Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Entry Seven: Getting Used to Things

While I am having an amazing time here, I must admit that a little homesickness is creeping in. I am dealing with it quite well, but not hiding it from my fellow teachers when they ask. Their response to my slight case of the blues has been extraordinary, and I have been enjoying many home cooked meals throughout Jinhua.

My desk is in a cubicle office with the first year English department. Their office setup is quite similar to ours at Oxford Hills, where a teacher might teach in different rooms but keep a desk in a large space with others. A big difference, however, is that the students stay in the same classroom and mainly teachers move around the building during passing time. It seems to work well. I credit this to the fact the average teacher only has a few 40 minute classes a day, and seems to never teach two periods in a row. This way the teachers do not rush from room to room, and also the students are relatively well contained.

The teachers in my office have especially reached out to me since I displayed symptoms of being homesick. One evening most of us got together at a veteran teacher’s home and made dumplings from scratch. What a treat! I arrived early with pen and paper in hand to take down the recipe. The others arrived just as the filling was complete; a mixture of green onion, egg, pork, mushroom, bamboo, and various spices. At that point we all sat around the table and stuffed dumplings.

They bought the dumpling skin ahead of time, as it is a pain to make. It was similar to pre-made pie crust, but cut into circles roughly the circumference of a peanut butter jar. Using chopsticks, I would drop a clump of filling in the center of the circle, and then wrap my thumbs around the sides to twist the dough around the mixture. I must of have done this sixty times, as we made a lot. It reminded me of stuffing various Italian shells with my mom when I was little, kind of a comforting moment. The teachers were surprised to discover I thought it was fun, and in fact I finished the evening recognized as a fairly competent dumpling stuffer.

As we sat around the table working, the teachers chatted away. I know I have mentioned it before, but the sense of community here is really endearing. When we finished making them, the dumplings were boiled. Finally we ate… and I mean ate. Our hour or so of dumpling making yielded enough to over-feed 10 people and make for leftovers. The meal was served with a side of peppers and a sauce made of cilantro, soy sauce and vinegar. Once again, it was delicious.

A few days later I found myself in a car driving off to another culinary adventure. This time I would also tag along for the shopping.

Ying Nina (Linda) and Chen are a newly and happily married couple. Linda teaches English at the school and has been an asset to me the entire time I have been here. Her husband, a relatively tall man with a great sense of humor, has also fast become my friend. We were out to pick up ingredients for Chen’s mother, who was the master chef for the evening. The first place we went to shop was... can you guess?

This time I smuggled my digital camera into Wal-Mart! I needed it to help illustrate how strange it is to see something familiar also be something foreign.

The variety of vegetables, fruits and meats here far exceed anything I have seen in America. But, there are far fewer canned or packaged products, and almost no dairy. The seafood is either dried (oh, what a smell) or still alive in tanks. Still, if you need something that is hard to find in China, Wal-Mart is your best bet. I found Barilla brand pasta, Italian style tomato paste, and many more items I did not think I would ever find here (but not basil, drat!). Linda grabbed a few items, but said quietly that despite the wide selection she is weary of the meat and produce here because it just doesn’t seem fresh. Having watched shoppers sort through meat bins in the open display case with their bare hands, I felt comfortable with her evaluation. So, we jetted across the bridge to the southern part of the city to find a local market.

The local market, small and on a street corner, certainly was fresh. There were drums of water filled with live fish of every kind, and even live chickens that you could buy and have butchered on the spot. Vegetables were everywhere to be seen. Although the market would not meet an American standard for sanitation, if I had to choose between a sanitized butcher block versus an organic and fresh product… well, I have to say I prefer what the local market here has to offer. That being said, I am grateful my immune system has been able to keep up.

We arrived and once again I enjoyed a meal that was as surprising as it was delicious. We had eggplant, chicken, pickled white carrot, snails in spicy sauce, fish, bean curd, traditional pork sausage, and very special bread that they bought at the nearby village where Chen grew up. They also bought some lamb kabobs from a nearby restaurant that prepared Northwestern Chinese food. They predicted I would like it, and I sure did. Of course, we also had rice, but this time it was served with a side dish: frozen pork fat with peanuts and spices. I put a little on my rice, and though it was different I can see why they like it here. If that sounds a little unappetizing, ask yourself what you’re doing the next time you load butter on your potato.

After the meal we went for a walk and then to a gym. In the end I had so much fun that I bought a membership. The three story fitness club has many different activities in addition to what you would expect, including yoga and “spinning” (basically a stationary bike workout led by a trainer in a room designed to look like a dance club, strobe lights and all). The one thing that shocked me, especially being from Maine, was that some people smoke in the gym! There are no indoor smoking laws here, and people seem to not mind. But, I have to say, for me it takes some getting used to. I suppose that is where I am at right now, in the “getting used to it” phase.

To prove that I actually do more than just eat here, in the next few days I will write about the Double Dragon Caves: an exciting park I visited last Sunday. Until then, I would love to receive any questions you might have about my trip or China in general. If appropriate, I will forward your question to my students here and let them wrestle up some answers. Don’t be shy! : )


s moccia said...

Ni Hao Jason,
It is great to hear from you and to hear about your adventures. Were the Double Dragon caves everything we said they would be? So glad you were able to go to Walmart. Isn't the selection amazing? Sorry to hear you are a little homesick. If you could send your address to my school account I will send you a care package. I have sent you a couple of messages through BBS but am not sure if you are getting them. My kids are fascinated with the things you are doing in China and they can't wait to work with Zhi Ming here. Looking forward to your next posting.
S Moccia

Anonymous said...

Hey JLo,
Love your blog! I'm interested in whether you have a sense yet of what the biggest differences are between Chinese students and your students at home. Also, are you seeing anything that can inform our work on getting more students better-prepared for college?
We would love to send you a care package, so please send your mailing address.
Take care,
LP at the MI

Anonymous said...

Hey Jason - it's your friends at the Mitchell Institute checking in. We are all *thoroughly* enjoying your blogs (and, vicariously, your experiences). Certainly parts of it have parallel to our family's trip to Vietnam almost two years ago now. We all wish you well and enjoy the multiple ways you are immersing yourself in the culture. Your observations on cultural juxtaposition are really interesting and I hope your students (and others) are making good use of this opportunity to expand their own horizons. Take care of yourself! Colleen.

Anonymous said...

As my students (grade 4) are doing MEAs I finally had time to read your blog. Amazing. I knew you would do an excellent job representing Oxford Hills in China. When I taught 3rd grade with Lynette we developed a unit on China which was so much fun to teach. Especially about their New Year celebration. Can't wait to read about your next experience.
Donna Kennison