Back to my Chinese Roots

A week ago marked the last class I had to teach in Beijing. I decided to take my last two weeks in China off to travel around a little and have some fun. I’ve been telling my friends in Jiujiang, the place I spent 3 weeks in, teaching, last summer, that I would definitely visit before I went back to the US, so that’s just what I did. It was definitely the most fun trip I’ve taken within China so far, thanks in part to the great crowd of foreign teachers I met and hung out with at Jiujiang University. Jiujiang is a city of 5 million people, yet most people who live here will describe it as a “small town”. In their defense though, I believe it doesn’t even qualify as one of the hundred largest cities in China. And after spending so much time in Beijing, it really does feel tiny.

Beautiful Lu Shan

The Chinese people who I thought I would stay with never invited me to stay in their homes, and in Chinese culture it is impolite to ask (because that would mean it would be impolite of them to refuse, and I might have ended up inconveniencing them), so I had to get creative. With less than 48 hours before my train left from Beijing, I logged into Couchsurfing, and messaged everyone on there who lives near Jiujiang, in Jiangxi province. All seven of them. Lucky for me, I received a quick reply from one of the couple of foreigners on there, and while he couldn’t host me himself at first, he connected me with one of his coworkers who was able to let me sleep on a mattress on the floor of her apartment.

One thing I love about China is their incredibly developed passenger rail network, and how easy and stress-free traveling by train is. On my way to the station in Beijing, I was stopped by a foreigner who had just arrived in Beijing and was totally lost. I helped her buy a map and hail a cab, and by the time I made it to the station it was just 10 minutes before my train left — yet that proved to be no problem at all. China has 4 main types of train — hard seat, soft seat (more spacious and luxurious than hard), and hard sleeper and soft sleeper. My favorite to travel on is the hard sleeper, because it is both a bed, and cheap. I forgot to specify that when I bought my ticket, though, and ended up on the more expensive soft sleeper. While definitely more comfortable, I was stuck in a compartment with 4 old men, who snored through the night and kept me awake. The last time I was here, the heat and humidity were more oppressive than the Taliban, so I only packed shorts and t-shirts, and unfortunately, the first day I was there was quite cold (it warmed up by the time I left though).

The next few days were filled with seeing old friends, catching up, and exploring the city during the day, and hanging out with the foreign teachers of JJU every night. Jiujiang has changed a lot in the past year, I’m gonna compare and contrast some things from my trip last year, and this time.

Last Year

I stayed in an apartment just up this street for the duration of my stay in Jiujiang a year ago. Walking just a ways up, you could find people selling all kinds of live fish, frogs, lobster, crawfish, etc, in bins, and chickens and ducks in cramped cages. It smelled really bad, and there were often two cars squeezing by each other on this tiny road that barely had room for both of them.

This Year

This year, the main thoroughfare next to the small street has been closed off to traffic and had been turned into a pedestrian mall, the storefronts have all been renovated, and the small road is no longer full of traffic and animals. There was a small foot massage place just up the road, that I always used to go to for their $3, hour-and-a-half massages… I returned to it this year to get another massage and see how they were doing, and it turns out the guy who owns the place and one of his employees (who also was there last year), got married. Speaking of weddings…

Last Year

My friend He Juan invited me to her cousin’s wedding last summer (they call their cousins their brothers and sisters though, it’s kind of interesting). This time, while hanging out with He Juan, she mentioned that her “brother” and his wife had just had  a baby, three days before I arrived. So we went to the hospital to visit the above couple’s new baby, who was, when I saw it, still unnamed.

This Year

It was probably the weirdest hospital I’ve ever been inside of. It was surprisingly clean, compared to some of the hospitals I’ve seen here, but what struck me as odd is how totally empty it was. There were no employees to be seen on the entire ground floor, nor were there nurses walking the halls or reception desks on the other floors. Also, the elevator was broken, so only the stairs were available. We went to the maternity floor, where every room had three women and their newborn children. There were no curtains or dividers between the women sleeping in their beds, and their children were kept in uncovered tubs, as pictured here. It seems like this would be an unsafe way to deal with a bunch of newborns, but on the other hand, it’s probably good preparation for growing up in one of the dirtiest countries.

Last Year

There’s this old Catholic church in downtown Jiujiang, which I walked by nearly every day last year, and every day, without fail, it was all locked up and I couldn’t go inside. I’m always fascinated by religion in China, because while it clearly exists, it’s not something that’s openly celebrated or even totally approved by the government. So imagine my surprise, when walking past it again this time around, the door was open, and there were workmen inside renovating the place. I walked in and asked if I could take pictures, and the guy in charge was kind enough to say yes, and even turn on all the lights for me.

This Year

It was a very surreal church. It had the same layout as any other Catholic church, but between the different art style, the christmas-type lights at the altar (see pic), and everything else, it felt more like a Disneyland-esque re-creation of what a Catholic church is supposed to be like. An interesting story told to me by one of the American teachers at Jiujiang University: he and some friends came to this church to check it out this past Christmas. Following the Disney motif, he said that there were robotic statues of Santa Claus playing saxophone and little kids dressed as Angels singing Christmas carols, along with a bunch of police officers (who were there to make sure nothing bad was said about the Communist party). My friend told me that most of the cops were respectful, but that there was one, sitting in the back of the congregation smoking a cigarette, which I think even in China is considered to be very disrespectful in a religious institution.

I had a taxi driver in Jiujiang, who kept silent the entire trip, until he saw a cop directing traffic, when he started cursing in Chinese and talking about how bad the police are. I think a dislike or a distrust of the police is something most people in this world have in common, and it is an interesting thing to bond over. Another time, I was standing outside of KFC waiting for a friend, and I was talking to this guy selling betta fish. He pulled out a bamboo waterpipe, and started smoking a cigarette through it. He offered it to me, and again, Chinese manners, I agreed to try his cigarette bong. Just at that moment, though, a guy in an army uniform started walking down the street, one of the street vendors let out a whistle, and betta fish guy and all his other illegal street vendor friends, who were selling rabbits, turtles, pirated DVDs, and cheap clothing, grabbed all their goods and just RAN away, leaving me there on the sidewalk holding a water pipe as a government official walked past. They’re legal here (for tobacco of course), but it was quite a surreal experience. I went and I found the guy in his hiding place in a nearby alley, and gave him his device back.

One of my goals for my trip was to find the woman who made my whole trip possible last year (and who without, I wouldn’t even be in China today). I had lost all of her contact info, and she didn’t check her email often enough to see my one-week’s notice that I’d be coming to her city. So I walked around until I found the old school I worked at. The school has changed a lot, too. Last year it was a bunch of very bare, empty classrooms, and was only for teaching English. Now half the school is for teaching English, and the other half for teaching music, and every classroom looks like a proper one now. I waited around for a little bit until my friend, Lily showed up… she was so surprised to see me there, it was a great reunion.

This whole trip was a blast, and it wouldn’t have been the same were it not for the many foreigner friends I made who work at the university. I met one guy there who actually graduated from the same high school as me, which was one of those “small world” moments, and his girlfriend, who went to a different high school but also grew up in Littleton. Other good times with them were going to the only authentic foreign food– Indian– “restaurant” (its in an open air vegetable market) in the city, hanging with a really diverse crowd– like 7 or 8 nationalities were represented. We also went to a “battle of the bands”, which was a really big deal, as Jiujiang doesn’t often have live music. There was a rap/beatboxing group, and some great punk music bands. We also went to a “secret restaurant”… it’s a restaurant that doesn’t have a business license, and it’s entrance is tucked away in a small, dark alley. The inside totally feels kind of sketchy, but the boss was a really cool, friendly guy, and the food was totally delicious!

For the trip back home, I made sure to buy the hard sleeper ticket, and I was lucky enough to be put in a compartment with a younger crowd, who I talked to and had a good time with. Unfortunately, a few of them were also snorers, making falling asleep difficult (once I did fall asleep, I was out like a light till we got to Beijing).

I have so many fun stories from this short, one week vacation, but this post is already getting too long! You can click here to see more photos from my trip. And now that I’m back in Beijing, there’s just one week left in China, before heading home to The US. I must say, I’m sad to be leaving, but I’m also really glad to be coming home.

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5 Responses to Back to my Chinese Roots

  1. Dad says:

    Jake,

    Your trip to JiuJiang sounds like it was a nice way to finish up your stay in China. It is great that you are staying in touch with your friends and acquaintances there!

    I’m impressed with how comfortable you seem to be at meeting people (and helping people) and assimilating into the culture. I’m very proud of you and am glad you have had the opportunity to live abroad. However, I’m also looking forward to having you come back home too!

    You have had an awesome adventure, and I’m sure it will be only one of many.

    Love,
    Dad

  2. Chuck Hazelrigg says:

    Your year in China has certainly been a grand experience, one of adventure, personal growth and an accumulation of lifelong friends. What a treasure. Your initiative and drive to do this successfully are very impressive. I will be most interested in your next step in life. Look forward to seeing you back in Colorado.
    Chuck Hazelrigg

  3. Aunt Kathy says:

    thanks for taking the time to share your experiences with us Jake! The photo of the baby is my favorite…ha! That’s a mom for you. It’s interesting that you observed so many changes in such a short time. What a memorable year this has been for you. Can’t wait to hear more stories in person. See you in Orange County soon! Safe travels. much love, Aunt Kathy

  4. Mom says:

    I look forward to reading about your next adventure. Your independence and ability to live and love life and thrive on your own are commendable. Wu-wei. See you soon. xoxo Mom

  5. The Websters says:

    Goosebumps here, Jake. I feel like I’m getting to the end of a really good book–one that I don’t want to put down.

    So looking forward to seeing you when you get back and hearing more about your adventures. We are so proud (and jealous) of you!

    Have a safe trip home!

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