the tender side of china

i just wanted to include the following letter as proof that i really am teaching english over here in inner mongolia and not just riding donkey carts around fraternizing with the locals (although, some of that will be done within the year). this is from a student that we have been teaching in the "english salon" for the past 10 days. he was one of the star students and unfortunately had to miss the last lesson today. here is his apology for missing:

The Classroom of Grade 1, Class 17
Senior Middle School
Northeast Hope International School
Tongliao, China

Dear folks,

How are you now? I'm Steve. I am sorry for that, but I have to tell you. I ought to go back my hometown. I should go back and prepare for coming new term. I was so happy staying with you guys and learn from you. To talk with you was very nice. I can not forget this . This memory will be forever!

And allow to forgive me for that bad Greeting at this noon. You know. I was a little nervous and have so many words to tell you at that time. So I am sorry to you here.

Time flies! Now I write to you so! and Best wishes for you! Good luck in all your events. Instead of this Greeting "Bad Luck."

At 9th August, I will come back. See you then!

Sincerely yours,


selling my body

well, as luck would have it, my dream of selling my body for profit has come to fruition. upon accepting the offer for this job, i was unaware of the exact nature of my work, but i now understand that my physical body - my presence - is as important as my mind, if not more so. for the past few days, my job has entailed planning and teaching lessons for the "exceptional students" of the city to be taught during what the school likes to title the "english salon" (it is actually a ploy by the school to recruit more students from the city by parading the foreign teachers around = us), and then on my off days travelling into the city with some of my fellow english teachers to sit for hours on end at the recruitment office (picture a holding cell with a desk at one end, a water cooler at the other, and a tasteful plastic palm tree somewhere in between). mind you, the prospect of recruitment sounded fun and important at first mention. i imagined meeting the families of prospective students and having meaningful conversations with each, resulting in the student anxiously begging his/her parents to send him/her to this school that employed such talented english teachers as myself and the other foreign teachers. the parents would gladly write the tuition check on the spot and hand over their children to our talented and loving care . . .

so back to reality now . . . it is now the fourth hour of sitting without any sign of a family entering or even being interested in entering the dark and uninviting recruitment office. oh but wait, here is a little girl with her mother. they walk in heading straight for the desk at the far end of the room. i stand in surprise and readiness to sell the offerings of this progressive and well-outfitted establishment. i take a step toward the girl and her mother in anticipation of speaking with either . . . a few more steps . . . one, two, one . . . intercepted mid-step by one of the chinese teachers who had previously been lounging on a chair devouring crackers with ham flavored cheese spread between them (cue vomit now). she says that i "needn't talk with the families" but that i was just to serve as an "advertisement" for the school. befuddled, i sat back down on the couch, still warm from my previous four hours of sedentary boredom, and finally came to understand that i was not only here to teach these children english, but also to sell my body to all of tongliao . . . inner mongolia . . . china for that matter in an attempt by the school to attract the best and brightest of chinese children. with the northeast hope international school serving as my pimp for the next year, i will embrace my new-found whoredom . . . i mean, everyone has to get their jollies somehow.

the harem

dancing (inner) mongolians

the survival instincts of a college student (now former college student . . . weird to say) stipulate that one must "pregame" before going out to a bar or nightclub in order to place less stress on the wallet after arriving at said location. with this instinct still firmly embedded in the minds of myself and my fellow "mongolians", we began the night of friday, july 22, 2005 pregaming with the essential "pijiu" and "baijiu", hopeful that the night would bring some fun, laughter, or at the very least, a good story to report. well, i am happy to say that all of the above were very successfully achieved.

after a lengthy "pregame" session, we walked to the gates of our veritable oasis to try and hail two taxis into the city. well, as with any taxi ride in china, there is always much haggling to be had including shouting, frantic hand motions, and angry faces, only to eventually end with smiles and "shie-shie's" all around. i guess bargaining is just in the blood of the chinese and warrants no hard feelings at the end of a transaction. i am always fatigued and frustrated by the time any haggling is over, but the taxi driver acts as if nothing happened. i appreciate this custom and will strive to become a master at the taxi haggle. well, after arriving at the KFC (as this is the only landmark we know how to communicate and thus call the street KFC Boulevard), we walked with great anticipation toward a street a few blocks away teeming with neon lights suggesting some kind of nightlife activity. on the way, pat and i took a detour to an alley to relieve ourselves of the burden our bladders had so selfishly given us, when upon exiting the alley (still fastening out pants) we were greeted by two younger chinese men. while the conversation was understandably void of any real meaning, we were able to communicate our desperate desire to go to a nightclub (i say desperate because our means of communication - body movement in what could be construed as some type of dancing - had to have come across as desperate). the two men pointed to a grouping of flashing neon lights a few blocks down the road. we thanked them and hurried to tell the others of our discovery.

after checking out a few of the establishments on the busy street, which turned out to be karaoke bars all in chinese (i don't know why we thought it would be otherwise), we decided to check out the place the two young men had pointed out. waltzing in as if we were VIP's . . .

the overwhelming fragrance of cigarette smoke immediately gave me a second-hand buzz, so my report of the scene may be somewhat skewed, but i give myself artistic liberties in this case. well, the first thing that i noticed was the woman singing on the stage in the middle of the multi-level club. people were all gathered around the stage sitting on tables cheering for the glamorously-clad woman singing. we were greeted and taken to be seated on the second floor balcony. we had hoped for a nightclub to dance (or at least i had . . . you know me and dancing), but this was definitely serving as a necessary cultural experience. after the woman was done with her little ditty, a man in what can only be called a suit made from a leopard perpetually stuck in the 80's (shiny leopard pants and a shiny floor-length leopard coat) strolled out rocking huge black sunglasses. his act included various chinese pop songs, beer drinking contests, as well as a portion dedicated to making fun of us (singing "a,b,c,d" . . . then saying something in chinese and everyone laughing, except us of course, all the while looking up at us). we, of course, loved it and pretended like we didn't know that they were making fun of us. just to make ourselves look even more mock-worthy, i descended the stairs and gave the guy a beer which he proceeded to chug much to our delight. after a few more songs, we were all but ready to leave and try the karaoke bars as the club had turned out to just be a dinner theatre type venue, when . . .

women in bikinis exploded onto the stage and gave a short, yet effective, little show. the night was looking promising . . . we had no idea. just as the swimsuit show ended, the music grew louder, the lights began flashing even more rapidly and the stage that had once supported the 80's leopard guy, the glamorous woman, and the scantily clad chinese swimmers retracted and the people who had been sitting at the tables rushed the floor. looking at each other; "pijiu", "baijiu", and cigarette smoke fueling our desires, we followed the tonglians and rushed onto the floor with cheering from the crowd. crawling onto the stage (crawling was necessary in our state), trying to dance with shy chinese girls (who subsequently ran away screaming), and other antics ensued. the rest of the pictures can explain the rest. i will return with more stories of well-received awkwardness and embarrassment.

tongliao tidbits

so it has now officially been a week since i got to china and while there are some aspects that are becoming familiar (i.e. the fact that i have to get used to the fact that every meal will be an adventure in itself, the fact that i do not understand anything anyone is ever saying to me (or more commonly, at me), cold showers, the smell of manure and sewage, getting up at the ass crack of dawn, and the fact that i feel like a bumbling idiot when it comes to trying to respect cultural customs), there are still so many aspects of life here that i have not grown accustomed to, but i know that that will come in time. it is strange to think that this place, tongliao, will be my home for one year, as it is completely different form anything i am used to. so here are a few observations and experiences i have had during my first few days here in my new home.

tongliao is quickly growing as a regional center of commerce, agriculture, and development. the city itself is bustling and is much more developed than i had anticipated. while i do not know what any of the stores carry, what kinds of nightlife the city has to offer, or what kind of restaurants/bars are available as every sign in the city can be discerned as having little more meaning to me than "*#$%)@^&", i am comfortable in stating that the city is of growing importance and a burgeoning cosmopolitan center. as any foreigner will quickly realize while walking/riding through the city is the lack of stop lights present at any intersection. there is a small stool in the middle of each intersection on which a police person is to stand, but i have rarely seen one such police person and when i have, they have been doing little to lessen the confusion wrought by cars, bicycle rickshaws, mules, and pedestrians all trying to maneuver the same intersection at the same time. speaking of bicycles . . . i bought my own bicycle for the equivalent of $20 US, as i obviously enjoy the constant anxiety of wondering whether i will be hit by some speeding toyota or some out of control mule-cart. the bike, however, is conspicuously made with the sole purpose of being ridden by a chinese person who will statistically be much smaller in stature than me. needless to say, my knees come dangerously close to hitting my chin every time i ride, but i know that this paints a very humorous picture for you all, so why would i try to remedy it?

riding one's bike out of this confusion and bustle of the city for little more than ten minutes, however, and you find yourself right in the middle of miles and miles of corn fields dodging mule-drawn carts overflowing with crops and people riding on top of the harvested plants. about 30 minutes out and an oasis of sorts can be seen off to the left bearing the name of the Northeast Hope International School. this is where i work and reside. after passing through the gates (which are guarded by camouflaged "security" guards) the visitor is presented with a beautiful setting of tree-lined walkways, well-constructed buildings, and the ever-humorous fountain show complete with chinese classical music. each time i experience this spectacle i can't help but wonder how much a fountain system like this cost and where that money could have been spent elsewhere, but that is not my place, nor in my control, so i must just accept it with a smile (and a chuckle).

i will include some pictures of the facilities of the school following this paragraph, but i would just like to say that i was blown away by the modernity and scope of the resources available to students here. there are facilities here that any US school could only dream about. the TV studio (yes, a full service TV studio for high schoolers) is nicer than any i have ever been in, the planetarium (and yes, a planetarium complete with telescope and constellation/planet projector) is as nice as any museum's i have ever been to, and the physics lab has more equipment than a physics lab at any major research university. all in all, these students are very lucky . . . the tuition of the school comes at a meager RMB 12,800 (about $1500 US). i am understandably jealous of these students and excited to take part in the second year of a revolutionary school whose educational philosophy will hopefully spread to other parts of china.

i'm sure that there will be many more revelations about the city and school in the future, but let me just talk about some interesting (and anxiety-inducing) experiences that i have had just briefly. first of all, as most of you know, i have not eaten beef since seventh grade. due to the lack of protein available here, i have had to resort to eating it again but not without some complaints from my stomach. i do not like the fact that i am eating precious little cows again, but with the number that i have seen blocking traffic on the roads outside the school, i guess a few can be dispensed with. secondly, yesterday we were told that we had to go to the local hospital for a "complete physical" to receive our residence permits. the idea of a "complete physical" caused our stomachs to flip, as we were not sure exactly of what that meant (and neither was our boss, mr. zheng). with some trepidation, we arrived at the hospital which consisted of a small building bordered by filthy alleys on either side. walking into the lobby of sorts, the smell of sewage that i have grown so accustomed to stood stagnant. i may have become accustomed to the smell of sewage, but i don't think i will ever be able to ignore the smell in a HOSPITAL. well, not to go into too much detail, i was put through a battery of tests which included the usual height, weight, blood pressure . . . and the not so usual being hooked up to a machine with clamps on my ankles and wrists and electrodes on my chest (i'm not really sure what they were measuring, but i wasn't really able to ask questions) as well as a chest x-ray in which i was to step into a dark room with a strange man who moved this panel around my chest giving the strange sensation of being groped (i couldn't really see what was going on and felt strangely violated afterward, but i will just believe that it truly was a panel moving around and not some strange chinese doctor's hands). we also went to the local public pool which served as a daily reminder of how ignorant we are of local customs. supposedly we were supposed to wear swimming caps which we were very blatantly yelled at to wear by some of the patrons. "unclean", "unclean" being yelled in chinese while being pointed at is never a pleasant experience, but one that warrants laughter later in the privacy of one's home.

well that is all i have for now. i am going into the city today with some of my fellow mongolians (as we like to call ourselves) to scope out any nightclubs or bars that we could go to in order to get our requisite cultural embarrassment in for the week. i will report back about any stories that come out of attending an inner mongolian club (as i'm sure there will be many).

real china

well i know i promised to let everyone know that i got to beijing safely, but from the very moment i got there there was literally no time to do anything but sightsee, eat, and sleep (not much at that), so i apologize. in any case, beijing was not at all what i expected. i guess what i had expected was a city somewhat resembling tokyo; modern, clean, cosmopolitan, etc. while beijing is definitely quickly modernizing and developing (as evidenced by the great number of cranes all over the city), it is far from being anything like tokyo. i am not saying that this is all bad, however, as it would be a great shame to see all of the traditional neighborhoods and buildings disappear. because of the olympics, these neighborhoods are being replaced by large, sterile apartment buildings which is making the city lose its character very quickly.

the first thing that anybody will notice when arriving in beijing in july is the intense humidity. now this isn't any humidity i have ever felt and this is perhaps because of the fact that it is coupled with overwhelming pollution. the moment i stepped out of the airport i felt as if my skin was caked with a layer of sweat and dirt that could be peeled off layer-by-layer. even in the evening hours the air feel so thick that you can hardly breathe. this coupled with the fragrant smells of sewer and sweat so prevalent in china and you have a recipe for nausea.

our hotel was incredible to say the least. i would have to say that it is one of the nicest hotels i have ever been in. the shark tank in the lobby and the women dressed in geisha outfits made the whole thing kind of trashy touristy and disneyland-like, but that is what a lot of china feels like - random, kitschy, and not much unlike a theme park. breakfast the next morning proved the be my first test in adventure (see picture).

chicken and duck feet, spicy turnip, and beef noodles are not exactly my idea of a well-balanced breakfast. the rest of the day was spent hiking the great wall. now before i had seen the great wall, i had thought that it was just like any other normal wall - straight and flat. well, this is anything but what the wall is actually like. parts of the wall seem as if you are scaling a vertical cliff while being pushed and yelled at in chinese the whole way up. it was at this point that i realized just how many people live in china and their complete lack of value in personal space - not to mention that it seemed as if the entire country had decided to hike along with us. i ended the day sweaty, sunburned, with a total feeling of demoralization after having been scolded on multiple occasions by irate chinese women (angry about who the hell knows).

oh lunch was also interesting, as we ate in what can only be called a communist mess hall. it was a large room about the size of 3 gyms, consisted of many tables, and people shared food served in large metal pots being slopped onto metal dishes. if i could picture how people ate back in the day in soviet russia, this would have been it.

dinners in china are always a very interesting affair. during any dinner in which a host is hosting an esteemed guest(s), the custom is for the host to offer a toast to the guests. this does not consist, however, of just one toast as would suffice in the US. every dinner involves no less than 20-30 individual toasts in which the guests are to finish their glass of beer after each toast. well, after about 10 chugging sessions dinner becomes more of a debaucherous bacchanalian occasion than a dinner. i, of course, have no complaints about this, but it is one the elements of chinese culture that i find pleasantly humorous.

the second day in beijing was filled with trips to the summer palace, tian'men square, and the forbidden city. the summer palace is one of the most beautiful places i have ever been. situated within one of the largest and most populous cities in the world, this place has a massive lake and tranquil gardens that make you forget that you are in the middle of a city. tian'men square was an eerie place to visit as i could not forget what happened there in the past and yet i had to remind myself how far china has come since then. china is after all the future and something like tian'men square would hopefully never happen again. our tour guide, however, made it clear to us that he was not permitted to talk about the events at tian'men square when we asked him about it - progress takes time, i guess. the forbidden city was also very impressive. it spans for what seems forever, but is again so overwhelmed with tourists that it is difficult to see any of the interiors of the buildings. the architecture and art, however, make for a very beautiful setting.

immediately after visiting these various sites we were hurried to the train station in order to catch our 14 hour train to tongliao. 14 hours in a train may not sound that bad, but try 14 hours in a train without air conditioning, having to sleep in bunk beds stacked three high. needless to say, we got drunk with our boss going shot for shot with this nasty chinese liquor called "baijiu" made from sorghum. the night was spent in a perfect stupor despite the heat and odors. the next morning was not at all pleasant waking up at 4:30 sweaty, hungover, and smelling of a barnyard, but at least i slept well.

well that is it for now. i will post another blog perhaps tomorrow with some tales from tongliao. inner monglia is proving to be an adventure in itself. stories of bikes, "baijiu", and beef will come in the future. until then, ni hao and bai-bai . . .

china dreaming

well the day is almost here. i leave for china in a little over 24 hours and i truly have no idea what to expect. i don't know if my lack of nervousness or apprehension is going to be helpful or hurtful, but i guess that lends to a more exciting experience once i get there - it's in that inability to expect what the future may hold that surprise and revelation change us.

i have been trying to envision what china might look like, smell like, or feel like and i have constructed a picture in my mind of a largely modern city teeming with people, smells, and different textures. i see a few small traditional neighborhoods with well-tended central gardens. men are pulling rickshaws with their anxious customers riding with expectation. children run in the streets. the smell of the outdoor markets overwhelm my nose with many unfamiliar smells.

outside the older neighborhoods in the franticness of modernity businessmen rush to make their next deal. cars whiz past or rather are caught in relentless traffic. neon signs advertise the latest and best products in a language wholly imperceptible. the familiar brands of globalization abound.

gathering, consolidating, processing . . . these things will be a part of my life for the next year. how could i not be excited about what adventures await me?