Happy Halloween

A Chinese Halloween

Every week all the classes are based on a common theme.  Last week, for example, was “medicine”.  This week, it was “Halloween”. The Chinese know absolutely nothing about Halloween.  But, to be fair, we know absolutely nothing about the Mid-Autumn Festival.  For those  of us who grew up in the west, it’s easy to forget that Halloween is, at its heart, a religious holiday.  It’s origins are in Celtic religion, and it was co-opted by Christianity.

So… We spent the week talking about vampires, witches, jack o’ lanterns, and zombies. And, on Sunday night, we had a Halloween party.  There were treats, and (very small) pumpkin carving, and costumes, and games.    Oh…  and some drinking.  You can’t have a Halloween party with out a little booze.

Only a few people dressed up.    Perhaps the scariest was my roommate Patrick.  One of the students brought a long wig for him.  It looked so wrong.  🙂  Jessie wore her sarong from Nepal.  Apparently, red and green are never worn together in China.   I didn’t dress up (I had nothing to use as a costume, and my one idea–lumberjack–was shot down when all the flannel shirts disappeared from the department store), but I did have a lot of students ask to have their picture taken with me.  I think there might be a few crushes in the bunch.  🙂

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Friends and Fortunes

One of the things that is strange about living in China is how amazingly helpful and generous everyone is–at least to American teachers.  They insist on taking me places and buying me things.  Sometimes it’s… uncomfortable for me.  I keep feeling like I’m taking advantage of them.  But when I try to pay, they argue like Dad paying the check at a restaurant.  🙂

2 weeks ago, I finally decided to check out the bar that’s around the corner.  It’s called “Friendly”–and the signs are actually in English.   The owners, it turns out, are 3 college students.  I’ve  only ever seen 1 of them there.  The other two, I think are just investors.  The waitress, Cherry, is the girlfriend of Bob, the owner who tends bar.   She speaks English reasonably well, while his is minimal.  Friendly is a tiny, quiet bar that has good people in it.   My kind of place.

Last week, I mentioned that I needed to go shopping for clothes, and I would probably wander around on my day off to see if I could find some stores.  Cherry perked up and said “We’ll take you to Shanghai. We’ll go to Xipu Lu”.   That’s pronounced shee-poo loo.  Now… “lu” means “road”.  And it turns out that Xipu is what you get when you turn “cheap” into a Chinese word.  So… we were headed off to “Cheap Road”.   They bought me breakfast, and paid for the gas and tolls there and back (about an hour and a half each way).

In my head, I was thinking that it would be a street with lots  of small shops, and maybe an open-air market.   The reality was like nothing I’d imagined.

It was a cross between Mad Max and the Home Shopping Network: a post-apocalyptic shopping mall filled with enough shoes and women’s clothing to make a shop-a-holic burst into flames.   Imagine a building the size of a small city block, 6-stories tall.  Each floor is filled with shops 10’x10′, the halls are 6 feet wide, and filled with mannequins and displays.  Then imagine another one just across the street.   Literally thousands of stores.  I tried to take a photo, but there were too many people in the way.   I walked out with a pair of sneakers (the most important thing I needed) and two shirts.    The first price I was quoted on a single shirt was 185元.  That dropped to 60元 when I walked away.  🙂   For 170元  I got 2 shirts (one of which ended up not fitting very well) and a pair of rip-off Converse All Stars (exact same style, just a different brand name slapped on them).  That comes to about $27 USD.  “Cheap Road, indeed”.   There was a great wool p-coat, but I didn’t ask the price.  Next time I go back, I’m going to get it.    Apparently, nothing there is over 300元 (if you know how to haggle).  $50 for a wool p-coat?  That’s definitely worth buying.

Yesterday, I had a student, Jessie, take me out for dinner and shopping.  She needed to go to the Auchan mall to get her glasses repaired, and she invited me along for dinner and to show me where the good stores are.   She insisted on paying for dinner–my first Japanese food ever; very delicious.

Jessie is a neat gal.  She’s from a small town in the north, near Russia–a climate much like Wisconsin.  So we’ll talk about small towns and snow and laugh at the city folk and their obsession with cars and fashion.  🙂   It’s refreshing.  The other thing about her is that she’s tall.  She’s at least as tall as me, if not an inch taller.  Apparently her boyfriend is even taller than her.  It seems that they grow them tall and strong up in the north.

On an unrelated note, I’m starting to learn Chinese.  Absolutely everyone I talk to is anxious to help me  learn, so I’m going to take advantage of it.  One of the Chinese teachers brought me a book to learn some of the grammar rules (very simple from what I can see).  I use it a bit to pick up vocabulary, but mostly I simply write out a list of things I want to be able to say and ask people how to say them.  So, for example, I made this list the other day:

I want this. Wo xiang yao ji ge.
I need this. Wo xu yao ji ge.
I have this. Wo you ji ge.
I like this. Wo xi huan ji ge.

When Cherry offered to take me to Shanghai for shopping, she gave me another list:

How much? Dou shao? (or… Dou shao quai ji ge ma? “How much for this?”)
Too expensive. Tai gui.
Cheaper.  Pian yi dian.

Now I’m all set to haggle. 🙂

At school we laugh about one of the young students (he’s 12 or 13, I think) who’s severely hyper-active and stops around the lobby repeating his vocabulary as way to remember them.[1]   I find myself walking down the street on the way to work or the store mumbling “Wo xiang yao ji ge” over and over.  I can only hope that the locals don’t think I’m some crazy man.  🙂

[1] One day, the vocab word was “insane”; imagine a 5′-6″, 120-lb, hyperactive, 13-year-old boy ploddingly pacing the lobby saying “insane! insane! insane! insane!”… you get the idea.  🙂

Yes, yes…

I’ve been slacking off.  I admit it.  So… here’s a bit of what’s been going on:

This past week was a week long holiday.  “National Day” (October 1st) is China’s version of the 4th of July.  They go a bit farther than we do, however.  First of all, the country shuts down for a week (okay… not literally, but most large companies and government offices do ).

Cell phones do the translating

The school was supposed to be closed for 7 days (Saturday through Friday), but things changed at the last minute (almost literally!) and management decided that the school would be open and all the teachers  had to come in.   We  had been told for several weeks that we would have 7 days off.  Then the day before vacation, they say “Nope!  You only get 3 days.”   Jason went in and negotiated.  It ended up that the US teachers  only had to come in for 1 day each, and the Chinese teachers had 1 or 2 each (I can’t remember).  My day was Tuesday.  I had 5 classes scheduled.  I had 1 student in the first one, 2 in the 2nd, 3 in the 3rd, and none for the last 2.   2 of the students were there because their own schools were closed for the week (they’re still in high school), and the other 3 (adults) were only there because they were told that it counted as a paid week, and they had to use it or lose it.   So… we (adults) all sat around and just shot the shit.  They got to practice their conversational English, so it’s all good.  I have no idea how the other days went for the rest of the teachers.

Going back to National Week…   I had plans for the week.  Unlike most people, I did not book train tickets to some far-off part of China.  My plan, instead, was to take each day and venture off in a random direction with my camera, my adventurous spirit, and enough cash for a cab ride home when I (inevitably and uncaringly) got very very lost.  I  even got an extra day, since Fridays are normally a day off for me and the holiday started on Saturday.

So… Friday I did some grocery shopping, cleaned the house, did laundry,  did some work for various online projects I have going, and just treated it like a normal day off.  After all, I had 7 (well, 6–see below) days lined up to go out and explore.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday:  sudden temperature drops, rain, radical barometric changes.   … Yep.  Arthritis kicked into high gear and knocked me on my ass.  It took me several hours to get out of bed, and there was no way in Hell I was going to be walking much farther than the other side of the apartment.

Students and staff at the party

Tuesday: Work (see above)

Wednesday:  Party!  Patrick and I both wanted to have people over during the holiday week, so we set aside Wednesday evening for a “Western Food” party.  I made alfredo sauce and (store-bought) marinara.  Another teacher, Jeffery, brought homemade gumbo.   Good food, good people, good times.

Thursday:   I finally got out for a walk.  It wasn’t a very long one, but it was a walk.  I walked all the side streets in the area.  I know it doesn’t  sound very interesting,  but it actually was.  I walk the same 3 streets north and south, and I never venture off of them.  So I spent about an hour doing exactly that.  There are more (and more and more and more) clothing stores  for women (none for men), and restaurants.  A few bike supply stores, a couple toy stores, a couple bars.  Oh!  An art supply store!  I didn’t go inside, but I know where it is and I definitely want to check it out.   A  hot young woman was quite  intent  on getting my attention at a non-descript  storefront.  It  may have  been a brothel.  Or possibly a tailor (my jeans are way too long).   I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

Friday:  Shopping, chores, random boredness.  And… dealing with the after-effects of severe cramping in my legs.  I think I need to buy some potatoes or bananas and build  up my potassium levels.  I’ve been getting some really nasty cramps.  I spent about  an hour laying in bed letting cramps start and then slowly stretching them out.

Saturday:  Back to work.

Chinese Freedom

When I first arrived in Hong Kong, on my way to the Chinese Mainland, my recruiter made a comment that rung oddly in my ears: “The average Chinese” he said “has more freedom than the average American.”

I had to wonder… had he been in Hong Kong too long? Was he blinded by the good food and the pretty women? Had the government abducted him and brainwashed him in some nefarious indoctrination protocol?

And then I lived here for a month… I looked at the people on the street, I dealt with the vendors and the stores, and I talked to the people that live here. As strange as it sounds, he was right.

In the United States, we make a big deal about “freedom”. We’re the “Leaders of the Free World” and we’re a shining example of liberty compared to the dark and evil dictatorship of Communist China. Yeah… and Santa is going to leave presents under my tree and Superman is going to save me from the Xygloxian terrorists from the 12th Dimension.

While I could write a doctoral thesis on the subject, this is a blog post, so I’ll keep it simple.

When I talked to my students about this topic, they were shocked to hear that a city can tell you what pets you can have or what you can plant in your front yard. They laughed at the idea that people would allow a Home Owners’ Association tell them what color they can paint their house or where they can park their car. And they couldn’t understand why a city would tell people that they can’t run a business from their homes–doesn’t the government want the increase in commerce and the tax income that comes from it?

China places a few large chains on their population, and is very honest about what those chains are, and why they’re in place. Americans look at those chains and scream indignantly about “curtailed freedoms” and “oppressive governments”. But the fact of the matter is that most Chinese never encounter those chains, and the ones they do are easily bypassed if they so desire.

America, on the other hand, boasts to the world that it has no chains… while binding it’s citizens with a million threads. We think nothing of the myriad of tiny restrictions and webs of licensing that a Chinese sees as incomprehensibly restrictive.

China has problems at the top. America has problems at the bottom. The answer lies somewhere in the middle: The American approach to “Essential Freedoms” and the Chinese attitude of “don’t sweat the details”.

Just a passing thought to end with: China is the 2nd fastest growning economy in the world, and is poised to become a powerhouse unlike anything we’ve seen in the last 50 years. While the rest of the world is arguing about how many peas they get and demanding that they deserve the biggest piece of pie, China is about to walk away with turkey AND the mashed potatoes.

Just some food for thought.