Day 2 Friday, July 1, 2011
When I taught high school English I used to tell my students that English has so many wonderful words that they should try to refrain from using bad, mad, sad, & glad. But sometimes, it works.
People like to say that relationships are very important in Chinese culture, and you cannot get things done easily without them. It is also frequently mentioned that losing face is a terrible thing in Asian culture. When I lived here however, I came to see how artificial some of these descriptions are. For example I know that connections are often pretty important in America for finding work, or getting into the right group, school, club, social circle. (I also know very few-take that back-no Americans who enjoy being embarrassed. Therefore descriptions of people seem to fall short; I rather tend to notice the similarities of the human condition as connected to our Creator, and the fact that we are made in His image. The need and desire for relationship is a common concept that transcends culture. The differences between cultures are merely habits formed out of necessity, in response to geography, climate, political conditions, economics, history, conflict, and family structures. The more I lived among the Chinese, the more I found this to be true. When I didn’t understand some of the differences, I tried to think of things about my own culture that they found baffling. There were plenty, as I came to find out.
On that note, I have to say that yesterday was such a mix of fun and sorrow. The fun first. We went to the Harvest Café, a coffee shop that was our first Western food/coffee/Internet place to hang out in Tianjin. It was close enough for us to walk to or ride our bikes so we went there a lotta bit as my nephew Clark used to say. I also had spent time there teaching the cook how to bake several different cakes, and really enjoyed that. I recall how strange it was to share the frosting recipe that I got from the mom of one of my old Immaculate Conception High School friends, with the Chinese cook, in this tiny whole in the wall kitchen in Tianjin, China, without speaking a work of English.
We didn’t have Internet in our apartment, so we were eager to get to the Harvest cafe and connect. We wanted to let our family know that we had arrived, and we wanted to chat with the owner, an old friend. When ordering our coffee I noticed Paul Park Toffee Coffee up on the menu, and smiled. Paul was one of my Korean students (duh), and apparently had frequented the place often enough to have a drink named after him. We chatted with Natalie and Pres in a four way Skype chat that could have easily occurred at the kitchen table at home. Nothing major was discussed, just enjoying connecting as a family. Then it was off to the school where we both had worked.
We visited with old friends, ate in the school lunch room, and I reconnected with the school’s cook, Xiao Shi. When I lived there we used to cook together and I was his go to person for finding new Western recipes that could be used in the cafeteria. He wanted to learn some new recipes, so a few of us chatted a bit in Chinese and English about what was needed menu wise. It was one of those 75-25 Chinese/English split conversations that we foreigners who are survival level Mandarin speakers must resort to, but the Chinese staff were so patient with us. It was decided that we needed to make pork bbq, cheeseburgers, enchiladas, and fajitas. We browsed through our old company cook book to find some recipes, and I found what looked like a good pork bbq recipe from many years ago. Then I noticed it was my own recipe and was surprised. This is what it is like to get old young people. (My kids like to tease me by saying that they will play Season One of Law & Order over and over for me in the nursing home, as I won’t realize that I have already seen it.) I smiled as I saw the recipes of many of my old China friends, most of whom have returned to the States. Although the Chinese cook had access to this and many other cookbooks, he did not know the people who shared their recipes, nor did he know if a particular recipe was a good one, and if it was something that the students would actually enjoy. In other words he did not relate much to this wonderful cookbook, but having a connection to an American cook who was familiar with both the women and their recipes would help unpack its delights.
A bit later our school administrator mentioned that Xiao Shi wanted to perfect his biscuit making skills. I had taught him how a few years ago, but the cook said that he had not yet mastered the art. It took this Pittsburgh Yankee a bit of time to master the art as well, and I didn’t really get good at it till my friend Joanne helped me out. She decided that I should come over to her place and we would make them together. That day Joanne helped me learn a few tricks that I passed on to Xiao Shi yesterday. The circle of life, as my son Jack loved to say when he was small (emphasis on the f in life). Rule # 4 Knowledge is for sharing-not for feeling smart.
So we found a biscuit recipe on his laptop, got our aprons on, and before I knew it I was back in the school kitchen mixing up a batch of biscuits. Joe had been busy elsewhere in the school, and when he came back to the kitchen he laughed when he saw Xiao Shi and me in full biscuit making mode, flour all over us, and laughing and chatting in Mandarin. (He can’t leave me alone for a minute). When the biscuits were done we called anyone who was at school to have try, as my Chinese teacher Ma Lao Shi used to say. This reminded me of why I liked living here so much. One day you were teaching an English class and another you were riding your bike to school or a coffee shop kitchen to bake cakes or biscuits with their Chinese cooks. Sometimes living in China was difficult, but it was never boring.
Before leaving the school I had to go up to the 4th floor and take a peek at my old office. The door to Mr. Dingle’s old room was unlocked, and I walked through it to get to my small office in the science closet. My desk was empty, and I stood there for a few minutes, just reflecting. I didn’t feel sad (or bad, mad, or glad), but only aware of this being one of my many homes. I was glad that we came this year, as they told us at lunch that the school would be torn down to make room for a high rise. Standing in my office I thought of that and took one last sweeping glance to see if perchance my lost diamond would suddenly show up. I thought about the day I lost it (International Day), and how Yhi Hua, my friend (and now my son’s mother-in-law) had also lost hers on the school playground. Maybe some lucky Chinese worker will find these precious stones when the razing begins, and something good will come of our loss.
That evening we had dinner with our former housekeeper, and now hao pengyou (good friend) Liu Fang and her husband, Zhang Min and their son Zhang Yi, and another dear family, George, Sophia, and their daughter Abigail. We went to the place at the end of Di Bei Dao, just before it hits Hong Qi Lu. It has lots of neon lights outside, tons of large buses parked there for some reason, and lots of trash too. I have never been to Graceland, but I picture it to look something like that, sans piles of trash. Although the trash that lined streets and even hung on trees was distressing, I could recall the days before Lady Bird Johnson initiated her Clean Up America campaign in the 60s. It baffles me now why the president’s wife had to tell us to stop throwing trash on the ground anywhere we please. As if our moms had not trained us to do that at home (mine did, I can assure you). Anyway it seemed to comfort the Chinese to know that America, which they call the Beautiful Country, was once full of litter-strewn highways and countryside. Nowadays we don’t do that but we used to.
The last time I saw Liu Fang was at Jack and Joanna’s wedding, and sadly I had not seen George and Sophia since I left China in 2006. No matter, the eight of us sat down to a roast duck dinner that they had ordered, and toasted to our friendship. We all shared family news, and then quizzed Zhang Yi, who is the same age as Jack and Pres, about his job, girl friend, and marriage plans (he does not actually have the last two items, and Joe proposed an eligible young lady to him). We talked about the economy in China and America, and the feeling was that both countries have strengths and weaknesses, and it was not a big deal to discuss that freely. We joked, laughed, took pictures, and shared stories about life, marriage, children, and the future relationship of our two countries. Upon our exit we took more pictures, and as we descended the stairs could not resist taking a picture of the huge mural of Chairman Mao smoking a cigarette. Back to my similarities and differences theme, my culture posts pics of our leaders; we just make them put their cigarette down first. There are so many thoughts that come to mind as to what that particular difference illustrates. Perhaps Americans are too image obsessed or politically correct to be photographed casually smoking a cigarette. I hear that President Obama smokes, but no one has painted a mural of it to my knowledge. Some find his private smoking hypocritical, but maybe they would not like a formal life size mural of him smoking, greeting restaurant patrons. Perhaps the Chinese are unaware of the impression that pic can give to Westerners, or perhaps our impression is of little concern to them, which is understandable. Perhaps such a pic helps to extend the man of the people persona given to Chairman Mao, sort of like the pics of JKF playing football even though he could barely stand at times, he was in such distress from Addison’s disease. Still researching this one. Talk amongst yourselves. But Rule # 5 applies, Don’t Be Quick to Judge.
The Long Walk Home
We walked home from dinner with George, Sophia, and Abigail, often changing partners so we each could talk with both George and Sophia. We merged in and out of the sea of bikes, pedestrians, and cars, and I had forgotten that the street lights illuminate the smog at night. You would have thought a parade had just ended, there were so many folks out in the streets. We decided to go to our old neighborhood hairdresser’s. It still had the bright green walls, the big black and white checkerboard floor, the various black electric wires scattered all over the plaster walls, and happily the same owner. I wanted to see about getting a facial during my stay. I have never had one in America, but one day when Wang Tai Tai was cutting my hair she sold me on it;at 5 bucks it seemed like a good deal. It included ten different processes enjoyed while lying on a table, covered by an old, worn sleeping bag that looked like it was from the Red Army Surplus Store in 1948. I took my sister-in-law Cindy there when they visited Tianjin back in 2002, and she and I had a great time. I wanted to go this week, but it was so hot and muggy, I was hoping to forego the sleeping bag, and praying that the air conditioner will be on. I know they often only turn it on for foreigners, so am a bit worried about the heat. More on this later.
When Jet Lag is a Good Thing
Jet lag can really bite, but this time it is working FOR me. Let me explain. I have had trouble falling asleep for years, probably due to my mind racing about so many things. But if I can stay up to 9 p.m. here, my head hits the pillow like a ton of bricks and I am out in less than a minute. Sure I wake up for bathroom breaks, but I go right back to sleep. Even last night when my heart was so heavy, I still fell asleep right away. Jet lag, the new, safe, and cheap cure for sleep issues.
When we lived here I noticed that when it rains, Tianjin makes its own gravy (my apologies to Gravy Train dog food). Today there is quite a lot of gravy in the Tianjin streets and alleys, yet these are the very places that I want to explore. Also we planned to ride the buses today, and the rain will make them doubly crowded. However that is the real China, and the one I want to be part of. So we will go down to the Isetan area, (the Japanese department store). It is rather surprising that such a store can exist in China; there is still much hatred of the Japanese for the atrocities back in the late 1930s, (and understandably so). If you are weak of stomach, do not read about the Rape of Nanjing; I had nightmares about it for years. Most of the young people nowadays however care little about Chinese history; they have become consumers, and therefore frequent Isetan, in their endless search of high quality fashion.
I wanted to get a pedicure at my old place, where I could actually afford to do so. No pedicures for me in America, so this is a real treat. I will take my knitting, and my 60s songs that are supposed to be memorized for our Athens Choral Society summer show in August. If feels odd to be memorizing the words to Hair, while sitting in the People’s Republic of China, getting my feet worked on. But I live in several different cultures all at once, and am sort of used to the strange juxtapositions. Afterwards we met another Chinese friend for lunch at the YY Beer House, which is the best Thai restaurant in town. It was one of our favorite places, and I look forward to going back. I was thinking of each of you who have gone there with me, and missing you quite a lot. You can’t fight the circle of life—it just keeps going.
When the Right Thing to Do is Painful, Fuzzy, & Unwelcome
We became aware of a very ugly conflict between some very dear American friends and some equally dear Chinese friends, and it was bad, sad, & mad. You’ve probably all had those moments; you feel troubled about something, and you want to speak up, and help to right a wrong. However doing so could make the problem worse, threaten those in power, harm the innocent, and put you in the kill the messenger position. You are not sure if you are a brave soul who is willing to take some heat or merely a busy body. Or worse, you are the embodiment of all that you are suggesting about the people you think are wrong. And perhaps you are in some aspects of your life. (It takes one to know one.) So you keep your mouth shut, but at night when you are trying to sleep, you cry out to the Lord, the God who sees. You ask Him to make things right, and to bring comfort to your beloved friends who are hurting. You ask Him to show you when something truly is your business as a member of the body of Christ. You further ask Him to show you if you are a coward, or a temperate person in keeping silent. You pray that someone else will step in and take care of it. You explain to your dear Chinese friends that you cannot say anything, but you see the disappointment in their faces. You know you are mostly keeping quiet to save your own skin, but you also know that they could pay a price for your speaking up. And you have seen enough conflict in the body of Christ back home to know that adding a cross cultural element to a disagreement makes it even more difficult to do the wise sorting needed to get to the bottom of something. You realize that no matter how long you live in a foreign culture, you can never completely understand it, and at the same time, you find that you don’t really understand your own culture’s behavior in a particular conflict. Lord, help me to do the right thing, to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God. I was praying that this day as I roamed the dirty, busy, gravy laden streets of Tianjin, looking for wisdom from the God who sees. Rule # 6 Pray for wisdom, always.