National week in China is a big deal. We have a week off from teaching and I was invited to join a group of teachers for a trip to Chengde. The bus trip there took about 15 hours. We left Luoyang before 6am and arrived around 9pm. One of the disadvantages of being tall is that my legs do not fit when the seats are set just far enough apart for the average Chinese. Fortunately, I had two seats and was able to squeeze in at an angle.

Chengde is 230 kilometres north-west of Beijing, set in the Yanchan mountains of Hebei province and well known in China as The Pearl Outside the Great Wall. It was built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong in the Qing dynasty. There are many temples and beautiful buildings of the Imperial Summer Retreat. The resort is surrounded by a ten kilometre wall.

On the morning of the first day we toured 2 temples, Pu tuo zong cheng and Bodhisattva. The first is huge and although rather plain on the outside, extremely ornate and beautiful inside. Bodhisattva is the enormous wooden Budda with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. So big that it almost completely fills the temple that was built around it.

Then in the afternoon, we toured the Imperial palaces and the parks and lakes surrounding them. They lived well those Emperors. Then we took a small open tour bus around the parklands, which included some spectacular views of the temples, palaces and city of Chengde.

Then another four hour drive to the Sai han ba National Forest Park, which was the hunting grounds for the Emperors. It is located on prarie flatlands high in the mountains and very close to the borders of Inner Mongolia. The air is clean and cool after the cities. The attractions are their horses, rivers and open plains. I went horseback riding, rode a rubber raft down a fast flowing stream, practiced my archery skills and bought a leather, western style hat.

Two days in the bus and three days of enjoying the sights of Northern China. We also passed very close to the Great Wall and I was able to take a rather bad photo through the bus window.

Added on: 9/19/2006

I’m settling into the routine of 21 classes each week. The kids are mostly pretty well behaved and very eager to learn. But not all of them – they are still kids.

I eat out most of the time. There is only a microwave and a single hotplate in the apartment for cooking and there is quite a lot of social activity with the other English teachers. There are about 20 of them, who are native Chinese. There is only one other foreign teacher.

I’m also getting used to the Chinese operating system on the computers here. Some software has English menus and some has Chinese. Unless you can read Chinese characters, you either have to know the control codes, or rely on memory as to where things are on the menus.

You can buy a DVD for about 90 cents – recent ones too. I just got Da Vinci Code, Mr&Mrs; Smith and Fun with Dick and Jane. I paid about twenty dollars to switch the CD player in my apartment computer to a DVD player. So now I can play all the DVDs, including the ones that I brought from Canada.

We get a week off at the beginning of October and the school is organizing a 5 day trip to Cheng De. It’s about a 14 hour bus ride due south from here and is an old city where an Imperial Palace is located. It’s reported to be full of old Chinese architecture and history. I’m very much looking forward to it.

The weather here is still pretty warm. We had a school bazaar last weekend. I and 3 other teachers ran a hamburger stand. We found some fresh buns and were able to put together some pretty decent hamburgers. So with 3 hotplates going, we churned out about 60 burgers. Drinks were one stand over. There was a crowd of kids 10 deep around our booth and we could easily have sold 200 if we had the ingredients. They were very popular.

The food here is mostly very good and often quite interesting. I’m getting used to climbing 7 flights to my apartment and I think I’m losing weight.

Added on: 9/8/2006

School Starts in Ernest – 9 Sep 2006

The usual weekly schedule isn’t too bad though. My class size is around 25 and each week I teach 21 classes to Junior 1 and Junior 2 students. Each class is 40 minutes. Meals are provided and the teachers office provides a desk and a shared computer with half a dozen other English teachers.

There is only one other foreign teacher from Texas and about 20 Chinese English teachers. They handle all the English construction and grammar, while Gail and I handle the spoken English. Our lessons are whatever we want them to be while the Chinese teachers follow a teaching guide, that we have a copy of.

The English teachers are very, very friendly and eagerly ask lots of questions – when should I use MUCH and when should I use MANY. And lots of interpretation of idioms.

Most of the students already have English names, but a few do not and several want to change the one they have. So for the first week, we are establishing their English names for the next year. I had a PowerPoint slide with dozens of English names on the screen and a brain teaser on the board, while I went to each student and matched their English name with their Chinese name. Then I photographed every one of them with their names. What is it with those rabbit ears that kids find so funny…..

I did have some computer problems, but the end result is a distinct improvement. I now have a DVD player in the computer and can watch all the Canadian DVDs that I brought with me, as well as the locally bought ones.

This weekend we have a bazaar and parents open day today. Three of the other English teachers and myself will be running a hamburger stand. Just simple, fast food. We practiced at lunch in my apartment yesterday and they were a great success, mostly because we are able to get some really fresh buns locally. The first 20 customers will get a free drink with their burger.

For National Week we will be taking a 5 day trip, arranged by the school, to Cheng De, in Hebei, where I understand there is an Imperial Palace and lots of Chinese culture. I’m looking forward to it.

Added on: 8/28/2006

My First Two Weeks in China

I was taken out to dinner every evening for the first week after I arrived. The first evening was with Li, my Director, who speaks good English and is really nice and super helpful. There were some things in my apartment that needed fixing and she was on them right away. The other foreign language teacher, Gail, is at all the dinners and comes along on all the trips.

Then we had dinner with the Head of the English Department, Mr. Zhai and the School Principal, Mr. Bai. Mr. Zhai speaks some English and Mr. Bai none at all. They have this thing with guests called gambi – they try to get us drunk with Chinese Vodka, which is really powerful. Frequent toasts where you are expected to drain the glass as a sign of respect. I did okay by only keeping a little in my glass and only allowing refills to just cover the bottom.

We were taken on a tour of Dai Mei Shan or The Dragon Canyon, about a two hour drive outside the city, into the mountains. Our hosts were very senior officials at the School Board. It was a special day at the Canyon, with red carpets everywhere and guards lining them. More senior officials from Beijing. The main man from Beijing practiced his English on me and plied me with politician type questions – Where are you from – Do you like China – What do you think of our canyon. Lots of smiles and handshakes. The Canyon was very impressive.

The walk to the top took more than two hours. Most of the time we could hear Chinese music echoing off the cliffs. When we reached the top there were a large group of musicians in traditional dress. It was really very impressive.

Of course, dinner afterwards, more toasts and enormous amounts of food from about two dozen platters.

When we finished off the English classes for the Military training, we had a farewell party for all of the army officers. The party was at one of the better restaurants and the food was great … well most of it. There was one dish that had fried insects, about 3 inches long, that looked very much like scorpions. I skipped that one.

I’m glad I had some warning about gambi. Those army officers are bad. First the Principal of the school half filled my glass with that Chinese vodka and made a toast. I drained the glass and there was a lot of back slapping, smiling and clapping.

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