Sep 1, 2014

Long Tan Park

I'll be the first to admit that this outfit is on the boring side for me. I was planning to wear shoes that were slightly more awesome, but it was just one of those days when the mere thought of putting on socks filled me with boring shoes and no socks were the result. Do you ever have days when you can't stomach the thought of having your feet confined to socks? Is this normal?

But just look at all of these bridges! The apartment complex that we moved into on the 22nd of August happens to be right next door to a gigantic park, complete with a little lake and a straight-out-of-fairytales island connected to the rest of the world by a zig-zagging bridge.

Angel's been running here in the mornings. I do no such thing. Instead, I stroll in at 1 in the afternoon and gasp at the beauty of the flowers, watch children feeding fish, and confuse my husband by telling him that I'm pretty sure that island is a combination of Narnia with Middle Earth with a dash of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn for good measure. When wandering through the little trail that winds around the tiny island, I feel a distinct need to call for a meeting of The Fellowship and to bestow symbolic gifts upon my knights.

Don't be alarmed, it's not like I never warned you of my obsessive love for bridges and the islands they connect me to. I envision that in months to come those who wander this park may see a couple of foreigners picnicking somewhere along the trails.

By the way, the next blog post in these parts will be our new apartment "tour". If that's the sort of thing you like, don't forget to come back!

Aug 29, 2014

I'm an Illiterate Idiot

I've heard it said, in discussions about the situation of people who live in the USA but do not speak proper American English (whatever that may be) at all times--"Well, if I were going to move to another country, I would learn that language, so they ought to do the same if they want to live in America."

 A KFC ad--here, the restaurant is called Ken De Ji Zha Ji

What I find interesting, however, is that none of the people who have told me that particular statement has ever moved abroad and learned the language of their chosen country.

That's all well and good. I believe it's excellent to flourish where you're planted and that being a vagabond just for the fun of it isn't necessarily a desirable thing. Leaving your native country is not a necessary life experience--sure, it can be really cool, but I think you can have a very good life even if you never leave your native state.

However--now that I actually have moved to a country where English is not widely spoken and I have learned the language--in fact, I've done precisely what those who use this argument as a complaint against immigrants with sucky English have claimed that they would do if they had to. And let me tell you what the experience is like:

In ordering a meal at Burger King, I have to ask the guy at the cash register to please repeat what he asked me 3 times before the words click and I realize that yes, I do just want a burger and not the entire value meal.

I smile and nod and at a dinner banquet I can only keep up with the main subjects of the conversation, not the intricacies and fast back-and-forth replies, not enough to develop timely responses of my own.

I try to understand an ad at the grocery store or a menu without any pictures and I can perhaps understand 80% of the characters but not enough to have full understanding of everything I'm looking at. Show me a newspaper and my comprehension drops rapidly because most of my working vocabulary aren't words used to talk about current events.

I meet new friends, and sometimes they can't understand me no matter how many times I repeat myself, so I write out what I want to say, then they read it and smile and repeat back to me what I just said. In my ears it sounds identical to what I said, but apparently there's an important difference in tone that leaves my speaking incomprehensible.

Riding the bus is stressful--I can't relax, I have to keep my eyes and ears open for the sounds and characters that I memorized for the stop I need to get off at--the speakers on the bus garble the sounds of the names of stops and I constantly wonder if I missed where I was supposed to get off.

In conversations with people I talk about inane topics--the weather, the price of items, how to get from here to there, how long I've been in China, what my job is, about my family, where I'm from, whether the toilet in my hotel room is broken--discussions on advanced topics of concern around the world and even jokes and humorous stories are largely beyond me--or are too much work to formulate, so I give up.

In school, I was taught standard Beijing SouthEast China, many people don't use standard Chinese pronunciation. Training my ear to recognize the same word through different accents results in many a, "Bu hao yi si, qing zai shuo yi ci?" (I'm sorry, but could you repeat that once more?)

When I'm with Angel, we speak English immediately, whether we're in our own home or walking down the sidewalk. Because my Chinese is much stronger than his, I often have to translate exchanges between him and whoever he is trying to communicate with. English isn't the language of our new home, but it's the language we have in common, that we can speak most intimately in, and I have no desire to give it up.


The funny thing is, I'm one of the privileged few. My experience of being an expat and trying to flourish in a country where my native language is not the language of choice is only comparable in the smallest of ways to the experience of being an English learner in the USA.

My native language is one of the most powerful and widely spoken languages on Earth. I actually have a college degree in the language of the country where I now live--I spent 4 years and thousands of dollars of my scholarship providers' money learning this language.

I pick up languages more easily than the average American. I was considered a "star student" by my Chinese profs. There are lots of books available for English-speaking learners of Chinese, and I have the time and resources to buy them and hire tutors at my very whim. My current work contract provides Chinese classes for me. My Mandarin is actually comparatively good--there is a lot that I do understand, a lot that I am able to communicate, but it's not fluent, and there are many holes where vocabulary ought to be.

And, actually, if I wanted to, I could nest myself into an expatriate bubble here in China and get away with learning very little Chinese at all--many expats do (Clearly, these are not the same people who say, "If I moved to another country, I would learn to speak that country's language" right? They couldn't be, could they?). No one would look down on me for doing this. I don't prefer to, I want to get more plugged into the local community than the expat community, but that's my preference and choice.

The lesson here is that not being a native or fluent speaker of the language of the country you live in is difficult. People look at you like you're an idiot when they ask you for the 3rd time if you want a bag or not at the grocery store. Actually, I'm smart. I'm funny. I can talk about all sorts of things, but when I'm not speaking in my native language, when I'm trying to read a language I'm not literate in...I don't seem very smart at all. In fact, I seem like my mental capacities are well below average. I can just imagine people thinking, "And this person is supposed to teach our children? She can't even understand what I'm saying!"

 The menu at McDonald's

In general, people here are abundantly kind to our slowness when it comes to their language. Once again, this is because we are a privileged minority. I believe it is far, far easier to be an English speaker in China than it is to be a Spanish, Japanese, Korean, or Bosnian speaker in the USA. There are some signs in English here...sometimes very weird English, but English all the same. Expatriate Americans in China tend to be more welcomed and respected than the average Eastern European refugee or the Korean seminary students' wife or the Hispanic immigrant are in the USA. We are treated well in spite of our seeming idiocy because we are the favored few...but not being able to talk at length and with speed and accuracy still bars us from doing everything we'd like to do.

All this to say--I actually did it. I moved overseas. I spent years learning their language (because language learning is a constant and ongoing process, not something that can happen overnight). I have more language learning resources available to me than the vast majority of people...I absolutely love and enjoy speaking Chinese...and it's still really, really hard. Every single day I'm learning new words--by the end of the year I know my Mandarin will have improved immensely, but that doesn't necessarily help me today when I'm trying to understand the IT guy's speedy explanation of why I can't log onto the computer in my office at school.

So maybe, just maybe, that person who you can barely understand through their thick accent and broken English, or that family you overhear chattering away in their native tongue--maybe they are me, on the other side of the pond...and maybe, for my sake, you'll stop treating them like they're stupid. We can't accurately judge a person's intelligence or contribution to society by the state of their 2nd or 3rd language--because if you were to hand me a Mandarin newspaper right now, you'd think I were an illiterate idiot.

I appreciate immensely the fact that the Chinese people I meet don't tell me to "Go Home!" when I stumble awkwardly through my requests for garlic powder at the grocery store...I only wish that more Americans were so kind.

Aug 27, 2014

Disappointing Food

Once upon a time, my little brother was out to dinner at a nice restaurant with friends and decided to order a meal that was decidedly on the pricey side of his high school student budget. According to the menu, it was a Portobello Mushroom Burger. My brother was envisioning a burger topped with a portobello mushroom...what he got was a portobello mushroom on a bun--probably a delightful burger alternative to a vegetarian, but quite a disappointment to my brother, who, after spending all his lunch money, ended up with a mushroom bun instead of a burger.

I have always felt the tragedy of this story quite keenly. Food is something that we must rely on--and when it disappoints you in one way or another, it's awful.

Angel was very excited when he spotted a huge pile of these at the grocery store. "Yes! Limes! Now I can have lime juice on my noodles!" You see, Angel is of the belief that lime juice makes everything tastier. I do not understand this belief, but he is free to believe it, except when he squeezes lime juice all over an entire bag of Doritos so that he doesn't have to share them with me and can eat them in one sitting. Freedom of belief has to stop somewhere.

Angel bought several of these limes. 

Only, he discovered upon opening one that they weren't limes at all.

What were they?

Little oranges, with a slightly sour taste.

Who knew?

Now we all do. Of course, this isn't a complete food tragedy because it turns out that Angel loves his tiny green oranges very much--however, their juice isn't deemed suitable for the enhancing of noodle dishes.

Have you ever had a disappointing food tragedy? Please tell me about it!

Aug 25, 2014

Only Half a Dress


Once upon a time I bought a really cheap mini-dress because I loved the design even though it didn't fit very well. Sometimes it fit better than other times (don't all clothes?) but mini-dresses really aren't all that versatile so, a few months ago, before my beloved sewing machine was taken from me, I decided to chop up this dress and hem it, so that I could still wear the top when I moved. In fact, with a sweater to cover my shoulders, this mini-dress can even be part of a rather teacher-ly outfit, if I do say so myself.

(Side Note: After looking at those old posts, I miss my awesome blue and purple hair immensely. I wonder if it will be acceptable to dye my hair again someday...)

Angel and I aren't really the kind to stay still all that often. During our weeks of training, we thought we felt very tired out by our intense schedule...but then again, the minute we had a free few hours we thought it was the perfect time to wander through a very wealthy neighborhood and gawk at the incredibly cool-looking mansions (we did the exact same thing in nice neighborhoods in the US, I think those fancy houses are so fun to look at! If you own a fancy house, can I be your friend primarily for the purpose of looking at your house?). We discovered a river and a waterfall and a little park with exercise equipment and benches on our walk. We have so much to explore in our new home!

Aug 22, 2014

WBBE: A Barbershop in China

Remember that very occasional "Worst Beauty Blogger Ever" series I do? I thought it would be appropriate to add the tale of Angel's first haircut here to the series.

I cut Angel's hair just days before we left Michigan in order to push his need for a haircut post-arrival out as long as possible. I've done all of Angel's haircuts for the past two years--it's an easy cut, but Angel can be picky (having a mom and then a wife who cut hair can do that to you), and the prospect of explaining what he wanted when we don't know hair-specific terms in Mandarin was intimidating to both of us.

The reason I couldn't just cut his hair myself was because the clipper set I had in the USA was not made to convert to 220 voltage, so I didn't bring them. I did bring my scissors, straight razor, and cape so I can do scissor cuts and trim Angel's neckline when needed, but until I find a set of clippers to buy over here, Angel will have to get his haircut by a professional other than his own wife.

And, after the first experience went so well...we figure that's not such a bad thing, after all.

We discovered in our explorations that there's a little hole-in-wall neighborhood barbershop about a 25 minute walk from where we're staying. So after we got out of training for the day, we headed out to the barbershop.

When we got in we asked how much a haircut was, and I figured the easiest way to describe what we wanted using Mandarin I knew was, "He wants it to look like this, but shorter." Obvious purpose of a haircut, right?

Without even stubbing out his cigarette (part of me was thinking about how cutting a client's hair while smoking could be enough to let you lose your license in the state of Michigan while the other part of me was thinking about how this feels a little like an old-school 50s era barbershop I've seen in movies) Angel's barber got to work. He used different techniques than I've ever seen used (beauty pros: Angel's haircut is a 5 on top and a 2 on the sides--this barber did a 2 on the sides and cut the top with a thinning shears over comb technique).

We did not know when we asked for a haircut what a haircut at this particular shop entailed--so Angel very nearly got up to leave several times before the barber had finished. Besides the haircut, the barber also shaved Angel's cheeks with a straight razor (he left Angel's mustache and chin unshaven, however, which caused me to very maturely laugh at him on the way home), and gave him a shampoo, blow dry, and styled his hair with product. Total cost, 15 Yuan, or about 2.50 USD.

Please note that this was simply a neighborhood barbershop--prices vary immensely in China--there are plenty of salons far too pricey for the likes of me or Angel to ever go to. But he really liked this one!