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.