Sunday, May 17, 2009

Birthdays, blocks, and Beijing Duck

In honor of my birthday, the Great Firewall of China has blocked
Blogger. Thankfully, I set up email posting before I left the US for
this exact purpose. But it's still damn annoying that I can't even
read my own damn blog on the damn Internet. Even RSS feeds are
blocked, so I can't even read any of the blogs I like through a
reader. Damn you, China!

I blame the swine flu, actually. China is on super alert about it. All
of our students get their temperature taken by a ray gun-like
contraption every time they walk into school. They usually wave us
foreign teachers through, but we insist on having our temperature
taken anyway. (Mine has been normal every time, in case you were
worried.) The really disconcerting part is that we all have to carry
our passports with us at all times now, in case we get stopped for
questioning about whether or not we belong here. Because obviously,
we're evil and foreign and might have come to China with the express
purpose of spreading the pig flu.

Despite all of this, I had a lovely birthday. My C12 students (the
really brilliant teenager class) got me cake. My younger students sang
me the birthday song. Then a bunch of people came out to eat delicious
food at one of my favorite restaurants in town, and to a bar
afterwards. I got a bottle of Scotch that's actually from Scotland,
courtesy of a Scottish teacher. The remnants of it are making this
morning a bit hazy, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Oh, and I am not at the beach this week due to the combination of pig
flu precautions making travel a pain in the ass, and simply not
feeling like going anywhere. I think I will spend the next few days
engaged in one of my most common Chinese activities: scouring the city
I live in for a decent cup of coffee. I have yet to find one.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Is it raining with you?

I moved across town yesterday. Until now, I'd been living in essentially the school's satellite apartments, but when space opened up in the main building where most of the teachers live, I moved. At my old place, my roommates and I were the only foreigners in the area. The level of immersion was way beyond my comfort level. There were days when I didn't leave my apartment just because I didn't want to deal with being treated like I'd just landed in a Martian spaceship. Where I am now, there's a couple dozen other foreigners. People in the neighborhood don't stare as much; they're used to us funny-looking laowai wandering around. This setup will be much better for me, I believe.

My birthday is on Sunday. I will be working all weekend, and Monday morning I am going out of town to the beach for a few days. This birthday promises to be much better than last year's. Last year, I was driving 18-wheelers around America, and spent my 27th birthday stranded in a hotel room in central Florida. As unhappy as I am in China, I know I will at least get better food and more company.

Last weekend it rained heavily. The infrastructure in this country is such shit that when it rains, everything floods and becomes thick with mud. Walking from my old apartment to the main road required rolling up pant legs, putting on rubber shoes, and wading through ankle-deep water. On Sunday morning, my roommate was taking her suitcase with her to school because she was catching a train in the evening. She had a red poncho wrapped around her, and her jeans rolled up to the knees. I was walking behind her, and started laughing hysterically all of a sudden. "You look like a flood refugee!" I yelled at her back. And she did. The poncho looked especially FEMA-issued. Just as a reminder than no, in fact, China is NOT a developed country, no matter what the Olympic news told you.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

May Holiday trip part two: Nanjing

Canal by night 2

Nanjing may be my new favorite place in China. It had the perfect combination of history, culture, nice people, surprisingly clean air, and Western stuff. I did not want to leave. For those of you following these adventures at home, the word Nanjing means "south capital," in contrast to Beijing being "north capital." Nanjing has a very, very long history of being the seat of the Chinese empire -- it has been the capital several times over the past several millenia, though never for very long. It was the capital in 1937, when the Japanese invaded and killed a bunch of people. It's a very old city, with pieces of various old empires still left standing all over town. In the meantime, it is a very beautiful and prosperous city that today has a huge population of foreign students.

Pagoda and prayer flags

In the four and a half days I was there, I met and had interesting conversations with more people than ever before while traveling - and that's saying quite a bit. When foreigners go to Beijing and Shanghai, we are told to be wary of Chinese people who come up to us and tell us they just want to practice their English, because they are usually trying to scam us into something. In Nanjing, on the other hand, they genuinely want to practice their English, and talk to new people. Here's a brief (and incomplete) rundown of the different people I met.
  • The first night I was in town, I mistakenly stumbled into a restaurant holding a private party. Everyone was drunk, and trying to talk to me in Chinese. Finally, a man came up and tried to talk to me in about five different languages: he knew about five words in each. We settled on Russian. He said, "Tovarisch!" (which means "comrade), and I said, "Tovarisch!" for the sake of agreement, and he called his drunk friends over and we all had a toast to "Tovarisch!"
  • I met some British tourists while waiting in line at a mausoleum on top of a mountain. They were nice. We had lunch together, and decided to join forces for the day. Then I lost them at a pagoda. No, really. I thought we were supposed to meet at the top, but then they never came up. I was sad. I'd never lost friends so quickly before.
  • At my hostel, I met a French girl who works as a teacher in Qingdao. She and I bonded over how annoying it is that most laowai never want to talk to other laowai, because they are so set on thinking they are having their own private Chinese adventure. We agreed that these people were silly, partly because it's China and there are 1.3 billion people here, so you can't have your own anything. We defied this annoying laowai habit and became friends.
  • One night, me and my French friend were sitting in the hostel bar trying to come up with dinner plans when a Chinese girl started talking to us. She said she was a university student studying English, and came to the international hostel to talk to foreigners and improve her language skills. It seemed like such a classic line that we assumed she was a scammer, but talked to her a for a while anyway, delaying our dinner plans. Finally, the Chinese girl checked her phone, panicked, and said that her Mom was telling her she had to hurry home for dinner. She was not a scammer after all. We felt bad. We should have invited her to go out with us.
  • When I was out walking on top of the old Nanjing city wall, a Chinese man started a conversation with me. We ended up walking around for several hours, talking about all sorts of things, especially Chinese history and politics. At one point, he mentioned that he'd lived and worked in Sudan for a year. I asked him what kind of work he did, and he said he couldn't answer that because it was classified information because he worked for the Chinese government. So, uh, if I disappear without a trace one of these days, go to Nanjing and find a Mr. Li.
Nanjing city wall 1

I spent my first couple days in town doing all the mandatory touristy things, but after a while you just sort of reach your fill of temples and pagodas (much like in Europe, where you quickly reach your fill of old churches). So I headed to the area around Nanjing University, which was amazing -- lots of little Western-style coffeeshops and restaurants, Chinese places with English menus, people from all over the planet milling about reading books in the sunshine. There's a laowai family that owns a restaurant in one of the side streets that serves the most genuine Western food I've had since I've been here. I had a salad for the first time in more than two months. And the next day, I went to one of the bakeries run by the same family. I don't know if I've mentioned this on the blog before, but the Chinese don't understand about bread. These people that run the bakeries, however, understand perfectly. I had the best sandwich in the world. It was on a freshly baked baguette, with good salami and European cheese. Gawd, it was wonderful. And there are coffeeshops all over that serve real coffee. Sigh. You might have to be a laowai to understand the true wonder of all this.

Self portrait with squid

The time that I didn't spend wandering about the university area, I spent wandering around Fuzimiao, the area where I was staying. It is one of the liveliest areas of the city, right by a big Confucian temple, surrounded by tons of shop and situated next to a creek. Also lots of tasty food, albeit of the Chinese variety. Like, see that picture above? That's me eating a barbecued squid on a stick. It was good.

Canal by night 1

Do I sound like an advertisement for the city of Nanjing yet? I probably do. That's ok. I have not clicked with very many things about China, but this city on the whole was one of them. If any of you out there are looking at an opportunity to tour China, do not skip Nanjing.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May Holiday trip part one: Shanghai

Welcome to Shanghai

SHANGHAI - Everyone told me that Shanghai was overrated, but I had to see it for myself. After all, I couldn't very well go back to America having lived in China for six months and never having been to Shanghai, could I? Expecting the worst, I only gave myself three days here, and it was about the perfect amount of time. During the first two days, I hated it. On the third day, it completely redeemed itself.

Graffiti (Shanghai state of mind)

Shanghai reminds me of New York quite a bit. It's so vast, and seems so faceless, but only because the face most visitors see is the tourist face, the face of street hawkers and neon and overpriced hot dogs. I spent the first two days going from one mandatory must-see attraction to another, spending too much money and not getting very much for it. Ironically, the only mandatory must-see attraction that was actually good was the Shanghai Museum's huge collection of historical artifacts, where the admission was free.

East Nanjing Road

The architecture is quite interesting to see. Since Shanghai was founded as a foreign port comprised of "concessions," areas built by foreigners where the Chinese government had no jurisdiction, the city is a bizarre mish-mash of European-style buildings, now covered in hanging laundry and Chinese signs, creating a really disorienting atmosphere. The French Concession, the largest of these former neighborhoods, still has a lot of the swanky expat-oriented stuff, like astronomically expensive pizza and wine bistros.

French Concession alleyway 1

The hardcore touristy parts of town, especially East Nanjing Road, supposedly one of the largest and busiest shopping districts in the world, are just insipid. I thought I was pretty impervious to street hawkers, but, damn. The ones here have got to be the most annoying I've ever seen. They jump in front of you and then follow you around like puppies, shoving laminated catalog pages in your face and screaming, "Lady! Buy watch! Bag! Sunglass! T-shirt!" It was maddening. I mean, really -- if you're going to try and sell me shit I don't want, at least have the decency to shove actual products in my face, not laminated pictures. Sheesh.

Irony, anyone?

Because of two days of such onslaught, I was not that optimistic about my last day. But that was when Shanghai completely redeemed itself in my eyes. I finally strayed off the beaten tourist path and went to see some real local art. The Moganshan Road Art Center was fantastic: dozens of small art galleries in a maze-like cluster of old industrial buildings, with all the exhibits thoughtful, creative, original, contemporary, and probably as subversive as Chinese artists are allowed to be. Very glad I went there for an impression of a real Shanghai beyond the glitz and glamour, and could leave without the bitter taste in my mouth that the first two days had left.

The clash of cultures

Stay tuned for part two: Nanjing!