Linchuan, Jiangxi

October 4, 2011

The illustrious library of Linchuan No. 1, across from my apartment window. If you look closely, you will notice it is mostly empty. It offers a wonderful light display at night, though.

After an overnight train ride, we arrived in Jiangxi province. It was a particularly satisfying journey because of the province’s surrounding landscape, which is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to jungle, with a wealth of beautiful orange-red volcanic soil. Although the word we’d received from other CSETC students who’d been to Linchuan was horrific, I was pretty excited just to get a feel for a new province. Even within provinces, the difference between cities can be quite drastic, and I’m not talking about the difference between St. Cloud and the Twin Cities. I’ll get to Linchuan, the city I’m stationed in, in a moment. For now, I’d like to take a detour into the topic of the language.

There’s allegedly a much greater difference in dialect in China than we might expect in the U.S. Sure, the U.S. has a greater diversity of heritage, but China is not yet as homogenized by the construction of pop culture as the U.S. Local teachers have cited for me an exact number of established ethnicities, and attempted to list them off for me. I promptly forgot them, of course, because I’m not used to thinking of culture and ethnicity as such distinguishable things, with the categories so popularly understood. However, I’m in a country where anyone that looks different is almost certainly a foreigner. Since arriving in Linchuan, it’s often been commented that I look British because I dress formally and act too “gentle” for someone from the U.S. Maybe it’s acuity, maybe it’s insularity. Students at this campus have sometimes told me they cannot understand anyone in the neighboring city of Fuzhou. Traveling to many different provinces has made learning Chinese more difficult, because almost every place I wind up I’m being told different things about pronunciation. I’m a good imitator, but not at all a good listener; maybe if you know me, you’d expect that much. The “simplicity” of spoken Chinese is a double-edged sword. As far as major languages go, there’s more semantic meaning loaded onto each syllable in Chinese than other languages. This means that Chinese is spoken more slowly than, say, Spanish or Japanese, which tend to have longer words. Here’s a summary of a study on it, if you’re interested (sorry, it’s Time magazine: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2091477,00.html). What I suspect this also means, though, is that each syllable is more important. If you’re not hip to the established pronunciation or dialect of an area you’ll be tripping all over yourself, and God help you if you get the tone wrong. It’s a plateau for me, at least: I reflexively focus on each individual syllable rather than listening for important compounds. The fact is that many syllables are dependent morphemes (like –ment in advertisement). Then again, there are also many, many homophones (words with the same sound). Chinese is notoriously context-dependent; if you’re not in on the conversation, any given sentence might be indecipherable. Even though I don’t understand conversations, I will often hear just a few syllables over and over, flopping about like binary code. I can talk like a caveman to meet primal needs effectively, and my miming abilities have progressed by leaps and bounds, but more specific words or more articulate sentences open a whole new world of confusion. For example, I asked one teacher the other day if I should bring my chessboard to her brother’s birthday party and she thought I was asking her out on a date. For goodness’ sake, Miles, chess?! I’m a married woman! This was the result of making the ‘n’ sound instead of the ‘ng’ sound in a single syllable, which is more pronounced for her than me. When we resolved the confusion later, she told me I was still making the ‘n’ sound, and it’s not like I can’t pronounce my English gerunds.

In describing this challenge I’ve noted some acquaintances I’ve made here. Making friends with the staff is a necessary struggle; it simply isn’t possible to stay in our own little bubble during our service here. Many of the teachers are recent graduates our own age who are excited to test their mandatory English training. Linchuan is also a small city. It’s bigger than my hometown, but it is centered around a few enormous schools, and this is the center of its livelihood. It is no wonder that the students here are generally so proficient and are the most successful in testing in the entire country: there is almost nothing to do in Linchuan except study. This has been a particular grievance for Cooper; as I’ve said before, he had signed up with the expectation of an urban lifestyle, where he hoped to conduct primary research in his field of interest and make some valuable contacts thereby, and he had never expressed interest in a “humanitarian” effort. I did eventually lash out at him over his negativity, but the fact is that he has much better things he could be doing to further his career than teaching. He has since taken up an effort to get fired, although he wishes to do so without putting his students at a disadvantage. Currently his plan is to introduce politically sensitive material to the lessons until this gains the attention of the staff. I’m mentioning all of this both because it’s prime sitcom material and because I want to illustrate that the camaraderie between us Americans is insufficient to weather the issues of life as a foreigner.

Linchuan is an easy place to get a feel for. Aside from the distinction of its schools, I suppose there’s the cuisine. It would seem that peppers are almost as standard as rice – for me this is a welcome surprise. Students here are surprised to hear that duck is expensive stateside – here it’s as common as dirt. On the streets of Linchuan you will often come across boxes of chickens, ducks, and geese, still in the process of fattening. Thankfully, Linchuan’s notorious heat has been ebbing away since our arrival. When we first came here the atmosphere was truly punishing. It was not hot so much as the humidity of the air just sucked the life out of you. It was like walking through soup every day on the way to classes. Now it is more like the fall one would expect from Minnesota. The students at Linchuan No. 1 also live up to their reputation. Running into some of them on the bus to Fuzhou before we began teaching, I received some of the most original conversation I’ve had since arriving in China, including discussion with CSETC staff. We are the first Americans most of these students have ever seen, but it is easy to dispel the customary gawking and hyperventilating (no, really) of students by mirroring their actions, and many have a more sober perspective on interacting with us, which is a welcome surprise. One of our new responsibilities here has been to prepare a select group of students for the TOEFL exam, and every one of them has been a pleasure to work with. Even Tony, the student with markedly less skill than the others, displays a refreshing enthusiasm which never seems to wane. This class is really an important development for my personal experience, but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

Nearby Fuzhou has been experiencing more development than Linchuan. Google maps had actually proved unreliable, such was the rate of production. More often than not information on the city’s layout from 2010 was obsolete. Its nightlife, while prone to dying off around 10 p.m., was fun to simply observe. On the bank of the river one night there was an erhu performance, a man practicing his Tai Chi, and night fishermen with phosphorescent bobbers. There was one bar that we managed to discover, but even this was a novel experience. The light show was a truly oppressive swarm of green lasers, with remixes of Justin Bieber and “Country Road”. After we spent some time dancing on the floor the manager bought us a round and a watermelon, supposedly because the presence of Americans naturally improved the reputation of the establishment, only to be let down by the language barrier in the subsequent conversation. Then a chubby middle-aged woman pretending to be in her teens came onstage to perform karaoke off-key, chugging a beer between each song. Meanwhile, a toddler ran into the bar waving glowsticks to sit with his family and enjoy the spectacle.

The similarities can be as interesting as the differences. One day when providing context for words like ‘international’, ‘export’, and ‘import’, I presented a goofy example of international trade between China and U.S. of hamburgers and jiao zi. When probed to explain how I knew what jiao zi was, I realized that this was a favorite food of mine from early childhood. There are more general similarities; students presume we derived the slang expression ‘cool’ from the Chinese word ‘kù’, which has the same meaning. One teacher had asserted that ‘losing face’ was inherited from Chinese, and the word ‘mango’ would seem to be derived from its Chinese equivalent ‘mang guo’, ‘guo’ being a common suffix for fruit. One word I’m almost certain came from Chinese is ‘chow’, since ‘chao’ means ‘cook’. I can only deduce that ‘chow mein’ is ‘chao mian tiao’, which would be the way of saying something is cooked with noodles. Maybe this was obvious, but it certainly evaded my attention until now.

I’ve said that the experience in Linchuan is pretty straightforward, but I can think of a few interesting surprises. There have been fireworks almost every evening, and this is supposedly a common way of celebrating just about anything – a marriage, a birthday, the beginning of a new semester, etc. There’s an IV bar for want of an immediate hospital; in our experience, IVs are the primary solution to just about any problem that doesn’t involve trauma. There’s a lot of alternative health practices around here. Solitary dances in the city squares turned out to be one of them, but also the common habits among the elderly of striking themselves about the shoulders with hammers and newspapers and walking backwards. Hospitals will often be dedicated to one focus: there are pediatric hospitals, but also gynecology and proctology hospitals. One of our landmarks in Linchuan is a horrific billboard for a local proctology hospital displaying various forms of hemorrhoids, prolapses, and anal infections. Does your rear look like THIS? That’s not normal! We can help. In addition, pharmacies do not require prescriptions for their medications. I haven’t taken pictures of most things in this city, though, since I will be staying in here for four months and don’t wish to be too insensitive or feed into the impression I naturally give as a foreigner. However, I do hope to get a picture eventually of Linchuan’s favorite evening pastime. Many shops around here have televisions mounted in the window to attract attention while they’re open, and after school and work dozens of families will bring chairs out to the adjacent sidewalk and watch operas and dynasty melodramas outside these shops. That seems to me like a subject well worth a photograph, if I can pull it off covertly.

Aside from the location, there is also the matter of the people that call it home. Many teachers have gone out of their way to make us feel comfortable, especially since CSETC began asking us for reviews of the program thus far. In my case, I mostly had to reiterate the old points, but one new event really stuck in my craw. If you are a student thinking about applying to CSETC, please take note of this: in Beijing, the one place where CSETC has total control and we assumed things to proceed smoothly and responsibly, one teacher has to teach a class of over one hundred students all day each day, and another teacher has to teach a class of one. This is because the former was white and the latter was Asian. CSETC did not assign these classes based on ability, obviously. They asked the parents of each student to point at the picture of the teacher they wanted their student to have. Let it be known that CSETC is a business, and in this case has blatantly placed income over the substance of education and the well-being of students and teachers alike, exploiting rather than dispelling the ignorance of the people they intend to serve. This and other criticisms were provided to the staff, and the resulting interpretation on their part was that the problem was we thought Linchuan was a miserable place and expected better treatment there. Even in Cooper’s case, where he is in fact miserable, Linchuan No. 1 was in no way the object of our criticism, but sure enough the school’s representative received a phone call from Beijing that we required additional material comfort – bicycles, vacations, free meals. This has made us uneasy, since we want to assure the local staff that we are content, but we do not wish to offend them by refusing individual efforts to help us. More often than not these offers are sincere and compassionate, not stiff and obligatory.

As foreigners, we can be expected to be patronized anyway. No matter how long we stay here, we will always be asked if we know what ‘ni hao’ means. At this point, if someone passing me mutters ‘laowai’, I wave hello or pat them on the back, stating that I understand a little Chinese, eliciting laughs from their friends and/or family. That kind of stuff isn’t offensive or frustrating. When I go to the supermarket I am more likely to have a problem. Once I went with a student to find a water heater, chopsticks, and some cheap staple food. When I went to grab noodles, she kept pulling them out of my hand and putting them back, explaining that I needed to use hot water to make them and that I wouldn’t be able to eat them without chopsticks (cue chopstick miming). I got miffed at this point and asked her why she thought I was buying a water heater and chopsticks. She then indicated that the number on the sticker below a product was its price. When we went to the checkout and she called out the total, I gave the cashier coins so she could just pay me in bills, but apparently I was too dumb to put money in my wallet because she promptly handed my change to the student. Often we will get vendors, restaurants, and cabbies charging us ten times as much as other people, but with a little argument you can get down to paying just 25% more than the average Joe. This is really to be expected. Nobody outside the school intends to, nor should they have to, accommodate our ignorance. Sometimes I will be talking with teachers about scheduling or lesson plans, when suddenly I realize they don’t actually understand anything I’m saying and are just reciting information they knew would be important and planned out before I came. “The class is at eight o’clock on third floor, second building.” “How are the students? What is their skill level?” “Yes, third floor.” “What do the students know about English?” “Ah, dui, dui, second building, third floor, eight o’clock.” They’ve already done more than they should have to in this case.

Still, it is a great relief when I can finally communicate with someone, and usually this happens with the younger teachers. Sometimes I can even get them to talk about their own opinions. One very spiffy looking man who was initially rather cold towards me suddenly lit up one day, and talked about sports, lesson plans, and how Chinese and English might interact. He was the one who began pointing out to me Chinese words which had transferred to English. Another teacher, Allen, has had a few conversations with me about literature, having written her thesis as a Freudian analysis of The Iceman Cometh. Claire is a particularly eloquent and practical teacher, who has been a tremendous help in the functional Chinese classes we’ve been taking recently. One of the revered veteran teachers, Mr. Lu, a.k.a. Timothy, had firmly emphasized that I should confide in him about any issues I might have. He did in fact earn my confidence as he began to openly relate to me his personal struggles. Suffice it to say he is no stranger to controversy or suffering, and it was a bit much to digest so soon upon meeting him, but such a gesture of trust is the most genuine welcome I could have. Amid all this, I’ve received invitations to hike in the mountains, go orange picking, and play badminton and basketball. There’s no telling how many such offers will actually be realized, but I have three months ahead. I do at long last have viable plans to cook with our local representative, Margo.

I suppose the last thing to address is the actual job, the one I will have until January. Teaching is often perceived in a dark night of the soul as a Sisyphean effort, and in our case its value is perhaps even more dubious, but at the least you can consider it supply and demand. This campus was able to swing a visit by the now infamous national celebrity Li Yang (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/04/28/080428fa_fact_osnos), yet there’s still a big to-do about some kids from the states stopping by. Here in Linchuan, at least, foreign teachers aren’t a dime a dozen. Beyond this, there is a benefit just to confronting the reality of people from another country for them; it reminds me of my middle school days where we’d get time out of class just to talk with our baseball coach’s time in the marines, or our janitor’s life in Africa. You finally have an experience with a human being to fit to all you’ve read or heard on this topic or that, regardless of your interest or lack thereof. The TOEFL class has added further weight to this position; for the dozen students in that class, this examination opens or closes a lot of doors, and for most of them it is a one shot deal. Realizing this, how far some of them have to go, walking or biking around town with the knowledge that twelve of the families in these shops are actually depending on me to get their child into an American university, is terrifying, even painful. I don’t even know what I will be able to make of myself yet, but that is probably the way it always is. I have a name to match to this feeling, perhaps: the students have named me ‘Lang Ge’ (狼哥), which the teachers have discouraged. It is a rather sarcastic title, mixing the endearment ‘elder brother’ with ‘wolf’, a stigmatized animal around here. I’ve been running with it thus far because when I write it under my English name every class it makes the students laugh, which can’t be all bad. With all the celebrity-worship I get around here it’s progress to me if I can be laughed at. It’s as practical as it is encouraging to make students laugh; if they’re laughing, they’re paying attention, and at the least they get my drift. Once in a while I can keep them laughing the entire lesson.

The apartments in Linchuan No. 1 are the nicest we've had since coming to China. Most teachers would be three to one room like this, but this building is virtually empty most of the year.

Potentially inorganic noodles, oatmeal, and tea; how to live on a dollar a day. I fold and buy fried rice, juice, and cookies on a regular basis.

A homemade firework, courtesy of Linchuan No. 1's own "Firework Boy" for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. He says the secret ingredient is sugar. There are many reasons I don't believe this.

The arrow was quite necessary - I really didn't know which end I was supposed to light. It remains of particularly unsafe design.

"Urban Free-Range Chicken", by Cooper.

If you've never seen a mooncake, traditional gift/dessert of the Festival, this is one. They come in all kinds of flavors, and for us there's no telling which is which. It's also illegal to make them without a license.

This one was red bean and sesame. Very heavy, only slightly sweet. A muffin-pie crossbreed. The Festival has a basis in folklore, but not even students are familiar with it. Nowadays it's all about a full moon, fireworks, family, and this business right here.

Now that lychee are out of season, dried lychee are the go-to snack.

The now internet-famous duck herding photo, again by Cooper. We biked alongside them as they plopped through the street and around the corner, quacking meekly. It's things like this that are always showing up and making me kick myself for not having something as pocket friendly as an iPhone 3GS © (8 GB from $49.00 for a limited time only).

On national holiday Vang and I prepared to go to Nanchang, the province's capitol. In the spirit of tourism, I dusted off my camera and took a picture of the fat baby that frequents the magical motorcycle forest in the lobby of our apartment.

Our bus to Nanchang wound up in a pretty convenient district, between the two rivers which feed Lake Poyang. This is one of them.

This is the second river. Two of the locations we hoped to visit were right in this area. However, the city was extra crowded on the holiday, and the city welcomed us with torrential rain. Most taxis were uncomfortable traveling through different districts, especially with the nuisance of foreigners. Luckily one of our students was in the area, and was eager to help us along to the provincial museum and the pavilion of prince Teng.

Approaching the pavilion. Although it is mostly a reconstruction, the same could be said of the tower throughout history. It has "survived" fourteen centuries due to constant destruction (usually by fires), reconstruction, and expansion. The most recent destruction of the pavilion was in the 20th century during a campaign to unify China by the nationalist KMT.

One of the Imperial edicts was obscured by lines of various colors. Sheila, our student, wasn't too clear on why this was. It appeared to be ink rather than the exposed fibers of the medium. The writing was still very clear.

Barges out beside the pavilion were busy constructing an island.

I did not know this before, but the art of bonsai originates in China. Sheila referred to it as pen sai (盆栽).

The lamps of the pavilion.

The courtyard from the top floor.

Off to the side of the courtyard, further construction.

The Ba Yi bridge, 'ba yi' being 'eight one' for the August Uprising, the first conflict against the Kuo Min Tang by what would later become the PLA. This took place in Nanchang, and there are also two museums dedicated to the Communist martyrs of Jiangxi.

Another man-made island further along in its construction.

A wing of the pavilion.

A dining hall originally built to celebrate the conclusion of the naval battle of Poyang Lake, which was apparently a really huge deal six hundred years ago, featuring ships that were more or less mobile buildings. Poyang is still a big draw for the area. It's a gigantic lake, and is known to host a giant diversity of migratory birds, as in if you like birds you can die happy after visiting Poyang's parks in the proper season, which is right now. If it weren't for the weather, and our tight schedule, I would have loved to do just that. Maybe next month.

Ceremonial bells, both practical and ornamental.

A closer shot.

I'd always been told either that this animal was supposed to be a dog or a lion. Sheila made things clearer by asserting that there were two similar looking animals, neither of which was supposed to be either dog or lion, but constructed purely for symbolic utility.

It's a shame I couldn't get a good shot of this sculpture. It's no reconstruction, and it was easily the coolest part of the pavilion apart from the architecture. I'd never seen anything like it; it was such high relief that some aspects were in the round, and some were carved in a distorted, slanted fashion to accommodate the viewer. It must have been the most frustrating job ever, carving almost 360 degrees without direct access to the back half.

Another scene.

The provincial museum promised to be even more exciting, with dinosaurs and ceramics galore. Between the rain, the pavilion visit, lunch, bus delays, taxi difficulties, and getting lost on the walk over, we arrived just as it was closing. Again, maybe next month.

~m

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