Perks of Being Foreign
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.
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.
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.