Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #7: Wet Clothes and Ingenuity

Spring has brought a lot of life to Wuhan in the past few weeks. Children are outside playing, older folks are practicing Tai Chi and walking around, gardens are filling with flowers, and trees are filling with...


I like to think of it as a Chinese Charlie Brown Christmas tree. If you've seen the movie you know what I'm talking about.

But why stop with the trees? It's spring for Pete's sake! Those bushes are looking a bit drab...

...that's better.

You see, dryers are a hot commodity here (nothing like a good pun to keep things flowing, I always say). Of the few dormitories on my campus that have washing machines, none has dryers. None of my friends' apartments has dryers. I have yet to hear of a family owning a dryer.

In China -- or at least in Wuhan -- if you want your clothes machine-dried, you have to go to the cleaners. Otherwise, you better hope you have access to a clothesline.

But, as the old joke goes, "How many clotheslines can you fit in a city in China?"

OK, maybe that's not an old joke. Actually, I've never heard that before in my life. But you get the idea. There simply isn't enough room for clotheslines. For example, all of us in my 13-floor dormitory have to share 2 clothes lines about 40 feet long.

But people here are resourceful. If the weather is nice outside you are bound to come across a lot of clothes, some dangling from strange places. And while the trees and bushes are strange, I have seen stranger.

If a power line is within reaching distance of your window, why not? Sure, you might get electrocuted, but what are the chances?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Planes, Trains, and Audible Deals

If my Chinese teachers awarded star stickers for significant accomplishments, I am pretty confident I would have received one today. This afternoon I ventured to a nearby ticket office (alone) and purchased an airplane ticket and a train ticket in Chinese!

At first this might seem terribly unimpressive, but those who have been following my journey closely will understand my elation. Ever since I began studying here I have been bombarded by frustration and incompetency in regards to my Chinese abilities. Time and again conversations with Chinese people have abruptly turned into English conversations -- with them usually initiating the change -- because they can't understand what I'm saying, or I can't understand what they are saying. Most inklings of hope that have sprung up due to understanding my teachers in class have almost immediately been mowed over as soon as I enter the "real world."

But today I "successfully" had a significant exchange of words with the woman in the ticket office. I say "successfully" because much of that exchange was spent clarifying each other's meanings. But, alas, I now have two tickets.

In case you're wondering, I purchased the tickets because I will be traveling during a short school holiday next week to visit a couple of friends.

A few interesting facts to leave you with:
  • At most ticket offices in China you can only buy a train ticket if it is 10 days or less before your departure date. 
  • The standard price of a train ticket to a city 500 miles away is about $20 if you want to sit or $40 if you want to lie down.
  • You can fly for about $75.
And since I'm feeling generous I'll throw in a couple of pictures. I still can't get passed how interesting this city is. Even something as mundane as a wall or a  dirty sidewalk will captivate me.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Spring has Sprung!

A couple of weeks ago a few friends took me to the botanical gardens here in Wuhan to celebrate the coming of spring, but since I took almost 800 photos I had to delay this post. Do you know how long it takes to look through 800 photos, let alone to choose a few?

But alas, it is here. Meet my noble comrades:

This was my first time meeting the two guys on the left. The one on the right is named Tao.

He was one of my students when I taught English here two years ago. We have since become very good friends. 

I had never before been to a botanical garden, so I didn't know what to expect. We entered through a massive greenhouse. In fact, it was so big that I thought that was the garden. It even had a waterfall inside. And there were many interesting flowers.

But I had no idea what I was in for. What followed was reminiscent of the scene from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when they all enter through that really small door and walk into the candy garden with the chocolate waterfall for the first time. All that was missing was the music. There were steps leading down into the garden outside, and I actually considered doing the Willie Wonka thing -- take a few steps down then one back up then a few more down and a couple back up.

It's hard to overstate how huge this place was. Very few places were "garden-like." Instead, it was like a series of environments. Each environment was a huge park of sorts.

Unfortunately, I took almost zero pictures of these environments as a whole. I can't believe it. I focused more on individual flowers, etc. Here is one, though, to give you a small taste.

There were heavily forested areas, wide-open grassy areas, ponds, lakes -- it was really breathtaking. And even though it looks like there were a lot of people there, this place was so big that many areas had no one.

I just wanted to sit on the grass and...sit. I'm sure I could have sat in one place for the entire day. It was so peaceful.

And the flowers were beautiful, too.

Unfortunately, I don't know much about flowers. My mom is a gardener, so she probably knows what I'm looking at in these photos. But in some respects I'm glad I was clueless. It made this experience that much more new to me.

By the time I left, I was convinced that any flower I could dream up exists somewhere on earth.

You can almost hear the birds chirping, can't you?

They even had a medicine garden filled with plants used for traditional Chinese medicine.

If I ever get sick I'm coming here -- not because they have medicinal plants but because I think it's nearly impossible to come here and not feel better.

They also had plenty of fields of flowers.

...and some really tall trees...

They had some areas with flowers that were more obviously arranged, as well.

I've never taken so many pictures at one time. I've got stockpiles of flower pictures now. Unfortunately, they don't do this place justice.

I enjoyed it so much that I plan on going back there again. At first I decided that I won't bring my camera the second time I go.

But after thinking about it more, I'm sure I will. It's such a fun place to take pictures.

And, better yet, even if you know almost nothing about photography your pictures will undoubtedly look good.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #6: Fast Food Delivery

This one isn't so much a cultural conundrum as it is a cultural convenience.

McDonald's delivers!

The delivery person rides around on a scooter. I've also seen a KFC delivery person riding around.

I'm not sure how much extra it costs to have your food delivered. I have yet to eat fast food during my stay here. It's tempting to have a taste of home every once in a while, but I figure fasting from McDonald's and KFC for five months will make them taste that much better when I return to the U.S.

We'll see how I hold up.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Today, children, we have two very special guests..."

Yesterday I experienced yet another "first," though this one was something very unique. I went to an elementary school to visit some children and encourage them to learn English. But this isn't any ordinary school. It is a school for children of migrant workers.

These children come from "the slums" (quoting the woman who brought me). Companies travel to cities all around China and hire homeless people or peasants to do hard labor for extremely little pay then transport them and their families to their company's home city to work, usually making them live in terrible conditions. 

Fortunately, there are some schools like this that offer the children of these families a basic education, though the parents must still pay some fees. I met a Chinese girl named Mandy (English name) at church who attends my university and teaches at this school every day as part of a non-paid internship. She asked if I would come to her class to motivate them to learn English. Another student from my university here named Chad, who teaches at this school about every month, also came along.

What's more, the children have never before come in contact with a white person (or Caucasian for all you politically correct readers). Though they've seen them on advertisements and whatnot, they have never had the opportunity to see a real, live white person because they've lived in very poor places all their lives.

I went along with a university student from the Caribbean named Sharon. Most of these kids have never seen a black person either, so it was quite the experience for both of us.

When we arrived, many of the children were playing outside. As soon as we walked through the gate they all came running like the paparazzi. It was crazy. Since we all arrived late, Mandy and Chad were hurrying us through the swarms of children.

There were about 60 children (10- and 11-year-olds) in the class we visited. It was completely silent when we entered.

Kids who weren't in the class were trying to peak in through the windows.

We began by introducing ourselves. We spoke in English, and Mandy translated. Following that we had a question and answer time -- unscripted for sure. Consider how you would answer the questions I was asked:

Why is your skin white?
Why are your eyes blue?
What kind of food do you eat?
Is the U.S. more beautiful than China?
Do people in the U.S. think white people are the best?

Although those questions were hard enough to answer -- let alone to a group of children -- the most difficult question came from Mandy (the Chinese teacher).

"Can you sing an American pop song for us?"

Actually, I should have expected it. When I was here two years ago I visited a local elementary school supposedly to play some English games with the children. Instead, I was forced to sing Edelweiss (from The Sound of Music) for them. I'm still at a loss as to why they chose that song.

But this time I was going to hold my ground. I insisted that I don't listen to pop music -- and I don't. I threw just about every [truthful] excuse at her, but she pulled the it's-such-a-pity-that-these-children-finally-have-the-opportunity-to-see-an-American-and-now-you-won't-show-them-your-culture card. Sharon (the Caribbean woman) even jumped in and said she was being too pushy...but to no avail.

Mandy said some stuff to the class in Chinese, they all clapped their hands in excitement, then she turned to me and said she just told them I would sing a song.

*Pause for dramatic effect*

Everyone was staring at me. I started laughing nervously, trying to think of some "American" song to sing. After about 30 seconds I told Mandy I couldn't think of any good songs that I knew. She recommended the National Anthem.

*Pause again for dramatic effect*

I decided that it's too difficult to sing a capella. Besides, it's not really music if you know what I mean. I pauseed for another 30 seconds. Then a very random song came into my head. *Deep breath*

"Sommmmme-times in our liiiiiiives we all have paaaaaaain we all have sorrow..."

Everyone's favorite: Lean on Me.

It's impossible to capture the moment in writing. It was reminiscent of that scene in Sister Act 2 when the boy performs Oh Happy Day in front of the school. The only difference was I am not a singer. But I sang with the confidence of one. You only live once, right? I felt like one of those cocky people auditioning for American Idol who is actually really bad and gets laughed at by the judges. The only difference was I knew I was bad...I just didn't act like it.

After a few lines, Sharon jumped in. Apparantly Lean on Me made it's way to the Caribbean.

When I got to "You just call on me brother when you need a hand," I started clapping on the off-beats. Pretty soon everyone was clapping. When we finished everyone went crazy. It was one of the most awkward, funny, surreal moments of my life -- everything from the song selection to the environment to the stares of the children to the un-impressive singing skills to the overenthusiastic reaction.

After the performance, Sharon and I taught them B-I-N-G-O and Old MacDonald. When class was over the kids bolted out of their seats and swarmed us once more, though this time we had nowhere to go. Most of them just wanted to touch the foreigners. They were in awe of Sharon's hair. She said she felt kids constantly touching and pulling it.

As for me, they seemed most interested in touching my arms. They had never touched white skin before. It was a little awkward, but I'm sure I would have acted similarly if I was them. I handed my camera to Mandy, but unfortunately it's a little tricky to operate. Also, I was standing by a window. So it's not the best picture. But since I have yet to post a picture of myself in China...

In case you're wondering, the two-fingered "peace sign" in China is a "V" for "victory." It's almost just as common as smiling for pictures in China.

We finally made it outside and were met by another group of children waiting for us. Some of them almost seemed more excited to get their picture taken than to meet the foreigners. But others were entranced by the foreigners.

This boy stuck by me everywhere I went, and his expression never changed. He would poke me every once in a while and keep staring intently at me. He gave me a few hugs. He wasn't fazed by the camera in the least. I'm not even sure he realized I had a camera. There was something about his expression that brought out the sort of innocent curiosity of a child more than any of the other kids I saw. 

The kids were eventually loaded on buses and taken back to their homes. It was encouraging to learn that they are fed meals at school and given supplies for little cost. And even though they are growing up in very difficult environments, they were still full of smiles and energy.

45 minutes later I was back in my dorm room.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #5: Communal Scrap Bowls -- or Tables

Continuing with the food theme, I want to highlight another food-related observation. At many cheap restaurants and at every cafeteria I’ve been to you will find a lovely centerpiece on every table.

This is what I like to call the communal scrap bowl. In China, fish and meat are almost always cooked with the bones. You can imagine how difficult it is eating an entire fish without swallowing any bones — that’s why I rarely eat fish (though the locals are really good at it).

Aside from swallowing bones, there arises yet another problem with eating bone-enriched food:  Where do you put the bones while you’re eating?

Have no fear! The communal scrap bowl is here!

As gross as it seems — and it is pretty gross — it is actually quite convenient. You don’t have to maneuver around bones on your plate. Just toss them in and keep eating. And while you’re at it, you can toss in anything else you don’t want — peppers, napkins, chicken feet and the like.

Every once in a while a lady will come by and empty out the bowl at your table. But most of the time when I sit down, the bowl is filled with some type of goodness.

But what do you do when there is no scrap bowl? Or what if you just don’t feel like using the scrap bowl? Simple — put the bones on the table!

Generally it seems that about 2/3 of the people use the bowl and 1/3 use the table. The same lady that empties the bowls also clears the tables of any bones or other scraps.

When there are many open seats you can just avoid the ones occupied by scraps. But when it’s packed, you just have to set your plate on top of the scraps so that you aren’t looking at them when you eat. Here’s a sneak peak at what was under my plate during a busy day:

To Americans this probably seems a bit disgusting. But to Chinese people it’s a normal part of eating. And that’s how cultures function, right? One culture sees their practices as practical and convenient while another culture views them as strange or repulsive.

It is interesting, though, that Americans generally wouldn’t have a problem looking at bones on a person’s plate sitting in front of them. But as soon as you put them in a bowl in the middle of the table we freak out. Granted, putting them ON the table might be a little different. But a table is just a really big plate if you think about it.

Just saying…