Tag Archives: Huizhou

China’s Development Ghosts

It is said that China houses two-thirds of the world’s construction cranes.  It’s not hard to see this, even when living in a medium-tier city like Huizhou.  Everywhere you look, the towering yellow steel overhangs bamboo-scaffold high-rise apartments, stylish office buildings, and designer brand shopping malls.  The development here is staggering and overwhelming; so much that you can’t help but wonder where all the money and resources come from.

But one thing that baffles me is when these buildings are finished, what clientage will buy and keep these projects from becoming white elephants?  The biggest and eeriest example is the New South China Mall in Dongguan, a city of 10 million in Guangdong province, which opened in 2005.  It’s the largest mall in the world at two times the size of Minnesota’s Mall of America, complete with 659,612 square-meters of space, a 25 m replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a 2.1 km canal with gondolas, a replica of Venice’s St. Mark’s Bell Tower, and a 553 m indoor/outdoor roller coaster.  As grand and impressive as it is, 99% of its leaseable space remains unoccupied, save for only the entrance that has a few western fast-food joints and the massive parking garage, which, for lack of customer vehicles, has now been turned into a go-kart track.

Here in Huizhou there are at least five new 5-star hotels being built at the moment, yet the original and first 5-star, The Kande International, on average only has about a 35% occupancy rate.  Walk through the big double doors and it’s fully staffed; hoards of employees dressed to hilt in formal attire poised and ready for customers.  They seem to be bored and just going through the motions as if their only job was just to look the part.  When a customer walks in they jump at the chance to deliver their service, seemingly overjoyed that something is actually happening.

Another example is a 9-story shopping plaza, Rainbow, located in the heart of downtown Huizhou.  It houses all the expensive (real) designer brands such as Nike, Levis, Gucci, etc… among others.  It’s strange walking through the shops because even though they, like the Kande, are fully (even overly) staffed, you’d be lucky to spot a customer actually buying something, let alone even browsing. They’re more like commercial museums or simulations of capitalism, where anyone can have a gander and only dream that one day they could actually purchase even the cheapest thing available.

I went there a couple of days ago with my girlfriend just to kill some time.  We strolled through each floor and sometimes something would catch my eye and I would step in and take a look.  Everytime I was immediately surrounded by at least a couple of the store’s employees practically breathing down my neck and following me around asking what I’m looking for or if I’d like to try it on.  Like the Kande, they seem starved to try out their customer service skills.  Even with my monthly income, which is considered upper-class here, I know I would be a fool to actually buy an item (especially when I can find a near-perfect copy for a fraction of the cost).

We were hungry so we went up to the food court on the 9th floor for dinner.  When we reached the top of the escalator and entered, most of the tables were full.  I thought, “Oh, so this is where everybody’s at.”  But on a closer look, I was wrong.  At every table sat groups of uniformed employees eating their Tupperware dinners they brought from home.  Out of the four spaces for restaurants, only two of them were in service and yet no one was eating their food.  The cooks and staff stood waiting at each window like a stiff toll-booth employee, only the traffic here had never come.  We walked over to a Korean restaurant on the far end of the dining area.  All ten long tables were completely empty except for one, where two waitresses were sitting and stitching away on an embroidery quilt.  The three cooks  gathered around a computer watching one of them play a shooting game.  As we walked in, they immediately stood to attention, smiled and welcomed us to their empty establishment. 

At this point, I was laughing in disbelief.  What the hell is going on here?  I felt like I was in a surreal post-apocolyptic dream where the whole world had been destroyed and for some reason, this mall had been spared and its inhabitants oblivious to the catastrophe around them.  I slowly ate my kimchi and soup while staring out the window at all the yellow cranes in the distance jutting up through the skyline. 

I had goosebumps as I looked at my girlfriend and half-jokingly, half-terrfyingly said, “This is the future.”

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Yes, I’m a Real Person

Last Friday was surreal. Izel, the head of another school I work at called me up the day before and asked if I could go visit a Kindergarten somewhere outside of the city. Since I don’t work on Friday afternoons at the university, I said why not?

We met at her school, a private one run almost completely by her, and I was greeted by the three other teachers working there.  All of them happen to be from Africa.   Two of them, a younger woman and man from Ghana, and another early thirties guy from Kenya. They all work under Izel, who is originally from the Philippines.

I asked what the plan was and she said we were being picked up by one of her adult students, a chinese man who owns an export garment factory and two kindergarten schools. We were to go visit both of his schools because the children there had never seen foreigners before and he thought it would be a good idea to broaden their horizons.

We arrived at the first school, which was in Shiba, about an hour northeast of Huizhou.  Shiba is a very small town, more like a village where the wealthiest in town are lucky to drive cars and if you have a motorbike, you’re doing pretty good.  The kindergarten building was shaped sort of like a castle and had cartoons of Mickey & Minnie Mouse (among others) painted huge all over it. 

As an attendant opened the gate to let us drive into the courtyard, situational thoughts ran:   A Filipina, Kenyan, two Ghanaians and an American walk into a Chinese kindergarten.  Yeah, the joke’s on us.  There was a big red banner in Chinese that said, “Welcome American Teachers to our school!”  We were all American in their eyes. 

We piled out of the cars and stood in the courtyard, trying to figure out exactly what was going on.   An attractive Chinese woman in her early 30s came over to us and said hello.  She also happened to be one of the heads of the school.  She had a camera in hand and immediately started taking pictures of us; no doubt with the intent of publishing them to attract more enrollments. 

After our arrival photo shoot, I walked into one of the classrooms in session and introduced myself to the little ones.

“Hellooo!!!”  I waved with both hands and smiled as wide as my cheeks could go.

The 5-6 year olds immediately looked up from their desks and gave me a blank stare of reserved curiosity, the kind of look clowns are probably used to getting.  The Chinese teachers asked them to follow their lead, “Good afternoon Teacher!!!”

Nothing.  A few of the kids started laughing at me, others just gazed at this weird thing standing in front of them.  So, I put up a hand and happily walked around trying to give them high-fives.  A few of them held up their little paws, a couple looked on the brink of tears, and one boy even stood up on his chair and stretched out his hand, anticipating my arrival to his side. 

At this point, my six-foot-two colleague from Ghana, we’ll call him Terry, came into the classroom and let out a big “Hellooo!!!” to which the kids turned around and once again became dazed by this new being.  Unfortunately for Terry, some of the children started crying and screaming, yet most of them just looked on in surprise.  The Chinese woman with the camera was behind him taking shots of us left and right.

Terry and I went from classroom to classroom doing the same thing and with the same results:  crying, screaming, laughter, and bewildered curiosity.  I felt like some kind of strange being from another world.  One of the kids even pulled on my nose, as if trying to yank away my “mask”.

After making our rounds playing, singing songs and dancing (I did the moonwalk to amazed laughter), we were told that we needed to stand near the school gate to wave goodbye to the kids and their parents as they came to pick them up.  Of course, this was a bit of a plug for the owner as a way to show the parents his school was special in terms of learning english.

As we stood there smiling and waving, a crowd of people, young and old, started to gather outside the gate.  They all looked on with the same faces as the children we’d just met.  Some of them yelled “Hey man!” or “Nice to meet you!”  I must have posed for over a hundred photos with the children and their parents.  One grandfather rode in on a bike and was looking at us like he’d just seen a ghost.  He kept pointing at us, but mostly he was curious about Terry.  He kept rubbing his face with both hands, as if he was trying to rub something off.  Finally, he walked over to Terry and took a closer look.  Terry speaks pretty good Chinese, and he thinks he was saying, “Why don’t you wash your face?” 

Terry just shrugged it off and laughed and leaned in to tell me grandpa smelled like he’d been drinking all afternoon.  The old man went in to pick up his grandson and came back, slowly lifting him up and setting him in a seat on the back of his bicycle.  No he isn’t!  we both thought as he got ready to ride away, the little one holding onto his backsides.  They slowly wobbled away out the gate and disappeared.  Just to think, this is probably an everyday occurence for the little fella.

As the children started thinning out, there was still a pretty good size crowd of curious onlookers.  The woman with the camera tried to tell them to go away, but had no luck, only laughing when she was walking back from them.  We asked her why she was laughing so much and she said that one of the onlookers asked her, “Zhengde ren 正地人?”  Which roughly translates into “Are they real people?”

Terry and I burst into our own laughter and decided to start walking around like robots to add to the moment.  I couldn’t keep a straight face as the last parents and their kids waved goodbye to us. 

After about four hours of being something else, my cheeks never hurt so much.

P.S.  I’m trying to get a hold of the pictures to post here.  Fingers crossed.

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Roughing It

It’s been awhile since I added a new post.  I told myself I would be good at keeping this blog updated and I’m already slagging off.  One reason was because I think I had some wild Chinese virus that completely crashed and shut down my notebook (couldn’t even turn it on).  So I went with a couple of my students to the computer repair man in the technology district of Huizhou.  It took a couple hours but, while chain-smoking inside the store, he got it back up and running for  a cost of only 50 yuan (7$ USDs).

Anyhow, two Fridays ago they canceled university classes because they had some kind of track meet.  So, I decided to take my first hike in China.  There are not really any mountains within the city limits; I would  call them more like rugged hills with thick vegetation.  I wanted to find Gaobang Mountain and all I had to find my way was a crappy map in Chinese, but there was the international sign for mountain in one corner:  a bold triangle with a 130 m next to it.  Yeah, 130 meters, hardly a hike, but nothing would prepare me for what I encountered at the top. 

On the way to Gaobang, there is a quaint, old-style village that is tucked into the foothills and surrounded by small yet fertile farming patches.  Even though I was still in the city, I felt like I’d stepped into what I’d like to think Huizhou used to resemble before all the modern buildings, apartment blocks, and crazy traffic.

 

As I walked through the fields, I could see the trails zig-zagging across the mountain, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to get to the entrance.  I stood there, tourist map in hand, the only foreigner in sight for miles, and two elderly women came up to me and asked me in Chinese where I was going.  I pointed to the mountain.  “Gaobangshan?” I asked.  They nodded their heads and told me to follow them.  I thanked them and started to walk by their side towards the village and the mountain.  They asked me some questions and of course I had no idea what they were saying so all I said in my best Mandarin was, “I’m from America.  I’m an English teacher.”  They smiled and seemed to understand and beckoned me to keep following them but I still wanted to keep stopping to take pictures.  So, they went ahead but I kept a steady pace behind them and every couple minutes they would turn around and shout something and motion to keep following.  I had to laugh.  Here I was, sort of stalking these two old women, taking pictures of random things they wouldn’t think were interesting, and they kept yelling at me as I trailed behind them.  The other people in the village must’ve been thinking, What the?

 

I had to stop at this little house and take a shot of the flag in the window.  I like how it’s not only hanging from the clothes-line, but for some odd reason it’s also tied off at the window.  Almost all residence windows in Huizhou, no matter how high off the ground, have these steel protective bars over them.  I asked my students why and they said it was to keep out theives.  Funny.  For a place where crime is virtually non-existent, especially compared to the States, they sure keep a cautious attitude.

 

After finally getting through the village’s stray dogs and children, I reached the opening of the trail and my two kind tour guides sent me on my way with some final shouts and outstretched fingers leading the way.  I thanked them and started my “trek” up the trail.

Hiking here is similar to Korea.  Only here people don’t dress like they’re climbing Mt. Everest and the trails, like Korea, aren’t really trails at all, merely concrete or brick paths winding there way up and down.  There’s also bits of trash and cigarette butts scattered along the edges of the path, but surprisingly not as much as I expected.  I passed other hikers, mostly older couples or groups of men, and most of them looked surprised or even a bit bewildered to see me.  A few of them even laughed or gave their best “Hallo!”  It took only about 25 minutes to get to Xiangyun Tower (some kind of large antennae) at the top, but since it was humid I broke a hefty sweat.

This is over looking some of Huizhou City.  You can see West Lake in the distance just before the small skyline of buildings.  It looks a bit hazy, but it was actually a pretty clear day, so you can imagine what it looks like when it’s really overcast.  I wouldn’t say the air is bad in Huizhou, but you definately can’t deny it’s a tad dirty. 

After I cooled off and enjoyed the view,  I started to walk over to a large new temple under construction which sits a top the mountain.  There was a large backhoe dropping chunks of earth and rocks into a dumptruck blocking the middle of the road, so I patiently waited before walking around.  When it was clear, the worker waived me on and I made my way around the truck and kept heading down the dirt road towards the other side of the temple.  Well, the truck started barrelling down the road towards me so I stepped to the side and let it pass, only to have it stop and start backing up right before me; again blocking the road as it dumped all the gravel and dirt.  I didn’t want to wait again, so this time I decided to find a way around the truck.  There was a small ditch to the right of it and it looked like there was a little bit of light colored mud puddled at the bottom.  I figured a little mud wouldn’t hurt, after all, I was hiking and I did take the stairs coming up, so I thought a little mud on the shoes would give the hike a  more rugged feel.  I stepped down.  Whoosh!  My leg shot down into the “matter”, and next thing I knew I was up past my knee into the stuff.  I yelled and quickly pulled myself out of it and climbed up the other side.  I looked down and half my leg was covered in this greenish-brown muck.  “Ahhhh fuck!”  I couldn’t help but shout as I noticed bits of rice and other chunks of what I could only call crap completely covering my leg.  The smell was overwhelming and I turned my head over and puked. 

I immediately thought the worst.  I stepped in a huge vat of shit.  I turned around and the driver was trying to hold in his laughter.  I pointed at my leg, trying to plead for some kind of help.  He pointed over to a building about ten meters away.  I limped over, trying not breath and look down.  I reached a doorway and there was an old woman sitting on a chair.  “Ni hao!”  I said and pointed down at the mess.  She slowly got up and came over to assess my disaster.  She gave me a grimace and said something pointing back to where the pit was.  I nodded my head, confirming what I’d just done.  She plugged her nose and walked over to me, then led me back towards the truck.  I followed her into a dark room where there was a rusty faucet and she told me I could wash it off there, then left me there to clean it up myself.  The Chinese are nice but, of course in my case, not completely hospitable.  I gagged as I untied my Vans and washed away the gunk.  As I watched it drain away, I noticed where it was going:  down a little crevice that led out the corner of the room and back down…yep, into the vat.  I sighed in relief.  It wasn’t the workers digested meals as I originally feared, merely a drainoff where they probably washed their dishes and dumped their uneaten food.  After I cleaned off the bottom of my shorts, my leg and my shoes as best as I could, I put my wet socks and Vans back on and headed out.  I walked by the doorway again, pointed to my leg, and said thank you to the old woman.  She laughed and waved me on.

Even though I got most of the muck off, the smell was still lingering.  Great, as if I wasn’t already attracting enough attention just being a foreigner.  Oh well.  I was only halfway through my hike and I wasn’t going to let some muddy, food-infested vat ruin my fun.  I trekked on.  The thought did cross my mind to take a picture before I cleaned all the muck off, but between holding my nose and gagging, I just couldn’t muster up the motivation.  So here’s a post-cleanup shot.

I squeked and squished my way around to the front of the temple, passing other hikers who for once weren’t gawking at my face for they had something more interesting to feast their eyes on.  I’m sure they were wondering, which trail did he come up?  I came around to the front of the temple and there were droves of families, couples, and some construction workers enjoying a smoke break.  While I was standing at a ledge and overlooking the city, two couples behind me kept trying to take a picture with me in the background.  You know, trying to not make it look like they were taking my picture by staying a few steps away, but it was pretty obvious.  Finally, they came over and asked if I would take a picture with them.  Of course I happily obliged.  Then, I tried to tell them to use my camera too to get the same picture with them, but instead, they stepped away and took one of me by myself. 

Let me give you some background before you see this next shot.  Like Korea and most of Asia, overweight people are few and far between.  It seems for some reason that their diet of mostly vegetables, some meat, and plenty of rice just doesn’t add on the pounds like a Double-Quarter Pounder Value Meal does.  I can honestly say that since I’ve been here for the past two months, I can probably count the hefty people I’ve seen on one hand.  Nevertheless, there are exceptions, and I was almost happy to see a chubby tweenage or so boy hucking down a bag of chips and a liter of soda on a bench at the scenic view area.  I’m not sure where his parents were and it seemed that no one was really looking after him.  Just him, his bag of goodies, the liter, and a grinning crumb-smeared face.  So, I did what the Chinese sometimes do when they see someone who is out of place.  I snapped a picture.

He clapped and jumped up and down when I showed it to him.  After I felt a little guilty, I headed back down a different trail where I was trying to find another temple/palace-like place I’d seen down at the bottom.  While I was walking down there was this little black poodle belonging to an older woman that kept nipping at my heels and barking at me.  Of course it wasn’t barking at anyone else who passed by.  I wondered if it was barking at me because I looked strange or if it was because it got a whiff of my organic leg.  Probably a combination of both.  The old woman could do nothing but laugh hysterically and try to calm it down, but it was no use.  It really wanted to make sure everyone else was aware of the passing intruder.

 

 

After winding through the village again, I found my way to the temple grounds.  It seems that this one was recently constructed too because it didn’t have the splintered wood charm most the older ones have.  It was entirely built out of newly masoned granite and fresh wood but still looked pleasing to my eyes. 

This is outside the main building and like most important buildings and temples in China, it is decorated by a pair of curly-haired Chinese lions.  This one is the female and she is holding her baby down underneath her paw.  Why you might ask?  Well, according to my trusty guidebook, the Chinese believed that lions could secrete milk through their paws.  The male on the other side is usually seen playing with a ball.  Now you know.

 

 

 

While I was wandering around the grounds, a woman with rhinestone-gemmed glasses came up to me and asked me in near perfect English, “Where are you from?”  I told her and she asked a few other of the usual questions about why I’m in China, my impressions, can I use chopsticks, etc.  She told me she was the manager of the place.  Then she asked, “Would you like some tea?” and pointed inside the building above.  At first I said no thank you, thinking it was some tourist trap to get some extra dough out of me.   “It’s OK.  It’s free,” she smiled.  “You can have a try.”  I reluctantly said OK because I still smelled of rotton vegetables and who knows what else, I just hoped she wouldn’t notice.  She led me into the doorway and sat me down at a beautiful table set made completely of what looked like a section of a large tree trunk.  She then introduced me to the tea girl who would be serving me. 

 

I sat there patiently, watching her make the tea and trying to speak to her in my little known Mandarin because, unlike the manager, she spoke almost no English.  As I sat there, I began to wonder if she could smell the after-effect of my incident.  I couldn’t tell because by then, I had grown used to the stench.  It was a pretty awkward moment and I couldn’t wait until she finished making the tea so I could slug it down and get the hell out of there.  She had to of had a whiff.  After a couple minutes she poured me a small cup and I sipped it carefully.  It was awesome.  Just watching the whole experience of her making traditional tea and then savoring it definately made me feel a tad Chinese.  Just then, a group of three older men entered the tea-room.  The girl welcomed them in and told them to sit down.  They took one look at me, paused a moment, turned a slight look of disgust on their face, and then walked out.  Haha!  I’m guessing the reason(s) why, but I didn’t care because I had the whole place to myself.  Just me and my own tea girl and a room full of cultural awkwardness.  Ahh, I soon forgot about the whole incident on the mountain and let my mind wander through the landscape paintings on the walls and the little trinkets on the shelves as I slowly slurped my tea.

I thanked her as I finished up and started to leave.  The rhinestone-rimmed glasses greeted me as I was walking out.  “Did you enjoy?”  she asked.  “Yes.  It was very good,” I replied.  “You can come here anytime you want.  Next time you can bring your friends,” she said as the tea girl came up and stood beside me.  They then had a little conversation and both started giggling.  “I must be going now,” I said.  “OK,” she said, “but before you go, do you think we could take our pictures with you?”  I should’ve guessed.  “Of course!”  I happily obliged.

Can you sense the moment?  She’s leaning in, I’m leaning away.  Which leads me to conclude:  only in China will someone still want to take a picture with you even though you smell like complete shit.  I love it here.

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Strolling Huizhou

It’s exactly two weeks now that I’ve been living in China.  Fourteen days of curiousity, insight, new tastes and smells, trying to remember the names of over 200 students, and walking for at least ten aimless hours around the city.  I dig Huizhou a lot.  The hardest part of living here is not knowing the language, but I’m starting to pick it up at a moderate pace.  Mandarin is not as hard as I thought it would be.  It has very basic grammar, but the pronuciation and rising and falling tones are what can make it difficult.  My mouth and tongue attempting to form new and unusual combinations can sometimes make me sound like a bad Kung Fu flick.  

I’m sore right now from all the walking around I’ve done this past week and I also played some four-on-four basketball with my students for a couple hours.  I haven’t played in a few years and it was funny because I was the only one calling timeouts so I could catch my breath and chug some water.  I was a sweaty mess, but it was fun and a lot of the students would stop and watch a ‘live-real-life-white-man’ in his own sporting element.  I’m sure my ability didn’t quite rise to their expectations.  Some of the students’ love  for basketball here is pretty intense, seeing as the fifteen or so courts here on campus are always alive with the sounds of shuffling sneakers and the constant hollow-air bounce.  

I promised more pictures of the city and I hope my strolling around was able to deliver.  I ran into two of my male students one day at a McDonalds (I was starving with no pictures on menus in sight) and they were able to show me around the city’s famous ‘West Lake’.  There’s an assortment of other pictures here too.  When you don’t have an intinerary, you just have to let your legs and eyes dictate your lefts and rights through the streets.  I’ll let my camera frame do the rest of the talking (with captions).  

Huizhou University Gate/Bus Stop

Huizhou University -- The Sunrise building where I hold my classes

Downtown Plaza where children drive mini battery-powered cars (I was "run over" by one smiling boy)

Riverside Plaza

Looking back from the river bank

Watching the River

No city is complete without a Viking

A True Fisherman

Closed Beer Stand

PBR drinkers of the world unite!

I always thought tennis was funny with all the grunts, weird scores, and...old people?

Southern area of West Lake

Skyline Mirror

Cigarettes and Fish

In need of a frog

Singing and playing the Erhu (Chinese Violin)

Ahoy!

Art and Architecture

Sunset Peacock

One of the main intersections

So there's these three fisherman...

Finishing dinner

Looking across from a bridge over West Lake

An old Temple (Ta)

Bamboo and Lanterns

Lakeside Living

Main West Lake

No...you cannot milk this tree

Standing in front of Sizhou Pagoda (500 yr. old monument to the famous sage Seng Jla)

Pagoda Detail (notice the love graffiti)

Pagoda overview

Pagoda Window

Opposite View

To the blue

Leggy Tree

Light for Sale

Love Boat Corral

Ancient Tree

Calligraphy Museum Entrance

Tim Burton would be proud

Tang Choo Yu (Sweet & Sour Fish) -- most tasty Chinese meal I've eaten so far and only about $3 USDs

Doorway decorations for good fortune

Antiquity Street

 

 

Westlake Bird Peddlers

One of the many developed areas

Night Moves

 

Eat your heart out Huck Finn

I believe I stumbled upon the ever changing houseboat neighborhood

Lollin' on de liber

Suspension Shot

Old Gate

Cruising through

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The Arrival of Smith

I arrived in mainland China after a three hour bus ride from Hong Kong to Huizhou City in the Guangdong Province.  My window was like a vintage television playing a PBS documentary.  I was glued to it the whole drive.  We passed yellow and green farms, dilapidated tin shacks rose out of the fields, and grey smokestacks loomed before lush hills and small mountains.  The further we drove inland, the more excitement I felt.  My jaw dropped several times, especially when the bus nearly took out several fellow motorists blaring their horns and dodging out-of-the-way.  Going through the border, I was a little nervous knowing I was about to enter a self-proclaimed communist country for the first time.  I just didn’t know what to expect.

It was fitting that I was always the last person to get through the different border checkpoints, seeing as I was the only westerner on the bus.   I hadn’t seen another white person, let alone another foreigner since I departed the bustle of  Hong Kong.  When I arrived in downtown Huizhou, the bus driver was supposed to stop at the Noble Jasper Hotel where I was to be met by some of my university students, but he just kept his lead foot going.

I got off at the next stop, which also happened to be a hotel.  It was a little chillier than Hong Kong so I unzipped my suitcase to put on a sport coat.  A bell boy dressed in brown and gold was standing nearby sort of eyeballing me as I put it on.  I was going to ask him about a taxi while I was lifting my suitcase back up, only to have him point as all of my clothes spilled out on the sidewalk in front of the busy street.  In my confused and hasty state, I’d forgotten to zip it back up.  My first of what I’m sure will be many embarrassing moments in China to come.  He helped me scoop it all back into the suitcase and hailed a nearby cab to send me on my way back to the first hotel stop.  Not a word was exchanged by the cabbie and I as he honked and swerved our way through the darting traffic, occasionally missing a head-on motorbike going the wrong way, my white knuckles gripping the front headrest.

Finally, I arrived at the rendezvous and was met by two teenage-looking boys who asked, “Are you Smith?”  I replied, “Well, yes I am.”  Their faces lit up with smiles.  “Nice to meet you,” they both said like a welcoming chorus.  They hailed a cab, which happened to be the exact same one I’d just paid and left.  They called themselves Jason and Richard (English nicknames of course).  “You don’t look like the picture in your passport,” commented Richard in a more-Chinese-than-British accent.  We laughed.  “I know,” I said.  “That’s probably the worst photo I’ve ever taken.”  The cab driver chuckled with us, even though I’m sure he had no idea what we were talking about.

The living room

We arrived at Huizhou University and the two showed me my apartment where I will be living for the next ten months:  a big (by Asian standards) three bedroom space complete with an old living room set of a couch, coffee table, and two large chairs (all wood no cushions), the biggest shower drain I’ve ever seen (my squatter toilet), some red and gold Chinese poster decor on the walls, a kitchen with one stove burner that is fed by what looks like a military issue propane tank, and a small sink with a plastic spicket that only dispenses cold water.  Perfect.  I knew communism had plenty of character.

While sitting on my hardly comfortable furniture, my two students/tour guides and I chatted about music, the plastic beauty of Korean women, Avatar, the government ban on Facebook, and Jack London (communist?) while waiting for a guy to come and replace a burnt-out bulb in my bathroom.  After he fixed the light, we headed out for a stroll through the campus and to go to the university supermarket so I could grab some shampoo.

Just a friendly self reminder on my door to turn off my propane tank

  The layout of the campus is beautiful, reminding me of some lost Soviet University with perfectly squared hedges, students riding side-saddle on the back of bicycles, statues of famous Chinese intellectuals, and the red and gold flag flying high in the center courtyard.  Most of the students passing by smiled, stared, said hello, or an awkward combination of all three. 

Where you can do all your business at once

The university market was a hodgepodge of electronics, cell phones, housewares, and small groups of students browsing through the aisles.  I wasn’t sure exactly how much yuan I’d brought along so I picked out the cheapest shampoo (almond scent), body wash, a bottle of mineral water, and two small juice boxes of milk (neatly stacked in a pyramid without refrigeration).  At the checkout I ended up being 3 yuan short of the total 35 yuan (roughly $5 USDs).  I scrounged through all my pockets as a line of students waited, all eyes on me.  A girl behind me threw down a 5 yuan bill and smiled.  I said, “No, no thank you.  It’s OK!”  but before I could do anything, the cashier scooped up the bill and threw it in the register.  Embarrassing moment #2.  Even though 5 yuan is only about 70 or so cents, I was in awe for the hospitality given to me.

Jason and Richard said they had to go back to their dorms, so we parted ways and I was alone for the first time in a new land as I walked back to my apartment across campus.  There was a pickup basketball game going on between about six male students on what looked like a street court out of 1970’s Queens.  They stopped the game as I passed and gave a chorus of hellos.  I smiled and waved and as I looked over near the building where I would be starting classes in a few days, I saw the bright red and gold flag waving too.  Somehow, I felt at home.

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