(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.