Monday, January 12, 2009

the winter of content

We had it all planned out. Having just finished a delicious dinner with five students, the IECS Baoding team had just decided how to spend the rest of our night. After all, it was only 9pm; the night was younger than Santa Claus was when he was found by Necile, the Wood Nymph. We were going to walk back to Ryan and I's apartment in the freezing night air (literally), and park ourselves on my bed and couch and watch Home Alone 2 (we had just watched the first one the week before). We were skipping up the steps of our building, excited about drinking hot chocolate and allowing the image of Macaulay Caulkin screaming with his hands against his cheeks to be burned into our retinas, when it happened. The steps were pitch black, as they typically are at night because the motion sensored lights rarely work. I fumbled my key into the lock and turned hard (you have to).

"Oh no," I muttered, "my key just broke."

"Are you serious?" was the consensus response.

It was a clean break; the key was completely inside the lock, barely protruding. We all tried picking at it with our finger nails; no dice. After a good five minutes we decided to bother our neighbor and fellow foreign teacher, James, who lives on the fourth floor. James is a late twenties Englishman, whose physical appearance can be summed up as jolly. James lives with his Chinese girlfriend, Iris, who has an affinity for stray cats (seriously; Ryan and I had to take care of "Mimi" for two nights last week). Iris also has quite the take-charge personality. She scuttled down in her bath robe and tried everything to get the broken key out: a pair of scissors, a screwdriver, another key... nothing.

Our neighbors across the hall finally heard all the racket and came out to see what was going on. There were three 20-something girls who joined our little party, and none of them spoke English. After a lot of leaning over to watch Iris fiddle with the lock, another neighbor, Du, came down the stairs and, after assessing the situation, decided to call in "the experts." As we waited for the experts to come and rescue us, our girl neighbors invited us into their apartment for some quality miscommunication. We all celebrated when the experts arrived and we tried to go out and meet them at our front door, but Du was there to hold us back. Apparently these "experts" didn't want us to watch them break into our apartment. Now, I had been curious about what kind of pick-locking "experts" were working at 10 pm, and there I had my answer; they were experts alright, expert-burglars! And they didn't want us to know how easy it was for them to pick our lock. Either way, we finally got into our apartment, AND we came out of the deal with an invitation to dumplings at our neighbors' apartment. That was three weeks ago...

Last Thursday Tim, Ryan, Cameron, and I enjoyed some delicious beef and cabbage dumplings with our neighbors. It was one of the most genuinely Chinese moments of my time in this country. I had never really been invited into anyone's life here who wasn't living in a college dorm. One of the girls does nails near the supermarket, another works in the supermarket, and the other sells trinkets in an underground market. They were all extremely giving when it seemed like there wasn't much to give. Amelia had made the comment after the broken key incident that none of their rooms were decorated "cute." The rooms were certainly bare, and I'm sure they would have liked to decorate just as Emily and Amelia do, but they just can't. No money. They had only one small round card table, and two chairs to use for dinner; so, we had to bring our big nice chairs from our apartment. Their light was burnt-out in the kitchen, leaving the chef to fumble through a dark, steamy room; so, I had to run to my room and grab my shiny standing lamp, and they even tried to reject it. While I am well aware that their culture teaches this face-saving attitude, these girls were as genuine as they come. It was for this reason that these dumplings, even after the 22nd and 24th ones with the same filling, tasted better than any of the better quality dumplings we have had here.


This past month has been filled with holidays, exams, coffee shops, Emily's boyfriend coming to visit, KTV, etc. Christmas was definitely a highlight. We all acknowledged that homesickness would be at its fiercest during the holiday season and we were all prepared for a forlorn Christmas morning, but thanks to Emily and Amelia, Christmas felt like Christmas. They prepared french toast and peppermint coffee for breakfast. They had all of their gifts wrapped tightly, sitting beneath a great fake Christmas tree. Ryan and I responded by bringing our presents bare; I just turned mine upside-down so you couldn't read the writing on the top (Ryan wrapped his in blankets). We also enjoyed some sweet time with the entire IECS team, as they all came to visit Baoding for Christmas. Unfortunately, I missed out on a lot of this time due to exams. I was forced to give mine on all of the days surrounding Christmas, and they were long. My exam was a five minute interview with each student; 5 minutes x 400 students = really long. But it's over now.

The winter holiday began two weeks ago and it won't end until mid-February. And we are doing our best to take advantage of it. Last week, we watched a mini-movie-marathon. We decided to watch both ends of the spectrum; Little Women followed by Braveheart (thanks for the popcorn, mom!). I've never felt so... differently, in one day. Yesterday, seven of us went to a park where there was ice skating on a frozen pond. Instead of ice skating, we decided to rent metal chairs to slide around on. We raced, pushed each other, made trains... there's really no way to explain it other than that; just know that it was one of the most fun times of 2009 (and will remain so, I'm sure). A big part of our holiday has been Mahjong. I advise anyone and everyone to learn to play Mahjong; there's really no better game out there. Our California-born-Chinese-friend, Cameron, has taught us how to play, but unfortunately for him we have grown impressive (most impressive), and it's getting harder and harder for him to beat us.

The next month will be full of travel. Ryan and I are going to Shijiazhuang for a few days later this week. A few of our students whom we are close with live in Shijiazhuang, which is the capital of our province. Then the IECS team is off Shenzhen, Guangdong in the deep south for a week-long conference with our fellow teachers. Then the Baoding team is going to Sanya, Hainan for a week. Hainan is the southernmost point in China, and is basically China's version of Hawaii. Then, we will be in Hong Kong for a few days, renewing our VISAs (which will say 'Professional' when we're done). It will be a long trip; so, if you don't hear from me, I apologize.

Here are some things to think about:

-Our team will be spending a lot of time together, and we want to nip bitterness and frustration in the bud before it spreads. We also want to fight the vacation-mentality and focus on each other, as well as the One who is giving us this time, rather than ourselves.

-Ryan and I will get some quality time in Sijiazhuang with some students. We want to have meaningful conversations and deeper friendships (with each other as well).

-As next semester approaches, we hope to have a better handle on how to use our time and who to use it with.

Here is some media to tide you over:

Christmas Eve night at our favorite Coffee Bar with our favorite fu wu yuan (waiters).

Two of my Christmas presents (one's to keep my body warm while I'm sitting inside; the other's to keep my hands warm while I'm riding my bike).

Strangely, we haven't escaped Christmas Marketing scams all the way in China. Notice the unison head-bow in disgrace. Also, when Cameron says, "no loitering," a girl is trying to kick us out of the store.

This one's from the Beijing Marathon back in October. It's been a while since it happened, but that doesn't help me understand it any better.