Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lonely Monday

Monday afternoon I'm bored and agitated, I need to get off campus for a while.

So I head to the French Concession for a stroll. I love the narrow streets lined with century-old villas and cottages, and I enjoy the art-deco buildings on Huaihai Road as well.

Later, I decide to check out the Bund, open again after renovations for the upcoming World Expo. I stand at the rail and look across the Huangpu River at the skyscrapers of Pudong. I watch a freighter pass by.

I turn my back on Pudong and look down Zhongshan Road. Here, the British built a replica of London. It's six o'clock, and the bell tower on the Customs House does an imitation of Big Ben.

I'm lonely and tired. I've done a lot of walking. My feet hurt, and I'm limping a little. The Bund is one of the major tourist attractions of Shanghai, so why is the nearest subway station six blocks away?

On Nanjing Road, a hawker approaches.

“Hello sir!” he calls out. “Watch? Wallet?”

I'm feeling lousy. I've had enough. I turn on him and shout, “Go away!” My hand is raised. I want to hit him.

“Go away,” he parrots.

Six steps later, another hawker approaches. I swat at him like a mosquito. I've lost my cool and I know it.

The subway station is packed. The Chinese are rarely timid, but subways are new in Shanghai—not yet engrained in the culture—so when a full train pulls into the station, the people on the platform just stand there. But I rode rush-hour trains in Japan for years—I know there's always room for one more. I walk up to the open door, shove hard, and step into the train. The door closes behind me.

I get back to campus too late to eat in the cafeteria, so I order a veggie wrap from a vendor outside. There's a crowd—never a line in China, always a crowd—and the guy that paid after me is trying to cut in front. I'm not going to let him do it.

When it's my turn, the cook asks him what he wants on his wrap. I tell her what I want.

She smiles at him and says, “Let the foreigner go first.”

They're treating me like a child! (And they also think I don't understand what they're saying about me.)

“You teacher here?” asks the guy in halting English. Oh, now you're being friendly, huh?

“Yes,” I say.



Puzzled look on his face.

“Xinlixue,” I explain.

“Oh, you speak good Chinese.”

Not good enough to tell you what I really think about you.

The cook hands me my veggie wrap. I could sit on the patio and eat it, but I just want to go back to my room. I've had enough of China and the Chinese for one day.

Mostly this trip has been good. I've done a lot of interesting things, met a lot of interesting people. Sometimes, though, I also feel very isolated—lonely and frustrated. But that too is part of the experience.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Terms Are Negotiable

You don't order food in a Chinese restaurant. You negotiate.

“We'll have the lotus root stuffed with sweet rice,” says our host.

“No lotus root today,” the waitress replies.

But these aren't the bad old days of Communism, when the standard response to every request was "mei you"—“don't have it.” Rather, Chinese cuisine depends on fresh ingredients, so if they didn't get their shipment of lotus root, they can't serve it.

“Why don't you try the pork-stuffed eggplant,” the waitress suggests. “It's good today.”

Nine of us are sitting around the table, throwing out suggestions from the menu.

“You've got two beef dishes,” the waitress says. “You could change one of them to a fish or chicken dish.”

Someone suggests the sweet-and-sour fried fish, and the waitress points. We all get up and head to the tank room. After a long discussion, we reach a consensus. A busboy nets the fish and carries it, flopping and dripping water, to the kitchen.

Waiters are carrying dishes to the table, but then the waitress comes back.

“There's no goose for the three-meat platter,” she tells us. She's not apologizing, merely informing us.

“Would you like to order something else?” she asks. “Or, we could substitute duck instead.”

We tell her any three meats will do.

Near the end of the meal, someone notices we never got the pumpkin fritters, and we ask the waitress about it.

“We don't have any pumpkin today,” she says.

“Why didn't you tell us?” our host demands.

“I didn't know,” she replies.

It doesn't matter anyway, since there's already more than we can eat.

From the Western perspective, China is not a well-ordered society. Those new here are constantly complaining the Chinese never follow the rules.

“My life flashes before my eyes every time I cross the street,” they complain.

Those who've been here longer rationalize Chinese behavior. The traffic laws are merely suggestions, the traffic lights are but decorations.

But I don't think that's the right perspective either. The Chinese navigate traffic the same way they order a meal, the same way they conduct every aspect of their social life. They negotiate.

Twenty of us stand at a crosswalk, and our numbers are growing. Will that light ever change? Someone steps off the curb, and several others follow. We reach critical mass and pour into the street.

A bus is heading toward us, horn blasting. Not to worry. It won't slow down, but it won't hit us either. We quicken our pace, and the bus swerves around us.

We all make it through the intersection, and we all go on with our lives.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Meet the Faculty

Although I can't catch the details, I follow the gist. Should students be allowed to eat or drink in class? What to do about students that come late or leave early? How to handle disruptive behavior? These are the same questions we ask at faculty meetings back in the States.

Tell them to leave, says a hard-liner. But another suggests a softer approach. People are all talking at once, and the volume is increasing. But they're not arguing—the shouting match is punctuated by rounds of laughter.

There's no parliamentary procedure, and I can't even tell who's the chair. At last, the shouting stops.

“The meeting's over,” a colleague tells me. “Now we're going out for dinner.”

We talk and laugh as we walk to the restaurant. The air is crisp, and the plum blossoms glow pink against the azure sky.

As we nibble on the cold dishes, someone opens a bottle of huangjiu and pours shots.

“Ganbei!” he shouts, and it's bottoms up.

I do a couple to be polite, but no more. I don't want to nurse a hangover in the morning.

One by one, the hot dishes are brought in—a chicken and mushroom stew, snails with garlic, “lion's head” meatballs, a fish soup with rice cakes, to name a few. The men are drinking beer now, but I'm doing tea with the ladies.

After dinner, it's karaoke. We've got a private room, and waiters bring beer, tea and plenty of snacks—just in case we're still hungry after that sixteen-course meal.

The men are sloshed. They're belting out Teresa Teng love songs, and they make me sing along. After we croon “The Moon Represents My Heart,” one of them gets on his knee and asks me to marry him. But I don't take it as a serious proposal.

The women are giddy without alcoholic support. They sing and dance to teenybopper hits, giggling and screaming between each song. I sit back and think, if only their students could see them now....

I admire the Chinese gusto for living and wish I could let go the way they do. Even though I was subdued by comparison, they did pull me out of my shell, and it was fun. On the taxi ride home, I hear Teresa Teng singing in my head, and I'm humming along—“yueliang daibiao wo de xin.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fish Head Soup

“You're early,” she says. “Why don't you come shopping with me?” She wants to make fish-head soup.

We could go to the supermarket by the subway station. It's three floors of more kinds of food than you can imagine. But they don't have good fish heads, she tells me.

So my sister-in-law and I head in another direction. The sun is shining, the air is fresh. It's a great day for a walk.

It's also easier for me to make conversation when we go out. Like a two-year-old, I ask questions. “Na shi shen me?” I point and ask. What's that?

We go to a market where dozens of stalls are set up under one roof.

“What else do you want to eat tonight?” she asks.

Only everything, I think. My eyes are drawn first to the vegetables. Any you'd find in an American supermarket is here—broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, corn. And then there are the various Chinese vegetables I've learned the names of over the years, but there are still many more I don't know.

“We had that last time,” she says, pointing at a long thick stalk with bushy green leaves at one end. She tells me the name again, but I still don't remember it.

At the fishmonger's stall, a fish head lies on a stone slab. It's still breathing.

She talks in Shanghainese with the woman behind the stall, who points at the fish head, but my sister-in-law shakes her head.

Not fresh enough? I wonder. But she tells me in Mandarin it's too small.

The fishmonger reaches into a tank with her bare hand, pulls out a ten-pounder and flops it on the slab. The fish thrashes about, but she grabs a hammer. A few whacks to the head, and the fish settles down.

Then she takes a cleaver and chops it in half with one stroke.

The next stop is a tofu stall, where my sister-in-law buys dried tofu to cook with tender Chinese celery, and gelatin sheets that will go in the soup.

Back home, I offer to help, but she insists her kitchen is too small for two people. So I stand in the doorway, watching and asking questions. She pan fries the fish head with ginger, and then she adds water, salt, green onions and peppercorns. While the broth simmers, she stir-fries yellow chives with eggs, a leafy green with shiitake, and tender celery with dried tofu.

“Three dishes and a soup,” she apologizes as we sit down. It's the bare minimum for a family meal. But there are only three people at table. Her father joins us, but her husband and daughter are both working late.

I tell her the soup is delicious.

“Ma ma hu hu,” she replies, but I insist it's anything but so-so.

The love of good food and the joy of cooking permeate the culture here—the pleasure of shopping for the freshest ingredients, the loving preparation of the food, the sharing of the meal with family. That's what life in China is all about.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Rare Day

I wake up Wednesday morning to find a dusting of snow on the ground -- a rare occurrence for Shanghai. But the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the air is fresh. All the omens are right. It's going to be a rare day.

On other days, I'm a teacher in the psychology department. But on Wednesdays, I'm a student in the Chinese language program.

“You're going to be both a teacher and a student,” said the secretary as she helped me register. “That's very rare in China.”

So Wednesday morning I find myself on the other side of the podium. I'm sitting three rows back. I'm no more willing to raise my hand or volunteer an answer than any of my classmates. I look up at the teacher. I'm smiling and nodding. I understand maybe one word in three.

So this is what it's like for my students here, trying to learn psychology in a language they barely understand. And I also wonder if it's any different back in the States, where I talk academe-speak to students just out of high school.

Now I know why they're so quiet, so reluctant to respond. I remember now what it's like to be a student.

“It's rare in America, too,” I told the secretary.

But maybe teachers should sit on the other side of the podium once in a while. The new perspective could help them be more compassionate teachers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Benign Neglect

“Jing'an Temple?” I ask the bus driver. He nods, so I climb aboard.

“I'll let you know when we get to Jing'an Temple,” says the woman behind me.

I know where to get off, but I thank her for her kindness. We chat briefly, and I find she graduated from Shanghai Normal University, where I'm now on sabbatical. But then her phone rings, and that's the end of the conversation.

In the city center where the tourists go -- the Bund, Nanjing Road, the City God Temple -- hawkers swarm like flies on every laowai they spot.

“Watch? Wallet? DVD?”

I walk past as if he weren't there.

“What you want?”

To be left alone.

“Hello sir!” he calls out to me.

A dozen paces later, a woman approaches. “Watch? Wallet?”

But here in the suburbs, the people treat me the way they treat everyone else -- with benign neglect. In a city of 20 million people, you just can't say hello to everyone.

They're not callous, though. I've witnessed many acts of kindness toward strangers, like the one I received on the bus to Jing'an Temple.

So when a gentleman approaches me in Kangjian Park, I know he's not trying to sell me a fake Rolex. He's just curious what a foreigner is doing in his neighborhood.

I tell him my story, and we chat a while. He compliments me on my Chinese, I compliment him on his English, and then we say goodbye.

We'll probably never see each other again. But if we do, we'll surely say, “Ni hao!”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

One Lifetime

Because I speak like a child, he treats me like a child. He holds my hand when we cross the street, he takes me to a candy store.

But he too is like a child. He needs me to take his arm as we step off the curb, he needs me to slow my pace because he can't keep up.

He doesn't say so, but I can tell he's happy I'm walking with him.

“My American son-in-law,” he'd told the doorman on our way out, putting his arm around mine.

He doesn't speak Mandarin very well, but I understand even less Shanghainese, so our conversation is limited.

We're in an appliance store, and he's teaching me the names of things. Some words I already know, some make sense and stick in my mind, others make no sense and go over my head.

“This is a water heater,” he tells me. “That's a washing machine.” When I first met him twenty years ago, he lived in a house with no hot water, no heat, no washing machine, just like everyone else in China.

I try to imagine what his life must have been like, all the things he's seen.

In his youth, he saw his country invaded by the Japanese, he endured the civil war that followed. Then there was the thrill of Liberation, the hope for a New China, the betrayal of the Hundred Flowers Movement. During the Cultural Revolution, he was branded an intellectual and sent to the countryside for re-education through labor. Later, he saw three of his five children leave China to make their lives in other lands.

Yet he's living his final years in comfort and abundance. Could he ever have imagined a future like this? What does he think of it all? There are so many questions I'd like to ask him, if only I had the words.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Saturday at Home with the Family

One of my Shanghai sisters-in-law called and invited me for lunch.

“What time?” I asked.

“Lunch” she repeated, perhaps thinking I'd misunderstood.

I need to stop thinking like an American, a slave to the clock. Time is more fluid here -- things happen when they happen.

Midmorning I hop a bus in the general direction, but when I get off I still have a good 20-minute walk ahead of me. Along the way, I stop in a mom-and-pop store to buy a box of cookies for her granddaughter, and later I turned into a side-street market to find a gift for the hostess.

I could have done my shopping at the supermarket next to the university, but I prefer the open markets, where I can talk with the vendors and practice my Chinese.

I'm looking for something sweet -- a dessert or snack after lunch.

I stop at a stall selling rice cakes -- sticky rice decorated with dried fruit. The cakes are pretty, but the cleanliness of the stall is questionable, so I move on.

An old woman selling roasted chestnuts calls out to me, and I make a mental note to come back if I find nothing else. In the end, I find a fruit stand where I buy a pound of strawberries and a pound of mangoes.

Just as I'm buzzing my sister-in-law's door, her son arrives, his 2-year-old in his arms, and we ride the elevator together.

My sister-in-law seats me in the living room and brings me a cup of tea. Her husband is doting over his granddaughter, and he helps her bring out peanuts and watermelon seeds and tangerines. The little girl hands me a watermelon seed, and I crack it open with my teeth, but the tasty morsel inside is for her.

My brother-in-law looks much happier now than the last time I saw him five years ago. He loves to talk -- I understand maybe one word in six.

“Two years ago I was very busy,” he tells me. “But now, because of the poor economy, I have much more time to spend at home.” He's smiling.

I chat with their son in a mixture of Chinese and English. Five years ago, he was a Web-page designer. In the meantime, he got married, had a kid, and got promoted to manager.

“Our company runs the biggest TV shopping channel in China,” he tells me. “The government has given us many awards, and they want us to double our business. They want China to be the biggest TV shopping market in Asia.”

There's absolutely no sense of irony that the Chinese Communist Party is promoting one of the crassest forms of capitalism.

At the start of lunch, there are half a dozen dishes on the table -- braised fish, eel with green peppers, a mushroom stew, bamboo shoots with tofu and peanuts, a roasted duck, a leafy green.

“Nothing special,” my sister-in-law says. But during the meal, she and her husband take turns in the kitchen preparing more dishes.

“Eat everything,” she tells me. “We're cooking all new dishes for dinner.”

After lunch, we sit in the living room and watch a movie -- in English with Chinese subtitles. We sip tea and munch on peanuts and tangerines. Midafternoon, my sister-in-law brings out the strawberries.

Later, I watch TV with the granddaughter. It's her favorite show, Clever Tiger, and she sings the theme song to me: Qiao hu, qiao hu ... Finally, a TV show I can understand.

Their daughter-in-law joins us for dinner. She works for an on-line gaming company. (World of Warcraft is one of their clients.) Despite the recession -- or perhaps on account of it -- her business is flourishing, and she'll be working overtime on Sunday as well.

Around nine it's time to go, and my sister-in-law walks me to the bus stop -- one much closer to her home than where I'd gotten off.

“Come again any time,” she tells me. “Just stop by if you have nothing to do.”

My bus arrives. I thank her again and tell her I had a great time. And I did have a great time --nothing special, just Saturday at home with the family.