A fat raise, a countryside wedding, English speaking contest time, an upcoming trip

JISHOU, HUNAN — April has turned out to be a very busy month, so I’ve been lax in posting here. Here’s a lame attempt at catching up.

Three weeks ago, the slow leak in the bathroom that I’ve put up with for a year started to become a fast leak, so I told my foreign affairs officer, Sue, about it. She arranged for a repairman to come fix it, and by the way asked if I would extend my contract another year.

In fact, I’d been considering this question myself since the start of the winter holiday in January. This is my seventh year in Jishou, and while my pay got a generous boost last year, it’s still below what I could make elsewhere in Hunan, much less almost anywhere else in China. You see, I’d been combing the ESL job boards to see what was available and at what pay level during the winter holiday.

Competing with the purely mercenary aspect of work were two other factors. One, I really hate moving. Not that I have a lot to move, but the hassles of changing banks, addresses, etc., is not something I really enjoy doing unless it’s absolutely necessary. Second, and more important, is the ties I’ve made to the community here, and to my students and colleagues. I’m reluctant to let these go. Plus, there is the added benefit of being one of the few westerners in the area, which has enabled me to snag appearances on TV and even a movie.

So, when Sue asked me if I’d renew, I did the logical thing. I asked for more money.

Sue made no promises, but said she would pitch the proposal — 1,000 RMB more each month — to the university authorities.

And I got it. Sue popped by my apartment late that same night to tell me that I got what I had asked for. I had figured they’d meet me halfway, but Sue must have built up a overwhelming case in my favor.

This is the same woman who spent nearly three hours arguing with the Public Security Bureau last spring when they threatened to deny renewal of my residence permit, because they said I was teaching at another school besides the university. If I ever buy a car in China, I’m asking Sue to come along. She’s good.

Ailsa He Qing and her husband

Ailsa He Qing and her husband

About this same time, I spied some wedding photos in a friend’s QQ zone and offered my congratulations. Ailsa and I had not corresponded much recently, but I knew last year that she had a boyfriend and that marriage was likely. She’s not one of students, officially anyway. We met when she was a freshman at an English Corner, and some time later, we became neighbors and good friends after she became the roommate of a Ukrainian exchange student across the hall from me.

Anyway, she invited me to their wedding party at her husband’s home in the countryside near Changsha on April 18. I was already committed to helping Sophie, a teacher friend, out on Friday in Fenghuang on the 17th, but she reminded me I could take the high speed rail to Changsha, so I could still go to Ailsa’s party.

I got to Changsha later than expected (the morning trains were all booked), but Ailsa and a (sober) neighbor picked me up. We then drove an hour to get to their house, where I found several of their friends already quite drunk, singing karaoke in the front yard. AIlsa’s mother-in-law served me dinner, I drank beer with the drunken buddies of Ailsa’s husband, Mr Peng, and joined in the karaoke.

Then came one of those local Chinese customs that you might never read about in books. This village has its own custom of the bridegroom stripping down to his underwear and going into town to beg for wedding money from local shopkeepers. Imagine, if you will, the sight of about 20 men and women in various states of inebriation walking from shop to shop loudly begging for “lucky money” for the couple.

Peng's brother persuades a cook to give some 'lucky money' to Peng -- the guy with the box around his neck

Peng’s brother persuades a cook to give some ‘lucky money’ to Peng — the guy with the box around his neck

{Ailsa, by the way, had already changed out of her bright red wedding party dress into a plain dress so people could not identify her as the bride.)

In the States, behavior like this would have brought the cops out and some jail time for some of us. But here, it was a kind of tradition and basically harmless. Everyone was in high spirits, and eventually we found a restaurant to have a less raucous late night meal.

Peng’s parents were delighted I came (so was Ailsa), and the elder Peng apologized the next day for the humble circumstances of his home and the simple breakfast of noodles we had. But he also asked me to come again and drink some more baijiu with him.

Yesterday was the 21st annual English speaking contest at the university, and as before, I was one of the judges. This year’s field of 28 contenders included four from our college, three from the foreign language college at the Zhangjiajie campus, and for the first time, three Uyghur students from Xinjiang. Their prompt was “Going out.”

Catherine makes a point

Catherine makes a point

Most of the speeches were rather predictable, focusing on the idea of getting out of the dormitory and away from the Internet to enjoy the outdoors. But the winning entrants were somewhat more imaginative. Perrie, one of the two top winners, said women need to “go out” from traditional roles of wife and mother. She’s a biology major from Kashgar, and one of the Uyghur contestants. Zhang Yali, one of my students, talked about “going out” from our younger selves, using herself as an example. As a middle school student, Yali was moody and semi-reclusive. Now she’s more friendly and open.

Yali’s classmate, Catherine Zhang (see photo at right) gave a more mundane speech, since she had practically no time to prepare, but her stage manner is very good. She’s a contender in my mind, too, once she provides a better speech.

As I’ve mentioned before, these contests are big deal here. We teachers will now work with several of the top students from this local contest to groom three to compete at the provincial level, and (we hope) at the national competition next school year. My money is on Perrie, whose English comes out freely and unself-consciously, and Yali, whose English is not as fluent but is still pretty damn good.

Today and tomorrow are just rest days, aside from a tutorial lesson this afternoon. On Monday, I’ll join the juniors on a “practical experience” trip to Chongqing. They invited me, and the college gave me leave as I’ll miss ten classes during this three-day excursion. It should be fun.

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