American Convenience Stores, Lousy Russian, Onion Bulb Skirts

The Good

1. Mexican food – You know what? An even moderately-ambitious Chinese entrepreneur could get rich growing avocados in China. Every ex-pat I know subsides into a state of deep melancholy every time someone mentions guacamole or avacados. On my last night in El Paso I ordered a side of guacamole, just to eat plain, and if I could have ordered a bucket instead of a small bowl, I would have. Any meal that includes guacamole is already decent, and if you can add carnitas, beans, and a frozen margarita, you’ve got something that qualifies as borderline transcendental.

2. The new international terminal at the Beijing airport – Wow. That’s some structure, sports fans. The interior space seems to stretch on forever, with the ceiling’s curvature barely noticeable. Oh, and there’s a Burger King. I know most of you American readers shrug at that, but as far as I know it’s the only Burger King in the country. I know I shouldn’t, but I love me some Burger King. All this is great, because the old international terminal was about as warm and welcoming as a storage shed. Every time I flew out of there I wondered, “Seriously? This is the hub airport in the most populous country in the world?” The new one’s a better fit.

3. Prayer Group – I’ve been meeting with two of my friends, Ben and Lonnie, to talk and pray every Wednesday night, and it’s been just what I needed. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I always expect people to be shocked whenever I start sharing the immense tangle of thoughts, questions, and doubts in my head, and it’s a blessing when I find out that not only am I not a nutjob (or not entirely a nutjob), but that other people have similar doubts. And to be able to pray about them, not just loft them into the air, is a blessing.

4. Thrift stores and used book stores – In the U.S., of course. Few Chinese people can fathom the concept of buying second-hand clothes. In Taian I once bought an old Chinese military jacket, and my students all looked at me like I had a tree branch growing from my forehead. When I was back in the States I bought three complete changes of “nice” clothes (i.e. slacks and shirts) and two winter fleeces for a grand total of $30. Oh, and outside of the public library, there’s no single institution I enjoy more in America than the used book store. Solzhenitsyn in paperback for $1.00? Doctor Zhivago for the same price? Does it get any better?

5. Class – The longer I teach, the more I love it. Even on days when I don’t want to go to class, as soon as I get into class I’m glad I’m there. I recently decided to teach in the month-long summer program here and do you know what I realized when I decided? I was happy to do it. Most summer jobs begin with the begrudging realization that your financial situation is doing its best imitation of the Hindenburg disaster, but this time around I’m actually motivated as much by enjoyment as finances. If anything, my financial situation is more like a gently sinking dirigible low on hydrogen, or perhaps a lightly-punctured hot air balloon. Not the Hindenburg at all!

The Bad

1. American convenience store food – Sweet merciful heavens, but there’s strange work afoot in the fast-food industry. If you want a perfect example of the bizarre paradoxes in the fabric of U.S. culture, you need look no further than gas station convenience stores. This last time around I walked up the street to the Circle K, and saw a sign on the window for a combo meal which included a cup of some sort of specialty coffee and a sausage-esque product that looked the way I would imagine a stick of live plutonium would if wrapped in fiberglass insulation and put in a bun. I don’t even remember what they called the thing. It started with a “t,” but that’s all I remember. It had the same basic color as wood polish. It might have been wood polish. Just a big chunk of dried-out wood polish rolled up in a tube. With a side of coffee. Because nothing says quality like caffeine and synthetic meat.
But what’s hilarious is that elsewhere in the store they had a whole display of fresh fruit. It was probably the chain’s begrudging response to whatever lobby handles nutrition these days. Here again, paradox sets in when you realize that each piece of fruit is so waxy and full of chemicals that eating one is about like eating an apple-scented candle. With chemicals. So it’s really not much of a victory. But that’s America: we like good coffee, but we also like radioactive meat tubes. Fresh baguette and candle fruit. Good wine and Boone’s Farm. The list just goes on.

2. The size of things in the U.S. – I know I sound old, but I swear every time I go back to the States things get bigger. I seem to remember there being a fairly conservatively-sized “regular” option for candy bars. Now if you buy the regular and leave the store it looks like you’re carrying a baseball bat in a wrapper. The king-sized versions each have approximately the same surface area as Finland. And the drinks? Well, you get the idea. They should just hand out swim fins and a snorkle with each one and maybe then Americans would exercise more. While they’re imbibing massive quantities of processed chemicals, mind you, but exercising nonetheless.

3. Lack of communication – Someone from the FAO’s office called me a few days ago to ask if I knew any other foreign teachers who might be interested in helping with the summer program because they were still looking for quite a few. This same FAO neglected to even inform us that the program existed. I found out from our ERRC director, but the other teachers haven’t heard a word about it. I wonder sometimes if the Chinese have all developed some sort of low-level telepathy where information is passed wordlessly between them. Or if they expect there to be telepathy.

4. My Russian – This isn’t entirely accurate. Technically, to use a possessive like “my” implies some meaningful connection between the thing being possessed and the possessor. “My” dog, for example, or “my country,” or “my baseball-bat-sized Zero bar.” I possess Russian in the same way the Sahara desert possesses water. It’s there, but you’ll probably die before you find it. Part of this is due to the fact that I simply don’t learn languages well when faced with anything but regular interaction with people. Lists of vocabulary are utterly useless, and so, to a great extent, are textbooks. I meet with a Russian friend of mine every week, and I can speak a few simple sentences in the course of a conversation (“I have two sisters.” My friend studies in America.” Things along those lines.), but when the extent of your studying is a thirty-minute or so patchwork conversation, you can’t expect to make much progress. I’m working on it. In the meantime, it’s made me realize just how much progress I’ve made in Chinese, which is good because speaking Chinese oftentimes feels like the Alice in Wonderland “one pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small” approach. One day you’re on top of the world, the next you’re an infant. Fun.

5. Dust storms – The north is prone, ever since China’s “development” required the elimination of just about every tree north of Beijing, thereby removing the natural barrier against the howling winds and dust from the Gobi and Mongolia, to massive, epic dust storms. I rode back from class today and it felt like I’d fallen face first into a sand castle. I really wish they’d play the Lawrence of Arabia theme song on our campus loudspeakers when one of these storms blows in. It would make the whole experience more enjoyable.

The Ugly

1. Roadside foliage – I’m a little torn on this, honestly. I love the idea of having more greenery in Tianjin, and the new walking paths by the canal are a nice touch, even though the canal in summer smells the way I’ve always imagined the river Styx does, so doesn’t make for the nicest walking tour. But the way they’ve planted the new foliage just doesn’t work for me. For starters, there’s the fact that all the trees are transplanted (obviously), and look horribly out of place. They’re trees, of course, but they just don’t look, well, comfortable. I appreciate the shade, and I love hearing the leaves rustle in the wind, but the city in such places often feels like the urban equivalent of a guy walking into a bar with a brand new set of hair plugs. Technically, yes, it’s hair. But not his hair.
Then there are the flowers. On many of the medians in Tianjin the city has placed potted flowers in rows, surrounded by tiny little white fences that might have commandeered from Heidi’s house. I don’t know; they just don’t work for me. Can you picture Heidi working on an assembly line? Same thing.

2. Onion skirts – I don’t claim to be any high-and-mighty judge of fashion, so when I say I think something’s ugly you should be aware that I might just as easily be a philistine. (“You, Rob? A fashion philistine? Surely not!”) But what’s with the onion skirt? A lot of Chinese girls wear these skirts (or maybe they’re bloomers or skorts or something) that flair out at the bottom and look, well, like onions. I can’t figure them out. A sizeable percentage of the students on our campus look like they just finished a shift at the chocolate lake in Willy Wonka’s factory.


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