Saturday, August 9, 2014

Working at Ikea

In all those years shopping at Ikea, I never thought I'd be working there. No, I'm not wearing a blue shirt and driving a forklift, but I am working at Ikea now. Today I started a seven-week Business English class for ten or fifteen of their employees who already have pretty good English at the start.

 I can already tell it's going to be fun: unlike worker/students I've taught at some other companies, these guys are super-talkative. There are two class clowns who should keep things interesting.

The Chinese employees of the Development Zone have a definite sense of hierarchy of companies. The Scandinavian, German and American companies are regarded as the very best, with Ikea at the top. All these Western companies are known for relatively good pay (Germans and Scandinavians somewhat higher than Americans) and great office atmosphere.

Chinese companies suck, but no worse than Chinese companies in the rest of China.

Korean companies are known for low pay and bullying bosses. Japanese are regarded as the very worst. The pay is ⅓ lower than at a Chinese company, the bosses are extremely condescending and demanding, and the office atmosphere is authoritarian.

A student in class today said "Japanese boss tell me 'Do this, then do this, then do this.' Ikea boss tell me 'Solve this problem, up to you how.'" I could clearly see the results of that respectful atmosphere in the attitudes of these students.

Now that I'm living in the Development Zone, these kinds of classes should be plentiful. It's a shame I love teaching at the university, because I could probably make twice the money with a lot less stress and hassle just by chasing down jobs like this in the Development Zone

The Development Zone has this great combination of lots of foreign companies, but almost no foreign teachers. That means parents out here see the value of English for their kids, companies need to teach English to their workers, workers earn a hefty premium (sometimes 20% or more) for knowing English — and there's only little-ole' me and a few others to teach them! I like that particular mixture of supply and demand.

The only trouble is, I don't love teaching English as much as I love teaching content classes like Business Ethics, European Civ, The Moral Foundations of Capitalism, and Entrepreneurship. So I'm actually taking a relative pay cut, working longer and harder, for the privilege of teaching what I most love to teach. Teaching English is a blast, too, but it just doesn't exercise my capacity the way that teaching philosophy-related courses does.

So for the time being, I'll carry on working at the university while making my real money on the side at lovely little gigs like this.

New interview on Philosophy in Action radio

Philosopher Dr. Diana Hsieh recently interviewed me about "Love and Sex in China" on her live internet radio show, Philosophy in Action. You can listen to or download the podcast any time. You'll find the podcast on the episode's archive page, as well as below. About the Interview:
What are the traditional ideas about love and sex in Chinese culture? How did those ideas change in Mao's time? How do Chinese men and women approach romantic and sexual relationships today? Is homosexuality accepted? What is the place of mistresses and prostitutes? Moreover, Robert Garmong told us of the pitfalls of marrying a Chinese woman – and explained why he did exactly that anyway.
Listen or Download: Topics: Topics:
  • The teaser about Robert's marriage
  • Traditional ideas of love and sex
  • The changes under Mao
  • The one-child policy
  • The influence of western culture
  • Dating in China today
  • Sex education
  • STDs and abortion
  • Married life
  • Infidelity
  • Homosexuality
  • Robert's marriage
Links: For more about Philosophy in Action Radio, visit the Episodes on Tap and Podcast Archives.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ma Lei on a tear!

Oh, my wife! That mouth of hers is going to get her in trouble someday. She's awesome!

This noontime, she was down buying some cold noodles for lunch. There were a couple of 50-something guys shooting the shit about an unfortunate young, 20-something woman who lives somewhere in our apartment complex. According to these guys, that woman is of a type I'd thought existed only in America: so morbidly obese as to be completely housebound. As they described her, she weighs about 400 pounds.

Of course, it’s totally normal for the Chinese to tell someone straight to her face that they think she’s fat. There's no sense of avoiding affront, at least not yet. Let this country pudge out for a generation or two, and I expect the norms to change radically. But for now, fat-shaming is pretty normal.

Once when I was teaching a class of kindergarten students, on the very first day I walked down the front row chatting with them. The first one looked up at me and said “you are very tall!” The second one said “Your hair is very curly.” The third one said “You are very fat.” Good student, good student, BAD student! 

Another anecdote: When I used to teach Oral English, I frequently had students play a game of Taboo. If you’ve not played that game, it’s a team-based game in which one person picks a word card off the top of a stack. The card will have one target word and five “taboo” words. Using only words, not gestures or pictures, the person who’s “It” has to lead his or her teammates to guess the target word without using any of the “taboo” words. 

First I had the students come up with vocabulary words to test, along with a list of five or six “taboo” words. Invariably, every class would have at least one card where the target word was “Fat,” and one taboo word was the name of a classmate of theirs, as in “Alice is very…” In some cases, among the taboo words would be MY name — suggesting that the Chinese clearly don’t get how offensive this kind of talk is to foreigners. If they knew how foreigners feel about being called fat, they’d never, ever call their own teacher fat! 

However, there’s a fine line to be walked, even in Chinese culture. As Ma Lei explained her feelings about this conversation, it's one thing to talk about how obese this woman was, but these guys were going way above and beyond. "How does she go to the toilet? She must crack the porcelain every time she sits down on it!" Ha, ha, ha!

Ma Lei lit into those two older guys. Translating loosely: "Is it any of your damned business how she goes to the toilet? Why do you care so much about her? Is she your girlfriend?” Whoof! HUGE insult to a China-guy.

The guy whom she'd addressed most directly tried to dismiss her by saying — translated literally — "shut up, woman. We're not talking about you."

Oh, poor him. He SO didn't know whom he was talking to! In all of China, you couldn't run into a more intransigent buzz-saw when she gets her dander up.

If you could take the soul of a feisty South-Side Chicago ghetto woman and pour it into the frame of a five-foot-nothing China-girl, that’s my wife. It is an explosive kind of beast.

The literal translation of her response is as follows, but it should really be read in a ghetto-sass accent: “Of course I know you ain't talking about me. You know how I KNOW you ain't talking about me? It’s because you're still alive. If you WERE talking about me, I'd have already beaten you to death.” That’s literally what she said: 打死你!(Hit-to-death you.)

Whereupon these two big bu-bu-bu-boom guys were stunned into silence, looking down at all five-foot-nothing of Ma Lei, going "What just happened?" They grabbed their cold noodles and got the hell out of there.

Man, I wish I'd been there to see it!

Then again, just minutes ago, Ma Lei was riding down on the elevator with the two little dogs. There was a youngish guy, perhaps 20-something, who was looking at her and plucking at his genitals. Not playing, but plucking — like plucking a harp, or picking weeds. 

(We foreigners almost never see how insane Chinese men are with regard to their spastic sexuality, but apparently it knows very few bounds.)

When he saw her looking, he just smiled and carried on plucking, as if he were encouraging something to grow.

Ma Lei turned to him, full-face, hands on her hips, and said “Okay, take off your pants and let me see.”

The guy flushed and put his hands behind his back. He didn’t make eye contact again.

I didn’t marry any submissive wet noodle, that’s for sure!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A friend of mine who goes all the way back to my University of Chicago days recently asked, in her romantic sort of way, "how did you meet your Chinese wife?" The question seemed fairly simple, but the answer comes only in installments.

When I came to China, I had no expectation to meet a wife, though nearly everyone else I knew expected me to. 

I'd heard too many horror stories about marriages between American men and Chinese women, and too few success stories. None, actually. Not a single story of happy union of the kind, and plenty of stories of unhappy ones.

China is probably the only nation on earth with a stronger sense of so-called "exceptionalism" than the United States. It's right there in the name: Zhong Guo, which means "Middle Country" (though it's often translated "Middle Kingdom"). Another way of describing China, usually used in the context of the realm ruled by China's emperor, is "Everything Under Heaven.” Never mind a century and a half of ignominy at the hands of the yangguizi — literally, "Foreign Devils" — the Chinese still feel their own superiority to everyone else. 

Even people who would give anything to get out of China and go to America, still say "and when I get there, I will find a Chinese girl/man to marry." Their modern, internet mythology abounds with stories of evil foreigners, specifically evil foreign men who come here with bad intentions.

Add to that, the Chinese people are essentially binary: the good ones, I would trust with my life without question. The bad ones would steal the clothes off your back and leave you in the middle of the Gobi Desert. The trouble is, the bad ones vastly outnumber the good ones, and for sheer two-faced manipulativeness those wicked Chinese take second place to no other country I know.

And lastly, I have a certain premise about romantic partners, Garmong's Rule. It's perhaps a brutally cruel rule, but one to which I have never personally encountered an exception. It's definitely a relationship guideline for me, personally.

The rule is this: Any woman who is profoundly alienated from her family is almost certainly too full of conflicting desires, fears, and neediness to make a good romantic partner for me. 

I admit the possibility of exceptions, of course, as there always are with psychological phenomena. And other men may have a higher tolerance for the "issues" that arise in that situation, but it's not for me. I am too trusting a person to be with someone who doesn't trust me, and I've got no interest in entering the swirling eddy of comparisons to her abusive or absentee father — or her controlling mother — or her religious-fanatic aunts and uncles — or whomever she was raised with and hates. I'll support her in her struggles, I'll wish her all the best, but I'll back away from romantic involvement. I'd rather be her best friend than her boyfriend.

I suspect that the same problems arise when a woman is alienated from her culture. She may be right to be alienated — it may be a rotten culture, as China is in so many ways — but unfortunately for her and for any man who chooses to be with her, the penalty for being born in a rotten culture is almost always loose screws deep, deep down in the machinery. I don’t have the patience to spend enough time with a spanner such that I might help her solve all her problems, whereupon my great reward is that I get the same relationship I’d have gotten with an un-conflicted woman. “Issues” girls are clearly not for me.

As I've said, my theory is cruel. But to make of oneself an exception to that rule requires an independence so heroic as to be very nearly legendary. I’ve not yet met that woman.

The Chinese women I've met or heard about who've been specifically seeking foreign husbands, have typically fallen into a very small set of neatly-defined categories.

There are the gold-diggers who associate a white face and a paunchy belly with wealth. I’ve got the paunch and the white face, but I'm fairly safe from that category, because I have no wealth until I get around to inheriting it.

There are the green-card-diggers who see an American husband as a "bridge" — literally the word they use when talking among their Chinese friends — to get the hell out of this country. I can't blame them, but I don't care to let them walk to America across my back in stiletto heels to go find a younger/handsomer/wealthier man.

There are a few devoted Christian Chinese women who associate their religion with the West and so wish to find a foreign Christian who can take them away to a more Christian-friendly country. Of course, these tend to overlap with the two previous categories. Not being a Believer, I regard this type as thrice-over hideous, no matter how pretty they may be.

Then there are a minority of Chinese women who have fallen in love with American culture via TV shows and movies they've downloaded from the internet, and who genuinely respond to the freedom and independence of American people.

This last is the only category that I find plausible, but even those are bound to fall afoul of Garmong's Rule. If she's so enamored of the image of the dashing foreigner, she's very likely alienated from her own home environs. And in that case, whether or not she makes a good friend, she surely can't be a girlfriend. Besides which, I want to be loved as one specific person, not a representative of a category.

Oh, and I'm only attracted to women of intelligence and independent, feisty spirit. No limp noodles or subservient Asian stereotypes for me.

So, for me to have fallen in love with a Chinese woman was statistically all-but impossible. 

I would have to find someone who loves her family and her country, who is essentially well-adjusted, yet independent enough to judge her own country objectively. (Lovers of Ma Ze Dong NOT welcome.) She has to NOT be looking specifically for a foreigner, nor for money, nor for an exit from China. And she has to be a woman of extremely high intelligence and a degree of honesty and integrity that is extraordinarily rare in this largely unethical country.

To find what I wanted would be like threading a needle from ten feet away while Fruit Loops kept trying to intercept my thread. It was, of course, impossible. And yet, it happened.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I’m really excited to have started the renovation of Ma Lei’s apartment. It came on us rather suddenly, with a phone call from Ma Lei’s father yesterday afternoon. His friend and sometimes co-worker, whom we’d wanted to hire for the work, is unexpectedly available to start RIGHT NOW. So today, rather than spending the afternoon doing the grading I should have been doing, I jumped in the car with Ma Lei and drove out to the apartment.

It looks as though the bulk of the remodeling will be done before the end of May. Today we got rid of all the furniture except the bed, tore up the cheap flooring that was in there, and also talked to the workman about what Ma Lei wants done. I took a few pictures while we were out there. 

(The bed stays for now, because the worker will be staying in the apartment for the week and a half he'll be working on the project.)

The apartment is shaped roughly like a squat mushroom, with a long great room like a shotgun shack, and a stubby little kitchen sticking off the side like the base of the mushroom.

Here’s the kitchen and the front door, photographed from the long living room.

That awful cabinet will be replaced, and there will be new cabinets installed over the sink. 

There’s going to be a drop-down table on the right, next to the door. The table will fold up when not in use, but can be used for food prep and eating.

I missed a lot of what Ma Lei was telling the workman, but I was fascinated by some of her conversation. She extolled American kitchens for the clever and creative ways we make cabinets. I heard her explain the concept of a lazy Susan, which seems to have impressed her quite a bit on her trip to the States last year. (She might have been telling him to install one, but I think she was just describing the concept in theoretical terms rather than making a request.) 

She also tried to tell him about garbage disposals, but I don't think he ever quite understood that one.

This is taken from the same spot. I’ve just twisted to the right. That bed will be replaced with a built-in bed that has storage underneath. There will be a wall blocking this area off as a proper bedroom. Note the really cheap flooring. We’ll be replacing that with some nice hardwood flooring. 

It wasn’t too hard to convince Ma Lei to splurge on the flooring, since there’s so little of it. (The apartment is only 54 square meters, made even smaller because we obviously won’t be flooring under the built-in bed and cabinetry.)

Another picture of the bedroom, this time with the Boss.

Turning around to see the other end of the apartment, which will also be walled off as an office/guest bedroom. We'll probably eventually install one of those loft units with a bed on top and desk space below. The ceilings are pretty high in this apartment, so someone sleeping in the overhead bed would not feel as though his nose was being squished into the ceiling.

Mimi making friends with the workman. She's such a blonde!

Here’s the view out our one little window. Way off in the distance, just in front of that low range of hills, you can barely see a little sliver of the ocean from our window. I don't think you can quite see it in this picture, but in LA the "ocean view" would add $200,000 to the price of our condo.

It seems a bit unfair for me to hog the window for my office, but I do really enjoy having a window in my workspace. The door to the office will be frosted glass, so at least the natural light can get through to the living room.

 Looking back from the window at the rest of the apartment. Those sliding-glass doors leaning against the wall used to be there to close off the kitchen, but they will become my office doors after the renovation.

The bathroom is through that door, off the kitchen.

I took out most of the money to pay for the renovation this evening after we got back from the Development Zone. This is 15,000 yuan, which is about $2300. All told, the renovation job is supposed to cost about $3200. The labor, 10 days of full-time work, will come to about $320. What would that be, about one day for an American workman?

Ma Lei, who does not understand my obsession for having all my money lined up and facing in the same direction, teased me for having all those Ma Ze Dengs kai hui (hold a meeting). She asked what all those Maos were discussing in their meeting, and I speculated that perhaps they're planning to make it legal to smack your wife if she teases you too much.

Hopefully very soon the pictures of our apartment will look a lot better. Ma Lei will be going out there every day to keep an eye on the work in progress, so I’m quite confident that the job will be well-done. I've seen her in action: she doesn't miss many details, and she doesn't mind telling someone what-for when she thinks he's done a substandard job. 

The amazing thing, which I know I've mentioned here before, is that she manages to cuss people out with such good humor that they're laughing right along with her, even as she's cussing them out. She really should be running her own company!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Early experience of Chinese traffic

This little event happened during my first week of car-ownership, when I was still learning to Drive Like the Tao (to be the topic of a future essay). It was Friday afternoon, and I was coming home from work down the back roads. As I approached the final left-turn before climbing the hill to my apartment complex, I got stuck in the following traffic jam.
 Then I looked to my left and saw this motorcycle zipping down the empty oncoming-traffic lane...
 ...followed by this car...
 ...and yet another motorcycle. Finally I figured I'm being an idiot sitting here in the left-hand lane 100 meters from the actual left turn, so...
 ...I swerved out into the lane that was supposed to be for oncoming traffic, my heart beating as only a rank foreigner's would.
The few oncoming cars swerved around me as if it were perfectly normal and acceptable for me to be in their lane — as in fact it is, in China. In due course, the lane I was squatting in actually became an appropriate left-turn lane, and I fell into line.
 At the intersection, there was this poor, pudgy policeman attempting to impose some sort of order by the mere waving of his hands. Note the bicyclist happily riding the oncoming lane.

After all this, I made my turn without any trouble, and I trucked right up the mountain to home. I'll eventually learn not to worry about this stuff, but for now it's still rather stressful.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Resting, at Last!

People have an image of the leisurely life of a university professor, but that's at least outdated (if it ever was accurate). There are some periods of leisure, to be sure, but the year is punctuated with waves of work (marking papers, meeting writing deadlines, etc.).

The academic semester ends with three or four weeks of howling tornadoes of work. The stress of marking papers builds to a crescendo over the weeks, with the Wagnerian peak of stress coming at the very end, when one has to certify that every detail on one's grade reports is correct.

That morning, one wakes up (or doesn't, having worked through the night) in time to pore over all the numbers one last time, prints everything out, looks over them one last time to make sure there are no typos, then signs one's name literally 60 different places to certify each number. Lastly, one gathers the whole mess of paperwork along with one's giant stack of exams — 300 of them, in my case — for the long march down the hall to the registry office.

If you're like me, by this point your eyes are wide awake but you can't see much; your head is drooping and there's a throb behind your temples; your hands are shaking from exhaustion and caffeine. You finally reach the office, where a staff-member who is probably just as overworked and stressed as you are checks that you've done everything right. (In my case, there are usually a few signatures missed or put in the wrong place.) Then you're done, and you go home to...

... nothing. No work at all. There's nothing to do, but your stressed-out brain can't quite believe it.

So the rest of that day you're in an agitated stupor, shell-shocked, not quite what to do with yourself. If you have a favorite movie, now is a good time to watch it. Don't bother renting a new one to watch, because you won't remember a thing from it anyway. Yesterday was that day, for me.

Today is the first real day of rest after fall semester finally ended. I believe the stress hormones have finally been flushed from my bloodstream, and now I can lean back, relax a little bit, and get started reading up for next semester's classes. There's a lot of work to do during the next six weeks, but I can do it on my own time and wherever I want.

(Old grad student joke: You know you're a grad student when you catch yourself saying "I'm so glad the semester's over so I can finally get some work done! The thing is, that doesn't end after grad school.)

By sheer coincidence, this morning we received a belated shipment from Taobao: three bottles of a really good Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon Ma Lei bought for a song (about $6 apiece). We've been expecting it for days, but the motorcycle-delivery guy was stopped by snow and ice.

His timing couldn't have been better. If they'd come while I was still marking papers I probably would've blasted through all three in as many days, without really tasting a drop. Now I can actually enjoy!

I used Amazon and iTunes Christmas gift cards (thanks, Mom!) to download several books to help my teaching, as well as some good music to listen to while reading.

I also bought one pure pleasure read (Qiu Xiaolong's murder mystery Death of a Red Heroine, set in early 1990s Shanghai). I've already started reading it with my first glass of wine.

It starts with a great "hook" — literally. A riverboat captain plays hooky with his old high school friend whom he hasn't seen in 20 years, to go fishing in a secluded river not yet polluted by the march of factories. They have tremendous success until, just when they're ready to go home, they find the body of a murdered woman. Now the day is ruined: the lovely fish they've caught will have died by the time they wait for the police, make their statements, and fill out the necessary reports. The captain will also have to admit on the reports that he was fishing with his buddy when he should have been moving cargo. Nonetheless, he picks up the phone and calls the police.

That's as far as I've read so far.

I've vowed to savor this wine, so I'll hold myself to two glasses a day. Likewise, the mystery story: I'll read it only while I'm drinking my two glasses. That way I have more incentive to draw out the pleasure of the wine, while at the same time forcing myself to savor the story over more than just a day or two.

Class prep will give me plenty of real work to do this break. Next semester I'm teaching four different classes, three of which will require significant prep work. Two I've never taught before, and one I'm teaching from a very different syllabus than in the past.

I've also vowed to start on my research agenda, which should be fun but a lot of work. I also want to do some more writing on my books about China (both fiction and non-fiction). Also important to me is to start back on my Chinese-language studies. I made a lot of progress last summer, then lost most of it when the teaching year began. I hope I'll be quick to recover the vocabulary and sentence structures I've forgotten in the past 20 weeks.

Crucial, too, is what I am not doing: for the first time since I came to China, I have declined all holiday teaching jobs. I'll probably still tutor my three students, but beyond that I'll do nothing but my own work.

And I can't wait!