Cookie Activity Pictures

A handful of students at one of the “Cookie-making” tables.

As promised, some photos from the cookie making activity on Christmas night. These are just a handful. It takes forever to upload pictures with this internet connection,  so I know I’ll have a ton of shots to share later when we get back to the states.

For most of the students this was their first time making cookies. For some it was their first time eating chocolate chip cookies (THE BEST COOKIES IN THE WORLD).

I was placed “in charge” of the craft area….riiight. Does it look like I know what I’m doing?
It’s Santa Tom!! He’s asking the students questions in English about Christmas, and then he gives them candy.
Mixing the ingredients
Yeah, she knows what she’s doing better than I do.
Noelle and one of her students

Me helping them mix it up
Hillary with our table’s batch of cookies
Still nicely under Joyce’s control
Jim and Hillary looking on at the students’ progress
Sunny doing her part, too
Yeah, the pan is a bit big for that oven…but we made it work!
Erica and Betty with the students at their table.

Kidney Stone Chaos

Inevitably, when you mention them in public to just about anyone, you hear something along the lines of, “You know, they’re the closest a man will come to feeling what it’s like to give birth.” With that said allow me to add: “I am so glad I am a man.”

I have had kidney stones once before, years ago, and they were not this bad. Three days ago, around midnightish, just as I climbed into bed, the lower left side of my back began to hurt. No throbbing or aching sensation. Just hurt. I sat up and twisted to the left and right, thinking I might have mysteriously hurt it somehow. A split second after that thought I realized that I could not stay in bed. I had to move because the pain spread like the ripples from a rock tossed into a pond–ripples made of fire and other painful stuff, let me tell you. Only, it didn’t really spread as much as it just intensified. The crippling fire in my left side stayed in my left side, but it gnashed at my innards and dug its claws into my kidney in a way that seemed to reduce the rest of me solely to that ailing organ. It was an eclipsing, incapacitating rush of agony.

Writhing around in the bathroom for about thirty minutes, shuffling back and forth between lying on the heated floor to hanging over the sink with my arms propped on the glass mirror, my second thought was: We’re probably not going Downtown in the morning (Noelle and I have been meaning to get down there all stinking week). My first thought was: I’m going to die in China.

Noelle, who by this time had also gotten out of bed, offered me some ibuprofen and a hot, damp rag to press on my side, began to get that big-eyed look of someone reaching that critical moment when they begin to seriously weigh the options of calling for help in the middle of the night. In most places—America—she wouldn’t have needed to do any more than drag me into the car and haul me into the ER, but as you know, we’re not in the good ol’ US of A. Instead, she dialed our immediate go-to person for all things China related. No answer. She called another number. No answer. She then began dialing just about every number in my Contacts list on my cell. I’m still waiting to hear back from some of those numbers. Those will be fun conversations. Yes, it was almost one am. Yes, this is the most important holiday week for every Chinese person. That doesn’t matter when malicious calcium harbingers of pain and agony wage war on your body.

She did manage to reach another Western teacher, and eventually—with much teeth-gritting, doubling over, and yarking up the day’s intake done by yours truly—we made it out of the apartment, walked the few blocks to the main street, and hailed a cab where said Western teacher gave directions in Chinese to the cabbie and instructed him to take us to the nearest decent hospital (yes, specifying decent was needed for reasons I may elucidate later). Ironically, during our last Chinese Language class, Noelle and I were taught the words for hospital, nurse, and doctor.

We get to the hospital and are barred from entering a room until we check in and pay the “check-in” fee. We are then allowed to shoulder our way through the plastic strips of material that the Chinese use in lieu of actual doors on hinges (a closed door is seen as impolite in public places traditionally) and make our way into the spacious yet unnervingly dingy looking check-up area. The walls and floors are dirty, biohazard trashcans stand sentry along the floor panels (most with their lids open and waste sticking out like a demented, germ-riddled parodies of Oscar the Grouch), and there is a distinct aroma of urine wafting from the doorless bathrooms to the right of us.

I can barely talk as another wave of nauseating, back-bending pain crests and forces me to writhe once more—this time before an audience comprised of a nurse, some sort of guard, and a doctor who seemed to vacillate between looks of intense concern and total apathy. Using Noelle’s IPOD and the English-Chinese App, I convey what Noelle and I had begun to suspect before leaving the house—that the pain is Kidney Stones. He seems to understand, but apparently there’s nothing he can do for me. He makes a call. Then he instructs us to go to another hospital. Seriously.

Noelle and I are incredulous. What choice do we have? Luckily, I guess, the guard sees or intuits our anxiety. He walks with us outside and attempts to get us a cab. No-go. At two in the morning, on a side street, not a one is in sight. Another stroke of luck finds us as a woman leaving the hospital offers us a ride—for 20 rmb (taxis are normally 8). We take it. I slide into the backseat, Noelle takes the passenger, and the guard hops in on my right. Along the way he asks me questions, and every time I understand him he laughs. When he asks if my side still hurts I grunt an affirmative. He laughs again. Before I simply kick him out of the car and into the intersection (in the fantasy world I’d begun to construct I was not in pain but being chauffeured around by my entourage) we arrive at the second medical care facility.

This time we check in without wandering around too much. We’re directed upstairs to what the nurse describes as the, “Stone smashing room.” This hospital is even more vacant than the other, and more dimly lit. We find our way upstairs and knock on the door with the English words “Stone Smashing” beneath several Chinese characters. We wait a moment as whoever in the room makes some noise and then cracks the door open. The technician is a thirty-something year old woman in slippers and a wrinkly white doctor’s coat. After miming and making our point as much as our limited Chinese can allow, she gives me a sonogram scan. The cold goo and not-so-gentle way she slips and slides the scanner over my stomach and back almost makes me regret waking her up. The cot with ruffled blankets and a pillow with a suspiciously human-shaped concave contour to it sit in the corner of the room. When she’s finished she tells us several things. All in Chinese. The only things I can understand are: I can’t see anything. Go downstairs.

We check in at the nurse’s station and then get directed to the Emergency Scanner room. This time we knock and another sleepy-eyed doc cracks the door only to tell us to wait a moment and then closes it. Five minutes passes before he lets us in. He does his test—the same one as the woman upstairs—and then prints off one sheet with two images on it. Handing it to me, he literally shoos us away with several hand gestures. Another violent wave hits and as we’re heading back to our friends the midnight nurses, I yark into one of two bags we brought for that very reason. Yay for forethought in the midst of pain. The nurse tells us we need to go to another hospital—the first one we were at!

We go. I’m a bit foggy on how we managed it, but we make it there.

I hobble out of the cab and we walk up the ramp, the same doctor, guard, and nurse from before staring at us as we enter the building. I show the doctor the images on the paper I was given and he nods knowingly, I hope. He tries to communicate with us again, but it’s a stilted, stunted conversation. I crack out the IPOD once again and type our suspected diagnosis. He nods again. Yes, we finally have confirmation that it is indeed Kidney Stones, but beyond that our line of communication breaks down. The doctor, guard, and Noelle and I just sit there for a few moments, the nurse moving about, having lost interest in the scene or resigning herself to the fact that I will die slowly and painfully, I’m not sure. That is until one of the Chinese staff members—one in a seat of power—returns Noelle’s earlier phone call.

From that moment on the night became much smoother. Don’t misinterpret that; the pain was still like a blender rearranging my side from inside, but things did happen that precipitated the demise of that pain. Wayne—the CEO of the School/Factory/Business combo—had not left Dalian during the holiday like everyone else on our staff. The staff member who called Noelle back got a hold of him and within half an hour he showed up at the hospital. Just before he arrived the nurse must have taken pity on me or maybe she wasn’t so keen on me dying after all. Either way, she stopped ambling around the large room and gave me a shot in the side, claiming that it would kick in within about 20 minutes.

That was a long twenty minutes.

As Wayne showed up another wave jolted my body. I put the second bag we brought to good use and then disposed of it inside the nearest open biohazard trashcan. Wayne and Noelle helped me to another room where they laid me down on a flat table connected to what looked like an MRI machine sliced in half. The table slid me through the opening and snapped a few shots, and then they ushered me out of the room. Wayne then went off to have a chat with the doctor. When he returned he informed us that he had wanted a second opinion and that was why I was given the MRI scan. I had two Kidney stones, he said. All the pain was a good sign, he added, and then told us we were going to go back to the other hospital to get them smashed.

He drove us back to the hospital (for those counting, it was our second time at the same hospital), checked me in, and helped get me upstairs to the Stone Smashing room. Again. This time her scan revealed the stones. Magically, I guess. Along with the stones I have water in my kidney and something (I still have no idea what) is inflamed–just in case anyone is reading this and saying, “You know, they’re not THAT bad.”  She directed me to climb on top of the table behind her and lay on top of an awkward looking collection of metal gadgets.

Sparing the details (for the best, trust me) of the Stone Smashing procedure, I will tell you only that it is not the sort of procedure you want your boss’ boss to see you undergoing. While I can bring to mind several more sensitive medical scenarios that are even more embarrassing, this one would at least make the top twenty when you throw in the particulars of the aforementioned audience.

Afterward, when the technician switched off the machine and told me to move over, I knew it had worked. The pain—which had been greatly diminished thanks to that shot from before—was now actually manageable on a civil scale. I still had soreness and hobbled a bit as I walked, but the gritting of the teeth had subsided and I no longer felt the need to crawl on my hands and knees (I swear I limited that to the beginning of the night when we were still in our apartment).

Wayne—the man is a saint—checked with the doctor once more. I was given an IV and moved into a room with rows of chairs and metal poles for holding IV bags. The IV room, obviously. Chinese hospitals are obsessed with IVs. Wayne told me this was the first of three, that I would have to come back over the next two days. During the forty minute wait for the IV to drain we stood by a window and talked. The sky was still dark, but threatening light on the horizon. I was told to move around to facilitate the movement of the stone, so I hopped from one foot to the other while the three of us chatted. Over those last two hours Wayne had opened up quite a bit to us and so had we to him. We discussed our lives, his recent surgery, teaching, culture, kung-fu, tai chi, and family. He gave us a ride home and told us he’d meet us at the hospital over the next two days to take care of things. He even invited us over that night for a family dinner.

Throughout those last few hours, during the moments between excruciating pain and yarking, I thanked him again and again for coming, for helping out so much, and for paying for all of the treatment. Without hesitation or any word to us, he had taken care of the charges. You see, in Chinese hospitals, if you can’t produce proof that you’re covered or otherwise insured, you’re not treated. And just today, as I finished my final IV, I realized that he also paid for the IV each day. I know it’s customary for one friend to foot the bill at a restaurant here, but a medical bill? China has its ups and downs, for sure, but I gotta say, working for a man like this makes me feel pretty darn lucky.

Noelle and I made it back home where we climbed back into bed around eight am. The sun was up, the birds were chirping, and the fireworks were already being set off, but we were finally getting to sleep. Thank God for a kind boss.

Somewhere on the lower right side, in that dark space, are two spots that should not be there. Those are those darn kidney stones.

Idle Distractions

I am tired of surfing Facebook, copying Chinese notes, watching TV, checking my email countless times, and writing in my journal. So here I am! Jordan has been telling me he’s missed “my voice” in the blog so I’ve decided to write an entry – I think it will break the monotony of listening to the fireworks that have been blasting outside our windows since 7 am this morning. It actually sounds like a war zone out there. Never in my life have I heard so many fireworks go off for so long – happy Chinese New Year!! (And the best part is… they call it Spring Festival and it’s 7 degrees outside!) These fireworks put our July 4th fireworks to incredible shame.

Two weeks off for Chinese New Year is a darn good vacation and a great opportunity to travel, however, Jordan and I decided to hang around Dalian for this break. We decided to save some more money and plan a nice trip for the spring. After seeing some beautiful pictures of a friend’s trip to Cambodia, we are thinking that might be our next destination.

Speaking of spring, hopefully it hurries on its way because I am going more stir crazy here than I do during the winter at home. Sometimes I think that might be the hardest part about being in China. I can say that I thought about a lot before arriving here, but I didn’t think I would actually get bored (bored in a foreign country?? nooo way). Well I am here to tell you, that yes, you can and will get bored as an expat at some point. You can only study Chinese, surf facebook, and watch pirated DVDs for so long.

I have watched more TV here in the past 4 months than I ever have in my entire life. Let’s see… so far I have made it through all seasons of Six Feet Under, all seasons of Californication, 5 seasons of Friends, season 1 of American Horror Story, and countless movies. At home I would feel so unproductive if I were to watch this much TV, but here it is one of the few sources of entertainment at least until the weather breaks.

China has so much to offer, though. I am realizing a year goes pretty fast and a full-time job doesn’t allow for the time to see nearly enough. I am hoping we are able to see quite a bit more before our time here is up! It’s already been 4 months and I think the remaining 8 will fly too. If anyone reading this is thinking about traveling to China, feel free to message us with any questions or concerns! I am going to go watch more fireworks out the window. Happy (Chinese) New Year!


Cookies on Christmas

Happy New Years to everyone!

(Due to my aforementioned inability to commit, I am once again behind schedule. This entry is not about what we did last night–New Year’s Eve–but about Christmas. Still, hope everyone had a great time!)

There is a right number five bus and there is a wrong number five bus. In a post-Christmas effort to expand our slim selection of fine dining establishments here in Dalian we ended up boarding the latter.

The Monday after Christmas the two of us basically spent the day relaxing. I went for a short hike through the park, did some reading and studying. Noelle Skyped with family and friends. Then we hung out at Starbucks for about three hours, reading, writing, and people watching. A buddy of mine seemed intent on getting a glimpse of what a Chinese Starbucks looks like. He Skyped with Noelle despite the fact that it had to have been pushing something like 3 or 4 am in the States.

And to answer his inquiries: It looks exactly the same except there are more interesting groups of people. Germans, Swedish, Russian, French, English, American, and yes, Chinese are all easily found in there any day of the week.

Around, oh, five-ish we decided that it was time for some dinner. Dalian has great public transportation, and as I’ve said before, we’re getting used to taking the buses and cabs. So when we saw a bus with the same number as the one we were waiting for we didn’t think twice. We hopped on and found two seats.

Three stops later we realized that this was not the bus we wanted to be on, and when he stopped again we also realized that we had no idea where we were. We decided to stay on until he began to loop back to where we had gotten on. Seemed like the best plan—a little time-consuming but still the best plan to get us back to familiarity.

That didn’t happen because the driver kicked us off the bus. The route he drove took us out along the coast, much farther down than we’d ever been. When the last of the other riders walked off it was just the two of us. He looked back, said an angry-sounding sentence in Chinese and motioned for us to get off the bus. I tried to say that I wanted to stay, but he wasn’t having any of that. We hopped off and looked around at our surroundings.

Tall, dark, and vacant business buildings loomed over us like giant buzzards eyeing up their next meal as it slowly succumbs to heat exhaustion and thirst. But it wasn’t hot at all that night and we weren’t that thirsty. So near the coast, wind whipped at us in chilling bursts and the icy water sloshing around in my Wahaha brand plastic bottle kept time with our steps out of the skeevy alley we’d been deposited in by the friendly bus driver.

The daylight was gone, but we could still make out the ocean on the horizon. We walked toward it and then turned right, following the main road we both thought we vaguely recognized. After about five minutes of trekking what I can only assume is south—the wrong direction—we did an about-face and backtracked. Another ten minutes went by before we saw, off in the distance, high above the city, the neon blue rings that have become so familiar to us. The UFO. We live right next to UFO Mountain, and suddenly we had our extraterrestrial North Star to guide us home. It shone through the haze and the night, giving us a heading to set our steps to.

And as we walked on it became apparent how far away from that home we really were. And also, we didn’t want to go home. We wanted dinner. We tightened our jackets around our bodies and plugged along for another twenty minutes before we found a bus stop that sat on the number five route. It showed up; we boarded it.

Even that was funny. The stop was actually on a curve of a busy road, so the bus driver didn’t seem to want to fully stop to let us on. He slowed to an idle and I stepped on, but then he must have lifted his foot from the brake because the bus crept forward before Noelle could get up that first step. I looked at her just as the bus began to move and her eyes widened in shock and a bit of fear. I don’t know if the fear came from the idea that she may be left behind or because she was calculating the odds of successfully jumping on a moving bus, but in the end she did get on easily enough. We laughed, and I let my imagination paint a picture where she was chasing a bus like a Western bandit riding down a train on horseback.

We finally made it to the street we’d originally set out for almost an hour before. Had things gone smoother the bus trip would have only taken five minutes from Starbucks. We also made it to the new restaurant we wanted to try with the help of another teacher’s directions. Finally, we could eat dinner.

That was on the day after Christmas. For Christmas Eve and Day we worked. While many people in China know about Christmas and a lot can even give you details, the day itself was nothing more than a Sunday for them. The Western staff definitely didn’t want to work both days, but everyone was in good spirits anyway. The school had been decorated earlier in the month, so there were some lights, a few trees, some tinsel hanging around, and holiday music playing from the speakers. It was much more festive than I thought it would be, and that helped.

After classes were over on both nights, the school put on a Cookie Making Activity. Saturday night Noelle helped and I helped on Sunday. In the morning on Sunday I was “volun-told” (Told in a way that seems like you have an option to say no, but not really) that I would be “in charge” of one of the crafts and that I would be giving the opening ceremony speech to the students and their parents.

It’s not that I’m a shy person or even that I get nervous in front of folks, but getting told just hours before was a bit annoying. Whether it’s a “China Thing”—which I’ve been told it is—or poor communication skills on the part of some of the staff, last minute news is a daily staple of the interactions here. Most times they’re nothing too irritating, but they can become larger annoyances easily. Either way, I didn’t mind the responsibility, and I enjoyed speaking that evening. A few days later one of our supervisors complimented my introduction and said she felt moved. As flattering as that sounds, I think the praise was exaggerated quite a bit. I did nothing more than welcome them and let them know what we had planned for the evening as another staff member translated what I said into Chinese for the parents.

The night did go well, though. We made chocolate chip cookies from scratch, something none of the students had ever done, and then made a strange little Santa head out of an upside-down paper cup and some construction paper. That first night, after the activity was finished and the kids had gone home, some of the teachers snacked on the extra cookies. I must have eaten about 5 or 6. I love chocolate chip. For a few reasons, on that second night I didn’t eat a single one.

As can be guessed, many of the staff had also never made chocolate chip cookies from scratch either. The preparation that went into the activity consisted of, among other things, the Eastern staff acting out the making of the cookies, step by step. This was a good idea for many, many reason, but for two specifically. First: no, you do not individually press the chocolate chips into the dough. Second (and more importantly): the students MUST wash their hands efficiently. It’s for reasons pertaining to this second note that I declined the cookies Sunday.

The students were having a hard time mixing the ingredients and softening the dough, so one staff member told them to squeeze the dough. And they did. Honestly, not the worst idea. But when you add in the sheer number of people handing the food…eh…Each student took turns thrusting their hands into the bowl, squishing and squeezing the dough, ripping and mashing it until it was soft. Twelve different sets of hands pummeled the dough, and even though they had washed them, those hands were not THAT clean.

So when they offered me a cookie or two I kindly said, “Get outta here, Germ Machines!” Or just, “No thanks,” but I was definitely thinking the former.

My craft went smoothly, but I felt like the kids taught me how to do it instead of the other way around. You give a group of kids some glue, crayons, scissors, and paper cups and you’ve got yourself little Picassos…and a mess to clean afterwards.

When we finally left work Noelle and I ate a Christmas dinner at a western style restaurant called The Real Eddies. The staff there is fantastic and the food is pretty darn close to “authentic Western” food. At home, we exchanged gifts and relaxed as we watched National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. And thus we ended Christmas day.

How did you spend yours?

Out beneath the lit street lights.

Yes, I wore the hat all day.

Up and down one of the main streets these lights are strung. It’s pretty cool to see when it’s late at night and there aren’t many people driving around.

(NOTES: I’m going to add more pictures to this entry as soon as I get them. Should be very soon. If you’re interested in seeing the Christmas Cookie Activity check back here. I’m also trying to get a video of those annoying fireworks that are always going on at all hours of the day and night loaded on here. Also, Next entry—Nesburg and New Years)