Monday, December 10, 2007

The Swimming Pool – The Worst Place to Hide White Skin

A neighboring university offers a 15 Yuan ticket (10 if I fib and say I’m from said University and then act really confused and pretend that I cannot speak Chinese when they ask for my ID card) for unlimited time in their swimming pool. I go once a week for a dose of Chinese culture and some exercise on the side.

After misunderstanding the complex directions of the locker room rules, and having every inch of my white skin inspected by the other women as I change, I make my way to the Olympic style swimming pool. I must be glowing as every goggle wearing swim cap covered head (that is not face down in the water) turns to look at me. I scramble to disappear into the water. There is a play area where adults and children alike use floaties and flail about. Next there are two slowish lanes with older men and women wallowing through the breast stroke. Finally the inside two lanes are for those a bit more athletic. I pick the slow lane. After a couple of laps, I’m hanging out by the spittoon located at either end of the pool (yes gross but not as gross as if all those coal dust loogies were going into the pool) and a pink swim capped lady with enduring pink lipstick is staring. Here it comes, “Where from?” “Meiguo (America)” “[in Chinese] Ohhh your Chinese is SO good.” And I smile and return to the crawl thinking, “remember pink cap, remember pink cap”. On the way I’m interrupted by some unapologetic cross traffic from two high school aged boys. I rest at the other end because I’m not a good swimmer. A blue capped, heavy middle-aged man emerges from the water and greets me with a strong hot misty exhale reeking of his garlicy lunch, his most recent cigarette, and the consistent sort of moldering smell that never really gets brushed away here. I turn my head to the spittoon, and nearly gag. Off I go, “remember blue cap, remember pink cap.” At the other end, I pause too long. A university student is there also resting. He is extra skinny and his Speedo makes him even skinnier. Confident from his last oral English class, he asks, “Where are you from?” “America,” I say. Next question: “Have you a telephone number? I want to practice my oral English.” I’m thinking, not only would I never give my number to a guy in a Speedo after 15 seconds of conversation (30 if you count the awkward staring before) but I don’t know where he would put it even if I wrote it down! “Umm, I have to keep exercising.” And I’m back to the crawl thinking, “This lane is on to me.” At the end, I duck under the lane line and switch lanes. This group will take a few more laps before I can no longer keep all the swim caps straight, which buys me at least 10 more minutes of blending in as just another color of swimming cap.

After a couple more strategic lane swaps, its back to the showers where even through the steam I can watch women watching me. I know they think it is strange that I wash my hair with my head thrown back because I think it’s strange that they wash their hair bent over forward. Either way, while I’m looking up and they’re looking down, that is a couple more moments of being unnoticed.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Since Where? Eastern What?

If you have never been to modern China, you are probably picturing some modernized version of misty mountains and silk dresses. But now when I think of China, I picture a hazy skyline of half built high-rises, each topped with a crane, and all twinkling from the working welding torches within. Many of the new luxury building projects are obviously emulating some sort of western style (though usually missing it). Two traits stand out in particular for the newest luxury construction projects. First, regardless of how recent the building or business has been in place, there is often a placard inscribed with “Since (a date)”. Now, when I see “Since 1800” on a sign or label in America, I think, “Wow, this business must be great, having such enduring business and all.” Or, at least that is what they want me to think. However, here the placard stating, “Since 2002,” simply does not evoke the same veneration. Frankly, it seems like an oxymoron.

The second feature is a naming trend. Often months before a new 40 story apartment complex pops up overnight, the name is already proudly displayed. Names like: “Eastern San Jose”, “Eastern Camp David”, “Eastern Manhattan Towers”, and “Eastern Stanford Place.” The intent is to associate the new landmark with the revered place names of another culture thus boosting the new construction’s legitimacy as luxurious and developed. Yet to me it reinforces the infatuation for western luxury lifestyle that irks me so. Why can’t they name it, “Fresh Forbidden City” or, Modern Ming Magnificence?” Ok so, maybe the alliteration is going a bit far. My point is that developing China is quicker to honor western tradition than the historical treasures of their own deep history. Or, at least that’s what sells!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"You know, this is the Chinese way"

My trusted Chinese friends in have been exceedingly helpful to me in my new life here. However, from those less concerned with my best interests, I have experienced a chronic social phenomenon dodging responsibility. Often when someone can feel me reaching my wits end, they say, “This is the Chinese way, no one wants to do more than they must.” Please note that in contrast, any inconvenience, weather it be expended money or time, is willingly endured for the sake of close friends or family. But, the work place is a different story all together. Here are two such examples, one from the University and one from travels.

The classrooms in my university are completely dysfunctional for a discussion class (which is what I’m supposed to be teaching). They are designed for lectures and for students looking straight ahead being perfectly silent. Jealous of other foreign teachers that have rooms modified just for their conversation classes, I was eating lunch in the teachers’ cafeteria, thinking of a solution to my problem, when in walked the Dean of the English department. I quizzed him as he slopped a tray full of Chinese dishes and rice into his mouth in record time. Here is how the no language barrier English conversation went.

Me: So, I’m having trouble with my discussion classes because of the design of the classroom. You know all the desks are bolted to the floor. It is designed for a lecture, not discussion.
Dean: ah ah ah (Chinese sound for ok/yeah/understand/listening)
Me: Can you think of any classroom that has tables and chairs so that we could move around?
Dean: (looks up from his tray towards the ceiling) No they are all like that.
Me: Ah, ah. You know, in other schools they have made a classroom for foreign teachers.
Dean: Ah ah ah
Me: Do you think our univeristy could to this?
Dean: No, because the desks are fixed to the floor.
Me: Umm, I know, that is my problem. Do you think they could change one classroom on this campus for this kind of class?
Dean: No, because they are all the same.
Me: Umm, I know, but if I asked someone higher up, and had the students request also, do you think we could do it?
Dean: No, because we use a private company to supply our classroom materials.
Me: I see…. (pause and look around covetously at the mobile chairs in the cafeteria) Well, could I have class here?
Dean: Absolutely not.
Me: Why?
Dean: Because this is a cafeteria, not a classroom.
Me: But it could be a classroom, if we had class here.
Dean: But the door is locked most of the time.
Me: But we could arrange to open it during non-lunch time periods.
Dean: Impossible, it is a different department of the university.
Me: Ok
Dean: What about on the second floor of the main building, there are some couches there?
Me: Sure, could I borrow a chalkboard or a white board from another classroom?
Dean: No, I think there are no extras.
Me: Ok
[Here comes feigned helping but really are dodging responsibility part]
Dean: You could have your class outside.
Me: It’s December
Dean: You could all sit on the floor.
Me: My students don’t even want me to put my bag on the floor, they will not sit on the floor!
[The shoveling of rice has ceased] You know these things are very complicated I think. Ok, you know, I have to go. Have a good day Laura.

And I knew I would never hear anything of it again.

Another example is perhaps more humorous yet at the time just as frustrating. When traveling with my parents in Yunnan province in Southern China, we stayed in a historic village called Lijiang. We stayed in an admittedly sparse lodging house but comfortable enough for one night. But, there was a problem. The toilet didn’t flush and the seat was half gone.

I called in the boss, a long haired woman with gray streaks and a strong Sichuan accent wearing a cheap masculine looking boxy sport coat. I explained the problem in my best Chinese. She said she would come fix the flushing part. But, I said the seat was broken too and my parents are tired and old (sorry parents I had to play up the severity of the situation a bit) and they need to be able to sit on a whole toilet seat. There we stood, the two of us in the sparse, poorly redone bathroom, staring at the toilet. She dove right into “helping” me with my problem. Without speaking, she creatively and acrobatically demonstrated about five different positions from which my parents could choose to use the crescent seat and still carry out their business. I was trying my hardest to remain stern and hold back my smile as she danced and posed around the pot. Finally, the seat remained unfixed and I demanded that we change rooms.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Parents come to visit from the Midwest Motherland

My parents came to Dalian in the dark. I was almost offended when in true American style they continued to wear their shoes past the threshold of my apartment. I asked them to kindly remove their shoes. They did so obligingly, but mostly likely thought they were humoring their daughter who is trying to live Asian style. The next morning, they saw the city in the daylight. I took them to the market where we walked over slimy fish guts, rotten vegetables, and vendors’ yellow spit wads. Throughout the day I am sure they noticed the piles of dirt and dust from the ever-present construction and maybe even one or two young children squatting to take a leak (or more) on the sidewalk. When we returned to the apartment they took off their shoes immediately, the day’s sights explanation enough for the new custom their daughter has apparently embraced.

It took me weeks of confusing meetings and phone conversations with the Chinese travel agency, but I finally successfully planned a much too ambitious vacation to visit the city of Xi'an and multiple locations in Yunnan province for the three of us.

Yunnan is a mountainous province in Southern China bordering Tibet to the West and Laos and Myanmar to the South. It is famous for holding 26 of China’s 56 and some odd ethnic minorities. We hired a private driver which was key to reaching some remote mountain towns and stopping whenever we pleased. I was astonished to realize that my freshly learned Mandarin Chinese did me no good in most of the places we visited. I held my breath while my mother traipsed out into a rice paddy to converse (in English) with a minority farmer who surely did not even speak Chinese! I am sure the story of the day that the white woman came to his field made him the center attention in the village for months! As far as I could tell, these people’s daily life, language, and culture has nothing in common with and is most likely indifferent to Beijing and the central government.

Other travel highlights include: the old minority woman who guffawed at the mud slick on my mom’s backside from an unfortunate topple in the old woman’s banana field; all of us cringing during the crazy Chinese driving on mountain roads and my father demanding that the seat belts be released from under the seat as a direct result; my mom riding a yak across a mountain river; and the live chicken that got loose in our ATM booth! My father reported that in Ohio, he probably encounters three new images in any given day, giving his brain plenty of leisure time to process these new encounters. Yet on this trip, each day felt like a marathon as hundreds even thousands of new images were packed into his brain. What troopers!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Montessori Graduate meets Chinese method and awkward classroom moments

I am learning about Chinese classroom management one awkward moment at a time. I always knew that my educational background has been anything but traditional with regard to stringent rules and structure. I went from a Montessori school where we sat on the ground and called our teachers by their first names, to an all-girls school where our discussion was not only encouraged but as I remember difficult to harness. Next, it was on to Wooster where my Philosophy classes were often conducted in circles and I actually took an open book final exam on top of a building just because my professor said we could “go anywhere!” While I know that this is a special collection of experiences even in the US, when I’m teaching students pushed through the infamously strict Chinese education system I am occasionally genuinely flabbergasted.

For example, I was taken back the first time that I asked a student a question and they abruptly stood up and said “Teacher, I do no know,” and quickly sat back down. A little honored and yet a uncomfortable I thought, did you really have to stand to say that? If I ask a student to report on something, or give a speech, it takes on a nature of a diplomatic speech rather than casual explanation. There are usually about five sentences leading up to the meat of the speech somewhere along the lines of, “Today, I stand before you today, to tell of something of great importance in my life. I am honored to tell my opinion in your presence…etc.”

Yet perhaps the most obvious difference in conduct is that of pardoning oneself to the restroom during class. I don’t believe that I asked to use the restroom in high school and I most definitely did not in college. But these students can’t seem to break the habit. Despite my pleas for them to just go when nature calls, they will still appeal to me to grant them permission, often with way too many details supporting their request. For whatever reasons (water, kitchen sanitation, or real physiological differences) it is fair to say that my students frequently suffer from stomach problems. I know this because they tell of their discomfort during class. Perhaps the saddest example was one young looking Sophomore girl who suddenly jumped out of her seat. She ran to the front of the classroom arms extended and presented a note to me using two hands (which is considered respectful). The note read, “Teacher, I have diarrhea. I must go to the washroom now!” For God’s sakes go, I thought! Considering that I had to use spell-check to find the correct spelling of “diarrhea,” I am sure she spent two minutes in agony while she looked up the word in her dictionary and wrote it down. I kept a straight face and of course encouraged her to run!

I suspect that some of these awkward moments are also because they are being cautious because they do not know what a foreign teacher expects. I suspect that things will improve as we get to know one another. None the less, next semester I’ll lay down some rules. No telling the teacher when you are going to the bathroom NOR what you are going to do there.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Teaching Challenges

I teach all English majors except for one class of Engineers. You would think that I would prefer teaching English majors. But, ironically the class of engineers is my favorite class. Perhaps it is because I teach their only English class, whereas the English majors have only English classes. When these students enter their freshman year, they are assigned to a class of about 30 students with whom they will stay throughout their five years of study. They have up to six classes a day with the same students day in and day out, almost all of them dealing with some facet of the English language. By the time they get to my class they are sick of English and sick of each other. I’m contrasting this of course with my experience in an American college where we were encouraged, if not required, to take many courses outside of our majors. By contrast, these students’ schedules are written in stone before they even get to the university and they will follow the English track just as the class before them. I have heard that some universities go as far as to assign students to a desk mate for the entirety of their studies. I guess you cross your fingers that you get along!

Each week is a little adventure in Chinese academic culture. I am still trying to work out the parallels and opposites to the standard of education in my head. Here is an example of a particularly rough day that shed light on both the student’s struggles and mine.

There is one problem class in particular - 7th and 8th period, Sophomores. I had not attempted to discuss any environmental issues yet because I wasn’t sure if the topic would bomb or not. So finally, one of the last weeks in the semester, I floated a greeny topic to see what would happen. The topic was: How do you account for/describe/feel about the way Western media covers China’s environmental “crisis?” Albeit a loaded question, but I prefaced the entire thing by explaining that I cannot read Chinese newspapers and I am sadly limited to Western slants on China’s environmental situation (more precisely an American slant considering the BBC website is blocked in China).

The first two classes ate it up. We went over new vocabulary and how to use it. Then they explained the unfair criticism from developed western countries and even gave me some examples of recent advancements and solutions from the central government. We even had a mock debate. However, my problem class was silent. I mean totally silent. While I am getting more comfortable with silence in the classroom, this went on forever. I have quickly learned that a question directed to the whole class usually goes unanswered. Students are trained to only listen in class, so there is no feeling of responsibility to fill the silences in a class. That is, apparently, the teacher’s job. I got a few students to admit that they simply were not interested in this topic; that was all I could squeeze out of them. Finally with still 45 minutes left to go in a two hour class, I told them to leave. I said those who want to have class can stay, those who want to leave may leave. And they did - except one, Melody. Her pronunciation is careful and precise and she obviously cares about learning English. I quizzed her about her reticent classmates. She explained two important things.

First, the majority of students in her class were assigned to be English majors. In fact, they have no interest in English at all. Apparently when admitted to a Chinese University, you must decide a major before the start of freshman year. However, there are limits to each department and if that major is full or you don't qualify, you are simply assigned to another. Simply obtaining a university degree is far more important than the actual subject matter studied (not to mention one’s interest there-in.)

The second challenge is cultural. She explained that most students are taught to be modest in class and in life. If a student speaks too much the other students will feel that they are showing off. I admit that during my college classes I was careful to avoid becoming the class loud mouth. But this seems to be a more extreme awareness. Melody confided that she is careful to not speak more than three times in any class period….even if this is “Oral English.”

Such is the growing tally of challenges: (in addition to never really having taught full two hour lessons in a university before in my life) I have shy, socially awkward and paranoid students who are stuck with all English classes all week with the same classmates since freshman year, half of whom don’t even like English at all. Add to this a completely useless book from which to teach, absolutely zero suggestions on curriculum or grading standards, and a support staff that speaks no English. Finally, include classrooms just large enough for 10 rows of bolted down desks, a chalk covered podium, and a blackboard. Go!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Images of a northeastern University

I have completed one rocky semester a small under-funded university of no great esteem. Many of my students have reported with humility that they had dreams to a more prestigious larger university, but did not score high enough on the national college entrance exam and so ended up here. While some students come from as far as Xinjiang province (western China) and Sichuan province (South Central), the majority of my students are from Liaoning (my Province) and Jilin or HailongJia (two neighboring provinces to the Northeast).

First, some images. The classrooms, hallways, and lobbies' once white walls have long since been smudged and the floors are dusty. The desks are in rows and bolted to the floor. It is an ordeal anytime students need to move about the room, as everyone in the row has to move too. The desks are covered with a mix of Chinese graffiti, which I can’t read, and some English graffiti that I don’t want to read because it is some memorized fluff that is painfully sentimental and dramatic. The windows are dirty from rains falling through dust filled air due to the surrounding construction projects. There is always a scattering of paper cups, used tissues, and even melted ice-cream pops from the previous classes. The girls wear tube like sleeve guards that go up to their elbows to keep the dirt form the desks away from their nice clothes. The teaching podium is completely covered with chalk dust so I never know where to put my things. I usually put it on the ground which to me looks like a better option. However, once after class some students approached me with concern.

Concerned student: “Teacher, why do always you put your bag on the ground?”
Me: because there is no other place to put it.”
Concerned Student: “You can put it on our desks next time. Please don’t put it on the ground. The ground is dirty, and it makes us worry for you!”

Apparently, not many of my actions go unnoticed.

Like most of the low budget modern constructions in China, the teaching buildings are Soviet style non-insulated concrete. This means that sometimes it is colder inside than outside. Through the winter months, teachers and students alike keep their coats on during class. All the students bring seat cushions to put a thermal layer between themselves and the cold desk seats. I have teased a few of the boys for having particularly girlie pink Hello Kitty seat cushions. They don’t seemed bothered. Occasionally, if I have to sit down, a student will offer me their seat cushion, which I take to be a great honor.

Instead of drinking fountains in the hallways, each building has a large water boiler machine on the first floor. Since no one drinks tap water here, everyone lines up with thermoses for hot boiled water. Around the boiler lie slippery scatterings of saturated tea leaves, flowers, and various other less recognizable pieces organic matter on which students have been sipping in their tea all day.

Outside the landscaping is a bit more comforting. It is obvious that they are trying to keep as much green as possible on campus. In the afternoons there are outdoor speakers blaring music and messages. Dormitories are strictly single sex. Students sleep about 6 to a dorm room, and they have a curfew of 11:00 PM when the electricity is cut. (Although, once during a late night jog around campus I caught a young man climbing out of the girls’ dormitory window. He looked shocked. I just snickered and kept jogging. Although I really wanted to give him a double thumbs up). Once during an in class Truth or Dare game, I strategically discovered that by freshman year, a handful of students had already jumped the fence to get into the campus after the gates were locked at the 11:00 curfew. The alternative is to stay awake all night in a smoky internet bar. Luckily my blond hair is proof enough that I’m not a student and I can come and go as I please.

Monday, September 10, 2007

New Chapter

After three jobs and moving four times, I have finally moved into a more permanent, more comfortable situation here. I will be teaching English a local uniersity for the next two semesters. The job comes with a large apartment on campus, internet, health insurance, a real work visa, and free Chinese classes with all the Japanese and Korean foreign students here.

So far it is nice to run around the dark track in the evening with students, see the extended families of faculty that all live together on campus, and generally feel like I am at a real academic institution instead of a business. Like most Chinese Universities there is a curfew of 11:00 and the guarded gates close. Luckily I can come and go as I please.

Right now the freshmen are doing their obligatory military training on campus. All day and into the evening I can here chants and marching from groups of extra young looking freshmen sporting camouflage and the signature red handkerchief around the neck, all sneaking peaks at their cell phones.

This is the second week of classes and I am teaching 16 hours a week. Twice a week I travel an hour through the countryside to another a branch campus right on the coast. There is a little bubble of about 10,000 students there! When class lets out it is a bit overwhelming to be the only blond in a river of Chinese college students returning to their dormitories. My “American Culture and Society” class has 65 students! I have given two rather uninspiring lessons to them and will have to get creative quick!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

"Fat!" Ego crushing bluntness

Some well informed friends warned me that bluntness is characteristic of the Chinese culture. Now, after six months, I couldn’t agree more! I get picked apart in this country, particularly when clothing shopping. In one shopping trip (which is discouraging enough because everything is too small), I took a tally of the comments. Just in case I didn’t know, the store owners took it upon themselves to tell me all of the following: I am fat, I am rather gifted on the lower half of my body and not so much on the top, I have wide hips, I have hairy fore-arms, my complexion is not clear, and I have big feet. Thanks! In fact, apparently the only thing that I have going for me in this country is that I have long eyelashes and white skin!

I have always jeered a bit at the superficiality of Americans when it comes to things like commenting on appearance. Have you ever noticed that there are about ten ways to say that someone is fat other than using the word fat? Let me further demonstrate the cultural gap here. One Chinese woman, who had stellar English, genuinely asked me, “What is the polite way to tell an American that they are fat?” I thought for a second and then began to laugh, “There is no polite way to say that!” You just don’t say it. I mean is there really a need?

It’s not just because I’m foreign that I get these kinds of comments. The same phenomenon happens between Chinese friends too. The first thing that was said after hello was, “Oh you got fatter and darker!” "Fat" just doesn't seem to have the same ego shattering effect as in our cautious Midwest culture. I have concluded that these vocalized observations are in no way comments about the person’s character, which makes them less offensive. It is more like saying, “So how about this weather we’re having, plus you know I really care about you and we are close friends!”

While I used to think that all our pleasantries that we go through about appearances were a bit silly, once people started calling fat, I found that I was not as thick skinned (no pun intended) as I thought! I know they mean no harm, but it still cuts to the quick.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Chinese Roomates and stifling summer nights

In the middle of the summer, I moved yet again. My roommate called and told me (for reasons that I to still do not understand) that we had to move the following day by 8:00AM. I stayed for a week on my friend's couch while we we waited to move in to the new place, this time with my two more Chinese girls, none of whom spoke English. To maters more confusing, one had a Northeastern accent (kind of like a Boston accent), and one had a Southern accent. Me, who has only learned standard Mandarin dialect and accent, struggled every moment that I was home!

The apartment was small, two bedrooms, one small kitchen, no seating area, and a shower room which doubled as the toilet with a door that grew mushrooms because of the moisture! Good thing rent was only 300 yuan a person (~40 bucks per month)!

I shared a bedroom with the southern gal. Lights out girl chatter was stifled as it usually ended in frustration soon after it began! However, I gained a bit more of perspective about the issues facing my generation of Chinese youth. Things like: When your boyfriend asks you to marry him (because by this age you better well be on your way to marriage), will you live with his parents? This is something that is quickly changing in China. My roommates said that they have changed their minds’ about this just in the past year. Now they would opt for independence and privacy rather than a more traditional live in situation.

Romantic relationships among my age group are consistently serious. It is not at all uncommon to see a young couple wearing matching outfits. I’m told this is a way of to demonstrate their closeness and sincerity. You’d have to pay me to do that! One friend (24) said “The next girlfriend I have must be my last girlfriend,” meaning it would end in marriage. I thought that weddings were a big deal in the US. But they are a really big deal here! Twice my roommates’ recently married friends came to our tiny apartment to share their ENTIRE wedding day video, which records the whole day's events. We sat on the bed in our pajamas and discussed every detail of the plans and outcomes etc. I felt as though I was taking part in a modern Chinese girlfriend ritual, one that was probably happening in thousands of groups of girlfriends that very same night.

I feel that I adjusted well to the constant straining for comprehension, sharing of bedrooms, squat toilet, and fungus on the door. The thing that I could not stand was sleeping in dead air. It was the middle of the summer and my roommate insisted on turning off the air-con and fans at night and sealing up all the windows. She said we would catch a cold if we had wind coming through the room. I lay there in my underwear, sweating, chocking on thick air, and tried to remember more comfortable summer sleeping arrangements. My bedroom in Ohio with all three screened windows open listening to crickets on a hot Midwest summer night. Or, sleeping on the trail we just made in the Sawtooths stairing at stars upon stars and feeling the cool evening inversion set in. Or, solo on a ridgeline in the Olympics smelling snow chilled pine! And then, with no warning, my roommate threw a blanket over me, saying something about how I must cover my stomach or I will get sick. I drew the cultural sensitivity line there. Not a chance!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Still missing tones

The latest tone faux pas was between the close pronunciation of “da suan,” garlic, and “da suan,” to plan. In the first one, your voice should start high and go forcefully down. In the second, your voice should go down then up and then down again. So I guess I asked my Chinese teacher, “What do you garlic this weekend?” This language is nearly impossible sometimes!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Korean Circles

There are perhaps just as many, if not more, Koreans and Japanese in Dalian as western foreigners. Though, if they remain silent they can usually drop below the "hallo!" radar screen.
In Dalian, if you meet a Korean, you can assume a few things. First, he/she are probably devoutly Christian, and second they he/she lives in some of the most posh of apartments in Dalian. All the English speaking foreigners know that they should charge at least 50% more per hour for a Korean than a Chinese tutee.

Through some American friends, I found work at a Korean school to bridge the gap between the jobs. This job brought a whole new set of challenges cultural challenges to teaching. I had to laugh when I found myself in front of a group of rich Korean kids, living in China, and teaching them American middle school social studies lessons on Native Americans! How out of context can we get here?! Needless to say I had to keep them entertained by role playing. We acted out scenes like: The first time Sacagawea met Louis and Clark. That lesson ended with with tears and exploded drywall marker ink all over the walls!

In the meantime, I was introduced to the best Korean restaurants and markets in Dalian, and was hosted to dinner on more than a few occasions to drink Soju (Korean grain alcohol) and eat pickled spicy things! It was also valuable to get the Asian Ex-pat’s perspective on China. I was surprised at how their complaints about spitting, cleanliness, etc., echoed those of my western friends.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Still missing tones

The latest tone faux pas was between the close pronunciation of “da suan,” garlic, and “da suan,” to plan. In the first one, your voice should start high and go forcefully down. In the second, your voice should go down then up and then down again. So I guess I asked my Chinese teacher, “What do you garlic this weekend?” This language is nearly impossible sometimes!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Steep learning curve in hospitals

I had the unfortunate experience of helping a seriously sick friend here and so learned Chinese hospital protocol. My very first roommate here in Dalian had a series of stomach problems that seemed different than the common stomach problems in China. If you are eating any good food here at all, undoubtedly some microbe attacks your whole digestive track about once or twice a month here. If you avoid the street meat on sticks you can probably go longer between bouts of discomfort.

I spent a few sleepless nights in a row with my friend as her discomfort seemed to peak at about 1:00AM. We went to a couple of hospitals around town in the middle of the night. The doors were open but the whole place seemed deserted. She sat on the only chair in the lobby while I ran around knocking on windows and doors trying to roust someone. Finally a sleepy eyed nurse appeared and listened to our woes. They poked at her, took blood samples etc, and said it was an intestinal infection. Her shots and medications did not seem to help and the next few nights were more of the same. With few options left, I called my dear friend who is a doctor in Dalian. He in turn called his friend that specializes in abdominal issues. The four of us met the ER at 1:00 AM all dischelved and red eyed. My sick friend was moaned and as the poked and prodded and I stood wide eyed at all the spectacles that walked in the door.

One man came in restrained by police officers. He was wearing nothing but his underwear and handcuffs and he had been severely cut on his stomach and chest. My doctor friend leaned over to me and said, “He is a thief, but got caught!” Just then two more men, also wearing nothing but underwear, burst into the room. The larger, rather over-weight man spent the next two hours frantically pushing his friend allover the hospital on a gurney… still in nothing but black briefs. I watched but failed to come up with answers for two puzzling points: 1) why could no one lend this poor man a pair of hospital pants, and 2) what could possibly have been the circumstances necessitating them to leave with no time to put on pants or shoes?!

After an eventful night they sent my friend and I home again with drugs and a couple of shots. As she still could not even keep water down and she was obviously fading fast, the next morning another friend and I took her to yet another hospital where we shuffled her around from test to test. She got worse throughout the day and was ordered nil by mouth. However, the diagnosis was not paired with an offer for a bed and a drip. We were informed that there were no beds in this hospital. With no offers for ambulances, the three of us went by taxi to five hospitals in one evening, X-rays and CT results in hand. Everywhere we went was like reinventing the wheel. By necessity, I learned all the words for the internal organs! Finally, my friend the doctor yet again saved the day by securing a room for her at one particular hospital. We were to go there, say a specific doctor’s name, and he would take care of the rest. Again, connections are crucial here. With out them you are at whim of the default system of the masses and your current Chinese language level.

We got her into a bed and hydrated. Being the Americans that we are, at about midnight we left the hospital. We are used to strict rules limiting the amount of visitors and visiting hours in hospitals, so we opted to get out of the way. I returned early the next morning to a group of angry and befuddled nurses. They demanded to know where I was the previous night, and why didn’t I stay with my friend. Confused, I asked if there was some place for me to sleep at the hospital. She informed me that family and friends not only stay bed side night and day, but usually sleep in the same bed with the patient, or on the ground in the room or hallway. Bed side care is not the nurses’ job. As I learned, nurses change IV’s and bed sheets...when requested. As I looked around, it was indeed obvious that every patient had a family member with them, if not three!

So, for four nights another friend and I rotated shifts taking care of our patient and being her advocate. I believe that there was a file on my friend, but it was not anywhere near her bed or room, so every new nurse and doctor had to start over. This was entirely frustrating considering the language barrier. I counted three times when they tried to feed her medication or food and we had to step in and remind them that she was not to eat or drink, rather only have an IV drip. There was usually just an “ahh” of agreement and then they left again. My friend's parents came to China to help and they have all since returned to the US to get care for her there. I hear she is dong well!

The lesson I learned is that one a) not get sick; b) get to a hospital before you need an advocate; or c) keep good friends.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Do I really look Russian?

There is a substantial Eastern Russian population in Dalian. During the summer Russians tourists seem to be everywhere. I hear that China is the easiest place to get a travel visa for Russians. I can spot a Russian girl from a mile away: skinny, sharp nosed, bleach blond hair, too much make up, and a hair and clothing style that hearkens back to the 80’s. But, to the Chinese, all white blonds look the same. So, first they say, “Hallo!” then immediately ask me rhetorically, “ni shi eluosi ren ba? (You’re Russian right?). I’ve started snapping back in Chinese, “No! And Russians don’t speak English!” Both come as a surprise to most.

I have even had Russians themselves approach me speaking Russian . Not knowing if I should respond to them in English or Chinese, I used to just wave my hands pathetically in the air and look confused. More recently I have learned how to say, "I'm not Russian" in Russian.

Perhaps the most confusing is when a Chinese person, who has commendably learned Russian, starts a conversation with me. It takes me about five for me to realize that they are not speaking Chinese, and they are confused and embarrassed that their Russian is poor. One man, despite my insistence that he speak Chinese and that I was not Russian, would have none of it. He continued to speak Russian and forced his name card into my hand, which was all in Russian!

I really always thought I looked solidly German!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


“Hallo!” This word is a close imitation of the real English greeting, yet it has an uncountable amount of meanings in China! “Hallo” is usually shouted from behind a table of things for sale. “Hallo” can mean buy my fruit, buy my vegetables, buy my cheap clothing, buy my nice clothing, buy my bottled water, etc. “Hallo” can mean come into my restaurant. When accompanied with a bottom’s up head toss back… “hallo” means come have a drink here. When accompanied with a honk, it means you are about to get run over by some vehicle even though you are on the sidewalk. Generally I don’t mind and I simply answer back with “Ni hao (hello).” But I refuse to respond to the ridiculous high pitched yell to your back after I've passed.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Environmental NGO's - Travel to Wuhan

During my lull between jobs, I managed to attend an international forum for environmental non-governmental organizations in Wuhan, Hubei province. Participants included Chinese environmental NGOs and American NGOs. The idea of a non-governmental organization is still fairly new to China and still a little risky. The Chinese NGO’s were there to network with each other and also to ask for guidance from well established American organizations. (If you are familiar, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council were all present). While the presentations themselves were not overly enlightening, I came to understand a bit more about the problems facing NGO’s in China.

It became obvious in round table discussions (with translators) that China must obviously find their own method of building a non-profit, non-governmental sector. It was tempting for these budding, under-funded NGO’s to ask the comparatively wealthy American organizations for a step by step guide to success. However, the conversation repeatedly came to a halt when the Central Committee was mentioned. The Chinese government would likely thwart attempts to follow a similar development strategy.

Additionally I learned that most of the environmental threats are not rooted in policy from the central government, rather the local provincial and municipal governments. At the end of the day, Beijing can say what they want, but the mayors are going to make their cities prosper – and that usually includes bribes from industrial companies who ask for lax environmental restrictions in return. This came as a shock to me who held the ignorant vision of China as a completely centralized lumbering giant. As it turns out the central government struggles to keep their provincial appendages in check. In light of this, most environmental NGOs see this as their only niche. Most organizations are focusing on small, grass-roots, public participation projects rather than going for the impenetrable and enigmatic central government!

It was an eye opener for me. I also did a bit of networking with several NGO’s, took their name cards, and promised that my Chinese would be better in a year! Who knows where if anywhere that will lead, but it is good to keep options….even if they’re just in my head.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Visas and Guanxi

Borden, and overall dissatisfaction led me to quit my first job at the language school. Unfortunately my visa expiration date fell around the same time period. The burden of renewing my visa fell to me, a powerless white girl with Chinese nowhere near the level needed to get myself a new visa. Luckily, my friend, a professional here Dalian was willing to help me renew my visa until my next employer could sponsor me for a legitimate work visa.

Normally, to renew a visa, a foreigner must go to Beijing in the least and possibly even leave the country. I assumed that it would be the same case for me. However, I received my first lesson in the power of what the Chinese call, “Guanxi” (connections/relations). As it turned out a my friend's brother in law knows one of the visa officials. This means that we all make quick “friends” to exchange favors.

The entire process consisted of two meetings. The first meeting was just to understand my “options.” To me the meeting felt like classic modern Chinese bureaucracy - sketchy. The small sparsely furnished completely undecorated office had white washed walls with smudged footprints and cracks. A layer of black dust had settled on everything not regularly used. The visa official was also a classic picture: short, dark skinned, with a belly reflecting his financial prosperity and slightly oily hair past due for a cutting. He sat back in his desk chair with a cigarette and periodically checked a thick book of rules and regulations. While the two men spoke I observed from the sidelines. Afterward my friend translated the whole hour’s meeting to me in about two minutes. From this I gathered that much more was discussed that was let on, although actually I think he was probably just sparing me some useless details. I’ll never know! Basically we concluded that he could help me get a new visa without even leaving Dalian, let alone the country! But I was warned that these were special circumstances and that I should probably not flaunt it around other foreigners.

He later said that that we would need to return the favor to the official. Fearing the worst, I withdrew extra 100’s from the bank. Instead, he produced a fax which was the visa official daughter’s English homework assignment! I couldn’t believe it. So, my friend and I sat together in his office and wrote the middle school English homework together. I wrote it in native English and then he strategically added in some “Chinglish” to make it believable. If this doesn’t demonstrate the value of English proficiency in China, I don’t know what does. The whole deal was sealed with a letter of recommendation explaining that I was studying acupuncture in China for a few months and that it was not my intent to work. While it all felt sketchy to me, this is how China works right now and I was assured that because the rules on book are changing so quickly, it was not exactly illegal to make our own way.

Friday, June 15, 2007

What you see is what you get - public undie drying

A detail of life in China in which I take daily delight is that of shameless public underwear drying.

While we definitely used a clothesline in Ohio, I was always happy it was concealed in the back yard. But with little private space and dryers being a complete luxury here, you can see underwear drying anywhere - next to convenient stores, in front of restaurants, strung across sidewalks, and hanging off high rise apartment buildings. Displays include everything from racy black lace to huge gray cotton bottom buckets. I actually take great joy in buying an ice-cream from someone knowing full well that I am standing next to his freshly washed briefs dripping on the side-walk beside me. Somehow makes me feel like we know each other better and maybe I don't need to count my change. Who says China isn't green!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Chinese Roomate

I was introduced to a young Chinese woman (24) who was also looking for an apartment. I jumped at the change to live with her for two reasons. One, to remove myself from being under the thumb of my employer, and second to learn more Chinese! Her name is Gao Lina and she works as a liaison between the pharmacy and doctors in hospitals.

So far, if we are both home, we spend the evening munching on fruit with dictionaries open attempting to communicate. It is slow and frustrating, but also hilarious at times when we have misunderstood each other and then realize what we are really trying to say. For example, tonight, I was trying to tell her a story in my broken Chinese about a class that I had today. I explained that I had four students all 7 years old. They started to fight a bit and then three of them started crying really loudly. I said that I couldn’t teach them anymore so we just made paper airplanes for the rest of class. With a perplexed look, she asked me why 7 year olds learning English? I said that their parents want them to learn English. She exclaimed, “They have parents?!?!” I said of course. Then finally…she repeated my original story and I realized that I had indeed begun by saying that I had four 70 year old students that got in a fight and cried and then we made paper airplanes instead of having class. Oh my, what an image.

The other most recent miscommunication highlight was when she tried to tell me that I had a huge booger in my nose. But, I was in a hurry and just left the apartment pretending to understand. It wasn’t until a half hour later when I made the discovery in the reflection of a store window that my brain pieced all the words together.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"No why!"

One my favorite observations from teaching these kids is watching them react to questions that are not answerable with an absolute right or wrong answer. While most Chinese students have a commendable memory, the Chinese education system leaves little opportunity for critical/creative thinking or opinions. So, I start easy with some material from the book:

Me: “True for False, the first video games were invented in the 1980’s.”
Student: “True”
Me: Right, and is the world better or worse now with video games?
Student: Better
Me: Why?
Student: (pause….) No Why!

“No Why!” is now my favorite answer! It is as if they are correcting me on my ill-formed and nonsensical questions. I have been told by my older Chinese students and friends that you learn early in China that the “why” question is useless in many arenas. “No why!” Priceless. I actually find my self trying to ask why about subjects that I think might evoke the “no why!” answer just for my own amusement!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

English Speech Competitions

I am quickly learning that Chinese parents are focused on testing, competitions, awards, and results for there child. In a country of 1.3ish billion, there must be some way to carve up the levels of abilities. To this end, there are often English speech competitions around the city to encourage English learning. Some of my students were invited/forced to enter.

The process goes as follows: The student writes a short composition in Chinese, the Chinese teachers at my school translate it using an on-line translator, and then they follow around the foreign teachers all day trying to get us to make the text sound normal. While I don’t mind helping, online translators leave something to be desired for accuracy. So, for about two weeks, during my ten minute breaks between classes, I was tried in vain to derive meanings from sentences like: “I hold the lead of the gold metal to an innate wandering smile.”

Next, the student has to memorize and rehearse these ridiculous speeches on the themes of patriotism, work ethic, their favorite subject in school etc. This is where I learned that there is apparently a certain type of voice just for delivering speeches in China. The louder the better! My first rehearsal class was in a small room with one student. He was a small framed 10 year old with glasses and big cheeks. I waited with his hardcopy of the speech as he prepared himself. He stood, hands at his sides, fixed his gaze at a point behind me where the ceiling and wall met, and then belted loud, strong, monotone phrases! I stopped him immediately trying to keep a straight face and told him that would be unnecessary.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

May Holiday in Chang Bai Shan

May holiday was a compact traveling experience farther into Northeast China. The destination was Chang Bai Shan, meaning “ever white mountain.” We travelers made a colorful group of personalities heading into Jilin province. We began as three: another American teacher from my school, a Chinese teacher from my school, and me. The American teacher is a hilarious guy from LA, with good Chinese, knows NBA like he was betting on it, loves conspiracy theories, practices Tai Chi in the middle of public places, and cracks himself up consistently. The Chinese teacher, "Colin" is a short, round faced 24 year old who loves speed metal, wears cheap sunglasses and a fanny pack, and eats faster than anyone I know. He smokes an extra cigarette while bartering for taxies/busses and hotels, though rarely actually takes a puff. Rather, just waves it around in the air with his elaborate gestures.

We took an overnight train ride in a smokey sleeper car with sounds of cellphones playing pop music late into the night. I watched Colin engulf an entire bag of little dried squid parts way too fast and wash it down with a light sudsy beer. He suffered from a stomach ache for hours.

The morning arrived all to slowly. As we chugged into Tonghua the hallway filled smells of instant noodles, more cellphone amplafied pop music, and a long line of people waiting to use the sinks for their ritualistic morning face wash. (I don't know seems to be a big deal here) We missed a connecting train to take us to the little town of Baihe so we had to take a minibus over roads that would make a Forest Service Fire crew cringe. One hour into the 6 hour bumpy ride, the driver handed out barf bags. Thirty minutes later we saw and smelled last night's squid parts and beer all over again. Miserable. While I turned the other direction to avoid getting sick myself, I befriended the young Korean guy beside me on the bus. He spoke a little Chinese and a little English, but insisted on writing everything on his hand with his finger before verbalizing. Good thing it was a long bus ride.

Baihe was a sleepy town with a mix of Chinese and Koreans. The women drove motorcycles and no one was trying to hustle us white people. Refreshing! The next morning we got a taxi to take us to the gates of the Chang Bai Shan nature preserve, which is China’s largest Nature preserve. I didn’t know that places like that existed in China. There was still a foot of snow on the ground in the forest and the air smelled like pine sap. It was raining in Baihe, meaning snow on the mountain. After a good hour and a half climb up hundreds of ice covered steps, we reached Tian Che (Heaven Lake), which was still frozen. We walked onto the lake and into North Korea! Thrilling, but a little eerie considering the white out blizzard conditions.

The trip back was two long train rides. However, the second will be the most memorable. Everyone warned me not to travel during national holidays. Now I know why. We arrived in the city of Shenyang (about a 6 hours north of Dalian) only to find that there were not only no beds for the night train to Dalian….but no seats period! So, do as the Chinese do, pay half the price and just stand. So from 11PM to 5AM, I stood on this smoky, crowded, hectic, smelly, stuffy train. I have heard of people standing for much longer, like 40 hours all the way across the desert. The lesson learned is to fly if you can afford it.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Language troubles - always one tone off

A foreign friend and I had some time to kill, so we headed into a tea house/restaurant. The place actually said “.Tea” in English on the outside. We ordered some food and TRIED to order some green tea. After all it was a tea house and we were in China where they serve you tea every time you sit down.

After many failed attempts to get the waitress to understand “Cha,” she finally left to get her supervisor. She kept saying “meiyou” meaning, don’t have any. We were so confused. Why would a tea house in China not have any tea? Fortunately the supervisor had a more lenient ear to tone deaf/mute westerners and understood what we wanted. After much dictionary rifling to see what the waitress thought we were ordering, we discovered that one tone off of “cha” (voice starting low and ending high) is “cha” with another tone….meaning western knife and fork.

You know you should be working harder at the language if you cannot manage to order tea in China!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Cutthroat English Industry

I have an English pimp. I apologize for the rather crude analogy, however, I found that I have something to sell here and a pimp is the best way to describe my boss. Her name is Ms. Jean and she refers to herself in the third person. In her broken English I often her, “Ms. Jean no like…” or, “Ms, Jean like…” She is old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution and how it stripped her once affluent family of its wealth, but young enough to have kept her contacts and business tactics. She would be a part of China’s nouveau riche except that she is really part of China’s revived riche. Like many entrepreneurial Chinese, Ms. Jean knows a market niche when she sees one.
If you didn’t know, or if you have forgotten, this school boasts an American style and American teachers. When you walk in the school are there are American flags at the entrance. All of the American teachers have framed portrait pictures in their classrooms which have been atrociously photo-shopped onto the background of a nearly florescent American flag. I have never looked so pasty white! All the better I assume. When the Chinese staff answers the office phone, they say, “Ni hao, Am-mer-ic,” meaning, “Hello, America.” Judging from conversations with my students, most intend on traveling in, studying in, and or living in America. Ms. Jean has powerful contacts everywhere and the school obviously acts as a middleman for obtaining the highly coveted American visa. This school seeks to employ only American teachers marketing to rich parents who believe that America is the be all end all for their single, priceless, treasured, and completely stressed out child.
In short, I am a blonde haired, blue eyed, American accent sputtering commodity. My value is high in China. Ms. Jean gets me my hours and I just look and sound American for the students, and much more importantly, the parents of the students.

This is not to completely discredit the school, or the work that I do there. I am indeed teaching English to those who are for the most part genuinely interested in learning. However, I have quickly observed that this is business first and an educational institution second.

Frustrations here have sent me searching for a new job. Hope to be done with this place mid June. The next update will give a full report on job searching in China, and my next move.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

English Names

It is common for Chinese to choose an “English name” at some point during their education. The origins of these names vary: the names of characters in the cheesy model dialogues in text books, western media, or some connection to the original Chinese name. Most names are common: Amanda, Charles, Ellen, Tina, Colin, Andy, etc. However, there are a few extraordinary names that deserve at least explanation and probably a laugh. While these are not all my students, some standouts include (in ascending peculiarity): Auto, Bank, Coco, Tiger, Dragon,Candy, Marx, Ice Snow, Ghost, Killer, Forever 25, Chest Hair, and Sea Sickness.

In addition to simply bizarre name choices, there are a few unfortunate names that, due to common pronunciation pit falls here, will always be mispronounced. For example, I have met a couple of women named Vivian. The Chinese trained mouth does not easily make the sound of “V.” Thus, “Wiwian” will unfortunately be repeated in at every English introduction.

I say forever, but actually my students seem to have few qualms about changing their English names. It is hard enough to learn the names of all these students, let alone when one kid in each class announces that he is trying out a new name today.

While I joke about these names, in reality they are extremely helpful to foreigners. While I have tried, I fail to remember Chinese names at this point in the game. This practice of taking English names is partly for education and participation in the English world, but also to save westerners’ butts. On the flip side, English names can complicate an international work place. That is, you may know you're student's or colleague's English name but no one else in the office knows it!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Xiao Chi

Street food and “Xiao Chi,” (snacks or little eats) is a favorite so far. There are certain back alleys that are packed after work and into the later evening. There you can find all kinds of meat kabobs (like on a stick), whole fish kabobs, chicken head kabobs, tofu of all kinds of colors, and fresh plump mushrooms all grilled over long narrow coal gills surrounded by people eating them as fast as they are cooked.

In these steaming teaming streets there things that stink, things that smell scrumptious, hot and spicy curry smells, sweet waffle/pancake smells, pickled things, dried things, steamed breads and buns, dumplings, fresh fruit, and things you assume will be sweet but rudely turn out salty. Always a sensory adventure!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Public Backyards

Parks are wonderful havens for people watching and culture here. I suppose it is no different than Central Park in Manhattan, or any park in a big city. The parks serve as people’s backyards. And, in such a modern city parks give a foreigner a window to an older, deeper culture here. I have visited most of the parks in this city, enough to notice a few trends. Under all the trees are heavily trodden areas, which are evidence of some one’s favorite place to practice morning Tai Chi. If you wander there early enough, (as the weather warms that is) you see hundreds of people practicing Tai Chi and other martial arts….swords and all! Some older men bring their songbirds in cages to the park.

Later in the afternoon parks become meeting places for Chinese Poker. I don’t really know the name of this game, but it is really fun to watch. There will be a group of 100 people (usually old but some young also) gathered in a big mass Groups of four play while at least triple that are standing around watching each game. Players throw their cards down in sets of threes and fours to make a smacking sound when the cards hit the table or bench. Then there are mutterings and people stand up and wave their arms and yell until someone else smacks down something that beats it. It’s quite the serious game. In general I love observing older Chinese folks. I cannot help but think about how much they have seen this country change, both in ideology and in infrastructure during their lifetimes.

I finally found a park with some joggers and went to jog there myself for the first time. While I was not alone, I was the only female jogger, although I expected this. While it was nice to move my legs a bit, I did feel like I was doing a disproportionate amount of work to filter the Dalian air through my lungs as the average park go-er there. Not sure what the effects of pumping coal thick air through the lungs will be.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Right of Way?

One of the biggest adjustments to life here is the simple and frequent act of crossing the street. It doesn’t take long to understand that pedestrians never have the right of way. Crossing the street is a free frawl, everyone for him/her self! Sometimes I feel like I am in a game of frogger! You just have to go for it, crossing one lane at a time as it opens. Occasionally this leaves you stranded between two lanes, sucking in as a bus passes right behind your back and a taxi just before your toes. But this is necessary! If you are timid, you will never get across a busy circle or street!

There are some crosswalks and even some walk signals, but they are rarely observed and should never be trusted. In fact, I was became confused at a major intersection when cars were stopped at a light. I am already used to never having right of way and was not sure how to proceed.

I do however believe that the drivers are more aware and calculated while driving than in the US. Cars get closer to people than I am accustomed. But it is all normal here. Cars get closer to everything for that matter. Parking is done mainly on the sidewalks which means that during business hours most of the walking is ironically done in the streets! So, you have to be aware of the cars on the street, and aware of the cars in the process of parking on the sidewalk. Basically, there are no relaxing strolls in the city until you get into a park. A car may be approaching from any direction. Cars, taxies and busses will occasionally give a forewarning honk to let you know that you are in the way, on the street or the sidewalk.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Cute kids

I love to give a smile to the chubby little Chinese kids all bundled up for cold weather. The strangest thing is that their big quilted bulky pants are constructed to have an open crotch. I guess this is a convenience feature for the not yet potty trained child and his/her parent, but my, what a draft!

There is a group of 5 six year olds that invades my life for 2 hours a week! Kids really are the same everywhere. In all of these classes there is always a spokesperson, usually the one that speaks the best English. However, at six, none of these kids speak English! So all of the sudden, I could tell there was something really dire happening. There was all kinds of squirming and high pitched Chinese going on. I stop with my one woman show of “What’s this?? It’s an ear..” just long enough to understand the young spokes man’s loudest word, “cesuo!” (meaning toilet) and they all bolt out the door. It was a chore to get them back in the room and back in their seats. Somehow they had all acquired lollypops during the two minutes they were outside. A stern, well dressed mother came and pulled the lollypops out of their mouths one by one. They all found the suction and pop noise that this made hilarious and it took another five minutes to calm the giggles. Just when I regained attention with a relatively close rendition of the alphabet song, they discovered that there were tiny bits of paper on the floor. Oh my gosh! What fun! All concentration was gone as I lost them all under the table. Needless to say, I suggested that a Chinese teacher accompany me during the next class to keep order.

China "Lite"

One Month down here in Dalian, China.

Dalian was recommended to me by a friend of a friend as a good place to get my feet wet in China. I arrived in late February when there were still Spring Festival fireworks every morning at 8:00 AM.

Some foreigners refer to Dalian as "China Lite." That is, it's not too crowded, it's generally clean, and the air is decently clean. It also has many of the comforts to which we we westerners in developed countries have come to enjoy.

There is an astonishing amount of English written everywhere in this City. It is almost disappointing (but helpful none-the less). You can find peanut-butter, olive-oil and apparently cheddar cheese, although I have yet to find it! You can find all the designer brands from Coach to Armani (I mean authentic, not rip offs, although you can find those too). There are coffee shops, bakeries, Tapas restaurants, and even a decently authentic looking Irish pub! Clothing stores in general have a much wider selection than in the US. Options seem endless here in this phase of consumerism. However, when you do the math, many of these things come out to be US prices or higher.
All of these luxuries do not however make this place feel like home in anyway. This culture is still foreign despite the affluence that manifests itself through association with western goods and trends that may seem familiar. China is still a deeply rooted Eastern culture despite any western flare on the surface.