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The Last Time I Saw Anshan – You’re Always A Foreigner In China
I am not a tourist, just a teacher. Actually, I’m a literature professor, currently employed by a university in Indiana USA and teaching for a Sino-US program at a university down in Ningbo, China. Maybe I will write about Ningbo later, but now I want to write about Anshan. But I don’t want to write this as a teacher of writing*.
Since I spent two years of my life teaching in Anshan, which is in northeast China, I had some experiences which I will never forget. I had never been out of my own country before — never — not even to Mexico or Canada, as much as I admire those two countries. So what did I do my first out — I travel to the opposite of the world to teach at a technological university, even though I am a humanities person? My new colleagues at the Anshan University of Science and Technology couldn’t figure out that one.
At a Christmas dinner thrown for all the laowai (foreigners) in Anshan, the mayor thanked me for coming there to teach for a salary that was comparatively low. I told him that I was there to educate the students, not to train them to pass exams. Preparing for exams and the amassing of points are important to Chinese students. He seemed to agree with that concept – but who knows what he really said, or what he really understood me to say, since our conversation went through a translator, the head of foreign affairs who was in charge of all the foreigners on our campus?
I later learned that the Chinese often don’t say what they really mean or feel anyway. Nor do they always print what you tell them, as I discovered when I was interviewed more than once by local newspaper reporters. They love giving toasts and love listening to glowing speeches — mainly those given by themselves. I once was given an award by the city for contributing to the economic growth, and to receive this I had to give a speech on television. I never quite figured out what I had done to deserve this recognition, since no one came to my classroom to watch me teach. The city big-wigs seemed to like my speech, but who knows what I really said when the translator finished with her version?
When I read one interview which even included my photo (the least flattering of the photos they had taken of me), I realized that they were revealing information that I had not given to them. The reporter included in the front page story the fact that I was a diabetic (type II), information that I had not supplied through our translator. I purposely did not supply that personal information because I had already discovered that many Chinese look down on people with ailments as being weak, just as they reportedly look down on people who were elderly. It became obvious in short order that one of the heads of the foreign affairs office had given out my personal information, something that is against the law in the US. We also don’t ask people to give out their ages in the US, something I had to explain repeatedly when I declined to reveal my age or how much money I made.
Many Chinese have a figure in their heads which tells them how much money one should be making at a particular age. If that particular figure does not correspond with how much one is making, that person is not considered a success in their eyes. Anyway, I was asked my age almost as often as I was asked by many parents the first time they met me if I would tutor their child privately. They wanted their child, as I was told, to go to a better university than those in Anshan.
This last sentence partially explains why I encountered many teachers without degrees – many Canadians and Aussies who made no bones about how much they liked to drink. This changed when the province of Laioning raised their standards for the university positions. Many young teachers had to return to their home countries while older teachers had to find a position in a middle school. An intelligent colleague and good friend from Canada, a distinguished scholar with an advanced degree from Columbia University, was dismayed when he discovered what he felt was a preference by a university in Anshan for a lesser-educated young male teacher who worked very little in the classroom and mainly showed DVD movies to his students.
I discovered that, throughout China, students majoring in English or linguistics were required to take English names. Some of them were quite imaginative like “Sea, Sky, Cloud, Magic, and Potter.” I also had students with even stranger names like “Sunny, Silence, Galahad, Ice, Secret” and Japanese-sounding names like Hotoe. I told some of them that if they went to a job interview with a western employer using such names, they would not be taken seriously. Some names were so ridiculous that I asked them to change them. Usually, they did. One girl’s name sounded like something one would find in a nude centerfold for a men’s magazine, so I asked her to change it without telling her why. One bright young man refused to give up his chosen name of Appleyard (a brand name), so I called him Applesauce or Apple-seed in front of class. He took the teasing quite well but never gave up his name. Later, he became one of my biggest fans and still writes to me today.
Right before I left China, Applesauce told me that perhaps my experience in Anshan would seem like a dream when I was back in the USA. He was correct. Only a few things – like observing grown men spitting on the floor in public, men sitting topless in a restaurant during hot days, and men and women both jumping in front of other customers in a queue – might be considered more of a nightmare than a dream.
Some visiting professors have noted the Russian influence in China. One can particularly see that in Anshan in the spare, utilitarian architecture. One can also see the Japanese influence, particularly in the construction of the huge steel factory, which occupies a considerable portion of the Anshan city map. A lot of Chinese, I discovered, really hated the Japanese for their World War II atrocities. Once, when there was an anti-Japan demonstration, my young Japanese colleague had to lie low in her apartment.
Lights are often turned off in the daytime inside grocery stores, banks, and hospitals because of the expensive coal-fueled power. Once or twice, when shopping in a nearby grocery store, I sang to myself (to the tune of ‘Strangers In The Night’) my own song “Shopping In The Dark.” This would also work to the tune of Fred Astaire’s ‘Dancing In the Dark.’ Since no one could understand me, only I could appreciate my own sense of humor.
Many signs and labels throughout Anshan are misspelled or badly worded. An example are the badly spelled menus in pizza restaurants. Even the many-floored bookstore in Anshan was not without incorrect word usage. I have encountered many punctuation and spelling errors in Atlanta – particularly the misuse of the apostrophe – but the errors in Anshan beat all records. One sign on the beach read: “Accusing Phone for Tourists” followed by a phone number. Below this, the same sign read: “Seeking Help Phone on The Sea,” so if you are drowning in the water, you can evidently use a telephone to call for help. Quite convenient. If one really has a few moments to kill and wants to find cheap laughs, try reading the labels on the condom packages.
In our residence which, at their request I had labeled INTERNATIONAL HOUSE, lived a young Korean teacher who didn’t speak English but who bore the word “CASH” written across her rear end in large white letters. My British colleague and I thought this was a howler; we jokingly speculated that perhaps she had had a second occupation and was making sure any clients understood her terms quite clearly. Who says it doesn’t pay to advertise?
Speaking of advertising, read the backs of DVD cartons, the sections translated into English. Sometimes the descriptions have nothing to do with the DVD inside. Sometimes the credits are for one film while the content description is for an entirely different movie. This is, of course, the sign of a pirated DVD. Often the English translation has been done by a computer. Good luck. If you can, avoid pirated DVDs, even though they are practically everywhere. They are often crap. Some are filmed in a movie theatre. Usually, the newer the movie being sold, the more likely it is to be a pirated copy. The best DVDs that I found in China were copies of older films – often classic films. I was delighted to find many widescreen movies of the 1950s rendered in beautiful wide images. I also found many Italian neo-realism films on the shelves in Anshan. These are particularly valuable to a film scholar, but I doubt that they were hot sellers in an industrial area like northeast China. The owner of the spare little shop always seemed glad to see me materialize in front of his vast display and usually pulled back a chair for my comfort.
An Irish colleague made the mistake, however, of hauling 200 pirated DVDs back to his home. He was stopped in Amsterdam where he lost his stash and had a pay a huge fine. If you must buy and take pirated DVDs out of the country, put them in DVD albums and mail them to yourself. As I mentioned, I would avoid the pirated DVDs. If you must see a particular film, just wait a while until a better (and legal) copy appears. I’m a nit-picking Virgo (born in the year of the Monkey), so I could not keep an inferior copy of a movie. Fortunately, the shop-owners I got to know took back the bad DVD without question. This is why it is good to go to the same vendor each time; let him or her get to know you. Avoid those vendors who yell “DVD. . . DVD. . . ” in your ear when you walk by. I also ignored those vendors who came up to me and whispered “sex. . . sex. . .” in an effort to try to sell a soft porn movie. Just because I am American does not mean that I am sex-crazed like those characters in many American films. Nor do I carry guns or drive fast cars like Bruce Willis or Matt Damon.
By the way, unless you drive a Sherman tank, don’t drive in China. In Atlanta, the stoplights are often ignored because some idiot is speaking on a cell phone. In China, cell phones are likewise ubiquitous and everything is ignored at one time or another. You know those white lines that separate lanes in the street and highway? In China, those are only suggestions. Taxi drivers are likely to drive anywhere – sidewalk, cow path, bike path (if you can find one). Bikes and scooters are everywhere, and like the their counterparts in four-wheeled vehicles, they often obey no laws.
Pedestrians seem to wear an invisible target on their backs and are often honked at by just about everything that moves. To their credit, the Chinese are practically oblivious to bleating horns. It was only this laowai who got angry more than once and utilized profanity that few of the locals could understand. A Canadian colleague used to pound on car hoods if a vehicle turned too sharply and threatened to flatten his foot. When he displayed his middle finger to one driver, I asked if they knew what that meant. The Canadian insisted that they did, but I had my doubts.
You are likely to see anything on a scooter. One young woman was even nursing her baby while driving her scooter through traffic. And next to that shiny new car in front of you, you are likely to see a mule pulling a vegetable cart.
Food: if you suspect that the Chinese food in northern China is anything like the food for Americans found on Chinese buffets in Atlanta and other major cities, you might be in for a shock. The worst that I encountered, in my non-gourmet opinion, was in a slowly spinning restaurant atop a hotel in downtown Anshan. I was getting used to seeing chicken sold in grocery stores with the head and feet still in place, but seeing the chicken feet served separately as a delicacy gave me a clue as to why many Chinese looked under-nourished. If copious amounts of salt or overly boiled meat served in what they called the hot pot (supposedly originated in Chongqing) is to your taste, come to the Global Hotel.
Speaking of shopping at grocery stores, by the way, the nadir of my Chinese shopping experiences was when my British colleague and I spotted a severed dog’s head on display next to packaged cuts of meat. Hey, dog’s head under glass. What can I say? Step aside, you French chefs.
The best food in China, I found, was the Korean barbeque, down the street from the university. In the summer, you will find spicy barbeque sold on long spits along the streets. It is not like the BBQ sold back home. Forget southern BBQ sauce. If you like your meat very spicy, you are in heaven. If, like me, you don’t, be careful. Ask them not to over-spice it (if you have a translator dining with you). If you are a fan of good pizza, go to Chicago or Italy. If you like a fried egg in the middle of your pizza, along with pineapple and cherry tomatoes, you might like the pizza in Anshan. PIZZA HUT is a bit expensive in Anshan but KFC is the most popular American franchise that I saw in town. In Atlanta, KCF has competition from Mrs. Winners and Church’s and Popeye’s. If you like KFC even a little, you will really love Anshan, provided you get to the restaurant early – such as 5:00 am. These places, like McDonald’s, are packed. In America, I would rarely go to a fast-food franchise, but being homesick for American food in China – even junk food — can make one do strange things.
Restaurants and soft drink stands are everywhere in Anshan. In Beijing, particularly inside the vast Forbidden City, vendors will even come up to you on a bicycle and try to sell frozen water. If you can find an empty closet on the street, someone will surely open a small restaurant inside. Food in these places is often very inexpensive. (Sometimes the Chinese fail to realize that the words “inexpensive” and “cheap” are not interchangeable.) If you don’t need a receipt, it is often cheaper (no one wants to pay taxes). Again, get to know the owners by smiling a lot. They don’t expect tips (in some places it is against the law to accept tips). Expect the other customers to talk about you. Expect them to stare. Just be careful. If someone bumps into you or shoves printed matter under your nose, this is often a ruse to distract you while a second person lifts your valuables.
If you use a translator when you explore the city, make sure that the translator knows you very well and likes you. My attractive young translator was approached by merchants who wanted her to help them jack up the price on an object, such as a jade bracelet for my mother. In return for helping them over-charge me, she could earn a bribe gift (as a piece of the action). My British colleague understand and spoke Chinese. When merchants tried that trick on her, she spoke to them in Chinese. This shocked them, of course, and they apologized profusely or told her that they were only joking. Yeah. Right. When young boys would stare at us and point, she would tell them, in Chinese, something like “You’re a rude little boy.” Shocked expressions on peoples’ faces are a hoot, aren’t they?
The best thing is to learn even a little Chinese. They will be surprised if you speak a Chinese word or two; this will make them wonder how much Chinese you actually know. Never tell them. A colleague from Taiwan told me to never let anyone know how much Chinese I could understand. If they think that you know even a little Chinese, they will be careful. Remember that many Chinese are ostentatious. Appearance (or face) is important.
It may sound like I didn’t like Anshan, but the opposite is the truth. The Chinese city is chaotic but alive. It is colorful and full of . . . yes. . . character. Character to spare.
Ningbo lacks many of the things that Anshan has. . . things that I miss. The emails I received from my former students and a couple of my colleagues in Anshan, answering the missive I had sent out in a mass mailing shortly following my return to China after being back in Atlanta for a year, had told me that I would like this southern city better than Anshan in the industrial northeast of China. The only reason they could give, however, was that it was more developed.
Perhaps. Ningbo is certainly larger, spread out flat like a map. Maybe it lacks the large number of half-finished streets and sidewalks that often disintegrated into powder, the rubbish-choked alleys and creaky mule-drawn carts, but it has its share of traffic congestion and egocentric drivers, unprotected pedestrians, and daredevil bicyclists.
But being a developed city means that it is rare that I can see a sunny day. Only after heavy winds or an occasional typhoon that sweeps in from the ocean and causes the evacuation of low-lying areas of coastal cities like Shanghai does the sun reveal itself in a hazy blue sky for almost an entire day. Only then am I able to glimpse the mountain ranges to the south – the shorter range that is darker because it is nearer, and the taller range that is dim but still visible as it cuts a stalwart outline into the horizon. Only then, by looking to the west through the windows of the alcove where I sit working at my laptop that is perched on the L-shaped ledge, or on this desktop in the study, can I see the vast terrain that includes the southern section of this newer section of the city with its numerous high-rises and projects under construction.
However, that phenomenon is usually short-lived, and the shoulders of the terrain, in the following days, once again recede into the polluted blanket of fog that keeps them covered like a huge, misty shawl. Yes, Ningbo is certainly developed.
It is also much more difficult to get around town than it is in Anshan. I rarely had to use city buses in Anshan, but here in Ningbo they are necessary and extremely over-crowded. Taxis are very hard to get, and the drivers, like shop-owners, are much less friendly — at least to laowai. The northeast is noted for being a friendlier part of China. It is also noted for being a seat of crime and corruption (the latter even touched on in a National Geographic issue). Maybe.
But like my Canadian colleague told me in an email from his own country when I was back in Atlanta, “Give me chaos.” He was right.
Now that I am back in China, I can say the same.
Give me chaos. Give me Anshan.
*My articles about my experiences teaching writing in China are elsewhere on this web site.
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