Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shang Ke - Class Begins

Well, classes started Monday. I'm teaching the same students I had last semester, but my schedule is different. I've got more morning classes this time around, which means a lot more free time in the afternoons. Except Fridays, the latest I'm finished for the day is 11:30 am. Afterwards, I'll go get something to eat and do a little shopping, which puts me back at home no later than 2 with the whole rest of the day free. I'm in the process of figuring out how to productively spend my time. You'd be surprised how easy it is to spend an entire afternoon fooling around online! My goals are to study Chinese characters at least an hour a day, visit the gym three times per week, and study up about China- current events, etc- online whenever I can.

Classes are going fine so far. My 90 younger high school students are studying about "Going Shopping." I decided that this semester I will structure the class and hold the students accountable for learning by assigning homework and giving regular vocabulary quizzes. I'm also requiring each student to give at least one 1-minute speech in front of the class. We'll be working together on that for quite some time. This week, I had them learn 15 shopping-themed words, practice reading the book dialogues, and make up dialogues of their own. To lighten things up and have some fun, I'm thinking we'll play Charades and listen to some English songs in the near future as well.

My one class of college students is graduating in July! They'll all be looking for jobs throughout the semester; some of them already have part-time work and will be missing a lot of class. This term, I want to work on public speaking with them, as I feel that this will help increase their confidence in using English in a professional setting. The next couple of weeks, we're working on "persuasive speeches." Each students chose a topic, and I'm currently guiding them through the process of making an outline, writing their speech, and then giving it to the entire class.

This morning, we had a couple of small debates. I split the class into groups and gave them ten minutes to prepare a short speech on the subject provided ("College students should/ should not have a mandatory study hall at night," "Smoking should/ should not be allowed in China," "Morning exercises should/ should not be required," "Young people below age 21 should/ should not be allowed to drink alcohol"). They did surprisingly well with this, speaking eloquently and even getting a bit heated -voices raised, hands on hips- while rebutting each other's arguments... I think I have more than a few who would make excellent lawyers. I'm always very impressed by this group of students and their ability to confidently express themselves in a foreign language. They are much better students of English than I ever was of Italian/ Spanish/ Chinese in school!

As I was walking out at the end of class today, Dean (an outspoken, popular girl who functions as the "class clown") shouted, "JANET! LET US EMBRACE!" and ran over to give me a giant and very dramatic hug as the other girls applauded and giggled. :)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Hong Kong to Zhanjiang

Scott and I hung out at the Maryknoll House for a couple of days after our return from Bangkok. Scott caught the bus back to Zhanjiang on Monday, but I wanted to spend some more time in Hong Kong. The Mayknoll House was full last week, so I checked into the Chung Kiu Inn in Causeway Bay. The hostel is a bunch of rooms scattered througout the ninth and fifteenth floors of an all-Chinese apartment building. My room was tiny- just enough space for a bed, small dresser, and maybe 15 sq. ft. of bathroom space. After the glory of the MK House and the open space and beautiful beaches in Stanley, I realized that I was finally experiencing what it's really like living in Hong Kong!

Hong Kong is jam-packed with tourists this week: Chinese making the most of the last bit of Spring Festival vaction, just like me. I spent a few days wandering around various malls and bookstores, buying gifts, and reading at Repulse Bay Beach. Anytime a food item vaguely interested me, I ate it without a moment's hesitation; believe it or not, those memories of a recently-consumed taco or Ben & Jerry's cone can be awfully comforting during cravings in China! Thursday I headed back to Zhanjiang, having made it to the bus with just one minute to spare due to a horrible cab experience.

I'm here in my apartment now, one of the first to return to school. The students' dorms are still locked up and all the stores on our little street are closed. It's not too bad being back, at least I know what to expect this time around. The funny thing I've thought about today is how absolutely nothing here has changed in the past two months. Yes, there's a new shopping mall and the Macau restaurant has some new dishes, but that's not what I mean. While I was flitting around to Florida and Thailand and Hong Kong, Zhanjiang people were just going about their regular business just as always. The insane bum who's a dead-ringer for a Chinese Johnny Depp still hangs around by the bus depot; adolescent boys still shout HELLO! at Scott and me and laugh; the tall cleaning woman at Trust Mart continues to gape at me in amazement; the mentally retarded beggar still lays facedown on the same corner with her pants around her ankles. People ask me where I'm from, if I teach English, compliment my horrible Chinese, and "covertly" make fun of my chopsticks with their friends just as usual.

This city is impossible to describe to anyone who hasn't seen it for themselves... if you're anywhere but Guangdong Province, it's hard to even imagine it exists. But it does exist, and millions of people live here, many of them cut off from the outside world without even realizing it. After I've been here a few weeks, my perspective will change as it always does. I'll become immersed in the routine, and all the craziness will settle into the relative "normality" of everyday life. But now, fresh from fantastically beautiful places far away from Zhanjiang, I'm newly amazed by the sameness of it all. Zhanjiang and Tai Mao Xuexiao (my school) have just been here all along. Waiting for me? Not exactly... more like ready for me to pick up right where I left off.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Phuket and Ko Phi Phi

(PICTURE: Maya Bay, Phi Phi Ley)

Our first beach stop was Phuket, which is the most developed and largest of the many islands in southern Thailand. After some online research and serious guesswork, we chose a hotel called Chez Sabina in Kamala Beach, which turned out to be an excellent pick. The place was a four-story, narrow house about a five minute walk from the beach; our room was on the top floor, which meant we also had exclusive access to the roof and the lovely views that went with it. We also had a front balcony, back porch, kitchen, large bedroom and breakfast in the morning... all for about $40/ night! It was a great place to stay.

Kamala Beach was just what I'd imagined: turquoise water, white sand, palm trees... in other words, idyllic. However, scenic enjoyment was a bit crippled by all the middle-aged, overweight German tourists swarming the beach, most of whom felt to need to swim, sunbathe, and even jog topless. As gross as this was, it certainly provided multitudes of entertainment during those slow parts in my book! Anyway, the little town had tons of wonderful restaurants, which offered Thai food or Western dishes, as well as perfect sunset views. Scott and I also visited nearby Surin Beach, which was similar to Kamala except that it seemed to be the gathering point for Phuket's Italian tourists, most of whom were (relievingly) more attractive and less skimpily attired than the Germans!

After three days in Kamala Beach, we caught the ferry to Ko Phi Phi, just an hour and a half ride from Phuket. We purchased our tickets at the ferry terminal for about $30 apiece, not realizing they could be bought for half that price at any local travel agency. Although lodgings in Thailand are very cheap, the transportation system seems to be rigged so that tourists are forced to pay ridiculously high prices. For example, a 20-minute cab ride in Phuket cost about $20, almost twice the price of a night in most hotels.

Ko Phi Phi is made up of two islands: Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Ley. Phi Phi Ley is unsettled, but has a few beaches only accessible by boat. We visited Ley on a day trip. Stops included Maya Bay (where The Beach was filmed) and several wonderful reefs swimming with fish just about 15 feet beneath the water. In between snorkling stops, we were shuttled around the island to enjoy the breathtaking views. I know that "breathtaking" is a cliche much over-used to describe scenery, but in this case the dazzlingly bright water against a backdrop of soaring green limestone cliffs literally did leave me short of breath.

Phi Phi Don, the second island, is home to a multitude of lodgings ranging from world-class resort to grubby bungalow. Other than the obvious reason of low finances, we chose to lounge on the less- developed side of the island which has about six separate, small and quiet beaches as well a very low-key atmosphere. Ao Toh Ko Bungalows, where we stayed, was a smattering about about 30 little bungalows, all of which were right on the sand and a few steps from the water. Although the accommodations were pretty basic (no flush toilet, no fan, electricity only at night, mosquito netting over the bed not quite effective), our porch featured a hammock and an excellent view. Not to mention the hut was $20/ night! It was fun "roughing it" for a few days. The staff- two American guys from Kansas and a Thai family- were friendly enough, and the bungalows' restaurant served up excellent Thai food to customers lounging at tables placed right on the sand.

Rantee Beach, arguably the best for snorkeling in Ko Phi Phi, was right next to our beach. One day, Scott and I rented a kayak and snorkel gear and paddled over there and to the next few beaches over. Each beach was different: some narrow and rocky with spectacular reefs in deep water just offshore; others sandy and wide with nothing but ankle deep water the color of a diamond as far out as you cared to walk.

We also hiked back into the jungle for about an hour to a scenic viewpoint right at the highest point of Ko Phi Phi, and then walked back down the other side to check out Ton Sai village and beach. Since there are no cars on the island, the only way to get around is by boat, foot, or fin. Although Ton Sai Beach was clearly once the most beautiful on the island, it is sadly succumbing to the drains of tourism. It's lined with sleazy bars and cheap hotels, and completely packed with trashy spring break types drinking imported beer and checking each other out. Kind of reminded me of Daytona Beach or Panama City... not the way I like to go to the beach. We definitely chose the right side of the island!

Anyway, we stayed at the Ao Toh Ko Bungalows for five wonderful days of swimming/ sunbathing/ hammock-lounging/ snorkeling. After that, we rode the ferry back to Phuket Town and visited a few more the beaches on Phuket before heading back to Bangkok and then Hong Kong. I have so many great memories from this vacation. Now I'm sitting here in my apartment in Zhanjiang, and I can close my eyes and see myself diving into that glittering turquoise water and swimming through a huge school of yellow and black striped fish. Or swinging in a hammock, looking at the stars. Waking up in the morning to the sound of the waves.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

From Winter Springs to Bangkok

This certainly has been an eventful and fabulous Spring Festival vacation! The first three weeks were spent at home in Winter Springs, where I was able to visit with my family, gorge on all the foods I've missed so much over the last eight months, and catch up on civilized life in general (movies, music, the pets, etc). The time went by too quickly, and before I knew it I was back on my second 15-hour flight in just about 20 days! I spent a couple of nights recovering in Hong Kong, rode the ferry to Macau, and then flew to Bangkok to meet Scott, where he'd been staying for over a week before my arrival.

Bankok was a welcome change from the frigid weather in Hong Kong and Macau (temperatures in the 40s don't feel too great when all you've got packed are beach clothes). Scott was right there at the airport to meet me, and immediately took charge with his great tour guide and directional skills. If I had been on my own, I probably would have just looked at the city map upside down and wandered aimlessly around Bangkok... luckily for me, in ten days on his own in the city Scott had somehow become a Bangkok expert and was able to show me around town!

We stayed in a decent hostel just around the corner from the infamous Khao San Road, which is known as the "backpacker ghetto" because of all the cheap hostels and even cheaper bars, food stands and souvenir shops... not to mention the abundance of Eurotrash stumbling drunkenly through the streets, arrayed in every type of skimpy clothing imaginable. Most nights, we just grabbed an outdoor seat at a Khao San restaurant and let the excellent people watching serve as the evening's entertainment.

Over the course of a few days, we visited the Grand Palace and temple, Wat Pho (another temple with impressive views of the city), and the Jim Thompson house. Jim Thompson was an eccentric American who started a hugely profitable silk company and then transported seven ancient, traditional Thai-style homes from around Thailand to Bangkok. He randomly disappeared in Malaysia at age 60, but fortunately for us his former home is now open for tourists to wander though. It boasts a spectacular collection of Chinese and Thai decorations, art and furniture and proved a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon in Bangkok.

The two and a half days I spent in Bangkok were opportunity enough to see major tourist attractions. My favorite part of my stay there was the food: street stands sold delicious snacks, such as hummus and pita, fresh fruit and fruit juices, steaming hot noodles, fried corn, etc. The average meal with a drink cost about $3 and every dish I sampled was wonderful. Unfortuately, I'd been dreaming of turquoise water, white sand and hammocks for several months; for me, the real vacation began with the trip south to Phuket and its beautiful tropical beaches.