Second Year

It’s strange starting the second year here. I already have most of my plans set up for my main classes, just fixing up the ones I used last year. The students seemed good with them, or at least all I ever heard was compliments. It would be nice to have a criticism once in a while, something to give me direction in my attempts to improve my lesson plans, but that is not something that is done here.

I don’t always think that is a bad thing, but without constructive criticism and the freedom to fail, it makes it hard to improve the way I want to. I know many people have fears of failure and mistakes, but to start over again with a new class is to see all the new students going through the same shy routine. The fear of speaking to me, of speaking at all, is as tiring as it is amusing. I’m glad I still have a sense of humor about it. Without that I think it would just aggravate me.

I keep reminding myself that most of them are children, barely out of high school where they are trained to never ask questions or really think critically, but then the post graduates are the same in their mid-twenties. Same for a few of the teachers, my age or older. I keep going through these shifts in my self-awareness, where I feel like I am not that much older than my students, then something happens and I suddenly feel so much older than them. I don’t know if it is me or if it’s how I react to the world I am in here.

Maybe it’s the perspective given to me by having my mom here to visit, or maybe it’s just all the people and places I saw while she was here. More than likely, it’s a bit of everything. It would be nice to get back into something of a pattern, but my new schedule is just as chaotic as the old one was. 10 hours, then 6, then 10, then 6, back and forth until I get cotaught classes again, filling my schedule. The annoying part is that almost all of my classes are on the other campus, which will make it harder because of travel. There was a mention of moving me to the other school, but I have made a life here, and I don’t really want to shift halfway through and try to start again in a place where there really aren’t any locals to get to know.

I wouldn’t mind moving across the country, or across the world, but moving across the city just seems like an annoyance. Sometimes it’s easier to climb a mountain that it is to walk across the street. There have been times I have just thrown together whatever is in the house rather than make the trip out to get something. It’s not so much the food itself as it is all the things that come between. The people I see, the people who see me, friends, strangers, weather. It all seems like nothing, but there have been times throughout the last year that all the nothing has been exhausting.

Maybe I have just gotten to used to this place, or this life. Maybe I am just used to shedding my life and moving on by now. I don’t really want to leave yet, but there is so much more to see. Having all I have built over the last year and adding on a whole new group of students and friends is kind of stressful too. Or maybe it’s just the memory of the past year, all the stress and problems that came with it. Knowing that this year, for all the differences, won’t be that different. Maybe it’s just not knowing whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, to repeat the year I just lived.

I don’t feel any real anticipation, but I rarely do in my life. The odd thing is that there is no real anxiety either, not like I would expect. I just feel tired, and I’m sure part of that is the cold creeping in as the Mid-Autumn festival approaches. The one great thing is knowing that I am more prepared to hibernate, and am kind of looking forward to it.

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Coming so Far.

It’s a different kind of adventure in Lanzhou when you have someone visit you. My mom came and spent almost a week in China, Chengdu and Lanzhou. We had planned a day in Chengdu, and went out even through the constant rain. I took her to the school I trained at, Sichuan Normal University, to see the aging buildings where we spent so much time. The new volunteers were in renovated buildings, so they missed the wonders of the trough bathroom and the crumbling rooms.

I still like the campus, if only because of the time and the trials I had there. It was more than worth every minute of it. It was good to see my host family also. They let us stay the night in their home as Gege planned to leave for Guangzhou and Jiejie prepared for her first lesson on Monday with her students from Thailand. We looked over her plans and I showed her some of the mistakes I made during my first weeks. I know she will do well as a teacher.

We ate breakfast in the home, all the things I had become so familiar with in my time there. I really miss good baozi, and my mom loved the youtiao and kiwi. It was a good breakfast, and we had plenty to start our wanderings through the city. We wandered through the gated community and the old campus, looking over the places where I walked so many times. The weather was grey and rainy, but that is better than the sweltering heat from last summer.

The new subway entrance makes a lot of difference traveling across the city, dropping us off a block from the old Kehuayuan Hotel we train at. We stopped for Indian food across the street, butter chicken, naan bread, and rice. I miss good Indian food more than I can say. We were going to hit the bamboo forest near Sichuan University, but the rain was coming down hard enough that I didn’t want to walk it. The ground can be pretty slick sometimes, so you have to be careful in the rain.

Instead we went to Tianfu Square and walked over to the People’s Park, a relatively quiet place in the city center. Traveling by subway made things much easier since most restaurants still have squattie potties rather than toilets. It gets harder as we get older, and the subway has handicapped stalls that you can sit down in.

The park was a good walk, a couple hills and what looked like old fortifications all around. It was a bit busy, but the rain kept most people at the tea house in the middle rather than wandering the park. There is a lake in the middle, but the water is almost never clear or blue in the cities of China, either because of the environment or pollution. In the north, the Yellow River gets its color from the mountain runoff, from the rivers that wind down or from every time it rains. Last night there was some flooding in Lanzhou due to the rain and some of the causeways closed. The bar boats too from what I heard.

We left the park and went over to the Wenshu Monastery. It was mostly empty, the rain sending most of the people and street vendors home I guess, but it was a good place for her to see. It’s filled with ancient buildings and statues, but mostly renovated and almost new looking. The most important part, I think, is that it is still in use. We arrived just as a mass of people were leaving the main temple, all talking and relaxing, walking through the drizzle.

We headed back to the house and shared hotpot with Jiejie and her parents and son, with every kind of mushroom on the menu since I mentioned that my mom liked them. There was a bit of a show too, with the showman who changes the facemasks did his dance around the room. There was also an auction, a man would do calligraphy, then another man would sell it. Even when there appeared to be no one willing to buy initially, they would keep going until it sold. It was good work, so I hope he got what he wanted out of it.

After eating too much and heading back home, we slept early to catch the plane in the morning. Well, that was the plan anyway. We got through security no problem, but the plane was first listed as being delayed for weather issues then for mechanical problems. It’s hard to get through all that with my limited Chinese, but I was able to understand that they were giving us a hotel room for the day and we would be brought back once the plane was up and running again. They also fed us lunch, a surprise since I am used to the horror of domestic airlines and because the food was really good Sichuan style dishes. It was frustrating, but worth it in the long run since my mom got to try more than I thought she would.

When we got back, the airline refunded 4/5ths of the cost of the tickets, covering most of the hotel once we got into Lanzhou. We spent the day resting and watching Thor on Netflix, resting the first day instead of the last like I had planned. An annoyance to be sure, but not really one that disrupted the trip. It just felt like it did.

Lanzhou was an easier time, just filled with dinners and short trips around the city. It was more to show her how I live my life here than to really show her the city. In only 4 days, there really isn’t much you can do, but you can only be away from work for so long. We went to the grocery, sorted through the things she brought and the things I was planning to send back with her. We watched tv, and discovered that my mom’s favorite Chinese food is ginger fish soup. She rejected the scorpion wine, oddly enough, but that was one of the best meals we have eaten together. She was worried about the food here, but I have enough friends that it was easy to make it work.

On the last day we made French toast and got her to the airport for her flight. I walked her through the steps she would have to run through when she hit Chengdu, and she headed through security into the terminal. It’s strange being alone again, but after a year here I have more than enough friends to fill the void until I get used to being alone again. The new volunteers have come in too, and I wanted to meet them while I have the chance. A number of them will be going back to their sites soon, so contact will be as rare as it ever was for me.

I think the one thing that really surprised me was how easy it was to translate and communicate with the people here. It helped that they were asking the more common questions from my mother, but I still remember a year ago when I couldn’t put two words together. Only halfway through, but I have already come so far.

Posted in 2018-09, Chengdu, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Dali

I left Eryuan 洱源 for Dali 大理 at the end of the summer and had a couple days to spend too much money and enjoy something completely different from Lanzhou 兰州. I think the problem was, what I look for in a place I found in Dali. It was a bit touristy, but no more so than Guilin 桂林 when I was there, but there was the one thing that makes a city a place I love, art.

There were people in booths drawing and painting, not like in Mexico where there are clusters of artists, but enough that I could find something different, something I don’t see everywhere else in China. I think Dali is a place I could love.

There are mountains nearby with trails, both easy and hard. Places that are well worn, as well as places you can get lost. I didn’t have enough time to really see what I wanted, but it was enough to see at a distance. The old town is a large tourist attraction with endless shops selling the same things over and over, but in the midst of it all were a few places that sold something unique.

There was a woman painting, watercolors and bookmarks similar to the old style but still something all it’s own. There were endless stores with the tiedie style cloth that is traditional in the area, but in those shops could be found the rare cloth that did not follow the exact pattern, something that looked more like a cave painting than just a pattern. There was amazing food, like a cross between Indian food and Chinese, familiar but unique. Good tea, gelatto, food from so many different places. It was wonderful.

That is part of the problem with being back in Lanzhou, now that I have seen all the things I love, but on the other side of the country. Lanzhou has most of my friends in China, it is a place I care about, but it is not my favorite place in China. Not really a surprise I guess. Lanzhou is where people come to work, but only a few hours away are so many amazing places that it is hard to be thrilled to be home.

I won’t be teaching for a few weeks, which makes it worse in a lot of ways. My old students are still around, but I haven’t met the new ones yet. Almost everyone else is busy, and I just dwell on what I am missing.

I go to kung fu in the morning, and the gym in the afternoon. There is plenty of time to exercise and do things, but I feel the loneliness. I have people to talk to, and I am reconnecting with all of them. We also have the new group of volunteers in the city now, so there are even more people to get to know, but something is still off.

I don’t want to do anything, but I don’t want to do nothing. I want to sleep, but I don’t feel tired. I want to explore, but I know this city. An endless series of contrasts. I am following my patterns, they keep me stable, but there is something more that I want. I just don’t know what it is. It’s like when you’re hungry, but nothing looks good to eat. I find myself looking for something, and I don’t really know what it is.

Well, I don’t know if that is completely true. I know I want something familiar, like when I would go to kung fu and practice and fight with my friends. Something like a comfy sofa, a bowl of soup, and a storm outside. The right book, or story that draws me in, but not one I have already read. I find myself missing Mexico a lot, the family I found there. I remember the bad, but I will always have love for my home there.

But I have a year left in Lanzhou, and I have no intention of leaving early. There is too much more to see, too many more friends to make, too much left to do. I’m sure there is more to be found here, and there are cities that I will be going to soon enough. But there is still something more I want. And I don’t really know what it is.

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On Lake Zibi 茈碧

I left my students behind in Longnan and Tianshui and made my way down to Kunming昆明by plane and then Dali 大理 by train. Then I took a car a couple hours out to Eryuan 洱源 on lake Zibi茈碧. I thought this place was a hotel at first, but it’s just a family home. I’m staying here and helping out a bit, and everything is basically paid for, which is good because I don’t really have any money in my account and there are no banks here to transfer anything. This place is the far edge of nowhere.

It looks a lot like when my family would go to the Hamptons in New York for the summer when I was a kid. My great grandparents had built the home before it ever became popular, and we could still fish, catch lobster and crabs, and find endless fruit in the forest. It’s like that here, with woods outside in every direction and a lake far enough from civilization that the water is still clean. There are always warnings about the temperature and the risk of an undertow, but I grew up swimming in the Pacific in San Diego, where the water is almost frozen and always angry.

The food here is amazing. My friend’s mom cooks most of the meals, and they buy fresh milk from the farmer who milks the cows down the street. That is usually my breakfast, a bowl of milk so fresh it’s almost like cream, still warm from being boiled to clean it. Dinner and lunch are classic Chinese dishes with a little more pepper than usual, but I like that. Beyond that there is only one restaurant in town and one corner store with maybe a couple dozen drinks and snacks. There is a primary school, again with five rooms, and a small square with rooms for the elderly of the village to play mahjong and dance.

My friends are up every morning at 6 to practice Kungfu and start their day, but I still have trouble waking up early. I rest a lot, but I am still looking for a good place to hang my hammock. Most of the places are near the road and there are too many cars on the weekend. No one has really stopped to take my picture yet, but most people try to talk to me in what little English they know.

It’s a beautiful place, as beautiful as any I’ve seen in China. It wasn’t my first choice, but I am really glad I wound up here. One of my friends is a student of Bagua and has been going over the basics with me since his English is more than enough for it. I am practicing my Chinese a lot too since most people here don’t speak much English. I have my own room and a great view, even if it is a bit loud sometimes.

The weather has been a bit of an issue here, not because I don’t love the rain or the cool nights, but it’s always overcast so there are never any stars. I saw a few the other day, but most nights and days the sky is hidden from view. Between the mountains and the lake it’s always wet here, but the weather is never what I would call bad. Even the rain passes fairly quickly.

I have four days left before my time here is over, four days and then Dali for a night before the long train home. The train will be about 24 hours, and I’m kind of looking forward to it. Not because I will enjoy it, but because it will separate this world from Lanzhou, a solid line where I can see that my vacation ended and it’s time to get back to work. Too many times I have left the plane to go back to the world, and it’s just not something I want to do anymore. But until that line, I still have so much to see.

 

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