He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.
Nope. Not talking about St. Nick. I’m talking about the other Big Brother of the Holiday Season – The Kitchen God, Zao WangYe.
This guy hangs around your home all year, keeping tabs on the family, and then reports back to his boss (the Jade Emperor) just how dysfunctional things have gotten for you and your kin. All this happens about a week before the Chinese New Year so the Jade Emperor can determine just how much fortune you deserve in the coming new year. Sounds like a snitch to me.
The Chinese feel the same, so what some will do is smear honey on his picture (usually hanging in the kitchen) in order to sweeten the message he delivers. Traditional sticky candy – Zao Tang – is also given to children so that their lips get sealed and they can’t spill the beans. Then the picture or effigy of the Kitchen God is burned so that he can carry his gossip back up to Heaven.
Because of the proximity to the Chinese New Year celebrations, this day is dubbed the Little New Year, and marks the beginning of the festivities for many Chinese. Presentations and performances are shown on TV, WeChat messages serving as heralds for the holiday season assault your phone, and, of course, families gather to eat jiaozi – dumplings.
The Little New Year was Friday, and it happened to also be XiaoYi Fu’s birthday (Xiao Ming’s youngest aunt’s husband’s familial title). On closer inspection, most of the older generation in the Liu family tend to have birthdays that conveniently fall on Lunar Calendar holidays. Xiao Ming suspects the dates are made up since the grandparents died young in some cases or couldn’t remember the specific date beyond the season and year. We went over to her parents’ place and had dinner with everyone. Pretty standard.
Then someone busted out their WeChat and started opening digital Hong Bao (Red Envelopes). Red Envelopes during the holidays in China means money. WeChat has a new(?) feature where the sender can decide on a sum of money to give away and the number of times it should be divided, but that sum will be randomly divided up into unknown amounts. Say you send 10 RMB to your family group in six envelopes. Everyone opens the envelopes. Some will get ten cents while others may get six RMB. For about thirty minutes everyone laughed and competed with one another to see who could get the most (and of course made fun of the one who got the least).
I got One RMB.
Next weekend is the Chinese New Year, the big one. The Year of the Rooster is upon us. It’s Xiao Ming’s year, and, as tradition dictates, she has to wear red undergarments – socks, underwear and bra, long-johns – for the entire first lunar month. I, on the other hand, can get away with just wearing red socks.
Chinese people know about it, know Santa brings gifts, trees get lit up, and shops fill with a flurry of purchasing mania. It’s that last economic fringe benefit of the holiday that mostly affects the Chinese, though.
But here in China a holiday does get celebrated right about this time – Dongzhi: the Winter Solstice. So, like a bunch of pagans, the entire country observes the shortest, darkest day of the year. Don’t be offended by the pagan joke. I love pagans.
As is the case with most Chinese holidays, the family gets together during Dongzhi and eats a meal together. In the South it’s the sweat, colorful rice balls called Tangyuan. In the North – where Dalian is – Dumplings are eaten.
And of course they’re homemade. When Xiao Ming and I arrived at our Xiao Yi’s house, her mom and dad were making them. That quickly changed when they pulled us over and put us to work.
I’d made dumplings once, years ago, but couldn’t seem to convince them of that with my completely inept dumpling stuffing and folding technique. My mother-in-law had to patiently show me at least four times before my dumplings looked edible instead of lumps of amorphous flour.
I kept this up for a while, catching my stride and trading small talk with her as Xiao Ming rolled out the round pieces we stuffed with meat and vegies. Then, just when I was beginning to think I didn’t totally suck at such a simple task, my father-in-law comes over and shows me how to pinch the tops of the flour together one side at a time to create an even cooler look. Once again, my first attempts looked like I’d done them blind, in the dark.
They tasted just fine, though.
The family – a small showing of only 10 for the evening – gathered around the table in the kitchen and ate. We toasted each other with red wine (Not sure where the Bai Jiu was that night), beer, and hot water.
What do Chinese families talk about at meals like this?
My father-in-law told jokes about some hillbilly businessmen who used to colorful sentence enhancers in every sentence during a meeting where he struggled to keep a straight face. That kicked off everyone telling jokes that involved swearing with wonderful DongBei (Northeast) flavor. They can really lay the profanities on thick in the North. I thought I got creative with merging English and Mandarin!
Then there was a large portion of time given for comparative linguistics. Well, kinda. They sat around joking in different Mandarin dialects, trying to sound like authentic Hebei or Tianjin locals. Xiao Ming told them about the time I had a full on five-minute conversation with a four-year-old Sichuan boy on the plane that all the passengers around us listened to and ended with a drawn out, rising and falling “man zou!” that made everyone laugh when the boy said it to me in his adorable accent. (Man Zou is said like Mahn Zoe). Then we drank, toasting gan bei in different dialects.
The final topic we all got going on about was familial titles and how to refer to different people. Unlike American families that just use “Grandma/Grandpa,” “Uncle/Aunt,” “Cousin,” and all the other simple titles we know, Mandarin Chinese calls for every person to have their own unique title. Your father and mother’s side don’t use the same, either, so no doubling up. Males and females have different terms as well as older or younger generations. I’m still hopelessly lost once we get beyond first cousins, but they still like to quiz me and each other. Even Xiao Ming makes mistakes! It’s not easy!
After dinner we all hung out in the living room and talked. We showed the family our pictures (some are in the previous post), and they all sat and stared at them for about fifteen, twenty minutes.
And like that, we passed the darkest day of the year together.
If it’s possible to be nostalgic for the future, as a teenager, I managed it.
For about five years, on December 31st, I would round up the four or five closest people in my life and force them (on more than one occasion threaten them) to pen an epistle to their future selves. Each year the “To be Opened” date was randomly selected. I think the first time around was when I was 16. Patience wasn’t a strong virtue of mine then (nor is it one I champion now), so I think we wrote to two years into the future. The next time around was maybe three. And so on.
The first group to be strong-armed into this included my brother, best friend, girlfriend, girlfriend’s cousin (my neighbor), and girlfriend’s cousin’s boyfriend. And me.
Madly in love with my girlfriend, I wrote largely about her. I threw in some obligatory concessions to family and friends, but mostly, it was to her. I don’t know what the others wrote about because I delivered their letters to them without prying.
The deal was that they’d write the letters and I’d seal them in envelopes and make sure they got them at the appointed time. Because we had planned to write them each year, burying them like time capsules didn’t seem practical. Instead, I placed them (alongside other childhood treasures like cards, middle school notes, an old pocket knife, and oddly enough, those Jaw-Dropper Magic infomercial VHS tapes) in an army tin and slid the thing under my bed.
True to my word, I never looked at the letters and I got them to their writers each time. Even after I broke up with the girl I had written about, I got her letter to her (and her cousin with whom I was not on speaking terms). The years went by a few more times, and the letter writing continued. The group changed, with a few of us staying and others going. In 2010 I got a group together for the last time and we wrote letters.
The group consisted of my best friend, mother, brother-in-law, my wife, and me.
I just found these letters today, lying at the bottom of the tin, under the Jaw-Dropper videos. They were to be opened on January First, 2013. That didn’t happen because I was in China.
Considering the changes that have taken place in all of our lives since their writing, these letters make me apprehensive. I’m no longer married, I’ve been out of the country for more than two years, and I haven’t seen my best friend yet since I’ve been home for a little more than a week. The rest of the group had a crazy last couple of years, too, so as I stare at the envelopes setting atop the desk I used to complete homework on in high school, I’m hesitant to read mine. I have no clue how to get the letters to the two others that I don’t see, and I’m not sure if my friend even wants his. I can hand my mother’s to her, but then what about mine?
In 2010 I had a life trajectory that I could see ahead into for years. By the end of 2013 that path has been demolished and built over so that now, I’ve got visibility for about a few months out or so. Not only is it a new path, it’s a route that wasn’t even on the damn map before.
As I wrote before: I count myself among the truly blessed to be living the life I want to be living. Even if it comes to an end sooner than I want, I have been able to lead the very life I have always wanted to lead. How many people can say that?
That being sad, there have been plenty of mistakes on my part. I’ve hurt people, and I’ve let others down. I’ve gone through pain and no small amount of stress due to the things I’ve done or haven’t done right.
And every time my eye catches the corner of the envelope hanging half off the desk, I’m reminded of these failures. I truly have no idea what I wrote about, but one thing is certain: I had no way of knowing the Jordan who would be reading the words written.
On this day, though, as is the heart of the holiday, I’m looking ahead as well as at what is in my past. I will read the letter, and I will let the words do whatever they plan to do, but then I will fold up the paper, tuck it back into the envelope, and put it back in the tin where it will stay. The tin will get slid back under the bed that is no longer mine, and I will go about my life.
I’ve got so much yet to learn from life that I can’t be consumed by the lessons of yesterday. Forgetting them would be equally foolish, but then again, I’ve never been one to let go of the past anyways. Instead, I’ll learn from the experiences and just simply let go of the baggage. I recently read a fantastic quote on a friend’s Facebook.
“Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” — Aldous Huxley
This is my motto for the coming year. Just decided it, and I feel good about the decision.
Where ever you are and whoever you’re with, take your experiences and do something crazy. Learn, Love, and Live in 2014!
*And because I won’t be able to get the song out of my head until Chinese Spring Festival, here’s a classic.*
Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind ? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and old lang syne ?
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup ! and surely I’ll buy mine ! And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine ; But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine† ; But seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend ! And give me a hand o’ thine ! And we’ll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.
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.
Tabao sales, Korean Pocky stick treats symbolizing one, and a full Starbucks…must be Singles’ Day in China.
If you’re a cynical person, you might call this the highly commercialized polar opposite of Valentine’s Day, or you could just focus on eating bland tasting, chocolate covered sticks and go with the flow.
11/11 every year is when singledom is celebrated like the bittersweet Warheads you used to shovel into your mouth just to say you could. Don’t know about that anology.
It started in China not long ago when a bunch of the guys looked around and said, “Crap, there sure are a lot of us with no girlfriends. Let’s buy Korean candy, go to Karaoke, and pretend to be happy about this fact.” It may also have gone a different way.
Though I have it on good authority (my Korean students, Chinese friends, and girlfriend) that Guanggun Jie, Bare Sticks Festival, is a Chinese pop culture holiday that got its kick off in the early 90s in Nanjing universities.
Speaking of students, three of my Korean middle schoolers gave me boxes of Pocky sticks today and wished me a happy “Pocky Day.” Interestingly, the three kids who gave these little sugary symbols of being a bachelor all saw me with my girlfriend yesterday at an orchestra concert. Don’t know if they’re trying to tell me anything there…
Though it’s mainly an Asian thing, Pocky Day, or Singles Day seems to be gaining momentum each year. Who’s to say by this time next year folks back home in the States won’t be opting for a fun Nov. 11 instead of that annoying Feb. 14…
(Due to my aforementioned inability to commit, I am once again behind schedule. This entry is not about what we did last night–New Year’s Eve–but about Christmas. Still, hope everyone had a great time!)
There is a right number five bus and there is a wrong number five bus. In a post-Christmas effort to expand our slim selection of fine dining establishments here in Dalian we ended up boarding the latter.
The Monday after Christmas the two of us basically spent the day relaxing. I went for a short hike through the park, did some reading and studying. Noelle Skyped with family and friends. Then we hung out at Starbucks for about three hours, reading, writing, and people watching. A buddy of mine seemed intent on getting a glimpse of what a Chinese Starbucks looks like. He Skyped with Noelle despite the fact that it had to have been pushing something like 3 or 4 am in the States.
And to answer his inquiries: It looks exactly the same except there are more interesting groups of people. Germans, Swedish, Russian, French, English, American, and yes, Chinese are all easily found in there any day of the week.
Around, oh, five-ish we decided that it was time for some dinner. Dalian has great public transportation, and as I’ve said before, we’re getting used to taking the buses and cabs. So when we saw a bus with the same number as the one we were waiting for we didn’t think twice. We hopped on and found two seats.
Three stops later we realized that this was not the bus we wanted to be on, and when he stopped again we also realized that we had no idea where we were. We decided to stay on until he began to loop back to where we had gotten on. Seemed like the best plan—a little time-consuming but still the best plan to get us back to familiarity.
That didn’t happen because the driver kicked us off the bus. The route he drove took us out along the coast, much farther down than we’d ever been. When the last of the other riders walked off it was just the two of us. He looked back, said an angry-sounding sentence in Chinese and motioned for us to get off the bus. I tried to say that I wanted to stay, but he wasn’t having any of that. We hopped off and looked around at our surroundings.
Tall, dark, and vacant business buildings loomed over us like giant buzzards eyeing up their next meal as it slowly succumbs to heat exhaustion and thirst. But it wasn’t hot at all that night and we weren’t that thirsty. So near the coast, wind whipped at us in chilling bursts and the icy water sloshing around in my Wahaha brand plastic bottle kept time with our steps out of the skeevy alley we’d been deposited in by the friendly bus driver.
The daylight was gone, but we could still make out the ocean on the horizon. We walked toward it and then turned right, following the main road we both thought we vaguely recognized. After about five minutes of trekking what I can only assume is south—the wrong direction—we did an about-face and backtracked. Another ten minutes went by before we saw, off in the distance, high above the city, the neon blue rings that have become so familiar to us. The UFO. We live right next to UFO Mountain, and suddenly we had our extraterrestrial North Star to guide us home. It shone through the haze and the night, giving us a heading to set our steps to.
And as we walked on it became apparent how far away from that home we really were. And also, we didn’t want to go home. We wanted dinner. We tightened our jackets around our bodies and plugged along for another twenty minutes before we found a bus stop that sat on the number five route. It showed up; we boarded it.
Even that was funny. The stop was actually on a curve of a busy road, so the bus driver didn’t seem to want to fully stop to let us on. He slowed to an idle and I stepped on, but then he must have lifted his foot from the brake because the bus crept forward before Noelle could get up that first step. I looked at her just as the bus began to move and her eyes widened in shock and a bit of fear. I don’t know if the fear came from the idea that she may be left behind or because she was calculating the odds of successfully jumping on a moving bus, but in the end she did get on easily enough. We laughed, and I let my imagination paint a picture where she was chasing a bus like a Western bandit riding down a train on horseback.
We finally made it to the street we’d originally set out for almost an hour before. Had things gone smoother the bus trip would have only taken five minutes from Starbucks. We also made it to the new restaurant we wanted to try with the help of another teacher’s directions. Finally, we could eat dinner.
That was on the day after Christmas. For Christmas Eve and Day we worked. While many people in China know about Christmas and a lot can even give you details, the day itself was nothing more than a Sunday for them. The Western staff definitely didn’t want to work both days, but everyone was in good spirits anyway. The school had been decorated earlier in the month, so there were some lights, a few trees, some tinsel hanging around, and holiday music playing from the speakers. It was much more festive than I thought it would be, and that helped.
After classes were over on both nights, the school put on a Cookie Making Activity. Saturday night Noelle helped and I helped on Sunday. In the morning on Sunday I was “volun-told” (Told in a way that seems like you have an option to say no, but not really) that I would be “in charge” of one of the crafts and that I would be giving the opening ceremony speech to the students and their parents.
It’s not that I’m a shy person or even that I get nervous in front of folks, but getting told just hours before was a bit annoying. Whether it’s a “China Thing”—which I’ve been told it is—or poor communication skills on the part of some of the staff, last minute news is a daily staple of the interactions here. Most times they’re nothing too irritating, but they can become larger annoyances easily. Either way, I didn’t mind the responsibility, and I enjoyed speaking that evening. A few days later one of our supervisors complimented my introduction and said she felt moved. As flattering as that sounds, I think the praise was exaggerated quite a bit. I did nothing more than welcome them and let them know what we had planned for the evening as another staff member translated what I said into Chinese for the parents.
The night did go well, though. We made chocolate chip cookies from scratch, something none of the students had ever done, and then made a strange little Santa head out of an upside-down paper cup and some construction paper. That first night, after the activity was finished and the kids had gone home, some of the teachers snacked on the extra cookies. I must have eaten about 5 or 6. I love chocolate chip. For a few reasons, on that second night I didn’t eat a single one.
As can be guessed, many of the staff had also never made chocolate chip cookies from scratch either. The preparation that went into the activity consisted of, among other things, the Eastern staff acting out the making of the cookies, step by step. This was a good idea for many, many reason, but for two specifically. First: no, you do not individually press the chocolate chips into the dough. Second (and more importantly): the students MUST wash their hands efficiently. It’s for reasons pertaining to this second note that I declined the cookies Sunday.
The students were having a hard time mixing the ingredients and softening the dough, so one staff member told them to squeeze the dough. And they did. Honestly, not the worst idea. But when you add in the sheer number of people handing the food…eh…Each student took turns thrusting their hands into the bowl, squishing and squeezing the dough, ripping and mashing it until it was soft. Twelve different sets of hands pummeled the dough, and even though they had washed them, those hands were not THAT clean.
So when they offered me a cookie or two I kindly said, “Get outta here, Germ Machines!” Or just, “No thanks,” but I was definitely thinking the former.
My craft went smoothly, but I felt like the kids taught me how to do it instead of the other way around. You give a group of kids some glue, crayons, scissors, and paper cups and you’ve got yourself little Picassos…and a mess to clean afterwards.
When we finally left work Noelle and I ate a Christmas dinner at a western style restaurant called The Real Eddies. The staff there is fantastic and the food is pretty darn close to “authentic Western” food. At home, we exchanged gifts and relaxed as we watched National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. And thus we ended Christmas day.
How did you spend yours?
Out beneath the lit street lights.
Yes, I wore the hat all day.
(NOTES: I’m going to add more pictures to this entry as soon as I get them. Should be very soon. If you’re interested in seeing the Christmas Cookie Activity check back here. I’m also trying to get a video of those annoying fireworks that are always going on at all hours of the day and night loaded on here. Also, Next entry—Nesburg and New Years)
I’d like to be able to tell you that the last, oh, almost month or so I’ve been held hostage by radical fundamentalists that prey on English teachers abroad, or that I’ve been traipsing around the globe in search of the meaning of life, but I cannot. No, the simple truth of the matter is I’m horrible at commitment.
I belong to about half a dozen forums ranging in topics from writing to natural sciences, and I’ve lost touch with all of them because I can’t seem to just adhere to a routine. I’m sure I could say that I’m just a serial non-joiner, but that’s not really true, either…I mean, I suppose it’s almost true. I like taking a look at the perks membership brings, but when anything more than a cursory glance every now and then is expected of me I get the shakes. I’ve even joined a few gyms over the years and then consequently rediscovered the great outdoors. I just got no follow-through.
Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to have a pen pal, but then I realize that I’d probably end up writing the greeting letter and then fake my own death after a few weeks so I wouldn’t have to carry on the correspondence. My “pal” would feel obligated to return a heart-felt—handwritten—missive expressing his condolences to whatever fabricated family member’s name I scribbled in the preceding epistle’s signature line and I’d feel like a royal pain. All because I can’t commit.
Perhaps I am being a bit melodramatic? Never!
If you’ve established a routine of checking this blog each week over the course of the last month, hoping for some tell-tale sign that we are in fact alive, I’m sorry. If you’ve stumbled upon this blog in hopes of learning something new…goodluck!
When we last saw our heroes they were just settling into their new jobs as English teachers on the east coast of China in a city by a bay called Dalian…The city not the bay is called Dalian…Ok, I’m done referring to myself in the third person. Creeps me out.
It’s perplexingly odd how normal and commonplace living in a different country can become. Our schedule has solidified into something that is steady and even our daily habits are becoming truly habitual. Nope, pretty sure that wasn’t redundant. Even having to mop the bathroom floor following every shower isn’t as annoying as it was those first few weeks. We’ve managed to pin down a bus schedule that saves us from having to walk the mile and a half to and from work every day, which is nice since winter decidedly kicked fall in the back of the head and told him to get outta here this past week.
Anymore, our on-going battle seems to be with procuring food enough for our snacking proclivities and balancing that with mildly nutritious meals. There are a bunch of restaurants around to choose from, but when you’re attempting to cut back on the monthly expenses frugality is a must. We’ve stumbled upon a few cheap places that definitely offer authentic Chinese cuisine, but, honestly, there’s only so much you can do with rice before you’re just refusing to call it rice. I’m not too keen on sea food, and Noelle is beginning to draw lines in the sand with those mom and pop shops that all look and taste the same. Luckily, when our dedication to authenticity is running thin and the old taste buds want something familiar we have a local import store called Sunny’s. Although their prices are comparable to American stores Sunny’s is significantly more expensive than many other places around us, so we try to “tough” it out until we just don’t care about price anymore. We’re learning to branch out and try different things in other places, but one thing I won’t budge on is milk. Even though it’s from France, the 1% half gallon I pay 17 rmb for is so much better tasting than the tepid stuff they sell in boxes at the markets in town.
We’ve been taking Chinese lessons twice a week for a few weeks now, and every once in a while I can understand one word out of a hundred when some of our Eastern staff chat in Mandarin. Rumor has it that our pronunciation is actually pretty good, but I dunno about that. I’ve managed to pick up some polite phrases and even some bargaining skills, but I still doubt I’m ready to carry on a conversation with even a two year old. I’m loving everything involved with learning the language, but it’s a bit disconcerting when the students laugh uncontrollably when they hear you say even the simplest word in Chinese. I kid you not, to make a point I said the Chinese word for apple and the class burst into fits of riotous laughter. Apparently I said it right and had the tone correct. They just thought it was hilarious that their English teacher said a word in Chinese.
Our staff has been amazing this whole time. The other Western teachers and the Eastern teachers have been unconditionally helpful with everything from the mundane to the particular. Even ordering water is taken out of our hands. We just ask a staff member if she can call the water place and have a jug delivered and she does it right away. What’s more interesting is the fact that, for more than two months now, the water guy has never been a minute late. He says 9 am, by God it’s 8:58-8:59 exactly. Not a minute after. Pretty impressive actually, considering he has to carry the heavy jug up four flights of stairs to get it to us.
Sending money home is just one of the many other details of our emerging life we have needed assistance with. On his day off, the curriculum director—our immediate supervisor—went with us to the bank to set up our accounts and go through the process of getting money sent across the pond back to the good old U S of A. It was a two plus hour ordeal that he didn’t balk at or complain about. Like I said, the staff is great.
Getting into the swing of lesson planning here has taken some effort, though. Because it’s not a public school, our school is run much like a high-standards after school program, complete with a competitive curriculum based on a very good series of EFL books and many different courses. Each week I write eleven lesson plans for nine 90 minute classes. Noelle’s course load is about the same. The classes have up to six students in them that have been pre-tested to gauge their English levels. Our curriculum is supplemented with an EFL reading and phonics website that helps complement the weekly classes with added context and cultural elements. Meshing the two resources so that it seems fluid and natural has been a challenge as well. As a teacher, I feel that my growth is going to come in the form of making lesson plans that are more student-centered and geared toward activities that focus on kinesthetic and experiential learning. That may sound exactly the same as an American teacher’s growth opportunities—and to a large extent it is—but when it comes to EFL it’s all about those foundational skills, which are the ones most American HS teachers never have to worry about at their grade level. In a big way, I’m learning the skills needed to teach students the foundation of what they will need when they get to my actual area of concentration. When we get back to the states and begin teaching again I will hopefully have a better understanding of the smaller building blocks my students are bringing to the HS classroom. In that way I can direct lessons that stem from and build on what they’ve learned over the years more easily than I have in the past.
Beyond the classroom, the last month or so has had some ups and downs. A huge up was our Halloween party at the school and after. The whole staff set the school up with fun activities on the top floors and a haunted house and apple bobbing station in the basement. Yes, I was one of the people wearing a mask and scaring the children as they walked through the haunted house. THAT made my night. Demented, I know. Everyone had a blast and when it was all done the staff hung out for a bit and took a bunch of pictures. Then, still in our garb, the Western staff took two cabs to Five Color City.
In this region of China there is a serious drinking culture that doesn’t just include alcoholics and bums but white collar business men and professionals having meetings. It’s not uncommon for a business meeting in the afternoon to include several beers for each participant. It’s more than a social lubricant, too. It acts as a buffer for serious occasions and creates an atmosphere where everyone is open and “honest” with one another. Great way to do business, eh? Anyway, I digress. Five Color City is Kaifa Qu’s resident “area” for that cultural gem.
We all went out to FCC and it’s safe to say that most of us got some curious glances. The theme for the Western staff’s outfits was Willy Wonka. We had a Willy, Mike Teevee, Varuca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Agustus Gloop, Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and even an Oompa Loompa. Noelle and I were late to the preparations since we got to Dalian so late, but we managed to find some matching candy-oriented shirts and some bright colors to deck ourselves out in. The consensus was that we were Ever-lasting Gobstoppers. It worked.
The night went late into the evening and the following morning was more like early afternoon. We had a recouping day at the apartment of two other staff members where we watched Halloween movies all day and ate pizza. Good times.
And then November showed up and along with it my month-long cold. Since November first I’ve basically been sick. Low energy, cough, sneezes, runny nose, headaches! Blah. Despite that inconvenience, I’ve managed to make it out to hike through the trails twice and I haven’t missed a day of work. This week we’re having a Thanksgiving dinner as a staff at a restaurant in town. I love that we’re doing something for the holiday, but by this time back home all the stores and even some of the streets are already decorated and ready for Christmas. Here there’s nothing but the chilled wind to remind you that the winter holidays are around the corner. Makes me a bit nostalgic for things I always thought I didn’t care for. Soon December will be here and Christmas and New Years will come and go. This time of the year is difficult for traveler’s abroad, but it’s that shared feeling of the winter blues that brings us closer. We make the holidays special ourselves by keeping up with some of our traditions from home and even by playing Christmas music throughout the apartments (Noelle is currently playing Trans Siberian Orchestra). Hopefully Skype works on Christmas, because I’m sure that there will be many people testing out the limits of the service.
I can’t really mope, though. We still count ourselves supremely lucky to be doing something so extreme. We wanted to go abroad and now we’re here. We wanted to get jobs right out of school and now we have them. We wanted to see the world and now we are. We wanted stories to tell and now we most definitely have some. Everyday we’re adjusting to life here more and more. Some days China kicks our faces into the dirt and other days we outsmart her enough to secure the Win. With the help of our curriculum director, I’ve begun writing again and even have someone to talk to about my passion, and Noelle has joined a gym that she feels comfortable with. We’re walking a tightrope, but I think there’s a net down there now…
One of my adult students sent me this flash video about China. If it works for those back in the states it’s worth a look. Pretty interesting and accurate.