Oh yeah, that blog I was writing…

好久不见! (Long time, no see!)

Fun fact: Did you know that the phrase “long time, no see” is actually borrowed from Chinese? It translates directly, too, which is pretty cool.

But I’m not here to give you a phraseology lesson. In fact, first, I should apologize for my prolonged absence (again!). This semester has been super-busy, but also very rewarding. Here’s an overview of what we’ve been up to and what we’re planning for the summer.

1. In March, we took a weekend trip with the English Department to Hailuogou, a glacier park just west of Ya’an in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Garze. Once we left the Sichuan Basin and got over to the other side of the mountain range, the whole landscape completely changed. The sky was as blue as any Texas sky I’ve seen (an awesome break from the dreary cloud and pollution-covered skies over here), and it was a lot more dry than it is in rainy Ya’an, which suited my West Texas weather preferences perfectly. We didn’t get a good look at the glacier since it was still covered with snow, but the scenery throughout our hike was so beautiful. We stayed at a resort built around a natural hot springs, which was a great way to relax (though I was pretty skittish about hanging out in my swimsuit with a bunch of teachers I don’t know too well)! We also had a great view of Mt. Gongga, which, at an impressive 7,590 meters, is the highest mountain in Sichuan. It was very cool. The best part: it was free! And there was no way we could have afforded that on our volunteer stipend. So yeah, basically, our school rocks.

2. I participated in the Chongqing International Marathon on St. Patrick’s Day. Okay, I didn’t run the marathon. Or even the half marathon. But it’s still a good story. This is the story of how I ran my first 9K race.

So, background info., I signed up for the 5K. I haven’t been really keeping up with my running too much, so I wasn’t sure if I could run more than that. Fast forward to the day of the race.

I don’t know if you know this, but there are a lot of people in China. Okay, you knew that. But until you experience it firsthand, that knowledge alone does not do itself justice. Why do I go on this tangent, you ask? Well, because the enormous population here affects absolutely every aspect of people’s lives, yet I constantly forget the challenges that come with living with an immense number of people. Case in point: it took us the better part of half an hour to even find a taxi whose driver would agree to braving going to the park where the race was held. Thus, we were cutting it pretty close on time when we got to the park in the first place. At the park, we discovered that there were 30,000 runners in the race, plus all the spectators. It was nuts. And then I had to go to the bathroom. (Hey, I get nervous before a race!) After handing off my bag with my race number in it to a friend, I braved the single worst bathroom experience I’ve had thus far (which is really saying something, believe me), and after 20 minutes of being pushed by throngs of people inexplicably crammed into a tiny bathroom, I emerged victoriously to find… that my friends had left me. Awesome. Long story short, I couldn’t find my friend with my bag, but I magically found some other volunteers at the starting line. They were running the 9K, and since I didn’t have my number anyway, I wasn’t going to have an official time, so I just went ahead and ran the 9K. In 56:38. Like a boss. Maybe next year I’ll try the half marathon. We’ll see.

3. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been really busy this semester! Much of our spare time was spent coaching a debate team to compete in a couple of English debating competitions, one just outside of Chengdu and the other in Xi’an. To be honest, we had no idea what we were doing, which made things pretty difficult. I never got into debate in high school because I’m just not that good at expressing my opinions. (Though as it turns out, that would have been the perfect way to hone those skills. But hindsight is 20/20.) Despite their lack of quality coaching, though, our students really made me proud. It was truly inspiring to see them learn this completely foreign idea so quickly. And in other free trip news, I was lucky enough to travel with our top two debaters to Xi’an for the Western Regional competition. Xi’an is a super-cool (though super-polluted) city. We didn’t have much time for sightseeing, but we managed to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and the ancient city wall. There’s so much cool stuff to see there, though. I want to go back sometime when I don’t have to spend all day judging debate competitions. Overall, it was an awesome experience. I’m going to try and get a debate club started next year. The students I’ve talked to seem into it, and it’s a fantastic way to learn English and a different way of thinking. I hope that goes as well as I want it to.

4. As another secondary project, Josh and I have been working on getting an English resource center started at our school. We’re working with a great team of students and they’re making the space look pretty awesome, if I do say so myself. Thanks to a grant from Peace Corps’ Regional Language Office, we’ve bought a bunch of interesting books to fill the room with. Our grand idea is to make the place a hang out for people who want to speak English and check out authentic books and games. Shameless plug: If you have some books, movies, magazines, audiobooks, games, anything really, that you’d like to contribute to such a worthy cause, we’d be thrilled to have it! Unfortunately, it’s heinously expensive to send anything over here, but if you really feel like donating to a good cause, then 1) you are awesome, and 2) e-mail me for our mailing address (pcgracebrown@yahoo.com).

5. Next week is our last week of classes. After we submit our grades, we’ll escape Ya’an for five whole weeks! Our adventure will start in Qinghe, a small minority village outside of Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou province. Then we’ll spend the rest of the week visiting friends in Guizhou. I’m so excited for that. I hear Guizhou is really pretty, and we haven’t seen any of our friends there yet. After that, we’ll head to Guilin, Guangxi province, for two weeks of language school. I’ve really been slacking on my Chinese learning, but I’m hoping this will help rekindle my desire to improve my Chinese. And finally, right after language school, we’ll return to Sichuan (I’m not sure what city yet) for our Summer Project with Peace Corps doing teacher training. After all that, we’ll surely be even more broke than we are now, so we’ll stay home until school starts on September 3rd. I’ll also be studying for the GRE, so we’ll still be keeping pretty busy. Yay!

6. For those of you still with me after my rambling 1200+ words, here are some pictures of what we’ve been up to lately!

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China Day

I think the phrase, “I’m having a China Day,” just came into being naturally among Peace Corps Volunteers. It just makes sense. Everyone has had a “China Day,” even if you’ve never been to China. It’s just one of those bad days that we all have once and a while… but compounded with the inconveniences of living some 7,000 miles from home, not speaking the local language, and in general, feeling out of place and out of sorts. And we all instinctively just know… that it’s all China’s fault, and if we just didn’t live in China, these inconveniences wouldn’t be troubling us. And to be fair, sometimes that is entirely true. But sometimes not so much.

A China Day is a day where your hot water stops working in the middle of your shower… in the middle of winter (when there is no way to heat your bathroom above 40* F). It’s a day when your class totally bombs and your students pay no attention to you, or worse, lose respect for you. A day where you realize for the 4,560,928th time that your Chinese is not good enough to end a conversation with anything other than a sheepish, “Duibuqi, wo ting bu dong,” (“Sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”) as whoever you’re talking to gives you the unmistakable look that says, “Ah, I knew it all along – foreigners aren’t smart enough to learn Chinese.”

Let’s use this new phrase in a sentence. I am an English teacher, after all. Here are some examples gleaned from other PCVs. “I knew I should be nice to the man who was staring at me like I was a painting, but I was having a China Day, so I just stared menacingly back at him.” “I tried not to let the frequent drive-by ‘hallo!’s bother me, but I was already having a China Day, so I went home and ate the rest of the stuff in my care package from home and now I have no more Western food.” “Stepping on baby poo on the sidewalk on the way to class really brought my China Day into full swing.”

There is no cure for a China Day, but treating symptoms early often yields excellent results. Once you realize you are having a China Day, treatment of symptoms should start as soon as possible. Watch a movie. Take a nap. Take a walk outside (But use caution if it’s not sunny! Taking a walk under a cold, gray Sichuan sky only makes my symptoms worse.) Most importantly, get away from people. This can be tricky in China. Of course, treatment options vary widely by individual preference. I recommend posting a cry for help on your Facebook status. You will undoubtedly receive encouragement and helpful suggestions for alleviation of your symptoms from the people who know China Days best – your fellow PCVs. I myself received not one, but two suggestions to eat birthday cake Oreos. I have no idea what these magical-sounding things are since (aside from Skippy brand peanut butter) we don’t have much in the way of Western food in Ya’an. But indeed, it does sound like it has excellent potential for curing my symptoms. Especially with a tall, cold glass of milk… Mmm… Cookies and milk…

But back to the topic at hand. My favorite suggestion was, “alcohol and stand-up comedy.” Practically guaranteed to be a sure-fire fix.

However, the selection of alcohol here is limited to “Snow” beer (Which tastes similar to how I remember Keystone Light tasting. I gave up on drinking those once I realized that to a point, the price of beer is directly correlated to its flavor. Last time I had a Keystone Light, it was well-advertised in New Mexico gas stations that you could spend “Thirteen dollars for 30 ‘Stones!” I’ll let you work out the math on that one.) Actually, this makes a nice segue into a culture note I’ve been meaning to mention, so I’ll go with that. The alcohol of choice here is 白酒 (baijiu), which describes exactly what it is. White alcohol. Rice alcohol, to be exact. It has a very distinct smell that I haven’t found a suitable comparison for yet and a taste you can’t wash out of your mouth with even the spiciest hot pot. In fact, that sounds like a terrible combination. At hot pot, choose beer instead.

Everyone drinks this stuff, except for women, who are culturally expected not to drink. This is so handy for me at banquets. Even if we aren’t the guests of honor, we often stand out so much that we become the center of attention. This means everyone wants to toast us, which basically involves saying something banal and drinking a shot of 白酒. Over. And over. And over. And over. Luckily, Josh is about five times the size of the average Chinese man, so he can keep his composure for far longer than anyone else at the table. Me, I just play the lady card and toast with tea, which allows me to return home without stumbling and wake up the next morning without the help of a bunch of Ibuprofen. I’ve seen 白酒 for sale for as little as 8 kuai per gallon (You read that right – that is about $1.50 for enough alcohol to send you stumbling for a solid week.) and for as much as 1,500 kuai for a smallish bottle shaped like a dragon or panda or pig. I estimate that 1,492 of that kuai is for the bottle. My handy price-taste correlation should clue you in to how great 白酒 tastes.

I’m not much of a drinker, but I will admit, I really, really miss decent wine. Here’s where my alcohol price-taste correlation breaks down. A 750ml bottle of wine here costs about 120 kuai, equivalent to a little over $20. In America, I wouldn’t spend that much on wine too often because my favorite stuff from Llano Estacado Winery costs around $13 per bottle and is fantastic. But a $20 bottle of wine here buys the driest, reddest, strangest-tasting wine I’ve ever had. But at least it can be considered actual wine. The cheaper “wine” is nothing more than grape juice mixed with, you guessed it, 白酒. What a mean trick.

My China Day could most definitely be cured with some good wine and stand-up comedy. But since “good wine” is an oxymoron here and our Internet connection isn’t fast enough to stream Hulu, I guess I’ll just have to settle for 白酒 and watching the dance class in the square outside our window that’s playing music so loud, it sounds like it’s coming from inside our house.

…Just kidding.

Updates from a Slacker

Goodness! I can’t believe it’s already been more than a month since I updated. I keep meaning to, but I never manage to take the time out of my oh-so-busy schedule to do it. I was thinking about it earlier, and I think the reason I’ve started slacking on blog updates is that I’m starting to settle in to my life here. And it’s not like I’d be that interested in writing a blog about, say, my life in Lubbock, because that’s just normal life. So while I’m frustrated that I’m slacking on keeping my blog updated, it’s actually comforting to think about my slacker-ness this way. And it’s true, too. I feel like we’re getting to know people around here now and stick out at least a little bit less. Our downstairs neighbors, who were a bit standoffish at first, now actually seem quite happy to see us around the neighborhood. The trash lady is always nice to say hi to, even though I still can’t manage to hold more than a three-second conversation with her before I realize, yet again, that I don’t understand a word of Sichuanhua. And the mao cai (冒菜 – with a link to a good description) lady told me yesterday that my Chinese “is getting better and better.” And she would know. That was the best thing anyone told me all week.

In other news, school is off to a better start than last semester. My students have already had my class for a semester, and now they’re a little more used to my Western teaching style, so they participate more readily than they did last semester, which is really encouraging. Our students’ English is really pretty good, and they have well-thought-out opinions, which is in contrast to what I generally hear about Chinese students. I’m teaching Oral English, Listening, and Cinema Appreciation this semester. The Cinema class should be interesting since I’m not really much of a movie buff. But the class doesn’t start until week 11 (which is 9 weeks from now), so I have some time to figure it out. Any suggestions for movies I should show? I was thinking about showing one from each genre… except maybe horror. I just really don’t like horror movies…

In contrast to what the 冒菜 lady said, I’m not so sure my Chinese is getting too much better. Our students totally put me to shame in that respect. I mean, they just study English (some of them only in their spare time, since they’re not English majors), and they don’t necessarily get a lot of time to practice it, but their English is noticeably improving. Yet here I am in China, surrounded by the language, and I can only understand a little bit of what people say. Part of that is because of the local dialect, but the other part is because I don’t study. So I’m resolving to study more. I think if I did that and practiced speaking Chinese more with our friends, I could actually pick up on the language fairly quickly. We’ll see how that works out. I’m tired of being illiterate and not being able to communicate with people past simple greetings and small talk.

But that’s about it for now… No big updates this time. I’ll stop slacking and update more in the future, I promise!

…And We’re Back!

Well, we made it back safe and sound in Ya’an after a fantastic visit with family and friends back home. It was so hard to keep our visit a secret, but so worth it to experience everyone’s reactions. And Texas provided me with a much-needed dosage of sunshine, Mexican food, and Western toilets, which was just wonderful. 🙂

As far as the actual travel went, I spent our 14-and-a-half hour flight wishing we had the means to fly first class and wondering what it must be like not to sit in a middle seat for 14 hours. When we landed in Tokyo, we had barely enough time to clear the super-long line at the entry customs (or whatever that’s called). We made our flight, though, thanks to the nice lady from the airline (who we spotted because of her sign with our flight number on it) who ran with us all the way to the gate while telling the people in the walkie-talkie not to leave us. And that was the beginning of the best flying experience I’ve ever had.

Seriously, All Nippon Airways (ANA) is awesome. If I ever manage to visit Japan, which I totally want to now, I will fly with them. First of all, the flight wasn’t full, which is a rare and wonderful thing in itself. Our flight from Chengdu to Tokyo wasn’t full, either, so I’m really surprised they run it at all, since it can’t be terribly profitable… But I digress. Shortly after takeoff, we received a hot towel, which was incredibly refreshing considering that we’d just hopped off a 14-hour flight. The in-flight meal was excellent. It didn’t taste or look like something you’d get on an airplane at all. It was served bento-style, which I love the idea of, since it provides a lot of variety while preventing overeating. For the main course, I got this crab and egg sushi thing, which sounded pretty weird, but was actually awesome. It was real crab, too, not that krab stuff. There was also a shrimp and seaweed salad, steamed veggies in light soy sauce, a piece of smoked salmon sushi, and fresh kiwi and pineapple. The meal was finished off with a little marzipan dessert and green tea. Yum! Oh! And we got actual metal silverware to eat with, which I thought was really cool. The flight attendants were really nice and they made small talk with me (in English), and the other patrons on the flight seemed to be in good spirits, too. All of that made that seven-hour flight really enjoyable. So after I spent the previous 14 hours wishing for a first-class flying experience, I got one, but in economy class! Yay 🙂

Now, as I mentioned earlier, I really want to go to Japan. On our way to Texas, we got to run around in the airport for a little while, and it was actually really fun. I realize it’s an airport, which is not a reflection of the rest of the country, but hey, it’s all I know (for now…). Also, if Japanese airplane food is as awesome as what I had, I’m stoked to try real Japanese food! I don’t know when we’ll be able to make it to Japan, but hopefully we can do that while we’re living on this side of the world. I’ll start saving now. 🙂

So, aside from having my first truly enjoyable travel experience, we’ve just been doing a lot of hanging out in Ya’an. We found a good deal on tickets to Shanghai for Chinese New Year, so we took a spontaneous trip there. That deserves its own post, though, so I’ll have to get on that after I put the pictures and videos (from my new, super-awesome ultraportable video camera which was a Christmas gift from my (super-awesome) mother-in-law) on the computer. I also have some pictures from the wedding we went to today. It was pretty much just like a Western wedding, but with WAY more food. It was six hours ago and I am nowhere near hungry. I love Sichuan food. And on Monday, we leave for In-Service Training (IST) with the Peace Corps in Chengdu for two weeks. I’m looking forward to doing the tourist thing in Chengdu since we didn’t get to do that too much during PST. After that, we’ll start getting ready for the Spring Semester, which starts on February 27th, so I should have a lot to write about in the next few weeks. Let’s hope I’m more diligent about blogging than I have been lately!

Christmas Spirit

This week, we had a Christmas movie night for the students. We showed a movie I watch it even when it’s not Christmas: “Elf”. I love that movie. It’s a perfect mix of sweet without too much sappy. It incorporates all the kiddie Christmas stories without being too cheesy. And of course, it’s also really, really funny. So I eagerly ventured out into the cold, armed with some hot chocolate and 黄金豆 (huang2 jin1 dou4, which is pretty much like sweet popcorn – and it’s equally awesome), ready to watch my movie on the “big screen” of the media classroom. In short, the movie was a success. The students loved it, we listened to some Christmas music, we talked a bit, and we went home.

After the movie, I walked with Kyle, a student who had stayed behind to give me a Christmas present (a furry panda beanie that is currently serving as the topper for our Christmas tree). He’d talked with me a couple times before about how it’s popular these days for college-aged Chinese students to celebrate Christmas, but it means nothing just to give each other random presents. Both times, I’d tried unsuccessfully to explain that actually, Christmas isn’t about giving presents, so that’s probably why it doesn’t mean much. The conversations ended with Kyle shrugging and us saying an awkward goodbye. I’m really not the best at succinctly getting my point across, and after all, how can one sum up the whole feeling of Christmas and the Christmas season? But this time, after the movie, Kyle skipped down the stairs and said, “That was a very moving movie. I have so many feelings in my heart right now that I don’t know how to express!” First, let me say that I love the way the students here speak with such innocent honesty. They have no problem telling anyone about their deepest feelings that any American would shudder at the thought of sharing. It’s refreshing, but a little awkward for me at times, since I’m not particularly good with expressing feelings, anyway.

But I digress. As usual. My point is this: to me, that is the perfect definition of the Christmas spirit. It’s simply a warm feeling in your heart. It may be a little vague, but it just feels so nice. And there you have it. It’s been pretty hard thus far for me to get into the Christmas spirit, but I think that comment did it. And if Kyle can catch the Christmas spirit simply by watching a Christmas movie, I’m happy to catch the Christmas spirit by proxy. …”Christmas Spirit By Proxy”. That’d be a good band name.

Tomorrow, I’m going Christmas shopping with Carolyn, my Chinese tutor/China BFF. I’m hoping she can help me pick out the best there is to offer of chicken feet and tea. Spoiler Alert: All y’all are getting tea for Christmas this year. Ya’an is the birthplace of tea culture in Sichuan, so quality tea is ubiquitous. It’s pretty fantastic for an avid tea-drinker like myself.

But that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m really happy that I’ve finally found my Christmas spirit here. And I hope you all like tea. And finally, for your viewing pleasure, I’ll leave y’all with a picture of our Panda Christmas Tree in all its (unlit, undecorated) glory. Have a very merry Christmas!

All I Want for Christmas is You

So, for the record, I wrote this excellent, long post last week about Thanksgiving in China and apologizing for my long blogging absence, but apparently, it somehow got deleted instead of posted. So sad. Seriously, it was over 1,000 words. So… I’ll just recap the short version this time. Basically, it was wonderful. We met up with the other Sichuan and Chongqing Volunteers in Neijiang and had a potluck-style dinner. I was especially excited that someone made green bean casserole, which was such a comfort for me. Y’all know it’s just not the holidays for me without my green bean casserole. 🙂 Also, it was really nice to talk/commiserate with other Volunteers, especially the 16’s, who have been here for a year and a half already. In short, getting together with everyone was exactly what I needed to lift my spirits. As it turns out, spending the holidays away from family and friends in a country where my treasured holidays are just regular days is actually quite depressing.

I’m definitely having a lot of trouble getting into the “Christmas spirit” here. I’ve been listening to carols, watching Christmas movies, and looking for Christmas decorations whenever we visit the supermarket (to no avail – we might make an excursion to Chengdu next weekend to find a tree or something), but it’s just not the same. Here, there’s no shared feeling of joy and anticipation like there is at home this time of year. To say I miss Christmas would be a vast understatement. But I say it, anyway.

I have noticed one personality development in myself that I’m pretty satisfied with, though. Usually, this time of year, I’m out worrying what I’m going to buy everyone for Christmas and how I’m going to afford it. But in all honesty, the Christmas wish list I’ve made for myself by that time is way longer than my lists for others. Without fail, there is a ton of stuff that I covet this time of year. This year, however, we have the convenience of being completely removed from advertising. Even if we see something we might be interested in, it’s not like we can read the description for it, so that takes care of that. Because of this (and our volunteer status making it extra-hard to buy “stuff”), I can honestly say that I don’t want anything for Christmas this year. Take that, materialism!

Now, I do have to emphasize thing in that statement since I do want something, although it’s not a thing, per se. This year, I really want to spend Christmas with my family and friends. At Thanksgiving, we talked to one Volunteer who visited home last Christmas and gets to go back again this year. That would be so awesome! I really think I could live abroad forever (okay, not forever, but for a long time!) if I could go home for like a month during Christmastime. It’s the best holiday ever. And I’m proud to say that for as much as I complained about the Christmas season when I was working at Hobby Lobby, I still never lost my love for Christmas.

So now, I can say with confidence that I can fully appreciate the true meaning of Christmas. I’m just surprised it took me until now to really get it. Add that to my list of “Things I Can’t Believe It Took Moving to China to Realize”…

I hope I don’t neglect my blog like I did last month, so I’ll definitely try to post an update before Christmas. But until then, I hope you all enjoy your holiday season. And if you feel so inclined to spread some holiday cheer, I’m sure we wouldn’t mind getting some French’s Fried Onions in the mail so I can make a green bean casserole of our own… Just saying… =)

Merry Christmas!

Sunny Day

Yesterday, Josh and I enjoyed the first sunny day Ya’an has had since we’ve lived here. It was amazing. We took a couple of long walks, enjoyed a leisurely lunch, and went shopping, all the while soaking up as much sun as possible. We did extra laundry just because it would actually dry for once in the warm, sunny rays. After hanging the laundry, we even stood on the balcony and basked in the sun like Carlos (the cat-dog) likes to, which is something I never understood before. In arid West Texas, I often took sunshine for granted. Most days in Lubbock are beautiful and sunny, so I figured why spend time outside today when I could just as easily do the same tomorrow? After four months here with less than a combined week of sunshiny days, I now have a deep appreciation for the sun and the warmth that it brings.

Ya’an is renowned in the Chengdu area for its fresh air and beautiful scenery. When we tell anyone at Peace Corps that we’re in Ya’an, they all tell us the same thing: “You’re so lucky to live in a place with such fresh air!” Yes, compared to Chengdu and other large cities, Ya’an does have fresh air, but after all the hype, I was disappointed to discover that the air here is actually pretty polluted by American standards. The pollution combined with the ever-present layer of clouds is a pretty effective sun-barrier, which is pretty depressing for a girl who grew up in places with 300+ sunny days per year. At least I’ve learned that in the future, I want to live in a sunny city.

We got our first taste of fame on Thursday night. We were asked to give American culture lectures twice per month, and Thursday’s was our first. We hardly advertised it at all, so I was expecting 40-50 students at most to show up. To my surprise, when I arrived about five minutes early, the 188-person lecture hall was completely full, with a couple rows of people standing in the back and sides of the classroom. Who knew so many people were interested in how Americans celebrate Halloween? After my short talk, we answered the students’ many questions and dismissed everyone. At that point, about 50 students crowded the podium to take pictures of/with us. It felt like we were at a press conference or something. Afterward, my face hurt from fake-smiling for so long. I realize that much of the interest in us comes from the students’ curiosity about foreigners, but I appreciated the students’ interest in us and their participation in my lecture. I hope we’ll have more positive experiences like that in the future.

I don’t have a lot of insight or commentary today, but I figured I should celebrate our rare glimpse of blue sky. I start teaching the freshmen next week, so I’ll probably have more to talk about then!