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Archive for October, 2007

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!

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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.

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