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.
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.
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.
Fun times ahead. Hopefully I’ll be writing from a French beach next time.
Whip lash, motion sickness, jet lag, temporal displacement sickness (okay, made that last one up), these are nothing compared to the Culture Shock of the first few weeks in a new country.
Sounds Abound, Just After Touch Down
Two American friends of mine here in Dalian like to say that if you’ve been abroad for a few months to a year you can write a book, a year or two and you can pen a few articles, anything more and you’ll find it hard to write an essay. Now that I’ve been kicking around China for nearly three years, I hope that’s not true.
My plan to thwart this prophecy is by keeping a good journal. Remembering exactly what those first days and weeks were like is important, and when I look at the pages of my journal the noises of China are what stand out the most.
The sound of the rising and falling tones in the Mandarin language hit my ears like a tidal wave striking the shore. Only I had no levies or infrastructure designed to withstand the onslaught. I couldn’t tell where words began or ended. I had no way of figuring out the sentence patterns in the bird language I heard in the Beijing airport, and I knew only a muddled version of “Hello” to tide me over until language classes could start.
One year would not be enough to master the language. I knew that without a doubt the first night in China on that September 17 in 2011. The guttural retroflexive “r” at the end of many words in the Dongbei (north east) accent, the confusing interchangeable use of shi and si to mean either four or ten, and even the entirely knew phrases for common Mandarin greetings like “Have you eaten?” (normally ni chi fan le ma? But in Dalianese sometimes spoken as, ni dai fan le ma?) would add even more burdens to an already insurmountable task.
When the classes did start, I eavesdropped on every conversation I could. All the time. I still do, to tell you the truth. I’ll be sitting at a restaurant or at Starbucks, and I’ll just listen to people around me. I know it’s rude, but it’s in the name of education. That makes it okay. I looked up the rules.
The Music of Daily Life
The morning after I arrived in China, I discovered that even though there were no farms around for miles, someone had a rooster. And then I learned that fireworks are an acceptable form of declaring to the community that something of note has occurred…even at 6 am.
Fireworks are not relegated to one specific event or holiday in China. Since moving here, I’ve heard them EVERY single day, multipletimes, at all hours. People light them off for weddings, funerals, grand openings, grand closings, construction milestones, and sometimes, just because it’s a Tuesday. Spring Festival is the biggest holiday for Chinese people, and during this week-long celebration one could mistake Dalian for a warzone. At night the skyline is afire with brilliant blasts of colors and sounds, and they DON’T STOP for a week.
Shortly after the rooster crowed in the morning and some fireworks sounded off in the distance, maybe around seven-ish, the public school next to the apartment complex began, what I came to learn, was their morning routine. This sounded like a bunch of nonsense blasted over an external PA system at first, but was really counting in Mandarin so that the students could do their morning calisthenics. I learned to count in Chinese because of that PA system.
A walk down any street with storefronts can have serious repercussions to your hearing. Whereas I was used to having music playing softly in the background of most places of business in the States, the complete reverse in China was quite a shock at first.
Shops will blast pop music into the crowds walking by with large speakers they sit just outside the threshold of their business, hoping to wage some sort of warped psychological warfare on the unsuspecting–and now partially deaf–would-be patrons, all in the guise of commercialism. The music doesn’t necessarily beckon or lure customers so much as it frightens them into submission. The lucky ones are those on the fringes who watch their brothers-in-arms fall to the sensory barrage and turn the corner before it’s too late.
Okay…it’s not that bad. But pretty close. If there are five stores, you can bet there will be five different loudspeakers pumping out Chinese, Korean, or even American pop hits at decibel levels unsafe for the common ear. After a few weeks of shopping in this terrain the shock wares off and your senses adjust. Eventually you begin to only walk around the streets with good taste in music, making a soundtrack out of your jaunt.
Another noise that eventually subsides to the background of your day is the constant honking of car horns. I swear, sometimes it’s like an involuntary muscle for some drivers. If they’ve gone five seconds without pressing it their body takes over and BANG! Drivers here honk so much that I’m surprised pedestrians haven’t mobilized horns and made them pocket-sized for clearing paths along the sidewalks when they’re in a hurry.
When you’re not avoiding the musical assault in front of stores, dodging wild drivers honking their horns, and ducking the falling fireworks debris you might be trying to not make eye contact with the men standing on the corners of shopping centers shouting out their destinations in rapid-fire, auctioneer Mandarin as they try to pick up passengers for their rundown buses that probably shouldn’t be on the road. Almost every time I walk by them they walk a few steps with me until I tell them, no, I’m not going into downtown Dalian today. In other parts of China they’ll be shouting other names, but here it’s always, “Dali Dali Dalian!! Dalian!!”
Pushing their ancient karts around while balancing the tools of their respective trades, older men and women wonder around town chanting mantras that advertise what service they provide. “Mo jian zi lai! Qiang cai dao!” Come sharpen scissors and knives. Even the trash or cardboard collectors call out to people, hoping to make some money by reselling the unwanted refuse. And in the evenings, in neighborhoods and parks all around China is the music and sound of masses of people doing synchronized square dances. This group activity—guangchang tiaowu, square dancing—is open to all. The young and old alike join in on this, and some even get matching sweat suits and outfits made up to feed the feeling of solidarity among the really hardcore and the casual dancer.
A City Soundtrack
On their own, each of these sounds might have a tendency to make your ears bleed, but together…together they’re something else entirely. They’re the sounds of life in a Chinese city, of people and the patterns of their days playing out in an intricately synchronized chaos that sometimes sounds like a symphony. You just need to learn to find the music.
I took the wrong number four bus after work the other day. Like the 5 and 1 bus, there are two types, so you have to pay attention to which one you catch…I’ve managed to ride all the wrong ones once or twice in my time here.
This particular time I wound up three blocks away from where I wanted to be, so I needed to walk through a few back roads that passed businesses and factories of some sort or another. At about 6 pm most people were trekking back home, too. Dark-skinned Han in hard hats, many wearing fatigue army pants or solid blue or orange work jackets moved along the sidewalks, chatting away in thick local dialect. A few glanced my way, no doubt curious about the lone foreigner in a shirt and tie walking down their streets. A couple actually talked with me.
As I drew closer to my apartment I realized I’d wandered down a road I’d never been on. To the right, across the street, a large cast-iron gate bordered an over-grown yard with statues in it. I crossed the street to get a better look, and I couldn’t believe what I saw.
What I took for a few plaster statues along the fringes of the fence turned out to be a field filled to the brim with them. All looked to be at varying levels of deterioration. Some seemed to grow directly from the ground, having spent enough time for the grass and weeds to nearly swallow them while others could have been placed there the day before.
Communist and Kuomintang soldiers, Qing government officials, and ancient Buddhist goddesses scattered across the field gave the place an eerie feeling, almost as if I were walking through some bizarre graveyard where the dead refused to stay buried.
I followed the fence until I came to a gate opening guarded by a short, thin, bald man in street clothes. He regarded me suspiciously until I asked him if I could take a look at in the yard. He said no, but then I told him that I’ve lived here for almost three years and never saw this place. Whether or not that was a particularly convincing argument or because I am a foreigner, he changed his mind and said I could look around. “Jin lai, kan kan ba.”
As I left, I thanked him and then took a picture of the name of the building so I could figure out what the place was. Turns out, it’s an official cultural ministry building of some sort. Pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to be inthere because as I walked out, a group of workers in hard hats also asked if they could come in and the guard said no. I walked quietly down the street, not wanting to hear the “You let the foreigner in,” discussion.
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.
Never doubt that a small group of commited people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
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.
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.
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.
Then we had a week and a half off for Chinese Spring Festival. Xiao Ming and I took off right after school that last day and headed to the airport, me changing in the car. We spent a day in Shanghai and visited the museum.
It was the vacation that almost didn’t happen, though.
About a week before the trip I filled out forms online for the E-visa, and I got mine within three days. Xiao Ming waited a bit longer, and by the time we were at the airport in Shanghai she still hadn’t received her visa.
Without it she couldn’t leave the country, and we would miss our flight. All day long I had been on her about checking her mail. Then I had her contact them again. Still, we were in line, ready to check in, when I thought to ask if she’d checked her spam folder.
There it was, a digital e-visa. But the woman behind the ticket counter wasn’t havin’ any of that tomfoolery. She told Xiao Ming she needed to go down stairs and print it out and bring it back before she’d check us in.
That ordeal took about forty minutes, and by the time we got through security and ran to the gate we were the last ones to board. We laughed it off with weary smiles. If I hadn’t had nagged her so much we wouldn’t have gotten a seat on the flight.
Then off to Phnom Penh we went.
We checked out some temples, a museum, and walked around the city during the midday heat long enough to get a bit snarky with each other before finding a few good restaurants along the river. Then, during the evening on the second night, we stumbled upon the…bar street.
Neon-lit bar fronts lined the narrow lane, and petite, cosmetically rejuvenated gals of all ages dangled themselves around the entrances, calling out to passersby with their whistles and smiles, hellos and cleavage. Xiao Ming and I trotted down this street once before doubling back and walking straight into what looked like a vampire lair. The VVIP Bar door opened into a dimly lit, air-conditioned interior with a long bar running back into the place, and about fifteen hookers smiling and looking at us.
The scene felt mildly comical to me, but Xiao Ming freaked. She pulled us back out and was half way up the street, speedwalking toward the river. When I caught up to her, she admitted that the girls looked like vampires and freaked her out. I suggested we grab some dinner to chill for a bit. We found a place and as we finished she was ready to try again.
We strolled right back to the same bar, walked in and drank two beers, completely unmolested by the vampire hookers. In fact, two of them just kept staring at us while we talked and laughed the whole time.
Now, before you say, “How do you know they were hookers,” let me just say that it was very obvious that they held a job, but also moonlighted, ok.
Inspired, Xiao Ming suggested that we try another bar—the raunchiest we could find. I was to go in alone for a few minutes and then she’d come in after, just to see how the girls acted around a young, lone male.
As soon as I stepped into the next bar, Oasis, three girls immediately leapt to their feet and ushered me to a stool at the bar. Two sat beside me and one placed her hand on my lower back, keeping it there as she handed me the menu and smiled at me. Totally aware of the situation, I silently removed her hand, ignored the two girls on either side of me, and studiously analyzed the beer list.
The hand girl gave the other two a strange look, and then disappeared. The one on my right, the only attractive one in the joint, kept trying to slide her knee up and down my thigh. She asked me a few times what my name was, and, unable to get her to say the right one, I settled on something that sounded like Joelny. The other one asked the same question. I simply told her it wasn’t important. I ordered an Angkor beer and then moved my leg, for the second time, away from the cute one’s friendly knee.
Due, apparently, to her highly tuned senses, she could tell I was not playing the part of a guy on the prowl. She asked what was wrong and I politely said that all was good. She didn’t press the matter. Instead, she and the girl on my left leaned closer to me and touch my shoulder. Just for something to do, I guess, because that’s all that happened. I stood up, completely surprising them, and surveyed the rest of the bar.
One other Western traveler sat behind me, groping two girls and speaking a language I couldn’t understand. The girls seemed eager enough, but then I saw the Cambodian business guy on the couch in the corner. He had his hand down the front of one girl’s shirt, and the other two around him rolled their eyes and just stared on. The looks on their faces held both revulsion and determination.
“Where you going?”
“I’m moving,” I said.
The girl then nodded, knowingly. She pointed to the back.
“Want to go in the back?”
It was after three steps that I realized that, no, no I do not want to go in the back. What I thought was just a larger area at the back of the bar turned out to be just a private room with a couch and no light. I about-faced and walked back to the bar just as Xiao Ming walked in smiling.
The girls left us alone once they realized we were together, and the two of us enjoyed another beer. Before we left though, we got to see the whole staff stand on the bar and dance to Cambodian rap that I hope I never hear again.
Then, after a few days in Cambodia’s capital, and after I had acclimated to the temperature change, we took a seven hour bus ride to Siem Reap in the north, bound for the famous Angkor Wat temples and beautiful natural scenery.
A few thoughts that occurred to me during this week-long trip:
I know next to nothing about Cambodian history. Aside from being a French protectorate for a while and home to jungles that hid majestic ruins for years, the place and its culture was entirely a mystery to me.
The language is in no way decipherable to me, nor would it reveal its grammatical gems upon further study—it’s just a language I could never pick up, I’m sure.
Living in China for the last two years and spending RMB did not make it easy for me to flip to using USD and Cambodian money, both of which are widely accepted there. Though the dollar is about 4,000 Cambodian Riels, the prices in the two cities we spent the most time reflect this leaning toward the US buck. Things that most Americans would stop and exclaim were so cheap seemed a bit steep for me. I’m not a cheapskate or anything, but still, the place was very comparable to Chinese prices—something I wasn’t necessarily prepared for.
Speaking Chinese with Xiao Ming on the sly to avoid eavesdroppers did not work as there were many who understood both English and Chinese. And though she can speak French, I cannot—but that wouldn’t have mattered either because there were a surprising number of French speakers as well.
We got into Siem Reap around seven-thirty and, after conferring with the bus station’s map, let an impatient Tuk Tuk driver take us to the center of the city, on one side of the river. We were a day early, but we figured that didn’t matter. After all, Siem Reap was chalk full of hostels and hotels—we were bound to find a place to sleep for the night easily enough.
On one hand, I was completely wrong. On the other hand, we got to see a lot of the city by walking around for 45 minutes looking for a place. Eventually, we managed to secure the last room in a hotel. A minute after we checked in, a group came by asking for a bed and the hotel explained we got the last room available. Yeah, we got lucky.
The next day we found our way across the river and to the Siem Reap Hostel. Check in was at two, so we decided to leave our stuff and take a ride to the Floating Village.
The next few days we saw all the temples in the area. After that first day without sunscreen my neck was nice and red. It was then that I realized why so many wore those loose scarves even in the heat. I bought two and let my neck turn from lobster red back to a more human tone.
Everywhere we went Tuk Tuk drivers called out to us, wanting to know if we needed a ride today or tomorrow. This constant barrage of questioning prompted me to buy a shirt that proclaimed, “No Tuk Tuk today and tomorrow.”
We actually went to Angkor Wat twice. Once in the morning and once during sunset. We wanted to see what it looked like from the top tower in the evening since the line to go up there was too long during the day. Unfortunately, the tower closed at 5 and we got there around 6. As we walked around the perimeter though we saw five guards all huddled together playing poker. One looked at us and told us if we wanted to go to the top we needed to give him ten dollars each.
Annoyed, I told him that was ridiculous because that money would go right in his pocket. I asked him to lower the price, but he wasn’t having it. So we kept walking. And as we rounded the corner and disappeared from their eyesight, we formed a plan. If all the guards were there…At that time of the day, most tourists were actually outside of the temple. We could only see a handful of visitors, and not one guard. We hopped the wooden gate and crawled up the steep stone steps, rushing to the top before anyone could see us. Once at the top, we snapped pictures, and then began to hurry down. We stopped when we realized what we’d started, though. Those other tourist, they were now climbing up, too!
About five of us stood at the top, illegally taking pictures at Angkor Wat. After a few minutes one of the guards did catch us, and kept yelling that we all needed to pay two dollars. I told him that he needed to talk with his boys in the back who were charging ten each. He said he didn’t know anything about that. While he wrangled the others who had gone up, Xiao Ming and I vanished in the temple without shelling out four bucks. We laughed the whole way, surprised that we were the two brave enough to do what everyone else was apparently thinking.
Xiao Ming found the Cambodian’s accented English hilarious, and took to imitating them at the most inconvenient times. Everything they said sounded like a question, the end of the sentence rising more than necessary. I had to tell her to stop a few times when she did it around crowds of Cambodians just in case they didn’t take kindly to a skinny Chinese girl mocking them.
We spent a week wandering around Siem Reap and seeing the sights, and only once had to stay at another hostel for a night when the Siem Reap Hostel ran out of rooms. On that last day, we took a drive out to Kulen Mountain and hiked through a temple and found our way to a beautiful waterfall.
Phnom Kulen is a sacred mountain plateau on which Jayavarman II as the first independent king founded the Angkorian monarchy and Khmer Empire in 802 AD. Also the Siem Reap River originates from Phnom Kulen. Nowadays Phnom Kulen is a National Park and is with its waterfalls, the Siem Reap River and forest a popular recreation side for the Khmers. Especially at the weekend or during holidays it is a very popular destination for a refreshing swim in the waterfalls or a picnic on the riverbanks. (globaltravelmate.com)
It was a blast swimming in the water and jumping around off the rocks. About ten minutes after I got dried off a whole group of people showed up. Some tourists and even a group from a local orphanage came out and had fun. It was a good way to bid farewell to our vacation.
Once at the Siem Reap International Airport, I changed back into jeans and a dark shirt. We were flying into Guangzhou, a much colder destination than we were leaving. One night in a Youth Hostel there and we were back in Dalian that Sunday afternoon.
Best of all, going from the freezing air of Harbin down to the tropical climate of Cambodia within days of each other didn’t even give me the sniffles. No, it was coming back to Dalian that did that. The next day at work I fought a runny nose, and endured shorts and t-shirt withdrawal symptoms.
Xiao Ming and I hopped on the high speed train right after work on that Friday and then spent the weekend wandering around the icy capital of the Heilongjiang province. A large group of teachers went as well, but we kept pretty much to ourselves and traversed the northern city on our own (not because we’re anti-social! Our schedules that weekend just didn’t line up with the other group’s).
On the train ride up and back though, collectively about 9 hours, I read and annotated two booklets I put together on modern Chinese history 1830s-1930s. The first one was about a hundred pages and the second one nearly two hundred. Over the last two and a half years I’ve availed myself of historical and cultural information regarding the Middle Kingdom, and it’s helped me in the classroom, but I actually put my knowledge to use “for real” by teaching a history class recently. In order to not sound like an idiot I reread everything I could get my hands on, and put together a 50 slide power point with a lot of photos and tidbits that allowed me to take more than a hundred years and consolidate it into a two-part presentation. We got through the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the Unequal Treaties, and ran right up to the XinHai Revolution, but 1911-1937 had to be left for the second session of the class. Gotta’ say, I thoroughly enjoyed putting the presentation together and presenting it. History and culture are two passions of mine.
Once back from Harbin, we had two days of school. Going from the cold of the north back to Dalian wasn’t all that rough, but we were heading to Cambodia in less than seventy-two hours. I just hoped my body wouldn’t mutiny against me…