Archive for May, 2010

Lucy and my Students

May 23, 2010

May 23rd, 2010

Knock on wood, I have almost bounced back from the flue like illness that I had this past week. As a consequence I had a chance to catch up on Prison Break and finish reading “Love in the Time of Cholera”, which was beautiful, though a bit long in the middle.

In other news, this week we have found a new hang out. A western inspired pub/bar called Helen’s. The menu even features veggie burgers and a vegetarian lasagne, which though they don’t taste exactly right, also don’t taste that bad and so after nearly five months of living here I am satisfied that they will do.  And last night, Lucy celebrated her birthday there.

Who is Lucy? Well, Lucy is a great girl, from the American south. She has a darling accent and the most classic lines. When I hang out with her, I wish that I had brought a paper and pen to write down the things she says. Lucy’s been here three years and knows most of the ins and outs of living life as a foreigner in Wuhan. But she says “someone who lives in China for a month can write a book about what they saw, after two months living here it becomes a chapter, after six months a few paragraphs and after a year they don’t even know where to begin.”I love hanging out with Lucy. I have always been someone who loved the sound of my own voice; but around her I feel perfectly satisfied to say nothing, and to hear her talk about her life and her perspective. In fact, I have noticed I am getting better at that in general. Is this what growing up is? Loosening the childish self-absorption and realizing others may actually have more interesting things to say?

I got to try my new found interest in others on Anney. She is the first new AIESEC intern who arrived four days ago in Wuhan to work here for the summer. Soon she will be joined by fifty more. So AIESEC parties should in no time meet the high standard I became accustomed to in Ottawa.

In regards to work, well tonight I teach a group of students that I like to nickname the Canadians. They are students at Maple Leaf, the Canadian style school fully staffed by Canucks from BC. I love teaching these students. They are the only people I have met in China that seem genuinely interested in talking about the Official Languages Act and actually know who Stephen Harper is.

Students really are a mixed bag. Most of my students fully intend on studying abroad and admit that afterwards they will strive for green cards. So they are interested in talking about culture and language until the cows come home. I had one student named Chris that I nicknamed the American. He is a high school student who just returned from a year abroad studying in America. He had a near flawless accent and seemed completely culturally assimilated. Unlike the other students, he would interrupt me and say “why do we have to do this, can’t we do ___.” Other Chinese students just do what the teacher says, but Chris liked what he saw in America and what he saw was people who talked back. Also the other students would always laugh and clap and get a kick out of it when I showed them the Chinese I had learned. But Chris would just guffaw and correct me with a sarcastic air. At first I think he had a little crush on me and he was behaving to try and impress me. But that faded and now he’s shown his true colours; red, white and blue. And though, in terms of ability to thrive in America, I have more confidence in him than in any of my other students, for the time being it’s annoying.    

Other students come in terrified that I will talk to them and ask them to speak (remember I teach speaking so they all have to speak.) But it is wonderful to see these students bloom with time. I have one student Senti, who is slowly getting more and more confident and it’s wonderful to watch his progression.

Then there are the spoiled brats, sons and daughters of the ultra rich, who are mostly passionless and bored.  I currently have a VIP student called Jeremy. (A VIP is a student that pays a ridiculous amount of money for the privilege of having some one-on-one lessons with a foreign teacher and getting to attend whichever classes they want.) He is always decked in designer clothing from top to bottom. Jeremy loves to tell me about the luxury hotels he stays in and on our first lesson he showed me his credit cards. After our lessons he gets his chauffeur to drive me home, and sometimes he treats me to expensive dinners at the ritziest restaurants. Jeremy’s always very nice to me, but sometimes I feel like just another Prada bag. I am another show piece of his wealth, as if he’s saying “look world I have my very own foreigner.”

It’s really shocking how in a country with so many people stuck in abject poverty, the rich are so ostentatious and proud of their wealth and feel absolutely no obligation to help. It gets worse; most of the ultra rich here have connections to the government. They got their ridiculous wealth under the veil of supposedly working for the “people” and raise vapid and self-interested children. But I guess that’s enough preaching. To be fair, I have never been in the right circles to meet the ultra rich in Canada. I imagine they may be just as vapid and self-interested.

Adventures in Enshi

May 13, 2010

New Oriental sent me on a trip to teach English in a remote part of China. The company does these kinds of projects for PR and strenghthening government ties. And after the trip I was asked to write a short article about the experience. New Oriental publishes a magazine for students that want to learn English and each article has an appendix to help the students with the challenging words. This is what I sent my boss today. Note : this is before any edits, we will see if the final draft even makes it to the magazine. I will let you know.

May 12th, 2010

Couched in my 15th story apartment, I still can’t hide from the sounds of the city. The loud banging of construction of the building next door, the honks and noisy hum of traffic and my neighbour’s music vibrating my walls, all remind me that I am back in Wuhan. For me, a young woman from the Canadian north, Wuhan is unfathomably huge.  It is a city that dwarfs you with its skyscrapers and congested streets. And while I contemplate this, I miss my trip.

I have just returned from a four day trip to Enshi, where Josh (another teacher at New Oriental from the USA) and I taught classes in the remote city of Laifeng.I was told that Laifeng was a small city. But when I arrived I realized the city had over 300,000 thousand people. This would not be a small city in Canada.

The journey to Laifeng from Wuhan took several hours. We first took a plane into the city of Enshi and from there we met our driver, Bo Yang, who took us the two or three hours to Laifeng. The drive in the mountains had many absolutely spectacular views of lush forests, cavernous mountain sides and emerald green water. The sights made me think of the thick forests I had seen in nature documentaries about chimpanzees.

Bo Yang was such a fun and happy spirited man that he made the journey even more pleasant. He taught me my first song in Chinese, “Baobei” and helped me understand the lyrics. So as we were flying past the beautiful scenery , I was singing along in broken Chinese and having a blast. “宝贝不要再哭,都是我的错.”  The only drawback of the drive was that the roads were fairly rough and speckled with potholes. And eventually, driving at breakneck speeds along the narrow mountain pass, Bo Yang popped a tire. 

At this point, I had needed to use the washroom for over an hour.  And I realized it would be hard to wait much longer. So Josh, Rico (our Chinese colleague from New Oriental) and I walked up to a small farm house to ask if we could use their washroom. The young woman, who opened the door, took a step back with surprise to see two foreigners at her door. I can well imagine she had never seen a foreigner in the flesh before, and yet there two of us stood asking to use her washroom. She told me to follow her and, pointing to a door, told me it was that way. But when I opened the door, I was greeted with a start by the soft grunting of a pig. The small room had no distinguishable toilet of any kind and seemed to have no drain; there was only a dirty pink pig snorting in his pen in the corner. I thought there must have been some mistake so I asked the woman again “厕所在哪里?”. Again she pointed to the pig’s room and explained to Rico in hushed tones that the countryside was like this. So I returned to the pig, and apologetically used his room for my purposes while he watched me and snorted from his pen. Poor Mr. Pig!

Roughly an hour later we arrived at the hotel in the scenic city. I was excited to see a huge poster draped across the front of the hotel welcoming us. I have never experienced a welcome that equalled the one we received in Laifeng. The teachers and principal ate with us and thanked us for our visit. (They even took us to see some tourist spots and an old Tujia palace).  As for the students, well, they embraced us with open arms and cameras ready. Every student wanted a photo and I am sure thousands were taken in our short two day stay. By the end of the trip, the muscles in my face were aching from smiling too much. Though at times the attention felt a little overwhelming, it was nice. I felt special.  

I enjoyed telling the eager students about Canada. I told them about the bears, which after the long winter hibernating, come into my city in the spring looking for food.  I told them about the differences between the three kinds of bears in Canada; black bears, grizzly bears and polar bears. And I told them what to do if they were to see a bear.  The students then wanted to hear me sing and speak Chinese. My Chinese is embarrassingly poor, but the students appreciated my attempt nevertheless.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed myself through all parts of this trip, including meeting the pig. I felt saddened to board the plane and head back to Wuhan, the city I now call home. For now, I will keep my fingers crossed that I will soon get another chance to travel and see more of China.

Goodbye Peggy

May 5, 2010

May 4th, 2010

Peggy is gone. We thought he was doing better. He had a strength we hadn’t seen in him before. He climbed into my lap so forcefully. But that was because part of him knew; and he was looking for comfort in the last moments. I can’t help feeling I let him down. The little guy was so sweet and he never lived to see his second month.

He died on my watch. And I had to break the news to Josh that his kitten didn’t make it.

I’ve been walking around all day with red splotchy eyes, giving the Chinese even more reason than usual to stare. This morning, I went into my Chinese class and TuQua (a macho guy from Ghana) asked me what was wrong with my eyes. I just shook my head and when he realized that I had been crying he got awkwardly silent. It’s funny how men are so afraid of tears.

I told my Mexican friend Kalisha what had happened. She looked at me in surprise and said “honey you have to grow up. You are a woman now. Now you stop. I buy you a new cat.” I looked at her in horror and said “No!!!” Peggy wasn’t even mine and I have to chain smoke to keep calm. (Don’t worry mom it won’t continue.)

Surprisingly, the only person I found at all comforting was an odd and taciturn Russian named Olek. When I told him why I was sad, he looked at me and said earnestly “I understand. Last month my cat is dead.” There was such feeling in the way he said it that I could easily picture him crying about his cat too. And it made me feel better.

So Peggy is gone. And tomorrow morning I will get to leave Wuhan. I am relieved that I no longer have to stare at the basket he slept in. New Oriental is sending Josh and I to the countryside for a few days to teach children from a small village that have never seen foreigners before. And even through my sadness, I am looking forward to it.

Peggy and another bruise

May 3, 2010

May 3rd, 2010

My friend Carmen makes the joke, she says, “American culture has infiltrated into every corner of the globe. But at least we have you. China’s turning one American (North American) Chinese.”

I have to say in some ways she is right. I have taken to some Chinese customs like a moth to the flame. I love walking out in the street in my pyjamas and slippers, like so many of the old folks on my street. So when I slip out of bed for a night time snack, no need for pretence, what you see is what you get and what you get is me in my old jamies and tattered slippers. I have noticed that in China the division between public and private space is not as acute as in North America. Old woman have knitting circles on the sidewalk, grannies and I walk out in our pyjamas and a lot of questions once considered private I now find perfectly acceptable to ask others. In a taxi I will ask the driver how old he is and why he doesn’t have a wife. Also the other day, I have signed up for QQ. QQ is the Chinese version of messenger, but it is widely used and not just by socially awkward teenagers. Using QQ has provided me plenty of opportunities to practice my Chinese. Though I must say the pace at which others type is frustrating. I can’t switch between Google translator and the other pages and change the language on my keyboard from English to Chinese and back nearly fast enough to keep up. But it is fun.

Another custom I adore is the use of parasols. In China it is good to be pale. By being pale you can easily distinguish yourself from all the countryside farmers and labourers that flock into the cities. The paler you are the wealthier you are. I have never thought of my nearly translucent, glow in the dark hue as beautiful, but the attention is definitely appreciated. So because everyone wants to be pale, on a sunny day the parasols in all colours, with glitter and embroidered finish and lacy trim open up like sunflowers. The other foreigners might think this strange, but I couldn’t love any custom more. Every summer of my life I have gotten sun stroke at least once. So I see the practicality and I love the flourish.

But there are some ways in which I fear I may never fully adapt and the summer weather is the main culprit. Today is a “lovely” 35C. I am cooped up inside my house in fear, with the curtains drawn. Yesterday was no better and there is a round yellowish bruise on my nose as proof. Yesterday, on my way home from a lovely weekend visiting a friend’s beautiful hometown (黄石,) I decided to take the bus.  The weather on the street did not feel so stifling. There was plenty of shade and a nice breeze. But once I climbed onto a crowded bus with peoples elbows pressed up against me, I realized my mistake. I tried to position myself beside the air conditioner but it seemed as if hot air was coming out of it. I started feeling like I was in a sauna. And then, my vision started to go. It was a strange sensation. The world turned into a black and white movie and a blurry one. Starting to panic I told myself I would get off at the next stop no matter where that was. But the bus was stuck crawling in the traffic and before I knew it my legs started giving out. The next thing I knew by vision went completely black, my head lurched forward into the support pole and I fell to the ground. I woke up to someone grabbing my arm and pulling me into a chair. The open window blew cool air into my face and I found myself coming back into the world. The next stop I grabbed my stuff and hobbled off into an air conditioned store. The shop keeper rolled her eyes as I told her I just wanted to sit.

As I gathered my mind together I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I fainted. I felt like a gentle lady from an old romantic novel. Though those novels really don’t do the experience justice; there’s nothing romantic about a big bruised nose, nausea and a splitting headache. And where was the gorgeous guy who was supposed to save me.  Either way, I guess the lesson is learnt, for the rest of the summer –  NO MORE BUSSES.  

In other news, my friend Josh is bringing over a kitten to my house. He is frustrated with its constant crying and wants to give me a turn. The cat is sick and seems to have an infected eye. And I am doing my best to get one of my Chinese friends to help me take it to the vet.

Josh made the mistake of telling a Chinese friend that he is lonely at home and misses his cat. The next thing he knew, his friend came to pick him up at work with the dirtiest kitten in a linen bag. The cat was near starved and covered in dirt and bugs. Josh’s friend then drove them home on his motorcycle. And while stopped in traffic Josh checked the linen bag only to see that the cat was gone. He must have jumped out of the bag and off the motorcycle. The two of them went back looking for the little guy and found him sitting on the sidewalk waiting. So far the cat has survived near starvation, fleas, and a motorcycle accident. If he makes it to adulthood he will be a miracle. I call him Peggy but Josh hasn’t yet chosen a name.  I think he’s afraid of getting too attached.