Origin Story

I have been asked several times why I am called Mr. Buffalo. That story is in essence my origin story, it came from my first trip to China, a time that made me who I am.

The whole name came about During my orientation week. Danny, myself and about four Chinese guys were sitting down to lunch after a moring climb on Yuelu Mountain. As we were eating, Danny mentioned that his Chinese name was Da niu  (大牛, big cow). I then stated that I would like a Chinese name. We batted around some interesting names including bull and big elephant (big elephant was declined due tothe fact that it was rock’s (yes, I have a Chinese friend named Rock) Chinese name. We finally settled on the name Shui Niu (水牛, Water buffalo (literally, water cow)).

At first, I thought this was a great name, until I realized that a name like water buffalo was considered a hick name, the kind of name that some one from the country would have. I kept the name to myself, Until my coworkers opened their big mouths. First Andrew decided to tell my boss and several important officials of a small town that we visited on a teaching exchange, luckily no one thought anything about it, however, my boss (Mr. Huang) would start calling me Shui Niu from then on.

Later, Derek would call me Shui Niu during Chinese class, unfortunately, my Chinese teacher was also the home room teacher for one of my classes. by first period, all my students knew my name was buffalo. From then on, all my students called me buffalo. I finally had to make the announcement that since I was their teacher, they had to call me Mr. Buffalo, and thus the legend was born. Probably not as exciting as you hoped, but it’s the truth.

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Can You Go Home Again?

I found this http://matadornetwork.com/life/facing-off-against-reverse-culture-shock/ on Matador and it sparked the following:

Can you go home again? Can what was familiar ever be familiar again? Can you truly make a home in a foreign country? Or do nomads just become outcasts and outsiders, even in their motherland?

Sometimes I ask myself these questions. Deep down, some part of me needs an answer, like a scared toddler asking if everything will be alright. Almost three years ago the decision, that some consider foolhardy, to leave everything I ever knew and to the furthest place I could think (that wasn’t Antarctica or North Korea). Since then, it seems that I have been running from the reality that essentially I belong nowhere. I gave up any chance of normal life in the States, and as a Laowai, I’ll never be fully accepted here in China.

I also know first hand that I can’t go home again. I already tried that. While my friends and family were loving and supportive and the same people they were when I left the first time, I couldn’t make America work for me. Part of that may have been the economy, part of  it was that I can be an arrogant SOB sometimes, but the biggest part was that I left something of myself in the hills of Hunan.

I fell madly in love with a country. All I could think about, dream about, or talk about (much to the chagrin of my love ones) was China. I couldn’t relax in America. I couldn’t be happy in America. Hell, I probably would have either gone crazy or shot myself if I had stayed in America (Dear reader, In the last few sentences, I was not being political or bashing the country of my birth. Neither was I suicidal. But, I was depressed, and I learned then that I need to wander).

But all this brings me back to my initial question, can I go home again? Yes, I miss my family. I have pictures of them all over. I hear stories about how my niece misses and I long to go home. And yet, at the same time I know that home is not home anymore, ;life has gone on without me and may be the better for it. I also remember the longing to be anywhere other than where I was born. If I’m truly honest, I know this discontent was something I was born with, but living overseas turned it into a hard ache. One I fear may never be cured. I don’t know if I can go home again, because I don’ know where home is.

Thank-you for letting bring you down a little, I promise my next post will be happier.

Gratefulness

An essential attribute that all travelers must possess is gratefulness. I am constantly reminded of this truth everyday. It is also the easiest truth to lose sight of. I mean when you think about it we as travelers should live grateful. We are privileged the things that others only dream of, we are privileged that a country not our own would allow us to enter their borders, and beyond all, the privilege of being invited into the lives of locals.

I often ignorant of this posture of gratefulness and blind to the privileges I enjoy as a traveler in Beijing. I have a lousy work situation and that often blinds me to all the benefits I enjoy here in Beijing.
Yesterday, was the start of a five day weekend, that as luck would have it would be completely paid time-off. In China, the Government gives multiple days off for National holidays, but should any of the days off, other than the holiday its self fall on a weekday, you have to make up those days on the weekend.. I am contracted out to an international school and we don’t work on the weekend no matter what.
Any way my agency, my told me I would have to sub at a kindergarten if I wanted to get paid (which is complete bull, as my school still pays them even though we don’t work the weekends). I agreed to work, I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal. But as time got closer to Friday, no one told me I’d be working, which means that I would still be paid, but not have to work. Anyway, I was enjoying my Saturday, when one of the bozos from expertise called and asked if I would sub on Sunday. They had all week to ask and they wait until the last minute. It is a very Chinese way of doing things, and I am used to it, except for my agency does it, simply because it feels like they do it on purpose (and because they are completely crooked).
This phone call threw me into a bad mood. For the next three or four hours, I was in funk, because I was now out 600RMB.
Anyway I was out for a walk, and I realized that no matter what happens, the sun is shining and I am lucky enough to be China. At that moment, as if the powers that be wanted to illustrate a point, I walked by a hair salon that blaring Chinese rap music and where a few little kids decided to play “hey white guy, I can yell random English words”. I realized how grateful I should be too live here. I see things everyday, I never thought I’d see. I eat things I never thought. My heart can only brim with gratefulness.
As I said the traveler must always live in a posture of gratefulness, the world doesn’t owe us travel. We are the happy few who get to enjoy this country, in this time. This moment will never come again, how can you not be grateful.

When the Honeymoon’s Over

“A journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”                                                                                      -John Steinbeck
Travel is like a marriage in more ways than one, especially when you are not just traveling, but living long-term in a foreign city. Living oversea, hell,living anywhere is like a marriage. When you first get there, you fall madly in love with your city. Everything is exciting and new. You run around all over the place, seeing all the famous that you’ve only read about and you eat in all the restaurant that the guide book tells you to eat in.    You’re madly in love, no one has ever felt the way you do. No one has ever seen your city the way you have.
Then there comes a time, about three months in, when the novelty wears off. In my case, there’s only so many times you visit Tienanmen Square, the Lama Temple, or Wangfujing, before you just feel like whatever it was that attracted you to your city has died. And just like in a marriage, when you hit this wall, you need to work harder.
Instead of just waking up in the morning and expecting the city to amaze to you, you have to look harder. You can’t just do the tourist shit and expect to still be happy, you live here now, step up. This is something I struggle with. The weekend comes and I either sit around the house doing nothing or I run around town like a chicken with its head cut off. At some point, you realize that it doesn’t come as easy as it once did. I forget all the time why I love Beijing. I mean I can’t just go to the Forbidden City and be entranced like I once was.
However, the beautiful thing about the end of the honeymoon, is that the relationship is more nuanced, you are able go deeper in your experience. I no longer have to go far to find the amazing. All I have to do is walk down the street and I see China as it really is. I love that I can fall in love with my city just by going down the street. Sometimes when the honeymoon’s over, you just have to dig deeper.

The Road to Jingshi (an excerpt from “Ni Hao Mr.Buffalo”, a book in the works by Jon Timmerman)

Dear Readers,

I am an author, which means I write books. So far that has been a slow process, but there is a physical manuscript on my computer. So while the book may not be ready for publishing, some of the stories are ready to be read. This excerpt from my first and hopefully soon to be finished book, “Ni Hao Mr. Buffalo”, tells the story of my first trip to Jingshi, Changde, Hunan Province for a teaching exchange. This is Easily one of my fondest memories from my time in Hunan. Enjoy.

Jon “Mr. Buffalo” Timmerman

The Road to Jingshi

                My relationship with the county of Jingshi (the Chinese call it a county; it’s really more of a town. In China, counties are in cities) in the city of Changde is a special one.

I made three separate trips to Jingshi during my year in Changsha. The for these trips, were teaching exchanges. Each trip has its own wonderful memories and stories; each trip holds a special place in my heart.

My first trip to Jingshi was in September of 2010. I was part of a teaching exchange to Douye Middle School. There were seven Chinese teachers who were going to give demo classes at Douye. A and I were the only two Americans on the trip. Douye had no Americans, and so we were brought along as showpieces. Also the reason we were the only Americans on the trip, was that Douye officials specifically asked that white teacher only, be sent. The Chinese believe that in order to teach English well, you have to be white. That left only four of us who could and Donna and Noah opted out.

So that left A and I in van with four female teachers and a driver, all of whom preferred to speak Chinese. A’s Chinese wasn’t bad and that made him pretty popular with the Chinese. My Chinese on the other hand, was at this point nonexistent. Also due to the fact that I was the tallest, I was banished. Luckily, the landscape was interesting.

They told me it would be a four hour drive to our destination. Five-and-a-half hours later, the van stopped.  When I got out, I found we were nowhere near our destination; instead we were at the site of what was supposedly the oldest prehistoric village in China. Our host school had arranged this little field trip.

Now as part of our entourage was Cathy, a Chinese English teacher, who served as our interpreter? Our host school also sent along two Chinese English teacher, Joanne and I can’t remember. As there were only two of us and two of them, we each, A and I, had our very own, very attractive interpreters. These two, I think were supposed to serve as interpreters. However, as they were both single, it seemed more like they were hitting on us (as I said earlier Chinese women find me very cute). The funny thing is that Cathy seemed to catch on to what they were doing and constantly intervened. Sometimes I was happy that she did, and other times it felt like she ruined a moment.

The thing that really stood out to me was that for the first time, I was in the Chinese countryside.

There is an odd thing about me, I like cemeteries. I know that sounds weird, but as an anthropology student, funerary practices intrigued me. And in the countryside, people just bury their deceased loved ones out in the field. In the city, you don’t get to see cemeteries very often. I never saw a cemetery in Changsha and due to cultural taboos; it would have been impolite to inquire as to their whereabouts. The Chinese do not about the dead, they consider impolite to talk or ask about something sad (needless to say, there aren’t many psychologists in China).

In the country, you see many graves, some far out in the field, some close to the road, and some in cemeteries on a hill. You could recognize these graves by their circular mound and stele (a type of tombstone), and also by the flowers and grave offerings left beside them.

While it seems strange that someone would write two paragraphs about graves, but what it was that really struck me was that I was deep in the Chinese countryside. I was where I had always dreamed of being; this was where the National Geographic pictures of my childhood were taken. This is where adventure lived when I was a child.

So any way, the trouble (I use the term loosely) in Jingshi started when I got out of the van at the archaeology park. Mr. Huang, the vice-principal in charge of education at Nanya (basically my boss), told the vice principal of education at Douye, that “Jon is very good at drinking beer.” These words would shape the rest of this and future experiences in Jingshi. But more on that later.

The archaeology park was both interesting and a bit hokey. For me, it was interesting because I have studied archaeology. Where most people saw holes in the ground, I saw houses, workshops, and kilns. The hokey-ness came from the fact that it reminded me of something you would have in America in the 1960’s along route 66.  The site seemed to show that though we can see where they lived, we’ll never know how they lived. It was full of reconstructions of how people looked and what they wore (the site was so old that everything that wasn’t stone had rotted away. So there was no evidence of the clothing they wore).

After we left the archaeological park, we went to the hotel. At the hotel, the nicest one in Jingshi, we were given our room keys. A, Mr. Huang, and myself were the only ones out of 25 people, to get our own rooms. Instead of going to our rooms, we were led to a private banquet room.

This is where all that stuff about Jon being really good at drinking beer comes into play.

If you’ve never been to a Chinese banquet, then you don’t know that toasts are an important part of a banquet. Drinking, as it was explained to me, is a way for men to make friends and show how strong they are. In China, this is referred to as wine table culture. The drink of choice at event like this is baijiu (pronounced bye-joe). According to Niubi: the real Chinese you were never Taught in school, by Evaline Chao, baijiu is defined thusly:” Literally ‘white alcohol’. Baijiu is notoriously strong and even more notoriously foul tasting. It drunk only in shots, accompanied by an elaborate set of rituals and social mores that, in a nutshell enable Chinese men to bully each other into puking oblivion beneath a veneer of politeness”.

As you will learn, these words would ring painfully true for me.

The evening began well enough. We opened with a shot of baijiu, and that was only because A had said he wanted to drink baijiu with dinner as a joke. That would mark one of the first times A’s words screwed me over. After the baijiu, we switched to beer. This was the point where the toasting and bravado began. The first official stood up and announced that he would drink two bottles of beer with me. Basically we split and chugged the contents of two 22oz. bottles of Snow beer. The next official announced that he would drink three bottles of beer with me. After that, the next official stated that he would drink five bottles of beer with me. In the end, I ended up drinking the equivalent of ten 22 oz. bottles of beer in 30 minutes or so. Luckily, Chinese beer is only 2.5 to 3% alcohol.

And that is the story of how I cemented my reputation of being “good at drinking beer.”

I wish I could describe the rest of the dinner, but I can’t really remember. It’s not because of all the alcohol, it’s because I didn’t get to eat much because everyone was too busy toasting me. I do however remember that the food was crazy good.

The next morning, I was woken up at 7am. I woke up feeling pretty good, unlike A. I drank 4 liters of water before I went to bed. The thing that makes all this funny is that at dinner A had boasted that he was better at drinking than I was. The Chinese thought this was funny, because A is a skinny little dude, and I am 6’ 2”, 285 pounds. So when we exited our rooms and I was wide awake and cheerful and A was bleary eyed and nursing a headache, Joanne told A he was not good at drinking and I was. Another nail in my coffin that would come back to bite me in the butt on future trips to Jingshi.

From the hotel we were taken to blind liu’s, a restaurant whose specialty was Jingshi beef noodles. In China, every city has a specialty, a food that is their signature dish (peiking duck in Beijing, Stinky tofu in Changsha, or dumplings in Xi’an). Jingshi beef noodles are amazing, though I don’t recommend going that far off the beaten track just to eat them.  The noodles are served hotpot style, they are served in large bowls set over an open flame and cooked at the table. Every time I had Jingshi beef noodles, they brought in four or five different bowls, each with a different cut of beef. My favorite was the cow stomach noodles, which we were always served in Jingshi, as tripe is considered good for a hangover.

After breakfast, we went to the school. It was the first time that I ever walked onto a campus of a middle school to Jay-z’s “99 problems” blaring over the school PA system. A and I tag team taught a class of junior 3’s. It was a nightmare, we had only been teaching for about month. And so to stick us in a room with 40 kids, 30 teachers watching our every move and a TV crew only served to make us really nervous and our class suck.

Teaching in China is hard enough, but teaching in China in the middle of a three ring circus is impossible. Usually it takes a month, sometimes more, before the kids feel comfortable with you and start to answer questions. When you come in to teach for an hour, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to talk to you.

So anyway, we faltered through 45-minutes of poorly planned teaching and were taking off to the principal’s office to rest. It’s really funny to guest teach at a school, because you spend 45-minutes teaching and then someone thinks you need to rest. At Nanya, some days I would teach for four hours straight with no rest.  It was the first time I was ever sent to the principal’s office and was offered a cigarette when I got there.

After resting, we sat in on the class Cathy was teaching. It was the first time I’d ever watch one of the Chinese English teachers conduct a class. Their way of teaching is a lot different than mine. They plan multiple activities and spend five minutes on each one. My students are lucky if I plan two activities.

After Cathy was done teaching, the three of us went to our assessment. Basically, we were sent to a crowded room where the teachers from Douye critiqued our teaching. It was a very awkward situation because all of the Douye English teachers were female, and at least seven of them were in their twenties, cute, and single. It was very odd to have a criticism interspersed with questions like: “do you have a girlfriend?” Our assessment/critique/interrogation lasted somewhere around 45 minute, I’m not sure though as I may have blacked out a couple of times.

After the assessment, we were led to yet another room, where we waited for at least a half-an-hour before the headmaster of arrived. Some speeches were by officials from douse, and then by officials from Nanya. After that, we were presented with teaching credentials from douye.

Finally, it was time for lunch. We were driven about 45 minutes outside of town to a lakeside resort.  The resort was an idyllic countryside place, overlooking a lake and near a Daoist monastery. As I got out of the van, I could hear the sound of chanting wafting down the hill from the monastery. The monastery overlooked a monument to a legendary woman who cried so hard for her dead husband, who had died while working on the Great Wall, that a large section of the wall collapsed. We stopped at the monument for the obligatory picture. Unfortunately we didn’t visit the monastery, but headed straight to lunch.

Resorts like the one we ate at are pretty common in China, or at least in Hunan. This lunch was the first time I visited one, but it wouldn’t be the last. The idea is that you and presumably a group friend go to one of these resorts and enjoy the countryside. They are usually centered around a lake, which supplies the restaurant with fish. Some resorts also have farms to supply vegetables and occasionally livestock. These places also have rooms for mahjong and karaoke, and sometimes have other activities.

This time though we were only eating. The food was good, though I don’t remember most of it. I do remember that the Hunan Staple, pork with peppers was on the table, as well as a couple of types of fish. This would also be the first time I ate frog. When I first saw the frog, I thought it was chicken, and this particular frog tasted like chicken. Almost every frog I ate after this one tasted like muddy chicken, but this one just tasted like chicken. Frog is a common meal in Southern China during the summer.

Luckily, I was able to avoid drinking a ton because it was lunch, A was sick, and we had a five hour drive ahead of us. I only had to drink two bottles of beer with very little toasting. However, just because we didn’t drink, that doesn’t lunch was without it’s vices. Unfortunately, Chinese men also like to smoke a lot. Before my time in China I’d never smoked a cigarette, so when I was offered one I was hesitant. However, as an anthropologist, I couldn’t refuse a gift no matter how small or life threatening. I smoked two or three cigarettes during this hour long lunch.

On top of that, the minister of education for Chengde prefecture had decided that we should become xiongdi (sworn brothers). This is a tremendous honor and it points to the fact that Americans are an oddity in Jingshi County, that this 50 year old man would want to forge an alliance with two foreign devils in their twenties. Everything in China is about guanxi, basically connection, relationship, or influence. It’s about who you know and what you can do for them or vice versa. We were the first foreign teachers and possibly the first foreigners to make a formal visit to Jingshi, so becoming brothers with us was a big deal for all parties.

Anyway, as a gift the minister gave A and I each a carton of farwanwang cigarettes (so much for not being a smoker). These cigarettes are the most expensive in Hunan; they run about 30 Yuan a pack. A carton goes for 300 Yuan. This was a very special gift, due to the cost and the fact that cigarettes are a coveted luxury.

After lunch, it was time to pose for pictures with all our new friends, say our good byes, and make a last run to the bathroom. Then, we all piled back into the van for the long drive back to Changsha.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

“The journey of  a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

-Lao Tzu

This is probably one of the most over used quotes in the world. My Benson High School (my alma mater), in Omaha, Nebraska, class of 2003 used this as our graduation quote, and so did probably thousands of other graduating classes, as well as anyone who has ever made a major life change.

At first glance, this quote seems played out, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is true. The journey doesn’t began in earnest, until you step out the door. This is sometimes hard for me to remember, I am always getting hung up on the little logistical details of the journey. The journey itself is simple, you just put one foot in front of the other and the rest falls into place.

Sweet Dreams are Made of These

I have a friend, who when asked how things are going, he usually responds, “living the dream”. He has a Brazilian friend who has tried to copy this statement and usually ends up saying ” living my dream”. I think I like the second one better, because I am living my dream. I’m not living the proscribed dream for American males my age, I don’t own a house, I’m not married/in a committed relationship, and I don’t have kids/pets.
Instead I wake up every morning in a foreign country. Yes my job sucks and Beijing can be a nightmare. But at the same time I am living an adventure. I don’t know why, but I’ve never been happier than I am now.
I am happy because deep inside, there is 5 year-old Jon, who is finally going on an adventure. I was probably a very strange little boy. I started reading National Geographic as soon as I could hold a magazine by myself (probably before that, as I believe my Grandma would read them to me as a newborn). One of my favorite stories in the saga that is my life, came when I was in kindergarten. When I was in kindergarten, we had show-and-tell on Fridays. Our show-and-tell each week was based on a different letter of the alphabet. One Friday, it was “M” day. Before “M” day, I asked Grandma what I should bring to show-and-tell. I didn’t want to bring a monkey, I knew all my friends were to bring monkeys (even then I had an urge to go against the flow). So, my Grandma gave a picture from a National Geographic calendar, of two Tibetan Buddhist monks.
So Friday comes and all my little friends get up and show the class their stuffed monkey. About 18 monkeys later, it was my turn, and the conversation went something like this (keep in mind in I went to a christian school. Also I may not totally remember what was said:
ms. Armstrong: “Jon what do you have today?
Me: “These are Buddhist monks, they’re from Tibet.
Random kids: “Miss Armstrong, what’s a booty monk? why are they wearing dresses? My Dad says they worship the devil!
Ms. Armstrong: “that wraps up show-and-tell for today”.
Me:” But I’m not done yet”.
Ms. Armstrong: “yes, you are”.
Random kids:”But I haven’t gone yet”. “When is it my turn”. “What’s a booty monk”
That may seem a bit random, but the point is I’ve always lived somewhere else. I always knew I was destined to see the world. I love the movie, The Truman Show, especially the scene where he is in school and he says he wants to be an explorer, and the teacher pulls down the map and says, “you’re too late. Everything’s already been found. I used to believe that. As teenager, I was scared to death that I was going to end with a desk job. I wanted to see the world, and I wanted to write.
I may not be living the conventional dream, but here in the Middle Kingdom, I’m living my dream.

Third World View

There is one very disturbing thing about living in China, even in Beijing this can creep up on  the unwary traveler. The problem I speak is one that I have termed the third world view. This isn’t a worldview in the traditional sense of the word, so much as an actual view that you might see in the third world.
What I’m talking about, is the frequency with which I see beggars who either have terrible diseases (the kind you read about in Nat Geo) or who were completely mangled in tragic accidents. The other I saw a man whose body ended under his navel. This is something no amount of reading or giving to save the children funds can prepare you for. Because in that instance you confronted with a major gap. If you’re like me, you grew up sheltered, probably somewhere in the Midwest, and you never really witnessed true suffering.
I wish I could tell you I have a foolproof plan for solving the dilemma of the third world view, I am stumped. I don’t know what to tell you about this. You will see it and it will jar you. I think the truth of it all is that no matter who we are and where we go, compassion might be the most important thing we bring. I’m not talking about giving, in fact I have a strict no money policy when it comes to beggars (begging is a cottage industry in China, and in many cases the beggars are actually run by the mafia and recieve none of the proceeds of their begging). I am talking about the simple gift of human dignity. I’m talking about looking someone in the eye instead of looking away. I’m talking about love and compassion. We all need to bring it with us when we travel.

Mr. Buffalo, Our Teacher (an excerpt from “Ni Hao Mr. Buffalo”, a book in the works by Jon Timmerman)

Dear readers, your ever lazy friend, Mr. Buffalo, has neglected this blog for some time. But now I am back. Today’s post is an excerpt from my book in in the works, “Ni Hao Mr. Buffalo” at this point, it is a very rough sketch, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.

Mr. Buffalo: Our Teacher

Teaching came fairly naturally to me. I’m a life-long learner, who loves to talk.  Now that doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared to death the first time I walked into a classroom. I like kids; I just wasn’t sure how to teach them.

I had no idea where the kids were at linguistically and I didn’t have a good grasp on the culture. I had some training in Chinese culture, but no real understanding of how the idea of saving face played out in a classroom.

You can read all you want about Chinese culture and the dos and don’ts, but you’ll never truly have an understanding of it until you live in it. Saving face is one of those cultural values that are hard to wrap your head and even harder to teach around when your background is that of a Scotts-Irish protestant from the middle of American.

The idea of saving face is one we in the west think we understand. We throw the term “save face around” as if we invented the concept, but I don’t think we truly understand the depth of commitment to the concept that the Chinese have. Saving face essentially means keeping one’s self from embarrassment. This generally translates in the classroom as students being shy and unwilling to talk to their teacher, or answer questions.

At Nanya, students were placed in either “normal” or “special classes. The “normal” classes were populated with average students (or those whose parents didn’t have enough guanxi), and contained 72 students. The special classes were more advanced and contained only 36 students. They also saw me twice a week, whereas the normal classes only saw me once a week.

My first day, I got an introduction to classroom life in China. My first class of the day was a “normal” class. The class had 72 students (and American public school teachers complain of overcrowding), no air conditioning, and was deathly silent as they stared at their new English teacher.

I think I was prepared to teach, I was told that the first day; I should just introduce myself and let the kids ask questions about me. However, due to the facts that I’m a giant laowai, that the kids aren’t used to be able to ask questions, and that they were junior ones and new to the school, conspired to completely blow my lesson plan. For most of the class, the kids stared, pointed, and giggled almost uncontrollably. Luckily I had a lesson on greetings ready to go if needed. That lesson, while better, still went over like a lead balloon.

Luckily, the day did get better. My later classes were mainly special classes, which meant that the kids had a higher level of English and that the classes were smaller. I was able to get the kids ask me questions. They were quite surprised to learn that I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids.

My first day was not as terrifying as I had expected it would be. The kids seemed to like me, though it would take another month or so before they really warmed up to me.

I wish I could tell you I remember everything about all of my classes, but the truth is I don’t. Most of my normal classes were a blur, although that is probably to be expected with a group of 72 non-talkative kids that you see once a week. But when it comes to the normal classes, I remember three students, Barbie, Larry, and Meggy.

Barbie was 13, with short hair, glasses, and the biggest eyes I’d ever seen on a human being. Barbie had this way about her, of perpetual confusion. Around the time I met Barbie, Leslie Nielsen died; I read in a tribute to him that he was the “embodiment of quintessential obliviousness”; I felt that this also accurately summed up. Barbie was also never without Meggy; in fact you talk about one without mentioning the other. Barbie was quiet and rarely spoke, unless she was excited about something. Meggy, was the voice of the duo, she was always talking and had many strong opinions, especially about my curriculum. Meggy was taller than Barbie, with long hair always in a pony tail. Meggy also had an obsession with Justin Bieber.

Larry was a rambunctious 11 year old boy, who couldn’t seem to keep his hands to himself. He always sat with two other boys and they were always fighting or touching each other. One day Larry asked me to give him an English name, and because he was sitting next to the other two, all I could think of was Curly, Moe, or Larry. I told him I picked the name Larry because I had a friend named Larry, which is true, but not why I picked the name.

I had a closer relationship with the students in my special classes. Classes 152, 153, 154, and 156. Class 152 was my worst class; the children were super spoiled and kind of dumb. Although in 152 there were boys who stand out in my mind, Roy and Jonathan. Roy was 11 and loved Hair Metal; he was always asking me questions about American metal bands. Roy also had a habit of stealing my English to Chinese dictionary and making fun of all the words Mr. Jon didn’t know. Jonathan named himself after me, I can’t tell if this was an attempt to get a better grade by sucking up, or if he actually looked up to me.

Class 153, “Crazy Class”, was one of my favorite classes. They actually named themselves “crazy class”; they called me “crazy teacher”.  One of the defining characteristics of class 153 is that they all had nicknames, there was Lisa, a little boy with a strong feminine side (the girls in the class named him this), named Davey (who thought was called Daisy, because his pronunciation wasn’t good). Bob, The girl who led the class in making fun of Davey, and the object of Davey’s affection. Hamburger, a rather plump 12 year-old who had the habit of yelling the word hamburger whenever a question was asked. The Class Flower, a common term in Chinese schools for the prettiest girl in the class. However, in our case he was a boy. And Bobo, a tall, silent girl who tried her best to go unrecognized (the problem with that was that she was best friends with Ana, who was the main instigator of shenanigans in that class).

Class 154 would have been fairly unmemorable, if it wasn’t for Mr. Wu. Mr. Wu was in theory a 10 year-old math Prodigy; he was in fact a holy terror. Mr. Wu was the epitome of Little Emperor Syndrome. He was spoiled, greedy, malicious, and whiney. At the end of the days I had his class, as I was saying goodbye, he would tell he was wishing I would die so he wouldn’t see me again. I usually responded with “same here”.

Mr. Wu’s actual name was Wu Sun (in Chinese the last name is first), but I took to calling him Mr. Wu one day after returning to my classroom from the bathroom (I usually had a 10 minute break between classes), to find that Mr. Wu, upon entering my class and finding me absent, had written on the board, “Mr. Jon is dead, Mr. Wu is teacher”.

Mr. wu had a habit of making up songs, usually to the tune of jingle bells. Songs like “Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon is bad”;” Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon is dead”; or my personal favorite, “Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon is dumb”. I would usually respond with a song of my own: “Mr. Wu, Mr. Wu, Mr. Wu gets an F in my class”.

You Scammed Me at Hello

One of the interesting things about living in China, especially living in Beijing, is that certain English words take on a new meaning. One such word is “hello”, in Beijing, when a stranger says hello, it basically means give me something rich white man.

I live in Sanlitun, an area of Beijing very popular with tourists (there’s nothing there in the way of actual sightseeing, but it does have a lot of designer shops, restaurants, hotels, bars, and several “massage” joints). Basically this is area is dedicated to taking money from foreigners, whether it is the overpriced bars serving fake liquor (watered down industrial alcohol, that will leave you with one hell of a headache in the morning, even if you’ve only had one or two drinks), The fake brands at Ya Show Clothing Market (they give everything a 90% mark-up. When bargaining, your first offer should be 10% percent of whatever they tell you), to the rickshaws, beggars, drug dealers, vendors, and other street hustlers who call SLT home.

As walk along the street, you hear “hello, rickshaw, hello” (translation: hey you, with the money get in my rickshaw and I will overcharge you for a three block trip), or “hello, money, hello” (translation: begging is a cottage industry, I make 2,000 RMB a day off gullible Laowai), or “hello, hello, hello” ( this one actually means that the rude and inpatient Beijinger behind you thinks you are moving too slow, and wants you to get out of their way).

There is also a nefarious side to hello in Beijing, whether it is the “hey Bohdi” of the Nigerian drug dealers, the incessant “hello, lady bar, hello” of the touts in front of seedy looking clubs fronting brothels, or the seemingly innocent “hello” of the semi-attractive woman in a tight dress, on an empty street (I guarantee that she doesn’t just want to talk to you).

I actually have a funny story about this, two weeks ago I was walking home from church at about 10pm on a Thursday night. My church is in an area near a lot of large foreign owned business hotels, as such the area near the one hotel is a magnet for prostitutes. For the record I am not one of those guys who thinks that part of the experience of living in China should include a visit with one of these ladies. But since I have to walk through this area to get home, I make a game of it. Essentially I try to observe the people and figure out which one is a prostitute before she inevitably approaches (they are out there looking for white guys and I am a big white guy, so they always approach). Anyway, as I near the area, I scanned the crowd and saw that there was only one women outside, and she looked to be mid-30’s and dressed like a Chinese tourist, so I figured there were no prostitutes that night. I pass the woman and about 30 seconds later, she comes up beside me as I am walking along and says “hello, hello”. I ignore her and keep walking, usually this would be the end of the story. But she continues to follow me, saying “hello, hello”. Eventually, she realizes that I am not a potential customer, and walks away. Now, I sure some of you are reading this saying, how do you know she was a prostitute. That’s easy, for the most part the Chinese go to bed early, so unless you are in an area with a lot bars and clubs, you won’t see too many people on the street. Two, if a Chinese person wants to have a conversation with you while you are walking, they will just start talking, they won’t just keep saying hello.

The point of this post is the thing that really saddens me about Beijing, nobody here really wants to get to know you, they just want your money or what every it is you can do for them. Case in point, I was on my way to church one Thursday evening (no I am not in some weird cult whose holy day is Thursday, My church’s young adult’s group meets then), and I was approached by a young woman who started a conversation with me, and I thought, “whoa, finally a Bejinger who just wants to talk to me”. However, then asked “you in HR?” After I said no, she lost interest. She was hoping I worked in HR for a multinational and would give her a job.

When I lived in Changsha, People genuinely wanted to know me. There was the added bonus for them that I am white, and therefore a status symbol, because they can say, “look, I have a foreign friend. But I was always being invited out by people I just meant. Even if they were using me, it wasn’t apparent.

When I first visited Beijing two years ago, I was warned that in the area near Tiananmen Square it is a common scam for young women to invite young, foreign guys to bars or teahouses (the girls are paid employees of the establishment) were at the end of the night the victim is presented with a huge bill for the very expensive drinks that the young lady ordered. I have actually been approached these women so many time, it  actually becoming funny, because they lurk on streets in such dense crowds that as soon as you say no to one another one is pitching her offer. The thing that sucks about this is that again they start a conversation with you. Most foreign guys are probably just thinking that they have a chance to score with a local girl. But for me, I travel to engage people of other cultures, and it almost hurts when you realize that the people you are talking to have no desire to engage, beyond ripping off.

I am not saying that every Chinese person who talks to you is trying to rip you off. I had a conversation with an old man on a subway train a couple months ago. He spoke terrific English and just wanted to talk to me because we shared a language. He was pretty interesting He had fought against the Americans in Korea and said that he was of the resistance against the Japanese when he was twelve. This is the kind of interaction I crave. This is why I travel. This is why I love China. Even in the midst of what seem like defeat and counterfeit everything, you might find something genuine, you might make a friend. And that chance is worth all of it.