Sunday, August 21st, 2011
“I HATE BUGS!”
Keeli knelt by her suitcases at dawn, unloading those belongings that had evaded a terrific explosion of sunscreen. A lone spider skated by, and I grabbed a napkin from my desk and disposed of it. Moments later, a parade of quantum-sized insects emerged from behind my desk. And my bed. And the curtains. My hands more accessible than a napkin, I took care of them with my fingers. Who WAS this non-bug-fearing, non-germaphobe? Our adjoining-room-mates Christina and Camilla soon greeted us with a well-rested warmness and provided us with a tutorial in how to use our rooms’ bathroom-encompassing, stall-less showers. I opted to test it out first, loving both weak water-pressure and my square foot of towel after days of filthiness.
When living in a developing country (and as much as China tries to hide it, it’s still a developing country), survival instincts begin to trump Type A, picky first world habits- standards drop WAY low. Take this morning- where I would have opted for a balanced breakfast in America, a lack of knowledge about food options and inability to foretell whether or not our TA would make food stops available later put us in a position where pastry goods from a bakery became our best option.
After breakfast, Echo (the TA, a graduate student 研究生 at Xiamen University studying for her masters in Chinese Linguistics) took us to the Chinese Construction Bank, where our American dollars, worthless in their natural state, earned a sizable upgrade- the exchange rate is 6.5 RMB to the dollar. Luckily, I managed to get by on my own and received a some of money I misguidedly thought would last me a while. I didn’t fully grasp how many things we’d have to buy and accounts we’d have to set up simply to legitimize our financial credibility in China.
With our new collection of RMB in various states of dog-earedness, Rich, Alex, Ian, Echo and I trooped over to the cell phone store, with the intent of following Echo’s lead. Instead, Echo decided that I’d had enough practice with the language and put me in charge of acquiring cell phones and SIM cards for the four of us. Unfortunately for my cohorts, jet lag had taken a liking to me, and my linguistic abilities were adequate at best. Even so, we managed with the help of an English-speaking phone rep, and came out of the store two hours and one near-success at logging onto the Internet later. Rather than eating at Beefsteak, the American-style eatery with an even more American name, we ended up at something familiar, or so we thought. The pronounced red letters of KFC blazed overhead as we entered the establishment, excited about the opportunity to complete a transaction without a hitch. I approached the register and in Mandarin ordered a sandwich with non-fried chicken and a glass of water.
“Enjoying your glass of boiling water?” Rich asks later as he, Alex, and Ian whittle away at a ‘bucket o’ chicken’ the size of a small dog. I could be upset about the snag in communication, but I’d also managed to feed myself, and that counted enough for me. What I couldn’t get over, however, was the disturbing inundation of English throughout the city and its connotations. The degree to which the Chinese find fault with America while simultaneously boasting about connections to Western culture astounds and saddens me- China’s desire to really BE something, from my arguably still naive point of view, makes it seem like a passive aggressive middle school bully, putting down others while insecure itself and/or enthralled with a different quality of life to the point of obsession? Wearing a French label because you like the quality of the product? More power to you. Wearing a bedazzled shirt that says ‘Syphilis’ simply because it has English on it? Desperate. I realize too that there is a Chinese defense for the adoption of certain Western cultural practices. The Chinese feel that they can take any concept and make it distinctly Chinese, and thus better. And if that belief is what it takes to feel comfortable adopting foreign habits, go for it. However, when the men in McDonald’s ads are wearing MC Hammer pants and KFC’s have adjoint art galleries, the belief seems kind of like a delusion to me.
We hung out at the West Gate Fountain until Echo retrieved us for the purpose of pursuing Student Identification. Once the registrar’s office had immortalized our jet lagged roughness through ID card photographs, they issued us the cards. Where everyone else’s cards had either their English or Chinese name, I’d been given a unique opportunity to develop Dissociative Identity Disorder by being deemed not my name, but my middle name, which I don’t go by. I, now Rose Weinberger, grappled with my disjoint self-concept as we set off for the bank again. An hour later, we had successfully transferred funds to our student IDs or incorrectly transferred funds to our bank cards. Echo, beleagued, took pity on those of us in the second group, showed us how to use one of the many campus account transfer machines and set us out into the world- which inevitably meant that everyone found an internet cafe in our dorm building and set up shop doing what the members of our generation do best.
We finished the evening with a trip a convenience store where I bought the largest size flip flops available (read: still two sizes too small for my American Yeti feet); a jaunt to the dining hall, where I ate *wish I could tell you* which tasted like an assortment of animal goods seasoned, doused in Mystery Sauce, complemented by vegetables and stir-fried to the point where the subject of origin became unidentifiable, with a hint of thyme. I have learned that it is better to simply ignore the identity of what you are eating (it was most likely alive at some point) and focus on whether or not you are full; a trip to a Chinese-style Walmart-ish superstore where a saleswoman told me my skin was too dry and tried to push expensive products on me (sorry, but that psych tactic just brings out my sassy side, lady) and I walked home proudly wielding a plunger and hangars and weaving through devil-may-care traffic.
This morning, Keeli and I trekked off to the beach after showering, where I dipped my feet in the South China Sea before having the chance to be warned against doing so. It was pleasantly warm and didn’t strike me as particularly polluted, but what do I know. If I sometime soon no longer have feet, so be it. While walking on the beach, I realized I hadn’t seen any wild animals since coming to China. Before you suggest I check for them in a cafeteria, I did end up seeing wild chickens not five minutes later, and a cat!