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June 2008 Archives

June 5, 2008

Bathroom Adventures in Small-Town Hunan

Inspiration comes at odd times; recently it came when I had to choose whether or not to urinate on my friend’s laundry machine tube.

Two weeks ago, I took my first trip to Hunan province (the birthplace of Chairman Mao) to visit two PiA fellows gracious enough to host me in their post in small town of Jishou. It was a great opportunity the “real China”—real according to an account in the fall PiA newsletter (and as opposed to the “fake” Guangzhou where I live).

Jishou is a “small” Chinese city of 290,000 in a minority autonomous region much less developed than Guangzhou. So, part of my interest in going was to see life how China’s other half lives.

There were, of course, differences. The sky was cleaner; the ground was dirtier. More people stared at me on the street and the number of “hello’s!” shouted at my back towered over the number I get in Guangzhou.

There were, of course, similarities. Their campus gate featured a frightening homeless man lighting fires and yelling at us similar to the oddly handsome man who sleeps in the glare of the gate floodlights of our school (minus the fire).

As odd as a fire-wielding homeless man yelling at me was, what stuck with me the most was the forced decision I had to make in my friend Aron’s bathroom and how it was similar to my experience in Guangzhou.

I entered Aron’s bathroom in a rush only to find a squatty-potty, a toilet without a seat, consisting of just a hole in the ground. The washing machine sat next to it with its water tube running right into the squatty-potty basin.

My need to go to the bathroom was rather urgent, so I was forced to decide whether I thought that the tube was normally removed for urination, meaning I should remove it before I begin, or whether the tube was normally left in, in which case removing it would mean touching something I had no desire to come into contact with.

In haste, I decided to put my own interests first and relieved myself with the tube still in place, making the tube untouchable for the foreseeable future (my apologies to Aron, who’s probably reading this and discovering this for the first time).

Yet what struck me was that the problem with the loose washing machine tube is a problem I’ve had in my nicer and more modern apartment in Guangzhou. This made me revisit a question I’ve had for a long time in China: why are buildings built so shoddy?

At first, I was convinced that it was simply that the standard of living is lower and that once the economy develops more things will start to pick up.

But after living in China longer, I’m not sure that this is the case. For example, there are some problems which seem to be inexplicable based on cost, like the fact that my bathroom has an incessant sewage funk caused by the lack of an S-shaped pipe.

It’s telling that my apartment in Guangzhou and Aron’s apartment in small-town Hunan suffer from the same problems, and it points to the notion that perhaps money is not the only cause.

The causes are various, I’m sure. Yesterday our school’s German exchange student suggested that less attention is given to the insides of homes because those are rarely on display to people outside of the family. Thus, money gets channeled from the inside of homes to more visible displays of wealth in this culture concerned with face.

Whatever the real reasons, I hope that the housing interiors improve soon, or I’ll have to bring rubber gloves on my next trip to Hunan. That’s if I’m still invited.

June 16, 2008

And Your Little Dog Too

The foreign students stranded in our high school in southern China just left for the airport amid tears and well wishes; yet despite the emotional farewell, their stay was not without controversy—this one executed Chinese style.

Until today, our high school was home to three foreign exchange students: one from Sweden, one from Germany, and one from Italy—all girls.

Things went more or less smoothly until the spring, when our school received an American student transferring from another part of China.

In China, Americans have a reputation for being sexually decadent and unfortunately our American exchange student went straight to work confirming that stereotype for our school audience.

She soon started flouting the school’s rule prohibiting dating by openly hugging and kissing her new Chinese boyfriend (a student at our school) in the hallways—an act not out of place in an American high school but downright scandalous here. Administrators asked her to stop the displays of affection, but the behavior continued.

Soon, the school administrators were at wit’s end as to what to do. They were willing to tolerate more of the foreign students’ behavior simply because they were foreign, but such open displays of affection were crossing the line.

To this situation, our administrators went to work in a very Chinese fashion: they threatened the Swedish student.

Administrators approached the Swedish student to get her to stop the American girl from being together with her boyfriend, at least in the school hallways. But the conversation didn’t start with the American student; the conversation started, “you mei you nansheng dui ni hao?” Aren’t there any boys that like you?

The administrator was being coy, referring to the Swedish girl’s boyfriend. The Swedish student had also made waves in the school by dating a boy in the school, but she had since kept a lower profile—much lower than the American girl.

In so many words, the administrator asked the Swedish student to try to reign in the American student, all the while not letting her forget that they knew about her own boyfriend and that they could make her life more difficult.

And this is Chinese informal justice in which the people you know can be punished for your deeds. It’s been such a part of Chinese history that the Chinese language even has a specific word for a type of punishment where all of the friends, family members, and extended family members of a criminal are killed.

The result of a system where your friends and family can be punished for your deeds is that people are encouraged keep their heads low. And in my experience, I’ve found that my Chinese friends are often very reluctant to fight systems openly, preferring instead to keep out of trouble.

The Chinese system doesn’t reward crusaders because the playing field is different. If your family members can be punished for your actions, conservatism and pressuring others to keep their heads low makes sense.

This is a lesson that has not been lost on this American and our Swedish student, at least until today. With the driver urging, “Get in the car, get in the car!” and administrators and dozens of students standing by, our Swedish student decided to have one last crack at the system. She laid a kiss right on her boyfriend’s lips, mere feet from our foreign liaison. Tears running down her cheeks, she got into the car and made her getaway.

June 18, 2008

Opinion Intelligence

An extended inquiry into why my students take so long to answer my questions

Why my students take so long to answer my questions and seem almost incapable of answering questions I haven’t prepared them for is a question that has long nagged me and that I’ve written about before (When Silence Becomes as Soft as a Pillow). Over time, though, I’ve realized the question has many different answers (all legitimate) and so I return to the question at length now.

One piece of insight came a couple months back when David (my PiA roommate) and I had a meal with Robert, a Chinese guy we met through my cousin working in Guangzhou’s satellite city of Foshan.

Over fried vegetables, eggplant, and mutton, we talked. alternately practicing our Chinese and his English, about Robert’s recent college graduation and entry into the working world.

Our meal was enjoyable and I looked forward our next meeting. Yet I was surprised to find out from my cousin about Robert’s report of the meal. According to Robert, we had peppered him with question after question, leaving him little time to stop and take a breath.

He certainly wanted to meet with us again (heck, it was great practice for his next job interview), but having what to us had seemed like a pleasant conversation was to him a stressful experience.

It seems that in China people are so not accustomed to ask questions that our curiosity came off as stressful if not also rude. And so I think part of the reason my students have such a tough time having conversations in my oral English class is because Chinese society doesn’t gravitate towards conversations like my question-filled style.

It’s not just me. I believe I’ve run up against a difference in how cultures mold their individuals, and David has some Chinese family experience to back me up.

David spent much of his Chinese New Year time putting in face time at the family gatherings of his Guangzhou-born-and-raised girlfriend.

Most of the gatherings consisted of meals and the hang-out time around meals, during which the men would smoke and play Mah Jong. David’s place was still at the kiddie table, so he hung out with his girlfriend and the other college- and high school-aged young adults of the family.

What David noticed could have come straight out of Confucius’s Analects: no one asked the kids questions. No one asked what the kids were studying in school, what they thought about current events, or any topic where they could express their own opinion. Kids were addressed to be ordered or just hung like wallpaper.

And this is where part of the question of why our students have trouble expressing themselves and why Robert felt uncomfortable with my questions started to come together. Simply put, these kids in China weren’t being raised to field questions and form opinions.

As David recounted his experiences to me, I couldn’t help but think of a psychological parallel: emotional intelligence. Psychologists often talk of emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and anticipate our own emotions and the emotions of others, as an important ability that is (or is not, depending on the environment) developed when children grow up.

Here David and I were staring at what I christened “Opinion Intelligence.” In other words, my students struggle to form and express opinions because people aren’t asking them to. Their opinion intelligence, the skill to constantly form personal opinions and be able to express them to others, just isn’t developed.

Of course, this is not to say they aren’t intelligent. It’s simply that certain skills are emphasized in Chinese society and certain skills aren’t. For example, in terms of emotional intelligence, I think my students have a much greater ability to focus on the emotions of others around them, since this is emphasized in Chinese society.

Having your own personal opinion about everything is not valued in Chinese society. My students tell me that the essays that write for their other classes are essentially tests of their ability to recite accepted wisdom. SImilarly, David’s girlfriend has told us about essays which were graded based on the number of chengyu or common sayings she could pack into the essay.

This is all pretty far from the United States where popular wisdom says opinions are like assholes (everyone’s got one) and where not having one is tantamount to not having a social security card—you don’t exist.

All of this isn’t good news for the health of my curiosity in China, but it is a consolation to know that Robert is willing to meet with me again. This time I’ll bring my electro-shock kit.

June 22, 2008

Fire Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Possibility of Disaster

On a strangely sunny and clear day this past Thursday morning, I entered my apartment building on campus and took to the stairs only to discover that my building was on fire.

Staircases must feel very lonely in China since Chinese people avoid the exertion of scaling stairs, considering it unhealthy. Thus, despite the fact that I live on the second floor, I have yet to see any of my neighbors taking the stairs this entire year.

This led me to conclude that I was the first person to see the thick smoke billowing into the stairwell from the storage room below.

I ran outside to look for the security guard only to find her chatting with a pear-shaped old man with wildly long eyebrow hair.

“Fire! The, the building’s on fire!” I said stumbling over my words.

The pair stared at me blankly for a second, then chuckled. “There’s no fire, heh,” the security guard said.

“But the hallway’s filled with smoke!” I contested.

The old man laughed, “Zheli hen anquan. Bu yong danxin! It’s very safe here. Don’t worry!” He waved his hand and smiled insisting that I shouldn’t worry.

“But the smoke!” I repeated.

“Don’t worry, ha ha,” the old man repeated.

“But why is there smoke!?” I wasn’t giving up.

This time, the security guard spoke up. “Maybe they’re fumigating for cockroaches or rats or something.”

Maybe? I thought. I would prefer a touch more certainty when there’s a possibility that a twenty-plus floor apartment building is burning to the ground.

I wasn’t satisfied, but the group had already decided, so I turned back to head inside. As I walked away, the old man kept chuckling and repeated, “Zheli hen anquan!”

The odd encounter replayed in my mind as I dashed through the acrid smoke that had filled the hallway.

There were a number of elements that warranted explanation, like why we hadn’t been notified beforehand that the building would be fumigated. There’s also the fact that there were no safety precautions to protect me against the noxious smoke that made me dizzy as I walked through it.

What struck me most, though, was that the man’s attempts to reassure me was similar to a trend that I’ve seen before. It has to do with reasons.

To my worry and confusion, the old man responded only to my worry. I, however, paid no heed. I wanted explanation, a reason for the fact that I had seen the hallway filling with smoke. When the old man didn’t give me a reason, I dinstantly discredited his attempts to calm me down.

It’s hard for me to imagine that someone could see smoke, then hear simply, “Don’t worry!” and be contented, but I suspect that it’s plausible in China. Perhaps it has to do with people placing more trust in authority in China or Americans’ being more uptight. Whatever the reason, it’s a recurring source of tension in my China life; yet I’m comforted that there might just be a reason for it.

June 24, 2008

Heroic Pigs and Running Teachers: Earthquake Heroes and Villains

Times of national tragedy are times when heroes are born and villains are made, and the massive earthquakes that hit Sichuan have been no exception. But a pig?

Out of the tens of thousands dead, an undisputed hero has been declared in a pig pulled out of the rubble after surviving for 36 days living on rain water and charcoal.

Having lost 100 kilos during the ordeal, the pig, was later purchased by a museum operator who has promised to let the pig live out the rest of its days in peace instead of gracing a dinner table.

The pig has been rewarded, celebrated as a hero, and has even earned itself a real name: Zhu Jianqiang (朱坚强), “Zhu” being homophonous with the word for pig, and Jianqiang meaning to persevere.

The press has been less kind, however, to Paopao Laoshi, or (translated loosely) Teacher McRun, as he’s been dubbed in the Chinese press. Teacher McRun first wrote about his experience online of sensing the earthquake and then heading for the exit without stopping to take care of his students.

His essay created an uproar and the press has followed Teacher McRun as he became a national villain and his teaching credentials were revoked (whether or not that’s legal). Teacher McRun has since graced newspapers, blogs, and TV programs to be the posterboy villain of the Sichuan quakes.

Yet I discovered a strange twist to the story during possibly my last meeting with the friend I’ve dubbed Confucius. When I asked Confucius what he thought about Teacher McRun, he said that he thought the worst thing the guy had done was to write about his experience.

In other words, Confucius didn’t judge Teacher McRun for his actions, but only for the act of having spoken up about it. Confucius was either criticizing Teacher McRun for making waves or for not being congming, clever enough to keep his head down.

In either case, Confucius’s judgment reflected a Chinese attitude of placing moral judgments in a social realm rather than in the action itself. In a collectivistic society, it makes sense that people would emphasize the social aspect rather than the value of an action existing outside the social sphere, and Chinese morality has often been characterized as shying away from abstract values in just this way.

Perhaps it’s unfair to say that Teacher McRun is only a messenger being shot, but the public reaction surrounding his case is certainly revealing.

Being out of a job and facing national condemnation, Teacher McRun might soon start thinking that pig is sure sitting pretty. Maybe he would have been safer in the pig pen.

June 28, 2008

Why My Student Ain't Know how to Get to School

Early this semester, I received an email from an anonymous student in my Senior One (sophomore-level) slang class asking English questions from how to use modal verbs to “What does it mean to ‘move the G-string down south?’”

At the end of the email where a name would be written, she wrote:

Thank you! By the way, do you like Avril lavigne?

(I ain’t got an English name yet but I don’t want you to know my Chinese name so I don’t know what to write here.)

At a loss for what to call her, I noted that her email address includes the phrase “iwannafly,” so I dubbed her “Iwannafly.” Responding to each email takes about an hour of my time, but the past months of emails have been an exciting window into the untalked-about world of a young Chinese person.

Her last email was no exception. She wrote in one part:

I’ve studied in a middle school for two years. I lodged there. And this year when I went back there, I discovered in astonishment that I couldn’t find my way back to Huafu [our high school]! So I walked here and there and finally asked a shop assistance where the bus stop to Tianhe [the district where we live] is. I was so ashamed and didn’t tell any of my old classmates. But I think it was not all my fault. My father drove me there every Sunday and picked me up every Friday. And when he was not in Guangzhou, my mother went with me. So there was no need to remember at all! There were times when I tried to remember, but I failed every time. It was really stupid.

I’ve had similar experiences in my lifetime, but I believe Iwannafly’s experience reflects on a trend David and I think is a larger part of China.

In China, people share information with others only if they have to, regardless of whether it’s sensitive or not. And this leaves a cumulative effect on society as a whole.

For example, when I was staying in Kunming with a Meng, a Chinese friend. I would wake up in the morning whenever the sun was strong enough to rouse me and sit on the couch until Meng would come in and say without explanation, “Get in the car. We’re going!”

Like a pet dog, I would sit in the back of the car enjoying the scenery passing by without the slightest clue as to what I was looking at. Eventually we’d wind up at a restaurant or a park, and I would take it in as given to me.

Meng, I think, was being a gracious host Chinese style, trying to let me relax and not worry about the details. I was gracious for his kindness, but I’m still in the dark as to what I saw and did in Kunming.

In the US, people would probably sit down before leaving and discuss the plan. “First we’re going here, and then there. Does that sound OK?”

In China, information’s often not forthcoming, and it’s not just regarding vacation plans. In banks and stores, people will say simply “Bu xing!” “That’s impossible!” or “Mei you,” a vague phrase that can mean “We don’t have that.”

Recently I had a wonderfully absurd encounter at the visa office when I went to ask how to apply for a visa extension.

The officer behind the counter listed very quickly the various documents I needed. There were a lot, and it’s pretty important stuff, so I asked, “Is there a sheet with this information written down?”

But the officer replied sternly, “I’ve just told you.”

“I know that. But I don’t want to forget. Is there a sheet with this information on it?” I said. As I pleaded the second time, the thought of the hourlong trip to the office and hourlong wait in the chaotic room crept into my thoughts.

“But I’ve just told you,” he replied again.

I left empty handed.

Besides being unhelpful, the man was giving only the information he thought I absolutely needed. He refused to answer the question I was asking.

The cumulative result of all of this lack of information sharing—in bureaucracies, schools, between friends and family—is that people in China often don’t seem to know what’s going on.

In my time in China, I’ve found that people who work in an area often don’t know what’s around there; my students don’t know how to walk to school; and some of them ain’t even got an English name.