Sunday, December 31, 2006

Earthquakes and internet troubles

Some of you may have noticed in the news last week that there was an earthquake under the ocean between Taiwan and China. While this earthquake wasn't physically felt anywhere over here, it's definitely being felt in other ways. It damaged some major cables connecting mainland China with foreign internet sites, so we basically haven't been able to get any non-Chinese websites for almost a week here. Google has a server in China, so most google stuff has been working. I'm one of the few people in our foreigner group who doesn't use gmail, though. Oh well. I managed to get an email out yesterday to my mom, but some people have been saying that even if they get into their email, people back home aren't actually receiving the email. So mom, if you didn't get my email then I hope you read this. If it posts.

I should probably also say HAPPY NEW YEAR! It doesn't really feel like a new year, but we all stayed up late last night and cheered at midnight. I'm pretty sure that makes it a new year. Maybe it will feel more like 2007 when I get out and do something today. So late last week we were informed that we get Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off as a holiday to celebrate the new year. Good thing China doesn't even celebrate January 1 as the new year! I dunno, I'm not complaining. Since we're off on those days, I don't have class again until next Friday. I seized the opportunity and got out of town while I could. Now I'm 6 hours south in Yichang visiting Brad, Beth, Amy, and Dawson. We're having a good time so far. Since I don't have class until Friday, I can basically stay until Thursday unless I get bored and decide to leave earlier. Since we're eating Pizza Hut tonight and have other stuff planned for tomorrow, I don't really anticipate getting bored.

I'm really glad that I got into my blog to post this, but I'm tired of fighting the internet. They said it could be as much as three weeks before the cables are totally fixed, but things get a little better each day. I guess it's a matter of internet traffic and fixing a little bit of cable and some other things that I don't quite understand about how the internet works. Anyhoo, I may or may not feel like posting again in the next week or so, just to warn you. I may just wait until I'm back in the comfort of my own home before trying again. So if you feel the need to check my blog three times a day to see if I've posted anything, I'll just go ahead and apologize now. Of course, I don't really know why I'm apologizing for an undersea earthquake. I hope you all have a happy new year and that everyone can keep their resolution at least until there's a good excuse not to.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Day after Christmas

Good news! I'm officially free on Tuesdays now. Tonight was the last time my Tuesday night class met this semester, which is a good feeling. That class had the widest range of English ability I've ever had to teach in one room. Some of the students could carry a normal conversation on the first day, and then there were others that still couldn't even recognize when I called their English name on the last day. I was so inspired by these students that I've already made a powerpoint presentation for the first day of next semester's classes. It informs the students clearly that they will actually be required to learn and recognize their English names. Since this semester's students didn't all seem to comprehend that when I tried to explain it vocally, I thought that maybe they're just visual learners. Anyhoo, class is over now. As a foreign teacher I get to cancel class for two days for Christmas, so I canceled it on Monday (since it actually WAS Christmas) and gave my classes the option of when they wanted the other day to be. My Tuesday class actually wanted to meet one last time today (nerds) so last week I informed my Wed/Fri class that we wouldn't be meeting last Friday. They practically booed me out the door, making me think that they must just really LOVE my class. No, it's just that on Wednesdays my class is their only one. So instead of canceling last Friday I canceled tomorrow morning's class. I said all that to say that I won't have to get up for class in the morning since I canceled it for Christmas. Yay! I can go to sleep tonight and just not get up until Friday morning, since I don't have class on Thursday. Or not. The important thing is that I have the option to do that if I actually needed to.

So yesterday was Christmas. When I woke up it didn't really FEEL like Christmas, but I was well rested and had no real complaints. I looked out the window and was surprised to see that I couldn't really see anything at all. It was super duper foggy. I could barely see past the building next to ours. I was glad to get a phone call from Jennifer around 8:30 and chat with some family for a while. And then Michael called me on Skype for a while. After the others started getting up and around, we all met in Angelyn's apartment for coffee, cinnamon rolls (with homemade icing!), and gifts. We had all collected the gifts from our students and from packages in the mail and set them under a tree in Angelyn's apartment. It was fun to sit down together and all open gifts. I even had a stocking that Santa had left in my apartment the night before. Don't know how it got there. It couldn't be that my key was outside hidden in the fuse box, so I'm just going to assume it was magic or something. I got a few dud gifts like a roll of 1 jiao bills that added up to a whole yuan. Yeah. Just to let you know, a "jiao" is basically a Chinese dime, only they can come in paper bill form. So I basically got ten dimes rolled into a wad and wrapped in Christmas paper. Thanks Santa! I also got two bottles of pepsi, a calendar, a TIME magazine, a little pot shaped like a pig that I can keep pens and pencils in, index cards, and a kitkat bar. The most awesome present that morning was actually from a student in my freshman class. It's a framed picture of some traditional Chinese characters carved in a block of wood. The characters are traditional, so you read them top to bottom, beginning on the right. "Zhi zu chang le" is what it says. I know what each individual character means. "Knowledge foot long happy." Poetic, huh? Apparently when you put them together it basically means "Be happy with whatever you have." That sounds much better, in my opinion. It reminds me a lot of something written by Paul, saying that he had learned to be happy with whatever he had. I've learned a lot about what I need and what is just extra luxury in my time here. I have no doubt that I am one of the most spoiled people on the planet, having the things I have. It's easy enough to go without when the people around you are without the same thing, but what about the stuff we have that we still don't need? TV, excessive clothing, an overflowing pantry, designer socks, gourmet coffee, 90% of the stuff in our closets. We all seem to know that we're blessed to have these things because a lot of the people in the world aren't so blessed. The question is do we know in our hearts that we're blessed to have it and that it's all luxury, or do we just tell ourselves that we know it. The answer comes when we're faced with the same challenge given to the rich young man in Mt chapter 19. Sometimes I'm surprised by what I actually know and what I've just convinced myself I know.

I wasn't planning on getting so philosophical when I started, but I have to go where the typing takes me. I'll finish out my story tomorrow (unless I decide to sleep until Friday) and tell about this year's other Christmas events. Right now it's getting very late and I'm ready to lay someplace soft and warm. Sweet dreams!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Day

Well, there are some interesting things I learned today. First, I learned how Santa visits all those houses in one night. He doesn't! Apparently Santa comes to Europe on December 6. It's amazing the things you can learn when you have German friends. I also learned that Santa doesn't bring coal to bad little European kids. He has a helper with a stick who smacks the kids a few times. Seriously. I know some kids who can use a good smacking, but don't tell them I said so. So Santa gets Europe out of the way on the 6th and has a few weeks to prepare for Asia and the Americas. Asia is so far ahead of the Americas that Santa has no trouble finishing up on the 24th. And according to Breanna he also has the ability to just make time stand still on Christmas Eve. Which brings me to my next point. In Europe (not counting Britain) the 24th is Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve. Amazing what you can learn when you have British friends AND German friends at the same time. Yeah. And in Europe the Christ Child comes of Christmas Eve, since Santa came on the 6th. I like that version better since it doesn't mix the holiday symbols and the meaning of Christmas doesn't get so muddled. We should give that a test run in America. Right, just like we gave the metric system a test run in the 80s. We whine too much. And the last thing I learned from my European friends today is that German Kartoffelpuffer is a lot like American hashbrowns only much better. Anything involving cinnamon and sugar is automatically going to be good.

There's a lot more to tell but I am worn out and ready to hit the hay. I guess I'll just leave you with my lessons from the European Union for now. One last thing that I learned is that no matter how awesome a time you are having, if you're away from home during the holidays you will always remember it in the quiet moments after the fun is past. I miss and love you all! Peace on earth, live well, and loose the burning fire shut up in your bones.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve

Well, Christmas Eve has come and gone and I don't think I could be much happier at the moment. It was a stupendously wonderful day. I had a great time with the group this morning/afternoon, had some incredible food for dinner with the foreign language department from school, and then teamed up with Derek to whoop Andrew, Jaime, Christense, Yvonne, and Yvonne's mom in Settlers of Catan. Top it off with a stocking stuffed with a gift that somehow made its way into my apartment while I was gone and that all equals a happy Brian. Tomorrow morning all of us at this school will gather for muffins or something like that and open the gifts we've slowly been piling under Angelyn's Christmas tree. Merry Christmas to all, I miss and love you! More tomorrow.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas time is here

Merry Christmas, everybody! It's only Christmas Eve, and only that by about an hour, but I figured I should get that on here while I'm sitting down. We've got a few foreign guests in town this weekend so we're all running around having fun and enjoying the company. Carl is here, he was here my first year so we've been having fun hanging out more in one weekend than in that entire first year altogether. Beth is here from Yichang, but she's staying across town with the Lewis'. I've seen her once or twice today but that's about the extent of our hanging out. Laura and Tomas flew in from Shanghai/Suzhou. They were both also here my first year, Laura as a teacher and Tomas as an industrial engineering student from Germany. Christense is also in town from Wuhan, staying over with Jaime and Andrew at the medical school. We had a great day today and look forward to an even better day tomorrow. We're having a massive Family party and playing Dirty Santa, or whatever you call it where you live. Some people call it Chinese Santa or Chinese Christmas. That's not allowed anymore since I'm actually having a Chinese Christmas this year. Monday is set aside for a foreigner party at the moment, so that should be fun as well. We'll see what happens. For now, I want to go to bed. I leave you with a Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Test video

I'm trying to learn how to put a stinkin' video on here. It would help if I could find a convenient video posting website that would consistently work here. I think I've just about got it, so here is my first video addition. It should be a clip of the taiji routine I'm learning in class. We practice three times a week and I feel like I might actually be learning something. In case you get confused, the video isn't actually of ME.

Friday, December 15, 2006

For your viewing pleasure

Well, after forgetting and putting it off for too long, here are some pictures of some things going on around here. These pictures are mainly from last week when some of us went to a poor school out in the mountains near here. The Family here bought uniforms for the students at this school because they don't have any and it's getting cold and the uniforms will double as an extra layer of warmth in the months ahead. In all, there are about 70 students, ranging from 5 to 12 years old. They had an official ceremony to thank us and some other local businessmen who have also given money to these students. These students all come from families that live in the countryside near this school. Most of them can't afford to go to school, so these local businessmen provide money to pay for school, books, and food. One of the businessmen was the owner of the company that made the uniforms. He's a private business owner, which makes it harder for him to turn a profit, I think. But he was kind enough to provide more than 70 uniforms for less than the cost to make them.

We were greeted by the principal in his office, but the students couldn't wait to get a peek at us.

A sister of ours teaches at the school and arranged for the students to sing and dance for us. They actually sang three songs praising the King! Seeds are being planted.

Here are the uniforms, ready to be handed out. The man with his back to the camera owns the company that made them.

One of the students I handed a uniform to.

The longer the ceremony went, the smaller they got!

This guy has the same Chinese name as me. I'm Zhang Bowen and he's Cheng Bowen.

Another kiddo.

The students showing off their new school uniforms.

The Happy family: Happy Guy, Stella, Stewie, and Amber. Stewie isn't dead, he just seems to die whenever a camera is pointed at him. Derek is teaching Amber (and just about every other Chinese person he comes in contact with) to look more like a gangster and flash a hang signal in photos.

Happy Guy and me hanging out after dinner.

I'll hopefully remember to keep the pictures coming. I've got plenty of past pictures to post on here, so as long as I remember then I think your appetites will be satisfied. But now it's time for Taiji class so I need to run along. Live well and be thankful.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Back from the East coast

Well, my trip to Ningbo has come and gone. It sure was a blast, though! Last Wednesday night I headed out to the train station around midnight to catch my 12:45 train. I had a 7 or 8 hour train to Wuhan and then a short flight at 10:50 to Ningbo. It sure beats the long train, let me tell you. Everything went fairly smoothly this first part of the trip. Fairly. I got on the train and tried to upgrade my ticket to a sleeper. Everything was going well and the lady told me that I owed her 82 yuan. I thought that was a little too much for an upgrade to Wuhan, but I'm no expert. Besides, the price is on the ticket and they can't cheat me. So she takes my money and goes to get me some change. When she comes back, she brings me my ticket and two big cartons of milk. I'm sitting there wondering what in the world she brought me milk for when she tells me that the ticket only cost 62 and the other 20 was for the milk. HA! I can listen and understand a lot more Chinese than I'm able to piece together and actually speak, so it took me awhile to impress upon her my lack of interest in purchasing her top quality milk. She looked a little disappointed that I wouldn't be helping her meet her sales quota, but I don't really care. I got my 20 back without actually having to yell at her. I got to Wuhan and onto my plane with no other excitement. The only other surprise was that my plane was smaller than expected. A 25 seater. But I fit in the seat and it got me to Ningbo in barely over one hour, so I'm not complaining.

In Ningbo, the plan was for me to take a bus from the airport to the bus station, and then Keli would meet me there. Well I got on the bus and went to the station, but they dropped us off in some little bitty back parking lot. Even though I had never been to Ningbo, I was pretty sure that a the main bus station would be bigger than this one little spot. So where was I, and where was I supposed to be? The surprised and confused looks of the other passengers wasn't doing much to comfort me, but I just got off and followed them because they all were grumbling and moving down the street in the same direction. Turns out they just dropped us off a few blocks early. I managed to find the bus/train station, but Keli sent me a text message saying she was still 30 minutes away. I waited in the KFC across the street and then we ended up having lunch there because by then it was about 2:00 and we were both really hungry.

Now, Shiyan is a small mountain town of 500,000 people. Forty years ago it was still a fishing village of 1,000 or so. The population increase is entirely due to Mao sticking some major military and automobile installations here to protect from a US or Soviet nuclear strike. Ningbo is a port city of more than 3,000,000. It has a long history of hosting foreigners, before and after the Communist era. Shiyan is small, mountainous, cold, dirty, and has piles of garbage on every street. Ningbo seems to be some different country entirely. It's (relatively) big, the air is somewhat cleaner, everyone throws away their garbage. It has a two story tall Starbucks! Not to mention the Subway restaurant, shopping malls, and 50 bazillion Pizza Huts. I've been to bigger, grander, cleaner places in China, but since I didn't travel in October it just was a really nice change for me. I mean, the folks in Ningbo have a washer AND a dryer! Who knew you could have that in China? I sure didn't. I'm fine without all these cool luxuries, but it was still nice to walk around and look at all the stuff I'm missing out on. I like to think of Shiyan as a good place to build character.

So I arrived on Thursday afternoon and stayed until Sunday afternoon. I have a Friday morning class, but thankfully I have a Chinese co-teacher who could teach that class for me. I had a good time there in Ningbo. Keli showed me some of the city after I got there and we ate lunch. There were some really nice parks that actually had large expanses of grass, something else I didn't think possible here. There was also a Catholic building there in town, which shows the long history of foreign visitors to that city. We checked out Starbucks and a few stores in that area before heading out toward Ningbo Daxue (Ningbo University) where the other foreigners were eagerly awaiting my arrival. We spent the next few days watching movies, wandering around the campus and the city, eating good food, drinking Starbucks, and having an all around good time. Laura and Lisha, two former Shiyaners, both came over from Shanghai on Friday night so they got to spend part of the weekend with us as well.

Sunday afternoon I had to head out so I could get back to Shiyan in time for my Tuesday class. Angelyn and I had arranged for our classes to watch a movie together on Monday night, so she covered my Monday night class. Thanks, Angelyn! To get home I could have taken the train to Shanghai and then one more train all the way from Shanghai to Shiyan. About 22 hours. But the time between my arrival and departure in Shanghai was too short and I probably would have missed the train. There's only one train each day on that route, so I would have definitely missed more classes. So instead I went from Ningbo to Hangzhou to Xiangfan to Shiyan. Three trains, but if any one train was late then I had more than one train to choose from to get to my next destination. It seemed like the long, roundabout, sensible thing to do. So I went the 2 hours to Hangzhou, caught my next train to Xiangfan, and 22 hours later I was there. In Xiangfan I went and bought my last ticket. It's usually only 2 hours to Shiyan from there. I had about an hour before my train, so I went and sat in the waiting area. My train was delayed three different times and they kept changing the time on the screen. I was keeping a close eye on the screen because they weren't audibly calling the trains, they would just flash it on the screen that it was loading. So finally around 6:30 my train was called for loading. I walked down to the end of the aisle to get my ticket punched. There's a railing with a gate where you usually get your ticket punched by an attendant and then they let you through the gate to go to the platform. But this time, I walked up to the rail and no attendant came out. Now, there are 7 or 8 aisles and gates along this rail, and there wasn't an attendant at a single one. The gate itself was padlocked shut, so I'm just standing there expecting someone to come out. I mean, surely they expect someone to want to get on the train, right? Apparently not. An old man came up behind me to do the usual stare-at-the-foreigner routine and I asked him if I was in the right place. He looked at my ticket, looked at the sign, and calmly informed that my train was about to leave. I knew that already, I just didn't know how to get to the stinkin' train because apparently this train station doesn't follow normal rules like unlocking gates for passengers and telling people when and where their train is leaving. At this point, another man came up and said that I probably had 3 minutes and I should jump the rail and run. Well, I just happened to have 10 large hardcover Books in my backpack and I was carrying another box with 20 smaller hardcover books. So I was loaded down pretty good. I chunked all of of my stuff over the rail, climbed over, loaded back up, and took off down the hall. The sign said my train was on platform three. I looked to the left, there were two large hallways for platforms 1 and 2, both blocked by a large, padlocked gate. I looked to the right, I saw a sign for platforms 3 and 4 so I ran that way. The entrance to platform three was a large hallway blocked by (can you guess?!?) a very large, very metal, very padlocked gate. I was getting a little tired of this junk, so I started yelling down the hallway. There were some stairs that led down to the platform and between the stairs and the ceiling of the lower level I could barely make out people's feet walking by. Of course, no one came to open the gate for me. I turned around and there was a train station employee, going into a door down the hall. I hollered for her and ran to show her my ticket, saying the gate was closed. Now, you should realize that all of the communication in this story is being done in Chinese, and the more rushed and frustrated I got, the worse my Chinese got. But this lady didn't seem to care. She just pointed me back to the locked gate and told me to go through it. I told her it's closed, she shrugged, and took the noodles she was carrying and went into her office to eat. Talk about customer service! I ran back to the gate, gave it a few good shoves to test the strength of the lock, decided that wasn't going to get me through, and threw my stuff down in frustration. By this time, it had definitely been three minutes since I had jumped the rail (or at least it felt like it) and I just knew that I had missed my train. I turned around and yet another lady was coming around the corner, so I ran to her and showed her my ticket. Like a GOOD employee should, she showed immediate concern, got on her walkie talkie and told them to stop the train, and then took off running to find someone with a key. In no time, she had the gate open and was yelling at me to RUN RUN RUN! Now I'm running down stairs carrying a backpack with all of my clothes and 10 large Books in it, along with the other 20 Books in the box. If I had tripped, it would have been a pretty huge disaster. I ended up on the train, thanks to that lady and her mad walkie talkie, key-finding skills. The next train was about 4 hours later and I did NOT want to wait around that long. The ticket I had was only a standing ticket, so I found a place to set my things and prepared for the final two hours of my trip. The conductor came by and asked me where I was going. When I told him Shiyan, he said that I should go buy a seat because we wouldn't be getting to Shiyan until after 10:30. WHAT? Apparently the nice lady in the ticket window had sold me a ticket on the slow train. No wonder they weren't expecting anyone to want to get on this train. We actually ended up getting to Shiyan right around 10, so it was longer than I originally expected by but shorter than I ended up expecting. It was still quite a long train ride. I'm pretty sure I'm the first and only foreigner any of the people on that train have ever seen. People were coming from two cars away to stare at me. I wouldn't describe it as the best train ride ever, no.

On the plus side, it's great to be home. I missed my friends here a lot. Christmas is coming soon. Laura and Thomas are coming from Shanghai/Suzhou for Christmas and Beth is coming up from Yichang. That should be fun. Then Keli is coming from Ningbo sometime in January after classes are over (China doesn't make room for Christmas and New Year's, they have Spring Festival in January/February). So there's a lot to look forward to in the next month or so. Right now, I'm looking forward to teaching my freshmen in about 45 minutes, so I should probably go figure out what I'll be teaching them.