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, May 22, 2010

The Great Hair Affair

I’ve talked about it for months, explored my options, and consulted the experts. I've even bought a few of the essentials (oil, curlers, a flat iron, and a shower cap), which sat, week after week, like neglected children in my bathroom drawer. But earlier this week, I finally did it…I actually worked up the nerve to brave my first Chinese hair salon. While I have been researching the prospect for months and seeking counsel from the one or two black women I know who live within a 20 mile radius of me, the thought of actually going through with it seemed daunting. But this week was my roommate's 30th birthday, and she decided she would ring in her milestone year with style—hair, nails, dinner at a fancy restaurant…the whole nine yards. As such, she invited me and some of our other friends to get primped and pampered with her at one of the finer salons of Kaifaqu (there are probably only about three of them). I was hesitant to participate at first—having already observed a fair share of the wreck and ravage that can result from a few hours with an inexperienced Chinese hairdresser—but, later one of my kinky-haired comrades informed me that she had gotten her hair done at the very same salon my roomate was planning to book and the end product was “not bad for 20 RMB” (roughly about $3 USD--in "China," the "CH" stands for cheap!) So after hearing this, I decided to bite the bullet and go. I mean, really, what was the worse that could happen? I spend three bucks and end up with a do that looks like it’s worth… well…three bucks. However, to be on the safe side, I decided to schedule my appointment a little earlier than my silky-haired friends, since I anticipated it might take a little longer for a stylist to navigate and conquer my kinks and curls. And it was good thing I did.

Despite receiving advance notice that my hair would not be like the others, the employees at the salon all seemed a bit mystified by my presence. From the moment I walked in the door to the time I was placed in the hair-styling chair, the stares, giggles and unnecessary touching by the hairdressers (and other employees who probably weren’t hairdressers at all) were incessant. I felt like an exhibit at a hair museum. After gingerly stroking and washing my hair for what had to be only two or three minutes (hardly enough time to adequately shampoo, condition and rinse hair as curly as mine), the hairdresser wrapped it in a towel and led me to the chair, where she proceeded to dry my hair using only a low-heat, blow-dryer and her fingers. I watched slightly amused as a look of horror slowly crept across her face as she realized that drying my hair in this fashion was not going to make the curls magically disappear (which I could have told her…if I spoke Chinese). Instead, to her dismay, my hair began to grow into a frizzy web of curls, tangles and knots becoming more and more difficult for her to run her fingers through. At one point, she paused for a moment befuddled by the half-dried, frizzy mass she’d created. She looked helplessly at her fellow beauticians, who seemed equally puzzled and grinned sheepishly at me. At that point, my mood had begun to shift from amusement to aggravation. “Oh Lord,” I thought, “Why did I even bother. These people do not know what the heck they’re doing with my hair.” But before storming out of the salon altogether, I decided to first attempt to steer this clearly confused hairdresser in the right direction. I began a series of grunts and hand motions to indicate she needed to use a some sort of roller- or flat brush on my hair in addition to the blow-dryer. She didn’t get it. So I pointed in the direction of what I thought might be a brush. She still didn’t get it. But the more experienced hairdresser sitting in the chair beside me, did. So she came over, and took command of the blow-dryer, but not without first gently chiding the first hairdresser for attempting to dry my hair on such low heat. Then, she grabbed a brush and began to go to work, but for whatever reason, she still felt the need to be assisted by the first hairdresser and another co-worker who spoke some English. And it was all done under the careful observation of one or two other male stylists. I suppose maybe in a land of bone-straight hair, taming a mane of my caliber requires an entire team of Chinese hairdressers. So for about an hour, she carefully blew out each section of my hair, as her two assistants, stood with handfuls of curls in hand, giggling and watching in amazement as this magical device transformed my springy locks into long, straight, silky tresses (which also desperately needed a trim, but I wasn’t about to go so far as to ask them about doing that.) As I said before, the first hairdresser hadn’t washed my hair thoroughly at all…and it began to show as the second hairdresser blew out my hair. There was a ton of build up and it felt greasy and disgusting. The English-speaking girl tried to tell me this and I felt like saying (in Chinese), “ Yeah, no duh! That’s what happens when you freakin’ don’t know how to wash hair.” But instead, I just nodded, “zhe dao (I know),” and signaled for her to keep on going. 

Overall, though, despite the spectacle and the nasty texture, my hair didn’t come out looking half-bad. Plus, after setting my hair in some curlers and running my own flat iron through it for a little while, I’d say it was almost up to Dominican hair salon standards (Oh, how I miss those Dominicans and their fire-breathing blow-dryers. Sigh.) In the end, they charged me 30 RMB rather than 20, because they said my hair “took more work and was longer,” but I didn’t feel like quibbling over the difference of roughly $1USD. I mean, you can judge the outcome for yourself. (See above picture.) But the truth is, I’d go back again.  Yes, there other better hair options in Dalian, but it’s like my friend said: It’s really “not bad for 20—or 30—RMB,” and really, a wash and set for 4 bucks? There’s just some things you can’t beat in China :o) 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Beginning to Learn How to Understand

It’s been a while since my last post and I am now in month five of my Sino-soul-sistah experience. And while my primary focus here is, of course, teaching, I’ve also given myself a few other special assignments while I’m here 1.) Visit the three best-known cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong; 2.) Find a salon that can do a decent wash and set; 3.) Become fluent enough in Chinese to syke  out the women in the Chinatown nail salons when they start talking to each other about my nasty feet.  

I’m more than halfway to accomplishing Number 1 (I’ve been to Beijing and Hong Kong—on a layover, but that still counts!) And this week, after seeking counsel from my micro-network of kinky-haired sistahs here in Dalian, I've decided to try my first Chinese salon (I’ll let you know how it all goes down.) As for my third and final mission of mastering the Mandarin tongue…well, not so easy. But I’ve resolved that before leaving China, I will at least reach a level equivalent in Chinese to my lower-level, middle-school English students…and I am making progress. Why, just a few weeks ago, the entire Chinese language sounded like an endless string of jigga sher nigga ma’s to my foreign ears. But now, I am deciphering actual words, I’m slowly (very slowly) processing sentences, and I’m understanding.  And it is such a beautiful thing to have sounds that once seemed unintelligible unfold into words and expressions with meaning…And it is so unbelievably gratifying to have that understanding reciprocated by my coworkers, taxi-drivers and other random strangers with which I attempt to converse (though, it is still rare to be completely understood by anybody, thanks to my lethal combination of horrible pronunciation and bad sentence structure.) However, I’m happy to say that I have surprised my Chinese coworkers with a few witty and profound phrases, which I’ve picked up (or rather, looked up) along the way. Here are just a few of my favs:

Wo shi mei guo ren danshi bu ben. (I’m American but not stupid)

Zhen de ma? (Really?)

Che dao shan qian bi you lu. (Where there’s a will, there’s a way.)

Bi shang bu zu, bi xia you yu (It's not the best thing in the world, but it's not the worst either.)

Shuo huang! Ni zuotian wanshang bu zai zhe li le! Wo zai jiuba kanjian ni le, pian zi! (You liar! You weren’t here last night! I saw you in the bar, you cheater!)

Shei fang pi le. (Who farted?)

And while I am still thousands of terms, tones, and tenses away from even moderate fluency, I am also beginning to understand things about China and its people that go far beyond the semantics of language…like the fact that a lot is said without being said at all, which on the surface may strike the average Westerner as nothing special. After all, whether it’s on a conscious or subconscious level, we are all constantly communicating through the unspoken exchange of body language. However, I don’t think Westerners are aware of the extent to which words and true feelings are not expressed in Chinese culture. And for me to attempt to go into all the intricacies of what that means in terms of interactions, thought-patterns, and relationships might be fitting for a 200-page scholarly dissertation...but not for a blog. And besides, it's not like I’m some kind of anthropological expert on all this. However, I will share a telling experience I had during a recent cultural training seminar for the Western teachers.
Prior to the seminar, our boss had asked the Chinese teachers to compose a list of grievances they had with the American teachers. Some of them were reasonable, some of them were totally unreasonable, but the one that stood out in my mind the most was a complaint from an Eastern teacher irritated with the direct and blunt manner in which the American teachers spoke: “If you tell us the truth,” it read, “it will make us feel bad.” (And yes, I did feel a sudden urge at that point to pull a Jack Nicholson and yell, “You can’t handle the truth!”—but I refrained.) However, I’ve now grown quite accustomed to asking Chinese co-workers if they could do a certain task, watching as they smile brightly with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and realizing after it’s almost too late that they never even attempted to do what I asked…OR asking a Chinese co-worker if he or she likes or dislikes something, receiving a resounding “Yes, I love it!” and later hearing from a third-party that they absolutely hated it. In Western culture, “honesty is the best policy” (though, perhaps, more in theory than in practice), but in Chinese culture appeasement seems to take top priority at honesty’s expense. Better to tell a bold-faced lie than to risk embarrassing oneself or others involved for the sake of the truth. And as silly and juvenile as that might initially strike an elitist Western foreigner such as myself, I am actually beginning to understand the nobleness behind such reasoning…the idea that sometimes, the truth must take a backseat to the feelings of friends…and I do consider many of my co-workers friends at this point (and I hope they feel the same... but I guess I'll never truly know, now will I?) And that’s not to say, I think the rationale is right or wrong or saying that I agree with it or can even really relate to it at this point…but I’m beginning to understand it...yi bu yi bu lai ba (step by step), and that’s always a good place to start. Zai jian!

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