Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Note from the Trenches

Dear America,

Recently we learned a couple Chinese phrases which roughly translate into, "to be honest" or even more simply, "frankly...". In composing this post, I nearly began typing them instead of English. I guess this learning Chinese by only speaking it all day every day idea has its effects after a while. But, to be honest, this past week in particular I've come to miss speaking English, to miss speaking not being a chore, and furthermore a chore requiring constant if minor correction from others. For a few days it was pretty bad: even when in class I nearly answered a question in English!

I realize it's been more than two weeks since my last post: the causes are primarily that the first week there wasn't much to write about, and then the second week there was far too much to write about. The acrobatics mentioned in the last post were a great hit, and a fellow student and a made a deal to return to China next summer and start up an acrobatics troupe.

I have been thinking a lot about next summer, and I am in a huge quandary: Barry Shwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore, calls it the paradox of choice: I have too many options. I could try and find a job in America, or perhaps continue my 15-years and counting educational marathon by pursuing any number of further education choices: law, education, psycholgy, Chinese. Further possibilities include work for the government (again, possibly using Chinese or education in some way), or work directly in China.

At the moment I am somewhat burned out with traditional education, which is somewhat firghtening on several levels, primarily that I have only been doing traditional education since coming to college, and college-style education is pretty relaxed. Nevertheless, I feel that I am learning less and less for the love of learning and more for the ruotine and the grade and the diploma.

Over the past several years the urgency of my desire to actually make a useful contribution to the world has increased as well. As I feel I have a significant amount of potential that I could pour a wide array of different areas, the quandary becomes: how can I best spend my time and abilities? While I don't have a particularly strong desire for wealth, the need to pay off college debts combined with the possibility to use finances to help others makes finding a high-paying job something not unappealing.

I know so many different people whose work all depends on the generosity of others to continue, and so many others whose basic necessities could be met with a little money: as just one example, one of the fellows at the orphanage has a mentally unstable father who is currently living in a village cave-home because he cannot afford a house. To build a home would cost less than $1,500. Wouldn't it be grand if I could simply give it to him, and boom, his father has a new house?

On the other hand, taking a vow of poverty and doing good by teaching poor kids in Mississipi (or rural China), or working for the orphanage I visited this year isn't entirely unappealing either: you become like what you do, and I'm not sure I want to become like businessmen whose lives are money. The more I interact with folks from the upper-middle and upper class (being here and interacting with some current Ivy League students has helped me to gain a greater understanding of the normal upper class, rather than the weird folks who come to Swarthmore), to more I realize how unappealing the unconsciously selfish world of priviledge they live in. And yet with greater wealth and power, there is also greater potential to do good on a wide scale: Bill Gates's Foundation seemed to be a good current example of this. After all, he spent a large chunk of his life selling a poor product to the people, succeeded and became the wealthiest man in the word. Now he is using some large fraction of his wealth to help solve various major problems of the world (unfortunately, the problem of Windows remains apparently unsolvable).

In short, these are some of my thoughts for the future. My current tentative plan is to find some sort of work which pays in China after a I graduate, do that for two to three years, and then reevaluate. I figure that my life is volatile enough that any longer-term plans will inevitably be scrapped or reformed beyond recognition anyway. So, if any of you happen to know of a job, particularly one for an American or other foreign company which needs a bright college graduate with some Mandarin skills, do pass their information on to me. The hunt has already begun.

Though it feels like a previous era, I suppose it was only last week that we took our midterm exam. The exam was composed of four parts: two oral exams, one written exam, and four essay questions to answer and submit by the exam day. The amount of work required was pretty intense: the first oral exam was a 20-minute report on an article of recent Chiense news of our choice, with onyl a prompt card for help. The second oral exam was a random selection of two out of five previously announced topics on which we had to expand for eight minutes each. The essay questions for submission were long and complex, specifically requirion large amounts of grammar. And the written exam, while in normal format and length, required a staggering amount of retention of the past month of material.

In prioritizing my time, I ended up only half-preparing the second oral exam, and through the luck of the draw, with 120 possibilities for the two oral topics, ended up getting my second worst possible combination. Despite this, and my perpetual difficulty in remembering how to write Chinese Chinese characters, I actualy did pretty well on the exam; I was especially pleased with the first oral exam, in which I was actually quite proud of my performance.

After the exams, which were a Thursday morning, I decided to eschew an afternoon nap instead of adventuring outside of the school: I headed to a famous market about half anhour's walk away, vividly named, "Aliens' Street Market." I'm not sure who named it such, but it came about because it caters primarily to visiting Russians.

The afternoon was full of happy adventures which reminded me a lot of my time last summer in China, and have missed this summer: along the road I went under a vehicular overpass and found a car parking lot there, and ended up asking the parking attendant whether the spots were reserved, how much they cost, what sort of people park there, etc. Moving along, I passed through a nice little park, Ritan Park, and then arrived at what I figured must be Aliens's Street Market: the forbiddingly tall building was covered in twenty-foot posters of mean caucasian models in furs, which fits my stereotype of Russian women (unfortunately supported by personal experiences my first time in China).

The building was weird: there was nearly nobody there, and while most of the hundreds of little shops were closed, the others all had curtains covering the entrance. In a land where the customers are maore and shops spill into the street or hallway and the shopkeepers call you to from acroos the road, this was all pretty eerie. Furthermore, the wares all seemed to be "fashionable" -- full fur coats, black leather boots with stiletto heels (again, all stereotypically Russian...), and leather handbags. It was a terrible disappointment, as I had expected a motley collection of knicknacks, cheap clothes, and colorful people.

After fruitlessly coming the premisis up to the sixth floor I gave up and started back down again, amusing myself by using the super-slick floor to mak a running slide to the escalator on each floor. I had passed thre Chinese people on the third floor, and as I had to walk directly past them on my way out,I decided to get soem questions answered -- and it was from them I eventually discovered the truth: This was a wholesale store; Russians would come and would buy several dozen or more of a product, and then ship to to Russia to sell at higher prices. I also learned that the reason people wereso few and the stores all had curtains: Chinese were foridden to come into the building because they would steal the company's product secrets; and that is also why the stores have curtains in front of them.

Discovering all this took some work: I at one point thought they storekeepers were simply discriminating against Chinese and poor people, and asked, "What if I were a really wealthy Chiense person, could I buy your things?" and "Looking at me, do you think I would be able to buy your products?" It took a while and some miscommunication before it all was settled. And, as a bonus, they volunteered on their own that if I wanted to go buy common-market items and interact with real Chinese, I should go up the street to, of all place: Aliens' Street Market.

Sure enough, a few minutes away was he place I was actualyl trying to get to. But a careless question about pronouncing the Chinese name to the half-dozen or so men idling at the front door ended up in a half-hour or so conversation with them about local dialects, friends of theirs who want to learn English, and my current situation. The market itself was about as I expected, though slightly smaller; I continue to be both amazed at the diversity of items and also how little I want most of them; or, if I like them, how I have no use for them (for example, the beautiful cotton quilts being sold by one shopkeeper). After strol around I ended up spending the vast majority of my time having a good time chatting with the shopkeepers in the back corner of the market, discussing real estate prices in America, Chinese calligraphy and geography, and the psychology of the various shopkeepers (one woman was especially fun, as her fellow workers asked me to analyze her. I accused her of having a black heart, and then defied her to prove me wrong! After her hilarious proteststhat her heart was red, I compromised by saying she had a blue heart -- after all, one has to keep in mind all the deoxygenated blood). After an hour or two, I left... not having purchased a thing.

I was on the lookout for some old men as I wanted to try out my very new abilities in Chinese chess; last year I had visited Ritan Park and there had been droves of old men playing mah zhong, Chinese chess, and cards. On my way back to the school I again passed through it, but still no luck: only two old friends playing accordion and singing traditional songs as elsewhere in the park parents took their children fishing in the pond.

Moving south from Ritan park, I decided to take the subway back and eat at a restaurant along the way, definitely one I had not eaten at before. This particular area is peppered with embassies from around the world, and I was struck with a bit of homesickness, especially at seeling the large English embassy compound: behind their fence, they had oaks and ivy, peaceful, lush, and brambly. Even though it must be well-tended, it looks so natural and grand. The Chiense are so purposeful in everything they do, especially when it comes to public places and beauty: even famous mountains and rustic parks have clearly delineated proper and improper places to go, and the proper places are obvious manicured and maintained. The cities are even worse, with potted plant formations, and lonely shoots of grass in clay dirt. But the English embassy... it was so plain and so beautiful.

Nearly at the subway station, I passed a window sign advertizing, in English, a French bakery. One of my gustatory weaknesses is for good bread. I can usually survive pretty well with what I can get in America, even though it doesn't hold a candle to the great breads of Europe. China, however, has no bread worth mentioning, even when one takes into account their pitiable attemps at mimicking western bread ( lest we embarrass them, we usually kindly pass over these attempts). Armed with the knowledge that lots of foreigners permanently work and live in this district, hungry, and intrigued, I stepped into the small shop, empty of customers. Prepared for the worst, I asked the woman in charge what the story with their bread was -- and was pleasantly surprised to find out that the bread is made by a German (making the international aura of the shop even more absurd). The conversation turned to different baking styles, the differences of breads of different countries, and the clientele of the resuarant. She was a very pleasant woman, and won huge marks in my favor by giving me complementary water -- cold water, with a hint of lemon in it!

I ended up buying a big, round loaf of bread. It was something of a splurge, costing an exorbitant $4, but as I walked to the subway station eating it, I was happy to have spent every penny. It wasn't exactly European-quality, but it was very, very, good.

It was a good day. I bought supplies at the supermarket on my way back to school, and then packed up the few belongings I needed for our mid-semester trip; ACC funds up to go on a two-day field trip with essentially all expenses paid. I had signed up to go to Datong, in Shanxiprovince, and so along with about fifty of my comrades, I headed off to the train station that evening. Arriving in Chinese style over an hour before baording begins (which itself is anywhere from half an hour to foufrty-five minutes before the train actually leaves), I decided to make quick work of the situation by buying the cheapest newspaper possible, fluffing up my backpack, and bedding down for a quick nap on the waiting room floor. My plans were sadly thwarted by noise of the fellows cutting a steel beam at the other end of the hall (and you think I'm kidding!), but I at least tried.

Wo boarded the train, settled down into our comfortable sleepers, and despite a small mishap in which my bottle of water fell on the ACC Director's head while I was securing my backpack, I happily got to sleep without any problems.

The next morning we arrived too early (so far as sleep goes) in Datong. I understand that it isone of China's most polluted cities, which is saying something, as China has 16 of the 20 worst-polluting cities. The pollution wasn't all that obvious to me in the two days we were there, however; Beijing's pollution is like Big Brother, always there watching you from above. Datong's pollution, coming from the massive coal mining and refining industry of the area, apparently is less obvious. Or maybe we just got lucky.

I have never been to the western parts of China before; partially because of lack of opportunity and partially because I've been wanting to save what most people agree is the most interesting part of china to tour for later. Shanxi, while not exactly west, certianly is much farther west than my previous travels, and it was clearly different. pace of life in Datong was much slower than Beijing, and our tour guides informed us that development has not gorwn much at all in the past twenty years. It's something of a sleepy city. The food in particular was very different, having an almost Western flavor at times - with their main crops being corn and wheat rather than rice, noodles, corn bread, and other staples of Western diet are very popular. While certainly unmistakably still Chinese, the dishes were definitely very reminiscent of American food, and would be a good introduction to Chinese food for the wary American.

On our two days, we visited a number of different places of interest: primarily culturally or historically signifcant places; pagodas, temples, mountains, etc. My favorite place was the Hanging Temple, a rather unique place which according to legend (or rather, according to our tour guides, but I've learned to take Chinese understanding of history with a lot of salt) it has been around for 1,500 years. A quick reference to a much more reliable source (Wikipedia) indicates it's been around for 1,400 years. It is built on a slightly concave cliff faces in a valley, about 50 meters above the ground, and served as the rest stop of the ages for traveling pilgrims, as well as the home for the monks who lived there. Of special note historically is that it is apparently the only temple where Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism all are worshipped.

Beyond all that, however, it was very cool, and the scenery was beautiful. They had real grass there, and beauiful mountains and a river, and a monastery clinging like some overgrown moss on the cliffside. I determined to build my own monastery cum traveler's house on the facing cliff, I liked the place so much.

Later that same day, we climbed one of the mountains nearby, which was made exciting by the torrential rain which started as soon as we got out of the bus to begin climbing, and didn't stop until an hour and a half later when the last of us got back on the bus. As a result, we were all thoroughly soaked for a our return trip, which was schedueld to take about an hour. Comfortable hotel, warm dry clothes, and a good meal were on the mind of all those present, but Chinese traffic reared it's coal-dusty covered head and once again detained us. This time, the traffic jam was in epic porportions: we were stopped, literally not moving, for three hours. We were on the two-lane, no-shuolder road that all the coal trucks use, and apparently one of them had flipped. I got out and wandered around the cliffs near where we were stopped, but wasn't able to go too far for fear of the traffic jam miraculously ending. I ended up passing most of the time playing cards with a teacher and our tour guide, making the whole ordeal much more pleasant and almost summer-camp like.

The weekend trip was really a great experience overall. Getting away from the intense study, doing some physical exercise, visiting a new place and eating new food, chatting with classmates and teachers, all was grand. The break was well needed and well appreciated.

The hour grows late here, however, and so I must leave more recent updates for another time. Suffice it for now to say that classes began again!



As the hour grows late now as well,

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