Tuesday, May 23, 2006

More Aabservations

Here's the very first Aabservation:

First, let's talk about how I was attacked from above by parachuting wine advertisers while I was cutting class to promote Virgin soda:

Two weeks ago, I get a call one night from a student at my University whose uncle needs "two tall Western woman, >170 cm" (I'm 174) to help hand out pamphlets at a trade show the next day. This is not an uncommon request. There aren't many foreigners, and we fair-skinned, tall, light-haired, big-nosed women embody China's beauty/trend/coolness factor. Ah the ever alluring large nose.

$15/hour -- at least 10 times what the Chinese students doing the same thing were getting paid -- and enough to live on for a month here. Definitely worth cutting class, for, you know, the experience and what not.

So I washed my hair and let it air dry (I don't have a blow dryer or any makeup here, but who needs that stuff to start a pseudo-modeling career in China?) and headed out. They had us wearing a bright yellow t-shirt that says Virgin Cola Soft Drinks and most of the day we just handed out flyers and took pictures with whomever wanted to stand with us holding up a can of cola.

That's a lot of people, apparently.

The soda was actually pretty good -- less carbonated than Coke and available in orange (like Minute Maid), blue (like Sprite), red (like Coke), and white (Diet Coke). According to the infinite loop commercials on the plasma screens, you can buy Virgins in the UK (where it was, um, conceived), Switzerland, Tunisia, Sweden (but not Norway), Singapore, Bangladesh (but not Pakistan or India), Canada, America (news to me) and or course, Iraq. I'm serious about Iraq. We saw the ads.

My French friend, the Chinese student who hooked us up with the gig, and I arrive at the conference center at 8:45 am, which is at least as big as JFK or SFO and looked distinctly like it could take off and fight the Death Star at any moment. Around it were 14 cranes (yes I counted) erecting YET MORE government-sponsored trade-related buildings.

Inside, there was booth after booth of Product: tea, noodles (one display was a dragon made of dried ramen), baby food, candy, broth, packaged food of every sort, wine, every food type you can imagine, and many you can't.

We wore bright yellow and red t-shirts and jeans. But some people were wearing traditional kimono-like robes, others were wearing inflatable mascot outfits, some were dressed like Chinese soldiers dotted with the Red Star, others in gorgeous velvet dresses. My favorite were the parades -- for instance, a herd of 20 people holding cow posters promoting milk. Moo.

We were standing outside waiting for the taiko-style drum rolls to subside and the unveiling of the 4 story tall inflatable Virgin cola bottles to ensue. I was counting the cranes and admiring the Star Wars-like complex. Then suddenly I have the distinct feeling that me and the Jedi are being attacked. When I look up, sure enough, there are 5 guys parachuting in on us. To advertise wine, of course...

Our Virgin "unveiling" took place in the center of the plaza. After releasing a torrent of bird-killing balloons, the British Virgin rep and the Chinese Joint-Venture rep had a few photo moments. Then came the old vs. new part of the show. Here's the program:
(1) a traditional Chinese dance, which had distinct hints of Indian classical dance
(2) Street Dancing, ala NYC sidewalks in the 1980s
(3) classical music, played on electric violins
(4) two foreign guys playing Guantanamera (one of them goes to school at Sichuan University with my French friend who was working that morning with me)

The big takeaways from the day (in addition to the thousand yuan) were these:

(1) China may admire American things, but it is still very Chinese. They haven't abandoned their culture and their history and their tastes, nor will they anytime soon I think. Our British pop booth was popular, but so was the booth selling pig heads and dried snakes. Yummy.

(2) You can see China's consumer base growing at the speed of light. Between the mass of people wandering the halls, the construction in the distance, the sheer size of the ventures here, it's amazing.

(3) Business is still personal. Every booth has a few tables for customers and sellers to sit down and try some samples and have a talk. There are no counters here that you stand behind -- it's collaboration, whether you are buying a cellphone or a hundred cases of Virgin soda. People get jobs through people. Word of mouth is still king.

(4) Being able to speak Chinese words by mouth is also king. My French friend speaks brilliantly, and for her so much means so much more. People just don't speak English here, not well -- though they are dying to learn. And it seems so easy enough to learn, even knowing a few key words is enough to get the drift of most conversations.

(5) Being foreign can go to your head. Between the admiration, the ridiculously higher pay, the opportunities, the ease of making new acquaintances who want to learn English... it seems everyone wants to be or to know you. Last weekend in the park a random person came up to me to take a picture, and a dozen little kids would say "Hello how-are-you!" It's like something out of Gullivers Travelers. I understand how someone can get sucked in to having strangers say "you are beautiful" everyday, whereas back home you were just a normal New Yorker, how you can get sucked in to working 1 day at passing out pamphlets to support a month of living and studying here.

* * *

My arms are tired. I just finished my first Tai Ji session, taught by an appropriately-old non-English-speaking smiling Chinese woman outside next to cherry blossoms, fresh-cut grass and a goldfish pond, coincidentally across from my dorm. The normally smoggy gray sky is even impersonating a blue sky, not very well of course, but in an endearing fashion, like a 6 year old wearing a suit.

I gather that Tai Chi requires Patience. Aesthetic. Method. Memorization. Relaxation. Meditation. Tradition. Yeah, to not try Tai Chi (spelled Tai Ji here) is like not drinking beer in Munich. I'm def going to keep doing it while I'm here.

* * *

My first encounter with Daoism was in college, a brilliant class taught my eventual mentor Prof. Lee Yearley, whose bearded head cocked to one side in significant silences, while he sipped a thermos cap of green tea, and asked questions you give up a wonderful and simple life to investigate 8 years later. I knew two things about Daoism and China: (1) that it came about in China; and (2) that it probably wasn't something that Chinese people still really thought about.

My first encounter in China with the word "dao" was in answer to the essential, metaphysical question, "How do you tell a taxi driver to stop?"

"'Dao le'," she said. "It means 'We've arrived.'"

The first self-proclaimed daoist I met here was a German wushu student who was traveling in Chengdu after spending 9 months in the mountains with a martial arts master. He didn't speak Chinese when he came to China, but he was virtually fluent without taking formal classes. His secret? First, he didn't put up an artificial block by thinking that Chinese was difficult. And secondly, he just tried to imitate them. I think that a lot of people don't actually want to sound like they are speaking a foreign language; they want to sound like a foreigner speaking a foreign language. But he didn't. He had no discernible accent. He just relaxed, and let himself speak Chinese.

It is amazing to spend an impermanent day drinking tea on a side street with some random and temporary acquaintance who could demonstrate in a few hours how to live effortlessly and richly. For instance, when we got hungry after a gallon of green tea (each), and he didn't know all the characters on the menu at a restaurant we chanced upon, he didn't go with the dishes he could pronounce or point to. Instead, he led me and the waitress into the kitchen, so we could point to the fish swimming in a tank, see the vegetables boiling in a massive wok, check out the gas stove and coal burning pot of water, avoid the tray of frozen rabbit heads and the bucket of claw-clapping lobsters, and select some bizarre and delicious ribbon-shaped mushrooms. It would never have occur ed to me to go into a kitchen, but why not? That meal -- gill-twitching fish boiled in Sichuan peppers and bbq beef and mushroom skewers -- was the most flavorful set of dishes I have yet had in Chengdu.

* * *

The Sichuan peppercorn. When you bite one, it's like hearing the click of a landmine you just stepped on; nothing immediate, but you know you're in trouble soon. After a minute or so, an entire side of your mouth goes numb, and you find yourself unaware of the drool curling down your lip until sensation is restored... too late.

But I guess sometimes its good to forget about yourself. Or half your face.

* * *

Traditionally we think about learning a language as an academic discipline. Written Chinese definitely feels that way.

But spoken Chinese is starting to feel more like a sport to me. You need to train your body (specifically your mouth) to do new and weird things, imitating what others are doing, and remembering when you get the motion right so you can do it again. Once you have the basic skills, you have to learn the rules and plays -- grammar and certain common sentences. But you never know what a game will actually look like. And sometimes if you try to think too hard about how your muscles are moving you botch up; sometimes if you are too engrossed in the game, you forget your basic skills. And sometimes you just are in a league way over your head. And sometimes you are the Zone and invincible.

The German Daoist Fighter was an athlete (literally) and could speak brilliantly. My Russian Confucian Hallmate is a nerd, and can read brilliantly. He studied by himself for a year, and can read 2000 characters. He tested into Level 3 out of 4. And he studies diligently every day. I stopped having lunch with him for while because he just talked about his need to study, how I was a slacker for not studying all day, how being under the weather with a cold this weekend was a feeble excuse for not studying...

Such different approaches to language, life and everything. But both have a place, at least in Chinese language. To learn spoken Chinese, it seems deeply that you have experience it, practice it, let yourself become Chinese. To learn written Chinese, you just have the memorize the stuff. No wonder Chinese students are memorization freaks. You kind of have to be.

I asked my Chinese tutor/friend whether our stereotypes about the memorizing/obedient Chinese student were accurate (for instance, those in the brilliant and laugh-to-tears film The Grace Lee Project www.graceleeproject.com). Basically it is.

I explained how American education is all about Inquiry. Asking good questions. Investigating. Challenging assumptions. Coming up with a thesis of your own, and defending it.

But here's the thing: China has realized that it's little people schools are still mired in this stuff. But their Universities are switching to the American Inquiry-based model. Achtung baby.

* * *

Did you know that people from Beijing or Shanghai have a lower bar on the nationwide test to get into a good school? Literally, people move into Beijing before their kids take the test, because a school that admits students with a 610 (out of 750) from the poorer Hunan district might take someone with a 550 who lives in Beijing. It's the total opposite of the preferential treatment that US colleges give to square states and inner city kids. Apparently three people sued the Education Ministry for this practice. Hm.

* * *

It's legal to beat your kids, but illegal to neglect your parents. So I'm told.

I met a woman today who is taking English class at -- get this -- The Senior Citizen University. Imagine respecting and educating and engaging old people!? Geez, this is a backwards country. Better to just throw them in Aunt Dorothy's Nursing Home.

* * *

Yeah there's more -- a little teach in about Chinese characters, an explanation of my Chinese name, the fact that Koreans and Chinese know about Helen Keller, etc. But enough for now.

Liz (aka An Ke Xin)