(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’)
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!