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,

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


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.