The month of October went by in a flash and I realized I have not written anything for a while. Although the month is over I would really like to recap on some of the things I have learned to enjoy and appreciate while living in China. Thus, I’ve decided to write this blog with the theme of ‘thankfulness’ in honor of the November holiday. I will attempt to communicate the things I am thankful for by sharing parts of my experience that have influenced my newfound appreciations. The Thanksgiving tradition in my family is to go around the table and share one thing we are grateful for. This year I have many things to share, but instead of going around the table and I would like post it in a blog to share with you, my family of friends on the Internet.Thanks for your interest and support. Enjoy…
1. The Ocean
I grew up in Santa Cruz, California. The sound of waves crashing often lulled me to sleep. One of the main reasons I chose San Francisco for college was that it had such a beautiful ocean and beach. Let’s just say the ocean is a significant part of my life and who I am. Living in Guangzhou I am not exactly near the ocean. There are many rivers that meander in through the city but they are not exactly the cleanest looking bodies of water. Needless to say, something has been missing…
Two weeks ago I received a curious job offer. I was to go into Hong Kong and visit a trade fair. The company who hired me wanted me to pose as their leader and spy on the competition; compare prices, check quality of products, record shipping times and minimum amounts to order. The reason they needed me was that I am foreign and more likely for competing companies to share their products with me. Apparently there is some tension between Mainland Chinese people and the people of Hong Kong. Although I don’t know the first thing about business, I decided “what the hey, could be a good adventure!” Right I was…
I took the bus into Hong Kong in the early morning. I was enjoying the sights of inland China and then I crossed the border. The bus on the other side immediately came to some bridges and then I saw it. The Ocean. There is some innate feeling that comes over me when I see the ocean. It reminds me I’m powerless, that a greater part of my life is out of my control. Something about this notion is rather comforting. Maybe it is just something from growing up next to the ocean. It covers the entire earth, touching so many places and things including me. It is what connects the world and divides us at the same time. I had been land locked for to long at that moment I was set free.
After this epiphany I knew I had to write this blog. There have been more and more things that I have been realizing I’m grateful for since…
There are so many lessons I have learned that are too often forgotten. These lessons lay dormant until something (often small) switches the proverbial switch and the light turns on. When I was young my parents sent me to all sorts of therapeutic interventions. The most effective was a series of meetings with a “healer.” I know what you’re thinking, and so was I. What kind of hippy-ass parent sends their child to someone who actually refers to them self as a healer? However, to much of my delight, I was mistaken.
During my time with Deborah the Healer, I learned several forms of meditation. In one of these forms I was taught to hone in to each of my senses. This seemingly simple form of meditation can be practiced any time and anywhere. It is away to focus and appreciate any given moment. Of course, it is extremely difficult to walk around every day sniffing, watching, listening, feeling and tasting everything around myself. There are simply too many other things in my life for me to focus all my energy at the here and now all the time. Somewhere along the line I lost sight of these practices and now and again the lesson on senses meditation comes back to me.
There are all sorts of interesting smells (good and bad), things to see, hear and taste here. I visited several Buddhist temples in the past month and was delightfully bombarded with the smell of incense. The worshippers make prayers and offer incense to their gods at an alter. There were also these giant rooms filled with pictures of deceased relatives. These rooms were filled with a sense of calm and the smell of apples and nuts that had been left by the deceased’s relatives.
Another simple thing I have been doing for myself is lighting scented candles. Seriously and put respectfully, how feminine does that sound? But seriously, I visited an IKEA where I purchased an Apple/Cinnamon candle. It reminds me of Christmas at my Mom’s and thus brings me home. Other smells that have taken me back are the smell of big American breakfasts. Every once and awhile I treat myself to some bacon/eggs/hashies. Nothing like a house reeking of bacon in the morning…
Some incredible tastes will be described in the Food Section.
The feeling from the weather will also be addressed in the Weather Section.
Sounds –> Proper Mandarin Section
3. The Barber Shop
Let’s just say that I have never dreamed of spending hours at a barbershop and much less enjoying the greater part of it. May I also add I was extremely apprehensive entering a Chinese barbershop for the first time. First of all, there are some freaking weird hairstyles going on out here. If there is one thing the communist party should sentence people to death over, it’s some hairstyles! Jk Secondly, and more importantly, is the fact that my western and very curly/thick/Jewish hair is rarely dealt with and styled. The Chinese have very straight hair and I’m pretty sure it grows differently from mine. Anyhow my hair was getting long and I had to do something about it.
I decided to go with my Cantonese roommate who also needed a hair cut so that she could translate for me. When living in foreign countries it is sometimes wisest to do as the locals do. I’m sure happy I did for I was in for a treat.
We arrived and were immediately taken upstairs into the hair-washing department. They lie you down on a cot and proceed to shampoo and massage your head for 20 minutes. To my delight the massage also included my neck and shoulders. I went back downstairs and sat down. Then for an hour and a half the barber tried to figure out how to cut my hair how I wanted it. It seems a simple fade from the ears/sideburns up to the top of my head had never been done before. After much explaining and beginning to feel restless I was finished. Not bad at all. The best part is they took me back upstairs and did the whole hair-washing/massage thing all over again. I left without a clip of hair on my body.
How much you ask? A little less than 3 dollars! Gotta love China…
4. Successful Conversations
By the time I needed a second haircut I had been here for over 3 months. My conversation skills were getting better but I am always a bit apprehensive because I don’t know if the person I am going to be conversing with will have a thick Cantonese accent. Anyway, I went back to the same barbershop and laid down for my massage and shampoo. I ended up understanding a good deal of what the dude was saying and for the most part he understood me. It is so much fun when you can chat with a person in another language. I have had this experience before with French and even Spanish but it didn’t feel the same. Chinese words have no audible similarities to the romance languages. I also feel that in China there are fewer foreigners who are actually able to converse with the locals. This thought is validated by the reactions I get from Chinese people when I say just about anything in Chinese. Either it is because I sound ridiculously funny pronouncing things and/or they are truly excited to be able to chat with a foreigner but most of the time I am greeted with smiles and laughs. I can’t help but to do the same! After the conversation I realized how nice it felt to have been able to engage in conversation with the hair washer. A simple conversation can go a long ways for both parties…
5. Proper Mandarin
One of the greatest lessons I have learned taking a teaching job here in Guangzhou is that I should always do my research before signing a contract. I shouldn’t feel scared to ask any questions and am better off having the patience to wait for something right. I moved to China because I wanted to learn Chinese, proper Chinese. However, the province I reside in speaks Cantonese, a completely different sounding language than Mandarin. Everyone is required to know Mandarin but that doesn’t mean they can speak it correctly. I am often stumped over people’s pronunciations of certain words only to find its because they say the word differently. I’ve grown to really appreciate some proper Mandarin. It doesn’t sound nearly as foreign as I used to think back in the states. However, Cantonese is just as foreign as ever. It sounds like a kung fu fight with words. I still don’t enjoy hearing it first thing in the morning because it feels like someone is kicking the inside of my brain. I sometimes ask the people at my work to lay off it if it’s still early. The people here insist on saving the language as it used to be a language of the rich. It is also the primary languages spoken in Hong Kong and Macau. Maybe if I had more time or if I had chose this area to learn Cantonese then I would be a bit more enthusiastic. For now I’m gonna stick with Mandarin.
6. Well Mannered Students
This is actually a really ironic thing for me to be grateful for, as I wasn’t exactly the most well behaved student growing up in elementary, middle and high school. It is much different be on the other side of the spectrum. There are different expectations for students in China. When they are children there is a lot of fun to be had, however it gets very serious when they get older. Parents practice a sort of tough love and corporal punishment is very much alive. I have asked some of my Chinese friends during discussions about how they were raised and it seems parents never actually express their love verbally. The words “I love you” never leave the parent’s mouths. Incredible. Anyhow, a large part comes down to how the children are raised. It is really interesting to see the different interactions between child and parent with my less behaved students and my well-mannered students.
Example. I have this 4 year little twirt who has repeatedly misbehaved throughout the lessons. I didn’t pay it much attention until he pulled out his penis in class twice one day. Totally inappropriate. I told my Chinese boss to inform the mother. The next week he was bad again. This time I tried to tell the mother myself in Chinese. There was only so much I could say until my boss had to take over. When he did he started playing with the kid and babying him. He told me I was “annoying” for having addressed the issue myself and that he would “take care of it.” Apparently the Chinese way is to not address the issue directly but to sort of slip it in there at the right moment. Not the most effective tactic of you ask me, but hey, cultural differences. I have watched how the mother interacts with the child and she obviously spoils and babies him. Since that class a child has dropped out because his parents would not let him learn with the kid and I have been given a Chinese teaching assistant. My foreign boss said something quite profound when we were discussing this problem child. He said, “one of the biggest things for us as teachers is to forgive/accept them for their poor manners.” I try to keep that in mind.
On the more positive side of things are my well-behaved students. These are the ones who are always attentive and eager to learn. They engage in activity with me and are quiet when its time to be quite. They don’t let themselves get distracted by the other students but still find a way to have a good time. They are not necessarily the kiss asses either. I have several of these little cherry blossoms and they make teaching very pleasant for me. Why can’t they all be perfect like them? As someone once said, “nobody said it was gonna be easy.” Also, there is such thing as teacher’s favorite…
7. Good Weather
My father used to tell me, “You are a product of your environment.” This saying goes for all aspects of life: social, spiritual, biological, psychological and of course physical. Having lived in San Francisco for the past 5 years I have become accustomed to a very comfortable style of living. A large part of this is due to the permitting weather.
I arrived at the worst possible time. Guangzhou in the summer is comparable to a sauna. As soon as you step outside the humidity wraps you up, your clothes are drenched in minutes. Average weather is 80-100 degrees with at least 80-100% humidity. This weather lasts until someone decides to turn the switch off. I think the typhoon is the catalyst because after several weeks of off and on massive storms the weather went from unbelievably humid and hot to unbelievably cool and wet. I have been ecstatic waking up in the morning to a cool wind breezing through my window and the feel of a long sleeve shirt. Not to mention I no longer rely on my air conditioner which I now may consider to be one of the greatest inventions ever. The summer has come to a close and I could not be more grateful. The hard part is over. I can now enjoy runs out by the lake and walk anywhere without having to carry a spare change of t-shirts. Thank you typhoon gods…
8. Confidence Teaching Skills/Experience
Peter Pan never wanted to grow up. My understanding is I need to accept life for what it is. An adaptive idea I’ve learned to find more and more valid is that the older you get the better. We have more life experiences to compare to and thus more knowledge to help us understand and appreciate ourselves/environment around us. When I started teaching I was always apprehensive. I had never led a class before much less several at a time. I had no previous experiences to compare to. However, as time has gone by I have become more and more comfortable with my teaching skills. There is a certain formula that seems to be really effective in teaching my students. I don’t even have to prepare much in advance anymore. Of course, there are different age groups and thus different formulas but I am getting more and more comfortable with them all. Right on life experiences…
9. Grapes – Halloween 2010
I don’t know if I believe in love at first sight in terms of a sole mate, but I do believe in love at first sight with my Halloween costume. For the past 6 years now I have been green or purple grapes for Halloween. Way too much fun. This year our school threw a little party with our students and parents. The Chinese don’t celebrate Halloween so it really is a fun and interesting experience for everyone. My Belgian and Polish colleagues also don’t celebrate Halloween so I was put in charge of the activities committee. I designed a haunted house, a “What’s in the box?” game, bobbing for apples, pin-the-broom-on-the-witch, and a face painting room. It really was a lot of fun, and no need to argue, “healthy fun.” Haha
There are all sorts of new and old foods that I have begun to appreciate. Here are some:
Congee – also known as “zhou” is a rice porridge usually accompanied with some lettuce and meat. Great breakfast food as it is very light but filling. Less than a dollar, usually 50 cents.
Lunch at school – I have learn to love this very simple dish at school. It is about 1$ and comes with sliced BBQ pork, vegetables, rice and chopped spring onions and ginger. Delish…
BBQ Eggplant – there are all sorts of outside bbq places where you can eat and drink for cheap until the very early hours of the morning. One of my favorite dishes here is bbq eggplant. It is doused in garlic and oil and grilled to perfection. You use your chopsticks to scrape the meaty white center out of the skin. Mouth watering indeed.
– Another good dish here is the dried squid which one dips in soy sauce and wasabi. This is like peanuts or pretzels when drinking.
Steak in Macau – After being abstinent from steak for over 4 months a steak was in great need. Came with fries and a peppercorn sauce. No need to explain anymore.
Portuguese soup – My first morning in Macau I was very curious to try some Portuguese cuisine. I had a soup that consisted of a watery potato base with some vegetables and thinly sliced pork inside. Very tasty….
Uighur – There are many regions of China, the largest of which is Xinjiang. Within this territory is an ethnic minority often referred to as Uyghurs. After a day exploring Buddhist temples we came upon a restaurant specializing in Uighur cuisine. There was a thin bread, kebabs, a sort of lamb pancake with green chili and cucumber/tomato salad. So simple, yet so gooood! =)
Korean BBQ – Saving the best for last, Korean BBQ has become my favorite cuisine out here. For starters, I often order Dok Pokki, thick rice noodles with a spicy tomato sauce. Then I order BBQ beef. It is cooked, sliced and served at the table. The tradition is to take the slice of beef and dip it in two special sauces. Then place the beef into a leaf of lettuce, throw on a slice of garlic and green pepper and enjoy. Truly amazing. And of course all Korean restaurants start by giving you an endless supply of free small dishes, about 6-10 different foods!
11. The Internet (Skype/Couch Surfing)
The Internet can offer a seemingly endless amount of possibilities. While abroad I have had the pleasure of seeing and chatting with my family and friends for free. Thank you Skype, I couldn’t have done it any other way.
Another interesting site is couchsurfer.com. This site is exactly what it claims to be. You apply for a user ID and then email other users across the world that will put you up on their couch. When I was first told about this I was apprehensive. Staying with a stranger and leaving my belongings with them did not sound like a safe or wise decision at all. However, I was happily surprised to meet Dan, a mid twenty-year-old Pilipino dude willing to put my roommate and I up for a couple nights. When we met him he was very welcoming, accommodating and hospitable. He was also very trusting as he gave us his keys the next day while he was at work. They say when you go to another country it is best to live as the locals do. What better other way than to stay with one and get the firsthand perspective on your surroundings? Right on Dan, you rock!
12. Family & Family of Friends
What can I say? You are the people that remind me who I am. I love being able to share this experience with all of you. There are not many English speakers here and even less whom I can truly express myself with. I can express myself but I am not always understood. Thank you for understanding. The man at the end of “Into the Wild” was dying when he realized one of life’s most important lessons, “Happiness is Sharing.” I am grateful to be able to share this wonderful adventure with you and the people here. As the Beatles so eloquently put it, “all you need is love.” Love makes the world round…
So much has happened in the past 4+ months it’s unbelievable. When looking back on my previous blogs I realize I have had to change the way I think in order to adapt to my new surroundings. There were lonely and difficult weeks when I’d ask myself what I was doing. In fact, I have questioned myself a lot in the past 4 months but have been more and more comfortable with my life on the world’s road. This is truly a life changing experience as I knew it would be. I have learned to appreciate my gut decisions and to embrace whatever is next. Too often I get caught up with the faults of my past or the unforeseen pressures of my future. So once again I am thankful for that moment where I was connected with the ocean. It in turn is connected to us all in some way. That whole bit about our bodies being 80% water is corny And true. =) It gave me something to be thankful for which means I had forgot about the past and future. Thankful to be thankful.