Friday, July 22, 2011

Driving School

One last post about my visit home with my student: Driving school.

Here's what I know in general about learning to drive in China.  It's not that common, and most people do it after college sometime.  You have to go to a driving school ($$$) and pass some written exams along the way, culminating in a driving test at the end.  Rita (my student) told me a few other things, such as:

*You can't legally drive on the road until after you get your license.  So driving school basically just teaches parking lot driving, and you're supposed to learn other skills from the book.

*She thinks it's bad to be the top student in driving school, because then you might be asked to take the final driving exam first, and then you will be so nervous you might fail.

*Some people go to driving school, get a license, and (almost) never drive again, because they don't actually know how.

Rita is going to driving school this summer.  There are about 30 students in her class, sharing one teacher and one vehicle (pictured above -- manual transmission).  Why is that picture dark?  Well, it's because we woke up at 4:40 in the morning in order to be at the driving range by 5 a.m. to beat the other students.  They sign in as they arrive, and that's the order they get their driving practice in.

(Why not just have a fixed schedule and come at the time you are assigned?  Seems no one has thought of this.)

Anyway, we were the first to arrive at 5:00 but other students started trickling in by 5:30 or so.  Other driving classes and teachers arrived and started driving other vehicles.

After an hour and a half of us waiting, Rita's teacher showed up at 6:30.  Hooray!  However, a small problem emerged.  There was one set of keys to the practice vehicle, and no one knew where it was.  Apparently a different student had walked off with the keys the night before.

So we waited around for another half hour, with about a dozen of the other students, all waiting their turn to practice.

Finally someone tracked down the keys.  Hooray!  By this time it was 7:30 (three hours after we woke up), and finally Rita's turn to drive.  She got in, and the teacher walked by the drivers' window to give her some tips.  She backed into a parking spot.  She pulled out.  She pulled in again.  Then out.  In.  Out.  

Three times pulling in and out and her lesson was over, lasting less than 10 minutes.  It struck me as the most inefficient and ineffective way anyone could possibly run a driving school.  There is no way an operation like this could really turn out qualified drivers, could it?

However, I neglected to consider the power of guanxi -- relationship.  About a week after I left, Rita sent me an e-mail saying she discovered that the driving teacher was also her cousin-in-law.  After realizing they were relatives, he took her out on the real road for some one-on-one driving practice.  And that's how things get done in China.

Catching Up

I have a few blog goodies I never got around to sharing with you, which I will post over the next couple weeks.  

Monday, July 18, 2011

News Brief

I am now on my fourth day back in the land of 5-star restrooms.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Social Norms

What makes crossing cultures so complicated?  Many things, and here's one I've been thinking about lately:  We grow up thinking a certain way of doing things is the way everyone does them.  When we encounter a new culture, we know some of these things will be different, but it's surprising how often we assume differences that don't really exist, and how often we take for granted things that are fundamentally different.

Today, in a twist on my series "Is this Normal? (Yes)," I will talk about our mutually faulty assumptions of normal and how I noticed them when visiting my student.

Exhibit A:  At the table.  While picnicking with my student and her family, someone pulled out a canister of pigs' ears.  I was asked, do I want one?  I politely declined but was pressed, so I crunched my way through a single pig ear and watched the show unfold.  There were only a couple pairs of chopsticks at our picnic, so Rita's mom took to using the chopsticks to feed interested party members directly.  If they demurred, she forced the pig ear to their lips until they took it and started to chew.  A good time was had by all.

Their normal:  Eating pigs' ears.
My normal:  Not eating pigs' ears.

Their normal:  Force feeding.
My normal:  Offering once or twice and giving up.

Their normal:  Communal eating and free exchange of germs.
My normal:  If it touched your mouth, it can't touch the serving bowl.

Their normal:  Contented burps.
My normal:  Hold it in.

Exhibit B:  At home.  Every evening when we got back home, all the family members would take a shower in turn, change into PJs, watch TV in their bedrooms, and go to sleep.  The shower was in a separate building that also housed the washing machine and toilet.  The bed, which I shared with Rita, was "comfortable" in her words, but so hard for me that I actually checked in the morning to see if there was a mattress of if we were sleeping directly on wood.

Their normal:  Shower at night.  Use hand-towels to dry off.
My normal:  Shower in the morning.  Where's my nice, big towel?

Their normal:  Hard mattresses.
My normal:  Soft mattresses.

Exhibit C:  Family relationships and titles.  Rita has zillions of aunts, uncles, and cousins, which she calls by their titles rather than their names.  So I met Aunt #1, Aunt #2, and various cousins and in-laws.  Rita told me she once visited her grandmother in the hospital and embarrassed herself by seeing the name on the door and not knowing that it was her grandma's -- she never had heard her referred to by her name.  This type of naming is further complicated by the fact that every family friend older than Rita is also her "aunt" or "uncle," and her peer relatives are various forms of "sister" and "brother."  She has one cousin that she just calls "Fatty."

Their normal:  Titles rather than names.
My normal:  Names rather than titles, usually.  And I know my grandparents' names even if I don't call them that.

Exhibit D:  Going visiting.  On my last day, Rita's aunt #2 called her and asked if we wanted to come over.  Rita said yes but didn't say when, and eventually we went.  When we arrived at her very nice apartment (the front door of which was curiously embossed with the Olympic Bird's Nest), Aunt #2 immediately invited us into her bedroom.  She was sitting on her bed in her nightgown working on a gigantic cross-stitch and watching a period drama on TV.  Rita and I also sat on the bed and nibbled on the lychees and corn on the cob that were offered, while chatting with her aunt and admiring the cross-stitch.

Their normal:  More openness for visitors.  Sure, come into the bedroom.  Who cares if I'm in my PJs?
My normal:  Don't invite someone unless the living room is mostly clean and I'm dressed for the day.

Their normal:  Offer copious snacks and tea to visitors, including random stuff like freshly boiled corn.
My normal:  "Do you want something to drink?"

The reason these differences can throw you for a loop is because each side assumes its own normal carries over to the other side.  Rita wouldn't think to explain to me, "Oh, we'll probably just sit on Aunt's bed and eat corn, and after awhile she'll ask us if we want to visit my uncle's office," so I didn't know until I got there.  And everyone would be surprised if I tried to shower in the morning.  And Rita's mother wouldn't think it would be off-putting for me to eat the huge lump of fat hanging off the pig foot she just gave me.  And I was confused by the fishing poles because ours are different.  And I didn't know in advance when I went to change clothes after river rafting that I would walk into a room of naked ladies.

So I remained perpetually taken off guard by things that were normal for them but never explained to me.  For example, Rita's family eats all their meals in their shop, not their house.  How could I have known that?  But no one told me, because it was so normal for them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Four Days in Jiangxi

Logorrhea.  Photorrhea. La la la la la.

"Logorrhea" is a word a learned in grad school that means a tendency to let your mouth run over with words, to a clinical degree.  I'm also throwing in "photorrhea" because I just uploaded 33 photos to this post.  I was thinking about how I wanted to blog my trip to visit my student in southern China, and today I had the brilliant idea of stuffing the whole four days into one post.

If you hate this idea, leave now.  (Or read it in chunks.)

Rita (on the right) was my student last year and was one of the first students to seek me out, as we see in this September 2009 photo.  She and Jessie gave me my Chinese name and have both become good friends and sisters.  Since I had extra time at the end of the semester, I decided to go visit Rita at her home.

Jiangxi, Rita's home province

She lives in a fairly small town, Wanzai, in the northwest part of the province.  It's surrounded by green mountains and tea fields.

Day One

I arrived at the train station in a nearby town, was met by Rita, and we went back to Wanzai.  On Day One we:

Visited her family's solar water heater shop:

Brother playing computer games; mom making lunch in the shop's kitchen

Mom, Dad, & Rita with our first meal

Went to Bamboo Mountain Cave:

The mystical beauty was marred only by the droning of the tour guide

Went to the town hangout (the supermarket) and took a look at this temple behind it: 

Visited Rita's former high school:

The campus was huge, and all students boarded even if they were local because they had no time for the 10 minute commute to and from home.

Rita's former classroom.  Only 20 students in this one instead of the usual 60, because she was in an elite class.
Rita and her brother in front of her former classroom

Day Two 

On Day Two we woke up at 4:45 to bike to Rita's driving school.  Later, since Wanzai people always eat breakfast out, we went to a little restaurant for some soup dumplings:

Rita's dad drove us to the reservoir for a full day of fishing:

Rita's mom throwing homemade bait to attract the fish:  wheat flour, corn flour, honey, and alcohol

Got one!

Rita's mom, in her awesome anti-sun fishing outfit

With Rita's cousin, who occasionally spoke some English with me (the only one besides Rita and another young friend)

Fishers enjoying a picnic

Back at the shop, after mom cleaned the fish.
On Day Two we also went to a nice restaurant where various family and friends appeared for a tasty supper together, after which the young people and I went out to look at the shiny (tacky?) flashing ornament that had just been installed on top of a large hill.

Day Three

On Day Three I begged off waking up early for driving school, so Rita skipped too and we both slept in before heading off to get breakfast.  I snapped some pictures of their house:

Rita's room

Living room

Rita's house, straight ahead.

Looking back at the long, narrow entrance to the house.  Bathroom on the right.

Rita's dad is a handyman when not selling water heaters.

The neighborhood.

Then Rita's mom's friend drove us all out for another day of adventure, including...

Picking corn at this organic farm:

Then, rafting down this river (my favorite activity of the trip).  The scenery was beautiful, and Rita and I had a raft to ourselves to maneuver as we wish, including getting stuck on lots of rocks.

Rafting place

Love this picture of Rita's family (and friend) at the rafting place.  Her little brother was bribed to be in it the photo,  but maybe he needed to be bribed a little harder.
We ate a late lunch at a random restaurant by the road, so by evening we were only hungry for snacks.  Then we went back home and watched dating shows on TV.

Day Four

Rita had planned to take me to the nearby Meng mountain on Day Four, but it would have meant waking up very early and hiking for six hours on tired legs, and then rushing me off to the train station.  So I asked to just rest instead, and she took me to a local park.  

We wandered off into a nearby village:

Typical countryside architecture

We spotted this house across the stream and Rita wanted to take a closer look because it's just like her grandmother's house in the mountains.

Grandma's house-clone

Then we went to visit Aunt #2 at her house:

Working on a cross-stitch bigger than the bed

I had earlier made an off-hand remark that I like hot pot, so Rita's mother took it to heart and prepared hot pot for our final meal:

Satisfied diners

Then Rita's mom sent us home for a nap before her friend drove us to nearby YiChun for me to catch my train.

It was a full and happy trip, filled with lots of new experiences and some fun times with my friend.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Old China, New China, and What I've been doing this week

I've been traveling!  About a week ago I left Qufu for good, after the flurry of finals and goodbyes.  I took the new fast train (wow!) to Shanghai, dropped off my luggage, and headed further south to visit my friend/student at her home in Jiangxi Province.

Now I am back in Shanghai for a two-day stopover before flying to America.  I have lots to tell you about my visit to Jiangxi, but for now I'll just share some photos of small-town southern China (my student's hometown: Wanzai) and my wanderings today in Shanghai.

Streets of Wanzai
Streets of Shanghai

Church in Wanzai
Church in Shanghai

Night lights in Wanzai
Night lights in Shanghai

Wanzai refreshment: Iced bean porridge
Shanghai refreshment: Caramel chocolate chip frappuccino

Outside Wanzai:  The real China
View from the Shanghai Bund:  The real China

What I love about this week is that I've gone from down-home hospitality to a fast, impersonal city... from green mountains to European architecture... from pedicabs to subways... from pig's ears to Dunkin Donuts... from four days without seeing a non-Chinese to seeing foreigners everywhere I look.

And both places are China!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In One Ear and Out the Other

I have a student from Qufu whose family occasionally takes it upon themselves to show some extravagant hospitality to the foreign teachers.  You have seen them in previous posts from my parents' visit.

On Sunday night, my student and her mom took me out to supper.  There were four of us, so normally we would order 4 dishes, plus maybe a soup.  I suggested 4 dishes.  They ordered about 12.

Then they wanted me to take all the leftovers home.  I decided to stand my ground on this one and see what happened, since I had only 2 days to eat all the food I'm already hoarding in my kitchen.  I figured opening the door to free food would result in me getting flooded with snacks in my last day, because that's what this family did to (for?) my teammates.  I am moving away.  The last thing I want is a fridge full of leftovers and unsolicited porridge showing up at my doorstep.  So when the topic of leftovers came up:

Me:  "I don't want any leftovers."
Them:  "How about just a few?"
Me:  "No, I'm trying to get rid of my food."
Them:  "How about just one dish?"
Me:  "No, I'm trying to eat all the food I already have."
Them:  "It's better for you to have new food than old food."
Me:  "But I want to eat my old food."

This went on for 10 minutes.  I ended up walking away with just a few cans of walnut milk (which I like), and a wad of napkins from the restaurant my student's mother inexplicably stuffed in my bag as we walked out.  Let's call this one a draw.

Then the mother wanted to walk me home.  We happened to pass a lychee stand.

Her:  "Let me buy you some lychees."
Me (laughing):  "NO!  I don't want any food."
Her (rifling through the lychees):  "I know you like them.  I'll get you some."
Me:  "No, I really don't want them."
Her (still rifling):  "Oh, they are not ripe yet.  I'll get you some tomorrow."
Me:  "Thanks, but I really don't want any.  I need to eat the food I already have."

I made it home lychee-less.  Score:  Alison 1, Chinese hospitality 0

Yesterday my student (the daughter) called me:

Her:  "My father has bought a small book of Confucius's analects for your parents.  When can I bring it over?"
Me:  "Oh, is it heavy?  Because I am mailing some things in the morning and if it's heavy I want to mail it then."  (Trying to budget my luggage weight.)
Her:  "Oh no, it is not heavy at all."
Me:  "OK, maybe you can bring it tomorrow night."
Her:  "Have you eaten yet?"
Me:  "Yes."
Her:  "Oh.  My father's colleague got some salted fish from Jining.  Do you want some?"
Me:  "Thanks, but I already ate supper and I don't need any more food."
Her:  "It is very delicious.  It's a local specialty."
Me:  "Thank you, but I don't want any right now.  Remember?  I am trying to clean out my kitchen."
Her:  "How about I just bring a little?"
Me (Laughing):  "You can bring me ONE BITE."
Her:  "Are you serious?"
Me:  "Yes."
Her:  "Maybe I won't bring it."

So I dodged the salted fish.  Score:  Alison 2, Chinese hospitality 0.

Tonight she and her mom came over with the gift for my parents.  It turned out to be about the size and weight of a large dictionary -- a set of Confucius's sayings, but made of metal and not paper, and so microscopic that it comes with its own magnifying glass.  I wouldn't call it "light" necessarily -- 5 or 6 pounds at least.

And the mom, true to form, showed up with a HUGE bag of lychees and 6 mangoes. 

Score:  Alison 2, Chinese hospitality 2

Within minutes of their leaving, I had already secured a different student to come over and take the fruit off my hands.  If it wasn't for the golden Confucius weighing down my suitcase, I would call this a win-win-win situation.

Monday, July 4, 2011

End of the Year Photo Extravaganza

Here's a peek at what I've been up to for the last two or three weeks.

Seniors' Graduation Party / Performance:

Foreign Teacher Goodbye Party given by freshmen and sophomores:


Watching our students sing at the CCP 90th anniversary Red Song competition:

Cleaning out our organization's English lending library:

Saying goodbye to teacher friends:

Saying goodbye to seniors:

Open House and Stuff Give-away at my apartment:

Hanging out with the student fellowship:

Dinner with our foreign affairs officers:

Year-end banquet with school officials and foreign teachers:

Goodbye meals and messages with students:

Packing and moving:

Planning my summer travel details:

Sending off teammates:

And of course, giving and grading final exams.  I'm headed to my office now to (hopefully) finish up for the year!