Leave your bison chip wherever you go

The following post is a translation of an article written by Chen Si’an, a Taiwanese student at Fudan University who spent this summer working at Yellowstone National Park. Originally published in the Fudan Taiwanese Student Organization Monthly Newsletter. Republished with consent.

When I picked up my pen to share this story, I decided to not give everyone a day-to-day account of my summer work experience, because my story is too absolute and probably would be a bit boring. For this reason, I’ve used a simple style to give examples of the important things I came to realize from my “Work and Travel” in America’s Yellowstone National Park. I believe this will be of great benefit to everyone’s future lives and work attitudes.

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1. Be brave enough to say hello and start up a conversation with people you don’t know

Asians generally give foreigners the impression of being introverted and shy, but this kind of fixed thinking is completely without reason. When I first arrived at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful gift store, everyone, including the boss, the chefs, and the other workers would always really warmly strike up conversations with me. They’d endlessly ask: “How do you like America?” “Is there anything I can help you with?” and the classic “How do you feel today?” I really couldn’t get used to it, because this kind of excessive warmth is rarely seen in Taiwan or the Mainland.

The first few days after my arrival led me to a realization: This type of warm greeting towards other people isn’t specially focused on newcomers, but is a practice deeply planted in the hearts of every American. At first, every day hearing “How do you feel today?” while eating breakfast, “How’s everything going?” while eating lunch, and “Is everything alright?” during dinner might give one a headache. How come they’re always asking the same question? Really, though, this is a great conversation starter. It expresses your care for the other person and lets them choose to discuss the things they feel comfortable sharing with you. Following from the place they open the conversation at, this shows respect for the other person, and allows you to enter more deeply into their feelings and gain a lot of interesting and valuable experiences.

 2. Don’t be miserly about praising others, and have a moderate amount of self-confidence

The traditional virtue of Chinese people holds that one should always be modest. For this reason, when receiving praise, our reaction is always to insist “I’m not good enough, so-and-so is much better, etc.” Regarding other people’s merits, we also just hold on to them in our hearts, and rarely directly stand up and say, “Hi, I think you look really good today!” When I had been in Yellowstone for just a week, however, I discovered that Americans are really accustomed to praising others. For now, we’ll not think about whether they’re genuine in doing so or not – what can’t be denied is that those being praised will be very happy, and that this happiness will persist for a long period of time. They [Americans] can find something in everyone that’s worthy of praise. For example: “Your necklace is really beautiful, I’ve never seen one of this design before;” “I wish I had eyes as beautiful as yours;” “If my math was as good as yours, that would be great!” If praising someone doesn’t take any energy, but will bring them a good mood for a whole day and start a good relationship between you and them, then why not go for it?

When receiving praise from others, don’t be coy; smiling and saying thank you will better express your bearing and self-confidence. At the start, I would always answer, “No, I am not that good.” Afterwards, however, I discovered that this is not a very friendly answer, because it makes it hard for the other person to keep the conversation going. Don’t make the other person emphasize that they really think you’re okay. Happily saying thank you, accepting their good intentions, and complimenting them back is a much better way of cultivating relationships with other people.

3. Don’t concern yourself over working more than others, just conscientiously do what you have to do

My work at the Old Faithful Gift Store was restocking and tending the cash register. Old Faithful is the most famous place in all of Yellowstone, and every day the tourists are an endless stream. While on duty, there’s basically no time to use the restroom or even take a short break. My salary was lower than the kitchen workers, I didn’t get part of the tips like they did, and I also had to run here and there moving stock around or tending the register for, at the very least, seven and a half hours. For this reason, when I was working I’d always discover that lots of people who had the same job as me would be in the back room, resting and chatting, even though out front there’d be a huge mass of tourists out front unable to find the things they wanted.

I’d always be working and working, pushing a cart back and forth to restock, or running to grab different clothing sizes for customers. Although I wasn’t getting higher pay for this, I was getting worn out. This is a kind of work attitude, though: you’ll feel satisfaction from bustling about for a whole day and seeing the smiles of customers. You won’t feel like you frittered away a single moment. Perhaps because of this [attitude], I got training to become a cashier faster than some others, which gave me more opportunities to come into contact and chat with customers and made my work more varied. Because of this, don’t lightly suffer other’s interference; conscientiously do your own work, don’t grumble, and you’ll have a pleasant surprise waiting for you.

4. Don’t fritter away time, grasp your summer

Yellowstone’s summer is very short, and the rest of the time it’s covered by snow and ice, so the summers are overflowing with vitality. Crowds of tourists, verdant trees, and lively animals can be seen everywhere, and there isn’t a single place not proclaiming life and vigor. Human life is like this too. I had a lot of coworkers who were older Americans. A lot of them are retirees who decided to come work at Yellowstone for a short time period. There are former police officers, professors, teachers, and more, all seizing the opportunity to enrich their lives and come closer to nature. This is a life attitude well worth studying. Don’t waste away the minutes and seconds of your life. I got to meet a seventy-eight year old gentleman, who took us in in a circuit around North Yellowstone in his car during one of our days off. This type of attitude became a big inspiration for me. We’re in the most golden period of our lives, but most of us fail to value and love time and life the way those elderly people do. Youth is short, and a single year’s summer goes by in an instant; for this reason, we really need to hold onto, and not waste away the time available to us.

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The above four points are my deepest experiences from working in Yellowstone. I hope each Taiwanese student can profit from them in their studying and work attitudes and in their relationships with others. If so, my serious deliberations while writing this after eight and a half hours of grumbling work, as my eyelids tremble and I think painfully of the early shift tomorrow I have to start at seven o’clock. To conclude, I want to introduce everyone to Yellowstone’s most important animal. Bison can be seen anywhere in Yellowstone, and everywhere they go they leave their markings: bison chips. Because of this, we should sincerely study the life experiences of the bison. We all have to leave our markings: hard work, amiable greetings, sincere praise. All of these are the markings you leave behind. Live hard, grab ahold of summer and enjoy it, and make full preparations for the long “winter” ahead. Leave your bison chips wherever you go!

A Peculiar Piece of Shanghai

Three weeks exactly until we depart, and Justin and I decide to finally explore the infamous Hongqiao “Pearl City” Market. It wasn’t until hours later, after already thoroughly exploring the establishment, did we fully grasp how bizarre it was. Upon entry, you are not greeted with shouts and cries for attention, quite a contrast from Han City. Rather, it appeared to be a calm environment, where vendors waited inside their shop quietly, paying little mind to potential customers. Furthermore, it was (relatively) clean, un-crowded area. There was no sense of urgency or hustle and bustle. In fact it didn’t seem like a “fake” market at all.

Shortly after a quick run-through of the establishment, any notion of serenity was demolished. Never have I witnessed such discourteous behavior at any marketplace.

With over three months of serious (bargain) shopping experience, Justin and I came equipped with enough information in our knowledge-bank to get the biggest bang for our buck…or Yuan. Yet, even as the ultimate shopper duo, we were confronted with several unanticipated problems. Many times we had to walk away empty-handed. Frustrated by the complete stubbornness of the vendors, we failed to make potential good purchases…(for us) that is beyond abnormal, that is unheard of!

How was it that as seasoned shoppers who abide by the law of bargain struggled to make a deal?

For those of you whom are unfamiliar, the rule of thumb is to internally assess the value of the desired item, determine a maximum purchase price, and stick to it. If the vendor is uncooperative, walk away. Even so, this is all apart of the negation process and usually a counter bid is offered. Not a Hongqiao though. Not only was their merchandise lower quality, but the vendors were excessively rude! Charging ridiculously high prices and would actually stick to them. Multiple times, Justin or I would offer a more reasonable price, of which they would completely dismiss. Insolently a fake shoe vendor yelled “Bye!” in attempt to get us out their shop.

To top off the experience, we had absolutely no luck catching a cab. Even though the top light was on, indicating vacancy, three times consecutively, we were rejected when attempting to get a taxi. In the second attempt, the man incomprehensibly shouted at us in Chinese. Unable to get a ride home, we grabbed bite to eat and brushed our shoulders off. We tried to bargain some more with street vendors, one of which FOLLOWED us for three blocks and STILL would not concede to my asking price. This affair further reinforced the peculiarity of Hongqiao.

Even after Justin and I’s adventure, I am still at a loss for words. I don’t know what part of Shanghai we were in, but clearly their clearly conducting bizarre business. In the end, I’ll just have to chalk it up as 很奇怪 (hen qiguai=very strange)experience!

Happy Birthday, Wei! (祝你生日快乐,魏!)

On Tuesday, our Chinese teacher Wei Laoshi (魏老师) turned twenty-six years old. To celebrate my classmates and I took her out for dinner and drinks nearby campus. While walking to the restaurant, I thought about how we Davidson students have grown closer to Wei over the semester. Wei Laoshi is not a Shanghai native. She comes from a farming family in the countryside of China. Her hard work and academics brought her to Shanghai for college and graduate school. Her lighthearted personality, jokes and stories make our Chinese class interesting and entertaining. Although she is a tough professor, she is also approachable and personable. Moreover, she has made an effort to get to know each of us through our one-on-one sessions with her.

Earlier in the semester, we learned that Wei had never had a birthday party or birthday cake. She explained to us that, unlike American culture, birthdays are not emphasized in Chinese culture. Her friends never took her out to celebrate her birthday in college or graduate school. This was not considered mean or forgetful; it is simply not expected in Chinese society. This was shocking to most of my classmates, including myself, who were showered by birthday gifts and parties from family and friends every year. Wei did mention that her birthday was especially important and sentimental to her mom. On her birthday each year, Wei calls her mom on to thank her “for doing such a good job on this day X years ago.”

We were all excited to throw Wei a small celebration. Julie and I ordered a cake and appropriate “2-6″ candles. We honored Wei’s request and brought her to Helen’s, a western styled restaurant and bar. After eating dinner, we brought out the cake and sang Happy Birthday in Chinese. The restaurant even played Happy Birthday for Wei over the stereo system. Wei could not hide her excitement. With a smile stretched across her face and her eyes closed, she made a wish then blew out the candles.

The guests of the party slowly left the one by one. Soon, only Dan, Julie and I remained at the table with Wei. We stayed a while talking about life in Shanghai, love and dating. While finishing the cake, Wei introduced us to two terms: Phoenix Man and Peacock Woman. A Phoenix Man is an intelligent, hardworking man from the countryside who finds success in a big city such as Shanghai. These men are seen as phoenixes “reborn” into the urban, modern way of life. A Peacock woman is a spoiled girl born and raised in the city. According to Wei, the Phoenix-Peacock love story has been extremely popular in the plots of recent television shows and romantic movies. She knows of a few Phoenix men at Fudan and claims they all want quiet, obedient wives. I had never heard of a Phoenix Man or a Peacock Woman. This is just one example of many things Wei has taught us outside of the vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation of Mandarin. I am so thankful for time our class has had with Wei and all of the things I have learned from spending time with her. As Wei says, “You are all my friends!” And I am confident that we Davidson students all agree.

Language Lessons

On Thursday afternoon I set out with a group of students from my Chinese Marketplace class to try and find Chinese high school students we could interview for our group project for Pan Laoshi.  Our project focuses on Chinese high school and college students who want to study abroad in the US for undergraduate or graduate school.  As the number of students wanting to pursue education abroad increases, agencies have emerged all over China to help guide and assist students through the US application process.  These agencies help students with essays, provide mock interviews, and try to advise students as to the differences between the Chinese and American higher education systems. Many students who study abroad will use, or at least consult, one of these agencies during their application process.

Our goal on Thursday was to speak with some high school students and get their thoughts on both traveling abroad to study and if they planned on using an agency to assist them with their applications.  For the interviews our group consisted of Ray, a Fudan student native to China, Nallely, a Boston University student from Texas, and me.  The questions themselves were not very difficult and ranged in topic from how old the students were, to if they were planning on studying abroad, and if so were they going to use an agency.  The whole thing would take no more than five minutes, if that. We had written the questions as a group, but decided since we were in China interviewing Chinese high school students, that we should let Ray ask the questions in Chinese so as to make the process easier on the students. We set off towards the high school with this in mind hoping to find lots of people to talk to.

When we got to the school a good number of students were leaving – with Ray asking the questions, Nallely holding the microphone, and me running the camera – we dove right in to try and speak with some of them.  One mother and daughter pair spoke openly with Ray about their plans and we were feeling pretty good about our prospects.  Over the next few minutes, however, every student that Ray approached turned him down.  Ray would say hi to them in Chinese, mention that he was a local college student studying at Fudan, and wanted to ask them a few questions about college.  Without fail every one of them turned him down.  At this point we began to get worried.

Ray suggested that I take the questions and try to ask the students to speak with me.  I was sure it was not going to work because I didn’t think any Chinese students would want to talk to some random American girl asking all these questions in English and not even trying to communicate in their native tongue – I was sure I was just going to make them mad.  But as every good researcher does, despite my doubts I set off to try it anyway.  I started by just going up to a group of girls and asking in English, “Hi, can I ask you a few questions about colleges?” To my surprise they said yes and seemed very excited to speak with me.  We made sure that it was ok with them that we recorded the interview and then started with the questions.  By the end of the first interview Ray was smiling from behind the camera and content that he had been correct in thinking that the students would rather talk to the random foreigner than him.  I on the other hand, was not so convinced that I would have as much success as he thought.  Nevertheless we charged on with me cornering more Chinese high school students and all but two of the eight agreeing to speak with me.

Most of the students we spoke with had actually given some thought to the idea about studying abroad.  Even the ones who said they were choosing to stay in China had reasons why they felt that it would serve them better to stay here rather than go abroad for their education.  Of the ones who were interested in going abroad, most wanted to go to the US and sited the excellent college system and freedom of expression as big reasons they wanted to study in the US.  Not only did we have a fun time interviewing the students, but we learned an interesting life lesson as well.  We were so convinced that the students would rather speak to Ray in Chinese than speak to us in English that we did not even try to speak with them until Ray forced us to.  He told us from the beginning that we were going to end up doing the interviews and we thought he was crazy.  Our thinking, however, stemmed from our asking the questions in Chinese out of courtesy.  I can converse some in Chinese but there was no way I was going to be able to do the interview in Chinese.  Neither Nallely, nor I ever though that we would end up conducting the interviews in English with such success.  It just goes to show you no matter what you expect to find when you walk into any given situation, you must always be ready to adapt and try a different approach, if not you may miss out on a wonderful opportunity. Language lessons have come in many varieties here in China, but this is not one I expected to encounter.

A Whole New Wall

Hot and Crowded at the Great Wall (2010)

In my past visits to China, I’d visited the Great Wall a few times with my family. While I don’t remember much from most of these trips, I do remember a few things.  The Wall was always crowded with tourists and it was almost always really hot.  We’d visit the wall for an hour or so, take our obligatory picture and move on to somewhere else. This trip, I got a chance to experience the Wall in a new (and amazing!) way.  On our group’s trip, we visited the Jin Shan Ling (金山岭) portion of the wall. Unlike most other parts of the wall, this part is a little bit farther from Beijing and much more secluded.

The Beginning of Our Hike

Just to reach the wall, you need to take a 10-15 minute hike.  Once we reached the wall, we went on a long hike.  While it was cold, the 2 hour hike was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Beijing.  The beginning of our hike was similar to what you would get at any other tourist place (minus all the people!).  The wall was reconstructed with nice (but steep) steps. As we continued on our hike, we reached portions of the wall that were completely un-renovated.  This was an amazing chance to see the wall as it was originally built.  While the hike was tiring, reaching the end was very worth it.  The entire time we got to see amazing sights and breathe in the fresh air.  I found myself imagining the wall in it’s early days and could picture people working hard to build it up to what it is now.  It was an amazing chance to take in nature and the beauty of the Great Wall without worrying about bumping into people or stepping out of someone else’s picture.

When I return, I definitely plan to come back to this spot on the Great Wall.  I loved the reaching the top and feeling like I’d accomplished something. I loved seeing the un-renovated rocks and the broken wall in its natural state.  I love the Great Wall and can’t wait to go back.

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