Wednesday, July 9, 2008

My humps, my humps, my humps, my humps

My lovely camel's humps.

Yesterday Sherly, Caroline, her sister Jessica and I headed out early in the morning (yet again) to take an interesting trip. We took a bus, another bus and then a taxi and finally arrived in the desert. Once we were in the desert we headed straight for the camels and took a half an hour camel caravan ride through the sandy dunes. I was a little firghtened to be perched so high between the camels two humps, but I really enjoyed the experience.

The whole time we were riding along I kept switching between two songs. The old kids song "Sally the camel" and Fergie's "My Humps." Thus I named my camel Sally "Fergalicious" the camel. My camel didn't spit at all during the trek, but it did fart quite a bit. I was also leading the caravan and the camel behind me kept setting it's head down in my lap.

The weirdest part about the whole thing was the feeling of getting on and off the camelm because they ley down in the sand for you to get on and then stand back up, but they hoist one end up and then the other so it basically felt like I was being pitched forward while the camel gathered it's strength to stand on all four.

After the camel ride we went sand sliding where you get on a wooden sled and slide down a steep sand dune. It was a bit slower than I expected but still a fun experience. Then we left the desert and started to make the trek back to the hostel.

This took over four hours and we were all hot, tired and hungry so it wasn't much fun. Once we finally returned we set out for dinner, which ended up being really nice. We ate at a restaurant with little yurts set up for each party, which was cool to see. After dinner we went home and showered and went to bed so we could have another early start today.

Beijing again

Sunday Jon and I left Handan early in the morning to head to Beijing so we could head to Hohhot, because there aren't any trains directly from Handan. Once we got to Handan we met up with Ross and Landy and had lunch together at Subway before heading our separate ways for the afternoon.

Jon and I then went to the Silk Market so I could buy some new light-weight gym shoes for my adventures this summer and a new camera case that was easier for stashing my stuff. I also ended up buying a hat, which is out of character for me but my friends say it suits me and after starting our travels I'm glad I had it.

There was some confusion with bus/train tickets and so after a lot of "meiyou" and running around we ended up getting soft sleepers for the next morning instead of leaving that night as planned.

Around 6 we met up with the whole No. 3 crew (it was coincidence that we were all in Beijing at the same time) and went to dinner at Outback. Western meals are a blessing sometimes. Then we went to the bookstore where we had all of five minutes to choose books and make our purchase. I was so starved for English reading material that I ran around like a madwoman scooping up books before running to the checkout counter with three new paperbacks in hand.

Then Jon and I found a hostel to crash at for the night and called it a day.

The next morning we headed out early again, but this time we were able to start our day with Starbucks. We hooked up with our other friends from the Shiz at the train station and boarded our 11 hour train to Hohhot. The ride was actually the most beautiful train ride I've experienced in the last 10 months with mountains the whole way. The ride went by surprisingly fast and we were greeted at the station in Hohhot by folks from our hostel who were incredibly kind.

Once we were checked in we went in search of some food and after dinner we went to bed because we were going to have an early morning the next day.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The 4th of July in China

Happy 4th to everyone! I hope you are all out playing baseball, eating hot dogs and apple pie, singing the Star Spangled Banner and watching fireworks. I've never really thought of the 4th as a holiday to give thanks (I just used it as a marker that my birthday is a week away) because that's what Thanksgiving is for, right?

But after almost a year of living in communist China I feel I have a lot of "American" things to be thankful for this year.

I'm thankful that I have the right to free speech and can express myself as I so choose.

I'm thankful that we have a free press, really thankful.

I'm thankful that I can choose to worship who I want, when I want.

I'm thankful that November will soon roll around and I'll be able to cast a vote to choose the leader of my country.

The list could go on for quite some time, but those are the biggies for sure.

At dinner tonight we sang the National Anthem for our Chinese guests and then I told them to get used to hearing it because it is going to play over and over and over again in Beijing as America wins gold medal after gold medal after gold medal.

After dinner Jon set off some fireworks and then we watched a war movie in honor of the land of the free.

Lastly, I'm thankful to have spent this time abroad to help me to realize that America certainly isn't without it's flaws and to gain a better outside perspective of the home of the brave. And to realize how proud I am to be an American.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Attack of the slime and rants about the Olympics and politics

This summer's upcoming Olympics have been marred by a myriad of problems and concerns, it seems like every time I check the news there is some new story about the pollution or politics in China and how it is going to affect the games. Now it looks like there might be some trouble with the sailing events in the Olympics this summer.

I know my blog was M.I.A. back when all the riots were taking place in Tibet and while the protests were taking place throughout the torch relay but I figured while I'm on the topic I'd comment on that a little and see what others have to say as well. I feel like I could go in a million different directions here and talk about this for ages, but I'll try to be brief.

Now I know my observations here aren't a reflection of every Chinese person, the same way my actions and beliefs aren't a reflection of every American, but there are my general observations.

I've come to realize that young Chinese people are typically the exact opposite of young westerners in terms of political feelings. I'd say in America young adults are the ones most likely to be questioning the government, asking questions, trying to stir things up and hoping to make some sort of difference. In China the young are the most obedient to the communist party and it isn't until they are 30 or maybe even 40 that they even consider questioning the government, if they do so at all.

As an American, I've learned to be able to separate myself from my country and my government. My students have an unbelievably difficult time doing this. When the riots in Tibet started and the protests took place along the torch relay route their response was to start hating everyone who had something bad to say about China. One class had my watch an eight minute video trashing western media (CNN in particular) and talking about how no one tells what is really going on in China and they are all too biased and they only like Tibet and don't tell the real story (meaning the censored story that they get from their government-controlled media) and when the video was over all eyes were on me.

Me, who believes in free speech and free press more than I believe in almost anything else. Me, who studied journalism for years and hopes to become one of those reporters who writes about what is going on in the world. Me, who reads CNN everyday for my news fix. Me, who is also a teacher in communist China. Me, who truly loves all of those kids who were staring at me. So, what to say?

First I had to close my mouth and wipe away the shocked look on my face. Then I told my students that they had a right to show that video (because let's remember that I love free speech) but that it wasn't enough and that they had to tell me what they themselves were thinking. That they couldn't just give into the video and let it do the talking for them, that they needed to be able to express their own opinions and have their own ideas. Apparently this was a bit too much free speech for them to handle because most of the class was silent.

I tried to explain to my class that they have the ability to separate themselves from their government. I think this is a lot easier for us to do in America ... when people say they don't like America or Bush I don't take it personally. I try to be a better person to prove to others that what they think of our government isn't indicative of all people back home. My students can't wrap their minds around this and take everything that is said about their government as though it was being said about them personally. I tried my best to persuade them otherwise and get them to know they can prove people otherwise, but I didn't have too much luck with that.

OK, enough ranting for now ...

Something to groove to

With well over 100 hours of train rides in front of me in the next month I've been spending a good chunk of this evening with my laptop trying to scour my music collection for the ultimate soundtrack to my trip. Unfortunately I can't seem to come up with the right mix to keep me rockin' and rollin' all summer long. So I turn to you, fair readers, and ask for your best suggestions for the ultimate playlist.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My new love: JPG Magazine

So last night in browsing the Internet I stumbled across the site for JPG Magazine and within 12 hours I was in love. The magazine is for photo enthusiasts and offers a place for people to share their photos, get feedback and possibly even get published. The site and the magazine aren't pretentious and bogged down with technical jargon, which makes it great for folks like me who love photos but can't quite grasp all the mumbo-jumbo. Anyway, you should all check out the site, check out my photos and vote when I enter to get published.

Planning makes me giddy

I've been complaining all day about how tired I am and how I need to get to sleep and I've been sitting at home for well over an hour now screwing around on the Internet, looking up travel information and trying to make the perfect summer mix for my mp3. Unfortunately, said mp3 is currently not working and I have to make a trip in the morning to get it repaired. I have a growing list of other things I also need to get done this week before my travels take over and I spend the summer seeing sites, taking photos and living out of a backpack.

Jon and I spent a good chunk of time hashing out details for our summer travels and it looks like I'm going to be gone for pretty much the next month. The plan as of right now is to leave Sunday morning for Beijing (5 hour train) and hang out in the city for the afternoon. Sunday night we'll leave for Hohhot in Inner Mongolia (8 hour bus) where we will stay until July 9, at which point we will leave for Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia (20-some hour train). We'll stay in Ulaanbaatar for a few days to go to the Naadam festival of manly sports. Then on the 13 we will leave for Beijing again (30-some hour train), once we arrive in Beijing we will take a train back to Handan (5 hours). If all goes according to plan we will have about 36 hours in Handan, which should be just enough time to wash our clothes, upload our photos and get a good night's sleep before heading off to the next leg of our journey.

We'll leave on July 17 for Zhengzhou (2 hour train) where we'll fy to Guilin (2 hour flight). We'll stay in Guilin for three days before heading to Kunming (19 hour train). There are some Drakies in Kunming and hopefully we will be able to hook up with them or at least get some pointers on what to see and do while we are there. From Kunming we are flying to Chengdu (1 hour flight) where we will stay for approximately four days with a one day side trip to Lushan. Our days in Chengdu have to be flexible because we have to wait there for a permit to go visit Tibet. Once we get the OK to head to Lhasa we'll jump on a plane (2 hour flight) and head to the Dalai Lama's home for a week, which will (fingers crossed) include a trip to Mt. Everest. After all this we will jump on a train to Shijiazhuang (44 hour train) then take another to Handan (2 hour train). If all goes according to plan, this is China though so I won't count on it, we should be back in Handan on August 5. This will give us enough time to once again do laundry, upload photos, repack and head to Baoding to see David and Amy on the 8th before going to Beijing from August 9 - 18 to watch the Olympics.

All in all it should be the summer of a lifetime and I'm pumped to get it started.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Oh the bureaucracy

Today officials, from what I gather to be similar to the school board of Hebei Province where I teach, paid a visit to our school to make sure it is running like the well-oiled machine that it typically is not. Of course the school was given plenty of warning for this visit, which gave them more than enough time to make the school shine like to top of the Chrysler Building. (Can you name that movie?)

The first three floors of the building where I live were given a complete makeover (ABC would have been proud of the transformation they made). Please note that I said the first three floors ... the fourth and fifth floors, which is where Ben, Jon and I live were not repaired at all. I addition to a new coat of paint they hung new signs (in English and Chinese) and plastered pictures of the headmasters, China and every foreigner who has ever been to the school all over the building. Because I have excellent luck the school decided to select every horrible picture they've taken of me during the last 10 months and put those on display for everyone to see. When you walk into our building the head shot of me is horrible - I'm mid-laugh, my hair is blowing everywhere, my eyes are squinty and I have about 17 chins. The third floor of our building is marked with similarly embarrassing photos that will live on for God only knows how long. I'm assuming our new TV screen was all part of the ploy to make our school look better than the others in the city.

Since the officials were visiting and I'm white it meant it was time for me to put on a show. Sometimes it seems like I'm just a puppet that gets dragged out for photo shoots and publicity stunts. This time around they had each of us teach one class, even though last Thursday was technically our last day of class. According to the headmaster there were at least 150 officials from the education department who came through to visit the school. None of the classes I normally teach were renovated so they actually had me teach one of Jon's overseas preparatory classes instead since their class is small, well-behaved and nicely decorated. The class was fine - I taught the kids about advertising, had them do a fake commercial, talked about logos and had them try to name as many logos as they could - and the officials only stopped by for a few minutes, but apparently I did a good enough job.

I just can't wrap my mind around the fact that 150 people from the department had to come to check out our school. From what I was told these people were from the province, not our city, which means there are probably thousands of schools that they are responsible for. In my mind it would make a lot more sense for them to divide and conquer, but perhaps that is too logical. I'm just glad they are gone because that means that all my teaching is done and hopefully all of the construction around the school is done as well.

School's out for summer

I couldn't help but let the infamous lyrics sung by Alice Cooper play through my mind over and over these last few days as my count dwindled from one month left of teaching to one week to one day to one hour. My students were all super great this week and seemed generally sad to say goodbye to me. I'm keeping it a surprise to all of them that I'm sticking around to teach for another term so I just played along as though I'm heading back to America.

One of my smaller classes gave me a yearbook of sorts that they put together themselves. Each student filled out a page in the book with information about themselves and then on the back of the page they wrote me a note. It was a really sweet gesture and the notes were so great to read. Most of them thanked me for being their teacher, paid me a lot of compliments and said that they hope we can meet again in the future. I'll definitely be bringing the book back for everyone to check out, but for now I want to share my favorite passage.

At the top of the page it says, "Chinese isn't a people that are good at expressing, as you know, Class 1 Grade 2 isn't a class that are very active, you know. But, not being good at expressing doesn't equal to not being thankful and not being active doesn't equal to being unhappy. We have hidden our thanks to you in our heart, in the most deep place of our body. Today let me speak it out = Erin, we love you!"

Then she wrote me a poem:
"To Erin:
You're a green leaf,
Flying across the wide ocean,
Falling on the land of the eastern world,
And then gone back with the wind.

You're a lovely window,
Bringing us a new world,
With the sun's bright shining,
And the wind's slight blowing.

Leaf is leaving,
Window won't shut,
We'll continue the window
And last our miss you.

*A short poem, it can be called a poem written for you. Maybe there are lots of errors, however, it presents my heart and mind. Hope you'll be happy when reading it."

And finally she wrote me a note: "I don't think this will be a forever separation because I have a feeling that there must be someone in our class who will got to America for further education or just a job in the future. If so, I think no one will forget to get in touch with you at that time. So, don't be afraid to be troubled when we pay a visit to you then. Haha. Let's imagine what the scene will be like then (just taking me for example) ------

'Ringring, ringring, ringring.' You come to the door, strangely looking at me, who is standing in front of you.

'So you are...?'

'Oh Erin, please don't. Can't you really recognize me? I'm xxx, who you taught ten years ago in Class 1, Grade 2 No. 3 Middle School.'

'Oh My God! It's you! It's unbelievable!'

We have a big hug and walk into the house. A crowd of boys and girls are playing there.

'Oh Erin, are you still a teacher and these are your students?'

'No, no, these are all my children.'

Hearing this, I almost stop my breath. Then you turn to them, 'My boys and girls now stop your games and listen to me! Jack, get a cup of tea! Tom, get a bottle of juice! Rose, get her a chair! Lucy, get something to eat! Jim, get the TV turned off! Rain, get the toys away! Lily get ....'

When everything is ready you order them, 'Come stand in a line and say hello to the guest.'

I can't help counting the number of children in my heart: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen ...'"

I have no idea where she got the idea that I want to have 16 children, but I thought the story was absolutely endearing and the poem and note were the most heartfelt things I've read in a long time. It's hard to read something like that, listen to the kids say goodbye and ever think about leaving them.