Friday, December 30, 2011

Culture Corner: The sidewalk

Imagine walking down an empty city sidewalk when you spot someone walking in your direction.  As they head directly toward you, what do you do? Move slightly to the right as a polite gesture so the two of you may pass unhindered? If you answered ‘no’ to this question, you are either from a country where people drive on the left side of the road, or, you are amongst a minority of people and fit to take your first day’s walk in China. (There are of course other exceptions, maybe there was something horrid spattering the right side so you had to go to the left side…)

When someone is walking towards you in China, they rarely make an attempt to get out of your way, and combining this one person with the 1.3 billion walking the streets, driving mopeds on the sidewalk, and cruising around on bicycles, I often feel like a ballerina, tip-toeing, dancing, and curtseying my way through the throng, trying to preserve what little semblance of personal space I’ve preserved after spending the past eight months in Nanjing. They press close.  Approaching somebody from behind on the sidewalk is even funnier. 

A relaxed nation of amblers and meanderers, going anywhere for the Chinese at a hurried or steady pace is not often thought of.  Instead, the pleasantries of walking are savored, hands clasped behind the back and eyes to the sky in leisurely stroll.  Because of the wandering nature of these footsteps, I often wonder if they have eyes in the backs of their heads and are intentionally trying to get in the way as I approach from behind. (Of course they’re not.) It seems no amount of pre-meditation or planning can allow me past without them subconsciously knowing which side I intend to pass them on and suddenly swerving into my path. I’ve tried feinting like a ball player, but somehow they still know and take that “surprise” step in the opposite direction directly in front of me. I have to laugh at this. But, this is not the only game the Chinese enjoy playing in public places.

Just like the mother in the grocery store who occupies the entire width of the aisle as she ponders which brand of peanut butter has more riboflavin, another popular sidewalk technique employed in China is the “sudden stop for no good reason”.  And it is not only people who stop directly in front of you causing you to alter the location of your next footstep, but bicycles and mopeds as well - occasionally with the owner looking you directly in the eye and smiling as he stops his bicycle on your toes and goes in a store, leaving you to walk around the obstacle he’s given you.  The preferred location for this little trick is critical junctures, places where the flow of pedestrians and assorted wheeled vehicles must to come to a complete stop and wait as the trickster babbles to a friend, sends a text message, or stares at the sky. Such places, are, for example, the middle of stairwells and entrances to stores. My favorite is the man who gets on the bus, pays the driver, and stops, blocking the aisle and causing the driver to tell him: “Move to the back of the bus idiot so the other fifty people waiting can get on.” I ask myself: “How can this man not be aware of the crowd behind him waiting to get on the bus?” If it happened once or twice, it would be normal. But as situations like this happen so frequently, it makes me wonder if they are completely unaware of the other people moving around them in society, or just don’t care. Maybe the large numbers have calloused them?

One day while walking down a sidewalk, on my way to teach, a man stopped his bicycle in front me.  He then turned the bike sideways to block the entire sidewalk, put down the kickstand, and entered the store, all the while smiling at me, white teeth flashing happiness.  It was plain and simple as that, not a hint of malice.  One of the stranger occurrences of my life in China, it could have been me, an old lady, anyone, and he would have done the same thing.  Long after walking onto the street around his bicycle to continue on my way, I’m still pondering this bit of social insensitivity.

Re-reading what I just wrote makes me sound like an impatient person, and through the first few months I definitely was when dealing with Chinese mannerism in daily public situations. But, I’ve come to (or forced myself to come to) laugh at the sidewalk cha-cha I do every time I walk somewhere. I feel like Frogger. Up up down left left up right down right right up up left right down up up left left right up up… My personal space has dwindled to a point of near non-existence. I no longer feel uncomfortable having complete strangers caked onto me riding in an elevator, or think someone is trying to steal something from me when my bookbag is jostled continuously. So, if when I return to the US I feel the desire to give extra hugs or sit a little closer than usual, slap me, I’ll come out of it eventually.

Culture Corner: The People

It’s a pity that the sheer number of Chinese people is the prime reason for their pollution problem.  The factories necessary to support such a mass and the trash they subsequently generate would be much less polluting were their population quartered. I say a “pity” because, Chinese people are the best thing about China. They are friendly, wily, honest, misleading, funny, racist, lazy, ambitious, trustworthy, liable to cheat you out of money, arrogant, humble, proud, modest, kind, hospitable, curious, and blessed with a lack of body odor.  Except for the last, they are just like people everywhere else in the world.  But, if I may indulge in a few generalities (aka stereotypes), I can create a few distinctions that sets them apart from other groups and makes them wonderful.

Chinese people are like a school of fish in the ocean that moves en masse.  It seems what one knows, they all know, and what one does, they all do. They become completely baffled when I tell them a rogue idea passed on by a fellow Chinese person, for example “Chinese people secretly admire the Japanese for their ingenuity.”  “It can’t be!” they reply, “No Chinese person would say that. Are you sure you understood them?”  “Good question.”, I reply.  Constantly receiving mixed messages in their attempts at being polite rather than direct, I’m often unsure what exactly Chinese people are insinuating when in public situations.  Therefore, I can only create a vague cultural rule: homogeneity is good.  

There are times when this inter-dependency confuses me.  Many Chinese people have told me they feel uncomfortable when alone on empty roads - day or night - as though the close press of the teeming mass is somehow necessary or comforting. Those who have been in a Western country find its streets to be scary, the relative emptiness throwing them for a cultural loop.
But as they are so afraid to offer an opinion that might differ from the herd’s, the mindset of being part of the crowd rather than a face in the crowd, also makes for difficult teaching. When I ask them why they are so silent after getting no response to what I think is a simple question, they reply: “We are being polite by giving someone else the chance to speak.”  (Translated: “I don’t want to say anything lest others think I’m strange.”) To which I counter: “Well, if everybody is waiting for somebody else to speak, nobody speaks.” (Translated: “Somebody say something, anything.  Help me make this hour pass!)  To which they smile and say: “Yes, yes!” (Translated: “Just write something on the board so we can copy it.”)  I want to scream: “Grow a spine. Your classmates will not stone you!  Loose your individuality! Give me a thought that is not someone else’s or that I haven’t heard from fifty other people!”  But I digress, because: 

Chinese inter-dependency is also something very beautiful.  It means their society functions at a level more socially normal. Their family lives are far more cohesive than the abusive, old age home, juvenile detention center, divorce court of America.  Each person has a role, and they depend on each other to perform it, youngest to oldest. They care for all of their family members in their homes until death. This means they do not dump them at a nursing home when they are no longer functionally valuable (i.e. earning money), but continue to appreciate what immaterial things they have to offer even after their economically productive life is finished. As every role is vital, it also means that Chinese people are far less likely to leave home to live in a place so far distant as we are. And if they do, their role becomes a financial one where they constantly send money home.  It goes without saying almost all young people’s holidays are spent with their families rather than cruising the Caribbean, satisfying personal interests. 

In general, Chinese family lives are healthy and harmonious.  Having only their own bowl of rice at the dinner table, those gathered share all the other plates and dishes on the table.  For me, this is highly symbolic of the strength in the bonds connecting the families, and something we are losing more of everyday in the west.

When first meeting a Chinese person, inevitably they will be very shy - like a child - especially the women, who are often rendered literally speechless. I’d like to think this is my “Blad Pitta” good looks, but we know this is not the case. It’s just part of their culture.  The retention of childhood innocence such a prized virtue, many Chinese people are adult bodies containing the minds of children.   This is not to say they cannot be ambitious in the business world or lack responsibility, rather that the humor they appreciate and situations they enjoy (think karaoke!) are what westerners would consider simple, or immature.  

This can be both annoying and awesome.  A forty-five year old women pouting and sulking like a child: annoying.  Thirty year old men giggling and tee-heeing at the mention of kissing and hugging: awesome.  Having the ability to laugh sincerely at the simple things in life and to have fun like a child - without an air of maturity: awesome. The lack of poop, pee, and sex being the continual punch line to jokes: awesome. I guess it comes down to which version of immaturity you prefer: the innocent, childish variety in China or the toilet variety in America.

However, a Chinese person’s shyness is quickly forgotten as their duty to be a good host comes to mind, and sets them to action, especially the men, doing things for you whether you ask or not. They believe the good name of China is on the line with a foreigner and are out to prove it’s a good place. Usually this involves repeatedly filling your plate with food and giving you gifts. As a result, I have learned to be very careful what I say, as even the slightest word in passing may cause one of them to go and buy you a new wallet (even though you were only being sarcastic about the age of the one you had). Most of them will drop whatever they are doing (e.g. pregnant wife) to usher you by the arm to the place miles away you simply wanted directions to. They are incredibly hospitable.

In everything except for the price of goods, I’ve found the Chinese people are extremely honest and worthy of trust - another thing they believe in en masse. I could ask a complete stranger on the street to hold a Y100 note for me and an hour later return to find him waiting for me. How many of you would do this in a city of 5 million in America? When telling stories, no matter how detrimental to their own character, the Chinese believe in telling things as they happened and are not prone to exaggeration to make their story sound better. Nor do they protect their innocence when describing an incident gone wrong, that is, lying instead to escape a situation. They will tell it like it is, no matter the consequences. As I am so distrustful of Americans in general (e.g. “Thanks for letting me borrow this. I’ll get it right back to you right away.”), I feel comfortable loaning out books, CDs, etc. here.  I’ve always gotten it back.

In America we’ve all heard the sob stories from the ghettos and backwoods towns: “There are no jobs so I had to turn to a life of crime to support myself.  That’s why I stole the old lady’s oxyxontin.” Well, here in China, the poverty level is much higher than the American ghetto.  Some people live in conditions even the ghetto folk would find appalling. With their shoebox shape and bare concrete walls, sometimes I think the poor’s housing is like prison. But despite the living conditions and poverty, crime is virtually non-existent. The police do not even carry guns, allowing the 1.3 billion to move about as they please. Children run free on the streets and can play wherever and however they want. Instead of having a nation of fences and strangers (aka potential criminals instead of potential friends), they trust each other, after all everyone else is Chinese and can be trusted to be thinking just like them. Instead of turning to crime, the poor simply buckle down, work harder, and set their standards lower.  There seems no excuse for those in the ghettos of America…

Now I will take a break to tell a story:

When looking for another job this semester, I went to several English schools to inquire. At all of the schools, I was ushered in, treated well, and pummeled with questions; they couldn’t believe a foreigner would seek them out for a job as they have so much trouble wooing native English speakers to their school in the first place. I thought this boded well, and after the interview, left with an even better feeling as everything went according to plan: they needed a foreign teacher, they liked me, and they said to go home and wait for their eminent call.  So, I went home and waited. But of all the schools, none – I repeat, none - of them called me back. I talked to my students about this and they laughed.  “We’ll call you later.” is apparently the Chinese way of saying: “We won’t call you later.” They were being indirect, and I had to know something about this previously in order to decipher their code. The reasoning is: saying ‘no’ directly might hurt the person’s feelings.  I wonder what psychologists think…

Due to the en masse thinking, patriotism may not exist anywhere else in the world as strongly as it does in China. But don’t worry, my students assure me China has no interest in starting a war with America, in fact, they are slightly worried about the US attacking them. Their thinking is supported by the following: foreign wars started by China in the last 2,000 years: 0.  Foreign wars started or joined needlessly by America in the past 50 years: unknown, but at least five the author can think of: Korea, Vietnam, Israel, Kuwait, and Iraq. It goes without saying the Chinese are not fighters and prefer a  tacit, non-violent approach to resolving situations in their personal lives, rather than fighting it out. I have yet to see one fight here, let alone the beginning of any offensives directed at the US.

I could write boatloads more about the people here, but hopefully the little nutshells I gave you will provide at least a peek (at my opinion) of their character.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culture Corner: Fraggle Doo to 7-3

I will certainly stop short of saying all Chinese people look alike.  As there are no two grains of sand exactly alike, the subtle differences are there, but the lazy Western eye is simply not trained to see it. It is understandable, however, when you live in a country of 1.3 billion people, all of the same ethnicity, nearly everyone having black hair, brown eyes, and is small and skinny, you're bound to think to yourself "Is that one of my students?" at least eight times per day. If you were to limit the US to aryan characteristics and quadruple the population, I think the same questions would arise.  (“Do we live in Elfland?”)  So, the question remains, how do the Chinese individualize - how do they separate themselves from the masses?

As hair color, eye color, and variety in shape and size aren’t enough, the latest method employed by the Western man to isolate himself from the herd is the tattoo.  However, as the Chinese are still in the beginning phases of stepping out from the crowd, they have only just arrived at a point Western man left behind in the 80's (at least most of them).  What point is that?  Well, it’s hairstyles that look like the bastard stepchild of a Fraggle and a Troll doll. 

Hair salons - the second most popular form of employment in Nanjing - occupy every other shop on a street and churn out these spiky monstrosities by the hour - all shapes and angles, the more obtuse the better. Some of the creations would do well in restaurants as a way to serve appetizers.  Seeing the results, there are several occasions that I have burst out laughing while walking down the street, seeing someone’s idea of neon palm aesthetics.  But the part that really gets me is, if everybody is getting similar haircuts, how have you succeeded in individualizing yourself?  Ahh, I digress.

From what’s fashionable, what about what’s "unfashionable"?  The answer is easy.  Like politicians worldwide: the standard (aka “uncool”) haircut worn by men is neat and trim, parted at the side.  (This is known as the “7-3” in China because of the percentage of separation).  The average woman wears their hair shoulder length, and often have it pulled back in a pony tail for convenience’s sake. Even more convenient, it seems there are a lot more women in China which have very short hair than do women in Western countries.  

I had my hair cut recently (I was looking a little Fraggle-ish myself), getting my usual crew cut, or whatever you want to call it. My method was to walk into the barber shop, grab their hair clippers and the quarter inch extension, and point at my head.  Seeing the result, my students told me I looked like a criminal and that it’s possible some Chinese wouldn't talk to me because of that - a claim later backed by others. Apparently, the only other people in China with fuzz on their heads are prisoners or escapees.

To my knowledge, no one has yet shunned me from conversation because of my hair. It has done nothing to deter the flood of Chinese who want to ‘improve my English.  Talk with foreigner.” But that's the subject of another culture corner.

Culture Corner: Ganbei!

Like everywhere else in the world, drink and dance are also appreciated by the Chinese. They have good beer (thanks to the Germans), so-so wine, and horrible liquors. And if you're going for a night on the town with the Chinese, you'd better be prepared to drink any and all; they don't have a brake pedal.

The Chinese do not go to just any street corner pub that has a tap and a jukebox (mostly because these places do not exist), they go to fashionable clubs. Just who spreads the word about which places are "the place to go" is happening beyond my perception. But someone does know, because after going to one club two weeks in a row, the word spreads that another club is the place to be. So we go and find the same people, leaving me to wonder if the previous club is now empty or filled with other people who thought they were doing the cool thing.

When the Chinese buy alcohol, they do not buy individual drinks or rounds.  They buy whole bottles of whiskey and cases of beer at a time, the latter all being opened at once before being placed on the table. (After a while you simply grab a beer and don't worry about whose it is or if it's "fresh".) They do not buy them in such quantities to savor. No, it's so you can get sloppy drunk enough to flatter the bar owner into giving you roast duck head for free. 

If the spirit moves them, the Chinese will dance. It is not pretty, looking something like a half-hearted twist with a touch of running man. They are aware of the beat and dance to it, but don't have that wild and crazy attitude Taylor, aged 19 from Reno has with her pink tank top, glitter lipstick, thong, and spare tire of fat hanging out of her jeans has, hands over her head in a war whoop all night long.  However, the techno version of John Denver's "Country Roads" or the Miami Vice theme may inspire some of the Chinese to leap onto speakers and perform a more active version of the twist. I swear I've never had so much fun stepping out on the dance floor with a bunch of Chinese people, half in the bag, all gettin' down to "Sex Bomb" by Tom Jones. The craziness of it all!!

After the club, however, the night is only half over. It's time for eating - and yes, more drinking. You, your cronies, and whoever else has joined your crew (it's easy to acquire new cronies in China) pile ten deep into the only car between the lot and participate in a little drunk driving. As the Chinese are crazy drivers anyway, the years of practice ensure no one gets hurt. In the restaurant, it's time for more calls of "Ganbei!", which is their equivalent of "Cheers!", but with an added feature: ordinarily when people say "Ganbei!" they touch glasses and take a drink - as we would.  But when drunk, the Chinese use the official definition, which means you must finish what's in you glass.  This formula works out to a primitive kind of social Darwinism.  Those who can handle their alcohol goad the weaker into drinking. The weaker try to refuse at first, knowing what lies ahead.  But, facing challenges to their “face”, they eventually give in, and often with disastrous results. (Warning, those with sensitive stomachs should cover their ears for the next ten seconds.) A couple weeks ago, a young man beside me was goaded many a 'Ganbei!', protesting all the way. After one particular queasy looking swallow, he proceeded to reveal the contents of his stomach using our table as a display board.  People laughed, waitresses grimaced, but he "saved face", right?

Oh, that pesky Chinese pride... It gets them in trouble all the time. Nothing like Westerners, no, no, no… But that's the subject of another culture corner.

Culture Corner: The Chinese Bicycle

As in a lot of other countries of the world (not America), China relies on the bicycle. Of the eclectic mix of wheeled vehicles I see on an everyday basis, the bicycle dominates.  Almost all seem to be antiques, kept just roadworthy enough to avoid disintegration by Nanjing's third most popular form of employment: the bicycle repairman. (Maybe someday I'll write about number one, though it's pretty boring.)

These repairmen (it's always a man) have a good life, I think, though they don't earn much money. Each day they go to their repair shops (otherwise known as a sidewalk) and sit and wait the day out with their collection of grimy, bent tools, hand pump, and bowl of water (to find holes in tire tubes, of course). They wait for someone to break down in front of them, because if they break down ten feet further there will surely be another repairman at that spot, waiting to snap up the business. And as there is a great deal of people who rely on the bicycle for business purposes, I'm convinced these men single handedly keep the economy of China afloat.

The bicycle as a business tool, you question? Certainly. For example, if you combine the idea of bicycle with, say... cabbage, you have a vegetable market. Add bicycle to propane burner and you have restaurant. And if you combine all three - bicycle, cabbage, and propane burner - you get laxative factory. You get the picture. Sometimes I think the world has turned upside down when I see the variety of way in which people put the bicycle to use. In previous emails I've made mention of the things I've seen transported on bicycles.  In no particular order, here are a few more: ten blue water cooler bottles (full), a chicken coop the size of a Kenmore refrigerator (also full), five propane tanks full of propane (I assume full), pieces of PVC pipe over five meters in length (about fifteen feet for the metric impaired), towers of fruit boxes and newspapers, and two desktop computers complete with mouse pads.  But, the single greatest thing I've seen yet is surely this (Westerners take note as you will no longer need heavy moving equipment): a bed.  It was mattress AND boxspring, impossibly attached to a bicycle, going down the street. I had to look twice to make sure Tom and Jerry weren't pedaling. It is also worth noting that I've seen fourteen Chinese people riding one bicycle.  But it was in a circus. That doesn't quite count.

Along with squealing brakes, wheels scraping rusty fenders, and even rustier chains rolling over rusty gears, the standard Chinese bicycle also has a wire basket in front and rack behind the seat (both rusty). If not occupied by various and sundry paraphernalia, there will surely be someone sitting on this rack - children, the elderly, men in business suits, everybody rides. (Though I have never seen money exchanged, maybe the combination of bicycle and rack equals taxi?) And if it is a girl sitting there, she's guaranteed to be riding side-saddle like an Elizabethan lady. Seeming romantic for boys and girls, I like this passenger aspect of the bicycle.

There is another aspect of the Chinese bicycle that is also interesting.  Not so much based on its use, rather how it is ridden. No matter the need or circumstance, the Chinese person simply refuses to stand while riding. So, rather than standing to pedal to get that little extra bit of power going up a hill, the Chinese instead hunch and strain. (Hunch and Strain sounds like a good name for the laxative factory. SORRY!!!)  And as a result, I have seen old men shouting at people to get out of the way as they stagger and weave backwards downhill trying to keep their heavily loaded bicycle upright - a bicycle that would have made it over the incline were they only willing to stand and pedal. Thinking there to be a logical explanation, I asked my students about this.  But I received only the echoing answer of "Chinese culture" in return. Any ideas? 

Culture Corner: A Chinese Thanksgiving

This year for Thanksgiving I thought I would give my students a little taste (pun intended) of American culture, and invited them to my house for a meal. The only real American thing I had to offer was the brain power to wield the Chinese ingredients and cooking utensils otherwise foreign to the holiday meal. I planned a dish of pork and apple sauce, mashed potatoes, and also paid way too much for a loaf of “bread” at a fancy bakery. These were the closest things I could think of to a real Thanksgiving dinner that worked within the strict limitations Chinese supermarkets unintentionally impose on American food.

After class Thanksgiving night, eleven of my students and myself trooped to my one-bedroom apartment to celebrate. It is not a spacious apartment, but certainly enough for me, so once all of us were piled inside, it went from peaceful and quiet to a madhouse. I don't know whether they took my words of "make yourselves at home" to heart, or if they would have done it anyway, but very soon every nook and cranny of my "foreign" apartment was being peered into, the tv was blaring at full volume and my bedroom and closet under examination.  The contents of my refrigerator were the source of much laughter, and what extremely few toiletries I have in the bathroom were being read from top to bottom. It goes without saying, there were eleven curious faces peering over my shoulder, watching every move, and commenting in Chinese like they were watching the chess world championship as I prepared the meal.

That day I had bought a bottle of wine, a couple large bottles of beer and some other beverages thinking it would be enough for a mature gathering of young adults to sit back and enjoy while getting a taste of Western culture.  But when I settled them down and asked them what they wanted to drink, they all said soda or hot water, making me wonder if I'd unintentionally stocked my own alcohol supply. After pouring their soda and water, I left them in the living room and went back to the kitchen.  Ten minutes later I decided to pour myself a glass of beer, but to my surprise, there was no beer or wine where I'd left it. I went into the living room to investigate and found a ruckus of youth and empty bottles of beer and wine. The five boys (girls don't drink except in clubs) had successfully polished off the alcohol in that short amount of time and were now working on rosy cheeks and tipsiness, commenting "Jesse, I sink I'm feering a reetre drunk." Several minutes later, one of the boys was so drunk off the three plastic cups of beer he'd had that he needed assistance moving about.

The actual meal went over well - I think. If they were being polite, they disguised it well. Otherwise most of them ate what I'd prepared, the plastic fork and knives I'd bought especially for the night used accordingly, or at least Viking style. (It requires a higher degree of refinement to handle chopsticks, knives and forks a throwback to our cavemen days.  I also learned from them that the locker-room-sink style brown paper towels I was using for napkins were actually used as toilet paper in China and the toilet paper I had in the bathroom is what is used as paper towels or napkins. More laughter at my expense, here.

But, as quickly as the circus had entered, it was gone, and in its wake was an incredible mess. Plates, wrappers, bits of tomato, hardened chunks of applesauce, and spilled drinks covered my apartment. (The meal had been "to go" when curiosity called.) The thorough cleaning I'd done that afternoon was useless in hindsight. It may be funniest to think their greatest source of tidy pleasure was that they didn't have to take their shoes off at my door.

Culture Corner: Shanghai

At long last, here are some photos from China. I should probably explain the general lack thereof until now and why it is likely to continue after these few.

Relative to the US, I don’t earn a lot of money in China, and so as I try to pay off school loans with a Chinese dollar that is currently worth 12 cents, it is difficult to save money while spending thirty Chinese dollars to have a roll of film developed. A crazy girl once told me that delayed gratification is better than temporary satisfaction. So, taking this as good advice, I have decided to wait until I return to the US to have my film developed at my friendly local Wal*mart. (“Where all your dreams can come true, particularly those involving NASCAR, redneck gangsta’ wear, and fake deer lure.”)  On to the post (Photos related to this post can be found here.)

A couple weekends ago I went to the city of Shanghai to have a reunion of sorts with one of my housemates from Australia, a Chinese man named Li Shenghong. He had just purchased a spiffy new digital camera and insisted we use it rather than my archaic machine. “It is better.” he said, and as I was his guest, I agreed. As you all are aware, the most popular tactic of East Asian photography is to include a person standing in front of the true object of the photo.  This is a practice I usually disagree with; the inclusion of my ugly mug in a photo can do nothing to improve it. My students explain the phenomenon by saying: “What if someone doubts you were there? You can show them the picture with you in it.” Murderers and rapists are low forms of society, but the person who cuts photos from National Geographic and claims they were taken during their vacation will surely have a special cell in hell.
Home to a mere 13 million, Shanghai is without a doubt the craziest place I’ve ever been. Too many people. This poor country boy just wasn’t meant to be used as an anchor as the subway slows to a stop, and then a stepping-stone as the doors open. His idea of personal space extends beyond an iron maiden of elbows and knees pressed against every part of his body below his shoulders. It was crazy, people everywhere, too many for words. As I waited for my departure train in one of the several giant waiting rooms at the Shanghai station, there were literally thousands upon thousands of people milling around me, a sea of black hair, cigarette smoke, chicken squawks, burlap sacks, shouts into mobile phones, trash piling up before the eyes, advertisements flashing - in short, a Chinese anthill.
However, amongst this­ strange mode of life, I was able to enjoy my time with Shenghong. We ate and ate, walked in the rain, went to a “temple” area, a museum, and ate some more. He took photos, I took photos, he took photos of me, I smiled, and all went well. In fact, he treated me like a king, paying for everything, not even allowing me to by souvenirs. As a result of all this, those of you who have complained in the past of there being a suspicious lack of me in the photos I send, you will no longer have anything to say because of Li Shenghong. Enjoy.

Oh, and, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


Shanghai is one of the world's unique cities, if not for its population alone.  Portions of the city occupied by the British, French, Japanese and a variety of other cultures during the 19th and 20th centuries, the streets and buildings at times seem anachronistic compared to many of the back streets which might be anywhere in China.  The following photos, while only of a 24 hour period, are nonetheless a peek into life into the Pearl of the Orient.


My host was a friend I had met in Australia, and a few months after arrival in China, we held a reunion.  Standing on the Bund, the CBD stands tall behind us, cargo ships plying the Huangpu, between.  Taken in 2005, the Jingmao tower is yet a force to be reckoned with.
This is a awesome stone dragon, which, in contrast to the evil, fire breathing winged reptiles who want nothing more than to steal your gold, is an auspicious sign in China, something more like Puff the Magic Dragon.


Traipsing the city with a Chinese person, yours truly appeared in most of the photos.  This is a place that translates to “Temple in the City”.  A better name would be “Souvenir Shops Occupying Historically Significant Buildings Begging for Your Money”.  Here it is early in the morning, so the throng is not quite up to full strength yet. 
Near the “Temple in the City” is this place called Yuyuan Garden, which is actually the former estate of a really, really, really rich guy.  No Chinese garden is complete without coy fis. It's law.
My friend was so struck by the tranquility of this spot in the estate he deemed the photo worthy of being person-less.
A moment I was able to steal the camera...
The Shanghai museum is world class.  If memory serves, this is an ancient wine vessel made of bronze.  Woe to the drunkard who has consumed too much or not spent enough time at the gym.  Me, I’m looking for a straw. 
In Chinese mythology this is one of the guardians of heaven - or what is loosely translated as “heaven” in a culture that thankfully does not have such crazy ideas.  I’ve never seen any pictures of the soon-to-be-if-not-already mythological Christian gate-keeper, Saint Peter, but something tells me he doesn’t have the same ability to put the fear of god into you (pun intended) as this creature does. If you want to see what it looks like while guarding heaven, somehow highlight the photo so you’re seeing the color negative (impossible with blogger at the moment, but in Paint or Word it is.).  Be careful though, some of you may have nightmares.
24 hours was not a lot of time, so there are not a lot of photos...

Culture Corner: The Queue

There are two kinds of queue in China, and the following describes them more than accurately.

The first is kind of hairstyle. Not worn anymore but in theater and in movies, it was not so long ago that Chinese men kept the front half of their scalp shaved (like drawing a line from ear to ear) and allowed the back half to grow the remainder of their lives braided in a long tail. If any of you have seen the movie "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon", the men in this film sport a queue. Not particularly attractive, it is like a  prehistoric ancestor to the mullet - short in front, long in back.

Speaking of mullets, I have seen a handful here in Nanjing, but they always seemed unintentional, like the bearer hadn't gotten around to getting a haircut. This is surely a sign their culture is still developing into the pinnacle of mullet infestation our society represents.

The second type of queue is indeed a group of people waiting for something, but it does not resemble a queue in the western world. Rather than being linear in shape, it is instead roughly crescent shaped and seething.  Filled with a jostling, shouldering rabble, the common idea is to thrust elbows and fists in the direction of the attendant behind a counter while pushing forward with your body.  The attendant, by contrast, remains calm and serene, picking and choosing at random from whatever sweaty hand is wildly waving in their face. 

As you can imagine, it is frustrating standing with this lot, waiting patiently your turn, only to have a man walk up and wriggle himself into the single millimeter between you and the person in front of you, having no thoughts other than the hope his thrusting hand is chosen next. And indeed there have been a few occasions when "Chinese culture" became too much for me, and I waited in "line" too long and been frustrated to the point that I put my “size advantage” to use, and, using both hands, physically moved people out of my way. I'd feel bad if they cared, but they don't notice.  Rather than being an unimportant person behind them, I become a wall to blindly reach through hoping the attendant's roll of the dice comes up with their hand next in front of them.

I tell my students that while Chinese food is better than Western food, they will enjoy standing in a queue when they reach the Western university of their choice, that is, versus re-enacting scenes from Gladiator to simply get school papers processed. Who would have thought I'd ever tell anyone they'd enjoy standing in line?

I blame the second queue on overpopulation, but that is certainly the subject of several more culture corners.

Culture Corner: Chinese New Year

Do you like the uncontrolled usage of explosives? Do you like the sounds of cannon fire? Do you like colorful fireworks and strings of thousands of firecrakers? If so, the Chinese New Year is the thing for you.

I should probably start by giving you what I can surmise from various opinions I've heard regarding the reasons behind Chinese New Year celebrations.  Apparently, as the old year approaches its end, the ghosts that have accumulated begin to occupy quite a mass, and the only way to get rid of them is to light off incredible quantities of explosives, scaring them to nether regions permanently.  To ensure their dispersal is complete, families gather together and give each other money in special New Year's red envelopes, the ultimate nail in the coffin.  (Nothing gets rid of demons like a little cold, hard cash, eh?)

My Chinese New Year's was spent while on holiday on a mountain. Jiuhuashan (meaning Nine Brilliant Mountains) is located at a fair distance from the 1.3 billion and is one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China.  The ratio of the surrounds is as follows: 70 monasteries scattered on the slopes and peaks to roughly 10,000 people occupying the tiny village located at it base. The scene set, the story goes as follows.

After a night of drinking with five old Chinese men who kept filling my glass at every opportunity and laughing uproariously, I was awakened at 4:30 in the morning on New Year's Eve by the sound an explosion. It was followed by another, and another, upon which I realized that the monks were beginning their celebrations early. I tried to sleep but couldn't, so I threw on my hiking pack and began my ascent of Jiuhuashan.  As I climbed the incredibly steep stone stairwell that zig-zagged its nearly vertically way up the side of mountain, I passed several happy children lighting firecrackers, a few other sojourners, as well as many monks and monasteries, all clinging to the mountain's side.  But I had my eyes set on one thing: at the top of the mountain, perched on a cliff like an eagle's nest, was a beautiful monastery. While you could only occasionally catch a glimpse of its silhouette in the ascent, some things remained constant throughout the hike: the erratic sounds of giant firecrackers booming in the air, rippling along the side of the mountain, and long strings of thousands of tiny firecrackers, ratta-tat-tatting like a bucket of pearls being poured on a glass table.

I arrived at the monastery in the afternoon dog tired, my quads thinking I’d just finished the most grueling Stairmaster session ever. The monks were kind and took care of me by providing hot water after the chilly hike, and after talking with them for a while in my burgeoning Chinese, they invited me to stay the night in their monastery, to which I gladly accepted. They fed me a wonderful vegetarian supper and soon after told me I should go to bed. I thought to myself: "That's strange. The sun hasn't even gone down yet." But, believing them to be the hosts and myself the guest, I obliged. At 11:45 that night I learned why they went to bed early.

In the black of night, loud voices and the scuffling of feet shook me from sleep, begging me to put on my shoes and go outside to see what the reason for the hustle and bustle was.  But even before walking out onto the balcony overlooking the mountain and village below, the reason was apparent: time to get those damned ghosts out of here.

The explosions, which had been random during the daytime, were now ceaseless.  A veritable war of machine gun fire and heavy artillery was being waged, the noise of shrieks and crackling and booming filling the air. Far below in the valley, bright fireworks of red and green, yellow and white burst at a rate too fast for the eyes to follow, the village looking like a pinball machine in a dark room. And even in the anonymous black distance, single bursts of light silently flashed in and out of existence, chasing the ghosts for as far as the eye could see.  And while there was indeed a lot of action below, there was no shortage in my immediate vicinity, either. The monks, shaken from the doldrums of their routine existence, also had a storehouse of fireworks which needed attention.  Wearing the smiles of children the holy men scampered about with huge belts of firecrackers, wholly reveling in the subsequent racket rattling our mountain top lodge. Based on the amount that was lit off, I can only imagine the view from the village was as good as the view from the top of the mountain.

Days later, what continues to impress me is the incredible quantity. It was as though everyone had an arsenal of munitions the equivalent of any third world country. While that midnight certainly saw the greatest rate of fireworks detonated, the days following were no less impressive, and even as I write, I am guaranteed to hear some thudding in the background.

Nothing more than sheer, beautiful, explosive chaos. That is Chinese New Year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Culture Corner: The Food

If any of you are thinking of visiting China, it's at least worth your while to come here for the food. It's beyond delicious and as I'm still a growing boy, it may be my favorite aspect of China so far. Forget about "Chopsticks", "Wok In", and "Pu Pu Mansion". Food here is nothing like that. Not only is it ten times tastier, I think everything else about it is different than what the restaurants of America would have me believe is Chinese food. That is, except one thing: Guillermito, you can still get your 3 AM cravings for fried rice satisfied, though it’s not a neon pink color.

For starters, most of the ingredients in real Chinese food are nothing you've ever heard of.  They have wonderful names like "green vegetable" and "light green vegetable", and "lotus fruit" and "minced pork”.  There are also many things you are familiar with, like green peppers, tomatoes, beef, and eggs - though you have to ask which bird the egg came from as there is a wider variety to choose from than just chicken. And of course there is rice. Using the most delicious sauces and spices they combine vegetables, meat, and sometimes fruit or eggs to create the best food I’ve ever tasted - that isn’t Western. (That last bit was for you, mom. Don’t want you getting offended. You’re still the best cook in the world.)

The sheer number of dishes to choose from when going to a restaurant is what impresses me the most in China.  Considering they prepare it all in an area the size of a closet, pulling ingredients from places I'd rather not think about, and having it ready in less than ten minutes, I’m even more impressed. There are far more dishes to choose from than ten different ways to cook a steak and potatoes. Due to its size, looking through a menu here is often like reading a phone book. And as I don't understand any of it, my usual ploy is to use my first digit to indicate something whose Chinese characters look particularly enticing. My other ploy is to point at the table next to me and indicate I would like what they’re having. Nine times out of ten I'll get something that is really tasty, though I don't know exactly what it is. (One time I received “preserved eggs” otherwise known as “partially rotten eggs” and had to point again.) Bringing a Chinese person with me to interpret the menu only made eating a scary experience as they can be quoted saying things like: "That is flesh of donkey, brain of pig, and coagulated goose blood.”  What I don’t know doesn’t hurt, and I haven’t died yet. Besides, the other vegetables, fruits, spices, and sauces they combine it with taste so good you never have the chance to stop and think precisely which variety the globules entering your stomach are except to reach for the next chopstickful. Can I say “chopstickful”, like “spoonful”?

Since arriving in China, I've eaten fungus, bean curd (otherwise known as tofu, which if eaten fresh, direct from the pan, does have taste - and it's a good), rabbit, frog bits, goat, scorpion - yes, scorpion, black ones in particular (it was salty and crunchy) - "heart of chicken", black mushrooms, "feet of pig", lamb skin, "intestine of cow", and a variety of others.  After eating the "liver of duck", I'll try anything now.

For those of you wondering about Rottweiler tenderloin, it’s interesting that the stereotypes we have regarding the Chinese, they have regarding specific regions of China, particularly the Cantonese areas which are apparently renowned for eating anything and everything, including newborn mice dipped in vinegar.  But that’s only a rumor.  So, the stereotype about the Chinese eating dog is only partially true.  Funny enough, the places it is eaten it is thought of as a delicacy, and so available as a posh item.  In other words, the average Chinese person isn’t routing through alleys at night with a baseball bat, trying to take bag the next day’s supper.  Where I live they eat the same things we do on a regular basis.  Pig, cow, chicken, etc. form a regular part of their diet, though they don’t waste as much as we do, the result being more of the nutrients we ignore in favor of vitamin French fry health-a-Coke are absorbed by the system. 

The one thing the Chinese need to work on is sweets. Not for lack of offerings, what they do have, however, contains about the same amount of sugar as a radish.  As a result, every once and a while I get a tremendous hankering for a piece of wedding cake, or even just a piece of pie. I suppose that the Chinese people’s general ability to fit through turnstiles at a higher rate than Americans can be attributed to their general lack of Dairy Queens, Twinkies, and the like.

The food so good here, you deserve a much longer culture corner describing it.  However, I hope what little I wrote gives a little better idea of how varied and delicious food is in China.  Until next time…

Culture Corner: Confucianism


My first ever culture corner preview...  

I'm salivating with anticipation!  For my ethics class, I've given the students the assignment of writing a story with a moral conclusion, like the hare and the tortoise, or the men who built homes, one on a rock, the other on sand, etc.  I'm envisioning this to be a goldmine for our entertainment!  With the Chinese film equivalent of the Oscar being called the Golden Rooster, can you imagine what these students are going to come up with!?!?!  The best part I think will be trying to guess what the moral of the story is.  Stay tuned....
 
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After flying so high on the hopes of expectation, I fell, plummeting to the grounds of reality.  Having now been in China for almost three years (three years!!) I'm kicking myself.  I know better - I should've seen this one coming!  What was I thinking?  Not only did the students’ moral stories lack imagination, they lacked originality.  Here are the statistics: a few turned in stories of their own creation, but were bland and dull.  A few more blatantly plagiarized: nothing like satisfying the requirements of a "creative writing" assignment in an Ethics class by stealing another's words.  But most simply took an existing story and slightly altered it, for example replacing the tortoise and the hare with a leopard and a sloth, the remainder of the story remaining identical.  Of the latter two, I prefer the plagiarism.  At least their "creativity" was economized.  So, I have nothing to as interesting to offer you as I’d hoped upon giving the assignment.

In case you weren't aware, just about every granule of creativity and individual thinking has been squeezed out of Chinese society.  As Western influences begin to take root, things are changing, but generally speaking they are a bunch of lemmings, individuality and ingenuity crushed beneath the wheel of potential social criticism.  At first I wanted to blame leftover communism for this, but the longer I've been here and the more I've read, I think the reason is an -ism that has been around longer than Marx’s variety.

Many, many hundreds of years ago while Medieval Europe was still trying to find properly sharp splinters to spear their bed lice and dumping shit and piss out their windows onto the street, the Chinese were a sophisticated, civilized society, wearing silk, sipping wine, and expounding in poetry.  Confucianism, a tool that kept peace in society and allowed those in power to maintain that power for long periods of time, reigned.  I assume most of you think of Confucius as "that smart Chinese guy" and know not much more about him other than his ability to utter the most profound statements in a paucity of words. (You know, “man who live in glass house see sky.”)  So, I will tell you a little more, particularly how he crushed the creative spirit of China.  

As with his contemporaries, people like Laozi and Mozi, Confucius, or Kongfuzi, was a philosopher trying to spread a doctrine, his being that developing virtue is the most important facet of humanity. In particular, benevolence is the virtue to be held in the highest regard, and as your parents give birth to you, i.e. showing you the ultimate act of kindness, you have an obligation to obey them, no matter what they say, or whether they are even still alive.  For example, one part of a child's duty according to strict interpretation of the practice was to regularly pay respects to their dead ancestors, which is why Confucianism is often classified as a religion by the West, despite the fact there is no god or gods, only dust and bones.  (Wait, aren’t we squabbling over the shroud of Turin…)

Wanting to talk about virtue ethics one day in class, I asked my students: "Why does your mother love you?", hoping to draw out their virtues as examples.  Now, in the past during conversation I've jokingly asked this question to other Chinese people and always gotten the same answer.  Because my class wasn't as casual, I thought I might get a different answer.  But no, I received the same answer, yet again – from every student: "My mother loves me because I'm her child."  (Imagine the resulting answers from a class of American students, e.g. "Because I don't eat all of her pop-tarts.", “Because I have her eyes.”, “Because I go to the shop and buy her cigarettes.”)  This put a kink in the start of my lesson; it's difficult to make a list of virtues in the face of Darwinian logic.  My point is, Confucianism remains evident today.  Blind statements regarding the obligation one has to their parents come from everyone I've asked.

As government, in particular the king, is society's parent, one also had a duty to obey whatever he said according to Confucianism.   The doctrine of Laozi (move to a mountain and become a hermit, writing poems and growing vegetables) and Mozi (love everybody the same, the street bum the same as the government official) did not play as well into the hands of those in power.  Thus, you can see why Confucius's doctrine was promulgated by leadership.  The current Chinese government so adept at propaganda, I can assume they began learning how to indoctrinate back then, telling the people they were concerned for the "well-being of the family," the indirect benefit to themselves left unmentioned.  But that's just me being cynical.
Much the same as the Bible once was in the West, one of Confucius's books, "The Book of Rites," was utilized throughout society as a guide for living.  People studied, memorized, and practiced the incredibly detailed list of rites one must perform to be properly obedient to their parents –dead or alive - and government – dead or alive.  Rites and not laws, they were, however, and therefore not wholly enforced by the government.  Rather, wielding the strong arm of justice was the wagging tongue of your neighbors and the public, critical voices of leaders. Yes, this is much the same as any fundamental religious community.  However, there’s a difference to the Confucisnism.  It's not: "I saw Johnny touch Christy on the shoulder at the grocery store.  Is that the way friends should act!  What would their spouses think?  I hope Jesus will forgive them."  Instead, it is: "Johnny only wore sackcloth and wept for the first 35 months and 29 days after his father's death instead of the full 36 months prescribed – I know, I was counting.  I wouldn't do that, I'm a filial son."  You get the idea.

So, much the same as Christians can be depended upon to hold certain ideals and be a self-policing community without formal law, so too have the Chinese been since Confucianism took hold.  The ideals foremost on people's minds when deciding what moral course of action should be taken, the gossips await to judge.  The scale of society obviously being much larger in China, this begs the question: where do depraved citizens go when not following the moral precepts of a whole country?  To a different country?  The answer is: nowhere but to the mountains to write poems and grow vegetables.  But really, essentially the people had only the choice: CONFORM or be isolated socially, the benefits of nepotism and bribery no longer available.  So, they conformed.  And conform they did, and they've been conforming ever since, accent on the family, moderation, humility, benevolence, obeisance, etc.  

With conformity in such high regard, introducing fresh, innovative ideas into society does not bode well.  What's different and unknown is something to be feared and doubted.  During the Tang Dynasty, a the Chinese Golden Age, new inventions and creations appeared, benefiting society in general.  But since that time, especially during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Confucianism and neo-Confucianism ruled, and very little has been introduced.  As a result, how many Nobel prize winners have come from China?  Not many.  What's the most recent advent of technology originating in China?  Waiting…  How many original kinds of Chinese music have you heard lately that aren’t rooted in a tradition hundreds or thousands of years old?  Again, waiting… How many contributions to world society has China made since the Tang Dynasty when they produced four wonderful things we still use today: the compass, paper, printing press, and gunpowder?  It's interesting to note, while the Chinese used gunpowder for fun and fireworks (and most effectively I might add), foreign powers took this invention and created powerful weapons, weapons they later used against China to subjugate certain parts, all because the Chinese were living in the same groove they had been for hundreds and hundreds of years.  (Side note: this is how Hong Kong came to be British.)  In other words, aside from slight nuances, maybe hairstyles or the fit of clothes, poems having six lines instead of four, peach trees instead of plum, Chinese society has gone virtually unchanged for a very long time.  It's only in the past century that cracks have begun appearing in a fa├žade literally millennia in the making, Communism only the latest manifestation of utter conformism.

Some of you are turning your nose up at China as a stale, tedious social environment because of what I’ve just described.  But you should know that, relatively speaking, the result is also one wherein their society has been incredibly stable and peaceful compared to Western nations.  Certainly their leadership has changed, wars have been fought, but when compared to what has happened in Western nations during that time, they are like a sleeping cat who only wakes up occasionally to stretch its claws and find where the sun has gone.  In a country of 1.3 billion, poverty – the supposed breeder of crime – is at an incredible high, yet it is still safer to walk down any street or dark alley in China than the most civilized street our "great" Western societies can offer.  You may not be able to say anything bad against their government, but they don’t have children going to school and expressing their individuality by aiming a gun at their classmates.   Maybe artistic styles have undergone little or no change in the past 15 or so centuries, but every family may fully depend on its members to be a cohesive unit, there for you in youth or old age, ready to fulfill duty by helping you, even in death, rather than shuffling you off to the old folk’s home.  It is to these depths that Confucianism goes – and steals away my hopes for wonderful moral stories. 

Culture Corner: The Village

Yes, a real culture corner.  I don't know why, I just felt like writing one.  However, I couldn't think of what to write, that is, until I went to eat supper in the little village near my campus and was reminded of something quite humorous.  Here goes.

When I say village, perhaps the image of a quiet little gathering of buildings, maybe a gas station or a luncheon, maybe a few houses and a short main street springs to mind.  Strike this from your imagination immediately.  This is not the Chinese village. My campus lies an hour's public bus ride from the city center and is considered countryside, though you and I might just think of it as industrial wasteland.  It's comprised of only two colors: gray and yellowish brown.  The yellowish brown is the abandoned yards and fields surrounding my campus.  They have tall, unkempt grass and bushes, stray pieces of rusty steel and bricks, and bits of rubbish fading in the puddles.  Sporadically growing from the weeds are dilapidated factories, wood shacks, and all other manner of ramshackle structures, their gray facades smudges in the dusty vegetation.  Some are inhabited, some not, no difference in the appearance to say which is which unless you see a thin path worn to a door or hear a dog bark if you get close.   There are also a few new buildings just recently constructed, their technology and industrial ability touted on big signs.  But no more life comes from them than the abandoned buildings, their shiny existence seeming to have no connection with anything around them.  Snaking amongst the fields and buildings are sludgy canals with opaque brown-green water, patches of leafy green vegetables growing on their edges.  A line of hills runs to the west, and on the rare day there isn't incredible humidity, you can see a rather elaborate tea house on one of the distant hilltops, it's elegant architecture an anachronistic watchtower over the wasteland below.  

A five minute walk from my campus's north entrance is a village, one which from above I'm sure is indistinguishable from the other "development" around it.  Not the one horse town you might think it is, this village is home to a few thousand people, the vast majority of which live in poverty and provide the only life visible in the wasteland aside from my university.  The buildings are mostly one story brick, tin roofed, and quite filthy according to Western standards.  The streets are open, begging for rain to wash away the discarded food and packaging mashed into them, anything beneath the soles considered a rubbish bin in China.  Dogs, some of which may have homes, trot about in a manner well practiced, dodging bicycles, people, mopeds, cars, and the like, stopping to lick the occasional chicken bone or watermelon rind they may find.  Cart vendors line the sides of what few streets comprise the village, selling hot potatoes, sweets, shish-kebabs, knick knacks, fruits and vegetables, milk tea and the like.  Behind them are the slightly more established entrepreneurs hoping to make a few dollars.  There are beauty salons pumping techno at volumes far greater than the speakers they are using were designed for, the bass buzzing on every beat.  Shops sell new bicycles carefully wrapped in plastic, the only thing protecting them from the grease and oil coating the ground, walls, and people working around them.  And along with the steam emanating from the restaurants comes the rich aromas of soup and noodle dishes, fried meats and sweet breads - all manner of tables set up on the street sides.  At the back of the village beneath a decaying concrete awning is an open air vegetable market and butchery.  It's odors and sights not for the faint of heart, those at the tables work from early in the morning to late at night just to earn a few yuan on a commodity that rots before their eyes.  There are occasional rubbish disposal areas that provide a most organic reek, their contents spilling out onto the road and providing the only real bright spots of color in what is otherwise, as described, gray and yellowish-brown.  

In and around all of this people move about, the 10,000+ students at my university mingling with those who call the village home, conversing, holding hands, shouting gleefully, and arguing about prices.  The gray of this village is simply part of a larger gray when you are standing beside the tea house and overlooking the area, the noise and commotion of these people coming and going from this little nexus the only sign of life amongst the dirt and decay.

Most of you will probably think what I have described is fairly bleak, and maybe you wonder what I could find so attractive about living here.  My campus is only six years old and the apartment where I live on par with Western standards, however I find this village to be far more interesting than anything I see standing in my apartment.  I like the dirt.  I think it's real, and to some degree, necessary.  It literally adds flavor, as dishes you buy in pricey Chinese restaurants can be bought on the village streets at a fraction of the cost but at ten times the taste.  The only mostly clean dishes and pots add something that has been sterilized to taste heaven by the ongoing development and modernization.  Dirt is also the color of humanity.  Mary May's kitchen from a Lysol commercial is a pipe dream, and I would daresay she gets just as many colds and flus as people in the village.  She’s just another victim of looking at corporate advertising, something which - by the way - only puts you in danger of tripping over stray dogs when walking the streets.   Ha!

The people in the village are real.  They know the hardships of life, and as a result reality plays a more prominent role in their thoughts and words.  It's much nicer to talk to a person such as this, that is, rather than one who spends money they don't have on things they don't need, and then looks to others for help...  (Are you listening America?)  In many ways, the village is a connection to China's history, and in it you can see people practicing ways of life that will be gone in 15, 10, 5 years or less, the government demolishing such places, dispersing the locals into modern apartment buildings and "civilizing" what remains.  

In the middle of my village, or what counts for the middle in such an unorganized area, is the village square, distinguishable only by its open concreteness and three trees.    This large concrete  pad is mostly used for bicycle parking and pedestrian traffic and I'm sure doesn't even have a name.  On most nights the older women of the village take over one corner and practice sword and fan dances.  I've also seen a sheet hung on a piece of rope between the trees and used as a screen for a reel to reel projector, the audience those passing by or those stopping to smoke a cigarette and watch a few minutes of whatever vintage film was being played.  And on one night I even saw a traveling sideshow, a family from the remote province of Xinjiang arriving in a small van, rolling out a carpet and setting up a small stereo, the daughters collecting money in cheap plastic bowls while their father strode about breathing fire and knife swallowing.  Their clothing stained and dirty, I could see the ethanol the father was using running in glistening streams down his throat and soaking into his shirt, but scraping by as best they know how in this world.

But nothing beats what I saw one night last spring--or autumn, I can't remember which.  I went to the village to have supper at one of the small and filthy but delicious eateries, and upon finishing my meal, went to the store adjacent to the concrete gutter otherwise known as the village square to buy a few things.  When I emerged, I noticed that a moving truck and a few vehicles had pulled in and begun setting up for something.  Based on the other oddities I'd been witness to there, I eagerly waited to see what it was. 

First came a rickety stage, complete with a gaudy neon pink backdrop and flashy bunting, not to mention a wobbly spotlight shining weakly from across the square.  Two massive speakers were erected at either side of the stage and almost immediately began pumping bass at high volumes to all corners.  (This is known as advertising in China.)  Doing all of the set up was a troupe of young men.  Dressed in army fatigues, they really had me wondering what was about to happen.  At the back of the stage a Chinese playboy wannabe-gangster emerged - cool as a cat, of course – to sit down behind a table, a few of his cronies alongside him, all sporting sunglasses.  Since I assume most of you don't know a lot of about what is fashionable in China, let me quickly explain this version of the playster/gangboy.  

Like the poor's credit cards in America, he was maxed out.  Stallone's Cobra style sunglasses at night, a cream white three piece suit with thin black tie and collar turned up, and hair done in one of the trendy fraggle rock/troll doll styles I laugh at every day in class.  Suffice to say, I didn't dare to get to close for fear the slime would just leap off.

Seeing all of the preparation, the things falling into place, and especially the emergence of the playster, my curiosity was genuinely excited; the arrangement was too incongruous for my brain to come up with any plausible scenario as to what was going to happen, mobile karaoke the best I could think of.  As curious as me, quite a crowd had gathered around the stage by this time.  I thought it would be mostly university students, but when I looked I saw it was actually the villagers, surprisingly me a little.  How could an old lady who sews trousers all day care about techno, gangboys, and pathetic stage set-ups?   We all waited for something further to happen, but nothing did.  

Eventually a group of girls came out on stage, each dressed in a miniskirt, small pink top, and heaps of makeup.  They managed to arrange themselves in lines to either side of the stage and the show got started.  A middle aged man in a suit – a normal suit – leapt up onto the stage and began talking very quickly into a microphone.  My Chinese is improving, but I could only understand a word here or there, certainly not enough to ascertain what I was witness to - or about to be witness to.  After a while, people in the audience started raising their hands and reaching towards the stage, to which the stage girls dispersed pamphlets of some variety.  Somehow faster than before, the man began shouting, exonerating, and drawing even more hands up in the air, all grabbing these flyers.  "What the heck?" I definitely said to myself.  "Are these lyric sheets for karaoke?"  But after a while the hands disappeared, the girls re-aligned themselves, and as quickly as he'd popped on, the man leapt off stage and the music was turned back up, the army troupe continuing to hold ground around the periphery of the stage.  Nothing more happened for several minutes, leaving me to worry the end had come, but it turned out the pause was just for dramatic effect.   

Standing slowly to his feet and ambling out to center stage as though he had no cares in the world, the playster picked up the microphone and in his best Elvis baritone, began a soothing entreatment, a silky plead.  Slow and warm as it was, I still had trouble understanding his Chinese dialect, and was even more curious after he pulled a watch out of his pocket.  Dangling it to his side like a man posing with a prize trout, he spoke at length about what I knew not.  Then the watch fell out of his hand and hit the stage.  An accident I thought!  But then he picked it up and dropped it again, and again.  He then asked for a bottle from one of the girls and proceeded to pour water over the watch.  What the…?  Wait, they're traveling salespeople!!  This whole setup, the bunting, the spotlight, the techno, the pin-up girls, it's all to hawk watches!  

Sure enough, the boy sat back down after a while at the table among his gangboy wannabes and the middle aged man bounded back up on stage to light another fire under the people.  His voice bursting over the sound system, the music was cranked to ear decimating decibels, and soon enough money, literally hand over fist, was flying back and forth between the pin-ups and the audience, the latter in return receiving a box containing a cheap imitation Rolex.  I looked on in amazement.  How could these quiet, sedentary villagers be so easily taken in by such rubbish?   An old woman tugged at my sleeve and let me have a look at her marvelous purchase and urged me to go buy one – or two or three as some people were doing.  How could this old lady who starves every penny she earns for as many grains of rice as she can get be willing to spend relatively so much more on this man's pathetic smoke and mirrors?  

My belief the villagers had such a firm seat in reality was taking severe blows.  There were second and third waves of persuasive speeches by the man and each time the ordinarily frugal audience responded in kind, scrabbling to get close to the stage, thrusting their fistfuls of money in the air. 

But after a while the frenzy died down, the girls took their places once again, and the man disappeared.  As I had secretly been waiting for, the playster stood to his feet one last time, took the microphone, and romantically slipped into song.  (A show is not a show in China unless someone sings, no matter if you're inaugurating a president or peddling toilet cleansers.)  True to appearances, however, we were treated to only one verse and half a chorus before the camouflaged troupe of boys began packing things up.  Within fifteen minutes the whole scene was gone, the square open to the night sky once again.  Where did they go?  Off to another village to milk them of their rice money?  Willy Wonka world?  We don’t know; it remains for the poets to sing.

I still think back with interest upon that evening.  It was like being taken back in time to witness what things may have once been like - without the techno and troll hair, of course.  How long has it been in the Americas or Europe since we've had such traveling sales shows?  Going town to town, pulling a ramshackle cart, selling bottles of tonic with a bowtie, twirling a cane, sure to cure what ails ya', just 10 cents a vial….  It would seem the poor in China are no less grounded in financial reality than the Americans when properly primed, they just don't have credit cards yet.  Anyone know the new business number at Visa?

Culture Corner: First Culture Corner

This is the very first culture corner post I made.  Prior to moving to Wuxi and beginning a job at Jiangnan University, I cut my teeth in the Spartan conditions of Nanjing Normal University.  Without further ado, here it is:

Many of you have asked what exactly I do. I am an employee of Nanjing Normal University.  (Don't ask what "Normal" means.  I just know there is a plain Nanjing University.  Does that insinuate mine is abnormal?  You figure it out.)  My official title is "Foreign Expert" - at least according to my Chinese visa, though I am just a teacher.  I teach at the university's central campus - it has several throughout Nanjing - and it is beautiful.  If you want to see photos, go to: www.njnu.edu.cn.  All of its buildings are old and have roofs with the architectural style I  associated with China prior to arrival: curved green tile with eaves upturned at the corners like the prows of ships. 

The inside of the buildings are far less ornate, however, entirely opposite, in fact.  My classroom is a concrete shoebox with white-washed walls that echo, and is entirely bare except for desks and a chalkboard.  (Yes, I teach using a chalkboard.)  It's a bit drafty, and as the heating system is… non-existent, we've had class this winter in our jackets and gloves.  The plus side of my building’s interior is that on the floor above are the fine arts for music rooms.  All class long, the tinkle of classical piano and strains of violins can be heard in the background, which does something to ease the chill.

I teach almost 20 hours per week, Monday through Friday, needing only a few more hours outside of class for preparation - I am an "expert" after all, and all of this at the fantastic rate of $6/hr.  (By the end of my ten months here I will have grossed about $4,000 USD.  $400/month, not bad!!)  

My class is composed of seven, sometimes eight, sometimes nine, sometimes two students who want to study in an English speaking country next year, but first need to pass an English entrance exam.  This is where I come in. I'm responsible for their English, with my main goal being to improve their speaking and listening skills.  I do this by speaking and listening.  Aside from this, four of the twenty hours per week are used for "English Culture", which pretty much gives me free reign.  As I am always trying to get them to speak, I use this time to satisfy my curiosity by asking them questions about their own culture and then compare their replies to Western culture. I have learned a lot this way.  (Ground tiger bones are apparently a good aphrodisiac.)  Thankfully they have a Chinese teacher to teach them grammar and vocabulary, otherwise they'd be teaching me.

My students speak fairly good English, some are better, some are slightly worse, and as I see them almost every day, they have become my family.  It remains to be seen if they'll pass the entrance exam, but all of them could feed and shelter themselves in the Western world if thrust into it; we are always able to - at the very least – communicate something, anything, a word, a sound, a grunt.  At first they were shy, but now they are a fun group who are discovering their freedom in much the same way we did when we were first out of high school and starting university.  And as they love to laugh, it works out well, because as you know, I tell bad jokes.
 
Their English names are Yoyo (she knew it was a toy), Kevin (a girl who wanted to keep the name even after I told her it was a boy's name; I now think nothing of calling her Kevin), Cherry, Fred, Peter, Stephy, and Waylen (he was the only one who didn't have an English name, so I gave him a list of choices, the singer of the Dukes of Hazzard theme being the inspiration for my/his choice).  If he feels like coming and is not ultra-confident he'll pass the exam (he won't), C.S. will also join us.  And, if his father breathes down his neck, Hank will also make a once per month appearance.

Their Chinese names are even better, believe it or not.  Like Native American names, they actually mean something, unlike, for example, John Anderson.  (Son of Ander, whose Ander?)  When translated, I have a Yellow Happy-Continent, Leaf Favor, Post Very-Happy, Display Quiet, Circumference Meteor-Shower, King Clever, and Line Snow-Beautiful as students.

So that's it, the basics of my life as a teacher.  Any questions?  (See, that was one of those bad teacher jokes.)