Tuesday, October 27, 2009

H1N1 Quarantine

It is officially quarantine time here in Weinan.

The school frantically sent us a message at 8:30 last Wednesday morning: "Sorry to bother you this early, there is an emergence (sic), the school identified one case of flu last night, it is a student from biology department, so we need to talk about this, are you free this morning?"

So we scrambled over to the waiban's office and learned that the night before, school officials were called together for an emergency meeting at 10 p.m. because there were now 15 cases of swine flu in Weinan. Eight cases had been identified at the Railway University in another part of town and one here. "It is a very serious situation."

We knew China was taking H1N1 (the swine flu) seriously when they monitored everyone's temperatures who walked through the Beijing airport and asked us to provide contact information in case anyone on the plane sitting near us had been infected. We even heard stories of people who received daily calls asking if they were alright.

We knew the school was beginning to take H1N1 seriously when they handed us thermometers a month ago and asked us to monitor our temperatures daily, informing school officials if it topped 38 C (100.4 F). Now, they want to be notified if our temperature crosses 37.5 C (99.5). They also began checking IDs at the school gates to limit access. Several schools in Xi'an had already implemented full-blown quarantines, not allowing anyone off-campus, so we crossed our fingers that this wouldn't spread to Weinan.

Now that an infected student on campus has been found, the game has changed.

So the new rules: "Students will not be allowed to leave campus unless they have very urgent business and a note from the dean."

Teachers will be allowed to leave campus, but are be strongly urged not to do so unless absolutely necessary. "

You'd think that someone had died, not just gotten a case of the flu, but the fallout in China after their failure to stop the spread of bird flu a few years ago had them kicking precautionary measures into overdrive here.

Thankfully they only FORBADE us from going to two places: the two big, crowded supermarkets where we do most of our grocery shopping.

"You should avoid crowded areas," we were told. "Also, it is better if you cook at home rather than going to restaurants."

Unfortunately, there was a problem: We are about to leave for Beijing, since Ruth's parents were about to board their flight to visit us only a few hours after we were notified of the quarantine. It's a bit difficult to avoid crowded places in a city of some 17 million people.

"Maybe you should wear a mask."

"Do you know where we can buy one?" I asked, thinking that probably the now off-limits supermarkets might be our best bet. The school gave us several for the trip.

We did just come back from a few days in Beijing with Ruth's parents (we took them to the Great Wall, where the leaves were turning orange and yellow, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen, the Hutongs an acrobat show and our favorite Chinese Mexican restaurant: Pete's Tex-Mex). Now we're wondering just how much off-campus exploration of China they're going to be allowed to do. When we first arrived from the train station, the guard asked to see our IDs. We probably were only allowed to enter because of our foreignness. I was able to leave campus yesterday to buy some groceries at a smaller nearby store, but it'll be a shame for them to come to China and not be able to go anywhere or eat Chinese food. What happens when we take them to Xi'an this weekend? Not quite sure.

We'll see. So far, I've only seen a handful of students and a few teachers walking around campus wearing protective masks.

Then again, this afternoon, one of the workers in the English department stopped Ruth, asking if she taught a particular class. "The roommate of one of the students in your class has H1N1, so all of your students will be required to wear masks when they are in the dormitory and while they are in the classroom so that nobody else gets sick."

Rumors among students are swirling that perhaps as many as 100 students aren't allowed to leave their rooms and that at least three are symptomatic. Students, many of whom live nearby and go home every weekend, are already getting stir-crazy. At least one has admitted to burrowing through a tiny hole in the fence so she can see her boyfriend off campus.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Being Eaten by a Lion...and other things that surprise me

Eaten by a Lion
Originally uploaded by Ruthie Marie
The other day I bought eggs at the grocery store. Usually they come about 15 in a plastic bag, and they are still covered with poop and dirt and feathers. This time when I took them out of the bag to wash them, the eggs were all clean. I didn’t see a single bit of poop on anyone of them. My natural response was suspicion. “This can’t be right. What is wrong with these eggs?”
Then I began thinking about how my natural responses to things are becoming a little bit strange. Why would I be suspicious about eggs just because they happen to be clean?

The past few days I have noticed several other unusual things that surprise me. For example…
*Today I went to shut the door in my classroom and thought something seemed strange. Then I realized it was because the door actually had a doorknob.
*I got through my entire lesson plan for the first time this semester.
*I went to a website the other day and it wasn’t blocked.
*80% of my students didn’t copy their homework from the internet.
*The good cooking smell in the hallway tonight was actually coming from my apartment (the benefits of the crockpot).

In other news, my parents will be coming in just a few days! They will be here visiting for about two and a half weeks. While here, I am making them come to/teach my classes, give culture lectures, clean the apartment (oops, haven’t told them that yet). Actually, we have been doing lots of cleaning getting ready for them to come. I always forget how big our office is when the floor isn’t covered with stacks of papers. It’s like a new room.

Anyway, we’ll probably be pretty busy while they’re here and might not be doing a bunch of blogging. Unless I make them write a blog. That’s actually a great idea…guest bloggers. I should look into that.

About that lion...the random pictures which are appearing in every post are due to the fact that blogger is one of the 10,000,000,031 websites that are blocked. Flickr, strangely, surprisingly, is not blocked, so we are able to upload blogs by posting them with a picture. So we upload the blog in Flickr, it then goes to Blogspot, which then imports it to Facebook. My how we do get around. Seriously though, this blocking thing is driving me crazy. The special holiday is over – give us back our webpages!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Up and Down

Originally uploaded by kevsunblush
(or, Who Says Mood Swings are Just for Teenagers?)

By Ruth

Everybody has bad days, but when you live in China and have a bad day, you can call it a “Bad China Day” and conveniently blame everything on China. Sometimes it deserves it. Sometimes it is just a handy scapegoat.

I’m pretty sure this is breaking “blog length etiquette” rules all over the place, but since I haven’t really been blogging much recently, I felt the need to get it all out all my recent thoughts in one long monologue. For ease of reading, I decided to divide it into chapters.

Chapter 1: Test
The other day we had to take a test for the school or for the country or something. It was an evaluation for “foreign experts” working in China involving a basic knowledge test, a psychological test, and a writing test. Evaluating foreigners isn’t such a bad idea (have you seen some of the foreigners they let over here? Yikes…) It’s just the methods that were somewhat…lacking.

The psychological questions were...confusing. Some of the wording wasn’t exactly the clearest. For example:
- Do you agree that the up-and-down is not the real life, but trivial daily life is real?
- When you describe one thing, what would you like to do?
- What do you think about the idea that the actively taking is better than passively receiving?

The “basic knowledge test” asked some basic questions. It also asked some things like,
- Who is the current president of the United States? (Obama was not one of the answer choices, so I chose George W. Bush)
- When did the UN reach the agreement titled Declaration of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment?
- Who is the current prime minister of China? (Unfortunately…it doesn’t have a prime minister. It does have a premiere, sometimes incorrectly referred to as prime minister)
- Which skin color is most common among Chinese people? (…and the correct answer is apparently “yellow”)
- 0.0495×2500+49.5×2.4+51×4.95=?

It was pretty funny overall, but the other night when I was taking this test, I was not in a funny mood. So by the time I finished, I was pretty ticked off about having to spend my time on something that seemed so useless. My complaints automatically went from small scale (stupid test) to large anger encompassing the entire country. “This is such a stupid country! The whole thing is ridiculous. It’s all so stupid. All 1.3 billion people. Why do I live here? ”

Chapter 2: Class
Which is funny, because mere hours earlier I was in class, watching my students discuss a question and thinking, “I love my students. They’re so cute and fun. I love teaching. It’s so great that we get to be here and do this.”

And the next day, after the previous night's test anger had passed, I was back in class looking adoringly at my students. This week’s lesson was fun to teach. The topic was dating, and student love to talk about anything like that. 95.7% of them are hopeless romantics. I returned from class thinking happy thoughts about my sweet little students…until I started grading their homework.

They had watched an English movie, read an English book, or listened to English music and written a review about it. Most of them wrote good reviews, but some of them were too good, far too good. It was the difference between writing like this:
“They have a dream that one day to go to South American 'wonderland waterfall' adventure. But until Ellie died, this dream didn’t also can achieve.”
and writing like this:
“But this is 1970’s Afghanistan and Hassan is merely a low-caste servant who is jeered at on the street.”

So I looked them up on Google, and sure enough, there they were. No more happy thoughts of innocent students. I was already drawing up the plans for a scathing lecture that would leave them all feeling small and ashamed. Suddenly every student was a lazy, dishonest plagiarizer.

At least until I went back to class today and my student said, “Ruth, I think you are very humorous this year. You make us laugh all the time.” And I thought, “My students are so cute. They think I’m funny. I am pretty funny, aren’t I? I just love my students.”

Chapter 3: Headache
A few hours after the “you’re so funny” comment, the headache which had been lingering around all day came out in full force. As did the train horns, bus horns, car alarms, screaming children and every other possible noisemaker in a one mile radius. China is a noisy place. I guess that’s what happens when you squeeze a thousand people into a few acres next to thee railroad tracks and a highway, and several hundred of those people are children, and anyone who drives a motor vehicle believes that the coolest part is the horn.

Whenever I have a headache, it seems like everyone goes into noise-making overdrive. So I lay in bed with a hot rice sock on my neck and a frozen bag of corn on my forehead mentally strangling the world’s horn-manufacturers.

Unfortunately, headaches wait for no man (or would it be, time waits for no headaches?) and I had to go do a culture lecture. At the culture lecture,
1. The students laughed at me. I’m so funny! :)
2. The computer locked up. Why do computers hate me? :(
3. My little freshmen waved excitedly and smiled adoringly at me. :)
4. My former student told me I should study harder to learn more Chinese (which is totally true, I just didn’t want to hear it). :(
5. My headache receded. :)
6. My student told me I looked tired. True, but generally that’s like when someone says you look sick. It’s not a compliment. :(
7. Christina told me I looked like Rory, the early years (when she was smart and not slutty). :)

Epilogue: The Moral
As I review the last 48 hours, I find that apparently I do believe “the up-and-down” is the real life. The past few weeks have held even more ups and downs, ones more significant and not quite as funny.

A month ago I decided to memorize Psalm 16, particularly because I wanted to remember a few verses in the middle:
“You have assigned me my portion and my cup:
You have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places:
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.”

These past few weeks I have been thinking about those verses a lot. There have been times when I’ve thought, “It totally makes sense! All is pleasant and delightful!” There have been other times when I’ve had to say, “Really? Really? Surely this is not what You were talking about.”

But today as I was lying in bed willing my headache away, all of a sudden it made sense and I thought, it is true. It's really true. The ups and the downs are like variations on the earth’s surface. Mountains blend into hills which turn into valleys. Oceans end and deserts begin. But far beneath it all, the same core stands firm and unchanging.

I’m not always happy about where I am or the events that happen in life. Sometimes I’d like to choose my own “boundary lines,” thank you very much because these ones aren’t looking so good. But sometimes I realize that I’m just looking at the surface of the land. What’s underneath, what doesn’t change, really is that pleasant place, the delightful inheritance.

So…the moral(s) of the story?
#1: Stupid, Chinglishy tests can teach you something.
#2: Feelings change every week, day, hour, and/or minute.
#3: Far underneath, there lies a truth that never changes.

Monday, October 5, 2009

60 Years of China

by Ruth
(photo by Kevin)

October the first was an important day for China. It was the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Each year the country has a week long holiday to celebrate National Day. Every ten years, a big military parade is held in Beijing. But this year’s holiday was a really-really-really big deal.

To make sure there were no troubles or disruptions during the national holiday, Beijing instituted security measures than were even firmer than during the Olympics. They also blocked about 15,000 new websites in the weeks leading up to the day. Facebook is long gone, blogger has also fallen by the wayside (so we are uploading blogs via flickr), and we haven’t even been able to find a proxy site to break us through the barriers. We’re still holding out hope that once the national day hype backs down, we’ll regain some more access.

Anyway, on the morning of October 1st, a big military parade was held in Beijing. Only the top leaders and elite of the elite were invited to attend, but the whole country followed along on TV. We invited some students who stayed here during the holiday over to watch it with us. They were excited and brimming with pride about being Chinese. Sometimes I have to envy their patriotic zeal. Being Chinese seems to be one of the most central aspects of their identity.

In the evening of National Day, another big performance/gala was held in Beijing. It involved 60,000 performers singing and dancing and waving things in the air (all perfectly synchronized of course). It also included twice as many fireworks as the Olympics. The performance lasted for 1 hour and 40 minutes, and fireworks were going off for at least 75% of that time. It was all quite impressive.

I could say more, and perhaps Kevin will later, but for now I will just leave you with two recommended sights. I really should have put these at the beginning because they are more interesting than the blog.

A fellow foreigner in China posted some links, and I wanted to pass them onto you. They are both really interesting.
1. (http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/10/china_celebrates_60_years.html) First is a series of pictures from the military parade.
2. (http://vimeo.com/6853452) Second is an interesting video – a combination of time lapse and slow motion that condenses the parade into 3 minutes 42 seconds.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nationalistic Patriotic People's Singing Extravaganza

Clown shoes
Originally uploaded by kevsunblush
Sept. 23, 2009 (it's been a crazy week, so I didn't have a chance to finish this till now, but since today is THE National Day, Oct. 1, now's as good a time as any)
By Kevin

It was finally here: the much-anticipated singing competition. After weeks of listening to choirs from each of some 20 departments at the school, including staff, office workers and cafeteria workers, rehearse a half-dozen patriotic "revolutionary" songs dating back to the founding of modern China (the PRC), it was show time.

We weren't sure until now where the competition would be held, but we followed the sound and sauntered out to the square on campus a few minutes after we'd been told it would start: at 2 p.m. (No city or school in China would be complete without a giant concrete square modeled somewhat after the large one in the capital where untold numbers of major events have occurred in the last 60 years has) The steps in front of the central teaching building made a natural stage for choirs. Thousands of students sat in the square. Some were dutifully watching the performances, which had already begun. Most were huddled underneath umbrellas chatting with friends. Though the temperature was in the 80s, many still wore long sleeves, so umbrellas, or as we've taken to calling them, "sunbrellas" were necessary to help the students keep their skin white. Generally Chinese people have a polar opposite reaction to sunny days from Americans. American women sunbathe, often admiring the darker tones of other cultures. Chinese girls do everything they can to be as pale as they can, admiring the whiteness of our skin.

But I digress. As we looked for the students, teachers and leaders from the English department, who we've heard practicing for hours on end for the last few weeks, we found out that they were inside the building getting dressed and doing their makeup. Yes, even though few students wear makeup, both guys and girls made sure to apply the most gaudy stage makeup they could imagine.

As I walked into the building, and unfamiliar student approached. "Can I ask you a question?" he asked, nervously. I assumed he wanted to know how to improve his spoken English or one of the other standard questions Chinese students need to know about us. "Can I borrow your shoes."

I figured I heard him wrong. "My shoes?" I asked, sizing him up. He was taller than an average Chinese student, but I still had several inches on him. "Won't they be a little bit big on you?"

"It doesn't matter," he said. "My leader said I must wear black shoes, but we only have 15 minutes until we will sing."

I put my foot next to his. My size 13 foot dwarfed his size 9. But he insisted that the size difference wouldn't matter. "I will still need shoes to wear, though," I explained. "Let's go to my house and I can exchange shoes with you there."

"I think we'd better run," he said. "I don't have much time."

On the way to the apartment, in between hard breaths, he explained that he was a "fresh student" (Chinglish for "freshman," which I'd guessed -- all the freshmen wear the same white shirt with yellow and blue fringe) and that his English name was Darren.

At the apartment, Darren slipped his feet into my shoes. There was a good inch to spare behind his heel. We couldn't run back to the staging area because the shoes were too loose. He walked with his knees bent, trying to keep his feet from slipping out of clown shoes. I remembered how big my Dad's shoes felt whenever I tried them on as a child. I tried to imagine how he felt, walking in the shoes of a foreigner to sing patriotic Chinese songs.

When he made it back, the math department was waiting, they were second in line to sing. He endured several minutes of ridicule from his friends, who seemed to tease him about his shoes. I wonder what he told them. Undoubtedly I was now his best friend.

After he sang, he came back, slipped back into his white shoes and thanked me profusely for helping him. Around this time Ruth and Christina came back from going to see the English department teachers and students putting on their makeup. They'd learned that the English department would be the 17th group to perform. We were on group number five and it was now more than an hour into the program. We decided we'd kill the time in the comforts of our apartments, then return just before the English department performed. There's only so many times a foreigner can handle hearing the same half-dozen revolutionary marches sung over and over again, even if the arrangements are (slightly) different.

Around 4:30 p.m., our students and colleagues were finally in the staging area, anxiously awaiting their chance to do the motherland proud and show off their patriotic zeal. I thought about how many millions of college students were likely doing the same thing today or sometime in the coming week. They proudly took the stage and sung with all their might. After they exited to the other side of the stage, we hurried to find them, so we could congratulate them on a job well done. By the time we found them, the last group, the Art department (which includes not only painters and sculptors, but also musicians and singers), took the stage and blew everyone else away.

Thankfully, the English department wasn't competing against them.

"Can you understand what they are singing?" asked Connor, a former student who is now a junior. Nope. He seemed confused by our appearance. "They are patriotic songs about the motherland."

"I figured as much. China is celebrating it's 60th anniversary. It's a big deal."

"Why did you come?" he asked.

I thought it seemed obvious. This was a huge outdoor competition with a mass of thousands of students. The school "strongly encouraged" us to move classes in order to accommodate students who might want to watch. Music had been blaring on loudspeakers all day long. We couldn't avoid it if we tried. But I kept those explanations to myself and went with the still truthful, but more diplomatic, approach: "We wanted to come," I said. "We've been hearing students and teachers practice for a long time. We knew that the singing would be excellent and we wanted to support our students."

Before long, prizes were announced. First prize for the non-educational portion: the cafeteria workers. My mind flashed to Saturday Night Live skits with Chris Farley dancing to Adam Sandler's song about "Lunch Lady Land." Clearly I wasn't as mentally caught up in the patriotic fervor of the students around me.

I asked why Connor wasn't singing, since almost all of the other boys in the department were on stage. "I wish I could have been there," he said.

"I went to the first practice, but I had the runs for more than a week," he explained, using a bit of slang he'd recently picked up. "I couldn't stand there for two hours to practice."

I listened to the awards and noticed a couple that were familiar: "Wai jiao" (foreigner), so I was able to anticipate the student's translation. "We won," exclaimed one student, grinning. "First prize for the English department."

Another student, who had sung with the group, said he hoped this meant that the English Department would treat them to dinner. "So far, the department has given us a notebook for participating," he said, sensing a tinge of disappointment.

As we left, a reporter from the local newspaper grinned and asked us to pose for a few photos, handing his camera to a student to snap his memento of his fortunate rendezvous foreigners at a patriotic Chinese singing competition. Who knows if or when the photo might show up in print.