Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving, the Actual Celebration of

by Ruth

“I feel proud of us!” Laura said. “We pulled off a real Thanksgiving meal, just us kids.” We may not quite be kids anymore, but we certainly don’t feel we have reached the level of experienced adults - those people with china and silver and centerpieces. Nevertheless, it was a really good Thanksgiving.

There were thirteen of us in all, including a little baby who happily chewed on coasters while we ate Thanksgiving food. The rest were teachers from different cities in Shaanxi province plus Sherri, our “supervisor,” who is from a different province but loves us so much she just had to join in. Most of them arrived on Thursday evening and we spent the weekend laughing and playing games and cooking and eating and all those other things people do for fun.

Matt and Corrine, my teammates in Yangzhou, stayed with us and we had a happy reunion. About halfway through the visit I realized this would be the last time I’d see them for a really, really long time. They are moving back to Oregon in about a month. Three billion people notwithstanding, China will feel emptier without them. It’s so hard to see my friends in the States. They are all so spread out, and it doesn't help that we have to divide two months a year amongst everyone we know.

This weekend was great fun, though. After everyone arrived on Thursday night, we stayed up talking and laughing and telling funny/disturbing/embarrassing China stories until after 1am. The next night, we stayed up late playing Scattegories. Last night we were up til 2am having a movie marathon (Elf and Love Actually, after Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Family Man earlier in the day) In fact, I haven’t stayed up so late so consistently since college. I felt like a young, cool, fun person again. I also felt very tired.

We started a quote book to remember all the funny things people said, and by the end of our time we had pages of inside jokes. I would tell you some of them, but they wouldn't make a lot of sense. It was great to laugh so much. I don’t realize how much I miss that in daily life until I suddenly have it again. It was so great to be able hang out with people you can feel completely comfortable with and not worry about what you should say or if they will understand. It’s like having friends - the real life kind that are in your living room instead of ten thousand miles away. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Thursday we just taught classes all day, so our real Thanksgiving was on Saturday. Someone pointed out how well we had done with twelve people cooking different dishes in different houses, sharing two ovens and scrounging around for pans and counter space and nobody getting very stressed or fighting. When we finished, we had a table full of food. We opted out of turkey, since it’s hard to come by in China. Instead, we went for a chicken casserole and KFC. I put the KFC in a pretty bowl to make it look nicer, but Laura said, “We’re eating KFC at Thanksgiving. You’re really not going to be able to make that classy.” It was okay though. Kind of funny.

We filled up on two kinds of stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, various vegetables, a fruit salad, biscuits, and ratatouille. We had to wait for a few hours before we had room to dig into the pumpkin pie, walnut pie, cheesecake, and butterscotch cookies.

Sadly, I was disappointed by my famous sweet potatoes. People eating them for the first time said they were good, and they weren't bad. But they were not the "can’t wait to get a third helping, scraping the bottom of the pan fabulous" of past years. The sweet potatoes in this area are not that great. They aren’t as sweet, are hardly yellow at all, and have a denser texture, more like regular potatoes. They never got creamy like they were supposed to, and besides that, the brown sugar here is a little different. Since the recipe is about 1/3 sweet potatoes, 1/3 butter, and 1/3 brown sugar, those differences were rather noticeable. Fortunately, we did have butter for the recipe, after a little “butter scare” earlier in the week. We went to the supermarket and there was NO butter. How can you have Thanksgiving without butter? About ¾ of our dishes use butter. Fortunately, I found some at another store.

After eating, we sprawled out on couches and the floor in various levels of consciousness. We slept/watched “The Family Man,” then finally roused ourselves to sing some Christmas songs. We sang…with gusto and much laughing. I’m sure our neighbors heard and thought we were even crazier than usual.

Half of the teachers left on Saturday evening. I hugged the Hanings goodbye about five times and continued my moaning about how we would never see each other ever again. It was sad to watch people leave. When we come together, it is such an intense time. We don’t get to have the same kind of normal groups of friends and easy acquaintanceships. I felt like I needed to be talking to someone every minute of the day and laughing to make up for the rest of the semester and soaking in the community to store up for all the other times when it’s far away.

I forget how much I miss that feeling of community, of friendship, until I actually have it. That’s why it’s so intense. Intensely happy and satisfying, as I realize how great things are. Intensely sad at having to say goodbye to another good friend who I won’t see for months or years (now that I think of it, I’ve never had a friendship which doesn’t involve that kind of goodbye). And intensely poignant – that moment when you look around and realize how great everything is right now and that you’re about to lose it again.

Of course, I’ll hardly have time to think about that before we re-experience that crazy intense feeling at Thailand. This month is one of the busiest of the year, as we rush into the Christmas season, our final weeks of classes, final exams, and finishing up masters work. Kevin and I just started meeting with a Chinese tutor, and I am just starting to study with some girls, so almost every week night is booked. Students are asking for help with speeches, for visits to their dorm, and more or less inviting themselves over to visit us. “This is good,” I think, as I rush from one thing to the next. “But why do they always wait until the busiest time?” Before we know it, Christmas will be over, the semester will be over (at approximately the same time), and we’ll be heading to Thailand. By way of Malaysia and Cambodia.

Yeah, we have a good life. I missed my family, who were all home for Thanksgiving, and now I miss my friends, who have gone back to their own busyness, but to think – some people never even have those things to miss. Or just as bad, some people always have those things so they never get to really appreciate it. I guess the back and forth, give and take, hello and goodbye form of life is good for that. When you are laughing with friends or eating candy corns or flying to a new country, or when you are hugging friends goodbye or wishing for turkey or wishing you didn’t have to travel all the time, a part of you always remembers how lucky you are.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

by Ruth
I finally put up some new pictures on flickr! I hope they actually show up, because our internet is really slow and they had a hard time uploading. Most of them are pictures from our Yangzhou visit. So Anna, you can finally check that photo page and not be disappointed.

I had my students act out the story of the Pilgrims in groups with some very funny results. A few took quite a bit of creative liberty. One of the groups was discussing whether or not they wanted to go to America.
A: We are going to travel to America.
B: But it will be very difficult and we don't know what will happen.
C: Why don't we go to China instead?
A: Yeah, that's a good idea. Let's go.
So the Pilgrims ended up in China...

Some others went to America but were a little confused about the time period.
A: Look at those American girls! They are so fashionable. They must have some good shops here.

Some of the Native Americans and others of the Pilgrims introduced themselves as being from Weinan or Zhengzhou and said, "Let me tell you some things about Beijing. It is a very famous city with the Great Wall..." Hmmm.

It was funny though, and I was happy that they were creative. I have been feeling thankful for my students. Teachers in America would kill to have students like this.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why I should be an Advice Columnist

Two posts in one day! Man, you guys are really getting spoiled. Now if only I ever put up pictures anymore...
by Ruth

I have discovered that I LOVE giving advice. In fact, I think I like it too much. I used to be a great listener because I would just listen and not tell people what to do. Now I'm afraid I like giving advice so much that I might have lost my listening touch.

I especially like giving advice to students. I think it is so gratifying because 1) I am their teacher and therefore respected and 2) I am a foreigner and therefore cool and interesting, so they really pay attention to what I say. I'm gonna guess that 3/4 the time they don't actually follow my advice, but they still ask for it and want to know what I think. Also, a lot of times I feel like I am telling them something new that they haven't heard before. (Like, "No, eating an apple does not count as a meal and you're the second skinniest person I've ever seen so please stop this crazy dieting."

Each week one of the American teachers gives a culture lecture. This week was a little different; we worked together to do a Q&A time entitled "Your Questions about Life and Love." We split up the girls and the guys. There were only 2 guys, who went with Kevin (the English department is about 90% female), and the remaining fifty or so girls stayed with Christina and I. There were a lot less people than usual, but that was kind of nice...more intimate. We had students write down questions they wanted to ask and then we collected them and answered some.
There were some interesting questions. We skipped over the "how do I learn English better" questions and sorted out the rest. About 2/3 of them were related to love and dating and relationships.

I love giving relationship advice. And now that I've actually been in a relationship and am married, I feel slightly more qualified to do it. There were lots of questions like these (except with slightly poorer English)...
"How do I have time for love and study?"
"What do I do if I like a boy but he does not like me?"
"What do I do if a boy likes me but I don't like him?"
"I am dating a boy from my hometown but we are far apart. Do you think the relationship can work out?"
"How do I relate to boys?"
"Do you think the true love exists in reality?"

Some of them were particularly poignant...
"My boyfriend often beats me. He says he does it because he loves me. What should I do?"
"I don't have a boyfriend. Is it because I am not lovely?"
"I talk to a boy on the internet and maybe I like him, but we have never met. I am thinking maybe I will live with him instead of my parents."
"I feel very lonely. Should I find a boy to tell my feelings to?"
"There is a boy who has hurt me deeply in the past but now wants to be friends again. What should I do?"

Others were related to friendship...
"How do I make many people like me?"
"How do I overcome my shyness?"
"If I am angry with a friend, what should I do?"

Then there were some other interesting questions...
"I often have nightmares. I am threatened by them this year. Do you think something is wrong with my health?"
"I find I feel sad and terrible and fear, and I don't know how to find happy."
"I feel that the college life is meaningless."
"I want to quit school and get a job. What do you think?"
"What is the meaning of life?"

Some of them I wanted to address but they were so hard to answer. We told the students, "Please talk to us if you have more questions or still aren't sure." I wish so much I could talk to some of these girls face to face about their questions. I am thinking about the girl with nightmares because even though I didn't say it, maybe it is something deeper that is causing it. We urged the girl to get out of her abusive relationship, but will she? We told her to be careful and tell to other people and not try to talk to him about it alone. I don't want her to be hurt more. I don't want the girl to feel alone in her sadness and fear, and I wish I could talk to her more about it. I want to keep telling these girls they are beautiful and valuable and that their lives have meaning and purpose because some of them honestly have never heard it before.

I love giving advice, but sometimes it's just not enough. I want to think that I am telling them something useful and good, and I think I am, but I am struck by the realization, "It's not enough!" I am frustrated by all the shallow "Do you like China" and "How can I improve my English" conversations when all these issues are underneath. I know these are necessary and that it takes such a long time to build trust. I can't be friends with everyone, but I want to be deeper with at least a few. I hope this time tonight will open up the way for deeper conversations and more opportunities. I know I'm not the answer to solve all of their problems, but darn it!...[sheepish grin] I have so much more advice to give...

Schedule tinkering?

By Kevin

Sometime earlier this week, rumors began swirling that the school might try to end the semester a little early. “I think the school wants to save money,” said one student. “They won't have to pay for heat if there are no classes.”

But naturally, that doesn't mean fewer classes, it just means they'll be clumped closer together for awhile. Word is, they want to make up a week of classes on the weekends so that students and teachers can go home early and have a long Spring Festival holiday.

“We will finish classes before Christmas,” another student said, excitedly.

So it might be an adaptation of what they'll do sometimes before a holiday, when we make up Thursday's classes on Saturday and Friday's classes on Sunday, resulting in the famed Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Thursday, Friday schedule.

Another student asked Christina: “Will we have class this Saturday? Our instructor said we would.”

Naturally we don't know. We are generally the last to know anything like this. But seeing as how it is now Thursday night, I'm hoping they don't wait much longer to make a decision.

Not sure just yet if this means they'll want us to have classes basically every day for three weeks straight, without a break or if they plan to shift things around so we just make up one day of classes each Saturday for several weeks in a row.

But, all said, it probably all amounts to nothing for us: our contract says we get two day weekends, so probably our organization will insist on the school holding us to that. I have a feeling everybody else is gonna be staggering by Christmastime.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Some Random Comments

by Ruth


Last week in my Oral English lesson on family, I discovered that one student has six siblings and that another has a grandmother who is 105 years old!


Someone sent Kevin and I a surprise book package, which is really one of the best kind of packages we could ask for. I have started reading my beautiful new book which is called There Is No Me Without You. It is the story of the AIDS epidemic in Ethiopia and one Ethiopian woman who started taking in some of the thousands of resulting orphans. It is really interesting and one of those convicting books that makes you think, "Why the crap do we always ignore what's going on in the world?" It is also pretty long, which makes me happy because it will last for a long time.


This weekend, the heat was turned on! Having never had heat in China before, I was a tiny bit skeptical of it actually happening, but here it is! The apartment is almost too warm now, and I even cracked open a window. I love it…


Last night I went to a party held for several departments. Parties in China usually mean lots of performances. All the foreign teachers were separately urged to come to the party, usually several times, so we felt like we’d better make an appearance. When we arrived, they said, “Oh, you will give a performance, right?” I can’t say this was completely unexpected. We can rarely get away without giving a performance, whether we volunteer to or not. We sang a song (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen…Christina and I have established a tradition of singing one Christmas song every Sunday because it seems like a shame to wait until December. So that song was fresh on our minds.) After we sang our song, we prepared to slip out (I still had to finish my big huge research paper and was starting to feel bad from a cold). It was not to be. “Stay for a game! We need you to take part in a game!” So we took part in a game. Then we sprinted for the door before anyone else could stop us. Sometimes it feels like people are just so…demanding.


Today there was a rat in my class. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. Either that or the worlds biggest roach and I would definitely prefer the latter. There was a pile of papers and trash in the corner by the doorway (why, I’m not sure). Just as I started teaching, as the students got all quiet during a listening activity, I started to hear loud scurrying sounds. I looked over and the papers were shaking and moving around. Outwardly I was expressionless. Inwardly I was flipping out a little bit. Sounds of chomping and scurrying kept emanating loudly from the shaking pile. Which, I might add, was only a few feet away from me. I walked to the other side of the classroom and stayed there during the entire rest of class. The rat never came out (thankfully, although that could have made for a very interesting uproar). After a little bit it got quiet. Maybe it fell asleep, maybe it found a hole to retreat into. The students never noticed anything, unless they wondered at my nervous glances toward the corner.

To end on a more pleasant note, there are no rats in our heat filled apartment. That is always good news.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Part 2: Yangzhou to Nanjing to Weinan

by Ruth
As we rode from the train station through the new part of town, I exclaimed, “I don’t recognize any of this!” That’s what happ
ens when you leave a Chinese city for a few years. New buildings crop up all the time in the endless process of construction and modernization. I had sent a message to Candace, one of the students I was closest with in Yangzhou, so when we got to the campus she came running to meet us. She helped us check into our hotel and then we went to see some other students. That’s when the haggling began.

There were two classes of students that I became closest with during the two years I taught them, and they both wanted time with me. “We are fighting over you,” Candace said. After a few minute
s of back and forth arguments in Chinese, the other students said, “We won!” Candace agreed to meet up with us later. We stood around outside for a while as more students were summoned from their studies and joined the group. When it got too cold, the students lead us into the empty cafeteria where we sat around to talk. The students were strangely subdued, considering that in my class, they would usually get so loud and rowdy I was afraid we were disturbing the whole buildings. They hadn’t been speaking English much lately though, and perhaps they were feeling shy. On the other hand, they all told me, “You are more talkative than before!” Several of the students wanted to take us to lunch, and after various discussions and negotiations, all the others begrudgingly excused themselves. After lunch, the students headed back for their daily rest and Kevin and I collapsed in our hotel room. Even a good night’s sleep on a train doesn’t turn out to be quite adequate.

We were able to see a lot of students during the weekend, and even ran into some I wasn’t expecting. Several students from the Guang Ling campus happened to be on the main campus for a class and walked by as I was standing outside. I saw several younger students I taught as well. Some of them were very surprised to see me, but others said, “We heard you would be in town.” News travels fast when foreigners are involved.

That evening, we met Candace and her classmate Sabrina for dinner. We walked to the restaurant because it was a pleasant evening and only about thirty minutes away. In China, anything less than an hour is totally walkable. As we walked, Sabrina told us about all her recent accomplishments and all the foreigners she had been meeting. She does have the best English of any student I know. She reprimanded us for spending too much money on a hotel. “Next time, you can
get me to find a hotel for you and I will find one for much less.” I was reprimanded a lot this weekend, which was a strangely good sign. In China, advice and rebukes are used to show care for another person. It takes some getting used to, since our automatic American response is “it’s none of your business!” I have been learning instead to dish it out with the best of them, and am starting to realize how much I enjoy giving unsolicited advice. I told Sabrina she needed to be more humble. I gave another student relationship advice. I told many students to wear more layers and buy some gloves. And they loved it.

The restaurant we went to was one of our favorites. Candace and Sabrina proceeded to order seven dishes for the four of us, showing us how much they valued us. Even though many of the dishes in Weinan are the same, the flavors are rather different – spicier instead of sweet. My taste-buds were happy to return to the sweet flavors they
had come to love. We ate and ate and when we couldn’t eat anymore, we walked back to the school.
All the students from Candace and Sabrina’s class were waiting for us in a classroom.
When we entered the room, they all clapped delightedly. They had drawn a colorful sign on the board to welcome us and prepared a song to sing for us. It was some kind of song about friendship and was really beautiful when they all joined together singing. I could tell they had spent time practicing, and it made me feel so special to see how they had worked to prepare. They gave us a “wishes” bottle filled with tiny paper stars they had folded themselves and a good wish for us. It still gets to me how deep the bond of friendship is. It takes a long time for people to enter into that level of trust, but once you become friends with people here, they would do anything for you.

The students asked Ke
vin and I to tell them some things about our wedding, our time in America, and our life in Weinan. They poured over the book of our wedding pictures, even though they said they had looked at most of them online “many, many times” and are probably more familiar with them than I am. They asked us questions about our wedding and honeymoon and when we came back to China and why we didn’t come back to Yangzhou and who wins when we have disagreements. One student started her question by saying, “Ruth, I know you can’t cook.” I was a little offended and asked why she would say that. “Well, last year Corrine cooked cookies for us when we came to visit and you never did that for us.”

The students told some funny stories from the internships they just completed. Most of them were working in high schools, and many of them were confused as students, sometimes even by their supervising teacher. They talked about how old they felt now that they were seniors
and their worries about either getting into graduate school or finding jobs next year. I probed the students to find out who had boyfriends (they were all girls), and they were embarrassed when their classmates ratted them out. Toward the end of our time, one student said, “Ruth, I know when I look back this will be one of my most terrible memories.” All the students began to laugh and correct her. She looked confused then embarrassed. “No, no. I mean cherible. Uh, cherishable. I will cherish this memory forever.”

The next day when we saw Candace, she said, “I was so excited I couldn’t sleep last night.” She said her classmates had stayed up late talking about Kevin and I: what we had said, how Kevin looked at me and how happy I was, how tall Kevin was and how talkative I had become.
Candace was bringing us to meet her boyfriend. I had just learned about him and was quite curious to check him out and make sure he was good enough to date one of my students. He is a PE major, and Candace said he was nervous to meet us because his English was not so good. “He has been practicing his English all weekend.” He turned out to be really cute and funny. He was shy because of the English, but his natural confidence kept taking over. By the end of our lunch together, he was feeling more comfortable and speaking a lot more. I teased him about Candace and told him he’d better take good care of her and realize how lucky he was to get her. He said Kevin was lucky too. He wanted to take us back to the campus so he could show Kevin some kungfu moves.

We spent the rest of the afternoon with them, and then another student, Amanda, joined up with us for some milk tea. We were taking a train from Nanjing (about an 1.5 hours from Yangzhou) and we decided to head to the bus station so we coul
d be sure to get on a bus. It was a good thing we went a little early because the line of people waiting for a Nanjing bus wrapped all the way around the station. Fortunately, buses arrived every five or ten minutes, and within half an hour, we were at the front of the line. Candace and Amanda came to see us off and insisted on carrying some of our heavy bags. They hugged us goodbye and we settled in for the next to last leg of the journey.

Our train from Nanjing didn’t leave until 11pm, so we went to visit some teachers who live in the city. We had a good time talking to them for a while (most of us were from the South, so that’s always kinda fun :). I was pretty alert and energetic until we left them, but by the time we got to the train station, I was in a crabby, semi-stupor. I was getting tired of all the lines and people and buses and taxis and subways and trains and carrying heavy bags. We didn’t have to wait too long in the crowded train station before we were able to board the train and crawl into our bunks. We arrived back in Weinan 15 hours later, only an hour behind schedule, and rushed to get to our classes. We are quite tired and not really seeing straight anymore, but it was a good trip. It was encouraging to see how much those students liked me, and I feel warmed by their generous friendship. It reminded me how lucky I am to be here in China. It will be a “cherishable” memory for me as well.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Part 1: Weinan to Beijing to Yangzhou

By Ruth

After a long day of classes I watched the English department girls win the basketball championship, then rushed back to grab my things to catch our 12 hour overnight train to Beijing. Kevin, Christina, and I were all going to Beijing. Christina was visiting a friend and we were stopping by “on the way” to Yangzhou. It’s actually about eight hours out of the way, but we needed to the embassy for Kevin to get more passport pages. We decided to combine it with a trip to visit my past students rather than making two separate trips. It did make for a long weekend, though.

Train travel isn’t too bad so long as you have a sleeper, but the bed seemed to be harder and smaller than I remembered. Unfortunately the movement of trains makes me a little dizzy. Fortunately, being dizzy makes me feel tired, so I was able to sleep okay until the woman on the bunk below me started yelling on her cell phone at about 6am. Apparently the early cell phones had very bad connections so people had to yell to be heard. Now they connect just fine, but people still yell. And I do mean yell.

Our train was supposed to arrive at 6:45am which would have given us enough time to get across town for our 9am embassy appointment. Unfortunately, at 8:30am, we were still on the train. We called the embassy and they didn’t seem too concerned. They just started this whole appointment system, and they must realize you can’t expect too much from that in China. When our train finally arrived, we grabbed a bus to the nearest subway which was the most crowded subway I have ever been on. You haven't seen crowded until you've been to China. Or maybe India. But believe me - malls at Christmastime look practically deserted compared to a Beijing subway. We had to ram ourselves into a car that was so full the door wouldn’t even close on the first try. In China there are no personal space issues, though, so the three people around me didn’t mind the full body contact in the 2ft space we were sharing. The advantage of having literally no room to move was that you couldn’t fall over when the train shifted speeds.

We arrived at the embassy about an hour late, but the appointment didn’t take long. Soon we were off on our way to IKEA, which was supposedly close by. Half an hour later, though, we were still in a taxi driving back and forth down the same road and looping around in frustration. The map from the IKEA website was surprisingly bad and the taxi driver kept thinking we wanted to be on a different road. We were frustrated and he was frustrated and it just wasn’t working out. Finally his face lit up as he thought of a plan, “Maybe you want to buy some stuff!” He took us to a big shopping mall area. It wasn’t where we wanted to go, but this was clearly the end of the line for us. He deposited us on the sidewalk and sped away.

We did eventually get to the IKEA, which was not that far away. I adore IKEA, despite or because of its massiveness. We were starting to wilt pretty quickly though, so we headed back to the far other side of town to shower and rest at our organization’s guesthouse. Two taxis, two subway lines, and an hour and a half later we were happily washing away the travel dirt. We collapsed on the couch for a short nap, then headed back across town once again (and by “town,” I mean the city of 17 million people), this time to our favorite Mexican restaurant in China: Pete’s TexMex. In addition to some of the only Mexican food in China, they have the best milkshakes I have ever had in my entire life. Topping my list-of-all-time-favorites good. Then off to the train station for our 10 hour overnight train to Yangzhou.

The Yangzhou train is pretty nice since it is newer and smoother and goes straight between cities with no stops. The bedding even gives the illusion of being clean, except for the random black hairs which remind me I’m definitely not the first person to be sleeping here since the last wash. Between the nicer train and our greater exhaustion, we slept better than the first night. Even the guy snoring underneath me couldn’t keep me awake for long. At 6am the curtains were opened and the lights went on and the night was officially over. We groggily munched our Pete’s cinnamon rolls as we rolled closer to Yangzhou.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


by Ruth
This morning we listened to firecrackers going off in the distance. And listened and listened as they kept going on and on. This is a normal occurrence, as firecrackers hail the building or opening of a new building. They are supposed to scare of any spirits lurking around, and for that reason are also set off before a wedding. The idea of spirits and ghosts is not just relegated to Halloween (and that’s only partly because they don’t have Halloween in China). Though not nearly as prominent as in Southeast Asia, we do see evidences of “the spirits” around here as well. As I listened to the fireworks this morning, I was thinking about all the superstitions/traditions/beliefs I have heard about recently.
It can be hard to tell what is just tradition, what is more superstition, and what is actually belief. I’m not attempting to make those distinctions right now. A lot of these ideas have to do with the way words sound. For example, 4 is an unlucky number because the word for it sounds like death.
Numbers and dates are also very important. A good wedding date is chosen based on the birthday of the bride and the birthday of the groom and how the stars will be aligned and probably some other stuff that doesn’t make sense to me. Time of a person’s birth determines their fortunes for the rest of their life. One of Kevin’s student said she always gets sick because she was born at an inauspicious time.
Last night some friends were talking about appropriate and inappropriate gifts. You should never give a pear to a friend because the word for pear sounds similar to separation, and it gives the idea you want to end your friendship. Apples are good, however, because they sound like peace. In the past, you should not give someone a knife, because it would mean slicing the relationship. Now, they said, it would be okay. It still seems like a little bit of a strange gift to me. Clocks are bad birthday or wedding gifts because they symbolize death (the phrase for giving a clock is similar to attending a funeral).
Red brings luck, which is why it is such a popular color in China, but white is the color of death and mourning.
Some old houses have high thresholds in the doors to keep the wealth in and the spirits out. You should not step on the threshold because they are considered sacred.
You should not step on manhole covers because you may never marry. If you see someone step on a manhole cover, you should hit them (according to the number of days of the week: once for Monday, seven times for Sunday). Hitting them is supposed to do something to chase away the spirits.
You should not leave your chopsticks sticking up in your bowl, because that is inviting the spirits to come and eat from it. This is how they will leave the food at the graves for their ancestors. In several restaurants we eat at, we also see food placed in front of small alters with Buddha or spirits like the frog spirit, who is supposed to bring wealth.
When babies are born, sometimes they are not given names at first, so the spirits will not know who they are. Sometimes baby boys are called by girls names because the spirits would not be as interested in a girl…which is just sad on several levels. Parents will sometimes insult their children as well, calling them ugly or stupid, to trick the spirits.
Whether our students actually believe these things, or say they believe these things, a lot of times they will practice them just to be safe. Because no matter how much they say “I believe in myself; I decide my own fate,” they know that a lot of things in life are beyond their control.