Monday, November 11, 2013

Episode Seven: Squat Toilets, Halloween, and Intitutionalized Heating

The Shaanxi Province History Museum is located in Xian and, apparently, it is second only to the Terra Cotta Warriors in relation to local pride. When encountering new people and engaging them in conversation, one of the first questions they always ask me is, “Have you been to the Shaanxi History Museum?”

The other question that is always asked is, 

Having a Scintillating time at the Shaanxi History Museum
Having a Scintillating time at the Shaanxi History Museum
"Do you cook?” I find this question odd and increasingly annoying. Yes, I cook. Does it look like I don’t cook? What do you think? We eat at restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Forage through garbage? Wait for fruit and nuts to fall from trees? What is the freakin’ curiosity (or obsession?) with asking the American woman if she cooks?

I shouldn’t be so sensitive. Maybe they read my blog about pancakes.

Back to the history museum. I am not big on history museums because typically they focus on things I am not only uninterested in, but positively bored by: wars; who was ruling at what time; who stayed in power for X number of years; and old, chipped, dusty pottery.

When we walked into the history museum, I was handed a brochure that said, “The Shaanxi History Museum has over 71,000 artifacts on display.” I knew I was in trouble.

After the first 1,000 chipped pots, I was ready to leave. Z protested even approaching the first dimly-lit room full of glass cases: “How long do we have to stay here? I’m bored.” “How could you be bored? You haven’t even looked at anything yet.” “I have looked, I have seen, I have determined. I am bored.”

It took me a few more minutes to reach the exact same conclusion.

A fisticuffs broke out between two Chinese men in the second room, an area displaying a dusty, dirty sarcophagus that enshrined dead horses and the chariot they were attached to (over 1,000 years old). I was contemplating how little my life is enriched by knowing that horses were attached to chariots and buried alive 1,000 years ago when the brawl began. I am not sure what the fight was about, but it was quite dramatic. That was interesting. I speculated that they were in disagreement about the appropriate humidity level or carbon-dating process on any one of the crusted artifacts. One man threw a water bottle and beaned his foe on the head after they had been pulled apart and were no longer within wind-milling range. I was impressed with the aim. The security guards looked on in boredom, rendered incapacitated by working in an environment devoid of light and oxygen for too long.

Creating zodiac animals by blowing warm sugar taffy
Creating zodiac animals by blowing warm sugar taffy
Once we had escaped to the sunshine, and our pupils had returned to their normal size, we were rapt watching a man on the sidewalk create sugar animals (every animal from the Chinese zodiac) using a glass-blowing technique and a taffy-like sugar mixture.
Z (monkey) and Simon (horse) enjoy their treats
Z (monkey) and Simon (horse) enjoy their treats
Those sorts of things are much more worthy of my attention than shards re-constructed into old cooking pots. But then, you know, I don’t cook.

One thing I did learn in the history museum: One significant war in China lasted 500 years. Five-hundred years? Are you kidding me? Get it together, boys. That is ridiculous. Women are far too busy to let junk go on that long. Women have got things to do, children to raise, households to run. Communities to build. The patriarchy leaves men with far, far too much time on their hands. They become idle and unimaginative. “What’s going on today?” “I dunno. Wanna go fight someone? Rape. Pillage. Ya’know? Do our part to keep the war going?” Shrug. “OK.”

I immediately thought of Israel and Palestine. The only hope for those two groups of warring peoples is to start electing some women.

What’s Blocked and What is Not
The Chinese government is not too keen on the free flow of information. People who are up on the news may remember five years ago when Google was trying to break into the Chinese market. The American news media presented Google as taking a moral high road. Google was reported as saying it would not negotiate with the Chinese government regarding censorship of internet sites. From the news reports I read, Google sounded like a voice for democracy and free speech.

Not to be so easily persuaded as to “more information is good,” the Chinese government had their best programmers create what is known in China as “The Great Fire Wall.” The Fire Wall is an amazing thing in that most of the information I really want to engage with is blocked by the wall. New York Times = blocked. Any URL with “blog” in it = blocked. Netflix = blocked. Youtube = blocked. Facebook is also blocked, but who cares?

Websites are blocked for two reasons (that I can discern). The first is that there is a free-flow of information and that means there may be a free flow of ideas that the Chinese government opposes or criticism against the Chinese government within that free flow. The second reason is that the site has been too overtly critical of China and the Chinese government. The New York Times is one of these. If you pay close attention to NYT’s coverage of China, it is always bad, backward, and foreboding. Recently my sister forwarded me a photo that the Sunday Times ran with small Chinese school children dressed in army fatigues with rifles, marching in formation. No story or information was included. I guess the editors at the Times thought the photo said everything their readers needed to know. My sister asked if Z had to march with rifles at school. Nope. Sorry. Cute little sailor uniforms and endless Tai Chi, yes. Little Moa Soldiers with guns, no.

The BBC and National Public Radio, blessedly, are not blocked. I use NPR a great deal for class (you can read the story as you listen to it; wonderful for English Language Learners) and on the weekends, Z and I listen to “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” (although we are doing progressively worse on the quizzes because we are so out of the loop news-wise).

What is more fascinating about the Great Fire Wall is that there are also endless parts of sites that are blocked. I imagine buildings and buildings full of computer hackers, paid well by the Chinese government, to troll through the World Wide Web and look for parts of sites that need to be blocked. For example, people here can access any university’s web site, but click on the “Job Postings” link, and you will get a frustrating, but friendly message, “This page will is not available,” with a little frowny-faced emoticon. As if I were asking it on a date. “Sorry! I’m not available!”

The page won’t load because some hacker employed by the Chinese government has decided it should not be allowed to load. In other words, you can look at school in the United States with the hopes of eventually studying there, but don’t be looking for jobs.

Why is the Chinese government so worried that people will get more information about the world? Because most Chinese people have been taught to believe that China is the best place, the best culture, the best reality that exists. My students, when referring to their country always say, “Our motherland” and “Our China.” My U.S. students never refer to the states as “Our America” or “My motherland.”

One of the government’s contemporary propaganda posters features a wee girl child with the simple words “China: My Dream.” Why is she dreaming of China? Because China is the best place ever. It is what fills her dreams it is so good. If she is dreaming of China, she certainly isn’t thinking that Western culture is interesting or seductive. She isn’t dreaming of studying abroad, or going to Europe, or traveling to America. China is the dream.

In my Newspaper Reading class, we were talking about the issue of government propaganda and censorship. There were protests last year when a progressive paper refused to run a Chinese-government issued “editorial” about how freedom of speech was dangerous (on the grounds that free speech threatened national security . . . hmm, sounds a lot like the Wikileaks argument the U.S. government made, doesn’t it?). My students had never heard about the protests. They weren’t reported in the Chinese press. I found the news reports on NPR.

Then I asked my students if they had ever heard of an artist named Li WeiWei. WeiWei has served time in Chinese prison because his art is too political (although he was imprisoned on charges related to “economic crimes”). I had read a lot about WeiWei and seen an American documentary about him, but my students had never heard of him. When I searched “WeiWei,” on my computer here in China, he did not exist. There was not even one result from my Google search.

I knew, however, that I could use itunes to find the documentary (apple and apple products are very popular here). When I found the documentary in itunes, there was no option for actually downloading the film. I could see it existed, but had no way to buy it, watch it, or download it.

When I got home, I used my VPN (Virtual Private Network, a way to sneak over the Great Fire Wall) and accessed itunes again. Using my VPN, I could view/download the film.

Searching for anything without the VPN gives me the fraction of the results I would normally get from Google.  Here, the information highway is really a row boat. With an anchor. In a very shallow lake.

Squat Toilets
I recently read an article on the local ex-pat web site, Xianese, about questions to ask when one is taking a job as a language teacher in China. One of the questions was, “Ask whether the toilet in your apartment is Western-style or squat.”

“Squats,” as they are affectionately called, are toilets that are a porcelain hole in the floor (direct access to the sewer line) with places on either side of the hole to place your feet. Most public places in China have squats. Many traditional homes have squats. Office buildings and shopping malls have squats. The university has squats. I don’t get why people have such an aversion to

On our recent Three Gorges cruise I was talking to an American woman who had accepted a position as a teacher in China. She said, “I really don’t care much about the apartment, as long as it has a Western toilet.”

To me, the kind of toilet available is really at the bottom of my list. Bed, yes. Windows, yes. Limited noise, yes. Free of rodents and roaches, yes. Kind of potty? Who care? Maybe because I used a squat for three years when living in Morocco, I am actually quite fond of squats.

In Praise of Squat Toilets:

-          They are far easier to clean; just dump a bucket over them and most days that will do the trick.

-          Because there is no “lid” to squats, they seem far less icky in public places; no need to “wipe the seat” or worry about what the heck you are sitting on.

-          Because there is no lid, there is no argument about whose job it is to put the lid down once a male has done with his standing –up business.

-          They use far less water . . . and as water is becoming a scarce international resource, why aren’t we all using squats?

-          Squatting is much better for you than sitting. Diana Nyad, former Olympic swimmer, currently sports writer for the New York Times, and general righteous babe, recently reported that according to research, core body muscles are best exercised by lowering oneself to a squat and standing back up. In fact, Nyad wrote that squatting twenty times a day is the best thing one can do for an aging body.

-          I’m annoyed by people who spend hours on the pot reading; good luck trying that on a squat.

-          I have never had a squat “back up”. The plumbing is so much simpler.

Anyone who has done any amount of traveling off the tourist paths in Europe, Africa, Asia or South America has encountered squats. What is the big problem? Squat and be happy!

Halloween in China
There is no such thing as Halloween in China. Children really don’t play “dress up” or put on costumes on a regular basis. Unlike in the States where on any given day you are likely to see a wee Superman in a grocery cart, or a Princess meandering through Target, or a fairy with glittery wings and wand casting spells in the park, I have never seen a Chinese child in any sort of costume or costume part (no capes, hats, wings, wands, antennae).

When we made the invitation for Zephaniah’s Halloween Party, it took me awhile to find someone who could translate “Wear a costume!” in ways that a Chinese parent would understand. Even then, one mother said to me, “Do you really want them to wear special clothes?”

Invitations went out in Chinese and English. Zephaniah and I planned the traditional American party games: pin the smile on the jack-o-lantern, pumpkin carving, candy toss, bobbing for apples, fall scavenger hunt in the garden. The one thing I could not negotiate was trick-or-treating. I asked a couple college students who live in dorms – thinking students would love a gaggle of trick-or-treaters coming to their door. The students were thrilled with the idea. The building manager, not so. Forbidden.

Instead, we had a candy hunt in the courtyard. The Chinese children didn’t know the difference.

Everyone with their carved pumpkins
Everyone with their carved pumpkins
Some of the parents stayed for the party. The activity that made one mother most nervous was “bobbing for apples.” Everyone’s face was down in the plastic tub working on capturing a crisp apple. Can you imagine the germs! Not only that, but the water in the tub was “raw” water (meaning it hadn’t been boiled and it was cold; as most Chinese will tell you, raw water makes you instantly and violently ill). What I saw as a “small bathtub for their faces,” this mother saw as germ warfare: giardia in action.
Bobbing for gihardia
Bobbing for giardia
To be honest, the water was really, really disgusting once all the apples had been retrieved. Snot, spit, hair, unidentified chunks and floaties.
Bobbing champ with his second success; Z's look of disdain (no success)
Bobbing champ with his second success; Z’s look of disdain (no success)
As these things typically go, the son of the woman who was most concerned about bobbing for apples delighted in the challenge. Her son could not get enough of sticking his face in the water in the hopes of biting an apple. Once he got one with his teeth, he dove right back in to get another. As his mother stood by, looking more and more green around the gills, I finally took pity on her and pulled him away from the trough. Besides, some of the other children wanted a chance.  I am quite sure she thought he would be dead by morning.
Three-time bobbing champ
Three-time bobbing champ

The children and parents went home after 3 hours, hopped up on sugar and having experienced their first American Halloween Celebration. Not bad for a rustling Sunday afternoon in November.

Before the sugar crash hit
Before the sugar crash hit

China November 2013 049
Helen, Z’s “one woman posse,” and her jack-o-latern

Bring on the Heat!
In China, the government determines when the heat gets turned on and off. In Xian, the heat isn’t turned on until Nov. 15. It is promptly shut off March 15. Regardless of the weather cycles and systems, this is a hard, fast fact. No heat until Nov. 15. None. Nobody. So don’t think you can go to the mall or the library or a friend’s house and get warm. It is just cold. Everywhere. The classrooms are freezing, but so is everyone’s apartment. The only difference is, we can carry around blankets at home.

Five more days of living without heat. It is cold. We are learning how to boil water and put it in bottles and take them to bed with us. I just thought of one more benefit of a squat: no cold toilet seats. By the time the heat kicks on, we may not be able to adjust. In our luxurious radiated apartment, we’ll probably feel like walking around in shorts and tank tops. Beach Party, anyone?

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