Monthly Archives: September 2011

一般般

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Our Buddhist babysitting swag

As the mother described to us the relationship between Buddhism and academic research, her children drove plastic cars over (and stuck stickers to) our arms.

Chase and I had intended our trip to 鼓浪屿’s (Gulangyu- the island across the strait)  麦当劳 (McDonald’s), the architectural embodiment of the Rococo artistic movement, for 提拉米苏口味的麦放风  (tiramisu flavored McFlurries) to be culinary only (in China, going to McDonald’s actually is a pricy and somewhat higher quality endeavor), but a fortuitous seating choice put us in the path of two energetic and adorable toddlers. After discussing feet and siblings with the daughter, I found myself become the terrain of an especially loud Spongebob-themed boat with wheels. Despite being a road, I was able to multitask and discuss my education with the five year old boy and three year old girl’s curious parents. I surprised even myself, holding a very thorough and extensive conversation about my history learning Chinese, the purpose of my being in China, the nature of Chinese as an academic subject, and most importantly, what the chick I was with was up to if she wasn’t speaking Chinese. The mother was incredibly impressed with Chase, because she is doing research in Thailand, a very Buddhist country. The mother asked if I’d visited Nan Pu Tou Si (the campus temple), to which I replied in the affirmative– she then told Chase that she was a Buddha for doing Environmental Science research (as not that many people in China did that sort of thing) and that her Buddhist master had instructed her to live according to the word of Buddha, which meant kindness, so she gave each of us special prayer bracelets that she’d been wearing on her wrists. Her children then deemed us worthy of a variety of fruits, which the mother told us were Taiwanese in origin as we found them pushed emphatically towards our bodies. I attempted to decline, as I didn’t know if the parents actually wanted their children distributing their belongings, but the parents and children insisted that we keep them. Eventually, the parents asked for our emails, and left us, shocked and blessed with bracelets and fruit and stickers, in an establishment usually devoid of spiritual meaning.

DIY Dorm Room Feng Shui

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It is a truth commonly acknowledged that a student studying abroad is in want of cosmic help from even the most marginal of sources. I am one such academic in a far off locale, and my sentiments are consistent with the above. Being in East Asia brings with it a host of opportunities to ‘grasp at strands,’ or more likely ‘make poor attempts at picking up the last kernels of rice with one’s chopsticks,’ the most popular of which is known as 风水 (Fēngshuǐ).

According to the teaser website for Feng Shui for Dummies, the most advanced guide in which I should be dabbling, Feng Shui is an art concerned with manufactured direction of energy flow through a space. Most concisely, Feng Shui is “the simple interaction of humans and their environments.” Rather than hinder the flow of the natural world’s essences in inefficient layouts of one’s own choosing, one should attempt to revert the concrete world to a state as easily navigable for Energy, and indirectly for oneself, as possible- efficiency of movement is key. Therefore, if my roommate Keeli and I want to exploit the positive vibes inherent within the pocket of the Universe in which we currently reside, we have to keep our room in tip-top shape- which might explain the passing of a few situations as messy as our desks.

If Keeli and I were to construct our room in the fashion most advantageous for college students, our Student Feng Shui (学风水,xuefengshui) would go as follows:

1. Place fire hazards near hole in floor.

Reasoning: In the words of Rich Schmittgen, “In the event of flames, you can stomp the electronics through the floor, making them no longer your problem.”

2. Mirror Imaging.

The sun rises at 5:30 a.m., at which time so does a body that’s light-sensitive. In the event that neither you nor your roommate remembered to close the blinds the previous night, position all reflective surfaces in the room such that the first ray of light will bounce along a path that ends at your sleeping roommate’s face; consider the blinds closed.

3. Let the Clothes Line Chill Out.

Run a clothes line along the bottom edge of the 空调(air conditioner) in an attempt to dry clothing in less than three days. Make sure the clothes line parallels the same wall as the air conditioner, else you inadvertently create not only an energy-hindering room divider but a walking-hindering booby trap for tall friends.

4. Place kettle equidistant to our desks…

…thus minimizing the amount of time and space we each need to cover in order to acquire hot water and hence coffee.

5. Push beds together, and place in corner of room.

This decreases wasted space and, when one comes home after a late night of doing homework/crocheting/bocce/whatever the kids do these days, all a student needs to know is the general area of the room occupied by the bed and they have a pretty good chance of stumbling in the right direction. As the bed is larger than usual, and in the corner of the room, if they happen to just sort of jump towards that corner in the dark, there’s a smaller chance that they’ll miss the bed (but they might not miss the wall, or their roommate- Student Feng Shui is an imperfect science). Also, this layout promotes roommate bonding through cuddle time and girl talk which are both emotionally advantageous.

6. Exploit available energies by turning the curtain into a fort.

One person’s yard of light-reducing fabric is another’s ghost story habitat. While the pillars/rulers stuck to the floor with glue necessary to keep the curtain from falling back towards the floor are energy-path-hindering, the increased light energy flowing into the room (until it’s time for rest) and attracted energies of every student jonesin’ for storytime will increase the chance that some energy will reach the necessary regions of the room, albeit with some tension; for the sake of Student Feng Shui, it’s not always the specific energy’s path that matters, but sometimes the collection and homogeneous dispersion of energy throughout a space. Only invite cool people so you get quality energy over quantity energy, and also less particle overcrowding. Like all good sciences, Student Feng Shui accepts apparent truths i.e. things it can’t prove in total as basic laws. Totally unrelated: http://news.yahoo.com/particles-recorded-moving-faster-light-cern-164441657.html (thanks Kylstron).

7. Don’t play Chingy.

Bad music= bad emotions= bad energy. Don’t let this be you.

8. Place garbage can at roommate’s bedside, if giant bed plan is foregone.

Encourage a clean habitat through convenient receptacle placement.

8 is a lucky number and thus a good place to stop.

自由的选择

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Translation Help

Today, after a morning spent discussing the natures of both tiger ownership and capitalism in 口语 class, I packed up my things and let myself loose in Xiamen. Most impressibly, I became absurdly cognizant of my 外国人 status. I ran into Echo, Antonio, Christina and friends outside the golden 麦当劳 arches of 西村 around noon, with my everyday ‘super-high-maintenance’ appearance intact: loose and comfortable clothing, my locks more voluminous than a just-baked mantou, and sunglasses perched unassumingly atop the bridge of my freckled nose. I looked like I always did, save for a jacket and a particularly conspicuous spring in my step (my iPod’s Shuffle feature was kickin‘ today) but felt distinctly like the whole world was watching me more closely than usual; people do stare, even in The States, probably just ‘cuz I have really big hair.

“You guys,” I started with concern, “Do I look weird today?”

I received confused looks which said No more than usual, but were translated into words more kindly, along the lines of ‘You appear bright!’ and ‘You just don’t look Chinese’ and my favorite, ‘You look Minnesotan!’ *I assumed that Everett meant, because I was wearing a brightly colored shirt, I was trying to make up for the lack of color in my surroundings- and Minnesota needs all the compensation it can get.

Antonio saw me after this reassertion of my normalcy and immediately started cracking up.

“WHAT, Antonio! WHAT IS IT?”

“Nothing,” he covered, chuckling. I was not going to let this go. Something was wrong.

“Tell me.”

“Well, I remember you telling me that when you went to school, every so often you’d get to wear ‘Civilian Clothing’ and that you guys didn’t really know how to dress yourselves ‘cuz you wore uniforms and… well… you have your own style.”

“My outfit clashes, doesn’t it.”

“It’s cute. It’s very you.”

I suddenly became aware of the crazy nature of my clothing. I’ve always dressed aberrantly, but I try to dress well in my own way, not like I’m five years old and dressing in the dark. I took off my jacket, which was bright blue, and didn’t really go with my bright teal shirt. Lord knows I’m already noticeable enough in China. I’m not one to care about how people perceive my clothing, because I usually like wearing things that are difficult to pull off, but being in China means that when people notice you, they don’t just notice you- they stare until you’re uncomfortable. Even after all the thought I’ve put into self-confidence, and knowing that no one’s opinion of me but my own really matters, I couldn’t have people worrying that I wasn’t aware of my clothing’s clashing nature, and didn’t want to deal with TOO much attention (some is always nice, mind you). By removing my jacket, I was really just assuaging my own worries- Why was I so uncomfortable with being regarded? And whose to say anyone was even judging me? They may have just been noticing the bright colors of my clothing. I could have been introducing some new, loud, colorful Western clothing style, as far as they were concerned.

It was a wakeup call, nonetheless- I’m always dressing how I want, which tends to be kind of differently, and I usually do like attention; but as a foreigner in China, I don’t need to wear different clothes to stand out- any statement I make is an invitation not to regard but to gape. Even when I dress normally, people watch. I like to be able to attract attention when I want it and disappear into the crowd when I don’t. Despite all of this, I intend to push myself to continue being confident in my clothing choices and dressin’ like I always do, even though my personage is pretty much a petri dish under a microscope, and maybe invest in some more ‘Chinese’ interpretations of Western dress to see if that helps me blend in just in case I really need a taste of what it’s like to be Chinese. Not that I expect clothing to mask my 白人 appearance, but it might buy me a few seconds of time being treated as Chinese before people notice that my features are not.

———

While feeling like I’m not getting the ‘real’ Chinese experience due to my loudly non-Asian looks, being easily picked out in a crowd brings its own benefits. Right after this interaction with my group members, I found a table outside and sat down to do some homework. Not fifteen minutes in, a woman with rosy cheeks and eyeshadow like lilac mica sat down at the table with me and started talking. I learned that I write pretty Chinese characters (一般般), that I’m pretty (Uh oh, what’s she tryna sell me?), that she works for Mary Kay (aha), that she used to work at the Overseas Education Center (oh?) that I should bring my friends for a free facial to her office (this has got to be a pitch) but really, I should just come over and speak Chinese with her and her friends at her office by the train station because she can help me practice (awwwwwww!). 黄爱秀 gave me a Mary Kay pamphlet (“Do you use Mary Kay?” “No, but my Grandma might have.” “Oh.”) and her business card, and I decided to use this opportunity to practice my Chinese, asking her about her favorite products, if she liked working for Mary Kay, how long she’d worked there, etc. Luckily for me, because she’d worked at the Overseas Education Office, she could get by in English when I had questions, but was eager to help me use my fledgling language skills. She even looked at my book with me when I told her about the Chinese creation story we’d just read in class, and asked to trade phone numbers with me! It was cool to see how Western business was giving someone opportunities and really changing their perspective on life- Mary Kay is a company that empowers women as individuals, something that’s not so big in China. In the end, I don’t know if 黄爱秀’s intentions were truly anything but business-oriented, but if I weren’t naturally paranoid, she could have fooled me.

So, while I sometimes want to fade into the woodwork, sometimes it’s useful (and more fun) not to be able to- I get to interact with people who might not have been comfortable enough to approach me (but whose curiosity gets the best of them), I get to practice my Chinese skills, and most importantly, I get free facials.

Why do you do what you do? Or, 哪儿 isn’t there Narcissism?

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WARNING: Get ready for some RAAAAAMMMBBBLINNNNGGGGG

During one of my early morning jaunts about town, I ran across an older man exercising all by his lonesome in the middle of the street. Chinese roads are relatively less crowded before 8 am (which is like saying there’s relatively less water near the beach at low tide), and he managed to find a sphere of personal space in which to practice 太极拳 (Tai Chi Chuan). I gawked as I walked by, and he didn’t even recognize my passing as I took this picture (everyone’s a paparazzi in China, sue me).

From an American perspective, I assume that this action if conducted in America would be about on par with ‘wearing a fanny pack because it holds your belongings best’: a decision wholly rational, but still a bit odd in nature, and requiring guts to pull off successfully. My thought process?

1. Wow, this guy’s weird.

2. Wow, this guy’s awesome, he totally doesn’t even care that this is weird.

3. Wait, everyone does whatever the Hell they want wherever they want in China.

4. Everyone in China is a total BAMF.

5. Everyone in China is intimidating. They know what they gotta do, and they get it done through whichever means they want. These people wear surgical masks for goodness sakes. They honestly could care less what I think of them.

6. Are Chinese people just so confident in themselves that they know they can accomplish the end result, so the oddity of their journey in a social context is of no matter to them?

7. Are Chinese people so self-confident, or do they just do what’s expected of them, just because, and they find a way to accomplish what they need to do without considering the social implications of it?

8. Are all Chinese people alike, Hannah, really? Can I even tell what’s going on in someone’s head, from another culture no less, just by looking at them, when I know nothing about modern culture?

9. Am I even looking at this from the right angle? Are the judgements I’m making even coincident with Chinese values? Is it weird to practice Tai Chi wherever? Do the Chinese care? They like saving face, right? And saying ‘Screw You and Your Beliefs’ isn’t exactly a belief harmonious with saving face, if your pride is found in external validation. Maybe they aren’t so self-confident? How does self-confidence relate to making oneself the best one can be in China? Is it a duty to be your best because you have a responsibility to contribute to society, or do you do it because you are taught to think you can, and that you’re wonderful, because each person is needed to make the whole effective, and your helping society is a gift to other people instead of an obligation?

I jotted this especially rambling sentiment down in my journal- it’s disjunctive and barely coherent, but there’s no real way for me to answer the questions I have yet without doing more research:

Possible Chinese view of self and responsibilities to self, summary: 

1. You are ballsy and you do what you want- probably not, b/c China is all about community

2. You know what you’re capable of, and you expect a lot from yourself pride, narcissism (either external or internal validation)

3. You know what you need to do and you do it cuz you’re worth it- self-confidence

4. Possible other extreme- You know what needs to be done- pragmatism-You save face by doing what’s expected of you, – honor- and people expect you to do whatever you need to do to do that, weird or not- end results are all that matter

——

A few day’s previous, Christina, Camilla and myself sauntered by the lake, holding bags of fruit while eating choice breakfasts of ice cream and pastry. Autumn weather is still far off, and Asian families appreciate warm rays of sun in droves. For every baby-faced father cradling his cuddly bowling-ball of a child, and there were many of these, there was a pack of teenage girls directing each other in vanity photos. They draped themselves over rocks, hid behind trees, dipped their feet in the lake, popped their heels and tipped their hats. Every location has picture potential, and I half expected to see them cushion their pale chins in their hands, smiling, elbows atop a recycling bin.

“Look at all the girls taking pictures of each other!” I exclaim, scanning the scene. “Either they’re all really narcissistic or photography is just something Chinese people do.” I’ve thought that maybe photography is big because cameras are technology, and owning technology is a sign of status.

“They’re definitely narcissistic,” Camilla replies automatically. She’s been to China before, to a small village without such technology, so I figure she’s in a better place to make comparisons; at least, she’s had more experience.

“But isn’t China a community-oriented society?”

“That’s the thing,” Camilla replies, “In order for society to function, everyone has to participate. Everyone’s important.”

“So a community-oriented society, next to an individualistic-society, almost places more emphasis on the individual because everyone depends on everyone else to succeed?”

“Exactly.”

*I have since talked to Camilla about her views on Chinese self-confidence: She says that the Chinese are narcissistic yet without any degree of self-confidence.*

“It’s funny,” I note, parasols bouncing by our heads.

“What is?”

“That in a community of 1.3 billion people, people can still feel certain of their own importance.” *I write this now with a tinge of self-consciousness; I write a blog and possibly believe that I’ll write something novel when I’m one of billions myself.*

——–

If I were one of 1.3 billion in a country with a history of community-oriented conceptualizations of the self, or even more cognizant of being one of almost 400 million, I think I’d be less likely to think something of myself. But knowing that, if every cog doesn’t play its part right, the whole machine will collapse, I feel a degree of importance and responsibility; still, I don’t think my importance merits photo albums of peace signs and doilies simply because if I don’t work, I threaten the whole- or if I do work, I affect the whole exponentially. Every minute I’m inanely taking pictures of myself and my friends is a minute I’m contributing to stagnation. However, when someone’s self-concept is at stake, a person might be more likely to cling to the delusion that they’re incredibly important, as a defense against the knowledge that there are millions and millions of people with similar qualities that could replace them and that they can’t control everything. In China, though, a country that’s been really insular, every person DID need to play their part because there were no external outlets to depend on.

What do you think? Does any of my thought process and semi-conclusions make sense? I kind of want to do a research paper regarding Chinese views of the self and importance of the self for my final project.