South for the Winter

I always forget something when I am packing. It’s part of the chaos, but I just never seem to focus like I should. I was never one for lists. Now I will be gone for a long time, and anything I forget will be far out of reach. As long as I have my passport, I’m sure it will be fine.

It’s interesting heading to the edge of the cities here. The cities are built like you would expect, large streets in the center, slowly shrinking to old roads, but there is also the expectation of more. The main roads stay at six lanes far beyond the edge of the cities. Massive bundles of power lines lead to tiny strip malls, and then to empty space. It’s like every new space that is build is designed to be a city center.

Out where the new campus is there are enough power lines to handle skyscrapers that aren’t there. At night, when we head back, there are massive roads with nothing along side them but a strip mall and a desert. A couple pairs of headlights haunt the streets, but there is nothing to see, and few places to go. Everything is ready for expansion, but the old buildings still need renovation.

That seems to be a pattern here, a focus on new construction over renovation. To simply put together a new building, or neighborhood, rather than strip buildings to the bones and rebuild. I wonder if that is convenience, with all the hassle that comes with renovation or if the buildings might just be too old for that level of construction. Hopefully my Chinese will be good enough that I can ask one day.

It will be nice to be somewhere warmer, somewhere I can rest a bit, maybe see a few things worth taking pictures of. The endless grey and cold here have limited my chances lately, but when I return it will be close to Spring, and hopefully I can start wandering again.

There is still so much to see here, but it’s been hard to do much beyond hibernate. I forgot what the cold was like in New York all those years ago, and here we don’t have to deal with the snow. I’m sure I would start to get used to it eventually, but I would much rather just fly south for the winter.

Posted in 2018-01, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking Back

One more week before I head to Chengdu and the city is covered in snow. It’s pretty, and it’s somehow still dry here. The snow is like powder, when you touch it, it just disintegrates before you can make much of it. Just like the dirt here, it looks more solid than it is. It doesn’t leave the sludge you get in New York the day after, but when it melts and refreezes you still have the sheets of ice covering the ground in places.

I find I’m oddly homesick these days, but for Mexico. It’s hard to go out much here because of the cold, so I don’t see people as often as I usually do. I miss Spanish, the food, the insults and challenges. Something about Mexico will always be home, even with all of the problems. But, in another week I won’t have time to think about much beyond class.

IST is two weeks of training for us. Language, teaching, culture, and protocol I’m guessing. After that, I can relax a bit in Guilin. I’ll still have Chinese classes, but I won’t have to stress so much, and Guilin is far to the south where it’s warm. I’m looking forward to seeing more of China, and that is a good place to start.

There is a lot going on here, and a lot of people are leaving town for vacation. They head back to their home towns, to other countries, to wherever they can find warmth, be it family and home or just a warmer climate. It will be nice to be in a small town to see the new year in. The Chinese New Year will be awesome, and I should be able to go to the Shaolin Temple in Henan at some point.

There is a weird balance here when it comes to vacation. I have to report all the details of my trip to the Peace Corps before I leave, but I never really plan that far ahead. I have a direction, not a plan. Like in Mexico when we just drove to Colima and saw what there was to see. To Queretaro then up to Xilitla to see something old and beautiful.

Everything here seems to be trying to fit into a box. The order and stability of the Chinese culture, the requirements of a program like Peace Corps, the need for people to have plans, and yet nothing about this place really holds to that ideal. Plans change often and at the last minute. Nothing is really stable, or even known in advance most of the time. Everything changes, and I like it that way.

I think what bothers me is the attempt to contain that chaos. The desire to regulate and limit the chaos. I got used to the chaos in Mexico, and I think that still suits me more than anything. Rules exist to keep us safe, to teach us how to begin, but there is a point when the rules stop being a guide and begin to limit us. Maybe I just took in too much chaos in Mexico and now I have trouble going back.

I was invited to give a lecture on how to create lesson plans during our training, but I don’t know if I can or should teach what I do. I build from an idea, add in comments, chop it up, reorganize, borrow pieces from other people, and wind up with something that resembles order, but it’s really not. It’s chaos, a series of reminders and triggers so I don’t forget what I want to talk about, with parts of it broken down to help teach the students English while we study medicine.

When I first started teaching the Spaniard talked about how we could teach anything in English and it would help the students more than just teaching them English. Rather than just using a sterile language lesson, teach them about computers, or sociology, or anything. In this case, medicine. They have already studied it for years, I just give them the American perspective in English and help them practice. It is English, but it’s also not.

I have been focusing on teaching them how to learn, how to organize information, how to practice, and how to ask questions. Language isn’t something you memorize, but you have to memorize it. It only exists as communication between people, but we spend most of our time learning alone. You can never know if you are right or wrong about anything until you say it and see the reaction, but we memorize all the rules and words beforehand. Language is inherently chaotic, but we try to teach using rules. Begin with the rules, but only use them until you don’t need them anymore.

All the things we do, the games we play, the stories we learn, the music we listen to, teach us something, but in a way that all becomes part of our culture. Here the games focus on tactics and competition, often with a little gambling on the side. Go, Mahjong, cards, but nothing with too much language or culture in in. In the States we have scrabble, taboo, monopoly, clue, trivia games, word games, and an endless variety of board games that involve competition, tactics, conversation, dialogue, and so much more.

Ying told me it was because the Chinese often work hard so when they play, they prefer to relax. I think that is why TV culture became so big in the US so quickly, something entertaining but doesn’t require us to create something new. Or maybe it’s just all the years I spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, creating worlds and lives out of nothing that gives me such a strange perspective on these things. The beauty was always in the stories we created, the stories I remember as much as if they were real.

It’s always hard to tell what is my perspective and what is tied to my culture. America is so varied, with so many people, cultures, religions, histories, and dreams that it’s hard to ever say what Americans prefer. That is one of the hardest parts of talking about it, trying to tell people what we really are. Trying to explain that even we don’t really know who we are.

Maybe it’s just that I finally have a moment to relax and begin to analyze the last few months I’ve been here. All that is left is the class final and an overnight train to Chengdu. The last part of the semester and the beginning of an adventure.


Posted in 2018-01, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

As the Haze Clears

Tomorrow starts the new year, and the weather has shifted. A haze settled over the city, like during the firestorms in California, a mix of dirt and ash from the desert and factories here. I settled in to hiding indoors when the air quality passed 500. Either it randomly stopped at 999 or that’s as high as the scale goes. Neither would surprise me.

Anything past 200 is hazardous, but most of the time here it’s below that. Blue skies with the brown haze on the horizon, that dust that comes off the mountains here. Over the last week I’ve been able to taste the dirt in the air, like when you’re gardening. It’s not unbearable, but it’s definitely best to stay indoors with the purifier running.

They said winter would get like this here, when the air settles and the pollution rests on the city. It’s still not as bad as I expected, and next week is supposed to be between 50 and 100. I think the thing that bothers me most is the coating of dust on everything. Anything you touch leaves powder on your clothes, like accidently leaning against the chalkboard in class. It also dries out everything, so I am constantly using lotion and chapstick to keep from getting cracked skin.

I spend a lot of time cooking, finding ways to make Mexican food and Italian food here. It’s hard to do American since beef and cheese aren’t common, and I can buy Chinese food easily enough. Indian would be good, but I think that will be my next project, to see if I can find the right spices. So far, the turmeric here has been disappointing.

It has been relatively easy to find a lot of spices here, but most of them are whole and in the Chinese medicine part of the store with the Goji berries and tea. I’ve thought about getting a coffee grinder so I can grind them up easier, but I’ll worry about that after Chinese New Year.

In a couple weeks I have to go to Chengdu for training. Two weeks there, then two more in Guilin. After that is the holiday, and the return to site. I will go to Shangqui, and maybe spend a few days in Xi’an before coming back for the new semester. I don’t really know what I will be doing or teaching, or when it starts, or anything really, but that chaos is common for me now. It doesn’t really bother me anymore.

Today is New Year’s Eve, but as far as I know the volunteers all had a party yesterday. I was at my friends, eating chicken and mushrooms and relaxing. I wonder if I should be trying to connect to them more, but I don’t really feel the need to. It can be fun, but most of the time I would rather find my own way here.

I am still catching up on all the things I missed while I was busy, so once again I am busier when I have free time than I am when I am busy. I still procrastinate, but accepting it just means that I know I will wait until the last minute to do my work. I still fight laziness at every turn, but I don’t expect that to ever get any easier. I am, as always, just me, and just here. For now, that’s enough, but there is still a long road ahead.

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Christmas in Lanzhou

Today has been my first complete day off in and long time, and as a Christmas present to myself I had pizza and watched the Labyrinth and a bunch of Futurama episodes. It’s nice to be able to do nothing for a while. It’s not that I haven’t stopped so much as I haven’t had a complete day of nothing, and I really need that sometimes.

A day where I study a little for fun. Where I putter around more than I produce anything. A glorious waste. And the day isn’t even over yet. I still get to have a night of watching the kids opening presents, talking to family, and finishing the pizza I bought. A very good day.

I still miss Christmas with the family, that social activity of seeing everyone, eating together, and opening presents, but not enough to wish I was home. It would have been nice to visit, but it’s really too hard to get back home this time of year, especially when I have a few weeks of class left.

A lot of people here ask if I feel lonely, and say that I must miss my family, but the truth is I’m not, and I don’t. Most of the time I am too busy here having dinner with friends, teachers, and students. I fill my time studying Chinese, kung fu, and cooking. I even bought a piano since I spend so much time indoors. I may never be an expert, but I don’t really care. I wanted to learn jazz and blues more than anything else, and for them you don’t need precision.

I talk to people a lot still. Students from all over China will contact me and ask me questions, start conversations, or just say hello and be gone. I have a few very good friends too, and there is always the potential for more. I have to balance my social nature with my anti-social one. My desire to be alone forever with the joy I feel with others.

I am almost done with my first semester here, then there will be no class for at least five weeks, but the work isn’t done. I have to go back to Chengdu for a couple weeks for Peace Corps training, then a couple weeks of language training in Guilin or Yunnan. After that I will spend a week in a smaller town for Chinese New Year, to see the difference between the style of Taipei and the heart of China.

The big cities always have a different take on the holidays. I liked Hualien more than Taipei because of the feel more than anything. The small town on the edge of the old world and the new. Taipei had a massive street festival dedicated to the lanterns, but it felt like a tourist attraction more than a genuine part of the culture. I wonder what it will be like in Henan.

I will just be happy to be somewhere it’s warm, even relatively speaking. Chengdu will still be cold and wet, and the pollution is supposed to be worse since the air doesn’t move during winter, but I’ll be spending a couple weeks in the South of China during the coldest months here. It actually kind of bothers me that I’ll be away that long, but there is no way to separate the vacation time. I have to be here for the semester, so I can only be away at that time.

A month away from site. I’m glad I don’t have pets, or plants. I’m sure there are ways to deal with it, but I would just rather not. Better to have plastic plants than to have someone coming in or trying to move them to someone else’s house. I do still want to get some art for the house, but I am not in any rush. Trying to get things to stick to the walls here is difficult because of how dry it is. I would need nails, and a hammer, and risk taking chunks out of the old concrete if it doesn’t like what I’m doing. I’m better off with the piano.

But there is still plenty of time for that later. I still have three semesters and all the time between. Even as fast as this time is rushing by, there is still so much ahead.

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