literally bumping into 100 people throughout the day and not having to say “excuse me” to a single one of them.
literally bumping into 100 people throughout the day and not having to say “excuse me” to a single one of them.
I teach English at a private school in Communist China. To my surprise, there are Christmas parties given to the young students of the school. These parties are something I’m glad to experience once in my lifetime, but I’m not sure I could learn to love them. China takes the cake for commercializing Christmas. It’s superficial; not substantial. Too much disco; not enough deity. And balloons everywhere. Balloons and Christmas?! Here’s an example of one of the parties that was given for a class of 6 to 9 year old students.
The class is 2 hours long, not including the 15-minute break, and the first hour is supposed to be normal class lesson, with the second hour reserved for a party. To beat the rush and prepare the classroom for the party, I get to the classroom about 10 minutes early, but there are students already there and from their more-frantic-than-normal behavior, I can see that this lesson is going to be fun for the children only. The kids are all wearing their little red Santa hats that were given to them by the Chinese-speaking Santa that greeted them at the school’s front door. As I set my small basket of materials down on the small desk placed in the small classroom, the children swarm around me and reach for whatever brightly colored object rests inside the basket. The uninflated balloons vanish, the colored paper, crayons and markers disappear, and the small bag of cheap gifts intended to be used as presents for the kids gets torn and out falls all of the small contents. Someone grabs the Santa hat I’m wearing and spills the tea in my other hand.
I feel guilty for walking into class so vulnerable and exposed but I try my best to pretend that this is all very cute and funny, giving my best high-browed smile while chuckling and singing in my cutest high-pitched voice “Meeeerrrrrry Christmas.” Then I leave the classroom for some other supplies and a few more minutes of quiet mental preparation. When I return, I sip my tea down to a safe level in the glass and notice that the teacher assistant is in class and the students are sitting down and quiet. The teacher assistant greets me and then apologizes that she has to leave the classroom momentarily.
The teacher assistant is a Chinese woman and a native speaker of Mandarin—the language of authority, the language of parents—so she is respected and maybe even feared. If she has to leave the classroom, for whatever reason, it is usually done at the expense of my good health. The teacher assistant leaving the classroom means that the teacher is alone with the students. A pang of fear, a sweating brow and a sudden tightness in my chest are typical symptoms of me in my classroom with a teacher assistant who had to leave the class momentarily.
When the teacher assistant leaves the classroom for whatever reason, the dutiful and obedient students immediately transform into little more than poorly trained monkeys. Tonight’s no exception. Some of the boys take the crayons we are using to draw our favorite foods and throw them across the room at each other. One of the crayons goes flying through the air and pegs me right in the face, just about my left eye. Some of the girls run to each other to speak together and share things. Two boys are wrestling on the floor. One of them is truly mean (he knows and speaks impressive yet vulgar profanities) so I have to make sure it doesn’t come to blows. Another boy is quietly staring into space and has both of his hands in his pants. Another is singing a Chinese song and coloring a completely different page of his textbook. Someone is crawling on the floor trying to color the other students’ shoes. Someone else has run outside the classroom without my permission. The manic depressive little girl who has crying fits has decided to have another fit and will continue to cry for the entire duration of class. The lone quiet student is simply staring silently at me and at this time I find that a little creepy. Someone has spilled her orange drink, another is complaining about his classmate taking his red marker, and my single rational thought is that the volume of noise produced by such small people is a wonder. All of them are speaking Chinese and the balloons are everywhere. If I’m lucky, no one will cough or sneeze on me directly (we don’t cover our mouths in China). I try my best to pretend that this is all very cute and funny, giving my best high-browed smile while chuckling and singing in my cutest high-pitched voice “Meeeerrrrrry Christmas.”
When the classroom door opens the kids scurry as the teacher assistant walks back into the classroom and sits down among the group of monkeys transformed back into a class of dutiful and obedient students.
After the first hour and the 15-minute break comes the party. My teacher assistant knows which games the other teachers are playing and volunteers that information to me, but I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to do with that so I stick to my initial plan of playing something I call “the great equalizer.” The name comes from the students’ normal ability to exhaust their teacher and my holiday attempt to return that favor. This game involves getting the students into 2 groups, each group facing each other across a row of chairs placed in the center of the classroom. With about 1 balloon per student, the object is to tap or hit all the balloons on your side of the classroom into the other side of the classroom. The winning team is the one who gets all the balloons on the other side of the classroom. Time limits are optional.
I love this game because the kids are actually so competitive and energetic that they will play until they exhaust themselves. I have played this game a couple of times already this week and I’ve seen kids voluntarily sit down from exhaustion or dizziness. They tap, punch and hit the balloons for maybe 20 minutes or more to get the balloons into the other side. Their efforts are futile; the game is beautiful.
It also gets very warm in the room. It’s obvious that the kids have burned off lots of calories so we turn off the classroom heater just before a sweaty teacher assistant intervenes and stops the game. To prevent hurt feelings, I tell the students that the chairs in the middle of the classroom are neutral ground and to put the balloons there will not penalize either team. The balloons are quickly placed on all of the chairs and the tiny tired students fall back into their desks.
The remaining party games are intended to be as much fun but less exhausting. I play what most other teachers are playing this year, something a colleague called “a relay of stupid balloon games.” Like our bounty of pink and purple balloons, the students’ moods are light and buoyant and they go home after class feeling the true Christmas spirit—Chinese style.
I’d rather not blatantly advertise anything on this blog, but here’s an exception to the rule. It’s Hong Kong’s A Symphony of Lights light and music show performed at the Christmas/Chinese New Year holiday season. I believe the show is only a year old but is already being heralded as a major attraction of the region.
I don’t receive any compensation for this praise but I do wonder at this rather grand achievement. The most prominent skyscrapers in Hong Kong are lit with lasers, search lights, fiber optics, LED, and wash lights that are synchronized to an original musical score. It’s amazing that such a fantastically magical way to celebrate the holiday season exists right here in China.
Please visit the site and view the Photo Gallery and Video Clip of the making and actual performance of the show. It’s a tremendous collaborative effort by the public and private sectors that highlights the world-class imagination, cooperation and high technology of Hong Kongers. Might even be the place I spend my first Christmas as a married man. 😉
a small boy offering a cheerful greeting and speaking what might be the only English word he knows –“Hello”– as he urinates on the sidewalk in front of you.
Bicycles are everywhere. While walking to my favorite bakery for a piece of cheesecake, I was nearly run over by an old man trying to clip a corner with his rusty Phoenix brand 2-wheeler. I didn’t get angry because that doesn’t do any good and it clouds my thinking while attempting to better understand this culture. In China, one does not control one’s environment. One adapts to one’s environment, and in this environment there are a lot of bikes. As my father would say: “You have to work with what you got,” so applying those words of wisdom to a 5000 year old culture, I’ve realized that you can learn a lot about the Chinese from their bicycles. It is a culture of bicycles for the following reasons:
Bicycles have 2 wheels, which represents China’s love and admiration for pairs in all things. There are pairs of animals in Chinese art, the dragon and phoenix in the palaces, 2 sides to a coin (a common expression here), and perhaps the most important example: 2 people to start and maintain a family. 1 is not a popular number here; 2 is.
The bicycle wheels spin endlessly, like the Yin and Yang of Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu is generally considered one of the “Big 3” great influences of Chinese culture, an honored shared with Buddha and Confucius.
Bicycles are narrow—an important and vital factor when considering cohabitation of a population of 1.4 billion. For less pragmatic reasons, the bicycle allows people to stay close to others and never get too far away from other people. A dear Chinese friend of mine once told me that it is hard to feel lonely when you are always bumping into someone. Closeness and relation are important ideals here, as the family is the center of all things and they are closely bonded. The family is always near, whether in physical or emotional distance. The closeness is always, and that is not a misprint. I mean to say: the closeness is always.
Bikes are quiet. Unlike Chinese traffic, conversation, schools, businesses, and everything in general, bikes are quiet. China is a noisy place, but it would be hard to have this many people and this great amount of change (i.e.: building construction) without lots of noise. The Chinese people, however, are a modest people, and I see the quiet of a bicycle as a symbol of that modesty. The bike takes you where you need to go and does so quietly. The Chinese people are moving and they are doing so with modesty.
Bicycles are strong and long lasting, like the people themselves. I might compare my family in Kansas to the Chinese people in this way: rugged, enduring and strong-willed. Over millennia of political and economic turmoil and change, it is the Chinese people—the Chinese family—that have remained intact and undaunted.
Bicycles are powerful in numbers. Sorry to all of you motorists with the big SUVs, but when a group of 80 bikes are crossing the street on a green light, even you must stop to let them cross. Bikes, in large numbers, are powerful in this way, and I have often traveled with other groups of bikes across streets or during normal riding to and from places simply because I consider it safer to be in a group rather than alone. That China has strength in numbers is no secret or surprise to anyone anymore.
Bicycles are cheap. Everything is inexpensive in China. (Except a condo in Shanghai’s Lujiazui SEZ.)
Bikes are versatile. Your bike will pull, push, haul, carry, cart, tow, wheel, transport, and deliver just about anything, which is important in a developing economy. Examples of this can be found everywhere daily as people pull, push, haul, carry, cart, tow, wheel, transport, and deliver just about anything on their bicycles.
Bicycles are common and common is not a bad thing in China. (Different can sometimes have a negative connotation.) Everyone has a bike. If you’re chairman of the communist party, a big movie star, a real estate tycoon, migrant worker or a street sweeper, you have a bike. I see this mode of transportation as a symbol of the equity of resource distribution that is favored (in theory) by Communism.
Bicycles are maintained. Like the family—the center of Chinese culture. It is the family that takes care of you. Everyone has a family so everyone is taken care of. You maintain the family and you are in turn taken care of for life. Moving from the embryonic social group of family, this circle of accommodation can be seen on a larger scale, throughout larger social groups. Look on any particular street corner and you’ll see a bike repairman. You have a problem? No problem; someone’s there for you.
Bicycles are like water flowing in a river, and natural things—as an awareness of your environment—are important in China. Watch the morning rush hour in any major Chinese city and you will see the similarity between thousands of bicycles moving down the street and flowing water moving down a mountain. The bicycles move in, through, over and around obstacles large and small as they make their way to their destination. Like water, the bicycles always take the path of least resistance. The velocity of the bicycles is fluid. Natural elements and the environment play a favored role in Chinese art and literature and the many famous Chinese proverbs. Even the 2008 Beijing Summer Games have mascots that represent the elements of sea, forest, fire, earth and sky.
Bicycles are simple and not aggressive; my previously mentioned experience with the old man nearly running into me withstanding. Like the majority of people in the world and unlike the Chinese language, the Chinese people are largely uncomplicated. My experience has shown that the Chinese people value 3 things most: 1) family, 2) food, and 3) the environment that supports 1 and 2. The Chinese are also not aggressive by nature. The Chinese may have the largest army in the world, but look at the ancient martial arts of this country to understand how the Chinese may view combat: what may look like a hostile defensive blow is actually your opponent’s initial force returned to him. The object is not necessarily to control your environment by overpowering your opponent but to stay harmonious with your environment and allow your opponent’s offensive behavior to weaken him—a punishment for wanting to disrupt harmonious relations. The old man on the bike didn’t nearly clip me to make some complicated expression of anti-foreign sentiment. He wasn’t being any more careless or aggressive than I because my environment is not exclusively mine. Simple. Not aggressive. Powerfullly effective. Like a bike.
women who spit better than I do.
a stunning new black Mercedes E-class, parked at one of the city’s finest restaurants, that includes equally immaculate Hello Kitty driver and passenger seat covers.
I am running in China. I am running and it is hot and humid and I am soaked in my own sweat. Today’s sun is new and I am running a few paces behind an old man who might be twice my age. I smell garbage and diesel fuel exhaust, then I watch the cracked sidewalks to prevent a twisted ankle, then I hear the sounds of high-rise tower construction and taste the grit in the air. I spit into the meter-square plot of dirt that surrounds one of the many trees in this northeast city and hurtle away from a man who is welding something not entirely a meter away from my course and me.
I am running behind a man who is unknown to me but it doesn’t feel that way. I lengthen my stride and start to enjoy the naturally induced euphoria of my long run. Now it is typical of me for my mind to wander thru thoughts and passions. Every life I’ve never lived but hoped for, every person I’ve never known but inspired. These moments live and die like the mosquitoes that occasionally buzz around my ears when I stop for a traffic light at an intersection.
Among these mosquitoes are the words I speak to the man behind whom I run. I do not introduce myself but acknowledge that he represents the world’s largest population and longest uninterrupted culture, and that I represent the foreigner who will come to China in numbers as vast as the stars in space to shape and influence China in ways not seen in 5000 years. I say that, at this moment, together we are the world’s desktop icon for “change.exe.”
I say that I am running behind him, but only now, and that I should inquire as to whether I’m to follow along or to pass the torch, but I’m sure that I’m to do both. The man and I are racing ahead wildly and with great enthusiasm. We do not run from anything but what we leave behind us moves quickly out of sight. I am sober and drunk with excitement. Dreams flash like the welder’s torch. Today’s sun is young but very bright. I am running in China.
a prominent office building, located in a bustling commercial district, with drying laundry hanging out of one of its 20th floor windows.
60 days in China. Since Mondays are my day off, if I have some ideas to share with you, I’ll do that on Mondays. I am running and staying active regularly, however, and writing has not been on my mind lately. Too busy trying to get acquainted with my environment I suppose, or maybe just writer’s block. Yes, more like writer’s block.
I have made special progress in my Chinese studies and I’m happy about that. I have learned the 40 radicals (the building blocks of the Chinese characters) and their stroke names. If I can keep up that pace, I may take the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi–the Chinese TOEFL) earlier than May. I have learned the test is available in December.
So the weather is hot and running in this weather is even hotter, but it’s only sweat that pours from my body. The fluid stream of ideas necessary for writing does not pour from my mind. My thoughts mind their own business. In their many splintered fragments they ricochet from here to there to nowhere, then back; ideas, observations, comments and reflections all trying to dance together but the music keeps changing. 60 hot days. Many more silent breakthroughs.