Sunday, May 31, 2009

Am I too cautious about men?

In America, I was afraid of male strangers who started conversations with me in public places like bars, dance clubs, buses, coffee shops, and restaurants. They were strangers and so I didn't trust them. Plus in American culture, if a guy starts talking to you then it can often be assumed that they are trying to hit on you. I hate being hit on. I was very good at putting up a cold wall, deterring any strangers from talking to me. Also, in America I had a better intuition about the intentions of a stranger talking to me, an ability to tell the difference between a guy hitting on me versus a guy who is just being friendly, trying to make friendly small talk.

In China, I am still afraid of male strangers, but for different reasons:

1. language barrier
My limited language skills are not strong enough to really understand what is being said nor to infer what type of intentions the strangers have. As a trusting foreigner, it seems to me that strangers are really hospitable, offering free drink and food in an innocently, friendly, exchange for a special evening with foreigners.

2. me being in the dark about male female dynamics in Chinese culture
I know nothing about the dynamics between males and females in China. Do strangers hit on girls? What does it mean for a female to drink with male strangers? Is it all innocent fun? What assumptions do Chinese men have about foreign women? Is it strange for a 55 year old man to talk to young women?

3. I look Chinese
Because I look Chinese, the expectations and assumptions about me are probably different than for a woman who looks like she is from a foreign country. I don't know what these expectations or assumptions are. I can get into trouble assuming that people will treat me like the foreigner who gets special treatment.

4. cultural differences
In Africa many men were married or had a girlfriend. Many of them tried to catch a girl's attention, lots of cat calls and cheating on their spouses. I felt it was important to dress very conservatively and be seen as married, a coping method against all of the men who would have wanted me to be their wife/girlfriend. In China, I don't know what the cultural differences are; therefore, I don't know how to apply a coping method to what strangers may or may not be assuming or expecting from me. Is their offer of beer, food and conversation just friendliness? Or is there something behind their offer?

5. drinking
Many men drink a LOT and get drunk and loud. There are two very popular drinking games, a dice game, and a shouting match at guessing the correct number that is thrown out using hand signals. Even rock, paper, scissors is a drinking game. Losers drink beer out of a shot glass. I have seen so many fights and people yelling at each other. I have seen beer bottles smashed over each other's heads and blood pouring down faces and out of ears. Drunk strangers scare me.

In America I am wary of strangers who are men.

In China, I don't know what I should feel about strangers who are men. This uncertainty and non-cultural understanding on my part makes me super cautious and a party pooper who goes home early. I just don't trust myself in this culture that I do not understand yet. I feel a false sense of security. I feel Chinese men are non-aggressive, friendly, curious and hospitable when it comes to foreign women. But maybe there are unseen dangers that I am unaware of. Or maybe I am just letting my fears of American and African male strangers make wrong assumptions about male strangers in China. Maybe I am just an anxiety driven worrywart and shouldn't worry. Maybe I should just be socially friendly and accept men's kindness and hospitality.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Saturday Morning

At 6 am this morning I ran through empty streets while holding my breath every time I passed the dust cloud of street sweepers dressed in their orange vests and black mouth covers. I ran to our local park which has a 25 cent entry fee except in the mornings when it is free. Loud techno music was blaring from this park and elderly people were dancing. With my fingers in my ears I ran past them hoping for a more quiet moment in the park that has a large man made lake with pretty bridges and amusement park rides. As the techno music dimmed, I felt like I had entered a Disney wildlife adventure ride where speakers blare the sounds of the animals. But it wasn't speakers, it was 20 people exercising their vocal cords, loud shouts and extended notes very primal sounds.

After a 50 minute run I played a bit of basketball, but only played three games. 10 baskets win each game. Then I went to the back gate and got a bowl of red bean porridge with long deep fried bread that you dip into the porridge. I sat down and then a couple of students sat down with me, getting their morning breakfast before a 3.5 hour lecture on linguistics. It really is a pleasant way to spend a morning, joining in the community of early risers.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Endure Pain to Withdraw Money

Today I went on a 40 minute run around the city block, only one half of the whole city. I was looking for money. I passed two banks where there weren't any cash machines except inside. Only able to get money when the bank is open. So after 35 minutes of running in a drizzle, I found one of my bank's outdoor cash machines.

I pushed my card in and the machine shocked me, a low voltage murmur that ran through my arm to my elbow, nothing like the electric fences that my brother and I used to dare each other to touch. When I keyed in my password, no shock. When I pressed the yes buttons near the screen, shock shock shock. Boy, that bank really doesn't want you to have any of their money. But I think they have to up the voltage if they want to keep people from withdrawing cash. The desire for money was worth the pain of the shock treatment.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Must Have Quick Hands When Buying Veggies

Unlike the US where you take your vegetables and fruit to be weighed at the checkout counter, in China the checkout ladies ONLY scan and punch in numbers. They don't weigh anything. If you go up to the checkout counter with a bunch of bagged veggies without a scan label, you are out of luck and must return to the produce section where there is ONE lady weighing ALL of the vegetables that the HUGE population of Chinese people are eating. This lady stands at her electric weight machine punching in vegetable numbers. The machine spits out a sticker and she sticks it on your vegetable. Around this lady is a mass of 10-20 people all wanting to have their bags of vegetables weighed. There is NO order!

Follow this procedure when trying to get your veggies weighed:
1. Push your way through the crowd so that you are in a hands reach of the machine.
2. Have both hands free so you can put a vegetable on, and take a vegetable off.
3. Have quick hands and put your vegetable on the machine before the next person.
3. Don't get mad if someone has quicker hands than you.
4. Get ready to place your next vegetable on.
5. Continue until all of your vegetables have been weighed and priced.

Best of luck. Or just go to the grocery store during nap time when no one is trying to buy vegetables for lunch or dinner.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

This Moment's Breath

In a tall glass tumbler
steam rises
loose leaf tea leaves
in a trail of rustic sweetness
float their way
like the slow motion of a lava lamp
steeped to a rich red chestnut
a peaceful drink of patience
in the morning sunlight

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Flying by the seat of one's pants

I had an excellent lesson plan prepared for today's Audio, Watching, and Listening Class that takes place in a multi-media room where every two students get their own computer screen and earphones. I was going to show the movie Whale Rider and have the students think about leadership and gender.

The American bought disk would not play on the computer!

What did I do?
Send the students home early?

I ran to my apartment which is 2 minutes away and searched through my DVDs. I found The Namesake. As the movie was loading, I quickly thought of discussion questions asking about the difficulties of immigrating to America, of having parents who immigrated, and of having children who were American raised.

I think it was the quickest lesson plan I have ever prepared.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Healthy Living is Making Me Sick

Spring/Summer has arrived and I am feeling the desire to live a more healthy lifestyle after the months of winter cold. This week instead of eating out so much I started cooking more of my meals: more vegetables and fruit. I also have been running for the past couple of weeks about 4 days a week and doing kung fu twice a week. The sun rises early on this side of the globe. It is up by 5:30 am.

My tummy isn't very happy with the vegetables or fruit. In Africa I rarely had troubles with my bowels. I tried to find bleach today in the supermarket. I was directed to a bottle of liquid laundry detergent with a cute bear on it. I asked about bleach for washing vegetables and no one understood the concept.

I am not sure if I am sick because I am eating more fresh vegetables and fruit or if it is because I am eating dirty raw vegetables and fruit. I wish I had bleach.

My morning runs have been pleasant. Because I run in the early morning, I don't have to dodge cars when crossing streets and only have to watch out for the throngs of kids walking to school. I also have to watch out for odors. Every time I pass garbage cans or drains, I hold my breath. Sometimes I smell something pleasant like a strong whiff of cooking garlic or smells that remind me of travelling in Africa, the exhaust of big trucks.

I haven't been able to blog lately because China is blocking blogs and I am trying to post via a proxy.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Improve Chinese by Saturday Morning Cartoons

Back during Peace Corps training in Chengdu, I remember being excited about understanding a lot of the Chinese dialogue while watching a cartoon for 5-7 year old kids about a little boy and his parents.

Watching Chinese cartoons for children is probably an excellent way to improve one's listening skills and if you watch it with a language tutor probably will help improve one's vocabulary. I would love to watch fantasy and science fiction cartoons; however, the vocabulary and the situations the characters get into are too alien from Chinese used in everyday life. My language skills are not to that level yet. I am still working on being able to express my life story, dreams, and opinions in Chinese in a fluid way.

I am looking for Chinese cartoons for children that have everyday life situations. I would love to find the cartoon about the little boy and his two parents that I watched in Chengdu. Do you have any suggestions? I found this 大头儿子小头爸爸 cartoon. It is nice for language class because it is a 7 minute show.

When will summer vacation start?

I have teacheritis kind of like senioritis where as the ending of the school year approaches the less motivated people are to work. This is not the time to be having a motivational problem since I might still have at least 7 more weeks of school; although, my 8 hours of senior classes is rumored to be coming to an end in about 3-4 weeks. It will leave me with 4 hours of freshmen classes till the end of the semester.

As an American one would assume that there is a written out schedule for when finals will be and when graduation is, but here in China schedules come out a few days before the event.

The school wants me to have the final for the seniors written by next week; however, I have no idea when I will stop teaching which means I have no idea how many more literary works we will be studying. Because of this semester's chaotic schedule with the seniors I have only actually taught them about a total of 5 lessons in the past 4 months. How many more lessons will I teach?

One must learn to give up the idea of planning ahead and one must learn to expect the unexpected. These ideas are not only important lessons used during work but also for play.

We often learn maybe a couple days before a holiday that we will get a three day weekend. It makes it hard to plan trips.

I have no idea when anything ends or starts. This is probably one of the reasons contributing to my teacheritis. There is no end date in sight. It is impossible to start a countdown of when my summer vacation begins.

It is unsettling and because I am unmotivated to work I kind of wish that next Wednesday someone will inform me that we have a four day weekend next week; although, our school has restricted our travels. We are not allowed to leave our site because of the two cases of H1N1 flu in China.

What can I do as my heart feels impatient for the summer vacation to start? Take each day as it comes and don't think about summer vacation.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Is it time to grow up?

I have never held a high paying job preferring living new experiences than making a lot of money. After finishing my PhD in physical chemistry and biomaterials, I spent a year doing minimum wage jobs in construction, in the bakery of a grocery store and in home health care. Then I did Peace Corps Africa. I am still in Peace Corps, still a volunteer, except now I am living in China.

I have never made money.

I have gained a lot of skills and experience in the past 10 years and I have learned that I don't want to work in a lab nor do I want to be a teacher unless I am living in an interesting place where I am not working 40 hours a week. My priorities are having time and living in a place I love. My priorities are not money or security.

However, it is expensive to die especially if you reach retirement age. Is it time to grow up? Up until now I have lived with the philosophy, "Work to meet one's basic necessities." Must I leave my philosophy to the wayside?

Should I adopt a new philosophy? "Work so I can pay for my death"

If I have to start working to make more than a volunteer's monthly allowance, what type of work should I do?

Clothes Shopping and Tailors

I really hate shopping for clothes in China. There are several reasons:

  1. I have to change my fashion taste of simple cuts and single colors for rhinestones, shiny decals, ruffles, lace, bright colored floral and geometric patterns, and jewel like buttons.
  2. Finding clothes that fit my broad shoulders can be frustrating.
  3. Knowing when and if to bargain makes my heart flutter with worry. I really hate bargaining.

My success with tailors?

Well I have had three pieces of clothing copied from clothes that I had tailored made in Africa.

Two of the three were not copied perfectly.

Because I like wearing my pants at my hips rather than around my belly button, the tailor wasn't sure what to do with the crotch and I have a nice pair of warm winter pants whose crotch is too low. Those pants cost 90 RMB.

I had a dress copied. The armholes were way too big such that you can see my bra and rather than being a tightly fitting dress it is more like a nightgown. Hopefully, tomorrow they will fix it. It cost 100 RMB.

I had another pair of pants copied which were copied perfectly. They cost 100 RMB

I want to get a western style sundress made from a picture I found on the internet; however, I am a bit worried. Maybe I should stick with the styles that the tailors are familiar with like a button down form fitting collared shirt.

I accompanied a friend to an expensive tailor who is making her a Tang dress, a traditional Chinese dress. I think they are very pretty; however, I am not sure when and where I would wear one. They are really formal and expensive. Her dress cost 255 RMB.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Who are my friends? students or teachers?

What is the role and friendship life of a foreign teacher in China like?

I believe the life and role of a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in China is unique and cannot really be compared to being a Chinese teacher or a teacher in the USA.

Many volunteers become very close to their students, inviting their students to dinner and to their homes, doing activities like sports, KTV (karaoke), hikes, watching movies, and some even go out and drink with their students. This is unique. One of our Peace Corps goals is to promote a better understanding of Americans while learning about another culture. What better way to do this than through students.

In America do you ever remember socializing with your teachers when you were an undergraduate student in college? Do you ever remember your teachers offering extra-curricular activities for you to join? Professors were busy and had their own lives. Their job was to teach in the classroom and offer office hours. Their life was not the campus.

One might argue that maybe China is different than America. Maybe in China, students socialize with their teachers. How many students actually socialize with their Chinese teachers? In my observations, very few.

In China, as a foreigner our lives revolve around the campus and the students. We offer extra-extracurricular activities. We participate in English corners. We run clubs and throw cultural learning parties. We show movies. We are not like American teachers nor are we like Chinese teachers. We are unique additions to a Chinese college campus.

In China, it is easy to make friends with students. They are eager to practice their English as well as eager to learn about another culture. They find foreigners easy going and available to do social activities with. Friendship with students makes sense. As a foreigner entering into a new community we have no friends and can't really speak Chinese well enough to make intellectually engaging friends with non English speakers. Therefore, the best people to make friends with are students and fellow teachers.

However, many volunteers find teachers not to be very friendly. Volunteers more often have students as friends than fellow teachers. Why is this? Are the teachers afraid of the foreigners? Shouldn't the teachers make an effort to become friends with a foreigner? In my opinion the reason, I haven't made many friends who are teachers is because well, teachers are busy. They teach 15-18 hours a week. They have families with whom they have to spend time with. They have lessons to plan. They have other responsibilities. They have their set of friends. Plus just because I am the foreigner doesn't mean we will get along. How do we know our personalities will match?

Anyways, it is not a requirement to be friends with fellow co-workers. But then one may wonder why isn't there more of an open dialogue or social friendliness between co-workers. Why do we rarely ever say hello or have a conversation with our co-workers when we meet in the hallway? It is like there is a foreigner group of teachers and a Chinese group of teachers and they don't mix. Well one reason we don't mix is because we don't go to the teacher meetings. Thank goodness. I would not enjoy sitting through hours of Chinese twice a month. And there isn't really a place for teachers to congregate and just chat. People go to their classrooms, to the office, and home again. We just don't cross paths.

Playing basketball with the women of the English department, I believe will open doors to become more social with teachers who have families. It is hard making friends with people who have families. Even in America, I knew very few people who were married with children. As a single woman, I make friends with other non-married people. Mothers make friends with mothers because they tend to have something in common to talk about, their children. In China where most people are married by the time they are 25, can you imagine the chasm that I have to cross to make friends with non-students?

In Africa, I learned the best way to start becoming friends with a community was to leave my hut. Go sit under a public tree for an hour. I believe this lesson is also good for China. Instead of just staying in the apartment, of doing errands, of having specific planned social outings, I need to go somewhere regularly within my community for an hour.

This advice has been proven true by the fact that by regularly exercising in the mornings on the playground, I run into people who I recognize but never had a conversation with. They recognize me as the foreigner basketball player and we start a conversation.

Being a teacher and a friend with students is not the only role of a volunteer. Another role is to try to make a connection with people of different generations. This is more challenging, but is possible. Sometimes instead of waiting for someone to make the first move, I have to do it. I have to invite teachers out for dinner or to play badminton. Maybe they will be able to fit me into their busy schedules of responsibilities and desire to spend time with their children.

Of course, I am quite happy and with the friendships I have formed with students; however, seeing the lifestyles of families and single teachers would also be quite interesting.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A non-fuzzy peach

I bit into a peach and was shocked. It had a smooth skin. It wasn't fuzzy. I thought to myself, "I haven't ever eaten a peach that wasn't fuzzy. How strange." Then I realized, oh it's a nectarine. It has been at least 3 years since I have eaten a nectarine. I had forgotten about that type of fruit.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Perfect Living Situation: Give me two dorm rooms

This past weekend, my sitemate and I were invited on a bike ride and dinner in a teacher's dorm room.

I loved the living setup! It was perfect, simple and just enough space.

The teachers' dormitory is a building 5 stories high. The hallways are lined with doors that open up into a room with a concrete floor and big windows. There are doors off the hallway that lead to community sinks and bathrooms. I didn't see the showers, but I would suspect you have to go to another building to pay for a shower.

This particular teacher had two unconnected rooms. She used one as a bedroom/office and the other as a kitchen and dining area which she shared with other teachers.

It is the perfect setup. You have your own private space and then have a community kitchen and dining area. You get both privacy and the opportunity to meet people and form a network of cooking buddies, sports fanatics, and conversational friends.

However, I don't think I would enjoy this setup in the USA. Why? Well in the states, the individualistic society makes it difficult to form a community. For some reason, people like their space and usually meet people out on town to socialize. People create distance between themselves even if it is their next door neighbor. How many people do you know in your apartment complex or neighborhood? How many people do you know who start conversations with someone on the bus?

I remember a friend living in a shared apartment where each person had their own locked room. There was a communal kitchen and two bathrooms. Everyone went into their rooms and locked themselves in. No one talked or socialized. They were living in close proximity but a strong wall was put up.

In China, this wall is thin. People start talking to strangers on trains. They make small talk with store keepers. They exercise together. For example, tonight I saw about 50 older people all doing aerobics together in front of their apartment complex. Every morning, people walk to the hot water pipes to collect boiled water in kettles. In a place where most people walk to the supermarket, forming a tight knit community is easier than in a community of people driving around in their bubbles.

As an American from an individualistic society, I do cherish my privacy and am not lonely living alone which is difficult for people of a collective society to understand. I also, though, enjoy the benefits of living in a community oriented society. I also like the idea of shared community resources rather than having my own personal resources.

Hopefully some day in the future, I can live in my own dorm room in a community that is open to making friends rather than closing doors to strangers.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Bike Trip to a Local Lake

Friday was a holiday, May 1st, worker holiday. Caitlin and I planned on biking to Heshui, a 40-100 km distance, depending on who you talk to; however, the night before the weather had turned cold and windy. Who wants to bike an unknown distance in cold, against wind?

Instead we went on a short 2.5 hour bike ride exploring the countryside. We found this tiny neighborhood in the middle of farmland. We ate ice cream. One lucky girl got Caitlin's artificially flavored ice. We then headed back and fought an hour against wind, dust, and more wind.

When I got home, I received a text from a psychology teacher who I had just met the other night in the English library. It said, "Would you like to have a trip to the valley near the new campus by foot or by bicycle?"

I replied, "I am too tired today," but then we made plans to meet on Saturday for a bike trip and then lunch afterwards at her teacher dormitory.

In Spring, the landscape of Gansu is incredible. You will be riding along this flat road bordered by beautiful green farmland and then boom, you hit the edge of the plateau and wow. It is such a beautiful sight.
We biked to the edge and then started biking down the valley on a dirt road to find a lake.

On our way down, we collected veggies to cook.

Caitlin ground some grain.

Caitlin then wisely suggested that we park and lock our bikes. Who wants to push a bike up a mountain? We headed down by foot.
At the bottom we found motorcycles and a car owned by fishermen who had no luck today. We headed back up around noon and were treated to a lovely meal by the teachers.
It was such a lovely outing, very chill, good language practice, and plenty of exercise.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Knitting in China

The weather is warming up and I rarely wear my knitted socks anymore. Last fall I started learning how to knit socks out of need because the Chinese markets didn't sell any thick socks and my African sandal-adapted feet were freezing. But then Kyan sent me a care-package thankfully overdoing it with socks and now my cupboard is piled high with warm socks.

My students find it funny that I still wear somewhat thick socks as the weather is warming and I find it funny that they wear thin socks even when there is snow on the ground.

As the weather warms up, what shall I knit? Why socks of course. Next fall is fast approaching and it would be nice to be able to give socks as winter gifts. My hands like to always be in motion with a preference for no brain knitting. This is why I picked out The Classic Sock pattern from the book 2-at-a-time SOCKS by Melissa Morgan-Oakes.

My first pair turned out to be too narrow to fit over an ankle and therefore I changed them into fingerless gloves, a great suggestion by my sitemate.

My second pair fits perfect.

My third pair will again be maroon. I hope everyone likes maroon. I bought way too much yarn for my ribbed tank top.
I want to buy new yarn and to start new projects; however, I have so much leftover yarn from felting projects that I really need to use it up. The yarn I can buy in my city isn't very fancy. It is pretty uninteresting, basically wool and acrylic mixtures. It was really hard for me to find 100% wool that is feltable. I would hand the yarn merchant a note in Chinese asking for 100% wool. She would direct me to a wall of color. I went through 100's of RMB worth of 100% wool yarn that didn't felt for some reason. The yarn packaging in Chinese would say 96% wool + 4% + 10% something else. It was such a strange label for a scientist. That 14% something else doesn't felt.

I like felting projects. I have used up all of the wool that I bought in America during my Jan/Feb 2009 homeleave.