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Dipping My Toes

Posted by on February 25, 2012

They say the four stages of living abroad are as follows: Honeymoon—it’s aaaall good! Hostility—this place stinks with all its corruption and pollution and no English TV! Humor—settling in allows you to laugh at yourself and the things around you. Home—in the rhythm of being a regular.

I’m not sure if I ever felt that third stage, but the others were vivid.

Last week I wrote about arriving in China and taking it all in: the terrain, the development, the city, my neighborhood, the fishing docks.

The next step was to settle in. I got a gym membership at a decent club. Men there would smoke in the locker room. I thought that was kinda neat. And later, I would take part in yoga classes consisting of 20 Chinese female students, a female instructor, and me: a tall, skinny white guy. I got a pre-pay phone—by the way in China they don’t use voicemail, just text messages. I finalized my contract with my school and endured the work visa process: health screening and immigration authorizations. And I got a bank account.

It was all ordinary stuff, really, but I’d often find these things to be most intriguing because they provided interesting comparisons (and contrasts) to life back home. Let’s take the toilets. Everyone uses those, right? But many in China are just porcelain “squat style” holes in the ground. It’s awkward, let me tell ya—and it made my knees sore being in that catcher’s position. They plug up easily, too, so there’s a garbage nearby where used toilet paper goes. But hey, it’s easier for men to pee cause there’s no seat to lift:

Makes it tricky to get your reading done.

I was also still in that vacation-like honeymoon stage, so these inconveniences seemed quaint—even comical. This, of course, opposes how we address annoyances at home where a broken toilet or a pothole in the street can really get us going. Later, these kinds of things in China would bother me, too. But though Zhuhai was my home, I was still mostly living in the novelty of it all and went out and did some more exploring—and participating.

There was so much to see and do! You know how it is. In your town there are unique and enjoyable sights and sounds to be had, but because you live there you may not check them out or think they’re all that interesting. In China I got a kick out of following the urban irrigation channels to the lakes they flowed from.

Then again, others got a kick out them, too:

boys will be boys

I wondered what the boys were up to:

I checked out their styrofoam container to discover little orange minnows.

It was a cool sight:

The reservoir lake is just beyond that Chinese back there.

At another reservoir, the view was even more picturesque:

I can't read Chinese, but I know the second and third characters back there mean, 'big' and 'water'.

I had heard that it was strictly no trespassing near the lake. That didn’t stop one dude from swimming in it, though. I couldn’t blame him. Compared to the polluted ocean, these clean clear waters were inviting:

I also checked out this ordinary sight: a cemetery:

On a walk with some other teacher colleagues of mine, we ventured up in the northern reaches of Zhuhai which consists of an independent, old-school community.

And here's one of their ancestors.

My roommate, Brad–a 26 year old Aussie, checked out the local, outdoor markets. We encountered a guy with a monkey selling the chance to take a picture with it:

He demanded payment even if it meant choking his monkey.

So I obliged:

Though I can't say the same about the monkey.

To get to and fro, I mostly took the bus. The busses themselves weren’t notable different, though they’d crank the Chinese radio in them. Noteworthy was how often the drivers honked—sometimes for every single car, bike, or pedestrian they encountered—and also how packed they could get. At peak times busses would become standing room only transports—standing even on the bus steps. I once counted 90+ riders in a bus intended for maybe 50 or 60:

But most of time it wasn’t like this and one could sit back and enjoy views of traffic such as these:

I thought Snoopy was trying to sleep, but it appears to be quite the opposite.

From bus to bike, a co-teacher, Marilyn, and I took a two-seater and rode along the coast. She hailed from the Philippines, the island nation 700 miles southeast of China. We went around a nearby island and absorbed the humungous, tan boulders decorating the coast. It was quite beautiful. And rather than being annoyed with those potholes and stressed from the free-wheeling traffic, I just sort of giggled and peddled along with this old, too-short-for-me, rusty belled, dandy tandem bike.

Here’s some pics along that ride:

island coast

The Fisher girl statue is the essential 'touristy' sight here in Zhuhai.

Here’s the lone beach around these parts:

Looks pretty lonely, too.

And here were some of those great boulders along the way:

Lastly, I had been in China just six days when my school asked me to take part in a festival. “Okay, whatever”, I thought. Community organizers asked our school to offer some foreign teachers to help celebrate the 30 year anniversary of Zhuhai’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) designation. (This means the city is granted special tax status as an incentive to lure international manufacturers. Exports, I believe, are the items that escape taxes.) And from what I hear, Zhuhai’s transformation over the last 20 years, due to this economic loosening, has been amazing. Certainly, a reason to celebrate.

And boy, the Chinese love to celebrate things having to do with China. They really do. It was a whole new flavor of patriotism over there, and they pulled out all the stops for this event.

It was held on one of Zhuhai’s city squares. There were a few of these around town; large, stone-surfaced spaces with restaurants and retail surrounding them. This particular square was special as it had a large stage. And a branch of our school was one of the surrounding businesses.

They celebrated in many of the ways you’d expect—traditional dances and costumes filling the stage, a couple emcees made the audience of about 400 laugh. It made me wonder, then, what to make of what we were asked to do.

First off, just three teachers—myself, my roommate, Brad, and John, a 60 year old upstate New Yorker—agreed to do this (out of probably 35 English teachers at the school.)

When the time came, we waited off stage. Suddenly, some “western” music played (some bad techno beat), and they simply told us to go out there and dance.

“How?”, I asked a bit struck by the simplicity of the request.

“Just dance”, the organizer told me.

“What does this have to do with Zhuhai’s anniversary?”

“It’s about having fun”, they responded.

Well, jeez, as a performer, I wanted my motivation. I didn’t get it, and the novelty of being in China turned to awkwardness dancing on this huge stage with the lights poured on us. Here’s how it went down:

First, the Chinese performers:




what the?!


To this day I don’t know why they had us up there. I’ll chalk it up to “cultural differences” and it wouldn’t be the last time I’d be a spectacle for China’s viewing pleasure.

In all, I was getting fairly acquainted with life over there. But the honeymoon was ending and it was time to get down to business—teaching English to Chinese students.

See you next week,


mmmm chicken

2 Responses to Dipping My Toes

  1. Noah

    Great blog, there’s my feedback.