The Old Must Go for the New to Come

In January 2010, I crammed 25 years of my life into two little 50 lbs bags and headed out on a China-bound plane to educate the young and inquisitive minds of Dalian on all things American. But why? Why leave a coveted associate producer position at CBS (and six years of journalism training to boot) and head off to a lowly English teaching position in China? Why? Because, frankly, I've learned getting what you think you want out of life isn't always what it's cracked up to be. What follows are the tales of my trials and triumphs (like overcoming my fear of the dreaded squatty potty) and the lessons I've learned along the way...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Let’s Get Physical: Chinese Food and Fitness

I believe there is a grave misconception among many Americans that a diet consisting of authentically Chinese food (as in the kind you can’t get at the take-out spots on the corner of Anytown, U.S.A.) will somehow lead to a healthier, leaner body. I know that was my assumption. I mean, obesity is not exactly a huge (get it?) issue over here and it pales in comparison to America’s whopping 34 percent of adults. But in reality, the prevalence of petiteness among the Chinese probably has far less to do with the food and much more to do with genetics and the fact that, like in any developing country, food is still at a premium. But the problem is that most of that food is a plethora of starches (bread, rice, noodles, rice noodles, potatoes, fried rice, sticky rice balls, fried bread pudding with a side of sticky fried rice) all doused in some combination of oil, sugar and sauces, thus, explaining why China was recently awarded the coveted title of nation with the most cases of diabetes in the world by the New England Journal of Medicine. (See full article in the sidebar)

So with that being said, it is no wonder that shortly after indulging in all the merriment, fellowship and excessive food of Chinese New Year…I found myself reaping the 10-pound harvest of my shameless gluttony. And while it might seem that the easy solution would be to simply go back to eating less (like I did in the states), the fact that every meal is served with a heaping helping of MSG (yes, they use it on everything here in the motherland, too) makes that near impossible. And unlike like the Chinese takeout in the states, the MSG here doesn’t even leave you with that little 30-minute buzz of satisfaction. By the time I'm down to scraping up the last few grains of rice on my plate, I’m already starving again!

So, to combat my incessant need to eat and my subsequent weight gain, I joined a local gym with a few other co-workers.  And let me just say, what discipline I lack in the food department, I make up for in exercise. I LOVE the gym and I'm there at least 3 or 4 times a week. There is a comforting familiarity about being in a gym. No matter where in the world you are there are always certain sights and sounds you know you will encounter: The low hum of the treadmills in heavy rotation and the rhythmic drumming of the feet that pound them; the primal (and unnecessary) grunts of men lifting weights; the clank of dumbbells; the faint sound of pop music playing in the background (and yes, most of it is American pop music). But despite the familiarity, there are some notable differences about my experience at I.V.F.C. (which stands for Indomitable Vitality Fitness Club, in case you were wondering):

1. People on the fitness staff are constantly coming up to me to see if they can help me or talk to me in anyway...My guess is that making friends with an African-American gives them some type of street cred or something. Usually, they’ll make some attempt at broken English and I’ll make some attempt at unintelligible Chinese and between the both of us, we understand absolutely nothing and resort to smiles, nods, and hand gestures instead. (But in all seriously, the staff is incredibly helpful and friendly.)

2. I get a lot of stares when I’m in the gym (surprise, surprise)…but it's even more conspicuous than when I’m out on the street. Mostly men occupy the gym during the day, so they do most of the staring. I know Chinese men love the blonde-haired American girl-types (there are random pictures of Britney Spears all over the place) but I didn’t think most of them were really into black women (or so I’ve been told), so I’m not sure if their stares are out of intrigue or intimidation (I’m pretty muscular for a woman and I usually outrun most the other folks on the treadmills there.) Whatever the case, I will admit I get a cheap little thrill from turning heads.

3. Like many other areas of China, privacy is a rare luxury. In the locker room, I probably get more funny looks for actually wearing a towel from the lockers to the shower than if I just walked around buck-naked like all the other women. But then again, I get a lot of stares once I disrobe, too. Perhaps, it’s because my hair is thicker than theirs…perhaps, it’s because my skin is darker…perhaps, it’s because some of my other…attributes…are just a tad larger...But why any woman would be so entertained by watching another woman scrub her nether regions is truly beyond me. However, the one woman who doesn’t do much staring is the cleaning lady, who is often far too busy scrubbing the wall beside me, mopping the floor around me, or wiping the showerhead WHILE I’m showering under it (although, she did look at me once and gave me a big smile.)

I could go on…but I’ll save it for another post. As for my fitness progress…well, I’m down about four pounds, so that’s a start. Still more to go, but the other teachers have already begun planning this big potluck for Easter, so we’ll see how long this whole weight loss thing actually lasts. Otherwise, I guess Tang Rui will soon be on her way to becoming Pang (Fat) Rui :o)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mastering the Art of The Squatty Potty

Rest-assured, Americans, in China (or at least in Dalian) there are westernized toilets available in most residential areas and major food/department store chains (and that was one of the first questions I asked my employers upon my job offer to come here.) BUT also be aware that there comes a point in every China-dwelling expat’s life when he or she must inevitably encounter…the Squatty Potty—basically a porcelain hole in the ground.  For men, I assume that, with the exception of number two, this is a relatively simple process. For women, however, it is a feat requiring a mastery of balance, proper aim, attention to detail and strong leg muscles. Failure to meet these requirements could result in an embarrassingly messy situation. And while you can try to avoid it all you want…eventually, your bladder (or your colon) will give you no choice but to submit (I’m a witness.) So rather than fight the urge, here are a few pointers on how to make your squatty-potty experience a more pleasurable one:

  1. Always be sure to bring a pack of tissues with you. Nine times out of 10, there will not be any toilet paper available in your stall (the Chinese are very thrifty, and I suppose, toilet paper is just deemed as a frivolous and costly Western luxury—but before you ridicule, let me remind you that we do owe them $700 billion)
  1. Take note of your surroundings: Are there coat hangers available outside of the stall? Is the latch on your stall door working properly? Do you even have a latch on your stall door? Where is the flush lever (sometimes it’s up near your hand like a western toilet, sometimes it’s down by your feet.) Is there any fecal matter left residing on or around the pot or surrounding area? (and given China’s not-so-efficient drainage system and the relatively low flushing pressure of most toilets, there’s a good chance you’ll find a little something nice leftover from the last patron.)
  1. Make sure you’ve stowed all outer-wear and carry-on items (purses, shopping bags, cell phones) safely in their proper place (i.e. on either the hanger on the inside or the outside of the bathroom stall.)
  1. Place both feet firmly on each side of said porcelain hole. Remember the pool is shallow but bad aim can create a big splash, so don’t be afraid to spread those feet wide.
  1. Shift underwear/pants/tights down to just above the knees (sometimes, it also helps to use one hand to hold any loose clothing in place.)
  1. Position legs at a 90 to 45 degree angle (depending on your range of flexibility). For beginners, I recommend using your other free hand as an anchor against the wall behind you for balance. However, the true potty aficionado knows that the ability to master the one-handed squat will serve one well in the event that one inadvertently finds oneself in a stall without a working latch (which accounts for about 80 percent of all bathroom stalls in China.)
  1. Aim (cautiously) and release.
  1. Flush (if you followed my directions up until this point, you should have already observed whether the lever in your stall is at western level or by your feet). If the lever is by your feet DO NOT flush it with your hand (Why? Just think for a moment about all the things that probably managed to splash all over that foot-level lever.) Push down on it with your foot.
  1. Pull up your pants, gather your belongings, and pat yourself on the back, you just successfully eliminated waste in your first squatty potty!    
Oh and don’t worry about washing your hands…nobody else ever does. JUST KIDDING…(No, actually I’m not. People really don't seem to wash their hands in this least, not after using the bathroom), which is why I guess it’s a good thing people really don’t shake hands here either and why I always carry hand sanitizer with me everywhere I go and pray over all my food…but that’s a whole different blog for another day.) In any case, it is my sincerest hope that this little tutorial will empower expats around the globe with the courage and confidence to stop running to the nearest western-style WC. You don’t have to be afraid anymore, my pampered Western friends. The time has come to finally stop, stand up and squat on the pot. We can do this, my friends! Yes we can.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Jigga ma Nigga: China and the N-Word

Hey Black people, so funny thing about living in hear the N-word...ALL THE TIME. "Xu yao nigga fuzhuang"..."gei wo nigga"... "nigga tai tang"..."jigga nigga ma nigga jigga!" (Ok, they don't really say that last one.) Nevertheless, among the crowds of the Chinese-speaking public it is incessant. Why? Because the Chinese word for "that" is "na-ge" which sounds a whole heck of a lot like that dear old epithet from back in the states. And apparently, the Chinese like to use "that" the way Americans like to use "like," which means they like to like use it for like every other word. So, when listening to any given conversation among the Chinese, you're guaranteed to here about 10 or 12 "niggas." Sometimes they're a couple of quick little "niggas" in rapid succession of one other, other times it's a long, contemplative "ni--gaaah," and then, there's my personal favorite "jigga nigga" which always brings to mind that eloquently articulated anthem by Jay-Z "Jigga (What's My Motha$^%*ing Name?)"

In any case, I was warned about the Chinese N-word by a friend before I got here, but I have to admit it's taken some real mental training to squelch the urge to jump up in a fit of fury and yell "What'd you just call me?!" And there are those instances of Chinglish, when the Chinese students, and sometimes even the Chinese teachers at our school, struggle to find an English word and unintentionally slip a "nigga" in instead, so you get sentences like: "I want to go to the nigga school," or "I will visit my nigga friend at her nigga house." And then there are those awkward moments when I'm with the other American teachers (none of whom are black), and either they or someone nearby utters a clearly audible "nigga" (in the Chinese way, of course)... Oftentimes, this is followed by a quick side-eye glance to see if I've taken any notice and if it's apparent that I have, the situation usually culminates in some degree of nervous laughter. But I'm starting to get to the point where I don't take much notice anymore. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely HATE that word in its truest, ugliest, racially derogatory and historically oppressive form. It's a  word that has plagued the psyche of my people for centuries...But the majority of Chinese people here don't have the slightest clue that the word "nigga" has any negative connotations, they only know it as "that" and just that. To be honest, if you really think about it, getting offended by the Chinese' use of a legitimate Chinese word used in China just seems kind of silly. That would be like a Japanese person getting offended by the American use of the word "like" in America because it sounds like some type of Japanese slur. Of course,  I did warn some of the Chinese teachers that if they value their lives, they better never EVER use that word if they make it to America.     

...Oh and fyi, if you're ever among the Chinese and and you hear the words "lao hei" or "hei guǐzi," (which are literally translated as "Old Black" and "Black Devil" but are meant to be as offensive as "porch monkey" or "coon") then you have a reason to knock somebody upside the head :o)

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