Saturday, June 20, 2009

Korea Day 1 - The Best Airport in the World

We needed to get to Shanghai early the previous day because out flight left at 8am. The train options were pretty limited. There was a D-train that left at 9:30 and two of the slower numbered trains that left at 10:30 and 2:30 in the morning. I was thinking about getting one of the later trains but the woman at the ticket counter said that they only had standing room tickets left. The price difference was also surprisingly small. Ken later thought that while they rarely sell standing room tickets on the D-train the other train might have been standing tickets only and at 2:30 am on a Thursday we would have gotten seats. There were actually a pretty good number of what I guess were commuters on the train and as always a large number of people mulling around the Shanghai train station. As soon as we got off the train we were mobbed by people trying to get us to go to their hotel or ride in their taxi. One of my favorite things about Changzhou is that it's too small to have people hounding tourists; also I don't think Changzhou gets any tourists. We walked over to where the airport shuttle was and found out that it stopped running about an hour before. It would start running again at 5:30 which might have gotten us their in time but it would have meant either standing around with all the migrant workers or spending another night in a McDonalds so we decided to take a taxi.

We ignored all the people trying to sell us one, though some were incredibly persistent. Eventually we just walked a little way down the street and got a metered cab to the Shanghai Airport. Shanghai actually has two airports but by far the larger one is located some distance from the center of the city. It cost close to 200 RMB, about $30, to get out there since all the other options were closed. When we got to the airport it was virtually deserted except for all the people peddling rooms for the night but we decided it would just be easier to hang out at the airport. At first we just found some normal seats to sit in but they didn't really offer enough space to spread out. While Ken was looking for a bathroom he discovered that there was a Burger King open all night on the second level of the airport. We moved down there since they had nicer seats and benches. In America it might be inappropriate to sleep in a fast food restaurant but in China it's just par for the course. Ken got something to eat but my stomach was hurting the whole night so I didn't eat much. Ken was able to sleep a little while I read.

Even though they worked at a Burger King when it was time for their dinner the people who worked their took out a big thing of rice and vegetables they had clearly brought from home. But while that may be very Chinese in many ways the Shanghai airport seemed like another country. It was clean well organized, had nice toilets, western food, it was simply not China. Eventually the next morning rolled around by which time my stomach was actually feeling somewhat better and we got on our plane for Seoul. I had originally talked to Ken about going to Korea during the May Day break but it turned out that that wasn't much of a break so we put it off. I was then talking to Dave about going to Tibet but that just proved too difficult so at the last minute I called Ken up again and we headed off to Seoul. The Seoul airport actually isn't in Seoul it's in Inchon, a place made famous by MacArthur's surprise landing their during the Korean War. Actually the airport isn't even there it's on a small island off the coast from Inchon. The airport has apparently been named the nicest in the world for four years, and it was nice though I didn't notice a huge disparity from Shanghai.

They had us fill out a couple of medical forms I haven't seen before in my travels I'm sure because of the pig flu. I think we also passed a place where they used thermal cameras on us to see if we had a fever. Outside the airport it was very green and I could see a lot more of the sky than I can in China; you never realize how much you miss blue skies till they're gone. We got a bus for about 9,000 won, it's 1,200 won to the dollar, to Seoul. Seoul is gigantic essentially encompassing several cities with a total population of about 25 million about half of South Korea. We went over a bunch of bridges and came to the city proper. It was very big and built up but seemed more spread out like Shanghai then built up like Manhattan. It was also more clean and colorful than the sometimes drab and dirty cities in China. We got off near a metro station in one of the central tourist areas. We tried to navigate around using the guide book map but got lost a couple of times. Eventually we found the area we wanted to go to and the Holiday In, no connection, a nice little hostel. The receptionist was actually Chinese, though ethnically Korea, though he seemed way too laid back to be Chinese.

After unpacking in the basic but nice room we headed out to look for a greasy spoon type place the book recommended. The problem was that street addresses don't seem to be very popular in Korea and while the Holiday In had it's name in ten foot high English letters most places just use Korean characters, which look a lot like Chinese; so while we may have found the restaurant we were looking for since the name was in Korean we'll never really know. The most shocking thing about Seoul is just how many American chains there are: 7-11 Pizza Hut, Dominoes, McDonalds, KFC, Baksin Robins, Starbucks, Burger King, Outback Steakhouse, Subway, Quizznos, Smoothie King, and my favorite and the most common Dunkin Donuts. When I saw a Dunkin Donuts at the airport I was excited but soon learned that they're every five feet in Seoul. The restaurant we went to though served the traditional Korean dish of a bunch of vegetables, rice, eggs, and meat, all served in a dish and mashed up into giant mish mash. Actually the mish mash is pretty good and ever meal comes with a side of Kim chi, a sort of boiled spicy cabbage. While the prices aren't quite a good as China it was still pretty cheap at 4,000 won.

The guide book said that you haven't experienced Korea unless you go to a Korean sauna, and we were both pretty tired so we went to find one. Again we went to about where the guide book said and think we found it with the help of an incredibly small sign. Inside we paid the owner and got a towel and a locker for our cloths since all Korean saunas are naked. There were showers just inside with soap, shampoo, and even razors. We showered and went over to the various tubs. One tub was a standard hot tub with water around 50 degrees Celsius. Another was cooler with the water closer to room temperature. The final tub was in between in temperature and for some reason the water was green. I went into the hot tub than after a few minutes the cold and the warm. Changing temperatures was supposed to produce a good feeling, the book said euphoric, it was nice but certainly not that nice. Ken was disappointed there weren't enough naked Korean people to pal around with. There were a few Japanese tourists but they didn't say much. The other interesting thing was the various sauna rooms at different temperatures. The coolest was at about body temperature, the next was at about 50 degrees Celsius, 122 Fahrenheit, the last though was at 80 degrees Celsius. 80 is around 180 degrees Fahrenheit and close to the boiling point of water. Going into the 80 degree room left a little like being baked alive. It felt like standing in front of an open over but all around. After that even the hot tub seemed cool. We had talked about going for dinner but as soon as I got back to the room I just passed out.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Beginning of the End

Well the semester's over, I had my last class today and handed in my grades, and tomorrow morning me and Ken will be off to South Korea for about eight days. I'll try to keep a journal again, who knows I may put some of it up while I'm there they are supposed to have the best internet in the world. After I get back I have about another week than I'll be back in the US for six weeks or so before going back to China for another year. This semester and this whole year have been a blast and I'll have some more closing thoughts in a later post. I just wanted to explain why I'll probably not be posting for a week or so. Nothing has happened to this intrepid blogger besides another nice vacation. Maybe I can even catch some baseball in Korea, it's not Yanks-Sox but it's something.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sex Ed

Last semester Me, Dave, and Ken were discussing how immature all the students were. The way they relate to each other especially when it comes to anything about sex or dating is just stunningly immature for college students. Dave joked that we should give a lecture on sex education. I thought it was impossible since even the mention of dating results in endless giggles from my class, I though talking about sex would make their heads explode. I always thought that the only reasons there was so many negative ideas about sex was because of religion. I couldn't imagine that anything besides religion was strong enough to get people to suppress their basic biology and put a high value on odd things like virginity. But in China they seem to accomplish almost the same exact thing through cultural pressure. The result of this is that people in China don't talk about sex at all which can lead to some weird ideas. I read one news story about a couple in rural China who went to the doctor to find out why the woman wasn't getting pregnant. It turned out that they were only sleeping in the same bed and thought that that would be enough.

This semester Connie told us that we would all have to give lectures as part of some oddly put together English festival. We were each assigned specific times, not that many of the students were told about this, but the topic was up to us. I couldn't decide on what I wanted to do for a long time until finally when Connie called me to ask me for a topic I just decided to do a lecture on sex ed. You may be surprised that the school was OK with this but honestly as long as the lecture wasn't about Tibet I don't think they cared much what I did. I had heard that they had Power Point so I prepared some slides that I hoped would take a long enough time. I also went and got some condoms and a banana. As far as I can tell I can't attach a file to this blog but if anyone wants I can e-mail them the Power Point slides I came up with. I decided to focus mostly on the sort of stuff they cover in a Junior High sex ed course. The basic mechanics of sex along with a section on STDs and on condoms. I also tried to look up some general sex myths I could refute.

I went to the building where I was supposed to give my lecture early but when I got there the room it was supposed to be in was locked. I called Connie who told me that I was in the right place but she would call around to find out what was up. After a while of standing there wondering if the school had canceled my lecture Connie called me back and told me that the room had been changed. The result was that I was no late instead of early. I finally got to the right room which had a pretty good crowd of about 80 or so students and set up to give my lecture. I had a microphone which at first didn't work well so I just tried to talk really loudly but it was eventually fixed. As soon as I started I noticed a call from Steve, my phone was on silent, and while I was sure he was trying to figure out where the lecture had been moved to I didn't want to stop since I was already late, though in China stopping a speech to take a phone call is perfectly acceptable.

I started out with a section on biology which didn't get much of a response. The section on sex myths got some reaction, but by far the biggest reaction was for the condom demonstration. Even when I pulled out the pack of condoms there was a huge reaction from the students. When I pulled out the banana they were shocked. I did the condom on the banana bit three times just to be sure they got it, and because I was running a little short. People's reaction were varied some were just whispering with their friends, some were sort of scowling at me, but some were furiously taking notes. I heard afterwords about some of the reactions. Apparently one girl isn't willing to eat bananas anymore, I think I ate the one from the demonstration, and one girl was glad she learned if a condom went on a man or a woman. At the end I passed out some sheets of paper to have people write down some questions. Most of them were pretty basic stuff one person wrote down "Why do so many fags get AIDS" which I just parlayed into a discussion of drug use and AIDS, which is how AIDS is mostly spread in China. The best question though was "Would you be surprised if the girl you married was not a virgin?" I told the students that actually I would be pretty shocked if the girl I married was a virgin, and then tried to explain about cultural differences. I think overall it went pretty well. I put my e-mail address up if people had more questions but the only messages I got were just from people who wanted to practice English. In the end I just hope that at least some one learned at little more and that maybe they'll be more willing to talk about it in the future.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Osama bin Laden Beard

Things in China tend to change pretty fast and on a whim. One day about three months ago I decided to stop shaving purely to freak out my students. In China you almost never see any facial hair except for little Confucius like bears on old men. The students for the most part simply can't grow beards and in a culture that values conformity above almost all else why would you want to stand out even if you could. So I just stopped shaving. I didn't really have any idea how long I wanted it to go for besides the fact that I wanted to get a reaction out of my students. It took almost a month before I stunned them with the length of time I had gone without shaving, but after that time the beard had become too much fun. When I would stand outside some stall ordering food I would notice the various vendors having conversations about it. Usually putting their hands to their face to pantomime beard. At first growing the beard was pretty hard it would itch constantly. I described the feeling to someone as like having food on may face I couldn't wash off. But after about the first month or so it stopped itching and doesn't feel like much anymore. It still annoys me sometimes when I start to sweat or just when it gets really humid out. Much like the hair on the top of my head it's pretty much uncontrollable so I've just not been cutting it at all.

I hadn't mentioned it before on this blog since I had planned on keeping it a surprise for when I got home but even though that is pretty soon trying to make sure there were no pictures with my beard just became too much. Mainly there is a video I just got of a sex ed speech I gave which is far too funny to not put on my blog so I'll post it beard and all tomorrow. At one point this semester I was covering a class for Dave that was actually one of my old classes from last semester. They hadn't seen me with the beard so they were quite shocked. Later a few told Dave that they didn't like it and thought that I was cuter without it. A few people have said I look like I'm from central Asia, which is I think they way of saying Muslim. The best comment though came from one of the people who works with the England students who said that my beard made me look like Osama bin Laden. He said it in his usual friendly way and with such a thick accent that at first I thought he must have said something else but after asking him later he did in fact say my beard looked like Osama bin Laden. Now I guess my beard is kind of bushy but I think I'd have to grow it for a while yet to look like Laden, but I guess that's what happens when people are so unused to seeing beards.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

1984 was not an Instructional Guide

The 20th year anniversary of the Tienanmen Square Massacre came and went with little notice here, many because so few Chinese people know that anything happened. Dave did a blog post a while ago about bravery and it's role in leadership, noting that we don't exactly see a lot of either from the students around here. While I certainly agree that the students here aren't exactly good at standing up for themselves I think it's more complicated than that. This isn't exactly a top rated school, it comes out at about 500 out of 750 or 400 out of 600 depending on the list. These students, while I do admire the work ethic and intelligence of some of them, are not the future leaders of China, they're the future low level managers and secretaries. The picture I posted on the 4th is maybe the most stunning example of bravery ever. One man standing in front of tanks during a brutal crackdown that left thousands dead. In one picture that was in the New York Times on the 4th the same scene is shown from another angle with the so called tank man in the distance while in the foreground most people run for cover. To say that the reason that no one stands up to the government it because there is a lack of bravery misses the point. The communists are incredibly good at exercising a sort of authoritarian control that probably outstrips almost all other authoritarian governments ever.

Thinking back on 1984 it's remarkable just how similar what the Chinese are doing here is to what the fictional government in England was doing. For one thing the images of Big Brother in 1984 are strikingly similar to the Mao images which still adorn many places in China. While Big Brother in 1984 was not necessarily a person in the book, Mao's legacy has been altered so much as to render the Mao Chinese people know today a completely different person from the historical man. Also much as in the book history in China is subject to change. In one scene in Red Dust, a book about traveling in China written by a dissident in the 80's, he notes that in China even history changes fast. Despite killing tens of millions of people Mao is said to have been "70% right." The conquest of Tibet was a "peaceful liberation." There is even a sort of newspeak in China where words like harmony take on a second dangerous meaning, the government is constantly talking about things which either do or do not promote a harmonious society. People here sometimes use harmonized to mean removed or censored, as in that book was harmonized. People who don't fit in with the party's vision of history also have a way of disappearing from the books. The former Premiere who was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life after supporting a move towards democracy is essentially an unknown person here.

I think the single oddest connection though is the way in China the internet watches you. Much like the TV's in 1984 which are really a means of control the communists use the internet as a gigantic monitoring device to look into the lives of their citizens. They also like 1984 co-opt a huge number of the smarter people into the party where they can better keep an eye on them, joining the party also means attending a lot of propaganda classes. All these means of control make it incredibly hard for average citizens to say anything against the government. But even despite all this there are people who speak out. People who know that they'll be tortured and murdered but still speak out against what they know is wrong. China likes to see its self as learning from other countries but sometimes the lessons are terrifying. I think they see books on excess and oppression like 1984 as instructional guides on how to hold down your own people, because like any despotic government the thing the communists are most afraid of is simply the people of China.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Monday, June 1, 2009

Egg Shells

Speaking of problems with food, last night I was eating some kind of noodle thing and I bit down into something unexpectedly hard. I guess it was an egg shell, though it could have been some sort of clump of salt also. I think I may have cracked one of the fillings, or crowns or something on one of my teeth since it's been a little sensitive since then. It doesn't really hurt, but it doesn't feel right either. I'm going to try to wait till I go back to the US to have someone look at it since I don't exactly trust the dentists around here and I'll be back in almost exactly a month. Some Chinese people have truly terrible teeth, though that's probably from not ever brushing and never seeing a dentist. I've had a hard time looking some people in the face when they talk and reveal about six misshapen yellow teeth. The students are mostly OK in terms of teeth though I definitly see some people who could badly have used a set of braces when they were younger. If it starts to really hurt I'll go try and find a dentist, I'm not exactly one to suffer in silence after all, but for now I think it's OK.