Monthly Archives: September 2008

>Entry 6: Do You Smoke?

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I bought a Mickey Mouse lighter last weekend.

Whether or not Disney officially endorses a tool for a product that kills its customer base is up for debate, but Mickey looks ecstatic. With his outstretched hands and bright smile, he appears ready to do cartwheels across my desk. He welcomes me to pick up the lighter, lift a cigarette and light up inside my apartment.

Inside my apartment, within fifty feet of a building and in restaurants.

Alfred and I ate at a “boiler restaurant” the other day. A “boiler restaurant” is one that has a burner in the table, and they fill a divided pot with water, one half spicy and the other plain. You order, and they bring food you put into the water and boil before eating.

At the end of the meal he pulled a pack of cigarettes and offered one. We lit up, and I looked around. No gasps. No evil stares. No helpful citizen to remind me that cigarettes are unhealthy, just in case I recently recovered from a braindead state. We smoke. We talk. A flame releases smoke streams and burns tobacco down a wrapper, ashes grow. They grow and gather into a loose sphere, and I search for an ashtray.

“Just do this.”

This meaning flicking on the floor. Alfred flicks his ashes on the floor. I try to copy him. He laughs and schools me in the proper way to flick one’s ashes onto a restaurant floor. Grip the cigarette between your middle and first fingers and use your thumb to strike the cigarette as one may strum a guitar string. Voila, the ashes are gone.

Eventually the flame reached the border. A red strip. No man’s land. Where, oh, where do I dispose of my finished cigarette?

Alfred tossed his on the floor. A good a place as any.

Some (well, a lot) blame the French for heavy smoking. They do smoke, but so far in China, I have had more offers for cigarettes than anywhere else. It’s part of the culture to offer one a cigarette — upon first meeting, when you’re drinking or whenever you feel like it.

It’s polite. Want a cigarette? Sure. Doesn’t mean you have to smoke it. Just take it. Keep it. A souvenir.

Chinese cigarette packs do not contain warnings. May cause birth defects. May? So there’s a chance it will not? No need to go cold turkey, honey. The surgeon general has no authority here.

The only thing my pack says, aside from unreadable Chinese characters, is “SELECTED THE FINEST TOBACCOS.” The caps are theirs. A poor bit of Engrish, this pack and the light costs 5.5 RMB together. That’s about 80 cents. Sin taxes? Nope.

Smoking bans and sin taxes are very stupid ideas. Increasing the price or limiting the places where one can practice an addictive vice will not stop that person from doing it. It will not cure dependence on alcohol or nicotine. It will simply persuade them to do it elsewhere.

As far as I can tell, there are no pretentious, moral crusaders in this country wasting space and interfering with people’s personal freedom. That’s the government’s job here, sure, but in some areas, people have more personal freedom than in the States. Land of the free.

But no one’s saying the Chinese have more freedom than Americans. Far from it, in fact. What I am saying is that in a country that many in the West stereotype as conformist and oppressive, in some areas people here have more personal freedom than in the West.

I like that. In fact, I’m going to light up to that. Now if we can just do something about the high death penalty rate, internet censorship and journalistic oppression, we’ll move in the right direction.

>Entry 5: The Wishing Bell

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“This wasn’t a strange place. It was a new one.” The Shepherd from The Alchemist.

Saturday, Alan, Ivon, two of their friends, and I, we went to Yellow Crane Tower.

Yellow Crane Tower is one of Wuhan’s most well-known sights. While not in the same league as The Great Wall or the Terra Cotta Warriors, the tower remains nevertheless an impressive piece of Chinese architecture and an important relic of ancient Chinese history.

I met Alan Thursday afternoon in the canteen (cafeteria). Because my classes are so full of students, I rarely recognize any unless they speak to me first, so when he sat down and introduced himself, I knew he was a student.

I just didn’t know which class. For all intents and purposes, I’d never seen him before in my life.

We talked about subjects that interested him. No matter the subject, if he brought it up, I found something to say about it. Anything. As long as it was English, I knew hearing it from a native speaker would benefit him.

He showed me around the campus across the street. The much nicer campus, with the huge track and soccer field, the bigger buildings, the gym that’s only open from 6 am to 8 am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the lake it borders, the lovely East Lake.

We talked some more near East Lake, and he snapped a photo with his phone. Then, he offered to take me to the new campus. The Sunshine Campus.

WUSE, Wuhan University of Science and Engineering, is divided into three campuses. Old, New, and East Lake. My campus is called the Old Campus. The New Campus is called the Sunshine Campus.

We bordered a free bus. As a teacher, I went to the head of the line, and as the teacher’s impromptu guide, he joined me. On the bus, he offered me a moon cake in honor of the Mid-Autumn Festival, or Moon Cake Day.

That’s not all. He offered me a piece of gum. I ate the mooncake and chewed on the gum as the bus jerked between cars, nearly killed a few people (fairly common, really) on a twenty minute drive to the Sunshine Campus.

Although it was dusk when we arrived, the name remained fitting.

Every building, brand new. Each tree, shorter than I am. A favorite place for the sun to shine.

We got there and Alan called someone. Seven girls arrived, all of them introduced themselves to me and I returned the favor. Very interested to meet a foreigner, Alan went to see someone while the girls showed me around the place.

I can say that although I was exhausted, I felt great and comfortable. Even as they bombarded me with questions, I took each one and answered it, not letting my fatigue crack and ooze through.

What questions? A wide variety. I asked them questions too. I found out they share their dorm rooms with four other people. Not a ‘Andy Holt Apartments’ situation, but rather, a room of bunks. One to each bunk.

They also had a curfew at 11 pm, something no self-respecting UT student could handle without hitting a psychotic episode or two. Good-bye leaving Hodge’s at 6 am. Hello lights out before midnight.

Near the end, they bought me a drink with no prompting from me, and we set up plans to see the Yellow Crane Tower on Saturday.

Despite getting to bed at 4:00 am the night before (I did no drinking), I got up and joined them at the front gate. Alan paid for the bus, and although it advertised air conditioning, it actually had small airplane-style fans. It duped me.

We got off and paid admission to Yellow Crane Tower. We took lots of pictures, and I learned some things about Chinese history I had never known before. This country has a rich culture and a long history stretching back thousands of years. Thousands. There is plenty I don’t know.

The five floors of the tower itself, while containing artifacts, mostly left the artifacts as a sideshow to concentrate on the main attraction: shops.

Small elephant tusks for 1280 RMB. Bargain or not, I don’t know, but poachers got to eat somehow. They don’t eat what they kill…unless it doesn’t sell. Then maybe. Just maybe they do. I’ll ask one and get back to you.

Some of the Chinese painters used to use special blocks to inscribe their character name onto their works. For a price that ranged from 10 to 45 RMB, you can have your name and your Chinese character name cut into a block that you can then use to stamp on whatever you like.

There is a bell at Yellow Crane Tower. Your throw a quarter beneath it, then you pay a fee and ring the bell. Me, I saved the money and just rang the bell. It seemed a little more fiscally responsible.

You ring the bell and wish for something. What did I wish for? If I say, it won’t come true, but I can tell you what I did not wish for.

Happiness and comfort.

I don’t have to.

>Slippery when wet

>For wet floors, I have yet to see “Caution” or “Slippery When Wet” signs. The last one is particularly obvious, isn’t it? Someone could easily write “No Shit” right below it.

I suppose Chinese people can see that the floor is wet and that running across it at full speed or careless walking may result in disaster. So there’s no need for such hand-holding.

Though I still wonder how many broken necks have occurred without this Western comfort.

>The Lost Teacher

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I got lost and missed the first two classes periods.

I could blame the school, who told me to get off at the second bus stop on the New Campus.

I could blame the school, who told me to go to Building 5. It was Building 3. 哎呀

I could blame the school, who gave me such vague directions.

I could also blame myself, for not asking these questions and assuming.

Then again, I could indeed blame them for not giving me a printed schedule, which tends to help new teachers find their classes.

Instead, I’ll treat you to this awkward bit of “Chinglish” I caught at the New Campus Library. To encourage students to be quiet, or “shut the hell up”, they engraved the following words into a sign below neatly blocked Chinese characters.

Don’t make clamor.

Clamor. Can you imagine The Commons telling the weeknight socialites to not make any clamor?

Can you imagine the blank stares?

>Lights Out

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Part of a legal long-term stay in China is the Residence Permit. And part of the Residence Permit is a series of medical exams that make sure you are free of such diseases as leprosy, tuberculosis, and AIDS. People with STDs need not apply.

This morning they loaded the new foreign teachers into a small van lacking AC and drove us to a medical clinic on the other side of East Lake. When we got there, the door was open. A woman sat in a small chair, waving a fan.

Some talk in Chinese ensued. Camilla, one of the assitants, turns to us.

Camilla: The power is out.

Yes, the power is out. Have to come back tomorrow. Great. What time?

Camilla: Early. We have to beat the crowd.

I see. How early?

Camilla: Seven.

I should note that several teachers had to cancel their classes at the last minute because the office decided to inform us of this little trip the night before, or in Rob’s case, around 10 pm the night before.

And now that the power’s out, we have to come back tomorrow. Earlier.

Rise and Shine.