On support and generosity (and the lack of it)

Ganjia grasslands between Rebgong and Xiahe

This week was a wild mixture of incredible support and generosity on the part of my students (and of Brooke’s), and incredible lack of support and uncaring apathy on the part of some of my students and the school administration. The entire week, I felt like I was pinwheeling between extreme highs and extreme lows; at one moment, I was immensely proud of my students; at another, I was furious at my school or fighting with Mr. Wang. These extremes of treatment at the hands of the people I work with (and for) have, along with a few bizarre China moments, have made this quite an unusual week.

In my last post, I detailed my arguments with Mr. Wang surrounding my schedule changes at the beginning of last week, the most notable of which was learning that my senior 2 classes were going to take the huikao test on Thursday and Friday and, consequently, that each of my senior 2 classes would have my class once – rather than three times – that week. This affected my exams, which I had just written the previous weekend, and thus had to adjust my exams and my lesson plans to squeeze more information into fewer classes. The day after those conversations, I received a phone call from Mr. Wang around midday.

“You mumble mumble class 13 mumble mumble mumble mumble uh.”


“Mumble mumble mumble mumble 13 mumble.”

“Mr, Wang, I don’t understand what you’re saying. Can I come to your office before next class?”

He agreed (with minimal mumbling) and, at 2:10, I went into Mr. Wang’s office.

“Do you know your class 13?” he said.

I graced this question with the Qinghai version of ‘yeah’ – a guttural grunt, deep enough to shoot mucus upward from your throat, and best accompanied by hawking a massive loogie onto a nearby patch of sidewalk. But we were in Mr. Wang’s office, so I abstained. And I barely gave a grunt; of course I knew class 13, as I saw them three times per week. In fact, I had that class next period – less than ten minutes from now.

“The monitor of class 13 has asked to use your class this period as a ‘self-study’ session for the huikao. They need time to study, so I told him he could. Is that OK?”

I felt anger rising inside me. Is that OK? Is that OK? You are my boss, Mr. Wang, and one of the highest-ranking officials at the school, not to mention the head of the international department. You already told my class they could use my one class this week (into which I’d already compressed three separate classes of information) for a ‘self-study’ session for a test outside of my class – a test which, by the way, is known for being easy. It was only a couple of weeks ago that you gave a lecture to my senior 2 14 class about how they must pay attention, focus, and actually do work in my class because it is just as important as all of their other classes. So you tell my students that my class is important, and then you say they can get out of actually having my class whenever they feel like it (they just have to ask you) for pretty much any reason at all? Self-study is a euphemism for dicking around, playing on cell phones, doing pretty much anything except for studying – and having class. If you give my students permission to effectively not hold class whenever they want, what kind of message do you think you’re sending my students about my class’ importance?

“So what am I supposed to do this period?”

“You don’t have to do anything, you just have to sit and watch the students study.”

“Do you let students do this in other classes?”


“Why are you letting them use my ONE class this week for this? I thought we talked about not letting students get out of my class for other reasons? You never asked me if I would give permission, and this is my one class this week to go over any information at all – and my exam is in two weeks. What do you think this is telling my students?”

“I’m sorry, next time I will ask you first.”

“I can’t say no this time. You’re my boss and the department head, and you’ve already said yes. But I never want this to happen again.”

I stormed out of the room, furious. Who was Mr. Wang that he had the right to take away my classes seemingly at will, on the pretext of lame excuses like these? With his acceptance, he had empowered the class monitor (essentially making him more important than the teacher, though he is a student) and disempowered me by putting my class in its place – as an accessory class, a time to relax, rather than an important subject. By giving permission to the monitor for a ‘self-study’ period during my class, Mr. Wang did more than fail to support me; rather, he actively undermined my teaching and everything that I do here at the school. I’m sure that before the day was out, all of my students knew that I could essentially be pushed aside by going straight to Mr. Wang to ask questions and demand favors.

Still furious, I went into class 13. I wrote my entire lesson up on the board, which today included new vocabulary as well as some new grammar structures. When the bell rang, I decided to forego my usual “what’s up?” greeting to the students, instead standing angrily in the front of the class.

“I have heard that Mr. Wang gave you permission to have a self-study class for the huikao today,” I said. “He did this without asking me. This will not happen again. I have written today’s lesson and homework on the board. You will be responsible for this lesson by next class on next Wednesday. There will be a dictation on these words later next week. If you don’t need an English teacher, just go ahead and self-study. If you have any questions, if you want to know what these words actually mean, please come up and ask me any questions you’d like. These words and this grammar will be on the exam.”

After about fifteen minutes of staring at the students playing on their cell phones and chatting, after fifteen minutes of no students so much as looking at the board, I decided it was enough. “You all look like you’re having lots of fun!” I said in an enthusiastic voice.

The classroom went dead silent for (almost) the first time all semester.

“I’m going to have my own fun!” I said. “I’m going to go outside and have fun with my friends. I hope you have a fun day! You’ll have to know the stuff on the board by next week!”

And with a cheerily ironic smile, I walked out of the classroom.

I was more furious, I think, than ever. That evening was a Christmas dinner that, according to Mr. Wang, would consist of the school’s four foreign teachers, Mr. Wang, and the principal of the school. Nettie said it was the first time ever that the principal was taking so much interest in the foreign teachers, and was excited to meet with him. I wondered if I could see Mr. Wang face-to-face without tearing him to pieces.

After a relaxation (e.g. get out the anger) run along the river, I met the other foreign teachers at the front gate at 5:30pm. Kim’s friend Kristel also met us at the gate. “Why is Kristel coming to this dinner,” I asked Kim, “if it’s only for our school?”

“Kristel said it was the provincial bureau of education’s dinner for all of the foreign teachers and students in Xining,” said Kim, “so she’s going with us.”

Oh. So much for interacting with the principal, let along actually meeting him. We left for the event without Mr. Wang or the principal, who said they would come later.

The dinner was at the Xining Binguan, a massive old Stalinist-style hotel on Qiyi Lu on the way to the train station. We took the bus (which, due to recent street ‘improvements,’ no longer stopped at the hotel but instead a ways down the street) and wandered into the hotel complex. The Xining Binguan is the kind of place they usually keep dignitaries due not only to its luxury and its architectural nostalgia, but also due to the fact that it can be easily sealed off from the surrounding area. After wandering around towering wedding-cake edifices of gray stone and concrete, we found our way to the (slightly more modern) banquet building and went in.

西宁宾馆 - fun with Stalinist architecture

The banquet room was a riot of color. Green and red streamers spackled the ceilings and chandeliers, Santa Clauses gazed benevolently down from all available surfaces. It looked like someone had emptied the contents of a container boat shipping Christmas decorations to America inside the room.

I was also struck by the incredible numbers of white people in the room. While there were many locals scattered around, foreigners were definitely in the majority. I would guess there were at least 150 foreigners in the banquet hall – more than I’ve seen for months, and seemingly all missionaries. As I went to my seat, I was also belatedly struck by the incredible din that was being produced by a 15 (give or take) – piece brass band in the corner of the room. The band, which was totally overkill for a room of this size (not tall or big enough to drown out any of the noise), played the same one-minute song over and over again, occasionally retreating for water (or, more likely, qingkejiu) breaks. The band made any conversation pretty much impossible.

While Emily and Ligaya were at the dinner, I had to sit at the Shida table and therefore didn’t really get to talk to them.  Our table consisted of the four Shida Fuzhong teachers, Kristel, Reinhardt and Cindy (the two missionary teachers at Shida), and another missionary friend of theirs I’d never seen before. Mr. Wang eventually came in, belatedly rounding out the strange mix of people at the table and the promise of a very interesting and strange dinner party.

All of a sudden, I heard a cough over my shoulder. I turned around to see a short, bearded white guy with gleaming eyes and a slightly creepy smile standing behind me.

“So,” he said to me in a vaguely Britishesque accent, “I heard about your parents.”

Not the best conversation starter. I overcame the “who-the-fuck-are-you” impulse that had presented itself to my brain and gathered my thoughts. “What about my parents?”

“That they’re of the Jewish persuasion.”

Okay, that makes a little more sense; I’m well known in Xining for being a rare breed. “Where did you hear that from?”

“Ligaya and Emily told me.”

Probably to get you away from their table. This guy just stared creepily at me, his intense grin making me feel more awkward by the second. The din from the brass band compelled him to stand uncomfortably close to me so he could be heard.

“So I guess I’m not the only Jew in Xining,” I said cautiously.

“Nope!” he said proudly as if it was the most unbelievable revelation. “I’m Jewish too!”

And he stared at me some more.

“That’s great!” I said, trying to muster up some enthusiasm.

Before I had to say anything else, the food started coming out, saving me from further awkwardness. He quickly excused himself so he could go eat.

The food started coming out, and with it came the beginning of the dinner’s Christmas Program, a series of performances that stretched throughout the dinner. Most involved dancing and singing, but the program started with a speech from Reinhardt the missionary himself. By this time, the missionaries had arranged themselves to one side of the table while the non-missionaries were on the other.

The speech was quite sappy and self-congratulatory (to Xining and it’s provincial bureau of education, the dignitaries of which were sitting immediately in front of the stage) which, given the circumstances, was completely appropriate. But it didn’t please everyone. At particularly sappy points in the speech, one side of the table (guess which) made comments like “isn’t that beautiful” or “he’s so sweet,” while the other side – disregarding the close presence of Reinhardt’s wife – made comments like “that’s the most disgustingly sappy thing I’ve ever heard” and “make it stop.” This tension between the two sides of the table was ignored by all, but manifested itself constantly and made the dinner an absolutely hilarious experience.

The ensuing series of performances – and our table’s running commentary on them – were so ridiculous that I barely remember the food. I probably couldn’t name a single dish we ate. Instead, I can tell you that the night started out with a performance of “Tibetan Ethnic Dance” (young girls in skimpy Tibetan-esque costumes doing pole-dancing-like routines in formation, and continued with “Mongol Folk Song”, “Wushu Display”, and the works. The highlight was probably the “Salar Ethic Dance,” not because of the incredibly skimpy outfits or suggestive dance routines (seemingly for the benefit of the officials at the front-center table), but because of the clashing comments I kept hearing from our table’s two sides.

“What beautiful costumes!” “Those dancers are so beautiful!” “Their costumes are so beautiful! can I buy you one? I know you want one, and you’d look so beautiful in those costumes!” “Oh, their cultures are so colorful and beautiful!”

“This is pole-dancing without the pole, totally ridiculous.” “I’ve never seen something more abusive and disgusting.” “This goes against everything I’ve ever believed in. I think my soul is dying.”

I can’t replicated the way these two sets of comments were interacting with each other, as the missionary side of the table was on one planet while the rest of us were on another. But all I can say is that I was laughing my head off at this clash of worldviews, this frank opposition of opinions and ideas that could not have been more stereotypical (on both sides). In my view, the entire program was pretty abusive and disgusting, so I decided to leave early. As I left the building, drunk officials were piling into SUV’s with tinted windows, which barreled their way out of the complex and onto the street with little regard for other vehicles or for pedestrians. I went for a walk to clear my brain of all the crap that had accumulated over the evening. At least, I thought, I could sleep late the next morning; due to the huikao, I only had one class (rather than five) the following day.

walls in a village near Rebgong

The next two days were awesome. My senior 1 class 11 gave me some beautiful calligraphy on Thursday, after which I went shopping with Sarah for Devin’s christmas presents (which involved going to lots of music stores – all right by me). On Friday, my senior 1 10’s gave me a beautiful scarf accompanied with a card labeled “Marry Christmas.” At this point, regardless of gifts, they are definitely my favorite class; I can tell because I smile uncontrollably when walking into the room.

After class, I went pretty much straight to Rebgong (despite a detour over the pass due to (again) a closed tunnel), where I met Brooke and her 15-year-old roommate in their new apartment. The apartment is quite nice, and (bonus!) has adequate heating. Brooke asked if I would come to a class christmas party that evening and, expecting nothing much (my expectations had been lowered by the provincial party), I accepted the invitation.

The party was in the students’ classroom, and by the time we arrived around 7:15 the students had already transformed the classroom into a christmas-party-ready zone, clearing desks away from the center of the room into a circle and putting up decorations on the board and walls. The students shouted with joy when Brooke, Charlotte and I – all laden with pots, pans, decorations, and activities – arrived in the room. They instantly gathered around me and started questioning me: who was I? where was I from? where did I teach in Xining? what was I doing? would I come to teach them?

Brooke's students preparing the classroom for the xmas party

some of Brooke's students making snowflakes

I finally freed myself from the scrum and, after taking some pictures, helped Brooke and Charlotte set up. First, the students made snowflakes for the windows while Charlotte started making caramel downstairs for toffee apples. I cut up a tsampa cake which, though the students loved every bite of it, coated me in the intensely rancid smell of yak butter for the rest of the evening. We made toffee apples and handed out snacks; we were planning to sing some christmas songs and do some other fun activities, but the students quickly took over.

candy apples

First, they showered Brooke and Charlotte with gifts: bowls, teapots, paintings, khata scarves, miniature yaks – the works. They even gave me some khata and a santa hat – completely unnecessary, as I had met most of them for the first time during the previous hour. Then individual students came into the middle of the room to sing and dance to the thumping techno music emanating from a boombox in the corner.

blurry photo of fireworks being shot out the window

All of a sudden, the lights went out. It was nine o’clock, and school was closing. But the party went on; it intensified, actually, turning into a dance party with all of the students rocking out in the middle of the classroom. Students set off firecrackers out the windows and danced on chairs. At one point, the students separated themselves by sex into two groups facing each other. The boys and girls went back and forth singing a short song to each other, the same melody each time but with different words and hand gestures inserted within. The students were intensely focused on the song, gesturing wildly, singing at the top of their voices, letting out all their energy and their emotions in what I learned later was both a type of ritual and a competition. Back and forth, back and forth they went, eyes gleaming in the candlelit darkness, gesturing into each others’ faces, jumping up and down in tight huddles, making their points with intensely seriously smiling focused faces, at the same time jokingly amused and incredibly serious. I watched in awe as the ritualcompetitiongame (whatever it actually was) continued and continued.

Suddenly it ended; the boys could not respond again and the girls side won. Erupting in cheers, they started dancing again and the dance party – one last time – was off.

Finally, it was time to go; we cleaned up everything in the dark and went outside where some students had prepared an amazingly powerful little set of fireworks. We watched the fireworks explode colorfully in the dark starry sky, the students oohing and ahhing at every burst of flame and flash of color, the booming explosions echoing around the silent valley. The fireworks died down; it was time to go home. On the way home, we passed the principal who (it turns out) had been looking down benevolently upon the whole celebration and wished us all a “happy Christmas.”

I was overwhelmed by the support and generosity of Brooke and Charlotte’s students. One of the students told Brooke “if Christmas is your Losar, then all I want is to make you happy this Christmas when you’re away from your family.” These students, maybe because of all the difficulties they’ve gone through in their short lives, or maybe because they are just incredibly caring and generous people, actually support and love their teachers just as much as the teachers support and love them; they give their teachers (not physically, but in the spiritual-metaphorical sense) just as much – if not more – than the teachers give them in class. I can only wish that someday I will have students as supportive, generous, caring, and all-around unbelievable as those in the Rebgong ETP.

The next morning, Brooke, Charlotte and I went to the Wutu festival in Nyentok village immediately north of town. Some friends who were coming down from Xining for the festival had told us that it started around 11am, so we walked over and arrived at about 11:15. By the time we got there, we learned that the festival didn’t actually start until 2pm or so; as our friends were still at least an hour away, we decided to just hang out on top of the hill where the festival would start. The hill, which had an awesome view of the valley below, quickly became crowded with Chinese tourists toting massive cameras. One started staring at me with particular interest. Soon, two men came up to me, one of whom positioned a gigantic professional video camera on a tripod immediately in front of me and started to film me and the other man, who started talking to me in English.

“Hello, foreign friend,” he said, the cameras rolling. “Where do you come from? Why did you decide come to Wutu festival?”

All of a sudden, I was furious. This had come out of nowhere; there was no real warning, no asking if it was OK – a professional film crew just decided to make me a feature of their broadcast. I ripped into the two men in Chinese.

“You can’t film me. I live here. It might put me in danger. You didn’t even ask if you could film me. That’s incredibly rude. I’m not willing to be on your show. I can’t believe…” and so on. The filmer, shocked, muttered an ashamed (or annoyed) “对不起” and wandered away.

But that wasn’t the end; throughout the day, I caught hundreds (or so it seemed) of people pointing their camera at my face. I hate being photographed just because I’m a white guy, so every time I caught a prospective waiguoren-photographer in action I made a face, showed them my butt, or did something else to ward them off or at least make them more self-conscious of what they were doing. Not that I was innocent; I had brought my camera to take pictures of the festival. But I was not nearly as intrusive as the Chinese cameramen, who (of course never asking permission) went up on sacred altars and into their subjects’ faces in search of the perfect shot.

above Nyentok village

Our friends finally arrived, and we had a picnic right above the temple before going back to watch the festival beginning. First, seven teenage boys stripped to their running shorts and smeared ash all over themselves. Then their bodies were painted to resemble animals. They fortified themselves on 青稞酒 (they were young, but it was also around -5 degrees Celsius when the sun was at its height) before dancing around the altar several times. This part of the festival would have been quite interesting had it not been for the incredible obtrusiveness of the cameramen, for whom the dancers occasionally had to stop and wait to get out of the way. Finally, the dancers gave a whoop and started running downhill into the village. The rest of us, hot on the chase, followed.

painting the boys

painted, full of 青稞酒 and ready to go

the beginning of the procession (surrounded, of course, by aggressive cameras)

What ensued was the best part of the event, partially because the dancers’ constant movement meant that the cameramen were always at arms’ length. The boys, still mostly naked and carrying tall sticks, ran through the village on the rooftops and walls of houses and courtyards, balancing on the narrowest of mud walltops and crossing alleyways over rickety-looking wood ladders. As they ran, locals gave them loaves of bread shaped like massive bagels, which the boys put on their sticks, as well as pieces of raw meat, which the boys shoved in their mouths as if possessed. I chased them through the streets, getting totally lost in the network of alleys running between the dusty mud walls of courtyard homes and occasionally catching glimpses of painted bodies high above. The dancers in the festival are apparently not allowed to go through the streets until their final procession through the village’s front gate, which turned into a massive scrum of villagers all trying to get their bagels on the dancers’ sticks before the dancers exited the gate and ran to the river, purging the spirits and evils of the past year. Once the dancers exited the pressing crowd and passed through the gate, the procession broke into an all-out run, everyone at top speed, hurrying to the riverbank where the still scantily-clothed boys threw their bagel-laden sticks into the current and washed themselves in the freezing water. Finally, the boys went to a bonfire that had been started on the riverbank and jumped through, purifying themselves and the year ahead.

the boys walking on the rooftops

the best way to cross the street

the insane scrum at the village gate. we protected some 小孩子 from getting trampled

The festival was an extremely interesting experience for me, as I had never seen anything remotely like it. However, the experience was marred by the superaggressiveness of the photographers who would seemingly stop at nothing to get their shot. My favorite line to the photographers became “我们不在动物园” (we’re not in a zoo), which seemed to have little effect. I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry or upset at photographers, or at photography in general, as at the festival; I now fully understand the belief in some cultures that photography steals one’s soul. Nevertheless, the festival was still a fascinating and worthwhile experience, and I came away happy.

After a short walk up to a hillside to relax, we all met up that evening for a dinner party at Dkar Tsampa (delicious Tibetan restaurant), which – as soon as the 青稞酒 was brought out – quickly turned into a singing circle. It was great to fully relax for the first time in a while, hanging out with friends in a place far from school and singing and playing around and generally having a great time. At the end of the dinner, we ambitiously made plans to meet at 8am the next morning for a trip out into the Ganjia grasslands on the road to Labrang.

We actually made it out by 8:15, a remarkable accomplishment all things considered. Our small bus (which had been rented for the weekend) took the narrow, winding road which has become familiar to me over my trips to Labrang; down into a bonedry valley, then up a steepsided redrock canyon past villages fluttering prayer flags in the wind, up a deep narrow dark canyon forested spruce and junipers growing at impossible angles on the hillsides, up up up and finally breaking out of the dark canyon into vast sunspackled grasslands yaks and sheep grazing on the mountainsides and plains stretching to the horizon. The bus passed the yogurt town (瓜什则) and kept going up, past streaks of snow dotting now-gray pasturelands, limitless views, finally reaching a pass and plunging down into the grasslands of Gansu, which stretched forever into the distance. We were going to see some kind of remnant of an ancient city that Gerald had heard about, and we went into the grasslands in search, finally getting out of the van and walking through herds of sheep across the barren plains. The sun warmed my face, but the winds whipped cold air around my body, quickly numbing my ears and nose. But ancient city or not, the area was beautiful. We went for a wander for a while in the grasslands, aiming for nothing in particular, which was very calming after an intense few weeks; I came back from the walk feeling ready for anything and at peace with the world – maybe even with class 14.

sheep on the grasslands

out for a stroll

view through an old wall

We slid around a bit on a frozen gravel pit, which was a lot of fun (and a good ice-biking substitute in the circumstances), before jumping in the bus to head back to Xining. The tunnel was thankfully open and we got back in the early evening. Overall, a very eventful weekend for me.

sliding around on the ice...

Monday was back to school with my new schedule; everything seems to be going well except for class 14, which was worse than ever (I left class early in a sort of huff). Next weekend, I’m going to Labrang with Sarah, Devin, Kim and Brooke – which promises to be a great adventure. And the following weekend is the beginning of my winter break adventures with a trip to Golog. But I’ll leave the future for later…hopefully, these last two weeks of the semester will somehow bring a flowering of support for my work, but somehow I doubt it; the ideas of support and generosity seem to be foreign to my school.

grassland view from the bus

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One Response to On support and generosity (and the lack of it)

  1. Kailah says:

    Damn. That sounds super stressful. Good thing you only have 2 weeks of classes left in the semester, but still.
    Wutu festival looks fascinating, and that’s a great shot you got (while being respectful in the process) of the boy up on the wall.

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