Day 15: Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

As is the case in many developing countries, in China, tap water is not safe for general consumption. Before I moved here, it was the first time in my life—aside from a brief family vacation in Puerto Rico—that I had to envision going through life without being able to drink the water. I imagined lugging a miniature reverse-osmosis water filter to China to hook up to my kitchen sink and brushing my teeth with rainwater. My old housemate Brendan, when he was living abroad in Taiwan, told me that he took precautions both to boil water and then run it through a Brita filter before he deemed it safe enough to drink. In reality, though, the situation here is a lot tamer than I anticipated. We have a snazzy water cooler in our living room with a split hot/cool water valve system, and when we finish each 20-liter reusable container, we simply call to have a new one delivered right to our door.

I realize the privilege that comes with being able to drink tap water, and yet ironically, in some of the only places in the world where that's a viable option—America and Japan, among them—it is becoming more and more unusual. People have become so afraid of the safety of tap water that it is gradually being phased out by the bottled water industry. By contrast, in China the fear of tap water is not irrational—whereas Indian locals actually do drink the water, no one in China drinks straight from the tap. Rather, all of the water is irradiated or boiled, making the only water served at restaurants scalding hot. It also means that in order to have drinking water, students must carry large hot water thermoses to water-filling stations on campus and wait until the water is cool enough to drink. There is a danger that comes with a society used to handling boiled water, evidenced by the burn marks and scars on many of the people.

A long line of spigots at a hot water filling station on campus.

But aside from drinking water, water culture in Taigu is a complexity in and of itself. For one thing, it's hard to tell whether or not the black water that seeps into our washing machines actually gets our clothes any cleaner. For another, the water in our houses turns off at 11pm every night. That means no showers, no washing hands, and no brushing teeth. In spite of the annoyance, what's worse is that the schedule is incredibly inconsistent—sometimes the water shuts off as early as 9pm or stays on all night. Every turn of the faucet makes for a thrilling adventure—at times it's business as usual, but every third or forth twist, it'll surprise you.

The shower is equally as finicky. I pray for those rare times when I can take a shower completely uninterrupted by the gargling sounds of the pipe gaskets, a prolonged shock of coldness, or the water intermittently turning off for minutes at a time. I like to compare my shower-head to a spitting dragon—every now and then it likes to sputter and hiss at you with a concentrated blast of scalding hot water. The quality of the showers also varies based on the time of day—with the water pressure deviating from a healthy stream to barely a trickle. But the worst and scariest by far are those times at night—past the water cut-off curfew, with no shops open and no water left in the cooler—where we literally find ourselves without any means to drinking water. It's yet another reason, I'm learning, not to take even the most basic things in life for granted.

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Day 14: This Room Was Built on Good Intentions

Sunday, November 28, 2010

You know the old saying that goes: “things always get worse before they get better”—the belief that even at its worst, there is the supposition that in the future a given situation will improve? Well, whoever coined that phrase obviously never lived in a Chinese house.

This realization was a long time in the making. I had seen structures outfitted and thrown up in nary a month's time in numerous cities in and around China, but most strikingly on campus and in the town of Taigu where I live. Giant construction pits full of concrete slurry, mortar, fragmented brick chunks, and wooden support beams line the edge of North Yard, and seemingly transform into habitable structures overnight. However, as James, who worked as a stone mason for a year, will tell you, not all buildings are created equal. The instability and shoddiness with which buildings get erected in China is largely to blame for the grave aftermath of catastrophic events like earthquakes and landslides, which have been headline-making news of late. The emphasis is on getting buildings up, and not about ensuring the structural integrity of them to any large degree.

The door to my bedroom, decorated with posters from Hong Kong, New York, and Japan.

From an outsider's perspective, China's economic development is advancing at a blistering pace. But foreigners only see one side of the story—the tall, glittery new highrises that line China's skylines in Shanghai and Guangzhou. The truth of the matter is much more nuanced—that wedged within those massively tall skyscrapers lie innumerable building codes violations and a bevvy of cost-efficient, but ultimately low-quality building materials. While the exteriors may be paragons of grandeur, little thought is placed on the effects of that hasty construction in the long run. In fact, Chinese modernization bears a stunning correlation to the state of our one-story flats.

Much to my surprise, following the long summer holiday, I returned home to find the interior of my home meticulously re-modeled. Though most of the renovations were much needed fixes, within a matter of weeks, they had done very little to affect any kind of long-lasting change. It became clear to me that rather than tackle the problem at its core, aging houses like mine have just been remodeled to oblivion. In one of my first lessons on living in Taigu, I learned that leaning up against any surface is a recipe for discolored clothing. The white-wash walls in our homes are really no more than compacted layers of chalk and the external “bricks” are actually just red-dyed cinder blocks made to look like them. Since I first moved in, numerous dance parties have worn away the evenness of the floor, we've needed three replacement living room tables, and rats have chewed holes through drywall, plumbing, and ceiling tiles. Cracks have already begun to form in the new paint job of our neither sound- nor weather-proof walls.

My bedroom, outfitted with a poster from Pingyao, a tapestry from Oberlin, and a nightstand overflowing with nick-knacks and student gifts.  The red lantern from Nanjing in the foreground transforms the room into a seedy opium den by night.

In an effort to counteract such shortcomings, I've made a few DIY modifications. I did my own make-shift insulation by layering the three floor-to-ceiling windows in my bedroom with thick sheets of plastic. Though it does make the room warmer and ironically gives me quite a bit more privacy, it unfortunately eliminates the ability to see the sun. I've also tried to do a few less purely practical touches in the way of interior decorating, reprising my role first at Oberlin and later at Cornell—starting with a newly acquired lantern from Nanjing and a few well-placed wall hangings and posters. While they may not be enough to stop natural disasters, at least they're small steps toward improving my quality of life. Perhaps things do get better after all.

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Day 13: Not for the Faint of Heart

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Living in China has pushed my boundaries in more ways than I would have expected. For one thing, I no longer have the slightest equivocation about getting naked in front of a large group of other men. Though on one hand, this would do wonders to harness my burgeoning career in the adult entertainment industry, it also serves very practical purposes here in China. For one thing, weekly trips to the pool necessitate nudity, as do post-swim showers in a steam-filled locker room that see at least three men to every shower-head. For another, this new-found comfort with nudity also helps on those less-frequent trips to the public bathhouse in Taigu.

Think of public bathhouses as roughly the equivalent of laundromats in America. In the rural countryside, most apartment buildings and tenements don't come equipped with bathtubs or shower-heads, so it behooves tenants to have a place where they can take twice- or thrice-weekly washings. Though the bathhouse's main function is for bathing, some occasionally offer a small sauna or a lukewarm hot tub to complement the group showers. The reception room always sees a gaggle of svelte half-naked men lying on chaise lounges waiting to usher you in. Once inside, you are told to strip naked under an intimate canopy of bright fluorescent lights and store all of your belongings in a locker. The rest of the procedure is almost Roman in its archaic simplicity—you are handed a small towel and a packet of shampoo and proceed to the showers. The only difference is that, in China, you might notice a couple of squat tables covered in slick foam padding along the way.

I couldn't actually find a good picture of a Chinese bathhouse, so technically this one is in Baghdad, Iraq, but the accommodations are remarkably similar (photo courtesy of Reuters).

Those squat tables are for scrubbing. The way it works is this: first, the table is wrapped in a sheet of plastic. Then, you lie on the table and proceed to be rigorously rubbed and scraped until all of the dead skin is peeled off of your body. Like most people, I was quite skeptical at first. The idea of a stranger hovering over me with a Brillo sponge literally grating away at my bare inner thighs didn't seem like something I wanted to pay money for. But, like most things about China, I got used to it, in the same way that I did the grizzled older Chinese gentlemen who insist on laying spreadeagled near the mouth of the hot tub. After all, every time I go to the pool, I see men comfortable enough with their sexuality to literally straddle another man while vigorously thrusting and scrubbing his back with a beaded hand mitt.

My experience with scrubbing was largely good, after the momentary disgust of being specked with fine, rolled black shavings of my own dead skin. After I was doused with ladles of hot water to clean off, my skin felt smoother and softer than it's felt in years, and radiated with a healthy reddish glow. I still insist that the job of “scrubber”—though probably not desirable in any conceivable way—must be one of the most bizarre and unique in the world. On the women's side, I hear it's done by a woman dressed solely in a bra and panties, violently heaving and scrubbing up-and-down one's body. Though we are fortunate to have showers in our own homes, it's still a treat to go to the bathhouse. Labor is cheap in China, so it doesn't cost much of anything, but the real appeal lies in ever-expanding my comfort zone. And who knows, by the time I get back to the states, maybe those group showers in Harkness won't seem so scary after all.

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Day 12: Stranger Things Have Happened

Monday, November 22, 2010

Oberlin students are notorious for their awkwardness. Take any social gathering and you'll find it nearly impossible to escape a conversation with someone who has either been home-schooled for too long or has never once communicated with a member of the opposite sex. I, too, am spared no exception from this judgment. No doubt we Oberlin folk flocked to the same place because somewhere in our collective subconscious we knew we'd find people who would accept us—criminally awkward and all. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would actually discover a place more socially awkward than even Oberlin. That place, dear readers, is Taigu, China.

As foreigners, we're used to being daily spectacles. The unfortunate downside, though, is that most of the attention we get is unwanted—leaving us powerless to stop it without coming off as jerks. Take Kevin, who creepily watched us play Frisbee all last year without ever saying a word—convincing each of us that he was the other's student (he wasn't). Or Hawk, who, as her name suggests, preys on foreigners like a vulturous animal—sporting beady eyes and a pointy beak of a nose to boot. At the entrance to the main teaching building, she once famously cackled, “I love you, teacher!” before latching herself into Alexandra's side like a lesion. Or Cassidy, an older Taigu native, who has a bizarre fascination with Oberlin Shansi and a hard time understanding when he's overstayed his welcome.

We first met "Hawk" (right) at this year's annual Halloween party.  Under a clever disguise of silly string and colored markers, she had Alexandra convinced that she was one of her English majors (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

There are also a handful of non-students who insist on coming to my classes. Though most are polite and sit quietly in the back, I still get the usual slew of loudmouths and chafes. One has apparently studied abroad in New Orleans and uses every opportunity to stress how close he came to actually seeing New York. Another calls himself “Bank,” and as one of the student leaders of the “English Enthusiasts” club on campus, he is one of the biggest infractors on my personal well-being. When pressed about his English name, he had this to say: “Because there is money inside.” So much for subtlety.

Still, it's hard to distinguish between actual curiosity and excitement, psychological instability, and the downright opportunistic. On Halloween Day, a rowdy group of four or five students stopped by my house—surely attracted by the pumpkins that lined our porch—and asked me to teach them about American holidays. A guy we've nicknamed “Rando” first visited the house last week, asking for nothing more than genuine friendship. Were we too jaded to pick them out from the dozens of other requests we've received, or were they just more convincing than the rest? Chinese people would never do these things to each other, so why does it feel like the rules are different for us?

The irony of it all is that they're not alone. The only difference between them and the thousands of other students on campus is that they actually have the guts to approach us. Every student wishes they could talk with foreigners, but only a select few have the compunction to risk getting shot down. And the sad truth is that we're all in this together. We've become a magnet for freaks, weirdos, misfits, geeks, and sociopaths perhaps because they feel like we can empathize with them—that we are all performing animals in this crazy zoo of a world. Furthermore, it's hard for us to make deep connections with Chinese friends too, probably because they're thinking the same things about us. Still, it's not going to stop me from readying myself before I open my front door.

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Day 11: A Soliloquy for Singles Day

Thursday, November 11, 2010

No matter where you fall on the relationship spectrum, today might very well mark the loneliest day of the year. November 11th, with two sets of “ones” in the date, is celebrated nationally in China as Singles Day. With a population of over a billion, you have to expect that China has both the largest number of couples and single people of any other nation in the world. And where the former gets Valentine's Day—a holdover from Western globalization—weddings, and anniversaries, today is the sole acknowledgment of the latter.

Legend has it that the pop culture holiday began in the mid-1990s by a group of Nanjing University students who have since carried their tradition into mainstream society. Traditionally, singles eat a big meal together—either to commiserate or celebrate their singleness—but pay their own way to show their independence. Though the holiday isn't celebrated outside of China, it may be gaining increased prominence on the mainland. According to a recent study, more than 24 million Chinese men could find themselves without spouses by 2020. But as it turns out, most people relish the single life. Another survey conducted by zhaopin.com found that 70% of married office workers in Beijing miss being single. In an informal study conducted in my own classes, I've noticed a similar trend.

The speech bubble reads, “November 11th, how will we celebrate our Singles Day?”  The brown-looking thing to the left of the bottle of baijiu is called youtiao, a deep-fried dough stick that is customarily eaten on the holiday because of its likeness to the number one (comic strip courtesy of Xin Hua News).

In honor of the holiday, I am mid-way through a relationship unit for all of my graduate classes. I started it last week by going over the requisite vocabulary and asking my students about dating customs in China. Most of their answers were not all that surprising—ideal qualities as far as partners go were almost identical to American sentiments, dating a friend's ex was seen as off-limits, and most found cheating sufficient grounds for breaking up. Nothing was that surprising, save, ironically, for the act of dating itself. As compared to Americans, Chinese are late-bloomers, with most young people only breaking into the dating scene until after college. Blind dates are the most common form of dating, followed closely by online dating and arranged dates set-up by one's parents. Physical intimacy is rare but not uncommon due to the lack of privacy, but rumor has it that the winter months see the greatest number of abortions on campus.

Don't get me wrong, Chinese students are just as sex-crazed and libido-driven as Americans—the only difference is they have a much harder time expressing it. College becomes a veritable “Mecca of Love” for Chinese students after having to put up with overprotective parents who remain prudish about sex education and strictly forbid all attempts at romance. With China's one-child only policy in full force, it is becoming increasingly hard to find love in a society of singles. And while some bask in the freedom of being single, others can only find solace in the comradely league of bachelors that offer small comforts of belonging.

Following up on my dating norms discussion, I thought I'd try something different—by having my students write mock “dating profiles” to be used for a round of in-class speed dating. I was impressed with their creativity. When I jokingly asked them at the end if any of them found true love, students feigned shock, having had to choose between 11-year old girls with children, 65-year old retired grandfathers, and female police officers who like boxing. Though I meant the activity simply as a fun exercise, there were some who looked like they could have been making real connections across the seated divide. I look forward to the day when they might eventually have me to thank as matchmaker.

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Day 10: Lights, Camera, History

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

At first glance, Taigu might seem like an unlikely place to shoot a movie. As a township, it could be any number of small, obsolete, coal towns that litter most of northern China. The landscape, though theoretically quite majestic, is perpetually blanketed under a thick layer of dust and smog. And even as pure countryside, there is too much construction and renovation going on in the city center to make it truly convincing. The hidden gem comes, ironically, in the very campus where we live and work. SAU is among some of the only institutions in China left unaffected by the blind wrath of the Cultural Revolution, so much of its ancient architecture is still intact. It's an incredibly remarkable feat that the buildings here—some dating back to the late 1800s—have stood the test of time.

This fact, coupled with Taigu's general obscurity, have made SAU a compelling spot for film directors scouting for locations to shoot period-piece films on pre-Communist China. On the weekends, it's not all that surprising to find a gigantic film trailer stuffed full of gear and equipment sitting near the entrance to North Yard. I've seen about a half-dozen film crews in the time that I've been in Taigu alone—replete with dapper suited actors and resplendent actresses dressed in qipao—but none more alarming than the seemingly paranormal appearance of three 1950s-era Oldsmobiles at the front of the old library a couple of weeks ago. But well-known movie production houses aren't the only ones getting their directing chops in Taigu. In fact, the student film club at SAU writes, acts in, and directs one movie every year, often utilizing points of interest on campus. Last year's effort was called Campus Agents.

A promotional poster for Campus Agents.  It's too bad the movie was nowhere near as cool as what it was made out to be.

The club had the trailer blasting on-loop for two weeks by the cafeteria before we eventually inquired about the movie and left holding six tickets to see it the following weekend for the campus premier. Though it was entirely in Chinese without subtitles, the plot of the movie was easy enough to navigate. The first five minutes, like the trailer, showed a great deal of promise—students clad in militia gear wielding firearms and staking out positions around a large factory before delving into a full-scale dogfight. But unfortunately for the largely student audience, the rest of the inaptly-titled film quickly devolved into a campy, pseudo-romantic comedy. As foreigners, we thought we'd incorporate a bit of American culture into the movie-watching process by bringing the Chinese equivalent of 40s into the lecture hall where the film was being screened. Gerald, as the snarky film snob that he is, led us all in a drinking game where we'd take a shot every time something was shot badly—from forgetting to use a noise-canceling mic to the lack of muzzle flares on the guns. Needless to say, Dave had to leave halfway through the movie to buy another round.

One of the ancient buildings in SAU's “old campus,” formerly commissioned by H. H. Kung.

But of all the great shooting locations at SAU, the most significant architectural feat is undoubtedly the “old campus” located in the far north. It was built by H. H. Kung who founded the school with a group of Oberlin missionaries in 1907 and is credited with fostering the relationship between the two universities. At the time, he was the richest man in China and dedicated many of the structures on campus to his family. Many of the old buildings have since been converted into administrative offices, but the courtyards are still quite beautiful to walk through. Kung's legacy is steeped in institutional memory—so perhaps one day someone will finally return to make a movie about him.

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Day 9: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In China, censorship is the country's best-kept secret. According to Wikipedia, Internet repression in China is considered more advanced than in any other country in the world, cited, chiefly, as a way to guard against the threat of social organizing and the spread of discordant political ideology. Certainly before I came to China, it was a concern that weighed heavily on my mind. I envisioned a bleak 1984-esque state where Big Brother, re-imagined as the Chinese government, spied on my every dissenting move up until my eventual “disappearance.” Of the news that reaches America from across the Pacific, interest in Chinese censorship a la the so-called “Great Firewall of China” is only eclipsed by the paralyzing fear that China's economy will overtake ours in the next ten to twenty years.

None has been a more recent reminder of this than the news that broke a month ago of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo receiving this year's Nobel Peace Prize. For those who are unfamiliar with him, allow me to give a brief recap. Liu has spent more than two decades advocating peaceful political change in the face of relentless hostility on the part of the ruling CCP, beginning with a hunger strike during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. His most recent arrest came at the hands of a manifesto he helped pen called Charter '08 demanding democratic reform that would end the CCP's monopoly on power. But headlines of his remarkable achievement were nowhere to be found in Chinese state media—people were unable to send text messages containing the characters of his name, and international news junkets like CNN were blacked out mid-way through transmission.

Protesters outside the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong on Friday, demanding the release of Liu Xiaobo (photo courtesy of the New York Times).

Living in America and only hearing about the vague concept of censorship and actually experiencing it first-hand are two very different things. It's amazing how many of the websites that most Americans use everyday—including Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, WordPress, and (until recently) Wikipedia—are censored here in China. To its credit, however, China has done an amazing job of drumming up enormous user support for its own government-monitored imitations of the same websites in response. I would guess that there are literally thousands of sites that are blocked in China, with more being added to the blacklist every day.

But despite what would seem like an enormous loss of personal freedom, I understand too how people here have come to accept it. If you only ever heard one news source, you wouldn't know any better than to accept it as the truth. It's as if a padded cell has been built around you, full of all the information you need to feel sated. In the days of TV, radio, and newspapers, the Chinese government was able to exercise nearly 100% control over what got published, but it is truly the advent of the Internet that is changing the game. If China knew how to control the Internet like it does more traditional media, there is little question that it would.

At the hands of unavoidable international fire, China unprecedentedly issued its own statement about Liu Xiaobo, calling him, the “West’s tool” who seeks to “destroy the progress of Chinese society and the welfare of the Chinese people.” While most Chinese will never question that assessment, many, including the younger generation, are increasingly leery of the government and are continuing to find creative outlets—as we are—to elude censorship restrictions and uncover the truth. Especially after hearing outrage from some of my own students over these sentiments, it doesn't seem long before China must confront its most ineffable skeleton in the closet.

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Day 8: The Lighter Side of Stardom

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sometimes people ask me, “Daniel, if you could trade places with anyone in the world for one day, who would it be?” Honestly, I find it hard to answer that question. I can't think of a single person I'd rather be.

If you're like me, you're all too familiar with the high price of celebrity. My ascent to the A-list stratosphere was never paved—it took hard work, incredible talent, and my decision to move to a rural town in a foreign country where there are no other people like me. Doing my daily rounds on campus must be the way Bon Jovi feels at the supermarket. The persistent double-takes, hushed whispers, and jaw-dropping stares have resulted in crippling insecurity, abject fear of the public spotlight, and my recent decision to renounce all material possessions to live a hermit life in the Catskills. I guess that's what they call “the cost of fame.”

I can't even finish a game of basketball without someone offering me a complimentary bottle of water as if to thank me for the privilege of watching me play. It's exhausting really. Cell phone camera photos are the worst. There I am at dinner, ready to roll my tongue over a thick, juicy stick of chuanr, when I hear the unmistakable click of a camera shutter at the next table over. Let's see you try and sell that one to Us Weekly, pervert.

People always seem to want me to do something—sing a song, say a few words in Chinese, give them one-on-one English lessons for free at my house. Who am I—the Godfather? And what is this—my little girl's wedding reception? Oh, I'm sorry, I left my accordion and my tiny dancing monkey back at the house. Just kidding, I don't own an accordion. For occasions like this, I might as well carry around a tip jar. Sure, I already pull in a four-figure salary, but it doesn't hurt to make a little extra money on the side.

Take a couple weeks ago, for instance, when I got a call from Wendy Wang. She calls me at night from time to time when she's bored and there's no one to talk to online. That's what I call connecting with my fans. I met her in March when all of the foreigners went to see the Shanxi Zhongyu play their last home basketball game of the season in Taiyuan. She works as a sports journalist and befriended us after the game. She called to say that she desperately needed my help with something. Apparently, she wanted to write an article about the foreign community in Taigu and needed to interview me so that she could complete her assignment without getting fired. Now that's a cause I can get behind.  I've always considered myself a man of the people.

Wendy's article was actually published under the “Education” header in the October 21st issue of the Shanxi Daily, a newspaper covering the region's news.  It talks about how we as foreign teachers discuss the cultural differences between China and the West in class, and in our spare time, exemplify those shared differences with a mixture of Chinese and American food that we cook together with Chinese friends and students. In the picture from left to right: James, Alma (a former student), me, Ray (one of the new Fellows), Gerald, and Crystal (another former student who gave me a copy of this article).

For the price of dinner at a modest restaurant, I also do speeches, lectures, and improv comedy. Yesterday I played a full house—over 200 people, all there to watch me speak. I got the gig from my Chinese tutor, Francis, who wanted someone else to teach his classes this week. He thought it might be entertaining to have a foreigner up there for his students to gawk at for an hour. All of the other foreign teachers said they were “too busy,” which meant that I got top-billing. I told him that he was lucky he booked me in advance. On weekday nights I'm usually too busy lying semi-comatose in a pool of my own urine, but I told him I'd make an exception in this case. After all, I have to prepare myself for a weekend of heavy drinking.

Francis' 200-student specialized English class that I taught at his behest on Monday.  I did a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation on OSCA to give the students a sense of one of the most unique student organizations at Oberlin, followed by a Q&A session.  It was probably the biggest crowd I had ever talked in front of in my life.

It hardly mattered what I talked about—I could tell the kids were riveted. Usually when I ask something in class, students simply repeat it back to me instead of answering it. I don't blame them. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. By the time I took questions from the audience, I could barely keep the same three volunteers in their seats. After my lecture, I posed for photo-ops and signed no less than four standard-size composition notebooks as well as a manila folder. One girl even asked me to sign the exposed area between her neck and her chest, but I politely refused. “You're not that pretty, sweetheart,” I told her, just before setting off into the sunset.

So, to answer your question, no, I don't ever wish I were less famous. The life of a superstar is a difficult one, but those are the brakes that society has told us are desirable in a person. Even the guys at the pool asked if I wanted to get my skin scrubbed with them at the bathhouse—their treat. It's truly flattering. But I just don't have that kind of time.

*

Just in case it's not painfully obvious, this is a parody, in the vain of McSweeney's and other similar internet tendency.  And for those sticklers out there, it also exceeds my project-allotted 600-word limit by 200 words.

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Day 7: I Only Eat Tree Leaves!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It's autumn here at SAU, and the leaves have started their yearly descent. It also means that every class of undergrads has been assigned to one week of mandatory community service—delegated to raking leaves, weeding, and picking up trash around campus. The foreigners have theorized that it's not an effort on the part of the school to cut grounds crew costs (God knows labor is cheap in China), but rather, to give students a healthy work ethic, something that Oberlin, despite its “learning and labor” founding, could do more to foster. But the problem doesn't lie in who picks up the leaves, but in how they dispose of them afterward.

Once swept up and gathered in large blankets, the leaves are deposited in campus dumpsters and mixed in with plastic, paper, and other trash that is later burned in small open fires on campus. The resulting toxic dioxin contributes to local air pollution and the collective discomfort that comes with simply attempting to breath after 5pm. Of course, the most logical solution would be to compost the leaves. Even the school's administration is in favor of the idea, but is so mired in bureaucracy that it has never done anything to change. That was, until James had something to say about it. Last fall, he cleared a small, hidden patch adjacent to Gerald and Dave's old house and, with the help of our Chinese tutor Francis and a couple friends and students, constructed a modest-sized compost bin out of bamboo, string, and mesh netting to use as a test subject.

James turning the compost.  The small placard on the front of the bin reads, “I only eat tree leaves!” in Chinese as a way to discourage people from contaminating it with other waste (photo courtesy of James Barnard).

From there, things began progressing fast. While we all began to use the compost pile for disposing food scraps, James gave a couple of lectures on campus about the compost project and quickly became involved with a student organization called “Sons of the Farmers.” They agreed to work with him to collect more leaves through an extensive network of volunteers. True to their word, 30 students came that weekend to help construct a spawn of smaller bins to be placed at strategic locations around campus as a way to divert the conventional leaf-flow. In the spring following the big winter freeze, James convinced the new crop of weed-pickers and lawn-mowers to add their natural waste to the compost pile too, in the hopes that the introduction of nitrogen would help it to decompose into soil faster.

Many hands make light work.  One of the "bin-making parties" that took place last semester in an effort to get more students involved in the composting project (photo courtesy of James Barnard).

This semester James hasn't let up in his efforts. He leads weekly teams of students to move leaves from the remote collection bins to the main pile, as well as to a nearby research garden where a professor has given him the go-ahead to bring in an unlimited amount of leaves to be composted. He has been able to use his foreign “celebrity” to its most meaningful end—by recognizing a problem, understanding that he needs help, and having enough star power to create real change. By building the infrastructure and fostering leadership in the student body for the project, his goal is to move the school in a more sustainable direction even after he has gone. He said himself that, “It seems to me that people who are environmentalists should try to solve problems wherever they live. We all share the same planet, so we need to think about solutions in every part of the world.”

It's sometimes hard to feel as if you're the only person doing anything to make a difference, but really, it's just what we as Oberlin students have been told all along: Think one person can change Taigu? So do we.

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Day 6: A Tale of Two Mooncakes

Saturday, November 6, 2010

As any Mainland Chinese will tell you, things are just different in the south.  Before I came to China, I never realized the enormous divide between the polar halves. In fact, one of the only pieces of information I knew before arriving—and was consequently devastated to discover—was that rice is actually only a staple in the south and northern cuisine is more famous for its noodles. As it turns out, food is just the tip of the iceberg. If I were to make large, sweeping, generalizations for a minute, I would say that the stereotypes often associated with the north and south of America are flipped in China. Higher levels in education, standard of living, and overall wealth are attributed to the south, whereas much of the north is seen as farmland full of hicks with funny accents. What's more, all of China's current leadership is from the south and southern cities are well-known for their industry and rapid pace of development.

James attributes this largely to weather—that because the growing season is longer in the south where the weather is warmer, over time a wealthier culture has evolved. As most people know, the Chinese side of my family is originally from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, more commonly known as Canton in the states. While I'm sure to talk more about my identity in other posts, one of the things that struck me at the time I decided to come to China was that I would finally be able to connect with my Chinese half and reconcile the divide that has plagued mixed-bloods since the dawn of colonization. But to make a long story short, living in Taigu feels so far from my preconceived conception of “China” already that I may as well be living in another country. The best way for me to articulate these differences has been through mooncakes.

Northern and southern-style mooncakes.  I'll let you guess which is which.

Mooncakes come in a variety of textures and fillings, but the most iconic are the ones that are soft and thin, filled with either lotus bean paste or preserved duck egg yolk, and are traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival. While southern mooncakes are the sweet globules of chewy, rich goodness most indicative of the mooncakes we have stateside, northern mooncakes are of another breed entirely. Northern mooncakes are wide and flat, and have a thick, flaky crust more suggestive of a puff pastry or a tart shell. Instead of sweet bean paste on the inside, they are stuffed with a filling of salty meat seasoned with spices and Goji berries for sweetness. The taste was initially hard to get used to—more savory than sweet, and better likened to a quiche or a pot pie crust than a dessert.

A box of southern-style mooncakes, gifted to me by what will surely be an A-student this semester.

During the Mid-Autumn Day festivities, I was up to my eyeballs in mooncakes. Most were gifts from students that I was hard-pressed to pass up, including a decadent box of southern-style mooncakes in ornate Chinese packaging. But I was most surprised when Crystal, a Chinese friend of mine, brought over a bag of mooncakes that her grandmother had freshly made. Eating the two kinds side-by-side put things in perspective for me—for all my nay-saying about the north, it was just like the mooncakes themselves, straightforward and understated, whereas the southern one's felt like they had something to hide. Their sweet, tasty core was coated beneath a glossy veneer of delicate lettering and served inside a packaged trim. Though I grew up eating southern mooncakes and still find them to be the best, I can't say that I have been hard put at the experience of trying something new.

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Day 5: The Heart, Not the Steel

Friday, November 5, 2010

Weight-lifting sometimes gets a bad reputation. But despite the unfounded stereotypes that often get associated with it—that people who regularly work-out are unintelligent, narcissistic, fanatical, insecure, or simply addicted to steroids—I am not ashamed to say that I have a bizarre fascination with the sport. In fact, it's been such a distinct part of me that at every major, life-changing juncture since entering Oberlin, I have written about it. And so, given that it's been a year for me in Taigu already, this post is long overdue.

During my first semester at SAU, I was disappointed to learn that there wasn't anything in the way of a dedicated weight room on campus. It was only until March, when Nick heard word that there may be a place with a couple of barbells and weight plates, that we had renewed faith. After a grueling and ultimately fruitless talk with a couple of employees, we decided to do a little snooping ourselves, and eventually found a “body-building room” among a row of smaller, unnamed complexes past the edge of the track.

James demonstrates how to ride a bike and do dumbbell curls simultaneously in the SAU weight room.

The inside is nothing to write home about. In fact, it's probably the sorriest excuse for a weight room I've ever seen—charcoal-covered benches, dilapidated foam mats, and weight plates that look as if they've been deep-fried in rust. If you so much as tug on the locking bolt at either end of the barbell, you can actually separate it from the bar, and past sundown, there's only the faint beam from a single, dangling bulb that illuminates about a quarter of the floor. But bare-bones or not, it's a weight room all the same. And although it is only officially open to the track team on campus, the coach has been kind enough to accommodate us, even going so far as to give us a copy of the key to use after hours. Each time we go, there seems to be less fascination with us dressed in tank-tops and shorts in 40° weather.

But the track team is full of characters in their own right. We don't know any of their real names, so for practicality's sake, we've attributed names to them based on their physical appearance. There are our two main protagonists—Big and Little Rippy—both of whom are “ripped.” There's Twan, named after Gwendolyn's brother in “Trapped in the Closet,” who famously remarked that, “I don't have a Chinese body, I'm stronger than them!” And then there are lesser-known bit players—“ugly shorts guy,” “poser strength,” and shot put ringer “Andre the Giant,” the most enormous Chinese man I've ever seen. A couple of girls have yet to undergo the demeaning name treatment—one, who excels in the high jump, and another half my size, who I once saw—much to my simultaneous shock and excitement—squat with 135 pounds on her back.

Yours truly, getting ready to do a squat.

The track team at SAU reminds me of The Mighty Ducks—a little scrappy, a tad eccentric, but ultimately, pretty decent. The same came be said of the weight room itself. Ironically, while it may be the worst-looking weight room I've ever been to, it's the one I've been most diligent about going to every week. Having a workout partner in James who is as committed as I am has been great motivation as we continue the same four-days-a-week alternating chest/arms and legs/back schedule that I started with Nick and Dave last year. The best part of it all? After our work-out, we treat ourselves to banana-yogurt protein shakes, all while reveling in the slow after-burn of endorphins.

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Day 4: I Love a Girl in Uniform

Thursday, November 4, 2010

There are few things more enticing than a woman in uniform—or, at least, that's what American culture seems to suggest. From the scintillating covers of men's magazines to the racy costumes sold at Ricky's, we as men are led to believe that women have donned nurse's uniforms and maid's outfits for non-professional callings since the dawn of time. However, there is one uniform in particular that doesn't get the attention it deserves—military fatigues. Something about a woman wielding heavy artillery, dodging bullets, and ducking from explosives just doesn't appeal to the male psyche in the same way. Maybe in our stubbornness we find it emasculating to see women doing “man's work,” or, simply, we can't stand to see women in dangerous, combative situations, unless they involve jello pudding or a jacuzzi.

A procession of female student-soldiers (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

In China, however, military fatigues are less sexy than they are practical. At every Chinese university, first-year students are forced to participate in mandatory military training. Spanning from the end of August until mid-October of every student's freshmen year, students spend 8-10 hours a day marching, doing drills, and generally getting indoctrinated into the military culture. They miss about two months of academic classes as a result, meaning that I didn't start teaching this year's crop of first-year English majors until a month-and-a-half after teaching for all of my other classes had begun. When I first heard of this practice, I figured that there would be significant push-back on the part of the students. After all, forced military training at almost any college in America would not happen without a fight. But according to former students and friends that I've talked to about the training, most have incredibly fond memories. The fact that it forces community and gives students an experience to share together makes them feel more connected to their fellow first-years. Practically no one, they said, flatly refused to take part.

While military training does involve practicing hand-to-hand combat as well as the use of real rifles and guns (albeit, without bullets), most of the effort is placed on raising a nationalist ethos. The most important part of military training in China is to instill love for one's country, and the first step in that process is to create a community of young, dough-eyed first-years rallying around the cause to ensure the strength, longevity, and continued development of the Chinese state. Most of the drills are aimed at repeating and committing to memory snippets of nationalist propaganda, in addition to watching patriotic (read: historically-inaccurate) war movies. All of these efforts factor into the reason why the People's Liberation Army (PLA), despite being entirely volunteer-driven, is the largest standing army in the world.

Students practice military formations at the small track from sun-up to sun-down (photo courtesy of Crystal Chang).

The students' daily presence at SAU has left a deep impression—scores of military-clad teenagers chanting slogans and marching in unison in and around the athletic tracks. It's all a bit unnerving, but most of the vantage and fear often associated with the military is neutralized due to the age of the soldiers—most barely look old enough to start a fight, resembling, at best, actors in a period-piece or trick-or-treaters on Halloween. They still go about their daily lives in uniform, so it's not uncommon to see groups of them sitting on tiny stools at outdoor restaurants or carrying big thermoses of hot water back to their dorms. In some ways, there is a loss of innocence involved in the pace with which they've had to grow up. But when you see their fatigues hanging alongside the rest of their laundry from their balcony windows, you know that deep down, they are still just students.

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Day 3: God Is Not in China

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

China has an interesting relationship with religion. As far as the government is concerned, atheism is the official religion of the People's Republic and most people don't believe in God—so it's not even that culturally insensitive to call the Chinese a bunch of godless heathens. After all, God isn't the effusive staple in China as it is in America, evidenced by our national currency and our “one nation, under God”-state of allegiance. That notwithstanding, however, the Chinese constitution does state that its citizens are free to practice any religion they choose. What it neglects to mention is that this so-called “freedom of religion” only exists so long as the government still gets to decide what does and does not pass for appropriate.

Recently, a group of 35 students were arrested and taken into custody by the Taigu police after getting caught reading the Gospels in a rented hotel room in SAU's North Yard. All of the students were tried and forced to pay a hefty penalty as punishment in addition to vowing no longer to continue practicing Christianity on campus. Apparently, this sort of practice is not uncommon. Though theoretically by law all people have the right to worship their own God, there is a loop-hole in the constitution—churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues need to get explicit permission from the government to hold religious services. All non-state sponsored forms of religion are strictly forbidden in China. Without certification from the state, they are operating unlawfully and punishable by the full force of the law. As an individual, simply owning a Bible can be grounds for police intervention.

Exhibit A: a bilingual Bible.

It's interesting, then, the culture that has unwittingly been built around religion. Students throw around “Oh my God” at least as much as we foreigners do, and in skits and performances for class, there is almost always a redemptive scene where someone goes to Heaven to ask God for advice. Favoring the generally safer topic of religious difference, I have never explicitly taught religion in class, fearing what may come of me and the school's relationship with Shansi if word got out to the higher-ups. So I was surprised when Rafe, one of my students from last year, approached me after class one day, curious to learn more about Christianity. Though I read most of the New Testament in 6th grade, I must confess that I haven't picked up the (good) book since. But knowing that my roommate James is a practicing Christian, I directed Rafe in his direction.

I don't think it would be giving too much away to say that my Chinese tutor is also Christian. He and James have held Bible studies (albeit, secretly) at the house and have been to the state-sanctioned church in town. James doesn't go very often, sighting the heavy amount of propaganda, and, most discouragingly, the constant hawking and spitting in the pews during services. It would appear that even the House That God Built wasn't ready for China. Recently, another former student of mine, Fred, asked to borrow his Bible, and James relented, swearing Fred to secrecy as he did Rafe. Two weeks later, Fred returned late one night with the Bible in tow.
Fred: “James, I wanted to return your Bible.”
James: “It's alright Fred, you can return it to me tomorrow.”
Fred: “No, I've kept it for too long, I want to give it to you now.” Beat. “I've read it.”
James: “Read it? You mean, like, all of it?”
Fred: “Yes.” Beat. “I have some questions to ask you.”

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Day 2: It's a Mad, Mad World

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I've been feeling an awful lot like Donald Draper lately. Maybe all of this incessant Mad Men watching has gone to my head, or maybe I'm just inventing a more exciting life for myself to escape the Taigu grind, but either way, the drama is quickly becoming the biggest thing since Desperate Housewives. It's been interesting watching the men from the show in action—irresistible and yet simultaneously nonchalant in all of their sexual dealings, wielding incredible power due to their status, and, most of all, completely unaffected by how their actions complicate and oftentimes hurt the lives of the people closest to them. I can't say that I've exactly taken up these character traits myself, but they've certainly been wearing away at my mental defenses.

For one thing, I've been reveling in being the target of a woman’s desire. In China, as in most of East Asia, simply being foreign is enough. No longer is there the explicit need to be savvy, smart, good-looking, or even well-off (that one they assume about you from the get-go). If you are vaguely white and speak English, you are the proverbial golden ticket. Not surprisingly, though, this fills me with equal parts dread and disgust, in the same way that “yellow fever” makes me want to take out my trusty Oberlin CAS lens and analyze it to pieces. It's not to say that these kind of relationships can't be valid in their own way, and there is certainly the argument that a few otakus in Japan ruined it for foreigners everywhere, but any relationship based solely around the projecting of one's own stereotypes and preconceptions on another culture seems to me inherently flawed.

What would Donald Draper say about all of this?  Frankly, probably not a whole lot (photo courtesy of TV Fanatic).

As far as I can tell, relationships are tricky enough in Taigu as it is. Students barely have enough privacy to use the bathroom, let alone try to have an intimate, physical relationship with another person. Most of the time, those sexual urges manifest themselves in chilly late-night make-out sessions in the so-called “Lover's Forest,” where shining a light to navigate the darkness sometimes means silently agreeing to a manage-a-trios. If we were all to believe the stereotypes about China, young people get together for the sole purpose of constituting a marriage, family plays a central role when choosing a potential mate, love is weighed as equally as money, and divorce might as well be social suicide. But like all things, the reality of the situation is much more nuanced. A lot of students I've talked to are just as apprehensive about marriage as I am, believe that it is preferable to live together with your partner before taking your nuptials, and—get this—have no interest in marrying a foreigner.

Nevertheless, I feel in Taigu that because of my “exoticism” as a halfie—making me just familiar and just foreign enough—I get a lot of unsolicited attention—attention that I am not ashamed to have doted on me. It all goes to your head sometimes. But for me, that's as far as it gets. As tiring as it is getting called “handsome” on a daily basis by at least a couple of young, attractive females, I know that a year from now when I'm basking in re-entry culture shock, that salutation will be sorely missed. So for now, I am giving them my best Don Draper—the smooth, silent-type who can manage a board room in his sleep, incite pangs of envy everywhere he walks, and drive the women wild with his smile. Taigu, eat your heart out.

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Day 1: Cruel and Unusually Tacky Punishment

Monday, November 1, 2010

Being woken up at 7:30 on a Saturday morning is one thing.  But being woken up by ear-splitting muzak driven from a musical fountain about thirty yards from your window at 7:30 on a Saturday morning is something else entirely.

When the Office spoke excitedly about the musical fountain's new addition to SAU's campus last fall, the mood was unanimously optimistic.  It was a big investment on the part of the school—a fountain about the size and scope of that opposite Radio City Music Hall in New York's Midtown, featuring speakers the height of vending machines and dozens of jets of colored water that set off like fireworks to the tune of each song.  It's not to say that the school couldn't have used that money on other, more-pressing concerns, like mitigating 200-person lectures to more manageable class sizes, or renovating scores of over-capacity and under-inspected student dormitories on campus.  But we all agreed that it had enormous potential and would go a long way in helping to beautify the area of campus between the old-style foreigner living quarters and the more-modern English majors building.

The musical fountain on campus, its noon-time clear-spray jets in full force.

That was until we heard it.  Freshmen orientation at SAU, much like that at Oberlin, involves brightly-colored banners, local businesses tabling for new cell phone plans and bank accounts (with unbelievable incentives!), and a procession of bright-eyed first-years toting over-sized luggage to their new dormitories.  What Oberlin doesn't have is a soundtrack to narrate such surroundings.  Beginning at 7:30 and continuing at a stretch with only minimal breaks every three or four hours until sundown, the musical fountain churned out an exalting playlist of no more than eight or nine MIDI-inspired remixes of songs on loop that, truth be told, don't even sound that good as originals.  It was like this awful Catch-22—leaving the house only intensified the volume of the music, but being inside wasn't enough to drown it out to any suitable degree.  It may have been the first time in my life when locking myself indoors no longer passed as a feasible escape plan. 
Hearing each song close to 40 times made memorizing the entire line-up quite effortless (especially when compared with actually listening through them):

Kenny G - “Forever in Love”
Stevie Wonder - “I Just Called to Say I Love You”
Selena - “I Could Fall in Love”
Celine Dion - “My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme from “Titanic”)”
Ray Orbison - “Pretty Woman”
Henry Mancini - “Moon River”
Wham! -  “Careless Whisper”
Kenny G - “Going Home”
Like the worst day at the dentist's office or the longest possible elevator ride, so too did orientation weekend come to pass here at SAU.  If they had only decided to vary the set-list slightly—even with songs that were equally stomach-churning—it would have truly been a godsend.  I felt like Alex in a newly-imagined A Clockwork Orange—ears fixed to my reverberating windows, blood boiling from the relentless saccharine refrains just beyond my control.  More than once I contemplated sneaking into the tech booth with a wire cutter and shorting the power on that brazenly-expensive piece of equipment.  It just seemed to confirm what I already knew about China—that the concept of privacy is less an afterthought than it is a fantasy and individuals, whether they like it or not, will eventually succumb to the will of authority.  At the end of the day, there was a part of me that absolutely despised it all.  And a part that found me transfixed and wanting more.

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