Micro-Shorts, What’s Up With Koreans?, Mammoth Project

1. Post-graduate life

Wow. Double wow. If you’re a nerd (all right: an academic; but really, I have no problem being a nerd), there’s no better lifestyle than paid study. Actually, there is: foreign paid study. Not only am I getting paid to study, but I’m getting paid to study. . .by the Chinese government. My uncle Johnny once pointed out to me that this was a small step forward in lessening the trade deficit with China. They’ve still got the biggest stockpile of U.S. dollars on the planet. . .but they also just bought me a hard-back copy of the Complete Works of Haizi to add to my book collection, so it’s one small step for (American) man, and you can figure out the rest.

2. Classmates

The only thing better than getting paid to be a nerd is to be with a whole lot of other people who are also getting paid to be nerds. My Chinese classmates have thus far been an absolute joy. They’re not at all the sort of Chinese people I was used to teaching. How many people do you know who, like my friend Xuebin, enjoy reading Immanuel Kant? Not many. I doubt whether Kant enjoyed reading Kant. Oh, and I finally have a cross-cultural literary discussion. Three cultures (Chinese, Korean, and American), and the common language is Chinese. That’s already pretty unique. Every Saturday morning about 7 of us meet in a local coffee shop to chat about a given topic. One week we discussed the works of Haizi. Another we discussed feminist literary theory. Most recently we discussed the effects of Daoism and Confucianism on modern Chinese literature. Great stuff. I don’t always understand everything that’s said, mind you, but I understand enough to enjoy the conversation. It’s a pleasure to be with a group of Chinese students who love to engage literature, philosophy, and life.

3. Good professors and Mammoth Projects

I’ve written before (I think) about Dr. Li Xinyu. I’ll probably write a lot more about him. For the uninitiated, he’s one of China’s leading experts on Lu Xun (arguably China’s greatest modern writer), has published numerous books on everything from 19th-century Chinese intellectual history to contemporary Chinese poetry, has a beard that makes him look like an ancient Chinese sage, and has no problem speaking his mind about anything, regardless of modern orthodoxy. Recently my friend Xuebin, several other classmates, or tongxuemen as they’re properly called, and I went to visit Dr. Li. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution against the Qing Dynasty, which is possibly the single biggest event of the 20th century for Chinese people. Dr. Li has been asked to write a book about it, a project which he has delegated to his graduate students in order to get them more involved and also (presumably) to help them get published. I’ve been included in the mix because I presented a short paper in one of Dr. Li’s classes on the New York Times coverage of Sun Yat-Sen and his rival, Yuan Shikai. Dr. Li wants me to expand my research and write a long paper to be included in the book. For me, it’s a great opportunity. However. . .the paper has to be around 30 pages. In Chinese. Gulp. The longest thing I’ve written so far in Chinese is an 11-page paper on the effects of anarchism on early Chinese literature. And it really wasn’t very good. 30 pages? Yikes. Still, it’s a great opportunity, so I’m going for it. As the Chinese say: jia you. (I have no idea how to translate that. It’s sort of like saying “Go for it!” or “Rah rah!”.)

4. Not living in Beijing

There’s a rivalry of sorts between Tianjin and Beijing. People from Beijing (foreigners included) tend to see Tianjin as a sort of overgrown backwater. People from Tianjin tend to see Beijing as a needlessly crowded vortex of stress and friction. I tend towards the latter. I was recently in Beijing for several days, and while I had a fun time visiting friends and eating at restaurants we don’t have in Tianjin, I was still glad to get back. There’s something much more laid-back about life here that Beijing lacks entirely. I feel it as soon as I step off the train. The Chinese call Tianjin the biggest village in China, and I can go a certain distance with that description. It has the feel of an urban area that’s surprised at itself. It’s the kind of place where a nice Indian or Thai restaurant is a source of pride rather than something everyone expects. Oh, and I don’t care who you are: Tianjin’s Chinese restaurants are FAR better than Beijing’s. I think sometimes Beijing’s so interested in being hip and modern that it can’t remember how to be Chinese. In Tianjin you can find a good noodle place or cheap restaurant anywhere. In Beijing it’s started to become a real effort to do so.

5. Cheap cold noodles

My personal favorite thing to eat during the summer is ??, or “cold noodles.” It’s just what it sounds like: noodles which have been boiled, then chilled and mixed with various goodies: chili oil, bean sprouts, shredded chicken, diced tomatoes and cucumbers, sesame sauce, you name it. Combine that with my favorite summer drink—a bottled lightly-sweetened green tea drink they sell everywhere here (chilled, of course)—and you’ve got a fantastic summer lunch. I’ve also started adding raw cucumbers to the routine. Perfect.

The Bad

1. Heat

Sweet merciful heavens. I’m really not even sure how to describe how hot it is here right now. Imagine that the government put together a top-secret research team and built a spaceship that could fly to within 100 miles of the surface of the sun, and you were selected to be aboard the craft during its maiden voyage. Along the way, you developed a bad fever and felt like your blood was boiling in your veins. Then, a thousand miles from your destination, the ship’s heat shields turned out to be slightly less than effective, thus raising the temperature inside the ship to 300 degrees. And then. . .what the heck. . .the pilot decided on a whim to turn the ship’s heating system on. And make you run laps. In snowsuits.
It’s hotter than that here.
Is it actually hotter than the sun itself? I’m not sure. It might be. I can imagine scientists saying that’s impossible, but I’ll bet none of them live here. The big problem isn’t even that it’s that hot outside (which it is, to an extent I’ve rarely experienced), but that our primary mode of transportation requires physical exertion in said heat. In Houston in the summer (or El Paso, or anywhere hot), you sprint to your car, crank up the air conditioner, then eventually arrive at your destination and sprint into another air-conditioned space. Here, you go outside and get on your bike, at which point you’re already sweating. Then you bike somewhere (it doesn’t really matter where; if you bike from the bike rack to the front door you’re drenched in sweat), get off your bike, literally dripping, and go inside, where it may or may not be air-conditioned. Most Chinese people have a real thing about air conditioning. They like it to be cooler than it is outside, but not cool. Traditional Chinese medicine’s central concern is the balance of hot and cold forces, a concept which carries over today, so that most people believe if you go from a very hot place to a very cold place (i.e. an air-conditioned room), you’re pretty much asking to be ushered into the family crypt. That means most of the buildings you visit today are cooler than outside (a description which these days could be said of the surface of Mercury), but not comfortable. Let’s see a show of hands: who’s able to relax in a room where the thermostat is set at about 85 degrees? If so, you need to be here. We’ll trade.

2. Construction

What is it about modern countries that makes the leaders fear green, picturesque places? I think sometimes China’s leadership is on some kind of crusade to eliminate not only every old building, but every mark of greenery in the country. Yes, they’ve set up parks, but they’ve also, for no reason that I can see, plowed up the large grassy area outside my dorm. They have to be preparing to put in either a parking lot or a new building. What else could it be? A greenhouse for orchids? A garden so that the students can eat fresh-grown vegetables? Ha! I should probably count myself lucky the space isn’t big enough for a Wal-Mart.
Really, though, this is modern China in a nutshell. Last summer they finished landscaping a beautiful park here in town and made admission free (it wasn’t before). I love that place. But then they plow up half the open spaces on campus. That’s the way it works all across the country. “We will now plant 2 million trees!” (hooray!) “Because we were so nice about planting trees, we’re now allowed to dump millions of gallons of raw chemicals into our waterways!” (Sigh. I didn’t need water to drink anyway.) “We’re going to sign every environmental bill the U.N. puts forward!” (hooray!) “But we’re also going to subsidize the automobile industry and cause the skies above Tianjin and Beijing to take on the color and texture of dishwater at a soup kitchen after split-pea night!”

3. My recent part-time job

I never thought I’d ever say I was happy to get fired, but that’s exactly how I feel. A month or so ago I started a part-time job here helping Korean students prepare for the SAT. They all go to international schools and so speak English pretty well. The main attraction for me was the money. I was making 200 RMB per hour (about $30 U.S.), which is a princely sum here, especially considering I was working about 13.5 hours per week. That’s WAY more than I made teaching at the university. Just one problem. Well, two. The first was my boss. I really do hope she’s not representative of Korean bosses generally, because if she is, the Koreans really are in trouble. She was manifestly incapable of offering constructive criticism, preferring shouting, insults, and accusations. We had a misunderstanding early on about when I needed to be at work. She said 8, but the students never showed up until 8:30, so I figured it was all right to come a little later since I’d already prepared my lessons and corrected the essays. She didn’t say anything for five or six days, which in and of itself is strange. An ordinary employer would chew you out the first day, and that would be that. Day 6 I showed up and she went completely nuclear: she shouted, stamped her feet, threw things against the wall, swore at me, and did everything except physically assault me. I just about quit then, but I decided to try to patch things up with her because, well, the money was too good. But she chewed me out another time or two, and made a fellow teacher cry when she flipped out over a simple question. No thank you.
Problem two was the state of chronic fatigue Korean students are always in. I’ve gotten tired of putting things into the “it’s just their culture” file. When you make 16 year-olds go to class 13-14 hours per day in the summer, and then expect them to do homework, that’s wrong. I don’t care if that makes me sound insensitive. I had students showing up having slept 3-4 hours. One girl was nodding off, and when I asked her how she was doing, she said, “Oh, I’m just tired. I had to start my homework at 2:00 this morning.” Er. . .say what, now? I said, “So you didn’t sleep at all?” She said, “It’s all right. I slept for three or four hours.” I had another student who got frequent nosebleeds which he attributed to lack of sleep. And the saddest thing was that the students were all so nice: respectful, hard-working, cheerful whenever they weren’t half-dead from fatigue. To see students of that caliber being ridden into the ground is just heartbreaking.
All that to say that when my boss said last week she didn’t need me to come in this week to work (I wasn’t going to work past this week anyway), I walked out whistling a happy tune. (And no, I have no idea why she didn’t want me to come in this week.)
(Random funny aside: Hannah, my English co-worker, and I were walking back from a day of class once, and the cicadas were, in the words of Thomas Merton, “frying their music in the trees.” Hannah gets this annoyed look on her face and says, “I really wish the Chinese would take those speakers or whatever they are out of the trees.” I frowned. I had no idea what she was talking about. “Speakers?” I said. She gestured vehemently at the trees we were passing. “Yes, speakers! Whatever’s making that noise!” “Er. . .do you mean the cicadas?” “What are cicadas?” she asked. It turns out they don’t have cicadas in England, and when she got here she assumed the Chinese had put some sort of weird noise-devices in the trees. And it’s a testimony to the weirdness of modern China when I say that’s not outside the realm of possibilities.)

4. Library hours

I’m fine with the concept of a mid-day siesta. Actually, I’m all for it. But does the campus library really have to close for three hours in the middle of the day, and for another 2 hours at dinnertime? And does it really require that much effort to keep it open during the summer for more than the Monday and Friday mornings it’s open now? I mean, it’s not like the employees are in a back room cracking rocks with sledgehammers, or are running on a giant hamster wheel that’s powering the campus. (Although if they were, it would explain more than just the library hours.) I know everything in China traditionally halts during the lunch hours, but couldn’t we restrict that? Oh, and while I’m on the library subject, why is it we can only check out foreign-language books for two weeks, but Chinese books for a month or more? Sigh. I need answers, people! Why do you think I keep you around?

5. People who smoke in the locker room

I’m developing a pathological hatred for locker-room smokers. No, there aren’t signs saying you can’t do it, but I’ll never cease to be amazed at the sort of person who can go for a nice, long swim, then jam a cigarette into his head before he even changes out of his swimsuit. A naked Chinese man smoking a cigarette is not a pleasant thing to encounter when you’re in that mellow post-swim mood. You couldn’t at least wait until you were clothed?

The Ugly

1. The sky

I’m not kidding: it looks like someone pan-fried the sky. Or, if you want to get particular: wok-fried it. If you’re roasting in the heat and you look up and see a blue sky with the sun beating down, that’s one thing. When you look up and see the inside of a gumbo pot, it makes you want to pull down the shades and hide.

2. Microscopic shorts

I never can figure out if Chinese women really know the vibe they’re giving off in the summer or not, but when you’re walking around in heels and shorts that exist more in the imagination than in reality, you’re giving off a particularly, er, (let me thumb through my mental dictionary and find a more polite word than skanky) lascivious air. When you can see butt cheek (and you can here, on occasion), things have gone too far.

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