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.