Search This Blog

Monday, March 28, 2011

What I like about China and Beijing

■ How so many of the restaurants are lit up like Las Vegas. They have HUGE neon signs. When I first got here, I thought they were gambling casinos.
■You can take your own drinks into restaurants.
■Sleeping is a hobby. Really. When I ask students what they do in their free time, several have responded “sleep”. And you may have seen the photos I posted shortly after I arrived here of people unashamedly sleeping in public places. One of the international teachers swears that the government is putting something in the water to make people sleepy so they don’t have the energy to protest in the streets.
■How very interested and dedicated to health people are, especially eating right. It seems that everyone can tell you the health benefits of every food. And when they get sick, they look first to how they’re eating and see if they can adjust that. Then they look to other things in the environment, such as the air (which is very bad here), and to Traditional Chinese Medicine. People use Western medicine only if they have run out of all other options. And they don’t like to take pills of any kind. It’s hard to find even aspirin here.
■How people eat fruit for snacks, which helps you start or maintain good eating habits. How cheap the fresh fruit and vegetables are (e.g. 15 strawberries for 65 cents), and how that encourages you to eat them.
■In season, tomatoes are always vine-ripened wherever you go. The cantaloupes are sweet, too.
■The variety of fruits. I may not eat them all, but it’s good to be able to sample them and know that they are available. Kumquats. I was going to call them “cherry-sized oranges” but just recently put the fruit’s name with what I have eaten here. It’s exactly like an orange, and you eat it whole—rind and all. I like it cut up and put in a salad or cereal.
■I had never seen--or maybe just never recognized--a mango. I had never seen anyone open up a pomegranate. I didn't know what hot chestnuts are like, that you can crack them easily with your fingers, and that the taste is different than when they're dry.
■Dried green peas with garlic that you eat as a snack. I also add them to a baked potato or to a salad.
■No matter how bad my personal habits, they can’t compare with what I see on the street every day (e.g. egregious spitting, blowing your nose by holding one nostril & blowing with the other on to the ground, spitting out bones right on the table)
■Cheap rent, although it’s getting more expensive.
■The great infrastructure – subway, taxi, bus, the ring roads.
■How enamored of Americans they are. That someone will introduce you proudly: this is Keith—he’s an American! It’s like being a very minor celebrity.
■The students are so forthcoming with compliments. “I really like your class!”
■How people are constantly inviting me to do things with them (see “very minor celebrity” bullet point above).I have mixed feelings about how you’re sometimes treated “as a guest”. Once I was in a long line at the supermarket and a manager singled me out and put me at the front of the line. I was on a first date once with a much younger guy and he insisted on paying for our meal because "you are our guest". And my favorite: I was in line to get into a restaurant for 45 minutes, about 12 people ahead of me. When there were just 2 people left in front of me, they insisted that I go first because "you are our guest". They waited until there were just 2 to say that :-) But the great majority of the time, you’re treated exactly like everyone else.
■That a man my age can come here and 25 year-old men and women come on to him –something that almost never happens back home. Basically it’s just because you’re a Westerner, and particularly an American.
■Both guys and girls who will tell guys, with others listening and with no pretense or embarrassment, that they are attractive. The general lack of uptightness about masculinity, very much unlike most American men. You know those cheap Oriental fans that are novelties in US? I've seen men in addition to women use them to cool themselves off. But it does cause problems with your gadar ;-)
■I like Asian guys, and there are hundreds of millions of them here! I particularly like the various skin tones, their cute little noses (they say we have big noses), and their slender builds.
■How people are so honest and don’t flatter you. People will ask me how old I am and I ask them to guess. Back home, I often got answers like “40”. I’ve never gotten that here. The most common answer is 50, which is close. When I tell them it’s not 50, they then jump to 60!
■How very un-PC most people are most of the time. They call ‘em like they see ‘em. That’s not always a positive thing, though. For instance, men’s and women’s attitudes about women are what we would consider sexist.
■How the taxi drivers sometimes practice their English with you.
■Almost all of the people that I have come into contact with have been extremely honest. A taxi driver took a wrong turn, which caused the ride to be a little bit longer; without my asking, he gave me back some of my money. In Macao, I gave the driver the incorrect name of the place where I wanted to go, and didn’t realize it till I got there. He took me to the correct place and didn’t charge for the first trip, even though it took an extra 20 minutes. Recently, I had a guy look at my pc who said in advance that it’d be 150, but he wasn’t able to fix it so he just asked for cab fare. More than once while buying dvds on the street, I misunderstood and was trying to pay twice as much; he smiled, said no and clarified.
■Getting dvd’s of the latest movies for 80 cents each. (I know it’s not fair to the movie studios and I support the Chinese government stopping the practice. Until then, I’ll continue to buy them.)
■Often, when you call the phone company about a problem, they send someone to your place within an hour.
■The banks have places for you to sit while you’re waiting. Imagine.
■Bargaining at the markets and getting them to come way down from their original price.
■Beautiful and unusual buildings.
■All the embassies, surrounded by fences, with the guards in uniforms at attention outside.
■The hustle and the bustle. The crowds. Yes, I like the crowds (except when I’m in line, which is not that often).
■The China price: Feet and body massages for $12/hr!
■How logical the language is. People make fun of calling a train a “fire vehicle”, but that and the naming of many others things make perfect sense. The literal translations of breakfast, lunch and dinner are “early meal”, “noon meal” and “late meal”. Why do we need to give them all completely different names in English? Why do we call cow-meat “beef”, pig-meat “pork” and sheep-meat “mutton” in English? It’s like that with lots of things. A computer is “electric brain”, a phone is “electric words” and TV is “electric seeing”. Shrimp is “insect below” and lobster is “dragon shrimp”.
■Being able to meet people from around the world on a daily basis and talk with them at length: Brazil, France, Moscow, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan. And teachers from California, Australia, England, Canada and the Philippines.
■That I can go just about anywhere anytime and not have to worry about crime.
■I can say mundane things in class that everyone in US has heard of, but they are delighted with the knowledge of a particular saying or idiom or aphorism.
■How the culture is different enough that it’s interesting. It’s not just like the West as you’re led to believe—even here in BJ. In business and clothing – yes, they are copying the West as much as possible. But not in food, medicine, or attitudes about discipline. Very few people—including young people—eat Western food on a regular basis. Music? They don’t even know who Elvis is; they know the Beatles and Lady Gaga, but not much else about Western music. They know virtually no Western history. (But then how much Chinese history do we know other than what US was involved in?)
■How people ask me questions about language all day. I almost never tire of it.
■How people of both genders and all ages, when they encounter something they don’t understand, do the The ScoobyDoo “hmmm?”. And it’s not meant to be funny.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Silent reading" and saving face

Those of us who teach in China have an advantage over those teaching in the US.. We can easily tell when our students have finished a "silent reading". We can do this because it is NEVER silent. As soon as you ask a class to begin reading "to themselves", the buzz starts. With some, it's whispers. But usually it's at the level of soft talking. Occasionally a student will "read to himself" just as loud as if he were talking to the teacher. One student was so loud yesterday -almost shouting -that a fellow student asked him to read more quietly; that's the first time I experienced that.

Of course, the student immediately said that he had finished reading. It's likely that he had not finished, but said that just to "save face". I see "saving face" most often when a person knows he is wrong but will not admit to it. For instance, sometimes I'll ask a student a question in class and she starts babbling an answer which is in good English, but which has nothing to do with the question. They'll usually go on until I stop them. It wasn't until recently that I realized that it's not usually that they don't understand the question, but that they don't know the answer. Rather than say, "I don't know", they'll give any kind of answer. Everyone in the room (except me until recently) realized they were just saving face.

This can be annoying, such as when a person is telling others how something needs to be done and they realize they are wrong, they may simply not admit it and will not let everyone know the right way. Everyone goes on doing it the wrong way rather than cause embarassment to this one person, until eventually everyone figures it out. Lots of time and effort may be wasted in the meantime, but we can't let that one person lose face.

Another example is how one of the local teachers was teaching me Chinese. She'd tell me one meaning or pronunication of a word, which I would make a careful note of and repeat. She would then say, "No it's this way". I'd say, "But you just said it's this way." She'd just just "No, it's this way. Say it this way." It's maddening. No, this isn't the same as in the US. These things happen in the US sometimes and with certain people, but in China it is Standard Operating Procedure and carried to absurd lengths. Can you say "Cultural Revolution"?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chinese New Year in Beijing

It started a couple of days ago –the sounds of what seemed like bombs or gunfire going off in my neighborhood. The first time I heard it, I looked out my window to see if there were any thing strange down on the ground. No, and people were walking about as though they had heard nothing. Not even any dogs were barking at the sound. So, I thought, it must not be a problem.

Yesterday morning, I started to hear a lot more such sounds. Alvin said it was fireworks, because it’s New Year’s Eve. I had never heard of fireworks during the day—what’s the point? He said they do it just for the sound. As the day went on, the blasts were more and more frequent. Then I began to hear what sounded like automatic gunfire (very rapid, like firecrackers) or like very loud static on the radio. Turns out, these were just different types of fireworks.

This is the biggest holiday in China, like our Christmas. Brian and Jennifer, a couple who teach at my school, who were kind enough to invite me over for dinner and fireworks viewing. There I met Joe, another American EF teacher, and heard about the differences between teaching in China and Japan. Contrary to all the stereotypes, he reinforces what I’ve heard from others, that there are severe discipline problems in both countries.

Ilisa and Bruno, a couple from Italy who are both architects, brought the dinner they cooked—spaghetti with clam shells and a whole fish (though no one was sure what kind it was). It was topped off by some delicious brownies, homemade by Jennifer. Later we were joined by Jurrie, a Chinese woman who grew up in the provinces in severe poverty, but now has a good job at an investment company in Beijing. I loved the conversation about the language similarities and differences among Mandarin, Italian, and English, and even some occasional talk about Portuguese and Spanish. Occasionally we translated for Bruno, who although his English is not-so-good, managed to keep us laughing with what little he did know.

All the way over to the apartment and all through dinner, the fireworks were constant, and getting more frequent all the time. I even noticed people shooting rockets from their apartment windows. Now that it was night time, the fireworks made a lot more sense to me, and we had a great vantage point after dinner on the patio, where we could see a huge section of Beijing from the 28th floor.

Imagine New York City, which has a population similar to Beijing’s, but where everyone is allowed to set off any kind of fireworks they want—the kind that in the US only the professionals are allowed to use. Then imagine that ever Tom, Dick and Harry is allowed to set off these fireworks any where in the city they want, with the favorite place being the middle of the streets. Then imagine that is augmented by several professional displays at various points in our viewing area. That’s Chinese New Year in Beijing. Here's a video that's similar to what we saw last night from the 28th floor: Here's a typical scene from the ground: It's been called the largest uncoordinated fireworks display in the world.

We could see for miles around into the distance and fireworks were going off all over the city as far as we could see. There were even some pretty nifty fireworks being set off right on the ground below our apartment; it was great to see them explode at eye-level.

It kept building and building, getting louder and more colorful and brighter. It peaked at midnight, but kept going all night long. Every other fireworks display I had ever seen reminded me of that song from the 60’s: “Is that all there is?” I never could understand what all the fuss was about. But THIS was a huge spectacle, which I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of. It was truly exciting.

About 1 am it was time to go. Joe and I were afraid we wouldn’t be able to get a cab home since all the cabs seemed to be off the streets (and who could blame them?), but Jurrie was good enough to deliver us home in her car. On the way, she had to dodge many of the fireworks boxes and canisters which were in the middle of the streets.

It’s a good thing I’m a heavy sleeper. As I said, the fireworks went on all night long, they were still going when I woke up this morning, and they are still going strong as I write this at 3:30 in the afternoon. They tell me this will continue for 15 more days.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

2 firsts: Silk Market and "adult store"

I'm going to a party on Wednesday night that requires we wear a Tang dynasty shirt. I had no idea where to get one, so I headed to the Silk Market. It's one of the biggest tourist sites in Beijing, with 1700 vendors and 60,000 visitors per day on weekends, but I'd never been there because I had heard it was such a tourist trap.

But now I needed silk and had no idea where to find such a traditional outfit, so the Silk Market seemed to fit the bill. It lived up to its reputation for crowds, pushy vendors, and outrageous initial prices (though the prices sound good to people just off the boat). It's known for its knock-off clothing and accessories, but the one thing the Silk Market had very little of was silk. I finally found a place that had what I wanted and the woman asked for the outrageous price of $800. I countered with $100 (which still may have been too much--I don't know) and after a fun negotiation dance, I walked away with it for a little more than $100.

Afterwards, while exploring the area, I saw one of the "adult shops" you see all over Beijing. I had been curious for a while, and decided that today was the day to check it out. It had condoms, lubricants, stimulants, fake breasts (for straight men's enjoyment) and not much else. What was surprising was the attendant: a woman in her 60's wearing what looked like a nurse's uniform from the 50's: white dress and white nurse's hat. I suppose that's to give it a sheen of medical necessity. I actually did feel more comfortable there than if it had been some skank in their 20s, so I guess it worked on me.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Judge and jury

One of my classes this week was on the American legal system --just the spare basics of what happens in a trial. Almost all of the students thought that, as in China, the judge decides who is innocent or guilty. They were fascinated by the idea of a jury - average people making this decision? They aren't experts, so how can they make the right decisions? How are they picked? What if they don't want to do it?

They were all incredulous that the jury decision has to be unanimous -what if one person is an idiot? One student, whose name is "Sunny Bright", said "maybe that's why the crime rate is so high in the US." Another asked, "Doesn't this make the jury susceptible to bribing?"

I explained that this is one of the most basic of rights in England and the US, going back 700 years, but they didn't seem to be impressed. The unanimity part really bothered them.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"You must be from New Zealand."

I've know for a while that my accent was "in the middle" somewhere. A lot of native Southerners say that they don't hear an accent (meaning it's standard American), but when I travel in the US outside the South, people say OH YEAH you do have a Southern accent. This is probably familiar to a lot of people who have moved to a different area than they grew up in or whose accent has changed.

I admit to trying to "soften" my accent when I was in college because it just sounded too redneck to me. However, I have never wanted to get rid of it, just to have a more attractive version of it...more genteel. I don't want to have a boring, standard American accent, and I am proud of my Southern heritage.

But the comments I have received here in Beijing are bizarre to me. Many of my students have said that I don't sound American. If I ask them what I sound like, they usually say British, or say I sound like another teacher here--who is from England. This puzzles me, so I've asked them what in particular makes them say that. They usually can't say. A couple of times, students have said something like, "You just don't act like an American."

Well. What does that mean? I think of the old "All in the Family" show, where Archie made the outre comment that all British men act "queer". Is that what they really meant? I tend to discount the students' comments since I don't think they are particularly good at detecting English-language accents anyway.

However, a couple of teachers who are from Australia told me they thought at first I was from Australia or New Zealand. And today, in training, a guy from England upon meeting me said confidently, "You're either from Australia or New Zealand--can't quite place it." When I told him America - North Carolina, he said, "Well, I guess we expect the way we hear Americans sound in movies."

The one thing that I know that stands out about the way I speak is my Pennsylvania long "o". It's kind of "e-yo-oo" sound. I learned about this when I took a diction class in college. (This was the same time I learned there was a difference in pronunciation between "pin" and "pen", and "want" and "won't'.) My professor went to my church and was aware that in elementary school I was taught by nuns from Pennsylvania, so he concluded that's where I must have gotten it. When I hear that sound, it does sound British to me, and I mentioned that to the English guy today, and he said "Maybe that's it."

Any light friends or family could shed on this mystery would be much appreciated.

BTW it will be interesting to hear, when I return to the States, whether people think I speak any differently. When I first started teaching, I was told repeatedly that I speak too fast for students to understand, so I've really worked on slowing down my speech, also on enunciating my words more clearly. I rarely get a complaint anymore, so I guess I'm succeeding.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

National amnesia; students open up

In 2 of the 3 types of classes we have, I am very fortunate to be able to hear students talk about some intimate things on a variety of subjects. It's a real window onto the culture that I think not many people get.

For instance, in a recent Face2Face (just the teacher and 4 students), we read an excerpt from a woman who talks about the idyllic 50s in England, and compares it unfavorably to today. She says they had bigger houses, lived in the country, played outside, had gardens, ate healthier food and ate together as a family--all in contrast to today.

I ask them if they think things are better today in China than they were in the 50's and 60's. I'm very interested to hear what they have to say because to me there is no doubt at all that it's much better today. But I'd heard and seen what I saw as evidence that there was a national amnesia about those days. They are not taught in school that millions of people died from starvation and violence due to the ruinous policies of Chairman Mao, and it certainly isn't covered in the media. I've had conversations with local teachers, who are well-educated, who seemed to be completely ignorant of this time and, what's more, didn't care.

I had this same class several times in the last week, so it was interesting to see the dynamic in each class. The first couple of classes, everyone said things were better back then, but they were quoting from the story, saying that food was healthier, etc. This speaks to the way they are trained in school to tell you what you want to hear rather than give their real opinion.

But don't these people hear stories from their parents and grandparents? Or do people from those generations simply not want to talk about it?

Finally, yesterday in my final F2F on this subject, a teenage girl spoke with passion about how it's much better now because people in her family died because they didn't have enough to eat and that they're still trying to recover from that time. A couple of others chimed in, acting as if they were letting me in on a secret.

So is this something everyone knows, but is reluctant to speak about to foreigners? Or do they not want to be seen as criticizing Chairman Mao? Or is it something else?