This year February 27 is er yue er, or 2 Month 2. The traditional name is much cooler, though. Dragon Raising its Head Festival, Long Tai Tou.
One of the traditions goes that for the entire month of the lunar January no one cuts their hair. It’s only after the Dragon has raised its head and the rains come that getting your ears lowered is recommended. Dunno why, and no one in my family can explain it sufficiently. Also, if you do cut your hair before the appointed time, your uncle dies. Yeah, I don’t think they can get much more random than that with these holidays.
As I’ve mentioned before, every Chinese holiday seems to also coincide with a family member’s birthday. No one appears to find this suspicious. Today was my San Yi’s. This is Xiao Ming’s middle aunt. Her new son-in-law, Long Hong Jiang, set the meal up, but San Yi paid. In Chinese culture it’s a custom for the birthday guest of honor to treat the family. In the West the birthday girl/boy pays for nothing, but here they foot the bill.
Every time we all get together for someone’s birthday, people give toasts. Apparently I’ve been voted the member best suited to represent XiaoMing, her dad, mom, and me. It hadn’t occurred to me until about ten minutes before I spoke that I’d have to give a toast. Due to my age and position in the family, XiaoMing and I, along with the other cousin and her husband, sat closest to the door (this is basically the lowest spot at a Chinese dinner table), and so that put me at exactly halfway through the toasts. Luckily, I’ve been through this before, and I sort of had something I could say.
“San Yi,” I began as I stood with my glass of wine. “Today is your birthday. But today is also LongTaiTou. I’m always learning about Chinese holidays. America doesn’t have so many fun holidays like this! Chinese people and their holidays are great! The most important part of the day, though, is that it’s your birthday. We are all together for it. I wish you a happy birthday!”
Not so much with the sentimentality, but it was understood by all – a big deal for me with my bad tones – and San Yi appreciated it. XiaoMing said it was good, and I tend to defer to her in all things Mandarin. Several others toasted, and we continued to eat. Eventually the individual toasts began. It wasn’t long before I spoke again, to Xiao Yi, this time. She’s the youngest aunt. Turns out that she just retired, for the second time, so that she can help the cousins raise their babies (two of them are pregnant). She posted this on WeChat, but apparently I was the only one who noticed. I mentioned it to XiaoMing earlier and she had no idea, so when Xiao Yi talked to the family, I actually knew what she was talking about.
As she stood next to me, I raised my glass and toasted her, saying “So many people post on WeChat, Xiao Yi, but I usually don’t even look at their posts. But when you posted, I wanted to know what was going on. You are family, and this is what family does: we care about each other and want to know what’s going on. That’s family.”
This moved her. She then proceeded, tears brimming her eyes, to toast me.
She said such nice things about me as a person, family member, man, and husband that I can’t repeat them here. Her sincerity and love radiated off her.
It’s daunting when others see such value and worth in you. Makes you want to be worthy of their praise.
And here you thought it was just a Monday in February.
After reading an article that claimed John Cena (WWE Wrestler) was a proficient Mandarin speaker, I had to find proof. And so I did. I saw that interview with Mark Zuckerburg where he did his Q&A in Mandarin. I’ve even heard one-time Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman speaking Mandarin. Apparently at some point in the recent past people up and started studying China’s official language like it was the crazy aunt’s dish she brought to a cookout that everyone swore they’d never try, but then did and loved it despite the strange smells and occasional indigestion. Too much? Anyway…
Whenever I hear someone who isn’t Chinese speaking Mandarin I immediately want to know their story. Why’d they study it? How and where did they learn? What tricks could they recommend for learning new vocabulary? Just picking it up is a pretty unrealistic sentiment when it comes to Mandarin, at least if you want to move beyond Survival Chinese, so to study means to put in serious man hours (are we saying people hours? Person hours?). When I hear non-Chinese people speaking Mandarin I also think of my first days learning it.
Probably not the best way to study…
Probably Not the Best Way to Study…
Jayland Learning – the school that brought me to China – offered two one-hour classes a week. Every month one of the Chinese staff members taught the class, and this rotating teacher system created interesting incidents during lunch and dinner time. Mian Zi, or reputation, is highly regarded in Chinese culture, and even though there are about a million cultural gems that people pick and choose to follow in modern China, the influence and consideration of Mian Zi is one of the constants. There are all sorts of little intricacies to wielding and applying Mian Zi and I’m sure I still don’t know it all, but I do know a few things.
Make Your Teacher Look Good is one of the first tenets. So after about a week or two of classes the rest of the staff got it into their heads that starting a tradition of quizzing the lao wai would be in everyone’s best interest. From around the long wooden table questions in Mandarin flew toward me – Ni chi fan le ma? Ni dui zhongguo shenghuo xiguan ma? Zhe shi shenme (asked by pointing at random stuff)? Women de xuexiao you ji ge zhongjiaoshi? Waimian de tianqi zenmeyang? I could answer some, but not all. Getting one right brought a smile to my teacher’s face; wrong meant they sat a bit lower in their chair and got razzed a bit for their student’s mediocre performance.
Trying to simultaneously endear myself to my teacher and progress with my language study, I began translating super short stories and parables into Mandarin in order to recite them around the table. It was a big hit. Not only did the move literally get applause from time to time, my teachers quickly began to swell with pride. Even the school’s Ayi, a woman we all called Da Jie – big sister – took an interest in my story-telling. One short parable in particular made an impression. It was about a Dog who almost convinces a Wolf to give up his wild life to live with him and his master. The Wolf nearly goes for it until he realizes that to get the free food and shelter he’d have to give up his freedom and wear a leash. More than a month after I told it the first time, I heard Da Jie quoting the last line: “I’d rather die skinny and free than live fat and a slave.”
Notebooks full of words and grammar structures I’ve more or less forgotten and relearned over the years are stacked on my bookshelves. About a dozen titles like HSK Vocabulary Workbook, Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words, and Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide accompany the notebooks and suggest to anyone who ganders at them that I am completely fluent. I am not.
But I would consider myself a bilingual. Most would consider the term Bilingual to mean complete fluency in an additional language, but apparently there is a continuum. The field of study focused on Second or Additional Language Acquisition and Bilingualism has all sorts of words like additive and subtractive, coordinate, passive, balanced, and about a half dozen others to categorize those who use more than one language throughout their life. A big part of me – maybe the part that will push me to pursue a PhD in that area? – is fascinated by the different ways to analyze the role language plays in the lives of people, but another part of me just wants to be able to get a point across to my in-laws without them turning to my wife and asking “Ta shuo sha?” What did he say?
Living abroad, it’s no surprise that most of the people I talk with and work with speak more than one language. Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Tagalog, Dutch, Romanian, Korean, Mandarin, French – words from all of these languages crisscross and intertwine with English daily, and I love it. Maybe one day I’ll get to that stage some call Balanced Bilingualism, but until then I’ll just keep plugging away.
What language(s) do you speak? How and why’d you study?
The other day while going through some of my files on my computer I simultaneously discovered iMovie and several videos I took from the trip. I’m just about completely inept with technology, but thanks to YouTube tutorials, I put together a short video.
The trip still remains a powerful memory for me, and I hope to have more experiences like it in the future.
China is a country full of tradition. China is also full of people that have no time for tradition.
But most of those folks fall in line during the Chinese Spring Festival. They save up, fight for their tickets home, stuff Red Envelopes with their hard-earned cash (many of them giving up meals to do so), and spend the first week of the Lunar January with their family eating dish after dish of homemade grub. Most families pull out all the stops. Preparing the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day meals are endeavors they labor over, choreograph, and take pride in. For days before the event, Xiao Ming’s family blew up the family WeChat Group with instructions for preparing and making the food. You’d have thought they expected Xi Jinping himself to show up.
The celebratory atmosphere lasts until Lantern Festival which is the fifteenth day of the first Lunar Month, this year that’s February 11. It’s really just the first week of the New Year that gets most of the attention, though. Once the family is all together they eat, play mahjong, watch the Spring Fesitval Gala, and some, you know, like fireworks a little bit. Starting at eleven pm you hear the crack and pop and explosive bursts all throughout the city. This goes on for about a week with minor slowdowns throughout the daytime.
For most foreigners celebrating Spring Festival in China they learn about the importance of red, fireworks, and Red Envelopes first. Those are the shiny parts of the holiday and integral to the celebrations, but another tradition is all the visiting of relatives that’s expected. The Chinese call it chuan menr – 串门儿. Just like many Americans on New Year’s Day, the Chinese pay visits to family members at this time of year.
Luckily for Xiao Ming and me, most of the family lives here in Kai Fa Qu. We headed over to the oldest male cousin’s house. He lives in the same complex as Xiao Ming’s parents and aunts. There’s like eight family members in that one complex. We used to live there, too, but it was before everyone decided it was the best place in the world to live. Now we have at least a ten-minute walk separating us!
As usual when there is a family dinner, only about half the food was ready by the designated time of 4 pm. Everyone fretted over something. Chairs for the guests, enough cups, chop sticks, who wore too little, who was too thin, who was too fat. The spread looked great. Tasted better.
After the food we all just chilled. The aunts played mahjong in the back, couple of the uncles smoked and talked about nonsense, and Xiao Ming and I watched some of the Spring Festival Gala. Every year this program takes over Chinese TV and heralds the New Year with performances from all over the country. Dances, songs, Kung Fu performances, Chinese skits of Crosstalk (Xiang Sheng), and of course over-the-top patriotic interviews with men and women in service jobs and military posts.
Then Jackie Chan leads everyone in a song of “My Home is in My Heart” while simultaneously performing Chinese Sign Language. Yeah, seriously. Here’s a better link to it.
Like Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, there’s the same host for decades, a countdown, and even a Midnight Meal. Back home we ate Sour Kraut and Pork. Here they eat…
Surprised by this, anyone?
I noticed the fireworks the most my first year in China. The noise, smoke, colors. It was the Year of the Dragon. Aside from what I read online or was told at my work, I didn’t take part in much celebrating that first year, at least not Chinese celebrations. With each year that passes that changes. Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, and now the Rooster. Being a part of a Chinese family has changed the way I view and experience China. How could it not?
I’ve passed the booths and tables many times. Always a young girl sitting and playing on her phone while before her, laid out on the table, are booklets, posters, and framed photos of newlyweds in all sorts of poses.
In the spring and summer couples flock to the local parks for their outdoor shoots, and descend on the foreign-looking buildings because it’s fashionable to take photos in front of them, and even schedule elaborate trips in order to capture on-site images instead of using green screens or poster backdrops. When Xiao Ming and I were in Nice a few years ago we saw two photography groups following Chinese couples around!
We talked about taking the pictures ourselves around the time we got married two years ago, but neither of us wanted to really commit to it. We’re not picture-takers. But after Xiao Ming’s cousin got her photos a few months ago we decided to just get it over with. So, on November 6th we spent NINE hours dressed like what felt like fools in a few of the outfits, and, yes, even got some shots of us in front of foreign looking buildings out in the middle of nowhere about forty minutes away.
Not going through that again.
LiYing Wedding Photography is a two-floor shop down a side street beside iMall (No connection to Apple products whatsoever). The mall used to be the only competition for Ansheng Shopping Center across the intersection, but now that a Wanda Shopping Center opened just up the street Kai Fa Qu consumers have plenty of places to spend their money. We arrive before 8 am, and Xiao Ming is ushered into the back where her make-up is applied by women with questionable cosmetic choices themselves.
A Chinese girl so small I could probably toss her across the room comes up to me and says she’ll be putting make-up on me and doing my hair. I laugh.
I make it clear to her that my hair is the way I want it, and there’s no way in hell I’m getting any make-up put on me. Shit, my mom and aunts had to hold me down as a toddler just to apply sunscreen!
So then after Xiao Ming is dolled up enough that I might mistake her for someone else, we put on our first outfits. We’d gone in two weeks before to select our clothing and decided on at least a few shots wearing the traditional red Chinese gowns (I also insisted on having shots done with us wearing our normal clothes and leather jackets!). We donned them and then traipsed upstairs for the first round of pics. It’s no good. Babies are everywhere being asked to smile and say “eggplant.” Qiezi, the Chinese for eggplant, is basically their “Cheese” for photos. Saying it makes them grimace just like saying “cheese” does for us Americans.
So our entourage packs up for a place they call the “basement” that’s in Jinzhou, about thirty minutes or so away. Sure, whatever. Just let me change back into my normal clothes first. Nope! We both walk outside in our flashy red gowns for all the Sunday morning busybodies to see.
Along the way we stop for some Chinese breakfast – still my least favorite of the Chinese meals. After the food everyone dozes as we drive toward Jinzhou, the county to the west of Kai Fa Qu. When we get to the “basement” it’s pretty clear the name is a euphemism.
Tian Lai Wan is a mostly abandoned complex that looks like something you’d see in England or parts of France. Pale stone slabs for the exterior, statues, and columns. Close to the coast and eerily quiet, you could almost forget you’re in China.
The facility is shared by seven photography companies, and they’ve all put money into the place. Sets – that’s the only way to think of them – are everywhere. Castle, Bar, Pool Hall, Library, Wine Cellar, Park, Bridge, Nondescript Rustic Foreign Place, etc.
Once there, we begin.
NINE hours and a lunch break later, we finish.
The day is done and we’re wiped out. Xiao Ming is just swearing up and down in our pidgin Chinese-English mix we’ve developed as a couple together (we’re so cultured! Haha). I’m half asleep and hungry sitting next to her. But we’re done.
It’s about a month before we get a call that says we can come in and see the digital copies and make our final selections. Apprehensive and skeptical, we go in and look through the 200 pics. We were nervous because the dresses Xiao Ming wore were a bit too big on her, the make-up was way more than she ever wears (which is none), and I have a notorious habit for making monkey faces in my pictures.
After pouring over the photos for about half an hour, we narrow our selections down to 44. There are some decisions about sizes and layout, and then we’re told it’ll be another half month. We wait. Three weeks later we’re called. Yay! Picture pick up!
Except not. We get there and are shown the digital book pages that will become the printed hardcopy books. It took three weeks to put this together, I ask. The woman nods hesitantly. I straight up ask her what they’ve done in three weeks. I tell her that if I’d had the digital copies I could have arranged them just like what she’s shown us in one day. There’s nothing she can do, I know, but sometimes bitching about nonsense feels good.
She tells us it’ll be another half month before we can pick up the books!
And so a few days ago we got the call and went to retrieve the pictures we’d taken in the Autumn.
Crossing China is no easy task. It’s simple, most of the time, but not always easy. Planes will do the job quickly, but they’re costly and get hung up by silly things like typhoons (We got delayed in Detroit and Shanghai recently because of three that decided to hangout along China’s coasts). On the international flights they feed you a bunch of times, you’ve got a bit more legroom, and more and more they’re getting better movies to watch. The shorter and the long flights can present the noisy child scenario, the angry old people scene, the hot-shot-above-the-law-of-avionics skit, and the militant flight attendant just looking for an excuse to use her self-defense skills to put you back in your seat with the tray in its upright and locked position.
Trains are cheaper, and can still make good time. You’ve got your seat tickets, hard sleepers, and soft sleepers to choose from. On the short trips, on the High Speed Train, seats are fine, but when we took trips to Lhasa, Xi’an, and Chengdu we opted for the sleepers. We even did the soft sleeper once.
If you happen to luck out and get the bottom bunk, good for you. You’ve got the most coveted spot on the train. The middle bed is Okay, but you’re unable to sit up like a normal human. The top bunk, forget about it. Most people with those spots just visit them to sleep. Otherwise they’re the ones hogging the few spring-loaded seats by the windows, leaning over the limited outlets like Shmeegle and his Precious. There’s basically nothing to do on a train but eat, sleep, read, look out the windows, and play on any tech toy you’ve charged up. The Chinese tend to put all their chips in the eating basket. Chances are high that if they’re awake they’re eating. They gorge themselves on Instant Noodles, dry tofu, rancid smelling meat sticks, boiled tea eggs, and a dozen other aromatic treats that will singe your nose hairs.
Often on the longer route trains there are few western foreigners, so I’ve gotten plenty of attention riding them. On the way to Chengdu we had 40+ hours on the train, and for the first 15 I was a curiosity to the others in our car, but the last 25-30 hours I was the honorary uncle of three kids. The youngest, a 6 year-old boy, thought of me as his hairy, foreigner jungle gym. He climbed into my lap, onto my shoulders, and pulled on my arm hair constantly. They taught me a new card game, and I showed them one I learned as a kid. And then they wanted me to play with them for hours. I always like talking with Chinese kids when they’re not shy. My sense of humor in Chinese is comparable to a child’s, so we usually get along well. Also, they almost always understand my bad tones whereas adults sometimes get hung up on a phrase I utter incorrectly.
Traveling out into China’s rural areas by train is also a unique way to see a land that is truly stuck between the old and new world. Miles and miles (or kilometers if you’re, you know, the rest of the world) of land seems to have barely been touched by civilization, other stretches just by villages, and even the cities you pass that have aspirations of full-on urbanization are still only just developing. Out west, many roads are still being constructed; the concrete bases that will bare the weight of the highways portend coming changes to the villages and towns, mountains and rivers they traverse.
Nighttime on a train can be gorgeous. When we went to Lhasa we stargazed like we never had before anywhere in China. Pristine, virgin land gives way to breathtaking mountains and lakes that make you pray humanity just sort of goes away.
Buses, now. These are always packed with colorful people that make you wonder how we justify calling ourselves the top of the food chain. Right now as I write this, we’re on our way to Kang Ding, a Chinese city close to the Tibetan border. However, this trip, which, taking a direct westerly route, should take only about 4-5 hours, is going to take about 10 because the ONE ROAD that goes to Kang Ding is impassable right now. So we’re taking a mountain-hugging road that looks like it’s just been finished way south toward Yunnan, then taking (we’re guessing at this point) the only other road this far out of the way toward Kang Ding.
Behind me are three people who I swear to God I wouldn’t mind dangling out the window. One, the grandpa, intermittently juggles screaming into his phone with an incomprehensible dialect of Mandarin so hard on the ears that Xiao Ming and I cringe when we hear it and singing songs that were probably only around during the Cultural Revolution, loudly. The adult son is second. Mostly a complaint-free individual, but pair him with the grandson and you have a duo I’d like to kick into the DaDu River we just passed. The boy hollers like an insane child that he is Spider-Man while his dad goads him on by fake fighting him. They kick, slam, and crash into our seats like they’re staring in a Jet Li flick while the grandpa, seemingly oblivious to them both, sings or assaults his phone’s receiver and our ears with his brand of gibberish. The incessant honking, jostling, and sudden changes of speed that make up the physical bus are second on how awesome buses can be. I’m not a mechanic, but some of the noises I’ve heard while riding buses make me wonder if they’ve got caged animals beneath our feet. The cloth seat covers are sometimes a nice thought, except when you notice the booger, gum, or dried blood that very likely could have been on them longer than I’ve been alive.
Oh, look at that. We are turning back toward Kang Ding now. Xiao Ming called it. I thought we’d have to abandon ship and just hang out in Kunming for a few days before heading back to Dalian. Now that’s one way I haven’t traveled here—a ship. With the unfortunate capsizing stories lately, I’m not sure I even want to.
Right now I just want to listen to some Kang Ding Qing Ge—Kang Ding Love Song—and tune out Spider-Man and the Chinese Barry Manalow. Coincidentally, the Kang Ding Love Song was recently featured in Netflix’s Daredevil, so it’s getting a lot of attention now. It’s cool actually seeing the place in person.
Typhoons striking the eastern coast of China forced Delta to cancel our flight to Shanghai yesterday, and because Mother Nature still hasn’t complied with the airline’s schedule, we’re sitting in the Detroit airport delayed for more than two hours. Aside from being generally frustrating, the delay has given me a moment to write about this trip to America.
“Americans are so nice,” Xiao Ming says when thinking about her time here. “And there is so much space everywhere. America will never have the same problems China has with overcrowding. The food is so good, too. Much better than French cuisine.” Apparently we Yanks aren’t all a bunch of gun-totting, murderous nuts after all.
Well, at least not the murder part, anyway.
Twenty-four hours of traveling deposited us at the Akron Canton Terminal around eleven pm where my mom and brother’s partner met us three weeks ago. Tears in her eyes, wild platinum blonde hair sticking out like an anime character, my mother squeezed me and welcomed Xiao Ming and I back to the US.
We stayed with my Mother and Brother at their apartment for a few days before the five of us drove to NYC. Two days of walking, sight-seeing, and subway riding left us all exhausted. Though it’s the most famous city in the world, it’s still just a big city. Xiao Ming and I have traveled enough to see plenty of them. Hanging out with family while navigating the Big Apple was the best part. The drive back to Ohio felt a lot longer on the return journey. I drove the bulk of the way back since mom drove it on the way up. Even after grabbing an hour’s shut-eye in a southern Ohio McD’s parking lot, it was a struggle to keep my eyes open the entire way back into Canton. We finally made it back around 4:30 am, and collapsed on our respective beds.
She’s never seen me get excited about food. Sure, I love Chinese food. I eat it everyday. Street food from vendors using pots and pans that haven’t been properly washed since Mao kicked the bucket are just fine most days. But in America there be El Campasinos. The first meal we shared together in my hometown was dinner at the Mexican restaurant with crack-laced cheese dip, and Chicken quesadillas from El Heaveno. I actually moaned as I ate.
I wanted to share the food I grew up with, so we tackled Denny’s, Bob Evans, IHOP, Papa Johns, Friday’s, KFC, and some home-cooked food. Now I realize that this list makes me seem like a hillbilly, but I. Don’t. Care. When you live in China for long periods of time you begin to lose perspective. Suddenly everything greasy is special because it’s American grease. Next time we come to the States I’d like to hit Fazzoli’s, Olive Garden, BW3s, and Pizza Hut.
Something I learned from my last trip back home: YOU NEED A VEHICLE. I’d almost forgotten how far away everything was in the suburbs. You can’t walk it, I don’t care what you say. So this time I spent a ridiculous amount on renting cars. After a while the workers start to throw out discounts, so I saved a little. Not enough, but a little. We had wheels, though.
On one outing we went to my university and wandered around until getting caught in a downpour. Racing through almost the entire length of campus, we got soaked. We stripped and dried off in the car, listening to the radio warn the county that two tornado clouds had been spotted. Fun times.
We hung out at the library (not as lame as it sounds) one afternoon. It sits on a lake with trails through woods, so after getting set up with another library card, we walked around. “No wonder you don’t mind living in China,” XM said as the peace of the area enveloped us. The sounds of traffic and the city did not penetrate the tree line, and ours were the only human voices. “It’s so quiet here that when you grew up you wanted to be in a place with more noise, didn’t you?” Honestly, I hadn’t thought it like that before. Maybe she was right.
We caught a movie at Tinseltown—Ted 2—just so I could show XM what an American theatrical experience is like. Chinese theaters don’t normally show trailers, have no A/C, and people tend to think that it’s in the best interest of every moviegoer in attendance to hear the details of their private phone calls. So it was a nice change of pace to sit through 20 minutes of movie previews while being air-conditioned, and then an hour and a half-long movie without seeing a cellphone screen in the audience. The movie was okay, too.
After visiting family and friends in Ohio for two weeks, we drove down to South Carolina to visit even more family. Despite the weather not being so great the entire trip, we had a good time seeing everyone, especially a little sister that is just too freakin’ cute. After being in the North for a while, the South struck XM like a big plate o’ grits. Right off, she noticed, “there is so much land, and the people are so enthusiastic, so hospitable.”
Goodbyes were hard, but promises of future visits—both to China and back to the US—made everyone feel better. Driving through SC, NC, WV, VA, and OH made for a pleasant route back to my mom and brother’s. The mountains, forests, the Statey who gave me a speeding ticket. Yup. I swear it was a speed trap. My being polite and courteous prompted him to help me a bit, and I escaped needing to appear in court. Good thing, too. We were going to be in China during the court date.
The last few days passed quickly, and the closer our departure came, the more thoughtful I became. I pondered what it must be like for Xiao Ming to have made this first trip to America with her American Husband. I wondered what she truly thought, how it compared with her expectations, and what she’d remember when we left. As usual, her answer wasn’t even on my radar.
“The best thing about America,” XM says with unrestrained enthusiasm, “is your bathrooms. They ALL have paper! And they’re clean. Every sink has cold and hot water, too. There is soap to wash your hands, and AUTOMATIC PAPER TOWEL DISPENSERS!” A bit manic, she adds, “The best restroom in China doesn’t compare with a rest stop’s restroom off the highway in America. And they’re all free! In China and France you have to pay to use them! America is really a developed country.”
There might be a metaphor in there somewhere, but right now something’s happening at the check in desk. Maybe it’s time to go.
Kidney Stones and fireworks rounded out my first Spring Festival in China more than three years ago. I wrote the first draft of a novel while staying in Dalian my second time around. Xiao Ming and I brought in the year of the Horse in Cambodia my third festival. The fourth time I 过年了(guo nian le), or passed the New Year, I celebrated it married to Xiao Ming and eating meals with her family (and finishing another novel).
I remember looking out my apartment window on Tong Niu hill that first year and comparing the scene to a war zone. With explosions of lights and noise erupting all across the city’s skyline, fireworks going off within apartment complexes, out in the intersections, and right in front of stores with people still walking by, that seemed an apt description. I kept thinking that in America you can’t light off a bottle rocket without your neighbors calling the fuz. They’re so afraid of any number of accidents that could transpire—burnt grass, burnt tree, burnt forest, and, you know, standing in the ashes that used to be their house. Well, I wasn’t in America.
The Chinese live with the fear that everything around them could blow up at any time, for a straight week. And they smile and have a hell of a time doing it. I might be exaggerating.
The clouds of smoke and sulfur eventually clear, the street cleaners in their neon orange and yellow suits bring out their tree-branch brooms, and the smoldering debris gets swept away, ushering in the lunar calendar’s New Year.
Some fingers get claimed, announcements are made denouncing the wanton use of fireworks, and each year a new animal controls the world—er, I mean uses his magical guanxi to bring prosperity to his devout followers. No, that can’t be right, either.
Traditionally, this week for Chinese people is a BIG DEAL. Students, adult children and their families, and even migrant workers all make a mad dash to their hometowns—no matter how far away it is, the Chun Yun (wrote about that last year, HERE). I had a friend need to get all the way from Dalian to Lhasa one year. I’ve done that trip by train. It takes a long time! She was a poor college kid, so she took buses and trains. It took her more than three days, and all of her savings for the year. Well, most. The rest she spent buying gifts for every person in her family, including stuffing as many Hong Bao, Red Envelopes, as possible.
It’s tradition, though. The magic word that makes people break their backs to follow its mandates. Any straying from the course that’s been set in the terra-cotta stone gets you branded as un-filial child—the mark of Cain for the Chinese.
The problem is China’s national identity is threaded together by traditions that families can trace back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, and yet their cities and economy are growing based on principles they adopted back in ’79—1979. The last few decades have definitely pushed Chinese citizens up against the traditional ropes.
Young Chinese are increasingly at odds with the older generations. I’ve read handfuls of articles about how much stress the Hong Bao causes between family members and co-workers, what the pressure to marry young does to the profession-oriented young adult (apparently it leads to attempted ABDUCTION , or RENTING a DATE for others), but most valuable to me has just been living with and making friends with Chinese people dealing with these trials of tradition.
Definitions are important. My students keep notebooks filled with definitions they need to know for high stakes tests, and understanding the terms in a treaty keeps countries happy. The way a nation defines itself is largely based on the past and the traditions that make up its culture. When those traditions are being challenged by a change that happens to also make a large portion of your people richer, values can also shift.
The Logo Love (just TM’d that on my own) that so many wealthy Chinese share for foreign brand names, the extravagant spending that borders on and often crosses into corruption, and the constant drive for more, more, more is chipping away at some of those traditions—carving a new idol for the masses to get behind. Move over Mao.
The tried and true of family first still seems to be strong, but it’s getting nuanced, too. I wonder how the next few decades will shape the modern family of China.
THAT, was a huge digression. I just wanted to throw up some pics from the last few weeks and make a few jokes.
The last day of school at an International School is sort of like your favorite TV show’s season finale. Some characters are taking off—possibly staring in their own spinoffs—many are coming back—wiser than the year before and, with interesting stories between filming breaks. Even season-long arcs have been resolved—grades, projects, committees, testing—while mid-season changes—administration in new spots, new staff, new students—will cast mystery over the opening of the next year.
I doubt we’re going to be syndicated anytime soon, but there were a bunch of cameras out today. Kids and teachers alike tried to snap photos with each other while also juggling their yearbooks and signing their friends’. Students helped pack up some rooms between the hugs and signing, but their attention spans were about as long as a goldfish’s. The whole day flashed by, and came to a close at 1:30 as the buses rolled out and the staff waved goodbye for the summer.
Then, for the rest of the day, the teachers packed up their rooms, filed some papers, and wandered around the silent halls until about 4:30.
We’ve got an in-service day tomorrow, but the year is done. First full-time teaching post at an accredited International School in the bag, ladies and gents.
However, the work is not finished. Xiao Ming and I are chaperoning one last trip. I am taking 6 High Schoolers to Beijing for a week so they can do an internship at a water conservation organization named THIRST. They will be working throughout the week, and we get to be their supervisors. This’ll be my third trip as a chaperone this year!
And once we return on the 28, there will be about two days, and then we head to Paris. Three days in Paris and then three weeks in Nice.
Fun times ahead. Hopefully I’ll be writing from a French beach next time.
After a few months of twice-a-week classes in Mandarin, I would spend my free time thinking up short (really, really short) stories that I could translate into Chinese and share with the staff during lunch. This impressed everyone, and convinced them that I was some sort of language prodigy, not just someone who had manically tried to memorize just the words written. Somehow, listening to an American recount a three minute story made the Chinese teachers incredibly excited. It gave my teacher—which ever of the staff taught me that particular month—a lot of face, and, in China, that’s a big deal. And everyone loved the story about the wolf and the dog.
At Jayland, the English training school I worked that first year in China, we had an AYi, an older woman who cooked, cleaned, and seemed to spend a lot of her time fretting over the state of the young female Chinese teachers’ marital statuses. We called her Dajie, big sister. She smacked my shoulder the first week I met her when, at lunch, I placed my chopsticks directly into the rice, leaving them standing up in the air. It was quickly revealed to me that chopsticks placed like that symbolized death, and I never did that again (but to this day think about it every time I have a small bowl of rice). She was also one of the most enthusiastic about my Chinese story-telling, and months later, I heard her repeating the final line of the story about the wolf who chose freedom over being made a pet.
The story I told about the wolf and the dog came from a Native American myth, but many similar stories can be found from all over the world. Essentially, a tired and hungry wolf meets an energetic and well-fed dog one day. The two get to talking, and before long, the dog convinces the wolf to come home with him and live in his house with his master. The wolf loves the idea of never going hungry again, and agrees happily. As the two march off, the wolf catches a glimpse of the dog’s neck. “What’s that there, brother dog,” he asks. The dog turns a bit dour and remarks that his master ties him up every day so that he can’t run away. This startles the wolf, who then howls in anger and shock, “I would rather die free then live fat and a slave,” before dashing off back into the woods.
Dajie loved this story, and I’m not sure quite why, but lately I’ve been thinking about what the wolf said to the dog. Freedom versus slavery is a no-brainer, but what about slavery is so scary? Having no right to change, living by someone else’s rules, not being able to do what you want—these are easily on the tip of the tongue, right? I agree to all of these, but I am sort of surprised by the odd arbitrary nature of this idea of slavery.
Calling slavery captivity works when you visit a zoo, or when the species is near extinction, but isn’t the captive in a cell from which he cannot escape? Doesn’t he get meals and free time at the discretion of another? When the crowds call, isn’t there sometimes a trainer there coaxing him from his hiding place? True, he’ll get medical care when he needs it, not need to fend off vicious attacks from predators, and probably live a longer life than he would in the wild. The wild is where he belongs, though.
Humans, many have argued, are in a similar boat. Our cultures and laws, taboos and norms, and even our religions tell us stories that, in many cases, place bars firmly around an invisible perimeter no one is supposed to cross. Traveling is a great way to get a superficial look at these boundary lines, but being a tourist doesn’t make you a captive of the cultures you visit. At most, the traveler is on a day pass from the prison, but is expected to return to his cell eventually.
I’m too tired to bring this argument subtly to the point I’m trying to make, but the bottom line is we are subject to the wolf’s dilemma every day of our lives. At eighteen who isn’t hit with a near unbelievably strong urge to hit the open road, to just rip the fabric of their daily reality in two and step through the torn canvas of their life, out into something different, into something new? I remember driving home at night down Genoa, a back road that led to my parents’ house, window down and my hand slicing through the air with my fingers spread apart. A lot of the time my Intrepid would be the only thing out there, and I’d have the open sky and 97.5’s classic rock keeping me company as I cruised along. There were times I’d wish that road just kept going, that it could run straight out passed all the boundary markers I knew, all the barriers I still needed break through.
I’d turn into the neighborhood at Mollane, never really giving the road the chance to be what I knew it never could.
There were other times, when I was even younger, when I’d fantasize about running away. These whims didn’t spring from traumatic experiences or family troubles—no, I just wanted to wander around with a backpack slung over my shoulders, stomping through the small woods behind our neighborhood, and maybe I even thought I could hop a freighter or something as it passed behind the middle and high school buildings, ride it out to a new city. A few times I even packed a sorry little bag and stashed it around my bedroom. Once or twice I even climbed out my window and hung out in the woods for a few hours. I’d always return because it’d occur to me that I hadn’t finished my homework or that I’d forgotten to pack underwear. Once back inside, no one even batted an eye once they saw me. Apparently being outside for a few hours during the summer afternoon doesn’t really constitute a full-scale Amber Alert.
This idea of slavery vs liberty, or freedom vs civilization, has been around since one proto-human looked at the other and said, “This cave mine. You want in, do as I tell.” And, since it was raining outside, the other guy said, “That sounds just fine by me. As long as I get to stay warm and dry, I’ll follow the guidelines you’ve outlined.” The other proto-human studied at proto-university, evidently.
We live this compromise when we buy Roth IRAs, open lines of credit, or even restrain ourselves from rear-ending the idiot in front of us. We’ve been schooled in the subtle intricacies of this covenant with others in our human society, and we in turn educate the succeeding generations year after year. Fear of the rain may have prompted the first deal that paved the way for the rest of the civilization pact, but each one of us also makes a private accord with the world, and that accord ends with us relinquishing parts of our freedoms in return for the benefits of captivity. In short, one could say we are afraid of going hungry, just like the wolf.
Without a doubt, the benefits of civilization are far-reaching and just about innumerable, but there is still something alluring, almost provocative about the idea of an almost feral freedom that answers to no one, heeds no man-made border or boundary. Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Paulson, Quinn, Conrad, Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers, and countless others all analyzed these prison bars. In fact, just about every age and era of literature has a group of writers that peel back the veneer I’m rambling about and take a good look at what’s behind it. They wonder what it’d be like to leave the world of the bimonthly paycheck and the alarm clock wake-ups. They preach and prattle about the power of the road and the pull of the wild prairies left undiscovered…but they, like all of us, almost always eventually subscribe, at least in part, to some sort of civilization membership plan. Thoreau camped out on his friend’s property and routinely went into town when supplies dwindled, Jack drank himself into an early grave, and some of the other greats ended their stories by their own hands while others just sort of went mad in their own private ways.
We don’t ever really escape. The most we can do is walk the perimeters and toss stones over the fences we see. Honestly, if I were feral or “free,” I have no clue what I’d do. My life would not be what it is today, wouldn’t even have the values that it has now, so who’s to say that it’d be a “better” existence? If I want to say, “screw it, I’m going to Australia,” I suppose I could. It would cost me money, and I’d probably lose my current job, but I could be in Australia tomorrow if I so chose…But I don’t. Because I don’t have money to burn, an expendable job, and a solitary life. It’s almost as if being able to rail against the “bars of civilization,” is a fringe benefit of actually following that civilization’s rules. If I were to step out of its confines I’d have no way to know who I would become. And that is scary because I more or less like the Jordan I am. The wolf has always lived his way, but when he saw the leash marks on the dog’s neck he refused that life. We—I—have always had the leash, and as I’ve grown, the slack in the line has increased, giving me the chance to globe trot a bit, but the thought of throwing off the collar all together scares the living daylights out of me.
Did I just ramble myself into a circle, or, as they say in a Chinese idiom, “wu bing shen yin,” moan about an imaginary illness?
Either way, it’s Sunday night, and I’m going to get ready for another work week.