Friday, November 28, 2008

English Anyone?

How many college students can you fit into one room? I don’t know for sure, but about seventy students crammed into this classroom last week to attend the first ever English Corner. In this particular village, there are about 2 million people, four small universities and only one (that’s right-I said one) foreigner! Can you imagine being the only non-Chinese in a city of 2 million? Mind boggling!

Anyway, another American friend and I were asked to be guest speakers there and talk about America, Thanksgiving, and what our life is like as Americans. Everything was to be done in English (great for me!) and the students were also required to speak only in English as well. Because there are no native English speakers to practice with, many students are nervous about their speaking skills. They are afraid their pronunciation or grammar will be wrong and they will sound foolish. It’s the same way I feel speaking Chinese. It’s a big risk to speak aloud in front of a lot of people knowing how awful you sound to native speakers, but they did it! I was actually pretty impressed with how well they did, considering the lack of interaction they have with any foreigners.

My friend and I talked about the history of Thanksgiving and why we are grateful for our freedoms and our lives. We talked about the Thanksgiving celebration itself, the foods and traditions we have for this holiday. We also talked about our lives in American and tried to dispel some of the myths/stereotypes that many Chinese have of Americans. Think of the movies that they see…that we all see coming out of Hollywood. It’s horrible to think that the images portrayed about America and Americans have become reality in the minds of people all over the world! For most Chinese, all Americans are rich, own guns, are violent, promiscuous, selfish and arrogant. They are wasteful, don’t study hard, and family is not that important to them. It’s very difficult to change these ideas and is definitely not going to happen as a guest speaker at one English Corner; however I am hopeful that if enough Americans working or studying overseas will live decent lives, lives that contradict the world’s stereotypes, than eventually people will have to re-examine their ideas about what Americans are really like. It’s too bad that I always feel like I’m swimming upstream in this area, but it is one way I can make a difference in China.


Monday, November 17, 2008

How Much Do You Really Need?

One of my favorite words in the Chinese language is dongxi (pronounced dong-she) which can be roughly translated into English as “stuff/junk/things.” The great thing about dongxi is that it can mean literally tons of different types of objects. If you go to the local chaoshi (supermarket) you can get all kinds of dongxi, from toothpaste to DVD players. If you’re carrying a full backpack you can accurately say, “I have way too much dongxi in this bag.” No further explanation is needed. It might not be the same dongxi as you would find in your kitchen or bathroom, but it is dongxi nonetheless!

Dongxi is an easy word to remember and fun to say. If it’s “stuff” just say dongxi and you’re good to go. I asked my friend if I could say that I have a lot of dongxi to do today, and she said, “Definitely not.” Too bad! I was hoping for an easy connection between objects and activities. This leads me to the real reason I’m writing about dongxi. I last week I moved to another apartment and boy, did I have a lot of dongxi to move!

OK, I know I only came here 3 months ago and I shouldn’t have this much dongxi already, but setting up an apartment requires you to accumulate certain necessities. There’s kitchen dongxi, bathroom dongxi, cleaning dongxi, school/office dongxi, etc… but packing and moving all your dongxi is another matter althogether. In the States I had a car and I could always borrow a friend’s truck or van. Banana boxes were easy to come by if you camped out at the Meijer produce section on shipping day, but I found a whole new way of moving here.

First of all, boxes are not that easy to come by. Instead, most people stuff their dongxi into giant rice bags with zippers. It’s the Chinese equivalent of a suitcase. OK, so they smell like mold inside and they can only be used once before they break. I can live with that though because these bags only cost sixty cents each and the smell eventually fades with time and a good airing out…and you’d be amazed at how much dongxi you can fit into one of those bags!

A second “must-have” when moving is a ball of pink plastic twine. This is necessary for wrapping together boxed dongxi. If you’re Dutch like me you never throw out anything that could be potentially useful at some later date. That being the case, you will naturally have saved the original boxes your dongxi came in when you purchased it and you will have carefully repacked it in the original boxes. The essential pink plastic twine will hold several boxes together for easy transport. It never breaks and it’s also very cheap. Why bother with buying or packing cumbersome large boxes when you have pink twine?

The moving process is…Wow! I’ve never seen anything like it. Since I didn’t have another means of transporting my dongxi except to tie it all onto my bike and haul it down the road (which I’ve actually seen done) I hired a local moving company. They came and hauled all my dongxi from my second floor apartment into their truck, brought it to my new apartment, and carried everything up to the 5th floor…including a washing machine! I couldn’t believe the amount of dongxi they could strap on their backs and carry at one time. I mean seriously! Who carries a washing machine on their back up to the fifth floor without giving themselves a heart attack?

The best part was the price! (Again, it's the Dutchman in me is coming out…sorry!) I actually felt a little bad watching them do what I have always done for myself and paying them so little, ($30) but they insisted that I stop trying to “help” them. I was getting in their way and messing up their system, so I had to stand back. Sometimes I forget that I’m not in the States anymore.

Now that all my dongxi is in my new apartment and I’m just about finished putting everything where I want it, I feel a lot more settled. It’s funny how familiar dongxi can make you feel at home even in new surroundings. Yes, I probably have way less than the average American in this 500 sq. ft. apartment, but I still have way more dongxi than I really need. I’m so very thankful for all the ways I have been provided for. The experience of moving in China is definitely something to remember every time I look around and think that maybe I’d like a little something new. Uhhhh…!


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Long Johns and Laundry

The other day I went to pull out my long underwear as I prepared to face another cold day without the heat. In China most places don’t get the heat turned on in their buildings until November 15th and the days before then can be brutal. Just think about going home to an apartment without insulation made of concrete block and trying to keep warm. The worst part is coming out of the shower in the morning when you are naked, freezing, wet and standing on a wet cold bathroom floor trying hurriedly to dry off before going into a cold bedroom to get dressed. Yikes! Sometimes you wonder if you’re a person or a popsicle!

Anyway, I went to put on my qiu ku (long johns) and I realized that I didn’t have another pair available. Don’t get me wrong…I brought some with me from the States and I bought some from the store here (Men’s XXXL) but I hadn’t done my laundry in several days, so there was nothing clean for me to put on. By the way, do I look or feel like a Men’s XXXL? I didn’t think so!

Laundry is done different here than in the States. If you have money, you can purchase a decent washing machine for about the same price as in the US, but unless you want to spend an extravagant amount of money, you won’t have a dryer. That means you have to plan ahead. None of this, “I’ve got to have my favorite shirt for the party tonight so I’ll just quickly do a load of laundry and be done before it starts” stuff. Oh, no! You will have to wait a day or two before your laundry dries. You do it the old fashioned way- a clothes line or a drying rack.

Usually your apartment will have a balcony (yang tai) with a rope draped across it for hanging clothes, or you can buy a drying rack. I do have a balcony which I use for drying jeans or pants, but for the other more delicate items, I have chosen to use a drying rack which I put inside my living room….mainly because it’s the only place large enough for it to fit. I didn’t particularly want the neighbors looking out their ever-so-close windows and getting a load of my American sized skivvies! It’s hard enough being stared at for being as big and tall as I am, but having your drawers blowing in the wind for all the world to see would just be too much! Still, there seems to be something innately wrong with having all your undergarments hanging around in your living room with the rest of your decorations. It’s especially troublesome and embarrassing when you get unexpected company!

There is an old saying that goes like this: You’re lack of planning is not my emergency! In this case, my lack of planning was my emergency. At that moment I had two choices; either forego the long johns and freeze my touché off, or suck it up and put on a pair of “not so clean” ones. I’ll bet you can guess what I chose and I’ll bet you know what I was doing right after that…laundry!