Wednesday, January 9, 2013

It Was Like Being the New Kid and the Fat Kid at the School Dance

If I haven't bitched to you about the company I'm currently working for we probably haven't spoken since I got to China. It's basically been a confounding, endless, shit storm. Luckily, I'm resigning and hopefully that'll just be that. I have to meet with my manager A.K.A. Dragon Lady tonight so I can find out exactly how much of my last paycheck she's going to withhold.

Any who, before I tendered my resignation (that's a thing people say, right?) I lined up a new job. I'll be a drama teacher with an international program called Helen O'Grady Academy. It's a company based in Australia with locations in twenty-seven countries that teaches creativity and communication skills to children and teens through theatrical skill work, games, and productions. Basically, I get to be a drama teacher in a company with other westerners involved. Should be a massive improvement.

Now, this job doesn't start officially until February. But I was invited to help out with the Christmas Party they were throwing for the students by playing guitar and singing Christmas carols. I've never been payed to play music before so I figured it'd be an easy way to make a little extra cash and it would be a decent gig.

It's a less than encouraging start with this company.

I was asked to be there at one. I showed up, pulled out my guitar, got warmed up, asked "Hey, where and when do you want me to start playing?" The response was a firm "We'll let you know where. You'll be going on about half past three."


I was a bit peeved about that so I just found a corner to sit and practice my music. It worked for a little while until the person in charge, a Canadian named Jennifer, asked me to do some stuff to help. Normally, I'd be happy to help set up. If I'd been asked to come to this event to help set up I would have done that. But I was told to come play guitar. That was the deal. And everyone seemed to forget that I didn't know anyone there or where anything was in the building.

"Give these to Ryan."
"He should be in reception or on stage B."

Eventually it was decided that it was just easier for everyone to do this stuff themselves so decided to give me a location for where I'd be playing. It was a little arm chair in the lobby where everyone would be coming in. It seemed like a fine spot for a nice little acoustic caroling session. Except, the stage. You know, the one with the professional audio system. You know, the audio system that was BLARING FUCKING CHRISTMAS MUSIC, was only separated from reception by a thin, pseudo wall with giant openings in it. I, like this is even worth mentioning, had no electronic amplification of any sort. Lets get this shit over with.

My role in this party was just another station the kids could wander to. I wasn't a designated sing-along event that all the kids would have to sit through. I had to compete with bead making and a dance station and a goddamn Play-Dough table. Dude, a white guy with a guitar can't compete with Play-Dough in the eyes of a five year old. The only kids who came up to me were egged on by their parents so they could snap pictures. And that only happened three times in like, an hour. I actually played "Sex and Candy" by Marcy Playground during one of the longer lulls.

Then, when they set up the snack table right in front of me, I didn't get a single cookie.

Getting into the music scene is going to harder than I thought.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Oh yeah, I have a blog.

I'm sorry that this has gone so long without an update. It's been a pretty tumultuous couple of weeks but things are finally getting settled and figured out. I moved apartments last week and am much happier here. It's bigger, brighter, and more comfortable. Also, not everything is broken. I've been cooking again, making more friends, and have a roommate who exists.

I'm going to try and stick to writing at least one post a week as well as for any particularly big or interesting things that happen. We'll see how that goes but there have been a lot of stories untold these past few weeks but I'm going to start with something recent: this weekend. This weekend fucking ruled.

I got an early start to my weekend. On Thursday I went out with my new friend Alena, a foreign teacher from Russia and our coworker Natasha (guess which country she's from). We went out for Turkish food after work and then Alena and I went to an indie rock concert at a little bar hidden down this hutong. The band was called "Bu Yao" which means "Don't want" in Mandarin. The lead singer/ rhythm guitarist and bassist were German, the lead guitarist was from the UK, the drummer was from America, and they had a Chinese girl playing a traditional Chinese instrument that I heard the name of like, seven times and still don't remember. Then I remembered internet and it's called an erhu. The music was okay but the band was super nice. We got to talk to most of them and the drummer said studio time is really cheap if I ever wanted to meet up with him to jam. After the concert Alena and I went walking around Lake Houhai (a cool lake with lots of tourist bars but kind of pretty after dark).

Friday I had a lucky day off because my school went on a field trip so I had plenty of time to recuperate. Then, in the evening, we had a dinner party. My friend Nikki and Andrew brought some of their Chinese friends. The Chinese girls made hot pot and soup and Andrew, being from Louisiana, made jambalaya. The food was all phenomenal and there was plenty of booze and good music. I even got to swing dance a little. It was a lot of fun and I can't wait for the next one.

Saturdays I work most of the day but after work I went to an English language improv comedy show. The venue was packed but the troupe was amazing. They started with a long form improv murder mystery and then did some short form games. I even got to go onstage for a game called "helping hands." I got to be Freddy Kruger's hands. The troupe has free workshops every week so I'm definitely going to start going to those. Huzzah for improv.

So, if my time in Beijing continues like this weekend has gone I think I'll be very happy, very tired, and have plenty of great stories to tell. One can hope.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

I Finally Did Things!

So, to bring everyone back up to speed, I moved back to Beijing last weekend and got a little apartment on the campus of the Beijing Language and Culture University. The weekend I moved to Beijing marked the beginning of a holiday (the mid-autumn festival I think it's called). Essentially, the streets are overrun with people visiting and the people who live here go traveling. I wasn't working, know no one, and am on strict financial lock down. My life was essential Netflix, long and aimless walks, and take-out. It was a slow week.

A few days ago I began to claw my way out of that lonely little pit. I started answering ads on sites like trying to find some people to hang out with. I couldn't have asked for a better first result.

I started messaging another American named Margaret, another foreigner who came to the country by herself to teach and is having some trouble getting things settled. We swapped numbers and she invited me out to a couch surfing event. Couch Surfing, for those who don't know, is a travel community where people give recommendations, organize events, and let people crash on their couches. I had no idea what the event was but it sounded like a great way to meet some people and get out of my apartment.

So, I met Margaret, Francy from German, William from France, Judy and Joyce from China, Carlos, Raphael, and one guy's name I never did catch from Mexico. We decided to embrace Chinese culture by going out for pizza. It was great. Everyone was friendly, the pizza was really good, the beer was cheap, and we used the last pizza as a spinner for "Truth or Dare." Raphael had to steal a sip of a stranger's beer and the  stranger he selected was drunk enough to think it hilarious. He decided we were all friends. Probably one of the better reactions you can have.

Afterwards, the three Mexicans, which is weirdly but definitely not racist in this context, wanted to take us to a salsa club. Sounded fun enough so we let them whisk us away to what essentially looked like a dead club. We could hear the band and they sounded good but it was thirty RMB to get in. I hardly wanted to pay a cover to watch a live band playing for a half empty club. We decided to keep looking. Apparently, we were a stone's throw from expat nightlife central. We waited in a promisingly long line for fifteen RMB mojitos being mixed in batches of twelve from a street cart where I met a handful of Americans and a particularly honest Englishman. The Americans reminded to teach freedom to my students and Ye Olde English Gent reminded me, and everyone in earshot, that "you don't care if she cums, you don't want to cuddle, you just want to drain your boys, bugger off, have a kebab, and sleep in your own bed." I'm glad he was to drunk to see how hard I was laughing. Finally, drinks in hand, we bid the soothsayer farewell and went off to find a more lively club.

You couldn't have asked for better results. At the end of the street we say a big club that seemed to be packed with people dancing. Works for me. We were basically set to go in until the bouncer told us we had to finish our drinks. Carlos, the most charismatic of the bunch, sort of took charge and decided we should try to find this club called "Five Elements" which is close enough to "The Fifth Element" so I was willing to check it out. However, it became readily apparent that no one knew how to get there. We decided to double back to the first club we'd seen and down our drinks on the way.

When we got back to the club we walked into a dance off on the stage. These little Chinese guys could break dance. We formed a little bunch right up against the stage and danced for hours. I never even got myself a drink. The music shifted from intense and fantastic to kind of kitsch (YMCA, anyone?). All in all, it was fantastic and free. You can be sure I'll find my way back before my time here is over.

Eventually, Margaret and I stepped out to find water. I didn't bother to ask at the bar, I expected it to be quite expensive and the fresh air was welcome. That's when we realized it was past 2:00a.m. We decided to call it a night and started looking for cabs. The ones actually in the expat zone wanted to charge about 150RMB for a ride which I didn't trust so we decided to make our way a bit further from the beaten path to find cabs that would use the meter. Eventually we decided we were far enough so we hailed a cab. We got her cab in less than a minute. Ten minutes later I was able to get a cab but only after being accosted by a drug dealer. Seriously, he wouldn't leave until I let him give me his number. So if anyone in China needs any "stuff" I'll get you in touch with Ike. He's got stuff.

William, Margaret, and Judy are staying in Beijing for quite awhile, the rest of the bunch were travelling through.We all gave our email addresses to William so he can start a group email and keep in touch. And the best thing, the whole night was less than twenty USD. Someday I'll stop thinking in USD but for now: pizza and two beers: 49RMB, mojito: 15RMB, cab fare: 63RMB. Total: 127RMB.

If I can continue finding people like that to hang out with I think my time here will turn around and improve quickly. Holiday's over. Lets see what the work week brings.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Chinese Karaoke Bar

This one doesn’t really need any pretense. Just, yeah. Chinese karaoke bar.

Basically, Ollie and I realized that everyone wanted to go drink on Friday night so he sent out the mass text basically establishing that it was going to be a group activity. Idly, Gavin and I had been planning on checking out this pub Kristy and pointed out during our first big group dinner and that was the plan until we decided to invite the TA’s. They have an even shorter stick than the teachers basically. They’ll obviously wanna knock a few back, right?

Right we were. The first question out of their collective mouth was “are you going to a bar-bar or a KTV bar?” I mentioned the pub plan and I could tell that, in their eyes, I was full of wrong. Ollie and I, who work together Friday mornings, were then the unwitting representatives of our whole troupe of teachers. But a quick mental head count put the odds in favor of karaoke. I knew Gavin loves karaoke, I’d sing, Jonathon (Ollie’s roommate) is a musician and will surely sing, the TA’s are Chinese so they’re obviously singing. Fuck it. Let’s do some karaoke.


We gathered in front of the large mall, Nikko Nikko Do, at 8:30 that night. We were trying to get a pin down on what sort of prices we could expect and it quickly dawned on us that pregaming was important. The KTV where the TA’s had booked a room was just kitty corner across the intersection. The two western girls were running late so that bought us some time. Luckily, there’s a supermarket underneath Nikko Nikko Do. Jonathon, leading the charge like a homing missile, took the men (Ollie and I) to the beverage section and they grabbed two cans of beer. I had taken one when I looked up and realized they both had two. I’m no wuss. I grabbed a second and ran to the check out. It was only like, seven Yuan for the beers; definitely cheaper than the bar.

We made it back outside just as the girls were getting off of their bus. We made our way through the underground crossing, doing a number on our beers in our short walk,  towards our KTV Partyroom. We didn’t have to leave the crossing to get into the building. The underground passage emptied right into a huge arcade. The KTV bar was several flights up and quite posh.

So, it’s like this. Most karaoke, especially high end places, have the groups in private rooms as opposed to a big open stage. The lighting was dim, the staff was smartly dressed, the prices were a bit steep on the surface but this is meant to be a group activity. Split however many ways our share only came out to forty Yuan a head. That got us hours of singing, twenty four cans of beer, a bottle of Absolute, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and all sorts of snacks.

Our room was equipped with a touch screen panel that allowed for song selection and presumably some other functions (obviously everything other than some of the songs/artists was in Chinese), a long couch, a low table, and two microphones. I was shown a list of the English songs on the screen and it seemed despairingly lacking and eventually Jonathon just lit up “I Am the Walrus” and we were off. Some songs were individual reveries, a lone performing pouring his or her heart and soul into the melody. Others were show stopping, decibel laden, cathartic group numbers, e.g., the Muppets cover of Bohemian Rhapsody. I sang most every alternative rock/ indie song on the docket (and Shots by LMFAO) and we all had an amazing time.



Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Oh. Hai Other Teachers!

            The other day I bumped into Ollie on the stairs of my building. He lives in the complex with another English teacher. We crossed paths again at my first school yesterday. We took the same bus back towards home after our lessons and he showed me to a dumpling restaurant he knows. We also picked up Casey (potentially Stacy, I can’t remember) who’s still in training and will most likely be assuming my classes once I leave. Ollie is from Edinburgh. He’s wide and thick with brilliantly blue eyes and short brown/ grey hair. He’s good natured and smiles often. Casey/ Stacy is from Yorkshire and has only been here for a few days and is still taking it all in. It was a delightful little lunch and we made plans to meet up for dinner at seven that evening with anyone who’s free.
            Seven rolled around after a long day of lessons, and another encounter with Auntie who came to steal Gavin and I’s passports, and we went down to find Ollie with his roommate Jonathon. Jonathon is from Australia and has a sort of dopey look about him and seems to be perpetually pitched forward but is easy going and good natured. We went to Niko Niko Do (a huge mall that serves as a convenient landmark) to meet Kristy, another English teacher, not our boss, who’s been here for a year already. Kristy, another Australian is twenty one, from Tazmania and appreciates a dark stout.
Kristy, being the most knowledgable of our surroundings, led us to a group dining style restaurant with English menus. It was fantastic. We had fish with honey glaze and lamb with cumin and these pumpkin French fry things and Hoisin pork with a hunk of bread (real, crusty, French bread), and a few other dishes. It was wonderful. We chatted all across the table about our various countries of origin and how they relate to China and one another. Australia has waterproof, plastic money. Who knew?
After a pleasant and leisurely dinner we went our separate ways (as much as can be said, four of us living in the same complex) and retired early. 

Living in China isn’t Nearly as Noisy as Working in a Kindergarten

            I had my first day of lessons yesterday. It was a long day.
            I met my first teaching assistant outside of my building at 7:50 and was whisked off to a nearby bus stop. We chatted for a bit and I found out, much to my surprise, I was teaching four classes that afternoon in addition to the five I had scheduled this morning. I love knowing things! I just steeled my resolve and figured there’s nothing to do but put my head down and plow though.
The first school, two bus stops past the Walmart. God damn it, America! China has enough cheap crap without your help! Ahem. Anyway. My first school was a bright, reddish building with a charming campus and cartoony pictures all throughout the halls. Molly, my TA, led me to a classroom and I was basically told to “do my thing.” Luckily, the lesson I was supposed to teach was one of the ones I’d done during training. It was a lot of fun. The kids were responsive and happy. They were also a touch older so they already knew some English. All in all I couldn’t be more pleased with my first lesson.
After my lesson Molly took me to a noodle shop so I could have breakfast. More rice noodles. We decided to eat back at the school since it was cooler. Our “teachers lounge” was an abandoned class room with crayon scrawl covering every wall. If I hadn’t known it was a kindergarten it would have looked like a lunatics cell. And in grand fashion of things that only I find funny there was an abacus hanging on the back of the door in front of a Bat Signal. Imagining the world’s greatest detective foiling the Joker with an abacus set a bemused smile on my face throughout breakfast.
My next few lessons all went basically the same. Happy kids, lots of games, lots of shrieking. Every class had a few kids who picked it up really quick and were the most eager. There were also the kids who were bored shitless. In my second class there was this one kid who didn’t move the whole time. He just sat there staring at me with these red, sad, “I’ve been crying and my life is still miserable” eyes. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to stop class and cheer him up or just make him turn around. It was heart breaking and a bit creepy all at once. Seriously, at no point was he not peering into my soul. I hope you’re happier now little Chinese kid.
The youngest kids, my very last lesson at the first school, were a bit more difficult. Not really for control reasons, they just don’t know any English at all. Getting them involved was difficult but eventually they warmed up. They lost interest pretty fast but whatever. They’re three. That’s a good enough excuse.
The second school was a bit more challenging. My assistant, Linda, had never been to this school before. We found it easily enough and went up to meet the headmistress. It was a fruitless effort for me but Linda seemed to get something out of it. I just stood there, sweating in the doorway.
            Suddenly their meeting finished and Linda showed me to my first room. I was setting up my materials when Linda came and told me that this class has already studied all three of the books I’ve been trained with. I had to improvise a lesson. We just did Greetings and Goodbyes. The kids seemed entertained enough. Though now I know to have a few back up lessons at the ready. Just in case.
            The next two lessons went like the morning’s and then I had to teach a baby class. Basically a room full of Chinese two year olds who can’t even speak Chinese yet. I found out I was teaching this age group when I was at my first school and I’d been scrambling to come up with a “lesson plan” since then. I just resolved to teach them “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” I got nothing. Hardest audience I’ve ever performed for. They just sat and basically whimpered at me. A few kids got up and did the motions but no one looked happy.
           All in all, I’m very pleased with my lessons. I am, however, very weary of my company’s organizational skills. The first school: the headmistress wasn’t there that day to meet us. There was a fire drill that threw off our whole schedule. None of the teachers were expecting us so we were basically barging in. The second school: the baby class I wasn’t trained for and the class that was above my training level. I’m really going to need my head on a swivel I think. I hope it’ll smooth out once I’m back in Beijing and have a bit of a routine established. Provided I’m allowed to establish one. We’ll just have to see.
            At least the kids are cute. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Paint the Town Red

Gavin and I had a really successful night out last night. We went back to a cheap noodle shop in the pedestrian district for dinner (they charged us an extra 1.5 Yuan but whatever) and formulated our plan.

Our first stop was a two story restaurant/ pool lounge with an arcade in the basement. It's twenty yuan for an hour of pool and it took us nearly fifty minutes to finish our first game. Yes. We really do suck. But, it was fun. The people playing around us seemed pretty serious. Most of the plays had special gloves designed to make the cue slide over their fingers more easily. We lost track of how many games the table behind us went through during our one. We didn't really need to know. 

Afterwards we hit the arcade in the basement. No Guitar Hero, but there were like, seven different rhythm/ percussion games. We picked one and Gavin creamed me two out of three. It was hectic and a lot of fun. Then we pumped a few coins into Time Crisis 4, one of my absolute favorite arcade shooters. After that we had enough left for a racing game (which kind of sucked) and one spare for the coin pusher. We didn't win. All that for only five Yuan. (Still less than one USD). 

After the arcade we went to the Irish pub we'd visited a few nights ago. We checked a few other places but the other bars seemed quite expensive and neither of us really wanted to go to a club on a Monday night. In the end, I think we made the best possible decision. 

The bar was hosting karaoke and they had a live accompanist on guitar. We saw a few really talented Chinese songs performed and then waved the server down and asked to see the book. Everything was in Chinese. Should have seen it coming. Gavin went up and asked the guitarist if he knew any English songs and ended up performing "Hey Jude" for the crowd. Unfortunately, I don't think Gavin's mic was on because I could only her the guitarist singing. He was quite good.

I wanted to do a number but Gavin told me that the guitarist claimed "Hey Jude" was his only English song. I should mention, he was playing Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" as we were discussing this. When he walked by our table Gavin asked, on my behalf, if I could just borrow the guitar. He shrugged and ushered me onstage. I played "Such Great Heights" as performed by Iron and Wine and tried to hand the guitar back to the musician. He waved me off and continued to talk to a pretty woman at a table near the stage. Then he just left. I ended up playing basically my entire repertoire. Gavin filled in for vocals on a few (using the mic that worked this time). He's got quite a good voice though I don't think he knew the lyrics for any of the songs all the way through. I even got a request. I didn't know the song but there was a computer on stage so I found the tabs and stumbled through "With or Without You." The Chinese guy who made the request seemed pleased enough. I played for an empty bar for awhile just because I missed having a guitar to play.

Eventually I was simply out of material and my fingers were killing me so I went out to join Gavin who was in conversation with one of the waitresses. She studied business English and was reveling in the opportunity to practice. Eventually we made our excuses and started to leave and we were flagged down by a table of Londoners who'd been able to hear me playing through the outdoor speakers. Apparently they'd decreed "we go when they go." And they didn't want to go yet. I'm so glad we joined them.

I was nestled between Tasha and Chris. Chris is a banker and was soft spoken, interesting, and interested in politics and economics. Though I have to say: the real treasure was Tasha. She has an advanced degree in neurology so we talked about everything from the new world order to the singularity to the differences between Chinese and English. We both agreed it was good to air out our inner nerds a bit. It was nearly 3:30a.m. before we finally left.

Well played Guilin. You certainly know how to spruce up a Monday.