Sunday, February 22, 2004

I opened the curtains Saturday morning to grey, fog and drizzle. I spent much of the morning cruising the internet, then arranging my apartment. I'm slowly settling in and getting the things I need for proper living, but high up on my list things of "things still needed" were salt (to make saline solution for my gums) and towels (so I could dry off after a shower I was hoping to eventually take).

The campus here is pretty big and there are a number of shops and places to eat close to my buiding. I ventured out into the cold (much to the protest of the housekeeping lady who doesn't speak ANY English, but made it clear to me that it was too cold to go out, especially without an umbrella--I swear she must be a relation), all by myself, in search of said salt and towels.

I went into the store I had been to the night before and looked around to find nothing was obviously salt. I turned to the young girl (she looked about 15) behind the counter and said in very poor Chinese ni hui shuo yinwin ma?--do you speak English?, to which she responded with a look of utter confusion. Then I said, slowly and clearly, do you speak English? More confusion. I pointed to the bag of sunflower seed she was snacking on and she made to get me some, but before she did, I grabbed a candy bar and said SWEET. Then I pointed back to the sunflower seeds and said SALT and pointed to my tongue hoping to indicate that I was talking about taste. I pointed back to the candy and said bu, the word for not. Two of her friends were hanging around the counter and they chimed in with what I believed to be explanations of my analogy charades game. The girl looked at me with more confusion, but also with an earnest desire to help me (most likely so I would leave and she could get back to her friends). I pointed to the seeds, said SALT, then gestured shaking salt onto foods and eating it. More suggestions from her friends. The girl ran over and handed me a package of spoons. I shook my head no. (I was seriously beginning to doubt any ability I might have as a teacher of English. I mean if I can get the concept of salt across, how could I ever explain the past perfect?) One of the girls offered an idea and the sales girl lead me to a store in the opposite side of the building and handed me a plastic bag filled with a white powder. Hallujah! I have salt. The girl left with her victory and I was left with my bag of salt. Or so I thought. I squeezed the bag and noticed a bit of a sticky quality to its contents. I looked on the shelf where it came from and saw things that looked remarkable sweet; something I took to be brown sugar, honey. Shit. Back to square one. Young girl behind the counter No. 2 also did not speak English, but fortunately a student came in, and although she did not speak English, nor did the next person who came in, a third girl came in who did speak English, and after prefacing her conversation with "My English is very poor" (every Chinese student I have met says this, and really most of them speak much better English than I expected, and often better than the majority of students I had in the States) she explained to girl behind the counter No. 2 that I wanted salt. After that, between the five of us, we determined two things: 1) the Chinese word for salt is yan, and 2) neither store I had been to carries it. I went back to the first store, bought a towel and made it back to my apartment.

That afternoon Benny came by to take me to meet the English department. Thomas, the other English teacher came along. He's Chinese-Canadian, born not in Canada, and speaks perfectly fluent English with a trace of a Chinese accent (I think I am the only person here capable of detecting this). He also speaks Mandarin which has proved only to be an asset.

The main building on campus is a giant cold cell block. The halls are long and grey and dim flourescent lights hang every several feet. I can only imagine what the bathrooms look like. We met with several ladies who names I have already forgotten and whose titles I never caught and we sat down and hashed who was to teach what to whom. After some confusion, ironed out by Thomas in Mandarin, I was assigned the non-English majors.

One of the ladies Gu Xiumei (she wrote her name down for me), a very sweet woman, told me that my classes were actually in another building and insisted that she show me where there were right then and there. We went out into the cold and rain and she was careful to share her umbrella with me. (Chinese women are very affectionate with each other--then often walk arm in arm--and as an idea, I think it's nice, but in practice, it has caught me off guard more than once so far. As a cold Westerner, I find any physical contact from a person I don't know, unless either of us in three sheets to the wind, to be somewhat threatening, and definitely inappropriate.) So my classes are in the new building. The main hall has high ceilings, decorated in modern art deco (is there such a thing?) with blue and white and black. The walls have marble trim, the railings to the staircase are polished nickel and the second floor hosts a modernist installation. Gu Xiumei lead me to her office, introduced me to the president, gave me two dry erase markers, a bottle of ink (both of which I had to sign out for, a signature on one page for the markers and a signature on another page for the ink) and took me to the classrooms.

My students are fashion design majors and business administration majors. I have three classes with the fashion design majors, and two with business administration. Instead of the students coming to me, I go to them (dashed are the ideas of a Anglo-themed classroom complete with map of Hawaii). Gu Xiumei lead me to each room. We walked into one of the fashion design rooms, one of the few rooms that wasn't locked, to find a student, sketches and designs tacked to almost every surface, and a white dry erase board with FUCK! in big letters scrawled across it. I chuckled. Gu Xiumei looked at the board, and then at me, then laughed nervously in a way that made me wonder if she understood what was written on the board, or if she was just laughing because I was. I didn't say anything about and we left.

At least I know they've got their basics down.

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