Tuesday, November 30, 2004

lazy Tuesday morning thoughts

I love weekdays - i can be as lazy ass'd as i want to be.

Attempted to watch "Collateral" with Tom Cruise ;) last night with Peta in her flat. Her DVD player is a unique one: it only plays the background sound, there is no dialogue except for the subtitles. So strange, we even tried another movie but with the same results. We didn't feel like reading at all, so we watched it in my flat. Sometimes i love the fact that we live so close to one another. Went to bed around 3:30am and woke up at around 9.... It's great to not have to go into work until much later. I'm quite enjoying the absolute freedom we have at EF to come and go as we please. As long as our planning and prep work gets done before the mad rush on the weekends and you do your extra chores during the week, nobody bothers you. So far today, i've been playing guitar, baking banana bread (susi's business class is cooking dinner here tonight and she promised to have desert for them courtesy of me), writing, surfing, eating.

As i had predicted, the spa was fantabulous last Friday. Cheap (about $10CDN in all) and fun, this is certainly a great way to endulge and do some serious self-care. Laura and i went from hot showers to hot tub to sauna to steam room. Last time Laura went, she put up a fuss about being naked and after a lot of persuasion, she was allowed to wear her bathing suit. However, because she was alone (her BF Ryan was in the male section of the bathhouse) she found it a bit awkward to be amongst naked Chinese women who were lounging around the hot tub and sauna. And according to her, some were completely liberal and then some about giving her full frontal views, legs spread and all. Nice. So we got to wear our bathing suits without any opposition this time since they recognized her. For about $3CDN extra, we got a full body exfoliation, where i swear they scrub every single square inch of your body and without giving graphic details, one has got to be utterly comfortable with one's body in order to fully appreciate this experience. However, at this point we were told to take off the bathing suit, oh well, when in Rome... After getting up from the table and upon seeing all my dead skin she had sloughed off, i was totally disgusted. After another hot shower with hair salon shampoo and soap, we were given soft yellow cotten pj's, yellow underwear and yellow slippers. We were then showed upstairs to the dining room, reunited with the boys who were adorned in cute blue pjs and blue slippers and probably blue undies. After sinking into a chair from pure elatedness, awaiting us was a full buffet spread - unbelievable! There was soups, noodles, rice, fruit, fish, chicken, tofu, veggies, cold appetizers, DESERT, drinks..

I rushed home afterwards to welcome Mikal, the new teacher from Czech. First impression: tall tall taller. He towers over everyone at 6'5. Great sense of humour, has been in Australia for the past few months, has travelled in US, Malaysia, all over Europe, loves nature, skiing, cycling. First time in China, he marvels at the little quirks that make China CHINA. Ie: the clap on lights. To save electricity, many of the lights in the offices and stairwells of buildings are sounds sensitive. To turn them on, you can clap your hands, stamp your foot, or as i've heard some people do: yell "HAAAMMPHH". WHen Mikal discovered this light system, he was quite amused and giggly. Funny how quirky things like that become the norm so quickly.

Sunday night was Ken's birthday. After teaching 4 full blocks, which is 8 hours of actual teaching time, (my first time where i haven't had a break in between, quite intense and i've gotta learn to pace myself or i'll burn out by my last class), we all went across the road to the ORANGE STREET BAR for some drinks. It was a great ol' time, we spent 1299 yuan which is quite excessive even for us foreign folk, but hey it was fun. At this bar, they have live musical acts that play a set or two, and then different people come on. In between acts, Ken and i jumped up and played a little duo. Me on the ivory keys and Ken on some guy's guitar. He attempted to sing also, which basically means him ad-libbing words on the spot - hysterical, and upon reflection, a bit embarassing. I honestly don't remember exactly what we were playing but after a few minutes we were politely told to leave the stage. At least we weren't kicked out.

Sunday was also Tonia's birthday, the Centre Manager of EF Urumqi. She came to the bar with some of the other girls, and we toasted her with rounds of vodka shots. Chinese women/girls have this cutsie way of having fun. I don't know how to explain it, but it's like this innocent/naive/selfless nature that is very girly and giggly. One of the course consultants (CC's are assigned to various classes at EF to be the liaison between the teachers and parents), Amy, would perform this little dance number after each shot, she would stand up, kinda shake her boobs and do this batwoman thing. You have to see it, but she would make the "peace sign" with her two hands and sort of wave them across her face. God, it was funny.

I had two of my kiddie classes finish this weekend. During the span of one course which consists of 16 classes, there are two parent observation opportunities. One happens in the middle of the course and the second one happens during the last class. These two classes i was co-teaching with a local teacher, but parents only observe the foreign teacher's class (something i don't agree with to begin with, but anyways). So during my parents obs, we played games, handed out candy prizes, sang songs and i gave out progress reports to the students. And then parents can ask questions about their child and sign up for the next level. It was my first time ending a class and it was so chaotic. Every mother and father, and sometimes the grandparents come too (!) want to know everything about their child, and i get the feeling that all they want to hear is the foreign teacher boasting in front of the other parents about how hard-working and bright and amazingly god-like their child is. Maybe someone might say i'm exaggerating but honestly i don't think i'm too far off. The pressure is unbelievable for these kids to excel to the standards that their parents and society places upon them.

This rat race to be successful and maintain individual pride and consequently, family dignity, is contagious, equally competitive, and a lot of times it can lead to a detrimental lack of self-confidence and just a miserable state of being. I see how the young kids have a spark and glow in their eyes, but my older students, the teens and especially the adults, tend to be more like robots on auto-pilot, gliding from school to school to textbook to workbook to exams to work. I gave my adult class an assignment last week to do something FOR THEMSELVES, anything that makes them happy, just for 1 hour the entire week. One student played basketball, another had a birthday dinner celebration for her Grandma, one went out to eat with her parents, one went shopping. During the last half hour of class I taught them the lyrics to Hotel California by the Eagles. It's quite popular here in Urumqi and they wanted to learn an English song. Variety is great and sometimes the textbook is a bit dry. I brought my guitar as did Hugh, a student in the class, and we had a sing-a-long at the end, funfun!

I'm still trying to unravel the layers of Chinese people and figure out what it is that makes them so hard to read on the outside, and if and how they are striving to this so-called success. As an outsider, i'm frustrated at the fact that they seem to internalize this pressure coming to them at all angles, but from what i gather, the most destructive is the pressure that they self-impose for whatever reasons. Peta was telling me that as of today, there are no trained psychologists in China! But despite it all, there is this intriguing facet of Chinese people that binds them together, that of national pride. And the powers that be up in Beijing try so desperately to keep these outlying provinces and minority groups under their iron fist as much as possible. But the more you force it, the more assertive people can become and thus why the Uyghurs here cling so dearly to their Uyghur identiy by defining themselves NOT as what Uyghurs ARE but what they are NOT. And what they are not is Chinese.

Perhaps this opening sentence in the CHINESE History course textbook here at the University of Xinjiang will illustrate what i'm trying to say:
"Xinjiang is an inseperable part of our great and glorious motherland."
- What does one say to that? -

Friday, November 26, 2004


Yesterday i spent the day hiking in the comfort and solitude of the NANSHAN Mountains (literally SOUTH MOUNTAINS).

I went with Peta, Michael and George (Dora's brother) and after spending about an hour trying to figure out where to take the bus from, we finally were able to purchase tickets (for 7 yuan each way!!! just a little over $1CDN).

At the bus station, we were having trouble communicating, so one of the women called her husband on the cell phone who spoke exceptional english and we were able to figure things out that way.

I think i had most of the people in the station's attention: me, a chinese- looking girl, shouting (literally) into the cell phone in english and then passing the phone through the wired mesh that separated me and the ticket seller, who would then yell into the phone and nod occasionally, and then hand the phone back to me.. and i thought cell phones were such a nuisance!

In any case, we eventually reached Nanshan and were awarded with stunning scenery (towering pine trees, crunchy snow paths, a little river with a frozen surface but with running water underneath it still). The sun was out and blaring - the first time since i've arrived in Urumqi were i actually could FEEL the heat on my face.

We walked for a few hours without seeing another soul. One Kazakh man approached us in the beginning of our hike to see if we wanted to rent his horses to go up the mountain. Perhaps next time. All in all, it was a fabulous day.

We drank from the river, breathed fresh fresh air, ate our picnic lunch, had a strenuous yet satisfying cardio workout, threw 1 fen (10 fen = 1 jiao; 10 jiao=1 yuan, 1 yuan=$6.2 CDN) into the river and made a wish, ... Peta was wishing we had some whiskey with us since the snow, which was like the consistency of sand, but clear-coloured, would have provided some good ice shavings for a good drink. Instead we had some fags and cigars, good nuff.

Upon return, we had to go LOOKING for somewhere to eat.

Now this is in a country where food stalls and restaurants pop up like weeds (not to mention shut down also), but we had to actually go looking for someone to feed us - a definite first for me in China. I remembered seeing a row of little houses so we ventured that way, crossed a rickety bridge and i went 'knocking' on one of the doors. Turns out that family often feeds weary travellers.

So into their Kazakh home they invited us in, where we sat on these gorgeous Kazakh rugs, surrounded by fluffy pillows and mattresses which they prop up during the day so that they can sit around a low-rise table. Of course there is almost no corner of the world where televisions are not part of the expected decor of a home, so there we were eating little snackey foods, horse meat (DELICIOUS!), mutton kewabs, and drinking milk tea, all the while watching Kazakh music videos which i would bet are from the 80's era.

After our meal, we all had a little repose before we set out to catch our bus. I was a bit worried/ skeptical that the bus driver wouldn't come back and pick us up, only because i was not confident of my language skills.

But suddenly out of nowhere, still with nobody in sight, the blue minibus came roaring down the dirt road two minutes before our scheduled pickup time! What's this ON TIME business??? Another first in China! Ok, it's not that bad, but i was definitely impressed.

Today, i paid a visit to the PSB (i think it stands for Public Service Bureau, or perhaps PRIVATE??), the equivalent of a Chinese police station to apply for my work visa and temporary resident card. I was surprised at how quickly the whole thing took.

Kate, an EF employee, took me so she could translate. They basically need to just make sure the person in my passport is actually me, but i couldn't understand because where i was told to wait and sit down, the entire time my BACK was to the person behind the glass.

Next thing i know, i'm told i can go. SO apparently seeing the back of my head is good enough to say i am indeed the girl in the passport. Or maybe they have little hidden cameras all over the room, which was a bit sketchy looking to me to begin with. Am i getting paranoid or what. yikes.

After a nice lazy swim and lunch at The Vine (casual Western-style restaurant run by two women from Caracol in the Carribbean) with Susi, I met up with American Laura and her BF Ryan from St.Louis. I missed their American thanksgiving feast yesterday where Laura made Gumbo, very popular in Louisiana i'm told.

We went to a tea house and drank oodles of oolong tea for three hours, and talked about politics, school, Chinese chess, expat gossip, travel (they went to pakistan last summer and Ryan had been to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Samarkland, and me being me, all i want to do now is go travel and see these places).

The whole tea ceremony was quite the elaborate process and i did enjoy our own little room with sliding wooden panels.

Service was great and literally every 3 minutes the lady would come and refill our tiny teacups. I'm meeting up with them in about twenty minutes again to experience a fullout Chinese bathhouse. Should be fun.

Tonight we're going to have another welcome-a-new-EF-teacher toast; Mikael, the Czech guy, will be arriving around midnight. Copious amounts of beer and wine will be consumed as usual. It will be a lovely and painful Saturday morning tomorrow with the little kiddies, that is certain.

Kay, I'm off to be scrubbed down and exfoliated and massaged.

* hey my fav sis - i promise i'll post some pics asap, hang tight.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

What time is it, Mr Hu Jin Tao?

Let me try to explain a little bit about how things function here in communist China. One perfect example at how the government is trying to exert power across the country can be illustrated by this thing called “modified time”. Here in Xinjiang/Urumqi we run at the same timezone as Beijing Time, but it really is ridiculous because when the sun rises in the east of China at say 5am, it is still dark here. We are technically two time zones back from Beijing time. And so 5am there means it is theoretically 3am here. The Uyghurs use Uyghur time, which is more practical and realistic. But because our teaching hours go by Beijing time, my watch is always set according to that hour, even though it makes no sense at all. And so I go to bed on average at about 3am and get up at around 10am everyday. It took me a while to come to grips with the whole thing but I still think it is completely ridiculous to be going by a time that just doesn’t make sense to the position of the sun. It amazes me sometimes how much power and influence a certain group of men in dark suits have over a billion + people.

tip top shape

Health status: after resting a lot, drinking copious amounts of hot water, getting drugged up and getting a lot of TLC from concerned friends and colleagues, I am in perfect form again. What really helped me pull through was this disgusting-tasting herbal medicine that cost 4 yuan (about 65 cents CDN) which came in little vials and which I had to drink through a mini straw three times a day for 4 days.

After the first day, I could see significant improvements and because it was so gross, I didn’t drink the rest of it. If I was 8 years old again, I probably would have poured it down the sink when my parents weren’t looking. In any case, it’s over, and I’m back to my “happy energetic” self, as someone has observed. And after a bout of feeling sorry for myself, Tonia and some of the girls from the office came all the way to our flat to give me this gorgeous bouquet of flowers, a dozen roses and several lilies. They had heard I was sick and came to see how I was feeling. I was truly touched.

This past weekend of teaching has been the best so far.

I realize that sometimes the less preparation I do, the better it is. I just have to be aware of what unit and topic we are at, have a few songs and games in the back of my mind and to just go and have fun with them. For the most part, these kids did not choose voluntarily to come and learn English on a Saturday/Sunday morning.

And because our method of instruction is so drastically different from the institutional education system of China, why shouldn’t we have an element of fun and games, of course all the while having a certain language learning aspect involved? The more I do this, the more I realize that learning a language isn’t about reading, grammar and spelling. It’s more to do with effective communication and the sharing of thoughts, ideas and opinions using a medium that both people can understand. What I love is how the kids absolutely adore singing. I sometimes really get into it and would just belt out the first two notes, and they would take it away. It’s awesome.

The best is singing with actions. Many of the songs we teach, from the book and from our own personal repertoire, include some form of TPR which can really be fun, and I catch myself actually laughing and enjoying myself from the pure joy of being amongst young children again. You know how the older we get, the more effort we seem to have to invest to get to a state of happiness and giddiness? I mean, it’s rare that we are truly happy and not thinking about how happy we are, we just are. Well, these kids can certainly bring the best out of a person if the conditions are right.

The opposite is also true. In one of my Sunday morning’s classes, I was teaching a class of sixteen 7-10 year olds in a very very narrow classroom, and so when I would be talking to a certain side of the classroom, it is likely that my back is to other students. It’s a bad layout of the classroom to say the least.

Anyways, I had my back turned to several of the students sitting in the back, and when I turn back to face them, I see Mike (a chubby kid with a lot of energy and a kind of tough exterior image) getting up from his chair, workbook in his two hands. He walks decisively across the room, which is literally two steps, and raises his book above his head and wacks the other kid in the head. Just like that. I grabbed him by the arm and dragged him outside of the room and had him stand there until the end of the class. We had a nice one-way chat afterwards.

Discipline is something I don’t like doing and certainly not something I do well either, but I will do it out of necessity. We have these stickers for the young kids, a reflection of their work and overall behaviour in class each time. Blue stickers means you completed your homework, actively participated in class and perform well overall. Yellow means you participated but perhaps forgot to complete your homework. And red stickers means you were not paying attention in class, disturbing others, not listening, didn’t complete the homework, blah blah. These stickers are a great tool to use as a threat to the kids if they’re misbehaving. Just the mere mention of stickers and they shut up. I should have given Mike two red stickers that day.

Went for a late night swim after class on Sunday with Michael and Susi. Fabulous! Then we gourged on Uyghur “niuroa ban mian” (hand rolled noodles with spicy sauce and sheep) and several kewabs (long skewer which must be at least one foot long of tender meat and spices grilled to perfection). We then met up with several of the others for drinks and some good old live music.

It’s so funny to hear Chinese guys sing English songs, you wonder if they know what they are saying. They are quite good, and for a split-second you forget you are in a foreign country, until the song ends and they start talking in rapid-speed mandarin. On the side, I’ve been listening to some interesting Chinese rap and hip hop, and it isn’t as bad as one would think. The teenage girls in my classes are in love with Jay, apparently a seriously good-looking Hong Kong singer. I’m also being schooled in the field of German and Danish pop music, thanks to Susi’s music collection. Some of it’s actually pretty good!

Dora has officially handed in her notice also and will be leaving the country in early December. She's had enough of it also, and her inability to move about due to her broken ankle doesn't help matters either, that and the fact that she is miserable from the breakup with Peta. So 3 teachers have quit in a span of 2 weeks. It's a bit of a crunch in terms of classes and teaching hours, but it'll all work itself out. Ian's a great boss and is always upbeat and positive. A funny British bloke he is, i reckon.

Dora’s brother is in town for a couple of weeks right now visiting from Australia, on transit to Scotland for a while before he decides what his next move is. Interesting guy, just finished writing a teen novel, studied Middle East history. Justine's father is in town also visiting from Australia, a retired pilot who is enjoying his freedom now. Met another EF teacher from Englad who is teaching north of Urumqi in a mainly Uyghur-town called Karamay. He just finished a year there, is going "the long way back" home (through Burma, India, etc?) for a holiday and returning to teach at a middle school. Interesting people with interesting stories. I love it!

It's funny, we are all a bit eccentric and weird and we all have our little quirks. But even though we are all very different from each other, it just works. Michael, my fellow Ottawa-buddy, is settling in nicely and has had quite the culture shock from no hot water and gas for the first few weeks to breaking his key in the keyhole last night and having to sleep on our couch. He has done pretty well in my opinion in terms of getting his feet grounded and just learning how to cope with the language and cultural differences. He's adament about working out on a regular basis and so one day he ventured out to buy gym clothes and shoes.

He was in some department store and was trying to ask where the gym clothes section was by doing jumping jacks in front of the salesladies. They ended up sending him to another floor by elevator and when the doors opened, he found himself in the middle of an aerobics class! I guess you have to know Michael and understand how completely hilarious it is. Anyways, i went with him the next day to get some gym gear and we were a bit more successful this time!

Last week i made breakfast for everyone at our flat: pancakes, french toast, scrambled eggs, toast (with real bread and not the sweet bread that Chinese people seem to only adore), and of course banana bread! I brought a little bottle of maple syrup from Canada which everyone loved.

Tonight i went to a nearby coffee bar for a little party-get together thing with some students and teachers. It was Nicole's boyfriend, Jackie's, company. He's from Guangzhou (Cantonese speaking area in southern China) and is selling coffee/tea and coffee makers, tea pots, etc, to companies around the city. He also has a catering business and got me some powdered vanilla and CINAMMMON! Baking has suddenly become a lot more fun. Although he is completely fluent in Mandarin, I think he also likes the fact that he can speak Cantonese with me, his mother tongue.

Changes are happening quickly and daily. New teacher from the Czech Republic is arriving this Friday. A couple more from England and California are coming in early December. Our 2nd EF school in Urumqi is slotted to be opened on December 19th. We went as a team to see the new school, which is still under heavy construction. A lot bigger (15 classrooms) and with a huge conference room and computer lab.

Undecided whether or not i want to stay at this current school or move up to the new school... we are allowed to decide if we want to go or not. I'm trying to decide what is the best thing for me right now. Accommodations and travel time plays a huge factor. That, and the fact that i am comfortable with where i'm living and who i'm working with currently. Although i know that can change with the wind as i've noticed so far.

Ok, enough rambling for tonight.

Monday, November 15, 2004

drip drip drip ... drip

Well, after one month here in Urumqi, my body has caught up with all the excitement and hoopla of the city. I am officially sick. For those of you who know how i am ridiculously stubborn and usually in denial when it comes to being sick, this time i couldn't fake it.

Yesterday I woke up with sore muscles and just feeling really weak and faint. After puking up the previous night's dinner, i thought: well, it's out of my system, gotta get ready for a hectic 12 hour day at school! But after spending the morning with 8 and 9 year old's, i didn't think i could make it through the rest of the day.

I felt really bad for the kiddies since i was probably less than enthusiastic and just really not there. I had them do a colour, cut and paste activity of our unit, MY HOUSE, and then we sang some songs, but the entire time i was leaning my head against the wall. ugh.

So i decided to go home and sleep for an hour or so since my next block (which consists of 2 hours) was off. I wasn't to teach again until 4:15, plenty of time to rest, right? That's me and my denial again. Ha, so not only did i not feel better after an hour of sleep, i had to call Ian (my boss) at 3pm to find someone to fill in for the rest of my classes. I definitely owe some people big time.

And then Susi told me that i should go and see the doctor that is around the corner from where we live. I did and after assessing me, i was put on a drip, given chewable tablets, some solution to mix with hot water and some pills. I was and still am a bit skeptical about all this medication though.

At the end of the Q&A's, I don't think she really told me what was wrong with me except that i had a high fever and gut-wrenching stomach pains, which was already obvious to me.

Oh but this drip thing, let me try and explain this concept: you lay on a cot with a needle stuck in one of the veins in your hand. Suspended above is a drip solution with some medication, and depending on how severe your illness is, you may go through 3 or 4 drips in one day that could potentially last for several hours, for a succession of days at a time. I only had 2 drip bottles last night, but i am to go back today for more.

Despite my frustrations with being 'down and out', the doctor was really delightful and i think she has a fondness for us foreign teachers. Joe and Peta (two other EF teachers) are also sick.

Joe has a throat infection and Peta has an inflammed gallbladder. So we had a drip party last night at the clinic together! It was so fun we all ended up fast asleep for a few hours - wahoo! The doctor probably thinks us foreigners are constantly sick or something and don't know how to take care of ourselves. Fair enough.

Today i called in sick again and am just resting at home. I feel significantly better than yesterday but am still really weak. At times like these, it's when homesickness really kicks in :( I think i just want to be babied and waited on hand and foot.

Ah, i'm just looking for sympathy though; my parents called me last night (!) so they probably could sense intuitively i needed some cheering up.

Also, Susi brought home this cute stuffed pink dog with incredibly long eyelashes for me. It comes as a 'toy' with one of the meals at DICOS, a fast food chain. Apparently this meal comes with a chicken burger, some chicken pieces and HOT orange juice!! It's funny how Chinese people love hot everything.

Well, besides this recent development, things are fine. Last Friday, i went with Tiffany and Peta to a dumpling restaurant across from the Xinjiang Medical Uni. I don't think i have ever tasted more delicious dumplings in my life, i'm serious. Stuffed with pork, shrimp, crab, mutton, egg and veggies, they were a bit fried on the outside and super tender inside.

We met up with Dave Wong (American studying at Xinjiang Uni), Laura, and Rhonda (Albertan girl teaching at a middle school, soon to be going back home after a year here), and then we went to the shops across from the zoo where they sell BAKING SODA!!! Every person i've asked where I could buy baking soda, they'd tell me it can be bought across from the zoo. So for the past few weeks, i made it a mission to head to the zoo area. Things just kept being put off, and so when i saw it on the shelf, I literally shrieked and danced around, hugging Peta and Tiff with delight. That night i made banana bread in our little oven, fluffy moist and yummy. Brought some into school the next day and Nicole (one of the EF chinese staff) congratulated Susi on getting a flatmate who can bake, harhar.

Well, i should prepare something hot to eat. I've been told to make water-rice, egg soup noodles, or just drink hot hot tea. I guess milkshakes and vanilla ice cream is out of the question. Ohwell.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

seasons are changin...

Well, it looks like cath and tiff have had it here. They have given their notice and will not be teaching at EF anymore as of next week - it's sad to be losnig two good colleagues, but at least they will be staying in the city of Urumqi.

Tiff was going crazy teaching the off-the-wall kids, and they were also fed up with the hectic schedules and the extra duties... the mood in the office is a bit shit and it's frustrating. i guess i'm still in the beginning stages of oooh-happy-job-everything's-hunkydory, but i am beginning to see the realities of an ESL contract teaching job in China, but the fact is i'm not bitter. Not yet. I'm more aware, tis all.

The second EF school will be opening in the north part of the city in Urumqi. There is talk about who is going where, but it's all begin conducted in a sort of behind-doors way, which none of us is too appreciative of.

I have been approached to go there by Kenneth, the senior teacher for that school. He's an older guy from England with a lot of corporate experience, has been here for about 6+ months so far. Susi will be the sr. teaching of the current school, which i hope won't make it awkward or tense because it's already starting to be like that, although nothing is set in stone. i'm supposed to talk to ken tonight and discuss thigns and i'll be letting him know what i think of it all.

Susi's a bit stressed with this drama, and.. um, ok, i won't use this journal to complain, but there you have it, a bit of management and corporate tension at work, which exists everywhere. i just hope we can all pull together as a TEAM and make it positive and learn from it. THat's the only healthy way out of this mess. THere's more, but i need not bore y'all. I am planning on doing a fun spontaneous energizer this saturday between classes. We all need a group hug or something.

Tonia (the centre manager of EF) has been giving chinese lessons to the teachers every tues and thurs. It's pretty basic, but it just shows how they do want us to learn and will help. It's nice. She is busy ALL the time, and so just making a few hours of her week available to us is very kind of her.

Sometimes we wonder how huge the cultural divide is between the foreigners and the chinese local staff. I mean, language is one thing. But expectations and standards are completely different.

We all have our own social priorities, work responsibilities and our own manner of conducting certain things. It's the cultural jungle maze that can get really frustrating, and i'm not so certain that one or the other can actually 101% be sensitive to the others' culture. Sometimes i feel that as long as we are happy and content with how life is going right now, and our colleagues and boss is satisfied with our work, whether or not we feel communication and understanding was achieved is irrelevant. Sometimes you just gotta go through the mud, grind your teeth, and just concentrate on getting out, knowing that it will be messy no matter what.

I'm off. It's my day off today and tomorrow! Lots to explore in this city... coffee stop first! :P

Pics of birds in People's Square, a foggy day, and Peta kissing camel statue.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

simple pleasures

Well, exactly one year ago, I was on my way back to Canada from Zhuozhou, China. And less than a year later, i'm back - whoa.

Yesterday was a gorgeous day. Another wack of snow fell early in the morning. I opened our 4th floor kitchen window and screamed with delight—wheeeee. I totally embarrassed Susi, but whatever. Even Tiffany from the 6th floor could hear me. I realized that this is the first time that I have lived elsewhere other than Canada during winter where there was actually snow! It’s quite a feeling.

After a refreshing swim in the morning, Cath(erine), Tiff(any), Susi and I treated ourselves to a gorgeous spread of Brazillian food at one of the few international restaurants in town. I met two other foreigners who are friends with Cath and Tiff: Laura, a Louisiana girl who is here with her BF and doing her Harvard dissertation on the historical literature of West Africa and the slave trade, mainly in Ghana and Nigera (she and I reminisced about African markets, food, music and sunshine), and Dave Wong (half Chinese – half American) who is studying Uyghur and Chinese at the Xinjiang University, interested in calligraphy and from what I could gather, enjoys drunken karaoke escapades and baked goods.

Anyway, lunch was delicious and well worth the elevated price. Women pay less than men at this buffet, because we apparently eat less. How blatantly sexist is this, but who am I kidding? When it comes to cheap or better yet, free, food it is no laughing matter. I quote Laura, who declared: “I love discrimination!”

And so while we got to dine in style, filling our plates with fresh veggies, SOUP, macaroni and potato salad, coleslaw, etc. as many times as we wanted to, men in cute little flower-patterned shirts walked around with skewers of meat, slicing bits and pieces off onto our plates.

On each table beside each plate, there is this little cut out of a cow which reads in green on one side: “Yes Please” (translation: bring it on. ‘It’ being the meat), and on the other side in red: “no thank you” (translation: stop shoveling more meat on my plate. Please.) It’s a good concept, but they don’t seem to pay attention to which side is facing up, and so every few minutes your conversation would be interrupted by a huge slab of beef, goat, lamb, chicken, or ? shoved into your face.

And then you have to say “wo bu yao” (I don’t want any). I say this a few times because generally I get the tones all mixed up (mandarin is a tonal language and depending on how your voice rises and falls, a slight mistake can be detrimental; this has been the root cause of many mystery dishes ordered at restaurants). And so after seeing a confused looking expression on the poor waiter’s face, who is really just doing his job, he turns and walks away, only to return minutes later with more meat.

Apparently if you come for the dinner buffet, there is live Brazilian music, whose musicians are actually imported from Brazil for the sole purpose of performing every evening. Management does it so they are on a rotating basis. One of our past EF foreign teachers had a fling with one of them, only to leave him hanging when she was fired. Ah, another broken heart.

On the work front, Dora broke her ankle yesterday. She is now in a cast, with crutches and out of commission for 2 weeks. A bunch of them went out after class and while she was play kungfu-fighting with Laura, a part time EF teacher from Scotland who is also studying Uyghur at the uni, she must have hurt it.

There is this place near school which we sometimes frequent called “the pool bar”, a very grimy and dingy place underground with naked bulbs hanging sporadically around the bare hall. There are a lot of pool tables, very few customers and hard wooden tables with equally as hard wooden benches. As a rule of thumb, this is a place where one should really only go when one is already drunk. The only good thing about it is that we can bring all of our own liquor and provide our own music. They really don’t care and rumour has it that it’s only a matter of time that authorities will close it down. In any case, Dora has now earned herself a medical holiday, which I personally think will do her a hell of a lot of good for her mental health.

More bad news: Tiff just handed her notice in today. She decided that she’s had it with teaching little kids, and the stress on the weekends is just too much with the intense pressure to perform well in class. Our Sat and Sun start at 10:15am and we are all pretty much going full force until 9:15pm. It’s a long day, tiring on the feet, and extremely exhausting by Sunday evening. The reason for this is because we are a language academy and we do classes primarily on the weeknights and weekends.

You can’t get around it, but it just translates to chaotic a sat and sun, with more rest during the weekdays. I’m already up to my maximum teaching hours, according to the contract, and it is a lot. I have 5 kid classes (7-10 year olds), 2 teen classes (11-14), 1 adult class (15+), and 2 VIP classes (one on one, where the student gets total attention from one foreign teacher. Those who are wealthy enough to afford these are really the elite in Urumqi. Even I wouldn’t pay that kind of money in Canada for a private tutor!)

So Tiff will be leaving our team in 10 days, but at least she will be staying in the city. She loves Urumqi and is looking into teaching at another English school around the corner from us, that teaches only adults. It’s kind of a pity, she is a real sweetheart and I think she was a wonderful asset to the team, but on the other hand, I admire her for taking a stance and righting her position if she is unhappy.

Sometimes it’s easy to just stay somewhere because it’s comfortable but her reason is that if she came halfway around the world to do something, she wants to be happy. Fair enough, tough cookie.

Being Canadian and all, I’ll talk more on the weather: As the snow stopped falling today, and the Urumqi-nites walked, biked, skidded, and squealed all over the roads, the white fluffy stuff took no time to turn to black icky slush. It’s funny to see hundreds of shopkeepers and soldiers out with their heavy metal shovels wiping the stuff off the curbs and steps. It seems that when there is snow on the ground, everyone walks on their tiptoe with their head down to mind their next step, probably praying desperately to Buddha/Allah to spare them from falling on their bums.

I stopped across one of those pedestrian bridges that are like safe routes to take when you don’t want to chance crossing the busy roads, and while looking down at the traffic, I noticed how the pedestrians seemed to move at the same frantic pace as they normally do, but in smaller steps and might I add, like they all had a pickle up their ass. But I digress, I am guilty of this also; I just find it slightly amusing.

Oh but the best part of today: I got me a coffee press! Wait, what is the right term for those things? It’s those big cups with a plunger-looking-thingy that can make real coffee. Goodbye to crappy instant Nescafe!!

Lesson of the day:
Q: How does one cope with the insanity of slush, mental anguish from work and the social discomforts of colleagues and friends?
A: Overpriced all-you-can-eat buffets and a cheap coffee plunger. Simple pleasures.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

restless and spirited away

What a couple of days off I’ve had this week! Although our plan to leave the city limits was foiled by bad weather (Thurs) and then just plain laziness (today), I never felt as relaxed and alive as I have these past 2 days.

Michael has arrived, as of last night. Middleaged, lawyer by profession, burning out and needing to take a sabbatical for some self-care. Very interesting humour, loves to smoke pipes and drink Xinjiang red wine and beer. Haha, he’ll fit right in. We welcomed him into his flat with many toasts and some crazy stories which I’m sure he’s filed away for further reference. Perhaps we scared him too much on his first night?? In any case, it’s good to have a fellow Canadian here. He’s from Ottawa to boot!

He definitely doesn't travel lightly though, bringing the entire shoe and camping collection from MEC (has anyone ever used a "bladder bag"???) and he basically transplanted all sorts of medications and first aid stuff from SDM right to his kitchen table in his new home in Urumqi on Donghoujie Road, Flat 101. Im-pressive! How one manages to pack FIVE suitcases, take 3 separate planes and NOT have to pay for the extra weight is beyond me. I think he'll have no problems with the bargaining bit here.

After sleeping in this morning, Dora moved to a new flat just across the courtyard (her and Peta had a messy break up about a week ago .... i'll spare the details, but it involves a former EF teacher here - also an Auzzie who was sacked within her 3 month probation and left after a few days of my arrival - and a couple of drunken escapades of lust, lies, deception, denial and finally, hurtful truths.

It's a shame really, the two of them, Auzzies, had been in China for almost a year already teaching at another EF school and had just settled into Urumqi for 2 months when this happened).

Anyway, they are ok with hanging out still so the 3 of us spent the day with Michael, shopping for household goods that he needed. Are we all here on some sort of dysfunctional relationship getaway???? AHH

In any case, showing Michael around the city today made me see how easy it is to adapt and adjust to a place, it really takes no time and this city is rockin, I mean it really does have fantastic elements.

Jay walking has got to be a national sport here, or something. I nearly got sideswept yesterday by this rickety bus but you just gotta trust your instincts; that and the vehicle’s brakes.

It was so nice to be with someone who has not been to China before and to witness an awakening from within and just that innocent awe. Everything was new and interesting and exhiliterating: the hawkers, the chaotic traffic, the pointed buildings, that annoying and gross spitting sound that Chinese people tend to do every few metres, the fact that "this city is sooo alive", music blaring, horns honking, and the smells!!

I mean, the other foreign teachers here have already been travelling and/or working in China for a while, and so for them if something is weird or derranged or just plain frustrating, their attitude is "well, it's just communist china". It takes no time to become immune to it all i guess, and i'm lucky that at least for today, i received a refreshing reality kick.

Hailing a taxi from Carrefour (a pretty modernized grocery store in the Uyghur area that has Brie Cheese and coconut bread and guacamole spread, and... ) took a long time, the longest I’ve ever had to wait in China.

We predict there are several reasons for that, besides the fact that it was dark and we were probably close to invisible in our dark winter jackets. Some taxi drivers refuse to go to the Uyghur area of the city, and vice versa. Why? I think it has partly to do with major racism and partly to do with just plain fear. Some refuse to pick up foreigners after dark, and when they do, they insist that a Chinese person sit shotgun (enter Bonnie and her pitiful Mandarin skills).

In all honesty, I am set, I have all I need right now: a guitar purchased within 3 days of arriving, a laptop purchased with the bargaining skills of a friend of a friend of a friend of a …, free Chinese lessons from Teresa (EF local staff), good Uyghur yoghurt, imported German granola, cheap good dry red wine, smooth coffee albeit a bit pricey, a blender to make essential banana-kiwi milkshakes in the morning and an oven to bake none other than banana bread (still on the prowl for baking soda, the last breads turned out like flat frisbees).

In terms of the job, i'm getting the hang of teaching at EF, the expectations, the priorities, the extra curricular chores we are responsible for (social clubs, one on one advising), the impressions, and although the workload is never ending, I am slowly learning what needs to be done NOW and what can be left for “later”. Feet are firmly planted, and I’m starting to call this armpit of a city in the middle of nowhere “HOME”.

ps. Another CDN guy will be coming soon, from Hull! Bring on the entourage! And then 3 or 4 more teachers will be arriving shortly after… men I hear.. yeah, we gotta balance out the gender ratio.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

swimming like a fish!

Susi and i found a swimming pool!!!!! I was adament today that I was going to go swimming.

After our trip to Heavenly Pool was postponed due to the heavy fog (which lasted all day actually), i took an hour long walk further down our main road of DongHouJie, came home, made some milkshakes, wrote a few letters, and watched the morning news... What are the papers saying about the US elections? Details!

Then i was on a mission to find a pool. Called around some hotels, asking for prices, etc...

Long story short, we found one that charges only 15 yuan each time (that is just a little over $2 CDN)! Susi and i bought a membership which we can share.

On top of that, there is a gym we can also use each time!!! THe pool is not too big, but there was only one other person in it, the showers are HOT and strong PRESSURE, they provide the slippers and towels (i bought a bathing cap, a must when swimming in China), and a locker.

See pic of street on way to pool.

Bonnie's current status: ELATED.

Going home to cook a nice hot meal, do some reading, play guitar, and then going to go welcome the new teacher who is arriving late tonight: a fellow canadian from Ottawa!!!! Youppeee!!

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


I woke up early this morning to come into school and do some work without anyone around so i could actually concentrate, parted our kitchen curtains and my eyes went wide with amazement and excitement: it was snowing!!!

Big beautiful white flakes.

I got ready quickly and took almost an hour walking to school, taking pics on the way.

The walk should only really take about 20 minutes max. I'm HAPPY!!!!

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

morning thoughts

Sleepy morning. Just got up and connected to the internet - youppee!!

A bunch of the girls got together last night here at our flat to watch THE GOONIES!! Oh, childhood memories, slapstick humour. They don't make stuff like it anymore do they? A pity.

Winter is coming, and a lot of us are reflecting within and analyzing our current relationships and status within the world.

Friends back home and newfound friends here are lost in thought.
I'm listning to one of Susi's MP3's... and this song says pretty much in a nutshell:

"nothing good, nothing bad, nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Gotta get off my arse and get moving.... be and stay true to yourself.

pics: the view outside our flat. mmmm...