Sunday, September 21, 2008

living the surreal life.

five weeks in and my life is a dichotomy of normalcy and surrealism. things are settling down and, for the most part, it's just life. but then, every so often, i just have these moments when i stop and realize that i live in china, and no matter how hard i try, i just can't make it real.

it's the little things that get me:
  • choosing a restaurant and then realizing i have no way of ordering
  • washing tin bowls and chopsticks in the sunny yellow bathroom at school with the window wide open
  • women walking down the street wearing 3 different patterns that aren't even close to matching
  • the way my heart skips and i fear for my life or that of a pedestrian at least once every single time i ride in a motor vehicle
  • people selling loofahs and phone cards out of suitcases on the street
  • a grotesquely deformed beggar sitting on dirty cardboard on the street corner
  • eel for lunch - with the spine still attached
  • chicken feet and squid on a stick
  • an entire braised duck hanging in the window of a restaurant
  • umbrellas on sunny days and arm covers all the time (i think of them as shirtless sleeves) to avoid even the possibility of tanning through the smog
  • shower gel with herbal whitening essence
  • the frozen dumpling section at the grocery store
  • the dried meat aisle at the grocery store
  • ok, fine, the grocery store
  • walking down the incredibly crowded, sensory overloaded street to find both designer stores and hole-in-the-wall chinese businesses intermingling as far as the eye can see
  • flower boxes full of greenery lining the freeway
  • glancing into the open door of a construction sight to see 2 grown men standing naked in front of a tub of water while a third scrubs their clothes on the ground
i'm sure there are more. this list will probably grow throughout my time here, but for now it is a random sample of the uniquely chinese in my life. in the end, too, i realize that there is something very subtle about life and the culture here that i may never be able to express in words. it can't be summed up in any list of differences or customs. it just is and you can't really know it unless you've been here. my life here may never feel real, but that cultural understanding definitely does, which is just fine, because i think it's more important anyway.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

our bus driver pretty much wins...

i'm not exactly sure how, but this morning i managed to cut out quite a lot of little paper t-shirts while riding the bus. (and they look darn good, if i do say so myself.) this was a feat not even i predicted, and i'm pretty confident in my multi-tasking abilities. it's not that the ride is too short or that the kids are too needy, it's just that our bus driver is too ridiculous. the driving around here is a bit insane anyway, but he just takes it to a new level. to begin with, his chosen english name is Uncle. yes, uncle. and he answers to it. i've tried. add to that cut-off jean shorts, a tolerance, if not love, of kids and the desire to get to his next clients as quickly as possible and you have a recipe for an interesting ride.

he will do just about anything if it means arriving at our destination more quickly. you want to turn left onto a street with 2 lanes of stand-still traffic each way? no worries, just nudge your way in and assume they will move. construction forcing you to make a 5-minute loop in order to get to the apartment building entrance? it's ok, just go the wrong way down that one-way street. it's only a couple hundred yards. you started to take the wrong exit on the freeway? just back up and get on the right one, the cars behind you will move.

sadly, riding with uncle might be the highlight of my day. every taxi i have taken since the 2nd week of school has felt completely tame by comparison. which is saying something, because that first couple weeks they seemed insane.

of course, the enjoyment of the morning and afternoon bus rides is probably compounded by what little communication we are able to manage with our driver. he likes the kids, but i think he is glad he doesn't have to deal with them. you just know that if you look up when they start doing something ridiculous, there will be a great look waiting for you in the review mirror.

my favorites, though, are the morning assessments of our timeliness and the comraderie established when the adults are obviously having a bad day. we had a particularly stressful one a couple weeks ago and as we pulled into our apartment complex at the end of the day, uncle held out his pack of cigarettes to us, as in, "need one of these today?" we politely declined, but it makes me smile even now, just thinking about it.

so here's to you, uncle, for making my schooldays just a little bit brighter. you're a little crazy, but god knows i love you for it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

dinner with Ying Dong

so, we had a work dinner last week, which, considering this is a school, sounds pretty lame. but it turned out to be nothing that you would imagine. except that we are in china, so the unimaginable is exactly what you should expect.

the restaurant itself was...chinese. very very chinese. it was very well-lit, which is common for restaurants, and decorated to the nines in gold, white and pink. it felt like the slightly outdated decor of a very rich old woman's home had magnified itself and exploded all over the building. the place was covered with fake pink flowers, crystal-esque glass, and marble-esque pillars, all topped off by two large golden elephants greeting us as we went up the stairs. it was incredible, really.

we had our own room with a giant table and a waitress that seemed to just hang out by the counter in the corner, waiting for us to ask for something. but the interesting part wasn't the location. it was the company. i ended up sitting next to ying dong (the school's landlord, essentially) and the first thing he does when jenna and i sit down is ask the waitress for a knife and fork. when i refuse them, he holds up his chopsticks and quickly demonstrates their use. so i hold up mine to show him that i can handle it. (did i mention that he doesn't speak english?) thanks, but i've got this one covered. i have been successfully eating here for 2 weeks, i think i'll manage. i'm pretty sure it was all in fun, though.

he then resumes smoking his cigar. after which he lights a cigarette. and then another. and another. and another. all dinner long. i cannot believe how many this man smoked in 2 and a half hours. he went through almost 2 packs, plus a cigar or two. add that to the smoking powers of his 3 friends and we all smelled like a tobacco ad by the end of the night. the only problem would be the red, itchy eyes and sniffling. i think we have all recovered, but when i get lung cancer, i'm blaming ying dong.

amidst the chatting, smoking and waiting for the food to come, ying dong calls to the waitress and orders several tiny glasses and several bottles of baijiu, a chinese grain alcohol with a very high alcohol content. he then proceeds to hand them out to all of the teachers, while pouring himself and his friends large glasses. the returning teachers as well as josh, our boss, all look at him like he is crazy, assuring us that we don't have to drink it if we don't want to, as it is apparently pretty disgusting. so we leave our samples by our place settings and go back to the chatting.

it lasts about 2 seconds before someone performs a toast. apparently, the thing to do at these things is to make toasts to everything and nothing, at any point in the meal, with whomever you choose. sometimes the toast is just a sip, sometimes half the glass and sometimes the whole glass. the whole glass is definitely the favorite, though. of beer, not baijiu, which is lucky for us. although, i did try the little bit they gave me and i didn't think it was terrible. true, it made my mouth a bit numb, but there was a certain sweetness about it that i actually kind of liked. i don't ever need to drink a lot, but i think i've had worse. of course, as soon as i tried the little bit (i was the only american willing to try it), they got excited and wanted me to keep drinking it, which i declined as politely as i could. i'm not big on pouring poison down my throat.

i'm not really certain on the rules of toasting, but i don't think you are supposed to allow the table to go for more than 5 minutes without someone toasting someone. which means that a lot of beer drinking went down in 2 and a half hours. as in, several cases of 1L bottles' worth. one of the chinese men thoroughly enjoyed toasting to jenna with a hearty, "michigan!!," followed by downing a 4 ounce glass. i did my best to refrain from the beer drinking, since it really upsets my stomach (not to mention it is just gross). i still haven't figured out if this was the rudest thing i could have done or just unfun, but the chinese men seemed very disappointed when i insisted on toasting with corn juice.

yes, corn juice. juice (like grape or apple) made from corn. it was actually pretty good and made me kind of happy. i have a soft place in my heart for corn.

the rest of the food was also very good. we managed to cover quite a range of the animal kingdom: duck, ham, chicken, pork, beef, crab, shrimp, jellyfish and oysters; most with the skin and bones still attached. you have to be careful ordering fowl here - you will get much more of the bird than you ever wanted. same with shrimp. they leave all of the work to the consumer. there were also vegetables, dumplings, tortillas, liver and, of course, tofu. no rice or noodles, though. these are cheap fillers and not commonly eaten at classy dinners. my favorites were the dumplings (best we have had so far) and this beef dish that was unlike any beef i've ever had, but good. it was very flat and breaded in something very very pink (sweet and sour sauce?) and crunchy, then i think fried and covered with a sweet mayonaise. it sounds terrible, but it was really good. and the beef was actually decent, which is uncommon.

i think the best thing served at this particular meal, though, were the cucumbers. at some point, ying dong goes to the bathroom and comes back with two very long cucumbers, which he starts breaking into pieces and handing out to the other chinese men present. no one ever figured out exactly why.

the process of eating out here is very different and makes the whole thing feel more like a relaxed get-together with food than just a meal. food is brought out one or two at a time, as it is ready, and put on a lazy susan. then everyone just talks, grabs a little of whatever is new, talks a bit, grabs some more of this, talks, etc. it makes it a much more social gathering. and i love getting to try everything. the end of the meal is commonly signaled by a tray of watermelon slices for everyone, which i personally think is a great way to end a meal. with something sweet and refreshing. especially a meal filled with drinking, cross-cultural banter and heartfelt thanks.