Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Bungee Jump

Last week I embarked on what was by no small margin the most terrifying experience of my life. We had gone with the advanced class students to a small Chinese amusement park that offered bungee jumping. Most of the day I had no hard feelings about the fact that I was going to skip out on this particular adventure. But as I looked up at that platform in the heavens, I felt the same kind of semi-reluctant feeling we felt that time in Thailand when my friend Euan and I saw a lady pushing a cart full of grasshoppers she was selling to eat. He just looked at me and said, "Looks like we don't have a choice here." It's just the kind of thing that you have to do if it comes along.


I know what you're thinking. Under usual circumstances, I probably would never go bungee jumping in America. And when you take into consideration that everything in this country tends to be thrice as shady as back home, it kind of seals the deal. But I did my homework. I asked around, and it turns out that this place had been around for a few years, and no one has heard of anyone dying. So I figured it was safe enough for me. Besides, it was only US $10, and I'll never have that opportunity again.

So I paid my money, got my blood pressure checked, pretended I could read the Chinese waiver they gave me, and did my best to explain to the lady that we use a different system of measuring our eyeglass prescriptions in America so I can't tell you what number my eyes are rated. (The fact that the US government allows me to drive without glasses wasn't cutting it for her. She needed a number.) Next, I got weighed to make sure my big American ass wouldn't snap the bungee cord. Then it was up into the elevator with the three of us: Jamie, (by far the coolest and craziest girl at the school), myself, and another Chinese guy.

By the time we got to the top, I realized for the first time that this might actually be scary. We were hundreds of feet up, the floor was mesh, and the railing was Chinese-height. I finally understood why this was much more scary than a roller coaster. In a roller coaster, you're strapped in and you don't have to move. A machine moves for you, so when you get to the top of that first hill, you don't have to think about whether you want to go down or not. The decision is made for you - there's no backing out. With bungee jumping, you have to stand there on the edge with nothing to hang onto, and just jump.

Jamie, being absolutely fearless, volunteered. "I'll go first! I'll go first!" "Who was I to argue?" I thought. The workers at the top then gave us a few minutes of instructions while Jamie translated for me. As soon as they finished, they pointed at me, pulled me close to them, and started to attach various hooks and carabiners to me. Jamie yelled good luck to me, and I was escorted to the edge.

And oh, what an edge it was. There it was. The whole world in front of me. I could see for miles. It was at that point that they started blasting "The Final Countdown" on the loudspeakers. I was too frightened to laugh hysterically at how funny this was. As I looked down, I knew that there was absolutely no way to convince my body to jump over the edge. My instincts were too finely trained to know that jumping from hundreds of feet in the air when you can't feel anything protecting you will kill you. My legs were shaking to the point that I was worried I'd lose my balance. At that time, I had already calculated the degree of embarrassment, self-dissatisfaction, and loss of money I would face when I backed out. "Sure, some people will make fun of me, and I'll have wasted $10. But that's not really that bad..." But by then, the worker had already said, "Okay, let's go." At least three times, and was already on number two of his countdown that started at five. Perhaps it was a wild streak in me, or perhaps it was the lifelong conditioning of my brain to know that when a countdown is over something is supposed to happen, but the next thing I knew, I had blinked and jumped simultaneously.

I'll be honest. The first two bounces were too terrifying to enjoy. It took until the third bounce or so to realize how awesome it had been. As enjoyed my remaining bounces and destroyed what was left of my vocal cords, they began to lower the hook. I attached it to my belt and they raised me up. When I got on the solid platform I almost kneeled down and kissed the mesh, but I was able to restrain myself. I watched Jamie jump fearlessly and without a care in the world into the abyss. Even once on sea level, it took me about thirty minutes for my hands to stop shaking.

Props to Eric for the camera work.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Me Fail English? That's Unpossible!

Disclaimer: This collection of amazing pictures were not taken by me. Special thanks to the team of college students who lent me these pictures.

Face a guest soil special product supermarket

No lingering (or jump roping for that matter).

This sign marks the area where you can play around nuclear material, or kneel down to smell your friend's armpit.

Inhale tube. Please don't hot drinks. (You may need to enlarge this one to see it).


Remember: Civilization is from every        thing.



Sorry, kids. Keep your tops on.

Language Observations

Although I hate to admit it because it makes me feel like I should know more than I do, I've been studying Mandarin for slightly more than a year and a half now. I've absolutely loved every second of it, and really hope I can continue my studies for a long time. One thing I've learned after living abroad in two different contexts is how it really is impossible to understand a culture without understanding the language of the people, and impossible to understand a language without understanding the culture of the people. I've really been able to see how interrelated these two are. Living here in China, with at least some understanding of the language, I feel so much more a part of the culture and people than I did in Hong Kong, where I embarrassingly learned less than 30 words in Cantonese.

In addition to all of the other rewards of learning a new language and using it on a daily basis, part of the the fun of learning a new language is all the colorful and cultural items you come across.

For example, food is a huge part of Chinese culture. Everything about society revolves around food. As such, it even leaks into slang vocabulary for insults. It seems that every insult in Chinese involves food in some way*. To call someone stupid, you don't just call them stupid, you call them a 'stupid egg'. (笨蛋). Someone who eats a lot, or is just not very smart is called a rice bucket (饭桶). Another one meaning 'newbie' or just 'stupid' is a 'vegetable bird' (菜鸟). To get fired is to 'have your squid fried' (炒鱿鱼). To tell someone that they're your good friend, you can tell them 'You're my dog meat' (你是我的狗肉).

Personally, my favorite idiom I've learned is used to describe when someone stands you up on a date. You can tell them they 'released your pigeons'. Not only does this bring up the most absurd mental picture, it also sounds really funny to say. (Nǐ fāng wǒde gēzǐ! / 你放我的鸽子!) A close second place however is an idiom for sexual harrassment. If you feel a guy has stepped over the line, you can yell 'You ate my tofu!' (你吃我的豆腐!)

Every Chinese character is made up of one or more parts, called radicals. Some of the radicals help give clues about how to pronounce the word, while others may give clues about the meaning. For example, the character meaning good (好) contains two parts. The part on the left means woman (女), and the part on the right means child (子). A woman and a child together is considered good, so you can see how the radicals can sometimes give the meaning to a character. This is all background to say that I can't remember which character it is right now, but my Chinese teacher showed me how the character for marriage consists of two parts. One of the radicals is the one meaning woman, which I mentioned above. The other radical means to become dizzy. So... Woman + Dizzy = Marriage.

On another note, A woman who is too vain is called a 'stinking beauty' (臭美). If two people are on a date and someone tags along and becomes a third wheel, he's considered a 'light bulb' (灯泡). To have 'Hong Kong feet' (香港腳 ) is to have smelly feet. (Unless you actually live in Hong Kong, then you say someone has 'Singapore feet'). Of course, everyone's favorite is when someone asks you how you're doing and you want to say you're just doing okay or so-so, you can say 'Horse, horse, tiger, tiger' (马马虎虎).

It's also considered cute to call your girlfriend a pig in a loving tone of voice. I can't imagine the culture shock a Chinese man would be in for if he didn't learn not to do this with his first girlfriend upon coming to America.

While we're on the subject, as a person possessing a fair amount of Jewish blood running through his veins, I would be remiss if I failed to point out a certain 'coincidence' of the Chinese language. The word in Mandarin for pig is spelled in Pinyin (the system for writing Chinese words with roman letters) as zhu, and is pronounced phonetically as jü, which sounds exactly the same as the word Jew. Coincidence? I think not.

*This idea was originally noted by ChinesePod.com.

Friday, June 01, 2007

I am a Racist

I have recently run across an extremely interesting project being done over the internet by Harvard called "Project Implicit". The project consists of a variety of tests designed to discover implicit or subconscious biases, attitudes, or preferences you may have about a certain people group.

The test I took examined your implicit preference of European Americans or African Americans. The test consisted of a two groups of words: Negative words such as failure, terrible, nasty, awful, etc., and positive words such as wonderful, happy, love, etc.. For the first section of the test, you must categorize each word as either good or bad by pressing the button corresponding to each word. (Good is on the left, bad is on the right). You must do the test as absolutely fast as you can, so it measures your automatic or implicit ideas. If you think about it too long, your data will not be accurate.

Next, the categories change. There are no longer words that you must categorize, but pictures of faces. The categories are not good/bad, but African American or European American. So you are shown a picture of an African American, and you are expected to press the button corresponding to African American. Simple enough, right?

The final section of the test is really where things get interesting. Both of the previous two tests are combined into one. The button on the left now stands for either good or African American, while the button on the right now stands for bad or European American. You're then shown either a word or a face and you must classify it accordingly. Later, they are switched so good is joined with European American and vice-versa. The idea is that (as a white person), it may subconsciously harder to associate positive words with African-Americans than European Americans.

When I finished I must admit, to my shock, I failed miserably. The pronouncement was "Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for European American compared to African American". I figured, "This can't be right." I took it again, but ended up with the same results.

I didn't want to believe it at first, but the more I thought about the study and methods used, the more I had to accept that it really did reveal some subconsciously buried things about how I view people.

I began to look around the site for more information. I was able to find a little consolation in the FAQ section of the study:

If my Black-White attitude IAT shows automatic White preference, does that mean that I'm prejudiced?

Answer: This is a very important question. Social psychologists use the word 'prejudiced' to describe people who endorse or approve of negative attitudes and discriminatory behavior toward various out-groups. Many people who show automatic White preference on the Black-White attitude IAT are not prejudiced by this definition. It is possible to show biases on the IAT that are not consciously endorsed, or are even contradictory to intentional attitudes and beliefs. People who hold egalitarian conscious attitudes in the face of automatic White preferences may able to function in non-prejudiced fashion partly by making active efforts to prevent their automatic White preference from producing discriminatory behavior. However, when they relax these active efforts, these non-prejudiced people may be likely to show discrimination in thought or behavior. The question of relation between implicit and explicit attitudes is of great interest to social psychologists, several of whom are doing research on that question for race-related attitudes.

This test has forced me to be completely honest with myself to discover that this description probably fits me very well. Most likely, I do have an "automatic White preference", but my "egalitarian conscious attitude" prevents me from "producing discriminating behavior".

The next question is, how do I change this automatic preference? Is it even possible?


I highly recommend taking the test. (Once you accept the disclaimer, choose the Race IAS near the middle of the page). It may very well tell you something you didn't know about yourself. Even if not, it will be interesting at the least.

Friday, May 18, 2007

五月五号 (Wu Yue, Wu Hao)

The blog has been a little quiet lately. In contrast to last semester, things have been extremely busy lately. "With what?" you may ask.

Last week I put together a Cinco de Mayo Fiesta for the students. While yes, this doesn't have anything to do with English, it is a big part of American culture. (In addition, it gives me an excuse to eat Mexican food.) So last time I was passing through Hong Kong, I was able to pick up some supplies. I slaved over a hot stove to create a quasi-Mexican meal of burritos and tacos with fresh homemade salsa, taco meat, refried beans, lettuce, chili peppers, etc. We even had tortilla chips to dip in the salsa.

Because if you don't go all out on something, it's not worth doing, I made a paper mache pinata for the evening. In honor of the year of the golden pig, I shaped it in the image of a cute little piggy. Because it was my first time with paper mache, and I wanted to make sure it wouldn't break after the first hit, I didn't know exactly how thick to make it. So I really coated that sucka' with quite a few layers. So much so, that when it was time to break it open, I had to cut slits in it with a knife in order for it to break open and release it's bounty inside.

All in all, I think everyone had a pretty good time. Originally, due to its unavailability, I assumed that Chinese people don't or wouldn't like Mexican food. (Most likely due to the cheese and fresh vegetables. Both of which do not appear anywhere in Chinese cuisine). But I was pleasantly surprised as everyone certainly seemed to enjoy the food. So now I've sold the idea of Mexican food to 16 people in China. Perhaps if I'm able to convince a few hundred million more, we could get a Mexican restaurant here...

The buffet

Jason rockin' some burrito action

Me and Ms. Piggy ( I made the paper mache part of the pig, but one of the other teachers made it pretty.)

Lenny smackin' the pig as the children are on the edges of their seats for the candy.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Poor, Beautiful Moths (Pt. 2)

Have you ever had to kill something beautiful? Or maybe you've hit a raccoon with your car, but only got it's leg and had to back over it again to put it out of it's misery.

Perhaps I'm being over dramatic, but it keeps happening. Every night, hundreds of bugs somehow weasel their way into my apartment. Included in this swarm of bugs are enormous moths. They're so big, I really have no idea how they sneak in with my windows closed. Because of their size, their wings constantly flap loudly against the ceilings, walls, or my face while I'm trying to sleep. I've tried, but I just cant fall asleep with these four-inch monsters swarming around my room.

The problem is, some of these moths are really quite a creation. It's just so hard to splatter something so beautiful all over the ceiling. Nevertheless, it's one of those unpleasantnesses that must be done. Check out this poor sucker:

Rest in peace, my love.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Chinglish on NPR

NPR did a great story last week about the crackdown on Chinglish Beijing is trying to do for the Olympics next year. It's a great story, and is right on with the situation all over China. You can listen to the story here.

They point out some really great common mistakes made here such as menu's misspelling 'carp' as 'crap', and 'Mouth Watering Chicken' as 'Saliva Chicken'. My favorite one that I hadn't heard of was the naming of a museum about China's national minorities as "Racist Park".

This is necessary for the development of the country, and is certainly a pride issue since so many foreigners have laughed to tears upon seeing some of these translations. However, I must admit that in a way I'm very sad to see them go. First of all, (quite selfishly) because I enjoy them so much. But second of all, it seems to me that so much is being done in Beijing to sweep things under the rug or whitewash problems, I feel that people coming to the Olympics will certainly not see this country the way it really is. I'm certainly all for the development of China (in a responsible manner) and a better life for its residents, but sometimes I wonder how much can fit under the bed when mom comes in to see if we've cleaned our room.

I Want My Coke, and I Want It Now.

I have made a startling, yet indisputable observation recently: Chinese people are clearly not as evolved as Americans. While some of you may be appalled that a seemingly innocuous blog has just made the leap into controversial subjects such as racial supremacy and the origins of the universe, I promise you I have proof. Chinese people's mouths have not evolved to the size of that of a (fully evolved) American's. In comparison, their mouths are considerably smaller.

The most obvious downside to this is the speed at which one can consume chemical-flavored sugar water from an aluminum can. While the American, with his highly evolved mouth, can drink at speeds reaching nearly 3oz/sec, the Chinese are still drinking at a paltry 1oz/sec. (Fig. A). That means they have to wait an average of three times as long to consume their favorite beverage!

(Fig. A)

They have no idea what they're missing.

Drinks Aftertaste

Nothing too special here. Just wanted to share some new signs and T-shirt with you.



Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Pregnant Woman Button

I took an overnight bus ride to Hong Kong last week. The bus is always a bit of an adventure since it's pretty crowded and you never know exactly what you're in for. You get a bed that's just wide enough for someone with a body size like mine to fit snugly between the metal bars of your bed on either side. There's three rows of beds in the bus, and they're stacked two beds high. It's a bit of hassle because everyone must take off their shoes and socks before getting on the bus. Fortunately, I've caught a bit of athletes foot and so I was able to stink up the entire bus with the lovely smell of my feet.

When you lie down in the bed, which is tilted at about a 25 degree angle, you have a good foot or two above your head before the bunk or ceiling above you starts. On this ceiling above you is a vent with broken controls that spews freezing cold air at you, two different light buttons which do not work, and a new, amazing 'mystery' button that I've never seen before. It was amazing. It was a picture, drawn in the man/woman toilet picture fashion of having a human silhouette created out of geometric shapes. But this one was different. It looked like either a very fat, or pregnant woman. Her torso was completely round, so it looked to me more like a pregnant woman than a fat one. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me so I couldn't take a picture. Thinking quickly, I grabbed one of my journals and did a quick sketch of what the button looked like so I wouldn't forget. Now that I'm back at my computer, I've tried using my extremely limited artistic abilities to recreate this button for you. I know it looks funny and distorted, but I assure you the real button on the bus looked extremely similar to this.


After sketching the picture and having a good chuckle to myself, my mind was flooded with curiosity. "What in the world could this button be?" Could it be a button for the bus attendant, like in a plane? If so, why was the woman in the picture fat? To be honest she wouldn't be able to fit down the claustrophobic aisles of the bus. The only thing I could come to the conclusion was that it was for if you were pregnant, and currently needed to give birth. You could press the button, and the bus driver would stop the bus, deliver your baby, and then continue. At this point, I couldn't resist the temptation to press the button to see what happened. I began to press it repeatedly. But alas, like every other button above me, it was to no avail. I was neither greeted with a perfectly round woman with a beverage nor someone to aid me birthing a child. I laid back down, disappointed, and tried to sleep.

Accompany the Kidney

I've been traveling the last week or so, and of course traveling means new places. New places means new signs, and new signs mean new hilarious Chinglish. A couple of these are from last semester, so they might be repeats if you happened to see the DVD when I was in the states. Nevertheless, here they are in all their glory:


Where exactly would you like me to accompany the kidney to?

I can actually read the Chinese on the one on the left. I think the translation should say 'Vegetarian food', but even still, it's not very descriptive. As for the 'Sea Kelp in Belting', I have no idea.


I believe to cook this dish, they first made vegetarian pasta (out of soy of course), and then extracted the intestines. Once again the Chinese isn't really helpful here either. The literal translation would be 'Noodle intestines'.

These two were found on the urinals of two different restrooms:




It's pretty amazing that the Chinese actually should say 'Please rinse out the sink after you throw up'. I should remind you that this was not at a bar, but a seafood restaurant. Perhaps they count on many people drinking the 130-proof 'baijiu' (rice alcohol) that's so popular in this country.



Mmm...I can always go for a nice heaping bowl of 'Giv-ling-goo'.


I have no idea why the English does not read 'Passion Fruit Coffee' and 'Ice Cream Coffee' as it should.






Don't eat here. Leermei's food is a sham.






This one's a bit hard to make out, but it says 'JAPAN honored guest bathefinland'


If you find as much strange pleasure in these signs as I do, I've recently discovered www.engrish.com. It's a collection of poor English signs from Japan, and contains hundreds more than I could ever hope to collect on my blog. (I have found that when these signs come from Japan they're called 'Engrish'.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fast Food

With spring coming, and mosquito season around the corner, I thought you might enjoy this little tidbit:

Someone just told me the other day that the reason Genghis Kahn and his men were able to move so quickly was that they never stopped to eat. They would ride on their horses for five days straight at a time. In order to have enough energy to keep going, they would take a straw and stick it into the back of the horses' neck. So any time they got hungry, they just slurped up the horses blood to keep going.

Mmm...

Thoughts From a Travel-Weary Brain at 30,000 Feet

My trip back home in January took from start to finish over 40 hours, and only included 2-3 hours of sleep. On the way back I was in a writing frenzy, but my brain was so spaced out that I didn't even remember I had written pages and pages on this journey until I found it in my notebook today. So here's a post from back in January:

I'm on my way to Chicago right now. I was somehow able to finagle a window seat on all four flights back home, so I am able to satisfy my child-like fascination with watching the entire world from thousands of feet in the air. (I just can't understand why someone would want an isle seat). You can probably tell that I'm still relatively new to flying, so I haven't gotten over the initial thrill of it. Something tells me it might not ever get old for me though.

One thing I absolutely love about flying is going through the clouds. This morning, the weather looks like hell below the clouds. It's rainy, foggy, and gray. But no matter how depressing the weather looks standing on the earth's surface, after you pass through the clouds it all disappears. Every day is sunny above the clouds. The sky is blue and it never rains. It's kind of hopeful in a way. The next time you look outside and feel depressed, you can remember that on the other side of those depressing clouds is a beautiful world.

The sun is just beginning to rise, but it's still very dark. Out in the darkness, I can see a few purple patches in the clouds where light is being absorbed from the city lights below. I remember back in the days in Fort Wayne before I went to college I would work late nights delivering pizzas. I worked in the suburbs, so some of the deliveries were pretty far out into the country. On cloudy nights, driving back to the city I would see the clouds in the distance glowing purple around where the city was. I'm not sure why, but I've always thought that this was beautiful. But now this is the first time I'm seeing it from above.

In a way, it kind of reminds me of my life. Six years ago, when I was delivering pizzas, I never dreamed that there was something on the other side of that purple glow. I had no idea of the potential my life had, or the places I would go. I was stuck in a very static world that consisted of little more than punk rock, trying to impress females, and The Thirty Minute Star Trek Hour. It was a very selfish and myopic world to say the least. Some of you might be able to recall a famous quote by me during this time:

"As far as I'm concerned, people who I've never met don't exist. There very well might be people living on the other side of the world, but as far as I'm concerned, if I haven't met them they're not real yet."

I'd like to think I've progressed a little bit in my world view.

I've been criticized, and rightly so, by some of my friends that say I'm too hard on people or expect to much from people. Many times, if I am not careful, I will act rude to them if they don't pass my standard of 'enlightenment'. I've recognized that this is definitely a problem I have, but I've never really understood why I act this way. I think perhaps I've finally realized that this angst and frustration I feel towards people like this is really my hatred and embarrassment of the person I used to be. I hate to see anyone as ignorant as I was.

But as I'm looking down at the clouds, I can almost see myself six years ago sitting in my car on the other side. I had no idea about life on the other side because I was blinded by ignorance and fear. But now I feel free of these things, and it's as if the floodgates are open. There is such a feeling of freedom, hope, and potential for the future that I never thought was possible. The only limit is your fears.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Walls are Sweating

People have always been puzzled by my love of winter. But really, I absolutely adore the cold and can hardly stand the heat. This is most likely because I start sweating like Roger Ebert as soon as the temperature gets over 70 degrees. But besides the beautiful snow and not being covered in sweat, I realized when I was back in America last month another reason why I love winter so much: It's not cold indoors.

This might not be quite a shock to you, but it's in sharp contrast of winter here. It doesn't get nearly as cold here as it does in Indiana. December through February is winter here and temperatures are from 40-60 degrees. The difference is that the temperature is the same both indoors and outdoors.

Luckily my 'permanent sweater' (as Cat used to refer to it) or my 'massive amounts of gorilla-like body hair' (as some of my friends in Fort Wayne would refer to it) keeps me about five to ten degrees warmer than most, but the vast majority of people here resort to wearing winter coats, hats, and gloves indoors during the winter.

That being said, most of the teachers' apartments have small heaters in them, but this is very unusual. In order to not isolate myself too far from the normal living conditions of most people here, I refrained from using my heater for the majority of the winter. However, a couple weeks before I left last semester I was sick of being constantly cold. My hands hadn't felt warm in months. So I decided to turn on the heater. As it turns out, it was broken and only blew cold air.

Now that I've been back, the weather here has been moderately warm and the air is extremely humid. The school building that I live in tends to keep its temperature for a long time, so indoors it's still very cool. So the cool building mixed with the warm, humid air creates condensation on everything. Right now, everything is wet. The walls are sweating are the floors are soaked. This table I'm sitting at is damp, and when I climb into bed this evening, the covers will be cold and wet. I've been told the dampness will continue for about two months, but will be joined in a couple days by perpetual rain.

I certainly hope this talk about the weather here doesn't sound like complaining. To be honest, it doesn't bother me that much, and I'm just taking it for what it is. In a couple months when I can't lift the pen off my desk without sweating a gallon, then you'll hear me complaining.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Approximately Four Ounces Lighter on Top

What's the longest consecutive time someone has washed your hair for? I just broke the 10 minute mark yesterday, and my scalp is still a little sore.

Just after a few days here, I have come to a sad realization that the humid air here has left my dreams of long, luxurious, rock star hair looking curly, unmanageable, and Nathan Lesser-esque. So I hung my head, faced reality, and headed to the barber shop.

I let my hair grow last semester partly because I didn't know when I'd have a job that I could look however I liked at, but partly because of anxiety of trying to explain to the barber in another language what I wanted my hair to look like. I brought a friend to help translate, but when he explained to the barber what I wanted, it turned out I knew how to say everything he interpreted for me.

When we walked in, there were about six workers sitting around the shop, waiting. When I told them I wanted a haircut, they said the person who cuts the hair isn't here right now, but they could start washing my hair. So one of the guys wets my hair down, and then goes to work with the shampoo. He starts raking my hair back into foamy rows with his fingers. He keeps raking and scrubbing my hair back until all the suds are at the back of my head. He would then grab a handful of the suds, slam it on the top of my head, then start raking it back again.

This continued for a while. So much longer than I could have dreamed was necessary. So long it was comical. It felt good at first, but about half-way through, my scalp began to hurt a little. As a man who will most certainly be bald or at least quite thin in just a few years, his scrubbing began to worry me a bit. I started to wonder if this length of time was normal. I thought about telling him we can be done, but I started laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing, and wanted to see how long he would keep going.

He finally did stop, and asked me to go to the sink to rinse off. This is when he sat down, and another one of the girls got up to rinse my hair off. It turns out, his job was only the beginning scrub, and the girl's job was the rinse. The man who would cut my hair arrived and cut my hair about an inch shorter than I expected. When he finished, yet another man stood up to do the post-cut wash. Lastly, a different woman rinsed my hair off. While she rinsed my hair, I was laughing out loud at the fact that it took five people to cut my hair!

This kind of thing in this country isn't really all that new to be honest. They didn't have five people cutting my hair because of the super efficiency of an assembly line style barber shop. It's really that there's just so many people here in this country. For example, the first time I went to Beijing, it made me very uncomfortable that when you go to a restaurant, you have your own personal waiter. They seat you, hand you the menu, and then just stand there. They watch you look over the menu. I was with Cat at the time, who I've always impatiently thought had always had a chronic difficulty in making decisions on menu items, so I was squirming in my seat as the woman just stood there patiently as Cat poured over the menu. When we asked her to come back in a few minutes, she just smiled and stayed. After you order, they don't stand at your table anymore. They stand a few feet back, maybe between two or three tables. It's less common in our city here, but it still makes me very uncomfortable.

The concept of overpopulation really reaches into more aspects of life than you would initially guess. The concept about employment is simple. Hire them all but pay them little, thereby eliminating unemployment. But the longer I stay here, you see how it affects attitudes and world views. At this point, I still don't feel like I have enough understanding in the matter to fully describe these attitudes and world views without making blanket statements or being unintentionally offensive, so I won't go into detail about them now. But it does remind me how difficult it is to see things in the same way as someone who has lived here their entire life and knows nothing outside of this place. It's so easy to unfairly judge based on my own culture and circumstances without ever putting myself in their shoes.

Quick News Item

Just a couple things about this blog:

1. I've arrived here safely, so all you mom-like people out there can stop worrying.

2. I've opened the comments section up on this blog. Please feel free to respond, comment, or write anything you'd like here. I'd love to hear from you!

3. After spending a little time in America on computers that were not my own, I noticed that when I view my blog on most people's computers, the Chinese characters come up as ????? or fun little empty boxes. This is because you do not have Asian fonts installed on your computer. If the aesthetics of this is really bothering you, you can change it in 'Control Panel', but you'll need to insert the Windows disc, so it may not be worth it. You'll just have to deal with the ugliness. (I know the world's a pretty ugly place, so I hate to add to it.)

4. My apologies for not posting more often. As this place has become less 'new' and 'exciting', the observations and stories flow more slowly. But really it's probably just laziness. I'll try to pick up the pace.

later

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Follow-Up

I was listening to the Ricky Gervais podcast the other day, when I realized that Mr. Karl Pilkington had asked the same question as our friend at my brothers' place. About people in Africa living in the village, he asked if they wanted to live like that. In response, Ricky Gervais exploded at him (as usual) saying that "They're not the Amish!"

There's two things I want to point out here. First of all, that I have to come clean of the fact that I subconsciously ripped off Ricky Gervais, so I need to cite my source as to not plagiarize.

The second point, which is far more amusing and important, is that a real human being said the exact phrase that Karl Pilkington said. If you're familiar with who Karl Pilkington is, I think we can agree that nothing more needs to be said.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Poor people? Throw 'em to the lions, I say.

Please allow me to go on a brief tirade. Don’t get me wrong, as much crap as give America, I recognize that every place has its faults, and I try not to romanticize that other countries are necessarily the pinnacle of enlightenment. But since I got back from Hong Kong a couple years ago, I begun to realize how incredibly insular, myopic, and sheltered so many Americans are.

Two examples of this in the past week come to mind. Last night, I was at IHOP with my friend Chad at about 3 in the morning. Chad, an avid tattoo enthusiast, was asking a little about tattoos in China. After talking for a bit about it, I mentioned that I really would never recommend getting a tattoo in China. Something about the horribly unsanitary conditions of a developing country and a huge AIDS epidemic there.

At that sentence, the girl in the booth behind me swiveled around and jumped into the conversation. She was in her late 20s and had a tattoo on her neck that looked like a smudge of green ink wiped onto her skin by the tattoo artist’s butt cheek. “Really?” She said. “Getting tattooed in China is a hell of a lot better than here.” She went on to tell me about how they in fact did not have a problem with sanitation or AIDS in the country. It’s actually a lot more sanitary there.

She then continued to tell me a story about Eastern Asia with severely skewed geographic information. Her stories were peppered with all kinds of hilariously inaccurate facts about China, but they included something to the effect of Vietnam being far west of Laos, and that her boyfriend was going to start building roads there because all their roads are made of dirt.

I was taken back a bit by her comments, but I didn’t feel like getting much into it. I asked if she’d ever been to China. “No…but I had a Chinese boyfriend once.” I was probably more rude than I should have been as I just laughed a little as I turned around and said, “This world you speak of sounds interesting. I’d love to visit it someday.”

While that conversation was merely annoying, this next one is simply unbelievable. I was visiting my brothers’ place last week, when they had another visitor stop by. Evidently neither of my brothers knew him very well, but he had done some pretty hard drugs and needed a place to come down for a little while. So he ended up as an incredibly awkward third wheel in the conversation the whole night.

His comments throughout the night were annoying, but the night reached it’s climax when we were talking about the issue of income inequality in China. In the middle of a serious conversation on the vast majority of the country who live in poverty, he jumps in with an amazing question. “Yeah…but…aren’t these people just poor because they want to be. I mean, like they don’t want to be a part of society with technology and that stuff.” Jaws dropped all around the room. As much as I wondered if answering the question would even do any good for this guy, I decided to do it anyway. I tried to explain, “These people are not the Amish. They’re not rebelling against things like food, warm shelter, medicine, and clean water because they have some ideological differences with society. Really, they’d just like to stay alive.”

I hoped this conversation was over, but he countered with perhaps the most shamefully ignorant statement I’ve ever heard. “Yeah, but I mean, these people really brought it on themselves. It’s their fault they’re so poor, you know?” We were stunned. None of us knew how to reply. After grasping for every ounce of patience within me, I politely said to him, “You know, you’re really going to have a lot more understanding before you make comments like that.” I went on to try to explain to him the reality of the situation, but more than likely, the effort was futile.

This whole situation just made me think about perspectives. How could someone be so confused to believe that the reason why 2/3 of the world lives in poverty is because either they want to live that way, or because it’s their own fault? Sometimes when I come down hard on the people in this country I wonder if there’s any other country in the world that is so comfortable, powerful, and isolated from the idea of poverty that someone could honestly believe this.

I just imagined what their reaction would be if one of my students, who was born in the village to farmer parents and had to work so hard for the little that they have, were sitting in that room when the comments were made. How would that make them feel? I can’t even imagine it.

Now, I say all this not to show how I 'set these people straight' or to display a 'better than thou' mentality, so I hope that isn't what is coming across here. What I am saying is that the second greatest commandment we were given is to love our neighbor. But to really love your neighbor, you must understand them. To do this, you must educate yourself and experience the world through someone else's eyes. At this point, I don't feel like we can simply preach about love, unless this love includes understanding.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Camping

(This is a a belated post, dating from about mid-November.)

The textbooks we use in our classes are generally pretty good. However, on occasion, they'll cover subjects that are completely foreign to most people living outside of North America. Worse than that is that sometimes the book tends to rub the students' noses in the huge income gap between Americans and the rest of the world. Given that 2/3 of the world do not enjoy a living standard anywhere close to the developed world, and that this 2/3 is most likely to want to learn English, it seems like a real slap in the face to the target audience of the book. Chapters that talk about how most Americans own at least two cars per family, or when the Americans in the video are complaining about their 'small, dirty apartment' and the students are living in a much, much smaller and not as nice apartment, I kind of squirm in my seat a little bit.

Luckily, this cultural difference I'm speaking of didn't directly have to do with income inequality. The chapter we were talking about was "Camping". So I began class by asking, "How many of you have been camping before?" They understood the question, but puzzled faces were aimed at me, and all hands were left on desks. I moved on. "Okay...how many of you would like to go camping." Not a hand moved. My students looked at me like they thought I was crazy. When I asked, they couldn't think of a single reason why someone would go camping. It seemed like the most pointless thing they could imagine.

We joked around about this in class, and laughed our way through the rest of the lesson, begging them to pretend that camping would be fun. It was only a couple months later when we tried to speculate why our students had no interest in camping. It finally dawned on us why. Many of our students' parents are farmers. As such, they live on a farm in the middle of the countryside. They live in a very small, almost tent-like building in the middle of the beautiful nature. The food they eat is fresh food cooked over a campfire. So why in the world would they want to buy a tent, walk into their front yard, cook their food as normal, and sleep in their tent? It all suddenly made sense.

Nevertheless, it came to the ears of my fun-loving Mandarin teacher, Geoff, that I enjoyed camping and usually went at least once a year. Unlike my students, he was intrigued at the idea and wanted to go camping with me sometime.

So the great thing about living in Southern China in the winter is that around mid-November, Geoff, myself, and Andy (who had been a teacher at the school a few years ago, but had come back to visit) picked up a couple tents and went camping after class one day.

We got on our bikes and started riding. The beautiful thing about the town we live in, is that after only about five minutes on a bike, you can be in the middle of the countryside without ever knowing there is a city nearby. It was about a 45 minute ride through the countryside, by the side of the mountains, through the rice fields. Geoff took me a way he had taken me one way before on the bike ride I wrote about a few months ago, but I could never find it again on my own. It was a small trail that left the main road, and went through a small village to end up by the river.

(I've described this scene in a blog entry the last time Geoff and I went on a bike ride here, but I'm going to do it again for those who haven't heard the story. If you'd like, feel free to skip down a few paragraphs.) The river was beautiful. To cross it, we had to go on this bridge that was maybe a little larger than a meter wide. We started to cross, but then stopped in the middle of the bridge. It's still my favorite view in all of China that I've seen so far. The bridge is so narrow, it feels like you're almost floating on top of the water. As you bring your eyes up, you see the beautiful river snake through the scenery, above that is flat rice fields in all directions for about a half mile, above that is the mountains in every direction with the sun slowly setting above them.

To our left, on the riverbank was a farmer's restaurant. A farmer's restaurant is much what it sounds like. It's usually just in the middle of a village or the side of the river, very small, and very simple. This one consisted of a small tent, and three rafts that were floating on the banks of the river. The tent was the kitchen, which was really just a stove or a fire with a wok on it, and a big cutting board. Each of the rafts were covered, and had a small table in the middle of them for people to sit at. As we looked at the restaurant from the bridge, we saw some people who had finished their meal and decided to jump into the river from their rafts for a swim.

The three of us went down to the restaurant to eat dinner. There's no menu at these restaurants, and just one person who works there. He's just a local farmer, and we're assuming he probably can't speak Mandarin very well, only the local dialect, so we're lucky to have Geoff along with us. Geoff walks into the tent and asks him what he has today as Andy and I sit down on one of the rafts. We end up eating a whole chicken and some green vegetables which I was told are the above-ground part of a sweet potato. Like last time, the meal was incredible, and so cheap it was almost criminal.

We then decided we should probably set up our campsite before it gets too much darker. I had been wondering for some time where Geoff was going to take us to set up camp. I knew there weren't campsites (obviously), and no real woods or wilderness in the area. So when I asked, he said, "We'll just set up in the middle of this rice field here." "Isn't that someone's property? Won't they care that we're setting up on it, and building a fire in the middle of their land?" He replied, "No, of course not! Why would they?"

I think that's when I realized another big cultural difference on how people view personal property. I envisioned camping in the middle of some farmer's field in America, and the farmer coming out with a shotgun yelling, "Git off mah properta, boy!" That simply wasn't the case here. (Actually, later in the year, Geoff and I went camping again in a different farmer's field, and they actually invited us into their home! We went inside to say hello, and they gave us a few pounds of tangerines to take home.)

So we set up our tents in the middle of the harvested rice fields. We hunted for wood for a while and started a fire. At around midnight we decided to walk back to the river and go for a swim. So the three of us got completely naked and jumped into the river at midnight in the middle of November. When I thought about what the weather must have been like in Indiana at the time, I just laughed as I jumped in.

After we had dried off, we went back to the campsite. We talked for a while, and Andy and Geoff taught me a couple Chinese songs. Here's when the night got a little creepy. As we were sitting around the fire, we noticed something reflecting light about thirty feet away. We couldn't tell what it was, but it wasn't moving as we got closer to it. When we got about ten feet away, we could finally tell that it was a small, frightened Chinese man. He was shaking a little bit, held an empty jar in one hand, and wore a bowl on his head. He looked a bit like a beggar. He wasn't moving or saying anything, just staring at us. Geoff started to ask him questions in the local dialect, but he wouldn't respond.

After a little while of this, Geoff said he thinks the man is mentally handicapped. "Can we give him some money and some food?" I asked. Geoff told me to go ahead and try. When I handed him the money and food, he slowly accepted them into his hands, but had a confused look on his face as if he didn't understand what either of them were. Geoff explained to me that they have no way of dealing with mentally handicapped people here. There's no institution to take care of them, and many times, families don't know what to do with them. So if the family doesn't take care of them, they just let them loose to wander. He said a lot of them don't understand the concept of money, so you can't even give them money either. This made sense with me as I had noticed that many of the homeless people in our town look so confused, they don't ask for money.

After a while more of Geoff asking him questions, the man responded very timidly. He lived in the nearby town. He had a family there, but they didn't take care of him. That was about we got out of him. We kept asking what he wanted, but he just didn't reply. We invited him to sit around the fire with us, but he wouldn't move. We went back to the fire eventually, but the man just watched us. When it came time to go to sleep, I asked Geoff what we should do. Geoff, more rudely than I would have liked, told the man to go home. But he didn't even blink.

When we went into our tents, he moved to the remaining embers of the fire and warmed himself. It made me sad that he didn't join us when we there. If I would have known he was cold, I would have wanted to do something about it. Likewise, it also made me sad that it seemed like he didn't know what to do with the food or money we gave him. When we asked him how we could help him, he just stared confused and scared at us. I wanted to help him so much, but there was just nothing I could do.

I woke up a couple times in the middle of the night, but the man was still awake, warming himself at the embers. Finally, a couple hours before we had woken up, he had fallen asleep next to the fire. When we woke up, he remained asleep while we packed up. I knew he had to have been hungry, but the food we had given him was still sitting next to him.

After we had packed up, we went on a bike ride in the opposite direction for a couple hours. On the way home, we had to come back again past our campsite. When we passed, we saw the man now sitting up, at the same place we left him. The food still sat next to him. I felt so helpless to help him.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Back in the U.S.S.A. (You don't know how lucky you are, boy.)

Hey friends. I apologize yet again for the lack of updates to the blog. From about mid-December until now, things have been pretty wild.

I returned to America on Monday. After an over 40 hour journey including a cancelled plane ticket and lost luggage, I feel a bit like Oddysseus to be overdramatic. As much as I miss China already, I'm so excited to see every one of you again.

So because there was no time to write in the past two months, I have a collection of belated stories I hope to add here in the next couple weeks.

In case I do not return to China next semester, I will probably continue using this site as a person blog, but may be updated less frequently (depending on the level of interest). I'll also be opening comments up (for security reasons, I could not allow this before.)

I'm looking forward to seeing you all soon.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Roofing

As long as we’re on the subject of outrages, I saw another violation of human decency today. I was walking behind the park today, when I passed a beautiful pond. The pond was large, and had beautiful lilies growing on it. In the distance above the pond was an amazing view of the mountains.

I then heard a splash right next to me. As I looked up, I saw a group of workers redoing the roof of a building that sat right next to the pond. They were ripping the old shingles off of the roof, but instead of throwing them into a dumpster, or even the ground to be picked up later, they were launching them into the pond! I had to do a double take. Surely, this was just one of them trying to be funny and just threw one shingle into the pond. But then there was another splash, and then another. Every last shingle of this roof, (and it was a big roof), was being thrown into the beautiful pond.

This outright disrespect for the environment, or even beauty in general nonetheless, made me furious. I wanted to run over there and yell at them to stop. However, when I pictured in my mind what it would look like for a crazy 老外 (foreigner) to yell at them in horribly broken Chinese to stop, I decided that it wouldn’t do any good. Even if a local person yelled at them, they wouldn’t stop, so I would just be making a fool out of myself.

I talked to Geoff later, and he agreed. “Can’t somebody do something?” I said. Geoff replied that first of all, no one cares, so nobody wants to do anything. He said even if they mayor were walking by, he’d probably say “It’s not my problem.” Even if the mayor did care, there’s are no laws against it.

“Can’t they fine them?”

“They’re poor farmers, they don’t have any money!”

“Can’t they make them clean it up?”

“They can…but no one cares. Listen: I care, you care. But we don’t matter here. The only thing the government cares about is money. If this isn’t hurting their wallet, they don’t care.”

“But if this place is dirty enough, no one will want to come! Then they’ll have no money!”

Geoff then turned and looked at me with a look that kind of summarized what we’ve been talking about for the past four months. If I could put this look into words it might say:

“Listen brother, I know just as well as you do what has been happening to my beautiful hometown these past ten years. They’re polluting the air, the streets, and the water. They’re building hotels in the middle of the rice fields and mountains. They’re digging into the mountains to steal rocks to build these hotels. They've brought in sleazy brothels to suit the rich, touring businessmen and foreigners that come through here. They’re taking the farmers’ land and paying them next to nothing so they can develop on it. I know and I care, but you just have to realize that we’re helpless here. This isn't America. You can't change it.”

I understood.

Return

For those of you who may not know, I will be returning to America in about two weeks. I'll fly into Detroit on the 22nd.

See you then.

$8 Divorce. Sign here, initial here.

A couple years ago, I ran into my old friend PJ on MySpace. For those of you who remember this friend, it truly was a great reunion. One thing I noticed as interesting was his name on MySpace. It read, "99 Dollar Divorce", and was also the name of his new music project. When I wrote him back, I asked him about this peculiar name.

"Please, PJ, tell me this is just a cynically clever band name you came up with and not an actual advertisement you saw or heard."

He wrote back, "As much as I'd love to tell you it was something I dreamed up, every morning when I lived in Chicago, I passed a huge billboard advertising this deal."

Naturally, this made me pretty sad as I wondered about the state of America.

It's been a little while since my outrage has reached the same point, but today it surely has. My Mandarin teacher (Geoff) and I were riding our bikes in the countryside this afternoon when he told me, "Do you remember that friend I introduced you to last month? He's getting a divorce this week. Did you know that divorce in (this city) only costs 65 kuai?"

"Sixty-Five Kuai!", I screamed. I absolutely could not believe it. (For those of you not familiar with the current value of Chinese money, divorce costs $8 USD in the city I live in in China.)

I had told Geoff before about the $99 divorce signs PJ had saw in Chicago. "Eight US dollars is certainly less than ninety-nine." He said through a laugh. "Although I am still thoroughly outraged," I said, "My concern wasn't about the price of the divorce in Chicago, but the luring manner and disrespect for the sanctity of marriage that the advertisement showed."

"I know", he said as we rode on and shook our heads in disbelief of the situations in both of our countries.