Friday, September 9, 2011

Sunner Part 1: A Holiday, Finals and a Wedding

Summer is almost over! And that can mean one thing: It is about time that I should make some kind of update as to what has been going on with me for the past 3 months.

Near around the time that school was finishing up in June, several interesting things happened. First there was a holiday called Dragon Boat festival. This is to celebrate a certain famous Chinese poet and thinker who, when political climates turned against him, threw himself into a river and drowned. Supposedly people threw sticky rice balls after him so that the fish would not eat his inspirational remains, so thusly, it is traditional to eat sticky glutinous rice in celebration. The dragon boat part of it makes slightly less sense to me, but I suppose that if you want to celebrate a holiday near a river, why not have some boats involved? And if boats are involved in a traditional Chinese festival, why not make them look like dragons? And then why not have them race? Because otherwise you are just looking at colorful boats hanging out in a river. Not that I am in any way or form an expert in this stuff. There aren't any dragon boats festivities near Yibin and I never saw any in person.

Instead, some of my students, the ones learning 'Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language', mine and some of Leo's as well and one of their head teachers, they come and host me on a trip to a small village, Lizhuang, not too far from Yibin. It has a few old buildings, an old school and it gives name to a special food that has its origins there, 'Lizhuang bairou', a kind of thin sliced pork you dip into a spicy sauce. We spent most of a day, walking around the narrow streets, out in gardens and fields and strolling along the wide lazy river. It was a nice place, not a whole lot to do, but relaxing in its own way.

That day I did eat a few of the sticky glutinous rice things, though after a while they made me a bit nauseous. They aren't really the kind of fun treat I would associate with a holiday. Not bad exactly, but just not that great I think.

After that, school was wrapping up, I had two weeks of finals for my English majors. This time I wanted the final to be something interesting. I told them that their final was a story they had to tell about their family. I wanted it to be something that they had not heard before, something old, about their parents or grandparents perhaps, and it should be something that is important to their family, or at least, important to them. This gave them a lot of freedom for interesting stories, as was my goal.

Some talked about parents, some about grandparents, about meeting, or falling in love or having an arranged marriage, or about having children or working. And some talked about siblings or childhood stories or things like this. Some were really interesting, and of course, some were not so much.

One described her father performing ghost exorcisms in their small rural hometown. There was a girl that talked about how when her mother was her age, she saw a movie for the first time. About parents being the only one from a village to go to college, about themselves being far from home but eager to return. Some stories were about them or their parents as young toddlers accidentally drinking rice liquor or getting into accidents. One story was about a fish and where her family name is believed to have come from. Some stories were about grandparents that were landlords during the Cultural Revolution and relatives that were killed by the Red Guard. One story was about how a runaway pig brought her parents to meet each other.

All in all, it was a rather enjoyable way to finish up the semester, much better than last year, and it gave the students to tell a story with words that they knew and present it to their classmates. I hope it also encouraged them to talk to their parents and grandparents about the past and their own childhoods and educations and what life was like in their memory. I cant be sure, but I feel that kind of curiosity is not particularly encouraged here. They have mountains of propaganda to tell them about the glorious achievements of the past 90 years of the communist party. They know about medieval China and its accomplishments. Many of them know about certain emperors and princesses, some true and some fairy tale, no doubt, but there is that. But very few know or care much about recent history, about things that happened in China in the 80s and 90s, let alone what could have happened in the 60s and 70s when so many things were changing. And things still are changing, hopefully they will tell their own children about how they were raised.

Ok, enough rambling.

The next thing that happened, and how I will finish up this partial update, is that I went to a Chinese wedding. I suppose I was not particularly surprised by any of it, which surprised me a little. I guess because I was witness to a handful of Senegalese celebrations, including a few wedding ceremonies, that perhaps I am too jaded to the strange ceremony that this one did not seem all that odd. I think it may be that also I haven't been to enough weddings in America that other weddings seem so strange.

I knew the bride from school, she is a teacher or assistant or English major that I have seen around a lot near the end of the semester. We were invited though, by her cousin, another teacher at the school and for most of the day we, myself, the British volunteer Joe, and the Japanese volunteer Kanda Ai, followed her and did what she did. We did not know the groom, and he spoke little English, so we had very few words with him and did not really do much with him until that evening.

The first thing that I noticed was the decorations. I could direct you to the recently posted pictures under the May and June 2011 folder to see a few random shots that I got when I was there. I wish I had better pictures, but I think some of them are ok. Anyway, so this was not a traditional wedding or, as far as I know, an arranged marriage, so it was not too odd. When I came in, I was greeted first by the bride and groom, standing by the door to the hotel (the wedding and reception all happened in the hotel's banquet hall,) handing out cigarettes and candy and people were taking pictures every-which-way. I stumbled through my wedding blessing for them, but with the noise and the shuffle I don't think anyone heard me and I didn't have time to repeat it before I was hustled through the entrance way.

Once inside, i was assaulted by the blues and pinks and reds of the banquet hall. There was a blue arch of flowers and dolphin ballons along a red carpet. Thick pink covers were placed over all 500 or so chairs, gathered around red draped tables already set with beer and rice liquor and several dishes: salty egg slices, smokey flavored tofu, thin sliced pork ear. There was a stage set up with more blue decorations, flowers on pedestals. A single hanging sign in the middle of the back drop, in English, said "Wedding", as if the English speakers were confused, or maybe it was some other sign of good luck...

The Chinese seem a rather superstitious people, lots of things about numbers and certain words and phrases that rhyme with other words and phrases and signifying certain things. For example, the number 8 is lucky. Thus, that Saturday, the 18th was certainly a busy day for weddings. There was also something about how we would begin at 11:58 or the vows would happen at 12:08 or 12:18 or something like that. I am pretty sure that nothing ever happens on a schedule like that in China, and that was no different for this wedding, despite their efforts.

The other thing that I noticed was the dress of everyone, both in the ceremony and in the audience. I was told not to wear anything too nice, maybe just a polo and khaki pants, not even as nice as I sometime dress to teach class in for goodness sakes! But Im glad i didnt, nobody there was dressed up, and if I had worn anything more I guess I would have looked better than the groom and that was not allowed. The strange thing was that he was just in a short-sleeved white collared shirt that looked not particularly like something one would wear to a wedding, maybe more like a day at the beach, and a pair of grey slacks that looked no better than the pants I had on. There wasn't anything at all to distinguish him from anyone else. He wasn't busy, but he wasn't sitting doing nothing either, he did not look particularly happy or unhappy. Later he got drunk of course, but not much more drunk than anyone else there. Most of the day and night I kept having to remind myself which one he was.

The bride on the other hand, did have a beautiful white dress. She only wore it for the ceremony though, for most of the day, the bride is expected to wear red or pink, a lucky wedding color, of course. Oh, there is some other traditional behavior that I did not get to see, mostly just at the beginning and end of the wedding day. At the beginning, the groom comes to the bride's house, where they have a traditional giving away practice. He tries to come in, but her parents and family should not open the door. He can plead with them, beg them, and eventually, offer them red envelopes of money. When the family has deemed that he has offered enough envelopes, they may let him inside where he can gather up his bride. But of course, more complication, she is supposed to hide her shoes and they cannot leave until he pleads and offers her and her family more envelopes in exchange for the location of her shoes. Eventually, they do get away from her parents house and move to his house. I am not as sure as to what happens at his house in the morning, maybe she just talks to his parents, she is to become part of their family now: the bride and groom, his parents, maybe his grandparents, and eventually their children may all live together in one apartment.

Anyway, so back to the wedding: They come marching down the aisle, everyone swarms around them, cameras flashing, children giggling, adults giggling. With the press of the crowd, its a wonder they do make it down, sitting quietly is certainly not a part of this formal ceremony. There are also loud bangs of confetti guns going off as they walk town to the stage, they are rather loud and shower the crowd in colorful bits of paper. At last, they make the stage and then there is a lot that i didn't understand. One lady, i guess she was officiating the ceremony, she talked for a while, welcomed people, gave congratulations. Eventually, they exchanged rings, gave each other hugs (kissing would be way to much for the Chinese), and together they lit a candle display in the shape of a heart.

The ceremony itself I suppose was on the short end. After, there were speeches. I do not recall if the bride or groom ever said anything, but their parents had much to say. As far as I know, the husbands father had some sway that the wedding was almost not as expensive as it looked. There were maybe 50 or more tables, each with at least one bottle of rice liquor that probably was more than $30 each, plus all the food and beer and everything else. Talking to the bride afterwards, she said that she had picked out certain music, love songs and traditional Chinese songs, and had told the DJ to play those. Her father-in-law had an arrangement with them and was getting them on the cheap. Because of this, or in spite of the bride, either way, they played the music that they felt like. And they felt rather strangely. I recognized the theme from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and several other similar action movie theme songs. They also played some other rock songs, none Chinese, few that I recognized, and none that one would find appropriate for a wedding ceremony. The strangest thing I guess for me was that the bride was just so unperturbed by it, as if the wedding were just something she was watching on TV and she didn’t have a hand in it or the power to change what the characters were doing. But I suppose that is just a different philosophy toward the tradition.

At the end of the speeches, the last thing they did was set of these giant sparklers that sent sparks shooting up in front of the stage. I honestly have no idea how that did not burn the building down. Really I am pretty impressed that the Chinese manage not to blow themselves up or burn everything down with the amount of explosives and fireworks and sparklers that they use on a yearly basis. When all that was done, we all sat down to eat. Or rather, some sat and some people wandered about shouting wedding toasts and chugging beer or liquor. I managed to not drink too much, maybe just a two or three beers total with all of the toasting. I had hoped for champagne or wine, but beer or rice liquor was the choice, and I went with the one that would not knock me out on the floor.

Lunch eventually tapered off and ended, most of the guests went home, and I found myself sitting with the bride, now in a short pink dress, and some of her cousins and a few others, some foreigners from town and some children. The parents, along with aunts and uncles were gathered at a couple tables talking and laughing. The groom seemed to be running around busy, but what he was doing, I have no idea. As far as I could tell the bride did not have much else to do with herself after the ceremony and toasting her guests as much as she could stand. For a while we just sat bored and talked about various things. Eventually we had it in our minds that we would go get coffee or a snack, but when we arrived at a good place, we abruptly changed our minds and went looking for some Chinese massages. This was together with the bride and some of her cousins, again the groom disappeared somewhere to relax on his own.

We gave up after a while, no coffee and no massage, and we returned to the hotel banquet hall for dinner. This was a much smaller party than lunch, maybe not even a tenth of the number of people from before, mostly just close family and, inexplicably, us foreigners. We ate and then did some more sitting. Before we got out of the door, everyone turned fast and loose with the toasting. Downing shots of beer that is the style, I feel sure that I had another 4 or more beers in 5 minutes, accepting toasts from each of their parents and older relatives. Somehow drinking in banquets, in social situations and in ceremonies like this one, just is not enjoyable or comfortable. I left wanting to just lie down on the floor. And worse, after a day of drinking, I really just wanted to sleep. I still don’t understand how the Chinese can do it. Practice I guess, drinking all day and still functioning. That’s certainly one of the biggest obstacles to integrating in the community here.

From dinner we all headed out to the extravagance of KTV. KTV is Chinese karaoke. You get a room by the hour, there is a screen with words and invariably a picture that is something shot in China that never matches those words, and people choose songs to sing. It seems like something that would be rather fun, though I have heard almost no volunteer here say that it is ever fun to do KTV with Chinese people. Somehow they think us foreigners know how to read characters in songs, or that we know the random assortment of English songs that happen to be mixed in with the rest, and those are usually strange 80s songs that have long since died in the West. We are served more beer, rather, more shots of beer to take, one after another in a long process of more toasting. I try to stick to lemon tea with little luck. We stay there for maybe 4 or 5 hours. I manage to not get pulled up in front of anyone, it’s really only the younger people here, and they don’t choose any English songs anyway. As I said, the new husband gets very drunk and the wife is not much better, though I think that may be for what comes next that I am happy to not been a part of.

This last part of the wedding night, after everything else is done, was explained to me by the bride and her mom and aunt. A lot of Chinese and a lot of translating were involved, but I have confirmed this since as an actual tradition. From what I understand, Chinese feel that the more uncomfortable the new husband and wife are on their wedding night, the better their marriage will be. They say this as if it is a logical explanation for everything else. I am pretty sure it is not, but did not know how to explain how strange I thought this was. So the husband and wife go back to his room, but not alone. A party of friends and family, usually younger people, usually people not married themselves, but including young children, go back with them. And then they basically play a long dare game. The object is to get the couple to do something embarrassing, the more they refuse, the more they must do it, and everyone gets to make things up, from the children to friends to family members. They did say that the parents and aunts and uncles generally aren’t there. But so as far as I understand, it basically turns into a kind of bachelor party of games, but only the husband and wife participate. And generally everything is sexual. There is stripping, dancing, and, as I was told “mock sex acts” performed in front of everyone. Sometimes props are involved, or dexterity or stamina. And this can go on for an hour or two, before they let the couple, surely exhausted, drunk, and properly embarrassed, alone to sleep.

No other custom in China is so baffling to me as this. I am quite pleased that I was not invited to take part. I suppose wedding ceremonies in Africa were quite strange too, and I guess that gave me a lot of perspective.

Anyway, later I started my summer properly, and I can get to that in part 2 of this post.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer is Here! (time to get busy...)

The semester is over!

My real teaching finished a couple weeks ago, my finals finished last Friday, and (drum-roll) as of late last night, all of my grading is finished! That was a great big pain, lots of little boxes to check and numbers to write in. Lots of students get rearranged on the first day of class, but of course, the grading booklets that are printed up weeks in advance do not reflect that, so there is also a good deal of crossing off students from one class grade chart and then trying to make neat columns in the margins of other charts (though all I can really do is write their student ID number, I would be hopeless at trying to fill in their names in Chinese)

Anyway, the semester finished up well enough. Most of the students have improved very well I think. Mostly, they seem improved in their confidence. Last year many of them had never talked to a foreigner before and none had really practiced their English speaking besides the class chanting and memorized key phrases drilled during high school. Now, they seem much more comfortable in their ability to speak on their own, though, in general, that is not always something that their other classes or the education system or China in general seems to promote.

Many points about the schooling system here, as far as I can see it, baffle me. Take English majors at my school, for example. It seems that their first and second year are the most difficult. They have speaking and listening classes, 'extensive reading' and pronunciation and grammar. Freshman also take physical education classes, though most of my students are so small and thin that I am rather afraid for their health (they don't eat potatoes because they are afraid they will gain weight). They have a few exams of different levels, some that are optional and some that they must take. They are expected to be in speech competitions, debate competitions, and all ridiculous manner of Saturday and Sunday actvitites.

Then their third year, everything seems to lighten up. At least that what it looks like to me. Less weekend activities, though it is still China, so they have to check in on Sunday. Not many extracurriculars, though maybe some help out with English club activities. They have classes on teaching practices and other job skills. I think they spend a lot of time in the library, there is at least one more test that they are expected to take.

The fourth year, as far as I understand, most students get internships, most as teachers at schools in the area or in their hometowns. Some go do some tour guide internships, or other such things with business English. They do these internships for maybe one semester and then come back for a few classes on literature or culture or more teaching or business skills. And that is it.

This would be fine I suppose if not for one main thing. They are English majors but after their second year they have not a single other class requiring them to speak it, and though they may have to teach it later, they dont learn any further communicative English at school. Its not that they just dont usually take it, it just isnt offered. They only take what is given to them to take, everyone for the most part takes the same thing, and they dont even have any more speaking classes!

Anyway, now I am just rambling. So the school year ended. My movie club was pretty poorly attended and my frisbee club was a bust. Next year I have big plans for improvements.

So, exciting events to come:

I have a Chinese language camp starting on Monday. Its basically a PC paid for two week half day college course. Im doing this at a university in Kunming, in Yunnan province, just south from where I am now. That should be fun, though I am nervous about my own Chinese level, I still think I am pretty bad.

After that, I am helping in training, doing a session on alcohol in China and how to keep from being forced to get insanely drunk at banquets, as Chinese generally expect (and force) us foreigners to do.

Then there is the great PC China Summer Project. This interesting activity that gets a great deal of hype, though as far as I understand, it is just a two week camp thing, where volunteers in many different sites around china, get together to teach groups of primary, middle and high school teachers about best-practices for teaching English.

After that is an "Eco-Camp" that I am helping to run. It will last 4 days and have maybe 20 or 25 students from around western China and we will talk about water and air pollution, trash and environmental leadership. It should be fun, though I have my concerns over how it might turn out.

After THAT, I am going to meiguo!! America! for my older brother's wedding. Then I start school and the whole thing starts off again.

I really will update more about all this stuff later. I will try to write more entertaining updates too. I think I am too tired or frustrated today to do a good job...

Busy busy...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

On New Asian Adventures

So after much procrastination, much pestering from good friends, many imaginary obstacles, and the several real obstacles, I can finally send an update on what has been going on with me in the past five months.

So, lets see... In December, classes ended Christmas Eve. Like everything about my classes, I could decide how the finals went, and so, naturally, they turned out terribly. But its all filed as a lesson on what I can improve the next time around. I really didn’t want to use more than one of our 15 weeks of class to do the finals. Also I wanted to talk to them individually for the final so that I could accurately assess their level. I also wanted to do them all in class and not in my office hours since the students seemed to already have busy enough schedules. Taken all together, that was a terrible mess. It meant that I had to talk to all my students in little 2-minute spit-fire sessions and was so worn out by the end of the week that couldn’t think straight.

But that did end. And I gave varying levels of passing grades to all my students, and with the exception of one student and missing attendance records, everything turned out rather well. I certainly am not really an excellent teacher, but I do think I get the job done, and the students are really nice. I had this movie club that met every Sunday and we watched a few interesting movies and I felt like I had maybe taught something, passed ideas about American culture and gotten a few students interested in things that they weren’t so much beforehand.

I spent Christmas and New Years in and around Chongqing, in separate trips. I got to know some really cool PCVs and some interesting areas of China too. In the middle of January was our grand trip to Malaysia and Thailand, and that was amazing.

It started with a trip again to Chongqing, seeing some other PCVs there and going up to another volunteer, Wendy’s town, where it snowed on us. I was really really cold and I decided for sure that cold weather is just not for me. My feet hurt and I just felt terrible. It really wasn’t even that cold for us, except for the fact that central heat doesn’t exist here like it does in America, so that sucks. But I just don’t do so well in the cold anymore. Too much heat from Atlanta, Tucson and Africa over the past years has spoiled my ability to bear anything below freezing.

So we flew out from the Chengdu airport to Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. We were a group of six initially, meeting up with a seventh in KL. We arrived and stumbled our way to a lovely little hostel and promptly realized we had no idea what to do with ourselves there. We had been constantly referring to the trip as our ‘Thailand trip’, and soon realized that we had planned for a layover of about 4 days in KL and needed to get to know the city.

The only thing I was vaguely aware of was that there was a movie with Sean Connery that had a climax centering around the Kuala Lumpur twin towers, the ones with the bridge in between way up in the air. Other than that, not any of us knew another thing about the city or the country. Well, with some exploring, we figured some things out. Firstly, KL itself was a huge, dynamic and diverse city with many different religions, ethnic groups, and perhaps most delightfully, foods. We had chai tea every morning, and with dinner sometimes too. There was nan bread and curry and noodles and so much more.

Appropriately enough, our hostel was located immediately next to the Kuala Lumpur China-town. So we had some idea about the food there, but even within those shops were many surprises, foods not just from Sichuan but from Hong Kong and elsewhere. The long market street of China-town had people selling food, flowers, clothes, toys, lighters, bags and shoes of all kinds. There was a shop selling diced mango next to a cart selling thick fried strips of bacon next to a cart selling all manner of scarves. Compared to the markets I have been in in Senegal and in China, this was the most fantastic. Like a Dakar market on steroids. And people bargained there! It was what they keep telling us about china but never see. It was like Senegal. I went and asked about a hat and got the price down from 25 ringlets to 12. I don’t quite remember the exchange rate, but that was a good deal. It’s a nice hat I think.

There was a massive Hindu festival going on that weekend. We got to go out to this huge cavern place with a giant golden statue at its entrance. Thousands of people were there, paying respects, climbing the many steps inside, up into a special enclosure, where monkeys try to steal food and bottles from people with cameras. It was an amazing place, magical even, and we had more amazing food. Later we went to a jungled park. We hiked up a trail and saw a series of waterfalls, more monkeys and had a wonderful day in fresh air and forests like I hadn’t seen in years. We also got out to downtown Kuala Lumpur and had photo-ops with the towers, went inside them and explored the park at their base.

I really liked the city. Malaysians seem really helpful and friendly. Many people speak English from an early age, so we had little problems with language barriers. The food was great. And it really just seemed a lovely place to travel. Besides being frightened by a pet albino monkey, I thought it all went very well.

At the end of our time, we headed back to the airport, got fast food and doughnuts, and flew out for Thailand. We flew into a small airport in the southern part of the country, Hatyai. There had been some troubling terrorist activities in that part of the country recently, so we had been warned by PC to be careful and not to hang out around the airport or anything. It turns out that everything went fine and we didn’t even notice any increased security or anything anywhere.

We took a van a couple hours to a sleepy coastal town. Checked into a small hotel and we had our first authentic Thai pad-thai. It was pretty good. One of the first things that was clear was that in part of Thainland we were in, or at least in the small town we were in, people did not speak much English and though we learned a couple phrases (hello, thank you), it was not as easy to get around or figure things out as in Malaysia. Not that we needed much, the beach was there, there were some restaurants that had wonderful foods, it was all good.

The next day we took a ferry out to the island of Ko Tarutao, where we would be staying for almost a whole week. This place was pretty amazing. The hotel on the island was much more substantial than I had assumed it would be. We even had electricity at night. Mostly, we did typical beach things, but we also did our best to explore the rather good sized island. The site used to be a prison island until the 1940s where there was a prisoner uprising and they took over, took to pirating for several years until British troops landed and put a stop to that nonsense.

The island is home to troops of monkeys and other cool wildlife, there are mountains and bluffs and caves. In the evening we came across photo-luminescent algae, or some such things, in the water along the shore. It was an amazing week, I took a lot of pictures of the whole thing, up on my picasa account, if you haven’t seen them. In the end, we had a long ride back to the mainland, back to the airport, flight back to Kuala Lumpur and back to Chengdu.

In China, it was the Chinese New Year’s eve, and there was great celebration going on. We got out of the airport near 11pm and to our train station a little later. In the taxi the streets were lit with lanterns and sparklers. Fireworks were going off everywhere. There was constant thumping and banging and whistling and whooshing from every direction. It was a little dizzying. The taxi drivers seeming complete ability to ignore them and speed down streets recklessly and without heed to the people standing in the roads and the bombs bursting all around us, really was a nice welcome back to the madness of China.

We got to the train station near midnight. Many of the workers were out and the security police were having a photo-op with lanterns on the front steps. We just wanted to get train tickets back to one of the volunteers we were with, Joel’s towns so that we could stay at his place for the night and go back to our sites the next day. Of course we had not planned for New Years. No trains were running until the morning. So we were stuck for the next 6 hours with no place to stay. That was a bit funny in itself, it was cold and uncomfortable in the train station, and the next best place we could find was a 24-hour McDonalds in another part of town. We ordered some snacks and some of us slept on the tables while we waited for morning.

I did eventually make it back home ok, after one of the best vacations I have had in a long time. Shortly after that, we had our In-Service Training (IST). This was two weeks in Chengdu with all of the other volunteers that I had come to country with and many of the volunteers that were here before us. We got together for more language training, and to talk a good deal about our work as teachers and how we can use improved teaching techniques or deal with common problems in Chinese classrooms such as teaching to multilevel environments and large class sizes. My Chinese level is still pretty bad, though I did get a little confidence from the training and the progress of other volunteers in similar situations.

Shortly after IST, School started again at Yibin University. I have the same classes and most of the same students this semester as I did last semester. Still six classes of freshmen English majors and one smaller class of freshmen Teaching-Chinese-as-a-Foreign-Language majors.

Wrapping this all up, classes this semester have been going pretty well. Our school year doesn’t end until the third week in June here. My schedule this semester doesn’t really allow for too much travel on weekends unfortunately. We have had a couple small bike trips around Yibin. Unfortunately we went on really terrible rented bikes that didn’t really have working gears or brakes or sometimes handlebars. Also I did get up to LeShan a couple weeks ago and saw the famed ‘big-Buddha’. I have more pictures of these up on Picasa too.

That’s all the gist of what has been going on here. I have been doing Frisbee with my students on Saturday afternoons and movies in my office on Sunday afternoons and that has been fun at times. Currently, we watched half of the first Pirates of the Caribbean and today we are watching the second half. That is rather funny because a lot of explanation for pirate speech and nautical terms. But I think they like the movie.

Ok, before this gets any longer, I will end it here. I will have more updates later. I will really try to never go this long again without telling y’all I am still alive. PEACE.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My New Jacket and Other Holidays

So I am no longer freezing to death. Im sure there was great concern in my following, but now you can hold off the vigils and such, Ive learned to suck it up, and I bought a jacket.

Anyway, so there was a Halloween party at the university. That was interesting. My site-mate and I wanted to do the holiday right, so we went downtown and tried to find a pumpkin, which according to all our students, was a totally reasonable mission. Alas, the English translations were not so good for their large gourd squash things and even their consistency did not really seem right to make a weird mishapen jack o lantern, though I suppose we could have tried a little harder. I mean, In Senegal I saw volunteers make them out of watermelons, that is dedication.

But we did want to get dressed up, though generally failed in the whole get-a-costume thing. I ended up as some sort of weird black and white thing with clowny clockwork orange kinda makeup. Leo put some red around his mouth and carried around a hammer and I guess was some kinda serial killer of some sort. And then from there we went to the 'party'.

Now I was pretty sure that no matter what, a college party here in China could not resemble a college party in America. I will have to write a whole other blog about how maturity levels are different, ideas of independence, general behavior of students, feelings about drinking and having fun, all is so different. Anyway, but the party was hosted by the university, it was held in a big banquet hall above the cafeteria, and there was some vague holiday-ish decorations (ok, I admit I did see some cut outs of ghosts and a witch on a broom), lots of colorful lights, a stage and seating set up facing the stage taking up most of the room. When we came in there were many students packed into this room, many of them were my students, so that was cool. No one in that main room was wearing any kind of costume but us. We tried to mingle for a while in the crowd, meeting people and scaring people with our 'beautiful makeups', but we were soon ushered over to stage left so that the party could begin. This ushering us around was definitely a big part of the whole evening. On the stage was an announcer or host of some sort, and he was starting things off, getting people to take their seats. He was being filmed by some video crew, another interesting point of the evening.

Again, we were mingling over to the side of the stage with various people. Out the door to the side were maybe a dozen students dressed in costumes, where the whole point was that they were wearing them to be judged on stage and afterwards they would promptly remove them. Soon after the program began, we were unexpectedly ushered on stage and asked to explain Halloween for everyone, why it was important and what it meant for all Americans. That was odd. Then they spontaneously asked us to begin our "program", whereupon we stared blankly at each other for a while. Bo one had really said at all what was supposed to happen at this "party", let alone that we were expected to have a 'program'. Eventually, Leo told a terrible rendition of some ghost story that no one could really hear anyway with the music and the noise, and that they wouldnt have understood anyway even if they could hear it. Then the costumed people came up on the stage in a big line and we were told to choose two to be the winners or soemthing. I just chose kinda at random and felt badly after because I could have picked one of the two or three that were my students and it would have all been the same.

Anyway, then we tried to just hang out and mingle by the stage but then we were again ushered to sit in front row center for the rest of the program. There was singing and music playing, kungfu demonstrations and dancing. Later there were some games presented by the host, where he choose people 'randomly' from the audience and had them do things, like who could wrap tp around their partner the fastest (vaguely halloween-like, mummy like at least), and another was a game like charades, the rest i couldnt really figure out.

Eventually that all ended and it was time for the dance party. Again, not to be confused for an American dance party. First the chairs were partway moved so that some of the dance department could come and break-dance. This was in fact one of the coolest and most interesting things I have seen here in China simply because it was so different and interesting. After that they cleared out all the chairs and there were a few different dance melodies played where students danced in unison, electric slide style, sometimes in conga line, sometimes in rows, sometimes with a partner, sometimes in a circle. It was kinda fun, I am not good at being coordinated, but it was funny at least.

And that went on for maybe a half hour or so, maybe more, and that was it, the lights came on and everyone left. That was the whole college party, China-style. Oh, i guess there was some candy, they randomly threw hard candy over the crowd sometimes.

Throughout the whole event, people constantly took pictures with us. That is pretty constant anytime we are at any function or a student has a camera. But this was much more so because of our semi-costumed selves. Everyone wanted pictures. One student would come up and her friend would take the picture with her phone, then her own phone, then another person would come up and there would be three more pictures with all the phones, then the friend would want to be in the picture so she would give all the phones to someone else and there would be another four taken... and so on and so on. Literally the entire evening. My face hurt from trying to smile so much.

The other thing was we were constantly, constantly apologized to for it not being interesting. I had to say over and over that it was interesting. It was legitimately interesting. And then they would say, "but it is not like Halloween in America?" Well of course it is not like bloody Halloween in America, nobody does anything like this in America unless you are in elementary school, but then I didnt really want to explain all that. I just had to keep saying over and over that I was having fun. That was a really annoying part. Often people here will ask you over and over if you are having fun, and you cant say 'no', but even when you are having fun, especially when you are having a good time, it can just be obnoxious to have the same four sentence conversation with every person you talk to.

So that was Halloween. Strange, interesting, kinda exhausting.

Now yesterday was another holiday, the new year celebration for the Yi ethnic group in China. I will try to keep this short as this is already way too long a post. Much of the administration at the school gets invited to this celebration held by some of the Yi student leaders, not far from the university. We got there just after ten in the morning and stayed until after 5 in the afternoon though we were told that it would continue until maybe ten that night, they like themselves a party.

So there were maybe a hundred or so people total there, students and administration and their families, maybe a bit more. I was there with Leo and the other American paid teacher, Donald, and a Japanese volunteer (JICA) teacher was there too. She just came to Yibin and has been teaching Japanese majors for a week. The four of us were often together as we were the big interest, besides the holiday that was going on.

After some tea, mahjong and card games, people gathered around a bonfire and two small pigs were brought out. It was clear almost before I was the pigs what was happening. Maybe I can sense it from being in Senegal, the metal bowls, the long inexplicable knife held by some young grinning guy. First they carried the pigs around the fire three times, we didnt get good translations on the symbolism in everything but I am sure that many things had symbolism. Many of the Yi men and women wore soft black coats with colorful embroidery. The Yi people are mostly in western Sichuan province and Tibet, if I understood correctly.

Then there was something new for me. I had never seen a pig slaughter before, let alone two. It was quick, ill give it that, but the screaming before hand, eek. But it was different then Senegal, not the throat cutting move, but rather a neck stab into the heart.

Later there was dancing around the fire, some singing, some chanting, general merriment. Then lunch was served a little after one. I had to eat some of the pork, though it was served in rather intimidating large chunks to eat with chopsticks. And then the drinking, toasting, and all that began. I tried to limit myself because I am weary of such situations, but many people were rather drunk in quick order.

After lunch I wanted to just talk to people and mingle, as I always want to do at parties and always fail to do here because no one ever lets me. Instead they had more singing, followed by a kind of wrestling, followed by arm wrestling, which I got pulled into more than once. Then there was more singing and whatnot. Some old guy pulled out an accordion and that was kinda cool. But then everything started to drag out and it was clear if we stayed for another hour we would be expected to have dinner and more and I thought we would be best to make an exit.

It was really cool though, the music, the songs, the clothes, the dancing, the tradition. I really want to do more things like this while I am here. maybe without the arm wrestling...

This week is of course Thanksgiving, the deans of the school have invited us to some dinner that night and Leo and I really want to go to another city where many other PCVs are meeting for a weekend. I guess I will let y'all know how all that turns out.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

On Freezing to Death in China

It is cold here. Really. Like really cold. Well, ok, I should qualify this.

I haven’t had real fall like weather since 2007, and that was in good ole Atlanta and so it really wasn’t that cold feeling till later, and even then I was more prepared for it. That is a good part of the reason. Senegal only had coldish weather starting maybe around December, and then, well, it was Africa cold, like 80s, that kind of cold. But to be fair, it was really like one long summer, punctuated by periods of more heat, more rain, or more wind. Though generally, it was a big long two and a half year summer.

And now apparently it is fall. I was first informed that it was fall back in September. That was around the time that I was teaching with rolled up sleeves and sweating through the shirt anyway. My fan and AC were on whenever I was at home and I thought that I really should invest in a hand fan (though they just don’t seem the same after having one in Africa so long). It was hot here. Not really like dreadful Sahel heat, but up to 40 some days and the worst was that it was humid. The air is so thick sometimes with coal smoke and fog that it is hard to see the scenery, even mountains that are just a kilometer or two away. But anyway, it was hot, and that was only a month ago.

Now I guess the seasons are changing or something. Though you cannot tell it here from the trees. There is one kind of tree found in a couple spots on campus that looks like it is losing its leaves. But then maybe it is just diseased or something. Everything else is a green as ever. Anyway, so I guess it has been around in the 50s this last week. Not terrifically cold, but cold enough for me. The other problem is that that I don’t really have any kind of reliable way to heat my apartment. There is this AC thing that is up near the ceiling that I can switch to heat, but it only stays on for a couple minutes at a time, maybe enough to heat the ceiling near its thermometer, then it clicks off and I think the heat must mostly all go to the windowpane a foot away and the rest of the room, let alone the rest of the apartment, stays about just as cold as it would be anyway. So that’s to say, I wake up pretty cold, which I would enjoy except that I have class at 8.30 most mornings and this cold really makes me want to sleep past 7.

It’s becoming more of a problem because I really don’t have enough winter clothes. I knew this coming over but I figured I would just pick stuff up here and so far that hasn’t really worked out. Bargaining is a bit intimidating when you don’t speak the language enough to say more than some numbers and the things I would bargain for here aren’t on the same level as Senegalese prices (where I could get a shirt and shoes together for three dollars if it’s a good day). Not to say that I don’t have some. I even have a couple of nice suit jackets that my aunt was nice enough to help me get. But I will need to invest in a couple sweaters and maybe a coat before this winter comes on for real. And that is really strange because I am told that it doesn’t even snow here so it shouldn’t even get as cold as Atlanta…

The other fun news of the day is that because of various factors that are beyond my understanding, the school here has decided to keep its students from trouble in the city by instituting a 7 day school week. I was informed of this for this weekend by a phone call at 8am saying that I needed to teach on Saturday like it was a Tuesday, and teach on this Sunday like it was a Wednesday. That is just super fun. Not. The students seem disgruntled, I am certainly disgruntled, and I don’t even know who or what to be mad at. There are rumblings that it will continue next weekend and maybe will go on to the indefinite future. I sure hope not, maybe someone will talk some sense into someone this week to stop all that from going on. I didn’t even have the will to do anything today about class. I had been thinking of traveling to visit some other volunteers who were having a Halloween party in Chongqing. But I guess it is a good thing that I wasn’t there because then I would have missed all this excitement…. I also wanted to do a movie club meeting this weekend. Oh and maybe relax, that would have been fun too. But today I showed pictures of Halloween stuff in America and told them, from the best of my memory some American fairy tales that involved witches and pied-pipers and whatnot. The students just wanted to watch a movie, but I don’t know if I can get away with that much laziness.

Anyway, here’s to hoping for the weekend…