Wednesday, January 24, 2007

an update but only sort of?

At last, I've found an internet bar where the connection's speedy enough to connect to this damn website!

Anyways, currently I'm in Hunan, which is a far way from where I was... before. For the curious, Liz's visit was quite exciting, though the most interesting thing I could do for her was to take her on a food tour of the city. She did come with me to all my classes, and we managed to take a trip to Hohhot and watched lots of movies, but it was cold enough that I was mostly content to feed her and stay inside places.

Turns out that I had to administer a test on Thursday to the training center students. Let's just say I found out about that one very recently. I think I made up a pretty nice test though. The only thing was, that it was sort of a more... ostentatious type of exam, meaning that *cough* they're supposed to pass *cough*. I made them work for it though. I only copied about 30 pages though, since an average of only 6-12 people had been showing up the last couple days. Whew. Nearly everyone showed up. It was really, um, surprising. I'll miss that class I think.

As soon as Liz left on the 10th, I definitely got an itchy throat. It progressed to screaming burning pain over the next couple days, and after having taken a bunch of random medication, I took a nap on the 13th only to wake up unable to speak at all. It was just a sort of feeling that said "don't even bother trying." So I didn't.

Ooh. I have to leave. Haha, not what I meant to say, but there you have it.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Happy New Year!

And here we are again. It's not that I've been too lazy to update, nor have I necessarily been too busy. Frankly, I've been terrified of the sheer bulk of things left unrelated that I tend to shy away from any commitment that I could make to getting it all down. But anyways.

I'd really like to share my holiday experiences, since they were fun for me this year. So, there's actually a Christmas season here in Baotou, and it's characterized by Santa Claus posters and beer advertisements (the best) in the windows of most shops and restaurants, as well as people selling tinsel and fireworks on the street, and also a large Christmas decoration sale by the entrance of the Wangfujing department store. The department store itself had an impressive display involving a structural frame of a Christmas tree bedecked with lights and what looked like giant stuffed bears trapped inside and trying to break free. I have a picture, don't worry. Christmas here was a strange animal... it didn't really have any religious aspect to it (Santa reigned supreme), but surprisingly, it was also missing the rampant commercialism (which comes pre-assembled as a phrase, so forgive the cliche). There were no crowds comparable to the human seas we get back home, and no insistence that your Christmas would be any worse if you didn't spend NOW. It was more like an amusing little reminder that Christmas was happening elsewhere in the world, which was nice seeing how I almost missed both Halloween and Thanksgiving.

I bought myself a set of tiny string lights, which is amazing, as well as a bunch of dinky little ornaments... and a felt stocking. All of these were displayed around the living room at one point... well, for one night, but the ornaments had to come down before the elementary schoolers even set foot in the apartment just because.

In terms of observation, there was plenty of celebration to take part in, but I didn't get a break at all... opposed to Russ who managed two days without real classes. It started on the 23rd, Saturday, when I met Russ and our combined adult students at a bath house after my Saturday morning class. I made Alice accompany me to the door since I had no idea what I was doing. They made me check my shoes in the lobby and wander sock-footed up a flight of stairs to a locker room/dressing room/salon-type place. It was a big pretty room with a handful of women ready to assist. It's just that I had no intention of taking a bath and was really only prepared to find the dining room, which was the meeting place.

Oh, so the bath house phenomenon... it seems pretty straightforward. When I first heard about it, I assumed it was just a public bath situation. But if you ask anyone "what's the bath house like?" you get answers like "well, you can watch movies," "there are lots of games," "you can eat 3 meals there." No one really talks much about actually bathing, which, while I guess it's assumed that you'd just take a bath, just confused me a lot more.

So then, after a confusing few moments with the ladies in the changing room, one of the hospital students walked by and I latched onto her. She helped me straighted things out and I was presented with "pajamas" (shui yi) and a key to a locker. I got changed while the student just stood there chatting with me, which was ok I guess, and then the two of us made our way to the dining room. The dining room was an all you can eat buffet, and some of the foot was pretty good. I had a good time with the meatballs. The students were divided in two tables kind of far away from each other based on what class they were in, which was just silly. I don't see why Russ allowed them to do that, but whatever. So there was a lot of running back and forth, taking pictures with one or the other group, eating bread at one place, and meatballs at another, and finally I was just like "let's go meet them." And things were easier after that.

We sat around a little while, and at last there was a group decision to go play some games. So we went to the... game room? It had a pool table and two ping pong tables. Yes! Two games I love, but unfortunately am untalented at. So I got myself into a pool game against Russ and one of the hospital students, with another hospital student on my team. We got killed, really, but it was fun. Not only was the other team more skilled, but... actually, maybe they were just more skilled. I know my teammate was just playing for the fun of it anyways, and every turn I had, I was lined up with shots that I simply couldn't figure out. Well, and also, seeing as how my conception of physics is sincerely warped, there was just no contest. After that though, I ended up in yet another game... and then another! I got a little better, but never quite won. Then I went into ping pong volleys with one of my students and actually worked up a sweat. It wasn't the ping pong so much as the heat. The bath house is hot and humid throughout, which I guess is what necessitates the pajamas... loose-fitting short sleeved v-neck shirts and matching... bermuda shorts? I enjoyed myself though. At the end, one of my students looked up at me and said "you are funny." Was I being a kid again? Maybe, but it felt good!

After that, I had to take off because I told Alice I'd be back around 3 to decorate the apartment for my Saturday night class with the #9ers. When I got back though, she was asleep, so I ended up watching most of Step Up and attempted to decorate on my own. Turns out that the string lights could only go in one place-- along the back of the couch-- because of the way the outlets are set up. I tried to make my own garland of ornaments using dental floss, but... what I got was the most hopeless knot I've ever encountered. I ended up untangling part of it, which is hanging on the cabinet thing next to the tv, but cut mercilessly through the rest of it. Those ornaments I hung from the string lights. So things didn't get much more festive around here, but you could at least sense that there was an attempt. I set out a bunch of junk food I bought the day before and hoped that the kids wouldn't count on me to entertain them.

Perhaps they did? So I taught them how to play hold-em, using my vast amount of candy leftover from Halloween as chips. I'm not sure if they really caught on... one boy was making infuriatingly poor choices when it came to betting, but it was all right. We also did Secret Santa and then played Psychiatrist, which is always a good game for bonding and whiling away time, even if it is at the expense of a single person. He was a good sport about it though.

I decided early on that the elementary schoolers would be coloring Christmas cards or Christmas posters. And that's just what they did-- their pictures are hanging prominently on one of our doors. I doubt I'll be taking them down anytime soon... same with the lights. Just carrying on that Pan family tradition of eternal Christmas. Unfortunately, I had to pull the jack-o-lantern face off the tupperware for my Thanksgiving cooking experiment, so there are no Halloween decorations to complete the effect.

That afternoon, I did another class party with the other high schoolers at Russ's apartment. We did Secret Santa again, which was a little less interesting than the night before, but ok. Then Psychiatrist again. What's funny is that the student who was psychiatrist the night before also came to this other party and got to play on the other side. He enjoyed it better, I think. The kid I was hoping to get short straw this time did, but he didn't take the role as well as I thought he would. It seemed like he was having like... an internal battle when Russ came back with more food, so I had Russ join him. They figured it out together, but it took almost 2 hours, which is insane.

After the kids took off, we watched LoTR for a while before going out to meet Linda, the mother of one of the students in the Saturday class who organized everything and shows up to pretty much every class. She's a cool lady. Anyways, she'd invited us out for dinner with some of the students and their parents. The restaurant was amazing, and it served some of the best Chinese food I'd ever had. It was described to me as "farm food," but... something doesn't click. Diana and Sean (students) were already there when we arrived, and Diana came down with us to pick the dishes. You walk through what looks almost like a cafeteria... maze... of liang cai (cold dishes akin to salads), soups, breads, meat dishes, steamed veggies, and so on, and we ordered a ton. We waited a while for everyone to show up, then dug in. One of my favorite things was this salad made of what appeared to be the leaves of a jade plant. It was actually some succulent herb that's good for sore throats, but it tasted great. And the fact that it was a succulent made it very refreshing. Also notable were the mushroom dishes. I took many pictures. The company was excellent too. These students obviously work hard at school and still manage to put plenty of effort into our class. But they're also really easy to get along with, and I had a good time chatting with the girls throughout. Russ got really annoying as the alcohol flowed, but all I could really do about it was to edge as far away on my seat as possible to avoid his flailing arm gestures. Oh well. Dinner ended up lasting almost 4 hours with all the conversation. Very memorable!

Next day Alice and I went over to Russ's for a party he was having for the hospital students and, oddly, one of the TC students. I had a fun time? It was weird. Turns out that Connie still seriously believed my name to be Christine. I left early with Alice so that she could go home and change for...

That night we had to go to a... function hosted by the Baotou Municipal Government for the foreigners in town. I was given my invitation as we walked in and was stunned to find that I had been renamed "Kathavice Pan." Why wouldn't you question that? I mean, they got the "a" right, but really... They hand out gifts at this thing every year, I guess, and last year Tevie got a plastic jar that I actually think looks pretty cool (she gave it to Alice). This year we got what was generally agreed upon as "really ugly" pig figurines. Mine is a pig hoarding a large bag of money, I think. I haven't looked at it a second time. When I visited Alice's apartment a few days later, her mom sat down next to me, pointed to Alice's pig, now poised on top of their TV, and exclaimed how ugly it was. I wound up seated next to two 22 year old girls from Chicago and was very excited. One of them reminded me a lot of Deb from home, actually. But at the time there wasn't a ton to talk about, so who knows. Turns out that one of them is friends with one of my sometimes students though, which is cool. The whole dinner was just... odd. They had cool performances, including these girls who were like hula hooping geniuses, and also this crazy British man who insisted on singing Frosty the Snowman and made us all feel a little awkward.

And that was the holidays. I audited my last English class at #1 on Monday morning, actually... I hit an 8am class, which was really hard, actually. Two of my Saturday students were in that class and I love how enthusiastic they were about it. One of them forgot to bring his gift for the class though, which sort of screwed up their system and I was slightly disappointed. But he managed to remember both his gifts for the weekend, so I figured he deserved whatever slack it took. Turns out the lesson was sort of dependent on my presence. I mean, the teacher could have done it without me, but anyways... first she had them do ping-pong to spoon relay races, then had me shout out random 3-digit numbers for them to formulate in teams with cards with the digits 1-9 written on them... that was a little funny when they came up and the numbers were backwards, and the students were like screaming for my attention (cuz sometimes it's just who you see first). Then she had me make random sentences for them to do competitive Telephone. I couldn't come up with anything particularly clever, so I just went with "I can't seem to find my keys," and "My favorite band has a concert on Friday." For the first one, one of the teams came up with a sentence so discombobulated that I couldn't believe that they could have believed that I actually said that. They both did pretty well with the second though.

Seems that people here are told that Christmas is a mega-holiday that ranks in importance with the Spring Festival. "Is Christmas the most important American holiday?" is a question I was asked a lot. I didn't want to be the spokesperson for the American people, but... Probably "yes" if you're just considering the whole agglomerated holiday season, but for obvious reasons, but I tried to convey "no" in the fairest way possible.

As for New Years, I was in the shower. That is exactly where I was when midnight hit. Oops. But with the rearranging of schedules to accomodate the holiday (which doesn't seem like it should be one, but whatever, people deserve it), I had 2 classes on Monday, so I really justed wanted to be lazy and homey.

Uuuum, so wrapping up classes now, and preparing for a mid-Jan departure and some highly anticipated vacation time and travel. I know I don't work nearly as hard as some of my friends stateside, but I could use a break nonetheless. Meanwhile, Liz has wandered into my clutches. She flew into Beijing and then into Baotou today, and hopefully she'll enjoy her mundane everyday taste of this somewhat remote city. Nah, it's a pretty interesting place to me, and maybe she'll think so too!