Christmas

Christmas has come and gone now, and what a Christmas it’s been. Some fun stories here I’d better write down.

So first there were two Christmas “parties” at the school on the 23rd and 24th. Now, when New Standard says “party” they mean something more like a English performance talent show, and they REALLY mean a thin veneer of entertainment in order to attract parents of potential students to sign up for classes. We already had two teachers (and two of my good friends) leave the country in secret to teach in Thailand just because this school treats us like walking billboards, and Sarah and I are already looking to leave in a way that gets us somewhere else in China… so obviously what’s important is getting even more students at this point in time.

I was of course Santa Claus, because — as they helpfully mentioned when I pointedly asked why — I am fat. I always have to remind myself that that blunt description is a cultural difference. Buy hey it worked out, I donned the jolly old man’s garb (using the strap of my laptop bag as a makeshift belt) and gave my best ho ho ho’s. Took a little practice to make the laughter jolly instead of villainous; there is a fine line.

I will say that this party seemed to go smoother than Halloween and Thanksgiving, just because China knows a little (little!) more about Christmas than the other holidays. Not that that stopped the school from making it more complicated. They had the idea that a mere series of Christmas-related performances wasn’t enough, that it wouldn’t hold enough interest. So they came up with an idea that Santa was going to appear on stage and be just about to hand out presents when… the “Sadness Lord” (played by William, New Standard’s resident sociopathic, verbally abusive old expat teacher) comes up and kidnaps him, and won’t give him back to deliver presents to the children until he is pleased by the Christmas performances the children do. Apparently having the children perform plays to a demonic figure to appease him enough to release Santa Claus makes sense and would be interesting. At least in the end I was able to change some lines so it was more like putting on some performances to convince a Grinch-like character to have a Christmas-style change of heart.

Needless to say it was utterly baffling to the audience and was scrapped for the second night.

Other than that it was all pretty laid-back for us foreign teachers, unlike Halloween where we thought getting really involved would be rewarding and went overboard with decorations — or Thanksgiving where everything was a big musical performance. This job really encourages us to be mediocre and not care, it seems. I had a performance in a skit as a “random traveling English speaker” the kids are unable to communicate with because they hadn’t been studying properly; it’s actually a pretty funny skit, so to no surprise it was not original in the slightest. And I was Santa for a skit about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer… where all the lines were in English, Rudolph didn’t have a visibly red nose and none of the reindeer had horns or anything identifying… which probably made it confusing for the Chinese-speaking audience why Santa is apparently traditionally pulled around in a sleigh by random Chinese girls. Sarah and I sang a single song; after debating what Christmas songs we both kind of knew but also disliked enough to have it associated with this party, we settled on a shaky rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

And of course at the end, while William taught a demo class (by taught I mean yelled random English phrases at children for them to mindlessly repeat back) and the staff gave a marketing pitch to their parents, “Santa Claus” gave all the other children some Christmas gifts, which consisted of unsigned, still plastic-wrapped greeting cards hastily purchased from the stationary store across the street. The fact that the cards displayed no Christmas imagery (instead featuring hearts, “I love you” text, and in some cases “Happy Birthday”) was promptly ignored by all recipients, who eagerly snatched up their gift in a frenzied zombie-like mob.

But of course this wasn’t all thankless work. Sensing our displeasure at working here (by “sensing” I mean them listening to us officially give our thirty days notice in a meeting last week, videotaped by us for evidence for the local government’s labor dispute office’s investigation), the school has been attempting to convince us to stay with… drumroll please… an “honorary credential” with a little certificate recognizing our “significant contribution” to the school. I get the sense these are a big deal in China, considering that Sarah and I got one from that performance we did in Nanning, and I guess in a country with so many people, any little distinction you can stick on a resume, the better.

Now to be fair, we did also get a nice little Christmas bonus last night, though I’ve got a theory as to how that came about. Basically, in one of Sarah’s Christmas-themed classes she was talking about A Christmas Carol and the meaning of the term “Scrooge” in everyday conversation. She mentioned offhandedly an example that “maybe, if your boss doesn’t give you a Christmas bonus, then maybe you could say he is a ‘Scrooge.’” Of course one of the Chinese teachers heard, and my guess is that it worked its way up the chain of command and the boss was convinced that to not give us a bonus would be a mortal sin offending our cultural sensibilities and that by doing so he would convince us to stay at his school forever — because after all, a school without foreign teachers is a school with angry parents and soon maybe not a school at all. So the three of us each got some yuan in little envelopes hastily acquired from the nearby stationary shop, as well as a wrapped package of what William assumed was beer but turned out to be the thermoses that newly signed-up students get as a welcoming gift. I hope I don’t sound too cynical about all this, but considering this is the boss who strictly regulates printer paper use for the Chinese teachers and wouldn’t install an air conditioner or heater in Sarah’s room because it was “too expensive,” I hope you’ll forgive me for thinking it’s more than a noble-hearted gesture of goodwill.

Christmas Day itself was a far quieter affair and I think generally more pleasant, even if we had to have a long meeting with the boss for him to actually give it to us despite him being contractually obligated to (and I think in the end we’re losing a day off next week for it; the contract says in this case we should get a paid holiday day, subject to approval, three weeks’ notice, etc etc etc, we’re not getting it). Got up, watched a video of a Dublin Christmas musical program (one of the few decent Christmas musical videos I could find on China’s YouTube knockoff) and enjoyed opening up the Christmas package from home (thanks Mom and Dad! China can do many wonderful things, but chocolate is not one of them, and getting some from America is a lifesaver). Sarah and I wandered around some new areas of the city, discovered a whole new underground mall jam-packed with wonderful New Years decorations, then got a Christmas dinner in the form of a longtime Liuzhou favorite: a bucket of chicken from KFC.

Sarah had a really fun idea for us to go to the local Christian church’s Christmas service, and I think it was probably the best part of the day. Everyone else there was Chinese, so we weren’t fully sure what to do besides sit there, but a wonderful little old Chinese lady next to us gestured for us to stand with everyone else, took our hands and eagerly encouraged us to sing along with the congregation, accompanied by guitar. We didn’t know the tunes or the words, and the PowerPoint presentation projected on the wall that displayed the lyrics was only moderately helpful; I could only pick out every few characters, and the way of showing the melody (numbers from 1 to 7 over each character) took some getting used to. But in the end I could mumble out a little bit.

It was more or less Catholic (one of the nuns asked us later if we were “Roman” or “English”), though I do know there are some political/religious issues here regarding the state not accepting the Pope’s authority. There were a few differences here and there from what I was expecting, though. Partway through, everyone was handed a blank piece of paper which we had no idea what to do with. We saw others writing on them, and the little old lady spoke only the Liuzhou dialect and wasn’t really able to communicate what we were supposed to do. Thankfully we were also sitting by a Chinese person who was an English teacher at another school in the city, who helpfully informed us that we should write our “wishes.” Alright then. “Then you burn it.” Sure enough, people were igniting their papers with a nearby candle and tossing them into a nearby brazier, intently watching it turn to ash and giving a little bow. Makes sense, sort of like a prayer candle mixed with some Chinese traditions.

At the very end, after we shook hands with what felt like half the congregation and all the clergy, the guy with the guitar sang a round of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” — one of maybe two English Christmas songs we’ve actually heard sung here. I could sing that one at least!

I am not a religious man but I can’t deny how peaceful it was to be there and share that evening with the people there. Everyone looked happy and just wanted be good and go into the new year right. No one trying to recruit anyone or make a quick buck or get a picture with the Americans; it was refreshing going to a big event and having the focus not be on us in some way. The only foreigner anyone was staring at was hanging on a cross on the wall with the letters INRI above his head.

So that was our Christmas. We left the church, got some good tea from a new tea place, and took a cab home. On the way we passed two e-bikes that had crashed into each other. One of the riders was angrily yelling at and pushing the other, who then grabbed the first one’s purse and threw it into the middle of the road, where it was promptly run over by our taxi.

Sometimes this place feels like living in an asylum.

O Shèngdànshù, O Shèngdànshù…

Christmas is fast approaching, and China is moving fast to prepare for the holiday. Even if it’s only to commercially exploit it and make it into nothing more than a big shopping day. Of course the school is looking to bring in new students with their two-day “Christmas party”, which is more like a combination “English talent show” and “sales pitch.” Despite two of their foreign teachers (Alex and Dessa) fleeing the country in secret rather than work there, and two others (Sarah and me) actively working on getting out of here the legal way, the gaping maw that is New Standard demands ever more paying children. And since the weekends are the busy times for the school, they’re attempting to get us to work for them on Christmas Sunday, despite them not having a single contractual leg to stand on regarding our promised holiday time. The fact that we have to battle with them for every single deserved concession is one of the things that makes it so wearying for us.

This evening I received a wonderful package from my parents, complete with secret wrapped presents awaiting the light of day on the 25th, as well as some wonderful Christmas candy. Tasting a dark chocolate orange brightened my evening. Chocolate connoisseurs may dismiss American chocolates as inferior to European products, but it’s got nothing on the waxy blandness that is Chinese chocolate. There are many foods and sweets the Middle Kingdom does wonderfully, but that’s not one of them.

All employees are festooned in Santa hats and expressions of confusion as to what exactly this strange foreign holiday is, and all the Christmas trees (圣诞树 or Shèngdànshù) are set up outside the shops with big flashing lights to attract customers. I’ve tried in vain to explain to my Chinese friends here the concepts of “flashy,” “tacky,” or “gaudy.” It doesn’t really connect at all.

Sarah and I both prefer a more subdued manner of decorations. So here’s our own take on things.

Sarah had crocheted a little tree out of yarn and we’ve been decorating it in our own way. The big bow and ball ornaments come from a box of Chinese luxury chocolate. The little bows come from packages of yogurt we buy at the supermarket in an attempt to get some dairy in our diets. The paper cutouts and snowflakes come from Sarah’s notebook when she’s not writing up anthropological notes. The candy cane traveled across the Pacific and was the only one of its striped brethren to arrive unbroken. And that little hint of tinsel is from gold-colored twist-ties for the bread at the bakery nearest the school — a common breakfast on the go.

Popcorn

Just wanted to post that this evening I got some popcorn from a guy making it on the street outside my apartment. He used a clever little contraption called a “popcorn hammer” that heats the kernels in an airtight cast-iron vessel, and when the seal is opened, it all pops simultaneously in a manner befitting the nation that invented fireworks.

Here’s a video I found of the same sort of thing:

Stardom in Nanning

Just a little update here today. When I get a chance I’ll throw up the few pictures I took, but for the time being you’ll have to imagine it from the wonderfully vivid prose I paint for you.

So for the past week Sarah and I have been busy busy busy practicing for this Chinese language performance for the Liuzhou Foreign Affairs Office. And by “performance” I mean that four foreigners walk around on stage, banging gongs and cymbals, and speaking in Chinese about how much we love the city. The past week was filled with practicing our speaking and walking (and smiling! don’t forget the smiling!) with lunches or dinners paid for by the office… sadly most of those dinners were at the Liuzhou Hotel’s “Western” restaurant, otherwise known as the East’s sad attempts at steak. But hey free food, you can’t complain about that.

This past weekend we all took a bus down to Nanning for the actual performance. Turns out it’s a pretty big cultural event thing, attended by the ambassadors from several South Asian countries. There were about fifteen different performances from different groups and cities and universities in Guangxi, and it was pretty fun to compare them all with ours. It was pretty obvious the office selected what we were going to do based off of them not having done anything for this event until a week before it was going to happen. There were elaborate skits and some kids doing Shaolin martial arts and everything.

But on the other hand, there were some ones where we were glad our performance had a shade more dignity. In almost every performance where there was an African study abroad student involved, they had him dressed up in what the Chinese consider African traditional garb (which to them is basically a “primitive” leopard-skin outfit). The country is obviously still figuring out that whole multicultural thing.

All in all it was a pretty fun weekend. Sarah and I got to see Ken down at Guangxi University, if only for a couple hours in our busy schedule. But we definitely knew the Foreign Affairs Office was hoping to use us more in the future. We basically had to stretch the truth when casually asked “do you like to sing?”

Swiss Miss

So yesterday, at the hidden Western store in the back of a nondescript cosmetics store here, I found some actual authentic Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix (imported from Canada, from the look of the dual English/French box). Just the thing I needed as the weather gets colder. The smell of cocoa is so nostalgic for me.

I will be away from my computer over the weekend, as Sarah and I are participating in a Chinese language performance on behalf of the city of Liuzhou, down in Nanning for a few days.

Still Alive!

Hi everyone, just wanted to post to break the silence. Things have been very busy over the past several weeks and I promise I’ll get a nice big blog post when the time is right. I just wanted to make sure no one thought we had dropped off the face of the earth.

Also, Alex and Ken, get yer butt on this site and post something!

Oranges

First off, I gotta say that I’ve been dealing with a cold for the past several days… and China? Everyone here smoking all the time and everywhere DOES NOT HELP. That is all.


Anyway, yesterday I was invited by Nina (one of the Chinese teachers) to go with some other teachers and visit her family’s farm and pick oranges about 2 hours outside of the city. It was just the sort of fresh air all-day activity I needed and it was a blast. It’s really stunning to see just how different life is between the city and the countryside in terms of what people have. And it’s a really interesting image seeing the teachers in their obvious city fashion walking around outside that element. Nina was obviously tickled pink to be able to introduce us all to her aunt and uncle and grandparents and the many chickens running around, one specimen of that last group getting its throat slit in preparation for the evening’s dinner.

After we all donned some hats and little sleeve-covers for our arms, we headed out to pick some oranges from the family orchards. As we passed by the other farm workers busy harvesting from their trees and boxing up their oranges, I once more felt all eyes on me. I had almost grown used to the attention a foreigner gets in the city center, but out here I wonder if an American had ever been out there before. But despite the greater attention, no one can say it’s anything but warm and that seems to be a common sentiment about the small towns and rural areas.

It’s amazing how many oranges can fit on a single tree, and we didn’t even scratch the surface despite us all heading home with enough oranges to cause legitimate difficulty carrying them. We ended up making two excursions that day, and in between we rested inside while Nina’s grandfather sat in a comfy bamboo chair, watched CCTV for five minutes, then nodded off. The four of us (Nina, Amanda, Lily, and myself) got out the tiles and played some mahjong — very fun game, the others were great at teaching me how to play, the proper Chinese names for all the tiles, and some good strategies. I ended up winning two rounds — it helped a lot that my childhood had been spent playing “Mhing“, which is essentially mahjong with cards and a few rule changes.

Don’t have too much more to say, just that it was a pleasant break from the annoyances and frustrations that too often define my work here, and a good reminder of why I came here in the first place. I took a few pictures, and sadly none of mine have myself in them, but I’ll see if I can grab some pictures that the other teachers took.

Halloween

So we had a Halloween party on the 29th and 30th. It was something we were always talking about at the school, and the ones in charge had talked to us about preparing one a few weeks ago and then never really got back to us about anything. So the school did a whole bunch of advertising for the party (if there’s one thing this place focuses on, it’s the stubborn demand from those up top for more students, more students, obviously embracing the “scraping the bottom of the barrel” philosophy and not understanding the phrases “diminishing returns over time” or “who on earth is going to sign up in the middle of November”). Then they realized it was two days before the party and they had yet to get much at all ready, not even a program or a list of events.

We tried to suggest our ideas, but Mr Li had his own stubborn ideas about the need for some sort of English performance to show off to the parents instead of, you know, activities and games that would be actually fun for the children — never mind that there was no time to come up with anything. Sarah, having been somehow identified as the artistic one of us (she would be the first of us to challenge that seemingly arbitrary assertion), was put to work mass-producing decorations for the walls. But, surprisingly for all of us, they were able to whip up something that approximated something Halloweeny for the party. Even if one of the performances was Dessa and a couple students singing the only thing they knew enough to sing: the Do-Re-Mi song from “The Sound of Music.” I wonder what notions about the connection between that and Halloween everyone came away with that evening.

There was a skit that rushed through the highlights of Halloween we had explained to the staff, and that was pretty good — though I couldn’t help but think of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and Halloween Town’s attempts at understanding just what Christmas is all about. Also on the second night’s party it quite obviously took a page from the Beijing Olympics and had all the lines lip-synced.

On the bright side, after the first night’s party ended and the powers that be noticed some shortcomings in their program’s ability to keep anyone’s interest, they decided to go with the foreigner’s ideas of having some games the kids could play to get Halloween candy. And in the end it actually worked out.

There are a lot of things that make this job unnecessarily insane and stressful, but in the end it’s worth it just for the smiles on these faces:

Birthday

I sense that the quality of my blog posts is seriously worsening, just because so many things happen and it feels like there’s never time to actually write. So first I’ll just jot some stuff about my birthday and then see how it goes.

Mercifully, the Gods of Scheduling at New Standard ended up giving me one of my days off on my birthday (the 28th), which was just what I needed because it gave me time to rest before our school’s Halloween parties (more on that later). I still had to wake up early, but this time for something entirely better than heading into the office: being woken up to a surprise early-morning gift-giving by Dessa and Sarah (two of the best housemates anyone could ask for). Apparently they had run out and gotten me a little cake too!

One great thing about living here is that insane and wonderfully absurd potential gifts are plentiful. For instance, this “metrosexual double lip balm” that I’m now the proud owner of. I especially like the text: “Ledresses up lets yousdpyow beautiful glowing, lets day of zhe”.

I will say I prefer the stuff back home (thanks Mom and Dad for sending some along in your package, it was a pleasant surprise!) — the texture of this stuff is a bit off and the thought of it being a mislabeled, really crummy gluestick has not escaped me.

So then I finally got around to going to the Liuzhou Museum, which is pretty impressive. There was a nice calligraphy/painting exhibition there, and it features a permanent collection of fossils, bronzeware, fan paintings, and some little scenes of traditional life in Liuzhou complete with wax(?) statues. I’ll have to go back when I have more time and get a lot more pictures, because the place closes at 4 pm, not that I was really aware of that — which made for a bit of awkward hilarity as I obliviously walked around the museum after hours as a docent watched from afar, myself unable to speak Chinese and her unable to speak English until finally, with a series of polite but unmistakeable gestures toward the elevator I was herded out of the museum.

Finally at the end of the day, Dessa and Sarah came home from work with some extra packages from the staff at work. Amanda got me perhaps the best toothbrush holder ever:

And Mr Li got me another, even larger cake — this one with some writing on it: “Danel: Happy Birthday. Fron New Stard ard.”

…I think that’s close enough.

(posts about the Halloween party and our trip to the horticultural expo soon)

Liuhou Park

First, a picture of the ganlaofen I ate a couple days ago:

Today Sarah and I had the say off, so we decided to spend an afternoon doing some more exploration of the area near the city center.  It’s important to not only find new places, but to get a comprehensive mental map of our surroundings.  In that I think we succeeded, first exploring the extent of the underground mall (with its hordes of creepy mannequins, all featuring some combination of the traits of “far too white for China”, “far too 50′s for nowadays”, and “far too disproportionate for humans”).  In one little pathway we stumbled into what at first seemed like a secluded yet huge store in the underground mall, only to realize it was the familiar “cosmetics and diamonds” mall for all the more affluent shoppers.  Discovering a hidden passage between the two malls was just the sort of thing we needed to gain some spatial awareness of this place.  Same above ground: each time a random series of turns chanced upon a familiar street, it was like another piece of the puzzle fit in my brain.

During all this, we found ourselves near Liuhou (that’s Liuhou, not Liuzhou) Park, the park near our old apartment, and we decided to do some exploring there.  Full album here.

Taking an afternoon to simply walk around is such a pleasant thing.  It’s easy to think that Liuzhou is nothing but noodle shops and clothing stores (in fairness, maybe 90% of it is), but there’s always something different to find.  We walked past what appeared to be a serious calligraphy materials shop, with ink, brushes, huge sheets of paper/silk… so now we have yet another future activity.  Going to a new place, especially one with a different language and culture, can be hard because finding what’s there to find takes effort.  But taking the effort is part of the fun.