Monday, July 14, 2008

the countdown begins

Here is a picture of the city I am moving to in China:

I'm trying to think of something auspicious to write for the first post of this new blog. I frequently have pretty poor blog discipline, but am going to stay focused with this one. I want to document what my expectations are for living in China prior to actually being there, and then record what happens to me as honestly as I can, as I experience it. I'll be flying from Seattle to Beijing on August 16th, so I have a little time to exorcise some of my preconceived notions. I already have my job for the year and my visa taken care of. That process alone taught me some things. I think I'll start with a top-10 list of things I've already experienced or learned about during the getting-ready stages, some of which surprised me:

1. I have health insurance. It's free. My teaching job in China is giving this to me. My country won't give me health insurance for free.
2. I had to get a chest x-ray and an EKG for my documentation. Going to China is serious business.
3. I used my economic stimulus package from George to pay for my tests that I need in order to travel to China. I will stimulate the U.S. economy by going to China. I'm not sure how that is going to happen.
4. I compared Chinese (try typing "English novel" into the search field) to United States when trying to decide which books I need to buy and take with me. This process caused a wave of patriotism to wash over me.
5. I've wanted to learn how to play Mahjong for a very long time, so that when I get to China, I'll be able to make friends with the really old men who play Mahjong in a lot of the parks. I bought a book on Mahjong. Mahjong is incredibly complicated. You have to know what direction the sun is in compared to the table where you are playing in order to decide who sits where. I am not making this up. The quest to learn how to play Mahjong is going to take a very long time.
6. Sometimes I think capitalism is going to ruin part of this experience, even though I know there will be moments when I'll be homesick for "western" things. Here is a list of western businesses I know are in Tianjin: Burger King, McDonalds, T.G.I. Friday's, Wal-Mart, KFC, Starbucks, Subway, Papa John's, Pizza Hut. I have already set a resolution for myself; I am going to try and avoid eating any Western food for as long as I possibly can.
7. China does not have very good toilets. I am not talking about the squatting toilets which terrify many westerners. I mean the western-style toilets. The pipes are small and inadequate for the disposal systems connected to many Western style toilets in China, because there are no large sewers. This fact makes me think about what a luxury it is for many of us Americans that our cities were constructed later than many European cities, at a time when innovations in plumbing were being discovered. As a result, most of our cities have some kind of sewer-systems that were build prior to expansion and urban sprawl. However, if you lived in a place that had been inhabited for hundreds and hundreds of years prior to innovations in plumbing, you might not have a shiny, gigantic sewer-system, would you? I think too many Westerners are quick to criticize plumbing in other countries without thinking, whether they are traveling in Europe or in Asia. Seriously--what are you supposed to do? Tear up all of the skyscrapers in Beijing so that you can build a sewer? It's not very realistic. If we had to do something like that in New York, nobody would go for it and the sewer would never get built, and yet, we're very quick to criticize other countries for something which is essentially an accident of history; we lucked out and plumbing was improved before our cities became too inhabited. What do we want? A medal?

Digression: I learned recently that Chinese people are frequently confused when they see chase-scenes in western movies that take place in large, open sewers you can run around in. The pipes are only about six inches in diameter for a lot of the "sewer" systems in China. A couple of things: 1) Victor Hugo is very popular in China. I'm not sure why. I wonder what they make of the chapter in Les Miserables where Jean Valjean is chased through the sewer? 2) My wife Erin told me that in a lot of businesses with Western-style toilets in China, you can see the scuff marks on the toilet seat from where people have climbed up onto them and squatted while standing on the edge of the bowl. This makes perfect sense to me. How would you know how to use some strange-looking Western toilet if you had only seen the squatting kind? This is yet another situation where I feel like people who come from rural environments are made to feel embarrassed when they encounter urban social practices. It doesn't matter whether you're from Iowa and you don't know what fork to use at the Waldorf, or if you're from a rural province in China and are confused by the western toilet; the social web of ritual behavior necessary to move through an urban setting can be daunting. Of course, the reverse is also 100% true. Just wait until I get to my own personal "squatting toilet" post--the one I know is in my future. I will feel like a Western fool.
8. I can't think of any more right now; I'll need to finish this list tomorrow.


Warren Faulk said...

This is Warren Faulk, son of Albert and Margie Faulk of Foley, Alabama. I guess we are maybe second cousins. I am 67 and live in Georgia. I don't have the pertinent academic background but I write anyway. You can check out - The Progress Report - ARCHIVE - Palaver From Persimmon Crossing - 69+ articles ...Read the one on languages first. That's me talking about me a long time ago.. My sister's daughter Dr Melissa King Rogers has a Phd in English/Journalism and teaches elite students in the Atlanta school system.

Come back to me at
if you can. I am interested in what you are doing.

I have a friend who used to be a Chinese Specialist for the US ... military career then civilian job. Several trips over.

I "toured" Vietnam for two years and went to language school.

Dan said...

A few more pointers:

Look eight ways before crossing the road.

Feel free to spit anywhere you feel the urge. It's part of the culture. The older you get, the louder you are allowed to spit.

Capitalism has nothing to do with Communism. China is more capitalist than the USA right now. 20% of the world's population recently discovered "shopping" and about 300 million have been saving up.

Do not confuse pet shops with restaurants.

I'll keep checking back on this blog. Have been in Hong Kong for nearly 10 years now and only ever hit the mainland for holidays. I can't handle it up there for anything more than a break :)

(This is cousin Dan btw) contact[@]disuye[dot]com

Benjamin Dean-Cartwright said...

Warren and Dan,

Thank you for the great comments. Dan, it's really funny that you mentioned the spitting thing. Erin (my wife) and her brother Sam already warned me about that. Sam has lived in China for the last nine years and is getting married in September in Tianjin. I'm excited to get to see a Chinese wedding. I really hope that Erin and I can find some way to visit you and Patricia, or for you two to visit us while we're over there this year. I hope things are going well for both of you with the club. --Ben