Sunday morning, I got up early to take some pictures and do some studying. After walking around and taking some pictures, I sat down in a park by the river to study. Everyone is up early on Sundays. People are playing badminton and ping pong. Adults are doing exercises like Tai Chi and inline skating. Children are jumping around on playgrounds with their grandparents watching. I sat on a bench next to a playground. Slowly, people started gathering around me. When they saw I had a book of Chinese lessons out, they started asking me questions. I did my best to answer them; it was good practice for speaking and listening. I got quite a bit of free tutoring on my pronunciation and characters. Elementary school children would show me how to write the characters. I would help them pronounce the English words in my book, and they would help me pronounce Chinese words. Younger kids would run up to me and say, “hello.” They would immediately get embarrassed and run back behind their parents’ legs. It was good fun, and it was really productive way to study.
At eleven, I met up with some friends to go to Sun Island park. The park is a short boat ride across the river. We grabbed some food before we crossed because the food in the park is very expensive. I went back to a street vendor I had bought from earlier in the week. He remembered me and was very excited that I returned, with friends no less. After a few of us purchased some food, I asked him if we were friends, and he confirmed what I had expected. This street vendor is not Chinese, and I learned how to ask what country people are from this week in class. I can’t wait to return and ask.
The boat trip across the Songhua River was nice. We had a Chinese person with us, so we got tickets across and back for two yuan compared to the ten yuan that the Lonely Planet guide told us we would have to pay. Sun Island was a surreal place. It is a giant park that is perfectly landscaped. Mark compared it to Disney World without the rides, and I think that is an accurate description. Nothing there felt authentic; the entire environment was perfectly controlled. There were dear and squirrels that you could feed out of your hand. Every bush was unnaturally shaped. For a while, we enjoyed the welcome break from the constant hustle of the city, but the combination of not being able to sit or lay on the grass with Kenny G-esque music blaring from speakers everywhere in the park wore down the group’s spirits. By the time we left, most of us were more than ready to go.
We all had dinner together at one of the outdoor beer gardens on Zhongyang Dajie. It was a feast of street food and beer. A member of our party opted for the grilled cocoons we saw earlier in the day. They are still moving before you put them on the grill. I took care of the beer. Beer is ten yuan for a pitcher and you put down a five yuan deposit on each pitcher. I got us three pitchers of beer. When I went back to the counter to take back the pitchers and redeem my deposit, they wouldn’t give me my deposit back. I got the Chinese member of our group to talk to them and explain to me what was going on. They said I needed a receipt to get my deposit back. They never gave me a receipt in the first place. The people working there certainly recognized me purchasing the beer, and it was just a little way to take fifteen yuan from me. It really bothered me. First, its such a short-sighted decision to not just give me my deposit back. I’ll most likely drink hundreds of yuan in beer over the course of my time here, and I will never go back to that beer garden. I will go to the one on the next street in either direction when I want to go to a beer garden, and when my friends and I go out, I’ll request that we go to another one. They took fifteen yuan from me and lost out on several hundred yuan in potential business. The second reason for it bothering me is that it reveals how easy it is to take advantage of me. I have been very lucky so far; I really don’t have the capacity to do anything if some takes advantage of me. I’m lucky I lost out on about two dollars, so I can have my guard up for people who are after more money or worse.
On Monday, I had Chinese class in the afternoon. I got up early to study before class. When I was walking out of the my school to go study at HIT, a student approached me. He introduced himself and asked if he could come along. His English name is Andrew, and he speaks very well. On the way to the bus, he told me, “I have a very good personality.” We chatted for a while on the bus. He said he was very interested in American culture and language. We found a place to study at HIT. He studied English and I studied Chinese. He had a dictionary and was just writing words and phrases out of the dictionary on a sheet of paper. He is not and English major and he says that he gets up two hours before class everyday to go to the stadium at school and practice his oral English. He helped me with pronunciation. We got to one word, and he was making me repeat it. The word had a “d” in it, and I guess he wasn’t pleased with my pronunciation of it. It must have sounded like a “t” to him because he said to me, “Sometimes in American English ‘d’ is pronounced like ‘t’, but not in Chinese.” I told him that we never pronounce “t” like “d”. He repeated, “No, but in American English, sometimes ‘d’ is pronounced like ‘t’.” I decided to let it go.
Then, something clicked for me. I realized that the reason I don’t like students like Andrew and Susan because they try to tell me about things I already know, and moreover, they’re wrong. I didn’t come to China to have Chinese people tell me what are the famous American brands or how we speak. Dave, Crystal, Brad, and Fred can barely speak to me, but when I talk to them, they can tell me about things that I have no clue about. I find out things about rural life in China, and they ask me questions, rather than thinking that already have the answers. Susan and Andrew tell me things about themselves. They say that they are brave or have a good personality. My other students leave it to me to interpret what type of people they are. Susan and Andrew in a sense treat me like I’m stupid, and the other guys give me something to learn and learn something in return.
In class on Monday, we had another dictation test over the vocabulary we had been studying. On last Thursday, we had a dictation. I missed most of my tones on my pinyin and knew three characters. On Monday, I got all my pinyin right except one tone and only forgot three characters. The time spent studying over the weekend really paid off, and I was really encouraged.
After class one of the Russians invited me to eat dinner with him. His name is Nikita. He was the Russian who was particularly interested in car cost, average salary, and exchange rates at our class lunch. It was one of the hardest experiences I’ve had communicating with someone since I’ve been here. At lunch with the class, the Russians could work together to come up with the words they wanted to say, but that night, it was just he and I. Despite the difficulties, it was one of the best conversations I’ve had since I been here. We talked about each other’s homes. He said Russia was an “evil” place; he followed this statement by throwing fists and saying, “Boom, boom, boom.” He told me, “In China, American boy can walk around at night, but in Russia, no.” We were talking about my family, and he was asking about the things we have. He got to another point where he was reaching for words. He put his hands in the shape of an oval on the table. I said, “Egg…chicken.” He spread his hands open like the egg cracking. I said, “Born.” He said, “Yes, sometimes I ask ‘Why I not born an American boy.'” I was taken back by such a simple and profound question. I thought for a second and replied, “I ask myself the same questions: ‘Why was I not born a Russian boy?’ or ‘Why was I not born an African boy?’ I don’t know why. There is no reason. I am just lucky.” With that, my whole analysis of China had to be turned around back on myself. The only reason I can condemn materialism is that I have everything I need and want. The ability to look down materialism is a luxury in itself provided by having more than enough. I already have everything I want, and it is only because I am in that place that I can look and the Chinese and be perplexed by why they want more than what they have. I should keep in mind how fortunate I am to be born in my circumstances and approach everything else with that understanding.
This week has been entirely consumed by Chinese class. I have been in class for four hours a day, and outside of eating, the vast of majority of my time has been spent trying to learn characters. I am not displeased with the class; I think it is very good that I’m getting intensive Chinese lessons. However, so much of my time has been focused on the written side of the language, and what I really want to do is improve my oral Chinese. Its nice to go into the city and understand that that building is a bank, but I would rather focus my time on trying to talk to old men in the park. The amount of new vocabulary we get daily is mind-blowing. We average twenty words a day. There is no possible way to integrate that many words into your functional vocabulary, but if you really go after it, you can memorize the characters. Really, the class is geared so students can pass the written exams. Passing them is a nice thought, but that never has been my intention in learning the language. I’m not sure if I’ll try to take the same class next semester. I think I’d rather go take would I’ve “learned” this semester and go out into the city and figure out how to use it.
Thursday night, I had dinner with one of my students. Her English name is Rainbow. Two students with whom I had played basketball saw me and approached me, and I asked them to join us. I asked them their names again, and they gave me Chinese names. Rainbow suggested that I give them English names; I readily agreed given that Chinese names are pretty inaccessible to me. The names are three syllables long, and if I’m going to remember three syllables, its going to be a word that helps me survive here. At the end of the meal, I gave them their names. I chose Chris and Mark. They asked me what the names meant. I told them that in America, we only pick names because they sound nice, but normally, the names don’t have a meaning. They were disappointed.
After my experiences naming people so far, I’ve given some thought on how I’m going to administer English names from now on. First, I thought I would give them Biblical names. Some Biblical names are names we use in America, and they have a story behind them that has a meaning. Then, I thought about trying to tell Bible stories to students in a way they could understand, and I abandoned that idea. Then, I considered giving names of philosophers and theologians. Those names certainly have ideas associated with them, but explaining those ideas would be even more difficult than Bible stories. Then I came up with the perfect idea. I’m going to give names from the TV show American Gladiators. The names certainly have the sorts of meaning that they are looking for, there are names for men and women, and there is a ready-made list of names. I can’t wait to write about my new friends, Nitro, Laser, and Ice.
This weekend I’m taking a trip to Wudalian Chi. It is a series of volcanoes that last errupted not long ago. And by not long ago, I mean 1720. In the last erruption, the volcanoes had lava flows that blocked a river to create barrier lakes. It’ll be scenic, and I’m looking forward to the fresh air and hiking. I will return with pictures and stories. I would love to return to some e-mails from home as well, so please, keep them coming.