Mostly Better News: Halloween and H1N1 (Pt. II)

One of the other setbacks of the H1N1 situation was the cancellation of the annual Halloween party. For as long as there are Fellows to report, every Halloween has been met with an all-out crunk fest. We’re talking ordering in hundreds of bottles of beer from a wholesaler in Taiyuan, vats full of bai jiu cocktails (that’s Chinese liquor mixed with from-concentrate fruit juices), and a ton of guests. Each of us teachers (there are six of us) was expected to invite all of our students, and with over a hundred students to a teacher, you don’t have to do a lot of math to figure out the crowd-size. Not only was it a way for our students to relax, it was also a chance for them to see us as teachers in a more informal light. It is the one time every year that the Foreign Affairs Office begrudgingly gives us the key to the old AV classroom, a space big enough to accommodate at least the first few hundred off the lengthy guest list (with the rest either pushing their way in or opting to go back home). We were all so excited that we came up with live performances to boot. Dave, Nick, and I were planning to do our own rendition of Biz Markie’s seminal “Just a Friend,” Anne and a couple of her Chinese friends wanted to cover a C-pop song, and Gerald was going to rock out on his electric guitar. We joked that this year we could wear N95 face masks, in addition to the myriad of creative costumes we had schemed.

Two more students posing with their newly-carved pumpkin.

That was until our boss told us that the biggest party of the year was canceled due to H1N1. It was like telling Delta fraternity in Animal House that they had all been put on double secret probation. The school administration was worried that so many people in such a crowded indoor space would make for easy spreading of the disease, regardless of the state of some of their other institutions. But unlike the gang in Animal House, we did not have our revenge. Instead, we ended up spending Halloween night sequestered in our own homes, with even the possibility of a smaller house party ruled out because of the scare. With our spirits and excitement crushed, we relegated the possibility of a party to the backs of our minds—as we did the return of the campus to pre-H1N1 normalcy—with the hopes that perhaps by December we could entertain the idea of a Halloween-Christmas celebration on an open and safe campus.

But as we soon learned, parties are not the only way to have fun during Halloween. On Nick’s suggestion, I decided to bring some of the holiday spirit to my classes, as they were some of the few things not disturbed too greatly by the scare. I spent the first class before Halloween going over the requisite vocabulary, being careful to include “trick-or-treat,” “costume party,” and “bobbing for apples,” before having my students write and present ghost stories to the class. With no subtle hint of irony, I spent the week after Halloween talking about vocabulary for symptoms and illnesses, in addition to performing a skit about patients going to the see both a Western doctor and a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. But the class immediately preceding Halloween was when things really got interesting—when I walked into class carrying a huge drawstring bag of pumpkins and a shoebox full of spoons and knives.

Some of the pumpkins carved in my Group K class. I am particularly fond of the rabbit design in about the middle of the picture.

Procuring said pumpkins was no small task. The only place to buy them was at a quaint little vegetable market a bit of a ways off campus, which also featured a plethora of other stands selling everything from eggs to vegetables to fresh meat. But with the campus recently closed and my having forgot my identification, I had to really hound the guards to let me through the gates—citing my bad Chinese and the fact that I didn’t look like any of the actual students. Eventually I made it through and spotted the woman whom I had ordered 45 pumpkins from the day before (fifteen for each of my three graduate student classes). However, having not fully put this plan into motion previously, the fact that 45 pumpkins could be quite heavy seemed to have slipped my mind (though they were astoundingly cheap). And so, I left the vegetable market in two trips, each time with a drawstring bag in excess of 70 pounds slumped over my shoulder as I made my way back to campus. Ironically, this was when I seemed to engender the fewest stares from passersby—probably assuming I was just another Chinese farmer, doubled over wearing a plain brown jacket and slacks.

The classes dedicated to pumpkin carving were perhaps the best I’ve had so far. I started with a lesson on knife safety and a rough impromptu step-by-step on to how to actually do the carving. Having not done it myself in well over ten years and with the internet temporarily out of commission, I was worried that my slapdash directions would prove ineffectual, but my students quickly proved me wrong. After a lottery system to decide who would go first, each pumpkin was doled out randomly to groups of two students—some big, some small, some long, and some downright ugly. Unlike pumpkins in America, Chinese pumpkins are all green on the outside, though some students shaved away at the outer layer to reveal a yellow-orange hue beneath. With hardly any direction from me (I brought a book into class to read for the second-half while my students carved away), my students jumped wholeheartedly into the project—wowing me with the extent to which they removed the seeds, scooped out the inside, and drew and gutted the face. More than that, I was incredibly impressed with the creativity they exhibited. Though a fair bit were what one might call “normal,” others were decadent specimens with delicate attention to detail, careful pre-planning, and the addition of outside props. And all this from students who had not only never carved a pumpkin before, but who had probably never seen a jack-o’-lantern in real life.

But perhaps even more can be said of the old saying that “the real learning takes place outside of the classroom.” Since indoor gatherings were strictly off-limits, we decided to turn the tables on the administration’s orders. On the morning of Halloween we organized a huge pumpkin carving party with Anne, Dave, and James’ classes in the little courtyard area outside of Dave’s house. Since Nick and I already did carving during our classes, our students didn’t make an appearance, but we got to meet a whole bunch of other eager youngsters, most of whom were completely enthralled with the notion of other foreigners, as we reluctantly posed for one photo-op after another. In between being used for my native English by some enterprising, and more than a bit obnoxious, non-students who were drawn to the party, I ended up carving my own pumpkin, taking some cues from my students who gave me no shortage of inspiration. Since the face was admittedly a little plain, I decided to go ahead and carve my Chinese name in the back using a slightly smaller knife and some finesse. All in all, over sixty students showed up at various points during the four-hour jaunt. In addition to a lot of misplaced paint (that we brought for students to further decorate the pumpkins), we only had two knife-related injuries, which, considering the circumstances, was pretty good.

My Chinese name that I carved into the back of the pumpkin (Da Lin read top to bottom).

In the last couple of days, the school finally received its share of the H1N1 vaccines and has begun distributing them to its faculty and students. First came the first- and second-year undergrads who were presumed to be the most at risk (mostly because the first student to be hospitalized came from an undergraduate dorm), and next came all of the graduate students. On Friday, all of us foreign teachers were woken up early and marched out to the reasonably shady campus hospital to get administered for our own shots. Prior to going, we got a short briefing in Chinese about the protocol and a handful of English photocopies off the WHO website. For all intents and purposes, it seemed safe enough (there have been no reported vaccine-related deaths in China) and it was said that the vaccine is even safer in China than it is in America. Along with a small prick in the arm, we were instructed not to shower, eat spicy food, eat lamb, or drink alcohol for the next three days. Needless to say, China has a lot of interesting customs when it comes to sick-culture (not to mention pregnancy and child rearing) that I hope to address more in a forthcoming post. And so, a slightly smellier and sober Daniel will stumble his way through Taigu for the next few days, but after a full week, the vaccine will have run its course. With any luck, the collective immunity of the campus will gradually start to usher back a return to the way things were.