A Word on Life in China

It has officially been 19 days since I arrived in Zhangjiajie, and I feel I am finally starting to see a life developing.  Before I indulge myself in a lengthy stream of consciousness word vomit diary entry about my jam-packed weekend, which can really only be as interesting as the diary entry of a 12 year old girl excited, about new friends and new things can be, I wanted to first share a few salient experiences, lessons and observations:

1. Experience: The friends you’ll meet sharing the heater blanket

In China, since there is no central heating, everyone relies on small personal space heaters; one looks like a fan and stands about 1 meter high, but often starts fires (!), and the other is about the size of a shoebox.  Because much of the Chinese store-keeper’s life is spent somewhat sedentary, between the occasional need to attend to customers, in almost all venues in Hunan – inside or outside – you will find storeowners sitting at small tables draped in a thick blanket.  As it happens, underneath these small tables is either the latter of the two space heaters, or a pile of burning coal, while a thick quilt is placed over the table to insulate the warmth – small chairs or benches are placed around the table. Most laoban 老板 or “bosses” spend their days seated at their tiny thrones of heat, inviting any customer to join them not as merely a courtesy, but as an expected and normal gesture. Sometimes it feels like people are never taller than waist high when you’re talking to them. During my time here, I have shared these tables with many strangers, among other places, at a restaurant, waiting for my table, in hotel lobby giftshop (all without heat) behind the store counter while Leslie checked his email (on the gift-shop owner’s laptop), at a music store, and now, at a medicinal store.

Blanket Experience: The IV “hook-ups”

Leslie called me an hour or so ago, asking that I come downstairs to pick up my passport (I officially have my Foreign residency for China, valid until July 31, 2012).  I went down to meet him at a Medicinal store, or “doctor’s store” as Leslie called it.  The store was divided in two – the front of which was all sterile white tile, and women in white coats who could provide herbal medicine and some “American” medicine (though I don’t think the latter is so true). I walked into the store, holding a mug of hot coffee (which everybody found hilarious), wearing my furry Russian hat (see below).  In the back room, there were two blanket tables, as they will now be called – Leslie and a woman sat at one, and an old woman with a lazy eye, a fifty-something man, and a small boy sat at the other.

Most interesting of all: everyone was hooked up to their own IV.

I joined Leslie at the table and huddled under the blanket.  The woman who sat with us did not speak, but smiled.  Leslie returned my passport, and then gave me a vacancy to return to my apartment, but I preferred to stay.

This is what I like about China – how wonderfully casual it is.

Both the boy and the man were here because they had “colds.”  Leslie was here for a hangover.  For an hour IV drip of saline + penicillin, it cost about 40 RMB.

Leslie had been here once before when the boy was here, and he divulged his story to me.  The young boy, now 7, with his grandmother, had been hit by a police car when he was 6 months old.  The police officer, responsibly, paid for the child’s hospital visit (a whopping 200,000 RMB or almost $32,000), and then gave the family an additional 100,000 RMB.  The parents agreed that once this additional sum was paid, any injuries, or “dumb” that the boy experienced, would not be a consequence of the accident.  As it were, the boy had suffered much damage.  At age 7, he still has very limited memory – “he will meet you today, and tomorrow say, who are you? – though he remembers his parents and grandmother “that’s a different story” said Leslie.  He cannot read or write, but he does sing one song!  This is when I saw the father in Leslie show: he tried to get the boy to sing, and as we urged him on, he kept looking at me saying “just encourage him.  Just encourage him.”  The song he can sing is “Happy New Year” (only these 3 words), sung to the tune of “happy birthday.”  However, he also could not say “happy” despite teachers teaching him every year.  Instead, he says “Herb-es” which apparently is 1) a set of mountains in Europe (?), and 2) a kind of candy in China.  Paternal Leslie translated to the grandmother, who feared that her son was “fool,” that I said he most certainly was not, which made her smile.  Leslie then said, “as long as he happy – doesn’t matter.  Doesn’t matter.”

It was odd, but felt so characteristically China.  Here we sat, strangers in a room, learning the most personal and intimate details of each others’ lives – it felt like an especially contrived scene from a movie (namely 50/50 comes to mind) about what its like to have chemotherapy, where people of unlikely ages, shapes, and backgrounds bond during their sessions, as they wait for the administered toxins to take effect.

2. Lesson: wearing my Russian furry hat is GOOD.

I was chilly today so I wore my hat to the kindergarten and kept it on for the rest of the afternoon.  Apparently, a famous Chinese warrior, by the name of Yang Zhirou, or LiFei (I will clarify this when I leave my apt. in my hat for dinner) wore a hat like this (and was obviously ever so pro-China), “always ready to fight.”  Adoring fans included: Leslie, old lady at medicinal store, owners of stand at the base of my building, cab driver.  Will DEFINITELY be sporting this baby to class on Thursday.

3. Lesson: Clinginess/taking-a-hint may or may not be a foreign concept to Chinese youth

If you remember my previous post, I had mentioned a boy who lived in my building, named Edmond.  He is the son of “number 5” and will be taking the tremendously difficult Gaokao, or college entrance exam on June 7.  He was the one who casually dropped “rome wasn’t built in a day” and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” because silly Chinese English teachers have drilled into the minds of these poor students, who systematically recite what they are told, that streamlining idioms is “casual” and the adhesive tape that keeps the English language intact – if they only knew! Bah!

Eager Edmond – who I have dubbed “fat panda” (I know, I know, terrible), and who a past teacher who also experienced his enthusiasm for English dubbed “happy floating cloud” (also, extremely appropriate) – is, well, eager.  His thirst for English is unquenchable; unfortunately, his overzealous approach to treating foreign teachers resonates more as crazed girlfriend from Hell than “friend”. Edmond called one Monday afternoon, inviting me “to play” with him, coincidentally when Manchester James was visiting.  As it happens, Edmond had met James in Cili several days after I had.  James, only moments earlier, had been describing a hilarious boy named Edmond who he had met, who spoke British English and pronounced “BBC” and “CCTV” as “Say-say-tay-vay” and “Beh-beh-say.”  Judgment aside, it was agreed – this mysterious Edmond was flamboyant.  I was convinced we were talking about the same Edmond- which his phonecall minutes after, confirmed to be true.  Edmond, upon learning that James was also in Zhangjiajie, pleaded that we meet him.  We told him we would call him if we were free later in the evening. James and I were preoccupied most of the afternoon, finishing our evening at 6pm with a massage, and street food.  During that time, I had put my phone one vibrate.  When we returned home, I had 10 missed calls and a text message saying: “Why you no call me?” I called him back, I apologized.  He laid on the guilt, I think unknowingly, by saying, “my father saw you and James eating in the streets.  Why don’t you call me back?”  It was awkward.

James had a similar experience with a stranger who sold him a dictionary, to whom he also foolishly gave his phone number.

I did eventually have lunch with Edmond and his friend the next day.  We ate dumplings.  It was his day off – which leads me to…

4. Lesson: Americans have it good.

Hey elementary, middle, and high schoolers – time to quit your bitching.  We have it extremely good.  Edmond has just begun his “Hundred Days” meaning there are officially 100 days remaining until he takes the Gao Kao.  The hellish exam covers subjects in English, Chinese literature, math, science, physics, chemistry, etc.  The exam is taken June 7, and students receive their scores 20 days later.  Based on their scores, they then have FIVE – YES, FIVE – DAYS to pick which colleges they would like to apply to.  They can only choose five universities, and generally, can only apply to one-three majors at each school (all of which have their own qualifying scores for acceptance).

Regarding their “day off,” treat yourselves to this, non-Chinese students: Edmond and his friend have class from 7 AM – 10 PM EVERYDAY, but get the MORNING off on Mondays.  BUT, since the Hundred Days has begun, that “half” day will cease to exist.  After they told me this, I felt like a royal asshole for my hissy fit about fulfilling social obligations.

Prevailing lesson: suck it up, Morgane (and you, too).

5. Experience: teaching kindergarten. 

Today I taught my first hour long session with little people, aged 3-5.  I call them little people because I do not think I could find a more apt word for these tiny foot-and-a-half tall creatures that scream and smile, and drool, and kiss, and move, as if without joints, in their marshmallow suits of neon pink, red, and big boy blue. I had been introduced to the school by another American, who has been in Zhangjiajie for 10 months, Becky, the previous Thursday.

The kids sat in a semi-circle of tiny colorful chairs facing Becky and me, who also sat in tiny chairs.  I had watched her teach for an hour, as she robotically repeated“this” pointing at her feet, and “that” and pointing at the wall, all the while two Chinese teachers – all smiles! – stood behind her thumping on a tambourine, or clapping. Over, and over and over again.  The same happened with “I like” and “I want,” as the adorable smiling things repeated; some took no notice (there were two 2 year olds) and crawled up to Becky and me, kissing us, others tried to push their way out the door, and some were happily perplexed in the whimsical world felt only by a toddler (and hopefully by me, when I go senile), laughing periodically at the sight of their own hands.  I was exhausted having just watched the class.  I’ll admit, I had been having a down day (which I will explain below).

The sad rain cloud that seemed to be following me everywhere was immediately cast aside, though, when class ended.  Instructed to, or perhaps conditioned by habit, the fleet of 12 or so mini-smiling-gremlins charged towards me and hugged me.  Several students kissed me, but for 3 minutes, they did not let go.  It was a sea of arms, and tugs and I felt the tears well up in my eyes – kids! I cannot really describe what being attacked by little people is like, but there is something that is so pure about their embrace.  It is without judgment, it is not tainted by cynicism and embarrassment; above all, it is with love.  In a twisted way, when little kids hug you, they really sort of love you.

I taught my first class today, and after an hour, I was drained.  I think I blacked out during the “class” because I don’t remember much.  I just remember yelling.  The beauty, and the challenge of teaching kids who repeat the sound you make simply because you say it, and not because of its meaning, is that it is doubtful that they’ll really remember anything that you’re teaching.  It’s a blessing and a curse.  The class ended in hugs again, and I left feeling satisfied that I had taught, and had made some money, but relieved that I could return to a quiet room (with new green plants in my bedroom – Leslie’s gift to me this afternoon!)

6. Lesson: girls are a much tougher crowd. 

Earlier last Thursday morning, I had met one of my university classes for the first time, and discovered, first hand, how difficult it is to teach a class of all girls.  Girls are nasty.  You can almost hear them say “look at me, have you seen how beautiful I am? Oh- and by the way, I don’t care, and I probably don’t like you” each time they flip their hair, or put their head on the table (one girl was sleeping!), or meet my enthusiastic question with a quizzical look.  Yes, card-dealer, I’ll see your standing-on-table move, and raise you an “I don’t give a shit, thanks.”  That’s not to say that they didn’t like me – they did – but they were nevertheless far more hard-pressed to please.

7. Lesson:  I am now not just “50% like” Leslie’s ex-girlfriend, but “90%” – using it to my advantage?

Apparently, I remind Leslie of his ex-girlfriend, who he CONTINUOUSLY calls his “extra” girlfriend, despite my correcting him.  He also refers to his “extra” wife.  I don’t even need to make the joke – its already done.  His ex-girlfriend, who is also 23, lives in Cili and is a dancer.  Leslie is 43.  They dated for almost a year, and broke up several months ago because Leslie wanted to settle down, and she, like a young, attractive twenty-something, did not want to. Two weeks ago, Leslie said I was like her 30%, and it has slowly risen to 90%, as of today.  Friends warn me that Leslie is “snakey” – apparently, in the future, I should expect drunken phone calls from him.  But, I feel like I understand him, and know how to deal with him.  To me, he’s harmless, and lonely, and a good father, so what can you do?

Maybe that’s why he’s been so helpful.  If anything, I think he feels bad that his extragirlfriend is living in such a crappy apartment.  He apologized for its condition today, again, after spending the afternoon bringing me 3 gorgeous new green plants (REAL), getting me a new washing machine (which is so fast, it’s stretching all my clothes, ugh), installing a new stove top for me because of the state of the other one, and finally cleaning all the black mold out of my fridge.  He rinsed the fridge by tossing buckets of water over the soapy suds of watery-black-mold puddles.  He then ripped the tape from a patched hole on the kitchen floor, and let the dirty water filter out that way.

As an aside, Leslie, lonely though he may be, is not without requirements; as his self-proclaimed matchmaker, I tried to gauge what was Leslie’s type.  Turns out, being age 22-28 is the bare minimum requirement.  Again, Leslie is 43.

I was outraged – I told him “THIS is why you don’t have a girlfriend!” He didn’t budge.  I asked him what he would do if he found a wonderful woman, who he was deeply in love with who was 29 –I could see him cringe as he said, “I- I – would have to think about it…”  In spite of himself, he then said, “age doesn’t matter in China.  I don’t think it’s the same in your country.”  I told him on the contrary.

Also – Bin-nan, the disgusting carcinogen that he is often chewing, is considered manly because as the story goes, it grows on a very tall, rod-like tree; men who climbed to the top of these trees to retrieve the bin-nan, upon touching ground, found a wife.  Now, whenever the conversation falls to women, I tell Leslie that he must first climb a tree.

8. Lesson: In winter, dishes are to be done in the shower. 

Self-explanatory, and true. It’s too cold to do the dishes using the freezing water in the kitchen. I currently have an enormous pile of dirty dishes that I’ll have to do when I take my next shower.  While standing next to my toilet.  Oh joy.