Wednesday, April 24, 2013

To The Edge of China

We just got back from a ten day trip out to the edge of China Monday morning. Access to this blog post is very limited in China, however, so I won’t be able to post a map, which would be very helpful. I’ve posted pictures from the trip onto the flickr page. There’s a link to that page just above this post.  If you aren’t interested in the technical part of the trip, skip the next four paragraphs.

The basic trajectory of the trip was from Kunming to Lijiang by train, then from Lijiang to Qiaotou by bus, then a two day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge (along the upper Yangtze River) to Walnut Grove, another bus drive to Baishuitai where we saw first hand what happens when you let people trample over delicate stone formations of mineral deposits. A night there followed by another bus trip to Shangri-La - a town China randomly picked to capitalize on the James Hilton novel - and then over a 4000 meter pass via Deqin to Feilaisi, the last stop on the road to Tibet.

The trip up to that point was on the beaten path. There are enough buses and well-marked roads to get from point A to B. In the case of Shangri-La to Feilaisi, there’s only one road.

Once you get to Felaisi, you have two options: pay an exorbitant fee to keep going up into the restricted areas of Tibet, which is technically visible from Feilaisi, or go down the headwaters of the Mekong river and hike up into one of the most impressive mountain ranges I have ever seen.

We chose the latter. We took a minibus 1.5 hours down, through drought-stricken mountain sides along the Mekong, around dramatic bends in the river and over rickety bridges to the other side. Our minibus dropped us off at an unfinished guesthouse and we began our steep ascent up over a snowy pass to the village of Yubeng - only accessible by dirt trail either through a very steep gorge or over the pass, which we were traversing. We stayed in Yubeng for a night and then basically made our way back to Kunming in reverse. Yubeng really did feel like the end of the earth. We hiked a few minutes beyond Yubeng and were very aware that we were stretching our tether back to the last semblance of civilization. The mountains, reaching up to 6000 meters, loomed in front of us and the cold, thin air hurried us back to the village as if we were fleeing a haunted house. The edge of Yubeng was a very surreal place for me.

Two, quiet Tibetan men stood out to me during our trip. I don’t know their names and I spent no more than a few minutes with either of them, but their lives out on the edge of China fascinated me enough to dedicate the rest of this blog post to them.

The first one we met ran a little refreshment stand in Ninong, a village on the Mekong river (known in China as the Lancang River) at the entrance to a gorge that services Yubeng - 25 kilometers further up along a trail 1-2 feet wide path. I have no idea how old he was. Mountain men like him look to be 60 by western standards, but he may have been my age for all I know. Actually, I know he was older. He had a kind of patience and silence that I think only comes with age. His refreshment stand was at the end of a road where minibus drivers pick up hikers and take them back up to Felaisi. The drivers were all aggressive, feisty loud and young. The refreshment stand keeper stood far apart from them and was obviously an elder. By the time you get out that far into northwestern Yunnan, nearly all of the locals are Tibetan.

This refreshment stand keeper came into our lives during an interesting predicament. His stand is about an hour’s drive from the nearest town so, in order to get a ride, you need to call a driver in advance and arrange for him to meet you at the end of the road. We had done this the night before from Yubeng and even found a few other hikers to join us and share the cost. However, once we had gotten to the meetup spot, two hikers who had gone before us took our van and left us stranded. Other drivers came and went but they had no space for us, as they had their customers to take care of. Through the hustle and bustle of a dusty little parking lot at the end of a gravel, mountain road, our refreshment stand keeper was a solid constant. He quietly urged us to take shelter from the wind in his little shop. He would silently offer us his cell phone to call another driver to come pick us up. He had spent many years in this little spot and surely seen many more travelers in much worse predicaments than we were. His quiet calm was more fascinating to me than was my anxiety of getting back to civilization.

He was the first who greeted us and, after all the vans had packed up their passengers and made their way up the switchbacks, we were left with him and his refreshment stand. We bought a couple of warm cokes from him and obliged his offers to come sit inside, out of the wind. His shop doubled as a home. He had fastened some tin siding to the frame of some kind of gravel depot. A container holding white, ground stones was lofted about ten feet into the air and around the hoists at one end, he had built his little shop. I imagined trucks coming in periodically to pick up gravel for nearby road construction projects. Maybe he ran the gravel operation, too? It’s hard to say. Our communication wasn’t of the verbal kind.

His refreshment stand was as austere as the mountain conditions we were in. On one shelf, he had warm sodas and beer. On the other shelf, bowls of ready-to-eat instant noodles; just add hot water. He had an electric hot plate in one corner that shared the single electricity source with an ancient television set. In another corner was a curtain pulled in front of a bed, dividing his shop from his home.

From what I could tell, he lived out there by himself. After he had convinced us to come in, have a seat and buy a coke, he sat in the corner by the hot plate and tended a kettle of water which he was using to make tea for himself. Two birds landed on top of the wall surrounding his shop, in the little gap between tin siding and the gravel loader above us, and he watched them for a few minutes. I had the feeling that his life was very introspective and solitary, but not necessarily lonely.

I imagined him as the owner of a  hamburger stand in Orla  that my dad and I ate at on our way to the Guadalupe mountains in West Texas about 20 years ago. The man was ancient and holding on steady to a town that had obviously lost its appeal to everyone else long ago. He survived on the trickle of passers-by who knew his was the last hamburger stand for a hundred miles. It was a place that, if you were stranded, you would be there for a long time - but it was ok, because he’d take care of you with a hamburger and a coke.

Our refreshment stand keeper on the banks of the Mekong didn’t serve hamburgers, but he provided the same service as the old man in Orla. He had carved out his  little niche in the world and he seemed perfectly happy with it.

We called a driver to come pick us up, but about 30 minutes after he said he’d be there, another driver showed up who said he was willing to take us out. Our refreshment stand keeper warned against this. He wagged his finger at our driver and told him that he shouldn’t take business from another driver - it wasn’t the way things ran around there. I don’t think the old man was much involved in the minibus transport business there, but he had watched it enough to know how it worked. Sure enough, we got halfway up the mountain and met the other driver coming down to get us. An argument ensued, but both of them ending up winning. Our driver refused to take us any further and demanded $10 for driving us less than a mile while the second driver demanded the whole sum of taking us on to Felaisi. The old man was right about it not being a good idea to take business away from another - it just turns out that we should have heeded his advice and recognized that we were the ones who would ultimately be played.

The second man was an inn-owner just outside of Shangri-La. We had found his place accidentally while wondering around Shangri-La. There was an office there arranging eco-tourism homestays. They were closed, but the phone number for his guesthouse was posted up on a big sign outside the office, so we called him. The next day, we went out to his home out on the edge of a yak pasture filling up a huge valley reaching for miles around. The valley was made all the more impressive by the fact that it was at least 3000 meters high - nearly two miles above seal level

Again, it looked like he lived alone. No other guests were staying there and his children were off studying in Lhasa. A woman stopped in every once in a while to cook, but I don’t think it was his wife. Again, language barriers prevented us from perfectly understanding what was going on.

The Tibetan Inn keeper had plenty of western NGO literature, however. He also had the most comfortable beds we’d had in all of China and was teaching himself traditional Tibetan needlepoint. He was too much the perfect image of a rugged, Tibetan mountain man living on the edge of humanity. We hypothesized that  some UN fund manager’s assistance had found him, gave him more money than he knew what to do with to modify his home into a guesthouse, advised him to sell his traditional needlepiont work and then turned him lose on the Shangri-La tourism sector with only a phone number on a sign as his marketing campaign.

He was a very friendly man, again, very quiet and introspective. He had a little plot of land behind his house that was plowed - maybe for a small crop later in the year? There was also a haystack behind the house, so maybe some of the yaks were his? Or maybe the western NGO had encouraged him to maintain appearances for visitors. All I ever saw him do was his traditional needlepoint and play solitaire on his brand new Dell desktop computer. In his affable silence, he was an enigma to me. He chanted buddhist prayers in the morning over breakfast, using hand sgnals to communicate with us in order to avoid breaking his prayer rhythym.

As we were driving back to Kunming, I confided in Bryn how fascinated I was by these two men, living their austere but happy lives so isolated from everything else. She commented that I had a slight fascination with the prospect of living out in the mountains all by myself. She’s right, I’ve often fantasized about giving up modern life and becoming a recluse in the mountains - as have many men, I imagine. I remember my dad stocking up on supplies in late 1999, relishing the idea of a societal collapse from the Y2K bug.  But I know the realistic side of that all too well. I know that I could slip into hermitage all too easily, but that proactively engaging with the world is far too important to me to let my life get too isolated.

But, like the thought of a warm beach on a cold, blustery day, these two men will remind me of the broad spectrum of directions that lives can go in while I carry out my life in ciites. Maybe one day, after I’ve had my fill of humanity, I will join them - in my own way, of course. I wouldn’t want to interrupt their solitude.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

My Experience so far Teaching English in China

While we were planning our move to Kunming, we budgeted around the assumption that I would be able to earn some extra money as an English language tutor. Plenty of blog posts and other personal anecdotes seemed to indicate that this was relatively easy to acquire - especially for native English speakers with a college degree. As many of you know, China is pretty cheap; even if I could bring in $50 a week, that’d be a substantial contribution.

When we arrived in Kunming, these assumptions were quickly validated. The woman we are subletting our apartment from (let’s call her Maggie) immediately recommended I get in contact with a friend of hers who ran an English school in town (we’ll call him Chad). Within the first few days here, I met an Israeli and a Swede who both spoke English as a second language. They were earning $15 an hour tutoring in English and assured me that, as a native speaker, I could enjoy the going-rate of $25 per hour. By the second week, I was talking to Chad about teaching English at his school.

It wasn’t going to be possible to teach at Chad’s school since we’re only here for the short-term, but he said he knew a few parents who were looking for a tutor. He asked me to hold on for a minute while he went and called them to discuss the details.

Ten minutes later, he came back with two interested parents allegedly willing to pay $40 an hour. I was astonished at the higher rate! With those kind of prices, I could pay for all of our combined living expenses if I worked just 4-5 hours a week. However, things that seem too good to be true usually are.

After this fortuitous meeting, I talked with Maggie and a few other people in a position to know and they were all incredulous that I was being offered $40 an hour. They all said it was much too high. The next week, I sat down with Chad and one of the interested parents to hammer out the details of tutoring a little girl we’ll call Cindy. (Note: A lot of Chinese people have western names and a lot of the names are generationally anachronistic, so it would be totally normal for a little girl here to be called “Cindy”.)

The meeting lasted about an hour - the last ten minutes of which we actually discussed a schedule and the content I’d be teaching. God knows what they were discussing the first 50 minutes. I was just the white dude in the room for most of the time. One thing I’ve learned about doing business here is that 90% of the discussion is small talk and 10% is actual business. Also, bring gifts. There is a whole economy here of gift giving that we’ve had to learn about. At first, we thought we’d go bankrupt trying to get gifts for everyone, before we realized that re-gifting is totally acceptable.

I had no idea what they were talking about, but at that time, I at least knew numbers and numbers correspond to wage. I didn’t hear many numbers discussed, especially not the magic numbers that Chad had enticed me with the previous week. After we left the meeting, I asked him if the $40 an hour wage he had mentioned at the outset was still accurate. He stopped in his tracks, screwed up his face and said,
“No, no, no, that’s far too much to charge!”
“But that’s what you had quoted me last week when you talked to her?!”
“Did I? Oh my gosh, I’m very sorry. I didn’t realize that. I think $40 is too much.”
“Ok, what rate should I charge her?”
“Hmmm, I don’t know, maybe start with $30? Go to the first few classes and then later on bring it up to her and see what price she thinks is good.”

Mind you, $30 is still more than I had bargained for, so I was still happy with that. What concerned me was that I had just committed to a job without knowing how much I was going to get paid. Apparently, that’s somewhat normal here. As the connector, Chad was looking to score points with both me and Cindy’s mother by putting us together and working out teaching plan. He had nothing to gain from either relationship by wading into the distasteful world of money, so he left us to sort that out... even though I was under the impression that it had already been sorted out.

It’s China. Sometimes you just have to have a little faith and trust that things work out. If you only act on certainties, you’ll be waiting for a loooong time.

At the first tutoring session, Cindy and I got to know each other and her mom was never far away, monitoring our progress. I had decided that we would read the book ”Matilda” by Roald Dahl. Roald Dahl was one of my favorite authors as a kid and, since it’s about a bright little girl who overcomes adversities, I thought it would be a good match for Cindy. We’ve had six hours together so far and we’ve made it 6 pages into the book. It appears we won’t finish the book before I leave Kunming, but maybe we’ll finish the first chapter?

I don’t have much experience teaching, but I have done some tutoring in my day. To me, the most fun part is figuring out the level of the student you’re teaching. With Cindy, it’s been difficult. Her knowledge of English and cultural references has some pretty dramatic peaks and troughs. For example: she doesn’t know the words “adult” or “grown-up”, but when she read the word “genius” she blurted out, “THOMAS EDISON SAYS THAT GENIUS IS 90% PERSPIRATION, 10% INSPIRATION”. “Perspiration” and “Inspiration” came out a little jumbled, but otherwise she pretty much nailed it. And she definitely said it in all caps. Amazing! Also, she had never heard of the name “Michael” (Matilda’s brother) but when I quizzed her on the names of Matilda’s parents, she blurted out “NICOLAS SARKOZY”. Where does she get this stuff? By the way, Matilda’s parents names are Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. Very little resemblance to Nicolas Sarkozy.

Our class runs from 5-7pm. At 6pm, her cousin gets home from school and things get a little sad. I don’t know the circumstances, but Cindy’s cousin is 11 - a year older than Cindy - and yet she has spoken not a word of English to me and shies away from me every time I try to speak Chinese to her. Granted, my Chinese is terrible and probably pretty frightening, but it’s unnerving to see the difference in personality between Cindy and her cousin.

Cindy’s parents are pretty well-off. They live in the most exclusive apartment block in town, which to me basically means that the facade is red-brick. I know of no other apartment block in Kunming with a red-brick facade. The apartment interiors themselves are nice, but nothing extravagant. The location is also good, but I only live a five-minute walk away and I can guarantee you that our apartment isn’t nearly as exclusive as their aparemtne.  As far as I can tell, it’s the red-brick facade that does it.

Cindy is the product of a privileged upbringing. She’s confident, sassy at times, speaks English really well and knows how to be the center of attention. Her cousin is not. While I’m there, at least, the cousin hides in her room and watches us from the shadows. When I invite her to join us, she ducks her head and runs off. At dinner, she gets served last and seems to generally be ignored. I imagine that her less well-off parents are trying to give her a better upbringing by shipping her off to live with the rich in-laws, but from what I can see, she’s growing up in the role of the red-headed step-child.

At 7pm, Cindy’s grandmother stops the lesson and serves dinner. This part of our evenings is probably the most educational for me. First, her grandmother makes great food and indulges my questions on what everything is. We’ve had some sort of pork belly every night so far, which is awesome, but she’ll also throw some curve balls in there like tonight when she served chicken-blood soup. My stomach was already a little squeamish after battling a stomach bug and that didn’t help. I managed to keep it all down, though.

Dinner can also be an alienating time for me. The rest of the family (grandmother, cousins, mother, sometimes aunts - the father is never at home as far as I can tell) sits down and converse in Chinese, as is natural for Chinese families to do around the dinner-table. I hope that I’m somehow learning things through osmosis, but sometimes, the conversation completely loses me. For example, at dinner tonight, Cindy and her cousin just randomly burst out laughing. I would have chalked the outburst up to just being girls in their tweens but even the grandmother was tearing up she was laughing so hard. Had I done something? What was the deal? Cindy was the only one who could shed light on the situation but all she would tell me was “poop”. It will remain a mystery.

Cindy and I had our third class together tonight - that’s six hours I’ve worked total - and I still don’t know how much I’ll get paid, let alone received any payment. Her mom promised to have the money for me at our next class on Tuesday. I’m an American capitalist, so of course I’m interested in getting paid but honestly, working with this little girl and sharing a few hours a week with her family is a wonderful experience that is more valuable than $30 or even $40 an hour.

There’s this sentiment here in China that discourages building relationships based on money. Once you get into a personal relationship with someone here, the balance of payments is calculated in gifts and favors - not money owed. The bottom-line isn’t necessarily cash, which throws me off a bit. Now, go to a factory-manager in Guangzhou or Shanghai, and I’m sure money still talks as loud as it does in the US, but in personal relationships, at least, money is taboo and people prefer to accrue and pay off personal debts to each other in other ways.

I suppose that, as a businessman, I should avoid the entangling tit-for-tat exchange of favors that makes up a personal relationship here; but where’s the fun in missing out on that?