So cute!

So cute!
Split pants

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

16 Oct. 2013

Come morning, Shanghai roars to life.  The horns from the busses, taxis, and cars merging at the intersection of Haining Lu and Henan Bei Lu make one constant hooooonnnnkkk!  Pollution begins to rise from the horizon up into the atmosphere.  Construction--the whine of the concrete saws, the zaps of welding, the teeth rattling sound of jack hammering, and the rumbling of big Japanese pavers--resumes.  As I head to work, crossing Qipu Lu, people intent on shopping push me aside, shouting to their friends or into their smart phones, stopping at the fruit stands for fresh-pressed pomegranate juice or cantaloupe on a stick.  Every other person drags a trolley laden with black plastic garbage bags, each one stuffed with cheap clothing and cheap shoes.  People eat as they walk and then toss their trash unceremoniously onto the street, scarcely caring if the vinegar from their dumplings ends up on your clothes.

When you live in a city that's, like, 90 times the size of your own, it's easy to think you'll never have a moment's peace again.  One thing that's great about my neighborhood in Shanghai is that after about 9 pm, the whole place shuts down.  Most of the stores on Qipu Lu are closed, the rumble of trolleys and the call of vendors silenced.  The streets are littered with the day's trash--skewers from street barbeque, half-full Styrofoam bowls of ramen noodles, watermelon rinds--but it's quiet.  Quieter than New York City, less quiet than Spokane.  There have been a few times when I walk home from the subway, from work, and I can actually hear crickets, softly chirping in the bushes.  It's past ten, and the sky is black, the surrounding buildings brightly lit, like stars.

My morning walks to the Bund have been like a renewal for me:  a reminder that yes, peace does exist in spite of Shanghai's chaos, that the water in the river still flows and that the lotus still blooms, even from the muck.

As if pulled by the same idea, I see couples taking their wedding photos there all the time.  Just two days ago, I saw nine different couples!  Other than the Catholic Church in Xujiahui , Waitan (the Mandarin word for the Bund), is the most popular spot in Shanghai for wedding pictures.  New beginnings.

I always see something interesting on my walks.  One morning I saw a man flying a kite, a black fish about five feet long, high up in the air.  Kite-flying is popular on the Bund, but this huge kite was the most amazing I've ever seen.

This morning, the interesting sights continued:  I saw four different groups of uniformed practitioners of martial arts.  The first group was in light pink, dancing slowly with their swords near the Monument to the Peoples’ Heroes.  It was all so beautiful that I paused on their stairs:  A breeze rippled the loose pink clothing, swirled the tassels on the hilts of each sword.  Seabirds glided over the Huangpu River; tourists walked by, some taking photos.  Each pose, each movement of the practitioners seemed Zen, unhurried, knowing that a consistent gentle push might be more persuasive than a hard shove.

Not wanting to disturb them, I did an about-face and descended the stairs.

Below the Bund is a small garden, twisting and turning paths woven into the trees.  There is even a small wooden bridge near a waterfall, with lotus and lilies blooming up from the ponds.  Latticework arcs overhead, woven with trailing vines and filtering the sunlight.  Classical Chinese zither music wafts from small portable radios.  Retired people are there every morning.  Some just sit, almost as if meditating or just allowing themselves to wake up.  Some do taijiquan or other light calisthenics.  Some stand and talk with one another, the men with wrists clasped behind their backs like old scholars, looking like they're trying to balance themselves between Confucius and Chairman Mao.

As I made my way through this garden, I could hear more music, flute this time, and spied two long lines of people practicing another form.  Tai chi?  Wushu?  Kung-fu?  I knew a lot of the names, but not enough about the forms to identify them quickly.  Their uniforms were white satin rather than pink, but they were just as graceful.  Carefully I edged around them, thankful they were without swords.

It's hard to believe that modern Chinese people still practice these ancient arts--thousands and thousands of years old--but it's still a part of them.  It makes me feel good to know that the Cultural Revolution wasn't able to take everything away. 

China seems to me to be a nation of survivors.  The battles between warlords in seemingly every dynasty; 60 years of invasions by the Mongols; World War II…I can understand why bamboo graces so much of Chinese art.  So strong it's used as scaffolding, Chinese bamboo can hold the weight of many men, but it can also bend in the slightest wind.  The Chinese talk about being descended from dragons, but sometimes I wonder if they didn't spring up out of the bamboo, ready to bend or to be strong, whatever the situation required. 

Unlike the first Americans, who took that bold step into the unknown--and escaped--the Chinese made a stand.  Perhaps, if they'd been living in Europe, surrounded by ocean in many cases, taking a boat far away would've made more sense.  Or perhaps they chose to stay.  I don't know enough about China or Chinese history to make a real guess.  I think both histories, in spite of their differences, should be revered, though.  It takes just as much bravery to start over as it does to stay; to try something new as it does to keep going through the daily grind.

I thought about how China had survived so much.  I thought about how America, in its own short history, had survived what it has so far.  Maybe both countries are made of survivors.  Perhaps stubbornly, perhaps foolishly, human beings just keep on going.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pop, pop, pop

I’m a firm believer that some of the world’s cutest kids are Chinese.  Even when they are a bit dirty and have split pants (the solution to no diapers, and probably a good preventative for diaper rash in China’s more humid climates).

It must be difficult for people to limit themselves to just one cutie per family, but 99.9% of my students say they are an only child.  The One Child Policy was implemented in the 1970s, and continues (with a few minor changes) into today.  According to the World Bank, China’s population growth rate is only 0.47%.


Yet Shanghai is a city of 23 million people--that's triple the population of New York City--and some of the most populated cities in the world are in China:  Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou are in the top ten.  How is this possible?


One Saturday morning, I saw eight children under the age of eight.  It was a sunny day, and parents and grandparents were out early to enjoy it with their children or grandchildren.  Later that same day, I counted four pregnant women without even trying.  In spite of all this cuteness, I found myself thinking One child policy, my ass.


China has the world’s largest population.  Period.  I’ve checked three sources.  Even admitted that 1.3 billion people lived in China in 2005--and China's not famous for honestly reporting statistics.  India has the second largest, followed by the U.S.—at a measly 350 million or so.  Pitiful.


Luckily, China is the world’s second largest economy (right behind the U.S.), but even three blocks north of me, there were people in Shanghai—“a modern city”—without indoor plumbing.


Speaking of water, The Economist calls China’s water use “unsustainable”, in spite of the fact that each person in China uses one-fourth the water that a person in the U.S. uses.  This is mostly because the water in China is excessively polluted (thanks to coal mining and water from industrial uses not being recycled).


The U.N. reports that China’s population will max out at a staggering 1.45 billion in 2030—right around the time the water runs out, and right around the time when India’s population is set to surpass China’s. 


The more time I spend in big cities (Athens, New York, Shanghai), the more convinced I am of the importance of caring for our environment--for preserving what we've got, especially in the Pacific Northwest.  People complain about rules and laws in the U.S.--environmental regulations, taxes, permits for fishing, camping, hunting--but the unregulated growth (in population and development) in China is destroying the place--to say nothing of how difficult it is for people to compete for jobs here.


I don't want my hometown to look like this!  I don't think telling people how many children they can have is right, either, but I'm not sure what the solution to such a huge population is!  As much as I enjoy my students, my job, and some of the nicer areas of this city, Shanghai is flat, crowded, polluted--overrun with people, concrete, cars, and noise.  I honestly don't think it's good for my health or my sanity to stay here for a third year.


Shanghai will keep going without me--building into the clouds, honking until it sounds like a symphony, and having some of the cutest babies in the world. 

Communication Breakdown

So this morning when I got to work, one of the SCs—Echo-- approached me and asked, “So, Heather, hi!  OPT questions.”


OPT stands for Oral Placement Test, and I’d conducted three of them yesterday. 


“Okay, hi.  What about them?”  I asked.


Echo and a CC—Sky--who’d approached looked at each other and back at me.  Sky said, “OPT questions.”


“Yes,” I nodded.  “Okay.  What about the OPT questions?”


Sky and Echo looked at each other again, spoke a few brief sentences in Chinese.  “OPT questions,” Echo said again, slower, as if translating.


“I know,” I said, a bit impatiently.  “I did three of them yesterday.  What do you want to know?”


They traded glances.  Chinese flew through the air.


“Uh…”  Sky said, smiling at me.  He looked at Echo and nodded.


“OPT questions…which ones…?”


“Oh!”  I said.  “Which ones did I use?”


They nodded eagerly.


“It depends,” I said.


They looked put out.  “It depends on the student,” I explained.  “I try to focus on their interests and get them to talk about what they know, what they like.”


“Oh!”  Sky said.


“Norhaine (my old boss) used to use the same questions every time.”


“Oh, Norhaine!”  Echo said.  She smiled and looked pleased.


“But I don’t use the same questions every time.”


Sky looked down at his shoes briefly.  I could tell my answer disappointed him.  The SCs and CCs are famous for giving students the complete PPT of lessons beforehand (if the student requests).  The result, however, is a student who memorizes the set responses.  If you go off script even once, many of these students give you a blank look.


The CCs (not the teachers, interestingly) are given some kind of bonus if their students progress at a certain rate, hence the “cheat sheets”.  But, as an educator, I don’t think they’re doing their students any favors by giving them lesson material ahead of time, or by trying to help them skip levels for no reason.  I once had a student who requested to change from a level 5 to a level 8.  No reason was given.  I very politely told her CC there was no way I’d approve such a change, as it would probably hurt the student more than help her.


An American woman I knew who worked with Disney English was told, straight up, to lie to the parents of her young students.  Bonuses were given to their staff (again, not to the teachers) as well if students moved up a level.  So students were often moved up.  The American woman told me many of the students were moved up to levels where they understood nothing.  If the parents wondered about this (“Why doesn’t Wang Junior speak English to me at home?”) the teachers were told to say “He speaks English to me in class just fine.”  This teacher ended up quitting before her contract was up, simply because the ethical implications bothered her too greatly.


My coworkers Sky and Echo had probably been hoping that I had a formula, a set list of questions—so that they could give them to students before the Oral Placement Test.  So that the students could memorize their answers and be placed in a higher level to start with.


But wasn’t the whole point of an OPT to test their English level as it stood at present?  Anyone can memorize answers.  It’s what I call “monkey work”.  As in, “Even a monkey could do it.”  I felt fairly confident that, given time and a cheat sheet, I could memorize answers in Chinese that could place me as an Intermediate speaker—although that is the farthest thing from the truth.  Just because I could “ape” Chinese didn’t mean I understood it.


And then there are the students who try to memorize the “rules” of English.  I have students who’ve studied English grammar for a decade or more.  To be honest, I haven’t.  As a high school English teacher, I didn’t harp on grammar.  Once a week I’d conduct a grammar mini lesson, and grammar was part of each student’s grade, but literature and its themes were always the focus of my classes.


My Chinese students often like to corner me and try to trip me up on grammar.


“Knowing grammar is one thing,”  I said yesterday, feeling embarrassed (and not for the first time).  “Your grammar knowledge is great.  Some of my students know even more about grammar than I do!”  It’s true.  I hate to admit it, but they do outsmart me sometimes.


I may not know the proper names of things (intransitive verbs and dangling participles, anyone?), and I may have a hard time explaining the more complex ones, but I rarely make any grammatical mistakes in my own speaking or writing.  I’m not perfect, but English is my mother tongue and I’ve been speaking it for 37 years.  No matter how well my students think they know grammar, in straight up conversation, they always make half a dozen mistakes—minimum.


“Knowledge is wonderful!”  I told them.  “But now you must apply it.”  And a few of them looked like they’d never considered this before.  Isn't the goal in life to memorize?  I swear some of them were thinking it.


Education in China, I’ve read and I’ve heard from my students, encourages sitting in silence, writing, reading, memorizing.  Speaking practice is often repeating, as a class, whatever the teacher says.  Thinking--or speaking--outside of the box is not encouraged.  It is even seen as a disciplinary problem, depending on the school’s administrators.  American students complain about the same problem in U.S. schools, but most teachers I know encourage questions and comments from students.


China is a country famous for luxury brand knock-offs (I saw a Colvin Kleln t-shirt today) and copies of Impressionist art that are almost spot-on.  I think China has a gift for this, and it has its place and its uses.  That place, however, is not in education, in my opinion, and especially not in a language school.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

China...and Greece?!

One of the best things about teaching adults is that it's not verboten to hang out with students outside the classroom.  So when one of my students, a girl named Lynn in her early 20s, invited me and a handful of other students to watch fireworks in Century Park, I said yes without hesitation.

We met in Pudong:  outside exit 6, metro line 2, the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum stop.  I was the last to arrive, and I was still five minutes early.  The Shanghainese have impressed me with their ability to be consistently, politely on time.  With Lynn were Ben, a 20-something athlete and his classmate from Fudan University; and Jessie, Lynn's friend and also a student.  Jessie was a sweet girl who had the misfortune of looking like a boy.  (I also have a student named Simon who looks like a girl.)

Right away I could sense that this was one of the largest crowds I've ever been in.  Police and soldiers (all unarmed--no one, including private citizens, is allowed to own firearms in the Middle Kingdom) looked perfunctorily at our tickets at three checkpoints before we approached the viewing area:  a large promenade around what looked like a small, man-made lake.

Our tickets, I was pleasantly surprised to discover, listed Greece as the first act and China as the second.  I loved Greece!  After spending three months there as a student, I still thought it was one of the best places I'd ever visited.

The Greeks get around.  They've made it to Coober Pedy, a tiny opal mining town in The Middle of Nowhere, Australia, scrabbling for a living along with 40 other nationalities...and lizards.  In fact, back in '03 I'd stayed in a hotel called Radekka's run by a Greek couple.  The hotel's rooms were in old opal mine shafts--polished reddish stone walls deep enough underground to render air conditioning unnecessary, and so dark and quiet that I'd had one of the best nights' sleep in my whole life.

The Greeks have also made an impact in Shanghai.  The hole-in-the-wall Amphora sells everything from Greek olives and wines to cookies and ouzo.  There are a handful of Greek restaurants, too, from the mid- to the ridiculously priced.

The students and I were about an hour early, and changed spots a few times (searching for the best view) before sitting on Lynn's thoughtfully provided plastic sheeting.

"I want to cut down the tree."  Lynn, normally buoyant, was frowning, pointing at a large, leafy tree directly in front of us.  "It's hindering our sight."

I managed to stifle a smile.  Many of my students used overly academic language because their experience with English was with grammar textbooks:  reading, writing, memorization, rather than speaking.

"It's okay," I soothed, and lifted both of my arms up and to either side of the tree.  "We can see around it."

Lynn and Jessie unloaded fruit--black plums and sliced cantaloupe--and a six-pack of Coca-Cola from their backpacks.  They reminded me of moms on an outing--taking care of the children:  the two boys and the foreigner.  It wasn't the first time I'd been treated like a child because I couldn't speak the language and didn't know the culture, but it didn't bother me so much at the moment.

"I don't know what you like to drink, so I buy--bought?--American!"  Lynn giggled.

"I love Coke," I said honestly.  "I also like Wang Lao Ji," referring to the sweetened herbal tea that sponsored The Voice of China.  The drink came in a red can decorated with yellow characters that spelled out "King Old Lucky".  Apparently, there was a famous dispute over the recipe of this drink.

The four students looked impressed and nodded.

After about half an hour, I started to feel a bit nervous about the fact that we were sitting down.  We were now completely surrounded by people sitting, standing, eating, smoking; people with toddlers on their shoulders and people in wheelchairs.  The Chinese have a saying:  Ren shan, ren hai:  people mountain, people sea.  I thought, not for the first time how accurate and logical Chinese can be, and how poetic--crowds of people large as a mountain, large as the ocean.

The sky darkened, the crowd deepened, and the time ticked down.  "That tree!"  Jessie moaned, pointing, leaning her arm around my shoulder.  Chinese people are not usually very touchy-feely unless they are with friends.  Lynn and Jessie had been walking arm-in-arm earlier, and it was common to see women my age doing the same, or even holding hands, when walking around the city.  Ben and his roommate looked at each other, looking a bit embarrassed, before smiling a little at me.  This was another China thing--when you are their guest, they will do anything to keep you happy.  I had a feeling that, if it had been within their power, my students would've pruned every offensive branch so that we could have the perfect view of the coming show.  I resolved not to complain once.

"Well, I'm too busy making friends with all the babies right now!"  I said.  It was true.  I'd smiled and waved at a little girl with a bowl haircut who was gnawing at corn on the cob, a popular snack in Shanghai; I'd then played peek-a-boo with a little boy on his father's shoulders.  They were sooo cute!

Soon a man with the loud, traditional, Beijing-accented Chinese got on the PA to announce the beginning of the show.  The sponsors were saluted with small bursts of fireworks after each company name was announced:  a warm-up.

the Greek and Chinese national anthems were played, and then the Greek show began--it was maybe 20 minutes of dazzling, sparkling, fireworks synced with Moby and AC/DC, among other artists that I hoped were actually from Greece.  The finale:  flash-bang grenades that blinded us and evoked applause from the audience.

The sky was choked with yellowish-brown smoke that was, thankfully, blowing away from us.  "So angry about the trees!"  Lynn said again.  "We don't see!"

I thought we could see fine, mostly--yes, we were missing the middle of the display, but I wasn't going to admit that and make my hosts feel bad.

"I want to cut it!"  she repeated.

"But trees are good!"  I said.  "They take the smoke out of the air!"  The boys laughed, but the girls still looked upset.

China's show was a bit more thematic:  "My Heart Will Go On" the ticket had said in English.  Oh, no, I thought, not--

And there was a small, brightly-lit replica of the Titanic, cruising from left to center before going dark.  China is still obsessed with James Cameron's late 90s flick.  Even people who speak no English hum along with Celine Dion's theme, and it is sung reverently at any KTV parlor you can find.

The Chinese fireworks show was just as exciting as the Greek, and more so--there were green lasers dancing in the smoke; Jack and Rose's Chinese voices playing over lamenting music; floating white sparklers twirling on the surface of the lake, a tribute to those who had lost their lives at sea.  There were fireworks spinning on stands like pinwheels and golden showers of glitter that looked like heavenly willow trees dipping toward the water.  The finale left me feeling like Lindsay Lohan in front of a million paparazzi.  I was almost totally blind and deaf from the flashes and bangs.

It was the best fireworks show I'd ever seen.

But as soon as the lights came back on, the audience turned on their heels and made their way steadily to the metro.

"Uh..."  I mumbled as we joined ren hai, holding on to each others' backpacks or shoulders to stay together.  Surely not all of these people, these millions, were going for Line 2 back to Puxi, the other side of the river?

Oh but they were.  And no shouting police or soldiers crying "Bu hui!" (you can't) could stem the stampede, the avalanche, of people tumbling down the stairs.  The security check (x-ray machines) were always suspended when there was a rush like this:  moving millions of people was the emergency now, not what people might've had in their bags.

Somehow--somehow--we managed to stay together.  The benefit of just missing the previous train meant that we were first in line for the next one.

"'Fireworks'" zenme shuo?"  I asked.  After some debate, Ben and Lynn agreed on the characters.

"Yanhua."  Smoke flower.  Ah, the Chinese language tells it like it is.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Zhong Qiu Jie Kuai Le!

The title above, literally translated is “middle autumn festival happy”.  Also known as “the moon cake festival” or simply, “Moon Festival”, this occasion was very different for me last year.
Last year I went with two guys from my intake (training) group—we’d known each other only a couple of months by that point—and one of the guys’ friends, another woman.  One of the guys lived close to the center where I worked, and had done some exploring.  He’d found Daxue Lu –daxue literally means “big study” and actually is used to mean “university”--Road.  Modeled after University Avenue in Palo Alto, California, this street was full of cute little shops like Sipping in Time CafĂ©, a cake shop, several little bars, a Pancake Day, some fancier restaurants and boutiques, and a place called Togo Taco, where we did lunch. 
Later, three of us got cans of Asahi (the fourth not being a drinker) and wandered up and down the street at a pace one only uses on holidays.  We took a few silly photos, ate a few moon cakes the woman had stashed in her bag, shared a horrid cigar, and strolled aimlessly until the full moon came out.  Before the metro shut down, we hopped a train for the French Concession and ended the night with dinner and a couple of drinks at Shanghai Brewery.
This year was different because one of my students invited me to her home for a real Chinese celebration—a unique opportunity to see first hand how a typical family might celebrate this important traditional holiday. 
Although my student lived near the center, and it would’ve been easy enough for me to take the subway and meet her somewhere, she and her husband braved the 20-minute road trip (in Shanghai holiday afternoon traffic) from their place to pick me up—then made a u-turn and took me to their place! 
I feel, in all of my complaint-filled blog posts about pushy Shanghainese, that I’ve failed to mention one thing about Chinese culture:  when they get to know you, they are the most kind and polite people ever. 
Their nice car, a VW SUV, reminded me of my mom’s Subaru, with its GPS display screen and tan leather seats.  On the drive we listened to some old school U.S. music—I’m talking about easy-listening country my parents had grown up with—and then some Elvis:  “Are you lonesome tonight?”  Apparently, Elvis is not just The King here—he’s The Cat King—as in, Mao Wang.  Hilarious!
When we arrived, my student’s parents said “Qing jin”—please come in.  I offered my gift with both hands—a gift bag full of five apples (because four is an unlucky number—luckily, I’d unknowingly covered all the members of the family as well); cookies from Costa coffee (two different kinds, eight each, because eight is a lucky number); and an American eagle silver coin my mother had brought from the U.S.
I also saw a familiar face—Jack, the English name for my student’s son, a young man of about 13 who’d been to the center for some activity (it was either the Halloween party or the Christmas party last year).
The first thing they wanted me to do was sit on their couch in the living room.  I was used to this after my stint in the Peace Corps—being a guest, being waited on.  As an independent American, this is sometimes hard for me, but I was chill enough to handle it today.  Cubed watermelon sat on plate, a few pieces with small plastic forks poked in them.
Almost right away Jack sat next to me with Yeries (his mother, my student) and took a deep breath.  He began, in careful English, to tell me the story of their trip to Wuyi Mountain, near Fuzhou (south of Shanghai) for his mother’s class reunion.  The trip was two years ago, but it seemed that Jack had rehearsed the story, possibly for some kind of class presentation.  On top of river rafting (which sounded familiar to me, being from the Pacific Northwest), the group had visited a famous cliff face where only three oolong tea trees grew.  This tea, called Da Hong Pao (long red robe), is worth more than $35,000 (yes, USD) per ounce due to its incredible uniqueness.
As I asked some easy questions and Yeries looked on with a proud smile, Larry, her husband, carefully added boiling water to a fistful of wet black tea leaves in a small lidded cup.  Gong fu cha,” he said.  “Kung fu tea.”  He let it steep about a minute before pouring the tea into a tiny teapot, and then into our four tiny cups.  The flavor of this tea was exquisite.
I learned later that gong fu cha isn’t a kind of tea, as I’d thought, but a kind of ceremony that means “making tea with great effort”.  Had we in fact been drinking da hong pao tea instead?!  I’m dying to know, because the tea was fantastic!
When we’d had a couple of cups of this tea, Larry and the grandfather got out a huge piece of white paper.
“Jack will show you his…ka…kagraphy?  His writing homework,”  Yeries stumbled.  This was rare for her, as she was an upper level student, and I quickly reminded her:  “Calligraphy.”
The men stood at the table, starting to fold the paper and then one stopping the other, arguing softly.  Yeries shook her head.  “Men are the same everywhere,”  I started, smiling.  “`Do it like this, man!  No, no, no, like this!’”
“My parents majored in German,” she answered.  “And my husband is a mechanical engineer with a German company.”  I rolled my eyes, nodding in a knowing manner.
Finally the men agreed on the folds, and Jack began his writing:  a vertical column of characters, top to bottom on the right, followed by a second column on the left—writing in a way no one writes anymore.  The finished product said something like, “If you intend to study well, you must work hard and walk the narrow path.”  I thought it was beautiful, really, the whole thing, from the meaning to the strokes of the brush, but Larry looked at it later and shook his head.  “Jack could do better,” he said.
Afterwards, it was time to make jiaozi, my favorite Chinese dumpling.  Jiaozi are made with round wrappers and boiled.  Huntun (wonton in Cantonese) are made from square wrappers, and baozi are steamed.  There are many more dumplings in Chinese cuisine, and we discussed the sad fault of English in expressing these different types.  I told them that my family simply used the Chinese words, since we’d lived in China before and were familiar with each.
One of the tricks with making jiaozi (similar to making tacos) is not to overfill.  Next, you wet the outer edge of the wrapper (the entire circle) with water on the tip of your finger, and close the wrapper tight, pressing hard with your fingers—as if to make the seam invisible.  The other trick involves holding the horizontal fold downward, each corner in the web of your hand (between thumb and forefinger), interlacing your fingers, and squeezing.  Most of mine looked a bit clumsy, of course, but none of them exploded in the water!
Later, the table was full of steamed Indian corn, boiled peanuts, and edamame; lotus root stuffed with rice; Peking duck sliced to go into small pancakes, with shredded cucumber and onion and the thick brown sauce; chicken; and Chinese kale.  It was hard to control myself, knowing that the jiaozi would be served last, especially as Larry and I drank our huang jiu (yellow wine—the rest of the family had apple juice).  Repeatedly we toasted all across the table, saying “Proust!”  Another international experience in Shanghai!
The jiaozi, steaming hot, were as fabulous as I’d hoped, with two different kinds of fillings and three different sauces.  There was also xilanhua, broccoli, steamed, with a dipping sauce made by Jack and his grandpa.  It was made of avocado, lemon, and honey, and was fabulous.  I could also imagine it being good on tacos, or tortilla chips!
If I’d been eating like this on a daily basis, instead of eating fried dumplings, KFC, and tons of rice or noodles (not to mention beer), I doubt I’d have gained as much weight as I had in the past year!  Real Chinese food is fresh and full of vegetables, with lots of flavors, from garlic to ginger, from salty to sweet.  This is one of the reasons why the teachers at my center will go to Wai Po Jia (Grandma’s Home) on the 6th floor of the mall anytime we get the chance!
Off and on the whole afternoon we’d been playing Go Fish, a card game that had actually been the focus of one of our classes at the center.  Mother had taught son, and so we all played a few rounds, as well as Crazy 8s.  Jack turned on the Tivo (or Chinese equivalent) so we could watch “The Voice of China”.  I found myself rooting for a man from Xinjiang, who almost looked like Russell Crowe’s cousin, if a bit rougher.  He played guitar and had a rough country look about him.  Apparently he’d had quite the difficult childhood but had traveled and performed all around Europe.  I was impressed by the singers—Mandarin, Cantonese, and English (with varying levels of intelligibility) were the common languages used. 
Between TV, card games, a bit of wine and feeling stuffed, it almost felt like a holiday with my own family.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Bathroom drama

I overheard this story in a bathroom at the summer party a couple days ago:


“So my friend and I are waiting in line at our center’s bathroom.  There are three stalls, right?  The one on the far end opens up, my friend goes in.  I wait a few minutes, and then my friend comes out.  I go in and do my business.  I come out.  Neither of the other doors have opened or closed this whole time, but suddenly my friend says she can hear music coming out of one of the stalls.  It’s very faint, but we listen and can hear it—soap opera music!  The two ladies who are supposed to be cleaning the bathroom are hiding in the stalls watching Chinese soap operas on their smart phones!”


I had to laugh at this, because it’s a weekly occurrence at my center, too, and probably is common everywhere in China. 


When my family lived in Qinghai Province in the late 1980s, my mom often mused that people spent an extra long time in the bathroom simply to get some privacy.  Listening to my students even now, I’m sure it’s true:  many of them are in their late 20s or early 30s, married, and still living with a set of parents.  In a country of a billion people, privacy is not a common luxury.


Being an American, I find this all highly disturbing. 


The bathrooms themselves are pretty disturbing, too. 


DISCLAIMER:  If you are squeamish about bathroom stuff, do not read any further!


The toilet seats in the ladies room are, 98% of the time, un-sittable, if that’s even a word.  When you’re in a culture that still has “squatty potties” most places, people will still squat, even over a seat, sprinkling it with urine or whatever else.  Sorry, but it’s true!  It’s very common, also, to see footprints on the toilet seat—that instinct to squat is still prevalent, even if it means you’re squatting a couple of feet off the ground, balanced precariously. 


Toilet paper is not thrown into the toilet (plumbing is not something the Chinese are known for), but is tossed into a small plastic garbage bin on the floor next to each toilet.  Toilet paper has just become available in the bathrooms, by the way:  there is one dispenser near the door to the bathroom.  You pull off what you need and take it with you into the stall.  Each stall does have an ashtray, though, so you’re covered there.  But one cannot count on the dispenser being full at all times, so it’s still best to take your own with you from the office to the bathroom.  Yup, students and coworkers all know where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there, unless you have deep pockets.


When the cleaner ladies aren’t busy watching soap operas on their smart phones (occupying stalls while a line grows outside on the busy first and second floors), they are plucking used toilet paper and unwrapped sanitary napkins out of the trash with old black tongs.  These tongs look like something you’d use to move logs around in a fireplace, or to flip brats on a grill.  This trash goes into a larger garbage bag, to be disposed of later.


They also mop daily, sometimes more often, although that mop will also be slopped up onto the sinks after it’s used to clean the floors around the toilets and urinals (this is coming firsthand from one of my male coworkers, who tried to explain cross-contamination to the lady in Chinese—she didn’t get it, even when a Chinese man translated).


China is impossible to dislike for long, though, it really is!  Yesterday after washing my hands, one of the cleaner ladies pulled out a long roll of toilet paper from the dispenser for me, holding it out with a so I could dry my hands.  The sweetness in her smile made it hard for me to be angry at her for watching soaps on her phone.  After all, if I cleaned stinky, disgusting bathrooms all day long for a living, I’m not sure I’d be able to smile at anyone.  But she can.

Shanghai Update September 2014

A word of warning:  There are a lot of complaints in this post, everyone.  If you need a pick-me-up today, I suggest reading something else!


The bank

Never walk into Bank of China without your smart phone.  This past Monday, a MoneyGram that routinely takes 45 minutes took 90.  Without my smart phone to keep me entertained with Sudoku and Kindle, that bank might’ve learned a few words in English they weren’t expecting.


I got my number (2009) at 10:41 am and settled in for the wait.  Usually it took about 15 minutes or so before my number was called, but today the two windows where I normally went to send money home were closed.  That was my first clue.



I sat.  I read a while.  I stretched.  I got up and paced.  I’d picked up a cold bottle of Itoen oolong tea to refresh me after the 30 minute walk to the bank.  I sipped it.  I sat back down.  I read some more.  I went to the bathroom, praying I wouldn’t miss my number.  I played a few games of Sudoku on my phone.  I stretched some more.  I read some more.


My number was called at 12:10.  The nice-looking young gentleman behind the window was wearing a tag that said:  TRAINEE.  I sighed. 


He consulted the manual.  He got other employees to look at the manual with him (one woman frowned with widened eyes, looking more confused than the trainee himself).  I could see half the staff behind the window milling about doing important tasks such as checking their WeChat messages.  We were also interrupted four times by various Chinese customers impatiently waiting in line behind me.


The poor trainee took forever to finish my transaction.  Part of the issue was the fact that I’d written “Spokane” (upper and lower case) not: “SPOKANE” in block letters.  I suppose if he’d written traditional characters rather than simplified I would’ve been just as stumped.  He checked the spelling with me three times.  At least he was thorough and diligent. 


The finality of those red seals being pounded into my paperwork (all three sheets of it) at one-o-clock was a relief.



At work, Wikipedia and Hotmail are the only things working besides the EF homepage.  Bing search doesn’t work, and some of you may know that Google and China are still feuding, meaning Google is unavailable 99% of the time.  My Skype call home from my apartment got cut off, and my internet has been down at home for the last two days.



The copier at work has been serviced once a week since I returned from the States a month ago.  Its favorite time to break down is Friday evening and Saturday morning—and of course, those are our busiest times.  There is one copier/printer for the entire center, meaning all 13 teachers and all 20 or so staff (sales and secretaries) use the same machine for everything.


The “repairman” from Toshiba spends as much time checking his phone and sighing as he does actually working on the damn thing.  Our center director refuses to budge on buying a second machine, or a new one at the very least.


I complained to my immediate supervisor today.  It’s really embarrassing to tell students no handouts or materials are available for the lesson they spend thousands of RMB on.  It’s bad business.  And since this IS a business, not a school, you’d think they’d do something about it. 


Yesterday was the annual summer party, and the company must have spent millions of RMB on food, alcohol, transportation, and venue rental—thousands of teachers and staff attended.  Clearly, the money is available.  The company is just too damn cheap to spend it on things they actually need.


Yeah, right

If I hear one more person telling me Shanghai is “a modern city” I’m going to scream.  At least I have air conditioning at home and at work, so it’s definitely ahead above the Peace Corps, at least.


If I hear one more person claiming Shanghai is “a cosmopolitan city” I’m going to scream.  Last week I went with two of my coworkers to a Mexican restaurant on Daxue Lu (modeled after University Avenue in Palo Alto, California).  On our way back, this woman (about 40 or 50 years old) stared at us for a good three minutes as we waited for the light to change so we could cross the street.  One of my coworkers is black.  Even when I smiled (sarcastically, I’ll confess) and waved and said “Ni hao!”, her expression never changed, and her eyes only flicked to me for a second.  The only thing missing was her mouth hanging open. 


I still get stared at regularly, even though white people are more common in Shanghai than black people.  I’ll admit that thousands of Shanghainese walk (or push) past me without a second glance, but at least every other day someone will do a double take or actually turn around on their bike, on their feet, or in their car to stare.  Some smile.  Most don’t. 


Shanghai is the biggest city in the world, but it most certainly is not cosmopolitan.


And if I see one more foreign guy who’s gay or with a Chinese girl, I’m going to scream about that, too.  I did have a small hope that I might find a guy here, which is ridiculous considering the fact that a good 50% of the local men come up to my shoulder, have long, dirty fingernails and have bad breath as well (garlic, cigs, and not brushing--ew!).  There are some good-looking Chinese men, here, though--tall and young (too young for me, usually, or with a girlfriend) and clean cut.  The foreign guys are either in long-term relationships or are a bit on the scuzzy side (they like massage parlors if you know what I mean).


Well, now that I’ve got all that off my chest…