Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Best Irish Moments

Ireland is to families what Amsterdam is to backpackers. As St. Patrick's Day approaches I think about all the adventures we've had over the years in Ireland on vacation and filming for Travel With Kids Ireland . The dramatic landscapes fading to cozy villages packed with friendly people has made Ireland a favorite for the whole family. Below I've listed some of our best memories from the Emerald Isle. Please share yours as well!

1. DANCING A JIG
My favorite memory from Ireland was, as most favorites are, an impromptu event. Even the best planning can't top the things that happen as pure kismit...the right components of all that is good coming together to create that perfect moment. On this occasion, we were at a traditional music session, which by definition alone is impromptu in Ireland. Residents and people from neighboring villages began gathering at the pub to play music together. One musician would start a song and the others would join in as they learned the tune. The Guinness was flowing, the locals chatting in their gay Irish lilt, and the music was jamming...all seemed wonderful. Then came the kismet moment. My two sons (ages 6 and 8), who had been in Irish dance lessons back in the states, jumped from their chairs and began to dance the reel, or what they remembered of it, around the pub. The locals began clapping and cheering them on. It was something none of us will ever forget!

2. PEACE PROCESS IN ACTION
When we were filming in Belfast, it was just about the time the Northern Ireland ruling parties, who had been fighting for decades...you know "The Troubles"...were to come together to rule as a team for the first time. We had no idea it would be on the day we were there. After leaving our mark at the Wall that separates the Catholic and Protestant sides of Belfast, we headed over to Stormont, the old Parliament building, where history was being made as Martin McGuinness (leader of Sinn Fein) and Ian Paisley (leader of the opposing DUP) were agreeing to minister together. To our surprise, the soldier at the guard gate generously passed us through to the front of the building where the kids could make peace signs and get a first hand glimpse of the peace process in action!

3. ATTACK OF THE KILLER DUCKS
One of the best places we stayed in Ireland was Dromoland Castle. The kids loved the idea of being knights in this stony remnant of medieval times and we loved the luxurious rooms that accompanied the rich history. A highlight of our time there was the ducks. The kids loved feeding the ducks that roam the wide expanse of lawns at Dromoland, but I have to say the first day it was quite a shock. We went out with an old loaf of bread from the kitchen and the ducks surrounded us...actually chasing us across the lawn. Check out video of the DUCK ATTACK on our YouTube Channel.

4. WHAT'S IN A NAME?
One of the reasons many people go to Ireland is to hunt down the family genes. My family originated from County Mayo, so when we heard that Clare Island, in Clew Bay, was nicknamed O'Malley Island, we knew we had to go. After a rolling boat ride over Atlantic waters that brought the word capsize to a whole new level of real, we landed at Clare Island, which was guarded by a Grace O'Malley castle. Being that she is our great (times about 6) grandmother, we felt free to explore. We were told her tomb was also on the island. But there are no taxis and it was raining. Lucky for us, one of the locals, with their van packed with grandparents and kids, in true Irish fashion was on their way to the church and offered a ride. To our dismay the church was locked. They told us to ask at the house next door as they bid us goodbye. We did and sure enough the home owner appeared with a key. We had the old church to our selves (the new one was next door where there was a christening attended by the whole island) and we discovered lots of ancestors' graves, including Grace. On the way back to town, the driver decided we must attend the opening of the new museum where the locals filled us in on all the happenings in the O'Malley clan.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Stuff Half-Asians in Taigu Like: The Goals Post (Pt. I)

I had a feeling that I wouldn't be able to stick to my New Year's resolution this year of “no new resolutions.” Perhaps that's why I'm cleverly referring to these as “goals” so as to take the edge off of them a little. Goals that I will accomplish, so help me God.

If anything, my hope is that they will help to give me a renewed sense of structure and purpose. In Taigu I often have more unstructured time than I know what to do with, and without some semblance of schedule or routine, I find myself floating along aimlessly like yellowing paper in a breeze. So much of the last two weeks was spent convincing myself that I was still in “vacation mode” and thus needed time to decompress. And especially since a number of the Taigu folks had yet to return, my days were spent almost exclusively with cleaning, sporadic writing, and watching the Winter Olympics. A couple of us ventured out notably to see the Lantern Festival take place here in Taigu to commemorate the 15th day of the New Year, but besides that, I barely left campus. I can now safely say that I've seen every match of the Chinese women's curling team—including a number of the re-runs that CCTV 5 has aired since—and am finally ready to get back to work.

One of the many floats at the parade held in Taigu for the Lantern Festival.  In addition to there being lanterns of various shapes and sizes hung in the streets, the holiday is traditionally coupled with performances during the day and a fireworks display at night.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my goals for the semester largely fall under three headers: study, health, and culture, and to which I will now also add create.  I'll save study for a longer post because I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, but I'll do my best to detail the other three topics here. Like most other things, I feel that writing down goals holds me more responsible for following through with them in the long run.

Health

One of the greatest disappointments I've found in traveling is the overwhelming lack of time and energy devoted to exercise.  There are almost never any accessible gym facilities, I am constantly nervous about running outside in a new place, and I can never get myself into a rhythm where I am motivated enough to do floor-work indoors.  That, coupled with an enormous influx of delicious foreign food just begging to be tried makes for a ceaseless uphill battle to stay fit.  Feeling myself slowly get out-of-shape certainly had its effect on my mood during my last few weeks on the road, but I can safely say that back in Taigu, diet and exercise have become less of an issue.  Though we are no strangers to lavish, multi-course dinners, the potential for exercise helps to counterbalance that indulgence.  Thus, my first priority with regard to health is getting back on a respectable workout routine.

This translates to working out six days a week doing weightlifting and cardio on alternating days.  It also means printing out a lifting schedule for better motivation and as a better way to track progress.  Strength training has been hardest here because there isn't a dedicated gym facility, but I have been better about coming up with creative uses for the ubiquitous outdoor exercise equipment on campus and the pair of 20-pound weights that Nick and Anne keep in their living room.  In terms of cardio workouts, there are a lot more options now that the campus is free of snow and ice, including swimming, basketball, running, and Frisbee.  Nick and Anne recently got me excited about learning to play Ultimate, a sport I had never previously taken an interest to, largely due to my insecurity at not being able to properly throw a Frisbee.  Though the throwing part still needs a lot of work, athletically, I believe I am well suited to the pace of the game.

Like my brief but memorable Ultimate experience at Cornell, I lamented again the fact that I had not played at Oberlin given how much fun and how much of a work-out the sport is.  There are a few tournaments not too far from us in China in the coming months and I want to get good enough to participate in them.  Lately, I've also tried to renew my vain interest in breakdancing, a fitness activity that has been slowly edging its way out from behind the closed door of my bedroom and into the fray of our bi-weekly dance parties.  My initial interest was due almost entirely to Niels and Kevin's S.P.A.R.K. (Street Performance and Rhythm Kollective) classes at Oberlin, and has only been fueled in China by my unabashed shamelessness at making a fool of myself.  To be sure, a great deal of my stake in the art form is also concerned with learning how to dance (and looking better while doing it).  In addition to countless amateur videos on YouTube, one of the best free resources I've found is here, which perhaps best describes me as a “n00b on ice” (many thanks to Ben for the link).

The irony of the Lantern Festival this year was that on the day of the holiday, celebrated 15 days after the arrival of spring (Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival), Taigu was hit by a massive snowstorm that put a halt to many of the scheduled performances.

Culture

Over the last seven months, I've learned infinitely more about China than I could ever have hoped to learn through books or movies had I still been living in the states.  That being said, it has come largely at the expense of losing my connection with American culture.  Not surprisingly, as a result of living in China, I've found it infinitely more difficult to keep up-to-date with news from home.  It's not to say that at Oberlin I was particularly adept, but I'm especially floundering here—often having to defer to Chinese friends to inform me of the latest Hollywood blockbuster that has made its way over.  But despite the hardship in staying current with events and other notable happenings, I have discovered some ways to counteract my physical distance from home with more prudent attention to reading and listening.  One of my true goals in life is to be a cultured—and culturally-sensitive—person, and the first step in that process is to be knowledgeable not only in the happenings and goings-on of one's current location but also of the world at large.

The physical reading has come largely in back-issues of magazines that our Shansi bosses in America have been kind enough to send us—of which The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, and The Economist have comprised the greatest reserve.  But because the relatively low frequency and antiquated timestamp of those issues still puts us out of adept watercooler-chatting range, my daily reading intake has been supplemented by blogs, most of which are offshoots of American magazines and newspapers.  It's somewhat ironic that it took moving away from home to finally get invested in New York-centered publications like The New Yorker and a number of previously unread New York Times columns, but I suppose that's what homesickness will do to a person.  And though I certainly miss the sensation of reading actual printed materials, at least it cuts down on paper waste.  Here is a just a smattering of my most-read:
  • Campus Progress: Works to empower young people to become the next generation of progressive leaders.
  • Frugal Traveler: Matt Gross sees the world on a budget and makes me want to travel in his footsteps.
  • GOOD: Columns on almost every topic imaginable from a community of social activists and nonprofits.
  • Hyphen Magazine: Tackles issues of Asian American culture and community with substance and sass.
  • Letter from China: Evan Osnos holds my dream job of writing dispatches from China for The New Yorker.
  • mental_floss: For knowledge junkies who love quirky humor and meaty trivia served up in bite-sized portions.
  • NY Times Magazine: Like This American Life, only in written form—one of the best magazines of its kind.
  • Oberlin Alumni Magazine: Stories, interviews, and news tidbits to remind me of the best four years of my life.
  • On the Ground: Nicholas Kristof explores the intersections of globalization and human rights for The Times.
  • Wired: For the gadget-obsessed, video game-loving, tech-minded, pop culture-addicted person in all of us.
  • YES! Magazine: Dedicated to supporting people’s active engagement in building a just and sustainable world.
Much of the same can be said of my choice of listening materials, almost all of which come in the form of podcasts.  My first real introduction to podcasts came during an EXCO I took my senior year at Oberlin.  The class discussed audio storytelling and documentary, journalistic responsibility, sound production, new media technology, and peer editing in preparation for producing a series of podcasts on stories from the Oberlin community.  In class, we listened to a wide variety of radio programs aimed at understanding how people have employed the combined power of radio and the internet, and got a sense for the artistic medium.  More so than even the written word, podcasts make me feel intimately  connected to the pipeline of America, and I now have a daily tradition of listening to them in the mornings as I'm getting ready for class.  As is the case for blogs, I am always open to new suggestions for good reading and listening materials.  With that said, here is my current list:
  • A Prairie Home Companion: Garrison Keillor delivers his signature monologue from Lake Wobegon.
  • Don't Piss In My Pocket And Tell Me It's Raining: Non-aligned political thought from none other than my father.
  • The Moth Podcast: Features people telling true, engaging, funny, touching, and eye-opening stories from their lives.
  • On The Media: Examines the impact of media on our lives and explores the process of how media is made.
  • Radiolab: Science meets culture and information sounds like music.
  • Saltcast: The backstory to great radio storytelling produced for the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
  • Studio 360: NPR's smart and surprising guide to what's happening in pop culture and the arts.
  • This American Life: No description needed—it's universally hailed as one of the best radio programs out there.
  • Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!: NPR's oddly informative weekly current events quiz show.
In addition to reading blogs, another goal of mine is to read more books.  My Goodreads page is brimming with new titles on its “to-read” list, a lot of which have to do with China.  Luckily for us, many such titles are already stocked on the bookshelves in our houses, having been passed down from older Shansi Fellows.  The trick is simply finding the time to read them.  It's been hard to motivate myself to read without the excuse of a commute, but hopefully as the weather gets better, so will the idea of sitting out on my porch with a book. 

The final piece of my “culture” plan is to be more conscious of the environment.  Seeing the incredible amount of pollution and immense build-up of refuse in cities all over China has made me ever more vigilant in my environmental efforts than I was in the states.  With that in mind, I have undertaken a few transformations to my lifestyle in order to lower my carbon impact.  I refuse to buy plastic water bottles or use paper cups, opting instead to utilize my recycled glass water bottle for all drinking purposes.  I now carry around a pair of metal chopsticks with me to all meals so as avoid contributing to the production and packaging waste associated with disposable chopsticks.  I use a reusable nylon bag when I go grocery shopping so as not to waste plastic, or when I forget, always find other uses for the plastic bags.  I keep leftovers in energy-efficient tiffin containers that I bought in India instead of storing them in plastic bags or saran wrap.  I try not to use my overhead lights whenever possible and haven't turned on my electric heater since the winter.  All of the cans, bottles, and cardboard packaging from our parties are recycled in designated containers outside of our house.  And thanks to James, we are now composting all of our food scraps as well as a portion of the leaves and natural matter on campus.  Next step: stop using toilet paper.

Create

I've always been too scared to call myself an artist.  I enjoy writing, photography, and occasionally making music, but I am not confident that I have what it takes to pursue any of those endeavors full-time.  Luckily for me, I don't have to.  What's really great about  the teaching schedule here is that there is a lot of time naturally built in for personal creative endeavors.  Sometimes, however, it is not so much an issue with time as it is about motivation.  Writer's block aside, much of that motivation stems from the relative warmth and “inspirational quality” of one's workplace.  I have long been victim to the perils of “blank wall syndrome” (BWS for short), and it took until my senior year at Oberlin to rid myself of that malady.  In an effort to combat it here in Taigu, one of my goals is to redecorate my room.  The infamous blue tapestry has been mounted, as have a few other sundry items, but I have bigger plans.  Recently, I printed out 44 of my favorite photos from my two months of travel and plan to use them to create a wall mural in the space directly above my desk.  My hope is that it will not only add some color to my room, but will also give me more appreciation for my photography, which I rarely see on paper.

Even our neighborhood Dico's, China's fast-food answer to KFC, got decked out in paper lanterns for the occasion.

Another goal in the creative department is cooking more.  I recently bought two cookbooks, one in Chinese and one in Japanese, and hope to use them to make more creative dishes (and practice my reading skills at the same time).  Now that I've (finally) learned how to use my electric hot plate, I want to bring my kitchen up to snuff by stocking it with all kinds of spices, sauces, and bins of dry goods to always have on hand.  My vow for this semester is also to get better at keeping in touch.  That means crafting more letters and postcards to send out to family and friends.  Finally, creating means getting more serious about writing.  I haven't written a single poem since last October and it's been eating away at me ever since.  One of my writing goals is to get something published by the time my two years here is up.  That can include anything from poetry to creative non-fiction to journalism, and it doesn't necessarily have to be in print.  The best advice I've ever gotten about writing was from my Creative Writing professor Dan Chaon, who encouraged the class to keep writing no matter what.  Like any skill, he told us, writing is a craft that needs to be continually practiced or can be lost.  Practicing my craft.  For what it's worth, I like to think that it is something that I do every time I sit down to update this blog.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Things Aren't Always What They Seem

In China sometimes it's hard to tell whether you are going insane or if everything around you is simply out to make you into a walking parody of yourself. As a foreigner in rural China, you are automatically a circus attraction. But what if it was Chinese society itself that was more worthy of wide-eyed bewilderment than your foreign stardom? It makes me linger on one of Brittany's old blog posts, which begs the question: “Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you are the only sane person in the room? Where basic logic is defied? You look to your friend, or the person standing next to you to confirm that the events unfolding are real, that you are not imagining this totally nonsensical situation.”

Being away for two months was almost enough to make me forget about the truly logic-defying aspects of living in China. With that I give you a few short vignettes of my first two weeks back.

*

Sometimes a wall is just a wall. For every other time, there's China.

As longtime readers of this blog will know, the college shut down North Yard last semester in response to the outbreak of H1N1. At first, they simply locked the gate. Then, when they realized that students could still use the gaps in the grating to climb over the gate, they filled them in with bricks. After a wall of bricks adjacent to the wall still wasn't enough, they posted a guard at the gate to watch for intruders.

When it was clear that no more students would violate this final act of resistance on the part of the college, many shops were forced to close early for the winter. However, there were still loopholes. One rice and noodle joint at the juncture of the wall made use of a side entrance still on campus to direct business that was previously only used by employees. The gate covering the entrance was kept half-closed and patrons had to sneak under a line of yellow tape and navigate a maze of laundry lines, make-shift kitchen pits, and tenement apartments before eventually reaching the restaurant.

When we got back to campus, the brick wall still loomed large on the near side of North Yard, and the gate on the opposing side was still locked. Dejected, we were all but ready to go elsewhere for lunch when we saw two girls saunter up toward the gate with no signs of stopping. We followed, and eventually noticed them squeeze through a hole between the gate and the rest of the wall—exactly perpendicular to the gate and invisible from where we had previously been standing. The restaurant owners evidently got the memo too. Chinese ingenuity continues to stick it to the man.

*

Two days before the start of the new semester, our boss held a meeting for all of the foreign teachers. This itself was nothing new. We had a number of meetings last semester mostly to discuss teaching schedules and deadlines for grades (though, notably, never to talk about the content of our curriculum). At the onset, there didn't seem to be anything peculiar about this one—simply a routine check-in and a chance for us to pick-up our new schedules for the semester. After some brief remarks, we were all but ready to leave when Dave noticed a different class number for one set of English majors that he teaches on his schedule. When he addressed it to our boss, she simply shrugged and said, “Oh yes, and you have all switched your classes of English majors.” Me and James now have Dave's old classes, Anne and Nick have mine and James', and Dave has Anne and Nick's.

When asked for the reason for the switch, our boss told us that it was an issue having to do with the classrooms. They wanted to continue to have us use the classrooms that had computer and projector capabilities for our English majors, but were unable to coordinate the schedules in their current forms. So instead of settling for regular classrooms, they opted to swap all of our students. What's worse is that all of the classes of English majors are different grade years, and some are now forced to have repeat English teachers. Only in China does a classroom hold more clout than a professor. The ironic thing is that we hated those classrooms to begin with—there is no blackboard to write on and more than half the time the computers are completely non-functional. A semester of work teaching and remembering names is now down the tubes, but at least we start with a clean slate.

By the end, I don't really know who looked worse—our boss for having broke the news so late, or us, considering that only three of the seven teachers showed up to the meeting because the other four hadn't yet returned to Taigu.

*

There's something about being abroad that makes me take great comfort in eating any excuse for American food. But with the possibility of non-Chinese food completely out of the picture without a trip to Taiyuan or Beijing, we have had to make do with the few vestiges of American cuisine that have somehow found their way to Taigu. Oreos have been no exception. Though I could care less for the Nabisco flagship in the states, I have found Oreos to be nearly irresistible here in China. If ever I am in the mood for a snack, my mind gravitates almost instinctively to those packets of unspeakable gluttony. I get cravings for them the same way I would for a cream cheese and lox bagel or an order of beef and broccoli back home. It's really quite sad, actually.


Enter Ocops. Looking to score some Oreos one night, we stumbled across a package that bore a striking resemblance—same blue and white wrapper and font script—save for the name. Curious, we decided to snatch up a sleeve of the knock-offs and give them a try at the bargain price of 15 cents. Not only were they one-sixth the price of Oreos, but they were also significantly lighter in weight. We soon discovered why. The “real chocolate” interior tastes more like wafer-thin stale cardboard, and the cookie itself disintegrates in one's mouth like a mealy fiber supplement. They were no match for the epicurean delights of the real thing. One of the most interesting features of Ocops is the name printed on the cookie itself. It is not 'Ocop' or 'Oreo,' but 'Ore.' Though the wrapper says they are made in Hong Kong, we speculate that they are manufactured package by package in someone's basement.


As a result of their horrendous taste but decidedly good humor potential, we have coined a new term as a result:

ocop
vb
: to humiliate, trick, or make the butt of a practical joke, often in the company of friends. Also see punked.

*

The best way to get a sense of how exhilarating our life is here is to take a glimpse into the sorts of conversations we had in the first few days since coming back from break. In that time, the campus had seen a few changes, and nearly all of our talks centered solely on those minor cosmetic touch-ups that storefronts and buildings had undergone, as well as the gradual re-opening of restaurants in North Yard in the post-H1N1 era. The underground supermarket was one such establishment.

In addition to being a fairly comprehensive supermarket, the underground is also home to an athletics store, two cellphone offices, a bookstore, and a number of smaller vendor stands selling everything from MP3 players to school stationary. It is also one of the only places on campus to do copying and printing late at night, and thus, we got used to spending a portion of our evenings in its cramped copy shop shoving papers and USB sticks through the crowds of students to get our teaching materials prepared. But when we came back to campus, not only were we surprised that the underground was closed for renovations, but also that all of the little stores previously located inside had disappeared.

With no locks on the door and the outside sign still illuminated, we casually sauntered up to the building late one Friday evening and discovered that the entire inside of the complex was gutted. Food goods were still neatly stocked along the shelves, but all around, workers were in the process of erecting plaster walls, hammering down new floorboards, and building glass display cases. No one seemed to care that we were inside, nor would anyone give us an estimate on when construction would be finished. Four days later, the underground reopened, and two days after that, the copy shop was back in business, forty feet from its old location. Long overtime hours or shoddy building—I'll let you be the judge.

*

Just when we thought things were finally getting back to normal and we were settling back into our old routine in Taigu, the administration threw another curve ball at us. Dave and Gerald got called in to talk with the director of the Foreign Affairs Office thinking that it would be an offer to try to get them to return next year to teach (since they only have one-year contracts). Instead, they were informed that they had 48 hours to move out of their house to make way for a major renovation of the school.

The house they had been living in would be renovated and given to the vice president of the school and all of the buildings in a .2-mile radius would be completely torn down to make way for a man-made lake (yes, lake) that the college will be building in their place. Why the administration would bulldoze perfectly good buildings to construct a lake that will most likely just start teeming with garbage is far beyond my comprehension. As it is, they will be evicting a number of businesses that we often frequent, including an ice cream stand, a restaurant, a computer store, and a tailor, and be tearing down a number of residential houses. The construction will also include the cafeteria where we currently take our lunches (of which they have yet to find a replacement space) and the old AV classroom that we had hoped to use as a resource library and space for dance parties. Though the news came as a surprise to us, it was certainly much more of a shock to the people who lived in the area, many of whom are children and relatives of professors who the school wants to stop freeloading on its property.

Dave and Gerald's house about a week after the demolition crew moved in (photo courtesy of Dave Brown).

Dave and Gerald got the news on Thursday and by Saturday afternoon we were helping them move all of their stuff over to their temporary new digs. Gerald is now living on his own in the spare guesthouse and Dave has moved in with Matthias. Eventually they will be sharing a house together again, one that is a carbon copy of the houses we all live in, but which is currently being renovated. Just mere hours after they were moved out, construction began—appliances were being taken out of their old house and bricks began being removed. This is one saga that I will certainly be continuing to follow for the rest of my time in Taigu.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Secret's Out

The truth is that I'm back in Taigu, and have been for about a week. Nearly two months since I left town with a suitcase and a laptop bag in tow and it feels like just yesterday that I was singing Christmas carols in front of our students' dormitory and wading feet-deep in snow. In fact, winter vacation this year felt much longer than any vacation (winter or otherwise) that I've embarked on since at least entering high school. I attribute it largely to the construct of place. Most long vacations I've spent in the last eight years have either been in New York or at Oberlin, places that for me have felt grounded and secure. Being “home” enabled me to experience and learn new things, but all the while, derive comfort in the stability and routine of eating familiar food, seeing familiar people, and sleeping in the same bed. It was precisely this sort of routine that was lacking on these latest two months of travel. Save for the week that I was living in Sam's room in Tokyo, I was never in the same place for more than four days. And in India nearly every other night was spent on a bus or a train trying to reach our next destination. At least it was a good excuse to save on lodging expenses.

Because there wasn't a real “home” to go back to, it was hard for me to get comfortable. It always felt like something wasn't right—a tingling sort of anxiety, like sandpaper under my skin. But for what it's worth, I do feel as though I've grown a lot in the last two months. More than an exercise in spendthrift travel, it was both an experiment in self-reliance and the trial run to a potential future. The less-glamorous side to being a travel writer or foreign journalist is full of the sorts of discomforts you might expect—loneliness, desertion, disorientation, fear of the unknown. And though this had been my dream for the greater part of the last three years, I'm not sure now that I'm quite cut out for it. Sure, you get to see the world, but what fun is it when you're doing it alone—when you're constantly the outsider in a foreign land? I enjoyed being self-sufficient and having to navigate challenges on my own during my solo-journeying this vacation, but the new experiences it afforded came at the expense of not having someone to share them with. A better choice for me might be something along the lines of the foreign service, an option that I have begun researching as a potential future career after my stint in China. Seeing friends in foreign lands, however, is something I would like to continue doing my whole life, so long as I have the money for it.

Despite all of the excitement of traveling, I must say that at the end of the day, I am happiest to be back home. I think Sam said it best when he summed up his feelings at the end of a few weeks of traveling during his vacation in Japan: “My life, actually, is quite mundane, but rather than all the incredible travels around Asia and throughout Tokyo, the routine aspects of my life, have become my favorite. Hopefully that continues until the end of this year as well.” Not only do I take the most joy in my everyday activities, but I also find them much easier to write about. It's ironic, however, when you consider that almost everyone on campus last semester (teachers and students alike) was suffering from intense cabin fever. Had you talked to me in December, there was nothing that I wanted more than to leave. Taigu, home to debilitating cold, a loss of freedom, and the lifelessness that came from a dilapidated sea of closed shops. It was like the giant tsunami from that iconic Hokusai painting had steamrolled over Taigu (represented by the tiny fishing boats), leaving only soot, ice, and trash fragments in its wake.

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” A metaphor (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).

Since then, though, things have been looking up. The next few months promise better weather, more exercise, and generally lighter spirits. If what Nick and Anne say is true, there will be a lot to be thankful for, not the least of which include fresh watermelon, delivery milkshakes, and incredibly cheap kegs of local beer. Not to mention the opportunity to cart our sofas out onto the front porch and bask under the afternoon sun. But not all of it is fun and games. The spring semester also sees me playing catch-up to writing about my two months on the road. Sporadic internet and a general lack of free time, especially in India, has put me far behind on my goal of keeping this blog regularly updated. But besides writing more, spring in Taigu brings with it a fresh set of goals that I was really only able to realize after being away from home for a while. I realized then, as I do more everyday, that two years will evaporate in a flash, and I want to have a lot to show for having lived here for that long. The goals largely fall under three headers—study, health, and culture—and will be detailed more explicitly in a forthcoming post. 
 
In addition to those goals, there has been something of a shake-up to our weekly schedule. At the beginning of last semester, the bulk of our entertainment in Taigu came from going out to dinner. Hours would pass at big meals in mixed Chinese-English company with laughter and revelry lasting well into the evening. With the closing of the school due to H1N1, we were relegated to smaller, far less raucous dinners in the small cafeteria on campus reserved for the seven of us foreign teachers. Because of this, we had to find other outlets for fun. As a result, “partying” became far more common. Wednesday retained the mainstay of “German Night,” but we also began to add Thursday as “Open Mic Night,” and Saturday as “Dance Party Night,” in addition to often going out to Taiyuan on Friday. What's more, this doesn't include those weekday nights that found us bored and lonely and apt to congregate in the evenings after dinner to talk and drink. I recently tried to describe to a friend what exactly I do for fun in Taigu, and explained that it was similar to the things I do at home—hang-out with friends, play sports, have small parties—only without the 24-hour food establishments, cultural landmarks to explore, and exciting places to visit. I suppose that the same could be said of Oberlin.

Thus, it should make sense, that even though the school has thankfully reopened North Yard this semester (making it possible to have those sorts of big dinners with friends again), the lingering traces of our former lifestyle have remained impressed on our minds like an inkblot. It seems as though every night is now reserved for one activity or another, and it's a wonder we still have time to teach anymore. In a place where one has to make his own fun for want of a social life, we've spared no effort in pulling out all the stops. Though nothing is entirely etched in stone, here is what our weekly nightly schedule now looks like:

Monday: German Night (hosted by Matthias)
This Wednesday favorite has now migrated to Mondays because of a scheduling conflict. A night reserved for conversation, networking, snacks, and general debauchery, often coupled with dinner at the all-you-can-eat beefsteak restaurant on campus.

Tuesday: TV Night (hosted by Nick)
We've dedicated a night to watching all of our favorite TV shows. Most notably for me, this includes HBO's “How To Make It In America,” one of my newest obsessions, if only because it perfectly captures the pretentiousness and absurdity of twenty-somethings living in the city, all with a touch of wit, sensibility, and nostalgia for home.

Wednesday: Chinese Night (hosted by James)
Think German Night with a twist—friends and students come to drink and socialize, but everyone must speak in Chinese. It will be a great opportunity to practice Chinese in a supportive, low-stress environment, and give my students a chance to play teacher.

Thursday: Open Mic Night (hosted by Gerald)
All of the singing, dancing, guitar-playing, and freestyle rapping of Open Mic Night returns this semester to a new locale. Still paired with a home-cooked potluck dinner, this time around promises to yield a larger audience and more varied performances.

Saturday: Dance Party Night (hosted by Daniel)
This bi-monthly event is the cornerstone of the Taigu three-day weekend. Big crowds, loud music, and one jury-rigged disco ball turn my house into a beat-thumping, floorboard-shaking spectacle. Between songs I work it out as iTunes DJ and play host to spectacular dance performances by foreigners and Chinese alike.

Aside from these weekly lynchpins, a number of new developments have also come to light. The first is that a friend and former student of mine is in the process of recruiting a number of the teachers here at SAU to teach at his friend's school in the city of Chengzhi, about three hours away by train. The details have yet to be fully fleshed out, but the position seems to call for four to five hours of teaching at this new school every Saturday, with a net pay of about 1000 yuan per week. The overwhelming pro is that doing it three times a week would effectively double our monthly salary (and god knows I need the money after this past vacation), but with six hours in total travel time and a Friday spent there overnight, it would also significantly cut into our weekends. However, a potential ride to and from the city as well as paid accommodations in Chengzhi have helped to sweeten the deal, not to mention the fact that if a number of us went at once, we could go out on the town during our off-hours.

The second is that Gerald has finally purchased his oft-talked about new camera, one that he plans to use to shoot a zombie movie here in Taigu this semester. Other than the fact that Taigu scenically is perhaps the perfect place to shoot such a movie (post-apocalyptic buildings, gravel and rubble-strewn ditches, creepy old train tracks), he has a surprisingly deep and free workforce at his disposal (i.e. us and his students). With any luck, I'll be doing some acting (reminiscent of my high school days, perhaps) as well as co-screenwriting the production. He also plans to use his new camera for a host of other projects, as more ideas seem to get thrown out everyday. Even though he only had a compact camera before this, he had enough foresight to videotape us on every occasion he could and has managed to use his technical know-how to put together a compilation of some of the highlights of our fall semester into a short, entertaining recap. Despite all of my griping, watching it really reminds me of what an awesome time I've been having here. Here is the result of his labors. Enjoy!

 

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