Sunday, September 03, 2006


Climbing the stairs behind the Chinese English teacher, my first impression was... not good. We had walked from the school grounds, down a roughly paved, narrow walkway that twisted several times through rows of weathered tenement buildings. I marveled at a fire hydrant that looked hundreds of years old.

Up four flights of cement stairs past worn, dirty walls, we arrived at a door that bore a red sticker blazoned with gold Chinese characters. The apartment was number "3-1".

The heat and humidity were bad and we'd been walking quite a while, Mr. Benjamin hauling my suitcase and carrying my guitar in the other hand, with my cloth bag slung over his shoulder. Neither of us smelled like a rose. However, I suspected that the unusual odor (somewhere between cooked cabbage and rotting garbage) was being transmitted from my new living quarters.

It was filthy. I forced a smile and tried not to visibly cringe. Mr. Benjamin announced that a cleaning lady would be coming in and that a man had been in to do a few repairs. Apparently, the air-conditioner had been leaking all over the floor, leaving a pool of water along with droppings from the repair work. (As I write, the air-con still leaks a puddle on the floor!) The curtains were grimy and a little lopsided. The green vinyl couch bore a rather large hole in its back and a big brown burn on its arm. Dust and dirt hung over the furniture like a veil. I could feel it on my feet once I'd taken off my sandals.

Nevertheless, there was a washing machine and a real refrigerator! There was even a water-dispenser boasting "cool", "warm" and "hot" water. It didn't matter much that the "hot" part of the dispenser was broken, since I was also blessed with a microwave. A one-burner gas stove sat beside the sink.

The bathroom is my Nemesis. Although a "Western" toilet and a hand-held shower offer a touch of the luxurious, three taps (at least 60 years old) that stand out on the wall, are constantly dripping. "TIC", as my teacher would say. "This is China." That's a little saying that's supposed to help us to adjust to things like this.

Now, the kitchen. (Not really what you'd call a kitchen.) A large bare window presents a view of the apartments directly across the street. This enables my neighbours on the upper floors to know exactly when and what I'm eating! Square, white tiles form a two-foot long counter over a tiny shelf beside a white tile sink, with one lone faucet. The sink is sharply square, the same shape and size as the large white tiles it's made from. Somehow water seeps out of the sink and ends up in a puddle cradled in a dip in the cement floor.

To me, the main focal point of the apartment is the computer. It sits on a blue and white desk looking just as attractive as a candy shop to a little kid. This will be my contact with the "outer world", my entertainment on a rainy day, my exploration of new worlds to conquer and a tool for planning lessons.

Once my luggage was unloaded, Mr. Benjamin took me to meet the Head Mistress. She was a very stylish lady, wearing very high heels. Since she was busy, she was unable to join us for lunch. The custom here is to feed new teachers to the gills. It's a tradition that usually involves lots of toasting to the chant of "Gam bei!" or "Bottoms up!" Any excuse for a toast will have everyone emptying their glass of local beer, which, by the way, is very cheap. A liter bottle usually costs 3 yuan which is roughly fifty cents, Canadian. It really helps to have a glass of beer on hand when you're being coaxed to try some suspicious looking oddity.

After lunch, Mr. Benjamin asked me if there was anything I needed and I said I'd like to buy some cleaning supplies. He said he'd planned to send a cleaning lady in, but I insisted that I'd like to do it "my way". (From what I'd seen of the cleaning ladies' work, they were not as thorough as I'd prefer.)
"Isn't that too much work for you?" he asked.
"I have nothing else to do." I said.
He led me to a nearby supermarket where I bought some soap and a cleaning cloth as well as a can of air-freshener. It was a long, hot walk home with lots of twists and turns that I tried to memorize, but couldn't. Since all the signs are in Chinese, there are not many distinguishing features to go by.

Then it was nap-time. I slept like a rock and upon waking, became vaguely aware that that's what I'd been sleeping on -a rock. It seems the Chinese believe the harder the bed, the better. My bed at the Buckland dorm, which had been severely hard had me hoping that the next one I encountered would be a little softer. Instead, this one made the dorm bed look cushy!

An hour later, there was a knock at the door and Mr. Ben invited me to supper. This time, since I was wearing pants, we could use the motorcycle. I gladly donned the silly thin, red plastic cap and climbed aboard. The breeze was refreshing as we glided along in the moving maize of traffic to his favourite restaurant.

We chewed the fresh grapes he'd brought while waiting for dinner to be served. They brought us each our own bottle of beer, but when mine was half empty, I passed it to him. It fueled our conversation. First we talked a little about America. When he told me he had lived with a family in Illinois, I asked him if he was Christian. He said he'd been to church. One thing that really moved him was when he'd seen, on the church bulletin board, a photograph of a Chinese girl whom the church was raising money for. But, no, he was a Communist. He went on to say that Communism helps people to think about others instead of themselves. People are naturally selfish. To that, I agreed.

By the time George Bush entered the conversation, we'd finished half the beer and our voices were growing louder in order to be heard above a noisy table of men who, like us, were also trying to solve the world's problems.

"So what do you think about what's going on now in Iran?" That lit a fire-cracker under him! His eyes grew almost round and his eye-brows shot up as he waved a fist in the air.

"Why shouldn't they have a right to nuclear power?" He demanded, "It's ridiculous!" I echoed him.

"And what about Iraq? Do you know who suffers the most?" I asked, "It's the children." He agreed. Then his voice turned solemn.

"The Chinese people want to be friends. We want to make friends with our neighbours," he said, "Not war!"

I said that I thought it was good that the Chinese were going into countries as peace-keepers with the UN.

"Yes, that's a very good example to the world."

The view from my school

A bridge over the Li River

I spent that night flipping from one side to the other to even out the flattening. My hips demanded it. Saturday morning, I couldn't touch food until banishing some of the dirt! Then, of course, once I got started, I cleaned the whole living room, including the overhead fan, which had been growing black, grisly dust-weeds.

As I stretched up from the coffee table, I noticed that the real dirt was hiding on the upper sides of the wings, like black fur. Several trips to the sink with the clumps of soot brought the real colour back. I now have a white overhead fan.

The corners of the room yielded unbelievable amounts of dust. To my surprise, the fake wood floor actually came up shining. A great weight has been lifted. Tomorrow, I'll tackle the rest of the apartment.

The Brighter Side
Having published my Blog, I realize, from some people's reactions, that I may have been a little negative. We were taught in Yang shuo Teachers' Training that it helps to have PMA here. That stands for: Positive Mental Attitude. My Canadian teacher said, "China will change you. One way or another, you won't be the same person."

Today I feel like I'm enjoying the spoils of my labour. The living room and bedroom are spit and polish. When life presents a challenge, it brings out the best in you. I feel that I'm carving out a place for myself here, like the pioneers in the old days, one stump at a time. (Or one cockroach at a time!) Like an athlete in training, we get stretched sometimes to see what our limitations are. A true athlete loves that test of strength and endurance because, otherwise, how does he know whether he's capable of meeting the opposition?

Speaking of athletes, I woke up on Monday to the sound of beautiful classical music and the voices of children outside my window. The school grounds were filling with throngs of students dressed in white shirts and navy shorts. Hundreds of them came running along the track to join other groups of students who were organizing themselves into squads. It was impressive to watch jumping jacks performed by hundreds of uniformed students in sync to a man's voice calling out on the loud-speaker, "Yi, er, san,..." ("One, two, three,...").

Just as I began to wonder how long this entertainment would continue, it started to rain. The next time I looked, the vast grounds were empty, apart from a few wet stragglers.

Chinese Chocolate
Christy came to my door lugging a round watermelon and some cucumbers. We had plans to go down along the river to the restaurant her sister managed. She tried to ride me on the back of her bike, but I couldn't sit on the bars for more than a few minutes. So, we walked together, Christy pushing her bike. She handed me two chocolate bars, which I received with an excited,
“Wow! Thank you!”
“They're Chinese chocolate,” she said apologetically. I tried not to lose the lilt in my voice,
“Wow!” (It was already in my mouth. I'm thinking, ‘What the heck is this pink stuff in the middle?’ Chew, swallow, chew, swallow,… shdicks do da ruff uff yow mouf.) “Not bad!”

We were suddenly standing at the foot of a karst that seemed to be growing right out of the sidewalk. - A permanent fixture right in the middle of the street that had become a part of its surroundings. One of its caves had been shamelessly exploited for use as a shop. Along the edge of a rock formation, a red brick wall had been erected, perhaps hundreds of years ago! It was the outer wall of what looked to me like little garrison houses from a distant past. You could just feel the oldness. Christy told me that people used to live there.

However, on the way home, I noticed that inside of one of those ancient brick houses, there was a light on! A worn shutter stood half-open so that I could see the clay ceiling held up by wood beams. Yes, people actually lived there now too!

If I thought that was unusual, I was even more awed to see people living on the so-called "house-boats" at the river. Talk about old. It was a wonder they were afloat. No windows, just one door at the end, made of wood like the rest of the boat. An arch of bent bamboo formed a low roof. Laundry hung all around, adding to the shabbiness. The water was so shallow that weeds had claimed a great deal of the river. Algae were growing on the surface and the banks stood high and dry.

Fishermen using cormorants to catch fish on the Li River. A rope around the bird's neck prevents it from swallowing the catch!

Taking a Shower
There's a learned art to taking a shower in my apartment. First you turn on the water. When you hear the water heater flame up, count to three, then, quickly turn the shower head away from the body. Count to three again. Then, resume your shower. Otherwise, you could get painfully scalded! Ask me how I know.

Since We're in the Bathroom
A regular toilet is, well -it's a hole in the floor. It usually has ridged tile either side to place your feet and squat. This is ok for a quick pee, because you just put your feet either side of the hole and, if you aim accurately, you don't always get pee on your foot. -Unless, like me, you pee crooked. You can even have a bowel-movement on there, if your legs are strong and you have good balance.

Since I don't care to see what comes out or how it comes out, I prefer the good old "Western" toilet, which is what I have in my bathroom. There's just enough room to sit down with no room to spare between the wall and my knees. When I'm ready to flush, I crank open the leaky faucet, standing well back, to avoid getting squirted by water spraying in all directions, wait for the tank to fill up, and press the flusher button. I never get out of there dry.

I Love China!
In a lot of restaurants, the food is served piping hot, right in the pot which is placed on either a gas burner or hot-plate to continue cooking. I really enjoy chicken soup with fresh ginger, ginseng and things that I discovered later were actually dates!

Fresh greens are brought to the table raw. You can put your cabbage or bok choy in the boiling water just before you serve yourself. That way, your greens don't get overcooked. I've never been much of a soup person, but it's really becoming a favourite of mine these days.

I'm getting the hang of chop-sticks too. They used to slow me down, which was probably a good thing for my digestion, but now, I'm in there with the real chop-stick-wielders. Benjamin was pulling apart his chop sticks at the restaurant when he suggested,

"Maybe that's why they call them 'chop sticks', because you chop the sticks." So, I asked,
"What's the name for them in Chinese?" He said, "We call them 'fast'."


"Because, people used to eat with their hands. If the food was hot, they had to wait until it cooled enough to pick it up without burning their fingers. So, those who used chop sticks could eat faster than those who had to wait."

Tonight, Friday, October 6, 2006 is the Full Moon and the most important day of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It's a family celebration. Everyone goes home to be with their family. My friends are all at home with their families, but one of them called me to ask, “Did you eat moon cake?”

“Oh, yes,” I answered. It would be sacrilegious not to.


Amy Lou said...

Keep up the good work... More pictures!!! Love Amy Lou

Tim said...

HI Mom,
good job, nice descriptive writing,very good. Keep up the good work. These type of things are best enjoyed alone, it's the only way they really impact you as much as they can. Love you