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“Nothing is Impossible, including the impossible!”???

Yesterday morning as I walked down the rain-soaked steps to the bus stop, I heard a flurry of indignant animal noises. They were coming from the direction of a well-dressed Chinese man standing beside a silver luxury car. I began to stare like those Chinese kids who scream “Hello! Hello!” at us as we walk down the street, because he held a ripped plastic bag with a live chicken’s head peeking out of the top.

Good morning,” he said to me in English as I stared at the chicken muttering in his hand.

“Hi,” I replied.

“Have you ever tried this?” He said, nodding at the clucker.

“What, putting a chicken in a plastic bag?”

“Yes.”

“No. It looks very difficult.”

“It is.”

“Ok, well have a good day.”

“Good day.” As it was the first thing that happened all day, I figured it would be something like that.

In the midst of the almost non-work day I came into contact with a former TA named Ryan who now is the golf pro and works in a department called “Whole Person Education”–basically the department that provides access to extracurricular activities for the students. I’d met him while standing with Jessica’s boyfriend, Joel at the High School Musical/MJ-aganza last Thursday. In a very uncharacteristic move for a guy our age, he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, “If you need anything, my office is right here. Come by any time.”

So yesterday I did. I went in to ask about the volunteer program, but without even asking me why I was there he was pulled up a chair and offered me tea. Not even offered, insisted really. Shoved it under my nose. He made comment about how tea was as elitist here as wine is at home, loaded with the discomfort with luxury that usually betrays a humanitarian, letting it drop that his girlfriend had bought it in Beijing for some exorbitant amount of money. He asked me how I was adjusting, I mentioned that it’s been a little disorienting but I was trying to be relaxed and accepting.

“You’re not one of those people who is sending those e-mails to HR complaining about housing, are you?”

Man, am I glad I’m not.

“Did you know that a lot of the Chinese staff are starting to get evicted from the dorms here with one or two days of notice?”

I asked about five questions that made me blush at my own naiveté and want to shove a whole dragonfruit in my mouth—which staff, the ones in the cantines? No, they aren’t students and aren’t employed by the school. They live in the blue roofed temporary houses and the huts by the lake across the street. The IT staff and the actual office staff were the ones getting evicted, and they’re promised a dorm room in their contracts the same way we were. Except when our contracts weren’t followed we were put in these very nice apartments and they are being evicted from their poorly built dorms. I was a bit amused by myself for being so surprised. Before I came from the US, when I was taking global studies courses and watching documentaries and vigorously reading the news, I knew what kind of injustices happen here. Some even questioned me about the morality of living in a country that has such a record of human rights violations (although, don’t we all?). Why wouldn’t these same injustices be present at the University where I work? My impression isn’t so heavy that it seals the morality of every place I live and work, not to any extent. Not by my mere existence, anyway.

Ryan let me know what programs they’re considering this year—definitely visits to Cantonese rest homes. “Most of the students don’t speak Cantonese, so it’s mostly a lot of patience, company keeping and nonverbal communication.” Lucky me! They’ll be just as confounded as I am on a daily basis. He suggested implementing a system for HIV/AIDS education and testing, and public clean ups (both desperately, desperately needed around here). He also said that it was up to the students to lead the projects, and even though they have been taught from a young age to follow those in authority they can be extremely innovative when encouraged.

After getting some grant money, a group of students went into a village with a lot of tarp plastic that had been heading for the landfill and hired some unemployed women to make them into handbags. They won third place in the entire country in a competition for entrepreneurship for their project. I also learned that what goes into the recycling bins at school just ended up separated the garbage sitting out on a beach in a big pile not-decomposing in the sun. Ryan found this out walking around “where I wasn’t supposed to be.”

He made it sound like he does this a lot.

I asked him how he gets around here to do all this stuff. He says he only has about a four hundred word vocabulary and can read about twelve characters (I’m already up to 7!). With that, he says, people here are helpful and willing to point one in the right direction, which I already can see.

Megan and I talked later about it, and she said that spending our weekends doing projects with him was undoubtedly a better way to spend the weekend than eating romin with the guys and watching The Wire on bootleg DVD. We also figured, with all the group-inward turning and isolation we’ve been experiencing, it would be not only a good way to connect with students, but a good way to feel like we’re not keeping the country at arm’s length. I have been worrying that my reticence to fight anything in the department might be part of a greater complacency and pass-the-buck attitude that I’ve been wired to find hideously immoral. Now I think it’s just that I haven’t found any of the challenges presented so far morally outrageous. Clearly I haven’t been talking to the right people until yesterday.

Today Megan and I are stuck inside—typhoon warning, no work, heavy horizon-obscuring rain to replace horizon-obscuring pollution. I’ve got HP Lovecraft, yoga, and a refrigerator full of green beans and rice. Go-go snow day!

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