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Take a Picture, It’ll Last Longer!

Lovely friends and family!

Ok ok!  So I live in mainland China now and that means slowness of slowness in regards to internet and all things electronic!  My job is at the United International College working as a Teaching Assistant for the English Language Center.   I basically wrote down everything that happened the first week right here.  I won’t be doing that every time…promise!  Also, I will be posting pictures as soon as soon as soon as I can.  So here goes:

5:30am walking off of Singapore flight SQ221 was like walking into a waterless hot bath, even before we left the terminal. The UCSB crew, drowsy from drugs and bad movies (Obsessed starring Beyonce is not worth your time—it’s a sucky version of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not), forced itself upon a small man holding a sign with our school, UIC, printed on it, and into a van with a wheel on the right side. This was Hong Kong, after all, and we soon learned that honking isn’t unfriendly, more of a reminder that the road was built for cars and if one is to inject themselves upon it they may have to face consequences.

After sitting in the ferry terminal for a few hours, taking turns at sponge-bathing in the bathroom sinks and drawing guide books from our stacked luggage, we lugged it up the stairs to meet our boss, Eva Lai.

I have a feeling that my descriptions of Eva are not going to be fully correct until I’ve seen her on a bad day. On a good day, like when we arrived heavy-laden in front of a gaudy hall of mirrors and crystal chandeliers, she has a voice like firecrackers make before exploding into glittering laughter. We’ll see whether that later translates to over-loaded moped brakes or something worse when work intensifies.

She’s claimed that if we see her with “two fists bruised and in bandages”, that it’s only because she’s been fighting for us.

Apparently that fighting may start right away. After we’d been introduce to the herd of Minnesotans who were to be our co-TA’s, we were herded on buses, through customs where we had to shove thermometers into our sweaty armpits, we were loaded on a bus and brought to our “private estate.” We sprawled out inside the bus, I ignoring the smattering of luggage-induced bruises on my arm to gape at the green wrapping the high rises of Zhuhai, the “lovers lane” along the beach—muddy blue water dotted with tiny boats, lined with tourists and Chinese people in shallow cone hats, carrying ornate baskets. My stomach dropped in the way that it does when you meet someone whose every corner you’d like to explore, preferably with fingers, noses, and tongues.

“I might be in love,” I said to the blonde girl in the seat in front of me.

Her eyes popped as if I’d just read her mind. She nodded.

We continued—passing a fishery to our right and an amusement park called “Pearl Land” to our left. We passed the imposing residence halls and snaked up to the roundabout before the compound that would be our workplace. Eva got off the bus, waving to us and promising us tomorrow in her sing song voice.

We drove down a concrete road, honking at mopeds and cyclists and pedestrians carrying tree branches. We drove down a street lined with textile factories, garage after open garage full of stacks of rolled fabric. We drove, and began to get concerned that we were still driving, past increasingly rural scenery.

“Here we are! It’s the ugly part!” Our HR rep was yelling, pointing out the window to a sudden break in tradition to new luxury apartments. Before we knew it, she was demanding people get out of the car to fill the apartments. We had no cell phones or internet and weren’t even in the same neighborhood. I held out until the end, until it was only me, the boys and the other blonde in love with China. Her name is Megan.

Jocelyn, a very well-spoken Chinese girl—who is incidentally at least two inches taller than me!–led Megan and I to our apartment. Our enormous apartment, with two balconies, a kitchen, two bathrooms, and some really funky lime-green and purple couches. Also, we finally figured out that Sabrina the HR rep wasn’t accusing our apartments of hideousness, but she was mispronouncing the word “agile.” Because apparently the place is called Agile Gardens. I really don’t know why. Anyway, considering that we were going to get a shuttle to work every day, maybe living out in the boonies wasn’t so bad.

Except Chad, one of our co-workers, got really really sick the following night and it took sheer dumb luck to get him to the terrifying, filthy rural hospital.

They’ve started to think that maybe they should get us some internet connections (not stolen ones like the one i’m using right now), at least put us in the same building, or maybe move us into the city. We don’t know yet.

The epic day ended at the restaurant across the street, with Xander, one of three Chinese-enthusiasts of the group, translating for us. As we dug into rice with meat bits, he announced through devilish grin that we were eating pigeon. Those of us who frequently watch Anthony Bourdain were pretty stoic about it, until Andy drew out the beaked and vacant-eyed skull with his chopsticks.

Since then, things have just gotten sillier.


Our new roommate, Jessica, showed up at the first work meeting the following morning. We didn’t know we had a new roommate. Megan and I had left her all the random stuff we’d found lying around the apartment, including the baby washcloth and a couple of rhinestone buckles (somehow we’d had the presence of mind to throw away the condom wrapper we’d found lying behind the bed).

Jessica is beautiful in a familiar sort of way, like maybe I’ve seen her in a shampoo commercial or a country-music video. Just our luck, however, is that she’s also an extremely pleasant and interesting person. Also, as her boyfriend works in the PR department and lives in an even nicer apartment in Zhuhai, she did not begrudge me the master bedroom. Now hopefully I can live up to it (which leads me to wonder where I can get an area rug and a floor lamp. I tingle with shopping anticipation and delight!)

The other girls were vocally unhappy about our accommodations and complained the entire bus ride to our first day of work. If you know me, you know there are few things I hate more than whining, except of course the horrible sick feeling I get when I start resenting people. So I decided not to. They did, after all, have a point, as we would learn that night.

We didn’t learn that however, until after a day of meetings, of fretting over when our diplomas would arrive so we could get our visas, after listening with concern about how some of the teachers had returned early from vacation to work at a “intensive summer program” only to find, two days before, that it wasn’t happening, after drinking mango milkshakes for less than a dollar and a half at a canteen across the street. As the UCSB contingent relaxed and waited for the shuttle back to our outpost, which only comes at 19:00, piano music sailed over our heads.

“Chopin!” SB Megan exclaimed. “Don’t ask me why I know these things…”

Later I found out that it was Jocelyn playing the piano. I’m still trying to think how I can bribe her into collaborating with me. She said she’d have to hear me first, because, like most very competent pianists, she has more suitors than Scarlett O’Hara. I’m sure I’ll win her over somehow. Will gladly take any and all advice as to how.

Chad got sick that night and didn’t come to dinner with us. Andy called to tell us he was limp and puking, and we tried to get Xander to come translate to the hospital for him. After we heard that he finally got in touch with someone, we went to bed a little uneasy.


As we waited in the heat for the shuttle to come, the doors of the van opened across the street from us and Chad hopped out with a short man, who turned out to be Bill from administration. Another hero, Bill. He hangs out in our city, Zhong Xian, all the time and happened to be out to dinner with his wife when Andy called. Chad had some kind of food poisoning (actually, I found out later it was heat stroke, but for some reason he thought that was less impressive), had been stuck with all kinds of needles and had to lay on a dirty bed. He was almost positive that he’d contracted something there, but was feeling better regardless.

We meanwhile headed off for errands without him: first to the Chinese Agricultural Bank (because clearly we are farmers) to open accounts. While we waited in line, the conversation wandered to health care in the US. Chris from Minnesota said, “I don’t think I’ll really pay attention to politics until someone starts a violent revolution.”

As we were standing in line in a national bank in China, we decided to take the conversation in another direction. Leaving the bank, we passed another white guy checking his stocks online. He had an enormous knife inside of a sheath sitting next to him at the desk. I wondered what responsibilities the security guy in the doorway had.

In between errands we checked e-mail and news in the air-conditioned office. Not my air-conditioned office, however. The cubes and desks are still strewn about and not set up in any way. Eva claims to be fighting for that too. Jocelyn came down to our office inviting us out to lunch. After several days of noodles and pigeon, I got myself a banana pizza. It was sweet, tender, savory, small, and only cost two and a half dollars (about 15 yuan or “kwai”).

We got back into buses and headed into Zhuhai, underneath the mountains, blasting through tunnels lined with restaurants and pedestrian filled crosswalks. We pulled up in front of the high rise hospital and filed out, into neat lines. They took our picture, handed us our directions, and sent us up and down staircases for all manner of prodding: an open x-ray started the fun, and we went on to get another HIV test, eye exam, and other typical check up things. We also, however, had to stand behind a blue sheet and bare ourselves to a nurse who promptly ran away in terror. At least that’s what it seemed like.

We also were given plastic cups and instructed to go into the unisex squat-toilet bathroom to deliver a urine sample.

“Where do I bring it when we’re done?” I asked.

“Back here,” said the nurse at the counter.

Which basically meant I emerged with an uncovered cup of urine to wash my hands next to nonchalantly-whistling Xander, and then carry the cup like an egg on a spoon across the hallway back to the lab window in front of all of my coworkers. And that was before the ultrasound! Ultrasound?

“Stephen’s expecting!” Someone exclaimed as we came downstairs. I offered to host his baby shower, but that job had already been given to Andy. I settled for godmother.

The next couple of days were more relaxed, with nothing but a Monty Pythonesque scramble for hours in different subjects of which we have no clue of connotation. Each of us had ten mandatory hours working in clubs and in the writing lab, but we had to figure out amongst ourselves how to divide the rest of our ten hours in TESL, Chinese Language Center assistance, Advanced Writing and Composition, and Year 4 classroom assistance. Nobody knows what these different areas are all about, but the ensuing battle really helped me gauge the group’s capacity for vitriol.

“Wait why are you signing up horizontally?? Now I have to do a random half hour over here!!”

“Just fucking take something it doesn’t mattaaaaar!!!”

“I need four more hours somewhere and I don’t know what TESL means!”


Luckily the rest of the day was ours until the arrival of the 7 o clock shuttle. We took the 10A bus to Gong Bay, on the border with Macao, to shop in the underground mall. I walked around with Rose, who teased the Chinese vendors by asking how much something cost and then running away. The two of us bought glass power beads (remember those??) from a pirate-treasure pile.

As we turned down the next aisle we were accosted by shouts of “Americans! Americans!” I of course, put on an Aussie accent and started saying, “Oy, whaddya mean?” which was lost on pretty much everybody. It was the spa area. Which meant I was in trouble.

I was halfway into a doorway, as Rose was presented with a menu. The entire little shop was on its feet, standing around us. One of the customers started explaining the prices to us in English. 35 yuan for a pedicure and 40 for a foot massage—in all about ten dollars. I was almost leaping into the seat. Rose had one foot in, until I just grabbed her by the arm. The energy was applauding. We all settled in for an hour of relaxation (once Rose had finished calculating and recalculating the exchange rate) and watched a very melodramatic TV show that looked like the Chinese OC. Sideways ponytail, Rooster hair gel, male bobby-pinning, and ice cream cone swirls were involved.

That night we ate street food and teased each other about how the kebab skewers had been stored in the dung shed, and how the meat was kept next to the pile of maggots. Ha. I ate barbecued grass for the first time, and pulled great chunks of spiced and grilled eggplant with my master-chopsticks, the chicken was so spicy my lips went numb for several minutes at a time. We rewarded ourselves with several pitchers of watery beer.

In the morning, Andy and I have been running off the excellent meals the sun is too high. Yes, I have been getting up before 7am to run in the heat. Finally, I’m getting to be a real grown up.

The finale to our week of administration was a “treat”–a visit to the former residence of Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the People’s Republic of China (pre-communism). Our town is where he grew up, and is therefore named after him. Zhong Xian also means “middle mountain.” Coincidentally it happens to be in the middle of a bunch of mountains.

While I was walking through a replica of the old village where Sun Yat-Sen lived, I heard, “Hello, hello?” It was a man only a couple years older than me, staring and smiling at me. Not uncommon. He mimed taking a picture, and motioned at the camera in my hand. I’m one who likes to take pictures of lone tourists so they can have more than lame self-portrait shots so I said, “Xie xie,” and followed him to the front of the residence.

“Je xi shen ma?” I asked him, pointing at the camera. I’d asked him what camera was in Mandarin. He looked at me blankly and motioned to his friend. Of course he spoke Cantonese, I realized. This was Southern China.

The friend took out his own camera and snapped a picture of us. He wanted a picture with the white girl. Go me. The only way I could salvage the situation to myself was to give the guy my own camera and act like I wanted a photo with the Cantonese guy. This might happen a lot…
Today we’re relaxing and watching movies. Hopefully! Also making our own delicious wok food. Hopefully this working internet thing will stick.
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