Thirteen has always been a significant number for me and it has now been thirteen days and change since Grace, sitting in the front seat of the taxi-van that drove us to my apartment from the Zhengzhou airport, said “We’re here.” Grace is a very friendly, attractive Chinese native who also teaches English (she speaks quite well) at our school, and I remember getting out of the backseat in denial that we were really “here.” After all, the stairwell she was directing me toward was damp, dark, and dirty, and I wasn’t quite ready to accept that this was where I was actually going to be coming home to for an entire year.
Ah how my perspective has changed. My apartment is actually quite nice (at least by my recent standards of living), and it even has a laundry “hall” in the back with a washing machine and two clotheslines for drying. But no one cares about that (and if you do, then I suggest you come and stay with me for a bit and then you can tell me what you think of my new digs). What about China, or, more specifically, Zhengzhou?
The photo to the left, of Erqi Memorial Tower in downtown’s main square, was captured with my iPhone, which I successfully unlocked last night after days of searching for Wi-Fi hotspots until a network named “Papa John’s” popped up as I was wandering through the shopping mall that also houses the local Wal-Mart. And yes, that would be the same “Papa’s in the House” Papa John’s as exists stateside, except this location may be the only one in town, was virtually empty, offers dishes such as chicken and corn pizza, and was located on the top (5th) floor of a mall comprised almost exclusively of apparel vendors save for the two American franchises mentioned herein.
My teaching schedule at the Henan College of Finance and Taxation is as follows: Mon. 8 a.m.-noon, Weds. 8 a.m.-noon, Thurs. 2 p.m.-6 p.m., Fri. 8 a.m.-noon, and Sat. 2 p.m.-6 p.m. I have four different sections of students that I rotate between, each numbering 25-40 students, and no I have not learned all of their names yet despite being almost two weeks into the semester. But hey, I arrived late on Friday night, Feb. 18, tired as can be, only to find out I was expected to give a lecture at 8 a.m. Monday morning and nobody had a syllabus or even a textbook ready for my class as the recruiter and I had discussed, so I think my performance in the classroom has been adequate thus far. It can be quite distracting when students are talking to each other instead of listening to me while I stand and speak in front of the entire class, but given some of my antics in school as a young buck I probably deserve much worse.
The award for “most shocking difference compared to back home” that I have noticed thus far has got to go to the accepted standard (or lack thereof) of locations for urination and defecation by those three years of age and under. People driving their cars and motorbikes on the sidewalks would probably have finished a closer second had I not gotten somewhat used to it in Thailand.
But yeah, so…the marshmallow babies: this nickname arises from their uniformly rotund appearance, which is actually quite cute, given that they are not so much fat as decked out in multiple layers (which results in very round figures waddling about), until you find yourself behind one and you do a double-take when you think you notice an ass-crack where the seat of the pants should be. Your second inspection confirms that there is indeed a massive rip right down the center of the garment despite the fact that it is chilly enough to otherwise warrant multiple layers. Why subject one’s offspring to gusts of cold air right up the tailpipe?
Because who wants to deal with dirty diapers, silly? When baby has to go, he just stops, squats, and takes care of business on the sidewalk. It is truly a sight to behold the first time you witness it happening in front of you. Oh, and watch your step.
Last Friday my “boss” invited me and the other foreign teacher (a young woman from Florida named Alicia) out to dinner, and my American colleague warned me ahead of time that this evening would probably revolve more around boozing than eating. She had the scoop on this function because, while it was essentially a “welcome dinner” for me, it was her second rodeo since she had arrived at the start of the fall semester last October. While there certainly was some delicious food that adorned the “lazy susan” at which about nine of us dined, her warning was not unwarranted. My “boss” is a man who speaks no English (except for “Alicia, drink!”, which he learned at her initial welcome dinner in a blatant attempt to get the Caucasian female drunk, and she said she even ended up puking in the bathroom before the dinner was over that night), and every time he wanted to propose a toast to me or anyone else, he would just rattle off some Chinese and then either Grace or the other bilingual native teacher would translate. He toasted to my “health,” and my “wealth,” and my “good luck,” and, well you get the point. By the way, these were shots of a 56% alcohol substance named “baijiu.” While I never had to make intimate contact with the porcelain gods, we were good and drunk by the time we left the restaurant. Bossman was apparently unconcerned with the prospect that we both had class the next day (and at 8 a.m. in Alicia’s case).
Seeing as how I didn’t have to get up nearly as early, I wandered across the street to a “pool hall” named “Free Balls.” In spite of the strange moniker, the mere presence of English letters on the sign instead of Chinese characters had me abuzz at the prospect that there might be some other English-speakers inside. I descended two flights of stairs only to enter a smoky room with one empty pool table in view. As I navigated the fumes, I saw two large rectangular bar-style tables with Chinese people seated around them and I tried to go lean against a wall to avoid attracting the inevitable attention that comes with being the only white person in the room. I did not make it that far.
Soon I was being challenged to beer-chugging contests by many of the males (I dominated), and then the emcee pulled me up on stage to dance to the Chinese music they were listening to. Oddly enough all of the males were sitting at one of the two tables and all of the females were sitting at the other one. We were soon playing a game, even though I did not know it at the time, in which a cup is passed around each table and the male who has the cup when the emcee cuts off the music has to come up to the stage and carry around on his shoulder whichever female ended up with the other cup. In what I’m sure was a stroke of pure chance, the music stopped when the cup was in my hands and I was dragged up to the stage by several excited onlookers. Before lifting the girl over my right shoulder I made a feeble attempt to point to the splint on my left forearm, but it was already settled and away we twirled.
Despite the fact that I was unable to make any real conversation with anyone once the novelty of my presence had worn off, the hospitality was truly remarkable and they wouldn’t even let me pay for my drinks when I finally decided to stumble home. I guess the Chinese often try to pay for your “first time” when you are in their country, because I ate lunch with one of my students today and he also refused to let me pay “just for the first time.”
Saturday night’s encore was equally raucous. After my classes were finished at 6 p.m., we started pre-gaming with some store-bought baijiu and drinking games. The wrecking crew for the evening included Alicia and I, her friend who is staying with her for two months, another foreign teacher we had met who works at our college’s other campus, another teacher she knew, and a young college-aged Chinese guy who speaks English and had approached us on the street one day. We headed first to V8 Club for a couple of drinks and some people-watching, but before long we were in a pair of taxis and headed to some other pulsating nightclub. It was here that members of our party started taking shots with random Chinese people who wanted to meet Americans, getting drunk, and dancing on tables before wandering home at various hours in the 3:30-6:00 a.m. range. At 11:30 on Sunday, Alicia, her friend, and I were scheduled to eat lunch with (and in my case, meet) the lady who signs our checks. I’m holding out hope that I mostly made sense in conversation over that hangover-zapping meal.
I mentioned the splint on my wrist in that little recap. For anyone who doesn’t know, I did shatter my wrist in a scooter accident (I was run over by a drunk driver on Jan. 29) and I had surgery on February 3. It is recovering well and obviously I am just thankful and very lucky that my injuries were not drastically worse. Rehab can be frustrating – I still don’t have very much range of motion in terms of bending my wrist downwards (or “flexion” as the doctors say) – but I am being diligent in my rehab so hopefully it will continue to improve.
That’s about all I’ve got for today. I’ve been too busy so far to really put any serious thought into learning Chinese, but I’ve got “hello, thank you, no, 0, 1, 2,” and a couple of other basics down. While this city may not be as “happening” or attuned to English speakers as Beijing or even Bangkok, I am nonetheless optimistic about the potential ways I can spend my time here over the course of this year improving my health financially, physically, mentally, and otherwise. I can’t promise any frequency of writing; after all I’ve never prepared a course syllabus for 125 students before, but this will be the place I post any “travelogues” or similar pieces. I hope we can all stay in touch with e-mail, Skype, and the rest. Seeing as how the Chinese New Year celebrations were coming to a close right as I arrived, I wish you all good fortune in the Year of the Rabbit!