Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sounds of China

After a long and eventful trip with my parents across Eurasia on the Trans Siberian, an insufficient breeze through Scandinavia , and a visit with friends in the UK, I am squarely back in Middle-America and a frustrating job hunt.

Before I left China, I jotted down a few sounds that I will likely not hear again unless I someday return. Sounds are difficult to capture in words unless you have experienced them. So, though the list may still be interesting to all, it will only trigger nostalgia among those who have experienced them.

Sounds I will miss:

1) Dried tea leaves pinging the bottom of a stainless steel mug on the way to the office water boiler
2) Clanging woks just inside open windows of low-rise apartment buildings at lunch-time
3) Walnut shells grinding together in the palm of a old Beijinger man strolling in the opposite direction
4) The militaristic count to 4 in the morning for various official events and training sessions
5) Women preparing a bed for a guest by beating the mattress with both hands
6) My roommate’s dramatic teeth brushing performance from one room away
7) A room full of shot glasses clanging against glass lazy susans in nearly perfect unison during banquet toasts
8) “Luo la” or “ Lao la” (My name in Chinese)
9) The single syllable “mmm” or “ahh” of agreement in conversation
10) The silence after someone sneezes (as in no “Bless you”)
11) Shameless public singing
12) Chopsticks being washed en mass by rolling them together between hands under water
13) Table tennis in the office hallway in the late-afternoon
14) Rubbish collectors on carts yelling upwards to open windows
15) The deep voiced guy that sells handmade blankets in my neighborhood, also yelling upwards to open windows
16) My Grandmother’s cheery voice through my cheap Nokia mobile at 4:30AM when she had mastered Skype, but not yet the 12 hour time gap!

To be perfectly honest about my feelings on leaving, I have included sounds I WILL NOT miss:

17) The pre-spit hawk
18) The post-hawk spit
19) Northeast or Beijing dialect ‘r’ outside my window at 4:30 AM
20) Alternating fast high-pitched and slow low-pitched voices of elderly neighbors bickering, muffled by not so well insulated walls
21) Loud ringtones of pop favorites
22) ‘wai guo ren!” (foreinger!)
23) ‘lao wai!” ( foreinger!)
24) “e luo si en!” (Russian!)
25) Poor quality pop music bumping from poor quality speakers at storefronts
26) The ubiquitous recording telling me that everything inside a store is only 2 Yuan
27) “Mei Banfa” (Nope, there’s no way to solve your problem / I’m not willing to help you)
28) Muzak magically emanating from fake logs and mushrooms in tourist areas and otherwise natural parks
29) Heavy plastic door flaps closing in your face

Friday, October 30, 2009

China's Quirky Mornings



I like China most in the early morning. Aside from the occasional official university event, all of which for some reason must begin at 6:00AM with loud speakers, mornings are relatively quiet. Breakfast food stands set up in back alleys selling fresh soy milk, fried dough sticks, and bite sized steamed dumplings to go. Vegetable and fruit markets present the day’s freshest produce to the most eager customers. And, mornings are hands down the best time of the day for people watching in China. It’s the only time/place one can see an old man in full Kung Fu garb after his morning training poking through vegetables at a market with a sword!

Through both direct and indirect comments, I get the feeling that Chinese consider themselves to be a nation of early risers. I also get the feeling that Chinese believe that westerners are late risers, dare I say lazy late risers. My landlord’s pride sneaked through his typically stoic face when he mentioned that he wakes up at 4:30 or 5:00 every morning to jog. The early morning hours are a time to be outside pursuing moderate exercise.

Mornings are a time for serious Tai Chi and Kung Fu classes in parks, as well as individual practitioners scattered about apartment complexes and university tracks. For men and women, mornings are also a time for walking; jogging (which is at the same speed as walking but with a jogging fa├žade); waking backwards; leg stretching to lengths that make me cringe; rope jumping; table tennis; various routines of smacking legs, arms, backs, cheeks, and heads; and playing a hacky sack type game with a feathered shuttlecock. For men, mornings are a time for harder running, basketball, and pull-ups. For women, mornings are a time for traditional style dancing with fans and sequenced fabric squares.

While I understand the physical and mental benefits of these activities, there are a few additional exercises that leave me stumped. Many of these exercises overlap with Chinese traditional medical concepts, some of which also still bewilder me. Many exercise regimens involve repetitious patting/hitting, extreme stretching, and even yelling; all purport to maintain good circulation, flexibility, and expelling ‘bad air,’ respectively. Here are a few anecdotes for you to picture and ponder.

Once on a morning run by the ocean in Dalian, above the waves I heard the disturbing sound of people yelling. As I paused to watch, I found no one to be in danger, but rather 25 swim-capped heads bobbing about letting out generic hollow yells. Perplexed and slighted disturbed, I asked my doctor friend about this bizarre habit. He suggested that they were probably trying to force out ‘bad air.’ I guess this is similar to the idea of ‘running out’ a chest cold on the mend?

On a river ferry boat on the Yangtze River, I came up to the deck to greet the day only to see ten men halfway through their personalized morning routines of arm rotations, hip thrusts, and trunk twists. Feeling that my conventional hamstring stretches and jumping-jacks were insufficient for that crowd, I returned to my room.

Early one hot July morning in Beijing, I was jogging around a university track and every time I passed the 100 m mark I could not help but slow to watch an older couple in their creative routine. The women was bumping her back forcefully against a tree trunk and letting out a yell. The man held one end of a large linked chain over his shoulder. At the other end he had tied the chain into a ball about 10 inches across. He was slowly but rhythmically swinging the chain around his body and letting the chain ball hit his back side. I can only guess that the Mrs. had a case of the bad air and the gentleman was worried about circulation. I guess I could have asked, but they seemed occupied.

Other exercise routines are less perplexing to me and more impressive. Each public exercise area always has one or two super fit middle-aged men maxing out on pull-ups and dips. I have also seen men an women well into their 80’s with one leg halfway up a tree! I have seen fewer women demonstrating acts of strength, as I gather such activities are not in keeping with a woman's best health interests or overall image. Yet, I have seen some solid female joggers and jump-ropers.

My first encounters with these strange activities made me smirk with, admittedly, condescension. As an ex-400m runner, I tend to be slightly masochistic when it comes to exercise. What good is a workout if you’re not drenched in sweat, gasping for breath, and cramping by the end? I feel that America has a split personality when it comes to fitness. On one end are the marathoners and gym rats that guzzle Nalgenes of water and drink whey products. At the other are those who have resigned themselves to a life of immobility altogether. In this context, the Chinese seem to have it figured out.

So what if the lady walking backwards hitting his arms repeatedly has a little pot belly? At least she’s moving! And what if the guy jogging is getting lapped by the walkers? He probably won’t need knee surgery! Stretching for a half hour, playing table tennis, and yes even bumping one’s back against a tree, would likely benefit those who (for no other legitimate health reasons) have become immobile.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Neighborhood Watchdogs


I recently wrote a short “what to expect when coming to China e-mail” for a professor of my institute who was expecting two foreign summer interns. I included the detail that it’s not uncommon to see vibrant slums standing beside shiny modern luxury apartment complexes. She stopped me on the way out of the institute, and we chatted about the e-mail amongst egg-plants, carrots, and chili peppers spread over the sidewalk by vegetable vendors from the suburbs. She said that even after living in Europe, she had never noticed the affluence discrepancy. She explained that being poor was part of everyone’s childhood in her generation. So actually, she doesn’t notice the slums, period.

When I first came to China, the unkempt, cracking concrete soviet style buildings of no particular aesthetic value put me on edge. Having emerged from a bubble of small town USA neighborhoods, perfumed by an aroma of fresh lawn clippings and fabric softener sheets from dryer vents, I was trained to believe that “rundown” conditions of a neighbor probably equals crime, guns, murders, and packs of marauding males intent on doing me harm. But in China, rusty, discolored, and water damaged, well, perfectly describes my perfectly comfortable neighborhood.

It took me a while, but I stopped seeing the general sliminess of my neighborhood and started noticing the signs with which I associate safety, security, and community: familiar smiling faces; grandmas with their infant grandchild out for a stroll in the pitch dark at 1:00AM; harmless neighborhood gossip; food gifting; a kid practicing his trumpet, and general neighborhood nosiness!

I rest assured knowing that I have a brigade of retiree watchdogs keeping astute monitor of building 22. I can hear conversation in Beijing bravado during their voluntary shifts from 5:00AM to Midnight, while they play cards and mahjong, exercise, and wash and peel vegetables. They do take an hour and half break mid-day for lunch and a siesta. This must be the time when they tell secrets, because everything else they say can be clearly heard on the top floor of my walk-up flat.

I learned quickly that they keep track of everything, including me! They sit under the trees on a patio directly across from where I lock up my bicycle, meaning that I rarely enter or exit my building without a little chat. As I round the corner on my bike, I quickly calculate the ratio of their degree of absorption in their card games to length of my skirt and strategically time my dismount accordingly.

On my way in they ask if I have finished work, where I have been, what I have purchased, how much I paid, and then advise on where I could get it cheaper. Sometimes I even get my vegetables inspected. On the way out, they ask me where I’m going, what I’m throwing away, and if there are any recyclable bottles in my bag.

If I don’t appear to be in a hurry, they press on: “Have you found a new job yet?” “Where are you going,” “Are you going to play soccer, I heard you play soccer (with thumbs up because girls don’t play soccer in China).” “Don’t you take a nap after lunch?” “Did you bring an umbrella?” “Have you found a Chinese boyfriend yet?” “Where did you get your flat tire fixed on your bike and for how much? You didn’t ride your bike for five day you know?”

I judge that their involvement in my business is a manifestation of their concern at best and condescension at worst. Unfortunately, I interpret their questioning as the former or the latter based on my mood and how many similar questions I have endured that day. I have never tried firing questions back. I wonder how my lack of inquiry into their semi-private lives is interpreted. Thoughts?

The picture is of a few of these ladies when they were actually, officially, "on patrol" during the weeks of congressional meetings in China (as if any top officials would visit our tiny complex in a remote corner of Beijing.) But, they do the same thing all day anyway, just without the red arm bands.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Long Distance Bus Ride Blues in China

I can be positive about many things in China, but bus rides is not one of them.
I have taken a few long distance bus rides in the US, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. I rank China as number one for overall sensory discomfort. Unfortunately, I do them so infrequently that I forget the physical discomfort between and book them again to save money.

First there are all the problems associated with buying a ticket. There is usually a small crowd around the door of a long distance bus station trying to or get passengers on another bus or car. Or, they are simply trying to get customers to buy the same ticket that you would buy inside, but from them. As a fair-haired foreigner, I get hassled more than the Chinese customer (or at least that’s how I feel). I have to nearly push my way through the crowd of gruff speaking, smoky, smelly, ticket poachers to get to the official counter. Once there I have to hold my place in line and try my best to ignore the chatter from black market ticket sellers, who have followed me from the front door. I tell them in Chinese, “You’re wasting your time, don’t bother me, and I’m not Russian” but to no avail. If the official ticket vendor is kind, she will tell them to scram.
My most recent long distance bus experience was on the return to my final trip to Dalian in July. I thought I would save some money and take the 11 hour bus trip back to Beijing instead of flying. Things started well. My dear friend got the ticket for me in advance and the bus was modern and relatively clean. My seat mate was a neatly dressed young woman, which I greatly prefer over the cigarette/booze scented male alternatives. The bus was not full when we left, so the driver crept through concentric circles around the Dalian station, honking insatiably, while his wing man yelled our destination out the door. This is just in case anyone on the sidewalk suddenly decides to drop his/her plans and go to Beijing. I guess it’s possible.

After a couple years traveling in China, I’m well inured to the excessive use of horns on bus rides. The real noise problems began once we were on the open road and the distractions of city driving had ceased. The music and video programs were switched on and I suddenly remembered why I should have taken the plane. Regardless of the genre, Peking opera, traditional comedy skits, the official Spring Festival performance (still showing in July), or mediocre pop singer performances, they are all LOUD! In moments like these I sit and look at the screaming speaker above my head and imagine a Chinese manufactured volume dial with only two settings: “shufu”(comfortable) and “bu shufu” (uncomfortable). I gauge that this time it was set at about three notches past “bu shufu.” I looked around the bus to find that I was the only one wincing instead of grinning during the canned laughter.

Next come air problems. I suppose anytime one boards public transportation she forfeits her rights to climate/air control. Yet I find that my need for a constant flow of fresh air to be more fervent than my bus-mates’ needs. We stopped on the outskirts of town to fill up on gas and take a bathroom break with the air-conditioning off and the doors and windows closed! Much to the amusement and interest of those around me, I pulled out my Chinese style fan to avoid both physically and mental meltdown. Again, no-one else seemed to sweat (pun totally intended) the dreadfully stagnant air of a July afternoon, which was further warmed by of 80 pairs of hot moist lungs.

Reminded of his habit by the no-smoking signs in the gas-station, the driver lit up a cigarette the moment we pulled away. As soon as he finished his torturously long cigarette, his wing man lit another, doubling the haze in the bus and my regret for not taking a plane. To his credit, he opened the tiny window beside him after lighting up. But at about 60 mph, this only rocketed the carcinogens to the back of the bus.

At this point, I had my shirt over my mouth and nose, my fingers in my ears, my cheek pressed up against the window to keep cool. And still no-body else seemed to be bothered about any of it! But just then, a man in the front row with a grandson in his lap asked the men to stop smoking. The wingman put up some protest that the grandpa refuted by telling him that he himself was also a smoker but would not subject his grandson or the rest of the bus to his smoke in such a confined space. God bless him and his grandson!

After countless unexplained stops, identification checks, bathroom/smoke breaks, and traffic jams, we finally rolled into a non-descript bus station parking lot in Beijing at 10:00 PM. I was tremendously relieved to be off the bus and to be reducing sensory stimuli one-by-one. But what would a bus journey be without a grand finale? Just then, we opened the luggage compartment only to watch two heavy eyed sluggish stowaways un-contort themselves from the spaces between our luggage and casually walk out of the station.
But, after all that I did save about 40 dollars!