Saturday, June 6, 2009

Sunday, May 31, 2009

In Which We Speak the International Language of Camera

The staring has never really bothered me. I know how tall I am, how pink, how American-looking. I know my brown hair, so average in the United States, is startling here. If I were truly rotten, I know I could scare the crap out of people by making a sudden movement in their direction.

Instead, I smile. A lot. I smile to say, "Ni hao!" And I smile to say, "See? We're so alike! Both of us human!" And I smile to say, "Have no fear. I am not a gorgon come to eat your children."

Sitting on the train from Korla to Kuche -- a journey of four hours, made mostly with Uyghurs returning home -- I smiled my mouth very nearly off. People strolling the aisle glanced at me and then did a whiplash double-take: What the... ? I began noticing the same people walking by again and again, slower each time, unblinking. They dragged their friends along with an implied, "See? And you didn't believe me!"

So, I smiled and smiled. I said, "Ni hao!" I said, "Wo shi Mei guo ren! (I'm American)." And I pulled out my camera to take photos of them, because they were beautiful and because I wanted to demonstrate that Americans are so friendly -- like highly trainable puppies.

They blushed and waved their hands, then posed. Others approached shyly, proudly holding babies, clearly wanting their pictures taken, too. I'd take a picture with my little point-and-shoot, then turn it around so they could see themselves on the LCD screen. There was gasping and exclaiming and laughing. I demonstrated the camera's use, then lightly placed it in a few hesitant but eager hands.

Well. After this, all shyness was gone. A few adults invited me to pose with them, pointing to the camera, to me and to themselves, and I understood perfectly. Soon, nothing would do but I must sit down while various children were deposited in my lap to have their picture taken with me, in the manner of a department store Santa Claus.

I fretted that I had no way to get these photos to the various parents, but I don't think that mattered. The taking of the photo was the thing. This is why there now are quite a few children in Kuche who know exactly one English word: cheese.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

In Which I Eat the Bread and Hope for the Best

Not five minutes before, I had watched those grubby little hands being licked clean. And previous to that, they had wiped the dirt from the soles of small purple sandals. Now, they were reaching toward me, grasping the piece of bread I was being offered.

Her enormous dark eyes, which had dimmed with fear when she first saw me -- she'd never seen a foreigner before, her mother explained -- were friendly little gingersnaps now. I was a singer of songs, a maker of silly faces and a shameless tickler. We were pals, this 4-year-old and I. Her mother had given her piece of flat bread, and she tore off a piece for me.

And now it was waving in front of my face, held in the hand that I knew was very, very dirty.

A strident voice in my head sputtered and tut-tutted and implied that I deserved for every amoeba, parasite and germ in the world to take up residence in my intestines if I even thought about eating it. "Are you insane?" the voice screeched. "You're in rural China! You'll get sick! Just look at those hands!"

"Yes," echoed a gentler, quieter voice. "Just look at those hands, those sturdy, sweet little things with their dimples and grime, hands that rarely rest from playing." This voice, this nicer voice, reminds me that after all I can do -- after getting every shot before I came here and taking every health precaution I can when I'm by myself -- sometimes I just have to take a deep breath, eat the bread and hope for the best. This is the voice that won't let me say no to a little girl sharing her lunch.

So, I grinned and took the bread, making a great show of eating it with rapturous delight and nummy-nummy noises. I may have even patted my stomach.

Wise? Probably not. Before I came here, I vigilantly read everything the CDC has to say about food safety, and can sum it up thus: Just don't. Don't drink the water. Don't eat the street food. Don't eat the uncooked vegetables. Don't even consider anything that's been touched by ungloved hands. Don't look directly at uncooked meat. Don't talk about raw fish in anything louder than a whisper.

This is excellent advice, and I've done my best to heed it. But I'm conflicted over what I should to do when I'm out hiking with my new Chinese friends, and we've stopped for a rest, and they're passing around the cucumbers, and it's such a friendly, convivial moment. Most likely, the cucumber was rinsed in tap water, rather than soaked in iodine water in my kitchen. I should refuse. But... I can't. Reckless and foolhardy, I know.

So far, Providence has been kind and my immune system is champion of the world. This may not always be the case, but I hope the universe smiles kindly on those who try to consider the feelings of others, only occasionally practice food safety relativism and don't act like big, American jerks.

Perhaps this is why I was offered another piece of bread after the first, and then another piece after that, each accompanied by a friendly little smile.

Open wide, chew chew chew, big swallow and bigger grin. Mmmm-mmmmm, nummy nummy.

This is the girl who gave me the bread. I mean, really: those eyes? Like I could refuse.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

In Which English Is a Bit Clever

In the gentle mists of vagueness through which I sometimes wander, where laziness or manners prohibit specificity, there is no more "kinda." My old friend "sorta" is gone, too, along with "oh, well, you know..."

Instead, there is "a bit."

Rachel, is it hot today? A bit. Are you hungry? A bit. Do you enjoy playing ping-pong? A bit. Are you, yourself, starting to sound like a beginning English learner? A bit, a bit, a flipping bit! And a British one at that.

My younger students know "a bit," thanks to the British textbooks from which they're learning English. And I've discovered that it's so much easier to speak in the vocabulary my students know.

When they do well in class, when I'm happy and they're happy and everyone's swaddled in the rosy cocoon of understanding, I want to bubble, "You guys are so smart!" Except they don't know "you guys" or "smart." So, I settle for, "Students! You are clever!"

Clever? Clever? Since when? I say! So veddy, veddy clevah! I've taught them smart, but they're getting "clever" three times a week from their Chinese English teachers and "smart" once a week from me. So, clever it is.

And naughty: Any bad behavior is deemed "naughty," from talking in class to running out into traffic. On more than one occasion, I have shaken my head disappointedly and murmured, "So naughty." Like a twittering debutante with a fan and a dance card and the attentions of London's most notorious rogue.

It's a little easier with my older students, though I consistently praise them for being "cool" and "hard-working." They know these ones very well. And whenever I ask them for a noun, I can count on it being "banana." I don't know why, it just always is.

The thing is, I catch myself talking this way all the time now. "The problem is," I told my sister on the phone the other day, "the boys in that class are a bit naughty. And they're clever! They're just not hard-working, is the thing."

*Sigh* I need a banana.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In Which the Stylist Almost Has an Aneurysm

One solution to this belligerent insistence hair has on, you know, growing is baldness. I wondered if that's what the stylist was thinking, too, because it had been 15 minutes and he was still back there combing, combing, combing with shaking hands. He could comb me bald and I'd never traumatize him again.

It seemed like such a simple thing, getting a trim. My hair was a little shaggy, I had some wayward split ends and I'd solemnly vowed to several people that I would stop cutting my own hair. So, I'd have someone else do it! No big deal! Twenty minutes, in and out!

China, as usual, found my notions to be charming and laughably quaint.

There's a salon near my apartment -- next to the store where I don't buy Oreos every single day, even though I want to -- and it seemed like a nice, friendly place to get a haircut. I spent half an hour writing the appropriate speech: I'd like a haircut, please. Please cut 3 - 4 centimeters. I like this style I have now, with the layers.

Striding confidently into the salon, I smiled winningly and declared, "Qing, wo yao yi ge lifa (Please, I want a haircut)." The lady nodded. Then it went precipitously downhill, as usual: "Qing... uh, qing (frantic scissor motion with my fingers, jabbing choppily at the lock of hair I was grasping)..." Finally, after repeated spasms of pidgin Chinese, I just handed her the paper with my speech. She read and the corner of her mouth trembled. What had been the straight line of her mouth began dancing like a sound wave.

Then it was an open grin. She called to the other stylists, what I assume was the Chinese version of "Y'all! C'mere and git a load of this!" They passed my paper around like it was a mash note, pointing out the particularly juicy bits to each other. Haw haw, lookee there.

So, I was feeling a little defensive. Just cut my hair, OK?

But they meant no harm, and a small crowd of stylists and other customers led me to a chair. From the crowd, one stylist emerged. A black utility belt was wrapped around his waist, from which protruded various scissors and combs. He wore an expression of determination mingled with terror.

At this point, it's important to remember two things about getting a haircut at the salon near my apartment:

1. Foreigners are very rare in Korla.

2. Chinese hair is extremely textured and uniformly black. It's gorgeous -- a rich onyx that catches and holds light -- but very different from my own disobedient, medium brown hair.

Through charades, we determined how much I wanted cut (thumb and forefinger held 4 centimeters apart) and that I wanted layers (flat hand chopping up my hair). He read my note again, just in case. He adjusted his shirt. He flexed his fingers. He smiled weakly at the other stylists who were hovering nearby. And then he began combing.

And kept combing. Combing, combing, combing in long, even strokes. He adjusted his shirt again and squared his shoulders. And combed, combed, combed. Deep breath. Comb, comb, comb. He got a stool so he could sit behind me. Comb, comb, comb. He pulled a pair of scissors from his belt and combed some more. Then he decided those scissors would never do, which called for more combing. Different scissors! Comb, comb, comb. He clipped portions of my hair up, then combed the hair beneath.

Comb, comb, comb. Comb. Comb... comb.

Finally, with the delicacy of Indiana Jones exchanging a golden idol for a bag of sand, he raised the scissors to my hair.

Snip. Snip... snip.

I could feel my hair growing back between snips. He trembled onward, growing almost imperceptibly more confident with each cut. The photos probably helped.

As he cut, other stylists approached with their cell phone cameras. At first, they stood at a distance, recording their Brave Comrade in his Valiant Dealings with Caucasian hair. He was a hero. He was a rock star. They inched closer, standing to my side, venturing in front of me, snapping pictures with every snip of the scissors.

Then I cut my eyes to the left and saw another face beside my ear. Photo opportunity! Hi, mom! The stylist grinned and flashed the peace sign while her co-worker took her picture. My haircut: fun for everyone.

And the man cutting my hair braved resolutely onward. My bangs, with their impossible cowlicks, caused him particular pangs. Cutting a molecule at a time, then stopping between times for some soothing combing, he sighed and fretted. I wanted to tell him, "You're doing awesome!" And I wanted to tell him, "Dude, don't worry. No matter what happens, it'll grow back." But all I could do was grin like a lunatic and declare, "Hen hao! Wo hen kuaile! (Very good! I'm very happy!)" He smiled wanly and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his cuff.

Anyway, he worried for nothing. Two hours later and I had a great haircut. As he whipped the cape from around my shoulders, several other stylists applauded, like he was a chef who'd just set the baked Alaska on fire. Ta da!

They all saw me to the door, and I don't know whether I made his day or ruined it when I said I'd see him next time.

Friday, May 8, 2009

In Which I Celebrate Life-Giving Water

The dance might have been a little much. Twirling and leaping around in ecstasies of joy were forgiveable, possibly, but curtsying to yourself in the mirror, Rachel? Have a little dignity.

And have a little water! Bottles of it! Guzzle it with reckless abandon! Splash it on your fevered brow! Soak a washcloth in it and wipe that ridiculous grin off your face! There's more water where that came from!

Yes, I ordered my own water. On the telephone. In Chinese.

I had been loath to try. The person on the other end of the telephone line can't see my imploring eyes or my pleading expression. They can't see my helpful mini-game of charades, a mime-on-meth routine with flailing arms and jazz hands. They only can hear a horrific accent saying, "Qing, wo yao shui (please, I want water)" -- and possibly wonder if I'm calling from the middle of the desert and am taking my dying breaths.

So I chickened out. I skulked downstairs to Mrs. Chen's, the building manager's, apartment and handed her the big, empty bottle from my water cooler. I told her "Qing, wo yao shui." And, saint that she is, she called the water people for me.

But she wasn't home this morning! And I was thirsty. Desperate times, you know. So, as usual before I say anything in Chinese, I wrote out a little speech: "Qing, wo yao shui. San qu, er shi si dong, er ling er gongyu. Qing. (Please, I want water. Area 3, building 24, apartment 202. Please.)" It wasn't as polite and chit-chatty as I would have liked, but it represented the sum of my abilities.

And then I spent five minutes wringing my hands and pacing around the coffee table, receiving bossy lectures from the voice in my head.

"Would you just call already?"

But, but, but...

"You're not calling to read your Chinese translation of The Iliad."


"It's just water."

Finally, I snatched up the receiver and dialed before I could think better of it. I said ni hao and got down to the business of my speech. And the lady on the other end repeated what I'd said back to me! She must have understood, because within the hour a man showed up with my water!!

I couldn't decide whether to dance or to drink, so I did both and ended up spilling the water down my shirt. But that's OK! I can always order more.

Friday, May 1, 2009

In Which Tony Is Triumphant

Tony never had raised his hand in class before, not in the two months I've known him, so I was shocked to see his skinny arm among the many waving eagerly for a turn.

We were, this third grade class and I, learning the numbers 11 through 20. I had written the numeral and the word for each number on separate pieces of paper, and students were coming to the blackboard to match the two. And Tony wanted a try.

"Tony! Come on up!" I called, not knowing what to expect, frantically hoping he wouldn't need my help.

Slowly he made his way from his desk at the back of the classroom, this fuzzy-haired little string bean navigating past the backpacks bulging into the aisle. Usually when I call students to the front, they bustle foward in a jabbering flurry of importance -- there's English to be learned, after all -- but Tony can't speak, so I had no idea what he was thinking.

Until that moment, I actually didn't know the nature or extent of his disabilities. He can't talk, but whenever I see him in the hall and grab him for a little tickle, he grins hugely and makes sounds of delight -- before remembering, holy cow, so embarrassing. Teacher, go away. I'm practically a man.

He can walk, with a bobbing, halting gait, but P.E. class is kind of tough. To keep his head still, he often bites the sleeve or collar of his jacket. And because his fingers fold into his palms, writing isn't possible.

But what lay underneath this surface was a cipher. I didn't know what he could do, and I'm extremely ashamed that I had babied and expected far too little from him.

Now, though, he was at the blackboard. The words and numerals were in a jumble, and Tony had to find "14" and "fourteen." With laser focus, he first honed in on the numeral, swiping at the magnet holding it to the board and missing. He swiped again, then grabbed it on his third try. Clutching the magnet in one hand and the paper in the other, he slowly walked to the other side of the blackboard, where the numbers were lined in columns. He gave himself a second to plan his strike, then quickly and deliberately brought both hands to the board to stick the paper in place. He repeated this process with the word "fourteen."

I had been staring open-mouthed, and it took me a split second to realize he was finished. Fluttering my hands and sputtering, I managed to babble, "Good job! Good job! Good job!" But Tony, Mr. Cool, was all nonchalance and English fluency.

The rest of the students, though -- and it was the only time they did this all period -- began clapping.

They applauded as Tony returned in triumph to his desk.

This is Tony. I ask you, is he not the most grab-and-tickleable little dude ever in the history of the universe?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

In Which I Consider Murdering the Art Teacher

Clinging to the side of barren Chinese mountain, feet churning Wile E. Coyote-style for traction, blesses one with a certain perspective on the Big Questions: Why am I here? How did I get here? And if I go down, can I take the art teacher with me?

More importantly, it inspires a religious fervor usually reserved for tent revivals and snake handling. "Please, Lord, make me a lichen. I'm not asking to be made an eagle, just a lichen. Because lichen's not going anywhere."

It was at this point in my devotional that the middle school art teacher helpfully told me to stay put.

In front of me was the cliff face to which I was plastered. Behind me was a 70-degree incline leading to a 50-foot drop onto jagged rocks. Yeah, thanks for the tip, Jimmy. I'll just go ahead and stay here.

His name isn't really Jimmy -- I'm ashamed to admit I can't remember his name -- but by that point in the hike I'd begun to think of him as Jimmy the Wonder Boy, part monkey, part mountain goat. The day before, he'd invited me to go hiking with him and some other teachers, and I enthusiastically accepted with a thrilled, "Yes! Thanks for including me!"

I figured there was nothing to worry about. I mean, this is the man I went to when I needed heartfelt drawings of fruit. He's very thin, deeply sensitive and always creatively attired. Surely he wouldn't lead us on anything too strenuous.

Oh, it is to laugh! Foolish Rachel. I humbly bow to books and their covers.

But in my defense, the hike was very easy at first. We got off the bus, the nine of us, and walked through the barren, Mad Max-like wasteland at the base of the mountains. I should point out that Korla is sandwiched between the vast Taklamakan Desert and the mighty Tienshan Mountains -- the dry side of the Tienshan. There is nothing on this side of the mountains -- no trees, no flowers, no grass. They are imposing, impossible slopes of razor-edged scree, between which run narrow, vein-like valleys littered with boulders and other detritus of geologic impermanence. They are 10,000 shades of brown and gray.

So, these are not friendly mountains. But they're definitely interesting. And Jimmy was interested in going up and over them. Blithely, we followed.

Now, I've always enjoyed a good, healthy upward scramble. But following directly behind Jimmy, I noticed that I actually was scrambling. There were no hand or toe holds, nothing for traction, only layers of small, sharp rocks and loose dirt. The slopes were treacherously steep and momentum was the only thing I had going for me. Well, that and false pride. I didn't want to look like a big, American sissy and, okay, fine, the fifth grade P.E. teacher was on the expedition, too. It's possible I could have been showing off a little for his benefit.

However, we'd get to the top of yet another slope and have to sidle along a pencil-thin ridgeline to reach the next impossible incline. My addled brain registered a warning, "Um..."

"Um," I said to Jimmy, gazing up the slope we were facing and what was at the top (a cliff) and what could possibly be beyond that (certain death). "Um. Wow. This is..."

"Hen hao (very good)!" he offered, flashing me a grinning thumbs up and loping up the slope with the ease of a mountain goat. In defiance of logic, I followed him. It was terrifying. At the top, I lunged for the cliff face and clung for dear life. No way was I climbing it. And we couldn't go around. And the thought of going back down that slope hardened my new resolve: I will live here.

Yes, I will stay attached to this cliff for the rest of my life. Perhaps I will attain guru status someday. I will dispense wisdom and love and...

"Stay here," Jimmy instructed, scuttling back down the slope like a monkey to help his other hapless victims ascend. He even pulled out the rope he'd brought along for that very purpose.

The three other women in our group were clearly scared, so I offered hearty encouragement as they climbed: "Yes! You can do it! Way to go! Hooray!" The other men were all bravado and false good cheer. Even when they slipped, it was with an implied "Ha ha! Almost went to be with Elvis there! Ha."

But then... great. We were huddled like refugees on the side of a mountain, art teacher bounding around like a rabbit, with rappelling down the other side of the slope as our best option for descent. The other women accepted this with a peaceful stoicism that I've come to admire in my Chinese friends. I accepted it with threats and a shameful amount of swearing.

"I'm going to strangle you when we get down!" I hissed at Jimmy. "Why didn't we just walk up the valley that's right below us?"

He was mystified by this question, a little disappointed that I'm not a disciple of the "because it's there" gospel. But true to his role as psychotic Boy Scout leader, he saw us all down and, inexplicably, up more slopes. Then, after we'd stopped for lunch in a narrow canyon, facing what would end up being our final, treacherous descent, he even pulled out a harmonica and insisted on a post-meal musicale.

This is how I ended up singing Rocky Top for an audience of eight.

Once were were again on level ground, shuffling back to the bus stop, art teacher shyly asked if I'd had fun. I had. A lot of it. I'd been terrified, yes, but all things are softened in the rosy glow of retrospect. I told him I was very, very happy. I thanked him again for inviting me.

"But," I added, patting a new tear in the seat of my jeans, "I still might strangle you."

Perhaps it's not obvious in the photo, but I'm here to tell you that slope was steep.

And the other side of that slope required a rope. That's the art teacher in the blue shirt.

Descending the final rocks, I pondered the feasibility of cramming my own camera down the art teacher's throat. I don't even know why he had it.

And now for two gratuitous photos of the 5th grade P.E. teacher, because I got home and discovered half my photos were of him. Which is kind of embarrassing.

Friday, April 17, 2009

In Which I Would Happily Eat Mary's Little Lamb

At this exact moment, every third grader at Ba Zhou Petroleum No. 1 Middle School is in possession of a recorder. The children call them their "flutes," which is charming, but a recorder by any other name...

And in the past two weeks, I would estimate that I have been regaled with Mary Had a Little Lamb no less than 19,283,107 times. The children rush at me, thrusting their "flutes" forward with a proud, "Teacher! Teacher!"

What I think: "Noooooo..."

What I say: "Hooray! Play a song for me!"

This is when Mary's little lamb, from the sound of things, begins staggering around the barnyard, its fleece matted with mud and straw, suffering mightily with a raging case of coccidiosis. The happy news is that, with a final squawking, triumphant note, the lamb survives. Barely.

The children are so happy and proud when they finish that it's all I can do not to bawl with delight -- Joy of accomplishment! Joy of music! -- and relief. Instead, I mentally compose a correspondence:

Dear My Sister,

As I recall, I laughed unsympathetically every time your kids brought home a recorder. Wow, am I sorry.

Your loving sister,
In sackcloth,


Now, I'm left to dread the arrival of hot cross buns.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

In Which Louder and Slower Make No Difference

Just over the Construction Bridge in downtown Korla, on the east side of the road, is a tiny cafe sardined between a place to get your hair cut and a place to buy faux American sneakers. This cafe is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of place, squat and windowless and seven feet wide. It serves the best bao-zi (steamed dumplings) in China.

So, I eat there a lot -- so often, in fact, that I don't have to order anymore. I sit down and one of the ladies who work there brings me a basket of vegetable bao-zi. Then we grin in understanding: She knows I can't read the menu, but she also knows that doesn't matter because I don't want soup or stir-fry or anything else. I come for the dumplings.

Today, like every other time I eat there, I finished, sighed contentedly and pulled three yuan from my pocket to give to the woman who owns the cafe. This time, though, she approached my table.

"Hao chi (delicious)!" I effused.

She said something I didn't understand, so I smiled and gave her my "Eh?" expression. She repeated herself, and I confessed I didn't understand. Third time, and I saw that human nature runs true. People are people, and our very essence transcends geography, culture and every other conceivable artifice.

The third time she repeated herself, she... slowed... waaaaaayyy... down... and PUMPED UP THE VOLUME, beaming all the while.

This made me think of all those "Things to Do Before You Die" lists I've read in magazines, pretentious things that insist I should swim with sharks or climb K2 or run for public office. They also generally advise living overseas, to broaden my horizons and expand my mind and be exposed to the Grand Panorama and blah blah blah.

Those are worthwhile reasons, I guess, but not entirely honest. The most startling thing living abroad has done is expose me to myself. It's been one giant, humbling mirror. Today, I vividly recalled every time I tried communicating with someone who doesn't speak English BY... TALKING... LIKE... THIS... LOUDER... AND... SLOWER. Surprisingly, this has never succeeded in making my message understood.

I was gratified to learn today that it's not just my bad habit, but a human constant. The lady at the cafe was trying her hardest to make me understand. And it turned out that all she wanted to do was give me a souvenir pair of chopsticks.

I may not have understood the words, but I recognized the kindness of her intent and, extremely touched, accepted them with a heartfelt thank-you and good-bye: "XIE... XIE... ZAI... JIAN."

Friday, April 10, 2009

In Which I Understand the Princess and the Pea

The good news is that through patience and perseverance, I walked again. It was dicey there for a while.

I was coming off three days in airplanes and airports, two luggage-less days in Urumqi and a 12-hour train ride to Korla. I wanted either a nap or to lapse into a coma. After being shown around my new apartment, I offered a grateful thank you and good-bye to the building manager, closing the door behind her. Then I staggered into the bedroom and fell with a "timberrrrrr..." onto my new bed. I didn't even catch myself with my arms; I just toppled.

And that's when I discovered that Chinese beds are not soft. Oh, no. They're not soft at all.

What they are is a thin, alleged "pad" on a sheet of plywood, deceptively disguised with a regular frame and headboard. And pampered, coddled, spoiled, babykins American here was not expecting that. Or to have my back say, "Pop" when I fell face-first onto my bed. I'd have done just as well collapsing onto the floor.

My back said, "Pop" and I said, "Engh." And then I spent several contemplative minutes in perfect stillness, collecting my thoughts. Perhaps this is part of the Communist master plan, I mused: get people up and out of bed and off to work.

It's a ploy that motivates me in the morning. My eyes pop open and I'm acutely aware of the tiniest wrinkle in my pajamas between my hip bone and the alleged "pad." It feels like I'm lying on a railroad tie, so I might as well get up.

Now, though, I'm used to it. Mostly. And grateful to have a bed. I'm comforted to know that it's not just my bed, but all of them throughout the land. As I gingerly sit on the edge of my bed each night -- as gingerly as if it were a bed of broken light bulbs -- and swing my legs up as though I'm accommodating a crippling case of rickets, I know I'm not alone.

Here, we fall asleep and greet the new day with a smile and a "Yeeeooowww!! What am I lying on? Irrigation pipe?"

The alleged "pad" on my bed. I will have no problem sleeping on the ground after this.

Monday, April 6, 2009

In Which the Chinese Dream Is Mine

In the 1950s, Chairman Mao declared that a watch, a sewing machine and a bicycle were all a person needed to get by in this world. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, expanded on that notion by defining prosperity as "a Flying Pigeon in every household" -- Flying Pigeon being the most common brand of bicycle in post-revolution China.

However I may differ in ideology from China's leaders, I do agree on the part about bicycles. Bliss is found in the seat of my own flying pigeon.

Yes! I now have a bike! And it only took three failed attempts at communication, two hasty retreats from bike shops and one amateur Kabuki theater performance to acquire.

I really wanted this bike. I'd dream about having one every time I gazed toward the horizon and considered what could be out there. Desert! Farms! Mountains! Donkey carts! Oh, I was filled with longing. It's been fun walking everywhere, of course, but as I discoverd when I walked to the Iron Gate Pass -- 10 miles round-trip -- I tend to be seized with ennui/nihilism by mile eight or nine: This whole stupid world looks the same and I will never get home so I might as well die right here. In Nowhereville, China.

So, a bike! Hooray!

But not so easy to come by with my caveman Chinese. I strode confidently into two different bike shops, only to be confronted with assistants who insisted on smiling and trying to help me. They'd say something and nod encouragingly, pointing to different bikes. Then they'd say something else, with more nodding. Meanwhile, I focused on sweating and panicking. Finally, I had to admit, "Wo bu dong (I don't understand)" before fleeing and calling over my shoulder, "I'll come back later!"

After a soothing basket of bao-zi -- these steamed dumplings I can't get enough of -- I tried one more shop. This time, I snuck in the side door so I could look at some bikes before I was discovered. I spotted one with a frame that looked big enough at about the time a shop assistant spied me. I cut him off before he could say anything.

"Wo yao (I want)," I said, pointing to the bike and moving my arms in a pedaling motion.

He said... well, I don't know what he said, but he wrangled the bike from the rack and took it outside. After he adjusted the seat and handlebars and topped off the air in the tires, I rode it around and liked it a lot. I probably should have ridden more bikes, but I didn't want to press my luck.

"How much?" I asked, knowing what was coming.

"750 (about $110)," he told me.

I knew I would be expected to barter. And I hate bartering. No. 1, it makes me feel like I'm taking advantage or being taken advantage of and No. 2, as I might have mentioned, my Chinese sucks. But I do know all the numbers -- up to 999, at least -- so onward with the negotiations.

He said 750 yuan and I clutched for the pearls I wasn't wearing. 750! I swooned a little, letting him know that I'd never heard such a thing in all my born days. Why, I could hardly catch my breath! I made to leave, to go find a nice fainting couch somewhere, when he told me 690 yuan (about $101).

This time, I hung my head. Oh, this was sad news. About the saddest I'd ever heard. I shook my head mournfully. What was this wicked world coming to when a girl -- a stranger to this country! -- couldn't even have her own flying pigeon? Tragic.

He went over to the shop manager, who was standing in the doorway watching the proceedings, and came back with the offer of 660 yuan (about $96.50) and, I was made to understand, a free bike lock.


I rode away from the shop with the wind in my hair, warmed by the spring sun and the glow of my success. I was the happiest flying pigeon on two wheels.

My new Precious. I call him The Chairman Mao.

Monday, March 30, 2009

In Which... Um.

I ate slices of pig ear.

I was a guest in someone's home, I was presented with what I thought was small, thin bacon, so I put it in my mouth.

"Pig's ear," said the girl who'd invited me over. "Very delicious."

"Or not," I thought.

"Mmmmmm," I said.

This resulted in more slices being placed in my bowl. That white strip down the middle? Cartilage. Which explains the hard chewiness of it.

So... yeah.

Friday, March 27, 2009

In Which Chinese Public Education Is Marked by Tears and Hissing

I won't go so far as to say I got my job under false pretenses, but I certainly can't claim to have any significant teaching experience. With uncharacteristic hubris, though -- the kind that generally ends in the fall of Troy or plagues of boils -- I figured, how hard can it be? I speak English really well!

Those words echoed through my much-humbled heart as I looked down at the boy whose backback I'd just confiscated and saw fat tears rolling down his round cheeks. I fleetingly mused that he's one of my cutest students, with a Charlie Brown head and huge, dark eyes. But so naughty! I told him repeatedly to stop talking, first asking nicely, then with a sharp snap-and-point. Finally, as he jabbered away (in Chinese) and dug around in his backpack, I marched to his desk and took the backpack away, placing it on my desk at the front of the room. Then, after finishing what I'd been writing on the blackboard, I turned and saw his tears.

I made a third grader cry.

And that wasn't the worst of it, though it was bad enough. At the end of class, as the other students ran shrieking and laughing into the hall, I motioned him over to me. Handing him his backpack, I smiled and said, "Next time, no talking when I'm talking. OK?" He nodded, his eyes pleading and hopeful. I saw him after school that day, and he shouted, "Teacher! Teacher! Hello!" Again with the pleading eyes, hoping I wasn't angry anymore.

I wasn't. I was just wrung out. It was so hard to be logical, to tell myself that I was right, that my job is to teach a classroom of 35 students and that this one boy was preventing the other students from (hopefully) learning. Instead, I kept seeing those imploring eyes still wet with tears, and bawled a few of my own.

Teaching, it turns out, is not easy. I'm making the most ridiculous mistakes, the result of inexperience and knuckle-headedness. Games that seem really fun as I envision them in my apartment fail with a miserable splat in the classroom. I plan lessons that end up being too long or too short. I try instituting a system of rewards for good behavior, and the students just don't care. I... speak... really... slowly... so... they... can... understand..., but know it would be so much easier if I could just explain everything in Chinese.

To my credit, I'm slowly, slowly, slowly getting the hang of it. My learning curve is impossibly steep, but I've yet to make the same mistake twice. Why, when there are so many new ones to make?

Aside from the difficulty of the actual teaching, though, there's the issue of crying Charlie Brown head. Working with children is an emotional Tilt-a-Whirl. They don't listen when they should, they forgive me when they shouldn't, they're so delightful and hilarious that I consider kidnapping, they're infurating, they're wonderful, I love them, they drive me crazy, they're a giant, wiggly mess and half the time, they make me feel like my head's on backward.

Later in the week that I made my third grader cry, I sent one of my eighth grade students from the classroom with a hissed "Get out!" He'd shown up late, he was throwing things, he kept talking even when I stood directly over his desk -- deliberately ignoring me -- and then mimicked me once he deigned to "listen."

The frail twig of my patience snapped. I'd already refused entry to a boy who arrived at the classroom door a full five minutes late and with no good excuse, and now I just wanted this other boy the hell out of my sight. Later, I would again go home to cry tears of shame and rue the tactical error of letting students see my vulnerability, but in that moment I demanded he go down to the teachers' office and stand there like the penitent he should be!

Then this class, my most difficult class of eighth graders, rallied. They shut up. They got really into the game. They participated in our conversation activity. Maybe they were scared by my hissing -- and really, it's a wonder snakes didn't sprout from my head -- but I actually think it's just the way of children. They're good and bad. They're unpredictable, and my job is to study the crystal ball of their changeable minds and hearts.

I hate this job. I also love it as much as anything I've ever done.

Here, the third-grade English Club behaves beautifully. And honestly, how can I not love this little face?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In Which I Continue My Assault on the Uyghur Restaurant

New plan: Rather than succumb to the bitterness of being misunderstood -- and really, Wo yao yi wan ban mian. I want a bowl of noodles. Even with my lousy accent, this should be clear -- I concede that Chinese is the Uyghurs' second language and my, oh, fifth (with nothing between it and English). Instead, I now just point and feign confidence.

Slinking into the Uyghur restaurant behind my apartment, I peer at the white board by the cash register, pretend I'm reading it and point to whatever costs 10 yuan. The dish descriptions are written in Chinese characters and Uyghur script, so there's no hope of knowing what I'll get. Then I smile beguilingly and say xiexie (thank you) a lot.

Sometimes I'm very lucky! Last night, I actually did get a bowl of noodles with vegetables, and it was delicious. A few nights before, I got these opaque, flavorless Jell-o sticks in tomato sauce and a sheep kebab. The time before that, it was tofu in chili sauce with rice. Fun surprise!

I belive they may be on to me. I enter the restaurant and the waitresses smile sympathetically. By the time I've pointed and paid, there generally are a few cooks grinning from the kitchen. Behold the American dork come once again to play Dinner Roulette!

Dork I may be, but hungry I'm not.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In Which I'm Defeated by Commerce

There's a place in Mangonia Park, Fla., called the 45th Street Flea Market. It is 10 pounds of crap crammed into a five-pound bag -- a place to get your nails (and toenails) done, buy cheap hair extensions, have those extensions glued to your head, acquire enormous earrings and designer knock-off purses and jeans that will dye your underwear blue, eat barbecue, purchase stuff with cheap silk flowers glued to it, get a haircut, get your pocket picked, get hustled, do some off-track betting, maybe have your butt kicked, shop and buy and eat and get lost and wander around and get vertigo and lose your sense of direction and stagger in circles untilallyourthoughtsjumbletogetherlikethisandyoucan'tbreathe andit'slikethatonestorybyKafkanotTheMetamorphosisbutthat

I discovered that it's been translated into Chinese.

It's called the Golden Triangle Market and it's multiple buildings and four floors of holy cow, I just want to die. Oh, it's probably fun if you like shopping, but I don't. I shop like a ninja: in and out, a finely honed tactical strike. This approach does not jibe with China. In this country, you linger. You consider. You take your time and peruse the kiosks and don't panic.

I panicked. I just wanted a small camera bag, OK?!?

But I didn't want to pay a lot, so I was referred to the Golden Triangle. After putting on a mime show for a man who works on the relatively calm ground floor -- pantomime camera, pantomime bag, smile winningly -- I was pointed to the escalators.

Upon reaching the top... oh, crud. My breath caught. Was I back in Florida? There were kiosks, kiosks, kiosks, crammed together in sardine fashion, offering fake hair and knock-off purses and cheap shoes and shiny clothes and jeweled barrettes and fake nails and bowls of noodles and yarn and toys and perfume and basketballs and there were so many people and it smelled like K-Mart -- Chinese K-Mart! -- and the third floor was just as bad and why was I even up there and I was a little lost and my Chinese sucks so I couldn't remember how to say help and would it really be so bad if I just laid down to focus on my breathing and do I always sweat this much and shoo, dude who's following me and my brain interpreted it as a fight-or-flight situation.

I chose flight. Screw the camera bag. What little vestige of pride I had left struggled to calm my vapor-locked brain, which was screaming "Runnnnnnnnn!!!" Be cool, my pride countered. I compromised by hustling and nodding at people in a friendly fashion. "Zai-jian," I even told a few of them as I sauntered out the door at 30 mph.

Why was I telling strangers good-bye? No clue. All I know is, I'll just carry the stupid camera.

Monday, March 16, 2009

In Which I'd Had It

It's possible, I discovered, to stomp the entire distance between my school and the This and That supermarket in downtown Korla -- about a mile -- fueled solely by rage and desire.

The eighth graders had been rotten, so rotten that I sent several of them into the hall with instructions to think about their behavior. I'm sure they did exactly that. Regardless, I felt awful as soon as the door closed behind them. Slinking into the hall myself after class, I gave them sincere pats on the shoulders and said, "I like you. OK? I. Like. You. Will you try harder next time?"

They glanced at each other, then nodded vaguely at me. They didn't understand. They've studied English every day for eight years, but they didn't understand me. That's why they were acting up.

I cannot win with these creatures. I have 13-year-old students who speak English almost as well as I do, and some who don't speak at all, and they're in the same class. I have days where the students are so wonderful and charming that I'm deeply smitten and want to carry them around in my pockets. Then I have days where I would happily smother them with their own backpacks. Sometimes I try to really get them -- What do you care about? What's interesting to you? -- and they can't be bothered to even glance at me. Sometimes I present what I consider a marginally interesting but mostly boring lesson, and they actually listen.

It's like trying to read rune stones. I cannot win with these teenagers.

Especially on this day, this rotten, go-to-the-hall-and-think-about-your-crimes day. After gathering my things, I flounced down the stairs and out the door, and considered my options. I could cry, and the tears certainly were right there, ready to tumble. I could kick something, or throw something, or scream until I passed out.

Or I could stalk all the way into town, and do what I vowed I wouldn't when I moved here, when I promised myself I'd go native and not give in to the temptation of the scarce and extremely expensive American products.

The choice was easy: I bought the Oreos and ate them all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In Which the World Is Mine with a Ni Hao and a Smile

The juice box was unexpected but not unwelcome, handed to me by a little boy with round, strawberry cheeks and dandelion-fluff hair. He was with his two older sisters, walking backward to better stare at me. We were an unusual parade down the Korla sidewalk.

He stared and stared, so I smiled and said ni hao. *Gasp!* He planted his face in the pleats of his sister's coat and walked that way for a block, occasionally peeping out from the folds of wool with one licorice-drop eye. Finally, he disentangled himself and ran back to me, offering the juice box he'd been carrying.

Well. That was about the nicest thing I'd experienced in China. Until I met his sisters, of course. They were so focused on chasing him that they didn't notice me at first. But when they did, they exchanged a look that conveyed several exclamation marks: Foreigner!!! Possibly American!!

They bustled over and both spoke excitedly in Chinese. I smiled and shrugged apologetically. "Wo, wo, um, wo... don't speak Chinese. Much," I said. This earned another exclamation-filled glance: She speaks English!!!

The younger of the sisters, Ruo Nan, who's 14, asked in halting English where I'm from. She asked if I live in Korla. And then she inadvertently caused me enlightenment.

"We live," she said, pointing at a high-rise to our left. "Do you come play?"

She wanted me to come up to their apartment.

Now, that probably wouldn't be the smartest thing I could do, going up to an unknown apartment filled with strangers, in a country in which I still wasn't 100 percent comfortable. It seemed like a good way to get rolled.

But... she and her sister seemed so nice! And the juice box! So delightful! My gut -- to which, previously, I'd rarely listened -- shouted yes! Go! "What if you're sorry an hour from now?" my brain argued.

Gut and brain bickered back and forth for a second, giving heart time to step aside and allow all of Korla, all of China, all of the world and maybe all of the universe to swirl and pulse around it.

The day was crystal bright and chilly, and I was about 10,000 miles from anything familiar. It had been months since I could claim to have done the smart thing. I had no concept of the future beyond the next few minutes -- no idea where I'll go or what I'll do after my contract expires next January, no sense of direction, no map after more than a decade of OnStar for the Well-Ordered Life.

When I boarded the plane for China, life morphed from a linear narrative with a clear view of the horizon to a series immediate moments -- bright beads on a string, to be appreciated as they come my way.

And in that moment, I wanted to go "play" with this family. They seemed really nice.

"OK!" I said.

The sisters beamed and clutched my arms, dragging me into the building and up to the 14th floor, presenting me to their parents and grandparents: Look what we found!

"Ni hao!" I said.

Well! I was offered a seat on the couch. And a Pepsi. And an apple. And some sunflower seeds. To everything I replied "OK!" or, sometimes, OK's equally congenial cousin, Sure! The whole family gathered around me -- even grandpa, Mr. Inscrutible East -- staring and talking all at once. Ruo Nan rushed to a cabinet to retrieve the plaque she'd won for placing second in a modeling competition. Gian Gian, who's 23 and the oldest sister, hustled to another room for photo albums.

The two middle sisters, Wei Wei and Liu Ying, came home and their oldest and youngest sisters sprang at them: Look what we found!

It was an impromptu party -- conducted almost entirely in Chinese, of course, but I know enough to recognize a good time when I see one. Their dad boiled some sweet potatoes and offered them to me, then decided we'd all go to the hot pot restaurant that evening. The girls walked me home, then picked me up later for dinner, overjoyed that Tom, the Australian teacher who lives next door, was coming, too.

By the time dinner was almost over, I had new friends and a sense of place in this sloppy, beautiful jumble of life. The only thing my brain was telling me was to stop eating or I'd be sorry later. And for once, my gut agreed.

The wonderful Cao sisters: Liu Ying, Wei Wei, Ruo Nan and Gian Gian

Grandpa, grandma and mom (photo by Tom Cliff)

At the hotpot restaurant (photo by Tom Cliff)

Monday, March 9, 2009

In Which Hooray for Women! Now Run.

In the name of honoring women, I was shoved to the starting line and told to run fast. When I tried hinting that I wasn't necessarily built for land speed, there was much tut-tutting and sadly disappointed head shakes. But your legs! They're so long!

Yeah, but...

But nothing. A firm nudge to the back positioned me in the direction I would run. Fast.

This is how International Women's Day is celebrated in China, I guess: by making women run relay races.

That's only part of it, of course. The holiday is a very big deal here, a celebration of the fact that the status of women is slowly but steadily improving in China. At my school, there's the traditional relay race, but there's also a big banquet at the fancy hotel nearby, plus women receive flowers and gifts and time off from work.

First, though, the race. Though I teach third, fourth and eighth grades, I spend most of my time with the third grade teachers. They're my favorite -- loving, funny, bossy women who fluff my hair but ultimately despair of it; who pluck at my tights, insisting they're too thin and maybe I'll freeze; who correct my pronunciation and tease me for how much I say xiexie (thank you -- I'm really good at thank you).

So, the night before the race I was informed I'd be running with the third grade teachers' relay team. This was a surprise. They'd discussed it, I was told.

As usual, I offered a clueless, agreeable nod. It's become my habit.

The next day, when I skulked out to the track after class, I was greeted with a carnival. Dozens and dozens of students -- my students! -- lined the track, as did teachers and school administrators who weren't running. The teachers who were milled around the starting line, looking lithe and swift and small and oh, crap.

Rose, my favorite of the third grade teachers, pulled me over to the three other teachers on my team.

"You're first," she told me.

Oh, crap.

It was bewildering. A giant P.E. teacher was shouting through a bullhorn. I only understood about two words. Students were shrieking and jumping around, being held back by other giant P.E. teachers. Somebody wrapped my fingers around an aluminum baton. The teachers on the inside lanes were sneaking up to positions ahead of me. I heard what I assume was "ready, set," but I couldn't be sure.

Then everybody was running. Wait! What? That was start?

I took off and ran like I've never run before -- like I was on fire, like I was being chased. For the pride of the third grade, for the pride of women, for my own feeble pride, legs and arms pumping, weaving around the teachers ahead of me, two-thirds of a lap, almost within reach of my teammate's outstretched hand.

I slapped the baton in it and slowed to a jittering halt. I'd tied for first in reaching my teammate. Ha! (And, shamefully, I'll admit to a "take that, tiny Chinese women!") Ultimately, we came in third -- a very respectable finish, I think.

As I wandered off the track, Rose met me with an effusive "good job!" Then she tried smoothing my fly-away hair, but had to give up. Hopeless.

The start of the relay race

The lovely third grade teaching staff

The third grade English teachers: Rose, Lillian and me. Those are not my flowers. I was told to hold them and said OK.

Friday, March 6, 2009

In Which I Sing for My Supper

I was happily chasing noodles around my bowl of soup when Ellen, one of the fourth grade teachers, said, "Rachel! Sing an English song for us!"


I glanced up and eight women were looking at me expectantly. Yes, I'd heard that right, the lone English in a lovely, blurry fog of Chinese.

It was the end of the evening. The other women, also teachers at the school, and I were comfortably ensconced in a private room at the restaurant and had just finished seven courses of spicy hot pot. The room was steamy and everybody was rosy-cheeked, feeling sated and sassy.

And then the demand to sing. I'd not been aware that this is a Chinese custom: After a delicious meal with good friends, it's not uncommon to sing a few songs. This is a wonderful tradition, in my opinion. It's especially wonderful if I'm listening. Oh, I like to sing -- harmony, and with musical accompaniment. But an a capella solo at the hot pot restaurant...

"Sing!" said Rose, the teacher seated to my right, beaming and gently nudging me in the side.

I tripped through a frantic mental scramble: Aaah! They want me to sing! OK, OK, what songs do I know all the words to? Welcome to the Jungle. Because that would be appropriate. Think! I'm a Little Teapot -- what, with the actions, too? Welcome to the Jungle. Stop it! I am not singing Guns 'n Roses!

Finally, like a shaft of sunlight through my troubled mind, words of comfort. I cleared my throat. "I can see clearly now the rain is gone," I sang. "I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It's gonna be a bright, bright, bright sunshiny day."

The other women -- these kind, generous, wonderful women -- smiled and clapped along as I fluttered through Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now. Trilling a final note, I slumped back in my chair, flushed and happy. Then there were other songs, beautiful Chinese songs, and Ellen even danced a little. And when the night was done, we exited the restaurant, arms linked.

Nice story, right? It doesn't end there, though. Really, it's just a preface to explain how, the following evening, I stood clutching a microphone in front of a crowded banquet room, trying to remember Richard Marx lyrics.

All the female teachers in the school were there, being honored for International Women's Day. There were many toasts, many speeches, none of which I understood. But the overall feeling was celebratory and convivial.

And then. "Rachel! Sing an English song!" This time it was the third-grade student teacher, a delightful girl who, just then, I could have murdered with my chopsticks. "Do you know the Beijing Olympics song?"

"Oh, gosh. Wow. No. Sorry."

"Do you know the Titanic song?" she asked

"Only the 'near, far, wherever you are' part," I apologized.

She was very disappointed, so now I felt bad. Again with the mental scramble: OK. OK. Think! What songs do I know? Rocky Top. Well, that's just great, especially the part about all the folks getting their corn from a jar. Whistle While You Work. What the heck? Where did that even come from? I don't know all the words! Rocky Top. Aaah! Rachel! Enough with Rocky Top!

Just then, she brightened and asked, "Do you know Right Here Waiting?"

"Yes! Yes! I do know that one!"

I mean, I came of age in the late '80s, early '90s. Of course I know Richard Marx ballads. She nodded and scampered away, so I thought maybe I was off the hook. Minutes later she was back, tugging at my arm. I followed her to the front of the room, where she shoved a microphone in my hands. Fortunately, she had one, too, and pledged to sing with me.

Well, clearly this was awful, and I'd just eaten horse sausage -- I knew from awful. Student teacher was quivering with anticipation beside me. My brain wouldn't stop shouting "Rocky Top! Rocky Top!" I spent several desperate seconds hoping for an immediate embolism, or even death. Death would be OK, too. People were staring at me. My heart threatened to exit my chest. I couldn't breathe. I was sweating.

And then.

And then, aw, what the hell: "Oceans apart, day after day, and I slowly go insane..."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In Which Spoons Are for Babies

When I first got to China, it was my habit to fling vegetables on the floor. Eggplant, potato, kale -- I did not discriminate. It all went on the floor. Sometimes, to keep things interesting, I dribbled noodles onto my lap.

Then I would gaze reproachfully at my chopsticks: A little help here, please? If I was eating with someone, I would shrug ruefully and shake my chopsticks, indicating that they might be broken.

I should have practiced before I left America, I guess. I just never saw the point. If I was eating at a Chinese restaurant, forks always were offered, and a fork seemed like the most expeditious means of transporting food to my mouth.

But now, I would guess there's not a fork in the entire Xinjiang Province. So, when in China... (fling your vegetables on the floor).

About a quarter of my first meal in this country ended up on the floor, in my lap or on the tablecloth. I'd get precarious hold of a potato chunk, but could tell by the way it trembled and shook that this wasn't going to end well. And sproing! The chopsticks jerked in opposite directions, like they had somewhere else to be. Bye-bye, potato chunk.

The waitress, who was hovering nearby, hustled over and asked if I wanted a spoon. I was about to fall on her neck with a weeping "YES!" when Alena, my school's wonderful foreign affairs officer, with whom I was eating, tittered and told her of course I didn't want a spoon. Spoons are for babies.

So, I've practiced. And practiced. Grain of rice after grain of rice, lifted slowly and deliberately to my mouth. It was necessary, not only so I don't starve, but because people always want to know: Yes, but how is she with chopsticks?

Now? Proficient, I'm happy to report. In fact, the other day, as I ate lunch at the restaurant near my school, I felt downright philosophical. Using chopsticks is such a contemplative way to eat, I mused, thoughtfully transporting a few grains of rice at a time to my mouth. I really consider everything I eat. It takes finesse. I truly taste everything.

Feeling benevolent, I gazed beatifically at the other diners -- all of whom were Chinese -- and watched as they held their bowls of rice directly beneath their mouths and used the chopsticks to shovel it in.

Finesse, my butt.

So, I feel a little less furtive in the mornings when I glance this way and that, close the curtains, lock the door and eat my bowl of milk and rice with a spoon.

Monday, March 2, 2009

In Which I Can't Remember How to Say "Paper" in Chinese, but Who Cares!

Not to brag or anything, but I am in possession of a ream of white copy paper. And it is all I can do not to sleep with it under my pillow. I cherish this paper.

It is a testament to the triumph of communication, and I acquired it through a little method I like to call "speaking Chinese."

Yes! These truly are days of miracle and magic. I could hardly believe it myself when the words came out of my mouth and were understood. By an actual Chinese speaker!

Needless to say, I'm finding Chinese a bit challenging.

It is a language of extreme subtlety, with four distinct tones that conceal universes of meaning. Say the word "tang" with a flat tone and I'll get soup. But the same word with an upward tone? Sugar. And, of course, with a downward tone, this word is an exclaimation of dismay when I sip overly-hot tang (soup, not sugar)(well, no, I guess it would work if I ate overly-hot sugar, too). To recover from that infernal shock, I might need to tang -- with the evil down-up intonation, my greatest nemesis -- or lie down for a little rest.

Don't even get me started on shui. Water? Or sleep?

Then there's the matter of actually getting the words to emerge from my mouth. Chinese requires of my tongue certain gymnastics that English never has. For example, the word "shi" is generally pronounced "shr," with the tongue curled in a U and pulled up and back. Shr. Shrrrrr.

The other teachers at my school have been extremely kind about helping me with the language, exaggerating their pronunciation so I might hear the distinctions.

"Shr," I say.

"No," another teacher will correct kindly. "Shr."

"That's what I just said: Shr."

"No, shr."

The teachers also give me helpful phrases, which I write phonetically in a notebook: I'm learning. How much is this? I'd like some water, please. I walk to and from school dutifully repeating these phrases over and over to myself. Sometimes, unfortunately, I forget what they mean in the first place.

So, The Incident at the Bookstore was something of a surprise. I'd gone there to buy posterboard and magnets, but noticed packaged reams of paper stacked under a table. This would be extremely helpful for my lessons, I decided. But no price tag!

Just then, a store employee wandered by and asked if I needed help. At least, I assume that's what he asked. I actually had no idea.

Now, normally in this situation I would say, "Umm...?" This is my standard reply: Umm...? It's accompanied by an expression of extreme befuddlement and followed with "I'm sorry."

This time, though, I was on a mission. I needed this paper. "How much is this?" I asked. And I asked it in Chinese!!!

I thought he said 50 yuan, but I ended up paying 40. Regardless! For the first time, I had meaningfully communicated in Chinese!

I floated out of the bookstore and all the way home.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

In Which "To Get to the Other Side" Is Not a Good Enough Reason

The question isn't so much why did the chicken cross the road, but how? And the answer is, with mincing hesitation and multiple false starts.

Standing at the edge of a breathless, busy street in downtown Korla, I extend a tentative toe, then quickly yank it back. Maybe now? Oh, no, no. No. How about... nope. OK, go! Aaah! No. Twitching and jerking, I do a solo, spastic Hokey Pokey.

I am at a crosswalk. This does not matter. I have been told the cars might stop. I do not believe it. From what I have seen, the cars will honk and maintain speed.

The people around me seem remarkably blase about the whole thing. There's the merest hint of a break in traffic -- a whisper, really -- and they saunter across three lanes to the middle of the road. I scuttle like a scared crab.

And then... Great. I'm standing on the 10-inch space between the white and yellow lines. Cars zoom by going and coming, their drafts whipping my hair around my face. I'm balanced on a tightrope of asphalt. OK. OK. Now? Nope. Aaaaannd... go! No, no. How about... ? There's a truck! (Carrying three Uyghur musicians in the back, surprisingly -- two playing drums and one a tinny trumpet.)

Finally, a tiny window of opportunity and I'm off at a sprint -- AAAAIIIIEEEE!!! -- apparently pursued by an army of devils that only I and my other personalities can see.

It is very undignified. I do not care. I have crossed the road and I might just stay on this side forever.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

In Which... Teenagers. Just, You Know, Teenagers.

It was the razor blade that really got to me. I mean, it's always suspicious when teenagers hunch over their desks, but I kept hearing a raspy skritch-skritch-skritch. So, while ostensibly monitoring my students' progress in writing name cards, I wandered the aisles in pursuit of the noise.

And there it was, coming from a hunched-over boy methodically carving the edge of his desk with a razor blade.

What the heck! Why?? Why are you doing this?

I wanted to shout and rend my clothes. I was 10 minutes into the first of my six eighth-grade classes, and I'd already stopped a girl from systematically painting a sheet of white paper with Wite-Out. Not that I have anything against Wite-Out or abstract art, but you see this name card I asked you to fill out, dearest? It's blank.

On one hand, the future looked bleak for my middle school teaching career. But on the other hand, I was vastly comforted by constancy in the universe: Teenagers are teenagers, no matter where in the world they're from. A Chinese 13-year-old has just as great a capacity for obnoxiousness as an American one.

So I did not come unglued at the boy with the razor blade. I lightly removed it from his fingers, stuck it deep in his desk and waggled an admonishing pointer: Don't.

Then I retreated to the front of the classroom and considered these students through narrowed eyes. Hmmm. This was going to take guile.

Had I been feeling more generous, I would have recalled my own fourteenth year -- without question, the worst of my life. I would have looked at these lovely, silly, awkward creatures and seen myself, 21 years ago.

There was the boy in the back, painfully aware of his complexion, eyes downcast, constantly shifting in his seat to find an elusive comfortable position in his own skin. There was the girl curled into herself like a comma, convinced that nobody understood. Were she a painting, she would be titled "A Study of Woe in Shades of Gray." There were the two girls seated side-by-side, demonstrating through icy disdain why they are atop the social ladder. They received the name cards I handed them with the Limp Wrist of Apathy. There were the boys whose favorite thing in the world is shoving each other, and the girls trying to get their attention, wordlessly pleading for any iota of consideration that would give them hope.

But like I said, this was not the time for empathy. It occurred to me that these students would not be wooed by Rachel's Traveling Minstrel and Deranged Clown Show. Whereas with my third graders I could run around waving a sock puppet and get them to shout adjectives at me, and with my fourth graders I could make up games involving chopsticks, these eighth graders would require sneakiness.

No more could I face them with what I now realized was a laughably lame lesson prepared from the world's stupidest textbook. In fact, a correspondence:

Dear textbook,

You are useless. I'd do just as well teaching from an Archie and Jughead comic book. Thanks for nothing.


Rachel Sauer

So, a lesson about expressing opinions? The textbook wanted me to blather about robots or something, but I'm not ashamed to admit I resorted to pandering: I played parts of American pop songs. What is your opinion? Do you think this is a good song? Or a bad song? Tell me why.

I'm pleased to report they were rapt. If someone started talking, they shushed each other. They gave extremely serious consideration to the goodness or badness of each song, and cast thoughtful votes after each one. Then I promised that if they tried extra hard for the rest of class, I would play one whole song for them at the end. Thrilled buzzing! They could hardly believe it.

I know, I know. You are the luckiest eighth graders in the world.

Now, thanks to the help of Beyonce, Chris Brown, Feist and OutKast, I believe I might have my foot in the door. I just need to figure out what I'll do next week to trick them into learning English.

And a P.S. to Bob Dylan: Sorry, man. You really struck out with the adolescent population of northwest China. Better luck next time.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In Which I Say Hello. A Lot.

The hellos come at me like popcorn bursting, stacatto spurts of moxie and joy: Hello! Hello! Hello!

If there are children anywhere in my vinicity who happen to catch sight of me, the hellos spring from them. Regardless of how well they're doing in English class, every child in China at least knows hello. And here in Korla, where foreigners still are somewhat rare, it's an opportunity children simply can't pass up when I walk by.

Hello! Hello! Hello!

I hear it in the halls at school, as I walk through downtown, on my way to the grocery store. A child may be across the street and barely within shouting distance, but I can tell they're willing to bellow. Hello!!!

And when I don't get a hello, I know the desire is there -- the staring and the blushing, the quick downward glance, then just as quickly a glance back up at me. So I say hello, and the poor thing practically bursts into flames from blushing and giggling.

Last night, walking home from the store, I passed two girls -- one Uyghur, one Hui -- who looked about 11. They were staring and giggling, so I said hello -- fever pitch with the giggles then. I kept walking and 50 yards down the sidewalk heard, "Hello!" I turned around and they were waving madly.

"Hello!" I called. Shyness seemed to root them to the spot, so onward with my walk. Then the flutter of footsteps. I was being followed. Slower now, and slower still, so they could catch up. Finally, the braver of the two was beside me.

"It is very nice to meet you!" she declared, so sweetly exact and formal that I could have died on the spot, it was so charming.

It was nice to meet her, I said. It was nice to meet her friend. Did she study English? Was she from China? Where was she going? That pushed the limits of her English, so I grinned and said good night.

Ten seconds later, footsteps. I glanced back, smiling, and my shadows were across the street, blushing and giggling, giggling and blushing. Finally, as I stood on my doorstep, one more burst of bravery as they darted over: Good-bye! Good-bye! Good-bye!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In Which I Maybe Eat at the Uyghur Restaurant

Just now, as I was putting water on to boil, I peered out the kitchen window to make sure the Uyghur restaurant was still there.

Yep, yep, yep, red Chinese lanterns hanging beside the doorway, tangled gold knots of Uyghur script flowing across the top of the building. So it's still there, then.

I've been checking about every 10 minutes, every time I get a drink or a snack or just randomly wander around my apartment. It's just across the sidewalk and I can look down on it from my living room and kitchen, and from my bathroom if I really bend my neck.

I would like to eat dinner at this restaurant. I'd wanted to eat breakfast there, but chickened out. Then I summoned my resolve for lunch, but chickened out again. Now it's dinner time. I haven't yet figured out my rice cooker, I'm tired of eating oranges, I very much would love a bowl of noodles.

Thanks to my Berlitz dictionary and Chinese in Plain English, I've composed what I believe is the appropriate request: I want bowl noodles. With vegetables. Please. I know this will cost 10 yuan, about $1.50, and I know the word for 10, so I'll understand at least that when the man at the cash register speaks to me. I hope. Maybe? No telling whether he'll understand me.

Maybe I should write it on my hand?

Anyway, I just checked again. The restaurant is still there. Did I mention it's covered with small white tiles? Regardless, it's there, is the point.

Yep, there it is, the restaurant where I'd like to eat. Yep, yep, yep.

You know, breakfast is only 2 yuan, a much better deal, so if I waited...

Friday, February 20, 2009

In Which I Put on My Big Girl Panties. Or My Buddha Panties, As It Were.

In northwest China, there are dozens of desert hillsides and cliff faces honeycombed with Buddha caves. In these caves, the devout painted elaborate, vivid murals on the walls and ceilings and enshrined statues of the Buddha. His holiness is as much a part of this area's history as are Silk Road traders and exiled government officials (really: this is where they sent people to punish them).

So there was no escaping him as I wandered through the Xinjiang Provincial Museum in Urumqi. I'd turn a corner and there he was, smiling at me serenely. Venturing into another room, he was there, all benevolence and peace. It was infuriating.


But no, he was having none of it. He just kept smiling smiling smiling and sending me this one clear message: Calm the hell down, lotus blossom.

I'll admit to being a little... tense. And not just because my luggage still was lost. It was everything -- the unfamiliarty of my new home, my inability to speak the language, the mutton kebab that had taken up permanent residence in my stomach.

Take, for example, the simple act of riding in a cab. In China, the lines on the road are something of a hilarious joke, a delightful whimsy to give drivers a laugh as they cut off buses, careen a hair's breadth past other cars and straddle lanes at breakneck speed. And cab drivers. *sigh* Cab drivers seem to be under the impression that the engine is aflame and they must get to the fire station immediately.

So, I discovered during my first cab ride that it is, in fact, possible to clench every muscle in my body simultaneously, including those tiny ones in my ears. It seemed rude to shriek, "There's a bus! There's a bus right there!!!" -- not that the driver would have understood me, anyway -- so I full-body cringed and prayed: Please, Lord, do not let me die in a Volkswagen on Beijing Road.

This ride was followed by the discovery that China is a nation of line cutters. I'd had a hint of this at the airport, but really got a taste at the health center where I went to get my work visa. What seemed like 9,000 people were crammed into a tiled, fluorescent-lit office the size of my parents' living room, and the effect was of 9,000 salmon swimming up a single fish ladder. There was no line; there was a scrum. I was jostled and then shoved, and an insidious shoulder kept trying to worm its way past my arm.

"Dude!" I finally said. "Do you mind?"

I got a blank look and a shoulder to the kidney. I guess in a nation with a population of 1.3 billion, you have to shove if you're ever going to get what you need. But what I wanted to stand on the desk and shout is, "Look, Xinjiang Province has a sixth of China's land mass and only 20 million people. It's not that crowded. WHAT'S WITH THE SHOVING?"

But I didn't. I just tensed up a little more. I guess that's why the Buddha wouldn't leave me alone.

Staring into his serene face, I resigned myself to giving in. OK, Buddha, I will not struggle. I will drift. There is nothing I can do about my luggage. My beloved sister is on the case, and if she can't track it down, nobody can. Otherwise, I will buy clothes here, because they obviously carry so many clothes for women who are 6'1" in northwest China...

But no, that doesn't matter. I will breathe deeply. I will take things as they come. I will simply close my eyes in the cab, in the manner of enjoying a nice little rest. And OK, maybe I'll throw the occasional elbow in a "line," but I won't get bent out of shape about it.

And I'll remember the tender mercies and small graces that have marked my time in China so far -- the woman who waited with me in line at the Beijing airport, just to make sure I got my ticket OK; the cab driver who laughed at himself as he practiced his English on me; the man in the Chengdu airport who pretended he kind of understood my Chinese; the people I passed on the sidewalk who smiled and nodded as they walked by.

As overwhelming as it's been, it's been beautiful, too -- as thrilling as anything I've ever experienced. I'd wanted something different, some grand adventure, and I definitely was getting it. So, standing in the Xinjiang museum, communing with the Buddha, I pulled on my metaphorical big girl panties.

Just then, a lady from the Urumqi airport called. My luggage was on the 5 p.m. flight from Beijing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In Which I'm Beguiled by a Vegetable

By the time it looked like my luggage was good and gone, the only thing left to do was buy and eat the sweet potato. I'm sorry, CDC, and I thank you for all your warnings about food from street vendors, but what else was I supposed to do?

So, hello, toothess Hui man standing in an alley and roasting sweet potatoes in a 55-gallon drum! A mere 2.5 yuan, you say? Don't mind if I do! He wrapped the misshapen thing in a plastic baggie and I cuddled it for a bit as I wobbled down the snow-slick sidewalk. It was very, very warm and the afternoon was very, very cold.

And my luggage was missing. In fact, its very existence was met by Air China and U.S. Airways representatives with the sort of skeptcism reserved for mentions of Nessie. I tried to convince them and ended up protesting too much: No, it's true, I swear! I saw it with my own eyes! It was blue, and it rolled.

So I was wearing the same clothes I had been for the previous four days, and I was coming off 52 hours in airplanes and airports, and I'd used a squat toilet for the first time in my life, and I'd bought a bottle of water using what turned out to be 30 percent Mandarin, 70 percent gibberish -- "WAW. MY. SHWAY." -- and I was standing on a sidewalk in Urumqi, China, thinking the Talking Heads were prophets: Well, how did I get here?

I hugged my potato a little tighter, and pondered how so many things in life seem like a good idea at the time.