Tiananmen reflections part two

People watching is one of the best ways to learn about another culture. And hands down one of the best places to people watch in Beijing is in Tiananmen square and you will no doubt see mostly Chinese tourists. If you want to check out another post about my Tiananmen reflections, check here. 

Many of these Chinese people are visiting in hoards of groups, with a majority of them being middle-aged or elderly. They usually are wearing a ball cap of some sort perhaps a yellow hat or red one. Their leader is carrying a Chinese flag and continually reminding them to follow accordingly. Most of the Chinese men are thin and wearing dark clothing that is ten sizes too big for them. Their skin is dark and they enjoy taking breaks to have some sunflower seeds and their wives are unpacking the food they cooked themselves perhaps brought all the way from home wherever that may be. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is how wide-eyed they are looking around like children in a candy shop which is the best way to look around.

I wondered how far these Chinese tourists had traveled to see Tiananmen square. Was this their first time in Beijing? Was this the first time they had left their home town? Did they like Beijing cuisine?  What is their home town like? Did they my shorts were inappropriate? These are the things I think about, y’all.

Right next to Tiananmen square is The National Museum which is fabulous to see. It’s exterior represents Stalinist Russia’s influence on 1950’s China. Its interior has some fabulous exhibitions, especially ancient China’s exhibition. But perhaps the most  striking thing was reading the captions of some of the exhibitions because they clearly had a flair of propaganda infused throughout. For example, This quote comes directly from the entrance to an exhibition:

” The current exhibition is presented in memory of the past and to warn future generations. Let us stand closely around the CPC central leadership with Xi Jinping as the general secretary of CPC and take efforts to build socialism with Chinese characteristics. We should stick to peaceful development and world peace. Let us continue our endeavor to build a moderately prosperous society in all respects, to build a strong democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious socialist country and to fulfill the Chinese dream of great renewal of Chinese nation! Let us continue our peace and development for all of human kind. ”

There were many other quotes similar to this and as I was reading it to myself in the museum, another foreigner walked up to me and said ” Don’t you find this all a little strange?” And while I did, after living in China for a year, I felt that I understood it.

I showed this quote to all of my Chinese colleagues and they  too thought  it sounded very propoganda-laden  and over the top but to a different generation, these words still ring so true.  As I was taking a photo of this quote, several elderly Chinese men and women walked up and proudly posed in front of the quote in Chinese and I could see them all smiling and nodding their heads. These were the same people I had seen so wide-eyed outside of Tiananmen.

The amount of change that this generation has experienced, still boggles my mind. Some of them have been alive to see  a country go from one of no centralized government to one of the most powerful nations in the world. They have seen their families quality of life improve more   in the span of one generation than six or seven generations prior. I’m sure some of them have suffered in different ways due to drastic changes in the country, but they still stand so very proud of their country.

And that’s pretty cool to see.

 

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My one year anniversary with China

It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Beijing for 365 days. Well, if we want to get technical, I haven’t been in China for exactly that long, as with a few trips here and there, but I’ve spent 350 days in this country. So, how to bottle up all those experiences into some sort of reflective essay? Well it’s damn near impossible, but it’s worth a shot. I know this is a milestone in my life, so below I’ve tried my best to make sense of all my experiences.

Before i came to China, I thought “Ok, a year in China will be enough for me to understand the language and culture on a deep level.” While I wholeheartedly agree that I’ve peeled back layers of this culture to better understand it, I believe that there isn’t  such a thing as setting a time limit on how well you understand something. You can check out another one of my blog posts about China’s cultural layers here. Just as a I tell my students that learning a language will always be a process, so will understanding different cultures. I think as humans, we like to set benchmarks for ourselves as to better  organize the thousands of thoughts that go through our head. Benchmarks are good. They are great in fact. But, it shouldn’t deter us from continuing the process of understanding something, even if we feel it’s been understood. That’s why even though I’m heading back to the states in a few months, I’m going to continue to find ways to be immersed in Chinese culture, whether that’s through taking more classes at a university or joining in a Chinese cooking class on the weekends. I never want to stop learning more about this culture.

As many expats living in China will tell you, it can be a love hate relationship at times. While most of my experiences in China have been ones of love, I would be lying if I said it was all peaches and cream. The pollution was truly terrible at times, and I’m pretty sure in february I felt like China was  a post apocalyptic world. The traffic and ever-present horn-honking drove me mad at times. Our never-ending saga with the apartment drama nearly drove me to curse at my Chinese landlord. People spitting near my feet made me clinch my fists. The meaning of quality and service in China is something completely different from the West. When you are living in a country of 1 billion people, quality just isn’t as important. At times I felt publicly embarrassed, like the time we were traveling on a crowded bus and were short one kuai. The bus attendant publicly called us out and insulted us in front of all the other Chinese passengers. And the worse feeling of all is the feeling of defeat. As my good expat friend said, “When you are frustrated and can’t communicate that in another language, you can’t let go of that stress. It stays with you and makes you even more frustrated.” Sometimes that feeling of defeat would creep up on me when I just couldn’t find the Chinese words to express my emotions. But all of these so-called “negatives” really are positives because do you really want to live abroad and have NO challenges. Of course not, that would be boring! And your stories definitely wouldn’t be as good. No but to be honest, the challenges of living in China is the good stuff. The challenges are what make your soul and self more resilient.

Speaking of challenges, living in China has made me understand the strains of population and environment. It still boggles my mind how many people are in China. That’s right, after 350 days, I still feel like there are a lot of people. The population is directly or indirectly related to every course of action in day-to-day life. Because of China’s population, the competition in education is fierce. There really isn’t a chance for every student to receive education. There especially isn’t enough room for everyone to receive higher education. Remember when George Bush famously said, “no child left behind” ? Well, in China tons of children are left behind in terms of their academic pursuits. My students have stressed to me how utterly stressful high school was.   This quote comes from one of my students. ” You know foreigners are always joking that Chinese teenagers have no free time and are always studying but what they don’t understand is that we have to. If we want to go to university, we must have the best scores in China.” This quote really it me hard because education is taken for granted in so many parts of the world. In the states, if you do relatively well in school, you will get into college. Heck if you  even do just ok you will get into university. I know if  If you want to read more about education in China, check out my blog post here. 

Living in China has not quenched my thirst for exploration, but i don’t think that thirst will ever be quenched. I know it’s ironic but, I don’t think you have to travel far to explore something new. Each city has endless possibilities of exploration! I hope that this idea of city exploration translates when I head back to the states.

The balance of tradition and modernization is always an important concept in this world and these two concepts are really fighting for space in China. There is still a huge population of elderly people in China that are trying to keep ancient traditions alive with the upbringing of their grandchildren. Beijing’s cherished hutongs are being destroyed left and right. Just the other day, I saw a very elderly man sitting on his stool playing with his grandchild, as a hutong was being torn apart with a jack hammer behind him. This country has one of the oldest history’s on the planet and there needs to be efforts to preserve the essence that is China and it’s “Chineseness.”

But, above all, being a teacher this past year has been the best experience. It really has been one of the greatest joys of my life thus far. Most of my students are from China, Libya and Saudi Arabia so I’ve seen and heard perspectives of China through different cultural lenses. My students are so eager to learn and  wanting to better themselves, better their lives and families through the study of English. Feeling like you have imparted knowledge,lasting knowledge on someone, that feeling just can’t be matched. But more importantly, my students don’t realize what they have taught me. They have taught me the true meaning of dedication and hard work. They have taught me to analyze why things are the way they are in China. They’ve encouraged me in my Chinese study and made me realize how learning a language is truly connected in how you understand the culture behind it. But I think the best feeling of all is they’ve shown me a kind of love that is unique to teachers. Tissues anyone? I know I’m pulling them out right now…  So for any of you who are  thinking about teaching or teaching in China, you should 100% do it.

I hope that my rambling has translated into some meaning and expresses what living and teaching in China has been like for the past year. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them! I’m always delighted to read and answer your thoughts about China. For those of you that read consistently, thank you for your love and support this past year and thank you for helping this little blog grow!

For those of you that live or have lived in China, what do you love most?

 

 

 

 

 

A Beijing Summer

As I feel the first pangs of an autumn wind in Beijing I thought it appropriate to reflect on a Beijing summer.

Summer in Beijing is quite different from its other seasons. For one thing, , dare I say this, it’s far more crowded. Tourists are flocking in from all corners of the globe to get their hands on some Peking duck and to have a go at The Great Wall. But, what I’m surprised about is the sheer number of Chinese tourists in Beijing. When I head home from work I see an armada of buses full of tourists unloading at the subway. As I crane my head upwards towards the massive buses I see tourists with little red hats and tour leaders frantically waving their yellow flags around to keep everyone in order.

Although it’s crowded, it adds a whole new energy to the city. Students from all over the world are flocking to different parts of the city. My favorite areas like Shichahai  near Houhai and The Drum & Bell Tower are filled with families and children enjoying the summer sun. For anyone that has read my blog consistently, you know that Beijing’s hutongs have a special place in my heart and they come to life in the spring and summer.

Take a stroll down any hutong and you will see groups of elderly men and women waving their bamboo fans trying to cool themselves off . As they fan themselves they also sip tea from their thermos and comment on the quality of the food they’ve bought today. Lots of older men and women are wearing traditional Chinese slippers with high white socks and sitting on small Chinese stools that look child size but can hold the biggest of men. Their grandchildren are running around the alleyways pantless and looking for things that interest them. Occasionally their grandparents will yell at them “Guo lai!“Which means ” Come here!” Beijing’s three-wheeled silver box cars and bikes are fighting for space in the narrow hutongs ,weaving around children and their grandparents ambling about.  Sometimes I feel like Beijing is a world of babies and elderly people.

As the day slowly turns into night, little restaurants  haphazardly put table and chairs on the street. Men walk up to the restaurants rolling up their shirts and passing around their cigarrttes.  They take a seat on their little stools and order a round of Yanjing or Snow beers which only come in big bottles in Beijing. A small Chinese woman brings out ten bottles of beer single handedly and as the night goes on, the beers accumulate on the table and are never cleared until the party has left. It’s not uncommon to see fifteen beer bottles on a tiny little table on the street. Dish after dish is brought out to the table, which might leave you wondering how so few people can consume so much food . Head over to Gui Jie (Ghost Street) in the summer  and you will experience one of the best summer eating atmospheres in Beijing. Spicy crawfish and seafood  is a speciality on this street and as people wait for a table , they chew sun slower seeds and throw the shells on the ground. It’s not uncommon to feel like you are walking on a floor made entirely of shells.

Step out of any subway at night and your senses will be overwhelmed at the amount of little food stalls you see. Fried pancakes and  are being served up alongside my favorite freshly squeezed pomegranite juice. Mountains of grapes and peaches are being sold on little carts. Men and women are asking you to take a ride in their three-wheeled cart and the smell of cumin is intoxicating as raw meat is being rolled in the cumin and then put on an open-flame.

So for those of you that are hesitant to come to Beijing in the summer, you really shouldn’t. It’s a magical time  and you too will enjoy the pantless babies, crowded hutongs, oversized beer bottles and wonderful chaos.

The language of smoking in China

It’s 9:30 a.m. and I’m headed to work via my usual route. From my apartment to the bus stop i pass the usual characters. There is the security guard in his uniform which is way to big for him sitting in a leather chair that was once considered nice back in the 1980’s. He is puffing on a cigarette as the hot sun beats on his wrinkled tan face. There are the drivers of the dian dong san lun che ( three wheeled taxisall gathered in front of my building scratching their bellies and passing around cigarettes, waiting for someone to ask for their service. Even though they see me everyday, and i always take the bus, they still greet me with a “hellloooooo, taxi?”. These are the two words they know. Then as I walk down the street toward the bus stop I see a butcher outside of his restaurant cutting raw meat and alternating with his other hand to smoke his cigarette. Then adjacent to my bus stop is a car wash where every single employee somehow manages to give the customers car a wax while simultaneously balancing a cigarette in their mouths. True talent right there.

I’m sure you are seeing a pattern here. Smoking is pervasive in China. But it has a very different reputation than it does in the West. In America its stigmatized and seen by most as a very unhealthy and addicting habit. That’s about where the definition of smoking stops in the West. However, smoking is seen as something much more than an unhealthy past time in China. It’s a way to make introductions easier. It’s a way to make new relationships and even further solidify the relationships you already have. When I witness people meeting up together it’s almost like the cigarettes are coming out of their pockets before their hello’s are said to each other.

There have been multiple occasions in which we’ve met various Chinese people who have offered Billy a cigarette. Just the other day we were looking at apartments and as we walked to the place, the real estate agent offered Billy a cigarette. We’ve been negotiating cab prices in the late hours of the night and upon reaching a negotiation he was offered a cigarette. Rarely am I offered a cigarette because I believe there is still some sense of machismo associated with smoking, even if many Chinese women are smoking today.

In my opinion, cigarettes are also like a type of currency. Smoking cigarettes isn’t perspired to a certain class. Everyone is doing it from the migrant worker to the business executive.However the range of brands in China varies greatly. In Beijing there are hundreds upon thousands of little stores that sell cigarettes in a big glass case where it’s easy for you to glance over the brands. There are probably fifty different brands of them in these cases. It’s seen as a status symbol to have certain brands of cigarettes. As my favorite author Peter Hesler states so perfectly:

“For entrepreneurs, the give-and take of cigarettes represents a kind of semaphore.” Each brand has “a distinct identity and an unspoken exchange rate. Around Beijing, peasants smoke Red Plum Blossoms. Red Pagoda Mountain can be found in the pockets of average city men. Low level entrepreneurs like Zhongnanhai Lights. A nouveau-rich businessman tosses out Chunghwas as if they were rice. Pandas are the rarest and best of all…government quotas make them hard to find.”

Smoking is seen everywhere, I mean everywhere. In my apartment sometimes I glance down and see men flicking open their a box, putting a cigarette in their mouth and lighting up as soon as the door opens. Husbands puff away together as they sit in a circles together and bounce their babies on their laps. Smoking is done before, during and after dinners. My favorite is seeing very elderly men walking around Beijing’s hutongs in their pajamas, having one last smoke before bed time.

Although I have mixed feelings about so many people smoking all of the time, you can’t help but witness some magical way cigarettes seem to bring together groups of people in China. If there is an altercation or a disagreement you can feel the tension melt away as soon as one party offers another a cigarette. If there is a death, attendants will gather together and smoke in honor of their loved ones who have passed. It’s perhaps the most second most used language next to Mandarin.