Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Blog blahs

Despite the lack of blog entries lately, I'm still alive and more or less healthy. As usual, I'm behind on my uploading of photos and descriptions; sometimes I think about going back to a paper-and-ink journal, but then I'd NEVER get it uploaded!

Christmas is coming up - it seems totally unreal from here where Christmas is not celebrated at all, save for a few decorations on shop windows. The school will hold Christmas parties the next two weeks (four parties in all, to accommodate all the students), at which the other foreign teacher and I are expected to dress up as Santa and be pummeled by the kids... er, I mean, spread Christmas cheer.

We foreign teachers will have our own private party next Monday evening, which I'm looking forward to.

Ironically, I'm finally starting to get the hang of living and teaching here, as my contract nears its end. However, the language barrier has been extremely difficult for me; I've only managed to learn the most rudimentary Mandarin on my own. For my next assignment abroad, I'd like to choose a country where I have already studied the language or a related language.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Soup Day

It was cold today, the first snow, and I had some potatoes that needed to be used up, so I made soup. Yum!

* 2 links smoked sausage, cut in thin slices
* 4 medium potatoes, cubed
* 1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed
* 1 onion, diced
* 3 bay leaves
* 1 star anise pod
* pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
* salt to taste
* ground white pepper to taste
* water

Simmered for about 40 minutes until the potatoes fell apart. Turned out delicious.

Here are a couple photos of the snow and the cat watching it; it snowed again in the afternoon so in the end there was a bit more than is seen in the pics. Too bad the camera didn't pick up the swirling snowflakes. Since I'm on the 13th floor, the wind was blowing the snowflakes every which direction and the cat and I both enjoyed watching them fly past the window.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Taomu Hot Spring Resort

On Monday our school (just the branch school that I am in, not the whole company) took the staff and teachers on a company trip to Taomu Hot Spring in the town of Liaocheng, about an hour and a half drive from Jinan.

We went in a hired van, and I spent the entire trip there looking at the scenery, which has changed drastically now that the leaves have fallen. In summer (and all my prior trips), the trees near the road have leaves on them and it's hard to see much of what is beyond them because the terrain is flat. This trip I got a good view of nearby farms and so on, and some of what I saw was rather interesting.

There were still some farmhouses with ears of corn stacked on the roofs like there was when I went to Xi'an. I saw quite a few goatherds with half dozen to a dozen goats, and even once or twice a couple sheep with the goats. There don't seem to be any fences between property lines, so the goatherds must keep them out of each other's crops. There was a fence between the land and the highway. I asked one of the Chinese teachers whether anyone eats goat meat, and was told that Han Chinese don'tusually eat goat or mutton, only minority groups.

An interesting thing which I noticed on prior trips is that many fields contain graves, marked by large hummocks of earth which are not planted with grass or anything. Occasionally there is a headstone or a bunch of colored streamers, but most of them appear to be unmarked (at least from that distance). The hummocks are built up much larger than just the earth moved to dig the grave, so I guess the mound itself serves as the marker. What I found hard to understand was why the graves seemed to be placed randomly in the middle of the field somewhere, rather than near the edges or all together close so that it would be easy to work around them.

I had no idea what to expect of a hot spring in China, and was pleasantly surprised. Although the town was small and in the middle of nowhere, the hot spring turned out to be a large and elegant resort hotel. There was a huge indoor pool area, in which were many, many small hot pools, each with different herbal mixtures in them and signs describing what they are supposed to heal. Plants were everywhere around the pools, and there were attendants with extra towels and tea. In addition, there were various kinds of jet and waterfall type apparatus to play with, a cool pool for swimming, and a waterslide. The waterslide was only open for about half an hour but we made the most of it! I haven't been on one since I was in high school - it's still fun!

The group wanted everyone to stay together but they also wanted to explore, so we kept moving from pool to pool all day. There was a long narrow pool with river stones in it to walk in to stimulate the feet, and a pool with small fish that nibble away dead skin (we did not try this one as it costs extra - I don't think I would have lasted more than thirty seconds in it anyway).

There were even more pools outdoors, and a little faux-cave complex with pools inside it that was quite atmospheric. The grounds were lovely, and there were covered walkways around the outside area. There was a room called "Hot Stone" which had a floor made of granite slabs, heated from underneath. There were wooden Asian-style log "pillows" so that one can lie on the hot stone.

At lunchtime we all went inside and were given Chinese style pajamas (loungewear?) to wear to the restaurant.
The food was excellent, and lunch was lovely. After lunch I checked out the rest area, which is a big room upstairs full of giant white luxury armchairs with televisions between them. I sat down on one of them and covered up with some towels that were there, and was promptly brought slices of watermelon and a glass of water. I didn't stay there very long as the hot pools were calling my name.

At the end of the day we all piled into the van for the ride home. I wished I had brought my mp3 player or something because it was quite dark by then, and as usual I couldn't sleep while riding. I did notice something interesting; there are no streetlights in the countryside, smaller towns, or even the larger towns except for the main streets. Individual houses don't have porch lights or outdoor lights as we do back home. The only light was the soft light coming from windows to show where homes were. It was rather nice, I've grown so used to streetlights everywhere I had forgotten what darkness was like.

The hot spring was like heaven and I wished I could stay there for a week. My back, which had been hurting a lot after a recent bicycle crash (car turned suddenly in front of me), feels soooo much better.


Sadly, when I got home I checked my messages on the computer and there was some very terrible news waiting for me. A very dear longtime friend was killed in an accident; this came as a huge shock. It is strange and painful to grieve from such a distance, unable to share with mutual loved ones and friends as one normally would. I find myself on the edge of tears easily and sleep doesn't come easy. I hope it won't affect my teaching this week.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Just another day

Managed to get the cat to the veterinary clinic on Tuesday and got some deworming meds, one dose to be taken that day and a follow up to be taken in two weeks' time. I asked about vaccinations and was told that the only ones available here are rabies and fleas (I never heard of a shot for fleas before). I suspect that will make taking him out of China a nightmare, as he will almost certainly be quarantined without the vaccines that are standard back home.

The foreign teachers' dinner was nice, pretty relaxed, another "German" style BBQ place. Apparently in China "German" means BBQ, strangely costumed wait staff, and beer brewed on the premises. I think I ate more meat at that dinner than I've had in my entire stay in China.

Feeling under the weather and coughing up icky stuff - finally understanding why all the locals spit on the ground. Ugh. Maybe due to all the air pollution. The smog was bad today.

The water in the apartment has been off since around 3pm this afternoon (it's now after 10pm) and I don't expect it back before noon. There is a HUGE hole in the street where workers were digging earlier in the day which is now filled with dirty swirling water; I suspect they hit a water main or something. Who needs showers? Good thing I had my spare bucket full of water so I can wash my hands and flush the toilet at least once...

Stopped off at the little restaurant I frequent on the way home tonight for a quick dinner of noodle soup, only 5 RMB, yum. Ran into my co-worker there so we ate together, it was nice to have company.

The heaters in the apartment are so efficient that I have to open the window a bit at night even though I've turned the heater in the bedroom off. I may turn all of them off but the one in the bathroom. It is very nice to have a warm bathroom in the winter, especially as I must conserve water when showering (i.e., turn off the water when soaping/scrubbing) because (a) the more water I run, the more water I have to mop; and (b) the hot water tank is very small.

The new shoes are fairly comfortable, but not comfortable enough to make standing for 10 hours teaching really comfy. I might try some insoles if I can find them.

Yesterday there was a power outage for less than a minute, but my wireless router won't connect to the internet at all since then so I'm tethered to the desk again.

Need to get some sleep so I can beat this cold. Also need to drink more, I think I haven't been drinking nearly enough liquids lately. I've decided not to attend the meeting over at the main school in the morning, but will still be teaching promos in the afternoon and classes in the evening.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Warmth, and a typical work week

Today the heat was turned on in my apartment, yay! The heaters are a kind of radiator through which hot water runs. I don't know whether there is a charge for it or not, and frankly, I don't care, I will happily pay to be warm and comfortable. I was a bit nervous about this process, because when they turned on the heaters at my school two weeks ago, water shot out of several of them, flooding the floors, and then they were shut off for another week and a half. However, it seems to be just fine here in my apartment, no leaks so far.

This week will be a busy one, not much time to rest even on my days off (Monday and Tuesday).

Today (Monday), a Chinese colleague is supposed to help me take the cat to the vet this afternoon, but it's after 12:00 and I haven't heard from him yet...

This evening, the owner of the main school wants to take all of the foreign English teachers to dinner at a restaurant. This usually involves a lot of beer, which isn't really my thing. It's across town from here so will require a long taxi ride.

Tomorrow, the principal at my school has said she wants to take me shopping for a winter coat. This is good, because I'm neither a good judge of quality, nor good at bargaining to get a decent price.

On Wednesday, we will have a Chinese lesson over at the main school (an hour away), and we are being pressured strongly to attend. I'm not enthusiastic about it, because I usually use all day Wednesday and Friday to prepare the weekend's lessons. In the evening I have kindergarten classes.

On Thursday, the foreign teachers have our weekly meeting which lasts until noon, also an hour away. In the afternoon will be some special promotional classes to be taught at a local primary school, and in the evening, my kindergarten classes.

On Friday, I will try to get all the lessons done that I couldn't on Wednesday and teach kindergarten in the evening.

Saturday and Sunday I teach nine hours each day, from 8am to 8pm, which pretty much speaks for itself.

There you have it, my typical work week.

Monday, November 1, 2010


The Chinese official first day of Autumn was back when it was still incredibly hot, in August, but just the last two weeks the weather has finally changed... and FAST. Two weeks ago I was wearing shorts and capris; now I'm wearing earmuffs, scarf, gloves in the morning. On sunny days, the afternoons are glorious and the temps are in the high 60's.

Ever since the first day of autumn, people here have been commenting on my clothing, because they begin wearing fall clothes on the first day of fall (shockingly, I still dress according to the weather, so when it's warm I wear short sleeves). It will actually be a relief when it's cold enough to wear a parka all the time so people will stop telling me how to dress.

Yesterday I went to a shoe store downtown that a colleague recommended and dropped an American price for a pair of good black leather hiking boots for work for the winter. I hope they feel as comfortable after 10 hours in the classroom as they did in the shop.

Finding things to love...

Sometimes I get too focused on the things I don't like in my surroundings, so I need to remind myself to look for things to love.

In China, people often hold hands (women) or link arms (women or men) with same-sex friends. I love this show of gentle affection, and am always surprised and very touched when a friend takes my arm while walking.

While waiting at a bus stop today, an elderly man who was waiting with his wife asked me where I was from (in Chinese). When I told him, he replied, "America". He then mustered up the English he had learned fifty years ago to converse briefly. He smiled and waved from the bus window as his bus pulled away. It was sweet and made me smile.

My students. (When they are not misbehaving!) They can be cute and sweet and funny and enthusiastic and affectionate, and teaching children has been a thousand times better than I had imagined it would be.

Chinese food. Not only do I like the food here, I have lost around 30 pounds/15 kg so far. Of course, there are some foods here that are so alien they frighten me, but I'm able to pick and choose the things I want to eat, which suits me very well.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Xi'an, part 2 (Terracotta Warriors)

Here are the pics you have been waiting for, the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors. This was truly spectactular, and worth the 19-hour train trip.

I took a city bus to get from the city to the museum, and it dropped us off on a rural road, about five minutes' walk away from the museum entrance. The corn harvest was in full swing and there were ears of corn spread out everywhere to dry - roofs, hanging, sidewalk. Thankfully, the ones on the sidewalk were set on tarps.
I would have enjoyed sitting with these women husking corn. They were still at it when I came back after the museum.
After the ticket gate, there is a five-minute walk through this little park to get to the museum proper.
Persimmons were ripe and beautiful.
Persimmon trees are NOT this big back home!
The actual site is several buildings enclosing the actual pits where the warriors are being dug up, along with a museum and a couple other buildings, arranged around a central square.

I decided to see the Exhibit Hall first, which was a good choice as it was an excellent museum.
My first view of a real terracotta warrior. It was much more beautiful than I could show in the photo, particularly the facial expression. This one is particularly elegant because unlike most, he still has traces of colored paint.

And nearby were some more reconstructed warriors. The first photo shows them in the lighting the museum used, which shows their beauty.
In the next two shots I used the flash, and you can clearly see the damage and how they have been restored.

A stone die. I guess they played Dungeons and Dragons to pass the time...
(stage whisper) The Emperor himself.
These touch terminals contained fantastic slideshows all about the tomb.
These giant marionettes were made for (if I remember right) the Beijing Olympics.
Some horsies.
After the museum, I went to Pit 2 in this building, which is a massive section that is just in the beginning stages of excavation.
First view: this place is HUGE and more or less square. You can see the tiny people on the far side. The lumpy rows are where they will excavate the terracotta warriors, as they were placed in columns.
Here is a video to show the size of the pit.

Here is a section in progress. They have removed the pieces from the left row for sorting, while in the right row you can see the warriors as they "fell" (were found).
This was so awesome. I was told that this room was "boring" but I found it truly amazing.
Here is a video showing a reconstructed warrior and horse.
Pit 3 was something to do with "stables" and so there were some nice horses; this pit was very small.
And the main attraction, Pit 1. The entrance is at the front where all the people are crowded in.
This photo is blurry, but it shows the pieces of each warrior being put together in blue sorting bins. There were a whole row of these bins down the middle of the dig.
I'm standing about in the middle of the building. Like the first pit, this one is also HUGE.
In the far corner was the restoration area, which looked eerily like a morgue.
View from the back of the room; you can see the number tags on the warriors and that these warriors still have holes and cracks in them while undergoing the restoration process.
This one must have been sleepy...
A "live" section of the dig. You can see the blue sorting bins along the ledge. I wonder when the archaeologists do their work, at night when the tourists are gone?
Finally, some tour groups left and I was able to get a photo from the front entrance area.
Video of Pit 1.
Just outside the exit of the museum is a small tourist shopping area, and behind that is yet another construction site; they seem to be EVERYWHERE in China.
NO trampling!
A beautiful fountain.
And another beautiful fountain. The flags are in honor of National Day.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Teaching Update

As far as teaching goes, this past week was an eventful one.

I was aware that I had two new classes and one VIP class that would be added this past weekend, or so I thought until Friday, when we had a teachers' meeting at my school. At the meeting, I was surprised to be informed that I had four classes and the VIP class beginning. Ooooops, we forgot to tell you, we've been so busy...

It's a good thing we had the meeting, or I would have found out minutes after the bell rang when someone would have come to ask me why Ím not in class... There are many wonderful things about my school, but I'm afraid "timely, clear communication" still needs some work.

The school is growing extremely fast, adding new branches each year, and they have brought in a consultant to help them get things like this sorted out; already some very positive changes are coming out of this.

Thankfully, all of the new classes will use material I've already taught at least once, so there won't be much additional lesson preparation, just a little extra for the VIP student. (She is ten years old and impressively smart; I'll need to prepare some extra speaking activities for her since the group work won't apply.) The new classes all went off smoothly and I had a good weekend's classes, despite yet another cold/sore throat coming on.

One thing I have learned about myself here is the kind of schedule I prefer. After years of working in the 8-to-5 corporate world, I find that I prefer to have a nice, steady, regular work schedule. The constant and often last minute schedule changes stress me out, and the handful of classes on weeknights (2 hours per night), followed by an intense 18 hours on Saturday and Sunday really exhausts me and compromises my immune system. My two days off I spend resting, cleaning the apartment and so on, usually trying to nurse a cold back to health.

I do hope that I'm becoming a better teacher through all of this. Working with children is not really something I had imagined myself doing. I love them, they are really fun, but I wish I had taken some child development courses, or classroom management for teaching young children, or something. I'm learning to manage the children via the "sink or swim" method... some of my Chinese co-teachers have taught me a lot of tips and tricks, for which I'm very grateful.

As for the Interactive White Board (SmartBoard), my opinion is that it is a great tool for upper level students, but for children, it's like putting a big TV in the room and then asking them to listen to me. In addition, at least the way this school uses it, there is a huge amount of work in preparing lesson files to be used with the SmartBoard. I miss my classes from last spring where we had old fashioned chalkboards... less work and more fun for me, and the kids liked the chalkboard just as much.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Xi'an, part 1

As usual, I have taken hundreds of pictures, so I'll start at the beginning, and work my way forward.

First, the train trip. For the first leg of the trip, I was too late to get a sleeper, so I got what is called a "hard seat". Underneath the gray slipcover is a straight wooden bench, with about half an inch of foam padding covered with brown naugahyde.
The seats hold two passengers on the left side and three on the right side of the train; with four people in this space, we had to actually interlace our legs with one another carefully to move them at all. We got pretty good at it by the end of nineteen hours.
The miniature table was much smaller than the length of the bench and so we took turns sleeping with our heads on the table. Nineteen hours in this bench seat was truly miserable; I don't recommend the hard seat travel for a long trip at all. One could not get up to walk around because the aisle was full of people who didn't even have seats, and their luggage. I kept repeating to myself that I was lucky to have a seat.
The train toilet. The floor got more and more disgusting as the journey went on - it's really a challenge to pull down your pants while also making sure the bottom of the pants legs don't touch the floor! I just rolled mine up to the knees before going in. No doubt the Chinese thought I was nuts.
Some kids at an elementary school, watching the train taking on passengers at a stop.
The holiday crowd all rushing for the stairs. This is apparently "nothing" compared to Chinese New Year, so it looks like I won't be able to leave China right away when my contract ends because the Chinese New Year holiday period lasts for a couple of weeks.

I also found it interesting the kind of baggage people carried - everything from designer luggage to giant plastic sacks.
On the way home, I was lucky to have a "hard sleeper". As you can see, it's still just a board with a little padding and Naugahyde, but at least I could stretch out and lay down. There is a duvet and pillow supplied, but since Xi'an is not the first stop, they were already used by the time I got on the train, I wonder if you get clean bedding in the soft sleeper. There are six bunks in each cubicle (not enclosed, you can see the aisle there and the mini-table with folding seats). The top bunk is at the level of the luggage rack so they can't see out of the window, and hard to climb to. I am happy the bottom bunk was free.
The hostel was, like the others, quite good. I met a lot of interesting fellow travelers. This hostel was great about helping arrange tours and so on, and had some kind of entertainment each evening.
The rec room was an enclosed patio with a pool table, a couple of sofas and a miniature garden with some pets - bunnies, a mouse, some reptiles and crustaceans, and a one legged giant green cricket in a tiny cage.
Apparently the cook is quite the pool player, as there is a running contest against him. All the youth hostels here seem to offer hookahs with strange flavored tobacco. To each their own, I suppose.
The interior of the hostel was decorated beautifully, a very nice atmosphere.
Sadly, the view from the windows seems to be another thing all the hostels have in common...
The rooftop garden was really the nicest I've seen. It had a jungle of plants, a ping pong table, a stereo, swing chairs, private cubbies with loungers for sunning, a tiny putting green, a sauna, a yoga room, and of course, more pets: three caged birds and a ginger and white cat. Downstairs was a sweet brown poodle named "Teddy".

to be continued