Sunday, August 30, 2009
The night after our first roller-skating excursion – despite hip soreness and the threat of toe blisters -- Allen and I decided to skate Lengshuijiang’s other rink.
This rink is located under the bridge that crosses the river, the Zhijiang. The rink is a rectangle with a pool in the middle that is fenced off. Along the perimeter of the rink is an iron fence and beyond that a trash-filled bank and then the river.
It was a perfect night for roller-skating under a bridge. It had rained the entire day and now the city was crisp, almost cold.
The rink is special because there are several ramps. A couple ramps were deep valleys that the skaters had to run up once they got to the other side because the angle was so steep.
The level of skating here was much higher than at the underground rink. Some teenage boys were skating backwards at high speeds and coming to a stop by sliding one leg out. They easily conquered even the steep ramps.
I was able to skate both steep ramps, although not as gracefully as the teens. The first time I got stuck where the ramp dipped down and had to be pulled up by Allen and two little girls.
Then I tried going over a series of hills and bumps. Although unbalanced, I stayed on my feet. I can do it better, I said to Allen. I started off faster to get over the first hump.
I easily flew over the second hump but when I reached the third hump, I felt my upper body tilting backwards. Suddenly I was parallel to the ground. And then I landed on my butt. Hard.
“Are you OK?” Allen asked. He pulled me to my feet. “Does anything hurt?”
“Only my pride,” I said.
I hung back as the little kids grabbed the back of Allen’s T-shirt and formed a skate train. Soon eight kids had formed a line behind him. They whipped around the steep ramp and, coming around the corner, lost a few kids at the end. They ended up in a heap on the ground.
The kids were fine. They got to their feet and chased after Allen again, shrieking and laughing.
Minutes later, Allen shouted to me, “I lost my wheel!”
“My wheel rolled into the river,” he said.
One skate only had three wheels. A boy handed Allen the bolt but the wheel itself was long gone.
Allen exchanged his skates for another pair and was back on the rink with the kids trailing behind him.
Lengshuijiang has not one but two roller skating rinks. The first rink I visited is located underground in what my liaison’s daughter said was a tunnel used during the war. She wasn’t sure which war.
Next to a KTV (karaoke bar) was the entrance to the tunnel. After walking a few feet into the darkness, the air suddenly became cold and damp. It smelled stale. I felt like we were walking into a mining shaft.
Sometimes the gray rock surrounding us opened into a small room where people played pool. Ahead we saw the red-lit outline of a roller skate.
It was difficult to tell the size and shape of the rink. Columns of rock rose in the middle of the rink. The rink had muddy streaks, sometimes puddles. The conditions were far from ideal, but it was roller-skating nonetheless.
I told my liaison’s daughter and niece that my friend, another teacher in the program, was visiting the next day. We wanted to come to the rink to skate.
My liaison’s daughter and niece did not say anything at first. But several minutes later, after we had left the rink and were waiting at the bus station, my liaison’s daughter said, “We don’t think it’s safe for you to go skating.”
“Why?” I asked.
“There’s bad boys who go there,” she said.
“Yes, bad boys. They will steal your money. They will hurt you.”
I asked if they had weapons. No guns, she said, but maybe knives.
“Will they stab us?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she said.
My friend, Allen, and I went anyways. (His text to me: I’ve felt pretty iron deficient lately so I’m sure a good shankin’ could help.)
It rained much of Saturday. When we arrived at about 8:30 p.m. the entire rink floor was slick with water. We each received a pair of rental skates, both pairs soaked through. We also received two plastic bags to wrap around our feet.
The rink was an oval doughnut shape with three hills at one stretch. Chinese music blasting out of a speaker echoed against the cave walls. We skated faster and faster, the wheels of our skates sliding easily over the wet floor.
In the end, we were never knifed, and we didn’t see any bad boys, only 12-year-old girls who held hands as they skated.
Posted by Jolie at 7:51 PM
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Since I arrived, the little girls in my building complex have visited me. Sometimes three times a day.
Unlike the adults, the girls readily accepted the fact I'm both American and Chinese. Meanwhile, adult responses: You don't look American! What country is your passport? Are your parents Chinese? You look just like one of us!
Three girls consistently come, usually two at a time. The first night the girls asked how old I was. Then they asked if I was married.
"Why aren't you married yet?" they asked.
"In America, women marry later," I said, which I'm not sure is true.
Next question, "Do you have a boyfriend?"
They are very curious little creatures, opening cupboards and drawers. Yesterday I had the AC on too high for their liking, so they took blankets from my armoire and covered themselves head to toe. Today I offered them watermelon slices and ended up wiping up seeds from the floor. They are rambunctious but lovable.
The girls' English is close to non-existent, so most of our conversations are in Chinese. In some ways, I prefer talking to them because they speak more Chinese to me than some of the adults. Because I am labeled the 'foreign teacher,' I think some adults think I cannot understand Chinese. The adults either don't know enough English to speak to me at all, speak to me in broken English or speak to me in very slow, exaggerated Chinese.
Posted by Jolie at 6:42 AM
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Aug. 23 – I arrived in Lengshuijiang last night. The city has about 200,000 people and the campus of Loudi Foreign Language School is one kilometer from downtown Lengshuijiang.
The apartment is on campus and has more than enough room for one person. There is a living room, office, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and a small back porch where clothes are hung to dry. The building is old but clean. Plus, I have air conditioning, a washing machine and Internet.
The drive from Changsha to Lengshuijiang is only three to four hours but I did not arrive until after 9 p.m. My school liaison and the vice-head master of the school picked me up from Changsha yesterday in the morning. They came with a private driver and took me out to a lunch and then a foot massage.
There is a city called Loudi about one hour’s drive from Lengshuijiang. Both cities are located in the county of Loudi.
We stopped in the city of Loudi for dinner. The roadside restaurant had individual rooms with round tables, rather than one large dining area. We ate a chicken that had been butchered earlier that afternoon, baby shrimp with chopped greens and egg soup.
“Mei you gan,” the vice-head master said, flipping over pieces of chicken with his chopsticks. There is no liver.
He called in the manager, who then flipped over pieces of chicken with chopsticks. It must be chopped up, she said. There’s definitely no liver, the driver said. How do you order a whole chicken with no liver, Mr. Pan said. (I am paraphrasing the conversation because it was all spoken in the local dialect.)
The manager then brought in a small plate with chicken liver, green onion and pepper.
“We just killed a chicken so you could have the liver,” she said.
I ate a piece of the liver that two chickens had to die for.
TOP PHOTO: Apartment building #16 located next to my apartment building. I am in building #15 on the fourth floor.
Aug. 23 - For the first time in three weeks I woke up early enough to go for a run. Today is my last full day in Changsha before leaving for Lengshuijiang.
It was after 6 a.m. when I left the hotel. The sky this morning, as always, was still so overcast I could not tell if the reason was pollution or rain clouds. For once, though, the air was light and cool.
On my way to the school track, street vendors had laid out vegetables on the sidewalk – bitter melon, squash, bunches of leafy greens I had no name for. A butcher hacked at a thick, red chunk of meat on a cutting board set on a cart. Sellers with rolled up sleeves and rolled up pants legs sat on low stools scraping scales off fish, the glistening guts piled on newspaper. A crowd had gathered around a man selling some kind of Chinese medicine. He spoke in a thick Hunanese accent.
I spotted Lai Xiang and Yang Ying, my new friends who work at the hotel, walking toward me.
“We were running,” Lai Xiang said. They had woken up at 5 a.m. and were heading back to the hotel, where they lived, to take a nap before their afternoon shift.
They followed me to the school track and stretched as I ran about five laps before I was winded. We walked back to the hotel.
“Don’t forget me!” Lai Xiang said as we parted ways in the hotel lobby. I promised to call them when I was back in Changsha.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
The largest river in Hunan Province, the Xiang flows through Changsha and eventually into the Yangtze. Along the tree-shaded path by the river, people sit and drink tea. They play chess on grids drawn on the ground or sleep, heads covered with towels, on benches.
Along the Xiang River, I passed men writing Chinese characters on the ground but instead of ink or paint they use water. Sun-darkened men with wheeled carts sold stinky tofu at the curb. Performers in thick make-up performed Chinese opera, while onlookers drank tea, long green leaves sinking to the bottom of paper cups.
In Changsha, between the east and west banks of the Xiang River, is Juzi Dou, or Orange Island. There used to be a charge to enter the island, but now anyone can walk across the bridge and enter what feels like a private yard. The island is named for its orange trees, although I only spot a few trees with round green fruits I think are oranges. I had imagined walking through an orchard and picking oranges straight from the branch.
The broad leaves of bright pink lilies floated in a pond with a fountain. Tour trams were parked below an overpass but there were few people on the island. Most of the people I saw were workers in broad straw hats tending to bushes and lawns. The path next to the water was clean of any garbage. An occasional breeze swept aside the heat.
Aug. 16 – I asked a young woman at the hotel reception about the underground shops in Changsha.
“I take you!” she said with an eager smile.
Her name was Lai Xiang. Nineteen years old, she was tiny, with long bangs that hung over her round face. I said I could figure out how to get to the shops if she gave me directions, but Lai Xiang insisted that she take me herself.
Later in the day, a couple of English teachers and I met Lai Xiang and about ten of her friends in the hotel lobby. We took the #1 bus and got off near what looked like the entrance to a subway.
As we descended the stairs, the thick Changsha heat thinned and an underground world of clothing, shoes and jewelry emerged. T-shirts printed with “Boyfriends are recyclable” or “Vivienne Westwood” (not actually by the designer) were packed into shops the size of walk-in closets.
I ended up with three dresses, each one costing less than $7 U.S. Lai Xiang bargained down the price of each dress to less than 50 percent of the original asking price.
Without windows, we spent two hours underground without noticing the time pass. By that time, all of Lai Xiang’s friends had left to meet with other friends. The only one left with Lai Xiang was Yang Ying, another girl who works at the hotel.
Tired and hungry, we headed to Buxingjie (Walking Street) for a hot pot dinner. In the middle of the table sat the pot of boiling liquids. The pot was split into two to allow for two kinds of broth. On one side was water with dates and ginger for flavor. On the other side was a dark red broth with dried pepper flakes floating on the surface.
We dumped bean sprouts, cabbage, sausage, beef slices, lotus, noodles and dumplings into the pot. As we ate, I thought, Hot pot is Chinese people's soul food.
Aug. 14 -- A ban here on gas-engine scooters means all scooters are powered by electricity and therefore very quiet when people ride them.
After an afternoon of observing classes and then meeting with other teachers in the evening, I headed back to the hotel. I decided to stop first at a nearby shop to buy a bottle of water. Before crossing the street to the shop, I looked left and right and -- when I should have looked left again -- I stepped into the street.
Changsha traffic is not like any traffic in the United States. Even in Chicago, lanes are generally respected. In Changsha, scooters and cars and buses swerve around pedestrians and each other. The concept of right of way does not belong to pedestrians or cars or scooters; rather, everybody believes they have the right of way.
A few people around me shouted before I realized what had happened. Suddenly I was nearly on top of two men riding a scooter. And my right knee was throbbing.
I was still on my feet and touched my knee. No blood. I bent my leg. No broken bones. The men backed up their scooter to check on me.
“There’s no problem,” I said to them in Chinese, and they rode off.
Aug. 12 –Our Chinese teacher said it was a Chinese cultural performance. There will be singing, dancing and comedy, she said. I call it a variety show, emphasis on variety.
In a hall that seated a few hundred, the show opened with young women dancing and holding the ends of bright pink silk that dropped from the ceiling. Fog floated across the stage.
Then, a thin, androgynous man in a tight white suit sang a pop song with back-up dancers (possibly the same women from the opening) wearing cat masks and tight leather outfits.
Then, the host joked around with the thin, androgynous man. I can only tell you they were joking because the audience was laughing. I did not understand the jokes.
And then -- after the jokes, after the leather-clad cat-women dancers – the host narrated the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Against projected images of soldiers in battle, a black and white photo of a heap of massacred bodies during the Rape of Nanjing, the host spoke of the bravery of Chinese soldiers against the Japanese, against the Guomindang in the Civil War and of the great leadership of Chairman Mao. At least, that’s what I gathered from the images and the phrases I picked out. After this grand story-telling, the actor playing Mao walked out into the audience and picked out a few audience members. Again, I did not understand what Mao was saying but gather he was joking because the audience was laughing.
The show returned to more singing and dancing, including a woman who chugged a beer before launching into a slow love song.
Our kung fu teacher, who was with us in the audience, said he was a friend of the host’s and went onstage with a few of the English teachers to demonstrate a kung fu routine. (I got out of going onstage by pretending I was going up and then slipping back into my seat.)
NOTE: I have been battling a proxy snafu that prevented me from accessing my blog, plus intermittent Internet access; thus the flurry of posts now.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Aug. 9 – . Shui Mu Nan Hua is the best club in Changsha -- best in the sense that it is the most expensive and perhaps the flashiest. At the club’s entrance, a lighted staircase winds up alongside a window displaying shelves and shelves of alcohol.
Our Chinese teacher had hired a driver to take us to the club and had reserved a booth. Thin wedges of watermelon were laid out on a platter. Young male attendants poured whiskey and red tea, mixed at our table. We toasted to our visit to China and new friendships.
Young women in black bras and shiny, draping fabric moved from booth to booth taking shots with the men. Although music in English and Chinese blasted, no one was dancing until our kung fu (and dance) teacher arrived. In fact, he did not walk into the club so much as shimmy to our booth.
We were all exhausted from a long week of training and culture shock and jetlag. The pollution and spicy food had taken a toll on most of our bodies.
“Everyone dance one by one!” our Chinese teacher said.
“I don’t dance,” I replied. Not a good enough reply.
One of my teacher’s friends, a chubby man in a white polo shirt, grabbed both my arms and pulled me from the booth.
“Help me,” I mouthed to the two other female teachers in my Chinese class. They stood next to me as the song ended and we waited for the next one to begin. I only hoped the song, if not familiar, had a decent beat to dance to.
Madonna saved us. We all sang along, “I made it through the wilderness ..."
Aug. 9 – The biggest Ferris wheel in Asia is not in Changsha, as we were told by one local. (Singapore has the biggest in Asia and the world.) Changsha’s Ferris wheel, for a price of 50 RMB or $7, still offers the rider a view of the city completely different from ground-level.
To ride the Ferris Wheel, one must enter through the Sea Holic Hotel. A black stretch Hummer with the hotel’s name on its side was parked in front. Five of my fellow teachers and I got off at the fourth floor of the hotel to use the rest room before riding the Ferris wheel.
We entered a bright, glittering dining area. Chandeliers cast a golden light over the few diners there. A grand piano stood in the common area to the rest rooms. The rest rooms themselves were as luxurious. Western-style toilets, cloth hand towels and liquid soap. (I have gotten in the habit of always carrying around toilet paper, antibacterial gel and wet wipes.)
We were the only ones riding the Ferris wheel that night. The wheel is next to a sports stadium and, at the top of the wheel, we could see people inside the stadium practicing formations. As we rose higher and higher, we passed a crane next to the hotel where a building rose from the sidewalk. Below, the lanes of traffic did not look so perilous; from high above, the lights from cars and busses and scooters arranged into beautiful swirling patterns.
From the top of the Ferris wheel, Changsha looked like any other developed city in China. The darkness of night veiled the stained buildings that looked colorless in daylight and the layers of gray smog that always hung in the air. All we could see were the many city lights sparkle.
Posted by Jolie at 9:58 PM
Friday, August 14, 2009
Aug. 7 -- We had front-row seats to the show of the summer – a talent show by summer camp students at Changsha No. One Middle School. The line-up included singing (mostly love songs), dancing (think sequins) and a magic act.
When we looked at the program schedule we realized the fourteenth act in the show was a performance by us, the foreign teachers. No one had told us ahead of time. A group of the foreign teachers got on stage and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” a cappella. (Great job performing on the fly!)
The entire auditorium of students stood up for the finale, “We Will Rock You.” (Video on the way). Queen would be proud.
Posted by Jolie at 9:36 PM
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Aug. 7 - Our Chinese language teacher brought her friend, a martial arts expert, as a guest teacher today. Xi Bei Laoshi gave us a lesson in shaolin kung fu . . . and hip hop dancing.
As he blasted Ne-Yo, Snoop Dogg and Leona Lewis, we pelvic-thrusted and neck-popped our way through most of the two-hour class period.
Near the end of class we finally did have our kung fu lesson. The photo above is from a kung fu lesson he gave to all of the Chinese language classes in a courtyard of Changsha No. 1 Middle School.
NOTE: I have a way to access the blog (at least for now), so I'm planning on updating more regularly.
Posted by Jolie at 7:29 AM
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Aug. 3 – True to my first impression that Changsha does not sleep, the city in the morning was fully awake by the time I was up at 9 a.m. In daylight, Changsha is gray and hot and wet. After walking outside for less than 15 minutes, my face and back were soaked. Whether from the humidity or neglect, the faces of many apartment buildings are ragged with peeling paint. A heaviness presses down.
Cars, scooters and bicycles compete for the road. Small children ride in scooter drivers’ laps, no helmet, no seatbelt. Since my arrival the previous night, I have twice seen a scooter or bicycle nearly careen into one another. Scooters and even cars (illegally) drive on the sidewalk.
At noon, we ate beef noodle soup in a tiny shop near Changsha No. 1 Middle School. The man who works at the shop (and who I think is the owner too) pulled the noodles to order. In his hands, the thick ball of dough was multiplied into a bundle of thin, perfect noodles. A light rain fell as we ate.
Posted by Jolie at 6:24 PM
Aug. 2 - Twenty hours after leaving Chicago, I arrived in Changsha Sunday night. Although probably unknown of by most Americans, Changsha is a big city, with a population of more than 6 million.
Changsha does not appear to sleep. Even at 11 p.m. the streets around the hotel were bustling. People sat on stools drinking cold beer on the sidewalks outside restaurants and even below a street overpass. This “fourth meal” is very popular, and the locals have a strong drinking culture, said Sean, director of teaching, who picked me up from the airport.
I got my first taste of Hunanese food that night and it did not disappoint – fiery hot. Sean and I walked down the street from the hotel to grab a bite to eat. He ordered a dish of pork with green peppers and another of eggplant and green beans with red chili peppers (or as Amy calls it, aubergine and green beans). Both dishes were swimming in oil.
Next to us, a table of people dug into a plate of steamed crawfish. Throughout our meal, a man -- thick glasses covering most of his face and a fanny pack slung around his waist -- came into the restaurant with plates of stinky tofu.
“Chou dofu?” he asked in our direction. I shook my head. I was not ready to try the blackened blocks, at least not that night.
We took a brief walk around the block, Sean pointing out noodle shops, bakeries, antique stores and Changsha No. 1 Middle School, where orientation will be held for the teachers. Within walking distance from the hotel seems to be everything I can imaginably need or want, including American fast food. But my first meal in Changsha was so tasty I think it will be many months before I crave Pizza Hut.
Posted by Jolie at 6:19 PM
NOTE: I have been unsuccessful at breaking through the blocks on websites such as Facebook and Blogger. Someone is publishing my posts for me, so the publish date may be later than the date noted in the posting. Fortunately, I still have access to gmail.
Posted by Jolie at 6:18 PM