I don’t want to get stuck on the whole taxi thing, but I’ve got another little story. And it begins with me riding in a taxi. This time the driver was a woman.
Female taxi drivers are not so common. This driver, however, was top-notch. I mean that in the Chinese sense. When she takes you somewhere, she takes you in a hurry. That means not only serious speed, but also lots of passing and swerving — above all, not stopping. We saw three accidents on the way back to my school. Fortunately we weren’t involved in any.
We chatted on the way to East Zhou Shan Road. We passed a billboard which featured a woman who I thought was the famous Chinese Olympic diver Fu Mingxia. She thought it was too, at first, but then decided it wasn’t. We then started talking about the likelihood of Fu Mingxia participating in the next Olympics. My driver thought it pretty unlikely, since the pretty star is now married to a 50-something rich Hong Kong big shot. A child is probably in her near future, opined my driver. And after having a kid, your body will never be the same, she assured me. She went on to talk about her own 6-year-old son, and how he looooves to eat KFC.
We were close to the home stretch — the turn to East Zhou Shan Road was just ahead. Bearing down on us fast from the opposite direction was a big 4WD police vehicle. My driver made a bold turn directly into the path of the police car, forcing it to brake fast. It really was quite close. As we squeezed through the opening, I must have let out a gasp. Turning to me, she offered this explanation: “I’m trying to earn money here. They’re not doing anything — they can take their time.”
The police, of course, just continued on their way, not taking any more notice of the offending taxi than was required to avoid a collision. This is China.
Not long ago I got pissed off about a little episode involving a Chinese man and a taxi and I made a little entry about it.
John B. suggested in his e-mail that “the ‘me first’ attitude comes from simple competition for resources. With 1.2 billion other folks to compete with to get everything, I guess you learn to take any opportunity you can get.”
That explanation makes sense, and I might accept it, were it not for my experiences in Japan. China may have the world’s largest population, but the population density of Japan is, for the most part, higher. I can’t quote any statistics on this, but I’ve lived extensively in both places now, and I can assure you that’s the case. So in Japan there should be higher competition for resources.
You might answer that China is poorer, whereas Japan is now a land of plenty (despite the current economic slump), which curbs the “me first” competitive drive in Japan. Recall, though, that after WWII Japan was a third world nation. China may be newer to modernity, but the pre-WWII generation is still around in Japan as well. Both societies have undergone monumental changes in the past 50 years, but China has come out of it seeming much less civil. Why?
My adult Chinese students at the English Department recently offered a compelling explanation. Since they are still young themselves, the students drew mainly upon anecdotes from their parents and grandparents to offer this explanation.
Before Communist China, China was at war. War with Japan, civil war, war with Western imperialism. It was chaos. Out of this chaos came Communist China. Early Communist China was actually Communist. It was communal. People cooperated. People shared. As the U.S. quaked in fear and rage at the global spread of Communism, Chinese people felt a national spirit of goodwill and just plain human goodness that surpassed anything that the nation had experienced in a long, long time. You might dismiss such warm fuzzy good feeling descriptions of early Communist China as propaganda, but I’ve heard a lot of stories. Regardless of certain realities (e.g. the failure of efforts such as the Great Leap Forward*), a lot of Chinese people felt really good. It was a golden time.
That era was followed by the Cultural Revolution*, of course. Cooperation, goodwill, and social progress were replaced by backstabbing, malice, and social disintegration as co-workers, friends, and even family members betrayed each other in the madness of the times. All sense of brotherhood was obliterated by the absolute necessity to look out for number one. One’s reputation, livelihood, or possibly even life depended on it.
The effects of the Cultural Revolution were profound. They linger. Furthermore, Capitalism has long since had its foot in the door, and the Party is looking the other way as the entire leg sexily slides its way in. I’m thinking Capitalist consumerism probably doesn’t help the situation either, right?
And so jerks steal my taxi in China.
They’re still not excused.
* This site on Chinese history, maintained by the Chaos Group at the University of Maryland, is cool because it contains the Chinese (traditional characters) for a lot of the important names and events mentioned.
A while back I listed a bunch of requirements for the tutor I was looking for. Well, with the help of someone in the Foreign Language Department, I have found him. He’s an awesome tutor. He’s critical. He tells me when my pronunciation is a little off, he tells me how it’s off, and he tells me how, phonologically, to correct it. He speaks to me all in Chinese. He speaks fast, and with good vocab. He’s well-read, and knows Chinese history well. He speaks standard Mandarin. He brings his own materials and demands that I learn this or that. It’s great to have a tutor with definite ideas of what I should be learning. He brings me 12 new chengyu (Chinese idioms) to study every class. He requires me to read from a standard Mandarin pronunciation class textbook, and criticizes my pronunciation, and then makes me read again, and again, and again… He also records his own readings onto my computer so that I can practice on my own for the next class.
After each two-hour session, I am exhausted. He’s a good teacher. I can feel the now unfamiliar soreness of progress once again.
Last Thursday I had my advanced English discussion class at the English Department. Those students are just great. Their English is so good, and the people just have such personality. I thought college students were great for those reasons, but these adult students take it to a whole new level.
Last week we did the “River Romance Story” (for lack of a better name), which I’ve already made famous at this school. It’s pretty famous already anyway, so I’m kind of afraid to use it, always expecting my students to be familiar with it already. But last Thursday none of my students were. Good.
Before I give an account of the discussion, I should tell the story. Here goes.
Long, long ago, in the time of kings and queens, there lived a Man and a Lady, deeply in love. It was true love. The Man was a high-ranking servant of the king, often sent off to new posts to solve problems. Where the Man went to work, the Lady followed. Then the Man was assigned to a faroff village that was only reachable by way of a treacherous river. On the river, a storm suddenly sprang up. The boat was run into rocks, and everyone thrown overboard. The Man was the only passenger that could swim, and he managed to save himself, all the while looking fervently for the Lady. He couldn’t find her. Not a single body turned up; all were lost in the swift current. After searching for days, grief-stricken, the Man was forced to accept the unimagniable. The Lady was gone. With heavy heart, he headed off to the village to fulfill his post.
As fate would have it, however, the Lady didn’t die. She was rescued by an inhabitant on the other side of the river and nursed back to health over a series of weeks from the brink of death. As soon as she could walk, she set about trying to get back to the Man. However, the river was uncrossable. There was no bridge. There was only one way of crossing: by way of the Boatman. He was the only one with enough skill to ferry people from one side to the other. He charged 10 gold pieces each way for his service.
By the time the Lady reached the Boatman, he had long since heard of her. When she asked his price, he told her 100 gold pieces. She had only 10. No matter how she begged and pleaded, he would not bring the price down or even let her pay after crossing and finding the Man. It was 100 or nothing.
The Lady soon met another man, however, named Sam. Sam was a landowner with a good deal off money, but he was a bit of a womanizer. The Lady was beautiful, and he took to her immediately. She made it clear that she wished only to return to her Man, though. Magnanimous man that he was, Sam said he could help her — on one condition. The Lady must sleep with Sam for a night.
The Lady was outraged at this request, and stormed off. She soon sank into despair, however, and quickly came to the conclusion that her life there, on the wrong side of the river was meaningless, and there was only one way out. She would sleep with Sam.
So the Lady slept with Sam. She received 100 gold pieces. She paid the Boatman and crossed the river. She made her way into the village and found the Man. They were reunited at last, and their joy was boundless. Yet, at the back of the woman’s heart gnawed the question: should I tell him? She decided to leave it be for the time being.
After arriving, the Lady met the Man’s new Friend, who also worked in the village. This Friend left the next day for the other side of the river to do business. His business was with Sam, and Sam liked to talk. He had a tendency to brag about his womanizing exploits, but he was known to always tell the truth. Sam told the Friend about his night with the Lady.
The Friend was now in a hard position. Should he tell the Man? He didn’t know all the circumstances of the incident in question, but he could be sure what Sam said was the truth. Finally, he decided that the Man should know the truth, and told him.
The Man was angered by this information, calling the Friend a liar. Still, doubt overtook him, and he brought the “outrageous rumor” up to the Lady. She immediately burst into tears, admitting it was the truth.
The Man was in total shock. Never had he felt so betrayed. He had vowed never to love again when he lost the Lady, but how could he forgive this? In the end, he couldn’t. He parted ways with the Lady.
They never saw each other again.
So that’s the story. The task is then to rank the people, 1-5, from “best” to “worst.” Then discuss. This always yields great discussion. I love it.
After discussing that, you can reveal what each person is supposed to symbolize: Lady – Love, Boatman – Business, Friend – Friendship, Sam – Sex, Man – Morality. Then we discuss whether the activity actually reveals our priorities in life.
Anyway, last Thursday my class got so into this discussion. It was incredible. They were funny, too — when I mentioned in the beginning how in love the Man and Lady were, one of my students said, “what’s the use?” Later, when they were guessing what each character symbolizes, this same girl said the Lady represents weakness! Funny stuff.
Anyway, we had a long discussion on morality. This example really brings out the differences and similarities between Western and Eastern morality. Eastern is much more relativistic. I taught them phrases from Western thought like, “the truth will set you free,” “the ends doesn’t justify the means,” and “ignorance is bliss.”
Chinese girls seem to love to say the Lady is the best (and even that she did nothing wrong), and the Man is the worst for not forgiving the Lady. Some of them also say the Boatman is worse than Sam, because the whole mess was started by him, even if he was ignorant of the drama he set in motion.
So I thought of all kinds of hypothetical situations to test their stances. Unsurprisingly, the girls became quite similar to the Man when I posed the situation of their husband sleeping with his female boss to get a promotion and provide better for his family (which was struggling to make ends meet and had no hope of properly educating the child).
What blew my mind, though, was two girls’ answer to this question: “Would you rather have a husband who was completely faithful to you and made you happy, or a husband who was not faithful, but you didn’t know about it, and so were still happy?” The answer? “Either one is fine, as long as I never find out he’s cheating.” Either one is fine! Incredible.
That class was a blast. I learned so much. It’s classes like that that remind me how much I’m still learning here, and how my life is totally on track.
This past week I also started a third teaching job. It’s for a large department store, only teaching three times, for two hours each time. It pays very well. My job is to provide training for some of the department store employees so that they can do a little job-related communication with foreigners when necessary. I was also asked to give a short lecture, in Chinese, on “how not to offend foreigners.” My first lecture in Chinese. Awesome. I was excited.
The lecture went pretty well. I held their interest with humor well, and they learned a lot. Here’s what they learned:
1. Foreigners value hygiene highly. Do not cough, yawn, or sneeze without covering appropriate orifices. Don’t spit. Don’t pick your nose or ear in public. Don’t scratch. Don’t fart. Don’t have a runny nose (or at least don’t blow a snot rocket!).
2. Be careful with questions. Don’t ask age or salary. Don’t assume people are American or any nationality.
3. Be careful in your actions. Don’t fidget. Don’t yell for any reason. Be patient. Smile. Never litter, anywhere.
4. When eating… Eat slowly, with small bites. There should be no noises coming from your mouth. Sit up straight, never hunch. Put one hand on your lap, with your napkin. Don’t spit out anything if it can be avoided.
5. When communicating… Maintain eye contact, but don’t stare. Don’t be too self-deprecatory. Don’t comment on physical appearance.
Some of these may seem unnecessary, but I personally made this list, and my reason for adding each item comes from my own real-life experiences with people in Chinese society….
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…
The other day I had to catch a taxi into town, and pulling off of ZhouShan Dong Road traffic was somewhat congested. As we were slowed to a crawl, the driver frantically looking for a hole in traffic he could dart through, my gaze fell on two women on a bike. One was pedalling, the other was sitting on the rack in back, facing the road. I couldn’t hear her, but when she saw me I could easily read the words her lips spoke to her friend: “There’s a laowai over there.” A foreigner.
Of course, this kind of incident is a daily occurrence. I caught her eyes and raised my eyebrows, communicating, “Yes, I am a laowai, and I understood what you just said.” She blushed, covered her mouth, and tucked her head behind her friend, no doubt recounting this shocking development. I’m getting better at that look.
To live in China is to be constantly reminded that you are a foreigner, that you are different, and that you don’t really belong here. When I say we foreigners don’t “belong” here, I’m not saying we’re unwelcome. Sometimes we are very welcome. It’s just that we don’t belong.
This idea is communicated in many different ways. One way is that it’s difficult to have conversations with new people that aren’t centered on where I’m from, why I’m here, how long I’ve been here, how much I make, if I’m used to Chinese food, etc. If you’re a foreigner, that’s simply what everyone wants to talk to you about. Every now and then I’ll meet someone new and have an entirely normal conversation that is completely unconnected to the fact that I’m a foreigner. When that happens, it’s so refreshing, and I just feel so grateful for being treated not just as a foreigner, but just as a person. And it’s absurd that I should have those feelings. I guess you could say I’m finally understanding what it’s like to be a minority, and that minorities in the USA have similar experiences, but I still think it’s different.
Of course, the other way the idea is communicated is a little more bluntly. The stares. People yelling, “Hello!” and then laughing if you turn to look. People feeling the need to alert everyone in the vicinity that a laowai has entered the scene. People talking about you right next to you on the bus, assuming you understand nothing.
This is all part of life in China, and it must be accepted. But what’s really hard to accept is the fact that China will continue on like this, no matter how good my Chinese gets. I don’t know, I guess it’s stupid, but I know that one day I’m going to be speaking more than good Chinese–I’m going to be speaking kickass Chinese–and that in return for that accomplishment I should get treated normally. That if enough time passes, Chinese people should get used to me. It’s absurd, but somewhere in the back of my mind, there’s a part of me that’s looking forward to that day. And that day is simply never going to come.
Asiafirst‘s recent post on City Weekend reminded me of an interesting topic… diarrhea.
Now, since you’re most likely of the Western tradition, you probably squirmed a little when you saw that word. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. In Asia, they treat diarrhea like a cold — a temporary, uncomfortable condition. Meanwhile, in the United States it’s an unmentionable dark secret. No one wants to hear about your diarrhea, as if just the word in itself is some kind of plot to make us visualize something disgusting.
It took me some time in Japan and China, when I was in a position requiring someone else’s help, to be able to just tell people, “yo, I’ve got diarrhea, help me out here.” In the U.S. we’d be much less direct about that kind of thing. As your hints about your condition zero in on the unspeakable, the listener gets your drift and tactfully pledges assistance and then immediately changes the topic. On the other hand, if you mention it to your Chinese friend while you’re at the store, he just replies matter-of-factly, “Oh, you’ve got diarrhea??” and then, loudly, to the clerk across the store, “hey, my foreign friend here has diarrhea! Where’ s the medicine for that?” You get the picture.
Just one of those little differences…
Oh, and as long as I’m on this taboo topic, a word to the wise: if you come to China, bring some immodium.
Ah, love of linguistics… both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that it’s just fascinating, and I’ve somehow been let in on that little secret. It’s a curse because the fact that it’s interesting is either withheld from or is being actively denied by the rest of the world. It’s really shocking to me how linguistics bores most people to tears.
So I picked up a few books on linguistics at the friendly neighborhood foreign bookstore. Evidently Oxford University Press and the Cambridge Books for Language Teachers series have deals with Chinese publishers. The result is that quality educational material cames to China unaltered (?) except that a Chinese title is slapped onto the cover and a Chinese introduction is inserted. The best part, of course, is that the prices are also Chinese, and they are very good. Check these out: Pragmatics by George Yule (8.80rmb; roughly US$1), Psycholinguistics by Thomas Scovel (8.80rmb), Second Language Acquisition by Rod Ellis (9.20rmb), Psychology for Language Teachers by Marion Williams and Robert L. Burden (23.90rmb, roughly US$3), and — the best buy in terms of immediate application — Lessons from Nothing by Bruce Marsland (8.90rmb). That last one is a great buy for any TEFL teacher.
I also picked up Hong Lou Meng (“Dream of Red Chambers”), Chinese edition. Anyone familiar with this Chinese classic should be thinking I’m crazy right about now, as it’s volumes and volumes long. However, I cleverly side-stepped the length issue by picking up the children’s verison. It’s a good level; it’s almost 300 pages long and it doesn’t have the pinyin for all the characters like really low-level children’s books, but it has parenthetical pinyin for the really tough characters. (That will save me a lot of time looking up characters by radical!) The rest of the characters are not too hard. I can read this thing!
Finally, I got a book called “100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings.” I suppose there’s no really good translation for “xiehouyu,” but nevertheless, I hope the guy that came up with “Two-Part Allegorical Sayings” is not too proud of himself. The idea is that you deliver the first line, which seems kind of strange, but then you deliver the second line, and the meaning of the first line becomes clear. They’re usually pretty clever or funny, and sometimes involve puns. I first heard about these a while ago from my friend Andrew, but this is my first time actually studying them. Here are a few of the interesting ones:
Putting make-up on before entering the coffin — saving face even when dying.
Boiling dumplings in a teapot — no way to get them out.
Killing a mosquito with a cannon — making a mountain out of a molehill.
In the past week or so I’ve found myself drawn into a community of China bloggers (or “chloggers,” as Frank Yu of BrandRecon.com puts it). It’s sort of a strange community, “communication” often taking place in the form of blog posts or in e-mails that other members of the community are not aware of. Anyway, this community is becoming self-aware and interlinked. It was kind of cool that as soon as I put up my China Blog page, I started getting e-mails almost immediately, and my site started appearing immediately in other China blogs where it never had before. An attempt at selfless promotion of “the cause” turned out to be self-serving after all.
It’s great to see all the outsider viewpoints on China coming from within China. It’s also quite humbling to see the great logs other people are producing. You’ve got logs embroiled in politics, economics, and world affairs (China weblog and micah sittig, for example), logs chock full of great social insights (Black Man in China seems to be a community favorite), and even one in my own backyard (Hangzhou T-Salon)…. Makes me wonder why people would take the time to read mine! Apparently a few are, though. I never bothered with a counter for this site because that’s kinda beside the point. However, I’ve noted from my webhost’s stats that the visits are going up. I’ll be happy if just my friends and family are regularly checking to see what’s going on with me, but sometimes I wonder… [hint, hint, guys! The clock is now ticking. Let’s see how long it takes you to react to that statement.]
OK, school-related news…
So on Tuesday I finally got my schedule for this coming semester. A whopping six days in advance. It’s just the way things get done around here. Anyway, they decided not to let me teach my former English major students. I worked pretty hard at learning all 120 of their names, too! I’m only teaching 3 classes of English majors this semester, and they’re the new freshmen. Plus 2 classes of International Business majors, and 2 of Tourism Management majors. But it’s all the same class: “Spoken English.” “American Society and Culture” has been handed off to someone else this semester.
The bad news is that the international business major classes and the tourism management classes all have 45 or 47 students each! That is insane! The 30 I’ve been having is really pushing it, but 45 is just impossible. So I told them I’m splitting the class into two, and the students will each get one hour per week instead of two. I told them it was that or nothing. They OK’d it. It means I only have to plan one hour of lessons per week for those students, but it means doubling the repitition factor of the lesson. That’ll get monotonous.
The other bad news is that I have over 270 new students to teach. That’s over 270 new names to learn. I’m done for…
The good news is that I got Mondays off. And it’s still just 14 hours per week, leaving plenty of time for other projects. Very cool…
It’s interesting, that being in China instead of the USA, I feel much safer. Walking the streets at night is not scary at all. And, of course, I’m removed from the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks on American soil. And yet, in the USA, I don’t get e-mails like this one, from the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai:
> There is a continuing threat of terrorist actions, which may target civilians and include suicide operations. This worldwide caution expires on October 31, 2002. The u.s. government has continued to receive credible indications that extremist groups and individuals are planning additional terrorist actions against u.s. interests. Such actions may be imminent and include suicide operations. We remind American citizens to remain vigilant with regard to their personal security and to exercise caution. Terrorist groups do not distinguish between official and civilian targets. Attacks on places of worship and schools, and the murder of American citizens demonstrate that as security is increased at official u.s. facilities, terrorists and their sympathizers will seek softer targets. These may include facilities where Americans are generally known to congregate or visit, such as clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools or outdoor recreation events. Americans should increase their security awareness when they are at such locations, avoid them, or switch to other locations where Americans in large numbers generally do not congregate.
> American citizens may be targeted for kidnapping or assassination. U.S. government facilities worldwide remain at a heightened state of alert. These facilities may temporarily close or suspend public services from time to time to review their security posture and ensure its adequacy. In those instances, u.s. embassies and consulates will make every effort to provide emergency services to American citizens.
Well, it’s now September 11th here in China. Pray for peace. Worldwide.