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…
Not really, but once you’ve experienced the claustrophobia-inducing bus rides, the I’d-rather-chew-on-my-weenis-and-sacrifice-loved-ones-than-stand-here-for-two-days ticket lines, or the, we-have-a-toliet-but-you-can’t-use-it-now-because-we’re-so-overbooked-that-thirteen-people-are-sitting-in-there-for-the-duration-of-the-twelve-hour-ride train rides, you may think my translation is a bit more appropriate.
The Lunar New Year is the BIGGEST holiday for Chinese people. Spring Festival (Guo Nian) is the celebration of the new year, and everywhere in China you can see more red than usual, doorway hangers with meaningful and auspicious phrases greet guests as they enter homes, and many kids and business men will receive little red envelopes with crisp, clean bills in quantities of 100-1000 RMB.
As the legend—there’s always a legend in China—goes, Nian was a great and terrible monster that harassed a village, eating its people and basically causing the real estate market to crash. He did this for a while until an old man convinced him to switch his diet to other creatures that weren’t…human. The man turned out to be an immortal—there is always one of them running around in Chinese myths, too—and, additionally, told the people how to scare off this beast if he ever returned.
Wear a bunch of red, make noise, and light things on fire was his advice, and the Chinese have held true to these sage words so well that, for a week during this holiday, some Dalian neighborhoods resemble what I imagine downtown Baghdad might look like. Sulfur fills the air, conversation is blotted out by explosions, and flashes of light illuminate the sky. And occasionally a pedestrian gets fourth degree burns and street cleaners lose phalanges.
Guo Nian, once known as the “passing of the beast,” now mostly just means Spring Festival, but it’s fun to know the source, ain’t it?
Stories and myths are nice and all, but when you’re standing or squashed hip-to-hip with smelly strangers or sharing the bathroom with seventy other dudes, you come to learn that a new beast has appeared in China, and like Nian of old, it comes around once a year to ravage even the most civil of citizens—Chun Yun, Spring Festival Travel Rush.
Families, students, migrant workers, and tourists all travel in China during Spring Festival, which usually falls around the first week of February. Some will fly, drive, take buses, trains, ferries, or even hitchhike to get back to their dear mom and pop.
Airlines here are being, “…instructed to take measure to avoid flight delays as the world’s largest annual human migration…draws closer…”(Wang, Chinadaily.com.cn), but in a country of so many, and a severe pollution problem that routinely grounds and delays flights out of big cities, this “instruction” might just be wishful thinking. Heck, Shanghai alone is projected to have more than 9.3 million travelers pass through (Chinadaily.com.cn). That number might not seem so scary, but consider that Shanghai is just ONE of hundreds of cities with airlines in China. Still not convinced? Then think about the most popular form of travel: the trains.
Last year more than 220 million passengers took to the trains, and this year already more than 148 million tickets have been sold for these suicidally filial citizens (Chinadaily.com.cn). At its peak, more than 500 train tickets a second were sold! To put that in perspective—I have no way to cognitively register such a number of sweaty, pushy, humans—in the US this year AAA projected that about 94.5 million people traveled 50 miles or more during the Year-End holidays, and we Americans don’t even like trains—that number is a total for ALL travel forms (Newsroom.com). Less than 100 million compared to more than 220 million…That. Does. Not. Compute.
Living in China introduces you to myriad situations that test your gumption and resolve, but nothing zaps the will so much as the sheer force of numbers. I’ve avoided markets and stores until I was about ready to boil the leather of my shoes, just to not have to deal with people. I’ve walked a block out of my way instead of allowing myself to become part of the anarchy that is the pedestrian parade crossing the street. When I see a China-size crowd, I feel like I need a pep talk from Jesus telling me not to take a machete and cull the multitudes.
That being said, there are three reasons that people smarter than me blame for the rage-birthing throngs in China this time of year. Besides the simple answer of This Is China, or “Damn that’s a lot of people,” three reasons do stand out as the origins of so many annual aneurisms:
Traditions of traveling back home.
Education/Work reforms that promote students attending universities in other cities, and large numbers of workers that travel city to city for work most of the year.
Spring Festival, along with the Golden Week of the National Day holiday in October, are two holidays that EVERYONE has off. Because of this, they like to take their trips during these times as well as visit the ‘rents (Coonan, “Two billion journeys in China’s own great migrations”).
China is aware of these issues, and, believe it or not, they are working on it, but this Spring Festival travel season is already upon us, and all I can say is, “God’s speed to you crazy commuters, you.”
The lack of sleep may be playing a part in it, or it could be the jet-lag. Either way, I’m back in my hometown and I feel a bit like Frodo after he returned to the Shire: bored, homesick for a home that no longer exists, and ready for something to happen.
The drive through the place that was home not so long ago felt vacant of meaning and alien as we cruised through empty streets at two am. Suburbs in NE Ohio are truly suburbs. Except for the shopping areas, neighborhoods and communities seemed almost too spaced out—a yard for everyone and plenty of room between the roads and the front doors.
For the last two and a half years I’ve been living in a culture that doesn’t really comprehend the idea of a suburban, or urban for that matter, area that has room enough for all its inhabitants. Parking lots are afterthoughts for building designers, and most cities are filled with residential complexes instead of individual homes. Unlike Japan, where the overcrowding has given rise to a very polite society, Chinese public interaction customs have evolved to exclude the words “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and even, “thank you,” in all but the most direct of situations.
That guy who stepped on your foot and hawked a loogie on the bus floor right next to you? Yeah, he ain’t wasting his breath apologizin’ for nothin’.
In stark contrast to the crowds I’ve gotten used to, we traveled back to my parents’ home without seeing barely a soul on the road for more than an hour. True, it was late, but even when places are closed down in Dalian, there are always people around. I honestly hadn’t realized that I liked that. It’s amazing what you can get used to.
Time is a tricky son of a gun. It’s not so Frostian as nothing gold sticking around for long, it’s just that there’s so much gold out there that once you see a hint of it you want to see more.
Going home is important. Two Christmases away called for a return home, but there is that part of me that just won’t go away. It’s what got me out of Ohio and what is digging at me now to keep moving. Someone once called me a wanderer, but I don’t think it’s as poetic as that. Nor is it as simple as being restless. I think I just can’t sit my ass down in one place for too long.
Christmas and this time of year, as it tends to do for others, puts me in a reflective mood, and I suppose that’s why I’m rambling now. I feel supremely blessed to be living the life that I want, and to have a family that supports that chosen life. It’s not every parent that would tolerate their oldest living on the other side of the globe for long periods at a time.
I’ve still got a lot of folks to see, so I better stop wasting time on here and get moving.
Culture shock’s got four stages that expats can pinball back and forth through, the experts say. That honeymoon period gives way to frustrations and annoyances faster for some and a bit slower for others. The irritations of the next stage can seem like interesting eccentricities of the culture once you’ve endured them and come to some sort of adjustment. And then, right when you think you’re about to assimilate, one of those quaint quarks sends you over the edge and you’re snuggly back in the frustration stage.
It takes years for most to get to the upper levels of the “adjustment” part, and most never actually assimilate, even if they’ve embraced the new culture.
All that is culture shock for ya, but there is a flip side: reverse culture shock.
I’m going home at the end of the week for the first time in two and a half years. My mother cried when I told her a few months ago about my decision to visit for the holidays, and friends have talked about meeting up whenever my schedule will allow it, but the trip is not all leisure.
When I got my wallet stolen more than a year ago, I didn’t replace my driver’s license, and then I just simply let it expire. Now I have to retake the written and driving test to get it back. I’ve also got a handful of other assorted official To-Dos while back.
All that aside, the thoughts taking up the most cognitive square-footage seem to be about simply being back. In general, I haven’t really wanted to go back home since I got here. This admission invariably invites reproach from Chinese friends, and most of them follow up their scowls with, “Don’t you miss your mother and father?” I try to explain that in our culture when the kids grow up it’s normal for them to branch out and make their way in the world without needing to tether themselves to mom and dad for support. Some respond by shaking their head and others just call me a bad son.
Now that my return is eminent, I’m just wondering what it’s going to be like. The North-East area of China, old Manchuria, has a lot of “Chinese” qualities, but Dalian also has an abundance of western perks. It’s not that I think I’m going to stick out when I walk through Wal-Mart, or that I’ll somehow forget how to order a Little Caesar’s Five dollar pizza—no, it’s actually the opposite. I’m worried that, after the rush of seeing family and friends those first few days, when they have to go back to work and I’m hanging around with no car, bus or Qinggui station to hop on, it’s all going to be…boring.
I’ve written about how common and routine life can get living abroad for extended periods, and I’ve even written about losing a bit of my objectivity concerning a lot of cultural details, but the truth is, even sitting in Starbucks becomes more interesting when you have to order in Chinese and you are having conversations with people in other languages.
Knowing everything that’s going on around me will be a nice benefit, but that lack of mystery can also lend itself to a rather lackluster outing when just walking down Hongmei street here for vegetables can be a fun and challenging experience. At this point, there are probably elements of American culture that I’ve demonized and other parts that I’ve inflated and championed way out of proportion, and truth be told, I don’t necessarily want my fantasies shaken just yet.
Don’t get me wrong; I know it’s time for me to go back. Two Christmases away is enough.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s raining as I type this, so I suppose that is only fitting.
At the end of June Xiao Ming and I traveled to Guilin and Yangshuo in the southwestern part of China. At the end of July, we traveled to Changbai Shan in the Northeast of the country. Both places seemed bent on soaking every set of clothing we brought.
Yes, Guilin and Yangshuo’s natural scenery were spectacular and truly breathtaking, but rain can be quite annoying. We ducked into Reed Cave that first day in town, just to seek shelter from the storm, had our basement level accommodations changed to the second floor on day two, and then finally just sucked it up and enjoyed an awesome half-day bike ride across Yangshuo’s countryside in the rain on the third.
The bamboo raft ride down the Li River got the ax, but the big yacht worked out all right. Moving from our first room to the next seemed irritating, until we were put up in a private room with a shower. The rainy bike ride appeared less than ideal, but then we realized the rain cooled us down when the area is usually painfully humid most times of the year. The hostel, Riverside Hostel, actually sat along the banks of the river, and the young staff, helpful and tolerant of my accented Mandarin, was fun to talk to.
Changbai Shan (mountain), the spiritual home of the Qing Dynasty, is an old volcano that sits along the China-N.Korean border in the Jilin province. Beautiful countryside begins just north of Dalian, and continues, interrupted only a few times by cities, until you reach the protected land of the Changbai range.
The seventeen hour train ride there through this landscape surprised me. I’d almost forgotten that most of China’s population still lived in rural areas, not the fast-developing major cities. At night the stars were beautiful.
Being the only Westerner on the train provided the usual amusements: stares, giggles, and curious children that continually walked by our car. One boy forgot to keep walking. He stopped dead in his tracks and just stared at me. I asked him in Chinese what he was doing, but he just smirked, and then ran away. He walked by once more, quickly. I saw him coming the time after that, and as he walked by I jumped out of the car and grabbed him, bearhugging him and laughing. When I released him he stepped away and said, in English, “Bad man!” He didn’t walk by again.
The rain began in a haze, then precipitated into a sprinkle until finally, dropping all pretense, the clouds released their bounty and drenched the mountain. We trekked up and down the north and west side of the mountains the first two days, taking in the scenery and clean air even though it continued to rain. Our goal was to see the famed Tian Chi, Heaven Lake, but the ubiquitous fog sabotaged that mission those first two attempts. The small town we stayed in right next to the mountain lucked out and most of the rain passed over it, leaving us free to wander about between excursions up to the lake.
Dirt roads, mobile merchant karts, and small packs of semi-wild dogs playing with filthy looking kids wearing slit-pants made up the town, Bai He, White River.
On the third day there, it stopped raining long enough for us to summit the top. We set out early, and then realized it hadn’t been early enough. Ten thousand or more (easily more) crowded around the outside and inside of the check-in building. A few thousand more packed in tight as they herded themselves through corrals that led to little shuttle busses that rocketed up the side of the mountain to another spot where the people had to queue up again…then they boarded tiny white vans that shot up the narrow road to the top of Changbai Shan. Every van sped up and down the roads, always keeping a distance of a car and a half between themselves, much like the worker bugs in a giant ant farm. We waited in lines for hours that day, and then, when we got to the top: Fog.
The trip, while full of pretty trees and no actual emergencies, seriously teetered on becoming a complete waste if we couldn’t at least see those blue-green turquoise waters of Heaven Lake. The murky white of the fog clung thick in the air and taunted us as we gazed around at the peak. Once again, another ten-plus thousand travelers greeted us at the top, but we waded through the throngs and found a spot along the rim of the caldera.
Right as we were getting ready to throw in the towel the breeze picked up. Slowly, slowly, the fog rose from the surface of the lake, granting the faintest hint at a color other than gray. The winds continued to lift the mass of fog, revealing more and more green and blue. As one, the entire population of the summit howled and hollered, cheered, and gasped. I laughed like a mad man.
We could see Heaven Lake.
And just two weeks ago we took a week long trip to Tibet. I’ll write about that soon enough…
Today I’m hopping on a train and heading to Changbai Shan (mountain) in the Jilin Province. I’ll be hanging out there for a few days, but when I get back my (free) time will be short.
Five months ago I accepted a position at another school, an international school in the area, and I’ll be starting there on August 5th. Gone will be the weeks of sleeping in until nine or staying up till three, of casual days full of things I want to do on a moments’ notice…To be replaced by early mornings, long days, and, once again, a 40 hour a week schedule…oh, and a much better paycheck that will allow me to pay off some student loans before I’m thirty.
A part of me is super excited by this change of pace, but then again, another part(s) of me just wants to high-tail it in the other direction. New people, new students, new responsibilities.
One of those responsibilities is this online class I’ve been taking. It’s designed around the SIOP model, which is a teaching model/strategy for ELL teachers. Very informative, and practical, the class is a useful tool for me. However, there are live sessions that take place at 4 pm Eastern time. Do you know what time it is in China when it is 4 pm in Ohio? 4 AM. Yes, I’ve had to get up at 3:30 to take part in the frikkin’ class. On the days there’s a live session I try to turn in around 7 or 8, but usually don’t get to sleep until 10. Then I just stay up after the class, usually spending and hour or so practicing Wing Chun.
Did I mention that I also purchased a Wing Chun Dummy a few weeks ago? Yup.