Beijing and the Great Wall: Part 2 [better late than never]

The Great Wall at Mutianyu
In this part of the Wall there was foliage and brush growing all around. Made the scenery more breathtaking, and provided a few “artistic” shots.
Snapped a shot of us while we were in one of the observation towers along the Wall.
Off the beaten path. This section of the Wall was not open to the general public, but we ended up wandering passed the sign anyways. You can see how decrepit and overgrown this section has become.
Overgrown and untraveled for hundreds of years, but not forgotten.
We kept walking throught the trees and bushes until we came to what remains of an old observation tower.

Up ahead, still overgrown and unkept, the Wall stretches into and beyond the mountains.
This is the sign we ignored.

There are two ways to get down from the wall: Skii-lift or Toboggan ride. Guess what we chose…
The next day we wandered around Beijing. Tian’anmen Square and The Forbidden City.
We took this vacation during the National Day holiday, so we also saw a lot of military marches.

Just one of the many people who kept wanting pictures taken with us. I wish I could find out how many pictures we turn up in by the end of this year. People just randomly snap phtos of us all the time.
Jade is a huge piece of Chinese culture. All over the place there were Jade statues and carved trinkets that Dynasties have valued for hundreds of years.
The artistic carvings on the roofs and the edges of the buildings were quite impressive.
Standing inside the first courtyard of the Forbidden City

It’s goodluck to touch these red knobs. I have no idea why.

We explored the Forbidden City and snapped pictures all day, taking in the history and the beauty of the place. As they usually do in China, the hordes of people eventually got a bit bothersome, so we began walking back to the train station to make our way to the airport.

Along the way we were stopped by a man on a rickshaw (like a pedicab–a man riding a bike with a carriage on the back of it). Now, I should have known he was trouble, but alas, hindsight and all…Anyway, we bargain a price I perceive to be 30 rmb. He nods his head and reconfirms the price by showing me his fingers. All is good. Noelle and I climb in and off we go. After just a moment another rickshaw driver peddles over and makes some big commotion over the carriage being off-balance or whatnot. So Noelle is ushered into the seat of the second driver’s ride. We amble about the city, cruising along peacefully, taking in the sights–which include the rundown back neighborhoods and the darker street corners. We’re supposed to be going back to Tian’anmen Square.

My driver turns down one of those alleys that looks like it could be a stop on a murder tour of Beijing. Of course no one is around. Noelle’s ride shows up. I climb out of mine and walk over to her as she gets out. I open my wallet to pay the man. When I hand him the money he laughs. Laughs? He motions that it is not enough. The other driver, a man in his mid to late thirties, comes over. I remind both of them of our agreed upon price to no avail. Instead, as proof of their legitimacy and upstanding entrepreneurial prowess, they both rummage around in a pouch on the front of their bikes and produce a laminated card with names of destinations and prices listed on them in English. Both point to Tian’anmen Square. Next to the name is 300 rmb. Yeah, right, I tell the guy. He doesn’t seem to appreciate that at all. Both begin to get worked up as I explain to them that that is not going to happen. BUT then they manage to convey to us that since we technically took two bikes, the price is doubled. 600 rmb! It’s at this time that I’m considering seriously just knocking both of these thugs over their bikes and telling Noelle to sprint for the back of the alley where I see an open fence. All of us are getting riled up by then. Their voices are raised and they’re standing next to one another as if by doing so it makes them more intimidating. Being in a dark alley, no one around, and quite literally fenced in–they weren’t doing such a bad job. Still, I refused to pay that absurd price.

I don’t remember grabbing it exactly, but somehow 150 rmb materialized in my hand and I angrily hand it to the man just to shut him up. I tell him, “That’s it! I’m not giving you anymore!” It falls on deaf ears. At some point Noelle begins to shuffle through her wallet and for some reason is clutching onto 250 rmb. Mind you, she’s not holding it out or anything. It’s very much still in her grip and half in her wallet. But that doesn’t stop one of the guys from plucking it out of her hands. The money disappears into the man’s pockets faster than I can follow it. Now they have 400 rmb of our funds, 250 of which has basically been stolen, and I cannot get it back from him. My only two options are knock this son of a gun out or just tuck my tail between my legs, take the licks, and get out of Dodge. I think very hard and long on the first option. After all, I probably outweigh my driver by 20 lbs and the other one doesn’t look like he’d be too difficult to flip over his bike. As the men both continue to posture and rant in Chinese about how we’re ripping them off the red I’m seeing dissipates enough for me to follow the consequences of my possible actions. Should I actually engage in a fight with these men police involvement is a likely occurrence. We’d only been in China a few weeks at this point, but I’d already heard horror stories about what THAT could be like. Granted, that was a far-fetched idea, but as a foreigner you never know. Then how would that call go? “Hi, Mom. Uh, can you send me bail money? I’m in Chinese prison.” Right.

In the end, after no small amount of yelling, I tell Noelle to start walking toward the fence. They try to stop us, but I swing around and make a sweeping, finalizing motion with my hand. “Enough, dang it!” the move says. Admitting defeat, or just realizing that they can’t shake us down for anything more, both men wave their hands at me dismissively. We leave the alley.

In a display of what I can only think of as Karmic balance or Cosmic Slap-stick, right after we make our way from that alley two strangers help us find the right train station, give us accurate directions, and wish us the best.

Later, as our plane is taking off, I think back to the Red Lantern Hostel. I think of Fiona, the Scottish lawyer we met. She had been caught in a scam just two days ago. Around Beijing it’s known as the Tea Scam. Without understanding the particulars, the scam seems to involve several people: a group of seemingly nice strangers that take a foreigner into a tea shop for a cultural treat, and the tea shop workers themselves. The foreigner will be given some boxes of tea–continually told how cheap they are–and then sat down to enjoy a traditional “tea show” (whatever the heck that is) that depicts ancient methods of tea things I guess. After it’s all said and done the foreigner is given the bill. Taxed wantonly, put together like it’s some sort of intercepted WWII code, and misdirected as if the whole ordeal was done by magician, the receipt leaves the foreigner flummoxed and close to tears. What was once of minimal cost has now nearly broke her.

As we climb higher into the air I think about how upbeat Fiona seemed as she retold that horror story. She lost more than a thousand rmb and she still remained in high spirits, and 400 was dampening mine. By the time the plane landed in Dalian I resolved to look at it as a learning experience. After all, in every movie the protagonists get swindled at some point, right?

Learn and move on.

I just didn’t think we’d get another opportunity to grow so quickly.

As we walked through the lobby of the terminal a man in a leather jacket catches our attention by asking if we need a ride in a cab. We’ll, yeah, we do, we tell him. This didn’t seem as odd then as it does now, ok. Keep in mind that the main mode of transportation is by cab. There’s a whole line of them out front and we thought, hey, it’s pretty lucky that we caught this guy instead of having to stand in line.

So we follow him through the lobby,  out through the back door and down a dark stairwell. The whole time Noelle and I are looking at each other with that look. At the bottom of the steps I stop the guy and haggle price. He wants 200. Out of the question. I explain to him that even though it is National Day holiday, our ride to the airport a few days ago was only 80. I don’t budge. He relents, but does so in a way I can’t quite feel good about. He points to each of us, himself included, in turn and then holds up his hands to indicate 80. Does that mean 80 all together or 80 each? I breathe this concern to Noelle as the man leads us out into the lightless parking lot. He motions for us to stay here while he goes and gets his car. Um, ok. If this guy is a cabbie why would he park out over here? Noelle and I quickly decide that we’ve been screwed around with enough for one day. As the guy stops in front of a black sedan we make our decision. That’s not a cab and he’s not a cabbie. We run toward the front of the airport, to where the crowds are gathering around the long line of actual cabs. We merge into the thick of it and watch as the would-be driver inches along behind us, slowly scanning the throng of people.

Eventually we get into a legitimate cab only to pay 100 rmb! BUT at least with an actual cabbie you get a receipt and that can be reimbursed by the school. When we get back to Kaifa Qu we both experience a sudden appreciation for the small town within a city. We get some cheap dinner and then head back to the apartment.

Vacation is about over and the start of our first real work week in China is about to begin.


Blog, Interrupted

I’d like to be able to tell you that the last, oh, almost month or so I’ve been held hostage by radical fundamentalists that prey on English teachers abroad, or that I’ve been traipsing around the globe in search of the meaning of life, but I cannot. No, the simple truth of the matter is I’m horrible at commitment.

I belong to about half a dozen forums ranging in topics from writing to natural sciences, and I’ve lost touch with all of them because I can’t seem to just adhere to a routine. I’m sure I could say that I’m just a serial non-joiner, but that’s not really true, either…I mean, I suppose it’s almost true. I like taking a look at the perks membership brings, but when anything more than a cursory glance every now and then is expected of me I get the shakes. I’ve even joined a few gyms over the years and then consequently rediscovered the great outdoors. I just got no follow-through.

Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to have a pen pal, but then I realize that I’d probably end up writing the greeting letter and then fake my own death after a few weeks so I wouldn’t have to carry on the correspondence. My “pal” would feel obligated to return a heart-felt—handwritten—missive expressing his condolences to whatever fabricated family member’s name I scribbled in the preceding epistle’s signature line and I’d feel like a royal pain. All because I can’t commit.

Perhaps I am being a bit melodramatic? Never!

If you’ve established a routine of checking this blog each week over the course of the last month, hoping for some tell-tale sign that we are in fact alive, I’m sorry. If you’ve stumbled upon this blog in hopes of learning something new…goodluck!

When we last saw our heroes they were just settling into their new jobs as English teachers on the east coast of China in a city by a bay called Dalian…The city not the bay is called Dalian…Ok, I’m done referring to myself in the third person. Creeps me out.

It’s perplexingly odd how normal and commonplace living in a different country can become. Our schedule has solidified into something that is steady and even our daily habits are becoming truly habitual. Nope, pretty sure that wasn’t redundant. Even having to mop the bathroom floor following every shower isn’t as annoying as it was those first few weeks. We’ve managed to pin down a bus schedule that saves us from having to walk the mile and a half to and from work every day, which is nice since winter decidedly kicked fall in the back of the head and told him to get outta here this past week.

Anymore, our on-going battle seems to be with procuring food enough for our snacking proclivities and balancing that with mildly nutritious meals. There are a bunch of restaurants around to choose from, but when you’re attempting to cut back on the monthly expenses frugality is a must. We’ve stumbled upon a few cheap places that definitely offer authentic Chinese cuisine, but, honestly, there’s only so much you can do with rice before you’re just refusing to call it rice. I’m not too keen on sea food, and Noelle is beginning to draw lines in the sand with those mom and pop shops that all look and taste the same. Luckily, when our dedication to authenticity is running thin and the old taste buds want something familiar we have a local import store called Sunny’s. Although their prices are comparable to American stores Sunny’s is significantly more expensive than many other places around us, so we try to “tough” it out until we just don’t care about price anymore. We’re learning to branch out and try different things in other places, but one thing I won’t budge on is milk. Even though it’s from France, the 1% half gallon I pay 17 rmb for is so much better tasting than the tepid stuff they sell in boxes at the markets in town.

We’ve been taking Chinese lessons twice a week for a few weeks now, and every once in a while I can understand one word out of a hundred when some of our Eastern staff chat in Mandarin. Rumor has it that our pronunciation is actually pretty good, but I dunno about that. I’ve managed to pick up some polite phrases and even some bargaining skills, but I still doubt I’m ready to carry on a conversation with even a two year old. I’m loving everything involved with learning the language, but it’s a bit disconcerting when the students laugh uncontrollably when they hear you say even the simplest word in Chinese. I kid you not, to make a point I said the Chinese word for apple and the class burst into fits of riotous laughter. Apparently I said it right and had the tone correct. They just thought it was hilarious that their English teacher said a word in Chinese.

Our staff has been amazing this whole time. The other Western teachers and the Eastern teachers have been unconditionally helpful with everything from the mundane to the particular. Even ordering water is taken out of our hands. We just ask a staff member if she can call the water place and have a jug delivered and she does it right away. What’s more interesting is the fact that, for more than two months now, the water guy has never been a minute late. He says 9 am, by God it’s 8:58-8:59 exactly. Not a minute after. Pretty impressive actually, considering he has to carry the heavy jug up four flights of stairs to get it to us.

Sending money home is just one of the many other details of our emerging life we have needed assistance with. On his day off, the curriculum director—our immediate supervisor—went with us to the bank to set up our accounts and go through the process of getting money sent across the pond back to the good old U S of A. It was a two plus hour ordeal that he didn’t balk at or complain about. Like I said, the staff is great.

Getting into the swing of lesson planning here has taken some effort, though. Because it’s not a public school, our school is run much like a high-standards after school program, complete with a competitive curriculum based on a very good series of EFL books and many different courses. Each week I write eleven lesson plans for nine 90 minute classes. Noelle’s course load is about the same. The classes have up to six students in them that have been pre-tested to gauge their English levels. Our curriculum is supplemented with an EFL reading and phonics website that helps complement the weekly classes with added context and cultural elements. Meshing the two resources so that it seems fluid and natural has been a challenge as well. As a teacher, I feel that my growth is going to come in the form of making lesson plans that are more student-centered and geared toward activities that focus on kinesthetic and experiential learning. That may sound exactly the same as an American teacher’s growth opportunities—and to a large extent it is—but when it comes to EFL it’s all about those foundational skills, which are the ones most American HS teachers never have to worry about at their grade level. In a big way, I’m learning the skills needed to teach students the foundation of what they will need when they get to my actual area of concentration. When we get back to the states and begin teaching again I will hopefully have a better understanding of the smaller building blocks my students are bringing to the HS classroom. In that way I can direct lessons that stem from and build on what they’ve learned over the years more easily than I have in the past.

Beyond the classroom, the last month or so has had some ups and downs. A huge up was our Halloween party at the school and after. The whole staff set the school up with fun activities on the top floors and a haunted house and apple bobbing station in the basement. Yes, I was one of the people wearing a mask and scaring the children as they walked through the haunted house. THAT made my night. Demented, I know. Everyone had a blast and when it was all done the staff hung out for a bit and took a bunch of pictures. Then, still in our garb, the Western staff took two cabs to Five Color City.

In this region of China there is a serious drinking culture that doesn’t just include alcoholics and bums but white collar business men and professionals having meetings. It’s not uncommon for a business meeting in the afternoon to include several beers for each participant. It’s more than a social lubricant, too. It acts as a buffer for serious occasions and creates an atmosphere where everyone is open and “honest” with one another. Great way to do business, eh? Anyway, I digress. Five Color City is Kaifa Qu’s resident “area” for that cultural gem.

We all went out to FCC and it’s safe to say that most of us got some curious glances. The theme for the Western staff’s outfits was Willy Wonka. We had a Willy, Mike Teevee, Varuca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Agustus Gloop, Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and even an Oompa Loompa. Noelle and I were late to the preparations since we got to Dalian so late, but we managed to find some matching candy-oriented shirts and some bright colors to deck ourselves out in. The consensus was that we were Ever-lasting Gobstoppers. It worked.

The night went late into the evening and the following morning was more like early afternoon. We had a recouping day at the apartment of two other staff members where we watched Halloween movies all day and ate pizza. Good times.

And then November showed up and along with it my month-long cold. Since November first I’ve basically been sick. Low energy, cough, sneezes, runny nose, headaches! Blah. Despite that inconvenience, I’ve managed to make it out to hike through the trails twice and I haven’t missed a day of work. This week we’re having a Thanksgiving dinner as a staff at a restaurant in town. I love that we’re doing something for the holiday, but by this time back home all the stores and even some of the streets are already decorated and ready for Christmas. Here there’s nothing but the chilled wind to remind you that the winter holidays are around the corner. Makes me a bit nostalgic for things I always thought I didn’t care for. Soon December will be here and Christmas and New Years will come and go. This time of the year is difficult for traveler’s abroad, but it’s that shared feeling of the winter blues that brings us closer. We make the holidays special ourselves by keeping up with some of our traditions from home and even by playing Christmas music throughout the apartments (Noelle is currently playing Trans Siberian Orchestra). Hopefully Skype works on Christmas, because I’m sure that there will be many people testing out the limits of the service.

I can’t really mope, though. We still count ourselves supremely lucky to be doing something so extreme. We wanted to go abroad and now we’re here. We wanted to get jobs right out of school and now we have them. We wanted to see the world and now we are. We wanted stories to tell and now we most definitely have some. Everyday we’re adjusting to life here more and more. Some days China kicks our faces into the dirt and other days we outsmart her enough to secure the Win. With the help of our curriculum director, I’ve begun writing again and even have someone to talk to about my passion, and Noelle has joined a gym that she feels comfortable with. We’re walking a tightrope, but I think there’s a net down there now…

The Cast of the New Wonka Movie: The Western Staff at the Halloween Party.

One of my adult students sent me this flash video about China. If it works for those back in the states it’s worth a look. Pretty interesting and accurate.