Wednesday, September 29, 2004
During my last week in Quzhou, I was invited to a teacher's "Singles Party". Since most of the Chinese teachers work 10+ hours a day for six to seven days a week, the schools do what they can to help their young instructors find a potential husband or wife. Q1 teamed up with another high school to put on the event, and while my co-teachers made fun of the idea, they still packed into the dance hall.As I walked into the party I was mildly amused to see all the girls huddled behind tables on one side of the room giggling and pointing at the guys huddled behind their tables on the opposite side of the room. They were only serving punch and moon cakes, so it looked like all the single guys at Q1 might be out of luck. About five minutes later the karaoke machine came to the rescue. Nothing can rival the popularity of karaoke in China, whether it's used to liven up high school single's parties or high class "Massage parlors". Soon everyone was dancing, singing, drumming, and going completely nuts. Even the Q1 Vice Principal sang her heart out. I was laughing almost too hard to dance when I noticed they were dubbing Chinese hip-hop over the "Too Legit To Quit" MC Hammer video being projected on the wall.
Saturday, September 25, 2004
If you're ever having a self esteem problem, just come teach in Quzhou for awhile and you'll leave on cloud nine. Walking from my office to my classroom every day reminded me of what Julia Roberts must go through when she goes to the grocery store. "Wow!" "So tall!" "Oooooooo!" rung out in every hallway. The kids would follow me from class to class and hover around my desk before I went home. I even had a 14-year-old girl burst out with "You are SOOOO handsome!" before she turned bright red and sprinted down the hall followed by her five hysteric friends.
Life was good. I had a fan club at school, the fruit man knew what I liked, the street lady who made my dumplings had my order ready before I asked for it, and the trash lady even recognized me! I had found routine in the chaos and it was almost too comfortable.
Luckily I had Jack and Eric to keep me focused. During my first week in Quzhou Jack set up a meeting with the person who ran my cousin Emily's orphanage while she was there. Mr. He (Pronounced Huh) was full of great stories and he told me that he was the one that gave Emily her Chinese name of Xinyu. Mr. He said Emily was found in the Xin Xin district of Quzhou and she was so beautiful that he named her Xinyu or "Jade of Xin Xin District". Mr. He explained that there were several Chinese foster families that could have adopted Xinyu, but the government in the mid-90's wouldn't let any families adopt a child if they already had one. The government has since changed the policy, which partially explains why the Social Welfare Institute only has five children in it now.
On one hand I was thankful for the old government regulations because they allowed my Aunt and Uncle to adopt Xinyu and she has been a WONDERFUL addition to our family. On the other hand it seemed strange to deny local Chinese families in favor of foreign ones. Mr. He assured me that due to the financial conditions in the Xin Xin district, Xinyu is much better off in the United States. He also emphasized that he saw his adoption program as a way to provide loving families to Chinese children, while at the same time forming a bond between China and other first world nations. I told him part of his plan was working, because I never would have made it to Quzhou if it wasn't for Mr. He's efforts to help Xinyu.
Thanks to the political influence exerted by Jack and Mr. He, I was able to visit Xinyu's orphanage a couple od days later. Eric told me that my visit should have been cleared at the "Provincial" level (Same as getting approval from Sacramento to visit an orphanage in San Diego), but Jack found a way to slip me in under the radar. Nice! I wasn't allowed to take any pictures inside, but I did get a chance to see the room Xinyu used to sleep in, along with room she used to play in. Xinyu lives on the East Coast with my Aunt and Uncle, so I haven't been able to get to know her as well as I would have liked. Even though it's been several years since I've seen her, walking through her former home gave me goose bumps. What must she have been thinking when my Aunt and Uncle showed up? Was she scared to get on her first airplane? Xinyu was four when she left for the United States, so I look forward to learning more about what she remembers when I get home.
A couple od days after visiting Xinyu's orphanage, I got an e-mail request from Jean Seeley, the wonderful lady who had made my time in Quzhou possible. Jean had just learned that the building where her daughter Hua was abandoned was about to be demolished. Jean met the family that found Hua, but she never saw where she was found. She asked if I could find a way out to Hua's hometown of Changshan to take some pictures of where Hua was found. Me? Pictures? No problem.
Eric volunteered to tag along as my interpreter and the adventure was on. The family that found Hua, the Yu's, would have loved to keep her, but they ran up against the same regulations Mr. He had told me about. They already had a son, so they couldn't keep Hua. Jean stays in great contact with them though, and Hua's pictures covered the walls of their living room. The Yu's informed me that they found Hua at around 4AM outside their roadside restaurant wrapped in a tattered jacket. Based on her condition, they said she must have been born hours earlier. At this point Eric was visibly disturbed. Eric has his own three year old daughter and he couldn't imagine how someone could abandon their child. While I clicked away with my camera, the Yu's introduced me to the neighbors in the village who all remember the morning Hua was found. No one spoke English, but you could tell they all loved the story of the mystery child who now lives in America.
On our packed bus ride back to Quzhou, Eric and I had an enlightening discussion about Chinese politics and life in general. He let me know that the Chinese don't particularly like taking on English names to help us identify them. Can you imagine if a Chinese teacher came to America and gave you a Chinese name because he couldn't pronounce your American name? It's crazy to turn the tables huh? Even though I do my best to ask for and remember Chinese names, it's still extremely tough. My Chinese name is Shan Mu, so the kids dug it when I let them call me Mr. Shan Mu. It's funny because my name is Shan Mu because it's the closest Chinese way to say Samuel. You would never use those words together in a sentence, but the direct translation is "Mountain Mother". Sweet.
Monday, September 20, 2004
When I wasn't teaching or playing hoops, I got the chance to peek into the daily life of the average Chinese citizen. Like most Chinese employers, Q1 includes housing and food in their compensation packages. Almost all the teachers live, eat, and play together. After the first week it felt like I was living the first day of the rest of my life. I had a home, a good job, free health care from the government, and no real expenses. I could live the rest of my life in Quzhou without any real worries. While the comfort and routine were attractive, I knew my mind would atrophy without more of a challenge or variety. I wanted more than Quzhou had to offer, but I also realized that my desires would be considered luxuries in China.
It's hard to explain, but I felt like I was living inside a tiny utopia. I need to read more about communism before I comment further, but the simple, productive, life like the one I was living in Quzhou seems to be the ideal in China. The purpose of the Chinese government is to make sure everyone has a job, an education, health care, safety, food, and a roof over their heads. Capitalism and consumerism are having a strong influence in the big cities and the "Special Economic Zones", but no one in Quzhou seemed overly concerned with becoming rich or famous. They weren't worried about how green the grass is in their neighbor's yard and they weren't always striving for more, more, more. They were happy with what they had, and they spent their free time dancing in parks, playing chess, and focusing on their families. Some would say this mentality is a product of communist brainwashing, but I think it may have more to do with how recently many of these people were living in poverty. It reminds me of the humble, determined work ethic of many of the first-generation Hispanic immigrants in California. Things usually change for the children raised without knowing how lucky they are, so we'll have to see how the communal mentality of China changes over the next 20 years.
At first I was hesitant to raise issues like this with the other teachers, but Q1 assigned me another teacher named Eric to help me acclimatize to Quzhou, so he was more than willing to answer all my politically incorrect questions. I also had a few American mentors. Laura, from New Orleans, who was also teaching at Q1, and her mother Jenny, who was teaching at the college across the street. Laura, Jenny, and Heather (College teacher from Wales) took me to dinner my first week and their attitude differences struck me right away. Jenny and Laura loved almost everything about China and treated the people and culture with respect and awe. Heather, on the other hand, found fault in everything that crossed her path. During dinner she explained how bad the food was, how crappy her apartment was, how she hated the weather, how poor her peer teachers were, how bored she was, and about twenty other topics I decided to delete from my memory.
I've heard that the one thing that separates men from beasts is that between what happens to us and our reaction, we have a choice, whereas animals just react. It seemed as if Heather was choosing poorly. I may have read one too many personal development books, but I am convinced that happiness is a choice. Your emotions are driven by your thoughts, and you can control what you think about. Heather was obviously choosing to think about all the bad things in her life, and those thoughts were driving her emotions. When I called her out on her excess negativity, she laughed and blamed her attitude on English culture and her tough past. Negative people are definitely entitled to live how they choose, and I do my best not to pass judgment. Who's to say my way of thinking is any better or worse than hers? All I know is that when given the choice, I'd rather fill my life with people like Laura and Jenny.
A couple days later Laura and Jenny took me to their non-denominational Christian church in downtown Quzhou. Almost every religion was wiped out in China during the "Cultural Revolution" in the 40's, but they have been making a steady comeback since the government relaxed restrictions. Over 50% of the Chinese population still claims no affiliation with any faith, but Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity are all growing. Part of Jenny's focus in China is spreading Christianity, so she was happy to see thousands of people packed into the two story church. The service took place on the second floor and was broadcast live on huge screen on the first floor. Everything was in Chinese, so I didn't exactly read along. As we were leaving we passed a long line of worshippers and Jenny informed me that the church provides lunch for many of the farmers who travel hours each way to attend the service. Many Chinese citizens have mixed feeling about the expansion of religion in China, but my experience with Laura and Jenny was nothing but positive.
I haven't found much information on the Chinese cultural revolution, but my friend Lu Dong in Beijing told me that all religions were basically made illegal after the communist government took control. He told me communism was almost treated like a religion in itself. While I passionately believe in freedom of religion, I started wondering about the masterminds of Chinese society. It has been almost impossible for India to impose any type of population controls, primarily because over 90% of the nation's Muslim or Hindu population religiously opposes such measures. Religion has been a positive and negative influence on nations throughout history, yet after the Cultural Revolution, religion became almost a non-issue in China. Could the Chinese government have implemented a "One Child Policy" before the cultural revolution, or was it critical to remove religious influences before implementing such massive social change? Maybe they saw the unifying and organizing power of religion as a threat to the newly formed nation? If this is the case, why have they relaxed their restrictions? International pressure? Do they feel strong enough now that religion no longer poses a threat? Unknown to this reporter...
Friday, September 17, 2004
When I hailed a taxi on my first day at "Work", I had no idea how to pronounce the name of the school, so I just pointed to the Chinese characters Martin had scribbled in my notebook the night before. Learning to properly pronounce Mandarin has been much harder than I expected. "Zh" is pronounced like a "J", "X" is pronounced like "Sh", "Z" is pronounced like "Ds" and that's just the beginning. The "Tones", or Mandarin inflections, allow you to say every word five different ways, with five different associated meanings. Sometimes it's just easier to point to the characters.
Jack told me that Quzhou Number One Middle School (Q1) was beautiful, but I was not expecting the massive campus that greeted me that first day. With over 3500 students and 200+ teachers, Q1 reminded me more of a college than a high school.
95% of the students live in the on-campus housing, along with over 25% of the teachers. After getting the full campus tour, I got to sit in on the Monday "Flag raising ceremony" before meeting with the princiAL. The Chinese patriotism here is fervent and you can see the national pride in the eyes of the children as they sing the national anthem and cheer their flag at the beginning of each week.
Over the past few weeks the Chinese work ethic and relentless discipline has reminded me of the dynamic between "Drago" and "Apollo Creed" in "Rocky IV". We (The United States) seem to act with the blind confidence of Apollo Creed, while the humble perseverance of the Chinese reminds me of Drago. No, I'm not implying that anyone is taking steroids over here, all I'm saying is that China reminds me of a hard-working awakening giant, and many of the Americans I've met on the road remind me of cocky Apollo Creed's. You can argue all you want about communism and capitalism, but everything you've heard about China becoming the next world superpower is true. I'm definitely happy and thankful to be American, but we could learn a lot from the educational, social, and commercial successes in China.
After observing the flag raising ceremony, Jack and I sat down with Principal Tu to discuss my role at Q1. Typically foreign teachers are allowed to teach whatever they want, but I may have oversold my corporate training experience because Principal Tu decided to let me teach directly from the official English textbook. This was the first time any foreign teacher taught "Official" material, so ten different observers crowded into my classroom the first day. Nice.
Each one of my classes was made up of over fifty students, but discipline is a big deal at Q1, so the class size was never a problem. All I had to do was hold up my hand and the whole class was silent in seconds. I think they may have just been intimidated by my size, but I wasn't complaining.
Even though I was pretty nervous that first day, everything worked out perfectly. The facilities were top notch and each classroom came equipped with a massive flat screen TV/Powerpoint projector. (Yes, I couldn't resist the urge to use Powerpoint. I can see eyes rolling at DPR from here) All I had to do was walk in and point to the TV and the class monitor popped up, hooked up the system, cleaned the board, and straightened my work space. Teachers are VERY highly respected in Chinese society, partly due to the influence from Confucius, and partly due to the government's intense focus on education.
The pressure on the children to perform borders on insane. Classes typically run from 7AM to 5PM with study sessions and office hours lasting until 9PM. There are multiple exams every week, with constant pressure to do well in comparison to other schools. There are signs this system may be changing though. The focus on perfection and test scores creates a fear of making mistakes in the mentality of the average student. The kids are hesitant to say the wrong thing or make any mistake whatsoever, they tend to stay quiet and reserved in the classroom. The Chinese government recognizes this is a problem and is currently experimenting with new teaching methods focused on improving risk taking skills. I had the kids standing, stretching, speaking, yelling, and singing, so hopefully I created an extrovert or two in one of my classes.
When I wasn't embarrassing myself and my students in the classroom, I stayed busy blowing out my lungs in the enormous indoor gym. The Q1 basketball coach scheduled my week for me, and we fit in plenty of pick up games. They even recruited me to play on the official Q1 team during a game against a rival school. The person who told me Chinese players were soft under the hoop must have been smoking crack. With an average height advantage of over a foot, I expected to own the key. Wrong. I never escaped a game without several bruises and patches of missing skin. Luckily their "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy didn't stop us from beating the cross-town rivals in the big game.
Playing hoops with the teachers and students reminded me of doing the "White man's wiggle" on the dance floor in Xi'an. There is something magical about dance and sport. You don't need to know how to speak to each other. You don't need know each other's names or nationalities. All you need is a smile, some sweat, and a little energy. Racing up and down the court in Quzhou felt just like playing at the rec-center in Cal Poly. The players were great, the etiquette was the same, and everyone loved the game. We didn't know anything about each other, but for two hours three times a week, we were friends in battle together. Whenever I passed another player in the halls I felt like we were in the movie "Fight Club". There was just a connection there....like we had been through a war together. I think this is why the Olympics are so important. Heck, maybe this is why sports are so important in general. They break people out of their shells and put them all on the same playing field. There are no boundaries, no nations, no titles, and no net worth’s on the court. There is just our team and their team. I love it.
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
In early 1997, my Mom's brother Terry and his wife Diane adopted my cousin Emily (Her Chinese name is Xinyu) from a Chinese government facility in Hangzhou, China. Xinyu had been abandoned in the town of Quzhou, and raised by foster families and a government orphanage for four years before she was adopted.
After deciding to travel through China, and hearing that my Aunt and Uncle didn't get a chance to see Quzhou, my gut told me Quzhou was the perfect place for my next volunteer experience. While in Beijing, I "Googled" for the orphanage Xinyu was adopted from and found a special website just for children adopted from Quzhou. When I e-mailed Jean Seeley, the web master, I found out Jean was actually the first American to adopt a child (Hua) from the Quzhou Social Welfare Institute back in 1995. I was a complete stranger to Jean, but I told her I wanted to volunteer at the orphanage and she took it from there.
Jean e-mail blasted her entire Chinese network and the responses started pouring in. Within a week I learned that while the orphanage didn't need help (There were only five kids there), Jack, one of Jean's friends at Quzhou Number One Middle School, would love to have me volunteer. At this point I really wanted to find a way to contribute in China, get to know some people outside of the tourist industry, and learn more about my cousin's history, so I accepted Jack's offer. I figured once I settled in Quzhou, I'd check out the orphanage and see what I could do.
After typing my acceptance e-mail, the reality of the situation set in. I was about to teach Chinese high school students how to speak English! I still made mistakes with semicolons and mis-spelled "entrepreneur", what the heck was I thinking? I had two weeks to prepare, so I reached out to some of my ESL (English as a Second Language) friends. Cameron Johnson, who had just finished teaching English in China (Cameron was born less than 24 hours before me in Ukiah, CA - Nice!), came to rescue. She hooked me up with teaching materials, teaching websites, and her friend Sandi in Shanghai.
When I showed up at Sandi's school in a middle class suburb of Shanghai, I had no idea what to expect. I'd heard and read plenty of horror stories, but after the first five minutes I knew I would love teaching. What I didn't realize was that my 6'6" frame would give me instant celebrity status in any Chinese classroom. The NBA and Yao Ming are HUGE in China, so when Sandi let the kids ask questions, "How big are your feet?", "Can you dunk?", and "Do you like Yao Ming?" made the list in every class. "Do you have a girlfriend?" and "Do you like Chinese girls?" were also offered up regularly from a chorus of giggling red faces.
Buoyed with my experience in Sandi's classroom I started getting genuinely excited about Quzhou. Volunteering in India had been a highlight of my two months there, so I had trouble controlling my high expectations.
Train travel in China is a wonderful experience. The trains are clean, the people are friendly, and all you need is your handy "Mandarin Phrasebook" to keep the locals laughing. Thanks to years of traveling with my parents, I think I actually sleep better in a moving vehicle. By the time I arrived in Quzhou, Jack and his co-teacher Martin had no problem picking me and my 80 pound backpack out the crowd. As we hopped in a cab, both of my new co-workers started filling the car with cigarette smoke. Yummy.
Smoking is ridiculously popular among the men of China, yet barely any women have picked up the habit. Martin and Jack told me the smoking gender imbalance was a cultural thing, but no matter what the reasoning, it will probably help with the overall gender imbalance in China. Since the Chinese can only have one child, many families have used abortion, abandonment, adoption, and infanticide to insure their only child is a boy. The end result is that there are currently over 50 million more men than women in China. While the trend is slowing as more Chinese move into the middle class, the lack of girls will continue to be a problem for years to come.
Since I was volunteering at Quzhou Number One Middle School, I expected to find my own accommodation after arriving in Quzhou. I obviously underestimated the generosity of the Chinese school system. During the tour of my new two bedroom, hardwood-floored, luxury apartment I couldn't believe my luck. The apartment was fully furnished, complete with a free high speed internet connection, my own laptop, a huge flat screen TV, a DVD player, tons of DVD's and a fully outfitted kitchen. When Jack handed me my brand new laptop and my lunch card for free meals at the school I almost kissed him.
None of these perks were anticipated, which made everything that much sweeter. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The key to happiness is minimizing expectations. When I expect the worst, anything slightly better than the worst case scenario is perfect.
Before I could change my clothes, Jack informed me that we were late for my welcome dinner with "Mr. Happiness". Mr. Happiness runs the restaurant closest to our apartment complex (Almost every unit in the complex is occupied by teachers from Quzhou Number One), and as I shook his hand I knew we would get along great. Mr. Happiness lives up to his name, and you can feel how much he loves people.
Three other teachers and the vice-principle were waiting in a private dining room when we showed up. Private dining seemed a little strange at first, but it's grown on me over the past few weeks. When you first walk into the main lobby of Mr. Happiness's establishment you're greeted by four beautiful hostesses a, a room full of about 15 tables and a wall full of live seafood. This main room makes up about 10% of the restaurant, with the remaining 90% made up of private dining rooms that feel like the formal dining room at your Grandmother's house. .
As I sat down at the large round table with a three foot "Lazy Susan" in the middle, one of our two private waitresses immediately poured me a class of white wine and a class of local Qingdao beer. It was going to be a long night.
"Chinese Table Manner" can catch you off guard if you're not warned early. Almost every dish comes with bones and it is perfectly acceptable to spit your bones out on the tablecloth. EVERYONE smokes the entire time, stopping only long enough to chew on some chicken feet, slurp down some duck tongue, or toast each other. The toasting was my favorite.
Whenever someone toasts you, or "Calls you out", it is expected that you drink as long as they do. It is extremely respectful to finish your entire drink, which isn't too big of a deal since everyone drinks out of eight ounce glasses. If your toasting partner calls out "Gam bay!" you are EXPECTED to finish your whole drink.
After the first fifteen minutes of my welcome dinner I had already participated in ten different "Gam bay's". I couldn't tell if they were ganging up on me, challenging me, or honoring me, but one thing is for sure, someone should have told me that Chinese white wine is 40% alcohol. I wanted to make a good first impression and respect Chinese customs, yet I could feel the effects of the toasts sinking in. Since each teacher took turns toasting me, I drank during EVERY toast, while they spread the pain around. In order to keep myself from singing, dancing on the table, or running to the bathroom, I decided to inhale everything on the table in an effort to soak up the intoxicating poison in my stomach. After learning that we were enjoying a combination of jellyfish, dog meat, pig feet, and seaweed, I stopped asking about each dish...I just ate.
Luckily for me, the "Pound and soak" strategy paid off. By the time we emptied every bottle I could still stand and was feeling great. I had survived! The only problem was that we weren't finished. Mr. Happiness is a great guy, but he also knows how to network. Since Quzhou is not a main transportation hub or tourist attraction, it has trouble finding foreign teachers. Associating with western English "Experts" is good for business, so Mr. Happiness made sure to introduce me to EVERY private dining room in his place. As we moved from room to room, I was lucky to escape with less than three "Gam bay's" per group. It was ugly. By the time we arrived at Mr. Wong's birthday party, I thought I knew how to speak Chinese. I'm not sure what I was saying, but they all thought it was hilarious.
Mr. Wong is a direct descendent of Confucius and one of the most important people in Quzhou. Luckily Jack and Martin saved me before I started swing dancing with him. Apparently I didn't offend too many people, because Mr. Wong gave me a person invitation to the Confucius celebration a couple weeks later.
As we stumbled back to my new home I started wondering if I could take two more weeks of this kind of liver damage. I don't like over-drinking, and I've avoided booze for the majority of the trip, so I wasn't too excited about filling every night with "Gam bay's". The challenge is tactfully sipping your drink, or making up some sort of valid excuse for disrespecting your toasting partner by not pounding your beverage.
Luckily for me, the drinking pressure mellowed out a little after that first night. Usually I just told my new friends I took teaching seriously and I couldn't let the white wine impact my lessons the next day. I'm pretty sure they thought I was a pansy, but at least I avoided starting every morning with a headache.
Monday, September 13, 2004
As many of you have noticed, this blog fell severely behind after I left Sri Lanka. A combination of sickness, chaos, procrastination, and internet censoring by the Chinese government all contributed to this delay, but I am committed to catching up. Since I am most inspired to write about what's happening now, I'm going to start in the present and work backwards. To those of you still checking for updates, you rock. Your interest and feedback gives me the energy to keep making memories just so I can tell you about them!
If you reached this point in the blog, it means that you already know what I've been up to recently. Over the next couple months I'll be filling in the gap between Sri Lanka and Shanghai with entries on some of the following subjects:
- Wrecking a scooter in Goa
- "Starring" in a Bollywood movie in Mumbai
- Camel-trekking in Jaisalmer
- Partying with a Lambda Chi buddy in Delhi
- Studying Mandarin in Beijing
- Walking ten kilometers along the Great Wall of China
- Staring with awe at the Forbidden City
- Hanging with the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an
- Floating down the Yangzi to the Three Gorges Dam
- Slept on the floor of a train, a train station, and a bus
- Living the five star high life with my San Diego buddy Ray in Shanghai
- Toasting new friends in the world's 3rd tallest building