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


One difficulty I’ve had in learning Chinese is the number of verbs needed to describe similar but different actions.  For example, in English the verb ‘to play’ can be used to describe many actions,  such as, “I play guitar,” or, “I play soccer.”  The Chinese translation is a bit more complex than that.  The verb “to play,” translated as 玩 (wán), literally refers to ‘playing,’ as in, “The children play together.”

If you want to say “I play guitar,” you actually say, 我弹吉他 (Wǒ dàn jítā), literally translated as “I flick guitar.”

“I play soccer,” is actually 我踢足球 (Wǒ tī zúqiú), or “I kick soccer.”

” I play the trumpet,” is 我吹小号(Wǒ chuī xiǎo hào), or “I blow trumpet.

This makes learning Chinese verbs rather important, although you can often substitute words like 玩 (play) or 用 (use) and get your meaning across.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember all these different verbs, but I’ve also found that it’s a good tool for memorizing verbs that would otherwise be hard to commit to memory, especially because a lot of the phrases I find to be pretty cool.  I really like the idea of “flicking guitar,” and now I’ll probably never forget how to say flick in Chinese.


It’s summer now and the heat is borderline unbearable, and as a result a lot of Chinese men find shirts rather obsolete.  Even Mr. Wang, pictured here at what’s supposed to be a business lunch, opts to go shirtless.

In states, maybe it’s one out of every ten people that will take flyers that people are handing out on the streets.  But in China it’s literally every person that will take them.  I think it has something to do with the incredible consumer driven society.  But nontheless many of the flyers end up on the ground, so whereever there are flyers being handed out there are poor street scavengers, usually elderly people who can’t work anymore, who collect the little sheets of paper and return them to redemption centers for 2 mao (.2 yuan) each.

Sure there are grocery stores in China, but they tend to be overpriced.  It’s far more common for people to buy their fruits and vegetables at street side stands such as this one.

The number of cars in the road in China is growing by staggering amounts every day, but still most families opt for more economical forms of transportation, such as this three-wheeled motorbike.


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'!


This is probably an attempt to bypass China’s lackadaisical copyright laws, but I’d like to think that it’s some sort of communist propaganda geared towards toddlers.  By the way, I never really pictured Pooh playing with symbols.  He is always seemed to me like more of the subdued type.