Cathy in Asia

News from China #6 - December 1999

Happy New Year - Gong xi fa cai !

I am sitting in my living room in the glow of Christmas lights strung around the walls, looking at two Christmas trees, a stuffed Santa resting on the mantelpiece of the improvised fireplace (made of bricks borrowed from the construction site), and two red Chinese lanterns. I have to say that Christmas in China has been more than I had expected, in spite of only having a couple of days off. We had a program party on the 23rd, complete with Christmas carols and Santa, who had to be given special training (including a special viewing of the movie The Santa Clause). He did a good job except it was only at the very end of the evening that he remembered he was supposed to say "ho ho ho". The foreign teachers (Susan, Margaret and Catherine) surprised (and wowed) the group with a couple of Chinese songs they had learned with Douglas and Ms. Ma. Fun was had by all.

Preparing for Christmas has been much easier than I had expected--for the past couple of weeks the main floor of the shopping centre near us transformed into Christmas land where you could get all kinds of Christmas decorations. The vendors wore red Santa hats with flashing lights at the tip. At the jiaozi (dumpling) restaurant that we frequent, the staff all donned red hats with white wool braids (Mrs. Claus?) and had Christmas decorations everywhere. Shop windows were sprayed with white snow words, variations on the theme: Marry Chistmas!

I was slow to get into the Christmas spirit; had even considered going to visit Beijing since we had a 5-day weekend. However, Margaret is a Christmas fan ("We can't not have stockings!" "We've gotta have a fireplace!") and we eventually caught her enthusiasm and pulled off a very memorable Christmas celebration. On Christmas Eve, the three of us (a.k.a. The Three Musketeers) decorated our apartment living room, drank wine in the Christmas light glow and reminisced about Christmases past. The next day we put on some Christmas music, had a leisurely breakfast, and opened stockings which appeared on our new fireplace mantle. By midafternoon the apartment was filled with the aroma of mulled wine simmering in the rice cooker. Then, about twenty friends came over for a potluck dinner, an unfamiliar concept to some of our guests, who brought something for each course. After dinner some guests stayed on for the tackling of the enormous pile of presents under the bigger of the two trees (the two youngest members of our party had already been checking out the labels on the parcels and handed them round). We ended the evening with a few Chinese and Canadian friends, singing Christmas carols. At the end of the day, I felt that I had had a real family Christmas. I will remember this Christmas when I feel apathetic about it in the future.

Perhaps one reason I was slow to catch the Christmas spirit this year was the breakdown of our computer which I had been using not only for work, but daily for my connection through email with my friends and family. I have not been able to conveniently get and send email for almost a month, and that makes me gnarly. I rely on email to shorten the distance between you and me. As the cover of one of my new notebooks says,

When you are not around?
I get that post-disco depression!
It is sort of a boogie-on-downer!

At the time of this writing the computer no longer even opens Windows before it crashes. Three people have given generously of their time and patience to try and figure out the source of the problem. None of their various possible solutions have so far been the answer. Patience is wearing thin. On his last "house call," his third for this problem, Tom, our Chinese friend who sold the computer, sat down, peered into the monitor at the "illegal operation" message and said "fu--!" Usually he just says "sh--" so I knew things were getting worse.

Computer troubles have been taking up inordinate amounts of time and causing immense frustration. While in this mood I realize that many of the things in our Chinese lives are not fully functional. The other day Susan accidentally ripped the door off our new hall cupboard, a door that had formerly been attached to the main cabinet by three hinges. It had been our prize piece of furniture. Another day, my bicycle pedal fell off when I was on my way to school. In the brand new library building where we have been installed in our offices for just over a month, the rounded central ceiling collects condensation which freezes overnight, and then rains down on the students walking back and forth to their study tables during the day. The insides of the windows in our office are lined with ice so thick it's like a gigantic freezer (now here frozen sides of beef would really be at home); and the brand new toilet doors don't fit and so don't close. From my perspective there seems to be an incomprehensible lack of foresight or care in workmanship; it's one of those ongoing culture shock challenges. Perhaps it is all good training for whatever Y2K is going to throw at us.

Meanwhile, time is passing; it is winter. Almost every day is clear and sunny, but cold. When it's windy the cold feels like it could bite your face off. Outside the market the fruit and nut vendors keep as warm as they can in long green cotton padded coats and hats with furry earflaps, while their cheeks get red and chapped. The aroma fills the air of sweet potatoes baking in big barrels of coals. Eggs simmer in tea in tin basins. People gather around the warmth. Nearby a contraption with a crooked chimney roasts sunflower seeds, which are tossed in a revolving barrel over a fire. A man squatting on the sidewalk turns a small hand crank to rotate his much smaller barrel over a tiny fire. He's making popcorn, and waves me over with a big gap-toothed smile to buy some. The most notable departure from the Dickensian feel of this scene is the monotonous bass beat of music blaring onto the street from loudspeakers. Yesterday's lyrics, in English: "I feel so horny, uh huh, I feel so horny, that's right." No one but me was surprised at the choice of background shopping music.

Aside from the stationary vendors there are the bicycle vendors with sticks of tiny candied apples, or haws (shishkebabs of about ten per stick) sprouting from a straw bundle toward the sky like fireworks. Big piles of mandarin oranges are heaped on carts trailed behind bicycles and motorbicycles. One day, several of these orange sellers came barrelling through the crowd in a great hurry, scattering oranges as they fled. Evidently the police were after them for selling without a permit. The more fortunate ones with motorized bicycles zoomed off down the bicycle lane to safety; the ones with push bikes ran as fast as they could, with many a backward glance. They dispersed quickly and the crowds of people closed in on where they had just been like water behind a speeding boat.

One way to comfort a cold body is a visit to the Bath Centre, where you can take endless hot showers, sit in the steam room and sauna, and have your body scrubbed and massaged. This experience, although a luxury for the fortunate in the New China, is not for everyone. First, it's not the most private of experiences. You take off all your clothes and walk into an open shower and scrubbing room. You hand over your wrist band to the woman (in my case) you want to scrub you. While you're waiting your turn, you shower, steam, and sit in the sauna, then shower again, all in the company of a room full of naked people, similarly engaged. Finally, it's your turn--your scrubber, an athletic looking woman dressed in underpants and a bra, throws basins of water over the massage table, and lines it with a new plastic sheet. She takes your little towel you've brought along and wraps her hand in it, then puts the scratchy cloth over top. And here's the second part that may not appeal to some people: she proceeds to scrub you with all her heart, muscles flexing. In effect, she is peeling off a layer or two of skin, and when you get up, you will see little grey rolls of it all over your table. (Hence the new plastic sheet for each client.) It does feel a bit odd to have the tender parts of your body scrubbed thus, but along with some massage, it does feel good (especially when they stop). I have been a few times; I feel extremely clean and soft for several days afterwards.

Aside from lazing around on a scrubbing table, we are still getting lots of exercise in our living room. Margaret continues to coach us in Yoga twice a week, and we still have Yanyan teaching us Tai Ji. We have finished learning a routine of Tai Ji Quan, and are now in the final stages of learning a routine for Tai Ji Jian, "jian" meaning "sword". The day we went sword shopping we wondered if maybe we hadn't gone a bit over the edge, I mean, the Three Musketeers, at our age? However, there's nothing funny about the way Yanyan moves, and the sound effects he makes--ssss--as the sword pierces the enemy's body or cuts off his head. Now we're serious enthusiasts; at any time of day you can see swords slicing the air in our living room. All this learning of movement has affected my teaching style somewhat--I find that in the open centre of the classroom it's tempting to make Tai Ji moves; although unorthodox, it's a dramatic way of getting students' attention. Maybe I'll take my sword along one day to surprise those who haven't done their homework . . .

Finally, how will China manage Y2K? That remains to be seen. It seems to me that the people bringing their wares into the neighbourhood on their donkey wagons won't be affected, but who knows what surprises are in store as a result of antiquated computer equipment. Y2K complications, discussed with so much trepidation for the past couple of years at home, is a non-issue here. At any rate, however Y2K unfolds, I wish everyone boundless amounts of love and laughter as we finally take it on. Happy times in the New Millenium!