Wednesday, April 30, 2008

SoKo: A Prelude.

After spending four hours over two days hunting frantically for either a telephone number (I found eight; many didn't work or were answered by people who spoke no English), an office (I walked miles trying to find one address that I later realized was mis-written by someone), or a travel agent (who directed me in all sorts of odd directions) that would lead me to ferry tickets to Seoul, South Korea to visit Dear Cyndi, I finally decided to go to the source.

The Tianjin Port is a 45-minute train ride outside of Tianjin, in a town called Tanggu. I woke up early this morning to take a cab ($1) to the station, from which I took a light rail train (that made announcements using the AIM "you have an IM!" sound; $.70) to Tanggu, from which I took another taxi ($1.50) to the port authority, from which I learned several new phone numbers, which eventualyl led me down a rabbit hole at the end of which sat a round trip ferry ticket to Incheon ($200 round trip). So!

As I wrote to someone via Gchat, I'm excited/excited; I originally was going to type "nervous" after the backslash but then realized I'm not particularly nervous. Just happy to take on another new adventure, happy to have conquered many obstacles, hapy to see Cyndi, happy to see a new country, happy to be alive.

And then on my walk home from school/CenturyMart, my pen exploded all over my bag, reminding me that there are no perfect days in China.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Due to, I think, the messy handwriting of one of the Chinese teachers who wrote down the address of the Seoul-Tianjin ferry office, I walked for about 1.5 hours up and down one long street, trying to locate this place. She copied the phone number down incorrectly too, meaning when I called for assistance, it was a home phone number (I'm sure having a frustrated-sounding English-speaking man on the other line sounded just like the folk stories of "white devils" that are still passed around in China).

Today, I will succeed. And then teach for many hours.

I went to Carrefour, the French supermarket (and subject of protests last week here and elsewhere in China, due to Sarkozy's comments about the Olympics) yesterday, and spent 100yuan on basically junk food. I took four bags of random things (cookies, kim chee, and some berries that taste like sour bananas BUT IN A GOOD WAY) home with me. And then went running. A good Monday if there ever was one.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The weekend.

Apparently removing oneself from one's comfort zone can be somewhat rewarding. My weekend went fairly well, beginning with exams on Friday (most of which went pretty well, although I had to fail several students and several others opted to fail themselves). I am now a full-blown teacher, having issued exams, taught classes, graded (some) homework, and the like.

Afterwards, two students took me out to dinner at a place near the school. The food was awful (salty brown-sauced pork bits with a poached egg and rice), but the company was not.

Saturday, I went shopping with Evangeline and her friend Jenny. They diligently took me to every shoe store in the city, as I mentioned in passing the possibility of wanting new shoes. I did not purchase any, although I did spy many shops I'll return to later.

(I hate shopping with others; I like being able to think at my own pace, and feel guilty making people wait for my decisions. I generally end up not buying anything, which is good I suppose.)

They took me out to dinner (another free meal!) and I ate seven divine courses of regional cuisine including sweet duck bits, sliced raw yams and Hawthorn berries, tomato and egg soup, fluffy tofu orbs with mushrooms, and this odd dense flavorless bread which we dipped in the equivalent of vanilla pudding.

(There are many fireworks outside right now?)

Then I went out with Terna to the western bar, followed by the western club, followed by my oh-so-un-western firm mattress.

After being awoken again by accordion playing, I met up with another student (see a trend?), Eric, who took me to a huge huge huge many-block street market, where many things I had little use for could be found. It was exactly what I needed to know existed, though--a veritable black market for goods that could be found for more expensive elsewhere in the city. Afterwards, he introduced me to two regional foods: a fried dumpling filled with sweet mashed beans (good and odd but good) and some sort of warm wheat and brown sugar sludge, topped with candied cherries. I only ate half of it--it was filling, and I didn't want to be filled up by that. Eric described it as "something we never eat in Tianjin, but we have people who are new to Tianjin eat." Uh, ok.

We then went shopping (that is pretty much what people do here), followed by a fantastic Sichuan meal (with fish! and tofu! and chicken! and many spices and the most interesting peppercorns I have ever eaten!) and GO-KARTING. Which was only 3 minutes long, but it was a fantastic three minutes. Also, I found a gym that is only 500RMB for 6 months. So. A good day.

Tomorrow I must purchase a boat ticket to an undisclosed location. Wish me luck.

More pictures have been erected.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

When do you practice accordion?

If you were my upstairs neighbor, answer would be, "7:30AM on a Saturday morning, in the room above your bedroom. Oh, and I really like to keep time by pounding my shoed heel on the ground."

I then migrated to the living room to sleep on the couch, only to be awoken by a dream about a dead baby. At least it wasn't about home!

Many social plans this weekend with students. Wish me luck.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

On Running in China: part one of many.

I just returned from my first Tianjin jog, and it was longer and more frustrating than I originally imagined (although I certainly should have anticipated the latter). The city is built on a river, which seems to separate the commercial and residential half of the city from the industrial zone. Along this river is what the city's tourism bureau touts as the "River Park": beautifully landscaped pedestrian space along the main stretch of the river.

An ideal place to go running, yes? Er, no. You see, naturally, like everything else in China right now, the River Park is UNDER CONSTRUCTION, meaning large swaths of it are blocked off, forcing those promenading, walking, ambling, running, jogging, and otherwise to take a busy, dirt-covered road shared with cars, construction vehicles, pollution, and other unpleasant detritus.

I only wanted to make these unscheduled detours once, of course, so I figured I would make my return voyage via the west side of the river (I live east of it), which looked identical to my side, only completely finished.

The west side of the river was much better--hardly any people, new things to look at, even a large abstract statue! I then arrived at a large blue construction wall, bordered by a factory on one side and the river on the other, after I ran about 2/3 mile, requiring me to backtrack and finally run home through the main part of the city.

As I was moving about as quickly as the typical Tianjin bicyclist, I took this back for much of the way along a main thoroughfare. it would have made an interesting picture: hundreds of Chinese bikers, with a tall white man keeping pace with them on foot (insert social commentary here) (inaccurate social commentary, but go ahead anyways).

* * * * *

As has been confirmed by Cyndi, mornings are the worst times for me here emotionally. I have dreamt of home every night I've been here, and don't really want to listen to my alarm clock when it tells me to leave that world for another 24 hours. I'm not home-sick, I don't think--just home-hungry.

School is well; I have exams tomorrow (which consist of me talking to each student in a room for a few minutes, and then grading them on their pronunciation, grammar, etc.). Most of my students are pretty good, but a few are a disaster. I talked to my Chinese co-teachers today to decide to whom I should not give a passing grade. This actually might be more terrifying than teaching.

The weekend's events depend on whether or not I am traveling to Seoul over my one week (unpaid) May holiday.

Until then--may all your running paths be unobstructed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Teh laundriez.

As of 11AM this morning, I have a working washing machine. This is the greatest thing that has happened since I have been here. It seems to do a pretty good job, too. I'm pleased.

Class was ok today--I have advanced into "nervous eating" mode, meaning I am always hungry and eat accordingly. I barely made it through my last class today due to hunger. It went well, otherwise. Every day gets a bit better (even when I have to try to explain the concept of "obituaries" to people who have never heard of such a thing and cannot understand why we would list the dead in our newspapers).

Sigh. Going out tonight, I think. We'll see how that goes.

New pictures and YouTuber. Peep.

Monday, April 21, 2008

In which I take a wife.

So, either people have been very polite, or they are completely unaware, of the fact that I am Robot Model Faggotron 5000. But, every male has told me with a guffaw that Chinese women are not generally open to loosely-defined relationships. If you indicate that you are interested in courting them, they ("they") decide that you are interested in marrying them, and proceed accordingly. (This is usually relayed much more coarsely, but my parents read this, so...)

Take Evangeline, for example. We met while waiting for the Noodle Man to finish making Terna and my noodles for lunch last week. Evangeline was Terna's student at one point, and we got to talking, etc. I gave E. my phone number, because I thought someone said I was supposed to befriend the students? She has since attended every one of my level 9 classes (no, she's not on the roster), and texts me frequently. Until today, the texts were very general: "I hope you're having a good evening!" "What are you up to this weekend?" and so on.

Today, I received these:

No, I am not ill, or cold, nor did I express either of these feelings to her. Sigh. "How do you solve a problem like Evangeline?"

An E-mail to my father.

Dear Dad,

I wish I could be there to watch it all bloom! I noticed that the tree was starting to leaf out a bit when I was at your house, and wondered what you were going to do. I think you should plant a vegetable garden down there, perhaps. You've got so much yard--might as well grow some vegetables and herbs to use throughout the summer, yes? Flowers are nice, but vegetables can serve a greater purpose--your stomach. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, lettuce--these are all things you use already. Do it! (I was going to have a large vegetable garden on my back porch this summer until I decided to move to China.)

I'll try to take more pictures soon. it's just hard, because I want to appear to be as "native" as possible. Well, I realize that'll never happen (people stare at me all the time, stare and then turn around and keep staring after I've passed them), so maybe I will just start taking pictures and being the tourist they expect me to be.

Classes were ok today. One girl brought her (I'm assuming) boyfriend to class and was writing notes to him all day--on the desk. I think I made my point clear when I threatened to call her parents (who are shelling out thousands of RMB a month for classes). Sometimes the students are awesome and wonderful and smart and well-behaved and engaged, and sometimes they're awful little beasts. I imagine that, on the whole, they're much better than American students.

Love you very much!


Sunday, April 20, 2008

There will be pitchers.

It rained all day today; my body woke up at around 9AM to the silent roar of an army of raindrops marching through my courtyard. I did much of nothing today; yesterday I visited Ancient Culture Street, a place where one can buy many "Oriental" "treasures," and Clothing Street, where one can buy 45RMB shoes. I bought nothing but a big delicious bowl of soup on the street with noodles and spices and cabbage and hard-boiled eggs and vegetable dumplings. How much? 3RMB. Um...yes I love things about this country very much. The woman had a station of two tall pots, one with noodles and cabbage, the other with broth, eggs, and dumplings. She would line a large bowl with a plastic bag (for making cleanup a breeze!), fill it with the goodies, and then one would eat at a nearby table.

Photographs will hereby be archived with the help of Picasa; peep below.

Another week--wish me luck.

Friday, April 18, 2008

On teaching: Part 1 of Many.

I'm pretty sure that right now, I'm not a great teacher. I think I might be sort of boring? Perhaps I talk too much? Perhaps the students don't really understand the concept of relevant experience as it relates to a job interview (maybe they don't understand "job interview?")? I am not sure.

I think what makes James (my supervisor) a great teacher is his comfortability with the material (which he wrote and has taught for two years (we teach the same material over and over again every 4-6 weeks for each of 10 levels) (does that even make sense? a terrible teacher I am!)), and his comfortability with the students (he knows most of hem, since they begin at level 1 and continue through level 10).

I do not have either of those traits right now. So. It is hard.

I'm teaching afternoons and evenings for the next two weeks (two level 9 classes and one level 6); that's 18 hours a week. I just signed my contract today, which is for 25 hours a week (which means I would teach one morning class, two afternoon classes, and one MWF evening class).

Weekend: I was supposed to go to Beijing but now I am not? So. I will learn my city then. And! I have a one-week holiday the first week of May; I think I might like to travel to Harbin, a mountain-y city with lots of Russian influence?

Good weekend. Uh, after a class I am teaching in an hour.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I need:

1. More time. Like, perhaps an entire day to just do every catch-up thing I need to do.
2. The Internet.

And, in amidst all the practical-life things that I need to take care of, I have to be social and making friends too? Pleasegodno.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In which things get much better.

I had a great-ish class tonight! So. Will still worry extensively and obsessively, but on a smaller scale. Things are getting better! Goodnight.

Oh, also. It is very very hot here--in the 80s this week. Apparently it rains about 20 times a year here? And becomes much much hotter? So, I will be a permanently smelly boy. But that is ok because that means I am a native, my nose suggests.



Getting better all the time.

Things today were much--ok, not much, but somewhere less than much and more than slightly--improved. I half-taught three classes, and will teach a whole class in an hour. So.

Today, in my intermediate class, we had the David-Sedaris-discussing-holidays-with-his-French-class experience. I cannot recall any specific moments of unintentional levity, as I almost fainted due to the heat in the classroom (it's 80F here right now, and the school has not turned on the A/C yet), but it was much enjoyed overall.

I have lost quite a bit of weight so far, but that will change. This morning, I put on a shirt that's usually embarassingly tight, and it was loose as a goose. My jeans that normally leave red welts on my pelvic bone? Falling off of me. I am going to blame it on the 45 minute walk to and from school, coupled with the new food, menage-a-trois-ed with being constantly stressed and high blood pressured. Still no "food poisoning," even after several delicious experiences with street food. So, a mixed bag, but one I'll not complain about carrying.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Things...things are not going so well right now. I have to worry about the following things:

1. Not knowing how to teach/teach ESL/teach ESL to Chinese students

2. Still not really knowing where I live or where my school is

3. Not being able to communicate with anyone about anything, including cab drivers and food vendors

And I have too little time to manage any of this. Things are...not so good.

PLUS. I was about to purchase some items from the supermarket with my last 100 RMB when the cashier gestured that my 50 RMB note was fake. Um...what. So then I tried my US debit card. No, that didn't work either for some reason. It was terrible. People were angry-looking behind me in line.

I will be fine, I think/hope. Bur today? Not so much.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Trials by Fire.

Srsly...this is the rule of the year, it seems.

After having my first class-ish this morning (which went well, I would say), I came back to my apartment to call my parents. I made the mistake of trying to do this in my courtyard (photos to follow), and managed to meet EVERY SINGLE WOMAN AND CHILD IN MY COMPLEX. Mostly, it was them talking to each other and at me, and children crowding around me and smiling a lot. It was kind of great, but awkward.

Also, yesterday the streets were flooded around my apartment? It was very plaguetastic.

Off to watch and play and teach more classes. Things are well.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

More pitchers.

It's weird to take photographs of a place in which you live, yes? Also, I don't want to look like a tourist all the time. Nevertheless, here are some photos. The large intersection is one I have to cross to get lots of places; there are no street directors (traffic lights?), so it's really...awkward. These are all from my neighborhood, or the places on my walk from the subway to my house. Yes. So.

Also, the internet situation is not a good one right now. I'm exceedingly frustrated. It's very bad. It will improve when I have my own internet. But right now, the internet and I are not besties.

UPDATED: So, now I am sitting outside of y apartment complex, where there is a strong wireless signal. Farewell, Starbucks! I tried calling my parents (church, I presume) and figured I'd finish this task I started earlier.

Oh. And the restaurant with the crab? I actually had dinner there tonight. It's across the street from my house. It was decent. I will return. Beef + strange mushrooms + MSG. Yum. Goodnight.

UPDATED: That was a week ago. I now have (slow slow slow) Internet in my house. My photos will be uploaded to Picasa as they are taken. I'm not going to take many photos though, because I kind of LIVE here and want to seem like that's the case. You know?

Dry by winds.

My teacher cohorts took me out to eat fantastic sichuan food, and then to Ali Baba, the foreign bar here in Tianjin. It was lovely. A club featuring a live band that played all our favorite songs from 2004 followed; I'd never heard "Get It Started" by the Black Eyed Peas sound so great.

So, I'm not sure if hair conditioner exists here? I was at a supermarket today, and looked at a huge wall of hair care products for about 30 minutes before a saleswoman just plucked a bottle off the wall and handed it to me, pointing at some Pinyin.

Everyone speaks Mandarin here. There is a handsome, blond white guy sitting across the room from me who is carrying on perfect conversation with two Chinese men. I am making learning my first priority. Well, after finding a map of this city. Also, after learning what street my apartment is on.

The kitchen situation: so, I have no kitchen. Paola, a teacher, explained that it's probably because my bathroom used to be the kitchen since having a private bathroom was not a huge priority until recently. So, that's why there is no kitchen. Buying food is apparently cheaper than cooking, though, and Paola has a huge perfect kitchen, so if I need to cook I'll go to her house. (SHE MADE GNOCCHI AND BANANA CAKE YESTERDAY.)

So, I think technically I am completely fucked in every way? But the novelty of it all hasn't worn off, and I have a feeling I'll be comfortable by the time it does. Thus, I am a-ok.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Some pitchers.

In which an American is making me uncomfortable.

I don't think I'll be going to Starbucks again. Um...yes. Awkward. I do not like being taken under conservative wings and asked to attend 8AM classes. Ack.

On another note: the language barrier is a tall one. I am in desperate need of Mandarin skills right now.


I don't even patronize Starbucks in the US. And yet here I am, drinking an 18-yuan Earl Grey tea, accessing the internet (it seems like there are very few Internet cafes here, and I cannot recall where one of my students took me yesterday). So.

From the plane.

I'm writing in this, the first moment I have had in the last week of frantic preparation for moving nearly 6,000 miles (I should probably change this to KM) across the earth, from a decidedly unpleasant seat in the "economy" class of my flight to Beijing.

My six foot frame isn't really...designed for economy-sized seating.

Amidst acquiring four vaccinations (yes, typhoid still exists in some parts of the world), three cavity fillings, two , and one Chinese visa, I am now over some dark mass of earth, on my way to a new life.

I moved; I danced; I basked in live Jens Lekman-brand goodness; I was whisked away to that northerly beacon of industrial urbanity called Milwaukee; I was taken to many lunches and breakfasts and dinners, in which I ate mammoth portions of Italian, French, Mexican, and American food. In the last three weeks alone, I have eaten close to two dozen different types of cake.

The pangs of "ohmygodwhatthefuckamIdoing" only started Tuesday morning, after Theo and I breakfasted at the Bongo Room in Wicker Park. It was then that, as often as I feel like I haven't grown roots into the limestone facade of my Chicago home, I realized that I do have a life that I'm leaving behind. I have lovely friends, an uncommonly perfect dog, and family who truly care about me.


If they're all really that great, they can wait for me to do this weird thing for a year.


It's odd that the Discovery Channel's specials on building and industrialization are the chosen in-flight entertainment features for US/China flights. Every other flight in the Pacific gets to enjoy some of America's most mind-numbing sitcoms, but China? Chinese travelers must learn sixteen new engineering skills on their journey, I think. The woman sitting next to me was reading a geometry-littered tome; work computers glow on the faces of others; a child no older than 10 is reading The Art of War.

Conversely, I have (in the last three hours) stared at the seat in front of me while panicking mildly, read a piece on a woman returning to Liberia in the NYT Sunday magazine, eaten an entire plate of starchy, empty-calorie filled meh-ness, and typed this little waste of e-space.

I'm going to learn some Mandarin right now, until Enchanted is broadcast and my mind can become a bit more useless.

See you on the flip side.

Friday, April 11, 2008


This is technically my first post from China. I did write a bit on the plane, but that is neither with me (I'm in an internet cafe; it'll be a few weeks before I have internet in my apartment) nor was it technically written in China.

I am here.

I cried only a little bit, last night, after being awake for 27 hours and being taken to my apartment. Which, after being awake for 27 hours, is not at all perfect, but now that I have had some sleep, it is not at all terrible or bad. No kitchen sink; an open shower; poorly lit. But enormous, and lots of sunlight, and modernish amenities. And in a decent part of town.

I just realized I left a bath towel and some cleaning supplies somewhere in China that I bought a few hours ago. Oops.

I think this will be fine. Better than fine, in fact. But defintely, at the very least, fine.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Questions answered.

Q. Um...what's going on?
A. Well, as it happens, I'm moving on April 9 to Tianjin, China, to teach English to humans aged 16-60 for a year.

Q. Why are you moving to China exactly?
A. That's a loaded question. First, I've always wanted to live abroad; one of my larger regrets from college (of which there are several, but not many) was not studying abroad. It's better late than never.

I have a minor in Asian Studies, and while that program was, for me, mostly focused on South Asia (India/Pakistan/Sri Lanka), I think some of the more survey-style courses I took will provide me with a general lens of understanding. Plus, as my tentative itinerary is to travel from Beijing to Lhasa and Kathmandu, and eventually into India for a modest tour of the country at the end of my year in China, I will "live what I've learned" after all. For a few days, at least.

Ultimately, I don't think I'll do too many "exciting things" in my life, and this is something I will cherish well into the early stages of Alzheimer's.

Plus, hi, it's China. Who doesn't want to go there? (Ok, besides every friend I have propositioned for a visit.)

Q. Aren't you going to miss us?
A. Well...yes. But, I'm a fairly solitary individual, for starters; being alone with 1 billion Chinese shouldn't be too much of a strain on my robust mental state. The communique I maintain with friends and family is largely by phone and E-mail--two resources to which I will continue to have access. Plus, people (mostly referring to my mother, who cries at least once every time I see her post-decision)! It's only a year! Settle down.

Q. Hey, you're all knowledgeable about postcolonialism and cultural imperialism and whatnot. Isn't this job flying in the face of all you believe in?
A. Sigh.

I have thought a lot about this. Because really, it seems like indoctrinating people, firsthand, into adhering to an ever-growing American cultural hegemony would create an ethical dilemma for me.

The rationale I have devised is the following: it's like pet ownership. I am against subjugating animals to being purposeless toys for human consumption. But the system is already in place, and has been for hundreds of years. Therefore, I will rescue a dog (Yuki) from the unpleasantness of a city shelter, not because I support systematic pet-keeping, but because I can "save" one animal's life from unpleasantness/death.

Similarly (sort of), I am against proselytizing the superiority of the English language/culture. But the system is already in place, and has been for hundreds of years. Therefore, I will teach English with cultural sensitivity and self-awareness, not because I support having some sort of Babel-like monolingual universe, but because I can "save" my students from the unpleasantness of having a teacher who purports his/her cultural background as somehow superior.

Q. How do you rationalize contributing to a society and economy in a country that does such horrible things?
A. This country does lots of horrible things as well. As many Iraqis have died in Iraq as Sudanians in Sudan, and that's only in the last five years. The US has, like China, funded wars under the table for years, providing Israel with weapons against the A-rabs, providing Afghanistan with weapons against Russia, not to mention lots of things in Africa.

On human rights: there is a supply and demand issue here. Us US of Americans don't want to buy goods for what they are intrinsically worth, so the Chinese government has seen this as an opportunity to make goods cheaper by not regulating labor in their country. Their economy prospers; we get to shop at H&M and Meijer. Fortunately, "we" haven't caught on to this system, so we can be xenophobic and "I hate China!" while continuing to allow American companies to outsource labor to China. It is a perfect system that will never end. Americans get cheap goods without making the connection between that and losing domestic manufacturing jobs; China gets to strengthen its economy and eventually take over the world.

In the US and other western countries, there is a Foucault-derived idea of the base/superstructure, in which the base is the real reason a nation/person does something, and the superstructure is the reason(s) offered to convince people that the base is the right thing. It seems like the PRC government doesn't offer a superstructure and therefore we hate them; the US and other Western governing bodies offer elegantly-constructed superstructures, but the base is the same.

The world is gray; it is neither black nor white.