October 24th, 2009 | Published in China
Archive for October, 2009
October 24th, 2009 | Published in China - Life
So…the inevitable has happened. Last night I had my first encounter with the rat with whom I am, apparently, in cohabitation.
It was very simple. I came home from dinner (after dark) and flipped on the light, only to witness a dark shadow dash across the floor and behind the couch. With a groan, I steeled myself for battle and kicked aside the old coffee table and the grimy old leather couch in the corner of my living room.
Kicking aside the couch actually occurred in pieces. The couch is one of those piece-together jobs from I would say the 70′s. It’s comprised of five sections that fit neatly against each other, and it is L-shaped, to fit in the corner. Until last night I had not really touched it or sat on it much, because, well, it looks like something rats live in. Which, it turns out, it is. After I kicked aside a couple sections of couch, my new best friend the Big Hairy Rat came scurrying out and ran into my bedroom. Great. Exactly what I wanted.
Let’s call him the BHR for purposes of this blog. So, upon witnessing a one Mr. BHR flee into my bedroom and then around the corner into the bathroom, I quickly suit up with a small plastic trash can as a shield and a Puma sneaker as let’s say lightsaber, and head on into the bathroom, ready to do gruesome battle if necessary. And, lo, the BHR is nowhere to be seen. I search for obvious hiding spots and discover none, and determine the only possible escape route to be under the bathtub, which locale I can’t really see into or access in any way.
I should mention that before I entered the bathroom, duly armed, I first turned on the light and flung a flip-flop in there, the idea being to “flush him out”, which idea didn’t seem to do anything.
So, once in the bathroom, I decide to start whaling on the tub in an effort to coerce/scare the bejesus out of the BHR and get him, I hope, to flee the bathroom, my bedroom, and the whole premisis entirely, to be honest. I whale and whale. But no BHR. Apparently he has an escape hatch behind that tub, somewhere, because I stay in the bathroom and listen, and bang on different parts of the tub, and then just stand there and try to be really really quiet, hoping he’ll come out, but nothing. No BHR. No rat. So I resign myself, and give up. I go into the kitchen and inspect the situation. Of course, it turns out that I forgot to change the trash before I left for dinner, so he had been attracted to a banana peel from that morning. Which banana peel he had pulled out of the trash and nibbled on, I assume fruitlessly.
That was not his first taste of banana. Last week I had left two bananas, an apple, and a tasty little cream-puff-like treat out on the counter in the kitchen overnight, only to discover the next morning that the cream-puff had completely vanished, the bananas had both been eaten a little and even the apple had been chewed.
So the BHR loves variety. And he likes his fruits, not just his sweets.
Honestly, at first the rat thing completely freaked me out. I mean, fucking rats. I hate rats. And I haven’t even had to deal with them before, really. And then after I inspected the couch a little more I discovered the place where he has dragged a good number of things, like dead cockroaches and the like, to nibble on. I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do to the couch. But I guess I’ll probably just put it back into the corner. There’s nothing I can do, really, about the rat, or the couch. So I’m just going to have to deal with it. Which isn’t really that hard. It just means emptying the trash before nighttime, so there’s nothing for the rat to nibble on. Which is easy, because the trash bags in China are tiny.
There are other creepy-crawlies, too. Like cockroaches. And these big beetle things that fly in here sometimes. And there are a ton of bats on campus. I assume there are giant spiders and snakes roaming the forests around here, since it’s like 70 degrees or hotter year round and 90 percent humidity all the time. And I hear there are a lot of monkeys in the woods, too. Not that monkeys are creepy; they are just, well, far out.
I just hope I do not get bit by any superpoisonous snakes or frogs, and that no mutant breeds of man-sized spiders invade while I am living in tropical China. (If spiders were man-sized, by the way, I once heard that they would be able to run at 300 mph.) But I have other things to think about, really. Today I found a website called “Skritter” that helps you learn to read Chinese, and I spent a few hours on it. And learned how to write my name in Chinese.
Which is, by the way:
Xu (meaning to allow or praise, pronounced like “shoe” in my last name)
Zhi (meaning ambition, or, “will”, pronounced like “ji” in Jim)
Xiang (meaning fly, pronounced like “shyang”)
Praise, ambition, fly. Ya heard.
Maybe next I will try to learn the Chinese word for rat.
Maybe then the BHR will leave me and my bananas alone. Effing rats.
Addendum to the rat posting, next day:
It turns out I was correct about the giant spiders thing. Today I went on a hike with some students and we saw, in a giant scary spiderweb, a huge, malignant looking spider. It looked exactly like a black widow, except with a reddish hourglass figure on its back, instead of its belly, and it was approximately the length of my thumb. I tried to take a picture but dared not move close enough.
Also, after witnessing the rat again in the bathroom last night, I decided to blockade the entrance underneath the tub. So I think the rat is trapped under there now, maybe, unless I spotted a totally different rat last night. I also brought up the subject of rats with my students on our hike today, and they suggested that I try to flush the rat out with water and strike him/squash him with a shoe. Yeah…I dunno about that. The students also suggested that the rat likely “has many friends”. Yeah, I guess I am still in denial about that.
October 20th, 2009 | Published in China - Cultural Differences
I think it is the trademark of any neurotic person to constantly be in a state of anxiety and worry over things that he or she has done in the past that were idiotic.
I am, I think it is fair to say, one such person. I have, in the past, spent a lot of time worrying, fretting and hair-pulling over past infractions and offenses I committed, both real and imagined. The habit might have some practical purpose, but to all appearances it is just a way of burning up excess mental energy, or something. It seems to go everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and to generally do me no good in the process.
I hope, in this post, to illustrate for you some of the ways in which China is obliterating that self-conscious, neurotic part of me.
Or at least suspending it. I’ve only been here a week, so maybe that trait of mine is just on vacay while I get my head screwed back on.
The best example I can give you of how sheer circumstance destroyed all possibility of my being self-conscious by sheer self-consciousness overload was in the fact that, upon arriving here, I somehow caused the entire water system of the south end of campus to cease functioning for two days. All water flow stopped. That included showers, sinks, washing machines….everything but toilets. Southern campus includes my building, where I and one other foreign teacher live, some campus nurses offices, and two large apartment/dorm buildings where on-campus faculty live—I would guess that there are several hundred of them in those two buildings, judging by the size.
So within a day of getting here, I knock out the water for virtually all residential faculty at the university. And, I don’t even know it. All that I knew at the time was that I had flown halfway around the world to China, that I had been moving for around 35-40 hours straight, and that I desperately wanted a shower, and that I couldn’t have one for my first three days here. Which wasn’t a big deal – I was able to sponge bathe with some cold water in a bucket – but I was worried about whether the water situation would get fixed, or if I was experiencing a new and unprecedented status quo. I was persistently reminding my liaison that the water wasn’t working, and hoping that eventually he would prove correct when he said, “It will work tonight”.
So, eventually, the water got fixed. And only then did I find out that it had been out for the two faculty buildings, as well. That, let me make clear, was not my fault. Apparently a pipe in my building was broken, which meant no water to my place;so then, when the school’s workers attempted to fix that pipe, the whole water system went down. So the teachers’ water was only out a day. But, still, the water going out coincided with my arrival. Great.
This kind of thing—committing some real or imagined offense, unintentionally or by no fault of my own—seems to happen at least a few and perhaps several times a day here, in little microcosms of the whole experience of making a mistake, realizing the mistake, and then feeling like an idiot. Except I think that at this stage in my China life, I am so unaware of all the mistakes that I am probably making, all the weird little cultural faux pas that I may or may not be committing every time I open my mouth or leave my apartment, that I can only think that at some later stage, some more experienced, wiser version of myself will do that old thing – look back on me and think: what an idiot.
The good thing about making mistake after mistake after mistake, however, is that it generally doesn’t matter, and it actually becomes fun for me to be willing to make mistakes and to make a fool out of myself, a lot of the time. It is actually quite liberating. More when it comes to the small stuff, though – it’s not liberating to ruin the showering prospects of hundreds of people.
For instance, today, when I was trying to order lunch, for some reason, a student left a 5 yuan bill on the tray counter for me, in order (presumably) to pay for my lunch. I was oblivious to the 5 yuan that was lying on the counter next to me, but after I ordered, the students around me pointed to it and told me to take it. Of course, I paid for my own lunch and left the bill there, not understanding that someone had left it for me. So some students actually followed me as I walked to the tables and gave me the money. I muttered thank you in Chinese to them, and then scanned the room, trying to find the likely suspect (the one who had bought me lunch). I spotted a table of three students who were eyeing me with curiosity, and, assuming that it was they who had dropped the 5-spot, I went to their table and sat down and crashed their lunch. It turned out none of them really spoke English, so for the 20 minutes I sat there trying to converse using what little basic Chinese I know and shouting (basically) at them in very slow English. They also hadn’t bought my lunch.
It was, in a way, a complete disaster, socially speaking. But it was also a hell of a lot more fun than sitting by myself eating lunch.
There are like a million other examples. One involves what happened tonight, when I went to the convenience store with three other students and bought an 18 pack of bottled water.
They all looked at me quizzically when I put the heavy cube of water bottles on the counter.
What do you need that for? They asked.
For drinking, I said.
I bought the severely overpriced water before realizing that I had pulled the case of water from a stack of packed bottled waters that the store actually breaks open to sell individually. The students didn’t even have to explain to me that I should be bottling and refrigerating boiled water, not buying bottled water for 20 yuan a case. I could tell by the aghast expressions on their faces. But it took me a few minutes of reflection to figure all that out.
But then, after I realized what their shocked expressions were all about, I carried the 15-ish pounds of water home feeling all right. It was heavy, it was overpriced, it was a waste of plastic, but at least I figured something new out. I learned something. Even if I had to make an ass out of myself to do it.
There will be many, many more lessons to learn here. In the meantime, I will have to keep making a total buffoon out of myself every day. But at least I’m not sitting around wondering when I’m going to make an ass out of myself next. And I have water.
I guess I should also mention that I have no idea how to order food in China, really. I have learned how to say the names of a few dishes, so I am good to order pig heart noodles, or dumplings in broth with a side of peanut noodles, or mussel and beef broth noodles, but if I want anything new or different I basically have to go to the dining hall and stand in front of the kitchen and gesture madly and talk in very slow and deliberate English with whatever student happens to be nearby, asking him or her to help me order anything, anything, as long as he or she teaches me how to say the dish’s name in Chinese.
So, things are fun. I am learning and managing to stay fed and alive. I would like to write a post about teaching at some point, since that seems to take up the majority of my time and anxiety so far (since I have never really taught before), but it also seems the most mundane of all the subjects I have to choose from. But, nonetheless, I’ll reflect on teaching soon.
Thanks for reading HFATT.
October 19th, 2009 | Published in China - Cultural Differences
This post is my first dispatch from China. It’s a little bit of a departure from the previous few posts on Having Fun All The Time, but not really, in a way. After all, the reason I came to China is that I thought it would allow me to come a little closer to the eponymous goal of HFATT. And I am here to say, after two months of packing, form-filling-out-ing, moving across the country and then compressing all my belongings into two big bags, tearful goodbyes, one very long flight and then another shorter flight, etc, etc – I am here to say that maybe the eponymous goal has come closer to being achieved. Because China has naptime.
Let me back up a notch, for a sec. I really love naptime. Really love it. And two months ago, while I was still in America (Portland, Ore. to be specific), there was nothing I reviled more about my life than the fact that I was denied the god-given right to nap. And there were some things that I really didn’t like. Like the fact that I stared at a computer screen, zombie-like, for nine hours a day. Or the fact that most of my very close friends were very far away. And then the main thing I didn’t like, which was working so much for corporate interests that I eschew. (Which, by the way, if you’ve seen Michael Moore’s latest movie, “Capitalism: A Love Story”, he really hit home with me when he talked about how when young people in America become buried in student loans they often have to go work for big banks and financial institutions just to get by and pay their student loans….I think the quote from the movie was, “every day, just by existing, they make the world worse”.) Yeah, I think that’s a natural reaction for someone with any kind of conscientious worldview who ends up working for a financial institution.
That was a serious digression. What I meant to say was that I believe that all people should be allowed to have naps, and in the town in China where I now live, the town I arrived at only few days ago (Monday, October 12), many, and perhaps even most of the people, nap.
Classes here start at around 8 a.m., or a little earlier. The students sing songs, and move from class to class in their respective departments for most of the morning. And then, around 11:30 or noon, just about everything shuts down. The students and teachers go get lunch, they chat over food, then they file back to their dorms, offices, homes. They go chill. They go nap, and stuff.
Almost each day I’ve been here until today, I have had lunch with students for one reason or another, and they have invariably asked me, a little after noontime, if I felt tired, if I wanted to go have a rest. Initially, I was a little surprised by this, and thought that maybe the asked me if I was sleepy because they thought I would be worn out, or something, by the immersion in an unfamiliar environment. But now I think it might have been just because they were sleepy.
Today, I got out of class at about 10:45 a.m. and walked back to my apartment without stopping for food. It seemed a little early for food and I wasn’t hungry, and I was a little eager to get back home to change. So, I came home and changed, and then watched an episode of the Wire (as I think is becoming my custom), and read a little, and answered some students’ questions online, and did some laundry, etc, and then by the time I headed out for food it was around 2:30. I circled around the campus and found that, having served lunch to students and teachers, the noodle shop cooks and proprietors had shut down their kitchens and turned off the lights, leaving the doors open but the stoves off. No one was eating in any of the restaurants on campus. I walked out the back gates of campus and discovered that, again, no one was eating or cooking. I spotted the occasional shop keeper, seated at a table in a small dining room, on the little neon-colored plastic stools they keep at the tables, most of them slumped over, their heads on their arms, in states of total rest.
Finally I turned around to head back to campus, thinking that I would rather wait till dinner to eat than spoil someone else’s naptime (my respect for naptime is great), when the security guard for the college hollered at me from the back gate, and jogged toward me. Pointing at the noodle shop I was headed away from, he shouted that I should eat there, which roused the 25-ish-year-old cook, who had been seated in a wide-backed chair with his feet up on another chair, facing away from the door and out a window that looked down on gabled roofs and further mountains, the lights out, drowsing.
I gave in to the security guard and followed him inside, and asked for noodles. The security guard asked me if I wanted an egg. Dan. Yow. After a minute, the cook brought me a big bowl of steaming noodles with radish leaves (I think) and a fried egg on top. He sleepily sauntered over to the television and turned it on, and returned to his chair. The TV sound came on, but the screen was a snowy blue. He seemed unperturbed, but there was no question I had ruined his nap.
But I got lunch, and sleepily walked back to my apartment. I am still, physically, in the Eastern Standard Time Zone of the US, so my clock might be a little off. I have only been here four-ish days. But I like the fact that I can nap if I want to, and I probably will later. I realize that the hour and a half class I taught this morning was really the only thing I had to do today. Everything else is optional. A couple of months ago, that would have terrified me – well, it’s an hour and a half, I would have thought, but it’s still teaching English in China to people who have challenges speaking English when you have never really even taught before. Yes, yes, I would tell myself if I could talk to that former self—but there’s naptime.
The lush, green hills around the university are usually shrouded in a haze that is part humidity, part smog. The air is heavy with water and dust. It is warm. The sounds of campus tend to echo around between buildings and among the mountains around us. It is afternoon. It is time to nap.