Friday, February 27, 2009

Dragons and hamburgers

Five Dragon Park 6

Went out to explore the city today and ended up in a beautiful park. Jinan is known for its natural springs, and I saw several of them today. Signs around them tell visitors that it's a poor idea to take the murky, muddy water from the spring pools and put it in bottles to take home, since that's apparently a thing people do.

The park is right downtown, surrounded by tall, nondescript city buildings, but inside the park is all traditional architecture, low pagodas festooned with stone dragons. Amanda (Ben's wife, who is Chinese) ran her hand along the painted decorations and said, "I wish I lived in a time when it was all like this." In her own lifetime, she has seen so much of old China razed and replaced with modern Western building, and it saddens her. "In a hundred years, no one will know what makes China special," she said.

In Beijing a couple days ago, the airport terminal I flew into and a good chunk of the highway from the airport to the city were all brand new. Neither the terminal nor the strips of hotels and apartment high rises were there before the Olympics. They sprung up nearly overnight, a cookie cutter facade to a crumbling national edifice. In Jinan, half the city has been torn down in the past few months in preparation for some other big sports event happening in August. By the end of the summer, the endless blocks of rubble and turned earth will turn into shiny new buildings, which will in turn crumble and peel until they are replaced with something else.

I look forward to revisiting that park as its vegetation wakes up with the spring. It will be a nice place to sit and write.

Five Dragon Park 2

On a different note, we passed many street food vendors today, and I kept asking Amanda what they were selling. One stand had some weird looking sandwiches with bread that looked like cream puffs and filling that looked like fried chicken. I asked what they were, and she started laughing at me. "They're hamburgers! Aren't you American?"

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Yes, NOW we are in China

My first night in China, I ate some Beijing duck. IN BEIJING. It was fantastic, tender and juicy with crispy fried skin, wrapped in really thin tortilla-like things and slathered in tangy plum sauce. Also, a stir-fry of black mushrooms and eggs, and some pickled cucumbers, and beer.

Another "not in Kansas anymore" moment: the restaurant menu had things like dog and pigeon. There was a picture of the pigeon dish. The pigeon was whole, complete with head, fried in its entirety and served with "special sauce." Thankfully, the picture of the dog dish did not include a head. One must be thankful for such small mercies.

Now, after a 3-hour train ride and a couple bumpy cab rides, I am in Jinan, hanging out in Ben's apartment with his lovely wife, waiting for decisions to be made regarding lunch.

The countryside from the train windows was remarkably drab and ugly. Granted, it's winter and everything is brown, but even the inhabited areas are just sad and run-down. The cities sprawl into the brown landscape with smokestacks and identical Communist high-rise apartment buildings, reminding me in the worst way of Moscow. Smog. Tired. One can only hope I feel better about my surroundings after getting some rest and getting over the jet lag.

Are we in China yet?

I'm alive! I'm in China!

Walked into an airport bathroom stall to find a porcelain hole in the ground, literally. That was the first "We're not in Kansas anymore" moment.

It's a pretty damn awesome feeling to fly halfway around the world and be met at the airport by an old friend.

Blogger and Google seem to work just fine even beyond the Great Firewall. Yay!

More later.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

I can feel the distance getting close

(This was originally posted on Facebook and elsewhere in early February, before this blog existed. I am reposting it here, backdated, for the sake of continuity.)

Guess what, kids. I'm going to China.

In, uh, two and a half weeks. To teach English. For 6 months. I am going to be in Jinan, China, in the Shandong province, allegedly the birthplace of Confucius.

When I got back from trucking, I swore up and down that it was the last of the crazy gypsy adventures. I was just so damn tired of moving, of being rootless, of not having a definitive idea of where home was. So I moved to Oakland and made some valiant attempts to Put Down Some Roots. Except, have you seen what's going on with our economy? I've been doing temp work, and some freelance editing. And moping, and questioning. And being mostly confused and miserable.

The thing is, I think I know what I want to do when I grow up. I think I want to teach. Specifically, I think I want to teach ESL (that's English as a Second Language) to teenagers. Because I used to be a foreign teenager in America, and let me tell you, it's no picnic. And I keep thinking back to the story I wrote in NC about high school ESL students, and how much I connected with all the kids I interviewed. Their words still haunt me, in a good way. In a way that reminds me of who I am and where I come from.

What's a recovering journalist with no teaching experience to do in a shittastic economy to acquire some teaching experience? Why, go to a foreign country and teach English, of course.

See, I have this friend. An old, old friend. So old, that 11 years ago (Eleven! Jesus!) he and I were voted the biggest freaks of our high school graduating class. Well, I believe the exact wording of the "superlative" title was something like, "most unique," but we all know what that means in a suburban high school. He kinda dropped off the face of the Earth for a while, then resurfaced again several years ago on the Internets. Turned out, he'd gone and moved to China, and has been there since, starting out as a teacher and progressing to teacher instructor, so he actually teaches teachers how to teach. He's told me in many an email that he could get me a job. In a recent fit of unemployed desperation, I asked him how serious he was. And it sort of snowballed from there.

Despite my track record, I maintain that I have no intention to live like a crazy gypsy for the rest of my life. But, seriously. How many times in a lifetime do you get old friends offering you jobs doing exactly what you want to do in exciting foreign lands? I am overjoyed and overwhelmed, and I think the reality of all this may not sink in until the transpacific flight takes off, at which point I may start flipping out. But, you know, it's best to flip out beyond the point of no return.