Epistle 2 of Leon's China Chronicles


*****Tui's Day, September 2, 2003*****


Tong Liao No. Five Senior Middle School is (I'm told) the best in the city of Tong Liao. I have no reason to think that these people are exaggerating. The school (i.e., the campus) is huge. There are nearly four thousand students. And students (and/or their parents) really want to get accepted into this senior middle school. The students must achieve high marks on an entrance exam in order to be admitted. And if I were to judge the ranking of the school by the level of the students' English ability, I'd have to agree that it is a very high ranking school. Furthermore, you can tell by the demeanor of a person when he/she/they say(s) "My school is number one" whether they are saying so out of school pride/esprit de corps or whether they are saying so matter-of-factly. I perceived the latter.

I am constantly amazed at the level of the students (in general). I never have to correct their grammar. Sometimes I have to correct their pronunciation or intonation (but goes for nearly every EFL learner). Listening skills are not as good as speaking skills of course, because most of these students have never heard a native speaker (at least not in person). When I write "most", in this case, I mean 99.9%.


Taijing is quite popular at the this school (not his). More people know his name than know mine (here). I do not know how popular or unpopular he is at his school.


I've given up trying to fight the mosquitoes. It's useless. For every mosquito I kill two more appear. Some spiders have heard about the abundance of mosquitoes here and have moved in. I'm grateful for their presence, but their presence seems to be making little difference. I'm thinking of buying a chameleon, but I doubt I can find one here.


I'm begging to wonder if it was allergies at all. I'm mostly fine now. First it was my nose (rhinitis), then my throat (laryngitis), now it's my bronchial tubes (bronchitis). I'm beginning to wonder if it was/is all a matter of my mucus membranes were not being used to the constant barrage of fine sand ever-present in the windy air here. I think my mucus membranes had to develop a callus to the harsh environment here. It used to amaze me that all the people living here were walking around, living their lives from day to day without any reaction at all to the fine sand in the air (you can see it, and it wasn't bothering anyone except myself). I had wondered whether or not these people had pharynxes and larynxes made of replenishable leather. Then, it hit me. They must have developed a callus to this environment from a very early age. Currently my bronchial tubes are coughing up a lot of clear mucus, the clarity of which suggests that there is no infection. When I had rhinitis, the mucus was also clear. Clearly (pun not intended, but funny, eh?)... Clearly, there is no infection causing the mucus membranes to create copious amounts of mucus. I can only attribute it to the fine sand particles, i.e. dust. [Actually, I did catch an infection for a couple days, but I attribute that to the fact that my immune system was working overtime on the sand problem.]


The Inner Mongolia people seem to prefer their own liquor, which suits me fine, because it is actually quite tasty (as liqours go). But unfortunately, I haven't been able to imbibe for nearly two weeks because of the health problems (aforementioned). I hope to remedy that soon.

Inner Mongolian milk is by far the best milk I have ever tasted in my life. Taijing loves it, too. He cannot get enough of it. Juice, on the other hand, tastes like medicine (and maybe it is and I just don't know it).

Some food items are non-existent in this region. For instance, there's no peanut butter (there's jam, but no peanut butter and I don't see any use of buying jam without peanut butter, but of course, that's my western-born preference in the matter). Salt and Pepper are in no super market. I guess they use a lot of soy sauce to season their food. Bread is extremely hard to come by. I finally found ONE (only one so far) that has bread (and I mean a loaf of bread). I haven't tasted it yet, so it remains to be seen if it is satisfactory.

As I mentioned in the previous volume of my China Chronicles, there is only one western restaurant in Tong Liao, a recently built KFC. I went there last Sunday with Taijing. I ordered one of the set-combo meals. It cost 21 Yuan (almost three times what a meal would cost elsewhere) and it tasted terrible. Well, the fries were okay and the cola was satisfactory, but the so-called "chicken burger" was horrible. It had corn and peas in the patty, mixed with some meat-like substance which tasted like anything but chicken. Maybe it wasn't a chicken burger that I ordered, but that is besides the point. The point is it is extremely expensive and soooo hideously insipid. I decided never to go back there.

Sunday evening, I was craving pizza. I looked "pizza" up in the English-Chinese dictionary. I copied the Chinese characters for "pizza" and "restaurant" down on a piece of paper. I showed it to a taxi driver. He nodded affirmatively and motioned for me to get it. I did. He took me to a small restaurant on the other side of town. It didn't look like a pizza restaurant, but I went in. I showed the waitress the characters that I had written down. She nodded affirmatively and brought out a plate full of something that was NOT pizza. There were ten things that resembled Korean "ho-ddeok" (which is a pancake filled with honey and/or brown sugar), but inside was a meat patty. They were delicious, and more than Taijing and I could eat, but didn't quite satisfy my craving for pizza. I ordered a beer to go with my hamburger-like ho-ddeoks. There were ten of the ho-ddeoks. The whole thing cost me less than a US dollar. We rode a cyclo home to save 25 cents.

Sunflower seeds here are longer than what I'm used to seeing, and seem sweeter than I'm used to, but otherwise not bad.

In the mess hall, I get to sample a wide variety of Chinese dishes. There is this sour kraut dish, which is good, but leaves me wanting a sausage to accompany it on my palatte (sp?). There are bell peppers or green eggplants in almost every dish. Some of the bell peppers are really HOT. Never seen (or tasted) a hot bell pepper until coming to China.

Regarding the water. No one drinks tap water, unless it has been boiled first, and even then, most people make jasmine tea (which they call "green tea"). Almost no one drinks "red tea" (black tea in English) or coffee. In fact, there is NO bottled nor canned coffee in this city. Pity!


My employer has graciously installed a water heater for a shower, the nozzle is connected to a hose, and there is no fixture to place the nozzle, so I had to rig something up to hold the nozzle. The crapper/commode/toilet bowl (whatever you wanna call it) has two buttons on the tank. One emits a large amount of water. The other emits a small amount of water. I figure that the large amount of water is for flushing feces and the small amount of water is for flushing urine. It is a nice invention to save water. There is no tub, but my employer graciously bought a small basin for Taijing to bathe in. Taijing loves it. There is only one problem. Water tends to pool at the base of the toilet bowl, so when I drop my drawers to defecate, my pants get all wet. So, I have to strip to complete nudity in order to take a shit. I'm working on a solution to this problem. I'm sure it will be rectified shortly. I'll keep you posted.


The dry air here has done murder to my nose and throat (and Taijing's as well). So, I mentioned to my supervisor that I wanted to buy a humidifier. "What's that?" he asked. I explained that it is a machine that makes water in the air. He said, "Oh yeah, I'll show you where you can buy one." The next day he said, "I talked to Mr. Wang [the dean of foreign affairs] and he said he'd buy you a humidifier." I got one the next day. Nice, eh?


It is nice to be able to see stars at night. I haven't been able to see many stars for eight years. I look up and am reminded of what a big universe we live in. I recognize the big dipper and the little dipper. They seem a lot closer than I remember them being. Why is that? It's not like living at a slightly higher elevation would change one's perspective of objects so far away. Maybe I just feel closer to the universe than before. Anyways, it's nice to see stars again.


Taijing is learning English from a Chinese. (I previously mentioned that his teacher speaks English). Now if that's not irony, I don't know what irony is. Taijing comes home surprising me with his new linguistic knowledge, impressing the hell out of me. He is also learning Chinese, which is good. I want him to learn both. He is resisting learning Chinese, however. I think he thinks like this, "Why the hell do I have to know three words (or expressions) for one bloody thing?" "Why do I have to know, 'thank-you', 'komapseumnida', and 'xie xie'?" "What is this bloody world coming to?" "How many bloody languages are there anyways?" "Jesus H. Christ!" "Give me friggin' break here! I'm only three, for crying out loud!" But, of course he lacks the linguistic skills to express his feelings, and he just resists the modifications to his vocabulary.

WHAT?!!! NO VCRs???

That's right, there are no VCRs on the market anymore in this part of China, because they are considered out-of-date. I wish I had shipped my VCR from Korea. Also, there are no candles... anywhere! I've been to fifty shops looking for candles. I hope the Buddhist temple sells them, because I want some friggin CANDLES! I'm going to have to find out where the one Buddhist temple is in this town, and pay it a visit.


Yes, there are PC rooms (AKA: internet cafes) in Tong Liao. But, some don't offer internet, only PC games. I finally found one that offered internet service, but none of the computers had an A-drive. So, it was useless to me at the time. I was wanting to send my essay to Seoul City for the annual Seoul City essay contest.

Yes, I have a computer and internet hook-up at home, but the service is intermittent at best. Luckily, later that day, the internet service provider was functioning again and I could send my essay.

*****Odin's Day, September 3, 2003*****


I just had the most delicious dish for lunch. It is a soupy stir fly, which has the following ingredients (if my taste buds serve me well): water, soy sauce, sugar, chicken, and string beans. Who would have thought that chicken and string beans would be such a good match? Well, they are.


Watching Chinese TV is interesting. Sometimes my TV just goes blank and then switches to inert mode, where there is a picture of a Chinese character, which allegedly means happiness (according to my coworker) and is portrayed upside down, to signify that happiness is coming down from the sky soon. That's all fine and dandy except that I'll be in the middle of watching something and the TV will "wig out" (go crazy). It scares Taijing (Taegyung) and he comes running to me when it happens. My coworker called the TV service agent and he came to look at the TV today. He said that the TV was fine. It was the signal from the cable company that was cutting out. There's not much a TV service repairman can do about that, so he just check the "after service" card and left. (you have to have your "after service" card, otherwise it costs money).

As far as the television programs go, there are several news channels. I just look at the pictures, because I can't understand a word. There is one English channel and I watch that from time to time. Mostly it is boring. I like the news, but haven't figured out when that is one each day. It's kind of "hit or miss". They were going on about the North Korean thing, explaining all the events that led up to the current situation. I was like, "Jeeze! Ancient history! I know all this stuff," and changed the channel. Once in a while I catch Korean music videos. Korean pop-rock is quite popular here, and it is understandable. I mean those stars are extremely good-looking and their music isn't bad either. I guess it doesn't matter that nobody understands a word of it. There are occasional documentaries and some educational programs. Sometimes in the evening Taijing watches Teletobies in Chinese. Teletobies are quite big here. I've even seen some Teletobie dolls here and there.

The thing that drives me crazy is all the traditional singing. One can see a woman (or sometimes it looks like a man dressed to look like a woman) all dressed up in traditional clothing and tons of cosmetic make-up. That performer does a lip synch of a song sung by a woman singing in the most annoying falsetto I've ever heard. One can see that a lot on Chinese TV. I guess the Chinese government (which as you must know, controls the media) thinks everyone needs to get some culture or something like that. My question is: why does it have to be a woman singing in falsetto? It's not much of a lip synch either, 'cause I never seen the lips moving. It's as if the song consists of noise, rather than words.


My internet service provider is worse than the cable company. Sometimes I must go hours or days without internet service. I'm without internet service as I write this. My coworker is looking into this problem for me. Really nice guy. Either that or he has been charged with the responsibility of making sure that the foreign teacher is happy. A little of both, I think.

*****Thor's Day, September 4, 2003*****


After watching those traditional singers on TV again, I am 100% convinced that they ARE men dressed up as women singing in an annoying falsetto. I think it is some kind of parody, because I have seen REAL women (not dressed up in traditional clothes and tons of make-up) singing the same way (same type of music).


The fruit here seems to spoil quickly as it does in Korea, and that may be due partly to the long distances that some fruit must travel to come here (Inner Mongolia), and partly to the lack of 'quality control'. I mean, my boss bought some fruit for Taijing and me, because we were sick, and some of it was already spoiled when I got it. The bananas are really sweet, though, and I'm sure quite expensive (relative to China prices, that is).


If donkey's had wings, there would be a lot of angry people due to donkey dung falling from the sky. Then, again, there would be a lot of happy people, being able to travel "as the crow flies". When riding my bicycle around town (with Taijing on the back, usually), I have to dodge donkey dung on the road.


Those leggings and "armings" (I made that word) on the ladies appear to be for the purpose of preventing sunburn or making their skin too dark. Most people ride bicycles or motorbikes here. The only automobiles that I see on the road are commercial vehicles. Automobiles must be very expensive. Our school has a VERY nice, black automobile (like a Korean Grandeur) and a driver, to taxi the administration around. I got to ride in it from the train station to the hotel. Woo! VIP treatment! Yeah!


When I was first shown my apartment, I was asked if it was suitable. All the floors were slippery tile, so I asked for carpet in the bedroom. They gave me bright RED carpet, kind of a scarlet color (and it's not really like the carpet in the West), but it'll do just fine. My phone is crimson. My door mat is madder. My garbage pail is scarlet. RED is considered a color of good luck in China. In the West, one might think my decor to be tacky, but I don't mind it. At least the bedding isn't red. I don't think I could handle that.


Cats seem to be considered creatures of good fortune, tantamount to the pig in Korea. My son has a golden cat, which I bought for him here. The cat has a Chinese character on his belly, which allegedly means good fortune. Also, from watching TV, I gathered that many people have cats as pets in China.


*****Fry's Day, September 5, 2003*****


As the weather is getting colder, the number of mosquitoes is waning. That's good. Not so good for Taijing's cold, though. I fear his cold is not getting better, as I had previously thought.


Finding OTC medicine suitable for young children, like Taijing, is difficult at best. There is some OTC medicine for children, but I had to ask some of the female co-workers, who are married and have children. They know which medicine is best for children. I finally got some today. Previously, when we went to the hospital, the doctor gave us two options (for Taijing): (1) I.V., which contains the medicine and lots of fluids to keep the body hydrated, or (2) a shot in the hiny {hiny = (be)hin(d)+y i.e., bum}. Taijing got two shots in the bum, one on each cheek. It hurt like hell, but it made him feel better and alleviated his fever and body aches. We were instructed to go back each day for three days for shots. I hate to subject Taijing to such pain, when he has no idea why he is being caused pain, but it was better than sticking a needle in his hand and leaving it there all night. (Plus they would have charged me for a room). The things I go through for a simple cold!!! I wish they had children's Tylenol here, but alas, they don't.


If you live in the ROK, you know about those little cups of fruit-gelatin, which have become popular snacks in recent months. Well, those are quite popular here. At least, I see them in every food-shop. They are actually quite tasty, but not my "cup of tea", so to speak. Sunflower seeds are a really popular snack. The potato chips here are excellent (much better than ROK's potato chips, sorry ROK citizens, but it's true). There are so many flavors to chose from, too, e.g., barbecue, onion, and some flavors that I'm not familiar with. The crackers (biscuits) are multifarious. Taijing and I haven't tried them all yet, but the ones we have tried, are rather good (some better than others, of course). There are some "pop-rice" treats and Taijing likes those very much, partly because he is used to such treats from the ROK.


Teaching sixty-plus students in one class is tough, especially when all are adolescents (sp?). I have to "Shush" them a hundred times each day. I implemented a team system with four to six member in a team and implemented a point system as a means of classroom management (i.e., control). Then, their other teachers moved the students all around, destroying my whole classroom management system. [You will recall that the students stay in one classroom all day long, while the teachers move from classroom to classroom]. It is nice for the students, and minimizes hallway congestion during the ten-minute breaks, but causes havoc for the teachers, well, especially for me and my management system. I had to implement a whole new management system, which I won't go into, because it is too difficult to explain.

During question and answer time, I have been asked a variety of questions, yet, each class has pretty much the same list of questions. Here they are... and my answers:

Q: What do you think of China?

A: So far, so good.

Q: What do you think of Tong Liao?

A: It's clean, the streets are wide, and the people are very nice. The air is a bit dusty, however, and it hurts my nose and throat.

Q: What do you think of our school?

A: It's very clean and tidy. It is HUGE, and quite modern. [When I say, "modern", I mean it's more modern than I might have expected for a country-side school. The students don't know this, and they like it when I say it's "modern".]

Q: Where have you been in China?

A: Shen Yang and Tong Liao.

Q: Tell us about your hometown.

A: It is Sunnyvale, California. Here, I'll draw a map. [And I draw a map]. It is famous because the two men who invented Apple Computer, lived in my hometown and went to my high school. My other hometown is Salt Lake City. Here. It is famous for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Q: Tell us about American students.

A: American students go to school around 8am and finish around 3pm. Then, they play. Chinese students study at school until late at night. Chinese students study very hard. [They like it when I say that, and it is true, for the most part. Chinese students begin classes at 7:20am. They go home for siesta 12-2:30pm, and for dinner 6-7:30pm. Then, they study in their classrooms until 10:30pm. They are in class approximately 10 hours each day, from Moon's Day to Fry's Day.]

Q: Can you speak Chinese?

A: A little. I can say, hello, goodbye, thank you and 'where is the toilet?'. [They all laugh].

Q: Please speak Chinese for us.

A: Ni hao, Zai jian, Xie xie, Qing wen xi xou jian zai na li? [They all clap].

Q: Do you like basketball? [Since Yao Min(g) has entered the NBA, basketball has become a popular passtime among boys here].

A: Yes.

Q: Which team do you like best?

A: Utah Jazz.

Q: Who is your favorite player?

A: Karl Malone

Q: Did you know he went to the Lakers?

A: WHAT?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NO! I didn't.

Q: What is the most popular sport in America?

A: Probably football... American football, that is.

Q: How many countries have you been (to)?

A: I've been to sixteen different countries.

Q: Which one do you like best?

A: I don't know much about China, so ask me that one year later.

Q: Where do you live?

A: [I point to the dormitory and say:] Over there. [Everyone laughs].

Q: Can I ask you a personal question?

A: Yes.

Q: Why haven't you any hair?

A: Because I cut it all off. [They all laugh].

Q: Why did you cut it?

A: Actually most of it fell out, like Sun Wu Kong's hair.

Q: Do you have a Chinese name?

A: Yes. It's Sun, Wu Kong (in Korean: Son, O-Gong). [They all laugh]. So, you can call me Mr. Przybyla or Mr. Sun [pronounced: Soon]. It's your choice. [Most opt with the latter].

Q: Why did you choose that name?

A: Because I look like him. [I point to my bald head. Sun Wu Kong was the king of the monkeys, and he was ironically bald (don't ask me how a monkey goes bald).] And because I was born in the year of the monkey. [Students go, "Ahhhhh" in unison.]

Q: How long will you stay here?

A: Many one year. Maybe two.

Q: Can you give me an English name?

A: Yes.

At this point, I ask the students to write me a letter if they want me to give them an English name. I actually write the letter for them on the board, leaving certain parts blank, like their name. Their listening comprehension sucks! Because all sixty-plus students write me a letter asking for an English name. That's okay. I am becoming very familiar with Chinese names. I am amazed at the lack of variety of names. Fifty percent of the girls have either "Nan" (a kind of tree) or "Jing" (a character of three suns, meaning "shiny") as one of their two given names (sometimes they only have one given name, and it's usually "Nan"). Fifty percent of the boys have "Ming" (a character of a moon and a sun, meaning: "bright") as one of their given names. Their are very few "Long"s (dragons). One girl had a name which meant, "inferior [to] man". So, I gave her the name "Elizabeth" and wrote her a letter saying that she is named after the most powerful woman in the world, the monarch of the United Kingdom and all territories of the commonwealth. I hope that compensates in some small way for her father's poor choice in names.

In the past week, I've had to name several hundred students. I don't mind though. I'm learning Chinese in the process.

There are a lot of people with the family name "Wang", which means "king". I asked my students, "How many Wangs are there?" Then, I realized that this was a really stupid question, because it didn't convey my curiosity exactly, so I rephrased the question: "How many family groups of Wang are there?" [I had been previously educated by a co-worker that not all Wang are related. And it dawned on me that like in Korean, where there are different "Kim" clans and different "Lee" clans, there must be different "Wang" clans as well. Students responded with answers ranging from five to seven. So, who knows?


I don't know if I mentioned this or not, but the milk comes in these hermetically sealed packets which are NOT refrigerated. Most of the packets are dated (with expiration dates) which is good, 'cause I don't want spoiled milk, especially not for Taijing. It is strange, though, that the milk is not refrigerated. Come to think of it, nothing is refrigerated, except beer, and oh, yeah, like that needs to be refrigerated. I guess the Chinese government figures like this, "Most people cannot afford a refrigerator, so we need to devise a system of preserving perishable food without refrigeration." And I guess they've succeeded at that.


I have completed my quest for candles, and quite by accident. I was looking for something else, and I happened upon some stashed away in a vinyl bag on a shelf in a small shop. Now, I'm on a quest for black ground pepper. It would seem that such is not used much here and is hard to find. I will keep searching, though.

OH! I'm also on a quest for a decent razor (straight razor). I bought the more expensive type (here) knowing that the cheapies cut up my face, and the more expensive one is a piece of crap as well. Doesn't cut squat! It just grabs on to the whiskers and yanks them, without cutting the whiskers. Hurts like hell. I don't know why they even make such crap. Unfortunately, I only brought one straight razor from Korea, and I don't know how long it will last. Maybe I'll have to break down and buy me one of those electric razors. I wonder if it'll work on my head as well.


Saturn's Day, September 6, 2003


One of my co-workers agreed to go shopping with me today. We went shopping for Taijing and bought some much needed clothes and diapers (nappies) for him. He loaded his pants and a log (of poop) fell out of his pants onto the store floor. I should have put a diaper on him, but I'm trying to potty-train him. I think that I'm losing this battle. Anyways, the point is I finally fulfilled my quest to find pepper. Well, actually we went to the biggest grocery store / super market in Tong Liao, and there was white pepper only, but it will suffice.

Well, gotta go for now. Internet is finally working (first time this week), and I've got to send this off before it stops working again.



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