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Learning How to Speak…and Pick Up Women!

8 Aug

I’ve been studying Chinese with much more consistency lately, and part of that includes listening to Pimsleur’s Mandarin lessons on my computer and iPod.  Similar to Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur uses an all-listening-and-speaking format of teaching through conversations and repetition.  It’s a quite useful supplement to my classes and textbook study.  As well, the lessons adhere to a type of practicality that the classrooms lacks and that I find highly entertaining.  Simply put, it tries to teach the most vital language points very first.

Considering the typical expat living in China, Pimsleur decided to make its Mandarin I lessons based around a conversation between an American man and a Chinese woman.  Therefore, while learning how to ask for directions and order food, I’m also learning the next most practical thing for that demographic: how to pick up women.  I find it hilarious that I may not be able to ask about the weather just yet, but I can rattle out the sentences: “Let’s go to your place for a drink,” “Would you like to eat with me?” and “I’d like to go to a hotel” with practiced ease.

I’m convinced that one day, with enough life experience, I’ll eventually find a very practical use for each of these phrases in my own life.  Until then, I’m quite content knowing how to say 我要一瓶啤酒。(I want a bottle of beer.) with consistent fluency.

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中国爱林丹 (China loves Lin Dan)

8 Aug

Every day after work, the first thing I do after entering my apartment, taking off my shoes, throwing down my bags, turning on my AC and opening my computer is turn on my TV.  The Chinese chatter stays mostly tuned out on low volume, and the cable box is always tuned to one of three stations: CCTV1, CCTV5, or CCTV7.  CCTV stands for something related to China, and the 13 or so CCTV channels are all run by the government.  Some of them are quite interesting, such as the all-English, Hong Kong-based CCTV9 that you can even find in generous cable packages in the US.  But right now, CCTV1, 5 and 7 all show, non-stop, the 2012 Olympics.

Watching the Olympics in China is fascinating.  The most fascinating element of watching the best athletes in the world compete is that all of China, as a nation, watches the same three channels, and thus, gets to see the same events broadcasted.  The broadcasting is very nationalistic, as the annoucers (usually a man and a woman together) not only cheer for Chinese players only but comment in the most peculiar ways; when a Chinese competitor does well, you hear applause and praise.  When one does poorly, you hear one of two comments: “The pressure was just too much.” or “He didn’t prepare well enough.”  When another country’s competitor does well, you hear very little commentary, unless the player has made such a grave mistake that he or she is already out of the running.  For example, last night, a gymnist from somewhere else fell off the balance beam, thus earning a deduction that threw her out of the running for a medal.  Once she got back on the beam to finish her routine, you could hear the most laudable comments from the channel’s commentators.  

And, just because an event is happening, doesn’t mean that China will show it.  What China will show is determined by one major question: Is China competing?  The secondary question would be: Will China eventually compete against the winner of this match?  If the answer is yes to either, you can happily find the event aired in real time, on live TV, and, if China does well, replayed a million times, even when other events that do not display Chinese talent are happening.  What China does well is what you see here, and that means a completely different focus from what I’m used to when watching the Olympics in the US.

First of all, the national sports here are badminton and ping pong (of course, correctly referred to as table tennis internationally).  We are currently experiencing a national uproar of celebration because the world’s number two badminton player (as of a few days ago) and national hunk and all-around superstar, Lin Dan, won the men’s singles badminton gold medal after Malaysia’s worldwide champion lost in a very close match to him.  Lin Dan’s very visible tattoo of a Christian cross stood out like a sore thumb, yet no one seemed to care much when he ripped off his shirt and threw it to the crowd after making that final match point.

I’m also developing an appreciation for ping pong, badminton and volleyball, which are much more avidly played and followed here.  There’s simply so much of it airing here; both the women’s gold and silver medalists and the men’s gold and silver medalists in ping pong were Chinese players.  This country simply dominates that sport.  But, if China isn’t really involved, you won’t really see it here.  I’m lucky that Americans put up such fierce competition against the Chinese; that means I get to see quite a few of my fellow countrymen competing.  Once China is out of a sporting event, though, I have to say goodbye to continuing to follow any other team and get ready to see more replays of events in which China DID do espcially well.

For that reason, a funny thing happened last night.  I was watching a volleyball match between China and Japan last night with a friend, and he asked me, “What are you rooting for?”  Having developed a slight affinity for the Japan team for no discernable reason, I said, “Japan. And you?”  “Definitely China. There’s simply no other option. I want to continue watching this sport.”

Alas, Japan won.  Goodbye volleyball.  I’ll be reading the news to see how that one pans out.

Organizing a Swap Event in Guangzhou, China

20 May

Today, my small little language company held it’s first ever swap event.  Actually, we called Earth Day Exchange Party, and it’s was a little dippy, but it ended up surprising me a little.

I got inspired to do this for purely selfish and stubborn cultural reasons.  I have said goodbye to well over a dozen close or good friends in my time living in China, and I’ve inherited a lot of things.  I’ve been itching to make my living space more simple, and that’s where the cultural stubbornness comes in.  I simply refuse to just throw away any kind of object that is functioning.  I’m a hoarder in that way.  Or, at least an unwilling hoarder.  I keep those things for what you might call moral reasons, not because I can’t let them go or want to wait until that random, distant day when I’ll need the various items I’ve collected, but because I can’t throw away something that is still useful, that still has function.  I guess you could say that’s the extent of my consistent environmentally-friendly living sense: my refusal to let energy – behind the use of non-renewable resources, the production of them into some shape, and the expenditure of whatever other energy that was used to operate the thing besides kinetic energy – go to waste.  I could easily avoid being a hoarder in the US because there are enough recycle centers, donation centers, and exchange/thrift stores to go around.  You didn’t need to keep things until they could see their usefulness again in your life because there were so many other ways to share things you don’t need with other people who actually need or at least want them.

That kind of thing doesn’t really exist in China.  For one, people are typically afraid of using things that other people owned before.  A few students have told me that it’s even shameful, but I don’t know how many people actually think that, especially considering the attitudes we had today.  I think it’s just not common practice, and I think that people just haven’t had enough time after the development of the middle class and the mass acquirement of useless, unnecessary wants due to increased disposable income to realize the need for second-hand businesses.  It’s nearly impossible to find a thrift shop, a donation center, a true vintage clothing shop or any kind of second-hand-sales business here.  Beats me where all the old stuff even goes but I still I needed any easy solution for my growing pile of stuff.  In the end, I decided to create one.

We advertised online on a popular foreign web site and on the Chinese Twitter, Weibo.  We called all our small community of students and asked them to come.  In the end, almost only students and teachers were there, a small group of a little less than 30 people.  We taught a short culture class about environmentally-friendly living, showed a National Geographic video in English about global warming, and then held a birthday party (although non of our May birthday students showed (but we ate the cake anyway, of course).  During the party, a beginner student read a short essay that his teacher basically wrote for him, some new students gave English speeches about the items they’d brought for the exchange, and then we had the exchange part.  We brought more items than necessary because we wanted students to know it was a regular event.  Some students brought things but didn’t take any home, and some students managed to get away without bringing anything major.  One student of my students (a stoic, adorable, quick-learning 10-year-old named Jim) exhibited his ability with Chinese calligraphy by making some Earth Day banners as a show.  He swapped his results with us for some items, and he took home two of mine, an artistic ceramic flute and a USB light (which I know passed through 3 sets of hands unopened before it found its home with Jim).

Considering all the drawbacks due to poor, hasty planning, mostly on part of a staff who didn’t really understand the concept to begin with, it was a success in a few ways, including the most important – it will happen again.  My boss witnessed it all, got inspired, and likes the concept.  She’s already considering how it can help us promote ourselves to the local and foreign community, while also spreading the kind of message that’s very dear to her personally it seems: environmentally-friendly living.

One surprise was the number of students who brought unique and interesting items.  And, the requirements of types of items was well-understood.  No one brought anything strange or odd or terribly useless.  I brought many things I’d never opened, silly travel nick-nacks that no one actually uses, and almost all of which I’d inherited.  People all had some sort of thing to swap, and no one stole anything when no one was looking, which was lucky considering where we had everything.  One walk-in client had even come while we were preparing for the party, gone home to shower and get more nicely dressed, and then come back to witness the end of the party and talk to our staff.  He liked what he saw and decided to come back tomorrow.  Of course, for sales, this is where I excel because our consultants and even occasionally our director are shy when talking to foreigners, but I’m more comfortable, and this guy happened to be an Armenian guy working for a Russian trading business in Guangzhou.

I organized the event terribly and misjudged or didn’t consider many different aspects of it, especially several cultural ones, but in the end it managed to work out.  That’s the best part of the place I work for – the director and staff are willing to try just about any sort of kooky, odd cultural concept, and the students themselves are a bit of an odd community anyway, with several individual and unique personalities.  I felt like such a hippie today, but in a setting where people don’t even know what a hippie is.  Ironic, and helpful, considering I don’t usually identify myself in that way.

My Out-of-Town Chinese-Italian Wedding Experience

5 May

I spent the last 5 days in Hangzhou, China, home of the famous Xi Hu (West Lake). I went there for the wedding of a friend of a friend who used to live in Hangzhou and knew several of the other attendees. This cultural experience was a gift, something I wouldn’t have stumbled upon on my own, and it entailed many intriguing and even humorous facets, especially as the very mellow, married couple-to-be were from two different countries and had a very international group of friends and supporters that they desired to celebrate with them in the bride’s hometown, a nearby village.

The most genius part of the wedding was that, because it’s difficult to get many people from out of town to gather with successful organization in a village, the bride and groom had everyone meet in Hangzhou, load onto a bus at around noon, and drive to the village, which was only about 90 minutes away. This decorated bus, full of cheerful foreigners and locals, was well-stocked with beer and some sub sandwiches, and it rolled up to a pit stop for a local spectacle of a restroom and smoke break halfway through the drive before finally making it to the bride’s house. It probably completely amazed the neighbors, who gathered to observe the colorful group. Few of the Chinese guests drank beer, while almost all of the foreigners did. Having indulged in the beer myself, I had to pee so badly that when I got there and said hello to a woman who was either the bride’s aunt or mother, she grabbed my arm and frantically rushed me to the nearest bathroom, which was ironically hidden in a space that made it seem looked like you were about to pee in a closet. We gathered in the bride’s house, nearly filling the living room to capacity. It reminded me of some family gatherings in my old home growing up, as every room was carefully made ready for guests; trinkets were packed away, furniture moved, and every inch scrubbed to a polished shine. The mixed-ethnicity couples and their children, the bride’s family’s local friends, and the wedding couple’s friends from many different Chinese cities and foreign countries filled the room with play, laughter and intriguing conversations.  I noticed, a bit shocked, that I was the only white woman attending with a white boyfriend, who even more ironically happens to also be an American, something quite coincidental considering our location and experiences living as expats.

The table contained an almost-overflowing collection of bowls, filled to the brim with pickles and finger foods, and cans of beer, which the foreigners continued the drink gleefully. The guests gathered in circles, chatting happily and meeting each other, while the bride’s family quietly kept order and cleaned up messes.  All the while, the bride got ready in a bedroom; she hadn’t been on the bus, and was unseen by all guests until that point. Then, she called all the women into the room with her, and the wedding traditions began. She stood in the corner, in a dim light in the colorful and cozy old-fashioned room, next to a bed that had very fine quality, bloodred bedsheets and folded up blankets and actually reflected a dim glow onto her brilliantly white dress and veil. She was barely moving but smiling brilliantly, obviously overcome with happiness. The room was packed with many nationalities of women, including the groom’s mother and cousin, some foreign English teachers from a few different countries, and Chinese women from all different cities of China, all brought together, each knowing only a few others in the room. The two Chinese bridesmaids in simple, classic dresses, announced that it was time for the Italian groomsman (whose mother tongue was Italian but who also spoke fluent, natural-sounding Chinese and English and taught English for a living) and his groomsmen to perform some difficult tasks. First he had to come to the locked door and answer questions asked by all the women present. He kept trying to slip his way in, and each almost-successful attempt led to a throng of screamish-squeals from the girls who anxiously tried to prevent him from entering or seeing the bride.

The groom and his groomsmen were a motley crew. They were called to the window overlooking a back balcony, through which the bride and her entourage handed them colorful hula skirts and ordered them to dance to music she played off her phone. They did, and they also followed suit when she pointed her thin, elegant finger, and demanded for them to move their hips more. The groomsmen were good sports, following every command with comedic gusto, being all the more interesting because they were a huge black guy from Kenya who grew up there, the UK and the States and a bald, slick Italian guy who looked a little like he was out of the mafia and who speaks impeccable Mandarin as a resident of Beijing. After the task was performed, they were given a handful of keys on red-ribbon strings, only one of which actually opened the bedroom door. The groomsmen did all of this while a crowd of the men and some older women from the bride’s family and their neighbors stood around and watched in entertained amusement.

When the groom made it in, he was allowed to approach his bride and kiss her. Some little boys (to symbolize a desire for sons, an aspect of the wedding ceremony explained to me by a fellow guest, a Chinese woman who was attending with her foreign English-teaching boyfriend) were called into the room to search for small presents hidden among the folded bed sheets. The bride’s-home rituals were then finished, and the bride and groom were together the rest of the wedding. They left the house to take pictures outside with the family and wedding party, and the guests followed, probably beginning to suffocate in the small apartment that the family was also probably happy to have emptied out. The house visit had included so many smaller cultural exchanges, including a moment I heard about later from the groom, in which the bride’s mother repeatedly hugged the groom’s mother, a beautiful, vivacious Italian woman who had begun learning Mandarin once she heard that her son was marrying a Chinese woman. We stood outside, mingling and drinking more beer, and then we were loaded back onto the bus and driven to the hotel, where we would dine for the main part of the wedding. We spent a decent amount of time figuring out how to go around a bridge that seemed too low for our tall coach, circling the town, and eventually just risking it and slickly making it through, a success which caused the passengers to erupt in victorious applause.

Once we pulled up to the hotel, we got whispered word that we were 2 hours early for dinner, so we dispersed to explore the grounds and hang out. Many of the bus attendees ended up in a guest sitting room which served food and drinks. I found myself at a table with my fellow American date, a Canadian teacher and his Chinese wife and their baby, a British teacher, the groomsmen, and the Chinese wife of the Kenyan-American groomsman. After more beers were ordered, our ensuing conversation covered multiple topics, such as beer, animal cruelty and which cities in China were the best to live in.

After a few hours were killed, we were called in to the dining hall, where we took our seats. I was later told that the pouring of guests into the room angered the bride of another wedding happening in the same hotel, who had to stand and watch her guests look on in awed distraction as this seemingly-random cluster of foreigners and Chinese filed into the Chinese-style wedding next door. Being the guest of a guest, I sat with my date at a table in the middle of the third row of tables, in a large room that contained perhaps 16 tables – 4 rows of 4. Of course, position and table-seating is an important part of the dinner, and the most fascinating part of the arrangement was that the bride’s family not only sat separate from the groom’s family, but also sat in the back of the room, in the row farthest from the stage. The groom’s Italian parents and cousins and their guests sat in the first row, at the table of most important location. The bride and groom entered, and the wedding dinner events began. Led by an MC, as is typical in Chinese weddings, the bride and groom exchanged rings and vows, poured an entire bottle of champagne into a stacked tower of glasses that cleverly allows the champagne to overflow slowly from glass to glass and symbolizes prosperity and abundance as all guests eagerly watched to see how many glasses can be filled by one bottle. They linked arms and drank together before cutting a wedding cake that I don’t remember ever seeing again.

After this, they turned to the audience and toasted them as a unit, and the dinner began. I enjoyed the adventure of eating almost all completely new dishes, new Chinese delicacies and feast staples I hadn’t before savored. Lobster, crab, and an amazing, chicken, simply cooked in salted water and some subtle sweet flavors in a Dutch oven-like pot were extraordinary additions to the new selections of pickles and appetizers I examined and tasted. The toasting alcohols included baijiu (rice wine), red wine and a special, strong-tasting brown Chinese drink that tasted a little like a less-sweet-vermouth-style ginger wine. The bride and groom began their rounds of toasting every individual dinner guest (the wedding party famously never has time to eat at weddings) while everyone else began the meal. The tables were served all the same dishes and in the same order, and each place setting contained not only several glasses for tea, for orange juice, water or soda, and for wine, but also small gifts, including chocolates, nuts and candies in little boxes. As the bride and groom went around, the bridesmaids gave out decorated chopsticks while the groomsmen toasted each guest with the groom and the groom’s mother gave out a traditional red bag containing small red Italian candies of nuts covered in chocolate and a candy shell. The note she hand-wrote in red ink and attached to each one contained: the bride’s Chinese name in characters – that she obviously practiced and wrote in the large fashion typical of people who haven’t been writing characters all their lives – on one side, the groom’s given name on the other side, and the date, written in typical European style, underneath.

Many of the foreign guests slowly and happily got drunk, and the families strove to make everything perfect. The bride, groom and their families all took turns making speeches, and the revelry lasted about two-three hours. Then, the bus was loaded back up, and with half its occupants passed out in drunken sleep, it returned to Hangzhou. The bride and groom came along, and a large group of closer friends and classmates went to a reggae bar to share bottles of tequila, whiskey and beer, play pool and relax with the bride and groom, who were finally relaxing after the long day, now in casual clothes and with very pleased and loving looks on their weary faces.

My favorite piano bar

2 Oct

The pictures below are from my favorite little hangout spot in GZ.  Cheap beer, nightly live music and comfortable couches and homey chairs and lighting.  What more could you need on a Friday night?

Who knew Pepé Le Pew was French?

2 Oct

The past few days have got me thinking about cultural differences.  I’ll always believe that people are people everywhere, but the little differences tickle or baffle me at times.  Here are a few reflections.

Last night, I went out with a few French friends.  The topic of stereotypes came up as it inevitably does when young intelligent men and women from different parts of the world start talking and drinking at the same time.  Somehow the character of Pepé Le Pew from Looney Tunes came up, and I was amazed to find out that none of them know that he is supposed to be French.  They’d grown up watching the show in French, so all of the characters spoke French.  They didn’t think that any of the characters represented nationalities, and this revelation appalled them all.  In their mock outrage, they even suggested encouraging the French government to make a statement of severe disapproval.

The entire conversation revealed some interesting stereotypes.  These representatives of French culture (at least regarding my generation), when asked what most French people think of American women, said that we’re seen as promiscuous (the same goes for men, with the added characteristic of being overly-macho in an unintelligent way).  The Americans in the conversation (including myself) shared that we’ve grown up hearing that French women never shave and that French men are very romantic (but also overly forward and often womanizing) and that all French people in general are arrogant.  This revelation was also amusing to my French comrades because they think that Italian men are the womanizing bunch among Europeans and that French men don’t deserve being characterized as romantic because they’re too lazy.

Another cultural exchange I have experienced of late has been a little less jovial.  Having recently traveled home for about 3 weeks (and to Thailand for a week before that, where I drank plenty of Thai beer and ate food so good I almost can’t bear to think about it), I’ve eaten a LOT of good food over the past few months.  Thus, upon returning to China, I was evidently noticeably plumper (though not by my roommate – bless his heart, he’s such a sweetie with those little white lies).  Almost every one of my Chinese colleagues and students, upon seeing me for the first time in over a month, remarked that I looked rested, happy, and fatter than usual.  I replied to their comments a bit coldly the first few times, but I eventually noticed the happy, sugary tones with which this compliment was delivered each time.  Finally, I asked a group of my students, all women, what a comment like that usually connotes, and they say that this kind of exchange between women is usually friendly rather than malicious and even a compliment at times.

It’s fascinating to me that such a vast difference in reactions to such a comment exists between cultures.  I would say that Americans are much more obsessed with image and perceived societal expectations regarding weight than the Chinese, but that’s simply not true.  Many Chinese women are very concerned with image, especially looking wealthy and/or trendy.  So many Chinese women are naturally small and thin, yet great concern over weight (especially by the smaller percentage of Chinese women that happen to be above the size 4) still exists and affects women psychologically.  However, being called a little fatter than usual by an acquaintance doesn’t seem to make them want to strangle someone.

And the electric hotplate goes to…

26 Sep

This is the story of how I found myself, at about 10 o’clock at night, walking home over the Guangzhou Da Dao bridge dressed in high heels, a skirt and dress shirt, and toting this eclectic bunch of things: an electric hotplate, a pair of Louis Vuitton g’s (probably knock-offs), and a gift package of spa-quality shampoo and body wash (I love those packages that don’t include as much conditioner as shampoo because goodness knows I don’t need any more conditioner with this short ‘do I’ve been sporting these days).

Let’s backtrack about 5 hours.  A friend of mine had invited me to a traditional Cantonese after-moon-festival dinner that her father (a former vice-mayor of Guangzhou and retired national team badminton coach) was attending.  It was also a special function because the most famous traditional Chinese landscape and calligraphy artists in the city or province (I’m not really sure which) were hosting the dinner.  So, after a semi-typical workday, I was picked up, with my friend, in the private car of her father’s friend, one of his former players (and evidently, last year’s “Mr. Guangzhou” – assuming that means he’s a local celebrity and all-around stud).  The ride across the city was adventurous both because I so rarely ride in a private sedan these days (although I put in my fair share of van time at my previous job), especially one so plush, and because Mr. GZ was quite a chaotic speed-demon.

We arrived at a very traditional, famous dim sum restaurant after we picked up another man, an elderly gent whom my friend called Mr. Dale.  Mr. Dale lives in San Francisco and imports wine from Germany to the U.S. and China.  I thought immediately that it would be nice to have another person to speak English to besides my friend, and Mr. Dale, with his zany, colorful worldview, didn’t disappoint.  The restaurant we went to was, coincidently, one I’d been to before, for a welcome luncheon with my former company.  It’s quite old and full of traditional decoration inside, including glass windows with hand-chisled designs of flowers and things, a wall of embroidery, and a wall of pictures from decades ago depicting all the momentous events that took place there, like contract signings and even a visit from a former German chancellor and Henry Kissenger.

When we got there, the artists were painting calligraphy and landscape scenes on tables all across the front of the room.  After a while, this slowly ended, and a host stood up and said a bunch of welcoming things and then ordered that raffle tickets be passed around.  Well, they were more like door prize numbers than raffle tickets.  The prizes were announced, and the first few lucky numbers drawn.  The first recipients got some of the new paintings.  Then a toast and the meal began.

As I remember from the first time I went there, the dim sum didn’t disspoint.  By now used to many of the traditional Cantonese dishes, I still managed to try a few new things, like the aforementioned duck feet.  But, I must admit that unlike in the psat, I didn’t let my desire to be open-minded trump my embarrassment at the clumsy and awkward task of gnawing on a giant bird foot; I gave up after the first small taste, but not before I admitted to myself and to the entire expectant table watching me that it tasted good (it’s no lie).  I also had some delicious shrimp dumplings, and too many other dishes to describe (there must have been 12).  The table I sat at had several badminton players, along with me, my friend, Mr. Dale, and a woman I know very little about except for what my friend told me (that she lived in France for over 20 years, where she made a fortune exporting wine to China, and that her ivory-looking bracelet cost around 600,000 RMB (that’s about 100,000 USD).

Throughout the dinner, the always-present Chinese toasting occurred as usual.  The host toasted the room.  Table members toasted each other.  The guests of honor, including my friend’s father and the artists, all of whom sat at a table in the front, made the rounds, toasting every single table individually.  During this time, I made a major faux paus, as I toasted the more famous artist there with the tip of my glass higher than his (here, it’s a sign of respect to put the tip of your glass lower than the person you’re toasting if you respect them, they are your elder, or they hold a higher position in society or at work than you do.  More raffle prizes happened steadily throughout the night; I think that out of about 200-300 people present, about 2/3 of them received presents.  After the first round of artwork, large items like cell phones and my electric cooker were given out (yes, I was one of the big winners, and my ridiculous, exuberant “thank you!” in response to being given a microphone and asked a question in Cantonese – while on stage on front of a few hundred people – turned me beet red).  Then, about 100 pairs of LV sunglasses made the door prize agenda, followed by the spa goodies and more artwork.  I wished so badly for some artwork, but unfortunately, I got stuck with just about every other kind of prize instead.

Finally, the dinner ended and we left, dropping of Mr. Dale on the way.  I had to walk over the GZ Da Dao bridge due to where I was dropped off by maniac-driver Mr. GZ, and I laughed all the way home over the absolute randomness of yet another one of my colorful Chinese experiences.

Click on the pictures below to see descriptions.