Monday, November 30, 2009

Fork in the Left Hand, Knife in the Right

It began just like any other day, because in China it is just like any other day.  Waking up a little after 6:00 AM, I rolled out of bed and quickly made my way out of my cold bedroom (usually between 54 and 59 degrees) and into the bathroom.

Our apartment doesn’t really have a shower, per se, but rather a shower fixture attached to the wall and a curtain that separates the toilet and shower side of the bathroom from the sink and washer side of the bathroom.  So I stood in the bathroom showering, watching the soapy water run across the floor of the bathroom to the hole behind the toilet when I remembered that today was Thanksgiving (even if it was still Wednesday afternoon/evening across the entirety of America).

With the realization that it was Thanksgiving came the idea that I should probably wear something special to school in order to celebrate.  Opting against a sweater or a collared shirt, I settled upon wearing one of my football jerseys to remind myself of the traditional football game I would be missing with my friends in Northbrook later that day.  Looking to the pictures on my wall I knew that the previous two years I had worn my G-Reg jersey (2007) and my Tom Zbikowski Kyle Rudolph/Ethan Johnson green Notre Dame jersey (2008), so it only made sense that I wear the only other football jersey in my closet: my 40’s Jersey. 

By 7:15 we were on the bus that picks up all of the teachers and drives them to our school.  As usually happens, Gavin and I were the last people to get on the bus (our apartment is near the last stop) and so we had to stand in the aisle of the bus for the ten minutes or so of swerving through traffic and near collisions until we got to school.

On Thursdays I don’t have to teach until 3rd Period, so I went to the Salesian House that is attached to the school and had a bit more to eat for breakfast (after the bowl of Cocoa Puffs I had at home) while I read Simmons’ latest mailbag.  Getting the mailbag on Thanksgiving was such a great way to start the day as they seem to happen so infrequently these days.  If somebody offered me weekly Simmons mailbags for the rest of my life in exchange for the final season of Lost, I’d take the trade and walk away a happy man.

Anyways, around 9:45 it was time to go to my first class of the day: the third year students.  Because it was Thanksgiving I was determined to spend my two classes talking to my students about the holiday and telling them stories about what my friends and family would be doing in America that day.  The students don’t really like to do work all that much, and talking about Thanksgiving would be a great way to try to get the students talking in English and keep them from complaining about the book.

It wasn’t.

The first problem with my third year students is that they like to sit next to the radiators on the side of the classroom.  Usually, I’m ok with this as long as they continue to participate in the exercises and do their homework.  It’s much easier to get these students to participate in simple book, however, than it is to get them conversing with me about an American holiday.  While I started by talking about Thanksgiving, I quickly became frustrated with the students that weren’t paying attention. 

Some students were talking amongst themselves; some were fooling around with cell phones, while others just had their heads down nearly sleeping at their desks.  The students that were paying attention continuously asked if we could listen to music or watch a movie during the class (a recurring theme with my third year students).  While I asked the students to pay attention, and tried to ask questions, it was very difficult to get them involved with the class.

I started to become angry and upset.  Not just the type of angry that can be pretty much self-contained, but the Hulk-style rage that I sometimes burn off by going on a run.  At this point, however, I couldn’t leave the classroom to sprint 500 yards before dejectedly walking a couple miles, so I sort of flipped out at the students.

Aggravated, I had them move to the desks in the front and center of the classroom near the board so that we could continue class.  I had them take out their books and we started to do the activities from the book that they loathed.  Despite the fact that the students hate these activities, some of them were actually more participatory when we worked out of the book than when I was trying to talk to them.  Others, however, kept their heads down on their new desks, or talked while other people were talking, or attempted to work on things for other classes.

Trying to get everybody involved, and frustrated because these students didn’t pay any attention when I was talking to them about Thanksgiving, I started to nag one of my students to answer a question.  As I repeatedly asked her, she refused to lift her head off the desk, so I took my book and loudly hit the desk so she would get up.  She didn’t, and I asked somebody else to give me an answer.

By the end of class I was frustrated, angry, and emotionally drained.  I stood in the front of the classroom leaning on the podium and apologized to the class for getting upset with them.  I then asked them to pay more attention and work a little harder during class.  I told them that we were not going to spend every class watching movies and listening to music because I had come a really long way to teach them English.  “I could be back in America with my friends and family right now,” I said, “but I chose to be here with you, and I’d appreciate it if you tried a little harder in class for me.”

Through the next couple periods (as well as lunch) I was angry and upset.  I sat in the office watching episodes of 30 Rock (the show we’re now watching after finishing the first two seasons of Gossip Girl) on my computer and being pretty oblivious to anything and everything that was happening around me in the office. 

After midnight passed in Chicago, I logged onto my parents computer so that I could post my Things I Am Thankful For blog post.  As I went though it and made some last minute adjustments I thought about all my friends back in America.  I thought about my friends from Northbrook who were probably (dare I say it) sharing a few beers at the Landmark Inn at that very moment, I thought about the people from school that were spread across the country with their own family and friends, and I figured that this Thanksgiving had to be the worst day of my time here yet.

After uploading the blog post I was overcome not only with the feelings of dread that I have whenever I publish anything overtly personal (like my sister’s birthday Observer Column) but also an intense feeling of sadness because I was so far away for Thanksgiving.  Again, the questions of what I was doing here in China came to the forefront of my thoughts. 

But I didn’t have too much time to dwell on that, because it was time to teach my first year students.

In my first year class I was actually able to talk about Thanksgiving.  The students listened, and we actually talked about things.  I told them about the Pilgrims and how America is a country of immigrants (I don’t think they understood this).  I told them about the meal that everybody eats, about Turkey, and potatoes, and stuffing (I don’t think I even fully understand what stuffing is).  I told them about parades that were on TV, and how in America these parades have balloons and floats instead of tanks and missiles (I don’t think any of us understand this, because parades suck).  I told them about football, about the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions and the game with my back home friends. 

Then, just when I was running out of things to talk with them about, we started talking about their holidays.  We talked about all sorts of holidays that they have in China.  I found out that apparently Singles Day was two weeks ago and that nobody told me (note to self: start a Singles Day in America when I get home).  They told me about all sorts of holidays that they have in China when certain foods are supposed to be eaten.

By the time my first year class ended, I was no longer upset about the morning class, and had, in fact, been reinvigorated by my first year students.  The school day was coming to a close, and Gavin and I had gotten directions to the restaurant where we could apparently get a Turkey Dinner for Thanksgiving.  While we normally get off the teacher bus at the first stop, to get to the restaurant we took the bus through the streets of Yanji all the way to what seemed like the last stop.

After getting off the bus and walking for a few minutes we arrived at the restaurant where we would have our Thanksgiving Dinner. 


After nearly three months in Yanji (with a short break to Beijing and Xi’An) Gavin and I have become pretty accustomed to being the only white people standing in a room, or walking down the sidewalk, or in a restaurant, or anywhere for that matter.  We don’t really notice it when little children take special notice of us, and it doesn’t even bother me that I only understand fractions of what people are saying. 

Since arriving at the beginning of September (not including our trip) we had seen less than ten white people in Yanji.  There are the two of us, the Italian brother that works at the school (3), two Russian college aged girls in a market (4, 5) we saw once in September, a guy walking down the street wearing a Michigan sweatshirt I saw in October (6), the American Priest we have seen in Church a few times (7), the Italian priest that visited the Salesians for a weekend around Halloween (8), and a couple Russian women I saw in the mall when I bought my coat (9, 10). 

That’s it . . . ten white people.

When we walked into the restaurant where we were told we could find Thanksgiving dinner, it came as a huge surprise to us then, that there were white people everywhere.  Walking through the doorway to a restaurant that could seat roughly 80-100 people I was shocked to see about half the tables were filled with westerners.  As I took off my hat and scarf my face must have been brimming with excitement and awe when the owner of the restaurant (a white man that spoke flawless American English) came up to us and introduced himself.

Like Alice, Dorothy, Neo, and the passengers of flight 815 before us; our world had been completely thrown for a loop.  Instantaneously we had dropped down the rabbit hole and crashed through the looking glass which came right back out into a bizzaro version of Yanji that was completely different than what we had grown to expect from the city.

The man, it turned out, was a protestant minister that came to Yanji to teach in a school and ended up opening a restaurant.  He told us how happy they were to have us, and led us to a table where a little girl (probably 8 years old) came and offered us drinks (non-alcoholic, because they are very religious protestants).  She was one of the minister’s daughters.

Awestruck, I sat at our table drinking my Sprite (through a bendy straw!) and looking around the room.  There were several tables of Koreans (who, I found out were actually Korean-Americans) and several other tables filled with white people.  What struck me most were the ages of the people at the tables.  This wasn’t a room full of young service workers that were giving a year or two, but a room full of families that were seemingly spending the rest of their life in China. 

It was particularly shocking to see the young kids there.  Kids of all ages were running around or talking to each other, and it was shocking to see them here in a far flung region of China.  It never really occurred to me that people would do service or missionary work in a far flung region of the world and choose to raise their kids there.  Personally, I don’t think I would have been able to come here had I even been seriously dating anybody, while these people had seemingly brought their whole families here. 

Our waitress (the 8-year old daughter of the minister) brought us our dinner.  A large Turkey leg, a pile of mashed potatoes, stuffing, bread, and some brown substance that tasted like brown sugar with a hint of something gross (I think it might have been yams).  I picked up the knife and fork and realized that I hadn’t actually used a knife and fork in THREE MONTHS.  Sure, I had used a fork when we made pasta in our apartment and I used a knife to mix Tang or instant coffee, but I hadn’t used the two utensils in conjunction with each other since I was back stateside.

To put this in perspective (yea, I said it), the last time I had used a knife and fork we thought Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate had two more years left at Notre Dame, my parents kitchen was still under construction (for all I know this could still be the case) and the Obama administration was still struggling with the issues of health care and a decision in Afghanistan (oh wait).

Anyways, it was comforting to hold the knife and fork and eat the Turkey on Thanksgiving the same way that millions of Americans would later that day. 

While we were eating our meal, the owner of the restaurant went up to a small stage they had inside and thanked everybody for coming.  He said that they were going to open the stage and let people perform if they wanted to.  It was truly turning into a family-style atmosphere as an incredibly tall man came up on stage with his wife, sister, and six children and they began to sing songs. 

Two of his children played Ode to Joy on their guitars while people in the restaurant sang along, followed by two other children playing a song on the piano.  Then, the whole family got on stage and one of the youngest sons read a passage from scripture before the family started singing a song that they had assured us the crowd would know.  While I didn’t recognize the song, I did recognize that people around me all seemed to know the song and the song explicitly mentioned Jesus more times than most songs do.

I realized that all the people in the restaurant weren’t just American, but they also all seemed to be evangelical Christians that were here in China to do some sort of missionary work. 

The young girl brought us coffee as a new group of people walked up on stage.  Four tween girls took the microphone as background music was piped through the speakers and I knew exactly what was about to happen.  The girls started singing Christian Rock songs, karaoke-style, to the delight of all the people in attendance. 

Now I was in bizzaro-Yanji.

It was like the talent show or play that the little kids put on for their Grandparents, Aunts, and Uncles after the holiday meal.  This wasn’t just a restaurant, but rather a large extended family gathering between many of the Westerners that live in the Yanji area, and even though we didn’t know anybody here, I was sitting there smiling listening to the girls singing their Christian Rock and enjoying the Thanksgiving celebration.

Like any other holiday gathering, this was also the part when the men and women instinctively separate to discuss the pressing issues of the day.  So a few other men came to our table to talk about Yanji and we shared stories about what we were doing here.  Immediately, the men guessed that we were the ones working with the “Catholics” because they had met previous volunteers.  We told them that we were, and talked a little about our school, and then we asked some questions.

One man was from Alabama and is living here with his wife and two daughters (who at that moment were on the stage singing Christian rock).  He’s been living in this part of the world for a while (except when he went back to the states to work on some sort of movie with Kirk Cameron) running a Technical University. 

Another man told us about how he rode up to the China-North Korea-Russia border on his motorcycle with one of our predecessors.  Another guy told us about his six kids that he was raising here.  Another guy told us about the work he did building a goat farm in North Korea.  None of these guys seemed remotely interested in going back to the United States any time soon.

This really struck me as odd and ironic.

Here I was, in a far flung corner of China talking to a group of hard-core Christians straight out of the movie Saved that had created their own little enclave where nobody finds it odd when another person talks about doing work in North Korea or not having a desire to go back to America any time soon.  Oh, and don’t forget that we were celebrating the quintessential American holiday (not named July 4th). 

After trading phone numbers and e-mail addresses with these guys, it was time to go, so we got in a cab and safely made our way back to our apartment on the other side of town.  We watched a couple episodes of 30 Rock, I sent an e-mail to some friends wishing them a Happy Thanksgiving and telling them that Turkey is literally translated to mean ‘fire chicken’ in Chinese, and then I called my parents to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving. 

Then, before most of America was awake on this Thanksgiving, I was back in bed because Friday would be another day of teaching as usual.

1 comment:

  1. wore your forties jersey to class? thats hilarious. I told you I'd read these posts that i'd missed while sitting in como and everyone is watching the new head coach press conference. Im slightly ticked because all the people who work at como are in here too and they didn't even THINK to make popcorn!!! lame. Anyways these are hilarious, way better than things notre dame students like.