Food, Brands, and Basketball

Its been a couple days since I last updated, and now that I sit down to write its hard for me to remember everything that has happened in that time. I think that’s because the last couple of days have been less remarkable than some other days I’ve had. On Sunday morning, I went swimming with a student at the university named Susan (her Chinese name is Li Shu-han). Susan is a extremely forward, aggressive, and blunt person. Maybe its hard to be subtle in a language that you don’t really know. We met when she was coming up to where I live to meet Chris. She had gotten Chris’ phone number from a student that was in one of Chris’ classes. When she came, Chris was in my room helping me with some internet issues. She sat down, and we started talking. When Chris found out that she wasn’t in his class and had gone out of her way to get his number, she said, “I am very brave.” (Think about it with a terrible Chinese accent followed by giggling and it should be more entertaining.) We agreed to go swimming on Sunday at 9 in the morning.

The pool is not very far from where I am living. When we got there I had to buy goggles and a swimming cap. Everyone was perplexed by my non-Speedo bathing suit. The water was nice. It was the first time I had ever gone swimming for the purpose of exercise. Whenever we would get tired, we would stop and chat for a moment. I was really excited when she brought up Taiwan. She asked me if I thought Taiwan was a country. I said yes, and I didn’t see why China cares. I told her that I could see why China would want to get a hold of Taiwan 20 years ago when mainland China was poor and Taiwan was prospering, but now, China is becoming wealthy and has no real need for Taiwan. She promptly informed me that she was a Chinese Communist Party members, and as CCP member, she deemed that Taiwan is part of China. She repeated that a couple times in the conversation, “Taiwan is a part of China.” I took that to mean that I didn’t understand the history there. It would be like if Long Island wasn’t a part of the US; everyone would be like, “C’mon, you’re a part of the US.” I still don’t see it her way, but I guess I can understand a little better.

Susan is from Sichuan province, so I made her show me a good, cheap Sichuan restaurant. On the way there the conversation was interesting. She asked me if I liked Mickey Mouse; I said no, Mickey Mouse is for little kids. Then she showed me her Mickey Mouse bag she was carrying. Then she asked me if I liked Snoopy. Looking to be slightly more tactful with this question, I replied that I had a Snoopy shirt that I really like. She said that she had a Snoopy watch. China may be the place where cultural icons go to die, or at least retire. They have totally embraced everything the West has exported. It seems as though everything is about brands here. My experience with Susan made me think about the first day I was here when I went shopping with Ms. Li. Every item I went to buy she commented on what was the most famous brand; I ignored her recommendations and opted for the cheapest item. The infatuation with brands reminds me a lot of Middle School where you weren’t cool if you didn’t have the right brand of clothes or shoes. I wonder if people treat others differently given the brands that they are wearing or using; I know that people everywhere judge you based on the quality of your appearance, but I wonder if its something more extreme. China seems to be in an adolescent stage of materialism and consumerism; there doesn’t appear to be a filter on what is accepted and what is worth trading with traditional culture, and you can just tell them what is cool. Hopefully, this is just the initial backlash of being sheltered from the West and capitalism and they’ll be more discriminate in the near future.

The restaurant we went to was great. It was really nice on the inside. We got a bowl of soup the size of a mixing bowl, a chicken dish, rice, and noodles for 33 yuan. That’s just over four dollars. Sichuan food is really spicy, and I was mentally prepared for it. I really enjoyed the food; which is good because I’ll be eating leftovers for another week. I took a picture of the leftover chicken along with some other food on my picture site. Susan translated it for me as “saliva chicken”. Its quite the appetizing name. Susan talked to me about her boy issues over lunch because I don’t know any of her friends. Plus, she had that sort of relationship with the English teacher that lived in my room before me, so she’s looking to put me in that role. She has a boyfriend that she fell in love with at first sight, but she is not sure if it will work out. He is doing his graduate studies in another province, and his family is poor and from the country. Her parents disapprove of her relationship with someone of a lower social standing even though he is well educated and will be well paid. Then there is this other guy who keeps persuing her, and she is just using him because he speaks really good English (similiar to our relationship) I appreciated her openness even though our relationship did not merit it. There is a huge gap between us in culture and communication that makes conversation a little awkward for me. She didn’t seem to feel strange at all. All in all, I enjoyed the time I spent with her, and we agreed to swim together bi-weekly. It was nice to make my first Chinese friend.

On Monday, I spend the afternoon walking the city. I decided I was going to trek downtown on foot without a map. I figured if I got disoriented, I could ask someone to point me in the direction of the river and I could just walk west downtown from the river. Or if I totally failed in my mission, I could hang my head and take a taxi back home. I didn’t realize how far it was. I didn’t take note of when I left, but it had to be a two or three hour walk. I’m sure I didn’t take the most efficient route, but I was sure that I was heading in generally the right direction. It was good for getting my bearings in the city. When I’m standing on the bus, I’m too tall and can only see the sidewalk through the windows, but walking around the city I got to see all the landmarks and their relationship to each other. When I arrived downtown, it was late in the evening. I strolled along the river in an attempt to kill time until the foreigners came out. I found a quintet playing music with a guy singing. There was a cello, a wooden flute, an accordian, and two traditional Chinese instruments that I have no clue what they were. I had picked up some grilled corn from a street vendor and sat down to listen. Everyone sitting around to listen was older, and every single one of them was staring at me. They were looking and whispering to each other. I was wondering if I had committed some sort of taboo. Other people were eating and sitting the way I was sitting. I was watching the band, and I turned to my left to see two girls with a camera about to take a picture of me. I smiled and laughed, and they giggled because they were busted. They tried to play it off like they were taking pictures of other things in the area too, but really, they were just trying to save face. After the sun went down, I decided to walk to the beer gardens on Zhongyang Diejie where the foreigners hang out. No one was there, so I waited for a couple minutes without any luck. I was walking toward the bus back home, and I realized that I hadn’t spoken to anyone all day. It was a strange and lonely feeling.

Yesterday, Chris took me to a bookstore where I could pick out a book for two of my classes. I’m glad he came with me because I had no clue on what I would need from a book for my class. We picked out a conversational book that seemed like it would have relevant topics for tour management students. I’m getting excited about class because I really have no boundaries. I can teach and talk about just about anything I want to in class. I’m ready to see how it goes (and I’m ready to have something to do with my time).

When I got back, I decided to go play basketball again. I must confess that I was withholding information about the last time I played basketball. I certainly drew a crowd and impressed the locals when I played in games, but I kept getting challenged to play one-on-one. Lets just say that some of them bolstered their national pride. Yesterday, I played very well. A large crowd gathered on the court where I was playing. Then, the school basketball team stopped their pick-up game to come watch me play; they cheered for me, and I was quite flattered. I made friends with two of the guys I was playing with, and we agreed to play again today at 4. I’m learning a lot of basketball-specific Chinese. My favorite is “faw-wah” for foul; the other things I’ve learned aren’t fun cognates.

I really appreciate everyone who has sent me e-mails. Please continue to stay in touch.