Campus Life, China, Language, Travel, University Teaching

Why is it “too much time ON my hands” and not “IN” my hands?

We have a three-day weekend this weekend, courtesy of the New Year’s holiday. As I have traveled with friends for the last three weekends, it seemed like a very good idea to have a relaxing weekend at home. Energy and funds were running low and the beginning of a cold was another compelling point. Yet, as I sit in my room at 4:45 PM on Saturday, I realize why traveling is such a good idea. It’s just really boring if you don’t.

Having not really slept last night due to a very late night viewing of The Boy with the Striped Pajamas and then several sleepless hours after, I woke up at 9 when my mother dearest called for our prearranged phone call. She graciously granted me another hour of sleep and I went back to bed for 45 minutes. After an epic 1 ½ hour conversation where we covered all the good stuff and she yelled at me several times for not giving her my full attention (apparently my eyes move when I read—dead give-away), I took a deep breath and studied Chinese for a half hour.

Circumstances beyond my control have allowed me to escape Chinese lessons for the last three weeks. They cancelled on me one time. Then the next time we were having our Christmas potluck that night. And then this week we had a department meeting at precisely our usual lesson time. I cheered when I got the email. I’m a terrible student. Of Chinese, at least. Wo putonghua shuade bu hao.

After Chinese I went for a long walk around campus. With 20,000 students and only about maybe 30 foreigners, I always feel very conspicuous when I am walking. Especially when I am trying to exercise. Which makes dark sunglasses a necessity and not a fashion accessory. Much more comfortable. Yet today the university was like a ghost town. Three days weekends will do that. Any student who can will go home. And the ones that can’t seem to stay indoors. After two weeks of individual student interviews for all of my Oral English classes, I know that my students’ hobbies seem to mainly be sleeping, playing computer games, and using the Internet. I’d never heard of sleeping as a hobby before, but I’ve become a believer after having almost 500 students tell me it is. (One student also told me her hobby was washing her hands) At least in China, it would probably be safe to say that sleeping is my hobby too. Two or three hours naps are not at all uncommon.

Anyways, the campus was looking exceptionally lovely today. It took me over an hour to make a complete loop. There are many small walking paths that wander through gardens or around lily-pad covered lakes. It’s a very beautiful campus that someone clearly put a lot of time and love into. There must be a huge maintenance crew as the climate results in everything growing 24/7. In particular, there is a climbing bush with purple flowers—very lovely—but with huge thorns that likes to throw out long braches that then dangle innocently into walkways. I tangled with one early on and my hasty motion to remove my arm resulted in a trio of long scratches.

At this point I am regretting that I have no photos of the campus to share with you. Err, sorry. But! There are lovely, professional photos on the school’s website here that you can peruse if you are interested. Believe me, nothing I take would look that good! What’s amusing however, is the fact that they have changed the school’s English website. When I was initially considering the job, the website featured beautiful scenic shots of the campus. Now, unfortunately, the website has been changed to this. This was particularly funny in a friend’s situation when she directed family and friends to the university website, not knowing it had been changed. Their response had been “Oh! It looks lovely! So many foreigners! What are you talking about? You won’t feel alone there!” So from campus beauty to stock photos. Lovely.

I was dragging towards the end of my walk, but eventually made it home. After a tepid shower (remember that hot water problem?), I had some leftovers for lunch and watched 2 episodes of a TV show. Then I tuned my guitar. Hung up some laundry to dry. Washed dishes. Contemplated two more days of such serenity. And wished I’d made plans to travel this weekend after all. In the absence of travel plans, I got to write a long ramble-y blog post for my loyal readers. Lucky you.

Oh. And this was where I had my fingers crossed that I would be living. Lake-view apartment. Though I moved from the apartment which faced the back of a building, my view still consists of basketball courts and the garbage dump.



I’ve been busy. You’ve been busy. In all this busy-ness I have just posted a number of recent photos on Facebook, pictorally explaining my going-ons in the last 6 weeks or so. I carefully captioned these photos so all of the wit and sarcasm you love are in my photo album. So while you are on tenterhooks waiting for my next real blog post, this can be the appetizer.

Link here: Holidays in China

I apologize for the decrease in blogging. That, of course, it in part what I was trying to express in my blog title “Normal” Life. My life in China is both “normal” aka NOT normal, because of the foreign element, but also very normal at the same time. Meaning I get busy and tired too. And it’s honestly quite difficult to express my experiences. Sometimes they are so normal they wouldn’t really make a very interesting blog post. Sometimes complex emotions are involved. Sometimes I don’t know how to describe what’s going on because all of the terms, the places, the names will be so foreign to you that I don’t know if it’s worth explaining. When I babble about cities I’ve visitied I know this means next to nothing for the average person. Guangzhou? Shenzhen? Kaiping? I don’t want to bore you. And it’s not like I knew anything about these things before I came here. So there’s no pride involved. I was as clueless as they come. I had to look for Beijing on a map and then look for Zhuhai. All I can say is China is huge and complex and not very much like how it is portrayed in Western media.

All this to say that I’m finding blogging more difficult lately. But there are still lots of things I want to write about, so don’t despair! Maybe if I had some ideas about what things would interest you? Any specific things you want to know about? Food? Language? Culture? Transportation?

Campus Life, China, Cultural Differences

Vogue! Vogue!

There’s a curious phenomenon I’ve never encountered before that happens here in China. It surprised me as Guangdong is quite a prosperous province and foreigners are not all that rare. Nevertheless, people like to snap pictures of foreigners whenever and wherever we are spotted. Totally random and candid photos that probably usually only have the back of our heads.

I first noticed this phenomenon in October when I was walking around downtown. I was with a friend and we were exploring a large park that runs along the coast. There were a lot of families in the park as it was part of the National Holiday week which celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It seemed like I was hearing an awful lot of the little “shnik” sound that digital cameras or camera phones make in imitation of a real camera shutter. Yet because of the number of people in the park I figured there was just a lot of photo-taking going on in general. Then I heard a little “shnik” right behind me and I turned to look. Two girls were sheepishly lowering their phones. They caught my eye, giggled, and hurried away. “What?! They’re taking pictures of us!” I laughed. “Yeah, they do that sometimes,” my friend wryly explained.

After that I was much more conscious of the fact that every passerby was a possible foreigner photographer. I noticed how the longer their eyes were glued on you the more likely they would take a photo. Shnik. Shnik. Guiltily furtive photographers who turn away quickly and sort of scurry off, giggling with their friends. From all the giggling, you can probably infer that most of the photographers were girls. But not always!

Another weekend we were in the train station, heading off to Guangzhou for the day. We were the only foreigners in a small sea of Chinese. I was very focused on maintaining our place in line, as the women behind me was determined to edge in front of me. (The art of queuing is non-existent here.) A man had been starting at us for quite awhile, which is not all that uncommon. My friend Sarah receives a great deal of attention with her blond hair and blue eyes—the Chinese are positively transfixed, enraptured. Sure enough. “He’s taking a picture of us!” she said quietly. “Yeah, they do that sometimes.” It was my turn to say it.

And what is it that the Chinese do with all of these poor camera phone pictures of foreigners? It’s not like they are good pictures, since half the time it seems to be of our backs. Do they share them with their friends? Like Twitter? Like celebrity paparazzi? Foreigner sighting at Jusco! Two female foreigners on the bus! Tall foreigner in the grocery store! It’s a little embarrassing thinking of all of these lousy pictures of me cluttering up people’s cell phones.

My friend Stephen likes to go on the offensive and jump into people’s pictures. And of course they are always happy to have him. Yeah! Foreigner in our picture! Or he’ll pose if he senses they’re going for it—the V-for-victory is the classic choice. Sarah told me of students coming up to her and showing her pictures of herself on their cell phones—she teaches their friends who sent a picture of her to them. Uh, awkward?

Of course at this juncture, I simply must make comparison/contrast to Georgia, as it’s my other frame of reference for understanding this type of activity. Please excuse me if that bothers you. Ahem. In Georgia, a country with far fewer foreigners, I never had—to my knowledge—an instance of drive-by-photography. It would’ve surprised me less in Georgia than it does in China. Georgians were eager to meet me, to talk to me, etc. After the formalities were over, sure, they would love to take a picture with me, of course. But with me, not just of me. Their interest in foreigners was equal to the Chinese, but their approach was a little different.

To be fair, I have also had some Chinese ask to take pictures of me or with me. I met some lovely students in the park one day that were so excited to meet me. We took several pictures as they rotated photographer and photographees. Then they gifted me a papaya and went happily on their way. One of my students surprised me one day by asking to take a picture with me. I was happy to oblige, though I certainly hadn’t expected it.

Nevertheless, the random photography of foreigners remains, for me, a uniquely Chinese behavior at this point in time. One that is both puzzling and endearing. I think that some enterprising university student could make some money off this interest in foreigners. Can’t you see it now? Sarah, Stephen, Charlie, Will, Amy—BINGO!

Campus Life, China, Communication

There’s No Place Like Home!

There was a wee bit of naughtiness this week amongst the foreign teaching staff in regards to our living situation.

You might recall from one of my first posts here that I and all the other new foreign teachers were placed in a new building that was still under construction. We were the building’s first inhabitants—its pioneers. We all took up residence on the fourth floor, except for one teacher who complained and was moved to the ninth floor (the elevator promptly went out of service for several weeks). With time other people moved in, but the Chinese teachers and staff considered the building essentially unlivable for the first months of the semester. We have now been here for over 3 months. And the construction still continues.

(On a side note, the number four in China carries the same connotation as number thirteen does in Western culture because it sounds like the word for death. When someone explained this to me, I burst out laughing. Of course we were all placed on the fourth floor! It’s actually very lucky for them that they have a bunch of foreigners they can put there. We have no fear of four!)

There are several problems with this situation:
1. It states in our contract that the school will provide, rent-free, a one bedroom apartment that includes a kitchen, sitting room, bathroom and bedroom. It’s in our contact. Contract. We are now living in studio apartments that have a combined kitchen and bedroom and no sitting room. Regardless of the fact that everything is fresh and probably nicer than the apartments we would’ve otherwise been given, it’s a contractual issue. Contracts are sacred. Once someone starts breaking/bending the contract, a lot of good faith and good will go out the window.
2. The rooms came equipped with a microwave, but no stove. If we want to cook, we have to buy a stove and/or oven ourselves. And we are not allowed to purchase gas ranges. We can only purchase hot plates.
3. Hot water is limited to a few times a day and only in the shower. As the temperature has dropped, we are now washing dishes and hands in very cold water. Not very sanitary or comfortable. And as to the hot water in the shower, there is no guarantee that it will be hot even if you are theoretically trying to use it during the scheduled times. And of course we are paying for this “hot water”.
4. Then there is the constant daily frustration of living in a construction zone. By which we mostly mean the noise, the dust, and the fumes. But mostly the noise.
5. And there is an air-conditioner, but no heater. It’s downright chilly in my room as I type this. I’m going to have to buy some sort of electrical heater.

Of these four issues, numbers 3 and 4 have been the kickers. As the department protested total innocence, most of us have been gracious about being downgraded to living in a nice-ish type studio. They say they had no idea the school would place us in the new building, that they were notified only days before we started arriving. No time to notify us of this change. The skepticism/cynicism of each individual foreign teacher had to determine how much they believed that. But there is a lot of wrath about the hot water and the construction.

For me, there was generally hot or warm water when I went to take showers at night so I didn’t have much to complain about for awhile. And initially the weather was so hot for so long that even if my shower was a little cool it wasn’t a problem. However, with the changing of the weather, the cold sink water is starting to bother me more, especially as the room is already cold without plunging your hands into chilly water.

It was the morning-shower people who were hit the hardest as it seemed that there was never hot water for them in the morning. That was usually the second question out of everyone’s mouths in the morning, maybe even the first: “Hey, did you have hot water this morning?”

And the noise. Oh my God. The noise! Jack-hammers. Tile saws. Hammering. Workers shouting. Cement mixers. Clouds of dust. Cranes outside our balcony windows. Notices (always in Chinese) that they need to come fix our doors, they need to check our fire sprinklers, they need to paint our balcony, they need to install this, fix that, paint, etc, etc, etc. So will you be free Saturday morning? Friday afternoon? Do you care if they come when you are not there? Workers blocking this exit. Testing the fire alarms today. Workers blocking that exit. They’re tiling this walkway so go out the other exit, but at the other exit they are painting. Ripping out freshly placed tiles in your hall with a chisel when you’re sleeping. Jackhammers ripping up cement that was just poured a few days ago. And then, inexplicably, the workers disappear for days at a time and work halts.

I think collectively we’ve been gritting our teeth for so long it’s a wonder we haven’t broken any. I broke down and sent ONE email to the vice dean strongly requesting that the workers not begin doing anything particularly noisy on the WEEKENDS until after at least 9 AM. Other teachers complained almost daily. Some tried to play hard-ass with the department. They demanded to be moved. They refused to do anything that wasn’t in our contract, replying simply with “I’ll do that when we have hot water and the apartments we were promised”. All of which got us exactly nowhere. Until this week, that is.

On Tuesday, we received an email stating that the department will provide a housing allowance to those teachers who wish to move off-campus. They stated that they have been working hard since the day we moved in to improve the living conditions of our building; however, they admit that “the conditions have not been improved as fast as we expected.” So, if we wish, we can receive a housing allowance of 150 RMB a week, which is approximately $25. Just to be clear, that isn’t enough to rent a decent apartment in the area. Then the fun began . . .

One teacher, who is a bit of a wit, replied effusively thanking the department for all their efforts and asking to use the allowance towards one of the on-campus apartments. It was followed ten minutes late by another email apologizing for his mistake: “In my excitement to be free of this one room cold water cement box, I failed to read the part about the allowance being for off campus housing, and not as a means for paying for the on campus housing that was offered in the original contract. My mistake!” He then asked for a list of apartments that rent for 600 RMB a month; several teachers also requested this in response.

A few hours later, we received a new email from him, suggesting that we should have contest to see who can find the best off-campus housing for 600 RMB/month. “I know it’s early,” he said, “but so far I found this place.”

“The owner assures me that it is private and quiet. No more jackhammers, buzz saws, power drills, excavators, loud talking construction workers, truck horns, etc at 6 am Sunday mornings. Yeah! It looks like it’s on a river, but it may be the runoff from the local chemical factory.”

After that, other teachers just had to get in the game. Another teacher criticized the first, telling him he was being too fancy: “Be reasonable… we’re just lowly foreigners in a foreign land. You can’t ask for an ocean view!” He suggested the following apartment as “perfect for the neglected, disrespected ‘foreign expert’ and recommended that we jump on it before someone else did”

The original teacher complimented the second on his excellent find and told him that with the “proper signage it would definitely have potential.”

It’s naughty, I know, but to be honest, we’ve all needed something to laugh about in regards to the building situation. At the end of the day, it’s a contractual issue and we weren’t the ones to break it. But as foreigners who’s there to appeal to anyways? Too bad we’re not unionized.

China, Food, Language

Gravy, Baby

So while all you people in America were polishing off your turkey dinners on the big T day, I was well into my Friday morning, finishing off my first class of the day. My “Thanksgiving” was a very standard day: wake up, eat, class, break, class, dinner, Chinese lesson, relax, done. I was going to bed when you were just waking up. When you were cooking, cleaning, traveling, going through the usual greeting and catching-up routines, I was sleeping and/or getting up Friday morning.

The Georgians always seemed to marvel a bit at the mystery of time differences. “What are they doing in California now?” they’d ask. And I’d make a guess as to what the folks on the other side of the world were doing. It is a bit strange and marvelous if you think about it. I thought warm and fond thoughts in the direction of home as I stood in my class teaching on Friday morning, knowing you were all together with families and friends.

Being out of the country and associating with people from all over the world, you see your own national and cultural celebrations in a different light. Thanksgiving. What’s that? What for? And you actually have to be able to verbalize this to people. Other Westerners might ask. Students will ask. And it helps if you don’t stand there with blank look on your face.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been away for Thanksgiving. I celebrated Thanksgiving in Oxford with all the other students in my program. We had a massive potluck and it was great fun. In Georgia, I took a weekend trip with friends and we celebrated at an Irish pub in the capital with gorgeous steaks and wine.

This year I attempted to rally the foreign teachers into having a potluck. Response to my cheery email was minimal. I was a little disappointed. It had been such a good email! In the end, we managed to scrape together four foreign teachers and two students for a potluck on Friday night. We had spaghetti Bolognese, mashed potatoes, fruit salad, veggies with Ranch dressing, cheese and crackers and apple crisp. I thought that considering our limited cooking facilities (no ovens and one hot plate each) we did quite well for ourselves. And we had gravy! A box from my mom which according to the tracking had been in China over a week without me receiving any notification was retrieved just hours before the event. In true Thanksgiving tradition, I had leftover mashed potatoes and gravy for breakfast the Saturday morning. An altogether pleasant state of affairs!

Saturday night we went to another Thanksgiving-type event at the home of a friend we met through Couch Surfing. She’s an amazing cook who served us a mixture of Chinese and Western dishes and refused to let us lift a finger. We reunited with two other CSers we met on our trip to Kaiping and also made friends with a German, a Swedish-Chinese, and another American. It was someone’s birthday and we decided to sing “Happy Birthday” in every language we jointly knew: English, Mandarin, Cantonese, French, Swedish, German, Spanish, and Georgian. I sang those last too alone and was not entirely on key. I’ve always loved the Georgian version as there are more words that just “happy birthday”:

Ra lamazi dghea
Ra nateli mzea
Imit’omrom dghes ________s
Dabadebis dghea!

What a beautiful day!
What a clear sky!
Because today it’s _______’s birthday!

Standing there together, our glasses raised in a toast for a newly-met friend, I felt that the spirit of Thanksgiving had been more than fulfilled. In that moment, I didn’t feel liked I’d missed out on a thing. A memorable weekend, indeed.

Campus Life, China, Communication, Cultural Differences, Language

Eat Your Heart Out

There are many charming things about life in a non-English-speaking country. There are usually a few small things that make me smile or laugh out loud. I’ve been trying to take note of these things and write them down. The students’ English names are an example I’ve already shared with you. A small addendum to that would be a male student named Arwen. He could get together with my Aragorn student from Literature 6. Should he be so inclined.

I have two students who are named “Killer”. Last night, Killer was absent and I couldn’t restrain myself from saying, “Killer is absent? That’s good. No one will die tonight.” Duh-duh duh. No one even smiled! Sigh.

In writing class, clichés abound. The favorites are “on the one hand, on the other hand”. Stop that, or I’ll chop off both your hands. “Every coin has two sides”. No, really? “Such-and-such is a double-edged sword” Oh good, there go those “hands” of yours. And “in a word” followed by much more than a single word. What part of that article don’t you understand?

In speaking class, all foods are “delicious” or “not delicious,” life is “colorful and beautiful,” and people are “clever”. Porky Pig has infiltrated all of China as no student fails to end their answer with “that’s all”. The exclamation of choice is “waaaah” which sounds like Mr. Miagi in The Karate Kid.

We eat in the “canteen” which makes me feel like I am either in summer camp or in the Army. Wherever we walk umbrellas as an imminent eye-threat, as the female students do not want to become “black.” Bicycles whiz past with girlfriends sitting side-saddle on the book-rack on the back. Boys carry their girlfriend’s purse. Cell phone conversations begin with “hello” and end with “bye-bye” which initially made me think they were talking to me. Girls wear glasses with no lenses. The drink shops seal the cups with this nifty plastic cover so you can literally throw a bunch of drink in a bag and carry them to class. The art of hand-raising in non-existent. As is the art of queuing.

Just today I received a paper from a student with the following sentence: “the Internet is like a warm beast can eat youth is heart.”

Don’t you wish you were here?