Sunday, March 29, 2009

Wind of change

Mao and pagodas

I've been turning this over in my head since I came to China, this reason why I seem to have a knee-jerk dislike of so many things here. It's not the dirt and it's not the foreignness, though both of those are not exactly my favorite things. It's the fact that China reminds me so much of Russia, the way Russia was when I was a kid, 20 years ago.

I was born in Moscow and lived there until I was 10 years old, when my family immigrated to America. My memories of it are the hazy recollections of a child -- I remember my house and my grandmother's house, my school and taking the subway, small things about everyday life. I can't describe the political tension and the mood of the country as the Soviet regime crumbled into nothingness and the borders opened. I can, however, remember finding out about Moscow's first McDonald's opening up, and wanting desperately to go there, because of the inherent appeal of the forbidden Western fruit. This is why it's been so hard for me to describe the similarities between here and there -- I lack the language of adult analysis for the Russian side, and lack the language more literally for the current Chinese experience.

The most tangible similarity has to do with housing. I grew up in a huge, crumbling, industrial-looking apartment block with poor infrastructure. I hadn't seen any buildings like that since I came to America. In China, everyone lives in them, the faceless Communist stone boxes divided into identical little apartments, too many people crammed into each one with insufficient plumbing.

Many of my fellow teachers and other foreign expats who come to love this country say it is because they have never seen anything as exciting. The lack of infrastructure is part of the excitement. When the power or water go out, all you can do is laugh about it. If I had grown up in a cradle of Western comfort and stability, I would be more inclined to take it in stride, shrug and chalk up one more point for "local color." But I didn't, so I can't. It hits too close to home. I grew up like that, with the inconsistent power and water, in a nation that imposed poverty on its population as one of the side effects of Communist power-grabbing. I have never had any desire to return to Russia, and living in China now feels too close for comfort. I remember too well how hard-won my American comfort and stability have been.

There are other factors and reminders, of course. The xenophobia that comes with a closed society. The way all foreign and Western things are simultaneously feared and coveted. The amount of bureaucratic red tape required for travel. Something about the mood of people, the atmosphere. These are insufficient words. As I said before, I lack the language to fully describe this.

If YouTube were not currently blocked by the Great Firewall, I would end this with "Winds of Change" by The Scorpions, written in the early 90s about the children of Moscow faced with such a rapidly changing world. It's a song about me, about my generation. I was a child in Moscow when the song was written. I can hear it now in the streets of China, a soft whisper through the veil of smog and exhaustion.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Let's never come here again because it will never be as much fun

City, lost in translation

You've all seen Lost in Translation, right? Yeah, it's like that. It's all like that. The strangeness, the complete alienation. The way everything floats by in a haze of foreignness. The way I live squarely in a world of concreteness rather than abstraction -- I can make myself somewhat understood in shops and restaurants, but not much beyond that. The way the bubble of concreteness makes me feel so one-dimensional. The way my foreignness is always on display, even when I feel like crap and just want to walk down to the store to get some food, everyone will inevitably turn their head and stare and laugh. Most of the time, I don't mind. But sometimes, it makes me not even willing to leave my apartment for entire days on end.

Here's the thing: I came to China, and to this city specifically, because of my friend, who told me I would live in the big dorm-like building with 20-odd other foreign teachers. Instead, I live on the other side of town, surrounded by Chinese people. I'm not blaming my friend, who genuinely had no control over this, but I am blaming the school for misleading me. If I had known the level of immersion I would be in, I would not have come here. I would have done this the right way instead of the easy way, done my full research and gone to South America, where I speak the language and the culture interests me, instead of just coming here because someone else was willing to take care of the particulars for me.

I was hoping that living here would increase my interest in China and its culture to something beyond a surface-level tourism. This has not been the case. The problem here may be Jinan, which is neither old, historic, nor pretty. It's a polluted, sprawling dirt pile of a city. I sincerely hope my interest in this country increases after I get paid and can start traveling in my days off, but right now it's all very grim.

I feel very guilty for thinking all these things. Here I am, in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, complaining. And I'm trying, I really am. It may be a matter of adjustment, of waiting. But right now, I am thoroughly not happy.

The teaching, however, is going wonderfully. Last weekend, my teenager class watched Mulan and then had a lively discussion about gender roles in modern China. The teaching, and that class specifically, may be the only thing that will keep me here for the length of my 6-month contract. It reminds me quite a bit of the year I spent in rural North Carolina, actually -- I was there paying my dues to my chosen profession, trying to get newspaper experience, but I was so lonely and miserable, and always felt so foreign. I didn't expect this here, though it makes sense.

Today marks a month of my being here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Refreshing the world

The company I work for is a private language school, which means our students attend English classes in the evenings and weekends, so my work schedule is the opposite of a regular school schedule. I work Friday nights, then 11-hour days on Saturdays, then slightly shorter days on Sundays. After two exhausting weekends of work, I finally feel like I can start drawing conclusions about how I feel in regards to teaching.

First of all, I don't like teaching small children. At all. I never thought I would like it, and it was never something I had any interest in doing, and this confirms it. My youngest classes are full of 6- and 7-year-olds, and my oldest classes are teenagers. It's a good range that really allows a beginning teacher see all her options, but in my case it only cements my belief that I never again want to teach any students who haven't hit puberty yet. I don't have the enthusiasm and patience that such work requires.

But the teenagers? Oh, the teenagers. I love teaching teenagers. My oldest class is filled with 14- and 15-year-olds. They are brilliant. They make me realize that I was right, that I do want to teach ESL when I get back to the US. And this makes me very happy, because I've run out of ideas for new career options.

There are only six of them in the class. (Most of my other classes have about 20 students.) The first day, I made them put their desks in a circle and we had some great roundtable discussions about the roles of language in a culture, and their personal goals in learning English. The all agreed that they already know a good deal of grammar and vocabulary, but their weak spot is listening. The book they are supposed to be working from is completely useless anyway, so I'll be heavily supplementing it with various English language audio and video stuff. Actually, I taught them to say, "This book sucks."

This past weekend, the book said they should talk about advertising. So I downloaded a bunch of stuff off YouTube (which passes through the firewall, thankfully) and brought my laptop to class and made them watch the weird American phenomenon of Superbowl commercials. Most of the clips went too fast for them, but in the end they understood and laughed and learned new words and expressions. But the highlight of the class, and of my entire time in China so far, was this Pepsi commercial:

Nevermind that it's a commercial trying to sell massive amounts of high fructose corn syrup. That's not really the point. The point is that I got a class of Chinese teenagers to listen to Bob Dylan. And they UNDERSTOOD. And they agreed that every generation does in fact refresh the world. And I walked out of that class knowing that I will show that commercial many more times in many more classes, and they will watch and listen and understand.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where I'm calling from, continued


There's a mountain outside my house. I live in a huge, industrial apartment block. I access my apartment through an alley. But across the closest main road, there is a mountain with pagodas on top. I can see it when I walk out of the front door. It's lovely.

Most teachers in this city live in Li Xie Da Sha, an apartment building the school rents in its entirety. It has a big banner over the entrance that says, "Foreign teachers apartments." I don't live there, for reasons of space and because I applied too late and because the school I work in (there are three in the city) is really far from Li Xie Da Sha. So I live with two lovely British girls in a big building full of Chinese people.

There are good and bad things about this arrangement. The good things include a much higher immersion factor, distance from the incestuous dorm-like lifestyle, and a mountain outside my house. The bad thing is that when I want to go out, I have to make phone calls and plans and take taxis, instead of just walking out in the hall and tagging along with whoever's going out.


I've been exploring Jinan. It's difficult to do because the pollution drapes over the city like a thick blanket. I'm not particularly sensitive to that sort of thing, but I feel the dust in my lungs after a few minutes of walking. It will be better once the rains come and tease the green out of the dead brown trees.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Where I'm calling from

There are people everywhere, more people than I ever thought could fit into any place, be it a bus or a sidewalk. They come at you like waves on the streets, bikes and motorbikes, buses and taxis, people and more people. There is no personal space here. Traffic lights don't matter, nor do traffic lanes. I'm more used to it now, the constant vigilance required just to get around this city that feels so vast and tall and endless despite not even being one of China's biggest.

Everything feels so much more strange and exotic when you don't speak the language around you. For the past couple of days, my roommates and I thought there must be some kind of religious services happening nearby because we kept hearing a man's voice chanting something strange and relentless. This morning, I found the man. He was wheeling a wheelbarrow through the alley, collecting plastic bottles for recycling.

The school gave us all little cards to show taxi drivers with our address on them. My apartment happens to be on a little-known sidestreet, the mouth of which is marked by a woman selling bananas. Taxi drivers have trouble finding it. Monday night, my roommates and I were trying to get home and instead got lost somewhere in Jinan. The driver was yelling at us, unable to find the place, so we paid him and got out, walked down ghostly empty streets flanked by closed shops. We hailed another taxi and somehow made it home.

The next night, my roommate Emma stayed at the bar longer than Jan and I wanted to stay, so Jan and I went home. We got to the door to find out that my key didn't work, and had to call Emma. Her taxi got lost on the way home. In the meantime, Jan and I sat in the cement stairway, three flights up at one in the morning in the middle of winter in a country where neither of us spoke the language, and laughed hysterically. The hall lights are on a sound sensor, so they turn on at the sound of footsteps or doors slamming. At first, we would clap our hands to keep the light on, then gave up and sat in the dark, laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of the moment. I still have the key. I will keep it forever as a reminder that sometimes you have to just open your arms and your heart to the randomness and craziness of the world around you.

I start teaching on Friday evening, and teach 20 hours of classes through the weekend. I am excited and terrified.

Internet is wonky at home, hence the radio silence. Should be back online for real by next week.