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!