The Road to China Was Paved with Good Intentions

                Now that our exciting trips to Beijing and Shanghai are behind us, Justin and I are trying to settle into “normal life” here in Huzhou. With the exception of a school sports meet coming up in a couple of weeks (during which classes will be cancelled), we really have no other long breaks or holidays until winter break between semesters in early January. It’s strange to think that we will be working on Thanksgiving (but fortunately not Christmas Eve or Christmas, since they fall on a weekend this year). Anyways, we’re trying to get into the swing of things and adjust to what our average schedules will be like week-to-week, and we couldn’t help but devote a blog entry to the idea that people around here always seem to have the best intentions, but not necessarily the greatest results. This is not by any means an exhaustive list, but just a few examples from the past weeks:

  1. Lay’s Potato Chips in strange flavors: Chinese people tend to eat some really strange, often unidentifiable snacks. We’ve seen them eating dried squid bites, “beef” jerky that probably isn’t really beef, fuchsia-colored hot dogs made out of stinky tofu, and what appears to be bite-sized lumps of uncooked bread dough. You can imagine how pleased we were to find Lay’s Potato Chips in a convenience store on campus. Finally, the Chinese have taken a break from their strange snacks and rice/noodle fixation to join the rest of the western world in eating potato snacks! It almost seemed too good to be true, and it was…lo and behold, the potato chips here come in varieties like “shrimp flavor,” “seaweed flavor,” “spicy fish flavor,” and even “blueberry flavor.” They tried their best to be like western society; they just couldn’t quite take the leap.
  2. Kentucky Fried Chicken that no one in Kentucky would ever touch: While I’m on the subject of food, Kentucky Fried Chicken is another source of western cuisine that has turned out to be sorely disappointing. (The menu at McDonald’s, on the other hand, is pretty much identical to its American counterpart, and is quickly becoming a once-a-week staple in our diet.) Justin and I are pretty certain that the Colonel would be rolling over in his grave if he saw the meals available for order in the Chinese chains of his famous restaurant. One Chinese favorite off of the value menu is a sandwich that seems to be made of either shrimp or squid, lightly battered and fried and served with your choice of fries or a cup of strange vegetables stewed in broth (they grow many local vegetables here that we’ve never seen before in America).  They also have some mysterious star-fish-shaped fried nuggets available, which neither Justin or I have been brave enough to try yet. There are no mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese on the menu. We thought we’d be safe ordering an average-looking fried chicken sandwich. However, as soon as we bit into it, we realized that they did not use a nice piece of white-meat chicken breast to bread and fry. It seemed to be all of the worst parts of the chicken—obscure dark and pink pieces glued together with fat and un-chewable gristle. And to help it all go down smoothly, they layered on about two inches of sweetened mayonnaise and topped it with a giant leaf of brown, wilted lettuce. I tried to choke it down, but I was gagging halfway through my sandwich and was unable to finish it. Very disappointing. We also had a chance one time to sample the KFC breakfast menu while we were on the road during our trips. I was ecstatic that I was able to order a very normal sausage and egg croissant with cheese, but was surprised to see most of the other restaurant patrons eating something called “congi,” a gravy-like soup with bits of meat and vegetable mixed in. A seemingly strange choice for breakfast, but we learned the hard way (after being taken out by a fellow school employee for breakfast), that our version of breakfast and China’s version of breakfast greatly differs. The Chinese people truly think that they’re eating just like the Americans do, and they are always a bit surprised to hear that their version of KFC really doesn’t match our own.
  3. A very friendly, non-English speaking maintenance lady: Every dorm on campus seems to be equipped with a staff employee who actually lives on the first floor of the building and is available for any needs the residents might have. Our building has a very friendly maintenance lady, who always smiles and waves and seems very excited to see us. However, maintenance issues can be difficult to solve with the language barrier. We’ve had issues with our water heater ever since we’ve moved in. Sometimes the water is so scalding hot, I feel like it’s burning the skin off my scalp as I try to rinse out my shampoo. If we try to adjust the temperature of the water at all, it jumps straight from scalding hot to freezing cold, with no medium in between.  For the last few days, our water hasn’t had any heat at all; we’ve just been taking arctic showers (which probably isn’t good for Justin, who is trying to get over a cold right now). We told some of the English-speaking teachers at our school about this, and they said they would call to have the water heater repaired right away. The very next day, in came our friendly maintenance lady. We were hoping that, since they had explained the problem to her in Chinese, she wouldn’t need much help from us. However, she had many questions for us as she fidgeted with the water heater and seemed very eager for us to understand her. For about an hour she rambled on and on to us in Chinese, sometimes repeating a certain word or phrase over and over in a loud, exaggerated tone of voice (as if speaking louder and slower would make us magically understand Chinese…we’re foreigners, not idiots). She did a lot of miming to try to help us understand her elaborate Chinese instructions, but we just had no idea what she was saying. At one point, she motioned to us with her hand facing palm-down, moving her fingers as if she was shooing us away, out of the room. We both got up and left the room, thinking she needed some space. Then she came running out after us, grabbing Justin by the arm to pull him back in to look at the water heater up close. Apparently in China, that hand motion is the way to say, “come here,” rather than the palm-up, fingers-curling-in motion that we do in America for “come here.” After a long, fruitless lecture from maintenance lady and a phone call to one of the English teachers at school to translate, we finally figured out that she was basically telling us that she had fixed the water heater, and the water should heat up in a few hours’ time. Why she couldn’t just smile and give us a thumbs up is beyond me, but this lady seems to enjoy talking, even if her listener hasn’t got a clue what she’s saying.
  4. Maids that make the house dirtier than it was before: One day last week, we came home between classes to find our apartment door wide open and voices talking to each other from the inside. Justin and I cautiously stepped over the doorframe, and Justin called out a tentative, “Hello….?” (temporarily forgetting that our intruders would probably not speak English). We found two maids dressed in school jumpsuit uniforms, mopping and scrubbing away. We didn’t know we had maids! I immediately felt embarrassed for having left dirty clothes on the floor and papers strewn all over the table, and I scrambled to start picking up my mess. However, the cleaning ladies were trying to mop and I seemed to keep stepping in their way and making dirty footprints on the floor with my shoes, so Justin and I sat down in front of the laptop in the office room and tried to remain unobtrusive. However, we were alarmed when we saw one of the cleaning ladies open the lid of the toilet in the bathroom, plunge her mop into the depths of the bowl, and use the dirty toilet water to mop our floors, counter, and sink. She was making our apartment dirtier than it was before! Our floors would now be crawling with bacteria and maybe even microscopic traces of feces! Disgusting! She seemed to have no shame about her cleaning methods, however, as she continually dunked her mop into the toilet and even used her bare hands to wring out the excess water. The cleaning ladies had good intentions, but after they were finished scrubbing our apartment, I had to go back and clean everything all over again, with disinfectant spray.
  5.  Well-behaved students who apologize on behalf of the misbehaving students: I was under the impression that I would have no more discipline problems now that I’m teaching at college level to a demographic of students who are world-famous for being academic achievers. Boy was I wrong! Misbehaving students seem to follow me wherever I go. I guess there’s a reason Snow White was in charge of the seven dwarves and not the seven rebellious teenagers. There’s just something about the way I look or the way I speak that sends students the message that I’m harmless and they don’t need to follow my rules. Case in point: last Thursday I started my class by requesting that everyone get out their homework from the previous class. This is the first time that homework has been due, so some of them were admittedly scrambling to finish up those last few lines before turning it in. I had a surprise for them, though; since I teach an English Conversation class, and since their homework was to write a conversation, I told them that they would be evaluated by performing their scripts in front of the class with the help of some partners. Many of them were nervous about this, but one-by-one, they all rose to the occasion and tried their best. I kept calling people in every row until I reached the back row of the class. There was a boy with his head down, sleeping on his desk. I tried to throw off my Snow White mannerisms and rapped sharply on his desk to wake him up, demanding “homework!” He sat up for a moment, gave me one sleepy look, and put his head back down on his desk. This wouldn’t do! Apparently I was still exuding that harmlessness, so I needed to try again. I knocked again on his desk, and called him by his English name “Sam.” “Sam, did you complete your homework?” I got no response, and the girl sitting next to him seemed eager to help. She nudged him with her elbow and fussed at him in Chinese. He sat up, muttered something back to her in Chinese (which, though I couldn’t understand, it sounded like something along the lines of “I don’t care”), and put his head back down on the desk. The students around the room had been talking quietly amongst themselves, and some of them who had not yet performed were practicing their lines with their partners. However, now everyone was starting to notice that there was drama going on back in the corner of the room, and the voices became silent as everyone watched to see what I would do next. I had to take action! So I made up my mind…Sam would be the first ever student that I would kick out of class. I knocked on his desk near his head again (an act that I could tell was really starting to irritate him) and said, “Sam, if you want to sleep [here I mimed laying my head on my hands to indicate “sleep”], you can sleep at home. You need to leave.” And, since he was sitting right next to the rear door of the classroom, I opened the door and motioned for him to leave. To my surprise, he sat up, shut the door, and defiantly laid his head back on his desk. I opened the door again, and he shut it again. I opened the door again, and he shut it a third time. This had never occurred to me before…what if you kick a student out of class, but that student refuses to leave? All I could think was that if I were still teaching in high school, I would involve an administrator at this point. I would press the call button on the wall, and request someone to escort him down to the office. However, there was no call button here, so I slammed my book down on the table loudly, to indicate how angry I was, and said, “Fine!” And I left the room to find someone who could yell at this boy in Chinese. No one in the nearest office was available to come with me right then, unfortunately, but they did make note of the problem and said something would be done. I walked back to my room, heart still pounding, and I could hear my students through the open window, all talking excitedly. As soon as I re-entered the room, I slammed the door (not out of anger this time—I was just trying to be intimidating), and all of the students were so silent I could hear a pin drop. Though Sam still defiantly laid his head on his desk in the back of the room, I chose to drop it and continue on with class as if nothing had happened, calling the next group of students to the front. They looked terrified as they got out of their seats to perform their script, but class carried on after that without any more discipline problems. About twenty minutes later, whether because someone called him out into the hallway, or just because he was fed up with class, Sam got up and dramatically left the room, gathering his books and slamming the door behind him. We all watched him go for a moment, and then I said, “Why don’t we have a ten minute break, and then we’ll come back and begin our new lesson Giving and Asking For Directions.” A couple of boys approached me during the ten minute break, and handed me this note:

          He don’t know English.

        More than just now have sinned against.

        Very sorry.

        I with you say I’m sorry for him.

        Please forgive me.

       I also do not understand English, so I can  only   through the translation to tell you.

I told the boys thank-you, but I also expressed that they were  “good boys,” and did not need to apologize for the “bad  boy.” This didn’t really make any sense to them, and they again said, “I’m sorry.” A few other students also felt the need to approach me and apologize for themselves and for Sam, explaining that Sam really knows very little English. Maybe that contributed to the problem, but I have a hard time believing that anyone could mistake the angry expression on my face and me pointing toward the open door, native English speaker or not. And no matter how much I told these students that Sam is the one from whom I wanted an apology because they were good students, they didn’t seem to understand. Maybe it is just the communistic attitude that these students have grown up with, but it’s as if they see themselves as one unit. If one makes a mistake, then it’s everyone’s job to apologize and take the blame. If one person succeeds, then they have succeeded not for themselves, but for their whole country. My students all had good intentions with their apologies, but I’m still waiting on that  apology from Sam…

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2 thoughts on “The Road to China Was Paved with Good Intentions

  1. Hi Rachel! Love catching up with you guys via your blog. You make reading it very enjoyable. Sounds like you’re having lots of fun! Erica & Gary

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