Monday, March 12, 2007


Will wonders never cease? It's only 8:21 and I'm almost done with my homework. We didn't have class or an activity until 6 PM, requiring a rushed dinner followed by desperate homework completion, character memorizing, and a late bedtime. Today, we were supposed to have a lecture from an Assistant Professor who teaches here at Yunnan Normal University (they call it "Shi Da" for short) he got about 20 minutes into his prepared two-hour power point presentation, but Lu Laoshi kept asking him to hurry up a little bit or skip over parts we had already learned. Then all of a sudden he lost his temper; yelled, in a torrent of Chinese, that he didn't feel like talking, we could do it ourselves, and he wasn't happy; and walked out, slamming the door behind him. This is a very un-Chinese display of temper, and we all didn't really know what to say. But it meant that once we watched the half-hour movie afterwards (a cool trippy/artsy memoir-documentary by a Beijing artist who was at the Tiananmen Square massacres) we were free to go and it wasn't even dinner time!

I don't mean to sound bitter, I'm learning a huge amount here, even if it can get exhausting. As mentioned in a previous entry, we have Chinese lessons from 8-12 every morning with a half hour break for Taiji (you probably know it pronounced as "tie chee".) After a lunch break we have a lecture on some topic or we go somewhere and have a lecture there (recently we went to a Kunming mosque. The Hui minority is Chinese people who practice Islam. It was really really interesting, seeing and hearing all the Arabic mixed with Chinese.) We've also been watching a lot of movies about Chinese history, and I'm starting to get how modern history shaped up the way it did, exactly what the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward were and why they were so horrible, and what part China has played in all the stuff I already knew about (WW I and II, the Korean War, etc.)

After we're done with all that and maybe some side trips-- we walked to the Minority Students University last week and met a bunch of students there, I made some new friends-- we have to find a place to eat dinner and then dive into homework (grammar, character memorization, reading comprehension... since we're only studying intensively for 5 weeks, they're working us hard.) And by the time we're finished, it's time to go to bed to get up at 7 AM again. But I have found time to do some cool things on the side, and the wonderful thing about this program is that they work in a lot of cool stuff in for us. For instance, today, instead of staying in the classroom the A, B, D, and E classes went to this huge food market right across from the gate to campus. I had no idea it was there-- I've walked past the tattered entrance at least 5 or 6 times, but there's a long pathway that leads to the market, and I never would have guessed that down that graying sidewalk were teeming stalls selling everything from live rabbits to pre-skinned pig trotters, from laundry hangers to chili peppers that are probably illegal to eat in the US. Our teachers came with, and Ashley and I taught them the English phrase "sensory overload"-- because it truly was. Too much to see, smell, hear, touch everywhere. I didn't bring my camera, but I'm definitely planning to go back.

We also went to the Western Hills on our day off from classes last Wednesday (a merciful break.) I'd already been with my parents in high school, which was wonderful because my stomach was acting up and I wasn't feeling up to climbing a mountain. Instead, I took the slow, stately cable car (I just code switched! More about that in a minute) and enjoyed a magnificent view of metropolitan Kunming and Lake Dian, which is freaking huge and stretched out pretty much as far as the eye could see. While on the cable car I saw what I swear was the world's cutest dog. He (I've decided it was a he) was sitting calmly next to his owner with his paws on the hand rail just like a person. So. Cute.

I've also had some adventures on my own. My tripmate John and I went to play Majiang (mahjong) with our expat friend Kevin (the Thai who lived in Oregon-- and to answer your question, Kitty, he has an Oregon sweatshirt). We were, of course, the only Westerners in the place, which was filled with old men and women and a few young people smoking and drinking tea. The most complicated part involves an intricate ritual of dealing the tiles, which still eluded me when we left. Otherwise the are similar to gin rummy with some strange twists thrown in. I even won a round! My favorite part is yelling "Pong!" when you can steal tiles from your opponent. Also, John and I were fascinated by an automated majiang table that will shuffle and redeal your tiles for you on its own.

I also ventured into the University Canting (cafeteria) last week. It was a complete madhouse, with gobs of Chinese people rushing everywhere. My confusion must have showed on my face, because a nice Chinese graduate student appeared at my side, asking, "Can I help to you?" He introduced himself as Jacky, an M.B.A. candidate and we spent the rest of the lunch talking, after he helped me get my food. I got sick over the weekend, but Jacky, Diana, and I had lunch yesterday as well at a restuarant near campus. We talked a lot about cultural differences (Jacky refused to believe that the drinking age in the US is 21) and taught each other some new words. It was quite fun until my la duzi started acting up again.

I've been making lots of Chinese friends, actually, which has been nice. The program set up a "language partner" program for us, which is really just "a huge pool of Chinese people who are curious about you and can speak English at least a little." We had a meet and greet on Ashley's birthday (there was cake) and after a flurry of cell phone number exchanges we've been on a number of outings. Diana, Tania, and I had dinner with a number of our new friends one evening, and they were extremely helpful and friendly, very interested to hear about American culture, telling us about what they learned of US History and their favorite cartoon characters (Winnie the Pooh, usually.) On Saturday Tania and John went with two Chinese girls to Green Lake Park, but I was, alas sick. Too bad: I missed John creating a scene trying to go in one of those plastic bubbles you can walk on water in. I think they're probably illegal in the US but they're huge here. Tania told me that all sorts of people were crowding around to see the wai guo ren (Foreigner) make a fool of himself. John does that a lot-- he bought this crazy pair of pajamas and has been wearing them around. He also has a bright pink iPod stocked with Disney songs. He goes to Tulane and was in New Orleands when the hurricane hit. He is also a National Merit Scholar. Strange kid. But nice: he's been lending me his computer to watch movies on while I've been sick. DVDs here are insanely cheap, and it's just a matter of time before I give in a buy my lot. Tania came home with 15 great movies for Y90 (less than $11), and I've been making my way through "Before Sunrise," "Love Actually," "My Neighbor Totorro," "Little Miss Sunshine," and "Almost Famous" ever since.

One more notable thing is the Chinese we speak as a group. I've been noticing that more and more we speak Chinglish together, which is really interesting. Conversations are peppered with questions like "Does anyone mei you kuai zi?" (does anyone not have chopsticks?) or "My pigu hurts" (my butt hurts.) This afternoon I was trying to conjugate the verb to drink unsuccessfully (my English is in fast decline) and Tania suggested "drink le"-- the "le" being the way one indicates past tense in Chinese. My Chinese is improving similarly-- I've now code switched twice during my time here. ("Code switching" happens when your brain reaches for a word in one language and comes up with the word in another. In my case, the words wore "impression" and "cable car"-- just two minutes ago.) I'm considering this a good sign. Also-- I ate a meal tonight and it didn't go right through me! Hurrah! Good signs everywhere.

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