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June 2005

It’s cherry season in Dalian now. Everywhere we look, the fruit sellers’ boxes are overflowing with the tart red fruit. Because our street is lined with fruit sellers, the passage of our time is marked in the seasons of fruit. When we first arrived, it was strawberries and pineapples, there was a brief interlude of oranges, and now it’s watermelon and cherries. We buy a kilo of cherries from our fruit lady every day or so, and eat them with breakfast, for an afternoon snack, after dinner, while watching a DVD… Spring in China tastes like cherries.

Spring here is also noisy and smelly. The sewer is still overflowing and cascading down the steps and onto the street. The apartment below us and the apartment next to us are both remodeling, and it seems that all the work is being done with hammers. We wake up to pounding and it continues unabated throughout the day. The pile of bricks and mortar outside grows daily. We peep into the doors when they are left ajar, so we can measure progress and how much longer we’ll have to listen to hammering at 7am.

One of my adult students, Robert De Niro, invited us to his house one day. Robert is a student who is going to Australia in July to get his masters in accounting, so he is free during weekdays like us. He met us and we took the bus to his parents’ condo. It is common for most people live with their parents until they are married, and some even continue to live with parents after they are married. The condo was huge, with two floors and at least five bedrooms (both of his parents work for the government). He gave us the tour, and we marveled at his DVD collection. Then he and Zac played video games for a while. For lunch, he made “hot-pot” which is a popular meal here. Basically, in the center of the table there is a boiling pot of flavored water. (I asked what he flavored the water with and he said, “medicine”.) Into the water you drop various things, such as fish balls, dumplings, lettuce, and thinly sliced mutton. They cook in the water for a minute or two, then you fish them out with your chopsticks and burn your mouth eating them. It was quite delicious. After lunch, we watched a DVD called “Shawn of the Dead” which was a parody horror movie. Zac and I thought it was hilarious but Robert didn’t like it too much. Then we watched an hour or two of Friends episodes on DVD.

On another day, we invited our friend Jerry (the one who took us around Dandong on our holiday) over to our house to watch movies. He is planning on going to England to continue his studies, so he is trying to practice his English as much as possible. It was our first time to entertain a Chinese person on our own turf, but luckily we had been to other houses enough that we knew the drill: provide room temperature coke to drink and have lots of fruit on hand and continuously offer it to the guest. The day before, I had gone down to our street and bought cherry tomatoes, bananas, nectarines, a few strawberries, and of course, a kilo of cherries. We also cleaned our house (which took all of 30 minutes because it is so small). Zac met Jerry at the museum near our house, and brought him up to our flat. This is also a common practice, because it is impossible to give directions to your house, so everyone always meets somewhere accessible first. We watched American Beauty while munching on the fruit and afterwards discussed the typical American dysfunctional family. Since we can’t cook anything decent enough to serve to the Chinese palette, we took Jerry to a restaurant near our house for lunch. Then, we took a walk up the hill behind our house, and Jerry seemed a bit winded. He said because he studied so much, he had no time to exercise. After we went back down the hill, I helped him correct a speech he wrote for some class. Here is the e-mail we received from him a day later:

Hi Zac,

The movie we watched last time is wonderful! Also, you are very hospitable and your flat looks nice despite a small one. I feel more exercise is needed to improve my body situation after we did hiking last Tuesday.

Although I take great effort to understand the whole matters in movies, I find it unavailable to me. luckily, your help give a little encouragement to me. Thanks, really. In order to learn a lot , i know clearly that i should watch more, which maybe a test of your patience. what about another movie at the same time?

ok, i would like to take you to all of the places you like to visit when we are free. Wait for your answer.


Later in the week, one of Zac’s students, Linda, invited us to go to the zoo that is in Dalian. Linda is a senior high school student, but she finished early, and so she is free during the day. So on Thursday, Linda, her mother, and a soldier in the navy, picked us up at the museum near our house and drove us to the zoo. Linda’s mother is pretty high up in the navy, and apparently that entitles her to a soldier chauffer when needed. We’d wanted to see a Chinese zoo for some time, and it was every bit as gaudy as we hoped, but luckily not quite as cruel as we feared. The cages were less plush than in a U.S. zoo, but the animals seemed well cared for. The zoo is called Forestry Zoo, because it is located amongst these beautiful green hills in the center of Dalian. Once inside the zoo, it was like we weren’t in a city anymore. The beginning of the zoo was filled with dinosaur statues and large bird cages. The Chinese love to take photos, mainly of themselves. Therefore, random statues are quite popular here since they make a good backdrop for a photo. They must have thought we were crazy for taking photos of just the real animals.

China’s famed panda was a let-down. It’s head was behind a rock, and the cage was pretty sad. The best part was the bears. They had a pair of Sun Bears that were trained, and really looked like a person wearing a bear suit. We went to the bear show, where, amongst other things, they had the two bears in a boxing match. It was so twisted, so wrong, and so hilarious. Another oddity about the zoo was that they had a whole section for dogs. People weren’t supposed to feed any of the animals, but of course they did. Even I pitched in when I found a cherry lying near the monkey cage. I tossed it in, and it was immediately snatched up and eaten. 

We asked more about Linda’s mother’s job, and it turned out she is the one who shoots missiles for the navy. I joked that I wondered what she did all day since there is no war right now. She said she had to practice every day, because, you know, Japan….Taiwan…. So, if there ever is a war over here, we know the lady who’s going to be shooting missiles at the U.S. ships that intervene to defend Taiwan or Japan.

After the zoo, we went to meet Felicia, one of the Chinese teachers from school. Like Zac, she also loves Japanese anime. She took us to a shop she knew of where they sell the DVDs with English subtitles, which is rare since in China, most of the anime just has the Chinese subtitles. Afterwards, we finally broke down and went to Pizza Hut. Although we had no qualms about eating American fast food in Korea, so far we hadn’t crossed that line in China. But after the day at the zoo, we were hungry and pizza sounded great. We justified it though because Felicia had never been to pizza hut and we could treat her to an American restaurant. Pizza Hut in China is decorated like a fancy restaurant. For a large pepperoni pizza and a pitcher of orange soda, we spent Y100 (or $12) which is really expensive for a meal here.

The beginning of June is also the time for mid-term exams here at our school. All of the exams are given orally and individually. The exams are set by the school and the teachers merely implement them. They all start with a listening activity where we read a short story and the kids have to answer questions about it. Then we take them one-by-one out into the hall and give them an interview. Here are some of the humorous answers I got:

Q: Hi Jane, how are you?
A: I’m seven years old.

Q: What’s the weather like today?
A: The weather likes cats.

Q: What month is it?
A: Yes.

Q: What day is it today?
A: Today I drank milk.

Q: What are you going to do tomorrow?
A: Tomorrow I’m going to do the zoo.

Q: What color are these?
A: Dogs.
Q: How many are there?
A: Dogs.

Q: Who cooks dinner at your house?
A: Rice and noodles.

And so on and so on.

On Friday, we had our last class with our adult students. After 36 two-hour classes, I felt like they were my extended family here in Dalian. They gave me advice, explained things, brought me medicine when I was sick, shared DVD’s and books, and gave me insight into their lives. Instead of sitting in the classroom and discussing a topic like normal, we had decided to go to a restaurant for our last class. So on Friday evening, we met at school and then walked a block to the famous spring roll restaurant. Kelly and Robert had booked a room in advance. Most big Chinese restaurants have private rooms above their common dining area. It is perfect for having a small group party, because you have the privacy of your own dining room, with all the convenience of a restaurant and waitresses. Since all meals in China are eaten family-style, it took about 15 minutes to order because everyone had to agree on everything (except me because I’m hopeless when it comes to food). We ended up with all sorts of weird things like deep-fried octopus tentacles, shredded potatoes, noodle-lettuce-peanut salad, fish-flavored pork strips, sweet potato noodles, fish ball and seaweed soup, etc. All the dishes are placed on a lazy susan in the middle of the table and round and round it goes while your chopsticks reach out to grab a bite of food as it goes by. It’s actually a wonderful way to eat, and I enjoyed it immensely. The conversation twirled around me, half in Chinese out of habit, and half in English for my benefit. I sat between Darwin and Eva, and if there was too much Chinese they would translate for me. Although most rooms come equipped with Karaoke, this one didn’t have it. That didn’t stop them from singing though. The teapot on the lazy susan indicated whose turn it was to sing. Most were pretty bad, as they were laughing so much, but three of the women were excellent singers so that I wished we did have karaoke. They asked me to give a toast, and I wished I was better prepared, but I managed to make a short speech about how much I enjoyed teaching them and how I hoped we would stay in touch.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been here three months; we’re already a quarter of the way through our contract. In Namibia, with a two year contract, we could be idle knowing that everything would come again. But with a one-year contract here in China, we are reminded that time is actually linear, we have each day only once, and we have to eat our Dalian cherries while we can.

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