Day One in Mianyang- August 26, 2012
Our day began early because we scheduled our flight from Shanghai to Mianyang at 7:45 in the morning. Jet lag had us up in the middle of the night anyway so being up and ready to catch a 6 AM taxi was no problem. Despite a slight communication issue with the gentleman at the front desk of the hostel, who didn’t speak a word of English, we met up with the taxi we had arranged to pick us up and made our way through the relatively empty streets. We arrived at the airport with enough time to check in and eat breakfast. Originally, we wanted to enjoy some real Chinese food for the first time, but each place we went to told us that they didn’t have anything vegetarian. So, we were forced to choke down a Subway sandwich instead.
After a very thorough security check we boarded our plane. The three-hour flight was mostly uneventful except for the occasional whiff of cigarette smoke wafting from the bathrooms and the erratic behavior of the young woman sitting next to us. She scratched her skin, pulled her hair, and clutched her body during fits, which were obviously the result of drug withdrawals, most likely heroin. During our descent, we only caught sight of the ground moments before we touched down because the air was so hazy. We learned later that during the summer harvest the stalks are burned on the weekends, making the air smoky and ashy.
We found all of our bags at baggage claim and waited for the school representative, Michael, to find us. He had seen our passport pictures so he knew what we looked like- not that he needed any help as we were the only foreigners at the small airport. He helped us to a small car where the driver was waiting to drive us to Tian Fu College. The driver, Mr. Wo, popped the trunk to reveal a large tank (helium?) filling most of the trunk. The two men piled Kelly’s suitcase and backpack into the front seat and squeezed Mi’s into the back with the tank. We were a bit concerned that the bags were sticking out of the trunk and not secured, but Michael, in his uncharacteristically deep voice for someone so young, reassured us that Mr. Wo would drive slowly- we would just have to trust him.
Fortunately, Tian Fu College, where we will be teaching English for the next year, is only about 20 kilometers from the airport and we made it without losing our bags. Mianyang is very different from Shanghai. In place of skyscrapers, there are small brick buildings, vegetables growing in permaculture plots by the road, and much less traffic. Before we even laid eyes on the school, we heard rousing parade music blaring from behind its red brick walls. Upon turning into the school’s front gate, we began seeing our future students, each one decked out in green fatigues and marching in unison in groups of about fifty. Michael informed us that for the first 15 days of the school year, all first year students from primary school up to college must participate in military training.
According to our guide, the students are instructed in discipline rather than firearms, which was only a little reassuring. The sight of 2500 18-year-olds in head to toe fatigues marching in the heat of the afternoon is enough to unnerve anyone. Besides having to march around in the stifling heat, the students are subjected to two weeks of blaring “motivational music,” which unfortunately for the students, and us, is the same thirty seconds played over and over again.
Michael showed us to our temporary rooms in the “hotel” where we will be staying until Shirley, our administrative contact, returns to the school with the key to our apartment. We then joined Michael in one of the school’s restaurants for a huge lunch. The Sichuan Province is famous for its food, which is notoriously spicy, so we were not disappointed with the multitude of dishes we gladly devoured until our stomachs burned. After lunch we went back to our room to regroup, arranging to meet back up with Michael at 3 to go check in at the police station (all foreigners arriving in China to work must check in within 24 hours of their arrival).
Before we had time to settle in, there was a knock on our door. It was Steven and Joe, friends of Kelly’s parents from when they taught here. We were delighted to meet them and to learn from them. Steven is from Texas and Joe is Chinese and they have been together for four years. Before coming to China we had heard that there would be other gay people at the school so we were thrilled to learn that it is not something we need to worry about. They proceeded to show us around the stores and restaurants just outside the school’s back gate. They also introduced us to Vincent and Shelly, two other teachers who are both from Canada. They also showed us their apartment and the rooftop garden where teachers meet for beers and barbecues on Sunday evenings.
Later, we met with Michael to photocopy our passports to take to the police station. Outside his office a group of students were practicing their dance moves, which apparently exempted them from the drills their peers had to do outside. Michael is a break-dancer so he introduced us to his crew, a group of boys who were watching themselves intently in a big mirror. Mr. Wo drove us the short distance to the police station, which was closed on Sundays, so we came right back. Michael, who graduated from the college the previous year, works in the administration building which had been temporarily taken over by groups of dancers, all practicing. He introduced us to a large group of freshmen who stopped what they were doing and made an eager semi-circle around us. The cheered and smiled and asked us questions about where we are from. In response to our replies, they sang “Hotel California.” They were excited to show us the progress they were making on their dance routine so we watched them perform what moves they knew. Some of the dancers will be our students, but we won’t know which ones until next week.
We had some time before we had arranged to meet back up with the other teachers for dinner so we went exploring. As we passed by the groups of marching students they looked at us curiously until we waved and they waved back, a few at first and before long entire groups were waving and shouting “hello” to us. We felt bad distracting them but it couldn’t really be helped. Everywhere we went students surrounded us. Tian Fu College boasts 10,000 students and by the point we had walked the perimeter of the school, we had seen and been seen by many of them.
We wandered around, not sure exactly where we were going, until we found the places we plan to frequent- the teaching building, the track, the swimming pool (Olympic sized but only open during weird hours), and the ponds where we will most likely sit beside to grade papers, weather permitting. All in all, it is a nice campus. Everything is a little worse for wear but that just gives it character. Despite being a little run down, the place is buzzing with life. Besides the constant military music, the air is filled with the droning of dragonflies and cicadas, especially close to the ponds.
By dinnertime, we were eager to meet up with the other teachers so we made our way up to the rooftop garden where Steven and Shelly were already hanging out. The little group of teachers grew as we met up with Mark and Ricky (another resident gay couple- also vegans and advocates of traditional Chinese medicine). We ate at one of the restaurants outside the Back Gate. The food was wonderful and the company was even better. Each of the other teachers is a remarkable wealth of knowledge (they have all been here for at least two years) and we know we will learn a great deal from each one of them. We laughed and devoured such dishes as “hollow greens,” garlic cucumber, green beans, tofu, fried eggplant, and sweet corn. After dinner, we brought the party back to the rooftop garden where we listened to music, drank beers, and got to know each other. We were joined by Damon and Lucy (he’s American and she’s Chinese) and Daniel (from Reno and fluent in Chinese – he’s the one to talk to about biking/hiking).
A bit tipsy, delighted by who and what we had learned, and exhausted by the overwhelming newness of it all, we went to bed around 9.