You can feel fall in the air long before you can even really touch it with your skin or see it in the trees. (People from California, you will just have to trust me.) And for the first time in four years I am experiencing that again. Almost like you can feel the struggle, the scraping for money at the register and the daily grind. And those two things have made me feel more at home here in some ways than I ever did in Malibu. Don’t get me wrong; Malibu became a second home to me. But I had to learn to love it. I’m the type of person- I guess we all are, really- who loves to feel things going on around me; to be connected; to transcend if you will, as Thoreau or Emerson might say. Malibu wasn’t like that. Everyone drove around in cars that were worth more than my life, and whether they were billionaires or drowning in debt, they lived like kings and kept everything and everyone at an arm’s length. It is so interesting to realize, after all I’ve “learned” in the past about Chinese people, that they are aching to let someone in. It comes out in strange ways, but they do not keep others at an arm’s length either physically or emotionally.
Where do I begin? This is a daunting task; I’ve been dragging my feet about this entry for a couple of weeks now which doesn’t make it any easier. I guess I’ll start in America. Here goes…
Four days before my August 26 flight, it became evident that I was not leaving on August 26. My school still had not sent the necessary documents to apply for my visa, and being that it was two days before the weekend, express mail to Houston was out of the question. Instead I decided to keep my flight to LA on the 26 and chance it by going to the consulate there. I arrived on Sunday night, and by seven the next morning I was at the consulate. Long story short, a process that should have taken nine hours was finished, after some frantic pleading, in about five. That was after being shot down once, and told not to come back until two. Sprinting down the street, visa in hand at 11:45, it seemed I had never been so happy. We made it to the airport at 12:44, exactly one minute before the international flight check in deadline.
Once in China, Casey and I had to split up. My waiban (someone employed by the school to help foreign teachers get set up) came to pick me up but we did not have enough room for Casey. I asked if we could take a bag of hers. Negative. So I spent a two hour ride from Shanghai to Xiasha thinking about all the ways that a 120 lb. girl with 120 lb. of luggage could get in trouble in a country with no knowledge of the language. We agreed to meet at her school at four, five hours later. I have no idea how I found it. Armed with minimal information from my waibans and a very basic understanding of Chinese, I made it by about five.
A lot has changed since that first day. Students and friends from home alike often ask, “Do you like the food?” The answer is, I love the food! Although I have seen some strange things. Pig heart and ear, chicken foot, frog brain, squid stomach, lotus root- I’ve really experimented. It’s hard to get healthy food here because the fruits and veggies, grown in night soil (soil fertilized with human feces) and sprayed with very harsh pesticides, must all be peeled or boiled before eating. There is minimal meat and a lot of simple starches. Rice has become a very regular part of my diet.
And what Chinese experience would be complete without an e-bike? Well actually, a lot of Chinese experiences are complete without an e-bike. I would say 70% choose to cram on the crowded busses. I counted 97 people on a 34-person bus on the way to downtown one day. Still, the independent and adventurous American in me decided an e-bike would be a better and cheaper way to explore. Probably 20% of the people in my area go that route. The last 10% have cars. But the Chinese, whether on bus, e-bike, car or foot choose to make their presence very blatantly known on the streets. There are no right of way laws for anyone. Along every major street lines two smaller side streets for e-bikes, but there is no generally accepted direction. Technically the bike lane is intended to follow the same direction as the side of the street it is on, but this is only true 70% of the time. And it is nothing unusual when a biker or pedestrian rides or walks into your lane unexpectedly without looking at all. Which is exactly what happened to me, traveling at about 45 km/hr with Casey behind me on my e-bike. We hit the pavement, and I had scabs to prove it for three weeks. Not surprisingly in a country that absolutely lives up to its American stereotype on the road, that was not the first accident I was involved in. The first happened on the second day when our taxi, stopped and facing the wrong direction on a one way, one lane road, was hit by a bus who decided to proceed despite the obvious lack of space for even a regular car. After a lot of angry Chinese words the problem was solved with 300 kuai or so. I guess it’s all genetic.
As far as teaching goes, it has been much easier than expected. Americans, and foreigners too for that matter, are much less commonplace than expected. Which has made me somewhat of a novelty in my classrooms. On the first day I had all my students fill out an information sheet with a question for me and something about themselves. After one girl asked if she could take a picture with me after class the floodgates opened. Every girl in the class had to have a picture of or with the “handsome American.” On that day I heard words like “sexy” and I had to cut it off at “naughty” with a short conversation about student-teacher boundaries. The energetic, animated, interactive and impassioned approach to teaching is something that is really new in this culture, and the students really seem to love it! And for the first time it seems, my students are being asked to think, to form questions, to have opinions, to wonder, and not just to solve problems laid before them. It has been a real encouragement hearing positive feedback from my students and boss. In fact I was even asked to teach a special class for students wishing to compete in this November’s nation wide English language competition. This job comes with the perks of extra salary and the five best students I teach. My American history class is a little more challenging because of the language gap, but still very fun and interesting to prepare.
It is so interesting to see the ways in which the Chinese education system has failed these students. In high school, students start school at six AM and stay there until six PM. They go home, work on homework for three or four hours, then go to bed and do it again. College is their first chance to have free time or interact with peers outside the classroom. The effects of this social stifling are very evident. My students sit at tables with only students of the same sex out of choice. A few have boyfriends or girlfriends, but refuse to acknowledge them in class. If the topic of relationships or sex is brought up, a slew of giggles ensue. In history class while conveying the atrocities of slavery I mentioned that rape was commonplace on the early American plantation. I watched uncomfortably as the class struggled to hold back their laughter at the mention of such a word. Casey asked her students to write “I am” poems. She then taped them to the walls and asked them to go around and write positive feedback for the authors. A good idea turned sour when the students used the poems as a forum to bully each other. The students could easily be mistaken for seventh graders, and I have realized that my high school experience probably taught me more outside of the classroom than inside.
My computer in my office wasn’t working- no problem for me, because I always use my laptop anyway. My boss, however, insisted that we go get another one after her meeting last week. I decided to do some troubleshooting. Across the room was a free monitor and an extra VGA cable. I turned on the CPU and connected it to the new monitor. Voila! The screen flashed to light, displaying the contents of my dusty virtual desktop. When Ruby came in to take me to get a new computer, I showed her my success. “Wow! How dir your do zat? I try to get it work four time! Our computer guy come twice. You mus be so smart!” No. I just have a few basic problem solving algorithms. So I told her that we should still go get a new monitor, that I had borrowed the other to test. She insisted that we get a new CPU too. She was afraid it might break again. After trying to explain in about three different ways I gave in and we carried a whole computer across campurs. I might have excused her poor problem solving skills to a poor understanding of computers, except that I had watched three people from IT come to look at the problem. For all the ways our educational system fails us, I think it does a pretty good job at teaching us to think outside the box.
Making friends here too has been easier than expected. There are 11 other foreign teachers here and we have gotten close so fast. We have games every Sunday and they are so alive! The games remind me a lot of the ones that the first players talked about in the Gameplan. Everyone so unique and fun in their own way! The students and other Chinese people too have been easy to make friends with. Students are eager to show us downtown or to their hometowns or to study English with us. One of my students has been studying with me three times a week to improve English. We are using the gameplan as a guide and she seems interested. She even brought another student last time. She said many students were looking for something like this, which excites me a lot. She meant they were looking for English lessons, but whether she knows it or not, I know they are looking for some playing time too.
I have another friend named Victor, too. I met him downstairs at the hotel that Casey lives in where he works. As it turns out he was also Caleb Sommer’s best Chinese friend two years ago when he was here. For those of you who don’t know, Caleb also attended Pepperdine and graduated two years ago. He was a very good friend of mine, and actually was a big part of my decision to come to China. In looking back, I actually remember him telling me about Victor and showing me pictures, but my meeting Victor came before I remembered any of that. A few nights ago Victor was looking for someone to go out with, as he often does when he has a bad day at work, a common experience for Victor. We have become close, so he asked me if I would like to go out with him. He took me to a cool outdoor restaurant complex and then to a two hour Chinese massage at 11:30 at night. It was a fun and goofy experience.
We talked about many things, a few of which were his passions. He told me about one dream he had, which I already knew about, which is to come to America to live and work. Then he told me about another. He said, “This may sound a little weird, but I want to help people be happy after death. And I want to give their families peace. Many of my friends think it is dangerous, but it is important to me, I think it’s not dangerous.” (Substitute Victor Chinglish.) Victor is a great guy, and his dream comes from a true desire to help. But he wants to start meddling in some kind of witchcraft to help him. I told him that I too was really concerned with people’s happiness after death, and the peace of their families. Best of all I said, I have found a fail-proof way to help. I explained about my Father. Of course he knows about Father from Caleb. I explained it like a mountain, using a ricebowl and chopsticks for props.
“Here is Coach up here,” I said with a chopstick atop the bowl. “Now there are so many coaches out there,” I continued, “and the goal for every team is to get to the coach.”
“I know about this.”
“Yes, of course Victor. But every other coach waits for the players to come up to him. The battle is hard, and players cannot do it on their own. Our Coach Coaches! He actually comes down the mountain and brings players to the top.”
A light bulb dimly lit up. “Ah. I understand!”
We continued to talk and he seemed interested. He said, “You know, the Chinese heart is tired and old. We are young, we look young, but inside we are so old. American hearts are beautiful. You are like Caleb, you seem so young.”
I told him it was all about the Coach, not about nationality. It seems like Victor would love some Playing time, but just doesn’t know that much about teams, or which one to play for. So I need petitions. Please ask Coach to put Victor in the game, to convince Victor what team to play for.
There are really too many experiences to even start to describe here. Just know that China has been great. It has been very different, both from America and from my expectations. So far, I do not feel homesick, just enamored at all the new things and great people. I look forward with excitement at what’s to come, and who knows, maybe even a long-term commitment to this exciting land. Until next time, thanks for reading!