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.”
If you happened to anchor in one of China’s ports during the 19th century often enough to pick up the language, or manned posts on Chinese soil while working as a Foreign Service Officer during the ridiculously complicated years surrounding the Chinese Civil War, then you may have been a China Hand—中国通.
As a foreigner, being called or recognized as a bona fide China Hand by a Chinese person is about the highest compliment there is. Doing business here, teaching English, or even marrying a national doesn’t qualify you as one. Reciting Tang Dynasty poets like Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, or Wang Wei won’t get you the moniker, either.
As with any term steeped in culture and history, it changes and evolves with the times. Just like the common address for a young man today in China, Handsome Guy, shuai ge—帅哥. It’s the modern watered-down distillation of a word with a very different original meaning. Yuan Shuai used to refer to a military position of some rank. A soldier at this rank undoubtedly possessed some stellar qualities—probably admirable and honorable to boot. It’s not too hard to see how the title got commandeered and repurposed to describe particularly handsome guys. Knowing the history doesn’t make it any less annoying when people flit around calling everyone shuai ge.
I digress—China Hands! This distinguished nickname now gets toted out and tossed around whenever a witty comment or an insight into Chinese history is made. In a culture where exaggeration of worth and value is expected toward strangers and acquaintances but nit-picking and denigration is par for the course within families or tight circles mixed signals abound for those new to China.
Any expat making even the flimsiest attempts at Mandarin will be complimented as soon as they utter Ni Hao. Mention Mao Zedong, throw out an idiom, or even talk about any one of the two dozen holidays on the calendar (lunar, of course), and someone will call you a China Hand. That seem contradictory to what I already wrote? It’s not-ish. Because you probably don’t really know the person you’re talking to when you hear it. They may be a merchant, a co-worker, a prospective business contact, or even your weekly A Yi. What I’m saying is that chances are, they don’t view you as a family member or even as one of their inner circle. Those expats that are fortunate enough to make it into these close-knit relationships can get the honest answers, the honest compliments. And 99% of expats here are not China Hands.
I don’t know any of the merchants from two hundred years back, but I know a little about the guys that hung around China seventy years ago. John S. Service, Owen Lattimore, John K. Fairbank, John Paton Davies, Jr, and my father-in-law’s favorite that he likes to bring up whenever we talk about modern Chinese history, journalist Edgar Snow—these are the 中国通 that got caught up in one of the most pivotal times in Chinese history.
If anyone deserves to be called 中国通 it’s them. They mingled with the top brass in China—both sides. Chiang Kai-Shek and his beautiful wife Soong Mei-Ling, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai…These China Hands saw history unfold and often influenced its outcomes in various ways, sometimes not always for the best. China Hands like these folks just don’t come around all that often because they are frequently a product of tumultuous times themselves, thrust into positions because of necessity and duty. Thankfully, things are a lot more stable these days, but the idea of the China Hand is still very present among the people.
Why am I bringing any of this up? Well, it’s because I just had my Five Year China Anniversary. I say that like it’s a thing, I know. For me it is. All of this was originally supposed to be a One Year Stint. And then it became more.
My father-in-law constantly brings up the idea of me being a China Hand. He wants me to study Mandarin and modern history without pause. Xiao Ming is more practical about it all. She’s flat out told me that no one can become a 中国通 in less than 10 years. So, I’ve got time. No rush. Who knows if I’ll ever actually make it…
Regardless, it’s a hell of a life. That’s the big thing for this year, that realization. China was an experiment for me. It was something that I’d check out. Spend a year looking around and then go home. Move on. If I’d gone home after a year, two years, maybe even if I went home at the three-year mark, that’s all it would have remained—an experience. But now that it’s five years and a day, and with all that’s changed and happened, it’s clear that the China Experiment is over and the China Life is what it’s become. My China Life. Life.
Maybe my wife is right, she usually is, and I have five more years and a day before I can be counted among the China Hands. It’s not like one day you wake up and they give you a card or anything. But how cool would that be?
Speaking of official documents, a Time Out Shanghai article recently shed light on a topic I’ve heard rumors about. The visa hurdles here in place are not to be taken lightly, but China has a plan. A new ABC ranking system where they categorize foreigners working here as either top talent (A), professional talent (B), or unskilled worker (C) is being implemented.
As the roll out date is this April, I wonder how this will affect me and others like me. Are they going to actually test expats with Mandarin exams? Will they give preference to those that have been here for a long time? Married into a family? They promise to provide “helpful guides” to foreigners, so I guess I’ll wait in line for those?
Anyway—Five Years has been great.
I do, in fact, know a bit about one of the merchants from way back. John O’Donnell was the first merchant to ship China-made goods to Baltimore. After amassing a fortune from this trade business and becoming one of the big names in Baltimore, he named his plantation Canton. This name comes from Guangzhou, China and is how it appeared on maps for many years. Well, I’m from Canton, the one in Ohio, not Maryland. Turns out that the surveyor (of the Ohio Canton) admired O’Donnell so much that he borrowed the O’Donnell plantation name for my hometown. It’s random. It’s true. Look it up.
I guess sometime soon I should write about Malaysia, Singapore, going back home, DC, SC, Xinjiang, Gansu, and getting back into the swing of school again. Maybe later.
Where to begin? France, Monaco? Back to Dalian and the start of the school year, or the weekends in South Korea and Shenzhen? A lot has happened during the silent interim, but I’ll get back to this blog shortly. School has kept me busy, but I’ve also been focusing on finishing a novel.
I’ll be breathing some new life into this site soon. This is just a pulse check.
On my fifth time to Beijing I found an area that I’d actually like to visit again. Generally, as a rule, I dislike Beijing with a fiery passion. The only other big Chinese city that’s elicited such ire from me is Zhengzhou. Each time I’ve been in Beijing the weather has been atrocious, the crowds overwhelming, and the humidity incapacitating, but on this fifth go-round things were different.
Xiao Ming and I chaperoned an internship with six high school students during the final week of June. Overall, it was uneventful (that adjective is good when children are involved) and pleasant (that adjective just isn’t often associated with the Chinese capital).
We had reservations at the Sanlitun Youth Hostel, a clean, centrally located place that served pretty decent Chinese and Western food. The staff, young and mostly helpful, was overworked, and sometimes it was easy to see. The area known as Sanlitun has a bit of a flashy, sordid past, but over the last few years it has grown into just a popular area for expats to shop, drink, and entertain themselves between sightseeing and whatever other business they have there.
The weather also seemed to be on our side, mostly. Sunny, blue skies greeted us each day, and at night I could even see a few stars. Summer in Beijing is hot. We walked the students to the company the first couple days, but even at 8:30 we were drenched by the time we got there. We let them take cabs after two days of that.
That first day at the company, a water conservation non-profit called THIRST, we stayed with the students until after lunch, just to make sure everything ran smoothly. The six of them had been quiet since Xiao Ming and I met them at the train station a day before, and we still hadn’t heard them talk much. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it was just…odd. The last two trips I took with students felt like I was a cat herder. This group almost made me feel like I wasted my time coming along for the trip. After the first day of this oddly self-sufficient behavior, I changed my approach. I gave them curfews, the hostel’s business card, and gave them perimeters they couldn’t pass. That did the trick. After that they were more talkative, friendlier, and always on time. The reason these six kids were chosen for the internship is because they were rock stars already. Mature, responsible, and focused. I did not need to babysit these guys like I did the 22 middle schoolers when we went to Beijing in May, or the 23 High Schoolers I went to Ningxia with.
Xiao Ming and I used our afternoons to turn the trip into a pre-summer vacation vacation. Once we dropped the kids off at the company, we would wander around the city. I finally got to see the Summer Palace, the one tourist sight I’d yet to see. It wasn’t as crowded as many other places because it wasn’t a holiday, and the complex sits pretty far away from the center of the city. Wandering around in the heat zapped us, and while sitting and resting on the bridge near the palace, both of us fell asleep for forty minutes. When we woke up old Chinese couples were smiling at us.
Or we would hang out at the very hip and modern, Korean-owned Café Groove across the street from the hostel. This place had a modern-artistic-industrial feel to it, and in the evenings they opened their glass walls so that it became an open-air café with free wifi and comfy seats. Even the students chilled there a few times in the evenings.
Sitting in Café Groove also allowed Xiao Ming and me to play a game we dubbed, “Count the Prostitutes.”
While the area has been made relatively cleaner due to the police and local government shutting down some bars due to solicitation, people are crafty. As we sat there, people watching, I noticed two very tall, thin, dolled-up Chinese women walking along the back of the café, down an alley behind the hotel next door. These girls came by like five minutes a part, but both in the same direction. They also both checked their phone the same way, as if checking a time or number, and then tucked it away.
By the third, nearly identical girl, I told Xiao Ming, and we watched as three more girls walked by in a matter of minutes. Unable to fight my curiosity, I stood by the outside of the café and watched as another girl walked by.
This time, however, I saw where she went. Five tall Chinese guys, broader than the average Chinese man, stood guard at the back door of the hotel. All of them wore snazzy suits, and one sat at a computer set just inside the doorway. The girl (and all of the other ones probably) went to him, leaned down, looked at the screen, and then stood and entered the elevator and disappeared. I relayed this to Xiao Ming, and she also checked it out the next time we saw a girl walk by.
On her return to our table, she said that it was definitely prostitution because after the girl got in the elevator one of the guards radioed someone in the hotel and said the girl had arrived for the customer in a specific room number. Each evening, Xiao Ming and I hung out at Café Groove and played our game as the students worked on their computers. There were a few times that we lost count, too. If the cops are at your front door, use the back, I guess.
Because it was a school trip, and Xiao Ming and I were “On” the whole week, we didn’t get to partake of the nightlife in Sunlitun. Arguably, one of the best areas in Beijing to hang out and drink, the JiuBa Jie (Bar Street) was off limits to us. We found it, saw it, walked the perimeter, but did not dive in. Next time…
The week flew by, and before we knew it, Friday had arrived and a train ride back to Dalian was in order. The students had a good time and learned a lot during the week, Xiao Ming and I met some cool people at THIRST and had a nice mini-trip, and most importantly: no one lost any limbs. We boarded the train, and six and a half hours later we said goodbye to the kids as their parents picked them up at the Dalian North Station. Third Chaperoned Trip during my First Year. Done.
Next week I’ll be spending my Spring Break chaperoning 22 Chinese High School kids as they volunteer their time to teach at a poor village school in Ningxia, China.
This autonomous region is the third poorest in China, and doesn’t have much of an economic output because of high labor costs, so it doesn’t have a lot going for itself…except maybe wolfberries and a possible wine market future. The Hui ethnic minority live there and most of the population are Muslim. The Mandarin spoken is not standard Mandarin, and even the students say that it’s really difficult to understand the locals.
I’m not sure what teaching I’ll be doing, but the other chaperone and I will already have our hands full with the group in general. We’ve had a few meetings, set our expectations, and had the appropriate paperwork signed, so now we just have to wait and see…They are all good kids, but they’re all 17-19. Going on a trip. And it’s co-ed. Last summer a group of them arranged this volunteer outing on their own, without any adults, so now that the school is involved and there are teachers going, rules have been put in place. I’m sure some are gonna want to test the limits, but the other teacher and I are on the same page, and, thankfully, she’s got a rep for sort of being a hardass. Makes my job easier.
I’m really excited about this, have been for a few months now. The video the two seniors showed the school in the Fall brought tears to most peoples’ eyes. The work and the donations that these students raised on their own seemed to really help the children in Ningxia. I jumped on board right after the video ended, and I’ve been hounding my administrator and checking in on the students, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything with the trip details. When it finally got the green light, they offered me the chaperoning gig, and I said, yes, you bet I wanna get in on this. The last few weeks, we’ve been doing a few different fundraisers—wearing earphones in the halls if you buy a button for 30 RMB—and have been spreading the word about how great an opportunity it is to donate to a worthy cause.
And it is a worthy cause. 100% of the donations go directly to the purchasing of clothes, school supplies, food—all given to the community in Ningxia. I had to convince a middle school student who thought he had inside info that no, the donations were not being pilfered by the school and going into the pockets of administrators, and that all the kids attending this trip were paying their own ways. Cynical little 13 year old, I tell you.
We leave this Saturday morning and we’ll get back the following Friday afternoon. I’ll have a weekend to recoup, and then back to school that Monday.
It’s been hard keeping up my Chinese study habits since I started at the International School. All my interactions with the staff are in English, except for when I chat with the Mandarin teachers or go to the copy room. In my ELL specialist position I try not to rely on my Chinese, but it has definitely come in handy in rough situations, and it’s helping me get a new student adjusted this week. However, I’m not improving.
The Learning Plateau is real, and anyone who has tried to master a skill that contains many levels will tell you that it is a leviathan that can lull the learner into languid complacency, making even the steadfast of students lethargic.
Last summer I had a great strategy. I talked with three different college students from different parts of China for an hour each, nearly every week. It helped with my listening, and strengthened my ear for dialect. I bought a great book (one of perhaps a few dozen now) with everyday situations and plenty of idioms and vocabulary. I always had it nearby and resorted to it many times a day, soaking in new phrases. Xiao Ming and I stressed Mandarin for longer periods of time, and she helped me with the correct wording constantly. Even my buddy, Matt, a guy who’s been here for 10 years, offered a few compliments. I was improving.
Then August rolled around and I was in a new position.
In an effort to break through this plateau, I have been learning a word or two a day for the last month. In my planner each week, on the weekdays, I’ve been jotting down words of the day. These words are terms that relate to my job or to something I’ve needed to know how to say while helping a student. This has been going on a month come St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve listed my words for the past month below, but I’m curious….anyone have any suggestions for learning a new language when you’ve already got a very busy schedule?
I would wager that many of you (all seven) aren’t aware of the holiday that has just passed. I’ll give you a hint: It was in celebration of a self-less hero who died too young, but left a lasting influence in the psyche and hearts of his people.
Did you guess the 22 year-old communist soldier Lei Feng?
No? Well, what the hell, man? Brush up on your communist-era Chinese heroes.
In 1963 Mao Zedong Christened March 5 “Learn from Lei Feng Day,” a day in which all Chinese people should strive toward a more self-less, frugal, altruistic ideal. The young soldier lived on a pittance of around 6 yuan a month and yet somehow managed to donate hundreds of yuan to charities. He spent his free time helping other soldiers, the elderly, and children. He volunteered to serve people on trains when he traveled. He studiously memorized Mao Zedong Thought and dreamed up even more ways in which to serve his country. He also cured cancer, rescued kittens, and could turn his body to diamonds and fart out rainbows…
Upon his untimely death at the hands of a falling telephone pole (seriously), Lei Feng’s diary was found, and the world got a peak at the inner musings of possibly the most awesome patriot since Captain America.
Every few years Lei Feng is brought out and touted as everything from an anonymous member of the proletariat doing his part, a severe scholar of communist thought, a courageous soldier, a self-less volunteer, and most recently, a hip youth with a flare for fashion and motorcycles. Rightly so, this all-purpose communist hero and his image have raised a few incredulous eyebrows. Propaganda and political agenda aside, Lei Feng’s name and his super-human good deeds and patriotism live on in the minds of modern Chinese people today in a few common phrases like, Xiang Lei Feng tongzhi xuexi! Study to be like Comrade Lei Feng!
In America we have Honest Abe, the Boy Scouts, and G I Joe, but here they have Comrade Lei Feng. If someone shows an uncanny amount of altruism and knows someone with a camera, chances are that a comparison between them and Lei Feng will be made, but just the other day I read about an American who was extended this great honorific title.
David Deems teaches in a very poor area of China, the Gansu province. He has been in China since around ’95, and works to develop the schools in the area. He teaches Mandarin and English in Dongxiang County, and raises donations to improve the teaching conditions there. He keeps meticulous records of all the donations, even writing to his donors. His accomplishments in this area are many, but what might be even more impressive is that he has routinely refused to accept a salary higher than that of the average Chinese person in the county.
The man carries a Chinese flag in his pocket just to remind himself that he’s in China, and speaks flawless Mandarin. Yes, Chinese people love this lao wai.
Honestly, the world needs more people like Mr. Deems. Although I’m not sure if they all need to carry flags in their pockets in order to remind them of something they should definitively know just by opening their eyes…Anyway…Great man.
Even though the date has passed, and, yes, the guy may be a fake, it’s still not a bad idea to heed our old pal Mao Zedong’s words, “Xiang Lei Feng tongzhi xuexi!” I think the we can all get behind someone who just wants to help people.