Posted by: andrewcockerham | February 15, 2011

February 6, 2011 Shanghai, China 1:45 pm

February 6, 2011 Shanghai, China 1:45 pm


Where am I? Where am I going?

Home and Weddings

I know its been forever.  So much has happened. I’ll start with the recent stuff as its more fresh.

The past few months have been sort of a whirlwind, in particular this past month.  From January 11 to February 15, I will not sleep in one city for more than 3 days in a row.  I won’t bore you with the crazy itinerary details, but this is a list of my destinations: Hangzhou; Sugar Land; College Station; Sugar Land; Charleston, South Carolina; Sugar Land; New York; Dubai; Shanghai; Hangzhou; Shanghai; Hong Kong; Shanghai.  Whew.  It began with the annual marathon migration home.  From my door in Hangzhou to my door in Sugar Land, its over 40 hours real time.  At the moment I’m still living as a homeless nomad.  To be honest I’m fond of traveling, and I kind of like it.  The only difficult thing is laundry.  But traveling and living overseas has freed me from the American standard of only wearing a pair of clothes one time before washing.  With deodorant and cologne, one can get many more days out of a pair of clothes.

This past year, I didn’t make it home for Christmas.  It was my first Christmas outside of the US, and to be honest, it was fine.  Our school was generous enough to provide for us the buffet Christmas dinner at the Shangri-La hotel in Hangzhou.  It was quite good, and I stuffed myself to capacity, making sure to take full advantage of the chocolate fountain.  New Year’s was also my first outside America, and I can tell you it’s about the same here as at home.  People either do nothing, or just go out to a bar for drinks.  I came home early.

I finished my time at EF Hangzhou and headed back to Texas in January.  My year in Hangzhou was wonderful in most ways.  I made some awesome friends that I really cherish, and Hangzhou is definitely my favorite city in China.  But in some ways I’m happy to move on, career wise.

Where am I? Where am I going?

The last few months I’ve been through quite a journey, at least in searching and decision making regarding my current and future career path.  I came to a point where I felt like I had done as much as I really can in English teaching, and was ready to move on to something else.  I felt if I stayed teaching another year, I would just be stagnant, and not progressing.  That is never a good place to be.  But I wasn’t ready yet to leave China.  So I began searching in earnest for a Biomedical Engineering related job in China. After exhausting all known avenues, I realized that there really are no entry level engineering positions for foreigners in China.  So I had resigned myself to teach one more year, and then try to enter graduate school.  I had found a better teaching job – read much more money – and had already taken it.  Right about this time, I heard that the product development department of my company, English First, was looking at making mobile phone applications for learning English.  Now this was interesting to me because I have been teaching myself how to program for the Android operating system for the past year or so.  Anyway, I just contacted the corporate office of English First, to see what kind of stuff they were doing.  Next thing I know, they offered me a job as Project Manager of Mobile Product Development.  I’m quite excited.  In one sense it’s not what I was looking for – it’s not a Biomedical Engineering job.  But in another sense, it’s a perfect opportunity for me.  I get to combine my technical background with teaching English, I get to stay in China, and I get to ‘move up in the world’ to an expat job that is not teaching.  So next week I will move to Shanghai and begin my new job.  As to long term…who knows?  I’m happy where I am.

Home and Weddings

Home, as always, is good.  Got to spend some good, albeit short, time with my parents, and family.  Got to reconnect with quite a few friends.  Attended a good friend’s wedding, and got invitations to half a dozen more that I’ll miss.  Living overseas and traveling teaches you many things; one is that food, culture, language, buildings, jobs, etc all change a lot depending on your location, but its people that are important.  I feel blessed to know so many great people in many places. I really enjoyed reconnecting with many of those people in the US.

February 15, 2011 – Hong Kong 1:27pm

Small (Big) World

Maybe I should start blogging in small mini installments.  Here’s a quick rundown of the past 3 days in HK.

I always love going to Hong Kong.  It’s a place of amazing juxtaposition of East and West, obscenely rich and dirt poor, young and old, businessmen and tourists.  Its also incredibly beautiful, I love the view of the harbor skyline.  And rooftop restaurants and bars are always breathtaking.  I’ve realized I have a fascination with cities on the water: Austin, Hong Kong, Hangzhou, Venice, Barcelona, etc.  I love the water.  Taking the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor is one of my favorite things.  Night or day, it provides a quite, reflective and peaceful retreat from the crowds of Hong Kong.

I’d done most of the tourist things here already, and the remaining ones aren’t suitable for the business clothes I had packed in one small bag and the rainy weather while I’ve been here.  So I just took it as a chance to wander and relax in one of my favorite places.  My first day, upon recommendation from one of my favorite books 1000 Things To Do Before You Die (by Patricia Schultz), and friends of my mom’s from Hong Kong, I went to have ‘afternoon tea’ at the Intercontinental Hotel on Victoria Harbor.  (if you want to drool) My ‘afternoon tea’ turned into coffee, but that only added to the experience.  In fact, the coffee was superb, as it should be for ~$26 USD for a cup and a piece of cake.  But the view rivals anywhere in the world. (see picture)  To sleep in a room with that view will cost you over $1,500 USD per night. So I felt my $26 coffee was a good compromise.  The Intercontinental Hotel is considered by many to be one of the premier hotels in the whole world.  The location itself must be some of the most expensive real estate in the world; it literally juts out into Victoria Harbor.  You even have to pay $10 to use the WiFi….for 3 hours.

Needless to say, I was leaning back in my chair, my tongue tickled by sipping on my coffee and my eyes tingling with a stunning view, enjoying my life.  I would be lying if I didn’t say it was a bit bittersweet being in such a romantic place alone, but I didn’t let that spoil the experience.  In any case, I soon got into a conversation with an American couple next to me who invited me to join them for drinks (their treat).  As we chatted, I learned that she was starting a company making towels and bed sheets from bamboo (no, I didn’t know you could do that either), and he was a professional poker player.  So it made for some interesting stories, and an enjoyable night.

Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, I took care of some visa stuff and just relaxed before meeting a friend of mine for dinner.  He was the best looking Valentine’s date I’ve had in a while. J We had a lot in common since I taught English with him in Hangzhou, and now we are in Shanghai and Hong Kong respectively, upgraded to ‘expat’ status.

Strolling through Asian markets is also a favorite pastime of mine.  As rich and sophisticated as Hong Kong is, the markets are still as raw as they have ever been.  Whole pigs slaughtered and split open right on the ground, with every (yes every) piece of them for sale.  See if you can identify all those organs just hanging there. (see picture) Also, all kinds of sea creatures, half of which I had never seen before. (see picture) Any ideas what those are?

The only other thing of interest so far is that as I was standing in line to check out this morning, I heard someone very hesitantly call my name.  I turned around, and there was one of my adult students from Tianjin. The world is even small all the way over here in Hong Kong!  What are the odds that I run into an old student of mine from Tianjin, in Hong Kong, at the same hotel, checking out at the same time?  Crazy, but that’s what makes traveling addicting.

Anyway, my month as a homeless nomad is coming to an end.   Eight cities and over 28,000 miles (longer than the circumference of the earth) in one month. Whew, the whirlwind is over.  I now have a nice apartment in Shanghai, and my first day at my first ‘real job’ is Thursday.  I’m looking forward to it.  Keep ya posted.

Posted by: andrewcockerham | October 5, 2010

October 5, 2010 Hangzhou 3:20pm

Perks of Being Foreign

Random Stories

Addicting Rice

More Funny Toilets

Many of you have asked me surreptitiously if I’m still blogging.  I know I’m terribly slow at it, but here is an update.  I do keep small notes to myself of stuff to remember to write about, but it takes awhile before I sit down and put it all into (hopefully) coherent stories.

Perks of Being Foreign

It doesn’t take long being in China to realize that here I am foreign.  I don’t just mean that I look different than everyone else, or speak different, but the entire culture looks upon me and others ‘like me’ as foreigners, outsiders, people who are special and different than ‘locals’.  Since I live here and speak a bit of the language, I like to imagine myself as somewhat of a local, however the people here will never see me as such, no matter how good my Chinese gets.  But here it’s much different than race relations back home.  Here it’s sort of a reverse racism, or a racism against their own race.  What I mean is, instead of being looked down upon as inferior because I’m different, foreigners here are seen as exotic, interesting, rich, and to be given respect and in many cases ill concealed awe.  Any foreigner (whenever I use the term ‘foreigner’ here I refer to someone who is not Chinese) who has even visited China for more than a day or two can probably tell you stories about people staring at them or trying to get their picture taken with them.  Sometimes people will just simply stop and ask in broken English or in Chinese, or just with awkward gestures “Can we take a picture with you?”  But other times they are more subtle.  Countless times I have been sitting in a restaurant or walking down the street and see someone whisper to their friend, “go stand over in front of the foreigner so they will be in the background”, and then they will nonchalantly walk over and stand a few feet away from me and pretend to take a picture of their friend, but their whole intent was to get a picture of the foreigner in the background, but they were to shy or scared to ask.  Here are a few anecdotes of the less subtle ones.

When my Dad came to visit a few months ago, we were walking through some gardens in Shanghai and came across one of those tourist places that are fairly common here where you can put on traditional Chinese clothes and get your picture taken. My Dad and I figured it would be a fun memory, so we went for it.  As we walked out to pose for our picture, slowly a crowd began to gather of Chinese people taking our picture.  We asked someone to help take a picture for us, and we walked away and struck a pose.  Then the crowd starting rushing up and standing next to us so they could get a picture with these foreigners wearing clothes of the ancient Chinese emperors.  Before long, (less than 5 min) there was a crowd of probably 20 or more people watching and taking pictures, and endless stream of ‘me too’ people coming to stand next to us to pose for their picture. We began to feel a bit trapped and literally had to pull ourselves away and half run back to the changing room to avoid being trapped there all day.  Naturally the thought crossed our mind that if we had charged 5 RMB a pop, we could have paid for the picture fee several times over in that 5 min.

One day I went running with one of my Chinese friends near the West Lake, which is a big tourist spot here in Hangzhou.  This causes even more stares as not only am I a foreigner, but I’m running, which is quite rare here, and wearing less clothes than most people (I find Chinese people usually wear much more clothes than I am comfortable in to assuage their deathly fear of being the slightest bit cold, more on that another time), and I was running with a cute Chinese girl.  We heard several comments and received several quizzical looks and snickers, but among the countless ‘hellos’ in both languages, there were a few other comments that stood out.  One young student (high school age) said in English “Wow you are so cool!”  But my favorite was one comment that my Chinese running partner translated for me.  Apparently someone turned to their friend and exclaimed, “Wow that tour guide has to run with her clients? She must get so tired!”  Because of course if there is a foreigner with a Chinese person, the foreigner must certainly be a tourist and that Chinese person must be a tour guide. (that’s sarcasm in case you didn’t catch it)  But I got quite tickled by that comment.

This past week was a 5 day holiday for Chinese National Day.  An English guy, two Chinese friends and I went to one of their hometowns, a place called ZhouShan. (舟山)  We were waiting in line to go see a really famous temple on Pu Tuo Shan 普陀山。 Now waiting in line is an experience in itself in China that I will save for another time, but this time I got a wonderful glimpse into Chinese culture.  First of all, when the police who were there to keep the people in line in order (yes that is necessary here), saw there were two foreigners in line (we were the only ones there), then came up and let us through because we are foreigners.  Then, my Chinese friend translated what the policeman had said to some of the other people in line who were a little bit pushy.  He said, (and I paraphrase) “Look, there are foreigners here who are watching.  Behave yourself in a mature manner and wait in line appropriately so as not to give a bad impression of our country to these outsiders.”  Here was the policeman trying to tell people to shape up to look less chaotic or whatever to some random foreign tourists. (we were tourists that weekend.  Actually, no matter how long I live here, I’m still partly a tourist) Fascinating!  I wonder how much of that idea or public service announcements are other places that I miss because of the language.

Along a different note about being a foreigner, at our school I’ve slowly come to realize that there is quite a double standard for foreign teachers and local staff.  I was astounded to find out things like fines of 100 RMB for being late to a meeting, 20 RMB for printing something onto paper that has not already had one side printed on, and a limited ability to take holidays.  Now they sign contracts too, so I assume that all of that is in their contract, but still seems a bit childish to me.  Also, apparently they can’t just quit their job whenever they want.  I heard of someone who wanted to quit, but couldn’t because the boss wouldn’t let her. It seems as though an employee needs some sort of release or recommendation of some sort to get a new job, so if you leave your other job without the consent of your previous boss, you might find it nearly impossible to get a new job.  Crazy stuff. I also learned that before, the mandatory contract between employees and companies was five years. The Communist Party recently shortened it to three years to try to assuage some of the complaints by employees who wanted to leave a company before their contract was up but couldn’t.  Apparently this contract thing supposedly works both ways, and is in place to protect workers from unjust dismissal.  It’s amazing how many more details about the intricacies of Chinese society that you learn when you have Chinese friends.

Random Stories

A while back I went to KTV with a large group of people from work.  We had a large contingent of foreigners, and so decided to spice up the monotony of singing along to one-song-sounds-like-them-all Chinese pop songs blaring at full volume in a closed room for hours.  We walked down to the convenience store and bought some plastic cups and began a ‘flip cup’ tournament in the KTV room.  We even managed to get a few of the locals to play with us.  It was one of those priceless mixtures of Western and Chinese culture.  While it seems as though Flip Cup is of primarily American origin, it has spread a bit to the other English speaking countries.  So naturally of course, we had a team competition of  “America vs. The World”.  You’ll be pleased to note that us Americans represented well, and the competition wasn’t even close.  A side note on Chinese logic:  When trying to set up our Flip Cup tournament, we tried to pull the tables inside our KTV room together.  However they were of course bolted to the floor, one inch apart. Not far enough apart to even walk in between or make the space useful for anything other than spilling drinks or dropping things, but not close enough together to be of use as one large table.  Why this odd arrangement you ask?  I’ll answer with what my Chinese students love to tell me whenever I try to get more language out of them by asking why they like something: “Teacher, no why!”  Many foreigners here can tell you that after months of wracking your brain and shaking your head at things here that just seem to have absolutely no logic, eventually most of us just give up and accept that there are many things here that either simply have no logic to them whatsoever, or whatever thought process went into their creation is far beyond the comprehension of any non-Chinese mind.  Give the Chinese culture’s natural tendency to never ask questions or wonder ‘why’, its no real surprise that this is how things are.  Many times when I try to ask one of my Chinese friends “Why…”, I get a puzzled look as if this is a very odd question and it makes as little sense to them why I asked it, as whatever caused me to ask it does to me.

While talking online to one of my Chinese high school students recently, he asked me a question in Chinese to test my language.  When I answered incorrectly, he said, “your Chinese is pour”.  Classic!  Incorrectly insulting someone in one language about their lack of skill in another.

Addicting Rice

I think there is some sort of addicting chemical added to the rice in China.  I find that if I begin to eat it several days in a row (I usually find ways to avoid this, but occasionally it happens) I actually find myself craving rice.  And it’s even worse for locals.  Several of my Chinese friends who have left the country have told me they have terrible cravings for rice after just a few days.  Apparently the rice in other countries, even other Asian countries, doesn’t taste the same as Chinese rice.  Rice is so ingrained here that the words for food and rice have become one and the same in usage. To ask someone “Have you eaten?”, the literal translation is “Have you eaten rice?”  The words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are ‘morning rice’, ‘noon rice’, and ‘evening rice’,.  Additionally, until very recently, to ask someone “How are you?” people would ask, “Have you eaten rice?”  I guess it comes from back when most of the population was really poor.

More Funny Toilets (see attached picture)

I’ve seen this sign hundreds of times over the urinal in the Starbucks that I frequent, as well as many other places in China, and only last week I got around to asking one of my Chinese friends what it meant.  The answer was absolutely hysterical.  The “one small step” refers to standing close enough to the urinal not to splash on the ground!  I assume there must be or have been some issue with men not standing close enough, so the government or someone decided to try to make a public service announcement to improve the cleanliness of the bathrooms.  This was their attempt to make a somewhat coarse request a bit more eloquent.  I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between this and Neil Armstrong’s famous quote when he first stepped on the moon, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

ZhouShan with a Local Tour Guide

This past weekend as mentioned above I went with a few friends to one of my Chinese friends’ hometown.  It’s actually a chain of over 1000 islands a few hours drive from where I live.  It is absolutely gorgeous and peaceful, one of those hidden treasures in the world, for the most part untarnished by large crowds of tourists from all over the world.  First off, her connections in her town were a bit impressive, and certainly made our trip there immensely more comfortable.  She borrowed her friend’s car, and personally drove us around the whole weekend.  This may not sound like much since it is normal back in the States, but here almost everyone I know just takes a bike, bus or taxi everywhere.  Not counting taxis, I’ve ridden in a car maybe two times since I’ve been in Hangzhou.  Its something that I really miss, and I never really realized is actually a fairly large part of American culture.  I think we are likely one of the few places in the world where probably over 90% of the population has their own car and drives practically everywhere.  Anyway, we not only had our personal driver, but she had a friend who knew the boss of this 4 star hotel with a private beach (see picture) and so we got our rooms for less than half price.  For one night we paid around $50 for that room in the picture!

The first night we went to see the sand sculpture festival, where people make larger than life sand sculptures on this one beach.  Each year they have a different theme; this year it was Africa.  Actually the largest sculpture was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest sand sculpture in the world.  One of her friends also treated us to a really nice seafood restaurant which had fresh catches of the day at the front and where you could choose your own dinner.  It was located right on the water, and we enjoyed some berry liquor, a local specialty.  The next day we woke up early to watch the sunrise from the balcony in our hotel (see same picture).  Stunning.  Then we went to a beach that instead of sand was full of small black pebbles.  We took a short boat trip through the bay where you can catch your own crab.  The last day we took a ferry to another island and saw one of the four famous mountains in China called Pu Tuo Shan 普陀山。 The large lady Buddha there holds her hand up against the sea in a pose so as to say ‘stop’ to the typhoons.  Apparently since it was built there hasn’t been a typhoon that landed on the island.  On the bus back to Hangzhou that evening, we were treated to a beautiful sunset, closing out a great weekend.  We saw a sunrise on the beach in the morning, and a sunset over the mountainous islands that same evening.

The entire place was incredibly beautiful and peaceful, untainted by pollution and overpopulation as so much of China is.  My friends’ village was a small town of like 200 people.  Overall it was a wonderful, peaceful, and relaxing weekend.

As always, thanks for reading, and keep in touch.

Posted by: andrewcockerham | August 10, 2010

August 10, 2010

August 10, 2010 Hangzhou 4:45pm

Learning from Students

Random (or not so) People

Racing Interview

Learning from Students

I guess its about time for another update.  As I haven’t finished writing about a lot of old stories from last year, this will combine stories from my time in China, not necessarily in chronological order, but just ones that I found interesting.

As any teacher knows, I have lots of interesting experiences with students.  Here are a few that stood out enough for me to remember them, although I’m sure there are others that I forgot.

In teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to teenagers, one of the key issues is finding something to motivate them to use English.  It’s a challenge to get teenagers of any culture motivated, but even much more so ones in a culture where they go to classes 7 days a week for 10 hours a day with 3 to 4 hours of homework every night, and if they’re lucky maybe a 2 week long summer holiday.  So I figured that I would get them to roleplay a conversation between their parents or teachers where they could take out all of their frustration and they would get really excited to complain about how trying their lives are.  To begin the class I started trying to elicit some things that made them angry.  I spent an hour suggesting ideas and trying to pull anything out of them that I could, but there was no anger or emotion.  Just passive acceptance of their fate.  I asked them what they were angry about, and they said nothing.  They agree that their lives are really rough, but they just accept that that’s the way it is and there’s nothing they can do but grin and bear it.  I couldn’t get any anger out of them.  I was quite astonished, but I guess this is a good example of cultural differences.  If people’s lives are terrible in the West due to the ‘system’, what do we do? Get angry, complain, and go try to change the system, possibly through democracy.  Here what do they do? Nothing. They can’t. They have no outlet or resources to enact change on a system they think is flawed.  So they just bury emotion and accept it.  It was sad, and I thought a great analogy to the culture in general.  I then had my students write a paper on what they would want to change in their lives.  Almost everyone of them mentioned they wanted to change the education system and that it was an endless wheel of tests and study, with no end result or net gain.  Sure makes you wonder about the future here.

On a lighter note, younger students (6-10) can be much more fun and light hearted.  I asked a low level student one day “How are you?”. He replied “I’m not good”.  When I asked him why, he responded by saying “My Mom is a…” and then standing up turning around and pointing to his butt.  I think I lost it laughing.  Another low level student, while I was passing out a test, said “Teacher, my” and pointed at her chest “is” and she made a motion with her hand pounding her chest.  I love the rare instances where I see intelligent children use the few words they know and lots of body language to communicate things they don’t know the words for.  It’s also quite cute.

I had a 17 year old student who was headed to high school in the US, and he had lots of unorthodox ideas about China. He told me Chinese people drink too much, and that the air is much better now than a few years ago, when it was almost unbreathable. He said Americans and Japanese work hard very hard compared to Chinese and they have a mentality where they try to improve things and be creative, whereas Chinese just go to work and come home apathetic toward the status quo.  He said they have no motivation, just as long as they have a decent salary to provide for their family, that’s all they want. A general lack of ambition.  He though Americans were quite blunt, but he said when friend went to America he was shocked when they asked him for his ID to buy cigarettes and they told him he was too young (17).  Apparently even if there is a law here, its not enforced at all.  It’s the same with beer, there is no drinking age really, so even my 13-year-old students said they have drank beer.

When I taught adult students in Tianjin, often they would want to take me out to dinner after class.  This provided not only free food, but a precious glimpse into Chinese culture.  One student told me that the Chinese government tells people that Chinese are friendly but Americans are cold and unfriendly.  When I asked him what he thought after having met an American, he said he thought Americans were very friendly.  Then he asked me not to look down on Chinese people.  This wasn’t because he thought I personally looked down on them, but because he was taught that Westerners look down on Chinese people, so he asked me not to.  Somehow it came up and another student realized some of the problems of the one child policy – i.e. they wont be able to support their parents/grandparents.  This is a similar thing to the Baby Boomer issue with Social Security in the States – just multiply by a few hundred million.  Also, I took a poll of one class of adult students and most students thought the recent (~50 years old) new simplified characters were better than the older traditional ones that are still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan and that mainland China shouldn’t go back.  They liked the older ones, but said they were more aesthetic than useful.  Even the simplified take countless hours of mindless repetition to memorize how to write them, and its not infrequent for my Chinese friends to forget how to write a less commonly used character.  My students are easily as much of an insight into Chinese thought and culture as my Chinese friends, sometimes more so.  A valuable resource – the adage that the teacher learns more from the students than the student do from the teacher is certainly true in my case here.

Random (or not so) People

In the winter in Tianjin, the lake near our school freezes over so we went ice-skating on it.  It was my first outdoor ice-skating experience.  Oddly enough there was a decent size group playing a pickup hockey game so I went to join them.  I happened (or intentionally) to be wearing a Texas A&M beanie (hat) and a man approached me and told me that his son went to A&M!  He was some kind of engineering graduate student, but he recognized the logo on my hat.  Small world huh?  That was the closest that I came to meeting another Aggie in Tianjin.  But in Hangzhou I did one better.  On one of my extremely rare Sundays off, I went to the local International Fellowship.  After the service a lady came up to me and said “I saw your ring, are you an Aggie?”  So I went to lunch with her and her family, although they live almost 2 hours from me and I haven’t been able to keep in touch with them since.  There really are Aggies everywhere!

Also, one of the teachers that arrived in Tianjin just as I was leaving was from Houston, somewhere near Bellaire area.  I also met one of the summer teachers at another EF school in Tianjin that was from the States. Somehow we got to talking and turns out he and I were both at the A&M Sweet Sixteen basketball game in San Antonio.  Really random.

Racing Interview

On to some more recent news.  Last weekend I did an open water swimming race with some Chinese friends I met at the pool. As soon as they realized that I actually knew how to swim well, they invited me to this race.  I was very unsure what to expect, but it was actually quite legit with sponsorship by Red Bull, parachute and water skiing performers, and naturally in China, close to 1000 participants.  There were two categories, a non-competitive and competitive race.  The non-competitive participants had to wear an attached ‘floatie’ device to ensure safety.  It looked exactly like the little bright orange blow up ‘floatie’s that little kids where to the pool who are too young to swim.  I was quite thankful I wasn’t in that group.  The competitive race was quite normal compared to the triathlons I have done – a triangle swim 1500 meters (1 mile) long.  I didn’t realize until afterwards that they were giving away cash prizes (my friends neglected to inform me) and I just missed out on 1000 rmb by 3 places.  I came in somewhere around 15th – I say somewhere because there was no chip timing system, clocks, watches, or even a dude with a stopwatch.  I asked all my Chinese friends what their time was, and none of them knew.  How did they know who won you ask?  Well a guy just stood on the edge of the river and when the first guy came out of the water he handed him a paper that said 1st – and this process continued through 12 places.  Then these papers were redeemed for a trophy and the cash prize.  A bit dubious, but it worked without any major hitches as far as I could tell.  I was quite out of shape, but judging by how far ahead the winners were – I could have won the thing if I was in as good of shape as my last triathlon.  Anyway, the kicker was that I was the only foreigner (i.e. non-Chinese) out of several thousand racers and spectators, so as soon as I exited the water, a tv camera and microphone were shoved in my face along with rapidfire questions in Chinese.  So I can now say I have done my first television interview in Chinese!  I understood about 90%, and when I didn’t understand one question, he translated to English for me.  I know what your’e thinking, where is a copy of this fabulous interview? I have no idea.  I don’t have Chinese tv at my house, and I was working when it was airing anyway.  Perhaps someday they will contact me and I’ll be sure to pass it along.

That’s all for now folks.  More to come……sometime.

Posted by: andrewcockerham | March 10, 2010

Old and New

Wednesday March 10, 2010 Hangzhou, China  10:34 am

He found the shoes!

“So did you eat anything normal?”

McDonald’s Debate

Illogical Toilets

Back Stories

China’s Birthday

A Traditional Chinese Wedding

“So did you eat anything normal?”

The other day we had a pot luck at work to celebrate a few people’s birthdays.  It was pretty fun to have different foods from different places and all share together, although many people just bought some Chinese food and brought it.  Some of the other Americans made some macaroni and cheese, and it was a big hit.  As my cooking skills are certainly nonexistent, I brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Although I knew it would be the first time the Chinese staff had eaten one, actually I learned that most of the Europeans and Australians had never eaten one before either.  Turns out the Chinese staff loved them!  It was one of those classic cultural moments I will never forget when I looked over and saw several of them eating a PB&J sandwich with chopsticks!!

McDonald’s Debate

While McDonald’s is mostly the same everywhere you go, there are actually large differences in the menu depending on the tastes of the local customers.  But another thing has surprised me in my experiences at McDonald’s in China.  When in line to order (there are no drive thru’s) many people will often have a several minute discussion/debate with the person behind the counter trying to decide their order.  Now don’t get me wrong, the menu is still set up the same way.  You can choose from a set number 1-10, or just get single things from the list.  I have no idea how you can be that confused on what you want at McDonald’s.  The menu doesn’t change.  You can decide what you want before you get there.  Why do you need a 5 minute explanation of the menu when it’s all in pictures in front of you?  Another China thing I haven’t figured out yet.

Illogical Toilets

I’m sure many of you have heard about the Asian squatty pottys.  I’m not going to get into that here.  Actually something about the urinals has confused me. I have noticed it at many many locations all over China.  So back home I know everyone has seen the automatic flush toilets that are becoming ubiquitous.  Well the urinals are that way many places here, with one small, but I think significant, difference.  Here they flush as soon as you walk up to the urinal – before not after you have done your business.  Explain how that makes sense?  It can’t be a technological problem because they can just copy/buy it from the same company we do.  And I’ve noticed it just about everywhere.  Any explanations are welcome.

Back Stories

China’s Birthday

A Traditional Chinese Wedding

(written October 1, 2009)

Today is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  Chinese are very superstitious about numbers, and ‘6’ seems to represent eternity or longevity. Hence the importance placed on the 60th anniversary.

A side note about Chinese and numbers.  Perhaps you didn’t realize that the Beijing Olympics started on 8/8/2008 at 8:08 pm.  I didn’t either until discussing it with some locals.  This was intentional and extremely significant to Chinese people because the number 8 represents prosperity.  Four is extremely unlucky because in Chinese the pronunciation is the same as the word for death.  Many buildings don’t even label a 4th floor, but go straight from 3rd to 5th.  When I checked into my hotel, my Chinese friend made them change my room from 904 – very unlucky, to 906 – lucky.

The government put on a massive military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing today to show off its prowess and successful ‘rise’ in stature and wealth.  Since I’m in Lanzhou for my friends wedding, I watched the parade at Tracy’s parents house.  They seemed interested, although not overly so.  But they did say they felt proud to be Chinese and were proud of China’s display of power.  The thought struck me that we don’t really do military parades, which begs the interesting question why.  I’ll leave that debate for your own discussion.  It appears that none of the military equipment in the parade was really that special, its unique factor being that it was domestically designed and produced, not bought from abroad.  (Although there is some debate as to how much of is was ‘designed’ domestically or reverse engineered) I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t watch the parade with English commentary, but it was interesting to watch my Chinese friends’ reactions.  Most of them said they were proud to be Chinese and felt that China was very strong.  I did notice that in the civilian part of the parade, where 100,000 Chinese civilians marched and danced, that when they gave a float to each province, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan all got to have a float.  I didn’t notice a Tibetan float, but there was one.  (side note added March 10, 2010: I ended up seeing the float from Shaanxi Province when I went to Xi’an last month, really cool) Even more interesting though was later I overheard some of my Chinese friends discussing it, and one asked that exact question, did Taiwan and Hong Kong have a float?  That night there was a massive Gala in Tiananmen Square which was a beautiful spectacle to watch.  At first I wanted to go to Beijing to see it, but then heard that the security was so tight they weren’t even letting any local Chinese within miles of the Square, much less foreigners.  My Chinese friends didn’t seem too bothered about watching it, as we were at dinner during most of it.  But all they have been showing on TV since is reruns and highlights of the parade.  I caught the last bit of the Gala in the English station and it was actually a bit moving to see a country so excited and proud of itself and its heritage.  The whole thing resembled a closing ceremony of the Olympics.  However, as someone in the English speaking news noted, it was a propaganda parade put on by the government, albeit spectacularly, that seemed to show that everything in China is just wonderful, at least if you are in the government or upper classes.  I couldn’t help but grin at shots of the Chinese president and politburo on the streets of Tiananmen dancing with Chinese ‘commoners’ dressed up in the different traditional clothes of the 56 ethnic minorities in China.  Later, I did watch some of the commentary on the English Chinese news station, but I could only take the oozing of China love for so long.  It was endless commentary about the ‘miracle’ of China’s rapid development and improvements since the Communist takeover in 1949, and particular since Deng Xiao Ping’s opening and reforming of the economic policies in the 1970’s.

Did a bit of sightseeing in Lanzhou today with one of Tracy’s cousins. We went to see a temple on the mountain and the Chinese waterwheels.  It made me wonder, “who invented the water wheel?”  They really have signs in Chinese that call the Yellow river the Mother River of China.  We could see from the mountains how bad the air was, and even my local Chinese friends commented how dirty their city was, both the air, and the Yellow river (which is brown) and the streets.  I tried to make the joke that the Yellow River wasn’t yellow, but it didn’t seem to translate well I guess.

(October 2, 2009 – written March 10, 2010)

A Traditional Chinese Wedding

Chinese weddings are an all day affair.  The bride gets up at like 4 in the morning to get all dolled up and dressed in all her wedding dress glory to be ready for the arrival of the groom at 7am to her parents house.  I was supposed to be at her house before then since I was ‘with the bride’, but I overslept and was a little late.  As I was walking the half mile from my hotel to her parents house I notice a huge caravan of cars with a bright red convertible all decorated in the front.  “Wow another wedding today” I thought, before I realized that the man in the front car was Tracy’s fiancée!  So I sprinted past them just as they were pulling into her apartment.  The reason it was so critical that I arrive before him is that the bride locks herself in her parents house with some of her male cousins or brothers. So I had to make it in before the locked the door.  I made it with about 15 seconds to spare!  Once the groom has arrives, he and his groomsmen pound on the door shouting and screaming to persuade them to open. (all in good fun) They must say things to persuade the bride’s family to let him in. Often times this includes ‘bribes’ of red envelopes (called hong bao) filled with money (usually a relatively insignificant amount ~ 5 – 10 RMB, or ~1 USD. These are considered payment to the bride’s family to let him in, and to show he has the financial means to take care of her. As I was part of the posse protecting the bride, they gave me my share of the red envelopes too.)  After maybe half an hour of poking fun, jesting, bribing with hong bao, and asking the groom to do ridiculous things like sing love songs to his beloved, the bride will finally give the okay and allow the groom to burst in.  He gets down on one knee with some flowers and says a few words to her.  But he’s not finished yet.  She is not wearing any shoes. One shoe is next to her on the bed, and the other is hidden somewhere in the room. The groom and his ‘goons’ must find it and place both shoes on her feet Cinderella style before she will leave with him to the wedding.  In Tracy’s case, the shoes were hidden in the washing machine.  The couple then comes out to the living room and must eat a porridge and noodle type dish that the mother of the bride prepares.  However the tradition is that she puts something in the grooms bowl to make it terribly disgusting.  Tracy’s husband almost fell on the floor after the first bite, but was required to finish it before he could leave with his new bride. Everyone piles into the caravan of expensive cars rented for the occasion, and the bride and groom enjoy a ride around town in the convertible before heading to the hotel.

The whole affair took about an hour, and was full of shouting, laughing, singing, banging, noise, pictures, video, and a whole lot of fun.

Then it was off to the hotel for the actual wedding.  Here weddings are always done in hotels, not churches. They don’t seem to be tied to religion at all, just a ceremony with family.  The ceremony is performed by some sort of hired emcee. Their clothes were the same as us back home: white dress and suit.  They did a sort of walk down the aisle thing, but it was together arm in arm, not the bride alone.  But it did include throwing of rice – somehow that seemed much more relevant and poignant here than at home.  Once at the front, both sets of parents were called up and sat in front of the couple.  Here the emcee instructed them to say a few words of blessing to the new couple, and also give them each another hong bao, however these I’m sure are filled with quite a significant amount of money.  Then the couple says their vows, however I don’t believe it’s a standard set – it seemed more as if they wrote their own.  The rings are put on fingers, then the couple pours champagne on a tower of glasses, and cuts the cake – which involves some exploding candle/firecrackers.  Then all the family heads upstairs to our reserved tables, as the bride and groom make the rounds with the ‘less close’ attendees, who have already eaten.

Lunch was long and drawn out – a couple of hours, and included lots of drinking by all the males.  It seemed that the tradition was the males from each family had to drink together competitively to seal their new family ties.  The bride and groom as well as both sets of parents made the rounds pouring shots of ‘bai jiu’ (Chinese liquor) to everyone. Each person had to take the shots (the usual number was 4) and give a toast or a blessing to the new couple.  I managed to escape only drinking the minimum required to be respectful.  Despite all of the young males desperately wanting to play drinking games with the only foreigner at the wedding, I declined.  But they all were very respectful of me and seemed quite honored that I was there.  Even though we couldn’t speak much, they all kept calling me their ‘hao peng you’ – good friend.  It was an enjoyable time.

After the hours of drinking and eating were complete, everyone retired home to change clothes, then head where else, but to KTV.  This was at about 6pm and we didn’t leave until after 2am.  Eight hours of blaring Chinese pop songs, chain smoking, binge drinking, all in an enclosed room.  Needless to say I felt nauseous even though I was sober.  I say a few English songs at their request.  We had food brought in and of course had more obligatory toasts, stories, and laughs.  All in all is was quite a fun and fascinating cultural day.

(originally written October 3, 2009)

Today I went with Tracy’s cousin Jia jia to another mountain temple.  Apparently the one we went to on October 1st was a Taoist temple, and today we went to a Buddhist temple, though not being of either religion, I couldn’t really notice the difference.  She said Buddhist monks are more friendly.  There was some sort of ceremony going on when we arrived, which was really cool.  Some monks were chanting and banging a drum, while a crowd of people, about 90% women and all over 40, chanted along with them for almost 20 minutes or so.  It wasn’t’ Chinese, but apparently some language they use only in the temples.  I think she called it ‘nian jing’ or something like that.  Reminded me of times before the Protestant Reformation when all churches in Europe were in Latin, even though no one spoke as their own language.  She said there are many different kind of Buddhas, so depending on your problem you can pray to different ones.  She said she is a believer, and she knelt and said her prayers while we were there.  I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t really sure what to say.  Later I asked her if she knew about Christianity, and she said her father is a Christian.  Although he doesn’t go to the one Christian church in Lanzhou, apparently he often reads the Bible.  The rest of her family is Buddhist, particularly her brother.  Apparently he always comes to the temple on Christmas, which I thought was quite interesting, but she said it was more lucky to come then.  She said she felt all religions were true.  I tried to say they can’t all be true, but left it at that.  We also saw a statue of Confucius, and she told me that apparently many people pray to Confucius.  I brought up the fact that he is dead, but she said some people think he can still answer prayers.  Outside the temple was a shop where you can ‘buy’ a Buddha and other paraphernalia for your house.   She said they don’t use the word ‘buy’ because you can’t ‘own’ Buddha.   She almost bought some bracelet bead things that are apparently somewhat similar to Catholic rosary beads.  Later we went to another temple that is now converted into a market of old Chinese things.  She said to be careful because many people lie saying ‘This bowl was used by Emperor So and So’ and therefore they charge an arm and a leg for it.  But this is all inside an old temple.  The story of Jesus and the money changers couldn’t help but come to mind.  She bought me some old coins used in some dynasty long ago as a gift.  I was touched.

We had dinner w/ Tracy and her new husbands family.  Apparently Tracy couldn’t come with us today because it is custom that she spends the entire day after her wedding at her new in-laws house.  It was fun, and we laughed a lot over cross cultural and cross language things.  Towards the end of the meal, suddenly Tracy’s husband jumped up and bolted from the table.  I was surprised, then at the same time Tracy’s dad got up and tried to follow.  It took Tracy and her husband’s father’s physical restraint of her dad to drag him bag to the table.  Apparently this was the traditional fight over the ‘honor’ of paying for the bill.  I had heard about this, but was surprised at its vigor.

Tracy’s parents are musicians and have their own little band.  So before I left they played a bit for me.  He said “I’ll play an American song for you” and proceeded to play Jingle Bells on his saxophone.  I really enjoy Tracy, her family, and her new husband.  I talked to him in Chinese some after dinner.  They are a great couple – good people.

Posted by: andrewcockerham | February 25, 2010

New Beginnings of the Same Old Things


February 25, 2010  Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China   10:01 am

does eating brains make you smarter?

“So did you eat anything weird?”

Welcome to Hangzhou – where everywhere is a bathroom

Checking off the list

So as I’m sure you have all realized by now, I’m terrible at blogging. At least terrible at being consistent and up to date about it.  Here is an update, albeit incomplete and quite delayed.  I’ll start with current events, and backtrack to previous ones as time allows.

So I’ve been in Hangzhou now for about 6 weeks.  I’m actually really enjoying it.  The people I’ve met have been great.  Interestingly, almost all of the teachers here are close to my age, in contrast to my last school.  So that provides for lots of fun.  Also, I’ve made several friends among the local staff, which has not only really improved my Chinese, but has been culturally insightful and lots of fun.

Some things of note.

Welcome to Hangzhou – where everywhere is a bathroom

My first day in Hangzhou, some of the other foreigners took me to lunch and showed me a bit of the city. They were quite friendly and helpful.  In the taxi home, we stopped at a red light and the taxi driver opened the door and got out.  We were a bit confused, but his intentions quickly became quite clear.  He stood next to the bushes in the median and nonchalantly proceeded to relieve himself in the bushes as if it was as normal as drinking water.  The three of us foreigners stared at each other in amazement then instantly burst out laughing.  Living in China for a year you see lots of people relieving themselves in all kinds of public places that are not bathrooms, but this one might have taken the cake.  Attached is a picture of his back while we are in the cab.  What a wonderful welcome to my new city!

“So did you eat anything weird?”

What would a blog about China be if it didn’t include stories about eating exotic and thoroughly unappetizing foods?  Upon a discussion with some of the local teachers about weird foods in China, the idea of eating pig brains came up.  Apparently it is quite normal around here.  Naturally I was quite exciting and jumped at the opportunity for them to take me to eat pig brains.  So two of the local teachers and I went to a hot pot restaurant to try it out.  Hot pot is a common Chinese cuisine where a boiling pot of broth and spices is placed in the middle of the table and all the food is brought out raw.  Then you cook your food yourself in the pot and eat it as it finishes cooking.  It is a bit tiring, but one of my favorite Chinese dishes.  I was the only foreigner in the restaurant, and when we ordered pig brains the waitress gave me a quizzical look.  When she proceeded to deliver the pig brains to our table, several of the surrounding tables began to share her curiosity at a foreigner eating this exotic dish.  As seen in the picture, the brains are served raw, then cooked in the hot pot.  Uncooked, they look pretty much exactly as you would imagine brains look: soft, pink, mushy, and bloody.  Once cooked they turn a white gray color.  The taste actually wasn’t too bad, but the consistency, almost like jello, was a bit unappealing.  Still, I ate my share and it was good fun.  I figured you can’t spend a few years in China and come back without a few stories for when people ask you “So did you eat anything weird?”

Chinese New Year down here was pretty much the same as in Tianjin.  People shoot of fireworks willy-nilly in the streets while cars drive by trying to avoid the sparks.  I got some good video of us watching fireworks directly underneath them. And although these are sold in streetside stalls like back home, they are by no means your typical backyard family variety.  Full blown professional style fireworks.  The sound of explosions so close in every direction made me imagine it was similar to what it sounds like in a war zone.  A friend and I bought some to play with and as we were shooting them off, two girls our age came out of a C-store (think 7-11) to watch.  They were working at 11pm on New Year’s Eve!  We felt sorry for them so we let them shoot off most of them.  They seemed to enjoy it.  We went looking for some kind of big party or something equivalent to Time’s Square in New York, but alas that’s not a tradition here.  Chinese New Year is more like Christmas, everyone just stays home with their family, eats, and watches a big Chinese TV production that is vaguely similar to Saturday Night Live.  So there really is nothing to do but play with fireworks if you don’t have a Chinese family to go to.  But it was fun anyway. In Xi’an we did light the Cong Ming lanterns, which are paper lanterns that act basically like hot air balloons.  You light a little candle in the middle, and the hot air makes them ride up into the sky.  It’s really pretty when you can see hundreds of them floating around in the night sky.

Checking off the list

The next day I left for Xi’an to meet some friends to see the famous terra cotta warriors.  It was pretty interesting, but honestly they look exactly like they do on TV.  It was good to check it off the list, but I felt not really all that impressive after already seeing pictures and knowing the background behind them.  The one interesting thing was that we met (supposedly) the actual guy who discovered them back in the 1970’s.  He was autographing his book.  We weren’t allowed pictures (go figure) but it was quite fascinating to see his expressions and mannerisms.  He was nonchalantly puffing on his cigarette while casually jotting down his John Hancock every few seconds as a book was laid in front of him.  He didn’t speak or look the least bit interested in anything but his cigarette.  We asked our tour guide if he was rich and famous, thinking that anyone who discovered what some call “The Eighth Wonder of the World” would have to be immensely rich.  She said he is not rich at all, in fact he made no money from his discovery, or the sale of the books.  It made us wonder if they even pay him to sit there all day and autograph books (which were quite expensive by Chinese standards).  All of us foreigners were a bit taken aback at what seemed to us to be the government exploiting this man without any sort of compensation.  But it didn’t seem very strange to our tour guide.  Another interesting comparison of ideas and ‘norms’ between here and home.

Posted by: andrewcockerham | February 13, 2010

Remembering Home

try eating mashed potatoes with chopsticks

Hong Kong skyline

(originally posted July 21, 2009)

Thursday July 9, 2009 Tianjin, China 10:08 am

Remembering Home Away from Home

Another Country

Chasing Trains

Great Wall

So I realized that I am terrible at blogging. I have a tiresomely long list of things to blog about, and therefore always put it off. But I had a few really good days lately, so I decided to make time to put down my experiences in writing. I hadn’t realized how long it has been. So many of these stories will be quite old, but hopefully still interesting.

When living abroad, in my opinion, remembering and keeping your own culture is just as important as learning and delving into the culture in which you’re living. So here are a few examples of that.

Last fall, I of course was closely following the college football season, as every American guy my age does. I found a way to watch games online here, so I would invite my other American buddies over to hang out, drink Dr Pepper from the import store and watch good old American pigskin games. It was a nice taste of home that was really needed. One of my good buddies here went to Tech, and another was from Ohio, so we definitely had a little of trash talking, which just made it more fun.

Holidays often seem even more important when you are away from home. Thanksgiving was a good one because most of my Chinese friends, and even lots of Europeans, didn’t know much about it. So we got to share our culture with them, which is a sweet reversal of roles.Our Chinese boss graciously allowed us to order a Turkey from an American restaurant here, and so we had turkey and gravy and stuffing! It wasn’t nearly as good as my Mom’s stuffing, but all things considered, it hit the spot nicely. We even finished it off with some cheesecake. I brought my laptop up so we could watch some football and educate some of the Chinese staff about our Thanksgiving traditions. So all in all, it wasn’t that different than a Thanksgiving at home except for the fact that I couldn’t see my family. And as you can see in the picture, we had to eat Thanksgiving dinner with chopsticks!! That definitely tested our proficiency.

July 4th was another holiday where we got to share our American culture. Mandi, another American teacher and I taught the non-American Westerners on our staff how to eat s’mores. We had a little grill on our balcony, and roasted marshmallows using chopsticks and made makeshift s’mores, which some Chinese cracker things to replace graham crackers. Everyone agreed that s’mores are delicious and a great tradition. We couldn’t have any fireworks because apparently they are illegal except during Chinese New Year, but we did sing the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. I had some good Belgian beer that I got in Beijing, and afterwards Mandi and I went to an American restaurant for a good ole American burger.It was a good 4th.

For my birthday my boss bought some cake and chocolate, and they sang Happy Birthday. One of the other teacher’s wife knitted me a neck scarf, which was really kind and surprised me. I made daily use of it during the brutal (to a Texan) winter here. It was terrible. A few times I biked home in 0 degrees F (-15 C)!! That’s bloody cold, especially on a bike! For the first time in my life I purchased long underwear, and used it. I don’t like it, but its necessary in those temperatures. It only snowed twice, but it was just painfully cold all winter. I went running in the snow a few times, which was actually fun. The worst was actually in March. The all-knowing Chinese government controls all central heating, and they decide that on March 15, the people no longer need heat. However, on March 24, it snowed. And we had no central heat. I was wearing all of my skiing clothes in my room, and watching my breath as I tried to type on my computer with ski gloves. Its not easy in case you haven’t tried it.Needless to say, this is one of the primary motivations for me moving to a southern and warmer city next year!

Also in the spirit of sharing my culture, I did a lesson about American football traditions. I taught about Midnight Yell, Yell leaders, football traditions, flyovers, and a few famous schools like FSU’s horse Osceola. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I think the students were a bit lost and a bit shocked that we made such a deal out of sports. Here sports are not a big thing at all, with maybe the one exception being the recent youth’s interest in the NBA. So to see a hundred thousand people in a stadium for just a weekly football game I think was quite hard for them to understand. Although I didn’t have nearly enough time to cover everything, I think they got a good taste of some important American culture. And I had a blast teaching it. I would rather teach football than the past perfect progressive tense any day!

I did another lesson on Texas culture which was equally as fun. I taught them about cowboy terminology and a bit of their history. I taught about a brief history of Texas, Remember the Alamo, our flag, flower, and a bit about Texas music, Texas jargon like yall, ain’t, I’m fixin to do something, etc, most of which I didn’t realize were Texasisms until I started traveling. I also showed them some rodeo videos, and they really got a kick out of mutton busting and calf roping. I also showed a video of the Aggie Wranglers. Again I think they had no idea how much culture we had, and they were really interested. I love talking about Texas!

Here are other assorted oddities/stories in no particular order.

Yesterday me, my Australian boss, and a few other teachers went to see where the Great Wall goes into the sea. We had to get an early start and catch the 6am train. However, since I had gone out with a few friends the night before, I uncharacteristically went to bed late. I must have slept right through my alarm, because my friends called me at 5:37 to see why I hadn’t arrived yet, and I got out of bed to answer. So I had 20 minutes to make the train. I was praying like crazy, and it was a total miracle that I sprinted onto the train as the whistle was blowing. The train itself was a cultural experience. They simply sell tickets until the train leaves, with no regard to the number of people or seats on the train. Consequently, the trains are frequently packed like cattle cars with people standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisles and you can barely even walk to another car because of all the people. It took us almost 10 minutes to walk from one end of the car to the other. Eventually someone got off and offered us some seats. The people next to us were snacking on bear and chicken feet for breakfast. Just what I crave at 6am in the morning! We went to Beidaihe, a famous tourist spot on the way, and my boss who is into geocaching led us to find our first geocache. It was quite exciting and we had a ‘first find’. Geocaching is when people hide things somewhere and post the GPS coordinates online so other people can find it. ( It was good fun. Then we went to Qinhuangdao where the Great Wall meets the sea. It was really beautiful, despite the bad weather. It was my first time to see the Great Wall even though I’ve been in China almost a year now. We dressed up in some traditional clothing and got our pictures taken as you can see in the photo. When we tried to get the train home, there was an unbelievably ridiculous line of people waiting to buy tickets.We probably would have waited for several hours to find a ticket, to then stand on the train for 4 hours. Not exactly what we preferred to do. So I found a bus that was leaving now with seats, and we ran to catch it. It was pulling out of the station and stopped so we could run on. Another close call, but we made it. Then about halfway home a belt in the engine snapped and we had to stop for an hour to repair it.Thank God they carried extra belts otherwise we would have been stranded.

(continued July 13th 2009, 2pm, Tianjin)

A few weeks ago I went with some people from school to see the Shi family courtyard, a big house of a ancient powerful Chinese family.Then on the way back we went up the 450 meter (almost 1500ft for you Americans) TV tower to see the view. It was a rare clear day in Tianjin, and cool to see our school and house from the air.

Sometimes after my early morning swims, I stop to play what they locals call ‘jian zi’ with a bunch of old ladies. It’s fairly similar to a ‘birdie’ used to play badminton, but they use their feet to ‘juggle’ it like a soccer ball. We play in a circle, and the old ladies are surprisingly fit and nimble. They are very welcoming and friendly, and its quite fun. Speaking of swimming, a few times I have had some of the old men at the pool offer to pay me to teach them how to swim. I have declined so far for reasons of logistics and language, but perhaps this could be something I could pursue in the future. I think they rarely see someone who actually knows how to swim properly. At their request a few other teachers and I attempted to teach some of our Chinese staff at school how to swim, but they gave up after a few lessons.

Also at the pool, I have made friends with one of the lifeguards as she often asks me to help her with her English. She brings in some sentences and I just quickly correct them for her. She also asks me how to say swimming things in English. I don’t mind as its only a few minutes, and she is really nice. Occasionally she will bring me small gifts, I guess as a way to ‘pay’ me. I have had some chances to share with her. I think she is taking some kind of new lifeguard certification, and also coaching swimming somehow. She has introduced me to a few of the swimmers at the university here who also want to practice their English, and ask about swimming in the States. I have seen them practice a few times, and have learned useful swimming vocab from them. The Tianjin University swim team consists of a measly 5 people. That tells you about the status of sports here. Still nothing like back home. They are friendly and I enjoyed talking to them about swimming. Brings back lots of memories.

A few weeks ago, one of my buddies had to make a ‘Hong Kong visa run’ to renew his visa. So I decide to join him for a few days. I had my temperature checked for swine flu at the border, but had no problems. Hong Kong is another world from mainland China. I don’t think you can really appreciate it unless you have lived on the mainland, but its amazing. It was owned by the British until 1997, and was never under Communist rule. Its very cosmopolitan, and I didn’t feel like a foreigner at all. It was much cleaner and really felt like another country. There really isn’t much to see as far as tourism goes, but I hope to return to some of the islands near there that are supposed to be beautiful. One night we found a really high class rooftop bar on the 30th floor of one of the sky scrapers, that offers a view of the whole Hong Kong skyline. We went up to check it out, but then decided to eat first and come back. As food is really expensive in Hong Kong, we ended up just eating at Burger King, so there are none in Tianjin where we live. When we went back up, the lady asked us where we had eaten, and we laughed and just discreetly said we ate downstairs somewhere. The cocktails at this place were 100HKD, which is only about 14USD, but is VERY expensive for China. And they were quite exotic. My buddy had a cocktail with lemongrass and a chili pepper. I had one with passion fruit and blackberries. They also had some with wasabi and bleu cheese. It was quite a fun jaunt into the ‘high life’ for a short time. Other than the fact that I had stomach trouble during the whole trip, it was a nice respite into something more ‘western’ than mainland China.

Posted by: andrewcockerham | February 13, 2010

Long Overdue Update – Part 1

king of the world!

(originally posted March 3, 2009)

So here I finally am, updating my blog after almost 6 months! I am kinda ashamed it took me so long to write. But I have kept small notes of important things to remind me not to forget them. However, due to the sheer length of time and volume of interesting things, I’m sure I have forgotten some, or at least will not be able to capture the emotions that they sparked at the time. Alas, this is why I am angry with myself for being slow in updating, so hopefully in the future I will be more regular. This post will probably be somewhat scattered as it is a conglomeration of dozens of notes of small and big interesting happenings of the past few months of my life in China. Also the chronology of this post is not necessarily in order, so forgive me. Anyway, here it goes.


Encounters and interactions with people provide by far the most interesting cultural experiences. Here are a few ones that I thought were noteworthy.

Within the space of two days, I had two noteworthy taxi rides. Because they are dirt cheap here, and I don’t relish the even dirtier and cheaper buses because you have to stand like a sardine, taxis are the main way to get around other than my bicycle. If I know where I am going, I usually take my bicycle, but sill use the occasional taxi ride. In the hundreds of taxi drivers I have had in all my rides in China, I have had ONE who spoke English other than the words “hello” or “America” or “teacher”. This one guy had really good pronunciation and was actually able to hold a basic conversation. It was quite surprising, and upon inquiry he told us that he taught himself! Pretty impressive seeing as he probably has very little chance to practice. The second taxi ride was more interesting however. Upon using my basic Chinese to talk with him (this is a great way to practice new words and try to understand taxi drivers awful accents), I told the driver I was from America, was an English teacher, and liked China. He immediately pulled out his cell phone and proceeded to call his daughter and then handed the phone to me to have her try to practice her English with me. In truth, I felt kind of bad for her because I think she felt very embarrassed. She answered the phone in English, and had decent pronunciation, but seemed to freeze up, probably due to the awkward circumstances. I’m not sure if the driver was trying to ‘hook me up’ with his daughter, or just really wanted her to try to speak English to a native speaker, since MOST Chinese have never spoken English with a native speaker, even though they may have studied it in school for years. In any case, the driver was really friendly and smiled a lot. He said “Welcome to Tianjin” in English.

Another interesting English encounter happened in the elevator of my building. An old lady in the elevator turned to me one day and started speaking in really good English, with good pronunciation. She asked if I was German, haha. Not sure why, but even in Germany, people often confused me for German. I guess I have German blood in me somewhere. Anyway I asked her where she learned English, and she said she learned it in school BEFORE the Cultural Revolution and the Communist takeover. Meaning she learned it during WWII! Haha, I have no idea how much she had practiced it since, but she would have been an interesting person to pick her brain about the changes in China in her lifetime. Wish I would have had the chance to do so.

I have been swimming at the University pool here close to my house. On the first day that I tried out a new pool, I was struggling to ask for prices and times in my bad Chinese, when a lady came up and spoke good English and offered to help. She told me she had lived in America – in Dallas! Small world huh? She liked America, but missed China so moved back. Turns out this happens more often than you would think. Despite the developed country versus developing country, some Chinese decide to move back to China after living in the West because they miss their own language, food, family or any number of other things. I found this somewhat surprising when I first learned of it.

I went on a trip with a Chinese friend and another teacher from school to the Fragrant Hills near Beijing. They are the highest point near Beijing, where you can hike to the top and see all of Beijing. It was a good hike, and quite beautiful and green. It was a nice respite from the city, although even the trail and the top of the hill were really crowded. It was a lot of fun, but the most interesting part was when we got a little turned around on our way out and couldn’t find the bus station. We walked around looking for someone to ask (we were on the far outskirts of Beijing) and an American saw us and came up and asked if she could help us. I though her accent was pretty familiar, so upon asking, it turns out she was an Aggie!! The first Aggie I met outside of the Olympics! They truly are everywhere! And I never would have met her if we hadn’t gotten lost. Anyway, I asked her about an Aggie club, and she didn’t know of one. But it’s always exciting to meet Aggies.

At one of the pizza restaurants I have been to in Tianjin, I noticed a Bible laying on the table a few times, so I asked the owner about it. Turns out she is a Korean Christian. A few times we have talked about it and I let her read a few verses from my English Bible. It’s really encouraging to meet other believers.

I had a Canadian teacher from one of the other English First schools here move in with me for a month or two last fall. He was cool and turns out he is also a cyclist. It was a God thing, as it gave me someone to ride with. He has since moved out so I have had a large two bedroom place to myself for the past few months. I have enjoyed the quiet! Along a similar vein, one of the other new teachers at our school worked as a bike mechanic for a few years back in England. He loves working on bikes and has helped me with maintenance for my bikes. What a blessing!


As any teacher knows, students provide lots of interesting stories. Well this is even more true with language and cultural differences. I’m sure I have forgotten some, but here are a few I remember. One of my teenager students invited me to go play squash with him. It was my first time to play, but it was fun. In talking to him I learned many things. He actually said he wasn’t a big fan of the Hu Jintao. I thought this was quite interesting, although I didn’t find out much more than that, and he isn’t the first Chinese person to tell me this. Apparently, his father is having trouble in work, so his whole family moved to Australia a few months ago to open a book store. He would finish his last year of high school there. His English was not bad, but I’m sure this would be a struggle for him. He said he was really excited because in his opinion the schools in China were not very good compared to the West.

In general, the stereotype that Chinese people on average are not very athletic is very true. If they play sports it is most likely badminton, ping pong, tennis or squash. And usually these aren’t played with intense vigor or competitiveness. There are exceptions however. I did find out there is a ‘Sports University’ here in Tianjin. Apparently China, not surprisingly, has a system where athletic children are chosen even at young ages and put in special athletic schools to train athletes. Makes the whole beating us in the gold medal count at the Olympics a lot less impressive if you ask me. While riding my bike around town one day, a random Chinese guy about my age rode up next to me and tried to strike up a conversation with me in English. Turns out he plays ultimate Frisbee and goes to the Sports University. Apparently they went to tournaments in Hong Kong and Shanghai, so I guess they are pretty good. He invited me to play with them, so I joined them a few times. It was fun. They were decent, but nothing crazy. I think an average college club ultimate Frisbee team back home would be better. But I enjoyed the company. I actually met another foreign ‘brother’ and we got along well. He has an interesting story. They also play soccer there, so hopefully if my parents can send me my soccer equipment, I can play once it warms up here.

One of my adult students invited me for dinner after my last class with him. Turns out his son studied computer science at Tianjin University here, and actually had the same class and the same professor that I was taking at the time. (I took a C++ class that an American friend of mine was teaching last semester) He wants to get a master’s in the US, so wanted to talk to me about American schools. He actually was looking at t.u. or A&M! I gave him my biased opinion, but did mention that t.u. has many more Chinese students than A&M. His English was good, and he was quite a talkative fellow. He was very open about China. He talked openly about Mao and how millions of people died, but also lots of good things happened. He knew that the media was state controlled, and that to get ‘the truth’ (his words), they had to use a VPN to read Western media. He agreed China isn’t as free as other countries. But he still thought life in China was good. He was the lead singer in a band and really into music, particularly classic rock. He told me his English name was Axl, after Axl Rose from Guns N Roses. But he was quite angered by their new CDChinese Democracy, which interestingly enough, the Wikipedia entry about the album is blocked here. The album itself is also outlawed in China, supposedly because the title track talks about some banned movements here. I haven’t heard the song myself, but if you have let me know what you think. He was an interesting fellow, and I enjoyed my dinner with him and his dad, even though his dad poured me a whole glass of Chinese liquor called bei jiu, and kept trying to get me to finish it off. I tried, but that stuff is brutally strong and I couldn’t drink it haha.

So this update is far from complete, but I am out of time for the moment. So I’ll post this as Part 1, and hopefully Part 2 will follow soon.

Posted by: andrewcockerham | February 13, 2010

Water Cube Adventure

Me and the mother of a gold medalist

Wednesday September 17, 2008 Tianjin, China 9:10 pm

The one major thing that I didn’t get to do at the Olympics (other than meeting Phelps or Nastia Liukin) was go inside the famous Water Cube.There were two reasons for this: 1) I didn’t arrive at the Olympics until the last day of swimming events and 2) swimming tickets were simply outrageously priced. The only way to get ahold of a ticket was to pay a scalper, and those tickets were running close to $1000 – way out of my price range, even for the Water Cube.

But I had a solution: I would come back to Beijing (the advantage of living in China close to Beijing) during the Paralympics to get into the Water Cube and watch some swimming. The ticket prices would be a fraction of the cost, and the main goal of seeing the inside of the Water Cube would still be accomplished.

So on my day off I set off to Beijing a day early to make sure I could get a ticket. I had the intention of buying my ticket directly form the ticket outlet instead of scalping it, which saves hugely on price. (though I would realize later it was impossible) I was going to stay one night in Beijing then see my event the next day. Through the help of a nice Chinese girl, I was able to successfully get on my train and to Beijing. All I had was an address in Chinese that a friend had looked up for me for where to buy a ticket. So I handed it to the taxi driver and off we went. My friend thought it was close to the station, but turns out it took over an hour and a half. Which was really unfortunate because as I go into the taxi I realized that I needed a restroom. It was a rough hour and a half. I finally arrived at what the taxi driver thought was the correct location, and went in. It took several minutes to find someone who spoke English, and they promptly told me that they don’t sell tickets there. I needed to go down the street about half a mile, but had to hurry because they closed in 10 minutes. After running down the street with my backpack, I rushed into the other bank breathing hard. The lady gave me a ticket and I took my spot in line. A few minutes later she came over and asked me for my passport. My heart dropped to the floor and I’m sure my face showed my disappointment. I did not have my passport. At first I thought I had simply forgotten it, and was kicking myself harshly.What kind of traveler forgets their passport? It was then I realized that my company had taken my passport to give to the police so I could register and receive my official work permit. This is only allowed to be done once you are in China and takes a few weeks. So I couldn’t have brought my passport anyway! I tried to give the lady my Texas Drivers License, but she said that would not do. I was starting to get really frustrated. Then she suggested that a Chinese person in line could purchase the tickets for me. This seemed like a perfect solution until I informed them I was looking for swimming tickets and she said they were all sold out. Argh! I figured I would just go by the stadium and try to scalp a ticket like I did for gymnastics before. By this time it was getting close to the deadline for when I had to check into my hostel, so I headed there first. Upon arrival, the first question they asked me was my name. And the second was one I was dreading: “Can I see your passport?” I told her the story and not only did she look skeptical, but she said I cannot stay in any hotel without a passport. The police will check and would shut down the hotel if they were caught. Now I was getting frustrated. She said if I had a copy of it that would work, but I would also need a copy of my visa – which was in my passport. After realizing that there was no way I could stay in Beijing that night, I took a casual dinner and got the last train back to Tianjin. Then returned to Beijing the next day and was able to scalp a ticket out front fro the swimming. So in the end it all worked out, thought it ended up being much more complicated than I had anticipated. The Water Cube is truly incredible. It is so much more stunning up close than on TV. And inside it is beautiful as well. I ended up sitting next to some Brits who were parents of one of the gold medalist swimmers! Pretty cool. It was cool to watch as they broke a world record! (paralympic) I learned about the different rankings of disabilities. Upon leaving the Water Cube, it had gotten dark, and while taking pictures (I took literally over 100) I realized that it changes colors on the outside! I got a picture (attached of me in front of it when it was red). It was a fantastic trip, and I’m so glad it worked out!

Posted by: andrewcockerham | February 13, 2010

The other side of the (same?) world

Rebel Yell?

(originally posted September 14, 2008)

Monday September 1, 2008   Tianjin, China   6:15 pm

It has been a while since I have written unfortunately; I should have written sooner.  Lets see if I can remember everything since my last post.  On Saturday August 23, I had a field hockey ticket for that morning.  Not having ever seen a field hockey match before, I was quite excited to watch and learn.  The stands were only maybe half full, an interesting twist since the tickets were ‘sold out’.  You may have read that this was the case in several events across the games, although of all the ones I attended, this was the only stadium that wasn’t full.  Several minutes after the match started, I noticed whole busloads of Chinese school children arriving, which makes one wonder if they were sent to ‘fill seats’.  It is not always the most fun to watch a game in which one doesn’t know the rules, so I went and sat next to some Westerners in front of me who turned out to be Germans living in Shanghai.  They were also field hockey players, which means I hit the jackpot as far as people to help explain what was going on. Apparently Germany is one of the best field hockey countries in the world.  They were great guys and made the match much more entertaining getting to speak English with someone.  We watched two matches, China vs somebody and Great Britain vs Korea.  It turned out that they were both quite exciting matches.  The first one was very close and China ended up winning by scoring a goal on a short corner with less than 1 minute left to win.  The second one wasn’t very close, but Great Britain scored lots of beautiful goals.  After the match the Germans were very helpful (since they have lived in China for 5 years they spoke a good amount of Chinese) and invited me to eat lunch with them.  We went to this small rooftop restaurant in a hutong in the backpackers district.  He showed me a fantastic hostel that I will probably use when I go back to Beijing.  We had duck and lotus for lunch, among other more ‘normal’ things.  When I say we had duck I mean they brought out the entire duck on a plate, head and beak and all.  I wasn’t brave enough to eat the head or face, but the duck meat was quite good.  And I actually really liked the lotus, it is sweet and tastes almost lick a crunchy pineapple.  Then we went to get foot massages, which incidentally were much better than the ones in Thailand.  First they soak your feet in this tea with rose flowers in it.  I think we both dozed off a bit; it was very relaxing.  And it was perfect timing because they had a large flatscreen TV playing the synchronized swimming finals while we were sitting in lounge chairs getting our feet massaged.  I think it cost about 40 RMB, or $6 for an hour massage!  After that we stopped by a small Australian owned bar and chatted with some Aussies for a bit.  The German guy had tickets to the field hockey final that night, so he left early.  When I left a bit later, I found out he had already paid for my beer without even telling me.  What a nice guy!  I headed off to find some dinner, and by the time I finished eating I was tired and just headed home.

I slept late the next morning, then went to the ‘Silk Market’ which is not exactly as you might expect.  It was a 6 story building full of little booths selling everything you can imagine, but mostly clothes housewares.  Behind every booth lurked a very aggressive Chinese girl, who was probably around 17 years old, that were the salesmen for each booth.  They knew English and often a few other languages, and were amazingly skilled salesmen despite their assumed low education.  They would grab the arm of tourists to try to drag them into their booth; I almost punched a few of them after they grabbed me forcefully and were hesitant to let go.  In America I think something like that starts fights and gets people hurt.  I ran into a few guys from my hostel and we had lunch at a buffet that was only 78 RMB. ($11) The food was pretty good.  I managed to escape the Silk Market without purchasing anything, although I did stop to see the fake iPhones.  They were decent copies, but pretty easy to tell they were fake.  Another interesting note is astronomically inflated prices at the Silk Market.  A guy at the hostel told me that a girl first quoted him 1000 RMB for something, and he eventually bought it for 80 RMB. (no that’s not a typo)  There it is all about bargaining, and these Chinese girls had mastered their art skillfully.

Afterwards, I headed to Starbucks to relax a bit and with the intent of journaling, but ended up meeting a girl from Florida and we chatted for a while.  Then it was time for the Closing Ceremony to start, so we headed off in an attempt to find a place we could watch it in English.  However the place was so crowded that we couldn’t hear the commentators anyway, but at least we got to see most of it.  I thought it was quite spectacular, and I really enjoyed it.  One of the coolest things was as we were leaving to go home, we heard these loud booming noises, and when we looked up we could see the fireworks from the Bird’s Nest.  We were only about a mile away or so.  It was really neat to see them live, although it wasn’t a great view through the buildings, but we got to see some.  And here is where I also got my first experience with public urination in China. There were several kids that had stopped to watch the fireworks as well, and one boy, who was maybe 5 or 6, just paused, dropped his pants and relieve himself on a tree right on the street!  He even proceeded to keep talking to his friends during the process, and when he was finished went right back to playing.  What I assumed to be their parents were right their watching them and made no indication that this was abnormal or unacceptable!  All I can do is just shake my head in wonder.

The next morning I packed my things and headed to the train station to go to Tianjin, armed with a piece of paper stating so in Chinese.  I was a little nervous about the purchasing a ticket process, but the paper worked flawlessly.  While waiting for the train, I met a guy who was maybe 18 who wanted to practice his English.  He said he had studied it for a long time, but this was the first time he had ever spoken it to a native speaker.  He helped me find the right track and got me off okay.  The people in Beijing were always quite helpful.

The train ride was pleasant and I got picked up and taken to the school to get my luggage that I had left there during the Olympics. My school is on the sixth floor of an office building, and seemed to be nice, although at this point I only had a cursory glance as I grabbed my luggage and left.  The driver took me to my apartment.  I was actually pleasantly surprised here, as the apartmen was not only quite large, but was pretty good quality.  And it had a real toilet!!  The place was quite messy, but I have been cleaning it up.  I spent the rest of the day unpacking and getting settled in.  The next day was my first day of ‘work’ which just consisted of a few hours of orientation and asking tons of questions.  I met my boss who I like and got along with well.  I met a few of the other teachers, saw the classrooms and staff room.  All in all I was satisfied with the school.  I was a little nervous when I found out I had my first class on that Saturday.  The next few days I went to work for a few hours to plan for mylesson as well as get more acquainted with the school, its methods and teachers.  Each day I had a few observations of other classes of teachers, and slowly got the hang of how EF works.

(continued Sep 9 2008 6:50 pm in Beijing at ‘cottage and pizza café’)

Class Notes

I also began to learn my way around my street and figure out where the street food was and where to eat, which is most important of all! My first class was on Saturday, and it was kids ages 6 to 8 level 1.  I had two classes at the same level, and the first one went quite well. However the second one is full of mostly boys, all who are rowdy and talkative and don’t even know enough English to understand when I tell them to be quiet.  (I’m not sure if teaching has made me never want to have kids! Haha)  But I survived, and the next day I have a class of older kids (9-13) level two, and they were much more enjoyable.  They were much better behaved for one, but also they’re level of English was high enough so that I felt like I could actually teach them something.  Teaching little kids “Blue, Red, Tiger, Lion” etc is not my really my forte I don’t think.  I much prefer to teach them about the language, or nuances, or advanced vocab.  This is why I found my adult class later that week to be my favorite.  They are level 5, which means they know quite a bit, and of course they are behaved.  They are highly motivated to learn English for whatever individual reason, and they soak up pretty much anything you say because its in English.  I could talk about dust for and hour and they would all be on the edge of their chairs.  It is kinda nice haha.

In fact, in one of my level 4 teenagers classes, they asked where I was from.  I asked them if they knew of any States in America, expecting to hear New York or California.  I asked them what the most famous State was, and they answered, “Texas”!  Man was I excited haha. Even better, in my first adult class, I introduced myself and they asked what city I was from.  So I told them Sugar Land, and knowing the meaning of sugar, they all got a kick out of that.  After telling them what State it was in, they began asking questions, even things like when Texas became a State!  So I definitely gave them a 10 minute quick summary of Texas history! And no spiel on Texas history would be complete without the story of the Alamo; naturally I taught them how to say “Remember the Alamo!”  (Yes I really did!!)  I got so excited I just kept talking.  They were all very interested and asking lots of questions, (including about my Aggie ring, one girl thought I was married) but eventually I had to cut it short to get to the material in the book.  But I told them we could spend a few minutes each class talking about Texas (since I love to talk about it) and they could ask me a question or two every week.  I also showed them my cowboy boots, which they really liked as well.  A friend back home said I should teach them how to Two Step, so maybe I’ll work on that.

(continued on September 11, 2008 at 1:06 pm in Tianjin, China)

Another interesting thing in class was when my level 4 teenager class, on the first day once I told them I was American, immediately began asking tons of questions about American politics, the war in Iraq, and the upcoming Presidential election.  They asked me who I thought was going to win, and even who I was going to vote for.  I couldn’t miss the irony in the fact that over here the ‘cautious’ and ‘very socially sensitive’ Chinese culture was asking me personal questions that would be considered somewhat forward to ask in our Western culture. Also of interesting note, most foreigners I have spoken with seem to favor Obama.  Although this was sort of indirectly stated, because I did not get into in depth political discussions.  I am not sure if it is because of Obama’s personality or charisma or more because of his policies, but it is interesting nonetheless.  Hopefully I can find out more in depth in the coming weeks.

Another very odd question they kept asking me was how much money America was making on the war in Iraq.  At first I thought they were just confused with the language, but after attempts at explanation and their repeated inquiries, I realized this was not the case.  I tried to explain to them that America was spending billions of dollars on the war, not making money.  But then they asked if anyone was making money on the war, and who?  Were the oil companies making money?  And I agreed that yes the oil companies were, but not the American government.  And herein lies the confusion, as I soon found out in their next line of questioning.  The further suggested, “But aren’t the oil companies set up by the government to make money in Iraq for America?”  Once I realized their line of thinking I almost laughed, but it all made sense.  I had to explain to them that in American, the government and companies are separate, (at least they are supposed to be, the current ‘bailout’ of banks and mortgage companies is beginning to cross the line in my opinion) and the government does not own or set up companies.  I told them that this is a very important thing in America.  You see, they were viewing the rest of the world, namely America,  through Chinese eyes. (albeit 14 year old and only educated through 8th grade or so)  In China many of the corporations are still state run, and so people may think of companies as being set up, owned and operated by the government, and (here is the key) make profit directly for the government.  So when they look at what America is doing in Iraq, to their minds, America went to invade, then set up oil companies to get all the oil money for the US government!  (now I know there are even some Americans who claim such things, but the American government does not ‘set up’ or own oil companies)  What a fascinating insight into the Chinese mind, and it makes a lot of the animosity towards America much more clear when you understand that is how they see us.  They don’t fully understand our democratic system (at least most of those who are not highly educated).  Hopefully while here I can do what I can to dispel these misinformed notions and promote some truth about America and its foundational doctrines. (or what used to be its foundational doctrines…)

The other day in one of my classes of teenagers I planned to have people come write answers on the board (not with their name attached or anything).  I had done this several times in Thailand and the students, even adults, usually enjoyed the opportunity to write on the board.  However I was met with an entirely different culture here in China.  I couldn’t get anyone to go write on the board.  As soon as I mentioned the idea I could see their faces twist up in agony at the mere thought of such a painful experience.  Through begging and prodding and many assurances that this wasn’t for a grade and it didn’t matter if it was right or wrong, I finally got a few of the more outgoing ones up there.  But even then, they would just stand at the board for minutes, not willing to write anything down for fear of it being wrong.  They were paralyzed by this overriding fear of being wrong.  Even the smart students were not immune.  Even in such a small task as writing on the board, I found this to be an interesting example of how the culture here is almost against individualism, and very much promotes going with the crowd and no one standing out.  I guess part of it may be that there is so much pressure to succeed in academics that no one can bear the thought of being wrong, especially of anyone else noticing that.  From conversations with my father about some of his coworkers from Eastern cultures, this appears to permeate adults as well.  And, in many cases, may be a principle cause in the lack of innovation and creativity in many industries over here.  They are extremely good at copying and reverse engineering, but they seem almost incapable of thinking outside the box, because it is not considered a desirable thing.  Perhaps with more exposure to the west these types of thought processes are slowly changing.


Dogs simply relieve themselves everywhere, and it is a challenge when walking down the street to avoid stepping in something smelly from a dog.  There seems to be no desire to have clean streets or pick up after pets (although I’m not sure where else the dogs would go, as parks are few and far between, and grass is not plentiful) And this rule not only applies to canines, but apparently humans too!

I was warned about the baby nudity before I came, and now I have seen it first hand.  Apparently diapers have not yet made it to China, and if you are under the age of say 3 or 4 (although I have seen older) the rule is that it is perfectly acceptable for you to relieve yourself right on the sidewalk. (both kinds, #1 and #2)  Parents not only watch, but encourage this and will hold up their children so as not to spill on their shoes.  Incredible I know.  I am sure that this a large contributor to the overwhelming and awful smells that often accompany a walk on the street.

A small but strange oddity in my apartment is that of the three elevators (one rarely works) one only services the odd floors and the other only services the even floors (plus the first floor).  So basically 12 floors share one elevator and the other 12 floors share another elevator.  I have yet to discover the logic behind that move.  Also on the topic of elevators, I have several times been in an elevator with a person smoking, which makes it difficult to avoid coughing on the loooong ride (slow elevators) up or down 18 floors.

The Chinese people for the most part have been very obliging and helpful.  I have had several people offer to have me contact them if I ever need any help or have any trouble with something.  People almost go out of their way to help foreigners, and I have really enjoyed the Chinese people I have met.  On the other hand, when it comes to waiting in line or using the roads, that is a whole different matter.  I have had little old ladies elbow their way past me in line. And on the street it seems as though “Every man for himself” is the rule.  If two people are approaching a narrow part of the sidewalk from opposite directions, instead of one stopping to let the other by, they will both try to squeeze past each other at the same time.  On the subway I often see men sitting while lots of women standing, which just seems backwards to me.  Perhaps part of this is mere cultural difference, but it is still hard for me to understand the logic behind it.

Another fascinating ongoing project is reading all of the ‘Ch-English’ t-shirts that many Chinese (mostly young) wear.  Most of them are phrases or sentences that don’t make any sense to an English speaker such as “Hometown lots spacey”.  Some will not even make words at all but will just be scrambled up English letters.  I saw one girl wearing a shirt that said “Rebel Yell for hugs”. (see phot0) Now I know most of these people don’t speak a lick of English and have no clue what their shirt says or the fact that it says nothing.  But even if this girl did know some English, I think it is pretty much impossible that she knows what a “Rebel Yell” from the days of the Confederacy is.  Much less how it has absolutely nothing to do with a hug!  I think that is one of my favorites so far, but the search is ongoing for more humorous ‘Ch-English’.  It is strange how young people here go out of their way to buy shirts with ‘English’ on them, because to them it is ‘cool’ or fashionable because that is what they see Westerners on tv and in the movies (and in person, i.e. me) wearing.  At least that is my assumption of why they wear shirts with ‘English’ on them.  Talk about exporting culture.

On the topic of dress, I have found that dress here is basically no different (other than the aforementioned oddities) than back home. People here would be very hard to distinguish from those back home based solely on their clothes.  Business men wear suits just like ours. Young people wear jeans just like ours (maybe different brand names with undoubtedly different price tags, but the clothing is the same).  I think already the world has pretty much shrunk to establishing a ‘global’ dress, which is basically what came out of the West. Everywhere you go the dress is basically the same, despite brand names.  Only when you get way out into the countryside do you find people who still wear ‘local’ dress.  It is kind of sad in a way that some culture seems to be lost by everyone adopting Western style clothing.

The other day, prompted by other teachers, I went to TGI Fridays (yes they have one here).  I ordered ‘Fajita Nachos’ and they were heavenly.  Real guacamole, real pico de gallo!!! (not sure how to spell that)  Oh man I had been craving Tex-Mex and it was incredible!

So to close, (I know this is an insanely long post, but it incorporates almost 2 weeks worth of stuff) don’t think that I am not enjoying myself.  I know many of the comments above seem negative (or gross).  But to me they are merely interesting commentary on the differences (and similarities) in our cultures.  In truth, I am having a blast.  I realized the other day that I am literally living a dream.  I have long dreamt of living and working overseas, being immersed in a culture and learning the language.  Well I am doing just that!  So I am happy and enjoying life, learning something new everyday.  And everyday is an Adventure!

Posted by: andrewcockerham | February 13, 2010

Sardines, Smells, and Chinese Pride

Who's winning?

(originally posted August 22, 2008)

Friday August 22, 2008 Beijing, China  7:49 pm

Sardines and Smells

World Record

Chinese Pride

Lets see, so Wednesday morning I needed to go to the US Embassy to get more pages in my passport.  I finally accomplished a long term goal of filling it up!  After three hours of wandering, I finally found the Embassy.  Attempting to take the public transport system in Beijing is not my favorite thing.  NO ONE speaks English, so I have to rely on showing the bus person the name of the stop in Chinese and let them tell me when to get off.  I never thought I was claustrophobic, but being packed in like sardines with hundreds of other Chinese people is beginning to make me a little masochistic haha.  And being cramped in and pushed and shoved and poked doesn’t only happen on the subway and buses, but in lines everywhere.  It is definitely true that the concept of personal space is foreign to the Chinese mind. I am craving the nice open spaces of Texas!  Then once I left the bus station I showed people on the street the address in Chinese and they just look at me like I just landed from the moon.  Even if they did understand, since they know zero English I’m not sure if they’re directions would be very helpful anyway.  I finally wandered around long enough until I found a Westerner who knew English, and they directed me to the British embassy, where someone finally could direct to the American Embassy, which was somewhat hidden.  The brand new one that a bunch of Aggies helped to build doesn’t open until next month.  It was good to hear American English again.  In all my travels it was my first time to visit a US Embassy.  I was actually pretty surprised because there were a lot of Chinese people working there, and seemingly pretty low key security.  I only saw one Marine.

Also, another note about being cramped in with hundreds of Chinese is the smells.  I have already discovered at least a dozen new smells that I did not know existed before.  And none of them were pleasant. Many of the taxis have a strange odor, but I’m sure I will get used to it eventually.

I also had my first experience with the state run media today.  There is an English daily newspaper published here in Beijing (it costs 1.5 RMB or 22 cents), and there was an article in it today really thrashing the West’s reporting on the bad air quality of Beijing for the Olympics.  It was quite sarcastic suggesting that if the air was as bad as all the Westerners claimed it was, that athletes would be keeling over dead in the middle of their events.  He blatantly said that the experiments that Western journalists did on the air were useless because they already made up their minds about the results.

Wednesday afternoon I was walking to a Starbucks to check email and journal when I was stopped by a strangely outgoing and friendly Chinese girl.  It turns out she was trying to sell me some of her artwork so she could pay for her school.  The art was actually quite stunning, and I felt only slightly bad for refusing.  I ended up falling asleep at Starbucks.  Then I headed off to meet up with my roommate (who I sold my extra track and field ticket to) to the Bird’s Nest for that nights track and field events.  The stadium truly is stunning.  It and the Water Cube are both so much more beautiful in person than on TV.  That night we saw heats of the Men’s 800m, the Women’s Hammer Throw final (where a massive Chinese woman won silver), the Women’s 400m hurdles heats, Men’s 110m hurdle semis, Men’s Pole Vault qualifying, and the Big Kahuna the Mens 200m Final.  The Pole Vault was certainly exciting to watch (aided greatly by the $6 binoculars I bought outside the stadium).  But Usain Bolt stole the show again by smashing the world record and winning by over half a second.  The Americans had a good showing with silver and bronze. There were several Jamaicans sitting in front of us who went nuts when Bolt won.  It was surreal to be there and see a world record like that, then see the replay on TV the next day and be able to say “I was there!”.

Thursday morning I slept in and went off in search of some Olympic souvenirs.  I found the official flagship store, and had and even crazier experience of being buffeted by waves of Chinese flowing in and out of this shop.  I did end up getting a few things, but I have never seen a more inefficient system for consumers.  Not only did you have to pick out your item, get a ticket from the employee, then go wait in line to pay, get another ticket, and return to get your item, but the cashiers had no concept of customer satisfaction.  I guess capitalism is still pretty new to them.  Despite lines of dozens of people long, the cashiers made no apparent effort to be speedy, and would turn to chat to each other while checking people out.  It was quite frustrating, as in similar situations in the States, people get things moving pretty quickly. It was like the opposite experience to the one I had in McDonalds that I mentioned in my last post.  I had similar frustrations with Chinese workers doing ticket and security checks at venues and subway stations.  They make no attempt to speed things up even when thousands of people are waiting in line, and take their merry time. But I guess I shouldn’t complain as the venues have been safe.

Thursday night I met up with the Canadian family (who I happen to sit next to at the triathlon) whose son was competing in the modern pentathlon.  They got me a free ticket, and helped explain the sport to me as we watched the last two of five events, the equestrian and running.  They son Joshua Riker-Fox placed 24th out of 36 I believe. Still a good finish as it was his first Olympics.  It was moving to watch how exciting and nervous his parents were.

Today I just relaxed and wandered around town with some Brits from the hostel.  We walked through a small food market, where you can buy crickets, silk worms, and seahorses on a stick.  Yes, none of that was a typo.  I did not try any, as my previous cricket experience was less than satisfactory.  The Brits tried the crickets, (which were actually quite large, so they must be a different species or something than the ones I had) and they said that they weren’t too bad.  Also on the menu here is chicken and duck heart, as well as some other organ (our best guess was kidney or liver), all served on a stick.  It made me miss home food.

Another cultural note on the Chinese pride.  All of the talk in the Western press about how this Olympics is a huge boost for Chinese national pride is not overstated.  It is so true.  The Chinese are stoked that they are beating the US in gold medals.  (I know we are winning in overall medals, but here every tally is ranked by gold medals so that China is on top)  I even had one Chinese guy ask me with a smirk on his face if I knew how many gold medals the US had, just so he good quickly remind me of how many more China had.  On the more subtle side (or maybe not)… Nike put up large displays of mannequins wearing Chinese Olympic uniforms doing different sports in the one of the large, high end touristy malls here.  I walked by it three times before I noticed that there are three sets of track and field athletes with a Chinese mannequin positioned slightly ahead of a mannequin wearing a USA uniform.  I wonder if this was Nike’s idea or the Chinese government, but I found it quite noteworthy.  (see photo)

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