The Inner Mongolian China Brog

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Excuse me, teacher!

Due to complaints regarding the frequency of my postings, I've decided to give in and let y'all in on some more tasty tidbits about China life. But remember, I'm a teacher now. I'm extremely busy and respectable.

So I guess I left off on the day when we were supposed to teach our first lesson, all 9 of us. Yeah that didn't happen. But we have been teaching every day since, and for the past couple of days, half of us have been in the city in a little recruiting office what for drop-in info purposes and such. We don't do anything but sit there...Clay was told flat out that we are there as advertisements. You know, proof that they have real live white native English speaking teachers. So there's that.

Teaching the lessons here at school has been interesting. The deal is that we've been asked to teach some sample lessons for an hour and a half every day, as a tag team effort on our part. The kids that come here are a mix of the brightest current students and some talented prospective students, all at about early high school age. So we've come up with some lessons about travelling, music, numbers, and sports, stuff like that. Unfortunately, there's a quite a range in ability among our students, who number about 25-30 every day, so we're challenged to come up with lessons that are both interesting and stimulating, but also not too elementary or way over their heads. It's a crash course in teaching for us; most days I think we're just as intimidated as the kids are. Even though it's tough, I'm glad to have the opportunity because it's a no-pressure environment to hone our skills before we have classes of our own. Plus with all 9 of us trying to plan the lessons together, it's bound to be easier once we're each in control of our own curriculum.

We reserve some time after each lesson to just chat with the students that just want to practice conversational English, and I've learned a lot just from that. Mostly that I'm very beautiful and have nice yellow hair. We've told them all our names, but it seems to be the custom to call us each "Teacher," so I'm getting used to responding to that. On the flip side, they are adjusting to our teaching style, which is much more interactive than the Chinese way. We break them into small groups and give them individual attention. We also have them dialogue with us in front of the whole class. Few of them will yell out answers or even raise their hand - they have to be picked on individually, which is hard to want to do, but oh well.

Work aside, we Americans continue to tear it up in Tongliao City. Granted, since we started working, we hardly drink or cause trouble like we did the first week, but we manage to have some fun here and there, whether it's a game of basketball with the students from class or a dinner in the city amongst ourselves (for less than $2 each - HA! Fancy dinners with beer, too). We're growing more used to being openly stared at, which is a daily, nay, incessant occurrence. So, all of us being white, we're experiencing a stint as the minority for once. Probably not such a bad thing. I bet all these girls telling me how beautiful I am have been taught that that word means "funny-looking."

We're starting to feel old after only a week of work - suddenly a night watching a movie together sounds better than challenging all known beer drinking records. Early to bed, early to rise has taken on a new, more practical meaning. CNN is interesting and a breakfast ritual for me, not the boring stuff Mom has on while she makes dinner. A bike ride through the sprawling countryside after dinner puts a nice cap on the day.

And tomorrow we're going back to the disco.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Highlights of my first week in Tongliao

As I write this, I riotously celebrate (in my head) my oneweekiversary of arrival in Tongliao City. Hard to believe it’s been a week already, but on the other hand, the days here stretch into oblivion due to many mornings of unwanted wake up at 5 am. I’m over the jet lag now, though, and have resumed the lackadaisical laziness that surely you find to be my most charming quality.

I thought I ought to recount (in somewhat less detail than in previous postings) the highlights of my first week in Tongliao, for there are definitely a few moments worth mentioning. I regret to inform, however, that many involve the influence. What influence, you ask? Well…you know – the influence. ::wink wink:: Read on, you’ll get the idea.

One of the first things we did in Tongliao was to purchase bicycles, at which point I diagnosed myself clinically insane, but you know, with a little practice, it’s really not so hard to cross 4-way intersections with no traffic lights and more traffic and honking horns than I’ve seen in a while…that little girl I almost ran over recovered very quickly actually…

In all seriousness, there’s actually a distinct bike lane separated from the rest of the street by a median in most parts of the city, so don’t fear for me just yet. Plus the bikes here cost $20! New! How can that not be the bitchinest thing ever???

That night we were invited to have dinner on campus with the president and vice-principals of the school, which was nice. The dining hall broke out the fancy vittles for us in a nice private room, just like the restaurants we’d been in. And yeah, there was beer all around…again. Too bad we were dehydrated from the hot day riding our bikes around. Too bad Adam keeled over outside unconscious for a minute. Oh yeah, and too bad the president to introduce our drunkass selves to the entire faculty that night. From the sheer number of toasts these guys make during dinner, you can’t help but be buzzin’.

A couple days later, we were informed by Zheng Loban that we would need to have complete physicals. “Complete physicals?!” said we. “But we just had them in the States!” Turns out we had to have physicals within China just because we’re foreigners and it’s routine. I guess it was no big deal in retrospect…I mean, when we found out, we became paralyzed with fear, so we would have had to go to the hospital anyway.

Right we were in being scared. Ghetto would be a generous word to describe this hospital, in all its festering, sewage-smelling glory. I admit to not expecting houseflies to be included patients in the waiting room. We’re talking crumbling dilapidatitude of Hollywood proportions. I expected to come out of there missing a couple of key appendages. I suppose that I can now say that I am one of the few people I know who have had the pleasure of a Chinese EKG, however…

Fears aside, everything went well, including having blood drawn, the thought of which made me thoroughly queasy. We watched them open each new syringe, and though I loathe to admit it, it hurt and bruised less than the more sterile American equivalent. So I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if I die to know if anything was amiss in that experience.

We soon tired of the food in the dining hall, not because it doesn’t taste good, but out of the repetition of it all. Variety is not among the Chinese vocabulary, it would seem. This led us to seek food and fun elsewhere, and the only elsewhere available to us at this point is the city center of Tongliao. An overpriced cab ride (a whole 4 dollars!) one night took us to our first Chinese disco, and easily the most memorable night thus far.

We arrived somewhere around 10 pm and managed to communicate an order for pijiu…3 times. That combined with a shot of baijiu taken at the apartment and an order of what we think was Jack and Coke subsequent to the pijiu left me feeling like I was going to land myself back in that hospital from hell, but a few minutes later I was fine again and enjoying the show on the club’s stage. From what I can tell, the night at the discos here begins with sort of a cabaret-style show, with singers dressed rather extravagantly and accompanied by canned music, followed by some random display of flesh by the go-go dancers. Not that they’re strippers, but at one point we were watching 4 girls in swimsuits strutting around the stage to “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” Britney is the international language, you know.

Later, the stage pushed back and became a dance floor, which was immediately flooded with people who danced like there was no tomorrow, though for the girls that seemed to mean what MarktheIneptTourGuide called a crazy head shake. For those of you who have been to the Roxy in Boston, this club didn’t look unlike that, except maybe even a little bigger. And Chinese techno sounds not too far from American dance music, though we obviously couldn’t understand any of the lyrics. Once they played that Romanian “maya hee” song it was all over though. We rocked out wholeheartedly and with reckless abandon, which landed us a couple appearances on stage with the go-go dancers, much to the amusement of the other club goers, I’m sure. I was glad to find that, if nothing else, my game is international, when a Chinese guy asked me (in English), “Can you kiss me?” Don’t worry, all he got out of me was a smile and a long “Noooooo…” Please, I ain’t no hollaback girl.

On a more sober note (HA!) I am learning more than how the Chinese do debauchery. I’m also learning how they push my patience to the outer limit. We were scheduled to teach our first lesson (for which we’d been planning for hours) to some prospective high school students the next day, and after we’d been summoned out of bed to meet the parents that morning, made 75 copies of our worksheet packet, and waited for an hour in the lecture hall for the speaker to finish his boring PowerPoint, we were told we’d been cancelled for the day. So today we are scheduled to try again, but I have a strong suspicion that we’ve been had. HAD!

Whatever, we were hungover anyway.

From Beijing to TongliaoCity

July 16, 2005

Our second day of touring Beijing brought us first to the Summer Palace, which is one of the more beautiful attractions, in my opinion. Unfortunately, the better part of the Palace itself was under renovation, so we really weren’t able to do much more than walk the grounds surrounding. It’s an experience unto itself, so it was worthwhile, but I couldn’t help remembering the first time I visited, when I had Jane as my tour guide, and I think we must have spent upwards of 3 or 4 hours there for all the information she had to tell us. Oh well, like I said, it’s worthwhile to see nonetheless. Plus, I spotted a Diet Coke for the first time since arriving in China at one of the vendors there, so I pounced. Unfortunately for me, it was mostly frozen and gave me a lovely carbonated shower when I tried to open it. Just thought I’d leave you with that little image.

We also visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City that morning. Interestingly, when we asked Mark, the tour guide of doom and badness, about Tiananmen Square and the infamous events that took place there, he said, “I can’t talk about that.” We were like, oh come on just tell us what you know. But he refused – apparently it’s actually forbidden to speak of. I hadn’t remembered that of my last visit to Beijing, but I guess it’s pretty telling of the political climate here.

During our walk through the Forbidden City, I was actually just as glad not to have a tour guide shouting at us the whole time, because to be honest I was more interested in getting to know my colleagues at that point, so it was nice to chat with them.

From the Forbidden City, we all went to the train station to start our 14-hour journey towards Tongliao City. Not the big shiny pretty train station in the middle of Beijing, mind you, but the dumpy ghetto one you’d never find if you weren’t brought there. We sure were nervous when we saw it…basically just an open plaza with hundreds of people squatting and waiting for their trains. We boarded our car, which was the sleeping one with bunks stacked 3 high on each side of the partitions. No privacy, no room, just a place to stretch out. We were wondering how we’d ever get through 14 hours of it, but believe me, it was nooooooo problem at all…

Due to the heat, we stripped down to as little clothing as was still decent and, being the intrepid young travelers we are, a source of beer was located immediately, and we kept going basically nonstop until 10 pm, when the train calls lights out. It made for some interesting conversation, especially when Zheng Loban woke up from his nap and (bare-chested, looking like a dirty sketchy old man) began drinking his liquor of choice, which he taught us to call baijiu (vs. beer, which is pijiu). He offered us all a taste, and since we wouldn’t dream of being impolite guests, we all sampled it. I’m pretty sure it tastes like what I’d imagine licking a city street would taste like. But if it takes effect faster than your average booze, we’ll have to give it credit for efficiency’s sake.

July 17, 2005

All things considered, I slept pretty well through the night, only waking up when the train stopped. I guess the alcohol might have had a little something to do with that. At 5 am we arrived in Tongliao City, where we were greeted by a handful of the school’s security guards and their bus, which on the inside looked more like a rock star’s tour bus than anything else. Between that and the karaoke equipment (tv screen included), we gathered that this bus did more than get people from point A to point B.

10 minutes later, we were out of the bustle of the city and out in the flat, green countryside on the approach to the school. It’s basically a straight shot on one road in and out of the city. The school is very new looking and sprawls over what I have a feeling is only a fraction of the land that is part of it’s property. In a couple more years, it’ll probably be a different picture. Between the city and the school, like I said, is mostly flat and green, with a lot of farming going on. Mule-drawn carts and bicycles accompany the occasional cars traveling that one street.

Our apartments, though dirty and fine specimens of typical bad Chinese craftsmanship (sorry to generalize, but it’s true), are really nice and comfortable, with the exception of the beds…well, just my bed mostly…which feel little better than the floor. The other kids seem to have gotten foam mattress pads on theirs, but no such luck for me. I’ve slept well so far, believe it or not, but even so, both sides of my hips are bruised just from sleeping on my side and turning over. So that’s a project I’ll be working on fixing…

My roommates (Courtney and Emma) and I worked on buying some essentials and freshening the place up for most of the day. Hard to believe that a year-old apartment needs freshening, but the floors and surfaces here seem to attract dirt and dust with a magnetic force unknown to man. By the end of the day, we had a (sort of) clean, livable apartment, and a few well-earned showers. After a journey from Beijing and a day full of moving in, it seems that one does not so much fall asleep as crash headfirst with a force measurable only by Richter scale.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Care Package Wish List

Last update: 12/4/05

For those of you inclined to send me packages of love and care, I here post my wish list. Obviously, since it's a wish list, none of these items are vitally necessary; otherwise I would have asked someone specifically for them by now. I just thought that if one was to send me something, they might like to know what would make me sqeal with glee.

For your convenience, the address is:

Diana Dove
International Department
Northeast Hope International School
Tongliao, Inner Mongolia 028000

You can treat this list like a registry if you like, by posting a comment on what you are going to send, lest there be duplicates (not that I would mind). I will keep my end of the deal by removing/adding items to the list as appropriate. Another helpful hint: the best (aka economical) way to send packages here is via USPS Global Priority. See how easy I make this???

Here, then, without further ado, is the list as it stands:

Hot Chocolate Mix (Diet/Lo-cal would be lovely)
MAC eye liner in "Teddy"

Welcome to China

July 13, 2005

I woke up Wednesday morning well before dawn to catch my 7:55 flight to Chicago, where I spent the 2 hour layover sitting in the Chili’s bar with Jacob, one of my colleagues from BC who also flew out of LaGuardia. I was feeling kind of nervous, like I didn’t yet know how I felt about this whole experience coming up. I vacillated often between excitement and nauseous regret, thinking, wouldn’t it have been nice and easy to get a job sitting behind a desk or something? That way everything’s predictable and standard.

But that’s no fun.

So, back to Chicago…I talked to Jacob for 2 hours, which was nice since it made the time go by. We shared studying-abroad stories and whatnot…small talk for the most part. Not especially exciting, though I did learn that he was born in Poland and is bilingual still, having come to the States when he was in First Grade. I also learned the proper pronunciation of his last name, which is a mouthful.

When we finally headed toward the gate to board the flight to Beijing, Jacob disappeared, and I was approached by a tall energetic blond guy who introduced himself as Pat and said he saw the initials on my bag and figured it must have stood for Diana Dove. He was right. He then flagged down the other 3 kids from Providence College who were standing nearby. I found out that Pat is a dual citizen of the States and Canada, and was introduced to Emma from Saratoga, Ben from Massachusetts, and Adam from Manchester, England.

On the plane, we finally found Jacob again, who had found Courtney, who’s from the Saratoga area as well. We were all seated separately, which made chatting a little difficult. I was right up against the wall with the movie screen on it, so I couldn’t really stretch my legs unless I got up, which was a little hard to deal with, though I was on the aisle right near the bathroom so it could have been worse. I had some characters sitting next to me – some middle aged folks who I could tell were going to be trouble makers. They ordered booze at every opportunity and kept trying to sneak into Business Class, where I think another member of their party was seated. The woman got kicked out over and over again, which she deserved, though I wouldn’t have minded if she’d disappeared, as I was growing tired of her talking to Roger, the traveling companion (not sure if he was the husband) seated between she and myself (most of her speeches entailed something to the effect of, “Hey Rahge, do you remember the first time we met? We were the only two Jewish people going to China on that plane so we were immediately friends…). Roger, on the other hand, offered to buy me a beer right off the bat, and when I declined, he then told me he was going to buy me a beer. Turns out the drinks were free. He also asked to borrow my magazine, read it, and offered it to Obnoxious “Hey Rahge!” Lady.

But I’m not complaining.

July 14, 2005

We made it to Beijing on time, in one piece, and not too worse for wear other than feeling kinda greasy and icky. Dean Zheng (soon to be affectionately named “Bossman” – “Zheng Loban” in Chinese), and his young colleague/protégé, Sunny, met us at the airport. All our bags came in no problem, and the 7 of us waited in the bus outside for about 2 more hours for Clay and Mike to arrive from a different flight. They made it just fine as well – they’re both grads of BC like me; Clay’s from California originally and Mike is from Seattle.

We drove into Beijing, kind of in a daze, feeling like we’d stepped through a black hole. We were then told to give up some of our baggage so that it could be checked at the train station where we would take the train to Tongliao. This involved some shuffling on the part of the others, but not me! Mommy was right this one time – I had packed one suitcase just for Beijing per her advice.

At the train station, we waited outside in sort of a back alley type place behind the station itself as we waited for the bags to be put in sort of potato sack-type things and then actually sewn shut. Needless to say, we were all thoroughly confused by this procedure, but we were soon distracted by the audience we had attracted. It became impossible to ignore the many pairs of little eyes staring at us; out of amusement or curiosity we’ll never know…perhaps both. Courtney, being fairly chatty and outgoing, was the first to attempt communication, at which point the kids scattered in fits of giggles like a flock of seagulls (they ran so far away). But curiosity obviously got the better of them, and they soon came back for a closer look at the big white goofballs, who were looking awkward and sweaty in their rumpled travel clothes. Though few words were actually exchanged due to the kids’ constant giggling, we managed to ask them their names and ages somehow, and entertained them by taking pictures on our digital cameras and then showing them the results. The two little girls then did Courtney the honor of painting her right thumbnail neon orange.

After what seemed like an hour or so, we decided to retire to the air-conditioned comfort of the bus, though not before being asked for our autographs by the children. We felt like rock stars in our tour bus. We returned the gesture by asking for their autographs, which of course we couldn’t read, but they each punctuated their names with a smiley face. They waved to us as long as we would wave back as we pulled out of the station, at which point the smiley faces were all ours; we couldn’t have expected a more endearing welcome and we were all thoroughly charmed by the experience.

Having received a celebrity’s welcome, we then were taken to dinner by Dean Zheng and Sunny. The food is certainly not like American Chinese food, but it was certainly delicious. Luckily we don’t have any picky eaters in the group and we all sampled a bite of everything. However, it would appear that the Chinese enjoy toasting everything and often, and they don’t stop the flow of beer! You’d think they were trying to take advantage of us, the way the booze kept coming. I found out though that it’s considered impolite for the host not to keep the beer glass full. Another fun tidbit to make Americans jealous – the beer here (good beer at that) is sold in bottles that appear to be the equivalent of roughly 3 American cans, and costs ::drum roll please:: a whopping twenty-five cents a pop! Hellooooooo China!

By the time we finally got to our hotel, we were thoroughly exhausted. I couldn’t repeat the name of the hotel if I tried; all I know is that we pulled up to a place lit up like Vegas with a searchlight spinning from the roof, Hollywood style. There was a large aquarium in the lobby as well, with little sharks swimming around. Despite my suspicions, it turned out to be merely decorative and, in fact, not the menu.

We were pleasantly surprised with clean, luxurious Western style rooms and promptly went to sleep, even though the beds were a tad firmer than we’re used to, though since arriving at my apartment, I now longingly remember it…

July 15, 2005

Breakfast the next morning was not especially noteworthy…though chicken feet do tend to make an impression.

We met our tour guide outside the hotel, whose Anglicized name was Mark. I’m not sure why they bothered to hire him; we got to the Great Wall and he took us to the entrance and said, “You can go left or right,” and stood there while we hiked our own way through it. I chose the left way, along with Emma, Adam, Ben and Pat, and I’m glad I did, since I got to know them a little bit better, rather than forever knowing them as the “Providence kids.” We had a vigorous hike all the way to the point where you can hike no more in that direction. Beyond there the wall was in ruins. Dean Zheng was with us and offered a few bits of tour information, but other than that, we didn’t learn a whole lot other than the fact that China in July is f!#%ing hot as balls.

From the Great Wall, we were taken to lunch nearby at a place the size of a banquet hall or two. It was massive and obviously a tour group hot spot, judging from the vendors selling random whatsits lining the hallway. The food was nice, and again we were exposed to a little more Chinese mealtime etiquette – it was hard to ignore the cultural divide when Sunny replaced some missing chopsticks by reaching into the breast pocket of a nearby waitress to fetch them.

After lunch, we went to the Ming Tombs, at which point we actually managed to squeeze some historical information out of Mark, though he didn’t often bother to wait until we were all within earshot to divulge said info. Without an extremely knowledgeable guide, I have to admit that the Ming Tombs failed to peak my interest, and I found myself remembering my 2001 trip to Beijing and the tour guide (Jane) who led Dad and I all around, not missing a single opportunity to tell us more about whatever it was we were seeing.

We were taken to a pearl store after the tombs, and I sleepwalked through the demonstration of pearl farming in the store, yet somehow got talked into buying a $13 necklace with pink freshwater pearls and gold plate. It makes my neck itch. I guess my nappish state befuddled my judgement, as I don’t think anyone else in their right mind who has parents living in Japan would buy pearls for themselves.

We had dinner at the same place where we’d eaten the night before, and again it was lovely. Afterward we had a chance to stroll through downtown Beijing and browse in and out of some shops. By then, however, we were all beyond exhaustion and cranky by the time Sunny and Dean Zheng said we’d go back to the hotel. No wonder – it was past 10 and we’d been out since before 8 am. But hey, the day was a success – I bought a little gel-filled hand pack that can heat itself over 20,000 times…