Friday, November 11, 2011

No Laughing Matter

As I become more and more accustomed to living in China, I find that a lot of the novelty of life in China is slowly wearing off. I’ve gotten used to seeing little children defecate on the streets, to shoving my way into an already over-crowded subway car, and to shouting fuwuyuan! [waiter!] at the top of my lungs (a total accepted practice at low-end restaurants - otherwise the server may easily forget about your food). Even the Shanghai Bellies, which are just too funny to get accustomed to, have vanished with the arrival of colder weather.

Because I was initially so unfamiliar with life here, I’ve been inclined to project my humor upon what I see as different or strange. But, beyond the little things that I find comical, there really are some aspects of living in China that I cannot accept, and I think rightfully so.

China does not have a democracy and, while its economy may only be a few years away from a free market, its authoritarian rule does make a world of difference. Such a great sense of hopelessness exists among the young people here because they know that their chances of success are slim. The wealth disparity here is disgustingly large, and the government, through connections with elite businessmen and much corruption, dominates the economy. Only the cream of the crop gets accepted into universities (note: the population of China is well over four times that of America so competition is that much more fierce), and students often need to attend graduate school to even get a good job.

My roommate teaches a class at a nearby university and once asked his students to raise their hand if they would want to move abroad to continue their studies. Every single hand went up. It’s true. Many young people want to move to other countries. They feel oppressed by the government and know that they can live better elsewhere. Well-to-do families often hire private English tutors for their children so that they will be able to enroll in universities in the U.S. or England. I think the extent to which some kids are pushed here is crazy. I can’t imagine needing to master a foreign language just to qualify for a college. It’s depressing that some Chinese people don’t want to live in their own country. It gives me that much more reason to take pride in being American.

My roommate loves to tell me about all the bad things about China. I think he recently had the realization that because of him, I don’t have that many good things to say about his country. The most unsettling story he’s told me is about an elderly woman who fell off her bicycle and onto the ground. No one came to help the woman, who was clearly in pain, until a few minutes later when a young man walked by and saw her. Instead of praising the man for helping her, the woman reported to authorities that the man had pushed her off the bicycle. A lawsuit was filed, and, in the end, the court declared the young man guilty, ruling that if the woman’s falling off her bicycle wasn’t his fault then he needn’t help her. Guo Jiang then added, “It’s hard to be a good man in China”.
There are stray cats that roam our campus. In fact, during my Chinese economics class yesterday, a cat literally walked into our classroom, made his rounds, and then walked out. This one here is my favorite.
Today is a very special holiday in China. It’s Guānggùnjié or Singles’ Day. Singles’ Day grew out of university culture and got its name from the four ones in the date 11/11. On this day, a lot of Chinese single people go out to dinner with their single friends to celebrate being single. Just as popular though is attending “blind date” parties in hopes of ending one’s single life. Today, to celebrate, I bought some Kraft Singles and played tennis with just one friend.
I still haven't been able to figure this one out. It's next to a little waiting room inside the gym that I've never seen anyone use.
Yesterday, my roommate and I went out to eat at a great Xi’an style restaurant. Afterwards, he took me to his family friends’ apartment to see what typical family life is like. While my involvement in our conversation was rather limited, my favorite part of the experience was seeing their daughter’s bedroom. Now don’t get any ideas. She is 15, and what I’m referring to is the contents of her room. Her room wasn’t much bigger than the standard college dorm room, and yet she had a huge piano up against her wall. I got one of those inner gleeful sensations you get when you see a stereotype realized. I asked her to play. She dismissed the idea at first but then sat down and pulled out some Mozart (Mòzhātè). Her fingers began to move gracefully across the keys. She was insanely good. I looked over at Guo Jiang and the daughter’s father to see if they were as impressed as I. They weren’t. The father’s face wore an expression more of approval than of pride. He stood with his hands placed firmly on his hips. When his daughter finished the piece, I was fairly certain he was going to angrily shout “Again!”

In all seriousness though, the father and daughter were very friendly, and I enjoyed the little visit. When we were leaving, our host eagerly tried to send us home with every possible gift he could find. He was so forceful that Guo Jiang ended up having to shout “Bùyòng bùyòng, tài kèqi le!”  [No need, no need, you’re too kind!]. Although I could have guessed such a display of generosity was coming, it’s just funny when the culture you know is turned on its head. In the States, the guest traditionally arrives with a gift for the host. And as for the host’s duties, just providing the comfort of one’s home and some refreshments is considered quite sufficient.

Lotte World, the indoor amusement park we went to in Seoul.
Part of being a successful laowai (foreigner) is knowing when to speak Chinese and when to deny all knowledge of the Chinese language. For instance, if you want to successfully bargain, you should definitely use Chinese to get the best possible price. If you want a cab driver to take you somewhere, you should probably speak Chinese to him or he’ll drop you off wherever he feels like. If some guy wants to make you pay to enter a skate park to simply watch your friend skateboard, you should act dumb and just sneak into the park. If you are on a plane and are told to turn off all electronic devices but are in the middle of listening to a really good song, you should pretend that you cannot comprehend anything coming out of the flight attendant’s mouth and keep your earbuds plugged in.
Definitely worth sneaking in to the skate park to get some action shots of Morrison.

Next weekend, out of a strong feeling of obligation, I’m heading to the country’s capital: Beijing. There, I’ll experience the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and some Peking duck in what’s sure to be a jam-packed weekend. 

Here's a link to a video I took a while ago in Zhuhai when we were on our field study trip. It's of a homeless old man who truly moved me with his music. Enjoy.
A True Virtuoso

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