Wednesday, February 07, 2007


(This is a a belated post, dating from about mid-November.)

The textbooks we use in our classes are generally pretty good. However, on occasion, they'll cover subjects that are completely foreign to most people living outside of North America. Worse than that is that sometimes the book tends to rub the students' noses in the huge income gap between Americans and the rest of the world. Given that 2/3 of the world do not enjoy a living standard anywhere close to the developed world, and that this 2/3 is most likely to want to learn English, it seems like a real slap in the face to the target audience of the book. Chapters that talk about how most Americans own at least two cars per family, or when the Americans in the video are complaining about their 'small, dirty apartment' and the students are living in a much, much smaller and not as nice apartment, I kind of squirm in my seat a little bit.

Luckily, this cultural difference I'm speaking of didn't directly have to do with income inequality. The chapter we were talking about was "Camping". So I began class by asking, "How many of you have been camping before?" They understood the question, but puzzled faces were aimed at me, and all hands were left on desks. I moved on. " many of you would like to go camping." Not a hand moved. My students looked at me like they thought I was crazy. When I asked, they couldn't think of a single reason why someone would go camping. It seemed like the most pointless thing they could imagine.

We joked around about this in class, and laughed our way through the rest of the lesson, begging them to pretend that camping would be fun. It was only a couple months later when we tried to speculate why our students had no interest in camping. It finally dawned on us why. Many of our students' parents are farmers. As such, they live on a farm in the middle of the countryside. They live in a very small, almost tent-like building in the middle of the beautiful nature. The food they eat is fresh food cooked over a campfire. So why in the world would they want to buy a tent, walk into their front yard, cook their food as normal, and sleep in their tent? It all suddenly made sense.

Nevertheless, it came to the ears of my fun-loving Mandarin teacher, Geoff, that I enjoyed camping and usually went at least once a year. Unlike my students, he was intrigued at the idea and wanted to go camping with me sometime.

So the great thing about living in Southern China in the winter is that around mid-November, Geoff, myself, and Andy (who had been a teacher at the school a few years ago, but had come back to visit) picked up a couple tents and went camping after class one day.

We got on our bikes and started riding. The beautiful thing about the town we live in, is that after only about five minutes on a bike, you can be in the middle of the countryside without ever knowing there is a city nearby. It was about a 45 minute ride through the countryside, by the side of the mountains, through the rice fields. Geoff took me a way he had taken me one way before on the bike ride I wrote about a few months ago, but I could never find it again on my own. It was a small trail that left the main road, and went through a small village to end up by the river.

(I've described this scene in a blog entry the last time Geoff and I went on a bike ride here, but I'm going to do it again for those who haven't heard the story. If you'd like, feel free to skip down a few paragraphs.) The river was beautiful. To cross it, we had to go on this bridge that was maybe a little larger than a meter wide. We started to cross, but then stopped in the middle of the bridge. It's still my favorite view in all of China that I've seen so far. The bridge is so narrow, it feels like you're almost floating on top of the water. As you bring your eyes up, you see the beautiful river snake through the scenery, above that is flat rice fields in all directions for about a half mile, above that is the mountains in every direction with the sun slowly setting above them.

To our left, on the riverbank was a farmer's restaurant. A farmer's restaurant is much what it sounds like. It's usually just in the middle of a village or the side of the river, very small, and very simple. This one consisted of a small tent, and three rafts that were floating on the banks of the river. The tent was the kitchen, which was really just a stove or a fire with a wok on it, and a big cutting board. Each of the rafts were covered, and had a small table in the middle of them for people to sit at. As we looked at the restaurant from the bridge, we saw some people who had finished their meal and decided to jump into the river from their rafts for a swim.

The three of us went down to the restaurant to eat dinner. There's no menu at these restaurants, and just one person who works there. He's just a local farmer, and we're assuming he probably can't speak Mandarin very well, only the local dialect, so we're lucky to have Geoff along with us. Geoff walks into the tent and asks him what he has today as Andy and I sit down on one of the rafts. We end up eating a whole chicken and some green vegetables which I was told are the above-ground part of a sweet potato. Like last time, the meal was incredible, and so cheap it was almost criminal.

We then decided we should probably set up our campsite before it gets too much darker. I had been wondering for some time where Geoff was going to take us to set up camp. I knew there weren't campsites (obviously), and no real woods or wilderness in the area. So when I asked, he said, "We'll just set up in the middle of this rice field here." "Isn't that someone's property? Won't they care that we're setting up on it, and building a fire in the middle of their land?" He replied, "No, of course not! Why would they?"

I think that's when I realized another big cultural difference on how people view personal property. I envisioned camping in the middle of some farmer's field in America, and the farmer coming out with a shotgun yelling, "Git off mah properta, boy!" That simply wasn't the case here. (Actually, later in the year, Geoff and I went camping again in a different farmer's field, and they actually invited us into their home! We went inside to say hello, and they gave us a few pounds of tangerines to take home.)

So we set up our tents in the middle of the harvested rice fields. We hunted for wood for a while and started a fire. At around midnight we decided to walk back to the river and go for a swim. So the three of us got completely naked and jumped into the river at midnight in the middle of November. When I thought about what the weather must have been like in Indiana at the time, I just laughed as I jumped in.

After we had dried off, we went back to the campsite. We talked for a while, and Andy and Geoff taught me a couple Chinese songs. Here's when the night got a little creepy. As we were sitting around the fire, we noticed something reflecting light about thirty feet away. We couldn't tell what it was, but it wasn't moving as we got closer to it. When we got about ten feet away, we could finally tell that it was a small, frightened Chinese man. He was shaking a little bit, held an empty jar in one hand, and wore a bowl on his head. He looked a bit like a beggar. He wasn't moving or saying anything, just staring at us. Geoff started to ask him questions in the local dialect, but he wouldn't respond.

After a little while of this, Geoff said he thinks the man is mentally handicapped. "Can we give him some money and some food?" I asked. Geoff told me to go ahead and try. When I handed him the money and food, he slowly accepted them into his hands, but had a confused look on his face as if he didn't understand what either of them were. Geoff explained to me that they have no way of dealing with mentally handicapped people here. There's no institution to take care of them, and many times, families don't know what to do with them. So if the family doesn't take care of them, they just let them loose to wander. He said a lot of them don't understand the concept of money, so you can't even give them money either. This made sense with me as I had noticed that many of the homeless people in our town look so confused, they don't ask for money.

After a while more of Geoff asking him questions, the man responded very timidly. He lived in the nearby town. He had a family there, but they didn't take care of him. That was about we got out of him. We kept asking what he wanted, but he just didn't reply. We invited him to sit around the fire with us, but he wouldn't move. We went back to the fire eventually, but the man just watched us. When it came time to go to sleep, I asked Geoff what we should do. Geoff, more rudely than I would have liked, told the man to go home. But he didn't even blink.

When we went into our tents, he moved to the remaining embers of the fire and warmed himself. It made me sad that he didn't join us when we there. If I would have known he was cold, I would have wanted to do something about it. Likewise, it also made me sad that it seemed like he didn't know what to do with the food or money we gave him. When we asked him how we could help him, he just stared confused and scared at us. I wanted to help him so much, but there was just nothing I could do.

I woke up a couple times in the middle of the night, but the man was still awake, warming himself at the embers. Finally, a couple hours before we had woken up, he had fallen asleep next to the fire. When we woke up, he remained asleep while we packed up. I knew he had to have been hungry, but the food we had given him was still sitting next to him.

After we had packed up, we went on a bike ride in the opposite direction for a couple hours. On the way home, we had to come back again past our campsite. When we passed, we saw the man now sitting up, at the same place we left him. The food still sat next to him. I felt so helpless to help him.

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