Saturday, December 1, 2007

Signing Off:Zaijian!

As I'd anticipated, my last weekend here has proved to be mostly nonstop activity: Almost immediately after returning from the visit to Gongbei I wrote about in my last entry, I was whisked off to dinner with the guys from the Zhuhai propaganda departments and most of the folks who'd gone with us to the Meixi arches and dinner afterwards a few weeks ago. Instead of taking photos, I used the videocamera to record the presentation of some of the dishes and several of the toasts, which were particularly numerous and enthusiastic last night.

At noon Mr. Jeung will be coming by to take C***o, R****i, and me to Cuiheng, a small village about 30 km north of Zhuhai, to see the birth site of Sun Yat Sen (his house has since been torn down, but there's a recreation of it), Tonight there'll be one final dinner, and then I'll finish my packing (how many DVDs can you cram into one suitcase? We'll find out) and turn in early to be well-rested for my flight home. I'll be leaving the campus at 8 for the two-hour drive to Guangzhou, where I'll fly Korea Air to Seoul and change planes there for O'Hare.

I can't really say that the two months have gone by quickly — I've done and seen so much that it somehow feels like I've been in China much longer — but I have a feeling that once I'm back in Chicago I'll wish that I could have stayed here a few more months (and not just because of the ice storm I've heard just hit the city). I'm counting on the pleasure I'll get from seeing all my friends (and boring them with tales of my experiences) and from being home for Christmas to compensate for how much I'll miss Zhuhai, my colleagues, and most of all my students.

Goodbye Gongbei — This Time for Sure!

I'd said goodbye to Gongbei earlier in the week after I made what I'd thought would be my final shopping trip there. But a couple of days ago I remembered that I'd brought the tiny videocamera that I use for work to China with me, and I'd never even used it. So, just in time, I took it to my last class and asked my students to say hello to my family and friends back in America (those of you in Chicago will be able to view it soon, if you'd like).

Encouraged by the results, I realized that video would be by far the best medium to convey the sights and sounds of Gongbei (as well as those of other places I've traveled, but it's too late to revisit them armed with the videocamera). So I went back there this afternoon to document the back alleys and food markets, and I have to say that the results are quite vivid and evocative. After I get back, I plan to edit this post to add one or two of the videos; I've got a full plate awaiting me at home though, and this is relatively low-priority, so don't expect it for several weeks). But again, Chicagoans will be able to see them much sooner than that.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Final Fotos

Since I've only got a couple of more days here in China, I figure it's now or never to post these miscellaneous photos that didn't quite fit into the subjects of any of my previous entries.

The living room of my apartment is very bright, thanks not just to the large sliding glass doors but to the blindingly white floor tiles and white walls that are found in every recently built Chinese home.

Students on their way back from class; most travel on bicycle.

At the beginning of the semester the various student clubs on campus recruited new members one weekend; this, obviously, is the kung fu club.

People here absolutely hate the sun, and use their umbrellas to protect themselves from it. Me, I've been seizing the opportunity to sit on my balcony and bask in it right up until this week, when it finally turned too nippy.

Kids at the Jusco department store in Zhuhai transfixed by a video featuring some anime-derived toy.

Every afternoon after the last class, the field across from my building (my apartment is the one to the right of the one with the white sheet over the railing) is filled with students playing soccer. The smoke in the background comes from a nearby construction site where they're burning rubbish (the smell sometimes got into the laundry that I dried on the balcony, as all Chinese do).

I join hungry students lining up for duck in the dining hall.

Here's the Duck Man (I obviously don't mean Carl Barks).

I quickly grabbed this shot of the sun sinking behind the campus as I left the classroom building after my final lecture last night, on my way to my farewell banquet.

Besides these unused (till now) photos, there are also a number of blog entries I never had a chance to write — for example, I wanted to do one on China's smells, which are everywhere, unlike antiseptic America — but in a few days I'll be blathering about such observations to anyone who'll listen.

I didn't even get to finish all the novels I brought over to read in what I correctly figured would be a fair amount of downtime between classes. I made it through Man's Fate, but I got bogged down about two-thirds of the way through Bleak House, so I turned to something livelier: Huckleberry Finn. Since I don't have any English-language magazines (I was tempted by the latest issue of The Atlantic in Hong Kong, but the price was about US$12), I expect I'll be spending a lot of time with the by-now-tattered paperbacks on the 13-hour flight back.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Final Farewells

My official duties here are now completed: I just finished teaching my last class — the Friday morning session — and after taking this group photo I said the last of my goodbyes to my students (although I expect I might run into some of them around campus this weekend, or at the farewell party the English Club is giving me Sunday night).

The class gave me this lovely scarf, which they said they all took part in knitting (I imagine a sort of student quilting bee). I told them (with some exaggeration) that now I was glad it would be cold in Chicago when I returned, because that would give me the opportunity to wear it.

These two students had heard it's a custom in America to give an apple to the teacher, so they brought these to my final Wednesday class.

I'm glad I took these pictures of each of my classes (note that I'm holding one of the apples in this one); I'm sure I'll be pulling them out (or, since they'll be on the computer, pulling them up) frequently in the coming months when I want to recall the main thing that made these two months in Zhuhai so special.

Yesterday I also gave the last in my series of Thursday-afternoon lectures on various aspects of American culture, this one on holidays. I've especially enjoyed the Q&A portions of these lectures because they gave me an opportunity to interact with the students who aren't in my classes or even enrolled in the Foreign Language department. As is often the case, the questions this week weren't what I expected: I'd thought the audience would ask mostly about the major holidays, especially Christmas, which took up a disproportionate amount of my text (could someone be homesick here?), but they seemed more interested in such minor celebrations as St. Patrick's Day and April Fool's Day (I was asked for examples of pranks they could play on their friends; all I could come up with offhand was taping a "Kick me" sign on someone's back and gluing a coin on the sidewalk).

One student did ask me to sing a Christmas carol, and belive it or not, I complied with an a cappella rendition of "Jingle Bells" — I wish my freinds could have been there to hear that! (Actually, I don't.)

Last night after the lecture the Foreign Language faculty gave me my farewell dinner, a bit earlier than I'd expected because Presdient Wong (I have the place of honor on his left here) was going to be away this weekend. Professor Sun, the department head, is sitting on my left. We went to the same place in the Doumen district, west of the city, where they had said goodbye to my couuntryman Ken a few weeks earlier; it's said to be the best restaurant in the entire district, and after dining there twice I can readily believe it. This will likely be my last chance to post pictures of food, so let me present just a few of the 20 or so courses that we enjoyed:

The meal concentrated on local seafood, including two standbys I never get tired of: these sea snails . . .

. . . and these spiced-up oysters served on the shell.

Each of us was served a portion of what I was told was a "deep sea fish."

Two varieties of chicken: roasted on the right and — I don't know, boiled? Poached? — on the left.

Spicy crab, the likes of which I will not have for a long, long time.

This pork was tender and delicious — and was accompanied by an assortment of spices to dip it in — but it also had a layer of fat as thick as the meat. Sometimes, though, you just have to ignore health concerns.

Many toasts were given, of course, and the pijiu flowed freely. I was repeatedly asked to return to teach again in the future; often such alcohol-fueled statements are insincere gestures, but I have a genuine sense that the offer stands. And as I've said, I sincerely hope that I can take them up on it someday.

Goodbye Gongbei

My final week here has been a heady mixture of melancholy and anticipation. While I'm eager at this point to return to my family and friends, the imminent prospect of leaving Zhuhai behind has been making me feel understandably downhearted.

I even felt sad taking the bus to Gongbei Tuesday afternoon for what I expect will be my final shopping trip here and passing the familiar landscape for the last time — a mood that was enhanced by the sentimental-sounding Chinese tunes playing over the bus's speaker system. My sorrow was tempered by a growing confidence that I'll be coming back to teach here again at some point. But even if I return, I won't be teaching this particular batch of students again (although since they're all freshmen, I may see some of them around campus if I can get back here within three years). You can come back to take a dip at the same spot in the stream, but the water's going to be different then.

The shopping trip turned out to be a bit of a bust: I was hoping to buy some cheap shoes to take back to Chicago, but most of them seemed shoddy even by Chinese-manufacturing standards, I had trouble find ones in my smaller-than-average size, and I couldn't bargain the price down to what I was willing to pay for the second-rate product. My clothes-shopping expectations have been spoiled by the five-story Beijing Silk Market, which offers a better selection, higher quality, and easier bargaining thanks to most vendors' knowledge of basic English.

So, characteristically, I went back to the DVD stalls, where I can always find my size and I've figured out the going prices. By this point, I'd bought all the must-have items, but I picked up a few more music videos they recently added (including Scorsese's Dylan documentary: The extra live performances that weren't included on the PBS broadcast were worth the US$3 alone) and some French classics that I'd passed up because the packaging didn't indicate that they had English subtitles (this time I asked the clerk, who said that the Chinese-language labeling promised them; we'll see).

I walked back to the bus stop through the back alleys that I'd found so exotic (and that I'd photographed extensively) on my first visit there. I still get a huge kick out of the rude, bustling scene — and I'm still stumbling upon alleyways that I hadn't explored before — but they no longer seem so quaint that I feel compelled to pull out my camera every few seconds.

I'll likely be coming back to the city before I leave China next Monday — I think Mr. Jeung wants to see C***o and me one more time — but I don't think I'll be venturing back to Gongbei — at least not this time around.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Hong Kong, Day Two

Even though I'd gone to bed fairly early — before midnight — I managed to sleep until nearly 8 the next morning. Another way that Hong Kong is more Western than it's Chinese is that the inhabitants don't start their day at the crack of dawn (due, I suppose, to how late they stay up). My room was on the second floor, overlooking the street — I hadn't had the presence of mind to request a higher floor when I checked in — and I'd worried about street noise waking me up early (as had been the case in Macau); but the block was surprisingly quiet.

After checking out, I'd thought of getting some congee (rice porridge), since that's what they have for breakfast in all the classic Hong Kong gangster films. But then I remembered that I don't even like congee, so I headed for a nearby coffee shop on Nathan Road instead, where I scanned the latest issue of Time and relaxed to the sounds of smooth jazz. And I felt my first slight twinge of Christmas spirit when they played Ella swinging "Rudolph."

My next stop was going to be the Hong Kong Museum of Art, but it didn't open until 10, which left me with nearly an hour to kill. So I headed for a Starbucks down on Salisbury Road, where I got another cup of coffee, grabbed a Herald-Tribune, and took them over to the harbor promenade. It may not have been as spectacular in the daylight as it had been the night before, but sitting by the water enjoying that great view on a balmy late-November morning, sipping a cup of Joe and reading an actual newspaper rather than a computerized simulation, I experienced a near-transcendent sense of well-being.

The art museum turned out to be hosting a fairly spectacular traveling exhibition of Treasures from the British Museum, but I was nearly as impressed by the permanent collections — devoted entirely to Chinese art — which included calligraphy, painting, and a chronological, well-annotated survey of the nation's ceramics. A gallery on the top floor (which had a nice view of the harbor) was devoted to southern-Chinese painters from Guangdong province.

To the east on the promenade is a fairly new Avenue of the Stars, which consists mostly of slabs in the walkway devoted to the leading lights of the Hong Kong film industry, a la Hollywood Boulevard, many of which include handprints in cement, a la Grauman's Chinese (ah—there's the connection) Theatre. Surprisingly, although they have stars, many of the most prominent figures, such as Wong Kar-Wai, haven't gotten around to making their handprints yet.

By this point, I had exhausted all the must-do activities I'd planned and was beginning to run out of steam. So I walked back toward the ferry terminal by way of Kowloon Park (urban Hong Kong doesn't have nearly as many parks as Macau; this one is a welcome escape from the hectic scene on nearby Nathan Road), an HMV store (where I nearby bought a non-bootleg copy of Jia Zhangke's first feature until I realized that the package didn't indicate whether it was subtitled), and Harbour City, an enormous shopping mall where I'd noticed an inexpensive all-Asian food court (Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian) when I was here a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, I picked wrong and had a barely palatable plate of pad Thai; the view of the harbor was nice, though (even if it looked out at Kowloon rather than Central).

I caught a ferry that got me back to Zhuhai by 5. Despite the common language and short geographic distance, the culture shock couldn't have been much greater if I'd been returning from New York or Paris. After the modern commercial and cultural Mecca of Hong Kong, Zhuhai's grubbiness struck me as disconcerting and off-putting. But by the time I caught the bus back to the campus I'd regained my bearings and my affection for the city — crass as it may be compared to its more glamorous neighbor — was beginning to return.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Hong Kong, Day One

I got up early Sunday morning for my two-day trip to Hong Kong. While the process of getting there from the campus is relatively easy, it takes long enough — a one-hour bus ride to Zhuhai city, a short hop by cab to the port, then an hour-and-a-half ferry — that anything other than an early start would seriously cut into my time there.

Two ferries go from Zhuhai to Hong Kong; one arrives at Hong Kong Island, on the south side of Victoria Harbour, and the other at Kowloon, on the north. I'd planned to take the latter, since the terminal is just a short walk from where I'd booked a room. But when I got to the port in Zhuhai I was told the boat to Hong Kong Island would be leaving in a few minutes, so I decided to take that one instead of waiting another hour to go to Kowloon. I'm glad I did: I hadn't planned to spend any time on the island, which is modern and westernized (at least in the area near the harbor) compared to the more Chinese-feeling districts of Kowloon, but I enjoyed wandering around Soho, a neighborhood in the Central district (south of HOllywood Road) that I remembered from my previous visit ten years ago.

A short walk from Queen's Road Central (a major east-west thoroughfare) leads to the pedestrian escalator (in Cantonese dihn tai, or electric ladder) that carries foot traffic up the steep hills to the Mid-Levels.

The nearby streets are filled with Western restaurants of all varieties (including this Krispy Kreeme doughnut shop). Although the options — from pizza to tacos — seemed alluring, I figured that since I'd be home in about a week (and since it wasn't quite lunchtime), I'd hold out a bit longer before indulging myself in comfort food.

The escalator passes by the Graham Street Market. Although the requisite array of produce and unrefrigerated meat and fish were on display, it seemed a bit tame after the freewheeling markets on the Mainland. Maybe it was the occasional English-language signage or the hilly bisecting streets, but it seemed more like shopping on Stockton Street in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Since there's no Thanksgiving here to give them the official go-ahead, the shopping malls were just now getting around to putting up their Christmas decorations.

Landing on Hong Kong Island gave me another opportunity to take the Star Ferry to Kowloon.

The view across the harbor to Hong Kong Island remained magnificent.

I'd originally thought of booking a room in the Chungking Mansions — the grungy cluster of guesthouses depicted in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express — but I chickened out and booked a room at a nearby place that was slightly more respectable and nearly as cheap, just a few blocks off Nathan Road, Kowloon's main north-south drag.

The room was spartan and as small as any I've ever stayed in — even standing outside the doorway, I couldn't get far enough away to shoot the entire room — but it was spotless and comfortable. The price was certainly right, just HK$300 (about US$38).

I decided to get some background for my exploration of the city by beginning at the Hong Kong Museum of History, which is larger, newer (it opened in 2001) and more elaborate than its counterpart I'd visited in Macau.

After a couple of hours at the museum, I walked north towards the Mongkok district. It don't know if it was a Sunday-only thing, but a number of large east-west roads were closed to auto traffic, and pedestrians were taking full advantage of having the street to themselves.

The last time I was here, I regretted not making it to the famous bird garden . . .

. . . where (mostly elderly) men take their feathered pets out for a walk and while the time away chatting (presumably about avian topics)..

Adjacent to the bird garden is Flower Market road, where locals come to buy — surprise — cut flowers.

A park near the bird garden has public ping pong tables.

It looks as though the ballet and foot boxing may be taught in the same facility.

By this time it was getting near dusk, so decided to walk back to Nathan Road and head south to the Temple Street Market, the city's most famous night market. I figured I wouldn't buy anything — the Mainland prices make even Hong Kong's best bargains seem wildly overpriced, and most of the clothes for sale weren't anything I'd be seen wearing anyway — but I knew I'd enjoy the lively scene.

I'd read there were some shops on Temple Street selling bootleg DVDs, but I figured the prices would be so much higher than on the Mainland that I wouldn't do more than browse. The pre-bargaining prices were indeed about twice those in Zhuhai — just over US$3 each — but nonetheless I bought a few music DVDs, including the new release of Bob Dylan's early appearances at the Newport Folk Festival, as well as some nicely packaged sets that crammed the entire oeuvres of Wim Wenders, Antonioni, and Ki-Duk Kim onto three discs apiece (now I can catch up on the early works that I'd missed in the Film Center's Antonioni series earlier this year).

The outdoor dining scene was tempting, but rather than join the diners here, I decided to vary my usual fare. If I was going to pay Western prices, I felt, I may as well have some Western food. Actually, I didn't venture all that far west: I opted for a mutton curry at a Pakistani restaurant not far from Temple Street.

A large reason I'd wanted to return to the city after the brief day trip I made with C***o and R***i a few weeks ago was to bask in the visual splendor of Hong Kong at night, especially the dazzling neon signage.

Although the increasing commercialization of the Mainland is producing similar scenes, especially in the largest cities, there's still nothing quite like that to be found in Hong Kong.

Some of the swank retailers on Nathan Road are decked out for the holidays.

I topped off the evening with my absolute favorite thing about Hong Kong: the nighttime view of Central and Wan Chai from the promenade along Victoria Harbour. My piddly little Kodak point-and-shoot can barely suggest the magnificence of this vista, which I strongly feel to be one of the absolute glories of modern civilization. I was tempted to purchase a postcard of the view and take a photo of that for posting; but since it's probably one of the world's most-photographed scenes — a guess borne out by the dozens of shutterbugs I saw with tripods and decent equipment along the promenade — I'll have no trouble locating an image any time I want to remember it.

Heading back to my guesthouse, by this time — nearly 11 — I was pretty well exhausted from my day's ramblings. But even at this late hour — and on a Sunday, no less — I was amazed at the number of shops that were still open: not just tourist traps and convenience stores, but clothing boutiques and other retailers.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

My Students

I was all set today to blog about my two days in Hong Kong, but I'm experiencing a recurrence of the problem uploading photos that I experienced earlier in my stay here. So while I'm waiting for that to resolve itself (as it always eventually does), I'm going to write a little bit about my students — who are, after all, the reason I came here.

Most of my postings have been about a selective group of topics — traveling, hiking, restaurants — that must make it seem like I'm on an extended vacation here. But I've been devoting a good portion of my time to my teaching activities — not just conducting the classes, but also preparing lessons (made more difficult by my unfamiliarity not just with the textbook but with teaching methods) and writing my weekly lectures on American culture.

Although I initially approached my duties with some trepidation, I have to say that the experience has been an unalloyed delight. When I arrived, several Foreign Language faculty members warned me that the students here were a disappointment compared to the harder-working, more intellectually gifted ones that you'll find at more-prestigious schools, including Jilin University's main campus. While that may be true — they certainly don't share the single-minded dedication to their studies that I've seen among the young scholars in Ling's family — I've found most of the youngsters here to be dedicated to their studies and ambitious about their futures, especially in comparison to their American counterparts.

The students in my classes — they're all freshmen, since this is the Foreign Language department's first year — seem so much younger than the ones back home: less worldly and more enthusiastic. Unlike in the States, where attending college seems to be a given after graduating from high school, they view higher education as a treasured opportunity that, if they do well, can open the door to a good job, the chance to experience other cultures (that's a big reason most of them selected this major), and the ability to provide for their parents later on (filial piety, one of the Confucian virtues, remains huge here).

Their childishness — they strike me as more like high-schoolers than college students — and lack of guile — it would never occur to them to try to act like sophisticated adults now that they've left home — brings out a paternal affection on my part. That feeling seems to be mutual: I find many of them confiding in me in a way that I'm certain they don't with the other teachers. One girl (and as I've said before, I use that word consciously: It's nigh impossible to think of them as grown women) confided in me over lunch about her frustration over her parents' orders not to have a boyfriend until she graduates. And several students who aren't even in my classes have struck up conversations with me to express regrets over their choice of a major (a common complaint, since students have to pick their field of study at age 17, at the time they enroll in college); none of the upperclassmen are able to be Foreign Language majors, since the department didn't exist when they entered the school.

I enjoy all my students, but my Thursday class is probably my favorite; their overall level of English fluency is a bit higher, which makes it easier to engage them. Last week as I walked in, they called out in unison “Happy Thanksgiving Day.”

During the mid-period break they presented me with this oversized card they'd made; everyone in the class signed it with such messages as "Wherever you go, we will keep you in mind forever," "Thank you for giving such an unforgettable experience to me," and "You're our 'family member' forever."

A student in another of my classes gave me this album with two photos she'd taken with her cell phone camera (the rest of the book was filled with "Love Is..." cartoons).

Now that I'm starting my last week of classes, I'm feeling strong pangs at the prospect of abandoning my young charges (and a bit of guilt at taking off before the semester's over, which makes the separation harder for the students). I assume that "real" teachers develop a sense of detachment that makes it easier to leave their students behind each year. If I ever do this again — and I hope to — I'm going to have to master their catch-and-release approach.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Hilly Hike

The American I met a few weeks ago (whom I've tried e-mailing at the address on his business card, but the messages kept getting returned; I think John's guess that he's CIA might be right) told me that there was a road going up to the top of one of the nearby mountains, and after my morning classes Wednesday I thought I'd investigate.

To get to the road, I had to cut through the apartment complex next to the South Gate restaurants, which is continuing to add new buildings. The scaffolding around this one, like that seen in other construction in China, is not metal but bamboo.

This poster seems rather ominous; can Ling, or anyone else, explain it?

Earlier I mentioned how common banana trees are around here. They're even found in the middle of a residential complex.

A short walk through the residences took me to the narrow road — barely wide enough for a single car — leading up the mountain.

After walking less than five minutes, the road already rose over the tops of a group of high-rise apartments next to the newer complex.

For some reason I'd thought that the road went straight up to the top of the mountain; but instead it took a gentle, gradual incline. It's a popular hiking path; I saw about a dozen other people on my two-and-a-half hour walk.

The route wrapped itself around the entire mountain, offering views in various directions.

The campus lay in the distance to the east. In this hazy telephoto shot, my faculty-housing building is on the left in front.

On the other side of the mountain I could barely make out the sea and nearby islands in the distance.

Below are some of the small factories along the highway to San Zao; the town is further in the distance but not visible in this picture.

There was virtually nothing here to remind me that I was in China; it resembled a bucolic country road back home.

This appears to be a trail that goes off from the road into the woods. If I make it back here, before I leave China, I might just see where it goes. . . .

. . .or maybe not, since (judging from the exclamation mark) this might just be a warning sign nailed to a nearby tree.

I'm guessing I walked maybe 4 or 5 km when I decided I'd better turn around; it was getting near dusk, and I didn't want to be stuck finding my way back in the dark. I'd hoped to travel to the end of the road, where I suspect it comes out on the other side of the mountain (two or three cars had driven by me without returning), but that'll have to wait for another hike. By the time I reached the bottom, it was barely light enough to take this shot to give you an overall view of the mountain.

I decided to walk back by way of the South Gate restaurants, with the vague hope that I'd run into some of my students and join them for dinner (the all-text menus make it nigh impossible for me to dine there by myself). But I hit the jackpot when I met a fellow teacher who was on her way to join some of the other Foreign Language faculty members for dinner and invited me along.

We went to the same restaurant I'd been to twice before (I've forgotten the Mandarin name, but it translates to Night of the Dream), which by all accounts is by far the best one in the shopping center (most of the others are small storefront ones with a limited menu).

No pictures of the dishes this time, since many of them were ones I'd had (and shot) previously. But I was honored with many toasts, which my fellow diners used my camera to document.

When our host, Professor Sun (with whom I'm toasting here), bought the last two bottles of beer (this was after most of the food had already been eaten and I'd thought we were getting ready to leave) I made a token demurral, noting that I had to teach a class tomorrow morning; but since nearly everyone else had an earlier class than mine, my objections were ignored (as they would have been under any circumstances).