National Day

It has been quite a long time since my last post, and I apologize for that. Much has occurred in that time. I had a week long holiday for National Day. Unlike my previous posts, I will only hit the highlight events, so those of you who enjoy reading about every time I went to the bathroom or changed my clothes are out of luck. This post is hefty nonetheless.

During the week of National Day, I spent a lot of time with Crystal. I opted not to travel, so I would have time to catch up in my Chinese class. Most all of the foreigners I hang out with traveled, and most all of Crystal’s friends went home for the week. This lead to us hanging out for most of the week. He helped me find the jersey for our soccer team and negociate the price down. We ate most of meals together and wandered around the city quite a bit.

One night, he was in my room helping me with my pronunciation of “c” and “t” in pinyin. After about 30 minutes of practice, I finally got to a point where he was pleased with how I was saying the two consonants, and we started looking at one of his English books. It was one of the books that had stories and phrases in English translated into Chinese. I am really entertained by these books; the phrases have in them are hilarious. Most of phrases from circa 1950. My favorite from this book was, “You’re such a sucker!” I encouraged him to use it. Crystal made me read one of the stories in the book. It started with a guy talking about falling in love with a girl at first sight. It then turns out this is a flashback, and he married this girl, had children with her, grown old with her, and now she is dead. For a short and simple story, it was skillfully arranged. I went back to the beginning of the story and asked him if he ever felt that way about someone. He said that he had. When he was in high school, he had a girlfriend. He said she had the most beautiful eyes. He said he loved her. She told him at the end of high school that she would not stay with him if he didn’t get accepted to a famous university. After he took the university entrance examination, he knew he didn’t score well enough, but he didn’t tell her. Once she found out that he was going to our university, she ended the relationship. When Crystal went home last summer, he found out she had married. I asked him if the guy she married went to a famous university; he said he didn’t know. He defended her. He said that in China, people are very poor, and they have to think about those things before love. He was obviously hurt in talking about the situation but seemed to understand.

I spent most of the Sunday through Tuesday of National Day playing basketball. I played with a team of students from Guangdong Province. They were very nice, but they all speak Cantonese. My Chinese improvement is limited when I hang out with them. I managed to master the Mandarin phrases for foul, that’s not a foul, nice play, our ball, and their ball over the course of the week. We caught the attention of a group of friends who were all at least my height and very skilled. They were certainly the best players I have seen here. Everyday we would play intense games with them, and they would ask us to come back the next day. On Tuesday, we were playing, and I stepped up into the lane to steal a pass. A guy was cutting toward the pass at full speed, and a collision ensued. I caught a headbutt to my right cheekbone. It put my right on my butt. When I tried to stand up, I fell back over. Luckily, people had crowded around to catch me. I definitely got a concussion; my head was spinning. I kept playing anyway. I’m not sure why I did. I was certainly trying to save face, but trying to act tough is normally out of my character. It was a poor decision. I got a nice bruise, and my teeth hurt for three days. Afterwards, I decided I wasn’t going to play again until my head felt better, but I ended up not playing again until after the holiday ended.

On Wednesday, I opted to swim instead of playing basketball. I invited two of the students from Guangdong, Mark and Sam, to come with me. It was a good swim, and Mark and Sam were much better swimmers than my students. That is not to say that they were good swimmers. The showers at the pool are always an interesting experience. I had not taken a communal shower since high school football, so communal showers have drifted out of my comfort zone. My first successful dialogue in Chinese was in the showers. It was the first time I went swimming. Only one middle-aged Chinese guy and myself were in the showers. I was without soap. He offered me some shower gel in Chinese; I accepted. He asked me where I was from; I told him. He said something; I told him I didn’t understand what he said. Then he made a hand motion complimenting me on my chest hair. It was nice to be able to communicate in any context at that point, but I was not exactly comfortable talking in that setting. Mark and Sam to that discomfort to a new level. They went to the showers before I had finish swimming, and they were still in there when I arrived. I cleaned off and turned around to leave, and one had his hands pressed against the wall leaning against it while the other was giving him a good, hard back scrubbing. They offered the same to me; although I was tempted, I humbly declined. I dressed and quickly slipped out.

Another one of my students who I named Patrick also could not go home for the break. He invited me to play Counter Strike, a first-person shooter computer game, with him. I had played Counter Strike (more commonly referred to as CS) with my brother, so I accepted the invitation. In the gaming community, Chinese people have an aura surrounding them. They are supposed to be video game playing machines. You can ask my brother; I am not very good at this game, so I was a little intimidated going into the experience. When we played one-on-one, I was relieved to discover that he was only slightly better than me. Then when we played larger games against others in the internet cafe, I dominated. However, I realized I was probably playing against country kids from the university who have never owned a computer, so I reconsidered my swelling of pride.

Patrick invited Crystal and I out to dinner one night. We went to an open-air night market near the university. I sat down at a table while Patrick and Crystal gathered food from the vendors. Patrick came back with come things I wasn’t prepared for. He bought grilled cocoons, pre-hatched chickens, and tiny baby birds. I was certainly willing to give all of them a try, but I was disappointed that I didn’t have my camera for empirical proof that I have eaten these things. I will grade each of the three on the internationally recognized Ryan Murphy one through ten rating system. First, I tried the cocoons because they were the food I was most worried about. They we not bad at all, and I think if I knew what to expect, I could have even enjoyed them. The we crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside. They didn’t have much taste outside the flavor of the charcoal. All in all, I would give it a five out of ten with room for improvement after several consumptions. Second, I tried the pre-hatched chickens. They look like little chicks in the fetal position still in the shape of an egg. They are clearly identifiable, and have a little bit of feathers on them. You just eat the whole thing. I took one bite and swallowed. My eyes watered, and I dry heaved. The chicken in itself was not bad, but biting into it and eating the yolk was too much for me. I wasn’t ready for the yolk, and I don’t like to eat eggs. For me, I would give it a one out of ten, but for someone who likes chicken and eggs, I think it has potential to be a Chinese food favorite. The last of the adventure foods was the baby birds. They weren’t too bad. There wasn’t much to eat on them. They were crispy and had a good taste, but after the fetal chickens, I couldn’t really enjoy them. I would give them a four out of ten. Crystal also had never eaten these foods, and he seemed to enjoy them less than myself. He said that Patrick is from the south of China, and in the south, they eat all sorts of animals like rats, snakes, and cats. I asked if they had eaten dog, and the both said it was delicious. I will eat it given the opportunity. We also had other things like beef, pork, noodles, and the smelly, dried tofu that makes the street smell like Chinese people shit. (Two notes on this. The smelly tofu actually tastes good, and yes, I do know what Chinese people shit smells like. People just drop a load on the sidewalk sometimes. I saw my first baby taking a crap on the street this week. All the infants where clothes with detachable butt-flaps. Mom pulls the butt flap down, cradles the baby under the knees, squats down, and those cute little cheeks are about an three inches from the sidewalk. I also saw a pile on shit on the sidewalk literally the size of a football yesterday. This looked like a giant pile of the fake doodoo you can buy in prank stores and it appeared to be human in origin. Seriously, someone’s bowels released entirely.) Over the course of the past two weeks I have also eaten eel, squid mantle, chicken hearts, sting ray, and pig intestines. Most were not that good. I would eat the sting ray again, and the pig intestines turned my stomach. I gave them a good try too, but in the end, I thought I was going to throw up.

Friday was the Mid-Autumn Festival. By then, Fred had returned from home. I started rattling off in Chinese to him when he returned, and I think he was impressed. However, when he started trying to ask me questions, I think he realized my improvement over the course of the week was limited. He came back with callouses on his hands from working in the fields. The whole time I had the idea that my students were lounging around at home like I would be on a holiday, but this brought about two realizations. These kids really are farmers’ kids, and National Day is a harvest holiday. Students get off of school so they can go help in the fields. Crystal and I went and gathered nuts, fruit, and moon cakes to eat that night. The three of us went down by the river and ate until we couldn’t eat anymore. We bought way too much food. Downtown was bustling all week, but that night it was very crowded and festive. People were performing songs and dances on a large stage in front of the flood monument. Fireworks were being set off, and little red lanterns that were like miniature glowing hot-air balloons hovered above us. Crystal tried to explain some of the stories surrounding the festival to me, but I didn’t understand. Here is what I gathered. There is a beautiful woman who lives in the moon, and there is a pig/man/god that lives in heaven. That’s all I got. He told me that while the rich people in the cities are out celebrating, many peasants are still out in the fields working at night to finish the harvest. I found out that Fred had a crush on a girl earlier, so Crystal and I teased him about it for most of the night. We saw a cute little puppy running around, and Crystal got a kick out of me saying that it looked delicious. It was a good evening.

On Wednesday, I started my two new classes. Both went relatively well. I followed the same sort of format as I had for my first class with my other students. I introduced the class and myself, and I gave them time to ask me questions. Both classes were tour management majors. The second class only had one boy in it. I asked the classes who had a boyfriend or girlfriend; no one would tell me. In the earlier class they told me that Confucian ideals prevented them from being open with their romantic relationships. Also, their teachers would be angry to find out that the were dating their classmates. Eventually, the novelty of getting to embarrass their classmates lead to the students pointing fingers at who was dating someone. In the earlier class, there were several couples in the class. In the second class, I specifically asked the one boy if he has a girlfriend. I teased him after he said no because he had his pick of a class full of girls without any competition.

One girl in the second class asked me the most interesting question I’ve been asked by a Chinese person. She asked me what I think happiness is. After fumbling around for a minute, I had to confess that I had no clue and I should be better prepared to answer this question because of my education. Maybe my education makes that question harder to answer. I told her what some Greeks though because they were the ones that thought individual happiness should the aim of ethical systems. I asked her what she thought. She said it didn’t come from wealth or status but it came from spiritual development. I asked her what she meant by spiritual development, and she gave me the example of treating elders with respect. It was a good Confucian answer.

Thursday morning, I woke up and looked out the window to check the weather. It was snowing. I was shocked. I had worn jeans and a t-shirt up until the beginning of the week, and even then, it didn’t seem like it was getting that cold. It wasn’t just flurries either. These we giant snowflakes coming down pretty hard. Lets just say school would have been closed in Georgia for two or three days, and people would have been rushing to the grocery store in a panic to buy batteries and bottled water for the ensuing blizzard. Nothing stuck to the ground, but it was still really exciting. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it has snowed in Athens in nearly two years. The nice weather seems to be drawing to a close. Right now its cold and raining, the worst kind of weather.

On Friday, I administered my first test. It was an English basketball game. I graded by giving each student fifty points to start. For every time they appropriately used a phrase we talked about in class, they got ten points. For every time they attempted a phrase but used it inappropriately, they got five points. Every time someone spoke Chinese, they lost ten points. It was quite entertaining. I laughed at them, and they laughed at themselves. I was impressed with the enthusiasm. The most commonly used phrases were, “pass,” “nice shot” (or nice shoot for the less adept), and “out of bounds.” Another common phrase was, “No Chinese!” when someone would try to talk in Chinese. I was very pleased with how it went. After the “test” was over, I played with them for a while.

On Friday, I went out with the Germans and company. We stumbled upon a Chinese KTV bar that I enjoyed, but the reviews were mixed, so we left. We ended up going to the default hang out for foreigners, Blues. It has a really bad reputation, and I’ve been gathering stories about the place. I’ve heard tales of epic fights, machete wielding Chinese people, and KGB bosses, but every time I’ve went, these things have been absent. In a way, I want to see some of this craziness but stay out of the way and never come back. The last time I went I really enjoyed myself, and that evening continued the trend of enjoyment. There was much dancing and enjoyable chatting with a waitress. One waitress was trying to get Marc and I to buy a three hundred yuan special of a bottle of rum paired with a bottle of vodka. We got to use our favorite phrase, that’s too expensive (but said in Chinese with disgust). Marc played his favorite game with her for a while. It goes like this, “What is this? This is a (blank).” I could tell she was impressed of his knowledge of table, chair, and varieties of alcohol. We kept trying to get her to tell us her name, and she was only interested in us buying three hundred yuan worth of liquor. A little later, I caught her flirting with a waiter, so I took the opportunity to tease her. I asked if they were in love and if he was her boyfriend. In the end, she got the best of my playful teasing. She told me to go sit somewhere; I expected her to come back with some surprise for me, but after I sat there by myself for a couple minutes, I realized that she had won the battle of teasing and playful harassment.

I resumed my international soccer career on Saturday. Much to my surprise, I got to start, and I played the full 90 minutes. Its not like we were without subs either (although we did have fewer subs this week). This doesn’t mean that I’m any good; it just means that I’m surprised. We lost six to three. I’m not really sure how much I had to do with that; I can’t really tell all the times I mess up. Sometimes its really clear to me, but not always. We had some problems with the officiating and the other team. The other team kept taking dives, and the ref gave the other team two unwarranted plenty kicks, hence two easy goals. The problems with the ref were a little unexpected considering he is a player for our team. Some of my teammates were very angry. I can’t really get angry out there; I’m happy to be out there running around aimlessly. Playing soccer still too much of a novelty for me to take that seriously. I did some good things. When I was in position and marking the right man, I think I was pretty effective on defense as a result of being physical. I also headed a couple balls away as a result of me being at least a head taller than everyone on the other team. My favorite moment of the match was when I had the ball, and Mark instinctively call for the ball using my Chinese name. I passed it to him, and we had a good laugh about that after the game.

Saturday night, we bid farewell to three of the Germans. Heiner, Eva, and Hannah are all leaving over the course of the week. Their internships are over, and it is time to get back to Germany and finish studying. We had a big group of people dine together to send them off. I’m sad to see them go because I enjoyed our little crew. They are fun bunch, and hopefully, I will travel to Germany one day and reunite.

Mr. Lu and I finally rescheduled our canceled trip to get a beer. Sunday, we went to a place called Golden Hans. There were Chinese people dressed in German clothes as waiters. I wish I had a picture. I will most certainly go back and get the picture because the beer is free at lunch. Not only is the beer free, they have different varieties of beer as well. They had a dark beer (which I think was a porter, but it could have been a stout) and a wheat beer (which is my favorite). I learned some very interesting things about Mr. Lu over lunch. He is the only Chinese person I’ve met that has been out of China. Our school has a partnership with the University of Greenwich, so he traveled to the UK to visit their sister school and tour. He went to Greenwich, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, and Belfast. I was impressed. He is getting his doctorate at HIT in Economics and Technology. He is going to try to apply for a scholarship to study in the UK after he gets his doctorate, and he really wants to go to the University of Edinburgh. He has lived in Harbin his whole life, but he really wants to leave to go to another university in another city. He has been working at our university since he graduated. Somehow we got started talking about his relationship history. He told me that when he married his wife he didn’t love her, but he has come to love her. There parents introduced them and essentially arranged the marriage. He said that he thinks love and marriage are things that exist independently of each other and are not biconditional. I interjected that marriages may fail in the US because we expect to love in marriage. Also, he told me about a girlfriend he had when he was in university. He loved her, but she moved south after they graduated. She wanted him to come with her, but his parents wanted him to stay with them in Harbin. He decided to stay, but that ended the relationship. He said he was sad for years afterwards. I’m coming to understand how different the social conventions are in China and America in respect to relationships. In relationships, nothing is taken lightly here.

On a final note, I have withheld all the pictures with myself in them from my picture site. I was trying to grow a really long beard, and then suddenly reveal it. The plan didn’t work because I got tired of the beard. I will now reveal the pictures of myself since I’ve been here. Hopefully, I will do a better job of putting up a post in a reasonable amount of time, but I can’t ensure excitement in that time period. Send me an e-mail, and tell me what you think.