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On a Road to Mangroves. 11/18. 2009

November 19, 2009 Leave a comment

Sorry for the two and a half week gap. Due to midterms and the need to cover for absent lecturers, work has suddenly intensified. I’ve also picked up four hours of work each Saturday tutoring one group of twelve year old kids at a kitchen table and another group of nine year old kids in a classroom. That first Saturday I had the morning off and spent it traveling to Qiao with the Whole Person Education and Environmental Science kids from UIC. We went to a mangrove preserve to watch the Agricultural bank present a gigantic check to some Chinese suits who own the place.

A donation to the Mangroves

“Now let’s turn our words into actions,” Michelle whispered in translation to me as an elegantly dressed Chinese woman shouted into the microphone. We all walked across the wooden boardwalks, changed into high rubber boots. Mine were about a size too big, but I saw others going down the steps and into the mud with shoes alone, and figured that it would be fine. Each mangrove came in a pot-shaped clump of dirt, we dug out holes that immediately filled back up with water. A man with a bright yellow shirt stretched across his pot-belly helped shovel mud around the skinny trunks.

“You want to do one more?” Michelle said. I was high on environmentalist virtue and agreed, and I hiked my dress up over my knees and followed her down the hill. The mud, however, went straight from ankle deep to mid calf deep, and the longer I stood in one place, the higher it rose. Michelle and I covered the tree roots and turned to escape the swamp, and I stepped right out of my boot.

“Um…” I turned to pull it out of the mud, and it wouldn’t come. I slipped my foot back inside. “Michelle?” I said quietly, trying not to draw attention to my predicament, but as I pulled at my boot, it set in anyway. Michelle was already up the embankment, and turned around, taking in the sight of me with something approaching horror. The rest of the crowd, including the local press and their 18 inch lenses, looked at me with something that far exceeded amusement. The man in the yellow shirt waded out to me and grabbed the sides of my boots and began to pull. After a lot of sweat and hacking on his part, my boot came free, then immediately sunk into the mud three feet further up the hill. The crowd reacted much like I’d taken an uppercut in a boxing match—mixed horror and delight along with much neck craning.

Michelle eventually had the presence of mind to set a shovel out in front of me on the ground, telling me to step on it. It would have greatly pleased the crowd if, when I’d stepped on the shovel, it had whacked me in the forehead.

Michelle and I won that round, however, and the shovel did nothing but distribute my weight over more surface area, and I finally escaped the deep mud. After struggling to the top of the embankment I apologized to the yellow-shirted man as he panted and lit a cigarette. I made some choice gestures at the camera lenses and grit my teeth, walking down the hot boardwalk barefooted and covered in mud to a hose behind the nearby oyster farm/seafood restaurant. The students kept commenting on how I’d had an “unforgettable experience” and how I’d “never forget that day”. Since then I’ve gotten a lot of teasing from Ryan and Katrina and the other Whole Person Education staff, but have still was assigned to be the staff leader for a neighborhood clean up this past Sunday (where I picked up a plastic bag that turned out to be full of human feces! Yay!)

I want to thank Mimi, whom I met in Hong Kong, for leaving behind that great woolen hippy sweater. When the weather suddenly turned frigid with absolutely no warning, I was able to at least throw a little something around myself. This Saturday when I take the bus out to Gong Bei, though, I’ll have to look around for a real coat, and also some closed-toe shoes, though my students say it’s supposed to get warm again next week.

On the bus this past Saturday, as I sat trying to remember which stop was for the Gong Bei primary school, the radio stopped playing the buzzy techno or wailing female voices that are the norm. Suddenly, a different song came on—in the middle—and continued for about thirty seconds as we brushed past scooter drivers: “We’re on a ride to nowhere/ come on inside/ Takin that ride to nowhere/ We’ll take that ride/ Maybe you wonder where you are/ I don’t care/ Here is where time is on your side/ Take you there, take you there/ We’re on a road to nowhere/ We’re on a road to nowhere…” I looked around the bus to see if anyone else was reacting to the music, which is silly because who tries to make themselves anything but invisible on a bus? It’s rare even at home that I hear that particular Talking Heads song on the radio, but it was not only the quintessential China-bus song, but it ended as suddenly as it began, the DJ’s voice breaking through the chorus.

Now whenever I’m a bus here, and often just walking down the street, I’ve got it in the back of my head.
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Halloween in Shenzhen with Li Hui

November 3, 2009 Leave a comment

I just got back from my first run on the track for a couple of weeks. Over the last couple weeks of my cold I went out about four times, but ran in the village where I knew I wouldn’t push myself. Out there I saw a snake, one dead and one alive, on the white concrete road. The critters I’ve been seeing are increasing in intensity. Jessica and I followed a praying mantis across the hallway that bounced as it walked. “It looks sick!” One of the Chinese professors said, coming up behind us. He ran into the bathroom and back, his palms cupped with water, which he threw over the poor green bug. He walked away, looking satisfied, and Jessica and I choked on our laughter as we ran back into our office. One of my students, in the meantime, gave me a canister full of yellow pills (that look and taste like candy), and instructed me to take 20 after every meal. “Twenty??” I said. “Ershi?” I said it in Mandarin just to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake. “Yes,” she said. “They’re small.” Maybe it’s because I took them at the tail end of the cold anyway, but my voice is back and I’m feeling much better. It also may have something to do with the extreme pampering that happened this weekend at the spa in Shenzhen, a two hour bus ride away, and China’s first special economic zone. The women who worked in the locker room were completely baffled, though, as we changed into gypsies, Lara Croft, foreign-devils, and as I smeared gold paint all over myself. I went as a good-fortune cat, one of the golden cats that are in many shops all over Asia, whose arms wish you good luck as they bob up and down. Jocelyn wrote characters on the inside of my forearm, and every Chinese person who stared at the crazy waiguoren got a good laugh as we took the metro to Coco Park to meet with other English teachers for pizza and beer. After scrambling for melty pizza and dancing to all the American top 40 hits, we went back to the center and enjoyed cockroach-free showers. I finally got that massage and afterward was allowed to sleep in the bed where I’d received it—this along with a pedicure and all the free dragonfruit I could eat was about 248 kuai (about 36 USD). Now I see why people stick around China for so long…at least after they start getting paid over the American equivalent to minimum wage (not quite there yet). I’ve got some bruises, and it was a little bit painful, but I already feel more relaxed. One thing’s for sure, when I have a cold my club suffers. Trying to get thirty-five already shy kids to belt out, “I’m bringing sexy back!” is no easy task. Trying to get them to do it when I sound like Bea Arthur underwater is almost impossible. This week I’m going to start them on a new song (or a section of a new song, anyway) and then see if they melt into their desktops. I’m thinking the “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” part of “All these things that I’ve Done” by the Killers. It’s about as close as I’m willing to get to the hyper-emotional ballads that are so popular here. Today I got my Chinese name: Li Hui. In China, the surname is first—Li, a famous emperor from the Tang dynasty (third tone) and Hui, my first name means “kind-hearted” (second tone–sounds like “Way”). I’m very flattered, but I hope that isn’t the Chinese equivalent to “has a good personality.”

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