Monday, December 31, 2007

A New Year, A New Post

Happy New Year!

It is now 2008. Hard to believe. I was thinking about how I celebrated the New Year about 13 hours ahead of most of my readers and it reminded me of a New Year from eight years ago. As the clock turned us from 1999 to 2000, I remember being in North Carolina watching the celebrations on TV. Since it was the beginning of the new millennium, news networks where giving 24 hour coverage to the event and showing scenes as the new year arrived in each time zone across the world. I think Da was awake and watching somewhere around the approach of midnight in Fiji, but I'm sure I was up by the time the year 2000 arrived in China. Eight years later, I'm ushering in my first New Year's experience in Zhanjiang.

On a note of irony, for all the times I've heard Auld Lang Syne played in China (they seem to have some affinity for it), the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve was not one of them.

In other news, 2008 has already brought some cooler weather to Zhanjiang. When I looked at the temperature inside my house this morning, it was a frigid 64 degrees. The whole build as quickly and cheaply as possible so don't use any insulation idea, perhaps should be revisited. During the daytime, it is often officially colder inside my house than outside in the sun. I think I'm going to head down to Trust-Mart tomorrow afternoon and pick up a small space heater...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Quick Update

It has been a few days since my last post...

It was nice to speak with many of you on Christmas Eve (Christmas Day for me) and for anyone I missed, I hope you had a Merry Christmas!

It was a bit of a different experience to spend my first Christmas away from family and outside of a country that really celebrates Christmas even, though it was nice to spend my first Christmas with Janet. A group of foreign teachers went to dinner at the Crowne Plaza, Zhanjiang's one and only five-star hotel, and they had a good buffet. There was even a real turkey and ham!

Our semester is quickly coming to an end here and I am busy preparing for final exams. My last class will finish on January 10. After that, I just need to turn in grades and then I am free to go. The current word is that the next semester will begin on February 24, which is a Sunday, so I find that a bit odd. Nevertheless, it makes for a six week vacation, which nobody could complain about!

My plans were thrown for a bit of a loop since Janet will be going home for the first couple of weeks and then coming to meet me in Thailand later on. My flight leaves for Bangkok on January 24, so I'll have about two weeks I need to kill somehow... I may end up resorting to doing some trekking around on my own during that time.

It is almost a new year, and my resolution is an easy choice this year. I need to be more diligent in my studies of Chinese! It may seem that this would be easy, being surrounded by the Chinese daily, but it is all to easy to become distracted and the lingua franca of the south is Cantonese rather than Mandarin.

Finally, let me leave you with a couple of articles on China if you are interested in reading more...

CNN Article about Hong Kong Elections
Before the 1997 handover, British Governor, Chris Patten, wanted to implement a series of election reforms that angered the powers that be in Beijing. Now, plans are finally starting to take hold for bringing more democracy to Hong Kong. Like they say, "One country, two systems."

NY Times Article on Pollution in Beijing
This is the newest in an on-going series of articles the Times is doing focusing on China and environmental issues.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

School Christmas Party


Zhu as Santa with Rose and Janet at the Christmas Party.

Tonight was the much anticipated, occasionally dreaded and guaranteed to be out of the ordinary, school Christmas party.

Originally Janet and I were set to be the king and queen in a play that was a Chinese take on Cinderella with lots of dancing added in. Luckily for us, the school vetoed the large budget needed for the party and the play and we were saved the embarrassment of presiding over the court of Christmasland.

The students and teachers really worked hard to decorate the room and organize the party. It was going to be quite unlike any Christmas party I had ever attended before. The schedule called for a myriad of dances interspersed with a number of different games.

The evening opened up with Zhu (who was quite a good sport about it), dressed as a Chinese Santa Claus, entering the room and approaching the stage surrounded by ten dancing fairies. After that, it was down to business as everyone sang Jingle Bells (called Jingo Bells for some reason) followed by a Latin dance. Then it was time for a game, my first real duties of the evening. We were having a "balloon sandwich" race where two students stood back-to-back with a balloon in between and tried to race across the room. I called for volunteers from the crowd of nearly three hundred students gathered to watch and it was off to the races. We did six rounds and the winners from each round received special prizes.

Following the balloon game, was Janet's game - pin the red nose on Rudolph. We blindfolded student volunteers who then attempted to place the nose on a large drawing of the most famous reindeer of all. Next was the Christmas event Janet and I had both been eagerly looking forward to - the Indian/Pakistani dance. The girls twirled and danced around the room as their anklets and bracelets jingled. While the dance was a tough act to follow, the show must go on so we played another game or two until the hosting responsibilities finally returned to me.

My next charge was teaching the students a dance; the Snowflake Waltz to be more specific. Two girls and one of my students acting as a translator had been trying to teach me the dance for the past few nights so I would know what was going on. Being naturally gifted with two left feet (not too mention large enough to easily crush the feet of any dance partner), it took a while for me to get the five basic movements down. Luckily, my two assistants handled the dance demonstration and I just had to explain the steps in English.

Later, as the party winded down, it was time for a photographic assault by students all wanting to pose for Christmas pictures with the foreigners. In the end, we managed to escape fully intact, although it was a Christmas party unlike any I have previously experienced. The students all seemed to have a great time, so I'd say the party was a good success. One student told me, "I have been at this school for three years and this was the best Christmas party ever!"


Posing with the Indian/Pakistani dancers.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The American Gun Culture

Previously, I have made a point to stay away from most political topics on my blog, preferring to focus on my experiences here in China. Hopefully they are infinitely more entertaining to read about than a boring political expose. Recently politics and China clashed and I will now make a short venture into the tumultuous issue of gun control...

Friday night, we had a large dinner arranged by Kevin and Ruth (thank you to both of them) and afterwards our group retreated to Linda's home for freshly baked lemon meringue pies. I'm still not sure where Linda got the oven from, but it was nice to taste baked food again! We were having a good time and discussing the impending school evaluation of Zhanjiang Normal University.

The school evaluation process really sounds a bit silly to me as an outsider to the education field. Since the evaluators will be here next week, the school has made an extraordinary effort at polishing up the grounds and facilities and training the teachers and students. The classes are often rehearsed ahead of time. The teachers and students are prepped on what to do and say in the classes and around campus. They are also all given school fact books to memorize just in case an evaluator wanted to ask a random student how many books were in the library. I'm sure it makes for quite a good show, but it seems a bit - fake.

Somewhere in the discussion of the upcoming week's activities, Ruth mentioned she would be teaching a passage on the "American Gun Culture" to her English students. This perked all of our interests and we pressed for more details. It turns out that the story from the textbook involves two young men robbing a third man at gunpoint over a bucket of KFC chicken. This is the kind of culture kids get in their textbooks about America? Couldn't they have at least held him up for something better than a fatty bucket of KFC fried chicken???

I would really like to get a copy of this textbook to find out what other things the students are learning about America. While I agree that gun violence does occur in the United States, I would hope that we could export some of the better aspects of our country to foreign textbooks. Maybe the Bill of Rights or something similar would be a good place to start...

Many Americans do own guns, but I fear that passages like these taught out of context in schools give an impression of America as a lawless Wild West-type land. One interesting thing that struck me was that I have never actually shot a gun whereas many of my students have. The college students have government-mandated military training (designed to promote patriotism after the events that occurred in a certain famous square in 1989) where many of them go to firing ranges and learn to shoot a gun in addition to learning to march and other drills.

---- (disclaimer - political rant about to follow - skip if you wish) -----

Gun control is a fiercely debated topic at home and I really don't want to delve too deeply into it, but I feel some context must be provided before attributing a gun culture to America. To simply say that the right to own a gun is in the Bill of Rights may not be enough to someone who doesn't understand American political history. Why is that one of our ten most fundamental rights?

Our founders used revolution (complete with guns) as a tool to overthrow the authoritarian rule of King George III. With guns and lives they bought the liberties that they believed were inalienable rights of all of us and understood that an armed populace was the best way to protect those rights in the future. Thomas Jefferson said,
"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Jefferson and the other founders understood that throughout the course of human history, individual liberty has always been in danger at the hands of the state. After coming to power through means of force (i.e., guns) Hitler, Stalin and other totalitarian leaders of the twentieth century quickly banned individuals from owning guns. Without a means to resist, the masses were easily subjugated.

Another of my favorite quotes comes from the movie V for Vendetta,
"The People should not fear their government. The government should fear its people."
In a state with an armed populace that is ready to protect its rights and basic liberties, it would be much more difficult for an authoritarian leader to rise to power.

While we may debate on the specifics of gun control; should we allow or not allow X-type of weapon? or what should be the rules of gun registration? or should ex-felons not be allowed to own guns? etc... There is ultimately no grounds for a debate on whether or not Americans can own guns.

Contrary to popular belief, America is not actually a "democracy," but rather a "constitutional republic." We were founded this way because our forefathers understood that a democracy is merely a rule by mob and that the will of the majority can always oppress the rights of the minority. In response, they gave us one of the pillars of our republic, the Bill of Rights. These ten rights were inserted into the Constitution to ensure that the basic liberties our country was founded on would never be taken away by the changing whims of the masses.
1) Free speech, press and religion. Freedom to assemble and petition the government.
2) Right to bear arms.
3) No troop quartering in private residences.
4) Protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
5) Due process of law and right against self-incrimination.
6) Fair and speedy trial.
7) Trial by jury.
8) Protection against cruel and unusual punishments and excessive bail.
9) Other rights retained to the people.
10) Powers not delegated to the U.S. by the constitution are retained by the states or the people.
These are the ten fundamental freedoms upon which our country was founded. While trained lawyers and scholars may try and interpret new rights from the Constitution according to what they wish to see enacted, it would take a constitutional amendment to take away one of the rights already granted (see 18th and 21st Amendments).

Unfortunately, both major political parties have been trying to undermine these basic tenants of our society for too long. When Democrats try to restrict guns or certain types of speech, they are launching a direct assault on the Constitution. Whether you like guns or regardless of your thoughts on hate speech (which is deplorable), we can not pick and choose what amendments we like and those we wish to ignore.

In the same light, when Republicans launch a massive warrant-less phone tapping program or try to suspend the writ of habeas corpus (see also Lincoln), it is a direct attack on the Fourth Amendment and the due process of law. It doesn't matter whether we may agree with this thinking, "I have nothing to hide, who cares?". What the issue boils down to is that it is simply unconstitutional. A government that violates the very rules it was founded upon and given the task of upholding is a government that will not last long.

Additionally, there is the simple fact that the continued expansion of government into our daily lives (whether from the right or the left), comes at the direct expense of both theNinth and Tenth Amendments.

Certainly, one could make many good arguments for banning guns as someone could no doubt make an equally persuasive argument for listening in on phone calls without warrants in order to protect us. However, on both of these matters, the Constitution is clear and concise in saying , "No."

I think it is not that America has a "gun culture," but rather that we have a "freedom culture" where we continue to value the rights that were fought for and won over two centuries ago. One of the things that makes our country great is that our freedoms are bigger than any one person. Not everyone may agree with all ten of our basic rights, but they stand nonetheless. I will not infringe upon my neighbor's right to own a gun as he pleases (regardless of my thoughts on the issue) and he will not stop me from being able to speak my mind or worship as I please (regardless of what he thinks of my speech or religion).

This is what freedom is all about!

-------------------- (end political rant here) ----------------------

Well, I guess the next time I am waiting in line at KFC and the guy in front of me takes the last piece of extra-crispy Colonel's chicken, I'll know what to do...

Pull out my gun and claim it for my own!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The noises from the ceiling

Plod, plod, plod. Thump, thump. Scrape, scrape, scrape.

For the last week or two, I have heard incessant noises coming from above. For a brief moment of terror, I thought I might have rats. I quickly remembered that the walls here are solid concrete; no insulation, no crawlspace, just concrete.

The noises are audible at all times of day, with the exception of the daily napping hours - when Zhanjiang briefly becomes a ghost town. "What could it be?" I wondered...

It turns out that my problems is much worse than a few rats in the ceiling, I now have twenty-seven students living above me.

Last post, I told you about our new forklift class. Apparently those people have moved in for a month of job training and displaced the students who previously lived below Janet and me. With our school facing a housing shortage, the girls who had been living in two dorm rooms, were now put upstairs in the vacant apartment above me.

In the same space of approximately 1,100 square feet and three bedrooms that I have all to myself, there are now twenty-seven students crammed in. Even with bunk beds I'm not sure how that would work. Also, the apartments only have one bathroom. Logistically, how can twenty-seven people share a single bathroom?

It turns out that one of Kevin's former middle school students is one of the multitude living above me. She expressed her dislike of the current situation (who could blame her?) and told me that they often have to go to different buildings around campus to use the bathroom or simply get ready for school in the mornings! Luckily, the students will only have to endure this a while longer until the training class leaves and they can reclaim their rooms below, but can you imagine?? Twenty-seven people?? Sometimes here, I feel like I've checked out of reality for a while...

Poor kids!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Driver's Ed

It is not uncommon for a high school to have a driver's education course.

I was surprised the other day though to look out my window and down into the courtyard below to see forklifts whirling around with three or four guys mounted on each one.

Some other guys were gathered around watching and waiting their turns. I'm not really sure how we ended up with a forklift driver's ed here, but I'm guessing it is some type of vocational training program. The guys who moved in downstairs recently are a bit more rowdy and not regular students; they are here to learn some specific job skills. I guess the school saw this as an opportunity to make a few extra dollars as well...

In any event, the driving has been going on for a few days now and has been an extensive program complete with crates to pick up and transport as well as an obstacle course made of bricks to navigate.

Life in China is rarely boring. There seems to always be something new and random happening.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Playing Taboo in Zhanjiang

Last week in my Oral English class we played taboo. It proved to be quite a big hit. The students had a fun time trying to describe the "taboo" word without using any of the other "clue" words listed underneath.

While the students played in pairs, I went around the room and joined in with various groups for a word or two.

Taboo really proved to be a great exercise as it made them think hard of different words and ways of describing some common things. After we finished playing, I had the students make their own taboo cards. I think most people had caught on and were able to do so, though some seemed like they may not have fully gotten the idea... In any event, I'm going to include a few sample cards that I found cute, amusing and maybe even a combination of the two.

Apple (regarding the student who recently left)

  • She
  • Went to
  • Guangzhou
  • Have a
  • Job
I don't think this student quite caught onto the idea that the words below were supposed to be clues that you can not say as opposed to clues that lead you to the answer. I thought it was funny though that they made a card for their former classmate.

Hamburger
  • KFC
  • Bread
  • Vegetable
  • Salad
I wasn't so sure about that one...

Mother
  • Woman
  • Take care of you
  • love
  • warm
  • cook room
Married
  • Happy
  • Sweet
Zombie
  • Death
  • Eat
  • Person
  • Beat
Baby
  • couple
  • love
  • crystal
  • generation
  • money
Great Wall
  • Beijing
  • China
  • Famous
  • So long
McDonald's
  • American
  • Dining
  • Fast Food
  • Nutrition time
  • Red hair
Malnutrition?

Women (submitted by a female student)
  • Long hair
  • make-up
  • dress
  • shopping
Rice
  • eat
  • Chinese
  • daily
  • lunch
  • supper
Summer
  • hot
  • season
  • warm
  • high temperature
  • boiling
I also managed to make it onto a few different student's papers...

Scott
  • teacher
  • come from
  • Florida
Scott
  • teacher
  • USA
  • Florida
  • man
  • handsome
Scott
  • foreign teacher
  • tall
  • speaking teacher (I have this class for Oral English and English Listening)
  • listening teacher
  • friend

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Random

Just a couple of short anecdotes from my day to post...

First, I was locked out of my house, again, today. Janet left me her keys and with two pairs of keys to watch over, I inevitably switched them up, leaving the house with Janet's keys instead of mine. I thought about the possibility of doing so as I left for lunch. Funny how you seem to always have that epiphany moment just a few minutes too late each time you lock yourself out...

Then, on my way to the bus stop, I was approached by one of the female students who wanted to practice English. I was a bit surprised. Generally the high school students find safety in numbers when it comes to foreigners and rarely will they come and talk to either Janet or myself when alone. As we walked along, we chatted for a bit - the usual basic things (school, do you like China?, where are you from? etc.). After we rounded the corner onto the main street, she was ready to make a revelation.

"I have a dream," she said.
"oh?" I replied.
... a moments pause...
"I want to marry an American."
...another pause...
"oh," I said.

A few hours and one class later, I finally got back into my house.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Janet's Birthday

December 10 is Janet's birthday.

During Janet's class, I hid some presents throughout her house and gave her a map of the house when she came back for a birthday treasure hunt. Many of the little items were from our last trip to Hong Kong and are some favorites that can not be found here. After a fun search through her house and opening presents from her family, it was time to get ready for dinner.

I had invited a number of the other foreigners to a birthday dinner for Janet at our favorite western restaurant. We met up with them at the Normal College, after having a glass of celebratory Sherry with Kevin, we went to the restaurant.

Dinner was great and afterwards the cake arrived. I had asked Ruth to help me in securing a birthday cake. She picked out a "European style" cake, which I'm sure is something unlike that which any European has seen at home before, but it looked great and was large enough to feed a small army. The restaurant has a piano, so Jamie played a "rousing" rendition of happy birthday for us as the cake was delivered to the table. It turned out to be quite delicious.

Happy Birthday Janet!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Abandon hope all ye who enter here

Sunday nights in Zhanjiang have a bad reputation with Janet and me. They seem to become a weekend rush hour as most of the students in the city are returning from their homes to their schools for the upcoming week's classes.

The streets of Zhanjiang quickly become filled with cars, motorcycles and bikes. The air is full of a sense of excitement, a last hooray of the weekend before returning to the grind. As the city becomes bogged in a frantic insanity.Sometimes it is not a good place to be out for a foreigner. Leaving your home in the best of moods, you risk coming back weary. Leaving in any lesser mood - your mental health can quickly deteriorate.

With that said, this past Sunday, we found ourselves out and about looking for Christmas decorations at the onset of the evening rush hour. Needing nourishment and a place to relax for a moment, we headed to KFC. There we found neither.

I should have taken it as an ominous sign when right outside of KFC we were greeted by Michael Jackson on the speakers, "this is Michael Jackson of the Jackson Five wishing you a very, Merry Christmas."

Through the doors, we entered into the outermost circle of Hades. It was a packed house; the Colonel could only hope to turn out so many at his restaurants back home. Approaching the cash register, we entered the disorderly mob that substitutes for lines here. The chaos and the noise were deafening. Parents trying to scout out an empty table to hold while shouting orders to their spouses at the counter. Children screaming, giddy at the sight of a few chicken wings and the side cup of corn on the trays in front of them.

As time passed, we descended deeper. There was the girl at the table across from us, who clearly spent more time looking at us than her own food while eating. Then the greatest insult of all, Christmas songs in Mandarin from what seemed to be a Chinese kindergarten choir on the radio. It just sounded bad. The music was sort of an Alvin and Chipmunks meets the Far East kid's choir and the resulting sounds were grating on the ears. Adding to the fact that it seems very few people have any understanding of the true meaning of Christmas, it was enough to get on my nerves just a bit...

It was not one of my better nights at the time. Luckily, after reaching the safety of my home, it is something I can laugh about now.

Just remind me to avoid KFC on Sunday evenings in the future.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Departed

I recently posted on two of my students leaving for jobs in Guangzhou. This week, I've lost an additional student to a job in another city. I'm now down to forty five in that class.

The good news though, Wednesday night at English corner, Yummy, a good friend of Apple and Vicky's let me know that they were both doing well in Guangzhou. I found out through her that conditions at their work and apartment were actually better than they had initially anticipated, which they were happy about. This was relieving to me as well. I am currently reading Oracle Bones, a follow-up to River Town that discusses the lives of some of Hessler's students after they leave school for jobs. Some of the conditions they faced after migrating to the big cities sounded less than ideal.

Today, I was happy to hear from Apple herself. She e-mailed me the following...

Hello Scott,

I fell terribly sorry that I did not reply your e-mail, because we were fully occupied by our new job, and what’s more the computers in our dormitory hadn’t linked to the internet for the last several days. Except for this, everything is ok around us. We got a fine apartment as our dormitory and a fully equipped office. We are mainly responsible for replying emails from our foreign clients on line and talk with them in the trade fairs. So we use English frequently.

Thank you for taking us to dinner Nov 29. it will surely be part of my most precious memory that would never be erased. I will always remember with the vivid pleasure you were together with us. Thank you for being so patient with us, especially practicing with me kindly.

At the beginning of our job, everything is new and hard for us, but we will endeavor to make it.

With best wishes,

Apple

It is exciting to hear that they are doing well and I am looking forward to hearing more stories like this after my class graduates at the end of January and they begin to spread out across Guangdong Province and China.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Guest Blogger - Dr. Flatley

Janet and I were very excited to have her father come over for a visit recently. It was great to see a familiar face here in China and we enjoyed showing him around Zhanjiang and giving him a brief glimpse into our lives here. After his return, I asked him to please provide me with a short blog entry about his experience to help give a fresh perspective to China.

The following is Dr. Flatley's account of his journey in a stream of consciousness format where he discusses the many personalities he experienced while here.


A Trip to China- The Ultimate Ego Trip

These are my observations regarding experiences in Zhanjiang ("Jon' Jee-ahng") during my visit to see Janet and Scott in action as they teach English to Chinese high school and college-aged students. New "foreigners" are seldom seen here, so "we" are treated with special interest....to say the least. The Chinese people I met here were universally very sweet and innocent, extremely exuberant, and supremely welcoming .... such that I'm sure I'll probably NEVER have an experience like this again....unless/until I go back again some day!

Highlights and Observations:

  • From Newark, New Jersey (after flying there from Orlando) I spend 16 hours in the air/up over the Arctic Circle and down the other side of Earth into Hong Kong...HK is Hawaii, San Francisco and St Thomas all stirred into the same pot.... The downtown area shows a dazzling collage of architectural wonder [Note: Hong Kong "isn't really" China and crossing the border out of it and into mainland China, or vice-versa, requires a stop at Immigration and Customs]....Maryknoll House in Stanley Village in HK is a wonderful refuge for priests and/or teachers on R & R and for dads (like me) being united with their favorite daughter/teacher. It is so wonderful to see Janet again and to be with her and Scott!
  • In HK we attend the wedding of Kevin Clancy and the princess-like "Snow White" (Kaishan Kong) with no less than 10 Catholic priests officiating. {The Pope Himself should be so lucky!} Then we attend a magical nighttime reception at the Hong Kong Yacht Club.
  • The next day, we take a 2-hour train ride to Guangzhou (Canton) with the entire wedding party to do it again Chinese-style for Snow White's many friends and family there in their home town.

--------------------------------------------------------------

  • 6 hours more on the bus, and we arrive on Janet and Scott's campus in Zhanjiang: Major culture shock: SUDDENLY, I AM TIM TEBOW (BMOC)!: giggling teenagers quickly flock to me like metal to a magnet and they cannot wait to take pictures with me, talk to me, ask me questions. I'm a new foreigner...and that's so exciting! Clutching each others' arms and covering their faces with gleefulness. They don't seem to know... that I'm just me.
  • Now, visiting in Janet's classroom, I tell her kids, "I am Michael Jackson's older brother" and...SUDDENLY, I AM DANE COOK!: Amidst screams of laughter and applause I score with every comment. They already know my name but want to know my age, how many in my family, how long it took to get here, what Chinese foods I like, what sites I planned to see, whether I knew that Zhanjiang was famous for seafood, what sports I like, what America is like....everything! Everybody's got a picture phone pointed at me and they're click-clicking away! They want me to take pictures of them with me with my camera, their cameras....you get the picture. Somehow, they don't seem to know...that I'm just me.
  • Now, I'm playing basketball with a group of boys in the central quadrangle which is surrounded by classrooms. A ballooning crowd watches and they "oooo" and "ahhhhh" when The Foreigner finally gets a hook shot to go in. Word spreads quickly throughout the campus and even the teachers all know within minutes. SUDDENLY, I AM TRACY McGRADY! Hey, they don't seem to know..... that I'm just me.
  • Now, at night with Janet, Scott, and an eclectic group of their fellow English teachers from the nearby Normal University, we crack into large bottles of Tsing Tao, eat dinner with chopsticks off a lazy susan in the center of the table, and are enjoying the evening. The teachers are from Cameroon, the US, China, Wales, etc. and even include a feisty Catholic nun. Somehow, in polite conversation, they realize I am a conservative Republican .... and quickly, without notice, "the match is lit"! SUDDENLY I AM DICK CHENEY! They extol the virtues (?) of Hillary Clinton and now they seem to want me roasted in the hot pot with the cow intestines, sand worms, and octopus. Good grief: they don't seem to know.....that I'm just me! {As it turned out, we had an amiable parting and we left as friends...but that was a close one}. I leave the dinner hoping the Americans forget to order their absentee ballots....
  • I spend a morning with a local, relatively high-end Chinese dentist from Zhanjiang, the brotherly Dr. Liu. Through an interpreter, while in his downtown dental office, we compare notes between Chinese dentistry and American dentistry. We discuss fees, special techniques, dental materials and devices, etc.; and I even get to meet his wife and examine his mother! He proudly heats up some tea for us and SUDDENLY, I AM GORDON CHRISTENSEN {An American dentist/icon generally revered as God's Gift to Dentistry}. As the hyper-excited Dr Liu directs his brother in driving us, he proudly shows me key sites of his city while shuffling us in and out of different arrangements for countless photos...first with his camera, then with my camera, etc. I fear that his blood pressure may be peaking to dangerous levels now and his aorta may be at risk of blowing. A guy riding by on a bike is abruptly short-stopped by Dr Liu and ordered to get pictures of all of us with both cameras, which the frightened guy does without hesitation. I feel so honored to have a new Chinese friend/dentist! Dr. Liu doesn't have a clue ... that I'm just me.
  • Additional observation: As Janet, Scott, and I walk about the city EVERYBODY looks at us, stares at us, follows us with their eyes. Staring back makes absolutely no difference: they lock on and stay locked on! They're mostly looking at Janet, whose blond hair is just too much to resist. I've seen 2 and 3 people piggy-backed on motorcycles with their heads swiveling Exorcist-like, first to the right then to the left, then back again, and this swivel-fest continuing even a block past us and even while fading into the distance! It's new and interesting to me, but Janet and Scott have about had enough of that already after 5 months of it!

---------------------------------------------
The time has finally come to end the trip I've anticipated for so long. The worst part is saying goodbye to Janet and Scott. On the airplane home I break out 40 letters that Janet's kids have written me as part of a class assignment. The letters are so fresh-minded and tender-hearted, so wonderful that I find myself brushing away tears as I go from one to the next. I've witnessed, in person, and now in their letters, a rare innocence that hasn't been seen in American teenagers since the "Ozzie and Harriet" days of the 1950's. I plan to write back to each and every one of them in the next couple of weeks.

Now I'm back home and back to work. My wife, Pam, and I miss Janet dearly but we know that her experience with her Chinese students will permanently enrich her life. We are so proud of Janet and Scott and know that no one could ever have chosen better people than them to represent our country. Without a doubt, they represent the very best our country has to offer!!

My trip to China has been an experience of a lifetime! Thank you, Janet. Thank you, Scott. Thank you Zhanjiang! I'm ready now to go back to being "just me".

James P. Flatley, DDS
flatley01@gmail.com

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Hong Kong Top Ten

This top ten list for Hong Kong is something I compiled on my most recent trip.

Located just eight hours drive by bus from Zhanjiang, the difference between the two cities is something like that difference between night and day. Crossing from Shenzhen into the northern reaches of Hong Kong, you go through customs and a border check, which is appropriate, because it really feels like you are leaving China despite the "two systems, one country" jingle.

This list is not quite a typical list of attractions and eateries that you may find in your Lonely Planet or other travel guidebook.

This is a list of the top ten things to enjoy in Hong Kong when escaping from your job in the mainland.

10) Symphony of Lights

After arriving in Hong Kong from mainland China, everything seems ridiculously expensive. A great way to spend part of the evening without emptying your wallet is the Symphony of Lights, a nightly light show coordinated between a number of the downtown buildings. The show begins at 8PM and is best viewed from the Avenue of Stars on the Kowloon Peninsula. You can easily get there by taking the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour for just 2.2HKD. It is a great way to spend a night out on the cheap and take in the beautiful Hong Kong skyline.
9) Fast, Uncensored Internet
It is nice to be able to use Wikipedia again without having to go through a proxy server, not to mention finally being able to upload some of my pictures onto Webshots. Internet in Hong Kong is also faster with speeds that put high speed internet in the U.S. to shame so downloading and watching videos is quick and easy. There is also the freedom to google sensitive topics such as "taiwan," "tibet" or "tiananmen 1989" without my internet connection being disabled for sixty seconds afterwards.
8) Krispy Kreme
So nice to be able to stop in for a glazed donut. When the "hot now" sign is on, I may have to eat two or three.
7) Sandwiches and Salads
Who knew that you could miss eating sandwiches? Also the lack of sandwich supplies makes planning a picnic or making a lunch all the more difficult. As for salads, there is lettuce in China, but it is strictly BYOD unless you enjoy a thick glob of mayonnaise as an accompaniment.
6) Greek food at Olive / Starbucks for Hot Chocolate
If you are like me and get the occasional craving for pita and hummus or tzatziki, you may find yourself lacking options in China. Luckily Janet and I have found a great little Mediterranean restaurant, Olive, located in the SoHo district. Afterwards, a relaxing seat in a nearby Starbucks with a couple of magazines and a delicious hot chocolate is a great way to pass an hour or two.
5) The Window Seat
When eating out in China, I make a point to always avoid taking a seat by a window. Doing so would generally be asking for trouble as everyone who passes by then feels compelled to stop and watch you eat for a moment or two. In HK, it is fun to take the window seat where you can go unnoticed and take a turn as the voyeur while everyone else goes about their daily lives.
4) Being Understood
Not understanding the people around you can be frustrating at times, but there can also be benefits to being able to easily tune out their conversations. The more difficult part comes when you cannot be understood. It is nice to be able to leave behind my "special English" and "tone-butchered Mandarin" to speak normally again.
3) Football on TV
I was able to watch part of my first football game of the season while at a little bar in Stanley. I've followed the scores online and with FSU, having another mediocre season, maybe I didn't miss that much, but it was fun to see a quarter of real football again.
2) Grocery Stores
One of my favorite activities in Hong Kong, though it will sound quite mundane and boring to most people at home, is simply strolling the aisles in the supermarkets. Seeing "normal" foods on the shelves again is fun and loading up my suitcase with canned goods, spaghetti, chips, etc. for the trip back to Zhanjiang is awesome.
1) Clothes Dryer at the Maryknoll House
Even in a modern world city like Hong Kong, many people still line dry clothes. Not me. The Maryknoll house is home to at least two clothes dryers! I don't know if back home you can truly appreciate it, but having clothes that fit again is wonderful! I take a load of laundry to wash each time I go.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

An Abrupt Departure


The students in my Tuesday and Thursday Oral English class from the Zhanjiang Normal University are graduating at the end of this semester. It seems hard to imagine my students going out into the real world in just a few short months. It will be a new experience for me to have students under me graduate and have them leave to find jobs.

I imagine that teachers who face this frequently are generally excited for their students. Happy to see them finish one part of their lives and begin a new part. Like they must, I also hope for the best for my students. I am anxious to find out what they will do and hope that they will want to stay in touch long enough for me to find out. At the same time, I am also a bit nervous for them.

All the while, I was thinking I would have at least another two months to prepare myself for this event. This afternoon I was given a surprise announcement by Apple and Vicky, two of my students, that they had taken jobs in Guangzhou and will be leaving Zhanjiang on Sunday. They will be back for exams and graduation near the end of January, but no more class.

With a rapidly growing economy, these are exciting times for the students in China. Their prospects today almost certainly look brighter than those of the generations just behind them that faced a civil war, the Great Leap Forward that left the country plagued with famine and the Cultural Revolution that declared war on the educated class. In comparison, now is a great time to be coming of age in China. But, China's development is far from complete.

In a country with 1.3 billion people, there would seem to be an endless supply of labor relative to the number of good jobs available, I think this works to hold down wages. This is most true in the case of unskilled labor, but even students with a college degree may be vulnerable. Previously, in Tianjin, a student from Tianjin Normal University told me that nearly five million students graduate from colleges each year in China. In the face of so much competition, he worried about finding a good job.

Many students, like Apple and Vicky, graduate and migrate to the big cities that have experienced faster development than other parts of the country. Cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Shanghai are places where opportunity awaits any who will come and try their luck. Downsides are that the cities generally have a higher prevalence of crime, the students will often be far from family and friends and the simple fact that having so little money limits their mobility and leaves them susceptible to being stuck if they end up in a bad situation or job.

As China continues to grow, I know that there will be many opportunities for those who can find them and the situation will continue to improve. I may worry a bit for my students, but I know they are educated, capable and able to take care of themselves.

To celebrate their success, I took Apple (who is one of my best students) and Vicky to Pizza Hut this evening for dinner. It was their first time to visit Pizza Hut (cost prohibitive for most students) in the three years that they had been in Zhanjiang and I think it was a special treat for them. I'm hoping that the next time I visit Guangzhou, I'll have two happy and eager tour guides ready to show me around the city they call home and tell me all about their new careers.

Apple and Vicky, I wish you both the best of luck!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Tale of Two Weddings

Generally speaking, I'm sure that one wedding in a lifetime is enough for most people. I make this assumption not from personal experience, but just judging from the fact that those who get married a second or third time, generally tend to do so without the full fanfare of the first occasion. With that being said, Kevin Clancy just recently married twice in the space of three days!

Now I'm sure most of you are asking, "Who is Kevin Clancy?" Followed quickly by, "what's the deal; I thought Utah was the last hold out for bigamy?"

Let me give you a little background... When speaking to my students, I like to refer to Kevin as my boss, although that is not exactly true. Kevin is both a recruiter and coordinator for the Maryknoll teaching program in China. Kevin has placed us here and has been extremely helpful for us along the way.

Before his current position, Kevin taught in Zhanjiang (where Janet and I are) for four years. It was during that time that he met Kai Shan Kong, also known as, Snow White. Snow White and Kevin were both teachers at the Zhanjiang Normal College and eventually ended up dating and things progressed from there.

And now, back to the two weddings. So Friday afternoon, was the traditional western-style "church" wedding in Hong Kong. Somehow Kevin managed to coordinate having a crowd of 40 or so family members and friends from all over the globe to be in Hong Kong for the wedding. The service was nice and was mostly dominated by us westerners, though Snow White's parents were also in attendance. Her parents speak almost no English, but from their expressions and actions, they seemed extremely happy and to be very gracious, nice people. Undoubtedly, this is probably the first time they have ever been surrounded by forty foreigners and with a language barrier as well. It's too bad we were not able to speak with them to find out more of their thoughts on the ceremony.

After the wedding at St. Anne's Church in Stanley, we proceeded to the Hong Kong Yacht Club for the reception. The setting was beautiful and the buffet was excellent. At our table we had the opportunity to meet and greet with some former Maryknoll teachers who are now working and studying in various parts of China. It is nice to talk to people who have already come through the program and hear about the places it led them to.

The following day, with his infinite patience and aptitude for planning, Kevin had arranged to have his full entourage picked up by bus from the Maryknoll house, taken to the train station and placed on a train to Guangzhou for the second leg of the weekend. Once in Guangzhou, Kevin and Snow White met us at the train station in order to get us all safely to the Landmark Hotel where we would be staying. I was thoroughly surprised that despite having just met me two days before and with a large number of new foreign faces, Snow White remembered my name. She most also share the gift of diplomacy that we had already noticed with Kevin.

After checking-in and depositing our bags at the hotel, Janet and I were ready to take Dr. Flatley out for his first real Chinese meal. We found a nice restaurant nearby with a good picture menu that served wonderful fried rice inside a baked pineapple dish. The food was delicious and then it was off for a short cruise along the Pearl River, which runs through Guangzhou. The cruise was nice and I was pleasantly surprised that our little part of Guangzhou was relatively nice. From the stories I had heard, I just expected pollution engulfing the city and thieves on every sidewalk, but it was really pretty nice. I'd like to go back in the future and take some more time to get and see the sites around city. When we returned that evening, I delighted in enjoying the plethora (maybe eight to ten) of English language channels on the TV, a real bathtub in the bathroom and the soft bed.

Sunday arrived and it was time for wedding number two, this one done in the traditional Chinese style. The Chinese wedding was much more centered around the banquet, than having what we would think of as a wedding ceremony. When we found our seats at the banquet hall, we found that there must have been at least two hundred people in attendance. Many of the Chinese friends and former students of Kevin and Snow White were present for the Guangzhou celebration.

After we were all seated, the newlywed couple entered to much fanfare and the explosion of celebratory "fireworks," which were basically massive party poppers that shot confetti out into the room. Next it was time for speeches as Kevin's father started us off, followed by Snow White's mother (translators were busy translation speeches into Cantonese and English, respectively). Next it was time for Snow White to share a few words and finally, the man of the hour, Mr. Kevin Clancy. Once the speeches ended, it was time for the banquet eating to begin us a small army of waitresses brought out dish after dish to each table. Most of the food was pretty good, though I think most everyone at our table passed on the duck feet.

During the meal, Kevin and Snow White went around the room to take a toast with each table. After we had finished eating, Snow White made the rounds again with some other females as they delivered tea to us all and we did shots of tea this time. It was quite the celebration, even complete with special celebratory cigarette packs on each table for the smokers in attendance (i.e., any Chinese males).

It was a busy, but great weekend. In addition to being at the weddings, it was great to be able to meet up with some of the other current Maryknoll teachers from different cities, whom I haven't seen since leaving our orientation at the end of August. Also, among Kevin's friends were many people who had previously taught and a disproportionately large number of people who could actually point out Zhanjiang on the map. We enjoyed exchanging stories. One of the more interesting people I spoke with was Peter, who had taught in China previously and is currently back with a group of friends and on a mission to bike through China and Asia. If you'd like, they have a website up about their quest, fueledbyrice.org.

From Guangzhou, I left for the trip back to Zhanjiang by bus. We didn't get in until after midnight, which made for a long morning the since I had class from 8AM until 11:30AM. Kevin and Snow White set off for Thailand to honeymoon and hopefully get some much needed relaxation after coordinating two weddings in the space of three days!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Together in Hong Kong

The long anticipated family reunion occurred near 9:00PM as we met Dr. Flatley in the arrival hall of the Hong Kong airport. After over sixteen hours of flight time and hauling a hundred and fifty or so pounds of luggage around, I'm sure he was glad to be on the ground in Hong Kong. Certainly, he was even more happy to see Janet for the first time in five months. After a few hugs at the airport, it was time to hop onto the airport express train for the ride back into Central. From there, thirty minutes later by taxi, we arrived at the Maryknoll house.

The following day, we spent most of our Thanksgiving wandering the streets of Hong Kong. We took the bus into central, which takes about forty-five minutes a gives a great view of different parts of the island. Then, it was off on foot as we made our way up the "people escalator," a nearby sign informed us the proper name is the "travelator." In the SoHo area, we stopped for lunch at Olive, a great little Greek restaurant Janet and I found the last time we were in HK. I think Janet's dad was ready for some Chinese food, but we had to seize the opportunity for variety while away from the mainland and politely vetoed him. There will be plenty of Chinese food to come, no need to worry about that.

After lunch, it was time for a ride on the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak. Here I was sad to learn, that you must now buy a ticket (20HKD) to access the best viewing platform. Of course, being one of the main draws to Hong Kong, you aren't left with much choice but to get the ticket. The day was clear enough for a good view, though some haze did prevent us from seeing the furthest reaches.

Following that, it was time to make the trip back towards Stanley for the famous Maryknoll Thanksgiving dinner. At dinner, Janet and I were the official representatives from the under-fifty years old demographic, but that was fine as the priests we sat with were pretty funny and all had interesting stories of their travels and experiences to share. Dinner did not disappoint. Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and other dishes really made it a real Thanksgiving dinner. I missed having some of my favorites from home like broccoli casserole and maybe an apple or pecan pie, but it was still an excellent dinner. It felt good to have a traditional meal to celebrate Thanksgiving with even though we are 7,000 miles from home.

PS - On a different note, we apparently just missed filming of the upcoming Batman movie, Dark Knight, by just two weeks. They were in Hong Kong earlier in November filming a scene where Batman jumps off of the IFC (the tallest in HK and also a central location for most of our time there) building. I think the movie will be released next July, so be sure to look for the scene - I will be.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Family Reunion

Unfortunately not my own, but I know Janet is very excited to be seeing her dad again tomorrow evening and I'm looking forward to his visit also! The next few days should be a flurry of activity.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) morning we will be leaving on the bus for Hong Kong and should arrive after a border crossing (gotta love how you go through customs to visit a place that is technically the same country) around 4:00PM. After dropping off our luggage at the Maryknoll House and getting a bite for dinner, it'll be off to the Airport to pick up Dr. Flatley, who should be arriving somewhere between 8:00 - 9:00PM.

On Thursday, we'll probably be celebrating our Thanksgiving by touring the city for a while before returning to the Maryknoll House for their famous Thanksgiving dinner. While I'll miss spending Thanksgiving back home with family, I'll be happy to at least get a proper meal, turkey and all. Hopefully that evening we'll still have enough time to get up to Victoria Peak or across the Kowloon for a good view of Hong Kong at night.

Friday will be more time to see the sights of the city and that evening, I think we are currently planning to attend Kevin Clancy's Hong Kong wedding and reception afterwards at the Yacht Club.

Saturday we will have a little bit of time in the morning to do any last things in Hong Kong before taking an afternoon train to Guangzhou. That evening we have a Pearl River cruise scheduled.

Sunday will be the day of the big Chinese wedding. It should be a lot of fun as many of the other Maryknoll volunteers stationed throughout Guangdong province will also be traveling to Guangzhou for the event. From my understanding the "wedding" is more of a banquet than what we might think of as a traditional wedding in the west. I'm sure there will be a blog entry and pictures from the event to help explain it to everyone afterwards.

After that, it is back to Zhanjiang for a few days. I don't think Janet's dad is quite prepared for what he is getting himself into here. He will probably draw more attention being in Zhanjiang for four days than a person back home would expect in a year. It can be a lot to handle. I'm looking forward to hearing what he thinks about his visit here.

PS - Since we will be in Hong Kong, I will finally be able to upload some new pictures! Additionally, I think Janet and I are escorting her dad back to Hong Kong the following weekend, so I will hopefully also be able to upload the pictures from his visit at that time.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Dark Duck Village


It was an early morning on Sunday as we rendezvoused outside of the Zhanjiang Normal University for a trip to the nearby Dark Duck Village.

One of Kevin's former students, Kelly, from the Number Fifteen Middle School (not much creativity in naming schools and buildings here usually), had invited us to visit her home. As we rode in taxis, we passed back through MaZhang (where our school is located) and began to weave through some of the back roads until we had passed out of the city and were traveling alongside farm fields. A few moments later, we had arrived.

As we walked back to Kelly's house through the narrow alleys between the other village homes, we discovered that while Kelly had invited us a week earlier, she had not mentioned to her parents we were coming until we were already on the way. Despite the surprise visit, the family was very gracious in hosting us, but needed time to prepare for lunch.

In order to give them room to work, Kelly led us on a tour of the village and surrounding farms. The homes in the village were all constructed close together and most were built with brick, which you usually don't see inside the cities. Many of them were built in the traditional courtyard style, where the courtyard acts as the central location to the house and the various rooms for cooking, sleeping, etc. all branch off of the courtyard.

The village itself probably had no more than fifty homes total. The edge of the village bordered the start of the farm land. Here most of the families owned and worked a plot, growing eggplant, sugarcane, tomatoes, greens, rice or any number of other crops. As we walked through the fields, Kelly explained to us how most of the farmers sell to a person who then in turn sells to outdoor markets and supermarkets. The markets generally charge three times more than the amount the farmers are paid. It left me wondering why more of them don't skip the middle man and sell directly?

On the other side of the fields, there was another neighboring village and also the elementary school that Kelly had attended. We visited both before returning. Probably being the only time in history that four foreigners had ever visited Dark Duck Village at the same time, we drew big crowds.

After that, it was time to return to Kelly's house for lunch. The family had managed to put together quite a feast in the two hours that we had been gone and everyone was gathered around to eat. Kelly's younger brother and sister (in the more rural areas, the enforcement of the one child policy seems to not be quite as strict), two cousins, parents and grandparents were all present to host and dine with the foreign guests (us). It was a good meal and quite an interesting experience to visit the village, even though it is one of the more "modern villages." The further you venture into the countryside, the less modern the villages tend to become.

From the village, it was less than a ten minute ride for Janet and I to reach our school (I told you we were on the outskirts of town) and after such an early morning and a big meal, it was definitely time for my afternoon nap.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wal-Mart!

November 1, 2007, a red-letter day in the history of Zhanjiang!

On this day the doors of a brand new Wal-Mart opened to the hordes of Chinese shoppers in the XiaShan district (southern half of Zhanjiang). Since that fateful day, Janet and I have so far made two visits. It is quite an adventure. The Wal-Mart is fairly different than those back home, most notably in the lack of a clothing section and also in the grocery area.

After our visit on the opening weekend, I asked some of my students if anyone else in the class had been to the new Wal-Mart. I think two people had. The class proudly informed me that this was the 92nd Wal-Mart in all of China (I have not verified that fact) and the very first in Zhanjiang. A second Wal-Mart will be opening on my side of town sometime around Christmas.

Wal-Mart brings a few additional items to the western menu in Zhanjiang with its inclusion of real (Heinz and DelMonte) ketchup, BBQ sauce, Snickers Bars, a bakery, canned tuna, Barilla Pasta and sauce, Kahlua and the first tequila I have seen in the city, Pepe Lopez.

Top 2 highlights -

2) -
An eel tank with live eels, much like the lobster tank you may see in a store back home. This time, you get the fun of picking out your eel with a pair of tongs.

1) - Alligator on ice. A 4-5 foot alligator laying on the ice in the seafood department. The meat was actually quite expensive, about $10-15 per half kilogram depending on the cut. That didn't stop a crowd of Chinese from gathering around to look and shake its tail.

I will be sure to take my camera next time and get some pictures to post!

Monday, November 12, 2007

More of Singles Day

Monday, we celebrated Singles Day in my Reading Class with the Ocean University students.

Apparently, Singles Day is actually a real, albeit unofficial holiday here, as we received confirmation from our Chinese tutor Ruth on the existence of Singles Day.

I had bought some little chocolates and took them into class, which was a big hit. In keeping with the theme of the day, I had the students write secret admirer letters (to fictitious people) and then share with the class. I'm not sure that they were all "secret admirer" letters, but most of them were funny either way. I'm including an excerpt from one of the letters below.

It was a rainy Sunday afternoon and I was wandering in the library. Suddenly my hands stop at a book called A Beautiful Mind, exactly at the same time you reached out your hand for the same book. "Excuse me," you said. Then I raised my eye, and I saw a handsome tall boy, just like [David] Beckham with a high nose and wearing a blushing smile looking at my face. Oh, I was drunk with beautiful feelings.

-Your Secret Admirer

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Western Dinner, Part 2

The past two weekends we moved our western dinner celebration to Chinese homes as some of Kevin's old friends from the Number 15 Middle School wanted to host us for dinner.

Friday night it was back to the Western-style restaurant with a bang. With eight foreigners gathered around a large table, we probably represented about a quarter of the Zhanjiang expat community.

Kevin, Jamie and Irene joined us once again and this time we also welcomed Arthur and his wife Anna, hailing from Uzbekistan, as well as the newest addition to the Zhanjiang foreign community, Lindsay.

It was quite interesting to have everyone at the table speaking fluent English but with at least four distinct accents. It was a good chance to come together and practice our English. I tend to start sacrificing some of the nuances of the language in the classroom in order to be understood. Many times, I may resort to a number of simple key phrases, such as "I'm going shopping," in place of a more elaborate explanation. Of course, If I wanted to speak true, fluent Chinglish, it would be most proper to say, "I go to shopping." By the time I come home next year, you may not understand my speech any longer!

Adding a little more color to the evening was a minor flare up regarding the state of Ukraine in the post-Soviet era, where Jamie (who had previously taught there) and Arthur enlightened the rest of us through debate on the stark contrasts between eastern and western Ukraine.

The evening was going well until near the end of dinner, we discovered that beers were 20RMB per bottle (small, 12 oz. ones) and that as a group, our beer tab for the evening was greater than our food bill! Nevertheless (had to use it since it was a new vocabulary word from today's English class), we had an enjoyable evening.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

River Town

If you may have managed to miss this story somehow, this is probably an overdue post, but better late than never.

I guess the story started last summer when I was interning in D.C. Janet let me borrow a book to read for my daily commute. Her mom had given her the book. For a week or two, River Town, was my source of entertainment while fighting the 9-to-5 mobs on the metro.

The book is the memoir of Peter Hessler, who spent two years teaching in China with the Peace Corps. Something in the story sure piqued my interest, because one year later I was on a plane descending into the smoggy Beijing metropolis. And now, I am writing from my computer in the small, out-of-the way city of Zhanjiang where Janet and I teach.

For anyone that enjoys reading the anecdotes of my life here in China, I would recommend picking up a copy of the book that inspired me - River Town. Peter Hessler, who is now living in Beijing, is a better writer than myself and he occasionally writes China-related articles for National Geographic, the New Yorker, and other magazines. As LeVar Burton would say, "you don't have to take my word for it," - read it yourself, but be careful or you may end up over here also...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Singles Day

Mark this down in your calendars - November 11 is Singles Day.

The other morning I was in class overseeing the reading of a passage on how different colors affect product marketing (I think I've mentioned before how the business English reader is dry) when we were suddenly sidetracked.

A student asked me a question about "Singles Day." Thinking that she may have somehow distorted the ideas of Valentine's Day, I began explaining that holiday. Some of the other students joined in and let me know that Singles Day is different and was in fact coming up next week on November 11. Though one girl informed us, "for me, everyday is Singles Day."

Thinking that perhaps this was a Chinese holiday I had not yet heard of, I started asking questions to get to the bottom of the matter; it turns out that Singles Day had been invented spontaneously by a handful of students in my class.

Although I have no clue where this idea came from, I decided to make the most of the diversion about asked the students, "how do you celebrate Singles Day?" They informed me that of the following:

  • buy yourself chocolates and/or flowers
  • wish other single people a "Happy Singles Day"
  • listen to sad songs
It was also discovered that five girls in the class have boyfriends and will have to be punished on Singles Day (we'll see what that entails). Since Singles Day falls on a weekend this year, we will be celebrating in class on Monday. I'm sure there will be an interesting story or two to report on afterwards. In any event, I'll be wishing a "Happy Singles Day" to any single readers out there on the occasion.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Hello, My Name is Olympics

I wanted to post on this topic for anyone that may have missed it from CNN Online.

While it is impossible to avoid numerous Olympic countdown clocks in any number of large cities across China, perhaps a better indicator of the importance of the event would be the increasing number of children being named "Olympics."

The Beijing Daily recently reported nearly 3500 children born since Beijing's winning bid to host the games were given the name AoYun, which translates into Olympics. The paper also reported that only six of them lived in the capital city. Aside from the fact that it is a bit scary that these type of statistics can be determined from China's national identity database, it is interesting to know.

While in the west, our names generally are not chosen based on their meaning (despite the baby names book industry), Chinese names almost always have a meaning. When selecting an English name, many of my students just translate their name literally, which leads to high frequency names such as Apple, Tomato, Ice or any number of others that we may not usually think of in the naming process. So, if a name needs meaning, what better meaning than a major source of national pride, the Olympic games?

The report also cited a number of children being named after the five Olympic Mascots: Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying and Ni Ni. The mascots are what I would call "distinctly Asian in style" and are different colored, trendy, Panda-like creatures. Stuffed renditions are on sale everywhere in the country. Their names collectively mean "Beijing welcomes you" (北京欢迎你).

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Halloween in Zhanjiang

Wednesday night, Janet and I hosted our first Halloween party in China!

We have a class of college students that we both teach and since there are only 23 students (very small by Chinese standards), we thought it would be manageable to invite them over to celebrate Halloween. To prepare, I helped Janet decorate her apartment and we stocked up on sodas, chips and candy.

We also found some colored paper, stickers, yarn and markers and set up a table for the students to make Halloween masks during the party. The mask table turned out to be a big hit. My favorite was a tomato mask made by a girl in our class whose English name is Tomato. They were all pretty funny.

In addition to being an excuse to devour too much candy, the party was a great chance for the students to practice their English. Janet had invited Jamie, Kevin, Irene, Ruth (our Chinese tutor) and some of the other English teachers from our school. With a relatively high foreigner to student ratio, most everyone had a great opportunity to practice speaking and the class has a pretty impressive level of English.

Overall, I think that everyone had a great time and Janet and I were happy to be able to host a celebration for a holiday we were missing back home. The next morning in my 8AM class, the students told me they were tired from having so much excitement the night before. Me too. We decided to just look at the pictures and watch a movie.

PS - Janet and I will be heading to Hong Kong during Thanksgiving week to pick up her dad, so I'll be uploading the Halloween pictures to Webshots once we escape the grasp of internet censorship here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Letters from China

Owing to an excellent idea from Kevin, I have (as has Janet) recently begun writing letters to students in one of my classes. This particular class has the lowest English level among my classes and I have had some trouble getting them to speak. Since the students are generally able to write better than the can speak (having few opportunities to practice speaking), I had the whole class write me letters one day.

I took a box from the U.S. Post Office - thanks Mom and Dad for sending a package - in to class as our "mailbox." After the students finished, they put the letters in our mailbox. By the next class, I had a number of replies ready to deliver in the mail. I told them if they had mail to deliver to me in the future, to bring it to class and place it in the mailbox. I am hoping to spark a letter writing campaign here. This will give the students the chance to tell me things they may have trouble communicating orally, but most importantly, to get them practicing English outside of class. Most students said they never do!

The letters have mostly made for good reads so far. I plan on sharing some of the more entertaining lines that I get from students.

  • We are love you teach us because a good teacher is better than thousands of book.
  • First, I want to tell you our class is very like you, because you look very funny.
  • I know you are very hard and difficult to teach us. But, at the same time we are studying hard. So I will forgive us and like us as other class.
  • When I talked with you, my brain will become “stop,” look like the people saw the green light when through the road.
  • When I met you first time in our classroom I felt very surprise but at the same time I felt nervous too. Its too good to be true because you are a only one foreign teacher whose had taught me!
  • I am very happy that are become our new English teacher. You are very warm when we have English. I can’t understand what you say, I fell so boring. But I am still interested in English.
  • Did you enjoy there [China]? If bound to be strange at first. Never mind. You’ll be all right in a week or two.
  • I am very lazy so I don’t like to doing something (responding to my question - what do you like to do?).
  • You hope married in China? Chinese girl is very beautiful, isn’t it?
Those are a few highlights from my first round of letters. I have had a few letters start to trickle in after my initial replies and will share more in the future.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Sounds of English

While I have moved slightly past the "Ching Chang Chong" stage of listening to Chinese and can on occasion pick out a word or two, it is still mostly a bunch of sounds with no meaning to me. It doesn't help being in the south since outside of school or government work, most people speak in Cantonese. Sometimes, I find it very interesting that the steady stream of noise I hear has meaning to the people around me.

This raised a very interesting question the other day, something I have never previously thought about. What does English sound like? When I am talking to Janet during the day, the language sounds a certain way to me, I understand her clearly and can quickly and easily reply. To those who surround us and don't speak English, what sounds do they hear? What does our babel sound like in their ears?

When I hear Spanish, Italian or French, I may not understand the words, but the languages have a distinct sound to me. Even here in China, Mandarin and Cantonese have two different sounds and can (generally) be distinguished between.

It all brings me back to the question, what does our language sound like to those who don't understand?

I guess I will never really know since whenever I hear someone speaking English, the words have meaning to me. It is something interesting to consider.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Western Dinners with Foreign Friends

Friday night has officially been designated "Western dinner night." This plan was made by Janet after we took Kevin to the Western Coffeehouse, probably the closest thing to a real western restaurant in all of Zhanjiang. The menu is in English and the food is pretty good. The atmosphere is relaxed, unlike many of the places where we often eat. There is even a piano for entertainment.

The plan is to invite some of our different foreign friends to dinner at the restaurant each Friday night so we can relax and speak English without having to simplify our speech and strain to understand the other persons response. Eating the western food is also a plus! We hope that this way we can introduce some of the people we have met to other foreigners in the city, a way to bring together the foreign community here in Zhanjiang.

For our inaugural dinner, this past Friday, we had members from three different countries. Janet, Kevin and I were there representing the United States. From Cameroon, we had Irene, and from Wales (UK), Jamie. Irene is in her second year of teaching here. Unlike the rest of us, she divides her time teaching between a number of different schools and is leased out through a foreign teacher agency. Jamie is the newest addition to the Zhanjiang foreign teachers and he teaches piano at the Normal College. He previously taught English in the Ukraine and Russia for a few years.

It was good to be able to share observations on our experiences in China as well as classroom insights and stories. After dinner, Jamie took over the piano duties for a while. He quickly attracted a crowd of the Chinese servers who gathered around to watch. Having a special talent, Jamie is already "one-up" on the rest of us. Leaving the restaurant at around 9:30, the consensus decision was that it was too early to call it a night so we moved to a little bar near the Trust-Mart building (a central place to our lives in China). We joined the other eight to ten Chinese patrons inside, there is not much in the way of night life here in Zhanjiang.

Overall, the first western dinner night proved to be a great success and we are looking forward to future Friday gatherings and hoping that some of our other foreign friends will be able to join as well.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

He said / She said

One of the mistakes that I have noticed Chinese people making when speaking English is the misuse of the pronouns he and she. It is very common for a student to be talking to me or the class about a friend who is generally a she (since almost all of my students are female) and accidentally refer to her as he.

Even some of the most experienced speakers of English as a second language such as our director, Madison, and our Chinese tutor, Ruth, will occasionally make this mistake.

My guess to the reason for all of this pronoun confusion is that in spoken Mandarin, he, she and it are pronounced, respectively as: ta, ta and ta (all in the first tone). Though the written characters are different (他,她,它), when listening, it can be very difficult for someone learning the language to tell whether someone is in fact referring to a he, she or an it without the proper context.

Since the distinction for the use of the pronoun in spoken Mandarin is made from the context surrounding the "ta," I think that perhaps it is hard for the students to remember that in spoken English you must use the correct pronoun or else confusion results.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On Dollars and Degrees

I've seen from various websites that anywhere between one-third to one-half of the world's population lives on about $2 per day.

I am currently living on about $18 a day. This is quite enough to afford me the semi-luxurious lifestyle of taking taxis and more or less eating every meal out.

Since I don't have to pay for housing, most of my dollars go towards the next most important expense, food. As I mentioned, I eat almost all meals out. Aside from not knowing what half of the items in our grocery store are, my kitchen is also lacking in equipment. I have one "hot plate" that cooks at various degrees of hotness and is more likely to burn a dish than cook it evenly. There is no microwave, no oven, no toaster - just the hot plate.

While I live quite comfortably on my daily $18, it is interesting to break it down and think of. Likely, most full-time workers in the United States make more in one hour of work than my daily salary. Many others in China make less. The students especially are surprised that I can afford to eat out daily and usually treat myself to Pizza Hut once a week.

I have heard that Tallahassee has been enjoying some cooler "fall" weather lately. We too have had a slight, but noticeable drop in the thermometer. In the mornings and evenings, the temperature has been in the low 70s before warming back up during the day. It has been very pleasant and I am looking forward to it cooling down further.

While the temperature has been a little colder, I did say it was a noticeable difference. In my morning classes the students have been a bit more bundled, wearing long sleeves and light jackets. They have also been trying to discreetly close the windows when I am not keeping a watchful eye.

Janet asked a class recently to talk about the winter in Zhanjiang. They explained that it gets very cold, despite the fact that the recorded low for all of last year was 51 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps we should start stockpiling food and firewood to brace for the upcoming winter?

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Saturday Outing

As you may have read from Janet's blog, this past Saturday we visited HuGuangYan and Donghai Island with some friends from Zhanjiang.

HuGuangYan is a maar lake, that is a crater lake created by a volcano. Supposedly, this is the second largest lake of this type in the world and is a UNESCO recognized World Geopark. It is the most famous site around Zhanjiang. With that said, it is actually not much to look at. While it may have been at the top of a volcano at one time, the lake now more or less looks like any other you would see. Maybe similar to Lake Jackson, except with water.

In addition to walking around the lake, there are many other fun activities to do: drinking milk fresh from a coconut, traversing a series of rope bridges, shooting a tennis ball cannon and brushing up on your archery.

After the park, we traveled to nearby Donghai island, which is the fourth largest island in China. Our guide, English name Steven (a friend of our Chinese tutor), told us this. He informed us that the largest island in China was Hainan, the second largest in China is Taiwan province and Donghai was the fourth largest (don't remember the third).

The beach was nice. The wind was blowing in decent sized waves, which apparently meant that you were not allowed in the water, despite having purchased a mandatory insurance policy as a part of the park admission. Many Chinese do not know how to swim, but we do and wanted to enjoy the ocean. After two attempts at going out and having some Chinese people angrily "whistle" us back to shore, we gave up. I am of the mind that if I purchase an insurance policy, I should have then have the right to take the risks that I am insured against. The Chinese did not agree.

During the trip, we met and spoke with Jaime, the newest addition to the Zhanjiang foreign teacher family. He is originally from Wales, then taught for a few years in the Ukraine and Russia. Jaime, unlike most of us who teach English, is here as a piano teacher for some of the Chinese fine art majors at the Normal College.

Overall it was a nice outing, though it was a little bittersweet as we struck off two things from the all too short "stuff to do around Zhanjiang" list in one day.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Back in the Mainland

After spending the "Golden Week" Vacation in Hong Kong, yesterday was time to return to my main reason for being in China, teaching in Zhanjiang.

Unfortunately, the first few days in Hong Kong were quite windy and rainy due to a typhoon out in the nearby waters of the South China Sea. Janet and I ended up spending most of our time indoors, but were able to catch a very cool exhibit at the Hong Kong Art Museum, where they are hosting a special collection of ancient artifacts from the British Museum. For the second half of the week, the weather cleared up and we were able to enjoy the outdoors a bit more, including a trip to the beach (a few trips for Janet).

Aside from partaking in the different options for food in Hong Kong, I also particularly enjoyed the anonymity. Being able to blend into a crowd can be a blessing after being in China for a while.

It was a refreshing vacation and I am now ready to tackle teaching again. I brought back a few bags of marshmallows for the students to try as well as a suitcase full of canned goods and other foods for me!

PS - For anyone who hasn't yet checked - Since I can access webshots in Hong Kong (still being blocked on the mainland), I uploaded some new pictures of my life here in Zhanjiang. A link to the site can be found on the right hand side of the page under my links.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Featured Photo of the Day

Just a quick update to proudly announce that I was featured on the webshots.com website for the featured travel photo of the day!

If you check - http://travel.webshots.com/ - within the next 14-16 hours or so, you'll see a large photo of the Leshan Giant Buddha taken by yours truly!

On a side note, I have also uploaded a large number of photos from Zhanjiang that may not be quite as scenic, but might be of interest as they give a bit of a photographic insight to the lives of Janet and myself in China.

Monday, October 01, 2007

National Day

Today, October 1, China celebrates its National Day. On this date in 1949, the People's Republic of China was officially formed by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Janet and I have a week of vacation in honor of the occasion.

Tonight there will be fireworks to celebrate the Chinese National Day in Victoria Harbor. We are planning to head downtown to try and find a restaurant that serves burritos and margaritas and then will go to the waterfront to catch the 9:15 fireworks show.

Now that Hong Kong is once again a part of China, they too observe the celebration of Chinese National Day, despite the fact that they were under British rule for the first 48 years of the party. Additionally, a number of people living in Hong Kong came here from the mainland to escape from the CCP and they likely do not feel a great deal of excitement on the occasion. One Hong Kong resident told me that the government has been running a number of programs over the past few years to help instill "patriotism" to the Hong Kong citizens. I don't think these programs have met with much success.

While Hong Kong shares the language and ethnic background with some of those on the mainland, their histories have been very different. During the time that Hong Kong was under British control, mainland China was controlled by the last of the Ming Emperors, Sun Yat-Sen, and Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalist Party before coming under the control of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. Contrasting that with the relative stable condition of Hong Kong, it makes it easy to see why they may not feel much shared history with the current Chinese government (other than the past 10 years now that they have been returned by the British).

Back in the mainland however, my students and the fellow teachers seemed quite excited about the National Day. They were all looking forward to a week with no school and the chance to travel home to visit with family and friends. Before we left school, a wall had been painted by the students in honor of the 58th anniversary of the People's Republic of China and celebrating their accomplishments. Much has been accomplished in China, particularly since Deng Xiaopeng's Opening and Economic Reforms and it will be interesting to see what continues to happen in China in the future.

In the meantime though, I'm going to enjoy a week of relaxation, western-style food and relative obscurity in Hong Kong.