The Chinese love pageantry. During the September opening ceremony for the new school year a young man gave an impressive sword exhibition. It happened that he was in one of my large lecture classes so at break time in one of our class sessions I asked him questions about his skill as a swordsman. He was pleased to get better acquainted with his foreign teacher and we went for long walks in the campus gardens but he would not use the phone to call before he came to my apartment. His preferred time to chat was 10:15pm.
The first time he got ready to leave a few minutes after 10:30pm when the foreign teachers’ compound was locked he commented, “Oh, I can’t get out. I guess I’ll just have to stay here!”
“Oh yes, you can get out. There is a hole in the fence.”
He had to be shown, so I took him outside and pointed out the space between the iron bars. He shook hands with me and slipped out but he was not very pleased.
Another time he came a bit later and asked outright if he could stay overnight. An American movie had been shown on campus that evening of Americans sleeping with each other, drinking, smoking, snorting coke, shooting up, but I again said no. When I asked him to leave he said the hole in the bars had been closed up. We went outside so he could show me, and sure enough, no hole.
Wiping his hands on his chest, he asked, “What shall I do now?”
“I guess you’ll just have to sleep in the courtyard,” I replied as I turned to go back inside.
He was so angry that he grabbed two bars, slowly spread them apart and squeezed through without remembering to shake hands. I was horrified at his show of strength. In fact, I told the other foreign teachers what had happened and asked them to come quickly if they heard me screaming.
When I was in America during the summers after that he wrote love letters and proposed marriage. This was a common strategy for Chinese students who want to go abroad since many students were not able to get academic scholarships. I once received a marriage proposal from a chemical engineering professor with whom I had been friends for more than a year, a married man with adult children. Eventually he was able to get a visiting scholar’s visa to Canada, which he changed to a green card to remain longer. Unfortunately, his education and experience were inadequate for employment in Canada so he worked in a McDonalds and found life difficult because of his age.
If Chinese students can find American sponsors they can get visas, but the sponsor must guarantee a substantial bond. Students worked hard at developing friendships with their foreign teachers and then at the end of that teacher’s tenure the student would ask for sponsorship. If the foreign teacher refused and tried to explain that they didn’t have the money to put up security, the Chinese thought this was a flimsy excuse because one could (and should) falsify documents for a friend. In one year alone I was asked for security totaling more than $100,000. Some teachers did sponsor students to study in America but were disappointed when the student felt no further obligation to the sponsor.
Another Lesson Learned
I often went out walking in the nearby countryside seeking a bit of nature. Where my university was located the land was heavily polluted and not much grew. There weren’t even weeds, insects or snakes. One day I discovered a small settlement of mud houses, some with courtyards containing animals. One of them had a donkey, an unfriendly dog, a hissing watch-goose, some chickens, and kittens playing in the dirt. I stood and took in the pleasure of the animals when a little old lady came out of the mud house and invited me in. I accepted her invitation and sat on a tiny, low stool with one wooden foot on which to balance – similar to an old-fashioned milking stool my father used when milking his cows. The lady offered me tea in a filthy cup and I accepted graciously because I knew it was her best. We couldn’t talk because she spoke the local dialect. At last I set the cup down and bid her goodbye.
The next week I stopped again at the lady’s courtyard gate and she was waiting for me. Her husband was home this time and they cordially invited me in. I had brought my Chinese-English/ English-Chinese dictionary with me and the man and I passed it back and forth. His wife was my age. I was very surprised and humbled because of her haggard appearance. Also, she couldn’t read. After that I went every week except during holidays to visit them. When it came time to say our last good-byes I took them some cookies I had baked as a special gift. Quickly the lady offered me first this and then that and it slowly dawned on me that when a gift was received, a gift must be given in return, and my heart sank for they were so poor. What beautiful, gentle people! At last I accepted two dozen eggs because I knew they were a renewable resource and hated myself for what I had done.
Nuts and Bolts
Often Chinese universities provide a maid to do housecleaning and laundry for the foreign teachers. When the maids cleaned our apartments they collected information such as phone numbers, names and addresses. I was distressed to return from classes to find my underwear drawer in disarray from clumsy searches. Opened mail, phone taps, and multiple keys for every lock. One time my bike was gone and later the maid returned it saying that she needed it for a quick trip. It was locked, though; how did she unlock it? Oh, she had an extra key, she remarked. There is no word in Mandarin for “privacy” although the concept is understood.
At one university there was only one washing machine, which we were not permitted to use. Instead, the maid washed our clothes for a fee. The various fees would have totaled more than a thousand Yuan in two semesters. Instead of paying to get my laundry done I carried it off campus once a month to wash at a friend’s apartment. The other three weeks I did hand laundry, even my jeans and coats. This was hardly satisfactory, so at the end of the year when negotiating for a second year, I asked for access to the laundry facilities and discovered that the dean of the Foreign Language College didn’t realize what the maid was doing. He had a personal chat with the Foreign Affairs Office and the next year we all could use the washer to launder our own clothes if we wanted to.
Shopping was an adventure because the vendors see foreigners as geese that lay golden eggs. Eventually, I wanted to do my own shopping but my students were protective and insisted on going along to haggle and shout over each transaction. I can still see one student who would become volubly indignant at the shamelessness of the vendors’ eagerness to get more money from me. My attitude was to move along, trying to bargain, refusing to buy when prices were inflated.
I enjoyed practicing my limited language skills in the open-air markets. I asked other shoppers what an item cost and they were quite willing to tell me the price and which sellers to go to. Eventually, there were vendors who offered their vegetables at reasonable prices, so I bought from them faithfully, and good relationships were built. One of my greatest pleasures in China was to go out on the street and haggle for goods. Most sellers were good-natured and willing to negotiate. A few times the price was too low for the seller to make a profit, so when I paid for the item, I would give what I thought was fair. This aspect of integrity created respect between vendors and me.
I have taken newly arrived foreign teachers shopping to show them where to find various goods and how to negotiate, only to be embarrassed by their brash talk and rude behavior in front of Chinese merchants whom I appreciated. It won me a subtle smile and a curt nod when I softly apologized, Wo dui bu qi. (I’m sorry).
Meeting and talking with people on the streets was a great pick-me-up when I felt discouraged. Some polite questions in Chinese society are: How old are you? How much money do you make? How much did that cost? Have you eaten? Store clerks frequently asked me how old I was. I pretended to ting bu dong – not understand the question. Then I would give a wrong answer. When the clerks were confused I would give the correct answer and they would stare at me in disbelief because I appeared to be younger than they expected. Sometimes a clerk would give a speech of thanks to Americans who came to China to help in their modernization, especially older Americans. This made me feel small indeed, so I replied, “Wo bu yun xie – I want no thanks!”
All Americans Do It
During my tenure at that first university a young Chinese teacher knocked on my door one evening to take me to a dance. Not many Americans do ballroom dancing, so I explained that I didn’t dance; I didn’t know how. Well, she wouldn’t buy that! All Americans know how to dance. It can be seen in the movies. Nothing I said shook her confidence, so I went. Reluctantly I began to learn a fox trot and a slow waltz. Then I discovered that dancing was a wonderful way to get a private conversation with someone who might not be permitted to talk to me otherwise.
Some funny things happened. Once, the monitor of one of my classes was so afraid of making a misstep that he begged me to lead.
“I can’t,” I protested. “If you don’t lead, I don’t know what to do.” So he led, but his legs were shaking until he realized I was truthful, and he began to relax and enjoy himself.
On another occasion somebody invited an army officer who had his eye on me. Among my students, several were quite accomplished dancers and made me look good. When the army officer asked the students about dancing with me, they told him I didn’t know much about dancing so he shouldn’t expect too much. But he marched out on the floor and gave me a summons. Off we went and he began to do some very fancy steps apart from me while I just stood in confusion. As university dances became increasingly public I abandoned that activity.
Another aspect of the culture is class-consciousness. I was walking to a student dorm one early afternoon when I met the dean of the Foreign Language Department.
“Oh, I was just coming to see you,” he exclaimed.
“Oh I am not home now,” I responded without telling him where I was going.
“Well, may I come to visit you tomorrow afternoon at 2pm?” he asked, and we agreed on the time.
Unknown to me, he continued toward the foreign teachers’ apartments and met two other Americans who essentially had the same conversation with him. He told us later that at first he wondered why we didn’t turn and retrace our steps to visit with him. Then it occurred to him that Americans treated people equally, making and keeping appointments according to when they were made rather than according to who they were and their social status. This dean was appreciated by both his own teachers and students, and by his foreign teachers for his cultural sensitivity. The other side of this was when we foreign teachers made appointments with our students we were never sure they would keep the appointment because Chinese teachers had more status than the foreign teachers. Frustrating.
Seating at banquets and formal meetings reveals who is in favor at the time. Foreign teachers are seated according to how they are regarded by Chinese authorities. In newspapers and magazines one can see the status of individuals according to where they stand or sit, and those in-the-know can observe the rise and fall of destinies.
Collectivism, the value of the group over the individual, is a very important concept in Asian cultures. Student dormitories house six or eight students to a room stacked in bunk beds. In some universities curtains are allowed around the beds, in other schools curtains are forbidden. If one stops on the street to ask for directions a committee meeting of passers-by may take place while the various individuals argue about the exact location of an address. One time after June 1989, while I was back in America I had trouble getting a Chinese return visa. The officer I talked to on the phone refused to take any responsibility to process my passport. So I asked him to have a meeting of those in his office to decide whether or not to stamp my passport. That gave the man an out and I got my passport stamped and in the return mail.