Friday, April 30, 2010

Awkward Foreigner Situations

It was a couple of weeks ago, just after noon. Kevin and I had just come back from class and I was in the kitchen starting our daily fried-egg sandwiches when we heard a knock on the door.
Kevin opened the door and there stood a girl he had never seen before who said, “Hello! Can I come in?”
I heard Kevin say, “Um...who are you?”
“I am a student from the management department and I want to practice my English. Can I come in?”

1. We've never seen you before. 2. It's lunchtime, not just for us, for like everyone on campus.  If any hour is sacred and to be left undisturbed in China, it's the lunch/nap break.  It even gets quiet during this time. 3. Isn't this a little bit weird in any culture?

Kevin told her that now was not such a good time, and perhaps she could come back later, or (better yet) come to our office. Every so often this kind of thing happens to us, and I always have a hard time with it. It's funny and frustrating. Never do I feel my American right to privacy and personal space as much as when a stranger tries to invite themselves in. Accosting me on the street is one thing; I can handle that. But my house—it's my space. We have groups of students over almost every week, but I chose to invite them. I'm still in control. This sense of intrusion is always tempered by a feeling of guilt for not being more flexible and welcoming. Isn't that the kind of thing I'm supposed to do? Cultural foot-stamping aside, isn't it pretty selfish of me to open up my home to an occasional brave stranger/student, even if they are a little out of place.

This week my class was talking about a semi-related cultural situation, only in this situation it was a (non-stranger) student showing up unexpectedly. After talking about cultural differences related to scheduling ahead vs. showing up, I presented them with my situation. I asked what they would do in our position. They all laughed and thought it was funny and a little strange, but their answers weren't very helpful.

The first student said she would invite them in and offer tea because Chinese people are always very hospitable, and it is polite to invite in whoever comes to your door. The second student said if it was a friend, she would welcome them in, but if it was a stranger she might feel weird about them coming into her home. The third student said she would tell them, “I'm sure you are a good person, but don't you know it is rude and impolite to come at this time and ask to come in? I don't know you, so I think you should go away.”

So no clear consensus on that one. I know Chinese people do feel a stronger obligation toward hospitality, whether they want you there or not. In truth, though, this is a situation that probably doesn't happen to normal Chinese people very much/ever. It's one of those weird “foreigner on display” situations in which no culture seems to quite know the rules.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spring Pictures

Here are a few spring pictures.  The first three are from a walk in the fields behind campus, which are all green with wheat.  The trees have been blooming and everything looks much more beautiful than normal.  In the third picture, you can see our school in the background - the big white building where we teach, and the tan buildings (behind the tree) where we live.  

The later pictures are from a bike ride with students on the north side of town.  There are some pretty pastures near the river as well as boggy area used for growing lotus root.  The muddy man is using a high-powered hose to help dig out the lotus root.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mourning & Fear

Hai Shi Wan
Originally uploaded by kevsunblush
By Kevin

"I don't understand why all these horrible things are happening," said my student, teetering on the verge of tears.

For the past week, she hasn't been able to get the news of the Qinghai earthquake out of her mind. Last night she couldn't sleep. She is just too overcome with all of the calamity surrounding her.

First and foremost in her thoughts is the Qinghai earthquake -- more than 2,039 people are dead, plus 200 more who are missing. She doesn't have a television or computer, so she relies on the radio for news. Almost all of the news these days is bad, she said. Stories of children left without
parents fill her thoughts. Tibetans, who speak little or no
"hanyu" (Mandarin) who have to travel with injured loved ones
to get medical treatment far away.

"I can't get them out of my mind."

Naturally, her mind drifts to the night she and her classmates had to spend sleeping on the square almost two years ago, when the Sichuan earthquake killed 90,000 Chinese people.

She trembles in fear.

Then, her mind is filled with numerous disasters. Drought in Southern China. A disease (hand-foot-and-mouth disease) that is spreading among young children, with more than 77,700 cases in March and 40 deaths.

"I don't know why all these bad things are happening in China."

It seems like a prevalent thought. In fact, several students in the last week have asked if I have seen the movie "two zero one two" -- referring to the end-of-the world epic "2012." They ask: "Do you think that the end of the world is coming?"

Today, my student explained that China held a day of mourning, because it is important to mourn someone's death after seven days in Chinese culture. Flags were lowered to half-staff. Students gathered in the sports stadium and observed 3 minutes of silence. A government-enforced 24-hour moratorium on entertainment was put into place as well. "Everything on television and the radio is only about the earthquake today," she explained.

Indeed, after coming home, I attempted to download a song on my favorite website in the world: (and it's cousin -- both of which surprisingly still allow free legal downloads to 90% of major label music, even after Google pulled out of China), but was greeted by a link to donate to a Qinghai earthquake charity. Had anybody told me about this entertainment ban, I might not have shown my culture students the Irish Revolutionary war film "Michael Collins" during class this afternoon.

In spite of all of this devastation, my student said that she is also encouraged by the volunteerism.

"I don't know about your country, but it I am sad to admit that most Chinese people are selfish," she said. "They only care about themselves...So it makes me glad that our government and so many people are doing things to help. That makes my heart warm."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


In a few weeks I will have my next prenatal checkup, where I will be seeing my 4th doctor (with still at least 2 more in my future). It's not intentional. It's just that we were usually on a pretty tight schedule for appointments. There's not a lot of room for flexibility when you have to travel 12 hours to get to the hospital and Friday is the only day that works. Friday afternoon, to be exact, since you have to count on the train arriving late.

I called the hospital today to make an appointment (even the nurses speak English - I swear it's like being in a foreign country). I told them what day I wanted to have the appointment, then we went through the list of all the doctors I had seen or heard of, and the nurse kept saying, "Oh! I'm sorry, they're only here in the morning." Oh well, as long as I see A doctor, right?

This appointment will be the one where they do all the detailed ultrasounds and maybe we'll be able to find out if it's a boy or girl. I'm trying not to get my hopes up. Honestly, knowing if it's a girl or a boy will make it so real. And part of me isn't sure if I'm ready for it to be that real. I still have days when my stomach is looking small and I start thinking, "Maybe I'm not really pregnant. I know I saw pictures of a baby, but there can't really be a baby inside me." I'm not throwing up every day anymore, so it's easier to feel like I just got confused and it's not really happening.

Somewhat logical for me to assume that too, given my recent lack of brain-clarity. I find myself getting very easily confused these days. My birthday is coming up soon and I had to ask Kevin how old I would be (to be fair, though, I have been confused about that for several years). I sometimes have trouble remembering, "Did that actually happen or did I dream it?" "Did I actually do that or just consider doing it?" Whereas normally I am plagued by constant thoughts of "I have to remember..." and "I must do this," now I think of something once and it never occurs to me again. I don't even have a to-do list anymore because I don't usually remember things long enough to write them down. I have to check carefully before class, "Did I actually plan a lesson or just consider doing it? Did I print it out? Do I have everything I need?" So it's really not too surprising that some days I wonder, "Am I really pregnant, or did I just dream that up?"

Despite the fact that it still all seems unreal, I realized we are going to be leaving here in two more months and when we come back, we're going to have a baby with us. That means I have to have our house ready for the baby before we leave! As of now, we Dallas Cowboys onesie. I don't think that's going to be adequate. Oh, and several friendly stuffed giraffes. Getting better, but I still feel like we're missing something.

I need to get organized and make some lists. If only I could remember what I was supposed to put on those lists.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Normal Chinese or Weird American?

by Ruth

I was thinking lately about the ways in which I have gradually taken on elements of Chinese culture over the past few years. Nothing serious, just new habits and styles I have picked up, things I wouldn't have done before coming to China. For example...

-I wear long underwear most days from October to April, sometimes 2 or 3 pairs. I really don't know why we don't do that more in America.
-I have been seen wearing a jacket when it's 80 degrees outside, just because other people are. And because I have a fear of cold.
-I prefer squattie-potties, at least in public.
-I like drinking hot water (I still drink cold water in the summer, though, so that only half counts.)
-I have Mickey Mouse stick-ons in the bathroom and kitchen...and I think they're actually legitimate decorations.
-I sometimes/often wear the same outfit for a couple/several days in a row.
-I have occasionally spit on the ground (Gross, huh? I don't do it when people are around, though. And you'll still never see me with my finger up my nose.)
-My current favorite vegetables are garlic bolts and eggplant.
-I use my umbrella as much for sun as for rain.
-I sometimes wear stocking socks with sandals and skirts.
-I have become (mostly) oblivious to fireworks and loud music.
-I think my glowingly-white legs are pretty.
-I stare at other foreigners.

There are some things I don't think will change, though. I think I'll always love cheese and hate fluorescent lights. I still plan to diaper my child (which I'm sure you'll appreciate if I ever come to visit you). And of course there are all those deeper changes that actually matter, and in those ways I still feel like a total outsider. Really, I'm not sure that I've become more Chinese; I've just turned into a really weird American.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Mystery of the UGG Box

Box of goodies
Originally uploaded by kevsunblush
By Kevin

I've been making more frequent visits to the campus mailroom lately because at least one birthday present is supposed to be on the way (birthday was last month, but mail takes awhile to get here).

I haven't quite figured out the mail system in China. Yesterday, I stopped in at the mailroom and the mail lady escorted me behind the counter as usual, pointing to the drawer full of letters with western lettering, as she usually does. These are the letters that she doesn't know what to do with because they contain no Chinese characters. I suppose it's kinda like what someone would do if they got a letter with only Chinese characters on it in the US -- ask for help. Many of them have been here since before we came, I think. So, since we are foreigners, we are encouraged to look through the stack of letters and find anything addressed to us.

As I flipped through the stack, she pulled out the same box she'd shown me last week. Usually we're excited whenever she pulls out a box that she doesn't know what to do with, because almost always it belongs to one of the four Americans on campus. This time it didn't. It was addressed to "UGG Australia Company," but the address was "Weinan Teacher's College." No names, just some unknown Australian company apparently based at the college. The return label was from the UK and it has a Royal Mail postage stamp. The packing card on the back said "galoshes" and a box labeled "promotional item" was checked.

Just what is UGG? I wondered at first, thinking it was an acronym. United Geological Group? Urban Garden Galoshes? They might send someone boots, if only these organizations existed. UK Galoshes for the Games? United Grain Growers? Urban Golf Group? Unique Greek Galoshes? Who knows?

All four of us have examined the curious box at least once over the last month in our mailroom visits. Nobody has had an answer.

My mind searched for an answer and I came up with a possibility: Maybe it was a result of the flurry of materials I sent away for last year when I was requesting free tourist information brochures and magazines that I could put in our teaching library to give students a glimpse of the UK and Australia. Maybe they were packing "London 2012" boots to promote the next Olympic games?

I decided now was the time to get to the bottom of the mystery. Maybe the box contained more information on the inside that could help us figure out who it belonged to if it wasn't us. Likely the box was going to remain in the postal office indefinitely otherwise. So I signed for the box and headed home. The mail lady seemed excited to see the box leave her custody.

I tore the outer wrapper paper and looked into the box. It contained a pair of women's size nine Ugg Boots -- you know those sheepskin moon boots that were all the rage for women a couple of years ago. Maybe they're still popular, I don't know. I should have pieced it together: UGG Australia Company = Ugg Boots.

There was also a packing slip and a letter from a UK resident who was returning the boots to the company, requesting a different size.

"Why would they sent it here?" I asked. "Surely the company isn't based in Weinan."

I figured that maybe a student or teacher had set up an Internet business selling the boots on the side. But it seemed like the person returning the boots should have addressed their shipping label to that student, not to the company. Kinda funny that they would think that an Australian company would ship its orders directly from China. From a college, no less. I continued nosing around, finding the shipping label from when the boots were apparently originally sent from China to the UK. There was a name: Chang Yang.

I stuffed everything back into the box and hurried back to the mailroom, trying to explain to the mail lady that it apparently belonged to someone named Chang Yang, but I didn't know who it was. But my Chinese is poor. Basically I think the main ideas I got across were, "I'm sorry;" "Not mine;" "I don't know who;" and "Chang Yang." She confusedly looked at the mailing slip and put the package back on a stand, seemingly disappointed that the pesky package was back in her care.

Later, meeting with the team, I recounted the story, doubting that it would actually wind up with the person responsible for it or returned to the UK. "Do any of you wear a size nine?" I asked. Kelly nodded.

"Well, if the boots stay there for another month or two, they may be yours."

"I'd feel a little strange wearing them."

We decided that probably somebody here is going to wind up wearing them eventually.

The system is a bit unusual to our "privacy-centered" minds. In America, you can go to prison for opening someone else's mail. I'm sure mail carriers could lose their jobs if they purposely gave a package to someone not knowing if it actually belonged to them. But here. Sometimes our packages wind up with the foreign affairs officials at the school. The last package that came here wound up in the English department office (this awesome package from my former teammates in Tonghua, who sent, among other things, yummy Samosa and Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies, blueberry muffin mix and more Mac & Cheese). Occasionally, we just get a shipping slip telling us that we need to pick them up from the China Post office down the street. I get the impression that any package with foreign writing on it just gets tossed around between whoever can speak or read English.

On the plus side, the packages people send us from the other side of the ocean usually do seem to get to us and here they usually don't seem to be opened and inspected by China Post workers before getting to us here -- or at least, if they are, they are inspected more discretely (most packages I got in Tonghua had a fresh batch of China Post tape wrapped around them and occasional items were missing, like beef jerky, which we later discovered was an illegal import). Thankfully I think that there has only been one package that we know did NOT show up for us in the two years we've been here (I've given up hope on a birthday present friends sent more than a year ago), but it's a better ratio of disappearances to deliveries than I experienced in Tonghua. Maybe Chang Yang picked it up, whoever he or she is?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Visit to the Doctor (and the 39 hours surrounding it)

By Ruth

Train #1

On Friday I had another prenatal appointment (4th appointment, 3rd doctor, 2nd country). I don't mind prenatal appointments, but I wish we didn't have to travel 12 hours to get there. On Thursday night we headed to the train station to catch an overnight train to Beijing. Since you can only buy train tickets 1 week ahead and there are apparently only a few tickets allocated to Weinan, the only train we could get had us arriving 2 hours before our appointment, cutting it a little close since we had to get all the way across the city.

Unfortunately, our train was already half an hour late by the time it got to Weinan. We could just hope it wouldn't lose even more time as the night went on. This train was one of the few double-deckers I have been on. Usually the sleeper compartments have three bunks stacked on top of each each other, but the double-deckers are broken into two levels that are two bunks high. This is an advantage if you are on the top bunk because there is less climbing up and down.

When I headed to the bathroom I was very surprised to see a western toilet. Surprised and not so happy. I like western toilets in private, and they're fine in religiously-cleaned places like Starbucks, but in normal public restrooms, give me a squattie any day. China restrooms in general range from dirty to gag-you gross, and train bathrooms are definitely not at the top end. Western toilets are even worse because people aren't used to them and good aim doesn't seem to be a high priority. For the rest of the train ride, I walked down a couple of cars to the “normal” bathroom.

The Point of the Trip

We got into Beijing the next morning about 1 hour and 15 minutes late, but fortunately we got to the hospital just in time. We aren't the only ones who travel in from out of town for appointments; several others were waiting with travel bags. Everything was fine at the doctors – just a typical, don't-do-much kind of visit. We did get to hear the baby's heartbeat again.

Unfortunately, they still charge you for don't-do-much visits. Medical expenses are a little more shocking here because we pay for everything up front, then submit claims to insurance for reimbursement. While being treated at a normal Chinese hospital usually costs a couple of dollars, this is a Western-standards hospital, probably the best medical care available in the country, and the price reflects that. I don't know anyone about to have a baby who doesn't worry about money a little bit, and a big old doctor bill doesn't do much to make you feel better about that.

The Western Experience

The country's best hospital is located conveniently close to the country's best Mexican food (and best milk-shakes!). Just a five minute walk and we are sitting in Pete's Tex Mex ordering our old standards – a burrito and amazing peanut-butter chocolate milkshake with a couple of cinnamon rolls for the road. The novelty of these foods just makes them taste all the better.

After eating we headed next door to Jenny Lou's, a western foods store. It was my first time, and I was in awe. It was like being in a tiny American supermarket. I stood before a whole row of cereals. Dozens of different kinds. This is the kind of thing I dreamed about (literally, several times) when I first came to China. I may have teared up a little bit when I spotted Corn Chex, I was so moved. Every aisle had new things I hadn't seen since summertime. At one point I glanced up and what did I see before me but MAC AND CHEESE! Whole boxes of it just sitting there waiting to be bought. I had no idea it could be found in China. It was a truly incredible moment, one that only a true Mac and Cheese lover could understand.

To complete our western experience, we headed to IKEA (also close by) to look at some baby furniture. While IKEA itself is western, it has really been taken in by the Chinese middle-upper class population. We only saw a couple of other foreigners there and probably close to a thousand Chinese. People don't just come for the shopping – they come for the experience. In nearly every display, people are relaxing on chairs, sprawled out on beds, reading a book, chatting with friends, sitting at a desk working on their computer. They will sit for hours at the cafe. But a lot of people also buy things. We bought...two ice trays. But I came away with lots of ideas!

Finally, we headed back to our company's hospitality center to pick up train tickets. Another catch to the train system in China is that for the most part, you can only buy tickets for trains leaving from the city you are currently in. This seems particularly stupid to me, since most times when you travel somewhere, you also have to travel back. Since many times we are traveling back within a few days (or in this case, the same day) of arrival, there is no guarantee there will still be train tickets available. Enter the travel agent, who will charge a hefty commission to buy tickets for you and have them waiting. Our train tickets were supposed to be waiting for us but unfortunately, they weren't. This was a problem since our train was leaving in 4 hours. We called the company and they assured us the tickets would be there in a couple more hours.

As we waited, we decided to try out another Beijing phenomenon – ordering pizza. Get this – you can call one of several pizza restaurants and they will deliver right to your door. Isn't that amazing? It didn't seem quite as amazing when two hours had passed and we still hadn't gotten our pizza. It finally did arrive – cold and rather disappointing – but just in time before we had to leave for the train station. Fortunately, our tickets had also arrived by then.

The Last 12 (er, 15) Hours

The train ride back was uneventful. The others in our compartment stared suspiciously at us the whole time, but as soon as the train pulled out I went to bed, earplugs and face mask in place. I have no doubt they were still staring. I've never seen a Chinese person use either, and they seem to grow up with a certain immunity to loud noises and bright light.

I slept pretty well on the train ride despite the acute discomfort of my back and hips. Normally the hard, shelf-beds don't bother me, but these days even my own comfortable bed leaves me feeling arthritic. After two nights on a train, I felt like I could hardly turn over. Still, during the times when I lay awake thinking how uncomfortable I was, I also thought about all crowded seating cars we past getting on the train.

The majority of Chinese will sit packed in with 100 other people overnight rather than pay extra money for a sleeper. This train was especially crowded since this is a holiday weekend (not Easter, but “Qing Ming festival” - tomb sweeping day). The aisle of the seating cars were filled with people who would be standing for the next 12 hours. So lying in bed thinking of those people, I thought, “How did I get to be one of these lucky people with a bed? I'm so rich.”

There seem to be two types of train-riders: Those who sleep until the last possible minute and those who get up at 6 or 7am regardless of when the train will arrive. Our crowd was the second type. We woke up to the crunching of apples and cucumbers and the slurping of the customary bowls of instant noodles (no train ride is complete without it!).

A few hours later we arrived at the Xian train station, which was packed with holiday travelers. We had to decide whether to wait for the next train (which would likely be late) or get a bus (which would probably take a long time) back to Weinan. I thought we should try the bus option, but it was a bad plan. Weinan is *technically* an hour away, but after an hour we had barely reached the outskirts of Xian. Once we finally got out of the huge traffic jam, we had another hour over bumpy back roads because the main highway is under construction. Eventually, 39 hours after leaving, we were happily back in Weinan. I walked in the door and immediately started cooking up some Mac and Cheese!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Scraggly film

Originally uploaded by kevsunblush
By Kevin

Today's lesson: be sure to shave your stubble before teaching, so you don't look scraggly on camera.

About ten minutes into my "Society and Culture of Major English-Speaking Countries" lesson, during a discussion about the pros and cons of British Imperialism, there was a knock at the door. Several school officials were standing outside.

For a moment, I figured I must have crossed a line with my lesson and said something bad, so they were stopping me. After all, I was encouraging students to see both the good and the bad sides of imperialism from both the British perspective and of the peoples they colonized.

I was wrong. "We need to shoot some VCR of you teaching," explained Mr. Wang. "Is that OK?"

Slightly confused, I looked around at the group of men. One was carrying a large video camera. I put the puzzle pieces together: they wanted to film the class. I nodded and said OK. Naturally, this being China, there is no warning for this sort of thing, so none of us were prepared for this. The classroom was messy and I had about three days worth of stubble on my face. What can I say, I've had a cold for the last few days.

Hurriedly, the cameraman and a pair of assistants came in, opened the blinds on the windows, flooding the room with light, shuffled nervous students into new seats, had them (and me) remove unsightly items from our desks and told me to continue my lesson.

I continued the discussion. Students noted that the British likely saw imperialism as positive because it was a source of pride, expanding their territory and making them rich. Others suggested that some British may have been opposed to imperialism because it was expensive.

At one point, the cameraman stood behind me as I asked questions. Since he was a good six inches shorter than me, I wondered if he was able to get a good shot over my shoulder. Then he tapped me on the shoulder. "Can you speak Chinese?" he asked in Chinese. Usually, I'd say "yi dian dian," which means something like "a little tiny bit," but usually gets interpreted as humility and leads to a torrent of unanswerable questions once we get beyond the few I can successfully answer.

I thought to the recent Chinese words and phrases I'd been studying: furniture, colors, articles of clothing. They weren't going to help explain imperialism or make the school look good on camera. I shook my head. Sorry.

We continued. Students suggested that the countries colonized by the British may have seen technological advancement and new economic opportunities as positives.

Ironically, by the time we reached the negatives, the camera crew was gone. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The students who'd been shuffled into new seats scurried back. A couple students drew the blinds back in. I quieted their nervous laughter.

I quickly decided that maybe today wasn't the day to discuss a controversial quote by scholar Parag Khanna ( and on the next Power Point slide labeling the US, China and the European Union as the three great imperial powers of the modern world. It had riled up my classes a bit earlier in the week, most jumping to their nation's defense. We were behind schedule and I figured today wasn't the day to cross that line.

After class, one of the students suggested that the school may be preparing for an evaluation. I hope not. Generally those sorts of things aren't fun experiences. Lots of smoke and mirrors to impress government officials and make colleges look better than they are. But another thought that crossed my mind was that the school is in the midst of celebrating its 50th anniversary. Could be it. Who knows.