The Inner Mongolian China Brog

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Planes (Boats), Trains, and Automobiles (Buses)

Author's Note: Sorry in advance for the lack of pictures - I don't know why but I haven't been able to upload any to the blog forever! I'll work on it...

Guess it's been a while, eh? Sorry about that. Let's recap: I'm Diana, and I'm teaching English in China for a year, which thus far has consisted of beer, baijiu, small children, good tea, bad coffee, horseback rides through the Inner Mongolian grasslands, a spaceship landing in the Inner Mongolian grasslands, fried scorpions, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Actually that last part about the partridge was a joke. Although, on second thought, I wouldn't be surprised if I'd unwittingly eaten one by now...

ANYway, perhaps the most blogworthy tidbit would be my recent (and by recent I mean going on 4 weeks ago) trip to Qingdao with Clay. He and I had originally planned to use our October break to go to Shenyang, one of the bigger cities relatively nearby. However, in true Chinese fashion, we found out no more than 2 days before departure time that we would actually have an extra 3 days off, bringing our total vacation time to a full week. So, in a scramble of last-minute planning (keeping in true Chinese fashion, you see), we changed our destination to Qingdao, a coastal city south of Beijing. Why, you ask? Well, kids, Qingdao is the birthplace of none other than Tsingtao beer, the best beer in China! DUH! Plus it has charming European architecture and seaside flair yadda yadda yadda...

So, after a 24-hour journey, which included a 12-hour train ride to Dalian on a hard seat, a 7-hour boat ride slumped over a card table due to the fact that we missed our boat and were therefore demoted a class of service on the next boat, and a 3-hour bus ride from Yantai to Qingdao, we arrived at our hotel and PASSED OUT. Once we'd restored ourselves to the company of the living, we began our exploration of the city, which we did mostly on foot. It's a great city to walk around because you can do everything from strolling along the beach to climbing the woodsy hills in the various parks overlooking the city and ocean. We did all of the above - I couldn't even estimate how many miles we put on our shoes, but judging from the ache at the end of the day, the count would be considerable.

We spent one day outside Qingdao with the intention of hiking Laoshan, a nearby mountain with great views of the ocean and access to a Taoist temple. We got there on a local bus packed to the brim with other people on their National Day vacation...and I can't say it's so much fun as not when you're shoulder to shoulder standing on a bus for 2 hours hanging on for dear life to the handrail above your head. But we finally arrived and spilled out of the bus only to find ourselves confronted with a sizeable tourist trap...and it wasn't even the right tourist trap! We had managed to get off the bus a stop too early and ended up climbing the upward-winding road for another 20 minutes or so til we found the trap that marked the start of the trail up the mountain. Not knowing we could do it on foot, we stood in line for another half hour or something to take a cable car not quite to the summit, but at the very least to the next hub of cheap crap to buy. We hiked around and saw some beautiful views and the Taoist temple, but all the while dodging Chinese tourists. It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that when Chinese people vacation, they all go to the same place at the same time and like to do it in tourist groups, all of which basically describes the antithesis of how Clay and I like to travel, so we spent about as much energy being chafed by the multitudes swarming and leaving their trash everywhere on Laoshan as by hiking. That aside, it was indeed a beautiful site/sight, and I'm certainly glad we made the trip.

Probably the other most memorable aspect of our time in Qingdao (in addition to the delicious proper Mocha Lattes I drank every morning at SPR Coffee on the waterfront) was a little joint called Freeman Bar (clearly named in the grand tradition of Flying Bar and Alice Bar of Dalian-blog-entry fame). Its owner, English-named Chris, had a penchant for all [good] things Western. The interior felt like a coffee shop straight out of Amsterdam, though the herbs served there were more of the tea variety. He had great music playing, cool knick-knacks decorating every inch of the place, hand-written notes from previous customers of many and varied nationalities tucked under the glass of the tables, and an overpriced Western menu. What else could you ask for? It was super-chill and we made a point of showing up there at least once every day, seeing as it was just around the corner from our hotel. Chris even spoke pretty good English, so we enjoyed chatting with him on the days he was there.

By the end of our 5 days in Qingdao, we had explored quite thoroughly and were ready to reverse the arduous journey back to home sweet Tongliao. I was not, however, ready for the heart attack I got when we arrived at Yantai with only minutes until boarding time for the boat and a taxi driver who delivered us to the wrong port, all in the pouring rain for dramatic effect, of course. We made it onto the boat just fine, but I nearly had a canyption in the process. I was so hysterical with relief once on the boat that on my trip to the bathroom to get ready for bed (we actually got our beds on this leg), I managed to drop my toothbrush into the continuous trough separated by waist-high stalls that served as a toilet. So amused was I in my state of delirium that I could think of no better idea at that moment than to pee on it. So I did, chuckling to myself all the while, and I watched it float away as the water flowed through. Sense of humor is key, right? A little crazy sauce on the side never hurt either...

Upon my return to Tongliao, I was confronted with the shocking news that our compatriot Adam had left the Motherland for, well...the QueenMotherland. Apparently he'd been unhappy here for quite some time. He never really talked about that with us, so I was completely floored to find him gone all of a sudden. It also set my mind whirring with a million questions: Should I be unhappy too? Am I settling for too little? What about it here is so bad that caused Adam to jump ship? I eventually concluded that it must have been a very personal thing for him, because after talking to my friends here, we all agreed that while our situation here has its challenges, many though they may be, we're all prepared to see it through, and I still have no regrets about my decision to come here.

Well, I do regret one thing. In that same first week following October break, we were faced with seemingly random Internet outages...which proceeded to not seem so random, since they began and ended on the hour...and then we were actually told that the school would begin to restrict Internet access to all the teachers to prevent them from playing with QQ when they're supposed to be "very busy." So what I regret is that the school leaders had to see the back of my hand! Actually, the issue resolved itself before I myself had a chance to take it up with Dean Zheng. Can you imagine if I only had limited Internet access??? If that were in fact the case, I wouldn't be able to continue bringing you periodic installments of blogular glory, and we can't have that, can we? So if it happens again, y'all best have my back.

All in all, it wasn't my best week ever as a teacher. I found myself with a case of the post-vacation blahs and a lack of fresh ideas for my lessons. A month and change as a teacher ever in my life, and I'd run dry already. But there's nothing for it except to keep thinking and keep going and ask for help once in a while, so I did. I asked a couple of my Chinese coworkers to sit in on my lessons to help with some of the disciplinary issues and maybe offer some advice. Discipline: check. Advice: "Diana, I think you are a very good teacher." Well, not the fresh ideas I was looking for, but you know, I wouldn't have known if you hadn't told me. With that boost to my confidence, I recharged and came into the next week with energy to spare. I'm not sure I'm a "very good teacher," but I'm also not sure I'm prepared to settle for being an OK teacher, and there's 126 little reasons to give it my best shot sitting in those classrooms every day.