“…Jiaohua Ji or Beggar’s Chicken is up next. The Jiangsu Province specialty is made by covering an entire chicken with clay and baking it for nearly six hours. The legend of its origin says the mud or clay, when cooked and cracked open, removes the bird’s feathers, completely revealing juicy meat.
Not everything is appealing. We shy away from the pig snouts, feet, knees, and ears, and I stare at a gelatinous mound of cubes shaking on a cook’s grill. Chao Menzi, a starch-based Dalian delicacy, is getting fried. Another alarming sight I’ve heard of before catches my attention. Piled high in a kettle are boiling Shi Dan; these eggs have fetuses in them that you have to crunch through. We keep walking…”
Excerpt: The Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook & Dictionary sticks out of my back pocket. Pin Yin has been decoded during a few language classes, and some survival vocab arms me with the essentials. Time to put it all to use.
All my aspirations of being a language prodigy disappear the same time I ask a mall worker where the bathroom is and get a confused shake of the head in return. Bathroom, or as they usually say in China cesuo, toilet, is a very useful word to know. And I have to find one, fast.
Finally, when all hope seems gone, I cave and go with a term I’ve recently heard. “W.C.?” I ask in English. He points me in the right direction.
Round two. I’m in a restaurant that has a menu with pictures. Point and say, “Wo yao zhe ge,” and things are looking good. Chinese isn’t so hard. I got this! But I don’t want the hot water that everyone else in China drinks. I want cold water. “Bing shui,” I order.
Blank stare in return. Okay, my tones are wrong. Once more with different inflections. The waitress is looking at me like I’m requesting that the chef sprinkle salt on his leg before he cuts it off and serves it. Again, I give in and resort to gestures. I make fists and hold them up while shaking like I’ve somehow found myself magically outside in the middle of winter without a jacket. “Ah! Bing shui!” she exclaims, nodding as if that’s not what I’ve been saying for two minutes straight.
Most kids have chores around the house. I grew up needing to clean my room, empty all the trash bins, and wash the dishes every other day. My brother took care of his room, vacuumed, and did the dishes on the days I didn’t. As I got older, cutting the front, side, and back yard got added to my routine. Pretty standard stuff, and I’m sure many other kids grew up doing work like this.
But my step-dad is also a carpenter, and we managed and maintained the duplexes we rented out to tenants ourselves. So instead of hiring someone to repaint the apartments, spackle cracks in the drywall, pull up and relay carpeting, retile bathrooms, fix water heaters, stop leaking pipes, pour and set new cement steps, build a back porch, and re-shingle the roof, we did it. My brother often helped, and so did my best friend. The more hands involved, the quicker we’d finish and go ride our bikes and eat ice cream at the Twisty Treat a block away. The running joke was that my step-dad had no ability to estimate time. If he said something would take an hour, that usually meant at least three. A few hours? My afternoon was shot. Understanding this was important and helped focus my attention. I had incentive to pay attention and be efficient so the job could be completed and my weekend wasn’t lost.
Now, years later, with the gift of hindsight, I can see the value in all that time I spent working. Don’t tell my step-dad I said that! It’s shaped me into a confident, competent man who isn’t afraid to work hard and try to fix something on my own before resorting to the Yellow Pages (Or whichever APP has currently replaced the unwieldy tome).
Who would have thought that moving to China would make me feel as helpless as an infant trying to use a Milwaukee 2705-22 M18 cordless drill?
Moving to a new country so vastly different than America kicked me in the gut those first few weeks. Even now, after more than five years, it likes to take cheap shots that remind me I’m still little more than a toddler here.
It’s so frustrating when you don’t know where to buy the right tools for a household upkeep job. Go to the New Mart where everything is up for haggling and the quality isn’t guaranteed? Everyone but you using WeChat Pay or ZhiFu Bao to pay for everything? The shower drain tube old and clogged? What store is that in? The place where you pay utility bills look like a madhouse and you’re not sure where to stand? Not sure how to use DiDi Che (Uber in China)? Trying to send money home at the bank, but the answers to your questions aren’t making sense? Cell phone getting weird messages and you need to check it out at the China Mobile location? Not even Lonely Planet can help with all these issues.
All of these tasks and more pop up when you’re an expat, and if you’re used to troubleshooting life on your own, having to rely on others to do it abroad can be a stressful, humbling experience. Picking up the language helps in some of the cases, but not all. In some situations it’s just about knowing how things are done or where to find what you’re looking for. This just takes time and effort.
Some people don’t mind this. They view it as a release from responsibility, a vacation in some ways. Like going to a hotel where you don’t have to worry about cleaning or making your bed. So many expat communities develop around companies with packages and housing support – even drivers – that take care of these parts of life. I heard about a woman here, a trailing spouse for one of the Intel guys, who relied so much on her driver that she couldn’t even manage walking on her own down the same few streets she was chauffeured through every day without getting lost. Paying for an Ayi – a woman to do house work and cook – is really cheap, and so there are those who don’t even do laundry or sweep their own floors anymore. Some people even refuse to shop anywhere that’s not an import store, spending tons of cash on products that can be found three times cheaper at local joints. Like tigers in big, foreign cages, they pace back and forth, wearing out the same old paths.
Despite the above paragraph, I’ve got no judgement here. To each their own and all that. That life, the one free of those daily hassles that are just unavoidable “back home,” is a peaceful one. Transplanting yourself and maybe even your family to a place with an ocean between what you knew and what is new is not easy, and anything that makes it a softer landing is helpful.
That being said, after more than two or three years somewhere the excuses sort of begin to run out. Decide to stay for an extended period and life has a way of creeping up on you in padded Ninja slippers and chopping you right in a pressure point that drops you back to reality. You’ve got to start reaching back into that arsenal of life experience to find that handyman you know you can be, that self-reliant, resourceful degree-holder that blazes his own trail, or at least can read the signs pointing him down the right trail needed to get things done.
Where am I?
Sometimes I wander down the right trail feeling self-sufficient and other times I’m left looking for the APP that will make life easier.
I’m a visitor here. That cannot be disputed. The fact that I have a Chinese wife, have lived here more than half a decade, and put some time into learning about the culture and language means nothing when certain topics come up.
People can go from hearty to homicidal in about 1.5 seconds when politics comes out to play.
That doesn’t surprise me.
Avoiding political discussions that have a chance of touching sore spots is like crossing a mine field blind-folded with your shirt on fire. Hell, not just here, either. Facebook looks just as much like a dogmatic stream-of-conscious conveyor belt as any of the big names with talking heads out there. A part of me thinks that soon videos of cats will be tapped to perpetuate nefarious hidden agendas of “Deep State” shadow men.
It seems so much of our identity these days gets wrapped up in defining who someone else is instead of deciding who we are. So often that definition begins and ends with a border. I guess that makes some sort of sense. Civilization did spring up from family groups that then morphed into villages, city-states, and then nations. They knew who others were because they didn’t recognize something about them – language, clothes, religion, color.
Instead of riding this thought into the metaphorical, I want to keep it concrete.
You don’t have to be an angry nationalist to be a patriot. There. I said it.
Right now America – as seen from my Facebook feed and news source front pages – is dealing with an identity crisis itself. All kinds of redefining going on over there. Pretty ugly. China isn’t one to be showed up, though. The country has put its 1.3 billion feet down with regards to South Korea and that THAAD missile crap. Beijing isn’t even letting Chinese citizens travel there! Tour agencies are being strong-armed into cancelling their packages to the county, and Korean-owned businesses are being boycotted. Just like at the height of the South China Sea Island dispute with the Japanese, the Chinese people are ready and willing to point their collective wrath any direction the Party says. This is hardly a Chinese issue nor is it an American arrogance problem. Nationalistic bullshit like this crops up everywhere.
But since I’m an American living in China, I’ll focus on what I have experience with.
Concrete: My father-in-law loves China (a bit nationalistic at times). My mother-in-law also loves China (more of a pragmatist, though).
Discussions about Japanese, Russians, Koreans, and even Americans with my father-in-law can escalate into ideological talks that resemble cross-examinations. These same chats with my mother-in-law have a tendency to revolve around the newest product that she finds useful and of a good quality. She sifts through what the world has to offer based on her needs regardless of the origin of what she’s buying. If it’s good quality, cheap, and helps her help her family, she’s game.
I’ve got family and friends Stateside that served in the military. I also know people who take that experience and twist it so they somehow come out as a superior human being, much more American than others who have not worn Dress Blues. Suddenly they are a Citizen and everyone else is a weak, entitled Civilian. Again, not just an American phenomenon.
Xiao Ming has friends and family that fit the same mold. One of her closest friends is a soldier currently, and when they all met last for dinner the topic of patriotism got brought up. Turns out that serving in the military doesn’t just improve your combat skills, give you knew clothes and a job, no, it also just makes you a BETTER HUMAN BEING. Xiao Ming’s friend spent an inordinate amount of time talking at the table about how not only are he and his comrades more patriotic than other Chinese people, they are in fact more worthy of being Chinese citizens, and should be viewed as saviors. To be a soldier is the Best Thing You Can Ever Do, Ever. For Real. I’m paraphrasing his message.
I’m not a soldier, I haven’t served. But that mentality – the one that goes: I am better than you, so be in awe – feels wrong. Doesn’t matter if it’s directed at your own countrymen or those outside your borders. There are men and women who deserve our gratitude and respect, no doubt, but that doesn’t make them better humans or even more worthy of being a citizen of the country.
Once the soldier proves his value to the country, he turns his righteousness toward other places. Mainly, every country not China/America. Regardless of where you’re from, listening to someone rail on and on about another person (or nation of people) can churn your stomach. At some point the urge to raise your hand for permission to speak cuts in and you want to ask if the lecturer is aware that We’re all human. Our commonalities outweigh our differences.
Just the other day on WeChat another childhood friend of Xiao Ming’s who lives in Germany posted a message decrying the boycotting of Korean products by Chinese people. His opinion was that the specific targeting of other countries by Beijing was just a way to control people by giving them a monster at which to aim their anger. Xiao Ming agreed, liking the post. Instantly, another old friend responded by saying they were both wrong and that it is right for the Chinese to be against the Koreans. After all, he said, what would you do if the convenient store in the neighboring complex had better, cheaper products than your own, but then had a guard dog that barks at you every time you go there to shop (but doesn’t stop you). This was the example he gave to drive his point home.
Am I the only one that sees this as a ridiculously insufficient analogy?
Eventually Xiao Ming ended the debate by going above it. Nationalism may be a natural inclination for civilization, she told her friends. Building a strong country probably requires a bit of it, and it’s been around for a long time. But accepting the idea that we’re all people working toward similar goals, though, would better benefit the whole of humanity more instead of just a few of the wealthiest nations. Seeing past the insignia on a passport to the person carrying it is an ideal we can still strive toward.
Idealistic? Certainly. Doesn’t make it wrong.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by headlines and rhetoric in bold print, but there are ways to counter the barrage of one-liner philosophies that paint the world in primary colors.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” Mark Twain once wrote. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Don’t get me wrong. More and more I believe that mandatory military service might actually be a good thing for all young people, but all that What makes the grass grow? Blood, blood, blood! propaganda needs to be tempered by affordable opportunities for education and travel experiences afterward.
Loving your country is not the same as hating other countries.
Ironically, today Xiao Ming and I ate at a Korean restaurant and spent time in a Korean café. This was not a statement. Other places were just not as convenient. We were happy, however, to see that the media hadn’t absolutely brain-washed everyone. Both places were packed.
I’m squeezed in next to a mix of humanity on the Qing Gui, the Light Rail Train, all of us on our way home from a day’s work. From where I’m standing I watch Dalian’s Development Zone flit by. Big Black Mountain, half-finished apartment complexes, small companies with big neon signs, restaurants, a sauna, a McDonald’s, and the relatively new Wanda Plaza that opened last year. It’s all so shiny.
It’s my stop next, so I shimmy around a woman holding a baby. Pressed against one another shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, it feels like we’re cattle in a too-small corral. Some of the scents wafting around in the train car drive the simile home. A passenger has recently been to a fish market, and I’m not convinced it’s fresh, either. A sour, meaty odour smacks me in the nose, and I notice the mother unraveling an orange sausage that looks mildly radioactive and smells like it’s been setting in the sun all day. It’s called xiang chang (perfumed sausage) but I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to dab that onto their body.
A burly looking guy with short black and grey hair sits on the bench to the side with his chin tucked to his chest and aggressive alcohol fumes floating off him. The smell is unmistakable—Baijiu. It’s the national alcohol of choice for the Chinese, a rice (and sometimes corn) wine that can strip an engine or get a shuttle into space.”