Posts Tagged ‘China’


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.

Siberian Paridise

January 25, 2010 Leave a comment

We stop in the middle of an open parking lot and my eyes snap open. The red digital numbers in the front of the bus read 2:00. People are filing off the bus, holding their shoes in red plastic bags, putting them on in the spongy red matting at the bottom of the stairs. We cross the parking lot to a ferry terminal, waiting in clouds of cigarette smoke. I buy another water bottle to add to my collection of half-drunk ones in the metal basket at the foot of my sleeping mat. There are no bathrooms on the bus, so even though I haven’t finished any of them, and I have gotten off the bus in almost all of the many Guangdong stops, my bladder still aches with paranoia. The ferry has a bathroom though. It also has a bootleg version of Ice Age, dubbed in Mandarin, and rats that shoot out of the walls like darts in an ancient, booby-trapped temple. Steve and I sit with our legs crossed on the metal benches and listen to my iPod until the battery runs out.

When we get on the bus, I close my eyes, and I don’t open them again until he shakes me. It’s 7:30am, and we’re in Sanya, a tourist city on the Southern end of Hainan, China’s only tropical island.

We eat, first, at the “McDonalds” of China. China does have a McDonalds, yes, but we use this in reference to the Uighyr noodle shops that all reside under the same blue banner with cut out photos of a mosque, a bowl of noodles, and a cow.

The cab driver has a picture of Chairman Mao hanging from his rear view mirror, and when we show him the address of our hostel, he takes us someplace entirely different. “Bu shi, bu shi,” we say—this isn’t it—and he yells at us in Chinese that YES YES IT IS. He drives around to the other side of the street and stops again, pointing at an unmarked house and continuing to yell. We get out without paying, our hostel still nowhere in sight, and walk halfway down the street, finding it at last. We go back and pay him, and we can hear him screaming at us as we walk away, flailing his arm at an abandoned building, telling us we should go inside—that this is the place we’re looking for. We stopped looking back at him, and as we entered the courtyard of the Sanya Lama hostel, the front lawn dotted with tents for the construction workers, his voice dies away.

We could fall asleep there, but choose instead to go out to the beach, where I finish reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones, sitting on a green towel with a cartoon puppy that I’d bought the previous morning from the grocery store, and he sleeps, insistently sunscreen-free, on his stomach.

There’s not a lot to do in Hainan, which is a major part of the attraction.

You could select live fish from the rows of bubbling, cascading tanks. Sometimes the shrimp would even jump out at you, as if to volunteer themselves. We didn’t take them up on their offer—we stuck to spicy cucumber salad and fried noodles as wandering Chinese minstrels played warbled, dragging their guitar amps behind them.

You could drink cocktails on the boardwalk at a place called “CCCP”, Soviet propaganda posters stapled to each wooden column to attract swarms of be-Speedoed Russians. Steve didn’t drink, having fled to the seashore with me to rest and heal a little bit from an obnoxious and recurring illness, but he demanded that I did whatever I expressed the desire to do.

“You should buy one of those,” he said, as I eyed a rack of beaded purses.

“I’d break it,” I said, imagining myself snagging it on a hook, the handle snapping and the beads scattering across the gritty floor.

“That’s a pretty negative thought pattern,” he said, from his mountain-top, lotus position.

I argued with him, but after he’d gone back to the hostel, I bought a blue and yellow one with stretchy brown handles. It zips up, and rests safely tucked under my elbow and over my hip. It can also, of course, fit a decently-sized book—Oscar and Lucinda has been traveling safely inside of it for most of the week.

The third day, I brought the first printed draft of a book I’ve been working on to the beach, and as he went off hunting for return tickets (for the train this time, to avoid rats), I sat at CCCP with my red pen, a melonball and a smile. They first sent the Russian waitress to me, but I asked for the Chinese girl, and we had some of the shy and faltering, albeit smiling back-and-forth that I am growing to love. I sat there for hours with my red pen, looking out at the clean water, over the tops of thatched umbrellas, past the naked Chinese children burying themselves in the sand, to the clean, blue water, the jet skis maneuvering around fishing boats.

The Filipino band at the Rainbow Grill (that boasted real cheeseburgers with BACON) didn’t end up being a real band, but rather a guy who played electric guitar over karaoke tracks, and two women who sang soft rock and soft salsa. Steve had commanded that I stay out and have fun, even though he wilted into bed early. So I sat, talking to Victoria, a waitress from Henan province who moved to Sanya specifically to practice English. Henan is the home of the Shaolin Temple, and when I asked her if she knew Kung Fu, she said, “Of course!” and did a couple of kicks to demonstrate. When I got tired of watching the men with Mohawks dance and sharks who came to holiday from monopolize the pool table, I walked back over the bridge and crashed headlong into bed, sleeping off what felt like a wild five months of shock and newness.

In the hostel, we met a worker at the hostel from Anhui province named Neo. I didn’t ask, but I’m about 82% sure that he named himself after the Keanu character. He was bigger than most Chinese people I’m used to, and a lot more outgoing, making jokes about how, the further South from Beijing, the better China becomes—hence he was here, at probably the most Southern point possible. The first question he asked me is what the difference was between a “chance” and an “opportunity.”

The second question was, “Is that man your boyfriend?” He said this sotto voce, when Steve was in the other room.

“No,” I said.

“Oh,” and as if he couldn’t take back the sentence he’d already planned, or perhaps in conspiracy of future conversations, “he is very handsome.”

While we were lying on the beach, done with our books on the morning of departure, Neo came and sat with us, pulling off his shirt. I got up to take a picture of he and Steve together, and he yelled, “No! I am too fat!” All I had to do was to nod my head toward the Russians behind him for his worries to be slightly allayed. He spent most of the conversation trying to convince Steve that he should marry a Chinese girl. When Steve asked why he should, Neo shrugged and said that this was just what Westerners did when they came to China. He left after about an hour, because he had to go “check his stocks.”

The next chance meeting came in a grocery store parking lot, where a woman, Coldstone’s style, mashed mango and banana together into an icy paste. As we sat savoring the fruit and the hour to spare before taking the bus to the train station, a big white man with a do-rag hovered over our table and rattled off something in Russian. We motioned for him to sit down. “OK-le,” he said. His name was Dennis, and he was on a two week holiday from being a firefighter in Siberia. Steve also insisted (always insisting) that I let him buy me a beer. He knew where Santa Barbara was, because apparently in Siberia the soap opera is still extremely popular.

We took a sleeper car, stacked three bunks high, and traded playing card games with watching the sun set over the South China Sea. This was the train that gets loaded onto a ferry, snapping apart and then back together like a toy set). I let slip some Chinese as we all crowded around the window and was almost immediately surrounded by Hunanese home-goers who stretched my vocabulary to its limits, miming, pointing and writing the words that I didn’t know. As we got off of the train in the morning, a quiet old woman followed me, wishing me a happy new year, shyly seeing me off. A man named Geng still calls me, late at night, and when I say that I don’t know what to talk about, that my Chinese is not good enough for the phone, he giggles.

We arrived back in Zhuhai, Stephen with better health, and me with a renewed interest in studying Chinese. There will be more traveling to do next week, but in the meantime I have more exams to grade, and some hostel reservations to make in Thailand.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , , , ,

Merry Christmas From a Lazy Traveler

December 21, 2009 1 comment

Everyone is going to Hainan for the Christmas vacation. When I say everyone I mean double digits–the TA’s, my boss Dave, and a high number of lecturers with surf boards in tow. Hainan is an Island way way way south of here, close to Vietnam. To get there, one takes a train that, eventually, boards a ferry (yes, the train boards a ferry), that continues onto the beach side paradise for cocktails and some yuletide sunbathing.

I, however, after the shame and difficulty of getting my job back after copious misunderstandings and phone calls between my uncomprehending boss and middle-woman, Jocelyn, don’t feel like asking for another Saturday off from tutoring. So I’m glued to Zhuhai, and it looks like Brian and I have a good 10 hours of the final seasons of Six Feet Under accompanied by several different types of cake lined up for that day. I can’t shake the feeling, though, that after staying only in Zhuhai for the past two months with no fascinating excursions to speak of since the momentous mud-wrestling at Qiao island that I am a boring, boring traveler. In my dreams I see myself as a miserly Scrooge stealing lollipops from babies (I am not exaggerating). Christmas? Train rides? Sunny beaches? Bah humbug.

Something about getting on a crowded 13-hour train trip, though, with nearly all of my co-workers in my department, awkwardly skipping a Saturday that could be spent making money and giving a potentially really fun Christmas-oriented English lesson…I don’t know. Would you want to spend your Christmas taking a Chinese train trip with everyone you work and live with every day of the week? Or would you rather hang out with your gay boyfriend from another department, eat cake, and watch quality television? Although it seems like a logical explanation, I wonder if it’s just a rationalization of the anxiety that arises in me when I think about bus or train trips where I have to communicate in Chinese characters.

I confessed this fear to Stephen over squid and broccoli last night, and he said in that psuedo-guru way he has, “Well you know, it’d probably be good for you to do things that make you anxious. Let’s take some bus rides together next term, ok?”

Yes, I know. I know, Steve. Why do you think I watch horror movies? Why do you think I went camping in the freezing dessert with you? Why do you think I went skydiving? Why do you think I moved to China? Why do you think I do anything that I do? Because it’s all safely within my comfort zone?

Honestly, though, the funk and misery of my former homesickness has passed at last. I was again salivating over pictures of the Beijing summer palace that Wendy, my Chinese tutor from another one of the nearby Universities, showed me, instead of just covering my eyes and ears and reciting “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”

“Zhe shi shenme?” What is this? I asked excitedly, my pitch getting higher, as I pointed at a picture of terraced tiles and dark blue, intricately painted and molded signs.

“This is Tunxi Old Street—it’s also in my home province Anhui!” Wendy said. She looked a little undone by studying for her finals, small and lithe with artificially lightened brown hair all askew.

“How old is it?” I asked her.

“Oh, just like…” she looked up, thinking, tapping her bottom lip with her finger, “2,000 years.”

Just, like, 2,000 years, she said. I was so excited about the book that she gave it to me to bring home and browse, to return after the spring festival in February. It’s not like my Lonely Planet travel guide. It isn’t just colored pictures, places to stay, and which bus line to take. It is a boring, intensive, historical detailing of all of the famous sites in China, and at this point I feel like reading the whole darn thing.

And to be fair, to myself, I bought a ticket to Bangkok for February 2, and a ticket back to Hong Kong from Kuala Lumpur for February 20.

So anxious that nonsense, suckahs!

I hope that, given circumstances in many of your lives, you are having a good holiday season. That you’re happy and spent some good time with family. It’s been a rough month for a lot of you. For those of you that are having some positive Christmas firsts (with baby, with marriage, etc.)—awesome. My thoughts are often with you.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Theatrics and Hysterics

December 15, 2009 Leave a comment


So we here in Zhuhai (I almost wrote Denmark—Freudian? Do I know the first thing about Freud…erm…) we have reached the 4-month slump. If you’ve lived abroad for more than four months, you know exactly what I’m talking about, particularly when that 4-month mark is coincides with the holidays that are happening at home, but are not happening here in any way. The weather, yes even here, is drippy with wet-cold. Everyone in the office either has a cold, a headache, some nebulous sore throat that-they-think-might-be-mono-maybe. Or they’re wiping out on their moped and wandering high and bloody around their apartment and scaring their friends. Or they’re mourning a death in the family as removed from the family as time zones and oceans will prevent. I have written about these things and posted them on my WordPress blog a couple of weeks ago. I know that many of you read this for escape and positivity, so I’ll do my best to bring it.

This is, after all, a pretty interesting place.

Take, for instance, today. the fact that one of my students called last night as Brett and I were putting on a disc of Six Feet Under, season 4 (um—chyeeeah!), and asked if I could help out with their movie the next day at one. I, happy to fill a free two hours, appeared today at the UIC gym, which is separated from the patio in front of the library by open air and a chain link fence, as if we were at decked out in work out clothes that ever since the cold wave that (I let) wreck my half-marathon training, I have neglected. As it turned out, I was the only extra in their movie, and when I wasn’t not-looking at the camera and lifting weights with my extra-buff biceps, I was sitting to the side not understanding their Cantonese and reading about a wily Scotsman who stole tea recipes from the Chinese during the 1850s.

Incidentally, I didn’t realize green and black tea were both from the same plant. Also, I didn’t realize that the Chinese dyed tea to actually be colored green to sell to the English before their monopoly was broken—and that they dyed it with iron ferrocyanide (cyanide!) and gypsum, which breaks down to what in high doses is essentially a nerve gas. Did I know this? No. Am I surprised? Not really.

Anyway, lets get back to the show. Literally. Meg runs the drama club, and their performance was tonight and was divided into two parts, each part produced, written, and directed by the students. The first one was called “Fantastic UIC”, which centered on a time rift that caused Snow White, Cinderella (who feud violently a la Gossip girl), Godzilla (who is dating Cinderella), King Lear, and Troy (yeah, we don’t know why they think Troy was someone’s name in that legend—he steals Cinderella from Godzilla by distracting him with a Trojan Horse full of “sexy ladies), to converge together at UIC to fulfill the College President’s dream of making the school famous and prosperous. The second show was called “E.T. On Earth” and featured two aliens named “E” and “T” who were visiting Earth on holiday. Apparently the only places worth visiting on Earth were UIC, Britain (where Juliet was helped by her three fairy godmothers to win back a drunken Romeo’s heart), “Hamburger-America-Hamburger” (where they did a pretty rad Heroes knock off), China (where three girls on their way to the mall are accosted by a kung-fu master and kicked his ass), and Hollywood, where Spider Man and an old man have a fight against a black background, assisted in their “wire-work” by a group of men dressed in black wearing black face masks. I promise I’m not making this up. I promise.

At one point one of the students in the Heroes segment, dressed in a blue cape, yelled at the villain, “What gives you qualification to have what is in my brain!!!” I laughed so hard that I distracted the audience. Honestly, that’s probably the most American thing that they could have said.

I got a half an hour off and then went to rehearse with my Glee Club, an un-UIC-endorsed knock-off of my American Pop club that includes some of my enthusiastic club members. I’m playing guitar for them while they sing three pop songs to entertain people who have come for the English Language Center’s conference this Friday night. They’re singing “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson, “Grace Kelly” by Mika, and “All These Things I’ve Done” by the Killers complete with choreography. That’s the good thing about being amongst people who don’t speedily catch on to sarcasm. They’re down for everything. I promise I’ll try to get video. I promise.

At the foot of the Casino Lisboa

Also, I finally went to Macau, despite the fact I didn’t run the half-marathon. Stephanie and I waited on Sunday morning for two hours at the border crossing until it was Sunday afternoon. The last time I threw that many elbows I was in karate. You have to, though. There was no line until we were wedged into metal-lined lanes, and the tiny women behind me pushed, put hands in between me and Stephanie’s linked arms, put their feet as far as they could from behind us in front of our feet, until I just decided to use my prodigious Swede-hips to let them know they had foolish ideas.

I won.

The only reason Stephanie and I went was to get a sandwich from Angela’s Cafe, which we heard was “on the second floor of some mall—when you get to the border you just get on the green shuttle and walk down the street and then you see a mall—Macau’s small, you’ll see it.”

That was a direct quote from more than one person.

About the fourth mall we walked into was it, after pursuing three different cross streets, walking into the Wynn Casino and watching a giant tree come out of the ceiling and change from bright green to gold, and panicking about all the traffic being reversed yet again. As we rode the escalator from the swanky make-up floor of a department store onto a swanky perfume-floor, I could see a wall of baguettes and croissants in the corner and nearly lost my cool. I built my sandwich: jumbo fresh croissant, pesto, mozzarella, tomato, roast beef and real sweet baby Jesus in his golden fleece diaper AVACADO!!! If you take these things for granted, well then stop it. Stop it right now.

Anyway, these have been my adventures. I’ve posted some new pictures on flickr (I’m emilysings) of Macau, and of some adventures with my students. Also the sandwich.

Categories: Homesickness Tags: ,