Hello! Or, as they say it here, 你 好! (That's "nǐ hǎo.") I have been in the city of Shenyang for about two weeks now and thought it was about time to give an update on my experience so far. Although I may not be able to write every day, I hope to use this blog to record my thoughts, feelings, and impressions as I teach English here in Shenyang over the next year. Hopefully my writing will be interesting enough to hold your attention, but I’ll try my best to include some funny jokes and amusing pictures, just in case.
My first week in China was quite challenging, to say the least. Being in a foreign environment forced me to re-think practically everything I took for granted in the U.S., such taking a shower, washing clothes, going shopping, and finding places to eat. I received some help from the university’s foreign recruiter, who speaks English very well and took me shopping to Shenyang’s local Meijer-like supermarket, but for the most part I had to fend for myself, occasionally seeking assistance from my apartment building’s receptionists and maids (most of whom speak little English, if any at all) when I couldn’t figure out how to do something myself. Early in the week I gave each of them Indy 500 pencils that I brought from home as gifts, which I think put me in a somewhat favorable light in spite of my poor Chinese communication, but I still find that I need to be persistent with them if I want anything accomplished.
The rooms in my building (called “Home for Foreign Friends”) are very nice, although not without some problems. They consist of a kitchen, bedroom, work study, and a small bathroom—with Western toilets, fortunately—and also come with air conditioning, a washing machine, a fridge/freezer, and even a television set that picks up some English-language channels. (Most of what I've seen is mild, slightly right-wing political commentary—generic Fox News, basically, which surprises me.) When I first arrived, however, my fridge gave off a horrible odor, forcing me to put all my food in plastic bags so they wouldn’t begin to smell, too. I also unexpectedly found myself sharing my apartment with a few roommates, but I’m pretty sure I killed most of them by the third day. (Cockroaches aren’t much different in China than they are in the U.S., which I actually found kind of comforting in the midst of my culture shock.)
Perhaps most difficult of all, my room had no internet connection. Since I had no cell phone, either, I felt extremely isolated during my first week, unable to contact friends and family from home when I wanted to, much less anyone here at the university if I needed assistance or had questions. Hence, I was pretty much on my own. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since it forced me to venture outside, talk to people (or at least attempt to), and explore the campus. Desiring to immerse myself in Chinese customs, I made it a priority to only eat at the campus’s cafeteria for my first week, where I sampled—along with the usual bowl of rice—a number of new and strange dishes, many of which I still have no idea what they were. After about a week of this, I began to feel a bit queasy and grew depressed with the thought that I would have to eat the cafeteria food for an entire year. In desperation, I decided to explore outside the campus and there found my salvation: a KFC! Having attempted to eat Chinese food for a week, I figured I could reward myself with a chicken sandwich and fries, so I did—a number of times, I confess.
Since then, things have only become better. Last week I moved into a new room, three stories above my old one, where the fridge doesn’t smell and there are no cockroaches in sight, although I have occasionally battled a few mosquitoes. I share my floor with a bunch of Russian college girls (I'm having dinner with one of them tonight) and a nice Chinese-German couple, who took me out to eat the other day for good Chinese food: sweet and sour pork, beef and vegetables, cooked cabbage, and hot and spicy eggplant (my favorite), all served with tea and rice. I have also made friends with two Chinese graduate students here at the university; they have been extremely helpful in showing me around the city and assisting me with my Chinese, which is steadily improving. Fortunately, in addition to teaching this semester, I will be taking a beginner’s Chinese course, so that should accelerate my learning. As far as I know, there is only one other person from America on the campus—another English teacher, although he is from Berkeley, California—which puts me in a distinct minority.
My teaching courses don’t actually begin until after September 20, so I have some free time on my hands at the moment. I’m only teaching eight periods, too (about four less than I expected), but everything is so inexpensive here that I don’t think the decrease in pay will hurt me at all, and it should give me more time to concentrate on my Chinese course. Additionally, I will be holding two-hour English tutoring sessions for a small group of ten-year-olds (children of my colleagues, I believe) every Saturday, which I expect to be a lot of fun. As a native English speaker, my director is also having me proofread forms and papers written by the university in order to correct their occasionally awkward use of English. It seems the editing skills I developed as a research assistant at the Frederick Douglass Papers Edition (my previous job in Indy) will serve me well here.
As far as shopping goes, just about everything is available here, and at very reduced rates. I buy most of my groceries (bread, ham, juice, water, etc.) at a local supermarket called Tesco, although they also sell clothes, appliances, and anything else I could possibly need. (It’s been a bit rainy in Shenyang, so I recently purchased an umbrella for 32 yuan—about $4.00 in American currency.) Being the avid film viewer that I am, I couldn’t resist browsing the DVDs, too. My current residence really becomes clear when I see a number of U.S. titles (Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.) in the section labeled “foreign films”! I couldn’t find any of my favorite Chinese films (most of the contemporary hits look like sappy romance or mindless action—not much different than America, actually), but a new friend told me over a dinner of delicious fondue last week that Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story—two of my all-time favorite movies from China (or any country for that matter)—have been seen by nearly everyone in the major cities and are, as he delightfully put it, “considered classics.” This news certainly makes me feel at home here!
So that about sums up my first two weeks in Shenyang. Now that I’ve become fairly acclimated, I expect to be a little more adventurous this month and explore more of the city, especially some of the ancient historical sites. I need to acquaint myself with the city’s transportation system, too—I’ve already taken the bus once, but I’ve heard the taxi service is quite efficient (not to mention very affordable), which I’ll probably use to reach destinations that are beyond walking distance. Sometimes I have to build up a lot of gusto to do such things, since everything is so fast-paced and practically no one speaks English here. I find the experience is healthy and even refreshing for me, though: it helps me to not take myself so seriously, and I’ve already developed a good sense of humor about my attempts to communicate with others. Before arriving in China I thought that self-confidence would be my primary means to success—now I’m realizing that laughter is the only realistic way to survive.
Next up: Photos!