Monday, October 13, 2008

V. Droppin Bombs

So I still didn't have access to the school materials...

Day 4 in Wuhan City -- At 7 am, I met with Steven and we somehow survived the drive to the Hubei Province Health Center. Even at 7:30, the place was packed. The workers behind the desk had about 20 people lobbying for their attention at any given moment, a job which I'm sure after 1 week of doing results in a stroke. Steven did most of the bargaining / bartering / bribing / whatever he was doing, so I just sat down and studied the little Chinese I had figured out already. All of this annoying administrative stuff wasn't in my control, and was often discussed right in front of me in Chinese gibberish, so I didn't ask that many questions. I mean, if I get my visa, I get my visa. So for me, knowing the subtle problems of dealing with this at every step wasn't really a priority.

All I needed to know was the mission for today: Pass 7 health exams so that I can qualify for the work visa. The first lesson of the day: Lines don't exist in China, except in very controlled spaces like the velvet rope in a bank, the lines in a supermarket, or the line to see Mao's mausoleum. A McDonald's doesn't have ropes or aisles to filter people through, so lines don't exist there. The same was true was a total down-in-the-dirt free-for-all slugfest. I mean, some of these people were using trickery! This one lady tapped me on the shoulder, pointed forward, and then just walked by me to the front of the line. "Are u fuckin kidding me?" I couldn't hold it in. Why did she point forward? I thought it about it for a long time. "Cleverly done," I concluded.

I completed the first test, namely the X-Ray scan (complete with no lead protection for me), a machine which I'm certain was tempted to crush me to death. Afterwards we moved upstairs to the blood, urine, and muscle reaction rooms. I felt like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, except the rooms were creepy medical testing rooms with uncovered jars of urine sitting within view, and the oompaloompas weren't nice and fun but rather emotionless and vacant. At least there weren't 6 people watching me while I fulfilled the "urine" portion of the examination. Getting blood drawn was like I expected – the nurses didn't really give a fuck about your concern with needles, so I did the classic "cowardly look away" maneuver.

After a good hour of that, it was on to the EKG, Ultrasound, and Sphygmomanometer rooms. I'm pretty sure I remember having monthly sphygmomanometer tests just for fun when I lived in North Carolina. This time was just as fun as it always is, and I of course passed with flying colors. The ultrasound room was odd... I don't know why this was necessary at all. Was I pregnant? The doctors studied the images and verified that I was indeed not. The last room I waited for was the EKG room, something I definitely didn't want to do. First off, this was where that lady did the incomprehendable "shoulder tap" move. I was really pissed about that. Second, I just knew that something was going to go wrong here. No idea why, it was just a feeling. Third, I also knew that during the test, like 5 foreign dudes were going to watch me pull my shirt up and then subsequently watch the entire test being performed. This made the possibility of something going wrong much less attractive, as the test would no doubt take longer.

Well low and behold, the doctor didn't like what she saw in the EKG. Steven told me that I needed to get my blood flowing a little faster so she could try to perform it again. Sick. So I had to do jumping jacks in front of about 15 people standing in "line" waiting for their turn as another person filed in to have their EKG performed. This was awful. And to make it worse, every time I looked over towards the line there was some Albanian dude eyeing me up. After about a minute of this, I'd had enough. I laid on the table, got watched by the Albanian dude some more as I pulled my shirt up for the EKG, and then listened to more Chinese bickering before I was escorted out of the room. To make matters worse, Steven apparently dropped this bomb: "The reason that took so long was, she said that you're heart is lower than most other people's." He said this as if it wasn't news to me, which it definitely was at the time. "Did you know about this?"
"Uhhh no...."
"hmm....Well, the good news is, she signed for your test."
"True." I was still pretty shocked. "OK, so we're done here?"
"Yeah." Thank fucking god. "Now all I need to do is submit this downstairs, and we can head to lunch." Sounds good to me. So, Steven waited in line for about an hour to turn in the forms, long enough for the news of my apparent heart issues and my recently developed prejudice against Albanians to subside.

We left at 11:30pm, 4 hours after we got there. This was definitely the worst thing I've experienced here so far; it was so relieving to be done with it and to go to lunch.

My suggestion: Pizza Hut. These are the third most popular foreign fast food chains here, behind McDonald's and KFC. It's really great to have these here because I can actually get something that tastes exactly like it does in America, namely the pepperoni pan pizza. There's nothing different about it in China, except here it's called "the American Special." They're also very clutch to have because pepperoni is impossible to find here, something that has drastically effected my creativity in the sandwich making department. Anyway I would've ordered exactly this pizza if I were in the US, so I did just that. Steven ordered the weird as hell "surf and turf" pizza, with sushi pieces lining the crust. This is one of their top selling items, so it wasn't exactly "going out on a limb" for him like it would've been for me.

As usual, Pizza Hut wasn't disappointing. The only thing disappointing I learned: there's no free refills in China! For me, this was devastating news. Anyone who's ever eaten at a restaurant with me is probably aware of my affinity for free refills. One time at Salt Works II in NC, I made the waitress refill my drink 7 times. I don't joke around about this stuff.

"So, ready to teach your first class today?" .....What the fuck? This was the second bomb that was dropped on me that day. Hell no I'm not ready. It was 12:30 when he said this, and the class was to start at 2:05.
"Of course... Umm, do we have text books yet?"
"Yeah they're in the office." Got it.

So, all I knew was that I was to teach an hour and a half oral class. I didn't know the structure or the goals of the class, and I had no idea how the textbook was organized and thought out. Needless to say, I was pretty freaked out.

I had a little practice putting together lesson plans in the online course that I took, so I tried to whip one up in the hour that I had. I decided to do the generic "introduce everyone and learn how to introduce others" lesson plan, and I made a list of names for students who might need an English name (so I can say it). Unfortunately, not knowing the theory behind the course material was a major blow to my confidence, and that was not a good thing to happen for my first class. I felt like the first class was going to be very important's where you set the tone for the rest of the year, where habits amongst students and teachers are formed or not formed, and where students make the most assumptions about you and the class. "But, no better way to get used to the water than to jump in the pool, right?" That's what my dad said about it, and it's pretty true I guess...I just got a lot of water in my nose.

I arrived at the class, introduced myself, and wrote a bunch of names on the board for people to select. Congratulations to Dan and Tony, your names were among the few to be selected. The pool water ended up being colder than I thought it would be though... Newsflash to all -- teaching is hard! I tried to teach a lesson but it ended up being really difficult, and I don't know if anyone learned anything. I also didn't understand the levels of each student, because the only student I met before class also happened to be the most proficient speaker. Thus, I spoke my English in a way that was too difficult for the majority of the other students. At the end of the day, though, I learned a lot about the class, and they learned a lot about me. I also had a class under my belt, so there was nothing to be nervous about next time. There was still a lot of room for improvement though. At the least, I could map out a plan for the course -- after all, I finally had access to the materials....

Almost caught up to now...basically, I've just been busy with teaching since then. Theres a few stories for sure tho, so I'll try to write those up as soon as I can.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

IV. Meeting Mr. Jenkins

It's still probably unclear to a lot of you why someone like me, who has spent so much time figuring out the subtelties and generalities of complicated mathematical concepts like groups, rings, real and complex analysis, ODEs, PDEs, etc...., is now in China teaching English to college students. Let me try explaining it metaphorically:

Math and I liked each other as soon as we met. We always thought the other was attractive, but never really made any big moves to go to the next level. In sophomore year of college, however, I decided to ask Math out and she accepted. For the next three years, we went on some dates and hung out a lot at night, but it was very low commitment and comfortable. However, things started to get more serious after I graduated, and I had to make a choice. I decided to stick with her, thinking that there may definitely be a future in her. Thus, I entered graduate school. Once things got "more real" though, it became harder to maintain the relationship. We were spending way too much time together; we'd meet for lunch and dinner every day and would sleep together every night. Counsellers (professors) would try to tell me what was wrong and how to fix it, but I wasn't able to execute their advice as easily as they made it seem. My friends didn't know our situation well enough to help, either, so that made making decisions even more difficult for me. Our relationship was hanging on by a thread (when i finished the year with exactly a 3.0, the minimum required). We both decided that it might be wise to see other people, and thus now I'm seeing "teaching English in China." We met through a website, but I got my foot in the door with the help of a solid wing-man (that golfer from NJ). Do I see a future in her? No. But I think we both understand that, and we're both getting a great experience out of it. I'm learning how to deal with these things better, and I'm making a lot of great friends. Plus, seeing her may bring about opportunities which I don't realize yet. It's going well, so we'll just ride it out and see what happens next. A year from now, I think Math and I will be in a much better spot than we were 6 months ago, so we'll find out if there is indeed a future there.

Back to the story....

I woke up at 6 am again. Jet lag was the reason, but I knew this wouldn't be a problem for long. My sleep schedule gets pretty messed up as a result of grad school, so this was a minor adjustment to make. Steven, my boss, was going to show up at around 10am to start purchasing the necessities of living here, so I had about 4 hours to kill. First, I unpacked my stuff into the apartment.

My apartment....well let me just say that I wasn't really expecting anything great about it. I mean, it's in China. I was expecting it to be really small, and was praying that it had it's own bathroom and shower. Turns out this place is fuckin awesome. It's located on the 18th floor of an apartment complex and has an amazing view of the city, campus, mountains, and a little bit of the East Lake. It also has everything; bathroom, shower, microwave, a water heater, a TV (with more than one frickin channel), even a washing machine. The only major drawbacks are that the fridge is pretty small, and there aren't any screens over the windows. Here's a couple of pictures to give you an idea though of how nice it is here.. The picture of the inside of the room was taken just before the camera died, fyi, that's why there's not a more appropriate, cleaner version for your viewing pleasure.

So like I said, I had 4 hours. I packed everything I brought neatly, and got ready to meet Steven, whom I was still pretty unsure about. I mean, there was a chance that he was some Chinese serial killer for all I knew, so I was actually pretty paranoid for the first couple of days. It became pretty clear later that day that this job was legit, but I mean there was definitely a chance that this was all an elaborate plot to kill an American. I was ready to fight at any time, and never lost track of "my 6."

I spent the remaining time watching Chinese TV. It took about 45 minutes to find something I could actually watch: the Chinese version of Face-off, starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage. This is totally one of my favorite movies. The Chinese version was just as good; the voice acting for Travolta and Cage was awesome. My favorite part was when Travolta was explaining how to use the butterfly knife..."If he comes at you again, stab him in the thigh - twist it - he won't be able to move." -- in Chinese, it sounds just as good

Steven arrived, didn't murder me, and then we drove to the bank on Luoyu Road. He set up an account for me which I deposited my money into, and I got a debit card. Then we went to the supermarket across the street where I bought some necessities...e.g. a wok, contact solution, shampoo, & a cell phone.

Afterwards we got lunch, so I actually ate authentic Chinese food for the first time. I was very excited to try it. We got some beef dish with green beans, and then he ordered a dish that had tofu and lotus root. About the meal: 1st, I learned that they don't remove bones from any meat when they prepare it. This was a little unsettling, but on the bright side, it's been encouraging me to become less of a meat eater -- something I've been attempting to do for some time now. 2nd, you don't get a ton of rice like you do in the US. In fact, you have to order rice separately. 3rd, tipping is not a custom in China. When in rome, eh? 4th, Lotus root is the thing on the left. If you haven't had it before, it tastes amazing. It looks like an alien plant. It has an amazing ability to absorb flavors of the sauce it's cooked in, while maintaining it's own delicious crunchy texture and saltiness. They have lotus plants all over here; you see them whenever you go near the edge of the lake. The root grows underwater, so what you see on the surface looks like a lilypad.

When we finished lunch, Steven told me that we were going to see the office. OK....So we drove to the office where I met Ms. Tai, Ms. Han, and Mr. Dong. These three and Steven are the people with whom I work most directly. Ms. Tai is the other English teacher, Ms. Han handles all of the student's information, and Mr. Dong and Steven work with the teachers, parents, administration, etc. Mr. Dong and Steven can also speak the best English of anyone I've met, which is basically a servicable amount. These people will probably come up again, just fyi. After I met those three, I met the heads of the department of foreign studies. This was a little awkward, because everyone was all dressed up, and I was wearing my Texas Longhorns T-shirt and my chewed-up Mexico Soccer hat from World Cup '94. I mean, I didnt really know I'd be meeting everyone so quickly...I just thought I'd buy a few things, pick up the materials, and then go back to the apartment...whoops. Anyway so we had a conversation that Steven translated, which was basically us being very respectful and nice to each other. I was told that tomorrow, I'd be meeting the students. Oh, and the school materials hadn't arrived yet, so I wasn't able to plan for classes yet.

Day 2 --

Ms. Tai called me at around 8:10 am to walk me from my apartment (Yinghai Yayuan) to the campus. It took about 45 minutes, and I learned a lot about her. She's never been to an English speaking country, but she's been studying the language for 7 years. What this means is that she can speak better than "Chenglish," but her pronunciation is a little odd and her vocabulary is a little limited. Still, she probably understands English grammar better than most English speakers. Her job was also pretty tough to get, so she's obviously very capable in that area.

Once we arrived at the building, we just sat in the lounge and waited for students to come to us if they wanted to meet us. A few students came in to talk to us, but it was limited. The ones who I did meet were adorable tho, and really wanted to practice speaking with me. Then at around 11, every student had left, so Ms. Tai and I just sat around and talked by ourselves for a while. At 12, lunch was brought to us. Again, the meal was incredible. Fish with peppers, lotus root (yay!), and fried rice. The fish was delicious, but it had all these splinters in it that you could chew into small enough pieces to swallow, but it was annoying to deal with them. Oh right, they were bones. Once I learned that, the meal was the new best meal I'd had so far.

A new wave of students came in at 12:30, and I got to meet some more. Again, many were very enthusiastic and fun to talk to. It winded down around 2:00, and I just sat around again while Ms. Tai talked to the upperclassmen who were in the foreign studies department. I just assumed they were talking about me, cuz they kept glancing over and giggling every once in a while. Then Ms. Tai asked, "when we're done with this, these students want to know if they can take you on a tour of the campus." Having nothing to do, I gladly obliged their request.

They were way better at speaking English than I expected, though. We talked about Kobe, Yao Ming, the olympics, the Steelers, and the university, among other things. They took me to the famous old part of the school, which is just as beautiful as I'd imagined. The image to the right is of the girls' dorms; the picture is taken from the top of the staircase. At the top of the staircase, there is a beautiful library (the next picture). These buildings seem very old, but in fact they were built only about 50 years ago. They (and this university, basically) are a result of one of the social movements that Mao signed into action during his reign (either the 100 flowers, the cultural revolution, I can't remember). Regardless, seeing these buildings floored me. These were the first images I saw when I researched the opportunity, and seeing these really made it clear that what was once a seemingly great and crazy opportunity had actually come to fruition. I don't get those moments very often, so it was really nice to actually have one. I spent more time looking at these than I think the students giving the tour wanted to hehe. When I was finished there, we walked down to the main field (third picture on right), then up the stairs to see the head office (fourth picture). This building is truly a mixture of eastern and western architecture, and was even designed by a Brit.

The students and I then exchanged contact information, parted ways, and headed home. Oh, and I still didn't have access to the school materials.

Day 3--

I was told the day before that I'd meet the rest of the students today. I woke up early, as usual (still not over the jet lag), and surprised myself by arriving on time at the office. After I sent a few e-mails out to the folks, I was told by one of the administrators "So, are you ready to give a speech to the students today?" [Uhhhhhh. no? What the fuck?] "Uhhh sure, how much time do I have!" So I wrote a speech for about 20 minutes, and then we headed out to the student's dorms. Thank god for Model UN.

We came to a warehouse that stored a large heap of wooden miscellany. "OK, here we are." Huh? Oh, they live across from it. It was still very "third world" tho, and in fact I learned later that their dorm used to be a warehouse as well. I also toured their rooms a little. Each one of the rooms holds 9 beds, so I did the math and that means 9 students live in a room. No singles, doubles, quads.. I thought I got the shit end of the stick when I lived in a 5-person suite my freshman year at pitt. I mean I did, but relative to the student's here, I was livin the good life back then. None of their rooms had A/C, btw, which must have been awful during the first couple weeks. It was so humid, and was never under 90 degrees. Anyway I walked around, they all got a kick out of saying "Hello!" to me, and then we walked to a medium sized lecture hall. I also met the president of the university at this time, and he was to give the key note speech before I spoke. This whole situation was so ridiculously unfair it was hilarious to me, even at the time. But I was confident I'd be able to whip up something meaningful. I mean, I could say a whole bunch of complicated sentences that no one could understand, and that would've been received well.

So everyone sat down in the room. The president spoke and I pretended I knew what he was saying, laughed when everyone else laughed, etc. During his speech, I was told by one of my coworkers that she wanted to translate what I was saying, so I had to quickly write the transcript of what I was saying for her. Thus, I had to make it shorter and less fun. Then, I heard the words "Ewen Jenikensuh" and a lot of applause....The president looked at me, signalling that it was my turn to speak. I've done this sortof stuff before -- doing theater and model UN certainly prepares you for these situations. But I also just like adversity, especially when the situations are totally bonkers like this one was. I walked up to the podium. My assistant, however, whom I had written the notes for, didn't come up with me to translate.....sick. So I had basically done that for nothing. I also made the speech shorter for her, so she would be able to translate it better. Well I didn't adjust very well to this, so my speech to the students remained much shorter and less satisfying than I total, the speech probably lasted about 1.5 minutes, and was 6 sentences long. It was satisfactory, but not great, and I wanted to be great.

Of course, it was received with thunderous applause. After the speeches, everyone left and I spoke with Mr. Dong. He told me tomorrow morning would be the medical exams for the work visa. Not good news, but it had to be done. Then I asked Mr. Dong if he had the materials for classes yet, and he said they were to arrive tomorrow. Alright! But I still didn't have access to the materials...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

III. First day in Asia (part 2)

Whoops. Didn't really expect a summary of one day to take up more than one post, but I guess a lot was happening that day.

...So I'd had enough of the magnitude of being in Tian'anmen Square after about half an hour. Did I mention I was in Beijing during the Paralympics? There still was about a 1000:1 Chinese to non-Chinese ratio in the Square. There were also a few interesting... uh diarammas? I guess look at them yourself and judge what definition they belong to, but they were kindof neat (to right). After I took the second picture, I posed for a picture for some random little girl (seriously) and then realized that I was really hungry. Time to accomplish Mission 3 of eating in a McDonald's.

Why McDonald's? Does it seem uncultured? Maybe. Actually, without a doubt yes it does. First off, baby steps ok? Second, I hadnt been to one for a long time. Third, I figured they'd be able to accomodate a tourist like me better than most authentic places. Fourth, I needed a coke real bad, something which they would no doubt provide. Fifth, I wanted to contribute to globalization (no reason there), and finally I wanted to stick it to all the McDonald's haters (again, no real reason for that one either).

I started to walk back from where I came to avoid getting lost. As I neared the Tian'anmen, a girl approached me and asked if I spoke English. This being one of the few people I'd met so far who could perform such a task, I gladly obliged her with a conversation. She said that she was an art student from southern China and could help me find my way around the Forbidden City, if I wanted. It smelled of hustle, so I told her I just wanted to get back to my hotel. However, she said she had some of her art work on display very nearby, and having an interest in Chinese art, I decided to give her work a shot.

She brought me to the exhibit and showed me some of her work, which I thought was very pretty. The exhibit was covered in Chinese paintings, almost all of which were scroll paintings. There were very few weird or modern paintings -- the majority of the pieces were typical monochrome ink paintings of plants or landscape paintings (only with colors). There was a really neat work of calligraphy too, apparently a poem about a scholar advising a king with war strategy. (I remember this actually: the poem was written by the scholar, telling a story about hunting deer that the king was to connect to fighting in battle. Anyway the lesson of the story was not to attack all of the deer at once, because once you attack one, the rest will scurry away from you. If you kill the leading deer, however, the rest of the deer will be disoriented and unsure of where to go, and thus your hunt will become simpler.)

So after she showed me around, she tried to sell me her work, and after a long discussion was succesfully able to do so. This probably counts as being hustled (because it cost 350 RMB), but I really like the art in China and needed to accomplish Mission 2 anyway. Plus, she's an art student in China, so I didn't feel that bad about giving her money. Regardless, the score was now China-1 Jenkins-1 in the hustling department.

My stomach imploding in on itself, mission 3 became the new priority #1. My desire for a coke was tangible. I checked out my McDonald's map: one block ahead there was a street that had three McDonald's on a single block (yeah). This was the obvious choice. It also wasn't on the way I came from, but I was confident I could find my way around by now. On the way I saw a sweet looking gate which people were taking pictures of, so I took a picture of it too. Mission 6 (not looking like a tourist) was failing.

After walking west on Chang'an Avenue for two blocks, I turned right onto Xidan N. Street, i.e. my destination. The first McDonald's I saw was too big-city and crowded for my liking, so I decided to check out the other two candidates on the block. I also came across a big pedestrian walkway, which I thought was pretty cool because it had escalators. I took a picture of the view from the walkway; it was a pretty amazing one I thought (see left). Further down the road was another McDonald's, but I didn't like "the vibe" and resorted to counting on the last one. As I was nearing the end of the block, I was becoming nervous about finding it. Hunger now outprioritizing vibe preference, I decided to rush into the only visibly nearby american fast food place: the dreaded KFC. I don't go to these in the US for the same reason that the McDonald's haters don't go to McDonald's. They just seem like a twisted establishment. Can't really think of any other way to describe them. But I will say this: their KFC snackers are frickin delicious as hell and a pretty good deal. Still twisted though.

I got pretty much what I expected: a bland and guilt-inducing meal. At the least, it was satiating and it wasn't pricey. The coke was definitely the highlight, like it always is. I headed back to the hotel to sit down for a while since I was exhausted as hell. I did pass a neat looking buddhist temple on my way back though, so I strolled through it and kept going. I was going to take pictures because it was really beautiful, but it seemed like an inappropriate thing to do. In fact, just standing there felt like an inappropriate thing to do. It was obviously a really important religious place that everyone there was using for prayer.

Back at the hotel, I told Michael how my day was going. He brought out my suitcase so I could put the paintings I just got inside. Then I just relaxed in a chair for about 20 minutes. I had about 3 more hours at this point. The experience I just had was a pretty exhausting one, both mentally and physically. If I was going to do anything else, it needed to be something much more... quiescent.

I checked out the map to find the nearest temple or park. Labelled about a block away from the hotel, there was a temple that sounded like a perfect place to go: "Temple of the Moon." What a sweet name for a place. I walked over there and found what I was looking for, a relaxing strolling garden. I didn't find any notable buildings, but I did find something I really wanted to see: a wealth of various Chinese plantlife. I'm sure that sounds a little weird, but I like to analyze surroundings of places and how things survive or evolve in a place. Plants are definitely something which tell a story about a place, though perhaps very abstractly. Regardless, I like thinking about that sortof stuff.

I walked around slowly; it was very quiet and peaceful despite being in the middle of the city. People were laying down in the thick grass, which at the time seemed like a very attractive option. But I kept sauntering. A businessman sitting on a bench looked up from his book to say "Hello." This was about the fourth time that had happened to me that day, so I responded politely and thought nothing of it. I strolled a little further down, and saw people playing table tennis and a playing area for children. I turned around and found that the man who'd greeted me minutes earlier was following me. He asked me if I spoke English, and when I replied that I did, asked if he could show me around the park. Hustle? My hustle-sense wasn't tingling. He was dressed very professionally, so I just assumed he was on his lunch break from work. He also just generally seemed like a nice man who wanted to practice his English. The tour he gave me of the garden definitely enhanced the experience. I learned a lot about the different plants, the Chinese names for them, and about the temple's history. I also learned a little bit about how the Chinese struggle with learning English, and how to teach people English words without using their language. One word I remember successfully having taught was "coincidence," since it was pretty coincidental that he found me while he was reading his how-to-speak-Engish book. Anyway I think he was just as happy to give the tour as I was to experience it. This wasn't a hustle at all, just a nice experience with a really nice Beijing citizen.

Here are a few pictures I took of the walk (I'll try to put all of them on facebook):

and the man who gave the tour works here:

After visiting the temple, I decided it was time to leave. I got back to the hotel, said goodbye to Michael for a year (I'll be sending him an e-mail when I return), and then got a taxi to the airport.

Umm...have I mentioned the Beijing airport is huge as fuck? I wish I could explain it better for you. I got a glimpse of this when I arrived because customs was in the main terminal, but damn. When the taxi was approaching the main terminal from afar, the scale of the building totally amazed me. Take a look at the pictures below. Try to appreciate how big it is; these pictures try to do it justice. The first two are the left and right views of what it looked like when I got out of the cab...the one to the right is the really insane view. I'd guess the endpoint of the roof in that picture is close to a mile from where I'm standing.

inside Beijing International Airport:

Nothing out of the ordinary happened from here on. I took that picture from the beginning of post II (with the airplane and the sun), and then flew to Wuhan City. The meal on the trip was incredibly was like beef, green beans and rice, all cooked to perfection. Anyway it blew my expectations out of the water. I arrived at about 10pm, collected my luggage, met my boss and was transported to my new home. First thing I did in the new apartment -- watched TV obviously. Then I went to bed... the next few days would be pretty taxing as well..

Friday, October 3, 2008

III. First day in Asia (part 1)

It still catches me off guard every once in a while: I'm living in Asia. As you can guess, this thought recurred often throughout the course of my first day in China.

I got about 12 solid hours of sleep after arriving in Beijing, so I woke up around 6 am, and I needed to leave for the airport at 4pm. What would you do in Beijing if you had about 10 hours to kill? Well first off, I definitely needed to solve the problem of not being able to reach my contact by phone, as he was supposed to pick me up from the airport in Wuhan that night. That was still secondary to the overwhelming fact that I was in China, so the first thing I did after I woke up was I went outside and walked around the streets. In about 45 minutes of walking I started to get a headache because there were so many different things I was trying to focus on. Here's a glimpse at what my inner monologue sounded like: “A Peugeot! A Citroen! Some brand of car I cant read... right, that's going to constantly be an issue. What type of tree is that? Is that a weed in the US? Oooo I wonder what's in that alley? How old is that lady? I wonder what wars or crazy Chinese historical events she's witnessed, or how she feels about Mao Zedong or Sun Yat-Sen or Genghis Khan. Maybe she was at Tianenmen Square in '89. Speaking of, I need to see tha... hey look at that dog! (laugh at how adorable it is).”

So once my head started thumpin from all the activity, I decided to get some down time. I went back in the hotel and found a computer to send an e-mail to my contact telling him that I couldn't reach his phone and that everything was going as planned. I then sent my little sis an e-mail telling her I was alive, and then checked facebook. Old habits die hard. An old friend who I was in contact with about getting an ESL teaching job in Asia (Emily, she is teaching in Pyeongchang, S. Korea, not to be confused with Pyongyang, N. Korea) had posted on my wall sometime during my travel. Anyway it was an odd coincidence -- she didn't know exactly when I was arriving in China, but it basically summarized the crazy experience I just had about 10 minutes before of walking around the streets of Beijing. It was also nice to know that I wasn't the only one who was feeling a bit out of place...

After finishing that task, I still had oodles of time to do whatever I wanted in Beijing. The guy who helped me bring my luggage to my room the night before, Michael (definitely not his real name), told me he could hold my stuff for me at the hotel concierge while I toured the city. So I dropped my luggage off with my new buddy, grabbed a free McDonald's brand map that showed all of their locations in Beijing and headed out.

Mission 1: find Tianenmen Square
Mission 2: find something cool to bring back.
Mission 3: eat in a McDonald's.
Mission 4: take a bunch of pictures.
Mission 5: get back in time to go to the airport without having a watch or cell phone to help.
Mission 6: Try not to look like a tourist.

Mission 1 was also priority #1. The McDonald's map clearly labelled where it was, and Michael indicated where the hotel was, so I was really confident that I'd be able to find it despite the obstacles of being illiterate and Beijing being huge as hell. About being illiterate though, I always felt that products or maps, really anything involving directions were always designed for dumb people (e.g. directions for making ramen noodles, with pictures of boiling water and then putting the noodles into the water). So, I was fairly certain there would be maps along the sides of the road to help people like me figure out where I was going, especially since Beijing is probably the biggest international tourism city in China. And indeed there were, so I just followed those and kept track of where I was by finding the big red "you are here" spot. What made these maps hilarious though was that to get from the hotel to Tianenmen Square, it was about 5 blocks east, and then 1 block south. Not far right? Far as fuck. Walking one block in Pittsburgh takes, on average, between 1-2 minutes. In Beijing it takes about 10 minutes; to get to Tianenmen Square it took a little under an hour. The roads are also wide as hell. Crossing for the inexperienced should be limited to only intersections or designated crossing points, the number of which the city tries to limit by putting a fence between both sides of the road (the picture to the right was taken on the way to Tianenmen Square). If you're really uneasy there are also pedestrian bridges or tunnels for you at major intersections or on streets with an absurd number of lanes.

It didn't take me long, though, to learn the subtle nuances of walking the streets like the Chinese do. I've always been one to overanalyze the art of being a pedestrian, being a 5-year veteran of Oakland city walking, so I was quickly able to adjust. But the codes of Oakland and Beijing walking are vastly different. In Oakland, pedestrians have the right of way, all the time. If you're driving and get a green light, you expect college students to walk blindly in front of you. However, the pedestrians are pretty patient, and many will wait for a walk sign to begin crossing the street. In Beijing, you aren't patient, and you don't walk blindly in front of cars or you will get hit. Traffic in Beijing can be best correlated to the motion of fish in an ocean. The busses do whatever the hell they want, because they're the biggest. Cars come next and they are more plentiful than busses, but yield only to them. Motorcycles, Mopeds, and Bikes are after cars in the food chain, but have access to their own lanes in the streets. People are definitely at the bottom, and in Beijing it really does look like a school of fish avoiding a bigger fish whenever a car makes a right turn across a pedestrian lane that's giving the "walk" sign.

Anyway the walk to accomplish mission 1 was, as you can guess, overstimulating. Along the way I only took one picture, what I believe was probably an old gate to the Forbidden City. It was the first place I saw Chinese people taking pictures of, so I decided to take one as well (to the right). It was also the first place I saw a military presence in the city. A little further down the road there was a much larger presence.

Two minutes further down Chang'an avenue was my destination. I tried to take pictures of all four sides of the square, but because I arrived from the north side of the street on the northwest corner of the square (and crossing Chang'an ave. was going to actually be impossible), I visited the north side of the square first. This is where the Tian'anmen is, a gate that leads to the Forbidden City. It's also very famous for the picture of Mao on its facade. Tons of people were taking pictures of their friends or family standing in front of the gate (see picture on right). I still haven't figured out if the people take pictures like this (i.e. near pictures or statues of Chairman Mao, of which there are a ton) because of the obvious historical significance that Mao has himself imposed upon the country of China, or because they look up to his image. This guy is probably the biggest historical figure to the Chinese; his presence still pervades many levels of their society. The fact that his picture adorns the Tian'anmen is example enough. If you see a statue though, chances are it's of Mao. The currency is probably the most obvious example of his omnipresence. Guess which value of RMB his image is on -- 1, 10, 20, 50, or 100? Answer: all of them. I'm sure in China's thousands of years old history, there's someone else they could honor with a headshot on the 10 RMB bill. But like I said, I haven't asked anyone if it's something they're OK with or not -- I've always understood Mao's image as one of controversy; but given the survival of these images and statues, he is clearly still a very big deal here.

Anyway, Tiananmen Square is frickin huge. According to Wikipedia, it is the largest open air city square in the world; this doesn't surprise me at all. Chang'an Avenue divides it from the Tian'anmen north gate, a road that by my count is between 16-20 lanes wide (see left). Thus, the only way to get into the square is through a tunnel that goes underneath a street. That tunnel also exists because tons of people are always visiting this place (I learned later on that it's often said that every Chinese person needs to see two places: the Great Wall and Tian'anmen Square).

I tried to take as many pictures to give ya'll an idea of how bonkers this place is and how crowded it was. To the east was a probably very famous museum, the west was probably a very important government building, to the south was a relatively smaller building which was obviously a big tourist attraction, and in the center was a monument to war heroes (A little research indicates that the museum is The National Museum of China, the government building is The Great Hall of the People, the smaller building to the south is The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, and the monument is the Monument of the People's Heroes).

Here are some pictures I took standing still in the square:

in front:
to my right:

to my left:
behind me:

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

II. Getting there

The picture you see above is cropped from the one to the right. It's one of a few that I've been able to take, but I like it a lot. It was taken around dusk in the Beijing airport, an absolutely mind-blowingly large airport I might add. The picture was also taken about 4 minutes before the sun totally disappeared behind the thickness of the atmosphere, even though (as you can see) it was still fairly high in the sky. I think the main colors in this picture, though, represent very accurately what it looks like in a big city here like Beijing or Wuhan. In the day time it's obviously a bit brighter, but blue skies, white clouds, nice sunrises and sunsets are always filtered through a translucent grey. It definitely takes a little away from the beauty of the city of Wuhan. I think cities are generally beautiful things, too. Traffic, people, interactions, buildings, the layout of a city, the way its been planned and developed, even the smells (like the smell that wafts into your nose when you first step on a bus..) -- These are all things I love about city living. But in this case I feel (and I think most people here would agree) that the layer of pollution here is something that could use a little work. Anyway I bring this photo up cuz it's a good introduction to what this entry is about, namely getting here.

First, I should mention that my last weekend in Pittsburgh was a great sendoff. Friday night was generally a good night of kickin it with a lot of my buddies. On Saturday I spent the daytime getting over a hangover and working on getting my ESL certification. Saturday night was a throwdown of epic proportions on the South side....thanks so much to everyone for entertaining my desire to do that. I gotta specifically name (SORRY) four dudes for ballin up for this -- phamm, dtr, wes, and most importantly Murderzmarek. He really wouldnt accept anything less than a total throwdown, and it was exactly that. Granted, I was a force in creating a lot of the weird and hilarious situations myself, but those dudes were the spark, so thanks.

Sunday was the Steelers opener against the Houston Texans, a game I'd been looking forward to for many months. And, to make it better, I had made plans to watch it with an old friend, Dan, from my Mt. Lebanon days. Well my phone had died, so I needed to wake up under my own power and then find someone in Oakland with a charger, all while hungover as hell. I woke up successfully, and then killed two birds with one stone by 1. finding a phone charger and 2. waking up an Eagles fan. I tried to call Dan but it failed. Then I found that I had 3 voicemails, so I checked them. The first one was the one I expected, Dan trying to find out where the hell I was. The second one was Dan dropping a bomb on me by telling me that he had frickin tickets to the Steelers game, and wanted to know if I was able to go. The third was Dan again, telling me what I feared. He got a mutual friend of ours to go to the game instead...well the "mutual friend" was Krebs, who I'm sure many of you know. Now, I'm a big Krebs fan; Krebs and I have a love-hate, "constantly trying to be jerks to each other but in a nice way"-relationship. So it was totally cool when I told Dan to give Krebs the shaft and let me go with him instead. Anyway so he gave Krebs the shaft, and I went to my first ever "in the stands" Steelers game! I was in shock the whole time; the experience is one that I insist every Steelers fan must have. The icing on the cake was that we won the game, and the cherry on top was that I found a terrible towel that someone lost on my way back home.

So the week following was basically spent getting ready for the trip, i.e. finalizing visa crap, ESL certification, packing, saying the goodbyes, etc. The whole time, the gravity of the fact that I was about to leave for China for a year wasn't really sinking in. My theory is that this is a result of the fact that recently it's been a very comfortable notion to feel a sense of apathy regarding most subjects... a notion which is almost certainly a result of having been around totally naive, ignorant, but for some reason motivated college students for the past five years (read the pitt news sometime). Granted, I've never been a "wave maker," nor do I really want to become one. But I also want to revive the ambition and energy I had in my younger days, and to do so I think might require the opposite of apathy, and the desire to "wave make." In other words, I think what I want is a paradox. The goal, however, is to create a balance without going over the spill point and becoming an ignorant college student... something I feel like is a very difficult thing to do, based on the statistics.

Back to the story, my flight was to leave at 6:00am Friday morning, so I just stayed up all of Thursday night and felt like hell during my traveling. Travelling honestly took forever, and I couldn't fall asleep for any longer than a period of two hours. My flights went to Chicago, then to Toronto (where I had to go through customs for some reason.... Yeah, there was a question about whether I'd be visiting a farm in Canada. I checked no cuz, like I said, I don't make waves), then finally to Beijing. The layover in Toronto lasted about 6 hours, so mostly I tried sleeping or talking to the 5-ish people working in the terminal. One of the ladies warned me about the smell of Beijing and the fact that people spit. To this I was finally able to use the phrase "when in rome" correctly. I was also about to buy the Toronto newspaper, but then realized I don't know anything about Canada. That's about all that's interesting to say about traveling, it honestly sucked. 22 hours!

But then I got to Beijing, and was very happy. However, it soon became clear that not speaking any Chinese was going to be a problem for a long time. I needed to find a cab to the hotel, but first I needed to find someone to write something down that would explain to a cab driver where to go. At the help desk there were people who could help people like me, but they said they'd arrange a cab for me for 250 RMB (about $35). Thankfully, some British dude overheard this and quietly told me that it actually costs about 80 RMB to get into the city. This would be my first experience with the Chinese trying to hustle me, a battle which continues to this day (don't worry I'm winning).

So I took the address they'd written down and hitched a cab. I was pretty psyched about going into Beijing, so once I got into the cab I did the classic Jenkins "chat it up with the cab driver" routine. Unfortunately this stopped after about 10 seconds of trying, the cabbie didn't say a word or emote. The seconds of conversation peaked when the robotic cab voice said a word that I recognized "Qi che," and I said "Hey! Qi che!" and pointed to a car. Super grizzled asian driver just pointed at a car, didn't smile or say anything, and then continued driving.

Important note: This ride was also my first experience with driving in China.

There were about three very clear moments where I thought I was going to die. Two involving a bus merging, and the cabbie not giving a fuck. The lanes on a highway are recommendations. There is also a fine art to being a pedestrian, which I will explain later. Basically, the main principle of being a pedestrian isn't to get from point A to point B, it's to not get killed, but to push the envelope as much as possible.

Anyway I was riding in the cab, laughing about everytime I almost got killed. Riding in the city was mind-blowing...everything was shocking to me. The architechture of the buildings, number of buildings, number of people, the cars, plants, sky, geography, road signs in Chinese.... it was like that scene in the Godfather where the brother of Al Pacino gets riddled with bullets in his car... that's kinda like how I felt, except the bullets weren't real.

I arrived at my hotel after a little more than 24 total hours of travel. This being my first ever professional reason for a hotel room, I decided to document it by taking a picture. It was actually pretty nice, they gave me fruit and cookies and a robe and slippers. The bed was so comfortable.. you know how after a really long day, getting into bed is almost like the bed is taking you into it? That's how it felt. Then I watched TV for about 15 minutes (cuz they had college football on and I figured I wouldn't be seeing that for a while, which so far has been true) and then crashed. I'd need a lot of rest, cuz I planned to tour Beijing the next morning and then leave for Wuhan in the evening. (note: many pictures to follow)