as some sort of brilliant teacher with the ability to change students’ minds so fundamentally (I’m not the stereotypical teacher from those feel-good movies where he goes into an inner-city school and uses his unique teaching style to “get through to those kids” etc etc), but I do want to enhance their skills with imagery. A lot of the writing will describe things as “interesting” or “beautiful” but give nothing for the reader to understand why they should feel that way. I’m planning on bringing in some documentaries like “Wild China” to have them write essays on the specifics of what they see and hear.

And there’s a great documentary I just watched yesterday that I’m going to use, called “Life in a Day.” You can watch it on Youtube, and I’d encourage it. It’s a project where the documentary makers asked people on the Internet around the world to record anything from their lives during a single day (July 24, 2010), so it’s an organized collection of global footage from a single 24-hour period. It does a fascinating job of showing the similarities and differences in lives around the world, and I plan on showing it in little 10-15 minute segments in class and having my students write their reactions to it.

I’ll go ahead and give a couple examples of the writing. As I grade the mass of assignments (and it is a mass! 4 out of my 5 classes misinterpreted me and thought I wanted their homework in their big notebooks instead of sheets of paper, so I’ve got more paper in my apartment than the Library of Congress), I type up ones that seem particularly interesting:

It’s a good topic, but I think this topic will let me think which I have lost, how to express my true love.
In my childhood, out country was so poor that we had no money to by a telephone. My mother and farther went to GuanDong, in order to take a good job, then to make much more money. If I missing them so much, I would write the letter to them. There were some contents:
First, I was write about how was my study, grandpa and grandmother’s body were good, please rest assured. Second, I would well them what everything happen in my home. Finally, I would tell them attention body at working outside.
It was my first time to write letter. Although I only know write the simply word, I was so happy to tell them everything at my side.
After few days, I received the letter from my parents, I was so excited that I often read to my grandparents. I told them I would study hard. In the last year, everyone has a telephone. We could talked through the phone. Firstly, I was excited, but after a period of time, I didn’t want to answer the telephone, Because I don’t know what to say everyday.
This early letter writing taught me: some true love can’t be replaced, some old expression can’t be replaced too, although telephone is a convenient tool.

There’s some real odd and fascinating humor here too. One of my best students is Kris, who, despite my predictions about the name, is a girl… though I have to admit I had a really hard time knowing if she was a boyish-looking girl or a girlish-looking boy. The only way I figured it out was (1) she mentioned female roommates in her dorm, and (2) she sits in the front row. All the guys in my classes sit as far back as possible. Anyway, she and her roommates have a weird habit of coming up with these dark “scary story” riddles involving Santa Claus. The first one involved a boy coming down the stairs on Christmas night and seeing Santa. Then he saw his father, and then his father “turned into” Santa. Then he saw his mother, and she also turned into “Santa.” Then finally the boy himself “turned into” Santa. Really confusing story, but apparently the solution(?) to the riddle was that “Santa” was a murderer who broke into the house, and as he killed each person their clothes turned blood-red and looked like Santa’s suit somehow. Weird, huh?

Here’s another one Kris wrote up:

The Christmas was coming. Tom wished the Santa Claus might send something to him. He went down the stairs. There were 3 giftboxes in front of him. Tom looked around the house and found the Santa Claus was outside and smile at him through the window.
Tom opened the first box. It was a pair of trouser inside. Tom felt a little angry and the Santa Claus laughed. Tom opened the second box. It was a football inside. Tom was really angry and hate the Santa Claus died. The Santa Claus laughed even louder. Tom opened the really big third box in his last expectation. It was a bicycle inside. Tom broke down. The Santa Claus has already laughed to roll on the ground.
The Santa Claus is a pervert. Tom is a disabled without legs.

So you see there’s some pretty interesting thinking going on in the minds of these students, and hopefully I can find ways to tap into it more. I’m really trying to make a lot of contacts with my students and hang out with them outside of class, because they’re often really excited to meet and practice English with foreigners, and because it’s good for me to learn more about this place.

Some Pictures of GXNU

I’ve attempted to make a few panoramas of some things here at Guangxi Normal University. Some of the automatic stitching didn’t work out, but perhaps the resulting image is fitting nonetheless.

Here’s a sculpture in front of the library. As far as I can tell, that date is the month when the university was started.

The library. Haven’t gone in yet, so no idea what’s inside.

Some strange sculpture. I think it’s utterly hideous and every time I walk past it I hope it gets melted down for scrap.

The view on the way out of the foreign language building on the way to have lunch at one of the many cafeterias on campus.

The foreign language building from the inside. Depending on what day it is, I teach classes on the third, fourth, or fifth floors.

Another sculpture. I think this one’s pretty nice, if only because it’s out of stone instead of metal in some sort of outdated “people’s glorious mechanized future” aesthetic.

The view from my apartment.

In Guilin Now

Quick update for those who haven’t been in the loop due to my own lack of telling anyone. After hanging around at Ken’s place in Nanning for a month, CIEE finally got the old school to have our old work permits canceled, letting us legally work elsewhere in China. There was a position at Guangxi Normal University in Guilin that at first had been for both Sarah and me, but then we got some really unpleasant news about the job becoming just for one person, on account of one of the positions probably getting filled while the two of us were in legal limbo (thanks, New Standard, for being able to screw us over one last time). So what we decided was for me to take the university job in Guilin, while Sarah goes up to northeast China for a job that we had already been making plans for. It’s a big industrial city, which is good for Sarah because I know that she’s wanting to have some contacts to learn about factory work in China for her anthropology stuff.

It’s been a few days since I arrived in Guilin to teach at my new position at Guangxi Normal University, and I’ve finally settled in enough to get my bearings. At first, it was extremely overwhelming to head off on my own without Sarah (frustratingly the promised position for us both suddenly became only for me, leaving Sarah pursuing a job with some contacts she had made in Shenyang, on the other side of China); for the first time since entering China I was actually alone and didn’t have any friends or contacts around me.

It didn’t help that my first few hours spent here were done so stewing by myself in my new apartment, which on first appearance seemed worse than my second Liuzhou apartment and Ken’s place in Nanning. The exterior feels pretty run-down and the interior shows the schizophrenic design that defines so much of Chinese apartments, with light switches and outlets in odd places, passageways just narrow enough to hit one’s arms when passing through, etc etc. Add to that the cold from there being no concept of insulation in this region of the world, and the view below featuring simple brick dwellings that resemble more the countryside than the more rarified air of Ken’s surroundings, and I was wondering if I had made the right decision.

But later on I found that it was workable enough. It may just be a momentary shift in the weather, but the provided supply of heavy winter blankets make the place warm enough, only barely using the A/C heater in the evening. The kitchen area is completely devoid of anything but a sink and a washing machine, but the addition of a water boiler to have morning tea makes it feel much more pleasant (even if I have to stack said boiler on its cardboard box for it to reach the illogically placed outlet). Once I unpacked, got some clothing hung up, and laid out the supplies I had, it started seeming livable, even if I have to adapt to the Chinese way of doing some things. Because of my early morning classes, I’ve started sharing the habit of showering in the evenings to deal with the wait of heating up the water and just to get the dust/soot of China off me at the end of the day.

Crystal, my waiban, showed me around the campus and gave a very decent tour. She mentioned that at one point she had looked into entering the tourism industry and I can see why. The campus is actually one of three in Guilin associated with GXNU, and this one is not the one with the magnificent yellow-painted arches that are on all the logos and photos of the school. It’s not as pretty a place as Ken’s university, and it’s certainly smaller. The few garden areas are so small that they aren’t isolated at all from the student population at large. But it’s all very practical and seems to have the basic features. According to Crystal, there’s also a place where I can lift weights, so I’ve got to pursue that.

Straightaway I got set up with my class schedule and textbook, which was reassuring since classes were to start the next day, and also reassuring because I seem to have lucked out on a pretty nice schedule. I teach a writing/composition class, and have five classes a week, an hour and 20 minutes each, all with the same unified curriculum, which cuts down on lesson preparation time. Unlike some of the foreign teachers here, all my classes are on the same campus in the same building, so I don’t need to get on a shuttle to teach anywhere else. My classes are on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and while I sometimes have to teach at 8:00 am, I always get done by noon. My afternoons are free, as are four days all in a row. Of course I’ll be busy with grading of papers and such for 150 students, but it sounds like I’ve got the opportunity to explore much more than I ever could back at New Standard.

Crystal helped me get subscribed to get Internet in my apartment, which should arrive after a few days (spending the first couple days twiddling my thumbs in the land of no connection), as well as get me a food card for the school’s cafeterias. It’s just a short walk from the foreign language/culture building, past the building that houses both business classes and the mandatory Marxism classes (how’s that for ironic?), to the most popular cafeteria. I’ve been trying out the food there but I don’t know how much longer I’ll eat there. It’s pretty convenient, just load some money on the card, then the cafeteria gives you a plate with rice and whatever meat/vegetable toppings you want and deducts it from the card. But the quality so far is mixed, and some things are just plain bland, oily, and lukewarm. For breakfast, though, they’ve got some pretty amazing steamed buns a short walk from home that I can grab for cheap on the way to my early-morning class.

When it comes to lunch and dinner I’ll probably see what restaurants are outside the walls. I was really excited to see that just beyond the gates is a Muslim noodle shop just like the one I loved at Ken’s place. With the workers wearing the same traditional dress and the backgrounds and menus literally identical, it felt like I was back in Nanning. The lamian noodles aren’t quite as good, but they’re still excellent.

The classrooms are all pretty well-equipped, with a computer hooked up to a TV screen so I can bring in a flash drive with a Powerpoint or some pictures or video and show them — though the students say some of the text is still too small so I’ll probably have to start making printouts for them. My first day I muddled through a basic introduction and general lesson on the importance of writing, which thankfully I was able to refine afterward into a more interesting and conversational lesson about the structure of a good paragraph.

Each class has a pretty broad range of students, from those who are really excited about learning the language and chat with me during the break, to those who openly admit that they only take the class because it’s required preparation for the national university English exams. In each class the majority of the students are girls (boys tend to major in engineering or business), with the boys always showing up later — but still on time — to sit in the back of the room, and typically are looking to use English to get a good job (though Mori, one of the male students, has a love of English-language rock music that he will excitedly speak at length on, his thick eyebrows raising to punctuate every sentence). There’s of course some unusual names: I’ve got a Bamboo, Sky, Time, Cloud (who mentioned his love of the Final Fantasy video games from which his name comes from), Lightman, Happy, Rings (“like Lord of the Rings”), and Gaga. But most of them are typical enough, and I did notice that a lot of the names sound very French. There is a fascination with France and Paris here (half the notebooks in the stationary stories proudly feature the Eiffel Tower), and these are all students who have chosen — and likely often changed — their names instead of being assigned names like the young children at New Standard, who would get more typically American monikers, or if Sarah and I were feeling particularly silly, Gaelic and traditional Scandinavian names.

I can already tell it’s going to take some work to draw the creativity out of them. The first day I had the students introduce themselves by having them say something interesting about themselves, which sort of devolved into a “what are your interests?” question, a language pattern they had learned long ago and which they had the standard bland answers: reading, shopping, watching TV, playing computer games, and sleeping. The second day got some better results when I gave examples (“Pets? Can you cook something? Travel?”) and mentioned how in America I would often make pizza. Though that also devolved into a checklist of those three categories, it did open them up more.

In addition to the normal weekly writing assignments they’ll have, I’m having each of my students also get a journal to regularly write something interesting of their choice in. Part of this is because the textbook recommends it, partially because it’s a way for them to use English pseudo-outside the class, but also because I’m thinking of Peter Hessler’s “River Town,” the bible of all expat teachers in China, who did that also as a way to get a glimpse into the minds of his students.

I invariably get a good laugh when I introduce the whole journal-keeping thing, because I use Sarah as an example of someone who journals constantly. When I mention what she told me about needing a new pen after only two days of writing, it elicits a gasp in every class… though she may have just been commenting on the quality of Chinese pens, but who cares, it makes a good story. Anyway, I start out by showing a picture of Sarah, who happens to be wearing a bulky winter coat. I casually say “This is a friend of mine. She taught with me at …” and at this point there’s murmurs of confusion, or, in the classes whose students have a stronger grasp of pronouns, in chorus yell out “SHE?!?!” Because Sarah has really short hair, everyone believes she’s a boy, and after I emphasize that yes, she’s a girl, some students accept it and say she’s beautiful, while others say “handsome.” My presentation now includes a picture of Sarah from before winter for me to pull up and prove to the doubters. (Sorry Sarah!)

So that’s that, so far. I’m sure I’ll get all sorts of weird frustrations and annoyances thrown at me over the next several months; it wouldn’t be China without them. And I’m still frustrated that Sarah and I had to part ways so suddenly. But in the end I think this position will be good for me, and I’m definitely redoubling all my efforts on keeping in touch with everyone in our CIEE New Standard diaspora.

When I actually get around to having my Internet installed in my apartment instead of using the free Wifi in the campus international center’s lobby, I’ll upload some nice photos I’ve been taking of the area. The architecture is the same gray, dismal, Soviet/Marxist design that deadens the soul just from looking at it, but the natural beauty of the mountains of Guilin are still visible nonetheless.

P.S.: I just stumbled upon a little place on campus that sells real milk. Actual, honest-to-God milk. Not the weird boxed preserved non-refrigerated milk that is sufficient yet somehow off in its taste, nor the soupy “yogurt” that’s all the rage. There was a place just like this on Ken’s campus but I never got around to trying it. I still fail to understand just how a country can utterly fail at the concept of just offering plain, unadulterated (whether with typical preservatives or the tainting that appears every so often) milk. It may be 5 yuan (79 cents) for 200 ml — well, 4 yuan once I return the bottle — but it’s so, so worth it.


Alright, I gotta get around to writing this up! Sarah and I went to Beijing for a week, from the 21st to the 28th, so we could enjoy the beginning of the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) with Sarah’s friend from Beijing, Ye. Ye had gone to America a few years back and became good friends with Sarah, staying with her family for a time.

Having just finished our time in Liuzhou New Standard and with nothing to do but hang around Ken’s empty apartment waiting for news on our situation, we were both definitely up for seeing Ye at her family’s new house for the new year. And I do mean new house — the day we arrived was the whole family’s first day in that house. Here it’s a pretty big deal for everything to be new at the new year. When I say “house” I mean it in the Chinese sense where a house is just an apartment, but it is a really nice one, in the less-populated fifth ring of Beijing, so their equivalent of suburbs.

Ye and her whole family are very welcoming people, and just seemed tickled pink at having us with them — especially when one of us (Sarah) had housed Ye for a while and, as Ye’s father mentioned to everyone during the numerous extended-family dinners, had personally driven seven hours to bring Ye to her home. Ye’s really sharp and quite mischevious; when teaching us how to play mahjong she agreed not to use money since we were new, but within a couple games she was trying to find a way to add a “punishment” for the loser, eventually settling on making the loser drink a certain number of swallows of water so they would have to go pee. And of course when she lost she had a sly line of logic as to why it didn’t apply to her. A true battle of wits! I have to say it was pretty refreshing, since while I dearly love all the Chinese friends I had made at New Standard, I think sometimes they were treating us delicately or felt obligated not to show their real personality because we were the foreign co-workers they had to treat nicely. She was also adamant about us learning some Chinese while we were there, and not just in the half-hearted sense we had often seen here, where people were so pleasantly shocked that we knew any Chinese that they felt we didn’t need to practice anything. Ye made sure that every night we had little study sessions where she’d answer our questions and learn about some English terms, and make us actually speak Chinese at the dinner table to get some food. When in China it becomes easy to find a point in the language where it’s comfortable enough to survive by saying things like “Wo yao zhege, duoshao qian?” (“I want this, how much is it?”) but not progressing beyond it. Having motivation to move past that is very helpful.

Compared to Guangxi which almost never goes below freezing, Beijing is freakishly cold. I found myself having to wear three layers of shirts, two hoodies, my winter coat, and two pairs of pants just to feel comfortable sightseeing outside for an extended period of time. But because northern China actually gets really cold, they actually know how to deal with the cold. The jackets you see people wear in Beijing actually look like they could stand up to the weather, unlike the weird meat-colored puffy coats in Liuzhou that can’t hold in any heat. And Ye’s home is so warm, it actually felt like home back in America. Even the floor was heated! In our Liuzhou apartment, we got heat through an ineffective AC unit that only felt warm if you were directly in its line of fire, because none of the buildings had insulation.

If there’s one rule you must always remember when being served a meal in China (besides not sticking your chopsticks vertically in the bowl of rice, of course), it’s to not finish everything. If you go into a Chinese meal with the attitude of “well I don’t want to waste food they’re providing me or imply that I didn’t like all of it,” just remember that they’re going into it with the mindset of “if they finished it, I’d better dish out some more to be a good host, or if there’s no more, I’d better go make some more.” As much as Ye’s family urged us to make ourselves at home, that was one difference I always had to be aware of. But in the end we did make ourselves at home, and it was nice to see the contrast between formal big feasts like on New Year’s Day (with everything under the sun), and the more casual everyday meals (breakfast was often a bowl of soymilk with some fried mantou, or steamed buns). Home cooking isn’t a thing for me here; restaurants or street vendors are more than affordable, and the only other cases were big “second dinners” organized by our old boss in an attempt to make us better workers.

The New Year has some interesting traditions I didn’t know about, which might be of interest to those of you back home. When we were there, Ye’s family had a jar of garlic cloves soaked in vinegar. Apparently you can’t eat the garlic before New Year’s, but you can enjoy the garlic-flavored vinegar on your dumplings. There’s no house-cleaning done on the first day, because if you do something on the first day you’ll end up doing it every day of the year.

And the fireworks… oh the fireworks. I was not ready for them. Back home, fireworks are a show that you see at a park with a scheduled beginning and applause at the end. Or maybe they’re firecrackers and smaller fireworks on a street. In China, fireworks are all about getting the biggest ones you can find and setting them off between apartment buildings or shooting them off your balcony. There’s no particular beginning or end, continuing days and days into the new year. In terms of sheer volume nothing can compare to China’s fireworks.

While there in Beijing, we went to the Forbidden City; I’m pretty sure it’s forbidden to go to Beijing and not visit it at least once. It’s nice and big and beautiful, but I will admit that, not having studied much Chinese history, I was lost regarding a lot of the cultural context. Sarah and I ended up amusing ourselves greatly by watching all the other tourists, a sort of meta-tourism if you will. There’s a thing in particular about tourism in China. You know the sort of tourists who take pictures of themselves with important landmarks behind them just to check it off their proverbial list? From what we can tell, Chinese tourists are like that but turned up to 11. We saw it when we visited Guilin and Yangshuo with Wendy and Crystal, with us having to take pictures in front of every decorative rock in the city, in every permutation. And I saw it again when picking oranges in the countryside with some of the Chinese teachers; it was basically a non-stop photoshoot of ourselves in front of orange trees. There were so few pictures taken of the Forbidden City, more like pictures taken of people who happened to have a Forbidden City background… and when it can be managed, those pictures include foreigners. On three separate occasions, we saw people with cameras taking pictures of their friends or family, angling it in such a way that we waiguoren were also in the shot. At one point Sarah and I were leaning against a wall talking when a Chinese woman planted herself between us, had her boyfriend take a picture, then ran off with a thousand thank-yous on her lips. I will never fully understand the foreigner-fascination this country can have.

We also visited the Capital Museum. Quite fascinating, and of course had a lot of materials and resources, being in the capital. There was an exhibit of objects and costumes from historical Peking Opera, as well as a live performance of the art (though I admit the falsetto voices are not quite my thing). Another exhibit featured a history of the city of Beijing itself through the ages, from prehistoric times through all the dynasties up to… well, not quite the present. The exhibit concluded with the founding of the PRC, showing the actual microphone used by Mao to announce its founding. Were one to go by only the museum, nothing at all has happened in China since 1950. I suspect it’s difficult to focus on anything recent as you never know what will be politically safe or not.

The museum also had an exhibit featuring all the traditional arts of China (calligraphy, porcelin, etc etc), which had some truly impressive pieces. I wish I had had a better camera to capture them. There was something strange, though. Some of the labels were in English, but Sarah and I both noticed that, rather than focusing on historical context for the pieces or details on techniques used, the labels heavily and blatantly talked about how beautiful and amazing the pieces are, as if we could not see for ourselves. I’m not sure if this comes from an attempt at propaganda in the capital city, or if it’s a common feature in museums here, but it felt more like I was reading an auctioneer’s appraisal instead of a museum’s informational material. I’ll have to figure out more about that sort of thing.

Anyway, it was an awesome trip, and right now we’re back in Nanning waiting for information about our future. Time for some more Chinese study.

Some Pictures

Since I’ve finally got a free moment to breathe, I thought I’d post a few photos I haven’t gotten around to sharing.

From what I can tell, the translation should be something like “Golden Kernel”… “Gold Embryo” may not be the best name…

Liuzhou’s Christmas tree. Natalie cracked us up by saying it was “very Chinese”… yes, Natalie… it’s very Chinese. As they apparently say here, we wish you a MSAMERR!

The doors to the church where we attended the Christmas mass.

Typically it would seem odd to sell grenade-shaped containers of alcohol in a post office, but not in China!

The school continually had to suspend classes for students so they could be involved in “theatrical” performances — which as mentioned before were constructed for no reason but to attract new students by showing off memorized (and not comprehended) English dialogue. I guess the school decided to turn it into a specialized program: “hey, pay us and we’ll use your children for marketing!”

For one of my classes, I played dumb about Chinese cuisine (not too far from the truth) and had the students write the name of a dish in Chinese, then describe its ingredients and flavors using English words. Then, to make sure it wasn’t just a silly exercise, I made a point of photographing the whiteboard for my own personal reference. Great lesson, but of course everyone here is drawn to cameras like moths to a flame. I almost got tackled several times by a bunch of kids, so in the end I gave in and actually got a photo of them.

This is exactly the sort of thing people think of when it comes to Christmas-themed decorations, right?

One day Natalie came in with a New Year’s lantern she had made by herself. Why, you ask, is there an Apple logo on it? The world may never know.

The accursed fingerprint scanner we all had to use to clock in and out. The boss at one point tried to dock our pay for being a minute late into the office to do nothing but wait around to hand out flyers, until he relented and tried to show it as doing a big favor to us. We thought that after we officially terminated our employment we should photograph our final clocking-out ever there. You can see William creepily staring down on the advertisements in the corner, which also still prominently feature Alex and Dessa despite them having left a month ago. I wonder how long our white faces will be plastered on their papers. Probably forever.

A mannequin with a giant hand for a torso greeted us every day right next to the bus stop near the school. Barely visible is the woman whose job it was to stand outside and, every few minutes, clap loudly to turn people’s attention to the store. I guess some jobs are definitely worse than ours.

Some photos from our last time with Tory and Natalie, giving each other some parting gifts in a local coffee shop. They really are the greatest and could always brighten our days. I will be on QQ with them regularly.
(P.S.: I have since shaved. Fear not world, the neckbeard was a temporary result of stress surrounding our preparations for departure and lack of proper mental faculties.)


So I haven’t posted anything here in a while, and there are some pretty big things that have happened. Thankfully in the end it seems positive, though!

First things first: none of us are working at New Standard anymore. One month ago, Alex and Dessa (without our knowledge and definitely without CIEE’s assistance, wink wink nudge nudge ;) ) left the country to teach elsewhere, while Sarah and I started the long and obnoxious contractually valid process for leaving the school in a way that can potentially get us employed elsewhere.

But, one might say, why would we want to do that? Three factors!

1: The place doesn’t really teach English in any meaningful way. Rather, it sells the chance for white foreign teachers to give hastily-prepared mediocre lessons to children of gullible rich parents. The school is constantly on a recruiting drive, and our days were spent more with things like handing out flyers and giving promotional demo classes than actually caring for the students we have. I suspect part of it is because English teaching is a lucrative business anywhere here in China, and when the school was able to get four new young (and beautiful/handsome! as they often said) foreign teachers, they thought it could lead to massive growth, not realizing concepts like “non-sustainable business model” and other consequences of focusing on bringing in new students and not caring about the old ones.

Activities like holiday parties were constructed from the ground up to be nothing more than advertising performance events. Demo classes that could be a chance to actually teach high school students were whittled down by the Chinese teaching assistants to be “easier” so the students would be more willing to part with their cash. Outdoor field trips were arranged where children were brought to the busy city center to be “taught” English words from flashcards they already knew, all so that the teaching process was visible to parents of potentials students. In the end, our freedom on teaching was constrained to a pre-made list of vocabulary words about mealtimes or the Spring Festival, chosen specially so that students could say the English in front of their parents to convince them that we actually were teaching them something and not robbing them blind. We have ideas, concepts on doing teaching that would be interesting and engaging, but repeatedly the school showed they cared about nothing but us being pushed into a classroom, being a white-faced performer for an hour, and who cares if a thing was actually learned. If we don’t have any autonomy or preparation time for lessons, they will not be good and we as honest teachers cannot feel like we are doing something worth the parents’ money.

2: It was treated as an office job that did not distinguish between Chinese and foreign teacher. As bad as it may sound to say it, foreign teachers here are not typically supposed to have the same responsibilities as the regular Chinese staff. Usually, private school foreign teachers show up, do their lessons, then leave; and public school or university foreign teachers have specific classes they’re working with on a long-term basis. Clocking in and out with a stipulation of being “in the office” for about 35-40 hours a week, only to sit around either doing nothing (because nothing about our classes was communicated to us usually until five minutes before), being pushed into a classroom without any context, or to head out and stand creepily outside of primary schools to push flyers into children’s hands, was not exactly what I signed up for when I decided to go halfway around the world. If I want a job like that I could probably get one in the US, one that would actually further my future career. For the typical Chinese worker, the boss is king and may make any impositions on one’s free time at any time and be expected to get it, as a personal favor to the boss. Our two days of free time per week were usually spaced apart so we couldn’t travel anywhere substantial, we were often off on different days so we couldn’t go places together, and with every week having a radically different schedule (presented on a tidy little spreadsheet one hour before the end of the previous week), how could one ever plan something long-term in the future? I came to China to teach and to see China, not to build up wealth for a business out of the kindness of my heart or an opportunity to work oneself up in a corporate structure. I’m not against investing time in work, to be sure, but the work would have to be more fulfilling than this and provide more stability. Definitely not a matter of lack of work ethic on our part; if four separate foreign teachers all leave in a month, that is certainly indicative of a problem. The only foreign teachers this place has had have either been business-type entrepreneurs (who helped found this very new school last year) or old desperate expats with nowhere else to go (more on that later). The school’s fundamental inability to understand the attitudes and priorities of young, newly-graduated teachers is the root cause of many of our problems.

This was all certainly frustrating, to be sure, but for a time we all grinned and bore it, were it not for a spark that helped set everything off:

3: William. He is a fifty-something expat foreign teacher who was, until we all arrived, the only foreign teacher at New Standard. In short, he was constantly verbally abusive to both the Chinese teachers, as well as us other foreign teachers (whom he considered some sort of threat to his once-secure position at the school). Going unpredictably through (bipolar?) manic and depressive periods, he was prone to explosive outbursts. He indicated at one point he had been in prison. He carries a rather large knife in his suit. On three separate occasions he kicked off his sandals and tried to challenge Alex to a fight (profoundly unwise, and perhaps even amusing in retrospect, considering he was wearing socks on the tile floor). This is obviously not the sort of person a normal school would want around children. But, the school was entirely aware of this sort of behavior throughout, and confided in us that they thought he was not a good person or a good teacher, but they keep him around because he is good for business and brings in new students. Because no one else would seem to get him his visa to stay in China (having nothing for him back in the US from what fragments we could learn), he is fiendishly loyal to his school and possesses an uncanny eagerness for things like handing out flyers, and his teaching style (which everyone — staff included — mock behind his back) is little more than drunkenly yelling English phrases at students who mindlessly repeat them back. It’s similar to a teaching method here called “Crazy English,” which can have some success, but as we’ve seen over these months, not in his methodology. And yet the school encourages him to do his thing despite acknowledging its questionable results, because it’s a great marketing strategy. When parents see a foreigner saying English, and their kids parroting it back, it doesn’t matter if the students remember it afterward or know what is being said. To them, their children are speaking English in minutes!

I won’t particularly begrudge someone for not being an efficient teacher in an environment like this, especially since I know I’m new at this teaching thing and really need to improve. But there’s no excuse for the way he treats people. It took him swearing loudly at Dessa in front of a group of students, and then again trying to provoke a confrontation with Alex, that we decided enough was enough. It took contacting CIEE and getting the local government involved for him to get enough of a talking-to to stop that sort of thing, at least for a while.

So Alex and Dessa headed out for other exotic lands and Sarah and I gave notice. And the whole month as we prepared to head out, the school incapable of realizing that we actually were really going to do it, not just bluffing like William seemed to do every few weeks as a bargaining tool. Normally giving an employer notice is partially supposed to help them smoothly transition for one’s departure, not to give the boss time to attempt to convince us to stay with empty promises of raised salaries and less marketing duties. The trust between us and the school was fundamentally broken, and we know that either they wouldn’t come through on such reforms, all future marketing endeavors would be painted with a veneer of teaching as if that would fool us, or would be held over our heads as a favor done to us that we should repay with endless loyalty.

The worst bit of it was that they asked us not to tell the Chinese teachers about our upcoming departure… which I at first assumed was because they wanted to tell them but rather was put off until the day after we left out of some sort of face-saving defense mechanism. Even Cindy, the employee in charge of writing up our schedule, wasn’t told and didn’t know until she called us to ask why we weren’t at work.

At the very least we were able to spend a hastily-arranged last evening hanging out with Tory and Natalie. I love those two so much, and I really hope that we can keep in touch because they are really amazing people and I’d hate to just lose that after all these months with them. I really am frustrated with the school for not telling anyone until they absolutely had to.

So this morning we were able to get our masses of luggage out of our apartment and put into a car for Nanning. It’s impressive how wide the links of personal networks go here: we were transported by Kelvin’s boss’s (Matt) long-time friend’s (Mr Wang) friend (Mr Qin). As frustrating as it is that we got placed by CIEE into this substandard situation here, they are seriously doing a lot of amazing work behind the scenes to get things arranged hopefully for another placement. We don’t know if it’ll happen in the end, but certainly not for a lack of trying.

As for where we are??? Right now we’re in Ken’s apartment! But Ken isn’t actually here; he’s doing a trip to Vietnam over the break. So he left a wonderful series of notes detailing everything nearby that’s interesting, and left us some keys he made copies of. And where were said keys placed? In someone’s hands to deliver to us? Certainly not! They were hidden in a crumpled and duct-taped cigar box secretly placed under the cement cover of a grate outside his dorm. Oh Ken.

And that’s where we are now! Since a lot of government offices are closed for the upcoming Spring Festival, CIEE is really focusing on the search for a placement after that point. So now we’re finally getting the nice long vacation we never had gotten before. We bought some tickets to go up to Beijing for the Spring Festival, and to visit a Chinese friend of Sarah’s. Going to be fun!

Convenient Convenience Store

So I was in the convenience store (that they call a “supermarket” but is far too tiny to be that) near the apartment last night. There was a little New Year’s stand inside selling some Spring Festival sample packs, containing a lot of little snacks and candies for the holiday. Looked interesting, so I decided to buy it… except apparently that didn’t work. Nothing came up when scanning it, and after some hurried chatter between the employees, they decided that it wasn’t for sale yet (“maybe tomorrow”) and took it from me despite me having wallet out and ready to pay. Just take my money! Maybe these people don’t fully understand capitalism yet.

Also, there’s been a milk scare recently with some items of Mengniu brand milk showing signs of containing aflatoxin, which can cause severe liver damage. Turns out that’s the brand of milk we like the most, but thankfully we haven’t bought it in a while. Hopefully I won’t get liver cancer. So at the convenience store I noticed they were responding promptly to the scare, by knocking 1-2 yuan off the price of each box of Mengniu milk. Maybe they actually are embracing capitalism, but in the typically short-term way I see often here. “Hmm, if we sell this possibly-tainted milk, our customers may die in the long term… but if we don’t sell it, we will lose money now! …I want money now.”