I thought some people might find interesting the answers I gave to some questions my dad asked me recently by e-mail:
You know, we hear about all the neat times that you have — & we’re glad to hear about them. I’m wondering about the day to day stuff:
Sorry… It’s sometimes hard to think of what day-to-day stuff I haven’t mentioned or what might actually be interesting to you. I’ve lost some of the outsider’s perspective.
I write for my own pleasure as well as my readers’, so I tend to go light on day-to-day stuff.
What do you have for breakfast?
Hmmm… Maybe this is why I go light on the stuff. A lot of the answers to seemingly simple questions have to be really long because of cultural differences. A lot of the things I eat are Chinese, and not available in the U.S. I sometimes eat rolls or bread, but usually a “roubing” (fried breadish stuff with meat filling in the middle) or a “danbing” (sort of a crepe with egg and chives and sauce). I usually drink milk or juice.
What’s a typical everyday day like?
Hmmm… I don’t think there’s a “typical” day… I usually have class in the morning. I frequently eat lunch with Wilson and/or Helene or Nicola. I have to plan for class, but only in the beginning of the week. I still study Chinese. I hang out with Wilson quite a bit. Sometimes we watch DVDs at night. I go online, read and answer e-mail quite a bit. I also post new blog entries pretty frequently. Unfortunately, I don’t spend a lot of time with Chinese friends these days. I just don’t feel really close to anyone now.
Do you eat out most meals?
Do you cook for yourself?
Do you guys have “pot lucks” in the dorm?
Is your cooking a la Chinoise or a la Americaine?
It’s really hard to cook a lot of American things here. Examples… You can buy spaghetti, but the sauce is almost impossible to find at most stores in Hangzhou. Furthermore, just asking if they have it is difficult, because it’s not an item that Chinese people are familiar with. All pasta is referred to as “Italian noodles,” and if you translate “tomato sauce” it means “ketchup.”
The Chinese seem to be fond of lumping unfamiliar concepts together and then applying generalizations. Examples: “Foreigners are tall.” “Western food is bland and simple.” Some of the few American things I can make without too much hassle are ham and cheese sandwiches (only processed American cheese, though), tuna salad sandwiches, and egg salad sandwiches. Even those, though, require special (expensive) ingredients: sliced ham, cheese, mayonaise, canned tuna.
Maybe you’ll suggest I try this or try that, but the simple fact is that going shopping, then cooking, then cleaning up is a big hassle for one person. Coordinating groups efforts is also a hassle. When fully prepared Chinese food is so cheap and ubiquitous, it’s the way to go (except on special occasions).
Do you go to movies?
No, I buy DVDs.
Do you have a radio?
Yes, but I rarely use it.
What kind of things can you listen to there?
I buy CDs (Western and Chinese) occasionally, but I mostly listen to MP3s.
Do you use your computer to play music?
Do you take buses, rickshaws, taxis, private vehicles, or Shank’s Mare to get around?
Yes, no, yes, no, and HUH?
“Rickshaws” as you probably imagine them do not really exist in modern China. They were banned by Mao. Pedicabs (big cargo tricycles) are everywhere, both for human transport as well as all kinds of cargo. I rarely ever use those, though. They’re not a whole lot faster than walking, and I’m way faster on my bike.
Is public transportation inexpensive?
Yes. 1 or 2 yuan ($0.125 or $0.25). Taxis usually range from 10-30 yuan depending on the destination.
Do you spend all day at church on Sundays?
Are you still working w/ the kids at church?
No. One hour a week for kids so young seems to do nothing. They don’t retain anything.
I’m a little late in reporting it, but autumn has definitely arrived in Hangzhou, and we’re enjoying the great weather. As you can see, there are indesputable signs that fall has arrived. Even the 10rmb midget potted tree on top of my refrigerator is behaving accordingly. So we’re desperately soaking up this beautiful but ephemeral weather. It’ll be dreary rainy cold before long.
So about the vacation to Zhou Shan/Putuo Shan… Our group had about 14 people in it. 5 Americans (I was the only non-Chinese American of that group), 2 Kiwis, 1 Scot, 3 Japanese, and 3 Chinese (including our driver). Plus there was Bob, our tour guide in Zhoushan. He didn’t even know his name was Bob, but it was. So decreed Helene. I don’t think the driver knew his name was Joe, either, for similar reasons.
We had our own private minibus, and we drove all morning (leaving around 6:30am!) to get across on the ferry to Zhoushan at around noon. Then we met up with Bob and ate. We soon learned that in Zhoushan you eat a LOT of seafood. Every meal. Fortunately, it was good stuff. Probably the best shrimp and fish I’ve had in China. Way better than Wenzhou. Then we checked into our hotel, which was right on the sea in an area called Shen Jia Men, and it was off to the Sand Sculpture Festival.
I was annoyed at Bob at the beginning of the trip because he would speak to me like I was retarded, speaking really slowly and exaggerating pronunciation, all the while gesticulating to get his point across. He even said to me at one point, “We can even communicate, if I speak really simply.” I wanted to smack him. You can’t stay mad at Bob, though. He’s a good guy at heart. Toward the end of the trip he was speaking more normally to me.
We were kind of disappointed when we first got to the Sand Sculpture Festival, because there were tons of people there, all seated around a distant stage. Where were the sand sculptures?? We figured out pretty quick that what was going on onstage was just typical China singing/dancing entertainment–the kind of thing that’s on TV in China all the time–and nothing that really interested us. So we migrated over to the actual sculptures. They were pretty massive, and amazing. Check out my pics.
That night we went to the seaside outdoor restaurant. It was within walking distance from our hotel, and the cook tents and tables seemed to go on forever. There was some weird food there (stewed barnacles, anyone?), but good shrimp and fish, too.
The next day we did Putuo Shan, which was sort of a bunch of temple-type stuff, all on the sea. It was nice. Huge Buddha statue and all. I can’t get too excited about this kind of thing anymore, because I’ve seen too many places like it in China. But the seaside part added something.
One of the temples was selling Xian Shui — “mystical water” — for 1rmb ($0.125) per cup. Lots of people were buying it and drinking it. I overheard another guy telling someone it was clean, safe to drink. I bought some and tried it. Tasted OK. I got Chen Yao, our trip coordinator to try it, against her better judgment. Then we met up with Bob, and he promptly informed us that “mystical water” gives you diarrhea if you drink it. Great. If that’s the “mystical” part, then a whole lot of food in China is mystical! Fortunately no one drank more than a few sips.
The trip home was looong… There was a huge traffic jam getting onto the ferry. Everyone was trying to get back. Putuo Shan is a famous vacation spot. Somehow the Chinese people on our bus convinced the police to let us go straight to the front of all the backup just because we had foreigners onboard. Amazing. We wouldn’t have made it out of there that evening if not for that trick. We somehow made it back to ZUCC that night around 11pm, pretty much on schedule, even dropping Vivienne off in Shaoxing on the way. After two packed days of travel, we were all exhausted.
So the week long “National Day Holiday” is now over. I went on a school trip with some fellow teachers from ZUCC to the Zhoushan International Sand Sculpture Festival and the famous Putuo Shan Island. Fellow China blogger and friend Erin Shutty was supposed to come over from Shaoxing with her Scottish friend Vivienne, but instead she tried to devastate us by getting ridiculously sick and cancelling. But Viv still came. Of course, we missed Erin, but we had a blast somehow anyway. More on this trip soon, at a time which isn’t dangerously past my bedtime.
In other news, Wilson and I took the plunge today. We just had too much money sitting in our bank accounts, I guess. We both decided to get new desktop PCs. I thought that I wouldn’t go back to using a desktop, but notebook PCs are just too expensive now, and desktops are too cheap to refuse. My poor little P1-233 is more than ready to retire. We went down to the “computer town” and put together our new machines from our own specs. Ahhh, I will soon have a P4 1.7GHz, with 512MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive, and a flat screen monitor. It’ll be ready Wednesday. After I get that bad boy up and running, some major updates will follow (e.g. new photo albums and other goodies).
On Sunday Wilson and I made a little alcohol run to the Metro. The Metro is a big supermarket with lots of Western food and stuff. It’s one of the few places you can buy vodka in Hangzhou, and the prices are actually decent.
Anyway, we had to get our vodka and a few other goodies that are hard to find elsewhere (Hellmann’s mayonaise, French’s mustard, good bread, canned tuna…). But we were kind of in a hurry, because I was trying to get back to ZUCC to hear one of my students sing at a concert on campus. She has a really amazing voice.
The problem with the Metro is that it’s in the middle of nowhere, on the east edge of town. You have to take a taxi out there and back (unless you want to be on the bus for like an hour each way), and it’s not always easy finding a taxi back. (The other problem with the Metro is that the stingy bastards actually charge for plastic grocery bags! What’s up with that?! It’s not a normal Chinese practice.)
Anyway, we were holding our groceries, standing on the side of the road outside the inconveniently-located Metro, waiting for a cab.
5 minutes went by. A cab pulled up, and some guy further up the road from us flagged it down and got it. Was he there before us? Who knows. He got the cab.
5 more minutes went by. No cabs.
5 more minutes went by. Two guys in suits that looked to be in their thirties came from a sidestreet and stood a little further down the road from us.
5 more minutes went by. Another unoccupied cab finally appeared! Fortunately there was no one waiting further up the road to grab it this time. He approached our frantically waving figures. He kept rolling, coming to a stop by the two guys just past us, further down the road. One of the guys got in the front seat as quickly as he could.
I was pissed. I rushed over there, still holding my grocery bag in one hand and a Smirnoff Vodka bottle in the other. I got in front of the door so he couldn’t close it.
“Get out,” I told him firmly, in Chinese. He stayed rooted to the seat, with the stubborn look of a kid who refuses to eat his brussel sprouts. “Get out!” I repeated, as he urged the driver to get moving. He wasn’t budging.
Meanwhile, Wilson was looking on, kind of stunned (hoping I wasn’t mad enough hit the guy with the vodka bottle, he told me later). The partner of the guy already in the cab, apparently made nervous by the tense situation, was making no move to get in the taxi.
My demand was falling on deaf ears, and the taxi finally took off, the door still open. I yelled something I probably shouldn’t have. It was English, but I’m sure he got it. The cab went about 100 meters down the road and stopped. The other guy went to go get in. Apparently angered by what I yelled, stubborn guy in the front seat pretended like he was going to get out and come fight me. I made the manly “bring it on!” gesture, and they promptly drove away.
It was all a ridiculous incident. I certainly wasn’t going to get in a fight over a taxi. It’s just too stupid. But underlying it all is an anger, not just at one guy in one particular incident, but at a whole society.
I’ve never been in a country like this, where people are so “me first!” crazy. There are no lines for buses, just a pushing hoarde. The other day in McDonalds, after I had already stood patiently in line for about 5 minutes, some woman suddenly pushed her way in from the side and placed her order right in front of me! I just stood there and let her. What am I going to do, change a society? It’s the same in banks and at ticket counters. I’ve been living with this every day for two years now.
But still, this incident was just too infuriating. I really believe that in the USA, there are few people who would quickly hop into the taxi instead of doing the civil thing and saying, “you were here first, you take it.” I think that in all the other countries I’ve been to — Japan, Mexico, Korea, Thailand — most people would do the same. What is it about this place that makes people so drivenly self-centered? Why does the concept of a “line” or of “waiting one’s turn” not seem to apply here?
I’ve heard people say China is not ready for democracy, and I think that idea has a lot of merit. China isn’t even ready for the concept of “wait your turn.”
Next week is the National Day holiday (October 1-7). That means no class, and most likely a free 2-day trip with other ZUCC foreign teachers to Zhou Shan (an island off the coast of Zhejiang Province) and Putuo Shan (another nearby island) October 2-3. I’m also probably meeting up with Black Man in China‘s Aaron Benjamin tomorrow, and Shutty.net‘s Erin Shutty next week. She might even go on the ZUCC trip too, with her co-worker “the Scot.” Later in the week I’ll probably make a trip to Shanghai. Fun stuff.
Speaking of Chinese, I’m still learning that thing. Last semester I made very little progress. I need to turn into a vocabulary acquisition machine. But how? Also, I’ve reached a dangerous level of fluency. It’s a level where I’m completely functional and conversational, and I don’t make many mistakes when I speak, but my Chinese is still by no means perfect. At this point it’s easy to be complacent and get slack in my studies, but I’m trying hard to rebel against that urge. I’ve decided to hire a Chinese student to tutor me (15rmb(US$2)/hour). My criteria were threefold:
- The tutor must be male. I’m tired of learning to speak like a girl. My Chinese is good enough now that personality comes through in my speech, and it doesn’t need to be some girly-boy personality.
- The tutor must be critical. I still make mistakes when I talk, but they’re mostly pretty minor. I’m not completely conscious of all of them, but I want them eliminated. It’s so easy to get praise, but so hard to get criticism where I need it.
- The tutor must be business-like, and must be a stranger. I want a business deal. Chinese students are all for huxiang xuexi (“you teach me English, I teach you Chinese”), but I really don’t want to spend my free time teaching more English. Plus, if I’m dissatisfied with a tutor and decide to discontinue, he’s only deprived of a small amount of income, not some rare, precious source of real English exposure.
On the way back from that class, I had an interesting taxi driver. We were doing the typical cab chat (where I’m from, how long I’ve been here, etc.), when he asked what I thought of China. I said I thought it was great, and that it’s much more developed than most Americans realize. He liked hearing this kind of talk about China, and I added, “just think where China would be today if not for the Cultural Revolution.” After that he got kind of quiet, and I wondered if I had said something wrong. I didn’t worry about it too much, though. I was pretty tired, and if I had hurt his feelings somehow and killed the conversation, so be it.
Well, that little silence was the calm before the storm. He wasn’t mad or upset, he just had a lot to say on the subject after collecting his thoughts. And I do mean a lot. He started by saying that it was wrong to think that the Cultural Revolution was a complete mistake, and that a lot of good came out of it. He also said that a lot of older people nowadays think of that time as one of China’s greatest times. I tried to point out that Chinese education suffered huge setbacks because of the Cultural Revolution, but by that time he had already launched into Mao’s great accomplishments and how he’s still considered the greatest man in Chinese history by most Chinese, etc. etc. It really was interesting to hear his point of view, and he’s been one of the more vocal but friendly advocants of that school of thought that I’ve talked with. The problem was that I really was quite tired, and his Mandarin was so bad that it took full concentration to understand it. So the experiential acquisition of an interesting perspective was reduced to me just nodding and now and then, mumbling “uh-huh,” looking out the window in a daze….
I’ve now got 14 hours of class per week at ZUCC, but that’s going to increase after the holiday next week. The school decided that the 14 hours the foreign languages department had decided to give us was not enough; we should be teaching the full amount that is specified in the contract (16), since there are still more students that “want to study” spoken English. Hmf. And I teach 3 hours Thursday nights now for my friend Tim at his school, now called The English Department.
This past Thursday night teaching was a lot of fun. All the classes at Tim’s school are very small, and my classes there have only had 3-4 people so far. The students are all young adults and speak good English. Last class, we covered a number of topics, and the subject of “superstition” came up a few times. One of the students informed me that the Chinese custom of wearing red every day on your ben ming nian (the anniversary of your Chinese zodiac birth year, which occurs once every 12 years), as well as the custom of planning weddings and other official events according to what are regarded as “lucky days” and “unlucky days” are both traditions, not superstitions. (“Superstitions” such as “religions” are officially frowned upon by the Chinese Communist Party, and yet so many practices somehow slip through the cracks….) Nice save. I don’t buy it. Chinese try to be slick like that.
On Saturday I had the best tan of my life. For a very short time. And only on my face.
Yes, it finally happened… I tried my hand at modeling. Many foreigners that stay in China are approached by agents at one time or another. I have been approached 3 or 4 times in the two years I’ve been living in Hangzhou, and they always seem very enthusiastic and promise great pay, but then they never call me for a job. It’s annoying and it wastes my time. The one time I really had an opportunity for a job, it was to be an underwear model for the pics on the packages. Thanks, but uhhh… no.
So recently the guy who wanted me to do the underwear shoot called me again and said he had a non-underwear job for me. Same pay as before — one day (8 hours) of shooting, 2000rmb (US$250). Not bad for a day’s “work.” And the clothes were just men’s casual wear. No underwear, nothing skimpy. In fact, a lot of them were coats. So I said OK, all the while half expecting it never to actually happen.
But it did happen. Both the time involved and the pay was exactly as agreed upon. So let me get to the interesting tidbits.
First, they didn’t call me until like 10pm the night before with all the details! This kind of made me nervous. Then when they called, they wanted me to bring a pair of jeans, a dark-colored turtleneck, a pair of dark-colored slacks, and a pair of black leather shoes. Hey, I thought they were supposed to supply the clothes! They also wanted me to meet them downtown at 7:20am! (groan…) I didn’t have black leather shoes, so I just took my dark brown Skechers. They’re almost nice-looking, and they’re leather at least. I ended up wearing my turtleneck for almost half of the shots!
Speaking of which, the supposed fashion sense of these people in charge of the shoot was very questionable. I mean, I’m no fashion guy. I don’t read GQ and I don’t wear Structure. I like to keep the complexity of my clothing coordination down to jeans and a T-shirt, if possible. And yet, I sensed something was very wrong with some of the outfits I was putting on. Colors and style just not matching. Nothing glaringly clashing, but just because all the colors are dark doesn’t mean they necessarily go, right? And they almost had me wearing a Hawaiin-type summer shirt with a heavy jacket over it. Weird.
A lot of the clothes didn’t even fit me. Some of the jackets would have been way too tight across my chest if I had zipped them up, and the sleeves were too short on quite a few. They shot them anyway. The jacket with the shortest sleeves was pretty much unusable because it was so obvious that it was too small for me, but then I hit on a good idea. If I hiked up one sleeve high enough, I could pull down the sleeve on the other side, and then just pose so as to hide the hiked up sleeve. It worked. They shot it.
So the actual modeling was kind of annoying, but not too bad. The time actually went by pretty fast. I just got really tired of untying and retying my shoes. I learned a lot of new Chinese verbs that I would otherwise have no need for: tilt your head back, swivel your shoulders, spread out your fingers, etc.
In the very beginning, they weren’t real happy with my expression. They kept telling me to relax. I was relaxed! I realized that the problem was that when my face relaxes, I look a little pissed off. So I figured out that “relaxed” requires a hint of a smile. They also liked to shoot me with my mouth agape, for some reason. I was hesitant to do it at first, since I used to be always told to keep my mouth shut when I wasn’t using it. Memories of my grandmother asking me, “whatcha doin’, catching flies?” came back to me. But after a little while I got a feel for what they liked, figured out how to do the “intense model gaze” (or my version at least)…
The place wasn’t overrun with hot model babes, in case you’re wondering. It was just me all morning, and then a girl from the Ukraine came in from Shanghai for the afternoon. When I started talking to her, I soon realized her Chinese was better than her English. That was kind of interesting.
The photo studio was located in an unlikely run-down-looking residential area, on the third floor of a warehouse-type building. It looked plenty professional (though small-scale) on the inside, though. You’d never guess.
So I’m looking forward to a good laugh when the catalog comes out. My family is gonna love it. Wilson tells me I should put a copy on my coffee table, so when I have guests over I can pick it up and say, “Let’s take a look at this catalog… Oh wait, that’s me in all these pics, what do you know!” Hehehe…
Definitely an interesting experience. And financially rewarding as well. Good thing they never figured out that I am no model…