My Mushroom Friend

Thanks to everybody who’s been commenting. It’s very comforting to hear from you!

Pictures.  Yes, photos would be good.  I don’t have a real camera yet, but it’s on my wish list.  I have a web cam, but obviously that’s tethered to the laptop.  And it doesn’t offer the greatest picture.  So, I’ll try to get a camera soon so you can see all the things in my new world here.

Yesterday I spoke with a woman in the school office that thought it would be better for me to apply for a year visa. Of course, that’s what I wanted in the first place but the first woman I talked to was adament that I could only apply for a 5 month. That’s how it works around here. The bureaucracy can be very flexible if you get the right person. So anyway, this is good news, but it requires a physical exam at a certain hospital. Yes, she tells me, they will draw blood. And where is it? Oh, take the number 52 bus almost to the airport (20 minutes away) and get off at the World Market. Then she gives me a business card with a tiny map on it. I can’t read it at all, except for the hours.

I thought I was doomed (It’s just too far to go alone!), but my roommate offered to take me!  Thank you, Mogu!  That’s her nickname really.  It means mushroom.  She’s a mushroom because her hair is cut in a bob and her friends think she looks like a mushroom. So, the silly girl is going to help me out.  I’m so grateful.

We had dinner together this evening with her friend, Ting Ting.  It was my first real meal outside the cafeteria and with such pleasant company.  Between their broken English and my (very) broken Chinese we made conversation.  Ocassionally they would consult in Korean — funny how different it sounds.  They taught me some new vocab and corrected my bad pronunciation.  Likewise, they would ask me how to say things in English, and we would puzzle it out.  All in all, a success!

Well, I have so much more to say, but I really have to study.  Too much English in my head!

Wowie Zowie

Writing from my dorm room! Huzzah. (New pic above is me at my webcam!) Here’s my post that I wrote last night when I was still offline:

Today I didn’t do much, but I made myself walk around a bit. While wandering, I came across many people begging. Near the school I’m familiar with the accordian player and the occassional old woman. But further afield, along a busier stretch there are some seriously maimed children begging. Yes, seriously maimed. I’ve been pretty consistent about not ignoring the people asking for money, but I don’t even want to pause for these children. I just speed past. Contrary to my reaction, other people seem to be really interested. The more dramatic the display, the more likely people will stop — pulling their friends along, shaking their heads and dropping a little money in the metal cup. The tradition (explained to me before) is for the people begging to write their stories in chalk on the ground. They’ll keep their heads down, sometimes fully prostrating themselves on the ground. I can’t read their stories, and I don’t know if they’re real. But I have a terrible feeling that these kids don’t get to keep the money they collect. Maybe that’s just twisted of me. I don’t know.

The child that was receiving the most attention today, was maybe 4 years old. He didn’t have any hands, and wrote clutching a piece of chalk between his wrists. His story was very long and his donation cup was actually a large bowl. And it was full. Did someone do this to this poor kid? It makes me crazy either way — why are we just letting him stay there on the sidewalk? Why isn’t there a place for him to go? Is there a place he can go? I don’t know. The feeling of helplessness is really overwhelming.

As I wander the streets here in China, the phrase “sea of humanity” keeps echoing in my head. There are just so many people. It’s clearly and painfully stratified, with the least fortunate literally prostrate on the filthy streets. And we all just walk on by one another. Girls dressed in pristine white dresses and spikey heels. Men in suits. Cocky young boys get behind the wheel of shiney black cars. The sanitation workers dressed in blue uniforms pick up trash along the side of the road. Here we all are.

Obviously, in part I’m suffering from big city shock. It’s probably amplified by my foreignness, feeling isolated while surrounded by so many people. Unfortunately, it’s a familiar feeling. Ugh.

My head hurts and I can’t think what it is I need to be doing. Just going in circles about this and that. It may have just been my lack on caffeine intake this morning. I had a late start. It’s only 8:30 and I’m so tired I can’t think straight. I think it’ll be good to have class begin tomorrow. I’ve been wasting time just now in front of my computer, trying to figure out how to organize all the words and phrases that need to be put in my head. What’s the best way? I was experimenting with a database, and mail merging into a slideshow — a kind of virtual flashcard system. That would let me do all kinds of things — sort by topic, by source, randomize output. I can’t get my computer to cooperate. If I had a little more computer programing knowledge I wouldn’t have to make my software bend over backwards. I understand databases, but the output method is beyond me. I can print something nice, but it’s not really helpful for on-screen use.

Anyway, this is how my head is trying to deal. I’m also suffering from jetlag, although I think that should be subsiding shortly. What am I going to do without excuses?

Like I said, I’m not sure what the best way is to cram all this stuff in my head. And I feel like it’s rejecting what I’m trying. I tried to relax and draw both yesterday and today, but it was wholey unsuccessful. In part, it’s because I’ve never really liked to work exclusively from my imagination. I like a model. And I like people, but right now I’m kind of scared of the people around — they’re liable to ask me what I’m doing. Yesterday I sat on campus and kind of drew people walking by. I attracted some awkward attention. Nothing negative really, but I can’t help but be embarassed. While you’re drawing, it’s not always pretty — not at every stage, so when you have an audience there’s a impulse to cut corners and try to make it look good right away. Just makes a muddy mess, I assure you.

I’m not very happy with my dorm room, but my flatmates are very nice. It’s a little exhausting for them to communicate with me, and I imagine it’s not all that fufilling either. They seem to all have studied English so they’re a little embarassed that they can’t communicate more. But they’re here to learn Chinese not English. It’s a common enough response among the other (non-native english speaking) foreign students.

The dorm has bugs. Ants on my desk and mosquitoes at night. I’m not sure there’s anyway to fix either of these problems really. However, the deal breaker is that the internet isn’t working. One of my flatmates was saying that there’s a wireless network but it requires a password. She said it costs 20 RMB and I need to pay someone at the school. This certianly jives with what someone else told me — she was getting a signal but it required a password. But from here, my little computer can’t detect any signal at all. There’s also a ethernet plug, but it’s not active. The second lady tried her ethernet cable as well without any luck. So, I’ll talk to the office about that tomorrow. The hotel staff isn’t very helpful. They understood I was talking about the internet and the lady just keep talking at me and pointing to the school next door. So that’s what I’ll do.

So, how have I tried to start learning?

  1. Post-its on objects around my room.
  2. Flashcards made with pinyin/english. About 30 words.
  3. Constantly looking things up in my phrase book and sometimes my dictionary.
  4. Writing long-hand pinyin of helpful phrases.
  5. Typing pinyin, both words and phrases.
  6. Invaluable little notebook, where I record: friends’ names (and sometimes phone numbers), new vocab that comes up in conversation, and prepared vocab for potential interactions
  7. Pimslur language lessons on iPod.
  8. ChinesePod lessons on iPod.

I already feel pressure to have something else going on here. I was going to write a book about my experiences or something, but don’t really feel like my writing skills are up to par. It’s like my language brain in scrambled. Using baby talk in Chinese and broken English is so painful. Jeremy said this made him feel more creative once he sat down to express himself in his native language. I don’t know. I feel so empty.

So if not a book, then what? I guess all the conceivable alternatives involve people. Oh, jeez. I was thinking about finding some artsy people, but my creativity has kind of dried up. Maybe that’s only temporary, but last time I was here I had a very similar feeling. I was also considering website stuff. But thus far it’s been pretty difficult to work out the whole internet thing. It’s not working here in my dorm, and it’s pretty slow elsewhere. Sometimes certain pages won’t even load. I don’t really get that. Anyway, computers are time-consuming and it really complicates things to work in Chinese.

I said I was wasting time at the computer — that’s because there are so many ways to write chinese. You can write it in its many romanized forms or using simplified or traditional characters. I read very little, so I’m sticking with the pinyin. Even so sometimes you can write marks above the vowels to mark the tones, otherwise you can write a number after each syllable. This is all very tedious. English is much better suited to computers at this point — obviously that’s by design.

I should probably teach English. That would be something else. I grabbed an advert from one of the bullitein boards at a foreigner cafe. I’m kind of afraid to call. It says they want experienced teachers, but who knows. The ad was really brief. It might be smart to ask around first, but I’m having trouble asking anyone anything at this point. My courage seems to come in waves. I hope this ebb is only temporary.

Internet (Yin1te4wang3)

Still working on getting consistent internet access. I’m supposed to have access in my dorm room, but it’s not working just yet.  I might have to change rooms.  We’ll see.  Anyway, there are plenty of opportunities to get online (shang4 wang3) but I’d prefer to use my own computer and be in my own room.  For now I’m using the school computer lab.  It costs 2 RMB (renmenbi) an hour.   That’s about $0.25.  Not bad, but the equipment isn’t great for chatting by MSN.  Jeremy and I had an unsuccessful conversation just now — echoes and clicks.  Unbearable really.

Thanks for all the comments on my first post.  So nice to hear from you all.  I think I’ve fixed it so that it’s not moderated — that way you’ll see your comment immediately.  The default setting required me to review and approve each comment.  No need.

I wrote a nice blog entry last night from my dorm room.  I couldn’t post because of the internet problem, so I’ll post it later on.

Stay tuned!

Bravely and Regretfully Spending Money

It’s almost 7:00 p.m. on my first day here in Kunming. (Can it really just be my first day here?) I suppose it’s not really interesting to hear about my mundane victories, but it feels like I conquered a lot already.

Last night the school sent a representative to meet me at the airport. I didn’t see him at first, and I was getting worried because the sun was about to set. Everywhere looks more threatening at night, so I was digging through my bag to find the school’s number when I spotted him. We didn’t really have a common language, but from what I could gather he was expecting me to find him parked outside. Parked in a bus. A little strange, don’t you think? I was his sole passenger. In spite of our misunderstanding (whatever it was), he was very nice. And since we couldn’t really determine what our misunderstanding had been, he called a friend from his cell phone to help us figure out that yes, I needed to stay at the International Student Hotel on campus. We arrived as the sunset and he shepherded me to the front desk, where the hotel helped me check in. Safe!

This is my second time to Kunming and to Yunnan Normal University (YNNU), so everything looks pretty familiar. I’m feeling surprisingly relaxed.  I guess it’s much easier to be brave when necessity demands it. Last night, before I even unpacked I ran out to a nearby convenience store. I bought the toothbrush and toothpaste that I forgot, as well as some toilet paper and water. Score! I’m a little disappointed with the toothpaste. It tastes just terrible, and I’m not at all certain that it contains flouride.

Anyway, I managed to sleep through the night. I woke up at confusing intervals — unable distinguish between the overhead light and daylight. This morning I finally got up because some terrible chime kept going off every 10-20 minutes. It seemed to be coming from my roommate’s bed. I think it was her cell phone, maybe her message alert… I don’t know. Later in the day I managed to introduce myself to her. She’s from Korea and her (Korean) name is Lee Ji Hyun, her Chinese name Li3 Zhi1 Xuan4. She’s very young, only 22. I have no idea how long she’s been there or how long she plans to stay. We only succeeded in talking when we were both armed with dictionaries. I didn’t ask her about the terrible noise that woke me up.

Our room is on the 6th floor. I guess the hotel/dorm must be pretty full. There’s a big group taking up a lot of beds — about 30 Americans. They just arrived at the University yesterday, same as me, and I have to keep explaining that I’m not with them. (“You’re supposed to be in the computer lab!” I am?) They’re all very young too, students at University of Vermont. They have some language skills under their belt, and it seems to be everyone’s first trip to China. Just the opposite of my situation — I’m familiar with the landscape, but I have a hard time communicating. Anyway, they seem very nice, not the crazy party animal types I encountered here before. I mean, they’re from Vermont, right?

I have everything arranged for my classes to begin on Monday. I’m taking 12 hours/week one-on-one. I’ll have three instructors, I think. All female, no doubt. And probably younger than me. That was how it happened before. I have my books, so I can start staring at them. That’ll help.

I successfully negotiated a longer visa. It’s not the 1 year visa I was hoping for, but it is 5 months. That gets me through October at least, probably a little bit into November. It’s a little confusing, but what I decided on was 6 weeks of one-on-one instruction, followed by 6 weeks vacation, and then half a term in the small group classes. They were only willing to give me a 3 month visa if I paid for instruction through their 6 week vacation. Instead, I avoided paying their inflated rate for that period and paid just for the next 6 weeks and for September through mid-November. That way they will help me get me a longer visa. I assure you I had over a dozen conversations with various personnel before everyone could agree that would work. Anyway, it means I’m under budget and that can’t be bad. And of course, it can be changed later on.

At this point I should probably mention that I am sitting at a cafe drinking an oversized beer, and I can feel coherency slipping away. (There it goes.)

The real tragedy that I managed to deal with today was the destruction of my power adaptor for my laptop. It must have been messed up through one of the many airport security stations I went through. Who knows? But the little green light refused to go on, and my laptop battery was fading. So I consulted with the school’s computer guy and he gave me vague directions (yes, in chinese) to a store that he thought might sell a replacement. I’m sure I was ripped off terribly. You can tell this when they agree to your first counter offer. Dang! Oh, well, it was cheaper than it would have been in the U.S…. at least I think it was. Oh, don’t tell me. Ok, I paid $25… yes, USD. Please don’t tell me how stupid that is. I needed it for peace of mind! And in the U.S. could you really have just walked down the street and bought it? No! You’d have bought it on ebay and it would have arrived 3 business days later. So there.

For the record, I found one on ebay: buy it now for 15 + 9 shipping.

I’m just resisting trying the old one again. Maybe it does work and I was mistaken… But my iPod speakers worked from the same plug… I’m such an idiot…

I’m letting it go.

Watch me.

So, this is the first chance I’ve had to boot up my computer and really just play with it. I think I’m going to use it for studying. I’m not really good at organizing paper. I think my brain has been rewired to work only in a digital world — the ability to cut and paste and spellcheck and everything. I have a little notebook for writing down people’s names and new vocab. That’s a good use of paper, but I’m pretty sure my notes and things are best stored and organized on the computer. I’m just using pinyin, the phonetic romanized version of Chinese, so I can type it and all.

Stay tuned. I’ll try to chronical something more exciting next time — you know, internal termoil that doesn’t involve regrets about how I spend my money.

Still in St. Louis

Less than 48 hours until departure.  The house is nearly empty, and I’m so glum.  Can’t really get excited about my new adventure, because it’s so distressing to see our home evaporate.  And it’s not going to be fun to be apart from Jeremy and the cat.

I developed some tiny red bumps on my wrist last night.  And this morning they’re on my fingers as well.  This happened last time I was preparing for a trip to China.  I think it’s stress related.  Yuck!

Some good stuff too:  It’s Beth’s birthday today, and she’s having a BBQ at her boyfriend’s place.  A little forced relaxation is in order.  And it’s great to have a chance to see some friends before I take off.

And Glenn just dropped by and took my old computer.  Huzzah!  I’m glad he decided that his house could use it.   I installed a bunch of open source software for them – the Gimp (not Adobe Photoshop), Open Office (not MS Office), and Picasa.  Anyway, it should be a faster machine than what they are running now.