October 30, 2009

Pictures and Discoveries

Fact number 1 - I found out this week that Beijing adds another 15,000 cars to the road every month!  No wonder no one can get anywhere!

Discovery 1 - The world's greatest vending machine (first picture)  Put in a few coins and this baby actually gives you a roasting hot, entirely whole sweet potato, and they are NOT SMALL!  Wouldn't it be strange if China was facing a similar school funding scandal that North America faces? The evil sweet potato vending machine companies only give funding to schools if they agree to put vending machines in their lobby, leading kids to eating too many yams and becoming overweight!

Discovery 2 - As Jude was eating a hot dog at a small shop the other day, he became the subject for a charcoal artist.  Second picture.

Discovery 3 - The apartment complex beside Ari's school really hates saxophones - picture 3

Discovery 4 - Ari and Jude always cuddle and kiss each other's cheeks on the bus when other people are watching, leading to a chorus of coos and awes. Picture 4

Discovery 5 - Ari told me he knows how to use chopsticks the other day.  As far as we knew he had never used them but when I gave him pair, he proceeded to eat his whole meal with them.  I suppose this is a product of school.  Picture 5

Discovery 6 - It seems that Aiyi has decided that she is my Chinese mother for the time that James is gone.  This week she has been caring for me in a very motherly way.  She does things like making sure I have an apple cut for me when I go out the door for school.  Even though she has never really cooked for us, this week she made supper for the boys and I four times.  If she has seen me about to do something, she quickly runs and does it ahead of me.  Its a kind of nice discovery.  When I'm the big one in the house, it is unexpectedly nice to have the sensation that someone is watching me closely for signs of tiredness or ways to help that go above and beyond her job.  We prayed a lot about who we would entrust our children to, and I think God brought us the right person.

James comes home tomorrow!  Hurray!

October 25, 2009

Pictoral Appendix to "If Mama Ain't Happy"

I found a wonderful picture of a Beijing traffic jam that sums up the experience quite nicely.  I found it at http://media.photobucket.com/image/beijing%20traffic%20jam/Dalianon/beijing-traffic.jpg

When Mama Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy

Well, the title pretty much says it, except for one thing.  In this house, Ari and Jude have not learned yet that when Mama ain't happy, you should avoid her, or at least stop roaring like a lion.  So, James being gone on another one of his unable-to-make-any-contact-whatsoever week long trips, I have no choice but crab a little bit to the internet.  I say no choice because, if I can at least put a little humor into my stormy mood, maybe the boys won't have to suffer my irritation.  What a caring mother to expose others to her mood instead of her children!

That said, I will make a brief list of the things that are poking my irritation.  But first I will disclaim that these are just normal things that I usually don't notice.  I will readily admit that I am seeing things though an unhappy mindset.  A bad attitude is entirely responsible for this list, but I hope that writing them down will also help me let go of them.  

1) The boys did not have a good nap today = no rest for their mother from their noise and charades and irritable children

2) Necessity has dictated that I have many couriered pieces of mail coming to my door for the next week.  When the courier comes up to our door, he inevitably gawks to see a foreign woman answer the door and then giggles and tries to say any English word he knows.  I ignore it all, sign my name, say thank you and close the door. I am not about to start a cozy conversation with a strange man in the door of my home when my husband is not here.  The one today was particularly bad, and I found myself being irritated about it long after he left.

3) On both of the outings we had today, we had the usual number of staring, inquisitive people.  This is the first time I have been annoyed by it, since it is usually a chance to practice my Chinese.  But today I was as prickly as a porcupine, so I just pretended to either not hear / understand / notice.  I know that there are a lot of foreigners in Beijing (70,000 to be exact), but when the total population is 16 million, expats are still a minority of 0.4%.  As such, unless you are in a place where foreigners gather (foreign language bookstore, food store, restaurant), it is extremely rare to be in the same place at the same time as other foreigners.  This means that there is still a lot of curiosity about foreigners.  I feel obliged to say again, that I do not begrudge the curiosity, only that I really wanted to be left alone today.

4) The boys want to play with everything except toys and have had a few chases around the house today with one holding the coveted item and the other in hot pursuit (usually screaming).  They are also sporting runny noses.

5) James left on Saturday morning.  I don't like his trips starting at the beginning of the weekend.  If I am going to be at home all weekend with the boys, I like it to be at the end of a busy week when I enjoy the time at home.  If it is at the beginning I don't enjoy the time as much.  Right now, I am longing for the luxury of Ari being in school and being able to go to school myself.  

6) The lack of Daylight Savings Time.  At this time of year, I am used to turning the clocks back an hour so that there is more darkness in the morning and less in the evening. Without it, things get awfully dark here and very early.  Thus, the evenings alone with the boys seem longer than usual.

7) The buses and roads here in the last week have been in a state of serious atherosclerosis.  Every time I have gotten on the bus, it is only to be jammed up against the door (necessitating that you have the quick sense to open and close with the door at the various stops).  Usually when this happens, it eventually clears out and becomes a little more comfortable, but not this week.  This week, every stop has at least five people (with none getting off) that somehow manage to get on the bus regardless of its vacuum packed environment.  Its like you are expected to turn into water on the bus and fill whatever crack and crany that you can.  

This is combined with the fact that the roads have been solid vehicles.  On Friday night we looked down a straight street and saw nothing but solid buses and taxis.  As we walked down the column, we could see the same bus route numbers piled up one after the other.  Nobody was moving anywhere.  When riding the bus in this state (and crammed like sardines), it is a ride of desperately clutching on your handhold as the bus lurches forward 6 inches at a time.  It seems that when there is a short distance to be closed between two vehicles, it must be closed at 30mph, followed by a sharp brake.  I don't know what has caused all of this congestion in the last week.  Perhaps because it is getting colder, there are less people biking.  Since it is highly unlikely that I will be able to buy a monster truck and drive over the highway of vehicles, I can see that I will need to weave some serious patience into my transportation expectations.

8) I am irritable that I am irritable.  James does one of two things when I feel like this.  He either tells me that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, or he ignores me.  Strangely enough, both reactions reassure me that the things annoying me are not really that important.  Right now, I feel a little lost in my moodiness.  So that said here is my interpretation of the famous Psalm.

Why are you so down O my Soul?  ----->  Jessica, why are you so discouraged?
Why so discouraged within me?     ------> Why are you disparaging over small things that do not last?
Put your hope in God                    ------> Stop looking at what you see, and look for what you don't see
For yet will I see him,                   -------> Wait for truth to penetrate the storm in your mind 
My Savior and my God                 -------> No matter what you feel, God has not changed

Farewell from the Mainland!

October 18, 2009

Individualists living in a Collectivist land

It seems we have been here long enough we are learning some of the underlying layers of Chinese interactions.  Other than the other MCC family and church on Sunday morning, we have had very little contact with the expat community here in Beijing.  Our friendships are primarily with Chinese people (neighbors, teachers etc.).  It seems that we have so far been living under the graces of western ignorance, because we are suddenly finding out ways that we have potentially been offending people.  There seems to be a lot less that is directly said in Chinese society.  This is not for lack of "reading people"on our parts, but it has more to do with how we have been deeply ingrained to behave toward other people.  Here in China, some of these things are fundamentally different.  I will elaborate by telling some of these differences and then describing a tangled web we currently find ourselves in because of these differences.  A lot of this comes from a book published in 2000, co-authored by Chinese and Americans.

The first difference is that China is a collectivist society.  This is deeply rooted and is does not stem from the government structure.  There is a concept here called guanxi, which literally means "relationship".  This is not an official definition but is my interpretation of what it is based on reading and experience.  Guanxi is the relationships and networks you have with people.  Guanxi is not easily established, but once it is established it is there forever.  If you have guanxi with someone, you must do everything you can to help that person if they need it or ask for it.  It is a social obligation.  You have guanxi with family members, teachers, students, classmates and the acquaintances of those people.  For example (this is an example from a Chinese book, it is not mine), if I need help with something, my aunt might help me by going to her old professor from 20 years ago and asking that person to help.  The professor has guanxi with my aunt so they would do anything they could to help me, even though they don't know me.  

However, you can also build guanxi with someone by doing them a favor.  They now owe you for that favor and you are indebted to them.  Now this already stomps on some western toes.  Everyone helps themselves and you can ask for help from maybe three people that are very very close to you.  We hate the idea that we would be obligated to help someone we don't know just because we are connected to them by some invisible thread. We don't like being indebted to people, or thinking that they are only helping us to that they can get something in return.  However the advantages are, of course, that if you have good guanxi with people (especially people in helpful positions), you will go far.

The second difference is the view on what is polite.  In the western world we believe that we should be polite to everyone, because it shows respect for them.  My Chinese teacher asked me to give her a sample sentence where I was asking James to wash the floor.  I said a translation of "James would you please wash the floor?"  My teacher laughed at me because I was being so polite to my husband.  Here, if you are overly polite to someone, you are saying that the relationship you have with that person is formal and not close.  If you are overly polite, the other person may think that you are mad at them because you are being so distant and formal.  Meanwhile, when I ask someone to do something for me, I think that there are two key words.  They are "would" and "please", indicating that the person has a choice and that I respect their right to refuse.  

A third difference.  When hosting someone for a meal, the belief is that the guest is most honored by the quantity and quality of food.  You honor your guest by laboring in the kitchen for them and turning out up to 10 different dishes, while they sit at your table alone, eating and watching TV.  In the west, this would be very rude, because you are virtually ignoring your guest.

A fourth difference.  In scholastic papers, citations are not nearly the big deal that they are in the west.  Too much citation means that you are insulting the reader's intelligence, and assuming that they have no idea what you are talking about.  Meanwhile, we call it plagiarism because you are not giving credit to the original writer's intelligence.

This leads us to our current, extremely confusing scenario.  

I had mentioned that Ari's teacher (our neighbor) has been taking Ari to and from school for us because she is going anyway.  After a month of this I began to wonder if we owed her some sort of guanxi debt.  However, simultaneously, I have been editing her English university papers for her.  Does this cancel the guanxi debt?  Who knows?  Well, I edited one recently for her, and I could tell that she had done this one in a much more hurried way because I had to make a lot of changes to sentence structure.  The ideas were excellent and well expressed, but there were a lot of technical difficulties.  I also edit according to Canadian University standards.  I don't know what the expectation is at her class, so I can only the use the reference I have of English papers.  Anyway, when I sent it back there were a lot of corrections.  After that she started acting strangely short with me.  

I started worrying that maybe it was the whole guanxi thing and my reaction was (every time she picked up and dropped off Ari) to be very polite, saying "thank you" and "I appreciate it" and "if it is not convenient...".  Essentially I reacted from my cultural instinct to be very polite so that she knew that I respected her individual rights in our relationship.  But things have gotten stranger still and it seems that I might be the cause of this by acting too polite.  So we thought that we could invite them for dinner, until we realized that we don't know enough about the protocol for hosting guests and could further insult them without even knowing it.  We would fail at making Chinese food the way that they like it, and in our experience, making American food is a serious gamble.  Nevertheless we extended the invitation for sometime in the future.

Thats not all!  Ari asked us last week if we would bring him to and from school again, and we thought it was a good idea since it gives us quality time with him.  But when I called his teacher to tell her that, she seemed even more confused and acted strange.  Now I am convinced that she thinks we don't trust her.  

To sum it up, I feel like throwing my hands in the air and pulling my hair out.  I am not accustomed to all of this second guessing and I don't know what to do.  I can't apologize or be polite.  I can't explain because now all of our interactions very short and formal, and because North Americans are known for surprising Chinese people with their shocking directness.  I know enough about these interactions to know that it is easy to do the wrong thing, but not enough to know the intricacies of the best response.  

So I have chosen a strange middle ground.  I emailed her saying that I sometimes have a hard time understanding Chinese culture and asked if we could have lunch together this week so that she can explain Chinese culture to me.  I'm hoping that this sends the message that I know I could accidently offend people and that I consider her close enough to help me understand her culture.

I am understanding a little more about why it is hard to adapt to some aspects of a different culture.  Just because you know something is different (and can even understand why), that doesn't make it easy to throw years of training out the window.  It is very very hard not to be "too" polite (perhaps even more so as Canadians, who are notorious for their nearly absurd politeness).  It feels rude to command someone to do something and to not sit and talk with guests at meal time.  Because it feels rude, I want to apologize, but that would be too polite.  

The learning continues...

October 14, 2009

James' Girly Shirt

Take a good look at the shirt depicted above.  Would North Americans be surprised to learn that James got this shirt at a duck hunting lodge?  Mmmm...no.  Its a pretty standard northern outdoors shirt, dime a dozen, man's shirt.

Well every time James goes out in this shirt he get girls saying "Ohhh! How cute! Did you wife give you that shirt?  Ohhhh, how sweet!".  James was finding himself mightily confused.  As it turns out, apparently it is a well known fact in China that these ducks mate for life, and so it has become a symbol of everylasting love and commitment.  Because of this, James apparently seems like the world's sweetest man for openly wearing a shirt that is symbolic of his loyalty to his wife!  It sort of seems similar to a man wearing a cute teddy bear shirt back in Canada.

If only we had included something about ducks in our wedding vows!

October 13, 2009

Animals Speak Chinese and Other Small Anecdotes

1) I don't know why it never occurred to me that we gave animals "English" words to say, but apparently we did.  The reason I know is because in China, animals speak "Chinese".

A dog says "wang wang!"
A chicken says "ji ji!" (pronounced gee, gee)
A duck says "ga ga!"
A sheep says "mie mie!" (pronounced myeh myeh)
A frog says "gua gua" (gwa gwa)
A cow says "menr menr" (sort of sounds like a combination of men and myrrh)

Its been quite a shake for my kindergarten training.  Dogs have always said "Bark!" and a chicken says "cluck".  But, I suppose Chinese has been around a lot longer than English as we know it, so who knows, maybe dogs actually say "wang".

2) Pizza Hut's name here in China is "bi sheng ke", which means "must win customers" (that's straight from the teacher's mouth, it is not my own translation).

3) Tonight we took the boys on the bus and after we got off, James related the conversation of several adoring girls who didn't know he could understand them. The boys and I listened as he told us.  "Oh how cute!", "The younger one's nose looks like his father's", "The bigger one has beautiful eyes", "Oh look! They have two!".  At this point in James' retelling, Ari asked, "Did THEY only have ONE eye?"

4) The other night at supper, James asked Ari if there were any pretty girls at school.  Without hesitation, Ari answered yes, there were two.  James then asked him why they were pretty.  Ari's answer was "Because they are girls."  James then asked "What about the other girls?"  Ari thought for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, the other girls just look like boys!"  James and I laughed hard for a good five minutes, because that is definitely a true statement here at times!

5) The other night I went to the corner store to buy some milk.  I was pleased with myself because I was going to use all of the change that we have been collecting in a rice bowl.  For the purposes of this story use the following comparison:

                Dimes are to dollars as jiao are to yuan. (but do not have equal value)

The coins that I was planning on using were jiao (which for some reason I was thinking were yuan).  When I brought my milk to the counter, the total was 27.00 yuan.  So I drew out of my pocket a massive fistful of jiao and handed it to the girl to count, saying "Duibuqi" (sorry).  She gallantly counted it out and then, with an embarrassed face, told me that she needed another 24.30.  I got all confused.  Additionally interesting was the fact that there were four high school aged kids gathered around me looking at me like they thought I was crazy, and barely restraining their laughter.   When I finally clued in to what had just happened I spent a good long time laughing at my self in front of all those teens, which made me look even more crazy.  It would have been the same in Canada and the US, as trying to pay a $27 grocery bill with 27 dimes and then being thoroughly confused when it didn't work.  Ah yes, the benefits of thinking before doing something are bountiful and rewarding!

This week we find ourselves Aiyi-less.  She called us Monday morning to say that her father is sick and that she was going to her home province (one of the poorest in China) to be with her family.  We are praying that it is not serious, and looking for ways that we can help her when she returns.  She is becoming  part of the family in her own unique way.

Two days ago I was very pleased to finish my first queen sized bed quilt.  The different pieces are from old clothes (mostly jeans), with some other pieces of scraps here and there, and one piece bought here in Beijing.  Picture at the top (the edging was not yet done at this point)

On a parting note, I apologize for typos in this blog.  I only get a one time write and edit because I have to send it to the blog via email.  If I ever look at the blog itself, I see all the glaring typos that come from typing too fast.  I'm trying to remember to reread a few times before sending!  

October 07, 2009

(Wo)Man-Handled on the Bus

My bus ride home today made for an interesting show for the other people riding the bus.  As I mentioned recently, I have severe wrist pain that flares up every now and then. Its been pretty bad of lately, so doctor gave me a brace that does not allow me to use it too much.  If I wear it all the time, it prevents me from hurting it during daily use, and then I can usually play piano if I take the brace off. 

Anyway, I was wearing it on the bus today.  The seat I was sitting in was on a raised platform at the front of the bus (where everyone can see and sounds carries).  Beside me was sitting an older woman.  She inquired as to what the problem is with my wrist and I answered her.  This instantly got the attention of everyone on the bus who perked up their ears to see the blond haired foreign lady speaking Chinese.  The lady told me that she wanted to look at my wrist.  I was sure I must have heard her wrong, because I said (a little too loudly considering that we were practically on a stage performing a Chinese drama), "What? You want to look at my wrist?  I should take my brace off?"  She said, "I'm a doctor".  Aware of everyone's eyes on us, I took my brace off and gave her my wrist.  

What followed, could hardly be topped by a Jim Carry performance in Liar Liar.  She instantly started pulling and twisting my wrist (which has been going through a particularly bad spell of late), digging her hard pointy fingers deep into the exact epicenter of my pain.  I couldn't help that gasps of pain and and gritting teeth, the little "Ahhhs!" and the involuntary trying to pull my wrist away.  In spite it all, my deeply ingrained sense of showing respect for elderly people held fast and I plastered a smile to my face as the rest of me jerked involuntarily.  I turned my cries of pain into twisted sounding laughs and wondered in despair whether I would have to endure this for the rest of the 20 minute bus ride. 

When she finally gave me my wrist back, she asked "Does it hurt?"

October 05, 2009

Military Parades, Canadian Thanksgiving and More

As I blog, the bedtime story is unfolding.  Not two seconds ago, I heard Paul Bunyan chopping open a letter from a mysterious Mr. Kenneth Watanabe who invites him (along with Babe, Jesse James, John Henry, Pecos Bill, and Wild Bill Hickok) to come to Japan and eat sushi.  The return address on the envelope is P.O. Box 129 Japan.  When P.B. (as he's come to be known) arrives in Tokyo, he heads straight for the main post office.  Outside, he spots a monolithic samurai who challenges him to a duel.  As they destroy the environs, the samurai gasps, "Who are you?"  P.B. sinks his axe (Chipper) deep into the sidewalk and says, "I'm Paul Bunyan, from Quebec".  The samurai kneels before Bunyan-san and lets him know that he is Mr. Watanabe, and the two promptly feast upon sushi until their stomachs are bulging.  And thus, another hero has joined the ranks of Paul Bunyan and the Gang.  James has foreshadowed that soon we will be introduced to Annie Oakley.  After that, who knows?  Calamity Jane?  Hatchet Carrie?  Typhoid Mary?

Holiday atmosphere is fairly bursting here in Beijing.  Thursday, Oct 1 was the national 60 year celebration.  We watched the celebrations on TV with all the rest of the Chinese nation even though we were not 7 km away from Tiananmen in the comfort of our home.  The streets were amazingly empty (especially for a holiday) since everyone was inside watching the celebrations.  The nation's leader viewed the troops standing up in a car.  There was a cannon salute, followed by an hour long military parade.  I've never seen anything like it and constantly turning to James for his insight (gleaned from years of playing Axis and Allies).  He spotted the amphibious tanks, surface-to-air missiles, surface-to-sea missiles, surface-to-surface missiles, special forces, super-special forces, and of course, lots of aircraft of all shapes, sizes, and uses, including a plane with a long dangling hose for refueling fighter jets in mid-air.  The planes could be heard from our apartment window.

We saw the medical, food, and gasoline units.  At one point, it began to feel a bit like a very elaborate game of Miles Bournes, and we were waiting for the "Puncture-Proof Battalion".  The overall effect of the parade was certainly very awe-inspiring, and made us realize just how formidable a force the military really is.  It was very interesting to see thousands of men and women marching in perfect unison, and when they took a step forward, you could see straight down the column between their moving legs.  And of course, there was the satisfying and incredibly crisp sound of thousands of boots striking the pavement.

After the troops and equipment came the floats, and then the hordes of dancers.  The most amazing thing about the dancers is that they were able to move in unison by the hundreds, but in ways that seemed to be constantly verging on chaos.  There were streamers and fans flailing, and drums beating and every colour in the rainbow.  This part went for another hour.  This was probably the first time that we appreciated our gigantor TV.

Later that night came the rest of the celebration.  The Insider's Preview before the beginning, showed us that about half of Tiananmen Square was covered in a forest of fibre optic trees, and that within this 21st century forest dwelt a colony of men in shimmering gold coats who stood ready to burst forth with fronds, giant flowers and various other eye-pleasers.  We later learned that during the show there were 99 different fireworks shows going on throughout the city.  The one we saw was by far the most elaborate one we've even seen.  

On Saturday we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving a week early. We hosted a meal with our Canadian friends and invited some Chinese friends as well.  I spent the day making bread, pies, baked beans and apple sauce.  One picture at the top is of some baking cooling on our laundry rack.  The boys spent the day watching me, making their own little "pies" (picture) and trying to steal bits of food, with the word "pie" never too far from their lips.  James did the bird(s) and marshmallow yams (James can't celebrate a Thanksgiving without making Grandma Frey's marshmallow yams!).  Turkeys are non-existent here and chickens are pretty small, so we had to make do.  Saturday was also the Mid-Autumn Festival, and we've been eating so many moon cakes (picture) that I'm almost sick of them... almost!

Sunday, I went shopping for some more winter-like clothing.  I didn't bring any with me from Canada because they were too bulky, and I suffered a fair bit last spring when the heat was turned off in March and it was still cold outside.  The heat doesn't go back on again until the middle of November, so we'll be chilly again soon.  I intend on being prepared this time around!

This morning we were invited to go with three other Chinese families to the Olympic park.  We travelled with men in one car and women in the other.  A sort of surreal moment for me was when I found myself describing in Chinese for the ladies in our car how to make maple syrup. We all started giggling together because something about it was terribly funny.  It turns out that Olympic park is the closest thing we have seen here to the Whiteshell (for all you readers familiar with Manitoba).  It had (what looked like) uncontained growth of trees and shrubs, many little "lakes", hills, big rocks etc.  James and I quite enjoyed ourselves, and the boys barely complained, which is sort of like enjoying themselves...

All in all, its been a great week and we have enjoyed ourselves tremendously.