The Golublog

adventures of a mostly asian nature

Springtime For Tony
golubock


We were cleaning out the shelves in the office the other day. Until we found the picture shown above, the most interesting thing we'd come across was rat poop. I both live and work in the most centrally located district in Ningbo, which also happens to be the one where things are the oldest. In what I suppose you'd call the outer boroughs - Jiangdong, Yinzhou, and so on - everything's new, and as far as the eye can see there are massive apartment blocks so identical it's as if they've been poured out of a mold. But right downtown it's harder to tear stuff down with such abandon, with the result that in Haishu, the district where I live, our apartment blocks are crumbling Maoist monstrosities with no elevators. This is all a very roundabout way of saying that the building in which my office is located is poorly insulated and rats poop on our desks at night.

But then we found Tony's masterpiece. In case you can't read the picture, or just can't believe you're reading it correctly, here's what it says (all misspellings left intact):

No. 3 War (this is Tony-ese for World War III)
Hitler is comeing again! I think if you want do a good people, and make No. 4 empire (likewise, this is Tony's way of saying 4th Reich) You come here. We will be winners.

Tony, a fourteen year-old in one of my Sunday afternoon classes, is obsessed with Hitler. Apparently, the brilliant work above was the result of an assignment in which Tony was required to write about an after-school club. Naturally, he chose to write about his own personal fantasy - the Hitler Club. This all happened about a year ago, and Tony's toned down his act since then. He doesn't really mention Hitler in class these days, though he will mention his desire to go to Germany (or, as he invariably says, "I want to go to Deutschland!") at the drop of a hat. How does a Chinese teenager choose, as his role model, Adolf Hitler? For now, I've decided that ignorance is bliss.

As far as I'm aware, none of my other students have chosen bloodthirsty dictators as objects of emulation. Most of their preoccupations are more age-appropriate. For some students, it's apparent merely by looking at their English names. If you don't believe me, just ask Transformer or UFO.

Chew On That
golubock
I was going to write a lengthy detailed post about Ningbo, the city where I now live, introducing you the reader to its history, culture, geography and people. But I came across an article* today that must be seen to be believed. The title is simple, yet profound: "Chinese Tycoon Dies After Eating Poisoned Cat Stew."

The tycoon in question, Long Liyuan, who will never again know the joys of a savory kitty hotpot, was apparently poisoned during lunch by a local official and business partner, Huang Guang, who had been embezzling money from Mr. Long in a series of shady forestry deals. Mr. Huang, who is accused of spiking the cat stew with the poisonous herb Gelsemium elegans, was actually admitted to the hospital with food poisoning himself. Apparently, he ate the poisoned cat stew as well, either in a bid to avoid attracting suspicion or because cat stew is so delicious that, even if poisoned, it is impossible to resist.

Naturally, at this point you have all sorts of questions. Happily, you've come to the right place. As the Chinese government will attest, I am an official and certified Foreign Expert, and thus well-qualified to answer any and all cat stew-related questions you may pose. I've anticipated some of the more likely questions and endeavored to answer them below:

1. Do Chinese people really eat cat stew?

Sadly, no. Most of them don't, anyway. Cat stew is apparently a local delicacy in the province of Guangdong (in the southeast, near Hong Kong). It's in Guangdong where the events related in the story occurred. In general, if you see something about people in China eating absurd things, it's a safe bet that those people are from the south. The explanation I've heard for this is more Malthusian than anything else; the south of China is now and has traditionally been much more densely populated than other regions of the country. The province of Guangdong, for example, which is slightly larger than the state of Michigan, is home to more than a hundred million people.

2. So, cat stew. Is it delicious?

I have no idea. In more than three and a half years of living in China and Taiwan, I've never seen a restaurant that served it. I'm also allergic to cats, though I have no idea whether eating cat stew would cause any sort of allergic reaction. If there are any allergists in the reading audience, now would be a good time to speak up.

3. Does this sort of thing happen often in China?

The business world is fairly cutthroat here, but stories quite this hilarious don't show up that often. The twist to this particular story is that the poisoner, Huang Guang, was an official in the village agricultural office who, "[embezzled] the money after helping Mr. Long acquire a forestry leasing contract in the region." Stories about poisoned cat stew may not pop up that often, but stories about corrupt local officials are ubiquitous. Indeed, local officials in China are all seemingly entered in some sort of a contest to see who can be the most ridiculously and brazenly corrupt. Sketchy land deals of the sort that Mr. Huang and Mr. Long were apparently involved in cause more outrage amongst the general populace than probably all of the other crap that the government pulls combined.

4. Eating cats sounds fun. Do you have a recipe for cat stew?

Ingredients
500 grams cat meat
100 grams garlic, water mushrooms, and spinach (each)
200 grams lean pork and chicken feet (each)
150 grams fish, cauliflower, and bean sprouts (each)
15 grams ginger
10 grams salt and onion (each)
3 grams pepper
5 grams MSG
50 grams pig lard
3000 grams soup broth
15 grams cooking wine

Recipe
1. Wash the cat. Place into a pot of boiling water for a short time. Remove cat and cut it into 4 cm chunks. Cut the pork into long thin slices and skin the chicken feet. Cut the water mushrooms and the spinach in half and remove any old leaves from the spinach. Break the cauliflower into small pieces. Wash and drain the water mushrooms, spinach and cauliflower. Peel the garlic and remove any impurities from the bean sprouts. Place all of the ingredients listed, including the fish, on a plate.

2. Put the broth, garlic, cat, ginger, onion, pepper, salt and chicken into a boiling pot. Skim any foam. Cook for about 15 minutes. Add the MSG and the lard. Serve hot.

You're welcome.

*The hyperlink function in LiveJournal seems to be down, but you can find the story at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/world/asia/chinese-tycoon-dies-after-eating-poisoned-cat-stew.html.

TIC
golubock
My landlord left his father's ashes on a fake wooden shelf next to the TV. I found it after moving into the apartment, when I was cleaning out the bedroom. It was clear from the beginning that the previous occupants had been elderly. There's no way that people who aren't old would have the time to accumulate so many useless things, running the gamut from birdcages to music boxes to figurines of Korean pop stars to strange faux-jade ornaments to a stuffed penguin of unusual girth*. In fact, the previous occupants of the apartment had been the landlord's parents, and he had sensibly decided to outsource the cleaning of the apartment to his new tenants. It was during this cleaning process that I came across a strange black box in my new bedroom. A set of squiggly gold characters were inlaid into the top; the calligraphy was sufficiently ornate that I couldn't make out a word save for one - Ningbo, the city in which I now live. But what I could understand were the three characters written below that impenetrable inscription, which read: Xie Fuhao, 1957-2011. A piece of paper, which had been awkwardly jammed in at some point, stuck out on both sides. It looked like the black box had sprouted white wings, but even if it had, the mortal remains of Xie Fuhao weren't going anywhere. I wasn't sure what to do. Should I open the box? Give the box to the landlord? Or just leave it as is? For a few days I thought about feng shui and exorcisms and hungry ghosts and whether, at some level, life isn't about opening boxes that you're not supposed to**.

Naturally, I shared this discovery with my roommate Chris, who wasn't quite sure what to make of it either. His initial response was somewhere along the lines of, hey, better your bedroom than mine. But sometime later that evening, or perhaps the next evening, or maybe sometime else, when we were drinking Tiger Beer at The Office Bar, he asked me, "Do you know what the expats in Shanghai say?"

I have no idea what the expats in Shanghai say, and indicated as much.

Chris said, "TIC. That Is China."

If you've been in China for any length of time, you've experienced a vast and bewildering variety of TIC moments. My first such moment during my current stay here came roughly fifteen minutes after leaving Shanghai Pudong Airport in the car of Kevin, co-owner with his wife of the school at which I teach. We're driving south on some nameless expressway. The sun hangs low in the sky, but you can't really see it due to all the smog. Then Kevin's phone rings. He picks it up, fumbles with his Bluetooth headset, drops and retrieves the phone, and while he does all of this the car moves from the extreme left lane across one, two, no three lanes of traffic, and we're heading toward the guardrail until Kevin yanks the wheel hard and we flash back across the road to the far left lane again. 8 lanes in 8 seconds. It's a new world record, and one achieved without the benefit of side mirrors, which Chinese drivers invariably fold in for some reason that I am too foreign to divine. If this happened in the States, I'd be screaming bloody murder. In China, I sit perfectly still and do not bat an eye. My reaction stems not so much from the fact that this happens every time you get in a car in China - although it does - but that, while we are performing our zig-zag of doom on this ten-lane expressway, we are the only car in sight. TIC.

There have been many TIC moments since I arrived in Ningbo a month ago, and doubtless there will be many more to come during my stay here. I look forward to sharing them and the other sights and sounds of China with you. For now, I'll confine myself to wishing all a very happy New Year and the best of fortune in 2012. One of my resolutions is to be a better correspondent this year, and while I'm certain it will all end in tears and eighteen-month intervals between posts, I'm excited anyway. Excessive and unwarranted optimism is, I'm sure, the greatest gift of all.

*It's really fat. Wow. I'm also unsure what Fat Stuffed Penguin's name is supposed to be - there's something written on his chest, like a name tag, but the letters are kind of weird and I'm not sure whether the name is supposed to be Beki, BE 101, or Beiqi.

**Of course life isn't about opening boxes you're not supposed to. I'm not actually a character from Forrest Gump. Anyway, I gave the box to the landlord's daughter and her boyfriend when they came to fix the Internet. He immediately opened it.

Five Months and Twenty-Nine Days
golubock
That's how long it's been since I last posted, impossibly enough. Apologies for the lengthy hiatus. When we last spoke, I was busy translating school songs, placating Mars and the Administration, and trying not to freeze to death in the icy wasteland that the Chinese call Mudanjiang. Things have changed just a bit since then. For those of you who haven't been keeping up with things, here's how it all happened: at the beginning of May, after suffering through nearly a week of gastric distress, the details of which I will not trouble you with, I gave in and agreed to be escorted by Mars and another unnamed representative of Number One High to the Second People's Hospital of Mudanjiang. Suffice it to say that after this experience my already healthy skepticism for all those "China is an unstoppable force" stories grew to even greater heights. We walked in, paid at the front desk (we would later pay yet again after the medical procedures were completed; the Chinese health care system is perhaps even more fucked up than the American one) and started heading upstairs - no, of course there are no elevators - when we had to make way for an unusual procession. An extended family of about five or six was coming down, and they were carrying a heavy burden. In fact, they were carrying a dead body, held aloft by a plain wooden board and covered in a dirty woolen blanket. We flattened ourselves against the wall, nodded to the bereaved, and watched as they navigated the stairs and took Grandma out the front door. It was not the kind of experience that gives one confidence in the Chinese medical system.

After a long wait, visits to several doctors, a completely unexpected endoscopy that required total anesthesia, which I was most definitely not prepared for, and a rather staggering bill, I received a diagnosis: I had a duodenal ulcer (it took about as long as you would expect for this to be translated into English from Chinese; at first, I was simply told that I had "a hole in my stomach," which caused me no small amount of distress). Number One High flew into something of a panic upon hearing the news. As my employer, they were more or less totally responsible for me - at least as far as the Chinese government was concerned - and if my condition worsened, and I had a more prolonged encounter with the Chinese medical system, and possibly dropped dead as a result, it would definitely not help their chances of becoming a "First Level National School." Thus, the Administration sprang into action and presented me with a proposal: I would be paid my full salary for the month, Number One High would present me with an all-expenses-paid one-way ticket to America, and our association would come to an end. Sick and exhausted as I was and fearful of another voyage to the Second People's Hospital (I shudder to think of what the Fourth or Fifth People's Hospitals must be like) I accepted the proposal. A week later, I was back home.

It wasn't how I wanted things to end, that's for sure. My departure was so rushed that there wasn't time for anything like a proper goodbye, and I still feel as if I have unfinished business back in the far frozen north. But there's no use crying over spilled baijiu, life isn't all beer and skittles, it is what it is, and so on and so forth. After a summer of rest and lethargy in Vermont, I set off again for a new adventure and my current home: Taiwan. I am now gainfully employed at the Hess Educational Organization (何嘉仁文教机构) and a resident of Sanchong City, located in Taipei County and only a ten-minute bus ride from Taipei City itself, the capital and nerve center of Taiwan. In what will possibly be the most banal observation I have ever made on this blog, things are certainly different from last year. Not only am I not the only foreigner in town, I'm not even the only foreigner in my apartment; my roommates are Ryan (from Mississippi) and Carrie (from Maryland). Moreover, my work environment is considerably different from Mudanjiang, as well. In contrast to last year, when I worked at a public high school, I'm now working for a chain of what are known here as "cram schools." Essentially, parents with enough money pay handsomely for their children to attend a cram school after regular school hours in order to give Little Zhou  a leg up on the competition when it comes to tests, which in Taiwan (and Asia in general) more or less define what college you'll get into and the prestige level of the job you'll get after that. Which is just a really long-winded way of saying that I'm working evenings this year; most days I start at 4:50-5:00 PM and finish around 9:00. The students who I'm teaching this year are also quite a bit younger than the ones I dealt with in Mudanjiang. I have classes packed with six and seven-year olds, some with mostly nine and ten-year olds, and a couple where there are some kids of maybe twelve or thirteen. On the one hand, this is unambiguously a good thing. No more Moron Twins, for one, and all of my students are here by choice (their parents choice, rather), so they're correspondingly less likely to misbehave. On the other hand, teaching younger children comes with its own set of unique challenges, a fact which is brought home to me every time I step into my "Treehouse" class, home to a seven-year old named Will who is prone to bursting into tears during class for no apparent reason. Ah, youth.

I'll have much more to say on school, the kids, my living situation, Sanchong, and Taiwan in general in due course . . .

EDIT: OK, so I didn't have anything else to say. Whatever. China is more interesting than Taiwan and that's where I'm going to live for at least the next year, so I'll try to update the blog every couple of days as opposed to every eighteen months.


Let Your Dreams Take Flight Here
golubock
I am proud to present the final translation of Number One High's school song. First, in Chinese:

让理想在这里放飞

走进了充满理想希望的一中
让我们开始幸福人生的旅程
践行修身立德博学致远的校训
恪守文明刚健和谐笃实的校风
夯实基础开发潜能
思想在这里自由翱翔
张扬个性协同创新
青春从这里走向成功
珍藏起老师今天的笑容
会化作学生明天的感动
记住从这里开发的姓名
会成为母校明天的光荣
明天的光荣

And in English:

Let Your Dreams Take Flight Here

Enter First High School filled with hopes and dreams
Let us all begin the happy journey of life
Build character, virtue, knowledge and diligence
Just remember we will always be the champions
Open your eyes and open your mind
Thought is free to fly from here
Show your personality and blaze new trails
Students strive for success here
Today, try your best to treasure the teachers' smiles
They will become happy memories tomorrow
Please remember Number One High School
You will have a glorious tomorrow
Glorious tomorrow

The entire process was just as difficult as I had feared. Not only was it necessary to translate the song, but I also had to get the syllables right and make sure that it fit with the melody. So in the end, there are a few lines where the English translation actually doesn't resemble the original Chinese in the slightest. The most egregious of these instances is undoubtedly the line "Just remember we will always be the champions," which literally translated would go something like, "Scrupulously abide by school customs and be civilized, energetic, harmonious, sincere." As you can see, I pretty much gave up altogether with that particular bit. Of course, no sooner did I finish translating the school song than Mars informed me that my next challenge would be to translate the school's website. Needless to say, I'm hardly looking forward to this new assignment, and I have concluded that a career as a translator is most definitely not in my future.

The big news here is that the second semester is underway, and it is back to work for the Golublog(ger). My role has expanded this semester; in addition to the 28 freshman classes that I see once every two weeks, I'll also be teaching six classes of sophomores as well. For someone who has just learned that he will be doing more work for the same salary, I am surprisingly calm. Perhaps this is because I'm interested to meet the sophomores, who are housed in a much cooler building than their freshman counterparts. There's a bizarre glass blob-like thing in the middle, as if an alien spacecraft of some sort crashed into the building. As far as I can tell, this blob serves absolutely no function other than to make the building look strange. I've only taught two of the sophomore classes as of now, so I can't make too many judgments yet, but I would say that there's a small but noticeable difference in their skill level compared to the freshmen (not surprising, I guess). This has both benefits and drawbacks. While the students are more likely to come up with something coherent when I call on them (or at least less likely to stammer helplessly and spontaneously melt into a puddle of goo), they they are also more likely to ask impertinent questions that I have no desire to answer. These questions are either alarmingly personal, or, as was the case today, alarmingly political. It's really difficult to come up with a good answer to the question, "Why is America so unfair to China?"

The Translation Blues
golubock
As the seasons change and as all manner of leafy green things return from their winter-induced slumber, so too does the Golublog return from a lengthy hiatus. Hey, everyone. It's been a long time. I was intending for my first post-hiatus entry to be long and weighty, perhaps about my travels or the New Year's festivities that I recently took part in. But that stuff takes a long time to write, and I'm really not in the mood right now. So on this, the last weekend of my vacation (it really was two months long!), I'm confronted with an assignment that dates all the way back to November, or perhaps even earlier. In their unceasing efforts to raise the school's profile and establish themselves as a First Level National School, the powers that be at Number One High have commissioned a glossy pamphlet extolling our many virtues. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that this pamphlet should be bilingual. That, of course, is where I come in. In late November, I was handed the Chinese text of this pamphlet with instructions to translate it into English (there's probably a post about it somewhere in the archives). I dutifully did my part, struggling for two solid days to turn sentences like "the verdant and powerful Mudan hill lends the school humanity and culture" into something that wouldn't cause people to burst into laughter upon reading the damn thing. Yet despite my best efforts, I was unable to finish the pamphlet once and for all. Every time I corrected it, a new version would appear about a week later, complete with hilariously mangled syntax and sentences that defy every principle of English grammar.

Mars dropped by tonight bearing what must be the fifth draft of this wretched thing, and even after an endless series of corrections and revisions, sentences like the following gems keep on creeping into the document:

- The beautiful Jingpo lake nearby give her steady and smart, over sixty years of culture, embodies the heavy accumulation.

- In 2002 was chosen the model province and in 2009 the national characteristics construction high school project.

- The new school district which is situated in the scenic bank of the south area river with much humanity and nature.

Then there are the bits that, while they may be gramatically correct, just don't make a whole lot of sense:

- Our beautiful campus vividly conveys perceptions of harmony and simplicity.

And then there are the paragraphs of dense bureaucratese:

- We are taking the lead in integrating and optimizing curriculum resources in sub-areas according to the national curriculum, including the implementation of double-layer and parallel management modes. (You have no idea how long it took me to translate that little gem. I mean, shit, I don't even know what that means in English.)

Part of the problem is the Chinese tendency to anthropomorphize natural features to the point of absurdity. If I had a dollar for every time I've explained that in English, saying that [Natural Landmark X] gives/endows/grants the school humanity/culture/good fortune just sounds silly, I wouldn't have to teach here anymore and could retire to someplace where it isn't twenty below every day. Still, I have high hopes for this latest installment in the long-running pamphlet saga. Mars seems certain that this is the final draft . . .

Sadly, even if this is the final draft, my long translation-related nightmare is not at an end. On the contrary, I have been commissioned to translate Number One High's official school song. Even the quickest of glances was enough to persuade me that this will be a truly ghastly project. Not only does this song contain endless lofty references to virtue and self-improvement, but I also have to get the words to fit with the melody, which among other things will mean somehow finding a way to say things like "enhance the foundation" in two syllables. The song - written by our principal himself - is entitled 让理想在这里放飞, which I choose to translate as "Let Your Dreams Take Flight Here." Not the most literal translation, perhaps, but it fits with the spirit of the title. Plus, it sounds like an airline motto!

Traditions That Suck
golubock
You don't get Christmas off in China. Last Friday was just another school day - or at least that was the idea. In reality, Christmas isn't just another day here; everyone knows that it's a holiday and behaves accordingly. One tradition that's developed is the annual Spraying of the Teachers. This one deserves some explanation. Every year at Christmas, students will sneak up on teachers and spray them with a substance that is equal parts shaving cream, silly string, and toxic chemicals. The teachers acquiesce to this rather good-naturedly, which is kind of shocking to anyone who's seen who things work normally around here.  But as Phil explained it, the whole thing is "a badge of honor." Indeed, the students only spray the teachers whom they like and feel comfortable with. It's sort of a gesture of trust, almost: "We like you enough that we're willing to trust that you won't murder us for playing this joke on you!" Of course, this still doesn't explain why the Administration has chosen to turn a blind eye to the silly-stringing of Respected Teachers en masse. Normally this sort of thing would be punished by . . . I can't even imagine, actually, but slow and painful death springs to mind. I guess that even the Administration has decided to let some holiday cheer into everyone's lives. 

I've never been very good at building suspense, so you can no doubt see what the previous paragraph was leading up to. On Friday I got sprayed, again and again and again. As I tried to clean myself off in the bathroom after Class 6 had their way with me, I couldn't help but wonder if the unlovable teachers got the better end of this deal. At least their hair didn't smell like gasoline. After a couple of sprayings I decided that enough was enough, and took to strongly discouraging any future attempts. This did not sit well with a few particularly persistent kids from Class 15, who were clearly not planning to leave school without getting the foreigner. After my polite demurrals didn't seem to be doing the trick, we had a more frank exchange of views outside the cafeteria:

Student A (in Chinese): Hey, Peter! We will spray you now!
Me (also in Chinese): I don't think so, guys. Class 6 already sprayed me.
Student B: That doesn't matter! We will spray you too!
Me: No. That's not OK. I really don't want to be sprayed again.
Student C (advancing): I think it's OK!
Me (in English): NO. Piss off.
Student C: It will be fun!
Me: Listen motherfucker, if you spray that shit on me I will put my foot so far up your ass that you'll be tasting sneaker for a month.
Student A (clearly a little worried by the tone of my voice): Teacher, what does that mean?

I guess you could say that we reached an understanding.

But Christmas wasn't only filled with foul-smelling Chinese silly string substitute. There are also more pleasant events, such as the English Club's annual Christmas broadcast, which I was invited to co-host. It was described to me as a "radio show," which wasn't really accurate - the whole thing was just broadcast over the PA system in the freshman building. When I arrived at the "Broadcast Room," the mood was tense. We had just received word that the Administration had cut our time in half from forty minutes to twenty minutes. One girl said to me, "The Administration really does not like Christmas at all." I replied, "Oh, yes. Maybe it's because Christmas is a Christian holiday, and is not very Chinese." Her response? "No, they just think it's distracting." Whoops. Actually, I can't blame the Administration one bit. Christmas definitely is distracting. Anyway, the program began and I did my bit, launching into a sort of impromptu monologue on the Christmas spirit, and what a fun holiday it was, and so on and so forth. After that the real fun began. The rest of the kids were invited to text their Christmas wishes to us, and we would read them on air. The whole thing was madly hectic. Cell phones jangled, students ran into the room bearing wishes scribbled on scraps of paper, and all the while an emissary from the Administration stood in the corner glaring at his watch ominously, waiting for the time to cut us off. 

So that was Christmas in Mudanjiang. I went to KFC for dinner, seeking some American food. As the misspelled sign on the wall said, it was "finger ickin' good!" And now we've come to the last week of my semester, although the students have a little farther to go. I actually received some good news this morning. Previously I had thought that this was simply a normal week of class, but I learned that we have Thursday and Friday off for New Year's. So just two more days until vacation. Now that's a good Christmas present.

Surprises Come From Mississippi
golubock
A couple of days ago I was eating lunch with some students from Class 8, and the topic quickly shifted to the impending arrival of the delegation from Wisconsin. The kids had heard all about it via the Number One High grapevine, but they were under the impression that we would be visited by college students. Feeling both confident and well-informed, I was able to correct this assumption, informing them that our foreign guests would actually be high schoolers from the Midwest. So you can imagine my surprise when yesterday the visitors finally arrived - about half an hour late - and they were college kids after all. Not only that, but they weren't even from Wisconsin. They were actually from Mississippi. So much for me being well-informed, although I was at least correct on how many students would be visiting us (eighteen, if you're curious). I was later able to ascertain that there were actually two different groups, one from Mississippi State and the other from the University of Southern Mississippi, both of which were here under the auspices of something called the "China-America College Student Winter Exchange Camp." The students travel through China for a week or two, stopping off at various universities for a couple of days of cultural exchange and understanding, and then fly off to the next destination. For our visitors, their next stop was Harbin, after which one group would go to Shanghai and the other to Beijing. Their visit to Number One High was brief. Accompanied by students from Mudanjiang Normal College, who were acting both as interpreters and as chaperones, they arrived in the middle of third period. Given that there were so many visitors, the Administration elected to split them up into nine groups of two. Each group then went off to a class for forty minutes of fun.

I was sitting in on one of the classes that was graced with a visit from the Mississippians; though my presence was in fact quite unnecessary, I suspect that Number One High did not intend to let this momentous occasion pass by without showing off their very own foreigner. After our two visitors arrived - I've already forgotten their names, proof that my failure in this regard is not limited merely to remembering the names of Chinese people but Americans as well - the program began. In an attempt to make the visitors feel comfortable, we chose to begin with a few of our student "volunteers," who nervously stood up and butchered various American pop songs, perhaps reassuring the guests that the ability to sing badly unites us all regardless of race and language. We then segued into the "free talk" portion of the program, in which the kids asked questions of the Mississippians. It was all pretty standard stuff - what sports do you play, what kind of music do you like, how much homework do you have, what are your hobbies, what is life like at an American university, etc. After that, our visitors launched into their part of the action, announcing that they'd like to take some time to talk about Christmas. I was a little worried here. After all, I'd just spent two weeks describing Christmas in America to the kids, and so I groaned inwardly and prepared for boredom to ensue. My fears proved to be unfounded. Indeed, the Christmas described by our guests and the Christmas about which I had lectured previously could have been two entirely different holidays. I talked about presents and Christmas trees, about Santa Claus and reindeer, and then we all sang "Jingle Bells." The Mississippians talked about the importance of going to church, read some Bible stories, and then sang "Away in the Manger." I actually found it all to be pretty hilarious. 

After class ended, we all went outside for some pictures. I shook hands, introduced myself ("Oh, Vermont! That sounds like a nice place!"), and then posed in the freezing cold while the Official Photographer snapped away. The Mississippians then hopped on the buses that were waiting and left. And just like that, they were gone. The whole thing was unbelievably weird to the point of being surreal. During the five-plus months that I've been here, I've seen less than ten foreigners, and they've all been Russian. At times there have been entire months when I haven't seen another foreigner, and I haven't had a face-to-face conversation with a native English speaker since I arrived. And then all of a sudden, eighteen college students from Mississippi show up in the Far Frozen North for less than an hour. The other thing that struck me was that before Wednesday, I had never spoken with anyone from Mississippi in my entire life. It was all deeply strange.

Everybody Dance Now
golubock
Today's been something of a bummer here at Number One High. For starters, I learned this afternoon that the delegation from Wisconsin will actually be arriving tomorrow morning, instead of on Thursday. This wouldn't be a problem, except that tomorrow is the one day when I get to sleep in. I only have to teach a single class, and it doesn't start until 2:00 in the afternoon. But given the arrival of the Wisconsinites - whose entire itinerary is spectacularly bizarre, from what little I've been told; apparently they're arriving sometime early tomorrow morning, coming straight to Number One High for a brief visit, and then departing again later in the day to points unknown - everything has been moved up, and I now have to teach at 9:00 tomorrow morning. Thus, any enthusiasm which I might have had for welcoming our American visitors has been swept away by the knowledge that their visit will cost me five hours of precious sleep. Stupid foreign devils. Why couldn't they just have arrived on Thursday, when I have to wake up early anyway? Secondly, I learned today that contrary to my hopes, I will indeed have to teach next week; my vacation won't start until the 2nd of January. Admittedly, I rather expected this would happen, but it's still unwelcome news. Not only is next week when I have to deal with all of the troublesome classes, but I'll also have to come up with an entirely new lesson plan for them. Any ideas? Finally, the Great Firewall bypass that Phil and Aaron helped me set up mysteriously ceased working last night. I don't know if it's just some sort of glitch within the program or whether some nefarious bureaucrat deep within the bowels of the Ministry of Irksome Nonsense has caught on to me, but either way it's rather annoying. I had just started getting used to being able to use Facebook, YouTube, etc. again, and now these sites have been cruelly blocked from view once more. And if all that weren't enough, the insect problem is really starting to get out of hand. I mentioned in a previous post that the Teachers' Apartment building has quite the roach infestation. It's not like I wasn't warned; only a couple of days after my arrival, Mars rather casually said something along the lines of, "And by the way, there are so many cockroaches here, especially in the winter! So how do you like your dinner?" For a long time the roaches were no more than an occasional nuisance. Every couple of days I would see one and promptly kill it. But in the past couple of weeks they've started to become nearly omnipresent, and I fear that more vigorous measures will have to be taken. How do you say "roach motel" in Chinese?

We teachers are also preparing for the annual faculty New Year's party, which will occur sometime next week. Suffice it to say that the Chinese have their own ideas of what constitutes a holiday party, many of which are quite unrecognizable to unlearned foreigners like me. It is becoming increasingly clear that the "party" is actually more of a talent show. Yesterday all of the English teachers gathered in an unused classroom on the first floor to prepare our contribution to the festivities, which will apparently consist of a choreographed dance to some horrendous pop song. Needless to say, I was less than thrilled to hear this. Mars served as the choreographer-in-chief for the whole wretched affair, leading us through the wildly complex dance that we will be expected to perform in unison, or something ("One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight! Left arm up! Now spin around! Shake your butt! With more vigor, Teacher Hu!"). It was like the aerobics class from hell. Why can't they just embrace the American holiday party tradition? Find a plastic Christmas tree and some cheesy decorations, have some unobjectionable music in the background, and make sure that there's plenty of eggnog. Now that's a party. 

The Cheeseheads Are Coming
golubock
It was more New Year's resolutions in class today, although some of the students struggled with pronunciation. One tall kid with glasses: "In the New Year, I want to have a big eyes." Me: "You want to have a big ass?!!?" This misunderstanding didn't cause nearly as much chaos as it would have had the other students understood what "ass" meant, but the shocked expression on my face was nevertheless sufficient for the entire class to start cracking up. Another student, a girl in a shockingly hideous red and yellow coat: "I want to help my parents with the chores!" Me: "You want to help your parents with the chairs?" And so on and so forth.

The big news on campus at Number One High this week - at least among those in the know, a category which I can count myself in for the first time since my arrival - is the impending visit of a group of high schoolers from Wisconsin. DIGRESSION ALERT: Shouldn't there be some special word for a group of high school students, like there is for animals? And if so, what would be the best choice? A pride of high schoolers? A school of high schoolers? A gaggle of high schoolers? A flange of high schoolers? My personal choice would be to use the collective noun for a group of crows, thus giving us "a murder of high schoolers." Bonus: for more fun with collective nouns, visit this site. END OF DIGRESSION ALERT. Some readers may remember that the principal of Number One High was preparing to make a visit to America - Wisconsin, in fact - on some sort of educational understanding and exchange trip. Well, the trip has been made and Principal Bu has returned, with news that the Wisconsinites are sending a delegation to visit us all at Number One High. From the little that I've heard, the visit won't last long. Approximately eighteen students and an uncertain number of teachers will arrive in Mudanjiang on Wednesday, spend some portion of Thursday at Number One High, and then depart for points unknown. It sounds a bit bizarre, if you ask me, but I'm certain that there are any number of details that haven't been worked out yet/no one has bothered to tell me about yet. As Mars explained it, the idea is that this will be the first of many exchanges between Number One High and the unnamed Wisconsin high school, with students from Number One High making a reciprocal visit to the Midwest next year. During their rather brief time at Number One High, the Americans will apparently be participating in classes in some unexplained way; I don't know the details (that's basically my mantra). I will have some sort of special hosting role to play - again, no one has explained exactly what this means, but I'm assuming that it basically involves making the Wisconsinites feel a bit less like strangers in a strange land. Obviously, there will be more on this developing story in future blog posts.

Although the students don't even know of the impending arrival of their Wisconsin counterparts - I'm not even sure that all the teachers know - the administration definitely does know, and has been making feverish preparations over the last few days. At least that's what I assume they've been doing. The only part of these preparations in which my assistance has been required is the glossy brochure that has been produced, which extols the myriad virtues of Number One High. I have now corrected at least three drafts of this brochure, and each time it comes back to me with fresh new mistakes. It's neverending. I go over the latest draft with Mars, point out the corrections that need to be made, and then a few days later he shows me the next draft, which inevitably contains more mistakes that have been jammed in around the edges. Eventually I'm just going to give in and say, "Fine, fine. 'First high school the special national characteristic opens the learning gate' is completely right. Great job!"  

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