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 façade); 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!

Teeth Brushing in China

Ok, you think I’ve run out topics and have resorted to something as banal as brushing teeth. But really, for those who choose to keep dental hygiene habits, brushing one’s teeth is quite the event here.

I’ve noticed two puzzling traits about brushing teeth in China. First, it is occasionally a public event. Second, it is always done in conjunction with a cup.
By public brushing, I don’t mean like in a public office bathroom after lunch break. I mean public like in front of your business on the street! I recently went to a tiny Kodak store to get visa pictures taken. It was mid-morning and the twenty-something year old technician with a rattail and wispy bangs was apparently just beginning his day. He conducted the entire half hour exchange from photographing to printing to payment with toothpaste foam a half inch wide around his mouth and a toothbrush rolling around in his teeth as he spoke. The fact that I walked away with the right sized pictures at a decent price, I consider to be a listening comprehension victory!

I reckon that this young man lives in dormitory style living quarters with no sink. These kinds of rooms are tucked away in otherwise un-rentable basements and first floors of old apartment buildings everywhere. At night, when the lights are still on, one can peer in on the lives of single young men trying to minimize their rent, content to have a place to sleep after long hours of work at little pay. My multi-tasking Kodak technician friend either shared such a room with 15 other men with little or no bathroom access, or he actually lives in the Kodak store itself and I caught him in his morning routine. Either way, he joined others that morning along a line of storefronts for public face washing, hair washing, and teeth brushing.

My Kodak friend also had a cup for brushing his teeth. Why he did not bother to deposit the toothbrush in the cup while he spoke to me, I cannot say. Anyway, my observations on Chinese teeth brushing must start with an explanation of where I’m coming from on the matter. So, excuse me for a moment while I take you through the intimacies of my own diurnal routine. I wet my tooth brush and paste with a drizzle from the faucet to start, brush modestly, and finish by rinsing my mouth, toothbrush, and sink basin with the water from the faucet, directed by my cupped hand. If I am feeling extra responsible that day I’ll add in a flossing session too.

In contrast, all of my observations of Chinese teeth brushing sessions begin with filling a cup from the faucet, dipping the toothbrush into the cup followed by an extended furious brushing period, which unabashedly spreads toothpaste foam from nostrils to chin. The session ends with, what seems to me, an exaggerated amount of swirling, stirring, swishing, splashing, and tapping in a percussion show among mouth, cup, and basin. Again, this may seem a tedious topic…but it is nearly an art and diverged enough from my experiences to make me stop and observe. Watching my roommate brushing her teeth, I actually thought of writing to the alternative percussion group, ‘STOMP’ to suggest a new idea for their percussion performances. Oh and the flossing? Non-existent. I think only Americans do that after all. In fact, my current Chinese roommate reported that her dentist informed her that flossing actually damages your teeth and gums.

So why the cup? I have a hypothesis about this and did a little research to test it. I surveyed a set of randomly selected candidates as to their preference for using a cup when brushing (this really means I asked those friends who happen to be on G-mail chat or Skype at that moment.) I found that none of my native born American friends use a cup to brush their teeth. Yet, my first and second generation Chinese American friends do in fact use a cup. Actually, one does not, but upon further inquiry I found that her parents do. This only further supports my hunch that the cup habit is due to a lack of running water. While the majority of Chinese teeth brushers in my generation have running water, our parents’ generation (i.e. the models of all hygienic habits) likely did not have running water. Thus, while the cup may once have been a necessity, the habit has been passed down one or two generations merely by example. But, my research methods are shaky and open to peer review! Feel free to suggest other explanations for the cup brushing phenomenon.

The second reason for this practice, I believe, also relates to water supply issues. Reflecting on her own cup use habit, my Chinese American friend pointed out that using a cup simply saves more water than repeated bursts from the faucet; it is an environmentally friendly habit. I have observed a general frugality when it comes to water use in Chinese homes. My Chinese roommates have all used as little water as possible during showers, turning on and off the water throughout the shower. They have even used a basin in the shower so as to not loose water down the drain. However, while I credit my Chinese American friend’s water conservation to environmental motives, for many others here in China, these habits have little to do with environmental morals and everything to do with saving money. This is evidenced by my experiences in public bath houses, which have flat fees. There women take hours scrubbing every inch of skin multiple times under continuously gushing water. By the way, I also observed that even under the full stream of a showerhead, these women will still make use of the complimentary plastic cups to brush their teeth!

I recall yet another example while staying with a sick friend in a hospital in Dalian. The woman caring for the girl in the adjacent bed took full advantage of free water in the bathroom. By the end of the week she had washed half her wardrobe and two pairs of shoes, all of which were strung about the room adding to the humidity of the already clammy room. I liken this indulgent behavior to Americans at an all you can eat buffet!

Speaking of Americans, it is perhaps more appropriate to be astonished not by Chinese frugality, but by the global exceptions, Americans. Chinese are more in keeping with the rest of the world’s water consumption habits. Whereas, Midwest Americans in particular enjoy the luxury of cheap, abundant, clean water. I have watched dormitory mates brush their teeth with the water running the entire time. I myself am guilty of taking leisurely showers at home on my parents’ water bill…and of course… not using a cup.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Life in the Bike Lane

I've been copying my big brother since I was able to walk. So I thought I'd give a biking update too!

Beijing and bikes just seem to complement each other. Beijingers young and old, sporty and plump, chic and country, all ride. Bike lanes line most major roads. Promotional fliers and coupons are distributed in mass in bike baskets, rather than snapped under windshield wipers. Bicycle repairmen, found on every other corner, will patch your flat for 2 Yuan (and I probably even got ripped off). While biking then becomes quite the daily routine, it is never in anyway banal.

Traffic in China is generally right hand traffic. Yet, because it is often difficult to cross the street, the bike lanes and gutters on either side function in two way traffic for bikes, load bearing tricycles, and motorcycles. Strangely, on the these edges the traffic pattern switches to left hand traffic. So, if I’m riding on the right side, I should assume that the bikes riding on my side of the street, but in the opposite direction, will hug the curb, forcing me out into traffic. After much deliberation, I've finally concluded that this is because oncoming riders can actually see what is approaching. Accordingly, they take the safest position possible while I remain blissfully unaware of the dump truck behind me piled twice its height with tumbling fill dirt. My only other explanation for this reverse traffic pattern phenomenon is that when bicyclers "double," the person on the back typically sits side saddle, feet to the left. Thus hugging the curb lessens the chances of a car clipping the legs of the freeloader. This also spares oncoming bikers from being skewered by spike high heels on long legged wispy Chinese girls bumming a ride from their boyfriends.

There is the occasional hairy situation. A taxi may pull a U-turn with no warning. Or, a hubristic driver of a black Audi might unapologetically back off the sidewalk into the road, breaking the otherwise laminar flow of cyclists. In these cases, all the rules break down and it’s every peddler for herself. Yet there is one fundamental, irreducible law of bike riding in Beijing that never disintegrates: Play It Cool. It must be written somewhere! When in doubt, continue in the same direction at a constant speed. No quick movements, just expressionless fixed stares and the understanding that no one will pull a fast one.

Bikers in Beijing also contend with slow moving elderly folks, darting little children, loogies hawked from the sidewalk, crowds around street vendors, the occasional unannounced uncovered manhole, haphazardly loaded building materials on overloaded tri-cycles, and the occasional load of....ahem...from the power end of a donkey cart.

Yet beyond these perilous hazards, there lurks one final test of Beijing bicyclers’ maneuverability and nerves: young lovers! While all other traffic seems to flow in a kind of oxymoronic predictable chaos, young couples move like erratic moths! Beware; the innocent couple in matching pink T-shirts walking just ahead of you might actually do you in. The girl with feathered hair, knee socks, and a teddy bear back-pack may at any moment shriek, 'Tao yan!” [I totally disapprove of that disgusting thing you just said/did!] and retreat into an arm crossed pout and directly into your front tire. That slight framed guy, with 8 hair styles in one, carrying his girlfriend’s purse, might bowl you over as he dodges a swing from his pouting girl. It gets even more dangerous when one or both of them are holding “chuanr” sticks [pointy wooden kebab sticks], which simultaneously arm them and expand their striking distance a full foot on either side.

I once took a defensive driving course at the Mid-Ohio raceway where I learned how to handle scenarios like emergency lane changes and hydroplaning at 70 mph in an Ohio summer downpour. And yet, I feel completely defenseless against the emotional outbursts of young Chinese couples on a muggy spring Beijing night.

I have been riding a round with my camera bungee corded to my bicycle basket just to see if I can catch any of this in images. These are some of the results.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Silkworms: Fresher the Better

Mmm live silk worms in the market. I hear (from every one, every time they are mentioned) that one has as much protein as three eggs. Yet, everything about them just turns me off....

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Brother is hardcore!

Just in case you know Brian, or you want to, or you're thinking about biking across the entire US, check out my favorite brother's current adventure from San Diego, California to Charleston, South Carolina.

Seated at my desk in front of my computer, with one eye on his stories and one eye out the window at a smoggy Beijing skyline, I'm a bit jealous!

加油 "jia you" (add gas) Brian!

Unrequited Chinese Hug Affairs

Occasionally I feel that my China experience has been a string of awkward conversations and events. I romanticize home as a place where one does not often have to think about the proper reaction to, for instance, receiving an impromptu gift of a vacuum packed whole chicken; or, trying to read the awkward smiles in our dinning group as they explained that the soup I just ordered for us is traditionally only for pregnant women. While these these memories make me giggle, there are a few moments that actually make me physically cringe, the majority of which involved my very American custom of hugging.

With the exception of young lovers on the subway and in dark corners of parks, and perhaps grandparents with babies, Chinese people don't really hug. Greetings are typically a handshake or a nod and a hello. That is not to say there is no physical contact, quite the opposite in fact. Female friends walk arm and arm down the sidewalk, stroke each others' hair, and hold hands. Male friends might throw an arm around a friend's shoulder, or lay a hand a buddy’s thigh while seated. But the big, warm, welcoming, so happy-to- see- you- I -just- can't- contain- myself American hug, just doesn't happen.

I recall one unfortunate hugging event in Dalian when I was teaching. First let me say that considering the proximity of our ages, I was already informal with my students. We would occasionally eat lunch together in the student cafeteria and chatted informally outside of class. And since I taught at a branch campus nearly an hour away from my apartment, I rarely saw my students outside of that distant campus. So, one weekend when I saw this particularly outgoing (dare I say favorite) student in the middle of the Saturday shopping crowd in downtown Dalian, I was surprised. For a split second I lost my cool and gave him a big hug! He on the other hand remained rigid, neither concave to accept the embrace, nor convex to avoid it. His arms were clamped firmly to his sides and his face shown a look of sheer panic. The embrace lasted about a half a second, as I regretted it the moment I committed. This wasn't the first time one of these unrequited hugs occurred. I have had similar experiences with both females and males and I thought my past misfortunes had cured me of such moments of American caprice. In fact, I think this self restraint has seeped into my behavior with foreign friends, ironically making ME the non-hugger!

My friend has pondered the same cultural difference, but from the Chinese perspective. He speculates Americans' hugging custom is a function of our small population [in comparison to that of China]. He reasons that the tradition developed from pioneer days when two people might have come upon one another in the wilderness and embraced out of relief from solitude. Thus the hugging trend began. While I find this to be slightly oversimplified, I'll grant that we hug more than our crowded UK and European neighbors with whom we supposedly share other "western" customs. Even the French "bises" keep you at a greater distance than any style of an American body to body hug!

This leads me to my next awkward hug experience that recently occurred with one of my Chinese roommate's suitors. After an evening out of barbecued meat, beer, and banter, "Old Zhao," as my roommate affectionately calls him, said that he heard that Americans hug. Then he asked me if I could teach him HOW to hug! It was only then that I realized the complexity of this custom. Who can you hug, under what circumstances, and how? The answers are something like: definitely not your boss, not the first time you meet, and .....there are many options.

How to hug? Who goes under? Who goes over? Do you cross? Pat or no pat on the back? Squeeze? How tight? Where does you chin go? When you think about it, hugging can get slightly mechanical for us too. If you linger a moment too long in a hug, it could be misinterpreted as an advance. There are best friend hugs, family hugs, lover hugs, and sweaty sporting event hugs. Girls often do the one armed side hug at formal events so as not risk wrinkling or smudging all that they've prepared. Guys do that slick handshake into a hug and slap on the back combination.

I chose not to attempt to explain all this to Old Zhao at 11:00 PM on the sidewalk outside the rowdy smokey restaurant. Instead, I taught him the crisscross, slight squeeze, with a pat on the back hug, and added the caveat to not use it the first time he meets someone.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Spring Festival Was a Blast!

Though I have spent two years in China now, this was my first chance to experience the entire Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) season. This post is delayed because, as the title demonstrates, I have found it impossible to come up with an original way to describe Spring Festival. If you are living in China, this is old news. But for those who have never experienced the tumultuous weeks of Spring Festival, read on...

Spring Festival shares a common quality with Christmas in that the expectation is to return home to pass the holiday season one's family. And as the capital, Beijing is much like Washington D.C. in that holidays mean a mass exodus from the city. Yet, while D.C. drains via freeways and airways, Beijing's population gets pumped out one train full at a time. According to the Chinese Rail Ministry's numbers, (as reported in China Daily) nearly 5 million of the China's 1.3 billion people are on the move via rails in the first 10 days of the holiday season. You can imagine the fear/anxiousness/dissatisfaction related to buying train tickets that pervades the holiday season. For example, when two friends/acquaintances run into each other, a common greeting is, "Have you eaten yet?" Yet, in the weeks leading up to Spring Festival, the question changed to "Have you bought your tickets yet?"On the street, in grotty noodle shops, and around the office, I could count on overhearing conversations about buying train tickets. I heard accounts of marathon queuing sessions, counterfeit tickets, black market tickets systems, fights at the ticket counters, and even confessions of general discontent with the country's governance, precipitated by these travel troubles. Most of these conversations end with everyone shaking their heads and grumbling, "tai ma fan," meaning "too much trouble/hassle."

After witnessing all this, I became terrified to even attempt a trip during the height of this period. Instead, I stayed in the ghost town university district of Beijing. Part of me assumed that I would pass the most significant Chinese holiday with Chinese people. But, by the time the big day arrived, any Chinese friends I had made in Beijing had returned to their home towns. I had a couple of offers to return to home towns to pass the holiday. However, one was impossible because it necessitated plane travel and my passport was locked up in the visa office over the holiday. The other was from a dear male friend who said that, though he would like to invite me to his home, doing so at Spring Festival would send the wrong message to his family! So, while I regret not being able to give an account of a family celebration, I can describe my enjoyable experience with some great foreign friends as we celebrated our version of Chinese New Year’s Eve.

We were set on eating dumplings, the traditional food eaten at New Year’s celebrations. I was never sure why this was so until a friend's uncle explained that in traditional Chinese folklore monsters ate everything except flour based foods. Thus, the tasty meat and vegetables are encased in protective unappealing dough to keep for humans only. (Though, the story was in Chinese, so I may have missed some details. Please feel free to set me straight.)

After stuffing ourselves with dumplings at a modest restaurant and celebrating a bit with the owners, we took to the streets with fireworks and "baijiu" (see the previous posts to know why this is actually a terrible combination). The atmosphere outside the restaurant was frigid and fanatical; explosions of light and sound came from every direction. Taxi drivers hauling inebriated passengers dodged erupting roman candles placed in the middle of the street. Pedestrians took cover in alleyways as rolls of firecrackers hung from trees fired without warning. Yet despite the peril and noise, I met no Spring Festival Grinches. There must be something about the power to create minor explosions that makes for inquellable smiles for even the most experienced merry makers. Through the strobe effect of firecrackers I watched childrens' expressions flash between glee and horror as they clasped their hands to their ears.

We made our way to the Drum Tower square and set off our own fireworks along with hundreds of other jovial Beijingers (including a surprising amount of foreigners, whose presence I attribute to the one line in the English events magazine article suggesting that the Drum Tower district was the place to be for New Years. If it was a conspiracy to keep us all in one place, it worked well!) The tradition of lighting fireworks at New Years stems from the now loosely held superstition that racket scares away monsters and evil spirits making for a clean start for the new year, void of hassle from ill intentioned ancestors lurking about.

The highlight of the evening came at midnight when Beijing citizens simultaneously lit their most expensive fireworks and the whole city spewed bright colors and sulfurous smoke in unison. Our crew was separated in the confusion and chaos but rejoined at club to dance away our numbness from the cold and take shelter from the explosions that continued for the rest of the night.

While setting off fireworks is technically only legal on two nights of the holiday season, the noise in my apartment complex continued day and night for two weeks straight. Here are a few video clip, just to show you how close to buildings, people, trees, cars, these big explosives are being lit.

Here are two clips from midnight. Notice the nonchalance of.....everyone about getting scarily close to these explosions.

This is a clip from my apartment window. And yes those sparks are really falling that closely.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Baijiu and Obama back to back

Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) has arrived. Heavy duty fireworks and firecrackers are exploding everywhere day and night. The university through which I ride my bicycle to work every day is eerily devoid of students, with only broken suitcase handles and wheels littering the ground as evidence of their mass holiday exodus home. And, restaurants everywhere are hosting Spring Festival banquets for companies and institutes all over Beijing. The need for these events can be compared with the obligatory company Christmas parties in the US. In the US, these company parties are awkward. People are forced to dress up and talk to each other about non-work related things, drink, but not indulge. The whole thing is a tightrope walk between business and pleasure. However, with all the lines of “professional” behavior slightly skewed in China, I got the feeling that these banquets in China are actually enjoyed!

Our institute’s celebration was a family affair that began in a banquet room filled with balloons, confetti, and plates of sunflower seeds and candy on the tables for munching. Staff members brought their wives/husbands and children to watch performances of our institutes’ own employees in a kind of talent show. One researcher joined his daughter in a magic show complete with a release of a parakeet (which then took 10 minutes to catch). A five year old boy showed the crowd of 100 his Taekwondo moves. A group of male post-docs performed a skit with jabs about how little money they made. Their female counterparts performed a dance routine in cut off jean shorts and tall black boots. Others sang Chinese pop songs on a Karaoke screen or performed a more traditional poetic story in the style of San Ju Ban (Three and a half sentences). The top prize went to the administrative and research staff that performed a Spanish conquistador partner dance with costumes and recorded blaring brass music. After the performances we were invited to play Chinese chess and word puzzles and then make our way to a nearby restaurant where the real party began.

Our group occupied about 20 round tables, which amounted to half the restaurant’s open first floor dining room. I sat with some of the researchers' wives and their children. The kids continued their song, dance, and martial arts performances throughout dinner despite reprimands from the adults! After a half hour of eating, the higher-ups began circulating the tables toasting their colleagues with “baijiu” (white rice alcohol that tastes like paint thinner ) and things started to get rowdy. You see a toast in China is not a sweet speech followed by a sip of champagne. Rather, it is a boisterous demonstration of thanks or good luck followed by a shot of 60 proof alcohol.

Lets again picture the stuffy holiday parties in the US where everyone is holding it all in. If someone does accidentally loosen up after a few trips to the bar, stories of their rowdiness and dirty dancing will float around the office in whispers for weeks. Now, imagine a party with no pesky Puritan roots to hold you back! Chinese drinking culture is such that one loses more face by turning down a challenge to drink than by getting completely blitzed and making a fool of himself/herself. (I say herself, but actually I do not fully understand how women fit into drinking culture in modern China.) In his book Rivertown, Peter Hessler recalled (hazily I am sure) a similar banquet with his English department where he and a friend felt no regrets about diving over tables and shooting each other with rubber band guns!

When my boss and another important staff member circled round to my chair and poured me a glass, I found myself caught in a tangle of tacit cultural expectations. I knew that it is disrespectful and even condescending to turn down a drink. Yet, I also knew that it is common for Chinese women to shy away from alcohol and toast with tea or soda instead. And finally, my Midwest roots were telling me that I should probably not be taking shots with my boss, period. I made a split second decision to file myself into a totally different category of “only foreign girl in the room” and threw one back. In the after burn I caught a thumbs up from my boss as he moved on to the next table. Whew.

The waiters brought bottle after bottle of baijiu and the noise level of our side of the room rose. I sat uncomfortably as I thought about how much we must have been disturbing the other customers sitting a mere ten feet way. Just when I thought about asking my friend if we were being too loud, the director picked up a bullhorn to announce the top prize winners of the raffle! The other customers seemed neither surprised nor offended. I guess by now I should know that hot, loud, jovial places are just where Chinese people would choose to be for the holidays.

A few students and staff stopped by my seat to chat in a mix of slurred English and Chinese. Whether it was the alcohol or the freedom that comes with speaking an opinion in a foreign language, one man felt free enough to explain the significance of this night to me. He claimed that one could “lose” oneself for the night. He described this as the one time a year when all is forgotten and forgiven. “You can say anything!” And most importantly, by drinking with his staff, the boss shows a bit of humility allowing him to reconnect with his employees.

Slightly buzzed from the cultural overload and the baijiu, I looked at my watch and remembered that the 44th US Presidential Inauguration was to take place in two hours. Being an hour's subway trip away from where I said I would meet my friends to watch, I excused myself from the party, which I later learned had continued on to a Karaoke bar. As our group walked to a bar promising a CNN live feed, we realized that while we all shared excited feelings about the big event, I was actually the only American in the group.

The bar was packed and just as loud as the Chinese banquet. But, instead of bullhorns and toasts, it was Beijing x-pats competing with each other and the CNN commentators for a bit of air time. An old Chinese man in a Mao cap circulated through the crowd selling his handicrafts and took a moment to watch the screen himself then confirming with those around him that the event was somehow connected to “ow – ba – ma.” The crowd quieted a bit at the sight of Carter, booed at George W. Bush, and cheered with the emergence of Michelle Obama. I stood beside Italians and English during the oath, an American for Aretha Franklin’s song, and Canadians during Obama’s speech. It is not until one spends an election or an inauguration abroad that one realizes how closely the rest of the world follows US politics.

I fell asleep at 4AM trying to process it all.

Here is a video just to give you a taste of the political and social vibe of the (mostly young) Beijing x-pat crowd. The second video is just proof that not everything is censored in China. This was the bit of the speech that was edited out on the Chinese stations but came through clearly on CNN.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Latest language gaffe/near miss with humiliation

As an intern, anywhere really, one is constantly anxious about how to slip into the social scene at the office/company. If you have an intern, know that he/she is over thinking every action so as to avoid being both completely overlooked or in the spotlight. This internal tension (no pun intended) increases when the job lands the intern squarely in a foreign culture where he/she cannot even rely on gut social instincts. While I am constantly strategizing about how to ease into the social scene here, I am never actually confident about how my actions are being interpreted. With such deliberation to say and do just the right thing, you can imagine what affect one major gaffe might have on my psyche.

While my Chinese vocabulary continues to grow, I am still very capable of making grave and humiliating mistakes. I had a close call during a series of email exchanges with a PhD student here at the institute. We bumped into each other outside the institute and he invited me to the public oral defense session of his thesis. There is a specific word for oral defense of one's thesis, "da bian" (
答辩) which was new to me when he spoke it. I attended the session and managed to comprehend only the gist and not a single detail of his extremely technical presentation. Afterward I confidently typed up an e-mail thanking him for including me and asked him how he thought his "da bian" had gone.

However, due to my dearth of Chinese character recognition, I used the characters "
大便," which is also pronounced "da bian" but with slightly different tones and unfortunately means..well... excrement (to put it gently)! I was one mouse click away from thanking him for inviting me to his defecating session and asking him how he felt about it had gone.

I swear Chinese is a code not a language!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Beijing Roast Duck (all of it)

A visit from important foreign guests to the institute warranted a trip to eat the all famous, “Beijing kao ya,” or Peking Roast Duck. Our group of ten headed to a famous roast duck restaurant near the Olympic village. The place was packed with waitresses in Qing Dynasty costumes with walki-talkies and headphones. The walls were covered in pictures of foreign guests and dignitaries that had dined there during the Olympics. I noted that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo represented the Philippines as well as one could with a whole naked duck in the foreground. We were ushered to the private “Putin room,” complete with Chinese and Russian flags as the table centerpiece and pictures of Vladimir Putin and his entourage enjoying roast duck. We ordered two entire ducks prepared with the “Putin” menu.

This restaurant was obviously still riding the Olympic theme. First to arrive on our table was a small plate of fried duck skin intricately woven into the shape of the neighboring Olympic bird nest. Next was a simulacrum of the Olympic aquatic center which took the form of duck skin chunks suspended in a rectangular mass of translucent gelatin. The jiggling mound was set atop a base with a blue twinkling light bulb making it glow aquamarine. I tried a cube as it glided past me on the rotating glass Lazy Susan. It tasted exactly like what you might expect if you ate a big spoon full of the semi-hardened grease that pools around your turkey a few days after Thanksgiving.

The waitress announced the name of each in Chinese as she placed them on the table. First was the usual, duck meat served with sweet hoisin (thick dark and sweet) sauce and spring onions all to be rolled up in thin crepe-like pancakes and eaten like tiny burritos. Undeniably delicious! Then, a plate of fleshy floppy “duck feet” arrived. With a little encouragement from my boss, the other American at the table and I lifted the wilted webbed bits of flesh from the plate with chop sticks, dipped them into mustard sauce, and plunged them into your mouths with a cringe. We both reached for our beer and gulped to forget the soft crunch of flavorless cartilage. I understood the next few dishes as announced, “duck liver,” “duck hearts cooked in Chinese white liquor,” “duck neck,” “boiled duck head,” (which was split in two for ease of eating I suppose). But then there was one dish announced that was beyond my vocabulary and visual identification. I turned to my boss and said, “I don’t’ know that one.” He laughed out loud and said, “And nor can I tell you.” There was an awkward silence as he thought for a moment and then said in English, “The Chinese have a special word for this too, “Duck Precious!”

I tried everything and at the same time tried not to think about what effect the layering of such new cuisine in my stomach might have later.