Sunday, December 28, 2008

christmas really does exist in china...sort of

alright, here it is. the story of christmas in china, my first christmas away from home:

i spent the first half of the week on vacation and i came home to christmas! i spent christmas eve running around like a crazy person getting everything ready for people to come over. i made microwave brownies and bought oranges and cookies and things. it was pretty good. corey came over early and made me spaghetti, which was awesome.

then danny and lizzy came over and then thai and simon and a bunch of their friends, who were cool. we all hung out and tried to stay warm in my freezing apartment (stupid china and lack of central heat!). we eventually brought out the space heater, which was really nice until it blew the fuse. i found some candles and it was actually kind of nice to sit around in the dark with the candles. the security guy came pretty quickly, though, and we were back in business. then simon got Fred Clause going and we had some christmas movie time, after which we were all a bit dead and everyone went home except thai and danny, who spent the night.

christmas day was really nice. we woke up and chilled for a bit, then the boys cleaned up and did dishes while i made pancakes. i didn't even mean for them to, i just started making pancakes and the next thing i know the apartment is clean, the dishes are washed and thai is asking for a broom. it was awesome. anyway, we all ate pancakes and sort of did our thing until thai had to leave for work. bummer. so i skyped my family and opened my presents and hung out with danny. we spent most of the day on the couch, trying to stay warm in the apartment that refused to warm up.

as far as christmas presents go, my mom is pretty awesome. i opened my second box to find a veritable treasure trove of surprises. she sent no bake cheesecake mix, chocolate chips, toothpaste, awesome fleece pj pants, fun earrings from ten thousand villages, a where the wild things are christmas ornament, some shirts, febreeze and, the best part, wheat tortillas. i still can't believe she actually sent them from the US in a box that left a month ago. and they're still good. needless to say, it was a good day. she also sent pj's from vegas that say "that's how i roll" which is funny b/c that's one thing that i actually do say and that confuses my british friends here. thanks, mom, you pretty much win.

i had christmas dinner with janice, which was very relaxing and wonderful. she made beef soup, which made me happy b/c the beef reminded me of roast beef which is one of my favorite things to eat. we chatted and watched american tv while we ate Ihow long has it been since i've seen oprah?) and waited for her new refridgerator to come. it's funny the things that change when you live in a new place. i didn't realize how long it had been since i had seen what would be considered a normal-sized refridgerator in the US. the chinese ones are all very small. it was strangely exciting to peer into this side-by-side refridgerator and remember being at home for a bit. it makes me wonder what stupid little things i will really notice when i am home again.

all in all, it was a very nice christmas. i won't lie, i did miss the traditions and people from home. there is something about them and something about home that really makes it feel like christmas. there is something in the air that just doesn't happen here. perhaps it is simply knowing that all around you people are gathered in their houses enjoying each other and celebrating the same things. it's strange to be celebrating an important day knowing that everyone around you is going about their normal lives. in the end, though, i managed to spend it doing things i enjoy with people i care about, which is really what matters. i hope i am always so lucky.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

the things you miss...

i keep fantasizing about driving down 9th street and i really can't decide how i feel about that. the thing is, i don't really want to go home. i just want to go drive around for a few days and then come back.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"i live in freaking china."

when i first got here, i would occasionally pause in whatever i was doing and say that to myself, in a pathetic attempt to make that sentiment feel real. i thought that i would eventually get over this and stop saying it. now, however, i find myself still pausing randomly throughout the week to say this to myself with incredulity at how normal it seems. somewhere along the way living in china went from surreal to normal and i can't get over that. i suspect that i will continue to say this to myself throughout my stay, with varying sentiments attached, but always with some amazement.

Monday, December 1, 2008

i love days like this...

i generally spend at least part of the bus ride home from work figuring out what i need/want to do with my evening. today the plan was to run to people's square to buy a christmas present, grab groceries on the way home, eat leftovers and lesson plan. somehow, though, things never quite go the way i intend.

i did manage to run to people's square in time to find the christmas present store very very closed. a little bummed, i turned to leave and was approached by a chinese 20-something with a camera. expecting to be in the photo i smiled my best foreigner smile and said hello. to my surprise, she asked me to take a picture of her and her friends with the expo mascot and i happily agreed to this refreshing request. after the picture, she asked me where i was from and we got to chatting. turns out they are university students from xian here in shanghai for a week on a school trip. we talked a bit about the sights in shanghai and they asked me if i had ever been to a teahouse, which is actually one thing i hadn't done yet but wanted to try. (note the "hadn't.") they were on their way to visit one and invited me to join them. i decided the groceries could wait and happily agreed.

(side note: it turns out this is commonly a scam. people will befriend you and invite you to a teahouse only to disappear, leaving you with an outrageous bill. lucky for me, my friends were perfectly legit.)

the teahouse was on the second floor of a shopping mall behind a shopping mall. if everything good in houston comes in a strip mall, everything here comes in a giant mall. or a cart on the street. always extremes in china.

it was a fun experience. we tried 6 different kinds of tea and learned a little bit about the culture behind the teas. the cups all have their own significance and you drink different teas in different cups. some of the teas were made especially for the emperor back in the day and they each have their own special properties. one was good for coughing, one for the liver, lungs and heart, one was full of vitamins, etc. we tried
  • ginseng (a little bitter with a sweet aftertaste - very good; looks like little rocks),
  • jasmine (sweet-smelling; a little bitter; comes with a smelling cup and a drinking cup; rolled into a ball that resembles a dragon's eye),
  • pink lady (12 dried fruits and dried roses; very red and very sweet; served in a clear glass cup),
  • green tea (i think it is bitter, but it is the most common tea; you can tell how good it is by the color, aroma, flavor and shape of the leaves),
  • black tea soaked in lychee juice (sweet with a bitter aftertaste), and
  • some kind of flower tea (when you put it in water, the whole thing opens up and there is a big flower with jasmine leaves around it; not a very strong flavor).
the teahouse girl was full of information and my chinese friends were great. they translated everything for me and we even managed to make jokes, which is commonly very difficult with the language barrier. the most interesting thing i learned was that chinese doctors can take your pulse and know what is going on inside your body. for instance, if you are pregnant, you will have two pulses. i had no idea.

at the end, we bought some tea, exchanged email addresses and they walked me to the metro with instructions to call them when i go to xian. i even hugged them goodbye, which is a bit uncooth in chinese culture, but i didn't care.

as i walked myself to the metro, i couldn't help but wonder at what had just happened to me and smile, because it was a great evening and because hanging out with chinese people does wonders for your self-esteem. i am beautiful and it is like music when i talk. so thank you, china, for screwing up my plans, yet again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

it's really real

i suddenly, and randomly, feel like a real teacher. i was walking in from recess with my kids yesterday and it occurred to me that i am their teacher. i am what i set out to be so many years ago. i'm really doing this. not that i haven't been doing it for the past 3 months or anything, but something about this week made it really hit me and i actually feel ok about it. the surreal feeling is leaving and, while i know that i have a lot of learning to do, i feel like i just might be able to handle this.

it's strange to put myself in the same category as all of my previous teachers. we are colleagues now. i'm not sure how long it will take for that to really sink in.

it's also strange to really, finally process that my goal has been reached. i've wanted to be a teacher since elementary school. i spent 5 years of college working toward becoming one. now that it's here i feel compelled to assess what i am doing with that achievement.

i've got a ways to go to before i become my "perfect" teacher, but i really feel like i'm getting things under control. i still plan at the last minute and constantly change my mind about what to do next, but i think that i might always do that to some extent. i like to think of it as being flexible and sensitive to the changing needs of my class. the main problem right now is that i don't have quite enough tricks up my sleeve to be completely successful all the time.

that said, sometimes i completely win. today, for instance, i ended up doing my afternoon lessons (which i planned during quiet time) in a completely different order than i had anticipated, because they seemed to flow from our book and discussion after quiet time. and it worked out beautifully.

on the other hand, sometimes i lose. this morning, i changed my mind about 10 times before finally settling on center activities about 1 minute before the kids came in to start them. needless to say i wasn't quite prepared, which meant things got a little dodgy with the kids while i finished getting ready. then, of course, one activity didn't take nearly as long as it should have and another one was a little over their heads and it was just chaos. fairly educational chaos, but chaos. planning ahead would really make this time go much more smoothly.

all in all, though, i think we are doing ok. there are definitely things i could do better, but there are a lot of things i could do worse. and i feel like we are getting some really good learning done. the other day one of my parents wrote in the communication book that her daughter is learning a lot lately, which was great validation. moments like that can really keep you going. it's nice to know that someone noticed.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

just what i needed

so i went shopping today. i was supposed to go running all over town buying christmas presents and feeling like i accomplished something with my life. but i wasn't in the mood. so i didn't. instead i went to one of four giant malls located at one intersection in my neighborhood in search of winter clothes. while i enjoyed exploring it, it wasn't a particularly successful trip and by the time i left empty-handed i was ready to head home. i knew, however, that come every morning this week i would be frustrated and annoyed at the lack of warm clothing in my closet. and so, with the best of intentions, i headed down the other side of my street, in the direction of a more chinese shopping experience. and while i never made it to the clothing stores, i did get exactly what i set out for.

first i popped into a hole-in-the-wall clothing store right in the middle of the craziness that is my street. it turned out to be mostly children's clothing and not even close to what i needed, so i continued on my way. which led me to a random fruit stand that i had never noticed before. for no real reason other than because it was new, i decided to stop and buy some fruit for the week. and found exactly what i didn't know i needed.

it was the sort of place that was so small, you had to wait your turn to walk through and a chinese woman was already purchasing fruit, so i patiently waited outside, minding my own business. until she turned to her husband and started speaking in english. i have to admit i was a little surprised (but not too surprised because, let's face it, i live in china, where stranger things happen every day). the next thing i knew, however, i waschatting with the man while his wife bought fruit and then chatting with the wife while he and the fruit lady attempted to figure out what dialects of chinese they had in common.

turns out he was born in shanghai, went to high school in hong kong, college in canada and grad school in the us, where he lived for 50 years before returning to shanghai 5 years ago. now they live here 4 months out of the year. so i asked him about the dried something for sale, which turned out to be persimmon, and told him that i am a teacher here. then Betty, his wife, wanted to know where i lived and if i'd ever tried this fruit called dragon's eye. i hadn't, which was apparently a travesty, so she pulled one off the vine and the next thing i know she was literally putting it in my mouth. lucky for me it was actually very good - like lychee, but less furry on the outside.

at this point, they have pretty much gotten what they need and the wife mentions that they should probably get going. the man, bless his heart, turns and asks me if there are any questions i want to ask while he is there. i start to tell him i'll be ok but then my curiosity gets the best of me, so i point and ask about the other 2 fruits that i don't recognize. one was from taiwan and called black pearl in chinese because it is a very expensive, high-end fruit. it tastes sweet, like melon, apparently, even though it appears more akin to a pepper than a melon. the other was from thailand and we never did get an english name for it. we did however, get to try it. while we were talking about it, the fruit lady just picked one up and split it open for us to try. i love that they do that here. it was really good, sweet and tart, very citrusy.

and then it was time for us to part. we said our goodbyes, i thanked them for their kindness, bought my fruit, and as i walked home with my loaded bag i couldn't help but grin from ear to ear and be glad that i live in china. i may not have gotten waht i was looking for today, but i did get exactly what i needed.

Friday, November 14, 2008

a good day.

today was one of those days that makes you love being a teacher. we had a great discussion about fall during calendar time, good snack time and rolled right into center time. they are used to doing different activities and rotating, but i just started doing more official, organized centers. yesterday was a bit hairy but today was awesome! the kids stayed engaged the entire time and they did a great job on their activities. they even managed to paint by themselves without getting it all over themselves or the room. needless to say, i was very proud.

next up, recess. i have one student that is new to our class, who doesn't speak really any english or chinese, which makes the social scene a bit difficult in our school. today he brought a pokemon where's waldo book which managed to attract the interest of some of the other boys. it made me happy to see him hopefully making friends. you never know with kids but it's nice to see the new kid not playing by himself all the time.

our afternoon was less great but still good. good quiet time, great sharing and discussion about respect and lines. then, we made caramel popcorn. which was kind of a mess. it turned out well, but not until we had lost most of our interest and made a giant mess. in the end, though, the kids had fun, we had some incredible caramel corn and i got to send them home on a sugar high. yay friday!!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

making days

i meant to write this about two weeks ago, but i guess late is better than never.

i went wandering my neighborhood the other day in search of winter clothes and, while i didn't find a coat, i did find a wonderful local whose attempts to be friendly completely made my day (and probably hers).

i walked into this tiny little chinese clothing store, said hello in chinese and immediately began fingering the rack of coats. the woman who owned the shop came a little closer and started saying things to me in chinese that i couldn't understand. of course, i couldn't remember how to say "i don't understand" so i gave her my best "i'm sorry but i don't know what you are saying to me" look and turned back to the coats. she kept talking. finally i caught ting bu dong, which means "don't understand" and i was able to at least express to her that i wasn't being rude, i just really couldn't understand chinese. as soon as i had repeated ting bu dong, her eyes got wide and her jaw dropped a little and she sqealed just ever so slightly with delight. the foreigner can say some chines words!

we continued like that for a good 5 minutes as i looked at the clothes in her shop. she would say things to me and i would maybe catch just enough to contribute one or two chinese words until i had pretty much exhausted all of the chinese i know. literally. i think the only thing left were directions, which are really only helpful in the taxi. and every time i said something in chinese, her eyes would get wide and she would squeal all over again. i think it may have been the best thing to happen to her all day. which made it the best thing to happen to me all day. i love encounters like this - happy, friendly people and a little cultural understanding. so priceless.

Friday, October 24, 2008

kim goes to the doctor...

i've been experiencing a bit of digestional discomfort this past week, so yesterday i finally went to the doctor to see what's up. i can't help but love chinese medicine. some things that they tell you are very up-to-date and make total sense, but then the advice is peppered with ridiculous, superstitious nonsense that makes it very difficult for me to trust anything they say at all. on top of that, there are some things that they just do differently here, and when you don't speak the language, it all becomes quite an interesting adventure.

when we got to the office, we went to reception to sign in. they have you fill out a short form and then they send you to the cashier counter to pay. then they send you back to the reception desk, where they check your receipt and then send you halfway accross the building to the nurse's station by the patient rooms, who finally ushers you to an open room. everything is such a process here.

we waited for just a few minutes and then the doctor came in. no nurse to weigh and measure you, take your blood pressure and then ask you all the questions the doctor will ask you again anyway. just the doctor. i got pretty lucky, though, my doctor actually spoke a pretty good amount of english. she still had to send a lot of things through my chinese friend and occasionally pull out the chinese-english medical phrasebook, but i managed to piece together most of what was happening, minus the details.

after a lot of questions, a quick examination, and a side-note about how beautiful my voice is when i speak english, the doctor decided a blood test was in order, which was another multiple-desk affair. first the cashier, then reception, then the blood nurse, then back to the waiting room to watch a ridiculous korean movie until the results were ready.

did you know that they can draw blood from your wrist? hold your hand out in front of you, with the back toward you. then follow the line of your thumb all the way down to your wrist, stopping when you reach the joint. there should be a vein that runs right over a bone there. they can and will draw blood there if the ones in your elbow don't stick out enough. even if you don't want them to take blood from your dominant hand, they will. they'll keep talking in chinese and not give you a choice even though they understand exactly what you're saying in english and know full well that you want them to use your left hand. the good news is it's actually not sore at all, unlike the last time they drew blood from my elbow. it did, however, hurt a little more at the time. you win some, you lose some.

lucky for me, the blood test came back normal. at least i think that's lucky. it might have been easier if something had clearly shown up as the culprit, but this probably means it is something less serious. at any rate, after another brief audience with the doctor i was again ushered to reception to take a breath test. yes, a breath test. they gave me a pill and made me wait 15 minutes, then blow into this flat, card-sized thing until the blue dot turned white. which it never really did, but after about 7 minutes they told me i could stop anyway. apparently it was supposed to test the levels of bacteria or acid in my stomach to figure out if i had a certain kind of bacterial infection.

i don't. in case you were wondering.

the only test left was a stool sample which i was unable to produce on command. figures. in the absence of that data, the doctor concluded that i had a stomach infection and proceeded to prescribe a whole slew of medicines. i have yet to figure out if infection is indeed the word she was looking for or if that simply happened to be the only english word she knew. at any rate, while we were waiting for angelina to pay for the medicine and then for someone to bring them, i had the chance to talk with the doctor a bit more. she cracked me up. she was older, probably early 40's, and the advice she gave me was very stereotypically chinese. i'm supposed to make sure i eat regularly and get lots of protein. i should avoid stress and ice water, though, since those will disrupt my digestion, of course. i should also eat slowly and chew my food thoroughly. i just stood there smiling and nodding, all the while thinking, is she serious? how much do i trust her medical advice right now? what on earth is she prescribing me? is this real medicine? are they going to come back with crazy chinese herbs?

finally, someone came with 4 boxes of medicine and directions in chinese. they gave me a pen and some sticky labels so that the nurse could tell me what the directions said while i took notes on the boxes. then the doctor came out and was very adamant about explaining to me how to take them and what they were for and everything. which was kind of adorable and fine with me b/c i really like to know exactly what i am putting in my body. by the time i left, i kind of maybe knew. i think she gave me an antacid, something to make "activity" in my bowels and a probiotic, to make things normal again. we shall see how things go. i'm very curious to see exactly what "activity" means and how well that will work out at school...

Monday, October 20, 2008


so, i voted today. from china. which, like everything else in china, turned out to be a bit of an adventure.

there is a program called express your vote that lets you print a write-in absentee ballot from online and then fed-ex it to your state for free. the only catch is that you have to use specific fed-ex locations. which doesn't seem like a big deal. unless your fed-ex location is in the middle of nowhere shanghai. i never, ever would have gotten there on my own.

we got in the cab after school and jess had quite the conversation with the cab driver about where we were going. he, apparently, had no idea where the fed-ex was. 18 rmb later he slows down in front of a dilapidated strip mall in an equally run-down, very chinese neighborhood and informs us that this is the address on the post-it. it's definitely not the fed-ex and we have no idea where we are, but he's right. this is the address on the post-it.

we drive around for a minute looking for it and finally jess tells him to stop so she can call someone to figure out what's going on. lucky for us, while we're sitting there, a nice gentleman on a motorcycle drives by slowly enough that our cab driver can shout at him out the window, to see if he knows anything. luckily he seems to know something and points us in the direction of an alley close by.

alley might not be the right word. it wasn't that dirty. but it was sort of an industrial area, with several different company office/warehouses, security guards and a couple loading docks. (it reminded me of that area off 14th and old cheney in lincoln where nebraska book company and weever's are.) the farther we drive, the less it seems like a place for a fed-ex and the more i can't help but laugh. who the crap would mail stuff from here? but we've got nothing to lose, so we keep going and finally, all the way at the end, like a beacon in the night, we see those beautiful letters: FedEx. the world servce center, even.

the rest of the process was actually completely painless. the man at the desk spoke pretty good english and he knew exactly what we were doing and how to handle it. which was really nice. i can sleep easy knowing that my ballot will be there by wednesday at the latest. which rocks. it's a great feeling to know that i just voted. especially in this year's election. it's kind of a big deal. in case you didn't know.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

attempts to be brief must inevitably fail

Day 2: another day at the national park.
after successfully finding the right bus with relative ease, then spending half of the ride trying to get through the worst traffic flow pattern i have ever seen, we arrived, yet again, at the national park. after quickly buying ponchos in preparation for the impending rain, we headed off in search of a more scenic trail. despite the worthless map, we managed to find exactly what we were looking for.

we got the forest all to ourselves. we actually found a trail with no people. none. i don't think i can express how unheard of that is in this country. anyway, it was a nice stone path with plenty of stairs, but at a more gradual incline. and, despite the fog, the scenery was beautiful as well. we kept coming across random wooden buildings that were maybe kind of old, but probably not as old as they were trying to be. and the smell. oh, the beautiful beautiful scent of unadulterated nature.

after a bit of hiking and several adjustments to the ponchos, we stumbled upon a beautiful clearing essentially on the side of a cliff. there was a hollowed out rockface on one side, which made a very nice shelter from the rain, and a decent drop-off on the other. we were resting and refueling on the rocks when we noticed the footprints. lots and lots of stone shoeprints. no one really knows why, but there was a large circle full of different-sized ones in the clearing and a path of them leading back into the woods, along the stone trail. so of course we followed them. and we were not led astray.

about a half hour later we trudged out of the woods as the last of the footprints faded to find another clearing, this one with a large cabin. it turned out to be a restaurant/hotel full of locals chilling out, getting drunk and playing cards in the middle of the afternoon. we sat down for some tea and ended up ordering an entire meal, despite everyone's claim to not be very hungry. but man was it worth it. fresh fresh veggies and good rice. not to mention great company. we barely sat down before kaitlin went over to the other table of locals to see what they were eating and try to say hello. they gave her a glass of what she thought would be tea but turned out to be local chinese white wine, aka whiskey. a great addition to any hike.

i was also a fan of our method for ordering. after some confusion, one of the men finally went into the kitchen and came back with a random assortment of vegetables and an egg. he would hold up the veggies and we would tell him yes or no, which was actually a very effective way of going about it. we knew exactly what they had and they knew exactly what we liked.

after we ate, they took some pictures with us and asked us to leave our mark by signing a big sheet of white paper to be hung on the wall with the messages from other travellers that had passed through.

full and happy again, we decided to continue the trek up the mountain in search of a village which may or may not exist. we never managed to find it. instead we found a lot of steps, a very foggy view and a great metal bridge where we discovered that many in our party are a bit scared of heights. i'm glad we brought them to a mountain.

after an equally beautiful trek back down the mountain and a less enjoyable bus ride, we opted for dinner in the green tent, per jenny's request. the green tent is exactly that. one of those tents without sides that you can rent for outdoor festivals, fitted with 6 tables, 4 light bulbs, 5 gas lines, a grill and a beer cooler, all perched happily atop a pile of rubble. here, the food available for consumption was laid out beautifully on a table and we could smile and point at what we wanted. then they would either cook it on the grill or on a hot plate in the center of your table. it turned out to be awesome food and it was fun to watch as the entire family helped to run the place.

we also hit up the noodle man whose cart was parked next door. his was a similar operation. you point at the veggies/meat you want in your noodles and he cooks it all in a wok right there. so good. this was my favorite meal of the trip and possibly my favorite place as well. good food, good atmosphere, good people, what more could you ask for?

needless to say, day 2 was a much happier day than day 1. i think it was about this point that we started saying "today is my favorite day!" which might be true, except that we would say that every day until we left.

Monday, October 13, 2008

the beginning of an epic...

oh my, if you think vacation is an adventure, try vacation in china. there's just nothing quite like it. i'll do my best to sum up the highlights, but it's difficult when there is at least one thing every hour worth writing home about.

we managed to arrive in Zhangjiajie without any trouble at all. unfortunately, that ended the second we stepped out of the airport. i've found that finding a taxi or a bus in a developing country is pretty much always an adventure. after a lot of arguing in chinese (thank goodness for danny's skills) and several attempts to climb into multiple taxis, we eventually made it to our hostel. which turned out to be nothing that we expected. the picture on the website shows an adorable cabin-esque building surrounded by gardens, a water wheel and lots of blue sky. the place our taxi dropped us off was a 10 story building on a main street of the city. but the names matched and the poster in the elevator claimed that it was "such a beautiful and pleasant place, i don' wish to leave," (their punctuation, not mine) so we decided to give it a go. turns out the picture is taken from the roof 4 floors up and the blue sky is really several floors of hostel rooms. but the water wheel does exist.

the hostel itself was nice, minus some strange rules about payment and magnetizing our keys. personally, i was a big fan of the leopard/dalmation sheets and rock hard beds. and really, who needs a shower curtain?

after some quick settling in, the first order of business was dinner, our options being chinese food or more chinese food. we settled on a restaurant and of course they seated us at a giant table in the front window of the restaurant, right next to the fish tanks - which only served to persuade us not to order fish there (i'm pretty sure they shouldn't swim upside down...). i felt like we were the window display.

the food in hunan, it turns out, is very spicy. delicious, but spicy.

Day 1:
"hey, let's go to the national park today."
"ok, we can take the bus, right?"
"yeah, sure, the woman at the front desk gave me what she thinks are the directions for finding it, but which are actually useless."
this is the conversation we should have had thursday morning. but we didn't. instead we headed out in search of a bus. an hour, 3 chinese people and the only other foreigner within blocks later, we settled on the oldest, crappiest taxi left in town. remember in high school and college when you would try to see how many people you could fit in someone's car, just for fun? (i mean, i would never do that, mom, i just heard that other people did...) it was kind of like that. no one really wanted to take us that far, especially not in 2 taxis. so when one guy said, climb in, we said, ok, and let the rest of the town gawk as we attempted to cram all 6 foreigners in one tiny car.

two-thirds of the way there the taxi driver pulls over and starts talking to us in chinese. we all look at each other and pray that he isn't trying to drop us off here, in the middle of nowhere, china. but no, he just wanted one person from the front to climb in the backseat. apparently we were coming up on a police station and too many foreigners in the front seat would look bad. i'm not exactly sure how 5 people in the backseat is ok, but we've learned that it's generally best to smile and comply, so we made room.

by the time we finally arrived at the national park we were pretty ready for some nature. you think national forest park, you expect hiking, beautiful scenery, relaxation, etc. not in china. try 3000 stone stairs up the side of a mountain crammed to capacity with chinese tourists. tourists wearing high heels, carrying babies, with old people and dogs, eating corn cobs and goldfish on sticks. or entire cucumbers - that was also a popular one. add to that men carrying people up and down the 2-person-wide steps on sedan chairs and you have our day. not quite the day we expected, but a day nonetheless.

in all fairness, the view from the top was pretty incredible and, personally, i think it was worth the chinese experience. when all else fails, we have a great story.

rather than facing the stairs and corn cobs again, we opted to take the cable car down. i think we expected something scenic and at least slightly less crowded. however, after being herded through a maze of moveable fencing (think amusement park ride line meets cattle ranch), we arrived to find that what could be a beautiful, scenic ride has been china-ified into nothing more than a way of transporting the most people in the shortest amount of time possible. i still can't decide if it was really worth the price and the waiting. my legs appreciate it but my soul hasn't completely recovered.

anyway, by the time we got down we were ready for some food and where else do you go after a day like this one but KFC, the only american chain in town? it was actually not bad. atmosphere-wise it was the place to be in zhangjiajie. as for the food, they have these wraps that are pretty decent and incredible peach juice, but i don't recommend the salad.

after a brief stop-off at the hostel we decided that our aching feet deserved a little pampering and so, because that's what we do here in china, we headed out in search of a massage parlor. which, as turned out, wasn't very hard to find. the problem was finding one that could accommodate all 6 of us in one room. 4 is apparently a max in zhangjiajie and 6 white 20-somethings looking to get massaged together was apparently unheard of. after making a mild scene in multiple places, we finally settled on one and were pleasantly surprised when our foot massage turned out to be more leg than foot. our limbs definitely needed it and, in the end, i think it was $7 well spent.

life lessons from the theatre

so i went to see the broadway musical AIDA this weekend and, as with everything here, it turned out to be kind of an experience. one of the 3 main characters was a sort of ditsy blond girl and as i sat in the audience watching her, i began to understand the fascination that some other cultures have with american girls. despite being much older, the actress and the character she played reminded me of an average american high schooler. i'm not sure that i can really put it into words, but there was something very compelling about her. she had much more of a presence than any chinese women i have met. whether she was physically bigger or not, she seemed it and the head of blond curls and voluptuous bosom only seemed to magnify the differences.

granted, she is in the theatre and onstage playing a role, so everything about her is magnified, but that's sort of what i needed to be able to understand the fascination with western beauty and culture. i can suddenly understand how, had you spent your entire life here, american girls would have a certain boldness, forwardness that is both shocking and alluring. not that every single girl is like that, but this actress reminded me of the "average" girl. the one that is popular in high school and portrayed in movies and television. i'm sure there are women with similar presence here, but they are few and far between and i feel that they would carry the same exotic alluringness.

i'm glad that it suddenly makes some sense. i always thought it was so strange that other cultures try so hard to be like americans, but when you grow up in a culture that feels sort of naive and sheltered, there is something about american boldness that draws you in. it's sort of like teenagers scoffing at their parents' archaic, naive worldview in favor of something that feels more progressive.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

what does meat mean to you?

so, we are talking about food groups in my classroom right now and yesterday i asked my kids to name some foods in each group. we went through fruits and vegetables with little to take note of and then i asked them what foods would be in the meat category. they looked confused so i suggested beef and chicken and then said, "what else?" which, in china, is kind of opening a can of worms. it went something like this:

Student: "pig!"
Me: "yes, very good. what else?"
S: "cat!"
S: "dog!"
Me: "umm...not quite, but probably."
S: "jellyfish!"
S: "frog!"
Me: "yep, that too."
S: "eel!"
S: "octopus!"

and then i thought maybe we should move on to the grains before we listed off the entire animal kingdom. ah, the joys of living in china.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

mourning the loss

sadly, yesterday saw the loss of two amusing characters from my life. the first was a student of mine that, somewhat suddenly, transferred to a new school. he was an adorable and incredibly bright little boy who i miss dearly. i'm really bummed that i won't get to continue to watch him flourish. i know i'm not really supposed to have favorites, but there was something about him that i connected to and i miss having that in my classroom.

the other surprise blow was a new bus driver. apparently the parents of our students didn't find uncle's driving as charming as did jenna and i and so he has been replaced by a very nice, but somewhat calmer, driver. i'm sure that we will come to love him just as much (and he probably is a safer driver) but uncle and his driving brought me a certain joy that i will surely miss.

so long, friends, it was incredible while it lasted. i wish you the best and hope you know that you are truly missed.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

living the surreal life.

five weeks in and my life is a dichotomy of normalcy and surrealism. things are settling down and, for the most part, it's just life. but then, every so often, i just have these moments when i stop and realize that i live in china, and no matter how hard i try, i just can't make it real.

it's the little things that get me:
  • choosing a restaurant and then realizing i have no way of ordering
  • washing tin bowls and chopsticks in the sunny yellow bathroom at school with the window wide open
  • women walking down the street wearing 3 different patterns that aren't even close to matching
  • the way my heart skips and i fear for my life or that of a pedestrian at least once every single time i ride in a motor vehicle
  • people selling loofahs and phone cards out of suitcases on the street
  • a grotesquely deformed beggar sitting on dirty cardboard on the street corner
  • eel for lunch - with the spine still attached
  • chicken feet and squid on a stick
  • an entire braised duck hanging in the window of a restaurant
  • umbrellas on sunny days and arm covers all the time (i think of them as shirtless sleeves) to avoid even the possibility of tanning through the smog
  • shower gel with herbal whitening essence
  • the frozen dumpling section at the grocery store
  • the dried meat aisle at the grocery store
  • ok, fine, the grocery store
  • walking down the incredibly crowded, sensory overloaded street to find both designer stores and hole-in-the-wall chinese businesses intermingling as far as the eye can see
  • flower boxes full of greenery lining the freeway
  • glancing into the open door of a construction sight to see 2 grown men standing naked in front of a tub of water while a third scrubs their clothes on the ground
i'm sure there are more. this list will probably grow throughout my time here, but for now it is a random sample of the uniquely chinese in my life. in the end, too, i realize that there is something very subtle about life and the culture here that i may never be able to express in words. it can't be summed up in any list of differences or customs. it just is and you can't really know it unless you've been here. my life here may never feel real, but that cultural understanding definitely does, which is just fine, because i think it's more important anyway.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

our bus driver pretty much wins...

i'm not exactly sure how, but this morning i managed to cut out quite a lot of little paper t-shirts while riding the bus. (and they look darn good, if i do say so myself.) this was a feat not even i predicted, and i'm pretty confident in my multi-tasking abilities. it's not that the ride is too short or that the kids are too needy, it's just that our bus driver is too ridiculous. the driving around here is a bit insane anyway, but he just takes it to a new level. to begin with, his chosen english name is Uncle. yes, uncle. and he answers to it. i've tried. add to that cut-off jean shorts, a tolerance, if not love, of kids and the desire to get to his next clients as quickly as possible and you have a recipe for an interesting ride.

he will do just about anything if it means arriving at our destination more quickly. you want to turn left onto a street with 2 lanes of stand-still traffic each way? no worries, just nudge your way in and assume they will move. construction forcing you to make a 5-minute loop in order to get to the apartment building entrance? it's ok, just go the wrong way down that one-way street. it's only a couple hundred yards. you started to take the wrong exit on the freeway? just back up and get on the right one, the cars behind you will move.

sadly, riding with uncle might be the highlight of my day. every taxi i have taken since the 2nd week of school has felt completely tame by comparison. which is saying something, because that first couple weeks they seemed insane.

of course, the enjoyment of the morning and afternoon bus rides is probably compounded by what little communication we are able to manage with our driver. he likes the kids, but i think he is glad he doesn't have to deal with them. you just know that if you look up when they start doing something ridiculous, there will be a great look waiting for you in the review mirror.

my favorites, though, are the morning assessments of our timeliness and the comraderie established when the adults are obviously having a bad day. we had a particularly stressful one a couple weeks ago and as we pulled into our apartment complex at the end of the day, uncle held out his pack of cigarettes to us, as in, "need one of these today?" we politely declined, but it makes me smile even now, just thinking about it.

so here's to you, uncle, for making my schooldays just a little bit brighter. you're a little crazy, but god knows i love you for it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

dinner with Ying Dong

so, we had a work dinner last week, which, considering this is a school, sounds pretty lame. but it turned out to be nothing that you would imagine. except that we are in china, so the unimaginable is exactly what you should expect.

the restaurant itself was...chinese. very very chinese. it was very well-lit, which is common for restaurants, and decorated to the nines in gold, white and pink. it felt like the slightly outdated decor of a very rich old woman's home had magnified itself and exploded all over the building. the place was covered with fake pink flowers, crystal-esque glass, and marble-esque pillars, all topped off by two large golden elephants greeting us as we went up the stairs. it was incredible, really.

we had our own room with a giant table and a waitress that seemed to just hang out by the counter in the corner, waiting for us to ask for something. but the interesting part wasn't the location. it was the company. i ended up sitting next to ying dong (the school's landlord, essentially) and the first thing he does when jenna and i sit down is ask the waitress for a knife and fork. when i refuse them, he holds up his chopsticks and quickly demonstrates their use. so i hold up mine to show him that i can handle it. (did i mention that he doesn't speak english?) thanks, but i've got this one covered. i have been successfully eating here for 2 weeks, i think i'll manage. i'm pretty sure it was all in fun, though.

he then resumes smoking his cigar. after which he lights a cigarette. and then another. and another. and another. all dinner long. i cannot believe how many this man smoked in 2 and a half hours. he went through almost 2 packs, plus a cigar or two. add that to the smoking powers of his 3 friends and we all smelled like a tobacco ad by the end of the night. the only problem would be the red, itchy eyes and sniffling. i think we have all recovered, but when i get lung cancer, i'm blaming ying dong.

amidst the chatting, smoking and waiting for the food to come, ying dong calls to the waitress and orders several tiny glasses and several bottles of baijiu, a chinese grain alcohol with a very high alcohol content. he then proceeds to hand them out to all of the teachers, while pouring himself and his friends large glasses. the returning teachers as well as josh, our boss, all look at him like he is crazy, assuring us that we don't have to drink it if we don't want to, as it is apparently pretty disgusting. so we leave our samples by our place settings and go back to the chatting.

it lasts about 2 seconds before someone performs a toast. apparently, the thing to do at these things is to make toasts to everything and nothing, at any point in the meal, with whomever you choose. sometimes the toast is just a sip, sometimes half the glass and sometimes the whole glass. the whole glass is definitely the favorite, though. of beer, not baijiu, which is lucky for us. although, i did try the little bit they gave me and i didn't think it was terrible. true, it made my mouth a bit numb, but there was a certain sweetness about it that i actually kind of liked. i don't ever need to drink a lot, but i think i've had worse. of course, as soon as i tried the little bit (i was the only american willing to try it), they got excited and wanted me to keep drinking it, which i declined as politely as i could. i'm not big on pouring poison down my throat.

i'm not really certain on the rules of toasting, but i don't think you are supposed to allow the table to go for more than 5 minutes without someone toasting someone. which means that a lot of beer drinking went down in 2 and a half hours. as in, several cases of 1L bottles' worth. one of the chinese men thoroughly enjoyed toasting to jenna with a hearty, "michigan!!," followed by downing a 4 ounce glass. i did my best to refrain from the beer drinking, since it really upsets my stomach (not to mention it is just gross). i still haven't figured out if this was the rudest thing i could have done or just unfun, but the chinese men seemed very disappointed when i insisted on toasting with corn juice.

yes, corn juice. juice (like grape or apple) made from corn. it was actually pretty good and made me kind of happy. i have a soft place in my heart for corn.

the rest of the food was also very good. we managed to cover quite a range of the animal kingdom: duck, ham, chicken, pork, beef, crab, shrimp, jellyfish and oysters; most with the skin and bones still attached. you have to be careful ordering fowl here - you will get much more of the bird than you ever wanted. same with shrimp. they leave all of the work to the consumer. there were also vegetables, dumplings, tortillas, liver and, of course, tofu. no rice or noodles, though. these are cheap fillers and not commonly eaten at classy dinners. my favorites were the dumplings (best we have had so far) and this beef dish that was unlike any beef i've ever had, but good. it was very flat and breaded in something very very pink (sweet and sour sauce?) and crunchy, then i think fried and covered with a sweet mayonaise. it sounds terrible, but it was really good. and the beef was actually decent, which is uncommon.

i think the best thing served at this particular meal, though, were the cucumbers. at some point, ying dong goes to the bathroom and comes back with two very long cucumbers, which he starts breaking into pieces and handing out to the other chinese men present. no one ever figured out exactly why.

the process of eating out here is very different and makes the whole thing feel more like a relaxed get-together with food than just a meal. food is brought out one or two at a time, as it is ready, and put on a lazy susan. then everyone just talks, grabs a little of whatever is new, talks a bit, grabs some more of this, talks, etc. it makes it a much more social gathering. and i love getting to try everything. the end of the meal is commonly signaled by a tray of watermelon slices for everyone, which i personally think is a great way to end a meal. with something sweet and refreshing. especially a meal filled with drinking, cross-cultural banter and heartfelt thanks.

Friday, August 29, 2008

taxis are my favorite

it's true. i think the taxi rides are the best part of shanghai. many are non-descript but then you get one that speaks a few random words in english and the fun begins.

last night, the ride included myself, jenna, and steve, a brit that we met here. not long after we started going, the driver points to me (in the front seat) and starts saying something that sounds kind of like "english." thinking he means the language i speak, i nod vigorously, yes, english! until steve pipes in, no i'm english, she's american. ah, i get it now. but it doesn't matter, in fact, it's probably even better because then the taxi driver starts pumping his hands in the air and saying Obama! and lots of things in chinese. we also hear Clinton in there somewhere and it takes a bit of broken chinese on our part, but we finally figure out that he is, in fact a democrat, rooting for clinton and then obama. hung hao obama! (very good obama!) bu yao McCain. (no want McCain.)

after finding the political cartoon for obama in the chinese newspaper at his side, the taxi driver then turns to steve and starts saying something about the english soccer players, i think. i didn't know who he was talking about, but steve did and the taxi driver seemed very excited about it. he kept mimicking one of the soccer players, who is apparently quite known for his boasting. even without knowing the real people, the imitation was hilarious.

we also spent some time discussing where in our respective countries each of us is from. as soon as i said america, the taxi driver started listing off the cities that he knows - san francisco, los angeles, new york, bismark. so i say nebraska! and he looks confused so i make a map in the air and point to the middle. and he says something in chinese that i think meant, oh, ok, the middle. and so i show him bismark and nebraska on our imaginary map and hope he will remember so that he can make the day of the next american he drives. then we point to jenna and say michigan, detroit? michigan? and of course he knows michigan. why bismark and michigan, i have no idea, but then, that's just how things go here in china. (we also mentioned houston and yao ming, as that's usually a crowd-pleaser, but he was not a fan of yao ming and the conversation quickly turned.)

our discussion also included starbucks - cappuccino, mmm! and how the US doesn't like to let people in. it went something like, "wao (me) love USA! (make passport gesture) USA no, no, no, no, no!"

and finally, to top it all off, our cab driver starts humming yankee doodle. yes, yankee doodle. then he says "america, something something something in chinese. england, something in chinese, pow pow pow," complete with the gun hand motions and sound effects. yes, there was a war, but it's ok, we're friends now. thanks for that refresher on american history. i needed it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

the start of a beautiful career

so, as first days go, today was probably the most memorable first day of school i ever could have asked for. i never even made it to school. and not through any fault of my own. shanghai decided to flood this morning. only no one realized exactly what was going on until it was too late. the bus picked us up at 7 and it was raining pretty hard, but we didn't think much of it. until we started driving in water up to our bumpers. then we started to wonder about whether it was worth going to school.

it took an hour and a half to pick up 2 kids. it should have taken like 20 minutes, tops. it took another hour to pick up the next 2 kids at the same complex. then we headed out of the apartment complex, around the corner, into a river of water and stopped. and not on purpose. our bus had stalled out, probably due to the water pouring into the engine...and then the interior of the bus. we called the school, but all they could do was send another bus and tell us to wait. so we did. for 3 hours.

at that point, both 3-year-old boys had run out of seatbelts and buttons to explore, the two 5-year-old girls were running out of things to say to each other and the 2 brand new teachers had pretty much exhausted their patience, with no rescue in sight. and then walks by one of the neighbors of the kids we had just picked up. there was a bigger bus full of kindergartners stalled right in front of us whose parents had come wading through the river of a street to get them. the neighbor called our students' mothers and shortly thereafter, here comes two mothers, wading in up to their thighs, umbrellas in hand, to rescue their children from the bus. and we were down to two. (had we realized just how close to their building we were, we would have called them sooner, but we thought we had gone a lot farther before getting stuck.)

a few minutes after that, Hana's mom came back to the bus to get Wakana, the last little girl. she had spoken with her mother and they had decided it would be better for Wakana to stay at Hana's. looking at our sad, sorry selves sitting on the warm bus with an antsy kid, i think she took pity and invited us all to stay with them at her apartment until the new bus could arrive. thinking it wouldn't be long, we gladly agreed. little did we know that, 3 hours later, we would still be sitting at her apartment, essentially babysitting.

she was the nicest woman. she took us into her apartment and showed us some toys; gave us a towel to wash the yucky street water off our legs and let us hang out. she somehow didn't seem to mind the 3-year-old boy throwing their toys and screaming, nor the disruption of her day. she even made us sandwiches and sent us on our way with a bag of bananas and cookies. finally, finally, the new bus called to tell us they could see the apartment building. we said, we'll meet you outside. luckily the water had gone down a lot and the ride home wasn't terrible. it still took way longer than it should have, but we made it without incident.

my only hope for tomorrow is that i actually make it to school. if i accomplish that, i will consider my day a success.

p.s. important lessons learned: Do not try to use your bus as a boat!! (oh, little did that man know...) also, never leave home with a purse devoid of toys. i can't believe that the one time in my life i choose not to carry crayons and silly putty is the time i need them most.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

epic week.

oh man, the excitement of this week will never end. we've spent most of the week at school, trying to get our classrooms ready for the open house this weekend. that has been a bit insane. i've spent half the week just staring at my room wondering what on earth i should possibly be doing. unfortunately, the more i do, the more i realize i have to do and tomorrow will be a bit frantic. it is the last day before open house and our toys are bulletin boards are being delivered. it's going to be a long day.

after school, when jet lag tells me i should be sleeping, we have been going out every night, eating here and seeing these people and buying tickets to the olympics. the first night was dinner with janice and josh at this giant restaurant on the 5th floor of what is basically a four-story home depot. the restaurant takes up the entire floor and seats 2000+ people. it apparently is booked every night, although i'm not exactly sure why. the food was ok, but it was fun to try everything and attempt to use chopsticks while exhausted. my skills fluctuate with the amount of sleep i need. i did discover that mushrooms come in more varieties than the little brown ones you get at home and i actually like some kinds.

then, on monday, we get to work and they tell us that we are going for foot massages at 2:30. this is a culture i can get used to. (it more than made up for the chicken gizzards they served us at lunch.) they took all of the girls from work for 90 minute foot massages and then our bus driver took us to dinner. massages are definitely something i am going to have to look into on a regular basis. our foot massages also included an arm/hand rub, a foot soak, a leg rub and a little shoulder massge. after that was dinner with the girls, which was way better than our first dinner. pretty much everything is served family style here. everyone has a little plate and they bring out food as it is cooked and put it on a lazy susan in the middle. then you can try a little of everything and get more of the things you really liked. i actually really like it. it seems like a better way to enjoy a restaurant b/c you get to try lots of things instead of just one. and if you don't like one, you're not stuck with it.

tuesday is fighting with wednesday for best day of the week. i think probably wednesday will win. i think my favorite part of tuesday, though, was the cab ride home from work. it took forever b/c of the traffic and the olympics. we live just down the street from shanghai stadium, which is where they are playing some of the semifinals, so our street was all blocked off and we had to go a long way around. which was ok, b/c we had an awesome cab driver. there was a big screen showing a commercial for the soccer game and we were trying to figure out what time it started, and our driver, Li, spoke just enough english to understand, so he chimes in with "seven" in english and chinese and we all get excited and then kaitlin starts talking to him with the little chinese that she knows. we only had a few words in common, but it was fun to talk with him. he asked where we were from and kaitlin starts in with, "houston, yao ming. houston," while making basketball motions with her hands. we also taught him to say "kat-e-lin is aw-some." which is way more amusing when you know that he was probably in his 60's and definitely looked it.

when we finally got home we cleaned up real quick, donned our red, white and blue and headed down toward the stadium to see if we could get tickets for the game that night. on our way, we stopped for dumplings at this little hole in the wall (literally) on our street. thank goodness for kaitlin and her limited chinese, but even that doesn't help us read the menu. after some pointing and a bit of procedural confusion, we ended up with a small dinner of dumplings for 3 for under $2.

getting tickets turned out to be much less of a problem than we thought it would be. as soon as it was known that we were looking for tickets, we were surrounded by a mob of people waving tickets in our faces and shouting prices. we ended up buying 3 out of 4 legit-looking tickets for like $17 from a very desperate-looking belgian. apparently he had gotten tickets for his buddies only to discover that they had also gotten tickets through someone else. so, he sat with us, or rather, we sat with him and it was fun to chat during the game. the game itself was pretty good - nigeria vs. belgium, i'll let you guess who won. and i'm pumped that i actually got to go to the olympics! it still doesn't seem real.

after the game, we were waiting to get out of the stands and some random chinese guys stopped by us to take a picture. i kept moving out of their way, only to quickly discover that they had stopped to take a picture with us and i was foiling their photo-op. it was so bizarre, but fun to feel like a celebrity. we took pictures with their camera and our camera and they just loved it. on the way out, a bunch of japanese guys stopped kaitlin and took pictures with her, thinking she was a belgian fan. only after they were done did she pull out her american flag. the chinese also liked taking pictures of the nigerian fans. at first we thought the players were coming out, based on the mob of cameras around them, but then we realized it was just the fans.

wednesday i already wrote about mostly. wednesday night is ladies night at zapata's, which is a mexican bar not far from us. it's a lot of foreigners and pretty expensive, but ladies night means free margaritas and 80's music, so we had a good time. it would have been better had i not been dead from jet lag.

today was school and then carrefoure. this particular carrefoure is something like a 4-story wal-mart, only not as good as that would be. they have a lot of the same kinds of things but somehow the selection is not as good. one floor is house stuff, one is a grocery store, one is full of little shops, kind of like a mall, and all are full of people. it was so busy and so overwhelming. i think i managed to find half of the things on my list. there were so many that i just didn't even bother to try looking for. like groceries. we got a few basic things and some random things, but mostly, by that point, we were so overwhelmed by all of the things and the people, we just gave up. i did manage to find chocolate-chip and red bean cookies (just ok) and strawberry popcorn (yet to be tried).

when we got home, kaitlin tried to call for a new jug of water for our apartment and ran into a bit of a language barrier. so she runs down the hall to find a neighbor that can speak chinese and brings back maria, who happens to speak english as well. i'm still not sure how she found her, but maria turned out to be incredibly sweet. she spent 3 years in the US, going to school in Illinois and living in NYC. she came back here just before 9/11 and got breast cancer a few years ago. so she's been living at home and trying to get well for the last 4 years. she was so sweet, though. she asked us what we were eating and made sure we had pots and pans and that we are drinking the right kind of water. only instead of just asking, she would just turn around and start opening cupboards to make sure that we had the things we need. so, i think we've found a surrogate mother here. she even offered to take us to the stand where she buys vegetables and show us how to cook. so that will be fun. i'm looking forward to getting to know her better. and it's nice to know there is someone so close to help us out with things that we really can't do on our own.

ok, i know that was epic, but it think i've covered the week. probably the weekend will be just as epic, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

wednesday is a good day.

ah, another good day in china. everyday is a new adventure and today was an especially good one. jenna and i had our new resident physical this afternoon, which meant no food after 9am (they want an empty system for the blood test). that being the case, we decided on a heavy breakfast of street food. kaitlin took us to her favorite one by the school - some sort of dough/egg wrap with garlic, onions, bean paste and some sort of fried onion wafer. ok, it sounds bad but it was actually really good. and like 50 cents. rock on.

after a few hours of "work" preparing our classrooms, one of our fabulous chinese teachers took jenna and me to the international clinic for our physical. i have a feeling it will be one of my most memorable experiences in china. first of all, there are several buildings and it took us 3 tries to find the entrance we needed. when we finally found it, they had us fill out a form and then sent us back to the first building to have our picture taken. when we got that all straightened out, our physical experience could begin. it goes something like this:

they send you back to a room that looks something like a big dressing room with some lockers. a nice chinese nurse hands you a folded up robe and tells you with her hands that everything has to go. only after you go into the changing room do you realize that it's just a shirt and, luckily, your pants get to stay. after putting your things in a locker, she then directs you down the hall to an open room where you walk in, hand the chinese doctor your form and wonder what will happen next. and so it goes for the next room, and the next, all the way down the hall. well, mostly down the hall. the x-ray portion happens in a blue bus parked next to the building. yeah, a bus. where you stand on a box and they x-ray your whole body...or maybe just your torso, i'm not really sure. there's also a vision check, a general exam, a blood sample, an ultrasound (of your abdomen, i still don't know why) and, my personal favorite, an EKG. that one was actually a little bit scary. you walk in and go behind this screen to find a doctor's office bed with a sheet, a pillow, some random metal clamps and a couple wet spots. the nurse motions for to lay down and open your robe. she then proceeds to clamp metal clamps to your ankles and wrists and stick other strange metal things to your chest. in the end, you realize that she's just looking at your heartbeat, but somehow, with the language barrier and the underdeveloped country, it's a little bit terrifying.

all in all, it was perfectly harmless and just amusing, but it was amazing to me just how much scarier it was with the language barrier. you never knew what was going to happen and the staff couldn't really tell you ahead of time. none of them spoke more than a few words of english - just the ones they really needed for the task at hand. you really had to just follow the hand gestures and trust that it would be ok. i was also amazed at just how much could be accomplished without much verbal communication at all. there are some things that you almost can't do without talking, but so many things for which it is superfluous. while language may ease the transaction, it is unnecessary.

after the physical, jenna and i were pretty ready for some food, so, after a brief stop for olympic memorabilia, Carol took us to Metro City for dinner. after a lap and a half around the food court of chinese food, we ended up at pizza hut. which was actually kind of nice because it was familiar, but not. at home, pizza hut is fast food. here it is fine dining. after being seated in the classy restaurant by one of the many waitresses wearing blouses covered in the words pizza hut, we ordered cappaccino's and marveled at the forks. i don't think i've really been here long enough to appreciate the significance of a fork at a restaurant, but it was the first one we'd seen outside of our apartment since we got here. and i have yet to actually eat at my apartment. we also were amused by the fact that pizza hut offers tea time. i'm still on clear on what that means, but they definitely don't do that at home. nor do they have smoothies, cappaccino, appetizers or chocolate cake.

anyway, we ordered boring pizza, but you can get it with all kinds of random things here like salmon, carrots, probably tofu. we also orderd the salad bar, the contents of which are much like at home but the rules are very different. i'm not sure if we ordered one or three, but they brought us one little bowl and told us we had one trip. so we made it count. as carol said, we exercised our skills. when the pizza finally came, it was tiny! i don't even think it was as big as a small at home, but i don't really know. i don't think i've ever ordered a small pizza. thing is, i don't think the large would have been very big either. that's just not what they do here. anyway, it tasted pretty much like home and while i wasn't really craving american food yet, it was nice get a taste of what home looks like, china-style.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

and the year begins...

ok, so this is the first installation of my (hopefully prolific) series about my first year of teaching in an american kindergarten in shanghai. in order for everything that i say this year to make sense, i am going to begin by giving some background about me.

i was born and raised in lincoln, ne . my family is fairly average - middle class; white; two mildly overbearing parents; two siblings, one older, one younger; formerly a cat, currently a dog. my family is pretty close and we tend to stay close to our roots. i love them dearly and would have a pretty hard time being where i am were it not for their help and support.

i've wanted to be a teacher since about the 4th grade and i've been teaching since the 5th. the grade level and subject matter are still evolving, but i can't imagine doing or being anything else. i always kind of assumed that i would do the college thing and then graduate, get a job, get married, have kids, settle down. the american dream. and maybe i will eventually. but about a year and a half ago, my life took an interesting turn. it happened while i was doing a study abroad down in costa rica and simultaneously trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. i travelled a lot while i was down there and discovered that i love traveling, seeing new cultures and learning about how they see the world. and i realized that i wanted to be able to continue doing that, even after the study abroad was over.

which led me to africa. for whatever reason, i have this burning desire to go and spend some time doing whatever i can to help there. really help. and it suddenly occurred to me that there is absolutely no reason why i can't go do that. it seems obvious, but this was a landmark realization for me. i don't come from a family of world travellers and i had never really considered doing anything outside of getting a job teaching in the states. the idea of moving to a foreign country to teach was kind of huge.

my next thought, of course, was that it's going to be expensive to go teach in africa if i want to go with any sort of program and i'm not exactly rolling in the dough at this point in my life. this thought was immediately followed by, you can make a lot of money teaching english in japan. or china, that would be good too. and thus my current life was born. i pretended to think about it for awhile, as much for my benefit as everyone else's, but pretty much as soon as the thought was thought, i was in. and i think it shall be one heck of a ride.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

the crazy half

girls are freaking crazy. i don't care what anyone says. we are a little bit insane. between the hormones and the emotions and the occasional effects of the moon, it's over for stability. i can go through 10 emotions in an hour. on a good day.

now, most of the time, i play damage control and keep my mouth shut or just stay in when i'm feeling especially nuts, but occasionally i get ahead of myself and things sort of erupt; leaving an unfortunate friend/witness with nothing to do but stare at me with a look of bewilderment and maybe try to talk me down.

equally as unfortunate is the train wreck feeling that i get while it's happening. i can see the crazy coming and i know it's going to be bad but am somehow powerless to stop it. any logical, rational thinking is gone and all that's left is overwhelming, consuming emotion. all i know is that this doesn't feel good and i think that maybe, somehow, spewing the crazy in my head for all the world to see will make it better. generally, it doesn't. perhaps there is a moment of mild satisfaction, as with any good release, but it is immediately followed by the realization that i'm going to be really embarrassed about this tomorrow and i should have let that blow over in my head.

which leads us to the aftermath. my friend is looking at me like i'm crazy, because, quite frankly, i am, but they're my friend so they're also trying to look concerned and understanding. and no one knows quite what to do. the outburst was entirely irrational to begin with, which means that no amount of talking about it will help, because you can't fight irrationality with logic. it's like trying to reason away a phobia. everyone knows that tiny little spider is harmless but the phobic freaks out anyway.

and maybe that is the way it goes with emotional eruptions as well. you know it won't help but you just can't contain it. perhaps there is some internal need to get it out in order for it to blow over. maybe the expulsion is an important part of the process. i don't know. i'd like to think that if i could just wait long enough, i would, at the very least, be able to approach my emotions with logic and understanding and perhaps discuss them in a rational, functional way. i have yet to perfect this technique. instead, i am occasionally forced to hang my head, apologize for my crazy and walk away, hoping that my friend wasn't just faking that understanding look.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Texas Quote Wall...

Some little gems of wisdom and amusement mined from the millions of statements made during our brief time in Texas:

"Pardon my language, but I feel like a goddamn hippie." - Kim
"Can I tell you a secret? I'm wearing Nathan's underwear." - Kim
"Just be nice." - Nathan
"Just keep eating flies." - Kerri
"Different boats, same rock." - Kerri
"She probably won't again, becuase really they only go good with nothing." - Kim
"mmm...dinner in a tube..." - Kersten
"Shawarma King." - Kerri
"You say that now, but you'll wake up craving giraffe." - Haley
"It's like, over for this plantain." - Kim
"It's just her face that bothers me." - Kersten
"So, in case you're ever wondering, I can hold ten Ikea catalogs in one hand." - Kersten
"I hate America, but that's a pretty common theme in my life." - Kersten, with powerful seconds from her roommates
"Dirt is free, man. It's the earth; it's everyone's." - Kim
"February is when you get ready for bikini season." - 94.5 The Buzz
"Yeah, that shirt is kind of gay." - Ajit
"I respected you a lot before but now you're right up there with Krishna." - Kerri
"Drinking has no limits, when you're an alcoholic, cowboy." - Kim
"I'm not wearing pants." - Kerri
"They lose elderly people a lot down here." - Kersten

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Things I Learned in Texas

  • I’m not a big fan of Ethiopian food.
  • I am a big fan of Persian and Thai.
  • I love sticky rice.
  • And Italian frozen yogurt…with mango on top.
  • I have never really experienced humidity.
  • In Texas, all good things come in a strip mall.
  • The freeway is an exciting yet dangerous place.
  • High stakes standardized tests ruin education.
  • Pre-made activities are a teacher’s best friend.
  • Keys to classroom management: keep them really busy and give good directions.
  • You can’t force a kid to care about his education.
  • It’s hard to care about education when you’re worried about that gang across the street.
  • Bahá’ís are generally pretty cool people.
  • I like art and art museums…a lot.
  • I’m a sucker for cheap books.
  • I take better pictures when I’m not surrounded by photographers.
  • I should look into an ESL certification, I think I would like that.
  • I, apparently, am the opinionated one. I have yet to determine if this is a good or bad thing.
  • I can live with girls…and like it.
  • As long as the traffic signs don’t explicitly say you can’t, you can.
  • U-turns are a beautiful thing.
  • The pledge to Texas
  • I think the world would be a better place if we let the Bahá’ís take over; divinely inspired or not, Bahá’u’lláh seemed to know some things.
  • It’s hard to start fresh but even harder to say good-bye.

Monday, April 7, 2008

more than a meal

the other night my dad and i were trying to find a place to eat, which is harder than you might imagine in houston, and we ended up at this great little persian place by my apartment. not knowing anything about persian cuisine, we each ordered a stew that sounded good and sat back to see what would happen. upon receiving our food and sampling both meals, i was struck by how indicative of our personalities were our food choices. my father's was very tomato-y and robust and just, well, him. the second i tasted it i knew that it was a perfect dish for him. mine, on the other hand, was a sweeter, nuttier, more exotic set of flavors in a very unstew-like format that would never work for my dad, but which i enjoyed greatly, as much for its novelty as its deliciousness. it was a perfect metaphor for our lives. the traditional, robust, nebraska stew meets the nutty pomegranate chicken.

it was the sort of thing that i want to wrap concisely into a beautiful and moving photograph, in order to be captured and shared forever. except that the important parts weren't the least bit visual and i don't know how to juxtapose flavors and personalities into an artful composition without losing their essence.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

woot! i'm officially a blogger!

hmm, well, i made a blog. i think this is a good first step to documenting my life's adventures, of which there will hopefully be many.

right now i'm finishing my student teaching in houston, tx. for the most part, i can't complain. kids are good, i like my teacher, i'm not too busy, i had an awesome observation today, i think i'm going to see belly dancing in a bit. life is good.