Saturday, May 29, 2010

Modeling: Round #2

I'm starting to get the hang of this modeling business. I might have finally discovered that career I've been searching for. A couple of days ago I was back to work.

And so was Andrew.

In case you missed the last time we worked together, you should check it out.

If you remember, last time I made a big mistake. I changed my clothes in-between modeling (a big "no-no" in this business). But this time we planned my wardrobe...and I didn't mess up!

Drum roll please.


(click to enlarge)

As you can see, it is a completely different style than the first one he did. That's because Andrew is not a one-trick pony. He's an artist. And he dabs in many different styles. For example, when I arrived he was working on a Picaso-style painting. He's an amazing guy.

I love this style. He told me the name of it, but I don't remember. Every once in a while he would go wild with the brush -- like Tazmanian-Devil-esque. It was really hard to sit there when that happened because I really wanted to get up and see what he was doing.

It was also really hard to sit there because I convinced myself that my head itched...but if I itched it I would have messed up the wrinkles in my clothes. I wasn't sure if he was painting them at the moment or not.

And as you can probably guess, I didn't get to choose my own pose. Originally I was actually going to stand the entire time. Then he changed his mind.

The entire painting only took a little less than two hours to paint.

I won't be taking this one home for a few reasons. One, he's already given me one. Two, it's too big to fit in my luggage. And three, Andrew doesn't have any paintings or drawings of me. 

I bet he'll hang it in his living room.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #10: The Wave

The other day I realized that I had yet to show off my Microsoft Paint skills. When I get the opportunity I like to supplement my blog posts with pictures. But as I've mentioned before, I am very new to the whole photography thing.

But this is not so with Microsoft Paint.

And since today's topic presents a good opportunity to utilize my craft -- and since I'm feeling generous today -- I thought we could move on from photography games to the real deal.

Behold, "the wave": 

In the U.S. this hand gesture conveys such meanings as...

"Get that out of my face."

"You're too close. Scoot back a little bit farther."

"I'm on the phone. Don't bother me now. Leave."

...and the like.

But in China it means the complete opposite. It means...

"Come closer!"


"Is that you over there? You're too far away. Come here! I have something to tell you."


...and the like.

Whereas we turn the palm up and bend our fingers toward us to gesture for someone to come, people here use this gesture. So don't run away if a Chinese person does this wave in your direction. You'll think they don't like you, but they'll think you don't like them.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #9: Safety

There are three main classroom buildings here for international students. Probably the first thing the casual observer notices upon entering one of them is the security guard sitting at the desk placed awkwardly in the center of the room.

In fact, anyone walking by one of the buildings will see the security guard staring back at them through the glass doors. And naturally, the presence of a security guard conjures up feelings of peace, security, and safety.

...that is until you begin to explore.

For example, behold the emergency phone directly across from the security guard's desk.

Looks "safe," right? Now drop your eyes down a little ways.

It's not connected to anything. That makes me wonder if those other two "safe"-looking boxes next to the phone are hollow.

But maybe I'm being too hard on them. Maybe they're working on it. They've probably got some backup plans in the meantime.

*walks up stairs*

See! Look over there! That fire exit is screaming, "Safety!"

The lights on the sign are even on.

What's more, the literal translation of the Chinese is not just "Exit" but "Safe Exit." This makes up for the phony phone.

Wait...what's this?

It's locked. Every day. And there are no other exits. But at least we're safe from burglars.

I want to be careful not to use my university as the representative of all of China. Perhaps my university is just an exception. But I have seen similar kinds of things around here.

For example, one of my friends here has a friend who is a fireman. That fireman saw the fire extinguishers either in the dorm or in this building (I don't remember), and he said they aren't functional at all.

A Chinese person also told me that if someone is trying to break into your home and rob you or hurt you, it is best to take the matter into your own hands (i.e. grab a baseball bat or knife and get to business) because the cops will take way too long to arrive.

However, I have heard that the paramedics will come quickly when called.

All of that said, more than one of my Chinese friends in the States have said that they consider China to be really safe. Maybe the unplugged safety phone, the locked fire exits, and the unusable fire extinguishers are actually signs of how safe China is. After all, only places that have intruders and catch on fire need those kinds of things.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Basketball and Modeling

If there's one thing that unites all Chinese guys...if there's one thing I'm most prone to stereotype about guys here...if there's one commonality that transcends every ideological, sociological, and otorhinolaryngological (it's a word, look it up) barrier between every boy and man...'s the NBA.

Basketball is a phenomenon in China. I can almost be sure that every guy I meet here follows the NBA to some extent. Of course there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. So you can imagine the first question most guys ask a 6'5 American...and the answer is No.

I don't play basketball. I don't like to watch sports. I do like to play tennis and ping-pong, and occasionally I'll shoot some hoops with some friends. But by no means am I an athletic guy. As a kid I used to be. I don't know what happened.

The other day one of my friends -- English name Andrew -- asked if I wanted to play basketball with him and his friends. I kindly refused, but offered to go out to eat with him after they were done. We agreed to meet at the basketball court (there are 6 on campus) at 6:00.

I had a hunch that they might try to coerce me to play, so I wore some un-athletic shorts, a jacket, and my backpack. I should have known better.

As soon as I arrived they didn't even hesitate. I have yet to learn the secret of countering the coercive attacks of Chinese people. If they can coerce me into singing a pop song in front of 50 elementary school kids, they can certainly get me to play basketball.

So I played. And as expected, a small crowd gathered to watch the "giant" American basketball player. There sure isn't a shortage of opportunities to practice humility here. They were quickly disappointed, and people slowly dispersed. But I had a fun time nonetheless.

After Andrew and I were drenched in sweat, we walked to the cafeteria. On the way he told me something that I translated as, "After we eat I want to give you a painting."

Did I mention that this guy is an art student? This guy is an art student. I taught him English when I was here two years ago, and we've since become good friends.

Naturally, I was excited, and I was wondering what the painting might be of. Mountains? Pandas? Flowers?

After we ate we walked to the art building and stopped by the art shop inside. Andrew bought an empty canvas then we went to one of the painting rooms. I figured he just needed to pick up a canvas for some other project. I didn't think twice about it. But when we arrived he showed me where to sit, and he started preparing his easel.

At this point I realized he was going to paint ME. Apparently the sentence "I want to give you a painting" and the sentence "I want to paint you" are very similar in Chinese.

So here I was in a sweaty, bright yellow Great Bend Recreation Commission t-shirt, my face covered in dried sweat, having not even looked in the mirror, and I'm suddenly modeling.

Most of the time the students paint live models -- most of which are nude elderly women. Nude models get paid 50 yuan (about $7) an hour. They almost never get the opportunity to paint foreigners -- especially Americans -- so Andrew viewed this as an honor just as much as I did. It's a win-win situation.

And just to clarify again, I was wearing clothes.

Andrew turned on some Whitney Houston, and I sat there for about two and half hours. You can do a lot of thinking by just sitting still for 2 and a half hours. I got a few breaks, and we talked a bit as well.

It was interesting watching him dip his brush in the different colors. I thought to myself, "Are you sure there is neon green somewhere on my face?" -- "Ummmm, I'm pretty sure I don't have any hot pink on me."

At one point he ran out of white paint. He grabbed a sack he brought along and took out a brand new tube of white paint. He said, "Since you're so white I knew I would need an extra tube." That's the kind of stuff jokes are made of. But I don't think he understood the humor.

The "final" result (click to enlarge):

I was blown away. I loved it!

In case you haven't thought about it before, it's almost impossible to smile while modeling for something like this -- unless you can hold a smile for 2 and a half hours.

But that's not the end of the story. Andrew said he wanted to do some finishing touches on my face, and he asked if I would come back the following day to model for a little while longer. Of course I agreed.

The next evening I walked over to meet him, and the first thing he said when he met me was, "You changed shirts."

My heart sank. I was wearing a black shirt. I didn't think twice about it because I figured it doesn't matter what kind of shirt I was wearing since he only needed to touch up my face. He kindly told me it wasn't a big deal, so I felt better.

But as I sat there modeling, I noticed him using an awful lot of black paint. Come to find out, the color of your shirt changes the color of your face because the light reflects off of it. So he had to actually change my shirt color in the painting, as well as my skin color. He showed me how the shadowed part of my skin changed from green to blue when I changed shirts.

So I ended up putting him through a lot of extra work. But he didn't complain at all. I felt really bad, but he said he still liked the painting.

Here is the FINAL result (click to enlarge):

It kind of reminds me of when a comic book hero turns evil and their costume turns black (i.e. Spiderman). If you compare the two, it's easy to get the impression that I underwent some terrible transformation overnight.

But if you just look at the second one alone, I still look like a fairly friendly guy.

He did a really cool thing with the shirt. After painting black over the yellow, he used a knife to sign it by scraping away the black to reveal the yellow underneath.

Next week he wants to paint my entire upper body. I've been thinking of fun poses to do that I can hold for 2 and a half hours, though he'll probably pick the pose in the end.

And this time we're planning my wardrobe.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Assuming everything goes according to plan, by the time I leave China I will have been here for 143 days. Yesterday was day 72. Since I just crossed the halfway point, I figured it would be good to do a little reflection of my time here so far and of the second half that lies ahead.

If you go back and read my very first post on this blog, you will feel a great sense of optimism and expectation as I look forward to the months ahead of me. Having never studied abroad before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I came here with many assumptions, most of which have been proven wrong.

Perhaps the largest of these is the assumption that being immersed in a language will result in a sort of magical, osmosis-like absorption of the language. In fact, I've heard many testimonies from others of that sort of thing happening. One of the students in my class who has already studied here for a semester said after a couple of months "something just clicked" and he was able to pick up the language rather easily.

Unfortunately, I have yet to experience anything like that. The journey so far has felt uphill almost constantly -- and not just uphill, but sometimes uphill in a massive blizzard with falling rocks and wild animals making creepy noises at night...then after 2 days of climbing you look down and see that you've only made it 10 feet up the mountain.

Today, in one of my classes we were talking about newspapers. Our teacher gave each of us part of the newspaper to do some role-playing. In the midst of this, my partner and I looked at the front page. After a few minutes he said, "I feel so stupid. I've studied here for a year, and I can't even read one sentence in the newspaper." I can't either.

It seems ridiculous that you could study a language while living in another country for a year and not be able to read a complete sentence in a newspaper, but that's the reality I am facing and many here are facing (though I've only been here for less than 3 months). In fact, a Canadian friend in another city has been studying Chinese in China for 3 years and is actually just now taking a "newspaper reading" class.

One would think after living for 3 years in a country solely studying the language you wouldn't need to take a class to learn how to read the newspaper. But so it is.

At times I get the feeling that there's a secret conspiracy here to make learning Chinese as difficult and confusing for foreigners as possible. Maybe everyone here has a list of all the words and phrases that our textbooks use, and they make it a point not to use any of them when speaking with foreigners or when writing any form of public communication.

The English equivalent:  Instead of saying, "It looks like it will rain today," you say, "According to my observations of the current condition of the atmosphere, I postulate that droplets of the substance inside a bottle of Aquafina will plummet to the earth's surface in massive quantities before this planet makes one complete rotation on its axis."

Of course I'm going a little over the top, but I did not expect it to be so difficult to communicate after two and a half months of living here and after two years of studying Chinese in the States. And the little I do know hasn't come from some sort of magical "enlightenment" that happened when I started living here. It has just come from plain hard work.

With that said, I have made progress. I'm higher on the mountain than when I started, and I'm making much more progress than I did in the States.

When I started taking classes here, I could barely understand my teachers because they only spoke in Chinese. But now I can mostly understand them. Even if my teachers and my textbooks are speaking at a very elementary level, at least I know what they are saying.

Another wrong assumption I came here with was that living on campus in China would be similar to living on campus in the States. It is so much more difficult to interact with Chinese people on campus than I expected. The international student dorms and buildings are piled together into one segregated area, as are the restaurants and stores that cater to them.

I think I would be making much more progress if I was allowed to live in a Chinese dorm. But as it is, no one speaks Chinese in the international student dorm. I have to go way out of my way to visit Chinese friends on campus. It's very, very easy to only speak and read English. Most things are translated and most people in this small area speak at least some English.

I also thought I would have plenty of free time to explore the city and hang out with Chinese friends. In reality, my time is quickly swallowed up by a variety of things -- mostly studying. This makes practicing speaking and listening especially difficult.

So, after 72 days here I have a much more sober view of things. It might seem that I have gone from 100% optimism to 100% pessimism, and at some point early on I probably did. But slowly I have been gaining some of that optimism back. Although the road ahead seems much longer, I have gained more of a desire to get to the "end."

It has been helpful to hear from others who are advanced in the language now but in the past have experienced the same kinds of things I'm experiencing.

I've also made some good friends, and I have really enjoyed the time I've gotten to spend with them.  I continue to love how interesting the culture is here, and I have yet to get bored walking down a random street during the day.

If I had the opportunity to go home right now, I wouldn't. I really do want to stay here and continue learning and challenging myself to interact with people. I imagine the next 71 days will be full of more hard work and slow progress -- but progress nonetheless.

Chinese is certainly a horse of a different color...possibly a dark blue. I knew it would be difficult, but I didn't expect it to be this difficult. And yet I'm writing small articles in Chinese! And having short conversations with people in Chinese! And reading my textbook in Chinese! And listening to my teacher teach completely in Chinese!

That is certainly encouraging, and I look forward to my last 71 days here -- that is until I come back.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #8: Lightning Round!

Since I've been a little sluggish with posts recently, I figured I owe you an extra-special one this time. So, instead of giving you one cultural conundrum I've decided to give you FIVE!



1. Buses get really full. I mean REALLY full. At full capacity you don't have to hold on to the bars because if the bus makes any sudden stops there is no room for you to move -- as if you're in a bus filled with packing peanuts.

I often laugh out loud when the bus stops at a bus stop and some people have to work their way from the middle of the bus to the door. As of yet I haven't seen anyone else laugh about this. I don't understand why. It's funny!

2. Tap water isn't safe to drink. It isn't treated and tested like it is in the States. Either you boil it or buy bottled water. Many people drink hot water or hot tea.

3. Most people use Kleenexes when they eat because the food makes their noses run. It's strange. Even when I'm not eating spicy food my nose almost always runs here. Either I'm subconsciously being convinced that I need to use Kleenexes because everyone else is, or there's something else in the food that causes it.

4. The toilets here are holes in the ground.

Unless you go to an airport or a really nice hotel, you have to use one of these "squatty potties." You simply squat and do your business. It's also good for building up those quads.

Thankfully, the international student dorm here has Western "sitting" toilets. But I'm fairly certain that as soon as you venture out of the dorm you won't find Western toilets within a 10-mile radius.

And don't ask me what the lavatory in a moving train is like. Let's just say you better make sure you're wearing some old shoes before going in.

5. You can't flush toilet paper down most toilets. Notice that trash can in the picture above?  You guessed it!

Unfortunately, the sewage system can't handle toilet paper in most places. Lots of bad things happen if you try to put toilet paper down the toilet.

And speaking of toilet paper, public restrooms don't give you any. You have to carry some with you wherever you go (or hope that you don't have to go). If you can swallow your pride, random strangers will probably loan you some if you really need it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Tractors, Bugles, and Warning "Signs"

I was going to write a post about the strange “prohibit" signs I've seen here. The illustrations on  many of them range from puzzling to frightening to humorous to "someone actually got paid to design this?"

However, recently I was forced to eat a piece of humble pie...or humble duck neck or whatever it's called in China (they don't have pie here).

First, look at one of the signs I came across:

This sign is right outside of the campus. I don't think I need to point out what's strange about it. What's even more interesting is that there are multiple signs around campus just showing the tractor. This is no isolated incident.

My first thought was "Is this really a tractor?" I've never seen a tractor in China, let alone on campus. Maybe that means the sign is working. Or maybe it's representative of something else. But what? General four-wheeled vehicles? "Work" vehicles? This sign falls into the perplexing/humorous category.

But as I was walking around on campus the other day, I saw something strange hidden behind a mess of trees and bushes. When I worked my way back there this is what I found:

No way! Impossible! I don't believe it! Can it be?!

Behold, a 100% genuine...tractor? I'm still not sure what it is, but it looks exactly like the image on the sign. Since I grew up in Kansas I've only seen tractors doing work on farms, but perhaps they use them in cities, too.

It's entirely possible that most of you are yelling at me through your computer telling me how ignorant I am. Maybe everyone else knows exactly what this is and what it does. In that case, I'm ready to eat another piece of humble duck neck. It doesn't taste that bad once you get used to it. 

This thing clearly hasn't been used in a long time.

It was covered with rust and spider webs, not to mention all of the critters that call this lovely place home.

The interior is top-of-the-line. It even includes a tin-can cup holder seamlessly welded next to the broken speedometer.

So what did I learn from this experience? I'm still trying to process it. I think I will withhold judgment -- at least for a longer period -- when I see seemingly ridiculous things here. There might just be something to them after all. I don't know everything...

...except this. I am sure that this sign is merely symbolic:

There is no way these people would actually try to ban bugles. No one plays bugles around here. That would be ridiculous. Surely this just means "no car horns."


Two weeks ago when I was walking back to my dorm I walked past two children walking, laughing, and...

...playing bugles. Not even trumpets. Two beat-up and tarnished bugles.

Maybe I should just stop making judgments and assumptions altogether.