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In dynastic times, strange events like massive earthquakes, comets in the sky, or the appearance of legendary animals in unusual places usually were interpreted as harbingers of significant change (usually a transition from one dynasty to the next). Having now occupied a fully Chinese state of mind (I kid!), I can’t help but wonder what changes are in store for Huashan High School and myself after seeing a gloomy, basketball playing gorilla moping at the front gates…

But that’s not the only thing. Rumor has it that some mutated, skinny, Asian Santa has been sighted in the hallowed hallways of Huashan. Not only that, apparently he’s also quite a hit with the ladies.

Alright, I’ll admit it just for the sake of those without eagle eyes and super deductive skills, that Santa is me. Santa makes a special appearance at our Christmas Party after mean Mr. Vincent berates the students for believing in such a stupid concept as Santa and threatens them with a test. As Vincent prepares to pass out said test, he suddenly gets sick, doubles over, then runs hacking and coughing to the bathroom. Mysteriously, about two minutes later, a jolly Santa Claus appears in the classroom, vanquishing any doubts on the minds of the kids. Then after hosting a fun game and introducing them to the timeless classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Santa sneaks out with a hearty ho ho ho. Vincent then returns, furious that the students dare watch a movie while he was getting treated at the clinic. It’s great stuff.

While the students are watching the movie, Santa offers to reproduce the distinctly American cultural experience of “getting a picture with Santa at the mall” that we Americans all went through as a child but that these students, already teenagers, missed out on. Of course, rather than having my students sit on my lap, which is way too inappropriate in my opinion, I end up squatting in front of a group of friends as they poke me and pull on my hat and beard.

But that’s not all! The third offbeat omen occurred during one class where I had just left the room as Santa Claus and began walking down the hallway to the room where I change back into my normal out fit. After going through the doorway with my bag of treats and my camera tripod, I glanced down the corridor to see none other than a fully camouflaged PLA soldier wielding a rather intimidating sub-machine gun. Skinny-Asian-Santa-Claus-with-Red-Jogging-Pants meets SMG-toting-PLA-soldier in elite boarding school hallway has to be the awesomest accidental encounter of random elements on the far side of the Earth I’ve ever had the luck to take part of. The encounter is not only cool for the thrilling randomness of it all, but also for what it could have been. I started slowly walking down the hallway, eying this fellow with as much incredulity as him (after all, he was seeing this skinny punk dressed up in red novelty clothes wearing a fake beard and carrying a black garbage bag and a camera tripod), and in my head, the Neo-Morpheus training scene fight music started playing – wiki-wooow – and as the soldier opened rapid-fire on the impostor, skinny Santa started dodging bullets and carrying out crazy kung fu with his tripod-cum-samurai-staff. Ah, I should’ve been a screenplay writer.

Well, anyways the guy was standing in a dark part of the hallway and it turned out that he was just a maintenance guy; his SMG was actually an rather large, SMG-shaped industrial drill and in China, working class folks often buy military fatigues from surplus stores because they’re cheap and very warm. But for a split second, it was sheer awesome.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Xinjiang to all those readers out there in the intertubes!

Christmas Goose

For about a month now I’ve been seeing a Uyghur tutor on the weekends. The decision to Uyghurfy my weekends has ended up providing me with a sorely needed breath of fresh air capable of dispelling the monotony of my stiflingly Han Chinese environment, where I’m normally surrounded by oil refineries and the children of military and energy industry elites. On Saturdays and Sundays, after my brisk morning run, I take the bus to southwest Korla where American SUVs give way to donkey carts, where automobile taxis are replaced by endearing (yet dangerous) modified motorcycle types, and Lei Feng style PLA hats yield to trademark doppas and cabby caps.

Two Uyghur fellows chatting at the busiest intersection in the Uyghur neighborhood.

Uyghurs get around by sitting on the back of these motorcycles and telling the driver their destination.

My teacher is a perky, tiny woman whose primary job is teaching English to ambitious Uyghurs at a private training center but who had the grace to accept the topsy-turvy odd job of teaching Uyghur to a foreigner on the side. In addition to being an enthusiastic teacher, Rayhangul is also very Uyghur, which means, among many things, she often gives me impromptu invitations to attend some sort of Uyghur social function with little or no advance warning. A few weeks ago I unexpectedly found myself at a Uyghur wedding celebration downtown. And this week? The anthropologist in me of course could not say “no” when Rayhangul, literally in the middle of our Sunday class, took a call and then invited me to go out to the countryside and have lunch at her sister-in-law’s place. This time, fortunately, I had my camera.

My Uyghur tutor, her husband, and her sister-in-law stroll down a country road to the family owned gas station.

Perize with grandma.

Good times and good food were had by all. I got commanded by adorable little Perize to “EAT, EAT” when the pilaf came out. While exploring the family’s little countryside compound, we came across a the family’s traditional mud-brick oven, a tonur, and when I proposed that I build one when in America and start a nan business, I was told I can’t… because America sadly does not have the salt of the Taklamakan desert. I was thereupon invited to take a sample of a block of salt just recently seized from the desert. Eventually, we had to leave.

It was a Sunday so on the bus ride home, my thoughts eventually gave way to the more boring logistics of preparing for class the next day. One of the things I needed for class was black paper, since at the time we were just beginning Christmas season and I had a “naughty or nice” activity that would award naughty students (as determined by a jury of their peers) with a “block of coal.” But since the closest Michael’s is several thousand miles away and “arts and crafts” isn’t exactly a booming industry in this cutthroat wild west oiltown, I knew procuring black paper would require some advance planning. I turned to my Uyghur tutor and asked, naturally, in Uyghur, “Where can I buy black paper for my Christmas class?” Or so I thought…

In Uyghur, “black paper” is qara qeghez, with the q’s and the gh representing, for the uninitiated, a bunch of garbly sounds that happen somewhere in the back of your throat (linguists cringe). Though I really feel I can say I’ve mastered these non-English sounds, I think that between the sounds of the bus, the lateness of the day, the inconvenient succession of q’s, r’s, and gh’s in qara qeghez, and my first teacher ages ago teaching me (I think erroneously – he was an ethnic Kazakh) that the gh in qeghez doesn’t really need to be pronounced, my teacher didn’t hear what I intended. She gave me a funny look – but at the time I thought she was only confirming the fact that black paper really isn’t…well… a commodity in these parts.

We began discussing where I could buy some qara qeghez, and she directed me to a bazaar that would be near my drop off point. A Uyghur girl sitting nearby couldn’t help but overhear our conversation and be intrigued at a Han Chinese learning Uyghur (I know I’m not Han Chinese, but, in China, I’m Han Chinese), and in the spirit of hospitality intervened and offered not only to take me to the bazaar but show me exactly where I could get some qara qeghez.

We got off the bus, and I said goodbye to my teacher and her husband as they were getting off elsewhere. My new friend and I started meandering through the bazaar, and eventually the wares start becoming decidedly un-stationary-ish… pots, pans, shoes, and then, ahead, cages and cages filled with all sorts of poultry. “Here we are,” my host said, pointing to the poor imprisoned poultry. I was confused.

Some bilingual Chinese-Uyghur acrobatics eventually taught me the new Uyghur vocabulary word for the day, ghaz, which means goose. My mangled qara qeghez was heard by all on board the bus as qara ghaz, and so my teacher and my new friend graciously decided to accommodate the strange foreigner’s strange traditions and help me procure a black goose with which I could celebrate Christmas. Because, as you know, how can it be Christmas without a black goose? Hours earlier, when my teacher gave me a puzzled look at my inquiry about black paper, I tried to explain, saying, “We have lots of fun activities in my lessons, I need the black paper [goose] for one of the activities.” Fun and exciting indeed!

I wasn’t able to explain the actual situation to my teacher until a few weeks later. In those intervening weeks, she believed that Americans somehow have to use a black goose for some sort of Christmas ritual in the States. Maybe not… but I hope one day I’ll have a family to make some Christmas traditions with. Anyone where I can buy a black goose in Tennessee? Do black geese even exit? I’m sure my tutor was confused in more ways than one.

Taekwondo

I left a room on the first floor of the academic building with a very prominent limp about an hour ago. I try not to favor my slightly better right foot too much, and what hobbling I must do, I try to do with style. The embarrassment is not too bad, however. My confidence is bolstered by the fact that at least two other guys who left the same room with me are limping as well.

I’m talking, of course, about Hua Shan High School’s elite Taekwondo Club. Eons ago, when I first introduced myself during my very first high school lesson, I decided for some reason to tell the thousand curious and inquisitive students that sometime in the past, back in the glory days, I did taekwondo. Little did I realize what a mistake this would be. Inevitably and innocently a student on week two skipped by my desk after class and gave me a note with a small map showing me where that evening’s taekwondo practice would be held. Due to an elusive Chinese concept called “face” that may or may not get fleshed out over the course of several posts on this blog, I went.

I’m standing on the tail end of week 16 of my first semester now, but it didn’t take me this long to realize that the students of this school spend the greater part of the time being “intense.” Structurally speaking, a developing country is packed to the brim with all sorts of pressures and tensions, economical, political, cultural, you name it. High school students are not exempt, and I see these pressures manifest themselves in my students’ lives as a strong desire to do everything with high intensity in order to meet the next standard to overcome, the next hurdle in a no-holds bar track race. Perhaps this intensity extends beyond the classroom. Or perhaps the intensity comes hand in hand with a stress that needs some sort of outlet. Either way, the students of the taekwondo club are, despite their lack of experience, are quite impassioned when they’re doing their kicks and punches.

Especially when they’re kicking or punching another person. Among the esoteric technical terms that have somehow wormed their way into my Mandarin-learning saga are the various words for “sparring,” such as 实战 (shi2zhan4) and打架 (da3jia4). My language learning radar quickly locked onto these words because they came with an automatic sense of apprehension; not only are the students quite aggressive in the ring, not only is their style (World Taekwondo Federation, also known by its unintentionally hilarious acronym WTF) very distinct from the style I did many ages ago (International Taekwondo Federation, or ITF), but also the concept of students physically wailing on their teacher, or visa versa, is rather intimidating and hard to place both for the club members and myself. I know the students must be thinking, “Do I hold back? On one hand, this guy is a teacher. And Confucius once said, ‘no-kicka you teacha.’ On the other hand, he’s only 22 and he claims to have did taekwondo in the past.” I have no such mental qualms. Six years of non-taekwondoship have taken their toll on me and I have to put in 110% just to barely keep up with these scrappy young whippersnappers.

As we fight, the intensity of student life lingers on among the sidelines. Our instructor, a soft spoken but simply powerful young master who inverts traditional hierarchies by being both a girl and a sophomore (which in China is the youngest grade in high school) in a physically challenging, traditionally male sport, placidly observes the English teacher getting his rear handed to him. When she grins at my silly kicks or my accidental, momentary victories, I see a small hole betraying a missing tooth that I know she lost recently. Where, I’m not sure yet. Intense. One of the referees is a student of mine, another quiet yet powerful player who is out of commission for a month thanks to an ankle injury he also received while sparring – he is one of two injured students I’m aware of. Despite having over a thousand students, I solidly know his name – during my mugshot project, I was checking off photographed students yet for some reason could not find his name on the class roster. When I asked him about it, he pointed to a name that was on the roster but different from the one he identified himself by, telling me that that was him. On the roster, his name was 果果, or “fruit fruit” (though it probably doesn’t sound as silly in Chinese as it does in English). I found, however, that he despised this name (calling it 难听, or “hard on the ears,” or more simply, “ugly”) and decided to go through a mountain of paperwork to change it to the much more regal 希哲, or “hoping for wisdom.” I must say I approve of the change, though it takes a certain amount of gusto to pull off a name change at 16 years old. Finally, as we fight, a large set of stickers on the blackboard betray the room’s original use as a classroom for the seniors, who have since moved to a new building.

____ days until the college entrance exam

Even during their taekwondo meets, the students cant’ avoid being reminded of the number one driving force of their lives until spring of next year: the college entrance exam. Basically this test is the SAT from hell, a single test which produces a set of numbers that will determine with resounding finality which college you will go to and what fields you are worthy of pursuing. The sign in the taekwondo room, which should be removed but probably will never be, says “______ days until the college entrance exam,” as if the students weren’t frantic enough about it already (and they are). Next semester, other incarnations of this sign in the senior building across the courtyard will begin their inevitable countdown: 60…59…58… even the 2008 Olympics will be forgotten by 17-18 year old students across the country.

But more on that later. Today, I got to see my name written on that very blackboard twice, 孟文宁 with a number scrawled next to it. One victory, and one narrow defeat – not too bad, I must say, for an old fogy like myself, especially since, curiously enough, I was the only fighter selected to fight twice in one day. This was especially uplifting after a crushing defeat two weeks ago, my first sparring match in what must be over six years. Perhaps my mojo is coming back.

I plan to limp around as long as the other two guys I fought with are limping… once they stop, its all about the face again.

I bought a Ushanka.

You don’t have to speak Russian to know that ushanka is the Russian word for “the best hat in the history of humanity.” You don’t even need a Russian-English dictionary. All you really need is this picture:

What am I looking at? The socialist utopia, of course.

And to think I paid a buck-fifty for this awesomeness…

When I first arrived in Korla, I found it to be a very unique city in Xinjiang by virtue of the fact that it was so remarkably not unique. In stark contrast to many of the better known cities of Xinjiang, such as Kashgar, Khotan, Turpan, and Qumul, Korla strikes one as a rather bland, typical Chinese city, with cookie-cutter buildings and a noticeable paucity of historical sites (with the notable exception, perhaps, of the Uyghur graveyard which Michael pointed out to me the other day and is currently very high on the to-visit list). This makes Korla a rather typical city for China proper, but distinct among the Silk Road delights of Xinjiang. In fact, the only comparable city I’ve heard of is Shihezi, another prefab city owned by the Bingtuan and elicited from the ground in some “modern-China” orgy of construction over the past few decades. A fellow expat dubbed Shihezi the “Korla of the north,” and I’m just as certain expats and Shihezites alike are saying Korla is the Shihezi of the south. And yes, I just coined a new term for a resident of Shihezi. Sounds delightfully biblical, too.

But after having lived here for two months now (wow), the concept of a truly unique sort of “Korlaness” is finally taking shape in my mind. Most of these features are either subtle in a “you-studied-anthropology-as-an-undergrad” sort of way (read: probably not that subtle) or can be attributed to the fact that I live here. But there’s one unique “Qorla Quirk” that is quite tangible and easily shared, and that’s Korla’s elite fleet of squad cars.

Many years ago while traveling through Europe I saw a freaking Lamborghini Gallardo parked in front of the Coliseum, manned by two poliziotti and decked out in full squad car regalia, sirens and blue paint job and all. Since then, I’ve always seen a city or country’s police cars as a special reflection of that location’s personality. Rome would naturally pull off something as flamboyant as a Lamborghini; Memphis is economic, patriotic, and utilitarian with its fleet of Chevy Impalas. And Korla sports golf carts, apparently.

This little golf cart isn’t an aberration, either. Based on my totally non-scientific haphazard counts, the golf cart to actual squad car ratio has to be at least 5 to 1. The other day, while waiting at the bus stop, I saw a convoy of four of these things heading with maximum haste to what must’ve been a huge crime scene. Unfortunately, even with the flashing lights, it was hard to take them seriously chugging along at what must’ve been 15 miles per hour.

How exactly do these adorable little police pods illustrate what makes Korla Korla? Maybe Korla is a hip city paving the way to the environmentally-friendly future of an electric police force. Maybe Korla is a moneyed city of upper-middle class Han Chinese, whose golf-course-esque conspicuous consumption shows up even among the cops. Maybe Korla is a confident city, which relies on a force so elite and well-trained that actual squad cars are totally obsolete – how can 6 cylinders compare to the muscular pistons of a stalwart young Chinese patriot’s calf? Or maybe this is a nation-wide trend in China and I am erroneously attributing it to Korla. Who knows? It’s cool either way.

Here’s another “stuff I can’t eat often in Xinjiang” post. I hate to be cliche, both in a broad sense (because complaining about what’s available is an overused staple of China expat blogs) and in a narrow sense (since I already made such a post), but here goes.

I live in a place that is often linked with the romantic idea of the “Silk Road,” probably way more often than it should be. Just uttering those two words often conjures these awesome, Hollywood quality images of turbaned middlemen leading camels laden with Roman gold, Chinese silk, Indian spices, and what have you across the world’s largest land mass. In addition to these exotic goods, conquest, politics, technology, religion and ideologies traversed this (these) ancient route(s). But it’s so much more complex than that. In fact, I know a few “in-the-know” acquaintances (read: history majors) who dispute the fact that the Silk Road even is a viable concept. Regardless, on hearing the various legends and stories, one would imagine that here in Korla, I could just mosy on out to the nearest “Silk Road” outlet, and take my pick off cheeses, spices, and Papa John’s thin-crust pizzas, straight of platters toted by an unending train of slow-moving camels. Man, that would be awesome.

But the Silk Road cynics win this round. There is no sushi-bar camel platter train. In fact, despite being in the chain that stretches from Chang’An to Roma, there’s a lack of lots of things here. So I complain. I complained in my kettle corn post about the lack of things like pizza.

But, the moral of the story is: where there’s a will, there’s a way. Which is good news, because it means that given enough time, I’ll figure things out and complain a lot less. I failed to mention a few weeks ago that the very next day after I lamented my pizzalessness, Michael and another American teacher at this high school got together, pooled together an unprecedented collection of ingredients and made, what do you know, a pizza. By golly.

Not just any, pizza, mind you. These pizzas, affectionately dubbed “the cheese experiment” by my coworker, were triumphs of experimental cooking. The Uyghurs provided the bread. They make this traditional, delicious bread called “nan” that, oddly enough, is shaped exactly like a pizza crust, a pizza with nothing in it. Never in my personal experience with Uyghurs have I seen them put anything in it, even though they seem made to have something put in them. Well, we didn’t sit around, philosophizing about it. We took action. We stuffed the empty nan with cheese (pepperjack!) and other vegetables and meats. It was a total success. Pizza in the middle of nowhere is possible. Two delectable varities were born: the Marvelous Marvin, my favorite… and something else. I forgot the name.

I was reminded to write this post today because my coworker decided to divulge to me a super duper secret place where forbidden Western delights could be found. Sporting my CIA sunglasses and my trenchcoat, I went to this place and left with some goods I thought couldn’t possibly exist here. Those who know my culinary preferences will understand that the only apt caption for this picture is “EEEEEEE!” Behold:

It’s my seventh week here. My apartment has become my home, I’ve built a daily routine, I’ve developed a good rapport with my students, and, gosh darnit, I’ve found olive oil and balsamic vinegar in Korla. Life is good!

Another Brick in the Wall

I have exactly 1065 students. They’re divided into about 20 classes, each with 52-54 students. Each class sees me once a week, and so I have the blessing of only having to prepare one lesson plan for week; after doing that, I proceed to teach the exact same lesson 20 times. On a side note, that means my Monday classes are perpetually cursed with having to endure relatively sloppy, rough-edged lessons, whereas my Friday classes get a pretty streamlined and smooth lesson since, by the time I’ve reached them, I’ve taught the same freaking lesson 16 times already. But I digress. While on the upside, having 20 different classes means I get plenty of free time outside of the classroom, since I only prepare one lesson a week, the downside is, I have a huge, huge number of students. That comes with its own set of problems. The point of this update is simply to share with friends, family, and readers, the enormity and diversity of my personal student body. And the best way to do that, of course, is with a picture!

So what’s the story? One of the problems that comes with having 1.065*10^3 students is remembering their names. I think, for someone of my memory abilities, this task is completely impossible. But by God, I’m going to address them by their names in the classroom, because I refuse to just haphazardly point and say “You,” or make up some anonymizing system of letters and numbers. So I devised a system. This system. About two weeks ago, the designated punishment for the losing team during a competition-based classroom activity was to “give me their mugshot.” At first, the mugshot system was simply an incentive not to lose, but eventually, I explained to them that I was taking these pictures so that I could eventually print out a sheet with all their faces and their names on them. Ta da! Once this is accomplished, I can glance at a person’s face, then glance at the magic sheet, and presto, I have their name. The classes are divided into 5 tables of 10 to 12 people, and I will arrange the picture sheet to correspond to the tables, so that when I want to talk to any given person, I can instantly narrow it down to 10-12 people, then, by their face, quickly locate their name. The hope is, of course, that eventually I’ll start using the sheet less and less, especially with the students who stand out – good or bad.

Of course, logistically speaking, taking 1065 pictures is a difficult task. I have to come home every day and spend about an hour cropping and labelling photos (which is a hastle, since my class rosters have all their names in Chinese characters, many of which I can’t recognize). At this point, two weeks into the photo taking, I’ve got about half of them: 441. And all 441 that I’ve taken so far are crammed into the collage above, vivid enough to demonstrate the diversity of my students, but blurred enough, I hope, to preserve a semblance of anonymity for them (they use the Internet, too!).

The title of this post isn’t meant to be any sort of commentary on the Chinese education system. That song is heavily laden with various levels of meaning, but I couldn’t resist using that as a title because, well, I literally made a wall, and each of my students are a brick in it. Another amusing point – for the first several days, by some wacky coincidence, all the teams that lost consisted entirely of girls. Therefore, for a period of a few days, my creepy-weirdo levels spiked to unprecedented heights, as I spent my weekday nights cropping and labeling hundreds of photos… of high school girls. As soon as I noticed this disturbing trend (I identified its cause – the girls sit in the front, and I kept on picking the front two tables for the first matches), I made it a point to rectify the situation by picking two tables with at least a few boys in them. Everything’s okay now, as you can see, the collage has a good 50/50 ratio going on.