Thursday, December 27, 2012

I'll Be Home for Christmas

In November of last year, 2011, on a cold, sunny Tuesday afternoon, I left school for 7-11 to eat lunch a few minutes before beginning my most dreaded class. I purchased whatever garbage presented itself as appealing and was ready to head back when I saw a teacher from my school standing at the 7-11 counter.

This teacher was an older guy with whom I wasn’t too well-acquainted. What I did know about him was that he had a good, dirty sense of humor, he was a wise, old English teacher, and he had a faint distain for our administration. I’d never really talked to him, though. So I stopped to chit chat.

I didn’t really know what to say, though, so I resorted to the basest of questions: “So, are you going home for the holidays?”

He looked off into the distance, suddenly going into textbook reflective mode. His voice was quiet and drawn out when he answered. “Reuben, I have been abroad for thirty years. I have been to this place and that. I have experienced so many different things and seen so much, taught at all kinds of different schools, and met all these different people. Throughout the years, various members of my family have slowly but surely passed away until there aren’t really any more. Now, I have nothing to go back for.” Pause. He looked me straight in the eye. “Now, looking back, one of my only regrets – but my greatest – is that I did not go home for holidays, to be with my family.”

I still didn’t know what to say, and I don’t really remember what I did come up with, if anything. We eventually went back to the school, and I went to teach the class at No. 94 that I dreaded, and life went on. For Christmas that year, last year, I went to Xi’an and Thailand and Cambodia and Malaysia and Singapore. Definitely didn’t go home.

This year, I recalled the dark monologue from that older teacher. And now here I am, sitting in my family’s living room in Rock Rapids, Iowa, next to the tree, thinking. Satisfied. Thankful not only for all that is here and that I have experienced this Christmas, but for hearing what I needed to hear to go and experience it.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Season in Photographs

Christmas season means many things for many people. For some, this time of year may bring happiness. For others, a rush of materialism. And for still others, sadness. But perhaps one thing everyone in modern society can agree on is that Christmas is a busy time of year, and after a while, when a million things have been scheduled, the most dominant feeling is one of being quite overwhelmed.

What keeps people so busy? What keeps me so busy? I'm too busy to even write about it all, so here are pictures of all the crap - the good and the bad - that has filled my schedule during the day and my head during the night in the past few festive weeks.

Christmas decorations, in my home:

Santa Con 2012:

Snowy days at school:

And in English class (if your first thought was, "I bet these kids are reading 'Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening,' you are wise beyond your years...). After they read, snow in copious amounts was thrown at me:

And in C&S, where Mr. Fleming helped me out with this primarily-fictitious video:

Playing the tuba for the first time in eight years for my school's December Talent Show:

Random presents, like this one, the book "Ben Hur" from the good Mr. Ramon Villar. What a champ:

Deliberate gifts, like this one, a present from whoever got stuck with my name in my school's secret Santa gift exchange. This present, which is actually a speaker that can be hooked up to the ol' computer, is ironic because I haven't been able to drink beer for a year due to a bet I made with Dawna. I thought at first she'd sent the speaker to me. It turns out she did not, but the real giver of the gift has yet to reveal him or herself:

A grown-up Christmas party, the main event of which was the dreaded white elephant gift exchange. I walked away with a package that included an ashtray from Mexico, a Beijing city guide in Chinese, some tea leaves, and a juicer. No, no, not Manny Ramirez; a little contraption into which fruit can be pressed into liquid! Much healthier:

A little kid Christmas party, held during the last class period of the 2012 calendar year in the fourth floor lobby of building B at BWYA. Festivities included a huge heap of food to congregate around and spill (first photo!), a bit of Christmas charades (second photo!), and a secret Santa gift exchange among my homeroom (third photo!). I gave a kid a book; finding it took a grossly-excessive three and a half hours, and when he opened it, his shoulders dropped and he sighed. It sucks to have an English teacher draw your name for secret Santa, my sucks:

A massive pile of school stuff to mark:

Weird advertisements to figure out:

Home Alone:

And, of course, the most important thing:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Beijing SantaCon 2012

Ho, ho, ho.

A few weeks ago, while languidly browsing the internet to see what holiday events were available in Beijing, I stumbled across My eyebrows arched ever so slightly. My right index finger clicked quietly. Inside, my interest piqued.

SantaCon! It is simply a bunch of people dressing up in Santa Claus costumes, getting together, and going around town. According to the extravagant website behind the affair, SantaCon began in 1994 in San Fransisco - or, the Bay Area, if you will - and spread out to its current empire status in thirty-seven countries, in 272 cities. So, at some point, the epidemic reached Beijing, in communist China. And reached me.

I mentioned this to Dawna, who already knew about it from a coworker, and we committed. She and a friend of ours from camp named Townley went and bought nice, new Saint Nick stuff at Ya Show market. My own Santa garb included, of course, a Santa Clause costume, a short-sleeved t-shirt, a long-sleeved t-shirt, two hoodies, two pairs of sweatpants, two pairs of long johns, boxers, three pairs of thick socks, shoes with holes in them, a pink belt to hold the whole ensemble together, some gloves that a student had left on a bus once, and a big reindeer scarf. Would it be warm enough? I wasn't sure. Time would tell.

Beijing SantaCon 2012 commenced at noon on Saturday, December 8, but Dawna, Townley, and I were not there to partake in the opening ceremonies. There were apparently two different meeting points: one in Wudaokou (in the northwestern part of Beijing) and one in Sanlitun (in the northeast). Around 2:45 p.m. the two groups merged at some bar in Andingmen, north of the center of the city, and that was the last tweet I saw before I left my house to join Dawna and Townley and then join the other 圣诞老人 as soon as possible.


At 4:00 the three of us joined forces at Dongzhimen Station; within minutes we were at Chill, the last bar we knew that the Santas had been at. We rushed an empty bar. Except for some discarded Santa pants. The bar master told us that the herd of St. Nicks had headed further toward the city center. Our red trio (not to be confused with, like, a communist trio) took off in hot pursuit and, after speaking with some stragglers, caught up with the Beijing SantaCon 2012 mob at the Drum and Bell Towers.

The SantaCon group was comprised primarily of foreign men drinking, foreign women drinking, some of the foreign men's Chinese girlfriends, a few unattached Chinese people, and general holiday cheer. I hadn't thought much about what the group demographics would be like, but I had expected more people overall. We did catch up with the Santas when they were quite spread out in a long line and over a large, empty parking lot. Who knows. Some minutes were spend hanging out and taking pictures at the Drum and Bell Towers, and then everyone relocated to two bars that lay across the street from each other on Yan Dai Xie Jie near Hou Hai.

When the Fathers of Christmas were in a small, confined space, they did appear to take the place over. On my way to joining the fray, I felt like a complete idiot; people did not hide their stares and gawks on the bus, on the subway, or on the street. However, as soon as all the Kris Kringles had assembled, anyone in their midst who was not wearing a full-body Santa Claus costume looked like a fool. A complete role reversal. The next stop for Bejing SantaCon 2012 was a bar called Four Corners; this was wear the most Santas seemed to conglomerate.

At Four Corners, things started getting wild. There was a band of pseudo-Santas jamming, there was some lady who was giving people free meals of street food, there were female Santas making out unashamedly (insert joke about Santa being bad this year here), there was not enough room to stand. After an hour or two of this, three of the Santas broke free from the group and ran off laughing into the night. We fled in the direction of a certain KTV in Andingmen, and we fled swiftly and deliberately, stopping only to greet a friend we randomly ran into and to wish all a good night on Gulou Dajie.

So the evening ended with three hours of making merry in a small, well-decorated room, belting out such holiday favorites as "Jingle Bell Rock," "What Child Is This," "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," and "Gangnam Style." Exhaustion took over around 11:30, and the three of us parted ways sweaty but happy with how the night had unfolded.


Next year? Why not? Discussions were already started on what could be done differently, about what creative twist we could bring to our Santa costumes. I was lucky enough to have had a Santa Claus outfit that young David Emmert left at my apartment when he departed from Beijing; ironically, though, he'd received it from me in a white elephant gift exchange the previous year. Could the Minnesota Twins be incorporated? How about Avatar? Or Kiss? Winnie the Pooh? Maybe Dave could come back with his gorilla suit. The possibilities are endless. But, so is the time to mull it over. So, until next year at this time: merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Bits and Pieces: April, May, June, July, August, September, October, and November Edition

The following are reminiscent of the stories I think I tell quite frequently. You may recognize similarities between this post and my reports on the day if you've had the misfortune to have hung out with me before. By that I mean that most of them are funny or at least interesting in context, to me, and I feel obligated to try to share them, but I know that most of them probably aren't entertaining to anyone...except me.

*I was trying to teach about formal and informal register. First, to practice, the kiddies wrote a note in an informal style that explained why they hadn't handed in the homework; then their partners rewrote the note in a formal style. One kid informally wrote, "I try to do the homework but demon came and I called zombies armies to fight a disaster until Satan arrived." His partner wrote formally, "I had a problem with someone."

*At the top of some assignment, there was a place for students to write their name and then how they'd like to die. One kid wrote his name and then "softly."

*A ninth grade Russian-Chinese student in my baseball club was trying to catch a high, high throw from a classmate; he lost the ball in the sun and it hit him in the cheek. He went down for a while and then walked to the bus under his own power (we clapped for him) to go back to the school. The nurse checked him over and declared him okay, and he left school laughing and joking. Then he didn't come to class for the next three days because apparently he'd fractured bones in his cheek and had had fluid leaking out of various orifices in his head.

*A different kid in my baseball club - a ninth grade Korean girl, and a seemingly delicate one at that - has been hit with a baseball (off the bat!) three different times in or near the head. Once someone else was batting and the ball bounced off a fence pole and hit her in the cheek; another time she was batting - this was actually unbelievable - and when she made an awkward swing at the ball, it bounced off the bat and hit her in the cheek again; the third time, she was fielding right behind the pitcher, and someone hit a line drive that bounced off her neck and smashed into her chin. Each time she went down, a few tears were shed, a host of other ninth grade Korean girls swarmed to the scene to make sure their friend was okay (where were the ninth grade boy's friends to comfort him?), and she got up shaken but intact a few minutes later.

*A homeroom at my school did a fundraising project called "Hot Teachers." The idea was this: in order to raise money to donate to UNICEF, the students of this homeroom would choose five male teachers from our school. Then students and faculty alike could vote for which of the five male teachers they'd most like to see dressed up as a woman. There was tons of advertising and promotion, and lots of money raised. When all was said and done, I'd come in second but far behind the obvious winner, the principal of the school. The final result video is here; the promotion video for me is here (and an anti-promotional is here); ads for the other teachers are here, here, here, and here. And obviously a post-event promotion for the Hot Teacher project is right here in this very post.

*A paper I received recently had the word "relationsheep" in it.

*I read an article about Moustafa Ismail, the man with the world's biggest biceps, last week and thought that it would be a good question of the day. However, when the question came out of my mouth, it sounded a big suggestive, at least to me: "Moustafa Ismail, from Egypt, has a certain body part that is bigger than anyone else's in the whole world. What body part of his is bigger than everyone else's?" However, in my ninth grade homeroom class, no one laughed (although one kid ventured a daring guess: "His butt?"), no one in my tenth grade class laughed, one [very American] kid in my eighth grade class giggled, and then finally - finally! - the seventh grade English class I teach - a class that is twelve girls and one boy - burst out laughing, all of them, all at once, when I asked them during my last class that day.

*One of my students began a debate constructive with, "Good afternoon, fellow debaters, honorable judge, members of the audience, friends, family, and that creepy uncle who hasn't been invited but shows up to sit in the back anyway."

*A smaller, very cute, and very girly acquaintance of mine happened to have my iShuffle in her purse when we parted ways once. She said that she later put the earphones into her ears and hit "play" on the device when she was in an elevator full of quiet Chinese people; unfortunately for her, the volume was cranked up to maximum and the music on the iShuffle was Norma Jean...and not that weaksauce, "The Anti Mother" album of theirs. No, this was "O God, the Aftermath," pure math metal. Needless to say, this girl got some looks from her fellow elevator-riders.

*The vocab word was "horde." The students wrote sentences using the vocab word. One girl shared her sentence: "Mr. Haggar saw a horde of Anne Hathaways." Then this husky boy from the back said, in a low, almost sensual voice, "Yeah, Mr. Haggar...leap into the horde."

*On some test I gave, some kid wrote, "Boom! Get outta your mind! Boom! Get outta your mind! [eraser marks] that [eraser marks], get outta your mind!" in between the text and the reading comprehension questions.

*Student comments about a) me: "Mr. Haggar is a out going and active people. He likes to shout and jump up and down. He is full of passion and be on fire at all time." b) Miss April: "Ms. April likes to talk very fast and can speak Chinese very well. Ms. April likes talking all the time because she lives alone."

*The opening lines of this quiet tenth grade girl's answer to the essay prompt "What is the best way to get a boyfriend/girlfriend?" is one of the best things I have ever seen in print. Here is the complete answer: "I really don't know what is the answer of this question. And I also need the answer immediately. Nowadays there are some students in grade ten find their girlfriends or boyfriends. After we came back from culture trip, there are more. And they just suddenly get together. But most of them don't want to acknowledge that. Some of them will say that is not true! And some will say they are just brother and sister. Some one doesn't say anything at all. But they stay together every day and all of us think that their action show clearly their relationship. Let's return to the topic. My mom told me if a girl don't show that she likes a boy, but the boy has a little good feeling of her. Then the boy will likes her more. I can't do that. Because nearly all the students in grade ten knew who I like. And there are some ninth graders and eighth graders also knew that. That person also knew. But how do they find their girlfriend or boyfriend? We don't know how. Maybe they seldom talk to each other before. But they get together! I think just make more friends with other people you will find the person that you want and he/she also want you."

*The first time I have ever cooked something in my apartment:

*A celebration of mustaches at BWYA. The man on the left, Mr. Ramon, was voted "Best Mustache Owner 2012."

*This is not a computer graphic; it is a box on my head.

Friday, November 30, 2012


You could go here, here, or here for real information, or you could just watch this crappily-constructed video and then go on your merry little way.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Grouch

Something has happened. Something awful.

In college, at Bethel, I was frighteningly social. I could chat it people up effortlessly; I could maintain conversation until the cows came home; I could make small talk with one thousand different DC-goers night after night.

At YouthWorks! it was straight-up my job to get to know and love people. People in the community, staff members, seventy different youth and their legal guardians every week…and I could verbally connect with nearly all of them (except with Naked Reub). We’d laugh, we’d joke, we’d make fun of Canada (which clearly doesn’t fall into the “laughing” or “joking” category), and relationships formed.

In life, at least until sort of recently, I was decent at talking to people. I had the ability and the desire to find common ground with whomever I was speaking to. I think it was my mom’s fault; she is the best conversationalist in the modern world. My father also modeled how to ask deep, probing questions when the time was right. So, for a time, I inherited these speaking skills.


Maybe banter still lies within me, but what seems to have happened is this: I have turned into a grouchy old man. In the past months I have become more and more inclined toward isolation, toward silence, toward alone time. I still can connect to people. The problem seems to be with my desire to.

Ostentatiously, this isn’t true. I have tried my best to maintain my image as an annoying, loud teacher (does this translate into a good conversationalist?), I have let various strangers come into my home and couch and tried to make them feel welcome, and I still sort of try to learn Chinese so I’ll be able to communicate with an additional 1.2 billion people (y’all weren’t enough, sorry). But inside, I feel different. I would rather go home and read or prep for the next day after school instead of going to eat with the guys. I’d rather listen to music and zone out on a trip of any sort than chat with those around me, even closer friends. Friday night? Not a bad evening to write a blog post instead of hanging out with various friends or acquaintances [while they get bombed].

Why is my approach toward my fellow man seemingly changing? Is it because the busy-ness and frantic pace of teaching and of life wearing me out? Is it because I’m actually an introvert who was only until recently disguised as an extrovert? Is it because I am a man (believe it), and men are generally less talkative and more do-ative? Is it because I am constantly surrounded by people I’m for the large part unable to talk to, or because my interests are shifting (from talking to taking in more literature/music/culture/LSD), or because all day it’s part of my job to yuck it up with young people and fellow teachers alike?

Lots of possible reasons why. Very few concrete or satisfactory answers. The thing is, despite my current taste for solitude, I still feel as great after a good conversation as I did at YouthWorks!, or in college, or during high school. The act of forming bonds and connections with different someones hasn’t actually ceased to delight me.

And, I know deep down that those skills of connecting with others haven’t been put in me accidently. Wherever I have been, am, or will be, and whether I want to chat or not, connecting with others is how many people feel and give love, and despite this strange shift I’ve somehow undergone, I know that the commission to love hasn’t changed at all. I’m still to do that – love those around me – in word, thought, and action, word being the easiest one to pull off for me.

So I guess I’ll suck it up and still try to form relationships regardless of how I feel about doing it. But, now, I've got to go; I've got a book I want to finish.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Surfing of the Couch

Six people crammed into my apartment, including a person under the foldout couch, multiple strange dudes on my bed, and someone out in the balcony wing. Forgotten umbrellas. The intercom buzzer thingy from downstairs blaring loudly at 2:30 in the morning. Long strands of foreign hair showing up in the weirdest places. Men sleeping with beer cans balanced carefully on their stomachs. Clogged toilets.

During the past eight months, travelers have come from various corners of the world to stay at my apartment. Whether they come or not basically depends on how busy my school is keeping me or whether I am in Beijing at all. People came in April, May, and June, and then school started winding down (so the workload piles up), so no one could come for a while. More folks came in July, August, and September, and then school again took over my life and choked me, and no one could come for a while. Now, again, I’ve changed my availability on my couch surfing profile to “Yes!”, so maybe more people will come soon.

Two years ago Mr. Mark Nola and I had the first couch surfing experience of our own, here in Beijing, and then later that year people started coming to stay with us in Seoul. I wrote a post about that crap at that time. Since then, though, much more surfing other people’s couches and hosting other travelers has happened. Some thirty different people from eleven different countries have laid their li’l heads down at various places in my home. The first people who came to my apartment in Beijing last spring were a couple - Ginte and Mindaugus - from Vilnius in Lithuania who were nice, quiet, and excellent cooks, although they kept claiming that the delicious potato dinner they’d made was just a meager, average Lithuanian meal, but it’s not when it’s made in my kitchen, since my kitchen never gets used. After them came Young from South Korea, who was not touring Beijing but teaching Korean and eating fried chicken with me and treating the ghastly wound I incurred during my baseball club at school, and then there was Nairuo from Pingyao who wanted to know about every picture on my wall, and also Mawati and a cousin of hers from Indonesia who only got to watch me grade papers but later showed some of my coworkers an absolutely amazing time when they went to Jakarta for a vacation. After school ended, Greg from Poland crashed on my couch for a few days because his landlord in Beijing had booted him from his home, and Agathe from France rolled through to explore the hutongs and take pictures of me and dogs and Mr. Haysom and to be hilarious and fun, and Jessica, Cindy, and Jason flew from Korea to Beijing to see stuff and to make me stay out clubbing until 5 in the morning and to laugh about how not all people in the world use toilet paper and to bring random other couch surfers over to sleep on the floor of my home, and then school started again this fall. But that didn’t stop Roy from Beirut from coming and answering all the questions that Ramon and I could throw at him about Lebanon, nor did school stop the Germans Kathi and her sister from eating with Ramon and Nallely and I and leaving thoughts of German apple wine in my head, or three really chill Polish wayfarers who said to come visit Poland even though they didn’t speak super highly of it, or Frederick from Germany and Clancy from Shanghai who brought over a whole bunch of German beer that I couldn’t drink (there’s still three large cans here, please call me) and took pictures of my vast collection of prostitute adverts (not as bad as it sounds, Mom, I promise), or these two kids from UCLA and Stanford who were as old as the first class of students I taught at CCS in Seoul and who ate with Dawner and I. Then at the end of September I had to stop, because I was getting mad busy at school and the last round of people who came left me with such a good taste in my mouth that I had to stop for a while and breathe. First, two German-Chinese girls - Anni and Niki - came to stay for a few days, and they were fun and quiet, but they had to leave and go to a hostel because three German wild men were arriving. These guys, Max, Christoph, and…Christoph, brought music, alcohol, bratwurst, and an endless parade of laughter and mirth to Wangjing. The weekend with them saw no sleep, lots of eating, meeting up with the girls who’d had to leave and other couch surfers, exploring every corner of the city, and just generally painting the town red. I still smile when I think of them making fun of how a student called me at 9 p.m. on a Friday night for something or for how they called my never-used kitchen “the Forbidden Room.” Not as popular as the Forbidden City, but intriguing nonetheless.

Then they left. I set my couch’s status to “Not right now” and concentrated on not getting fired for negligent, exhausted teaching.

But I could not forget about how fun it was.

Generally, all these people range from at least normal to absolutely awesome. No one has been weird or annoying or made me think, “Get the crap out of here.” Yes, at times, having people stay with me hasn’t been the most convenient, like when travelers arrive in the middle of the night or leave super early in the morning or are sleeping when I need to Skype, but those things are not surprises. The positive aspects of all these people completely outweigh the slight burden that they sometimes are. To construct my argument from weakest to strongest, I must admit that a lot of couch surfers who come pay for meals or leave me awesome stuff, even if it is just a postcard from their hometown or a note that says how fun meeting me was. Some have cooked, most clean up well, and sometimes their different skill sets can be put to use (for example, my first guest ever, Felix, reformatted my computer for me).

There are more than just tangible rewards in hosting these folks, of course. It is a community; there are relationships and connections that happen. Hearing about each person’s experience in China and in life is always at least a little interesting, if not completely intriguing, and some people have amazing things to say and amazing stories to tell. It never seems to matter whether we find common interests and share connections or whether we share about ideas that are completely unknown; either option is stimulating and thought-provoking. I feel like by being exposed to so many different ways or relating and joking and sharing and thinking, I know more about the world. And even though most of these people are in my life for about three days, there’s no telling when our paths may cross again. For example, the first couch surfer I ever met, Judy the Stupendous, is one of my better friends here in Beijing now. Will I have hosted someone from the next place I move to? There’s no telling.

The fact that these connections and relationships form is obvious and somewhat predictable, given the nature of this particular social networking site, but I have been surprised by how much I have enjoyed the hosting aspect of couch surfing. I think it is something that my mom inoculated in me. When I was little, she’d always clean the house quite thoroughly whenever company was coming over, and my siblings and I would always ask, “Mom, why? Who cares?” But, now, when I know people are coming…I sweep the floor, wipe the bathroom down, and pick the hairs off the bar of soap. Make the place look good. Additionally, somehow I get joy from being able to advise people as far as directions and destinations go. How to take a bus from my home, what the best way to get to the Great Wall is, where Decathlon is, etc. It is sort of like teaching. Or maybe I like having power and knowledge and getting to flaunt it. Moohoohaha. And lastly, it is fun showing people a good time. I make almost every couch surfer who comes go to the Xinjiang restaurant by my school, “the best restaurant in Beijing.” Because it is. And maybe we’ll go somewhere else, to Gulou or to Sanlitun or somewhere else, and it is almost invariably fun. I would hesitate to even take much credit; Beijing is a fun town, and anyone who lives here could tell any visitor a hundred different cool spots to hit up. Maybe the difference is that not everyone is willing.

After reflecting, though, I realize there are some potential dangers to having many people sleep on my couch. I do not mean getting raped or robbed, although I suppose those are real possibilities as well. The thing I am a bit worried about is whether I am becoming too relationally or emotionally reliant on this extremely transient community. I have really, really connected with a few of the people who have stayed at my apartment, more so than I connect with 75% of my friends here, and two of the best weekends I have had this fall have been with couch surfers. But then you know what happened? Those people left. And I will probably never see them again. Yes, we connected super well, but do they know me? Do I know them? Can they understand me without having seen me interact with my students, or yell at a baseball game, or scream into a mic at KTV? Are these relationships worth investing in, over and over again, or would it be wiser to invest more in the people who are consistently in my life, even if I don’t click with them quite as well all the time?

The answer is probably to have a balance, and some of the people here who I value the most – Ramon and Nallely, Dawna, Judy, Mr. Haysom – have often hung out with the couch surfers and me, thus blending real/normal life with the transient/fictitious life that couch surfers at my home creates. As with most things in life, I can do some of both. The first month and a half of school, people came over all the time! But for the past month and a half, no traveling visitors have set foot in my home. A balanced year so far, I think.

I imagine that in the next couple days, a few e-mails will trickle in, and tourists will come again to Room 1809. I don’t know who they will be, or if they’ll be fun, or if we’ll connect. Maybe they’ll be some freaks who saw Anni’s post on my profile: “Reuben is eager to have a negative couchsurfing experience once, so to all the weird people out of there, send couch requests to him!!” Maybe they’ll be extremely quiet, extremely boring wayfarers from North Dakota. Nonetheless, if I’m lucky, they’ll share some awesome truth, some perfect laughter, and some worthwhile experiences with me. I can only keep my fingers crossed.

The first couch surfers I hosted in Beijing...ever. And probably the first meal anyone ever cooked at my apartment.

Young, Minnesota Twins napkins from my mom, and I.

This looks like a weird band photo, but it is just three English teachers from South Korea who don't know the meaning of the words "stop,""rest," or "take it easy."

We'll kick you in the face.

Have you ever been this tired? You've never been this tired.

Have you ever been this tired? You've never been this tired.

Guess where this young lass is from.

German women with Chinese (?) ears and an American dude.

Me, the three aforementioned wild men from Arfurt, Germany, and a Great Wall of Beer Cans that they built. I might add that, despite the fact that they were indeed wild men, the Great Wall of Beer Cans was the only indicator that they'd ever been at my apartment. So fresh, so clean!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Operation Golden Dragon, Pt. 5

The following account details experiences that, though due in no part at all to my own efforts, I believe to be possible only in the country I am currently in. Not much writing, but plenty of pictures. Just how you like it, if I recall.

(1) Beijing Ancient Observatory

It was a Saturday in early November. It was rainy, cold, and miserable, the kind of day that is best spent inside in front of a fire fueled by math textbooks and copies of George Steinbrenners’ biography. However, October had been a taxing month, one full of work-filled weekdays, obligation-heavy weeknights, and activity-drenched weekends. Dawna and I finally found a free Saturday, albeit a wet one, and headed out to explore somewhere complete unaffiliated with anything we did on a regularly basis. Since we don’t view the night sky very often – because we live in Beijing and because we’re both near-sighted – the two of us decided that the Beijing ancient observatory would be a nice, relaxing break from our nasty, starless, busy lives.

We rode the subway to Jianguomen Station and got out with no plan. The observatory loomed up before us, and after purchasing an umbrella, we entered the quiet premises. The observatory has been around for some six hundred years and apparently is one of the oldest in the world, although I know in Rock Rapids there are at least that are older. As expected, all manner of observation instruments littered the place. There was a courtyard flanked by many exhibit halls, a nice garden area, and what I assumed to be the observatory itself: a biggish building with a bunch of star-gazing paraphernalia atop it.

We perused the courtyard and the halls full of information about the observatory.

Then we scampered through the garden.

Finally, we ascended the tower and perplexedly guessed at the function of each of the wild instruments on its roof.

Was it an interesting visit? It was alright. Did we learn a lot? Sort of. Was it an excellent distraction from real life? Affirmative.

(2) Gubeikou Great Wall Hike

It was a Saturday in mid-September. The weather was absolutely golden. At 8:30 I piled into a van with three slow, tubby Dutch women, an Australian couple, a chick from Chicago, some driver, and Sonia, a friend whom I wish would take me on her hiking trips with her every weekend. Alas, it cannot be. Real life beckons.

We drove out of the city into the countryside northeast of Beijing and ate an early lunch at some family’s restaurant outside before heading up into the hills. There is not much to tell after our feet met the stones of the wall. We tramped around from guard tower to guard tower, sometimes enjoying easy stretches of level wall but occasionally straining up the stairs of seemingly-vertical wall. The weather could not have been better, and other than having to wait for the aforementioned tubby Dutch women, the walk was quiet and contemplative.

Eventually, after moseying around in one direction for about three hours, avoiding some people trying to sell us tickets halfway through the hike, and snapping many gigabytes of pictures, our troop reached the end of the section (read: the government had closed off the next section, which looked pretty treacherous anyway). A descent was made, the van picked us up, and we drove back to Beijing. I got out at Sanyuanqiao Station and went home.

I love going out there. I don’t want to write a bunch of cliché sentences about “getting away from it all” or “abandoning the concrete jungle,” even though those are sort of my sentiments. I think I could easily enjoy a hike through a city, were hills to be next to skyscrapers. What I really dig is that hiking of almost any kind is solid and sometimes challenging exercise, non-competitive, scenic, and can be destination-driven. This particular jaunt on the Gubeikou Great Wall was all those things, and it made me happy. Swing.

(3) Military Museum

It was a Thursday in early July. I had nothing else to do. So I went to the Military Museum at – you guessed it – the Military Museum subway stop on the infamous Line 1 of Beijing’s subway system. I figured the museum would be worth a visit at least because it has a subway station named after it. But ironically Beijing West Railway Station – the most heavily-trafficked railway station in Asia – is nearby, so perhaps the subway stop should be called something else.

Anyway! I went there on a whim one afternoon, and when I arrived, there was a huge line of people pushing and shoving to get in to this free museum. I almost left, so annoyed was I – what were people doing here on a Thursday afternoon in July? Didn’t they have places to be? But I eventually shouldered my way in and got through the queue after about twenty minutes.

There was a massive building towering up above all the exhibits, and I figured that that would be the museum part, but it was not. It wasn’t even open. All the other exhibits, however, were. There were basically big aluminum sheds, like what farmers keep tractors in, that housed all manner of military equipment. There were airplanes, huge missiles, boats, cars, trucks, tanks, guns, and ammunition of every size and substance imaginable.

At the center of all the exhibits was what I’d call a tank tent. There were a million different tanks under its aluminum canopy.

I think there were a lot of out-of-towners, as I found myself being photographed a bit more than usual (read: once).

Most of the death instruments on display had labels in Chinese and English and then a description in Chinese, so I didn’t learn a ton about what everything was and how it all worked. It was interesting walking around and checking everything out, though. I did have the thought most of the time that China has not been overly successful in its modern military expenditures, so I guess it’s sort of interesting that they’ve got a museum dedicated to the art of war. Maybe there is museum for Chinese approaches to ancient warfare hidden somewhere that I don’t know about. Stay tuned.

(4) Protests

This is old news, but it happened, and at that time, it was all anyone in Beijing seemed to be talking about. At some point in September, the Japanese government bought some islands from a private Japanese owner. Japan – which calls the islands Senkaku – and China – which calls the islands Diaoyu – argue over who the islands rightfully belong to. There are allegedly some oil reserves nearby, but the dispute goes back and back and back, and you know there is more in the mix as well. Japan captured the islands from China in 1895, and then the U.S. grabbed them after World War II; America returned the islands to Japan in 1972. And that is where they’ve been since then.

To put things in context, China and Japan have had some bad blood in the past, what with Japan invading at various points during the last couple hundred years, and so instead of a civil conflict confined to meeting rooms and media, extremely angry protests erupted all over China when these islands changed hands from Japanese owners to the Japanese government. Japanese cars got flipped over and/or burned, stores and factories got smashed up, and 7-11’s got closed (much to the chagrin of all the teachers at my school). In many cities, the protests were borderline out of control. In Beijing, it wasn’t so bad. Feel free to read more here or here.

The church I attend – Beijing International Christian Fellowship – happens to lie right across the street from the Japanese embassy in Beijing. On September 15, a Saturday, Dawna forwarded me an e-mail advisory from the church (entitled “Urgent Notice for BICF Location”) that pointed out that the road that goes by the church, which is a pretty major one, would not be open the next day - Sunday - because of protests, so church goers should plan accordingly. I read it and did some research on the situation and then went to bed.

The next day I got up and took the subway to Liangmaqiao Station, from where I always walked to BICF. This Sunday, though, there were scads of people everywhere. Near the station, all was fairly quiet; a couple small groups of people were assembling in the streets with signs. But nearer to the embassy, hundreds of people were marching round and round. I can still hear the sounds of chanting and shouting; it was loud loud loud and angry angry angry. A bit unsettling. Nonetheless, there were way more many people standing around watching than there were protesting, and there was a sufficient number of security/police/paramilitary personnel so that things didn’t look like they’d get too out of hand. Some eggs and water bottles got thrown, but no major damage was done to the embassy.

Needless to say, there were a million pictures taken by everyone and their mother, and all of those pictures are on the internet. I didn’t have my camera (although after I arrived, I texted a couple friends who were coming to arm themselves with theirs) but I did steal a few of Dawna’s pictures from that morning. For this very post.

It was interesting. I have plenty of opinionated thoughts on the whole situation, but I don’t think that anyone would benefit if those thoughts went onto the internet in any way, and they are not unique or groundbreaking, so I’ll just keep them to myself. I will say, though, that if the United States of America ever does anything to stir up that sort of hateful emotion against Americans in Beijing, I would be dead.