Epistle 8 of Leon's China Chronicles
*****Tui's Day, October 14, 2003*****
OTHER FOREIGNERS IN TONG LIAO.
The day before departing on my trip to Bei Jing, I met another foreigner in Tong Liao. She is teaching at the university. I say "the" university, because there is only one (that I know of).
She introduced me to four others. And there are three that I haven't met yet. That makes a total of ten foreigners living in Tong Liao (if you include Tai Jing and myself). I was quite surprised. One is a Brit, four are Canadians, three Americans (including Tai Jing and myself), an Italian and at least one Russian. And I just heard yesterday that there might be more. I believe that hell just froze over. I don't think this town has ever had so many foreigners since the time the Chinese invaded Mongolia (and if you catch my drift, I mean that at THAT time this land was Mongolia and the Chinese were foreigners). I apologize if you caught my meaning, I don't mean to insult your intelligence. It's just that someone out there might need a little help understanding my words.
We (the foreigners in Tong Liao) are all supposed to get together and have a Thanksgiving dinner. Timing presents a problem, because the Canadian Thanksgiving is already past, and the American Thanksgiving is late next month. We've compromised on the first weekend in November. I don't think the Brit really cares, since they don't celebrate Thanksgiving, although, I'm sure he's looking forward to a nice Western-style meal. I'm going to try and finagle some candied yams (a traditional North American dish). I'll keep you posted...
CHINESE DRINKING AND EATING (OR EATING AND DRINKING) CUSTOMS.
The Chinese have this custom, which involves celebrating a safe return from a journey by eating and drinking (since you cannot have drinking without eating, unless you are a stupid idiot, like I am, and start drinking two 8oz-cups of 35%-alcohol-multi-grain whisky before taking a bite of food). So, after I returned from Bei Jing, everyone and their dog wanted to treat me to dinner and 35%-alcohol-multi-grain whisky. I made a BIG mistake when I arrived in China: that is, I told my hosts that I can drink well. They have been showing me that I cannot drink as well as I thought I could. Chinese men can drink me under the table. I have been regretting my boasting. I should have known better, for he that exalteth himself, shall be abased. I have been abased. It is not so much the "throwing up" and the "passing out" on the washroom floor that bothers me. It is the headache and stomachache and the "runs" that comes the day after which really bothers me. [I used to think that they were called "the runs" because the shit just "runs" out, but now I think I know why they are really called "the runs". After my morning classes, I did a 300-meter dash to my dormitory/home, because I had to evacuate my bowels of "runny" diarrhea. That's why they are called "the runs", because you are running to the toilet all day long.
Incidentally, I made it to the porch all right, squeezing my anal sphincter the whole 300 meters. I unlocked the porch door. Then, I unlocked the front door. I was still all right. I quickly got my shoes off, and my pants (because I didn't have the elevated wooden flooring down in the washroom and I didn't want to get my pants wet). I quickly ran to the washroom... I made it to the washroom, then I shit my shorts. I just couldn't hold it any longer! My anal sphincter was just too tired. Sorry. I hope you aren't eating while you are reading this.
But... about the drinking customs... there are some differences between Korean and Chinese drinking customs. While it is traditionally not polite to pour one's own drink, it is not so strictly enforced here... as long as you fill all other glasses before filling your own. You do NOT have to wait until the glass is empty here. You must keep the glasses full of liquor at all times, until the last drop is poured from the bottle(s).
CHINESE ART (painting)
Wow! What a transition! ...from drinking... to the "runs"... to drinking... to art. Perhaps a little literary sorbet is needed here before I discuss Chinese art (to refresh your mental palate).
A LITERARY SORBET
To live, drink, or die, that is the question. Living is hard. Dying is easy. And drinking 35%-alcohol-multi-grain whisky is something you do when you don't want to live or die, but rather take a temporary "time-out". Life has its "ups" and "downs"..., it's brief moments in the spotlight, on stage, the center of attention, singing "Yesterday once more" in front of thousands of people, and long stops praying to the porcelain god. It's giving it your best and finding out that your best wasn't good enough; but, when the going gets rough and we need a break from life's turmoil, it's the arts that we retreat to every time... either on the creative end, or on the consumer end. For some, it's a cozy evening with just a good book. For some, it's drama. For some, it's music. For some, it's dance. For some, it's poetry, and for others, it's the visual arts. So, it is extremely becoming that my "runs" story is juxtaposed with my "art" story, because life is not all shitty, even though shit happens a lot. If it were not for the arts, there would be a lot more people within the insane asylums than without. Perhaps, being "normal" wouldn't be the norm anymore and the abnormal people would have to shut themselves up in bars to keep in lunatics out. Anyways, without further ado, here is my art story...
CHINESE ART (continued)
While in Bei Jing, I came across some Chinese painters (students of Chinese painting) who spoke English. They took Tai Jing and me to their "show room". There I learned some interesting things about Chinese art. There are some common themes in Chinese paintings, with important symbolism. I shall explain.
Bamboo represents a refined, sophisticated gentleman, because the bamboo is strong and sturdy, but it is empty, meaning that there is no pride in the heart of the bamboo (gentleman). Bamboo also symbolizes growing/learning step by step.
Bamboo can also represent a refined, sophisticated lady. If there are two bamboo plants portrayed, a dark one and a light one; then, one represents a gentleman, and the other represents a lady. I cannot remember which is which. At first, I was inclined to think that the dark one represents the gentleman, but in the yin/yang symbol, the female part (yin) is the dark part, and vice versa. So, it could be that the dark bamboo represents the lady.
Plum blossoms represent the bravery and beauty of women.
Morning Glory represents "waking up", because the morning glory flower only opens when the sun shines upon it.
Orchids represent honored individuals.
Persimmons represent a good life.
Gourds represent wealth and long life.
Cranes represent long life, because they have long legs (finally I know the "why"!)
Ducks represent good luck, unless there are only two: a mallard and a drake, in which case it symbolizes forever love, because ducks mate for life.
Fish represent wealth and the good life because fish eat every day of the year.
Two carp, portrayed head to caudal fin, represent love and romance.
Horses represent success.
Then, there is a "quadropict" (I made that word). There is a set of paintings portraying the four seasons. Spring is first. It represents early childhood. Summer is next; it represents hard study and work. Autumn represents the harvest time, when one reaps his/her rewards from his/her study and hard work. Winter represents retirement, rest, and relaxation.
I bought a horse painting, because I'm not into all that cutesy, lovey-dovey crap that people in love are into. Then, when I came back to Tong Liao, I gave it to Tai Jing's teacher, 'cause she watched him all day, while I worked, and the kindergarten was on holiday.
As some of you know, I am an artist myself. I recently bought some paint, some paper, some brushes, and all other necessary painting equipment. I'm going to start a new genre of painting: I call it "the shit genre". Usually, painters like to portray the lovely, the romantic, the comely (perhaps because it sells better than its opposite). But, art should also portray the other side of life as well... the shitty side of life. That is my vocation: to portray the shitty side of life through my art.
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that art is supposed to be an escape from the shit that happens in daily life. Well, not necessarily. Why do we have dramatic tragedies? Why do we have sad songs? Why do we have morose poems? Why do we NOT have "shit" paintings? I mean come on! Don't you ever get tired of seeing paintings of waves crashing on the shore, or fruit sitting on a table, or mountains with waterfalls, or portraits of beautiful people? Why don't we see any paintings of ugly people? Why don't we have any paintings of dirty-clothed beggars begging for food with their rotten teeth protruding from their emaciated mouths as they force a pathetic smile upon their lips while their eyes show the pangs of a thousand lifetimes? Why don't we see any paintings of the bloody baby that went through the windshield, because the mother didn't buckle it up and a drunk driver collided with them head on? Why don't we see any paintings of the sick, warped step mother holding a knife to her step son's penis threatening to cut it off because he accidentally wet the bed again? Why don't we see paintings of young girls being sold into white slavery? Why don't we see paintings of the crying infant's face as he reaches out for his father when his father is forced to leave him in the care of strangers, because the infant's mother has abandoned him and the father must go to work, and the face of the father trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to hold back the tears for the benefit of the child? Where are those paintings? Have the visual arts been so degraded that they merely cater to the whims of the market, and neglect the truth and integrity of the artist? Art is supposed to be a means for the artist to expression him/herself, not a catering service. Are there any true artists left in the visual arts? Picasso, Dali, and Raushenberg (sp?) are perhaps my favorite artists... oh, and who did that one entitled: "Scream"?
Da Vinci and Michelangelo had the talent, but they were mere caterers (not that I blame them... I mean an artist has to eat), but where are the obras, which were NOT done for the price they would bring, but rather exhibit the true expressions of the hearts of their painters? Where are THOSE paintings? Were they lost? destroyed? Did Da Vinci and Michelangelo not have time to do their art simply for the pleasure of doing it, and not for the Lire?
I think that the best painting is the one that the artist says, "This one is not for sell."
All the ceilings at my school (and most public buildings) are extremely high. For example in my dormitory/home, all the ceilings are at least ten feet high (over three meters). I cannot change the light bulbs, because even with a chair, I cannot reach the ceiling lamps. Seems like a great waist of space and energy, and it's not like there are a lot of Yao Mings living in China. I mean all the hot air goes up, so it'll cost more to heat my home. I wish I had a six-foot high bed so we could sleep where all the hot air is. I think Korea should start marketing their on-dol technology to China and become filthy rich!
All the windows that I've seen in Inner Mongolia have double-paned glass, except my home. So, I am extremely grateful that they built the barricade on the porch to keep the wind and cold out.
Writing of wind and cold reminds me to give you a weather update. When it is not windy, the weather is not too bad. I mean it is chilly, but tolerable. The problem is that it is rarely not windy on this dusty plain. And nowadays, the wind always comes straight from the north. I guess I should count my blessings and be grateful that I'm not teaching English in Siberia. [Actually, when my son gets older, I might go there to teach English].
The temperature is below zero (Centigrade) these days... definitely cold enough to snow. In fact, I half expected it to snow the other day, because it was freezing and overcast. This worries me, because if it is this cold NOW, in the middle of October, how cold will it be in January and February? My coworker said that it gets down to minus 32 degrees here (Centigrade) in the winter. The only time I have experienced that kind of cold was in Chicago, when I was a missionary. It was minus 50 degrees (Fahrenheit) one day (with the wind chill factor). [Without the wind chill factor, it was perhaps only 20-25 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit)]. On that day, I wore the following: thermal underwear, my trousers, my shirt, a sweater, a suit coat, a long woolen coat, and a long over coat, a hat, and gloves. Even with all that on, I was still cold.
In late September, people here kept warning me to prepare warm clothing for the winter; and, I thought, "No problem. I've got plenty of warm clothes for my son and me." Now, I'm beginning to wonder if it will be enough. I just bought a down jacket for 240 RMB (30 dollars US). It was on sale, because it was last year's fashion/model/whatever. This year's winter clothes haven't arrive in stores yet. The regular price was 400 RMB (50 dollars US). I wonder what down jackets sell for in the US/UK/Canada/Australia.
As I mentioned before, Chinese milk is sold in these unrefrigerated, hermetically sealed packets. The best brand (and only one that I will drink or let my son drink is the Inner Mongolian brand). Not only does it taste the best (because it is pure, whole cow's milk), but also, it is the only one that comes with expiration dates printed on it. The brand (for you who will come to China someday) is Meng Niu (which means: Mongolian Cow). "Meng Niu" is written in Roman letters and it can be found all over China (if you look hard enough). I found it in Bei Jing.
Interpolation: The thing that pissed me off about Korea, was that it was impossible to find pure, whole cow's milk. All you can find is the 2%-fat, fortified-with-fish-oil stuff. I think my son is much healthier now that he drinks whole milk every day.
Anything that is organically grown, or any animal product that is raised on organically grown food is labeled "Green Food" (in English). Now, I have been a little out of touch with modern English, but that sounds like "Chinglish" to me. Can somebody tell me if "Green Food" is an acceptable term in English-speaking countries, like the US, Canada, UK, Australia, etc.?
I have been provided with cable TV. I get approximately 45 channels. Out of those 45, there is one English channel. Like I mentioned before, it is usually not very entertaining, because it is mostly documentaries. I don't have much time to watch it anyways, because now that we have a VCR, Tai Jing always watches videos. However, we do watch a little TV in the morning when we are getting ready to go out. There are three channels for Tong Liao. One is in Chinese (BuTongHwa) and one is in Mongolian language (and portrays a lot of Mongolian news and documentaries). I can see/hear Mongolian music and dramas dubbed in Mongolian.
I have seen some news reports about some Mongolian sporting events which occurred in Inner Mongolia on the Mongolian channel. I saw horse racing and wrestling (which is almost the same as Korean style wresting). The Mongolian people have very symmetrical (I'm not sure if that is the right word) faces/heads (usually). There are always exceptions to the rules. What do I mean by symmetrical? I mean not longer lengthwise than widthwise. Some faces are almost circular, some square, but you rarely see long faces (ha, ha, ha, no pun intended). But, they are clearly distinguishable from their Korean cousins in facial features.
*****Thor's Day, October 16, 2003*****
MORE ABOUT THE CAMPUS WHERE i WORK AND LIVE
Next door to me is a Laundromat for the students that live on campus (it is NOT self-service, like in the States). The students that live on campus and sleep in the dormitory, must be freezing their gluteus maximi off. I do not think that they have air conditioners with heating functions in their rooms, like I do. I learned that the boiler will be started up on October 20th. Last Sunday, I saw coal being transported onto campus by the truckloads. There is a huge pile of coal next to the boiler room.
There is also a campus store, where students and staff can buy snacks and stationery. Tai Jing and I often buy Meng Niu ice cream there. The workers there love Tai Jing, (who doesn't?). They always say, "Hi" and "Bye bye" to him.
CHINESE SEND A HUMAN INTO SPACE
As you may have heard, the Chinese have recently sent a man into space, making China the third nation to successfully do so. Incidentally, the Chinese claim to have first attempted such a venture. I quote from the New York Times (yesterday's edition):
"A 16th-century Ming Dynasty artisan, Wan Hu, held kites in each hand and strapped himself to a chair equipped with rockets, according to some historical accounts carried in the state news media. His servants reportedly lit the gunpowder-fueled rocket as Mr. Wan tried to launch himself into the sky. He failed, dying in the explosion."
[That's one for the Darwinian Awards!]
Here is an excerpt from today's edition of "China Daily" online:
"Astronaut returns safely, manned space mission 'complete success'
China's first astronaut Yang Liwei walked out of the re-entry capsule the Shenzhou 5 (Divine Vessel V) spaceship, smiling and waving to the recovery team Thursday morning in the grassland in Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia, state television picture showed."
I need to find some Chinese that will want to celebrate with me tonight! (any reason to drink! Ha, ha, ha).
*****Sun's Day, October 19th, 2003*****
A LITTLE ABOUT THE STUDENTS (AT THIS, MY SCHOOL)
As I mentioned before, each student has a school-issued sweat suit with the school colors, school logo and school name. When the weather is warm (i.e., before National Day), the students are not required to wear their sweat suits. After National Day, all students are required to wear the school-issued uniforms over their regular clothes. This is interesting, because my first impression of the Inner Mongolian schools system was that it was quite liberal. Now, it seems rather conservative.
After National Day, the schedule also changed. The siesta is cut short by thirty minutes. Consequently, students stop studying thirty minutes earlier in the evening. Now, they finish at 10pm. The students that live on campus must be in their dorms by 10:30, when lights go out. Some students have lamps and/or flash lights, which they use after "lights-out". I know this, because when I go out for my nightly smoke, I can see the lamps/flashlights on through the windows of the dormitory (above my apartment). There are shared bathrooms [not shared by both sexes] and the bathroom lights stay on all night. Tonight, while smoking outside, one of the girls yelled down to me, "Hello?" she said from the bathroom window five or six stories up. I answered, "Hello. What are you doing?" She said, "Guess." Some things entered my mind, but I decided it was very wise not to say any of the things that I was thinking. (I mean, what do people usually do in a bathroom?) Then, she asked, "What are you doing?" I pointed to my cigarette and said, "I'm smoking. What are YOU doing?" She answered, "Studying... see?" and she showed me her study book. I responded with surprise, "You are studying in the bathroom?!!!" She said, "Yes."
I guess she doesn't have a flashlight and tomorrow begins midterm exams. I'm off (duty) for three or four days during midterms. Like I mentioned before, my class is not graded, so I don't have to give any exams. But, I'm going to give an exam anyways, because I want to know if anything I'm teaching is sinking in (to their minds) or if it's just going in one ear and out the other. Perhaps on Friday I'll give my exam, I don't know. I might decide that it is too much work and not bother.
I have asked the students (on several occasions) when other teachers were not present, whether Chinese senior middle school students had girlfriends/boyfriends or not. They answered with BIG "NO!" and gave further information: "In China," one of them explained, "We are not allowed to have girlfriends or boyfriends in middle school. Our parents and teachers don't allow it." I said, "Yeah, but you can have a secret girlfriend/boyfriend." They laughed.
The other day, I was out smoking right at ten o'clock, when the students go home or into their dormitories. A female student and a male student were walking very closely together, and went into a dark alley between the dormitory and the mess hall. They walked right past me. They didn't seem to mind that I was looking. I couldn't see their faces, so it doesn't really matter. It was obvious to me what they were going to do in the alley for fifteen or twenty minutes. I looked at the other students to see what their reaction might be. They all seemed to busy with their own things to care about the two "lovebirds" going into the dark alley. I thought it was very interesting. I personally don't mind if they have girlfriends or boyfriends, and I don't mind if they go into a dark alley to "make out" (American idiom, which means kiss for a long time). I think it's natural. I think they should have girlfriends and boyfriends, as long as it doesn't interfere with their studies.
Incidentally, the classrooms are mixed. This is a major difference between Korean classrooms and Chinese classrooms. Although I have never taught in the public schools in Korea, I have had students who were either student, ex-students, or teachers in the public schools and I was informed that where the students, male and female, (in South Korea) attend the same school, one class is all boys, and another all girls. This is unfortunate and retards the socializing process, and in fact further cultivates learned gender differences in their egos (and I'm using the term "ego" in it's clinical definition). I guess it doesn't really matter, 'cause when the woman gets married, she completely changes. So, there is no way to prepare a man for that change. The man changes too, but the change is not so fast. The man slowly changes over time, either for the better or for the worse (case by case). It's not fair for the man, 'cause the woman changes immediately. There's no way he can adapt. That's why there are so many fights in the first year of marriage. At least the man gives the woman some time to adapt to his changes. [Heh, heh. I'm just being facetious. Don't take me seriously. Have a sense of humor, PLEASE!].
One question: Why do all the female Chinese opera singers have to be ultra high sopranos?
Funny story: I was walking with a friend of mine in town here, and I, being the curious fellow that I am, was asking, "What is that building?", and when we came to the next building, "What is that building?", and when we came the next building, "What is that building?" and so on. Then, her reply to one of those questions was, "That is the party school." I laughed. She looked at me as if to say, "What's so funny?", but didn't say anything. Then, I realized that she meant: "That is 'The Party' school." Then, I had to explain why I laughed. She said, "There are no 'party schools' in this city." I asked, "Really?!" She said, "Really."
[In case, you don't get it, 'The Party' is the The Communist Party, but they just call it 'The Party'.]
THE STREETS OF TONG LIAO, INNER MONGOLIA 'semi' AUTONOMOUS REGION
[I added 'semi' above]
The streets are extremely wide an the sidewalks are also extremely wide. All streets have four lanes, even though the only automobiles on the streets are taxis, a few buses, and a few dump trucks. They have HUGE (and I mean HUGE!) bike lanes on each side, separated from the four lanes by (hmmm, what's the word? In America, we would call them "islands")... by islands. And there are the most lovely, unblocked, wide sidewalks. I used to complain all the time that Korea (especially Seoul) didn't have enough sidewalks, and when the sidewalks did exist, they were either blocked by cars parked on them or street vendors. I LOVE the sidewalks here. The locals seem to prefer walking in the bike lanes, which is stupid, because the bicycle in the number one means of transportation here. My id wants to SCREAM: "GET ON THE BLOODY SIDEWALK!" to all the pedestrians, but my superego won't let me do it. When I go walking with the locals, I always make them walk on the sidewalk with me. I mean I walk on the sidewalk, and they usually feel compelled to join me, but it seems that they join me reluctantly. I don't understand it. These people have the most beautifully wide sidewalks and they refuse to use them. I'm thinking, "Why build the sidewalks in the first place?" Are the sidewalks just for looking at? I guess this is another one of those mysteries that will get shelved in the back of my mind, along with why boyish-looking girls further wish to confuse the hell out the rest of us by "buzzing" their hair off, AND why drains don't come at the lowest level of the floor/sink.