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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ritan Park

I went to Ritan Park near the Central Business District last weekend. It was a delightful, peaceful setting (see more photos on Facebook). Across the pond from me, in a pagoda, a man had what I took to be his little grandson on his shoulders. As I began to take a photo, from this same direction I heard a lyrical, strong tenor voice, singing what appeared to me to be a Chinese melody. As I was wandering and wondering over this lovely park, I continued to hear the man sing at the top of his lungs--but "never louder than pretty". I thought, "How lucky for me that I came on the very day this man with a beautiful voice is here with his family."

At one point, I hear the flute instead of a voice. He's playing the flute now! I'm amazed at how far the sound carries. After luxuriating in these melodies for a while, I am jarred out of my reverie by a female voice. My suspicion that this fortuitious serenade was too good to be true seemed confirmed: I hear instrumentation behind the woman's voice and I can see there's not an orchestra in the pagoda. I think, well it was still nice if not magical.

Eventually, I work my way to said pagoda. And see the man. I do indeed hear piped-in music, but the man is singing also. After a while, the canned music stops, but he continues singing. It is HIS voice that carries across the park. And how lustily he sings! He can barely contain his joy.

I listened as I took photos of the beautiful pagoda. I suspected that the man really wanted me to take his picture since I thought he was glancing at me. But I let him wait a bit. He probably does this every day, I thought, hoping people tell him how wonderful he is. I will certainly oblige him. He IS wonderful--not just his voice but his joie de vivre. So I give him the thumbs up and said "good" in Chinese. He smiles and says something back to me in Chinese, which of course, I can't understand. I raise my camera, indicating I wanted to take his picture, and he smiled and posed (see attached photo). I thank him and he says something else to me in Chinese.

Then he says "please" in Chinese to me a couple of times, then starts dancing with his hand up, inviting me to join him. I shyly decline, but he persists,and begins dancing by himself and singing with even more exuberance. He seems to be the very essence of happiness.

He has made this a lasting memory for me.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Not quite a Tower of Babel

IAmong the many concerns I had about teaching in China was whether it would be a problem that I had a Southern (non-standard) accent. No problem! We have "international" teachers from London, Australia, the Phillipines, Canada, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and North Carolina all working on PC's in this cramped room. So you constantly hear English being spoken in several different accents. Of course, we also have several "local" teachers who are from all around China; they are part of the massive migration from the provinces into the cities. My favorite local teacher is from Mongolia, but he sounds just like he's from the US when he speaks English because he lived for 2 years in Georgia and has a good ear.

Our job, of course, is to teach English all day, and in the course of preparing for lessons the local teachers frequently have questions about the meaning of certain words or phrases. So someone will ask you something like "What's the difference between heaven and paradise?" or "Do you say I read it ON the newspaper or IN the newspaper; I heard it ON TV or IN the TV". But sometimes they'll ask a question that we disagree on, usually depending on which country we're from. So the local teacher asks what a "duplex" is and the Londoner tells her it's 2 separate buildings whose walls meet. I clarify that in America, it means one building separated in 2 by a wall. And sometimes the Australian will chip in with "We call that a gaboorabamba." Sometimes it's funny, as when the Londoner asks if anyone needs to use the "guillotine". I ask him what that means and he says "It's the thing you use to cut paper with; what do you call it in the States?" I say, "We call it a ....[dramatic pause] PAPER CUTTER."

On the flip side, none of the international teachers are fluent in Mandarin, so we often need their help with personall issues (talking to the phone company or building maintenance, for instance). But often it's about references in lessons. An international teacher will ask "Will the students know who Elvis is?" (Answer: "No, but they know the Beatles".)

The local teachers frequently speak Mandarin to each other and, since none of the international teachers are fluent, we usually ignore what they're saying. However, last week several of them were talking when I heard the unmistakable sound (to me) of "Keith Bernard". So I pipe up, "I HEARD that!" They all laugh and I ask how my name came up.

Juliet says she just talked to a student who had an unusual accent, and she asked where he was from. Turn out he's from Japan. She said she asked him what level he was. Because he was higher level, she said you have to go see Keith Bernard (international teachers handle the higher levels.)

She said if he'd been lower level, she'd have to refuse to have him in class. I had heard things before, so I said, "Y'all don't really like the Japanese, do you?" Monica, who is teaching me Chinese and is always very sweet, uncharacteristically said with bitterness, "We hate the Japanese." No one needed to say why. We all knew that when the Japanese occupied large parts of China before World War II, they treated the Chinese like dirt and committed many atrocities.

The local teachers went on complaining about the Japanese for a while, eventually saying they were worse than the Nazis. Monica said, "They're still trying to take over our companies...And getting parts for a Japanese car takes forever because they don't like the Chinese."

I'd heard about some bitterness toward the Japanese before, but it's really eye-opening when you hear it for yourself.


Beijing traffic

If I die in Beijing, it's likely to be from a traffic accident. There's very little violent crime here, so I feel safe just about anywhere anytime , day or night. But the traffic accident death toll here is 10 times what it is in developed countries.

A lot of people complain about how crazy the traffic is for people in cars, but that doesn't bother me. Cars and bikes and motorcycles are constantly darting right in front of each other and switching lanes at turbo speed with no notice. And cab drivers almost never curse or get upset at the most brazen things; they just work their way around it, because they know they do it, too.

What does bother me, though, is this kind of behavior when I'm a pedestrian, because pedestrians are a lot more vulnerable. In the US, we're used to the pedestrian having the right of way in doubtful situations, in order to protect the pedestrian. So when I would see the green walk sign (just like we have in the US), I assumed I had the right of way. But here in Beijing, it appears the only time the pedestrian has the right of way is when a car wanting to go straight has a red light. If the car at the stoplight is turning right, he won't stop for you. If someone from an intersecting street is turning left onto your street, he won't stop for you. Also, people coming out of driveways won't stop for you. The pedestrian must stop, or he will be run over. I've seen an elderly woman with a cane crossing the street and a car going at full speed (who definitely saw her) didn't slow down a bit. He came within 3 inches of hitting her.

To be fair, the pedestrians really do push it. On a major street I saw an old man look directly at a cab going 40 mph and step right in front of him from 100 ft away. It's the "They'll stop" method of driving a car, or as we call it in the US, "playing chicken". If one brave person gets in front of a car, no matter how close it is, everyone waiting follows immediately. I've actually done the "Hey! I'm walkin here!" scene from Midnight Cowboy (in English), minus hitting the hood of the car.

What's even worse than the cars are the bicycles and motorcycles, because they ride right on the sidewalk with pedestrians, at full speed. And the motorcycles are electric, so you can't hear them any more than you can hear a bicycle. They can be right behind and pass you on one side, coming wthin one inch. I have lost count of how many times I've come so close to being hit by a bike or motorcylce. It's a several-times-a-day occurence.

BTW, most Chinese sit in the front of the cab instead of the back, same as I did back home the first couple of times I took and cab and didn't know any better. But some of the cabs have barriers separating the driver from the front-seat passenger.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

American-Chinese food v. Chinese-Chinese food

The media talk as if everyone in China is now eating at McDonald's, Pizza Hut and KFC all the time. While there are lots of them around Beijing, their quantity is more apparent than real because they are on the main streets. They are probably outnumbered by Chinese restaurants by 1000 to 1 IN BEIJING--probably more so elsewhere in China.

I've always liked rice and what I thought was Chinese food. But let me tell you about real Chinese food. First of all, in the supermarkets you can see where people eat every part of the animal possible. This makes sense when you remember that it was only a couple of generations ago that there was mass starvation in China, so they had to eat whatever they could find. So in very nice restaurants you have ox-blood soup, chicken feet, pig knuckles, cow hooves, tripe and stomach. And every kind of creature, from deer to eel to cuttlefish. (People eat dog, but you won't see it on menus.) I've commented before on how there aren't many cats or birds here in Beijing. One of my fellow teachers received a cooked sparrow from one of his students as a gift.

You may think, "But that would be mainly bones", and that would be exactly the point. They LOVE bones, cartilege, fat and skin. My father, a Cajun who grew up on a beef farm, would be right at home with their food. I remember him cooking things like cow tongue and, being a Cajun, he ate rice with every meal. And we used to cut the fat off our meat and give it him; he'd eat every bit of it with delight.

They say it all makes food tastier. Well, in the West, they say putting a bone in soup gives it a lot of flavor, and there's no denying that fat can give food a better taste. And don't you love KFC chicken skin, even though you know it's not good for you? I say, fine, cook it with all of that, but then TAKE IT OUT.

But the Chinese actually PREFER the chewiness of cartilege and the taste of fat itself and will tell you that it's healthier. I would like a lot more Chinese food except that, anything with meat in it is likely to have bones; they seem to aim for a bone in every bite. So in the middle of what might be a good dish, you have to eat around many bones and cartilege and skin.

Chicken is not a traditional Chinese food; it was a luxury for many years, served only at special occasions. While you find a huge variety in the hutongs (neighborhoods) and I'm sure even a lot more in the countryside, most of the meat here is beef, fish, shrimp, squid, and pork. I avoid the beef because of the afore-mentioned. The fish is very often generic, so you don't really know what you're getting, so I avoid it. I'm crazy about shrimp, and sometimes you can get it peeled the way we are used to, but most of the time you are served it whole and you have to take it apart. Squid? I don't like chewy things. Pork is often my best option.

You often can find chicken in Western-oriented places, but you almost never find white meat: they don't like it. And that's what I prefer. I went to KFC, sure that I would find white meat there, but it was nowhere on the menu. As you would expect, the big item was chicken wings.

On menus, you often see raw meat in the photos. For a while, I avoided those dishes because I didn't want raw meat. Then a friend ordered one of those dishes and it came cooked. She explained that they show it raw in the photos so you can see that it's premium beef....

One of the few pleasant food surprises I've had is that lots of dishes have a hard-boiled egg included, even when not in the description. They are very tasty. Other things you find more often in Chinese food and which I like, are peanuts, cauliflower, broccoli, pumpkin and squash.

They use beans in lots of things and have bean-flavored ice cream (as well as green-tea ice cream) and bean-flavored drinks. I recently saw some bread labelled as rye, the first I'd seen since I've been in China. But when I got home and opened it, I discovered that it was made from red beans and didn't taste anything like rye.

There are more soups than you'd find in American Chinese restaurants. Another very big thing is hotpot, which is like fonduing your entire dinner. But I have seen egg roll on a menu only once, making me think it's an American invention.

There aren't many milk products here. I've been told that most Chinese are lactose-intolerant. In the large supermarket in the bottom of my building, they carry no butter or margarine. NONE. And just a few cartons of milk, which are always expired.

No places bring water unless you ask, and never with ice. In fact, sometimes they'll bring warm water in a teapot. One place brought boiling hot water in drinking glasses. And their tea is not at all like the dark, bitter tea in Chinese American restaurants. Often it's flower tea, made from chrysanthemums, which is very mild. In fact, it almost tastes like water.

When you get on the subway or a taxi or even as you walk in my school, you are often hit with a strong smell of spices, even if no one is eating. Because so many Westerners find this overwhelming, beginning with the Olypmics, the government has forbidden taxi drivers from eating in the cabs OR having spicy food less than an hour before their shift. But as my friend Joel would say, "It ain't a-workin." The smell oozes from their pores: garlic, wasabi, other smells I don't know.

Most food is extremely cheap here. I can eat a good lunch for less than $1.50 and would never consider paying more than $5. Many of the prices are regulated by the government. But the exception is Western food. Whereas in the US, McD's and KFC are cheap alternatives, here they're very expensive, comparatively speaking. A fish sandwich with french fries and a coke is the equivalent of $7. A 10-inch tall bag of Doritos is $5. And wine and liquor are as expensive as in the US.

Just as I prefer the Spanish food in America to most of what I tasted in Spain, so do I prefer (by far) American Chinese food to the Chinese Chinese food. But I am very glad to have experienced all of this for myself. It is facinating to see what we take for granted turned on its head.


When students sign up for classes, they are asked if they want to use an English name. Most do. However, they are not given any advice or feedback about what are appropriate names. As a result, some have unusual names.

Some of the names:
Butterfly -She got tired of having people refer to her as "fly" since she doesn't like that pesky insect, so she decided to change her name to Teresa. When I pointed out to her that "fly" can mean really cool, she said she might go back to Butterfly.
Apple -contrary to what you might think, this is an elegant middle-aged woman.
There are several named "Cherry".

Yoko -when I saw her name I said, "Oh, you chose the name from Yoko Ono". She had no idea who that was.

Sijean -he "invented" this name and later learned that there are only 3 people with this name in the US; he was proud of this fact. (His father is a music producer, who helps Chinese artists make records.)

Rachel is a journalist for a Chinese car magazine. She just returned from Berlin where VW paid all expenses and let her try out a new Audi model.

James just returned from scaling Mt McKinley in Alaska. He's a tour guide for a living. I brought a camera to class one day to demonstrate a lesson; he spontaneously picked up the camera and took a picture of his mouth. That's his photo you see here. Beautiful teeth, no?

Maria is a very interesting woman. She has been both a university professor and a lawyer. Next month, she is going to Philadelphia to play in a bridge tournament.

Simon - this is a woman. I explained to her that this was a man's name, and that the female version is Simone. As usual with the students, she didn't care and has kept her name as Simon.

Winnie - his name in Chinese means "bear", and he knew that Winnie the Pooh was a bear.

Princess - never was there a more appropriately named student. She talks about how people with money are better people. Actually, she's a pretty nice person.

Lancelot - why not? No Guinevere's, though.
Wanzy -remember this is her chosen ENGLISH name.
Elpha -actually a German name, but she probably thought it would be ok to use since it's a western name.
Sven - a Swedish name, of course. See above.

We also have an employee named Bingo.

And my favorite: we have a supervisor whose family name is Sun. For her "English" name, she chose Rainer. So her name is Rainer Sun.

BTW Some laugh when I tell my name. To them, it sounds like "kiss" b/c of the way they pronounce it.