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.