Life



The Otherside is in…a transitional mode.  My last post centered around my time in Chengdu, which was far from the end of my time in China, far from the end of the story.  In the time between Chengdu and the Beijing airport, I floated down the Yangtze, escaped a flooding hostel, and awoke to cooing carrier pigeons in Beijing’s Hutong District.  It is the travel portion of my experience, and therefore is the quintessential “white dude goes to China” portion of my blog.  It is a glorified bar story, which deserves to be told in its own right.  For now, here’s something a bit more relevant to the experience of studying abroad as a whole.

On (Not) Being Here

A month and some change back stateside and I’m not back in the hang of things.  The combination of an air-tight schedule and morphed social atmosphere has made college life less hospital than I remembered.  I feel myself going places and doing things not because I want to, but because I have to, for the first time in six months.  The past two and a half weeks have had their late nights, their early mornings, and somehow I still end up short: a late paper, a flunked quiz, a missed advisor meeting.  Third week in and I still haven’t bought my books.  I had to leave a note on my car pleading the security guard not to ticket my car, because I haven’t remembered to buy a parking pass yet.  I was watching a soccer game the other day when my boss gave me a good slap in the face.  “You don’t seem like you’re here,” he said. “Seems like you’re back in China.  You better get back here soon,” he said.

It’s senior year, and sooner or later I’m going to have to catch up with that idea.  I go to a small school in the Appalachians, where it really only takes half a year to know the majority of campus by first name.  It’s the sort of community that you can describe as if it were a person, as if it had its own personality. After one semester away, I don’t understand that person. 我不认识他.  Of the close friends I still have, I see them in one of two lights.  They have either moved on in some way, found a new focus in their life, whether it be a new lover, a group of friends, fashion sense, or life aspirations.  And then there are those who remain the same people, either having settled on these things long ago, or content in remaining care-free and curious.  The problem that I face after five months living in China, after riding my bike all afternoon around Liaocheng, after floating down the Yangtze, after a 43 hour train ride across the country, after dinner and KTV with the communists, after Beijing’s Hutong District, a flooded hostel in Chongqing, after rabbit head and hotpot, after Confucius and Mao Zedong, after 白酒 and 西红柿炒鸡蛋–and then after all that–math class, renaissance literature, and 8:00 am work shifts, is that right now, I am entirely incapable of deciding whether I am the same old me, or something new.

I’ve got a tough final year ahead of me.  What credits do transfer to my school from my semester in Liaocheng count towards only one general ed requirement.  It was essentially the equivalent of taking one class for an entire semester, so I’ll be making up for it in my senior year.  There was a part of me that wanted to thank my boss for the wake up call.  He’s a good guy, and I know he has my best interest at heart.  But I can’t help but feel like maybe there should be a part of me somewhere in China.  It would give me a better a reason to find a path back there some day.

I call this the, "Christopher Went To China Picture," and I'm totally going to use it pick up chicks.

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Back in the States, back in my home, my bedroom, sitting here with my dogs, my belly full of cheese, my brain full of aimless, unanswerable questions.  People ask me things like So, what’s China like?  How does life in China compare to the US? or, What kind of stuff do you eat in China? Now I understand why people ask these questions, they’re curious, inquisitive and self admittedly uninformed, so they start with the basics.  But really, how the hell am I supposed to answer these kind of questions.  China is big.  Life in China is different from life in the US.  I eat food in China.

What’s more is when people ask me deeper, more involved questions, I often times have difficulty coming up with an answer for them, as I haven’t even begun to reflect upon my journey in a way that I can draw conclusions.  I’m still in the throws of jet lag, of culture shock, and a little head cold I think I got on the plane.  It’s going to be a while before I’ll really be able to sum my experience up in a way that satisfies people’s need to know and my own need to explain.

So until then I suppose I’ll write about what I did after the last time you all heard from me.  I spent about six days in Chengdu, which is the capitol of Sichuan province, and home to some of China’s spiciest dishes, including the world renowned Sichuan Hotpot, and (my favorite) rabbit head.  Chengdu is also the home of the largest panda reserve in China, as well as the prettiest girls.  It’s said that after a girl marries her mother gives the girl explicit directions to never let her husband go to Chengdu.

Looking back now I think I can honestly say that my few days in Chengdu were among some of the best of my life. I had a crew of mismatched hooligans to trounce around the city with. I had fallen into an unlikely romance with a girl I met in Hangzhou and traveled with to Chengdu. I was confident in my language abilities and my (albeit) slight understanding of Chinese culture.  I was young and able and for the first time in months invigorated with the sense of life being there for the taking.  We didn’t go see the pandas, we didn’t go see the temples.  We slept in and lawled in the garden by the hostel where we stayed into the afternoon.  We drank beer and enjoyed each other’s company.  We got street food at three in the morning after going to KTV.  It was both alien and somehow familiar.  I felt for the first time in China as if I actually belonged there and had not ended up there as the result of some adolescent On-the-Road-thinking , as if it were some strange of version of home.


As I write my bags are packed, a train ticket lies between the folds of my wallet, and I can’t sleep in anticipation of tomorrow night, when I will board a train that will carry me away from Liaocheng, perhaps for the last time.  At this time my emotions are less than easy to describe.  Leaving a place has always been hard for me.  In the days and weeks leading up to my departure I become anxious, irritable, restless, and I usually blame it on my stagnant surroundings.  If you’d have asked me a week ago, or perhaps even yesterday, I would have told you that I was ecstatic about leaving Liaocheng, couldn’t wait to get out there and get my hands dirty, couldn’t wait for school to end and for the real adventure to begin.

But something happened last night that I haven’t been able to shake.  I met Patrick and Dean, two English teachers in Liaocheng, for what was to be our last encounter with each other before I set out on my month long trip around China.  Dean recently graduated from college (uni) in England and opted for the opportunity to teach English in China over working a shit job and living in a shit flat in England (his own words).  Dean’s a great guy, a good laugh, and a good conversationalist. We spent an enjoyable weekend in Jinan together and many a nights watching movies in his and Patrick’s apartment.  Patrick is in or nearing his forties, from Georgia, and from everything I’ve gathered about the guy he’s rather dissatisfied with his situation in life.  It seems as though every conversation I’ve had with Patrick has reverted back to his ever increasing age, and how my inexperience puts me at a disadvantage.  Whereas Dean is a conversationalist, Patrick is flat-out argumentative, often times dodging my conversational questions by pointing out their invalidity.

Needless to say, I’m not a big fan of Patrick, so it shouldn’t have really mattered to me when he took a swipe at what he perceived as my negative attitude towards life in Liaocheng.  “Ever since you got you here, you’ve been complaining that Liaocheng is just too small, too boring, too isolated,” he said.  My first reaction was quite simply, fuck off old man (should’a, could’a, would’a, but instead politely refuted him).  I thought it was pretty rude of him, especially on what was the last time we would see each other, to take this deep of a cut into my character.  I tried my best to blow him off, but woke up the next morning with a growing sense of guilt.  While Patrick himself has issues with thinking negatively, it is true that a lot of my time spent here in Liaocheng did not live up to the high expectations I had before arriving, and because Dean and Patrick were the two most readily available and relateable ears, they got to listen to a lot of my complaints about the difficulties of my life in China.  It’s true that in my past I have struggled at times with staying positive, and time and time again it has put a damper on what could have been a better experience.  I came here to learn, not only about Chinese culture and language, but also about myself, and Patrick’s low blow put seriously negative thoughts in my head about whether or not I accomplished this feat in Liaocheng, whether or not I committed enough to making this experience as worthwhile as it could have been.

My bad mood remained throughout the day until I met Nathan, who over the past couple of months has become one of my closest friends, not only in Liaocheng but I would venture to say for the rest of my life.  Nathan is 25, a graduate student studying biology at Liaocheng University, and somebody I have tremendous respect for.  He’s the kind of guy you knows comes from a loving family with supportive parents, the kind of guy you know will end up marrying the most kind-hearted girl you’ve ever met.  He’s part philosopher, part prankster, part drinking buddy.  Nathan’s words and stories have brought me to tears and back from the brink many times, and he always has this way of providing a soft but powerful comfort.  It was in this single relationship that I realized the validity of my experience in Liaocheng, and opened the door to help me realize all the other things I’ve accomplished during my time here.  I’ve learned a good deal of spoken mandarin, and even a little LiaochenghuaI (Liaocheng’s local dialect).  I learned how to write a few paragraphs in Chinese characters, took a few classes in Tai chi, and mastered the art of using chopsticks.  I tried my best to explain why I believe the freedom of speech to be an inalienable human right to groups of eager Chinese students.  I drank baiju and sang karaoke with a communist party official.  I helped my friend Tony get a good job at a new English school.  I spat sunflower seeds and watched the World Cup with my Chinese friends.  I wrote this blog.  I took pictures.  I haggled to good effect.  I drove a rickety old Chinese tractor around a sandlot while the drunken yard workers ran around me with the arms up, cheering me on.  I learned how to read a menu in Chinese.  I learned to never leave my chopsticks sticking up in my bowl of rice because it’s bad luck.  I made lifelong relationships both with Chinese people and with foreigners.  I discovered my true love of steamed jiaozi (dumplings).  I dodged wild taxi drivers and donkeys on a daily basis.  I made friends with the shop owners and waiters at my local restaurants and convenience stores.  I became an integral part of Liaocheng, a living, breathing citizen that changed this “small” town, and allowed it to change me.

So if you had to ask me how I feel right now about leaving Liaocheng…sad, but grateful.  I will miss my friends, my favorite restaurants, my favorite markets, my favorite parks, knowing full well that in a country that’s developing as fast as China is I may never be able to return and see this place in the same light. That breaks my heart, but at the same time I feel so lucky to have been in a place that isn’t Beijing, that isn’t Shanghai, that it isn’t a place that is so huge and so multifaceted that I could have never felt the familiarity of what I now feel towards Liaocheng.  And I guess that’s healthy.  I guess there’s really nothing more you could ask for when you leave a place, perhaps just that my future ventures in life, whether it be this month of travel or any of my other endeavors, will be as fulfilling as this one has been.


My exams are next Wednesday and like the rest of the student population in China I’ll be getting little to know rest, sunlight, or fresh air for the next days as I cram for my exams, so the blog has had to take a backseat.

In the meantime, check out this article on so-called ‘cram schools’, popular not only in China but all over Asia.  The Chinese education system is based entirely on exams, and while there are rumblings of a need to change that system, it’s been ingrained in their culture since the time of Confucius.  I have a lot of personal as well as ideological issues with this system, of which I’ll have to write about at a later time.  Here are a couple more articles about the examination system in China.

Making the Grade in China-CNN

China’s College Entry Test is a National Obsession-New York Times

Yu Jian, “Education Without Heart”-China Geeks

High Tech Exam Cheating in China-Simple Thoughts


Read Getting Whored Out, Part I

The problem with studying a culture as alien to me as China, is that I often have trouble distinguishing between what is a result of the culture itself, and what is the result of an individual’s character.  A lot of the social phenomenon I write about in this blog can be experienced in any part of the world, no matter what country or society you are in (see my post about Joe).  But of course no culture is alike, and while a certain practice might be prevalent in one country, it might be somewhat rare in another.  Here’s what reader Don Tai had to say about Getting Whored Out…Part I:

“In any country people will try to take advantage of you. If [Tony] was a true friend he would not have put you into such a position that either you or he would lose face. He should have given you a way out, but he did not. All this fluff about friendship and doing things you’re not comfortable with, that’s not Chinese culture but human nature.”

There’s a lot of validity to this statement, especially when he points out that Tony didn’t provide a “way out,” but that said, I still believe this story to be a good example, albeit somewhat extreme, of a common interaction between foreigners and Chinese people, especially Chinese business men, and here’s why.

China is what’s known as collective society, where the well-being of an individual is directly dependant upon the well-being of those around him.  Traditionally the society operates by way of two interconnected social strategies known as mianzi and guanxi.  Mianzi can be loosely interpreted as self respect or self image, while guanxi can be translated as relationships or connections.  One gives and receives mianzi in order to build one’s guanxi.  Everything from familial relationships to business operates by way of guanxi and mianzi, and without them personal success and happiness are hard to come by. (Keep in mind that this is the traditional style of social interaction in China, and as the world’s most populous country is going through one of the most radical economic and cultural revolutions the world has ever seen, social strategies are changing as well.)

According to an article I came across on middlekingdomlife.com, “A recent study conducted by the China Youth Daily found that over 93 percent of the 1,150 respondents surveyed admitted that face is very important to them, with 75 percent acknowledging that making a mistake in public was, by far, the most humiliating experience they could ever have (Shan, 2005).”

This results in a general unwillingness to directly admit to personal mistakes, as well as an unwillingness to directly deny a request.  Usually a more tactful, roundabout method is used, that often times may border on what Westerners would classify as dishonesty, thus creating a culture in which truth and honesty are not held in the same light as they are in Western culture.  Chinese people employ ‘white lies’ on a daily basis in order to maintain mianzi and guanxi. (This is perhaps one of the reasons for Tony’s severe disappointment in my refusal to hand out flyers.  Had I come up with an excuse, whether it was true or not, it would have softened the blow and saved Tony and I a good deal of strife. Although, as reader Don pointed out, it would have been more polite for Tony to offer me a way out had it occurred to him that handing out the flyers would have caused me to lose face.)

So compared to Western society, Chinese society at its core tends to be less honest, which isn’t to say that in this instance Chinese culture is any way worse than Western as much as it just different.  Compounding the issue is the fact that China is in many ways still in the pioneer stages of capitalism, an economic system in which dishonesty can pay out big, and in my opinion that’s when you start to see problems.  Capitalism in America has evolved to the point at which there are general rules and regulations that attempt to provide the consumer with more rights.  False advertising is of course illegal in the States, but is actually a pretty common practice in China.  I asked Tony what they would do when the students arrived at the English to discover that there was only one foreign teacher instead of three as the flyers advertised.  Tony told me that they will “have an explanation” as to why Serena and I were not teaching.  “You mean you will lie to them,“ I said.

“Yes,” he said, “We will lie to them.”  Tony then translated our interaction for Mr. Wang, and the two of them had a good laugh.  I wondered if they had ever heard of Bernie Madoff or Enron.

All this dishonesty makes my involvement with their plans less than comfortable for me, but as the white face in the crowd I played a key part in their business plan, even though I wasn’t actually working for them.  I find this to be a really common experience, not only in business but in any given social interaction because foreigners in China are face giving machines.  The rarity of foreigners, the obsession with Western culture, and the importance placed upon learning English means that my presence goes a long way in improving someone’s image.


Joe’s parents picked me up last night in shiny black Audi with black tinted windows and leather seats.  They work parents work in the government and enjoy the fat pay check that comes with the job title.  As a way to thank me for teaching their son they offered to take Serena and me out for dinner.  It was apparent early on that this would be one of those how-the-hell-did-I-get-here experiences.

The Gang: Tony, Joe, Me, "Cool Brother," Serena, "Cool Sister"

Millenary Dragon is famous for it's seafood. 鲁菜 (lu cai) is one of the 8 culinary traditions of China. Originating in nearby Jinan, it usually involves seafood.

We drove across town to pick up Serena at her apartment, and along the way I informed them that it was her birthday.  We stopped at a bakery to buy her a cake, the most expensive one in the shop, and then headed over to Millenary Dragon, the most expensive restaurant in Liaocheng.  They presented Serena with a bottle of red wine, the most expensive red wine you could buy, and me with a bottle of baiju, you guessed it, the most expensive one you could buy.  We hadn’t even ordered and already Joe’s parents had spent twice as much money than I spend in a week, and they weren’t quiet about it.  It’s pretty rude to talk about money in Western culture, but it’s common, even expected in some cases.

Is coral an endangered species? Well, it tastes good anyways...

Now I don’t want to give the wrong impression here…you might assume that communist party members are stuffy, arrogant, hard to get a long with, but in most cases its just the opposite.  I’ve actually found most Chinese politicians quite chummy.  They like to drink and smoke and sing karaoke just as much as the next guy.  Joe’s dad was impressed with my ability to toss back the baiju, and kept filling my cup and laughing hardily with each shot.  He liked my mohawk and beard and decided to call me 帅哥, (handsome brother).  He slapped his knee when Joe said “fuck” and I explained the meaning.  我们走朋友了。We were buddies.

Comrades

Serena picks up the mic, despite telling us all she can't sing...

We dined on steamed octopus, deepfried shrimp and eggplant bites, and vinegar soaked coral (which I didn’t know was edible.)  After dinner we made our way to KTV, the nicest one in Liaocheng.  Serena and I sang Micheal Jackson and Joe’s parents rocked out to Chinese pop tunes.  At one point the lights went out and a couple of dancers came in performed a hair-whipping evocative dance for our entertainment, and then left as quickly as they had appeared.  Like I said, how the hell did I get here?

DON'T STOP... BELIEVIN'! HOLD ONTO THAT FEELIN'!


Westerners living in China occupy a curious existence. Depending on where you are and in what situation, you are part celebrity, part honored guest, part freak of nature. Not a single waking moment goes by that I’m not reminded of my alien status in China.  From the exultations of “hullo!” wherever I go, to the multiple requests for dinner dates and number exchanges, to the evening news featuring my visit to the Guanxian Pear Garden, one thing is clear, it’s a big deal that I’m here.

There’s an ego-centric side of all of us that loves that sort of attention, but, just the same as it is for real celebrities, it can get a little irksome.  Mostly it’s just small annoyances— I struggle sometimes not to glare at little huddles of juvenile Chinese boy as they point and giggle at me from afar, all with the same little stupid conceited smile. For the most part it’s easy enough to get used to.  But now and then I find myself tangled up in a situation where my identity as a foreigner, as an American, as a white male, as me, is being exploited for the benefit of other people.  Nothing illustrates this phenomenon better than a recent experience I had with my friend Tony.

Before I get into what happened between Tony and I, let me start out by saying that Tony is a good guy, a real good guy.  If it weren’t for Tony and a number of other students at Liaocheng University my time in China—especially my first few weeks—might have driven me to the edge of insanity or, worse yet, on a plane back to the States.  That said, of all my Chinese friends Tony is perhaps the most guilty of using my status as a celebrity/laowai to improve his own situation.  For the most part, I don’t mind.  I do my best to operate the way in which Chinese people do, and since Tony has helped me so much I’m usually happy to reciprocate.  Besides, often times it’s a win-win situation in which all that’s required of me is my presence.  Tony has introduced me to many friends who have bought me dinner, and he’s even helped me find a job as an English tutor.

A couple weeks into my semester in China I was walking with Tony on campus when a man on a motorcycle approached us and began talking to Tony.  Mr. Wang, as he likes to be called, has founded and managed a number of private English schools in the Liaocheng area, and has recently undergone a venture to start his first one within the city limits.  English schools in China are about as common as KFC’s, but those that employ and associate with foreigners are always far more profitable.  So when Mr. Wang saw Tony and me walking together he jumped at the opportunity.  Tony, who majored in English in college, was offered the job as manager of the school, because, as Tony put it, he had something that Mr. Wang needed: me.  While I myself will not actually be teaching at the school, Will, my Ghanaian friend at Liaocheng University, will be, and my contacts with other foreigners in Liaocheng is a great asset to the company.  Mr. Wang, by way of Tony, asked Will and I and our friend Serena, to be in a picture for the school.

While I frowned at their obvious perpetration of false advertisement, I agreed to be in the picture as a way to help Tony, and was even able to convince Serena, who is also not teaching at the school, to come out for the picture.  This was an infringement of my own values, and no doubt made me a little uncomfortable, but it required little effort on my part and went a long way in helping Tony’s business venture, (and after all this experience is all about stepping out of my comfort zone).

But then Tony asked me to hand out flyers for the school on the streets of Liaocheng, and that was the point at which I decided to draw the line.  I have discovered that the hardest part of being in China for me is the constant reminder of my alien (pun intended) status.  I do my best to embrace it, but I’m not going to lie, it can be tough not being treated like a normal human being all the time, and coupled with the fact that I would perpetrating the fraud of pretending that I myself was a teacher at the school, it was just too much.  You can treat me like a freak, you can ask me to suspend my own morals for the good of my friends, but I won’t do both at the same time.

My reaction shocked and disappointed Tony, so much so that he appeared at my dorm the next day bearing gifts and offering to take me out to lunch (a common way to mend a relationship gone wrong.)  I tried my best to explain to Tony why I didn’t want to hand out flyers for the school, but it wasn’t something that he could understand.  “In China,” he said, “if you are friends you will do anything to help the other person, even if it means doing something you are not comfortable with.”

This is the point at which Chinese and American cultures clash in the most fundamental of ways.  China is a communal society, where the well-being of the individual has much more to do with the well-being of those around him, whereas American society (Western society in general I suppose) is more about the individual.  Each side of the story has its up and down sides. You could say that Chinese people are more selfless than Americans, while at the same time you could say that Americans have more personal integrity and are unwilling to demean themselves for the betterment of others.  While I value the way in which they look out for each other, I wonder what this does for the self-esteem of an individual.  For my own personal mental health I know that the middle road is the best.  I will agree to do certain things, but when it’s taken too far I have to draw the line.

Read part II here.

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