Archive for the ‘Yangzhou’ Category

1. He’s black.

2. His half-brother lives in Shenzhen. (This was major news in the national press here)

3. He just won the presidential election in America.

4. He beat Hillary Clinton.

Almost no one at the school has heard of John McCain, but there are quite a few students here who are still bummed out about Hillary losing in the primaries.

5. This means Bush isn’t the president of America anymore.

Most people are too polite to say it directly, but the students I’ve talked to seem pretty excited about this.

The students here seem pretty pleased that Obama was elected. One student, who knew I had planned to vote for Obama, came up to me the day after the election with a big smile and yelled, “Obama won the game!”

But there was some confusion about the historical significance of the Obama victory. There is general agreement among the students that Obama is black, and that it’s pretty rare for a black man to be elected president of the United States. But they aren’t quite sure if this is the first time it has happened.

One student asked me if Obama was, in fact, the first black man to be elected president in America. I told him he was, but the student wasn’t quite convinced.

“What about Lincoln?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Lincoln was white.”



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Military training

YANGZHOU – Sometimes, it really pays to work for a technical college.

Take this morning, for example. If I had been a regular American citizen passing through Yangzhou on holiday, perhaps on my way to Slim West Lake or maybe a bit of shopping on Wenchang Road, I might have been a bit confused (and perhaps, terrified) as I watched a few thousand soldiers march down the street in front of Yangzhou University in full combat fatigues at 10:00 on a Saturday morning.

It wouldn’t have helped that the driver of the bus I was riding was screaming at a traffic cop, and threatening to run him over, as the soldiers marched past. Or that the drivers of all of the other cars on the road were honking their horns, cursing, and generally acting like their lives might be in danger if they didn’t get off the road in the next 12 seconds.

To anyone who didn’t know what was going on, it must have looked like the city was under martial law. Or perhaps we were going to war.

But, having worked at Yangzhou Tech for the past few months, I was aware of the fact that all of the colleges and universities in town are holding military training exercises for all of their incoming freshmen this month.

I was also aware of the fact that people in Yangzhou, especially cab drivers and bus drivers, are just about always screaming, cursing and honking their horns, and generally giving the impression that something terrible will happen if they don’t reach their destination in the next 10-15 seconds.

So my only thought, as a few thousand soldiers crossed the street in front of me, was, “That would make a really great picture for the blog.”

The list of strange and interesting things that have led to my not having to teach my English class for a while, continues to grow.

In Thailand, my class was regularly canceled for Buddhist holidays, and to celebrate important moments in the lives of the royal family (including the King’s 80th birthday and the death of the King’s sister, which led to a 15-day national mourning period that was subsequently extended to 100 days in some cities).

Here in Yangzhou, my faculty course was occasionally called off for rain, the faculty-wide singing competition, and to allow my students to attend Communist Party training sessions.

This month, all of my freshmen classes are canceled so my students can take part in a month of mandatory military training.

Every student at our school, and I believe this is done at just about every school in China, has to participate in military training for the first month of their freshman year. The training includes marching, learning some basic military chants and songs, and some basic combat maneuvers (at our school, this appears to be limited to hand-to-hand combat, and it’s very basic).

Mostly, it’s a whole lot of marching, standing at attention, and responding to basic military orders.

At our school, most of the new recruits are girls (like in the States, the girls outnumber the boys on college campuses here). And most of them (above) are very thin and very tiny. This, my Australian colleague tells me, means that a few students will faint from standing too long in the heat.

The training is not too strenuous, but it is quite long. Training begins around 6:00 a.m. and I’ve seen the students finishing up as late as 5:00 p.m. in the evening. According to a local friend, the training is led by members of the actual Chinese military.

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The street in this photo has been there for a thousand years, or so the locals tell me.

It used to be part of the city’s main commercial district, back when Yangzhou was one of the richest and most important cities in China. In those days, the salt merchants (who seem to be roughly equivalent to today’s oil tycoon) would come here to buy or trade or do whatever absurdly wealthy people might have done at the time.

Surprisingly little has changed over those thousand years. People still live on this street, and the city’s main commercial district is now just a few blocks away.

Of course, a few things have changed since the end of the Qing Dynasty. One block over from where this picture was taken, there is a giant electronics mall selling all of the newest computers, digital cameras, and assorted tech gadgets. There are so many gadgets for sale there that the place fills two four-story buildings, each plastered with giant advertisements for the various brand-name products you can find inside.

The ancient street has become something of a tourist attraction these days, particularly around the childhood home of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, who grew up in a little Chinese-style townhouse on this street.

But it’s pretty amazing that there are still people living on a street that is somewhere around five times older than the entire history of the United States. And that in all of that time, the economic center of Yangzhou has shifted less than five blocks.

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Joan, a middle-aged colleague at Yangzhou Tech, still remembers it.

It was 1995, when she and some 20 other teachers took a trip to Beijing on an educational tour organized by her college. It was her first trip to Beijing, and doubtless the first for many of her colleagues.

She was in Tiananmen Square, where just six years earlier her government had opened fire on unarmed student protesters, when she saw it.

Her first KFC.

Sitting in the foreign teacher’s office for her speaking exam at the end of an oral English course for faculty, Joan recalls the meal 13 years later.

“It was in 1995,” she tells me. “I was in Tiananmen Square, and I was introduced to KFC for the first time.”

She remembers it the way one remembers an important moment in one’s life. The way I might remember my first night market in Thailand or the first time I walked into a little restaurant in China and clumsily attempted an order.

Thirteen years from now, I might tell someone about the time I walked into a little place in Ban Phe and ended up with a whole fish floating in a bowl of clear broth. Or my first plate of eel at the airport in Tokyo. Or the time I tried pig brains at a hot-pot place in Yangzhou.

But to Joan, who would think nothing of pig brains or eel or a bowl of fish soup, an overpriced plate of fried chicken was the most exotic meal she could ask for.

This all seems very silly to an American, of course. But put yourself in Joan’s position.

For the past 35 years, you have eaten nothing but Chinese food. You’ve read about this place on the other side of the world, watched a number of foreign films about it, and basically built it up in your mind as the most exciting and wonderful place in the world. A place where everyone is rich and attractive, the women sleep with everyone they meet (a lot of people in China and Thailand believe this about American girls, probably because of the movies), and all of the important decisions in the world are made.

Now imagine that you have the opportunity, for the first time in your life, to taste the food that people eat in this place. A meal from a real American restaurant!

For anyone old enough to remember a China without the Western fast-food chain, which can now be found in all the major cities here, that is what it felt like to walk into a KFC for the first time.

Even today, the American fast-food chain holds a position of honor in the Chinese restaurant scene. A meal at McDonald’s or KFC will cost you more than 20 yuan, which makes it one of the pricier dining options in a city like Yangzhou, where the equivalent Chinese dish won’t cost you more than 7-10 yuan. A Pizza Hut qualifies as high-end dining in China, with meals going for more than 50 yuan. When one enters a Pizza Hut here, one may be surprised to find a sign that reads, “Please wait to be seated.” And sure enough, a hostess will appear to seat your party.

You will always find a McDonald’s, KFC or Pizza Hut at the trendiest and swankiest locales in any Chinese city. In Yangzhou, for example, the choice location in town would have to be the area around the traffic circle at the head of Wenchang Road, which marks the center of the city’s downtown commercial district. Sure enough, occupying two of the most visible addresses in town, just opposite the famed circle, are a Pizza Hut and a KFC.

And though a meal will cost you three times the price of a Chinese equivalent, you won’t find an empty McDonald’s in China. I’ve walked past quite a few in Yangzhou, Nanjing, and Shanghai now and I haven’t found one that wasn’t full.

It’s really something in a country where people will argue over a two-dollar cab ride. It’s still hard to believe, as an American, but Joan offers three reasons why she continues to hold the food at KFC in such high regard.

“First, it’s standard,” she tells me. “Second, it’s clean. And third, it’s delicious!”

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The first thing I noticed was the hats.

It was 12:30 p.m. and the torch would not be here until 3:00. But there were already thousands of people at the head of Wenchang Road, staking their claim to a small piece of sidewalk and preparing to welcome the Olympic Torch to their city.

They carried flags of all sizes, from the cheap miniature you might get in an ice-cream sundae to the full-sized one you might find wrapped around the body of a sprinter as he circles the track for a victory lap.

There were grown men in “I love China” T-shirts with Chinese-flag stickers on both cheeks. Others wore red headbands with Chinese characters in gold lettering.

And almost everyone had the same hat on.

It turns out, the hats were for volunteers. There were thousands of them, and their job was to wave their flags and lead various chants. (One of my colleagues tells me the chants translate roughly into, “Come on, Olympics!” and “Come on, Beijing!” and “Welcome to Yangzhou!”)

Whoever organized them really didn’t need to. By 1:30 p.m., the volunteers were dwarfed by the number of ordinary citizens who were on hand, dressed every bit as ridiculously and waving their own very large flags.

It was the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for a college football game or a political rally, which in a way is what it was. If the torch relay had been a political event in London and Paris and San Francisco, the Yangzhou leg of the relay was a rally of a different sort. A pep rally for the Party, if you will.

There was pageantry aplenty, including a pair of trucks filled with Beijing ’08 cheerleaders.

But mostly, it was a few sweaty hours of people who love their country hoping to catch a glimpse of the Olympic Torch (and maybe get a shot of it on their camera-phones).

And after two-and-a-half hours in the sun, far too many photo ops with excited locals, and 17 yuan spent on a Torch Relay T-shirt and two miniature flags, I caught my own brief glimpse of the torch. And though I had to crop out the hands, flags, and camera-phones of my fellow torch-gawkers, I even got a shot of it on my camera.

I’d heard a few days ago that one of the students from our school would be participating in the torch relay. It turns out, he played a pretty major role in the event. He’s the guy standing to the left of the torchbearer (he’s the one who isn’t wearing a hat).

After a dramatic salute (above) in the center of the traffic circle at the head of Wenchang Road, the flame was transferred to a new torchbearer. All of this happened about 20 feet, and many dozens of people, from where I was standing.

I posed for a number of pictures with locals who wanted a photo with a foreigner, but this is my favorite. (How often do you get a picture with a guy in a “I heart China” shirt and a Chinese flag cape?)

The scarf draped around my neck was handed to me by a random passerby a few minutes after I arrived at the traffic circle. I don’t read Chinese, but the many people I asked for translations tell me it is a tribute to the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan Province.

There wasn’t a separatist in sight at the head of Wenchang Road, but there were plenty of police officers. The police presence wasn’t any worse than you would expect to find at an event of this size, though.

A grown man with Chinese-flag stickers on both cheeks.

Another one.

One of the two large trucks carrying Beijing ’08 cheerleaders.

There was a huge crowd in front of KFC more than two hours before the torch arrived. One of two air-conditioned restaurants with a view of the traffic circle, the KFC was absolutely packed by 12:30 p.m.

A headband, stickers, and a giant flag gives this guy the torch relay trifecta.

And we close with laowai looking silly. This is me and Alice, the other foreign teacher at our school. Somebody handed me the big flag for the photo, but the small flags we bought from a guy on the street for 2 yuan.

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You don’t get many chances to lead with a 3-foot statue doing rhythmic gymnastics in downtown Yangzhou.

I’ll be doing quite a bit of writing over the next few years, but I’m willing to bet this is the only time I’ll get to mention a rhythmic gymnastics-themed statue blowing kisses to a crowd of Chinese camera-phones in the middle of a crowded business district.

The reason the traffic on Wenchang Road was forced to dodge dozens of small children posing for their parents’ camera-phones is the arrival of the Olympic Torch in Yangzhou. The torch will be carried through the city tomorrow, including what should be a pretty dramatic stop at the traffic circle in the center of the downtown shopping district.

To prepare for the torch’s arrival there, the city has outfitted the traffic circle with statues of the Beijing ’08 mascots competing in their favorite Olympic events. The more obvious events are strangely missing, in favor of some of the less celebrated contests. The non-revenue events, if you will.

You won’t find swimming or basketball at the head of Wenchang Road, but pole vault, shooting, and weightlifting are all represented, along with ping-pong, karate, and, of course, rhythmic gymnastics.

There are five mascots for the Beijing Olympics, one for each of the Olympic rings. Their names, Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, and Nini, combine to form the phrase “Bei Jing Huan Ying Ni,” which means “Welcome to Beijing.”

Jinjing the Panda represents the harmonious bond between man and nature, which makes it a bit strange to see him holding a handgun.

Proving once again that he is by far the manliest of the mascots, Jingjing drew shooting and weightlifting. We’re still waiting for the results of his drug test.

That’s me with Yingying the Tibetan Antelope, who is representing the host’s national sport. I’d speculate that they chose Yingying for the ping-pong statue as a subtle olive branch to the troublesome Autonomous Region, but I think that’s reading a bit too much into it. That’s a real ping-pong paddle, though. Got to love the authenticity there.

Don’t mess with Huanhuan, the Olympic Torch. He knows karate.

Here’s Yingying the Tibetan Antelope on the pole vault. (That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.)

According to the official bios, Yingying is strong in the track and field events.

This badminton player is Nini the Swallow. Her bio says she’s strong in gymnastics, so she’s stretching a bit here.

And finally, we come to Beibei the Fish. Not surprisingly, she’s strong in the water sports, but she somehow beat out Nini in the rhythmic gymnastics qualifying.

I’m not ready to call her the George Mason of the Yangzhou Torch Relay, but maybe she’s a Davidson.

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The list, of course, is growing.

I’ve already mentioned that college professors sleep in bunk beds here, and that every now and then they might have to miss a class or two to “learn the knowledge of the Communist Party of China.”

But I haven’t told you about the singing.

Singing is a really big deal here. If you spend enough time with locals, sooner or later one of them is bound to ask if she can sing a song for you. She will probably expect you to sing something in return, at which point you will have to explain that singing songs to people you’ve just met is one of the many things that just wouldn’t happen in America.

Which brings me to last Wednesday’s faculty-wide singing contest. I found out about the contest when one of my colleagues explained why he was the only person to show up to my class on Tuesday. The 37 other teachers who were supposed to be working on their conversational English that day were getting ready for Wednesday’s performances.

So the next afternoon I went to the school auditorium to see what all the fuss was about. And for the next hour and a half, I watched faculty from each department in our school deliver spirited and well-rehearsed performances of Chinese nationalist songs.

Every group had costumes and at least some minor choreography, and every group was under the direction of a faculty conductor. One group even had props, in the form of miniature Chinese flags to be waved dramatically at the song’s climax (my resident interpreter explained that the song in question was about waving the “red flag,” meaning the flag of China).

One of my colleagues from the course I do for the faculty served as my interpreter for the event. She was in one of the first groups to perform, so she spent the rest of the contest telling me what each song was about. Invariably, the songs were about China and the pride one should feel about living there.

There was one exception to the nationalist theme, though my interpreter told me the song is very popular in China. It was “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music, translated into Chinese. According to my interpreter, “everyone in China knows this song.”

American films are very popular in China, actually. They have weekly showings of Hollywood movies at Yangzhou University, so the students and members of the community can practice their English, and all the movie theaters have current Hollywood films, either dubbed in Chinese or with Chinese subtitles.

The locals are genuinely surprised to learn that I have never heard of any of the Chinese movie stars and pop singers they ask me about, since they know so much about American stars. Just another example of how much more interest the rest of the world has in us, than we have in the rest of the world.

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