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China, November 26-December 7, 2006


Sunday, 26 November 2006

This weekend was good, getting back to Yantai and what has really started to feel like my home after nearly two months here. I spend a lot of time walking around the city, reflecting on how very familiar many parts of it are to me. My concept of this year was so transitory: starting from the planning stages this spring and summer. I knew my time was limited in Boston, and then in every location after that. It’s a comfortable mindset for me to have — I’ve always loved traveling, which naturally involves this constant transitioning, temporarily getting to know somewhere and then departing again. But I know the rest of my time here will fly by, and I’m not ready to leave any of it yet.

I walked through the pet market again, hidden in a few alleys away from one of the main roads in town.I had a fun night out with friends at Ali Baba’s, explored the night market in Times Square, and hiked up to the pagoda at Ta Shan again. I’ve really come to enjoy this city, even with its obstacles. I would feel like part of the experience of this whole year was missing if they weren’t there.

The temperature is really dropping here, and I saw one thermometer outside that read 0 degrees Celsius today. Christmas decorations have started going up, which was unexpected and feels bizarre. The Christian population in China is still a small minority, but I think the mass appeal of Christmas decorations and merchandise in the larger stores is because of the affinity for all things Western. It certainly feels foreign to see it here. Can’t wait to see the kids again tomorrow!

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

I returned from dinner at a Café Street place with two other foreign volunteers, had some of the roast shaobing bread I love, dried fish on a stick, noodle soup, and Yantai beer. It was a welcome break from the food at school, which has lately included chicken feet and chicken necks as the main dishes. Our dinner group spans across some years in age, with myself being in the middle between Rachel, who’s still in the beginning of college, and Ruth, who’s a little older than my mom. We’ve all had different life experiences and had great conversation about travel adventures, expectations, future goals, and life in general. It was great to laugh for awhile with them and decompress the day.

Teaching had major highs and lows today. The first period of 4th grade was rowdy and disruptive, which got me down about the impact I am making in their lives. In addition, strained communication with people at home made me feel far away, which didn’t help things. The next two classes were a total contrast—the students were great and attentive and they were so cute asking me if I would please come back next week since they knew I was gone the week before, and then cheering. They are too cute for words. Such contrast in my disposition from one moment to the next, based on the things that happened today, reminds me of something my aunt wrote to me when I first got here: ‘Heaven and hell happens in the same day’. That’s been true in a number of ways since I arrived, and just brings me back to a sentiment that I’ve had before, that no matter how flexible I think I’m being, I need to be more flexible.

I had a good Skype call with David Seibel (Insight President) yesterday, which got me motivated and feeling much more capable of doing the Negotiation workshop at Yantai University, though I still have many logistics to get into place and practice. Also tomorrow I start tutoring two girls that a teacher here asked me to help with. I found out that Sophie, one of the fourth graders I’ve been working with, made it to the Shanghai level of her English speech competition! She’ll go there next week, which is an exciting achievement.

I need to compile a list of things I want to achieve or savor before I leave, since I now feel complacent being here and want to maximize my time. Julia (another Insight Fellow) leaves Cyprus tomorrow, and it’s hard to believe that the three of us are getting ready to move into the second half of the year.

Friday, 1 December 2006

Yesterday I talked to the teacher at Yantai University and worked things out for the Negotiation class that I will be teaching on December 11. I learned, however, that there is no AV equipment, and the class is shorter than I had understood, so the plan I made with David will have to be adjusted, and I’ll have to find somewhere to make copies of everything to give them, hopefully some of it ahead of time so they can read through the case. It’s hanging over my head right now and I just need to muster up the motivation to do it.

Last night I went to a new Huo Guo restaurant with my friend Sun Yu, who I’m tutoring, and was the foreign spectacle in this local hot pot buffet, the favorite restaurant type here where you select food to cook at your table in different boiling broths.

I feel burnt out after this week, kind of like I’m biding my time waiting to go to Shanghai, which I hope I can make happen next weekend, and then return and start to think about the end of my time here. Not a great feeling, but maybe normal at this point, approaching the end of two months here.

I gave up on doing hand laundry for all of my clothes this week since the temperature has dropped so low (staying in the 20-30s) that hanging it out to dry would be more like hanging it out to freeze, and doing laundry inevitably means getting soaked, which is then very cold. I took some of my clothes to the ‘Elephant King’ cleaners downtown, a glowing yellow establishment that looks reliable (and Western). It might not have been a great idea to bring two of my coats though, which both really needed to be cleaned, but will now force me to wear even more layers than I am already!

Saturday, 2 December 2006

It has been a beautiful Colorado-esque snowy day, with huge snow flakes falling when I walked out of Ali Baba’s last night, and this morning the world outside my window was gorgeous and covered in snow. It has snowed on and off all day with bursts of blizzard and wind, and then sunny and clear.

I went out solo last night, waited for the bus for about 30 minutes to go downtown which was enough time for me to second guess my decision many times. I felt apprehensive but recognized some people that were at least acquaintances when I arrived at the bar, hung out for a while, and was glad that I had made the effort. Though this year so far has made me more comfortable than I already was with spending time alone, going out for the evening by myself is still one thing that I’m a little uncomfortable with. Don’t know whether that will go away with more practice or not, or whether that’s just a part of me that would prefer to be socially comfortable when I want to go out.

This morning Mr. Wang, the former headmaster who is the kindest older Chinese man, picked me up at 8:30 when it was snowing hard. He had invited me to his home to meet his wife, and he was determined that the weather wouldn’t stop us, though we had to wait forever for a bus, with the usual bad driving exacerbated by the slippery roads. What usually takes 10 minutes on the bus took us 50. But, I was very happy that we braved the weather, because it was a fun morning with both of them, eating walnuts and sweet sesame sticks, talking in Chinese and English about their daughters (working abroad in South Africa and New Zealand), Chinese politics and history (how their relationship survived in the Cultural Revolution), U.S. politics, and many other things. They are both smart, interesting people–the type of older people who you instantly feel like you have such wisdom to gain from just listening to them speak. Mr. Wang has been concerned how I’ve done at the school (he used to be very involved in the hosting of foreign teachers when he was headmaster) and now just checks in on us because he cares.

Later, we went to a great lunch at a modern-looking hotel nearby. More good conversation. I will really miss him.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

It has been a long day. I woke up with a sore throat, forced myself to drink as many fluids as I could,  and then got ready for the day. Sun Yu (another teacher at the school) picked me up with a friend of her daughter, a university student. Sun had invited me to her home, closer to the university on the other side of downtown, near the ocean, to learn how to make jiaozi (dumplings).

I watched Sun’s daughter, ‘Kitty’ (who I am starting to tutor) and her friend play on the computer, helped making the jiaozi, made conversation with the two younger girls, and listened to Kitty play the Chinese violin. The jiaozi were delicious, and though my ‘bao jiaozi’ skills are still poor (Sun joked as we ate and one dumpling fell apart that she could tell which ones I had made—folding them is quite a skill), it was fun to have the chance to practice preparing the food that is such a staple here, and to spend more time in a local home. After lunch, Sun was intent on going to take pictures by the sea, not at all deterred by the cold temperature, and the whitecaps on the sea were visible far into the distance. This is when I had yet another near-death experience in Chinese driving, when she almost drove off the pier while backing up! A group of male onlookers helped to lift the car back up as it hung off the concrete pier, and I remained out of the car as someone helped back the car up the rest of the way.

After that we drove slowly to the gates of Yantai University to take more photos, and Kitty’s friend helped me find a shop near the university so that I could make copies of the case study to use in the Negotiation seminar I’ll teach next week. I offered to take the bus home, and then met with the Yantai University teacher who is allowing me to teach the seminar in her class. She happened to be at one of the most crowded market places in the city, San Zhan (Three Station, in the center of the train and two bus stations) and it was a difficult place to rendezvous with her. A series of buses later, I picked up the laundry I had dropped off and had many gracious offers for help carrying what I think looked like a bulky amount of clothing. I’ve seen much stranger bus cargo though: dead fish in wicker baskets to market, rabbits in cages, etc.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

So, thinking back over the week, it is hard even to remember the beginning! I had my first sessions tutoring Kitty, Kitty’s cousin Alice, and as it turns out, Sun as well. As I’ve found in my classes, it is hard to reach all the students, and not bore some and leave others behind, when they have such varied language abilities. As I’ve gotten to know the students more, this has become easier to gauge. After the session with them I went to the airline office to see about going to Shanghai this weekend, and found tickets for cheaper than I had been told, so I’m off to Shanghai! I didn’t have enough cash to pay for the tickets, which involved going downtown to the one ATM that will take American debit cards. Since it was the first temperate day in a while, I decided to walk back for a couple bus stops along the route home and an hour later I was back up at the ticket office near school. A few weeks ago, walking back from downtown would have seemed unfathomably long (and indeed, when I got back and teachers asked me where I had gone, and realized I had walked, they were floored), but today walking along these streets and winding back up toward the hills of school made me nostalgic thinking about leaving Yantai.

Yesterday, one of the fourth grade teachers violently yelled at one of my favorite students in class and made him cry. He then stood with his back to the class for the rest of the time, at which point she threw a metal pencil case at him. It is an awkward situation, personally and culturally, when the teachers are rough with the kids. I want to try to convince them not to, but my status as a younger, volunteer, foreign teacher puts up barriers where I can’t say anything, and instead just leaves me in an uncomfortable position. I spent some time with that student later in the afternoon to make sure he wasn’t still upset, which is the best I can do for now.

Yesterday afternoon I went down to the San Zhan market to walk around, realizing when I met the Yantai University teacher there on Sunday that I had never spent more time than dashing through in passing to catch a bus looking around there. It is a huge market place of everything imaginable, and I got lost several times in the mazes of stores that sell many of the same things; people around me would walk so deliberately into one select store among the ten in front of us that were all selling red dresses (a necessary color for all celebrations), and I could only wonder the distinction they saw that I didn’t.

Last night I went out to Huo Guo with Li Ping, Hude Shui, and two other foreign teachers, which was a great, long meal followed by the always entertaining karaoke. Today after classes I received help from my friend Xie Cai Xia translating the negotiation material that I will use in the workshop. I’m anxious about teaching this material to begin with, second guessing how qualified I am to do it, so hopefully I can eliminate linguistic misunderstandings to at least simplify things. Tonight we had a celebratory send off for Rachel’s departure, which was a lot of fun, and a good, though bittersweet end to her time here.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

The wind is howling again. It was so loud during the night that I wondered, sleepily, about my windows crashing in again. Listening to classical music makes me feel guilty that my few weeks of piano playing tapered off when the temperature dropped. The cold makes the piano rooms feel like refrigerated phone booths, which can’t be good for the pianos either.

The other foreign teacher who I feel closest to here leaves tonight; her room is empty and I know I will miss her company here. One of my goals for the year was to make friends with people that I wouldn’t otherwise likely have the propensity to become friends with, and I can say that both of us have such different life backgrounds and lifestyles that we fit that bill for each other. It’s hard for me to accept investing in relationships that will come and go, but I’ll have to learn to reconcile that in some way over the next several months.

Today was maybe the longest day I’ve had here. A few hours ago, I was so exhausted that I could not even think about writing. Teaching was great, the kids were cute and sad when I told them next week would be my last week with them! After teaching three periods, I took the first shower I’ve had in five days, for lack of hot water, and it was so nice to finally get warm and clean. A three-minute hot shower is quite the luxury. It has been an adjustment to get used to a different standard of maintenance here, and though it’s part of the adventure I was anticipating, it will be nice to arrive at the Hague where I can get back into a regular personal routine and exercise normally, as well.

After many attempts to use the outdated equipment at school’s administrative office, I decided to go to the local ‘copy center’. The laoban in charge of operations in this ‘copy center’ that could fit four of us, standing room only, was friendly and wanted to know what I was being paid by the school to teach English. When I respond ‘nothing’, people are floored, and think I must have misunderstood their question. Then come the next several questions about what I’m doing, why am I doing it, and at this point in the afternoon I was too tired to try to explain, especially in any Chinese, about the point of me being here. As tired as I was, I started to wonder to myself why I couldn’t articulate it, or why the goals and motivation wouldn’t translate…what my purpose really was in doing all of this, in desperately trying to make copies of a presentation that I had invited myself to give, with the qualification to teach it merely being that I studied the theory this summer and have seen other people teach it several times. Crises of purpose like those sometimes motivate me to greater clarity about what it is that I’m trying to do, really, and how I feel about it or how I could be better using my energy. But at this point I just wanted to get on the bus and go back home.