Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What's Next

Well the water then heat going off isn't the end of the fun in Alaer. Yesterday, for most of the day, there was no power. There was power in the morning when I left for my first class, but almost as soon as I got back it wen out. This isn't the first time we've lost power in Alaer, it happens for a few hours about once a month, it also used to happen in Changzhou so I can't completely blame this on the remoteness. But usually when this happens it comes back on in a few hours, or once it happened at around midnight and I just went to bed. But this time it was really out. After a few hours it came back on for about 20 minutes before shutting off again. There's really not much for me to do besides read with all the power off so I mostly just sat around and did that. It was still off by the time of my afternoon class, and even after class was over it was still gone. Amazingly it came on about 5 minutes before an important international phone call I had to make, so I guess that's lucky, but it sort of kills anything I was planning to do that day when I suddenly loose power. So now that's water, heat, then power. I wonder what's next. The way things are going recently it's going to be a biblical rain of frogs or something.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Like Hell it's Spring

I was surprised this morning when the heat still wasn't back on so I texted Ma who informed me that sine it was no longer Winter the heating company had cut off the heating. To begin with it's annoying that the heating is controlled on a school wide level and only has two settings, on or off, but mostly it's annoying because it's still damn cold. It's been getting into the low 60's during the warmest part of the middle of the day, but I live in a desert and it gets down to the 40's at night. The only reason I'm not hopping mad about this is that I have my heaters, and while the school may be able to shut off my heat they are still the ones who pay my electric bill, and running at least one heater pretty much 24 hours a day can't be cheap. Also I think it would be warmer if the dust didn't block the sun so often. But I think by at most the end of April it will be pretty warm and the dust will be gone.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Water Water Everywhere

Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink. Well, not really. Shocking as this may be in the giant desert I live in, but we lose water here fairly regularly. Slav thinks its some ploy to conserve water, but I think it's just poor infrastructure. It was off most of yesterday, but it's come back on today. Unfortunately, since our heat comes from radiators when we lose water we also lose heat. This isn't as big of a problem for me since the two rooms in my apartment I spend all of my time in, the computer room and the bedroom, have there own heaters. I also finally found a heater that doesn't generate a ton of light so I can sleep with it on. Sometimes it's too hot with the space heater on in my bedroom, but with the other heat out it actually keeps it at a nice temperature. I probably won't have to put up with this too much longer, winter here is long but it will probably get warm in the next month or so, of course at that point I'll be complaining about it being to hot to sleep. I usually hate going through the day without being able to take a shower, but with all the water disruptions I've gotten more used to it. We lost water sometimes in Changzhou as well, actually the hotel rarely did but the other teachers in the little villas lost it all the time. I'd say this is just life in the desert, but its mostly just life in China.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Poor Ma

I feel bad for Ma Ming. I know I've written about him driving me crazy, and boy he does, but I still feel bad for him in this situation. Roy, an older teacher who I didn't really know that well who taught here last semester, apparently wrote a letter, which Slav has seen and I haven't, to the person in charge of all school foreign departments in China complaining about Ma Ming. Slav said the letter is on one page in crazy 5 point font and can be charitably described as a rant. Roy apparently has a long set of grievances against Ma, some more legitimate than others, he is rarely on time paying us but so was my last school and as long as I get paid all I'm owed I don't care if it's a week late. Some seemed downright conspiratorial or blamed Ma for Chinese things well beyond his control. Also it couldn't have been so bad since Roy stayed 6 months longer than he had originally planned. Ma may be a pain in the ass sometimes, and he does screw things up from time to time, but he means well. He is generally a good natured guy even if he is a little overwhelming and I feel bad that he has to deal with this. As the Chinese like to say he's a good egg, even if I want to kill him from time to time.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


One student of mine who is interesting but I haven't mentioned much here yet is Eagle. Eagle is the class monitor for one of my Han Chinese Oral English classes. Being the class monitor, which I believe is an elected position, or if the students don't actually vote they pick someone by consensus, means that he's one of the better students in the class, and all the class monitors are party members, or at least will be soon. Eagle is an interesting student though because he is by far the most up on current events. Sometimes I have a chance just to chat with one or two of the students during class, we were doing a debate game and while the teams were preparing their arguments I had a few minutes to chat with the students who were acting as judges, and Eagle will always bring up current events. This time he was asking me what I thought about the air raids on Libya, not long after they started. He, of course, gave me back the standard party line about "internal affairs," though I noted that the people of Libya had asked for the attacks. He was also the student who asked dad about the Consumer Price Index. It's always interesting to see which students are more engaged with world events even out in the middle of nowhere like we are.

Monday, March 21, 2011

March Madness

I was talking to my class today and realized that none of them knew what the NCAA Tournament was. Basketball, and specifically NBA basketball, is huge in China. All the students know it at least a little, and all the guys watch it constantly. They watch the local Chinese league also, Xinjiang has one of the best teams every year, but it's really an NBA crowd. That's why I was so surprised that no one at all had heard of the tournament. In some ways it's ever bigger than the NBA finals even if college basketball as a whole isn't as popular as the NBA. I explained it to them, and I think they understood it, but they didn't seem like they were going to go out and start watching the games either. It's very odd what catches on and what doesn't from what I understand basketball being big in China is a pretty new phenomenon as well, and I wonder if it ever would have reached its current heights if not for Yao Ming.

There is one other Chinese player in the NBA Yi Jianlian who plays now for the Washington Wizards. All the students know who he is, and I get asked about him sometimes. I try not to say too much about him because he's, frankly, not any good. If you're playing for a team as bad as Washington and not starting, that's certainly saying something. I wonder if it would take some young Chinese star going to play for a good US college to get the students here interested in March Madness. Though the problem with that would be that there is so little really high level competition in China that the player would sort of have to be like Yao, someone so tall he can get by largely on that, to be taken seriously by any good US school. All I know is that the first US school to get a good Chinese player is going to sell a hell of a lot of jerseys, even if most of them are knockoffs.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tell the Truth but Tell it Slant

My literature class is the unique challenge of this semester. I've never really taught anything like this before. The book we have isn't bad, it's got a good cross section of American writers, but it tries to cover too much for students who have no real foundation in the subject. I've been spending a lot of time going over literary terms like alliteration or metaphor since it's pretty hard to discuss much without them. Moreover though the real problem is that the student's really aren't used to thinking critically, and I don't want to just stand up there and try to beat into them what I think the poems or prose mean. I decided to start with poetry since it's short so we can talk about a whole poem rather quickly instead of one of these random chapters the book has taken out from famous novels. I can teach them what an allusion is, I'm just not sure I can teach them how to critically analyze anything.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Under the Weather

I've been feeling under the weather, not the same sort of weather as yesterdays post though. My stomach has been killing me on and off for a couple of days now. On Tuesday I canceled class after I woke up in agony. On Wednesday and Thursday I felt somewhat better, even though I was still a little green. But today again I couldn't make it to my class. Stomach problems are sort of the price you have to pay to live in a place with such alien food, but it still sucks. Just because I know it will happen every once in a while doesn't make it any more pleasant when it does happen. This is why the first thing I recommend to anyone coming to China is Pepto. I'll be fine in a few days but it's just annoying. Sometimes I feel the key skill for living abroad is the ability to put up with annoyances.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Never Underestimate a Sand Storm

I was told when I first came here that the sand storms could be fearsome in the early spring. Some days when it seems cloudy or foggy outside the students insist that it's in fact dust whipped up by the strong winds off the desert, but I'm never really sure what to make of that. But when my dad was here we got a taste of what was undeniably a sand storm. It started early when we were biking around. At first it was just a dark part of the horizon, sort of like what happens after the sun sets, but this was around noon. It slowly filled up a larger and larger amount of the sky. Not long after I got a panicked call from Lake telling me to seek shelter, I didn't think much of it given that no no was exactly running off the streets. Finally when we were in a small restaurant getting a snack the sand came in earnest. When we biked back in it I feel it being blown at my eyes and in my mouth. It was annoying certainly but no real cause for alarm. After we got back though things got really strange. The sun appeared to be blue through all the sand and the whole sky was orange. I snapped one good picture of a tree just outside my apartment when things were really blowing. Later dad gave a speech to some communication students, the sand had died down significantly by then, and we went to dinner. As we were trying to get the check though I could see it get really bad outside. The whole restaurant suddenly took on this very dusty feeling and everyone who went outside was covering their faces. When we went to bike back the weather was awful. It was hard to have either eye open into the driving sand, and I'm sure it wasn't great for my lungs either. I basically alternated squinting one eye while trying to shield my face from the sand as we made a dash back. It's been days down and I still get a cloud of sand every time I tie my shoes. This may be an interesting spring.

Still having great firewall problems the first couple of times I tried to do this post it didn't work, but the stars aligned or something so here it is.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Great Firewall Bites Back

China seems to have declared a jihad against all VPNs, the main way I get around the firewall to bring you this lovely blog. I've been having a lot of trouble logging in in the past few days to do this blog. I've been trying a lot of things to get around, and as you see I'm having at least some success, but if there aren't many blog posts soon it'll be because I'm having a lot of trouble logging on. I hope I get it working more stably soon but if not there may not be many more posts.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bob and the Meaning of Life

My dad visited me all the way out in Alaer this weekend. He came to a number of my classes and the students really enjoyed getting a chance to meet him. For some part of each class I did normal class stuff so he would get a chance to see what that was like, but I also let the students ask him a bunch of questions. There was a really interesting variety of questions. There were a lot more technical questions than I thought there would be including one about inflation and the Consumer Price Index, or CPI for short. In two classes he got asked what his opinion would be of me marrying a Chinese girl, to a lot of giggles. The oddest question by far though was, "What is the meaning of life?" At first I thought I had heard the questions wrong or the student meant something different, but after a clarification it was clear she as really asking about the meaning of life. Even after this I thought it was just a fluke until he got the same question again later, and a slightly different version of it a third time. It's not that any specific question is too odd for China, I've gotten some really odd ones in my time here, it's that I've never been asked anything really like this. I wonder if it's because he's older, and this is a more common question to ask older people as if they have the answer stored away somewhere, and the only reason no one knows it is that no one has bothered to ask.

He also got to see both how nice and how annoying Chinese people can be. The school was very nice and arranged a big banquet for him and for Slav's girlfriend who was also visiting at the same time. But of course this being a banquet the baijou came out with all the cultural pressure to drink to much even when you have work early the next morning. I mostly drank wine because I had an early class, but it was still quite a bit actually. They then asked if he would give a speech to a class of communication students, which he nicely agreed to do, but of course after that they wanted to have another banquet. This time we refused since we just wanted to have dinner on are own, but even this didn't stop them. At night Lake insisted on coming by and giving him some milk and crackers, a very odd gift. It's amazing but people in China can be very sweet and completely infuriating at the same time. It's hard to tell someone to fuck off and stop calling you and stopping by when they are really trying to be nice and just don't understand how they come across to people of a different culture.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

January 4th -- Alaer, Aksu, and Urumqi

Urumqi is not a good looking city by any means. From the air, when it is visible, unlike most of Xinjiang Urumqi's location on the edge on the edge of the mountains means that it is foggy and cloudy sometimes unlike Alaer Urumqi seems to be one with smoke stacks dotting the landscape. The dry alien terrain that surrounds it, not really a desert but still devoid of most plant life, doesn't help the looks of the city any. On the ground it has all the charm of the city like Camden New Jersey in mid winter. There is some snow on the ground, though how dry it is means not much, but the cold keeps it from evaporating until it becomes a dull gray and brown. This city also suffers being both too big and too small. Urumqi is by far the biggest city in Xinjiang but in this case it is just spreading out, and has more factories and smokestacks than I've ever seen in a major city. It also too small in that it doesn't really have one concentrated central area. There are five story buildings all over the place but few real skyscrapers and not much of a downtown. The one thing it has going for it, is that unlike most Chinese cities many of the buildings are painted colors other than gray, must be the Uyghur influence.

My first flight from Aksu left at 11 in the morning which doesn't sound early until you consider that sunrise is about 10am. I didn't think any of the normal busses from Alaer would be running so early so I arranged a car to pick me up at 7am. That turned out to be so early that the roads were virtually desert and we made incredible time through the darkness. It was so dark that even with the high beams on I could barely see anything more than 100 feet in front of the car, which isn't much at 120 km/h. That was unless there was another car heading the opposite direction whose lights would then illuminate it miles out. It's a bad habit in China that since no one wears their seat belts I've gotten out of the habit. People even sometimes get offended if I put on my seat belt as if I was suggesting that they were a bad driver, which of course they are.

The Aksu airport was in what appeared to be a converted barn when I flew in August, but sometime in between they opened a gorgeous new terminal, like all airports vaguely modeled after the slopping roof of Dulles, which made me think I had come to the wrong place. Air travel in China is quite comfortable. Unlike in the US where air ravel is affordable to enough people that airports have become like crowded bus stations, only they don't grope you at the bus station, the relative expense of air travel in China, it's cheap for me but unaffordable for my students, means that it's still pretty empty and peaceful. Even the Uyghur people on the plane were wearing leather fancy leather jackets or fur coats. The flight was a little delayed but we got to Urumqi fairly quickly with little trouble.

I don't usually travel by myself. For all the traveling I do I'm still a pretty shy person. When I first got to the Urumqi airport I couldn't for the life of me find a place to get a legitimate taxi and I ended up wandering around for half an hour before I paid twice what I should have to get to my hotel. Traveling alone also effected what I ate. I tried to go to some local restaurant but they didn't speak any English and didn't try to meet me half way, i.e. I pointed to something I saw but they just shot back a lot of questions to me in really fast Chinese. I ended up eating at KFC twice, just because it was easier. The biggest problem with traveling along though, is that I have no one to make comments to. It was something like -15 degree Celsius when I arrived in Urumqi but it just wasn't the same without someone to commiserate with.