You Want Culture? Yeah, I’ve got your culture right here. Take a line—180º—and visualize American and Chinese cultures on opposite ends, then there are a few places in between. Our newest friend from Xi’an, Zhou Zhenglv, chatted me up on WeChat (a smart phone app that I’m slowly getting used to) that my MoWest colleagues were getting anxious to read more about what I am experiencing. Well, it’s been a month now, and during that time I thought I’d let the wave of it flow over me, savor it, and then try to put it all in some kind of order. So here we go, from the soothing and simple, to a mild reminder of how easy it is to be U.S.-centric, and lastly to the sublime.
Of the many things I wish to cross off my to-do list as an American in China, one is to drink more green tea and less coffee. I had heard about a tea shop across the main highway and wanted to go, so our friend, Tiantian, took me there one day. The experience was relaxing and informative, yet also allowed me to just “be” and take it in. One tea shop? No. The mall had a whole wing’s worth of amazing shops. They sparkle and shine. They’re filled with clay tea pots, porcelain tea pots, hand-crafted tea pots, large, small, glass tea cup sets, strainers, heating pots, tongs--enough bric-a-brac and tea sets to dazzle and make even the person least interested in buying a tea set (that would be me) want to shell out a few hundred Yuan just to have one. Beautiful stuff. Of course, there are the tea varieties that range in quality—extremely expensive puer tea (from 300 year old tea trees) to the much less expensive, but very pleasant, flowered jasmine tea. Yes, I may not have bought into the pitch that a small brick of puer tea from the old tree was worth me shelling out 1,000 Yuan (about $160), and I’m not much for accumulating “stuff,” so I didn’t buy a tea set, but I did end up buying plenty of lesser-quality-but-still-very-good puer, green, and jasmine flower teas.
As Tiantian and I roamed the halls and peered through glass doors and windows, the man pictured beckoned us into his place, inviting us to sit and talk and simply pass some time. I was hesitant because I had already purchased a few grams of tea from another shop and didn’t want to insult him by sampling his teas and then leave without buying anything. Tiantian assured me it was the custom to sit and enjoy and not to worry. I wish I remembered the proprietor’s name because he was pleasant and funny and warm and, I think, happy to have an American sitting with him. I liked him almost immediately. In his shop he only carried puer tea, which he explained was the real deal from ancient trees maintained and cultivated by the ancestors. I asked about caffeine content (he didn’t laugh) and he was taken aback for a moment, as if that was something with which to be concerned. He went on to say that puer has less caffeine than, and the medicinal properties far outweigh, what is found in green tea. His tea lowered blood pressure, had more anti-oxidants, and even helped stop male-patterned baldness. I was sold. I’m now drinking more tea and taking fewer trips to Starbucks.
Then there are the KTVs. Where to start with them, eh? Over the past few weeks, whenever I went anywhere with anyone, I kept seeing signs like New World KTV or Sunshine (committee?) KTV, and some others. I honestly thought they were television stations until Tiantian informed me they were karaoke establishments. Oh! Oh, oh, oh goody. However, they’re nothing like the karaoke bars we find in the states. These places are clubs that are laid out like hotels, with waiters dressed like bellboys (complete with vests and white gloves), beautiful receptionists greeting patrons at the reservation desk (yes, you have to have a reservation for karaoke), private singing rooms, sparkling disco-ball lights, polished floors, glass and brass and overpriced beverages.
A group of wonderful young graduate students who are part of the Xidian University debate team invited me for an afternoon of karaoke. How could I turn that down? Chen, the president of the team, and Summer, John, and Simon booked three hours during a late afternoon. After the initial pleasantries, John, in a sort of non sequitur, asked about my favorite NBA team. I told him I am a Lakers fan. He said, “Kobe Bryant!” “Yes,” I said, “and Magic Johnson and Kareem...” to a blank look. I can’t imagine his look any blanker if I’d said Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, so I asked him about his favorite player. Lebron James, of course. So, John has challenged me to a game of 21. I accepted (the glutton for punishment that I am). It should be fun. I liked them all, immediately. Their ease around me made me feel welcomed and wanted, despite the age difference. Even though I thought I’d stay for an hour, maybe two, and then head back to the apartment, I spent the whole time with them. It was a blast.
Imagine this: being in a 10x12 foot darkened room, with multi-colored lights moving in patterns over the walls. A wide screen TV is a few feet in front of a comfy couch, an electronic, touch-screen monitor is to the left. Thousands of karaoke videos are at the singers’ fingertips, 90% of the lyrics in Chinese. A waiter comes in, drops off some bottles of sweetened tea, a couple of bags of peanuts, and a plate or two of popcorn.
That was the beginning. The waiter tried to up-sell us on alcohol or sodas, but, of course, being students, my four hosts were content on the freebies. I offered to buy anything they wanted, but they would not hear of it. I was their guest. I could pay the next time (which I have found out is the way everyone gets around splitting checks). The waiter gave us two wireless microphones and left the room. Chen sat at the monitor and scrolled through the offerings. Everything was in Chinese. I asked if there was anything in English, you know, by Americans. Yes. He flipped through the screen—Usher, Eminem, Shakira, Lil Wayne, P. Diddy, and quite a few others, names that I knew, but their music? Ummm…No. Phew! I was not going to have to sing. He kept scrolling. Ah. There we go. Michael Bolton and Don McLean and John Denver. All right, so I did sing. Not a bad rendition of Michael Bolton’s version of Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” if I do say so myself.
Most everything that afternoon was sung by my companions. Chen loves to sing and sings everything with gusto. John has a nice voice for ballads and love songs (I explained what a ballad is). Summer has a lovely, sweet voice. Simon and I had our moments in a duet of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Yet, the highlight of the day (for me, not for them) was what turned out to be a sort of dueling karaoke. Another example can be found here. (You MUST click and watch. I mean it. Eyes wide, I held my chin up with the palm of my hand much like I did the first time I saw “What Does the Fox Say?”.)
Like I said, in between those two gems there was my failed attempt at “American Pie.” You see, I thought they’d all be interested to know what the song meant. I thought, yeah, they’re gonna want to know the significance of moss growing fat on a rolling stone. What is a lonely teenaged bronc’n’ buck? Can music save your mortal soul? But all I got was John telling me he likes the blues. I explained the roots to him. Nothing else seemed to stand out for them in Don McLean’s lyrics, though, and I knew I was SOL the day the music died.
However, I wasn’t too deflated. No. The afternoon was filled with hours of amazing videos, most of them filmed in China, Taiwan, Korea, and other gorgeous areas of Asia. There were humorous songs, upbeat/fun songs, and love songs with beautiful people, all very much like our Youtube music videos. I took it all in and thoroughly enjoyed my time with my new friends and look forward to more unique moments with everyone I have met so far and will meet in the months to come.