Thursday, June 01, 2006

More Aabservations

Now, another installment of Aabservation (originally sent on 4/14, I'm a bit behind, but I don't want to publish all these gems at once)

Quick quiz: Does time go up or down?

I generally think of time moving, well, clockwise. Or maybe forward. But not down.

But in China, the way you say "next" is basically to say "the lower one." Next week = the down week. Last week = the up week. It's like they are walking down some great mountain of antiquity.

But then I realized we English-speaking folken also refer to time moving downward. Think about it: bottom of the ninth inning, top of the morning, move something up on the calendar. I wonder why that is. Maybe because we write from the top down? Any Wiliam Safires out there? I would ask him now but my New York Times is currently... down.

* * *

Curse globalization. That bloody annoying car alarm just went off -- you the one that goes whaah eh whaah eh whaah eh, whoooooa whooooa whooooa, whaah eh whaah eh whaah eh...


* * *

I had the best haircut experience last week. I've put it off for a month because I was nervous that I would end up with a buzz cut like my college roommate did when she went to Spain. It worried me that they didn't give me the "dry hair once over" like they do in America. Then while I was sitting in a chair, no sink in sight, they started spritzing my hair with water and applying shampoo!

But I start to relax after they massaged shampoo into my head for 10 minutes, and then brought me to the sinks. Unlike in America, where you sit with your head painfully back against the rim of a bowl, here they have you lay down on automatic-massage tables. Yes like the Sharper Image / Brookstone chairs they have in airports, but in bed form. Since I didn't see the massage controller until I got up, I missed my chance this time. No worries -- I got to enjoy another 10 minute head massage that they gave me while washing my hair, and a 10 minute dedicated back massage they gave me when I returned to my barber shop chair.

Total damage for thirty minute massage and professional hair cut and blow-dry: 15 kuai, or $2. I hope my hair grows as quickly as everything else in this country so I can do that again.

* * *

You gotta love misused English. Chinese love using English words to describe anything positive, like the multi-million dollar residential complex going up across the street from my dorm called "Unlimit Space." Or from my wine corkscrew instructions, better known as the "Aerofoil Embolism Openerintroduction": "Use it orderly, open the plug, use it disorderly, quit from the plug."

I bought a packet of rice crackers that has several phrases of large benevolence:

"Quality Guarantee. Delicious and Fragrant. Endless Fragrance. Best Enjoyment.
- Sesame: Delicious loved by all. Give first choice present.
- Peanut: Produced meticulously. Best enjoyment.
- Walnut: Tempting taste. Adopt advanced technology."

The Walnut technology was so advanced I didn't even taste it.

* * *

So what do people here eat? In a land that dries peas as bar food and stir-fries cucumbers like the rest of their zuccini-brothers, you'd expect the food to be wild and crazy. But as long as you avoid the rabbit head, duck intestine and chicken feet, it's actually pretty much what you'd expect.

For breakfast, its often bread, generally sweet like poundcake, a cup of yogurt that they drink through a straw, a hard boiled egg, and/or a bowl of rice porridge. Lunch and dinner both have some kind of chopped up protein -- pork or beef or chicken (here chicken is the "other" white meat) or egg or tofu or fish -- which is stir-fried in some sauce with scallions, peppers, carrots, lotus root, onions, broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, cauliflower, lima beans, corn, cucumbers (yes cucumbers), eggplant, lettuce (yes lettuce), seaweed, and/or a few other vegetables that they only have here. Or they sprinkle some of the above mentioned ingredients over some noodles, which come in all shapes and sizes, and are often served with red hot peppers in some kind of broth. Dumplings, generally stuffed with pork, come either fried or in broth. Steamed buns generally have some onions and meat.

Those are the most common, but don't get me wrong -- they have tons of other things, including McDonald's, street-side barbeques, hot pot (dip your own uncooked food into a boiling pot of chili peppers at your table), Pizza Hut, barbeque chicken, broiled fish, mashed potatoes, sweet and sour pork, corn on the cob, fried bread products of all sorts with or without meat and eggs...

And of course, rice.

* * *

For class we did a comparison of produce prices bewteen different markets and between here and our hometowns. Grapes here are $2.50 a pound, which I think it even more expensive than in NY. Oranges, bananas and apples are around $0.50 / pound. So fruit isn't that cheap, though vegetables are virtually free -- a whole head of cabbage for 8 cents, for instance. And somehow full meals are extremely cheap -- you can get a massive dish of chicken and vegetables for 5 kuai, or 60 cents.

(If I didn't mention before, kuai is the common name for "renminbi" or "yuan," which both mean the same thing. "Yuan" is pronounced like a mix of "you win" and "you when"; kuai is pronounced like "quite" without the "te." Renminbi is pronounced like it is spelled, renmin = people, bi = currency).

* * *

Coal is apparently given as a New Year's gift in Scotland (and "gift" in German means poison). Things you learn in China...

Coal is everywhere here. On the streets, and definitely by now in my lungs. I was explaining to someone why I hate L.A. and "pollution" came to mind, but it's nothing like Chengdu. In L.A. you can't see the mountains 2 miles away. Here you can't see the buildings 1/2 a mile away. You can smell the air, and stare directly at the bright region of the sky where the sun is hidden behind a deep layer of smog. If you look straight up, you look through the least amount of smog, and so the sky is blue...ish.

My classmates who arrived a month ago and I are starting to get the predictable Chengdu upper respiratory congestion. I hear some cities are so bad that at the end of day, when you blow your noise it comes out black.

* * *

We learned the words for "fresh air" this week. Got to use it for the first time yesterday, when cancelled class to take a trip up and down a mountain, with a 20 course lunch on top. The big takeaways: it was really pretty. You should've just gotten the pictures.

* * *

It looks like a little lightbulb, and it's the first character that I learned: xue (pronounced shway), "learn". Maybe I see it so often because I'm at daxue (university), maybe because I'm a xuesheng (student), maybe I spend most of my time xuexi (studying), but it seems like learning is a common theme here.

One of my tutors is from Shanghai, where her folks moved to in order to give her a better education. My Chinese economics lecturer has two parents from the Lost Generation, who were booted out of school after primary school during the Cultural Revolution and spent much of their working life on the factory floor. Others here have parents who are farmers, from small towns, and from provinces all over China. And yet now they have a chance at a good job, thanks to good grades, specifically on the national tests, including English.

Chinese students study hard, and for two big reasons it seems: First, to have opportunity. Unlike in the US, where there's a nebulous link between education and success, in China the link seems much more direct. I've heard it springs from Confucius, and for hundreds of years government posts have been appointed by testing. You get into a college based mostly on your test scores (with some adjustment for your provincial residence and some game-theory dense cross-ranking ala US med schools). But that means that no matter who your daddy is, you can study your way into the top schools, and into top jobs. And since Chinese education is all about recall and knowing the "right answer" (rather than creative thinking/problem solving), it's more important to study hard than to be a whiz kid, I suspect.

Reason #2 for pervasive nerdism: To help China. I've read articles that Chinese students are studying abroad, but eventually want to come home. My Yunnan friend wants to go back to Yunnan to help the region, and her parents. My Shanghai friend just now told me her teacher tells the class every once in a while:

"You must study hard so that China can become stronger, like the developed countries, where children enjoy sunshine and beaches."

Even though education is so high in the national consciousness here, Chinese students still think that American schools are the best. I was told that even Tsinghua and Beijing Universities, the most famous/revered schools in China, weren't on the top 150 universities according to one Chinese set of rankings. (Here's the site, especially for you Dad: Note it doesn't include colleges, just universities.) And according to my tutor, 70% of Beijing University and Tsinghua University do post-grad studies overseas. (Don't quote me on that # though.)

In the university library, I see tons of books by American publishing houses and American professors, translated into Chinese (and sometimes not). I heard of partnerships to get American profs out teaching here, exchange programs... After a month in China, I'm convinced that America's education system is top notch.

And then I get emails from back in NY where my friend is teaching telling me about gang fights, students too intimidated to come to class, depressing graduation rates. Articles about parents scheming to get into the handful of decent NY private schools. No Child Left Behind and Columbine and Creationism. People moving out of cities to go to better schools in the suburbs, and people in the middle of nowhere who have no suburbs to move to.

While these Chinese students know more about America than I do sometimes -- like how Stanford was founded, the fact that Wal-Mart owns its own satelitte to monitor inventory flow (!), what colleges our Presidents attended and what their kids are up to, and who's dated who on Friends -- I wonder if they realize that, except a very few top institutions, the "model" American education system is a joke.

But then again it's hard for us Americans to be serious students with, you know, so much sunshine and so many beaches.

Your xuesheng,
An Ke Xin