Sunday, October 28, 2007


As a Waigoren living in China, you quickly learn that there is one necessity needed on all outings into the city that is as important to a year-long tourist as a good pair of walking shoes or travel-sized hand sanitizer--it is a state of mind, perhaps an apathy, a distance or just indifference to the visual chaos surrounding you. Step outside the apartment gate and the entire world, on some days, can seem to attack your eyes. Indecipherable characters, graphics that in no way relate to their advertised product (why is a fat man with a baseball bat on the packaging to my chocolate cookies?), building after overcrowded building spilling out into tiny alleyways that have no directional rhyme or reason, face after strange face staring at you on the bus, on the street, in the market, can be a bit much for two little eyes to take in all at once. Especially if you haven't had your coffee or coca-cola fix in a while.

If you don't keep your wits about you, it can feel as if you're standing on a street corner with the whole world spinning around you in a distorted panorama of funhouse-mirror swirls. There's a panic that can arise deep in your chest, a lump in your throat, a pain against the base of your skull that is caused by nothing other than looking down a street and seeing absolutely nothing familiar to the eyes. Your eyes dart from one image to the next in rapid succession--searching in vain for something they can identify--anything that, when they shoot it to the brain, will return a response of a word, a definition, a memory, an understanding. When they do come across that something--they seize on the image, soaking it in, proud to show off the awesome one-two punch of the visual-cognitive process that we so often ignore.

It's what we call "a sight for sore eyes."

And it was in search of such a sight that I hopped off my bus two miles ahead of my stop several days ago. Weeks before, a wayward taxi brought me home via an obscure route--much to my annoyance at the time. The meter was already 7 kwai more than usual and I was seething at the delay when all of a sudden--my eyes were arrested by an entire row of familiar looking stores outside my window. And these weren't the chinese-attempting-to-seem-western-enough-to-be-trendy stores that fill the shopping areas of Hankou (the downtownish part of Wuhan), these were real Western stores. Sure, I didn't recognize the names--but they looked like anything you'd see in Nashville along West End Blvd--cute little independent shops and restaurants that have a great 'walk in off the street' vibe.

There was a Joe's Bar, Sylvia's Patisserie, a Cleaners, Red Rose Beauty Salon, a Mocha Coffee, Sports Goods, Stationer, and Le Lotus Bleu Bar and Restaurant. They had decorated storefront windows and individual entrances. The store signs used simple, elegant fonts and clean imagery--no Chinese characters. A boardwalk path and iron park benches completed the ambiance. My heart lept while my eyes tried to soak it all in as we sped past.

It seemed I had found an oasis. But I tried to temper the rush of excitement and discoverer's pride with a hard dose of cynicism. After all, there are over 50 Americans in Wuhan through our program, and they instantly shared with us the Western get-aways that exist throughout the city--Mr Mais coffeeshop that serves great tacos and lattes, Giano's American/Italian restaurant, Aloha Hawaiian restaurant, Metro, Wal-Mart, and Carrefour shopping plexes etc... It was unlikely that they would not have already found this place. Plus, there are plenty of places in Wuhan that pose as Western-style restaurants or shopping areas but are as American as Wendy's mandarin salad bowl combos are Chinese.

So when I had some free time on a Friday evening and couldn't stomach going an inch further on my sardine-crammed bus, I squeezed my way off the bus and began walking toward what I was hoping would be my western Mecca. It was a lovely fall night and my path took me down a tree-lined street that ran alongside one of Wuhan's many lakes. I could see my destination on the other side of the lake, the storefronts casting a golden glow on the water. I daydreamed of Joe's Bar being run by a friendly American grandfather type, serving sub sandwiches to ex-pats who just wanted a place "where everybody knows your name." After a brisk 25 minute walk, I was there.

My eyes felt that same relief of gazing at something known, familiar, definable. They rested on the shops and I felt peaceful. My pace slowed to a stroll--I wanted to savor this discovery. I ambled up to the first shop, the Patisserie--the door was locked, it must have closed for the evening. No matter--I'll just look in the window, I thought. But no, it turns out the windows were more like display cases--there was a wall that closed them off to the rest of the store. I moved down the street.

Store after store--locked. Window after window--enclosed. It was only 6:30--but Joe's was dark. Hmmm--I guess I'll have to come back during the daytime. Then I looked closer.

At Christmas time in the States--department stores decorate their shelves with Christmas presents. Do you remember as a child the first time you realized that they weren't real? Underneath the shiny wrapping and curled ribbon was a styrofoam cube. Or in the bakery section of Kroger, did you ever dare that one time to stick your finger into the icing of the displayed wedding cake, only to rub plastic? For the sports fans--you know the way you felt when you heard of Sammy Sosa's corked bat, or McGuire's steroid use (I don't know what I'm talking about here)? For music fans--when you found out that Milli Vanilli was lip-syncing...

I was prepared for the possibility that these stores would use a Western look to market their Chinese product. I was not prepared for blatant fraud.

It took a few seconds for it to all sink in. My oasis, my beautiful, urban shopping street was a sham. The doors led to nothing. There was nothing but a hard concrete wall behind those window displays. Nothing. Taking a step back, both literally and mentally, I looked around and began to piece things together. The background of the street, which I had ignored until this point came into sharp focus. There it was--I was standing in front of a high-class apartment complex called Le Park...the elaborate entrance to which was made to resemble a typical street in the US or Europe.

I felt like I had been slapped in the face. My eyes were suddenly stinging with tears. I was hurt, silly and a little ashamed. Why would they do this to me? I had believed in this place--I had hoped in it. Why had I let myself be fooled? How could they justify this?

And then I got mad. How dare they! The fakes, the liars, the cheats! I wanted to spraypaint SHAM! and CHARLATAN! and other more un-printable words in graffiti across their elegant sans serif store signs. I wanted to start an LA-style riot and throw bricks through the windows. I felt duped, hosed and swindled. And I wanted revenge.


There's a quote from somewhere that I've always remembered: "What happens to the broken-hearted? They move on, baby." And of course, so did I. I turned around and made my walk back along the lake until I could hail a taxi to bring me home. And in reality, I suppose that I'm glad that globalism hasn't spread its tentacles all over my city with Western enclaves at every corner. I suppose that I like going for blocks without seeing anything reminiscent of home. I suppose that this is something that I actually moved to China to experience. I suppose.

Once back on campus, I went to a street-restaurant and ordered chao fan (fried rice) for dinner. The cook is an older, white haired man who likes to hear me try to speak Chinese. He always says enthusiastically "ok! ok! ok!" when I order. And this time--he remembered my name.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Finally posting pics--Yangtze River Cruise

I thought I'd finally share some images from my travels through the Three Gorges of the Yangtze! Hope you enjoy!

Our cruise ship, the Yun Xiu. We spent most of our time on the top deck (after paying 30 yuan for the privilege--ahhh, holiday inflation). Our cabin was on the second level.
Posing at the front of the ship--right after doing a fine rendition of "My heart will go on."
Notice the house beneath the cliffs
V is for Victory--what you don't see in this pic is all the Chinese behind the camera taking pics of us. From left to right: Rachel, Virginia and me.
check out the ancient stairs leading to the cave:

Creepy night vision of a temple we visited--unfortunately, most of the inside has been rebuilt--everything in China is a replica of something that was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. I think this front gate was authentic though.
A suspended coffin:
The whole crew on our Sheenong Stream excursion: Rachel and Justin, me and Virginia

A riverside town: the 175 M sign indicates how high the river will rise once the Three Gorges Dam (the largest in the world) completely closes its gates. We are so grateful to have seen the Gorges before it's all underwater.

If you want to see all my pics from the trip (there are some really good ones, I promise!) just click on this link to see my facebook photo album!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In Autumn the air smells like sweet potatoes.

Vendors sit at street corners, they line alleyways, they gather in store entrances with their blackened metal trash cans. Inside you can see the warming glow of coals and hear the slight crackle of potato skins. One roasted sweet potato is 1.5 yuan. They hand the steaming bundle to you in a thin plastic bag and it almost burns your hand. You peel away the skin--free to toss the peels on the ground like peanut shells at Logans. At the market, you must watch your step like a cartoon character looking out for banana peels. You eat the potato like you would an apple--use the bag to protect against stickiness, hold it in both hands to stay warm. If it's late in the evening, you bring one home and mash it with honey and black sugar for dessert.

The communist party must announce the arrival of Autumn. All the world is summer; the days are hot, the girls wear short sleeves, the buses blow air conditioning. Then SWITCH!...FALL. In one day--corn appears for the first time in the market, sweet candied apples are sold on skewers, the wind blows cold, the sky turns misty and you shiver in your bed. Bright dresses are replaced with muted sweaters, wool blankets fill store shelves that once held room fans and ice trays.

With the first glimpse of what 'cold' means in Wuhan, we are all preparing to nest. I bought coffee mugs, oatmeal and hot water bottles...Jeremy bought a couch and area I might try to find some large comfy chairs. We are watching the shelves every day for electric blankets to appear for sale. If winter descends with the same suddenness as autumn, we want to be ready.

It is with this season change that I'm seeing a new difference between my US life and my China life. A life of transitions from thermostat-controlled apartments to a heated/cooled car to a thermostat-controlled office, back to car, stop at heated grocery store on way home, back to apartment....didn't leave much room for noticing the seasons. Nor did having a produce section that supplied any fruit or vegetable I could want all year round. Here, I eat what is in season while I can and feel the elements walking and biking around campus, in the unheated classroom, at the busstop, walking around the city, shopping at the outdoor market--pretty much everywhere except the two rooms of my apartment that have heating/cooling units.

As much as I love this country, I still find myself creating little tricks to escape when needed. I watch my DVDs of Friends every now and then. Bruce Springsteen plays almost constantly on my iTunes (his new album, Magic, is PERFECT. I can't stop listening to it. Here's a great review of it from NYT). I keep Oreos, coke and peanut butter stocked in the kitchen.

I suppose that snug in my little American haven, I just might make it through the long Chinese winter.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Woa sure low sure. “I am a teacher.”

The first days:

It felt good to pull out my professional attire on Tuesday morning. I haven’t worn these clothes since losing my PR job last February. When that happened, I took all my boring office suites and slacks to the dry cleaners and stuck them in the back of my closet—refusing from then on to wear anything that resembled “adulthood”. I actually had to tear off the dry cleaning tags for the first time while I got ready. As I looked at myself in the mirror with my business clothes and my heels on—I found myself humming the same tune that got me to my first day at the pr firm, “I have confidence in sunshine. I have confidence in rain. I have confidence that spring will come again. Besides all this you see I have confidence in me!” (or something like that, I never get all the words right...The Sound of Music)

I have two classes of PhD students in English Writing. The goal is to enable them to write academic level papers for publication. The first class is comprised of scientists, botanists, and all forms of extremely intelligent people doing work that I cannot even pronounce. Soil genochemistry, rapseed development, microbiology, molecular biology, soil and land conservation etc… The second class is full of management and business types—with the obvious agricultural focus. My first thought as they shared their field of study: “What the heck am I doing here. These are some of China’s most brilliant scholars. I’m 23. With an undergrad degree.”

But I’ve got the title of “foreign expert.” And they’re stuck with me marking their run-on sentences. This is a strange world.

I’m not sure how to live with the mystery of comprehension. I have no clue how many, if any, students can understand the words coming out of my mouth. I ask questions, blank looks; I make a slight joke, blank looks; I try speaking at a slower tempo, blank looks. Tough crowd, tough crowd. Some of them copy the power point slides verbatim, so at least I know they can go home and translate it word-by-word if needed.

My other classes are all freshmen English majors and I. LOVE. THEM. Their English is as good as my PhD students, they are sweet, THEY LAUGH, and well….they like me! Haha—I know it’s shallow—but I can’t help but bask in their acceptance of me! To the PhD’s, I’m someone whose class they just have to get through so that they can get their degree—to my freshmen, I’m (in the words of one student) an ambassador from a country that fascinates them AND a new, interesting class in the midst of a dull schedule.

I am so relieved to hear them speak English. They know the language, they are conquering grammar and the nuances of written English—my job is to refine their pronunciation. There will probably be slow moments (repeat after me: th. th. th. th. the. these. there. think.), but hopefully I can come up with enough activities to keep it lively.

It’s SO funny to me to see how college freshmen are all the same! As freshmen, we’re all awkward and goofy. The girls are silly and giggle and the guys are lanky and gawky. There are queen bees and class clowns and jocks and plain janes. There are overachieving pseudo-intellectuals and bored or sleepy d-students. I can’t express how joyous I feel thinking that I will get to know them!

On another note: all the girls want my brother. As I introduce myself to each class, I put up a powerpoint slide with photos of my mom, Dylan, and Laura and describe each of them to the class. As soon as Dylan’s pic pops up, a gasp goes up from the crowd. Seriously, in EVERY class (of freshmen). THEN, when I say that he is a junior in college, that he’s 20…the giggles begin. They can’t get enough of him. One class asked me to pronounce his name again. Another asked me if he would be coming to visit me in China. ANOTHER class asked if he was from Houston too (when I introduce myself, I play up the fact that I was born in Houston—where Yao Ming now plays for the Rockets. They all love it. I’m not gonna mention to them that I didn’t know Houston’s basketball team was even named the Rockets until I came to China). Anyway, I’m thinking of offering to give him in marriage to the girl who makes the best grade in my class. That’s what I would call motivation. You up for it Dyl?

Anyway, I’m loving this first week. It’s better than I could have hoped for—and I’m wondering if I stumbled into something that I want to do my whole life. We’ll see. I’ll leave you with some responses from my students to the “introduce yourself” question: What is your favorite English word?

“Beautiful—because I am believing you are very beautiful and I get to look at you in class each week now.” (And you wonder why I like teaching so much!)

“Defense—like for the Rockets. Defense. Defense. DEfense. DEFense. DEFENSE. DEFENSE. DEFENSE.” (at this point I had to interrupt so as not to disturb other classes)





and for the winner: from one of my freshmen guys: “Girl—there is not a more wonderful word or thing in the world.”

Monday, October 8, 2007

Beauty, Sport, Fire and a Yangtze River Cruise

I returned to Wuhan three days ago after celebrating China's National Day (which brings with it a full week of vacation time) in Yichang and the wonderful Three Gorges.

Yichang is a 4-5 hour bus ride from Wuhan and is the home of Beth, Brad, Dawson and Amy--all Lipscomb grads who are in their second year of Work in China. They went to Xi'an for the holiday, but Beth graciously let us (Justin and Rachel Bronson, Virginia, and myself) crash for free in her apt while we were in town.

We were warned even while in the States of the October and May holiday weeks of China. "It's miserable," we were told, "only go if you enjoy staring at the back of Chinese heads while you crane your neck to get a glimpse of a monument that you don't understand and can't enjoy." The entire country has Mon-Wed off of work (well, except for the tourist-related jobs, I suppose) and the entire nation likes to travel. So, the sights to see are generally packed.

That said--it's also when we as teachers have off--so OF COURSE, we're going to go see China! Justin, Rachel, Virginia and I decided on Yichang and a Yangtze River Cruise b/c we knew it would be an easy first trip to plan and the Gorges are soon to be significantly diminished when the massive Three Gorges Dam (the largest in the world) completely closes its gates--to then supply an estimated one-third of China's energy. Finally, we figured that a cruise ship can only hold so many people, so the crowding would be limited to our off-shore excursions.

When we booked our tickets for our "cruise" with the travel agency in Yichang, our travel agent told us enthusiastically and in very broken English that our tickets (which were incredibly overpriced b/c of the holiday) would include "beauty, sport and fire." What? We asked for clarification--and as usual, got none. Then we asked the English-speaking colleague who our agent had translate details to us over the phone. They were all very concerned that we were choosing a domestic cruise--Chinese only, no English tour guides abord. We breezed past their concerns and tried to figure out the beauty, sport and fire options--to no avail.

I suppose you could characterize our entire 3-day cruise as a search for the illusive Beauty, Sport and Fire. Between conversations on theology, politics, ethics, Chinese culture, group dynamics, food, sex, friendships, family backgrounds and future dreams, we watched the cliffs upon cliffs glide past, posed for photos with cute Chinese children and awkward, middle-aged Chinese men, created clever phrases for our mood ("gorged on the gorgeous gorges") and became expert users of the squatty potties. We feared for our lives when we were woken up at 5 a.m. with sounds of Celine Dion blaring "My heart will go on" over the boat's sound system ("Didn't that boat sink? Are they trying to tell us something?") We made up our own histories for the off-shore excursions that we took--"to your right, you'll see the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. Amazingly enough, it is also the exact sight where Chairman Mao, Thomas Jefferson, Michael Jackson, and Yao Ming became boy scouts together!"--to which the Chinese ooohed and aahhhhed as the tour guide announced the history to them in Chinese over a loudspeaker. We saw coffins suspended in chasms thousands of feet above the river. We saw homes built on ground that sloped at 95 degree angles. We were rowed downriver by men in whitey-tighties and rope sandals.

There were beautiful scenes, there were grueling (kind-of) hikes, there was spicy food---but we're still debating if that constitutes the intriguing Beauty, Sport and Fire we were promised when purchasing our tickets.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip and a relaxing week. I feel proud of myself for buying our bus tickets myself and more confident about my ability to get around China. It was fabulous to be out of this dirty city and to see the Chinese countryside. I am blessed to have become so much closer to my travelmates. It was funny to build on a phrase that Laura and I chose while we toured the French countryside in Normandy--as we wove our way through street hawkers I made the comment "Gatlinburg is Gatlinburg whether you're in Gatlinburg or France." I can now also say that Gatlinburg is Gatlinburg whether you're in Gatlinburg or China. Except that maybe the prices are more negotiable in China!

I'm meeting with my travel buddies on Saturday to exchange photos--so I'll pick the best ones and post them then. Tomorrow--I FINALLY begin teaching! I'll try to update soon with how it goes! Love you all!