I didn’t post much this summer, so here’s a little photo overview of my summer.
(This is part 3 of a 5-part series.)
Sanming: A journey back home, this time with people from home-home in tow
It had been raining in southern China for about a month, and as we headed towards the Guilin airport it started to rain again. Our flight was delayed again, as had the flight from Shenzhen to Guilin, but took off after only an hour or so delay, and we landed in Xiamen, where I had planned for us to go directly to the train station and catch a sleeper train to Sanming, which would put us in my town around 6 a.m. the next morning (I had first done this with my friend, Natasha, when she visited me from Guangzhou in the spring).
But those plans were ruined when we got to the station and the ticketseller informed me that due to flooding, the train was closed and would not open again for at least a week.
This left me standing in the middle of a train station in China, with four of my family members, and no other English speakers in sight or really friends to speak of in the city, wondering how the hell we were going to get to Sanming with the trains out and wondering where we were going to sleep, exactly.
The issue was not totally easy to resolve, but after about 30 minutes we were at a hotel, we had rooms, and we were planning to go to the bus station in the morning to take a bus to Sanming. There was a bit of a mixup in the middle there – the only hotel address I had in Xiamen turned out to be an unregistered hotel and the cab driver refused to take us there, so I asked him to take us to a different hotel – but it went fairly smoothly and the only bad thing about it was that now we would only have at most several hours in Sanming and we had to sleep on rock-hard beds in Xiamen for a night.
The next morning, the earliest bus we could get was 12:30 p.m., so my uncle and cousin and I cut out of the bus station for an hour or so in search of coffee, food, Internet access, and a bank to exchange money. Along the way we stopped at the famous peanut soup shop on Zhongshan Rd in Xiamen that every Chinese person I have been with in Xiamen has taken me to. The place is interesting – it kind of dirty and is always super crowded and loud and exhausting; it’s not really the kind of place that appeals to me at first. But after you’ve been there a couple of times you notice that it appears to be one of those magical food establishments – a sort of nexus between different classes and breeds of human beings that attracts all types regardless of their status or background. Among the churning masses that shove and squirm to get the sugary-sweet and piping hot peanut soup you find cops, old ladies, young punky Chinese kids, families, women in high heels, fat middle aged guys, everybody. And the place has a kind of ruthless soup-Nazi feel to it; you take a coupon at the register for whatever you want and then give the soup/snack counter your coupon and they give you your volcanically hot food. And then you struggle to find a bench to sit down on among the teeming masses. The place is a headache and a nightmare in a way, but it’s definitely an experience and the people watching is better than maybe anywhere else I’ve seen in Fujian.
Eventually we returned to the bus station and hopped on the bus back to Sanming. When we all first got on the bus it was like an oven inside – literally, it was probably 130 degrees Fahrenheit or more. It had been sitting with the engine off in the scorching southern China sunshine for hours and they had allowed us to board without starting the air conditioning. So immediately everybody dumped off the bus and let it cool off inside, and then we reboarded again.
Chinese buses are actually fairly comfortable and I think my whole group was pleasantly surprised at first. The long distance buses, as far as I have encountered, are not the hard-backed bench seating arrangements you’re likely to see in a movie about China. They’re basically Greyhounds, except maybe a tad dirtier and smellier and with A/C that may not function as well. So the 4.5 hour trip from Xiamen to Sanming was uneventful and, around 5:30, we pulled into our hotel in Sanming.
The hotel itself was unfortunately quite bad (a friend helped me book it and I made the mistake of trusting him completely without checking out the hotel for myself – I have seen way nicer hotels in Sanming), but the dean of my department at the college had booked a dining room for us in the hotel, and prepared the most elaborate, expensive and delicious Chinese meal I have ever seen or eaten. Pretty much all the teachers from our department attended, which meant that there were about 15 of us including my family at table. The meal was fish, expensive snails that I had never seen before, jellyfish, several pork and beef dishes, several vegetable dishes, a few soups, crab, prawns, and several other traditional Chinese dishes that I have since forgotten. It was amazing, and I have no idea how much it cost, but it must have been at least 1200 RMB (somewhere around $200). Which is like spending over $1,000 on a meal in the U.S. – it’s a serious all-out eating fest. And, of course, there was lots of drinking, and for some reason the dean especially took a liking to my uncle, who explained a bit about California and San Francisco and some other things about the U.S.
After dinner it was time for the event that later my uncle said was the most meaningful part of the trip for him, to which everyone seemed to agree – that was meeting my students. It was after 9 p.m. when we finally made it to my teaching building, and I knew that the students had been waiting for around an hour at least, and I and my family members were still a little intoxicated from the drinking at dinner. But when we arrived in the classroom we got the usual explosive, more-or-less screams-of-delight greeting from the group of 50 students and then my dad and mom and uncle and cousin mingled with the students for about an hour. At the beginning I just introduced my family members to the class and explained that I hoped the students practiced their English; and they could say anything they wanted except “My English is very poor”. So they mingled and talked and I think my family was just as amazed, if not more so, by the experience.
The thing is, and really I’m just parroting my uncle here, that the students come across as so enthusiastic here in this part of the country (especially in a place as rural as this, where the students perhaps didn’t even expect to get to go to college, much less have experiences learning from/with foreigners) that it is impossible not to compare them in your mind to the cynical, bored, uninterested students in wealthy cities in the U.S. – or even relatively wealthy cities in China, for that matter. My friend Natasha had the same reaction when she came to Sanming from Guangzhou – her students were all spoiled city kids and she spent most of her time trying to keep them from misbehaving, whereas with my students I don’t even have a shadow of a problem like that. The students are so well behaved and so hard working it is a little scary. And they are so enthusiastic about everything I bring to the classroom that it is hard for me not to become completely spoiled by them.
So my family met the students, and after about an hour I finally decided that it was time to head back to the hotel when I noticed that my father, soaked in sweat, had begun distributing hugs to very happy students. I’m sure the students were happy to get hugs, but we were all tired and extremely hot, white family and Chinese students alike – the students were just as soaked in sweat as the rest of us – and it was time to go.
As we left I realized that I had left the keys to my apartment back at the hotel, which was a 40 minute cab ride away, and that I still had to get our World Expo tickets and some fresh clothes out of my apartment. So we went back to town, I left my family in the hotel and then headed back out to return to the school. I made the cab ride back and opened my apartment door and again it looked a bit unfamiliar after just six days away – that feeling of having left this somewhat shabby world and gone into a much cleaner, brighter one temporarily – and then I grabbed my things and left.