January 3, 2005

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Monday, January 3, 2005

I don't even know where to begin... At the start of every new year I have a tendency to get all sentimental and introspective, which I will try my best to avoid right now. Coming up on five months here now, and it definitely feels like every bit of five months. The sky spit a mixture of snow and rain all day today, and as usual, there is no electricity to be found in the majority of the city.

The energy crisis has become increasingly worse as the weeks have gone by. I am down to about 4 hours or less of electricity a day, usually from about 6-10 pm. The rest of the time, I am either teaching in an unheated school or sitting in my unheated apartment, huddled under blankets and crouched over a candle, reading. The novelty of pretending to be like Abe Lincoln, reading by candlelight, has worn off somewhat quickly. So has the novelty of pretending that I'm on a long camping trip. My apartment is so cold that I can see my breath, so taking a shower is an ordeal that sometimes requires a good deal of mental preparation and a pep talk. Did you know that shampoo can freeze? Just so you know, it can.

Wow! So much to tell, so I apologize for this being such a long entry. The last month has been incredibly difficult, and I'm so grateful that it's over. December is usually my favorite month, but here I have never felt so removed from home and everything I love about the holidays. Surprisingly, the entire city was plastered with Christmas decorations-pictures of disembodied Caucasian Santa Claus heads hung in every store window and the occasional life-size wax statue of the big guy placed out on the sidewalk. That is pretty much the extent of the Christmas holiday here. No one really celebrates it or knows the true meaning behind it, beyond recognizing that it's a western holiday and has something to do with excessive materialism.

I have been trying to stay busy and out of my concrete icebox of an apartment as much as possible. I rebroke my "fixed" tooth about 3 weeks ago, and so have to go back to the dentist once a week. I am on the five-week treatment plan to get a filling. Why an hour-long process in the States should take five weeks in China I have no idea, but I am hopeful that one day I will once again have a fully functioning mouth. The sad thing is that I actually look forward to this weekly appointment, since it gives me an excuse to get out of my apartment and go somewhere a little warmer.

I have been hanging out with some new friends-they are young girls about my age who happen to be local part-time Mary Kay consultants. One of the girls gave me her business card while I was out people-watching at the pedestrian mall and when I turned over the card, there was a picture of Mary Kay in all her bleached blonde glory alongside a pink Cadillac. The girls are sweet, and are very eager to visit America, for no other reason than to visit Dallas, the site of their mecca: Mary Kay national headquarters. They think it's strange that I have lived in America my entire life and have never been to Dallas.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a Mary Kay party at the local karaoke bar. The room was plastered floor to ceiling with pink balloons and streamers. The evening was sort of like a pep rally meets sorority rush meets religious cult gathering. The 20 women who were leading the event, all wearing beauty pageant sashes, began by performing a dance that involved jumping around and clapping their hands in unison. This was followed by a girl who performed a traditional Chinese dance, then two women who stood up and gave lengthy testimonials about how Mary Kay dramatically changed their lives. The tears and Kleenex were in abundance. I don't know much about what was said, but the essence seemed to be that Mary Kay is some sort of sisterhood that empowers women to become financially independent-no longer do they have to marry a rich husband to get by. Not a word was spoken about the products themselves. The grand finale, naturally, was a stirring karaoke rendition of "My Heart Will Go On."

Somehow I also got sucked into attending a "beauty class" at the Mary Kay office, which was almost as bizarre as the party. Because I was the foreigner I received the dubious honor of being the guinea pig for the evening. The makeup teacher spent a lot of time giving my face a nice base of makeup to make me look pale, since having white skin is the ideal that Chinese women strive for. The result was that I ended up looking more like a cross between a chemotherapy patient and a prostitute, ghastly pale and sickly, with lots of blue eye shadow and very pink lips. The women were all mesmerized for some reason by my eyebrows (which don't have to be drawn onto my face with a pencil like most of their eyebrows). However, I was told that the upper third of my face is slightly bigger in proportion to the bottom two thirds. Who knew? I was invited to hang out at the office anytime I like, although I don't know if I can sit through many more inane conversations about eyelashes and moisturizing.

I tried to go into Changsha a couple of times, since there was a more reliable supply of electricity there. And finally, just when I thought I might go off the deep end, Mom and Dad made their grand entrance into the motherland. They were in China for 10 days, and I think after 3 days they were already excitedly anticipating their return to the States. Despite the logistical nightmare of planning their itinerary over here and the myriad of things that could have gone wrong, their trip proceeded relatively smoothly. We headed down to Guilin for a long weekend, and so they were right away introduced to the joys and frustrations of travel in China. I thoughtfully arranged it so that they would be able to experience both a massive crush of people at the train station, an unheated 9-hour long train ride through the dead of night, and some of the most miserable weather I have seen thus far. Not many people can claim to have spent Christmas Eve on a hard sleeper train in the middle of the Chinese countryside trying desperately not to get hypothermia. My favorite moment of the evening occurred when Mom pulled a wooden Santa Claus statue out of her suitcase and started singing "Silent Night." Quite a lovely rendition, although slightly muffled since she was buried under a pile of quilts and had a scarf wrapped around her head like a Russian babushka.

Jeff met us in Guilin and traveled with us to Yangshuo. The four of us spent the majority of the weekend trying to stay warm and doing a tour of the many western restaurants in town. My recollection of the weekend goes something like this: omelet and cappuccino at Mickey Mao's, chicken burrito at TinTin's, fajitas and pizza at Red Star Café, apple crumble at Drifters, beer at Lotus hotel, chocolate pancake and martinis at Under the Moon...and that was just Saturday.

On the way back to Changsha, our 9 hour train ride unfortunately turned into an 18 hour train ride. I'm still unclear as to exactly why, since the only answer I could get out of the man sharing our 4 bunk soft sleeper compartment was a monosyllabic grunt and the word "snow" in Chinese. As far as I could tell, the 2 inches of snow that fell overnight completely wreaked havoc on the rail system. At any rate, one harrowing cab ride later and only 12 hours behind schedule, we finally arrived in Liuyang at 6pm where there was (you guessed it) no power.

I spent the rest of the week introducing them to the town, to my school and all of my friends. I think they especially enjoyed coming to school with me, getting mobbed by my students and being interviewed by the local television station. They did some shots of the white liquor (the stuff that smells like paint thinner) and even tried some sheep soup. Jeff came into town and we christened the brand new McDonalds which had opened Christmas Day in Liuyang to a great deal of fanfare- it was being powered by a generator, so was one of the few places open and functioning.

I think that if the sun hadn't made an appearance, which it did during the last two days of their visit here, mom and dad would have packed me up in a suitcase and dragged me back home. I admit, they might have seen the very worst of China...it is not normally quite so bleak and depressing. Dr. Qiu took us to her hometown in the countryside. There was one point, following a frightening car ride down muddy roads through some poor, rubble-strewn villages, when we were inside an unlit concrete apartment warming ourselves around a bed of dying coals, that I looked at mom and knew that she was utterly, completely appalled.

They were in the unique position of being able to see China from my perspective, which is to say, not that of your everyday tourist who only sees the super modern cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. Changsha isn't exactly the hot destination place, unless you are adopting Chinese babies or on your way to somewhere else. I was so sad to see them go...sad also, because I no longer get to tag along and stay in their heated hotel rooms with them. I'm back here in Liuyang, although hopefully not for long. Spring break should start very soon. The plans to go to Thailand have been scrapped in light of recent events, but I hope to still get to Vietnam and southern China. Hope you all had a good holiday season, and Happy New Year!! I miss you all!
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