Cathy in Asia

News from China #12 - December 2000

Boxing Day 2000

I’m sitting in our living room in the dawn light surrounded by the usual wreckage of Christmas festivities—wrappings, candle drippings, abandoned elf hats, cards strewn on all available flat surfaces. The kitchen—I’m trying not to think about the kitchen. As the sky slowly lightens to reveal another brilliantly sunny (and cold) day, I’m reflecting on the Christmas that has just been, the friends that were here, and the ones I’m missing. On this day of lull before the final exam period, I’m also thinking of the highlights of the fall term 2000.

One of the highlights was that I started swimming regularly. In September I swam a couple of times off the new beach, and after doing the front crawl (a rare ability in China) out to a buoy and back with Douglas, was surprised when a fellow dashed up to me to tell me "You could be in the Olympics!" (At that time the Olympics in Sydney was on everyone’s mind. China’s media was fascinated with its own athletes, showing the performances of Chinese medal winners over and over and over. After one evening at the Office Bar, I had every nuance of one particular dive memorized for life. In fact, we’re still getting Olympic footage on TV.)

As the weather turned colder, I set my sights on the new pool at the nearby Garden Hotel, a 45m by 25m salt water pool, naturally lit through a glass domed roof and side windows. When I arrive in the hotel lobby, look through the window and see the aqua expanse of perfectly calm water lit through with sunlight, I can hardly wait to get in it. On the other hand, I’ve become so accustomed to having the pool to myself that I’ve been known to leave if, on my lobby preview, I can see more than five people in it. However, as I’ve become more dedicated to the idea of getting the exercise, I’ve forced myself inside even when there are as many as ten people there. The problem for me is that most Chinese don’t swim in the pool so much as float in it. They float randomly, without watching where they’re floating. Grown women with water wings is not an uncommon sight, and there are stacks of rubber rings for hire, along with full SCUBA gear. If people do swim, they swim anarchically, in any direction they like. My own route is entirely predictable, but I’m the one who has to beware floaters, swimming lessons, and fins and tanks from the SCUBA divers on my way back and forth.

Although people don’t seem obliged to get out of my way, it’s not that I don’t attract attention by swimming in straight lines from one end of the pool to the other and back again. When I get to the wall, people wait underwater with their goggles on to watch me do a tumble turn. Once I was flagged down by an acquaintance who wanted me to show her friend how to swim. I learned that it’s not that easy to teach swimming—hence the tumble turns, which make it conveniently impossible for anyone to talk to me until I’m finished. I probably get more Chinese conversation practice from swimming than from any other activity, as people are curious to know how far I swam, how long it took, when I learned how, and how to kick properly; and while we’re at it, which country am I from? Where do I live? Where do I work?

Sometimes as I swim back and forth, I can’t help inhaling a familiar smell that’s unfamiliar in the context—cigarette smoke. There are ashtrays on the umbrella covered tables all around the pool, and pool guests sit around in bathing suits or hotel bathrobes smoking and drinking, or nibbling on munchies from the bar. They may even snack and drink in the pool. When you pay 38 RMB ($7 Cdn) on the weekends, and 28 RMB ($5.35) on the weekdays, you plan to stay a while and take in the whole resort experience. (I, on the other hand, bought a 100-visit pass at a discount.) I try not to think about what morsels of food might end up in the pool, but they surely can’t be worse than spit—yes, I’ve actually heard that familiar pre-hawking sound, and looked around in horror to see someone put it right in the pool. And worse. I just put my faith in chlorine and keep swimming.

The pool is swanky, and the attendants many. Two or three of them hang out in the change room; their job is to show you to your locker, and then to hold the door open for you when you leave. Beyond that, they just watch you get changed, or sometimes do some laundry in the showers. The other day a fully clothed attendant came out of the dry sauna, which I realized she had been sitting in for some time. Perhaps she’d been hanging up her laundry.

I’ve also started going to the Golden Imperial Hotel fitness center to use their gym, where there are brand new, practically unused free weight machines, a dance studio, a climbing wall, a putting green, a ping pong table, and squash courts. The only other people there usually are the gym attendants, who, like the pool attendants, watch me work out. Once there was someone else using the equipment—a woman dressed in a turtle neck sweater, black pants and black heeled shoes. Suibian (whatever suits).

Another new feature of our life here this term has been the acquisition of a VCD (video CD) player. Not for us anymore the small screen of a computer with a CD ROM drive of dubious quality. Now we watch VCDs on our TV. We’ve seen some classics, such as The Graduate, Sound of Music, Roman Holiday (a particular favourite of some of our students). There are a lot of really terrible movies with well-known actors in them, like the amateur Japanese one we saw with a very young Richard Gere. If the Hollywood stars are wondering whatever happened to the worst movies they ever made, I have an answer for them, they’re here in China. There are also very recent releases, but more often than not, these were videotaped in a theatre by someone with a hand-held camcorder. Watching these is like seeing the movie "live"—a latecomer blocks your view while he tries to get to the empty seat in your row, people chat and laugh. Sometimes it’s difficult to catch the dialogue, and if there are a lot of night scenes, you are in the dark as to what is happening. You also have to hope the camcorder operator has a steady arm, and he doesn’t decide to have a snack—those chip bags are noisy.

Some people buy VCDs, which cost 6 RMB ($1.20) per CD (usually a movie is on 2, sometimes 3, CDs). We borrow or rent (1 RMB ($.20) per CD). And how do we know what VCDs to choose when we go to the rental shop? Well, you can’t judge a VCD by its cover. Regardless of the actual content, the cover will show busty women, huge guns, and Hollywood stars who are not even in the movie in question. In addition, you never know until you’ve got it home if your movie is going to play or not. I’ve seen half of more movies than I can count (just one of the CDs would play). Undoubtedly worst of all is when you’re completely engrossed in a movie, your favourite actor opens her mouth to say something really important, and the picture breaks up into little squares on your screen, never to play again. If you take a movie back to the rental shop and report that the CD was defective, the girl behind the counter will say, "oh, really? That’ll be 2 kuai [full price]." In spite of the frustrations (by now they just make us laugh), we persevere with movies and find a few we enjoy.

So you see, with foot and head massages, facials, swimming and working out in upscale hotels, watching the latest movies, and having clothes tailor-made, it’s a bourgeois life that we lead here in the Zone. That’s no longer a crime in China. Indeed, wealth and the consumption of services and goods of any quality or authenticity is a good thing. In my Canadian way I find that crass and at times troubling but it’s the reality here.

I can at least vouch for the quality of the education that our students’ parents are paying huge amounts of money for, whatever their motivation (is it for the excellent education, or is it to get their children out of China? Or is it for one-upmanship, for the chance to say, "My daughter is studying in Canada"?) This past term has been the best of the three I’ve taught in China. There are 31 first year students in two classes, and they throw themselves into class activities with all their hearts (that doesn’t necessarily mean they get good grades, but they try hard). Perhaps the good spirit of this group is partly due to an influential class leader who pays rapt attention in class, helps and corrects the other students, and at the same time, cheerfully admits that she doesn’t study very well outside of class. She wears dog collars and chains (which sometimes grate noisily on her desk), and parts her hair (at present, dyed brown) in a zig zag pattern. Her Christmas card has screaming skulls on it, with "help me help me help me" written across it. A pop-up inside the card has a skull with an eagle above it and the words "Death before dishonour" outlined in silver glitter. Her own handwritten greeting is, "Year bring rich blessing for you and all you love," with an excited p.s., "This card is a radiant. In the evening, it is really so beautiful!" She’s the sweetest punk I’ve ever seen.

Some of the first year students were longing to know about Christmas—what did we do, what did we eat? I imagine they have some ideas from literature (e.g., "The Gift of the Magi") and from recent Western movies (e.g., The Santa Clause). But they wanted to know more details from their foreign teachers. So at the Christmas party on the 22nd, surrounded by dozens of blazing candles (I had explained that one aspect of Christmas is that it is a festival of light, and they took me at my word when decorating), we sat around big round tables eating delicious food and answering their questions about our Christmas traditions. After a delicious dinner, Santa Bill made an appearance and suitably scared all the students and made them laugh at the same time (when it wasn’t their turn to be given a present); then we played games, emceed by the pseudo-punk student and another girl. They conducted the entire evening, including giving directions to all the games, in English. That everyone played along by also speaking English was not only a courtesy to the two of us left in the room who didn’t speak Chinese but also to their spirit of fun in language learning. It was a great end to the fall term.