Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Another Funny Thing--Cabs

All cabs are equipped with "shields," pieces of plexiglass surrounding the driver's seat that take up half the front seat and essentially box in the cabbie. It's supposed to be for protection, but not only does it look ridiculous, there are huge gaps where the plexiglass bends around the seat, and if someone were really bound and determined to assault a cab driver he could easily reach around the flimsy plastic and do it. Some clear shield that's about as effective as Saran wrap isn't going to stop him. It's like, "Hey, I've got this band-aid...that's as good as a bullet-proof vest, right?"

Monday, July 28, 2008

Chinese Fashion Sense

Many Chinese, especially those here in the richest city of China, have great fashion sense. But often you’ll see clashing patterns in one outfit (plaid with flower print, animal print with Hawaiian pattern). And guess what’s all the rage, as in everyone has them and wears them with everything, regardless of whether it matches?: Crocs. Big, floppy, holed-rubber shoes in bright, clashing colors. I have never liked Crocs—I think they’re cute on children because they look like children’s shoes. But everyone wears them, all the time. Check out this picture of a woman wearing flower-print silk pajamas, a sun visor (more on these to come), and bright, ever-obnoxious purple Crocs. What a combo!

Chinese Students' English Names (Hilarity Abound)

Most of our students at camp already have English names from previous English courses. I’ve had to name a few, and gave them names that were special to me—and also what I thought were very American: Brandon (after my beloved, of course), Rachel (after my friend from Ohio and my new friend here from Boston), and Nikki (one of my best friends in Columbus).

Now some of these English names are wildly nonsensical. Rachel and I have ascertained that sometimes words/names are chosen based on meanings or sounds that resemble their Chinese names, regardless of whether they're actual English names. Several are random words that are barely English at all. Here are some of the best we’ve seen so far.

• Lemon (boy)
• Black (boy)
• Red (boy)
• Jany (girl)
• Lily (girl--this is very popular for some reason)
• Pinking (girl--what?!)
• Candy (girl)
• Cookie (girl—spelled “Cicy”)
• Bean (boy—no, I did not give my boyf’s nickname to a Chinese student!)
• Even (girl)
• Kitty (girl—also very popular)
• Zooma (boy)
• Dragon (boy)
• Lala (girl)
• Go-go (girl)
• Toshi (boy)
• Cherry (girl—popular)
• Peddy (girl)
• Winnie (girl—she told me, “like Winnie the Pooh!”)
• Grammy (girl)
• Marry (no, not like “Mary,” but as in “husband-wife union”)

Even Microsoft Word and Blogger are catching these. Not English Names.

Here’s the absolute chart-topper: right now I have a male student named Insect. A little difficult to call on him without laughing. Rachel says there isn’t really a Chinese syllable that sounds like it, so I’m not sure where it came from. Or do I really want to know...

New Students--Last session!

The new students for our final 10-day session are great. They are motivated and excited, which is a change from last session. It’s amazing how the dynamic of a class can make such a big difference. If the majority of the class is studious, I think it motivates others to do their best as well. If there are several bad seeds, it can really throw off the balance of the class and make things much more difficult.

I am getting a little exhausted, though, to be honest. By the end of the program we will have taught 26/30 days, meaning we really only had 1-day weekends. Plus we've been cramming sight-seeing adventures and other experiences in there too.

There are a few things I miss: Brandon (this is a constant), sunrises that occur at normal times--NOT 4:30 AM, bread, cheese, and even McGraw (aren't I a nerd? I can't help it.)

Huang Biao

We have a new friend, Huang Biao. He’s the head chef at the army hospital near SISU where we work, and he placed an ad to barter: he will teach a native English speaker how to cook real Chinese food in exchange for concentrated English conversation. Rachel and I agreed this would be worth looking into, so she called, and for the past week we’ve been going to his kitchen directly after our classes for our cooking lessons. So far he’s taught us how to make the tomato-egg slime that we see everywhere (with what we didn’t realize was straight MSG!), and dumplings.

The first time we met him, I thought he seemed nervous, overly polite, even scared of what we might think of him. He took us to a small diner near the hospital to treat us to an authentic Chinese meal. We didn’t know what we were in for. Here are a few of the dishes he ordered: fried spicy chicken, soft tofu with gelatin-like fish eggs on top, stomach-and-liver soup, and chicken feet. Yes, I said chicken feet. It was the first dish to come to the table, and Huang is motioning us to try them, try them. They were cold, clammy, and cartilage-like, exactly what you might imagine for chicken feet. I was horrified, but took one bite for good measure. Rachel took a second helping with Huang’s urging, and I was impressed. Could she actually like them? (Alas, she got sick the next morning.) The stomach-and-liver soup was almost as frightening, but we refrained from asking exactly which animal the stomach pieces had come from. Talk about disgusting.

He is a small man, with longish side-parted hair and endearing smile wrinkles that make you want to give him reason to smile all the time. He’s very sweet, and he’s so receptive to speaking English. I was afraid he would resort to Chinese with Rachel often to get points across, and that I’d be lost in the dust again. But he truly makes an effort, and my-- he is an eager student! Each day we go to the kitchen he says that he’s been studying new words we give him. I wish my students in Class 3 were so motivated!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How to Haggle in China

Today Rachel and I went to the Old City section of Shanghai (see picture). Thinking, as we have several times before, that we wouldn’t be spending any money. It’s the older part of town, and most of the sites are temples and churches, but there were several shopping markets along the way. One of which is a mecca for electronics and other great finds. I bought some gifts for people and therefore can’t mention details about all of our purchases, but here’s our formula for haggling.

1. First, I show interest in the product. Ask questions, finger it, nod, smile, all the while formulating a price I’d like to pay. Keep in mind the exchange rate right now is 6.8 rmb to 1 dollar, and in China often you can get things for half of what you might pay in the U.S.
2. Second, I ask the price. Rachel and I grimace in unison at stated price. Look hurt.
3. We discuss under our breath in English. Mention things that could go wrong with product.
4. About this time the salesperson begins lowering the price on his/her own as we show doubt. We let him/her lower the price as much as he/she seems willing without prompting.
5. Next, we counter offer with a little below what we want it for. Then it’s time for the salesperson to grimace, look hurt, sigh, and shake head.
6. We increase our price slightly, to what we want to pay. Rachel can speak Chinese, and so often they turn to her and begin conversing, thinking they can pull her onto their side and get her to coax me. She’s firm.
7. If the salesperson is still wavering, I begin looking around in exaggeration (this works best when there are several salespeople who are selling the same thing within one market or area).
8. I put money on the table, the exact amount that I want to pay, and tell the salesperson it’s all I have.
9. Finally, if the salesperson hasn’t budged yet, Rachel tells him/her in Chinese that we want to look around and might come back later. This is the clincher, because they know we won’t be back. Then they whine, slam things around, and give the product to us at last for what we want to pay.
10. We walk away smiling.

Needless to say, we made out like bandits. Here’s what I got for approximately $56 (USD):
• Two tiny MP3 players—ipod imitations. Literally one inch by one inch. MUCH better for working out than my clunky dinosaur ipod mini. 1 GB each.
• 5 pairs of underwear
• 1 bendable lighter, 1 specialty lighter,
• 3 strings of pearls (China is definitely the place to get real beauties)
• Hand-carved “gift” made from Chinese redwood (the one I’d been eyeing in the States was about $200)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Trying to Communicate

Last night Rachel and I grabbed a cab home from the pub. Rachel, as always, began by telling the cabbie in Chinese where we want to go. After this the two might converse for a few minutes and that's that. Well, this time the man tried to tell her something that she didn't quite get, and so to elaborate he began writing with his finger the Chinese characters for the words on the cab roof. This was hilarious to me as it is well known among foreign students who study Chinese that the characters are the most difficult part. The learning of them comes last, after being able to understand the voiced language and being able to speak it yourself. So writing the characters when someone doesn't understand what you're voicing doesn't help. Ever. Yet time and time again people will do this. Even to me, a foreigner who obviously does not know Chinese. Someone will try to talk to me in Chinese or Shanghai-ese, and I shrug, tell them "sorry," and begin to walk away, when they wave for me to wait and type out the symbols on their cell phones or grab the nearest pen and pencil to write out the characters. Reeeeeaaaal slow, as though that will help too. It's quite comical. So last night when the cabbie began scratching out the complicated characters upside down, on the roof of the cab, in the dark of night, it was just too funny.

Twilight Zone "Lecture"

The new kids are here. Suddenly they've dumped some older, high-level English speakers on me, so I'm no longer teaching the equivalent of Levels 3 and 4. I have Level 4 and Level 6, so my planning is not offset like I'd hoped. Though they tried to give my Level 4 kids the Level 6 book, which is way too hard for them. And then tried to not give my Level 6 kids a book. So I moved the books from the Level 4 class to Level 6, and then Tracy tells me that they don't have any more Level 4 books and won't be getting any! So what am I supposed to do? Play games with them over and over. That's all anyone seems to want: games. Luckily Rachel's Class 2 can share their Level 3 books with me, and I'll start near the end where we left off first week for my Level 4 class. And then for my Level 6 class. I had about 5 punks in there who decided that they didn't want to do English, they didn't care, and they would just disrupt class constantly. I was so upset and frustrated that I told the Chinese TAs that they had to be removed from my class. It was a complete detriment to the rest of the students, and I was super grumpy. This camp tries to be ridiculously regimented, but ends up being disorganized more often than not.

Today I was appointed to give a lecture to a high school camp class about "anything American." I talked about the "green movement" that's happening right now--how people are trying to be more environmentally conscious, including myself, and how it all relates to oil and global-warming issues. I talked for about 40 minutes and opened the floor for questions. There weren't many, so I was about to wrap up early when the teacher said, "no, no, there's still 10 more minutes." So what? What am I supposed to do, just stand there? Is it so bad to end a bit early? And then, Lo and behold, a girl raised her hand and asked if we could play an English game. So apparently I was supposed to act as teacher then too. Aren't they too old for games by 11th grade? I don't remember playing games in my Spanish classes over and over by the time I was in high school. It seems a little elementary. So I awkwardly led a game, with a Chinese student telling me what to do the whole time. She told me to write down six different subjects and choose a student to talk about it for 30 seconds. One of my topics was "Dating in China," as I'm curious about this. A student said that they are not "allowed" to date until college, that their teachers in middle and high school won't let them. Seems a little odd. Are teachers involved in students' personal lives? How do they even know if students are dating? She said they have to focus on studying, studying, studying all the time so they don't really date. Interesting. Perhaps this explains the indulgent PDA Rachel and I have spotted with young-ish couples in the metro stations. They have to sneak around? Or they're so excited to make out in public b/c they've had to wait for the freedom to date for so long? One 16-year-old student told Rachel and I that he didn't date, didn't want to, that he was "too ambitious." There seem to be a lot of single people here. Not sure how I feel about it, not that it's my place to feel anything, but on one hand I think it's impressive that people don't get tied into those things and stay so focused on academics. Wish I would have stayed more focused through college (I wasted too much time on Mr. Wrongs, and although my grades didn't suffer, my personal development might have). But then again, how do they do it? Are they that much closer to their families that they don't need immediate fulfillment of that kind of love? Don't they get lonely? I suppose a lot of it has to do with your culture and surroundings. Perhaps I wouldn't have felt so lonely after college if 80% of my friends weren't leaping away to get hitched.

But back to the "lecture." Finally, with not a minute over time, I found a stopping point in the game and told the group "thank you." As I started to walk out they erupted in applause that somehow seemed eerily scripted--loud, fierce, and forced. It's that regimented aura again. It felt a little like the twilight zone.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

When You're the Biggest City in China, Does That Mean You Can Be Pushy?

Every single Chinese person I've met has been kind, calm, and seemingly passive. But when venturing out on the streets or trying to use public transport, I see a different side.

The traffic is horrendous, as it is in any giant city. But I've never seen anything like this. Cars will literally shove through a crowd of people to get through, even when the walk sign is green, loaded buses will come within inches of nipping an innocent bystander who has dared to step into the street. It even happens with kids! The poor little ducklings from camp will be trying to cross the road to get to the cafeteria when a car will blare the horn until they back away. Biked and mopeds do the same, and those could even be the most infuriating b/c often they drive onto the sidewalk and make walking near impossible. Not to mention the incessant honking. What to do when a pedestrian is crossing the street? Honk loudly and plow through, if the walker doesn't get out of the way it's his/her own problem. Even bicycles roll down the street "brrring, brrring!" It's so bad that there are "no honking" signs posted on SISU's campus. You know it's bad when you have to put up a sign to tell people not to honk their horns. Rachel and I decided that pedestrians are last on the totem pole, dead last. I wonder about the fatality rate. Two years ago the rate of assault against cross guards was an average of about 20 times a month: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/20/international/asia/20shanghai.html?scp=2&sq=shanghai&st=cse. Talk about road rage.

Another site of basal, animal-like behavior happens when getting on the bus or metro. Standing back to let those getting out come first? Forget it. Nose in the crack of the door, invisible starting blocks underfoot is more like it. Rachel and I could not believe the shoving that took place when our bus pulled up the other day. As she said, "it was like a huddle of hungry pigs at the trough." Funny thing is, the bus was empty, so it wasn't like no would would be able to get on! People were shoving each other, bumping shoulders, grunting forward. Not only did it look ridiculous, but the whole thing was counterproductive. One by one people could have calmly mounted the steps, but three persons trying to go at once made it impossible, as the door was only wide enough for one.

Parker says that in Beijing they've been having "queue" courses in which they teach people how to stand in lines in preparation for the Olympics. (And they have something like "no spitting" day to try to get people to stop spitting in public places.)

Perhaps I should start teaching the kids in my class about lines and spitting and driving etiquette. Train them when they're young.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Yu Garden Outing

Today we went to the Yu Garden (see picture). It was situated within a maze of huge, pagoda-like buildings full of merchants, something labeled the Dragon Mall, and Rachel said it reminded her of a place in Beijing (see picture). The outside was overcrowded with tourists, but once inside the garden was surprising silence and peace. We walked along the bridges and peeked into the many stone nooks and tiny museums, all running alongside ponds filled with multicolored coy fish. Here we are with our parasol, what everyone around here uses instead of sunscreen. I think it's brilliant, and an untapped accessory in the U.S.

Let's backtrack. Before we reached the Yu Garden, group of four students from Beijing—two girls and two guys—approached us outside the metro stop and invited us to join them for a tea ceremony. We tasted the finest ginseng tea, jasmine tea, and sweet fruit tea, and learned a little about the history of tea (see picture).
The experience was interesting, and both Rachel and I enjoy tea, but overall we felt it was rushed, and the exorbitant price of 150 rmb qualified it as a tourist trap. We were bummed because we continue to spend more money than we plan every time we go out lately. Part of that is going where the wind takes us, often with a very loose agenda and only a neighborhood in mind, but all the same we need our money to stretch until we receive our next stipend installment.

In other news, Brandon is coming!!!! I am so excited to see him. Now each time Rachel and I go somewhere new I’m thinking, would Brandon like to come here? Last night we walked by a small park with glittering water and wildflowers galore, and all I could think was how it emanated romance. Something in my throat jumped a little and I felt again a surge of excitement at the thought of seeing him. It’s been 29 days. He will arrive on day 43.

Didn't Your Mother Teach You Not To...

Stare? Apparently not in China. And not when the subject to be stared at is non-Asian. Everywhere we go, especially on buses and trains, people are staring, staring, staring. Openly gaping, unabashed. Yes, we are white. Yes, our hair is light. And yes, mine is wildly curly, “exotic” as one boy told me today.

Sometimes it makes us feel like celebrities when people stop us in mid-walk to ask for our picture or to plead that we pose with them. Or gasp in awe when we tell them my hair is not a perm. It’s flattering. And we’ve even made a few friends when people march right up to us and tell us that we’re beautiful and ask us to talk with them so they can practice their English. But the constant staring gets old. Sometimes I meet the gaze head-on, or I’ll wave or say hello, but even that doesn’t work sometimes, and what I really want to do is glare. But then I remember that I’m representing America and don’t want them to think we’re all arrogant jerks.

It’s also frustrating that our American looks mean nothing but dollar signs to a lot of people. Sometimes beggars will come right up to us--I’m talking literally in our faces--and try to block our path and force us to choke up our millions. Rachel and I are not wealthy, and we’re not exactly on vacation, either.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Funny Words in Shanghai

Funny thing about how English words are randomly put together for slogans, on T-shirts, on notebooks. Or words that perhaps someone thinks capture the essence of the product/service. We walked by a spa called “Oddness.” And a club called “Richy.” I bought a notebook that reads on the cover, “Summer Fantasy: In the hot summer, have a cool, cool excited to get food stupor, after all is a particularly good thing.” Rachel and I surmise that it’s probably just like how Americans get tattoos of random Chinese characters that mean nonsense out of context. Pretty hilarious though.

More Adventures

Today was the last day of the camp’s first session. I have 9 students staying for another term, but most kids had to say their goodbyes. They all wanted me to sign their books and give them my e-mail and phone number. They’re such cute little buggers. I’ll miss them. (see picture) Little Martin had me sign his SISU camp hat. I told one of the Chinese TAs for Level 3 that now he’s ready to be a father. He pretty much looked like a new father by the end of camp—disheveled hair, unbelievably exhausted eyes, and an overall slump to the shoulders and shuffle of the feet as though the very act of moving requires too much energy.

After our short class, Rachel and I scooted off with Parker, another foreign teacher, to see more of the city. Parker’s from Nashville, TN, originally, and has been in Shanghai for the past two years. He showed us around his neighborhood, which is in the French Concession, an area that is already becoming a favorite of mine, and then herded us east, stopping at giant shopping malls, a French pastry shop, and a smoothie joint along the way. These malls were the ritzy ones, with stores such as Gucci, Armani, Dior, etc. Window shopping for us. Along the way throughout the neighborhoods and the malls, Parker dispensed as much knowledge as I’ve gained in multiple history and current events classes. The kid has intricate understanding of China, Chinese culture, the new Lama, who just might put his stamp of approval on the Olympics, Buddhist traditions, Thailand, Tibet, you name it. He came here and began working for an American real-estate company, then quit and began traveling around everywhere a month ago (he traveled Indonesia by himself), and now he’s enrolled in school for Chinese language and is freelance teaching. Needless to say, he was a well-qualified tour guide and a great conversationalist. Rachel and I were more than a little impressed.

Then we headed toward a university on the west side of town where one of Rachel’s friends is doing a summer-intensive language course. We popped out of the metro stop at a park near the school and began scrutinizing our map, as always. Then we hear a tiny voice saying, “Can I help you?” We looked up to meet a young Chinese woman who offered us a beautiful smile and an escort to the park. She is studying English and was excited to meet some American girls with whom she could practice speaking. At one point she told us we were beautiful and exclaimed, “You’re not fat!” To which we laughed and laughed. America the Obese. The world knows of our gluttony.
Lily was her name, and she was entirely generous with her time. She wants to take us out around the town, and we vowed to meet up later. How sweet. I hope for the chance to show kindness to a foreigner in America one day.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


HOT. We’re on the same latitudinal line as the southern U.S., like mid-Georgia or Alabama, and it definitely feels like the South. At least our hotel rooms are air-conditioned. (Service otherwise is sub-par, but that’s a different story.)

The other day Rachel and I meant to go to Old City Shanghai, which is west of the Bund area. We figured it would be a place where we could see the sights—some museums, a tea house, etc.—and not spend a bunch of money. Not so. We started off at the Fabric Market, which is a conglomeration of clothing booths squished into two huge buildings. They have designs galore, and what you do is pick out designs you like, then the person measures you, you put down a 50% downpayment, and then the seamstress makes it for you and you pick it up a week later. Imagine having something tailor made to fit you! Only problem is Rachel and I haven’t mastered the art of bargaining. We haggled some for the dresses we bought (sarong-like things that can be shaped around your body in a million different ways), but then later realized that the seamstress accepted our haggle too quickly and moved on to the measurements and the colors before we knew it. We probably could have talked her down another 50 yuan. Oh well. Still cheap. We literally stayed there all day browsing. I got a beautiful pearl ring—don’t worry, we did the scratch test—in an antique setting. Now we’re sitting on considerations for further purchases before going back to pick up our dresses next week. Rachel wants a soft blue wool coat that’s shaped sort of like a pea coat but sort of has that modern military look. I’m considering buying a suit fitted perfectly to my body. The jacket has a beautiful scooped neckline with a collar that bends out over the shoulders. That doesn’t sound cute, but trust me. The woman at the stand claims that it’s a direct replica of Dolce and Gabbana. These people will tell you anything for a sale, so who knows. I also want a slim black jacket with red Chinese details on the cuffs. Where the coat comes together the one side is longer than the other, adding angles to my torso in the trendiest way. It’s completely unique and completely China. But how much to spend. I might ask for more of an advance for my teaching salary.

Teaching is going well. I’ve got the 9-10 year olds. They’re sweet as sap, but the short attention spans stress me out sometimes and make it difficult to get a lot done. I’ve got to be part entertainer part teacher to hold their interest. I do like it, but I think I’m glad to be heading toward teaching college freshmen in a few months. At least our salaries are pretty good, and offset the cost of the trip and all expenses while I'm here.

Today we went to meet a few ladies who work at the 3M’s Shanghai office. They know Rachel’s aunt, who works at the Minneapolis branch and comes to Shanghai at least once a year for work. They took us out for pot dinner. Or was it “hot pot” dinner? Absolutely delicious. We each chose a type of soup, fish soup, “Chinese medicine” soup, and a few others. Rachel and I went with “Chinese medicine,” which was surprisingly good. There was ginseng, Chinese wolf berries, mini dates, and some sort of bark in it. Didn’t taste “medicinal” at all, in what I think of as medicinal anyway. Herbal. We each at a pot with our chosen type of soup, which we allowed to boil. Then on little plates were served various meats, vegetables, and tofu creations, which we put into our boiling soups to cook for 1-3 minutes, then dipped in our sauces. The sauces were gathered from a smorgasbord of them, which we were instructed to dip our cooked pieces into. The drink served was a cool vegetable broth, actual chunks of carrot and corn and whatever else anchored at the bottom, with a piece of sugar cane in it. The ginseng boosted my energy, and I felt a little high, actually. I must figure out how to cook Chinese food.

The ladies were impressed, of course, with Rachel’s Chinese. It’s surprising for many people to meet Americans or native English speakers who speak Chinese. They know how difficult it is. At any rate, I felt a bit like a wallflower, but that was okay. A free meal and a chance to hang out with four other successful, single women. I don’t get enough of that in my life in the States.

I’m hoping Brandon will come visit while I’m here, but unfortunately even if he does we can’t get the same flight home. That 12-hour flight would be so much better with him there. I can’t really gauge whether he even wants to come, which makes me disappointed. He’s had a lot of other things going on in his life lately, though, and I know international travel isn’t as much of a priority for him as it is for me.

Gotta run. Need to plan for tomorrow’s lessons. The last full day of teaching. Short day on Tuesday, then Wednesday off, then the whole things starts over again with new students. Whew! I can’t believe a third of our trip is already over.