Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Unintended Treasures Inside the Cave

Last week, some friends and I went to a nearby cave. It was beautiful, but also ripe with Chinglish. Enjoy!

I'm guessing that this one means "Don't Touch", but who knows...

This was on a garbage can. I'm trying to remember if I've ever heard a trashcan referred to as a dustbin before. It sounds vaguely familiar, but I still love the capitalization of DUStbin.

No walking, perhaps? It almost looks like a guy skateboarding.

Maybe this one isn't that funny, but "Down Steps" just caught me as odd.

Okay, so my photography skills are pretty bad inside a cave. But I did get the best part. Not only does "Don't Turn Over" not make sense, but the person printing the sign accidentally read it as "Don't tumover". Non-English speaking sign makers are the creators of some of the best Chinglish.

I think this one takes the cake. At least the others made sense. If I knew how to stop walting, believe me, I would.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Lift Your Skinny Heads Like Antennas To Heaven

This town really is beautiful. Let me rephrase that. This town was probably beautiful ten or twenty years ago, but like many cities in China, rapid development has led to loud, dirty, and overcrowded streets, polluted air, and the byproducts of unrestrained capitalism (the desperately poor hanging onto the heels of the desperately wealthy). Don't get me wrong, I believe the streets here are beautiful, but in an 'alive and intriguing' way, not in a 'majestic' way. But as you walk down the streets day after day, it's easy to let these things get you down.

At the same time, the natural beauty of this place creeps behind every building in the sky. The town is covered in some of the most beautiful mountains you've ever seen. Just above the line of the hotels and businesses, you can see mountains in every direction. If the weight of the world as you look ahead at 0° is getting you down, all you have to do is tilt your head up 30° to see the real beauty of this place.

A teacher friend and I were talking about this a few weeks ago. He said he gets so bogged down in the day-to-day things, he forgets about the beauty that surrounds him. "I always forget that all I have to do is look up", he said.

I know it's easy to get lost in the mindless routine of everyday life, the depressing job, disappointing relationships, and the ugliness of a fallen world. But please, never forget to look up.

Honk, honk, gas. Brake, gas, honk.

The public transportation here is a far cry from the gloriously convenient, fast, and inexpensive public transit I enjoyed in Hong Kong. There's no subway, and no public busses. There really are only private busses, taxis, and motorcycle taxis. (I guess now that I think of it, if they're private it's not really public transportation.)

Now, as I wrote before, the uncivilized nature of the roads here are more of an amusement and adventure than a nuisance to me. But there's one part of traffic here that I somehow inexplicably forgot to include. Horns. Those damned horns. They are incessant, violent, and excruciatingly loud.

I live three blocks away from the main road where people use their horns, but every morning starting around 5:00 am, I can hear the horns echo down the streets, bounce of the mountain in which my bedroom window is facing, and enter my room. The pitch these horns are calibrated at are as such that for the first two weeks, every time a bus honked it's horn, I thought my phone was ringing in the other room. It's that loud.

If you are ever walking next to the front of a bus when it honks it's horn, you will know how painful sound can be. It's not just painful in your ears or your head, you actually feel it all over your body. After the encounter, it takes a good minute for my heart to return to it's normal pace and feeling to return to my fingertips.

Although I have no proof other than empirical evidence, I believe the number one selling point of horns for vehicles in this country is volume. The louder, the better. In my mind, I picture hundreds of scientists in a lab, pondering and conducting experiments trying to find the most efficient way to propel massive amounts of air through a narrow passage in order to create the greatest vibration of air molecules. These men simply have no respect for the fragility of the human ear drum.

So besides the amplitude of the horn and frequency with which they are used, my other compliant lies in the unnecessary usage of the horn. People here need no excuse to use their horn. I'm actually interested to test drive a motorcycle here, because I don't think the driver has control over the horn. I could be wrong, but my hypothesis is that any time the vehicle accelerates, brakes, or turns the wheel slightly, the horn fires automatically.

For example, last week I was riding my bike down a trail in the middle of the rice fields. We were in the middle of nowhere, and there wasn't a single person in sight. A man on a motorcycle came the opposite direction, and I watched him coming for about thirty seconds. About one second after he roared past me with his loud engine, he honked his horn! There's no way I could have missed him. The only thing I could guess his horn honking meant was "Just in case you didn't see me there, you should watch out, because I just passed you!"

Alas, I have now become hypocritical as I have just purchased a bell for my bike this week. It just wasn't safe on the roads without it. I do try to use it sparingly, but every time I do, I feel like I'm just adding to the clatter that wakes me up reaching incorrectly for the phone every morning.

On Measures and Measurements

There's a verse from a quite excellent book that reads, "...And with the measure use, it will be measured to you." While I still believe this is true, I can't help but wonder if my experiences here in China really do reflect this passage. Am I really using that small of a measure?

Like most developing countries, everything you buy here must be bargained for. Besides large department stores, nothing has price tags on it. If there's no price tag, the price is negotiable.

Let me break it down for you a little bit. There are many different levels of pricing here, it all depends on who you are. Going from smallest to largest, there's the local friend or family price, the local price, the Chinese tourist price, the foreigner friend price, the foreigner who can speak fluent Chinese price, the foreigner price, and lastly the clueless rich foreigner price.

I can just imagine Americans, with their silly ideas of 'equality', up in arms about how rampant discrimination is here. It's actually an integral part of every day life here. I guess to be fair, it's not really racial, as someone from 2 towns down the road will still pay twice as much as a local person.

To give you an idea of the range that the price can swing, a nice souvenir could go for $1 to a local Chinese friend or it could go for $20 to the clueless, rich foreigner. The widest swing is in souvenirs, but other consumables vary quite a bit as well. For example, I have not noticed it here in the city I'm in now, but in Beijing I noticed that restaurants typically have two menus. One in Chinese, at Chinese prices, and one in English at two to ten times the amount. (It's actually exciting now that I can read Chinese, I'm still waiting for the opportunity to call someone out on it when I encounter it.)

The worst abuses are in the markets. Because everything is sold by the pound, if perchance they agree to an acceptable price, there's no way of knowing that they are using their hand-held scales fairly. Most Chinese people tell me not to bother bargaining in the market. Usually, if they play nice and bring their price down 25%, they'll just give you 25% less food.

The thing is, I'm not necessarily interested in getting the absolute lowest price out of them. I'm not interested or willing to stand there and haggle for an extra $0.15. I just don't want to be taken complete advantage of, or be made the fool. To be honest, I really do want to help these people out. I don't mind paying extra just so I know these poor farmers' children get to eat today. But I do not want to give a free hand-out to a dishonest person who tries to take advantage of me just to make a profit. When I know what the price is supposed to be and they vehemently deny it and charge me triple the amount, or when I ask for a pound and they measure out 10 ounces for me, I get annoyed. It wouldn't be so bad once in a while, but the endlessness of it all wears on me a bit.

The majority of the time I find it easier to pretend I live in a utopian society where everyone is honest and caring of others, and I do not blink at the price they give me. I just keep thinking about that verse, reminding myself that the measures that He was speaking about aren't weighed in pounds or ounces.

One in a Million

There's a saying here that goes, "When you're one in a million, there's 1,300 other people in the country just like you". It really puts things in perspective, doesn't it? (Both the population problem of this country and the value placed on an individual's life here.)

But what if you're not one in a million? I think most people feel special if they're one in
a hundred (with 13,000,000 people just like you), or one in ten (with 130,000,000 people just like you). Would you still feel special then?

Orange Picking

Yesterday, we took the beginner class to the countryside to go tangerine picking. This wasn't really the classic American 'U-Pick' that my mom put my siblings and I to slave labor for when I was little. A friend of the school had an tangerine farm, but couldn't afford the labor to pick them before they rotted. So we figured this could be a fun service project for the students and staff.

As I side note, I would like to take the opportunity to express my fondness of the fruit here. It's really amazing. This place is like a citrus wonderland. The tangerines are the freshest, tastiest, most easy to peel oranges I've ever had. (Not to mention, they're only $0.15 a pound! When I buy fruit here, I've found I need to buy at least two pounds at a time because I'll usually finish one pound the first day.) I understand why they're referred to as Mandarin oranges now. My other new friend is the Kumquat, which is like an orange the size of a huge grape. The peel is quite thin, so to eat them you just pop the whole thing in your mouth. The peel is strong tasting, sweet, and sour, and the inside tastes like an orange. Afterwards, your mouth feels clean and incredibly fresh due to the intenseness of the peel.

The village was about an hour's bike ride away, so headed off first to rent some bikes. As we finally hopped on our bikes, it started raining. Undaunted, we put on some cheap poncho's (they were pretty much just a trash bag with rubber bands on the sleeves), and headed off.

Five minutes into the soggy journey, I was pretty cold, wet and miserable. Well, miserable feeling, but still having a great time. After a half hour into the ride, when it was raining so hard we could barely see, we pulled over to some shelter. When the rain let up a little, I expected the students to offer to turn back, but they hopped back on their bikes and pressed on.

When we got to the village, we met the family we were to be helping, and one of the girls took us out to the grove. As we walked through the village, the girl pointed out to us that about half of the buildings were over 250 years old! When we got to the trees we would pick, we were all given scissors to cut the stems and a bag to put the fruit in.

It was still raining when we began, so it wasn't exactly pleasant standing in three inches of mud cutting cold, wet oranges. Cutting each one disturbed the entire trees' branches, which poured even more water onto us. After only about twenty minutes, I had filled four bags and I was told that we were leaving. When we got back to the village, amidst the confusion of everyone speaking Chinese, I was finally informed that you can't pick oranges in the rain because they'll all rot quickly if they're not stored dry. So it turned out that they couldn't keep any of the oranges we picked, but they didn't want to tell us we couldn't help after coming all that way. We then just paid for all the oranges we picked, and had to carry them home on our bikes. This meant that each of us had to carry about 5-10 pounds of oranges for an hour on our bikes!

The whole thing felt a bit anti-climatic to me to be honest. I felt bad that we went all that ways and couldn't really help. The whole situation was masked behind the wall of being spoken in Chinese, but it seemed like when we got there we found out that we weren't necessarily doing them a favor by picking the oranges, but it was just a fun thing to do. Although it was fun getting to pick the oranges, I was kind of let down that we weren't really helping anyone out.

We then somehow strapped over 50 pounds of oranges to about 10 bikes, and made our way home. The rain had finally stopped, but I was still completely soaked. The students took a lot of the oranges home, but as I got into a warm shower back at the school, I wondered what in the world we were going to do with 30 pounds of oranges.

Poor, Little, Beatiful Moths

For the most part, I leave the screened window to my room open at all times. I've never really understood how even if the window is sealed completely, bugs much larger than the little holes in the screen manage to squeeze their way into my room and dance around the ceiling light. Perhaps there's a few holes that have been ripped, or maybe they squeeze their way through cracks in the openings of the sides of the window. Nevertheless, these bugs are small, so I'm not extraordinarily surprised when they weasel their way in.

What does baffle me is that lately, enormous moths have made their way into my room while I'm sleeping. They'll actually wake me up due to their incessant beating of their wings against the walls of my room. (I don't know how they can be so loud!) They really are quite large, about four inches in wingspan.

So three times since I've been here, I've had to wake up to try to get rid of the moth somehow. I'll turn on the light, and see the most beautiful, colorful moth hopelessly lost in my room. I'll open the window and try to shoo them out. But for some reason, they absolutely will not go. I stumble around my room with newspaper, batting around trying to get it to be free, but after five or six minutes, I give up. I'll try go back to sleep, but it will keep slapping it's wings against the wall, keeping me up.

So I have to get up once more, and make a difficult decision. Do I try for another 10 minutes to get the moth out the window, or do I have to kill it? As it's come down to it, I've had to kill the moth two times. It's actually pretty sad. It's not like the gratitude you get from killing a parricidic mosquito or bothersome, ugly fly. It's the guilt of destroying something beautiful and harmless, like smashing a butterfly or snapping a cute little bunny's neck (sorry, Joe).