Cwray's Blog

The Drive-Thru Wedding
October 11, 2010, 2:38 pm
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Well it seemed that either you, as my readers, thought I was getting married or you were excited at the prospects of reading about a Chinese wedding because my blog stats were the highest they have been in a month. For those of you who thought I was getting married – in China none the less – you must be a casual friend who I have not heard from in quite some time, because those of you who know me more closely realize how absurd that notion really is. Now, for those of you who were interested in reading about a Chinese wedding I apologize, because what I attended seemed to me no more than a reception (albeit with an overabundance of delicious food). With that said, I do encourage you to stick around for there will be pictures to follow as well as some interesting tidbits about weddings in China. Shall we proceed?

Now as you may imagine, Lizzie and I were a bit unsure of a few things prior to the wedding: what should we wear, what should we give as a gift and how long would this last? Luckily for us we have made some Chinese friends recently who were able to offer up an insider’s opinion on these matters.

First: the gift. Now, ladies, are you sitting down, because I hate to inform you of this, but there are no Targets or Bed Bath and Beyonds to register at in China (it’s going to be OK, deep breaths, in and out, good).  There is in fact no registration to be done. Instead the gift is rather simple: a red envelope with cash (I am beginning to really like China). How simple is that? No returning of gifts, no fussing at getting two of the same Margaritaville margarita makers, but simply, cash – and a red envelope.

Second, what to wear. Now for me, this was quite easy considering I carried on for the five month trip, but for Lizzie, who did not carry on for the trip, this was a bit more complicated for a couple of reasons. First, Lizzie is of the female gender and what I have learned from growing up with two women in the house is that no matter how many clothes a lady (a lovely one at that) has, a wedding is as good of an excuse as any to buy something new. Secondly, wearing black and white to a wedding in China is out and what color do you suppose Lizzie’s nice clothes were? You guessed it, white and black.

Third: the time. Now I have heard of some long weddings (Lizzie mentioned eight hour ceremony plus reception in Quebec) and I have heard of some short ones, but we were told an hour and we hoped this would be the case because the wedding was at noon and I still had to play classes for the coming week.

When we arrived to the wedding I stepped off the bus (there were 10 of us) and into a restaurant that was rented out for the event. There were roughly one hundred people and needless to say, we attracted some attention being the only foreigners in attendance. Now what quickly grabbed my attention was the fact that Lizzie and I were some of the nicest dressed guests in attendance. There were women in tracksuits, men in t-shirts, and children in sweats, not the usual suits and tuxes I had grown accustomed to back home (did I mention I was beginning to like, dare I say love, China?).  We were quickly ushered to a table where we sat with a feast spread before us. Now, the bride and groom had not arrived, but we were told to eat because “they might be a while.” I was a bit surprised for this because this is the exact opposite of what I have encountered in the States, but being the gentlemen I am ate.

The Table

We ate for what was about an hour and then…we left. The bride and groom arrived and made their rounds, toasting to every table while stopping to say hello, but that was it; no speeches from best men and maids of honor, no dances with teary-eyed parents, just food and alcohol. Chinese simplicity is lovely.

Now I am sorry if you are a bit disappointed that A) I did not get married or B) that the wedding was quite simple, but for consolation I do have some pictures to offer and I do hope you will enjoy them.

My fellow co-workers

And of course one with the newlyweds.

The Lovely Bride and Groom


Going to the Chapel and…
October 10, 2010, 2:58 am
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One day while sitting in the teacher’s office between classes the topic of marriage was brought up.  Helen, one of the English teachers at the school, had been married three months prior to my arriving here.  During this discussion it was discovered that out of the remaining Chinese English teachers, all would be married within nine months of Helen’s marriage.  I was a bit astonished to hear this, but was even more astonished when I was invited to attend one of these weddings.  I was under the assumption that the wedding would be in January, but this week I found out that it was in fact this coming Sunday, which is today!  So as I sit here writing this to you I still have to get dressed and cleaned up for the momentous occasion that I must leave for in forty minutes.  I have heard rumors of foreigners being asked to attend these weddings, to give speeches, to sing, or all of the above, but I hope I will be able to avoid all of these instead offering a glowing smile or butchered Chinese.  If that proves not to be the case and I am in fact asked to perform, do not fear, for Lizzie will have a camera to document the hilarity that will undoubtedly ensue.  Until next time, zaijian!

The Road(s) Less Traveled
October 4, 2010, 1:17 pm
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The road leading from our school to civilization.

For the past month I have been wondering silently to myself, “How could someone want to do this for more than a year?”  The claims I heard before I came were: “Foreign teachers are viewed with great respect”, “You will have such a great time” “You will fall in love with China” “You will make lots of friends” and for me, none of these prophecies have come true.  I have silently relished in the fact that I will only be here five months; I have counted the days, I have looked forward to my return home, but part of me wanted those prophecies to come true.  I wanted to be invited to my student’s home town to visit their family, I wanted to sit around the dinner table and struggle to converse with people I had only just met – I wanted to see China intimately.  Unfortunately the closest I have come to that has been the brief encounters I have had while out to the grocery store or to the gym.  I have essentially lived the last month of my life confined to my school, my room, and two streets, bitter at these failed prophecies, but one day I came to a realization: my experience was up to me.  Even if my placement wasn’t ideal, even if I wasn’t surrounded by other foreign teachers, ultimately, my experience in China will be shaped by my willingness to make it into what I want it to be, not by mulling over what it is not.  And so, this Friday, I decided to get lost.  I took a bus to the end of the line, was told to get off by three students, and then I wandered – and it was the best decision I have made while in China.

The decision to wander came about because Lizzie and I had dinner plans with some foreign teachers from a university in town (it seems that my mom has connections even in China because thus far she has given me two emails to two different people teaching in Baoding).  There would be eight of us altogether: six of us being from, or having spent significant time in Kansas, so needless to say, I was a bit excited.  Not wanting to be late for our very important date, Lizzie and I decided to ride a bus, bus 37 if you must know, and see where it would take us.  We went down roads we had never seen, saw places we have never been and passed what we thought was Sam and Nate’s university.

We got off the bus near another university (there are seven universities in Baoding alone) and asked the students if they knew where North China Electrical University was.  They did not, but they seemed certain the university we were looking for was theirs which was right in front of us and wanted to take us to someone who spoke better English.  I knew that this was in fact, not the NCEU because I had seen the map on Google earlier and knew that NCEU was in the middle of the route, but wanting to be adventurous I decided to entertain them (and possibly meet some more foreign teachers) and proceeded onto campus.

Lizzie and I were immediately taken aback by what we saw: there were fountains, benches, a coffee shop!, a store, and two cafeterias – we were a bit jealous.  We wandered through campus talking to our new friends in what English they knew and we were soon at the International Building.  We walked into a lobby furnished with marble floors, leather couches and a guard.  The girls went off to find someone who could speak English and when he arrived I informed him of the situation.  He proceeded to chuckle a bit because as it would seem we were about a half hour away from our destination in the opposite direction.  The girls insisted on taking Lizzie and I back to the bus stop, but not before stopping to take pictures.  The girls sent us on our way and we headed back to NECU where we got off the bus and walked around.

Our newfound friends.

We went on to have a wonderful time with Sam, Nate, and their friends Saturday; we had a good dinner, great conversation, and we discussed our experiences teaching.  We headed back to their university to play cards and to see their apartments.  At first they did not want to show us, fearing that we would be jealous (and we were) of how they lived.  We were led into their apartments, first having to pass through their kitchen (complete with a stove, oven, and microwave) to get into their living room complete with a sofa and bookcases (I have a chair and bed to sit on).  We were then shown their bedroom complete with a queen-sized bed.  Amber, who lives by herself, said that “the queen bed is just too big.”  I, being the gentlemen that I am, offered to switch my twin bed with her queen (even though it would have been a bit of an inconvenience for me).

After the tour we played a card game called “nerds” which was quite fun.  It is a team variation of solitaire with a few twists in it that make for a challenging and entertaining time.  We had some laughs, we killed some mosquitoes (nearly smashing a guitar in the process) and the night was over.  Nate informed me that he and Dave had taught some of their students how to play American football and invited me to play with them the following day.  I accepted the invitation and Lizzie and I headed home to rest up for the big game.

As we headed home in cab I was beginning to see why some have come to teach in China and have never left.  Sam and Nate have a great placement: they have a great apartment, they have students who view them with respect and curiosity, and they have friends to rely on when things don’t go well.  And then there are those whose placements are sub-par, who are viewed more as sideshow and are worked until they can’t work anymore.   They barricade themselves in their rooms and seek to create a sense of normalcy in what little space they have and to them I ask, “Why did you come to China?” I have told myself that I would not do this, but unfortunately, my opinion on this teaching experience, on Baoding, and on China, has come from my experiences on two streets.  These two streets are familiar, they give me a false sense of security, of normalcy and predictability, and in China, these are the things you desperately cling to.  And while my placement may not be ideal, I now realize that my experience is not shaped by my placement, but by my attitude towards it.  So now I choose to venture off those two streets a little more often, to embrace the unpredictable over the predictable, because after all, why else did I come to China?

Hello Again
September 28, 2010, 3:41 pm
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I apologize for the long wait between blog entries.  Over the past week I have encountered the following: A sinus infection that has lasted three weeks has come back with a vengeance; my work schedule for this week has nearly doubled, breaking my contract, and leaving me with quite the moral quandary, and a trip that has been in the works for over a month may not become reality because of school politics.  So as you can see it is not because I did not want to write, for I did, I just had a little on my plate; a little what you ask?  You can guess.

Firstly, I had a sinus infection three weeks ago and wanted to get rid of it al natural; aka, no medicine.  I had in my reserve some antibiotics, but given that I have had two doses already this year I thought it would be wise not to abuse them.  My condition never improved and I have been fighting it on and off since.  Well last Thursday Lizzie and I had taught our last classes for the week and were set to be off Friday-Sunday with one class on Monday.  I, happy that it was the weekend, went off to the gym and the store and when I got back found a frantic Lizzie: “Well, my weekend is gone” she said.  “Why, what’s up” I asked?  She informed me that while I was gone Coco (our liaison with the school) had called and told her that we would be teaching our week one courses (we have two one-week schedules) Friday – Monday.  This presented a number of problems, but namely blatantly broke our contract and left me with a few hours to prepare lessons for twenty classes.

I think it goes without saying that Lizzie and I were being taken advantage of and really had no options.  “But it was in your contract” is probably what you are thinking, but let me guide you through my reasoning on agreeing to teach anyway.  First, contracts in China are not the same as in the United States; they really mean nothing.  Second, if I decided to teach the worst that could happen would be the bruising of my ego.  And if I refused?  I only needed to let my mind wander a minute to realize the possibilities.  And lastly, we were coming up on a week-long break and the school was trying to make up for it by making us teach more, therefore this should not happen again.  Needless to say the stress that occurred in the two hours between finding out and making the decision to teach (and a meeting with our boss) had set in and the sinus infection was back.

I was able to get through the first day of teaching, but that night I did not get to sleep until 5:00AM.  Before I got to sleep I used enough tissue to get a call from Al Gore on my global warming contribution, I frequented the bathroom multiple times because this time the sinus infection wanted to bring a buddy, the flu, adding to the already fun experience and I was hallucinating.  Now let me clarify – by the word hallucinating, I am referring to the state that is between being in a dream and being awake.  Mine in this instance was odd, but actually useful.  Before I went to bed I had been studying Mandarin and it seemed that it had stuck because I was hallucinating that I had to translate these newly learned phrases off and on for a good four hours; sounds good for someone wanting to go to sleep doesn’t it?  So at 2:30AM I decided to text Coco and let her know that “I would not be teaching because I was ill.”  Let me point out that I did not say “today” and that would later prove to be important.

I slept for three hours and woke up at eight.  I felt ok I thought, and given that I did not know how sick days worked (they were stated in the contract, but we know how well that is followed) I decided to call Coco and tell her I would teach my next three classes.  “You want to teach this semester” she asked?  I was confused and I said “no, today.”  “I can’t hear you very well, is it ok if I come to your room” she asked?  “Sure, I’ll see you in a bit.”  A few minutes later Coco knocked on my door.  “You mean, you want to teach today” she asked hesitantly?  “Yeah” I said with a bit of uncertainty.  “But what did you mean by this” she asked?  And then she showed me the text and it clicked.  Coco must have gotten wind of our unhappiness of the schedule change and when she saw my text saying I would not be teaching, she took it as though I were quitting, not that I was too ill to teach.  After we cleared this up Coco asked me if I wanted to move any of my classes around because of the inconvenience and insisted I take the rest of the day off.  I chose to oblige her; after all, I didn’t want to be rude did I?

Now the trip – what about this trip?  Well this is my big break, a week cherished by all foreign experts (my title, honest) and believe me, after this week I could use the break.  The reason for this break:  Mid-Autumn Festival!  Most of China travels for this holiday, and by most, I mean fifty percent travel by rail (50% of 1.3 billion equals 650 million people) so getting tickets early is a must (I was told a month in advance).  Given this, one of the first things I did when I arrived at the school was ask when this break was.  I was told they had not scheduled it yet.  I thought, oh well, a few weeks out should be sufficient and so I asked again in three weeks; same response.  Two weeks; same response.  I ended up finding out one week in advance and guess what?  Sold out.  And so Lizzie and I decided we would go to Beijing instead since so many trains go from here to there.  It would not be ideal but we would be able to see some fellow teachers we met during orientation.  We went to buy our tickets (which is always a treat) since my Chinese has been improving, albeit slowly.  I told the woman at the counter that I wanted to two tickets to Beijing on Thursday on the bullet train, and it worked!  She understood, but unfortunately I understood when she said “meiyou” which when translated into English means “we don’t have.”  Ok, Friday then, and on a piece of paper she wrote what I thought said 10:30 and I bought them.  We got our tickets and I was feeling good.  Here I had two tickets, for Beijing, on the bullet train, at 10:30 on…10/03.  Ah!  I had thought she had written the time 10:30 but it was the date 10/03 and our break was over 10/05!  Looks like I’m scalping some train tickets!

So this, my loving, adoring audience is why I have not written you.  It is not because I have found another audience that satisfies my needs in ways that you cannot; I do not want you to think this for a second!  No, it is you who I adore and have from day one and it is you who I will continue to adore.  So again, I apologize for my lapse between blogs, but given that my week-long break will be spent in Baoding instead of elsewhere, I may more than make up for it.

No Tea for Me (Beijing trip cont’d)
September 22, 2010, 5:44 am
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I did my best to try and ignore them but Will (one of the suspects) was intent on practicing his English, so I complied.  I could entertain him I thought and so we went walking around the outer wall of the Forbidden City.  “How long have you been speaking English” I asked him?  “Only about three years” he replied.  His English was good, much better than the teachers at my school who had been studying it three times that long.  Still skeptical, we continued on until I found another area I wanted to photograph.  I took out my camera and began taking photos while Will talked to Lizzie.  While his attention was distracted I reached for my pocket and took out my cell phone and sent a text to Lizzie:  “Remember the tea house scam” I asked.  Her phone was on silent and she did not reach for it.

We continued on and Will was set on taking us to Old China which would take us away from the area we were familiar with.  I did not feel comfortable.  “Lizzie” I said, “I want to go back and take some more pictures, what do you say?”  “Oh, ok” she responded.   “You guys are welcome to come with us and we can practice your English” I added.  I had played it smoothly and waited for his reply.  “But don’t you want to get some coffee, some tea, some refreshment” Will asked.  Now I knew. “No, I think I just want to take some pictures, but you are welcome to come with us.” Will’s demeanor shifted right before my eyes from calm to desperate: “But I’m thirsty and I want some refreshment, won’t you come?”  “No, I’m not really in the mood for tea, are you Lizzie?”  “No, I’m not either.” She seemed a bit confused by my insistence but she followed my lead and we left.

We walked back to welcomed familiarity and I explained things to Lizzie.  She had not heard of the tea house scam but she had noticed Will’s demeanor change and trusted my judgment.  As luck would have it I was taking some more pictures when who did I see but Will.  I turned to acknowledge him and he stared straight ahead with a scowl on his face.  He muttered something in Chinese and even though I do not speak Chinese I did not need to to understand what he said, I felt it.

Lizzie and I returned to Tiananmen intent on seeing the flag ceremony.  The ceremony happens every day, once in the morning and once at night.  The number of steps taken to and from the flag is exact and is replicated each time the flag is risen or lowered.  We arrived and picked out our space.  Crowds began to form and spaces began to fill in.   After our previous run in I thought it wise to kept my hands close to my possessions.  Lizzie and I counted down the time until the ceremony; only thirty minutes left.  I was lost in thought when I glanced over at Lizzie and saw two Chinese girls who were looking at us.  “Not again” I thought.  I returned my attention to the ceremony and they approached Lizzie and began talking with her.  “I love how you speak English” was all I needed to hear – I did not look at them once.  “Why is he not friendly” they asked Lizzie and she replied, “I think he’s tired.”  And so they were off, perhaps feeling the tension and realizing we would not be easy targets.   I turned to Lizzie and she grinned.  “I knew this time” she said.

After the flag ceremony we made our way back to the train station.  We boarded our train and arrived in Baoding at 11:39 (roughly); we had made it.  Even though we encountered Will and his crew we also encountered people pleased to help along the way and I tell you this: the majority of the time the latter is what you will find.  And yet, most people would forget these instances and when their trip was said and done they would recall their run-in with Will, but me?  I will remember the group of men who came to our aid when we were feeling overwhelmed and frustrated; I will remember Duke, the college student who helped us find our way to the subway and missed his train to see that we got on the right one and to them I say this: thank you.

September 20, 2010, 1:15 pm
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Last week Lizzie and I were informed that we would have to teach an extra two days but our normal break would be extended into the week.  We had already discussed heading to Beijing so we just postponed the trip until Tuesday.  Well as luck would have it (to be referred to from here on out as “China would have it”) I was sick for the entire break with a sinus infection.  Now when I have a sinus infection I do not feel like doing much, let alone planning for a trip so I left that task to Lizzie.

Monday arrived and we needed to buy our tickets for the trip.  Let me stop here and explain how train tickets are bought in China.  First, you should speak Chinese.  Now, let me tell you, Lizzie and I are not yet fluent in Chinese (who would have thought after three in China I wouldn’t be?), but we had phrasebooks and I had just completed a podcast on “buying train tickets in China”, what could go wrong?  Second, you must buy your tickets in advance; if you fail to do this you run the risk of the train you need selling out.  And third, you must do this all in person.  Let me also explain that it is an hour and fifteen minutes to get to the train station with a 30 minute walk (great for sinus infections).  So Lizzie and I, armed with the necessary words and phrases, set out to buy our tickets.

We arrived and waited in line, Lizzie reading her phrasebook and I reading my sheet of paper I had prepared.  As we stepped up to the ticket counter (or the guillotine, I would assume they feel similar) we muttered slowly and without confidence “We want two tickets to Beijing.”  There was a sudden stillness; the earth stopped spinning, a leaf blew across the sidewalk and then, BAM!  Like the floodgates opening at the Hoover Dam Chinese rushed towards us trying to drown us in our incompetence.  I tried to utter the word for “slowly” but it did not seem to register.  Luckily for us we stand out in China (my being nearly a foot taller than everyone else helps) and this attracts an audience much like a wrecked Cadillac Escalade beaten by a golf club does(I know).  This time the crowd was eager to help and we had a team of Chinese men ready for action.  They asked “ji dien” which means what time and we would say the word for tomorrow and eleven.  I also added the word “dongche” which is the bullet train and five minutes and ninety Yuan later ($6 apiece) we had two tickets! Huge success!

The next day we woke up, went to the station and were on the train for less than one hour; we had arrived…without a guidebook, without directions, but we had a phrasebook which had worked so well before.  We stumbled along, unsure of where we were going, but luckily we found a college aged student who spoke English and he too was looking for the subway station.  So we went down some roads that looked more like alleys, following masses of people rolling their suitcases towards what we hoped was the subway.  As luck would have it we arrived unscathed and with a new friend who helped us buy our tickets and sent us on our way.

Lizzie and I were short on time so we did not go into the Forbidden City, but did enter the outskirts through the gate pictured above.  Not wanting to spend much money we strolled along and took in the sites as best we could.  We walked along the outer wall of the Forbidden City and found a canal pictured below.  I was enjoying myself and was busy taking this picture when I noticed Lizzie was talking to someone in English.  I turned around and saw her talking to a girl, roughly our age who had a male companion with her.  Something felt a bit odd about this and I wondered, could this be the famous tea house scam that I have heard so much about (essentially English speaking tourists are targeted by youths who want to practice their English and are lured into tea houses and when the bill comes, one cup of tea, 2000 Yuan ($300))?  We will soon find out.

Karma or Something Like it: Part Deux
September 15, 2010, 2:27 pm
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The day after my unfortunate incident with Karma I had another first grade class – needless to say I did not feel warm and fuzzy inside.  I knew going into that class that I would be dealing with the same teacher who, up until this point, had offered no support, no discipline, and I did not feel that she would begin anytime soon.  But I am here to teach and I would make the best of it, or so I thought.

As I walked into my room to teach who did I see but Karma.  I asked the teacher what he was doing in this class as well (I’m sure she could hear the enthusiasm in my voice) and she told me she did not know; I was not surprised.  I would say that I expected things to go better, but I did not.  I knew there would be another issue and there was, and this time it came in the form of a comic book.  If you recall, I previously had a student playing a Gameboy in my class whom was not reprimanded (incidentally with the same teacher).  So I thought to myself: it starts here.  I was not going to have a student running around campus, I was not going to have a student playing a Gameboy while I was teaching, and I most certainly was not going to have a student reading a comic book instead of participating.  And so,  It was a decision that would change everything.

As you can imagine, Karma was not too delighted in my decision to begin disciplining: I expected this.  What I did not expect was a punch to the face, a kick to the shin, and a punch to the…well I’ll let you use your imagination on this one.  Now the teacher must have come to my aid, right?  No, she did not.  She did not come after I was punched;  she did not come after I was forced to restrain him for ten minutes (all the while getting hit repeatedly, and I assumed cussed at as well).  No, she did nothing of the sort.  She did, however, offer me a smile that said, “I don’t know what to do” but she never came to offer any assistance, not even when I was approached by two Jr. students who did not appreciate my restraining of Karma (which greatly added to my already enjoyable situation).  She simply stood by idly.  And so I was no longer flexible; I broke.

“I did not come here to be punched or to be kicked” I told them.  “And if this incident arises again I will be forced to refuse to teach this course.”  I had stood my ground and it felt good; it felt, right.

In the end, I had Karma for three days in a row; still, no one knows why, but I must add the next day he was better behaved.  Yes, the classroom was his playground and he went wherever he wanted, but I took a softer approach with him.  Karma is the real victim here, not me.  I have been hit by students before and I’m sure I will be hit again, but Karma you see, is intelligent.  He was one of the only ones who knew all of his colors he just needed a little guidance.  And so my goal for this semester is to make sure he gets the guidance he deserves because all too often the Karma’s of all societies are left behind and then we wonder why they behave the way they do when they are adults.  I am not naïve to think there aren’t other factors that go into shaping who a person becomes, there most certainly are, but my hope is that Karma will receive the guidance he so desperately needs, and it will start with me.