In which I probably haven't proofread as much as I should...
I suppose after more than a year of living in a strange country, life beings to feel less like an epic adventure and comedy of errors and more like, well, life. I’ll admit: there is still plenty of adventure and error abounds, but it feels like less to write home about. My English has gotten a little worse, my Chinese quite a bit better. I can navigate just about anywhere in the city without trouble, and obtain food with greater accuracy. I can even read a little! I’ve been remiss in recording the details, so I’ll recap below:
The fall semester brought some minor job unhappiness for me. My classes were huge (35 to 38 students per class), and my classroom didn’t have enough furniture for all the students. The room itself was in bad repair (doors that got stuck alternately and made me fear that one day we’d be trapped inside, computer problems, teacher’s podium collapsing…). I was so overwhelmed with my 150 students: I didn’t know everyone’s name, they had no place to sit, I avoided lab because one teacher just can’t watch so many kids. The kids felt unloved because of lack of personal attention, and I felt like a bad teacher because I couldn’t give them more.
Fortunately, this spring semester, the school managed to hire a second chemistry teacher who took half my students!! Now with classes of 25, each gets a slightly bigger share of my attention, and all are thriving. It’s fun to be in the classroom again, and I’m excited about going to lab!!
There have been plenty of adventures around the city: sight-seeing, dining (most notably: 1001 Nights which is an Indian place featuring fantastic belly dancing and hookahs [sheeshas, nargilas…]), drinking and dancing. I’ve learned (or relearned) that I’m quite finished with “the nightlife” sometime between midnight and 1:00 am, thank you very much, and why isn’t anyone else ready to go?! I’ve also been sick with the same snotty, phlegm-y cold four times since November. The American cold medicine ran out during the first iteration. No problem, I thought, I’m rarely sick! Iterations two and three brought misery and some Chinese herbal stuff that really does nothing (but really, shouldn’t stuff that vile tasting have some effect?). Finally, for round four, I’ve stolen Tylenol cold stuff from Aaron. It’s fantastic.
Halloween and Thanksgiving brought little apartment-wide get-togethers in the common room featuring baked goods (chocolate-pumpkin swirl brownies, and then apple and pumpkin pie from me) and a smorgasbord of good old American fare from the crowd. One enterprising teacher turned his box of school-gifted apples into hard cider. Not bad!
This winter has brought much more snow than Beijing has seen in a long time. Most recently, we received about three inches, causing maintenance workers to use actual shovels for snow removal, rather than brooms! Actually, the “shovels” were pieces of plywood nailed to 1” x 1” fence post and just moved the top layer of snow allowing the bottom inch to be compacted into ice, but I do appreciate their effort. Then I learned that the big “snow storm” was a gift from The Party. Faced with recent draught, they used the Olympic trick of seeding the clouds to provide some pretty white flakes for us. Thanks, Beijing!!
Late December brought the best Christmas gift I could hope for: a visit from Sylvie!! In a high-energy whirlwind of travel, we visited the Sacred Way, Ding Tomb, made pork pie and chocolate bear cookies, went to Xi’an where we visited the bell and drum towers, the terracotta warriors, the Great Mosque, and ate all the Muslim food we could get our hands on, tried lychee, durian and dragonfruit, visited Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, Beihai Park, sang karaoke, and ate as much Beijing food as we could get our hands on. Sylvie is the best traveler I have ever met: I didn’t hear her complain once, even when travel was long or plans didn’t go exactly as expected. She’ll eat anything and appreciates everything. I had a blast and I’m sure she did too. Hopefully, it’ll be enough to get her through to summer vacation!
For much of the fall semester, I had been trying to figure out what to do next year. I applied, and was granted a telephone interview for, a job as a program director with TFA. The pursuit of that position was all consuming for quite some time, and an enormous letdown when I learned that I wasn’t invited for an in-person interview. It’s a blow to the ego, certainly, but also the impetus I needed to search for other possibilities. But, as soon as I found out I didn’t have to fly to the U.S. for an interview, plans were rapidly made for the Spring Festival trip of a lifetime!
After Sylvie left, I had only to review with my students and then proctor five days of exams before the Spring Festival began. Natalie, Joe, Lisa and I threw together a loose itinerary for Southeast Asia, and obtained visas for Vietnam, and we were off into the sparkly sea of temples and motorbikes that is Indochina.
Natalie and I were unable to obtain train tickets for the Beijing to Kunming, Yunnan, leg of our trip (Spring Festival is one of the largest mass migrations of people on the planet, comparable in scale to the pilgrimage to Mecca), so we decided to fly. Kunming, the City of Eternal Spring, was a little on the chilly side at first, but then warmed up to a very agreeable 60 to 65 degrees during our stay. We visited a fabulous flower and bird market. The variety of orchids for sale among assorted green greenery in January was just phenomenal. The blue sky and mild weather made me reconsider life in Beijing and left me yearning to live in a non-long underwear location! We visited the Stone Forest, national/UNESCO park with some pretty fancy geology. Rocks jut straight up from the ground in lovely formations, similar to Zhangjiajie World Heritage Site in Hunan. We spent a lovely day wandering (sans jackets!) among the stones, and hiking up to a pagoda to take in the view. Much of the park is left fairly unmolested, with only foot paths installed (here, I stop to ponder my definition of “unmolested,” and its significant change in the past nineteen months.) Other parts of the park feature manicured lawns and man-made lakes and are landscaped. After the gray sky and naked trees of Beijing, both appealed to me. The trees and shrubs were flowering, the bees buzzing, and the sky blue at the Stone Forest. We also spent a lovely day in one of the most fantastic markets I’ve yet visited in China. This market was enormous, and featured everything you might want to buy and lots you didn’t yet know you needed. I found a dumpling charm for my cell phone, barrettes, a cute purse for myself and one for Sylvie (as of yet, still lost in the mail!), and some lovely ribbon sewn onto ethnic clothing in Yunnan. Natalie and I also visited two museums: one on the ancient history and culture of Yunnan province, and one on the ethnic minorities of the region. The view of Yunnan from the outside (from the cities of the north, I suppose) seems to be that Yunnan is less sophisticated, even “backwards” compared to the more urban, cosmopolitan areas. The aim of these museums was to counter this thinking by presenting evidence of early bronzework and other technological innovations and some really fantastic ethnic clothing and jewelry (the early Yunnanese, it seems, were really, really into big bronze animal-form-embellished belt buckles). The culinary specialty in Kunming is "Across the Bridge Noodles" which is a big bowl of steaming broth into which you stir thick rice noodles, raw meat or eggs and veggies and stir until cooked. We also ate "milk skin" which is dry and very, very tough and was grilled and spread with something sweet; I had sweetened condensed milk on mine. While in Kunming, I actually saw a chicken in a sack (with a hole cut out for its head) being carried through the town square. This is a relief because I'd been making "chicken sack" jokes for a year and a half without actually seeing one!
After a few days in Kunming, Joe and Lisa flew in to meet us. The next day, we boarded a sleeper bus for Laos. The sleeper bus will certainly be one of my most enduring memories of this trip. The bus held two tiers of bunks: three across, with two extremely narrow aisles. The very back of the bus featured no aisle, with five bunks across, immediately adjacent to one another. I was lucky (!) enough to get a middle bunk near the back. Each bunk is exactly my dimensions: about 21 inches across and five and a half feet long. Your feet go in a box under the head of the person in front of you, so the head end of your bed is elevated slightly to accommodate the feet of the person behind you. Each bunk has a little metal basket in which to place your shoes and big bag of stuff to do (yes, Mom, I still pack a big bag of stuff to do!) while you ride (and this ride was 30 Sesame Streets or 60 Mr. Roger’s Neighborhoods. Just for reference). We had bought tickets to the border of China and Lao. Having settled in (Joe in the “rumpus room” in the back) we were off.
The trip was surprisingly smooth on the Chinese side, but included lots of random stops in the middle of the night; some were for unknown reasons and a few were to pick up more passengers. I slept a little, existed in the bizarre Purgatory between reality and LaLa Land for hours on end, and peed in a dark corner of a bus depot. In the morning we left China, which included a search of our bags by the PLA. I had locked my bag, and they made a big show of having me unlock it (much to the amusement of the Muslim ladies on board) while they did a thorough search. Once at the border, the bus driver indicated that, since everyone needed a visa, the bus would wait at the border, and we could take the same bus all the way to Luang Prabong, which was our intended destination, anyway. Then into Laos, where we got our visas in about five minutes in a tiny shack by the side of the dirt road. Laos doesn’t use sticker-type visas, and instead employs a friendly English-speaking man to use SEVEN stamps covering one whole page of my passport. Then, at a second window, three more stamps are used to indicate date of entry. And then I brushed my teeth over a ditch.
The road in Laos was MUCH bumpier than in China, and we all got smacked on the head by the ceiling quite a few times. The bus had no bathroom, and we stopped every three or four hours to pee and eat overpriced middle-of-nowhere side of the road meals. I passed the time reading, snacking, dozing and staring out the window. Quite the experience!
Luang Prabang is quite touristy, but warm and friendly, with markets, night markets, BeerLao (much darker than Yanjing) and fruit shakes. There’s a lot of residual French culture including architecture and food, and also significant Buddist influence with many wats and orange robe-clad monks walking everywhere. Lao food is fresh and delicious with limes, lemongrass, sticky rice, and coffee with sweetened condensed milk. We toured a temple, got pedicures, visited the night market, and ate and ate… Our guesthouse’s balcony overlooked the Mekong, and we sat outside at night, counting geckos, drinking BeerLao and playing cards as the river faded with the sun. We took a boat on the Mekong to visit caves full of tiny to huge Buddist statues and stopped at a tiny village full of women weaving beautiful textiles. We watched sunset from a temple set above the city on a hill, and we hiked to a waterfall and moon bear preserve. I also had a fantastic $4 massage in a second-story room filled with soft light and white flowy curtains and the most comfy pjs to wear. We ate an absolutely amazing French dinner including three appetizers, four main courses, two desserts and a bottle of wine for a cool one million kip ($100) total. Definitely one of the best meals in my life for far less money than one would expect to pay just about anywhere else on earth!
From Luang Prabong, we took a bus to Vang Vieng, a village of “spring breaker” type backpackers in the center of northern Laos. Tubing on the Nam Song River was great fun (though the river isn't exactly fast, and once the sun began to descend it was distinctly cold) and every 10 meters, there's a bar complete with enormous rope swing and slide and loud reggae and more spring breakers. You float over and act stupid until you float to the next bar. We mostly floated past the bars, observing the madness and gazing at the lovely surroundings (the mountains are actually quite beautiful). In town, every second café plays episodes of Friends for their stoned patrons and roadside stands make any kind of crepe (banana chocolate, lemon sugar…) you could possibly want. It was bizarre, and totally unlike Luang Prabang. If I return, I'll go for some eco-tourism (hiking, kayaking, rock climbing) outside of town. From Vang Vieng, we went to Vientiane, the capital of Laos for one night. We spend a very lazy afternoon drinking BeerLao by the river and watching a spectacular sunset. Guesthouses are hard to come by there, and we had to settle for something that looked like (and was later confirmed to be) a former flop house. When we checked in, it looked moderately clean but very, very basic (ok, prison-like) but when we returned after our evening of drinking (and more French food...yay colonialism!!) we noticed a few warnings regarding bed bugs penciled on the wall which turned out to be very, very true. So we spent the worst night of our lives (I'm not exaggerating here) scratching, tossing, turning, applying DEET, listening to the mice in the walls, and wandering around pitifully. By morning (and after only about one and a half hours of sleep), I had three ENORMOUS welts on my face (my left eye was swollen half shut) and decorative red blotches all over my arms and legs. Natalie fared a little better, and it turned out that Lisa and Joe didn't have bed bugs at all. Never...again. Never.
The next morning, we flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Air Vietnam (who serve a full meal of Soilant Green and Soilant Pink [Soilant Pink is fish]), breezed through Cambodia customs, and took a bus to Siem Reap. The bus ride was beautiful - plains broken up by palms, little farms with woven houses on stilts with families sitting on tables in the yard eating meals, water buffaloes, dooryard ponds full of blooming lotus, bony cows, swarms of school children in their navy and white uniforms (including the uniform sarong!). It was lovely, and relaxing. Siem Reap definitely caters to the foreign visitor of Angkor Wat, and has a large strip of fancy restaurants, bars, beautiful hotels and a fun night market. We found a lovely family-run guesthouse and enjoyed some Khmer food for dinner (a cross between hot pot and Korean BBQ, fish stew, garlic prawns, and coconut shakes. We drank a LOT of coconut shakes!).
We spent two days wandering Angkor Wat. We hired a tuktuk (moto-pulled carriage) for both days. The second day stayed for sunset. The entire complex is named for the main temple, but is actually a spread of dozens of structures, plus more in outlying areas. The wats are each spectacular...the variety of building shapes and carvings and layouts of inner and outer courts is just stunning. I really can't describe it...have a look at my photos! The wat area is enormous and we tuk tuked from wat to wat, stopping for lunch and snacks, climbing stairs, and admiring the architecture and carved details. The surroundings are gorgeous including a huge diversity of trees full of singing birds and monkeys. On our second day, we came across a whole tribe of (two dozen?) monkeys, which were quite tame. We bought some bananas (the entrepreneurial spirit is pervasive - constantly people, including little kids, were trying to sell us things), and hung out with the monkeys for a while. One sat on my back while it ate its banana!!
After Siem Reap, we bussed back to Phnom Penh then on to Sianhoukville, on the coast. The beaches in Sihanoukville are the most picturesque I’ve visited in my short existence. The water is blue and bathwater warm with those stereotypical palm trees that lean out over the surf. We spent a few days just laying in lounge chairs, reading, swimming, and eating whatever was hawked from chair to chair on the beach. My favorite was deep fried langoustines with salt, pepper and lime juice – the tails were huge and juicy.
Sihanoukville has an enormous population of ex-pats all catering towards the beach-going visitor crowd. And with that, comes prostitution. Every evening, the breakfast and lunch places would morph into brothel fronts with ladies calling out to Joe as we walked by. The joke was that, to us girls, the tuk-tuk drivers would yell, “Tuk-tuk, lady?” To Joe, “Tuk-tuk? Lady?”
Post absolute relaxation, we returned to Phnom Penh (yes, our third visit!). Quite the opposite of relaxing, Phnom Penh is quite crazy: streets crammed with flying motos, noise, but a nice wake-up after languishing on the beach. We visited the main Khmer Rouge school-turned-prison-turned-museum (the prison from which Cambodians were transported to the killing fields) for several hours; it was quite the somber experience, and helps to explain much of the country's psyche and culture and current state of affairs. The prison gave a needed insight to me on the recent history of the country and of the pain and suffering everyone now over the age of 35 endured. Khmer Rouge soldiers killed about one-third of the population through forced work in rice fields, starvation, disease and execution. The countryside is still sprinkled with landmines; it is quite obvious that the legacy of that regime lingers the daily lives of the Cambodian people.
After Phnom Penh, we boarded a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, and then a flight to Hanoi. Our flight was on JetStar Pacific, one of those JetBlue-style budget operations. It was delayed by an hour, featured no kind stewardesses, was the most cramped economy class I've ever seen, and had no free food or drinks, even water. Not even soilent fish. Anyway, it was better than taking a bus... We got into Hanoi at 11 pm, to a taxi driver who "couldn't find" the guest house we wanted to stay in and then took us to his friend's hotel which was a bit more money than we wanted to spend. This scam seems to be wide-spread, and we were quite powerless to stop it. Regardless, there were no bed bugs, so I deemed it a reasonable expense.
We stayed in the Old Quarter, with twisting narrow streets full of motor scooters and cyclos (three-wheeled bicycles with a cart seating two in front of the bicycle driver) and little shops selling iced and hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk, and fruit salad with tapioca and sweetened condensed milk, cheap draft beer, and pho (rice noodle soup with chicken or beef and fried donut things to dip in the broth). The weather was mild, not hot, and mosquito-free. Our most memorable dinner in Hanoi seafood hot pot (shrimp, mussels, fish, squid, eel, two kinds of noodles, spinach and other veggies). The seafood arrived arranged around the rim of the boiling pot of broth. We sat, happily cooking and sweating, until some wicked woman of unknown origin stocked over, instructed us menacingly in Vietnamese, and pushed the rest of our food into the broth. Now, as a resident of China, I’ve had time to develop hot pot idiosyncrasies: I do NOT like anyone to help. And I do not like a crowded hot pot. It did, however, still taste great... Lisa and I also enjoyed "violet glutinous rice wine,” a potent concoction, which is apparently the cheapest way to get accidentally drunk in Hanoi.
Speaking of drinking, Joe, Lisa and I spent a memorable night at a sidewalk café enjoying Bia Ha Noi on tap with a Vietnamese guy who didn’t speak any English. He did, however, try to play our card games and then teach us his. We settled on poker while I amused myself by trying to avoid getting poked by his gesticulations and lit cigarette.
Indochina without a solid itinerary doesn’t make for absolute relaxation. It did lead to extreme adventure, unexpected and delightful situations and fantastic memories.
Once back in Beijing, it’s been good to get back to “normal” life. Smaller classes have meant better times in the classroom for me. New colleagues have given rise to a new dynamic at work and socially. I’ve been continuing to pursue the question, “What should I do next year?” and may be arriving upon an answer.