An American in Chengdu


December 31, 2009
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It seems to me that the assault of Christmas is so total in the US that it can’t fail to induce a certain cynicism in most sane

The Wangjiang River on Christmas. There are a few lanterns above the trees on the left.

people. The mandatory shopping! The carols! The decorations! The carols! The sweets! I try to ignore it for two months, and then I go home, where the tree is already up and decorated. I put the presents I brought into gift bags, and there it is: Christmas, with little effort required on my part.

This year, however, I felt there wasn’t going to be much of a Christmas unless I made it happen myself. It happened that my last spoken English session with the doctors fell on the 25th, so it was obvious what the theme of that day’s lesson should be. But how to stage a non-depressing Christmas party at 10 am in an unheated, fluorescent-lit classroom? This would require some preparation.

On my trip home I stocked up on candy canes, some decorations, and miniature stockings. I found more decorations in China. Since I don’t have an oven, I got the number of a local woman who delivers bagels to a friend and, with Samantha as a mediator for the rather complicated transaction, put in an order for cookies shaped like angels and Christmas trees. I chose a song to teach the students (Santa Claus is Coming to Town) and a movie to show (Elf, for which I put together a vocabulary sheet). I coordinated a Secret Santa gift exchange among the students.

All this paid off on Christmas morning, as the students were wonderfully enthusiastic about everything from getting their pictures taken with “Santa” (me in a Santa hat), to opening presents, to the napkins I’d bought that had Christmas tree designs printed on them (apparently they’re just used to the white kind here).

That afternoon I went to a small get-together hosted by a Canadian and a Scot, where the broken remains of the Christmas cookies were a big hit. We ate treats and chatted, played a trivia and charades games, and had a white elephant gift exchange in which everyone was too polite to take anyone else’s gift.

We moved on to someone else’s apartment for dinner, an informal but bountiful spread of Sichuan dishes. I headed home around 10:00. Near the bars and clubs along the river, Christmas didn’t look much different from any other Friday night in Chengdu, though perhaps it was a little busier. As I crossed a bridge I saw people lighting fires under red lanterns, and stopped to admire the result: star-like points of light rising up to keep the moon company. This may be a holiday tradition, but I suspect that, like dodging trained monkeys, it’s just something to do when you’re out on a weekend night.

In conclusion, I’m still not sure what exactly Christmas means in China, though it looks like an excuse to decorate, wish people merry Christmas, and perhaps have a party. But I had a great time in my role as Christmas ambassador.



December 24, 2009
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The move to the new office reminded me of a rant I’ve been meaning to post for some time, on the subject of Chinese furniture. This picture, of the table and one of the chair in my apartment, is a good illustration of my reasons for complaint. Note that the table has two levels. The bottom one could, I suppose, be used to store a napkin holder, condiments, or anything else that didn’t fit on a laden table. Or diners could use it to play backgammon during the meal. Yes, in theory, the possibilities are limitless. In reality, though, I never see people using these under-table shelves for anything. Their primary effect is to make the table simultaneously too high (I feel a bit like a munchkin sitting at one, and after awhile my shoulders begin to ache) and too low (my knees don’t fit comfortably underneath).

And then there is the chair. It’s made out of wood, and lacks even the basic concessions to the human form that Americans expect of, say, metal folding chairs. More comfortable chairs are certainly not difficult to find in China, but this one is typical of what usually greets my posterior in places such as hotpot restaurants and Chinese language classrooms, both of which involve sitting for upwards of an hour and a half.

Exhibit B: My new work desk. It's a great desk. Except for those pesky ergonomics.

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New office

December 23, 2009
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Before I left for a short trip to the States a couple of weeks ago, Samantha and I went to scope out our “new” office building. It’s actually an old building where Samantha used to have her office, but it’s been undergoing earthquake repairs. I was excited to see it, especially given that one doesn’t see many of these traditional buildings left around Chengdu.

Only a few people had moved in so far, and Samantha claimed a spacious office for us. She explained that it was past the office charged with the correspondence-course students, who have to show up by the hundreds twice a semester to take care of something or other in person. She didn’t want people coming by our office every few minutes asking where the correspondence-course office was, a problem we should avoid in her chosen location. She procured keys and told me to come to work in the new office on my return.

A few days in to my trip, however, she emailed me to say that the vice dean had decreed I should have an office with a heater, which meant a smaller one than we’d selected, and one on the path to the correspondence-course office. I’d finally learned to cope with unheated offices with the help of long underwear, an electric foot heater, and hot tea, so I was a little unhappy that the vice dean had chosen this time to treat me like a delicate foreigner, whether I liked it or not.

The smaller, heated office is spacious enough, though, and will be a nice place to work once the parade of students coming by to ask the whereabouts of Teacher Zhao passes. We tolerated it on Monday, but on Tuesday I found Samantha hiding out in our old office across the street, avoiding distractions.


December 2, 2009
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My 30th birthday was Sunday, but I did most of my celebrating on Saturday. Cecilia and her mother had me over for a

Cecilia's cake. The raisins on top spell "birthday" in Chinese.

birthday lunch, which was also attended by Cecilia’s girl-cousin (who has changed her English name from Rose to Phoebe), her boy-cousin, two aunts, and an uncle. Cecilia’s mother and one aunt cooked long and hard, filling the table with one vegetable dish after another. For dessert, Cecilia had baked her first-ever cake, which, she forewarned me, was “catastrophical.” I admit it wasn’t the most elegant cake I’ve ever seen, and it was a little too sweet, but quite edible.

For the evening I’d made a reservation (my first in Chinese, quite a test of the waitress’s patience) at Chengdu’s nicest vegetarian restaurant. Explicitly vegetarian Chinese food is quite different from what you get if you go to a regular restaurant and order vegetable dishes. It’s part of a tradition that grew out of Buddhist and Taoist temple food and involves elaborately-rendered fake meat dishes. My favorite on Saturday was the “Peking duck.”

After dinner we went to sing karaoke, or KTV as they call it here. Karaoke in Asia isn’t the ritual of public humiliation that it is in the States; instead, you get your own room with your friends and hope not to be privately humiliated. Also, Chinese don’t go to KTV to sing cheesy pop songs ironically. They want to sound good. In short, I think the foreigners and Chinese at my birthday party brought with them somewhat different KTV expectations. Fortunately no one seemed to get too annoyed, even when I and another American belted out the chorus of “No Scrubs” from memory (for some reason, no written lyrics were provided for that one), or when Cecilia and Phoebe nearly punctured our eardrums hitting the high notes on some cheesy pop song.

Another cultural difference that came into play that evening involved who pays for a birthday celebration. In the US, of course, the birthday person is the guest of honor, and usually doesn’t pay for anything on his or her birthday. In China, though, the birthday person is the host, and pays for everything. I was a little worried that this would lead to some awkwardness if my fellow foreigners tried to pay and the Chinese guests felt they should, too, so I tried to pay for dinner and KTV discreetly. It seemed to work well, though most of the foreigners insisted on giving me some money later.

Overall it was a fun and delicious celebration.

Bad education II

December 1, 2009
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The doctors have invited me out to dinner a few times since our initial outing. They’re very interested in learning drinking-related English words; the last time they ended up toasting each other and saying “do a shot!”, “I shot you!”, or simply “shot!”. Tonight I heard two students practicing their new phrases thusly:

Forrest (toasting Nancy): I want to drink you under the table.

Nancy: I think I will drink you under the table.

Forrest: I think my alcohol tolerance is higher than yours.

I’m not sure whether to feel proud or to start planning a lesson on the health consequences of alcoholism.

    About me

    I've come to Sichuan in search of adventure, fluency in Chinese, and awesome vegetarian food. I have to concede that the baby pandas are very cute.


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