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.