Monthly Archives: August 2010

Why China is Weird, Part 2

You’re all thinking, “Another blog post? Really? Don’t you have, you know, things to do in China?” Let me take a moment to say that this behaviour is not normal. Once I start teaching next week I will probably not be putting up a new blog post every other day. (Incidentally, we will be meeting the faculty at our school on Saturday morning, which is tomorrow, in a ceremony in which we will be introduced by the headmaster to the entire school. It’s sure to be interesting, and I can’t wait.) This this post also includes some leftovers from our arrival in Shenzhen, which I never got to because there was a lot of stuff happening around that time and, well, one does get distracted easily.

I’ve been having a few moments over the past few weeks in which I have shaken my head and said, “Where AM I?”

1.  My co-teacher Stephanie and I were on the Metro yesterday afternoon, and as we walked down to the platform, we watched a group of three strapping young men carry a bank of metal lockers up the escalator. We were pretty sure they had gotten off the most recent train with it. This is so far the weirdest thing we have seen on the Metro, but we expect (and are hopeful for) much stranger.

2. This is not so much Why China is Weird, as Why China is Awesome. (Disclaimer: if you are disapproving of any of the following: drinking, rowdiness, or general tomfoolery, do not read on. We are, after all, a group of American 20-something expats living the Shenzhen fabulous life. Skip to part 3.)  There is a beer that is evidently brewed somewhere in the vicinity of Shenzhen, called Kingway. It’s awful stuff, basically the Chinese version of Coors (okay those of you who like Coors and are offended: try a microbrew. That is all I have to say to you) but as Chinese beers go it’s kind of par for the course. Anyway, because it’s brewed somewhere near here, there are a 2 or 3 beer gardens that serve it exclusively and are actually named after it. Kingway Beer Street in Luohu, Kingway Beer Garden in Bao’an, etc. (A “beer garden” here just means a large, open area with a bunch of tables and either a wait staff or a counter that serves beer.) The Bao’an beer garden is a massive area under a tent with probably close to 40 round tables with 8 or 10 seats apiece. The pitchers run about 15 yuan, food about 20 yuan per dish. They give you these little tiny glasses out of which you can drink the beer, which seems ridiculous, but they are slightly dangerous because you really have no idea how much you are drinking (which is actually the point, to get you to say “Bring another pitcher– Ling yi ge jia!” all evening). But the best part is after the food has been cleared, they bring out cups of dice for everyone and you all sit around playing Liar’s Dice very loudly and enthusiastically, for hours. As the evening progresses, the game becomes an almost incomprehensible aural mix of numbers, profanity (as you call each other out), and various broken Chinese phrases as all the expats get braver about their language skills. Our rowdy crew was seated next to a table full of equally rowdy young Chinese men, and they toasted us vigorously at the end of the evening. This experience is not one you want to have every night, or even very often at all, but every once in a while it’s ludicrous fun.

3. Okay. Now, this next item is something that I should have posted about more than a week ago, but a) I tried to block it from my memory and b) there were other things to talk about. I may or may not have briefly mentioned the fact that, in order to get our work visas and residence permits, we had to undergo both police interviews as well as a medical examination.

Come here, children, and let me tell you how a medical examination for the Chinese Government works.

This is what I like to call the China Hospital Scavenger Hunt. At the beginning of the day, you are given a sheet of paper, upon which are written various medical procedures in Chinese and bad English. Upon this sheet you will find things like, “ECG 303,” “Dental Exam 205,” and “EENT 311.” You read apprehensively down the list, balking at the one called “Surgery 312”– which turns out to be blood pressure and a vision test, oddly enough– and realize that the numbers are room numbers and the object of the game is to go around to each station and get a stamp after completing each task.

So off you go to plan your strategy. Do you get the easy stuff first, ease into it a bit? Or do you go balls to wall and check off x-ray, blood test, and peeing in a cup?  If you’re me, and you’re terribly terribly needle-phobic, this question starts to plague you as you mince down the hallway towards “ECG 303.” You sweat profusely as they attach various suction cups to you to take your rhythms (and you then are momentarily distracted as they remove the cups and you find they have left a pattern across your torso that looks as if you might have been attacked by a large squid). You wander down the hall some more, shudder as you hear a fellow needle-phobe let out a shriek from the blood-test room, and head in for your ultra-sound. By the way, it’s kind of bizarre when your ultra sound nurse squeezes the jelly stuff on you and it turns out it’s the end of the bottle, so it winds up squirting all over your shirt and hair as well as on your stomach. Even more bizarre, she clinically and efficiently runs the scanner over you, then gives you a broad smile and says “Very good!” before stamping your paper loudly and shooing you back out the door. What on earth did she mean by that?.. you ponder to yourself, as you cringe and approach the blood test room, which has by far the shortest line at present. Wonder why. (In all fairness, the nurses who do the blood draw are actually quite good.) Needles removed, less a couple test tubes of your blood, you sit woozily for a moment before glancing down at your paper and realizing you still have several hurdles to overcome, including everyone’s favorite– peeing in a cup. In a squat toilet. Oh yeah.

After checking those stamps off the list, everything else is fairly painless and easy. They test you for colorblindness and eyesight, the aforementioned blood pressure, a chest x-ray– which is done in a very intimidating, dim and scary room, and of course you have to go in one at a time, and the guy who runs the machine sits in a windowed room on the opposite side of the x-ray machine so you run your little scavenger hunt paper to him and then stand on the yellow “footprints” in front of the big metal box in the wall while something is whirring and clicking behind you– and the dental exam, which consists of a nurse asking you to open your mouth, looking inside, and swabbing your cheek. Done. Good thing I got my dental work all squared away in the States.

One of the returners said it best, though– most people in the States don’t get such a comprehensive physical examination often, if really at all. However, those teachers who have been here 2, 3 years have had one every single year at visa renewal time (good job, China) so they always know that they are in extremely good health at the start of the year. It is actually a great bonus, needles and errant ultrasound jelly notwithstanding.

This is a terribly long post. There are many more strange and wonderful things about China, but I have a lot of time to explore them and plenty of time to tell you all about them as well. So I’ll leave it here for right now, with a promise to catch you up on Dong-men shopping district (I hear you snickering, you gutter-minds, from 9,000 miles away), meeting the faculty and the Senior 3 students at our school, and how what is a basketball court by day becomes a thriving, authentic China experience in the middle of yuppies-ville by night.

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Holy Coconuts, We Live In the Tropics!

Today I got on a bus, and wound up in paradise.

That’s not entirely true. First I got on a bus from my apartment, then met some people at the Metro (subway), got on another bus, spent an hour and a half wending our way through Futian, Luohu and Yantian, and then spent the afternoon sipping on a coconut and swimming in the South China Sea.

Not for nothing is Yantian called the Beach District in Shenzhen. There are 3 main places that CTLC-ers go, and the one we hit today is called Da Mei Sha. Da Mei Sha is the public beach– free admission, but has a tendency to be crowded and maybe a little less clean. (I’ll write about the others when we get there. Apparently Friday we’re going to Xiao Mei Sha.) On the other hand, it was a Wednesday afternoon. Not to crowded, not too dirty. A bunch of us bought coconuts, which the guy whacked open with a machete and handed to us with a straw. If you have never drunk ice-cold coconut juice straight from the source, you are really missing out. I highly recommend it. After sipping on our delicious fresh fruit beverages for a while, we decided to head into the ocean, which was bathwater-warm and absolutely perfect. We didn’t even need the extra (costlier) entertainment such as Sea-doos or parasailing (though that one I may have to cough up for, we’ll see), content as we were to float around in the surf and sunbathe.

In retrospect, the Chinese people must have thought we were so, so weird. For one thing, there was an absolute herd of us. To add to that, most of the girls were wearing normal, American bathing suits– which are way more revealing than the suits the Chinese girls wear. On the other hand, I actually bought a Chinese bathing suit and it didn’t help much. Chinese girls apparently don’t have much on top. I’m don’t have the biggest chest ever (or at all), but boy did I make that thing look indecent by Chinese standards. So we’re a massive, scantily-clad, boisterous group of blondes, redheads, and brunettes who lay out on the beach in the sun without umbrellas. Very confusing. Doesn’t everyone want to be milk-white and unblemished? In China, they do…

I was going to sneakily just sidenote the bathing suit episode, but actually I think it deserves a little detour. When I heard that we were going to Yantian for the day, I figured we’d be “doing Yantian” much the way we’d “done Futian” or the other districts: head out there, see some of the sights, maybe take over a pub or three, and generally get to know the place. I was wholly unprepared for the fact that we were headed out to have a Tropical Beach Day, which surprise just made the adventure that much cooler. The upshot is though, I failed to bring a swimsuit with me. So we got to the beach, and it’s a gorgeous sunny day with hot sand and cool waves, and I’m thinking, okay, apparently I’m going in fully clothed. Which would have made for a real interesting bus ride back. But! There were several stands dotting the landscape, selling bathing suits (of course! the Chinese are so smart, they always have really convenient shops everywhere) and so a friend and I wandered over and took stock of the absolutely ludicrous-looking swimwear. She has pictures. After much deliberation, we picked one for her that was bright neon pink with polka dots, and I had to have the one that was blue with gold spiderwebs all over. I got to the guy selling them and said in my baby Chinese, “I’d like this one. The biggest size you have.” Which he was already pulling out. Ha. I would like it to be known though that both in clothing and in shoe size, I happen to sit just at the very top of the normal range here (despite the hips, go figure?) so I can, in fact, buy clothes that are made for Chinese women. This was a fantastic revelation. No Western clothing stores necessary! So now I own a bathing suit covered in spiderwebs that I bought on the beach in Yantian. Huge success.

We played at the beach nearly all day today, until the sky clouded over in earnest and raindrops began to fall. Even then, some people opted to stay out; most of us headed back into town though. And this is a post for another day, because I will have to go on about it at length, but I had my first experience with rush hour buses. OH MAN. Now I know what sardines feel like. But in all, a completely glorious day. Life in Shenzhen is grand.

Why China is Weird, Part 1 of ?

I have a few little anecdotes that I’ve been saving, and now seems as good a time as any to let them out into the world. I’ve dubbed this the “Why China is Weird” post, and I have a feeling there will be more of them to come. I also have to give credit where credit is due; the title comes from a conversation I had with a friend who lives in Hong Kong, who, upon hearing that there are palm trees lining the streets in Shenzhen, said, “Shenzhen is weird.” I’m taking that, embracing it, and rolling with it. So here are some reasons why China, and specifically Shenzhen, is weird.

1. Public Restrooms. For those of you who’ve never lived in Asia, the squat toilet is probably not part of your lexicon. These infamous holes in the ground can be treacherous. The best method of navigation is to completely remove your trousers and hang them on the hook on the wall whilst teetering in your high heels and trying not to drop said trousers or any other valuable items into the pit. Then you maneuver yourself over the yawning abyss and fret about poor aim, trying desperately not to pee in or on your shoes. If you were smart enough to remember to bring tissue in with you, you breathe a sigh of relief, and then regret it because you realize that the garbage can behind you is a receptacle for that used tissue.  (If you didn’t remember tissue, you squat there awkwardly for a few minutes, then hop up and down a bit to shake it off before shrugging to yourself and pulling up your panties. Let it now be said that we went to quite extraordinary lengths not to ever, ever have to do anything but pee in these toilets.)  I remember them well from Japan, and I gotta say, you get used to them, but you never really like them any better. Especially on a train. Adding motion and rocking to this whole exercise just elevates it to a whole other level.

2. Speaking of bathroom practices, kids here don’t wear diapers. Most often they wear little pyjamas with either a flap in the back or a full split down the middle, back to front, and mom or dad holds them over the side of the curb when they need to pee. Also definitely saw a dad holding his kid over a garbage can a couple of times. Awesome.

3. Bus TV. All the newer buses in Shenzhen have televisions which show a combination of Chinese news, and America’s Funniest Home Videos.  On my way home tonight, I watched a snippet of China News about Shenzhen’s 30th anniversary celebrations, followed by a video of a squirrel crawling into a towheaded youth’s trousers. Odd.

4. The “China Maybe.” This has become a part of our group lexicon, and so far it has not stopped being funny. You will hear Chinese people (especially at the schools) say, “Maybe… you will come to dinner tomorrow night with the headmaster” or “Maybe… I will collect your passport at 6 am and we will go to the police station” and, magically, that “maybe…” is somehow transformed into a “definitely will happen, no questions asked.” Like I said, our coping mechanism is to have adopted it as a huge joke into our group’s vocabulary, and maybe we overuse it just a tad. “Maybe… you will get out your bottle opener and open this beer, woman!”

That’s what I’ve got for right now. Later, I’m sure, I will come back and post about chicken feet in vending machines and other such delicious China delights. For right now, enjoy the bathroom humor. Because we certainly do.

Home Sweet Nanshan

Phew!

After 21 days, 10,000 miles, exams, lesson plans and a stay in a ridiculously posh resort hotel, I have finally made it to the place I will call home for the next 10 months.

I have a little bit of catching up to do. Let me start with the Silver Lake Resort, because it was such a ridiculous adventure and I think it bears sharing.

We rolled into Shenzhen around 9pm on Wednesday night, elated to be off the train and psyched to be in “our” city. After a 45-minute bus ride through downtown Shenzhen, we pulled off the main drag onto this kind of twisty mountain road that led past a lake to– wait for it–a PALACE. Where we parked. And disembarked. Now, the Silver Lake Resort is not actually a palace, despite the minarets and distinctly palatial structures. On the other hand, compared to the adequate but unfussy accommodations we’d had in Beijing and the 18-inch plywood beds we’d been sitting/eating/sleeping in for the previous 25 hours, it seemed like a paradise. Opulent, even. The room that my roomie and I walked into led first into a living room that we shared with the two boys across the hall, and we ventured onward to find a tastefully decorated hotel room with an adjoining bathroom that was (at least) the size of the room. With an amazing, huge, sprinkly shower head. Which provided hot showers. I cannot stress this enough. The more used to lukewarm water you get, the greater the luxury of a hot shower seems. It was magical. And our room was actually pretty small and unexceptional compared to the absolutely gigantic and palatial rooms that some of our members got.  One suite had a master bedroom with an eternity tub, an elevator, and remote-controlled curtains. Insane.

We were also fed a buffet for 3 meals a day. Free food is always a winner, even when it is spaghetti made with ketchup next to chicken feet in mushrooms. No, I am not kidding. I ate a lot of fruit for three days.

Today we had the contract signing ceremony and banquet luncheon with the contact teachers and heads of our schools. It was a strange day, because we had to pack everything the night before, and show up for the contract ceremony at 9:30. We were ushered into a big hall, where our schools awaited us with massive bouquets of flowers and name cards. As I think I mentioned, I’m placed at a school with another CTLC teacher named Stephanie; we were met by our contact teacher, whose name is Wallace, and the vice-headmaster Mr Zhong, both of whom have been incredibly kind and solicitous since we shook hands. The contract ceremony, which took forever, was followed almost immediately by a Chinese luncheon, and then we all pretty much dispersed. I had roughly 20 seconds to tell my roommate goodbye before we were scuttling off to grab our luggage and head toward the waiting car.

Stephanie and I have been talking most of the day about how ridiculously lucky we’ve gotten with our apartment situation. Consider the fact that we were all told we would be lucky if we had more than one room to our dorms, let alone anything more than a bed and a hotplate. Oh, and a fridge. These were our expectations. Instead, I walked into my apartment to find a spacious living/dining area with a largish (for China) fridge, a nice sturdy dining room table, and a flat screen tv; off to the left is my bedroom with a double bed (score!); and around the corner is a kitchen with a sink, hotplate, microwave, toaster oven (again, score!) and a coffee pot. I also have a brand new washer and a separate room called the “wetroom” in which I have a western toilet and shower. It is exactly how it sounds. There is no partition between the toilet and shower, and there is a drain in the floor. It’s strange but it works.

I am also sharing the apartment with several shetland-pony-sized cockroaches. As a result, there are now roach traps all over the apartment. Guh.

In all though, it’s going to be a great little place to live, and certainly better than what I was expecting. Major points for that. Now I just need to get out and explore…

Shenzhen Arrival (and Beijing Wrap-up)

First things first– We have arrived!

After 24 hours in a hard-sleeper car on the train from Beijing to Shenzhen, we’ve arrived at the Silver Lake Resort Hotel in Futian district. We’ll be stationed here for the next two days while we undergo police interviews (for residence permits) and physical examinations (for employment by the Shenzhen Education Bureau). We’ll also be purchasing Chinese cell phones and getting to know the city a bit before our Welcome Banquet and subsequent dispersal all over the city to our respective districts.

This brings me to two topics. The first is the end of our stay in Beijing, which could probably be a separate post all on its own but I’m going to work it in here instead and talk more about Shenzhen in another post. The second is our placements, which we received yesterday and which I will share with you at the end of this post.

So, to round out Beijing. I think what I took away most from the city (besides the black lung, ugh) is the bustle. And the delicious, delicious food. The end of our teaching days was topped off with a talent show in which we all paraded our students around and coaxed them through a series of short songs and skits. Even though I only had them for a couple of weeks, I really enjoyed those kids (and may or may not have almost cried while saying goodbye to them). I think most of us truly appreciated the time we got at the PKU, though I know we were pretty ready to head “home.”

Tuesday we spent at the Forbidden City. Which was awesome. And massive. And did I mention, awesome? It’s a touristy kind of spot nowadays, and there were really large crowds of people– we were constantly passing groups of Chinese students who would, in not-so-hushed whispers, call “Bai-ren! Bai-ren!” (“White people! White People!”) as we walked by– but it was still sort of potent with history. I certainly enjoyed it. Then my friends Justin, Dawson and I had a little adventure, as it took us absolutely forever to get through the final gates to the giant portrait of Mao across from Tian’an men Square under which we were supposed to meet. We arrived at the meeting place about 5 minutes late, and had completely missed the group, so we wandered for a bit trying to find them, or the buses, and wound up walking around the outside of the Forbidden City. If you don’t know what that means, Google-map it. Basically we wound up walking for about an hour before deciding to just take a cab back to PKU; even so, we got back quite a bit before the group and having a last, delicious noodle bowl to round out our Beijing adventure.

When the rest of the group arrived, we got back into the hotel and had a set of rooms and a locker room reserved for communal showers and luggage storage, so we chilled in the halls for a couple of hours before it was time to leave for the train. The coordinators were wandering the halls with the sheets of school placements for Shenzhen, which was a huge blessing for everyone involved because we could all finally quit worrying about where we are going to be living for the next 10 months, and the coordinators could finally stop being pestered about where we are going to be living for the next 10 months.

I will be teaching Juniors (junior high) at a Key School in Nanshan district. The Key Schools are schools with a more rigorous, demanding curriculum, and usually brighter students; Nanshan is the western-most of Shenzhen’s districts, a quick ferry ride away from both Hong Kong and Macao. It’s also home to the biggest expat community, and it’s a bit more posh and affluent than some of the other districts, which means that I’ll probably be able to find some good tutoring (shhh) to supplement my teaching income. I’m pretty psyched.

So we’ll be at the Silver Lake resort until Saturday, and then after our Welcome Banquet luncheon thing we’ll all head out to our various apartments in our various districts. It will be kind of strange not to be rubbing elbows with these awesome people I’ve gotten to know over the last few weeks, but there are sure to be plenty of CTLC group activities and meetings, and going to visit friends will be a fantastic way to get to know the city.

Onward!

How to Eat Fried Scorpion

First, you drink. You buy a beer on the way to the food stand, and once you’ve arrived, you and all your co-teachers pitch in for a table tap, a plastic 5-liter balloon filled with Tsingtao. Everyone gets another round.

Second, you make friends with the guy who owns the food stand. He stands there and eggs you on as you laugh and cringe and point to the skewers of grasshoppers, silkworm cocoons, cicadas, starfish and, of course, several different sizes of scorpion.

Third, if you are a squeamish American (and, let me just say, even our ex-soldier did it so apparently this particular brand of squeamishness is not limited to the faint-of-heart), you remove the scorpion’s stinger by pinching it off with your fingertips. If you are very unlucky, you pinch it in the wrong direction and wind up with the fried stinger stuck in your fingertip. I took extra caution to avoid that strange and unpleasant happenstance after watching the gal next to me.

Fourth, you all take a moment to sit and stare at this little monstrosity that you are about to put in your mouth. The cameras come out. People are posing with their scorpions. The Beijing locals are looking on with interest. Hilarity ensues.

Fifth, and very important, you have a scorpion “cheers” where you clink scorpions (their legs tend to fall off when you do this) and clutch your beer with your free hand.

With a rousing cry of “Ganbei!” down the hatch go the scorpions, and there are mingled looks of surprise and delight as you realize they are actually quite crunchy and salty and delicious, and not at all unpleasant. Which makes you brave enough to try the other bizarre (I hesitate to call them) foods around the table.

Which may have been a terrible idea. The grasshoppers are okay, also crunchy and salty but they have fairly massive heads and those are quite bitter; the cicadas are apparently just incredibly, incredibly chewy (I artfully neglected to grab one of these); silkworm cocoons mostly taste like dirt that has a slight crunch. And the starfish! O, the starfish. It begins as a sort of crunchy, chewy, stale fish-stick taste that morphs into gritty, tasteless sand as you chew. And chew. And chew.

So what do you do? You wash it all down with your mug of Tsingtao, and grab another scorpion. Ganbei!

Coyote Poo and a Luge, or How We Conquered the Great Wall

Chinese has many strange idiomatic phrases. You can recognize them by the fact that they are made up of four characters which often have very little to do with one another. For example, there is apparently a phrase that goes, “Coyote-Smoke-Directions-Straight” which evidently refers to the fact that when the Wall was still in use as a defensive structure, soldiers would burn coyote poo as it would burn with a thick smoke that would go straight up, whereas bull dung would send smoke sort of out to the sides and maybe not in a straight column. This idiom means, more or less, that there are Mongolians attacking from all sides; in modern usage, the coyote poo is hitting the fan.

If you have never been to Great Wall, it’s actually hard to describe what an adventure it is. The Wall itself is built over the mountain range which separates Beijing from Inner Mongolia. We stalked maybe a kilometer of it today, but the whole of it stretches more than 6,000 kilometers, or almost 4,000 miles. The climb up to the structure itself is actually the most strenuous part– a 30 minute climb up the longest and probably steepest rock staircase you have ever seen in your life. And of course, as this was our first day off from teaching and class since our arrival in Beijing, many of us fine, upstanding English teachers went out clubbing the previous night. So we were perfect shape to walk straight up a hill onto a rocky fortress with worn out footholds.  It was actually a wonderful day. We had truly beautiful weather, and once you’re a couple hours out of Beijing proper the sky is quite a bit more clear; it wasn’t too hot either, so while the exertion rendered us rather damp, the weather at the top was not at all unpleasant. Plus, the view at Mutianyu Pass is ridiculously picturesque. Photographs to follow at some point.

Oh, yeah, and we got to ride toboggans down from the top. What a hilarious method of transportation.  Effective, though– the climb up took about half an hour; the ride down took less than 5 minutes.

Back to school tomorrow, with an historical site under our belts and a bit of a rest to perk us back up.

Evaluations and Acrobats!

It’s been a whirlwind couple of days. We just finished our 5th teaching day, and we’ve begun the evaluation period where the coordinators sit in on our classes and critique our teaching style, classroom management, choice of topics, etc. Class continues to progress quite well; my students are a hoot. Apparently Chinese teenagers have an incredible fascination with Lady Gaga– not sure where it comes from, but she comes up in just about every class. We are supposed to prepare a talent show with our students in the next week, and I have a feeling we will be hearing more than one rendition of either “Poker Face” or “Just Dance”…

Beijing is amazing. I’ll just say that right now. Despite the truly awful weather, to which we are all slowly acclimatizing, there is a beauty and vibrancy to the city that is both very familiar, and also unique. The Beijing University campus is unparalleled in its beauty– soon I hope to have pictures for you, but right now suffice it to say that between the ancient-looking rolled-tile pagoda-style architecture (my students are studying adjectives, can you tell?), the cobblestone walkways, and the absolutely stunning central lake that is draped with graceful willows, it’s almost too picturesque to be believed. And when the rain falls heavily, it clears out the sky so we have had a couple days of gorgeous sun which just elevates the aesthetic even further.

Tonight, we went out and experienced the strange and wonderful Chinese Acrobats at the Tiandi (Heaven and Earth) Theatre. Think of that scene from Ocean’s Eleven where they first meet The Amazing Yen. Yeah. Those guys. It was pretty awesome. I don’t know where else you can see 12 women riding a single bicycle.

More later. Now it’s out for some late night noodle bowls and lesson planning. Yowza.

TEFL, Zhongwen, and Narnia

It seems logical to begin with the TEFL portion of what I’ve been up to the last couple of days, since that is the real reason I’m here. As part of the training program, in order to prepare for teaching a full course load and designing our curricula for Shenzhen, we are given the opportunity by the very gracious Beijing University to teach, and thereby have almost complete control over, the summer program English classes that are held here at the University. These students are spending full days learning English, 6 hour-long classes per day, and we are given the privilege of teaching them. There are 11 sections, ranging from primary to university-age students and we teachers have been broken up into groups of 6, each of us taking one section of one grade level. These will be our students for the next 15 days, so we’re getting the chance to build a mini-curriculum while we’re learning the ins and outs and theories behind TEFL teaching. All very interesting. My class are Junior II’s which translates to 8th grade, and they are terribly bright. A couple of them are show-offs, a couple of them are punks, but in all it’s a really sweet group of kids and they seemed to respond pretty well to my lesson today which was about colors and articles of clothing. (We played Circle Dash and Charades, which may have helped things along a bit.) In all, I’m feeling pretty good about this whole teaching thing.

Not so much about this whole Chinese-learning thing. I’m going to have to settle in for a couple of days and see, but today’s lesson was almost a complete disaster as far as I was concerned. I think it was fine for the students who have just come out of advanced-level Chinese study, and there are a few of them, but I was completely lost for almost the entire 2 hour lesson (as were, it seems, about half of the rest of the class). I’m hoping my vocabulary will come back but it was particularly discouraging after the fun and success of my English-teaching class earlier in the day. I’ll keep you posted, though.

Narnia! This is the food part of the post. We are, as I think I mentioned, staying in a “Sports Hotel” which is basically a gymnasium facility for the university (?) and community. Behind the main entrance to the hotel there is a pool house, and if you walk through the pool house, through the back of a little convenience store, you come out on a street that is absolutely swimming in street vendors. I have it on good authority that Narnia, as it has been dubbed by the program coordinators, is one of the best places in the city for jiaozi (gyoza, steamed wonton dumplings) and baozi (steamed bun dumplings) and I can attest that– whether it is the best spot in the city, I have no idea, but– the dumplings are truly fantastic. Street food here in general is fantastic. Well, most of it. I have my doubts about the skewers of fried scorpion, but I was brave enough to try something that I think was a silkworm cocoon. Which was not delicious, but not inedible. And it was parked next the the skewers of chicken heart, which are not only edible but also absolutely scrumptious. Also I have eaten so much spicy pepper-laden stewed vegetable stuff that I’m pretty sure that my stomach lining is melting. Now that I know where the dumpling mecca is, my next adventure is finding where they keep the Uigher food. Mmmm. Roasted goat. Delicious.

I’ll probably be back soon to talk about more about the weather in Beijing, and specifically about the monsoon we had today. On the upside, we could actually see clouds, sky, and sunset this evening after the heavy rain, which was a real improvement over the otherwise oppressive smog cloud that will, I think, continue to amaze me for my whole visit…

Beijing!

A couple of observations right off the bat:

Yes. The air. It is the first thing you notice. “Hmm,” you muse to yourself as the plane begins its descent, “is Beijing particularly foggy today?” Then as you descend further into the persistent veil which envelopes the entire metropolitan area with its shroud-like embrace, you realize that it is not, in fact, fog. The air is thick with pollution, giving the city a sweet, almost anti-freeze aroma; the sky overhead is not blue but washed-out white and gray. Rampant smog banks. Tolkein’s dragon would be proud.

The buildings. Even in the middle of the city you find the curly tiled roofs, pagoda-like structures, and apartments that might belong in 1990’s Moscow if not for the air conditioning units pumping in every window. Riding by Olympic village was particularly exciting, as the Swallow’s Nest and Water Sports Complex popped into view.

The place we are staying during training is called the Xinhai Sports Hotel. It’s more or less on the campus of Peking University, and is full of the sounds of children running and tennis shoes squeaking and whistles blowing short blasts; basically it sounds like an elementary school gymnasium, though the noise seems to die off at a fairly reasonable hour. My fabulous roommate and I are comfortably situated in a very large room with an extra bed which we have designated “the Couch,” a pretty nice bathroom, and an electric tea kettle which will most likely be put to use as our teeth-brushing and emergency nighttime water supply.

We took a wander down the streets of Haidian (the district in which our hotel lies) this afternoon in search of electrical plug adapters; it wound up being quite the adventure, as the first place we went, an electronics store, wound up having plug adapters but not voltage transformers so then we had to look for a hardware store which carried the transformers and one of the girls from the first store, who spoke a little English and apparently agreed that my Chinese was too awful to be let out in public yet, wound up marching off in the direction of the hardware store beckoning us to follow. So we did, obligingly, and got all sorted out, but not before we had caused a complete stir in both stores, with salespersons descending from every corner and all discussing which adapter would work and should the foreigners buy this one or that one etc. It was a little mad, but fun, and it’s good to be forced to use the  language. I already feel like some words are coming back that I wouldn’t have been able to tell you yesterday.

We also had a bit of a dinner adventure, but I’ll save that for later. I’m sure there will be other food-related incidents in the next few days.

Orientation tomorrow. Wish us luck. The jet-lag is making its presence known in full force.