Talking With Xiao Ming – 和晓明的对话

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The other night was my school’s end of the year dinner. It was at this new Japanese style spa/restaurant/hotel/resort/compound thing. Yeah, I’m not sure how to refer to it, obviously. There was a buffet, our school’s teacher-band played, and people gave speeches to those who are leaving at the end of this year. I gave a speech for a friend that I’ll miss (but will visit in Korea), and tried not to make a fool of myself at the mic. Oh, and we all had to wear sandals the whole time.

The next morning Xiao Ming and I had one of our talks about the night.

Not an I’m-in-the-dog-house talk. A culture-differences-pop-up-everywhere talk. I love the second type of talks, and mostly actively avoid the former.

For four years Xiao Ming and I have been attending events with my colleagues – birthdays, dinners, bar nights, anniversaries, memorials, concerts, and graduations. After nearly every single one she and I sort of debrief the event.

I’m constantly amazed at how objective, attentive, and curious she is about the world around her, so much so that I actually record some of our conversations because I don’t trust myself to remember what she says faithfully. And I do want to remember. Her point-of-view as a highly educated Chinese woman with extended experience abroad and a deep, objective love of her culture and country makes her a fantastic conversationalist on most topics related to China.

“Your co-workers are so free and expressive,” she said to me. Her opinion piqued my interests and I followed up, asking her what she meant.

What follows are parts of our conversation. All of the requisite PC statements are in place here – we’re not sociologists, harbor no agenda that would benefit anyone by championing one culture at the expense of another, know that generalizations are not entirely accurate all the time, and welcome all constructive dialogue that might spring up around any of these topics.

 

Thoughts on Expression

After crying through several of the farewell speeches, Xiao Ming told me that in China something as heartfelt as personal, touching, sentimental goodbyes like that would never happen. You’d get printed out speeches where people read completely from paper with little emotional register in their voice. You’d get words like “you’re great,” “good job,” and “good luck” with no humorous anecdotes, no choking up, no passion.

Inhibitions often control the masses everywhere, but maybe more so here. I myself am not much of a dancer without some liquid courage, but Xiao Ming says that so many more Chinese people are lead-footed because of culture differences. Dancing, singing, playing in bands, these are not Chinese habits. Our staff band, she claims, is something that wouldn’t exist in a Chinese company due to the workers not being “professionals.” My colleagues are good, but they’re definitely not moonlighting for Bon Jovi on the weekends. That doesn’t stop them from putting on great shows at many of our school events and getting teachers out on the dancefloor. Save for the nearly soundproof rooms at KTVs, Spring Festival events, and contest television shows, Chinese workers don’t perform much on a regular basis.

Sentimental statements of gratitude and love are simply not a part of the conversation for families and close friends. Any culture book about China will tell you this, and it is mostly true. Xiao Ming has no memory of her folks telling her that they love her, nor would she feel comfortable telling them that she loves them. They don’t even thank each other or say goodbye on the phone before hanging up! By comparison, every time my mom WeChats us she makes sure to tell Xiao Ming and me that she loves us.

 

Thoughts on Age and Decision-Making

I work with some pretty great people of all ages, and so many of them are full of a zest for life that quite frankly puts me, at only 30, to shame. Some of my co-workers are in their fifties and they dance, laugh, sing, and party like they’re still in college. Women of the same age in China dance a bit, too, but only in the city squares and only when they’re lead by people doing choreographed movements. There’s no way in hell they’d be in bars or dancing at parties.

“Old Yellow Cows,” Xiao Ming calls these types of women. Apparently a term used to describe some of the generation that’s in their 50s and 60s now. “When they don’t have anything to do they just stand there like they’re mooing, they have no entertainment. How many times has my mom said she wants to travel, but then at the last minute she changes her mind? She’ll watch the kids, or do something else. If she does go she comes back complaining about spending money,” Xiao Ming says without pulling her punches.

Younger people, mostly women since Xiao Ming likes to ease drop on them, constantly worry about not being married, losing weight, or shopping. Sit in Starbucks a bit and you can overhear conversations from those around 30 and under and they almost always revolve around obsessively wanting to find a significant other, going on blind dates, and-or their latest romantic fiasco. If they aren’t fretting about who their Mr/Mrs. Right is then they’re posting to WeChat about losing weight while also taking Food Porn shots of their daily meals. Or they’re just flaunting their newest bargain buy with selfies of perplexing angles.

Younger Westerners just don’t seem as bogged down by the same concerns, she theorizes.

I’ve talked to Xiao Ming about how financial burdens can seriously hinder choices in America, and how bills can all but annihilate your day-to-day happiness, but she still feels that Americans tend to have more flexibility than her countrymen and women.

“There’s so many times when I interact with your co-workers and I have these thoughts,” she tells me. “Like the other day when I asked Sherry when she and Ryan were leaving and she said they were all packed up and ready to start their new life next week in Singapore. You know, it’s their life, and I don’t totally want to do that, but I do admire that. They have the choice and chance to change their life. Their life is light, no burden. They can stay somewhere for a few years and then pack up and leave. Even Pat and Cassady. They have two kids and they are free, too. Nothing in their life makes you feel like they have a big stone on their heart. But Chinese people are different. They will always think about how to be stable. Find a house, a job. Settle down and focus on their kid.”

“Even your older co-workers are so free. You can tell they live for themselves. They’re confident. Happy. I can’t even do that. I can’t stop thinking about how other people will judge me. So many Chinese people are this way. Very few Chinese people live for themselves. Even the most selfish actually do things in their life for other peoples’ eyes and judgement. There’s always a thing you have to get done or follow. Like on WeChat you can see that they post about finding a husband, losing weight, or what they eat so others can see.”

“Also like your co-workers in the band. They played instruments and sang. None of them are professional, right? I don’t see Chinese people do this if they’re not professional. They don’t play like that just to relax. Unless it’s KTV, they won’t, and that isn’t real because the machine helps your singing. They can’t be in a group and be themselves.”

 

Thoughts on Education

“I think this is connected to the way the kids are educated. Even with something like music it’s not about enjoyment. Chinese teachers won’t just let students play songs to get interested. They will force them to do the Doe, ray, me, fa, so, la, tee again and again for a month. There’s no creativity or passion. We can be great students, but we can’t apply the equation or function in the real world. Everything is too practical. Teachers think they need to train the kids to answer the questions as fast as possible. You know that even for GaoKao preparation the teachers will show the students how to answer the questions without even reading the whole sentence. It’s all test-taking skills, not about the knowledge itself.”

When I ask her what she thinks of this Xiao Ming says without hesitating, “I think this way of education kills the intelligence and innovation of students.”

“I thought it was only in schools, but since I teach in college now I see that it’s even there, too. Some majors are better than others, but still most are the same. I attend meetings and the heads of these departments just focus on what score will get you what job. Everything is about the score. They list and rank people for everything!”

“They had this so-called good student who gave a speech about how he was ashamed that he couldn’t go to Tsinghua (one of the best in China) like his brother. In the speech he talked about how important it was to get the scores, how hard he had to work, and he sounded very proud of himself. But I thought it was all bullshit. It wasn’t about the knowledge at all. He made it sound like everything is about fighting and the final result, not the process. No one talks about what you learn, what you can contribute to society, how the information makes you useful. They are still hooked on their scores, they’re still in GaoKao mentality. Maybe this explains a lot. About how Chinese people can’t innovate and why they copy so much. It comes from the education. They’re made into cows by the culture and what their parents tell them.”

“I can see this boy’s future. He will graduate and try to find a good job, a good wife, and won’t be able to change anything or be truly productive. The only kids that will be different will be the ones who aren’t great in this school system. Sometimes they’re naughty and they seem very strange to people, but they will become successful and useful people. I feel that even though you have people like this in America, some who just follow and others who stand out, in China most are followers. In America even if they’re not great, at least they have their own thoughts and personality.”

“No one can just express themselves here. It’s like in the speeches. Most of your coworkers spoke without reading from paper the whole time, but even our president can’t do that. He reads directly from his paper. And he never smiles!”

“We never had a charismatic leader, at least beyond that first generation of New China. Today they just don’t have that leader quality about them anymore. They can’t even give a speech well. And when I attended your school’s graduations these last couple years I feel that some of your students are different. It’s clear they have picked up a part of the American culture when they express themselves. A lot of the kids who studied in your school are very good. They have charisma because of the way they were educated. I think that is a great spirit.”

AudreyWang.Graduation1.JordanInChina

 

Thoughts on Parenting

“You can’t imagine how often I think of this when I interact with your co-workers. That’s why I always want to go. I don’t always talk or something, but I always watch and observe. I’m trying to understand them, understand your culture. It’s just so deeply different.”

“And I think all this is the same thing, the same phenomena come from the same root. It’s the philosophy of life, the way we think. Your people are all about being yourself. But the thing that Chinese parents often say to their kids is ‘kan bieren jia haizi,’ which means ‘look at other people’s children.’ They want you to be the same. You’re always told to follow examples.”

“Like the woman who works in the little store in our complex the other day. She was complaining about how worried she was about her son because he is getting 80s in class. She’s so worried about his future, and he’s so young, in fourth grade. And 80s aren’t bad! She said she’s so worried that he will become a useless person. It’s her main concern in life right now. So I told her that it’s okay, to calm down. It will be fine. But this is how obsessed Chinese parents are.”

“For Chinese parents everything is about their kid,” she continues. “If the kid fails in study the parents will feel like failures. They’ll feel hopeless. You can listen to the middle-age men and women talking about their children. They talk about needing to buy them a house, get them a car. They’re obsessed. If it’s a married couple they talk about this, but if it’s a younger person they talk about clothes, shopping, places they’ve been. It’s just, I feel that so many people now have no spirit. I don’t know why. Is it because we were farmers for so long? Is it just a farmer’s mentality?”

There’s no way to answer her last question, or at least I am hopelessly without an answer, so she takes a step back and considers again the role of the parent.

“The kid’s future is his. That’s the way it should be. Er sun zi you er sun fu, ‘your son and grandsons will have their own luck’ is a Chinese phrase that people should remember, but parents try so hard to control things.”

 

Closing Thoughts

It’s at about this point in the conversation that we pause and just sort of look at the people in the coffee shop. Who are we? Two over-caffeinated yuppies with too much education bashing everything around us like we have the answers? Maybe. But it beats playing video games and watching bad television.

 

P.S.

Look what a senior made me!!! She surprised me with it on her last day. Very touching!

 

A Language Litany – 语言祷文

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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.

Originally published by Verge Magazine.

Read the whole thing at:

http://www.vergemagazine.com/work-abroad/blogs/2005-a-language-litany.html#.WOHobc9NzLQ.twitter

 

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A Glimpse of China – 中国一瞥

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“I’ve just gotten off work.

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.”

First Published by Verge Magazine.

Read the full post at:

http://www.vergemagazine.com/work-abroad/blogs/1984-a-glimpse-of-china.html

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Five Color City – 五彩城

Because WHY NOT have a giant-ass cat holding a pen as a security guard!
Because WHY NOT have a giant cat holding a massage stick as a security guard!

You can tell the good girls from the bad girls here by gathering a few basic facts, I was told about five years ago. The facts may be closer to stereotypes than reflections of real people, but who doesn’t listen to stereotypes once in a while?

A young Chinese woman who smokes – bad egg.

Tattoos – Watch out!

If she admits to visiting Five Color City frequently – Oh, boy!

FCC is about two or three blocks of bars, restaurants, massage parlors, and a few random civil service offices. Tucked between the Qing Gui (Light Rail Train) on the north and a large public square used by retirees at night for their Square Dancing on its south side, Five Color has a way of feeling like the center of Kai Fa Qu when you’re standing in the midst of it all.

The Center
The Center

Growing up in America where smoking, tattoos, and drinking with friends out at night are just common, none of these “Bad Egg” traits stood out to me as indicative of moral depravity. China, for all its robust growth and headlines touting progress across the board, is still a nation of very traditional values – that’s what most people say when you ask them.

Retirees getting' their groove on.
Retirees getting’ their groove on.

Really, it’s a country playing tug-of-war with itself. One side yearning for a wide open field of complete and utter modernity and the moral ambiguity that goes with it while the other tries to anchor their end of rope in place to something like good old-fashioned Confucian principles with Mao’s flavor of Communism laced in there for good measure. Enter the wide-ranging foreign influence along with humanity’s natural inclination to make a buck and you’ll see why a place like Five Color exists.

Advertised in the late eighties as a tourist spot in Dalian, Five Color City drew crowds of families because of its trippy architecture and wholesome vibe. They even had a Western Restaurant! In time, though, the neighborhood-sized attraction lost its appeal, and it shut down in the late 90s.

When the doors began to open again in the 2000s it was for a different clientele. International companies and their foreign workforce needed a watering hole, and FCC provided it. Bars and restaurants opened, and soon the ridiculous facades of the buildings resembling something Disney or Tim Burton might see during a particularly rough trip on LSD became the backdrop of many, many drunken shenanigans.

“Yes, I’ll have the room where Tinker Bell overdosed, please.”

Every few months a bar closes and another one takes its place – often just a name change marks this event. Painting, remodeling, cleaning are not requirements. In my time in Dalian I’ve seen at least a dozen new bars come and go. Only a handful seem to have any staying power.

Anchorage, Cafe Vienna, Holmes, The Nagging Wife, The Lazy Hog, Gold Bar, Memories – These are basically the only ones still around from more than five years ago. A few Japanese bars may make the cut, but even they turn over just as often (And they don’t like non-Japanese speakers). The bartenders working these joints are often young girls in their early twenties. In the summer you’ve got your college kids looking to either improve their English or up for some partying. Throughout the rest of the year, though, the girls tend to be a bit more worldly.

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            The shelf-life of a Five Color City employee is about 1-2 years. Anymore and the place works its evil, toxic poison on even the sweetest, bright-eyed cutie. Those in the life much longer than that have a way of aging physically and mentally much faster than they should. Some names come to mind, but I won’t call them out here. A few girls play the seasonal game where they pick up shifts strictly around the holidays, not totally succumbing to the effects of being a full-time bargirl. Probably the best route if you’re going to be a part of it, I suppose.

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Start making friends with some of the owners and it becomes apparent that there is a network of power and influence that runs through the entire place. Some bosses command more respect than others while still others form alliances that benefit their bars. I have a friend who does shows. He’s played all throughout Dalian, but early on in FCC one particular bar owner sunk her claws into him and claimed him. He is unable to work in any other bar in Five Color without serious consequences – a threat he feels would actually be enforced. Girls jump ship occasionally, pulling the clients they’ve befriended (or bewitched) along with them. Behind the scenes, however, they all have a common foe.

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All the bars give the local cops red envelopes in order to be left alone. A few bar owners have complained that around this time of the year the money gets hard to pull together because many of their foreign customers are traveling for the holidays and the police want bigger slices of the pie. Despite this overhead, bars keep opening all the time.

Sometimes the “Bosses” aren’t the owners, and figuring that out adds another layer.

Turns out, a lot of Japanese or Chinese business men like to be the money behind some bars, but they pick a pretty girl to be the face. Flower, the “boss” of Rainbow Bar a few years ago swore up and down that she owned the bar. Bubbly, charismatic, and just suggestive enough to keep folks coming back, Flower played her role well. She had that ditz thing down pat, but come closing time she could tally tabs and offer advice to her girls like a pro. She almost had me believing she was the sole proprietor until she closed down the place to do some remodeling one day and I caught sight of a shady looking Japanese guy paying the workers.img_6836

Sugar Daddy, of course.

The foreigners – those that stick around a while – become personalities around Five Color, too. The obnoxious Australian Seaman Jimmy ran Anchorage with his “wife” Summer when I arrived, but has since disappeared. Jolly enough, the guy never had a shirt on and could bullshit with the best of them. He cut off mid-story once to leap into a fight that had broken out between some Russians and Chinese in the bar. Barely got out of there alive myself. Turns out that was a common occurrence for Jimmy. Probably why he’s not around still. Tall, charming, English Dean and Summer got together shortly after that. He had a hell of background and an ex, though–don’t we all? He told me about it a few times. The owner of a local restaurant, she would fight with him in other bars, often breaking windows and glasses. That ran its course and he finally managed to reinvent himself as an entrepreneur without needing to set up shop in some high-rise office . He helped Summer remodel the bar, got back into shape, and stopped punching people. He’s still here keeping Anchorage afloat. Love running into that guy!

No more picking on fellow foreigners…

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Then there was that one period of time with all the “Nanas.” For a while it felt like every other girl had the name! “Lily” had the same thing going on for a while. The odd names – Flower, Apple, Seven – never get old. They may be attractive in the right lighting, but tread carefully, friends.

Of course there was a stretch of time where I walked into several classic traps.

Flashy, sexy Eva flirting with the whole bar, but secretly giving eyes “only to me.” Drank like a sailor throughout her shift, and then balled her eyes out when I walked her home. Oh, how I wished there was more beneath that coarse exterior. For a while, I thought so, but in the end, her stories of wanting to spend a year in a different city, not getting along with other women, and the jaded heart just got pathetic and transparent.

Aggressive, worldly, and direct – Jess seemed like she could be fun to get to know. Turns out she just wanted a new wardrobe and her last victim had finished a contract with one of the multinationals around Dalian. Ah, so many of the women actually fit this mold. Sad, but true.

If you’re looking for a relationship you’re better off picking a coffee shop or even the cold approach in a mall. Go the Chinese route and have someone introduce you to a single friend, why don’t ya? Pepper in some Mandarin if you can, and good luck. Bars – though I technically met my wife in one – are not going to be harems of the best China has to offer. And likewise, if you’re always at the bar you’re putting yourself in the stereotypical foreigner category yourself. Been there, so I know. My life in China got so much better after my year of drinking five nights a week.

Brothels don’t really exist here like they may have back in the day, but there are of course a number of ways people get what they want. Shady massage joints litter every Chinese city. You know you’re in trouble when you walk by their front doors and a smiling face peaks out and says, “Massageeee.” The more discreet girls will doll themselves up and sit in one of the bars I mentioned above, waiting for their Mr. Tonight. They’re the ones at the corners, nursing a cocktail for hours or a hot water with a lemon in it just to keep them alert for business opportunities. Unfortunately, these ladies tend to pick up the lonely foreigner around midnight whereas the Chinese businessman will arrange his girl before even commencing on his night out. You can always tell. Much older man with a super young and flashy girl. They barely touch each other the whole time, but she never leaves his side. He ignores her completely, save for a place to rest his hand. She says not a word to him or his buddies, choosing instead to chat with the female bartenders. They leave together of course, but he’s so wasted it makes you wonder if he’s going to seal the deal or if it was all for show, for mian zi, in the first place.

The whole place is that way – one big show.

At night the lights come on, the actors assume their roles, and the performances begin. The cracks in the paint and the ramshackle jimmying of doors or tables is overlooked. Vomit on the street is sidestepped, and the sound of someone voiding their bladder on the side of a building is ignored. Lies are told and swallowed, conversations long memorized like bad scripts get recited, and the motto of every bar in the country rings out ad nauseum – gan bei!

            For a long time Five Color City was my hangout. I’d work, hit Starbucks, and then grab a few drinks at one of the bars. Much of my Mandarin foundation came from bartenders or random Chinese drinking partners. Some of my strangest, most entertaining, and loneliest nights happened in FCC. Backflips off a dais at a dance club, cutting my hand open doing a roundoff in the street, bar fights, getting swept up in crowds of Japanese business men out for the night, feuding bars, and, of course, meeting my wife through the machinations of a mutual friend trying to set me up with another girl.

And Five Color almost ruined that relationship from day one. Walking down the main drag with Xiao Ming on our first date at least half a dozen bargirls leaned out their doors and called out to me using either my English name or my Chinese name at the time. Luckily Xiao Ming laughed it off and chose to think of me as a “Five Color City Star,” a reputation I’ve since tried my absolute best to squash and bury. With the turn-over rate of most places working to my advantage, I’ve almost succeeded.img_0131

That advice I got more than five years ago may not be the Gospel Truth – hell, even if it was, I wouldn’t have listened completely, who would? – but there is a lot that can be said about moderation and a set of standards. If I’d had either of those five years ago I’m sure I’d have bypassed a lot of trouble, but I’d also have nothing I can shake my head and smile about.

The Taxi Ride: Chinese Style

Once you get in, you're mine, sucker!
Once you get in, you’re mine, sucker!

Taxi drivers in KaiFaQu, the development zone just outside of Dalian city can run the gamut. They can be complete turds so vile that they require special instructions for disposal or you could end up singing duets with them (see previous entry). I’ve had my fair share of experiences with taxis, and in September I will have been here for two years, so I can at least offer my insights with a tiny bit of credibility on the subject.

As you travel, though, you run across many more turds in the taxi biz than you do possible singing partners.

First night in China: an 8 RMB ride becomes a 10RMB ride just because. I remember being suspicious of the price right off the bat, but powerless to tell the driver I thought he was being a bit turdlike, so I paid the fare.

Not a specific because it happens every times, but holiday hikes in prices. If it’s two days before Tombsweeping Festival chances are you’ll be charged a flat rate of 10 RMB no matter what time of day, and the price will continue until a day after the holiday. And if you know holidays here you know it’s not even a big deal! I can see Spring Festival or National Day Holiday (Which is like a week long despite the name), but there are times when I swear these buggers are making this stuff up. And these prices are non-negotiable. I’ve tried, going as far as even opening the door while still moving and just telling him to let me out.

The other near-constant is when it’s raining, has been raining, or has just stopped raining. They will charge you 10 RMB because they’ve spilled water on their windshield and called it rain. Okay, not that bad, but just about. They will also try this crap when it’s snowing, but you can wiggle with them during the winter. Is it because it’s more dangerous to drive in the rain? Does the two extra yuan really justify the risk they’re taking driving me three minutes? And isn’t it their job to drive? In all weather? If I don’t pay the extra two yuan will they become more reckless? What exactly is the extra charge covering? Oh, and did I mention, it can be considered rude to put on your seat belt with drivers because they can take it as a judgment on their driving prowess?

It's like the movie Taxi Driver...without guns, Deniro, or English...
It’s like the movie Taxi Driver…without guns, Deniro, or English…

Let’s see, we have simple cheats, holidays, rain and snow…what else?

If you’re traveling a distance that’s not a part of their immediate territory there’s gonna be a little battle, too. For example, if I were to get a cab from Kaifaqu to either Dalian or JinShitan (Golden Pebble Beach) both about 20-30 minutes away they won’t even turn on their meter. Instead, you must wheel and deal before he starts driving. Of course, this is only a need if it’s at a time when the Light Rail Train is closed.

Remember that one time when I helped that couple find their boat and we had to drive around for a while, looking at the docks and ports? Well the meter said something like 63.40RMB, but he charged the couple 100RMB. When I asked why, he just said it was because he had to drive around a lot and it was so far from he next passenger. Hogwash, considering I was his next fare and I was right in front of him. On the way back I got him to agree to 50, and the couple paid it for me, so that wasn’t one that directly cheated me.

The most common answer to the long-distance taxi ride is to call a sharecab. It’s what it sounds like. Multiple folks sharing the cost. They actually have that specific service, and I do have the number for the local one.

However, if you are out for the night, hanging with your friends at a restaurant or a bar, the share cab isn’t always an easy thing to secure. Then it’s just you and the driver going back and forth until he beats you into submission. Because they almost always win. I’ve seen gorgeous women try to bat their eyelashes and flirt with them in perfect Chinese, just to get like five RMB off the original price. And if you’re inebriated in the least, and they can see it, you’ll need to be able to negotiate or have someone who can do it for you.

I saw what should have been a 10RMB ride become a 50RMB because someone was visibly drunk.

Some easy solutions I’ve found for a few of these situations include simply asking the driver to turn on the meter (a phrase you can say like, “Ni neng da kai biao ma?” or “Biao, da kai.”), asking for a receipt (I usually say my boss wants it. “Wo xuyao fapiao. Wo de jingli xuyao.”), or just talk a lot about how much you like China (The goal here being that you’ll persuade him not to cheat you too much just because you’re a foreigner).

Ah, he looks hammered...If I play my cards right, maybe he'll give me his wallet.
Ah, he looks hammered…If I play my cards right, maybe he’ll give me his wallet.

I’ve traveled a little bit lately. Not too much, but enough to see different types of drivers in different cities. When you travel in China and want to avoid being cheated the best thing to do is be Chinese. If you’re not, you’ll probably get ripped off in some way, somehow. That’s not just a Chinese thing. I’ve seen it happen in America and heard about it everywhere. Travelers just need to resign themselves to having targets painted on them. Your goal is to make that a smaller target anyway you can. Good luck.

But being an American in China, it doesn’t matter. I have a target. And what’s more, it’s not only because I’m white. Some Chinese drivers will just cheat EVERYONE.

A few tales from the road, if you’ll indulge me.

Almost two years ago Noelle and I were in Beijing during the October National Day holiday I mentioned a second ago. It was the last day of our trip and we were trying to get to some of the must-see places. We were somewhere on the street and we wanted to be at Tienanmen Square. We declined a few crazy looking fellows, but then got won over by an unassuming old dude on a rickshaw. We went back and forth for just a moment about price, but then agreed on something like 30RMB. The price was already outrageous, but, you know, whatever.

Rickshaw Sample

We both climb into the seat and off the guys goes, not even peddling because his was a hybrid peddle/engine rickshaw, I guess. A minute or so goes by and another rickshaw driver, a bit younger, rides up pointing at one of the back tires frantically and basically just being a very concerned rickshaw driver. Turns out the back tire was too flat and one of us needed to get in the rickshaw with him. This is sounding funny to me, yeah, but I really have no way to convey my thoughts, so I just repeat the price we agreed on and the old driver nods passionately.

Well, off we go again, this time in two rickshaws, careening through dirty alleys, neighborhoods that are definitely not on the must-see list, and then we pull up in a dark, empty alley the man says is right next to the square. We hop off and then things get loopy.

They pull out a laminated chart with prices—all much more than 30 RMB. What ensues is a flurry of frantic gestures and raised voices in Chinese and English, and more and more furious pointing at the prices on the oh-so-official laminated sign. The gist: he wants us to pay 600RMB. Three for each cart. My first thought is, I can take these two little shits. And I give it more than just a cursory look before passing on the option of knocking them both over their rickshaws and just taking off. After all, it’s National Day, as in, Chinese patriotism out the butt, and we’re in the capitol—an alley in the capitol. We open our wallets to pay something, not the whole thing, but something, and what does one of them do? He literally snatches the money out of Noelle’s hand. Seriously. It was tantamount to being mugged, the way it wall went down. In the end he got around 300 or something from us, maybe 400RMB. And as we walked away he still huffed and puffed.

Things we could have done differently: be Chinese, not ride a rickshaw, jump off the rickshaw, push the man over the rickshaw, give him the agreed upon amount and walk away from the man and his rickshaw…

Sometimes, even now, when I think about the whole situation, I get royally irritated and want to go find a rickshaw driver, pretend I know nothing of Chinese, get him to agree to a price, and then wait for him to cheat me…just so I can curse him and yell at him in Chinese, or, maybe just knock him over his rickshaw. But not in Beijing and not during the National Day week.

And then when we got back into Dalian from that very trip we almost let ourselves get picked up by a black taxi.

We had just gotten off the plane and were walking around the terminal looking like lost laowai (informal name for foreigners) when a dude with the Chinese version of swagger just casually approaches us and offers us a ride back to Kaifaqu. I ask him if he’s a taxi driver and he assures us that he is. We ask how much, but he busies himself with looking official and leads us deeper into the terminal and away from people. We descend two flights of stairs with not a human in sight, and finally agreed on a price—something like 80-90 RMB.

At the ground level, we walked out to a dark part of the parking lot and he motioned for us to stay put while he goes to get his car. Noelle and I are exchanging worrisome glances, but it’s when I see him reach his black car that I make the call. We pick up our bags and speedwalk to the front of the terminal, about two hundred feet away. We make it there just as he comes up behind us and tries to motion us in. We stand firm and step in line with the other people waiting for actual taxis.

In the end, the ride home was 100 RMB, so chances are we might have saved money with the black taxi, but probably not. And if he had tried any funny crap we’d have had no way to combat him. The whole thing with him just had a strange vibe, so I’m still pretty certain we made the right decision by ditching him.

Two more recent ones…

On our way to the airport in Zhengzhou on our last day of vacation, Xiao Ming and I fell into a pretty elaborate trap.

We got off the train, and then walked to the bus stop. Tons of people everywhere, some standing in line, others gawking at nothin’ in particular, a few mothers holding their babies out in front of them so the kid can pee right on the street, and of course taxi drivers trying to catch fares.

As we approach the bus a taxi driver intercepts us and offers to take us anywhere, but we push past him and ask the bus worker about bus ticket prices. They’re not expensive at all. Then we ask him how long it takes to get to the airport. At this point the taxi driver we pushed through is right next to us. The bus worker looks from him to us and says, with a straight face, that it takes four hours. Four hours! That’s absurd. We ask why and he says because the bus must drive around the city first, collecting others from different stops.

Well, that is unacceptable. Our plane takes off in less than three.

The taxi driver then says, no problem, he can get us there in less than an hour. We reluctantly play the negotiating game with the man and eventually settle on 80 RMB. It’s a bit more than we’d normally pay, but whatever.

We get into his cab and find to others—a young Chinese man with big round eyes, and a man who looks old enough to set some sort of record—already waiting to go. We quickly ascertain that we’re all going to the airport, so that’s good. I feared that he’d do something shady if we all had different destinations. Yes, I’m that jaded.

So we push off. At first it’s all good, but then the situation deteriorates quickly. He begins to talk in rapid-fire dialect that I can’t follow. Turns out that he now want 20RMB more. Xiao Ming says that he will kick us out if we don’t pay now.

The two of them go back and forth for a while, both yelling. She tells him that he already agreed upon a price and that business is carried out that way everywhere. He counters that, no, it’s not.

She then assails his manhood. She tells him that a real business man, but specifically, she adds, a man, would not lie like this.

While they’re going at it the other two in the car are just silent. I’m adding in my own commentary on how much of a moron this guy is, but I’m not making much of a dent. And the driver is just meandering through back streets, threatening to leave us.

Finally Xiao Ming calls him out. She tells him that he purposely cheated us. He doesn’t want to admit it. Instead, he claims that, of course he had to agree to our price or we wouldn’t have gotten in his cab. We tell him, no shit. He somehow doesn’t see this as a cheat or a lie…

And then Xiao Ming hit him with mianzi. Mianzi, or Face, is a big deal in China, especially among men. It is respect, influence, peer admiration, clout—all rolled up into one. At this point Xiao Ming has gotten the guy to admit that, yes, he deceived us on purpose. He actually says it, “Wo pian ni le.” I cheated you.

He still wants his money, though, so Xiao Ming asks him one final question: Will 20 RMB buy your face?

Oh, that was great. The old man is staring at Xiao Ming like he’s witnessing a crazed animal spirit strike. The driver is resolutely staring straight ahead, avoiding my gaze in the rear view mirror.

She asks him again.

And he says, yes.

I can’t believe it, but then again, by this point it was obvious that he only worshipped at the altar of the dollar, or Ren Minbi, and wasn’t a man of any value himself. Even so, I couldn’t help add something to the moment.

As I passed him the 20 RMB note I said, “Hen pianyi mianzi.” Very Cheap Face.

About ten minutes later we’re on the highway and the driver pipes up again. He says we’re all getting off. I’m like, what the heck now?

He pulls up next to another taxi and they exchange a few words. We get out and the drivers help us haul our crap into the second taxi. After a parting glance, the first driver is gone like a fart in the wind.

Once in the second cab we get the story. Turns out, the first driver had called the second one an hour ago and told him to meet him there, on the highway. The second driver was always the one who was going to take us the rest of the way, apparently. We asked him if he did this often and how much he got paid. He said, yes, this was a common thing for him, and that he got paid 70RMB each time.

For a twenty minute ride, that’s not bad, but the first driver had collected 100 from us, 160 from the old man, and 120 from the other young Chinese guy. We then learned that the taxi driver is friends with a bus driver back at the bus stop, and that the bus actually got to the airport in one hour, not four. In fact, taxi drivers aren’t even legally allowed to be at the bus stop where we were picked up.

The Taxi Relay Scam, ladies and gents.

Sometimes you just have to take off your clothes to really express how pissed you are....
Sometimes you just have to take off your clothes to really express how pissed you are….

And the one thing that happened on our last trip to Guilin also happened on our way out of the city. Though it wasn’t as bad, and much less elaborate, it still annoyed me.

Before hailing a cab we were assured of a certain price, or at least what a ride should cost, to our destination. The driver we got, however, only saw me as a white face with zeros attached somewhere. He wants a ridiculous amount, and when we counter he basically just says, foreigners are all rich, that what he’s asking is nothing. This is, sadly, a way of thinking here. It gets a lot of foreigners in tight spots. People just think we all have money. When you claim you don’t most won’t believe you.

At first, the driver only talks to Xiao Ming and I stay silent, just listen. They go on a bit, but then I finally interrupt. I ask him why he’s giving us trouble. He is surprised I’m speaking Chinese, but not for long. He asks me, “What trouble?” I tell him that he knows, “what trouble.” I add that if he doesn’t want to take us then he can just stop and we’ll get out. I tell him we’re not in a hurry and that we don’t need him. Wo men bu zhaoji. Bu xu yao ni song wo men.

He then changes his tune a bit. He offers to take us to a bus stop nearby. At a normal price, we get there. Then, as we’re getting out, he says something I don’t catch. I ask Xiao Ming what it is, but she doesn’t tell me until we’re on the bus. Chinese girl with a foreigner—what does she thing? His tone, she said, had a lot of venom in it. When she told me all I kept thinking was, “I want to break his face”—the one with a nose and eyes on it, not mianzi.” I wanted to chase the narrow-minded buttnugget down and…But she calmed me down, and soon we were driving away from Guilin and to the airport.

These have been a few of my experiences with the Chinese Taxi Driver, a species of worker who sometimes sees every fare as an opportunity to practice their own special style of kung-fu: the art of the grubby paws.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some pleasant ones (singing with a cabbie, a driver who gave great local descriptions, and even one who saved me money), but the bad ones are just more plentiful, and they have the potential to ruin your trip to some degree.

Some of the foreign teachers I met when I first got here had a phrase that helped them see their way through the hard, inconvenient, and downright strange times: T.I.C-This is China.

Just a Wednesday

Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, my Business class was cancelled. The students all had meetings to attend, or at least that’s what they told me through e-mail. Either way, I was happy. That night I had planned to tell them I’d be canceling the following week’s class, too since I would be traveling to the Shaanxi and Henan provinces, so really, they had two weeks off.

I spent the day relaxing and writing, but in the late afternoon I went wandering around looking for a nicer traveling bag to take with me on the next week’s trip. I scoured a few local spots, but nothing stuck out. At the six-floor, maze-like Xin Ma Te (New Mart) I found a lot of chincey bags, but did see one style that I really liked. When I was looking at it I realized it was a much better quality than any of the others. I immediately realized where I should go to get a good bag: The Decathlon in downtown Dalian.

I hopped on the Qing Gui (Light Rail Train) and took a trip downtown. The last time I was at Decathlon another friend went with me and we set up a membership card for me using my Chinese name. It’s pretty cool having a membership card with just “Li Zhuo Xuan” (Li-family name. Zhuo-Oustanding. Xuan-Tall, High-achieving. Everything I am, naturally. Hah). Anyway, I found the bags easily and spent the next fifteen minutes debating and comparing the merits of each one until I settled on a dark grayish green and black Quechua brand bag, the same brand as my jacket.

At the check-out I whipped out my card like a pro and threw out some Chinese and the woman in front of me spoke to me in English about how brave I was to walk around alone and use Chinese. I have no idea why she said that.

Back on the Qing Gui I read my Kindle and a few men began talking about the “Wai guo ren” (foreigner) using his computer, ignoring people. So I politely told them it was a gift and that it was a book, not a computer. They laughed and just continued on, this time laughing at my funny pronunciation. I continued reading.

I was tired, but felt like I wanted to sit and study some Chinese a bit, so I went to Starbucks. Lately I haven’t been drinking any coffee or consuming many dairy products at all for that matter. Every time I do I seem to get bad stomach aches and whatnot. I think I actually might be becoming Lactose Intolerant. Which kind of sucks since I love cereal, ice cream, and burgers…ok, I know that last one has no connection to Lactose Intolerance, but the beef is from the cow whose milk has now become my stomach’s nemesis. Anyway…I buy some subway and head to Starbucks (I swear I do live in China and eat Chinese food, but I wanted something different that night. Don’t judge me. Hah).

As soon as I step into Starbucks James, one of the workers I’ve befriended, yells my name. When I look at him his says, “Come here, please,” (qing, lai le) really loud. I tell him I’m coming and head to the counter, ignoring all the stares I’m getting. I’ve put a lot of face time in the joint, so now I don’t get stared at as much as I used to, but having my name yelled when it’s packed is like walking in there naked.

James asks me to translate for two friends of his. I have no idea why he thinks this task is something I can do, but I tell him I’ll try. Turns out his “friends” are a couple from Singapore who are an hour late trying to catch their Merchant Ship out of Kai Fa Qu’s port. He doesn’t know them at all, but is trying to help them get to where they need to go. Actually, all the guys on staff are helping.

I chat with the couple in English and find out that the husband is a sailor and his wife has joined him on part of his journey throughout this part of the world for a few months. They were supposed to meet their group at a certain spot an hour ago, but no one was there. They wandered around, trying to find help since they knew no Chinese or anything about the area until they came into Starbucks.

We all talked back and forth, James and the guys making some phone calls to local ports and me trying to ascertain the exact details of the predicament. The hang up seemed to stem from the fact that they weren’t sailing on a passenger ship but a container ship. This concept was incredibly difficult to convey, and I have almost no vocabulary for this particular area of the language. Eventually we got a lead and name of a port. With luck this would be the one they needed.

They asked me if I could help them, and since I had nothing really better to do and because I’d want someone to help me if I were in the same position, I said sure. I got them a taxi and directed the driver to where we needed to go (a part of Kai Fa Qu I’d never been to). Once we finally got to the port we drove around looking for the right gate or for anything, really, that showed some sign of being the right spot.

I directed the driver and even tried to talk with a police officer at the port, and in the end, we got to a gate and the couple was met by their people. The woman and man who pick them up are pissed, but I tell them about the mix up and how they got lost, hoping that I can smooth things over…I don’t know if I do.

The couple is really grateful and we exchange info to keep in touch later down the road. On the way back I laugh and the taxi driver asks me what I’m laughing about. I tell him that I think those two were in big trouble because the Chinese man and woman were yelling at them. He nods; no smile. Eventually I realize I haven’t eaten in a long time, so I pull out two cookies that I bought at Subway and offer one to the driver. He takes it and thanks me. We eat in silence for a moment and then he asks me if they were my friends. I tell him I’ve never met them before tonight. I don’t really know them. He laughs hard and repeatedly asks me if I really didn’t know them. He seems utterly flabbergasted that I’d help strangers like that. I tell him it just feels good, and we wash our cookies down with our drinks, me with my OJ and him with his tea.

Activities At Jayland

Our May Activity: A Picnic in Tong Niu Ling. We had two big groups spread out playing games, snacking on chips, and learning to make Peanut Butter and Jelly! A lot of parents showed up, so it was a big crowd. Weather was nice, the kids weren’t too crazy, and most people had smiles. Good day.

It’s been a while since I posted some pictures, so here are a handful. Enjoy.

Joyce explaining the intricacies of peanut butter spreading.

A few of my students with Betty. I swear they were smiling before and after this picture!
Noelle with her Orin
An August Summer Camp Activity
Lemonade Stand!
They sold out of the lemonade in like thirty minutes!
She never smiles!!!! One of my SK4 students.
Debriefing.
Erika’s going away dinner. She’s back in Canada now, but not for long. She’s heading to France for a year!
This is our, “too cool to look at the camera Album cover group shot.”