September 2nd, 2017

singapore sunset

back in my routine - good and bad

This was an odd week. I will describe it jumping around a little bit, starting with alcoholism and ending with better stuff.

Wednesday night i went out to the pub to do some homework and drink a cold beer. From the moment i sat down i was accosted by a very drunk school teacher. The amount of very drunk school teachers i meet at the bar here makes me weep for the kids of tomorrow. She kept leaning in and yelling at me and getting in arguments about the most trifling nonsense. I tried to be polite and play it cool, but eventually she started getting very handsy and - for the second time since i have been here - i had to literally push a woman back into her stool and tell her that consent is a fucking thing, and just because i am a friendly, open trannie drinking alone at a bar does not mean i give it. Fucking... ugh.

But then later on, after she got the picture and walked away, i saw her being the victim of a group of men who were taking advantage of her state to joke around. She was such a wreck she couldn't even open her purse or figure out how to pay. The bar doesn't have a bouncer, and pretty much everyone else was treating her as the evening entertainment, so i helped her through the process of paying and then walked her back to her apartment. I mean, in between all the ranting and raving she did share with me that her father was dying, so she was obviously hurting. Still, that evening fucking sucked. The cherry on the top was her apartment being inside a gated complex that you literally could not leave without a keycard. So i sat there after taking home my abuser, trapped inside a fucking gate until someone walked in and let me out. The whole night left me shaken and upset.

So of course i went out to the bar again on Thursday. That started out much better - i got in nice and early and chatted to the bartenders, with whom i can practice Chinese. At some point one of the hard party crew (also a teacher) walked in. He drinks hard and is not shy to augment the drinking with whatever other things find their way into this sleazy border town after the sun goes down. He is also a reasonably nice guy, if a little young. Due to a sequence of unfortunate events, two of which were free beers bought for me that i did not want, we ended up getting very drunk. We grabbed some awesome "on a stick" BBQ after stumbling out of the bar, where we proceeded to "gan bei" a few more bottles of beer.

I don't need to tell you i woke up with a truly hideous hangover on Friday. That was the first day i decided to "call in sick" to class, and i felt really guilty about it. But, honestly, i would have felt more guilty if i had showed up for four hours and failed to learn anything. Better my teachers use their time more productively. Also, i am very conscious of the fact that i am being judgemental as fuck about these school teachers getting blind drunk every night and going in and looking after children the next day. If becoming a manager made me more mindful about my own bad habits of going into the office after a big night out, seeing teachers do it has really woken me up. I am an alcoholic, i know that, i know drinking fries my brain cells and makes me far less successful of a person than i otherwise would be, but there's a line when it starts affecting other people's lives where it just seems terribly selfish to cross.

The start of this week was less depressing. On Tuesday i went out to see a movie with a Chinese girl i met at the bar over the weekend. Actually - the drunk local i helped back to the subway. Unlike most (well, all) of the laowai i have added on WeChat, she actually seemed like an interesting person outside of the bar so we caught up.

She introduced me to 煎饼果子 (jiān bǐng guǒ zi), which is one of the most epic things i have eaten in China. It starts as a flat pancake cooked on a griddle. When the pastry firms up, the cook cracks an egg or two on there and lets that cook in too, then adds chili and cilantro and 油条 (yóu tiáo)/churro and tofu and all kinds of shit. Wrap it all up and serve in a paper bag inside a plastic bag. You eat it like a burrito. It is amazing. Apparently it's usually a breakfast food, but it was a nice dinner. We paired it with some ciders and ate sitting on a bench in the park, then headed into the theater.

Valerian was amazing. I can count the number of movies i have seen at the theater in the last 5 years or so on one hand, but i am so happy i went to see this one. It is eye-poppingly gorgeous. It's like... Fifth Element, Avatar, Speed Racer kind of gorgeous. Such an awesome escape into a delightful science fiction world. Taking off the 3D glasses at the end and appearing back in the heart of this crazy futuristic real world city felt disappointing. I am not sure how well it's going to do in China, but it did knock the previous (local) summer blockbuster out of the number 1 spot. I hope they can recoup the costs, because it was a pleasure to watch.

It was a pleasure to hang out with F too. I hope we catch up again. She surprised me by saying her favorite movie was Cloud Atlas - which i haven't seen - and her favorite TV show was Sense8. I haven't watched season 2 of Sense8 since Netflix is not available in China, but season 1 was great. I really felt like i was watching the future of television when i watched it. Netflix is so perfectly positioned as the first truly international TV channel to make content that spans the world and connects with viewers everywhere. It's unfortunate the series has been cancelled, but i hope the idea inspires more shows like this. There is so much we could do with TV shows that celebrate the diversity of our whole planet and do not dwell exclusively on the American experience.

Tuesday night made my whole week worthwhile. I am still learning Chinese and getting far more comfortable talking about my day and my life with people using the very small vocabulary i have. Where i am the weakest by far is listening and understanding. I need more practice, but i am not sure where to get it. Probably not going to laowai bars all the time would be a good start.

I have started to think more seriously about finding work here. I still have the cash to study for a couple months without working, but even though work would suck up a huge amount of my time, it would also give me two other things - the opportunity to expand my cultural experience by doing normal/everyday things like renting an apartment, and the opportunity to make friends who are not all fucking expat teachers. I really don't want to work full-time, and i am not sure how i would feel about working for a big American company over here (those are pretty much the only companies hiring English-speaking software developers), but i feel like i am nudging up on the edge of what i can learn just through living at a hotel and randomly walking around.

In other news, the third cyclone in two weeks is going to smash into Guangdong province tomorrow. It's no Hato, so it seems we can breathe easy. I lived through a handful of cyclones when i lived in Brisbane, but i've never been somewhere where almost every storm of the season dumps rain. It boggles my mind that property developers are still reclaiming land and building highrises here with the sea level rising so rapidly. It sure is nice to live by/near the sea, but i do feel like my generation is going to see more and more of these low-lying cities decimated. I wonder when people will all pick up and move inland? Though i guess inland ain't much better, thanks to desertification. We're all going to die, etc etc. All the more reason to rent and not buy, heh.

Speaking of rent, i learned in class the other day that it is very normal to rent fully furnished apartments here. It's not just something for "digital nomads" (read: rich traveling businessmen) like it is in the west. I explained to my teacher that people in the west don't want to sit on someone else's couch or sleep in someone else's bed and she looked at me like i was crazy. "It's only furniture!" I KNOW RIGHT?!? There are many cultural values that i do not understand in China, but this is something i feel totally onboard with. What kind of idiocy is it that we in the west expect the poorest people - the renter class - to buy an entire house full of furniture and appliances and then pay again to haul it all over the place every time they move? It's crazy. You rent an apartment, you should get everything you need to live. Don't trash the place because when you leave for a better job or a better apartment or your own house, someone else poor is going to appreciate the stuff just as much as you did. How is this not the norm everywhere?

Sigh. Since i spent all day yesterday in this little concrete box with a hangover, i want to get out today. It's raining a bit, but perhaps i can find somewhere in the park to breathe in some green and read Kindle.
singapore sunset

more on language and culture

Now i have filled y'all in on the day-to-day, it's time for a more cultural post. It won't surprise anyone to know that Chinese culture is different to western culture in several ways. Hell, even in different countries of the west we have different culture. Even in the same country in different ethnic groups. So obviously things are going to be different. That's why traveling is interesting for me. But something i am struggling with is the way family and friendships work over here.

I have already touched on this in prior posts - the idea of home. In Chinese, the word for home is 家 (jiā). If you return home you 回家 (huí jiā). If you want to say at home, you say 在家 (zài jiā). But 家 also means family. So you know how all those Chinese dishes in Chinese restaurants are interchangeably called "home-style tofu" or "family-style tofu"? This is why. Home and family are very much linked together linguistically.

One of the first questions people (both locals and expats) ask foreigners here is your 国家 (guó jiā) - your country. For me that's hopeless. Born in England, don't remember any of it, lived in many other countries, father born in Kenya, but he's a New Zealander, living in Austria, mom born in Holland, living in Australia... I'm a Canadian citizen. I don't have a home country and never will. I just have the country i currently call home. Right now that's China. A few months ago it was Germany. But i don't have any roots there, it's just where i live and who i will low-key support if there is some sports event on that i otherwise wouldn't care about. This doesn't make sense to Chinese people, because no matter where they are in the world, they still feel Chinese.

Not only do Chinese have a home country, they also have an "old home" - literally 老家 (lǎo jiā). That is whatever town or village your family comes from. And we're not just talking about where you were born, or even where your parents were born, but as far back as you can trace your heritage, where most of your ancestors lived. Because of the rules around internal migration, historically Chinese would go out to study or work, earn money, then come back home - 回家. And even though plenty of kids have been born and grown up in the new boomtowns, they still identify as being "from" wherever that place is that their ancestors came from. Perhaps their family still owns a plot of land there, or their grandparents are buried in the area. They don't live there, but it's home.

I wonder if this ties into why rental apartments here are furnished (see my last post)? People come into the city with nothing but the clothes on their back, work and save all their money, then move out to buy a house closer to their 老家? I am not sure. Certainly many of the dialogs we have been learning talk about exactly this experience - move to the city, work lots of overtime, "eat bitter" and then buy a new house for you and your parents.


吃苦 (chī kǔ) or "eat bitter" is used in several Chinese proverbs to mean bearing hardship. We learned 吃得苦中苦,方为人上人 (chī dé kǔ zhōng kǔ / fāng wéi rén shǎng rén). It means something like: if you endure a lot of hardship, you will become a higher person. Everyone i have asked could recite it. Still, many of the young people i am meeting in the city today seem less like they are enduring the hardships of city life and more just enjoying the convenience. In a few generations perhaps their ancestral home will be as meaningless as it is in other countries full of immigrants.

Monday was what the laowai were calling "Chinese Valentine's Day", but it's actually called the Qixi Festival. Even though there are fuck all folk temples in mainland China (compared to Taiwan, at least) everyone still knew the folk legend. A cowherd and a seamstress fell in love and were married. But the seamstress was actually the daughter of a goddess and when her mother found out she had run off to be with a mortal they were cursed to live apart forever. Only one day each year they can meet, when the magpies build a bridge across the heavenly river. On this day in modern China people go out on dates and send flowers and gifts to their boos. It was cute seeing all the couples out and about and all the e-bike couriers zooming around with bouquets. But especially endearing was hearing these hip urban kids earnestly share an ancient Chinese legend.


Another thing i have bumped up against is how relationships work differently over here. We all know i screwed up by not bringing some fruit when i got invited over to K's house for the first time. I guess as a laowei i have no face to lose, but it was definitely a major faux pas. It happened again on Thursday when i was very hungry and mentioned it in passing, then was given a packet of Oreos. I don't like sweets/candy very much at the best of times, and i think they're about the worst possible thing to eat when you are very hungry, so i refused, but i could tell at that moment that i had screwed up. When someone gives you a gift here you have to accept it, even if you don't want it. And then politely dispose of it or re-gift later. For fuck's fucking sake.

Anyway, it's not just the gifts. Several words and behaviors are coded into the language in a very different way to English. The most awkward word i have learned so far is 羡慕 (xiàn mù), which is commonly translated as "to envy". Except here that's a good thing. If you 羡慕 somebody, you say it to their face, and then they feel happy or proud. I guess a better translation might be "i am happy for you that ABC" rather than "i envy you because of ABC", but i tried to explain this difference to my teachers and they didn't really understand.

A similar word that in English has a very passive-aggressive undertone is 适合 (shì hé) or "to suit". It's used in the sense of saying "that hairstyle suits you" or "that dress suits you". Saying those things in English sounds snarky - the implication being that the previous hairstyle or dress didn't suit. But in Chinese it's okay to say it, just like it's okay to say "you are fat". Commenting bluntly on people's appearance - both negative and positive - is not seen as judgmental, or perhaps just not in the same way that it is in the west.


I guess if i'm honest these sorts of things are exactly the same sorts of things i struggle with in the west. The idea of "home" and "family", or how to politely feign interest in things you don't care about, or comment on some aspect of a person you would rather not bother discussing. I notice myself remembering far more Chinese vocabulary related to food and travel and work than i do about friends and family and obligations.

Other things we are learning are words i can rarely find examples for - things like "better" and "worse" and "favorite" and so on. These are judgements i try to avoid, because i think everything has pros and cons and it's pointless coming down strongly on matters of taste. But of course these are also some of the basic building blocks of language so you do need to understand how to use them.

It's odd having my learning hobbled by cultural or emotional blocks. Perhaps this is why people say it's easier to learn languages as a child. Not because learning the language is any easier, but because you just accept the words you hear as what they mean on the face and don't imbue them with unnecessary subtlety or context. I suspect i am overthinking things a lot here. Especially given the very basic level i am on.

That said, on Monday i spoke for about 2 hours straight about my weekend with one of my teachers. Almost completely in Chinese, just dropping back to English when i forgot a word or hit a complex topic. I still can't communicate so comfortably to "normal" people - the teachers know exactly how much vocabulary i know, so they can correct blown pronunciation and don't throw too much complex stuff at me - but it felt really good. It's nice to realize i am making progress.