I haven’t been writing anything over the Chinese October holiday. I’ve been coping with the loss of my friend Wilson.
It’s hard to believe that Wilson lived in China for only a little over a year, from 2002-2003, because his friendship meant so much and had such an impact on my own development. It wasn’t that he taught me any specific thing or gave me career advice (besides starting this blog). But his passion and his confidence were infectious, and they affected me. They affect me still. I think he is part of the reason that I’m still in China after all these years, running my own businesses, even though he left long ago.
I came across this very accurate quote about Wilson from my 2003 post:
While it’s true that some people come and go in our lives, sometimes you just know when friends have become permanent.
Last Sunday I bought a new computer. I’m about to move into my new place, and I suppose I’m still in the throes of consumerist passion. It just seemed like a good time to plunk down a neat stack of cash to buy the system I’ve been wanting for a while. I haven’t had a new computer since 2002, when I bought one in Hangzhou with Wilson. It was time.
Then this week I learn from a blog post that my friend John also bought a new computer. Only he bought it at The Xujiahui Best Buy. Best Buy?! Yes, Best Buy.
He reports it as a very satisfying experience in which he paid a reasonable amount and took home quality merchandise which he can be sure is the real thing.
My first reaction to reading this entry was, “Did I make a mistake?” I could have bought my new computer at Best Buy too. Instead, I bought it at the Metro City (美罗城) computer market in Xujiahui (very close to the Best Buy), from a shop I’ve bought parts from before and had no problems. I can’t be sure that the store is totally honest, but it seems decent. The shop is on the fourth floor, which is good, because the higher you go the fewer customers you get. So on the fourth floor, they’re more willing to cut you deals and to help you find the equipment you really want at other shops if they really don’t stock what you’re looking for.
Still, John seemed so content that he had gotten a good deal, and now I was left with doubt.
But then my mind came round again. How could he abandon the game? Buying a computer in China is not walking into an immaculate store manned by a grinning, competent staff. Buying a computer in China is to play the game, to be full of suspicion, to take risks, to engage in the battle of wits.
You have to carefully select your computer store. Don’t go with one on one of the first floors, and don’t go with one that is too loyal to certain brands. Don’t go with one that is too small or too big.
You have to choose your parts from their list. It’s all in Chinese, but they often know the English names of the brands… if the brands even have English names. The crux is knowing when it’s OK to get Chinese brands (key word: 国产), and when you have to insist on brands you know and trust. If you really have to have something that’s not on their list, you have to push them to go out and get it.
You have to know that there’s always wiggle room in the price, but also that they usually won’t even try to rip you off too much because the competition is right next door. So you can’t cut their price in half, but you can’t pay the initial price either. It helps to be familiar with hardware prices before you go. Shop around.
You have to inspect each and every piece of hardware they install to make sure you’re getting what you pay for, and then you have to keep your eyes on that hardware until it’s actually in the machine. It’s so easy to pull the ol’ switcheroo on the unwary customer, and most are clueless college students who’ll never know the difference anyway. Watching like a hawk keeps them honest. (I didn’t trust my store that much.)
You have to really badger them if you want a copy of English Windows XP. Regardless of what language you get, make sure it’s SP 2 they’re installing, because anything earlier will likely be crawling with viruses the moment it connects to the internet. Also make sure they partition your hard drive how you want it, because sometimes they do ridiculous things.
You have to make sure you’re getting the proper warranties and receipts. Stuff breaks, even when the shop is honest.
You have to get their business card with phone number. Make sure they know they’re going to be hearing from you if you have any problem whatsoever. It’s best to do this before they actually start assembling your new machine.
This is the game. It may seem a little sick, but I kind of like it, and the game might not be around for much longer. I think that megastores like Best Buy are going to destroy these sketchy computer markets in the long run, but until they do, they won’t have my money. I play the game.
Recently on ChinesePod we were developing a lesson that uses the expression 重色轻友. Literally it means something like “heavy sex light friendship.” The idea here is valuing one’s love interests over one’s friends. In translating this phrase, the immediate English translation that sprang to my mind was “hoes before bros,” a phrase I first heard a few years ago from Wilson (in an intellectual discussion on intersexual nomenclature, of course).
Obviously “hoes before bros” isn’t quite appropriate for our site. But really, it seems to be the only set prase for the phenomenon in English. Am I missing one?
Note 1: The word “ho” has always troubled me — and not just because it’s misogynistic in nature! As a shortened form of “whore,” “ho” just doesn’t look right to me. And is the plural “hoes” (which invites confusion with gardening tools) or “hos”? There are precedents for both.
Note 2: Another common example of the 重X轻Y pattern is 重男轻女, which refers to the cultural phenomenon of valuing males over females. Do you know any others?
Jamie’s recent post outlined his history with China. It was a history which crossed mine. The most significant common experience was had in a college in Hangzhou we call ZUCC. (If you’re American, you say Z-U-C-C, kind of like F-B-I. If you’re Aussie or kiwi, you say “Zook,” rhyming with it “book.” I have always wondered about that little cultural linguistic difference.)
In chronicling my three years at ZUCC, I aim to do three things:
Create an easy reference for myself, since I’m very forgetful.
Provide a reference for friends and family with regards to ZUCC friends.
Provide an idea of what kind of salary you might expect. (Yes, I’m going to disclose how much I was paid for each semester I worked at ZUCC.)
As Micah mentions, there’s definitely a slant to the people who were chosen for the portraits and profiles. To me, the slant seemed a lot like, “the Chinese are no longer the backwards Communists you think they are,” and since there are still people with this misperception, it’s good to keep getting that message out. Whatever the message, and however imperfect, I found the collection really entertaining.
Browsing the photos, it also made me recall that back in the day I once discussed doing something similar with Wilson. Probably out of laziness, I never did. But I’m sure there are otherpeople with nice cameras that could do just as good a job as the NY Times if they wanted to.
Over the years, one of the most popular features on Sinosplice has been the Junk Food Review that Wilson and I did at ZUCC in 2002. There have been calls for an encore, but since Wilson went back to San Francisco it’s been a little hard to coordinate. Well, the trip to Taipei was a perfect opportunity. Here it is:
The new design is sort of an experimental “comic book feel” I came up with. The layout looks better under non-IE browsers because stupid IE doesn’t support the “position: fixed” CSS declaration. Enjoy, and feedback is welcome.
“CS” is the abbreviation Chinese teenagers use for Counter Strike (rather than the Chinese name 反恐精英), the world’s most popular FPS network computer game. When I taught college English at ZUCC in Hangzhou, there were quite a few boys in my classes that were crazy about the game and devoted almost all their free time to playing it in internet cafes. They even got Wilson (who was teaching there then) to play them.
Tian has a funny post (with pictures!) about the Chinese military using CS as training. Check it out.
For this month of April, Wilson has been visiting me, staying at my place. As with any close friend, he’s more than just fun to hang out with; he provides me with new ideas to think over. He inspires me. Our conversations cover a broad range of topics, but they usually center on China. On us, and why we’re here. And on where all this is going.
After staying in Hangzhou, China for a year and a half, Wilson returned to an America he has discovered he’s pretty unsatisfied with. There’s one sentence he keeps repeating. America is culturally bankrupt.
In our many discussions, when Wilson refers to characteristics of life in the States, I can’t help but think that what he really means is life in California. California has a distinct subculture of its own, one that I associate especially closely with materialism and narcissism. But then, I’ve never really spent any time in California, and to be honest, I haven’t spent enough time in the United States in the past four years to be any real authority on current cultural trends. Regardless, one thing is clear: the lives we imagine ourselves living back in the United States right now are unfulfilling.
If it’s merely materialism we’re shunning, however, you’d think that Shanghai would be the last place either of us would want to settle. The scramble for wealth in all its forms here is nauseatingly apparent. But we don’t feel such a steely grip on our souls here. Why?
You could say that living in China has been sort of an “out of culture experience.” We have left our cultural bodies back home to float over here for a look. The result is that not only do we gain an outsider’s perspective on what’s going on in China, but we can view much more objectively what’s going on back home, and how we’re enveloped in it.
Change is unavoidable in any society. In China, it’s coming in a raging torrent, but we actually feel like we can be part of what’s directing the flow. That’s exciting. In the United States, the change feels much more sluggish, but it nevertheless seems to sweep us all away along with it, like drowning rats.
Living outside of one’s home culture just feels empowering to us. We feel much more capable of rejecting the values with which we disagree, both those from back home as well as those from China.
In spite of all these feelings, we can’t deny that it is American culture that shaped us. And we’re grateful for that. But there comes a time when you have to gather what you’ve gained and spread your wings. I like where I’ve come to rest. Like I said, the view is great.
NOTE: Those that like reading about cultural issues regarding Americans and Chinese should definitely take a look at an excellent new blog called Zai Mei Guo. It deals especially with stereotypes.
Last night Russell, Greg, John B, and I took the two new Aussies to West Lake. West Lake’s Nanxian (南线) area, newly renovated, looks very nice at night. If you’ve been to West Lake before but not recently, you have no idea what you’re missing. The newly renovated section, Xixian (西线), is opening for the National Day vacation throngs, and it’s also supposed to be very nice, in the old school traditional Chinese style. I’ll go check it out after the tourist crowds depart and put some pictures up (something I haven’t done in quite a long time, as Wilson kindly pointed out to me).
After checking out West Lake at night, we headed over to a very cheap bar I know of. The name is 西部小镇; Old West Town is their translation. There’s a cowboy hat on the sign. It’s in a prime location, in a string of little bars right next to West Lake. It’s not a great bar. It’s very loud, and the music is always bad. The bar serves little more than beer, despite the plethora of Western liquors on display. The bartender’s job is basically to pull out more beers and open them. The one saving grace of this bar is its beer special: 3 West Lake beers for 10rmb ($1.25). West Lake Beer is not the greatest beer in the world, but it’s always so cheap that in Hangzhou I find myself drinking it more than any other beer. Apparently it’s owned by Asahi now.
So we did what so many Chinese people do in bars — drink and play a dice game called chui niu (吹牛). It’s this game where everyone has a cup of 5 dice, and you have to estimate how many of a given number there are out there, under everyone’s cups. Ones are wild. Bluffing is key. It’s a fun game, but not quite fun enough to warrant its popularity in China, in my opinion. Anyway, it was good for the new Aussies, Ben and Simonne, because we played it in Chinese and they got their numbers down (kinda). We left a little while after the bar ran out of cold beers.
On the way to West Lake, I was given this flyer:
> Restaurant Bar Club
Nothing Comes from Nothing.
Nothing comes from Nothing.
> In celebration Z Bar begins a new chapter, in a new city
that mix our minds and drinks our souls.
We stamped the ground and strung the lights to launch this new theme Restaurant-Bar-Club of modern artistry.
Experience the sight, the sound, the taste,
the energy —
We welcome you to experience our OPEN DOORS
I’ll be in Australia for the next two weeks, so I won’t be updating for that time. Australia’s a big country, so I won’t try for more than a few places of interest in Queensland. For the time I’m in Brisbane, I’ll be staying with Ben, a friend and former ZUCC teacher. Wilson is meeting me at the Brisbane airport. He’s already been in Sydney for over a week.
In the meantime, you may want to check out some of the new blogs in the China Blog List. Brad F’s new blog kind of reminds me of mine. I especially like his “answers” entry.
When I get back to Hangzhou, I’ll be just teaching about 15 hours a week and hanging out, hopefully studying some Chinese in preparation for fulltime Chinese class come fall. Derrick will also be here in Hangzhou for about a month. I might be able to make it to Beijing this August, and possibly to the wedding in Kyoto of the oldest son of my Japanese homestay family. If I do that, it’ll be a boat ride from Shanghai to Osaka. Could be cool. At the end of August I’ll be busy helping the new additions to the ZUCC foreign teacher crew get settled. It’s gonna be a great new semester.
OK, I need to sleep. I leave Hangzhou for Pudong Airport at 7:30am…
For many complicated reasons that it’s best to leave him to explain, Wilson recently decided to go back to California and stay there for the rest of the year. He might come back in 2004. Who knows. He drove off today (Monday) at 9:30am in a taxi along with all the material possessions from China that he wanted to keep.
Even though he originally planned on staying only one year and he’s already finishing up his third semester, I didn’t think Wilson would really leave China. His presence has drastically changed my life here, and it’s hard to accept that that era is suddenly coming to an end. Reflecting upon this, I realize that Wilson’s presence clearly delineates the three parts of my stay in China:
1. The Self-Study Era (Pre-Wilson) (Aug 2000 – Feb 2002)
– Lived with Siyuan off campus for most of it, taught full-time
– My life was characterized by intense self-study of Chinese and Chinese practice
– Rapid progress in Chinese
– Not too much dating, partying, drinking, or associating with other foreigners
– Very few foreign teachers at ZUCC; no real “community” to speak of
2. The Golden Era (Wilson) (Feb 2002 – May 2003)
– Lived alone on campus, taught full-time
– Chinese study experienced a slow-down, socializing increased
– Progress in Chinese slowed
– More dating, partying, drinking, socializing with foreigners
– The foreign teacher community at ZUCC was really born and blossomed
– SARS marked its end
3. The Formal Study Era (Post-Wilson) (May 2003 – June 2004?)
– Expect to live alone on campus, teaching part-time
– Will be studying Chinese full-time as a foreign student at Zhejiang University
– I expect another boost in Chinese progress, vaulting well into “advanced Chinese”
– Dating, partying, drinking, and socializing with foreigners will certainly continue, but I’ll be busier
– The foreign teacher community will continue to rock on, but it will surely never be the same without Wilson’s socially catalytic presence
Certainly, Wilson’s effect on my life here was great, but it wasn’t strictly cause-effect. I didn’t study less or party more solely because Wilson was here; I put in a year and a half of hard study, and I was ready to coast for a little while on the fruits of my labor. This just happened to coincide with Wilson’s arrival. And it wasn’t that Wilson was the party animal — the sole reason the social scene picked up here. Sure, he’s a very social guy and added tremendously to the atmosphere, but when a group of friends gets along so well, the partying tends to follow naturally. Of course, Wilson was right in the middle of it, keeping it all flowing to the beat of his SF Deep House tracks.
I’m helping Wilson distribute to friends some of the stuff he couldn’t take with him. After he left, I went down to start clearing some of that stuff out. It was strange, seeing that place almost empty, when just a week ago it was oozing life and personality, exuding Wilson. It’s been more than two hours since the taxi drove off, but it hasn’t hit me that he’s gone. I expect it’ll sink in before the week is up.
ZUCC will not be the same. I guess I’d be more depressed if I weren’t sure if I’d ever see him again, but we’re meeting up in Brisbane, Australia next month. Besides, while it’s true that some people come and go in our lives, sometimes you just know when friends have become permanent.
In the past I have done a little introductory mug shot page for the English-teaching foreign teachers here at ZUCC. This semester Wilson did it. It’s hosted on his site, but since his site is blocked in China and mine isn’t, it’s also mirrored on my site. Check it out! I’m sure I’ll be mentioning these people on here in the future.
During his time here, Wilson has gotten really imaginative with his photography and web design. I envy his creative eye, his Photoshop skills, his awesome camera. Even if these talents don’t rub off on me, though, at least I can enjoy his results. Don’t miss: Jade Emperor’s Hill [mirrored], Viewing Fish at Flower Pond [mirrored].
I mentioned recently that I’ll be on TV in China March 22nd. Being on TV is a pretty common occurrence for foreigners living in China. Frequent readers/commenters of this blog will be familiar with my friend Ray. He was on TV in Shanghai some months ago when he still worked there. They did a bit of a bio on him. Anyway, he sent me some vidcaps of his 10 minutes of glory, and I think they’re pretty funny, so I’m sharing them. I don’t think he’ll mind everyone having a look at his studly countenance. If he ever put up a site of his own, I’m sure he’d put these pics up.
“So I want to write a book, right? …”
(That’s mantou, a kind of Chinese bun.)
What a fascinating lesson, eh? The students are riveted!
Speaking of commenters on Sinosplice, “Prince Roy,” a rather new regular commenter here, now has his own blog too. Check it.
So there’s been some random stuff going on that I thought I’d fill you guys in on.
1. People are abandoning the school, like rats from a sinking ship. A college campus is a lonely place to be during the holidays. Wilson left early Tuesday. Helene leaves Thursday. Students finished exams today, and are heading for home en masse. And I will join the crowd Friday as I head to Shanghai to hang out with Ray before he leaves China for good (yes, the same Ray that leaves all the naughty comments). Saturday morning I head to Yunnan by plane. Yes, it’s time for my winter vacation. I’ll be there for 2-3 weeks, so I can’t say for sure how much I’ll be updating while there, but that’s the beauty of Blogger — I’ll be able to write updates anywhere with internet cafes, and China is already infested.
2. I know many of you are closely following my toilet situation, eagerly awaiting updates. So let me fill you in. I finally got through to them that they needed to do more than show up at my place with a mop whenever my toilet would not unclog even after 20-30 minutes of straight heavy-duty plunging with my plunger. (How they unclog a toilet with a mop is something I really don’t understand… Another aspect of Chinese mysticism, I guess.) They agreed to actually pull up the bowl and have a look-see. I had to wait another day for that, for the right guy to come, of course. Anyway, he and his friend showed up the next day with a mallet and a chisel. Great. Then they got to work destroying the cement seal around the base of the toilet. After that they pulled that bad boy up. (Fortunately there was no messy surprise waiting for them.) After the guy inspected the bottom of the toilet bowl and the hole in the bathroom floor for a while, he made the declaration I had been dreading: “mei you wenti” — “there’s no problem here.” NO PROBLEM?! Then why doesn’t my toilet work?! Fortunately, this guy was smart, and he made a few measurements after his initial proclamation. You know how most toilets have a water tank in the back of the toilet? Mine is no exception. But that tank in back limits how close to the wall the bowl can be placed. It just so happens that the hole in the floor of the bathroom is rather close to the wall as well. Because of these designs, the hole in the bottom of the bowl was not matching up right with the hole in the floor. The hole in the bottom of the bowl was too far forward. There was only like 25% overlap instead of the 100% it should be (refer to diagram at right). BIG PROBLEM. Major flow obstruction. The guy was surprised I’d managed to use it as long as I have. So they decided that they would come replace it the next day. In the meantime I couldn’t use my toilet, which was still uprooted. GREAT.
So, after 24 hours of no toilet (that really is an inconvenience!), they came back this morning and mucked around in my bathroom some more. I don’t know what they were doing for over an hour, because they simply came to the conclusion they had before: you definitely need a whole new toilet bowl unit. Unfortunately, it’s very close to the Chinese New Year, so we can’t do it right away. You’ll have to wait until next year. What about my toilet?! Human beings need to use a toilet! Oh, no problem, they’d re-cement it down so I could keep using it until they come next year to replace it. I’ll have to wait another 24 hours to actually use it of course, because the cement needs time to dry. Grrrrreeeeaat…
3. There are 3 new teachers coming here. Two guys and a girl. All under 30, I think. Should be fun.
4. I’ve noticed that Chinese women seem to think that brown and purple match. Seriously. I see this combination every day. So who’s not in the know — me or them? As I’ve said before, I’m not exactly a fashion authority. But it seems fishy to me…
The class I teach here in China is Spoken English. I am here this term to improve the spoken English of close to 300 Chinese college students. How does one accomplish that? Well, by making them talk (harder than you think). There are many ways to do this, of course, but at least something done in class has to result in grades given out, which can be very limiting. My semester plan centers around discussions. I won’t bore you with all the details at this moment, but the last discussion we had in class this semester was about sex. It may be regular fare in Wilson’s classes, but it’s the first time I’ve done something like that. After all, this is China.
The results were extremely educational — all around — and a resounding success, if I do say so myself.
A crucial element in my classes is student involvement and initiative, and this concept extends to the discussions. While I pick the topics, the students lead the discussions and think of the discussion questions themselves. I generally just sow a few seeds to give them ideas, and they take it from there. This method can have great results.
So what happened when the topic of SEX was unleashed in the classroom? Reactions spanned the whole spectrum, ranging from the nervous fidgets of students who were clearly uncomfortable with the topic and kind of wished it would go away to the antics of students who embraced the topic with gusto and took it much further than I expected.
It all begins with the questions. Some students were clearly uncomfortable with the topic, so I told them they were free to interpret the topic how they wanted — they could talk about AIDS issues, sex education issues, or gay rights issues rather than getting down and dirty with it. One guy was so uncomfortable with the whole thing that he interpreted “sex” to mean “gender,” and all his questions were lame gender-related questions (and yes, I admit that there are good gender-related questions, but he didn’t come up with any). The squeamish were definitely in the minority, however, which made me feel that I wasn’t doing the wrong thing. I was further removed from any blame by the fact that the students were the ones that actually came up with all the questions. I merely guided and moderated.
Anyway, there were some interesting questions. The few discussion leaders who dared ask who in the group had had sex before got no replies. The message was clear: making it too personal was not OK. In the beginning, “do you think sex before marriage is OK?” was one of the more risque questions that got answers (and yes, some students — both male and female — were publicly answering in the affirmative to that question). One question I heard a boy pose intensely to several girls had me really laughing: “All people have sexual desire. Do you??” Based on his logic, the girls couldn’t answer no, and they didn’t disagree anyway, but they still didn’t want to admit it. The students taught me what Confucius had to say on this matter: “食色性也” (shi se xing ye) — “Sex is part of human nature.” Plenty of students got into how they would react if they learned that a friend was gay. Toward the end of the discussion hour, I was shocked to hear that one group had even ventured into the subject of bestiality! Yes, Chinese students discussing bestiality in English in my classroom. Gotta love this job. They did it on their own, I swear!
Perhaps what made the discussion such a success was bringing role play into it. I gave people roles, such as “the promiscuous American” and “Mao Zedong.” I encouraged them to be outrageous by giving hypothetical examples of my own. “I’m a promiscuous American, and I think young people should be having sex every day with multiple partners” got uproarious laughter, and, incredibly, it actually spawned more of the same. I told my students that lying in a discussion is fine as long as they’re doing it in English. Evidently that was enough to get them to them to open up.
Towards the end of class, each group of students seemed much more at ease with the topic, and they were giving straight answers if I questioned them. One group of students was discussing sex among college students. “You mean a lot of college students are having sex in China?” I asked, feigning bewilderment. “Of course!” my student responded. “It’s an open secret.” I love that line, because it beautifully captures a truth about Chinese society in all its paradoxical glory. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I was so impressed that my student had accomplished it, in English no less.
So I was pleased with how that class went. A week, later, though, I was giving oral quizzes on discussion vocabulary we had covered in class. One of them was the term “gay,” intended for the sex discussion. I guess maybe the students got a little too comfortable in class — one of my students, given the word “gay” to make a sentence, promptly replied with, “John and Wilson are gay.”
Hmmm… It seems to me there was a time when the teachings of Confucius were a little more teacher-friendly….
It was Paco who met me at the airport. Why Paco, and not my family? Well, as I mentioned earlier, part of this story is “shrouded in mystery.” Or, perhaps more accurately, a web of deceit. Let me explain.
I got the idea last summer to make a surprise visit home for Christmas 2002. When the Fall 2002 semester began, I asked for those 2 weeks off plenty early. It was OK’ed, but I had to make up the classes or otherwise arrange for them to be taught. Wilson and I came up with a plan to combine our classes and give a multimedia presentation (6 Friends episodes). I prepared the instructional material for the multimedia classes with PowerPoint, so it was no extra work for Wilson. I get to go home, my students get a fun class, no one has extra classes to teach or make up. Perfect.
As the departure date drew nearer and nearer, I realized that there was a flaw in my plan. If my coming was a surprise, my family would send any gifts for me to China, and I wouldn’t see them until well into 2003. Or maybe they would postpone the whole gift-giving thing until they knew they would see me again. In either scenario, I don’t get presents (no good!), and they might feel bad, since I was returning home gift-laden. Enter my scheming mind.
I contacted my friend Illy and asked for her assistance. I had a part of the plan. She fleshed it out nicely. My family could not help but be hoodwinked by our elegant web of deceit!
Illy and I used to work together at UF’s English Language Institute, where we met many a foreign student. It was during that time that Illy and I became good friends. My parents had met Illy, and they like her a lot.
The Plan. Illy called up my mom and told her that she had recently gotten back in touch with “George,” a mutual ex-ELI student friend of Illy’s and mine. Apparently George graduated from the ELI long ago, and he recently finished up his Masters in the States. It just so happens that George is Chinese, and is now ready to go home, just before Christmas. It also just so happens that George has relatives in the Tampa area, whom he wants to visit before flying home out of Tampa. Illy has long been the chauffer of poor car-less ELI and ex-ELI students, and so it’s only natural that Illy would drive George to Tampa and take him to the airport. What a wonderful coincidence, though, Illy told my mom — Illy and George could stop by on December 22nd or 23rd and visit, as well as pick up any gifts my family might want to send to me in China. Wonderful.
George is, of course, a fictional character. Illy would be taking me home to surprise my parents. Enter complications.
First I had problems with my flight. It was scheduled for Saturday night (and Illy made plans with my parents), but then it was cancelled (grrrrr!) and rescheduled for Sunday evening. Illy and George rescheduled accordingly.
During all this I learned my good friend Paco was going to be visiting from Harvard Law School. He was happy to be in on it. Originally Dan was going to pick me up from the airport, but the switch to Sunday made it impossible for him. I thought maybe Illy could do it, but during that period I was having trouble getting in touch with Illy, so Paco became my ride from the airport.
The initial surprise was on my parents. Amy and Grace weren’t home Sunday night. I originally planned to hide in Illy’s trunk, all covered up except for my face, then have Illy knock on the door and say that she needed help bringing in some gifts she had bought for them from me. We could put a gift-wrapped box lid on my face, and when they picked it up, SURPRISE! The thing is, Illy’s trunk was too small for me. I’m not small. But the back seats in her car fold down, connecting the backseat space with the trunk. So what I did was have my torso in the trunk, and my legs folded in the back seat.
Illy ended up telling my parents that she brought a heavy “piano accessory” for them, and that she needed both of them to help get it out of the trunk. (She couldn’t say something like car trouble, because then only my dad would have come outside.) My dad got a little suspicious. He had also just called my room in Hangzhou and gotten no answer. He was looking around outside for surprises. The trunk threw him off guard, though, because it was clearly too small to hold me, and the covered up form in the trunk was only big enough to be half of me. They couldn’t see how the trunk connected with the backseat space. So they were both very surprised and happy to see me when the sheet came off. Laughter all around. (I refuse to believe that my dad’s suspicion ran very deep — come on! I was in China for the past 2 Christmases. He had no basis for strong suspicion.)
Paco was hiding in the front seat, and when the surprise was sprung on my parents in all its glory, he leaped out and snapped a few shots. “Oh, hi George!” my mom said to him. (Thanks, Paco!)
The next surprise came for Amy. She has her own apartment, but she came home Monday night. She had stored some of her stuff in my “empty” room, and when she came home, my dad sent her back there to clear some more of her things out. I was waiting behind the door, and sneaked up behind her in the dim room. When she turned around I was just standing there. It freaked the hell out of her! First she was frightened, and then overwhelmed with joy. Her face went from terror to delight over the span of a second or two. It was hilarious. She was even crying. Best reaction ever. No hard feelings or anything.
Grace’s flight came in from Germany the next night (Christmas Eve). As usual, her flight was delayed (this always happens to her — we were pretty annoyed that she had to come in on Christmas Eve). So Amy and my parents were standing in a highly visible spot to greet her and her friend Alex. I was sitting down not far away, “reading” a newspaper. After their little reunion, I ambled over to the group, still holding up the newspaper. I “bumped” into her, and acted all shocked to see her. She was pretty shocked herself. It was funny, but not anywhere near Amy funny.
So that’s the story. I had a great Christmas with my family. A lot of my friends are in town (my visit isn’t a surprise to them), and it’s great to see them too. I am sooo happy to escape Hangzhou’s cold and wet winter for even 2 weeks. It’s sunny here almost all the time, and I wore short sleeves on Christmas. And then there’s the eggnog and the food… but I think I’ll stop here.
Not long ago, a page on Bokane.org reminded me of a question that’s been in the back of my mind and close to my heart for over two years now. It’s a question that I started asking in 1997, and which has become especially persistent over the past two years. Now it’s in the forefront again, running amuck and causing havoc. Oh, it’s not doing any real damage, of course. It’s tantalizing. Like the puppy in the short box, no matter how many times you push it back, it just keeps emerging. And though you may lose patience with it, it remains interesting. But what can you do other than push it back? You’ve got somewhere to go. It isn’t a part of your itinerary. Yet it won’t be ignored. And its teeth, while mostly harmless, can hurt.
I asked Wilson recently, “During all this time you’re spending in China, are you becoming more and more yourself, or more and more someone else?” I tend to hate those kinds of questions, because the person asking them usually just seems smug that they’ve thought up an annoying meaningless question to irritate someone else’s intellect with. But this time I cared about the question, and I cared about the answer. I really wanted to know what was happening with Wilson, and what he perceived of it. And, of course, whatever mysterious forces there are that have been messing with Wilson’s identity for almost a year have been doing the same to me for over two years. It was personal.
Wilson said he’s becoming more and more someone else. Someone he likes. Someone with purpose and drive.
And me? I know I’m different, but I’m not even sure I know how I’ve changed. What’s scarier is the prospect of how much change there is that I don’t recognize.
Who am I now? Is this a result of my decision to come to China, or a result of being in China?
Am I really so different?
OK, I just don’t know when to quit. (Or when to sleep.)
I have added “the least technologically advanced message board ever” to the bottom of the China Blogs page. I’m hoping that people who use my China blogs links page will provide feedback on recent posts and stuff for other users. Check it.
Also, Wilson took a few picks of our stroll around West Lake (and other “adventures”) yesterday afternoon. He made a nice little photo album. Includes some excellent shots of mouth-watering Chinese Muslim noodles. Take a look.
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.”