October 31, 2004

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Sunday, October 31, 2004

Liuyang...glorious Liuyang...hard to believe I have been here for over two months now. Classes have been going well, although it was rough going there for the first couple of weeks following the National Day break. I worked through the weekend before and the weekend afterwards, somewhat negating the effect of the vacation.

For the most part though, classes have been going fairly smoothly, despite a few minor incidents and miscommunications. Last Friday morning I showed up to teach a class and found the classroom locked up and the students missing. I was told that "maybe, the students are all in the hospital." I found this rather alarming, until another round of questioning led to the revelation that the students were simply down the hall receiving their annual physicals from the school doctor. As usual, the foreign teacher is the last to find out.

On Wednesday, I attended a competition in which the students all performed their daily exercise routines with their classes. These are the calisthenics which they go through every day at 10am in the school courtyard...it's quite a sight, a thousand kids in matching track suits dancing in unison. During the three-hour competition, I heard the same song 24 times and watched the same dance 24 times. By the end, I could actually feel my brain waves slowing down, which I guess is the reasoning behind the repetition. Indoctrination and discipline through routine. I did feel something like a proud parent watching them perform. When I saw Oliver, Big Mike, Lucky, Queenie, Sally, Island and Fred out there dancing I could hardly contain myself.

In terms of my own studies, I am finally making progress. After having no Chinese teachers for a long time, I suddenly find myself with two very eager instructors who are willing to meet with me virtually every day of the week. One teacher is a doctor at the Liuyang People's Hospital. She is good friends with the principal at my school, and she won a prestigious position to study abroad for a year with the top research physicians in her field at Stanford University. So, she is just as interested in improving her oral English as I am at learning Chinese. I eat dinner at her house almost every night and have essentially been adopted into her family.

My other teacher is a young girl named Shelly, a Chinese teacher at Yizhong. Last weekend, some of the girls (Shannon, Rachel, AJ and Jenny) came into town to visit and Shelly planned a warm Liuyang reception for them, including-naturally-fireworks. Her uncle works at one of the fireworks companies in town and when we met her on the other side of the river, she was standing there waiting with enormous duffel bags full of explosives.

Of course, the Chinese people - Shelly and her cousin and his friends - thought it was hilarious that the Americans were all nervous about the gigantic rockets exploding directly overhead. They are illegal in much of the US for a reason, and I for one don't want to leave China with fewer limbs or digits than what I arrived with. Our Chinese friends were so blasť about it all. They would walk up to a gigantic canister of pyrotechnics, calmly light it with a plastic lighter, then move maybe five feet away to watch it blow up. Shannon took a picture of a rocket going off, and it looked exactly like footage from a war-torn Baghdad, complete with crumbling buildings and rubble and a bright pink fireball streaking through the night sky.

The liaison at Jeff's school, Patrick, also rolled out the red carpet for the girls during their visit, and we were treated to a Sunday lunch in the school dining hall. He added a little something special to the menu: dog soup. Of course I knew that people in China eat dog, but I've never encountered it firsthand. We asked Patrick what the difference is between the dogs people own as pets and the dogs that are eaten for dinner. He thought about it hard for a few seconds, then concluded that actually, there is no difference at all.

I have expanded my culinary experiences greatly during the past month. Although I didn't sample the dog soup, I did try donkey (looks like beef, tastes like donkey), frog (looks like fish, tastes like chicken) and pigeon (looks like pigeon, tastes like turkey). On Sunday Jeff and I visited a store in Changsha called Metro, which is reminiscent of a Sam's Club. They sell everything imaginable, including a lot of imported foods. We attacked the dairy section like starving refugees with osteoporosis. Blocks of gourmet cheese, Kraft singles, butter, cottage cheese, cream cheese...cheese cheese cheese.

These trips to Changsha are very helpful for my mental sanity. Two weekends ago, I attended a large party at Julian's apartment, which was bizarre only in that it felt so normal. For some reason, a group of us decided that it would be a good idea to pre-party by doing some shots of bai jiu (Chinese white liquor) which we mixed with Crystal Light to soften the nail-polish remover fumes that wafted out when we opened the bottle. We should have known this would be a bad idea based on a few things:
1.No one has yet had a positive experience drinking bai jiu.
2.It came in a plastic squeeze bottle and cost 3 yuan (about 40 cents).
3.The label said the alcohol content was 50%.
Despite this, we proceeded anyway. I vaguely recall watching Max breakdance on the nasty scummy floor at Dinosaur Disco and eating Ramen noodles at 3am, and I even more vaguely recall the long busride home the next day.

This past weekend I also spent in Changsha, in part to celebrate Jenny's birthday. Shannon, who tutors the daughter of a very influential Changsha businessman once a week, used her connections to plan a birthday extravaganza. The businessman's English name is Todd, and we refer to him as the Godfather, since he seems to know everyone and can make things happen with the snap of his fingers. We also call him Shannon's sugar daddy, since he repays her for her services in the most ridiculous ways. He arranged for his chauffeur to whisk five of us away in a pimped out Audi with tinted windows and take us to a 5 star hotel for dinner. This was followed by a night at the beauty salon, complete with head massages and haircuts. The stylist tried his best to turn me into a Chinese girl with thinned-out spiky paintbrush hair, but I escaped relatively unscathed. As a general rule, I don't normally let anyone sporting an orange mullet to mess with my hair, but here I didn't have much of a choice.

I haven't figured out why fashions from the 1980s seem to be experiencing some sort of second coming in these parts. Off the shoulder styles, hot pinks and electric blues, big plastic buttons, big plastic earrings, an abundance of glitter...Another odd phenomenon is the popularity of 80s hairstyles among the young guys-- a quasi-Rod Stewart look going on, in addition to the aforementioned mullets. Also seen on the very young boys: rat tails, braided and even (oddly enough) the occasional free flowing curly ones. In some ways I'm happy to be living in a more so-called backwater part of China, because (despite its many downsides) it is simply more interesting being around a less cosmopolitan, Westernized segment of the population. Each time I step out of my apartment I stand a good chance of seeing something utterly bizarre. This can be exhausting at times, but makes for good writing material.
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