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Rant #198
(published October 28, 2004)
Concerning The Latino Community of Zhuzhou, China (A PMjA Dispatch from Abroad)
by Max Montesino
Woo! I write to you from a smoky internet cafe down the street from my apartment in Zhuzhou, Hunan, PRC, full of people playing video games, smoking, chewing betel nut and yelling shit in Xiang dialect. Forget the stereotypes; no one here is reserved. I'm pretty sure I'm the only Latino in town, so I feel justified in calling myself "the Hispanic community of Zhuzhou." I'll be here all year, teaching English under the auspices of the China program of the WorldTeach organization, and answering the question "What happens when twenty-seven strangers. . . picked to live in Hunan for a year. . . stop being nice. . . and start being real—mad real?"

Regardless. The plane ride from LA to Guangzhou was 14 hours long, all of it in darkness, except when we flew over Siberia. There I could see a band of faint light to the north, in the colors of the rainbow. It was a false dawn—that was the Arctic Circle! I figured we were high enough and north enough that we could see the sky north of the Arctic Circle—where the sun doesn't set in the summer. In either case, it was so gorgeous it was almost moving (not totally moving, though— it was around four in the morning). That's when it hit me: "Damn, It's like I'm going to the moon."

I arrived August 10th in Guangzhou, spent the next two-and-some weeks with my co-volunteers at our orientation in Changsha (capital of Hunan), and this Thursday moved to Zhuzhou, an hour south of Changsha. Changsha is damn near six million people (or two million, or 1.7 million or 3-4 million, depending on who you ask), which I guess makes it the proportional and cultural equivalent of Cleveland, and Zhuzhou would be Akron. My co-volunteers are all exceptional people, every last one of them.

I start work next Tuesday; I'm teaching conversational English to the Junior-1 level of the Chinese secondary school system— the equivalent of seventh grade in America. I've also been either told or suggested (5000 years of bureaucracy have raised vagueness into the national art form) that I will/could teach four class hours of primary school, spanning 4th, 5th, and 6th grade. So far my lesson plan for the first day consists of giving 300 people English names. I wish I could revel in the power of naming a human being, but given these circumstances I just can't.

Regardless! The food is to die for: spicy and cheap. The 'English' on the t-shirts is hilarious— you can expect some of those to stuff your stockings. Today I bought four DVDs, a CD, and two books for ~$8 American.

Two weekends ago I had a milestone "foreigner in China" experience: 'tasty shrimp.' Our field director took whoever was willing to a restaurant, which set up a special table for us under an overpass. It's actually a big bowl of crawfish, swimming in the hottest sauce I've ever tasted. I split it with five other people— deceptively unspicy at first, but when you get to successively hotter shrimps you realize that your lips are burning off. After a few more they just go numb. Wash that down with some PBR (of all possible beers), take the next 24 hours in stride, and you're golden. Next up is the snake meat, which I hear is comparably spicy. Also next is the snake blood mixed with baijiu (the equivalent of tequila). Um, I'll get back to y'all about that one.

The week after that we all had three hours of Chinese class a day (with Chinese pedagogy— I felt like dying), and in the afternoons we had to teach 45 minutes of English to twelve-year-olds who more or less didn't want to give up a week of their summertime. That Saturday the volunteers all went to Pizza Hut for pizza and beer. It was one huge endorphin rush.

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