Archive for February, 2010

Amy and the Balcony

February 22, 2010

February 22nd, 2010

I really shouldn’t listen to Amy Winehouse when I am alone. Her particularly variety of sullen music really speaks to the broody side of me that likes to dwell on the past and feel sorry for myself. Or perhaps it’s because Amy’s “Stronger than me” is what was playing on my laptop at my most recent bout of embarrassment.

The other day, was particularly cold, though not by Canadian standards; but there a violent wind. I saw my clothes blowing on their hangers, dangerously close to the edge. So while singing with Amy, I went out onto the balcony to take them down and bring them inside. But without thinking I closed the glass door behind me, and heard the latch lock. Damn it! There I was on the fifteenth floor, on one of the coldest days, locked outside. I started to fold my laundry to keep myself from panicking. At times like this an imagination is a real drawback, I start visualising myself falling off the edge and being found several hours in various versions of twisted corpse -arms broken at the shoulder behind me, legs crumpled underneath, or head turned Exorcist style.  Or probably the worst was how I could feel the balcony braking under my weight and visualise the bolts coming undone and the whole teetering structure plummeting downwards. These moments, when I feel my heart racing, for reasons simply imagined, I wonder if I should tell people about them at all. Or would they just look at me with blank stares, wondering if I am on medication.

Luckily, however, I did have my purse with me. So after a few moment of deliberating what I should do, I called Lucy, another teacher who lives in my building, to ask for help. We planned that I would throw my keys down to her and then she could come into my apartment and free me. She went downstairs and I wrapped my keys in a sweater and put the bundle in a bag and threw it over the edge.  But of course of all the places for the bag to land, it lands on the top of a tree. The next few moments were pretty comical, I saw Lucy shaking the trunk of the tree trying to free the bag. Next I saw her go to the storage closet to get a mop and try to poke it free. But the pole was too short.

But the next thing I could see, Lucy had the bag. And very soon after I was free;  at which point, Lucy recounted how she was able to get the bag free. She went up to the security guard and told him the story. To which, he replied, in complete seriousness without a hint of surprise, “I will get the bamboo pole.” I wonder how many times this happens; well certainly enough times that the security guard has a bamboo pole just for the occasion.

Perhaps I am particularly impressionable, but I feel like I can completely change my mood by changing the music.  Now with Lady Gaga as the background the whole fiasco seems hilarious.

My first trip!

February 20, 2010

February 19th, 2010

As per usual I have very little classes to teach; but this time instead of staying in Wuhan, I decided to go to Chengdu with a friend to see the panda reservation. It seems fairly obvious that on this trip I would get to see pandas. But honestly I was surprised by how many pandas I did in fact see and how up close we got to them. They are so adorable and completely stole my heart! I was worried about the conditions I would see; but actually the pandas looked well taken care of and very happy. For 500 Yuan you can hug a panda, and though I wanted to I thought the expense was a bit much. And if you want to be like Jackie Chan, for 1 million Yuan you can adopt two pandas and perhaps then you can hug them whenever you want.

The day then ended with a tour of the sorry little panda museum. Many of the signs were handwritten and the displays looked like grade 7 science fair projects. The museum also featured pickled panda genitals; both of the male and the female. And though it is crude; I think it’s pretty funny that another reason why breeding pandas is so difficult is that the male is fairly stubby while the female is comparatively long. Seeing the pandas’ intimate parts on display like that actually had the effect of making me feel sorrier for them and wanting to protect and cherish them more. So, perhaps the sad museum was organized as such on purpose to make the situation of the panda more pitiable.

The reserve was in the city of Chengdu in the province of Sichuan, famous for its incredibly spicy food. The city was charming. Getting off the airplane in Chengdu, I noticed the difference right away. The air smelt like trees. Chengdu was clean and bright and completely missing that Wuhan low hanging gray haze caused my heavy pollution. Then when we arrived at our hostel to check in, we were greeted by a Chinese man named Eddy with impeccable American English and barely a hint of an accent. I haven’t often heard English that good.

Chengdu is a completely different city than Wuhan. It is clean, developed, with large open squares and beautiful pedestrian shopping malls and tidy parks, and it is touristic. It was easy to book tours to see all the sights the city had. We even had the occasion to see a Sichuan Opera. However, there were downsides too; like the Sichuan Opera. Imagine incomprehensible and incredibly high pitched screeching, accompanied my wailing instruments and dancers dressed in bright costumes with hats that resemble an insects antennae and you have just seen a Sichuan Opera.

The Chengdu people were also surprisingly friendly. They smiled and said hello to us without a trace of the anxiety that I often see in the stares of the Wuhaneese. As we were eating grilled mushrooms and potatoes from a vendor on the street, a gorgeous Tibetan man approached us to say hello. Sometimes he stumbled over the language and so I switched to Mandarin. But I was surprised to learn that he couldn’t speak Mandarin. He was friendly and open and taught me to say hello in Tibetan “tashi delel.” And of course as I think I mentioned, he was gorgeous.

Outside Chengdu, we took a tour of a temple with an enormous Buddha statue. It being the holidays, it was not exactly a good time to be a tourist but I have no regrets. We waited in a stiflingly long line for three hours. But there were always constant amusements and distractions. People kept approaching us asking to take pictures with us. And there were vendors of fried tofu and corn on the cob to keep us content. (I think the preponderance of healthy and cheap snacks in China is another reason why they are so much thinner than us.)

So overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Chengdu. But I still was happy to return to Wuhan inhale the thick air, take a motorcycle taxi back to my apartment and recount all my adventures to Josh and the other teachers.

Happy Chinese New Year!

February 14, 2010

February 14th, 2010

Munching on strange, yet delicious, Chinese sesame seed cookies, I can still hear the roar of fire crackers in the street. Happy Chinese New Year! “Xin nian kuaile.” The whole city is decked out in celebration, with large red lanterns and streamers decorating many of the restaurants and building in Wuhan.

 And like many things in China, the New Year celebration is no exception, CHAOS! The loud banging of fireworks have been near constant since 4 pm last night broken only intermittently by the hammering of firecrackers. At quarter to midnight, I went down into the street with Lucy, another foreign teacher who lives in my building, to appreciate the sights. We walked right to where they were lighting the fireworks so we could stand right under them. Fun here is always blended with fear as my imagination tends to jump to disastrous conclusions. I saw small children light the fireworks with the help of their parents and my stomach started to turn. One man approached a box of firecrackers that hadn’t been lit well and Lucy quipped to me “I feel like we are about to witness a tragedy.” But if I concentrated on relaxing, it was quite the experience. Fireworks exploding from all sides and what seemed to me to be dangerously close to buildings. There were so many fireworks in the sky it was impossible to appreciate the blast of any single one. It sounded like a warzone, and my heart bled for the household pets. They must be in agony. 

This year is the year of the Tiger. (Which I understand gave the tabloids a field day, when the gossip was abounding with Tiger Woods.) So, because I was born in the year of the tiger, this is my lucky year! To celebrate I have been told to buy red underwear or anything red. Suddenly Mr Lee, the old schizophrenic neighbour that used to live across the street from my parents, makes a little more sense. He used to wear bright red socks everyday and for that reason we nicknamed him Mr Redsocks. But maybe, despite the schizophrenia, he wasn’t that strange; the socks after all might have been just for luck.

Last night I also had the pleasure of being invited to join the celebrations of my landlady Xiao Ayi and her family. They were lovely people, though I found it difficult to gather names. They tried to speak English to me and I tried to speak Chinese to them and it was a lovely dinner. Though really, I feel like I should call it a feast because there were more dishes than I could count. Xiao Ayi kept filling my bowl and as soon as I finished I found my bowl to be full again.  

The evening concluded with a photo shoot, everyone wanting a series of group photos and individual photos with me, embarrassing but something I have gotten more used to. (People on the street and students sometimes ask for photos with me.) However, when I got home and looked in the mirror I realized I had this huge piece of spinach very visibly stuck in my teeth. So now there are several dozen photos with me and a huge green chunk in my teeth. Just fabulous!

Did I really just see that!!!

February 9, 2010

February 9th, 2010

Another foreign teacher in the building, Josh, has really become a fast friend. Josh is from Indiana and is a proud republican. As such, he has opinions that I have not often heard in Canada and I must say it is refreshing. I love talking to him because he makes me see things in a way I had never imagined.

However, I think the real ice breaker for our friendship was when I got sick in his apartment. The experience was pretty embarrassing but is a funny story now. He and I had gone out for dinner earlier and as I was riding the elevator back to my apartment, I realized I still had his umbrella stashed in my purse. So I headed instead to his apartment. Then in the hallway, not three doors from his apartment, I felt this incredible wave of nausea overwhelm me. I ran to his apartment and started pounding frantically on the door, terrified it would be too late. When he opened the door, I just pushed past him and ran to the bathroom. It’s now an inside joke and one that doesn’t fail to make me chuckle.

Josh and I also take great delight in telling each other shocking stories of the things we witnessed in China. And as he and I were discussing today, some of the things we have witnessed are because we are in China and some of the things we have witnessed are because we are living in a megacity with 12 million people and counting. When you live in city with that many people, you are bound to witness strange things no matter what country the city happens to be in.

Well, Josh told me this story today of how this sketchy man had approached his acquaintances in the bar and paid them 200 yuen each to go home with him for an orgy. (That’s about 28 dollars a person and this dirty man paid 4 people). Though I must admit, Josh’s story is pretty disgusting. My story I think trumps it.

I like to take walks to explore the neighbourhood. Not too far from my house is a lovely university campus, where I hope to take Chinese classes in March. One afternoon, I was walking along the grounds of the campus which has lovely trees and flowers, when suddenly I came upon this middle aged man. I thought nothing was strange at first, until I saw that he was frantically pleasuring himself as I was walking towards him. As soon as I realized what he was doing, I turned away and shocked, hurried in the other direction. And though I know what I saw, I still can’t fully believe I saw it.

Damn Potato Vendor!

February 6, 2010

February 6th, 2010

Just being a foreigner in this city, daily life is a struggle not to get ripped off. Yesterday I bought sweet potato from a vendor in the street. A warm sweet potato from a grill cost about 1 yuen (0.12 cents) depending on your bargaining skills. Mine are quite poor, since I am still timid about using the language (the majority of what I say to the locals is still completely incomprehensible and I never fully understand what they say to me.) So I paid the vendor with a 10 yuen bill and he gave me back what I thought was correct change a five and 4 one yuen bills. Later I went to my favourite spot to eat dinner. It’s an alley close to Starbucks (Xinbake) with vendors selling all the most common snack foods. I like it because I can point at what I want and see exactly what’s going into the dish as it’s made for me and I don’t have to worry about nasty surprises like chunks of pork or beef. So I ordered my meal, a stir fry with cauliflower, beans and tofu, and went to pay. However, when I handed the woman what I thought was six yuen, (the 5 yuen bill and a 1) she laughed and told me it wasn’t enough.

The potato vendor had ripped me off! He knew I was foreign and still China stupid; he gave me a half yuen bill and I thought it was a 5. When the vendors realized I didn’t have enough money to pay they all started laughing. The customers waiting in line did too and the whole experience was completely humiliating. Chuckling, the woman told me to come back tomorrow to pay the 0.7 yuen I owed (roughly 8 cents). They all thought a foreigner without enough money was the funniest thing they had ever seen, and though on my end it was very embarrassing, it certainly broke a stereotype. And today when I returned to pay her the money, we both laughed at the memory.

Quirks and Chaos

February 4, 2010

February 4th, 2010

The other day, as I was walking down my street, I thought to myself, “This place really isn’t all that different from Canada.” At that moment, at that exact moment, a man threw a used diaper out a shop window into the sidewalk not two feet away from me. I changed my mind.

In the short time I have been here, I have seen some pretty strange stuff. Most streets have a pile of garbage somewhere on them (not a bin, but a pile). Sometimes it’s an abandoned shop, sometimes it’s beside a dingy looking dwelling, but most side streets have their pile. Guang Ba Lu, though you wouldn’t know it if you grew up in Canada, is posh; so it doesn’t have a pile, it has an overly full bin. But one street over has it’s pile and there is this little granny who looks about 90 years old, wearing rubber boots and garden gloves, always sifting through it looking for plastic bottles. (There’s no recycling program, or at least not an effective one, so this little old lady acts as its replacement.) One day I will get up the nerve to bring my bag of used water bottles and give them to her.

I have also often seen, live chickens being sold on the sidewalk. When a van pulls up the vendors grab the chickens, and run into an alley, birds squawking, tucked under their arms.

The constant smoking is also curious and I mean constant. I have seen people smoking on crowded buses, in grocery stores, in the school hallways. And always spitting! Sometimes when I’m eating dinner at a restaurant, I see a man at the table next to be hork and spit on the floor. It’s truly disgusting!

But definitely one of the contenders for the strangest experiences here in China is the number of strangers that approach me and ask point blank to be my friend. The statement is so direct and awkward in itself. But I suppose I should realize that their mastery of English leaves much to be desired. And when you only have the basics of a language, subtleties are difficult to convey.

One girl, with the English name Angela, met me in the cafeteria of a mall, and promptly asked if we could have dinner together that night in Hubuxiang. I agreed to go because it’s a great place and one that I am also nervous to visit on my own. Hubuxiang is a crowder alleyway in Wuhan, famous because it showcases food from all the diverse ethnic groups in China.

So around dinner time, just before Angela and I had agreed to meet, I tried to flag down a cab. However, the scheduling of Wuhan’s taxi companies is a customer service nightmare. At the peak of rush hour, from 5:30-6:00 (though it really should be added that there is hardly a slow hour in Wuhan), the taxis switch over. Those on the day shift go home and those on the day shift don’t start until 6. So it’s nearly impossible to flag a cab at this time of day. (Why they couldn’t have decided to do this switch later is beyond me.) So I was standing on my street corner looking for a cab that was never going to come, when a man on a motorcycle drove up to me. He asked me where I was going and when I replied he motioned that I get on the back.

It was an impulse, a moment of temporary insanity, as I climbed on. The ride through Wuhan on the back of that madman’s motorcycle was the scariest experience of my life. He jostled in and out of cars. He ran through red lights. He drove on the sidewalk. He swore at pedestrians (my Chinese friends have been enriching my vocabulary so that I can make out certain swears now). And he did all this at breakneck speeds. When I finally got out at the final destination I could barely walk because I had been clenching my legs so tight in fear. However, I arrived alive! And now it’s just another story.

And work begins!

February 1, 2010

February 1st, 2010

This Saturday evening was my first class. I was told I would be working Friday night and it wasn’t until I arrived on Saturday that I had any idea what I was doing. However, it was great to start working and to finally feel like I had a purpose in being here. The class has about 15 students and is broken into three smaller groups, each one having a teaching assistant. For the first class I ran through some simple questions like “where are you from” and “what are your hobbies” in an attempt to get them talking.   

The students are bright eyed and curious. In the small conversational groups I found them very forthcoming. They are not as shy as I had expected and tell me about their families and their hopes and dreams.

It’s funny the number of them that want to study accounting or finance. I even talked to one bright eyed sixteen year old girl who told me she dreamed of going to Calgary and working in oil exploration. Strange dream I thought. It seems she might have gotten this dream somewhere else, I can see two stern faced parents looming in the background. I realize now though that I will never be able to understand the sense of pressure these only children feel in an intensely competitive country. Book stores are jam packed full of study guides rather than novels. And kids and their parents clamber to buy the newest edition that will give their kids the competitive edge. And English classes are much the same. Studying is about survival rather than enjoyment. Students here work incredibly long days, starting early at 8 in the morning and not returning until late in the evening, some as late as 9 o’clock. For the wealthier students, all free time is crammed full of extra English classes at New Oriental. It seems like madness to me, but with so many Chinese there are never enough places in the universities not to mention the best universities.

I can’t imagine growing up with that incredible sense of anxiety. Thinking about it I feel so guilty. My life was handed to me on a silver platter and I complained because I didn’t think it was polished enough. The worst is when I meet Chinese who ask me if I have ever traveled. They themselves have never left China and dream of visiting just one Western country. I feel gluttonous and cringe as I tell them I’ve been to almost thirty countries. Before I let that sink in, I quickly tell them that many of the countries I visited had smaller populations than the city of Wuhan. And I believe that it would take a lifetime of travel to see all the interesting spots in China.  And that lifetime begins today.

Avatar and the Foreign Devils

February 1, 2010

January 28th, 2010

Thursday afternoon, New Oriental treated the foreign teachers to a movie in English, Avatar. Though we all had to wear bright yellow sweaters with the New Oriental logo (free advertisement for the school) and be shuffled off like a sideshow exhibition to the theatre. As we got out of the vans, the locals stopped and stared, murmuring to themselves. It’s funny that the pointing doesn’t really bother me anymore.

The movie, Avatar was certainly an ironic choice of film for the school to send us to. It is about a Utopian society living in harmony until a group of foreigners descend upon them and try to destroy them. I couldn’t help but see myself in the depictions of the foreign devils. And though written in America, the movie seemed to be culturally fitting for a Chinese audience.

Chinese have historically been quite isolationist. The country is a massive land mass and with such a large population and ingenuity within its borders there was little need for interaction elsewhere. Then in later history, with the Opium wars and the occupation of the Japanese it’s understandable why foreigners might be regarded with a degree of mistrust.

As Zhang Yi (my Chinese tutor) told me in one of our discussions, the wealthiest section of Wuhan was always the foreign district. And before the revolution, Chinese were forbidden to go there. Hankou and all its beauty was for foreigners only.

These insights were further brought home when visiting the Hubei provincial museum with Carmen. Carmen is a serious grade school teacher with tired features and wire rimmed glasses. She emailed me on the couchsurfing website and I was only too glad to meet up. She told me that most Chinese seldom visited museums, that it was an enjoyment of the rich. I could tell she was not used to museums because she talked to me loudly throughout all the exhibits (talked at me might be closer to the truth). I tried not to feel frustrated and vowed that I would return on my own time.  However, somewhere in her endless chatter she did succeed in saying some interesting things.

Looking over a piece of ancient pottery from the Song dynasty, Carmen told me that the Chinese were once quite a romantic people. They were not historically concerned with building armies and invading others. They focused on art, poetry and calligraphy. It is only after several centuries of foreign occupation that they have changed focus. Money is now the golden idol. I asked her if she thought the Chinese would go back to their romantic ways. She scoffed, “not in our lifetime.”