Bull in a China Shop

I can’t tell you how many times I thought of this phrase while I was in China. The meaning constantly seemed to capture the moment. As a large foreigner in a country full of people smaller than myself, I was always an inconvenience. I fumbled through conversations in Chinese. I took up more space than allotted on buses. I held up taxis as I struggled to unfold my legs and clumsily exit. By nature of being a foreigner, my presence invoked a cultural response of hospitality and accommodation that undoubtedly put out those around me – though acknowledgement of it being an inconvenience was even more unthinkable than not performing it.

This was especially difficult for me to accept. I will actively pursue an inconvenience for myself if it means I don’t inconvenience someone else. I even got angry at people in China trying to help me if I felt like it put them out. How ridiculous am I?

No matter how gently I tread it seemed unavoidable, that I would clumsily bump and knock my way around, constantly disrupting the established (though chaotic) flow of Chinese life. And I noticed the messes I created even as I made them.

But coming back to America has given me some distance and time to think about my life in China. By no means is my reflection done; in many ways, I feel like I haven’t really started. I imagine it will take both time and experiences to identify what was sown into me the past year.

To start the decompression, I am reading Peter Hessler’s book River Town, a personal account of his time spent in small-town Sichuan in the 90s. I can relate to many of the experiences he describes. He writes with eloquence and candor, attaching words to my reality.

His stories reveal to me a China that I saw but did not value.

I am beginning to realize how much of a Bull I actually was – beyond my physical obtrusions – for all my frustrations and complaints. In my careless rampage of self-importance and misperception, I completely missed some of the most evident and simple beauties in Chinese people, culture, and society. I look back and see the hopeful endurance of a hard-working people, the majestic struggle of the culture’s history, and the patient fluidity of a society changing faster than anyone can capture with words.

The rich and powerful reality of the people I taught and lived around was muted by my brutish disregard.

I don’t know what this post is for, then. Am I writing a confession? Perhaps, because I definitely feel some shame in not taking full advantage of my opportunities. Am I writing in regret? Probably, but I don’t regret the time I spent in China. Indeed, I enjoyed it immensely and learned a great deal. I simply see that I was walking in a China shop filled with beauty and I knocked over more plates than I admired.

Where’s the fire?

I caught my students cheating on the final exam. It was the first class to take the exam. I had taken all my normal precautions – desks cleared, alternating test versions, cell phones in the front.

About 10 minutes into the exam, I noticed that a student’s desk was entirely covered with information for the exam. I took her exam, then noticed other people shifting around. I took all 41 of the exams and sent them out of the classroom. I checked the desks. Almost half the class was cheating. It took 15 minutes for me to calm down and figure out what to do.

My class monitor said “You shouldn’t be angry. This is common in China.” This is true. There is a culture of cheating. It’s not only accepted – sometimes it’s encouraged. Most students feel no shame in cheating, only in getting caught.

But I have repeatedly told my classes my policies on cheating, regardless of their past classes. My policies are intentional and detailed. I even simplified an explanation of why cheating is bad. Then, for good measure, I told them the repercussions of cheating at my alma mater and that I helped enforce that Honor Code. Gulps all around.

Cheating has still been a constant battle in my classes. However, for some reason unknown to me at the time, this act of cheating was especially offensive. I could say it was because it was the final or because it was so deceptive – both of which are true. But, no, really I was angry because it was a violation of my trust and our relationship.

It was personal.

I’ve been angry at my students before. Since I arrived in China, scarcely a week has gone by where I don’t get frustrated with someone about something in at the least one of my classes. It’s either their lack of interest in the subject or their lack of motivation to make progress or their complete defiance of my authority or their seeming indifference to anything outside their daily lives. Or their cheating. Whatever it is, I have never lacked reasons to be angry with (at least some of) my students in some capacity.

I felt guilty about the anger, don’t get me wrong. But I also felt justified. I am a man who highly values truth and justice, living in a place that often blurs the definition of truth and disregards opportunities for justice. I sat in the anger for awhile, guilted by stories of other teachers’ love for their students and comforted by the knowledge that mine was a righteous anger.

Then He spoke. I was listening to a message about a mostly-unrelated topic and the speaker said (my paraphrasing):

“Wrath and anger do not exist in their own right. They are merely the response when love is violated.”

Being so steeped in anger, I began to think about what love had been violated to make me so frustrated and angry with my students. After all, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. For so long I had just accepted that I was angry for all the right reasons. I was justified. But I couldn’t settle with the idea that my love of justice was so strongly violated that it caused my anger. Actually, most of the time it was just my students’ apathy that frustrated me, not their cheating. Nor could I honestly come close to claiming it was out of love for them. So, then – where’s the fire?

The love that was so deeply violated was the love of myself.

I was angry because my self-worth was being violated. It took awhile, but it all started to come together. Their apathy frustrated me because I came to China to be with them and they weren’t valuing me. “Do you know what I had to give up to come here? And now you do not care what I have to teach? You do not care to talk to me?” I thought. “I have goals and ideas of what I want to accomplish this year, and you are both the focus and my biggest obstacle.

I’d like to give you the zero to hero story. “I rose from the ashes of my selfishness and emerged into a beautiful phoenix of a teacher and cross cultural worker. I learned my lesson and I began to love my students unconditionally as I should, abounding always in grace and love. Also, I was a great teacher with interesting lessons, simple and flawless instructions, and no more bouts of anger and frustration.”

The truth is much less glamorous. It involved two-thirds of my students graduating – including my most troublesome ones – and a two-month hiatus from the other third. After coming back, and seeing them twice a week, I began to take on a friendly but distant disposition. I saw the smoke and the fire, but I didn’t really care to put it out.

But somewhere along the way, by His grace alone, the fire changed. It didn’t happen all at once, with a flash and a blaze. It happened gradually, slipping in silently behind my recklessly blinding self-obsession. (Good thing, too, because if I had known about it I probably would have tried to take the credit.)

Then I was sitting by the window, taking 15 minutes to calm down and figure out what to do. And I realized why I was angry. I told my class, with complete candor, “Do you know why I am angry? The cheating, yes. But that is only part of the problem. I am angry because I trusted you and I care about you. When you cheat, you disrespect me and say that you do not care about me. And that makes me angry.” Turns out I’ve come to love some of these kids after all.

Something Old, Something New

No, I’m not talking about Chinese weddings. I don’t know a lot about Chinese weddings (and neither do my students, apparently) but I’m pretty sure that is one American cultural item they have yet to appropriate.

I’m talking about the ever-existent, ever-disorienting dichotomy that exists in a rapidly changing China.

If America is going through a mid-life crisis right now (let’s just hope we don’t spend all our money on the two-seater sports car that looks pretty in the lot but the kids can’t actually ride in when we get home), China is a teenager trying to figure out her identity and place in the world. Sometimes she smells bad. Sometimes she’s dirty. Sometimes you think, “You’re acting just like you used to.” And then sometimes you see a glimpse into the future that could be. There’s innovation, resilience, compassion, determination, and hope.

Anyone who has lived in China can tell you about this. It’s evident just from walking around that China is developing, caught between the old ways of “whatever works” and the new desire to emerge on the world stage.

Western-style shopping centers downtown are surrounded by alleys of street vendors selling fried food from a cart and illegal markets with direct-from-factory goods.

In one lane, old, tan-skinned workers drive carts piled eight feet high with bags of collected plastic bottles. In the next lane, a young businesswoman drives a shiny, red Volkswagen.

Turn off the main boulevard in our city and you are on a dirt road framed by trash and half-demolished buildings, where farmers squat in front of restaurants and American coffee shops to sell whatever they’ve managed to grow.

New roads and modern buildings are being built down the road from brick-house communities falling apart from a generation of neglect.

Urban-dwellers vacation on the beach or fly to Thailand. People in the countryside still fight to pay for health care, food, and clothes.

I’ve tried to understand China, but ambiguities are too abundant.

Exceptions are the rule. The only guarantee is that things will change. Caught somewhere in the transition from new to old, you look around and just hope that when the dust settles the people around you will be better because of it.

 

IMG_1705
A worker’s cart
IMG_2868
Street vendors in a side street by a university
IMG_1475
The alley behind Subway, Starbucks, and Tesco

China changes you, man…

I’ve slowly begun to realize small ways in which China has changed me. When you’re in the thick of things, the changes aren’t nearly as apparent. But, since I recently had the gracious opportunity to return to America for a week, I saw some of the ways living in China has changed me. Here are a few things that used to bother me but don’t anymore (for the most part…)

 

Ambiguity and last minute plans are totally acceptable.

Before leaving America, I wanted dinner plans for Friday by Tuesday or Wednesday. But if you live hard and fast by that rule you will be perpetually frustrated. Things are constantly changing, so you have to adapt or wait until the last minute to make plans. It’s culturally acceptable (and preferred) and I’ve picked it up. It’s just part of living in a developing country. Plans can’t keep up with change.

 

Traffic laws suggestions are as fluid as people’s preferences.

Blinkers are unused. Horns are [over]used as a friendly “hey, I’m passing by.” Lanes are blatantly ignored. Wearing a seat belt is offensive to the driver. Driving the wrong way into oncoming traffic? No problem, everyone understands. Intersections are the most chaotic free for all you can imagine. Someone recently made a great observation – countries’ driving habits are directly correlated to the culture’s view of rules. In this way, China is like a river; to drive, you have to jump into the flow of the stream.

 

Personal space is a personal opinion.

And no one cares about your opinion. There are too many people trying to live close together. You’ll just have to get over that stranger’s leg and arm stuck against yours. It’s rush hour on the bus or subway? Expect to be in physical contact with everyone around you. Before coming, I dreaded this about China. Now, I realize it’s a necessary part of life. And, honestly, you forget about it after awhile.

 

People are EVERYWHERE.

Seriously, you think you’ll have at least one second of sight that doesn’t have a human. But you won’t. And just when you think you have stumbled into the most random alley or secret garden (surely no one else is here)…there’s grandma, spitting into the bushes. When I first got to China, I played a game where I tried to take a picture without someone in it. It was nearly impossible. For awhile, I was frustrated by it, as someone who really likes privacy. Now, I’ve gotten used to it and even get amused (and impressed) by it.

 

A smoking kitchen.

You didn’t even think this was a thing, right? But sure enough, a lot of men cook and smoke at the same time. Actually, Chinese men smoke just about everywhere (except for public transportation, now that I think about it…) There’s not really rules or social stigmas about where smoking is acceptable. You do it when you relax or do menial tasks, which apparently includes cooking in a restaurant. And for some reason, I’m cool with that.

 

Shoes off in the house!

Seriously, we are savages for wearing our shoes inside the house. The ground is pretty gross and we’re trying to bring that into the place where we sit and walk everyday. And shoes on a couch or table? Are you kidding me? I didn’t get it when I first came to China, but now I physically struggle to keep shoes on in a house.

 

Things smell bad.

No big deal. Walk 20 feet down the street and it’ll probably be gone. You don’t have to pretend to like it, just suck it up and deal with it until you pass by to the next unidentifiable scent.

 

 

The Pinky Nail

Life in China changes faster than can be explained. Sometimes it’s subtle – street vendors get slightly more sophisticated stalls with fluorescent lights. Sometimes it’s bigger – entire stores will disappear overnight and be replaced a week later by a completely unrelated shop. Someone in our organization coined the phrase “Plans can’t keep up with change.” And China loves to keep this saying valid.

Even bigger than changing storefronts is the dramatic demographic shift happening. This generation is experiencing unprecedented access to economics opportunities off the farm, which is the first such opportunity many people have had. Before, it was expected that you follow your parents on the farm. To Westerners, this may sound archaic – like what your great-grandparents did. Now, even if you’re family farms, it is probably lucrative and you don’t necessarily have to take over after your education.

In China, such ideas are novel. People are flooding into cities in millions. If you think I’m kidding, watch this video. Some people, particularly men, find that even without extensive education they can avoid being lashed to the harsh lifestyle of subsistence farming. They are everywhere you look, speaking in thick accents and casually swerving around each other in meter-induced chaos. They are your taxi drivers.

Driving a taxi is considered a skilled job in China. Getting a driver’s license is no easy feat and driving a taxi means you have some certification. It’ll make you some decent money without relying on crops. As interesting as this is, some taxi drivers have an equally intriguing habit. They grow out one pinky nail – just one. My first thought was, “Wow, cab drivers here do a lot of cocaine.”

But that honestly isn’t it. The pinky nail is a status symbol for them. It is a sign that they are first generation off the farm and don’t have to keep their nails closely trimmed for farm work. When I see a cab driver with the one extra long nail, I’m (first a little disturbed, then) reminded of the movie A Knight’s Tale when a peasant father tells his son – with the sincerest form of hope in his eyes – “You can change your stars.”

“Hello, everyone. I’m Mr. P”

“Hello, everyone! My name is Ben Priday. You can call me Mr. P.”

Before I even started classes I worked out what my students would call me. I knew it needed to be “professional” so I had to become a Mr. I also learned early on that “ben” in Chinese (with that phonetic pronunciation) can mean stupid or slow. Admittedly, that’s only one meaning but it is actually the first one people think of. Then, I figured Priday would be too difficult for my young, innocent ESL kids.

The first day of classes – for every class – I introduced myself and explained why they should call me “Mr. P.” All of my students giggled through the whole introduction. I didn’t understand why but I just chalked it up to the classic Chinese shyness around male foreigners.

As the weeks went on, students kept calling me “Priday” or “Teacher” (very common in Asian countries) instead of “Mr. P.” I encouraged them to use the easier version of my name, but they always giggled. I guessed they knew the word “pee” and thought it was funny. If only that were the case.

Fast forward five weeks – yes, five weeks – and I am in a meeting with my department heads. My liaison was asking me about the progress of my classes. He then (casually) mentioned, “Your students do like you but you should really stop asking them to call you Mr. P. In Chinese ‘pee’ is slang for fart.” That’s right, for the first five weeks of teaching in China I was asking my students to call me Mr. Fart. And if you haven’t put the pieces together yet, my English name to them means “Dumb Fart.”

Turns out Priday isn’t so hard for them to say after all.

Chinese English Names

One of the many joys of living in China as an English teacher is getting to name students. We give an English name to every student that passes through our classes (and sometimes people of the general public that we see often but don’t know their Chinese name).

I remember writing a paper my freshman year of college about how immigrants and their children often adopt English names in place of or in conjunction with names from their native culture. I attributed this to America failing as the Melting Pot and winning as the Model Ethnocentrist. While I’m still not condoning all immigrants adopt English names, I’ve since come to understand why the Chinese guys I interviewed freshman year took new names – Chinese names are hard.

First of all, Chinese pronunciation is very, very different than English. They have sounds we don’t have and those are common in people’s names. They also don’t have an alphabet. Yeah, crazy, right? So when we try to romanize their names with the pinyin system, what we see is not what we get. Really, once I started learning Chinese, I didn’t hesitate to give my students English names because, let’s be honest, I can’t even remember all their English names – could I really memorize 250 Chinese names with faces?

But, the point of this post is actually not to assuage the ever-present guilt from my hypocrisy (I’ll take that up with freshman year me later). The point of this post is that, just like everything else in China, English names are not done without some “Chinese flare.” I have compiled a list of some of the most interesting, bizarre, and (seriously) hilarious name choices of Chinese students. (This list has been synthesized from many teachers in our company across China, but shoutout to Nancy Cherilus for giving me about 80% of these.)


 

  • Seven
  • TT Angel (a teacher)
  • Palm
  • Vampire
  • Arm (quickly convinced to change)
  • Pumpkin
  • Lordaeron (from World of Warcraft)
  • Burglar
  • Kreamy
  • Tifica…?
  • Chris Paul (all one name)
  • JJ Reddick (all one name – previously called Chris Paul)
  • Kiko
  • Burning
  • Satan (who was not allowed to keep the name but really fought for it)
  • Creed
  • Fish / Ocean (they were a couple in the same class – how romantic?)
  • Spoon
  • Pant
  • Big Dan (a girl)
  • Timothy (a girl)
  • Susan (a boy)
  • Barbara (a boy)
  • Vicky (a boy)
  • Narcissus
  • Curry
  • Vogt
  • Jocker
  • Forty-two

Malaysia

Areas visited: Kuala Lumpur and Batu Ferringhi on Penang Island

Where I stayed: In both locations, we were in hostels.

Who I was with: Elizabeth and Allister. In KL (Kuala Lumpur), by sheer chance, we happened to be staying in the same room as two other people from our company who live in Cambodia – Iris and Jon.

Popular foods: Malaysian food is very similar to Indonesian food – nasi goreng (fried rice), ayam goreng (fried chicken), and padprik (a mixture of meat and vegetables in a sauce). There are also strong Indian and Chinese influences in Malaysia, so there was a lot of Indian and Chinese food. On Penang, there was also Arabic and Lebanese food.

Popular drinks: Tiger Beer, Carlsberg, Anchor, Skol, and other beers were commonly sold. Since Malaysia is a predominately Muslim country, they do not have their own brands of alcohol.

Religion: Malaysia is primarily a Muslim country, though there are also some Hindu and Christian people there. Look at the “people” section for more information on this.

Mode of transportation: In KL, all transportation was available – taxis, buses, subways, trains, etc. In Batu Ferringhi, the public bus was really the only way to get around.

Activities: We only spent a couple days in KL. We went to the Patronus Towers, ate in China Town, say the spire, and walked around much of downtown. We also spent some quality time with our (new) friends from Cambodia, which was great! After KL, we took a bus to Penang Island to stay in the small town/area of Batu Ferringhi. We stayed in a small hostel just a couple minutes from the beach. We spent the next couple days living beach bum lives. We’d wake up late, lay on the beach, swim, watch movies, eat cheap, play cards, and drink beer. It was a great, relaxing way to end a very long vacation.

Language: Bahasa Malay is the main language, though in KL a lot of people also speak English and/or Chinese. Surprisingly, the language is not hard to learn for English speakers. They use the same alphabet as us, though some of the letters are pronounced differently. Reading was pretty easy because a lot of words, when sounded out, were close to English words. For example, you can take the bas to the klinik if you get sick. If that is too slow, you can take a teksi or ask someone at the tiket kaunter where to go. The language was easy and fun to learn (for the few words we did learn.) That being said, if you go deeper into the language it will undoubtedly become more complicated than I am stating.

Currency: The Malaysian Ringgit. The exchange was about $1 US : 4 RM

Expense level: We were shocked when we first got to KL – it was fairly expensive in comparison to other SE Asia countries. KL is very modern and has almost any amenity you can think of needing, which usually equates to being more expensive all around. Once we were outside the city, however, things changed. When we got to Penang (an island just north of KL), things became much cheaper – about the same as Indonesia. You could pay 2 RM for a large bottle of water and 6 – 10 RM for a meal.

People:  I was very interested in Malaysian people, particularly the Muslim Malay. I’m so used to America and China where Muslims – especially hijabi women – are a minority. In Malaysia, the majority of women walking around were wearing hijabs and were doing jobs we would not normally associate with hijabi women in America – they did everything from selling bus tickets to cleaning bathrooms to managing boutique fashion shops. It was cool to see the hijabi women not held back by stigmas or expectations but instead just living normal lives in society. I was also shocked by how many women wore nikkabs (sometimes called burkhas, these are the full black robes and veils that cover everything but the woman’s hands and eyes.) Even more so, I was surprised to see them out and walking on the beach, taking the subway with their friends, and shopping in boutiques. I mean, I know they’re normal women who just believe in some more extreme modesty, but I was genuinely surprised to see them interacting in everyday life so casually. They were laughing with their friends, shopping with their children, holding hands with their husbands, and more. It was a fairly surprising and eye-opening experience for me. I was also surprised that the whole gamut of Muslim lifestyles coexisted in Malaysia. Muslim men and women who had no different appearance from us were hanging out with women wearing classic hijabs and women wearing nikkabs. Malaysian people were really kind and helpful. Any time we looked remotely lost someone would stop and ask if we needed help with directions. I didn’t expect it, but I really enjoyed Malaysia. Honestly, I wouldn’t have ever given it a second thought before I came to China – especially since Derek Zoolander already saved the Prime Minister from Mugatu.


 

This marked the end of almost two months of traveling through 6 countries in Southeast Asia. After this, I will be returning to my normal posts about life in China – hope you enjoyed learning more about these countries through my lens.

 

Singapore

Areas visited: Singapore (it’s a city-country!)

Where I stayed: at a hostel in the “Little India” district

Who I was with: Elizabeth and Allister

Popular foods: Since Singapore is a mixture of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian cultures, the food is very diverse. You can find Malaysian food, Indian food (from the north and south), almost any Western food (because Singapore is one of the most modern cities in Asia), and Chinese food – from Canton style to Beijing style and everything in between.

Popular drinks: Tiger Beer is brewed in Singapore and is pretty good.

Religion: Because Singapore is very multicultural, it looked like there was a fairly even mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. It is a multicultural, multilinguistic, multi-religious city-country.

Mode of transportation: Since it is a metropolitan area that is fairly condensed, most people used the subway, bus, or train system. Cabs were also common. Motorbikes and bicycles did not seem common.

Activities: We were only in Singapore for 2 full days. Because Singapore was expensive, we tried to keep it pretty simple. We went to the free botanical garden one day and walked around for awhile. At night, we walked around Little India and hung out at the hostel. The second day we walked around downtown and crossed over the Helix Bridge where we got a view of downtown and the Merlion Stature over the river. After that, we all split and went our separate ways. I went to another garden that is a UNESCO World Heritage site – Gardens at the Bay. There, they have giant metal trees that recycle energy and two different domes with different plant environments. Elizabeth went to an aquarium and Allister walked around China Town. Singapore was a fun place to visit but it was very expensive to eat and do activities. Combine all this – and the fact that I wanted to lay low after so much travelling – and it makes for a low key visit.

Language: Singapore has three official languages: English, Chinese (Mandarin), and Bahasa Malay. Signs were in all three and everyone in the country has to study their native language and one other. For example, if you are native Malaysian, you must study Malay and either Chinese or English. It was nice for us – who all live in China – to be able to communicate with just about everyone, even if their English wasn’t great. Most people spoke English very well though. Since there is a large Indian population there as well, either Hindi or Punjabi was written/spoken commonly (unfortunately, I can’t tell the difference between these two languages yet.)

Currency: The Singapore Dollar (SD). The exchange rate was about $1 US : $1.35 SD. The closer the exchange rate, the more likely it is to be expensive…

Expense level: which is exactly what Singapore was! It was very expensive – especially coming out of Laos and Thailand for 3 weeks. It wasn’t uncommon for a normal meal to cost about $9 US, which is very expensive for someone who lives almost anywhere else in Asia (Hong Kong excepted.) Think of visiting Chicago for a weekend – that’s basically what we did, just in Asia. We definitely tried to keep our expenses down so we laid low – no wild nights or extravagant trips. We could experience Singapore well enough without that.

People:  As I said, there was a strong mixture of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian people. There were also some Western expats there mixed in with some other Asian and Middle Eastern expats. One of the most interesting things about Singapore was that it was culturally and racially diverse enough that sometimes you could not tell someone’s ethnicity. Coming from homogenous China, this was interesting as we interacted with people in Singapore.

Thailand (ATC 2016)

My time in Chiang Mai was different than any other country. It is actually the reason I started traveling into Southeast Asia. Every year, our company has a conference for the entire company (some 700+ people) in the Duwangtawan Hotel in Chiang Mai. Since we are busy during the conference, we don’t get to experience much of Thailand. Most people come for some time before or after to enjoy Thailand, which has several Western amenities that are uncommon in our respective countries. It is designed to be a time of catching up, growing, and getting refreshed for the next year.

Since I did not book very much time in Thailand besides conference, I didn’t get to know much about the country. I did a few really fun things (walking around the Night Market, going to a live music spot we called Haystacks, got a couple cheap massages) and met a bunch of great people from our company who live all over the world. I got to eat Western food (waffles, Mexican food) and good Thai food.

The best part of Thailand was definitely meeting new people at conference and catching up with friends made before. Though I didn’t get to spend as much time with everyone as I would have liked – as if there were enough time in a week long conference for that – it was a great time to see people and reconnect and share about the exciting things going on in each of our lives. Maybe, someday, I’ll get to return and experience a little more of Thailand itself, but what I got was just what I needed.

I know this is not much of a country report, but this will have to do until I return to Thailand…

(The cover photo is of our cohort – all the people we went through training with, representing 7+ countries of service. An incredible group of people!)

IMG_1909
Our city team did a t shirt exchange game
IMG_2481
Rotee/roti – fried dough with honey, chocolate, and nutella
IMG_2518
Red trucks are opened backed and take the place of cabs in Chiang Mai
IMG_2473
A Sports Club where we spent one of our off days
IMG_2488
A night time food truck complex
IMG_2511
The Chiang Mai Night Market