Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Part 2: An Ode to China: Bicycles, Hutongs and Maosuits

As continued from my former post, Part 1: An Ode to China.

4. Bicycling-  Beijing is a city of bicycles.  Life in Beijing is substantially worse without a bike or motorbike, as nearly everything is too far to walk and to short to drive.  Hence, the bicycle is usually the most efficient way to travel.  Bicycle riding is far from relaxing, but it does imbue one with a sense of camaraderie  as you and the 10,000 other bicyclists at the intersection work together to cross the road, frustrating the gridlocked, rage-stricken car drivers.  Furthermore, since all of the drivers are used to bicyclers, they are unusually adept at not hitting them.

5. Costumes- What do you want to wear today to work? A skull-patterned MC Hammer pantsuit?

Just a normal day on the metro. 
 A 1830s-era frontier dress, a la Little House on the Prairie? Or maybe you'd just like to keep it causal, and wear your Strawberry Shortcake outfit.  In China, anything goes in terms of dress code. I blame this on the fact that throughout their schooling, Chinese children wear only their Mao sweatsuits, and thus, the finer points of dress code are often lost; at an opera in the Beijing Egg, not a single person, other than us, the only foreigners, dressed up.

Some might find this lack of clothing awareness a problem, but I'm not one of them. Why?
A) The children in their uniforms look very comfortable, and allow children to not have to worry about dressing in the morning, which makes the otherwise very put-upon students of China happy.
The Daily Marching Exercise with the first-graders.

B) It gives people a lot more creativity in their clothes. For halloween one year, I dressed as a cowgirl: gingham shirt, cut off jean shorts, high pigtails, with brown eyeliner dotted on my face to give me freckles.  My students weren't even aware my outfit was a costume, and seemed indignant I hadn't dressed up for their halloween party.  When questioned further, they explained that my outfit was the current trend in Japan.

C) My favorite, however, are the little girls.  Ornate Qing dynasty headgear, tutus, darling pink qipaos and Disney princess accessories all create a glorious mish-mash confection of adorableness.
Drive slow, homie

Off to school. 

Truly, anything goes, and one learns to appreciate the casualness once one returns to the US, where casual fridays consist of a regular business suit, sans jacket and heels.

I saw this bag everywhere, except in stores, so I couldn't buy one.
It is a loss I must live with.

6. Patience- Sometimes, things get lost in translation, words are forgotten, sentence structures are misused and tones are incorrect.  What is amazing is how kind the Chinese people are about mistakes.  They'll smile and wait for you to say it again, and if you continually get it wrong, they'll start playing a guessing game with you by repeating the words in all four tones.

7. Hutongs- My love affair with hutongs started the morning after I arrived in Beijing, waking up in a hotel next to Qianmen at 4 am due to jetlag.  Lying in my dismal, stifling, 1970s era hotel era, I had my doubts as to whether I made the correct choice returning to Beijing. To clear my head, I decided to go for a quick morning run.

Running through the hutong in the morning is an otherworldly experience for the runner, but especially for the people living in the hutongs.  As the morning twilight merged into early light, I would squeeze between biycles and rickshaws with bewildered older Chinese drivers, jump over the bricks inexplicably piled in the middle of the lane and smile at Chinese babies that often thought I was an alien.  And, for all intents and purposes, a white, foreign girl in shorts, running for unclear reasons, as no dog or person was pursuing me, early in the morning, is as much an alien in the hutong environment as an actual martian.

On that day, as I ran through the one-story, gray stone hutong alleys, watching Beijing wake up, eventually arriving at the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square in time for the daily flag raising ceremony, I gradually reconfirmed my reasons why I wanted to be in Beijing.

So, what makes hutongs so magical, you ask?
          A. Walking through a piece of living history, where one can examine the precise, artistry of Qing-era stone masons next to the slipshod renovations made in the past 50 years to accomodate the population boom?
          B. Witnessing the life of the hutong-dwellers: daily marathon mahjong games, drag races between children and their tricycles, eating chuar outside, no matter the temperature?
          C. Making one wrong turn results into a hutong turning into an unguidable maze that keeps you captive and wandering, until you emerge, either close to where you started, or in a part of town that you weren't even aware existed.
           Or D., all of the above?

Entrance to a hutong- the two orange wooden posts notate that this belonged to a family of
medium wealth- a successful merchant/doctor etc- when it was originally built

Bicycling around Hutongs: the best way to spend a lazy Saturday.
Hopefully with adventurous people.

Clearly D. is the answer I'm going for.

         In recent years, a number of hutongs have been renovated and hipster-ized.  Now cupcake shops, mixology bars and foreign-food restaurants sit next to traditional tea houses and chuar stands in some hutongs.  Still, just one or two turns down the less-beaten track brings you to the the normal Chinese hutong, where one witnesses a lifestyle from a different world

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Flying on Camus airways to the land of George Orwell's mid-youth

The airline attendant for China Southern airlines typed in my passport information for check-in, a strange, stiff purple bow restricting her downward head movements.
"I'm sorry, you are not on this flight." the lady said.
"Yes, I am. Look again." I said, trying to ignore the ominous, but oh-so-usual sense that something that could be so easy was going to be blown up into a huge ordeal.
Click-Click-Click.  The attendant continuously typed for a few minutes.
"I'm sorry, your flight has been cancelled."
"No, it hasn't.  Please look again." I measured my words.
"I'm sorry, that flight is not happening today. Your flight is maybe tomorrow." She informed me.  I silently handed her the printed itinerary of my flight, printed out shortly before I left for the airport.  This itinerary conflicted with everything she had just told me.  She looked at the document, then looked back at me.
"Can I please see the visa for Myanmar and your passport?"
"Click-click-click" She typed away for a minute, quickly conferred with a coworker, then handed me my ticket.  "Enjoy your flight."
Stunned at my good luck, I made my way towards the gate.

8 hours later in Kunming

"I'm sorry, you are not on this flight." The attendant informed my friend, Bridget.
"I'm sorry, your flight has been cancelled."
"I'm sorry, you are on the flight tomorrow."
"Enjoy your flight."

Almost verbatim, the entire conversation repeated itself, with the same result.

So many questions. Starting with,  Why did you think that flight was cancelled? And if so, why were you checking people into a non-existent flight? Nothing made any sense, nor followed any sort of logical linear thinking.  But we were not ones to investigate our tiny miracle too closely, we clutched our tickets and headed towards our gate before the computer system could change its mind.
To Myanmar (Burma) ! And yes, that plane is as small as it looks.

Bridget and I tried to unravel the mystery as we boarded the tiny plane that would take us into Myanmar/Burma.  Even if we assumed the worst, that they were just lying to us at out of random malevolence, it still made no sense, as clearly, no one would have ever believed them after watching them check in everyone else in line onto that same flight.  The best working theory that we could come up with was cognitive dissonance amongst the staff; despite their actual knowledge that the flight did exist, they innately believed whatever the computer told them. But no harm, no foul, as we made it as we boarded the final leg of our flight to Myanmar.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Festivals, Fireworks, CCTV and Me

During our third glorious day in beautiful Yangshuo, we were preparing to return to our hotel.  We were exhausted from a day of riding bikes and rafting down rivers with our surly boatman.  Crossing the narrow street to find a cab, we were startled when James, a very friendly man who worked at our hotel, started to tell us about the festival that included fireworks.  Normally, I have no great love of fireworks, but in a nation that revels in huge, ostentatious shows of wealth and power, prides itself on inventing fireworks and has unlimited budgets for public displays, fireworks are not to be missed. The finale of the 4th of July fireworks in Washington, DC? That's the warm-up for any holiday, fesitval, or sale on fireworks in China. 

"渔火节在阳朔. 妳们的行文采写我了! The fish fire festival of yangshuo - CCTV interviewed me! "

Sure enough, these fireworks did not disappoint.  The sky was lit up with thousands of tiny flickering red lanterns, glass-like glimmering shards, waves of vivid neon hues and the flashes of cameras as everyone attempted to capture the magic. I have seen dozens of firework displays during my time in China, and this was the 2nd best one I had seen ( the 1st being the Spring Festival Lantern Day in Dalian, China).  I was so caught up in the fireworks, I didn't notice a TV crew slowly edging its way towards me until they were next to me.  They asked if they could interview me, and despite my misgivings that it would turn into a "Coerce/trick the foreigner into saying that China is better at __________ than _____________" interview, I acquiesced. 

Q: Where are you from? 
A: The United States
Q: What is your name? 
A: Su Mei En
Q: It is very good to have a Chinese name!
A: Thank you
Q: Did you come to Yangshuo just for the festival?
A: No, but I am very happy that I saw it
Q: What did you think of the Chinese fireworks?
A: Chinese fireworks are very beautiful!
Q: Do you have fireworks like this in your home country?
A: Not often
Q: Are Chinese fireworks better than American fireworks?
A: They are both very good
Q: But which country has better fireworks? Don't you think China's are better?
A: Yes, Chinese fireworks are very impressive
Q: Very good! Chinese fireworks are very famous.
Yes, I caved.  But in all honesty, their fireworks are better, and as the interviewers pressured me into answering the question, I heard a tone of subtle anxiety in their voices, waiting for my answer as to whether their firework display, an object of national pride, was better than the American version.  The longer one lives in China, the more one notices the undertones of these moments.  China is a country based on a culture of face (a complex version of reputation), and so rankings and public opinion matter a great deal to them.  Especially in their comparisons of China to the United States.   The fact is that the United States looms larger in the collective Chinese consciousness than China is in ours. 

Chinese people are brought up on a very unique brand of jingoism. Their values are taught in their elementary morality class, where they are taught the morals and beliefs as determined by the communist party. They are taught only the history that is relevant to China or history that makes other selected countries look bad, resulting that in all of my time teaching, I had yet to meet a single Chinese high schooler who knew what Guatemala or Serbia are, much less where they were on a map. This is not to say that the students were not intelligent, on the contrary, those students were exceptionally bright and eager to learn, just the victims of an education system that was created to serve the party interests. They are taught calculus and the superiority of the Chinese culture throughout history, and the aspects of their culture that support the current government, but not world history or sociology. They are taught in excessive detail the atrocities of the Japanese, while their own government's atrocities toward them are briefly mentioned as "the difficult years."  As such, there are gaping holes of information in their knowledge base, creating a Middle Kingdom-centric perspective.

Yet despite all the attempts of the government, most Chinese people know that all is not as CCTV and their government says.  Chinese people want clean air, clean water, food safety and less corruption.  The Party claims that a poor environment is the cost of a successful economy, but it hasn't been lost on the Chinese people that other countries have managed to succeed economically without destroying their environment to the point where it is unsafe to drink domestic water and breathe the air. 

At the same time, white skin and big eyes, foreign attributes, are considered to be the epitome of beauty, and Chinese magazines are filled with pictures and advertisements of products featuring foreigners and foreign products. Foreign products are considered to be of better quality and higher status, prompting an unfavorable comparison with Chinese products.

These are an uncomfortable facts that the party tries to reconcile by censoring and limiting the amount of foreign movies and TV shows, and by exhorting China's strength and wealth. In TV shows and movies, foreigners are almost always portrayed as either stupid or evil, and always lose to their Chinese counterpart.  In period movies, set in a time hundreds of years before the United States was founded, an American will inexplicably show up, to be taught the wisdom of the Chinese way. On the Chinese version of Iron Chef, they will pit master intense Chinese chefs with gleaming knives against rotund jolly french pastry chefs, and give them live snakes as the chosen ingredient. 

Therefore, any conversation with a new Chinese friend comes peppered with questions of comparison: Do you like Chinese food? What food is better, Chinese food or foreign food?  What do you think of Beijing, is it better than cities in the US? Even though these questions are subjective, based on opinons, there are clear right and wrong answers.

It is a dance, one that one has to play carefully: I love Chinese food, but I miss my hometown food (NEVER say you don't like Chinese food). I like Beijing, but I prefer Dalian and Washington DC because Beijing is too crowded. (throw in another, well-established beautiful city in China so as to show that your feelings on Beijing are not China-based, blame it on it being crowded- it doesn't insult Beijingren.) When they invite you to eat, they will inevitably want to take you to a foreign restaurant, but one must decline, saying something along the lines of  "We are in China, we should eat Chinese food!" When I first came to China, I broke all of these rules.  All the time. I had no idea.  Once I had a better understanding, I still often rebelled against the idea that I should say things I didn't agree with or think to make other people happy.  But soon I realized I didn't have to do that, I would be honest about things that made them happy, and not voice the negative things, (ie: Q: Do you like chicken feet? A: I know it is very nutritious, but I prefer fruit.)  Maybe it isn't the American way, but I wasn't in America anymore. 

The next day, I was happily surprised to see that my interview was cut to only one line: "Chinese fireworks are VERY beautiful!" 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Benefits of living next to the Russian Embassy in Beijing

In both Beijing and Washington DC, I lived very close to the Russian embassy. In Beijing, I literally live .2 miles from it, meaning that I am more fortunate than the rest of my fellow expats, in that when I need to quickly run to a little shop for snacks, instead of having to choose between a selection of chicken feet, dried meat jerky, fried fruit and green tea, I have a selection of caviar, dried salmon, cmyetyana and caramel/fruit tea, foods that I have come to adore since my study abroad in Russia.  Most importantly, the basic expat essentials: coffee, milk, unsweetened bread ( yes, sweetened bread is the norm in China) and cheese, are the most reasonably priced in the two tiny Russian shops, as compared to the rest of the expat shops.  It seems that the only foreigners that are not regularily upcharged in China are Russians. When I was traveling through Manzhouli and Hailaier, the prices I received when they believe that I was a Russian were substantially lower in comparison when they believed I was an American. 

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Isn't the Russian embassy pretty? At night, when it is lit up, it reminds me of a library.  So pretty! 

798, Beijing's art district

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"#sidecarlifestyles #有爱和伤心"