Thursday, October 23, 2008

What Happens Before Sunrise

Thursdays are my longest day because I teach three classes (6 hours) plus sometimes have a culture lecture in the evenings. Terrible, I know. It’s almost like working a full American workday. Today I decided to make the day even longer by waking up at 4am.

There was a period if time in Yangzhou when I was unintentionally doing this all the time. My teammate told me, “I can always tell when you haven’t been sleeping because you get super productive.” Which is true. This is the first time I’ve had trouble sleeping in a while, but lately my mind has been too active.

It was still dark when I woke up, so I knew it must be early. After tossing and turning for a while, I looked at the clock. 4:30am. This is unacceptable, I thought. I must try to sleep more. So I lay there and thought about the elections and my friend Ashley who is coming tomorrow and how I needed to clean before she came and what I wanted to look at in IKEA (we are going in a few weeks) and what I thought about the new foam pad we had bought for the bed (my thought: we got ripped off) and about money (It’s something I rarely think much about in China. We haven’t really had any kind of budget in China, because we just don’t spend much money. But suddenly this troubled me, and I started doing some mental arithmetic. You know something is not right when I am doing math instead of sleeping.) Right about the part where I started doing math, I realized I was never going back to sleep, so I might as well take advantage of that super-productivity.

I started on the guest bedroom, getting things all put together for Ashley. This will be it’s first use. Once the bed was made up and some of the extra storage boxes were hauled out, it was a little after 5am. I looked out the window and marveled at the fact that all the windows in the two buildings next door were dark. It’s 5am people! What are you all sleeping for? In Yangzhou, when I would wake up at 4am, generally by about 4:30am a few people would start coming by outside.

Next I headed to the kitchen. I cleaned out the fridge, took out the trash, cleaned the counters, washed dishes, swept the floor, and even scrubbed the little strip of counter behind the sink. I noticed that we have about 15 magnets but no pictures on the fridge. I need to fix that. 5:30am, time to move on to the living room. I dusted the dining room table, cleaned up/threw away all the random things sitting around, washed some more dishes I found. By 6:30am I heard the loudspeakers start blaring music. They worked their way from peaceful blaring music to energetic march tunes, and I looked out the window to see the freshmen doing their required morning jog around campus. Poor little freshmen.

By about 7am, my normal wake-up time, the crazy-manic-cleaning, insomnia-induced buzz was starting to fade to more normal alertness. This gradually faded into a tired confusion. This 4am thing is good for my productivity, but it doesn’t work out too well in the long run. This would be evidenced by the really cool forehead bruise I am now sporting after bending over into the edge of a table a little later this morning. But the house sure looks better. My students would say, “No pains, no gains.” Incidentally, it drives me nuts when they say that…

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The man in the suit

By Kevin

The man stood in the hallway knocking at the door, wearing a suit and holding a briefcase in his hand. But nobody was answering. When we turned on the hallway light, he seemed stunned for a moment. Then he shouted. “Nice to meet you.”

As we waited for Wes to answer his door, you could hear the man's mind racing.

As we walked in, the man followed behind. “May I come in?” he asked me, in the hallway, in broken English. “It's not my house...” I looked to Wes, but the man had already slid past the threshold and into the door. Wes, shocked, motioned him in and pointed toward the seat.

For the next 10 minutes, Ruth and I said little. Wes began talking with the strange man in Chinese, subtly trying to figure out why he came in. “May I practice speaking English with you?”

“Yes, but only for a few minutes,” Wes said. “We have plans.”

He only managed a handful more English words in the next several minutes.

Apparently the man was a former student who now teaches political science at a local school. He'd come to visit a friend of his, Wes' neighbor. He was excited to learn that we were Americans and that we were planning to watch a movie together. His eyes shifted, nervously back and forth between us. He grinned from ear-to-ear. We began to worry that our plans to relax and watch a movie might be falling apart. Then it came:

“May I watch with you?” the man asked in English.

Wes answered in Chinese. Something to the extent of: “I don't think you would understand because it is American culture.”

“I would really like to see an American film.”

Wes paused and tried another tactic: “I don't even know your name. If a strange man just walked in your door and started asking questions, then invited himself to watch a movie what would you say?”

Then he stood up and walked him to the door. After pulling the door shut, Wes breathed a sigh of relief. “What just happened?”

We shook our heads. “That was strange,” we agreed.

“You have to remember, they don't see us as people,” Wes reminded us as we recounted one of the strangest 10-minute episodes we've been a part of.

“Time to start looking through the peephole before we open the door.”

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The bird in our wall

By Ruth
So we have this plastic drinking bottle that is filling a hole in our office wall. It sounds strange, I know, but it works well. There is a round hole that would have an A/C cord going into it, if we had an A/C unit. But since we don't, we thought we'd fill the hole in the wall so fewer mosquitoes and spiders could get in.
Today Kevin heard a noise in the wall, and when he looked, he saw a bird sitting on the outside part of the bottle and a little brown spotted egg on the inside. It's crazy. It must be a pretty small bird because water bottle openings aren't that big. The egg is almost as big as the opening. We have a little bird growing in our wall, with only a clear plastic layer layer separating it from us. I hope it hatches and we get to see that. I wonder what kind of birds lay eggs in October? I thought that was more of a spring activity. And there is no nest - just an egg. In a plastic bottle. In our wall. How cool (and weird) is that?

October 1 Guitar shopping

By Kevin
(yes, Oct. 1 was two weeks ago, but I just realized that I wrote this and never posted it, so since we haven't posted anything in awhile, here you go)

I'd made up my mind: “I need a guitar.”

So, a few days ago, I explored the two little music shops in WeiNan. Unfortunately, the prices were a bit on the high end: 550-750 RMB for a halfway decent guitar ($80-$110).

So when we made plans to go into Xi'an for some shopping on Oct. 1 (needed some cereal, BBQ sauce and DVDs), a guitar was at the top of my list.

After fighting the crowds downtown (it is one of China's biggest shopping holidays), I sauntered into the guitar shop and started inspecting the large group of guitars. Epiphones, Fenders, Washburns...all sorts of good brands, but undoubtedly out of my price range.

“Do you play guitar?” a young man asked me in English.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I want to buy one that isn't too expensive.”

Ok, he said. He pointed me to a Epiphone Talent, made in China. Hadn't heard of this semi-Gibson offshoot before, but it was worth a look. “This one is 450 RMB,” he said.

“Not bad,” I thought to myself, picking it up. It sounded good, but no better than the 400 RMB guitar I'd owned in Tonghua.

“Or, this brand,” he said, picking up another, labeled AAA. “In China 'A' means very good. This is the best of the cheaper guitars.”

Sure enough, it played better than the others.

“How much?”

“300” he said. “It includes a soft bag, strings, a strap and picks.”

“Nice," I thought to myself.

After trying a couple more expensive models that sounded no better, and learning that the man tutored several foreigners on guitar, I made another offer.

“How about 250?”

“Oh, you shouldn't ever offer someone a price of 250,” he replied, with a smile.

Wes chimed in, “It means that you're saying the seller is stupid. It's an insult.”

I'd completely forgotten. I backtracked. “I'm sorry. 260.”

He laughed. “How about 280. That's a very good deal.”

I tried 270, but wasn't going to haggle too much over another $1.50. “OK. I'll buy it.”

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bike breakdown, bike repair, repeat

So, maybe we should have known from the start that it was going to be a rough ride.

When I went to adjust Ruth's bike seat before we set off to meet students on our ride to the Wei River, the bolt wouldn't tighten. After a few minutes of attempting to tighten and re-tighten it, I struggled to get it loose. The blot finally fell on the floor, threads were completely stripped. The nut seemed to be the wrong size. “This isn't going to go back on,” I said. I guess this is what you get when you buy a used bike in China.

So I hurried back into the apartment and scrounged through a jar of old nuts and bolts until I found something that would make due. It was a little smallish, but with a washer, it did the trick.

A bit late, we met Wes, Christina and eight students at the front gate on campus. We were off. I was chatting with a senior from Guizhou named Edward. As he shared about his minority, THUNK, my foot hit the ground. The entire left pedal, rod and all clanked along the ground as I slammed on my brakes. Blood dripped into my sock from a three-inch gash that sliced my calf (it really wasn't too bad, just bled a lot at first).

I attempted to hammer the pedal back onto my bike, but it didn't seem like it was going to stay on very long. Besides, the pedal itself was falling apart as well. I guess this is what you get with a used bike in China.

So Edward, Wes, Tim (another student) and I hurried back to a bicycle repairman, who nonchalantly attached a new pedal, tightened the rod, filled the air in my tires and sold me a bolt for Ruth's seat for 4 RMB (about 60 cents). After a quick stop by the pharmacy (thankfully, it seems like there's one every other block in this city), we set off again. After about 10 minutes of riding, we caught up with the girls, who had ridden ahead.

I learned that Edward was an avid cyclist. In fact, two years ago, he went on a 2-week bike trip to Henan province, covering more than 1,500 km and that he and some buddies from the campus bike club have been thinking about riding from here to Tibet. Insane.

Just as we set off after our reunion, CRACK, my pedal fell off again. Mind you, the rod stayed in place. The plastic pedal, however, proved that sometimes you get what you pay for. I decided to continue riding without the pedal, since I seemed to be able to do so just fine.

We rode through a toll booth on the road, admiring freshly shucked corn laid out to dry, filling half the lane on the low-traffic road, then turned into a village because the road ahead was being repaired.

Just as we started to climb a slight incline, CA-CHUNG. Ruth's chain broke. Unfortunately, we were far from the city and the bicycle repairmen who set up shop every few blocks. We put the chain into a small bag and started walking toward the village, where we asked around and found out that there was indeed a repairman in the village not far ahead.

We approached a man at the roadside with a little truck, hoping that he might be able to bring us with the bike to the repairman, who was apparently 5-10 minutes away. Instead, he said he could explain how to fix it, though. He inspected the chain, and said that a piece was missing, though.

So Edward and I hurried back to the place Ruth's chain broke, a little bit worried that finding the tiny missing part might be like finding a needle in a haystack. But within about a minute, he pointed and declared, “here it is. I found it.”

Edward then set about fixing the chain, with the help of the man we met on the road. Thankfully, I'd brought a crescent wrench and vice grip in case Ruth's seat didn't hold together. Edward, hands covered in bike grease, used the vice to fasten the chain back together.

Unfortunately, it didn't last.

“I'm trying not to pedal too hard,” Ruth said with a grimmace.

“Well, if you make it up this hill, we might be good to go,” I replied. Within seconds, CLANG, her chain fell off again. Only this time, it broke into a few pieces.

After a brief discussion, Edward and Tim decided that they'd bring the bike to the repairman while we waited.

As we waited, Wes struck up a conversation with a family that was out in their yard shucking corn. He asked if he could join them. “Why not?” I thought to myself. I join them as well. Soon, Ruth and Christina joined in, along with a couple students. The others looked at us skeptically, seeming to wonder why we would do something like this. But eventually, they too joined us. Wes explained the parables about the son gathering people like gathering crops. By the time Edward and Tim returned with the fixed bike, all of us and all of the students who were waiting were helping these farmers to shuck corn, which they said was used by both people and animals (they don't have two separate varieties of corn in China like in America – just one).

It was a great “Real China” moment.

Overhead in the village, workers clanged and hammered away, building the raised platform for the high-speed railroad that is being built from Xi'an to Zhengzhou onto Beijing. Supposedly it will go about 300 km per hour and cut the trip to Beijing from about 12 hours to 5 hours.

As we rode to the river, we followed a dirt path between cornfields that ran underneath sections of seemingly completed railway track. Unfortunately, the soil at times was a little unforgiving. It was thin loess soil (I believe we live on China's famed Loess Plateau) that poofed up as we rode through it, almost like silty volcanic ash.

Needless to say, it was tough to keep riding through it, but it was thinner than beach sand, so as long as we were moving fast enough, we seemed to be able to keep our balance and avoid most of the plumes of silt that rose into the air whenever a mini-truck loaded with freshly harvested corn or a tractor passed us by.

After about 15 minutes, we reached the river. It was a bit disappointing after all the obstacles that had to be overcome before we made it. “It's not an adventure if nothing goes wrong along the way,” I told a couple of students. “It is unforgettable,” one replied.

"Anyone ready for a swim," I joked, after pointing to the floating pieces of styrofoam, which floated down the river in a constant stream like tiny iceburgs. Apparently we were downriver from some sort of factory.

A couple girls laughed nervously, wondering if I was serious. "Ok, I might come out looking brown, maybe I won't swim."

Unfortunately, by the time we'd made it home, my pedal-less bike rod had worn a hole in my shoe.

By the time we made it back to our apartments, we'd been gone for more than four hours. We were grimy and drained. But, in spite of the obstacles, it was worthwhile. Another good bonding experience.