Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A SATURDAY NIGHT OUT ON THE TOWN

Last Friday Zoe offered me seven tickets to a 4-D movie. Being rather ignorant of the goings-on at theme parks these days, I, naturally, was rather curious about a film which included the fourth dimension. I mean, how did Shiyan manage to not only settle the muddy waters of what actually constitutes the fourth dimension, but also include this dimension in a movie-watching experience? I was intrigued until I found out that by fourth dimension, they meant combining a 3-D film with physical effects. Well, actually, I remained intrigued despite my mild disappointment (and my feeling that the term "4-D" should not be used to apply to something that clearly does NOT include the fourth dimension as we understand it). Anyway, what kind of physical effects, I wondered, would this little movie theater include in the 3-D viewing experience? In spite of all attempts to avoid getting my hopes up, I became pretty excited. John, Megan, Finn, Zoe, Zoe's friend and I decided to check out the Saturday night eight o'clock showing of this 4-D marathon of short films (four in all) that lasted a total of forty-five minutes. 3-D glasses in hand, we found our seats fairly close to the screen but off to the side enough that only some of the graphics were 3-D while the others were merely blurry. We figured that for the price of ten kuai (the cost of the glasses), we got about a 2 1/2-D experience, and about as close as we got to the physical effects supposedly added to the 3-D film was the feeling of trash crunching beneath our feet and Zoe clinging to my arm when demons jumped out at us. The movie projector was hooked up to a computer, and at the most climactic moment during each of the short films, someone minimized the screen, stopped the film, and opened up the next one. Despite being left without any resolution to three of the four films, it was quite an enjoyable experience.

After the movie, we decided to walk for awhile through town (mostly because there was nothing else to do). While walking we came upon a car wreck. It didn't appear too serious, but the cars were blocking two lanes of traffic. A crowd of gawkers had gathered around the wreck with the intention, so it would appear, of making traffic-flow even more congested and clean-up of the wreckage more difficult. We watched the scene for some time with Megan shouting frustrations at the chaos which came from inpatient drivers who saw an opening in traffic and went for it, only to make everything more convoluted and impossible.

After the wreck scene, we made our way to People's Square where we are always promised opportunities for good times and new experiences. Finn joined a game of Chinese hacky sack, while the rest of us did some people watching. There are always groups of people dancing in the square in the evenings, and we derive great joy from watching them. Of course, when you watch them, you always risk the chance of being pulled into a dancing routine with one or two bold dancers who think it might be fun to teach a foreigner how to dance. On this particular evening, an older man invited me to dance. I initially declined but have learned that in China there is no sense (or success!) in declining anything so I conceded and joined him in the middle of the dance floor. He was a good leader and patient with me. Toward the end of the song, I actually felt like I was doing a halfway decent job of following his lead. It reinforced my desire to take dance lessons in the future...when I have the right partner.

It was a good evening, and I was reminded of how much I genuinely enjoy being out in the evenings, especially in Shiyan. I love this city.

In closing, let me leave you with these words of wisdom from one of my students, "If you are bright, you needn't know so much." (I don't understand it either.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

THROAT COAT AND OTHER ESSENTIALS

When foreigners first move to China, we witness many things that cause us bewilderment and trepidation. With time, however, we come to trust in this system of disorder as its own kind of order - one to not question and certainly one to not over-analyze. In our first weeks here, we hesitantly cross the street patting ourselves on the back each time we make it to the other side safely. After awhile, however, we realize that crossing the street is not something we do successfully, but something we are a part of - a mere leaf in a flowing river of traffic that looks chaotic and terrifying but is actually rather fluid and beautiful. Lots of little things make us think, in the beginning, how fortunate we are on a daily basis to avoid injury or embarrassment. Things that shouldn't work, do. Condemned theme parks are open for business, and everyone survives the dilapidated rides intact. Accidents occur directly in our path and we remain unscathed. Taking a walk down the street promises countless opportunities to find oneself in the line of a hawked loogie, a fountain of pee or a waterfall of dirty mop water tossed out from shop doors or off the roofs of buildings. After two years of avoiding anything other than apparent "close-calls," I had settled myself comfortably into a feeling of nothing less than a sincere trust in this system of living. When new foreigners commented on near run-ins with speeding taxis or defecating children, I internally smiled at their distrust and fear of this beautiful system that gives one the feeling of living dangerously without the chance of any real danger. My whole sense of how to function in China lies in my belief that becoming a player in this system rather than trying to react to it ("No hesitation" being my mantra as I cross the street) was brought crashing down last Friday. As Halley and I were standing outside Happy Guy's peer pressuring Zoe into skipping her weekend classes to come with us to the ladies' retreat in Xiangfan, a couple drops of water hit the top of my head. These weren't indicators of a rainy evening ahead but, rather, dire warnings of what was about to befall us - warnings we didn't heed, ignored warnings that would haunt me and shake my belief in this system of "close calls but no cigars" (haha In Chinglish this phrase rhymes.). A few seconds later, we were showered with dirty mop water containing no less than twenty five different strains of bacteria - a third of which remain unidentifiable to the modern world. I should insert here that we were, thankfully, not drenched by this water, having missed the greatest portion of it by a few feet. However, bullets of water hit me directly in my right eye as a result of poor reaction time on my part, and my eyesight became blurry for just long enough that I was sure I would be blind within the hour and spend the rest of my life explaining that my loss of eyesight was due to some dirty mop water thrown off the top of a building in a small city in China. Having believed beforehand that it was a part of the system to often be close enough to the water being thrown from a doorway to think "Yikes! Too close," but far enough to never actually be hit, I was, not surprisingly, a little shaken up after finally being hit. My whole faith in the system was brought down. I timidly crossed the street shortly after this incident and was slightly more wary of other potential disasters awaiting me. I have since had my faith restored in the system and count that one terrifying encounter as a fluke. The odds, I believe, are still in my favor.

Speaking of close calls, Jessica and I almost missed our train back from Xiangfan last night. Now this goes far beyond the inconvenience of having to wait for the next train to leave or the annoyance of paying for another ticket; our faces were on the line. Had we missed our train, we would have had to shamefully admit this to the very Xiangfanren who had two weeks prior missed the Shiyan stop (on their way to visit us and to participate in our sweet 80s Halloween party) and ended up in AN KANG (the worst, most demonic city in China and, perhaps, the world). Quite rightfully so, we have enjoyed giving the Xiangfan people a hard time about the fact that they missed our stop since it's only two stops from their city, and they've been here before multiple times. So, you can see, had Jessica and I missed our train home, we would have not only had to admit this to the Xiangfan folks, but we would have had our rights to continue mentioning their own train stop foible revoked, thereby taking away much future enjoyment for ourselves. This is what happened: we lost track of time at Carie's apartment and emerged into the busy intersection to catch a taxi right at shift change time. So as empty taxis whizzed past us waving us off, minutes whizzed by giving us twenty minutes until our train left when finally a good Samaritan picked us up. The taxi ride took fifteen minutes, the fight with the taxi driver over money took some additional precious seconds, and the distance to the train station on foot (because the taxi driver dropped us off too far from the front door, and our Chinese isn't sufficient enough in the heat of the moment to say, "You stop when we TELL you to stop.") added an anxiety filled half minute. When we got to the station, we had five minutes until the train departed. Since nearly all Xiangfan to Shiyan trains are late by half an hour or so, we thought we might fall into the good graces of what is on other occasions a frustrating delay. But all the information boards said our train was on time. At some point we began to run. We got to the small gate, and it was closed. All the passengers had boarded. We spotted some workers sitting over in a corner and did our friend Carie's famous arm-flailing, taxi driver-attention getter, and the workers rushed to our rescue. They asked a woman to see if the train was still here, and it was! They let us through the small gate, and we rushed down the hallway to a large locked gate where a worker majestically threw open the gigantic metal doors, and light from heaven shone glaringly through them as our salvation was waiting for us to board. We thrust our tickets into the faces of one of the workers asking for car 13, and he told us to just board! The stairs had been removed already so we hoisted ourselves into the car, trudged through a couple cars looking for ours, gave up on the search and, instead, found a couple empty seats where we were and collapsed into them heaving from exertion. So the end of this story is 1) we saved our schedule, 2) we saved some money, and 3) we saved our very precious faces.

We were in Xiangfan this weekend for our annual fall ladies' retreat. It was a great experience. We have such amazing sisters and "friends." I wish I could go into so much detail. I often feel this frustration that the things I most want to blog about, the people and the incredible things they say and do, are the very things I am unable to express. At any rate, the retreat was a blessing to all of us, and it was awesome to see our Father's hand in it all.

When we arrived in Shiyan last night around ten thirty, we took a taxi home. As we drove through campus, we noticed how eerily dark it was. There were no lights on anywhere - a sure sign that we would be roughing it when we got home. Indeed, the entire campus was without electricity and water and had been for the majority of the day. James was nice enough to welcome Jess and me home with a little flashlight shining through the stairway, and I was reminded of His Providence in even the smallest of affairs: earlier in the week I received care packages from loved ones back home who had sent me candles that proved essential last night. The electricity and water were both turned on mid-morning, and a long, hot shower is beckoning me.

This morning I awoke with a sore throat. Again, thanks to a care package, I've been drinking throat coat tea all morning and afternoon. It's great stuff. It's getting much colder here. I wore five layers of clothing this morning. I may have slightly overdone it (even the Chinese said it was too much, and that never happens), but I was warm and quite comfortable.

We were honored to have breakfast with one of our favorite former Shiyan people today. Since the girls went to Xiangfan this weekend, the boys in Xiangfan, Will and William, decided to come to Shiyan. We're happy they could afford the trip and that William stayed an extra day so we could get together and talk about the great qualities of our respective cities.

It's time for me to plan this week's classes. Mondays are my prep days, and this one has been interrupted by several oral English final exams I scheduled for the afternoon. My question for the day is why is the weather always nicest (the sky has just turned blue, and the sun has emerged - something I haven't seen in so long I can't remember the last time) when I can't go outside to enjoy it?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

ELECTION FEVER

It's strange to be living outside the States during a presidential election. I definitely appreciate staying clear of all the nasty ads, comments, and tainted news reports and very much enjoy sifting through articles and positions independent of the overwhelming pressure of information overload. But there's a certain political energy lacking during this exciting time in American history, and I can't help but think how different my Tuesday in America would have looked compared to my Tuesday in China.

Tonight Jessica and I joined the Brelands at the medical school for a celebration of democracy in action. There were lots of good activities: watching Obama's 2004 DNC speech, the famous "Yes, We Can" speech, and today's acceptance speech; participating in a democratic voting process to decide among four activities which two we would like to do (though they were all good activities so we did three of the following four - Pin the Lips on the Pig, Obama trivia, Youtube your favorite George W quote, and play poker/nertz); and, finally, watching the movie Recount of the 2000 Florida fiasco.

I began a new sophomore non-English major class yesterday. The students are quiet but intelligent and interested. We spent the first part of class chatting about various things. At one point, I asked them, "Does anyone know what happens in America tomorrow?" After a long pause, a boy sitting in the front row whispered, "Change." Truer words were never spoken.

Our Finer Things Book Club has been reading Jesus for President this month. Although, I'm not impressed at all with Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw's presentation of their beliefs in this book, their idea that mingling our faith with politics often leads to a compromised faith more often than a faith-filled political body is not far off. There is a problem when we depend on our worldly leaders to dictate faith. There is a problem when we think God's kingdom is dependent upon who leads a powerful earthly kingdom. I've been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and today I read the following passage which I thought fitting:

I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts it at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

I'm thankful to be part of a spiritual kingdom whose leader is just and righteous, where there are no term limits and no swinging political pendulum. My allegiance lies in this kingdom not made with hands. How awesome that we serve such an amazing King who loves us and pleads with us to love others. May we bless our Father with praise and service!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A HODGEPODGE

Activities are increasing, demands are growing, and life is generally more hectic right now. I recently finished two seven week classes and am beginning two more this week. The Third World Traditional Wushu Championship has finally descended on Shiyan, and the entire city will be heaving a big sigh of relief in a couple days when it is officially over and is officially declared a success. Halloween activities went off without a hitch, thus ringing in the ambiguous Holiday Season. Foreign friends from Wuhan and Xiangfan have graced our homes with their presence for the past two weekends, and the weather has suddenly turned warm. That's a small summary of recent life in Shiyan for those of you weary of my long entries. For the rest of you, here come the details...

THIRD WORLD TRADITIONAL WUSHU CHAMPIONSHIP

There aren't words to adequately express my feelings about this event. Imagine rumors of hundreds (if not thousands) of foreigners from around the world coming to Shiyan yet running across no more than four or five of them the entire duration of the competition. Picture a third of our English majors missing classes for three weeks for "Volunteer Training" only to hold signs for the foreign teams or to reel in frustration that no one on the foreign team they represent can speak English. And, finally, imagine walking down a familiar street and seeing an entire NEW block of buildings that couldn't have been there the week before. This is just the beginning. It's a strange feeling to always be regarded as a foreigner in a city you know better than, at the very least, the new students who come to Shiyan for college. But it's an even odder feeling when you are regarded as a very specific kind of foreigner - one who has undoubtedly come for a week to participate in the Wushu festival. People look at you differently as you walk by them on the street. They shout "Welcome to Our China" when you've been living here for years. They look at you with wonderment trying to figure out how you fit into the Wushu Competition, and you want to respond to everyone who gives you this look, "I'm a Shiyan People!!!" It's also a strange feeling to contribute to the success of the Wushu Championship in very tangible ways (correcting Chinglish signs, being human dictionaries for those involved in the event, teaching students Spanish because they happen to be representing a Spanish-speaking team, teaching Shiyan people English via TV, and being patient with our students who have missed tons of classes and activities to learn how to walk elegantly in front of a group of people) only to be royally snubbed by the powers that be who promised tickets to, if not the opening ceremony, at least a competition here or there. So, The Third World Traditional Wushu Championship is coming to an end, and our feelings of being under-appreciated will subside eventually. I'm happy for the honor it brought to MY little city. I'll claim HER even if she doesn't claim me.

WEEKEND VISITS

We've been blessed the last two weekends with foreign visitors from Wuhan (last week) and Xiangfan (this week). Carole and Daniel came first bringing joy and laughter into our homes, and Carie, Will and Brittany followed bringing music and kindred spirit moments.

SHOPPING

After two years of living in China, I have finally bought an article of clothing. I avoid shopping for clothes like the plague which is easier to do in a country where the size large in anything is too small for me. I've heard too many stories about the horrors of shopping (being told that there's nothing in the store that would fit you, being dressed by the shop assistants, being watched by other customers) that I have successfully boycotted clothing shopping for my entire stay here. But all things must come to an end, and with a big rip on Saturday, my jeans met the beginning of theirs. I had planned to buy some jeans Saturday anyway, but during our weekly girls brunch, I talked myself out of it. Then came the rip, and it just felt like kismet so we went shopping, and through the aid of my sisters, I found a pair of jeans that will work. Done and done.

HALLOWEEN

We planned an 80s theme party for Halloween this year. You'd be surprised how easy it is to buy 80s styles in China (or to dig through old clothes I brought to China and find appropriate clothing - which is sad, really). It was a fun party - lots of goodies, lots of family, lots of laughter. For my birthday this year, the foreigners in the city gave me the most amazing gift, and I'd like to share it with you all. I contemplated not posting the video because I don't want to put my friends on display, but what they did so touched me and is such an inspiration that I want to share it. I am so honored to work among these fine brothers and sisters and so blessed they are a part of my life.


video