Saturday, September 30, 2006

A near-beautiful scene

I'm looking across the river now. The tide is very low, so the other side very near to me. It looks almost like a huge sandbar, because it normally should be covered in water. It's always been pretty low, but I don't remember being able to see this much land before. On the sandbar/shore, there are about 8 horses just roaming free, a few people on bikes, a group sitting on the ground while a dog sits nearby. A van sits in the middle of the land, bringing up all kinds of question on how it got there and it's purpose for being there. Scattered throughout the shore is thousands upon thousands of pieces of litter. All multicolored and spread evenly like sprinkles on a cupcake. It'd almost be beautiful if it weren't so depressing.

I see a glimmer of hope for a minute though. There's two old women with bags picking up the garbage. There is hope in the world. But then another thought hits me, which is probably correct. I can't really tell, but I'm guessing they are not doing an incredibly thorough job. They pick up the pieces of garbage that they can recycle and turn in for money, and leave the rest. There's a few women on our block that thoroughly inspect our garbage several times a day for this reason. They take what they want, and leave the rest.

They don't have a good spirit, or working for someone who does, or even working for the city that wants to clean up the river. They are just the amazing force that is the invisible hand. God Bless Capitalism.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

As long as a bus isn't spewing black smoke in your face, the air here is quite fresh. Although there is definitely a problem with smog, the air doesn't taste or smell like it. You're always reminded though when you look across the river and can barely see the mountains which are enveloped in white, cloudy chemicals.

I'm sitting outside a restaurant looking through the lights into the sillouette of the omnipresent mountains. I ordered some watermellon juice. It's amazingly fresh. I think they just ran a watermelon in a blender a couple of minutes ago and poured it into a glass. I forgot to say 我不要冰块 (I don't want ice cubes), so I'm kind of scared to drink much, but it's just so good.

I ordered ginger duck that has just as much ginger as duck. It came with bamboo shoots, but it's dark, and I can't tell what's ginger and what's bamboo until I put it in my mouth. I think I must have eaten 1/4 cup of ginger.

Fishing the inhumane way

I'm sitting down here by the river as I write this. There's these two old Chinese men here that stand and hold these poles horizontally. They're definitely from the village, and look almost like they're out of a really old kung fu movie. On each side of the pole is pelican perching. They're incredibly tame, and wouldn't dream of leaving it's master. It's pretty beautiful. They charge 25 cents to hold the bar and take a picture with them.

When they're not selling photo opportunities, they use the pelicans to fish. They tie a rope around it's throat so that they cannot swallow anything. Then they send the birds out to grab a fish. The birds return with a fish in their pouch, and the men reach down their beak and steal the fish from them. It's pretty exploitive and inhumane, but a creative idea I have to admit.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Human Nature

I was walking to dinner tonight when I saw a man running towards me. A couple were chasing after him. The man finally caught up to him and pushed him into a sign, a table, and some chairs. They all went flying as he fell over each one after another. The man fell to the ground, but got back up. The man chasing him finally got a hold of him and tried to wrestle him to the ground using the absolute worst moves I've ever seen. Has this man ever seen a tackle before in his life? I wanted to yell, 'Go for his legs!' Finally another man ran up and helped. They worked him to the ground in a half-nelson. They then removed the stolen purse from his possession.

But unfortunately, that wasn't all. Like all too many people, these men were sure that two wrongs definitely did make a right. They held him to the ground and a few people took punches at him. They yelled what I'm sure were horrible things at him. By now, a huge crowd of rubberneckers had joined me in my rubbernecking. They then proceeded to remove his belt. I had no idea what they were doing, but I thought it couldn't be good. Were they going to strip him nude for embarrassment? Would they beat him with his belt?

As I cringed at the thought of what they would do next, a man came from behind. He wound up, and gave him a swift kick to the back of the head. You could hear the knock of his boot against his hard skull, and see his neck bounce. This is when I started to get upset. I was more shocked and scared until this point (this all happened just a few feet from me by the way). But I just wanted to yell at them to leave him alone.

Violence is so hard for me to both understand and watch. They moved his arm behind his back, and twisted into the position in which if they moved it another few degrees, it would snap. It was too painful to watch. I had to leave.

The cops had been called a few minutes ago, and I wanted to stay until they got there so I could at least pretend in my mind that the man would not be tortured anymore. Of course the police would beat him much worse, but if I could see him removed from this crowd, it would calm me down a little. But I couldn't stand to watch anymore.

As I left, I saw the man's face. It was blank. He didn't say a word. He had nothing to say. His face did not look angry, or sad, or in pain. He had accepted what will happen to him. He made one bad decision, and now his whole world is ending. He was the product of an unfair, cruel world that our greed had created, and made a confused, but understandable action. As I walked away, I was able to make eye contact. I looked at him in a way that said "I'm so sorry". I hope he understood.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

我喜欢菜的很辣

I ate probably one of the most uncomfortable meals of my life tonight. I went to this stir-fry place just down the road from my place. There's a lady standing at a wok in the front of the restaurant, with a bunch of plates with different meats and vegetables. You walk up to the table, and take a very small dish, and put one piece of everything you want in the stir-fry and then hand your dish to the lady. It's kind of like Flattop Grill in the sense that they make you a custom-made stir-fry with the ingredients you want. It's kind of not like Flattop Grill in the sense that it's pretty filthy and just a hole in the wall. It's only about 60 cents for a great, quick meal, so I usually go there about three times a week.

So as I selected my items for my stir-fry, I put some chillis in my bowl like I usually do, and sat in the back of the restaurant where there was no breeze and no fan. (The weather here is still pretty hot and humid). They brought me my steaming hot bowl of rice and plate of fried vegetables. Most of the time, they make my food here pretty spicy, but it's always good. But today, when I looked at my plate of stir-fry, it was mostly chillies.

It was one of the most painful meals ever. Having just come from the wok, the food was so hot my mouth burned from temperature and from spice. I sweat from the heat. I sweat more from the food. No fan. I was eating stringy vegetables, so it was difficult not to get some sauce on my lips, chin, and mouth. My face was on fire. My nose was running. My eyes began to water. Tears, snot, sweat. I was a mess. No napkins, no water.

I got the waitresses attention. I spoke in the clearest Chinese ever: "请问小姐你们这里有没有开水?" ('Excuse me miss, do you have bottled water at this restaurant?'). I had asked this question millions of times and I've never really had any problem with someone understanding me, but she had no idea what I was saying. So I tried simplifying it: "我要一个瓶水"。(I want a bottle of water). No clue. "水" (water) I said. Nothing. Finally she said, "一杯子?“ ("A glass?") "我不要一杯我要一瓶” (No, not a glass, a bottle). Nothing. She finally picked up a dirty glass and filled it with water from a strange kettle on the floor.

There was no way I was going to drink that water. But I didn't want to embarass myself by talking for 3 minutes asking for a glass of water, and then leaving it full on the table. I wanted to dispose of the water somehow. So there I was in the back of the restaurant: Sweaty, red faced, leaking all kinds of bodily fluids, no napkins, no beverages, and a glass of water that I needed to dispose of without causing a scene or drinking it.

While no one was looking I would slowly pour some of the water onto the floor in the corner. I was righ there in the back of a dark restaurant. The place was convered in filth anyway. Who would notice? I kept doing this until I had a half of a glass and the floor was soaked. I thought, this is the best I can do. I made another attempt to force the food down my throat without touching my face, tongue, or throat. I paid the bill and left.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Amoebic dysentery

Last Thursday I woke up with horrible abdominal cramping. I knew that getting sick here was a when not an if. But I didn't expect to get something in my first two weeks here! I'll spare you the unpleasant details which I'm sure you can predict, but it lasted for much longer than the typical spell goes for. After a week of intestinal agony, I decided this might be something worse. I called my sister, and she assisted prescribing some drugs to take. As it turns out I had a few million amoebas hanging out in my intestines, maybe kicking back a few and enjoying the never-ending supply of free food that kept coming through.

One nice thing about developing countries without many health and safety rules is that prescription drugs are incredibly easy to get. Once I had found the names of the medications in Chinese characters, I just went across the street and showed the paper to the pharmacist. I paid her $1.30 for the medicine, and I was on my way.

It's sure nice having a loving sister as a doctor, because by the next morning I already felt much better. I felt like yelling at my intestines, taunting and laughing at my parasites about horrible death that they would soon experience. They had made me suffer horribly for a couple weeks, and the vengeful, violent part my mind was enjoying the retribution I paid to it when I took my pills.

I now feel much better, and am able to function and live normally again. I really do wonder what caused this though. The unfortunate thing I guess is that it really could be anything here. There isn't really anything I can eat that is what consider 'safe'. None of the restaurants are close to being clean. A lot of them don't wash their dishes. Some restaurants will put a tag (like a piece of tape) on each bowl to show that it has been washed. You're supposed to rip off the tag when you get it.

The food you buy at the market is no safer. You have to soak all produce in a water/bleach solution after washing it thoroughly before you can eat it. Even then, it's safest to peal it first. And you of course can't drink the water here. I could have even gotten sick if in the shower I swallowed a few drops of water that got into my mouth. It really could be anything, so if you think about it, it could be scary. So we just make sure we talk to the boss before every meal.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Just what I needed

This place has kind of been just a big chill pill for me. My stress levels has really gone done a ton. I called my brother, Josh today. He said could tell in my voice. I think I can tell too. This place has been really great for me. The pace of life here is pretty slow. Expectations are lower here, and workload is light.

Most people take a siesta after lunch here too, so a lot of businesses don't have hours from 11-2 or so. One of the teachers here actually visited a business here in one of the bigger cities. At 1:00, they turned most of the lights off and employees took a blanket and pillow out of their desk, and sprawled out onto the floor for corporate nap time. This really needs to happen in the states.

I've become much less time-conscience, and I have enough time to do anything I want or need to. I really have not incurred any stress to think of since coming here. I still keep myself pretty motivated here, studying Chinese, reading, writing, and playing music. But I've taken a much less hectic approach to these things. I'm really wondering what effect it will have on me when I come back. Will I return to my old ways, or is this a new Simon who is more patient and laid-back?

Friday, September 15, 2006

People in their right minds

I found out tonight that there aren't any left-handed people in China. It's a cultural no-no, and looked at as a disability. Left-handed children are repressed from expressing the freedom to use their more nimble hand. Mothers will actually slap their babies for grabbing their pencil or chopsticks with their left hands!

We had just purchased new desks for the classroom and were putting them together. I asked Nate if I should make any desks with the table part on the opposite side for lefties. He said not to worry about it because there were no left-handed people in this country. Unbelievable! 1.3 billion people, and not a single lefty.

He said that many of them are still left-handed, but just repress it most of the time. They would never write or do most things with their left hand. One of the Chinese nationals that works at the school here is left-handed. He writes with his right hand, but shoots basketball with this left.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dried, flattened rats are food

There's a parking lot by the school that cuts off about 5 minutes walking if I cut through it. During the day, it's just a parking lot. But at night, street vendors set up shop. Most of the parking lot is full of fold up chairs and tables, with a portable tent set up above it. There's only a narrow alley you can walk through the street vendors on either side.

They're all stif-frying with enormous flames. Smoke is everywhere. There's so much oil in the air, it stings your eyes and burns your lungs as you walk by. In front of the stir-fryers are all of their ingredients, which are basically at your feet as you stumble through them. On the table next to them is all of the vegetables and sauces. There's a cutting board up there where they chop vegetables or huge bloody chunks of meat.

In the front of the table is many meat items. There's mounds of pork of course, but next to the pork is a pile of intestines, dried, flattened rats (oh yes), ox tails, whole chickens and ducks, snails, and more.

On the ground by your feet is the good stuff: The live stuff. There's a big tub of enormous fish in shallow water. (The first day I was there, one flipped out of the water 10 feet away from me, and came lunging towards me. It landed about a foot behind me. It was almost as if it had seen me coming and was yelling, 'Pick Me!' Another tub was full of live crawfish. A bucket of live snakes, a chicken with a basket over it, a mesh bag of toads jumping around...so much more that I can't recall at the moment. It's really quite a sight. All of these items are ready for you to point at, and they get thrown in the wok.

I'm sure the time will come when all previously mentioned animals and animal parts will make it into the wok that will feed me. I can't wait.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Stay away from the pink lights

So tonight marks the first time I was offered a prostitute by a small chinese man in a nice brown coat. I was walking through one of the touristy streets here, not really that late at night. He had this creepy look in his eyes, as he walked up to me. "Ma-saj-jee?" he said. "No, thank you." He tapped me on the shoulder as I walked away. I turned back out of instinct, "Ma-saj-jee?" he said with the same disgusting look in his eyes. I looked down at his hands. They were making a gesture which consisted of an 'OK' symbol with his left hand, while he moved his index finger on his right hand back and forth through the loop he made with his left-hand thumb and finger. He looked up at me again, laughing, with this yellow-toothed grin as if to say, Heh, heh...c'mon...you know what I mean...heh heh." I was upset for turning back when he tapped me. I was so appalled, I kind of wanted to throw up.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A visit to the market

One thing I love about the food here is that everything is incredibly fresh. The meat at the market was just slaughtered that morning. (You should buy it in the morning so you can refrigerate it asap). Then you have to use it within two days, or freeze it! Nothing at the market has preservatives or additives in it. The farmers bring their produce in everyday. Everything is seasonal, so you can only get certain fruits and vegetables certain times of the year. They don't really ship things in here. Chances are, that the meat you buy in the market was alive that morning, and the produce was just picked yesterday. All the restaurants buy their food at the market that morning too.

Up until last year, there was not even a grocery store in town. That meant that anything you bought to eat had to be purchased at the market. Even still, the grocery store here is about the same size as neighborhood grocery store in a very small town in America. The grocery store really doesn't even have any packaged or pre-made meals like in the states, so even when you don't shop at the market, all your food is pretty fresh. I think America could learn a lot from how China eats.

So later today I went to the market with one of the other teachers. I was much less grossed out this time than in Hong Kong. Maybe I was just better prepared for it this time, and also because I knew I would have to buy all my food here. We walked into the meat part first. We walked by the bloody tables with stacks of meat dripping on them. The workers were chopping away at the hunks with their butcher's knives. Big chops, like they were swinging an axe. And when they hit the meat, it would make a thud. I thought that maybe there might be some meat debris flying out every time they chopped, much like wood chips at the swing of an axe. Out of about 30 tables, 28 were pork she said. There's only two beef tables, and a few cages full of chickens and rabbits, so this might give you a picture of what kind of meat they eat most here.

In the back corner of the market I could see 'doggy corner', where they burn the hair off of the dogs with a blowtorch. Seriously, a blowtorch with about a foot-long flame. On the other side of the market I could see the dogs that were ready to buy, hanging upside-down and inside-out, in halves on hooks.

She helped me learn how to look for the right chops of meat. Some with some fat, but not too much. You had to bring the meat home and wash it good, because it's just sitting on the bloody table all day. I wasn't ready for this yet. Maybe when I'm a bit more comfortable. I bought some vegetables, noodles, and rice though.

The food at the market was remarkably cheap. Usually most things were around 25 cents per pound. Later that day when we got a big bowl of noodles, it was 30 cents. My breakfast this morning was so many dumplings I could barely finish. They were 25 cents. So even though the market is so cheap, eating out at restaurants is extraordinarily cheap too and tastes a lot better than my cooking, so I tend to eat most of my meals out. I've still yet to spend more than $4 for a meal here. It was a pretty extravagant meal. Most restaurants here are just hole-in-the wall places. They're pretty much just three tables and a 'kitchen' in a dirty room on the side of the road. These places are usually under 60 cents for a pretty decent meals. The other kind of restaurants resemble more of the idea we think of as restaurants. They have a menu, waiters, and a kitchen in a separate room. Sometimes they even wash the bowls and plates! These places are pretty pricey though. Most meals cost around $2.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Street Life

This place reminds me a lot of the places we drove by on the train in Thailand, but never got to see firsthand. Ever since I saw those places, I wanted to jump out of the train and really explore them. The city is pretty poor, but not desperately poor. For China, and not being in the big city, this place isn't doing that bad.

The streets here are definitely interesting. There are motorcycles everywhere. Maybe even more so than in Thailand when I was there. I guess it's like that everywhere in Asia, but I had never seen it in China. Beijing was realy only busses, taxis, and bikes. I'd venture to say that there's more motorcylces than non-motor bikes, and definately more than cars. My guess would be that the make-up of the vehicles on the road are 40% motorcycles, 25% bikes, 15% buses, 10% trucks, and maybe 10% cars/taxis.

Like most developing countries, the traffic "laws" or more of traffic "suggestions". There's really no rules, which makes it interesting for crossing the road. I think some of the other teachers (especially the ones with kids) are having a difficult time adjusting to this. I kind of love it. It's just more exciting. I keep telling the other teachers they should abide by the strategy that all other people here take on the roads. If you start crossing the road, don't stop. Just keep walking at an even pace. No one ever expects someone to stop, so if you do, it throws the entire flow of traffic off. Just step right in front of that bus going 40 miles an hour. It'll stop. If you hesitate, or let it go ahead of you, I think you're more likely to cause an accident. I sometimes say that I've observed only one rule on the roads here. If a vehicle or person is at a particular place at a particular time, you cannot be in that exact place at that exact time. Anything goes other than that.

There's really no idea of what should and shouldn't happen on the streets and sidewalks either. There's always construction going on here, so if they need to build something, they do it in the middle of the street or sidewalk. For example, down the street the school is on, they're building a new hotel. When they built the front desk, chairs, signs, and other items that will be placed inside the building, they just build it in the middle of the street. There they were, with cars and motorcycles going by, sawing huge pieces of wood, varnishing others, nailing boards, etc.

Another hotel being built next to the school is in the process of demolishing the old building. They do everything by hand here without machines, so it's just a bunch of people with sledgehammers, banging the hell out of the brick walls a few stories up. The building is about 5 feet from the street, but they just let the bricks go falling down onto the road. There's no such thing as a 'hard hat area', so if you see construction happening you have to walk on the other side of the street. The dust it creates is pretty horrendous too.

Last night I saw people welding without goggles at night in the middle of the sidewalk. Turns out, this is actually a welding shop, and they do all their welding everyday on the sidewalk right in front of their store. It was possibly the brightest thing I've ever seen, but so beautiful.

On the next block, I saw a little girl, not all that little - maybe 6, walk out of a store she was in and into the middle of the busy sidewalk. She took her pants and underwear completely off, and peed. Then she began to redress as I stepped around the stream that was coming my way.

When it rains here, it's hard to go out because there's not much shelter besides inside buildings, and just about everyone walks or rides motorcycles here. Like a lot of sub-tropical places, the rain comes down hard, but for short intervals. The gutters here are placed very interestingly. After collecting the water in the gutter at the bottom of the roof, instead of the water running down a pipe that goes down the side of the house, the gutter is just open on the side of the top of the roof. So that there's a pipe shooting water out 60 feet above your head onto the street. It's like there's a firehose at the end of every rooftop here! Good place for a shower, I guess.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Dog Hair Alley

Today, on the way to one of the teacher's apartment, we took a back route through a lot of alleys and such. We walked through an alley on the side of market. There was a chair and a mirror where a barber was giving flattops for 35 cents. (I seems that if you are a Chinese man over 30, the only respectable haircut here is the flattop. It's hilarious.) We took a left at the end of this street, so we were now in the alley behind the market. This alley was extremely dirty, with all the windows were literally covered in cobwebs.

There was a small little ramp going down into a the building throught what looked like an open basement door or something. Nate explained that this was where they would bring the dogs into the market to be slaughtered. They would actually kill them back here in this alley, then burn off all the hair right on that ramp looking thing, and then bring them into the market to be chopped up.

The smell was absolutely atrocious. Let me put this in perspective. There are many colorful smells all over China, especially in the markets. Everywhere you go, there's usually some kind of smell, that you just have to pause, regain your composure, and think "Wow... I've never smelled that before." But those smells never bother the nationals. But back in this alley, locals would cover their noses with their shirts and shreik in agony as they ran by.

I had a friend in college that loved to walk into someone's dorm room, pluck a few 'lower hemisphere body hairs' and set them on fire, just to make that person's room smell terrible for a few hours (God bless you, Buck, wherever you are). But that was usually just 3 or 4 individual hairs. This was an entire dog (or dogs).

Oh yeah...by the way, they eat dog here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Arrival

The journey started at the airport in Chicago. My previous flight to Hong Kong was a very pleasant experience. We flew out on New Years Day, so the plane was almost empty. Cat and I were able to spread out over 4 seats, and only had one 60 minute layover. So this time, I was really looking forward to flying again.

Unfortunately, I can't say my experience was nearly as pleasant. I decided to bring a friend's acoustic guitar, so that counted as one of my pieces of checked luggage. My other bag was filled only with clothes and was exactly at the maximum. That meant that I had 12 books, 3 pairs of shoes, and my computer that had to be carried-on in my pack. This made my 6 hours worth of layovers quite a chore.

One quite strange note: In one of the airports in China that I had a layover in, while I waited for my flight I noticed a free magazine for passengers. If I recall, there was a scantily clad woman on the front. I thought this was a little odd, such a risque cover on a free magazine here in China. Nevertheless, I decided to see what of the magazine I could read. It looked like any other general purpose type free magazine. And like other magazines of this type, there were many scantily clad women throughout the magazine. But what was even more surprising than this, were the 5 or 6 women that were nonchalantly wearing no shirt at all! It was presented in a way like it was no big deal. I couldn't believe it! I was in a public place, reading a free magazine that the airport gives to all passengers, in an extremely sexually conservative country. I was, and still remain baffled by this. I put the magazine back on the rack and got on the plane.

One of the teachers was at the airport to meet me. On the hour and a half long taxi ride, I was pretty distracted looking at the amazing scenery. I really did try to have a conversation with him, but this place was blowing my mind. The pictures cannot even come close to doing this place justice. You really just have to see it to believe it. The mountains are not just one place, they're everywhere for a 100 mile radius. Going through the towns were incredibly interesting too. There was more happening, so it was even more distracting than the mountains. It looked like the places and shanty towns we saw in Thailand from the train, but were never able to get close to.

At this point, I feel like I should have been dead, but I was actually pretty awake. The plane left at what would be 7:00pm Indiana time. I had 20 hours on a plane, 6 hours of layovers, and a 2 hour taxi ride. I figured I had been awake for almost 40 hours. Luckily, it was only 11:00 am at that time in China and I had at least another 9 hours to go before I could let myself go to bed.

I met the rest of the team here later that day. They're all really great people. This was already quite a huge relief for me. Not getting along with the team here was my biggest worry about coming. I've had so many bad experiences with people who are like-minded in this regard, but I could tell within just a few hours with the team that this would not be a problem. It was such a load off my back.

One new dynamic that I guess I knew ahead of time, but it never really sunk in, was the fact that there are kids coming out of every orifice here. Between two of the families, there are a total of six kids. I guess, I was warned before by others, "I hope you like kids...". I remember hearing them tell me this, but I think I totally forgot. I guess I figured I'd be pretty removed from them and could handle the kids in small doses. I didn't realize they would be pretty much everywhere all of the time. But I don't think any of this is a bad thing. Truth be told, I've never really experienced being around kids before. I don't even know if I like kids! I've never had the chance. I think this will be quite good for me.