Cathy in Asia

News from China #11 - October 2000


Back To Work

On September 18, after an idyllic summer in Vancouver, I returned to Dalian. I stepped out of a taxi at my apartment building and breathed in the familiar, but harsh, smell in the air of baked concrete and dust. Then we were faced with lugging our heavy suitcases, computers, and hand luggage up the six flights of stairs to our apartment, which we did with the help of an eager neighbour (whom weíve never seen again!). Longing to wash after the long journey, at least our hands and faces, we found the water that issued from our taps was solid blackónot brown, but an evil black. It was a peculiar welcome back.

The next morning, the local clock chimed 6 a.m.; shortly after that the national anthem blasted from the nearby schoolís P.A. system. The newspaper sellers wandered around calling mournfully, wan bao le! (Evening paper!). It was time to get ready for work.

That first day most of the second year students looked confident as they sauntered in to the meeting room. The first year students, on the other hand, were a bit nervous about meeting their "foreign" teachers, and they were just getting used to their English names. Some of the names they had chosen for themselves seemed unusual at first, but then so had the second year studentsí, and we had got used to them. Last year there was Bean, Dream, ROM and Circle; now Iíve got Tom and Jerry, Leo and Neo, Kiki, Coco, and Fifi. The new students are keen and it was obvious that the second year students have coached them as to the expectations of the Canadian instructors (i.e., that we expect them to study every day and that we grade homework assignments and quizzes, not just one final exam).

While getting used to some new names in the first week, I also learned some lessons about "saving face". There were some students whose English and academic performance had been very poor in the previous year, and they had been advised to retake the first year courses or to take a term out and re-register in the spring. One particularly weak fellow who petitioned his instructors to allow him to take the second year courses in spite of his previous poor performance, and in spite of highly likely failure ahead, eventually had a friend explain to me that he didnít want to lose face by not continuing with his original classmates. These weaker students must be in misery already because the course work is far too difficult for them, but they will persevere, even fail, for the sake of "face".

I witnessed more subtle (and less desperate) face saving at the hairdressers, which I had visited very soon after returning to the Zone. A fellow there had flashed his scissors over my head with wild abandon, giving me a fashionable but impractical do. After a couple of days I decided to go back and get someone else to cut it again, and I explained the problem to Ms. Ma and asked her to accompany me to help me explain what I wanted. We met at the arranged time, but Douglas was with her. I asked him where he was going. "Iím going to get my hair cut," he replied. As we walked toward the hairdressers I explained that I was feeling awkward about having to explain that I didnít want the same fellow to cut my hair again. Douglas said, "donít worry." He walked into the shop first and asked for the fellow, and I asked for the da jie (big sister) who had cut my hair another time. And we were all happy.

The New China

In the two months I was away from Dalian, there were a lot of changes in the appearance of the city and also of the Economic Development Zone where I live. Everywhere people are hard at work, continually changing the face of this place. Labour is cheap, evidenced by the dozens of workers on each of dozens of construction projects on any given day. From appearances, working conditions for these labourers are poor. Workers seem to work all day, every day. (Even our program staff worked seven days a week for most of the summer, and the people who work at the hairdressing shop are there anytime I want to drop in, and all of them are always there.) The noise of whining saws and drills and banging hammers reverberates throughout our brick apartment building from before 7 a.m. up to 10 p.m., any day of the week, as many of the apartments are being renovated. In addition to long working hours and few days off, workers here seem to have minimal rights or benefits. A "Big John" portable outhouse for construction workers, for example, is unknown. Instead, if you get too close to a construction project, you will find yourself sidestepping little piles of excrement in the trees, and if youíre really unlucky, youíll see the perpetrators squatting here and there.

The lack of regard for workersí rights extends also to those impacted by the work: the noise from the renovations is tiring, but worse is the danger: a loud "whump" outside signals large bags of construction debris being heaved out an upper story window on to the entrance way below, with little regard for who may be exiting the building unawares. Construction supplies, and worse, open manholes, lie in wait to trip the unwary, particularly after dark. (The number of accidents suffered by our faculty while out and about has occasioned the remark, "donít you foreigners know how to walk?") At home or at work, advance notice of work that will directly affect you is almost unheard of. The other day I was working intently in my office when a drill suddenly started up, apparently heading straight through the wall behind me into my back. I jumped out of my chair, and found that in fact my office wall was still intact, but that a man was drilling into the wall just outside my front door. In another instance, our water was shut off for all of a Saturday, with no warning or explanation. We were the lucky onesóthe apartment dwellers one stairwell over were without water for four days straight, with no word as to when they might get it back.

With all this noisy work going on, itís good to get out as much as possible, especially while the weather is good. The heat and humidity of September has been replaced by colder days, some days with an icy north wind, but on days without that wind howling down our necks, the days are beautiful (mostly sunny). The October days are the best ones to be out on the hills, checking out the changing colours of the leaves, and surveying the place that is temporarily my home.

The other day while up on a ridge of the hills close to the sea, I looked over the Zone (or the Zoon, as the Chinese English pronunciation would have it) and was struck by how rapidly it is expanding, by the density of the hotels, apartment buildings, villas, evidence of all the work I can see and hear going on all the time. Since last July, the beachfront has been radically altered to welcome the hordes of holidayers who will surely come. A large building I remember from last year has disappeared with no trace. There is a new road--the old one already looks like an ancient forgotten relic, grass sprouting through the broken pavement, where it ends unceremoniously, cut off by the new road. Elsewhere, building of high rises continues apace, but brick laying on the wide sidewalks is the mainstay for most labourers. Sidewalks that were being laid when I left in July have already been ripped up for work underground and will doubtless be laid again. Outside the big shopping center near here a vast expanse of marble plaza has replaced the brick tiles that had been laid there not too long before.

So the appearance of this rapidly developing part of China is a modern one. Chinese people value what is new. Again and again, students describe Dalian, or Shenyang, or Shanghai (or any big city) as a beautiful city because "it has many tall buildings." From my perspective, tall buildings do not make a beautiful place. But modern is beautiful to the Chinese; old is backward. One "old" idea of China is that everyone rides a bicycle. Not so. Not one of my students confessed to owning one. I said, "what, this is China, the land of bicycles!" They all looked embarrassed. In the new China, no one will have to get around on their own power.

If public art is a measure of what people value, then here again it is modernity. In public places all over Dalian and the Zone there are huge sculptures of geometric shapes, space age domes, arches and spirals, vaguely futuristic pieces that donít have much of a human touch. The piece of public art more representative of the mood in this region today is a bigger-than-life sculpture of a man in a downtown square. He is striding forward on roller blades, a briefcase flung behind him in one hand, a cell phone in the other, at his ear. His exhilaration is evident and everything about him says that China is a happening place. Like the people of Northeast China today, the students with their cell phones, beepers and computers, the property developers, perhaps even the labourers, he is looking forward rather than back.