Saturday, November 24, 2012

Along Came China Jones

A night view of Zhongshan City, where I live
and teach now.

ZHONGSHAN CITY, GUANGDONG PROVINCE, CHINA -- Do you remember that Daffy Duck cartoon, China Jones? Daffy does an Irish brogue as he plays a detective roaming around Hong Kong. It was one of those great film-genre spoofs that Warner Brothers used to do.

Well, just call me China Jones. I'm not a detective, and I'm not in Hong Kong, (although it's not that far from here), but I'm an American expat, and glad to be, and for the record, I am part Irish on my mother's side. I can do a brogue.

When you last heard from me, last winter, I was in North Africa with a colleague named Jason. He and I were teaching English to schoolchildren in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and we left Tbilisi for a few days to visit Tunisia. On a four-day blitz tour, Jason dragged me all over Tunisia, and I got virtually no sleep. When we got back to Tbilisi, I went to bed and stayed there for 19 hours.

The countryside around Zhongshan has mountains
and there are also palm trees, which remind me
of my native California.
I finished my teaching contract in Georgia last June, flew back to the United States and spent most of the summer at my sister's house in California. It was a much-needed hiatus, and a good vacation. Good food, good coffee, (in Georgia all I could get was Nescafe); a much-needed rest. I rode my bicycle all over the place, swam in my sister's pool a lot, played with my great-niece Lucy, and best of all, got to watch lots of baseball on TV.

But while I was doing all of that, I was also trying to line up another overseas teaching job. A plan for South Korea fell through, but then I checked on the Internet and learned that plenty of schools in China were looking to hire foreign English teachers. Before the summer was over, I was talking to four different schools and agencies in China. I finally signed on with an agency that needed someone sooner than the others did, and at the end of August I flew from San Diego to Seattle, then boarded a flight for Beijing.

I didn't get to see much of Beijing. I was only there for one night. All I saw were the airport, a taxicab, a whole lot of buildings, a seedy motel and then the next day, the train station. My school was three hours southwest of Beijing in a city called Xingtai.

I'm doing pretty well. I've already been kicked out of Xingtai. I have a tendency to rub certain people the wrong way, especially the Chinese. Don't get me wrong; the Chinese are nice people, but I would never accuse them of being a million laughs.

After a little more than a month in Xingtai, I got booted out of my school. I was angry of course, and ready to bag it, go back to California and start poking around the Internet for another teaching job in some other country, preferably one where the people possess a sense of humor, something with which China doesn't exactly brim.

But my agency in Beijing found me another Chinese school. And I promptly packed up my troubles in my old kit bag (right after some asshole stole my brand-new bicycle in Xingtai), and got on another train, this time for a 24-hour jog across China in a southeasterly direction. I'm now in Zhongshan, way down in southeastern China, about an hour from Guangzhou, China's third-largest city, and about two hours northwest of Hong Kong.

By the way, the Chinese block certain Internet web sites, such as Facebook and You Tube, and they don't permit blogging. Basically they don't like any place on the Internet where someone might be able to express an opinion. So how am I managing to write this posting? I'm coming to you courtesy of a software program called Astrill. The Chinese block some websites, and they don't allow blogging, but Astrill gets around that. How it works is, it fools the Internet into thinking you're somewhere else. I'm in China, but running Astrill, the Internet thinks I'm in Seattle. So I can go anywhere, and blog. It costs nine bucks a month, but it's worth it. Not only can I get to sites the Chinese block, but I can also access web sites and services that are not available outside the U.S., such as Netflix and Pandora. Pretty cool.

One of the things I like about living in China
is that because I can't read Chinese, I can't
read the advertising. Yes!

This move to southern China was actually a good break for me. Xingtai isn't much of a place. It's a city of maybe two million people, and it does have a lovely, large park which was across the street from my apartment building. I used to go for walks there. The Chinese and I would wave and smile at each other; that part of it was okay. But Xingtai is kind of in the middle of nowhere, and once you pass the city limits, that's where you are: the middle of nowhere. And it's flat. Completely flat. The countryside around Xingtai looks like Nebraska.

Guangdong Province is more interesting topographically. There are mountains here. And palm trees. And as mentioned, it's not as isolated; there are big cities nearby, and Zhongshan itself is a fairly large city. America is in evidence: we have KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Wal Mart ... I even saw a 7-Eleven store here. They don't have Baskin-Robbins here yet, although BR has been in Russia for years, but the Chinese, like almost everybody else in the world, love ice cream. Last week I was teaching a unit on food, and when I asked my kids, "Do you like ice cream?" They shouted back "YES!" with one voice. Don't be surprised if Baskin-Robbins shows up here sometime soon. There are 1,336,718,016 people in China (that's counting me.) "31 Flavors" is missing the boat. Get over here, guys.

My school is large. In some of my classes, my
students outnumber me 50 to one.
 The only thing I don't like about Guangdong is the climate. If I stay here long enough, I'm going to have webbed feet. I have never lived in such a wet place. When it isn't actually raining, which it often is, the humidity is about 9,000 percent. I'm sweating all the time, even when it isn't very hot. It's just so sticky. I don't know how the locals put up with it, but I have yet to see a sweaty Chinese. It doesn't seem to bother them. I've traveled a lot, and this is one of the reasons I've steered clear of Asia up until now: I had a prejudice that most of Asia was just like it is here: hot and sticky. It isn't, really; in northeastern China it actually snows. But Guangdong fits my old prejudice perfectly with respect to the weather. And when I see the Chinese wearing jackets, my jaw just drops. If I put on anything heavier than a T-shirt, I'm going to die.

I must confess that I don't understand some of the things the Chinese do. Of course I suppose I could say that about anybody. My father has been dead for seven years and I still don't understand some of the things he did, such as going around wearing white loafers all the time and putting deodorant on the top of his head.

Item: we have these little three-wheeled contraptions here in China; they're sort of a low-rent taxi. There are millions of them; they're all over the place. I don't know what the Chinese call them. I've heard foreigners refer to them as "tuk-tuks." The front end of this thing is basically an electric motorcycle. It has a canopy on it, and the passenger sits in back on a straw seat. They can be a bit bone-jarring,  especially given the condition of most Chinese streets, but they do get you where you want to go, just not very quickly.

I climbed into one of these things today to go to the grocery store, and looking at the back of the driver's head, the first thing I noticed was that he was wearing a motorcycle helmet. I hadn't seen that before. I thought, "Why is this guy wearing a helmet? We're cruising at about 12 mph; this is not the Indianapolis 500." Then again, given the way some of the Chinese drive, maybe he had a good idea there. For example, there seems to be no set rule here about which side of the street you're supposed to use; everybody just kind of drives where they want. This can make things dicey, especially when the street is shared by these three-wheeled do-hickeys, regular cars, motorcycles, scooters, mopeds and foot traffic.

I thought my school in Xingtai was large: it had about 2,300 kids. My school here in Zhongshan is more than three times that size. We have nearly 8,000 kids, and they all live at the school -- it's a boarding school. Classes are Monday through Friday, with some classes on Saturday morning. The kids all go home on Saturday afternoon, but they have to be back on Sunday afternoon to be in class Monday morning. I teach English in middle school: 12, 13 and 14 year-olds. Now, in the U.S. I wouldn't teach middle school for a lifetime supply of peppermint ice cream. No, no, no. American middle school kids are unmanageable little monsters. But the Chinese kids are remarkably well-behaved. Oh, they're kids: they run around, giggle, twitch, play basketball and punch each other just like kids do everywhere. Kids is kids. But I haven't had any serious discipline problems.

Speaking of sports, two sports that are extremely popular in China are ping-pong (natch) and badminton. The Chinese love badminton. I used to wander into the park in Xingtai very early in the morning, and as early as 6:30 a.m. I would see people out there playing badminton and ping-pong. The Chinese think nothing of going to the park at dawn. They start their day early here.

Hardly had I arrived in Guangdong than I came down with pneumonia. I think the sudden change of climate had something to do with it. I was going back and forth between the hot, sticky outdoors and my dry, air-conditioned apartment here, and a chest cold that I had developed before I left Hebei Province promptly worsened into pneumonia. I waited too long to go to the doctor, which was stupid, and for about three weeks I was a very sick puppy. My Chinese hosts were very concerned about me (I don't think they wanted a dead American on their hands), and they took very good care of me. A hospital stay would have been prohibitively expensive as I don't have health insurance here, so my Chinese friends ran me back and forth to the hospital every day for more I.V. injections. This went on for more than two weeks. I sat on "the drip" in the hospital for sometimes more than an hour each day, and my Chinese hosts never left my side. They had some TV monitors on the wall there, including one showing Tom and Jerry cartoons for the children. I think I saw every Tom and Jerry cartoon ever made.

And speaking of children, there is nothing in the world cuter than a roomful of Chinese little kids. They are just precious. You want to take a big spoon and scoop them up like a chocolate sundae. I got to teach a couple of kindergarten classes in Xingtai, and I never had so much fun.

I've learned one word of Chinese: I know how to say "hello." It's "Nihao." Everywhere I go, people have babies and little children with them (despite a Chinese government regulation that each family is only entitled to one child, or should I say one pregnancy. If you have twins, that's okay. But if a Chinese woman has a second pregnancy, there's a stiff fine for that. Some of the better-off Chinese just go ahead, have a second child and pay the fine.) I'm always waving at these adorable little ones and saying "Nihao." Sometimes they wave back, or their mothers and grandmothers take their little hands and make them wave back. But more often they gawk at me with their big brown eyes as if I had just gotten off the interplanetary space bus from the Planet Zork. These kids don't see many Americans, and compared to most Chinese people, I'm kind of big, which must also make me look strange to small children here.

I'm feeling better now. But for more than two weeks I couldn't teach. I was too sick.

After almost three months here, I can safely say that by and large I like China. It is by anyone's definition a "developing country." It's kind of a hybrid place: the Communist Party runs the show, but capitalism is encouraged. Go figure. Still, prosperous businesses exist cheek-by-jowl with appalling poverty. Right in front of my apartment building there is an enormous vacant lot in which Chinese people grow vegetables and burn trash, and a few seem to live in makeshift shelters. Within view of this shantytown are buildings busily under construction and some nice-looking apartments. You can get almost anything you want in the stores here (although I can't read the labels on the products, so I buy a lot of fresh produce because at least I can see what it is), but there are some things I have simply not been able to find here. There's plenty of milk, but no butter or cheese. There's ketchup, but in Zhongshan, no mayonnaise and no mustard. Not a good place for sandwiches. I eat a lot of eggs, potatoes, fruit, vegetables, Chinese noodles, a little meat now and then, and of course rice. Fortunately I know how to cook, and I do have a two-burner gas stove in my kitchen.

By the way, I have found that I really enjoy eating with chopsticks. It's a socially-acceptable way of playing with your food.

China and the U.S. are almost exactly the
same size. The U.S. is bigger, but only slightly.
I can see my school from my living room, and it's huge. And by the way, a better school than where I was before. At my school in Xingtai, the so-called "foreign teacher office" was an empty room. It had four desks in it, and some chairs. No computer. Not even drinking water. You had to go somewhere else for that. Here at my school in Zhongshan, I have my own computer in the teacher staff office, and water coolers are everywhere. It's a better deal all around.

I just might stay a while. If they'll put up with me. They wouldn't in Xingtai, and I've had one or two minor problems here, but I think that we, my Chinese hosts and I, have amicably worked them out. Last week, for example. The Chinese teachers have been sitting in on my classes, "observing." I have my own word for it: "spying." And when I found out that they were criticizing my teaching methods behind my back, that was the Saturday end. I started throwing the Chinese teachers out of my classroom. Oh, I was polite about it: "Don't you have something else to do? I don't need any help." But if there's one thing I don't need in my life, it's a Chinese stoolpigeon. Well, the admin office found out about this and we had some words about it. I think we've reached a compromise. I told them that the Chinese teachers can sit in on my classes, but if I catch them taking notes, I'm going to raise more hell than Dante.

Still, if we can learn to live with each other, I might do another year in China. The thing is, if you go to ("TEFL" stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language), there are always more jobs available in China than in any other country. Well, China's a big country and it has many, many schools. In fact I checked on the Internet: China and the U.S. are almost exactly the same size. The U.S. is a little bit bigger. China has 9.5 million square miles; the U.S. has 9.8. It took me five days to drive across the U.S. (I've done it three times), and it would probably take the same amount of time to drive across China.

Now, if I can just figure out a way for my sister back in California to send me some of the things I need that I can't get here. Well, she can't mail butter and cheese, but China is like Georgia in a couple of respects, one of which is, I can't get "real" coffee here, either. They only have instant. It's back to Nescafe. Perhaps Carla can send me some real coffee. But she might have to put it on "a slow boat to China."

Updates as they occur.