Cathy in Asia

News from China #3 - November 1, 1999

Daily Life in The Zone

Life has settled into a very pleasant routine, after the uncertain start and then the surprise week-long holiday for the 50th anniversary celebrations. I have moved out of the Vault and into a spacious three bedroom apartment which I'm sharing with Susan, a Cap College colleague. The apartment is in the same building, and shares some of the features of the Vault, in particular the door, but is more comfortable. With a cleaning lady coming once a week, we have really moved up in the world. Our living room has become a learning centre of sorts, with yoga two evenings a week with Margaret, and Tai Ji instruction two other evenings from Yan Yan, a kung fu instructor from the university. He speaks as little English as we speak Chinese, but he speaks clearly and the context helps us to catch his meaning. When he smiles all over his face and says, "dui, dui!" or "hen hao, tai hao!" we know that's good. "Bu hao" with a sorrowful look means we didn't get it right. On Sundays we have a Chinese lesson with Douglas (his English name), a young professor in the Foreign Languages department. We're still working on strictly functional Chinese; our approach is to tell him what we need to do, then he supplies the language and makes a recording with his wife for us to listen to during the week.

Our first two Chinese lessons have focussed on shopping, because our almost daily forays to the market cannot be done without some proficiency in numbers and bargaining. I prefer to go to the market first thing in the morning, when steaming trays of fresh tofu are rolled in on wooden trays and the fruits, vegetables and seafood are still being laid out on the stalls. I say "ni hao" to the Dairy Lady, and go first to the Bread Lady who automatically gets a couple of small loaves of steamed rice bread out of a Styrofoam cooler for me. We went through a bad patch when Ms. Ma discovered, on a shopping trip together, that I had been paying 2 yuan (36 c) for a loaf when I should only have been paying 1 yuan. The Bread Lady had looked very sheepish and inquired if I would come back. Now we're back on smiling terms. The Egg Man grumpily gives me two jin (1 kilo) of eggs, about 18, for 90 cents. Then I visit the smiling Vegetable Lady where I can fill a bag with tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, onions, cabbage, and green beans for about 50 cents, and she always pops in some free cilantro or a leek on top, I think because I probably pay too much. Fruit is more expensive, and again, they usually throw in an extra apple on top of the mandarin oranges, peaches, kiwi fruits, and bananas that I've bought. I've finally got brave enough to buy fresh meat which is sold from a countertop without refrigeration; I can get half a kilo of boneless chicken breasts for just over a dollar. On the way home from the market I might stop off at the little store in our neighbourhood for some beer, which at 27 cents for a large bottle of Qingdao (Tsingtao) is cheaper than water.

Back at home, we cook up a storm, usually a stir fry of some sort, with rice or noodles, and a salad. Our repertoire of meals is growing, but the food always seems delicious and we embarrass ourselves with our self-congratulations. I'm not sure if it's our efforts or just that the fruits and veggies are so fresh. Cucumbers never tasted so sweet and crunchy, nor did apples. As a result, I don't expect to be coming home from this overseas adventure as skeletal as last time.

When we first arrived we used to eat out more, especially as we were getting started on the program and there were always occasions--arrivals, birthdays, departures, almost anything will do for an occasion. The food in some restaurants is superb; in cheap restaurants it is full of oil and MSG. Ordering from menus without any English translation is a kind of roulette; you might get "Fried Goose Rectum with Fermented Black Bean and Green Pepper" or "Fried Pig Waist, Heart, Pork with Celery" (English translations seen on a menu in downtown Dalian).

At home while we eat, cook, practice Tai Ji or Yoga we have to remember that we are putting on a show for the construction workers on the building next door, when they take time out from their backbreaking labour. The building changes noticeably daily as there are dozens of men working simultaneously at least 12 hours a day, every day. I have done my share of staring over at their side as they perform acts of daring that the WCB would have conniptions over. One day I watched them dismantle the scaffolding that had surrounded the entire building. The long metal rods which served as the frame were dropped like lethal spears onto the ground below, the workers hanging on to the remaining upright ones with legs and arms in a monkey pose. Very few hard hats, and certainly no steel-toed boots on the site, and these lethal spears were raining down on the ground. Furthermore, the brick wall around the construction site had already been dismantled. A few days ago they started painting the outside concrete. They do this by sitting on a board attached to a rope, anchored God knows how to the roof, and using their legs to walk themselves back and forth along the wall. If it weren't such a long drop, it'd look like fun.

Getting around

I was very impatient to get a bicycle as soon as possible after arriving here. Although the area is surrounded by small mountains, Kai Fa Qu itself (the Economic Development Zone) is flat and the major roads all have wide bicycle lanes, many of which are separated from the car lanes by a wide sidewalk and trees. So finally Margaret and I set off to the "Transportation Market" in Jinzhou, a nearby town, with Dana, a Canadian who speaks Chinese fluently, and her Chinese friend Lily.

The market was full of hundreds of bicycles. We headed over to the used ones first, but they were mainly cargo bicycles, big tough black ones. As we looked at our options a crowd of onlookers gathered. Dana provided a running commentary of what they were saying, including, "Do foreigners ride bicycles?" We soon moved to the new bicycles, which at 160 yuan ($29) were not much more than the used ones. Dana, Margaret and I all bought the same kind of bicycle in different colours, with crowds of working people gathered to watch every stage of the negotiation of parts and price. It was fascinating to have Dana's translations of what was going on. Spoken Chinese sounds aggressive in intonation, even the words used are aggressive; but it doesn't mean a person is unfriendly. The bargaining went something like this. Dana suggested a price. The bicycle seller then went into a long speech about the cost of living and Dana replied, "oh my God, don't talk to me about the cost of living." It continued in this vein, endlessly it seemed; high drama. Every exchange appeared to be an argument, including when I insisted on having the seat post raised to its maximum length while the bicycle seller argued, "you don't need it higher, I'm as tall as you, and I ride it like this". Eventually they produced an extra long seat post and now for the first time in Asia I am riding a bicycle that is almost big enough for me. (It's easy to find my bike in a bike parking lot, I just look for the seat that sticks incongruously above all the others).

We got a truck taxi home with the three bicycles in the back. On the way Dana, Lily and the driver erupted in an argument as the driver changed the price en route, but once back at our apartment, the argument was forgotten in a post-shopping camaraderie. The neighbours came around to find out how much we'd paid; "Pianyi! (Cheap!) they said admiringly. An old man looked closely at the bicycles and the driver, a young woman, said to him, not with disrespect, "Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to help?" So with uncertain balance he hove to to help lift the new bicycles out as best he could, smiling all the while.

Since I got my bicycle, I've been able to get a bigger picture of the area I live in. It was on my bike that I first discovered the seawall and the new park that is being built there. It's going up so quickly that I can't help thinking of it as an "insta-park"; a whole forest seems to appear, then a lagoon, then a mass of bushes. The one constant is the people wading in the water looking for shellfish, or sitting on the bank with fishing rods. It's a calm place, and only minutes from my door.

When I first rode around Kai Fa Qu I was struck by, shall we say, the oddness of some of the buildings. Here there is a whitewashed Mediterranean villa with red window trimmings, next to it a concrete castle with a turreted tower; over there an Italian dome. Sculptures are surprising. One building boasts a gigantic concrete woman holding a child, and surrounded by several winged children. She is sitting atop the building, rising perhaps two or three stories above it, and her robes fall the full length of the building, which looks to be at least four stories itself. In another neighbourhood there is a small round building entirely in the clutches of an enormous lobster.

Some sights I can't pass by without stopping to look (it's only fair; I am gawked at constantly). One thing I always like to watch is the evening dancing in a square in our "little district", Hong Mei. The dancers, older women, get out a ghetto blaster to play folk music, and dance, holding red and green scarves which flow back and forth through the air in unison. The school exercises are always interesting too; how do the students all know exactly what to do? They start at a very early age, as we can observe in the playground of the kindergarten next to our own apartment building.

When I'm out and about, I am always the foreigner, subject of shy smiles, and aggressive "HELLOs", often shouted out after I've gone by. As the foreigner, I am among the more stupid occupants of this world (foreigners can't ride bicycles, can they?); yet at the same time I'm a "foreign expert", and everyone wants to practice their English with me. The feeling of being the exotic animal at the zoo is familiar to me, but it's odd to feel this in what looks like a more or less modern place. Modernity and access to information, I've discovered, don't necessarily coexist. It's an ongoing internal struggle for me to accept this and to not be judgmental of the "hello" harassers. In this vein, I've been pondering the words I saw on a t-shirt of Tom (his English name), our friend at the Chang Lin Shopping Centre who sells computers and, summoned on his cell phone, comes at the drop of a hat whenever something goes wrong with ours: "The humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect."

Next time: life outside The Zone.