Just a Wednesday

Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, my Business class was cancelled. The students all had meetings to attend, or at least that’s what they told me through e-mail. Either way, I was happy. That night I had planned to tell them I’d be canceling the following week’s class, too since I would be traveling to the Shaanxi and Henan provinces, so really, they had two weeks off.

I spent the day relaxing and writing, but in the late afternoon I went wandering around looking for a nicer traveling bag to take with me on the next week’s trip. I scoured a few local spots, but nothing stuck out. At the six-floor, maze-like Xin Ma Te (New Mart) I found a lot of chincey bags, but did see one style that I really liked. When I was looking at it I realized it was a much better quality than any of the others. I immediately realized where I should go to get a good bag: The Decathlon in downtown Dalian.

I hopped on the Qing Gui (Light Rail Train) and took a trip downtown. The last time I was at Decathlon another friend went with me and we set up a membership card for me using my Chinese name. It’s pretty cool having a membership card with just “Li Zhuo Xuan” (Li-family name. Zhuo-Oustanding. Xuan-Tall, High-achieving. Everything I am, naturally. Hah). Anyway, I found the bags easily and spent the next fifteen minutes debating and comparing the merits of each one until I settled on a dark grayish green and black Quechua brand bag, the same brand as my jacket.

At the check-out I whipped out my card like a pro and threw out some Chinese and the woman in front of me spoke to me in English about how brave I was to walk around alone and use Chinese. I have no idea why she said that.

Back on the Qing Gui I read my Kindle and a few men began talking about the “Wai guo ren” (foreigner) using his computer, ignoring people. So I politely told them it was a gift and that it was a book, not a computer. They laughed and just continued on, this time laughing at my funny pronunciation. I continued reading.

I was tired, but felt like I wanted to sit and study some Chinese a bit, so I went to Starbucks. Lately I haven’t been drinking any coffee or consuming many dairy products at all for that matter. Every time I do I seem to get bad stomach aches and whatnot. I think I actually might be becoming Lactose Intolerant. Which kind of sucks since I love cereal, ice cream, and burgers…ok, I know that last one has no connection to Lactose Intolerance, but the beef is from the cow whose milk has now become my stomach’s nemesis. Anyway…I buy some subway and head to Starbucks (I swear I do live in China and eat Chinese food, but I wanted something different that night. Don’t judge me. Hah).

As soon as I step into Starbucks James, one of the workers I’ve befriended, yells my name. When I look at him his says, “Come here, please,” (qing, lai le) really loud. I tell him I’m coming and head to the counter, ignoring all the stares I’m getting. I’ve put a lot of face time in the joint, so now I don’t get stared at as much as I used to, but having my name yelled when it’s packed is like walking in there naked.

James asks me to translate for two friends of his. I have no idea why he thinks this task is something I can do, but I tell him I’ll try. Turns out his “friends” are a couple from Singapore who are an hour late trying to catch their Merchant Ship out of Kai Fa Qu’s port. He doesn’t know them at all, but is trying to help them get to where they need to go. Actually, all the guys on staff are helping.

I chat with the couple in English and find out that the husband is a sailor and his wife has joined him on part of his journey throughout this part of the world for a few months. They were supposed to meet their group at a certain spot an hour ago, but no one was there. They wandered around, trying to find help since they knew no Chinese or anything about the area until they came into Starbucks.

We all talked back and forth, James and the guys making some phone calls to local ports and me trying to ascertain the exact details of the predicament. The hang up seemed to stem from the fact that they weren’t sailing on a passenger ship but a container ship. This concept was incredibly difficult to convey, and I have almost no vocabulary for this particular area of the language. Eventually we got a lead and name of a port. With luck this would be the one they needed.

They asked me if I could help them, and since I had nothing really better to do and because I’d want someone to help me if I were in the same position, I said sure. I got them a taxi and directed the driver to where we needed to go (a part of Kai Fa Qu I’d never been to). Once we finally got to the port we drove around looking for the right gate or for anything, really, that showed some sign of being the right spot.

I directed the driver and even tried to talk with a police officer at the port, and in the end, we got to a gate and the couple was met by their people. The woman and man who pick them up are pissed, but I tell them about the mix up and how they got lost, hoping that I can smooth things over…I don’t know if I do.

The couple is really grateful and we exchange info to keep in touch later down the road. On the way back I laugh and the taxi driver asks me what I’m laughing about. I tell him that I think those two were in big trouble because the Chinese man and woman were yelling at them. He nods; no smile. Eventually I realize I haven’t eaten in a long time, so I pull out two cookies that I bought at Subway and offer one to the driver. He takes it and thanks me. We eat in silence for a moment and then he asks me if they were my friends. I tell him I’ve never met them before tonight. I don’t really know them. He laughs hard and repeatedly asks me if I really didn’t know them. He seems utterly flabbergasted that I’d help strangers like that. I tell him it just feels good, and we wash our cookies down with our drinks, me with my OJ and him with his tea.


San huo fan—a going away meal. The pin yin tones are 4th, 3rd, 4th on the characters. Apart, these three characters translate to “To break away/Dispel,” “Companion,” “Meal.” My current Chinese teacher explained it, too.

“Chi wan fan, fen kai.” “After we eat, we separate.” She said it’s the final meal before moving on.

Last week we had our sanhuofan.

Teachers, Coworkers, None of us strangers and all of us Friends.

I don’t know if it was a traditional one or not because a week later we’re still around. I know that’ll change for many soon, but as for now, we’re still together. The school is in a rocky period of transition that has come upon the heels of news it was closing. A few months ago we were told about the imminent closing of our doors, so people did what people always do: We reacted. For most that meant seeking employment elsewhere—I was/am having meetings with a handful of training schools in the area to secure a steady position. Some of the Chinese staff has already moved on to different jobs and even the Western staff is looking ahead to an immediate future apart from the school. All of this is natural—to be expected—when you tell people the place is shuttin’ down.

As I said, though, transition. The school is not done. The owner has moved out of the country, but a new one is at the helm. Changes abound—some not so good. Customs are a tricky thing, and generally speaking, the school was always been very helpful at bridging those cultural gaps with minimal amounts of inconveniences and annoyances. I’m talking about common business practices, polite social etiquettes, creating good supervisor-employee rapport, and even simple personal boundary manners. Yes, the cultures of the East and West are often times at odds with each other, and yes, you should be sensitive to the practices of the country you’re in and give them priority (maybe), but when you’re working within a company that prides itself on blending the two’s cultures I feel it’s OK to be a little miffed when things start to deteriorate and those holding the reins aren’t listening to the solicited advice they are receiving.

In China (holds breath so as not to make an overly general, borderline insensitive statement), it seems that those in power have this idea that the people who are working for them or who are under their influence don’t have the capability to handle information without it being spun or heavily filtered (and then makes one anyway). With such an emphasis on saving face (mian zi), and a reliance on the social/political/professional benefits of relationships (guan xi), it can be terrifically difficult to get straight answers—or answers at all—from those in high positions, express genuine emotions or even practical advice (even when it’s seriously needed). Anyone who has lived here, and I hope I’m not leaning into the condescending, pedantic territory reserved for those who think they know what they’re talking about, can tell you that these things happen at all levels of employment, and to some extent, personal relationships.

Par for the course, you say? Not a golfer, says I.

But it really is. Color it the price of doing business here or whatever you want, but it does happen, and as a wai guo ren (outside country person: Foreigner), I don’t have a whole lot o’ options. The best I can hope for is that I’m partnered with an organization that is both conscious of the differences between the cultures, and willing to round out the rough edges to make the environment professional and conducive to getting things done properly. Just as a side note, previously, that’s how the school has been run. I’m still holding on to hope for this next chapter.


One year ago today, Noelle and I arrived in China.

Class Photos

SK1, Each of the kids got a chance to take a picture, so in each shot one of them is missing.

I wanted to put a few more pictures up with a few of my students. This group of shots is from this weekend. Three classes: SK1, SK4 a, and SK4 b. I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but every teacher knows that’s just not practical. These kids are definitely some of my favorites!

Just goofin’ around…
SK4, Just chillin’…
Betty helping Aiden and Jeniffer.
Lily and Aiden kept trying to cover my face in each of these shots.
Betty with the little runts. I do love these kids.
Tom tried to cover my face…again….But I managed to outsmart the eight year old.
Seriously…one of my favorite classes I’ve taught here at Jayland this year.
Will and Sophia…My other SK4 class. These two boogers are “hen congming” (Very smart! *In Pin Yin*)
He slowly slipped all the way off and eventually just collapsed on the floor…Haha…He’s a goof.
We’re missing a few of our usual students, but we still make it work.
I think Sophia is trying to eat me here….?

Activities At Jayland

Our May Activity: A Picnic in Tong Niu Ling. We had two big groups spread out playing games, snacking on chips, and learning to make Peanut Butter and Jelly! A lot of parents showed up, so it was a big crowd. Weather was nice, the kids weren’t too crazy, and most people had smiles. Good day.

It’s been a while since I posted some pictures, so here are a handful. Enjoy.

Joyce explaining the intricacies of peanut butter spreading.

A few of my students with Betty. I swear they were smiling before and after this picture!
Noelle with her Orin
An August Summer Camp Activity
Lemonade Stand!
They sold out of the lemonade in like thirty minutes!
She never smiles!!!! One of my SK4 students.
Erika’s going away dinner. She’s back in Canada now, but not for long. She’s heading to France for a year!
This is our, “too cool to look at the camera Album cover group shot.”

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.

Banking, Business Cards, and Babies

There’s a rooster somewhere nearby crowing, only it sounds more like someone gave a megaphone to a drunk sheep and convinced it to sing a Ray Charles song. It’s about 11:15 am and he’s been at it for a while now, so I can only imagine that whoever is using the thing as an alarm clock keeps hitting the snooze on the overgrown bird, or he’s trying to spice things up and set a new pace to the day. Either way, the rooster isn’t what woke me up; it was the fireworks blasting off somewhere down the road at 8:20 this morning. Probably some construction crew signaling the completion of the sixteenth floor of whatever building their workin’ on. Yes, yes, even as I’m crawling out of bed it’s apparent that I am, in fact, in China.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good old fashion explosion in the morning; I’m usually smiling when I realize it’s not an air raid. It’s all par for the course here in China, or so I’m slowly learning.

Ups and downs still abound, but I’m happy to report a nice up swing as of late. Our school has seen fit to give us our very own business cards, and I gotta be honest: I couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit of puerile pleasure at seeing my name in bold with the position of Education Specialist next to it. We have a whole stack of them, and after placing one in my wallet and vainly staring at the others for a moment, it occurred to me that I don’t really have anyone else I need to give one to. So I’m thinking that everyone gets a free business card from Jordan in their Christmas cards for years to come!

Another positive note is that we’ve finally attained success with our banking qualms. For nearly two months we’ve been trying to send money back home, and this week it actually worked. While banking in China as a foreigner is a bit tricky, it still should not have been as difficult as our situation turned out to be. On the other hand, banking here has been the only time I’ve ever been considered a VIP client. As foreigners Noelle and I have always bypassed the grab-a-ticket-and-wait-in-line gamble on the first floor and gone to the second, apparently more affluent, floor. Again, cue the childish excitement. However, with the troubles we’ve had to overcome, I can only wonder how many blockades stand in the way of the multitudes that don’t get expedited service.

At the end of the day though, I still find even the inconveniences interesting hurdles that need to be jumped, not horrible pitfalls of a developing country. Through it all we keep learning. Everyday we get a chance to fail miserably with our limited Chinese, but with each exchange we make we correct a mistake.

Both of us are finding new areas of interest, too. Noelle has gone to a local orphanage with a few other teachers and her love of all things miniature has made that a passion of hers. Through her visit we’ve learned a little about the bizarre and overly complicated state of adoption here in China, and we’ve had our eyes opened to the common misconceptions of everyday health concerns that many Chinese seem to harbor. I don’t know if anyone in history ever said the condition of a nation can be reflected in the way it treats its poor, orphaned, and destitute, but I think it’s a damn good thought. It becomes clear that China is still a developing nation when you encounter and interact with the system that inundates and tangles those children in needless bureaucratic mazes. From what I’ve gathered, and it is supremely limited by my ignorance, the situation surrounding orphans can seriously be labeled a plight of some magnitude.

Our staff at the school, largely informed by another passionate Western Teacher, has gone several times to the orphanage since we’ve been here. It’s becoming a weekly venture that I haven’t had the opportunity to be a part of yet, but next week’s outing is coming up quickly and I have no excuse.

On a completely unrelated and slightly more selfish note, I’ve developed a fascination with the ancient travelers—Chinese and European—that made major discoveries of exploration in Asia and even parts of North America. Something about the unbridled sense of adventure and wonder in these men and their endeavors sticks with me, and I find myself thinking more and more about their legacies each day.

Someone recently mentioned to me that some of the young adults in China today feel as though they are, for lack of a better word, lost. Generations before have had battles to fight, injustices to right and changes to make. So many feel that their lives have gaps that can’t be filled because there are no causes to rally behind or quests to undertake. Sure, the countless stores catering to every sort of style and commercial fancy can distract the hordes of consumers, but even through it all people can feel the empty spaces. What I can’t seem to shake is the feeling that this is not just a Chinese dilemma. Even in the US the young people embody that rebel without a cause mindset without even knowing it. Rebels with no focus are simply agents of anarchy, and no one really wants to get behind that, right?

I guess it boils down to one thing, and it’s funny because this one thing is what I’ve been battling in my own life and within my writing for a long time now: we all want to find our voice and we want that voice to say something worth saying. I think my fascination with those voyagers of so long ago stems from a very universal appreciation for those that changed the world, or at least added to our understanding of it a little at a time. Maybe by diving into the past I can help elucidate an answer for the present, at least for me anyway. That’s all I can do, really–try to make sense of the world the way I see it.

We’re teaching, learning, and living in a place and time that has much to offer…

Heck, I’m even trying to learn how to play Chinese Chess!

More Chinglish: A blanket Noelle bought with puppies on it. I’m just curious about the contraction “into’a”….what is it contracting?
This one is up for all to see in the big shopping area…
This is the big Christmas tree in front of An Shang, the shopping mall. It’s actually very comforting to see them at least acknowledge the holiday with festive decorations and Christmas carols in the stores–even if the songs are in German, Chinese, and English.
I’m sure I don’t fully understand this, but I’ve been told that this is a common practice. They are burning paper money so that their ancestors or deceased loved ones can have money in the afterlife. They simply burn the paper right there on the corner of the streets and let the flames die down on their own.  I’ve witnessed this several times here and each time I’m struck with many conflicting thoughts. Even so, this is a very interesting practice. I call them Fires to Heaven.

Livin’ La (visa) Loca

It’s one-thirteen a.m. Our flight for China leaves in the eight-o-clock hour, and we’re supposed to be leaving the house at the butt-crack of dawn, five. Why am I awake?

Good question. I really don’t know.

The last week has literally been a whirlwind of non-stop activity. First, we packed up the apartment and tucked everything in a storage locker that Noelle’s parents are sharing with us.

                                                                         (Me standing in our empty Apt. Goodbye, Apt!)

And this past weekend we had two going away parties which were a blast. Again, Welly’s parent’s threw us one, and so did my folks. It was definitely great to see everyone before we left!

However, it hasn’t all been easygoing…Saturday, when our Visa documents didn’t arrive we started to panic a bit. You see, before we could hop on a plane and am-scray to the Orient we had to get our Visas authenticated (in person!) at the Chinese Consulate in NYC. That meant we had to drive there just to get a little stamp in our Passports that says, “Hey, these two are legitimately allowed to work in our country for a year. Back off.” Yup, more or less.

We knew the drive up there was a huge hassle and I had no clue if my car would make it there and back…She drives smooth, but she’s not great for endurance. We were hoping the paperwork would arrive Monday then, just so we’d at least be able to get over to the Big Apple Tuesday and back Wednesday night. That would give us Thur to relax.

BUT, they weren’t there on Monday, either.

We freaked a bit when the UPS lady told us the documents might not be there til Wednesday. If that was the case the flight would have to be rescheduled…something no one wanted for many reasons (my biggest reason? It would cost several hundred dollars to make the change).

They showed up Tuesday afternoon, at the end of the day. I swear we were the UPS guy’s last stop before he clocked out…

So, we left that night in my dusty Alero (I figured a dirty car would look less appealing to car-jackers or thieves..however, who would steal a gangly Oldsmobile Alero?).  Half an hour into our trip we realized the GPS Garmin had a low battery…half hour after that we realized my lighter outlet didn’t work when the GPS turned off and wouldn’t turn back on. We picked up a PA map and blazed our own (albeit mapped out) trail. Noelle drove through the night, but by about five am she’d been up almost 24 hours and had had enough. I took over. With a PA, New Jersey, and a NY map we were set. There was nothing we couldn’t do! And then I hit early morning traffic through Jersey City and I realized I really should have mounted a Gatling Gun on the roof of my car. It’s difficult to explain what the traffic is like right beyond the Jersey City toll without just copy and pasting a traffic scene from the last Die Hard movie (you know, the scene when the bad guy takes out the traffic lights and stuff?). Yeah, that’s exactly what it was like. No joke. There were charter buses squeezing into spaces that a VW beetle wouldn’t dare try, speeding Semis with no regard for any of Newton’s laws of motion, honking horns that sounded mildly like Beethoven’s 9th, and Demolition Derby rejects trying to incite their own brand of automobile anarchy. Trust me when I say that the space beyond that toll exist in a world without traffic laws.

But we made it through and to the Lincoln Tunnel.

And then we made it into NYC.

The trip wasn’t a leisurely venture, but we tried to snap a few good pics along the way. By the time we got into the city, got through the consulate, and walked around a bit Noelle and I had been up about 31 hours straight. SO, the three of us (forgot to mention that mi madre tagged along) hailed a cab, found a cheap motel, and CRASHED.

…Wow…just looked at the time. It’s after 2 am. I should grab at least two hours of sleep tonight. Maybe in my next entry I can try to describe to you the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Consulate, or the U-turn I made in NYC.

Tomorrow we leave the US. Wish us luck.