Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I'm Lovin' It

Feeling awake and energetic, I walk in. I see the familiar row of treadmills alongside the nearest wall, half of which are broken. Behind the treadmills is a row of elliptical bikes. Situated far from the wall, the bikes are not plugged in, rendering all but the ones with mechanical resistance unsuitable for use. In the back, there is a rack with some free weights, some are in kilograms, others are in pounds. I see an older man doing push-ups on a lift machine that was certainly not created for such a purpose. I turn my head and see a young woman running on a treadmill. Her outfit of choice is a t-shirt and jean shorts. Outdated metal lights protrude out from the ceiling, reminding me of my elementary school cafeteria. Next to them are white, motionless three-winged fans, that everyday get browner and browner from rust. Several red banners hang from the moldy ceiling. On them are big white letters that say “Grand Opening”.  In the States, such signs would have been taken down long ago, but I can only figure that the manager wants his facility to prominently display English so as to create a Western feel. That, or he doesn’t know what grand opening means.

Such is the gym on our campus. It is by no means the nicest place in town but, being a one-minute walk from my dorm, it is terribly convenient. I’ve learned to look past the sweaty benches and machines (the gym is void of any sanitation wipes or towels), the countless broken cardio machines, the poor ventilation, the small selection of free weights, and the questionably dressed gym goers. In fact, I enjoy the scene. I love the random 60-year-old man in corduroys doing pull-up after pull-up, putting any young kid to shame. And the dude who takes off his sandals so that he can run on the treadmill in socks. And the athletically built grad student who squirms so much during each squat that I consider going to grab him some toilet paper.  The place has personality. And for the small price of 300 kuai (about $47.50) for a four-month membership, I can’t really find a reason to complain. And besides, it’s nice to know that if I ever want to try working out in a polo, I have a place to go. 

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In China, when someone sneezes, you don’t have to say, “bless you” or wish that person good health or anything. I like that.

We’re leaving for a field study trip this weekend. Along with Hong Kong and Guangzhou, one of our stops is Macau, which is considered the Vegas of China. The other day, I wrote, “What happens in Macau stays in Macau” on a piece of paper and handed it to Jiang. He couldn’t come up with a good translation. I suppose the Chinese don’t approach life with the same reckless abandon.

Dog with shoes.

In New York, I get annoyed when people on the street shove flyers and promotions in my face. In Shanghai, I embrace these people. Their advertisements serve as prime study materials.

This afternoon, I rode the train to work with my friends Ari and Kehoe (we all work at the same company but in different departments). The train wasn't too crowded, so we found seats and began working on our Chinese homework due the next day. Soon enough, other passengers noticed what we were doing and started eagerly looking over our shoulders. It wasn't long before the three of us each had our own personal tutor guiding us through our worksheets. When we arrived at our stop, we exited the train with big smiles, all of our homework nearly complete.

Sign above glass case says "Letting them turtle"
"Eating the world wide delicious food"

I noticed that my roommate Jiang is pretty good at pronouncing short English words but seems to be less comfortable with longer ones. Accordingly, I figured out a method to help him. Hearing him struggle with a word like appreciate, I’ll quickly write down on a piece of paper “she ate”. He’ll try again. This time: perfect.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Two Languages, One Friendship

Hai Yan ordered a lot, we had a lot to eat. But maybe because of the dirty, and we almost ate nothing. But, she was so happy. I think maybe it’s because she was a bride. She was so happy, and ate so much! Maybe I can reach a conclusion that a nice heart gives you happy life. Or else, even she ate something special or expensive, she is not happy.

            Here’s an excerpt from a writing exercise my roommate gave me to check over. As you can see, he loves to use the word “maybe”. For him, “maybe” is a comfort word as he approaches the English world with uncertainty and indecision. My roommate’s name is 郭将(Guo Jiang). At the age of 33 – making him more than 13 years older than I – he is studying to get a doctorate in international affairs and economics. He doesn’t have any classes to attend. His one and only job is to get an academic paper published. He’s been putting off his work lately though. He prefers to study English.
            In two words, Jiang is good-hearted and sociable. Many peers in my program know him as the Chinese roommate who is always looking to strike up a conversation. As a language student of over 10 years, he is a clear product of textbook English. He knows an impressive amount of vocabulary but still has a hard time with pronunciation, rhythm, and listening.
            Like a true academic, Jiang has taken more of an initiative about my learning Chinese than I have myself. For this, I am very grateful. Before I arrived I was a little worried that I’d have to force myself to always speak Chinese with my roommate. However, Jiang and I have quickly formed a solid friendship, and I speak to him with just as much a desire to carry on our friendship as a desire to practice my Chinese.
            I can’t even tell you how helpful he has been. When we first met, he told me that he didn’t think four months was enough time for me to really get good at Chinese. Since then, he has changed his mind. I don’t think he realizes that my rapid progress is greatly due to his guidance. If he is in the room while I’m doing Chinese homework, he’ll have me recite my entire lesson aloud. He’ll correct my tones. He’ll correct my rhythm. He’ll make sure I understand the text. He loves teaching me Chinese. And I definitely love to learn.
            There is certainly a language barrier between us. Although I talk with Jiang every day, I still can’t have the close relationship with him that I have with my American friends here, solely because of our mutual inability to dig deeper into each other’s native language. However, with every new word or phrase learned, I add more and more ways to communicate and thus establish a greater connection with my roommate.
             I think getting more comfortable with Chinese has relieved me from feeling lost in an unfamiliar world. There’s a certain satisfaction I derive from just knowing how to say “hao hao shui” [sleep tight] to Jiang at night or from being able to use Chinese to make him laugh. Studying Chinese is definitely difficult, and I often find myself wishing it were more like English. But I push on and challenge myself every day to get better. I love that as my sentences become more and more complex, my personality begins to shine more and more through my new tongue, and I start to feel closer to the language and think more like a native speaker.
            English, undoubtedly, has many more nuances than Chinese, and I pity Jiang’s struggle to master English. Just the other day, my friend Dustin passed Jiang in the hallway. Greeting him, Dustin said “You doin’ alright?”  Jiang, an English student of ten years, stood tongue-tied, unable to make sense of a phrase that simply meant, “How are you?”  I don’t run into problems like this with Chinese. I’m much more likely to struggle with tones or memorizing characters.
            Even after a mere three weeks, I know that I will keep in touch with Guo Jiang long after my four months here. Recognizing that I felt out of place upon my arrival in China, he has quickly made me feel at home, overwhelming me with his kindness and gift giving. He took me out for lunch my first week here and refused to let me pay; he regularly brings home fruit and yogurt to supplement my meat and rice-heavy diet; and he always ensures that I’m well-prepared for my Chinese class. That I consider someone with whom I can’t have a two-minute conversation without needing to consult a dictionary a great friend says a lot about Guo Jiang. Maybe I can reach a conclusion that you don’t need many words to make a good friend.  Maybe.
Guo Jiang and me outside the Shanghai Railway Station.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Bits and Pieces

A lot of people here like to wear t-shirts with English writing. I’m pretty convinced that many of these people have no idea what their shirts say. I think it’s somewhat similar to how Americans get Chinese character tattoos. I’ve seen shirts that say everything from “Haters Welcome” to “Create Your Own Music” to “I want to be a lovely bear”.

I like to try to find the Asian version of people I know from back home in the States – yesterday I found Mark Wahlberg and Barbra Streisand.

Some street-side dentistry.
As my friends and I like to say "Feichang China" (probably best translated as "that's so China")

On Wednesday, I had my first full day of work (I’m interning at an IT firm called VanceInfo, teaching English and revising English documents) and started my commute at around eight in the morning. The station was flooded with people all on their way to work. I wasn't able to get on the train my first try because it was literally at capacity - with no regard for personal space, each passenger stood less than an inch from his adjacent passengers. When the next train arrived, I saw others elbow and nudge their way on board, as if other people were merely obstacles in their way. I was a little dumbfounded, but I followed suit.

In China, guilt about not finishing your plate is on a whole new level: "Finish your food, there are starving kids.. outside the restaurant"

I have determined that the most popular American musical artists here are Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Eminem.
Saw this gem at the local bookstore. In Chinese, his name is pronounced Jiasiting Biba.

The instructions on the wrappers in U.S. Chinese restaurants about how to use chopsticks are definitely wrong. I’ve already been called out twice for not using them correctly.

The other day, I saw a woman with her pet dog. I was so tempted to approach her and say “wow, it looks delicious”. I really didn’t have it in me though; I was too scared she might respond, “thank you”.

After lunch break in the office I resumed working on my preparation of an English lesson. Taking my eyes off my computer screen for a moment, I looked around the office and found countless employees at their desks with their heads down and resting on their arms. I wanted to laugh, but I realized I might wake them.

As white people in China, we are very noticeable and are often the subject of fascination among the locals. In fact, people often stare at me as if they’ve never seen a white person before.  I’m still waiting for the day I see some guy on a motorbike stare a little too long and crash into a street sign. One day, one day I tell you.

Don’t talk to strangers, unless they don’t have candy and you want to practice a foreign language.

Almost every morning, I go to the backstreets of the university to buy baozi (steamed stuffed buns) for breakfast. My favorites are dousha (sweet bean paste), qingcai (Chinese cabbage), and luobo (radish). I can get six for 3 kuai or $0.48.

 And now it's time for The Bad English Translation Picture Gallery.

Notice in front of an elevator.
Don't worry, I obviously took the stairs.
Failed attempt at "luggage room".

This was a cute try.



Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Nail That Sticks Out


Looking up from my seat in a crowded restaurant booth, I see a waitress grabbing her arm in pain. To her left, an old, decrepit Chinese woman limps forward and brings a menu into the air. She strikes the waitress with a second blow to the shoulder.


Next to me, my friends start laughing.

“What the hell is going on?” someone asks.

The perpetrator strolls sluggishly over to the head of our table. Wrinkle after wrinkle comprise her timeworn face. The hair above her thin eyes is nonexistent, but I can somewhat make out where eyebrows may have once been. Her hair is beyond disheveled, largely the result of a severe overuse of hair grease. A black smudge outlines the top of her forehead and makes its way to her ears, which are decorated with black hair grease spots. I realize I’ve never seen such embellishment of one’s ears before. I wonder if she could be the start of a great fashion trend. Then I remember why earrings were invented.

“Hello”, she says to us in an abrasive, raspy voice. She has a strong Chinese accent.

I notice her take a deep inhale. With every word spoken, she seems to take a few seconds off her life.

“A – B – C – D … E – F – G”

We chuckle with delight.

Having exhausted her knowledge of the English language, she switches to her native tongue. Sounds begin to flow from her feeble mouth, but I cannot place any meaning on them. I frown at my poor listening skills and turn to my friend Morrison, who is pretty much fluent in Mandarin. Wearing a slight smirk, he shrugs his shoulders and extends his arms with his palms open.

I have no idea what she is saying,” he says.

Is she speaking Shanghainese?” one of my tablemates asks.

No, she’s speaking Mandarin, but I can’t understand her”, Morrison replies with an emerging grin.

Seeing that no one could comprehend her, she lowers her hand to the tabletop and begins drawing characters with her finger.

We break into laughter. Even in English, it would be difficult to make out what she was writing.

Shortly thereafter, a timid-looking waitress roams over to our table. She appears ready to take our order. 

The old, tottering lady interferes, beckoning the waitress for a pad and pen. She begins writing her message out on the piece of paper.

Having gotten a good look at the scene, a middle-aged man comes over to our table and addresses Morrison.

“Ni shuo Putonghua ma?” he asks [do you speak Mandarin?]
The man points his fingers to his brain and rolls back his eyes. I make out the phrase, “Nianji dao le.” [lit. “her age has arrived” but more like “she’s a little past her prime”].

We learn that the woman is 86 years old.

Completely oblivious to the presence of said man, our dinner guest is still hard at work writing her characters.

This is getting ridiculous, my friend Drew says, “I’m frickin’ hungry”.

After a minute or so, the timid looking waitress returns. But this time, she not only wants to take our order, but also plans to rid us from this lunatic of a woman.

She taps on the old lady’s shoulder to get her attention. She says something in Chinese and points toward the door. Our ancient friend wants none of it. She swings her arm briskly towards the waitress’s face and returns to her piece of paper. Letting out a shriek cry, the waitress scurries away in fright, only to be replaced by a second waitress with a more intrepid persona. 

Leaving the old lady to do her thing, the brave waitress takes our order and then hands us a check (at many restaurants here, you pay before you get your food). When she’s finished, the waitress takes a quick look at the old lady, smiles, and walks away.

After another five minutes, the madwoman finally looks up and presents her work to us. The characters are hardly legible, but Morrison decides to take a crack at it. I look over at the woman’s hands and see how frail they are – I recognize the effort she made to get her message across to us.

It says something about how seeing foreign students come here makes her very happy”, Morrison tells us.

With a warm feeling of gratitude, I looked up at the old woman, who now seemed to be slightly less deranged. I was half expecting her message to be something like: You see what I just did to that waitress? You guys are next.

Recognizing that she has finally gotten her message across to us, she returns to her sheet of paper and continues writing.

Oh my god, she’s still writing," my friend Mike says.

Our frustration soon dissolved upon the arrival of our dinner. With chopsticks in hand, we began to devour our long awaited meal, wholly ignoring our guest at the head of the table.

As plates filled with chicken, peppers, beef, fish, eggplant, bok choy, tofu, and rice were nearly licked clean, we suddenly heard three loud knocks on the table. With her fist still clenched, the old lady said something in her dark, grating voice.

She wants to buy us beers,” Morrison told us. He was wearing a look that could only mean something like:  I can’t decline her kind offer of delicious beverages, but this woman can probably barely afford food. I mean, there’s no way that China has a Social Security system even remotely comparable to that of the United States.

The old woman walked away from our table and soon returned with two bottles of Tsingtao beer. We announce to each other “Ganbei!” [Bottoms up!]. The old woman watched in extreme delight as we passed around the bottles, gulping down her gifts.  

Wanting this feeling of ecstasy to last, she insists on getting us more. We beg her no, but know that our attempts will be to no avail, for gift giving is an important and highly valued part of Chinese culture.

She says she really wants to buy us more. She keeps saying this is once in a lifetime,” Morrison tells us.

We gulp down the next two Tsingtaos in a similar fashion and express our deep appreciation.

We finish our meal, and I suggest we take a picture with her. Gathering around the old woman, my friend hands our waitress a digital camera. After a bright flash of the camera, the old woman requests that we give her the picture. Morrison tries to explain to her that we can’t possibly do that. She doesn’t seem to understand why. He tells her we’ll give her the picture another time. She’s not too pleased with the response.

Seeing that the old woman doesn’t intend to go anywhere until she receives the picture, we take turns sneaking away from the table. As we congregate outside the restaurant, we’re all in agreement that it’s fun to be a laowai (a foreigner in China).

There’s an old Asian proverb that says, “The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down.” It’s meant to convey the importance of conformity and sense of a common purpose among citizens.

But apparently if you’re a laowai, the nail that sticks out, gets free beer.

From left to right: Drew, Kehoe, Texas Mike, me, Morrison, and Dustin.