Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Lucky One

I’ve never been much of a believer in luck.

Flashback to my first week in Beijing, when I was told that in order to receive a new sim card for my foreign phone, I’d need to pick out a new number. I was handed a book filled with them. The numbers were listed by prices: the most expensive were in the front of the book, and the least expensive were towards the back. “What’s the difference?” I asked, oblivious. Through a great deal of translation, I was told that the numbers in the front were ‘luckier.’ They contained fewer 4’s, and more of the lucky numbers: 8 and 6. The word for eight is close to the pronunciation of a Chinese word that means wealth or prosperity. And four, well, you don’t mess with the number four. The pronunciation, si, sounds like part of the word for death. Buildings are often built without a fourth, or fourteenth counted floor (actually, most don’t have a number 13 as well, which is something borrowed from the West. Many buildings go from floor 12 to floor 15, which makes taking the stairs between floors as a novice a little confusing). I took a number from the last page. To be safe, I didn’t go with the absolute last number, but it was pretty close. My phone number now ends with a four. So far, things have panned out all right.

The idea of luck is pretty pervasive here. In a recent conversation with a favorite student of mine, she felt comfortable enough to outline her family’s history. As I sat slack-jawed, she detailed how her grandmother, with bound feet, was among the first to be sent to the country-side during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother was born a few years later, during the first year of a three year country-wide famine. She survived on a spoonful of rice soaked in a cup of water. Because there weren’t any schools in her village, as a young adult she was sent to another village for “school.” During the day, she had to wade through ice-cold rice paddies. When she was on her period, she hid from the job. She was harshly criticized by her peers and adults, but she credits the decision for the reason she was able to have children later in life. Many women from the village couldn’t. My student told me that her mother calls her “the lucky one.” Her generation never had to deal with war or famine. She grew up with enough to eat, and in relative comfort.

If that’s luck, then I am a lucky girl. I live in a time in China where I can listen to stories like this with detached amazement, where a country of over a billion people are trying to learn the language that I was lucky enough to grow up knowing. And it’s with that sense of my own good fortune that I’m staying in China for another year. I don’t know that I’ll never get to live in China again, but I do know that I’ll never get to live abroad like this again. With friends that I’ve known since my pre-K class, with a network of people that I’ve met and grown close with, and with my parents in the same city, laughing and whining about the same things. (Point of interest: they whine more). Even my brother is in the same time zone. (Another point of interest: the entire country is set in the same time zone. Still, it’s impressive that I am this relatively close to my entire immediate family). America, stay put for now. I’ll be visiting this summer to fill up on cheese curds and beer and really good ice-cream, and then I’ll be back. And next New Years I’ll be eating dumplings again, because now I’m not taking any chances with this ‘luck’ thing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A New Normal

If you remember, I arrived in Beijing fresh off a two month long backpacking stint in Thailand. Thailand is perhaps the most laid back place on earth, second maybe only to Jamaica. I was picked up at the Beijing airport, wearing shorts and flip flops and lugging only my backpack. Beijing slapped me in the face.
The pollution was off the scale that day (“hazardous,” according to the US Embassy standards) and I remember asking Emily if she ever missed being able to see the tops of buildings. Emily seemed so expert that day, as she effortlessly set me up with a subway card, took me to lunch, and actually ordered food. It was nothing short of amazing. She was an incredible host, but the next morning she did something that was both terrifying and much needed: she left me to go to work. She wrote out subway directions so that I could spend the day buying pants that weren’t shorts to shield me against the not-so-Thailand-tropical weather, and promised to meet me back at her apartment at a certain hour. When she walked in that night, she asked me how my first day was. “I feel like there are 19 million people that know what’s going on, and I’m the only one that doesn’t.” I responded.
Fast forward a few months, and I’m a little less wide-eyed. I can pick out my own bus routes and order my own jiaozi. I’m the one pushing past people to get on or off a subway car. That’s not to say that I don’t revel in the oddity anymore. I was asked the other day what my favorite part of Beijing was. Simple. It’s easily the most “different” place I’ve ever been to, leaving southern Africa, Southeast Asia, even rural Mississippi in the dust. It’s partially because of the language barrier, of course, but it’s more than that. I love watching the old man walk on his knees around the mats at my gym, while I run on the treadmill. I love the fact that just yesterday I was sitting next to an older woman on the bus who had a bag of groceries at her feet. Suddenly, the bag started shaking violently. She peaked in and gave the bag a shake. Apparently, the foot-long fish at the bottom hadn’t completely died yet. It was still flopping. She didn’t seem phased.
Of course, there are days when these things don’t make me smile: when the stares on the subway make me feel self conscious, and the men and women line dancing on the sidewalk are simply blocking my way. But it’s hard to remember being in a place where there isn’t at least one questionable English translation on the menu that makes me smile. “Ohh, tepid pig pot again? We always get the tepid pig pot! Well, you know I can’t turn down ‘fried enema.’” It’ll be hard returning to a place where the taxi drivers probably will speak English, but probably won’t tell me I’m beautiful and spend the rest of the cab ride singing songs to me, like one recent experience. The service in restaurants may be better, but I won’t be able to bellow for a waitress to bring me more hot water. The line “that’s it, I’m not leaving a tip” will no longer be a joke, and will actually mean something. I might someday be ready to return to a place where the streets are a little quieter, and there’s a little less going on, but something tells me I’m going to miss the line dancing.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Under Pressure

When I was six years old, my biggest accomplishment was walking across the entire balance beam during P.E. The class clapped for me. I still remember it vividly. Most of my afternoons were spent in play-dates, where we’d eat snack and pretend to be animals or draw for an hour or two. In the evenings it was dinner, and then either The Simpsons at 8 or “family game night.” Yep, we were that family.
The evenings of the six-year-old I tutor are quite different. He gets home from his after-school activity literally minutes before I show up. His mom is usually frantically trying to get him to change out of his school clothes, use the bathroom, and have some water when I walk in the door. Then I tutor him in English for an hour and a half, until 8:30, at which point he tells me he eats and does his homework. That’s Wednesday for Henry. The rest of the week is divided between: science, dance, music and art classes after school, with math tutoring and homework in the evenings. He’s an extremely bright kid, and his parents are well-off, which allows him to sign up for every possible after school class. “Typical Chinese kid,” my coworkers described him to me, before I started tutoring.
When I tutor him, I try to make it as fun as possible, knowing that learning English is quite possibly the last thing on earth he’d like to be doing at that moment. I have him singing, making up funny sentences, and illustrating his stories for most of the time. Even though he’s “super-kid,” he’s also very six-years-old. What I mean is: he’s always bordering on collapsing into giggles, creating sentences where Mickey or Minnie Mouse do something hilarious (then, more giggles), and his mind is usually wandering somewhere between what I’m talking about and outer space.
While his mom clearly adores him, I have yet to hear her say one positive thing about him. When we chat after class, I’m quick to dole on the compliments: “he read so well today!” or “he’s doing a great job of speaking in whole sentences.” She’ll smile, then quickly off-set the positive comment with a critical one. Something like “yes, but we both know his grammar is terrible” or “really? I thought he was so bad at pronunciation!” In another example, I was tutoring a 10 year old named Jason. One of the activities for the lesson on America, was for him to write down three things he did not know about the country. One of his sentences was “I do not know the names of the lakes in America.” His mother, who was standing directly behind him with her hands on his shoulders (I’m not making this up. She wouldn’t leave), scolded “Yes you do! You know Lake Eerie! You know Lake Michigan!” She means the best for him, so does Henry’s mother, but it’s become a phenomenon in China to overwork and overextend your children…err, child. In China, bearing a few circumstances, you’re only allowed to have one child. So any hope or desire for your offspring is planted on that kid. There’s pressure from preschool.
It’s why I recently did an English tutoring demo for a barely-verbal three year old. It’s why my coworkers tell me that they had an “easy” childhood compared to kids these days: they only went to Chemistry, Math, and Reading classes after school. Easy? I went to soccer practice after school, and it was mainly so that I could hang out with my friends and braid their hair on the sidelines during games. I would have made a terrible Chinese kid. If you’ll remember, my parents congratulated me last year for quitting my job. It’s hard to know what’s best for children, because despite everything I do leave my tutoring gigs impressed every time. If Tiger Moms produce Super Kids, then fine. We can all definitely learn something from the Chinese work ethic. Still, I can’t say I regret not cramming for exams at a time when my biggest worry was when my first tooth would fall out.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Civilize Chaoyang

Chances are, if you’ve ever used an escalator, you know the unwritten rule: walk on the left, stand on the right. Chances are, if you’ve used enough of them, you’ve run into a few people who don’t abide to this standard. Chances are, you’ve wished you could tell them what you think of them. And chances are, also, that you’ve only merely cleared your throat as you climbed the stairs behind them.

Here in China, it’s a bit different. While this may be the rule, its likelihood of happening is the exception. So fine, that’s annoying. Of course that’s annoying. But I wouldn’t write a blog post about standing on the left. No, the phrase of the day would be “becoming civilized,” and thanks to a campaign in one district of Beijing, that’s what the end-goal is.

“Civilize Choayang: Magnificent With Me!” the slogan goes. Aside from the clear Chinglish (really? A district-wide campaign couldn’t afford an editor?) there’s something else that’s lost in translation. The idea of a city being “uncivilized” seems a bit harsh. We couldn’t have gone with “modernize?” Even “beautify?” But no, the effort to “civilize” Choayang district goes beyond the beautification efforts that sprung up, even the addition of new subway stops and manicured parks. It means, by and large: no spitting. No cursing loudly. Use escalators in the proper fashion. Stand in line when waiting for the bus or subway. In general, shape up.  

Among my friends, it’s become the running joke. “I was walking the other day in one of the less-civilized areas of Beijing…” a story will start. Recently on an airplane, my friend turned to me and pointed at the man pushing past those waiting to get off the plane, holding a bag over his head. “Look at that uncivilized man” she scoffed. We’ve managed to incorporate the word into our everyday vocabulary. If we had a nice day, filled with a manicure and dinner out, we’ve had a “civilized day.” If we’re swamped and exhausted after too much shoving and pushing at the Zoo Market, we’ll say we can’t wait to get back to “civilized China.” My friend Ryan, has taken it one step further. Fluent in Chinese, he’s able to directly whisper the phrase into the ears of strangers on the subway as they shove him to get on. “This is Civilize Choayang, what do you think you’re doing?” He’ll scold. He’s the enforcer. He’ll climb stairs behind people, whispering the phrase. “Civilize Chaoyang. Civilize Chaoyang.”

I’ve heard in Shenzhen, another city in China, the campaign has started there too. They’ve taken it one step further though, and actually allegedly have “Stand in Line Days” where everyone practices queuing up for the subway, instead of the mass pushing that usually occurs. Ryan swears someone will throw up a hand signal, and everyone will line up. Like I said, he’s the civilization enforcer, so I believe what he says.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that this is somehow a condescending look at traditional Chinese culture. This isn’t an expat-lead initiative, by any means. The signs are everywhere. In fact, the other day I heard a story from someone I was on a trip with. We were trading terrible taxi-driver stories, and she mentioned that recently she had told her taxi driver, in English, to “fuck off.” To her surprise, he apparently understood the phrase. He looked at her, scowling, and sharply said “Where are you from? Because this is civilized Chaoyang.”

So there you have it. We could all learn a lesson from the Civilize Chaoyang campaign.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Chi le ma

We breathe. We sleep.  We eat. It's no wonder that food is such an important part of every distinct culture. To the Italians, food is life – mulling over its flavors and sensations with each course and subsequent glass of wine.  It's not just Italians, either: my best friend, Maya, has told me repeatedly that she has no need for a scale because she just uses her Jewish grandmother as a gauge of her weight. "You're looking great!" Grandma Esther says, and Maya knows she's put on a pound or two. "Maya, you look terrible" and Maya shrugs, realizes she must have lost some weight recently, and tries to fend off the fried potatoes that are inevitably coming her way. The French, the Thai, the Spanish -- we all have our distinct foods, special recipes, and shaped palettes.

It will come as no surprise that the Chinese are no different. I am constantly asked if I like Chinese food and what my favorite dishes are. There are noodle shops, dumpling places, and small restaurants crowding every block. In the morning, food stalls pop-up to make what my dad calls the "Chinese egg-McMuffin" and other fried breakfast specialties. The stands are plentiful - as are the convenient stores that double as fast food places during lunchtime. Recently, I commented to Emily on the vast number of these stores in China.  She responded, “It’s China. There is just a lot of everything here." Yet it seems like the restaurants, no matter how plentiful, are always packed around meal times. There may be just a lot of people here, but there also seem to be a lot of people who love to eat. Going out to eat, you'll see parties of five crowd the center of their table with at least 15 dishes of piping hot food, which are constantly replaced by new dishes of piping hot food throughout the meal.  When they're done, multiple full plates remain as everyone has gotten more than their fill. It's a matter of pride: if there's leftover food, then the host of the meal has accommodated for everyone and done his best to make sure the guests were well fed by the end of the meal. During the meal, there's a certain amount of force-feeding that goes on.   It is considered polite for the host to literally place food on other's plates (or bowls, as the case may be). It's very Italian. "Mange, mange!" It's very Jewish. "Are you eating? You're too thin - eat!" It's very, very Chinese.

I can sum it up best with a Chinese phrase I recently picked up from a coworker. I've been wanting to pick up some Chinese slang, so she told me that instead of greeting someone with the traditional "Ni hao ma" (literally translated, it means "are you good?”) I should say "Chi le ma." “ in chi fan, or 'eat’?" I asked. Yup. The phrase translates to "Have you eaten?" and it's just another way of saying "what's up?" "So let me get this straight -- you're constantly asking each other if you've eaten?" Yup. Constantly. You walk in a room - "have you eaten?" You come back from a lunch date - "have you eaten?" I found this hilarious. A culture where everyone is keeping tabs on if everyone else has eaten. I was laughing about it with a few friends the other day, one of which is Chinese-American. "I can't believe it's true." I laughed. "Wouldn't you get annoyed if every friend and coworker were constantly pestering you about when you last ate?"
"In my house, we don't say 'I love you'" she explained. "We make each other food. I know a fight is over when my dad starts cooking for me, and my mom asks me what I want to eat." '"Chi le ma' is a way of saying we care."

Emily put it best. "The Jews and the Chinese - not so different, huh?" It's true, and it can apply universally. Food is love.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Same same?

The Chinese have Beiber-fever. They're into the Twilight series, and
can't get enough of the TV shows "Friends," and "The Big Bang Theory." At least
someone's watching "The Big Bang Theory." The other day, my Chinese
coworker Michelle was quizzing me on American culture. She wanted to
know if "Desperate Housewives" mimicked real life at all. "Hardly." I replied "Nobody is
like that." Of course what I meant was that nobody spied on their
neighbors, had multiple affairs and lived with such ridiculous
scandal. Michelle laughed and agreed, underlining how crazy and
surreal it would be to have such a huge house and garden, so far from
your neighbors.

The point is, when it comes to Western culture, the Chinese are slowly
buying in. Of course McDonalds and Lady Gaga are old hat. (Side note:
if you haven't seen this clip, it's an absolute must. The band in the
beginning is managed by my good friend Emily's roommates.) Most
Chinese have picked up on our fast-food, our music, and our TV. Yet
there are some subtitles that are still, well, a bit off.

Case in point: the cafe/bakery combo. The Chinese aren't known for
their desserts, to put it nicely. Maybe it's the lack of butter, maybe
it's the general distaste for anything too sweet, but every pastry
I've tried has made me wish that I'd just stuck to a bag of M&Ms.
This, however, hasn't stopped the rise of cafe/bakery combinations
that can be found on nearly every block of the city. The smell is
incredible and they offer free Wifi for the price of a dry donuts. So
tempting, and yet so disappointing. They're incredibly popular, and if
you sit there long enough, you'll see packs of young people coming in
and buying not one, but a tray full of pastries. Let me back up: when
you walk in the door, you're offered a tray to put your goodies on.
I'd usually choose one (very carefully. Many are filled with things
like tuna or "pork floss" so you have to choose wisely). My Chinese
counterparts would choose six or seven. I've watched girls who are
smaller than I am carefully eat entire pans of cake, along with
several donuts and a small tart. After sitting and staring, I've
developed a theory: Chinese pastries are devoid of all fat and
calories. This leads them to be A) terrible and B) guilt-free! It's
how these women are able to down six or seven in one sitting and
remain model-thin.

Example #2: the subtitles. Most people know that it's easy to get a
boot-legged DVD here in Beijing. They're everywhere and they're
incredibly cheap. While they aren't dubbed, they do come with Chinese
subtitles. During the movie, when a cultural reference is mentioned
they usually put a quick Chinese explanation on the bottom of the
screen, followed by the English word. Or they try to. The other day, I
was watching a movie where one of the main characters described
himself as "in a pickle." On the bottom of the screen, I could see a
few Chinese characters and then the English words "Pickles the Frog."
Who's Pickles the Frog? Should I be embarrassed not to know the
reference, or curious as to the plot of the movie that my Chinese
counterparts must be watching?

Finally, there's Halloween. This holiday hasn't caught on at all. In
fact, the only references to Halloween could be seen at Western-style
grocery stores, or bars catering to the expat crowd. That was it -
though it didn't stop Beijing from being the single greatest place in
the world to buy Halloween costumes. Why, you ask? Because my Chinese
peers insist on wearing bunny ears and panda paws all the time. Why
wait for once a year, when you can dress up every day? So, sure, when
we took the subway on Halloween, we half-posed for sneaky camera
pictures taken of our ridiculous costumes. I was the "Year of the
Rabbit," Emily dressed up as a popular Chinese cartoon character. But
I'm willing to bet that had we'd not been foreign, the costumes would
have been regarded as totally normal. Fashionable, even.

There was a phrase that was popular in Thailand that I picked up when
I was backpacking there. They boys at the center used to say it all
the time. "Same same." As in "Food here, same same America?" It was
everywhere, and because of the popularity many vendors even sold
tee-shirts with the saying on the front. Some took it a step father
adding that things were "same same but different." I can't think of a
more appropriate phrase for what I'm trying to describe. Bakeries,
movies, western culture in general is same same...but, well,

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


One of the single greatest things about living in a foreign country is the language barrier. Yes, there are times when I wish that I could just explain to a cab driver the general vicinity of my destination, or ask a waiter to describe a dish, but seeing things like "a friend boiled," or "a Jew's ear" (what happened to the other one??) on a menu makes up for this entirely. Speaking little to no Chinese makes doing every day tasks an incredible adventure, and usually a hilarious story. There is now "the time I tried to order soup," "the time 10 waitresses surrounded my table, trying to figure out what I wanted," and "the time I tried to find the subway station, but instead was pointed to an actual Subway sandwich shop." Classics. Most of these stories are created when I do things alone, as luckily most of my friends here are conversational, if not fluent. For the first couple of days I was here, I followed them around wide-eyed as they did things like get me a metro card and put money on my phone. Now, I'm more independent and trying to play that role for my parents.

As most know, I was living in China for about three weeks before my parents were able to join me here. In those three weeks, I'd managed not only to become employed (easier than ordering off of a menu. Within five minutes of posting my resume, I had a phone call setting up an interview. The next day I had a job and the day after I began to tutor English) but also to pick up a few key "survival phrases." This has allowed me to have many one-sided conversations, and also was the inspiration for the game I like to play, called "Guess the Answer." Here's an example
Me: I want a vegetable dumpling. Without meat.
Them: *speaks for a good twenty seconds, gesturing to various dumplings*
Me: Yes.

Now, unless they had simply said "Ok," or "Don't have," I wouldn't have been able to understand them. So, instead I "Guess the Answer." In this case, I like to imagine that they said "Well, we do have non-meat dumplings, but they've been sitting in the sun all day, and we're about to throw them in the garbage can over there. I really wouldn't eat them if I were you, but if you say 'yes' right now, I'll be convinced to let you have them."

I love having one-sided conversations. I also love nodding wisely, pretending I understand what they are saying completely. I manage to fool old ladies, who just want an audience in an elevator, but I also think I've managed to fool my parents. The minute they saw me direct a cab ("Straight. Straight. Straight. Right turn.") they were convinced I had become a conversational speaker in less than 30 days. My dad, especially, thinks I'm a prodigy child. Every time I point to a menu and say "that" he yells "She's done it again! Amazing!" It's really flattering, but I think they might be overestimating my abilities a bit. The other day he asked me to open a bank account for him. Unless he doesn't want meat in his bank account, I don't think I can help him out.

Sometimes I can't help but to wish we all spoke the same language. Things might be a bit easier if I weren't mute and illiterate, but I sure as hell wouldn't have snagged a job in less than a day just because I spoke English, and there's no way that my bootleg version of "Black Swan," would have read "Black Sean." For now, I'm just not willing to give these things up.