The China Chronicles, chapter 1 (2008)

Wheat-dogg’s China Chronicles
Chapter 1 (2008)

THE end of classes here, for me
May 14, 2008

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY — Today marks the end of classes here, and the end of my 24-year-long classroom presence at St. Francis High School (The School of Thought). Beginning next September, I will embark on a new professional activity, teaching English in Hunan, China.

So I am facing today with a mixture of relief, regret and some excitement (while trying to think with a brain fog-bound with a nasty headcold).

Back in the mid-1980s, a co-worker of mine at the University of Louisville arranged for me to observe physics classes at this tiny independent high school downtown. It had a reputation of being “alternative” and I was interested in observing both “regular” and “irregular” classes as part of my master’s degree. So, I sat in the physics classes of Don Esbenshade (Mr. E to his students) for roughly 20 hours.

Don used the Conceptual Physics college text by Paul G. Hewitt, which used a minimal math approach completely new to me. It was a refreshing idea — to teach physics concepts and logic without bogging students down with solving problems using fancy algebra and trigonometry. While St. Francis also taught physics at the AP level, most students took the Conceptual course.

Toward the end of my 20-hour observation time. Don asked if I was interested in taking his place at the school, since he had been planning for a few years to pursue a PhD in physics, which would require him to leave Louisville. Although I not yet finished the master’s program, I said sure. I was tired of living on a grad assistant’s stipend.

The founding head of the school took a chance on me, a former newspaper reporter with little if any classroom experience, since I had the creds and I suppose a supportive recommendation from Esbenshade. I started as a “part-time” teacher — the part-time is in quotes because students immediately corraled me into being the founding adviser to the school’s newspaper. There is no such thing as part-time when you advise a student publication.

Much to my surprise, I was not only pretty good at teaching physics — a subject I love — but I also enjoyed the classroom experience. Our kids then as now were intellectually engaged and engaging, willing to ask questions, challenge thought processes and work on material foreign to them. I learned that physics teachers have the best teaching job in the world — they get to play with “toys” while being paid for it. Lab time was as much fun for the students as it was for me. (Actually, I probably enjoyed it more.)

Other than a year in South Africa on a teaching exchange, I have spent the last 24 years teaching three levels of the physics at the same school. In 2001 I also became the technology coordinator, ending up with a reduced teaching load but a plethora of other hassles. Long ago, I told a student that I would stay with it as long as I enjoyed the work. Once entering the classroom became more of a chore than a fun activity, I figured it would be time to move on.

That point came sometime last academic year. I cannot exactly say when it or how it happened. The kids were still fun to work with (ninth graders take physics here now). Lab work was still engaging. I had plenty of tech challenges and plans to tackle. There was just no sparkle anymore. It may have been a combination of a midlife crisis and incipient empty-nest syndrome, since our youngest would be graduating that May.

While I could have looked for another physics job, or a tech job, I was ready for a real change of pace. For some time, I knew that English teachers were in great demand overseas, and well, I speak English. (And I was a comparative lit major in college.) As it turns out, St. Francis had just started a Chinese language program that fall, importing a woman from Hunan to teach the classes. Toward the end of the school year, I asked Connie if her university back home employed foreigners as English teachers. She said they did, and if I were interested she would mention it to the head of her English department.
Six months later I got an email from China requesting documentation to process my foreign expert visa. At that point I submitted my resignation to St. Francis.

Like Janus I am looking both toward the past and toward the future. On this last day of teaching at St. Francis, I’m reflecting on the countless hours I have spent in three (or four — I forget) different classrooms managing students, assignments, books, lab apparatus, computers and ideas over the last 2.5 decades. At the same time, I (like our seniors) am anticipating a new milieu, new friends, new activities and the requirement to learn new skills, in a country I have never visited.

In a sense, I suppose I am reinventing myself. I have been “Mr Physics” to a generation of students. Had anyone told me in 1984 that I would be spending nearly half my life working and living in the same place I would have told them they were nuts. I didn’t plan to stay this long, but as long as the job was fun, why give up a good thing?

But all good things come to an end, and I figure it’s time for me to step aside and let another teacher be “Mr or Ms Physics.” Whether they stay as long as I have is doubtful. Few young people stay in teaching longer than five years. You never can tell, though. They might discover, as I did, that teaching is surprisingly habit-forming.

Preparing for the China Move
Aug. 6, 2008

FLOYDS KNOBS, INDIANA — Moving is a pain in the ass. Moving yourself overseas is even more so.
Since school ended in May, I’ve have been trying to condense my belongings into a somewhat more manageable size, since my son’s spare bedroom will be our storage locker for the next year. That means being ruthless in discarding or selling stuff.

It’s not easy, lemme tell ya.

In my younger days, it would have been a lot easier. The hardest things to leave behind would have been my LPs. As you get older, you tend to acquire possessions like barnacles on a boat, and sorting through those is difficult. If you have kids, you want to keep their childhood stuff – photos, awards, newspaper clippings, drawings. If you’re the oldest child (or an only child, as I am), with deceased parents, you also have all their stuff to deal with.

It’s not been hard to let go of furniture, save for two or three “nice” items, most of it is disposable. The nice items are going to my kids. The rest are either being sold or handed off to the local Goodwill a few miles down the road.

After decades of being a book hoarder, I finally lost the yen to keep every single book I have touched year ago. Books are heavy and bulky. They’re a pain to pack and unpack. They’re like a boat anchor, tethering you to one place. Still, I have two or three boxes of books I cannot bear to part with, including some I plan to take with me to China.

We watch movies a lot, and record (god knows why) stuff off the TV. (We’ll never watch it again. Really.) After months of hemming and hawing, we finally gave up on VHS tapes, deciding to save only those we will never be able to replace and disposing of the rest. DVD packaging, meanwhile, is pretty to look at, but like books takes up space and weighs a bit. The DVDs are now stuffed into binders.

Small kitchen appliances — the bane of my existence — are useless in China without a ton of AC converters and transformers. They’re all going bye-bye. Ditto cups, mugs, glasses, plates, bowls, pots, pans, knives, forks, etc., etc. (Imagine bringing a wok and a bamboo steaming basket INTO China!) With a few exceptions, they are all replaceable. We don’t need to keep them.

The remaining car will go either to our 16-year-old niece of Hannah Montana extras fame or the VA. Our clothes, other than the stuff we will probably need to wear in China, is going to the Goodwill. Clothes are cheap there. My desktop computer, after I sanitize its hard drives, will go to my former place of employment.

That’s the easy stuff, the stuff that has no sentimental or intrinsic monetary value. It sounds radical to dispose of so much, but the alternatives are less savory. I could keep all of it, spending money to store it someplace. (Waste of money.) I could ship it to China. (Ha ha ha … no.)

I envy those corporate types who get move their entire households abroad because their firms are paying for the moves. Professionals come in, pack up their stuff, and sometime later it all reappears in their new domicile. Plebes like me don’t have that luxury. It’s a DIY thing for us.

So for peace of mind and preservation of capital, the non-essential and replaceable go. The essential and irreplaceable stay.

What does that leave? Obviously, the things you need to bring with you — clothes, toiletries, shoes, laptaps, teaching materials (in my case) — compacted down into one or two large checked bags. There’s the dog, who cannot come to China and would not survive a 15-hour flight in any event, who needs a new home.

And all the sentimental, quasi-historical items that older people acquire and for whatever purpose want to preserve for themselves and perhaps for future generations.

For the last two months, I have been sorting through the sentimental stuff that my grandparents and parents — and we — have accumulated, scanning what I judge worth preserving, and (gasp!) throwing away about half of it. For a genetically-predisposed packrat, the throwing-away part is heart-wrenching, you have no idea. (A less biased or genetically challenged sorter could have probably pared the detritus down another 25%, I reckon.)

Remember those LPs I mentioned? Still have them, but not for much longer. They have been gradually been converted to mp3’s, using a really nice linear-tracking turntable, a preamp and my desktop PC. (Yea, Audacity!) I can now fit my entire music collection (CDs and LPs) on one portable hard drive, instead of several boxes.

I’m pretty much done with the sorting and scanning. The music is nearly all digitized. I’m selling some things on eBay and craigslist, giving a lot away to the Goodwill, and I know where most of what we still have sitting around is going.

Now if modern technology could just perfect digitizing people, pets and luggage and squirting them through the Internet to their destinations …

You say visa, I say ‘why sir?’
Aug. 7, 2008

FLOYDS KNOBS, INDIANA — You can’t get into China without a visa.

Sure, I had a signed contract and plenty of emails zipping back and forth between here and Hunan to give the new job a semblance of reality, but …

you can’t get into China without a visa.

So when the visa documents came in the mail last Thursday, the China sojourn finally moved from the nebulous to the definite. Only one more hoop remains to jump through — get the bloody thing pasted into the passport.

Taking a job overseas requires a few extra steps than just moving across these United States.
To teach in China, you need (a) a job offer (duh!), (b) an invitation letter from the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs, (c) an invitation letter from the local Chinese Public Security Bureau, and (d) the aforementioned visa. The Chinese employer generally takes care of (b) and (c), since they must originate from local government offices, once you provide the necessary documents (photos, medical examination forms, copies of passports and credentials). This process takes a couple of months. Without (b) and (c), you can’t get a Z-visa (for “foreign experts”), so I was on pins and needles until the all-important invitation letters came via China Post and USPS last Thursday.

You see, I had a niggling doubt in the back of my head that the job would fall through, leaving me in the lurch, or that the documents would come too late. With the invitation letters in hand (I had to check on line to see if what I had in hand were in fact the required forms), all that remains is (e), the actual visa, which requires a trip to the nearest Chinese consulate, which for us is in Chicago.

The turnaround for a visa is four days, so I’m in much better shape than we were in January 2000, when we picked up our South African visas at the main post office just hours before boarding the plane for Amsterdam. Still, there are some niggling details to complete.

Although I have already provided passport-size mugshots to my Chinese employer for the (b) and (c) applications, the Chinese consulate wants mugshots, too. Those can be obtained at the consulate, or on your own. You also need to complete a visa application form, called the Q-1, which is not the same as the applications for the invitation letters. … Sigh … Furthermore, all this needs to be in person, since China’s consulates do not process visas by mail.

The bright side? If I were still living in Kentucky, I would have had to go to Washington, D.C., to get the visas. Now that I jumped across the Ohio River to live in Indiana, I can go to the considerably closer Second City, a mere five-hour drive away.

While I’m on the subject of visa acquisitions, it would be a good time to gloss on the Chinese medical exam requirement. The examination is more than a cursory listen-to-your-heart, tap-your-knees-with-the-hammer thing. China wants to make sure their foreign experts are not going to drop dead or be Typhoid Marys while within its borders. Sensible, but arduous, particularly if your doctor (or in my case a licensed registered nurse practitioner) wants also to make sure you don’t drop dead. The examination requires blood tests for STDs (including HIV/AIDS) and other communicable diseases, a chest X-ray, an EKG, and a checklist for prior or existing physical and psychological ailments. The blood tests were fine, but we discovered on the day of the exam that my bad cough was not due to my usual springtime allergies but to a nasty case of bronchitis. As a result, my chest X-ray didn’t look all that great. To make matters worse, the antihistamines I was taking for my allergies must have made my heartbeat flutter a bit, making the EKG look funny, so our LRNP signed me up for a stress test at a local hospital, and another chest X-ray once the bronchitis cleared up.

My bronchitis cleared up well before the stress test. The nurse and the tech put me on a treadmill, wired me to the monitors and cranked the treadmill up (and tilted it, too) to simulate a very brisk walk uphill. The goal was to get my heart rate up to a target of 168 bpm (we hit 171 actually), then check my recovery. I was winded after the simulated mountain climb, but I passed the test. Guess taking the stairs most of the time at school for 24 years helped.

So, when all was said and done, the medical examinations required three visits to our doctor, a stress test and — thank goodness for medical insurance — about $75 in co-pays. (Insurance paid for the stress test — $1560! I could have bought my own treadmill for that kind of money!)

Looking back on this process so far, I have to wonder how many other people would be as crazy as I am to want to go through all this extra paperwork. After all, I’m taking a huge pay cut to teach in Hunan, similar to the drop in pay I experienced when I went from reporter to graduate assistant and later part-time teacher. I suppose that’s one way for governments to weed out applicants who are merely casually interested in working in their countries. You have to really want to take this kind of job to put up with all the extra hassle.

Well, my next step toward China will be to fetch the visas in Chicago. Hopefully, nothing noteworthy will happen there.

Visa looping in the loop
Aug 22, 2008

CHICAGO — It’s not quite an Olympic sport yet, but maybe some other world travelers can relate to this tale of consular ping-pong. Since I need a Chinese visa and my daughter also needs a visa to be an au pair in France, we made a father-daughter road trip to my second-favorite city, Chicago. I’m not sure it ended up being hers.

As I related previously, my all-important, have-to-have-them-to-get-a-visa papers came a couple of weeks ago from China. I was free to go up to Chi at any time to get the visa, but it seemed pointless for both D. and I to go separately. The French consulate sets appointments, and hers was yesterday, so we left the L.A. (that’s “Louisville area” for you outlanders) Wednesday afternoon. We stayed overnight in Lafayette, Indiana, close to Purdue, where we had very tasty Indian food at the Taj Majal with my youngest son, a sophomore Boilermaker.

Our plan was to get up at 6 ET and leave Lafayette at 7, but in fact both D. and I were awake in our beds well before our alarms went off. I didn’t check, but I figure I woke up around 4:30 am. Stupid, but what can you do?

So, after wending our way through the seemingly endless highway improvement project near the I-65/I-80 junction, we arrived in Chicago around 8:15 CT in time to (unwittingly) get the early-bird special at the self-park garage near the Chinese visa office at 1 East Erie ($16 for the day).

We waited outside for the visa office to open around 8:30. The Chinese operate their Chicago visa office a bit like the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Social Security office. You take a number, depending on what kind of service you need, and sit until your number is called. Once mine was called, I went up to the designated window, handed the young woman my forms (and copies — the consulate website does not mention this tiny detail, but I was prepared after my daughter prompted me to make some the day before). The young woman sent me to a different window to pay $10 for my 2″x2″ mugshot to attach to the application form. We then waited for about another 45 minutes while the Polaroid photos developed. Around 10, my name was called and I was handed my original forms back and told to return at 2 pm to pick up my passport with its shiny new visa.

My daughter’s appointment was at 11:30, so we moseyed on down to Michigan Plaza (at Lake and Michigan) where the French have their consulate on the 37th floor. This first of several Michigan Avenue meanders took less than 30 minutes, so we walked around a bit, then grabbed a snack at Au Bon Pain in the Aon Center. Around 11, we found our way back to Michigan Plaza and zoomed up to the visa office.

There we found a drastically smaller office with one woman at the desk and several 20-somethings awaiting a call up to the desk. Like the Chinese, the French visa office take walk-in applicants, but do not assign numbers. The plan here was apparently to handle the walk-ins on the first-come, first-served basis, then to call the names of applicants with appointments. The thing is, they all had the same appointment time (11:30) and no one was called up to the desk until almost 11:50! How very gallic.

Well, anyway, my daughter went up with her forms (plus the requisite copies, which the French do advertise in advance) but with a snag. When applying for a work visa, you of course have to show proof you actually have a job overseas. D.’s employers sent scanned images of her contract to her, but two of the four images were corrupted. The consular person told her she had to have all four pages to obtain a visa. It was now about 12:30, and we had to act fast.

To save us some effort (and sweat — it was about 78 F and 66% humidity there), we left both our laptops in the trunk of the car. So, we trudged back up to the parking garage next to the Chinese consulate, and headed for the adjacent (I’m so sorry) Starbucks to obtain some wi-fi and yet another snack, so my daughter could check her e-mail for new, improved contract images.

[A digression, and I hope Starbucks people read this part. In my neck of the woods, the less-than-cosmopolitan southern Indiana county of Floyd, when you visit a local coffee shop, you turn on your laptop, and log in to the Internet. No muss, no fuss. Now I understand that Chicago is a much busier place with tons of wireless signals zipping around, but why the hell does Star$$ make it so hard to get a wireless connection? After trying unsuccessfully with her Mac, my daughter, on the advice of the barista, bought a Star$$ card to buy a few minutes of wireless time. Well, forget that. Maybe it was Safari, or maybe our wee little brains were too fried from lack of sleep, but our combined wee little brains could not break out of an endless loop of T-Mobile/AT&T wireless pages prompting us for usernames and passwords. No joy. There’s got be an easier way, Starbucks people, eh?]

In the end, we resorted to calling D.’s employing family in the middle of dinner (France time) to ask them to fax the pages directly to the visa office. Since they speak English and my daughter speaks French (good plan, that!), this exchange went reasonably well.

By now, it was approaching 1:30, so we walked around the corner to the Chinese visa office, and while D. visited the loo, I figured to visit the pick-up window early to see if my passport was ready. W00t! It was. So, $160 poorer I met my daughter by the elevators, fait accompli. (My employer will reimburse the visa fee, btw.)

Once again, we meandered down Michigan Avenue to pay our respects to the French visa office. It was now threatening to rain, but fortunately mother nature held off any serious precipitation for later on. There we found another batch of 20-somethings, plus a somewhat older airline pilot, awaiting visa bliss. Lo! The faxes from France had arrived in our absence (merci, Mme de la Ville!) and D. was now in the loop (ha ha, loop again, Chicago Loop … oh, well, nevermind …) to be be-visaed. At 3:30 we were finally done, and began our last Michigan Avenue meander back to the parking garage, to get the heck out Chicago before rush hour started.

Under different circumstances, I would liked to spend a bit more time in Chicago, since I love the place, having spent a summer there right after college. I like walking around Chi, even if it’s the same six-block stretch of Michigan Avenue, but my daughter did not like it quite as much. She was ready to leave, now! (Love of big cities is apparently, then, not genetic.) With little sleep, tired feet and a six-hour drive ahead of us, I had to abandon designs of visiting the lakeshore and such for the ultimately more practical takeoff. Sorry, Second City. Maybe next time …

China travel plans, take 1
Aug 25, 2008
FLOYDS KNOBS, INDIANA — With visa in hand, my next step is to actually get to China.

In June I booked flights through a discounter, www.cfares.com. You can join for free and search for and book domestic and international flights, as well as hotels. There are three main choices for arriving airports in China: Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. As it turns out, the HK prices were somewhat lower and placed me somewhat closer to my final destination. Besides, I figured that landing in HK would ease my transition, since they speak English in HK.

My ticket cost $663 one-way to Hong Kong. I fly out of Louisville Wednesday morning and cool my heels in Chicago-O’Hare for a couple of hours, before boarding a 15-hour nonstop to HK. Crossing the International Date Line means I arrive Friday afternoon (local time).

Originally, I was all gung-ho about immediately boarding a plane or train bound for Hunan. After some reflection, it seemed wiser to stay at a hotel after so long a journey. So, returning to the wonders of the Internet, I went to www.hotels.com and www.lonelyplanet.com to scope out a reasonable compromise between cost and amenities. (In other words, I didn’t want a hostel or the Ritz, but something in-between.) The best choice seemed to be the YMCA International House in Kowloon, for several reasons. Despite its association with the YMCA, it is not at all like the YMCA’s here in the states. It’s really a hotel, which might explain why the hotel will be renamed The Citylights in September. Cost: about US$80. It’s near two major metro stations, one of which I need to get to the mainland. And finally, there is a cheap shuttle service by coach from HK International Airport right to the hotel. While I could also take the metro or bus, lugging my bags in either did not seem that appealing.

Since the re-acquisition of Hong Kong from the British Empire in 1999, China has made rail travel between HK and the mainland much easier. There are now regular trains to Guangzhou (Canton) leaving practically on the hour, and direct express trains to Beijing and Shanghai. Guangzhou is a major rail hub, where I will have to changes trains (and train stations) to board an overnight train to Jishou, Hunan. The HK-Guangzhou trains leave from Hung Hom station, not far from the hotel, and take about 1.5 to 2 hours to reach Guangzhou East train station, where foreigners can go through passport clearance. (From what I have read, the East station was built both to accommodate foreign nationals and to solve some security issues in the larger main train depot.) The cost of the ride is about US$25.

About 7 km away is the main train station. There is a regular bus connection between the two train stations on the No. 272 line, costing RMB 2 (or about 25 cents). From Guangzhou station, I plan to board the N596/N597 train which heads north toward Xiangtan, just south of Changsha, Hunan, then veers west toward Huaihua and then north to Jishou (and further to Zhangjiajie). This train is air conditioned, leaving Guangzhou at 10:18 pm, arriving in Jishou 2:22 pm. (An earlier train, while cheaper, is not air conditioned. It would arrive in Jishou at 5:33 in the morning.)

Chinese trains typically have four “classes” — in order of increasing cost, they are hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. The seats do not recline, so overnight travelers either have to be exceptionally tough or insomniacs. Hard sleepers are stacked three to a side and six to a berth; while bedding is provided, the quarters are a tight fit. Soft sleepers are more comfortable and somewhat more private. There are four soft berths in each compartment.

For the train I plan to take, the ticket for a soft sleeper is US$62. Why can’t Amtrak be like this?

One concern I have, which I have not yet had answered, is whether I can buy the Guangzhou-Jishou ticket the day of the departure or whether I need to buy it in advance. If the latter is the case, I may either stay in HK another day or find lodging in Guangzhou.


Reflections on leaving Louisville

Aug. 29, 2008
CHICAGO — Today was the day I have been spending the last six months preparing for. Its arrival is almost anticlimactic. Or maybe it’s because I’m suffering from sleep deprivation.

Yesterday, we had to had to get up at 3:30 am to meet Darcy at the airport. Her flight to Paris via Houston left at 6 am. I didn’t bother going to sleep; I just stayed up getting myself ready for my flight out.

She will be working for a year as an au pair in Angouleme, near Bordeaux. After some quick shopping in the airport gift shop for suitable gifts for her French family, she said her goodbyes to us. There were some tears, but I suspect they were mostly because she was leaving her boyfriend behind. (No offense taken, cherie!)

I miss those halcyon days of accompanying your loved ones to the gate and waiting with them until they boarded. It was more civilized than these hasty goodbyes on the opposite side of the security checkpoints. Somehow (and it might just be me) saying goodbye at the gates is more personal than in the middle of the main concourse, even in Louisville’s small airport. It was busy Tuesday there (for Louisville), so there were lots of people coming and going.

Not so today, when I left. The Louisville airport was practically like a ghost town by comparison. Check-in went smoothly (e-tickets are next best thing to direct deposit), and surprisingly, so did the security check. Everybody was pretty laid back, despite those annoying public address announcements of “security levels are high” (which they seem to be all the time, for no apparent reasons). But then again, it’s Louisville. We’re all laid back here.

I am traveling with three bags: one checked bag, a carry-on and a small camera bag for my Nikon FM and accessories. While United allows two checked bags on international flights free of charge, the Chinese train system allows only one. Extra bags are assessed a fee. Originally, I figured I would take two checked bags, my big duffle-like thing on wheels and a garment bag, and pay the extra fees. But then I decided that carrying four bags was not all that appealing, despite the possibility of taking more stuff. More bags means more weight, more effort and more things to worry about juggling and/or losing. So, I settled on taking one checked bag, figuring I could compact my stuff down into the big wheeled duffle.

Well, it took four tries to get it right. Following the guidance of the packing expert at www.onebag.com, I learned how to pack my clothes into bundles, instead of just folding them individually, to minimize wrinkles and creases. (Bundling means you place your shirts and pants, for example, in a plus-sign pattern, with a small bundle (toiletry case, first aid kit) in the middle. Then you fold the legs and sleeves over the central bundle to make a larger bundle. Pretty cool. You end up with a flat, rectangular kit that is easy to pick up and insert into your bag. I made two, to stack on top of each other.

United allows 23 kg (50 lbs) for each international passenger’s checked bag, but the Chinese rail system allows only 20 kg (44 lbs). Getting that one bag down below 20 kg was a trick in itself. I wanted to bring books, both to read and to use in class, important financial papers, and of course clothes. Including all the books I wanted to take, my camera tripod, shoes, toiletry kit, and clothes pushed the load up over 25 kilos. So I had to jettison the tripod, a few not-so-important-I-won’t-die-without-them books, and scale down my selection of clothing. After four trials, I managed to get the duffle down to 19.5 kilos (43 lbs).

Here’s what’s in it, in case you care.

The books include the Oxford American Dictionary, an English grammar book I found a few days ago at Carmichael’s, The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway), The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck), A Christmas Carol (Dickens), The Call of the Wild (London), short stories by O. Henry, Cryptonomicon (Stephenson — I love his similes and metaphors), and a guide to Chinese customs and manners. I may have also packed, but now have forgotten whether I set them aside, Como agua para chocolate (Esquivel), Cuentos de Eva Luna (Allende) and a Spanish-English dictionary. (Yes, I know, reading Spanish movels in China … what am I thinking?) All other my other selections were available on-line, so I decided the physical specimens could stay in Kentucky.

Clothing: navy blue blazer, two pairs of khakis, three dressy shirts, three polo and/or T-shirts, several neckties, one belt, swimsuit, shorts, lots of socks and underwear, fleece jacket, nylon windbreaker, down jacket (compressed in one of those spacebag thingies), pair dressy shoes, a hand towel, facecloth and small bath towel. Minimal, but clothing in China is inexpensive, so I can buy anything else there.

Miscellaneous: a Centre College acrylic plastic coffee mug, a St. Francis High School plastic cup, two Swiss-Army knives (one a penknife), U.S. Army exercise book and rubber tubing (courtesy of my eldest son), toiletry case, two rolls of toilet paper (Chinese loos do not usually have it), a wall calendar, some financial records, a couple of USA maps and a few assorted computer-related oddments I don’t need straight away.

My carry-on doubles as my laptop bag. Besides the laptop and its power supply, the bag also contains an external USB-powered hard drive with a crap load of music on it, a digital camera, a USB cardreader, a webcam, all my China-related employment and visa documentation, eight rolls of color film (bought on sale at Meijer), TSA-approved toiletries in a TSA-approved ziploc bag, a notepad (for those times when the laptop has no power available), an emergency set of clothes (less the pants), The Rough Guide to China, The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood), and a few other miscellaneous items.

The camera bag has a Nikon FM body, a 35-80-mm zoom lens, a 200-mm telephoto, a motor drive and a speedlight. (The replacements for what got sucked out of the back of my car two months ago.)

As I sat in the plane at the Louisville airport awaiting our departure, I had a fleeting sense that I was doing a potentially stupid thing. After all, I am leaving a comfortable job, which to be fair was getting a little old after 23 years, a support system consisting of a bucketload of friends and family members, and the security of having lived in the same place for half my life. Instead, I am flying clear across the world to do something I have never done before (teach English as a second language to more than six people at a time), in a place where I know exactly one person fairly well and a few others only electronically, to live there for a year, maybe two. Holy shit! What have I done?

The feeling passed, fortunately, or I’d be a basket case right now, instead of calmly sitting on the floor at gate C22 at the O’Hare Airport typing this into my laptop. I set this whole process in motion a year and half ago when I inquired about teaching English at Jishou University, knowing that the following year would be my last at St. Francis High School. Everything that has happened since has fallen into place so effortlessly, that it seems as if this major life change is the right thing to do. (The Chinese believe 8 is a lucky number; August is the eight month of 2008. So there.) It is a bit scary, I will admit, but one cannot grow without change and challenge. It sure beats being stale.

Over the top of the world
Sept. 1, 2008
HONG KONG, August 28 — My flight from the USA to here was a tedious 15-hour affair. Those of you who fly coach know what I mean: hard seats, minimal legroom, insufficient recline angle. To make it worse, while I arrived in Chicago well ahead of schedule, the plane to Hong Kong sat at the gate for an hour while the maintenance crew fixed some undefined mechanical problem and topped off the tanks. Now, I agree it’s important to make sure your 747 works right while cruising 11 km (35,000 ft) up in the air and has enough fuel to arrive at its destination, but it seems these standard fix-its could have been done either quicker or before boarding the passengers. Poo on you, United.

I did travel further north than I have before, since we went over the top of the world. Whether I should count that as a personal travel milestone depends on whether I bend my own rules. Marking the farthest points north, east, west or south I’ve traveled on a map has meant I have actually touched land, not flown over it or wandered around an airport. The farthest north I’ve been has been Reykjavik, Iceland, just a notch below the Arctic Circle. Our route to Hong Kong crossed the circle twice, north of Canada’s northern territories and north of Siberia.

Polar routes

If I could have actually seen the ground (or ice floes, as the case may be), I suppose I could fudge the rules and bump Iceland as an also-ran. As it turned out, the entire top of the world seemed to under a thick layer of clouds. So was Siberia and most of China, too. The clouds lifted in time for me to catch a beautiful view of Hong Kong and its harbours. Alas, I cannot offer you any pictures of it, because of circumstances I shall explain later.

Originally, our flight was to take 14 hours, before the one-hour gate delay. There were headwinds part of the way, too, so our actual time to Hong Kong was closer to 15.5 hours — we didn’t actually touch ground until 5:45 pm Hong Kong time.

During the flight, I tried to sleep, but it was more like dozing. I just cannot fall asleep sitting up in an airline seat, no matter how tired I am. So I did the best I could to maintain a functional level of wakefulness. If I could put off real sleep until arriving at my hotel, I could sleep well during the night and wake up synchronized with local time. (It worked, by the way. I woke up Friday morning at 5:30 fully refreshed, as they say. My family will be amazed; I never wake up that early normally.)

Hong Kong International Airport is one of those sprawling affairs that require you to walk a lot, take a shuttle train, then walk some more. Everything is well marked in both Chinese and English, with appropriate arrows and pictograms, so you can’t get lost. The first step of course is to go through passport control. Unlike its associate, the mainland government, Hong Kong does not require visas in advance of arrival. You get your passport stamped at the airport.

From there, I was pleasantly surprised to find my big wheelie duffle actually followed me to Hong Kong. So, after placing my bags on a free luggage cart (no stupid coin slots to deal with, as in the USA), I passed through customs (nothing to declare — I’m traveling light), I proceeded to the hotel shuttle service desks.

I could have taken the cheaper route, taking the metro line’s Airport Express, which would have cost me about 50 cents in US currency, but I was bone tired and in no state to lug a 20-kg (44-lb) bag around an unfamiliar city’s metro system. So I opted for the door-to-door service of the Airport HoteLink coaches. Cost: HK$120, or about US$16. My hotel is about 45 minutes from the airport, so by the time I arrived at the YMCA International House (now known The CityView) it was close to 9:00 pm local time and dark. (No daylight saving time here.)

Feeling as wrung out as I was, I could see my plan to stay in Hong Kong one night and leaving the next day for the mainland was not a good idea. I booked the room for another night (US$85), so I could explore my travel options with a clear mind the next day.

The CityView is an architecturally clean, modern hotel on a par with a Radisson or Holiday Inn in the US. Not at all what you would expect the YMCA to be operating, which might explain the name change … marketing. My room is smaller than US standards, more like a Motel 6, but you get two comfy beds, a minifridge, a room safe, a TV (with 14 channels skewed toward news and business — HK is a commercial powerhouse after all) and a decently sized bathroom.

Turning the lights on took me a minute to figure out. Your keycard also serves to turn on your room’s electrical power. Next to the door is a slot; as long as the keycard is in the slot, the room has power. Nice energy-saver. Beside the bed is a master control box, allowing you to operate all of the room’s lights and the TV, set the room temperature, and of course have an alarm clock, all without leaving your bed.

I stayed up only long enough to log onto the Internet and email the folks back home. Once finished, I was sound asleep in minutes.

Tell Jackie Chan I like Hong Kong
Sept. 1, 2008
HONG KONG, August 29 — OK, I’m a city boy, having grown up near New York City, so big cities don’t freak me out. In fact, Hong Kong has some advantages over New York; it’s generally cleaner, the metros are faster and quieter, and the streets are safer to walk on. On first impression, then, Hong Kong gets my thumbs up.

Awaking at (for me) the uncharacteristically early hour of 5:30 am, I had plenty of time to clean up and organize my day before taking a Western style breakfast (HK$118 or about US$15) in one of the hotel’s restaurants. I had several matters to take care of.

1. Get a new battery or charger for my digital camera, which arrived dead as a doornail.

2. Turn my traveler’s checks into local currency.

3. Figure out how to get out of Hong Kong and into mainland China. It’s not as straightforward as one might think.

4. Do touristy things: take the Star Ferry across Victoria Bay and take the Peak Tram up to the top of Victoria Peak.

5. Scope out the neighborhood.

After breakfast, I set out into the unknown. The CityView in the Yau Ma Tei neighborhood of Kowloon. (If you click on that link, and zoom in on the map, the hotel is marked with the number 7.) Hong Kong, like New York City, comprises a handful of sections, like boroughs. Kowloon is on a peninsula attached to the mainland, across the bay from Hong Kong Island, sort of like the Bronx is north of Manhattan Island. According to the guidebooks, Yau Ma Tei is not a tourist enclave; they typically stay further south near the bay, so walking the streets gave me a sense of everyday local life.

At 7:30 it’s amazingly quiet. Most of the shops do not open until 9 (if you’re lucky), so you will see people milling about getting to work, or prepping their shops and stalls for the day’s business. Forget about transacting any business that early, though.

Yau Ma Tei is also famous for its street markets, with a street for food stalls (Reclamation Street, clothing (the Ladies Market on Tung Choi Street), and electronics and camera gear (on Sai Yeung Choi St. South). I headed first for that, figuring it was the best place to find my battery charger.

Or so I thought. When in a new place, I tend to get turned around, so instead of heading north and east I headed south and west, ending up in Reclamation Street’s food market. That was educational in itself. While I was not going to be customer, it was still fascinating to see the variety of fruits, vegetables and meats on display, or to watch the people buy their provisions for the day. There was a photo shop open a block away, but he did not sell batteries. The shopkeeper told me to wait until the Nikon camera shop across the street opened around 9; he would have what I wanted.

So I wandered around some, taking in the local colour and checking out the variety of shops were for the most part still shuttered. When I came back around 9:15, the Nikon shop was still closed, so I figured I’d take my business to the electronics market on Sai Yeung Choi St. where I was originally headed anyway. Along the way, I stopped in at a 7 Eleven (they also have Circle K, also known here as OK, and Krispy Kreme here; alas Krispy Kreme was closed still) to get a bottled water.

Walking around Hong Kong this time of year makes you sweat. By 9 the temperature was already in the 80s and peaked around 92 F, so I was thirsty. The Bonaqua bottled water was one of several “isotonic” brands, water blended with electrolytes and vaguely sweet, like Gatorade or Powerade without the garish colours. I had finished it by the time I reach an open camera shop, where the owner quickly found what I needed. Cost: HK$460 or about US$60 for a new battery, battery charger and AC adapter plug.

Whilst wandering the streets of Yau Ma Tei, I was also trying to find a place to exchange my traveler’s checks for Hong Kong dollars. My hotel was able to exchange my remaining US dollars into local bills, but could not convert the traveler’s checks. (I had $100 denomination checks. I can now see why experts advise getting smaller denominations. A C-note is about HK$750.) All right, when American Express tells you their traveler’s checks are welcome everywhere, don’t believe them. I went to no less than five banks along Nathan Road (a main drag running north-south through Yau Ma Tei), including HSBC, the Bank of China, and Shanghai Bank, before I hit paydirt (literally) at the main Kowloon office of Hang Seng — the same bank associated with the HK stock index. There a very business-like young woman minutely studied me, my passport and my checks, asking for my hotel address and room number, before politely handing me a fistful of Hong Kong dollars.

By this time, I was pretty damp so I headed back to the hotel to drop off my purchases, change my shirt from a soaked Oxford cloth to a dry shortsleeve, and gear up for the afternoon.

Since my breakfast was pretty filling, if a tad pricey, I decided to work through lunchtime and head for the train terminus to find out about my options there, then do my touristy things. To put this part of my plan into effect, I would have to experience the local metro system, the MTR. The hotel is a half-block away from the Yau Ma Tei station on Nathan Road. MTR has automated ticket dispensers. You press your destination on the touchscreen, insert payment, and you get an access card and your change. The card goes in a slot in the turnstile, then is spit back out. You need to keep it to get through the turnstiles at the other end.

The MTR stations are clean, modern and well marked. They put New York’s venerable subway system to shame. No guesswork. If you pay attention, you will know where your train is and which way it’s going.

Why I didn’t go further and transfer to another line to get to the intercity train station I don’t know. Maybe it was some masochistic yearning to walk in 90-degree heat and soak (or be soaked) in the environment. Or maybe I was just stupid. In any event, I eventually arrived at the Hung Hom train station adjacent to the convenient MTR stop I didn’t use. (Instead I walked from the Jordan station along Austin Road, past the Kowloon Country Club and Hong Kong Polytech.)

At the train station, I discovered that my understanding of intercity trains here was basically flawed. I knew there were fast trains from Hong Kong to Beijing, which I had erroneously assumed from online timetable stopped at Changsha, Hunan, where I planned to catch another train to Jishou. Not that easy. The train, according to three ticket agents in three separate locations, passes Changsha but does not stop there. [NOTE: I later found I was correct. The T98 train stops at Changsha. I know. I was there.] I did find out there were regular trains to Shenzhen on the mainland, where I could get another train to my destination. No pre-booking necessary. Just show up and get on board.

With a better sense of my options, I decided to set travel issues aside and become a tourist. Now an expert MTR rider, I hopped on the metro to East Tsim Sha Tsui, which would put me near the Star Ferry pier.

This ferry line has been in operation for more than a century, and is a local landmark (if that’s the right word to use). Like the MTR, there are automated ticket dispensers. For a few dollars, you board a boat that’s seen a few years but is still is excellent shape, and motor across Victoria Bay to Central Pier 15 minutes away. While cruising you can take in the impressive Hong Kong skyline and the busy harbour traffic.

Directions to the Peak Tram are pretty clear, but having a map is handy. I had the one provided by a tour magazine in my hotel room, which enabled me to walk from Central Pier to the Peak Tram station. (Which I completely missed, as it turns out, missing an important turn and ending up walking up a steep hill past the US consulate.)

The Peak Tram is another local historic site, in operation for 120 years. It is actually a funicular railway, a cable car that proceeds directly up a steep incline. Built back in the days of British rule, it enabled the well-to-do Brits to commute from their homes on the substantially cooler and quieter Victoria Peak to the hotter and noisier Hong Kong proper. Residents still use it for that purpose, riding alongside the tourists.

At the top Hong Kong has made a combination tourist trap/shopper’s paradise, a vertical mall with pricey brand-name shops and restaurants, a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum with realistic likenesses of, among others, hometown boys Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and an observation deck, the Sky Plaza. I had bought the combination ticket for HK$48, giving me ready access to the Sky Plaza as well as a roundtrip on the tram. I stopped to eat a late lunch at Hong Kong Day, a little place that offers up local dishes: I had a chicken stir-fried rice and 7-Up with salty lemon for HK$58 (about US$8). (The salty lemon sounds gross, but actually is very tasty. Gives the drink a nice tang.)

[An aside: Soft drinks like Coke and 7-Up are bottled locally, and they do not use high fructose corn syrup. Instead they use sugar, like we did in the old days. So soft drinks here don’t have that syrupy cloyishness most US soft drinks have. They actually quench your thirst.]

Click here for a 360-degree view of Hong Kong from the Sky Plaza.

After using up another roll of film on the Sky Plaza, I retraced my steps to Kowloon, walking through Harbour City on the Kowloon side of the bay, another huge shopping center. I alighted at the Yau Ma Tei station around 6 pm and spent the rest of evening nursing my sore feet, charging up my digital camera battery and researching travel options further.

Hong Kong? It’s all right. Come for a visit.

One country, two systems and a border
Sept. 2, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — You would think getting to mainland China from Hong Kong would be a piece of cake. Well, it is, up to a point.

The problem is that Hong Kong is not completely part of the rest of China. Yet. When the British lease to Hong Kong ran out in 1999, the Chinese government vowed to keep Hong Kong’s freewheeling capitalist economy and society intact, after reunification. “One country, two systems,” was the slogan.

So, what does that mean, practically speaking? The vigorous mercantile and commercial economy of Hong Kong remains in place. (In fact, the mainland economy is doing a good job of imitating it.) The local government still holds elections as before — I saw campaign signs up everywhere, ads on the TV, and supporters in the street handing out flyers. As near as I could tell, Hong Kong is operating just as it had before the handover, without any sign of the Union Jack or Her Majesty the Queen anywhere, of course.

Hong Kong still has its own currency, so the Queen’s likeness still gets carried around in one’s pockets, but Hong Kong dollars cannot be spent officially in the rest of China. Likewise, Chinese yuan have to be exchanged for Hong Kong dollars if you expect to pay for anything. They are close to equal in value against the US dollar, but not exactly. One HK dollar does not equal one yuan.

Back in the day, I suppose, proposing to cross the border in either direction would have been a fool’s game. Now it is easier. In fact, there are so many ways to get from Hong Kong to the rest of China that the choices are pretty overwhelming. And not all that clear.

Here’s what I mean.

By air:
(1) From Hong Kong International Airport, you can book flights to the major cities in China. But these are considered international flights, so they are pretty expensive. And, as I have said here before, you can’t get into China without a visa, so you have to plan ahead.
(2) A better choice is to fly out of Shenzhen International Airport, in Guangdong Province just across the border. From HKIA, you can take a shuttle flight, a ferry, or a bus to Shenzhen Airport, and save quite a bit of cash. Domestic flights from Shenzhen are dirt cheap in comparison to identical HK-originating flights. And there are more choices of destinations.

By sea:
I toyed with this route, but different sources gave conflicting information about cost, dock locations, and departure times. Since I was operating under a bit of a deadline, I scotched the ferries, but it would have been cool. These are hydrofoil boats, so they are quick. From Hong Kong to Shenzhen, the ferry takes about 90 minutes to 2 hours. (If you are an avid Jackie Chan film buff, you may have seen these hydrofoils in some of his Hong Kong based movies. I saw no hovercraft, however.)

By rail:
(1) From Hong Kong, take a high-speed express to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. I saw on the Internet that the Beijing train stopped in Changsha, in Hunan, so I wanted to buy this ticket. Ticket agents in Hong Kong told me the train was a non-stop. They were wrong, as it turns out.
(2) There are also direct, but slower trains to Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
(3) Or, you can take the MTR metro to the east line’s terminus in Lo Wu, walk across the border (fulfilling all necessary formalities, of course), and board another train in Shenzhen. The two rail stations sit on either side of the border. This, I suspect, is the cheapest way to cross. A MTR fare, even to the end of the line, is less than US$1.

As you can see, the possibilities are myriad. My original plan, of course, was to take the trains. Spending an extra day in Hong Kong, though, suggested I should cut down my travel time and take a plane instead. Classes started Monday, and I was leaving on Saturday. Any train ride would be an overnight trip. (China is kinda big, you know.)

Since I actually entered Hong Kong, any version of my leaving it would require passing through immigration on the Hong Kong side then doing the same on the China side. This little detail somehow eluded my careful research. Had I been aware of the extra formalities involved, I might have chosen to land in a different city. The border formalities were the least of my worries, though.

NEXT: How I actually got here

Holy intermodal transport, Batman!
Sept. 2, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I planned my departure from Kong Kong carefully, but the actual trip was not as smooth as I had expected.

Given my available funds, and time remaining before classes started here, I decided to fly in to China instead of taking the train. There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Zhangjiajie, the nearest airport to Jishou. Those flights leave from Shenzhen, so I had to figure out how to get there.

Conveniently enough, there is a coach that departs every half hour from Hong Kong that takes you to a special transfer point. The immigration controls for both Hong Kong and China share the same building, which straddles the border. After leaving there, you board another coach that shuttles you to the airport.

Even more conveniently, for me, the ChinaLink Bus Company leaves from the Elements shopping mall right above a Hong Kong MTR stop (Kowloon station). So, all I needed to do was walk a half block from my hotel to the MTR station at Yau Ma Tei, transfer at Central station on Hong Kong Island (yes, you do not have to take the Star Ferry to cross Victoria Bay!), get off at Kowloon station, go up one floor and walk a short distance to ChinaLink’s depot across from Starbucks.

[My alternate plan was to take the MTR to the intercity rail station, take a train to Shenzhen’s rail station, then buy a ticket to Jishou. I rejected this plan, because it would have required an overnight train. As things turned out, it would have made no difference.]

So, set out from the hotel around 11 am, pulling a 20-kg bag and carrying a 10-kg shoulder bag down the street to the Yau Ma Tei station. There are two flights of stairs from street level there to the station proper, so lugging all this gear was not all that pleasant, but doable. The fare to the Kowloon station is HK$4, or about 50 cents. I arrived at the ChinaLink depot in time to board the 12:30 out. Cost for the coach: HK$100, or about US$13.

Around 1 pm, we arrived at the transfer point. I had to fill out a departure card for Hong Kong immigration, which took a few minutes, and got my passport stamped quickly after that. At 1:12, I walked over a yellow line marking the boundary between Hong Kong control and Shenzhen control, walking into mainland China for the first time. Two Chinese immigration officers took their time carefully comparing my visage with my passport photo, now eight years old, eventually deciding that the guy in the picture must be the same one standing in front of them.

In 10 minutes, I was in another coach, which played a melange of soft rock from the US and China, bound for Shenzhen airport. (There’s something eerie about hearing Dan Fogelberg on a bus in China …)

[Shenzhen is a boom town. According to Internet sites, it was once a little cowtown on the Guangdong border with Hong Kong. In short order, the Chinese turned little Shenzhen into a teeming metropolis, with air, highway, bus, rail, and shipping connections, with high rise buildings going up everywhere and shipping containers stacked to the skies.

ThinkPads and iPods are assembled here. So are watches; Shenzhen is reputed to be the watch-making capital of the world. It is China’s second-busiest port, after Shanghai. Hong Kong residents cross the border daily to shop here, since Chinese prices are far below Hong Kong’s.]

At 2 pm, we arrived at the airport, where I loaded my bags onto another free (!) luggage cart to find the ticket desk of China Southern Airways. My intention was to buy a ticket to Zhangjiajie, arriving that night. One big problem: that flight, the ticket agent told me, doesn’t fly on Saturdays. I’d have to wait a day for the next scheduled flight.

Uffda. My choices were stay in Shenzhen overnight, then catch that flight, or continue on somewhere else. I knew Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan, had several trains leaving for Jishou every day, so I decided moving was better than staying another night in a hotel. I bought an economy seat to Changsha, leaving at 3:10, for 860 yuan, or about US$125.

This flight, in an Airbus 320, took about 90 minutes. I arrived in Changsha, collected my luggage, and found the shuttle bus to central Changsha. Cost: 17 yuan, or about US$2.50. (As with all the coaches I had ridden so far, this one had comfortable, airline style seats, and air conditioning.) The terminus for this shuttle is the Civil Aviation Hotel.

By now, it was raining a fair lick, so most of us passengers waited inside the hotel lobby, or under its awnings outside, for the downpour to slacken a little. Once I ventured outside the safety of the hotel, I was mobbed by taxi drivers wanting my business. They were pretty insistent, but I knew from The Rough Guide to China that the train station is just a few blocks from the hotel. I’d rather walk in the rain, thanks.

Once I approached the station (an imposing building that looks like it should be a train terminal, Changsha train terminalwith a big clock on top), an intrepid local pounced on me, offering to tote my heavy bag for 10 yuan. I figured, why not. He couldn’t go far lugging that monster on his shoulder. The two of us trudged through the crowds toward the terminal entrance.

Now this fellow either didn’t travel much in the train, or he assumed I already had a ticket, because we walked right past the ticket office. I’m used to US rail stations, where you buy your tickets in the same building as the trains stop. The Changsha ticket office is outside the actual terminal, in a shopping-center-like wing adjacent to the station. My porter and I went through the security checkpoint at the station entrance before we both finally realized that tickets are outside.

The ticket office was organized chaos. The Chinese are not real good at queuing up calmly and orderly. It’s more like everyone for himself. (City street traffic is like this, too.) I was able to pronounce “Jishou” (吉首 are the first Chinese characters I learned. You need to be able to read the departure board!) clearly enough for the woman at the ticket window to issue me a ticket. I did not successfully convey the idea that I wanted a sleeper, however. So, I got a soft seat for 82 yuan, or US$12.

Not ideal, but after sitting in an overly firm airline seat for 15 hours, I figured 8 hours in a train seat could not be much worse. I’m still debating that point with myself.

Departure time was 10:58, so I had a three-hour wait. Not too bad.

Imagine, however, if all the driving commuters and airline passengers in your hometown had to take the train instead. Add to that the busy schedule of the Chinese rail network, which boggles my imagination. Trains arrive and depart from Changsha every 20 to 30 minutes or so. I would wager, then, there were probably ten of thousands of people teeming inside the huge Changsha station while I waited for my train, the N566.

After some false starts, I finally found the correct waiting area for the N566. Changsha has four waiting areas, plus special waiting rooms for soldiers, women with babies, soft-bed passengers and VIPs. Waiting area 1 accommodated passengers for at least 15 trains. TVs along the wall had on some Bloomberg program, but no one was paying attention. There was just too much noise. Eventually, a large contingent of passengers boarded their train and I was able to snag a seat.

{I should point out, as if it were not obvious, that I was likely the only Caucasian in the waiting room. I ran into Aussies and Brits at the Shenzhen and Changsha airports, but I saw none in the rail depot.)

Two young men struck up a conversation with me. One, a college student, helped me locate a public phone so I could call ahead and tell my people in Jishou (吉首) what on earth I was doing, and he made sure that I understood I should wait for the red announcement boards to light up, so I would queue up at the right time. The announcements of train departures were basically useless to me, and not just because I can’t understand Chinese. Train attendants were using bullhorns that were barely audible over the din of the multitude.

Finally, boarding time arrived. Here again, the Chinese approach of “everyone for himself” in a line meant that all of these passengers were all trying to push their through a narrow gate at the same time. You cannot be polite or timid here; when in Rome, as they say.

I can’t say I blame them, actually. Boarding call is just 20 minutes before the train pulls out. If the train is made up of a dozen or more cars, you might (as I did) have a long walk. So everyone hustles to get on board. I suspect missing the train requires one to go back to the ticket office to get a new fare. I did not even want to contemplate that possibility.

It was nighttime, so there was no scenery to keep me awake. My fellow passengers in car 11 were just as worn out as I was, so conversation was pretty much not in the cards. No one was talking much, except for a group of five boisterous teens who didn’t crash for the night until nearly 2 am. So, we weary travelers trundled through the night at an average speed of 65 kph (40 mph). Not as quick as flying, but perhaps more interesting.

NEXT: I arrive (finally)

Jishou, day one
Sept. 3, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — Having spent the day (and night) before walking, riding the Hong Kong metro, taking two shuttle buses, flying on an airliner and finally riding soft-seat on an overnight train, I alighted at Jishou station bedraggled and somewhat sleep deprived. The total journey took on the order of 17 hours, about three of which included waiting for the train.

But I was here.

My contact person here, David Luo, met me at the train station. The train was packed with university students, who like me, needed to start class the next day. To get to campus, you either need to take a bus or hail a cab. David and I had to fight our way through this mob of college kids to find a cab not vying for their attention.

Let me tell you something about Chinese cabbies. They are fearless. Even in Jishou, a city of about 200,000, traffic at certain times of the day can be pretty hairy. The streets are occupied simultaneously by cabs, buses, private cars, scooters, motorbikes, pedicabs, bicycles and pedestrians. American-style traffic rules are non-existent. As in the ticket-window and train-boarding queues, it’s everyone for himself on the streets. I’ve now ridden in a Jishou cab — they are all red-and-black compact Citroëns — a half-dozen times. Cabbies will take any route, short of driving on the sidewalk, to get to your destination — even against traffic — cutting in front of trucks and buses, nearly nicking pedestrians and motorcyclists. Since all of the cabs seem to be undented or otherwise undamaged, I figure the cabbies can be trusted and I’ll just let the fates prevail. No sense in worrying about something I can’t control.

I reckon all the bad cabbies have either been fired (because they wrecked their cab) or quit to find a less stressful job, such as an air traffic controller in Shanghai.

We proceeded to the big hotel in town, which serves a Western-style buffet breakfast, where I ate my fill. David introduced me to Christopher, one of the English majors, who was to take me to my flat. I also received a basic little cell phone to use until I got my own. (This phone actually carries a number used by David’s office, so periodically I would get fax calls and voice calls from people who were very perplexed when I answered in English.)

Now, I knew I was going to do a lot of walking, as I did in college, but I did not expect that my flat would be in the last building on one of the tallest hills overlooking campus. On top of that, it’s also a fourth-floor walkup. So, I will get my exercise for sure!

Christopher was dragging my 20-kilo duffle, so the two of us had to stop a couple of times to catch our wind. Eventually I arrived at my flat, well-fed but totally exhausted.

Some folks back home warned me that flats in China are small. So the size of the place did not floor me. Actually, it’s pretty comfortable. Here’s the layout. (I have pics on Picasa here.)

The entry opens into the living room, where there is couch, an armchair, a TV and DVD player, a coffee table, a water dispenser and a fan. To the left, is a shoebox of a kitchen with a two-burner stove (using bottled gas), a fridge, a tiny sink and a microwave. I also have a wok and a rice cooker. To the right of the entry is the bedroom, which like the living room is about 25′ by 25′. Further on, a door leads you to another room that’s half balcony, half sunporch, containing a table, a clothesline that I think Yao Ming must have installed, and a tiny Little Swan (aka Haier) clothes washer. The bathroom is to the right.

Mercifully, I did not get a squat toilet. Instead the apartment comes with a western-style sit-down commode. The bathroom, which is about a small as the kitchen, also contains the water heater and the shower. But it’s not laid out like an American bathroom, with a separate stall for the shower. Instead there is a floor drain. When you shower, you close the bathroom door and take your shower right alongside the toilet. It is waterproof, after all.

Oh, there is air conditioning, which does a decent job of keeping the bedroom cool. But at night, I can open all the windows and get a nice breeze passing through the flat, so I don’t need to run the AC much. (Keeping the windows open, however, makes the local rooster’s morning call all the louder. I don’t really need an alarm clock if the neighbors are keeping free-range chickens!)

My Internet connection was not working, so I unpacked and crashed for a couple of hours, before rendezvousing with David for lunch and a brief orientation.

We went back to the hotel. He had informed the manager that I was new to China and hungry besides, so she took it open herself to supply David, me and Frank, who heads the Office of International Exchange, with enough food to feed a small army. We toasted each other with Kingway light beer (a Shenzhen brew that’s not bad) and tucked into our banquet.

I have discovered that in China, the doggie bag is unheard of. Restaurant leftovers are not taken home to be eaten later. What you don’t eat, stays. Where it goes from there, I can’t hazard to say.

After lunch I learned that I was the only foreign English teacher on campus so far; David’s attempts to find another were not being all that successful. My teaching load would be (tentatively) five classes spread over four days: on Mondays, Oral Business English for seniors; Tuesdays, Oral English for sophomores; Wednesdays, Oral English for seniors, and Thursday, Writing English followed by Writing Business English, both for seniors. The textbooks are sparse. I can use them as guideposts, but essentially I’m on my own, which is about what I expected.

David and Frank released me to return to my flat, where I rested some more, before Christopher and two other energetic English majors, Ava and Sophia, took me around to buy a China Mobile SIM card for my Treo [details about that project will come later], to tour Jishou proper and to eat a delicious meal at a local restaurant. We also checked out the Jun Hua supermarket near the campus, where they helped me find a desk lamp (31.50 yuan, about US$5), some drinks for the fridge, and a discount card entitling me to a 10% discount there.

Around 7 or so, we parted company and I spent the rest of the evening relishing a enjoyable, if tiring day, and preparing for my first class at 8 the next morning.

NEXT: The SIM card saga

Reflections on the first week
Sept. 5, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — So, I survived my first week on the job here.

The classes went well (I think), considering my comparative lack of experience teaching ESL and practically zero preparation time before the first, Oral Business English 2005. I can tell, though, there is a wide range of English skills among the students, which will require some careful planning on my part.

I have three groups right now. I see about a dozen business students twice a week for oral and written English. Senior English students — 21 in all — see me twice a week for the same kind of courses. And there’s the 35 sophomores I see once a week for oral English.

The youngest ones, as you might expect, are the least practiced in English, but do fairly well reciting English passages and writing English. As with most Asian students I’ve had, however, their listening and speaking skills are not as developed. The senior English students are the strongest, but again, need work on their aural and oral skills. These kids are stressing about the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam, the outcome of which determines whether they can attend university in an English-speaking country.

My most challenging class so far is the Business English class. I’m sorry if I offend anyone here, but in my experience many business majors in the US are college students who had no clue what they should major in, and chose business because they figured it would help them get a job. Or to put it more bluntly, they are not exactly dedicated scholars.

So it is here in China. The English majors — even the sophs — all came to class prepared with pen, paper, notebooks and little electronic translator gizmos. Among the business English students, about a quarter came with nothing but the clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet. (Well, maybe they had cell phones …) These kids as a group have the weakest English skills, and seem the least motivated, save one or two stars in the group who will probably end up as CEOs somewhere. (Strangely, the English selections they have in their business texts are as dense as anything you might find at the Harvard Business School. I see a disconnect here pedagogically speaking …)

Suffice it to say my first efforts with the business kids were not as successful as with the English majors. I truly overestimated their ability to understand me, and their willingness to put a little effort into the process. With this group, I am going to have to be creative to keep them alert and receptive.

Well, that’s true for all of them, actually.

What they don’t want or expect is for their foreign-born English teacher to be just like all the homegrown instructors they have had since middle school. In other words, I have to be different. Avoid reliance on the texts they have. Get them out of their seats and actively involved in reading, writing, speaking and listening. And I need to accomplish all this while giving them enough assessments so that we all have some idea of whether they are learning anything.

Ah, the life of a teacher …!

While the tasks ahead of me are daunting, I am finding the process rather liberating. After 20 years of teaching physics and math, I now have the opportunity to try radically different teaching techniques, of which I am sure I have only skimmed the surface in my hasty research online. I am also blessed to have worked alongside some of the most creative foreign language teachers in Kentucky, who have unwittingly served as my role models.

Still, knowing what I can do and getting it done are two different things.

My orientation here was brief and to some extent not all that informative. Sure, I know what my classes are, where they meet, what books they might have, but I am unclear how I award grades, whether I grade homework or whether I even assign it. Do they have regular examinations? Do I prepare those exams? So many questions … I have new ones each day.

You language instructors out there will cringe at the tiny amount of contact time I have with these students. Each class meets just once a week. While they may have other English exposure in their other classes, the practice time is insufficient. Given the difficulty of learning any language, especially one with an entirely different writing system, these kids have to be motivated enough to work on their own time to get the practice they need.

(I told my first class to make sure they brought their work in when we met the next day. Silly American! They reminded me that the class meets next week. Clearly, I need to shed some old habits.)

So far, I have plenty of time with my light teaching load to prepare for these courses. In fact, the amount of free time I have is embarrassing. After two decades of being a high school teacher, with perhaps four or five classes in a row each day, this generous, almost sinful, amount of prep time is mindboggling. Even with all the time I have spent buying provisions for the kitchen and outfitting the flat, which involves a lot of walking, I have the luxury to peruse the Internet and let my mind run free pondering different teaching strategies.

It will not last. I expect within a few weeks to be assigned freshman classes, as the university has not yet located another “foreign expert” willing to come to a small city that’s a bit off the beaten path for foreigners. There is talk of overtime pay, even, as my contract specifies I am not to teach more than 18 hours a week.

All good things must come to an end, I suppose. At least I have time to steel myself for the inevitable.
By that time, I may actually know what I’m doing.

Meanwhile, techno frustrations abound
Sept. 5, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — What do cell phones, washing machines, the Internet and electrical supplies all have in common? Aside from the obvious, electricity, they all added to my frustrations — or shall I say challenges — this week.

The cell phone issue was the biggest. I had bought my Treo 600 off eBay ages ago with the understanding that it was unlocked, meaning that I could use it with any carrier as soon as I inserted the appropriate SIM chip into it.

Wrong.

Sure, the Treo could find China Mobile and China Unicom signals, but without international roaming enabled (not that I could afford it), I could not use those signals. So, senior English students Christopher, Ava and Sophia took me to the China Mobile tents set up for returning students, where they helped me get a China Mobile account and SIM card.

Of course, it did not work. Believing my phone to be the all-powerful, unlocked, works-anywhere-in-the-world SuperTreo, I was of course mighty perplexed. The kids took me to the China Mobile store in downtown Jishou, where I got another SIM card that worked the same as the previous one.

“SIM card not allowed,” my SuperTreo informed me. “Your phone cannot be used with this SIM Card.”

How very informative. Thank you.

Of course, I gradually realized after spending an inordinate amount of time on the Web that my faith in SuperTreo was based on false information. My phone was in fact still locked to T-mobile, and the only apparent way to unlock (other than to call T-mobile and ask them to unlock it, not exactly feasible under the circumstances) was to pay someone a little money ($15) to download an unlocking program and obtain an unlocking code to free my Treo from its electronic prison.

I am now on the China Mobile network. And the $15 was still cheaper than buying a bargain-basement phone here.

Now I mentioned I used the Internet to solve my cell phone problem, but I actually had no Internet access at home until late Monday. Disappointing, but I could use an office computer in the meantime.

Chinese universities use a high security protocol for their wired connections, called the Ruijie supplicant. It’s based on the standard MD5 encryption, but with a local twist apparently. Without a university-supplied account, IP address and the Ruijie supplicant program, your wired connection ain’t gonna do nothin’. (Wireless does not exist here, by the way.)

Well, I had all that, but still nothing was happening. I have no clue why, but in any event the IT staff got it working by Monday evening. Only for Windows, though. Irritatingly enough, the Ruijie application provided me for the Ubuntu half of my dual-boot laptop (xrgsu) will connect, but will not authenticate my computer. At least others share my pain; my research into the matter turned many similar cries of woe, but no apparent solution.

So I’m stuck using Window$. Bleah.

When I first arrived at my flat on Sunday, I had no electricity. Well, actually, it was there; I just didn’t how to turn in on. A quick call to Christopher on the cell phone the office loaned me until my own cell was working again provided the answer. Outside each door is an electrical box. To turn on the power, you close the circuit breaker. Ah, so simple!

This morning, I awoke to find that once again I had no power, despite the circuit breakers in the box being all closed. Some texting ensued, during which I found that these boxes have a slot to insert a payment card to “recharge” your electrical account. (The boxes are called chargers for that reason.) My account had run dry sometime in the wee hours. The university, which is supplying my electricity and Internet at no charge, fixed the problem by lunchtime.

If you walk around this campus and look at the dorms, you will see every window or balcony (or rooftop!) festooned with laundry hung out to dry. Washing machines are thankfully standard issue here, but clothes dryers are not. I would wager then that each student has at least half of his or her wardrobe hanging outside to dry on any day. If I were to have clean clothes, I needed to emulate them and plan ahead. Washing my clothes the night before might work back in the States, with a clothes dryer at the ready. Not so here.

My flat has a little washer just outside the bathroom. Its buttons naturally have labels in Chinese. Since I had already bugged my hosts about cell phone, electrical and Internet problems, I was damned if I was going to ask them how to work the stupid washer. So I went to the local Jun Hua supermarket and bought some Omo laundry soap, confident I could certainly make the washer on my own.

The washer has two large buttons and four smaller ones. The big button on the right clearly turns the washer on, but no combination of the others would actually make the little fella do anything.

Mysterious controls on my washing machine

Mysterious controls on my washing machine

The Internet to the rescue! Poking around the Web with the model number eventually led me to realize that the manufacturer is Little Swan, a big whitegoods concern here that just happens to sell its products in the USA under the label Haier. And on their website I found an operation manual (perhaps written by some unmotivated business English major, judging from its lack of proper spelling and grammar) for a model similar to mine.

I am embarrassed to say how my Little Swan works. You push the righthand button. Then you push the big button to its immediate left. That’s it. So easy, an Ivy League graduate could wash his clothes. (The little ones provide washing and time-delay options, but the manual I found provided no help in making them do anything successfully.)

Now my flat looks like everyone else’s — half my wardrobe is out on the balcony. My cell phone works. My (Windows) laptop works. And I have electricity for the foreseeable future.

Now if I could manage to cook a decent serving of rice without burning it or drying it out …

For the benefit of all Linux users in China
Sept. 7, 2008
\JISHOU, HUNAN — As I posted earlier, I’ve been online here using Windows for the past week, but the Linux side of my laptop was out in the cold. Today I found the solution, and this Ubuntu user is back in the saddle again.

Other Linux users in China have had the same problem, so I’m posting my solution here for their benefit. If you don’t really care, I won’t be offended if you go read something else.

Universities in China restrict access to their networks using Ruijie‘s ruijie supplicant protocol, a variant of the standard IEEE 802.1x protocol, with (it seems) a unique implementation of MD5 encryption. In other words, if you don’t have the connection program, you have no Internet access. (Ruijie is a big IT firm here, like Cisco is in the States.)

The Windows application, Ruijie Supplicant, works fine. After you input your static IP address, netmask, gateway, DNS settings, username and password, you’re home free.

But the Linux client I was given, xrgsu, was not working. It would find the gateway, but authentication would fail. So, no joy.

The university IT staff was swamped with service calls from the returning students, so I had to bide my time. So, I decided to do a little research.

Other Linux users have had the same problem: xrgsu does not work. So I was not alone. The big question was could I find the solution.

It seems only China and Czech Republic use the ruijie protocol, so that reduced the number of useful websites. Those that were apparently helpful were, of course, in Chinese, which as yet I cannot read.

Thanks to Google’s translation application and a lot (!) of googling the Internet with a variety of search terms, I managed to find a few promising ruijie clients for Linux. All failed but one.

I downloaded a newer version of xrgsu than the one I had. No go. I got the Linux_Supplicant directly from Ruijie.cn’s website. Same result. Ditto myxrgsu. A client called mystar looked promising, but it also failed on authentication. Then I tried xmuruijie, available on googlecode.

It worked! You do need python on your system, but most Linux distros install python by default.

Here’s the nitty gritty details. Download the archive, and expand it. With a text editor, modify xmuruijie.conf to suit your situation (username, password, gateway server) and save it to /etc. Part of the archive is 8021x.exe. That also has to be in /etc. I left all the other files in a folder in my home folder, but if you want, running “sh install.sh” will install the necessary files in the right places. Then you can invoke xmuruijie (as root) without needing to navigate to your home folder first.

Either way, open a terminal window, and type “sudo xmuruijie.py” and wait for the joy.

The key to xmuruijie’s success, as near as I can tell, is the inclusion of the Windows app, 8021x.exe. Starting Ruijie Supplicant in Windows automatically starts 8021x as a background process; it generates the necessary encryption code needed for authentication. With Linux, 8021x.exe does not appear to be running — I don’t see it or wine in my process list. I think it’s there just to keep the supplicant happy.

If you have any questions, email me at eljefe at wheatdogg dot com.

It’s not all rosy here
Sept. 8, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — Since the university is about two miles from downtown Jishou, I miss a lot of the activity there. Last week, I wanted to visit a downtown computer store, but my friends here advised me there was some kind of citizen protest in Jishou City, and that perhaps I should wait to do my shopping.

Little did I realize the ruckus was big enough to make The Washington Post. As described in this ex-pat’s blog and in this one, the protest involved about 10,000 people who apparently felt they had been cheated out their money in a fund raising scheme. There were arrests and 50 protesters were injured. Troops were called in.

So, yeah, I guess it was better I stayed home.

By and large, I have never felt threatened or ill at ease since landing in Hong Kong. The travel guides say that, with a few exceptions near border crossings and seedy parts of town, street crime is practically non-existent here. The biggest danger is actually dodging cars and other vehicles when cross the streets. Cross-walks, as we used to joke in New York, are really just target zones.

Money brings out the worst in people, especially if they have risked their life savings in some high-yield investment scheme. According to The Post article, the rapid expansion of the Chinese economy has spurred a consequent increase in corruption by people trying to make a quick yuan. The high-interest investment scam here was just one example.

Chance encounters
Sept. 8, 2008
My chance encounters with people on the way here have all been very happy and helpful ones. Bank employees in Hong Kong were polite, if not always helpful, but random strangers went out of their way to assist the poor (ahem, older) American.

While waiting in the Hong Kong MTR station (on the wrong side, I might add), a woman about my age or somewhat younger launched into an elaborate exposition about maintaining one’s health, referring frequently to some expert whose name I never quite got. Her English was spotty, but the gist of her monologue was that one should stand up straight (my shoulder bag had me hunched over, I guess) and breathe fully through the nose and out through the mouth. She also advised eating correctly and drinking a lot of water.

Why she started into this discussion I can only guess (I was out of breath climbing stairs maybe), but I was standing on the platform intently studying my map of Hong Kong, trying to decide if I was on the northbound platform or the southbound. After letting her expound for a while, I asked if I were on the right platform. She said no, and then led me over to the other side of the station and into the train, all the while offering advice on eating, drinking and breathing. Mercifully, she did not follow me when I got off at my stop, but returned to the northbound side to go her way.

Leaving Hong Kong, as I said, I had to lug my bags from the hotel down two flights of stairs to the Yau Ma Tei station, then up two more flights at the other end. As in every big city, people are rushing hither and thither, but one young man without a word grabbed my big bag and helped me carry it up the stairs, then went on his hurried way.

The gray hair helps, I guess.

Changsha was a zoo. I knew where the train station was, and began trudging toward once the rain stopped. As I passed the ticket office (mistakenly), a local offered to carry my bag for 10 yuan. As I related already, his help was a little misplaced, since I needed a ticket first, he toted the bag to the station, helped me get directions on how to buy a ticket, carried the bag out again, and accompanied me to the ticket office. Mind you, this was no mean feat, given the sheer number of train passengers teeming around the place. He waited with me in the ticket line, and when it was clear everything was fine, he asked for his money and took off. We accomplished all this business without him knowing a word of English, and me just knowing how to say “thank you.”

In the station, as I related already, two young men with some English skills enabled me to locate the right waiting room for my train, helped me make a phone call, and directed me to wait for the signs to light up for the boarding queue.

Finally, in the train, there was a bit of confusion regarding seating. As best as I can tell, ticket sellers overbook the trains. My ticket had a car number indicated, but no seat number. Blithely, I accepted the direction of one of the conductors, who directed me to an empty seat. It and all the others in the car were already sold to other passengers. Again, I guess age has its advantages, as one of two college students volunteered to give up his seat for me, since his stop was before mine.

It’s this kind of behavior that restores one’s faith in humanity.

Week two, and it’s all good still
Sept. 11, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve finished my second week teaching here, and I can still say I am pretty happy with it all.

According to the experts, I am in the honeymoon phase of my expatriation. Everything is still so new to me that ennui and regret have not yet set in. I’m like a kid in the candy shop.

True, I will be teaching four more classes shortly, so my life of leisure will soon be curtailed by a busier schedule. True, if there were another “foreign expert” here, our teaching loads would be divided. But things happen. True, I am the only waiguoren (外国人 — foreigner) crazy enough to delve this far into China, so I have more work as a consequence.

If the students were troublesome, I would be singing a different tune. As it is, however, the students are generally quite willing to work and cooperate with my crazy American teaching methods. I am assuming the frosh will be as cooperative, if a bit more hesitant.

So, yeah, I’m still in the wide-eyed innocent mode. I am finding it hard to believe that just two weeks ago I was still in Louisville, sleeping on my son’s couch, awaiting my flight out of Kentuckiana. During break times, I look out the windows of my classroom at the buildings and buildings-yet-to-be, set against the hills in the distance, in wonderment. Dude, I’m in China!

Dude, where’s my car?

Mobility is a big problem, I must admit. I miss being able to hop in my car and go places. Here, I have no car and no driver’s license. China does not recognize the International Driving Permit I have, so I cannot (legally) drive here. We’re far enough out in the countryside that it might be feasible, and not death-defying, to try it.

So, for now I’m limited by shank’s mare and the toughness of my feet. As a result, I have not ranged too far from campus. Once I acquire some basic Chinese speaking skills, I can try hailing a cab to venture downtown by myself.

For the last two weeks, though, it’s been too bloody hot to convince myself to walk very far anyway. Last night, it finally rained, and the front brought us some cooler air. I actually arrived at class today not looking like someone sprayed me in the chest with a hose. My constant motion during class means I get even soggier after two hours. (There are ceiling fans over the students, not over the teacher. What genius designed these classrooms?)

This afternoon, coincidentally, my student buddies are taking me to downtown (no riots today) to buy some computer accessories. I had assumed that the laptop I brought with me (an eMachines M5405) had a built-in microphone, so I left mine back in the States. Well, it doesn’t — just a jack for a mike. So, I need to spend a few yuan to be able to talk to people on Skype and maybe try making a podcast or two.

I need speakers for my laptop, too. I’ve got a ton of music, but listening to it through the computer’s tinny micro-speakers just sets my teeth on edge. Earbuds are fine, but I do like to get up once in a while.

A printer would be a bigger expense, and may have to wait until after payday, but I’m considering the advantages of having one. While I can use the printer-copier in the Office of International Exchange near my classrooms, the office is usually not open before 9. My classes start at 8. Being able to print handouts the night before or even that morning would be such a luxury.

A mouse. The touchpad on this laptop is too squirrelly for my tastes. It’s too sensitive, and my accident touches during typing tend to send the cursor to unwanted territories.

And, finally, if I can find them (or an suitable adapter for my iPod earbuds), stereo earbuds for my Treo phone, which I discovered only just last week can play mp3’s. Who knew? I had never bothered to explore the issue, since I have a Shuffle, but the Shuffle’s battery looks like it’ll be a goner soon. Be nice to have a backup.

This week in class I obtained my students’ email addresses. To my delight, they all had email. (Some of my students in Louisville didn’t; IM is their thing.) I plan to send each class an email a week to encourage their use of English in more casual circumstances. Most of the students also use IM — MSN, Yahoo or the local IM biggie, QQ — so chatting online is yet another option.

My writing classes handed in their journals today. I told them last week that I wanted them to write something in English, no matter how short, every day. After some cursory glances at their books, it appears practically all of them did. After teaching high school for 20+ years, this situation is worth celebrating. Some entries were prosaic, the “I got up and went to school” type thing; others offered more insight into the student’s thoughts and feelings. The kids are certainly more forthcoming in print than in class.

One girl said I looked like Santa Claus. Another thought I was probably a good middle school teacher, but not a good university one, because I had failed to tell the class how final grades would be awarded. In her next entry, she retracted the statement, saying I would be unhappy if I read it. Then in her next entry, she said she did not regret writing it, because the journal is supposed to contain her personal thoughts.

I told her, by the way, that her criticism was well founded. I was given practically no guidance here about the department’s expectations of me. I need to hand in a lesson plan for the semester fairly soon, but there was no mention of handing out a syllabus or setting test dates. Perhaps knowing such things in advance would make me appear less like a middle school teacher.

As for looking like Santa, I don’t have his large belly. Maybe I should show them pictures of Jerry Garcia.

Shopping Chinese style
Sept. 11, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I fulfilled three of my shopping objectives this afternoon, while witnessing the special brand of capitalism of the new China.

Here, stores that sell similar goods are clustered together. If you don’t like the price or selection at one place, you just need to walk next door or across the corridor and try somewhere else.

Thus, Christopher and I visited at least three stores before I bought what I wanted, without having to drive miles in a taxi to do so.

As a consumer, I like the convenience, but cannot see how any store owner could make any money trying to compete with someone right next door.

Our first store did not offer us a price that Christopher (after conferring by phone with his friend) felt was acceptable for a three-speaker system. The young woman working the sales floor was polite and efficient, but did not offer any wiggle room on the price of the Hyundai speaker set I was interested in. Her price was 130 yuan, and I was more amenable to 100. Nevertheless, I was able to leave there with a decent-sounding microphone headset and an optical mouse for 50 yuan (roughly US$7). The mouse says “Sony,” but I wonder … All I know, it works. She let us try them out before I paid for them.

We hopped on over to another couple of stores with the same results on the speakers. Then, Christopher led me upstairs to the shop where he had bought his computer, suggesting they might cut us a deal since he was a returning customer.

In this shop, Hedy, there was a nice selection of Lenovo, Samsung, Dell, Acer and Asus computers and laptops, as well as various accessories and components. There were easily eight employees there. When we arrived, four were sitting around one of the tables in the shop, one was in a back room processing orders or invoices, one worked the cash drawer, and two were walking the floor. One of these, who recognized Christopher, showed us her lower-priced models and allowed me to compare their sound quality on one of the display PCs. The Hyundai set, which this shop had marked for 99 yuan, turned out not to sound as good as the next most expensive, by a company called Nod.

This system comes with a wired remote to control the power and volume, and had a clearer sound than the Hyundai speakers, which sounded too muffled. The sales woman said the price was 130 yuan, but normally the system sold for 180. I tried to get it down to 100, since it was a display unit, but she said 130 was the cheapest she could go. In the interest of good will, since Christopher might actually return to the store someday and since they took the time to set up two speaker systemss to let me test them out, I willingly paid the 130 (US$20). Besides, I doubted I could get a better price within this tiny computer-store zone.

While the sales woman attended to the sales slip, promising me a year’s warranty, I watched mesmerized as three others carefully put each component back into its plastic bag, wound up the wires in twist ties, placed them all in the original box, and created a carry handle with package tape. Cheerfully, I might add. I spent three years working in computer retail stores part time. I cannot honestly say any of us would be as cheerful repacking a display unit (assuming we could find the original box) as these three young women were. If it were a good sale with a nice commission, maybe there’d be some cheer, but for purely mercenary reasons.

Printers, one of the other items I wanted, started at most of the shops around 400 yuan for an inkjet, more than I could pay right now. I reckon a small laser would start about two to three times that, as they do in the States, so if I buy one it’ll need to wait until payday in two weeks.

After this fairly pleasant shopping experience, we walked through downtown Jishou, passing clothing and shoe shops (once again clustered side-by-side) toward a taxi stand. I had mentioned to Christopher that I had received an email this morning from one of the two Americans in the Princeton-in-Asia program, who are teaching at Jishou Teacher’s College. He offered to show me where the school was.

Jishou City is spread out in the valleys between the hills around the Wuling Mountain Range (武陵山脉), and along the Lishui River (澧水), a tributary of the Yangtze. The old downtown area is on the south side of the river. The computer shopping center is on the north side, just over the highway G209 bridge. The Teacher’s College lies somewhat to the northwest of that, past the Number 1 Middle School, a huge affair that rivals if not surpasses some US high schools in size. Jishou University’s new campus, where I am, is two miles south of downtown on the G209, also known as South Renmin Road.

We arrived to witness the same kind of freshman orientation happening in Jishou U, more about which later. Christopher was intent on my finding these Americans there at the College, although I explained that we were planning to meet next week and they were not expecting me. Undaunted, he inquired and found their office-mates, who informed us the P-i-A teachers, Julianne and Stephanie, were teaching. Rather than wait another half hour for them to be free, I left word I had stopped by and we left.

The College’s primary school had just let out, so the streets were packed not only with fruit and vegetable sellers and shoppers, but also small children in green pants and white shirts either walking hand-in-hand together, or with adults. As usual, I got my fair share of curious stares from children and adults, who wonder why this white-haired, bearded waiguoren is strolling around their town.

We passed Number 1 Middle School, crossed over the bridge, and passed through the old downtown area, eventually picking up a cab back to campus. It made me wonder why we took a cab from the computer shops to the College, since the walk was not all that strenuous — and quicker. The streets were jammed with parents collecting their children from primary school, making the taxi trip up more like a bumper-car ride (without any collisions).

So now I sit at my desk, finally listening to my music collection through decent-sounding speakers, just one happy camper. I wonder how I’ll do when I go shoe shopping …

Freshman orientation, China style
Sept. 12, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — They certainly do things differently here. Take freshman orientation, for example.

At Jishou University, and perhaps other Chinese institutions, the freshmen arrive after everyone else. As a result, I won’t see any first-year students for another week or two.

Their arrival this week looks much like it would in the US. Students dragging luggage to their dorm rooms. Parents walking around, looking dazed and confused, wondering how they ever got this old and how they’ll pay the tuition bills. Business concerns (cell phones, the local markets) setting up tents and tables to pull in new customers.

There the similarity ends. For, my seniors tell me, orientation here for freshmen is a little like a two-week long boot camp.

Chinese freshmen have two weeks of military drills before their classes begin

Chinese freshmen have two weeks of military drills before their classes begin


Older students, some wearing paramilitary style uniforms, are in charge of companies of freshmen. They get them up early in the morning for calisthenics by the gymnasium. They march them around in formation, wearing green camo uniforms. They make them stand, for no apparent reason, in formation, have them kneel on one kee, then rise. Order them to sidestep in formation to the right, to the left, forward, about face, etc.

Loud speeches over the public address system greet them in the morning. I know. I heard them starting at 6 this morning until about 10. On my day off. When I wanted to sleep in. Grumble. Grumble.

Once all these military preparedness/group discipline stuff is over — a holdover from the old China, I suppose — the freshmen will spend a week in intensive oral English classes. It’s a wonder they want to speak it every again.

As serious as I suppose China’s leaders take these exercises, the students seem to take it as they would a bitter pill. Swallow the damn thing and get it over with. Life goes on. Unlike ROTC here in the States, the manner of the participants is far from ramrod military. The whole process resembles summer camp for an athletics team. Suit up, guys (and gals — it’s a coed thing here), we’re taking a few laps around the track.

Freshmen talk in ranks, look around at passers-by, and fidget. Meanwhile, their student commanders try to look like they’re serious and in charge, but to me it looks like they are just going through the motions. Walking around this afternoon, I didn’t see any older military types supervising the show. It appears to be all student-run and facilitated.

Oh, and before I forget to mention this little detail. No guns. We’re not preparing for imminent invasion here. I saw no firearms, or any other weapons of mass or personal destruction. Actual military service in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is compulsory for young men once they reach 18, but so many men and women volunteer to serve in the military that conscription is unnecessary. As a result, the freshman boot camp this month is the closest most of these kids will ever get to military service.

From that perspective, all the calisthenics, marching in formation and speechifying serves a purpose. It’s one way to ensure all young people have some glimmer of miltary life, in case someone is crazy enough to invade the most populous country on earth.

From a Western perspective, particularly from that of an older Westerner who remembers when all Chinese wore the same shapeless uniform day in day out, it’s a little discomfiting to see all the freshmen (about 2,000 to 2,500) walking around in green camos.

In praise of moon cakes and instant noodles
Sept. 14, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — Today (Sept. 14 here) is Mid Autumn Moon Day, a major occasion in East Asia for family and friends to gather and exchange gifts …

Like mooncakes.

Mooncakes are for Mid-Autumn Festival

Mooncakes are for Mid-Autumn Festival

These are a traditional gift, painstakingly produced by a few stalwart home cooks and many commercial bakeries. Most Chinese nowadays buy mooncakes in the grocery; the Jun Hua here has an entire aisle devoted to them, in elaborate packaging, or you can buy them individually in the bakery department.

When Americans think of cake, we imagine cloyingly sweet, fluffy items like layer cakes, or hefty, cholesterol-laden things like pound cake. Mooncakes are an entirely different kind of confection.

For one thing, traditionally they are not very sweet. They consist of a flour-based outer covering containing a wide variety of fillings, usually some kind of bean paste. Sometimes the yolk of a duck egg is in the middle of the bean paste filling, to represent the moon. Newer versions are sweeter, I suppose to appeal to the younger set.

Traditional mooncakes are anything but fluffy. In texture, the closest Western equivalent would a fruit cake (without the fruit and nuts). They are kind of chewy, but pleasantly so, and actually pretty rich. Lard is the traditional shortening, although some manufacturers are now using vegetable shortening to lower the fat content. Eating too many mooncakes at once would probably endanger your arteries, either way.

I have fallen in love with mooncakes. The Office of International Exchange gave me huge, gold-foil box of them yesterday, and I have slowly been working my way through them.

Mooncake sampler gift box

Mooncake sampler gift box

(There are different flavors in the box, like Whitman’s chocolates.) I will probably end up sharing them with my friends in the flat below me, since I have way too many for one person to eat.

The Mid Autumn Festival is a 3,000-year-old celebration, dating back to the moon worship of the ancient Shang dynasty in China. Like many other fall holidays worldwide, it’s a harvest festival, falling on the full moon closest to the fall equinox. Chinese mythology’s goddess of the moon, Chang’e, lives in the moon, so Mid Autumn Festival greeting cards will sometimes portray her. (Unlike Western moon goddesses, Chang’e does not personify the moon. Most versions of her story involve her fleeing or rising to the moon to escape Earth.) Check this Wikipedia article for different versions of Chang’e’s story.

Instant noodles are not a Mid Autumn foodstuff, but I’ve become a fan of them. Unlike the dreaded Ramen noodles in US supermarkets, instant noodles here are both filling and flavorful. You can buy them in small, medium or large sizes, and they come not only with a packet of powdered seasonings, but also with a packet of dehydrated vegetables and two sauces. (Actually, I think one “sauce” is some kind of oil.) One variety’s sauce has a lot of pepper in it — I think they use essence of habanero in it — so I learned quickly not to use the entire packet if I hoped to finish the noodles.

For a quick lunch, they can’t be beat. I would bet you could find some version of them in the States, in Asian supermarkets. If they were at the regular supermarkets, they would put Ramen out of business. After having these instant noodles, no one would ever go back to Ramen again. (Sorry, Pastafarians.)

Happy Autumn Moon, everyone!

The orchestra comes to town
Sept. 17, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — Tonight, my three student guides accompanied me to a concert by the China Philharmonic Orchestra (中国爱乐乐团), which came to Jishou especially for the university’s 50th anniversary celebration.

It was terrific. They performed works by Beethoven, Strauss (“Emperor Waltz”), Bizet (“Overture to Carmen“) and other pieces I am ashamed to say I did not recognize, as well as Chinese melodies.

The conductor spent some of the concert introducing the instruments to a packed audience. The musicians assisted in the lessons by playing short tunes on their instruments, ranging from Mozart to the theme from the movie Titanic and “If you’re happy and you know it.”

The orchestra wants to expose more Chinese to Western orchestral music. From my perspective, they were doing an excellent job.

The venue was one of the athletics facilities here, a field house used for both basketball and badminton (did I mention that badminton is big around here?). I expected the acoustics to be awful, but where we were sitting (left front center orchestra), the sound was great. I suspect we were shown to good seats because of me, but I cannot be sure.

It was a bit sticky in there, however, since the humidity lately has been equivalent to a sauna. Fortunately, it cools off pretty quickly after sunset, so the humidity was bearable.

Afterward, two young ladies dressed in Miao traditional dress presented the conductor and the first violin with bouquets. The Miao are an indigenous people here, one of China’s officially recognized minorities. Jishou is the capital city of the autonomous prefecture for the Miao and Tujia minorities.

Christopher and Ava know one of the young women (who they say is actually not Miao, but from northern China), and asked if she would pose with me for a photo. All the Miao-dressed representatives in fact posed with me, which started a parade of locals who all wanted their pictures taken with the white guy. One woman had her photo taken with me twice, no less.

Ah, the perks of celebrity … or something.

Week three: a concert, a bank account and two Americans
Sept. 21, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — This past work week was a short one, by virtue of the Autumn Moon holiday, but nevertheless eventful.

It started not all that auspiciously, however. My lesson plan for the sophomores was sort of a failure, complicated by the poor timing (first morning class after a three-day weekend) and by my overestimation of their speaking and listening skills. I recovered after the first 15 minutes of dead silence from the class, but those 15 minutes were the longest in my life.

Now I know how a comedian who’s bombing feels on stage.

The rest of the week went well. The older students are warming up to exchanging emails with me and several have joined Facebook, where they can practice their English more. As I blogged already, the concert Thursday by the China Philharmonic was excellent. And yesterday, I started a bank account at China Construction Bank with the able assistance of senior English major Ava (her Chinese name is Niannian). All the bank needed was 10 yuan and my passport to start the account, but the application forms were of course in Mandarin Chinese, so I needed a translator.

My pay is directly deposited and the ATMs on campus are bilingual, so in about a week I’ll feel more like I’m at home. And I won’t need to pinch my pennies (or jiao, as the case may be) quite as much.

Friday, I was invited to be a judge for the university English Speaking Contest today. David (not the same David who hired me), who helped arrange the event, had asked me if I would invite the other native English speakers in my department to be judges as well. I had to inform him that, for now, I am the only native English speaker on campus. But I suggested he call the two Americans working at the Jishou Teachers College (the Jishou Normal University) up the road.

Stephanie and Juliann are both fellows in the Princeton-in-Asia program, which places college students and recent college graduates in numerous places around Asia to work. I had learned about the P-i-A presence in Jishou through some alumni communication or another, so I had emailed them earlier this month to advertise my presence here, too.

Both Stephanie (Wesleyan ’08) and Juliann (Princeton ’08) agreed to be judges. There were six contestants from several departments in the university, who had to deliver a prepared speech, then extemporize an impromptu speech, and finally field questions from the three “foreign experts.”

The topic for the prepared speech was, somewhat obscurely, “Monopolization or share?” Aside from the awkward wording, we three considered the topic to be rather broad. The contestants, for their part, had different approaches to the question.

Two focused on the economic consequences of monopoly versus free markets. Others focused on the more personal human behaviors of selfishness and generosity, and the “Olympic spirit” that enables Chinese experts to coach overseas yet still be applauded in their native land for their efforts.

The subject matter aside, the English skills of the students were actually very good. I expected the prepared speeches to be well written, but the speakers’ deliveries were poised and had proper inflection. They also spoke off the cuff very well, too, though some of the answers were a little vague.

The top two students advance to a provincial contest, the 14th annual Hunan English Speaking Contest, in the next few months. I’ve offered to help them prepare, since I want my school to win!

Afterward, we three went out for lunch, and shared our stories of coming to China and teaching our students. Then we walked up Renmin Road toward the Jun Hua supermarket, where we all bought a few items.

For some reason, I had never taken this route before, so I was overjoyed to find a guitar shop, selling both acoustic and electric guitars. I need something besides the Internet and movies to keep me occupied, so buying an acoustic is now on the top of my list of things to buy with my first paycheck next week. I should have more time to practice here than I did in the US. We shall see.

Juliann and Stephanie also pointed out the martial arts school, which I had also never walked by. Whether I take that step to fill my spare time remains to be seen. It’s been a looong time since I took tae kwan do lessons, and I know I am out of shape. But it’s a thought.

So many jobs, so few teachers
Sept. 22, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — If you have not caught on by now, there is a huge demand for native English-speaking teachers worldwide. That demand is especially acute here in China.

Here’s why. Every student has to take English while in middle and high school. College students have to pass an English competency test in order to earn a four-year degree and/or obtain a decent white-collar job.

Yikes! That’s a lot of students, and consequently there’s an enormous demand for English teachers. You have no idea.

To teach here as a “foreign expert,” you only need to show you have a bachelor’s or higher degree and a willingness to teach. There are hundreds of these jobs advertised every day on hundreds of websites.

I signed up with one website several months ago, www.seriousteachers.org. At the time, I was in the States and I got no offers. Once I changed my location to China and my availability to “immediate,” I started getting at least four job offers a day!

Of course, I turned them all down, since I am under contract here. And I had to pull out of the email notification service, or I’d be spending all my time saying, “not now, thanks,” to all these desperate employers.

It’s not just the government schools and universities that need English teachers. The English language graduation requirement has spawned an entire industry here of private English academies and tutors, catering to middle- and upper-class parents who believe the investment will ensure their children decent jobs in the future.

Most of these academies are in the big cities, but every school in every province needs English instructors, so I have been surprised each day at finding Americans, Canadians, Brits, Ozzies and Kiwis spread thinly across the landscape.

At last count, there are four of us here in Jishou. I discovered a blogger today in Huaihua, a city south of here on the rail line, who teaches English as a volunteer at a high school. No doubt there are others “hiding” in other nearby towns.

Back in the US of A, our government has identified Chinese as one of the key languages to be taught in schools. Yet, I cannot foresee the kind of concerted, almost desperate effort to import the tens of thousands of Mandarin speakers it would take to staff the nation’s schools.

Not to mention the near-impossible task of convincing students and parents that it would be necessary to learn Chinese, much less any other language. US citizens figure the rest of the world should just speak ‘Murrican, dammit, and that includes all those Spanish-speaking immigrants, too.

Witness the efforts by various state legislatures and Congressional delegates to make English the “official language” of the USA. These measures have, fortunately, all failed, and would in any event be window-dressing. Practically speaking, if you’re in business, your products and signage have to be bilingual in many areas, or you’ll lose all the Spanish-speaking customers.

China is slowly becoming bilingual in much the same way. To appeal to foreign investors, many cities and businesses in those cities (including remote Jishou) have signs in Chinese and English. Only a fraction of the populace can read, much less speak English now, but if the English requirement remains in place for many more years, it’s conceivable a tourist will find someone in the tiniest town who can manage enough English to be helpful.

In the meantime, I aim to learn Chinese.

The new revised syllabus
Sept. 23, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I now have a new schedule, which will change slightly next month after we return from the National Holiday Sept. 29 to Oct. 3. The Thursday afternoon class moves up one time block.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
8:00 – 9:40 Oral Business English 2005 – Room 4418 Oral English 2007 – Room 4420 Oral English 2005 – Room 4218 Written English 2005 – Room 4418 Written English 2008/g1 – Room 4420 Oral Business English 2005 – Room 4418 Oral English 2007 – Room 4420
10:10 – 11:50 Oral English 2008/2 – Room 4418 Oral English 2008/g2 – Room 4421 Written Business English 2005 – Room 4218 Oral English 2008/1 – Room 4418 Oral English 2008/2 – Room 4418
15:00 – 16:40 Written English 2008/g2 – Room 4419 Written English 2008/g2 – Room 4419
16:50 – 18:30 Oral English 2008/g1 – Room 4218 (until Oct. 1)
Sat. and Sun. classes only 27 and 28 September

We’re meeting Monday and Tuesday classes on the weekend, so that the freshmen get a full week’s worth of classes. Their military drills ended today. Mercifully, I will get the weekends off again beginning next month.

Typical of locations in hot climates, the university does not schedule classes between 12 noon and 3 pm. The tradition is to take a long lunch and/or a siesta. Beginning in October, classes will resume at 2:30, so all my afternoon blocks will start a half-hour earlier.

In high-school teacher terminology, this looks I have 11 preps, one for each class. In practice, however, I can probably use the same prep for all the freshmen classes, reducing the number to 6. Each class is 100 minutes long, with two 45-minute sessions separated by a 10-minute break. That’s 18.3 hours of contact time a week.

By comparison, last year (and for most of the 20 previous to that) I met five classes a day, five days a week. Each class met for four 40-minute sessions and one 85-minute session a week. That works out to be 20.4 hours of contact time.

So I’m not going to complain. I teach fewer hours and have fewer classes each day. The drawback, from the pedagogical standpoint, is that I meet each class only once (sometimes twice, for oral and written English) a week. So, it’s harder to build the rapport and trust necessary to facilitate effective learning for all the students.

But we’re managing.

China launches three astronauts into space
Sept. 25, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — The Chinese space agency successfully sent three yuhangyuan into orbit tonight, its third successful manned mission in five years.

During the four-day mission of Shenzhou 7, one of the astronauts will exit the capsule to take China’s first walk in space. His EVA is expected to last 40 minutes, and will serve as a “dry run” for planned EVAs to build a Chinese space station in the next few years.

The launch from the Jiuquan space facility in northwest China went off without a hitch at 9:10 pm. The crew were in orbit over the Pacific Ocean within 15 minutes.

The spacewalker is expected to be Zhai Zhigang, 42, a test pilot, but one of his crewmates, Liu Boming or Jing Haipeng, also 42-year-old test pilots, could exit the capsule in his place if necessary.
It is the first time in space for all three.

China has ambitious plans for its space program, as it tries to be another world player in space exploration. By 2010 it hopes to have a small space station in low earth orbit. In 2012 it plans to send its second unmanned probe to the Moon. The first took photos of the lunar surface last year.

Another unmanned mission will visit the Moon in 2015, and return lunar rock and soil samples to Chinese scientists on Earth. If successful, China would become the first nation in four decades to bring lunar samples to Earth. US Apollo astronauts brought back more than 800 pounds of samples between 1969 and 1972. The former Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna missions returned with less than a pound between 1970 and 1972.

The feather in China’s cap is a manned lunar mission scheduled for 2017, three years ahead of the US space agency’s scheduled landing. If successful, China would become only the second nation to land astronauts on Earth’s nearest neighbor.

With a booming economy, China has within the last three decades become a major force in international trade. The government is keen to make China another superpower scientifically and politically, as well. Tonight’s launch was witnessed by Hu Jintao, the country’s president, who met with the Shenzhou crew before their launch, and who praised them and the staff at mission control afterward.

With the Olympics and Paralympics over, China needs some good news to offset reports of an alarming number of children and adults falling seriously ill from tainted milk products, including infant formula, in the last several weeks.

For details about the space mission, visit the BBC.

For news about the tainted milk products, visit here.

Why there is unrest in the streets
Sept. 27, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — On my Facebook status I posted a few days ago, I asked the rhetorical question, “Why is there is unrest in the streets?” Today, as a class exercise in speaking, I asked my business English students to help me understand our local economic crisis.

Imagine if 70% or more of a city’s population all invested in the same companies, who were promising 50% to 100% returns on these investments. Imagine if some of those investors, including some city officials and retirees, had put their entire savings in this scheme.

Then imagine what would happen if word got out that all those investments were lost, perhaps forever. We’re talking, say, about US$1 billion in funds.

People might just get a little upset.

Well, that’s what happened in Jishou. It’s why there was enough of a public outcry that this small city in the middle of China actually made it into the Washington Post early this month. It’s also why my ability to leave campus to venture into the city has been somewhat limited from time to time. It’s gotten bad enough for the school to close its gates recently, blocking entry to the campus.

Here’s what I was able to glean today from my class of 12 business management students, three of whose families have lost money in this scandal.

In 2004, real estate developers in Jishou needed cash, so they devised an investment plan whereby investors would recoup 50% to 100% of their investments within several years. It appears the developers were betting that the real estate boom would continue, making such returns almost reasonable (to the unsophisticated investor, anyway).

Retirees put their meagre savings into the scheme. City officials risked their savings. Families put up every penny they had, all with the hope of making a boatload of cash. According to my students, and news reports, maybe 70% or more of Jishou’s population of 300,000 are involved. That’s 210,000 people, all in one place!

You can guess what happened. The real estate boom fizzled (sound familiar, Americans?). The real estate developers could not pony up the interest or the principal, and investors got ticked off. The crowds earlier this month blocked major highways and stopped rail traffic through town as they filled the streets to vent their anger. Police and the provincial contingent of the Chinese army were called in to quiet things down.

While we have not had such a huge uprising since Sept. 5, there have been sporadic demonstrations in Jishou since. My friends here have been very protective, advising me by text messages or cell calls to stay on campus, so that I don’t unwittingly wander into a hornet’s nest.

One of my students, whose family he says is now bankrupt, suggested that the most recent outbreak two days ago did not involve investors at all. Instead, he says, it was just a group of hooligans who were using the financial crisis as an excuse to trash some stores.

The developers are apparently going to auction some of their holdings to repay the investors, and the Chinese government has pledged to help investors recoup at least some of their losses. How soon this is all settled is hard to gauge.

The whole scheme was patently illegal, and from my limited understanding, it’s difficult to say how many investors knew that. Sophisticated investors are wary of get-rick-quick schemes, and are reluctant to put all of their eggs in one basket under any circumstances. But the Jishou scheme did not involve experienced investors; it mostly nailed the little old ladies and Ma and Pa Kettles.

I was curious how the public uncovered the fiasco, because it’s not information that the real estate developers would exactly volunteer. Now this explanation is completely unsubstantiated and third-hand, so right now I’m slipping into National Enquirer mode.

It seems a “granny,” who was living on the interest from her investments, visited the offices of the developers to request a regularly scheduled payment. They told her they could not pay her, because they did not have the money. I can only imagine the scene that transpired. It’s not a good idea to get Chinese grannies riled up.

She told her friends, who told theirs, and the news spread like wildfire. (Everyone has cell phones here.) Crowds mobbed the banks, the real estate development office and city hall, and when they learned their money was gone, the place erupted.

I told my students that this sort of scheme happens in the US, too, and that Americans trying to make big money quickly are often taken in by crooked business deals. Typically, though, these unfortunate souls are spread out over the entire country and are not concentrated in one city or town. I told them the last time entire communities in the States lost that kind of money was in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. (I hope I was correct in saying that.)

And people are hoodwinked even when there are scores of financial experts telling us to be cautious, to be skeptical of high-yield/high-risk investments. “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t,” is the old adage. China, to my knowledge, does not yet have the equivalent of a Suze Orman or Lou Rukeyser to dispense pearls of financial wisdom, so neophytes here have no dispassionate advisors to warn them away from shysters.

So, while you folks in the US have to listen to politicians pontificate about their $700 billion bailout of the economy, I’m here dealing with angry investors in the streets. I bet there would be less pontificating, and more action in D.C. if all the people who have lost their homes and their investments on Wall Street took to the streets and started hurling rocks through shop windows and stopping traffic.

I’d like to see a presidential debate about that.

Chinese spacewalk a success
Sept. 27, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I joined millions of people today in China to watch the nation’s first walk in space.

Astronaut Zhai Zhigang’s 15-minute exit from the Shenzhou 7 capsule was televised live on national TV, and streamed live over the Internet. His official task was to fetch a sample of lubricant affixed to the outside of the spacecraft, but Zhai took time to wave at the camera, wave a Chinese flag and greet the people of China and the world.

Click here to see the video.

The spacewalk was at 4:30 pm China time, about ten minutes before my afternoon class ended, so I caught it midstream on a colleague’s computer. We munched on grapefruit and milk candies while Zhai floated 200 miles above the Earth. It reminded me of being a kid and watching American astronauts do the same thing 40 years ago.

Shenzhou 7 was launched Thursday with a crew of three; it’s the first time in space for all of them. While the highlight of the mission was to test a Chinese-designed spacesuit in an actual EVA, the crew will also launch a small satellite before returning to Earth.

It was yet another successful step in China’s plan to build a space station in low-earth orbit within the next few years. A small space lab, consisting of two space capsules docked together, is scheduled for 2010. Testing the spacesuit and undertaking an EVA were crucial steps in the Chinese space exploration timetable.

Live broadcasts from space are nothing new now, but old-timers like me can remember when the Soviet Union and China would never in a million years broadcast something this risky live, for fear something would go wrong and embarrass the country. China, of course, had no space program back in those days, but its government at the time was still far from forthcoming.

So, for China to broadcast its space mission live indicates its unwavering confidence in the Shenzhou 7 crew and the machinery enabling them to orbit the Earth. Reports from the news agencies say that China even intends to mass-produce the Shenzhou spacecraft and sell it to other countries, and manage any launches.

Considering the country’s dominance in manufactured goods worldwide, that should give everyone in the space business pause to reflect. Mass producing a spacecraft capable of carrying people into orbit would lower the cost of space travel to the point where building space stations would be almost economically feasible for many countries.

Still, I would lay odds that the first space hotel will say “Made in China” on it somewhere, unless Korea does it first.

Meanwhile, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced yesterday that his country will launch the first Iranian-made rocket soon, to carry a civilian satellite 430 miles from Earth. Iran used Russian and Chinese launch vehicles for earlier missions.

While national defense types might worry a little about China and Iran both starting space programs, it’s inevitable that the US, Europe, Japan and Russia can no longer be the only “space powers.” US and Russia (well, the former Soviet Union) forged the way, but the technology required to get into space is no longer (sorry folks) rocket science. All a country needs is money.

China has that. So does Iran. So do a lot of other countries. It might get kinda crowded up there. With luck, we can get along better in space than we do down here.

A people of great heart
Sept. 28, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve commented before on the hospitality and kindness individuals have shown me here. One of my freshmen handed me this note at the end of class yesterday. I’ll let it speak for itself. I have removed her name and phone for obvious reasons.

Dear Mr Wheaton,

I want to tell you something in my heart. I thought you were a person in a film when I first saw you. Although you are my teacher, even sometimes you are beside me, I feel you are so far away, like a person not in real life. I can’t get your age from your appearance, maybe you are old. In my childhood, I read some poems written by some Chinese living abroad. I can understand their feelings. So I can understand you. I hope you have a good life here, being happy and having many friends. If you have some difficulties, like language, shoping and so on, I’m glad to help you at any time.

Your student,
Hilda

My phone number is xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Need help, call me!

Along the same lines, while returning from the supermarket last night, I bumped into a young couple from Germany on campus. Both medical students, they had gone sightseeing and gotten lost downtown. One of our students ran into them, brought them to campus by taxi, and was proceeding to arrange for their train tickets when I walked up. She was then going to accompany them to the train station to ensure they got their tickets and boarded the right train.

National Day holiday
Oct. 4, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve been busy with a web development project of my own device, so I haven’t taken out time to write anything. So here we go.

This week has been a holiday for many people in China. It commemorates the founding of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) Oct. 1, 1949, their equivalent of the 4th of July. And like 4th of July weekend, good luck getting any action out of any government agency.

We turned in the paperwork for my residence permit the week before National Holiday, so as one might predict, I did not receive it before the week off started. That scotched my plans of visiting Zhangjiajie, where my friend Connie lives, and made me wary of venturing much beyond Jishou.

My liaison officer here, David, reassured me that I could in fact visit Fenghuang, a picturesque and very ancient town about an hour from here. It is within Xiangxi county, as in Jishou, so he said I could carry a copy of my passport and all would be well.

Maybe. I erred on the side of caution, and figured I could visit “Phoenix Town” when all my papers were in order and when it wasn’t mobbed by vacationing tourists.

Last Saturday and Sunday, we had classes, believe it or not, so that we would have exactly seven days off and not, heaven forbid, nine. Such a plan would not go over well at US colleges. Monday I spent lazing around the apartment, recovering from seven solid days of teaching.

Don’t laugh. Language teachers will know that teaching another language is exhausting work. I had no idea. I move around the class, pantomime while I talk, coax and cajole students to participate. I move around much more than I did when I was a physics teacher. (Of course, my classroom layout did not exactly lend itself to the teacher bopping around the room.)

Walking along Renmin Road

Walking along Renmin Road

Tuesday I decided sitting around was pointless, so after lunch I took a nice long walk into downtown. There were no angry mobs, so I was safe. One of my freshmen, who also stayed on campus, was concerned that I would be walking alone into the city. I assured her that New Yorkers are used to large crowds, noisy traffic, and kamikaze cab drivers.

We’re not used to being stared at, but I’m getting over it. Being a westerner here makes you somewhat of a celebrity. Last night, several students and adults wanted to have their picture taken with me, like I was some kind of movie star. Weird.

Anyway, my goals for this one-hour roundtrip walk was to see if I could buy more RAM for my laptop and eat at (yes, Louisvillians) the KFC. After weeks of rice and noodles, I was dying for a chicken sandwich. Along the way, I took a few pictures, passing by so many scooter and motorbike shops you would think every man, woman and child here would have at least two each, and many storefronts.

The typical Chinese store is not designed the way an American would expect. We’re used to stores that you can actually walk into, like a house. Here the little stores are just rooms with a missing wall. Shopkeepers sit outside on the sidewalk, or inside if there’s room, waiting for customers. I saw seamstresses, welders, restaurants, snack shops, door and window sellers, all set up this way. In the long run, it’s probably more efficient to run a business like this, especially if you happen to live above it.

The climate here is warm enough year ’round that having a store fully open to the outside is actually feasible. Climate control, under the circumstances, is out of the question, though.

Central Jishou is entirely different. Here it looks like any other busy metro area. There is a six-level shopping mall next to the KFC, which I walked through to scope out the merchandise. Prices were of course higher, because it’s a mall, but the selection was pretty comprehensive.

KFC in HeShengTang Mall

KFC in HeShengTang Mall

After my cursory tour of the mall, I continued walking toward the computer stores, which are past the KFC and over the bridge on the north side of town. I had been there before with one of my student guides, so finding it was no problem.

Communicating what I wanted was a different matter. I had written down my requirements, so I could show them to salespeople, but as it turned out none seemed to have what I needed. My laptop is a little out of date, it seems. One salesperson invited me to sit down and eat a Hunan orange (tiny, delicious green things with tiny seeds you can eat) while someone else checked the stock room. No luck, but we had a nice chat.

After hitting several stores, I figured that I would probably need a translator to get much further in this investigation, so I headed back toward the KFC. There, I successfully ordered a number 2 combo, consisting of a chicken sandwich, an orange juice drink and a side of corn relish. You have to ask for soda pop. I did not see any french fries, and the regular side (corn with diced carrots, cukes and peppers in mayo) was tasty enough that I didn’t miss them.

Beginning on Wednesday evening, I started work on a Moodle site for my students to use. Moodle is a course management system widely used across the US and the world. I had been emailing my students, but email is a one-way street usually and I wanted something more interactive. This project took the better part of Wednesday night and Thursday, so I was basically incommunicado until Friday.

Friday I just puttered around, until a few of my frosh invited me to go rollerskating. Well, I figured, I need the exercise and just maybe I’ll remember how to rollerskate after 40 years. (Not that I was any good then.)

It wasn’t a total disaster. I fell down four or five times (on concrete — hurts more than on wooden rinks) and looked pretty timid out there, but I started getting the hang of things about the time my legs started to give out. So I sat and waited for my students to finish their skating, while talking English with another frosh in the music department. Like many of the students I talk with (or IM with), she was profusely apologetic about her poor English, but in fact her speaking skills were really quite good. We had a real conversation.

QQ is the Chinese equivalent of AOL Instant Messenger and AOL. Every student it seems has a cell phone and a QQ account. I signed up with QQ as soon as I arrived (there’s an English language client, mercifully) and gave my QQ number to my students.

Word spreads. If I go online with QQ, I can expect not only several of my own students to chat with me, but students from the Teachers College and not-so-nearby cities in Hunan. So if I need to get any work done, signing on to QQ is not a good idea. But it is fun when I have the time to chat with seven people at once.

I’m still trying to wrap the size of Hunan around my head. Many of my students stayed on campus because their hometowns are more than six or seven hours away by train, but are still within the province. There are almost 67 million people in Hunan province living in its nearly 82,000 square miles. That’s half the size of California with almost twice as many people. The transportation system is excellent, but with so many stops, trains take hours to traverse the province.

So students who would need to travel almost a day to get home just stay on campus. There’s also the cost factor. For most of these students, going to college requires an enormous investment by their families. There is no such thing as financial aid here. While the university is publicly funded, it does charge tuition. For a farming family, sending a child to college is a major deal.

As a result, my students’ ages range more widely than they would in the States. My youngest frosh is 17, but many are as old as 20. One senior is 25. With the costs and examinations required to enter university, some students have to wait to go. Once they’re here, they have to watch their money. Trainfares, while hardly exorbitant, can be hefty when you have to pinch your pennies. It’s all relative, as they say.

The Jishou real estate swindle
Oct. 5, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — This fairly quiet city made international headlines early last month when nearly a third of the population took to the streets to protest a massive real estate scheme that swindled them out of billions of dollars.

I have tried to piece together a more substantive review of the whole mess, which for good reason I have posted on The Daily Kos, after a commenter there encouraged me to do so.

China is famous for its “Great Firewall,” which prevents Internet users here from accessing sensitive websites. In order to gather information about the Jishou mess, I had to circumvent the firewall by relying on the Tor proxy network. I figure posting a frank review of the Jishou incidents here would result in my blog being firewalled, too, making it really hard to me to maintain it. Other bloggers in China have had similar problems.

So, if you want to read all about it, go to The Daily Kos. Leave some comments, too.

English boot camp
Oct. 8, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — The university draws students from all over Hunan, and from several other provinces as well, so one of its missions is to ensure entering students all have a reasonable command of English.

Passing English aptitude tests is a requirement for a four-year diploma here, and a major boost toward getting a job once you obtain that diploma. JSU, like any other institution of learning, wants its students to succeed, so right after their military boot camp, English major freshmen go to “English boot camp.”

For their first week of classes, these attend their regular classes and then go to evening sessions led very ably by the seniors in the department. (Who, if they happen to be reading this, should be proud of their good work.) The evening sessions are actually fun, so it’s not as horrible as I may make it sound. The seniors devised games and activities to remove some anxieties about university English classes.

During the first week, each student also receives a blue phonetics book, which I see them carry to class as devotedly as their cell phones. This book contains instructions on how to make the sounds of English vowels and consonants, along with appropriate practice words.

My world language teacher friends back in the States would cringe at this book, as it seems more suitable for a linguistics or speech pathology major than a beginning college English student. It contains the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols for the sounds alongside cutaway diagrams of a human head showing the placement of the tongue and shape of the mouth to make the sounds.

Looking at one of these books, I found myself checking where my tongue was in my mouth while vocalizing some English vowels. I do better without the book.

As a newcomer here, I would be ill-advised to criticize the philosophy beyond teaching English in this way. Few students arriving here have had access to native English speakers. They have just had their teachers (who I might add generally speak English pretty well) to emulate, which accounts for the wide variety of accented English I hear among my freshmen.

Some pronounce English very distinctly; others try to insert Chinese vowels where English vowels should go, or confuse one vowel for a similar one. We spent some time in class yesterday distinguishing between two pairs of words: snack and snake, and sheet and shit. You can eat a snack, but only a very few eat snakes. You should change the sheets on your bed. You definitely should change the shits on your bed.

Whether the imitate-and-repeat drills I hear in neighboring classrooms is effective, I can’t say just yet. The frosh have only been in class for a couple of weeks, with a week’s vacation in between. The phonetics book I never use in my class, figuring they use it plenty elsewhere. Instead, I have each student say a few sentences about some easy topic (favorite music, vacation activities), stopping between each to correct egregious mispronunciations (shits on the bed), grammar or vocabulary.

All my students want to learn American idioms, one of the hardest things to learn in any language. I have a book of idioms, plus a rather shaky knowledge of current Americanisms common among college-age youth — I taught one class “My bad!” — so I am trying to oblige them.

The students, for the most part, seem to hunger for instruction in proper English. They want to know how to improve their English skills. As the so far only native English speaker on campus, I’m doing the best I can.

Getting on QQ — China’s answer to AIM — can be perilous. In a fit of generosity, I gave my students my QQ number. They gave it to other students, some of whom don’t even go to JSU, so when I sign on I had better have cleared my desk of work for the evening. Working while keeping track of eight simultaneous conversations is more multitasking than my 1950s era CPU can handle.

Two freshmen — biology students — sat in on my conversation class today just to listen to the proceedings. Both asked me for my IM info so we can continue chatting in English on line.

Who knew speaking English would make me a media “star?” Now if I could only get a few gigs like Hugh Grant …

In praise of the Hunan orange
Oct.13, 2008

Fresh oranges

Fresh oranges

JISHOU, HUNAN — Little did I know I would move to an orange lover’s paradise.

This time of year, oranges are everywhere – in the supermarket, in the sidewalk fruit stalls, piled high in the back of farmers’ bicycles and carts. Of China’s 22 contiguous provinces, Hunan is the third largest producer of oranges, so it’s no wonder you can’t go anywhere without seeing them.

Let me tell about these oranges. Every single one I’ve had so far has been sweet and juicy. The skin is thin and easy to peel off with your fingers, almost as easy as peeling a banana. There are no seeds, at least ones I can find. It sections easily, and there’s very little inner rind to spoil the chewing process.

I suppose if I had ever lived in California or Florida, or some other orange-producing part of the world, I suppose I would not marvel so much at the Hunan orange. As it is, I lived in places where oranges had to be trucked in from someplace else. They weren’t always fresh. Their rinds were like leather. And once in a while, an entire bag or oranges would be either sour or dry or both.

Oranges are my favorite fruit, so getting a bad orange is heartrending. I love oranges and anything flavored oranges– orange juice, orange marmalade, orange suckers, orange LifeSavers …

Coincidentally (or maybe subconsciously), I chose a university that had orange and black as the school colors. (I do draw the line at wearing orange clothing, though. During Reunions it’s OK, but not for everyday attire.)

You will notice that the oranges in the photo are in fact mostly green. The orange part is on the inside. In the US, where people confuse colors and flavors, orange producers artificially color the rinds to produce the vibrant orange hue we are so used to.

When I first saw the fruit here, I thought they were limes! Silly American.

Does English corner mean ‘Corner the English speaker?”
Oct. 19. 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I should have expected it, being the only native English speaker on a large campus, but my first English Corner experience was impressive, to put it mildly.

Gift of the English Club

Gift of the English Club

Picture a group of about 40 or 50 (I was always lousy at estimating crowd sizes, even as a reporter) standing on a green waiting for my arrival. Then, picture these folks encircling me, three or four deep, asking questions about all sorts of things.

Like I said, impressive.

English Corner is an informal club gathering, where Chinese university students go to practice English. While I attended willingly, it’s actually part of my contract to participate in these kinds of things.

Some of those present were my students. (A lot of freshmen … good job, guys!) Many were not. I recognized a couple from the English-speaking contests I helped judge recently, but for the most part they were students (and a few non-students) I had never met.

They were all intensely curious about the US, the circumstances of my arrival, my views of China and the Chinese people, favorite sports and movies, Christmas, and whether I had seen any other parts of China and whether I like Chinese food.

From the kind of questions they had, I could tell that some students have formed their opinions of the US from (gods help us!) TV and movies. One girl asked me if it was normal for college students to wear pajamas to class, and for teachers to conduct class while sitting and eating! She also asked if teachers wear pajamas to class, too.

I hope I convinced her that picture was unrealistic. I know pajama bottoms were de rigeur for awhile among young women, but I’m not too sure full pajama regalia ever became popular, especially among guys … or teachers.

They were very curious about my perceptions of Chinese students. I explained that I find my students to be either very shy or very reluctant to speak in class, even when I invite questions. For an American teacher used to constant give-and-take between teacher and students (some of it actually planned!), the overly quiet classes are worrisome. I said in those circumstances I am unsure if my class has understood me and whether my lesson is failing.

Several explained that Chinese teachers, by and large, so all the talking in class, and expect students to sit and be quiet. Language classes are a notable exception, but students in those typically speak in unison. So I am confronting years of training to sit and be quiet. Some of this I already knew, but tonight I got a much clearer picture of what I’m up against.

As time passed, the crowd thinned. English Corner meets Sundays at 5:30, so some left for dinner and the freshmen left for class(!). By 7, I was talking to a group of about 10, who for the most part were older students or younger faculty.

With the smaller circle of participants, discussions veered toward American politics and culture. One engineering student named Seven was curious about my political party affiliation and what I thought about Barack Obama. He was fairly well informed about the racial bias against Obama in some parts of the US, so we talked about how widespread that feeling is among the population at large. (I hope the US voters corroborate my opinions. I’m expecting Obama not only to do well, but to win the race, regardless of the bigotry in some corners of the States.)

We talked about native Americans, sexism, family sizes, the independence of grown American children from their parents, comparative costs of living here and there, and probably a few other topics I’ve forgotten in the last three hours.

As the evening wound down, one man floored me briefly by asking if I wanted to go to church with him. It surprised me, because China is officially a secular state. There are officially sanctioned churches, but they are very low key, so I had no idea Jishou even had a church! Until this evening, the subject of religion had not come up in any conversation with anyone, and I have been reluctant to broach the subject in class. (There are many unofficial “house churches,” which are illegal, so the Chinese who attend these churches would be very nervous talking about religion.)

Seven (the engineering student) asked the churchgoer if he was Christian and why he was Christian. His reply was that he felt guilty and felt attending church would help him overcome his guilt. (No comment.)

I begged off going, saying I had not yet had dinner and was pretty hungry. To be honest, being away from the almost oppressive religiosity in the US — well, in Kentuckiana, actually — is actually refreshing. Your religion in the US now seems like something you need to wear on your sleeve, and non-observers are social pariahs. My own “religion” has always been more of the spiritual kind, which is what drew me to the Quakers some 30 years ago. Attending “normal” church services just isn’t my scene.

Even so, we exchanged phone numbers and I said I would still be interested in attending some other evening. Curiosity will probably induce me to go sometime.

Pang XiaoDi (also known as Shelldy), the organizer of English Corner, thanked me for my patience and willingness to sit on the grass for almost two hours, and gave me the bamboo wall hanging pictured above.

The night before, I was part of a smaller English corner, when I met Juliann and Stephanie, the Princeton-in-Asia fellows at Jishou Normal College, for dinner with two of their friends. One was Juliann’s friend, an English teacher in Beijing, and the other, a North Korean friend with an inexhaustible knowledge of American cinema. We met at one of Stephanie’s favorite places (“Spicy Grandma”), which serves hot pot meals.

Hot pot, known as Mongolian hot pot in some parts of the US and in China, is a large container of boiling broth into which you dip uncooked meat, mushrooms, tofu and veggies. The tables have a hole in the middle under which sits a burner. Our pot had one side with chicken broth and the other a peppery broth (this being Hunan, and all). You drop your food into the broth with your chopsticks, wait for it to be cooked, then fish it out. As the meal progresses, the broth acquires all the flavors of the cooked food and cooks down at the same time, intensifying the flavors.

There can be no better way to eat spinach, let me tell you.

Last night also marked my first solo journey here in a taxicab, since every other time I have been squired by a student. Juliann gave me the name of a suitable landmark near “Spicy Grandma” to tell the cabbie, and already I knew what to say for the return trip (“Jishou da xue,” Jishou University). Though next time, I think I will specify “new campus,” since he took me to the old campus first! No biggie. I still knew where I was.

Now I really have to read some student journals, so I’ll end this post right here.


Getting them to talk and sing!
Oct. 22, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — Taking a cue from my fellow teacher in Jishou, Juliann, I have had my oral English students ask each other questions. Just as she predicted, they were much more willing to talk too each other than to respond to my questions.

In fact, they had fun.

I tried it first with my senior business English students, who with a few exceptions are usually reluctant to talk without notes. I knew I was on the right track when Gene gave Emily (the quietest girl in the class) a three-part question. He said she could pick any of the three parts to answer; the last choice was, “Are you free this evening?”

Slick one, Gene. Too bad it didn’t work.

Today’s freshmen had even more fun with it. It’s a class of about 30, but even so, we were able to go around the room twice in a 40-minute period. Most of the questions on the first round were pretty ordinary: “what’s your favorite food/movie/music/fruit?”, “do you have a boyfriend?”, and so on.

Others revolved around the teacher. One girl asked another if she thought their foreign teacher was handsome. She said yes.

I of course immediately pretended to give them both A’s for the assignment.

Banana (yes, that’s the name he picked) was the last student on the first round, and I was the recipient of his question. His question set the tone for the second round, which was a lot more fun than the first.

“John, would you sing a song: ‘Mamma Mia’?”

Damn. The last time I sang in public was in high school, but Banana had me on the spot. To save face, I could not back down. Despite hearing the same annoying commercial for the Mamma Mia movie over and over again before I left the States, I could not for the life of me recall the lyrics of “Mamma Mia.” (I was not all that much of an ABBA fan in the first place.)

So I sang “Shenandoah,” an American folk song. Predictably, the entire performance ended up on several cell phone videocams. Might be on YouTube by now.

The second round was now in full swing. Clara, one of my rollerskating buddies, asked her partner, “What do you think of John’s big belly?” I was too surprised to do anything but laugh. (The answer was very diplomatic, by the way.)

On the other side of the room, one girl asked another if she would sing her favorite song. The girl tried to wiggle out of it, but I told her if I sang, she had to sing, too. Since her song was familiar to the rest of the class, she had backup.

This happened again a few minutes later. Then one girl asked the boy next to her, “You’re very talented, but you’re so shy. Would you sing or dance for us?” He was floored. We had to encourage him a little, and I could tell he was almost terrified, but he gamely sang a song — in English — to wild applause from the rest of us.

Once again, Banana, who was two seats away, asked me to sing. I think he enjoys putting me on the spot. This time, I picked, “Yesterday,” which one girl had earlier identified as her favorite song. This time, there were at least a half a dozen cell phones recording my performance.

I’m expecting a call from “Top Talent” (Hunan TV’s clone of “American Idol”) any day now. I’m taking the other three singers as co-stars. Now all I need is a catchy name for the group.

The pen revealeth much
Oct. 25, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — It has been raining pretty steadily since last evening, and the temperature has dropped to the mid-50s (F scale), making a tour of historic FengHuang this weekend less than appealing.

This past week has been pretty busy on the teaching front, none the least because of my diary-keeping assignments to my writing classes. Now that I have 60+ freshmen writers, the task of reading their journals has escalated nearly to a full-time job. But I tell them to practice writing English every day, so it’s my own damn fault that I have to read their efforts.

As a physics teacher, the only student writing I saw with any regularity were lab reports, which don’t lend themselves to creative expression and introspection much. (Though, I have had some gifted writers over the years who played with the form.) I was a little unprepared, therefore, for the remarkable honesty and emotional revelations some of my students put down on paper.

My two smaller senior classes have the same assignment as the freshmen. Their thoughts revolve around the crucial events of their young careers: passing English competency tests, passing subject-specific graduation exams, finding jobs after graduation, writing their 9,000-word exit essays. Layered on to these pretty overwhelming obsessions is the realization that in a few short months they will leave the cocoon of university and the camaraderie of their friends and classmates.

Meanwhile, the freshmen are both yearning for their hometowns and old friends, and greeting the challenges of university life with open arms. They write of missing their boy- and girlfriends in other towns, of discovering their stern mothers and fathers can still shed tears when their child’s train pulls away from the station, of failures and successes at university, of boredom, of academic stress, of loneliness, of new friendships.

The students are surprised when I tell them I enjoy reading their journals, for I do. It gives me insights into my students that one or two class meetings a week cannot.

Behind all the tales of woes and worries is something powerful. It may be a strictly Chinese trait, or maybe that of young people in general; I really have no context to base my assumptions.

First, my students are to a man or woman very self-critical. They always want to do better, to excel in everything they do. Failures are distressing, because they know their parents are working themselves to the bone to send their kids to university. (Many of my students come from farming families, who often have side businesses going to pay the college bills.)

As poignant as these confessions are, my students’ overwhelming, even infectious optimism balances the regrets of failing. They will do better next time. They will learn from their mistakes. These challenges in their lives will enable them to succeed in the future.

So, whenever I feel a little down, because a lesson has not apparently gone well, or because the weather has spoiled a weekend’s travel plans, reading my students’ diaries perks me up. By comparison, my petty problems are nothing to the challenges they face.

Birdsong every day
Oct. 28, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — Not to sound like too much like a character in a Disney movie, but one of the more pleasant aspects of my commute to work is listening to the birds in the trees.

My apartment building is on top of a hill overlooking the campus, and the builders wisely left many trees alone. So, I am surrounded by trees and the birds living in them. I can hear them through my bedroom windows and on my 15-minute walk to class and back.

Last night, I installed a sound recorder app onto my Treo, so I can capture short voice messages. It turns out the mike is sensitive enough to record the birds, so I gave it shot. Here is my first audio file. I boosted the volume so you can hear the birds better; you can also hear my footsteps as I walk down the hill.

[audio:birds-oct_28.mp3]

The clip does not include one bird with a clear four- three-note call that I hear from time to time. When I hear it next, I am going to record it so some birder can tell me what it is. [UPDATE April 23, 2012(!): It’s a large hawk-cuckoo. Better late than never.]

My new MP3 player can also record sound clips. I am revving up to try to do some podcasts. Ooooo!

Scarlett — awaiting your call
Oct. 29, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — If you’ve ever seen the movie “Lost in Translation,” you’ll recall the scene in which Bill Murray’s character has to shoot a liquor commercial for his Japanese employers.

Those images played in my head today as I assisted a communications student with her homework assignment, by being her model for a mock juice commercial.

The student, Denise, was one of the two finalists in the university’s English-speaking contest a couple of weeks ago, which I helped judge. (The other finalist, by the way, won the local contest, went on to provincial contest and took first place.) Denise asked me to be her model because my appearance suited the concept she had for her commercial.

Her concept: A philosopher type is lost in thought, frustrated because he cannot overcome some mental block. While anguishing over his task, he suddenly spies a bottle of Baige juice drink. He takes a swig, loves the taste and lo! his mental block is gone.

Denise said my white hair and beard reminded her of philosophers like Marx and Hegel, so she asked me if I would help her shoot the video. (Well, it trumps being called Jerry Garcia …)

We used a vacant lecture hall. I was to sit in the front row, anguishing over some composition or another. We agreed that I would struggle with some idea until I drank the juice, then proclaim, “In course of human history, it is better to be carried away by the flow of water of the running river than to be the sand at the bottom.”

Before shooting a video, you need to make sure the actor can actually open the bottle. This was not as easy as it looked. Baige’s bottles have a cap that’s a cross between a western drug “child-proof cap” and an athletic water bottle top. You have to push the wide-mouth cap down while turning it.

So, I tried. No dice. Denise tried. Her partner tried. We asked some fellows in the hallway outside to try. Three were unsuccessful before the last guy hit the bottle top against the concrete wall, and finally opened the bottle.

That difficulty behind us, Denise proceeded to shoot me sitting and thinking. I adlibbed writing down approximations of the agreed-upon pronouncement, then scratching them out. She shot me doing this scribbling from three different angles. Then, I had to stand in front of the marker board, looking dejected and pacing back and forth, occasionally writing something on the board, but getting nowhere.

She sat me down again. This time, I had to look up, spy the Baige bottle, and look surprised and happy. Then we did a closeup of me quaffing the drink, getting that orgasmic TV-commercial look at the taste, and then proclaiming my “wise thought.” We did a few takes of this scene, too.

Well, I’m no Bill Murray, but I did OK, I think. God knows I’ve watched plenty of TV commercials in my day. Denise was much more polite than the obnoxious Japanese director in “Lost in Translation,” so helping her out was actually a lot of fun. (Denise had asked me if I had had any experience being in front of a TV camera. I have, and I told her briefly why. I omitted the whole “Hannah Montana movie massacree” story, which provided my only paid acting experience so far. Trying to explain Hannah Montana to a Chinese college student was too big a job for one afternoon.)

Not sure if I’m enlightened yet, but I’m pleased
Nov. 3, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I met the Buddha on Sunday, 1.5 kilometers above sea level. He seems well, and is not lacking for company.

The Buddha sits among a coterie of lesser buddhas in a rebuilt temple at the summit of Tianmen Mountain near Zhangjiajie, on the site of a much older temple dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). My visit there was one of the highlights of a quick, impromptu trip to Zhangjiajie this weekend.

The occasion for trip, despite less than encouraging weather, was to meet the new foreign teacher at the Zhangjiajie airport Saturday evening. David, my liaison officer, asked if I wanted to accompany one of his interns, Christopher, on the trip. I said, sure, thinking anything has to better than sitting in my flat on a cool, damp weekend.

We caught a morning train, and arrived at the university’s Zhangjiajie campus hotel around 1 pm, parked our bags, and took a short, wet walking tour of the campus. Christopher has friends on this campus, and I have a friend and former colleague who teaches there, so we spent some time organizing our stay.

The new teacher from the UK was supposed to arrive at 8 pm, but Connie (my friend) invited me to dinner. So, Christopher and I decided he would go to the airport alone. As it turns out, for me, it was the right decision. The teacher did not make the evening flight, so Christopher didn’t go and instead hung out with his friends while I visited with Connie and her family.

The food was delicious, but I felt guilty that I could not eat very much. I woke up Saturday with an upset stomach, which plagued me the entire weekend. So my appetite was off, to say the least.

After dinner, Connie’s husband and his colleague had to return to work for some overtime (until midnight, as it turned out.) So, Connie gave me a quick tour of Zhangjiajie’s bustling downtown.

My students in Jishou misinformed me. They had given me the impression that Zhangjiajie had no shops, no restaurants and no karaoke clubs, and that Zhangjiajie students came to Jishou for entertainment. Maybe they do, but the part of the city I saw was certainly no sleepy backwater. I figure my students meant the area around the campus is devoid of entertainment and shopping opportunities, which is true to a large extent.

Anyway, we walked in the rain, looking at shops and popping into a local hypermarket, while Connie told me about the museums and other cultural sites of her hometown.

Zhangjiajie is a city of about 1.5 million people. Until the late 1990s, it was known as Dayong (Google Maps still lists it that way), a sleepier and less well known town. The creation of a national park, Wulingyuan, nearby changed all that; the park acquired the name of a small village, Zhangjiajie, within its borders. By extension, that name eventually replaced Dayong as the name of the city.

Now, Zhangjiajie is a busy tourist town that attracts 6 million visitors — mostly Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, so far — annually. They visit the scenic forest, Tianmen Mountain, local museums and several other natural and cultural sites all within short trips of the city. Express trains and a new airport bring people in from the larger cities to the east and south.

To see all of those sites in a weekend is impossible. We hoped that the rain would let up enough for me to at least take the cable car ride up to the top of Tianmen Mountain, which overlooks the city. By Sunday afternoon, it had.

Sunday morning, while we waited for the clouds to lift, Connie took me to the Xiahuashanguan Museum, which features the art and culture of her people, the Tujia.

China has 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. The Tujia number about 8 million. They have inhabited this part of China (the Wuling Mountain Range) for millenia, and have cultivated special arts and crafts known through the country, including sandstone painting, weaving, embroidery, intricate woodcarvings, courtship songs, and dances. Many of these traditions have been revived with the creation of the national park.

As the museum is privately run, I did not feel it appropriate to take photos. Their cross-stitch embroidery is dumbfounding in its intricacy; I doubt photos would really convey the craftsmanship anyway.

I have a vague notion from my childhood endeavors how time consuming wood carving. Imagine carving an entire bed. The “dripping-water bed” is a poetic name for a married couple’s first (and probably only) bed. Artisans make these matrimonial “beds of a thousand labors” from wood, carving intricate designs all around the borders of the “entrance” to the bed. Connie said her grandmother had one, which left a lasting impression on Connie when she slept in it as a child.

Similar efforts go into the making of the bride’s sedan chair, in which she arrives at her wedding concealed from view. The museum has two antique bride’s chairs, but apparently also has replicas available for modern Tujia to rent for a traditional wedding.

Sandstone painting, a newer artform, is somewhat of a misnomer. Created by a Zhangjiajie native, the artists combine pulverized sandstone with natural pigments and other natural materials to create unique, vividly colored and textured images of local scenery and village life. Here’s an example:sandstone painting

Around 2:30, we headed for the cableway terminus, just a few blocks from the train station. Connie called on two students to accompany up to the mountain, while she minded my bag and bought my train ticket home. [Christopher, I will note, was still at the hotel, bored silly, watching TV, and awaiting some news of the new teacher’s arrival.]

The Tianmen Cableway is the longest in the world, at 7.5 km (about 4.7 miles). It carries visitors from the city to a point on the mountain 1.3 km — about 4,300 feet — up, where they can disembark and explore the mountaintop park on foot. Another cableway (really a chairlift) takes visitors another 200 meters up to the temple.

This multilingual site has a map of the cableway and the mountain forest park. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to trace our route.

Tianmen Mountain has much spiritual significance. The temple at the summit has been a center of Buddhism for western Hunan for 1400 years. Earlier than that, in the year 263, part of the mountain’s cliffs suddenly gave way, creating a keyhole, called Tianmen Cave; local people called it a gateway to heaven and it became an ancient tourist attraction. (Chinese unicorns are also reputed to live in the forests surrounding the mountain, but they are hard to spot even in clear weather.)

I took digital photos on the way up, but they offer a poor representation of the actual sights. Imagine if you will sitting in a glassed-in cablecar that seems to float above the buildings of the city, over the craggy terrains, the lush forests, and the switchback road (it has 99 turns and is said to resemble a dragon’s ascent) leading to the summit. Meanwhile, you apparently inch ever so slowly toward the mountain, its peak rimmed with low clouds.

The ride on the chairlift was even more vivid, as we actually passed through the chilly clouds on the way to the temple. Down below us, somewhere in the mist, were some Tujia women singing a courtship song for some other tourists. It had an ethereal quality that reminded me of scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon without Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh jumping from tree branch to tree branch. We waved at the people on the chairs heading down. The majority were Koreans, as it turned out.

The temple here was rebuilt according to the style typical of the Qing Dynasty four centuries ago. The first station is the south-facing gateway, where two ferocious looking figures stand to protect the Buddha. After that, there is a huge courtyard, flanked by two smaller buildings. The Buddha sits in the largest building on the grounds, directly opposite the gateway.

It is traditional to clasp one’s hands in front of your chest and bow three times before entering. In the middle of the temple, the golden Buddha and his two golden bodhisattvas (disciples) sit crosslegged looking serenely to the south. Each is about 15 feet tall. Small stools were placed in front of them for Buddhists wanting to pray.

Along the east and west walls are 18 statues representing the 18 luohans (supernatural beings with specific abilities), including happiness (the familiar laughing Buddha), scholarship, artistry, and so on. On the north side of the temple is the goddess of mercy, Guan Yin, whom many Chinese regard as important as the Buddha himself, and two other guardians astride an elephant and a tiger.

On our way out, we saw a group of men carrying a huge bronze cauldron up the narrow stone steps to the main courtyard. The thing must have weighed close to a half-ton, judging from the grunts and groans of the ten porters struggling with it. It provided a brief glimpse into the time and effort it would have taken to build a such a huge temple complex centuries ago.

At this point, we really had to hustle. My train would leave at 6, and it was already past 4:30. The students wanted me to walk (“Quickly, we must hurry!”) the “plank road,” a stone walkway skirting the top of the mountain. While the views were spectacular, I really had to catch the train, so I suggested I come back another time to savor the experience.

I made it to the train just in time, as it was boarding. Connie talked her way past the security guards to lead me to the platform, and even boarded briefly to make sure I had good company in carriage 7, seat 51. My seatmates were all coincidentally Jishou University students, returning from celebrating a friend’s birthday. Two of them chatted with me in English to the admiring glances of several onlookers. Just before the train pulled from the station, Christopher breathlessly appeared, having gained permission from his boss to abandon meeting the new teacher for now.

So, from a sow’s ear, a silk purse. All things considered, I had a pretty damn good weekend.

Teaser: what I did this weekend
Nov 9, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I’m too tired right now to provide a detailed summary of my weekend trip to FengHuang, so I’m dropping two photos here as teasers.

My guides on this trip were these ten fine young women from my sophomore Oral English class. We were in a cave leading to the Miao Village, a tourist destination, where I met a 105-year-old woman who in turn met her first American.

Some of my English education majors on our trip to Fenghuang.

Some of my English education majors on our trip to Fenghuang.

Our base for the weekend was the historic town of FengHuang (now a small city catering to tourists). As it happened, there was a Miao couple getting married today, and these ladies were singing in advance of the ceremony.

Preparing for a traditional Miao wedding

Preparing for a traditional Miao wedding

The Miao are another ethnic minority in China, and are also a mountain people like the Tujia. Way back when, Miao were bandits and generally a real pain in the ass for China’s emperors. In response to the Miao problem, the Han Chinese built the Southern Great Wall 500 years ago. Unlike its northern brother, the Southern Wall gets little press, but parts of it still stand in western Hunan.

Miao women traditionally wear blue pants and tunics with embroidery on the cuffs. Older women also wear tall, black turban-like hats. For special occasions, they bring out their elaborate silver jewelry, as you can see here.

The FengHuang trip, part one
Nov. 10, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — It took nearly a month of waiting, but I finally visited the historic city of FengHuang, which is only an hour’s bus ride from here.

Lack of travel papers, other commitments and bad weather prevented me from making the trip before, so when it seemed likely we would have decent weather, I made sure people knew I wanted to visit FengHuang, a town with a 1300-year history.

Since my senior guides were otherwise occupied with such trivialities as trying to graduate, they convinced a cadre of my sophomores — ten in all — to escort me. Since some are local girls, one had a boyfriend whose buddy ran a tour service of sorts, and another’s uncle and aunt owned a comfy guest house right on the Tuojiang River in FengHuang. Some had been to FengHuang before, but others, like me, were first-timers. So, all in all, we had a lot of fun.

A “FengHuang” is a Chinese phoenix, comprising both male (feng) and female (huang) aspects. The town of FengHuang developed from an earlier settlement that may have been a military encampment, to keep the troublesome Miao people at bay. The town moved to its present location on the Tuojiang River during the Ming Dynasty 700 years ago. At first, its population consisted primarily of Han soldiers, but eventually Miao moved out of their cave dwellings in the mountains to build characteristic wooden homes in FengHuang. That style of archtecture, with tiled roofs and upturned ornamentation on the roof corners, is still prevalent in the old town.

The 11 of us departed Jishou by bus around 8 am Saturday, zipping down a four-laner until the bus turned onto a (mostly) two-laner leading to FengHuang. The ride took about an hour. The bus station is outside town, so we then had to taxi to the Jiang Nan Dong Lu Hotel. I had a room overlooking the river, while the girls took rooms the floor below. (This hotel was spotless, though modest. For fancier and therefore pricier accommodations, there are “international” hotels catering to tour groups. I prefer the Jiang Nan Dong Lu, thank you.)

We dumped our bags, then headed toward another bus stop for a trip to a Miao village a half-hour away. Mary’s boyfriend’s buddy was the tour guide. While the bus was comfortable, the road was not. Chuckholes required our driver to go slowly, and even then the trip was pretty bouncy. The scenery was gorgeous, though, reminiscent of driving through the hills of eastern Kentucky or western North Carolina. Wherever there was the possibility of a flat space, you would see a farmhouse and a small farm. Many of the hills had terraced gardens as well.

[My photos are here, on Picasaweb. I’m starting to bump into my storage limit on my current host, so I have to cut back on hosting images here.]

The actual trek to the village was an adventure in itself, and I suspect some of the adventure was contrived for tourism’s sake. Whatever. It was fun.

Before the Ming dynasty, the Miao lived in caves, probably because the majority Han people forced them back into the mountains. There, the Miao acquired a reputation for banditry. Our trip to this village would take us through one of those bandit caves.

First leg: a short trip upriver on bamboo rafts. Modern flood control has apparently increased the depth of the Tuojiang; my students told me we were passing over the remains of an older town. Shades of the TVA!

Second leg: a walk up a stony pathway to a gate, where there is a convenient concrete-block pair of restrooms (with a Miao style roof, of course!). We passed a family’s home, then the dam, to stop on top of the dam to get a view of the lake. From there, we delved into the mountain, passing several waterfalls on the way. (It has been raining almost non-stop for two weeks, so the waterfalls and the Tuojiang were all very fast.)

We were required to pray to the local god and plant incense sticks in his shrine before entering the cave. Our guide pointed out where the Miao bandit king would have lived, on a ledge overlooking the entrance to the cave, and places along the waterway where archers would have stood to pick off intruders. The locals have built a wooden walkway above the water, hugging the cave’s wall. At times the walkway turned into stone steps, finally ending in a steep metal staircase leading to daylight. Candles lit the way. We passed a subterranean waterfall where the bandit queen supposedly would wash herself. Considering the temperature of the water, that woman was made of strong stuff!

Third leg
: another boat ride, this time in a craft resembling two canoes attached side-by-side. We proceeded along another stone path to the gate of the Miao village. There we were greeted by several young Miao girls in their traditional blue outfits.

The Miao (like the nearby Tujia) are accomplished singers. Song is an important part of their culture. So, their custom is to sing to visitors, who must sing back as part of the entry procedure. (We rehearsed on the bus. There is something about riding in a bus that brings out the song in you. We used to sing “Yellow Submarine” and “99 Bottles of Beer” when I was a kid on the school bus.) The Miao girls made us sing twice. Fortunately, we had two songs to offer.

The next part of the entry procedure is to quaff a bowl of the local rice wine in one gulp, or you will not be allowed into the village. [Note to the UN: I suggest doing away with worldwide passport control in favor of the Miao entrance custom. Sing a song, drink some wine, mellow out. Repeat as necessary.]

We were to witness a Miao dance-and-drumming performance before having lunch. Part of the festivities includes inviting a few audience members to come on stage and try on Miao women’s clothing (pants and tunic). My girls of course insisted I had to go. Thus dressed, the participants then have to imitate a Miao girl’s graceful dance moves. I’m not sure we five were graceful, but I and one of the girls ended up tied for first. As a tiebreaker, I had to dance again by myself. I think I won, by virtue of being the only westerner there. It certainly wasn’t because of my grace as a dancer.

We all received cattle-head pendants as prizes. I think cattle are important to the Miao. I’m guessing it may be why their roof corners have upturned ornamentation.

Then the entire audience joined in a circle dance with the Miao dancers, who suddenly rushed into the middle to smear charcoal on our faces. The charcoal is a good luck charm, so we were told not to remove it.

After a tasty lunch, we took a short walk through the village. The Miao here build their homes from flat stones stacked without mortar. The doorways have a threshold that are several inches tall (I saw the same feature in Zhangjiajie, a Tujia town). Visitors must step over the threshold, and never step on it, for it is bad luck. Our destination after lunch was the home of a 105-year-old Miao woman, who though in bed was very alert and talkative. She could tell there was something different about me, and wanted to know where I was from. The grandmother speaks only Miao, so her granddaughter translated into Mandarin, and my girls translated into English. I was the first westerner the woman had ever met, and she wanted her picture taken with me. We held hands (hers were surprisingly soft) and she stroked my beard, saying, “ho, ho, ho!” (That rascally Santa gets around, I’ll tell ya!)

After saying our goodbyes, we walked back to the village gate, where our bus was waiting to take us back to FengHuang. Some of the other tourists (who were about my age and may have passed up the boat and cave tour) were on the bus, too, so we took turns singing songs, encouraged by a Miao girl riding into town. I sang “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” which seemed apropos somehow.

We were back in FengHuang by 4:30, in time for some shopping, food, and a rest, before attending the bonfire party performance later that night.

NEXT: Shopping in the ancient city, the bonfire party and some thoughts on the universality of tourist traps.

Archie Bunker* is alive and living in China
Nov. 11, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s like I fell into a space-time warp and ended up in polite company in the US of the 1950s or ’60s. In the last two days, I have had two Chinese ask me if I thought Barack Obama was capable of being a good president, because, you know, he’s black.

Since the first question came from a middle-school teacher, I chalked it up to a generational prejudice. When the second question came from one of my students, I realized I had just encountered my first exposure to Chinese racism.

While most Chinese seem really pleased that Barack Obama has been elected president of the United States, there is an undercurrent of doubt that he can “do it,” since, you know, he’s black. It’s the kind of attitude I would have expected from adults when I was younger, but hearing it in 2008 from younger people is pretty disturbing.

It’s not entirely unexpected, however. I knew before I arrived that dark-skinned English-language teachers have a tougher time finding work in China than us lily-white teachers. There are three prejudices working side by side here.

First, Han Chinese, who constitute the vast majority of the population, are predisposed to look on any of their own minorities as being “inferior” to the Han, much as whites have looked down on practically every other ethnic group they have encountered. I suppose it’s a typical attitude of the “ruling class” to consider itself above everyone else.

Then, there’s the preference among Chinese for lighter skin color, even within the Han. A dark skin tone suggests a farming or rural background, which marks that person as a hick. Even my three senior guides told me they have picked black as their chosen “professional dress” color to de-emphasize their darker skin tone. Lighter colors, as you fashionistas know, would make their dark complexions pop out.

Finally, since few Africans or African-Americans visit or live in China, the Chinese have acquired their perceptions of blacks from (you guessed it) the media. And let’s face it, the portrayal of blacks in the news, on TV and in the movies is far from ideal. Blacks on the African continent are perceived as dirt poor, politically corrupt, and/or ignorant, while American blacks are perceived as criminals and drug addicts, or good at only sports and music.

The Chinese familiarity with U.S. history is bit sketchy, too, as one might expect. The teacher who questioned Obama’s suitability pointed out that the previous 43 presidents have all been white men, as if their race had been sole factor in their election. I tried to explain that no black candidate has previously been able to win a party’s nomination, although there are plenty of African-Americans holding lower elected offices. They tend not to end up in Chinese media, however, so I suspect my explanation was ineffective.

For most Chinese, then, Obama is a real outlier. They have no context in which to place an Ivy League-educated black lawyer who will become the elected leader of the world’s most powerful nation. I have tried to explain that he is a very intelligent man with a clear sense of purpose, who will compensate for his inexperience in world affairs by surrounding himself with more experienced advisors.

Before this issue ever came up, I had been consciously trying to introduce my students to African-American literature, starting with Langston Hughes’ poetry. I figure Obama’s actions will speak louder than words over time. Meanwhile, I can do my small part in convincing my college students that their prejudices have no real basis in fact.

—————-
*Archie Bunker was a character in a controversial, and very funny, situation comedy of the early 1970s. “All in the Family.” Archie embodied every possible bigotry available.


The FengHuang trip, part 2
Nov. 11, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — Following our odyssey to the Miao village, we returned to our hotel in Fenghuang to rest up for the bonfire party.

Now, I had the impression it would be a participatory event: a group of people gathered around a big bonfire having a party. Seems reasonable, right?

Way wrong. The Bonfire Party is a performance in an amphitheatre near to the Golden Phoenix International Hotel, featuring local dancers, drummers and musicians. Included in the festivities were an auction of three pieces of art, the local tourist gimmick of “put on the Miao girl’s costume” on stage, and a long conga line at the end.

Don’t get the idea I disliked the experience. On the contrary, the dancing and music were wonderful, although it would have helped if I had had the libretto, and costumes dazzling. The photos I took unfortunately do the colors no justice. The girls did a good job explaining to me what was happening on stage — depictions of various aspects of Miao history and customs — but the details eluded me.

Kentuckians are probably familiar with “The Stephen Foster Story,” that perennial outdoor dramatization of the musician’s life and work in Bardstown. It uses Foster’s music to highlight Foster’s life, taking license with the chronology to make a good story. The movie “Mamma Mia” uses ABBA’s music to similiar effect, although of course that story is entirely fictional.

So, take that premise and merge it with an American Indian pow-wow, the kind they open to the public. At those events, you see native Americans in their elaborate ceremonial dress dancing presumably authentic dances, but with the suggestion that maybe it’s not all real. It’s more for show, than for an authentic expression of their own unique culture. That expression they probably save for more private affairs, I suspect.

Ultimately, then, the Bonfire Party is a tourist event, with little resemblance to a “real” Miao gathering. It’s cool, but not really authentic.

So it is with the shops in the ancient quarter. In between our restaurant meals and event attendance, we walked around the old part of town, which is jam packed with shops selling everything from silver jewelry to dried fruit. For the most part, these shops carry pretty much the same merchandise, which I have good reason to believe mostly does not originate locally.

For example, would locally woven textiles be wrapped in the plastic packaging seen in department stores? Would all silver vendors carry identical baubles, if they were all handmade? I’d say, no, that these shops are all probably ordering their stuff from the same wholesalers, hoping to sell it to an unwary tourist as “authentic” Miao artifacts.

Not all the shops are peddling knock-offs, though. We walked around enough, and the girls were savvy enough, for me to find a few vendors of genuinely unique items. I bought an elaborate papercut piece of art after my student Sheila pointed it out. It depicts the 12 animals of Chinese astrology in the shape of the characters “chu fu,” or luck. It looked handmade, and for 100 yuan, a bargain even if it wasn’t.

There are also tourist gimmicks in Fenghuang. For example, for a nominal sum you can have someone photograph you wearing Miao clothes, or Ming dynasty armor, or a princess’ robes. Street hawkers push photos of these get-ups in your general direction, while associates armed with expensive DSLR cameras loom nearby. I took the girls’ lead, and avoided eye contact while waving them away with a vague “I’m not interested” gesture.

We were lucky enough to happen upon a real Miao wedding ceremony, which includes singing by the local aunties bedecked in their best clothes and silver jewelry, drumming and flute playing. Fenghuang also has legitimate tourist attractions, the homes of the author Shen Congwen and artist-poet Huang Yongyu [I plan to write posts about both these men sometime soon], a geological museum, and examples of the original Ming dynasty architecture.

And no tacky tourist trappage can detract from the beauty of old Fenghuang as it hugs the Tuojiang River like a place out of time. At night, they light up the buildings along the river like it was Christmas in a US suburb. If you ignore the cookie-cutter merchandise and street hawkers, Fenghuang is well worth a trip — or a second or third, even. There aren’t too many 700-year-old towns around, after all.

Television crew weirdness
Nov. 13, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — TV people are the same all over. They are just plain weird.

At Sunday’s Engish Corner, James, one of the older participants, told me that the provincial TV network, Xiangxi TV, was planning a Christmas program. They wanted to invite me to talk about US Christmas customs. James said he was also going to ask Michael, an American who teaches at No. 1 Middle School, to participate as well.

Toward the end of the evening’s meeting, James approached me again and said that the TV people wanted to meet us right away. So, we grabbed a taxi to a tea room at a local hotel near the railway station. With us was Shelldy (庞肖狄 Pang XiaoDi), a junior music major who runs English Corner and hosts the daily campus radio broadcasts in English. She was to be my interpreter.

Awkward moment #1: I was the only person there with no command of Chinese. Meanwhile, the TV people had no command of English. So, Shelldy, my translator, was kept very busy. The TV people (James’ sister, two camera guys and the hostess of a weekend features program) were planning to take us to Dehang to talk about Christmas. Michael, who has been here a year already, was reluctant to join in, so we roped Juliann and Stephanie in from the Teacher’s College to join us.

Wednesday afternoon was the best day for this media extravaganza. Shelldy had no classes, and I had only one at 8 am. She treated me to lunch, then a driver from Xiangxi TV picked us up at the university. Another car followed us as we drove to the Teacher’s College to fetch Juliann and Stephanie.

[Pictures are on Picasaweb here.]

About 45 minutes later, we arrived in Dehang, home of another Miao village organized rather like colonial Williamsburg, but much smaller. It is nestled between spectacular karst peaks similar to those in Zhangjiajie. Just damned beautiful.

Anyway, it turned out that the focus of the program had changed from Sunday’s meeting (or maybe I misunderstood it). The program was still going to be broadcast around Christmastime, but the TV crew was instead going to feature Dehang village and the three westerners visiting it. I think.

The crew had already taped Juliann at her English Corner and Stephanie in her flat. All three of us were also going to be filmed today on our respective campuses. My session resulted in a major awkward moment. (Film at 11.)

So, we were filmed walking over the bridge to the gate of the village. There, Miao girls sang a song, and we were supposed to respond. Stephanie did a fine solo, the girls sang again, but for obscure TV purposes neither Juliann nor I had to sing. Then we all partook of the traditional bowl of rice wine, a requirement of entry into a Miao domicile.

We walked around (being taped, naturally). A older Miao woman was working at her loom. The TV people wanted the three westerners to try our hand at weaving. The Miao woman spoke only Miao, and not Mandarin, so learning the technique took a while for all three of us. I think we managed not to ruin her work in progress.

We all took an incredible number of pictures, and by “we” I mean all of us, including the TV people. We posed with the hostess and her tall co-host, with the camera guys and other crew members, in as many permutations as you could imagine. We snacked on some local delicacies, including fried flower bugs (kind of like caterpillars), fried bananas, and powdered rice cakes, while being taped, of course. The attractive hostess and her tall handsome co-host did their reportage thing, presumably explaining for the audience the type of foods available, etc.

Then, we joined other tourists for regularly scheduled performance. The local Miao performers modeled different kinds of Miao clothing. (The Miao are spread out all over this part of the China, and have regional differences in custom and dress. They are identified according to the predominant color of clothing, blue Miao, red Miao, etc.) The hostess herself was wearing an elaborate Miao style outfit throughout the entire afternoon, and did some drumming for the camera.

They insisted we three Americans don Miao-style clothing and come onto the stage. This time, I did NOT have to wear women’s clothing, but put on a man’s tunic and circular hat. I was handed an elaborate reed instrument that looks a bit like a tiny pipe organ made of bamboo. Juliann and Stephanie wore red Miao style clothing, and we proceeded to prance about on the stage.

Then we had dinner, where we received the traditional smear of charcoal on our faces for good luck, and went back to Jishou.

So far, there was not one mention of Christmas. The whole escapade was a Travel Channel-like feature on a tourist spot.

At 3 pm today, I was supposed to meet a group of freshmen on one of the greens for an impromptu class/English Corner. The two senior teaching interns had already organized a debate (in Chinese) between two halves of the group about choosing big universities over smaller ones, which was well under way when the Xiangxi TV people showed up. Although they taped me listening to the students present their arguments, while my student, Kasurly, translated, the crew wanted me leading the students in a debate in English.

So, we regrouped, but the plan fizzled. The vervor of the debate waned with the change in subject. Now the crew finally decided to work the Christmas theme in. They wanted the students in a circle, with me teaching them a Christmas song. (“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is what I chose.) Then the students had to greet me in unison with a boisterous, “John, Merry Christmas!” Yeah, it was all contrived, but remember, it’s TV.

Soon after, things got really weird. The cameraguy was taping the hostess doing her hostessing monologue, and we were all supposed to keep quiet.

Awkward moment #2: Either we were too loud, or something that someone said got one of the crew angry. The next thing I know, one crewman (I think he was a driver) is bitching at one of the senior teaching interns, looking like he’s going to punch poor Jason out. More students approached the two, and more words were exchanged. Meanwhile, I am sitting on the grass, witnessing this furor, completely ignorant of what the hell is going on.

One girl was in tears. Others were flushed, looking like they could cry any minute. Three girls pulled one of their male classmates away, perhaps because he looked like he would get violent. The tearful girl (whose name I will not divulge) blamed herself for the argument. She told me that someone had asked if the crew was from CCTV, the national network, and she had made a joke that they were from some other provincial TV network. Apparently, the hotheaded crewman got insulted, and went off on Jason, saying his students were disrepectful and unruly, blah, blah, blah.

It was all just plain effing weird. It really did look like there was going to a brawl right there on the green. Things did eventually calm down. The TV people soon left, after talking to some students and taping me playing games with the kids, but without doing the planned one-on-one interview with me. I am not sure if they intend to talk to me later. Why keep the subject of the interview informed? Sorry, Xiangxi TV, I am not impressed.

Several students (especially the tearful one, who skipped the games to go to her dorm room) apologized to me for the argument spoiling an otherwise pleasant afternoon in the sunshine, as if they were somehow responsible for the cameraguy being an asshole. Meanwhile, I felt bad, because the whole reason for the meeting was to tape me interacting with my students.

Michael was a wiser man than I. This is one Christmas broadcast I won’t want to miss.

Unscripted moments and orange-pickin’ time
Nov. 24, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — Among the joys of teaching are those moments when circumstances dictate chucking normal classroom decorum.

This afternoon, we had the sunniest, warmest day in what seems like weeks of cold, wet weather. I had planned to conduct class as usual in our somewhat chilly, spartan classroom, when Clara asked if we could have class outside.

Two seconds’ pause … sure, why not? It’s a writing class, and I had a moment of inspiration right then.

First, let me fill you in on some background. This class, the freshman G2 writing class, had told me last week of their plans to go in a hike and picnic Sunday, and they asked if I wanted to go. I agreed, and Clara was the student who was supposed to call me with the meeting time and place.

Only she didn’t. Somehow, signals got crossed and they thought I had gone to Dehang with another class. (It was actually David, the new foreign teacher, who went.) So, Clara never called.

Oh, but she was so apologetic on Sunday evening that it was impossible to be angry with her.

Today, when I entered the classroom (two minutes late, and slightly out of breath), the entire class of 34 stood up and loudly said, “John, we’re sorry!”

Thus, agreeing to go outside for class was partly a way to show I accepted their apology and that we could let bygones be bygones. Of course, as a nefarious teacher, I had something up my sleeve — a writing exercise I had cooked up in my head on the spot.

We went through the first hour the way I had planned to do it in the classroom, since I have two freshman writing classes and I like to keep them on the same schedule. Then we took our regularly scheduled break. I whipped out my digital camera to take some candid photos on this fine sunny day.

There is something about cameras and Chinese students that never ceases to amaze. As soon as they saw my camera, we all had to pose in various combinations for everyone to snap photos. So much for candid shots!

After we filled way more than the allotted 10 minutes snapping goofy pictures of each other, I reined them in to finish the first hour’s lesson, then gave them their writing assignment: pick an object (tree, building, person, whatever) and describe it in detail. They had 30 minutes, which was ample time to generate at least half a notebook page.

OK, OK, it wasn’t a really original idea. I stole it from a colleague, a certain creative-writing teacher of some repute at St. Francis High School. But I wanted to give them a writing task, and until Clara made her suggestion to hold class on the green, I was completely flummoxed about the topic.

Class ended, and a few of the students asked me if I wanted to climb the mountain (it’s really a big hill, but whatever) behind us and pick oranges. The only thing I had planned for the afternoon was to go to the Jun Hua to buy food for dinner. Picking oranges sounded like a lot more fun.

There are farmers who live on the campus and tend the orange groves. The university has actually poured concrete walkways and steps up the hillside, and from the looks of freshly poured concrete bases and newly laid conduit, also plans to light the pathways fairly soon.

Even so, it’s a freakin’ steep climb, requiring some “off road” shortcuts. After what seemed like forever, we reached the groves near the top of the hill. Most of the oranges had already been picked — we had passed a shelter where scores of orange crates were stacked — but there were enough left for us to grab and devour.

Hunan oranges are da bomb. Even the slightly sour ones.

The view was spectacular, despite the misty/foggy/smoggy air. We could look down on the quarry and buildings south of the university, and in the distance see the new superhighway connecting Jishou to Changsha. Predictably, my frakkin’ camera battery died on the way up, so the only pictures I could take were with my crappy cellphone cam. They’re not even worth posting.

We headed back down, and the students asked me what I was going to do for dinner. I scotched the supermarket trip, so they invited me to eat with them in the dining hall.

My students seem constantly amazed by two of my special abilities: I can use chopsticks (well) and I can eat (and like) spicy Chinese food. Thanks to living three months in a fourth-floor walkup on top of a steep hill, I can also climb mountains pretty well, too.

Happy Thanksgiving
Nov. 27, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — Thanksgiving Day has already ended over here. ‘Round about this time, you folks in the US of A will be preparing the turkey, or driving someplace where someone else is preparing the turkey. Eat well, and drive carefully, please.

Today was the first time I have celebrated Thanksgiving without my family since I was 22 and living in Wyoming. Then, as now, I had friends who were substitute family, so I was not forlorn. In fact, I had a pretty good day today.

I can’t say whether it’s common in China, but the College of International Exchange seems to have adopted Thanksgiving in a uniquely Chinese way. Outside our fourth-floor wing of classrooms was a large poster made up of sticky-notes in the shape of a heart.

Best wishes from my students

Best wishes from my students

Each note carried a message from a student to his or her parents, thanking them for sending them to university, or to their friends, giving their best wishes for the day.

Thanksgiving poster from my students

Thanksgiving poster from my students


Several students also sent me emails and text messages wishing me a “Happy Thanks Giving.” After morning classes, one group of freshmen treated me and David, the other foreign teacher (who’s from the UK, but it’s cool), to lunch off campus. Afterward, one group went with David to the bank, and the rest accompanied me to my apartment.

They wanted to see their teacher’s inner sanctum, so I showed them my almost-tidy flat. Students seem to have an intense curiosity about how we foreign teachers live. They are fascinated when I tell them I cook for myself most days, since I gather only women are expected to cook. They are relieved when I tell them my flat has a heatpump, since their dormitories are neither heated in winter nor cooled in summer.

I let them take pictures, but declared the kitchen — with its sink full of dishes — off limits to paparazzi.

They helped me order a new jug of water for the water dispenser, and arranged with the delivery fellow to respond to my English requests for refills. I have not yet mastered enough intelligible Chinese to make myself understood otherwise. Then, this group offered to make and cook dumplings (known as potstickers in the States) for me on Saturday morning for lunch. Another set of students are cooking dinner for me later that day. So, Saturday will be my day of overeating and indolence, instead of today.

After dinner on my own, I headed over to the campus radio station where I talked for a half-hour about Thanksgiving and the holiday’s customs, and what I personally was thankful for. (See below.)

Tomorrow, a friend is coming over for a visit, and there’s a concert over at the music school. Students, including my English-Corner/radio-host friend Shelldy, will play Chinese and western music. Shelldy (庞肖狄 Pang XiaoDi is her real name) plays the guzheng, a Chinese zither, and piano. Since I have never seen or heard a guzheng up close, I am excited about this experience.

On Sunday, I will accompany some students from the old campus on a hike up a local mountain.

So, nope, I’m not forlorn. I’ve got many friends here who have made this Thanksgiving weekend pretty memorable.

Now for the thankfulness part. I am thankful for many things, including:

  • I am alive (you think about this when you hit your 50s — some of my peers aren’t).
  • I am healthy (ditto).
  • I can do the things I enjoy doing.
  • Circumstances permitted me to come to China.
  • I had the support of my family to do it.
  • I have a wonderful family, and great kids.
  • I have food, shelter and a job I enjoy.
  • I have friends here who are simply wonderful, generous and loving people.
  • Obama got elected.

What else could anyone want? Seriously.

Merrily we roll along
Dec. 4, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — Hard to believe that the semester is nearly over, but it’s true. Time passes too quickly.

It also means that I have been in Jishou for three entire months. While it may be hard to believe, it’s become home for me. I still struggle with being absolutely illiterate in Chinese and being incapable of having even a simple conversation in Chinese, but I learn new bits of Chinese each day. So, I figure I’m making progress.

Chief on everyone’s mind now are finals, and for the seniors, postgraduate exams. Anxiety levels are high, and we all are busier than usual. Of course, the students are more anxious than the faculty.

This weekend, I need to write six exams to turn into the office. Each writing or reading class has to sit for a two-hour exam. Oral class students need to be tested individually, and I have 35 sophomores, so I’ll be occupied with them for the next several days.

Fortunately, I have had some experience writing exams, and I have been giving the students in-class assignments for a few weeks now to gauge how long they will need to complete the tasks. They naturally want the tests to be easy. We’ll see. We’ll see …

The seniors are the ones most stressed. China has national exams in several subjects for students to qualify for a bachelor’s degree, and thus postgraduate (graduate school, in US-talk) studies. They all have to pass the national English test. Those planning postgrad work overseas also have to score acceptably well on the IELTS or TOEFL English tests.

In my opinion, requiring seniors to take finals and the national exams at nearly the same is a little excessive, but at least the students can ask to be excused from classes to prep for the postgraduate exms.

I will not see my 30-odd seniors in class after finals. They will spend the spring semester looking for jobs and/or preparing for postgraduate study, while researching and writing their senior thesis. The English majors have to write an 8,000-word thesis in English; the business English have a shorter paper, and only need write an English abstract for a Chinese thesis.

None of them have had to write anything longer than 800 words, either individually or as a class, so this huge thesis project is a bit scary. With that in mind, I’ve been spending these last few sessions with them working on choosing topics, writing thesis statements, conducting research and so on. At this late date, reviewing punctuation and grammar seems pretty pointless. Either they know it all, or not.

Two of my senior English students have been offered places at universities in the UK, so they are positively aglow with excitement. Other students may receive offers soon, too. (As it turns out, several unis in the UK actively recruit Chinese students, so they won’t feel too isolated from home there.)

On the non-academic side of life, I have been able to visit several nearby towns and scenic spots since the National Holiday in October. I’ve been to Zhangjiajie, Fenghuang, Dehang and Qian Zhou, and taken two hikes up mountains near the campus. Meanwhile, students have collectively shown me places in Jishou to shop and eat.

Four freshmen came to my apartment Thanksgiving weekend, and we made dumplings from scratch and gleefully ate them for lunch. Another freshman helped me shop that afternoon, and taught me how to cook Hunan style before she had to run off to a dance practice. Other students have also offered to cook for me, and invitations to come hiking keep coming, too.

At English Corner, I have befriended several students outside the College of International Exchange, including some from the old campus close to downtown and some postgrads. Now that there’s another foreign teacher here, the Corner is not so overwhelming an experience for me. With the growing chill in the air though, these al fresco sessions on the green will soon need to be moved indoors.

A rather shy 14-year-old came to last Sunday English Corner, on the insistence of her mother, a uni professor. She came with a senior, and delivered an obviously rehearsed monologue about The Lion King to me. Once I tried to converse with her, she got rather tongue-tied. I encouraged her to come again this weekend, if only to listen.

English instruction here starts in middle school, if not before. The stress is on reading and recitation, not conversation. That her soliloquy was nearly flawless grammatically, but her conversational skills non-existent betrays the obsession with book-work here. Even my sophomores feel as if they have to have a script in hand when they deliver their exercises in class.

Nearly every person here is terribly self-effacing when it comes to conversation. “My English is so poor,” “I am so sorry,” “I am embarrassed to speak,” are some of the opening statements I hear. Paradoxically, it’s the folks who speak English passably well who apologize so profusely for their poor skills.

In her diary for class, one of my seniors — an aspiring teacher — told me why so many Chinese are petrified to converse in English. Many middle school teachers follow the old-line method of ridiculing the student who gives incorrect responses in class, calling such a student a fool. (This method is not only a Chinese problem; I have heard of some middle school teachers in the USA who have the same teaching style.) It’s a great way to demoralize students, but that’s about all you can say for it.

Still, it’s not all dismal. Some students transcend their innate reluctance to speak to me. One set of middle school students struck up a rather halting, giggly conversation with me on the way back from the supermarket one afternoon. A few of my freshmen and sophomores can talk my ear off once they are out of the classroom, even if they are reticent in class.

Then there’s the universal communication medium, instant messaging. While a handful of students have MSN and Yahoo accounts, the all-time favorite here is QQ, a Chinese adaptation of ICQ. QQ, like AOL in the States, offers a slew of Internet services. I had read about QQ before I even arrived in Jishou, so I came to campus already equipped with a QQ account number.

I have shared it fairly liberally with students and new acquaintances, so my QQ list now includes 56 buddies (though two are my youngest children, who have graciously offered to chat with my students on QQ, and add them as Facebook friends). Instant messaging is a great way to practice informal English communication, without the barrier of embarrassment and poor enunciation getting in the way. The English from their end might be a tad fractured, but at least they are using English naturally.

(As I write this, in fact, I am chatting with a freshman about the college’s Christmas party.)

Well, I started talking about non-academic matters, then veered right back into shop-talk. Jeez, what a nerd!


It’s Christmas morning here
Dec. 24, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve been so busy these last two weeks that I have had no chance to write anything. End of term items, filled social calendar, rehearsals, etc., etc., have occupied my time.

I had a great Christmas Eve with friends, students and colleagues today, and I hope yours are all just as wonderful.

圣诞快乐 to all! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


Post-Christmas update: Partayy!
Dec. 29, 2008
JISHOU, HUNAN — With the end of the term approaching, I have been so busy lately that writing anything substantive for this blog was well nigh impossible. I’ll try to recap recent events as best I can, starting with Christmas Eve.

All the colleges here at Jishou University hold some kind of end-of-term/welcome-the-new-year party, reminiscent of those old movies where they say, “Hey, let’s put on a show!” Members of the colleges sing, dance, act in skits, or play instruments, and the audience plays some silly games. (I joined in on one game a week ago. Blindfolded, with a partner riding piggyback and giving directions, I had to stomp on balloons to burst them. We won a 2-liter of Coke.)

The College of International Exchange is the only one that puts on a Christmas-themed performance, scheduled suitably for Dec. 24. Our students spent weeks rehearsing their acts, while we faculty managed to cram our practice time into a few afternoons. Being a white-haired, bearded fellow, I was asked to play Father Christmas, and students also pressured me to sing a song. So I was really busy that night.

I discovered that our students are multi-talented, with considerable performing chops. We gave the College of Music and Dance a run for its money, with our dancers, singers, instrumentalists and amateur actors. We faculty managed to pull off dancing a waltz to the tune of “Edelweiss,” to the cheers of the audience, and I managed not to freeze on stage to sing “I Wonder as I Wander” and “The Christmas Song” — a cappella — passably well.

I had been given two cakes for Christmas, so after the extravaganza and the requisite one-gazillion photos, I invited some English Corner friends to help me eat them. Our three Ukrainian exchange students, who live above me and across the hall, also shared in the tasty treats. Harry, a freshman who played another Father Christmas, was starving and had takeout but no rice to eat. Shelldy and I prepared the rice, so by the time we three were alone, the rice was cooked.

Harry had skipped lunch and dinner to help manage the Christmas play, so he was famished. Then Shelldy dove into the food, and after watching her eat with gusto, finally I did, too. (Yeah, I know, we were eating Chinese takeout for Christmas Eve dinner at 10:30 pm … in China. It just seems so appropriate.)

The next day, I had to give a final examination to my senior English majors. China does not stop for Christmas Day. With that done, all I needed to do was wait for my postgraduate friends to pick me up for Christmas dinner. So I took a well-deserved nap.

We went to a downtown restaurant that serves local food in a traditional setting. The party included my postgrad friends, Smile and Rain, Rain’s colleagues at the cultural affairs office, and two other postgrads. We had a great dinner, lubricated somewhat with the local firewater.

One of Rain’s colleagues is Miao, a local ethnic minority. It is their custom, when dining with an honored guest, to drain their cup when toasting, even if the guest just takes a sip. Trouble is, he had already started drinking rice wine before dinner, so he was feeling pretty good after three cups.

Afterward, we all adjourned to a karaoke place, where we drank beer and ate even more food. More friends came, and we spent the evening dancing and singing. Emboldened by too much beer, I asked one of my dancing partners to dinner the following night.

On Friday morning, I hauled my sorry ass out of bed to video-conference with my kids using Skype. They were all in one place for once, so we spent more than an hour chatting. Afterward, I had to navigate the delicate waters of protocol, since I had invited my new friend to our college faculty dinner without first asking if I could bring a guest. Fortunately, the dean was amenable, so that night I had another terrific meal amply lubricated with local firewater. (I ate turtle for the first time. Yeah, it tastes just like … alligator.)

On Saturday morning, my friend, former student and cooking instructor, Kasurly, came over to help me cook lunch for us and her seven roommates. The two of us whipped up a six-dish luncheon in no time flat using a saucepan, a wok and a microwave. I am still amazed. I feel like a cross between Martin Yan and MacGuyver. (We’re doing it again on New Year’s Eve; the girls want to watch a five-hour, end-of-the-year concert bash on TV. I am providing the sparkling wine for the New Year’s toast.)

That evening, I sang once more in the English Club performance/party, participated in another silly game (stand back-to-back and pop a balloon) and danced in the Chinese version of the Bunny Hop (left, left, right, right, forward, turnaround, hop, hop, hop). [I will have some thoughts about these games in a later post.]

But, wait, there’s more! At 9 am Sunday, the new officers of the English Club invited me and David, the other English teacher, to lunch at another local eatery, where we dispensed with the local firewater and just drank beer and tea. On the way back home, I turned down a dinner invitation for that evening so I could spend the rest of the day marking compositions. I do have to work once in a while!

That was my first Christmas in China, and I’ve got to say, it was one of the best in my life.

Go to Chapter 2 –>

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