As I watched Japan try to keep its World Cup run alive in a slow game against Paraguay, I passed the time by reflecting on my short trip to Tokyo last month.
I spent a lot of the trip on a bicycle. I didn’t want to deal much with the spaghetti bowl of subway lines that stop running before midnight. And I was excited to take advantage of the one thing that seemed reasonably priced in Japan after living in China—renting a bike costs just over a dollar a day. The bike turned out to be more convenient than simply cheap; some of the more distinctive features of Tokyo urban life became magnified from my vantage point atop its binocular lens wheels.
Compared to Changsha city life, Tokyo’s streets feel as well choreographed as a marching band’s halftime show, with cars, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians weaving in and out and around each other, from one formation to the next. This orderly scene rests on the conscientious and polite tendencies of the Japanese. Traffic laws are followed, of course. Vehicles drive fully within a particular lane. When a car comes down an alley and arrives at a larger street, it stops and takes the initiative to avoid any pedestrians or cars that might obstruct its intended path. In other words, there’s such a thing as right-of-way. Ok, let’s start talking about Japan instead of China.
Tokyo was just an easy place to ride a bike. On the streets, cars would calmly swerve around you without honking. On the sidewalks, where it is legal and actually more popular to ride, pedestrians make themselves easy to avoid. They notice the quick and quiet approach of an oncoming bicyclist. At the sound of your small handlebar bell (which they can hear because of the absence of the honks), they drift aside to open a path. It is not only the waitress refilling your tea as soon as you finish your cup or the guy behind the counter making eye contact with you as soon as you approach who are attentive and accommodating to the needs of others, but the average person on the street as well.
I was seriously overwhelmed by how polite and helpful Japanese people were to a random tourist like me. Tokyo is a huge city, and I had endless difficulties trying to find the restaurants and music clubs that Lonely Planet recommended. Lucky for me, every single person I asked for help went out of their way to guide me as well as they could. Phone calls were made to obtain directions, maps were printed out from the internet, and no fewer than five people actually escorted me to my destination. One older man walked up and down the block with me a couple times as he tried to remember where the unagi restaurant where I wanted to eat was located. Another time, at a national park two hours outside Tokyo, a woman actually ran me to the nearby bus stop so that I could catch the last bus down the mountain.
While riding home one night after midnight, I stopped to ask another bicyclist how to get to Asakusa, the part of town where I was staying (I had long since given up on trying to use a map to find my way home). He didn’t just point, he didn’t give me some brief directions (like many Tokyo residents, he spoke some English). He hopped on his bike and told me to follow him. A half hour later, after a few wrong turns, and then stopping at a mini-mart to ask the clerk for directions, I convinced my biking companion that I had a good idea of where I needed to go and that it wasn’t necessary for him to continue to go out of his way to escort me home. He agreed, and turned in the opposite direction to head back to his home.
Tokyo is a miraculously clean city. There are designated outdoor smoking areas, with a trash can ash tray at the center, and people actually follow the rules; you see very few smokers outside of the herds of cool, conscientious citizens in their sharp business suits huddled together in a cloud of smoke. Despite the abundance of residents and motorists, the city’s air feels clear and crisp, with only a light scent of metal and concrete (thank you China for giving me an appreciation of such a thing as a “nice” smelling city). But even the tourists that I met in Tokyo who had come straight from the U.S. were impressed by this spotless city. There’s almost no trash on the streets, no wrappers in the hedges and flowers along the sidewalks, not even discolorations on the sidewalk’s concrete from gum and spills. But the strangest thing is that there are just as few trash cans. I don’t know where all of Tokyo’s trash goes. I even had trouble at times contributing to the city’s ongoing cleanliness when I had a dirty napkin, or an empty bottle, and there wasn’t a trash can in sight. But then I realized that people must just pack away their trash until they come across the next trash can.
I realized that for Tokyo residents, it wasn’t just a short-term decision of either throwing your trash on the ground or looking to see if there happened to be a trash can close by. It was a long-term feeling of responsibility to keep the city clean. Similar to the overall conscientious attitude that made riding a bike around the city so comfortable. Similar to the air of politeness that hung throughout the city, providing many guides and helpers to a clueless tourist like me. These all seemed to contribute to the remarkably smooth operation of the city of Tokyo, as big and confusing it may be to an outsider.
I met Weiwei on the overnight train back from Beijing. A senior at Peking University, one of the best universities in China, he was taking advantage of a break in his school term to travel back to his family’s home in Guangxi province, south of Hunan. His young, humble face rested on a round head behind a pair of round glasses, and the bright, idealistic words came rolling off his tongue with remarkable English fluency. He came up to me as I was reading Murakami, and over the next five hours we talked about a little of everything: college, religion, economics, life. It was fascinating, and as I got off the train in Changsha feeling grateful for such an encounter, I recalled some of the other interesting people who have grazed my life during the last few months in Changsha.
There’s Lydia, the soft spoken electrical engineering student whom I met while wandering around at Hunan University. She seemed to be floating herself, with a faraway look in her eye, diligently studying English on her own while dreaming of being a “strong, independent woman like they are in America.” Then there’s Yang Chao, a funny mixture, who went to college in Shanghai, has a keen interest in ancient Chinese history, and now studies computer science at the vocational school in tiny rural Qingzhuhu. Finally, there’s Lianzi, whom Jenn and Arvin befriended earlier this year. She’s probably one of the poorest people I’ve ever gotten to know. She and her roommates take turns hauling drinking water to their apartment from about a half a mile away. She cried at her last birthday because her friends had pitched in to buy her a cake, and it was the first time she had ever had one. Still, she’s always wearing a smile as she goes through life in her characteristically clumsy and lively way, carelessly unconcerned with the limitations and obstacles that surround her.
…Here’s a part of the souvenir quilt that Weiwei and these folks have woven together for me…
Weiwei had to interrupt our conversation to take a phone call. With quick responses and no reciprocating questions, he wrapped up the call in a couple minutes. He explained that phone calls received or made outside of the province where you originally bought your cell phone are much more expensive. After I explained that this wasn’t how things worked in the US, he sighed, “It’s a monopoly, so they don’t have to worry about customer satisfaction.” He continued to explain, “There are only two telecommunications companies here in China, and they’re both owned by the government. The government has decided that telecommunications are essential to national security. If there is unrest somewhere, they can choke it off by simply shutting down phone service for the entire region. That’s what happened in Xinjiang province last year.”
Our conversation now turned to a slightly more positive side of the uniform and the highly regulated in China, the “gaokao.” This is the college entrance exam, which is the almost the sole criterion for acceptance into major Chinese universities. The test’s well-defined nature may encourage a narrowed and repetitive curriculum in secondary education, but it also seems to give kids from all backgrounds a fairly clear course to pursue to gain acceptance into a top university. Weiwei is from a poorer, more rural area; his mother gardens, and his dad is a driver. But he studied hard on his own, and even without many resources from his family or his school, he was able to get high enough scores on the gaokao to get into an excellent college. “I think the gaokao is a good system,” he told me, “it gives everyone a more equal chance to go to university. Oh, but the stress!” He shook his head. “The stress is unimaginable. When kids get into college, they always have a hard time adjusting to having free time. Many don’t use it well…I had a bad first year.”
Later we talked about another test, the GRE. Weiwei told me that, in considering his post-graduate plans, he hadn’t even applied to graduate schools in the U.S. because of this test. “You have to spend weeks and weeks studying vocabulary words that you will never use again.” That’s kind of true, I thought. The more difficult vocabulary on the GRE does occur in older literature and more formal writing, but it’s rarely necessary these days. Usually simpler words and context will do the trick. “But, Weiwei,” I decided to ask a loaded question, “Do you think the stuff you learned while studying for the gaokao was useful to you after passing the exam?” He did, maybe because it’s true, maybe because he really had no other choice when applying for his undergraduate studies.
I do know one thing, however. Some of the vocabulary words in the textbook that Lydia was using to study English on her own were definitely not useful. One of them was “hawser,” which apparently means “a heavy rope used for mooring or towing.” When I told her I didn’t know the word’s definition, but could make a guess based on the context of the sentence it was in, she ignored the second part of my statement and asked, “But how do you read stuff in English if you don’t know of all these words?”
Next, during the Chinese portion of our language-exchange hangout, she taught me a Chinese poem by the famous Li Bai. It was simple, a five-character quatrain, AABA, about streaks of moonlight falling across a bedroom floor that reminded the author of his hometown. I enjoyed watching Lydia write the characters, five carefully stacked piles; I enjoyed practicing my listening skills by copying down the poem in pinyin, the romanized form of Chinese, as she dictated it to me; I enjoyed reciting the poem to myself over and over again on the way home, looking at each character as I said it, imagining the picture painted by the poem. The language seems much more real and beautiful when studied in this holistic way.
That night, back in Qinzhuhu, Yang Chao was telling Jenn and I about Li Bai poetry. He was explaining his appreciation of ancient Chinese culture as he walked us to the school gates after dinner, in the hopes that we’d invite him inside to see our waiguoren apartment. Earlier at dinner he had meticulously related, line by line (Jenn had to translate for me) over the course of ten minutes, a myth about an Chinese general who, after crossing a river to attack an enemy, burnt all of his army’s boats to ash to motivate his troops. Later, as I tried to shepherd Yang out of our room, I asked him what he was going to do for the rest of the night. He said he’d probably just play his computer games like usual, and I could imagine him channeling that mythic general’s intensity as he waged computer battles on Warcraft or Counter Strike.
Lianzi also lives in Qingzhuhu. We haven’t had dinner with her for a couple months, but we ran into each other the other day while walking around town. Jenn and I told her what we had been up to, mostly traveling, and with the mention of each destination, she spluttered with amazement and jealousy at our mobility. It would only happen in flashes before her usual smile returned, but I could sense some understandable resentment. I don’t think she’s ever left the landlocked Hunan province.
On the other hand, Weiwei’s English name might as well be Mobility (believe me, I’ve heard stranger ones). From a provincial childhood in Guangxi to a prestigious education in Beijing, he is now moving to the U.K. this summer to start a master’s program in economics at Cambridge University. Weiwei’s soaring trajectory is an example of the best China has to offer the world.
Sitting here in a kind of dream, I try to line things up…
Chinese fog fills the spaces between the trees. I find myself surprisingly alone. This solitude awakens a greed in me, and I turn off the main walkway onto a trail that threads a quiet line across rows of green flames. I stop, looking down one of those rows, and imagine walking between those flames, over the purple speckled carpet, through the fresh scented air, from Beijing all the way back home to Changsha. Oh, the fantasies a serene park can elicit in me here in China!
A small rustle behind me dissolves the mist of my daydream. An older man had just passed by, almost imperceptibly, having stepped fully off of the path to avoid me. He now glides away down the path, carried by the feathered notes he hums to himself, with eyes closed and head slightly inclined, as if taking in all of the park’s beauty through his nose.
Being passed in China is not usually this pleasant, I think to myself. City fumes fill my nose as I find myself walking along Furong Lu, Changsha’s chief north-south artery. I am on my way to the bus stop, walking alongside the long island that sits between the main road and the parallel side road meant for parking and loading. A brutally loud honk tenses me for a second before a motorbike zips past, far closer to me than necessary, leaving a visible trail of exhaust for me to follow.
The honks continue, growing more abundant but muted, and I’m standing on the bus, floating and swaying on a sea of city noise. A tinny polyphony bursts from an anonymous pocket and bounces between the walls of the bus, piercing everything.
The melody mellows, the accompaniment fades, and the song begins to slow as it floats across a lake, under a bridge, through the leaves. From an unknown source, the delicate, hollow tones of a Chinese flute fill the park, fill my pores. For the first time, I feel like I’m in the China of stereotype, the China, perhaps, of the past. It’s wonderful.
The music changes again, the notes swell and thicken, and I am walking through a grove of trees towards a voice in flight. Her vibrato makes the branches shudder in ecstasy, and as I draw near, it grows to an enormous volume, despite being unamplified. Finally, coming around a tree, I see a middle aged woman standing alone, as straight and noble as the trees she is singing to.
Transported to our local Carrefour (a French supermarket prevalent in China), I walk past another solitary woman. She, however, is armed with a personal amplifier. With machine gun sentences, she creates a barrier to stop passing customers and draw their attention to the pile of detergent packages sitting beside her.
This steady flow of distorted, amplified Chinese reminds me of something, and suddenly I’m running for a train. Jenn and I had gotten confused about when we were supposed to board; Chinese train stations first direct you to a particular waiting area based on your train, and then, as the departure time nears, the signs change and you can start boarding the train. We had missed the sign change, and when it was nearly time for our train to leave, we finally asked a train official at the gate about our train. She took a look at our tickets, pulled out her megaphone, pointed it directly at our faces three feet away, and began shouting at us to hurry up and board the train. We were late, apparently. The train official’s shouts pushed us down the ramp toward the train like the spray of a hose pushes leaves and pebbles down a driveway (unless there’s a drought, of course…then you’d probably sweep).
And the thought of water on concrete returns me once more to the park, where a slow and steady man uses a big calligraphy brush and a bucket of water to write Chinese poetry on the walkway. Top to bottom, right to left, four lines with five characters each, he effortlessly traces out the poems in a perfect grid. The characters disappear as the water evaporates; currently, only two and a half poems are visible. I stand there and wonder how many poems the man had written out that day, poems that had touched a few people and then vanished forever into the air, just like the deep notes of the opera singer in the woods, and the light melodies of Chinese flute player by the lake.
During my trip to Beijing, in a couple of the city’s delightful parks, I took a dip in a stream of Chinese life that I had learned about, through pictures and books, but until now had not actually experienced. This stream seems to flow in almost the complete opposite direction of the stream that I’ve become most familiar with over these past few months: the busy, jarring, polluted stream of urban life. These two streams, one calm, the other frantic, one blue and green, the other brown and grey, speak of China’s transition from an agricultural to an industrial nation, from an aristocratic to a proletarian to a bourgeois society, from a crowded place to a really crowded place.
But these are not all clean, linear transitions; the creek has not simply flowed out of picturesque park and down the hill of history to surge past high rises and cut big industrial cities in half. I’ve now seen that these streams coexist in today’s China. Besides the few well manicured sanctuaries that I visited in Beijing, some glimpses of the “park” can still be found in Chinese city life: a delight in the simple, and a calm and resourceful appreciation for things bigger and more powerful than yourself.
I visited Hong Kong a couple weekends ago to renew my Chinese visa, and, like pretty much anyone who’s been there before, I was amazed by the startling contrasts contained in this city. Skyscrapers eagerly leap up from the water by the hundreds as if trying to imitate the steep green hills that surround the city. Weaving between these skyscrapers, elevated pedestrian walkways hover above streets filled with double-decker buses and streetcars. Public announcements are made in Cantonese, then Mandarin, then English.
These contrasts are not surprising considering how, over the past few hundred years, Hong Kong has developed amidst a seemingly constant swirl of converging forces. Before the arrival of the British, it was a small fishing village in a culturally independent region that received scattered attempts at control and integration from Beijing. Then began interactions among British traders, local merchants, and government officials that eventually disintegrated into exploitation and the Opium wars. There were the bombings, forced evacuation, and re-education by the invading Japanese during World War II. There were the lingering debates and riots between the fleeing Nationalists and the Communists after the Chinese Civil War. There was the capitalist explosion of the manufacturing and then financial industries, the anxiety and anticipation in the lead up to the 1997 handover from the British to the PRC, and now, “one country, two systems.”
As Deng Xiaoping’s motto, “one country, two systems,” indicates, Hong Kong exists with a kind of internal split, a split which seems to hint at the duality that all of China must deal with as it moves towards global integration as a one-party, highly regulated state. Anyways, here I’ll simply describe some pieces of Hong Kong’s fractured personality that I observed during my short stay.
Waking up late one morning, I decided to spend the day over on neighboring Lantau Island, home to the Tian Tan Buddha. Built in 1993, this statue is the “tallest seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world,” and so, as you can imagine, my hopes were high as a gondola carried me high up into the island’s green hills. A little too high, actually. After offering views of a pretty bay and the new international airport, our gondola’s three hundred sixty degrees of windows suddenly became afraid of heights and turned white, and opaque, as a sheet. We had entered a cloud, and floated motionless the rest of the way up to the village of Ngong Ping that sits just below the Tian Tan Buddha. Walking along the village’s ceramic-tiled walkways, past wooden facades and shops filled with shiny souvenir chopsticks and Buddha statues of all materials and statures, I felt like some gondola cables must have gotten crossed in the cloud on the way up, sending us off course to HK Disneyland (also on Lantau Island) instead of the Tian Tan Buddha. But then the clouds began to thin, and after turning a corner past a brightly painted mural for the “Walking with the Buddha” attraction, I saw the seated outline of the big Buddha atop a nearby hill.
After I emerged from the village, the now looming Tian Tan Buddha, combined with the smell of the surrounding trees and fluttering wisps of passing clouds, began to fill me with some of the awe and peace that I had expected to feel at such a site. These feelings soon crumbled, however, under the sharp grunts of jackhammers and bulldozers that were attempting to bring Ngong Ping ever closer to the big Buddha and the monastery. The monastery, by the way, was not difficult to find, thanks to a large crane that hung a steel support beam above the monastery like the star hung over Bethlehem. Trying to maintain a sense of the sacred amidst all this construction, the monastery used a system of speakers to amplify the monks’ chants, sending a distorted cloud of voices into the air to do battle with the clouds of construction noise up amongst nature’s clouds. I realized that here at Ngong Ping was a picture of Buddhism as Hong Kong, or China, sees it in the new millennium, a place where an important and ancient piece of cultural heritage is packaged for wealthy foreign and plentiful Chinese tourists. I left the monastery and climbed the two hundred something steps to the base of the big Buddha statue. It was a little too big, in fact, for the current weather conditions; it was headless, its crowning feature lost in the thick clouds that still hung over the valley.
Moving now from the outskirts of the SAR back to the city proper, let me say that Hong Kong is probably the cleanest city I’ve ever seen. This impression owes at least some of its assurance to its comparison with my current home city of Changsha, which is definitely the dirtiest city I’ve ever seen. But, comparisons aside, Hong Kong’s cleanliness is remarkable considering its center is one of the most densely populated places on Earth.
How do they manage the chaotic potential of such a crowded place? They employ trash collectors on the subways to sweep through trains with their claw grabber tools and pick up litter minutes after it’s dropped. They sanitize like there’s no tomorrow, surely a reaction to the SARS scare several years ago. Doors to convenience stores proudly proclaim that they are sanitized four times a day. The elevators to the China visa office are obviously on their best behavior and are sanitized even more frequently, every 30 minutes. Hand sanitizer dispensers litter the city (instead of trash, ahem, rubbish) so that your hands don’t have to feel left out of the bacteria killing spree. And finally, Hong Kong maintains order by refusing to let anyone lie down on a public bench. I found this out first hand as I tried in vain to recline first on a bench in a museum lobby (ok, not too surprised that didn’t work), then on a raised ledge along a fountain outside, and lastly on one of thirty or forty benches along the waterfront. Each time I was politely given a lesson in Hong Kong public etiquette.
Then you walk into the Chungking Mansion, where our hostel was located, and you realize that Hong Kong’s mighty arm of order does not extend as far as it may seem. The ground floor is a dimly lit and claustrophobic maze of metal inlets that house electronics, jewelry and food vendors by day. At night, filled with dark corners and unfriendly faces, the place feels even more oppressive. Just outside, old men keep long shelves full of porn, and pushy solicitors swarm passersby in an attempt to sell a room for the night, a watch, or a custom made suit. The only windows I found in the building look out on small vertical tunnels filled with pipes and mold. But apparently things used to be worse, before a couple of interventions and upgrades were made in the past ten to fifteen years. Like any rapidly developing city, Hong Kong has poorer, less developed sections that are isolated from city’s orderly glitz.
Our hostel may not have been in the prettiest building, but its location was excellent. We were close to the subway, the ferry, some museums, and one of the best views of Hong Kong’s skyline. Looking across the channel from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, the mixture of water, metal, glass, and hills is spectacular. When the hills’ accompany the sun into the darkness, their disappearance is more than offset by the chorus of lights sent skipping and glimmering across the water by the skyscrapers. The city feels similarly poetic about the scene, and has wisely decided to take advantage of it with a light show called the “Symphony of Light.” Music plays from speakers along the waterfront, and the lights of a few handfuls of buildings flash in time. It sounds wonderful in theory, but the show itself turned out to be a little anticlimactic. I realized after a few minutes that this was because the city’s advertisements had stolen the thunder, or lightning, to be more precise. Phillips, Samsung, ING, Hitachi…at least twenty or thirty enormous lighted signs fill the skyline and glow with an almost blinding intensity. The coordinated flashes of the buildings were a little muted in comparison, like when a rock is thrown into a lake on a rainy day and the ripples are dampened by the raindrops’ splashes. In Hong Kong, commercialism still has the upper hand on beauty.
So I became a teacher last weekend.
Actually, in China, waiguoren (foreigners) are apparently English teachers by definition. No qualifications necessary. Stand in front of a classroom full of bouncy, wide-eyed kids, start talking, and voila, you are teaching.
This realization followed mercifully hot on the heels of the revelation Saturday morning that I was supposed to teach five classes that day. Due to another example of the vague and haphazard way information likes to travel in China, this news came as quite a shock. First, Jenn, Arvin and I were told that we’d simply be traveling to a neighboring city on Saturday “to talk to some students.” Then, we found out that we might stay there overnight. In reality we ended up teaching ten or eleven classes each over the course of the weekend, and are now encouraged to return for two additional weekends of teaching.
The discovery that little was expected of me as a teacher quickly eased my initial panic. What made the whole experience first bearable, and then fun, was that I didn’t take it very seriously. As a result, I didn’t worry much about kids yelling or not paying attention, about lulls in the flow of the class when I wouldn’t know what to talk about next, or about confused silences in response to my questions that were too difficult or too quickly spoken or pronounced with too little of a Chinese accent. Being a waiguoren gave me a flashy set of armor, protecting me from any possible critique of my teaching and dazzling everyone at the school with foreign glints. I realized that I could say anything I wanted, and the kids would still be distractedly interested, the teachers pleased. This special status, along with the small class sizes and fairly well behaved students, made this introduction to teaching pretty easy.
Not to mention that we were paid handsomely (100 kuai per class) and treated like royalty throughout the weekend by the school’s director, who stuffed us with delicious (and meaty!…meat is disproportionately expensive here) Hunan cuisine and put us up in a nice hotel.
The students certainly kept things entertaining. I probably spent the majority of my class time playing this drawing game, in which one kid from each team comes up to the chalkboard and races to draw the sentence that I say aloud, sentences like “the monkey climbs the tree,” “the boy eats the apple” or “the dragon flies through the clouds.” Some of the drawings were clever and artistic, and some were quite abstract, with key portions like eyes, tails, or legs forgotten in the rush. Some were just funny: we had King Kong-like monkeys dominating the trees they were climbing; boys were drawn with the key anatomical feature included, just to make sure I knew it was a drawing of a boy; and then there was the dragon, who looked like the long, worm-like dragons in Chinese parades, flying through the clouds with many legs, but no wings. In some of the more timid classes, volunteers for the drawing game were difficult to find. A group of boys in one class grew impatient and started volunteering, picking up forcibly, and delivering to the front of the classroom each member of their group in turn.
There was also the kid who, in the midst of the “oooohhs” and giggles I got for taking off my jacket to reveal my sweater in the middle of class (really?), dramatically pulled off his jacket, twirled it around his head a few times, and then tossed it across the room like an especially energetic stripper. And, finally, I was mobbed after a few of my classes by students trying to get my autograph. It doesn’t get more celebrity than that. Only they didn’t make it feel quite so glamorous when they jammed their workbook and a pen in front of my face and shouted, “What’s your name?”
As you can see, my life as a waiguoren-celebrity in China is full of surprises and kind of scarily out of my control. But I guess the best things in life usually are…
The other day I was introduced to one of the benefits of my celebrity-as-waiguoren status. In the book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler writes that whenever he felt like talking to someone new, he’d simply sit down outside in a busy area with a book and wait for someone to approach him to say hello. Two Wednesdays ago I was feeling a little antsy, so I decided to give Hessler’s method a shot, and made my way into the city armed only with my Chinese textbook. Within a span of about six hours, I had met seven new people and gotten their phone numbers.
The only initiating I did all day was to ask a guy on the bus how to get to Hunan University. Next thing I know, he and his friend, who turned out to be mechanical engineering masters students, were showing me around their car crash testing facility and introducing me to their six office mates. I sat in their office for about a half hour, holding the rapt audience’s attention with fascinating topics like: why I am in China, how I feel about Chinese food, what California is like, and whether I like basketball. For the rest of the day, I simply sat outside on campus studying Chinese on my own, and one student after another came up to me to chat. One, after a few introductory questions, got right to the point, “Can I be you friend?” It’s that easy in China. A young business man that I had met earlier that afternoon offered to be my Chinese teacher, and then, in a flurry of texts later that day, offered to take Jenn and me around the city that weekend.
There was something about these oddly easy interactions that I really enjoyed. I’m naturally a very open person, quick to talk about my life and thoughts with a new acquaintance and eager to hear all about his, but my introversion and the average American’s thick personal bubble often precludes such conversations in the U.S. But these Changsha residents who I got to meet were so shamelessly friendly, at least to waiguoren, that I was able to have several warm exchanges with complete strangers in a single afternoon without any of the usual awkwardness. But language differences gave these interactions their own set of constraints.
These constraints were especially clear to me the following weekend when I ate lunch with Obanu, one of the college students I’d met on Wednesday. His name is a play on words. As has been done for most famous foreigners, President Obama’s name has been transliterated into Chinese characters. The last syllable, ma, pronounced with the dipping third tone, means “horse” in Chinese. This college student decided to create his English name from Obama’s by substituting one bulky farm animal for another. Niu means “cow” in Chinese, and therefore, after dropping the “i” for some reason, we arrive at O-ba-nu. He and I ate at a small restaurant near Hunan U and chatted about the usual, our families, China, his studies, and celebrities, mostly in English because his English is much better than my Chinese. It was an amusing and tasty hour, but I remember feeling a little disappointed after we parted. Our respective language skills have little overlap, so we were only able to communicate about these topics in a quick and superficial way, and these types of conversations don’t excite me much. That being said, however, there was still a heartiness to our meeting that was not communicated by words but by actions, by simply making an effort to get together, by eating together, by spending an hour together trying to communicate, even if it was difficult. And last Friday, when Jenn and I played a two hour music set at an expat coffeehouse, Obanu actually found his way there and bought the minimum 15 kuai worth of food (no small sum for a college student) to watch us perform.
Living as a celebrity here in China may not facilitate deep exchanges, but it at least opens many doors, to interactions tart and ripe.
As I’ve mentioned before, living in China with a distinctly non-Chinese look has a certain feel to it that I’m still getting used to. Since I’ve never followed any celebrities and hence don’t know much about these things, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little grandiose in calling my current situation “celebrity living”…China style, I guess.
I’m not special in this respect. Every waiguoren (this is what people in China call non-Chinese people; it means “outside-country-person”) is an attention magnet here. Chinese kids study English in school everyday from a young age but probably see more waiguoren on advertisement posters than in real life, so this hype is understandable. Understandable, that is, until it is directed at you, until the stares and the calls begin swirling around you. This mystifying status I have in China has now gotten to a point where it is about as annoying as it is amusing. It’s getting a little old.
A final bit of clarification. This attention comes mostly from youngsters, mid-twenties and down. And it is much more noticeable in rural areas, such as Fenghuang and Dehang, two beautiful towns in western Hunan that I visited a week and a half ago. My interactions there are what pushed this topic to the top of my mind. And so, without further ado, a glimpse into celebrity-dom:
I’m walking down the street, and shouts of “hello!” sporadically erupt around me like kernels of corn beginning to pop in the microwave. Sometimes the “hello” has a friendly and hopeful ring. I turn toward the sound and see a whole group of kids eagerly looking my way. My approaching gaze scatters their eyes, however, and I’m left sharing a glance with only their fearless leader, the one who yelled “hello.” He unveils a goofily ecstatic smile and waves to me. I wave back, and the group implodes noisily, seeking no more response from me as they celebrate their successful contact with a waiguoren.
Sometimes the “hello” is harsher and more abrupt, with a tone that bears a strange resemblance to a parent disciplining a small child. This time, when I turn to look, the yeller does not identify himself. The guys in this group have hardly any expression on their faces, as if their skin were heavy and difficult to move. With smirks of varying curvature, they stare at me out of the corners of their eyes. I can tell that something more is at stake here, that whoever yelled wanted to gain some social capital, either as props from their friends or respect from me. I can understand this motivation, and so it is with a trace of sympathy that I look back at them with an annoyed and equally challenging stare.
I inspire much more fear in the Chinese girls. Sometimes, as I’m walking along, I hear a sudden muffled squeal and scurrying steps. Wide eyes and covered mouths fill the group of girls that I just passed, and murmurs of “waiguoren!” float after me as I continue on my way. I feel a little like an escaped zoo animal.
Or sometimes, a pair of girls is walking towards me, going the opposite direction on the same path as I’m taking. As they approach, I keep detecting furtive flashes from their eyes as they try to take a look at me without making eye contact. Finally, as we’re about to pass each other, one girl’s face will brighten as a squeaky “hello!” bursts from her smiling lips. Her friend will immediately pull her away, as if she were suddenly in grave danger, spank her like a naughty child, and the two of them will bounce away giggling.
Sometimes, all this attention can get a little awkward, like when it comes in a public restroom. I was using one of the urinal troughs that are pretty common here in Changsha, and I felt someone’s gaze from my right. I looked in that direction, but upon reaching the face of the man standing next to me along the trough, my eyes did not meet his. His were instead focused on the lower half of my body. It was one of those un-self-conscious Chinese stares, and he didn’t even seem to notice that I’d caught him in such an embarrassing act. I started to feel a little like I was at the doctor’s office getting a routine check up. Maybe next time I’ll see how they like it if I stare at their nether-regions. But I don’t know if the benefits would outweigh the cost on that one.
A face, a look, cold and empty and hard, a flash.
A glint, a glimpse into another world, a dirtier and holier world, a fall.
A sinking feeling, blue and dark, and warm.
He’s stooped over, an orange pyramid against the cloudy grey of the city. Pyramid becomes tower, and back again, as he shovels a puddle of water with his dustpan. His straw broom, weapon of choice for the army of late middle-aged Changsha residents that battles the dirt of the city’s streets everyday, sits leaning against a pole, useless in the rain.
A man with spiked hair stops and gets Shoveler’s attention with a short, percussive burst. He asks for directions. Shoveler abruptly cuts the power to the water displacement machine, and slowly turns. As he looks up to address Spikey, he unveils an expression that stops everything.
Shoveler’s worn facial features are limp and blank, exposing his innards. He seems a bit thrown off by the efficiency of Spikey’s question, and from beneath this surface of confusion emerge a numbness and a fight that have probably hardened deep down within him over the course his life. Numbness…numbly enduring all the hardships life has given him, the lack of opportunities, the bad luck, a dirty life in a dirty city. What other response would work? Fight…fighting for every yuan, fighting for the food, clothing, and shelter to make life livable, fighting Changsha’s constantly regenerating trash and pollution, fighting for his peace of mind and dignity in the midst of these other fights. In an instant, all this flashes across Shoveler’s face, broadcasted by his deep eyes, published by his straight mouth.
And then it’s gone, the comet passes, this window to another world shatters. The Shoveler vaguely gestures down the street and mutters a quick response. Spikey walks away with a typical indifference and lack of closure. The day continues.
I witnessed this scene last week during a rainy day in the city, and I found it heartbreaking. Now I know I read quite a bit into this situation, which passed without my involvement in 20 seconds or so. On top of that, I’ve been in China for barely more than a month and have had little exposure to Changsha street life. So the paragraphs above probably say as much about me as they do about the interaction between Shoveler and Spikey. (But I guess this is always a problem with observations.) So here’s some of what came into the observation from my side.
The general standard of life here in Changsha feels pretty low to me. Many people, and almost all college students, don’t have washing machines or hot running water for showers in their apartments. Many have never left Hunan province, have never eaten at a Western restaurant because it’s too expensive, and, in fact, rarely eat meat at all because it’s expensive compared to tofu, vegetables, noodles, and rice. Then there’s the dirt, the crowds, the weather.
But who really have it tough are the laborers, almost exclusively middle-aged or beyond, who fill the city and empty it of unwanted debris. Darkened from dirt and sun, wrinkled from strain and worry, they go about their work with measured, creaky steps. I mostly see them sweeping the streets in bright orange uniforms, but they also haul loads to and fro, in hand pulled carts or huge bags perched on their backs. Because of what they probably had to endure during the Great Leap Forward in the 1950’s and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, Chinese people of this age easily evoke both pity and awe in me. Seeing them do dirty, physical labor is especially moving.
This is what was swimming around in my mind when I saw Shoveler’s face summarizing the experience of these laborers. His sad, lost gaze made my insides slump in pathetic sympathy. My pity was soon curbed, however, by the deeper spark of independence that showed in the Shoveler’s face, and I realized that he actually has something that I don’t, something that I hardly even understand.
I am currently living in QingZhuHu, a place that would be pleased to find me calling it a tiny suburb of Changsha. To say it’s a suburb is kind of generous, since the bus out of the city, traveling along the wide, median-ed road that I have no problem calling suburban, passes through a couple miles of mostly undeveloped hills and farms before arriving at humble QingZhuHu. The name QingZhuHu means “green bamboo lake,” and all of those components are here individually, if not all together like the translation implies; there’s a green, tree covered hill across one of the large streets, there are bamboo trees of questionable vitality around town, and there is an artificial lake across the other large street. I think the city planners hope that QingZhuHu will eventually find a place in Changsha’s expanding urban sprawl; I’m now trying to find a place for myself in QingZhuHu’s adolescent embrace.
Living with Jenn and Arvin has made this pretty easy so far. They know their way around town, Arvin and I can sympathize about the difficulties of learning Chinese, and the three of us have even come up with a Chinese pop routine (Arvin sings, Jenn dances, and I play guitar for our version of Jolin’s “Shuo Ai Ni”). The apartment is small but comfortable; there’s plenty of room for me and my stuff, Jenn’s room is heated (her bathroom, significantly, is not), and there is even a free washing machine. Other teachers at the school have to hand wash their clothes in their dormitories. We live 50 yards away from the school cafeteria, which serves three substantial, fresh meals a day. When we can’t make it to meals at the cafeteria, we’ll walk into town and eat at a hand-pulled noodle place that’s delicious and cheap. Fruit, yogurt, and snacks from the grocery store give me a nice break from the oily Chinese food.
I spend my time studying Chinese, playing guitar, reading, writing, and performing various homemaker duties – washing dishes and clothes, cleaning up the room, helping Jenn pack up when she’s running late for class. I’ve also been going for jogs around town, trying to stay warm, and trying to avoid the small crop of unfriendly, unleashed dogs that still scare me a little. My favorite jogging destination is the nearby, forested hill, which barely lives up to its grand name (TaiYangShan, or Sun Mountain) on the rare sunny, clear-ish day when it offers a great view of the river, the surrounding hills, and parts of the Changsha skyline. On these pleasant days I also like to hang out in town and read or study, in the hopes of coming across people to speak with in Chinese. Last week this was successful, and I got to meet an older couple in their seventies whose grandson is going to the school in QingZhuHu. They were friendly, and very patiently tried to tell me many things that I didn’t understand in Chinese. One thing they did get across was that I was invited to join them for a meal in their home someday; unfortunately, I don’t know what day that is or how to find out. Maybe I’ll run into them again when Jenn’s with me to translate.
One of the most exciting nights we’ve had in QingZhuHu so far took place primarily in Jenn’s tiny kitchen. It was her birthday, and she had eaten Mexican food only twice in the past eight months, so I’m sure you can guess what the night required. Well, I thought cooking in the U.S. is difficult. Cooking in an undersupplied kitchen that has only freezing cold running water, washing dishes in the bathtub, hauling ingredients back in from the city on the hour long bus ride, trying to make tortillas by hand without the proper tools, is VERY difficult. The meal was finally ready once Lian Zi, our Chinese friend who had never eaten Mexican food before, had finished frying Jenn’s hand-rolled corn pancake-tortillas in peanut-y sesame oil in a wok using chopsticks. But we managed, and somehow it ended up being a very tasty fiesta.
Living an hour outside the city has given me a chance to see the strange combination of activity and emptiness that has come with Changsha’s growth. While riding the gypsy bus out to QingZhuHu, leaving the city behind, we’ll suddenly come to a random oasis of development, a cluster of a few high rise apartment buildings, surrounded on all sides by hardly anything at all. The school where Jenn and Arvin teach is a large, clean, fortress of a facility, still expanding into the empty land it has sectioned off. The town of QingZhuHu is barely bigger than the school. Around the town and school there’s not much else: some dirt roads with corrugated metal shacks alongside, farms, a pig pen, empty patches of land, waiting to be built on, collecting piles of trash, a huge building with a vocational school and some offices and who knows what else. And then, of course, there’s “Lakeshore, California.” It’s QingZhuHu’s very own slice of Orange County, a half finished condo complex, full of cookie cutter, Spanish style homes, surrounding the town’s artificial lake, which is lined with manicured lawns, trees, and walking paths. I must admit I find a guilty pleasure in walking around the familiarly pretty lake to escape the concrete, the litter, and the stares of QingZhuHu. For the picturesque grounds of this luxury complex are always almost completely deserted.
I am lucky to have already experienced quite a bit of Chinese hospitality. Two weeks ago, hardworking Lian Zi and her roommates took advantage of a rare afternoon off (the power had gone out at their work) by inviting us over for a dinner full of treats from their hometowns. Crystal, the WorldTeach liaison in QingZhuHu, has already invited me, along with Jenn and Arvin, to come eat a meal at her family’s house.
The most surprising and touching displays of kindness came last Sunday during my first attempt at getting into the city without Jenn. In the course of trying to determine where to wait to catch the bus into the city, I began talking to this friendly nineteen year old student. We sat together on the bus, successfully communicating about Obama, Michael Jackson, and my appreciation of Chinese food, failing to communicate about other subjects. I was on my way to Changsha’s Number One Middle School to meet people for frisbee, and I decided to harmlessly double check my directions by asking my new friend if he knew where the school was, and which bus stop I needed to get off at. Next thing I knew, most of the bus was involved in helping me find my destination; my friend had asked everyone in adjacent seats and rows, had gone to the front of the bus to look at the map, had even asked the bus driver. Finally, the woman sitting next to me pulled out her phone and called her friend to ask about the location of the school!
In the end I wasn’t even sure what they had concluded; I think my student friend told me to just get off the bus in the general area and ask someone on the street. Fortunately, I already had a pretty good idea of where I needed to go; and even more fortunately, a nice woman getting off the bus with me offered to take me to the middle school herself. Doing as thorough and unselfish a job in helping me as the student on the bus, she took a detour to walk every step of the way with me to my destination, right up to the school’s entrance gate.