October 30, 2010

Costumes and Charades

I think I scored some cool points with my students this week, giving them candy and letting them wrap their classmates up in toilet paper finally let them see that their uptight American teacher could let her hair down and still try to teach them something.

Or at least in my idyllic little mind that's how I feel like it went. It's all a part of my charade of being an educator. 

For the most part my students are my favorite part about this place. At least 50% of them adore me and the other half either can't understand me or just don't care. I've won over almost all of the girls, except for one who is hellbent on finding a boyfriend. The boys are trickier, the studious ones seem to like my classes, but if their friends don't care it's not cool for them to care either. Ugh. It's the same story in the United States with any age group, and it's frustrating.

I'm getting a little bit better at classroom management, showing those boys who think they can walk all over me whose boss. They're the same age as me though, so it's weird having to lay down the law. 

I ate lunch with one of my students the other day and asked a million questions about her life outside of the classroom. She likes computer games and KFC -- a lot. From my observations in the cafeteria, she also really likes her boyfriend, who is a student of mine in another section. (I swear, I'm not a creep, it's just easy to pick things out on the smallish campus). 

Her boyfriend has a VIP membership to the school gym, which Alex and I paid a visit to on Friday.  (Asians love the VIP status. More on that to come in a later post...) Anyway, the gym smelled like no gym I've ever smelled before, and I've smelled some rancid ones -- six years of hockey trained my nose well. It felt like the kind of place I could catch athletes' foot in just by looking in the mirror.

Needless to say, Alex and I will not be getting VIP status at that gym. We checked out the neighborhood Best Western fitness facilities today and opted for a membership there. It has a sauna, yoga and dance classes, and smells nice and fresh. Also, it's open late which means Alex and I can still work out after we put in our 12-hour days at school.

Well I'm off to a Halloween party. I don't have a costume, but I just happen to be dressed head-to-toe in navy blue, so I guess I'm a blueberry?

October 27, 2010

Big Box stores inspire insanity in China too

Alex and I like to say we're zebras in a lion's den here, and on Tuesday I was like a mangled zebra just waiting to be consumed.

Since it's Halloween week, Alex and I bought candy for our combined 350 students. We're also having our students build a mummy from toilet paper then make up a story about the mummy's life. 350 kids worth of candy and toilet paper is a lot of goods.

Thankfully this twas an inexpensive idea, but it was unbelieveably inconvenient. I went to Vanguard, China's version of Wal-Mart (except 85x louder with a minimum of five advertisements blaring throughout the store). Alex was teaching, so I made the journey by myself. In addition to the classroom things, I had to buy some mops and brooms. Dust collects quickly here with the wind and pollution.

There I was, the little laowai with her arms loaded down with two large grocery bags of candy and cleaning supplies, one mop, one broom, and two giant packs of toilet paper. I walked the half a mile home and struggled to keep everything in my arms.

I set off two scooter alarms from whacking them with my broom and countless people stopped to stare or laugh at the blond girl who bought more than she could carry. 

Halfway home I had only one thought in my head, "you climbed a mountain with cinder blocks over and over and over in Guatemala. You've got this." At least when I had the cinder blocks, I was carrying them up a mountain to build deserving people a home and I had a team of other people carrying the blocks with me. 

This time around I found myself on a busy street in China carrying a bunch of cheap goods (Made in China, Consumed in China) that will be wasted away within a few days.

Hopefully my students like the mummy activity, I'll try take some photos if they aren't too shy. 

I said it week one and I'll say it again, the 90 minutes I have each class are the most fun and easygoing 90 minutes of my week. Yes, it's exhausting, but I really am loving this teaching gig.

October 25, 2010

When everything is out, you gotta take it in

****Disclaimer: this is by far the longest blog post I've ever written, exceeding 1,500 words. The day was so epic and extraordinary it demanded so many beautiful words. Also, this blog is best enjoyed by listening to this song, which pretty much describes the state of my strange, strange life.****

“Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it.” – Jules Renard.

Some days in China are more extraordinarily ridiculous than others, and the day we went to the World Expo was certainly one of them.

The day started out with no water in our pipes. We had lost it the day before and only realized it after sweating like mad from P90X. Tired, greasy and smelly we crawled into the 12-passenger van.

We escaped into iPod land for the three-hour trip. The four year old in the back wouldn’t stop screaming and the woman in front of us threw up in a grocery bag at one point. I have never seen someone vomit so nonchalantly, I had my earphones out at that point and wouldn’t have heard it had I not been watching her.

Sunday was the final day for the general public to visit the Expo, so it was even more chaotic than usual. More than 600,000 people passed through the same entrance and security gates as I did.

The rest of the faculty from the van ran off to do their own thing, so Alex and I sought out an English map and looked for any open areas in the crowd. Pushing and shoving our way through the sea of bodies, we finally found a boulevard that led us to the Asia and Middle East sector of the Expo.

Being the political geeks we are, Alex and I couldn’t help but analyze the national pavilions.

Since when did Qatar or Myanmar (Burma) have enough money to build a fancy building at the expo? Shouldn’t that cash have gone to oh, I don’t know, food, medicine or clean water for their citizens?

We wandered back towards China and the long Expo Axis – a giant organically flowing corridor that spanned the middle of the expo grounds. Inside were a number of shops and restaurants.

We were beat down from the crowds and frustrated by all of the cultural barriers of the past few weeks, so we did the most cliché American thing we could think of: pig out on a Hawaiian pizza from Papa John’s and wash it down with a Starbucks’ Frappuccino.

The pizza was tasty – though the crust was impossibly thin and there wasn’t the yummy garlic butter that comes with the US-version. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers. We were the only Americans in the restaurant, and many of the Chinese people were using their forks and spoons like chopsticks to eat their pasta and fries from the pizza place.

Starbucks was even more bizarre. It was located in a chaotic, pop-music blaring Tea House/Doughnut shop/Coffeehouse combination store and offered food items like a curried puff pastry, “New York noodle” (with steak), and a plethora of rice and beef dishes.

The actual coffee menu was severely limited, and we settled on a mocha Frappuccino. Extraordinarily sweet and satisfying, the drink accompanied Alex and I on our way to the Europe and Africa portion of the Expo.

We followed the raised walkway to try avoiding the crowds but were still really tired. We sat down for a rest two-thirds of the way to the end, near the Canadian pavilion. Downtrodden and sleepy, we sat staring off into space on a bench. A couple from Ottawa who were on tour in China for two weeks quickly joined us.

After a few moments of small talk, we looked up to find ourselves surrounded by eager young Chinese teens.

“Photo??” they asked. Before we could answer, a boy shoved his way in-between us and wrapped his arms around our shoulders. All I could do was laugh and throw up the peace sign. Then two girls joined in. The scene attracted some older Chinese folks who eagerly grabbed their cameras to have a chance to take a photo of some young Americans. At one point there were at least five cameras snapping at us.

We got up to escape the paparazzi, but it was only temporary. I lost track at counting how many people shot videos on their cellphones and took photos of us as we walked by. (Mind you, we were not showered and were wearing baggy, dirty clothes).

We started singing “Party in the USA” to try overcome the sheer awkwardness of it all.

Once the walkway ended, we decided to walk street level back to the China pavilion. We passed by Russia, Slovenia and South Africa before stumbling upon a Moroccan musical performance. Live drums and guitars and plenty of dancing.

This was probably the 26th moment of the day in which Alex and I turned to each other and asked, “Look at our lives, what are we doing??” (We actually have the statement down to a look now because every single day offers up so many bizarre moments).

Approximately 20 minutes later, we were walking in front of the very hip-looking Latvian pavilion when we noticed “The Flying Daiquiri Bar.” It was 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon at the World Expo in Shanghai, can you think of a better time for a Daiquiri? I think not.

As Alex ordered her mango drink and I my mojito, two middle-age Irish financiers started chatting with us. They asked us what we were doing in China, whether we were enjoying ourselves, and how we felt about Obama.

We’re not really sure what their job was at the Expo, but they asked us if we wanted to check out the show upstairs in the Latvian pavilion before the rest of the crowd entered.

Oh what the hell, as if the day could get much more random.

They showed us to the elevator that took us to the third floor. Before getting on, we saw the crowd of 200 or so people waiting anxiously to go exactly where we were headed.

The Latvian pavilion was designed as a cylinder, and the entire outermost covering is colorful theater gels cut into 6-inch squares – from far away, it looked like a giant tube of glitter. In the center of the cylinder is a wind tube that people can fly around in. It’s like a skydiving imitation machine.

Someone was practicing in the tube when we got off the elevator. The pavilion was completely empty asides from five t-shirt vendors. We stood in awe of our strange luck, and bought cheap t-shirts to commemorate the moment.

Then the crowd poured in. Alex and I stood in the background and watched as nearly every single person in the pavilion raised their digital cameras and let out “oooh’s,” and “ahhhhs,” in unison.

We escaped before the show ended.

It’s strange to think that most of the fantasy, fun-house national pavilions will be disassembled before we leave this country. China’s will remain a permanent fixture.

Beat down and worn out, we left the Expo nearly an hour before we had to return to the university van. We weren’t hungry, but we needed a place to sit, so we found a dumpy little restaurant.

The entire wait staff was eating since it was 3 p.m., and middle-age men made up the sparse local crowd. We were instant curiosities.

“Hello!” “America good!”

Ugh. We just wanted to sit.

Within a few seconds, we had three waitresses anxiously waiting to find out what the laowai (foreigners) wanted. Frustrated and plagued with a communication boundary, I managed to order Alex and I a bowl of dumpling soup to share.

Once the food arrived, cell phones and cameras emerged once again. We could almost read their minds, “Wow, the laowai are using chopsticks! Oooo look at them eat!”

I was tired of constantly having my photo taken and never reciprocating. So I asked the staff if I could have their photo. They shyly giggled and agreed.

Then one of the men, who had four stubs of brown teeth, walked over to us. He asked us in Chinese where we were from and what we were doing in the country. Thankfully, nationalities were one of the lessons I had actually covered in my Mandarin lessons before I came to China. I told him that we were teachers from the United States.

He raised one hand and said “China,” raised the other and said “United States,” then he grasped his two hands together to signal international cooperation. Once more, a scene dripping with international relations irony.

It was finally 5 p.m. and time to go; Alex and I were anxious to drive back to Hangzhou to shower, sleep and prep for Monday’s classes.

Then China threw us one of its sucker punches.

We learned we were going to a restaurant in Shanghai to join university officials and a former Director of China Programs from the University of Minnesota for dinner. All we could do was deliriously laugh when we found out about it.

An hour later we rolled up to a fancy hotel and were quickly ushered to one of many private rooms. The table was a large circle and the 16 or so attendees shuffled around chatting. Alex and I were the first to be shown our seats and we happily sat while everyone mingled.

Finally everyone sat down and the cold plates (appetizers) were brought out and set on the revolving center of the table. A while later the hot dishes came out.

We were treated to a traditional banquet style dinner – complete with toasts every few moments and our first taste of baiju, rice liquor that is as strong as Everclear. To make a good impression and save face, Alex and I ceremoniously took a shot. Well, we divided one shot into three different toasts. The alcohol burned all the way down and continued to burn for minutes afterward.

The men were throwing back baiju like their job. Yet again, Alex and I found ourselves in a surreal bubble. We were not even remotely hungry and somehow managed to hide the fact that we didn’t eat much at the meal.

Once all the food was finished, we were offered cigarettes. We told them we didn’t smoke. Alex said she had asthma.

“They are the very best tobacco in all of China. One pack costs $10 US dollars. You must try.”

We kept saying no. They kept insisting. Finally we agreed to share one. All I could hope was that my fake drags looked at least a little bit authentic…

At last the shit show of a day came to an end and we rolled into Hangzhou around 9:30 p.m. Our apartment had water and our decidedly uncomfortable beds felt more welcoming than ever. Night was the yin to our yang of a day. Harmony was once again restored.

NIght out

After an unimaginably exhausting week of classes and make-up courses, Friday posed a welcome promise of relieving stress through some drinks at expat hangouts.

We tried desperately to nap before going out  since our schedules aren’t conducive to much rest during the week. We each spend three to five hours teaching every day; the rest of the time is spend prepping or finding time to work out.

6 a.m. – alarm rings
6:50 a.m. – board the bus to the university
8:20 a.m.  – Alex, myself, or both of us teach
11:30 a.m. – finish teaching; eat lunch
1:30 p.m. – teach again
4:40 p.m. – finish teaching
5:00 p.m. – find dinner
8:00 p.m. – arrive home after an hour-long public bus ride

Day after day, that’s what we do. Add in the sheer difficulties of living and functioning in a nation in which we’re incapable of communicating. Our brains are punching us from the inside out after 15 hours of consciousness.

Friday night we dragged our zombie selves out of the apartment to meet Jen at a bar called Maya. It is owned by a guy from New York, and the burger fryer is from Boston. The bar was unusually quiet, Jen said, which was fine by us since we were so tired. Over a couple of pitchers of mango daiquiris, we lamented about our students and told random stories about our lives.

A Chinese girl named Jessie asked to join our table, she was friendly and unusually interested in me. Alex and Jen continued talking about life in college and I got my teacher face on and conversed with her about advertising and media (she wants to be a graphic designer).

After Maya, Jessie showed us a different bar that was nearly empty. She left us there and Jen, Alex and I bellied up to a Singapore Slinger – quite possibly the most disgusting cocktail I’ve ever had. Gin, brandy, Contreau and cranberry juice filled a pint glass topped off with a swirly straw. Disgusting.

We continued on our bar-hopping spree to a place called Reggae bar, where we watched a belly dancer and chatted with some people from the UK. We even met someone from Minnesota who sounded like he had been hanging out with Eastern Europeans for too long and had developed a faux-accent (I new he was faking it as soon as I busted out the “Mini-sooo-tah” to which he replied “Ya shur ya betcha”).


Our last stop of the night was a dance club called Coco. I haven’t been to a good dance club since leaving Europe, so it was a welcome surprise to hear a great DJ and have a wildly international crowd.

Chinese people dominated the bar (appropriately so) but there were people from Africa, South America, Europe, and definitely some east coast preppies from the US. Alex and I had a blast – Jen said the club was the quietest she’s ever seen it, I’m excited to see what a “good” night is like.

Each place we went, there was one consistent phenomenon: American or European men with Chinese girlfriends. I don’t think any boys looked at any of us twice that night. Which is fine, it’s just comical how often we encountered it.

The night ended at a street corner noodle stand where we pointed at vegetables and noodles as they fried it up before our eyes with a gas-burner wok that they hooked up to their bicycle when the night was over.

For less than $1 we watched as they sautéed and shook the pan that was so hot it was screaming. It was a thing of beauty. We dined on plastic tables with other Chinese night owls and caught a cab home.

China, you sure know how to dish out the random.

Scavenging in restaurants

The menu is daunting: three pages of symbols, numbers and no pictures whatsoever. Though some restaurants proudly showcase pictures of their dishes on the wall, many places don’t bother.

Alex and I had been scoping out restaurants in our neighborhood all week, and the one we chose always had a busy dinner crowd filled mostly with people our age.

We sat down at the white, plastic covered table and had two porcelain bowls, a very small plate, a cup, and large ceramic spoon tightly wrapped in plastic.

Ni hao laowai!” (Hello, foreigners) the waitress said. “Nimen yao shenme?” (What would you like?)

We asked for a menu in English. “Meiyou,” ([may-yo,] I don’t have).

A sensationally awkward series of cross-cultural exchanges ensued throughout the next two minutes, until finally after many pointing and eating actions we told the waitress to choose some food for us.

As this was all going down, the young cooks were peeking through the kitchen window thoroughly enjoying what was happening in the restaurant.

A few moments later, our first plate came out. It was some sort of greens sautéed in garlic and very delicious. Right after that came a large sizzling tinfoil pouch. The waitress carefully opened it to reveal pieces of beef bubbling with onions in a thick, brown sauce. We washed it down with some rice.

The surprise meal was incredible. And very inexpensive, the bill came to $7.

After dinner, I wanted a smoothie. We went to what we thought was a smoothie shop, but after walking in and seeing the background photos on the menu, we realized it might be a cocktail/margarita place.

The owner spoke no English and did not offer an English menu. She started showing us vats of different colored powders and a pot of what appeared to be blueberries. I pointed at the purple powder and the berries and somehow in my babbles of Chinese told her that we wanted two drinks: a blue one and an orange one.

After powders were mixed and shots of things were added, she scooped in the blueberries and we paid for our $0.75 drink. We cautiously took a sip and happily discovered that it wasn’t a cocktail, rather it was a Bubble (boba) tea. It was a sweet tea-based cold drink (like Teaberry in Fargo). The “blueberries” turned out to be homemade tapioca balls.

Another tasty surprise. Overall success for the night.

After that experience, Alex and I have been venturing into restaurants, pointing at other people’s food or aimlessly pointing at the menu to see what arrives at the table. Everything has been fantastic – American Chinese food is nothing like Chinese Chinese food.

No fortune cookies. No fluorescent orange sauce. No egg rolls. And (knock on wood) no intestinal fist fights yet.

October 18, 2010


I have an address!

Janae Hagen
c/o Lu Minjie
#280 Xuelin Street, Xiasha
Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China

I like gum, letters, and snack cakes.

(just kidding about the snack cakes. And gum...well, I mean, if you send some it will certainly be chewed...)

Quick update: I have a "body check" this morning to get my Foreign Expert Certificate (sounds fancy, right?) I'm prepared to throw any and all shame out the window. I have no idea what it will involve.

....And Alex and I got our teaching make-up schedule yesterday -- 17 90-minute courses plus our regular load of teaching in the next three weeks. Ugh. Another sucker punch from this place.

Up downs

China is incredible – incredibly good, incredibly bad, and incredibly bizarre. There is no middle ground.

Just when you think you’ll make it and actually have a shot at fully enjoying yourself, China throws a sucker punch to your gut and you’re left wondering what the hell to do next.

Two of my students, Ashley and Ann, came to our apartment Saturday to show us how to use the washing machine, heaters, and DVD player (all of the instructions are in Chinese). Afterwards, they showed us some cool things in our neighborhood. We had no idea that a huge fruit stand is less than 50 meters from our doorstep or that a fantastic Muslim udon noodle shop is just around the corner. For you Fargoans, this shop is like the Drunken Noodle, except homemade and authentic (for everyone else, imagine a Noodles & Co.)

We haven’t eaten at that noodle shop yet, but it looks just like the one we’ve eaten at on campus. They make their noodles in the shop and there are about 30 different dishes to choose from – averaging no more than $1.25 each. From what we’ve heard, the Muslims in China know what’s up when it comes to noodles.

After that they took us to a place to buy an English map of Hangzhou (finally we know where we live)! Then we got on a city bus to West Lake. The bus was packed and it was a fight to even find something to hold on to as the bus accelerated, stopped, and turned unexpectedly. (Definitely one of China’s punches).

West Lake was beautiful (check out my Flikr photos). We arrived at sunset and I was anxious to take a lot of photos in the perfect light. The lake itself was serene, but it was surrounded by a lot of activity.

Starbucks, McDonald’s and Papa Johns were mingling with Gucci, Prada and Ferragamo, who had invited their friends Bentley, Rolls-Royce, and Lamborghini to enjoy the lovely view of the lake.

From the lake, our tour guides took us to a bus station. We were getting off at Hangzhou Tower and they were going to take the bus all the way back to the university in Xiasha.

“This is not a time to be polite,” Ann told us. We were waiting in a queue at a gate, the gate was going to open when the bus was ready to let us in. By “queue” I actually mean a shuffling blob of people anxiously trying to get to the front.

As soon as the bus pulled up, people started shoving. Ann and Ashley kept looking at Alex and I, worried that we wouldn’t be able to push our way onto the bus in time.

They underestimated our feistiness.
We threw elbows. We were pushed, so we pushed back. We all looked like salmon trying to spawn. But we made it.

When we got off at Hangzhou Tower, we sought out a good restaurant. The tower is a massive upscale mall made up of four multi-storied buildings. Each floor had its own them: shoes, menswear, sports wear, luggage…Where was the floor of food we were promised was there?

At last we saw a restaurant. After a long, awkward exchange with the waitress, we finally figured out that it was a fondue restaurant. We were starving so we filled up mostly on the sushi and mushroom appetizers. We’re fairly certain that our pot of boiling water on the table produced stomach lining and garden variety meats. Overall, the dinner was decent – expensive, but good.

The explosions started as we were finishing our dinner. Hangzhou puts on one of the world’s largest fireworks displays every year, and Alex and I had pretty much accepted the fact we weren’t going to get to see any because we had no idea how to get to Jen.

The booms and pops sounded like they were just outside the restaurant, though. We told the waitress we wanted to watch, to which she replied by leading us to the bathroom. A few moments later she rushed back and was like “ohhh, fireworks!” and pointed to the sky.

She led us out onto the 8th floor balcony of the building, which was filled with restaurant and custodial staff. The fireworks were being launched less than 500m away from us – essentially a front row view.

We looked around the corner of the building and another equally huge show was going off – the whole city was filled with fireworks. For 30 minutes, fireworks equal to the grand finale of the July 4 show in DC were going on all around us. The smoke was so thick that sparks were colorless near the ground.

This was definitely one of those moments that China made us fall in love.

Once the show was over, Alex and I found the floor of the shopping mall that sold alcohol and we bought two mini bottles of cheap red wine and drank it out on the street (which may or may not have been illegal).

It was approximately 9:15 when we decided to venture home.

For the next two hours we tried hailing cabs; five or six empty ones pulled up and the driver shouted, “Hello! Hahaha!” then drove off. Things got increasingly competitive and we were continually beat out by Chinese people whose addresses were more appealing to the driver.

We were tired and near tears. Out of desperation we made some friends on the street with some Chinese boys who thought we were whiney and we chatted with some Mexicans who were having the same difficulty as us.

Low blow, China, low blow.

At last we spotted a cab that the passengers were getting out of. Alex sprinted towards them and was shouting our address, I quickly followed and literally threw my notebook with our address printed in it over the passenger and to the driver. The poor guy in the front seat didn’t know what was going on, but he made sure we were the first ones in the cab.

That’s essentially how life works here – when it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, the challenges seem insurmountable. I’m craving middle ground, and I’m not sure I’m going to get it.

October 15, 2010

Good Friday

Today was a good day in China.

No, actually today was great. The sky was blue (!!) after four days of rain apparently most of the nasties in the sky got washed away. The clear sky continued into tonight when I was able to count three stars and see the moon.

This was also the first day that I had a “Hell yeah, I’m in China!” moment. After class this afternoon, Alex and I met up with our new American friend Jen for foot massages.

I had heard about these illusive foot massages before coming here, all I knew is that they were cheap and wonderful. Jen has a massage place she’s a regular at, but she had heard of a different place and decided to test it out with us.

We walked into a lush gold and mahogany faux-pagoda style building. After climbing a marble staircase, the concierge showed us to our room. It had four loungers, each with a pillow and a soft blanket.

Within minutes we had plates of fresh fruit and green tea delivered to us. Then our three 20-something male masseuses came in with vats of hot water for our feet. They were very somber looking and got straight to business rubbing out our shoulders as our feet soaked.

Jen had heard that this place gave a full body massage as our feet were soaking. Well, it turned out to be a bit more involved than that.

After the most glorious 45+ minute foot massage, things got interesting. They started with our arms, rubbing, wiggling, cracking and slapping each muscle into a loose, untangled form.

Then the same routine moved to our calves, then our kneecaps, and then our thighs.  (Mind you, this whole process was taking at least 15 minutes on each leg). I had muscles rubbed out that I didn’t realize even existed – it tickled. A lot.

There we were, three silly American girls crying from laughing so hard and our poor masseuses, who couldn’t speak much English, stared at us not knowing what we were doing. They kept pausing and asking, “You ok?” We nodded and kept laughing.

Things got increasingly uncomfortable as they crept upwards. We didn’t have any idea what they were doing or how far they’d go. Thankfully, we were fully clothed so things couldn’t actually get creepy. At one point, they were adjusting our hip alignment and from the side view, it looked like they were delivering our babies.

Don’t worry, mom, their hands weren’t anywhere they shouldn’t have been, but the scene looked rather odd.

Meanwhile in the background, the flat screen TV was showing a Chinese cartoon show with English subtitles that was explaining the history of Zhejiang province.

What a quintessentially Chinese moment; it was the first time since I’ve been here that I just basked in the absurdity of it all.

After our legs were fully tenderized, they started stretching us. Legs over our head, knees into our chest, hips opening and twisting – it was like déjà vu to my yoga routine earlier this morning.

Then we had to flip over. I think we all thought that the awkward phase of the massage was over and it was time for a nice back rub. Ha – we were mistaken. Once we were all settled on our tummies the patting and kneading began…

…On our asses. We all kept looking back and forth at each other making comments, laughing and wondering if we had actually gotten into a brothel disguising itself as a massage house

The kneading changed to pushing pressure points – still on our booties. We were laughing uncontrollably and Jen’s masseuse looked like he wanted to punch us. I mean, I guess it felt good – it was just weird to have a perfect stranger prodding around on my butt.

The second they finally moved on up to a more orthodox location – our backs, we fell silent. Ahhh, this felt good. I don’t know how long they rubbed, jiggled, pounded and slapped our backs but it was a beautiful thing.

When all was said and done, it cost us around $9 and my feet have never been so soft. I think it needs to become a weekly ritual, maybe not at that particular massage place, but a massage somewhere for sure.

Then Jen showed us around her neighborhood, which is very close to our university. We bought sweet potato chips and she showed us her favorite snack, a Chinese savory crepe.

The cook poured a thick batter over a crepe grill and spread it out paper-thin. Then she cracked an egg on top and quickly smoothed it over the dough. Within seconds she sprinkled hot pepper, lettuce, bean sprouts, cilantro and some golden brown sauce. She quickly folded it up and in the span of less than two minutes, we had tasty little Chinese crepes to snack on for $0.50.

To wash it down, Jen took us to one of her favorite tea spots where we got 20 oz fresh, cold Jasmine tea for approximately $0.20.

Jen showed us the bus to take back downtown and we said goodbye to our fantastic new friend. The city bus was dark on the inside, but the lights of the city were bright at the street level – a happy change to the inky sky out of our apartment windows.

Both Alex and I realized that China is a little less scary now on the bus ride home. It’s odd to think we’ve been here a week already, it feels like an eternity.

Tomorrow, two of our students are giving us a city tour and tomorrow night we’re going to be treated to one of the world’s largest fireworks shows over the lake upon which all other lakes modeled themselves after (according to ancient Chinese history).

Maybe Hangzhou and I will be friends after all. 

October 14, 2010

Teaching and Learning...and grocery shopping.

Week one of teaching: done.

I feel bad for my students from Monday morning, my flow definitely improved throughout the week. Alex and I still don’t have our syllabi finished yet, but we at least are grasping a good idea of what we want to do in our courses.

Alex rocked out her first class right after I finished my last one for the week (most of her classes are freshmen classes that don’t start until Oct. 25 – she has two sections of upper level English though, one of which she had today). My classes, on the other hand are all upper level courses.

My negotiations class won’t be nearly as intimidating as I had thought. I decided I’m going to teach them how to problem solve in groups and communicate with other cultures. I’m definitely putting my degree to use (and given the job market back home, I feel like most college graduates might not be able to say that).

I really enjoy teaching. I know it’s only been a week, but so far teaching has been the one and only thing that has felt natural to me since landing here. This week has been monumental – each day is an education. Yesterday we learned the public bus system, today we learned the grocery store, Monday we learned the classroom, and Tuesday we learned the campus.

Things that seem simple back home, but are a lot more difficult when you can’t read the sings.

Intertwined among the major learning themes for the day are endless occurrences of cultural riddles. For instance, as a collectivist culture, why are people so pushy in lines, whereas, in the highly individualistic United States queues are orderly?

Things that make you go, “hmmm…”

Eating is another area where I’m uncomfortable. I eat very slow compared to everyone else, but I’m just thankful I can use chopsticks. The other day in the cafeteria, one of the custodians stood right behind me and watched me eating. I stopped and looked up at her and she said something. My friend translated and said the woman was surprised I was eating just fine with the chopsticks.

Yesterday Alex and I met two Americans for lunch, Sam and Jen. They graduated from Pepperdine and are teaching at a nearby university for a year. They’ve been here since September 1 (when I should have been here) and they told us all sorts of gems that are hiding in the Xiasha (higher education) area.  My university is in a village made up of 15 other universities. All of the schools have around 10,000 people, so it’s essentially a college town.

Our new friends told us about Hangzhou nightlife and cool spots to head downtown. We decided to check things out and took a public bus an hour into town to see how far it was from our apartment. After getting off the bus we found a taxi and showed him our address. In less than five minutes we were back home, which means we’re fairly close to where they go out. We have plans Friday night to socialize.

After this week, I could really use a drink.

My first week in this country has been a wild ride and I have no reason to believe that the highs and lows will level off before I leave. I think China is the kind of place where one could stay three months, a year, or five years and still be in awe of its nuances.

Like any culture, unless you grow up in it and have its history and origins engrained in you, it’s virtually impossible to assimilate. Adapting is feasible, however, and thus far life has proven me a fairly adaptable being.

In other news, Alex and I tackled the grocery store on our town tonight.

We found Oreos, chocolate, bread, rice and noodles… and a bunch of random stuff. Our package of yogurt came with a free faux crystal bowl. The eggs we bought are from a chicken, the only indicator being the chicken feather on the container. We could have bought quail, geese, or duck eggs if we really wanted to.

The produce section smelled like a sweaty fruit stand, but we found some delicious blush colored apples and bananas (the bananas here rock, they’re almost as good as they were in Guatemala). Right next to the vegetable section was meat and deli area…if you want to call it that.

Various cuts of meat are hanging out in the open air in large plastic buckets. People grab small plastic bags, like what you put fruit and veggies in, and reach on in. Large vats of ground meat(s) are scattered among the critters’ legs, roasts, and thighs. It smelled like rotting flesh and vinegar (courtesy of the salad selections in the deli).

Seafood was the next-door neighbor to the red meat. Alex and I could have picked out any variety of nearly dead fish swimming around in what appeared to be Rubbermaid totes and then have them conveniently decapitated before brining one home for dinner. We opted out.

I had intended to cook dinner with the mystery sauces and noodles we had picked up, but after the meat section, Alex and I had lost our appetite.

Instead, my dinner consisted of a peanut butter and banana sandwich, one Oreo, a Dove chocolate square, and some Coke Zero… Ugh. I really need to start mastering the wok in our kitchen.

October 12, 2010

At least noses don't need a translator to smell

The diversity of smells in this country is outstanding.

We’ve resorted to rubbing orange peels on our couch, table and windowsills. It’s the one fresh thing that makes the smell in our apartment be more appealing.

Each day is something new. This afternoon, the spicy smell of marijuana was drifting through our kitchen window, presumably from the neighbors downstairs. It was strong enough in the kitchen that we probably could have gotten a second-hand high if we stood in their long enough. Each morning our bathroom smells like it was belching all night long.

The real gem was two nights ago when we had convinced ourselves that there was a gas leak somewhere in our flat. We double-checked the gas stove – it was off. Our hot water heater was off too. The sour, onion-esque smell was spreading from our kitchen to the living room. Alex was getting a bad headache from sitting in it for more than an hour.

We didn’t know what to do, so we called someone from the university. She told us to go downstairs to the security guard and hand him the phone, she would explain the problem to him.  Of course, the security guard spoke zero English. Not knowing what words to tell him, I shoved my phone at his face and hoped that Yu was on the other end of the line.

She was and explained the problem. He followed us up to our place with a flashlight. He sniffed around and shown the flashlight in strange, well-lit spots like the refrigerator, the bathroom sink, and along the wall of the kitchen. It was like the flashlight was his magic gas-detecting wand.

He kept saying things in Chinese. I stupidly replied with, “si, si!” and gave him thumbs up. He finally gave us a thumb up back and made a motion to sleep, so we assumed all was well.

I seem to be collecting gas leak experiences in different countries that I visit. A similar thing happened while I was in Guatemala, except I actually saw vapors there. After a frantic discussion with our Guatemalan roommate, in which the use of si actually made sense, I learned that our hot water heater was overheating and smelling bad.

Two close calls, one horrible mismanagement of the language (uhh, Chinese is NOT Spanish), and thankfully no explosions.

I’ve caught myself rocking si more today as well. The brain is a tricky little thing when presented with extraordinary circumstances.

October 11, 2010

Zebras in a Lion's Den

“Encourage them to open their mouths.”

That’s my mantra for teaching. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that figured out in time for my first two classes this morning. At least I have an objective to work towards.

I woke up feeling optimistic and rather calm about my classes, which was nice. I ate some Quaker oats for breakfast (yes, they taste the same here) and headed to school.

While we were waiting for the shuttle to pick us up from the apartment, we witnessed two people partaking in their daily lung cleanse – aka – hocking up the previous day and night’s nasties.

We also saw a poodle wearing sneakers.

This was the first pet we’ve seen since we arrived and it was wearing shoes. Strange.

Alex and I got lost on campus. We only spent an hour there on Saturday in our fuzzy mental state, so we really had no idea where to go. We finally found someone from the teaching office and then we were scolded for only being 10 minutes early (was I supposed to come earlier?)

“Negotiations” was my first class on the docket. Nearly 40 International Trade majors fit into the computer lab, with a handful more straggling in 10-15 minutes late.

I didn’t have a textbook for the course, so I spent my time introducing myself. I showed photos of my farm, NDSU, Rome and Washington DC. I included a lot of maps and spoke in short, simple sentences.

The students seemed interested in Europe particularly. I rambled through a 20-minute introduction then established class rules. I think next class I’m going to have them hand in their cell phones before it starts; they didn’t listen to that rule very well.

I took their mug shots (thankfully I got them all in before my camera died). They wrote down their Chinese character name on one side and their English name on the other. In that class, I have a boy called Emotion, another boy called Shiny, a girl called Sincere, and her friend is Cherry.

Oh well, at least no one in my first class was inspired by some action flick. I’ve got a group of boys in my Oral English 3 class who prefer to go by Iron, Hawk, and Rambo.

I encouraged them all to go online and look at English names to choose one or change it up. We’ll see if that happens for next class. Everyone I’m teaching is my age and almost all are the same height or taller than me. Uff, I feel like I don’t have much authority over them. I just have to remember that I have what they want.

After lunch in the cafeteria (rice, potatoes, and a piece of warmish chicken), we encountered two Americans! As soon as we saw each other, all four of us got a tremendous look of relief on our face. As Alex put it, we feel like zebras in a lion cage. It was fantastic seeing other zebras. They work at the university across the street and have been here for 45 days. We have their phone number from whenever we get a Chinese phone.

Tomorrow we’ll go to our office at the university to develop our course plans. I’m angry/overwhelmed because I have to make up 17 90-minute class periods before October 31 since I missed September. I don’t think the teaching office understands why we didn’t arrive on time. I guess I’ll work with the situation as best as I can – which seems to be the norm for living in China.

I came home tonight and ate a peanut butter and honey sandwich. The Skippy thankfully tastes the same.

In the morning I’ll take a hot shower and my Herbal Essences will be the same color they always are and my Dove body wash will smell the same as it does at home. Never mind that I can’t read the bottles.

In a country where everything is so different, it’s nice to know that I have some carbon-copied things that are just like home.

October 9, 2010


The sun is shining in our 15th floor apartment. Or at least I think it is. I can detect the subtlest shade of blue in the flat grey sky. The air is so thick we can only see a few blocks – and there are only three or four buildings the same height as ours, the rest are shorter. The traffic is so loud that we might as well be on the second floor of the building.

There’s no honeymoon period in China. It has been in-your-face and confrontational from the moment we stepped off the plane in Shanghai. By the time we arrived in Hangzhou, it was 1:30 a.m. and we had been traveling for 28+ hours. Right away the next morning we met someone in our hotel to take us to our apartment.

Our apartment is large and western-style. The entire north side of it is windows, which is more depressing than enjoyable, given how dirty the air is. At night the city is really dark – for a city with more or less the same population as New York City, it’s not so bright.

A girl from the university accompanied us to Vanguard – a Wal-mart-esque store that is conveniently right down the street. We bought bedding and some groceries. My bed is a clashing combination of loudly printed pink and purple florals. Our beds are large, but very very firm – as in we’re not so sure if they have more springs or plywood planks in them.

After stocking the apartment, we went to the university ,which is a full hour bus ride from the apartment. The girl from the university came with us and we took the public bus so we’d know which stop to get off of. We took the wrong bus (there are two busses with the same numbers and mixed in with different Chinese symbols – one is the wrong one). We were lost for a while, but finally found the right bus. I think I’m going to do my best to stick to the university shuttles that leave from my building and go straight to campus.

My first class is Monday morning at 8 a.m. It’s an advanced English class. I’ll be teaching them to negotiate. I don’t have a textbook.

I have no idea what the hell I’m going to do.

My second class is Monday morning at 11 a.m. It also is an advanced English class. I’ll be teaching them how to give speeches. I think I can handle this one, but the classes are large with 40-50 people in them.

I am beyond overwhelmed.

Everything is in Chinese characters. I was hoping for at least some pinyin (the Roman letter version of the language – it essentially spells the words out phonetically). We have no idea where our apartment is located in relation to anything else in the city. Since leaving Shanghai, we haven’t seen a single westerner. I know they exist and are hiding somewhere in the city, I just have no idea where.

We’re jet-legged, overwhelmed, and scared out of our minds. I’m hopeful that things will be less intimidating once we begin teaching. It’s going to take at least a month to wrap my head around this strange place the plane brought us to. It’s like a different planet. I’m willing to give it a chance, it’s just the biggest and most terrifying undertaking I’ve ever done.

Thank goodness I’m not alone. I wouldn’t have been able to do this by myself.

October 4, 2010

Permission Granted

"What street are we looking for?"

"Uhh, Pennsylvania Ave for the bus stop."

Splash. I watched as Alex stood looking at me as a car zipped past flinging a gutter full of rain onto her pants. It was all perfectly orchestrated as if we were the punch lines of a joke in a movie.

We both have colds and today's rainy and cool weather wasn't helping our cause. After a 20 minute metro ride, we intended on catching a bus within a block of the metro stop. The block quickly turned into two, then three, then five. We were freezing and wet and finally just hailed a cab.

I had saved the two addresses of the Chinese consulate in my phone not knowing for sure which one was legit. Luckily, they were only a block apart. The cabbie pulled up to the first address and asked me to read the piece of paper taped to the door. All I saw was "Consulate," "People's Republic of China."

"Yes, I think this is where we stop," I said.

"Umm, I don't think so. Read the sign more carefully," he replied with a thick accent. "My eyes aren't good, but I know this is not where you should go."

Oh. Oops. I didn't see the part that said to head down the street a bit further.

We went through security, picked a number and found a spot to sit down. It was a plain room with florescent lights, uncomfortable chairs, and approximately 75 other people waiting to do just what we were there for. 

Our numbers were 99 and 100. The digital sign was at 49 when we sat down.

After an hour and a half, we were finally called. We had some mistakes on our application, but the lady broke out her white-out and helped us fix it. A consulate with white-out? How perfect! She was very friendly and said everything looked good.

We left, found some lunch and hot coffee then went back two hours later. Many of the people we had waited with in the morning were coming back to pick their visas up. The afternoon crowd was much more relaxed than in the morning. Our wait this morning was tense and it was easy to see we were all nervous about whether we had everything we needed for the applications. However, after lunch we spoke with several people going to China to work or to visit a friend. We had a nice little camaraderie going, congratulating one another as we got our visas.

Walking out of the consulate was a strange feeling. I couldn't stop looking at that fancy sticker in my passport. Two months I've been knocked around not knowing when or even if I would go. Within a matter of a few hours today, I was granted the permission I needed all along. 

In its own twisted and uncomfortable way, everything seemed to work out as it was supposed to. But then again, nothing worthwhile is ever comfortable. After the fiasco I've already been through, China is bound to be incredibly rewarding.

I still can't believe I'll be getting on a plane Thursday morning. Hangzhou, here we come.