First week in Guangzhou

欢迎来广州!(Welcome to Guangzhou!)

Guangzhou was quite the shock coming from McCarthy, Alaska. McCarthy: a tiny (population a few hundred in summer, less than 50 in winter) bush town (you can’t drive all the way in), a community where everyone knows each other extremely well, a remote glacier-filled valley whose peaceful silence is broken only by the occasional low hum of bush planes. Guangzhou: a crowded, dense city of over 1o million with an endless picket-fence  skyscraper skyline reaching into a smoggy, polluted sky, the landscape broken only occasionally with small splashes of green. Where McCarthy is cool (in every sense), calm, and quiet, Guangzhou is hot, busy, loud, filled with life; visitors to McCarthy often remark how the town is like ‘stepping back in time’, whereas Guangzhou is undeniably future-oriented. Much of the city is new and impressively modern (though the pollution-driven erosion may make things look older than they are) to the extent that traveling here from McCarthy felt like jumping forwards in time several centuries.

Evidence of Guangzhou's modernity. Natalie and Ingrid display their Uglyduckings

But Guangzhou is not all flashy modernity; many neighborhoods retain their older buildings, their walls leaning precariously over warrens of narrow alleyways lined with shops and restaurants. The contrast can be pretty jarring: the other day I was walking around an older neighborhood that got seedier and seedier (the buildings got more and more dilapidated and the rats multiplied) until I finally popped out on a 10-lane modern tree-lined boulevard, high-rises parading down each side into the distance, with a brand new Toyota dealership immediately to my left. The sun gleaming off the brand-new cars’ windshields also helped illuminate the dirty alleyway through which I had just walked; its grime and filth and life was a stark contrast to the antiseptic shiny newness of the Toyotas and the master-planned boulevard.

These contrasts are everywhere – but I hate the simple “China is a land of contrasts” cliche so I’ll just move on to daily life in Guangzhou. We are living in a hotel variously named the Jilu Hotel, the Jilv Brigade (Chain) Hotel, the Kyrgyzstan Brigade Hotel, and a number of other things…while the name literally translated could mean ‘Kyrgyz Brigade’ it also means something like lucky/auspicious travels. It’s a pretty nice place, although the windows are covered by signs advertising the hotel (we can’t see outside) and the walls between the rooms and their bathrooms are made of (partially) frosted glass, which is pretty funny. Whenever I or my roommate Daniel goes to the bathroom, the other is definitely part of the picture.

Our room.

The hotel is also full of awesome signs:

Whenever there's a 文明 in it, you know the translation's going to be quality.

We have a great location in 天河 (Tianhe) district; we are right across from the West Gate of South China Normal University (华师)- where we are taking classes – not to mention a plethora of noodle shops and other fun stuff. We are also literally on top of the metro, which is fast, cheap and clean – if crowded – and can whisk you quickly to any part of the city.

During the week, we have Chinese class in the morning from 8.30 to noon, then TESOL / TEFL / TESL (whatever it is) class in the afternoon from 2-5. Lots of class (thankfully in air-conditioned classrooms) but I’m learning quite a bit and still have time to explore some. Classes are all at SCNU, which has a large and beautiful campus which is very nice to walk or run around on the few occasions that there are not intense thunderstorms, intensely heavy rains, or searingly oppressive heat.

Chinese class isn’t great…our group of eight was divided into three Chinese classes by ability: the total beginners (who are making amazing progress), the intermediates, and the advanced Chinese speakers. I got placed in the intermediate class which – for me – is moving extremely slowly. The teacher, Ding Laoshi, is extremely nice but does not know how to teach AT ALL (this is partially the TESOL class talking…but I’ll get to that). For example, yesterday’s class: we had a short 10-word 听写 (dictation), performed a short skit she asked us to create (which was prompted by a skit done by the other class), went over a few new vocab words in a very perfunctory manner, talked about good KTV and bar areas in Guangzhou, then went on an hour-plus tangent concerning pronunciation – first of English words and then of Chinese sounds (much like my first week of Chinese class ever) before coming back in the last fifteen minutes of class to do some exercises in the book. It feels as though Ding Laoshi is improvising everything, making it up as she goes – and it shows, as I’m not feeling like I’m getting much out of this class. As this 3.5-hour daily Chinese class is quite an amazing gift – a great opportunity to learn a lot of Chinese quickly – I’m feeling like I should be getting more out of this time, so I’m thinking of switching classes or supplementing class by doing some work on my own.

In the afternoon, we have TESOL class with Ligaya and (initially) Lisa, who are great. TESOL class is taught amazingly well (especially compared with Chinese class in the mornings) and is forcing me to be extremely critical of teachers I’ve had in the past and my own reactions to those teachers; I’m also starting to think about how I’d like to structure and run my classroom. TESOL class is activity-filled, fun, unpredictable – and is taught in such a way that I seem to remember most of what is said (rather than just a small percentage). Overall, a fun class…I thought I was burned out on classes after Bowdoin, but this is a pretty enjoyable one, all things considered.

I’ve been running a little bit, though the heat, humidity, and especially the pollution conspire to make those runs short. I’ve also begun a crusade to play the pianos at SCNU – no small feat considering that there are about four or five pianos on this gigantic campus. I’ve finally found the music building, but the pianos always seem to be occupied or the rooms are locked up. And going over there is always an adventure. For example, two days ago Devin and I went to try and get on a piano. The woman at the main gate of the building (she seems to be some kind of guard, though its unclear as to what she actually does) kindly let us come in but told us that there was class in the choir-room (where there are 2 pianos) so I’d have to go to the 3rd floor, where there are three piano-classrooms. We went up – and all the rooms were locked. We went back down, and the woman told me we’d have to go to the 5th floor office to get the key. We went all the way up, and the office lady very kindly told us that she didn’t have any keys; we would have to go to the 2nd floor to get the keys from a music teacher. We went down, and the entire 2nd floor was locked off from the stairwell. So we went back down to the bottom floor and asked the guard-lady when the rooms were locked and unlocked every day.

我不知道 (I don’t know).

When are the rooms occupied? when are they free?

我也不知道(I don’t know that either).

Can you at least tell me what times there are classes in the rooms?

But of course she didn’t know, so we went through a little more posturing before just deciding to leave and come back another time. I figure if I show enough persistence, they’ll eventually get less defensive (if that’s the attitude) and actually let me play piano at some point, rather than make excuses in attempts to divert me from playing. Hopefully, if my strategy of being obnoxiously persistent works, I’ll actually get on a piano at some point.

One more note is about my placement within China – simply that it’s still uncertain, and Patrick (the new China program director for VIA), Maria (the in-country program waiban, or foreign affairs manager) and others are working around the clock to create/find a new post in Qinghai province – the province to which I was originally assigned before Yushu, the town in which I was going to be living and teaching, was destroyed by an earthquake. Brendan, the Yushu volunteer from this past year, has been in Guangzhou with us and we’ve been able to hear some stories about the earthquake and its aftermath – a pretty harrowing experience. The Yushu school was recently moved to the outskirts of Benxi, an industrial city in Liaoning province which was pretty foreign for the teachers AND the students. Brendan spent a little over a week there before deciding he couldn’t stand it any longer…so he left, which freed me from having to spend a year in industrial Benxi (a place he described as ‘the worst place I’ve ever seen’) but also made my post status unclear. But whatever happens, I still have a backup plan – Guyuan (Ningxia province), where Caroline will be teaching, really wants another teacher, and the post – in a quiet, rural area which sees very few foreigners – would be really interesting.

I think that’s it for now. Today is a day off! so we’ll be off to explore the city after everyone recovers from KTV last night.

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4 Responses to First week in Guangzhou

  1. walt says:

    like that bathroom, reminds me of the japan rooms in a way……stay cool and send us some food photos. Love dad

  2. Laurie says:

    Jonas, you write beautifully. I’m looking forward to reading your experiences this year. I see I should have gotten you a copy of that famous book, “The Man with the Key Has Gone” to prepare you for your piano search and other upcoming adventures! have fun!!

  3. Susan Dannenberg says:

    I love hearing about your experiences!

  4. Allan Crimm says:

    You gave me quite a few laughs with the details about your intro to life in China. Can’t wait to read further installments from our China hand. The piano saga could be serialized into an ongoing story. It will keep us tuning in for next week’s episode in the search for western music in eastern lands.

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