Culture Embrace?

I’ve been back home for about a week now, and I still have yet to be really culture-shocked. Everyone had been preparing me to be “reverse” culture-shocked when I returned to the States, and they warned me that jet lag could take weeks to get over, but I haven’t really had any of that. Walking through the airport at LAX, surrounded by Americans all speaking English to one another, and seeing the American flag with President Obama’s picture beneath it captioned, “Welcome to the United States of America” really felt like waking from a long, strange dream and returning back to, well…normal.

It was really perfect to get back home just in time for Independence Day. I felt like this year, more than ever, I was able to really appreciate all of the freedom that our nation enjoys. Hearing the song “God Bless the USA” got me a little more choked up than it usually does. The government will never tell me that I can’t make a trip to another country or move overseas if I want to….The government will never put a limit on how many children I’m allowed to have….The government never forced me into a college major that I didn’t want to take….I can own my own property….I can place my vote for our nation’s leader this November….I can visit any website on the internet and listen to any kind of music that I want to. I really enjoyed spending the year in China, but America is hands-down my favorite place on Earth!

There’s nothing more American that barbeque and….

…baseball!

That being said, there are a couple of things in America that I’m still having trouble getting used to. Not to sound rude, but I forgot just how obese Americans are! You occasionally see overweight people in China, but no one as absurdly blubbery as the people walking the streets in America. The day we got back to the States, we ate lunch at Applebees (Ricky Bobby’s dining establishment of choice) and we actually saw a man so large he was having difficulty wedging himself out of the booth where he’d just finished off his meal. It probably has something to do with culinary monstrosities such as this:

What is with this weird bacon obsession?

And I thought eating duck tongues in China was disgusting! Little did I know what I was coming home to…

Speaking of Applebees, Justin and I have yet to be able to finish a restaurant meal! Most places serve meals that are WAY too big, and since we are vagabonds and have no refrigerator to store leftovers, I have been feeling really guilty about wasting food. Even after stuffing myself until I feel sick, I can only usually finish about half of the food on my plate. After wasting food at Applebees and Denny’s, Justin and I visited Olive Garden and finally remembered to split our entree so we wouldn’t waste anymore food (what can I say? Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs!).

I also feel a little bit sick about how so many people in China are poor and starving, and people in America are treating eating like an Olympic event. Eat twelve hot wings in six minutes and win a free t-shirt, plus your name up on our wall of fame! When we were at Olive Garden the other night, Justin asked the waiter about the portion size of the meal we were about to share, and the waiter said, “Oh, it’s a pretty big dish! It’ll definitely fill you up. You’ll be feeling pretty useless afterwards.” We all laughed, but I felt a pang of guilt when he said it. Is that the goal for suppertime these days? Not just gaining sustenance and energy, but eating until we’re beached on the couch like whales, feeling completely useless? It’s an idea that will take me awhile to adjust to, but I’m kind of hoping that I don’t get used to it at all…

The question that so many of our Chinese friends asked us before we left was, “When will you come back to China?” We laughed and told them we weren’t sure, but it probably won’t be for a long time. They were sad that we weren’t coming back in the fall to teach again, and I’m a little bit sad about it too. It was a nice job, and now we’re faced with trying to find jobs in the U.S., and living off of the hospitality of family and friends until we can figure out where we’ll be living and what we’ll be doing.

Will we really ever return to China? That’s a good question.

I’m going to go ahead and tell you a secret: Justin and I would like to adopt a little Chinese girl someday. We actually looked into it while we were living in China, and there are a whole bunch of requirements (and expenses!) involved in the process that we don’t quite meet yet, including the adopting couple being over the age of thirty. But in another four or five years….who knows? We may be on a plane headed back to China for a very special reason. 🙂

Late Night Musings

I can’t sleep.

Justin is sound asleep in bed, his chest rising and falling, probably lost in some peaceful dream. How does he do it?

My mind is racing, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to catch a wink of sleep tonight. I keep going over a mental to-do list in my head. Have to finish packing. Have to figure out how to fit all of the stuff in the suitcases so that we can finish packing. Have to find a paper bag to breathe into for when I start panicking about how all of our stuff will never fit into our suitcases and we’ll never finish packing. Have to make a list of all the stuff from China we’re packing for the airport customs people. Do I need receipts? Why did I never save any receipts?? And on and on…

And the dreams keep playing with my head, too. I used to have “America” dreams a lot when I first arrived in China. I would fall asleep and find myself back in America in my dreams. It was always someplace different. Once I was at my Aunt Sondra and Uncle David’s house, sitting and chatting with them and my cousins in their living room. Once I was with my friend Cherika playing mini golf in Orlando. But it was always very normal, humdrum stuff…and then I would glance at my wristwatch and say, “Oh look at the time! I need to get back to China now. Sorry I can’t stay longer!” and then I would wake up in my bed in China. These dreams were so realistic and convincing that I drove myself crazy sometimes when I woke up and realized that I wasn’t really back home. About three months into our stay in China (during the holidays), I grew so homesick that I was having these dreams just about every night, and even my dream-self started growing skeptical at that point. I would dream myself at home, in my parents’ house, and walk around examining the room closely. “Hmmm….I don’t know. Would Mom have REALLY chosen these curtains? I don’t think this is real! I’m not REALLY home yet! This is another fake-out isn’t it?” I would question, before waking up in my bed in China again.

It took about six or seven months before I finally had a dream that took place in China, with people actually speaking Chinese. I suppose it was a long time before I finally really embraced my living situation.

But all this past week, the America dreams have started recurring again. This time, there’s usually some sort of problem when we try to return home. Like I realize that our visa has expired and we’ll have to wait for it to renew before we go home, or I realize that there are a few important people who I forgot to buy souvenirs for. Last night I dreamed that Justin decided to rent a car and DRIVE back to China to save money on airline tickets, and no matter how many reasonable objections I voiced, I couldn’t convince him to do otherwise.

I suppose my reverting back to America dreams means that I’m excited about going home–and I am, truly! That’s part of the reason why I’m having trouble falling asleep tonight (our last night in China). But the switch from the America dreams being pleasant, almost too good to be true to the America dreams being a bit troubling means that I am feeling anxious about returning home. What if returning home isn’t quite as good as I’ve been hoping for all this time?

What if people in America are mean? Chinese people are some of the nicest people I’ve ever come in contact with–I mean, complete strangers are always willing to go out of their way to offer Justin and I some help or even pay for our cab or something. No one in America will be that nice. In fact, there are a lot of people in America who are mean for no reason, who sneer at someone because they don’t like the outfit that person is wearing, or perhaps just because they missed their morning coffee and they’re feeling a bit cranky with everyone at the moment.

For example: on the last day of classes here in China, I wore a new dress and some new glasses that I’d just bought (with cute, red plastic frames). In America, I might get a few scattered compliments here and there for my new and improved appearance. There are many people, though, (like my husband) who probably wouldn’t even notice the change. Here in China, when I walked into the classroom, I received a round of applause. Actually, no….that doesn’t even cover it. I received a standing ovation (yes, they stood up out of their chairs!), and many students yelled out, “Wow! So beautiful!” and got out their cell phones to take my picture. I mean, let’s be honest. In America, that kind of situation will never EVER happen.

And while I still occasionally hate my celebrity status here in China (like, for example, when Justin and I order some food at a restaurant and the chef insists on bringing it out to our table himself….and pulling up a chair to watch us eat it), for the most part, I’ve gotten used to being special. I see people staring at me, and only for an instant, I think, “Why are they all staring?” and then a second later I remember with a haughty smile, “Oh right….just because I’m me.” I’ve gotten used to random strangers on the street approaching me on a daily basis to tell me that I’m beautiful, or ask to take my picture, to which I roll my eyes and graciously reply, “Oh…I guess!”

But when I go back to America (tomorrow!) I won’t be special anymore. I’ll be just another face in the crowd. Which will be especially discouraging during my impending job search.

Justin and I left for China jobless, and we will return to China jobless. We are both attempting to find jobs in relatively the same city, anywhere along the eastern seaboard, which in this economy is becoming increasingly difficult to do. In China, random people come up to me on the street and offer me teaching jobs at their schools. In America, it’s more likely that I will be standing on the street, looking disheveled, holding a sign that says, “Will teach 4 food!” Oh no…I shouldn’t think too hard about that. That’s another bad dream just waiting to happen.

I’m not really sure how to conclude this post (or this blog, for that matter) because I’m not really sure what my conclusion is yet. Will America welcome me back with open arms? Or will my arrival back home herald the beginning of the “China” dreams, in which I long for a place where I am considered special and have no shortage of amazing opportunities offered to me on a silver platter? Only time will tell…

 

A Week in Xi’An

I’m writing this post from my bed, where I’ve spent most of my day today, because I think my legs might be broken. Okay, they’re not really broken, but they really hurt. Anyone who knows me can assert that I love reading and writing (which can both be done from the couch!), but I’m really not an athletic person, and this past week has included a lot more physical activity than I’m accustomed to.  But my leg muscles will have plenty of time to heal during my long long flight back home that’s coming up in just a few days! Here’s a recap of some of the coolest (and most tiring) things we’ve done during our week in Xi’An:

1. Bike Ride Around the City Wall


One unique feature of the city of Xi’An (located in central China) is the ancient stone wall surrounding about thirteen kilometers (eight and a half miles) of the city. It reminds me a little bit of the old fort in St. Augustine, Florida that I visited on school trips as a child, except that this wall is a lot bigger. While the city inside of it has developed and changed with passing time, the wall remains largely unchanged, as restorers have tried to maintain its original appearance. The hostel we’ve been staying in is directly across the street from the west wall, within walking distance of the large west gate (one of four original gates that remain the only entrances/exits to the city within—always heavy with traffic, let me assure you). The wall is impressive during the day, and even more striking at night when it is all lit up with twinkle lights and colorful spotlights. 

A view from the corner of the wall

Justin and I were excited to learn that we could rent bicycles and ride around along the top of the wall, which is actually pretty wide (about forty feet across in my estimation). Though we thought it was lame that they charge an entry fee to even walk up the stairs to the top of the wall, we knew it would be worth it to get a bird’s eye view of the city. We also knew that a bike ride would be much quicker (it took us about an hour and forty minutes) than walking the entire wall. Though it’s been rainy off and on all week, the weather held up for the duration of our ride, and we really enjoyed it. I had jello-legs by the time we turned our bikes back in to the rental place, but it was worth it.

 

Justin a.k.a. Lance Armstrong

 
2. Eating and Shopping in the Muslim Quarter

A mix of Chinese and Muslim cultures

There is a surprisingly large Muslim population here in Xi’An, and this city was actually host to the very first mosque ever built in China (a country which remains largely Buddhist). We didn’t go visit the mosque (I would have had to wear a scarf over my head, and I didn’t bring any scarves with me), but we did visit the Muslim Quarter, a section of town overflowing with Muslim restaurants and shops. The Muslim Quarter has some of the coolest souvenirs I’ve seen during my entire stay in China (why did I have to finish my souvenir shopping early? Grrr), and it’s a great place to find some unique antiques. I’m used to tourist shops in China being full of cheap identical junk worthy of the dollar store, and I always lament thinking, “Is this the selection I have to choose from to buy souvenirs for family and friends? Cheap plastic junk with ‘Made in China’ stamped on the bottom?” (I apologize in advance to some of you for the souvenirs you’ll be receiving from us—we did the best we could.) The Muslim Quarter, however, was full of items that appeared to be the real deal—many booths replete with dusty items that appeared to be pulled straight from the vendor’s attic. I even saw one vendor selling some old, very communist-looking war medallions that probably belonged to a soldier in the family a long time ago…how cool is that? Justin couldn’t drag me out of there without me buying one souvenir. He tried his best, and I know our suitcases are full to bursting, but really there was no chance that I was about to leave empty-handed.

Justin with a girl from Switzerland we met while staying at our hostel

The food was a welcome change as well. The streets were loaded with women wearing modest head-coverings cooking dishes that made my mouth water as I walked by. We weren’t really able to find many nice sit-down restaurants in the Muslim Quarter, though. It was mainly street food that you eat on a stick or out of a Styrofoam dish as you continue walking down the street. We did stumble upon an outdoor restaurant with picnic tables, and Justin ordered up a bowl of thick beef stew that an old woman was brewing in a giant cauldron on the side of the street. I sat with him as he ate (I was chowing down on a corned beef sandwich that I bought two blocks down), and we listened to the sundown call to prayer broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the Muslim Quarter every day. It was really interesting!

Some delicious eats!

3. Visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors

The Terra Cotta Warriors are probably the most famous attraction in Xi’An, and they were honestly the only claim to fame I knew about Xi’An before we came here. Back in the 1970’s, some farmers in Xi’An were trying to dig a well, and they came upon an ancient mausoleum buried under the ground, dating back to the Han Dynasty. Once they brought in archeologists to continue the excavating, they found out that it was HUGE, and it included much more than just tombs. Right now, they have three “pits” open to the public for viewing, and they estimate that there’s even more excavating to be done to uncover all of the treasures hidden under the ground.

Bill Clinton was here! He and his family got to climb right down into the pit to see the warriors face to face–how cool is that? The perks of being a president…

4. Climbing Hua Shan


We couldn’t leave China without visiting one more beautiful mountain range about two hours outside of Xi’An. While I’m definitely not a “mountain climber,” there is really no mountain climbing experience required to climb Hua Shan. This mountain, along with many others that we’ve visited all across China, has been made accessible to the general public by a series of stairways chiseled directly into the stone. That doesn’t make it any easier to climb, however. Not even halfway through our journey to the top, after climbing a few hundred steps, I began to question out loud, “Why did I think it was a good idea to climb a mountain, again?” Justin insisted that this was the coolest thing that we’d done in China to date, and he told me it was worth it. I had to stop for breaks several times on our way to the South Peak, the highest of the five peaks in the Hua Shan mountain range, and Justin had to constantly reaffirm his belief in me that I could make it to the top. The views on the way were breathtaking, but my breath was also literally taken by the high altitude—I found myself gasping for air at the top of every staircase. However, other climbers also shouted words of encouragement as we ascended the mountain together. I wasn’t the only one struggling to the top, and many hikers passing us on their way down the mountain gave a thumbs up and shouted, “JIAYO!” (something like, “Come on!”) to boost the confidence of those ascending. Eventually, we reached the top of the mountain.

Tired after that last staircase!

But he was right…the feeling of accomplishment after reaching the top was worth it.

A walk through the clouds

I think my favorite was the epic ride in the chair lift. It’s the highest chair lift I’ve ever ridden (or even seen!), and the Peking Opera music playing on the speakers inside of our cable car added to the monumental feeling of it all.

 

The coolest chairlift I’ve ever ridden!

 

A Few Opinions that Chinese People Will Not Budge On

Justin and I have been spending our last week in Huzhou spending equal times relaxing and packing since all of our classes are done. Next week will be our final week in China, and we’re planning on spending it in Xi’An, which is the last (major) city that we haven’t visited yet. We were originally planning on making it into a fun road trip with our friends Mickery and Catherine, and we were going to head from Xi’An all the way to Gansu (where Catherine is from), which is so far west and north that it’s on the border of Inner Mongolia! (Justin was really jazzed about that…he wanted to cross into Mongolia.) However, our road trip plan did not work out. Catherine and Mickery were both all for it when it was in the dreaming/pre-planning stage, but once it came time to really nail down the dates and the specifics, they told us that they couldn’t do it.

And when they came to us to break the news that the trip was a no-go, they were all shifty-eyed, staring at the floor, fumbling with their hands, and making lame excuses that didn’t really make sense. And that’s when it hit us that our trip was violating a few basic principles that most mainland Chinese people seem to abide by:

1. Parents feel that foreigners should be teachers, not friends.

Apparently, they had both spoken with their parents about the plans, and neither Mickery’s or Catherine’s parents thought it was a good idea for their (twenty-year-old!) children to go traipsing across the country with some strange foreigners. And to many parents–especially the ones who are old enough to remember when only Chinese people were allowed to live in China–when we come around chatting with their kids, their “stranger-danger” alarm starts blaring full force. Many people in China love laughing at us and shouting out “hello” and taking pictures with us, but they don’t want to actually be friends with us or grab dinner together or anything. And honestly, the reason that almost all of our Chinese friends are students is because the teachers at our school were never really interested in hanging out with us. They were always saying things like, “Oh, I’ll have to invite you over to my house for dinner sometime!” and we’d say, “That would be great!” But then the invitation would never come, and we slowly realized that they had only said it to be polite and never intended to follow through. Our British ex-pat friend, Connie, told us that a teacher at her school confided to her that they had a Chinese-only faculty meeting one time–no foreigners invited–when the teachers were literally told, “Keep your distance from the foreign teachers at this school. Translate for them and help them if they are confused, but do not make friends with them.”

I think that this “keep your distance” idea is starting to change a little with the younger generation, though. Teens and college students in China all listen to Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, closely follow the NBA and support their favorite teams, and seem to be very intrigued with holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Twenty years from now, I’m hoping that the majority of the general population will be welcoming foreigners as friends and not just as language teachers.

2. It is always better to travel with a tour group rather than travel alone.

This was the official reason that Mickery and Catherine gave us for bowing out of the trip to Gansu. “Our parents feel that it is too dangerous to be traveling alone.” What? “Traveling alone? There will be four of us!” I countered. Catherine came back with, “But we will be in an unfamiliar place and we could get lost.” And that’s when I remembered how fond Chinese people are of traveling with tour groups.

Venture to a theme park alone? Never! Not when there’s a tour group for that!

We bump into these tour groups every place we go, and they drive us crazy. It’s not just that there’s a leader at the front of the pack waving a yellow flag and shouting in Chinese through a loudspeaker. And it’s not that they force everyone in the tour group to wear some sort of ridiculous hat (the worst group I’ve ever seen was all clad in plaid Gilligan’s Island style hats). The problem is that everywhere we go, there seems to be five or more of these types of tour groups, all the leaders competing for who has the loudest loudspeaker, and everyone in the fifty-person group trying to shove forward and snap a picture of the same exhibit at the same time. Justin and I will travel to these beautiful, historical-looking villages, and only have a moment to bask in the peace of what life must have been like so long ago, before a group of red baseball caps comes at us from the left, and a group of yellow baseball caps comes at us from the right, and a group of blue Gilligan hats closes in on us from behind, and we’re suddenly boxed into competing loudspeakers and cameras flashing and complete chaos.

It all seems a little juvenile, doesn’t it? Dressing everyone in the same outfit so they don’t get confused or lost. A leader at the front waving a decorated baton or flag. Taking five minute bathroom breaks as a group while the leader waits outside patiently for you. Does the leader dole out the lunch money to everyone too? It’s just too much like kindergarten for my taste.

However, more than one Chinese person has tried to convince us to book a tour group like this. They’re always ready with a previously rehearsed set of reasons, too: 1. You get a group discount to whatever tourist destination you’re headed to, so it’s cheaper, 2. Your tour guide is a pro and will take you to all the right places, 3. You don’t have to worry about getting lost or managing your own schedule, etc. Sure! Great reasons! You’re also stuck with the same group of fifty obnoxious people for the duration of your vacation, with no chance to bail out on the museum that turned out to be boring and go shopping instead, because you must stick with the group. No fun.

But Justin and I have discovered that it’s no use trying to talk anyone into our crazy American ways. I hadn’t realized what an independent, American idea it is to round up some friends at the spur of the moment, jump in a car, and just hit the road and see where you end up. It’s an adventure! But to the Chinese, it is dangerous and an inefficient use of your time.

“We’ll be making a five-minute stop so that all of you can throw coins into the wishing well. Go on! Hurry! Make your wish! We only have four minutes and forty-five seconds left before we move on to the next spot!”

In the end, Justin and I decided to travel to Xi’An by ourselves, and say our goodbyes to Catherine and Mickery in Huzhou instead. Actually, Catherine made a last-ditch effort to salvage the road trip idea by conspiring with her progressive, western-minded sister who lives in Gansu. We thought that since Catherine was traveling through Xi’An anyways to head home to Gansu for the summer, we could at least hang out with her on the train until we stopped in Xi’An. However, when her father found out, he decided to make the twenty-six hour train ride to Huzhou to accompany her for twenty-six more hours back to Gansu because he was worried about her saftey (a.k.a. traveling with foreigners), even though Catherine has made the trip home by herself before. So much for that idea. We will all be headed to Xi’An this weekend, but on separate trains–victory for Dad.

One final Chinese opinion that I discovered while cleaning out my closet this past week in preparation to move:

3. Second-hand clothes are only for beggars who have no money to buy new clothes.

In America, when a friend cleans out her closet, it is her duty and obligation to her girl friends to call them up and invite them to look through the pickings before she drops them off at Goodwill. There are a bunch of great pieces in my wardrobe that were throw-aways from friends or bought at Goodwill or a consignment shop. I love bragging to people when they compliment me on a dress or a purse, “I got this at a yard sale for $3!” Not so in Chinese culture.

In Chinese culture, wearing second-hand clothes is not something to brag about–it’s something to be ashamed about. I collected two big bags full of clothing (most of which I’d bought since I’d been in China and they’re really too small for me) and took them to school to see if I could find any girls that wanted them. I didn’t put anything in the bag that was old or damaged; they were all items that still looked brand new. But no one at school wanted to look in my bag, or even touch my second-hand clothes. Everyone made the same scrunched up face when I offered the bag to them so they could pick through it. “Are you crazy?” that face said. “I wouldn’t be caught dead picking through second-hand clothes!” No one told me this to my face, of course. They all politely hemmed and hawed and said things like, “Oh, it is too hot now to wear this sweater,” and “Maybe these clothes are too big for me?” without actually holding them up to see. Eventually, one of the teachers offered to donate the bags to charity, and I agreed, feeling a little hurt that not one person had wanted to take a look in my bag. It’s not bad taste in clothes, I tell you! It’s just a difference in culture! 🙂

 

Chinese Toilet Training

I know that no one really wants to talk about what goes on in the bathroom (and those who do should probably not be blogging), but this is really a subject that I feel must be broached. Because before I came to China, I had no idea what I was getting into, bathroom-wise.

Case-in-point: About a week after Justin and I first arrived in China, our school sent us to a medical facility in Hangzhou to be examined. It was a creepy, invasive, but required rite of passage for anyone wanting to extend their work visa in China, and my only comfort was sharing the experience with all of the other foreigners who were being poked and prodded right along next to me. After having my heart, eyes, ears, throat, and everything else examined, I thought that I was finally finished. And then they sent me to the restroom with a cup to take a urine sample. That’s not so bad, right? Except that for me, it was my first trip into a public restroom in China…

I was horrified when I stepped into the bathroom and saw this:

It looked to me almost like they’d just yanked the toilet up out of the floor and left a hole in its place. It also kind of resembled a urinal…and how is a girl to use one of those? Do I stand over it? Do I hover over it? Do I squat down mere inches from the floor? Gah! I was not ready to try it out yet, especially with the prospect of taking a urine sample at the same time.

I looked into each stall to check and see if they had any “normal” toilets (one stall had a woman inside who had neglected to lock her door…oops!…so that’s how you use it!) and finally happened upon one stall with a western-style toilet. Yes! Only to find that the lock on that stall door was broken and the door kept wanting to swing open. What happens when you’re trying to hold a cup and hold a lid and hold a skirt from falling and hold a door closed? Having only two hands, you end up letting go of at least one thing.

Thankfully, Grace was there (the secretary from our school), sent with us to translate for us and help us out with our medical exam. “Grace,” I called, “Could you come and stand in front of this door for me and hold it closed?” Grace, looking alarmed that her foreign charge seemed to be requesting assistance in the bathroom said, “What?” I tried to explain what I wanted her to do, and her English being limited, she seemed very confused. But in the end, I got her standing in front of the door. As soon as I *finally* got to business (the doctor outside was still impatiently waiting on my urine sample), Grace inexplicably stepped away from the door, and the door swung out beyond my reach to pull it back. And there I was, in front of every curious passerby, publicly collecting my urine sample. I tried to call Grace back to the door, but she took one horrified glimpse at me on the toilet and went running out of the restroom.

The door to the women’s bathroom, ironically, was being held open by a door-jamb, so the spectacle I made really was on display for the entire second-floor wing to see. Justin happened to be standing out in the lobby waiting for me, and when he glanced towards the women’s bathroom to see if I was coming out yet, his eyes met mine and his jaw dropped. “What are you doing?” he mouthed, throwing up his hands in alarm. “Hating China,” I muttered through gritted teeth. “Everyone can see you!” he mouthed again. “I know…” I mouthed back to him, wishing that I could get him to stand in front of the door for me, but that would call even more attention.

The icing on the cake was looking around and realizing that my particular stall had no toilet paper.

So I feel compelled, for anyone thinking about visiting China (or people who are just curious about bathroom etiquette in the far east) to put together a list of Do’s and Don’ts for using the bathroom in China so that you’re never stuck in the same grisly situation that I was:

1. DO bring your own toilet paper. I quickly learned that it was not only that particular stall at the medical facility that was out of toilet paper–just about every public restroom in China refuses to supply toilet paper. I have visited some fancy restaurants that supply a roll, but even then it’s usually only one roll next to the sink area, so you must remember to grab a handful of it before you lock yourself into the bathroom stall and get down to business.

Don’t leave home without it!

2. DON’T be cowed by modesty. Many of the bathrooms I’ve seen in China were designed with the presumption that bathroom-goers only really need to cover their bottom-halves while using the toilet, and it’s okay to leave their head and shoulders visible to everyone else in the restroom. I’ve also seen many a restroom and clothing store dressing room with little more than a flimsy shower curtain to keep things covered.

Chinese people are not modest when it comes to the call of nature. I’ve seen too many Chinese guys publicly peeing onto sidewalks and into rivers who would only smile and wave when they noticed me staring at them, mouth agape. Also, Chinese children are not toilet trained–they are trained to drop their drawers and poo on the sidewalk when it’s time to go, even up to the age of three and four. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly dirtied my shoes walking into that situation. To think that people in America get upset when pet-owners allow their dogs to poo on the sidewalk without picking it up…I can’t imagine what they’d say about this!

“Is anyone using this one? Oh what the heck…I’ll just look and see.”

The point is, you must get over the modesty factor (as my urine sample story illustrates) because at some point during your extended stay in China, you will find yourself in a situation in which you are forced to do your business in the open. It’s pretty much inevitable.

Justin and I recently took a trip to Anji, and I held Justin’s belongings for him while he went to use the bus station bathroom. He stalked out moments later, looking angry and disgusted. “What happened?” I asked. Apparently the stalls in that bathroom were only half the height of the ones shown in the picture above. Justin went into one, and a man smoking a cigarette was content to stand on the other side of the stall door (about six inches away from Justin), staring at Justin intently and waiting to see him pee. Maybe he was wondering if foreigners do it differently. “I can’t pee with that dude staring at me like that!” Justin said, announcing that he was going to go outside the bus station to look for a restroom.

What was his next best option? Peeing on a wall in an alley around the corner. There were absolutely no other restrooms within a three-block radius. The moral of the story is that your efforts to be modest are futile, and will only somehow end up making you even more immodest.

3. DON’T flush your toilet paper. The toilets in China do not handle wads of paper well, and many public bathrooms post signs in multiple languages requesting that bathroom-goers dispose of their paper in the trashcan. It can be difficult to break the automatic habit of throwing your paper into the toilet, but the results can be disastrous and embarrassing (I know from experience–I’ve shamefully run out of more than one public bathroom leaving an overflowing toilet in my wake). The trash can rule is also the reason that Chinese public bathrooms are among the most pungent bathrooms I’ve ever had to set foot in. If you’re wandering around an airport or bus station in search of the bathroom, you can usually smell it before you see it, and you may have to cover your nose with your sleeve to keep from retching from the overpowering stench.

4. DO bring your own soap or hand sanitizer. I rarely visit a Chinese bathroom that supplies free soap, though they all have sinks with (cold) running water if you’d like to run your hands under that. I carry hand sanitizer with me everywhere, though I usually end up wanting to take a shower after setting foot inside a Chinese public bathroom.

There you have it–the guidelines for paying a visit to the Chinese toilet. I wish someone had told me this before I’d ever visited China! I would have avoided many embarrassing situations…

A Day in the Country

Our friend Huolin invited Justin and I to a picnic/barbeque this past Sunday. Huolin is famous for leaving out all of the important details–we really didn’t know where we were going or who would be there with us or what (if anything) we should bring. We received a mysterious text message from him on Saturday night telling us to meet him at our school gate at 8:50 AM the following morning, so we set our alarms and went to sleep, not knowing what exactly the following day would have in store.

We ended up being surprised on several counts. For one thing, Huolin did not actually meet us at our school gate in the morning. He left his friend Judy to the awkward task of picking two foreigners out of the crowd from her car and shouting to them from the driver’s side window to hop in. I’m starting to lose count of how many strangers we’ve accepted rides with over the course of the last several months. But we really weren’t worried about Judy, because she knew Huolin and assured us that we were going to meet him and caravan behind him in her car (because like us, she also had no idea where we were going). And we had the forty-minute car ride to talk to her and get to know her a little better.

Before long, we were well outside the city bustle of Huzhou and headed into the rural countryside. We eventually began ascending a very narrow two-lane road that winded in and out around a mountain. I snapped a picture (seen above) of the large gate to the mountain neighborhood that would be our final destination. Judy squealed with exasperation the further our caravan climbed. “How does he expect me to know this place? I could never find this on my own!” The car in front of us frequently sped away around corners, seemingly forgetting that there were a handful of cars behind it trying to keep up and follow. However, the further we climbed up the mountain, the more narrow and rugged the road became, and the more our cars had to slow to avoid all of the obstacles in the street. We drove past men wearing the quintessential pointed straw Chinese hats, carrying loads of bamboo shoots as big around as my arm. We saw housewives hanging their laundry out on the line to dry and carrying squawking, flapping chickens upside-down by their feet. We were only forty minutes away from the city center, but I felt like we were in another world–or transported back in time. The country people in the neighborhood were watching me just as closely as I watched them, all stopping their work and staring intently at our unusual caravan of cars as we drove past them.

The Neighborhood

We finally reached the end of the asphalt road and the beginning of a dirt road which wound even further up the mountain. Everyone started parking their cars, so Judy followed suit, and we got out and began walking up the hill towards a pink tile house. “Huolin, what is this place?” Judy asked in Chinese, and he explained to her that he was born and raised in this country neighborhood. We didn’t actually go inside the house where he grew up, but instead, we were invited to use a house belonging to a friend of his. His friend’s house was the highest on the mountain, which was an indication of his social status among his neighbors (as Huolin confided). Huolin always seems to surround himself with the most important people in the community–doctors, lawyers, engineers, foreigners, etc. But that day we were all going back to the basics with our outing in the country.

The Pink House

Once we reached the house, a few more surprises were revealed. For one, we weren’t actually going to eat outdoors. The plan was to eat inside of the pink tile house instead. Also, we weren’t going to be grilling any meat–isn’t that what a barbeque is? Instead, we would be eating traditional Chinese cuisine. It wasn’t exactly the barbeque/picnic I had been picturing in my mind, but I wasn’t complaining. I was enjoying being out in the country in a rural mountain neighborhood. The surprising detail that did have me complaining was when Huolin announced that we would be climbing up to the top of the mountain after lunch. If I had known that, I would have worn some sneakers! Instead, I was wearing my flimsy little plastic jelly-shoes–not the best footwear for hiking. Oh well.

Our soon-to-be-lunch

I was surprised (though I really shouldn’t have been) to discover that our lunch was still alive when we arrived at the pink house. The owner of the house apologized that he hadn’t started cooking the two chickens sooner, explaining that he had climbed to the top of the mountain that morning to chase down the wild chickens, and it took longer than he expected to catch them. Now there’s a funny mental image. Judy sagely confided, “Perhaps the chickens on the top of the mountain are much more delicious than the chickens at the bottom of the mountain.” But she also gave me a little laugh, to let me know that she wasn’t being completely serious. I watched with interest as the owner of the house (let’s just call him “lao ba,” which means “the boss”) carried the chickens down to the bottom of the driveway to kill them and de-feather them, but I had to turn my head when he chopped their heads and drained out the blood into the bushes. I know that the chickens I buy in the supermarket all meet the same end, but some parts of country living are still too grisly for me to stomach.

Getting ready to prepare the fish

I got a laugh when the guy pictured above approached Justin and asked in a somber tone, “May I have permission to take a picture with your wife?” Justin laughed and replied in true American fashion, “It’s up to her! Don’t ask me for permission–ask her!” Of course I agreed. All morning the other members of our party had been snapping away at us with their cameras, fascinated by the foreigners in the group. To be fair, I had been taking just as many pictures of them and the surrounding neighborhood. Judy laughed at me and said, “To you, we are the foreigners, right?” “That’s right!” I said with a laugh, snapping another picture of the ladies hard at work in the kitchen.

Preparing the vegetables and sauteing the chicken

I felt a little guilty that I wasn’t helping cook our lunch with the other women, but honestly, I am not that great with cooking American food. Trying to cook Chinese food? Forget it! I probably did them a favor by staying out of the kitchen.

Have you ever seen a stove-top like this? I wouldn’t even know where to start!

Enjoying some tomatoes, a strange green vegetable that tasted a bit like asparagus, and some stewed gourd slices (my favorite), with a big bowl of fish soup in the middle.

I asked Judy which dish was her favorite, and she pointed to the raw sliced tomatoes. “Really?” I asked doubtfully. “Yes, because this is the one I brought!” Judy replied with a big smile. She’s so silly. Judy had me laughing all day.

A picture of the whole group: Mark from Canada is standing to Justin’s left, Lao Ba is standing to my right, and Judy is standing in front of us, with the blue capri pants.

We got to see Mark from Canada one last time before we leave to go back home. He’s actually headed home soon himself. He’ll be back in Canada before we reach America. He’s taking his young daughter Emily with him for the summer, but he’s leaving his wife behind (seen in the picture above, on the far left). He didn’t say why, but I assume it’s because it’s too difficult for her to get a visa to leave China. He’ll be back in time to teach again next school year. This is actually his sixth or seventh year living in China–I can’t imagine!

This guy didn’t leave his Lao Ba’s side the entire time we were there–a very loyal guard dog! I asked Huolin if the dog was friendly, and if it would be alright for me to pet him. He said, “Yes, he’s friendly!” and only seconds later I saw another man in our group try to pet the dog and almost get bit. All of the men thought it was funny, and they crowded around the dog and tried to pet him as well, only to get snarled at and snapped at. I could tell that the dog wasn’t mean, but just scared of the large group of people in his usually-empty house. After about an hour of talking sweetly to the dog and trying to coax him over to me (and, I admit, cheating by feeding him a few pieces of my chicken from the dinner table), he finally approached me and mushed his wet nose into my knee and let me pet him. Success! I am the dog-whisperer!

After lunch, true to Huolin’s promise, we all climbed a trail to the top of the mountain, to see an old Buddhist temple that someone had built there. Justin and I were excited to finally get to explore a bamboo forest, just like the one that hosts the epic kung fu fight scene in the Oscar-award winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which, fun fact, was filmed in Huzhou)!

The climb was a little bit daunting with a belly full of food and a steep, tricky path made of rocks and gnarled tree roots. But it was really peaceful. For once we were away from the bustle of people and the honking of cars in the streets. The only sounds for miles were the whisper of leaves brushing against leaves as the wind blew through the bamboo trees, and the babble of water streaming through the irrigation canal system set up by the farmers.

Justin in the bamboo forest

Me trying my hand at farming

The dilapidated mountain-top temple

Silly Huolin!

I was surprised when Huolin finally made his way back to the pink house about ten minutes after we’d gotten there, holding a giant armful of shrubbery. He told us that he picked some plants he found that are good for cooking, and everyone took a turn holding the leaves to their noses to get a whiff. Huolin intended on giving the herbs to his friend, which made me laugh. It reminded me of Kasia’s going away dinner, when Huolin presented Kasia with an old, dirty, cracked watch face (minus the watch strap) as a going-away gift. Kasia took a good long look at it before replying, “And what the h#$@ am I supposed to do with this, Huolin?” He told her it was an antique, and she should keep it in a drawer somewhere. Apparently, Huolin has a knack for giving “unusual” gifts. I hope his friend knows what to do with that giant bushel of herbs–but I can’t help but imagine his friend having a similar reaction to Kasia when Huolin shows up on his doorstep and offers up his prize (dirty roots and all!).

In all, it was a lovely day in the country, and another cherished memory of our time in China that is quickly coming to an end!

Justin and I with the magnificent view from the top of the mountain behind us

The Tai Hu Reservoir (which we passed on our drive to the mountains) where everyone in Huzhou gets their drinking water

Democracy, and Other Hot-Button Issues

Next week is final exam week at our college, so Justin and I have been wrapping things up with our students and saying our goodbyes. I really wanted to do one more “fun” American culture lesson with my students before getting them into their final exams, but I wasn’t sure what to do. Usually I just tell them about western holidays, and we make something crafty (like hand turkeys or green shamrocks) and watch some video clips that I download from the internet. We really didn’t have any special holidays this late in the spring, though (except for Mother’s Day, but the Chinese also celebrate Mother’s Day, so that wouldn’t be very exciting. By the way, after hearing about all of the over-the-top things Chinese children do for their mothers on Mother’s Day, I think mom’s everywhere should be jealous. I asked them if they take their mom out to a restaurant, and they said, “No! Of course not! The children make meals for their mothers themselves. They cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner!” I can’t see that happening in America).

After perusing the textbook a bit, I saw a lesson in which they suggested holding a class election, and I thought, “Perfect! We have Election Day coming up in November! I’ll tell them all about elections!”

I had my PowerPoint all planned out, including some fun facts about our first president and first election, and downloaded some campaign ad videos and presidential candidate debates from the internet. I was all set to go when Justin walked through the room and saw what I was working on and said, “Whoa! You’re going to teach the Chinese about democracy? Do you really think that’s a good idea?”

Shoot. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. My PowerPoint was entitled “All About Elections!” but honestly, elections are the cornerstone of democracy, right? And preaching the wonders of democracy in Communist China is about as dangerous as declaring yourself a communist in America was during the 1940’s and 50’s (if not more dangerous).

So, I was going to have to be very careful with my wording. I made sure to never say anything about Democracy being “good” or “better than Communism.” I made sure to just stick to the facts– “This is how we do elections in America. Strange, isn’t it?” and that sort of thing. Even so, I was feeling a little bit nervous the day I went to teach my “fun” American culture lesson. (Thanks, Justin!)

I was feeling even more nervous when a man I’d never seen before showed up in the back of the room and took pictures of each slide of my PowerPoint. But I don’t think he was a government official (was he??). I have no idea who he was or why he came to my class…but he was smiling and laughing during my presentation, rather than looking disapproving and offended, so I took that as a good sign.

All in all, I don’t think I had anything to be nervous about. Everyone seemed to enjoy learning a little bit about how mysterious American elections work, and some students were even a bit bored by it, just like any American student sitting through a civics lecture might be. Everyone got excited when they saw Obama’s picture on my PowerPoint–they really seem to like him! Whether they like him because his political ideals are so closely aligned to the Communist party’s, or because his name is just really fun to say, I still have yet to determine.

After the lecture/lesson part of the class, we held our own class president election, and it was really fun! My students nominated two people in each class to be presidential candidates, and I had them choose colors and political party names and everything. I had students making campaign signs and slogans, and I had the candidates weighing in on pressing school issues such as, “Should we ban homework?” and “Should cell phones be allowed in class?” Then I had everyone do a secret vote for their favorite candidate, and we collected all of the “ballots” and did a tally up on the blackboard to declare a winner. The students got really into it, even heckling candidates as they made their speeches (all in good fun) and demanding that the winner say a few words by chanting, “SPEECH! SPEECH! SPEECH!” It was really cute.

Here’s a video of my student Russ giving his campaign speech in class. I only caught the last half of it or so. Even if you can’t understand everything that he’s saying, you have to admire his conviction and his ability to really captivate the audience!

During the same week, I did another lesson entitled “Agreeing and Disagreeing” in which the students had to take a stance on different controversial issues such as, “Should China set an age limit for drinking alcohol?” (right now they don’t have one), “Should public smoking be banned?” and “Should China have more population control?” I swear to you, this was straight out of the book! I’m not trying to get arrested right before I head back to the U.S., I promise!

I was surprised to discover that my students held such drastically different opinions on these issues. I’m so used to everyone in China standing together and being united in everything; but in their hearts, they are still individuals with very different viewpoints. I found out that many boys enjoy being able to smoke in public places (restaurants, hotels, buses, etc.) but many girls would like it to be banned. That’s a no-brainer…in traditional China, it is usually only the men who smoke anyways, because it is not a very “feminine” activity and not acceptable for the ladies. Banning public smoking would be a huge lifestyle change for many of the boys in my class. I can’t tell you the shock I had the first time I held class and called a ten-minute break, and all the boys stepped outside the door to light up, right in the hallway! (And then I saw the same boys throwing back beers at lunch time in the school cafeteria!) It took some getting used to.

I was also surprised that my students were split down the middle in their opinion of the one-child policy in China. Many students claimed that it is really necessary to keep the growing Chinese population from getting out of control. Others said that it really isn’t fair, especially since the specifics of the law keep changing every few years. I was proud of the students who spoke out against the law, but I also need to remind them to be careful of what they say in public. What kinds of crazy ideas are they learning in that foreigner’s class? 🙂

During my last classes this week (before the final exams), I got the chance to say goodbye to my students and take some pictures with them. I had a little heart-to-heart with my student Caster during the ten-minute break, and he told me how much the students in his class had improved their English since I became their teacher. He said, “Before your class, their English is all very poor. But now that you are here, they want to talk to you. They study English so that they can say some things and make a good impression on you.” I’d noticed a marked improvement in several of the students in that class, but it was nice to hear Caster really confirm it! I’m going to miss my Chinese students!

Playing a listing game: My students are racing to list English words ending in “ch”

You’ll have to forgive me for teaching in shorts…I usually stick to a nicer dress code, but with no A/C in our classrooms, it is SO HOT!