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A Story of Flora, Fauna, and Kung Pao Chicken

Jul. 12th, 2008 | 11:43 pm

One thing you may be curious is the food sanitation situation in China, which I haven't really mentioned. Well in my little corner of the country, it doesn't seem to be particularly strict. And so there follows a long line of possible gastrointestinal issues: giardia, shigella, amoebiasis, random and indeterminate food poisoning, hookworm, tapeworm, ringworm, and naturally the occasional mystery disease, to name a few. Almost everyone gets something at some point. Just among the Guizhou volunteers I can rattle off a list of food poisonings, giardia infections, a gallbladder removal, and some other non-food-related health issues that would make you a bit more concerned about my safety.

But, all of you who know me are aware that I have a cast iron stomach. For 11 months I shoveled down some of the more questionable fare our city has had to offer with few side effects. Okay, so I may have had giardia a couple of times. And the food poisoning I got from eating those dumplings that had thawed and refrozen was severe enough to make me contemplate life a little bit. But by and large those are small beans, and I have yet to find myself taken to a hospital against my will (which, for me, in China, would be the only way I would be admitted to a hospital).

But in the past month I've been having some... issues. At first I thought it was giardia, but the giardia meds didn't stop it. I won't go into all the symptoms, but it started out with the (now fairly common) explosive diarrhea, lack of interest in food, fatigue, etc. Then other symptoms showed up, yadda yadda yadda, it wasn't going away. The hard thing about having diarrhea - I mean real diarrhea, which I can safely say I pretty much never genuinely experienced in my pre-China life - is that you lose a lot of fluid, and a lot of electrolytes. This is what actually makes diseases like cholera so deadly. Thankfully PCVs have things like oral rehydration salts - the very same kind that the UN might give to malnourished Africans, for example - which replenish vital nutrients. When I used them, I was more or less fine. When I forgot to, I slept a lot, maybe a couple naps in a day, with some resting in between. Once, I almost passed out, but some orange juice got me back on my feet. But unfortunately, I could not easily replenish my oral rehyrdation salts because China - for the Olympics - has placed a ban on things like powders, because apparently powders could be bombs or viruses sent by certain ne'er-do-well spiritual leaders.

So because of that, and just because I was sick of being sick, I persisted in calling our awesome med staff, who gave me good advice, but not advice that cured me. This continued for a month, during which I dropped ten pounds. At one point they wanted a stool sample, but apparently China believes my feces could also be detrimental to the Olympics and national security (on that count they might have something), so that too is banned by the postal service. So we were forced to rely on a description of the symptoms for diagnosis. After a very detailed poop-description by yours truly, the docs told me I might have amoebic dysentery, which I will let you look up online at your leisure.

So I went to Chengdu, which is where I am now. We did some tests: blood work, stool samples, urinalysis, and an ultrasound. All signs pointed to "no dysentery." And you know, sometimes you really just can't find the something that is causing the problem. And sometimes the reason you can't find it is because the problem is not actually being caused by a something, but rather by a lack of something.

Dr. Jo sat me down and explained. You see, the gut is a very interesting thing. It doesn't do all the work itself, but rather relies on colonies of friendly little critters to break down food and allow digestion to happen. Okay, well my friendly little critters are all dead. In my case, it is very possible that these bacteria have been eliminated - I prefer the word "massacred" - through bouts of violent diarrhea. My prescription is to take pills that actually contain millions of live bacteria in an attempt to recolonize my gut and restore digestive functionality. With luck, they will take a new foothold and begin multiplying until my guts are once again lush and fertile. So, assuming this diagnosis is correct, I can still say that my stomach is impervious. Only my intestinal flora and fauna don't seem to be.

Incidentally, this seems to answer the age-old question of: "What will happen to you if you eat Chinese food for a year?" Or at least in my case...

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Alone Time

Jul. 8th, 2008 | 11:36 pm

For the moment, I'm alone. Which is a hard thing to be in a city of 3 million.

The 12s are all gone to Chengdu now, and then the U.S., having finished their two-year service. Todd and Jess are back home slogging through bureaucratic Peace Corps Hell (long story). Kim is visiting the States too, and so is Valerie. Jonny is in Shanghai, and will be until Summer Project. Dave and Mary are still here technically, but they're about an hour away via a combination of travel on foot and by minibus.

Before they left, the 12s told me this was the only time they could remember when there was only one PCV in Guiyang proper.

It's not a particularly bad time to be left alone. I've been stricken with some kind of long-term gastrointestinal malady, which I know is not giardia, because the giardia medicine didn't work. The symptoms include both multi-day constipation and explosive diarrhea, which, I would have you know, can occur simultaneously. I had run out of oral rehydration salts - the stuff you take to keep your electrolytes from dropping so low you pass out - and Peace Corps is unable to resupply me, due to new nation-wide restrictions on posting packages for the Olympics: No powders, liquids, gels, ointments, electronics, mechanical parts, or anything else that so much as resembles an object (or a component thereof) that could be used to harm a human being. Thankfully, I was able to snag a few packets from the 12s on their way out. Otherwise, I've had no appetite or interest in food for most of the past month, and have lost some weight. But don't be alarmed: I'm checking daily to make sure I still have lovehandles, and so far there is nothing to worry about. If you want to hear a real sob story, Jordan had this same problem - for his entire first year in China. Here's hoping my recovery is a little more timely.

I've been searching for a more logical reason for my not updating this blog. I could take the easy way out and say I don't have time. Or I don't care. Or there's nothing for me to write about. Or almost all my other friends have stopped updating too. But the first three of those aren't true, and the last one doesn't affect my decision-making.

Here's what I think: I do not feel comfortable touching on subjects. I need to fully flesh them out, exhaust them. When your life is fairly simple and straightforward, that is not so hard. Here's a list of major topics I blogged about in January 2007:

* Spending New Year's Eve in Amelia Island, GA
* Reflections on 2006 and looking ahead to 2007
* Thoughts about where to take my blog, writing
* Meeting friends, hanging out
* Family
* Movies
* Peace Corps
* Substitute Teaching
* Working out
* My dog
* Other random mundane observations
* Acquiring a Wii
* Redecorating my bedroom
* Running out of gas
* Privacy

How many of these topics are of (inter)national, earth-shattering, immediate importance? None. Why? As I saw it, nothing much happened, so it was easy to talk about. A lot more is happening around me now. For instance, within two weeks, the following happened IN MY PROVINCE ALONE:

* June 18: In my city, a man on a city bus decides to take a passenger hostage with a machete, causing a standoff. The hijacker demands guns, ammunition, and money in exchange for the hostage. Police respond by shooting the man in the head at close range. This made national news media, with lots of pictures, and hey, you can even see the guy getting killed in real-time on this internet video. Now that's living in the information age.

* June 26: After weeks of seasonal heavy rains, 55 people are left dead or missing in Anshun - an hour away from me. In total, more than 8,000 residential buildings are destroyed, $202 million is lost to the economy, and 2.7 million people are affected across 52 counties in my province. This also made national news - but only as a minor headline.

* June 29: In Weng'an County, 50 miles away from me, a teenage girl's rape and murder were allegedly covered up by local officials and police, resulting in widespread expressions of public outrage. A mob of around 30,000 forms in the county of 65,000 and the protesters begin a destructive riot. They set cars on fire, and will eventually burn the local Public Security Bureau to the ground. The story is picked up by some foreign media, as well as by national news. This directly affects some members of PC China, as Weng'an was to be one of the sites for summer project in Guizhou. The project in Weng'an is subsequently canceled."

Now... if any one of these things happened in the DC area, I would have to take some time to think about it before setting down my thoughts about what it meant to me, the region, society, etc. But three events like this in two weeks? There's no way I can even sort it out in my own head, much less present my thoughts to someone else. Events in China just seem to be moving too fast these days for me to fully process and respond to them. Never mind the "big" issues: the Olympics, government reform, social problems, or US-Sino relations. And forget the small issues: day-to-day teaching, the state of the education system in Guizhou, stories from my students, hobbies, etc. I'd have to spend 2-3 hours a day just figuring it all out, and while I have time for writing, I don't have time for that. On any given day you might find that I have a half dozen tabs open in my browser, each with a different story or event that would, in America, warrant some kind of comment from me.

The truth is that although my time in China has had an unquestionable effect on me, I expect it will be several months - or years - after it is all over before I am truly able to gauge what that effect is. In the meantime, I'm just trying to remember and make notes. It may be frustrating at times, but it sure ain't boring.

(Just for fun, and to prove that I really do care, here is part of an unfinished entry I wrote five weeks ago, about events that happened five months ago.)Read more...Collapse )

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Earthquake - [one of many old entries I am just now posting]

May. 20th, 2008 | 11:31 pm

Yeah, so there was an earthquake a week ago that has killed tens of thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands more injured or homeless. Yeah, I felt it. No, nobody was hurt in Guiyang. If you're looking to help out with a donation (that doesn't just go to the government), you can check out the Red Cross in China. I'll probably make a donation myself of 100 yuan (about $14.50 - hey, I'm a volunteer).

I am increasingly getting the feeling that I should just be taking notes now, because frankly, a lot of this isn't getting written down until I'm back at home. You can't have your cake and teach it English too, or something like that.

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The Little Things

Apr. 20th, 2008 | 01:32 am

Just so you know, I'm happy and healthy, and missing everyone back home. Although the quality of my internet connection has slowly degraded to the point where I can no longer use my computer for skype (along with other minor annoyances, like having to spend 10 minutes buffering for every 1 minute of streaming video). During the very rare moments when I actually stop to think about the big picture, I realize that my time here has been, and will keep being pretty transformative. But the big stuff is difficult to explain to someone who hasn't lived through similar events. (You know how when you were a kid and everyone told you how lucky you were to have the opportunities, the freedoms, and the wealth that you had? Well, like everyone else, I took that for granted. Even though I knew it on an intellectual level to be true, it took going to China for me to see it intuitively and take it to heart. I'm talking about big stuff like that.) Anyway, here's an entry on smaller things, which are easier to write about, and probably much more entertaining.

Written last weekend, 4/4

Okay... so.

I'm writing this on paper on a five-hour bus ride to Tongren. Tongren is (from what little I've heard of it) a town with a population of only two or three hundred thousand. For China, that's very small. Why am I going to Tongren? Well, it's somewhere I haven't been yet. It's close by, we have a three-day weekend for the Chinese Holiday Qing Ming Jie (Tomb-Sweeping Day), we've got a couple PCVs out there to visit, and I've got Todd and Jess to keep me company. So why not?

There's so much to say sometimes that the sheer weight of it becomes a burden. So I don't write anything. It's only in situations like this, where I'm forced to write when I can even try to make a dent in it. (Unless I want to watch the anti-Japanese war film showing on the bus, which seems like one big montage of Japs getting shot, stabbed, squished, blown up, and lit on fire. It looks to be a comedy.)

So many little things. Like the gym I've started going back to again, after a three-month hiatus. The gym always makes me feel better. Not just for the workout, which is an incredible way to get rid of stress, but also for the atmosphere. There's the usual cast of characters, from the shirtless 20-something guys flexing and not-so-subtly checking themselves out in the mirror to the middle-aged women wearing multi-colored spandex and headbands. The latter are usually in the spin class, which takes place in a room with glass walls, flashing lights, and a spinning disco ball. They blast an eclectic mix of pop, techno, and rap, depending on the instructor. And there they all go, bobbing up and down on their cycles in unison, disco lights ablaze, to Gwen Stefani's cheering, "This shit is bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S!" And of courses there's always at least a couple folks on the treadmills wearing collared shirts. It's a messy gym, with barbells strewn all over the floor, machines whose knobs break off when you try to adjust them, and treadmills whose speed fluctuates wildly enough to make you worry about dislocating a knee - but it's my gym, and I'm always happy when I go.

Makes you wonder what other things you're forgetting to mention. Little, day-to-day things.

Like haircuts. Since arriving in Guiyang, I've gotten my hair cut at the same place every time. Just a little hole-in-the-wall by the overpass. Less than a buck. The first time I went, the guys who worked there had me take photos with them. And each time I've gotten what is actually a pretty damn good-looking haircut. But I won't go there again, because last time they cut my ear. Bad. The barber tried not to let me see him soaking up the blood in the mirror. One, two, three tissues full. He went to the boss, a middle-aged woman who put some kind of chemical powder on it. The kind you might use on a boxer after going nine rounds. I don't know what this powder did exactly, but it stung like hell, and when I looked at the wound later, it appeared to have been cauterized. With only half a haircut, I had little choice but to let the guy finish. I offered money, but he refused and I wasn't going to argue. I wasn't so much angry as I was worried - nothing was sterilized, and I hadn't exactly planned on getting HIV that day. And the fact that they actually kept cut powder on hand got me to thinking that this ear-slicing business wasn't an especially rare occurrence. I probably should have alerted our medical officer, but I didn't. Still have the scar.

Anyway, I haven't gotten a haircut in about two months, but that isn't because I'm scared of haircuts. It's because I lost a hand of mah jongg to Jordan, and the bet was for me to go four months without getting it cut. "Hey, you're in the Peace Corps. When are you going to have another chance to do it?" He had a good point.

The war comedy is off now, and we've got an old, cheesy Hong Kong action flick on. We've been crossing through fields the whole way - Terraced Guizhou croplands blanketed over karst mountain peaks. The most spectacular countryside you'll see, but devoid of landmarks and utterly uniform in its irregularity. Every so often we pass a cemetery alight with fireworks, plumes of gray smoke twisting skyward to appease the spirits of the dead.

We're almost there. I'll write more later.

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Mar. 8th, 2008 | 01:38 am

I've just now been struck with a bad case of homesick loneliness. :-( All of my family and non-Peace-Corps friends are on the other side of the planet. This is the first time since I was five years old that I have been away from my dog for more than a month or two. The only living being in my apartment is a small potted plant, and at the moment it is dying a slow, agonizing death.

For some reason I had a sudden longing for a pen pal to pour my heart out to. But then I realized that in this postmodern world of ours, pen pals have been replaced by abstract digital "spaces", which reside in California and are generally indifferent to human suffering.

So I'm updating my blog.

The beginning of this semester has been bittersweet. After the train wreck that was my first semester - my wounded ego wishes to remind you, that's par for the course - it's natural that I'm a little uneasy about starting another one. Especially when, instead of 250-ish students, I'm up to around 350 now. I teach four culture classes: one to a class of 25, two to classes of 40-50, and one to a class of 78, who also have lower-level English than the rest. This makes lesson planning for Culture a bit tricky. I also have a class of 75 students to whom I am supposed to teach speaking. Think for a moment of what that entails. How does one even go about evaluating the speaking of that many students? Well the short answer is, you don't. They will be graded solely on the extent to which they entertain me (and the sad part is that's partially true). I also have a big group of postgraduates. Yeah, I'm teaching postgraduates now. Along with the class where I can teach pretty much whatever I want to a handful of doctors and nurses who have no practical reason to learn English - a class that was, I might add, created mainly to get Peace Corps off my school's back for not giving me enough teaching hours. I walked into my first class of 70+ acupuncture majors on Monday and asked how many might get a job that involves using their English. Three raised their hands. I asked how many planned to work into medicine. About 25 raised their hands. There's good reason for... concern here.

But on the other hand, I was starting to feel like a tourist. Going back to work reminds me why I'm here in the first place. After seeing my favorite students again (and yes, I unapologetically play favorites) I realized I actually missed them. And, some of them even appeared to miss me. I know, a lot of people are missing me. But it's rare that I get to see or hear about it... In a lot of ways I'm way better prepared mentally for the teaching thing now. Much more relaxed. At our pre-semester teacher's meeting, I found myself cracking jokes with some of the other teachers and openly confessing how lucky the school was that I didn't quit to go live in Yunnan. It's hard to relax when you are the only foreigner at a school of five thousand or so in an unknown system that is wildly different from any (half-respectable) American school.

And, good for my blog, the number of vignettes in my life exponentially increases during the semester, compared with relatively vignette-free vacations that are very enjoyable, but easily paraphrased. My day-to-day life is very difficult to paraphrase, which is why I devote pages and pages to explaining it. Case in point:
Why You Should Always Talk to Creepy Old Men on Park BenchesCollapse )

I actually have more, a lot more, to write, but I think I'm gonna take my time. I know this journal comes off as being episodic and disjointed, but hey, that's postmodernism for you.

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Spring Cleaning

Mar. 8th, 2008 | 01:37 am

1. I am alive.

2. This journal has two purposes: for me to make some weak attempt at letting y'all know what I'm doing ten thousand miles away, and for me to set down events as they happen, possibly with an eye to doing something (read: lucrative book deal) with all this text later.

3. So far, I've been doing neither. I haven't been letting you know what's going on with me because I've felt like I had to stay chronological (if you remember, my record of events is still stuck around Dec 1... three months ago), and I haven't taken the time to get caught up to now because I've been concerned with staying current, which I've done for some of you on facebook, IM, etc.

4. Whatever.

5. Anyway, I'm going to skip the past 3 months, backdate as needed when I have the time, and start afresh. I'll post an update about what I'm doing nowadays real soon.

6. As of March 1, I am officially 1/3 of the way through my estimated time in China. So far, not imprisoned, and without any severe bodily injuries or diseases that I'm aware of. Sokoly must owe someone five bucks.


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Back in Guiyang and back to my story

Feb. 13th, 2008 | 01:22 am

[I wrote the beginning of this update a couple weeks ago from the listed date. It's taken me awhile to post it.]

I've had some distractions keeping me from updating. I'm writing this entry while floating down the Yangtze River. Also, it's my birthday. So give me a break. And let me try to tie up what was happening two months ago. Remember the visa debacle and the extra class and the seething prejudice against everything Chinese?

As I said, I was about to feel a lot better, and had pretty much no idea. On the last Friday of November I met a student for dinner - she'd invited me out to spend a night with her and friends for her birthday. This turned out to be much, much nicer than I expected: a private banquet room, with table, couches, and automatic majiang table. There were a total of ten at dinner, and more than enough food to go around. Also, although I said I wasn't interested, there was a bottle of baijiu involved, which led to heavy drunkenness for some of the guys, and maybe even a buzz for me... maybe. Poor little Chinese dudes.

So I was having myself a good time, and suddenly it occurred to me that these were all Chinese people I was with. Now I hadn't fully thought through my newly-formed racist views, but if I had stopped for a minute to consider that I was enjoying the company of Chinese folks, it would have been hard to reconcile my beliefs that everyone in China is morally depraved. They didn't strike me as particularly morally depraved, anyway. I decided that, all bias aside, they must actually be pretty good people. So there ended my short stint as a bitter racist. Back to the drawing board...

That weekend, everything was puppies and kittens and sunbeams. I'm speaking literally, actually, as the following day was unseasonably warm compared to the cold weather of the last weeks. And, as a consequence, puppies and kittens abounded. And I ate a lot of western food. Dear god did I eat some western food. KFC and Pizza Hut in the same weekend! Do you realize how expensive that is here? Okay hold on a minute. Forget US dollars, they're irrelevant here. Think in yuan. As an underfinanced volunteer, I was getting a monthly living allowance of 1300 yuan plus change. That's not just for food, that's for everything. And still I was living better than your run-of-the-mill Chinese dude on the street. Your typical lunchtime bowl of noodles (or whatever) runs around 4-7 yuan. If you go out to have a good time with friends and order some tasty dishes, it'll go up to around 10-18 yuan or so per person, depending on quality, quantity and meat content. And more if you want something to drink (read: beer) besides hot water or weak tea. KFC runs 25-30. And you won't eat at Pizza Hut for less than 50 yuan. There's a reason that fast food is a status symbol here.

It was delicious. And... cheese.

So anyway, western food definitely seemed to bring me out of the rut I'd been in. It didn't solve any of my problems, but it was a pretty good patch-up.

For the record, World AIDS Day on December 1 was surprisingly... publicized? Back in the States no one ever seemed (to me) to pay any attention, but here it was actually kind of widely recognized. Cool.

More to come! I'm leaving again soon for a week vacation, but don't worry, everything that needs to get told will be, even if it's months behind.

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Going Insane Part 2: Them Changes

Jan. 16th, 2008 | 05:15 pm

One of these days I'll actually get caught up to present day. But for now...

Picking back up from where we left offCollapse )

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Jan. 10th, 2008 | 11:10 am

Okay, well I'm back on lj at the ego-expanding request of a couple friends. Actually, I never intended to leave, I just became so busy that in lieu of writing entries I was reduced to writing lines of 2-3 words at a time in a notepad file. Just so you know, I fully intend to turn this file of about 60 words into 20-30 pages of text or so when it's all said and done. But I'll try to do it in chunks. Let me drop a few paragraphs here, just so I can make a down payment. My last entry appears to trail off in late November, so let me pick it up about a month and a half ago...Collapse )

P.S. That covered 5 words from my outline. Just getting warmed up, folks.

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Nov. 20th, 2007 | 05:15 pm

[Quick note: For the record, if you thought my entries were long before, you have no idea. At this point I really don't expect anyone to read all the way through, I'm just trying to put this down for future reference, which has so far taken many hours and caused me to stay up until 3:00am one night. Maybe I'll write a book one day if I suddenly grow a little more self-discipline. But if you do happen to read all this, you should tell me (and give suggestions!) I'll be flattered!]

Wow. This is why I never update: At all times I am either way too busy or way too unmotivated. Same reason for not writing the postcards I bought four months ago in Chengdu. But for all you guys who are my friends, you should know that I think about you a lot, even though we never talk and have little to no idea how the other is doing. Seriously, not just saying that.

Okay well sorry again, but it's probably gonna be a long entry. I know it's not easily digestible, and a lot of folks probably don't read it (I needed to get a beer when I sat down to write this). But frankly, I can only go so long without all the stuff I'm trying to remember to write down piling up and giving me a headache.

I haven't mentioned this too much, but my students are pretty nice to me. Sometimes they give me presents. They offer to pay for my lunch. Etc. Sometimes it's difficult for me to figure out why. Are they grateful for me volunteering to come teach them? Do they want to be nice to the foreign teacher? Are they doing it out of duty? Are they somehow getting something out of it? Or for the girls in particular, are they crushing on the only white dude at their school, the guy who is kind of like an authority figure, but also the same age as his students, unpaid and therefore unfireable, American and therefore presumably rich? I have no idea, so generally I try to play it cool and discourage too many favors.

That said, I've had two groups of girls cook me dinner. In other words, I have lost all shame. One group also helped me buy a majiang set without getting completely ripped off. I think the male students I've befriended are sometimes surprised that whenever they come over, there's an even chance that I am entertaining 2-5 girls at any given time. I have offered to hook them up. Also let me say that there's no way I could ever get seriously involved with any of my students. I'm just happy to have them feed me.

My male students are pretty awesome to me too though. They're my gym buddies, for one thing. I have another student, Young, who is getting ready to graduate, and once we got on the subject of traditional Chinese medicine (中医, or TCM for those of you ethnocentric imperialists who don't have Asian fonts enabled). I casually expressed interest, and then before I knew it, there we were having office hours in my apartment with him putting acupuncture needles into the braver of my female students. For what it's worth, I've had numerous offers to teach me acupuncture, but all I can think of is slipping up and poking someone's eye out. I think learning massage would be much safer. Hearing this, Young went to work. He told his friends and roommates he wanted to learn massage himself, and asked who he should study under. It just so happens that one of his friends is a graduate assistant to Xiang Kaiwei, who is an accomplished doctor and medicine teacher at our school. I am told he is the foremost massage expert in the city of Guiyang. Young met with Xiang Laoshi and revealed that it was not he who was interested in training, but the 外交 (foreign teacher). Xiang Kaiwei agreed to meet, which is exactly what we did last weekend.

Young and I showed up at the coffee and tea bar not really sure of what to expect. Actually I had to calm Young down because he was so nervous that something in his plan would go wrong that would result in one of these big important teachers being stood up. It was a nice place, nice enough to warrant my asking if there was a hotel upstairs (there wasn't). The coffee was genuine, in China an occurrence about as rare as finding genuine tea back in the U.S. Xiang Kaiwei was soft-spoken, but there was something about him that was very... cool. I've seen it before in some Chinese guys, this very detached and self-assured attitude. And yet they still manage to be deferential and pay the bill without you being able to intervene. This was basically an informational meeting for us to feel each other out. Xiang Laoshi knew some English, but he was more comfortable with Young translating. Young had counted on this translation in his calculations; he badly wanted the practice, and had made me promise not to bring any other students along who might take it away from him. We made some small talk, and I asked how long Xiang Laoshi had been a doctor. He replied with a laugh, "probably longer than you've been alive." As it turns out, this was almost true, which was hard to believe; I had thought he was in his late 30's. Soon we got down to business. Xiang Laoshi said that my first priority should be to take up tai chi, or maybe kung fu, in order to increase my stamina. It takes a great deal of endurance to give a long and thorough massage, so first I need to be properly conditioned. He asked about how long I wanted to spend learning massage, and then told me that after taking weekly lessons for one and a half years I would qualify to become a fully licensed masseuse. He recommended I take the certification exam soon after returning to the United States, where it would be in English. I would soon begin giving massages to volunteers such as Young (who may have figured this into his calculations too), and as I progressed in my training, Xiang Laoshi would bring me into the hospital across the street where he works, to practice on willing patients. In the meantime, he would order copies of a textbook in both Chinese and English. This was all way more than I expected. And Xiang Kaiwei did not impress me as a man who jokes. His last foreign student, an Italian, returned home after his training and opened his own clinic. I was very, very happy that night. I never aspired to be a professional masseuse, but I couldn't help thinking of how ridiculously cool this would make me.

[Here I stopped writing for several days. Too busy.]

I don't think that words can really express how important the evaluation is to my school. "A matter of life and death" comes close, but I think it's too cliche. I try to imagine the stress levels of prisoners in concentration camps. Take the pressure to succeed in modern America, and now pretend that the competition was increased by a factor of six. Maybe that's a better conception. I'll elaborate.

In the two weeks or so leading up to the one-week assessment, it was common to find changes on campus, large and small. One day there were crews sweeping the sidewalks. Another day there were several large rocks ranging from three to six feet across inscribed with characters, positioned around campus. Another day there was a crew with a firehose blasting the campus streets. Another day, every single classroom in the 14-storey academic building was outfitted with two framed pieces: one portrait of a legendary Chinese physician, and one calligraphy scroll. Another day there was an opening ceremony for the library: the second, fourth, and sixth floors were opened, and the rest remained frantically under construction, including the ground floor. Another day there was an austere 12-foot-tall statue installed in the courtyard. There was another ceremony with some kind of reverential bowing involved. Another day there was a crew rapelling down the 20-storey girls' dormitory, putting a shine on the large gold characters that run down the side. In the days before the big arrival, hundreds of potted plants were arranged, from flowers to trees, all around campus. I'm told that some of them were rentals that would be returned after the experts from Beijing left. There were balloons and banners. The newer 14-storey teaching building was cleaned up and outfitted with a red carpet. The older, shorter teaching building was partially covered with a 50-foot picture of... the newer, taller building. Which, I might add, is next door.

As I've mentioned before, students were woken up by campus-wide music at 6:00 or 6:30am each morning for weeks in advance. They were required to attend mandatory study sessions until 10:00 or 10:30pm. Predictably, they weren't exactly getting eight hours of sleep. As part of the assessment, students would at one point be asked what they thought of their school. Accordingly, the administration handed out typed scripts, with questions to be expected, and answers to be memorized. And since dorms are without the benefit of hired custodians, students were under strict orders to keep their living areas clean, or they wouldn't be allowed to graduate. Sometimes I'm asked if there are any differences between American and Chinese universities. Mostly I stutter.

As for the teachers, it was probably the hardest on them. There was the paperwork... endless, untold thousands of pages of paperwork in an institution where if you want copies for students, you need to collect money from them in advance, per page. In my case, I had somewhere in the neighborhood of 21-22 pages of paperwork per class. I teach six classes, so that's around 130 pages, partly in Chinese, partly in English. This wasn't as much work as it sounds. Half the paperwork I copied directly from another teacher. Some copies even have white-out over her Chinese name, with my English name written on top. Of the 65 or so remaining pages, two-thirds I took care of with an hour of cutting and pasting on my laptop. And of the last 20-ish pages, 19 were, like the rest, bold-faced lies. Of course for this last batch I actually had to write all those fake lesson plans, and that's especially unpleasant when you know those lesson plans will never, ever see the light of day. As for the rest of the teachers, they had not one semester, but six semesters of bureaucratic uh, waters to wade through. And unlike in my case, their papers were all in Chinese, which means there was actually a very real 1% chance of them being read. It has been common for teachers to work six or seven days a week, and to keep late nights. One teacher went two nights without sleep. Teachers were told to look sharp, and so they wore the best clothes they owned. One guy I know dropped some ¥2000 on a new suit (to put it in perspective, this is almost twice my monthly living allowance). And, of course, there were meetings, the most important of which took place last Tuesday. There isn't much I can say about this meeting, given that it was entirely in Chinese. But, I can say that it was in the auditorium, and every teacher at the school was in attendance. Every dean was allotted speaking time, and it concluded with a speech from the president of the college. Outside of these very basic facts, I've got to admit, I am at a complete loss. There were oaths taken, chanting, screaming into microphones. Our college's president at times reminded me of old newsreels of a certain famous German autocrat wildly shouting and gesticulating. I wondered what would happen if he had a sudden heart attack. The meeting, again all in Chinese, and largely in Guiyang dialect that I couldn't understand, lasted around 90 minutes. Afterwards one teacher said half-jokingly that it reminded her of the Cultural Revolution. Black humor doesn't seem to have a place in Chinese culture, but sometimes the situation is just begging for a laugh from some ignorant foreigner like me.

And of course, there had to be another show. Three, actually. There were some adjustments made, acts changed, acts dropped or added. But the biggest change was a matter of looks. Dozens of new costumes that looked expensive - in all they must have cost many thousands of yuan. New scenery. New, and very large stage lights, that can track, blink, and change color. Students who were part of the show (you should know, this is the same show I graced with my presence earlier this semester) were again pulled out of classes for three, four, five weeks to rehearse. I wasn't the only teacher who was angry about this... how on Earth will we be able to give a fair grade to these guys? It won't be an issue, I've heard. The students will be given free passes on their exams. Remind me to stay away from them when I need a doctor. And of course, I was called back in to play my 30-second part. I was busy, but I was willing to do my part. What I hadn't signed on for was the time thing. What is "the time thing?" "The time thing" is when you are told the show starts around 7:00. You arrive on time, and find out that in fact the show has been postponed until 8:00. You return to your apartment. Then you get a text message at 7:50 - It's starting, get over here now! You go back, and no it hasn't started. In fact, it doesn't start until almost 8:30. It was thanks to this that my 30-second part probably cost me two hours over the course of three performances. I am a pretty laid-back guy, I can tolerate a lot, but "the time thing" made me want to kill someone. I've tried to figure out "the time thing" many times since coming to China: Do Chinese arrive early? Do they plan late? Do they plan at all? I like to leave some wiggle room, but I play with minutes, not hours. At last, I think I've come up with a good answer: Events start when the most important person involved is ready. Sometimes that means it starts an hour late, sometimes it starts ten minutes early, and it has nothing to do with what people have been told. But maybe I'm being unfair, we'll see if I change my mind about this later.

On a sidenote, I never mentioned the actual act that I'm part of. Fully describing it would take another page, but suffice it to say that it involves bicycles on-stage, a hip-hop beat played with a snare drum, bass drum, and a woodblock; overalls, dudes spinning basketballs on their fingers, pretty laughable breakdancing, and uh let's call it choreographed cardio kickboxing. I'm trying to get a video, because a little voice in my head is telling me that it would be a big hit after a night of heavy drinking. I swear, the rest of the show is pretty cool, including the part about the Communist Youth League.

So, after all that spewing, you get an idea of what this evaluation means to my school. Technically, the experts don't leave until Friday, but from the point of the English teachers, our small part is over now. How did it go? Well at first I wasn't quite sure. Frankly, I'm still not sure what exactly they were evaluating. As far as actual classtime, we had one expert go to one class run by one English language teacher. I hear it went well. We also had a meeting. At first we were told to plan for Tuesday morning. That didn't happen, and so the meeting was rescheduled for Tuesday afternoon. That appointment wasn't kept either, so we moved it to Wednesday. My second class was moved to the 11th floor, near the office. I didn't ask why, but it later became apparent. After my first class, I went upstairs, where I saw every foreign language teacher standing in a row, facing the elevators. I was hurried to throw my bag somewhere, and ushered into line. If you want to know my status as far as making the English Department look good, our order in line went: Administrator, Dean, me, and then all the other teachers. Everyone was wearing their very best clothing, and I think I was the only guy without a coat and tie on (I have these things, but didn't want to get chalk all over them, and was frankly feeling rebellious in a passive-aggressive kind of way). But I don't think this was an issue, because the most important thing was the fact that I was a foreigner. I swear, China is turning me into a white supremecist. When the expert arrived at our floor, he had an entourage. Grace was there, and several others too, acting as some kind of human lubricant to keep things smooth. We greeted the expert with applause, and I was quickly introduced as the **foreign teacher**. The expert shook the administrator's hand, the dean's hand, and my hand, and then skipped the rest. He didn't speak any English; I wondered what exactly he was an "expert" in. The entourage grew larger and moved into a room. I grabbed my bag and tried to figure out what room my students were in.

Around 12:30 at lunchtime I text messaged Grace to ask if we had a meeting that afternoon. Her response: "2 o'clock. Thank u." I couldn't tell if the thank you was for going to the meeting, or for being proactive enough to ask. It was a good thing that I arrived ten minutes early, because as soon as I got off the elevator I saw everyone filing into the meeting room, past a table conspicuously aimed at the doorway, recently arranged full of brightly-colored awards. Everyone was there, including one teacher whose pregnant wife was currently going into labor at the hospital across the street. The meeting started at 1:53 by my watch. I proceeded to see some of the fastest-talking, slick showsmanship I have ever seen from our dean, all in Chinese. There was a powerpoint presentation full of images and text, appearing, disappearing, leaping into view from offscreen, and piling into predetermined layers. There were videos that played, websites launched. Our dean didn't slow down, she kept right on talking over the video clips, undeterred. It ended with a clip of one of our teachers in the nationally famous CCTV English-speaking contest. This was played just long enough for the expert to identify the teacher. Then the expert spoke for awhile, occasionally asking questions. I was mentioned twice by name, at which times I smiled and nodded dutifully, having no idea what was being said. The whole thing lasted 30 minutes, tops. And then it was over. The expert was ushered out with a new entourage, and the rest of us settled in for some kind of debriefing from our dean. People offered different impressions of how things had gone. Someone asked me how I felt about it. I was honest. "I have no idea, I didn't understand a word." There were some chuckles. And then one of the teachers burst into a fit of sobbing. The tension had been too much. It was an awkward breach in the day's formality, and no one in the room felt comfortable giving her a pat on the back. Our fast-thinking dean decided to comfort the woman with a rousing round of applause, and everyone else followed her lead, while the teacher continued to cry. Another teacher awkwardly handed her some tissues. I looked around the room confusedly, and Julia tried to lighten the mood by cracking a joke about her new boots.

Face. That's what it's all about. If the school performs well, the leaders are vindicated. If not, their qualifications to lead are called into question. Say what you will about the absurdity and the overformality and the window dressing. The leaders of the school know what must be done to ensure a favorable impression, and they can't be faulted for doing what is necessary to succeed. If there is anyone to blame... well, you can use your imagination.

So how'd we do? Well the experts left us on Friday morning, so there was a big gathering Friday afternoon around the new statue. There were flags, cheerleaders, and parade music. Teaching departments took turns having group photos taken in front of a large podium. Then the president and three other men came out and spoke for a time. I didn't understand any of the Chinese, but the message was loud and clear: we did good. Really good. Grand marching music erupted from the sound system, students scattered around the area shot off tubes of confetti and glitter, and girls wearing matching clothing began dancing in a large circle. This, like everything else that happened during the evaluation, appeared to be put on for show. I talked to Grace later about the specific results. Final conclusions would be announced in March, but in the meantime, the experts had said that they were very impressed. Out of 19 different graded areas, our school had received 18 A's and one B. The one B we received was because our central garden was a little too small. I didn't ask about the other 18. A student told me afterwards that he knew we would get high marks from the very beginning. "The leader of the evaluation was the head of a traditional Chinese medicine college in another province. There's no way he would insult his own field." Like so many times this week, I shook my head and said nothing.

On the plus side, our dean took us out to celebrate on Saturday. We got a private bus to Yu Wen Quan, which is a nice spa on the outskirts of Guiyang. The feature attraction there is a whole series of man-made "hot springs." The pools come in all shapes, sizes, and temperatures. Some are big enough to swim or play around in, and some are hot enough that you won't want to stay there for more than ten or fifteen minutes. It was very, very relaxing, although the men's locker room had some odd features. The strangest was that there were guys getting naked massages from other guys... um, I won't go into detail, but it was pretty graphic. No towel to cover up with, either. I kept my distance.

In my real journal this leads into a conversation about racism that I'm going to self-censor here because who knows what kind of people keep tabs on this blog. Just so you know, I self-censor this site a lot. Whole pages of text get cut out, but don't worry, just because you can't see them doesn't mean they were never written. :-) Mike Levy, a China 11 and my group's Volunteer Facilitator during PST, wrote this very-intriguing article for The Forward about views in China towards Jewish people. It's a worthwhile read. Mike taught at Guizhou University, which is located in my city of Guiyang. It's also worth noting that Guizhou University is the best overall college in the province, and I would expect my students to feel about the same way as Mike's, or perhaps even less well-informed. Talk about cultural differences. Mike is working on a book about his experiences, and I can't wait to get a copy (perhaps, ironically, a Chinese bootleg copy).

Chinese courtship is a strange, alien creature. An alien creature that likes to hold hands. I talked to Lulu for a long time about romance in the Middle Kingdom, and she had some interesting points. For one things, Chinese girls tend to give guys the benefit of the doubt, admitting that they can't really get to know a guy from just one short, superficial conversation. In America, many girl's make up their minds very quickly about potential boyfriends, and if there's no interest, usually she shuts him down and it stops there. Lulu has had a "suitor" persuing her for the past month, and though she doesn't have any feelings for him, she sometimes does respond to his daily calls and text messages, and has let him come along once when she was hanging out with us Americans. She's giving him a chance to win her over, but she's not optimistic about his chances. At KTV he once declared his love for her over the microphone, which would have made a younger girl swoon, but made Lulu bury her face in her hands. "He's either very brave, or very immature," I told her. "Yeah, he's too young," she said. Lulu is 25, and the guy, a policeman, is 21. For the record, I would consider Lulu to be a pretty liberated woman, for China anyway.

I was going to write something about my current obsession with reading the news, but I've decided to save that for a separate entry. I have a window in firefox saved with 50 open tabs. That's going to be a long entry too. I shudder just thinking about it.

In other news:
Mom, Dad, and Amanda are all coming to visit me! Yay! After January in-service training (IST) in Chengdu, I'll be flying to meet them in Beijing. We'll do all the hot stuff in Beijing, then fly to Xi'an to see the terracotta warriors. From there, we're flying over to Yichang to take a riverboat down the Yangtze, with various sites along the way that will probably be underwater sometime in 2009 (more on this later). At Chongqing (getting into Peace Corps territory now) we'll disembark and see the Three Gorges Dam, which constitutes one of the most ambitious plans by man to control nature in the history of civilization... again, a lot more on this next time. We'll go either by plane or train to Chengdu, where hopefully I'll be able to introduce the folks to my host family and show some off some of the sites that I'm familiar with. Then we'll plane or train to Guiyang, where I can introduce friends, co-workers, and my home. We'll be in Guiyang for the first two days of Spring Festival, or the lunar New Year, which I hear is a pretty spectacular sight. In all, it will be a two-week trip after almost seven months of not seeing them. It will be another 16 months or so before I see them again, unless there is some kind of emergency back home. And if I want to see Amanda again before the year 2010, it will probably mean having to go to Africa. It's even more depressing when I see that in text. I'm trying very hard not to think about it.

Language learning is moving along, but too slowly. I need to study some more, and crack open my textbook on characters. Very very slowly, I am starting to realize my current dream of being able to read a menu in Chinese. I can tell the difference between noodles and rice, and several different types of meat (I really need to recognize the character for 'dog' though, as the Guizhou traditional dog-eating festival is close at hand, and I'd rather not unknowingly take a big bite out of Lassie). Frankly, sometimes I feel like it's a mistake having Lulu, a good friend, as my teacher. It's too easy for us to get off topic, and I need someone who will hold me accountable.


[I've cut out the following section, which, though interesting, could get me a one-way plane ticket home. This section runs about two and a half pages. I'm doing really well and would not like to be sent home just for some stupid blog entry (or worse, screw up the whole program!) So that's all I got, hope it's not too disjointed.]

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