Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #4: Expiration Dates

When I was here two years ago, I would often stop by a little shop and buy some Chips Ahoy! cookies as a periodic indulgence. After a few weeks, however, I glanced at the expiration date and saw that they were expired by many months--maybe 6 or more. I don't remember.

I stopped buying them. Every day I would check to see if they got new ones. One day they did get some new ones...they were just less expired. I worked up a theory in my head: this shop bought them cheap from some bigger store after that store had to get rid of them.

Eventually, the craving got so great that I decided to buy them anyway. I hadn't gotten sick from the first few packages, and they still tasted good.

Since then, however, I have learned a secret. The date printed on food isn't the expiration date. It's the production date. Finding the expiration date is a 3-step process.

Step 1: Find the date on the package:

It says "20091204." So these cookies were packaged on December 04, 2009.

Step 2: Turn the package over and find the length of time they can be consumed after production.

It's really hard to see, but if you look at the middle of the top half you will see the number 12 followed by some Chinese characters. This says "12 months."

Step 3: Subtract today's date by the production date. If that is less than the period of time on the back--in this case 12 months--then it is safe to eat.

I look at the date on everything I buy. Only once have I seen both the production and expiration dates on the front of the package. It was on a box of Orion pies (an American company).

I don't know why they do it like this here. Maybe it is so that lazy customers will still buy their product if it is expired because they won't want to bother finding the information and doing the quick calculation in their head. I have no idea.

But at least I can rest assured that those Chips Ahoy! cookies I bought two years ago were actually good.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Lunch Break

As I’ve mentioned already, most of my time here so far has been spent either going to classes, studying or eating. And seeing that I’ve already given you a little sneak peak of my studies, I thought it fitting to show you where I typically eat.

Most of the time I eat at the main cafeteria on campus.

It’s usually brimming with life.

There are three floors. The higher you go the more expensive (but not necessarily delicious) the food becomes.

What is particularly interesting is that almost none of the international students eat here. It is a bit far from our dorms, and most of the international students like to eat with each other in the little restaurants nearby.

As a result, I’ve grown accustomed to people watching me eat here. I don’t think they’ve grown accustomed to me, though. I’m pretty sure there’s always at least one person staring at me. Also, unless I take the initiative to talk, 99% of the time they will never talk to me. I think they are afraid.

There are multiple stations that serve different kinds of food.

You put money on a card then use that card to buy whatever you want.

Most of the workers are really nice.

This girl (the one on the right) is my favorite. She always gives me five dumplings when I ask for four, and she waves at me every time I come in. I think she has a crush on me.

This was my lunch for that day:

Often times I just point at something new and ask someone at my table what it is as I’m eating it. This is eggplant, peppers, cabbage, some kind of liver, and some other things mixed in. It’s actually three different dishes piled on top of a lot of rice.

It was pretty good. In general, the food here is really good--once you get past the looks. I've learned that it's better to learn what something is after you eat it. That's how you overcome culinary stereotyping.

I also decided to go back and get some dumplings.

1 bottle of water + random mixture of stuff on rice + 6 dumplings = $0.93 (U.S.)

That’s what I like the most about this cafeteria. It’s really cheap. In fact, food in China is generally very cheap compared to the U.S. But if you go to the little restaurants around here you will usually end up paying $3-$5 depending on what you order.

I haven’t eaten anything too strange yet, though my definition of “strange” has changed quite a bit. The cafeteria offers a large variety of things—too many to list. Maybe I will cover some of my more daring culinary expeditions in later posts.

Also, I buy fruit from this secret underground market.

OK, it’s not that secret…but it is underground, and it was very hard for me to find. I usually just buy apples because the pears and bananas aren’t very good. It’s also a general consensus around here that you should peal your fruit before consuming.

And last but not least, there is a convenience store that sells lots of snacks and daily supplies.

I’ve been experimenting with a variety of Chinese snacks, though I sometimes indulge in American classics like Oreos or Lay’s potato chips.

While this might not be the most exciting post you’ve ever read, hopefully you have a little better feel of daily life here. Now that the basics are out of the way I hope to focus on more specific experiences in future posts.

Stay tuned!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #3: Matresses

Chinese mattresses are HARD. It's not that they are extra firm spring mattresses--they are one solid piece of wood?...concrete?...actually, I'm not sure what's inside.

This is my mattress. There are no springs inside. I can't overstate how hard it is. Sleeping on it at night is identical to sleeping in a sleeping bag on a linoleum floor (the sleeping bag representing the sheets, not the mattress). But before you pity me too much, you should know that these are standard in China.

After talking with a number of Chinese students here, I've discovered that most Chinese people consider hard mattresses better for your health than soft ones. One student told me that once his sister's back was hurting, and the doctor told her the problem was she was sleeping on a soft mattress. Once she changed to a hard mattress, her back was healed.

Some students I talked with said they have spring mattresses at home, but even they still thought that hard mattresses are better for your health--even if they are less comfortable. According to the students I talked with, all the Chinese students here sleep on hard mattresses in the dorms. At home some have spring mattresses, but the majority opinion in China is that hard mattresses are best for your health.

How have I coped with it, you ask? I still wake up at least once a night with numbness in my legs or arms. My nerves aren't used to it yet, I guess. I had a severe backache one day so that I couldn't even wear a backpack.

But I'm getting used to it. I look forward to going to bed. It just takes some getting used to. I'll let you know if I experience any of the health "benefits" they talk about.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Out of Hibernation

During my first couple of weeks here I noticed that something was missing. I kept my eyes peeled, but still no sight of them. They were elusive...kind of like the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz just after Dorothy steps out of the house in Oz.

They are hiding. You hear them giggle. What's that! Hmmm, must have been a rabbit or something.

But I actually did catch a glimpse of one!

A child! I mean a little child. I had already seen some elementary school kids, but I think since it was so cold the parents kept the little ones inside (unless they wore 10 layers of clothes like this poor little fella).

But three days ago the temperature got up to 20 degrees Celsius (that's about 68 degrees Fahrenheit...remember, I'm in China). So, I decided to take a break from academics, grab my camera, and walk around campus for a while.

And wouldn't you know it, the children finally came out!

Most were still dressed warmly--some still wearing 10 layers--but they were out!

My Chinese friends and I sometimes argue about whether Chinese children or American children are cuter.

You decide.

The mom of the one above said this is how her son learned to smile.

Like father like son. 

As I was taking pictures, a little kid came up to me and said something like, "Goo--Mwa--Nee." Each of those sounds is a Chinese word, but I didn't know what he was saying. So I smiled and nodded my head (like any good foreigner).

He said it again. He just stood there looking at me with sad puppy eyes. I hated to break his heart, but I had to tell him in Chinese I was sorry that I couldn't understand him.

He said it a third time. And he stood there.

Finally, his father came over and said to me in broken English, "Good morning." 

I felt so crushed. Here's this little kid trying to speak English to a foreigner probably for his first time, and the mean American tells him he can't understand him. 

Even though it was 5:00 p.m....and even though his pronunciation was bad...and even though I should not have expected a Chinese 2-year-old to speak English...

...I still felt like a jerk. I hope I didn't permanently traumatize him.

But that didn't stop others from trying to find me.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #2: Computers, Characters, and Compatibility

In light of my last post, I think it is fitting to give you your one and only Chinese character (symbol) lesson and explain why it will be the only one you’ll be receiving on this blog.

There are some interesting things to learn about Chinese characters, especially how they were formed and why they look the way they do. Additionally, you can learn how to say them (some have multiple pronunciations), and you can see the logic behind how certain words are formed by pairing them together. Unfortunately, with the exception of this post, I won’t be teaching you any of this due to one little problem: your computer.

Most computers purchased in the U.S. don’t come with the Chinese language already installed. Want to know if your computer has Chinese installed? Here’s your test:


If all you see is a row of boxes, then you don’t have Chinese installed on your computer. If you see the characters, then read this post from a different computer if you want it to make sense :)

If you don’t have Chinese installed on your computer, it’s not very difficult to do. You can simply go to your control panel and download the language for free. But since most of the readers of this blog will never need (or want) to read Chinese, I won’t waste your precious time or hard drive space.

But WAIT! If you want to learn something about Chinese characters but don’t want to download anything, there is still hope!

Your computer is sitting there all smug, thinking to itself, “Ha ha, I’m going trap you in your English-centric world, and you’re never going to escape!”

Ah, but you’ve overlooked one small detail, Mr. Computer. The very box that blocks out the Chinese character
IS a Chinese character.

Behold, the Chinese character “kou” (pronounced like the “co” in “Coke”): 口

That’s right. This character is simply a square. But it’s kind of interesting. It doesn’t really scream “Chinese”…but it does scream. And it shouts, too. And talks. And whispers. And kisses. And eats. And hates the dentist—well, actually it likes the dentist, but it just doesn’t know it yet.

You guessed it. “口” is the Chinese character for “mouth.” And it makes sense, doesn’t it? It kind of looks like a mouth. As I mentioned before, you can actually decipher the meaning of some characters by how they look. This is one of them.

口 can also be paired with a whole array of other characters to form words dealing with your mouth, such as “sing” and “speak.”

So, this one time we’ve beaten the system. Your computer can’t stop us. I can write to you in Chinese, and you can understand it—though there’s not much meaning to the sentence “Mouth mouth mouth mouth….” But, hey, why not?


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Classes, Studying, and Exerci....Studying

Classes have been underway for about a week now—not long enough to really assess them, but I can at least give you a taste.

When I first arrived I had to take a placement “test” to determine which classes
I need to take. The test consisted of a teacher having a casual conversation with me in Chinese. In the end, they placed me in level 5 (the last level) of the “beginner’s” bracket. They also have an intermediate and advanced bracket.

At first when I read “Level 5” my heart pounded because there is a huge difference between language levels in the U.S. and their counterparts in their given countries. So, for example, Chinese 5 in the U.S. might be equivalent to Chinese 2 in China. I let out a sigh of relief when I found out it was in the “beginner’s” section…but don’t let that fool you.

My classes have been VERY challenging, especially the listening and speaking aspects. All of my classes are taught exclusively in Chinese. In the U.S. they were mostly taught in English, though the upper levels included more and more Chinese. As a result, I have to ask all of my questions in Chinese, which has been very frustrating. I’m finding it easier and easier to be a head-nodder, though I’m trying to force myself to look like a fool in front of the class by asking questions I’m not really able to ask. But I must admit I’ve done a good share of head-nodding, as well.

I have 11 classes throughout the week that are 1 hour 40 minutes each, which equals about 16-17 hours a week. I’m taking speaking, reading, writing, listening, and an integrated class that combines everything. I wasn’t offered any sort of extra-curricular class like Chinese flute-making or
tea-tasting, but even if I had the opportunity I wouldn’t take it because these classes are really time-consuming.

Even though I’ve studied for two years in the U.S., my textbooks here are teaching almost completely new material, though some of it is repeated. What has been especially difficult is when the dialogues use words or grammar that they assume I know but that I don’t know. So a given chapter might officially teach 33 new words but I’m having to learn 50.

And for those who aren’t aware, often times when you learn a new word in Chinese you must also learn one or two new characters (symbols). Most Chinese words are two characters. There are thousands of characters in the Chinese language. Sometimes they look like what they mean, but most of the time you just
have to memorize how to write them. So if you just started learning 30 words, you would probably have to memorize 60 characters.

“How do you do that?” you ask. Here’s my method:

I write them many, many times in my notebook. Then, the next day….I write them many, many times in my notebook. Then…you get the idea. But certainly seeing them more often now helps me to better retain them.

In addition to studying material from 5 textbooks, I also have to learn a whole host of words and phrases for daily use. I keep a notepad in my pocket and constantly write down things I see or think about or hear. As you can imagine, they add up quickly.

So, most of my free time is spent studying. And even after all that time, I still often feel like the farthest behind in class. Most of the people in my class have already been living here for at least a semester, so their listening and speaking are especially better than mine.

I’m trying to figure out a good balance between studying at my desk, spending time with people, and just doing my own thing—but it’s hard…especially when I feel paralyzed in the “outside” world because I can’t seem to understand or say anything. But, as a favorite preacher of mine once said, “By perseverance the snail made it to the ark.”

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #1: Compliments—Don’t Flatter Yourself

This is the first post of a series called “Cultural Conundrums.” Periodically I will post various cultural observations that Westerners might find interesting, humorous, or downright strange.

Anyone who has spent a substantial amount of time with Chinese people will notice that they are often very hospitable and warm toward others—especially toward foreigners. This takes many forms, but as someone studying Chinese I have found that it most often comes in the form of compliments.

“Your Chinese is amazing!”

“You speak very well!”

“You’re so fluent!”

But there’s a catch. Consider this recent experience to see what I mean:

I needed to buy a SIM card for my phone. So I went to the one place where I knew they sold them. It is a giant multi-story building that sells all sorts of electronics.

I made my way up to the top floor and stopped at one of the booths selling them. In retrospect, I should have reviewed some words that might be helpful to know…but I didn’t. Usually things work out.

LONG story short, I “spoke” with this lady for about 20 minutes trying to buy a SIM card. I say “spoke” because there really wasn’t any
communication happening. I questioned whether she was even speaking Chinese. I could barely even pick out one or two words.

She would give an explanation of some sort of phone plan, and I would tell her I didn’t understand. Then she would re-phrase everything.

“I still don’t understand.”


“I’m so sorry, do you mean _____?”

That’s not what she meant.

This went on and on. I had no clue. She pulled out a paper and did some pointing. I didn’t know the Chinese characters (symbols) she was pointing to. She ran to the other end of the store and grabbed another sheet. She did some more explaining. I still didn’t understand.

Eventually, I just pointed to a plan that wasn’t too expensive and said, “I want that one.” She explained a lot more and I just said, “OK,” not knowing what she said.

As soon as she left to get the card, I heard a voice in English right behind me:

“Your Chinese is so good!”

Apparently, a Chinese guy—about college-aged—arrived at the very end of our “conversation.” We spoke in English with each other for a few seconds, then he left.

I’ve learned by now just to gratefully accept any compliment, no matter how unreasonable or untrue it is. It’s also very common in Chinese culture to appear humble and play down compliments by saying things along the lines of, “Oh, I’m really not that good.” But then there ensues a sort of polite argument trying to determine if the complimentee is worthy enough of the compliment. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

And thus, my conclusion: Gratefully accept compliments from Chinese people, even if they stem from inadequate or faulty evidence—but don’t flatter yourself.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wuhan: the Land of Opportunity

After a series of unfortunate events at various airports, I have finally arrived at Huazhong Normal University in Wuhan—with my luggage! I eagerly began classes today and am very excited to continue them. I’ll have more on that in the future, though.

I will be living in the international student dorm for the next five months (see pic below), though it sounds like I will have to move to the new dorm as soon as it opens because I’m supposed to be in a two-person room with a roommate since I’m here on scholarship. In the mean time I’m living in a room by myself because there are no more available.

Though I’m here to immerse myself in the Chinese language and culture, I think I’ve met more people from other countries than from China thus far—Egypt, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Rwanda, Samoa, South Korea, and the list goes on.

Recently, however, I had the opportunity to get away from the international community into the national community—and it got my heart pounding. As I waded through streams of Chinese people…as I spoke with street vendors as they prepared my $0.70 (U.S.) lunch…as I got lost in a conversation with a woman while trying to buy an SIM card for my phone…I couldn’t help but realize how ripe this city is with opportunity.

At any moment of my choosing I can strike up a conversation in Chinese—though I might not get far. At many moments I must strike up a conversation in Chinese—or I won’t get anywhere. In nearly every corner, alley, shop, taxi, restaurant, hallway, bus, and building there is at least one opportunity—and probably many more—to practice and learn Chinese, not to mention all my classes are taught only in Chinese.

Indeed, there are two sides to the coin. There are endless opportunities to give, as well. But I think this has been more plain to me than the former. Only now am I really beginning to feel the opportunity-ness (yes, I did it) of this city in regards to how it can affect my language abilities.

So, now it begins. I hope to wean myself from the comforts of international dorm life and venture deep into the unknown, uncharted depths of this vibrant city.