Outside-in has moved to a new location.
Please visit joannpittman.com.
Same name. Same content. Different location.
Outside-in has moved to a new location.
Please visit joannpittman.com.
Same name. Same content. Different location.
In the next few days, this blog will be moving, so I will not put anymore posts up until the new site is ready and I can tell you where to find it.
This has been a great place to hang out and ruminate on life in China; and I'm sure the new location will be even better.
A big story in the news in China this week was a yellow haze that enveloped the central city of Wuhan. A couple of netizens went online and suggested that it was the result of a chlorine leak, which stirred up the masses, which forced the government to declare that there was no leak; the cause of the smoke was farmers burning off old stalks in their fields.
Then they arrested the rumor-mongers.
Since then there has been much debate about the plausibility of the haze being the result of smoke, with netizens (Chinese and foreign) wondering why this would suddenly be a new phenomenon, given the fact that peasants burn their fields every year.
Well, it isn't new.
Tonight as I was riding home on my bicycle, I noticed the air smelled of smoke. When I got home I checked the Yahoo! weather for Beijing (I need to know how many layers of clothes to wear tomorrow), and, under "current conditions," it said, simply, SMOKE. This is the only city I know of where SMOKE is one of the possible descriptors used for the weather report. It's not uncommon to get SMOKE this time of year because all across the North China Plains, peasants are burning the fields after the harvest. I've been in rural areas of Shandong this time of year where it was so thick you could barely see across the street.
But here's a thought....in a society where 70% of the males smoke, does anyone really notice?
Nobody fussed. Nobody started rumors. We just donned our masks or stayed indoors.
Peasants burning their fields and whole cities being enveloped by the resulting smoke is nothing new in China.
What is new is an internet environment that allows millions to go online and fuss.
[Image Source: The Raw Story]
Living cross-cultural living means living with a nearly constant barrage of surprises. Particularly for those of us who have been abroad for a long time, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve got the place figured out, that we know what’s up and what’s down, what’s in and what’s out. Sometimes we even seem to know what to expect and what not to expect.
When those thoughts creep in, beware... something is likely to come out of left field and remind us that we are still pretty clueless about all the little things that go on in the society around us. The unexpected may throw us for a loop, causing frustration, or even anger. More often than not, however, if we are paying attention they can be positive experiences which open windows, allowing us to see that the society which we so poorly understand, and which we sometimes think barely functions, is, in fact rather “normal." At least for a few minutes, then, we might have the feeling of being an insider instead of the outsider that we in reality always are.
An experience I had while still living in Changchun, Jilin in the 1990’s bears this out. As I was in my kitchen one afternoon making supper (that's definitely NOT normal), I heard a knock at the door. Like most Chinese apartment buildings, this one had a security door, so someone knocking at my door in itself was a bit unusual. Normally someone visiting me would ‘buzz’ me from the outside and I would (after identifying them) open the outside door for them via a magic button. Ignoring a simple rule of common sense like looking through the peep hole and asking who was out there, I just opened the door, assuming it was one of American colleagues who lived on the fourth floor.
I was wrong! When I opened the door, there stood a rather smallish young woman, dressed in a funny grey robe and hat.
In such a situation, I suspect that the last thing on earth this woman expected to see on the other side of the door was a slightly oversized foreign woman with yellow hair and fair skin, and upon seeing said woman, she would most likely either freeze, say excuse me and move on, or if she were scared enough, maybe even scream! After all, if one is Chinese, one expects the door to be answered by a Chinese, not a foreigner! Not this lady, though. She was a picture of poise, and as if my presence were the most normal thing in the world, smilingly launched into some kind of speech, talking a mile a minute.
Keep in mind that at this point I had lived in China for 10 years, and had been working on my Chinese language skills for 8 of those—but at that moment I could not understand a word this sweet lady (should I say girl?) was saying. NOT ONE WORD! I could tell this was not going to be a positive language experience. Either she was simply talking too fast (possible), was speaking some obscure dialect (unlikely), or was using such formalized speech that included ONLY vocabulary I’d never studied (probable).
My first response was to simply tell her that I didn’t understand, hoping that she would take pity on me, excuse herself, and leave quietly. But she was on a mission, so when I told her I didn’t understand, she just smiled, showed me her card (with a photo and the ubiquitous red stamp), and started her speech all over again. “I still don’t understand”, I pleaded, but to no avail.
I realized that my only hope of understanding her was to get her away from her prepared speech and using more colloquial language. “Just what is it that you want me to do?” I asked, this time going for the more direct approach.
Sighing, but without breaking her sweet smile, she plunged in again. It was still the speech, still formal, but this time I caught what seemed to me to be three essential words: “temple”, “donate money”, and “repairs”.
AHAH! Suddenly her attire made sense. She was a young nun from a Buddhist temple, going door-to-door collecting donations for temple repairs! Wanting to be sure of my conclusion, I asked her if that was who she was and what she was doing. “Yes!”
Now we were both smiling, feeling very pleased with our success. She showed me her notebook filled with names of my neighbors who had promised donations (a little peer pressure never hurts). I told her that I was a Christian, and therefore preferred to donate my money to the church. “Oh, but Buddhism and Christianity are almost the same,” she replied. I assured her that they weren’t and that I still preferred to donate my money to the church. “I’m sorry.” One more smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and she was on her way up the stairs.
I call this a “normalizing” event, and the normalizing came in two forms: One was in seeing a way this society has for people to make charitable donations, even to religious entities. The other was in being treated like everyone else in the building. I got no special treatment, positive or negative, because I was a foreigner. At least for a brief time, I was a resident, a member of the speech community, and the same expectations were being placed on me as were being placed on my neighbors.
I went back into the kitchen smiling.
Raise your hand if....
A. you feel like a square foreign peg trying to fit into a round Chinese hole;
B. you think that this is all it takes to live well where you don't belong!
(image source: allpostersimages.com)
During the Cultural Revolution, Zhu Xiao-mei, a budding pianist at the Beijing Music Conservatory was sent (along with some of her classmates) to a labor camp near Zhangjiakou, a small city about 100 miles northwest of Beijing. She would remain there for five years.
Life in the camp was brutal, but security was lax enough that she was able to escape for a time and make arrangements to have her piano secretly sent to the labor camp. With her beloved piano nearby, she was able to sneak off to practice, developing skills and using the piano as her means of coping with and healing from the brutality she suffered.
When the Cultural Revolution ended, she was allowed to return to the Conservatory to continue here studies. It soon became clear to her that there were no avenues in China to pursue her music, so she left for Hong Kong. From there she went to the US, and finally to France, where today she is an accomplished concert pianist.
Zhu Xiao-mei tells her story in the book The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations.
I HIGHLY recommend it.
She has also just released a new CD called Bach: Goldberg Variations.
This is for all my tea-drinking friends out there. The March edition of the China Heritage Quarterly, one of my favorite online sources for all things Chinese is completely devoted to a subject that is near and dear to pretty much every Chinese heart -- TEA!
I realize this may seem strange, but even after almost thirty years here I'm still not a huge tea-drinker. It's not that I don't like tea -- I do. It's just not a drink I tend to go out of my way to have. If it's served I'm happy enough to drink it, but I’m not likely to make myself a "cuppa" (as the Brits say) at home or carry it around with me in a thermos. Iced tea is fine, so long as it does NOT have either lemon or sugar in it.
I grew up in Pakistan where we drank a lot of “chai"—a brew of tea, milk, and sugar, all boiled together. I chuckle whenever I walk into a coffee shop or cafe that takes itself a bit too seriously and see that they are selling 'chai' as a trendy drink. Chai? Trendy? Give me a break. Chai is best drunk by pouring some onto a saucer and drinking from the saucer. Try doing that in Starbucks someday and see what happens!
The only times I consume large quantities of tea here are when I hang out at my friend's tea house and drink Pu'er tea all afternoon. We have to drink seven rounds as part of the ceremony....and THEN the serious drinking begins. If I have a group of visitors in tow (which is usually the case) I have to translate her 30 minute tea ceremony, which includes a half dozen poems. Since there's no way I can translate a poem, I just toss in the phrase "she just recited a poem about how wonderful tea is." Works every time!
Which brings us back to the China Heritage Quarterly. If I can steep myself in this issue, I'm sure I'll be a better translator of the tea ceremony the next time I take a group to the tea house.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction to this month’s issue:
Tea and politics, teahouses and activism, gathering and gossiping, all of these things mark the life of tea in China's largest inland empire, that of Sichuan 四川. Given the dramatic events of the first months of the Dragon Year of 2012, an ancient saying about the restive nature of what was once the Kingdom of Shu 蜀 would appear to be an appropriate place to launch our issue-length meditation on tea.
In Sichuan they call it 'laying out the dragon formation' 擺龍門陣. An ancient military tactic famous in China's southwest, the 'dragon formation' has, over the years, became a popular expression used to describe the setting of verbal stoushes and gossip. In teahouses throughout the province, men and women have gathered over the years, often sitting on bamboo stools or reclining chairs, with small tables scattered about, tea cups and teapots mixed among clutches of locals, visitors and passers-by. Amidst the clatter and the long, slow sipping of tea, people discuss matters pertaining to 'All-Under-Heaven' 天下事兒. Although the Internet has become the virtual space of choice for the movement of idle chatter in recent years, it is the heritage of tea and the teahouse that bound people in conversation and conviviality in the past.
In the teahouse people would engage in idle gossip 閒談, chat 聊天, rant 侃山 and brag shamelessly 吹牛. It was, and in many places throughout China, an environment in which tall tales 大話 and arrant nonsense 廢話 can hold the day; it's also where the chatter on the streets 道聽途說 is elaborated and circulates with the speed of a prairie fire. It is over tea too that people gather to play mah-jongg with clamorous concentration, although tea is just as much a boon companion that is suited to quieter moments of relaxed repose 閒適 and thoughtfulness 静思, as it is for conviviality and calm conversation.
Here is a taste of some of the articles that you will find in the magazine this month:
I took a stroll this afternoon through the migrant village between my house and the office. The announcement that the village was to be razed went up a little over a month ago, and now the village is slowly being demolished.
Our favorite restaurant sits on the edge of this village, but is still hanging on. I have heard that the owner of the building has gone to court to get more money, and that this might delay the actual destruction of the restaurant by a few months.
But as this sign hanging along the bridge leading into the village proclaims, the demise of the restaurant is not in question; just the timing: "unwavering in our determination to demolish; the decision to demolish will not be changed."
As Amy and I slipped quietly into the church pew at the old St. Paul's Church in Qingdao (now known simply as Guanxiang Road Church) one of the ushers spotted us, smiled, and came over to where we sat. "Aren't you the two ladies who were here yesterday asking about the old church bell?" he asked, through a big smile. "Yes," we replied. "Come with me," he said, "I'll ask someone to take you up into the tower to see the old bell right now."
We looked at each other in bewilderment because the previous afternoon when we had stopped by the church to inquire about the bell, this very man had treated us with suspicion (wouldn’t you?) and told us that if we wanted to know anything about the church we had to first go through the municipal church office. Yet here he was, all smiles and donning the role of Mr. Welcome!
We suggested that we would be happy to wait until after the service but he was insistent that we follow him now. He introduced us to another usher and told her "these American friends are here to learn about our church and our bell. Please take them to see the bell." Up we went, our dashed hopes of yesterday being rekindled with every step we climbed.
I actually hadn't known about this church until Mr. D., usher/tour-guide at the other church down the street (Qingdao Christian Church) told us about it on Saturday. "You should go up the street to St. Paul's Church," he said. "They have an old bell." After we were turned away on our first visit, I decided to go back and find Mr. D. and see what he could tell me about St. Paul’s Church and its bell.
He told me that the church had been built in 1938 by German Lutherans and most likely the bell was installed at that time, or shortly afterwards. I specifically asked if he knew what had happened to the bell during the Cultural Revolution. He told me that it had been taken away and installed in a factory in another city in the province where it was used to mark the beginnings and endings of the shifts. Someone from Qingdao recognized the bell and somehow spirited it away and hid it. (How do you steal and hide a cast iron bell?) Somehow the bell resurfaced in the last few years (I missed the details), and just last year the church purchased the bell back at an auction for the sum of RMB 40,000.
The inscriptions on the bell were written in German, which we couldn't read, but we could make out the date: 1883. I took photos of the inscriptions and sent them to a friend of mine who is an amateur genealogist. In order to trace his family history he has learned how to read German and Danish. Within ten minutes, he had them translated:
Bochumer Verein Gussstahlfabrik
(Bochumer Union Cast Steel Factory)
Der Gerechte Wird Seines Glaubens Leben
(The just[righteous] will live by [his] faith) (Romans)
After taking a few pictures we went back to the sanctuary for the service. At 9:25, the bells were rung, each ring announcing the truth of the inscription.
Another bell, another story of sustaining grace.
(Note: the bell at the other church has a story as well, but that will be in yet another post.)
Yesterday morning I rode my bike to the office, which was a good thing because the street in front of the school where the office is located was a parking lot. A big bus and a big truck were face to face, completely surrounded by parked cars and cars trying to get around the parked cars.Some drivers were honking their horns (the ultimate exercise in futility in a situation such as this) and others looked like they were just going to settle in for the day.
"That's funny," I thought to myself. "It's not Friday afternoon. Why is the street like this on a Wednesday morning?" Because I was on a bike, I just weaved my way down the street. When I entered the campus I discovered the reason for the traffic jam -- there was a school program to celebrate Children's Day (June 1), which meant parents in attendance, which meant chaos on the street.
Normally this traffic jam appears every Friday afternoon when the parents come to pick up their kids from the boarding school to take them home for the weekend. As long as I have been living and working in that neighborhood (since 1998, to be precise), this street has turned into a parking lot on Friday afternoon. One year it even provided me with an important cultural lesson.
While visiting some fellow Americans at the foreign student dormitory at a university campus in China’s Northeast, we were admiring the great view of the campus from the giant window of a 6th floor room. We could see the sports field, the swimming pool, a small lake, and hundreds of students going hither and yon on the campus. In the course of the conversation, we spotted someone walking near the lake and all agreed that said person was a foreigner. We wondered how it was that, even at 6 floors up and across campus, it was possible to make that distinction. We were too far away to see skin color or hair color or clothing styles, but we all agreed that this person was not only a foreigner, but was most likely an American.
A discussion ensued as to how and why this was possible. Finally, one of my colleagues hit the nail on the head. “It’s the way an American walks,” she said. “The walk says one of two things: ‘I own this place.’ or ‘I’m off to fix something.’” We all laughed in agreement, instinctively knowing the truth of what she said.
Sometimes Americans overseas are like 3 year olds who drive everyone in the room bonkers by asking a never-ending series of "why" questions. In most cases, what we are really asking is "why is it like this?" And what that really means is "It's not like this at home, so it shouldn't be like this here." I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't be asking 'why' questions; on the contrary, I’m a firm believer in them. They demonstrate a desire and willingness to learn. But I think it's important to make a distinction between two different motivations for incessantly asking “why”.
One motivation is the desire for understanding. Why is the traffic so chaotic (at least by my standards)? Asking the “why is it like this question” may reveal the fact that until fifteen years ago, private cars were banned in China, and there were almost no taxis. That means that many of the drivers of those ubiquitous taxis and Mercedes Benz’s are rookie drivers, none of whom grew up riding in cars. So the traffic patterns of cars are merely extensions of the traffic patterns of bicycling, which are much more fluid and situational. I still may be terrified when careening through traffic on the third ring road, but it sort of makes sense.
The other motivation for asking the “why is it like this?” question is a desire to fix whatever it is that is being questioned. The question gives definition to a problem. And once a problem is defined, then it can be fixed. This chaos is fixable, thinks the American. Put in one-way streets. Put in left-turn lanes. Institute strict fines for breaking the rules. Put up stop signs. The list goes on and on and on.
Shortly after the conversation about the propensity for Americans to want to fix things, I was discussing this issue with my Chinese professor. I was describing to him the scene outside the school. I told him how, every Friday afternoon when the parents come to pick up their children, the mother of all traffic jams forms as the drivers of Cadillacs, Benz’s, Buicks, and BMW's all jockey for position, trying to be the ones to get their car closest to the gate. Everything else in the neighborhood comes to a stop.
The question I put to my professor was why the school or the local police, or someone couldn’t come up with a way to prevent the weekly traffic jam. Since they know its’ going to happen every Friday, it seemed to me to be a problem that would be easily fixed.
His response sent light bulbs popping off in my head. First of all, he pointed out to me that the school probably didn’t do anything because it wasn’t their responsibility. The traffic jam was on the street, not on the school grounds.
I then pressed him as to why the local “paichusuo” (police station) didn’t do something, and he said that they didn’t view it as a problem either, or at least not their problem. The local police stations handle neighborhood registrations and and deal with petty crime and other activities that affect social stability. To them, as is the case with everyone else, the traffic jam is simply a weekly natural occurrence that will, within 2 or 3 hours, take care of itself. I was the only one who was viewing it as a problem to be fixed!
The following Friday, I stepped out of the gate to watch the traffic jam, this time viewing it through a different lens. I realized that not only was no one bothered by it; in fact, for the migrant workers who worked in the shops that lined the streets, it was a weekly source of entertainment, a weekly happening! Everyone was out, many with grandparents and kids in tow, watching the rich people and their cars. By supper time, it was all over and everyone went back to their regularly scheduled activities.
In their book, “American Cultural Patterns,” Stewart and Bennet discuss this American tendency to "see events as problems to be solved, based on their concepts of an underlying rational order in the world and of themselves as individual agents of action.” Americans see problems and solutions as “basic ingredients of reality.” It’s just the way life is.
But it’s not necessarily the way life is for many other cultures. In cultures (like China) that are predisposed to adapt rather than change, accepting things as they are (chaotic as that may be) is the first tendency. What a westerner calls a problem may be viewed simply as a twist of fate. In some languages, the word, “problem” is synonymous with “confusion”, which is defined as “a condition that is best addressed by stopping whatever one is doing and waiting.” Stewart and Bennet point out that attempts to solve the problem may be interpreted as contributing to the confusion.
This tendency towards fixing (be it personal or societal) can often be a source of cultural clashes when we are sojourning abroad. We look around and see so much that we don’t understand and the “why” questions start bubbling to the surface. When they do, it’s good to check ourselves to see if the questions are being motivated by the desire to fix what we perceive as being broken, or if they are motivated by a genuine desire to learn how the society is organized and the thinking patterns that lie behind it.
Well, that's all for now.....I'm off to fix something!
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