Family and friends still ask, “So, what’s it like?”—as if there’s an easy answer to that question. There really isn’t one. The differences and similarities of everyday living in China versus living in the west are grand and nuanced, weird yet strangely endearing for this American who has tried for years to understand what it is we do as humans—one who has attempted to put some of it into narratives short and long, with hope that he has gotten it right. Just saying that is limiting, though, so this entry will be a test of my skills (and I fully expect to fail, miserably) because there is just too much to capture in words.
I’ll begin with the material. T-shirts are popular in Xi’an. A statement is made with the choice of T-shirt worn for the day and that is not unlike what we do in America, so this falls into the familiar. Young people here might choose fashion over statement because many of them, I think, don’t have a clue what the (mostly) English words mean. I have seen and been bewildered by: “Puppies are for potatoes” (great alliteration, but I’m not sure spuds are a minority that needs puppies to support them); “Valt Diznep” with an image of Tweety and Sylvester (just wrong on so many levels); “Madonna Louise” with an image of Lady Gaga (and I’m sure it was the Lady); and my favorite “Wǒ xǐhuān Paris” on the front, with “J'adore Beijing” on the back (I wanted this one). My numerous Kansas Racquetball Association T-shirts are met with similarly confused looks, so I guess I fit in.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that there aren’t any POS cars in Xi’an. Oh, there are many old and decrepit three-wheeled electric motorbikes carrying payloads of vegetables or cardboard or packaged goods, but the automobiles here are relatively new, within the last ten years to brand spankin’ new. Unlike Americans, the Xi’anese don’t care much for Japanese cars because, they say, the interiors are made of cheap materials—so Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans are not in the majority. I’d rank the popularity range as Volkswagen, then Buick as a close second, then Ford, then Chevrolet, then BYD (Chinese made), then Peugeot and Citroën, then Skoda (Czech Republic). I haven’t seen any second-hand cars, which is really odd. There is no market for them, I suppose. Then again, it’s possible that the surge of middle-class buying power in the last ten years has created something of a new-car status among the forty year olds and younger. Anyway, you just won’t see a wheel-well-rusted-out-80s-model-Chevy-Caprice-with-one-bumper (and an emergency do-nut tire on the right rear side) traveling down the road. So Xi’an has that going for it.
The people. The people are amazing. They’re friendly and warm, curious and kind. They love anything western and seem genuinely accepting of my difference. The warmth they exude when their eyes meet mine conveys a feeling of being welcomed into their world. On the other hand, I’m not used to being an oddity and don’t like being given unquestioned entry into the campus recreational facility when everyone else must show identification. I head to the track every day for a two-to-three mile walk. The infield is decayed, old, and emits an unpleasant odor, yet there are three or four mini-soccer games going on while a hundred or more of us walk or run around it. Toddlers and pre-teens ride their trikes and bikes while mothers, fathers, and grandparents smile with pride at their cuteness. The love of family is clearly evident and the open affection that men have for their children is much different than what is found in the States.
As for the students, well, I honestly cannot say that they are much different than MoWest’s. The system is different, though, and as English majors they take upwards of ten to eleven classes per semester. Plus, the fourth-year students have pressure to find work once they graduate and often don’t come to class. My students—the ones who do show up—mostly work hard and want to improve their English speaking and writing skills. I love them. But, the familiar? Okay, I’ll try one. Here’s an email I got: “Dear Dana Hi! I'm [student’s name here]. I'm sorry that i cannot attend your class. I got sudden deafness. Doctor told me that i have to stay in a quiet environment and have infusion. I will e-mail my homework to my classmate, then they will help me hand in my homework. I'm sorry” (Unedited, except for the student’s name.) I finally got around to emailing him back, although it was three weeks later. My reply: “Dear [student’s name], I’m sorry to hear that. However, this ain’t my first rodeo.* In America, the students often get something similar. It’s called Sudden Death Syndrome. When this happens, grandparents and step-grandparents who are alive sigh with relief and feign grief because it is not they who have passed. The students, like you, aren’t seen for three weeks, if at all. Get well. Dana.”
*My first rodeo was at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, where I watched Sue Pirtle capture one of her eleven World Women’s Rodeo Championships. (A tip of the ol’ cowboy hat to Bill Church.)
There is also the very unfamiliar. China has a national holiday around the beginning of October. My syllabus reflected class work and due dates with that first week in mind and I thought I had it all covered. Then, about a few days before the holiday, a student asked what we were going to do for Sunday. Sunday? Yes, Sunday, they all replied. In order to have off for the Monday class, we had to make-up the lost time on Sunday. Actually, I was confused about a seemingly arbitrary decision that some days during the holiday had to be made up and others didn’t. I had to hold class on Sunday for the one to be missed on Monday, but wasn’t required to hold class on some other weekend date to make up for the one missed on Friday. My reaction was similar to Tina Fey/Liz Lemon’s “Whaaa….uuuck?” In the end, the Sunday was changed to Saturday (that was supposed to be better) and I understood that it is just the way they do things. Okay, so…can anyone imagine the state requiring teachers in the U.S. to teach on a Sunday? To work one extra day in order to have another day off? Yeah, neither can I.
A mixture of other observations, random and unrelated: There are many magpies on campus. They act like magpies, shriek like magpies, fly like magpies, and look like magpies, except they have blue jay markings. They’re not black and white, like the ones found in Colorado and other states. They’re light blue with dark blue feathered heads and tail tips. Pretty. There are street sweepers here and I know that Kay and Zephaniah are very familiar with them. They’re weird, though. They spray water everywhere, all over the bushes and trees lining the roads, while loud speakers on the trucks play super annoying tunes to warn of their approach. The most popular tune is “It’s a Small World,” with “O Tannenbaum” a close second. The college campuses are very dark. I guess street lights waste too much energy, so there aren’t a lot of them. I got my first haircut last Saturday and it was done pretty well. My students asked where I went. I told them. They asked how much I paid. It was fifteen dollars. They gasped and said I was rich. I’m not. They told me that I shouldn’t tell anyone how much I paid because then everyone would think I’m rich (and a stupid foreigner for paying so much). They said the same thing about the Chinese smart phone I ended up buying. (Inexpensive, actually, when compared to an iPhone.) The main campus where I live has a big, long, labyrinthian building that has seen somewhat better days when the Soviets and Maoists got together to design and build it. I marvel at the lack of innovative architecture, darkness of its hallways, and distinct latrine-like odor hanging in the air as I walk through it.
At the end of October I’m taking a day trip, which will be one of the first of many (I hope) trips around Shaanxi province and other provinces during my stay here. So, the next installment will be about that, my hike in the mountains this coming weekend, and a Chinese wedding. Stay tuned.