rising from the dust of inner mongolia

contrary to popular belief, i am not currently working in a chinese work camp shearing sheep with my cell-mate named "da guoren" or in english, "big nuts mcgee". while this may serve as some resemblance of my work situation, it is not reality. the past month or so that i have been MIA has been uneventful/full of experiences that cannot fully be put into words. i will try to give some highlights of the experiences i have had during my past hiatus from writing, as well as write about my recent trip to tokyo. get excited!

i will begin from about a month ago . . . one of the foreign teachers here from providence college left and returned to england. given the lack of foreigners in tongliao, we were the logical shmucks to take up the slack. i was given two more classes of 7th graders, adding 6 more lessons per week to my schedule. while i do get paid a little extra money for the extra classes, my time now is spent entirely devoted to teaching during the week. i have become accustomed to this schedule now, but there were a couple of weeks in which i found myself lost and purposeless. let me explain . . .

with adam leaving the school, chinese teachers complaining about the way they are treated here, and students coming from relatively affluent families who expect good grades (whether truly earned or not) for the amount of money they are paying to send their children here, i began to feel a little useless and impotent. i had had all of these goals for the year. i wanted my students to speak perfect english by the time the year was over. i wanted to be a part of a progressive institution that valued education over rank in society. i wanted to open my students' minds to the world. naive? unrealistic? perhaps. but, we all know that i don't deal well in realism. during this period of time i lost motivation in all endeavors. well, things are much better now and i have realized that perhaps just by serving as a "bright spot" in these children's days that are usually filled with endless rote repetition, slave hours in the classroom, and very little play time, i can make some kind of difference, however superficial it might be. i guess it was a good lesson for me to learn. the learning just never ends here in inner mongolia.

well, during this brief period of despair i had the pleasure of eating dog with some chinese military leaders, experiencing snow in early october, and buying 2 new pairs of shoes for 150 yuan each ($18). yes, these are the highlights in my life. it was right before the end of october that i emerged from the doldrums just in time for halloween.

now, halloween proved to be quite the celebration here in tongliao thanks to us foreign teachers basically forcing it on the residents of this provincial town. from an entire week of lessons devoted to halloween (including showing the movies sleepy hollow and the cartoon version ichabod craine & mr. toad) to throwing a party with some truly inappropriate costumes, the holiday was amply observed. i was appropriately scantily clad dressed as a baby (although i don't think that any parent would let their infant leave the house looking the way i did). the party was a complete success as could be evidenced by the state of my room the next morning. see, i guess when i welcomed everyone at the beginning of the party telling them to make themselves at home, they really took that to heart. from cigarette butts, food, and spilled beer, i felt like i was cleaning up after a college party all over again. COLLEGE!!

time quickly flowed into november and i found myself getting ready for my trip to tokyo. this trip was nothing short of incredible . . .

as anyone who knows anything about me would know i have a ravenous appetite for sushi. tokyo presented me with endless options to gorge myself on fat slices of slimy, raw fish and i couldn't have been happier. to avoid a day-to-day account of my time in tokyo, i will just talk about some of the things that really stand out in my mind. i think the first thing that surprised me when i stepped off the subway car into the streets of tokyo was how silent it was. walking out of tokyo station, i was almost creeped out by how quiet it was. the cars ran quietly, there was no horn honking to be heard, and the people refrained from talking on their cell phones in public. i could hardly even make out anyone talking. there was just a quiet stillness to this completely modern and bustling city. perhaps i was more surprised having spent the past 5 months in china where constant noise is expected and welcomed but nonetheless, silence and serenity are an integral part of japanese culture. the next few days were filled with visiting various shrines, temples, and museums. i saw an exhibit of one of my favorite japanese artists - hokusai. i have missed being able to just stroll through a museum whenever i want. tongliao is not known for its cultural offerings such as museums. i think perhaps my favorite day was when i met up with a japanese friend i had met in dalian on my previous trip there. having just moved to tokyo himself, he didn't know much about the city either, so we were both experiencing it for the first time together. it was really interesting and much more meaningful to have a japanese person with me. we talked about japanese culture, my impressions, his experiences. i shared with him about how much of an impact japan has had on the world from design to electronics to cars. he shared with me those cultural nuances that could not be ascertained during a 5 day trip. even if we hadn't visited shibuya, harajuku, akihabara, asakusa, or yanakka on that day, i would have been happy to have talked with him about japanese culture for hours. it just seems that the japanese embody and value many of the things that i find myself valuing as well - respect for the natural environment, beauty, mental/spiritual health, simple design, and an ability to spend time with a close friend without having to talk the entire time. i felt "at home" among the japanese. oh yeah, and there was the usual messy night in roppongi in which all parties involved watched the sun rise over tokyo. the trip was exactly what i needed to reinvigorate my motivation and excitement for the months ahead.