Sunday, April 3, 2011

Xuzhou mama hoo hoo.

So I mentioned last time that I was getting ready to go on a business trip to Xuzhou, China. I’m going to say right now that you should ignore everything I said in the previous blog. So many surprises can happen when you agree to go with a foreign person to a foreign place, without a real sense of why you are going, and when you will return.

But it was certainly an experience. First of all, two of the American girls, Judith and Daniela went with me. They, going for the vacation aspect of the trip, started planning out what we were going to do between my work hours. In their guidebooks they read that the city we were visiting was one of the most beautiful in China. It had festivals, gardens, grand mountains, ancient artifacts, and something called the Temple of Wonders. So we were excited when we found out we were headed to one of the most sacred and famous places in all of China. Everywhere we went people kept saying how wonderful our trip was going to be.

Unfortunately, I had been pronouncing the name of the city incorrectly. I had been calling the place Suzhou. But we were not headed to Suzhou, but Xuzhou.

Now Xuzhou has some decent things about it but it’s not in the same league as Suzhou. It’s like eating a Pop Tart when you know there are artery-clogging biscuits and gravy in the next room. When we told our Chinese Laoshi where we were actually headed he gave us a sigh of pity. He said, “Xuzhou mama hoo hoo.” Basically this means that Xuzhou isn’t terrible but it’s not fantastic either.

Next, we didn’t take a train like I thought. We took a sleeping bus. It was supposed to have beds, pillows, and blankets for us to utilize while we enjoyed our peaceful journey through the night. When I heard about this vehicle I imagined it would look something like the Night Bus from the third Harry Potter movie.

But unlike the British wizards, we got this rickety-looking deathtrap. It was behind all the other nice busses at the bus station. The one that they try to hide in the back so customers are forced to feel committed by the time they walk out and see it.

When we got on, there were about forty bunk-beds crammed together; some full of sleeping Chinese men. It felt like a morgue as we walked through the line of still bodies.

The girls and I took the place in the back. Within thirty minutes of our eight hour luxury bus ride, we started to itch as bugs from the blankets and pillows began biting us. We’re lice free though so that’s good. The bugs in our hair must have already eaten the lice.

Oh, and once nine o’clock hit the temperature dropped about twenty degrees. But there was nothing we could do so we just laughed at our situation until we reached the nearly nice city of Xuzhou.

The next morning I started working for Shen. He had invited me to his home-town so he could use me for an experiment he was working on. That day he recorded me saying the sentences the Americans and I had edited for him. He is going to play those recordings back to people and see how their brains react to those words. I’m not really sure how it all works but it seems very interesting.

After work, Shen took the three of us out to see the sights of Xuzhou. It’s actually a fascinating place. We flew kites in a park, saw a mountain, and visited the ancient tomb of a prince from the Han Dynasty. The tomb was looted several years ago but many of the ancient writings and statues remained in museums nearby. What’s amazing about China is that many of the characters used in their writing thousands of years ago are still being used today.

At one point Shen also taught me the rules of Chinese Chess. It’s an exciting game that has many similar rules and pieces as the Chess we play in the states. Someday I want to play the old Chinese men in the parks. They get really serious about this and large crowds form and start chanting for their favorite player. It's like extreme Chess.

Finally, as the trip was ending, Shen took us out to eat with his family. We got to meet his daughter and wife. Many Chinese people want English names when you meet them so I was given the opportunity to name his daughter. I called her Maria after my sister.

On the way home we took a normal bus. There were no beds, freezing temperatures, or insects. So all together, I’d say it was a great trip. I got to work with a scientist, take tours through tombs, and see all the sights of this mama hoo hoo city.

I could go for a Cheesy Gordita Crunch

I found out today that the closest Taco Bell is in South Korea. I am a country away digestional happiness. So if anyone has a sudden urge to overnight me a package please have it include one of everything from the TB menu. And maybe a few of those hot sauce packets with the friendly messages on them. It’s practically as good as writing a letter.



We went to the Laoshan Mountains today. They are some of the most famous mountains in China. It was a good climb that lasted about two hours and we reached a Bogotá at one of the larger peaks. I’ll load some pictures when I get a chance. It was one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever taken.

Korean food

A Korean girl named Nabi invited my roommate Florien, Judith, Kim, and I to her house for dinner. She lives with her brother, his wife, and their two sons. This was my first experience to eat with a Korean family.

I mentioned earlier that Koreans are extremely giggly people. However, I neglected to say how amazing they are. All of the Korean’s I’ve met have done everything in their power to make me feel comfortable and welcome in all situations. Like on Laoshan I was complaining about being hungry. Almost immediately a group of Koreans rushed me with egg salad, sandwiches, and some kind of processed meat substance on a stick. They the nicest people I’ve ever met.

The Koreans we had dinner with were no exception. They treated us like family. And it was interesting to experience the cultural differences. For example, we had to wear special shoes when we entered the doorway. Koreans consider walking into a home with shoes to be rude and dirty. So we all got to wear Korean flip flops. Big fan.

And the food was amazing. There was some kind of black bread, a meat and pasta dish, and a chewy yellow thing that ended up being squid. It was the second best meal I’ve had since I’ve been here. The first would be Pizza Hut.

Another interesting part about the Koreans is that they eat on the floor. They have these little tables that come about a foot-and-a-half off the ground. The family sits on the carpet around these tables and enjoys the food. Most Korean households have heated floors that they use during meals to keep themselves warm. I felt honored to have such an experience.

The Most Bravest

In Chinese class we had to read a passage out of the textbook to the entire class. We were supposed to read it like lines from a script so everyone was partnered up the night before. Judith was my partner. Ma Laoshi told us he would pick out the best group in the class.

Not that I’m competitive or anything, but I told Judith that we were going to win at all costs. She, being the kind of girl who will likely take over the world in a few years, agreed with me. So we went home and practiced for hours. I will admit right now that I’m not the best at Chinese and memorizing the characters along with their tones is a struggle. But we worked really hard. I even ripped an audio version of the text onto Audacity and listened to it while I slept. We were positive that we would be good, if not be the best, during the presentation.

As the next day rolled around though, Judith and I went up and presented. I thought we did alright; not as good as I had expected, but alright. Then the Laoshi went around and told us how each group ranked in the class. This is a terrible thing that Chinese people do. It’s supposed to encourage students to put all of their effort into not being humiliated in front of their peers. Ranked first was the American and Russian team from the back row. But that was okay, we didn’t have to be at the very top of the class. But when we weren’t the second or third best I started to get a little worried. And when the seventy-four-year-old Korean man who recently decided he wanted to be a Chinese translator when he “grew up” was chosen before us, I kind of slouched in my seat all defeated like. Judith just laughed. She’ll be a good politician someday.

Finally, when everyone BUT Judith and I had been ranked from first to last, the Laoshi turned to us. He gave a smile of pity and waved his arm while saying the least encouraging words possible. “And I think that you two deserve the title of Most Bravest.”

He smiled once more like the name he had reserved for us would make the situation better. Basically we received the Chinese version of the best effort award. That’s the worst award you can get no matter what culture you’re living in. And it wasn’t even in proper English!

So, I ate a Snicker Bar to ease the cold chill of defeat. On the bright side, this event and others like it have given me the drive to excel in my studies. When I tell my Laoshi I don’t understand something in class he simply looks me in the face and tells me to “work harder.” It’s a heartless strategy but I can’t say it’s not working. Between class and homework I’m doing at least eight to ten hours of studying a day. I’ve never felt more Chinese.

What Happened to the Hole?

I was thinking the other day that Chinese people are just like ants in an ant hill. They are always scurrying about doing different jobs but all for the common goal of the making the whole (China) better. And their work ethic makes us Americans look like we’re running in slow motion.

Last week I walked to class and there was a pothole in the road. It was new hole. A few hours later I came down for a break and the hole was gone. New stone and everything. Do you know how long it takes to fill a hole in Southwest Missouri? It could take months! Sometimes entire traffic routes seem permanently changed because people are working on the road. This hole took a few hours.

And some days I’ll wake up and see an entirely new building outside my window. Where did it come from? Was that building there before? This is a fair question, seeing as I’m not the overly-observant type. But it still seems strange at how quickly things get done here.

It really is amazing. They’re like the elves from that shoemaker story. But instead of shoes they make roads. I’ll take a picture if I’m ever fast enough to catch them in mid-project.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Day to Day Stuff

Hey everyone,

I've attached a few pictures to my blog. They're in no particular order but it should give you some idea of what's been going on.


Will Complain for Food

Last week all of the westerners in our class were given a survey testing our English abilities. It was made-up of sentences and we had to rate their word choices. Unfortunately, most of the test was grammatically incorrect. Also, there were several sentences that were stereotypical. For example, "Like all American women, she had blue eyes and long blond hair," or "The main foods in America are bacon, eggs, toast, and orange juice."

We enjoyed making fun of it for the first page. But this thing ended up being thirteen pages long. Single spaced. And after page seven I was just ticked off. So I went through each sentence and corrected it.

At the end of the test I wrote a note to telling them they needed to fix their test. I also briefly mentioned that I would help them if they were interested. Don't do this lightly in China.

If I had complained in America, people would have probably looked at my note, rolled their eyes, ignored it, and gone on. But here, they took it to heart. The next day a man named Shen came to our dorm looking for me and the rest of the Americans. He studies neurolinguistics in southern China and wanted help perfecting his latest experiment.

I was at work so he asked the other Americans to help correct his sentences. It's funny; he didn't even seem annoyed that I called his test poorly constructed. Instead, he was ecstatic when he heard about English speakers who wanted to fix his work. The Americans however, were not quite as thrilled. It turns out that I had missed several corrections (after page nine I must have stopped caring). They spent hours fixing and recreating this Chinese guy's test.

At the end of the day though, when they had made a rough draft, he took us all out to dinner at Pizza Hut. And the next day, when we all finished a final draft, he took us to McDonald's. It was the most American food I've eaten since we've been here. I have missed hambabows (Chinese word for hamburgers. Fun to say, better to eat).

What's more, he has now offered to send me to some province in southern China so he can study me reading these sentences. If all goes well, I will be traveling by train this Thursday night and spend most of the weekend in Xuzhou. It's an expense-free trip, I will have a day for travel and vacation, and they are going to pay me. In America I would call this whole situation rather sketchy. In China though, this kind of thing happens all the time. I'll let you know how it goes.


Just a fancy Cellar

That cave that I was so interested in was just some ancient cellar that was dug out of the mountain. Once I got my body all the way in I found a chiseled wall and a low roof. It only went back about ten feet. No hallways, no underground waterfalls. Just a hole. I brought my rope and head lamp for a hole.

Dodo and a Coffee Shop

I’m still teaching at the preschool a few days a week. Up until now I have only been reading to the kids and making crafts with them. This last weekend though, we had an open house where parents came and watched me give a demo lesson to their kids. If all goes well, I will soon have my own class that I will be in charge of teaching.

The four kids that came Saturday are amazing. All of them are under six years old and have not spoken English before. It’s an exciting experience.

Like many of the Chinese, the children all have English names. This makes it easier for me to remember them all. My kids are named Hawk, Winnie, Apple, and Dodo. I have heard the name Apple several times here but Dodo is a new one. I asked his parents again to make sure I had heard them correctly. I hadn’t. Instead, his name is actually Doodoo.

But I will not call one of my students Doodoo. Think of all the trouble he would have if he ever went to America. So I made them switch it to Dodo. It’s better. Not much, but still better. The boy doesn’t know the difference between the two names and responds just well to either of them. Once he starts learning more words I will encourage him to change it to something different. Until then I will have Apple, Winnie, Hawk, and Dodo. A fruit, a bear, and a couple of birds. This is the beginning of my class and I hope to see it grow soon.

Also in the work news, I have been hired by the CEO of a construction company as an English tutor. Their business sells equipment and building materials internationally and exports to the western countries. They are even hiring foreigners. My new boss wants to perfect his English ability and give speeches for his new European and American employees.

My job will be to improve his pronunciation, add to his vocabulary, discuss American culture, and write speeches for him to present to his foreign workers. I feel like the guy in King Speech (good movie. Check it out). And I think, if I understand his secretary correctly, that I was invited to the company get-together at the end of the month. We’re going mountain climbing. I will bring my rope and head lamp.

The best part though is that I will be tutoring my new boss at a coffee shop. The CEO’s assistant took me with him to the cafĂ© and I was able to pick out which table we would study at. I guess this guy is going to rent out that section of the coffee shop for us every week.

That’s all for now. I hope you all are well. Please feel free to email me while I’m here. My address is