Saturday, March 20, 2004

**I am working on post about St. Patrick's Day that I was going to post a couple of days ago. That's not working out, so here is something a bit shorter about the city.**

The students are slowly warming up to me. In my most difficult class, the class with the three bad girls (who I've moved to the front of the class with positive results), the students have actually started to ask me personal questions. "What do you do in your free time? Where do you eat? Do you like to go shopping? Do you have any friends here? What are your plans for the weekend?" This came as a quite a surprise, and relief, as all I usually get from this class is blank stares and timid glares.

We talked about shopping and they told me that the shopkeepers are probably ripping me off because I'm a foreigner. "I know," I said gravely, then in pantomime, I illustrated how I shop. The first step, I explained, after item selection is to approach the shopkeeper and ask "Duo quan?," how much? (The students were impressed that I had come this far already.) Then the shopkeeper gives me some outrageous price, then I say "wo bu dong," I don't understand. (They laughed.) Then I gesture for the shopkeeper to write it down for me. The shopkeeper does so. I look at the outrageous price, put my hand to my chest in shock, gasp, let out a dramatic "bu hao!," no good!, then quickly walk away. (The students liked this.) Inevitably the shopkeeper calls me back, we haggle and I walk away with the desired item and less money in my pocket than I should have put out.

"I pay too much!" I lamented. "Because you are foreigner," they said as if it wasn't obvious. As I already had my students' attention, I taught them the verb "to bargain," and asked them how much I should really be paying for things. "Start at 25%" confirmed several of the girls, "only pay a little more." "25%?!" I asked. I really was paying much to much. "Yes, next time we help you," they volunteered. "My mother is very good at bargaining," I told them, "if the shopkeeper says 100 kuai, she's say 5 jiao!" (If a kuai is a dollar, 5 jiao is 50 cents) They laughed. "Because she is Chinese," the students concluded. Then one girl, one of my three bad girls, so aptly said, "all mothers are good at this."

As indicated my students' favorite pastime, capitalism is alive and well in China. You can buy almost anything here in Dalian (except corn tortillas and refried beans) and on the weekends, you can buy it in the streets. On the 10 minute walk between the bus station and Carrefour (the French supermarket) you'd be hard pressed not to trip over any of the dozens men and women hawking wares from their arms or from carts or sacks set up on the sidewalks. Peddlers flank either side of the wider sidewalks and from their plots they yell out at passerbys. On any given Sunday on any given sidewalk you can find skewered meat hot off the grill, roasted corn on the cob, dried dates sold by the ji (Chinese mass measure), apples, pineapples (peeled, with the eyes removed), socks, pantyhose, lace curtains, red bean mochi, foreign and domestic cigarettes, posters, CDs, hair pins, shoelaces, belts, lighters, shoes, rubber slippers, candied hawberries, strawberries, grape tomatoes, toilet paper, super-absorbent cleaning cloths, kitchen knives, Q-tips by the hundred, peanuts, roasted chestnuts, cast-iron kettle popped popcorn and even puppies--tiny, furry, puppies showcased from a duffle bag. (I put all of my self-control into not stopping for the puppies. If I did I know I'd have problems with the school for bringing one home.)

I made my way through pavement exchange to meet Brummie and Michael at Carrefour last night. Brummie invited me and and through me, Michael, to a laowai party. Every other the month, the foreign teachers at his school, Liaoning Normal University, get together to indulge in wine (a luxury), cheese (more of a luxury) and English and French conversation (a welcomed change from the Chinglish we normally hear).

The party was hosted by Rodney, a sharp, nearly-sixty, retired teacher from England. There were also a few French teachers, an Italian teacher and several Chinese English students. The only other American was Bob, a pasty faced face man from southern Illinois with long, stringy white hair hanging from a balding head. Bob, who looks like he left his 50s at least a couple of years ago, spent much of the night occupying the attention of the few young Chinese girls in attendance. (A note to my male pals reading this: PLEASE COME TO CHINA. Americans are few and far between and the only men the Dalianese see are dirty and old and on the prowl for a young Chinese girl to snatch up. If you guys came, at least there'd be a range--you'd be dirty, young men on the prowl for a young Chinese girl to snatch up.)

The conversations, as I can see it only appropriate when a group of teachers get together, revolved around teaching and the differences between Chinese and Western schooling. These conversations generally boiled down bitch sessions (You have overhead projectors?! I dream of overhead projectors! We still use chalk at my school!), which was good, as it seemed that everyone needed to do a bit of venting. What was interesting, though, was that the Chinese students there joined in with their own complaints and observations. This I have never seen before. The only explanation that I have for this sudden release of independent opinion and voice discontent is that, being in a group of Westerners, the students felt safe enough to do so. Not only did they gripe about their educational system and make suggestions for improvement, they also griped about their lot in life in general.

I talked with one girl, Ashley, who spoke very good English and decent French, for some time and she told me about her own early 20s crisis. She asked me why I left Los Angeles when I studied filmmaking and I told her I didn't like it and thought that it was more important to travel and study as much as you can when you're young. "Will you go back to work in the movies?" she asked. "In one way or another I would like to," I said, "but we shall see." She nodded in agreement. "I understand," she said, "I had a job after I graduated for more than a year. It made me very unhappy, very depressed. Like I was suffocating." These were her words exactly. "So I quit my job and now I study French only."

We really are all the same. I used to think that the affluence in the U.S. and the insatiable need to "keep up with the Joneses" or whoever happened to be on television that week, were, in large part, responsible for the culture that has bred the unhappy 20-something. While I'm not sure if I've changed my mind, yet, the phenomenon is obviously a lot more widespread than what my limited eyes have seen. If there was ever a group of people to develop a way to live without ever having to have a job, without a question in my mind, my generation would be it.

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