Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The House of Intelligent

On Sunday my friend Pan Wen invited us to go to General Mountain, one of Nanjing's scenic spots. It's not very far out of the city, but I was still surprised by the feeling of relief that washed over me to see trees, hills and green space...and I've only been in the city for a little over a month! I can tell I'm going to have to plan little outings to the countryside now and then to keep my head straight...
General Mountain, like many scenic spots I've been to in China, is an interesting mix of the old and the new. A 12th-century Song Dynasty fort rises above a man-made pond on which you can paddle around in a plastic boat shaped like a duck. Or, as we did, hire a bamboo raft and a couple of poles. Will was a good sport; he and Pan Wen struggled to maneuver the raft around, sweating in the 90+ degree heat, while I sat like a queen under a "sunbrella" at the rear of the craft, holding Pan Wen's terrified six-year-old daughter. Good times.
The most interesting part of General Mountain was the House of Intelligent, an old farmhouse that was used as a re-education site during the Cultural Revolution. Students and young intellectuals were sent here to learn about the simple life (General Mountain was just a small village then--no plastic duck-boats yet). The house is tiny and austere, with a well for pumping water, some vegetable plots, and a large collection of propaganda paintings on the wall.
I find it really interesting that these revolution-era sites are the only places in China that I get a real visceral sense of human history. That sounds odd to write, because clearly China has one of the longest histories of so-called civilization, and I'm not sure how to really convey what I mean. When I see the older sites, I often feel like I'm in a museum, even when I'm standing in an actual courtyard mansion or ancient military fort. I don't get the goose-bumpy feeling that sometimes overcomes me at historical sites in other places--like a crumbling castle in Scotland or a civil war battlefield--that feeling as if I was walking among ghosts. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that so much of the ancient history here was systematically wiped out of the living memory. Or maybe it's just that ancient history here is so "foreign" to me that I can't experience any kind of emotional connection to it. But at these Cultural Revolution sites, I can feel it. And it's creepy! Getting goose-bumps just writing about it...
But creepiness aside, it was a lovely day among the cedars and the willow trees. The sky was blue(ish) and it was a much-appreciated afternoon of respite from the honking, roaring, beeping, snorting city.


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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Je ne regrette rien

I'm helping the administration office at my university by proofreading the "Handbook for Newcomers," and I must share this gem from Appendix II: Conditions for Revoking the Scholarship.
Item 6: "Occupying a room or a bed in the dormitory without permission and not feeling regret even after being persuaded by the college."

Thursday, August 23, 2007


The scaffolding is coming down! Here's a picture of the bamboo used in the scaffolding around my apartment. Apparently bamboo has incredible tensile strengh--you can hear it creaking when people walk on it, but a single trunk of bamboo is strong enough to support the weight of several grown men. Amazing.
I'm looking forward to the scaffolding coming down so I can finally open the curtains during the day. But once the re-painting and construction is done, I will miss the floating population of workers that has set up camp in the neighborhood. They've set up tarps in the alley for sleeping at night. During the day, the street is filled with the sound of workers, painting, hauling stuff, pulling down the scaffolding, and breaking huge piles of rocks with pick-axes for what I can only presume is a re-paving project.
After sundown, the whole street turns into one gigantic pajama party! Whole families are living under the tarps, and at night (when the heat is still oppressive) everyone strips down to their skivvies and hangs out, playing cards or mah jongg or just sitting around talking. It's a really festive atmosphere, and it's going to seem awfully quiet around here once everyone's gone.
I don't mean to come across as glib. I realize that a lifestyle of hard labor is not something to idealize or treat lightly. That's the kind of attitude that was largely responsible for the, um, events of the 1960's here in China...
Sorry for the long delay between postings. Things have been pretty crazy around here, finishing up the orientation and lining up part-time teaching and tutoring gigs for myself. I have a great job now at an English Coffee Corner--basically I get paid to facilitate discussion with a bunch of really interesting adult advanced English-speakers. I think I'm going to learn a lot from them this year. More about that soon.
My classes will start in a couple of weeks. Can't wait to get back into learning Chinese!


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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

birthday bash

Oh, how quickly they turn on you...
You invite your friends over to celebrate the 28th anniversary of your birth. You show them a video of your students in Hunan Province throwing cake at each other, as is the custom at birthday parties in China. Together you prepare a lovely dinner, and they present you with a beautiful gift of a photo collage, and a delicious chocolate mousse cake. You blow out the candles...and the next thing you know, you are smacked in the face with gobs of chocolately goo! A cake fight ensues. Ah, I love being a grown-up!
It was possibly the first time I've had to take a shower in the middle of my own party, but it sure was fun. After we were all cleaned up, we hit the town and sampled some of Nanjing's night life.
I will get them back, this I promise.

before  after  birthday photo collage 
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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

One panda's crap, another man's treasure?

Beijing is gearing up for the 2008 Olympics, and in the midst of the queue-ing campaigns and anti-spitting campaigns, here we have it: the campaign to trick silly tourists into buying Olympic souvenirs that are literally pieces of shit.

China seeks profit from panda poo

Mon Jul 30, 11:35 PM ET

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese wildlife research centre has come up with a novel idea to profit from panda poo -- make Olympic souvenirs out of it.

Researchers at the centre in Chengdu, capital of mountainous Sichuan province, had sculpted photo frames, bookmarks, fans and panda statues out of the 300 tonnes of the stuff produced by 60 giant pandas each year, state media said on Tuesday.

Jing Shimin, assistant to the director of the base, proudly declared that the souvenirs would be relatively odour-free.

"They don't smell too bad because 70 percent of the dung is just remains of the bamboo that the pandas are unable to digest," he told Xinhua news agency.

"We used to spend at least 6,000 yuan (390 pounds) a month to get rid of the droppings, but now they can prove lucrative as half of them will be sold as souvenirs."

Not wishing to miss out on Olympic-inspired profits, the base is currently working on moulding the poop into statues of athletic pandas performing various Olympic sports to sell as 2008 Olympic Games souvenirs.

A Thai zoo already sells multicoloured paper made from the excrement of its two resident pandas.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Wall

Behold the new generation of VIA teachers (minus one), on our recent trip to Nanjing's Ming Dynasty-era city wall. Only portions of the wall remain around the city, but considering that the bricks were held together not with concrete but with glutinous rice, and considering the historical events the wall has witnessed, I'd say it's holding up pretty well!

I too am holding up pretty well (after last year in Hunan, I'm pretty sure I too am held together with rice). Last year when I first got to Xintang, I went through a short period of hibernation before I really started going out and living my life. This year I'm kind of doing the same thing, but it's not really my see, my new past-time is playing "hide the foreigner" (the foreigner being myself). Let me explain.

You can call me paranoid, but I'm definitely the only waiguoren living in my building, and sometimes foreigners' homes are targets for break-ins (two friends of mine were recently robbed while they were sleeping). I don't have bars on my windows, and normally I wouldn't worry because I live on the fourth floor. But for the next few weeks my building is being re-painted, meaning that there is bamboo scaffolding around the whole thing, and from sun-up to sun-down there are workers directly outside my windows. So the object of the game is to not let anybody see exactly which apartment I live in until the scaffolding is down. So far I think I'm doing pretty well, because I keep my curtains drawn during the day. But I'm looking forward to the end of the re-painting because it's not a very fun game, and I think my house-plants are dying.

But lest you think I've been spending ALL my days inside with the curtains drawn, I must say that the new VIA teachers are a ton of fun, and I also think I've found my first tutoring job. Her name is Cissy, she's thirteen, and her parents want to pay me to speak English with her for several hours a week. Spending time with her makes me think a lot of my students last year, who were the same age, but were living away from their families, wearing the same clothes every day, eating the gross food at the cafeteria, and working extremely hard to follow their educational dreams. Cissy lives with her mom, dad, grandma and goldfish in a beautiful apartment. She has her own mobile phone. She knows how to swim and how to play a traditional stringed instrument. She's bright, accomplished, wealthy and priveleged. I think that she too works very hard for her education, and I'm not making any judgements either way. It's just a striking contrast, that's all.

There are a lot of striking contrasts this year, so many that I'm afraid it will become tiresome if I keep drawing comparisons between last year and this year. But I can't help it, so bear with me while I adjust to city living. And I will post pictures of my new apartment just as soon as I can open the curtains.



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Wednesday, August 1, 2007


A couple of pictures from Erin's last night in Nanjing...our "auntie" came over and together we made jiaozi (dumplings, which apparently are the best things to eat before traveling. If you eat dumplings preceding a journey, so they say, you will reach your destination safely--I guess it worked, because Erin made it back safely to America (despite the subversive round- and star-shaped dumplings that he made).
Speaking of safe arrivals, the new batch of teachers rolled into Shanghai early on the morning of the 29th. I picked them up at the airport and we spent the night in Shanghai before returning to Nanjing, where they will all stay for a three-week orientation before heading off to their posts all over China. Most of them have traveled in this country before and speak Chinese to some degree, so in some ways they are quite different from our group last year. But what fun we had those days, bumbling around this city, unable to communicate even the simplest idea! We honed our miming skills exquisitely.
making jiaozi 

Erin's non-traditional dumpling shapes  
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