Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Six Weeks and Counting

Red and I have been in China for nine months now and we have one of those "first-time since arriving" milestones coming up. We are going back home to visit.

Now, we have not even been here a year yet, but since our jobs are in the education field we have chosen to take advantage of the summer school vacation to come back to the States to clean out our storage unit and tie up a few loose ends we weren't sure what to do about before we left.

We have a list of tasks we need to do, but there are several things I have been fantasizing about ever since we booked the plane tickets.

No, China, no!
Bad China!
Learn what a hamburger is.
The meals we each want. As much as we love the food of Beijing (and we do love it), the food here leaves much to be desired when they attempt to create a food from other places (for example, any place outside of China). It took us almost four months to find a decent pizza here, over six months to find a hamburger I could choke down, and we still haven't found anything that remotely resembles Mexican food. Eggs are always radically overcooked and I think they boil their bacon. I've had Mountain Dew exactly twice in nine months and I had to pay a fortune to have it shipped to me from Thailand. And lastly, I miss American-style Chinese food. I plan to visit the #6 China Buffet in my hometown. That may sound crazy, but you can't get any of that stuff here in China.

Walking down the street knowing what's happening. Right now, we can't read the street signs, we don't understand the conversations around us, we can't appropriately respond to store clerks or waiters questions, and we're basically guessing about everything all the time. We have gotten pretty good at shutting the world out to prevent mental exhaustion. Although, we do have some concern that when we get back into an English-speaking country, the sudden influx of understandable dialogue and readable street signs may be information overload.

Having people laugh at my jokes. As a person who communicates almost exclusively in sarcasm, back-handed insults and witty banter, it is sheer torture to be surrounded by people who don't understand my sense of humor. It's not just a language thing. The Chinese find totally different things to be funny. Just yesterday, I was explaining to a Chinese girl that I prefer to watch movies at home and don't really enjoy the movie theater experience because they won't pause the movie for me to run to the fridge and I always get thrown out when I take my pants off. She paused for a moment, looked at me scornfully and said, "No. You can't take your pants off" and then proceeded to tell me how nice the Beijing theaters were. A few months ago, I asked my boss (I teach English) how many kids I could choke each week before I would get in trouble. She just said, "We don't do that here" and continued explaining my pay schedule. I NEED people to laugh at me.

Let's go back to food for a moment. I want a steak. A big, fat, juicy steak. I've been out for steak a couple of times here and (once again) I don't know what they do to meat here, but I was depressed for a week afterward. I have to get a good steak while I'm in the States.

Step outside without people staring at us. We live in a very international city, but in a strictly Chinese neighborhood. There are exactly ZERO non-Chinese people living in our neighborhood. It is not uncommon for children to point at us or for us to hear the words 老外 lǎowài (foreigner) or 美国人 iguórén (American) from people who don't realize that those are two of the seven words we actually know. We are such a novelty, people even approach us to have their picture taken with us. I know I'm ready to just blend into a crowd and not be noticed.

"That man is so tall. How does he not fall over?"


Have a conversation with someone that is not my wife. I love my wife. Very much. She is my favorite person in the world. However, sometimes…just sometimes, I want to talk to someone who is not her. I talk to a lot of people, but due to language and cultural issues the conversation is generally quite shallow. I'm looking forward to sitting in a group conversation involving complete understanding from all participants.

We really need to learn Chinese.



Saturday, June 17, 2017

I Am Who I Am

Since moving to Beijing, I have been continually amazed at how much of my previous knowledge about China and Chinese people is totally wrong.
  • Rice is not nearly as prevalent as I thought.
  • Sweet and Sour Chicken? Wontons? Orange Chicken? Beef and Broccoli? Egg Flower Soup? Fortune cookies? General Tsao's anthing? You will never find any of these foods.
  • Although it is a highly respected ancient skill, almost no one knows kung fu. Which means no kung fu battles on the streets.
  • Their children are not math geniuses.
  • There is an alarming lack of ninjas.
  • I have yet to come across a panda digging through a trash can.
These misconceptions work both ways. I was reminded of this when I read an article about the Chinese belief that all foreigners hate cilantro (click here to read it). Where do these ideas come from? I don't know, but I have had many encounters with people here who are surprised that I am not what they consider to be a "typical American".

My wife and I both enjoy spicy food. Now, I know that not all Americans can handle spicy dishes, but I know many people who love to test their intestinal endurance. Any time a dish is being prepared in front of us, when the cook gets to the spicy ingredient s/he pauses. "Oh, crap. This is for an American. They can't handle this stuff, but I can't just leave it out. That might be insulting and Americans like to shoot people." The cook then holds up the spoonful of red powder and gives us a look that clearly communicates, "Are you going to want this stuff." We always smile and nod 对 (duì, duì - yes;that's right) while we point to the dish. It becomes immediately obvious that they are surprised by that answer or concerned that we may not be sure what we just agreed to.

I don't care about sports. When a local here learns that I am from Illinois, they don't know what that means. But if I tell them it is where Chicago is, they want to talk about the Bulls. This is something I cannot do. All I know about the Bulls is that Michael Jordan played for them until he quit to make a movie with Bugs Bunny and sell underwear. Every kid wants to know what my favorite sport is and what teams I follow. Due to the language barrier, it takes great effort to get them to understand I don't care about any of it. They always seem genuinely confused. This happened in the States too, but at least I could explain that I think grown men chasing a ball is not quality entertainment.

I am not a big drinker of alcohol. I get the impression that Americans are viewed as being big partiers and I know there is a Chinese belief that Americans can hold their liquor better than the Chinese. Because of this belief, in social situations (even when work-related) they want to see this demonstrated. The liquor flows freely and there is always someone to keep refilling your glass or bring you a new drink whether you want it or not. I am not opposed to having a beer or two, but that's it. When I say I'm done, it always causes confusion and I am sure that I am breaking a few social rules. Although, on that one I am a typical American. I have no problem breaking social rules. Been practicing for years.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Power Game

On October 18th, I wrote about the adventure of paying my power bill in China. You can read that post here. Without getting into how difficult it was to pay, here is a recap of the money portion of it.



The picture above was taken on October 18, 2016. Those numbers are the amount of money that I had on the meter. In US dollars that is close to $75. Many people asked me how long I expected $75 to last, but I had no way of knowing at the time. My guess was that we were good to go for about a month.

I checked that meter every week for the next month because I didn't want it to run out and have our power shut off, but I soon quit checking because it moved slower than a stoned sloth on Ambien. I didn't look at it again until the beginning of May when we started using our air conditioner because the temperature hit nearly 100.

Once the air was on, it started moving (although slowly) and it got down to 125¥ about two weeks ago. That means it took seven months for us to use just under 400¥. For those of you playing at home, that is less than $60 for seven months of electricity usage. That averages out to less than $10 per month. It was under $4 when we weren't using the air conditioner.

I can't help but wonder why I always paid at least $300 every month for the same service when I lived in the States. I have a theory, but it's rather controversial and involves Kathy Griffin devouring the gall bladders of lab-grown goat embryos provided by the Illuminati to finance a third Paul Blart movie. I try not to get political here, so I won't get into details.

In the meantime, as the city outside is melting, I have no reservations about cranking the A/C up high enough to have icicles forming on our shower curtain rod since the monthly expense is less than a couple of Big Macs.



Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Relaxing Week

Living and working in China definitely comes with its share of challenges, but it has some great advantages as well. Today, I am enjoying one of those perks. I didn't have to go to work.

About a month after arriving in China, we experienced some horribly unpleasant weeks when we were pulled out of our jobs until our work visas were completed. This left us without work and without money. This experience led me to demand guaranteed pay in my next job. The school can make any decision it wants about how often my classes are cancelled, but my contract states that it cannot affect my pay. This clause has protected me several times.

Right now is one of those times. This past weekend was Memorial Day in America. Coincidentally, we also had a three-day weekend in China. However, here, it is the Dragon Boat Festival (忠孝節). We had to have school on Saturday because the holiday stretched from Sunday to Tuesday. Since we would be missing two days of school, they added an extra day at the end of last week to get one of those days back.

I reported back to work on Wednesday and was told that I would not need to come to work the following day because June 1st is Children's Day. School would be in session, but it would be a day of parties and there would be no need for English class. I also never work on Fridays, so I had a one-day work week. Lucky me.

Don't let their appearance fool you. All children are horrible.

Children's Day is a major holiday for children here. The kids in my class say that it is better than Christmas. The whole day is dedicated to them. In fact, the majority of my classes for the last month got cancelled because the children were preparing songs and skits for the Children's Day celebration. I have worked so little in the past month, this is why I am happy to have that guaranteed paycheck agreement. Time off is nice, but bills still have to be paid.

With all this time off, I have tackled many of the issues that have needed to be attended to. I have figured out food delivery, how to order stuff online, where to buy clothes in my size (Chinese people are significantly smaller than me), and how to repel panda attacks. I'm starting to figure out how China works.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Qing Ming Jie - 清明节

My wife and I are enjoying a few well-earned days off from our jobs this week due to another one of the Chinese holidays we do not have in the States, Qing Ming Jie (清明节). In English, we would call this the Tomb-Sweeping Festival and it is just exactly what it sounds like. On this weekend, people travel back to their hometowns where their parents or grandparents are buried and sweep the dirt off the grave that has collected over the last year.

This is one of the holidays which kicks off springtime in China. It is celebrated on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. OR…as westerners would say, it's the 15th day after the spring equinox. OR…as I would say, it's on April 4th or 5th each year. I don't know why it has to be so complicated.

Qing Ming Jie is similar to Memorial Day as it is a day to honor the dead, but that is about as far as the similarities go. In America, Memorial Day is celebrated like every other holiday that involves a three-day weekend. We get together to drink some beer and eat a bunch of grilled meat. At some point, someone may put some flowers on a grave somewhere. In China, there seems to be much more tradition involved.

And, as usual, since I spend most of my time with children, it is them that I turn to for my Chinese cultural education. And, since their English is very limited and my Chinese is virtually non-existent, sometimes they ask to draw me a picture instead of trying to explain something. I had no idea what this holiday even was, so two girls tried to draw it for me.


They are drawing pictures of graves.
After looking at the pictures and having a little back and forth with our combined limited language capabilities, I was able to determine that this was a day to commemorate the dead. Okay. Simple enough, but then I asked more questions.

On my way into the school that morning, I saw a street vendor selling something I had not seen before. With a holiday coming up, I figured there must be a connection. So I asked my students about the bundles of money I had seen for sale on the street corners.

It is fake, over-sized money in huge denominations.
They told me that the money is for burning. Burning. Not like we burn money in the States at Christmas by buying way more stuff than is needed, but actual burning. You buy this money and then you burn it. I had to ask why. A girl drew me this picture.

Money is burned for the dead to have a better after-life
Apparently, being dead is not much better than being alive if you don't have any money. I asked my students what a dead person would need money for and several of them shouted out "FOOD!"

I had never considered this. I know how much I love food and how much it really sucks to be hungry, but I didn't think that would be an issue after you kicked the bucket. Well, here it is. I have to do my best not to die in China.


As you can see from the video, we didn't get very far in the explanation department. I don't think any of us generally know what the other is talking about most of the time. However, I did see some of the burning of money happening that night.




And plenty of evidence of it the next day.


These burn spots were everywhere.
I'm not quite sure of the logistics of how this works or where you file your paperwork to be sure that the money you burn gets to the correct person in the afterlife and the children were of no help. They told me that the person you want the money to go to will get it. It just happens.

I continued to ask questions to try to understand this practice:

Can I burn money to go to more than one person?
Why don't the dead just get jobs so they have their own money?
Can I burn money for myself so it will be there waiting for me when I do die?
Is there crime in the afterlife?What if I burn money for my grandma, but another dead guy steals it?

Eventually, a boy raised his hand and said, "This is just Chinese tradition. It is not real. It is an ancient custom."

"Ah," I replied. "It's like Santa Claus. We leave out milk and cookies even though we know he isn't real. It's just tradition."

His jaw dropped open. "What?" was all he could say. Another kid wailed, "Santa's not real?" Half the class started crying.

I'll never understand China.