Opening a New Private School in Daban January 2008

This picture was seen all over town to advertise the school.

This picture was seen all over town to advertise the school.

It was important that we go to Daban, Inner Mongolia. A local entrepreneur had sunk a pile of his own money into a very nice private school. It was freshly painted with cute little desks for everyone featuring both Chinese and English letters, cartoon characters and lists to memorize.

I was told that he had made his money in the railroad. Daban is one of the last remaining steam engine train stations in the world tempting many RR buffs. Most men like this in China squander their money on women and lavish parties, but he wanted to return something to his community even though he has no background in education.

Our job was public relations so we distributed flyers at schools when the children were being sent home. The pictures are of me yelling for help and another of Kevin also swamped by eager kids and adults alike. The flyers invited parents to a demonstration of a sample lesson where I do the English and David the Chinese.

Demand for classes far outstripped our abilities. Over a dozen people were turned away, and many parents signed up for anything available. They expected the classes to begin the next day, but no local trained teachers are yet hired. Either we ask them to wait a month or we travel the several hours ourselves to > do the teaching.

The headmaster and his wife treated us to several giant meals. She appeared to have her eyebrows burned away. I wondered to myself if she had been in an accident, but Lindsay assured me later that this was very fashionable to make oriental faces look whiter. How odd that American women paste on fake black eyelashes for the oriental effect, and even some permanently add an upper eyelash line! I guess women everywhere are unhappy with their looks.

Our hotel’s “stars” may have been awarded by someone clearly delusional. Our heating system did not work and cold air was sweeping down my face. I had visions of being in bed with a cold for 2 weeks! Finally near midnight I forced David and Kevin to change rooms but they couldn’t get the heat going either.

Lindsay and I did not sleep well even with a small amount of heat. The bathroom was the usual heated water spray hose suspended from the ceiling which means the john seat gets wet, and the seat itself was cracked in two places so no matter where you sat you got pinched. However the Internet blogs informed me this was the best place in town even though the bathroom floors are always wet, and we did have a commode with an actual seat, a rarity in rural China. Having battled diarrhea all week I was reluctant to travel at all but trusty Mark got me some medicine which thankfully worked.

I always feel constrained to tell my Chinese friends that a bathroom like that would not be permitted in America because the owner would not get a C/O – Certificate of Occupancy. Period. In China buildings are inspected and then the one with the best bribe wins the occupancy lottery or maybe not – who knows.

Master planners in Beijing may not realize this but Americans do not regularly exercise the muscles needed to squat down over a hole in the floor while the Chinese learn from an early age how to squat anywhere, anytime. And the Chinese also do not realize that new foods and water, even bottled water, affect our systems so that we are more than likely to have bowel problems.

More than anything else I believe this is what is squelching the tourist business in China. Lord knows, Americans want to go to China. Tourist visas are easy to get, but Western plumbing is a requirement not just “a nice thing,” and then there is the absence of spoken English in places where it is most needed, taxis and menus. I would not dream of going anywhere in China without a Chinese-speaking guide that I trusted.

At suppertime as the snowfall resumed, it was almost dark as the middle school was being let out, so David suggested that we slip into a nearby pharmacy to get warm. I’d wanted to see the inside of these tiny dwellings for several years but hesitated because in the Philippines people were alarmed that I would see inside their humble homes. We stepped through a metal double door, and then a thinner wood one and finally down into a 5x8x7 foot tall kitchen.

On the opposite wall was an 18” high brick firebox with a slot for fat wood. In a groove hollowed out of the ceramic sat a large metal wok containing water as several baskets of vegetables sat ready for steaming. Of course being cast iron one could also stir fry meat in it.

The pharmacist was a portly gentlemen. He asked me if I had ever seen a fireplace like that and I said yes – in America, only outdoors. I wondered about the carbon monoxide fumes from this fire but a wide metal flue stretched through the roof.

The shop was one small room with a slightly higher sooty colored ceiling, the walls lined with grungy cupboards filled with OTC products and individual bottles of drugs to mix on demand. His wife appeared to be much younger than I, but actually both of them are my age. [I should look so good, I thought to myself.)

She showed me their 11×11 foot bedroom, a giant king size mattress on an all brick “inner springs” which butted back against the fire stove. I felt the warm sheets at the head of the bed at her invitation, of course. There was no room to turn around. On the opposite wall was a nice TV with color programs. I’ve not seen TV for 4 months.

At 5:15 it was pitch black as we stepped out into a snowy night.

The next morning our huge Mongolian breakfast was a unique experience. Our waitress brought a large firepot of boiling tea and milk for cooking tofu, millet, pieces of meat and a cheese that had the look and consistency of mozzarella, strings and all. She also brought a bowl of creamy yogurt, very thick and nice into which we dipped twisted fried donuts. That was terrific. Mongolian yogurt has our American brands beat by far.

I asked David whether they used lard for frying as this usually makes a more tasty product. He said this area has too many Muslims to allow the use of pig fat; it was probably vegetable oil. Then came a stack of what appeared to be pancakes, actually thin pieces of dough filled with fried meat pieces, and then again fried in oil. Many salty pickles sat in side dishes – radish, cabbage, shredded vegetables and strips of salted seaweed, which unlike a previous meal, did not taste like boiled bicycle tires. Finally she brought an the overcooked rib cage of mutton and we picked on the carcass. Our hostess, the one with the missing eyelashes, gnawed on some baked bones. With hot tea, and Mongolian tea (milk diluted with sugared tea) it was a huge meal befitting the new windy cold and more that had fallen during the night. We were now about 100 miles north of Chifeng, not far from the Mongolian border.

As we left that morning there was another inch of snow but even that did not cover up the dirt and grime in this town. This week we return to hold some classes, and prepare for our taking turns teaching there for one week stints. We could hardly resist such eager students.
(Included is a much publicized ad photo.)

China News #23 – On Doing Without

Much of what we live with in China is actually what we live without. There is no hot water on demand for shaving, dishes, bathing or laundry. I must designate a morning for all that. Bed linens are sent off to be washed in a machine as there is no tub here for anything large. The clothes hangars are too narrow; the closet bar is so low my winter coat drags 2 inches in the dust. I hang wet clothes in summer over various ceramic objets d’art and in the winter on the heat registers. Air is free in China and I’ve seen no clothes dryers yet.

What they call cheese looks like tiny pieces of white eraser, and tastes about the same. Chifeng’s pollution is less than other cities but still we don’t drink the water, and hesitate to breathe the air. Now that the snow has gone, all that remains is patchy slicks of oil and soot from the coal fired plants that heat the city.

Does it bother me to plug in the hot water in a slick of water on the floor? Of course – I may dare to live in 2nd world but I’ll not tangle with scientific laws. Postal service means the P.O. calls you when something comes in. My FedEx package got stuck in Shanghai and was eventually returned to the states.

You can buy DVDs of modern films but most are knockoffs and unusable. Intellectual property follows the Biblical rule – Freely (China) receives and (freely) Americans give. No doubt, this is communism – we hold all property, including yours in common. Private property is being slowly restored at the insistence of the middle class, but progress is slow.

I miss my choir, my pneumatic swivel chair, and the company of people my own age. There are so few people to talk to – of any race, no TV, no good burger places, no mega stores, no way to find what you want to buy anyway, no nail technicians or decent beauticians although you can get a terrific hair cut. And if you get defective goods – tough.

There is no American or French cheese of any kind – no peanut butter, no Cheetoes, no ground coffee. All of which is a good reason to have a pity party over the holidays – or at least until I went to Daban……

Our 2nd snow of the season was lightly starting when four of us, David two teachers and I piled into a taxi for Daban, a town of 30,000 about 2 hours from Chifeng, a small shopping center-city linking the impoverished farmland and a modicum of town life, computer stores, banks and the like. I saw no horrid poverty but uniform down at the heels seedy living.

Our mission was to help a local educator open his private school. We were wildly successful –so much so that we have altered our January plans – about which I’ll say more later.

But I was more interested in seeing the elegant Protestant Church in Muslin and Mongolian county. Fourteen people greeted us, mostly middle-aged women, and the beaming from ear-to-ear pastor, a woman who did not give her name. We were given hot tea (always in China), mandarin oranges and fresh bananas and some special Mongolian candy made with milk.

After a lot of hugging and hand-shaking they sang a few praise and worship songs in Chinese, and although I was not familiar with them, I could tell they were Christian because they were upbeat tunes.

I said this was what Paul always did when he visited a church and I brought blessings from the Church in America. We are all one family said David, and then we went on a tour of the icey church. Coal prices have escalated.

In the back there was a heated bedroom. I think the bed was made of brick and inexplicably warm. A very old computer sat in one corner, unused, and perhaps too old to be used. In the brick kitchen across the hall in addition to a giant wok were 20 large bags filled with dumplings made especially for us. Since they were already frozen in the room, I suggested they hold on to them until our next visit where we promised to bring Mongolian Bibles and the much used bilingual Chinese-NIV New Testament.

In addition to 400 seats in the main sanctuary they had nearly as many seats in the Sunday School area. In the children’s playroom my heart sank. Not a single tiny chair, or rug, or blanket, or crib or playpen. Not a single Christian play, story, or songbook. And all at 25 degrees. I fought back tears.

At home is our Western church with the most elegantly appointed classrooms, books everywhere, pictures of Jesus, keyboards, tambourines, merry colored paper cutouts and painted wall scenes, and chairs and tables in graduated for sizes for all ages, songfests, and bell choirs. And here – not one single toy.

After many hearty goodbyes and the promise to return in January we left for Chifeng. I said they need money for heat. David said maybe 200 Yuan. So after about an hour of checking out of our hotel we doubled back and gave them 300 Yuan – at least enough money to heat the church for 2 or 3 Sundays.

I thought back on all my horrid lacks, my fussing, and then remembered these people have never even owned the very things I now consider essentials. Paul said we need to learn to be content. But in contrast here are these happy Christians showing off their neat and clean frozen church with so much pride and treating us like royalty, well- I think I need to keep my mouth shut about what I don’t have.

Second Visit to Daban

They spread many dishes out for us.

They spread many dishes out for us.

Church spread a big selection for us

We all returned to Daban for a few days because we needed to sign up more students. As before the school is wildly successful.

So we also returned to the church. After a service where we said healing was for all the church members, and many came up to be anointed with oil and prayer, we were served a big feast; this picture is only one table. Bob takes great food pictures!

The place was so cold the bowls were stuck together. The Chinese do not dry their dishes, so ice had formed inside each bowl. I warmed them on a space heater and then popped out the ice.

From left to right the white bowls contain dumplings, ravioli-like without sauce; lower left – duck meat sausage, smooth and mild; above it stir fried spinach with some garlic and hot pepper, but not too much; below that, very old pickled eggs, no thanks; above the eggs cooked chicken but a little too salty for me.

However, the Chinese do not put salt on the table; to the right, a pile of large shredded red radishes in a sweet vinegar sauce, mild and fabulous; underneath that fish pieces fried with 5 spice powder and hoisin sauce; to the right of that, hard boiled quail eggs – you eat the shell and all. Last on the right, They also served coke if you wanted it.

The group photo shows most of the members on the front row, the visitors on the back, and the director of the new school, far left front.

One photo is from the van on the toll road. 120 miles of dirt and an occasional spike of a mountain. Everywhere in China is concrete and construction.


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