January 11, 2005

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

January 11, 2005
I'm counting down now...only 3 days left of teaching. I had to work this past Saturday as payback for having the previous Monday off for New Year's. I know I've said this before, but the school system here should really explore the novel concept of the "vacation day," and perhaps actually make it just that. A day that doesn't have to be made up when you least want to.

I am in the homestretch, giving individual oral exams to all of my students. My grades really have no bearing on their overall English grades, which only reinforces the fact that my very presence here is not an important subject but more of a dog and pony show. Still, the kids have been taking the exams seriously for the most part. I think the concept of testing has been so ingrained in their psyches that the very word "exam" strikes fear into their hearts. Some of them were literally shaking when they talked to me.

I am talking to them one-on-one in the teaching office, asking 4 or 5 simple questions: What's your English name? When is your birthday? What's your favorite subject? Etc. The range of abilities amazes me. Incredibly, some of them can't even tell me their names, a topic that I covered during the first week of school and have drilled into their heads ever since. I would think it would take some real effort to sit through a class twice a week for four months and not come away with at least one new word, one of which is your own name. Some of them answered every question with a robotic "yes, I do," I guess in the hopes that it would apply at some point. I asked one kid, "Can you play basketball?" and he answered "I don't like bananas."

On the other hand, some of them are absolutely brilliant and can make small talk with me, which is impressive for having only one semester of English. I've enjoyed talking to them, and was surprised to learn that quite a few of them had changed their names over the course of the semester without informing me. I have a student named "Sweater," one named "Milk," and another named "John Chark." The ones with the self-chosen last names make me laugh.

This was also the first time I have been in close enough proximity to be able to really examine them. Some of their uniforms are so filthy, you would think they had just gone rolling in a mud pit. Judging from the odors many of them exude, I would also assume that they don't bathe as often or as thoroughly as they should, although who can blame them when it's so cold? Many have sores on their hands and ears from the cold...chilblains, I think? These kids lead what I would consider by US standards to be a very tough life. They spend all day, everyday sitting in the same unheated classroom, broken up by meals in the drab, industrial-looking cafeteria, and then go to bed by 9pm in their unheated dormitories (eight students to a room). Some of them are so cold that they bring little hot water bottles to school with them so that they can warm their hands while they sit at their desks.

I feel guilty for complaining about the constant cold, when I know they deal with so much more. However, as someone who was raised with central heating, I am still having problems adapting. Last week I came very close to packing up and coming home. One night we had no electricity until 9:30pm, which meant I was stumbling around in the cold darkness for 4 hours. I had to use the light from my cell phone to find my way up the stairs to my apartment. Shelly and I went to get hair cuts at a place that had a generator, just to have something to do. The whole time I was getting my hair cut, the lights kept flickering on and off. Probably didn't help the quality of the haircut at all.

Last Wednesday was particularly bad. I showed up for week four of the five week dental treatment plan. For an hour and a half I sat in the chair while they attacked my tooth with their drills and tools. I now have no tooth left-they ground it down to a tiny nub. The pain was excruciating, and every time I spit into the sink, I spat out blood and pieces of my gums. I tried to get Rola to translate for me that it hurt; she translated the dentist's response, which was "yes, it will hurt for awhile longer." Swell. This week (week five) is the when I supposedly get the filling. I hope this is the case, since I don't think I can handle any more trips to the dentist. I have had quite enough of them while in China and can safely cross that off the list of things to experience.

Rola felt so bad afterwards that she dragged me to her house so that she could cook me a special dinner with lots of mushy food. The special dinner consisted of a hearty pigs neck and berry soup, pork fat and scallions, green beans, and sticky rice dumplings rolled in sugar. In other words, it was everything that I didn't want to eat at that point in my life. The crowning glory of the meal however, was the leftover container of McDonalds French fries that she had brought home with her from lunch, steamed in the rice cooker until they were warm and limp and served (still in the container) alongside a little dish of ketchup. I've never eaten fries with chopsticks, so that was a first.

Saturday was Jeff's birthday so we all headed out for a typical Liuyang night on the town. Rachel was in from Changsha, and the Irish were present, as were Colin, Jason, Patrick, Kogi, and a few other random people. In keeping with the Liuyang motto, "one more can't hurt," we celebrated until 4am at the karaoke place.

Despite the fact that I was told in September that the school gates (which happen to be enormous wooden doors) are firmly shut and locked at 11pm sharp, I have discovered this amazing little door within the door. Someone sneakily camouflaged it so that it would blend in, but if I knock on it loudly enough and yell "ni hao!" a few times, the gate guard comes and lets me in. I'm trying not to abuse his generosity; he seems like a very nice guy. He has recently learned the word "hello" and likes to use it freely whenever I walk by. I'm sure the school gets reports about the nights I stumble in past curfew. He is one of the many people I wish I could talk to, to hear a life story or two. I also wonder about the corn-on-the-cob woman, who I see everyday outside Yizhong. She always seems like she's happy. What is it like, sitting on the street from morning until night selling ears of steamed corn from a wheelbarrow? What does she think about all day? My Chinese probably won't ever be good enough to find out.

Well, I'm busy packing for my vacation. Seems a little odd to be digging out my T-shirts and bathing suits from the back of the closet...I am dreaming of white sand beaches and new cities. I will try to send some updates from the road. Until then, zai jian and lots of love.
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