Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Next Big Trip

One of the best parts of teaching in China is that every year the winter break is really long giving me enough time to take a big trip. Two years ago it was to Harbin in the North of China and then to Vietnam and Laos. Last year it was to Thailand, with a little stop over in Cambodia, then to India. This year I've finally made all my plans, and boy it's a dozy. Starting in about a week I won't be in any one country for more than two weeks until school starts again. I'm traveling with Sarah and Sean, who taught last year in Changzhou and are still there, I traveled with them a little before and it went great. First on the 4th I'm flying from Aksu, the city near where I live, to Urumqi, the capitol of Xinjiang. I have about two days there, I'm really hoping to see a Chinese basketball game as Urumqi has a team. On the 6th I'm flying from Urumqi to Hangzhou, a big ancient city a little south of Shanghai where I'll be meeting up with Sean and Sarah.

Since I'll still have all my winter cloths there I'm planning on mailing them to someone in Beijing, and picking them up once I get back into China. On the 7th me, Sean, and Sarah are all flying to Kuala Lumpur, the capitol of Malaysia. I'll be in Malaysia until 19the When I fly to Jakarta, the capitol of Indonesia. I'll then travel around Indonesia until February 2nd when I have a flight from Bali to Singapore. I'm then in Singapore until the 7th when I fly to Hong Kong and then on to Beijing. From Beijing I'm probably flying back to the US on the 8th of February and I'll be home until around the 18th when I go back to China. From there I still have to fly back to Urumqi and Aksu. It's a lot of countries, and a lot of flights, but it should be fun. Unfortunately it's the rainy season in Malaysia and Indonesia but I hope that only means you get a few hours of downpour a day and then it clears up. At least when it's off season the prices are usually cheaper.

Monday, December 27, 2010

It's All About China

I finally had my Peace Corps interview, it actually had to be rescheduled the first time as for some reason they couldn't seem to call me in China. Eventually though they allowed me to call them, used that terrific new Google "call phone" thing and the connection was fine. Most of the questions were about how I would cope with different situations, and pretty much all my answers came back to China. Part of that was intentional, since I wanted to stress my China experience, but partly it was just easy to answer the questions with regards to China. I got questions like, "name a time when you had to organize something," for this one I just talked about the Christmas party since it was on my mind anyways. I was also asked something like, "talk about a time you had to deal with things changing unexpectedly," I think I laughed at that one since that is everything in China. The interview went well in the end and I through to the next stage. I have a bunch of medical form to fill out now, I'm going to be back in DC for some time in February so hopefully I can get them all done then. They didn't exactly tell me a country yet, and apparently it often gets changed anyways after the medical stuff due to what's available at the time, but right now they were talking about Sub-Saharan Africa. Ken tried to do the medical forms in China, he went to a really expensive hospital in Shanghai but it still wasn't enough so I'm not even going to try to do them in China.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Worst Wines in the World

I'm not really a big wine drinker, but I like to think I can tell at least the difference between good and bad, and most wine in China is decidedly on the bad side. It's not 100% though Slav found some red wine, they don't seem to make any white in China, that I thought was pretty good, and Slav, who drinks more wine than me, agreed. But over the last couple of nights I've had what are the undisputed worst wines in the whole world. First it was something called "Vmi Merceles" which I think is just French looking gibberish. I could tell something was off with this one just by looking at the color. It was the color you'd get if you mixed grape juice and lemonade. The smell was also awful, and nothing like the smell of any wine I've ever had before. The taste was like what would happen if you took grape juice mixed in four parts of water and then added baijou to the unholy mix. I was reminded of stories of people in Russia making vodka with antifreeze. The next night I had another red wine which reminded me of the wine people drink on Passover. For those of you who don't know kosher wine is for some reason awful, it's so sweat that it just tastes like grape juice, I actually had to check this one to see if it was in fact alcohol. So while there are in fact drinkable wines in China there aren't many of them.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Hand Turkeys

Thanksgiving can be one of the loneliest times in China for an expat. Your friends and family back home are eating Turkey and drinking too much wine. How do you duplicate that here?

Last year, when I was teaching English to college students in Changzhou, a city just and hour outside of Shanghai, me and the other five American teachers had a big Thanksgiving feast with a lot of our Chinese friends where we even managed to whip up apple pie and stuffing.

But in rural Xinjiang, I’m probably the only American in hundreds of miles, so a feast of any kind was out of the question. I thought I’d celebrate by teaching my classes about Thanksgiving. It’s tough, though, when the only the only turkey the students know is the country and their English skills are very basic.

I started by telling them the old stories about cooperation between the Native Americans and the early settlers, though I also felt compelled to note that things didn't go so well between them later. I talked a little bit about the kinds of food people eat during the family feats, but I couldn’t simply name the food. I had to describe the ingredients and how they are made. My students eat plenty of potatoes but none of them mash theirs, and butter is something only used by the ethnic minorities It seemed like a copout to just say something tastes like chicken. Maybe if Columbus had actually made it to Asia Thanksgiving would involve a lot more rice.

But I knew that this wouldn't really capture the spirit of Thanksgiving. I decided that even though my students are college sophomores I’d do what my grandmother used to do with her kindergarten class. I had them make hand turkeys.

I bought colored paper, scissors, glue and crayons from a local store and brought them to class. I told the class that when I was in elementary school we used to cut out paper in the shapes of our hands and then decorate them to look like turkeys.

I made an example of one for my oral English classes but my skill hadn't improved much since elementary school and my turkey was mess. The students, though, got the idea.

Soon everyone was cutting and pasting intricate designs. I don't know what they teach in Chinese elementary school but arts and crafts is probably a priority; all the students knew exactly what they were should be doing. I hadn’t bought extra paper, so they cut scraps to make legs and feathers for their paper turkeys.

Some students made their gobblers very personal. One added a cartoon to the side of the page saying she shouldn't have argued with her father. Another student titled her picture "Love Story" and made two turkeys one bearing the message, "I am a gentleman," while the caption below it read "Dear, give me a chance to take care of you forever!"

Since the students probably don’t know exactly what a turkey looks like—other than it looked vaguely like a hand-- many of the turkey were quite interpretive. A number closely resembled chickens, while others looked like phoenixes or characters from Chinese legends. Some students inverted the colors so that the paper was orange and the turkey white. A few students imagined their turkeys as enormous beasts and drew small people ridding on top of them. One turkey appeared to be on fire and more than a few were glowing.

On Thanksgiving in my home in Washington D.C., we talk about what we’re thankful for. I tried that too. I asked each of the students to say, in English, one thing they were thankful for.

A lot of them named their families and friends. Several said they were thankful for their country. A few, with a mixture of earnestness and brown-nosing, said they were thankful for their teacher. One said she was thankful for the Chinese Communist Party, while another who I think is a Communist Party member said he was thankful for God., Maybe most appropriately for Thanksgiving, one girl was thankful for good food.

In the end I told them they could bring the turkeys back to their parents, a time honored tradition, or I would be happy to keep them. I'm planning on putting them up all over the walls in my apartment. I might not a have a real Thanksgiving turkey, but I think these will do.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Christmas Extravaganza

I tried to avoid planning it since planning things in China always leads to frustration, but I got sucked into the planning anyways, for this big Christmas party we are going to be putting on for the students in Alaer. Originally me and Slav were just going to sing some songs but as soon as the school head about that they wanted to do a whole big production. Now we are teaching a couple of different groups some Christmas songs. We said we didn't want many students so of course their were 50 hanging about last night but after a long and confusing discussion with Lake, I constantly get the sense he isn't actually listening to me when I speak, we got it down to three groups of about 12. One group will do the 12 days of Christmas, with different students signing different parts, one will do We Wish You a Merry Christmas, which proved not too difficult when we tried it out last night, and one will do Jingle Bells, after Silent Night seemed to be too hard. I have no earthly idea how to teach a group of Chinese kids to sing, since I can barely sing myslef, so we are just going to go with a lot of repartition and hope that works. There are also supposed to be some games for the party but there isn't exactly a big budget so we may only end up with 10 apples for apple bobbing. I hope it works out but I think the school is being really unclear and sort of expecting us to pick up the slack without ever really explaining what is going on.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ministry of Truth Will See You Now

I've written before about how China seems to view 1984 as some sort of instructional manual but the recent propaganda around Liu Xiaobo the Chinese dissident and scholar winning the Nobel Peace Prize really takes the cake. Besides portraying him as some sort of an evil figure in the Chinese press, not a new tactic they call the Dalai Lama a terrorist, they also have cajoled and threatened every country they could to ignore the award. Liu Xiaobo is the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, unless you count the Dalai Lama as Chinese, and I don't, most famous for a letter calling for more democracy in China. For that horrible crime he'll probably spend most of the rest of his life in jail.

But not content to merely arrest and smear Liu Xiaobo the Chinese have really gone off the rocker. First there was the World Harmony Award given to general Chi Haotian who is most famous for shooting students in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Give a peace prize to a man most famous for murdering student protestors shows both that they communist party has no idea what irony is and also no idea how their actions play to an international audience. I think they are really surprised by how people respond to all this. We often make the mistake of assuming that other people think like us, or at least understand how we think, but that is often not the case. The communist party really views the world through its own prism and is surprised by what is going down.

Finally there was the Confucius Peace Prize awarded to a Taiwanese guy Lien Chan who favors closer integration with China. This is not only funny because they clearly just cooked up this award in some pack room at the Propaganda Department, that's its real name, remember no irony, but because it was so clearly a sham. Lien Chan the guy who supposedly won the award didn't know until a newspaper contacted him and wasn't there when the award was presented. Well at least Liu Xiaobo can take comfort from the fact that he wasn't the only one not there to receive an award, and also from the fact that the people in charge of the Propaganda Department seem to be stupid.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Trip to Aksu

A few weeks ago me and Slav had to go with Ma Ming into Aksu to get our residency permits. There is a bus between Alaer and Aksu, but since this was official school business Ma Ming got the school car and driver to take us. There's only really on road from Aksu to Alaer so we were constantly passing slow trucks and farm equipment. There were a few really small towns along the way that were set up at crossroads. Ma Ming also brought a girl who I thought was his girlfriend, since they had only been going out for a month or so, but it turns out she was actually his fiancée. That's how things work in China you find someone acceptable and you don't waste any time.

She also works for the school in another department. She's not a teacher but I'm not sure exactly what she does. In Aksu we got a quick lunch at a beef noodle restaurant before going to the various police stations to get the permits. Mostly that just involved Ma Ming talking to people while me and Slav sat around. In one stations we noticed Ma Ming's picture was on the wall. I joked that he was on the most wanted list but he said it was just because he worked in the foreign affairs department. He was even nice enough to take a picture with his picture. I should have realized it from the maps but I was surprised to see that Aksu is close enough to the giant mountains that ring the Tarim Basin to see the actual mountains, which gave a nice look to the town.

After we got our permits, annoyingly they don't cover our whole stay so we have to do this again some time late next semester, we went shopping for a new cell phone for Ma Ming's fiancée. The cell phone store was actually about 30 little kiosks all selling different cell phones. I have no idea how any of these place make money with so much competition. She looked at a bunch of cell phones but didn't see one she liked so we went to another store with another 30 kiosks. There was even one place that sold, what I think were real, iphones.

Finally, after what felt like forever she picked one she liked. We went to look for some English language moves but the selection was terrible and the price the guy was asking was laughable so neither Slav nor I bought any. For some reason after this Ma Ming insisted on eating another meal, despite the fact no one was hungry. Actually my stomach wasn't feeling well, a constant issue in China, so I didn't eat much. We looked in a big supermarket for butter but couldn't find any. So that was our trip to Aksu, it took all day and we didn't manage to do much.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Don't Shoot the American

A little bit ago Niel, one of my students, and one of the class monitors, invited me to play what he described as CS, Counter Strike a shooter video game, in real life. After a series of questions I determined what he was talking about was some sort of laser tag. When I was a kid I loved playing laser tag at the place not far outside of DC. He arranged for it to be on a Saturday and invited a lot of his classmates. Most of the students who came I knew, but a few were their friends or girlfriends and not my students. The place where they rent the equipment was not that far from the front gate of the school. When we biked over there there was only one problem, no one was around. Niel said he had arranged the time with the people who ran the place but we were a little early. Finally the guy who ran the place showed up, he turned out to be a gym teacher from the school. The problem now was that we had so many people that we had to wait for another group to finish or we wouldn't have enough equipment.

We waited for almost two hours. I thought the whole thing would have been over at that point so I had go soon. Finally the other people finished so we got suited up. They had these camouflage suits and helmets with little sensors on them to tell if you shoot what you were aiming at. The whole thing then worked together over a network to see when people had been shot and by who. We biked over to a wooded area near the river to play. First of course we took about a hundred pictures, because what's the point of doing anything in China without a mountain of pictures. Finally we actually played a little. We divided into two teams and basically just chased each other through the underbrush. The funniest thing was that the laser guns couldn't really shoot through the bushed very well so you would be trying to shoot someone five feet from you and getting no result. I played in two games before ripping my jacket pretty good on a tree. I decided that since it was getting late anyways that was enough for me. I talked to Niel and offered to pay but he said that Ma Ming had already gotten the school to pay for it. It was a lot of fun in the end, despite the waiting, and I got my jacket fixed when I got back.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fall in Pictures

Out of the back gate of campus is a road that runs away from the school into the endless cotton fields and small towns which are really the life of this region. I took a trip down it once with Ma Ming not long after I got to Alaer, but recently I decided to go down again to get pictures of fall in Alaer. It has gotten quite cold here recently, I've taken to wearing gloves and a hat everywhere, and the leaves are almost entirely off the trees. If you look back on my blog, or on my Flickr page you'll see pictures and a video of some of the same stuff as here but looking decidedly more alive. I don't really have anything much to add to the pictures, all the fields you see are cotton fields, now mostly bare, and the road is one of the few in the town.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Uyghurs have the Hot Pocket

Every day I'm becoming more and more impressed with Uyghur culture. First it was their mastery, or possible invention of, the bagel, but today Slav discovered that they also have the hot pocket. I have long believed that every culture has their own version of the burrito, some meat wrapped in bread, but to find dead ringer for Hot Pockets was, to say the least, unexpected. The only real difference between these and Hot Pockets, is that Hot Pockets have cheese in them. The Uyghur version is minced meat, lamb I think, and fat, people in Asia love fat, steamed in a bread shell. It may have a small amount of tomato in there. The way things are going I'm just waiting until I discover that just around the block is some place that does a Uyghur version of pizza. Probably not, but I can dream at least.