Lessons from China

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHANGSHA, CHINA

I had thought of myself as a daring, resilient traveler, but this would be a test. As one of 27 volunteers with the WorldTeach China program, I was to spend a year teaching English to middle school students in China's Hunan Province, 800 miles southwest of Beijing.

I was 24 years old, two years removed from college, and itching to experience daily life in a foreign land. WorldTeach directs programs around the globe and China was not necessarily my first pick, but as a Korean adoptee, I have long been drawn to the idea of going to Asia. So there I was, a Korean-born, Baltimore-raised girl plopped down in the midst of China.

Immediately, I wondered: What have I gotten myself into? The cacophony of car horns, the whiffs of stinky tofu, the choking dust of the rubble-strewn sidewalks, the shrill sounds of the music played by the tai chi devotees in Martyrs Park, the pungent chaos of the outdoor markets ... everyday China mounted a head-spinning assault on my senses.

I was about to be fully immersed in the culture of a country leaping from developing nation to economic superpower overnight. I would be part of the transition. And I would see more of this eagerly aspiring land than any tourist. There would be many challenges -- and many rewards.

Getting my bearings

It was August 2004 when I arrived in Changsha, a gray, gritty metropolis of more than 6 million people. As exotic as my new world seemed, something pretty mundane -- walking across one of the chaotic streets -- stopped me cold. I didn't make it for a week. Then I sidled up to residents, hoping to join them in the perilous traverse. I was sliding into the culture in spite of myself.

One day during orientation, I visited the nearby Massage Hospital, which was entirely staffed by blind masseuses. This is a common occurrence in China, where the sightless are believed to have the most sensitive hands. For about $4, I received an hourlong full-body massage from a woman whose delicate physique belied her bone-crushingly powerful touch. I thought back to the previous month, when my friend, Robyn, gave me a Chinese phrase book as a going-away present. I remember laughing at phrases such as "please massage my head only." Little did I know that these phrases would actually be put to good use.

Another important phrase that I quickly learned was bu yao la jiao (I don't want peppers). This statement was usually met with an incredulous look. My normally iron stomach protested the spicy Hunan food, and I spent a ridiculous amount of time at every meal picking out the millions of little red chili peppers that are a mainstay in every dish here. Pork ... with chili peppers. Cow stomach ... with chili peppers. Cucumber ... with chili peppers.

To make things worse, I managed to break a tooth, biting into white rice, of all things. I had never had so much as a cavity before in my life, and my first major dental disaster would, of course, occur in central China.

My tooth was temporarily patched up at the Changsha Stomatological Hospital. I caused quite a disturbance because I spoke no Chinese (much to the disbelief of everyone I encountered), and was accompanied by my 17-year-old Chinese translator, Hao. The examination took place in a large open room with about 20 other patients. Several curious bystanders stood over my shoulder to inspect my mouth. Thus began my introduction to the lack of personal space, and the realization that I was facing a long year of misunderstandings. Another useful phrase: Wo bu hui shuo zhongwen (I don't speak Chinese).

Time to teach

After a week of orientation, my fellow WorldTeachers and I were scattered throughout Hunan at our respective schools. I was an hour away in Liuyang, a much smaller and more provincial city than Changsha. Liuyang's claim to fame is that 60 percent of the fireworks manufactured in China are produced there. The upside of this was that I saw fireworks displays every day. The downside was that they liked testing those fireworks at all hours of the day and night. The first time I heard the fireworks go off, I thought my building was being bombed.

I lived on the grounds of the school in a small apartment by myself, while the students lived in dormitories -- eight to a room. Slightly incongruous with my ancient living quarters was the brand-new 40-inch flat-screen TV, DVD player, washing machine and bathtub that the school gave me. As a foreign teacher, these amenities, including my "Western-style" toilet, were guaranteed in my contract. Unfortunately, my bathtub was in the kitchen. The sight of my open-air tub and the large purple mushrooms growing out of the doorframe of the apartment were enough to give me pause. However, with the excitement of school starting, I had little time to brood about my living space.

I taught eight classes of Junior One level students at Xinmin Middle School. There were 50 kids per class. Junior One translates to about the seventh grade in the United States, so my students were mostly 11 and 12 years old. When the other English teachers looked at my schedule, they shook their heads with amusement and said: "Your students are very ... active." I did not fully grasp what they meant until my first day, when I had kids practically climbing out the windows.

My first task was to assign English names. Four hundred English names, to be exact. Some students already had creative names picked out for themselves: Milk, Egg, Sweater, and Michael Jordan, to name a few. I woke up each day to the tinny shriek of the Chinese anthem being played over the loudspeakers, and every morning at 10:15, I watched my students dutifully file out into the courtyard to perform a choreographed exercise routine to the strains of another anthem.

A few weeks after I arrived in Liuyang, the village celebrated the annual Mid-Autumn Festival, a holiday when Chinese families get together and eat moon cakes, round pastries filled with anything from bean paste to fruit to egg yolk. Ms. Xiong, one of the teachers at my school, invited me to her family's home in the countryside. After an hour-and-a-half bus ride and a 10-minute walk down a dirt road, we arrived at a tiny village. Her family lived in a simple, unheated cement building and owned a plot of land where they grew rice, vegetables and fruits. All of their meals came straight from the garden to the table.

After lunch, we spent an hour harvesting chestnuts, using our feet to open the prickly outer shells and extract the smooth brown nuts inside. We stopped at a neighbor's house on the way back from the chestnut trees to use the "bathroom," which was essentially a fly-infested pit in a pig stall. I had never used the bathroom while being observed by a pig, but I suppose there's a first time for everything.

Beyond the school

One of the biggest perks of my teaching assignment was the opportunity to travel. During our first school break, I headed south to Guangxi Province to visit Guilin and Yangshuo with five other teachers from the WorldTeach program.

The unfortunate timing of our trip, coming on National Day, one of the worst times to travel in China, became very apparent at the train station in Changsha. The waiting room teemed with people -- hundreds of them calmly sitting on top of one another. The ringing of the bell to announce that our train was boarding was reminiscent of the gates opening at the start of a horse race. People shot out of their corrals throwing elbows left and right to get to the platform.

Guilin, a city of about 1.3 million, was interesting, but a 12-mile hike along the Li River and through the countryside surrounding Yangshuo, a small town about an hour south of Guilin, proved to be the highlight of the trip. Yangshuo is something of a backpacker's mecca, in part because of its classic Chinese landscape and a main street full of "Western" restaurants, including Drifters, a restaurant which served an apple crumble good enough to make me even more homesick than I already was.

On my next adventure, I headed to Fenghuang with a Chinese friend, Shelly, and her university friends, whose English names were Candy and Honey. We boarded the train on Friday night for the 11-hour trip.

Fenghuang, a small city in western Hunan, was a mystical, ancient oasis in a China moving at warp speed toward modernization. It lay mysteriously shrouded in mist, its pagoda spires and bamboo tile roofs rising like apparitions from the fog. After arriving, we went to our riverside hostel, where I drifted into a deep sleep, lulled by the cadence of the neighborhood women beating their clothes against the rocks on the riverbanks.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the winding streets and alleys, visiting temples and buying souvenirs. At night we took a river cruise in a boat steered by a barefoot man wielding a long bamboo pole. I bought three paper flowers with candles in them to light and then place in the water. Each flower represents a wish, and as we drifted down the river, the water was dotted with flickering pinpoints of people's wishes floating by.

After a day of sightseeing in Fenghuang, Shelly and I traveled to Shaoshan, the childhood home of Mao Tse-tung. Hunan Province's most famous exports: spicy food, fireworks and Mao. Despite the atrocities committed during Mao's reign, he emerged with a seemingly unblemished reputation. Every taxi driver had a Mao pendant hanging from his rear-view window. After a visit to the museum, which was replete with images of Mao, we sampled his favorite dish, hong shao rou, a fatty, reddish-colored pork, in a local restaurant.

Weathering winter

I spent Thanksgiving at Pizza Hut and Christmas at McDonald's.

An energy crisis in winter meant there was very little electricity and very few places were open for business. There was a drought, and in an area powered by hydroelectricity, the lack of water was sorely felt.

I had less than four hours of electricity a day, usually in the early evening. The rest of the time, I was either teaching in an unheated school or sitting in my unheated apartment, huddled under blankets and hunched over a candle.

Escape from my concrete icebox of an apartment came in the form of a new McDonald's, powered by a generator, and open on Christmas Day. Jeff, a fellow WorldTeacher at a nearby school, came along and the two of us blissfully shoveled down cheeseburgers.

In January, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year celebration, which was marked by a five-week break from school. I left Liuyang on Friday, along with my friend, Mellisa, aboard a southern-bound train for Kunming, an almost-big city southwest of Changsha. Best of all, Kunming is blessed with a year-round temperate climate and is a destination for foreign travelers. Mellisa and I spent our time shopping, relishing the local specialty, goat cheese, and trying not to gawk and point every time we saw a non-Chinese person.

Next, we journeyed to Lijiang, a city that was what I always imagined an ancient Chinese city would look like. Miraculously, Lijiang had escaped the wrath of the Red Guard in the '60s, and now is an ode to capitalism. The Chinese tourists come here in droves.

We took a public bus to see the nearby village of Baisha. There we found a clinic run by Dr. Ho, an 81-year-old local doctor who had somehow achieved worldwide celebrity for his traditional medicinal remedies. The doctor -- a short, thin man with a wiry goatee -- eagerly showed us stacks of yellowing newspaper articles about himself, and envelopes full of crumbling letters from people all over the world who had been cured by his magic. I have never been a big proponent of traditional Chinese herbal medicine, but I asked Dr. Ho whether he could give me a remedy for my upset stomach. He felt my pulse for 10 seconds, then diagnosed rather definitively, "P...M...S."

I was startled to hear those three letters coming out of the mouth of an elderly Chinese man in the middle of a village in rural Yunnan Province. He seemed rather certain though, and began mixing up a concoction for me by taking spoonfuls of grayish-brown herbs from the dozens of buckets lining the walls of his office. The mixture was then wrapped in paper, tied with string and painted with instructions using a calligraphy brush. He did the same for Mellisa, who was diagnosed with "China cold."

When I returned to Liuyang, my apartment was still cold. But several weeks of rain brought the water levels back to normal and quickly improved the electricity supply. My 25th birthday was a bright spot during an otherwise rainy spring; the students serenaded me with "Happy Birthday."

Coming to an end

In May, about a month before my teaching assignment would end, I traveled to Tibet for a week-long holiday. After a few days in Lhasa, our group set off by bus for a small town called Tingri, where we could hopefully get a glimpse of Mount Everest.

The paved roads ended about an hour outside of Lhasa, and from then on, I spent my time clinging to the seat in front of me, concentrating on not going airborne. Eight hours into the journey, we broke for lunch at a lone outpost. I ordered yak meat soup, which was served by a group of nomads living in a portable yak fur-lined tent.

Before I went to sleep in my frigid room at the Tingri hostel, the snow ceased and the clouds blew away, revealing the largest stars I have ever seen. When I woke up the next morning, the clear skies offered an unblemished view of the highest peak in the world. I stood outside and watched the sun rise over the tops of the mountains until my toes went numb.

Back in Liuyang, the remaining weeks of the program passed quickly and soon it was time for me to say goodbye to the small town that I called home for some 11 months. My students showered me with farewell cards and stickers, and even a few marriage proposals.

I would miss the lush Chinese countryside. I would miss the sight of 50 spiky-haired little Chinese kids staring expectantly at me, waiting for me to impart the skill of English.

I would miss the interesting, sweat-inducing food like the snake snack served at a sidewalk cafe that I discovered somewhat belatedly. After I picked out my own live meal, the cook pulled it from the cage and disappeared into the kitchen. Minutes later, the snake came out in four-inch sections. It was served like an ear of corn, with toothpicks stuck into either end. It was a snack unlike any I would find back home.

As luck would have it, my plane arrived back in the United States on the Fourth of July, just in time for the annual red, white and blue pyrotechnics displays. I had not seen fireworks in about 24 hours.

IF YOU GO

WorldTeach

-- Center for International Development, Harvard University, 79 John F. Kennedy St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138. 800-483-2240 or worldteach.org. The nonprofit program, founded in 1986 by a group of Harvard students, offers volunteers the opportunity to live abroad while teaching English to students around the globe.

China National Tourist Office

--350 Fifth Ave., Suite 6413, Empire State Building, New York. 888-760-8218 or cnto.org

ONLINE

View more photos from Lauren Keister's year in China at baltimoresun.com / china

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