Tiger Leaping Gorge, Part 1–The Trip Gets Awesome

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment

We left Lijiang with the earliest possible shuttle, but later than one would usually desire when departing for a two day hike that first must be preceded by a two hour ride in a mian bao che (a small silver van in the shape of it’s nicknamed “bread loaf”).  We traveled through the mountains with three young Chinese students, one of whom was an English major in Beijing.  As we snaked out of the valley and toward the mountains surrounding the gorge, we passed a truck pulled over to the right shoulder (there was a right shoulder!) by two police cars.

“Someone’s in trouble with the po-po!” Megan said.

The English student turned around, his cheekbones riding high with a grin.  “What is po-po?” He asked.  We told him it was a kind of American slang for police and he burst out laughing, sputtering Chinese to his two friends until they were laughing too.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri-La County, Yunnan

We stopped to look over the gorge at a vista point complete with Buddhist temple.  Tiger Leaping Gorge is supposedly the deepest river gorge on the planet, the Yangtze running it’s silty way between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Xueshan.  It was dizzying to look down, and baffling to see the ubiquitous high heeled women making their way down the steps to the vista point.  They looked sexier in their photos than we would after two days of trekking, that was inevitable.

We left our big backpacks in Qiaotou village at Jane’s Guest House.  The driver left us there at noon.  While we were there we saw a Chinese-featured but Western dressed couple, the woman speaking with a British accent, the man with an American one.  They paid their 5 yuan to the woman sitting next to a pile of menus and a disheveled kitten and walked out.  We bought a couple of snacks to give us trail-energy.  I got “toast and peanut butter” which consisted of a large slab of bread and a jar of Skippy with a knife stuck into it.  We soon began the hike, following the path of several green, spray-painted arrows on walls that said “Gao lu” or “high trail”.

We caught up to the couple in a big concrete yard outside of an elementary school.  They stood, debating their route in Western-accented Chinese with a confused looking man on a horse.  We stopped, asking them if he was telling them which way we should follow.  The four of us were soon walking up a paved road together, the man on the horse clopping slowly behind us.

“He’s trying to convince me that I’m going to need the horse,” said the British woman in clipped tones, “but at least I made him take of the damn bell!”

This woman, Kay, had spent the past five years living and working in Hong Kong and just moved to Qing Dao (home of the brewery…Tsing Tao is how you write it in old Pinyin) to learn Mandarin.  There, she’d met Patrick, an electrical engineer turned English teacher from Hawaii via the Bay area.  He was moving back there to get his Masters in Environmental Policy, and she was moving to Beijing to try her luck at job-getting.  We heard from her, the familiar ring of how easy it was to live in China, and how she didn’t want to leave.  We eventually figured out that they weren’t actually a couple at all.

Kay on the treacherous path!

Meanwhile, one horseman clopping behind us, listening to our introductions, to us discuss the world cup, turned into two and then three horseman.  One of them started making goat noises as we passed a flock of goats, mimicking the laugh I let out in surprised response.  The new horseman also had bells.  Patrick and Kay kept politely turning to ask them to leave but they only laughed and said, how ever would she finish the trail if they weren’t there to rescue her?

Finally we stopped at a shaded convenience store for water before the famous “24 bends”, a collection of tight and steep switchbacks that coil up the mountain.  The man working at the convenience store offered us marijuana.  Patrick and Kay looked at us in confusion, “People never offered us that before!”  Kay said.  We laughed at their indignant arms akimbo–apparently getting offered drugs was stuff only white foreigners liked.  We declined (again), preferring not to accidentally teeter to our deaths.  Instead we sat, sipping water, and looking at the horseman, who had let their horses loose to graze and were themselves squatting nearby, waiting for us to move.

“I can’t handle it if they come along,” Kay said.

“Me neither,” I said.  The goat-bleating man was starting to repeat everything I said.  I was starting to prickle.

“It’s just that we’ve asked them several times already to leave us alone and the don’t seem to want to…”

“Emily, you should go be mean to them,” Megan said.  “You know how to be mean!”

It was a theme of our trip how mean I could get.  I wasn’t mean this time, but I definitely broke the magic fourth wall of politeness by walking up to them and imploring them in bad Chinese not to come with us.  It would’ve translated to something along the lines of: “Please please please please don’t come.  Please.  Don’t.  Don’t come.  Don’t go up hill.  Please.”

They laughed a lot.  But they didn’t follow us.

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Central China–redux pt.1

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

So my promises of up-to-date travel adventures in the People’s Republic were, too be diplomatic (though who wants that?), misguided.  Dali was not exemplary of anything I would find during the rest of our journey other than a lot of rain and a slight chill that I hadn’t packed for.  It was nearly impossible to post, due to the fact that most computers involved lines, and internet cafe’s…oh I don’t even want to get started but…

First look at this: http://deltabridges.com/news/dongguan-news/microsoft-sues-internet-cafe-chain-based-dongguan

So it isn’t that they think we’re going to corrupt the minds of Chinese internet users with our democratic tendencies.  It’s that they think every foreigner is now Bill Gates’s spy.  So the few times we did go into internet cafes, we were met with waving hands and screams of “No! No! No!”  A little disheartening.  Also makes it a little difficult to update.

So I’m going to do it now.

So we also encountered other things that were slightly like our experience in Dali, though not on such a professional level: we succumbed to the promise of a warm cup of Pu’er in the afternoon on something that had been labeled “Foreigner Street”.  I’d heard, accurately, that this was where the Chinese tourists with their counterfeit ethnic accessories and Nikons, would gape at foreigners who had come for a more unusual and hopefully heterogeneous experience of China.  The main difference between this, however, and the rest of the journey, is that the tourists here at least tried to sneak their pictures of us writing in our diaries.  Or trying to climb mountains.  Or eating lunch…

They wanted to see what she was writing about. When I caught her at it, she just said, "you're both just so beautiful!!!"

Our time in Dali finally ended, and we got on a minibus stuffed of locals, boxes and bags with homemade plastic handles, babies that alternately slept and wept, and whipped in and out of the oncoming lane higher and higher into the mountains that lead to the Chinese Solvang of Lijiang.  Lijiang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997 because of its ancient inner-city architecture, and despite some whisperings to the contrary that I heard while I was there, it’s status has not been revoked because of the glut of Nikon-carriers.  It seemed difficult to photograph authenticity without having the frame filled with lines of identical bangle-shops and windows stuffed with dried yak meat.

Megan and I walked with our bags through the narrow streets–I almost a liability after foolishly deciding to brave the slick ancient stones in year-old cheapo flip flops (at least my outfit matched though!!!)–and found our Chinese-run hostel at the other end of the Old Town.  The neighborhood was quiet.  We needed hamburgers and then we needed quiet, so we sat in the hostel, I playing a tiny guitar with a missing string, and her reading the Lonely Planet in preparation for the following day’s trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

The trip gets awesome here.

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Dali, Yunnan 21:45

June 22, 2010 Leave a comment

We sat upstairs in a cafe after dropping our stuff at the Lily Pad Inn, run by Ben the gregarious Frenchman. The air did something to us as we looked up at the crags of the Cangshan mountains and as the rain broke out in front of our eyes. Dali is like Santa Barbara in that all of the rooftops are the same, sloping into more subtle points than the eagle talons of Thailand. These tiles are blue, and the linings of the houses are painted with the quintessential Chinese animal patterns–green and yellow birds (with the stray tiger or crab) and trees against white, white porcelein.

I’d found a book on the shelf of the bakery called “The Importance of Living” by Lin Yutang, a Chinese philosopher from the 1940s, from the beginning of some of the most tumultuous times here. He professed in the prologue to be making an offering, or a summary at least, of Chinese thoughts and attitudes toward life. If only, I thought, I’d found this before embarking on this crazy year.

There were passages relating to family loyalty, some interesting comments on how a wife is only a wife when she has children and only a mistress when she does not, but we all pick and choose from philosophy–the things we like and the things we ignore.

I chose the section on idleness, nearly out of necessity, but also because here–like many other places–no matter how many inordinate and confusing demands are made, there’s always time for a two hour nap after lunch. Mildly paraphrased, Lin said something along the lines of: a Westerner may have a strong work ethic, but isn’t it when he’s lying on his back in the middle of a grassy field on a spring day that he sighs, almost involuntarily, “life is beautiful”?

Megan and I have been having a hard time with this. We’ve gone on long walks during the few hours a day that the sun has been shining (warranting some really awkward necklace-sunburn-lines) out to Erhai Hu (a lake named for it’s shape like an ear). Then we’ve spent afternoons buzzing with the thin air of the altitude, drinking Pu’er green tea, and waving off the elderly women who repeat incessentally, “smoke-a the ganja?”

“This isn’t normally how I travel,” she said to me today. Apparently the norm is a nearly break-neck pace. She and her spring-festival travel buddy ripping through Cambodia, Laos, Vientnam and Thailand in a month. We are covering an immense amount of ground ourselves, but there is not a lot we can do in the rain–the cold rain. And as most of you already know, I am a lazy traveler. With the year we’ve had to process though, both in our respective social groups, watching ourselves change and coming to grips with some very grown up things, the idleness has been necessary. It hasn’t necessarily inspired “life is beautiful” sentiments–I hope those will come in time. It has, however, given us an opportunity for some entirely necessary reflection.

Categories: Uncategorized

Kunming, Yunnan 19:24

June 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Woke up yesterday with one of my girlfriends zonked out next to me and the mid-morning sun blaring through the dusty curtains. Walked into the living room to see my friends and roommate sprawled on the couches, a strange Italian man with tattoos all over his body sprawled on a mattress that had been dragged to the middle of the floor. I realized that along with the increasing amount of work stress, of packing, and of final exam activities, my life had fallen into that somewhat sordid short-timer condition. It was definitely time to leave Zhuhai.

But I’m not coming back just yet…not after the weeks at Town No. 1 with Wendy, with saving up all my extra yuan and taking on those extra classes. I didn’t spend my early mornings to my late nights at UIC, grading papers, running clubs, and planning lessons for nothing!

Megan (from SB) and I arrived in Kunming, Yunnan last night. There’s something that all of my students have said about Kunming, almost using the same cadence and the same phrases in that spooky way that many Chinese people echo one another, “Ah. Kunming is called the spring city. They say there that it is never hot in the summer and never cold in the winter.”

I don’t know anything about the winter, but I do know that unlike in Guangdong, we were able to walk outside for more than an hour without breaking a sweat. The streets were swept clean, and high mountains that dropped suddenly into cliffs formed a background for the city skyline.

Last night as we drifted into much needed, twitchy sleep, I asked Megan if we could pleeeease please please go to the “Ethnic Minority Village” at the edge of town. China has this exploitive propensity that can sometimes be kitschy to the point of being horrific. I expected this to be something like the new “little person park” that was written up in the New York Times, and that I would have to keep my hand over my mouth entirely.

By the time we’d left, I was quite relaxed and happy. I was happy to be breathing clean air and looking over clean water, even if from man made lakes. We watched a demonstration by a group of Miao people, dancing, singing hymns in a homemade church, a young Chinese man with a popped collar came up to offer a song (as is a hospitality tradition) and was then forced to attempt climbing a high wooden telephone pole whilst trying to preserve his designer pants. As we rounded the side of the church, Megan and I turned just in time to get our own photos taken by a Chinese tourist. I wasn’t horrified as I walked through the well kept park, looking at beautiful handicrafts such as embroidery, clothing made from tree bark, clay teapots shaped like chickens, and elaborately carved traditional instruments. People seemed happy, and even if it was touristy, to us it was still Chinese.

This will not be the same sort of trip as we took in Thailand and Malaysia. Megan and I have an elaborate, only halfway formed itinerary that leaves us only about two days in a given place. Tomorrow we’ll be taking a 9am bus to the old city of Dali, slightly further up into the mountains. In the meantime, however, we hope to get out into the city to try some “Across the Bridge” noodles, and maybe spend sometime in the bouganveillia lined courtyard of the Cloudcity hostel.

Foreign TA Meeting (Guest Post)

I have been teaching every Thursday at three and have been unable to attend TA meetings. One of my office mates, Roey Gilberg, has taken the Quintessential Meeting Minutes, however, and it seems that I’ve been missing some epic business. So here goes…(btw, I have permission by the author…)

“The events chronicled herein transpired on the afternoon of May the 20th, in the year 2010 A.D. of the Gregorian calendar. This document may not be reproduced or redistributed without the expressed written consent of United International College.

Copyright Sir Roey Gilberg, M.D., Ph.D., Juris Doctor, Esq. All rights reserved. Violations are punishable by guillotine, firing squad or 25 uninterrupted hours entertaining GIR Final Year Projects in the Writing Resource Center.

Inquiries shall be directed to the author, who will respond if he sees fit. Further transcription services are available at an extravagant fee. Payment shall be conferred in oxen (although other livestock may be acceptable with a surcharge).

It was a warm afternoon. Outside, students meandered hither and yon amidst the sultry sub-tropical air, entranced by the wonder and euphoria of academia. Or was the apparent enchantment a product of something entirely different? Something hitherto unbeknownst to us? Something sinister? Were they merely enraptured by the thought of the evening’s impending session of World of Warcraft? We may never know. As these and other mysteries were pondered, we, the benevolent educators, settled into the pleasant, climate-controlled environs of C404. Pen and notebook at the ready, I braced myself for the task at hand. That’s right – it was I who was to take the minutes. I was the most important person in the room. God help us all. And so it began…

15:02 – The meeting commences.

15:03 – Zander is graciously thanked for his dictation of the minutes of two weeks prior.

15:04 – A requiem is offered for the excursion that was not to be – Mysterious Island. The notion is laid to rest once and for all. Students were heard to have claimed the aforementioned destination is “lame”.

15:05 – An array of suggestions for future outings is offered, ranging from the uncreative (a bar) to the unlikely (Cirque Du Soleil).

15:05 – It is asserted that consumption of alcohol whilst Go-Karting is not only acceptable, but encouraged.

15:07 – The suggestion of an island excursion quickly gains steam. Zoie is implored to research package deals at Dong’ao and other such islands, a task she grudgingly accepts.

15:08 – Reminder of next Wednesday’s English club party. It shall get crazy up in there.

15:09 – Those who failed to submit any materials to Tonie for the English working paper offer a variety of pathetic excuses. Those of us on the other end of the competency spectrum simply shake our heads in dismay. It is decided that Lauren shall ghostwrite a group offering, to be co-signed by the rest of the riffraff.

15:11 – All are urged to attend this Saturday’s TESL graduation party. It shall be held at nineteen hundred hours, and there will be food and beverages available.

15:13 – Chris, Zander, Andy, Michelle and Megan LC are reminded of their commitment to the May 28th cultural lectures. Said pentad seems to be in a state of disarray and confusion as to how to proceed, the blame for which is placed on Chris (the coordinator of the lectures).

15:15 – If you would like a reference letter from Chairman Dave, you must write it yourself. Then you may send it to him so that he can modify it to his content.

15:16 – The notion that it is uncomfortably hot is put forth. All concur.

I paused here. I was becoming fatigued; my wrist was limp. Would I be able to carry on? Would I be able to finish what I started? It was all starting to feel futile. The casual murmur of the meeting was melting into an incomprehensible kaleidoscope of bizarre noises in my weary mind. I started to feel faint. Did someone spike my milk tea at lunch? But I don’t drink milk tea. None of it made sense. But I had to fight through. I was the only minutes-taker. There was no contingency plan. If I surrendered here, the entire meeting would disappear from the annals of history, like a fart in the wind. Channeling my innermost strength, I put the pen to the paper, zeroed in on the words floating around me, and carried on with a flourish.

15:17 – An extended conversation concerning end-of-year logistics transpires. The relevant portions can be summarized as such:

· Goodman Coomes explains the significance of the termination form, for those who are leaving before the end of their contract and would like a cash advance on their last paycheck. The form shall be submitted to Echo once it has been completed and you have moved out of your dormitory.

· It is reiterated that it may be desirable to formally close your bank account before you leave, as the IRS tends to cast suspicion upon offshore accounts.

· If you want to take all your money home, wire transfers from a bank are free of charge. If you want to exchange your money at the bank, you may do so up to 500 USD per day. There is no limit on bank-facilitated exchanges if you have a Chinese national assist you.

15:24 – Lest anyone make any fun plans on the afternoon of June 2nd, all must attend the invigilator’s meeting – even if you were present at the prior semester’s.

End of meeting.

And thus concluded the most daunting ordeal I had ever experienced in this mortal coil. All that was left to do was to type up my notes and send them out. Would anyone read them? Would anyone care? It was not my place to ask such questions. The role of the minutes-taker is not for the cerebral, not for those prone to probing the realm of the metaphysical and the existential. It is a job that must be done, and I did it. I could go to sleep that night with peace of mind, knowing that the meeting was now recorded for all posterity.


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March 30, 2010 1 comment

“I’ve been receiving a lot of calls from parents saying, ‘My student has never had the chance to talk to a foreigner BEFORE,'” our boss said during the first meeting of the quarter.

A murmur circled the room, mostly centering on, ‘sounds like a personal problem.’ When parents call the boss and complain though, it isn’t really a personal problem anymore. We learned, gobsmacked, that we were to conduct a ten minute conversation with every single student on campus before the end of the quarter. Divided between 11 people, that leaves about 350 for me, which translates to about seven hours a week asking the same questions to students at varying levels of English…over…and over…and over.

What is your major? Where is your hometown? What do you like to do on the weekends?
I feel like I’m in new student orientation all over again.

Most of us ask these sorts of questions, but at least one of the other TAs has been using it as a vent for his bitterness.

So are there places in China where people don’t push each other in line for the bus? What’s the thing you hate the most about China? Why do you think there is so much government corruption? I hated that city. There were too many Chinese tourists and they were too loud. No, I don’t like China at all.

It has also turned me into the office receptionist as my desk is the closest to the door, receiving upwards of twenty students per day saying, “I come for the oral assessment! My teacher says!”, then staring at me, breathing with open mouths and vacant eyes when I ask which TA they have an appointment with. A chorus of shouted questions interrupts our work about every 5 minutes from 10am until 5pm.

Despite these shaky beginnings, sometimes my conversations are extremely interesting, dynamic, or informative. For example, one student sat down and drew me a diagram explaining the roots of Chinese philosophy and religion, a wheel with characters circling it, detailing different levels of darkness and light. Another time I discussed social safety nets with a social service major for nearly forty minutes when the student scheduled after her missed his appointment.

Then there are days like today.

Two girls came in together and took their seat at a square table in our office. I told them the rules–that only one person could go at a time. Ryan said that Marian could go before her, because she had a class. “I know, I know, Ryan is a boys name–I think I will change it later.”

“Marian, what kind of interests do you have?”

To one of my easiest and most understandable questions, I got what each of us has come to dread and react to with visceral disgust: the blank stare.

She paused for about two minutes and said, “I go…with my best friend.”

I had no idea what that meant. I tried it from another angle. “What do you like to do?”

She whispered something in Chinese across the table to Ryan. I put a hand up in between them. “You have to do it yourself,” I said.

She looked at me, smiled, and said, “SHE is my best friend!”

“Ok…” I said. By now I knew what grade she was going to get, but I tried to drag it out anyway to avoid more calls from parents. I suspect that Ryan is the type who will do anything for her friend, including homework, most likely. “Where do you like to go?” I attempted again.

“We go Jinding park,” she said. Jinding is a district a 15 minute bus ride from school. It’s not a park, it’s a street market where people grill different types of meat, vegetables, dumplings, all smothered in garlic and peppers.

“What do you do there?”

Pause, accompanied by a small moan of panic, then an epiphany–“We eat the delicious food!”

“Like…” 10 minutes, huh?


“….What kind of meat?”

“…..mmmmmmmm……uuummmmm….PIG MEAT!”

I was done. I told her I was going to let her go on to class, but first I asked her if she had any questions for me, as I do with all of my students. The question they ask is usually a variation of “where are you from?” unless the student has questions about applying for graduate school, about which I can’t offer too much advice anyway. I wasn’t expecting her to have one after that debacle.

But she said, “YES!” And after giggling, for the first time looked straight at me and said, “why you no smile?”

Suffice it to say my answer was not the truth.

Glee a la Guangdong

March 28, 2010 1 comment

There’s something that, in these past few months, has put a little zing into my busy week at UIC. It sprouted from the weekly pop club meetings, and the fact that twenty minutes wrangling twenty five non-singers isn’t going to produce even a two minute song, much less an entire performance’s worth.

Not that I need the spotlight. I just was told all these rumors about 30 percent of Chinese people having perfect pitch, due to the tonal linguistic-nurture. Thank you NPR, for raising my expectations. Although I guess if I thought harder about it, I would’ve figured out that 30 percent only seems like a lot…


Our eight-member Glee Club performance took even me by surprise at the International Culture and Language Conference dinner back in December, prompting one of the drunken conference goers to stall our final number in enthusiasm.

“THIS! This is what we need more of here at UIC!” She’d shouted, standing, brandishing a plastic cup of Portuguese wine. My students held their pose for the final piece, trying not to laugh, hands behind their back, heads lowered. I’d already started sounding Rob’s first falsetto note on the upper e-string.

For some reason even when they practice now, whenever they get into that pose, the giggling begins.

Apparently later that night, the conference goer had picked up several paper lanterns from the table and done a Salome-style dance for the English Department. I missed it, because I’d taken the group to Sichuan food. On the white board from which Meg’s already erased the Star War’s cast list, it’s named as the number one funniest moment of our UIC experience.

This semester, after the first meeting of the lunchtime pop club, as I signed the last of the attendance sheets and the students rushed to their afternoon classes, I saw my contingent leaning on the first two rows of desks, agendas open in front of them. “Hey! Hey! Hey! When does practice start?” they shouted at me.

These students spent their high school years going to class from 8am until 8pm, and this is their first exposure to extracurricular activities, the first time they’ve been away from their families, and the first time they’ve been permitted to date. The girls still carry purses that are giant zip-up teddy bears, holding hands with their best friends. For most of them, these will be the only four years of self-discovery separated in any small way from extreme filial responsibility.

The ones who seem to be so passionate of this group, though, remind me of my friends from my high school, complete with relationship angst, ambiguity and fragile friendships: the best-girlfriends who appear at every rehearsal and run up to hug me in the hallway, who are obsessed with musical theater and join as many clubs as they can stay awake for; the boys on the rugby team who have great voices and hoot at me whenever they see me from across the campus; he serial dater with flashy yellow shoes who, though cocky, put out his blue cigarette without a word a second after I told him they would make him lose his high notes.

“What do you guys want to sing?” I’d asked.

“LADY GAGA!” The three tallest boys in the group shouted, and immediately launched into a warbling rendition of “Bad Romance”– “RAH-RAH-AH-AAAAAH!” They shouted, hopping in a circle around me. I cringed. But this isn’t my college experience—so I gave them what they wanted, printing out lyric sheets and having them sing along with the recording.

To my relief, halfway through the song they collapsed on the writing center desks crying, “It’s too long! We cannot do it!”

We have a new portfolio and two new members, due to the apparent loss one of the girls who had formerly been dating the boy with the yellow shoes. She’d told me that she couldn’t come anymore because…she didn’t know how to say it… “Too awkward?” I’d said, then explained in my simple English what that means. She nodded and apologized. I sighed. I’d recruited a new boy and girl. She’s going to be hard to replace. But I remember how high school felt too.

We’re sticking with the old songs and adding some Jason Mraz, Corinne Bailey Rae, Queen, more Mika by popular demand and (we’re totally cornball but I swear it was their idea) some Journey. Yeah, you know why.