Last School Trip of the Year

This is what it feels like for me to be in Beijing...
This is what it feels like for me to be in Beijing…

On my fifth time to Beijing I found an area that I’d actually like to visit again. Generally, as a rule, I dislike Beijing with a fiery passion. The only other big Chinese city that’s elicited such ire from me is Zhengzhou. Each time I’ve been in Beijing the weather has been atrocious, the crowds overwhelming, and the humidity incapacitating, but on this fifth go-round things were different.
Xiao Ming and I chaperoned an internship with six high school students during the final week of June. Overall, it was uneventful (that adjective is good when children are involved) and pleasant (that adjective just isn’t often associated with the Chinese capital).

photo(81)We had reservations at the Sanlitun Youth Hostel, a clean, centrally located place that served pretty decent Chinese and Western food. The staff, young and mostly helpful, was overworked, and sometimes it was easy to see. The area known as Sanlitun has a bit of a flashy, sordid past, but over the last few years it has grown into just a popular area for expats to shop, drink, and entertain themselves between sightseeing and whatever other business they have there.

 

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The weather also seemed to be on our side, mostly. Sunny, blue skies greeted us each day, and at night I could even see a few stars. Summer in Beijing is hot. We walked the students to the company the first couple days, but even at 8:30 we were drenched by the time we got there. We let them take cabs after two days of that.

photo(57) That first day at the company, a water conservation non-profit called THIRST, we stayed with the students until after lunch, just to make sure everything ran smoothly. The six of them had been quiet since Xiao Ming and I met them at the train station a day before, and we still hadn’t heard them talk much. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it was just…odd. The last two trips I took with students felt like I was a cat herder. This group almost made me feel like I wasted my time coming along for the trip. After the first day of this oddly self-sufficient behavior, I changed my approach. I gave them curfews, the hostel’s business card, and gave them perimeters they couldn’t pass. That did the trick. After that they were more talkative, friendlier, and always on time. The reason these six kids were chosen for the internship is because they were rock stars already. Mature, responsible, and focused. I did not need to babysit these guys like I did the 22 middle schoolers when we went to Beijing in May, or the 23 High Schoolers I went to Ningxia with.

Xiao Ming and I used our afternoons to turn the trip into a pre-summer vacation vacation. Once we dropped the kids off at the company, we would wander around the city. I finally got to see the Summer Palace, the one tourist sight I’d yet to see. It wasn’t as crowded as many other places because it wasn’t a holiday, and the complex sits pretty far away from the center of the city. Wandering around in the heat zapped us, and while sitting and resting on the bridge near the palace, both of us fell asleep for forty minutes. When we woke up old Chinese couples were smiling at us.

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Or we would hang out at the very hip and modern, Korean-owned Café Groove across the street from the hostel. This place had a modern-artistic-industrial feel to it, and in the evenings they opened their glass walls so that it became an open-air café with free wifi and comfy seats. Even the students chilled there a few times in the evenings.

Maybe the "Customer" called this number. You can find these all over the streets. They're exactly what you think they are. The sidewalk equivalent of that bathroom stall, "For a good time, call..." note.
Maybe the “Customer” called this number. You can find these all over the streets. They’re exactly what you think they are. The sidewalk equivalent of that bathroom stall, “For a good time, call…” note.

Sitting in Café Groove also allowed Xiao Ming and me to play a game we dubbed, “Count the Prostitutes.”
While the area has been made relatively cleaner due to the police and local government shutting down some bars due to solicitation, people are crafty. As we sat there, people watching, I noticed two very tall, thin, dolled-up Chinese women walking along the back of the café, down an alley behind the hotel next door. These girls came by like five minutes a part, but both in the same direction. They also both checked their phone the same way, as if checking a time or number, and then tucked it away.

By the third, nearly identical girl, I told Xiao Ming, and we watched as three more girls walked by in a matter of minutes. Unable to fight my curiosity, I stood by the outside of the café and watched as another girl walked by.
This time, however, I saw where she went. Five tall Chinese guys, broader than the average Chinese man, stood guard at the back door of the hotel. All of them wore snazzy suits, and one sat at a computer set just inside the doorway. The girl (and all of the other ones probably) went to him, leaned down, looked at the screen, and then stood and entered the elevator and disappeared. I relayed this to Xiao Ming, and she also checked it out the next time we saw a girl walk by.

On her return to our table, she said that it was definitely prostitution because after the girl got in the elevator one of the guards radioed someone in the hotel and said the girl had arrived for the customer in a specific room number. Each evening, Xiao Ming and I hung out at Café Groove and played our game as the students worked on their computers. There were a few times that we lost count, too. If the cops are at your front door, use the back, I guess.

Because it was a school trip, and Xiao Ming and I were “On” the whole week, we didn’t get to partake of the nightlife in Sunlitun. Arguably, one of the best areas in Beijing to hang out and drink, the JiuBa Jie (Bar Street) was off limits to us. We found it, saw it, walked the perimeter, but did not dive in. Next time…
The week flew by, and before we knew it, Friday had arrived and a train ride back to Dalian was in order. The students had a good time and learned a lot during the week, Xiao Ming and I met some cool people at THIRST and had a nice mini-trip, and most importantly: no one lost any limbs. We boarded the train, and six and a half hours later we said goodbye to the kids as their parents picked them up at the Dalian North Station. Third Chaperoned Trip during my First Year. Done.

It's a gated alley. No exit, no entrance. Someone had another thought.
It’s a gated alley. No exit, no entrance. Someone had another thought.

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"Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in our hearts."....Hmmm
“Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in our hearts.”….Hmmm

 

 

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Last Day of School

The last day of school at an International School is sort of like your favorite TV show’s season finale. Some characters are taking off—possibly staring in their own spinoffs—many are coming back—wiser than the year before and, with interesting stories between filming breaks. Even season-long arcs have been resolved—grades, projects, committees, testing—while mid-season changes—administration in new spots, new staff, new students—will cast mystery over the opening of the next year.

Laughing on the last day!

I doubt we’re going to be syndicated anytime soon, but there were a bunch of cameras out today. Kids and teachers alike tried to snap photos with each other while also juggling their yearbooks and signing their friends’. Students helped pack up some rooms between the hugs and signing, but their attention spans were about as long as a goldfish’s. The whole day flashed by, and came to a close at 1:30 as the buses rolled out and the staff waved goodbye for the summer.

Then, for the rest of the day, the teachers packed up their rooms, filed some papers, and wandered around the silent halls until about 4:30.

Yearbooks on the Field

We’ve got an in-service day tomorrow, but the year is done. First full-time teaching post at an accredited International School in the bag, ladies and gents.

However, the work is not finished. Xiao Ming and I are chaperoning one last trip. I am taking 6 High Schoolers to Beijing for a week so they can do an internship at a water conservation organization named THIRST. They will be working throughout the week, and we get to be their supervisors. This’ll be my third trip as a chaperone this year!
And once we return on the 28, there will be about two days, and then we head to Paris. Three days in Paris and then three weeks in Nice.

Last Day, Mischief

Fun times ahead. Hopefully I’ll be writing from a French beach next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Always Yearbooks

The Kids are All Right

I barely get by taking care of myself, but a few weeks ago over my school’s Spring Break, someone thought it a good idea to put 22 other lives in my hands. I wasn’t alone; one other chaperone came, but still, 2 vs. 22 is a big difference. Despite the unfair odds, we made it there and back with all appendages accounted for.

As I wrote before, Ningxia is not a hopping commercial place. More like desert-adjacent land of dust, wind, and rocks. We didn’t go there to sight-see, though.

A small, two-room village school an hour away from any paved road was our destination. To get there we had to cross our Ts and dot all the crossed Is. Lots had to get done to make it happen, but it all did and things were great.
I’ll just keep the commentary short and share the photos instead on this one.

 

Hanging out
Hanging out

 

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This "scenic" spot felt more like the setting for a horror flick...Isa and I thought up at least five different scenarios that left all but a few of us dead or cannibalized.... which is still dead.
This “scenic” spot felt more like the setting for a horror flick…Isa and I thought up at least five different scenarios that left all but a few of us dead or cannibalized…. which is still dead.

 

First morning. On our way.
First morning. On our way.

 

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Yup...they look like they got it....
Yup…they look like they got it….

 

 

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This is an experience that none of us will ever forget. Such an amazing adventure.

Never doubt that a small group of commited people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

To Ningxia for Spring Break

Next week I’ll be spending my Spring Break chaperoning 22 Chinese High School kids as they volunteer their time to teach at a poor village school in Ningxia, China.

The last time I was in Ningxia was when Xiao Ming and I were on the train to Lhasa.  Credit: wikipedia
The last time I was in Ningxia was when Xiao Ming and I were on the train to Lhasa.
Credit: wikipedia

 

This autonomous region is the third poorest in China, and doesn’t have much of an economic output because of high labor costs, so it doesn’t have a lot going for itself…except maybe wolfberries and a possible wine market future. The Hui ethnic minority live there and most of the population are Muslim. The Mandarin spoken is not standard Mandarin, and even the students say that it’s really difficult to understand the locals.

I’m not sure what teaching I’ll be doing, but the other chaperone and I will already have our hands full with the group in general. We’ve had a few meetings, set our expectations, and had the appropriate paperwork signed, so now we just have to wait and see…They are all good kids, but they’re all 17-19. Going on a trip. And it’s co-ed. Last summer a group of them arranged this volunteer outing on their own, without any adults, so now that the school is involved and there are teachers going, rules have been put in place. I’m sure some are gonna want to test the limits, but the other teacher and I are on the same page, and, thankfully, she’s got a rep for sort of being a hardass. Makes my job easier.

I’m really excited about this, have been for a few months now. The video the two seniors showed the school in the Fall brought tears to most peoples’ eyes. The work and the donations that these students raised on their own seemed to really help the children in Ningxia. I jumped on board right after the video ended, and I’ve been hounding my administrator and checking in on the students, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything with the trip details. When it finally got the green light, they offered me the chaperoning gig, and I said, yes, you bet I wanna get in on this. The last few weeks, we’ve been doing a few different fundraisers—wearing earphones in the halls if you buy a button for 30 RMB—and have been spreading the word about how great an opportunity it is to donate to a worthy cause.

We'll be outside of Yinchuan. That's number 1 on the map.  Credit: wikipedia
We’ll be outside of Yinchuan. That’s number 1 on the map.
Credit: wikipedia

And it is a worthy cause. 100% of the donations go directly to the purchasing of clothes, school supplies, food—all given to the community in Ningxia. I had to convince a middle school student who thought he had inside info that no, the donations were not being pilfered by the school and going into the pockets of administrators, and that all the kids attending this trip were paying their own ways. Cynical little 13 year old, I tell you.

We leave this Saturday morning and we’ll get back the following Friday afternoon. I’ll have a weekend to recoup, and then back to school that Monday.

Anyone else doing anything fun for Spring Break?

International Schools Vs. Traditional Public Schools

 

This week it has occurred to me that working in an international school presents a few opportunities and challenges that are nearly nonexistent in traditional state-side public schools.

Wading through the cultural differences is definitely at the top of the list, but few understand what this actually looks like in the classroom. Let’s take history, for example. Say you’re looking at a map, or even talking about the time frame of the early twentieth century, and you happen to mention that China and Taiwan are separate. Better be prepared for a few kids to pipe up with a, “Um, Taiwan is China,” and a few others to counter with, “No it’s not! I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese.” I’ve had to run peace-talks between these eighth grade emissaries a few times.

Or, you’re correcting a student’s mistake in class—him smiling the whole time—only to find out later you’ve completely disgraced him by taking away his “Face.” OR you try to pulse-check the class by wondering out loud if there are any questions or if everyone “gets it,” and they all nod their heads, eager for you to just keep going with the assignment. Start the task a minute later and no one moves for three minutes because they have no clue what’s what. You learn later that they didn’t want you to lose face by making it seem like you had not explained things clearly.

Sure, there are a bunch of kids that have been in the American system a few years and have been pretty much indoctrinated into the ways of the prepubescent monster that is their Western counterpart, but there are enough Chinese students still fresh to the US curriculum to pose this problem.

Then you have the variety of vocals that fill the halls when students are traveling from one class to the other, their many different languages pummeling your ears in ways impossible for you to decipher. Classroom English is stressed, absolutely, but rare is the class wholly without a whispered word in a native tongue. Most of the time this utterance is innocuous, but there have been a few snippets that have been anything but. One time in the library while students were doing research for a history project, I heard one boy talking about the breasts of a video game character he had seen in a website advertisement. When I looked up from across the table I told him he needed to change the topic. Confused and shocked, he asked if I had understood and I just nodded. He hasn’t said anything inappropriate in the months since then.

Bullying is always something teachers need to be vigilant about putting a stop to, but when you add in languages that no one on the staff speaks and a culture that encourages harmonious interactions, even when you’ve been slighted, this can get to be an enigma even the most well-versed behavioral specialist may find perplexing. Throw in new tech like We Chat that allows people to interact in ways faster and more ubiquitous than IMing and E-mail and you’ve got a hot mess on your hands.

The kids and the teachers in international schools also have the opportunity to have some of the widest social circles of any group of people. If your deskmates all hail from a different continent chances are that you’re going to be bringing different points of view to small group conversations. Teachers who work together for a few years and then move on to other posts don’t ever really lose touch, not today with Facebook and E-mail. Goodbyes may be more frequent, but the friendships formed can be made quicker and with more depth, too. Saying goodbye to two students this week proved to be a harder task than I had anticipated. Both of their families are heading back to their home countries, Korea and Japan, because of work changes. Staff and students took pictures with the kids and some even cried at the end of the day when they left the school for the last time. These farewells are important, though, and not always final. Sometimes they just give people destinations to travel to on vacations.

Fun days like International Day definitely get spiced up, though. Being truly international, the environment at the school on this day and the days leading up to it can be very enlightening. Families from all over the world and students with vastly different experiences can share their culture with all the flare of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

And parent-teacher conferences get a little twist when translators are used so the parents can understand what the teacher is saying about their kid. We just finished our two-day conferences and I needed to have a person translating for about three of them. I was able to use my Chinese for the first one, but then the remaining conferences required me to say things I didn’t know how to, so I got a translator.

Also, the happy birthday song in one class being sung in 8 different languages is an awesome thing to behold. Having a German student translate political cartoons during a history lesson, or a Chinese student making a connection between a Native American legend and a Song Dynasty poet’s work can make for amazing teachable moments—the students teaching the teacher, that is. Students learning how to make art from a well-known artist from Peru, or how to make film from a teacher with more experience than half the young Hollywood directors today, or learning English from a teacher who brings great stories from 20 plus years abroad to every class are fantastic ways to learn a thing or two.

Even chaperoning trips isn’t the same. In March, I am supervising a volunteering trip to the Ningxia Autonomous Region. A group of High Schoolers are going to a small village in this area and volunteering their time for a week. We’re going to teach at the small school, and do community work for the impoverished town of Tongxin, outside the capital, Yinchuan. Even though this is during Spring Break, it’s like I’m not giving up a thing. Then in May, I’m going to be going to Beijing to help supervise the Lego Robotics competition. Despite hating Beijing, I love being able to go with the kids and see them compete in this big event. These are places I just wouldn’t get to see teaching in a public school back home.

There are a dozen other things that could go in this post, but I’m tired and I have an early Professional Development training at the Canadian International School in town, so I’ll call it quits now.

 

Takers and Leavers

I finished “Ishmael,” Daniel Quinn’s philosophical novel this weekend. The story follows the Socratic conversations between the male narrator and a telepathic gorilla as they task themselves with understanding, “The way things became the way they are,” and then positing an action plan for saving mankind from its own destructive tendencies.

(Wikipedia)

In a poorly phrased nutshell, the way things got to be the way they are today (today being a negative path leading ultimately to man’s and the rest of the world’s total annihilation due to an imbalance of resource supply and demand) starts with identifying two groups of people—Leavers and Takers.

Leavers were those early groups of Homo sapiens sapiens that lived for about three million years alongside nature in a variety of ways that didn’t tax the environment and life around them to the breaking point. Takers are those clever saboteurs who struck the earth and tilled some soil with their first insipient stab at agriculture in the Fertile Crescent around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers some 8-10,000 years ago.

From that first successful reaping of that first crop a new path, a new culture of thought and action, began. This path, using the Leaver story of Cane and Abel, Ishmael the gorilla explains, sets the stage for a war between the Agriculturists, embodied by Cane, who believe they have the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which is outlined in the novel as the sacred knowledge to know who should live and die) and the Pastoral/Hunter-Gatherer people, symbolized by Abel, that live in accordance with the earth and “in the hands of the gods.” The Takers view themselves as the masters of the earth, the pinnacle of evolution, and thus devise a myth or culture that takes them out of the natural lineup of the Community of Life, excusing them from the laws of competition and the “peace-keeping” law that all living creatures—save man now—follow.

Removing themselves from this lineup allows them to justify their push for total domination of the earth, at any cost. Species, terrain, and ways of life are wiped out as the Takers plow along, reshaping the world in the image they see fit. The problem, as any anthropologist or ecologist will tell you, is that a species’ population can only grow as large as its limiting factors will allow. When a fox population grows, the rabbits die. Then the foxes dwindle, and the rabbits come back. That’s the way it goes. But man, being the master of the earth, takes the world around him and shapes it to his will. The Takers produce more food to feed the masses, but the production just encourages even more growth, which in turn pushes the Takers to exert their god-like control over even more of the earth to sustain the larger numbers. The big problem arises when we realize that the earth, her resources and the life on her, are limited. If the Takers have destroyed their limiting factors, what’s the logical conclusion then?

Boom! Or rather…the wheezing, hoarse cry the last of us Takers will let loose as we starve to death on what will then be an empty dust ball hurtling through space.

Connecting his theory with the sciences of ecology, biology, and anthropology, Ishmael takes his student through a journey of thought that leaves the reader reeling. From a strictly cultural standpoint, the use of Biblical stories from Genesis provides a great way to conceptualize Ishmael’s theory in a linear, narrative form, but with the objective science, and back and forth dialogue between the gorilla and the narrator the novel transforms, or evolves, into a book very difficult to put down. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and many others have looked at the conflicts that emerge when a group that sees itself as “civilized” clashes with a perceived, “primitive” group (those would be Takers and Leavers, in the vernacular of “Ishmael”). These novels depict this all out war as an inevitability that stems from an inherent flaw in man. “Ishmael” weaves this battle into the design of his theory well, but he does something with it. Unlike most doomsdayers or pessimists, the theory does not necessarily dictate that man is damned or inherently deficient. It does offer up a solution by pointing the reader back in the direction of the Leavers, those that lived within the Community of Life for three million years, and, at least in some remote places like jungles and deserts, still do. Hope for the Takers, Ishmael teaches, is in relinquishing the title of master of the earth, and reclaiming a place in the lineup of Life.

I didn’t mean to write a mini-book report here. Seriously. I just wanted to think, and for me, thinking usually involves writing. There are plenty of elements worth analyzing such as why Ishmael is a gorilla, what the narrator’s next steps may be, what really is the meaning of the ambiguous sign on the wall of Ishmael’s apartment, and I’m sure we’ll have our students cogitate on all these and more (oh, I didn’t mention: I read this in preparation for teaching it with a history and English teacher I work with). For me, though, I just wanted to work my head around this book with a little rambling. This novel didn’t come out of left field with a whammy, but it is the first one that followed the line of inquiry long enough to point out something new to me. Much like Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” this novel’s dialogue works like a spell, capturing my mind and reshaping certain thoughts—making some appear and others vanish. Even Dan Brown’s new one, “Inferno,” tackles the idea of overpopulation, but his is amped up to the nth degree and a bit darker.

The numbers in the book surprised me, too. At one point Ishmael says there were about 3 Billion people on the earth. In a science class that I work in the students watched an old Bill Nye video from the late 90s, and the Science Guy said there were about 5 Billion of us. About a year ago, I read that we are right around 7 Billion. These numbers, and the speed at which they’re growing, are freaky.

Living in China, one of the most densely populated places on this rock, I can’t help but think about the futures portended by “Ishmael,” “Inferno,” and good old fashion Mathematics. The scales here are so imbalanced it’s not even funny. People mountain, people sea in one place, and then tumble weeds in the next. China has entire cities that are uninhabited, they have complexes with beautiful exteriors and vacant interiors, and they seem to have a near-phobic reaction to open land in close proximity to their cities. It’s as though they can’t abide grass and hills when perfectly good apartment buildings could be sitting there.

Just the other day Xiao Ming and I were driving around Jinshitan, and all along the perimeter of the town vast numbers of empty buildings loomed like mausoleums that even the dead would rather avoid. Between Dalian and Kai Fa Qu there is an entire neighborhood that seems to be populated by three street sweepers who idle their time away by snaring errant pieces of litter that blow into their turf.

All my life I’ve been a Taker, but there have been occasions when I’ve dreamed that I was not. It’s more than rebuking money, materialism, control and civilization, it’s about recognizing the imbalance all around us and realizing that, shit, this isn’t what we had planned.

None of these thoughts are new, and even “Ishmael,” wasn’t the first or the tenth to lay it all out. Even Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism in China caught on to the idea. He preached about the principles of Wu Wei, or in English, the Art of Inaction.  He used this idea broadly, but there are strong similarities between it and some of Ishmael’s thoughts. The way ambition leads to so many negative consequences can be seen as the Takers enacting their god-like powers over the earth. A quote from the Tao Te Ching goes, “Try to change it and you will ruin it. Try to hold it and you will lose it.” That sounds a lot like Takers screwing things up to me.

I’m excited about teaching this novel, and seeing how the students react to it and its ideas. I can’t wait for our own Socratic discussions about the topics within its pages, and listening to their points of view.

Weekend with the guys

More than a month ago a colleague of mine, the High School Science teacher, sent out an e-mail detailing a bunch of Wikipediaed (it’s a verb, too!) info about Tianjin. The last line quoted plane tickets to the place at around 90 RMB from Dalian, one way—pretty freaking cheap.

I read it, said, “Hmm. That’s interesting,” and honestly didn’t think about it again for an entire week, until one night on the bus ride back to KFQ, another HS teacher asked me if I was heading to Tianjin with some of the guys in a few weeks. We talked it over, and, even though I went to Tibet not long ago, just purchased my tickets back to America, and was already planning a trip to Cambodia for February, I decided to head down to Tianjin with them.

This is what he sent:

Tianjin is a city in northern China and one of the five national central cities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is governed as one of the four direct-controlled municipalities of the PRC, and is thus under direct administration of the central government. Tianjin borders Hebei Province and Beijing Municipality, bounded to the east by the Bohai Gulf portion of the Yellow Sea. Part of the Bohai Economic Rim, it is the largest coastal city in northern China.

In terms of urban population, Tianjin is the fourth largest in China, after Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Tianjin is a dual-core city, with its main urban area (including the old city) located along the Hai River, which connects to the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers via the Grand Canal; and Binhai, a New Area urban core located east of the old city, on the coast of Bohai Sea. As of the end of 2010, around 285 Fortune 500 companies have set up base in Binhai, which is a new growth pole in China and is a hub of advanced industry and financial activity. Since the mid-19th century, Tianjin has been a major seaport and gateway to the nation’s capital. Tianjin also has an active night club and live music scene. 

Air fare to Tianjin is as low as 90 RMB one way from Dalian.  Contact M. Baldwin for more information about this thriving metropolis.

We all grabbed different flights, and they all got delayed…

It was passed midnight by the time we touched down in Tianjin, and almost one by the time the five of us regrouped and found a club.

By 4:30 most of the group had called it a night, but I stuck around a bit longer.

There were a ton of Russians, Ukrainians, Sri Lankens, Persians, and of course Europeans at the club.  I have no clue why there were so many there, but on the second night Ryan and I caught a glimpse of some clashing of cultures.

That second day, morning came around one in the afternoon for some of us, but then the group caught up with each other and wandered for a bit until we found Hank’s Sport Bar and Grill. Hands down, best food I’ve had in a while. It’s an American-owned place, and Hank himself talked with us a while during our late lunch.

The consensus was that we’d go back to our respective hotels and nap away a few hours, and then regroup around nine to catch some live music at another club. Though I felt a bit like roadkill most of the day, I didn’t want to sleep. Instead, I wanted to go see Xiao Ming’s undergraduate university—Tianjin University.

I’d chosen my hotel because of its price and proximity to the school, and when I went off on my own I wandered around the campus a while. It’s a pretty campus, but in the evening, wind blowing like mad, there weren’t a lot of students just hanging around. Still, I managed to find myself—two times—engaged in conversation with curious Chinese kids. One girl and I talked a while about Tianjin and the school, and about Dalian. Another guy wanted to just follow me around for a bit. I’m pretty sure he wanted to follow me as I met up with the other four, but I indirectly told him to take a hike.

Day time shot from the next morning. This is in the open area of the campus
Day time shot from the next morning. This is in the open area of the campus

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We found the Italian Style Street not long after nine, and then Club 13. The place had that local hang out vibe, the interior inspired by industrial warehouses and T.G.I. Fridays. Eventually I asked the owner why she chose the name, and she reminded me that 13, in the West, is considered a bad omen, so she wanted her patrons to think it a bit dangerous as they stepped into the place. She said this all with a smirk and thick sarcasm, so I have no way of knowing if it held any truth.

When the band took a break their buddy hopped on the stage and sang a few.
When the band took a break their buddy hopped on the stage and sang a few.

The band playing—a trio of young guys—turned out to be pretty good. The lead singer, a fast-talking local, seemed to constantly exaggerate the well-known Tianjin accent just to get a rise out of the audience. Another guy, the bongo drummer, wore a Jamaican-style shirt and Sesame Street pants. The guitar player drank a lot of water and told jokes between songs. They sang songs with lyrics more than mildly anti-government. It was great.

The place had communist murals all over the walls. They looked like traditional images, but they had a sarcastic feel to them.
The place had communist murals all over the walls. They looked like traditional images, but they had a sarcastic feel to them.

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After a while it was pushing elevenish and there was a decision to call it an early night. The workers and I had been talking throughout the evening and one even bought me a drink, so before we left I asked if they knew of any other places where we could hang out. They gave me animated instructions and recommendations (and a handful of their customer-friends chimed in) and eventually we got a lead on two more clubs to check out. Before everyone left, though, we realized Ryan was missing.

The place was closing down, so there wasn’t much noise at all. What we did hear, however, was the sound of two hand-drums being played. Following the sound, we found Ryan cradling a drum between his knees and jamming right next to the drummer from the band. They sounded great. It was completely improvised, but they really had a rhythm.

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On the way out Ryan and I chatted with the workers and basically secured the opportunity to come back and actually play for the club. He gave him one of his CDs and as we all walked out of the club Ryan’s one-man-band Cronkite Satelite blared out into the Tianjin city streets as the girl played it over their system.

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A look from the balcony of Club 13
A look from the balcony of Club 13

Once the others left, Ryan and I followed the directions to a place called Helen’s, a restaurant by day and bar by night.

After taking an elevator to the third floor, we grabbed a table and ordered some food, taking in the crowd of dancers and diners. Once again, a large Sri Lankan presence could be seen, but this time things didn’t stay harmonious for long. About thirty minutes later, our conversation got interrupted as some of the sober Sri Lankans tried to help drunk ones to their tables. A Chinese guy got in the way, and then got decked, hard–twice. He sort of stood there a minute without doing much, but after his lady friend and his buddy checked on him he seemed to realize he needed to do something to exert his awesome manness. He went crazy.

Chinese and Sri Lankan alike duked it out in the restaurant while the staff and other hungry folks just ignored them—for like 15 minutes. Eventually, the Sri Lankans left, and the Chinese guy who got clocked settled. For a minute. At one point he tried to use a beer bottle as a club, but his group took it away. Somehow he managed to convince his table he had calmed enough to go out for a smoke.

About this time Ryan and I decided the show was over and also thought calling it a night sounded good. As we walked out of the building hollering and screaming reached our ears. Sure enough, the fight had migrated to the street. This time the swings were more furious and the rage a bit more entertaining. We watched a while, but when the cops showed we grabbed the nearest cab.

In China, the cops like to just collect anyone and everyone at a fight scene, even the gawkers. Often a fee exchanges hands before anyone can leave the police station. We avoided that.

The morning came quickly, and another teacher and I were on the same flight back, so we grabbed a cab and hung out till boarding time. Xiao Ming met us in Dalian, and drove us back, concluding our weekend away.

Although not a traditional tourist city, Tianjin proved a good place just to visit and get to know some of my coworkers. I’m sure we’ll go back again at some point, or maybe to another nearby city.

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