She took the midnight train going anywhere…

•October 2, 2009 • 4 Comments

Well, when I say “midnight” I really mean 10:30pm.  And when I say “anywhere” I actually mean, Yantai.  But close enough…  Anyway, I’ll be hopping the 10:30 train out of Yanzhou tonight to meet up with the rest of the crew in Yantai.  I’m definitely glad to be going, and looking forward to experiencing the upper berth of a sleeper train.  I will– of course– be posting all about my travels when I get back.  Wish me luck!

P.S.  I did this today…

And yes, it feels ridiculously short.

And yes, it feels ridiculously short.

Alone at last?

•October 1, 2009 • 2 Comments

Dana, Charlee, and I made plans to catch a bus to Jinan today to visit our friend Gen.  However, I woke up this morning with a migraine to end all migraines… I had hoped I could shake it by the afternoon– in time for our original travel plans, but no such luck.  So I told Dana and Charlee to go ahead without me, and now I’m the only one left in Qufu.  In some ways the quiet is nice, but there’s a bit of an apocalyptic feel to being here when no one else is really around.  Today was a bit of a waste since I was incapacitated.  But tomorrow I’m going to figure out how to get on the roof (I know for a fact that it’s possible) and do some writing.  And then I’m looking into getting myself a train ticket to Yantai– the coastal city the rest of the group is planning to meet up in in a couple days.  That’s all for now– haven’t done much aside from read today.

Enjoying my quiet, but missing you all dearly.

I’ll leave you with a Raymond Carver poem that resurfaced for me recently…

So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
P.S. Happy National Day

You’re Such a Farmer…

•September 29, 2009 • 10 Comments

At long last I’ve gotten around to setting up this blog.  The truth is that it really didn’t take much effort, but I’ve been all sorts of distracted by life in China so it’s just taken me a while to force myself to sit down and get the thing started.

Life in Qufu has — if nothing else– constantly surprised me.  When I arrived I was told that, although my fellow foreign teachers would begin teaching in a matter of days, I would not begin for “some time.”  This sort of vague response is something I’ve come to rue and yet find oddly comforting (at least to the degree that I now expect it at all times).  So, with an unexpected 2-4 week paid vacation I decided to leave Qufu for a while to visit friends and family in Beijing and Tianjin.  Unfortunately, while I was in Tianjin I managed to catch a cold, which led– ultimately –to my being placed in quarantine for four days.  At the time I don’t think I could have been more annoyed, but now it seems an amusing and thankfully distant memory.

After being freed, I finally started teaching.  It’s more than safe to say that my students are the best part of this experience yet.  I teach five groups of freshmen, oral English and listening lab.  Everyone is so eager to learn English, I sometimes find myself feeling like I’m never going to be able to satisfy their appetites.

This past weekend I left Qufu for Beijing again– had a really lovely time seeing more friends and drinking real coffee (aside from nescafe instant coffee, Qufu does not have much to offer in the way of good caffeine).  In a moment of forgetfulness though, I forgot to pack my phone charger, which left me a little out of touch.  Normally I don’t think that would have been too much of a problem, but as luck would have it, while I was away twelve cases of swine flu popped up at my University.  Thus, I returned to Qufu totally unprepared to find the campus empty (all the students have been sent home) and to be told that we were now “on break” until October 9th.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about all these impromptu paid vacations… but seriously?  I came here to teach, and as yet I don’t particularly feel like I’ve done much of that.  But hopefully the flu scare will pass, and things will be back on track soon enough.

Today was my first full day back in Qufu, and it was wonderful.  This morning Charlee woke me up with pancakes she’d made from the year’s supply of mix that her mother just sent– they were great.  I felt thoroughly spoiled.  Afterwards, we met up with Dana and took my bike around the corner to get fixed up (the tires were completely flat, and I needed new brakes, a new lock, and a basket).  The couple that fixes bikes on the street corner have immediately become one of my favorite Qufu fixtures.  While they fixed my bike, we chatted and I messed around with the camera I got this past spring.  I think I’ve finally started to get the knack for most of the manual settings, which I’m very happy about.  The woman was a little camera-shy, but her husband insisted on posing for pictures with my bike.  I’m going to have to find a way to print them some copies sometime soon..

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Once my bike was done, Charlee, Dana, and I went to grab lunch in the North Market.  Earlier Charlee bought a roast duck (in a bag) from the East Market, so we decided to grab a seat at one of the little family run market stalls where we could order a few vegetable dishes to supplement the duck.  These stalls are definitely a big part of the lunch time experience in Qufu.  Here’s how they work:  You can expect to pay about 2 kuai a person for your meal.  You’re more than welcome to bring your own meat dishes.  There will be plates of raw vegetables set up in the front, and you’re expected to point at what you want then have a seat while your picks are cooked.

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Now I don’t know about you, but when I’m painfully full the very next thing I like to do is go for a long bike ride.  Okay, that’s not true.  A bike ride is definitely not the first thing on my mind when I’m stuffed, but we’d already made plans with the ELIC teachers to go for a bike ride through the villages around 2:00.  So off we went.  Before I tell you about the ride (which was really fun), I should explain that I haven’t been on a bicycle in almost eight years.  And yes, I know the saying… but I was still nervous.  What’s more, I’ve never been totally comfortable on a bike.  I can ride, I just don’t really trust myself or any other vehicles on the road– a mistrust that increases ten-fold in Qufu, where traffic rules are virtually non-existent.  But, I was also the only person lucky enough to have a bike left waiting for them in their apartment by one of its former occupants.  Which, however ironic, seemed like a clear sign that I was supposed to get over my fears and just go.  Which I did.  Bullet bitten, we headed off, and over all I’d say the biking itself was a success (minus a few near run-ins with shrubbery, and the not so graceful final dismount back at our apartments).

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Lisa (an ELIC teacher who’s been in Qufu for almost four years now) took us to a hidden restaurant she’d discovered on a previous excursion.  This place had a certain storybook charm to it– private thatched-roof huts to eat in, hammocks, a small wooden bridge, and countless strings of red paper lanterns.

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Perhaps the only thing drawing us out of the fantasy was the following sign…

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(“STUPID CHICKEN STUPID EGG SELLING DEPARTMENT”)

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In the chickens’ defense, they didn’t seem all that stupid.  When we were speaking with the owners about coming back for dinner later in the evening, I also explained what the English translation on their sign actually meant.  They found this just as funny as we did, and then explained (if I understood them correctly) that what they were trying to say was that they were raising their own chickens, and that the restaurant served the eggs as well as the chickens themselves.

With plans for dinner later, we left the stupid chickens behind and continued our ride.  Lisa wanted us to see one of the roads where all the farmers bring their corn harvest out to dry.  It was almost like riding down the yellow brick road.  The corn endless and in various stages of drying.  It was hard to resist stopping every few feet to take pictures.  At one point Lisa decided she wanted to sit with some of the women husking corn for a picture.  The women were happy to oblige, and Lisa couldn’t have been more thrilled.  In fact, in her enthusiasm she decided the picture would be much better if she were husking too.  And she was right, it made for great pictures.  Before you knew it, we were all husking.  The farmers thought this was hysterical.  I casually told them in Chinese, “You all can go home and rest a while, we’ll work,” which sent them into fits of laughter.  But sure enough they rested a while, and we husked away.  Last week our Chinese friend, Gen, told us that calling someone “a farmer” is actually a way of insulting them– it’s supposed to suggest that you lack the intelligence required to do anything else with your life.  However, after our experience today I think we’ve all decided that there’s something to be said for the farmers.

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Having done our part to support Qufu’s agricultural business, we headed out again.  We left the main road and headed into one of the actual villages where we almost acquired a puppy… Dirty as he might have been, this little pup was heart-shatteringly cute.  The villagers who seemed to own him kept insisting that we could take him with us, but as much as we’d all love to have a puppy around it just didn’t seem like a good idea.  I think Charlee had the hardest time walking away– if that little guy shows up in the complex in the next few days we’ll know who was responsible.

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Further into the village I discovered that if you don’t want to lay your corn on the road to dry, you can always hang it up… in your trees.  We also came across some very friendly people stone grinding corn.  They were very excited about having their pictures taken, quickly posing for us and gesturing for us to take countless photos.  In particular, there was a man who seemed very enthusiastic about us taking pictures of his two-year-old son (who was almost as cute as the puppy we’d just left behind).

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Photo-shoot completed, we headed back to campus.  The bike ride was a lot of fun, but I was definitely ready to be off of that bike-seat (for the record: sitting down is a bit painful at the moment).  So we locked up our bikes and made plans to reconvene for dinner at the stupid chicken place around 6:30.  After a good shower and a power-nap, we went in search of a cab at the North gate.  However, since all the students are gone, the number of cabs around the campus gates (excluding the main gate, which is the South gate and much farther from our apartments than the North gate) has dwindled significantly.  We managed to flag one down, but there were six of us and we needed a second cab.  Even though the first cabbie called the company to send another, it was taking a substantially long time, and we were all hungry.  So finally I bargained with the cabbie, and got him to agree to let all six of us squish in if we promised to throw him a few extra kuai for his troubles.  The restaurant was completely charming in the dark– all the red lanterns were lit, and the little huts were filled with people laughing and enjoying their meals.  Lisa and I went inside to order, while the rest of the group grabbed seats in our private hut.  As I mentioned before, we’d come here earlier in the day and talked about coming for dinner.  When we talked, the owner told me to call around 6:00 to let them know how many people would be coming.  And I did just that.  So now, we’re about to order and the owner proudly explains to me (in Chinese) that when I called, they took the liberty of killing one of their own chickens for us.  Now, I have to admit that my Chinese is far from perfect, but I do end up doing a lot of translating and communicating for the rest of the group.  And this is something that can get stressful from time to time.  It occasionally feels like a lot of responsibility– trying to communicate and represent the interests of everyone in the group.  At this point I was a little worn from a days translation, and all I could do was turn to Lisa and dumbly explain that they had slaughtered us a chicken (a very large chicken) and that was going to be one of the dishes.  We both paused for a moment and then laughed, because we couldn’t really have expected to come to the restaurant and not eat some stupid chicken.  And if you’re getting stupid chicken, well then you might as well get the stupid eggs too…

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(In case you can’t tell, that’s the crest of the stupid chicken’s head rising from the broth…)

Dinner was a fantastic end to a fantastic day.  So while it is frustrating that classes keep getting cancelled, I can’t say that life without work (when you’re still getting paid) is so bad.  And in case you were wondering: the stupid chicken and the stupid eggs were so good it was– well —stupid.