As I mentioned in my last post, we made friends with a student here named Zheng, and we exchanged phone numbers with her. The very next morning we received a text message from her saying,
“Justin, I am so happy to know you and cheal. And may we become friends? Because we need you help. Thanks in advence.”
What a cute message! So we invited her to eat lunch with us (chi fan which literally translates into “eat rice”). She brought along a friend and we headed down to the cafeteria, where she ran into a couple more friends. We thought it was very funny that throughout the day Zheng kept “running into” more and more friends, and we accumulated a large group….by the end of the day, we had about fifteen Chinese students following behind us as we walked down the street. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to lunch….
At lunch, we tried to help Zheng and her friends learn more English words (which is what she wanted our help with as she indicated in her text message). She and her friends also tried to help us learn Chinese words. Generally, we would point to something, like a soda can and say “SO-DA.” She would repeat, “SO-DA.” Then she would point to the same can and say “Qishui,” and we would repeat it. And that’s how we learned some new words over lunch.
After lunch we went for a walk around campus, and the students seemed eager to do something else with us instead of simply parting ways. Justin mentioned different sports we could play, and then I piped in with how I would like to go shopping. Because our group was primarily made of girls, they let out squeals of delight and said they would LOVE to go shopping. Justin, looking defeated, told the girls to lead the way to the best shopping, and they took us to the bus stop.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever experienced anything so terrifying as Chinese public transportation. Make a mental list of every possible traffic law you can think of, and your Chinese bus driver will break all of those laws (and some you didn’t think of!) within the first ten minutes of the ride. Not to mention that during certain busy hours of the day, the bus will be packed to the brim with people. When I first stepped onto the bus, I dropped my coins into the money meter, and the bus driver immediately took off while I was still standing on the step! The closing door just barely cleared my elbow, but when I looked inside and saw how crowded the rest of the bus was, I didn’t mind standing next to the driver and holding on for dear life. I felt a little bit like Harry Potter riding the Knight Bus. I’m going to upload a video of a bus ride onto my photo sharing website at some point (http://photobucket.com/FirstDaysinChina). It’s just something you have to see to believe.
Anyways, we rode the bus to downtown Huzhou, which looks a bit like a dirtier, shabbier New York City. Zheng led us to a shopping mall, and I was so excited to start spending my yuan on some low-priced clothing. I thought it was going to be great! But when we arrived, I couldn’t help but say, “This is it?” The mall was basically a dimly lit warehouse with concrete floors and an unfinished ceiling. It was a maze of tiny little shoebox-sized stores, about a third of the size of Journeys (the smallest mall store that I can think of). I had already seen many of these shoebox stores already in the outdoor marketplaces and on the college campus. The store owner generally has enough room for a rack of fifteen or twenty different shirts, a few scarves, and maybe some handbags if they she can find a way to creatively hang them from the ceiling. I was looking forward to going to a shopping mall because I don’t like the little shoebox stores. They have one of everything–they never have the same shirt available in a different size (like a normal store). I also don’t like it because the Chinese owner usually watches me like a hawk, and it’s hard to shop when the salesperson follows me around everywhere and talks about me in Chinese to the other people in the store. But the shopping mall proved to be no different. It was simply a giant maze of identical little shoebox stores all selling similar items.
Apparently in China, the spirit of capitalism has caught on, but just manifested itself in a different way. Everyone wants to own a store, and there are SO MANY people in China, that everyone just has enough room to own a little shoebox-sized store. You would think that a few of them would get together and say, “Hey–we all seem to be selling similar items. Let’s go into business together and create a giant mega-store where everyone will want to shop!” But no. Even if it’s smaller than our 10×20 storage unit back in Tallahassee, a Chinese merchant is happy to have a place to call their own, that’s not shared with anyone else.
I really had no choice but to try to shop in these shoebox stores, because I only brought like five shirts with me to China. I mostly packed pants and shoes, because I knew that those would be difficult to find in my size. Unfortunately, finding a shirt in my size (and my style) is proving to be difficult too. Every shirt in these shoebox stores seemed to be size small. Sometimes I would see a shirt that I thought might fit, and try it on in the dressing room (which was nothing more than a single shower curtain in a corner of the store), but I was always too big. Each time I tried on a shirt that didn’t fit, Zheng and her girl friends became more determined to help me find something to buy. Once, they found a giant, oversized sweatshirt and said, “Look Ray-sheal! Something for you!” I said, “Hey! Come on!” But they weren’t trying to be mean; they were just trying to help. And I did eventually end up purchasing an oversized green sweater with an oversized collar that hangs off of one shoulder. Maybe I can try it out when it gets cooler.
Chinese fashion is a little outside of my comfort zone as well. Chinese girls tend to favor really ostentatious adornments on their clothes, such as giant bows, chains linking elbow to shoulder pad, fake fur, and ribbons. Americans have started putting bits and pieces of these things on their clothes in the last couple of years, but not to the extent of the Chinese. I also found many shirts that had English lettering, but made no sense at all. There were sentences that were jumbled up words and words that were just gibberish. Just like Americans like to wear shirts with Chinese characters or get Chinese tattoos (without really knowing what they say), Chinese wear shirts with English letters just for the look of it, without needing to know what it says. I can’t really make fun of them, because I’m guilty of it too! I used to have a shirt with some Chinese characters, and I once asked a Chinese girl what it meant and she said, “It means nothing.”
Oh well….Justin tells me that Shanghai is the shopping capitol of China, with many western stores and western fashion. Before I resort to having my old clothes shipped to me here, I will try shopping in Shanghai this weekend to see if I can find anything to add to my lonely little wardrobe. I’ll leave you with a picture of me trying one of the strange Chinese styles (at least among the college kids)–wearing glasses that don’t have any lenses!