Trip to Jinshi, Trip to Guangzhou

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The springtime weather here fluctuates quite a bit. One day it mists, the next it drizzles, the next it sprinkles, the next it pours. I never knew there were this many forms of rain. Seriously, I feel like I'm living inside a giant never-ending rain cloud. But because I am a girl residing in a place where the power is 80% hydroelectric, I will not complain.

I haven't written in awhile because I've found it very difficult lately to put my feelings into words. The last thing I want to do is to come across as being bitter or jaded in these entries. Sometimes I feel like if I write my true thoughts, this might all too easily happen. One of my goals is to be able to leave China in July without hating China. I am just very tired at the moment.

One month ago, I traveled up to a small city in northern Hunan called Jinshi to visit one of the WorldTeach volunteers. Chris lives all by himself in this city, which is roughly a 4 hour bus ride from Changsha. Fifteen of us got together to make the trek up to this rural outpost to lend our moral support. Jinshi is so small and provincial that many people in Liuyang have never even heard of it. Chris is the first foreigner to ever reside there, and we were certainly the first (and largest) group of foreigners to ever set foot within the city limits. To say that this caused a stir would be the understatement of the year.

I knew beforehand that the weekend would be a circus-like, exhausting ordeal. I was not, however, prepared for the calamity that awaited us. We arrived in Jinshi around 8pm on a Friday night. For Jeff and me, the entire journey took 8 hours altogether, from the moment we left Liuyang until the moment we got off the bus in Jinshi. Right away, we were greeted by Mr. One, Chris' foreign affairs officer. He was a skinny man with boundless energy, which is to say that he was disturbingly hyper. A continuous stream of commands seemed to spew forth from his mouth: "Let's go, let's go, here, here, right, right, yes, good, good, no, stop, stop, here, here, let's go, let's go, hurry!" I think that if he were on some sort of medication he might be a semi-normal person. He was, however, one of the more annoying human beings I have ever encountered, inside or outside of China. He took hovering and social awkwardness to a whole new level...

The school was so ecstatic about 15 foreigners invading the town that they insisted on taking care of everything. They paid for our meals, put us up in a hotel, arranged our transportation everywhere, scheduled all of our free time. While this might sound like a great deal, it meant that we relinquished any sort of control over the rest of the weekend. I don't normally enjoy feeling like I have to ask someone's permission before I blow my nose. This was, unfortunately, the price that had to be paid for visiting Chris.

We all stayed in rooms on the same floor in the hotel. Jenny and I, after trying to stay up past 11pm, finally gave up and went to bed. The next morning, the hotel kindly gave us our wake up call at the horrifying hour of 7am (bear in mind that this was a Saturday morning). I could hear Mr. One yapping in the hallway. Time to get up and eat breakfast and go to Chris' school. I went to put on my watch, which was sitting on the bedside table. Then I went to put on my ring, which I had put beside my watch. It was missing. I figured it had fallen under the bed. I grabbed my jacket and reached in my pocket to take out some money for the day. That was missing too. At this point I started to think I was losing my mind...maybe I was absentmindedly putting things in strange places. You know, the keys in the cereal box syndrome.

Then Jenny realized that her ipod was missing. And her digital camera. And all of the cash from her wallet. And then I realized that my cell phone, which I had put on the bedside table the night before was also gone. This meant that someone had crept into our room at night while we were sleeping, stood next to us, rooted through our bags, took our things and left without us knowing. They were even nice enough to re-zip Jenny's purse.

Mr. One told us that we were very careless and that maybe we had been pick pocketed. Was it really necessary to call the police? The hotel told us that anyone entering our room at night was impossible. When the police finally came, they pantomimed that maybe the thief had dropped, Mission Impossible-style from the 2 foot square ceiling air duct. I am firmly convinced that it was an inside job. Quite simply, someone in the hotel had access to the key and broke in, or let someone else in.

This was really the first time in China that I have felt unsafe and targeted for being foreign. Even though the police told us that we were "very unlucky" to have been chosen "by chance" as victims, it seemed pretty obvious to us that that was far from the truth. Our presence was quite conspicuous, and of course everyone in China thinks that foreigners are just rolling in money. The whole incident made me sad. We are volunteer teachers. I make less than the average Chinese person. I gave up a year of my life to come to this country and teach English. I gave up my weekend and used my own money to trek up to this remote town in the middle of nowhere where I was robbed blind within 12 hours of my arrival. Then I was expected to teach.

After filling out police reports, the headmaster of the Number One Middle School drove us over to the school to meet up with the rest of the crew. We found that everyone had been dispersed to various classes and, much to my dismay, told to "entertain the students." Like we were some kind of trained monkeys, or automatic English speaking machines. Press a button and they'll regurgitate "My Heart Will Go On." The students wanted us to sing and dance. Just what I felt like doing after I had spent 2 hours talking to the police about getting ripped off. To make matters worse, Mr. One followed us around, barking orders, getting in the way, and in general creating a lot of unpleasant situations. In one class, he told all of the students that I was Korean. Or rather, that I claimed to be American, but I was actually Korean, and wasn't that strange?

Of course I expected to field quite a few questions about my background. This is par for the course here in China. I was not, however, prepared to have to justify myself to every person I met, or to have to argue with people like Mr. One, who flat out refused to believe that I could possibly be American. I was also not prepared for the level of racism...or rather, reverse racism. I am Asian, and therefore extremely uninteresting. I was ignored just as often as I was confronted. A Chinese teacher came by with water bottles for all of the foreign teachers. She handed bottles to Shannon, AJ, Jeff, Jenny. Then she looked at me. Then she walked away. No water for me.

The one redeeming moment of the morning came during 4th period, when Jenny and I were talking to a senior 1 class. One girl, who introduced herself as Tina, asked me, "Why do you look Chinese? Where are you from?" I thought, "Uh-oh, here we go again..." I started in with the whole explanation. There are many Americans who come from Asian countries. There are Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, etc. etc. They grow up in America and speak English and are every bit as American in their customs as the white kid down the street. This is quite a novel concept for Chinese students, who think that every American has blonde hair and blue eyes.

When I finished my speech, she nodded thoughtfully. "Oh, I see. I am glad to meet you. When you walked into the room, I felt that I was looking at an old friend." This, to me, sums up the strangeness of being an Asian American in China. I am ignored, I am told that I am not a real American. Then again, I am not the freak show spectacle of those other strange foreigners, at least not in their sense of the word "foreign" (meaning: white). I am "like a Chinese" and as far as they are concerned, I might as well be Chinese, of the same blood and background.

Sometimes I see the positive aspects of this reflected in my relationships with people in Liuyang. My students, who (I think) feel very comfortable around me...Maggie, who told me the other teachers think I am like a "nice Chinese girl..." Dr. Qiu, who told me that the moment she met me she felt like she was meeting a long lost friend...

I have come to the realization that my job in China is not merely to teach English. The benefits of my instruction are negligible, given the age and maturity of my students. I am here on an ambassadorship, if only to prove to the insulated populace of Hunan Province that there even exists such a thing as an "Asian American." Or even that a great big world full of real human beings exists outside of their tiny spheres. It's a weighty and frustrating job, one which I don't always feel like doing. Sometimes I feel like I am losing myself a little bit, like I don't even know who I am anymore.

The weekend from hell finally came to its painful conclusion with another 8 hour bus ride. Before we left, the school hired a couple of private investigators to look into the case. It all felt rather seedy-two chain smoking men with mustaches sitting at the table in our drab hotel room asking questions about the robbery. Then the vice mayor of Jinshi herself made an appearance in our hotel room to personally tell us she was sorry about what had happened. Doubtful that anything will come of this. My one satisfaction is that my phone is an American phone, which means it has no Chinese language function. I doubt anyone in the cultural mecca of Jinshi will find that very useful.

Forgive the somber (and lengthy) entry. Perhaps in my writing I tend to make my life here sound only like one crazy, funny adventure. Which it is some of the time. It is also difficult and tedious and irritating and even heartbreaking. The weekend in Jinshi pretty much summed up everything I dislike about China, and left me with a bad feeling. This was countered with the kindness that greeted me in Liuyang when I returned, with friends that dropped everything they were doing to make sure I was all right.

Every day in this country provides me with a roller coaster of emotions, the extremes of good and bad, with nothing really in between. I spent the majority of last week in and out of the hospital for various ailments. Bad. I started taking calligraphy classes at the local senior center. Good. I walked out on class 16 last week because they wouldn't be quiet. Frustrating. I finally rejoined the neighborhood fitness center and after 6 months of not setting foot in the place, the girl at the front desk remembered my name and was glad to see me. Amazing.

This past weekend I visited Guangzhou with Colin, the Canadian teacher who works at Liuyang Number Two Middle School. He taught down there for about 6 months at a large wealthy private school, and still goes down periodically to see his friends. I won't go into too much detail, but the weekend ended up being so horrible that I (once again) seriously contemplated leaving China for good.

Picture this: me, walking alongside a six lane highway in Guangzhou, having just leaped out of a car driven by a highly intoxicated Chinese man going at extremely high speeds, all the while watching a drunken belligerent Canadian guy beat up his hemophiliac Scottish friend. And by "beat up" I mean full on fist fight with some clothes ripping thrown in for good measure. The evening ended with an uneasy truce over a plate of fried rice, due in part to the intervention by Nelson, a Chinese American photographer who happened to be wandering down the road at 4 in the morning, encountered the ruckus, and convinced Tony, the now shirtless Scottish guy storming down the road, to come back and talk things out. It is at this point that I really must pause to evaluate the state of my life. I conclude that my life here is insane and it's high time for me to be coming home.

I wandered around Guangzhou alone the next day for a few hours, then caught the train back to Changsha by myself. For once, I would like to have a happy weekend in China. I spent the rest of Monday in a depressed funk, feeling quite alone, fantasizing about telling my school that I was calling it quits and hopping on the first plane back to America.

Then I paid Rola a visit and she told me some exciting news. After having gone through four previous miscarriages, she is once again pregnant. She has told four people: her parents, her husband and me. I have never been so genuinely happy for someone...I caught myself wishing that I could be here to see her baby when he is born. She keeps trying to convince me to stay for another year or two, because she will miss me when I am gone. Sometimes, just when I think that my presence here is completely useless, I am reminded that the few people whose lives I do somehow manage to touch make my stay here worthwhile.

So, here I am once again vowing to stick it out and fulfill the rest of my contract. Not like I have any other choice really. Three months left in China, two months left of teaching...
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