Monday, July 31, 2017

What does tomorrow mean?

It is 5:30 pm here, but at home it’s 5:00 in the morning. I leave Weihai tomorrow and make a stop in Beijing. Technically, I will be home tomorrow at 2:35 pm. But I’m crossing the International Date Line.  By Beijing time, my flight for the States leaves Tuesday at 12:45, and fly across the North Pole—this way is the quickest.  According to Beijing time, I arrive in DC Wednesday morning.
Date is a generalization, related to time. 

Water, water, everywhere

The first three weeks I was here, I could drink the water after boiling it in an electric kettle. Now, I carry big jugs of water back from the market. The tap water has a   peculiar odor, and it tastes like Vicks Vapor Rub.  Restaurant food reeks of it, and it leaves residue on the skin. I never feel clean. 
“Maybe some chemical placed in the water. The government wants to protect us,” says one of my friends.

I think of Flint Michigan and hope she is right.  I’m going home to the States; my friend will stay here. The emphasis here in China is on industrial development. Consumer safety is not a priority.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Proceeding with Life

The man is outspoken. “I love China,” he tells me, “but government is shit.”
Because I am an outsider, people say things to me they do not say to others.
My friend and his wife are now in their 40’s. As I get to know them, I learn they were at the 1989 student protest on Tiananmen Square which ended with tanks rolling in.  The Chinese government denies that this happened.
“When the protest began, we were happy,” says the woman. They sat on the square and sang songs.  People made speeches. It was Woodstock with political overtones minus the drugs.  But a few days later, there was word that trouble was coming.  My friends elected to leave and survived.

Today, they are teachers.  The man belongs to the Communist Party, though he hates the system. They have made a life in this country.  

Bound for Jinan

I’d planned to visit Jinan last weekend, but less than a week before my scheduled departure, my friend Ping sent an email saying it was not possible.  She teaches at what we would call a junior college, Shandong Institute of Commerce and Technology. The honchos had suddenly scheduled a weekend long meeting. Precipitous changes in plans occur all the time in China. I never get used to it.
I was days away from departure for the US, I’d have to go right away if I was to see my friend. Zhang Dianyu (Daniel), my friend, host and colleague had held off purchasing tickets.  I would have bought them several weeks earlier and might not have gotten a refund when I had to change dates.  Daniel’s a full professor with a US doctoral degree and very well traveled. Daniel knows know China.
For short trips like this one, I get by with a purse and a backpack.  I also carried a shopping bag full of provisions—peaches, tiny tomatoes, water and liquid yogurt. Railroad food is expensive and not very .
I live at the Jinjang Inn, perhaps a mile from the Weihai North Station. My train would leave at 10:20. At 9:20, Daniel arrived. 
“Plenty of time,” said my friend. The station is not very far.”
To me, this sounded like cutting it close, but Daniel would know.
The Chinese rail stations don’t use E-tickets yet, and the ticket lobby was crowded. It’s vacation season. Normally, Daniel uses ticket machines, but an agent had to look at my passport.  Daniel  told me to rest at the back of the room. The Chinese are constantly telling older people to rest.  People crowded before a glass window and T-shirted children ran in and out of line, playing with pinwheels and plastic swords. After ten minutes, Daniel got to the front.
 My friend returned and said we would have to wait in a different line as my situation was considered a problem.  There was no record of Daniel’s purchase of tickets which had been done on computer. We joined a slow parade of disgruntled passengers. The official settled some issues quickly. But other people spent five minutes at the window shuffling papers and shouting, while the agent shouted at them.   Then two women, who may have been running a business, tied up the line buying multiple tickets. In China, records are kept about where people go. For each ticket purchased, these buyers completed a form, then presented a government ID. The agent scrutinized these items and a little machine spat out a ticket. Then the process began again. By now, it was nearly ten, and I was becoming frantic.
A woman in golden flipflops and a T-shirt studded with rhinestones now shoved in front of us. In Chinese, Daniel shouted she could not do this, and I, a native New Yorker, tried to assist him by shouting at her as well.

“Don’t you dare cut in line! We’re all in a hurry.”  
The woman tried to move past me and put her hand on my shoulder. I found infuriating--

 I don’t like for strangers to touch me.
“And take your hands off me!”
 I was embarrassing Daniel, so I stopped talking. But I turned my head to the side and glared at the woman as I had unruly students when I taught Junior high school. The woman backed off, though it was clear she would spring in front of anybody who’d let her.
It was three past ten when we got to the window.  Only seventeen minutes before I boarded my train.  Daniel produced our transaction number, the agent looked at my passport, and the tiny machine spat round trip tickets for me. My hands were shaking as they often do when I’m stressed. I hoped my friend did not see.
We made for the waiting room where passengers were lining up for the bullet train. Still shaking,  I showed an attendant my passport; dropped my backpack, my purse, and the shopping bag full of provisions on the conveyer belt; and mounted a platform  to be frisked by security. Perhaps because I am old, white and speak very little Chinese, an officer let Daniel into the waiting room with me. We found my line and I slid my ticket into the kiosk. Since I was at the back of the line, no one was pushing me as sometime happens, and it was easy to get down the escalator.
The train wasn’t in yet, but people were lining up for the various cars. I’d been assigned to Car 2. I asked an agent where the line for my car was: “Qing wen, er che zai nar”? 
When he pointed to the right, I walked a short distance down the platform. Soon, the pointy nosed bullet train was speeding past me.  I’d been directed to the end of the train.  Had the agent not understood me.  Or did he dislike Americans?
Neither.  The Chinese number their trains from the rear. 
Shortly after I boarded, Daniel texted me, asking if I was all right.  Maybe he noticed how I’d been shaking. He worries about my ability to navigate China. Truth is, I don’t negotiate China as he does.  Like many Chinese, Daniel does things precisely and quickly, his habitual attentiveness to detail enabling him to speed up if need be. If problems occur, he confers, bargains and afterwards moves on decisively. In this country, things change quickly, sometimes with little notice.
I, on the other hand, constantly plan. I never like working too close to deadlines. I get to airports two hours early, allowing even more time for international flights. I don’t mind the wait—I read. Usually, I’m at school an hour before I teach.  I ignore it when people say I’m obsessive-compulsive.
“Well, you got on the train,” Daniel said later on.  “I did not think there would be any problem.  There was still time.”
Daniel knows China.       

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

 The Sage
Confucius was China’s most prominent ancient teacher.  He lived in Shandong Province, where I currently teach, between 551 and 479 BC. Confucius, or Kongzi as the Chinese call him, was just slightly earlier than Socrates, who lived between 469 and 369 BC.  Kongzi’s philosophy was similar to that of other great moral teachers, stressing justice, kindness to others, and righteous living. It also stressed “harmonious” relations, defined as obedience to parents and anyone else in authority.  Here, the Sage was differed from Jesus, who encouraged people to follow Him, even if it meant a break with their parents.
Confucius, or Kongzi as the Chinese call him, had no supernatural powers; and unlike Moses, he did not speak directly to God.  He was married and had lots of children. Many Chinese claim to be descended from him.  His ideas have had a profound effect on the Chinese psyche, and this has been disempowering. People obey authority here, even when it is not their interest, and the government has exploited this national trait.  Even when Communist Party members dislike the government, they view themselves as essentially powerless.

“We can do nothing,” they say.
When people believe themselves powerless, the status quo is maintained.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Stand Behind the Noodle
In seminar, we were discussing what’s known as “language contact.”  This is what happens when two or more languages are used in a single community. While Chinese is clearly the dominant language here, English is present as an international language.
The graduate students told me Chinese renders the expression “Stand behind the yellow line” as “Stand behind the noodle.”  When translated directly, the expression is either incomprehensible to us or funny. But calling a yellow line a noodle makes sense in a way. A yellow line looks a bit like a noodle. The principle is similar to using the word ‘trunk’ to mean the thickest part of a tree and also the human chest.
English and Chinese have different perspectives on life and have dissimilar idiomatic usage. We are apt to use the disparaging term “Chinglish” to describe such hybrid forms as “Your careful step keeps tiny grass invariably green.”  Actually, such expressions give us a window into how the Chinese see the world.

 Unripe Fruit
At first, I thought they were apples, then I noticed the trumpet protuberance.  A colleague confirmed these were pomegranates. At least where I’ve lived, they’re expensive, but they don’t have to be imported in the US-- they can grow in our South. 
I remember seeing pomegranates over fifty years ago on East 28th Street in Brooklyn at the home of Kenyon and San Li Chin, the Chinese kids who lived upstairs from us.   That family ate them often, but I have no idea where they bought them. Grocery stores in South Flatbush were not exotic.

When ripe, pomegranates are bright red, as is its juicy flesh which is studded throughout with seeds.  They are supposed to promote fertility. 

What does tomorrow mean? It is 5:30 pm here, but at home it’s 5:00 in the morning. I leave Weihai tomorrow and make a stop in Beijing. ...