Sunday, September 22, 2013

Guilin: most beautiful city in China... never been there.

So all throughout my travels (albeit over a short period of time) when I would tell any inquisitive Chinese individual that I would shortly be leaving Shijiazhuang for Guilin, they would respond as follows: "Ahhh, Guilin. Most beautiful city in China. Never been there." Now while I later learned that the title of "most beautiful city in China" is hotly contested, when I arrived in Guilin I certainly was wiling to agree that it was the most beautiful I had seen. Firstly, there are plants. While this may not seem so terribly impressive, after the industrial nightmare that was Shijiazhuang any plant matter was greatly appreciated. We arrived in the dead of night, exhausted after riding the train for 26 hours non-stop. Here is Devin at the beginning of our trip:

If I showed you Devin by the end I think she would slap me. But I can promise you I looked no better. Two students, Doris and Mandy, greeted us and took us to our school, Guangxi Normal University. At night I hardly noticed the scenery in any great detail, minus the aforementioned plants, but once morning arrived my eyes where greeted by the sight of small, vegetation encrusted karsts. A karst is formed when the land around it basically dissolves. My phone does not do the landscape justice, but here are two pictures down by the river:

I also have pictures of several other things that might be of interest to you. As you can imagine, after getting off the train (it was around 2 or 3 in the morning) I wanted nothing more than to fall asleep in my new bed. I was so tired that I almost couldn't work up the energy to feel apprehensive about my new accommodations. We all hear about how everything is smaller in China, including the housing, and I for one was deeply concerned about not having a Western style toilet. Thankfully, all those fears went out the window once I actually unlocked my door and stepped inside. Here is what I saw:

The living room: for starters there weren't clothes hanging in that closet in the far room, but the place was spacious. I mean really big, especially for one person. My two suitcases made the place feel almost empty. After being here almost a month I still don't know how I would ever manage to fill it by myself. Now, as I began to explore my apartment, I came across a multitude of these creepy little stickers and hooks. They wouldn't be so bad, except that they are everywhere. On every wall, door, light-switch, you name it, everything has some chibi animal or child staring at me. This one is on my washing machine:

Can you say what the heck? Why are there children wearing speedos and eating ice cream on my washing machine?! There are lions, and deer, and other small children as well. I'd tear them all down but I get the feeling they are watching me...

Anyways, back to the apartment. Here is the living room from the doorway of the far room in the first picture: 

Yes I have a television, no I don't have any channels. The water jug didn't have any water until just a few days ago, and that was an exciting event all by itself. If you walk through the doorway to in the left of the first photo, you are greeted by my lonely, empty refrigerator:

A few more steps brings you to the "kitchen." I use the term loosely because it also functions as a bathroom, laundry room, and I don't dare cook food in my apartment for fear of summoning the roaches. 

And now the moment for which we've all been waiting. The bathroom. I got my fervent wish for a Western toilet, but I didn't get the separate shower I saw in my dreams. Oh well, you win some and you lose some. 

In addition to all of the above, I have two, yes that's right, TWO bedrooms. The guest room (the one you can see from the entrance) came with a bed, a closet, and a desk. 

Oh, and they threw in a connected balcony. Not sure who the weirdo is in the picture, probably some fanboy student of mine. 

Last but not least we have my very own bedroom. The bed is about as fixed as it ever was back home. Two reasons can be presented as for why I chose this room over the other: 1) the bed is bigger, and 2) it has a massive shelf/closet on one wall.

And with that the virtual tour of my apartment is concluded. I apologize for the long wait, but I discovered that if I write smaller posts they are less daunting. I have resolved to actually blog rather than think about it. You can hold me to that. Stay tuned for my night of karaoke, the joys and challenges of teaching, and the lanterns of Mid-Autumn Festival! 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Trained and Ready!

I've made it safely to China. A great deal has happened in these first few days, so I'll do my best to re-create the adventure, but I'm sure I will leave out large segments either because 1) I'm too lazy to write it out or 2) because I honestly cannot remember. My first three impressions of China are as follows: I hate that I can't read; the close door button on elevators actually works here and it's awesome; and I love that everyone stares at me. Seriously, I feel like a celebrity everywhere I go.

To begin: Flying to China was a fairly simple affair. Getting my luggage checked and finding my way to the gate for my first flight took twenty minutes tops, so I had plenty of time to sit in the airport with my travel buddy Heather. The first flight came and went without incident. Upon our arrival in Denver we were dismayed to discover that, while we had bought our tickets together, we were not on the same flight to San Francisco. To make matters worse, both flights had been delayed due to "air traffic control" to the point that my flight wouldn't arrive in time to catch our flight to China. I approached the attendants only to be told that as long as I hurried, I should be fine. Given that my China flight literally would leave before I landed, I remained unconvinced. Eventually I found my way to the customer service desk where they reserved me a seat on a later flight to Beijing in case I missed the first one. Unsurprisingly when I did finally get to San Francisco I had missed the flight. My other travel buddy, the lovely Devin Ash, had encountered similar difficulties on her way to San Francisco. Thankfully the Air China employees were pretty much amazing and managed to get us two seats next to each other on the plane AND got all of our luggage on the correct flight. Here we are on the plane excited to be off:

And again:

Here's our first attempt at a sleeping photo:

Take two worked out substantially better:

After what seemed like the longest flight ever, we had finally arrived at the Beijing airport!

From there we met the rest of our group and hopped on a bus headed for a hotel in the city where our training would take place, Shijiazhuang. After sleeping on a plane and then some more on the bus, you'd think I might not be eager to go to bed, but an actual bed (though rather hard) was a dream come true. I don't even remember anything that took place between the bus and my head hitting the pillow. The next morning we ventured down to the breakfast area, where a kind Chinese woman pantomimed with us until we gave her our food tickets (that had been given to us at check-in) and led the way to our tables. In China, eating is communal. In the middle of the table is a large lazy Susan where platters of food are placed. You can then SLOWLY turn the lazy Susan and put food on your plate. That first breakfast we had several spills from rotating food smashing into glasses. Also chopsticks. I've become a big fan, even though my hand still cramps up from holding them incorrectly. Here's a picture of breakfast:

And here is the view from my hotel room:

Shijiazhuang isn't a particularly noteworthy city in China, but it is a good example of what you could expect to see in the urban areas. At first the air felt dirty, and I didn't enjoy breathing in the smells of gasoline and smog. It didn't take all that long for me to stop noticing, something I'm not sure if I'm all that happy about. In any event, our hotel was across the street from the entrance to a park, so we did some exploring. Here's a statue we encountered immediately after entering:

I found some elephant sculptures, so of course I needed some pictures:

The rosebushes were pretty awesome. I think we need to take some pointers mom:

One aspect of the city was the juxtaposition of opposites. You might find a flashy strip mall down one street while the next looked like a Hooverville from 1930s America. New skyscrapers are being built in almost every direction. Nothing feels complete or permanent. I took this picture while we where still in the park:

This one as well. It cracked me up a bit. The writing says "you are dog."

There also was a large stone dragon in the park. I shook its pinky just for you Steph :P

One of our first lessons during training concerned etiquette. The governor of Hebei Province, where Shijiazhuang is located, invited us all to a fancy dinner to welcome us to China. Before you think that we are really all that important, Iowa and Hebei are "sister states" and basically work to promote relationships between the two entities. The Teach in China program was actually an idea first proposed by the current governor of Hebei, before he was governor. Because of that, and because this year is the thirtieth anniversary of Iowa and Hebei's special relationship, we got to get all dressed up and attempt to not make fools of ourselves in front of the various officials. Here I am in the best clothes I had decided to bring along for the trip:

I was a little concerned that I was going to end up horribly drunk. Since we were guests of honor, every Chinese guest toasted each of us individually. In many cases this is done with a hard liquor common in China, but due to a combination of 1) our guests were aware we would not be used to this and 2) our director Kirk Martin had warned us ahead of time during etiquette class to ask for beer or juice instead, the dinner went without any problems. I even got the secretary-general's business card (it is a common practice to give out your card at social/business functions - even most students have cards). Okay, I'm concerned that if I don't speed this up you will never have the chance to see this post -.-

Here is a photo from our first night out on the town:

Bars/clubs are quite different in China. We ended up buying a bottle of whiskey for the table, and they brought it in a pitcher mixed with iced tea. Along with popcorn. And that fruit display you see above. Clearly I had no complaints about the service. However the bar/club did not have the atmosphere I expected. The other customers were quiet and unenthusiastic. You might think this meant that we had found ourselves a neighborhood dive, but the lights and the music seemed fit for a rave. There were dancers and singers, but they were hard pressed to draw a response from the Chinese patrons. I ended up leaving early with some other folks.

Another part of our training involved venturing out into the city in small groups to try and order a meal ourselves, without the reassuring (and Chinese-speaking) presence of our program director, Kirk Martin. While we were out wandering around we encountered a snazzy shopping mall. Thinking that there would be a food court inside, we ventured onward. Inside we were greeted by a strange site. The entire mall, minus the top floor which consisted of an arcade, was empty. No stores. Blank walls. Lots of signage advertising "stores coming soon!" But the mall was packed with people. We still have no idea why there were so many people in an empty mall. Also we didn't manage to find any food. We did stumble into a parent-child adventure land, where the clowns painted fangs on their mouths (I'm not normally a clown-o-phobe but that was weird), and decided it was time to leave immediately after. When we emerged back on the streets of Shijiazhuang we found ourselves in an alleyway connected to what appeared to be a street entirely devoted to food. Rather than surveying our options we jumped into the first place that looked hygienic. Here are a few photos of what we managed to find:

It was a good thing one of the employees was fluent in miming. I'm getting better myself, but it can be surprisingly difficult to convey even simple thoughts without using any words. Speaking of not speaking, our next "assignment" was the dreaded and highly anticipated home stay. We were each partnered with a high school junior that could theoretically speak English. My student (whose name I do not know) spoke fairly well, and could translate for his mother and father. One of his friends also lived with the family, though his English was significantly less well developed. We only spent one night with the families, but many of us had pretty exciting nights. I ate Mao Zedong favorite's dish, which appeared to be some form of meat and vegetables (sometimes you just don't ask what you are eating), roast duck, rice, potato, onion, and these thin little circles of dough (they looked kind of like soft taco shells) that you would put everything into. It was the best meal I've had so far in China. I spent most of the rest of the night playing various forms of Chinese checkers and two Chinese card games. I taught one of the two boys how to play our version of checkers, and by the third game he had me stalemated. After the family spent a solid twenty minutes trying to explain how to use the shower (which perhaps surprisingly I had already figured out on my own), I snapped this picture:

Apparently even the 101 Dalmatians are having population problems in China. The next morning we had leftovers for breakfast, plus a loaf of bread, some lunchmeat ham, and Kraft cheese slices. At first I thought the family ate these familiar foods regularly, until I watched them try to unwrap the cheese. It was very clear that they had bought the food especially for me. I realized that I was the only person that had drank any of the milk as well. This is a perfect example of the kind of hospitality I've experienced just about everywhere in China. Unlike in the states, where we tend to be hostile towards foreigners (especially those that don't speak English), in China the second it becomes obvious that I'm not from around here, (which takes all of five seconds) people bend over backwards to help me. Sometimes it is overwhelming. In the case of my host family, I felt terrible that I couldn't express how grateful I was for all of their generosity and their willingness to go out of their way to make me comfortable. "Thank you" doesn't seem strong enough, and my lack of Chinese language ability made anything more complex difficult to convey through translation. Basically, my host family was pretty awesome. Below are some photos from my short time there:

View from the guest room window - my host student told me sometimes they eat out on the roof/porch.

Elephant planter that was on the windowsill

Upstairs hallway

Living room


Living room again, but this time I'm actually sitting in it

In order: host student's friend; me; host student

After the host family night, we had just one day left in Shijiazhuang. For lunch we ended up at another fancy restaurant (every time Kirk would ask our Chinese compatriots for a normal restaurant this tended to happen). For brevity's sake I'll let you look at the photos yourself:

Table setting: the smallest glass is for baijiu, a Chinese liquor that I could stand to never have again...

General overview of the table

The doors to our dining room

A private bathroom attached to the private dinning room? Why don't we have these?

After lunch we travelled to the Temple of the Happy Buddha. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside the building that made up the monastery, but the highlight of the trip was a 21 meters tall (~63 feet), solid bronze statue with nine heads and forty-two arms. I did manage to snap this photo of some of the buildings, just to give you and idea of a Buddhist monastery:

This last photo I took as we attempted to exit the grounds. Our guide tried to take us out a different way than we entered, and we where greeted by the following sign:

Laugh already. I found it pretty hilarious. And so with our tourist-y sides satisfied, we prepared to leave Shijiazhuang. I'll admit I wasn't sad. The grey, smoggy, industrial city didn't win over many hearts, but even Shijiazhuang has its good sides... I just can't think of them right now. Hopefully this last photo will give it the credit it deserves:

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Panic of Packing

Hello all! As you have no doubt noticed, I've finally sat down and set up the blog I plan to use while abroad in the great land of Guilin (forgive the title, it's a work in progress). While I should be using the time to continue packing, I've decided that making my first blog post is far more important. I mean really, who can think about toothpaste and deodorant when the blogosphere is waiting?

About packing - what appears to be a rather simple task is proving exceedingly difficult. I can promise that you know many people with a much larger wardrobe than I, and yet the decisions of what to bring and what to leave behind are running me ragged. Should I bring three pairs or jeans or two? This brown jacket or that one? I'm fairly certain the season finale of The Bachelor is less dramatic than some of wars waged in my closet this afternoon. Should I mix my toiletries throughout both suitcases or segregate them? How many books can I manage to take with me? (I refuse to purchase an e-reader, so should I come to regret that stance I'll be sure to let you know.) Furthermore, packing is certainly one activity in which being scatterbrained is a curse rather than an asset. I walk into my room intending to search for a USB wall converter, and emerge with two belts and a half-used tube of Airborne. I've just decided that I'll consider myself lucky if I make it to China with a change of underwear.

Sorry for a rather short and uneventful first post, but I'm starting to get anxious about my suitcases after thinking it all through again here. But since pictures > words I'll finish with one from my day here:

It may look unorganized, but... okay it's just a big mess.