Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Minor Inconvenience, Unwholesome Zhangye

I broke my bed today. Not for any exciting reason - I moved from a lying to a sitting position too aggressively, and heard a loud crack beneath me. You see, I don't sleep on a mattress, but rather a series of inexpensive wood planks with a bit of padding over the top. It leaves something to be desired in comparison to the typical American bed, but I've really never been bothered by it. I do have an entire spare bedroom with a bed that is not only larger but has a thick (yet surprisingly unyielding) mattress, but I've become somehow fond of the "plank bed." Whatever the reason, I find amusement in these small inconveniences of living here, and I can't say I was too bothered about it.

Though provinces such as Gansu are being left behind by the frenzied development of places like Shanghai and Guangzhou, I feel that Zhangye has moved up in the world just in the year I've been here. There is a new dance club called Babi in the center of town, and I went for the first time last night with Danielle and Stephen. It out-classed any of the previous clubs I've seen here, and was on par with places I've seen in bigger cities in China. As we entered the place, it was hard not to notice the club's scantily-clad, cross-dressing male dancer in the spotlight. Later in the night, a singer came out onto the floor to perform. She had a fierce confidence to her, such that when she approached a man sitting at a front table while singing he practically shrank back in fear. She had such a large frame and deep voice we thought she was another cross-dresser, but ultimately decided it was a legitimate female. When another customer presented her with a bottle of beer, she made a show of lifting it into the air and pouring it all over herself, to the cheers of the crowd. And in a later performance, she came onto the dance floor brandishing a whip. In class this week, we had gone over the words "innocent" and "naive." Zhangye is not as innocent as it appears at first glance.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Propaganda and the Evils of Corruption

The rewards of learning Chinese while living here are obvious: forming more varied friendships, eating and shopping with ease, integrating more deeply into the culture, and seeming less like a space alien to the local people. But there is another reward particular to this country that is easily overlooked, yet still fascinating: understanding Party propaganda. China is well beyond the era of the Chairman Mao "loyalty dance" and spiteful diatribes against America and the capitalist "running dogs," but one doesn't have to look very far to see the omnipresent, paternal guidance of the government. There are slogans and life advice painted in gigantic characters on walls throughout China, which are generally uncontroversial but intriguing nonetheless. These vary from the relatively harmless ("look to the future, improve education," "don't do drugs," "love the people, serve the people") to the slightly creepy ("the reason you can relax is because we have everything under control"). On top of a building in the town square is a sentence spelled out in 10-foot high characters, which I've been curious about since the beginning and have finally learned says "Carry out the Three Represents [a policy that essentially says, or at least strongly implies, that the Communist Party is China], construct a Well-Off Society [an economic policy]."

Near the wooden pagoda in the square there is a set of propaganda signs, such as an illustrated series for children about President Hu Jintao's "8 Virtues and 8 Vices" (the first virtue is "enthusiastically love the Motherland"). Andrew spotted one of the most entertaining ones, shown in the picture. It's about corruption, and warns of the slippery slope a hapless proletarian might descend into. This is shown visually as a big, Inferno-esque dollar sign with increasingly dangerous levels of corruption. The entry to the dollar maze says "first time being treated to a meal." The second level of corruption is "first time entering a music hall." Andrew is marking this spot with his finger, as it seems we are at the second level of corruption in China. Presumably, there is hope for us yet. The third one is "first time in a sauna," followed by "first time receiving gifts" and finally a sudden, dramatic leap to "first time embezzling public funds." Oh, naive briefcase-toting cartoon man, if you only you knew what you were getting yourself into.

Last week there two women from the government handing out fliers in front of the campus, and a long series of posters along the front wall. It turned out to be a campaign against cults and false religions, with cartoons touting advice such as "all cult leaders claim that they are God, but in reality they are just people." Andrew set about reading one of the fliers with the assistance of Joy. It didn't go so far as to name examples, but apparently these cults (in Chinese, literally "evil religions") trick students into giving them all their money, inspire apathy by convincing them of the coming of Armageddon, perform false miracles, and even kidnap, rape, and murder.
But as Andrew pointed out, the only people who seemed interested in any of it were the two foreigners.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Lantern Festival, A Friend Visits

My first weeks back in Zhangye have been pretty relaxing, as my students have had their assigned cleaning duty, when they clean the campus for a week instead of going to class. I passed two of my students wearing red arm bands, who instead of cleaning had volunteered for the job of patrolling campus with clipboards in search of students playing hooky. A couple of weekends ago, me and Andrew had a visit from a friend named Daisy, who was an English student last year and now works as a teacher outside of Lanzhou. We shared a Big Plate of Chicken and "played" together along with her friend Rose. There are many awkward English phrases common here that come from translating too literally from Chinese.

While I was with them, Daisy and Rose made plans to make dumplings with Yang Lili, a teacher in the English department also known as Isabella. Daisy assured me I was also welcome, but my arrival at Isabella's apartment made her incredibly nervous and self-conscious. She said she had never invited a foreigner to her home before, even her co-teacher, because her cooking wasn't good enough. She also said she was embarrassed because the food wasn't ready, and when she has guests she only allows them to come when the food is finished. She was hardly able to talk about anything besides my being there, even joking several times she should break off her friendship with Daisy. When the first round of dumplings was finished, she insisted me and her husband should start first, but her husband immediately got up to take care of some office business without taking a bite. Despite her constant self-deprecation the food was, as with every single time a Chinese person has cooked for me, delicious. The focus on your foreignness is one of the frustrations of living in China, especially coming from a diverse country like America. It's refreshing when I do meet people who interact with me as if I were just another of their friends, Daisy being an example.

For instance, my friend Little Ma opened a new guitar shop in front of the school yesterday, and invited me to come at 10 a.m. for the grand opening. As expected, he wasn't there, and one of his friends said in very loud, slow Chinese "go have a seat inside". I spent a pointless hour sending text messages on my phone, during which time Little Ma never showed and none of them said a word to me, despite knowing me for most of a year. Little Ma is also fond of calling me "the foreigner" when talking about me with other people.

Plenty of people want to make friends with us, but far fewer are interested in forming any kind of substantial friendship and really getting to know us. We also get random invitations from strangers. For instance, the other day Miss Mao arranged a mysterious lunch with a friend who wanted to meet the foreign teachers at Hexi. We were sure we were going to be talked into something, perhaps English lessons for a middle school son or daughter. The lunch was extravagant, round-table style with a rotating middle for the dishes, and the men were all wearing suits, but it turned out they just wanted to have lunch, play drinking games with us and take some pictures. Which was fine, but it struck me how little interest they had in actually talking to us, since we all spoke some level of Chinese. The meal ended with a kind of Chinese (or likely Mongolian) game where a girl in a colorful minority outfit presents you with a scarf and sings, insisting you drink until she stops.

Though I unfortunately missed the Chinese New Year, which apparently is a fun time to be around Chinese people, the Spring Festival holiday associated with it lasts two weeks, and I caught the last few days in Zhangye. The last day is known as the Lantern Festival in English, and big portions of the city were decked out with dozens upon dozens of red lanterns and decorations. The square was Ground Zero, and had become something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. Zhangye swelled with people, many coming in from the surrounding countryside to see the lanterns. For a day Zhangye was the nightmare I feared China could be like, with so many people it was a struggle just to get around. Chinese people love firecrackers, and all evening we were surrounded by a cacophony of noise. It sounded like a war zone, and with so many children setting off fireworks, I was sure somebody was going to lose an eye. The restaurants were so busy that when we sat down for dinner late in the evening, they had run out of water (which must be boiled). When Daisy went back to Lanzhou the next night, there were so many people at the station they wouldn't let non-ticket holders in to see off their friends (though me and Andrew, playing the ignorant foreigners, got in). Daisy presumably had to find a place to stand for the 8 hour overnight trip, and I heard of another girl who didn't use the bathroom on a long-distance train ride because there were too many people. According to the interesting Chinese Lessons, China is the only country in the world to recognize to effects of traveling in overcrowded trains as a psychiatric condition, and those who commit crimes while suffering from "travel psychosis" are spared the death penalty. So the Lantern Festival was exciting, but also an assault on the senses. Actually, I guess you could say that about China as a whole.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Zhangye, Year Two

At the train station, Andrew and our friend Joy were waiting for me, a pleasant surprise. We joined the other original “daughters” Sarah and Fiona for dinner, a welcome re-introduction to Zhangye and its food. After feeling poor in America, I was happy to the pay the 30 yuan ($3.75) bill for the five of us. We had never been there and the restaurant staff were beside themselves over Andrew’s conversation skills, and after being away for a month it was funny to be back in the midst of all the curiosity. The next day we started up our traditional Friday foreign teacher dinner and caught up with each other. We went to China Fire afterwards, but our friend He Le was not there; sadly, it seems there was some kind of big fight outside of his bar during the Spring Festival, and he had to go to the hospital. Apparently he is out and doing fine, but he hasn’t returned to work yet, and we don’t know the details of what happened.

Gary, Andrew and Stephen went home quite early but me and Danielle stayed longer. This meant that there was a decent row of empty beer bottles at a table with only two people, and several newly arrived customers asked in awe if all the empties belonged to us, so I told them that Americans are very lihai, meaning fierce or excellent at something. Danielle is beloved by Chinese people, especially Chinese men, and when I was in the bathroom a group of friends in their 20’s invited her to their booth. So we stayed longer and drank more than planned, playing Chinese drinking games and teaching them an American one that always goes over well. I bought a mobile phone immediately before leaving Zhangye in January, and several of them asked for my number, and at the end of the night they insisted I share a taxi with them. It’s good to be back.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


I had top bunk on the train the next day for the 30 hour ride, which is less than ideal, as there isn’t nearly enough room to sit up in bed. There are seats by the windows in the aisles, but the Chinese thing to do is to hang out on the spacious bottom bunk whether or not it’s yours or you know the person. When I eventually descended to have my instant noodles, the three passengers hanging out on the two bottom bunks drew me into conversation right away, especially an older retired man who was with his wife. These conversations can be remarkably similar, so you get well-practiced at it and appear to have effortless Chinese skills, at least for the first 10 minutes. In order of likelihood, you will hear the following questions in the first 5 minutes of meeting a random Chinese person:

1. Which country are you from?

2. How long have you been in China?

3. Are you used to living here?

4. How old are you?

5. Where do you study/are you a student?

6. Are you married/do you have a girlfriend?

7. How much money do you make?

8. (in my case) Zhangye? Where’s that? Hm. Oh yes, Zhangye. Why would you want to go there? You should go to a big city, they have lots of foreigners.

I’ve heard of a foreign teacher who made a t-shirt with the answers to the common questions, just to make things easier. After a while, the old man remarked “our countries have a lot of communication now. Not like before—you don’t remember, you’re too young, but we were enemies,” adding emphasis by pounding his two fists together. “Mao Zedong—do you know him?—he used to say America was our enemy.” He said current president Hu Jintao is a good leader (enormous surprise there), and when he brought up Iraq I was very emphatic about how much I disagreed with the war and disliked Bush, that in fact quite a few Americans dislike him. He turned to the young man sitting next to me and said “Americans can say whatever they want.” Eventually those two had their own conversation about Chairman Mao, which unfortunately was too difficult for me to understand. During this time the old man split a small bottle of potent baijiu with me, quite pleased that I could drink the stuff without making a face. His wife also insisted I take handfuls and handfuls of peanuts. Out of politeness you should refuse these offerings at first, and in fact I don’t really like peanuts, but a Chinese person will give it to you anyway.

“Chatting” would definitely be one of the top pasttimes in China, and on the train passengers are quick to make new friends. To my surprise the young man asked if I had any Chinese books he could borrow, and as it happened I had just bought a Chinese/English edition of a book called Six Chapters of a Floating Life. He returned it the next day, and judging from its appearance it had accompanied him into battle at some point during the night. I remember watching in horror as my first Chinese tutor back in New York asked to see my book on characters, and immediately wrote in it and twisted back the pages as harshly as possible.

Sometimes when I study Chinese I do it in public, increasing the chances that curious onlookers will try to talk to me instead of staring and moving on. On the second day of the train ride, I was looking over a book on Chinese radicals I bought in Beijing when the young girl next to me, who had been sneaking glances for a long time, finally started up a conversation. Zhangye was actually her hometown, but she was going farther to Dunhuang where she worked at a travel agency. English had been her major but she hadn’t used it in three years, so she would pepper her Chinese with very occasional English words, i.e. “wo qu le Beijing zhao gongzuo le, gen wode younger brother.” At one point we were talking about the stereotypes people have of our cultures, and I was explaining that American movies exaggerate, and we don’t really all have massive incomes or shoot at each other on a daily basis. She responded “yes, from watching your movies I feel that America is very dangerous. And that black people are very frightening!” China is not the most racially tactful place I’ve seen, and they are fond of referring themselves as having “yellow” skin. After a couple of hours I didn’t have much left to say, so she retired to her bunk, and the last I heard from her was when she offered me a drink, excitedly pronouncing one of the English words she remembered: “Pepsi Cola!” And somewhere a Pepsi executive got his wings.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

In Beijing

My arrival back in China was greeted by a smoggy, washed out Beijing sky. My first time in China, I allowed myself to be completely and utterly ripped off—300 yuan ride from the airport from a “taxi” that wasn’t a taxi, which dropped me off at a midrange hotel that was 250 yuan for the night, and a tea excursion with strangers I met in Tiananmen Square that set me back 700 yuan, or close to $100. It’s nice knowing what you are doing—this time I caught the bus from the airport for 16 yuan, right to the hostel I had booked for 60 a night.

As I expected I couldn’t get a train ticket for the next day, in fact for the next four days, so I found myself with a few days to kill and no plans, which isn’t a terrible thing in Beijing. I had only spent one day the first time, so I took the chance to explore during the day and get a feel for the city, as well as visit a handful of temples, art galleries, bookstores, and the like. Beijing is known for its hutong, back alleys of traditional Chinese housing which are slowly disappearing, which were infinitely more interesting than Beijing’s modern side. Olympic fever could be sensed everywhere, with the Chinese government’s soft spot for slogans was being fully indulged, i.e. “My games, my happiness.”

While walking back dejectedly after failing to find a minor site listed in my guidebook, a woman started shouting at me on the street. This is nothing unusual and I pressed on, but when I turned around it was clear she wasn’t trying to sell me anything, and I gave her the benefit of the doubt. She was a short, animated woman standing outside of a mosque and wearing Muslim headdress and a broad smile, and was just hoping to start up a conversation. I found her very difficult to understand, which is too bad because she was trying to talk about Iraq and I would have found it interesting. Then she repeatedly came back to a sentence, “shangdi zhanqilai,” wanting to know if I agreed. It meant “God is standing” or perhaps “God stands up,” and though she was persistent, acting out “stand up” in case I didn’t catch that, I never did figure out what she was getting at.

That night, my last in Beijing, I was determined to go out to the bar district and have a good time, because the previous couple of days I had done nothing but walking and sleeping, generally passing out by 7pm from the jetlag and exhaustion. I decided to have a beer at the hostel bar first, as the atmosphere wasn’t half bad and prices would be much more reasonable. There was a guzheng at the side of the room, so I decided to give it a shot and see what I remembered from my lessons in Zhangye. As it turned out, not much without the book, but nonetheless one of the hostel workers was intrigued, and asked me to teach her something. Wang Dong, or Daphne as she also introduced herself, wasn’t exactly a natural but she got a kick out learning part of a song. And I suspect she also just wanted to practice her English, which was slow but workable. She refused to speak Chinese and I at first refused to speak English, a not-uncommon occurrence.. After asking about my taste in music, she remarked “when I listen to music on the guzheng, I think of the wind on the sea and very peaceful things, it is nice. But you like to listen to the rocky music, it is very noisy. You seem to me like a quiet person, I’m not sure why you listen to very noisy music.” After talking for maybe a half-hour I realized she was at work, not just hanging out in her off-time, and she eventually went off to make tea. And we have the idea that Chinese people are the ones who work too hard.

By then it was getting late to go all the way to the Sanlitun area and have to come back, so I figured I might as well stay there and make an actual attempt to meet people, which is most of the fun of staying at a hostel alone. I surveyed the room—two girls speaking Japanese, three Western girls at a table, and a group of about a dozen guys crowded around a foozball table. The table of three girls struck me as friendly enough, so I eventually walked over and said “Hello. So, sitting by myself is starting to get very boring. If you don’t mind if I join you, that would be great, and if you do, that’s fine. What do you think?” Smiling, one of them stopped me by the end of the last sentence and said “have a seat. And, don’t ever introduce yourself like that again. Seriously, I would give that a 5.2.” And after a moment, “that was harsh, wasn’t it? Sorry.” They were English, Irish, and Belgian, and saying farewell to Asia after spending months of backpacking together, heading back to Europe by train the next day. We shared stories of tempting death in the traffic of Southeast Asia and the pitfalls of countries with no more than one ATM machine. Besides Irish we all headed to bed relatively early, and last I saw the dozen or so guys had moved from crowding around the foozball table to crowding around her.

Monday, March 12, 2007


When I arrived in JFK airport in New York City, I had been abroad for just over a year in Thailand, Cambodia, and China. I hadn't slept during the 13 hour flight from Beijing, and had barely slept the previous night in soft seat class from Shanghai to Beijing. Depending on Daylight Savings Time there is a 13 hour difference between New York and China--I left China at 1pm on January 21st, and arrived in America at 1pm, January 21st. I was excited to see my family, but was also feeling a little exhausted and apprehensive. The first thing that struck me, besides the English in the airport and Caucasian overdose, was that I could see small changes in my family. I had never been away long enough to see differences, and my 10-year old brother Matthew in particular was noticeably taller and more mature. My other brother Erik, 21, was away for job training but my grandmother also came along from Long Island to see me. The entire first day in particular felt surreal, as I observed America with the eyes of a quasi-outsider. Little things struck my interest that just aren't seen in China, such as my father trying to give a tip to a man who retrieved a bag I had left behind. Prices were even more shocking than expected, and Americanisms like "buddy" truly stuck out.

From the airport, we drove the 3.5 hours back home. My hometown of Binghamton, New York has the unique talent of triggering no emotional response at all. I had come home for the people, not the place, though I'm very fond of our house itself. It's really just the city I don't care for, as the surrounding countryside is nothing to criticize and positively bursting with nature in comparison to China (the picture is from a local park). I don't mind my "plank bed" in Zhangye, but my bed home was fantastically comfortable. The comforts of home were immediately apparent--a well-stocked refrigerator, television I wanted to watch, and high-speed Internet. In public, I could buy bus or train tickets with ease, and bathrooms had toilet paper and had not only been cleaned, but probably pretty recently. I over-indulged in food I had missed, particularly anything Italian, but after the spice of China much of it lacked punch. Our eating habits are exceptionally different from the Chinese, and dramatically less healthy. "Dessert" as we know it is just about non-existent in China, and I sometimes wonder what food Chinese children beg their parents to give them. I had never second-guessed it before, but I was constantly wondering why as a nation we have so little real interest in keeping a healthy diet. People looked different to me as well. Besides the obvious weight and health problems in America, much more obvious to me now, American features looked almost alien, and I noticed something that Asians have always focused on--we have big noses.

I spent four weeks in America. Most of the time was spent relaxing at home, but I also traveled every weekend to see some of my friends who had left Binghamton (which includes essentially all of them). I covered a fair distance, from the subways of New York to the grad student apartments of University of Notre Dame to the palm trees and Spanish influences of Miami. The Miami trip was the least expected, as a family trip to the Everglades enabled me to also visit my farthest close friend. My best friends remain those from high school, and time with them was short but well worth the journey. There were reminders of what I liked about America that I had left behind--playing live music, crossing state lines for a Shins concert, enjoying a cold Guinness in a pint glass, good conversationalists.

However, my interest in China never faded while home. I studied Chinese, I read about China, I watched movies about China. "I guess it's all China all the time?" my mom remarked at one point. I researched China Studies graduate programs, something I still have a serious interest in. As expected I also had a few China encounters. Interestingly, while Chinese citizens often overreact to a Chinese-speaking foreigner, the handful of Chinese in America I approached in Mandarin showed only faint surprise and interest. Only one mirthful old woman, from Xi'an and just visiting family in America, was happy to have a conversation with me in Chinese. While we visited family in Florida I also met an aunt's friend and her 3-year old adopted daughter from China, who had left at age 1 and didn't speak Chinese. She was certainly a child of America, interested mainly in playing with the cat and getting dessert. When her mother asked what she wanted to learn in Chinese from me, she shouted only "cupcake!" with arms outstretched towards the kitchen. The irony of me teaching a Chinese girl the Chinese language did not go unnoticed.

I said goodbye to my family in Florida, taking a flight from Tampa to New York in time to catch my plane from New York back to Beijing. I had been away a long time and there were friends and family I didn't have a chance to see, but I was also ready to go back. America feels like home and I'll probably be back for good, but in the meantime China has a powerful hold on me yet.