Monday, April 23, 2012

What's Happenin'

Nothing is happening right now. I don't even really have anything to write about. There is a stack of eighth grade letter essays waiting to be graded. It smells good in my apartment for once...must be the Tide that Dave bought. It's a nice night outside. Deadmau5 is playing. I am full of ramyan (I ordered cheesy ramyan, but that must have got lost in translation) and 2 RMB ice cream (some of it is on the floor, too). My school Macbook isn't turning on. I sort of have to go to the bathroom, but not bad enough so that I get up and go. The floor is messy with hair, both Dave and I have a bit of clutter here and there, but nothing too bad. It is calm. Nothing is happening.

Tomorrow something will be happening the whole day. Some classes, and then, after lunch, personal project exhibitions and assessment, an art show, a science fair. That's a full day, but following those activities come parent-teacher conferences, so I will get to meet all the smart kids' moms and wonder where the failing kids' parents are. The conferences will subside at 8 p.m. I will probably get to school around 7 a.m. And I doubt I'll eat breakfast. Busy day, lots of stuff going on.

Then after that, Wednesday, is a full day of classes, followed by the water lady visiting my apartment ("Be there at 4:30, Reuben. Oh, and she was wondering if you've learned any Chinese yet."), and then a final meal in Beijing with Dave at the Muslim place, and then the celebration of spring break. I will fly to Chengdu in Sichuan, and Dave will join me there for a few days until he leaves for God knows where. Maybe I will never see him again.

It seems like many things have been happening lately. The weekend was jammed with basketball games, good-bye hip-hop parties, Chinese adaptations of "Crazy for You," and grading essays. The week before that was loaded with personal project standardization, forensics e-mails, birthday parties, and grading grading grading. Lots goin' on, lots goin' on.

Even today, a day I thought would be a fairly chill Monday. Meetings, Chinese class, forensics club, and teaching under peer observation. Had to go pick up a pair of contact lenses. They didn't come as a pair. Had to meet with students to hold a practice debate at lunch. They did come as a pair. Spent an hour trying to find the cheapest and best flight to and from Seoul for a weekend in June. Thanks, A lot happenin' today, it seems.

But not right now. Now, nothing is happening.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Culture Trip

You'd think living in a city like Beijing and attending a school like BWYA – where some twenty-eight countries are represented on the student body – would expose people both young and old to plenty of “culture.” However, at some point, the decision-makers at our small international learning institution began thinking that an additional trip out to somewhere in China was necessary for BWYA students, and so the culture trips were conceived. Every year each year group travels to some exquisite place. There's Henan and Xi'an and Nanjing and Hanzhou and Yangshuo and Wuyuan and Qingdao and Pingyao...a vast array of different locations! When I learned that I was to accompany students on one of these excursions, my mouth began to water; a free trip to a new place! Hurrah! And then I found out that there actually was a cost. Not in money, but in pounds of stress, since I had been chosen as the trip leader, the dude responsible for the sixty students and five other teachers on the trip. And then I found out that our destination wasn't actually a new place. Not Henan or Xi'an or Nanjing or Hanzhou or Yangshuo or Wuyuan or Qingdao or Pingyao or Japan, but Shanghai, which I had been to twice and had enjoyed about as much as I would enjoy having my ribcage stabbed into with inky needles. Nonetheless, the prospect of not preparing for classes, grading papers, trying to plan for No. 94, or completing paperwork was quite appealing, as was hanging out with our fairly cool students and even cooler supervising faculty members for four days.

It bugs me that this rooftop is off-center in this picture.

As trip leader, I had the tasks of keeping incredibly open lines of communications between all involved, collecting a wide spread of items from the E8 students, and compiling about forty-eight different lists for forty-eight different trip occasions: rooming situations, supervision duties, bus assignments, train bed placements, and lion food. I didn't have to plan any activities, since those were set up by some tour company that was going to take us around Shanghai and nearby Suzhou. Regardless of whether these responsibilities sound familiar to you, they surely did to me; they were frighteningly similar to the ones I had had as a site director at two different YouthWorks! sites; fortunately, I loved the site director job, so aside from the fact that I was still teaching while getting ready for the Shanghai trip, the preparation was...sort of enjoyable.

The plan was this: go to school and have class on Monday, April 9, and then leave that evening at 9 p.m. on an overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai, where we'd arrive at 9 a.m. on the morning of April 10 and began our touristic assault on the metropolitan area. April 11 would also be spent in Shanghai, and then April 12 would be the day we'd travel to Suzhou, 70 or so miles from Shanghai. The return to Beijing would be on April 13, Friday, if we survived. The six accompanying teachers were Mr. Rues, Mr. Jenkin, Mr. Ramon, Miss Tangjing, Miss Changjing, and I; the tour guide from Beijing was Amy, while the tour guides from Shanghai were Esther and some dude whose name I was never told. Now you know everything you ever needed to know.

Our sixty-seven-strong assembly left the school Monday night and descended like locusts with thick, black, lens-less glasses on Beijing South Railway Station. We rode in two sleeper cars, each of which had ten rooms of four beds, and it was a huge mess figuring out who was assigned to sleep – or, more accurately, hang out playing video games – in each compartment of four, since we had odd numbers of boys, girls, supervisors, and people in general. I figured we'd get no sleep and that there would be fires and gore everywhere in the course of the twelve-hour train ride, but for the most part, the eighth graders were either appropriately calm or at least confined to their compartments. I even got like six hours of sleep. No problem, no problem.

Around 9 a.m. we did indeed arrive in Shanghai and immediately piled onto a bus bound for the Yu Gardens, which I'd toured without Mark but with his camera when we'd visited Shanghai back in the day. This time was different only because of the gargantuan crowd we hauled around with us and because Esther the Tour Guide (named in the same vein as William the Conquerer and Hagar the Horrible, who were both extremely efficient at their occupations (conquering and being horrible); this is Esther's title because every waking moment and every sleeping moment, whether on the bus or on the ground, she was ready to point out some interesting tidbit of knowledge about where we were, which is what I imagine a good tour guide does) pointed out all the garden's different dragons to the students. I hadn't seen any when I'd gone before. Now I know.

We (sort of pictured below) also couldn't keep our eyes off this lady (pictured even further below), clad in a black and red flower dress and blue boots.

After locating all of Yuyuan's dragons (I think there were six), our group ate the first of many similarly-organized meals; each saw our group of sixty-seven disperse among seven tables that could seat ten people to either enjoy (teachers) or pick at (picky eighth grade eaters) all the food and the one bottle of Coke/Pepsi and the one bottle of Sprite/7-Up placed on the giant lazy Susan in the table's center. Quite formulaic, although each meal was Chinese food from a different province of the 3.7 million square mile nation, so there was plenty of variety.

After gorging ourselves, we headed to Shanghai's museum, which I'd also blown through with Mark in September of 2012. Having already examined it thoroughly, I returned to the spots that I actually enjoyed, instead of feeling obligated to satisfy my usual unending desire to view every display in the entire museum. So, I went to the statue room, and then to the painting room, and then – though usually I think old Bronze Age pots are super freakin' boring – to the pottery/ceramics room. There weren't any Bronze Age pots there. I'm twenty-six, and I have been to plenty of museums, and I think finally, after all this work and all this time, I am getting a good feel for what I like to see at museums. It feels good. Aren't you happy for me?




I also toyed with the idea of creating an album dedicated to our students at the museum, since with about five exceptions they all appeared to be very bored and/or very tired by the ol' place. But I quit after three shots because there were too many students sitting around and because I felt a little creepy, though not as creepy when a student reacted to my photographic efforts by photographing me back. It's like saying hi with your camera.

To cheer the uninterested kiddies up, the tour guides took them to the Mandarin Hotel, where we checked in after much hustle and bustle. The school had splurged on this one, booking thirty rooms for each the students and seven for the teachers/tour guide Amy, which meant we old folk got rooms to ourselves. The Mandarin Hotel was a pretty nice place, but I must compliment them especially on their shower heads; they had those huge disks that hang above you from a pipe that comes straight out of the wall. This means that the water cascades directly down on you like rain, as opposed to the more common forty-five degree angle showers, which are fine for cleaning yourself but not as effective in washing away all the dead skin, disgusting odor, and dried acne pus from a day of teaching, a night of train dwelling, and then another day of touring.

Dinner was served; the food was from Yunnan, just north of Vietnam and Thailand and all that, and instead of just letting us eat, the restaurant also employed dancers and other musical acts that supposedly reflected that province's heritage. All was well until this guy (?) took the stage:

Then we headed out into the then-rainy night for a river boat ride on the Huangpu, which runs between Puxi (west of the river)(like, that's literally what “Puxi” means) and Pudong (east of the river)(likewise). After getting cut in front of and being pushed and almost losing people in the darkness, the BWYA crowd made it onto the big ol' ship and headed out. Everything looked good, except for the gratuitous amount of advertising present on most of the buildings. This was the first activity that I hadn't experienced (unless you count the sketchy dancer) previously, so I played it up both to the students and in my own li'l mind. I would say it did not disappoint.

When we'd recollected everyone on the shore and returned to the hotel, there was some down time - during which some of the teachers slipped away for more food - before all the students were shipped off to bed, except for two dudes whose roommates locked them out and then fell asleep. Like, phone calls to the room and their phones and my pounding on the door and screaming couldn't wake them up. Who knows. One students never did get back into his room that night, but you know what? He was a good sport about it.

Whoa, now. Wednesday morning we headed to the Oriental Pearl Tower, another new place. Even though it's not as tall and awesome as the Shanghai World Financial Center, the OPT is probably the most interesting to gander at.

We went up to the observation deck and enjoyed a somewhat foggy view, but then Ramon texted me to come down one story so we could get dizzy together on the transparent glass floor on that level. We took about six hundred pictures and got laughed at by at least that many other tourists, but, in reality, they were the losers, because when they go home and show their relatives their photos, their relatives are going to fall asleep faster than the same Mark Nola in a staff meeting, while Ramon's relatives are going to book tickets to Shanghai before he's even done showing his photos.

Then we stood in line for a while waiting to leave, which wasn't unusual or remarkable except for this awesome picture I took of these mummies and one of our kids:

Off to lunch by the Bund! And a five-minute walk through the most famous vantage point of the entire city. It was a perfect spot for a huge group picture, though perhaps not a perfect day. I didn't even get a shot of the whole crew, even though I was the trip leader, so I took a picture of someone else's picture. I hope it will suffice.

This picture was suggested by me, even though I look about enthused as Brian Wilson is about life right now:

Then it was off to the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum. Since Mark Nola is a habitual teacher of science, we'd definitely gone there before, but it was still interesting. This will sound terrible, but one nice thing about the museums was that we usually just turned the students loose and said, “Meet here in two hours.” So then the teachers could wander around on their own without having to watch and herd, though some still found themselves telling kids to stop throwing soccer balls at projectors or having to stave off requests for ice cream treats.

Ramon and Amy and I scooted through the moose displays (it's not real, you guys)...

...anti-gravity simulators...

...a weird information transmission simulator that sent black and white balls in patterns from one station to another (intriguing, no?)...

...the bow and arrow vs. robots competition (we performed poorly)...

...some bats...

...the human body (complete with a frighteningly graphic video shot of a human anus to end the journey)...

...some SSAT practice questions...

...some exquisite rock formations...

...and sssssnakes...

No plans were on the docket for the evening, so after another dinner at some nice mall, we headed back to the hotel to kick it for a few hours before night fell. Which it did, as predicted.

The second-most stressful time on the trip was checking out of the Mandarin Hotel, since there were a million different room keys to collect and fees for broken cups being flung at us and students forgetting important worldly items in unspecified rooms, but at last we left and headed out to the Suzhou/Tongli area. It may be true that we got a bit lost, but we also got a bit found and got a bit onto some big golf carts to enter Tongli, this supposedly ancient village that appeared to be awfully full of fairly modern souvenir-type products but which was nonetheless fairly cool. After getting in, we went through another garden of some sort.

After the garden we wandered around the town more, and here five or six of us got a bit more than lost, which didn't upset anyone except the three tour guides and the two hundred people that we cut in line in front of to grab golf carts. But, at the end of the day, we made it back to the bus in one piece. Quite often I usually get stressed out in lost/late situations, but when others are getting angry angry angry, I chill out a bit more and don't worry about it. Plus, none of the students care, and we're there for them, right? Right.

We got on the bus, we ate at a restaurant, we toured a silk factory that was next to the restaurant and that was not spectacular enough to meet my camera lens, and we left. For another garden: the Humble Administration Garden.

I have no clue what that name means. And, frankly, I am not concerned about it. All I know is that this garden was like the Yu Garden but a bit cooler and a bit more crowded. There was more variety, though I think that if I go to one more garden of this variety, it will have been enough. I also wouldn't mind living in one, if it weren't open to tour groups, which would mean that it would be in the pristine, peaceful condition it was in five hundred years ago. I am sure it was incredible then; it was pretty cool last Thursday.

After a while, we left, though we almost did so one teacher short. The next destination was the last: Tiger Hill. Built by the Wu-Tang Clan in 1991, this small peak seemed daunting to many of our students, some of whom wanted to stay on the bus and continue being wieners instead of scaling the hill and growing as human beings. But, all but one injured soul did venture up.

There were flowers everywhere. Obviously. The climb was not hard. The top was spacious and picturesque; very green, fairly tranquil. I only wish we could have climbed the slightly off-kilter tower.

Down! To supper! To a local supermarket to buy supplies (read: every unhealthy food that a kid whose parents were 640 miles away could get his/her/its hands on) for the lunch that our return train ride wouldn't provide otherwise! And then, to a super nice hotel in Suzhou: the Guanyuan. Mmm. Very nice in style and decor, and much easier to supervise; the Mandarin Hotel in Shanghai had had these weird, triangular floors, so a concerned teacher could only see about three rooms before the hallway took a preventative angle and blocked his/her view of the what was going on elsewhere on the floor, but the Guanyuan allowed me to sit at one end of the hallway and watch essentially every room our most suspicious boys were held captive in. And so, that and hitting on the tour guide was how I spent the last evening of the trip.

Checking out of the Guanyuan was the single most stressful hour of the entire week, since we had more fees flung in our faces, twice as many room keys to deal with (the Mandarin had only given one per room...not here), and multiple students not being even remotely on time. The tour guides were quite concerned about making it to the train station on time, so we injected as much urgency into the atmosphere as possible; however, after yelling at late kids and running around and all, we arrived at the train station 1.5 hours early and had to just bum around until our express train came.

We eventually went up to the platform and waited for the the train, and while we were there, a different express train roared by. Its passing might have been the coolest thing I saw all week; it suddenly was there and gone, covering the entire length of the train station and hundreds of meters in either direction in about five seconds. It was insanely fast and extremely loud (and, yes, it was incredibly close). And I know everyone thought in their li'l minds, “We get to ride one of those!?” Very cool.

Finally, our train came. We got on and sat there for half the amount of time it took us to get to the Suzhou/Shanghai area, eating Pringles and flicking each other in the forehead and gambling to kill the time. At last, we sped at an unbelievable speed into Beijing and took some coach buses back to the Beijing World Youth Academy campus. There the students and teachers finally left; that feeling of supervision and responsibility (and the restriction on what words I could say to express my feelings) finally was lifted least, after the kid who grabbed the wrong bag, turned off her cell phone, and merrily rode away with her mom returned to get the correct bag came back. Then: it was over.

The reflection of a couple hours left me with the following thoughts:

a) It's just fun to go places with fun people. The teachers and tour guides on the trip were quite entertaining, for the most part; the students were at least marginally entertaining, and wherever we were, whether they were interested or not, they appeared to have a lot of fun with each other.

b) I don't need to go back to Shanghai ever again, but seeing new places continues to be an alarmingly enjoyable experience, not just for me but for others hungry for newness, like Ramon. And maybe two or three students who really ate up most of what we saw.

c) Year 8 at BWYA is a pretty chill group of young people. Some dumb eighth grade things did happen, like choosing the top of the escalator as a perfect stopping point or closing that manual lock thingy on the door when a roommate isn't in the room, but no one – to my knowledge – was sneaking out to bars or spray painting the walls or running away from the group and hiding somewhere or cheering for NYY (though plenty of students sported their apparel). So being the so-called trip leader was made easier by that.

d) That feeling of being responsible/leading, the same one from YouthWorks!, is one I like. Leading tours in a touristy city...maybe not something that I'd really relish doing (unless it was a Rock Rapids Tour), but something similar could be a fun job at some point. Who knows.

e) Spring break is coming. Another trip is on the horizon. One that doesn't include sixty young folk. Pumped.