Things We have in Common

^yes, I know that’s an impressive and creative blog title.

The past few months have been filled with work. Teaching, grading, homeworking, job searching and surviving whatever China throws my way. Living here for so long has given me a chance to absorb the culture in a deeper way. Visiting China for a few weeks or months lets you see only superficial differences and similarities. The same can be said about any country but China often takes longer to digest, particularly for Americans. It is vastly different than our home.  For example:

-Chinese use “squatty potty” toilets.  These are porcelain bowls that lie flat on the ground, sinking in the center to collect your business.  If you can’t hold your own body weight in a squat position, good luck to you in China.

-Getting around on public transportation in a crowded country is much different than driving yourself everywhere. I use a basketball defense tactic to survive here. I “keep my head on a swivel”.  As explained by my high school basketball coach/dad you have to keep one eye on the ball and one eye on your offensive player while still communicating with your teammates. In China, you have to keep one eye on surprisingly strong and agile grandmas and one eye on motor bikes while still trying to figure out where you are going.

-Food habits. Chinese people eat: smaller portions, healthier food and from what I can tell way more fruits and vegetables than we do.  They often prefer tea to coffee. Everyone seems to eat meals at generally the same time. Many times food is shared among several dishes, instead of everyone having their own plate.

-Language barriers. English is hard, just ask my students or look at your Facebook newsfeed if you disagree. It’s not like Chinese is any easier for us to learn. Often I’m reduced to communicating like a 3 year old in China. I can say things like “I WANT THIS” or “GIVE TO ME”. Many times I resort to grunting and pointing. Example:  “Uh! Uh!” *points at piece of cake* ….. “HOW MUCH”?

We have different education systems, schools of thought, measurement systems, governments, etc. But at the end of the day, I think we have more in common than we realize.

Hear me out.

Men have no problem saying what they want to strangers.  

What is this phenomena? Whether it’s an unintelligible yelp or an unwanted comment on appearance, guys love to talk at strangers. I have no memory of a woman I don’t know ever yelling at me from afar or bluntly asking personal questions. Men have talked at me or ‘hollered’ at me all over China and all over the continental United States. A while ago I was in a massage chair sitting next to a very old Chinese man. I could tell he wanted to talk to me. I could see the curiosity in his eyes.

After ten minutes of staring he poked me and asked  “are you Russian”? I said “No, American”. He was visibly thrown by my nationality. I noticed a lady with the same curiosity sitting on the other side of me, she did not say a word.  Guys have hung out of car windows in China shouting “ HALLO!!! HALLO!!” at me. You might be thinking “aww, they are just curious!” Which is true. It’s just odd to me that men feel it is OK to speak bluntly and/or loudly to whomever while women, who are presumably just as curious, have a tendency to be quieter. In America comments are usually flirtatious in nature. One time this toothless man leaned out of his red rust bucket of a truck and asked me for my phone number while I was waiting to cross the street. What on earth gave him the confidence to ask?

I feel like most women wouldn’t do such a thing.  I think I know why though; the dressing room mirrors at H&M have sucked the confidence right out of us. This leads to my second point of commonality.

H&M’s dressing room mirrors are the worst.

Never have I ever left an H&M dressing room and said “wow, glad I went in there! I feel thin and beautiful and I have great pores!”  Since this is the only store in China where I can find clothes that fit, I’ve been forced to break a rule I made for myself in America. Never ever under any circumstance go into an H&M dressing room. Self-esteem, pride and any form of dignity are ruined if not for the rest of the week at least that day.  If they fixed those torture chambers, I’m pretty sure customers would buy more. Can I get a woot, woot? Come on, H&M! I need to look good so I can attract more men in rusty red trucks.

Don’t we all want to be beautiful? The desire to be deemed beautiful is also something we share.

Vanity.

Our culture is obsessed with looks and the individual. We want, so desperately, to be perceived as beautiful and financially stable by our peers. Why else would we spend hours getting the best selfie for Instagram? Humblebragging is too real.  I remember being in 6th grade and really a caring a lot about my blue glitter eye shadow and whether or not the boys would think it was pretty.  Is this where guys get their justification for commenting on our looks? If our goal is to be attractive then are cat calls not signs of success? Hmm. What a complex.

Anyway, there is a new class of young Chinese who are obsessed with looks and money.  As the economy continues to gain strength, so does the pressure to look the wealthy part. Make up, plastic surgery, hair care, fancy clothes and accessories have exploded in popularity. That’s usually followed with a healthy dose of vanity and sprinkles of narcissism. I watched a girl conduct a full selfie photo shoot over dinner while her brother held his iPhone flash to give her the perfect lighting for the perfect picture. She was moving around her table, posing and changing angles and making a scene for an hour or more. We thought maybe she was famous, so the guy at our table asked.  She wasn’t but was incredibly flattered by his blunt question.

I couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous she looked and how ridiculous I’ve probably looked time and time again trying to be ‘pretty’. There are many ridiculous photos of me and all I can do is laugh at them now. I believe fully in laughing at yourself and life in general because it’s ridiculous no matter what county or hemisphere you are in.

Laughter.

I was riding one of the public buses a few weeks ago when a group of old men, presumably buddies, all sat around me. Busses often have videos playing for passengers. Sometimes it’s news, sometimes it is funny home videos. That day? Videos of babies, adults and animals falling down. It was hilarious. The best clip was a big fluffy dog steam rolling a toddler. The balding men with belted slacks up to their belly buttons howled in laughter, as did I. Chinese people have a great sense of humor, just like Americans.

Chinese people also love their country and are typically proud to be Chinese in the same way we love America and are proud of our country. They know China isn’t perfect and understand the problems facing their giant home. China has: smart people, dumb people, kind-hearted and broken-hearted people. China has poor people, rich people. Most are generous, some are selfish. Many are hardworking, but plenty are lazy. Essentially, China has many different kinds of people. Just like we do in America. We are uniquely human and as Miranda Lambert says “it takes all kinds of kinds”. This holds true in both countries.

For so long China and the United States have been enemies with nothing nice to say to one another. We think differently and we operate in a totally different way. But I think the biggest source of resentment comes from our strongest similarity. We both (generally speaking) desire to be in charge of the world order. China feels it has been duped by foreign powers in the past century and is on its’ rightful path back to the top. The US sees itself as the global peace keeper, dutifully managing the world.

Can the two co-exist at the top? We both value stability and rely on each others’ success for our own. Chinese watch American movies and TV shows. They listen to our music and send over 400,000 students to our universities every year. They are well on their way to being a bi-lingual nation. China’s government has bailed out our federal government, more than once. They know about us, but we don’ know about them. I’m oversimplifying the relationship, but we should know more about our powerful friend in the East. This is why it is so, insanely important more college students study abroad in China! I think that’s the best place to start better understanding.

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My Students

Today concludes the fourth week of our spring semester here at Hangzhou Dianzi University. I have 6 classes that meet once a week for an hour and a half and I have 145 students in total.  My students are curious, diligent, smarter than me, and the best behaved students in the history of the world. They are mostly sophomore English majors and come from almost every province in China. They come to class with their homework done, eyes wide open and an English-Chinese dictionary in hand. My university is a tier two university. It’s difficult to get in to, but many were aiming for a tier one university.  They got into Kent State instead of Brown University.  Their families aren’t necessarily rich and many of my students come from small towns across the country.

All of my students had to pass the Gao Kao to get into school. If I haven’t mentioned this before, it’s the notorious test that students have to take to get into college. They had to prepare their entire lives to pass it. Growing up my students weren’t going to dance class, playing on the basketball teams or any other kind of extra- curricular. They were students. They didn’t go to parties at friends’ houses. They weren’t sneaking alcohol in their parents’ basement, hanging out with boyfriends or going to the movies. They were studying.  No camps, no sleepovers, no campfires, no real social life. If you want to be a basketball player, you make that mutually exclusive career choice and go at it full time early in life.

Many of their parents probably didn’t finish school. During the 60s and 70s our parents were getting groovy, playing funky music, fluffing their hair and wearing bell bottom jeans. (RE: Everything about Farrah Fawcett. RIP, girlfriend). But in China? They were sent to farms for labor education, wearing Mao suites and watching a communal TV with their village (if they had one). We were sending people to the moon and China was shutting down universities. We were protesting a war with China/Vietnam while Chinese were rationing meat to only three meals a year. Remember the ping pong scene in Forest Gump? Yeah. That was Mao’s hay day, his face is all over that movie.  Our parents were learning about literature, science, math, etc. Meanwhile China’s parents were trying to survive the disaster that was the end of Mao’s rule. Communism is so great.

I joke…. Luckily, contrary to what we perceive in the west, China really is not that communistic of a state anymore. It’s a one party system with a capitalist economy. So please, stop saying “you’re looking a little red” when I come home. China is no longer a “commy” state. Here, if you fall through the cracks, there are no homeless shelters, food stamps, or churches delivering meals. There are no health departments, social programs or any sort of safety net. Not everyone gets a bowl of rice here. In America? There are plenty more resources for those in need. Is it perfect? No, but it’s something. There is no Child Protective Services, foster care system or anything to care for abandon children other than a few independent organizations functioning on bare bones budgets. There are over a billion people here. New York City is a drop in the water compared to China. Problems are difficult to solve around these highly populated parts.

I digress.

China has since welcomed foreigners to come and help them modernize. One of the biggest efforts has been the addition of English to their curriculum. China has to be able to communicate with the world. If they can’t speak a global language, that makes it pretty difficult to re-join the international scene. Hence, the welcome of foreign English teachers. Seriously, I have an official card that says “Foreign Expert”. I am expert in that I know what ‘the outside’ is like.  It can be frustrating as an English teacher in China. Many day to day elements are seemingly inefficient, wrong and silly to our minds. For example: why doesn’t anybody come observe my classroom? Seriously, I could be teaching them Portuguese and not a soul would notice.  Then I realized that the students are the ones keeping us in line. My students would not put up with a lazy or incompetent teacher. Did I mention they are much smarter than me? When I walk into class and see their eager faces, it is truly remarkable.

I am lucky though. Some of my teacher friends are in situations much worse. There are many universities in China. The demand for a degree is so high that many are in operation solely because students of wealthy parents couldn’t pass the Gao Kao but their parents can afford a degree.  In these schools the students can be lazy. Then there are the richest kids. They go to an English speaking country for university.

My students live in a dorm room with 6 to 8 people per room. No air conditioning, no heat. They share public bathrooms and a dorm monitor checks the beds every night to make sure they are all accounted for.  Only a few go out and drink alcohol when they sing karaoke. Most have never set foot in a club. Even fewer have ever had a girlfriend or boyfriend.  The girls do not wear make- up, the guys do not wear shorts, ever. Most if not all wore uniforms to school through high school so now they express themselves with the two or three outfits they have in their closet. In class, they naturally separate by gender when choosing seats. They are mostly only children. They are 21 and 22 years old, but parallel American 15 and 16 year olds in maturity and independence. (Are they immature or are we sexualizing the hell out of our teens? Not sure.) They love American TV shows like Modern Family and movies like Iron Man. They want to be translators, tour guides, teachers, and business people, own coffee shops and maybe travel outside of China one day.

They have a wonderful sense of humor and love to have fun. They can zip through worksheets at lightning speed and read novels in English. Most have studied the language for 8-10 years. They can’t pronounce everything correctly, but it’s the most heartwarming thing in the world to hear them trip over their words. One student tried to do the  “eeny, meeny, miney, moe” thing and just butchered it by saying “ EENER, MEENER, MINER, MOH”.  He looked at me, and I looked at him. He knew he messed it up but couldn’t tell why. I stifled by laugh and said “Pudding, there is no R sound in any of that”. He replied “Ok teacher. Then how dew AH chews next person?” ….Just point to somebody, Pudding….just point!

In the meantime, I’m also collecting and entering data for my thesis. It is zero fun. I still need over 300 survey’s…so I should get back to work. Wish me luck!

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Pictures of my school and classroom.

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This is where they scroll through their cell phones, whisper the answers to each other and laugh at teacher Crystal.

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State of the art technology and beautiful interior design at HDU. Chalkboards are so innovative.

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The giant stairwell that funnels the bah-gillion students.

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View from the front entrance of my  building.

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The front of my building. Notice the lack of doors. It’s just an open walkway so that any sort of weather element is also inside the building!

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View of the ‘main drag’ of my campus.

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This is where the shuttle bus (looks like a charter bus) picks us up and drops us off.

These ugg boots keep on walking

I have done a bit of traveling the past two months. After my teaching semester ended I went home for a short but sweet 12 days. I was able to see my mom and dad, which was great. They do really nice things like give me hugs and make dinner. I was very lucky in that I got to see many of my friends too. My friends are total rock stars. It makes my heart happy to see them working hard to chase what they want in life. Spending time and laughing with my pals is when I am happiest. I hope you all know how special you are to me even if I forget to respond to your texts/messages/emails/tweets/comments sometimes. PLZ 4GIVE ME.

Once I came back from America (20 lbs. heavier than when I arrived 12 days earlier) I had prepared to travel for 20 days around China with my friend Sam. We’ve both studied China and were more interested in domestic China travels. I personally wanted to add to my experiences in 2011 as a study abroad student. I lived in a city called Xi’an. Studying abroad in Xi’an would be similar to a Chinese student studying abroad in say, Philadelphia. Both cities are rich with political history and unique culture.

Through that experience I dove right into the thick of China and was able to begin understanding how complex and expansive modern China really is. Most people know Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. But I was and am interested in the ‘meat’ of China. When people visit the United States and only see New York City they miss out on a lot of our culture and our way of life by not exploring the rest of our country. A small town in Alabama is a far cry from the life of a New Yorker. Native Americans living on reservations and Spanish speaking families in southern California live a life vastly different than Mormons in Utah and Baptists in Virginia. Texas alone has a mirage of people with different languages, religious beliefs and lifestyles. China too has these comparable diversities of religion, culture and lifestyle.

(Speaking of Texas, a fun fact for your day: Chinese were the first to invent gun powder and made the first version of the modern gun. The Mongols had ruled China for 700 years and the Chinese used ‘guns’ to drive them out. The black plague was also helpful in weakening the Mongol rule.)

My first ‘time’ in China was spent traveling and learning about ancient history. This time around my studies and travels have been more focused on modern history. The past century in China is packed so densely with major events that one could spend a life time studying the details.

With this in mind I chose to travel to the southern cities that were instrumental in changing and reviving the Chinese economy over the past 50 years. The southern cities have a tropical climate, often speak their own dialect, Cantonese, and tend to be more exposed to western influence.  The south is where The Open Door Policy began in 1978 which made China the ‘world’s factory’ and allowed the Chinese economy to breathe after decades of economic travesties. The Chinese government developed special economic zones, opened foreign trade and began building factories to create the largest movement of migrants in peace time, ever. Below is a brief description of the cities I traveled to and why they are important to Chinese history and/or economy.

Guangzhou – The capital of Guangdong province. (A province is similar to a state. They answer to the national government but do have autonomy over certain jurisdictions. Some provinces are wealthier than others. California has more commerce than Louisiana.  Zhejiang Province has more money than Hunan Province, etc.) Most overseas Chinese are from this region, nearly 70% according to the museum we visited. It is close to Hong Kong and trading has been comparatively easy for this area. For this reason it is the third largest city in China and as a white, blonde foreigner I was rarely stared at meaning foreigners are a common sight there. A telltale sign it is a sophisticated city. It was also one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. Green vines wrapped around the highway system that stacked four tiers high in the middle of the city. The streets were lined with giant trees and electronic markets were abundant. Shower heads, ceiling lights, ipads, cell phones, headphones, DVDs, remote controls, microphones…..anything you could think of was for sale in Guangzhou. Whether it is spill over products from the factories or just knock offs from China’s notorious lack of intellectual property rights ….it was all there.

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Zhuhai – A pleasant surprise. A small city at the southern border of China this city was supposed to be a chance for Sam and I to rest and catch up with our homework as we still had assignments due during our travels. Zhuhai overlooks the South China Sea and is a lovely, calm, peaceful coastal city. Our hostel was on the 17th floor and overlooked the water with a patio like balcony. It was in essence, a lovely break from the chaos that is China. I heart Zhuhai.

I don’t have any pictures from Zhuhai. As a consolation, here is a picture of me as tourist for Halloween senior year at Marietta College. Everyone guessed I dressed up as a mom…I was all like NO THAT WAS FRESHMAN YEAR.

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……..Anyway.

Macau – Formerly a Portuguese colony, Macau today is better known for its casinos and is an autonomous region of China. (Similar to Puerto Rico and the United States). It has its own currency and the official languages are Portuguese and Chinese. We walked to Macau from Zhuhai. It took 3 hours to walk less than half a mile through customs at the border crossing. We were herd like cattle alongside a bah-gillion Chinese. There were sensors screening body temperatures to catch any cases of Ebola trying to move about. No fun was had that day.

Once you make it through that hassle, Macau is a fun place. There are historic districts with European architecture and ruins of religious relics. We walked around, taking pictures and such then hit up the casinos. I lost 400 Macau dollars in less than an hour on penny slots. Annnnd I was finished with that particular activity for the rest of time. I did find a side room that sold an array of fancy cocktails and played Beyoncé songs. It was a dream come true. After my cocktail I walked around and watched Chinese gamble intensely with thousands of dollars at black jack tables. Men and women alike were wearing tennis shoes and t-shirts. I thought it would be like Vegas where everyone wears sparkling dresses and heels and cocktails are free flowing from chandeliers and strippers roam around wearing tassels giving consultation prizes of naked jumping jacks to poor saps who lost their money because we all know strippers aren’t going to sit you down for a heart to heart about your gambling problem and guide you in a time of financial loss. (breathe) No. Macau was for serious gamblers. Gambling addicts. Gambling machines. No fun. Just gambling. I went back to my cocktail room where I could invest my finances wisely.

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This casino is for the professional gamblers. Not tourists like ourselves.

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Evidence of the European architecture.

Hong Kong – After the whirlwind of Macau, we took a ferry over choppy waters to Hong Kong. I only had to hold back throwing up 5 times! The 40 minute ride delivered us to the most insane city I’ve ever been to. A British colony until 1997, Hong Kong has widespread English, its own currency, and a 100% urban population. It was like Shanghai, New York city and London all on top of each other. I didn’t even take that many pictures because I couldn’t.  The best part about this city was the food. Burgers, burritos, ice cream, Korean BBQ, sushi, noodles, dim sum…If I gained 20 lbs in America, I gained 30 in Hong Kong. (I’m just kidding. I don’t really know how much I weigh. But I do know that my pants are tight and my chin seems to have developed a Siamese twin in every picture from this trip.)

Hong Kong is an autonomous region of China and is extremely important to the Chinese economy. It is a port city for goods to come into the country and it headquarters many international businesses. Foreigners are more comfortable living there and it’s the gateway to China for many business people who aren’t ready for the ordeal that is mainland China.

Also, a bird pooped on me while I was walking around Hong Kong. A definitive sign the mega metropolis and I were not meant to be.

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Big Buddha in Hong Kong, the classic tourist destination.

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Korean BBQ in Hong Kong. I blame my lack of cool pictures from Hong Kong on the smog and overcrowded sidewalks.

Shenhzen – From Hong Kong we traveled back into the mainland of China via subway system. Again, walking through customs. These lines weren’t as long nor as strenuous. I guess more people want out of China than in. Shenzhen was the first Special Economic Zone in China during the Open Door Policy.  A city built for one reason, and one reason only, to grow the economy. People who live in Shenzhen aren’t from there. Instead they are migrant workers (remember earlier when I mentioned a mass migration?).  It is a modern city with a subway system, an airport and shopping centers like you wouldn’t believe. One thing we didn’t think about in advance was the effects of the Lunar New Year. Tradition dictates that during this holiday everyone travels home to spend time with family. We thought that this would happen on the first day of the New Year, but in China this celebration lasts for nearly two weeks and almost everything shuts down. All the things we planned to see were closed during our final leg of the trip. We should have known this was coming…but we underestimated how hard things shut DOWN during this holiday.

So. We cut our losses, ate KFC and walked around alleys watching little kids play with sparklers. As the sun went down the number of fireworks went up. We watched the sky and the streets light up as the wreck less fire play consumed the locals. We ate even more when we found street vendors with eggplants the size of our heads. Grilled with a side of mushrooms with garlic and spices it was delicious. Sitting there, eating the mess of food in front of me and watching families play in the streets with their children and neighbors was a moment I’ll never forget. It was one of those moments in China when you can see through the smog and feel the heart of the culture beating. You can truly feel the magnitude of a people who are as resilient as they are brilliant. The past century for China was humiliating because of how far they fell. China kept up with the Persians, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and whatever empire paralleled in the west. China was right there inventing the printing press, the examination system, gun powder, schools of thought, and producing goods that were in high demand all over the world.  While the west has seen the demise of empire after empire with new powers arising, the Chinese always find a way to regain strength. Which is exactly what they are doing now. They have a long way to go and many problems to tackle, but if anyone can do it, it’s China. It’s a fascinating time to be here.

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This map outlines our travels. Sort of. I tried to edit this map in “Paint”.

Also, in case you are curious about the cost of all this below is the price of some of our tickets and hostels. This is in USD and the estimates are rough.

Flight from Hangzhou to Guangzhou: $70

Flight from Shenzhen to Hangzhou: $70

Train from Guangzhou to Zhuhai: $20

Ferry from Macau to Hong Kong: $50

Subway from Hong Kong to Shenzhen: $5

Hostel in Guangzhou: $9/night

Hostel in Zhuhau: $8/night

Hotel in Macau: $60/night

Hostel in Hong Kong: $21/night

Hostel in Shenzhen: $7/night

As you can imagine, I spent most of my money on food. WORTH IT!

Thoughts and Things

UPDATE: I have completed the fall semester of my graduate program and it begins again with the spring semester this weekend. The final week of my teaching semester concluded this week and in a few days I will be on my way home for 12 days. Then I’ll be returning for a three week adventure to the southern cities of China: Guangzhou, Macau, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.  In wrapping up/preparing for all of these things, I’ve been a little busy. I also had to binge watch the first two seasons of House of Cards. Judge me! I needed a dose of American culture, okay?

Anyway, my students have been preparing for their final projects the past two weeks. I have asked them to either do a presentation, make a video, or poster to highlight why foreigners should visit China. I gave them time in class to work together and ask questions should they have any. As I walked around and talked to them, most said they would highlight the food, the culture, the scenery and the people of China. All the usual suspects. But then I kneeled down to ask one student what his group was going to talk about. He looked at me genuinely and said “If you don’t know about China, you don’t know what 25% of the world is doing.”

Whoa. I had never thought of it that way. But he’s right, well, mostly right. China’s population stands officially at 1,355,692, 576 according to the CIA’s World Fact Book. India comes in second with a population of over 1.2 billion and then The United States sits comfortably in third with over 318 million people. In fact, if you combine the population of the US, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, and Nigeria (the most populous nations after China and India) it is still less than that of China’s. The world has 7 billion people, so actually China makes up less than 20% of it, but hey, I’ve never been a mathematician. Either way that’s still a massive chunk of the population. As somebody who generally dislikes math and numbers, I wasn’t about to challenge this students calculations.

Actually, I’ve always hated math and numbers because there are so many rules to follow. I’ve never been a fan of rules or doing things just because somebody said I should.  I question things almost to a fault sometimes. Maybe I’m stubborn or bull headed. Or maybe it comes from the all the times my dad tricked me into thinking our food was finally being served in restaurants when I was little.

Dad: “Oh boy. Looks good, here it comes!” strategically sitting facing the kitchen. 

Me: “OH MY GOSH I’m SO EXCITED TO EAT I’M 7 AND I AM ABOUT TO BOUNCE OUT OF MY SEAT!!! I LOVE FOOD!!!” obliviously chose the seat not facing the kitchen. 

Waitress: …..Says nothing because she wasn’t actually coming and I was left to wait for what felt like an eternity.

Me: “I’ve been fooled! Again! Daaaad!”

I take food seriously and still second guess people when people ‘say’ they see the food coming in restaurants. I know, my childhood was ROUGH.

As I got older, this questioning matured and my suspicions matured past whether or not pops was fooling me about dinner plates. Once I got to college, I couldn’t help but want to know more about China after learning about globalization and having many Chinese classmates. I am not wrong in saying many Americans think China is a weird, backwards, *gasp* communist, dirty, and godless country. Could these things be true? I had some serious questions that needed answered about this place. After studying abroad twice in China and returning for this grad school experience, I am starting to finally scratch the surface of a country who’s history exceeds 5,000 years and population exceeds one billion. China is the only one of the four ancient civilizations who has survived to today. The Great Wall of China is older than the United States. Maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from this old country. We are the two most powerful countries in the world after all.

The past century was an exception for China. China was doing just fine in the 1700’s and early 1800’s.  So well in fact that they isolated themselves from the rest of the world because they didn’t need to be bothered with the worlds problems.  They missed new technology and started to fall behind internationally. China, thus, was weakened greatly before and during the industrial revolution propelled the west. The mid 1800’s brought the Opium Wars with Britain. China lost the wars and Hong Kong. Then War Lords took over the weakened state, ending the Qing dynasty in 1912. Civil War followed, interrupted by WWI and WWII and brutal Japanese invasions. China was a mess. Slowly Mao Ze Dong united the country and founded the Communist Party in 1949. Still revered as a the founder of China, he had a few whoopsies in the end of his rule. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution caused remarkable damage. Agriculture, academia, the economy and international relations were damaged immensely in a few short years. Would China ever return to it’s rightful place in the world? According to history, yes. (Save that for another blog post). After Mao passed, China’s  future was questionable. But a man named Deng Xiaoping implemented policies that started China on a trajectory that took the world by surprise. In 1978 The Open Door Policy was implemented and agriculture started to be restored and the factories begin to open. China quickly became the worlds factory. Couple this economic growth, another phase of globalization fueled by the internet, tough decisions and hard work by China’s people and government and in 30 years Beijing is hosting the 2008 Olympics.

As a disclaimer, I have a very basic understanding of China’s history.  There are much smarter and better educated people than myself writing wonderful books about China. There is one author in particular that I admire. Peter Hessler. He has 4 books on China. I encourage anyone who is interested in China to read them. 🙂

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I could talk about China all day. Since I studied abroad here in 2011, not a day went by where I didn’t think about China or returning to China. When I decided to return, I knew that if I had wanted something for 3 years I must really want it. I find this place captivating, intriguing, challenging, fascinating and filled with endless opportunities. I decided to return knowing I would miss out on a few things at home, like Christmas. To be fair, when you are a single 25 year old only child…..Christmas really isn’t that fun. Also, nothing takes the Christmas spirit out of you like trying to explain Christmas to a bunch of Chinese students.

“Santa is this man who isn’t real, but maybe once was, who brings gifts to everyone….kids think he’s real…..they write letters…..But it’s actually a religious holiday …so I don’t really know where the santa thing came into play…reindeer, they aren’t actually real, but they’re like deer AND everyone buys a tree….you spend a bunch of money to wrap presents and there’s a lot of glitter and movies and songs annnndddd…..erh. uh. Yeah.” It is all a little crazy, isn’t it?

Of course, I still didn’t want to give myself the opportunity to be sad about being away. Despite the silliness that comes along with the holidays I am a human who loves her family! My friends and I planned a trip to Harbin through Christmas time to avoid sadness about missing a holiday at home. Harbin is one of China’s most northern cities, more North than North Korea. It’s below 0 most of the time. It is known for its Russian influence as it had served as a place of employment for the Siberian Railway. Then it served as a place of refuge from Stalin’s Russia in the mid 1900’s. Today it is globally known for its Ice and Snow Festival and other tourist attractions. It is just….a really cool and unique city. I don’t know how else to explain it.

I spent my Christmas Eve dinner drinking and eating in a Russian restaurant with 5 Americans and a Canadian. (What a novelty, eh?)  There was a Russian man with a sweet electric keyboard there and the only English song he knew was Jingle Bells. You betchya we sang that song as loud and as American as we could. No apologies were given, accept by the Canadian. (Sorry with a long O.)  We spent the next few days exploring the city and it was perfect. Pictures below.

IMG_0141 (2)View from my hotel room.

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A rare moment of me sharing food captured on film.

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After dinner we went outside and lit some red lanterns to be set out into the crispy clear night sky. For whatever reason, they trusted me with the fire!

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It was a team effort with the help of a little old lady to get our lantern going.

IMG_0148 (2)Saint Sophia Cathedral. Built by the Russians and turned into a money making museum by the Chinese because nobody exploits for money quite like the Chinese.

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American influence is never that far when you travel in China. Chicken nuggs, anyone?

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You could see the Russian architecture everywhere in the city. Or at least I’m assuming that it was it was.

IMG_0184Harbin Ice and Snow festival. It was as cold as it was fun.

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Sitting on a horse made of ice was never on my bucket list, but when opportunity knocks you best open the door.

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Also, there is a Siberian Tiger exhibit in Harbin. I felt like these two were the Simba and Nola of China. Or at least Harbin.

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They sure are beautiful animals. Also, very scary and strong with really big teeth and paws.

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Lanterns in the parks.

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Farmers from around China (who are out of work in the winter) come by the thousands to extract ice cubes from the local river and build lighted structures like these in several different parks around the city. It’s remarkably beautiful and is at times hard to believe what you are seeing.

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There are also ice sculpting competitions as displayed around the city.

* I did get sick from Harbin and had to go to the doctor for a little case of strep throat. My boss took me and acted as my translator. I taught him the difference between the word “mucus’ and ‘snot’ while we waited my turn. Despite my throat being in immense pain and I couldn’t stop my laughter as he paced around repeating ‘SAHNOT’ ….”MEWCAUS”……”SAHNOT”….”MEWCAUS”……

**It cost 25 RMB for a doctor’s visit and 4 prescriptions. That’s $4.03. I was sick in Columbus and it cost over $200 once when I went to the doctor for a sinus infection and I had insurance. Have I mentioned how much I love China?

 

Thanksgiving Mountains, Yeah!

“What do you guys know about Thanksgiving in the United States?”

“TERKEE…..INDINS ….TERKAY….*blank stares*….”

“Yes. We eat Turkey and spent the first few Thanksgivings with Indians or Native Americans”

Growing up in a public school in the state of Ohio, I learned about the pilgrims and the Indians every fall. We put feathers on our heads and grocery bags over our little bodies to represent the two cultures coming together for a meal. As we got older we read about it in books and accepted it as a part of American History. I would make a strong argument more Americans know the three ships that Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas in than the governor of their own state.

FUN FACT: My high school’s mascot is a “Redskin”. My college mascot is a “Pioneer”. These institutions are 30 minutes by car away from each other. I found the last three sentences in Merriam Webster under the word Irony.

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Go Redskins! no, wait. Go Pioneers? Erh…uh…yeah .

Thanksgiving is a time for family, fun and food. I’ve had 24 Thanksgivings at home, feeling all the feels and all the love. All of which I’m thankful for. This year I was lucky to have a new kind of Thanksgiving. I spent it with like-minded, single adults and it was perfect. We ordered a meal from a delivery service, ate with plastic forks, cut the turkey with a butter knife and drank wine. We played games, laughed at our sad little Turkey, and enjoyed the moment. There was no stress. Just appreciation for the food and our friendship.

We had anticipated feeling a little homesick this time of year, so we also organized a trip to the Yellow Mountains the weekend after Thanksgiving. (Actually my friend Lara organized both events. Thanks La la!!!! You are a beautifully motivated and organized gem of a person.)

I was excited for this adventure. This is a national park in China and there are many artworks based around the beauty of these mountains. Below is what google says the mountains look like.

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With these images in mind I thought to myself “Oh boy! What fun. Climbing a mountain will be satisfying. It will be hard, but fun. I’ll have a great time with friends, get some good pictures for humble bragging on social media and finally get to wear the hiking clothes I bought from Eddie Bauer. Gosh. I’ll probably be asked by Eddie Bauer to be a spokesperson for their clothing line once these images circulate online. Maybe I should practice my negotiation skills so I get the best deal. They won’t take advantage of me! I listen to Beyonce and Nicki Minaj and I’m a bad Bitch! Yeah!”

Here’s what I looked like while having this conversation with myself.

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Excuse me while I read the offer letter from Eddie Bauer.

After a 4 hour bus ride of this Eddie Bauer dreaming and window gazing we finally arrived at the base of the mountain mid-Saturday morning. We were greeted with hoard of Chinese tourists and rain. Americans get a bad rap for our tourist behaviors, but man. The Chinese are miserable tourists. That is a fact, not an opinion. We eventually found our way to the hotel at the top of the mountain, put our bags down and walked around the surrounding areas of the hotel. If you have ever watched Stephen King’s The Mist, that is exactly what our world looked like. We couldn’t see 25 meters in front of us because of the fog.  A little sad about the lack of view, we grabbed a few drinks and enjoyed what we could.

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The word of the weekend was ‘ominous’. 

Though I was prepared for my Eddie Bauer debut pictures, I was not prepared for the amount of steps we were going to climb. Oiy. Steps, steps and more steps. We stopped to rest and I tried to warn fellow hikers that there were many steps. I said “there are many more!” in mandarin and pointed to the steps. The girl replied in English: “I know. I am Chinese.”. Apparently Chinese people have the innate ability to know how many steps there are in China.

We made our way back to the hotel and prepared for our actual day of hiking on Sunday. We wanted to leave at 6 AM and watch the sunrise then hike back down the mountain. (We rode the cable car up on Saturday).

The morning greeted us with more rain and MORE FOG. SO MUCH FOG. We could hardly see in front of us. But we had come to the mountain to climb it and climb back down it. On we went. The day presented us with forks in the road, confusing signs, and more steps. (Seriously. My legs were genuinely trembling from the steps. I’m not as durable as I used to be. Is this aging? I’m only 25! What the heck happens at 35?! Youth is like the out-of-your-league boyfriend that you so desperately want to keep in your life even though you know you’ll never really be together again.) Despite the confusion and the steps, we enjoyed the breathtaking views and soaked it up as much as we could. This was a once in a lifetime event! When would we ever come back to the Yellow Mountain?

Then. Reality set in a bit and we realized somewhere along the way we had taken the wrong path. But that was OK. We would still make it to the bottom in time for our bus home. On we went. Woo!

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…….Until we stumbled upon a hotel and a Chinese man came running at us to tell us we couldn’t continue on this way because it was dangerous. Wait, what? Yeah. We couldn’t continue on the path down the mountain. At this point we were hours into our hiking, hungry, cold, limited on snacks and wet from the mist. We didn’t have time to go back up the mountain and re-route ourselves either. (remember that bus we have to catch.)

We found ourselves in a grade A pickle. We couldn’t go up. We couldn’t go down.

Then, the guide pointed us in a direction and through broken English/Chinese we realized we would need to take a different path, walk for two hours and get on another bus to catch our main bus back home to Hangzhou. Ahhhh, OKAY! Well that’s not too bad. Resume Hiking!

…………Orrr start walking on a paved road? This is what we found on our alternative route.

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Uhhh. Guess there are paved roads in national parks? Is the road to immortal hell? Is this the road to Narnia? Maybe it’s a trick and we’ve been duped by the Chinese government and we’re not really in a mountain but a spectacularly designed tourist trap that’s actually a enclosed recreation of said mountain.  Whatever. It lacked stairs, we were happy to give our calves a break from the steps.

After ten minutes of walking, as if it couldn’t get any weirder, we were greeted by a van as it appeared out of the mist on this mystical road. It had the same logo as the guy who guided us earlier. For ten kuai we could get a ride to the bottom of the mountain. Done deal, Sir. Pleasure doing mountainside business with you.

Then…the van stopped and dropped us off in yet another van. But….whaa??? Why another van? This one was unmarked and the guy was chain smoking cigarettes in the passenger seat. They teach you not to get in vehicles with strangers. But nobody teaches you what to do when you’ve taken the wrong path down the side of a mountain in China only to realize that said path isn’t even open that day and your only chance at returning home is to get in a van with a stranger.

When you don’t have another choice, you get in the van with the chain smoker.

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Away we went. The chain smoker noticed us rationing our limited supply of snacks in his tinbox of a van and asked if we were hungry. Kind of ignoring this man we were still incredibly suspicious of, we shrugged it off. After a few more minutes of travel he pulled over to the side of the road. Within 5 minutes he came back with 10 baozi, 2 for each of us. He bought us FOOD!!! Hot, steamy, delicious Chinese food. Turns out chain smoking wasn’t indicative of his character but only a vice we’ve grown accustom to thinking is bad! What a relief!

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On the ride home I thought about the situation we had gotten ourselves into.Things hardly ever turn out to be what you’d imagined. But if you can learn to ride the wave and go with it, life will surprise you with warm baozi in the back of a van with 4 great friends. For that, I am thankful.

More Pictures!

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**All of these pictures are from my beautiful friends.

China loves me, loves me not.

If I had to assign a gender to China, it would undoubtedly be female. She’s bold, powerful. She’s carried society through centuries and endured a rough history (RE The Opium Wars and the War Lords that eventually followed, WW1 & 2, The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution. Women have carried society through centuries and endured a rough past. RE Childbirth. Child marriages, human trafficking, being sold as a wife so your family can pay debts, having to watch the Victoria secret fashion show and then face a mirror afterward, etc.).

In international relations China is passive aggressive. She knows that a tit for tat tactic is more effective than coming to blows with others. China blocks social media, bans books and movies and coys the United States into labeling the Uighur minorities as terrorists in exchange for support in the Middle East. Governments like to act they’re the only ones who play these back stabbing, alliance making, and delicate relationships.  You want to see some impressive games being played try walking through a public high school in America and being a 16 year old girl. Girls, like China, can choose to use their powers however they see fit in order to survive.

And the more questions you ask, the less sense it makes with either.

In Girl world conversations go like this.

Girl 1: Carol, why are you taking so long to get ready?

Carol: Because I ate too much for lunch, my fat pants are dirty and Kevin from finance will there and I think I have a heart palpitation. Can you web MD heart Palpitations?!

Girl 1: But, we’re just running to get coffee…?

In China .…

Me: What kind of bus are we taking for International Day?

Boss: I don’t know. It’s not public bus or school bus. Not tourist bus. Just a bus.

Me: What? That sounds creepy. Are we being taking somewhere to be held hostage?!

Boss: No, you are the guest, we are the host! Welcome to China. I am not sure of bus. We will have a good day.

Me: Is this a language barrier orrrr why/how can you not know what bus we’re getting on when you are supposed to be guiding us literally all day??? Now I’m confused and a little worried about the next 6 hours of my life.

It is not lost on me that I am generalizing gender stereotypes and that is offensive to some. To you, I say, there are bigger problems in the world than being offended by a blog post.

Anyway, my lady friend China has been toying with my emotions since I’ve arrived. She’s so hard to love, China. She’s captivating and lovely and infuriating simultaneously. I found myself in a series of “China loves me, China loves me not moments” as follows.

China Loves Me. 

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…..And one second later, she loves me not. 

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…….yeah.

Food

China shows its love through food. Beef, pork, chicken, noodles, seafood, dumplings, jiaozi, with a few Subways, Burger Kings and McDonalds sprinkled in makes me a happy, happy person. Cheap places are usually less than 20 kuai/$3 per meal. Nicer places are around 30-50 Kuai/less than $10. I know Obama and big business in the US are reeeelly upset with China for pegging the exchange rate. BUT it works in my food loving favor, so I’m hoping that this is not an issue resolved anytime soon. K THXS Obama.

Of course the food situation isn’t always perfect. China is still a developing country and one that was isolated from the world for several decades. Burping, chewing loudly, letting toots fly freely are all commonly practiced with the exception of the fabulously rich or well educated. Even though I understand this, the cultural context and the situation that I am a guest in their country it is still irritating to hear that miserable food smacking sound. A few weeks ago, I was grading papers during my lunch period in Subway. There was one other girl in the room and she was eating a cookie. Otherwise silent I could hear her slop chomping hard on said cookie. The sounds she made while eating the cookie sounded as if she had taken a tub of yogurt, spread it all over the table and tried to clean it up with a plunger. The noise was infuriating in the way a drippy faucet can take a person from sane to loony in 30 seconds. I personally eat cookies like chips (see issue with buying clothes below) and this girl took TWENTY SEVEN MINUTES TO EAT SAID COOKIE because she was taking mouse sized bites LIKE A FIVE YEAR OLD……JUST EAT THE BLESSED COOKIE BEFORE I HAVE NIGHTMARES ABOUT THE SOUND COMING FROM YOUR MOUTH.  CHINA LOVES ME NOT.

I had not been so flustered since congressmen had a meeting about birth control and forgot to invite a single woman.

By the time she finished her cookie I felt like I had made it through some weird mental test from Survivor. Relieved the cookie had finally been finished I had to remind myself that this sound (yogurt being cleaned up by a plunger) was going to keep happening and I needed to get over it.

Suck it up, Craycraft.

Traffic

Hangzhou’s public transportation is efficient. I can get almost anywhere by bus, train, metro, bike, foot or taxi. The mix of transportation swirls around each other narrowly. Parents carry their kids on the backs of the bikes while the kids hug their mom or dad tight.  I could spend hours sitting and watching the traffic in China. The sheer number of people on a road at any given time makes it a spectacle in itself. China is loving me with the free entertainment and cheap get around.

It is one thing to be thankful for and observe the transportation. It is another, loves me not, thing to navigate it and integrate into your daily life. The other day I hoped on a bus happy that I could spend just 2 kuai (less than 50 cents) and get a ride all the way to H&M downtown. “This is GREAT!” I thought. “No road rage, no gas money, no navigation. I loooove public transportation!”

During the bus ride I was sneezed on three times by strangers before getting to H&M and had to step over vomit to get out the door.

As Forest would say: that’s all I have to say about that.

My students

They love me when I show movies, they love me not when I give tests. They are perfection. They are imperfection. They are eager to learn and eager to sleep the day away. They want to improve their English but refuse to stand and speak in front of each other. They want to learn about American culture but they already know how things work thanks to Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries and Friends. Their favorite shows. I constantly wonder what they think of me. Last week, at the end of class, a boy hastily tossed an origami flower at me alongside his homework. Then he took off through the door with a run that made me wonder if he had rulers taped to his legs

This answered the age old question: Romeo, Romeo. Where art thou Romeo? He’s in my 10:00AM Tuesday Freshman class, that’s where. It also let me know at least one of them does indeed like me.

Sometimes I think they have more to teach me than I do them. I showed a clip of Ellen DeGeneres’s TV show as it related to our topic. I asked them if they recognized her. Without hesitation a girl shouted from the back “LESBEEN”. I corrected her English and said yes, she is a lesbian. She’s also hilarious, kind and generous. I had to bite my lip from chuckling at the fact that I was standing in a classroom in the middle of China and they knew the sexual orientation of a talk show host and I can’t name 5 Chinese celebrities. Jokes on me.

Internet

The internet is the worst/best most wonderful/miserable, loves me/loves me not inventions of all time. I can talk to my parents, if the internet works. I can do my homework, if the internet works. I can write my friends, if the internet works.  I can watch TV on Netflix…….you get the idea. My blood pressure has to have increased tenfold from the internet. I have mini rage fits at least once a week I JUST WANT TO WATCH PARKS AND REC, OKAY?! It cuts out all the time.

Then I remember that some people don’t have access to basic food and water and I should be more thankful that I can use this internet, even if it gives me aforementioned high blood pressure.

Shopping

LOL at the size of clothes here. I’ve mentioned this before and I can’t stress it enough. I am a giant human being in Hangzhou. Asia in general is not a great place to go if you have a poor self-esteem in that way. The obsession with looking young and being skinny for women is far beyond that in the US.  My students all think they’re fat. I want to take them, shake them and smother them with reassurance they are not fat. They are 20 years old and well on their way to being a woman. That concept of growing out of childlike behaviors and looks is kind of lost in both the US and China. Girls are rewarded for being cute-sey woot-sey and teeny tiny and adorably nice growing up. Then when it comes time to be an adult and grow up, we sort of forget to socialize women into being women. That is one reason women have a more stressful experience communicating with their friends, spouses and work places. Childish behaviors, avoiding confrontation for fear of being perceived as the dreaded B word can accumulate into a life of miscommunication and frustration. I am proud of myself for the fact that I’ve probably been called that B word many times over. That means I stood up for something on my own two feet and I did not care if anyone thought I looked sexy or pretty or cute doing it.  I had and will continue to have something to say. I am not something to look at.

I digress. Here is photographic evidence I am a giant. This IS something to look at.

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*This photo has not been digitally altered. 

China loves me and loves me not every day. In an hours’ time I can get an amazing back massage for $5, enjoy a big bowl of delicious noodles for $3 and then on my way home step in a puddle of China trash ooze and get a waft of sewage while dodging other pedestrians and motorbikes. Taking my own advice (see last post) I have to just go with it most days and ‘ride the wave’. Otherwise this intricate society can drive you batty. I cannot afford this because, again, the blood pressure.

Also, on a totally unrelated note. I had a fish pedicure over the weekend. It was genuinely miserable but I did it!

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The adventure continues!

Pictures!

I am no photographer, but these are my attempts to share with you what my life looks like in Hangzhou!

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Above is a picture I took of West Lake, the main tourist attraction and source of pride to the people of Hangzhou. (Though, Hangzhou is also the home of Alibaba which is quickly making the city known around the world.) I took a day with friends to walk around the lake, visit the pagodas and take in the beauty. No, I did not ride a boat nor I get in the water. The former costs money and the latter will cost you a suspicious skin rash.

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After the lake, we went to a pagoda. I didn’t get a decent snapshot of the actual place but I did find these. I THINK they are similar to the love locks in Paris……but  don’t fact  check me.

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View  overlooking Hangzhou….

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….continued.

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  Sweet and sour fish, typical Hangzhou dish.

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 Eggplant for days! I do not normally eat dishes like this. But this an example of a nice dinner.

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National tourist attraction. Yunhe Rice Paddies. I went on a little adventure with a girlfriend to find these bad boys. The trip involved a lot of botched English/Chinese, many modes of transportation and a love hotel in the countryside of China.

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Hangzhou hosted an international day for the foreigners in town. My university let us have the day off so we could enjoy. This is me making jiaozi while wearing a mask but using a table that hadn’t been cleaned all day despite multiple foreigners making the jiaozi on it. It isn’t the best look I’ve ever had. We toured the cuisine museum, watched a tea competition and had two huge meals complimentary of the city. Xie xie, Hangzhou!

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This is the living room to my apartment. Did you want to sit on the couch and watch TV? Well that’s too bad because that contraption was made in 1980 and doesn’t even show CCTV. But you’re welcome to relax in my two hard wood chairs after a long day.

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But seriously, I have a great apartment to myself with a huge bedroom. It’s downtown and I really can’t complain!

After looking at these photos it kind of looks like I don’t have any friends. Guess I need to take more social pictures?

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Maybe nobody wants to get a picture with because I usually end up looking like this……PRETTY HURTS.