Thursday, July 19, 2007

Chinese Words and Phrases 3: 自我批评 zìwǒ pīpíng

Looking through old text messages on my phone I was reminded of something Andrew had passed on to me from a mutual student we've taught:

"Oh, Dolly [classmate] is very afraid to see our headmaster, you know the self-criticism only has 3,000 [characters], not 10,000, so she had to write the rest. She is very busy these days! Terrible!"

A self-criticism (自我批评) is a very Communist Chinese phenomenon that I know of mostly through its use during the Cultural Revolution, when as part of the political paranoia of the time people were obligated to make criticisms of themselves and their failings to uphold the ideals of the Communist Party, or in more extreme cases to confess their "counter-revolutionary" crimes. At that time this was often done in an atmosphere of intimidation and threats. Mao on self-criticism: "Conscientious practice of self-criticism is still another hallmark distinguishing our Party from all other political parties. As we say, dust will accumulate if a room is not cleaned regularly, our faces will get dirty if they are not washed regularly. Our comrades' minds and our Party's work may also collect dust, and also need sweeping and washing." Recently the governor of Shanxi province in northern China publicly made a self-criticism for the slave labor scandal in which hundreds of people had been kidnapped and forced to work in illegal brick kilns.

I never did find out what my student got in trouble for or what she had to write about. Another curious feature of Chinese education.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Qinghai Travels, Part V: Close Encounters with Knife-Wielding Mongolians

When we returned to Xining I was still ill and needed a day to recover, and since we didn't arrive early enough for the day trip we had planned anyway it became a day of rest. The next day was set aside for Qinghai Lake (青海湖), probably the best known attraction of Qinghai Province. It is the largest lake in China and features blue, unpolluted water and the aptly named Bird Island, which has... lots of birds.

The lake is well outside of Xining with no public transportation, so despite knowing better we had to sign up for a Chinese tour group. This was the low point of the trip (disregarding the several days of bus riding) and I was only further turned off of tour groups. In a marathon of a day trip we spent 10 hours riding on the bus to spend a grand total of one hour at the lake. The distance was the main problem, but more irritating were the numerous stops at lame souvenir shops along the way. Before the lake we were also subjected to the Sun Moon Mountain, a hideously touristy Tibetan temple crawling with opportunists selling Chinese tourists the chance for a photo on a yak in a tacky minority costume. It was a big artificial yawn in comparison to the temples in use we had already seen. Referring to the Tibetan prayer flags covered in obviously Tibetan writing on the way in (it vaguely resembles Arabic), a man behind us on the bus asked a companion "is that writing Tibetan or English?" I would compare this to an American not being able to differentiate say, Chinese and Russian writing, after having had six years of compulsory Chinese study at school.

Having seen the ocean in my life the lake itself wasn't too thrilling, though it was indeed a very pretty lake. It was much too crowded with tourists, and the time was too short. Besides that it was far and away the most expensive day of the trip; Andrew even got in a protracted argument with a restaurant owner when he tried to shamelessly cheat us by charging 5 yuan each for tea. Before going to Qinghai every single Chinese friend asked us "are you going to Qinghai Lake? Qinghai Lake is very beautiful." When I replied yes but we were mostly interested in Yushu, they would nod blankly and say "oh," which is probably one reason Yushu was 100 times better: no one knows about it.

The last destination of the trip was Tongren (同仁), which stood out mostly for a reputation for distinctive Tibetan paintings known as Tangka. We were approached on the street by a young Mongolian man without a whole lot to do, and made a friend for the day who showed us around town and helped us. When we talked about the paintings he started telling us about how they were illegal but we could come back and buy them at night in the temples, and we had to clear up that we were buying new paintings for sale, and not antique hunting for the black market. True to our different personalities, Stephen went marching up hills by himself at the first temple, while me and Andrew relaxed in the shade talking to the Mongolian, whose Chinese name was Bateer. A Mongolian through and through, Bateer is in the habit of carrying a large knife on his belt at all times. When we finally saw Stephen again he shouted at us "that was flippin' awesome!" Apparently we had missed the best temple ever. But on the other hand, it was hot out.

Bateer took us to another temple complex where we could buy paintings. We were introduced to a monk artist and his entourage of apprentices, and soaked up the surroundings of his atmospheric workshop/home. I wasn't originally planning on buying a painting, but Stephen's enthusiasm caught on, and I finally broke down as I realized I would be returning to America with very little to show in terms of purchases. I asked the monk to explain the painting, but he would only say "it's too complicated," and in Chinese I was definitely going to take his word for it. Afterwards we had to be heading back to Zhangye, with Bateer (who was fond of us and still had nothing to do) hanging out on the bus until it was time for us to go. About two months later, that finally wraps up the story of the May holiday. I'll try to be a little more on the ball when I travel this summer.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Chinese Words and Phrases 2: 帮我一个忙 bāng wǒ yīge máng

Bang wo yige mang means "help me out with something," generally prefaced by "could you..." and is a phrase to be wary of in Chinese. One of the unexpected bonuses of being a foreign teacher in China is the chance to be volunteered to help people you don't know improve their English. And thus a neighbor who is a chemistry teacher has dropped by with his 26-page research paper for me to look over before he submits it to a scientific journal. This is clearly a better use of my time than the 274 final exams I have to grade, and besides that makes for exciting reading. The title is "An Investigation on Synthesis and Photocatalytic Activity of Polyaniline Sensitized Nanocrystalline TiO2 Composites," and the first sentence is typical of the rest of the paper: "Polyaniline (PAn) sensitized nanocrystalline TiO2 composite photocatalystPAn/TiO2) with high activity and easy separation had been facilely prepared by in situ chemical oxidation of aniline from the surfaces of the TiO2 nanoparticles." I told him no on account of being too busy, leaving out the fact that I don't even understand it in English (my spellchecker backs me up by claiming most of these are not real words). Actually he's a perfectly nice guy who had me over for dinner the last time I helped him, but I have few outlets for sarcasm these days.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Qinghai Travels, Part IV: Turning Down a 15-Year Old Girl in Marriage

The next day was taken up by a day trip to a town called Nangqian (囊谦), about three hours' ride through typically beautiful scenery in a van taxi from Yushu. Nangqian was even smaller, more remote, and more traditional than Yushu. The surrounding scenery was also even better, and we later regretted allotting only half a day for the place. Thankfully there are places like this that haven't been caught up in China's frenzied modernization drive, where there is no Construct the Nation Road or Liberation Street and women can be seen washing clothes in the river.

There was a colorful and attention-grabbing temple in the town which afforded great views from the top. Andrew wasn't too taken with temples and while me and Stephen explored and caught a few minutes of monks performing music, Andrew remained in his element outside, talking with a small crowd of people in Chinese. In the 20 or so minutes we had been gone, he had already received a marriage proposal to a shy, pretty 15-year old Tibetan girl. A jovial woman was half-jokingly (maybe) trying to talk Andrew into the deal. "Are you her mother?" Andrew asked. "No, her sister!" "Her close sister? [it's common in China to refer to cousins as brothers or sisters]" "Nope!"

While searching for a bathroom on our way out, we walked through an outdoor pool hall. The crowd of 96% young men all paused in their games to look at us, and if it were a movie it would have been the scene where we knew we had stepped into the wrong bar. A small boy came up to Stephen and begged in Chinese "Foreigner! Take our picture!" Several times Chinese people have said to me "I guess in America you call us foreigners, huh?" And then I picture an American pointing and staring at a Chinese person on the street and saying loudly to his friend "foreigner!!" He would look like an ass, but we are on the receiving end of this several times a day in China. Fair enough that we draw attention when there are so few of us, but I do resent the lumping of every single foreign country into one single "not Chinese" category, and tiresome comments like "foreigners have blond hair. Why is your hair the same color as ours?" After a year and a half I don't think I have been called a Westerner here even once, simply "foreigner."

Upon returning to Yushu we went out to dinner with Natalie, the woman from South Africa who we met randomly on the first day in town. She took us to an authentic Tibetan restaurant (which had been surprisingly hard to find during our stay) and we had a pleasant conversation over a decent meal.

The next day was the epic return journey to Xining by sleeper bus, and after saying our goodbyes to the beautiful Tibetan girl in the hotel that had befriended Andrew (so many missed opportunities), we set off. This bus was in fact a sleeper, to our great relief, but we soon had other things to worry about. I'm not overly picky about cleanliness, especially in China, but the bus was absolutely filthy, and smelled. The blankets were so disgusting that we refused to use them, throwing them on empty beds where they were later claimed by other passengers. I already knew the road was rough, but the bus was in such poor shape that it shook dramatically for the entire 17 hour journey. It felt like being in a violent storm at sea, or asking a couple of friends to shake your bed for 17 hours straight. To top it all off I wasn't feeling particularly well, possibly due to the high altitude. Near Nangqian we had seen signs declaring over 4,300 meters and I was feeling a little lightheaded in that town. The supremely greasy rolls I had bought for the journey didn't go down well (I still can't look at similar rolls without feeling sick) and finally I had a hearty vomit or two on the bus. Fortunately I had empty plastic bags with me, but unfortunately (at least for Stephen and later Andrew) I was in the middle row and had no choice but to ask my friends to dispose of them out the window. Oh, the ups and downs of China. When traveling through her she's as fickle as a Greek goddess, but you love her just the same.

Qinghai Travels, Part III: The Tibetan Al Pacino

note: yes, I am still writing about what happened in May. This is due mostly to my laziness in writing this blog lately, but I also have somewhat of an excuse in that the internet on campus has been down most of the time in the past week or two.

The day after arriving in Yushu we visited the Princess Wencheng Temple, one of the noteworthy sites of the area. Princess Wencheng was a famous Tang dynasty princess who was married to a Tibetan king named Songtsan Gambo (the enormous statue in Yushu was probably him, though I'm not certain) and thereby helped bridge the gap between the two cultures. The temple in Yushu is to commemorate her passing through the area, and apparently there are two Tibetan festivals to honor her.

On the bus to the temple we had an unexpected surprise: our fellow passengers were none other than the same migrant workers who had been kicked off the bus on the way to Yushu and presumed lost to the elements and wild dogs. They also got a kick out of seeing us again and we (rather, Andrew) had a friendly chat with them. We also slowly pieced together the story: there is a rare plant grown in the area (called 冬虫夏草 dōng chóng xià cǎo) that is used by upper crust Chinese as an aphrodisiac, and therefore sells for a high price. There is money to be made harvesting the plant, which is not easy to do, and there is a law preventing outsiders from coming in and profiting off it. Thus a permit is required to get in. That, or take an expensive taxi and sneak into town after you've been kicked off the bus after 14 hours, like those guys did. They were in fact not sightseeing at the Princess Wencheng Temple, but rather heading farther on to a place where there was work. They had also reunited with their super-shady baseball cap-donning boss.

The temple was certainly a pleasant, atmospheric place, quieter and more enjoyable than the more famous Ta'er Si outside of Xining. The cliff sides towering over the building were bursting with colorful prayer flags, and the surrounding scenery was not half bad. The monks living and studying in the temple were a friendly and curious group. I guess it shouldn't be surprising but in general the monks we met on the trip were memorably hospitable and kind. There was only one monk who could speak good Chinese at the temple, and at around 24 was the oldest. After a number of years of studying Buddhism the monks would graduate and move on. They were not allowed to marry, and if they did they would have to permanently leave the order.

After touring the modest temple we took a walk out into the surrounding countryside. The shy girl running a small store told us there was a primary school about a half-hour walk along the path, and we figured we'd see what was to be seen while we waited for the bus to return in the later afternoon. We did find the school, which was a poor, one-room schoolhouse with just one class of 50 students. The students were at different ages and levels, averaging around 8 or 9 years old, and there were only two teachers. The children poured out of the building after their lesson and took some long, curious looks at us, with a few of the braver ones coming up to say "hello". As with most of the area, they were all Tibetan.

When we returned to the temple to wait for the bus, a monk who was driving into town offered us a ride in his car, which we gladly accepted. He went out of his way to show us a nearby cliff carving of a Buddha, and was quite a cool monk. He was very fond of Stephen's sunglasses which he was borrowing, and seemed to be dropping hints that he wouldn't mind if Stephen gave them to him, but Stephen hadn't brought them all the way from America just to make a monk in Qinghai stylish. The music selection of the day was Buddhist chanting. When he dropped us at our hotel we decided to give him some gas money as thanks. As it happened there was a 20 yuan bill laying on the ground just in front of us. We weren't quite sure where it came from, possibly falling out of one of our pockets, but we gave it to the monk, who declared "money from Heaven!"

That afternoon we went to the bus station to buy return tickets, and met one of the more colorful characters of the trip, a middle-aged Tibetan man whose English name was Jerry. Jerry dabbled in officialdom, selling pet food, history, amateur philosophizing, and heavy drinking. If he spoke English I think he would have used phrases like "now let me tell you something" a lot. He spoke quite fast and excitedly so mostly the only one who could keep up with his Chinese was Andrew, who Jerry was fond of hitting with the back of his hand when making an important point, at least once spraying the ashes of his cigarette all over Andrew's clothes. He was straight out of the movies, especially in his all-black outfit and sunglasses, and Stephen eventually caught on to his resemblance to Al Pacino.

After a long conversation at the bus station, during which we learned his son was in India studying at the Dalai Llama's school, he decided to show us around town. By "around town", I mean hang out by the river and drink beer and baijiu (Chinese liquor). We were to have company: four Tibetan woman in their late 20's or early 30's, sitting on the rocks and singing to their hearts' contents. They were also wasted. Sadly, only one of them had learned to speak Tibetan, the other three knowing only Chinese. The three of us drank lazily but Jerry hit the baijiu at a brisk pace. The more he drank the more he talked (not that anything had been stopping him), and at one point he went into an amusing string of stories about war, which he acted out as he told them. He was actually a pretty intelligent guy, who had a lot of political opinions and made comments commending the US style of agriculture. 95% of our Chinese conversations are based on "can you use chopsticks?" and "are you used to the food here?" He was also sentimental about Tibet's lack of independence, and told Andrew he identified with Scotland. A young monk also joined us for a little while, and among other things we learned that the 4 big sins for his religion are killing, stealing, drinking, and sex.

When we left the river it was getting on in the evening and we had discussed getting dinner together, but by this point Jerry was drunk and increasingly annoying. We decided to part ways, but subtle hints were not working and he continued to follow us towards our hotel and into our room, jabbering the entire time. Though Andrew was by far the best able to speak to him he was also by far the most polite. He did get it across that we wanted to rest and be alone, and though Jerry agreed in words, he wouldn't follow through in action. He had been in war mode for the past couple of hours, asking me questions like "do you think I'm more of a scholar or a warrior?" Once drunk he had taken a liking to me, describing me as a leader, which I can only attribute to my superior beard-growing skills. Which reminds me: on the first day of the trip the three of us decided that none of us would shave, and thus a beard-growing competition commenced, and may the manliest among us win.

When we left the hotel we was still with us, so we had to resort to drastic measures. We had the advantage of him not understanding our native language, and organized a quick plan. Stephen called Andrew's cell phone, and Andrew answered and pretended to be making plans with a friend. He then explained we had to be at our friend's house for dinner, and really had to be going. Jerry said he would leave, yet refused to do so, talking all the while. Finally I reached the end of my patience and flagged down a taxi, and thankfully he didn't get in with us and we were rid of him. Al Pacino had been given the slip.