Sunday, November 18, 2007

Dark Duck Village

*This post is from a few weeks ago, but I'm just now getting around to putting it up*

Scott, Jamie, Kevin and I accompanied "Seagull" (Kevin's teacher friend) and Kelly (Kevin's student) to Kelly's village for lunch today. Seagull, a fascinating woman whose name somehow describes her personality perfectly, was the leader of our little group. She decided that we should meet at the gate of the university at 8:00 am. Thinking the village was a couple of hours away, I packed plenty of bottled water and snacks for the "long journey"... I soon found out the village is about ten minutes away from the middle school where we teach. We got to the family's home around 8:30 am on Sunday morning, wondering what we'd do next.

Since it was still way too early for lunch and the family seemed shocked by our arrival, Kelly took us out on a two and a half hour walk through the fields around the village. On the way, she told us that she'd forgotten to let her family know we were coming until about 20 minutes before our arrival. So, while we were strolling around outside taking pictures, seven people were busy slaving away to make us lunch. Oops!

Anyway, I had a good time walking through the fields. It's interesting how neat and tidy the rows of crops are, in contrast with the disorderly, dirty village. It really felt as if I'd stepped back hundreds of years: barefoot farmers in straw hats and rolled- up blue trousers worked in their individual family plots, pulling weeds and watering. We saw eggplant, sweet potatoes, rice, and lettuce... among other things. I learned that sweet potatoes must grow underground for one year before they're ready to harvest, and that the farmers have a hard time making a profit because they must employ a "middle man" to sell the crops for them at the market, who then keeps most of the proceeds.

After a little while, we arrived at Kelly's former primary school, a dusty, barren place with one ancient classroom building, one newer facility, a dirt track with makeshift ping-pong tables, a dirty "convenience shop," and some dorms for the teachers. Kelly wanted to show us her old classroom, so we went in. Seagull decided to write "I like English! I like my foreign friends! I love Jamie!" on the blackboard and demanded that we take her picture next to it. She also wanted one fo her sweeping the floor. Seagull's photo demands are very hard-core; throughout the morning, she would dive deep into the bushes, lean flirtatiously on a bundle of crops, or hang on a tree limb and then shout "Scott, take my picture!" Pretty funny stuff.

On the way back through the village, we ran into a group of ten little ragamuffin children. They were shy at first, but after Kevin shouted "Good morning" at them a dozen or so times, they warmed up to us enough to follow us around belting out "good morning" and giggling. Kevin chased them around with his camera for a while, but it took a while to convince them to be quite that bold. When he asked Seagull why they were so hesitant, she immediately replied, "Because you look like an alien!" Eventually they bunched around Kevin and everybody got a photo together. It was pretty cute.

We finally got back to Kelly's house around 11 to find her family scurrying around preparing lunch. Kelly's home is a relatively nice one, as village homes go. It's set up in traditional format, with three stories of open-air rooms arranged around a large courtyard , where the kitchen and shower are located. Kelly has her own bedroom and there are several separate sitting room areas. Her grandparents live in neighboring homes. Kelly lives at school and has a job at a fast food restaurant, which pays her 15 yuan ($2.50) and dinner for five hours' work in the evening. She returns home on the weekends for meals and to visit with her family.

We were served an impressively delicious and elaborate lunch. It's amazing that a family with such minimal kitchen facilities and only a few hours' time can prepare a meal with so many vaired dishes. We had shrimp, crab, octopus & snowpeas, noodles, wonderful dumplings, green vegetables, soup, two kinds of chicken, and rice. There were at least twelve of us at the table, but we only finished about half of the food. During lunch, the Cantonese side of the table communicated as best it could with the English side, thanks to the help of Seagull and Kelly. I especially liked Kelly's mom: a very hard-working, muscular, tanned, no-nonsense woman who didn't sit down to eat until the rest of us were all settled and eating. We sat around after lunch to be polite, but Kelly's parents as well as the four of us had had enough before long; so, the foreigners were bundled into a cab and sent on their way at last.

I don't know how you say "Don't let the door hit you in the *** on the way out" in Cantonese... but I'm sure Kelly's mom muttered something along those lines as she smilingly waved good-bye.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Creative Engagement

During the Maryknoll orientation in September, we discussed the stages of culture shock, or the difficulties of adjusting to life in a culture radically different from your own. During the past five months living in Tianjin and then Zhanjiang, getting over culture shock has been the most difficult part of settling in to life as an American in China.

The first stage of culture shock, which Maryknoll calls "initial contact," occurred for me in Tianjin; for about four weeks everything was exciting and fun because of the newness of it all. At this time, all aspects of life in China seem wonderfully fascinating, including the "weird" food and different standards of cleanliness. Just walking down the street in Tianjin was an adventure.

During the second stage, according to our Maryknoll handout, comparisons with life at home begin to be made. The routine of everyday life becomes a bit tiresome and boring, and more alone time and sleep are needed. Towards the end of the study abroad program, I hit the second stage. For a few weeks, I was dead tired around 9 o'clock and found myself craving solitude. I'd wander around campus trying to find something to do, but nothing ever seemed to satisfy me.

Due to the diversions of traveling through Sichuan and spending time in Hong Kong after the Tianjin program ended, I had a brief hiatus from the culture shock cycle. However, a week or so after I arrived in Zhanjiang, the third and worst stage set in with a vengeance. It lasted for about about a month or so and I hope it never comes back. Looking back on this terrible time, it's interesting how accurate some of the bullets on the Maryknoll handout were:

  • Certain aspects of the local culture are absolutely infuriating- The relentless staring, filthy facilities, and round-about way of getting things done in China certainly drove me insane for quite some time.
  • Little things begin to loom rather large- The slightest mishap in class would bother me all week; one annoying encounter with a curious bumpkin out on the street was enough to ruin my mood for the entire day.
  • Your culture is obviously superior because it works- This way of thinking was a BIG problem. Torturing yourself with wondering "Why can't they do it the way WE do it? These people are so backwards!" will get you nowhere in adjusting to a new culture.
  • Feeling tearful- (self explanatory)
  • Sleep becomes a partial escape- I was sleeping all the time: going to bed early, waking up around 11, and taking naps during the day. I viewed getting up out of bed and going out with a sense of dread.
  • Emotional roller coaster- Each day was completely exhausting because of the wide range of emotions I was subjected to, seemingly outside my control. On an daily basis, my mood could fluctuate rapidly from excited, to depressed, to energetic, to hopeless... and back again.

The fourth stage, which I believe and hope I have finally reached, is called "creative engagement" by the Maryknoll handout. This is the final step and marks at least a partial adjustment to the new culture. During this time, one begins craving certain local foods (for me, the beef and potato dish at my favorite noodle restaurant); noises and smells become commonplace (I'm only slightly bothered by the sounds of chickens being slaughtered behind my apartment); being alone in the culture is not longer threatening (I don't mind walking down the street by myself, as long as it's not during rush hour); ability to live with unanswered questions and mystery increases (I do my best to shrug off the frequent last-minute changes and hitches in the plan that occur at my school)... and the list goes on and on.

That's not to say I don't still get frustrated by my old nemeses of universal gawking at the tall foreign girl, requests for photo shoots, or being treated like a retard because I'm not Chinese; all these things still bother me quite a bit. It's just that I'm beginning to focus on the positive things, like my favorite Chinese foods, or the little group of adorable students that I talk to a lot, or the beautiful fall weather that's finally setting in. Hmm... I'd even go so far as to say I'm enjoying my life in Zhanjiang.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Can It Please Be Next Week NOW?

I'm getting pretty excited for next week- my Dad is visiting me, it's Thanksgiving, I'm going to Hong Kong, and I get to attend two wedding receptions... all in the space of a few days!

Scott and I will head to Hong Kong next Wednesday and meet Dad at the airport. We'll stay at the Maryknoll House for Thanksgiving dinner- which I hear is amazing- and Kevin Clancy's Western-style Hong Kong reception on Friday night. Then Saturday we'll go to Guangzhou on the train (about an hour and a half), stay over night, and attend Kevin's Chinese wedding reception Sunday afternoon. I think we will probably stay Sunday night in Guangzhou, since there's going to be a post-reception party at a new Irish bar. Monday morning, we will return to Zhanjiang and Dad will stay until Friday. I'm planning on riding the bus back to Hong Kong with him and seeing him off Saturday.

Now I just have to get through another week of classes... :)

And the cuteness just keeps on coming.... more letters

My mom is very lazy. She seldom cook. So my father is a great cook! He often do housework, too. It's very funny!

I know you will leave here in July next year, too. From after that. Maybe I won't see you any more. So I have to cherish time. I will try my best to learn from you and to make the most of me. I love have your class. When I have you class, I am always very happy and feel relaxed. What a pity! After one year. You can't continues teaching us. Though don't stay beside me in the future, nobody can take the place of you and you would always be my first oral English teacher. I will miss you very much. I will remember you forever. You are my best teacher forever.

I spy by my eye you more and more beautiful.

I want to look at that (holiday in Rome). The leading lady is very beautiful!

My English is very bad. I want to improve. But I don't know how to improve. Can you help me? I'm sad. What should I do? If I grow up, I will go to your country for vacation. That's my dream.

Oh, my birthday is coming. Give me a candy. Tell a kid, oh, I more and more fat. I'd better go on diet.

If you have any difficulties in learning Chinese, I would like to give you a hand anytime. Because I am a full blood Chinese.

What are you going to do in 2008? And will go back to HK or Florida. Can you tell me about your bright future?

Would you slow down please. Sometimes I can't not hear you very well. It has been very interesting to talk you. I love very much, Janet. You're the one for me.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Lunch With Students

Today I took another group of high school students to the Muslim noodle restaurant near the Normal College. Patrick Sun, Lindy, Ellen, Catherine, Scott and I rode the bus down there and chatted while we slurped our noodles. The kids are so cute: Patrick Sun loves Hollywood movies, Michael Jackson, and Steven Spielberg; Ellen is a shy girl who told me in a letter, "I used to be good at English, but now I am not. I don't know what happened;" Lindy is a skinny little thing who giggles a lot and asks me tons of questions; and Catherine is a pretty, mischevious girl who insists that she's "fat like a pig." It was fun for me to take them out, especially because they appreciated it so much. For these students, a $0.50 bowl of noodles and cab ride back to school is a huge treat. For me, it's a huge treat to make the students happy!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Monster in the Bathroom Stall

Last night, I stopped into a hotel to use the restroom. There were two Chinese women inside the bathroom: one was drying her hands and her friend was inside a stall. I, too, entered a stall just before the second woman came out of the other one. From inside, I heard the hand-drying woman say something excitedly to her friend in Chinese. I couldn't understand the exact words, but I guessed it was something along the lines of, "OH MY GOD, YOU HAVE TO SEE WHAT JUST WALKED INTO THAT STALL!"

I took my time inside away from prying eyes: brushing my hair, applying lip gloss, etc. During the three or so minutes I was in there, I heard the women press the hand dryer button over and over again and shuffle around by the sink. Tension hung in the air as they waited for IT (me) to come out. When I finally emerged from the stall, I looked up to see both women looking expectantly- apprehensively- at me and distractedly rubbing their hands beneath the dryer, which by now had turned off.

Both of them giggled and said hello. I said "hi" and walked out.

I'm still not used to being the big event in someone's night just by walking into a bathroom.


*I am walking toward a group of Chinese girls. They're having a nice time talking together, unaware that a freakish alien is headed directly towards them. Suddenly they spot me! For a moment, their faces are panic-stricken, but soon they have recovered and the fear is replaced by utter fascination. Just as I'm about to pass the girls, one of them grins and says, HELLO! I smile, say hello back and continue walking. Behind me, there is uncontrollable giggling.*

Apart from students, most people in Zhanjiang don't know much English... with the exception of one word: HELLO. Whether young or old, peasant or wealthy, boy or girl- a major form of entertainment around town is shouting HELLO at any foreigner who may happen to pass by. It makes no difference where said foreigner may actually be from; he or she is not Chinese, and therefore must be an English speaker.

When yelled by an excited Chinese person, HELLO does not come out the way that you may be used to hearing it. Most people favor an exaggerated British accent with a slight- but audible- note of hysteria thrown in there (the hysteria is because of the extreme rarity of sighting a Westerner). The effect is something like "HAH-LOAH!"

The type of greeting given can be roughly placed into one of two catergories: annoying, and tolerable. The annoying HELLOs normally come from groups of three or more adolescent boys, and are preceded by lots of wide-eyed pointing, laughing, and joking in Chinese. Thankfully, most people use the tolerable version of HELLO; most commonly, this version comes from groups of three or more adolescent girls and is followed by a starry-eyed request to take a photo together.

Anytime I walk around campus, I'm automatically a HELLO target. It's shouted at me from the top floors of the dormitories, from inside the classrooms, around the stairwells, and in the teachers' offices. I've been here for two months, but the novelty still hasn't worn off! The only difference is that now sometimes instead of just HELLO, it's HELLO JENNY (Jenny is my name here).

Oh, the thrills of being a foreigner!! :)

Friday, November 2, 2007

Happy Halloween!

This week, I milked Halloween for all it's worth in my classes. I did a Power Point presentation about the holiday with the younger students, taught them to say "Trick or treat" and then handed out candy. I distributed any leftovers to whoever could yell TRICK OR TREAT! the loudlest. Needless to say, they loved that!

I had the college students perform Halloween skits... many of them were extremely creative and funny. One girl played the part of a disgruntled lover who had killed himself by slitting his wrists- he then became "an angry ghost with no eyes." We also had a Poltergeist re-enaction and a "bloody ghost" - the blood was conveyed by holding up pieces of red chalk and dropping them to the ground.

We have English corner on Wednesday nights, so this week was a big Halloween party. I was impressed by the great decorations the student planners obtained... the place looked great andt he party attracted about 300 students. It's quite an experience to stand in a room surrounded by 300 people, all of whom are talking about you and taking your picture. I will never be so famous as I am here!

Anyway, we waited until they were all gathered in the lobby, then turned out the lights. Some older students dressed up in skeleton costumes and ran around scaring the kids... at which point all hell broke loose! Everybody screamed, scattered, and then clumped as tightly as possible around Scott, Irene and I. I thought I would be crushed by the masses!! Crazy time, but I survived the trampling.

After English corner, I had a party at my apartment for the class of 25 college students that Scott and I both teach. We got stickers, colored paper, and markers for everybody to make masks, which was a big hit. Jamie, Kevin, Ruth, and a few Chinese teachers from our school also showed up, and the students all had a good time practicing English and taking pictures with all of us.

Also, Kevin Clancy from Hong Kong was visiting this week and took the Zhanjiang Maryknoll crew out to a buffet dinner at the only 5-star hotel in town. It was really good to see him again. He comes to visit each group a few times per year to check up on us and make sure we're doing okay. We all especially enjoyed hearing anecdotes about Kevin's upcoming wedding- he's getting married to a Chinese woman during Thanksgiving weekend. There will be two ceremonies: the traditional wedding for his family in Hong Kong on Friday, and the Chinese-style wedding in Guangzhou for everybody and their brother. My dad will be visiting during that time (!!!!) so Scott, Dad and I will all attend the Guangzhou wedding. Can't wait!

Last night, Linda (a Canadian teacher at the Normal College) invited all of us foreigners and our Chinese friends Ruth and Shang over for dinner. She made the most delicious meal: baked chicken, baked potato, carrots, Waldorf salad, rolls, and cake for dessert. Somehow she managed to find an OVEN, a rare commodity in China. It was the first time I'd had home-baked goods since June. After dinner, Kevin Clancy, Kevin DiPalma, Jamie, Ruth, Shang, Scott and I met up at a local bar for drinks. We all had a lot of fun chatting and laughing together. The seven of us drank nine bottles of beer; the tab at the end of the night totaled 30 yuan, or about $4.25. Can't beat that!

This weekend, my number one plan is to visit the new Wal-Mart that opened in Zhanjiang Thursday. I've got several VERY excited friends who have already visited. I hear that the following goods- most of which I haven't been able to find in Zhanjiang- are available there:

Bacon, Campbell's soup, tuna in water, varieties of packaged pasta, sunflower oil and olive oil, Hunt's pasta sauce, Welch's juices, Heinz BBQ sauce, Heinz ketchup, baked beans, Del Monte corn.

You can't imagine how incredible it is to be able to purchase these things until you've gone five months without them!

Have a good weekend, everybody.