September 28, 2004

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

In preparation for the upcoming week-long vacation for National Day, I worked 8 days straight, and I can honestly say that teaching middle school-aged children might be the worst job on earth. The kids are exhausted, I am exhausted. They have such long days and regimented schedules, I wonder sometimes how they manage. Wake-up bell sounds at 6am, followed by morning exercises, breakfast, classes until noon, then more classes, dinner, then more classes, before they can finally go to bed at 10pm. Even their free time during the day is dictated: ten minute breaks for eye exercises, organized calisthenics, calligraphy, etc.

My English Corners remain a constant source of amusement and provide the bright spot at the end of the day. We generally take field trips to random places throughout town, which I've decided is more of a publicity stunt for the school than a beneficial experience for the kids. We walk along with a giant red banner unfurled that says "English Corner of Ximin Middle School." On one trip, we dropped by the local hospital, where I think I was more intrigued than the students by the signs outside all of the examining rooms. The signs were thoughtfully printed in both English and Chinese, although I doubt my students really need to know the words "otorhinolaryngology" and "nasopharyngofiberoscope." Some of the other signs included such vague and ominous terms as "The Dark Chamber" and "The Microwave Treatment Room." I couldn't see in because the windows were blacked out.

My apartment continues to frighten and repulse me in new ways every day. The other day as I was in my closet/bathroom, I noticed three enormous purple mushrooms growing out of the doorframe. I don't know how long they've been there, but I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that every time I take a shower or do laundry, an inch of standing water covers my floor for hours at a time (I think this might be because the floor doesn't slope at the optimum angle for the water to reach the hole/drain in the bathroom floor). Every so often a random workman shows up at my door, comes in carrying his tools and rapidly speaking Chinese, walks around, points at things, then leaves.

September 28 marked Mid-Autumn Festival, the 15th day of the 8th moon in the Lunar year. Chinese people get together with their families to eat moon cakes and watch the full moon together and think of loved ones in faraway places. I accompanied Ms. Xiong, one of the Yizhong English teachers, to her family's home in the countryside. After an hour-and-a-half long bus ride and a ten minute walk down a dirt road, we arrived at a tiny village. Her family owns a plot of land where they grow rice, vegetables and fruits. They live in a simple unheated cement building with a roof made of tree bark and all of their meals come straight from the garden to the table. After lunch, we spent an hour harvesting chestnuts, using our feet to open the prickly outer shells and extract the smooth brown nuts inside. We stopped at a neighbor's house on the way back from the chestnut trees to use the "bathroom," which was essentially a fly-infested pit in a pig stall. I've never gone to the bathroom before while being observed by a pig, but I suppose there's a first time for everything.

Ms. Xiong's brother took us along for a fishing trip. I had visions of bamboo rods and picturesque ponds running through my head. However, the lake we arrived at was man-made and the water level was too low to fish properly. I sat on the bank and rested. Meanwhile, one of the neighbors, undeterred by the lack of water, proceeded to strip down to his bright blue bloomers (I call them that for lack of a more accurate word) and waded out barefoot into the muck armed with a plastic bucket. I'm not sure what was more disconcerting: the fact that I was watching a middle-aged Chinese man galavanting around a pond in bikini bottoms, or the realization that I had eaten some of those gross little fish for lunch (the same ones that he was scooping out of the murky water to land with a squishy thud in the bucket).

Ms. Xiong told me stories about her childhood, about walking to school carrying bushels of rice as payment and gathering firewood in the mountains. Electricity and running water are recent developments, only within the last 15 years, and life is still incredibly hard in the countryside. I wonder how she feels about the vast changes that have swept China in the last couple of decades...Her only daughter is only one generation removed from the life of a peasant.

The holiday turned out to be very simple but nice. That night Nancy, Principal Liu and I attended a Liuyang party for the various town bigwigs at the park down the street from school. We drank some local wine, ate moon cakes at tables set up underneath strings of illuminated lanterns, and listened to a live string quartet.
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