Tuesday, March 31, 2009


There is a fruit here, which is apparently especially prized. It looks like a Medieval weapon and smells like severely-used armpits, but if you can get yourself quickly through the odorific aura and into its guts, it is a magnificent treat. It's called a durian.

It is a binary thing, apparently: love or hate. Some Chinese friends have told me that they can't stand it, but I suspect that they've never gotten past the smell and the looks to dip a spoon into its lovely yellow belly.

Trust Mart sells gutted durians, which look like this and cost less than a dollar. This meal can feed you for half a day.

You have to be brave, though. The odor of this thing can own a room, so it really must be eaten... let's say... expeditiously. When you walk into the produce section of any grocery store here, it is an exercise in self-control not to vomit from the locker-room stench of it. How can something that smells so vile taste so good? It's China -- the land of paradoxes.

Spitting in public

It's getting milder here -- and nothing like the horror stories I've heard from my American friends, about piles of snow and near-zero temperatures -- but it's still cold-and-flu season. As I've mentioned, I got a walloping dose of it myself.

I've heard that, according to Chinese medicine, it is unhealthy to swallow phlegm. This sounds pretty reasonable to me. I'm also told that it is considered disgusting to blow one's nose in public, no matter how quietly and discretely. I have seen only two people do it in my six weeks here. Both were students of mine, both female, and both went quietly "puff, puff, puff" into little tissues that quickly disappeared from view. I wouldn't have noticed at all, if I hadn't been alerted to the fact that it's an uncommon practice.

So this leaves really just one option: apparently, the norm (at least for men) is to hawk and spit in public. Because somehow that's not nearly as disgusting as blowing into a tissue. (?!?!)

I had been told that it's considered acceptable for men to spit in public. This was wrong: it's not "accepted," it's a cherished art form. If the normal onomatopoetic "hawk" describes the American practice, here it would be a polysyllable. They lean into it. They relish it. There should be competitions for poetic expectoration.

It seems not to be done indoors, though. I suppose that indoors, there is an assumption that someone will have to clean up after you. Whereas outdoors on the street, the only person "cleaning up" will be some stupid American who walks by looking upwards, as Americans tend to do, instead of down at the ground.

I wonder why Chinese people always take their shoes off when they enter the home.

More Chinese signage

Don't these kids look jaunty? I don't know why someone felt the need for that much detail in a sign that basically comes down to: "Don't run over the children." I especially enjoy the little purse, and what I suppose must be a lunch box.

More on Chinese traffic control

I've posted about the traffic control and signage in China before, but it continues to amaze me. I suppose that they save a lot of money on traffic cops, Chevy cars, bored judges, and pointless attorneys.

This is a traffic circle a couple of blocks from here. If a foolish American is inclined to think that those white stripes mean he can cross the street at any time... Foolish American! The white stripes mean that drivers won't intentionally kill you, as long as you run across the street as fast as you can. Other than that -- no promises!

Here is another view of the same traffic circle. The big white building is the main classroom building, which you've seen in some earlier posts. My home is off to the left.

Almost all taxi cabs I've seen in China have been Volkswagon Santanas. I don't think I had ever seen that particular model before coming here.

I suppose this must mean "don't use your horn here." Either that, or this is the violin section of the orchestra.

Continuing down the road

So just in case you land in this awful beside-the-road ditch, where you could possibly break your neck and die... do we bother to warn you in advance? No, why would we do such a thing? See the rules listed above: There are too many of you, and if you are stupid enough to fall and kill yourself, you are doing the Chinese nation a favor.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Closed off

Last weekend I strolled down the street a block, and the sidewalk had been utterly blocked off. No warning, no notice, no public discussion. When the government decides it's going to happen, it just happens.

I'm not sure if you can tell it from this picture, but there was NO way around this barricade. The street, sidewalk, and parking areas were all entirely closed off.

Religion in America

If I were religious, I would hate what Americans do to religion -- they cheapen it, make it shallow, mean, and ridiculous. Since I am not religious, I hate what religion does to Americans: it cheapens them, makes them shallow, mean, and ridiculous. But I hope that both my religious and my irreligious friends can agree that this is preposterous:


Road Sage

Chinese-style "traffic control" might be arguably described as population control. There seem to be no actual rules of the road, and who owns a particular piece of the lane has much less to do with who has some sort of legal right, than with who has a stronger desire for it.

It is a battle of wills here. You don't worry so much about what you're "supposed" to do, as about what you can do. Elbows are strong in China, and they get used.

Car horns here are a basic means of communication.

Let's say a taxi driver is approaching an intersection, and five people are trying to walk across the street in front of him, while two cab-drivers are trying to move into the street from his right. He can toot his horn, gently, to say "no, you wait: I really want to go now." Another cabbie might lay on his horn, to say "sorry, my passenger is in a hurry, so I'm going to go anyway." The first cabbie will either slow down and let the more-urgent driver get through, or lay harder on his own horn. It's a kind of nonverbal communication that a professor could write books about.

Of course we poor pedestrians don't have horns, but we have body language: if someone really has to get where they're going, they will step out in front of a speeding bus, and either it slows down to let them pass or it doesn't and they step back. You get really good at figuring out who is more determined.

It's been described by some other writers as a game of Frogger, that computer game from my childhood days. I think this comparison is only half-accurate. At least when you're trying to cross the street in China you are able to communicate by smiling and nodding at the drivers, or leaning forward, or leaning backward. It all seems somehow sophisticated.

The funny thing is, you know, it works. And as a friend of mine said, "don't fix it, cuz it ain't broken."

By the way, after living in China for a month and a half, I'm starting to wonder why we Americans even have horns our cars. We don't really use them to communicate with other drivers -- if you toot your horn, it's because you're crazy-mad at someone. So if you think about it, the horn on your car in America is like a raised middle finger: something you should never really use. Surely it's crazy for us to spend extra money to have it installed in our cars. Upon reflection, the Chinese system seems so much more polite to me.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sick, sick, sick

I am a disgusting creature, full of drainage and drippings, and parts that go "squish" when touched. I ache as if my entire body were a giant bruise. Thank God for my friends who brought me medicines yesterday, because I couldn't leave my home to crawl for a glass of water if I were dying of thirst. Ugh!

Friday, March 27, 2009


Ugh! I'm dreadfully sick today. My head is throbbing, and my throat is in full-scale rebellion against me. I came over here with a terrible cold that hasn't yet left me, so I've now got some sort of cruel commingling of Eastern and Western germs. I'm sure there's a metaphor in that, but my brain is too feverish and addled to tease it out. I am going to call in sick and go back to bed, hopefully to recover before next week.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Smooth sailing so far

Things are pretty smooth here. It's shocking to me that we are now almost through the fourth week of the semester! Soon I'll have my first graded assignments, and I probably won't have time to blink before it's summer and I'm on top of the Great Wall.

There is an interesting aspect of the Chinese standard of living. You can live very comfortably on nothing, but there's a huge gap between this level and a yuppie-American lifestyle. Say, for example, I decided to buy a bicycle, or upgrade the furnishings in my apartment, or buy some electronics or new clothes. These things would cost the same or slightly more than they do in the States, and would quickly gobble up that inexhaustible paycheck. It's okay, though: I love my life without such things. At least for now, I'd much rather see some debts disappear and save some money.

Teaching is still fun and interesting. There's an incredible, massive, frightening gap between the best students and the worst -- WAY more so than in the States -- but many of my students are quite hard-working and good. Teaching Spoken English is especially fun, because it's basically a two-hour conversation every class. Sometimes I'll have a little lecture, but mainly I have the students practice English in small groups, and then we have class discussions.

Most of the kids seem to love the class, and they are very animated. They seem to act about 5 years younger than equivalent American students, which at its best means that the classroom bubbles with giggles and rapid-fire conversation. At its worst, it means that they are socially awkward, have a very hard time interacting with students they don't know very well (especially the opposite sex), and will frequently pretend they didn't hear or understand instructions they don't want to obey.

Chinese people have an amazing stolidness, that as far as I know it is unique to the Chinese. If a Chinese person does not want to move, you might as well try to budge an 80-foot statue of the Buddha. Sometimes I feel like I need a pair of spurs for class. It's absolutely maddening!

I'm still making lots of friends, and I get out more often here than I ever have elsewhere. Last night I went out for hot pot with a friend who is a researcher at the Fisheries University near where I walked on that snowy day last month. He's a very philosophical guy, and the conversation was interesting even through his halting English. I've learned a lot about Chinese culture from my friends here. There's no religion here to speak of, at least not in the American way, and there's a great love of freedom. For me, this is a perfect combination.

(Hot pot, by the way, is something I had heard of but never tried. It was a pot of boiling broth in the middle, divided down the middle into one half spicy and the other half mild. Various uncooked meats and vegetables came to the table, and we threw them into the broth. My favorite was lamb, sliced very thinly just like double-wide strips of bacon. There was also a kind of paste that looked like thick pancake batter, which we dropped in one spoonful at a time. It turned out to be fish of some kind, and was very tasty. I'm told the fish is a specialty of the restaurant, which is called Care For You. I still chuckle at Chinese naming.)

Dinner for two at a very nice, clean restaurant, including a 500 ml Tsingtao mega-beer for each of us, came to 106 rmb: about $16. Back home, you'd be lucky if that covered the beers! I probably sound like a broken record with this stuff, but I just can't get over the prices.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Acting down

Friday night, I threatened to throw three students out of my classroom.

Not because they were making too much noise -- they were silent. Not because they were acting up -- they weren't acting at all. Is there such a thing as a student acting down?

My students all have a government-issued textbook from the "Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press," printed on pulp paper, with cartoons and fairly condescending text and exercises. Think of a poorly-done sixth-grade reader, being served up to college-aged kids. I don't blame the students for disliking the text, but at least it gives us all something to work from. The first week of class, I told them that we shall get away from the text as much as possible, but they need to bring it every week.

Friday night I began with a fairly rudimentary exercise in comprehension and conversation, based on the text. I had them read a page of one-line arguments, in which they were supposed to identify premise and conclusion (or, as the text numbly termed it, "opinion" and "reason"). I knew it was basic stuff, but I intended for it to start off our classroom conversation.

This class of 20 included only one small, timid clot of boys, clustered on the right, away from the door, in the back two rows. As the rest of the class broke out their texts, it became quickly apparently that none of the boys had brought it with them. The rest got to work reading, while they just sat there in silence, as if on guard duty.

I gave them a minute or two to solve their own problem, then I turned their direction and said, sotto voce, "if you don't have the text, please find someone who does so you can work with them."

One of the three boys moved, turning wide and plaintive eyes to the other two for clues to how he should behave. The largest boy, seated in the middle with a fashionable woolen overcoat and brushed-back pompadour, leaned back and crossed his arms. The third boy made no move to question me, nor to defy me -- he just sat. No one moved but me, walking to the opposite corner to give them a moment.

I sniffed a handful of distinct scents in their various reactions: Hatred for the text. Shame for having failed to bring it. Squiggly unwillingness to ask a girl for help. Fear of what horrible things might happen if they actually had to work directly with a girl. Alpha-male pack challenge to my authority. None of it smelled good.

Finally, after another minute or two of silent indolence, I walked back to the podium and asked the three of them directly: "is there a reason you are refusing to accept my instructions?"

No answer. Finally, I had reached my end. I told them that if they continued to refuse to obey simple instructions, "I will have to ask you to leave my classroom." The timid twist-necked boy looked up and met my eye for the first time. The pompadour grinned arrogantly. The other boy gave no reaction.

A girl from across the aisle quietly slipped them the text, and they bent their three heads to it. When I called upon each of them, that first time, they had at least done the (very easy) assignment.

Later in the class, though, I assigned the students to read slightly more complex arguments. Not difficult, but marginally more so.

This time, pompadour did just fine -- he even volunteered extra information beyond the question I had asked. The third boy gave a so-so response. But the swivel-necked boy said "I did not look at the text." Then he dropped his head in shame. I quickly turned to another student, but I knew that I must find a better way to work with this odd cultural dynamic.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Aquatic Dictator

China is ruled by an absolute dictator. This dictator has ruled from ancient times, sometimes more harshly, sometimes less. Nowadays, it claims its authority based on the peasants and the downtrodden, and they feed its power regularly.

The native Chinese learn to obey its absolute dictates, and so they seldom feel the lash of its whips, and foreigners are its main victims. Those who obey it have little to fear, but those who do not may be abused, even tortured. In certain extreme cases, they can be taken to institutions with others who have foolishly disobeyed its commands. There, they may suffer so horribly that they beg to be put to death. And in rare cases they are, though their deaths are not discussed.

I am talking, of course, about the kitchen tap.

The tap-water here looks perfectly clear, and it smells of nothing at all, but it is always to be regarded as contaminated. It may be boiled for use in tea or soup, but it may never be consumed directly. It's hard for a Westerner to imagine a city of millions, all living in fear of their own water, but here we have it.

I have received two pieces of sage advice from Westerners who have spent time in places such as this (one in Mexico, the other in China). The first person told me to consume at least a small sip of alcohol with every meal, to help kill the bugs. The second said I should always brush my teeth with tap water, but then to spit it out rather than swallowing it. The small amount of bacteria, she suggested, might help build my tolerances.

These are somewhat contradictory (should I attempt to cultivate nasty bacteria, or kill them all with liquor?), and they both sound like old wives' tales. However, given the choice between the two, I prefer to obey the former and ignore the latter.

I have developed a morning routine that seems to have kept me safe. I do brush my teeth with tap water, but the second I'm done I rinse with Bering, which is a horrid Listerine knock-off. It tastes like mildly mint-flavored antifreeze, but I figure if it does such nasty things to my mouth it must be doing even more lethal things to the bugs. After I've finished, I rinse again with bottled water.

The odd, shiny appliance over the sink turned out in fact to be a dish decontaminator, as I had initially surmised. Chinese friends, though, have puzzled over it and had to read all the characters on its front before they knew what it was supposed to do. I guess it's not a common Chinese appliance -- either because they are all used to bacteria, or because they drink alcohol with every meal. I'm not sure which, but I'm happy to have it. I find that it's handy for keeping many things stay fresh, such as my kitchen sponge or my Sonicare toothbrush head.

In combination, these various forms of self-protection seem to have kept me relatively safe. I've had a couple of very mild attacks of traveler's tummy, but generally I've been fine.