Thursday, October 23, 2008

not to be outdone

I recently realized that the majority of actions taken in my life can be explained with the preface, "not to be outdone." I spent much of my adolescence trying as little as possible, all the while shooting for the most success; quite efficient, if you think about it, Greg. The epitome of this mindset occurred in tenth grade. I was playing on the JV basketball team, and during one game, while I was running up and down the floor scoring loads of points, Gabe Cohen was taking a breather on the sideline. Coach McNabb, my old JJV soccer coach, walked over to Gabe and asked him, "where did Jon get all that speed?" Gabe thought for a second and answered, "video games." An exaggeration? Not really. But to my point, there were times when I actually made an effort. I studied for some tests; I jogged during Christmas break, once. All of these efforts were made just to keep up with the rest of the pack. I never wanted to be outdone, at least too much. Nearly a decade later, things aren't so different. I play video games about 90% less than I did at 16, but I still always shoot for efficiency, sort of.

Last week, the Hebei University teachers (Tim, Emily, and Amelia) had been invited to a fellow teacher's apartment to learn how to make dumplings. How fun, I thought, maybe Sophie will invite ol' Jon too. Dumplings are my favorite Chinese food and I'd always wanted to learn how to make them. But alas, no invite! That night, feeling slightly defeated, I asked Ryan to join me for dinner. We rode our bikes over to a popular street food area; a long red canopy forming a wide corridor of street restaurants, where snacks, noodles, soups, and dumplings were all being served. I had accidentally made a few friends at one of the restaurants the week before. I made my way to the canopy by myself one night and sat down at a random too-small-for-Americans table. A kind middle-aged lady approached me in Chinese. I saw that they were steaming dumplings in wood-basket stacks.

"Hayao yiga jiao zi," I think is what said (I want one order of dumplings). Whatever I said, she brought me what I wanted. She also showed me a Chinese menu and started pointing at one of the items and telling me about it. I heard the Chinese word for "noodles" over and over, but I waved my hand; I just wanted dumplings. She still brought me the noodle dish she was talking about, but, as I later found out when I attempted to pay, it was for free. It was a nice gesture; so, I decided to return the favor by going back there (not to mention the daughter of the parents running the place is a bit of a cutie). Throughout Ryan and I's meal of dumplings and noodles, the daughter and two men were rolling dumplings at another table. At the end of our meal, I decided that I didn't have to be left out after all. I perused my phrase book and mixed together the words, "I can help." So, not to be outdone by my fellow teachers, I walked over to the dumpling-rollers and said (in Chinese), "You work too hard; I can help." Somehow they understood me (which is pretty rare; often they'll look at me confused, forcing me to repeat myself until they finally say, "Oh, Chow FAN." And I'll grit my teeth and say, "that's what I said!" ...the tones are hard) and offered us to sit down. For over an hour, Ryan and I tried our hand at making dumplings (don't worry, we washed our hands). And these weren't just your typical boiled dumplings; these were intricately woven steamed dumplings. Basically, we stunk at it. But even though our new friends spoke a total of two English phrases, they loved having us try, and they even used some of our mangled dumplings. Now, when we go there, we receive a warm welcome. But for some reason the free food stopped coming...


Ryan, Tim, and I just had our "dudes lunch" this afternoon. We get together every Thursday and go enjoy a little taste of America, KFC. Today we sat there for over an hour and talked about "the boss." Tim made the observation that despite our preconceptions about life in China being hard, we are well provided for here. We get paid enough to not have to worry about money, and we have everything we need. Of course, we still don't have a clothes dryer, which is the same for everyone here in China, and which is quite an enigma to me. Nate and I agreed on this a couple weeks ago (Andrew and Maureen disagreed) ; we would rather have a dryer than a washer. Granted, without a washer, I'd have to wash my clothes by hand (or foot), which would take time and effort (maybe 2 hours, at the most?). But after that, my clothes would be dry in an hour! As it is, I have to wait 2 days to 1 week for my clothes to dry on the clothes line, depending on the type (jeans take forever). Anyway, you decide...

Either way, it's great to share joys and struggles with some great dudes over fried chicken. We'll be there at 12:30 every Thursday if anyone wants to join us...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

lets go away, you and i

I haven't taught a class in two weeks. Adina, our co-worker and care-taker at the Hebei College of Finance, jokingly mentioned to Ryan this past week that it seemed like I was getting paid to do more traveling than teaching. This is only half-true. While I have done more traveling than teaching and I have been paid, I... hm... I feel like some part of that wasn't true.... It'll come to me. All I know is that after two weeks of vacay, I've covered some real estate. After my first week of teaching, all classes all over China were canceled for one week due to the National Holiday. Of course, these canceled classes needed to be made up (eastern logic); so the Saturday and Sunday before the National Holiday were filled with classes. It was also during these make-up classes that I learned all of my classes would be canceled yet again the week following the holiday because all my freshman would have to fulfill one week of military exercises. A nice surprise, to say the least; with the extra week, I had enough time to purchase a flight down to the Guangxi province to visit my brother, Nathanael, his wife, Maureen, and our friend Andrew. Despite the make-up classes, the National Holiday was still a holiday, and was great for getting more acclimated to Baoding, on my bike, of course. At the end of the week, the Baoding IECS team traveled to Beijing for two days to meet with the rest of the IECS team, and also to do some shopping. We all braved the monstrous Pearl Market, where there are hundreds of shopkeepers all yelling, and sometimes grabbing, at you to buy scarves, or jackets, or ipods, or little gel packs that heat up when you bend them due to a really cool crystallizing chemical reaction that only cost 10 yuan, but only work once... sometimes they lie to you. After purchasing several gems at the Pearl Market (no pun intended), Tim and I grabbed a taxi to find the newly built Apple Store, the biggest in the world, with no intention other than to get our greasy little fingers on as many Apple products as possible. We arrived to find an elaborate outdoor mall with all of the expensive western stores one could ask for, and about as many westerners. For the full experience, see the video to my left (your right).

After returning to Baoding for a couple nights, I caught a train back to Beijing on Monday in order to fly down south to Guangxi. Everything surrounding that day was congested. Not only was all of the transportation I took packed to the brim with Chinese people, but I was suffering the worst cold of my life. Unfortunately, as many of you know, my time management skills are quite poor, and following a few mishaps on Monday, I missed my flight; so I was forced to find a hostel for the night. Normally, a mistake like that would cost a lot of money, but I'll tell you, if you're going to make that kind of mistake, do it in China. While all of the extra costs of getting around and staying a night in Beijing cost me hundreds of Yuan, hundreds of Yuan only equals about $50. As I told Nathanael that day, I was almost relieved to not have to try and hang out in Guangxi that night; I felt absolutely horrible and would have been useless. The hostel was very adequate, with a cleaner room and more comfortable bed than in my own apartment. I felt a little better the next day, and after learning my lessons, I arrived at the airport two hours early. I ate some noodles in the terminal right next to an empty Subway restaurant, where the two Chinese girl Subway workers stared at me, confused. I think they expected me to eat there.

It was great to see Nathanael and Andrew when I arrived in Guangxi, whom I hadn't seen in 10 months. It was a little humbling to see that Nate was skinnier than I am (he lost 20 lbs.), but after trekking the six flights to his apartment several times I could see that he earned it. Before we traveled to their city, we decided to stay a night in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi, to see an old friend, and to also buy some DVDs. I hadn't seen Spencer in four years, probably the longest separation from a friend I can recall (a reunion is required for this category). Seeing him was a little frustrating at first because he couldn't communicate very well; his English skills had taken a nose dive since I last saw him. It felt like speaking with an amnesiac. It took him a few hours and a few dumplings to feel comfortable speaking English, and by the time he took us to a strip of lakeside bars that night, he was a regular chatty kathy. The conversation at the serene bar went as deep as the lake we were sitting by, and I learned more about Spencer's heart in those couple hours than I could have hoped for out of a month's time. He's also still the funniest Chinese person I know.

The next few days were spent in Baise, the city that Nate, Maureen, and Andrew have called home since February. We grabbed some good south China food, rode a canopied boat around the lake, caught up on the Redskins... By the way, I'm a little frustrated that the Redskins are flying so high. I was completely comfortable writing them off this year with me living in China and all, and after that horrendous opening game against the Giants, I was ready to. But as it is, each week I have to anxiously abstain from sports and fantasy websites from Sunday until Wednesday, when the game becomes available for download, when I can finally allow my catharsis. And then I must spend hours reading Washington Post articles and watching Tony Korneiser and Michael Wilbon's daily podcasts following the games so that I can adequately soak up all of the Skins' success. I repeat, must. Anyway, while I was in Baise I was also able to be involved with the Firefly Coffeehouse, the business they have been running in Baise for some time now. Each night from Thursday to Sunday, the rooftop coffeehouse is open and themed. The two nights I was there were "Game Night" and "90's Night." The coffeehouse is beautifully set up and attracts a slew of local Chinese English speakers. On 90's Night Andrew gave a presentation on "The Internet" and 90's music, part of which was Andrew and I's rendition of Wonderwall.

My time in Guangxi flew by, but the time with my brother was well worth the trip. For the first time in our lives we have been living in different places, and our reunion in Guangxi might be the last until next summer. But we both recognize our Father's hand in our lives, and we trust Him for when we will meet again. Maybe he'll still be skinnier than I am when I see him next, at least that's what he says. I think there are a few bags of Salt N' Vinegar chips waiting for Nate back home that say different...

No matter how much weight you lose or where you are on the globe, society will find new ways to make you feel fat. While I was in Baise, Nate showed me where he buys underwear that fits him (us) so I could buy some. See for yourself.

For those who miss Spencer...