Sunday, December 26, 2010

There's no place like China for the holidays...

...really. Can you think of any other place where the main Christmas Eve activity is exchanging apples? I rest my case.

Other oddities about a China Christmas:
-Lots of Santas, no nativities
-Teaching on December 24
-Wearing your coat through the church service
-Banqueting with the college Communist party leader
-Getting a 14 hour head start on all of you back in the USA

Here are some pictures to sum up the holiday.

Christmas Eve Eve:

Christmas Eve:


The past few days have been a busy mix of Christmas celebrations, final exams, and getting ready to leave Qufu. I am giving my last final exams tomorrow and then I will be done with the semester. I'm going to Albuquerque later this week for my brother's wedding, and then my winter travels will begin. This year will include a week in Beijing for some Chinese language study, a couple weeks volunteering in India, our organization's annual Thailand conference, and a short trip to Bali on the way back to China.

It's an answer to prayer that I will have opportunities for language study, service, professional development, and relaxation during the long winter holiday. But packing for the next two months will be a challenge! And I leave in less than 24 hours. Yikes, yikes, yikes.

Well, somehow this post is no longer about Christmas, but it was a good Christmas nonetheless. Time for me to head off for my last night sleeping in my own bed for a very long time.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Notes on Language Learning

I just finished up my last Chinese lesson of the year. The lesson was titled "Nar you piaoliang guniang xue houquan de?" ("How could a beautiful girl learn monkey boxing?")

Today I just want to share a specific observation I have made in the past semester of studying Chinese:

Cultural context is important.
This point is specifically related to listening. Sometimes my tutor gets caught up in an explanation and starts talking really fast, using tons of vocabulary I don't know. The only thing that saves me is if I already have some cultural context for what she's talking about. That happened in my lesson today. She started explaining the origin of monkey boxing (whatever that is), which is related to the classic Chinese story of the Monkey King - a good and powerful shape-shifting superhero. I don't know much about him, but I knew enough to understand most of her 5-minute long story even though most of the vocabulary was unfamiliar.

Another example: I can never remember the word for minorities, but I do know there are 56 recognized ethnic minorities in China. If I can catch the number "56" in the stream of Chinese flying by, then I know there is a pretty good chance we are talking about minorities.

I can think of many more examples of times when I didn't really understand the language, but because I already knew about the topic, I could guess what the person was saying. (the lunar calendar, the college entrance exam, the Olympics, Spring Festival, etc., etc., etc.)

I think this small observation has reinforced for me the importance of teaching and learning culture. Not only can it help language learners interact appropriately with native speakers, but it can also boost their listening comprehension. Cool!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Book Club Finale

My Book Club members have been plugging their way through Anne of Green Gables all semester, three chapters at a time. Last Monday night was our final discussion because -- hooray! -- we had finished the book. For some of the students, it was the first all-English book they've read cover-to-cover.

The whole group with their certificates of completion

Our reward was to watch the movie tonight. We ate oranges, bananas, pomello, and chocolate cookies while enjoying the antics of the delightful Anne Shirley. The girls thought Gilbert was not sufficiently handsome, but they were otherwise pretty satisfied with the movie. (I, for one, do not see how you could improve on Gilbert Blythe.)


After we finished the movie, I gave them my camera to take some pictures and all manner of chaos broke loose. (A ceramic snowman sitting on my bookshelf lost his life in the scuffle.)

They soon decided that I should take a picture with each girl, and we did our best to come up with a new creative pose each time.

Book Club was a delightful experience for me. The girls were sweet and full of laughter every time they came over, and they genuinely loved the book. Our discussions ranged from understanding confusing English passages to predicting Anne's future romances to talking about church to silly girl talk. Tonight was a happy end to one of my favorite student activities of the semester.

Qufu Street Food

My teammates Chip and Mallary just posted a rundown of their favorite Qufu street food, which (coincidentally) includes most of my favorites as well: Crunchy sandwich, pizza bread, sweet potato, mmmm. And all available for 3RMB or less (about 45 cents).

Make sure you check out the videos of vendors making the food -- the crunchy sandwich lady finishes in 50 seconds!

Here's the post -- Click on over and enjoy!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Are these normal?

Well guys, we've been slowly chipping away at the mountain of things that are "normal" here but would raise eyebrows back home. I'm having fun writing this series, but there is just way too much material to do it all justice. So today, I'll just toss out a bunch of cultural norms that I may or may not ever get around to writing about in detail:
  • Wearing your clothes multiple days in a row
  • Wearing your coat inside
  • Tossing bones and other non-edibles directly on the table when eating
  • Slurping noodles
  • Running up on stage to give a performer a bouquet while he is singing
  • Addressing people by their titles ("Teacher," "Administrator," "Older Sister") rather than their names
  • Covering your mouth with your hand when you laugh (girls)
  • Carrying your girlfriend's purse (boys)
  • Learning stuff by memorizing and reciting long passages
  • Having your baby soon after marriage
  • Denying compliments ("Who, me?")
  • Eating chicken feet and pig feet
  • Paying with cash
  • Spitting on the street (men)
  • Having romantic pop songs as your ring tone (all genders, all ages)
  • Getting IV antibiotics whenever you are sick
  • Bargaining
  • Singing off-key
Ah, I feel better getting all those on the page. Maybe I should start keeping a running list of all the nutty things that have somehow started to seem normal. Of course, I've given you mostly surface stuff, but there's a deeper level of "normal" that would probably include things like:
  • Saving face
  • Keeping face
  • Giving face
  • Cultivating mutually beneficial relationships
  • Being devoted to your parents
  • Submitting to your superiors
  • Conforming
  • Respecting the elderly
  • Cultivating economic development
  • Being patriotic
  • Maintaining harmony at all costs
  • Solving problems through intermediaries
But these are not quite so entertaining, so I'll stop there for now. Good night!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Drink More Hot Water

Yesterday my teammate Mallary taught an aerobics class to a group of her sophomore students. I went and tried to follow along, and it was really fun! At the end of the hour, everyone was sweaty and tired -- both Mallary (who was wearing a tank top) and the students (who were working out in long underwear and sweaters). The students didn't want to take any layers off, but they quenched their thirst with a few swigs of hot water from their thermoses. This kind of behavior can't be normal... can it?

This post will begin with a simple observation that Chinese people drink hot water. Then I will veer off into the realm of unsolicited medical advice, and end with a reflection on a central theme in Chinese ideas about health.

First, drinking hot water. People here drink hot water, not cold. You can get near-boiling water in most places -- restaurants, trains, offices, airports, homes, and (if none is available) from your thermos that you carry everywhere. This is especially handy for making tea and instant noodles without the aid of a microwave or stove.

If you happen to be under the weather, you will almost certainly be advised to drink more hot water. This cure-all is generally suggested along with a host of other unsolicited medical advice. For example, Sarah, one of the American teachers, recently had a cold. After class, a student gave her a hand-written note with four pieces of advice, including the standards (drink more hot water, wear more clothes) and one that I never heard before (wash your face well, especially your nose).

This sort of thing happens all the time. Friends and strangers in China are always telling you what to do -- it's one way to show that you care about someone. They will tell you what to eat and what not to eat, what to wear and what not to wear, when you should get married (and to whom), when to have a baby, how to care for said baby, and the list goes on. One time I was eating a meal with a few students when one of them piped up that I needed more exercise. The reason? She noticed that I don't have very big half-moon shapes at the base of my fingernails, which is a traditional sign that I'm not getting enough blood flow.

Sometimes this advice strikes me as a little funny, because I still haven't gotten used to Chinese ideas about health. Westerners tend to think about sickness in terms of germs and contagions: If you keep your hands clean and stay away from sickies, you will stay healthy. But Chinese seem to think about sickness in terms of hot and cold: If you avoid cold things, or maintain the proper balance between hot and cold, you will be healthy. This explains why people cheerfully share communal bowls of food at every meal, but will not take off their jackets during aerobics because they don't want to catch a cold.

This also explains why:
  • Babies are overdressed
  • New moms aren't supposed to shower for a month (because the water will make them cold, thus risking illness)
  • You shouldn't sit on cold surfaces
  • Girls won't eat or drink anything cold during a certain time of month
  • People drink hot water instead of cold
And now we've come full circle. Next time you have a cold, drink more hot water! I do it all the time and it really does make me feel better.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

All About Bikes

The scene: Dozens of cyclists are jockeying for position as they bike down a crowded street. All of them are wearing helmets. Is this normal? No. At least not in China, where I have yet to see a local wearing a bike helmet.

In today's post, we will take a look at what constitutes "normal" bike behavior in Qufu. What gear, attitudes, and behaviors will make you look like a local?

1. Your Bike and Other Accouterments
Common types of bikes in Qufu include the following:
  • The electric bike (very popular -- makes up perhaps half of the two-wheeled vehicles on the road)
  • The standard single-speed
  • The small-wheeled portable
  • The rusted octogenarian
Almost every bike comes equipped with a basket in front and a seat in back. We are in the business of practicality here, not recreation. Once you have your bike, you're going to need some gear:
  • Bike lock: No one locks their bike to anything, and I have never seen a bike rack in town. You just put a lock through the back wheel so the bike can't be ridden and then park it wherever it's convenient.
  • Mitts: These bulky hand-warmers are permanently attached to most bike handles in the winter months. They also double as boxing gloves if you get into a fist fight.
  • Face Mask: Another winter accessory, this will keep your face warm and cute while warding off any flu or pollution particles.
  • (Boys only): A girlfriend for the back seat: Very romantic! But actually, anyone can share a bike.
  • Headlight or reflectors for night riding: Hahaha -- just kidding! Only electric bikes have lights, although we all ride at night.

2. The proper attitude
Wrong: High heeled boots should not be worn while biking.
Right: These heels look great with this skirt! Maybe I'll hop on my electric bike and go buy some more.

Wrong: It seems dangerous or inconvenient to bike there.
Right: Ding ding! Coming through!

Wrong: This stuff won't fit on my bike.
Right: I will fit these (large boxes, fresh vegetables, recyclables, small children) on my bike or die trying.

Wrong: It's raining; I better walk instead.
Right: Where's my umbrella and/or full-arm rain poncho?

I should not stare at random things or answer text messages while biking.
Right: Look! A foreigner!

3. What to do
OK. You have your bike, your gear, and the mindset of a local. Here are a few rules of the road:

1. Qufu has wide bike lanes on both sides of the main roads. Do not be fooled into thinking that these are one-way thoroughfares or that they are only for bikes. Today I biked about a mile in the bike lane of Qufu's main road and counted 28 bikes, 3 rickshaws, 5 pedestrians, and one taxi going the "wrong" direction.

2. Try not to hit or be hit.

3. Pay attention to your surroundings. For example, the constant honking of cars is not only a delightful China soundtrack, but also a helpful warning that you will definitely be run over if you don't get out of the way. Also, as previously mentioned, any vehicle could be going any direction on any part of the road at any given time.

4. Your bike is not just for transportation. It is also a convenient attachment for your food service or rickshaw business!

In the U.S., street biking is mostly for the serious biker. But in Qufu, you'll share the road with everyone from middle schoolers getting out of school to senior citizens crawling along on bikes older than they are. And as you swerve your knock-off "Giont" brand bike to miss the mangy puppy that just trotted into your path you can ask yourself, "Is this normal?" Yes, yes it is.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Liu Who?

I'm taking a quick break from the series to link to a small item I found fascinating. It translates microblogs from Chinese folks in reaction to one of this past week's current events.

You can read it here.

I don't have strong opinions about the current event in question, but I thought this response was very clever indeed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Childrenswear in China

This picture was taken a couple days ago in the East Market. I was walking down the street, sweating in my long underwear and coat, but the children were layered in so many clothes they could barely move. Is this normal? Yes.

In today's post, we will discuss three characteristics of childrenswear in China.

1. Layers
Question: How do you know if your child is wearing enough clothes?
Answer: Don't be silly -- your child is never wearing enough clothes. The warmer, the better. Bring on the marshmallow babies!

2. Split Pants
Chinese-style potty training involves a convenient slit in the back of every layer of clothes. Small babies sit on their granny's laps and pee in little arcs down to the street while granny spreads their legs. Toddlers squat whenever the need arises. True, this custom means lots of bare butts and pee on the street, but think how nice it would be not to worry about diapers.

(Photo credit: Bryan Lentz)

3. Shaved Heads
Most babies around here have their heads shaved until they are preschool age. I've heard various reasons, including the fact that it's easier and cleaner. If you are wondering whether this results in difficulty distinguishing boy babies from girl babies, see #2 above.

I don't care how many clothes they have on or how little hair they have -- I think little Chinese kiddos are adorable. Don't you?

Post Edit: More cute kids in the East Market this week. Thanks to my teammate Mallary for the photo!