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.