Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Add Oil!

I never had any aspirations to go to the Olympics. I don't know why it just wasn't something that ever occurred to me as a possibility. But now that I'm here in Beijing, and getting to see five very different competitions, I'm not complaining. Nope. I'm yelling "Jiayou!" (that's Chinese for "add oil") just like everybody else. Even if I didn't have any event tickets it would be hard to be in Beijing and not get pulled in by the spirit of the event. Riding on the bus and on the subway, and even visiting the idyllic outdoor summer palace, people are all gathered about together completely rapt by whatever sporting event is going on on the ubiquitous TV screens (and in the case of the summer palace, all with their backs to the gorgeous scenery) and everywhere you look people from all over the world are roaming the streets decked out in their country flair. China is multicultural all of a sudden; it's truly a sight to behold.

I've been thinking that in many ways the Olympics are a weirdly fitting end to a year spent abroad. I've never felt more American than I have this year living in Guatemala and China. We spend a lot of time in class and with friends talking about American politics and apologizing for our government, as well as discussing American culture. Here at the Olympics I'm getting the opportunity to express some positive patriotism. Last night I wore the American flag and sported China's flag in face paint. We rooted for China's women as they defeated Russia in volleyball, and then got the same support from the Chinese fans sitting around us as the US underdogs battled it out with Italy. Ethan led everyone in a chant of: "Mei Guo! Jaiyou!" (America! Add oil!) The cliches are all true: One world, one dream and all of that.

I've put together a little slide show medley of our time in Beijing so far. We've seen three events: Soccer (Belgium vs. Italy), Gymnastics (men's and women's floor, women's vault and men's pommel horse), and Women's Volleyball (China vs. Russia and USA vs. Italy). They were all fun and exciting in their own way, and especially fun of course because we got to see two of our women gymnasts win silver and bronze, as well as the USA women volleyball players pull out a win against Italy in an exciting 5 set game. In our event down time we've been visiting with some ex-pat friends in the area, eating great food (including an Imperial-style meal of venison, lotus seeds, lilies, and other unusual goodies) and seeing the sights we missed our first time around in April. Today we took a beautiful (and hot!) hike on the Great Wall at Simatai and yesterday we went to the Summer Palace. We have two events left: Diving and Athletics (hurdles and sprints) before we make our long pilgrimage home via San Francisco and then Vermont. At some point in there I'm hoping to get pictures up of our amazing travels in Cambodia and Thailand. But until then: Beijing and the Olympics!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gorgeous Guangxi

What a difference a day makes! Yesterday I was biking around beautiful Yangshou in the southern Guangxi province my mouth agape at the stunning Karst scenery and rice paddies spread out before us and today, after a 12 hour sleeper bus ride, I'm sitting holed up in a hostel in the middle of a typhoon on the border city of Shenzhen. Ethan and I thought we might be able to stash our stuff somewhere and hop on over across the border to Hong Kong for the day before our flight to Bangkok tonight, but with the typhoon and all we decided to lay low and recuperate after a night spent "sleeping" in our bunks on the bus (I woke up about every half hour wondering where something important was, though I couldn't remember what that something was. And I'm pretty sure Ethan was worse off than me.). At this point we're not even sure if our flight will be able take off on schedule - we hope, we hope!

The silver lining: with future plans up un the air, and Ethan taking a nap, I'm loving the chance to loaf around, reflect a little and post some pictures from the past few incredible days we've had exploring Yangshou. Yangshou is a small city by Chinese standards, but it's grown a lot recently catering to the tourist/backpacker industry. There are all sorts of things to do there: from biking, hiking and caving to a live late night light show involving six hundred fisherman that was dreamt up by a Chinese movie director apparently (we didn't make it there). Ethan and I kept it pretty simple. We spent one night in the city with the nicest couple at the West Lily Youth Hostel and then moved about 5 kilometers just outside the noise where we stayed at the Giggling Tree Hostel - a renovated farmhouse in a really spectacular spot.

In our two days in Yangshou we spent as much time as we could outdoors. The first night we got there we went on a an early evening walk out of the city among the limestone Karst domes that surround the bright green and gold farms. A lot of the scenery and the people reminded me of the rural areas in Guatemala quite a bit. The weather was very hot and very humid, and the crops that we could identify included rice (and plenty of it!), peanuts, chile peppers, squash, corn, bananas and grapes.

The next day we took a bamboo raft down the Yulong River - home of the image on the back of the 20 RMB note - but we liked it better in person. We spent about three hours on our river raft soaking up the scenery and ducking from the Chinese boys who were packing super soakers. After our trip we walked around the village, bought a few pieces of calligraphy from a local artist and walked by the peanuts laying out to dry in the afternoon sun.

The next day, after a night at the Giggling Tree, we packed up early and headed out on rented bikes. The bike trail took us all over the area, across the river three times (once on a bamboo ferry) through tiny farming communities and past idyllic swimming holes that we took full advantage of whenever the sweat became too unbearable.

Both nights in town we avoided the expensive western style restaurants and ate in this little hole in the wall spot where you go up to the stove and place a small portion of whatever you want in your dish on a small tin plate and then you sit communally with whoever else is waiting to be served. You eat the spicy dish with a small clay pot of sticky rice. Delicious.

Depending on whether or not our flight is delayed or cancelled, we will be heading to Bangkok next and then directly on from there in the wee hours of the morning to Siem Reap in Cambodia for a visit to Angkor Wat. The typhoon looks like a breezy drizzle right now, so I'm feeling optimistic. We'll see...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Artist shoots down her own sculpture with a pellet gun

"Clearly art by women in China is not confined to “women’s issues,” like family and home. Much of the art is about excavating a personal past and bringing it into the present, and about examining that present and how women are living it."

I wish I could have referenced this article when I was still tutoring the VIP and arguing over "natural" male supremacy in the arts, academics, etc., etc.

click here to read about China's emerging female artists.

The photos are from the 798 Art District in Beijing, taken during our trip in April.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Packing up

It's hard to believe that it's almost time to go. Friday Ethan and I are leaving our home in Qingdao. We'll head to Beijing first, than travel a bit in the south of China, and on down through Cambodia and Thailand, and then of course back up to Beijing for the Olympics (Ethan's gonna have the gory details up on his blog soon). I'm sitting among the piles of stuff that are waiting to be dealt with, packed up or given away - but I still can't quite get a handle on the fact that we're leaving. On the one hand, I'm ready to hit the road and do some traveling but I'm also feeling a little sad about leaving behind our life here. There are so many BIG things that I will miss. But, here's a list of the smaller things that have been rattling around in my head this week. In no particular order...

1. The old men. I just love the old men here. For one, now that it's hot out they all wear their shirts tucked up above their bellies. Oh, how I wish I had a picture of this to show you. And for two, here in China they spend their twilight years working out. Seeing septuagenarians idly stretching a wiry leg on a railing above their waist or doing humorless pelvic thrusts is just part of the summer park scene here. Is it wrong that this makes me smile?

2. Taidong and the tailor. With the help of a very patient tailor and various friends who have come with me to help me bargain and spend way too much time looking at pretty fabrics, I've been obsessed lately with getting clothing made. So far I'm toting back a wool winter jacket, two silk dresses, two silk tops, and a skirt. Pretty, pretty.

3. Smiles from strangers. Sometimes I get grumpy walking around Qingdao. People stare at me on the bus, random people shout, "hello?" at me like they're answering the phone - being anonymous is just not part of the deal living in China. However, as much as I get annoyed when I see a camera-phone pointed at me surreptitiously, I kind of respect the straightforward curiosity and delight in difference here. And on my better days when I remember to smile back, I love the recognition and connections that are made in these small moments with strangers.

4. Tsingdao Beer. It's light and summery and comes in a bag.

5. Green city. I'm looking forward to Beijing, the excitement of the Olympics and seeing some foreigners I like. But, the smog, congestion and general craziness scares me a little. After a couple of days I'll probably be mourning tranquil Qingdao. Our two favorite places to escape: Fu shan, a rugged little fang of a mountain that sits just behind our campus, and in the other direction, the yellow sea.

6. I Almost forgot! - Hand holding. There's a lot of PDA among friends here. Women, and sometimes even men, walk arm in arm or hand in hand , down the street. I've even seen some of my male students just holding hands in class. I love it.

Bye Qingdao!

Friday, July 25, 2008

You should buy this book

When I went home for my sister's graduation in May my friend Julia at Simon & Schuster gave me a copy of one of her new books, "Out of Mao's Shadow" by Phillip P. Pan. I read it non-stop on my flight back to Beijing, unable to put it down mainly because it answers the question Ethan and I have been repeatedly asking ourselves and each other during our time in China: where are all the voices of dissent? Do they exist? Pan's answer: yes, they do. His book chronicles the stories of a number of individuals who in one way or another have gone up against the government and not backed down. Included are the stories of the doctor who blew the lid off SARS and later spent time under house arrest for speaking up against the Tiannamen massacre, a disillusioned young communist revolutionary who died in prison and was famous for the poetry she left behind written in her own blood, and a journalist who opted for prison instead of towing the party line...and many more.

For anyone interested in finding out more about where China's been and where it's going this book is a must read. I loved it - and Ethan's loving it now.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The torch and I are in Qingdao

The VIP couldn't help me with a pass to the torch relay so I followed the masses to nearby Qingdao University where we had a great view of the very tips of the flags lining the streets and the helicopter buzzing the pre-selected crowd - who do they know I wonder?

Apparently the torch has arrived.




{The other waiguoren who was snapping photos had to delete her shots of the officer. I was more sneaky. And quick.}

Here it is: the torch!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Boo for the torch relay?

So, Ethan's in Iowa having fun at a wedding and I'm here in Qingdao being "productive". This morning I was OK with that because on Monday the torch relay is coming to Qingdao and, because E and I are the only teachers in the summer program, I have the day off to go witness all the madness. However, this afternoon I heard from my friend Zhang Rui that "normal" people won't have access to the torch wielding fun. Zhang Rui works right near where the festivities are going down and she said that police are planning on setting up barricades barring pedestrians from participating. Apparently only a handful of people have been granted access. Hi-Sense, one of the prominent Chinese companies here in the city, has only given out 20 invites to its 20,000 employees! Not only that but Zhang Rui and her co-workers received an email this week stating that anyone who opens their office windows on the morning of the torch relay will receive a fine!

What the heck?!? I wasn't planning on boycotting but now I might have to.

I'm teaching the VIP as usual tomorrow morning - we will be practicing how to ask for and respond to requests: Can you get me into the torch relay? I'm crossing my fingers it's a yes. If I have to I will wear my "I heart China" t-shirt, but at this point only grudgingly.

In other news, this week in teaching Ethan and I went back to our roots herding teenagers. We took our students on a field trip on Monday and had them search for "bad English" throughout the city {the winning find: "Be your own brain" worn on a t-shirt}. After the scavenger hunt we went to a restaurant for pizza and then returned to the school for a screening of Men In Black. It was a fun day, but it threw everyone off - mostly digestively poor things - so much pizza!

Here they are. My favorites...

Acting Crazy

Training for America - for some, their first pizza experience

Inventive pizza eating

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Country Time

After class on Friday Ethan and I hopped a train and then a bus to the crumbling village of Zhujiayu (Jew-Jai-You) for some country time. We ambled around the 500+ year old cobbled streets, climbed up to the pagoda (a newer version of the one destroyed during the Cultural Revolution), and started training for travel in the clingy summer humidity that has finally hit us here in Shandong province.

Zhujiayu, about the size of a postage stamp, is unlike any other place we've seen here in China. It is inexplicably well-preserved AND free from hordes of tourists - a very rare treat here. Many of the mud-brick houses are turning back into earth these days, but two hundred or so residents still remain. Some are elderly and have been living there their whole lives, and some are enterprising young families, like the one we stayed with, who are working away at serving the burgeoning tourist industry and banking on increased business during the Olympics.

Here are some pictures from our time in Zhujiayu. Highlights include: village scenes, bug eating, and a visit with an elderly couple who took us into their home, fed us a delicious lunch (no bugs this time) and then proceeded to drink us under the table. (This is the second weekend in a row that old folks have put us to shame with "ganbei" after "ganbei".)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Double Happiness

Life is very happy these days, maybe even doubly happy. For starters, I'm almost done computing final grades for the semester - just a few more hours in front of the computer screen to go! On top of that, I'm loving teaching right now. I admit that I dreaded signing on to teach an additional six weeks, but now I feel like I made the best trade ever: 200 students of mixed ability (and mixed motivation) for 15 energetic, interested and interesting new students - I didn't realize how hard I had it this semester! But most of all, I'm just loving spending time with friends from Qingdao and am relishing our time here before we have to go.

This weekend was full of friends. First off we went to Yantai, a smaller nearby beach city, to celebrate the wedding of friends, Mike and Monica (English names). In fact, Mike and Monica were our first friends here in Qingdao (Mike saved us on that first icy, somewhat hopeless day here), so it was very special to be able to celebrate their marriage - as well as their new pregnancy - double, double happiness! Of course, even though it was their wedding, we were treated all the way from the hotel room to dinner with their family the night before, and even breakfast in Monica's family's home the next morning - they insisted. The wedding celebration was one of three, this one hosted by Monica's father, and like most events here it was straightforward. We ate, we "ganbei-d" (a Chinese toast where you drain your cup to the bottom), we ate some more, we "ganbei-d" some more, and then it was over and we were left to the rest of our day in Yantai: a walk along the seashore, with bellies full of delicious food and baijio, a Chinese grain alcohol. We were the only foreigners at the wedding, but thankfully everyone was very nonchalant about our presence (excluding the group photo when a couple of the guests forced the waiguoren {that's us: "foreigners" or, literally, "outside person"} to sit front and center!).

The Happy Couple Laughing at the Uncles

The Uncles and The Spread - in the foreground: pig's stomach (not too bad, but not my favorite either)

Yantai's shore and a giant beach ball you can climb inside and flop around in

I will be climbing into one of these before we leave

Mike and Ethan

When we got back to Qingdao we hung out with more good friends. We had Korean barbecue and played pool with Ethan's Chinese tutor, Lavender and her boyfriend, Foster. That's cow tongue on the griddle.

And I went shopping in Taidong and back to the tailor with friends Ezra and Julie. So many good friends and these days almost all are Zhonguaren (Chinese people). It's been interesting that way. Aside from our friends in Beijing, and the Australian-Turkish couple who left for Thailand last week, our Chinese friends here in Qingdao are the most dear.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Can't Say Fairer Than That

My first "American Culture" class with my new group of Alabama University-bound Chinese students. Here's how they finished the sentence: "American Culture is..."

In no particular order...

Bill Gates... Wall Street... Hollywood... Elections... Edison... Multicultural... oil policy... plantation... terrorism... anti-terrorism... cola... company... immigrate... 911... basketball... hero... Watergate... racial discrimination... diplomacy... NASDAQ ... individual... travel... buffalo... jeans... Dr. Lee... shopping mall... beef steak... Rockies... white house... colonize... punk... negro... black... outer space... CO2 (greenhouse effect)... Nixon... information technology... movies... discovery... Neverland... religion... God... Overbearing... Iraq... Bible... automobile... TV series... friendship... West Point... Hawaiian Dance... Blues... Party.... Jazz... Hip Hop... Old School... Country Music... Army... Human Rights... Festival... Disney... flourishing... Armstrong... drugs... Yellowstone... BBQ... Gun... Sex... Slave... Korean War... constitution... democratic

With a list like this I know I'm going to enjoy teaching this class. Personal favorites: "overbearing" - pretty right on the money with that one, and also: "old school" just because.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lao Shan

This weekend after our week from hell E and I had some homey time in Qingdao which included celebrating a friend's birthday, experiencing China on the big screen watching "Kung Fu Panda" - we both loved it, and climbing Lao Shan.

Here are some pictures from Lao Shan in an area called Bei Jiu Shui (North Nine Waters) just a half hour from our apartment in the city; the mountains here look so different from any I've seen in the States. Looking at them I'm always reminded of making drippy sand castles at the beach.

It felt like summer finally to get out and spend a day getting dirty.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Singing Zai Jian to the Semester

Why is it that goodbyes always seem to take place when you're in a state of total exhaustion?

This week at least, it's because I've been teaching double. In exchange for a tricky visa extension that has allowed us to stay in China for the Olympics as planned (and a little more pay), Ethan and I have signed on to teach for six additional weeks at OU in a summer program for Alabama-bound students. The new group of students is dreamily small (only 12 so far!), but this week we've been juggling the teaching commitments of getting this new program up and running as well as finishing out the final week with our other 200+ students. But for me at least, the madness is over. Poor Ethan still has to get up and teach at 8 AM tomorrow, sorry honey!

Last night though, tired as we were, it was time to say goodbye. For the past couple of weeks we've hosted a couple of "movie nights" for our 70 or so first year students who have come to be our favorites (mainly because we can gossip about them together). We've showed them "The Shawshank Redemption" and also the most recent "Pride and Prejudice" which were both well loved and deemed "perfect" by resident movie buff, Hebe. And, last night we took over the media room once more for a goodbye party and to share by request some of our pictures. Ethan put together a great sampling of our adventures over the last three years that included beautiful scenery from the US in Yosemite, Zion and the Whites as well as pictures of our travels in Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, many of which have appeared on his blog. We've been so lucky to have such adventures!

When our show was over, though, no one really wanted to leave. Even the slacker boys who have all but stopped breezing into class these days (but amazingly came to look at pictures!) remained. I don't know who demanded it first, but what they wanted was a song (or a dance, it was up to us). I have to admit in my exhausted state there was a part of me that felt like I had sung and danced enough over the course of the semester for this group, but as there was a microphone attached to the media console, Ethan and I gave in. Ethan sang "Yesterday" and then we did a duet to that song from "The Breakfast Club" (I managed the "hey-hey-hey-heys" but drew a blank on the verses, sorry Ethan). So terrible! But I'm glad we broke the ice. One by one, and with a little coercion, our braver students came up to the mic to sing us goodbye, leaving me with some of my fondest memories of this semester. Not only that but Hebe and a few others stayed later to present us with two wall hangings to remember them by - very sweet.

Here's a a video of three of our songbird students singing the official Olympic song, "Welcome to Beijing" - you can hardly see a thing (that's Costa Rica in the background), but hopefully you can hear their sweet voices. I will miss them.

"Welcome to Beijing" - Sunny, Olivia, and Hebe

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Night Lights

A few weekends ago our friend Sarah paid us a visit from Beijing. Our weekend adventures included beer bags (finally!), epic karaoke (with a group of 10 other ex-pat Bejingers), and this late night walk in 54 Square (one of my favorite places in Qingdao).

Ethan and Sarah

Getting Ready for Lift Off

Up, up and Away: A paper lantern fueled by fire makes its way up into the city sky

Monday, June 23, 2008

Just another typical Sunday in Qingdao...or, why I have a hard time deciding what to blog about

China is complicated.

7:50 I wake up to see the sunlight streaming in through the curtains of our bedroom balcony. Fog has enveloped Qingdao for weeks (some date it back to the earthquake in Sichuan in May), so I decide to make the most of the morning sun and go for a jog by the seaside.

9:10 I get back home and Ethan is up and making apple pancakes (topped with real maple syrup) from our favorite Korean import store, Silver Garden - the best weekend comfort food! We scarf them down and I head out to my side tutoring job with "The VIP".

10:30 The VIP, one of the local directors of the Danish shipping container company, Maersk, is a little tired and annoyed because 1) his company is forcing him to take more English classes during the week at his office and 2) we will be stopping our lessons at the end of July. Five days enough to see family! Then come back to China! We've practiced this conversation many times. This time I change the subject to his business and learn that one shipping container leaves Qingdao's port every ten minutes, and over 30,000 of the world's shipping containers transport bananas - gross!

12:00 After class I find Joanna, one of the young Chinese office ladies who manages payroll, in the teacher's lounge. After chatting with her and sharing my concerns about the VIP's lack of motivation and his pronunciation she asks me about her English which I say, honestly, is very good. "I don't know how to improve!" Joanna complains. "Maybe I should get an American boyfriend?" We laugh and then she says, "But I don't think my Chinese boyfriend will like that very much!"

Joanna: But maybe you can give me your opinion on something?

me: Sure!

Joanna: Many young Chinese are now dating not one but two people! Both men and women and they are not tell the other one! Many of my friends in fact. What do you think about that?

me: Well, um, I guess it's important to be honest.

Joanna: Could you do that?

Me: Probably not.

Joanna: I could but I wouldn't want my boyfriend to - I would be too jealous!

12:30 I go across the street to the indoor mall in search of a bra. All of mine have been mangled by our vigorous top-loading washer. I duck into a tiny store and begin to browse. I try to communicate what I'm looking for to the two saleswomen displaying increasingly frightening options but I don't know how to say no padding please. A young woman in the shop offers to help translate. "Do you want...?" she asks while squeezing her breasts together. "Cleavage? No, no...I'm boring." I explain. Finally they find a black bra with removable stuffing, the only questionable detail being a t-neck link chain in the back. I decide to try it on anyway because I've come this far.

In the tiny dressing room/storage closet, my dress around my belly and mid-way through clasping the bra I get a call from the friend I'm meeting this afternoon. I take the call with one hand and continue wrangling with the bra with the other.

"Where are you?" she asks. "Do you still want to get together?"

At this point I feel a presence behind me. Before I know what's happening the saleswoman has raised my left arm and is now smearing my flesh into one of the two rigid cups. Dumbfounded, I raise my right arm obediently so she can work on the other side. So that's how you do it!

"You'd never guess," I answer. "I'm getting A LOT of extra help trying on a bra. If you could only see me now..."

We agree to meet in ten minutes in front of the large department store across the street. I extract myself from my encasing and head out of the shop still in good humor, albeit a little surprised by the early afternoon manhandling.

12:50 Crossing the street to our meeting place I catch the eye of about twenty curious east Asian foreigners. "Hello!" One of the braver women calls out after a few shy smiles, and then the rest begin to huddle around me. They ask me some questions about what I'm doing here and they explain that they're here in Qingdao visiting from a much smaller town in Shandong province where they are studying Chinese and textiles. They tell me they're from Turkmenistan. "Do you know where that is?" I admit that I do not and tell them that for me the "'stans" are the hardest countries to place on the globe. They pepper me with questions: Where are you from? What are you doing here? With your boyfriend!?! Ahhh (satisfied squeals). I like to think that after six months in China I'm pretty good now at holding court. I ask them about their time here and also Turkmenistan. It's a beautiful country, they say, you should visit! One of the women crowding nearer on my right, spots my piercing on whatever that tiny part of the ear is called. "Ooh," she says fingering the small hoop. "Painful?" I tell her no and she pats my belly muttering something in Russian. "I know," I say. "All this time in China has made me fat!" "Oh no!" chorus the ladies. "She wants to know if you have a..." I understand them to mean belly-button piercing and I tell her no. After two large group pictures observed by about a dozen Chinese pedestrians they leave me to see the rest of Qingdao.

1:15 Disappointingly, my friend pulls up in her cab after the large pack of Turkmenistanis have already left. She is dressed in a linen blazer, a pink sequined scarf and cute espadrilles that she is now complaining about, explaining that she tripped last night at a Jamaican themed party and has a hurt ankle. She is also carrying a gold Prada purse. My shopping partner for the day is from Qingdao originally, and now lives in the States with her husband who she refers to as an "ABC" or American Born Chinese. She has generously offered to take me shopping today in Taidong to buy fabric, and visit a tailor.

3:30 Measures taken, silk fabric selected, haggling through, and two beautiful dresses ordered, we are pooped. Although we had lunch together yesterday and ordered jellyfish and bean curd, today my shopping-guide is in the mood for Mickey-D's. She orders me ice cream and I feel guilty eating it - my first American fast food abroad!

3:45 My friend and I talk for a bit in the brightly lit restaurant and she describes the sometimes hard negotiating that goes on as a Chinese-American. She and her husband are living with his parents, saving money. "It's hard right now," she explains, "One minute his parents are American and want us to support ourselves and buy a house with our own money and the next minute they're Chinese and demand we listen to their every word and follow their orders. It's not fair. My parents would buy us a house and his parents refuse. What can they do? It's Chinese tradition that a husband's family support him and his wife. Naturally, my husband's under a lot of pressure." I'm learning that my Qingdao friend is a rich girl. Her Prada purse is real, and her Dad is a CEO of a shopping mall downtown. But in the US despite her LV bags and gucci glasses, she is scrimping and saving, working hard.

5:20 Home again, home again. Ethan and I do some lesson planning in preparation for a busy week (one program is ending while the other is beginning) and we decide our busy schedules warrant a treat.

7:00 For our third time since arriving in Qingdao, we are dressed in matching flannel pajamas getting $7 70-minute massages. I decide to try a foot massage and Ethan goes for the full body. We sit side beside in the no-frills private room chatting in Chinese to our masseurs - well, Ethan, more fluently than me - and relax a little before Monday.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Let Me OK!™

This week after watching and discussing some TV commercial parodies I found online (my favorite: a comedy sketch that I found on YouTube from Left of Center for "Invisi-bandages"), I gave my first year classes the assignment of writing and acting in their own TV commercials for products like toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant. Along with providing an excellent excuse to capture my students on film, it turned out to be a worthwhile, although definitely challenging group assignment. The students needed a lot of input and help, but after two class periods many of them ended up with some very creative products and incredibly funny commercials.

Some of my favorite products included:

Olympic Sneakers - "One world. One shoe."

Sunshine Toothpaste - (A toothpaste that turns your teeth different colors) "Light up your life. Light up your teeth."

Magical Laundry Detergent - A detergent that can change your life. Literally. It could change you into a polar bear.


Dark Child Sneakers - "Street ball is my job"


But my favorite came from the superstar trio: Victor, Olivia and Amy - who, whenever I headed their way to check in on their progress demurred, refusing to give me any details - it was going to be a surprise. During their secretive rehearsals they could barely hold it together. I couldn't help sneaking peeks as they pumped their fists, chanting quietly in unison "Let Me OK!" - before dissolving into hysterics.

I've uploaded their commercial for Let Me OK™ Deodorant below. Victor plays the stinky fly ("I feel lonely and ashamed"). Olivia plays God (who kills and eats poor Victor the fly - which was actually a delicious, seasonal cherry - we are gorging ourselves these days). And Amy sells it while struggling to keep a straight face. Olivia introduces the product at the beginning of the clip, and Victor's buzzing signals the commercial's start. I hope you find this as hilarious as I do, but chances are that this is only something that a teacher, or that teacher's mother could really love.

P.S. Victor is the aspiring rock star in Ethan's post about teaching.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Where has the time gone?: Pictures from a bad blogger

Here are some things I've been doing recently...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Controversial Topics

This morning after an unusually heated class debate on the topic of gay marriage, I ran into one of my students, Mars, at the bus stop. Contrary to his namesake, Mars perpetually sits in the back row beaming benevolently upon the rest of the class and occasionally making wisecracks. He is one of my most outlandish students, and easily one of my favorites. This morning the God of War and I sat together on the bus chatting about class and the usual topics: the weather, pollution, and inevitably, the Olympics -- Qingdao will host the Olympic sailing events this summer. "You know the smokestacks downtown?" Mars asked me chuckling. I nodded a little guiltily. Ethan got a great picture of one towering above a sign that reads: “Clean Energy Supply for Better Environment.” "Well, the government is destroying them now." He was still laughing. "Why?" I asked, smiling too, wondering what the joke might be. "Well, they don't want the foreigners to think bad about China so they are taking them all down, but...they even take down the ones that are giving off steam, not just smoke, because they worry about what the foreigners will say." We both laughed at this, the government taking down supposedly innocuous "steam-stacks" simply because they are worried about the impression it will give foreigners. But at the same time I had to wonder: who was I laughing at exactly? The government's less than thoughtful efforts to gain favor with foreigners, or the extreme environmental demands imposed on China by westerners? Where did Mars get this story in the first place? And how benign could these smokestacks, er, steamstacks really be?

Mars sighed and then looked at me intently, "But you know," he began seriously. "The real threat to China right now isn't pollution, it's the bad gangs." I paused to think. "Bad gangs? Like bang-bang?" I asked pointing my finger at him and firing. "No, no," he answered. "Bad gays." Oh, no not this again! I didn't think I could summon the energy to patiently address this issue for the second time that morning. "Bad gays...?" I asked forlornly. "No! Bad guys!" Ohhhh. Bad guys. "What bad guys?" I asked, relieved. “You know, the ones who want to divide China.” I knew at that point that we were talking about Tibet. Since the March 14th riots and the flurry of Chinese newspapers that had begun appearing in class, I hadn't broached the topic with any of my students, colleagues, or even our Chinese friends. I had read and heard enough to know that the accounts that the Chinese were following in the news were wildly different from the stories I was poring over in the New York Times through a serendipitous crack in the great firewall of China (many of our ex-pat friends can't access the site), and if I did mention Tibet and talk about my views I wasn't sure what the consequences might be. Sitting on the bus outside the classroom, I felt safe enough to at least utter the T-word, so I asked, "You mean in Tibet?" Mars nodded. After that, I didn't add much to the conversation. What could I say? Debates about gay marriage aside, the last thing I want is for a student to go to the administration with a list of grievances claiming that I'm a threat to Chinese security; I could be fired or sent home. I listened to what Mars had to say and recognized the familiar rhetoric plastered all over the China Daily, China's English newspaper. Mars, like China's journalists, was distressed that these "bad guys" were trying to divide the Chinese people.

If I were Mars, and all I had to read were Chinese publications like the China Daily, I'd probably be worried about the "bad guys" too. The headlines read more like "slam book" entries (think Babysitter's Club) or messages scrawled on bathroom stalls than actual news coverage, and the vast majority of the stories focus on vilifying the Dalai Lama and his "clique", critiquing the western media's supposedly "biased" coverage (one article dripping with irony angrily thanks the Western Media for "teaching" China about freedom of the press - click here to read.), and emphasizing the victimization of the Han Chinese without asking the question at the center of the violence - why is this happening? I've begun to collect headlines as souvenirs. Here are just a few from the China Daily web site:

Voices Rise to Counter biased Western Media

Evidence of Dalai clique's role in riots released

Don't see Tibet through tainted glasses

Do you call this peaceful?

Facts exposing Dalai clique's masterminding of Lhasa violence

Dalai clique racks brains to sabotage ethnic unity: living Buddha

China urges int'l to see true features of Dalai clique

Dalai Lama's 'Non-Violence' Stance Disproved by Lhasa Riot

The epicenter of lies

I wasn’t exactly surprised by the China Daily’s skewed news reporting. Early in our stay Ethan and I spent six hours riding around in a cab as a favor to a student who asked us to help her young journalist friend with an investigative report on whether or not taxi drivers could understand and respond to English-speaking tourists. The poor cab drivers had all learned the same unfortunate phrase -- “welcome to my taxi driver” -- but other than that only hand miming and the generous guidance in Mandarin from the back seat got us around town that day (Ethan wasn’t allowed to use his Chinese – one of the rules of the game). When we got a hold of a copy of the Qingdao Morning News the next day, we had a Chinese friend translate it for us and learned that 1) it was apparently us who had called the paper asking them to report on the topic, and 2) the cab drivers had passed their impromptu exam with flying colors. Not only that, we discovered we had missed out on the generous compensation that people usually receive for providing information to newspapers.

Just a few hours after talking to Mars I read an article in the NYT that traces China's reaction to the riots to a sense of injured nationalism (click here to read the article). China's nationalism, a nationalism I am struggling to understand, seemed to be just the issue in my conversation with Mars. Mars was saddened and concerned that "separatist" groups would want to hurt China in this way. He couldn't understand it. After reading the article I immediately clicked on the icon to share the link on my Facebook page - I hadn't realized you could do that before. When Ethan got home I found out he had read the article too, and was planning to send the link back home. When I mentioned that I had already linked to the page on my Facebook account with a description of the conversation I’d had with Mars, he did a double take. “You did what?” We spent the next fifteen minutes frantically deleting it before some phantom censor could read my comments, all the while joking about losing our jobs. The thing is we feel safe here, but we just don't know. We don't know what our colleagues think and we don't know what the consequences would be of sharing our views. Maybe our colleagues don't know either. So, between secret visits to the NYT website, Ethan and I talk about Tibet at home in our university apartment, trying to ignore the stories we heard from ex-pat friends recently over brunch. Like the one about the American couple who after having a blow-up fight one evening about on of them forgetting to call to get the refrigerator fixed, received a knock on the front door first thing the next morning from the refrigerator repairman. Sometimes surveillance can be convenient, but I think I’d opt for the broken refrigerator.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

This is where I live

Qingdao is famous for a couple of things: 1) Beer in a bag (only a few short weeks, I'm told, till I can wander around the city sipping on Tsingtao through a straw) and 2) It's beautiful coastline. Here's a video from Sexy Beijing about the latter, and the brides-to-be who come to Qingdao to pose on its shores.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Qingdao University Jiaozi

Vivian and Miggie Chopping Cabbage

Saturday morning was lazy and gray. I woke up slowly, and spent an hour eating breakfast, re-reading the photo-copied pages of this month's ex-pat book club book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and chatting with Ethan's parents on Skype, rather than lesson planning. When Ariel, a teacher who lives two floors down, knocked on the door with an invitation to make dumplings, I happily accepted, eager to escape the silent censure of my unopened course books. For the next couple of hours Ariel and I played sous-chef to three students from the university with the English names Vivian, Amanda and Miggie (maybe a British name?). Miggie is the class monitor in one of the large speaking classes that I teach twice a week. Teaching a class of 35 it's difficult to get to know my students individually so it was a nice surprise to spend time with her outside of class and especially fun, for a few hours, to play the student for a change. For all three girls this was their first time making dumplings, or jiaozi in Chinese, on their own, and certainly their first time teaching foreigners how to make them. Miggie, coming from a long line of dumpling making women, rolled up her sleeves and took charge of the operation with gusto. But every now and then, hands covered in pork juice, she held her mobile between her elbows for brief consultations with the master, her mother, reminding me of my own frantic calls to mom for advice on Christmas cookies, Lemon Cake, or Butternut Squash Lasagna.

For the better part of an hour we made the kitchen hum banging against its surfaces with our chopping knives, eviscerating each ingredient one by one. Miggie kept a watchful eye on our progress. Nope, not quite there yet. Keep chopping. From the empty stairwell it sounded like Stomp had invaded our echoing apartment building.

When all of the ingredients were ready we squished together the pork, spicy ginger, green onions, soy sauce and egg. Then we squeezed dry handfuls of chopped cabbage and threw that in too. Working with especially fine, wheat flour, Amanda stretched out the dough in beautiful coils, and sliced it in half every now and then to examine its consistency; after conferring with the others, she would chop and reform the blob, until it felt and looked a lot like plasticine. Hunking off chunks the size of gumballs, Vivian and Amanda, kept the dough pinched between two fingers as they twirled and rolled each little mound into a thin palm-shaped coin. Then, handing them off to Miggie and me, we heaped the pork mixture into the middle, pinched the sides together, and scalloped the edges, setting it upright on the floured tray like a fan, or a swan. We fell into the rhythm of our work quickly, and must have made a hundred dumplings as we chatted and listened to music. From Miggie, Vivian and Amanda I learned that jiaozi is the most traditional northern Chinese food, and for all three, a favorite. They explained that it is a food that they closely associate with time spent with their families. During Spring Festival in February families get together and spend most of their time in the kitchen making and devouring jiaozi. Because their shape is similar to ancient Chinese money, they are thought to be very lucky and symbolize wealth. Some families hide a small silver coin in one of the dumplings during a jiaozi-making session. The lucky winner who eventually bites down on the coin, it is believed, will have a fortunate new year. This time we kept the RMB's out of the mix.

After the first batch was boiled, we invited Ethan down to go to town, and although we tried one or two while they were hot, we returned without a beat to the satisfying repetition of our work rolling out the dough and filling the soft bundles, one by one. When we had exhausted most of our ingredients we finally called it quits and sat down to feast, chopsticks poised, not caring that the table was still littered with the afternoon's mess. The girls whipped out the other dishes they had been hiding: spicy cabbage salad, egg drop soup, and a plate of quivering, brown poached duck eggs. Miggie held a sliver of duck egg to my mouth. "Eat it!" she commanded sweetly. "Really?" I meekly replied. "Yes, it's delicious. It smells bad, but it's delicious." Held under my nose, it smelled faintly like a mixture of vinegar and old cheesy socks; without thinking too much about it, I ate the duck egg for Miggie, my teacher, and it tasted a lot like it smelled. But the dumplings, bathed in a bit of vinegar, were perfect - the best I've ever had - and they did what I'm told they're supposed to do; they kept me warm all day.

Qingdao University Jiaozi

The filling:

1/2 pound of ground pork

Two green onions chopped, and chopped some more

One Tablespoon of fresh, minced ginger

The better part of one head of cabbage, chopped and drained of all water

One egg

Soy sauce to taste

The dough:

Flour & Water

Dressing: Vinegar

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Diversified Attractive Activities Await Your Participation!

The above proclamation was printed on one of the tourist maps for Yunnan Province in southern China where Ethan and I are headed tomorrow for a couple of weeks of travel before the semester starts and our teaching duties at Ocean University begin. Finally, after arriving in China more than a week ago, I'm starting to feel ready to participate - bring on the diversified attractive activities!

Qingdao's shore

Adjusting to life here and settling into our new apartment - let alone getting to our new apartment - was full of, the mostly expected, ups and downs. When we arrived in Beijing we didn't have any concrete plans to get ourselves to our new home in Qingdao and we quickly learned that winging it in the winter in China was a whole lot different than winging it in sunny Guate. After we landed at the airport it took us a while to find a cab that would agree to take the two of us, along with our embarrassingly enormous pile of luggage (this was my fault), to the train station. And then the cabbie who was finally willing to do it must have only agreed because he was too tired to say no and approaching hour fourteen of his work shift. Every now and then on the highway as his eyes started to close, and his speed slowed, he would smack himself in the face and scrape his fingernails over his bald scalp to stay awake lifting his weary eyes to shoot me an impish look in the rear-view.

Once at the station we planned to get an overnight train to Qingdao so we lugged everything over the overpass and inside the enormous terminal where I hunkered down to wait on our enormous pile of stuff. Every now and then fellow travelers would gather around and scold me about all of my luggage. "That's too heavy for you!" At least I think that's what they were saying. And, yes, it was. Ethan took a couple of stabs waiting in the freezing cold lines for the ticket window but after a couple of hours we decided to call it a night and stay at a nearby hostel. We would get the first train to Qingdao in the morning where we would call our contact, Steven, at the University to come and get us. However, when we finally did arrive in Qingdao - we couldn't believe we had finally made it - and plopped ourselves in another busy terminal, we were unable to reach Steven after several tries and ended up deciding to take a taxi to the school. After a Mandarin mix-up between the words for East and South (if it wasn't for Ethan's Mandarin I'd still be wandering around Beijing's airport) we finally made it to the University, well the gate leading to the massive campus, and Ethan set out to look for Steven while I hopped around pathetically in the freezing cold waiting with our luggage. Finally, with the help of a saint-like Western Literature Professor, we were able to track down Steven's office and in moments were transported to our new apartment. Setting down our suitcases never felt so good.

We loved our apartment immediately. It's enormous with three bedrooms and a balcony, and fills up with beautiful morning and afternoon light. But settling in and making our new place live-able was harder than we thought it would be. First, it took a few days for the apartment to heat up; now thanks to an insulation project involving a bedspread, two sleeping bags, and some rope spearheaded by Ethan it's feeling much more comfortable. Then we discovered that our water heater was broken so if we wanted a shower we had to douse each other with water from the kettle heated up on the stove. Adding to the general discomfort we were required to undergo "physicals" in order to apply for our teaching permit which included a mysterious ultrasound, getting hooked up to an antique EKG, and a trip to the radiology department. And then, after our first delicious (now suspicious) seafood lunch with our co-workers, as I was just starting to feel a little more human and a little more comfortable, I got slammed with a stomach bacterial infection.

Anyway, now that I'm not vomiting and can take a hot shower I'm starting to feel human and hopeful about our time here. Yesterday, Ethan and I explored the old part of the city for the first time. We tromped around the fish market, got great views of the coast from a hill top park, and also visited several churches built during the German occupation as well as a Buddhist temple. After seeing the sights we had Mike, our hero/Western Literature Professor and his wife, Monica, over for dinner. We cooked a "western" meal of buttery lemon chicken, mashed potatoes and broccoli, and Mike and Monica brought homemade dumplings as well as a traditional soupy dessert made from fermented rice that was full of tasty sesame flavored gelatinous bubbles (which despite my description really was yummy).

It was fun to get to know Mike and Monica and hear what they had to say about China. They're both from Qingdao, love their country, and expressed an interesting mix of political opinions: censorship and control of the media = bad; cultural revolution = overly criticized. It was all really fascinating and surprising. I have to keep reminding myself that China is still very much a communist country - probably because I feel surprisingly surrounded by consumerism, and rows upon rows of stores and mega-stores with pretty things to buy.

Below are some pictures of old city in Qingdao. I wish I had pictures of the newer modern part of the city which is less Bavaria and more Las Vegas or Times Square. For a "small" Chinese city Qingdao feels immense and also surprisingly modern. (the buses here are fully equipped with flat screen TVs playing non-stop clips of Yao Ming!) After living in Guatemala it's hard for me to think of China as developing, but maybe our visit to the south will change this perspective. I can't wait to travel south and into Spring weather tomorrow!

Slimy delicacies at the fish market


The city's Christian church

Temple decked out for Spring Festival