Cathy in Asia

News from China #10 - June 2000


Spring in the Zone

Travelling around China and meeting people who live and work in other Chinese cities, I gained a new perspective on the Dalian Economic Trade and Development Zone (Kai Fa Qu) where I live, which I had previously thought to be a dull place. When I told people that in Dalian we have sunny blue skies every day, their mouths literally dropped open. A Chinese city where you can see a blue sky? It made such an impression on one Australian fellow (who told me he takes asthma medication in advance of every trip to the centre of the city where he lives) that on meeting up again several days after our first conversation, he told me my own story back to me, still as wide eyed as when he first heard it: "I've heard that in Dalian it is sunny every day!" Now I understand why Chinese people often say that "Dalian is beautiful" and why it is a tourist destination. I still can't concur with the high accolades of the Chinese, but by comparison, it's looking pretty good.

In fact, with the passing of winter, the scenery around here has indeed improved considerably. In March and through most of April I was in some despair that nature might really be dead in the Economic Development Zone, killed by all the industry around here. Then, very suddenly, at the end of April, the grass became green. Tight, bright pink buds started opening on small trees up and down the boulevard that runs past the Min Yuan (our university). The air became warmer (although inside our apartments it was bone achingly cold--the heat went off at the end of March). Then, at the end of May, the acacias bloomed, and their scent floated through the heat in the valleys on the local hills. Now, in the middle of June, the biggest surprise has been the masses of roses on walls and fences and in gardens, and tall pink and magenta hollyhocks lining the streets and garbage strewn construction sites. The change in scenery comes from the human landscape too: ladies wearing pretty dresses walk to the campus with colourful umbrellas against the sun. After the sun goes down, people of all ages dance sedately (in unison) to music blaring from loudspeakers on our shopping street.

With the improvement in the weather, people started getting outside very early to do their exercise. Up on Pao Tai Shan, I see people jogging or (more popular) walking backwards, radio in hand, listening to the Chinese version of The Early Edition. Up on the lookout platform, a guy does pushups with his legs above his head on the railing; others wave their arms around while another guy skips rope at high speed and a woman pulls vigorously at her ears. Groups of university students dressed in track suits play the hackeysack game with a shuttlecock. Meanwhile down at one of the pavilions in the trees someone is playing a Chinese flute (and some days, an erhu, a one-stringed instrument).

Down at the nursery school playground, old women are exercising too: they're hitting their calves briskly. At the seawall in the seaside park, a middle-aged couple dance in place with their arms over their heads; a man in a white sweatsuit sings to the sea while doing arm exercise; and a couple of old women walk and gossip earnestly. In groups or singly, older people practise Tai Ji. It's the best time to be out and about in the neighbourhood.

I have spent too much time working this term, but if you have to overwork, probably this is the place to do it, as there are plenty of options for restoration. What better antidote to computer fatigue than nipping out for an hour of xi tou he tou bu an mo ("head wash" and head massage)? Or foot massage, in a place with two enormous foot prints on their windows. Laughter therapy is also easily obtained here. The other morning while working in the apartment, I was roused by the sound of the Chinese National Anthem, the Brave Soldiers Marching Song, being broadcast throughout the neighbourhood from the nursery school. Close on the anthem was the familiar, but unexpected, tune of Jingle Bells. Perhaps it was the surprise effect, but it had Susan and me in stitches. Did I say that Kai Fa Qu was dull?

Chinese food also continues to surprise. How about this, from the menu of one of our favourite restaurants:

Braised Donkey Flesh and Bean Paste

Braised Donkey Elbow

Eaten Donkey Sparerib by Hands

Red cooked Donkey Tail

Braised Tortoise Hands in Hot Pot

Live Seaslug in Bean Paste

Potato Pancake Homely Style

Duck's Chin (cooked in a variety of ways)

These items donít fit my idea of fine dining, but on the other side of the coin, while eating out with a Chinese friend we found that he was truly horrified to hear that we drink milk cold. He had never even heard of such a thing.

Transportation is also always good for a giggle. There was the time we were coming back from Dalian city in a minibus, sitting on little folding stools in the aisle with our knees jammed into the backs of the people on the next little stool, because the entrepreneurial bus operators weren't leaving until the bus was completely full in every nook and cranny. Having eventually collected all the money that was passed forward for the bus fares, the ticket man threw a bunch of tickets over our heads; anyone who wanted one (needed, apparently, for insurance purposes) could grab one as it fluttered down. Susan and I were already exchanging looks and getting the giggles. But that wasn't the funny part. It was when we got close to Kai Fa Qu that a man wanted to get out. Of course, he was the one sitting in the far back. He didn't look flustered or disconcerted in the least. He simply opened the window as wide as it would go, worked his body through it, and jumped down to the road.

Culture Shock
Although there have been lots of laughs and good camaraderie here, I have to confess that in March, I was suffering through a bad stage of culture shock. I was fed up with having to jump out of the way of gob, of constantly being stared at and of being a target of "helloooo!". Cars driving on the sidewalk where I was walking no longer elicited the response, "oh my goodness," but rather less polite utterances. The day I nearly broke my back when I slipped on a restaurant's marble floor awash with water (their idea of washing the floor), I came home and had a foot-kicking, fist-pounding temper tantrum: "why are they so stupid!"

Worse than these irritations was the ongoing struggle with cheating and other forms of dishonesty at school. I have become less emotional about cheating and can now matter-of-factly give a "zero", but the most recent case was noteworthy. I gave a reading quiz on a chapter that had focussed heavily on business ethics and the need for a strong sense of integrity in managers. A student had written the answers on her desk, having presumably been told the questions to expect by a student in the other class (each quiz takes me about two hours to prepare, and my teaching load this term did not allow me to prepare quizzes that were substantially different for each class). Here's what she would have been lifting her exam paper to read on her desktop: "To err is human, perhaps, but to be caught . . . cheating . . . is not easily forgotten or forgiven in the business world." To the question "Do you think that ethics is important in business today?" she wrote: "Yes. In business, all the people willing to cooperate with a honest person, have a good ethic can gain belief from others. In nowadays, company not only pay attention to the . . . diploma, but also want to know if the person's quality is good. So ethics is the standard to judge one person." I used this case in class to demonstrate "irony". I could also have used it to demonstrate "naivete" (my own) since I had let down my guard and hadnít checked desks and hands before the quiz. (Anyway, it seems cheating is not just a Chinese student's habit. The June 2000 Reader's Digest reports that 38% of Canadian teens personally think that cheating is usually or sometimes okay; and 74% think that teens in general think it is usually or sometimes okay.)

Worse again was the revelation that most university professors plagiarize in order to keep up a certain output of publications. Many of them, especially the older ones, are not qualified to publish, having had their educations seriously disrupted during the upheavals of the 50's, 60s and 70s, especially during the Cultural Revolution. I know I'm naive, and I keep proving it again and again, but I was really shocked to hear this from a friend who is earnest, intelligent, and well-qualified, but who also feels he has to copy other people's work in order to keep up the pace and get ahead in the university hierarchy. This systemic dishonesty is revolting to me and I felt like bolting out of the country immediately.

Getting out of The Zone
Instead of leaving the country at this juncture, however, I settled for a change of scene, jumping at the chance to join a group trip to Beijing. The goal of that first weekend of April was to walk on the Great Wall at Simatai, a couple of hours north of Beijing. There were few visitors to this section of the wall and with the wind howling its way from Mongolia over the steeply piled, crumbling stones, there was an altogether different ambiance to the heavily touristed site at Badaling. The few drinks sellers who trailed along seemed more interested in making sure we didn't lose our footing or get blown off the wall than with selling us drinks.

That evening we had a taste of Beijing nightlife at Afanti, a huge restaurant specializing in Xinjiang (northern China) culture. After an incredible meal with a floor show of Xinjiang dance, involving lots of tassels and gyrating bellies, the dishes were cleared away from the long tables and we got up to dance to music reminiscent of the Gypsy Kings--on the tables! This was a restorative weekend and made me feel better about China.

The next trip out of The Zone was during the first week of May, during which everyone in China had the week off. The alleged occasion was Labour Day (May 1) but the express purpose was consumption. Spreading money around is important in order for "market socialism" to succeed, so Susan and I headed off to Beijing to meet Margaret (en route to Vancouver from India) and do our part. Let loose in Beijiing we spent more in one day than we typically do in two weeks in Dalian--cappuccinos, new clothes, shoes, and excellent meals all sucked money magically out of our wallets. We were country bumpkins getting a slice of urban life. In the cafes we had big eyes and ears for the life of Beijing sophisticates. Here's a scene from the Kebab Bar on Sanlitun Street on a Sunday morning:

A middle-aged East European woman with bottle blond hair impatiently looks to and fro, and calls in bad Chinese to the waitresses. She opens a translucent, lime green cell phone, and exits, talking into it with dramatic gesticulations. A tall, elegant, heavily made up Chinese girl, all in black, with long mauve fingernails and hennaed hair to her waist, is sitting with two young Western guys. One asks, "are you uncomfortable?" The guys leave, and she flips open her cellphone. A rowdy group of Spanish speakers and a group of three more East Europeans fill the air with their different languages. Families with children add to the soundscape. A blond student studying flips open her cellphone. A Chinese guy reading flips open his cellphone.

I am not, after all, a Beijing sophisticate (I don't have a cellphone) and after a couple of days I moved on to Chengdu, a three and a half hour flight south. My ultimate destination was Songpan, a small town another nine hours by bus north of Chengdu, in the mountains near Tibet. Here the country is big and unspoiled: high mountains, deep valleys, swiftly flowing, clean rivers, and clean air (in sharp contrast to the smog soup of Chengdu). It was still on the edge of winter, and each day seemed to follow a similar weather pattern-frosty mornings with sunshine gradually making its way over the mountains; glorious days, with a brief snowfall in the late afternoon. Later the skies would clear again and the night would be bright with stars.

The group I joined to go horse trekking was, as to be expected, a motley crew, including three guys from Chengdu, wearing all the latest in outdoor gear, hiking boots, fleece and goretex; they also had cool packs, nifty camping tools, and bags of photography equipment. There were six women from Chongqing, four friends and two mothers with their children . These were city slickers who wore leather soled penny loafers and ski jackets. They giggled a lot and frequently slid off their horses uttering little screams. At every stop, they peered into tiny mirrors, repainting their eyebrows. They had brought quantities of packaged food and were prodigious litterbugs, a long way from understanding the slogan, "if you pack it in, pack it out". Then there were the two waiguoren, me and a French guy. He was with his Shanghainese girlfriend and they evidently wanted time alone, so for me this was another Chinese immersion experience.

Our guides were local Hui Zu (Muslim); there were six of them, each one with two horses and responsible for two trekkers. Unlike the city slickers or the outdoor gear afficionados, these guys wore suit jackets and pants and green canvas shoes with rubber soles. To them, life was evidently a joy, as a propos of nothing, they would burst into local song, a kind of yodelling, while walking along beside us as we rode, while hacking at saplings to make up our camp, while cooking dinner over a fire, or while resting around the campfire at night. They were a team of characters, and equally social with all of us, although the children perhaps got special attention with presents of "swords" quickly whittled from tree branches with wicked looking curved knives. They called me Jianada xiao jie (Canadian little sister).

We spent four days on the trail. We rode through a vast countryside of mountains and valleys, some of it forested with pines, other parts neatly cultivated by the Tibetan people whose home it is. Riding along tracks carved into the mountainsides, I felt thrilled by the big space and the magnificent scenery. At times I felt a bit nervous; the tracks we were on were sometimes so narrow that when looking over my horse's flank I could only see the drop off to the river, splashing and sparkling far below. My palms and feet tingled with the apprehensive realization that one misstep by my horse would mean something very unpleasant for me. I comforted myself with the thought that the horse also had a strong sense of self-preservation and focussed instead on imagining myself the star in a Robert Redford movie.

The third day we ascended to about 4500 meters to view Xue Bao Ding at 5580 m. Our horses plodded up a winding path of shale while our guides climbed on foot to the dazzling landscape of snow and mountains at the top. Later that day, by contrast, we meandered through a shining pine forest, the air warm and springlike.

The setting was providing me a great outdoors experience such as I might have in Canada, but the cultural factor provided a difference. Periodically we would find ourselves heading toward the slate roofs of Tibetan settlements, past fenced gardens and fields awaiting the spring sun. The people in this area seemed to be living comfortably. One house I visited, built in traditional village style, had two stories, the kitchen on the upper floor with a massive wood stove at its centre. The walls were covered with dozens of brass bowls, and one wall was almost entirely covered with a beautiful wall unit which looked old, stained a burgundy colour. Outside, they had a line running to a water wheel in the river--electricity. And for when the river dried up, a small solar panel sat ready. We visited temples, inside which were hundreds of gold buddhas in little cupboards. At one, which was brand new and on which they were still adding finishing touches, two ancient-looking men took great delight in demonstrating the masks and instruments they used for holiday celebrations. At another temple which was much better established, there were perhaps 40 robed monks chanting; they were eager to gather around and meet us after they had finished their session. This temple was surrounded by a walkway with endless prayer wheels painted gold; periodically there would be a huge wooden one painted in colours. We weren't the only ones wandering these long corridors; the mostly old people doing their rounds seemed pleased to see us. On hearing that I was from Canada, an old man ran to fetch an evidently well-loved photograph of their huo fuo, their leader, with the Dalai Lama. The huo fuo had been to Canada. He was absent from the temple this day, so the old man fetched an 60s-style tape recorder and held it over each of our heads while the recording of the huo fuo's chanting played, then tied pink scarfs around our necks. We were thus blessed.

The cultural landscape provided some surprises, too. Near one village we saw a small bridge crossing a narrow part of the river. Hanging from its arch was the head of a goat, and the goat's four feet. The goat had recently died giving birth, and this was an appropriate memorial. In another odd encounter, I was walking on a remote track with a couple of the Chengdu fellows when a Tibetan lady appeared, dressed in the typical long robes and red headscarf. She wanted something from us and tried to communicate her need by pointing to the guys' camera equipment and holding her hands up to her eyes, making circles with her thumbs and fingers. Finally it became clear--she needed my binoculars to search for her buffalo which had wandered off, perhaps to the other side of the valley. She looked and looked to no avail, then continued on with a worried look on her face.

Aside from the daily trekking and cultural encounters, there was the camping. I had heard that the tents and bedding would be provided, and I noted as we set off the first morning that our horses were indeed laden with unknown stuff inside heavy cotton horse packs, which we perched on as we rode. When we arrived at our first camp site, a clearing beside a river, our guides got immediately to work, unloading the horses, spreading out the six-person tents, getting the fire going and a meal underway. Except for the fabric of the tents, our accommodation was made completely from scratch. With gusto, the guides lit into the nearby trees, ripping them apart for poles, tent pegs, even to make a rough rope to hold the tent poles together. They hacked down fresh branches from the trees for us to sleep on. When we ran a bit short of chopsticks, they just whittled themselves a new pair. I felt uneasy at the effect we were having on our immediate environment, but this was their xiguan (custom).

I was also curious as to what we would eat. Again, everything was from scratch. They made dough and cooked up a kind of flatbread, which we ate with pickles and tomatoes. With the same kind of dough they made noodles which they threw into soup with potatoes and greens. Breakfast was rice and chili bean sprouts, cabbage, and green bamboo. At another meal we had soup with cucumber and bits of preserved egg. To drink we usually had ma cha (horse tea, perhaps thus named because the dry tea looks like dried horse dung). When the dishes were done (with pine branches and ash from the fire), the guides would leap once more into the forest to hack down a few more trees, and create a huge bonfire to keep us warm until bedtime. Around the fire there was lots of singing and jokes, even some dancing with the heavy Tibetan coats which all of them wore with one arm loose.

At the end of our trip, we descended back into the town of Songpan with our guides singing, until we hit the town. Then they had to look sharp--heavy trucks and buses were scaring our horses. Back to real life. Or was it? Later that day, after washing up at a cheap hotel, I wandered down the main street. Among other exotic things, I saw a dentist on the street leaning over a prone patient, operating his drill with a foot pedal. Across the street, his rival was sitting beside his drill, playing cards while waiting for customers. I had to remind myself that this was indeed the year 2000.

The next day I returned to Chengdu, which had become hot and sultry over the few days I'd been away. In spite of the extreme pollution in Chengdu, I enjoyed my brief stay there. This is a bicyclist's city, with bicycle lanes equal in size at least to the car lanes. The bicycle traffic is so busy that at every intersection there is at least one bicycle traffic director. I ventured out on a huge classic Chinese bike with tires so bald that I was soon visiting a streetside bicycle repairman to fix a flat (it cost me 1 yuan, 18 cents).

Life in Chengdu seemed to be happening outside. At numerous teahouses and cafes people were sitting playing board games or just hanging out, watching the world go by. In one huge tea house on the grounds of Wenshu Monastery, I saw a fellow getting acupuncture needles stuck in his ear. In the warm evening, I went to a show of Sichuan opera, and enjoyed sitting in the fragrant fug of a tropical climate, listening to erhu music. I also bicycled out to see the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Centre, where there are four panda cubs, 8 months old at the time I visited. In the morning they were very active, playing with each other on a wooden frame, which they would climb up and fall off over and over again. They were enchanting.

The Grand Finale
Back in Dalian again, I became busier than ever and my life took on a narrow focus: work, eat, sleep. Early morning walks or bike rides, foot massage, head massage and a "cake set" at the Japanese cafe have been my main excitements in life over the past couple of months, although I did have one adventure in which, while exploring the coastal villages near here Susan and I stumbled on a swingset for adults, on a shell beach right at the edge of the water. A beaming old man pushed us from behind.

As I head into my last week of work, I am reflecting on the teaching here. It's been a struggle to pull some of these students into an adult world where they take responsibility for themselves. I dislike the role that I sometimes fell into (to my surprise and alarm), that of a nagging and scolding parent. However, for all the ups and downs, ultimately I am impressed with studentsí improvement. The other day in interviews I conducted for a speaking test, I was moved by how well most of them could speak on issues ranging from the environment to new technology in the workplace. They are appropriately naive, single-mindedly claiming that trees are more important than jobs, for example. After my own heart, they take their own chopsticks to the cafeteria to save trees. They are also concerned about "white pollution", the phenomena of plastic bags floating around, getting stuck in fences and trees. Air pollution similarly worries them. Maybe in their hands, this country will eventually get cleaned up somewhat.

I also remember some of the funny mistakes from student presentations and writings. There were at least two people who, while presenting about AIDS, told us that intravenous drug users mustn't "share noodles." One student, summarizing the life of David Suzuki after reading about him on a reading exam, came to the conclusion that he was a good socialist, while another said he was a famous VJ (Video Jockey). On listening tests, students often gave it their best guess, which nevertheless wasn't quite accurate: In a talk about how to be a good communicator, some misunderstood the point "allow for face-saving" to be "allow for face-shaving." Susan's new "winter jacket" became her "winner" jacket and "wonder" jacket, perhaps reflecting the students' faith in her superhuman ability to get them through that Business Management course.

Now I'm packing up my books, organizing my files, and throwing out the touching letters of apology from students about cheating on tests and firm resolves to do better in the future. Well, they did try. Now that we've come to the end of their first year in the diploma program, they're making summer plans. Many students told me that during the summer break they're going to learn how to cook and how to drive a car (the latter is a scary prospect--one student told me one of his three instructors told him he's dangerous). Many also plan to take more English classes to help prepare them for their business courses in September, but not all. I tried to tell the dangerous driver that he should take a summer English class, but he told me sincerely and regretfully that he had made an agreement with his father to "get life experience" during the summer holiday. The imagination boggles. As for me, I'll be heading back to Vancouver, my gu xiang, my hometown, my place of birth, the place that always draws me back.