China, Cultural Differences, Food, Social Customs

How Sweet

I’ve been stewing over this post for a good while now and have done a great deal of self-reflection on my motives for writing it and what I’m trying to say exactly. I think everyone can relate to feeling a little misunderstood and I suppose that’s the underlying emotion. So as you read, please forgive me for my moments of soapbox-ing. (Removing plank from eye)

One of the very fun parts of my job is organizing cultural activities for students at our host university in Xi’an. Cooking class is one such activity and a very popular one too. However, cooking and therefore food have recently become a source of constant bristly behavior on my part. I’ve developed this bizarre inability to be a completely impartial, objective philosopher on issues of food and cultural differences. How strange of me.

Following a recent cooking class I had this (summarized) conversation with a student:
Me: Did you enjoy the cooking class?
Him: Oh yes! It was great! I really liked the banana bread.
Me: Good. It was very nice, wasn’t it?
Him: Yes. And to be honest I liked it even more than the cookies that X made a few weeks ago.
Me: Oh? Why?
Him: Well the cookies were not to my taste. They were too sweet.
Me: Too sweet? They’re cookies. They’re supposed to be sweet!
Him: Yes, but you’re an American. You like sweet things. Chinese people don’t like sweet things.

I’ll leave off my spluttering. The conversation from there took a familiar path with the Chinese student solemnly intoning about Chinese people’s dislike for sugar. A statement to which I everywhere see evidence against. The number of bread stores in China? Milk tea shops? The explosion of coffee culture? Ice cream? Soda? I think Chinese people like sugar. They like it very much. I had coffee with that student and watched him empty four sugar packets into his latte. Hmmm.

I repeated the conversation to the teacher who led the most recent cooking activity with a roll of my eyes and told him to take this into consideration when planning future cooking classes. For the next class, they prepared a rice pudding and left out about half the sugar. The students enjoyed the class and like the pudding. Another foreign teacher wandered in, sampled the pudding and with a crease in his forehead asked where the sugar was. I laughed out loud. (A question is this: if we alter recipes to suit Chinese tastes, are we really teaching “American cooking?”)

I’m not going to deny that Americans like sweet desserts, but after four years of “American ______ (insert a noun here) is/are too ______ (insert negative adjective here) I guess what I’m looking for is a little more open mindedness and a moment when my “culture” (such as it is) isn’t being constantly criticized.* I mean, can I get like one positive aspect about American food, puh-lease?!?

At the heart of the matter is—IMHO—sensitivity to other people’s culture, specifically food culture. As a temporary resident in the Dominican Republic, Georgia (Republic of), and China I’ve had the chance to sample plenty of strange dishes. I firmly believe that the best policy is to sample a little of everything because a) you never know what you’ll like, and b) it’s only polite. If there’s something you don’t like you don’t exclaim in horror and push your plate away. Approach every new dish with an open attitude and neutral facial expressions, because believe me your hosts are watching for your reaction!

Also on the subject of food manners, another best policy is not to tell a person from X country what the food of X country is like, especially when you’ve never visited the country of X! Avoiding mass generalizations is essential.

I gave a little end-of-the-year and bon voyage speech to my USA-bound students a few weeks ago. Along with other advice, I said a few words on this very topic. Food is culture. A very real, tangible, edible part of local culture. I relayed to them my experiences in China and one of the top three questions I get asked: do you like Chinese food? Now, I asked them, if I wrinkled my nose, grimaced and said that I didn’t like Chinese food how would that make you—as a native Chinese—feel? Frowns all around. Exactly, I said. Food IS culture and everyone likes a little respect. So when you are in the States, if someone asks you for your opinion on American food, please—in the interests of building cross-cultural relationships and not starting wars—go for a diplomatic answer!

I’d like to believe that it’s all my American training in multiculturalism and political correctness at work here, making me twitch uncomfortably at every blanket statement and stereotype. That in combination with my genuine desire to educate my students about the diversity of the USA, in terms of population as well as local culture. Otherwise I’m simply lacking a thick skin and the only solution is to drink more beer and become as loudly and gloriously bellicose as American stereotypes would have me be.

*This is one of the lightest comments I’ve received about American food, but it appears it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

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China, Teaching, University Teaching

The Positives

The end of the semester had come! With a great sigh of relief, I end my teaching duties and take up some lighter administrative work for the next month in combination with some Chinese language classes.

The relief is not complete because major changes are in the works for the program I originally came to Xi’an with. My colleague and I have been strongly advocating for the program to be transitioned to something less staff-intensive, as there seems little benefit for the university otherwise. I feel extremely conflicted about my actions at times, sometime regretful and indignantly defiant at others. I was accused of ignoring the program by someone far from it and told that “we should work to solve problems, not just give up.” Insert ironic laugh here.

I recently had the chance to return to south China for a conference and followed it with a few days in Zhuhai. It was an interesting time of reflection and evaluation. It was very heart-healing to be so warmly greeted by old students who met me with cries of “Are you coming back?!?” (See, you haven’t always been a terrible teacher!) Former colleagues seemed genuinely eager to chat with me and all expressed regret that I’d left but hopes that I was enjoying my new life in Xi’an. It was a little hard to find ways to politely and briefly express my year. It was like returning to a place where there existed a happier, better version of yourself, where you wonder what you’d have to do to get that “you” back.

Back in that environment I did feel like I had grown positively in some ways. My Chinese, though by no means great, has improved a great deal. Taxi drivers and I can have very nice long conversations these days. All small stuff, but terribly satisfying to be able to do at all. I can be independent in a way that I wasn’t in Zhuhai where I had some wonderful friends and colleagues who carried me through many situations—a blessing, but dangerous if always available. That does not mean that I can solve major problems (like the Internet being down for a week!!!). Next week, I am going to start a four-week summer Chinese language program. I’m a little nervous, but know that I’ll feel better for having made a concentrated effort while I have some extra time.

On the job front, I will be staying in Xi’an next year to work as the assistant director of the American culture center. We finally got news that all the paperwork has been approved just a few days ago. I’ve genuinely enjoyed my work there this past semester and hope that next year will be more of the same. I also have the nicest boss in the whole world. I am so grateful to work with/for him! I also get to stay in my comfortable apartment next year, in my nice neighborhood (still with a empty guestroom waiting for YOU to come visit!) I get to enjoy four more seasons of the lovely Xi’an weather, exploring more of the city and eating more “delicious snacks.”

So in terms of the traditional definitions of comedy and tragedy, my year has been a comedy—starting high, coming low, then rising again to end high. Though, in the modern usage of the word there had been very little about it that has felt comedic. All’s well that ends well? We’ll see . . .

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China, Cultural Differences, Food

Eating with the Seasons

Living in Georgia (Republic of) gave me a much greater appreciation for the changing of the seasons. A coastal Californian gal, the changing of seasons is much less showy at home. (It’s there, just much more subtle and requiring a much greater sensitivity to appreciate it! Defensive? Not much.)

In Georgia, the seasons were distinct and it wasn’t just the weather than changed, but more importantly the food! Wow, yes. Winter was a misery of bread and potatoes. You’re grateful for them, but you’d sure like some variety! Unfortunately in the village of Korbouli there was not much else to be had. It’s winter—deal with it! Easter is something to celebrate on more than one level when there are garden fresh veggies to gorge on. And that first summer melon? Heavenly.

China is much the same, though there are hothouse fruits and veggies available for sky-high prices for those with no interest in the actual flavor of the food. In China the true changing of the seasons is announced not only with vegetation, but with street peddlers. Spring is announced with strawberries, cherries and mulberries, Summer with watermelons and peaches, fall with gorgeous apples from within the province. A sight for the eyes and also good for the heart!

Fruit is widely available everywhere, partly due to the industriousness of the fruit sellers. Looking for a healthy snack? Walk outside the school gate and you’ll have your pick. Simply on the basis of my observations, I think Chinese students must eat more fruits than their American counterparts because on campus a bag of fruit swinging from an arm is so common it’s hardly worth mentioning. (Perhaps American students are drinking their fruit in the form of smoothies? Unknown.) The student market in Zhuhai keeps pre-sliced fruit in little containers right in front of the store and students buy them the way we buy soda and Snicker bars. And in the airport you see travelers simply loaded down with boxes of fresh fruit to take home to family and friends. These are people who value fruit! The end of most formal dinners is signaled with the arrival of the fruit plate.

On the subject of fruit, allow me to introduce you to an interesting fruit curiosity in China. Tomatoes—recognized technically as a fruit in the States, but treated as a vegetable—are most definitely a fruit in China. If you order a fruit salad in China, an American will be surprised to find tomatoes mixed in with other more common fruits. (We won’t go into the use of mayonnaise with fruit salads here!) And a cake from a bakery, decorating with cherries, strawberries, peaches, etc. might also have some brightly colored tomatoes nestled in the whipped cream. It puts me in mind of the Hidden Valley Ranch advertisements that had kids licking ice cream cones of raw broccoli with ranch on top. We can only hope that in America in the future kids will be fighting for the tomato piece of cake and not the one with the oh-so-important flower. We’re getting off topic here. I apologize.

Seasons, yes. Fruit, yes. There’s something to be said for China where every street corner has someone selling fruit. And if you’re in a need of a more filling snack, there’s also corn and potatoes! Steamed corn and roasted sweet potatoes are also widely available and a much healthier snack than anything from a fast food joint. These industries seem to provide the pocket money of a whole range of locals. It’s another one of these things where a less tightly controlled environment allows for some good small business opportunities. This relates to the question of relative “freedom” across countries which often comes up in discussion with students. Perhaps a topic for another post.

I’m riding a train back from Beijing right now and as I type the people in front of me just pulled out a huge box of lytchees and have been happily eating those for the last hour or so. They’ve since moved on to fresh peaches. Sometimes it’s a very nice life in China.

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China, Teaching, University Teaching

Spring Status Report

Reading between the lines you might have noticed that I don’t seem to enjoying my new job as much as I expected I would. That is very true. I thought this job was going to be amazing. It’s not. I managed to survive the fall semester and went home for about 6 weeks. Good timing.

Right before I was supposed to come back to Xi’an, I found out that another position I’d applied for last year with the same university had suddenly become vacant. I’d been very interested in this job, but I’d received a formal offer for my current job long before the other job even finished reviewing applications.

The job is for a very interesting government-sponsored American culture center that is made in partnership between a Chinese and an American university. If you are aware of the Confucius Institutes in America, this is like an American version in China. The job is part administration and part teaching; I’ve long thought that educational administration would be where I would end up eventually.

I was very eager for something to make the spring semester more bearable. As it was going to be extremely difficult for the university to fill this position in Xi’an for the spring, I threw my hat in the ring as a possible solution to the problem. I thought that I could work part time for the culture center while still teaching my classes. Fortunately the powers-that-be agreed and I came back to Xi’an feeling like it would probably be a better semester as a result.

I’m happy to report (and my family can confirm) that on the whole things have been going much better. Though covering both positions can be a bit busy at times, on the whole it’s satisfying to work hard. Or at least harder. And I don’t have as many empty hours to agonize about my students who drive me crazy. Again, much better overall.

Now we’re reaching that awkward part of the spring where all eyes are turning on what will happen in the fall. There is a possibility that I could stay in the culture center position next year, but the university in the States has to make a decision about that. They just did a large external candidate search last summer and are not really interested in doing it again, but there may be other considerations.

I really truly do not want to stay in the original teaching job. It makes me feel like such a failure that I want to leave. And I hate that I feel like I’ve been so unsuccessful with these students. I honestly don’t know what I should be doing differently. On paper the job is so good, but the day-to-day experience has just been very sad and frustrating. It’s a well-paying job, but I’m not sure my sanity is worth some extra money in the bank.

I haven’t really applied for other jobs, which is kind of a negative, but am not going to worry about it too much at the moment. I do have one interesting possibility back in south China (Oh no! My hair!), but am also waiting for final word on that.

So the summary: things weren’t too hot before but recently have been better. Yay! It’s nice to be able to give an essentially positive report.

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China, Travel

Getting to Know You: Xi’an

When looking at a map of China, it has been noted that there is some resemblance to a certain feathered fowl in profile. There’s the big feathered backside of Xinjiang, the neck and head of the northeast and a nice slopping tummy of coastal provinces. If one uses that mental image to assist in locating my current placement then one should look right in the middle—top of the wing height—and you should spot my city. If you threw a dart at a map of China, you might have money coming to you if you hit Xi’an. It’s not the bull’s-eye, but it’s pretty darn close!

Xi'an Map

Now, some of you might be wondering about the apostrophe in its name. Actually, probably the first thing you’re wondering about is how to pronounce that ‘x’! Of course real Mandarin uses characters, but China also has a standardized system for using Roman letters, called ‘pinyin’, for which foreigners are very grateful.

In short, Mandarin has two “sh”-type sounds, neither of which is the same as the English “sh”. The ‘x’ is a “sh”-sound in the front of your mouth with lips more widely spread. It’s like you’re getting ready to smile. The ‘an’ uses a soft ‘a’—a Spanish “Ana” rather than an English “Anna”. Okay, now you are ready! Smile and say “Xi’an!” Great job.

Now, the apostrophe is due to the fact that there exists in Mandarin the syllable “xian” which be represented by a single character and be pronounced differently according to the rules of pinyin. So the apostrophe alerts us to the fact that we need to pronounce each part separately. It’s not one syllable, but two. Good?

Xi’an’s been around for awhile—a mere 3000 years or so. With all that history to play with, it’s had a few name changes. From our comfortable seat in the present, going back and then fast forwarding through all the changes seems like a Mickey Mouse VHS complete with the high pitch squeaking of voices. Fenghao! Chang’an! Daxing! Xi’an! Fengyuan! Anxi! Jingzhao! Xijing! Xi’an! Sheesh. “Xi” means ‘west’ and “an” means ‘peace,’ so all together it can be understood as “western peace.” Peace is good.

With all that history, Xi’an has a lot to offer in terms of historical sites, the most famous of which is the Terracotta Warriors of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang. It also has an intact city wall upon which one can ride bicycles. It has pagodas, and palaces, and parks—oh my! It also has a lot of noodles and buns and other tasty snacks. And most importantly—it has me! (So come visit!**)

**It was reported to me that this past spring there was an exhibition of Terracotta Warriors at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Those who saw it said it was very good. That’s very nice—I’m happy they had a good time. However, certain people who saw said exhibition seemed to imply that having seen said exhibition no longer felt any need or inclination to come visit Xi’an as they had already seen what Xi’an had to offer. Ahem. I respectfully think that’s kind of missing the point. If you’ve already seen the Golden Gate Bridge, should you not come visit San Francisco? I’m trying to appeal to logic, but I’m not above wheedling and, of course, begging is still on the table.

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Campus Life, China, Travel, University Teaching

End of an Era

June was a time of good-byes. Goodbye to another semester, but more importantly to my students, friends, and colleagues in Zhuhai. At that point I knew I would not be returning in the fall. So not only was there the usual end-of-the-semester madness of marking papers and final exams, but there was also a great deal of paperwork for the new job (to be explained), packing up of my apartment, and all those aforementioned goodbyes.

I came to Zhuhai in September of 2011. It was my first time to even visit China, much less to live there. I remember how the entire flight to China (San Francisco –> Vancouver –> Beijing –> Zhuhai) I was a mess, truly a ball of nerves. Even after arriving, there was quite a long nervous period of adjustment. It took time to get comfortable, to make friends, and to understand the ropes at the university. My relative comfort at the end of my first year was hard-won. I would never have expected that I would return for a second year. But I did. And I had a great year.

The best part of Zhuhai was definitely the people. It would not have been the same without my wonderful friend Sarah, with whom I took innumerable long walks and drank enough Nescafe to float a boat or two. And Stephen, the Kiwi I met on my first day, who introduced me to so much of China and took me along on many an adventure. The three of us had so many great trips and many a comfortable day around campus and town. Sniff, sniff. I’ll miss them!

Then there was the wider circle of other foreign teachers, some positively kooky, others lots of fun, with whom I shared many a conversation and meal or just guzzled cheap Tsingtaos with.

Then there were my local colleagues in the department, English teachers who reached out to me at the very beginning and became good friends. Vivid personalities all around who gave me better understanding of local culture and just how things worked (or didn’t work) in China. I owe them big time for all their many kindnesses to me and all those meals that they insisted on paying for! (I must discuss the “hosting” issue in China sometime.)

And the students. Ah! The students. With their wonderful English names, Chinese sense of style and genius for asking questions deemed inappropriate from an American standpoint. In my mere four semesters at BNUZ I estimate I taught somewhere around 2500 students. Of those only a few became good friends, but many remained kind, familiar faces around campus that always said hello. Those that became friends will hopefully remain friends for a long time.

Let’s not forget Zhuhai herself, who was not without her own charm. I remember looking up Zhuhai on a map and being pleased that it was a coastal city. It also lived up to its reputation of being a green, comfortably small city by Chinese standards, with lovely landscaping everywhere and year-round greenery due to its semi-tropical climate. I think I might regret leaving Zhuhai in the near future. I’m understanding now why students would go on and on about the “great environment.”

I’ll certainly miss our beautiful university campus—I didn’t know how good I had it! We may have not been the best university academically speaking, but I think our campus must make at least some most-beautiful lists.

And I’ll certainly miss Cantonese food, especially all those lovely perfectly prepared vegetable. Sigh. And morning tea. And washing my dishes at restaurants. And listening to them talk on their cellphones in public places.

Yes, it was a great two years. And it was hard to leave. But—as they say—it was time. If I stayed longer in Zhuhai I think it would’ve been because I was afraid to move on. Just because something is good does not mean that the next thing will not also be good—or maybe even better! So here’s to the also-good or even better!

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Campus Life, China, Weather

Whatever the Weather

On Thursday nights I go to play badminton at the gym with some teacher friends. I originally typed ‘indoor gym’, but there was some backspace action, because it really isn’t an indoor gym. It is a building with a roof, but open on the sides. What to call it? The semi-enclosed gym? The indoor-outdoor gym?

The gym has badminton and basketball courts, a small sea of ping pong tables, a jogging track on the 2nd floor, and room for various martial arts classes to distract me with their hyah-ing. I applaud the forethought of having a place to do all these activities when it is raining. As Zhuhai has a semi-tropical climate, it is indeed raining quite a lot here. In the autumn there is always the chance of typhoons and in the spring there is a very distinct rainy season.

Last year I thought one month of torrential rain was bad. I must’ve made the mistake of asking for more patience as it has certainly been tested by the last TWO months of rain. Seriously. The end of rainy season was perhaps dramatically punctuated by an official Red Storm warning and a morning of canceled classes last week. There was one more fitful downpour on Tuesday, but it appears we might have finally cleared the rain. I swear there cannot be a drop of precipitation left up there.

The rain began to feel a bit like a biblical plague. Maybe not 40 straight days and nights, but I think we got pretty close. Those of us not used to such weather might have been tempted to go hunt down the disobedient Jonah causing all this bad weather and send him down the overflowing storm drain to his “Ninevah” or large water-based mammal. Whichever he/she encountered first.

So, again, it is great to be able to play your sport of choice regardless of rain or no rain. However. HOWEVER. However. I don’t understand having an open-air gym in a climate that at least 6 months out of the year has temperatures over 80 degrees and humidity of equal or greater percentage.

With the end of the rain, the temperature just keeps climbing. Though I greatly enjoy my badminton Thursday nights, the “gym” is the next closest thing to the Inferno itself. Two hours of vigorous badminton leave me absolutely dripping. No, this is not hyperbole. Full on streams running down my face and back. I didn’t know this was actually possible. I thought this state could only be achieved by people in Gatorade commercials. Oh, no! You too can experience this novel state in picturesque southern China! Swim in the seas of . . . your own sweat?

High temperatures and impending rain have also resulted in another intriguing “plague” on several occasions. Shortly before the rain would begin, small winged insects—“locusts”—would appear out of nowhere and blanket the gym. One second you’re playing badminton and the next you’re dancing around like a fool swinging your racket ineffectively at the bugs all around you and on you. On your shirt, on your pants, sticking to your sweaty arms, getting IN YOUR HAIR! Ugh! Ugh! UGH! It’s enough to make you throw down your racket –no, wait, I can’t throw down my racket because it’s not mine. Okay, it’s enough to make you throw up your arms—no, can’t do that either because then I’ll get bugs there, too! Fine, it’s enough to make you run away, screaming, into the night. That I can do. Maybe no screaming and maybe not full-on running, but on those buggy occasions I certainly did high-tail it out of there. And my colleagues were not far behind.

Speaking of plagues, have I mentioned the frogs? More to come . . .

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