Shenzhen State of Mind

I broke my “one post per week” rule, but I have excuses! (I always have excuses.) Had a wee bit of a lack of internet in my apt, and could only connect to a nearby wifi address with my phone for a bit but all issues are resolved and I can post again! Please, stop your applause, you’re inflating my already quite inflated ego.

Departing from Beijing was bittersweet. On one hand, we as teachers had formed quite a commune together. Through our invasion of the second and third floors of the Beijing Sports-Fashion Complex Hotel (none of us still know what that means), we had formed a tight little commune. Everyone was a less than a minute away, we all were enduring the same challenges and lessons, and we could all rely on each other. We had only had one day off the entire time we had stayed there (roughly two and a half weeks), but that didn’t matter. Time’s relevance ceased to have any real meaning, and the surreal adventures from day to day were always reassuring.

On the other hand, leaving Beijing meant leaving that smoggy cesspool of a city. Maybe it was more of a bitterSWEET! moment.
In order to reach Shenzhen, 120 English teachers, program heads, and coordinators all piled onto a train for a 24 hour train ride. Picture this layout: two cars filled with the Westerners, each with a long, narrow hallway acting as a pathway to other cars of the train. Within each car, there were roughly twenty compartments with six hard beds, three-high on each wall. These compartments had no doors or partitions separating them from the hallway, so everyone in each car could hear and had access to everyone at any particular moment. What on paper sounds like an easy way to lose grasp of one’s sanity emerged as one of the best road trips I have ever taken. Having the ability to freely roam in between cars and beds removed the claustrophobic elements of plane. We conversed, played games, and did a wee bit of alcohol (Arriving at Shenzhen was a bit of a struggle for me that evening. Find the Wikipedia entry for Baijiu, you’ll understand.) All in all, it was yet another checkmark in the CTLC bonding experience to-do list.
The first three days in Shenzhen were spent at the Silver Lake Resort as an almost apology for our time in Beijing. “Sorry we forced you to work every day for two and a half weeks straight with no pay and only one day off, enjoy this pool!” Thankfully, I’m easily bought so I took the bribe no questions asked. The hotel was beautiful, and it gave me a fantastic first opinion of Shenzhen. Warm, slightly humid, clearly a city, but full of lush green trees everywhere. Green is good, Beijing has taught me so. Also, did I mention that there was a pool. A POOL. Never has a hotel pool been so admired and cherished, it was nothing short of necessary.
Our Silver Lake days were divided amongst official business such as medical examinations and police interviews, and lounging time. After three days though, our time as a commune had ended. We met up with our contact teachers and headmasters, and after an early morning contract-signing ceremony and we were shuttled off to our new schools. However, Chinese people are not capable of celebrating any occasion if food is not involved, so before settling in, myself, Ally (my fellow English teacher at my school), our two contact teachers, and our headmaster all tucked in for a banquet together. The food was delicious: stir fried pork and chilies, spinach with liberal amounts of garlic, cold, fragrant slices of beef, an entire fish with a mountain crisp pickled vegetables on top. Much more deliciousness was served, but none compared to the raw oysters we specially ordered, their cool and briny flavors reminding me so fondly of the sea.
Only two sour notes hit during this meal. The first was a dish. Our headmaster speaks no English, so when reading the menu, he leaned over to the contact teachers and spoke in a hushed, rapid whisper. We were then asked if we would like to try the headmaster’s favorite dish, which Ally and I promptly said yes. Rule for eating in China number 1: Always say yes. If someone at your table asks you to try something different or places something foreign in appearance on your plate, refusing that is the ultimate insult. Most of the time, it should be alright. Every so often though, it can end badly. 
After the waiter left with our order, our contact teacher told us “The head master is so happy you’re willing to try the kǔguā (苦瓜). It is very healthy, very good for you!” Rule for eating in China number 2: Healthy means bitter. There’s just no way around it. I grimaced when the waiter set down an enormous bowl of steaming broth, with large slices of bitter melon inside. Bitter melon, for the uninitiated, is a long, green melon with a bulbous exterior texture, and whose only flavor profile is bitter. Not a refreshing bitter that most raw vegetables possess, instead resembling popcorn that had been intentionally burnt to a crisp. I ate one piece to be polite, but unfortunately ladled quite a bit of broth into the bowl as well. The broth had absorbed the melon’s flavor, and I had to sop it up with rice to prevent it from contaminating the other delicious dishes.
Awkward situation number two dealt more with my appetite. I love food, Asian cuisine above all. This lunch had been delicious, and I ate heartily and plentifully until satisfied. As I placed my half-finished rice bowl aside, all three administrators looked at me, looked at the rice, and then begin whispering in hushed tones again. Rule for eating in China number 3: Whispers are bad.
“Connor,” my contact teacher asked hesitantly, “do you not like the food?”
“No, of course not! Everything was delicious, I’m just full.”
“But, you are big. You are a very big guy. Why won’t you eat more?”
Rule for eating in China number 4: Be prepared to eat outside of your limits. By calling me a “big guy,” I’m fairly positive (“fairly”) they weren’t calling me fat. It’s actually quite possible, Chinese people refer to Westerners as an attempt to make conversation all the time. In this case, I think they’re referring to the fact that I’m six feet tall (about three to four inches taller than all the other men at the table) and have reasonably broad shoulders. (“He got those shoulders from swimming! He should be thanking me that I made him keep up with it for so long.” – my estimation of my mother’s thoughts right now.) However, Chinese men can eat. My teachers had already consumed two bowls of rice along with equal amounts of the dishes by this point, and they had just asked the waiters for a third. They were still going strong and expected me to follow suit.
 This interaction with my teacher set off alarms in my head. I’ve only known my employers for roughly two hours and I’ve already offended them all. I forced an awkward laugh, served myself some more fish and ate it along with my rice. The administrators all nodded and smiled approvingly, and I nodded and smiled weakly as well. This mute interaction was apparently interpreted as: “No, I’m actually really hungry still! How about you order another pork dish and fetch me another bowl of rice.” Pork belly is succulent and delicious, but it was the last thing I wanted. After choking down four slices and another third of a bowl of rice, they were finally content, and I was free run to the bathroom in the fear that my lunch would end back up on the table.
This leads me to my current state. I’m currently living in a tiny apartment. One bed room, and one bathroom with a shower that has no divide into the rest of the room, causing my toilet and sink to be soaking wet by the time I’m finished washing. (This isn’t a complaint actually. 1) I expected this, most Chinese residences have similar set ups. 2) I’m lazy and really bad about cleaning, so I consider this extra help that will make my bathroom cleaning easier.) Right now is just exploring Shenzhen and learning to become acclimated to my new home. I’m currently living in Futian district (福田). Futian has the reputation of the bar district due to Coco Park, a strip of Chinese clubs connected by an outdoor walkway, but my actual neighborhood is a sleepy residential neighborhood, hidden away by a thick canopy of intermingling deciduous and palm trees. It’s refreshing to not be bombarded with the constant cacophony of Chinese traffic patterns, peace and quiet is the rarest thing to find in China. Unfortunately, this focus on residences comes at a price. There are very few casual restaurants in my area, the only street food being a small noodle hut with surly owners who despise my broken language skills. 
While being forced to leave the comfort of my neighborhood for food sounds daunting considering I’ve only known Shenzhen for all of one week, exploring is made much more convenient by the metro system. It’s sleek, efficiently organized, and easy to comprehend to anyone, whether they’ve lived in Shenzhen their whole life or are only visiting for the day. I love it so, so much. (Can I have my money now?) And besides, what good is going abroad for a year if I don’t embody Ms. Frizzle a little bit and go on some adventures? (Say it with me now: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”)

I promise I’ll put some pictures up in a little bit, my camera has not cooperated this entire time in China so I have to import them from my phone into my comp. Plus, I want to take some pictures of Shenzhen to give you a feel for this jungle metropolis and haven’t had much time to do that quite yet. All ye who are patient shall be rewarded. For now, it’s off to lesson plan. (Here’s the real kicker for this week: everyone’s classes started today except for mine and Ally’s. When we got to Shenzhen we were told that they had nothing ready for us because a majority of the teachers were on vacation so: “Maybe you teach next week, but not likely. Maybe week after that once we know what to do with you.” I’m ecstatic, definitely plan on using this week to explore and get ahead in my lessons. Time is short, use it wisely!)

一路平安

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