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.