Monday, July 4th 2011
When I got up this morning, I realized it might be a rather different 4th of July. Our dear friend and maintenance/construction manager, Mr. Guo De Hai permitted us to tag along with him and his young Chinese assistant Echo, to tour the new school. The building where our kids had attended, and where we had worked some years ago, was going to be torn down to make room for a high rise, since land is so expensive now. So the school had to move to a new location. The new school tour reminded me of times I would tag along with my father many years earlier. He was an architect, and occasionally I would accompany him as he walked through a half finished building to inspect it. Not sure how this happened since there were so many of us; I don’t recall him asking “Who wants to tag along on a building inspection?” Of course at least 5 of us would say “I do!” When you grow up in a family of 7 kids, you do not get much one on one time with your parents, understandably. Usually you ended up alone with a parent if you had to be picked up or dropped off from brownies, the dentist, or a school activity. Now walking through the unfinished hallways with Guo De Hai, I was immediately transported back in time to a post-brownie pick-up walk through with Dad. I could picture Cannon McMillan Junior High School, and could recall my Dad’s presence. It seemed impossible that he has been gone for 15 years now. I knew he would have enjoyed coming to China, and taking this tour with us; I knew he would have noticed lots of things that we didn’t, and would have things to share that we would find interesting. And like Guo De Hai, I knew he would have noticed and commented on anything that was not a particularly good design. Funny how design people think alike across cultures. This is not the circle of life, as Jack loved to say; it is more likely the image of God I suspect.
Ancient Culture Street
We decided to take the new subway to Ancient Culture Street, even though the 95 degree weather inclined us both to go home and watch a movie in the air conditioning. Of course the subway had air conditioning (see previous write up about how that works), but today it was definitely set on Barely Perceptible. Upon our arrival we got a bit lost, even though we had a map, and Joe knows his way around. This was due to the massive and frequent construction projects that closed one end of many city streets. Imagine the two of us drenched in sweat, with no shade to be found, walking around in circles due to the blocked streets for about 30 minutes. By the time we sought refuge in the UBC Coffee Shop (Chinese Starbucks) we must have been a sight. We learned that you had to spend a certain amount of money for the privilege of sitting in their coffee shop, supposedly due to newly installed Internet. We decided to bail, said thank you and sorry, and headed back out in the heat. We took a cab to McDonald’s near the north gate of Ancient Culture Street and spent the next half hour cooling down eating food we never purchase in America , and felt refreshed enough to go to our next appointment.
We began to wander around Ancient Culture Street, which is a collection of shops that sell Chinese art and the implements to create it. Some of it is a tourist trap, but we love to look at the paintings, and the cute tacky toys. I passed a well-dressed woman in her forties who had heels, hose, a crisp cotton blouse, a lovely blue layered skirt with flounces and embroidery, and a chic hair style, without a drop of sweat appearing on her beautiful skin. I thought to myself how pretty and classy she looked, and how she seemed to embody the trinity of the Secret deodorant commercials of the 1960s: cool, calm, and collected. Katy Winters would approve. I on the other hand, embodied a different trinity: sweaty, stressed, and disheveled. Katy Winters would not have hung out with the likes of me, I guarantee. I promised Joe that if I could ever get cool again, I would never again complain about his having the AC too high in the car, a desperate bargain that we both knew I wouldn’t keep.
We were to meet a friend of Joe’s from Athens, Jessie, and her young daughter who would be attending Georgia Tech next fall. Jessie attended Joe’s classes while she was a graduate student at UGA, and had now returned home to Tianjin. Imagine my surprise when the beautiful, cool lady I had admired turned out to be her! She gave us a gift, which was some wonderful tea that we later regifted to Zhang Jian, (who had done a million favors for us), but the gesture was appreciated. We laughed later about how you could have your hands full of luggage and bags at the airport, and your Chinese friends would come to see you off and hand you a large, heavy gift that you had to figure out how to board the plane with. In the stifling heat, along with the small purchases we made, we now had to carry the big box of tea. (We really are ingrates, I know.)
We both were grateful that is was not a big eagle made of seashells that was once given to us. We turned that special gift into the Bless Your Heart award and various team members were proud owners of it for short periods of time (probably not short enough). We often felt bad about our attitudes in the face of the Chinese way of being so thoughtful. Lord love ‘em as Grandma Haggerty would say. They truly are so dear, and often we are aware that we fall short.
We shopped and bargained with Jesse helping us, even though we knew how to bargain. She being Chinese however, could break the foreigner rule. For us, if they ask for 100 yuan, we offer 50; Jesse would offer 30. It was fun to watch her go at the shopkeeper who told Jesse that she would not even make any money off of the sale at that price (the same thing they always told us at our ½ off offers). We walked and talked about America and I forgot about how hot I was because of the rich conversation. (Rule #2: Good friends make anything better.) We said our goodbyes and promised to take care of Hang if she ever needed anything while at Georgia Tech. Her mom had moved back to Tianjin, and was a bit worried about her, as any mom would be. Off went this pretty lady and her daughter to taxi to their car. Off went the two sweaty big noses (Chines pet name for foreigners) in their rumpled clothes to find the bus. We needed to get home and shower in time to meet the Golden Girls for dinner.
Dinner with Golden Girls
How I met the Golden Girls is a story in itself. The older I get, the less stock I put into conventional wisdom; the intersection of an American lady named Mary with these four wonderful ladies is a great example of that. Mary and her husband Neal had come to Tianjin for just 6 short months. Many folks had wondered if anything worthwhile could come of such a short venture, especially in light of the expense of flying and setting up a short term home. Since her time was indeed short, Mary decided to jump right in and join the outdoor morning tai chi group in order to meet some Chinese ladies. Mary was not versed in tai chi; neither was she as svelte as many of the Chinese lao ren (old people). She tried to stay in the back and blend in, but the teacher wanted Mary front and center, and proceeded to shower her with attention, most of it unwanted, and in a style that is not considered helpful in American culture (You’re doing it wrong! You’re too slow! You’re a little fat!) This Chinese teacher’s brutal honesty was meant to help Mary get it right, but ended up driving her to tears. (Because as Kendall taught us in the last post, we’re not supposed to tell people they’re fat.) Before giving up entirely, Mary decided to let the teacher know that she was getting more and more discouraged and embarrassed and that she might enjoy the class if the teacher just let her be in the back and do the best she could. The Chinese teacher was very apologetic and let Mary know that she didn’t realize her criticisms were upsetting to Mary. Smile.
(When my daughter Natalie was small, she used to begin a sentence with “I don’t mean to say this, but…” when what she meant to say was “I hate to say this but…” Joe and I used to laugh and say “Sweetie, I think you do mean to say it. )
At any rate, the Chinese teacher backed off of Mary, and she stayed in the tai chi class long enough to meet Sun, Tang, Pan and Zhou, who I came to call the Golden Girls. When Mary had to go back to the States she asked me if I would be interested in meeting with them as she had been doing. They were learning English, talking about life, and generally having a lot of fun together. So of course I said I would take over the class, and we met each week in one of their tiny Chinese apartments, studying, laughing, sharing, drinking tea, and forging deep friendships. My Chinese and their English was at about the same leve, beginner conversational, so we often found ourselves using Chinglish, a half English, half Chinese combination that was supported my many gestures and drawings.
If you met these ladies, you would perhaps see four old people, especially if you are under the age of thirty. Heck, if you met me you would see an old lady, and I am ten years their junior. However as my daughter said to me once, “Mom, only their bodies are old.” That is how it is for us older folks. Our bodies get old and the wrinkles, aches and pains come, but our personalities and spirits do not feel any different from our younger years. With these friends, I became acquainted with all aspects of Chinese culture, and could ask them questions about things I did not understand. What I learned very quickly was that Chinese moms and American moms are pretty much concerned with the same few items; they just have cultural and stylistic differences and/or constraints.
Tonight we were to have dinner together at a restaurant called 100 Jiaozi. Yes, 100 different types of the wonderful boiled dumplings that are a traditional Chinese food. When our cab arrived the Golden Girls were standing in a small group near the door of the restaurant, but when they spied us, all four of them ran toward their cab. I cannot really recall the last time someone ran to greet me like that. Maybe my kids when I picked them up after being out of town, or my husband in our early married life. It took me by surprise and so I started running too. We were all caught in a frenzy of hugs and handshaking and went into the restaurant as a huddled mass of lao pengyous (old friends). As we sat to eat, I realized that much as I love these gals, I was still not used to all the talking at once that I knew would happen. Two of them set to ordering several varieties of jioazi, and one was talking with Joe (loudly), the waiter and two young waitresses were talking loudly and everyone was interrupting everyone. Meanwhile one of them (the most quiet in the bunch) was asking me questions, but I suppose the loud shouting and my jet lag got the best of me, and I kept asking her to repeat what she just said. I recalled the many meetings where in the midst of a lesson all four of them would be shouting and arguing with each other (in a friendly way-they have known each other all their lives) in Chinese, with an occasional name that I recognized such as Moses, Abraham Lincoln, or Clinton. During these loud arguments I would let them sort it all out until one would summarize the question and share it with me in Chinglish. As this familiar scene played out in the restaurant I just sat back and smiled at the familiarity of it all.
At dinner we all settled down to a single conversation and they told us a bit about their college days when the Cultural Revolution was in full bloom. They shared some very sad things that happened to their family members that they had not even told their children. Joe and I sat rapt with attention and we both asked them to consider writing down their stories to preserve their history. I see why some of these stories are kept secret; not only do power entities wish to keep them quiet, but those who endured such suffering often cannot bear to retell the stories.
After the usual picture taking, we said our goodbyes, but we all decided that they would come to my apartment to watch the Joy Luck Club. We were of course putting off the inevitable goodbye, but I wanted to hear their perspective of the movie as well as spend some more time with my old friends. Perhaps this movie might encourage them to let me write their story one day. They of course had many comments about the movie’s main characters, and sometimes disagreed with each other over whether or not the movie was authentic. I came to see that if I asked 100 Chinese friends their perspective on anything, I could end up with almost as many opinions as the 100 Jiaozi restaurant (ditto for the American perspective on any topic). Therefore maybe it is safer to use the phrase IMHO (in my humble opinion). Note to self: generally speaking, it is best to be cautious when generalizing, even about your own country, (in my humble opinion).
These are evenings you remember all your life—and you think about them even though far away. I am not in any type of hurry to exit this world, but when I do get to be with God one day-I want to ask him about the sad things in history. I want to hear and understand the parts that I cannot understand now. I long to hear Him explain how He was at work during the dark times; I suspect I will wonder how I missed it earlier. I do not know if my friends have written their stories yet—but trust me- you would want to read them. As they talked I wished I could come back and write them, and just spend more time with these beloved living history books. But for now that will have to wait.