Thursday, December 17, 2009

more thoughts on being in China

Welcome back to more "Intriguing Cultural Ponderings with Joann."
Today we will be discussing many things that pique my musings.

*Warning: this post is neither short nor well-organized. Tough luck.
Here we go...

1. Americans are very frugal with their physical affection. Those of you who have traveled abroad know that it is a common thing to see friends and neighbors walking around with arms linked and hands held. China is no different. It is quite usual to see two people sharing a scooter or umbrella. It doesn't matter their gender or age or length of time they've known each other. These people are cozy. A few nights ago I was at a gathering with the foreign language teachers and some of the students, a Chinese student was introduced to me, Sherie. She sat down next to me and offered her hand. I took it, expected a hand shake or gentle squeeze, but she simply held onto it with both of her hands, sitting there smiling at me for a good five minutes. I also had a student walk out of one of Matt's classes with me - I was holding Matt's hand on my left, and she had her hand tucked into my right arm. Very cozy.

2. Noodles for breakfast. This is common. Think "Elf", but without the syrup and marshmallows and chocolate poptarts. Replace those with spicy sauces and ginger herbs. I did not know this was a common breakfast food until my second morning here when my lovely roommate, Ann (an English teacher from the Philippines), brought me a cup of noodles with peanut sauce and corn from a street vendor. I thanked her, but was very confused about why she brought me a savory lunch or dinner dish at 10am. When Matt arrived a few minutes later I explained the situation with a quizzical brow, and he explained how they do breakfast here. I was grateful, but they still didn't sound very good while I was in the middle of drinking my Maxwell House instant coffee (yes, that's right - 400,000 people and no Starbucks - incidentally, the instant coffee isn't all that bad - as long as it isn't Foldgers).

3. Chicken is more of an afterthought in the majority of the dishes I’ve eaten here thus far. I’m used to Panda Express or even sit-down Chinese restaurants where there’s meat and rice (or chow mein) aplenty. But when ordering the Kung Pow Chicken dish here, it’s more of a treasure hunt to locate chicken in the towering chunks of cucumber. This is not a complaint – just an observation.
*Note: I previously mentioned hot dogs in the Kung Pow Chicken here. This is true, but not at every restaurant. The place Matt normally goes refrains from hot dog indulgence.

4. I am happy to say that I am well on my way to mastering the art of chopsticks. I failed miserably at chopstick usage when in Singapore, so I was a bit worried for myself here where Western utensils are not readily found when eating out. Now that I am confident I can get some food to my mouth, I enjoying the process so much that I may start using them when eating Chinese food in America.

5. Hands down the most common reaction I get when people meet me is some variation of: "You are so beautiful." Sometimes they tell Matt instead of me. I heard about this phenomena from Matt (he gets “handsome” a lot), but was unprepared for the frequency of this sentiment. They are so open with their compliments. I was definitely taken aback the first few times people said “She is so beautiful” instead of “Hello. Nice to meet you.” The Chinese people love white skin. The whiter the better. In that regard, I am definitely gorgeous with my Scandinavian, indoor-loving skin. Sometimes they also mean that they love my clothes. They give this type of compliment to nearly every American foreigner in their midst. When I returned the compliment to one student, she giggled profusely and scampered away with her friend – she almost looked like she was going to cry (with happiness, I should think).

6. For those unaware, I have a brother who teaches in Singapore and my mother and I went to visit him and his family a little over two years ago. I have not seen a ton of similarities between Singapore and Xiaogan, except in the apartments. They are very Singapore-esque. The floors are tile and there are big open windows on both sides of the apartment. I won’t go into details, because most of you haven’t been in either a Singaporean or a Chinese apartment. Just trust me, there is nostalgia for me when I walk through the apartments here.

7. Just like Singaporean apartments, there is little in the way of controlling the air temperature with the exception of the bedrooms. Currently it’s pretty cold here, which means it’s cold everywhere. There are space heaters in smaller bedrooms, and a nice big heater in Matt’s bedroom, but the living spaces are unheated. Brrr! Especially with tiled and cement floors. The classrooms are not heated (or air conditioned when it gets hot) either. Everyone stays pretty bundled and I have found myself wishing, for possibly the first time in my life, that I had some really thick soled shoes to compensate for the cold seeping up through the floors into my feet and upward to chill my entire body. Fortunately I love the cold much more than the heat, and I can warm up after returning from classes or walking to get food.

8. Ooh! This is fun: the shower is one with the bathroom. There is a wide-open space on the far end of the bathroom with a drain in the middle, but there is no step down and the floor isn’t noticeably sloped, nor is there a shower curtain (in my apartment). So when you take a shower, everything gets wet. Entertaining to be sure. I am very grateful for the hot water – the shower is the only place in the apartments that has hot water. I cringe every time I need to wash my hands. I will not be taking warm faucet water for granted anytime soon.

9. Not surprising to people who have traveled to Asia, squatty pottys are the norm. And you must bring your own toilet paper. Luckily the apartments that the foreigners stay in have Western toilets, still, it has been an adventure. The toilet got clogged at the apartment I’m staying in, so I had to use the hole on the floor instead. Luckily that was resolved within 24 hours. I guess it was nice in a way though; I love new experiences, but I wasn’t about to use the squatty of my own accord – I had to be forced by dire necessity.

10. Ever heard the expression “It’s always New Year’s in China”? That’s probably because it doesn’t exist – but it should! Seriously, there are ALWAYS fireworks going off. My first morning here I woke to fireworks close to the apartment at 7am on a Saturday. Apparently they use them for funerals or birthdays or anniversaries or special events or mediocre events or to scare away bad spirits or just for the fun of it. I appreciate this about the Chinese. They may be restricted in many areas that Americans are not, but they can shoot off fireworks whenever they want. Lucky. I wish I could wake up at 7am every Saturday to shoot off fireworks of weekend ecstasy.

11. At least twice a day, me and my Wesley (aka Matt) make our way through the Princess-Bride-fire-swamp-cave-attic-thing that separates his apartment from Dorothy & Ann’s (aka mine). Let’s simply say that it’s cold, dark, coated in at least a quarter inch of dust, and I’ve seen at least two bats flitting around at night. I feel like a bold adventuress with her dashing hero as we duck under thick wires and step over dusty partial walls, our way lit solely by the light of a cell phone. Fun. Creepy. Gross. Smelly. Inspiring.

12. These people are unafraid to express themselves. They gasp and giggle and shriek and exclaim at nearly every conceivable instance. I love it. It reminds me a bit of my roommates from Ranch Village Drive in Bend – except an entire country full of them and all speaking a different language (which always makes things more exciting for me). So if I come home with more expression than I left, you will all know why. It’s very contagious.

13. Forearm-water-wing-looking-things are common attire here. The girls here wear these thin raincoat material bags, with elastic on both sides, over the forearms of their coat sleeves. Many times these are decorated with Hello Kitty or animated cats. I thought they were, bizarrely, for warmth at first, but found out today that they are to keep coat sleeves clean. Many I’ll start sporting them.

14. Related to number 5, I am now the image of America in many young Chinese students phones and cameras. I often turn around to see that there are several people unabashedly pointing cameras and phones at me. So I grin and try not to blink. There are VERY few foreigners here in Xiaogan. Matt is probably the only white man in the city of 400,000 people and I am currently one of four white females here. This does not give you all permission to follow me around like paparazzi when I’ve returned.

15. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that the students are impressed with my pronunciation when I repeat something they say. Of course, I have no idea what I just said, but apparently I said it very well. In the past, people have said this of me when I’m repeating Spanish or French as well. I am inspired to rekindle my French language learning upon returning home. I’ve always wanted to be fluent in a second language, but I’ve never been disciplined enough to put in the work necessary. Thank you, China, for so inspiring me.

16. Two parting words: “baby pants.” They do not joke around about bundling their children here. They look like puffy stars waddling around; arms stuck straight out and legs splayed to allow room for several inches of padding around each little thigh. Incredibly adorable. The one flaw I’ve seen with this system of protecting the young from the elements, is in their pants. Think hospital gown. The pants are made completely split at the seam from the waistband to the middle of the thighs on the backside. Sure, this allows the children to squat whenever they want to relieve themselves, but it also makes for pretty cold little tushies.

If you made it this far, please leave me a comment so I can congratulate you. Maybe I’ll even set a firework off in your name.


Cassie said...

can i come.

i am beginning to think there are very few people i would want to be in China with and you, may sweet friend are FOR SURE one of them!!!!1

it's fun having had so many friends who have lived in or gone to China, the stories are all very similar, except yours are told with much more flair and brilliance!

i laughed. i cried. i giggled and wanted to squeak.
thank you for all of this.
what a great way to start my day!

Jim said...

I made it! I conquered 'Mt. Joann' message - and enjoyed it! Read parts to mama, but am sure she will read it all on her own. I like your descriptiveness! I wonder . . . if I was in China, would I be getting 'you are so beautiful' comments? :>)

Used your pedometer gift at work last weekend . . . about 75,000 steps in 20 hours! That's about 32 miles worth! I'm getting so 'buff'! Good cure for 'couchitis'.

Love you! And Hi to Matt!

Marie said...

I loved reading every bit of this! It's the next best thing to being there and experiencing it myself!! thanks for writing so much and giving such fun details. Again, I'm looking forward to seeing pics. But don't hurry home... I want you to enjoy every minute and may they (the minutes) last longer than they do here!

Barb said...

I smiled all through this. Lovely. You are beautiful, inside and out.
I'm glad Matt has you.

Both you and Matt have painted a wonderful picture of your adventures, both actual and perceived. Thanks so much.

Now, about this tunnel through the dust....

Sarah M said...

Loved the update! Can't wait to chat when you return. Having fun in Oregon, but not as much as when I get to see you!

David said...

Hey Joann! I'm glad you're having a good time. I'll miss you at Christmas, but you are having an experience of a lifetime. You are already ten times the world traveller I am. Maybe someday I will travel overseas again. I loved your most recent blog. Very entertaining, funny, and intelligent. I may have to go there sometime. At least SOMEONE will say I'm handsome! Love, Uncle Dave

Christi said...