2. Work and Play

I have many coworkers. There is Sun Laoshi – the original founder of this organization – Huang Laoshi, the current boss; Zhu Laoshi, a professor in her 30s who is the one I talk to the most; and Duan Laoshi, a recent graduate. There is also an array of younger recent college graduates who run the trips to eldercare homes and health centers for the training center.

The array of different life experiences is interesting. Sun Laoshi is one of the most amazing people I’ve met: Originally from Nanjing, he focused on population research in his studies and rose to found this entire program. Though he retired last year, he still is heavily involved in coordinating research projects for the organization. He’s an older man in his late sixties with the energy of someone much younger. He shows up at the office often to check on the workers, whom he knows by name, and to make sure that I’m fine.

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An excursion with Sun Laoshi and family

I’ve experienced incredible generosity at the training center. Every worker in the complex knows who I am now. Many of them, even the staff,  have introduced themselves to me and offered their help just in case they needed anything. The people I work with are willing to pause in their work to teach me a new Chinese phrase or answer my questions. And Sun Laoshi comes every weekend to take me somewhere. I really feel that I am among friends.

At the same time, though, I find it difficult to live here, not just because I have a lot of work. A life in a combined hotel/office complex is by nature transitory and chaotic – because people are in and out over the course of a few days, I can’t make connections with them. And though the other workers are extraordinarily kind, the office setting doesn’t allow for much time to socialize. There are also the physical conditions. The office itself is lit with fluorescents and all water is hot since it’s freshly boiled. I have little time to get up and move around because the work goes from eight until five with only a break for lunch. There seems to be a social pressure on the workers to stay at their desks for this whole time.

I say this not to complain, but to reflect on the incredible disparity in quality of work-life between the US and China. In my experience working in China, bosses were able to set contracts to pay their employees for 40-hour workweeks, then require them to stay late whenever they wanted, without overtime. I saw the worst example of this in a previous experience working in Guangzhou. Luckily, this time around was better. I did not witness any wage stealing, though my coworkers did stay late (one person, a woman seven months pregnant, would regularly arrive at seven and leave at 6 that afternoon). Though this was her choice, I wonder what influenced her to make that decision. She was a new worker who had only been there a year. She might have wanted to prove herself. I remember her deference to the other employees and her tendency to stay to work during lunch.

The social interactions I did have were stilted. Conversations with my closest coworkers were like games of charades. When my boss asked me about my work progress, I was only able to smile and nod. I realized over and over again that as adequate as I thought my Chinese was for the every day, it was not even half sufficient for a workplace. And academic writing is almost completely out of my grasp.

However, it is getting better, little by little. I’m becoming more used to the social atmosphere of this place. I’ve learned how to be helpful around the office when I can’t be talkative. And I know more words to describe what I’m doing. Time can only tell if it gets less awkward or stressful.

fun with sun

 

Arrival: Beijing Post 1

There was a Chinese woman at the San Francisco airport during my layover who couldn’t speak any English. After about a minute of watching her futile attempt to order a drink from Starbucks using hand motions and grunts, I intervened. “What would to like to buy?” I asked her in Chinese. She looked at me with a puzzled stare and, after a moment, responded with a pronounced Beijing accent. I ordered her a large black coffee that, to the best of my understanding, she had requested. When she received her drink she looked frustrated and disappointed. Oh well… I tried.

I’ve taken four years of Chinese— three years in high school and two semesters at Davidson— and for three and a half of those years, my professors have been Taiwanese. I was warned that the Beijing accent would be different from what I was used to. Characterized by a lot of mumbling and the addition of a harsh rrrrr to the end of a lot of words, I knew to expect a lot of confusion.

I joked to my parents on a phone call home that each taxi ride I took on my first few days in Beijing was like a game of roulette. I would dictate my location to the drivers, but I had no clue until my arrival if where they were taking me was actually my desired location. I’ve come to appreciate the Beijing accent. It’s forced me to listen more intently, speak more clearly, and pay better attention to my tones. I am keenly aware that to them, I talk funny, too.

Almost everybody I’ve spoken to in Beijing has given me the same puzzled look as the woman in Starbucks. I guess they’re just taken aback to see a wairen (foreign person) speak Chinese. I live in 三里屯 (Sanlitun), which is a large expat area. Although restaurant workers and store clerks are accustomed to interacting with foreigners, many of them do not speak any English. The area is very commercial. There is a mall at every corner and restaurants that cater to the tastes of the neighborhood’s foreign residents. I’ve actually had to do a bit of research to find good, authentic Chinese restaurants that aren’t just tourist traps. A good rule of thumb I’ve learned is that if the sign is mostly in English, I probably won’t find many Beijingers eating there. For my first completely solo abroad experience, Sanlitun was a good area if I found myself tired of hot pot, zhajiang noodles, and jaozi. But I don’t expect that to happen!

I didn’t begin my internship until ten days after my arrival in Beijing because of the national holiday, Dragon Boat Festival. I took that time to do the bulk of my tourist activities in the city, but because I didn’t know when I’d be called into work I hit the ground running as soon as I arrived. I was able to hit many of the big destinations within my first three days: Tiananmen and the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Beihai Park, Olympic Park, and Wanfujing Snack Street. I loved riding the metro to each destination. Though a city of 22 million people, I immediately felt very immersed in the ebb and flow of transit in the city.

Goodbye to Shanghai

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It is hard to believe that the semester is already ending, but I have finished up my last homework assignments, bought all my last-minute gifts, and started packing. Although I came into this semester as a rather sheltered student from the suburbs, I feel like I’m leaving it as a jet-setting international traveler.

I have loved my time in Shanghai. Every time I ride in a taxi and look up at those big skyscrapers at night, I can feel that I’m at the center of a passionate global city. From eating street food at night near Tonghe to walking along the Bund, it has been an amazing semester.

My time in Shanghai is ending, but Shanghai will always have a very special place in my heart. I made such meaningful friendships and had such wonderful experiences in one of the interesting cities in the world.

最后的

When I came to China I had the goals of improving my language ability, experiencing new things, and learning as much as possible about what real daily life is like for Chinese people. I have gotten that and so much more out of my four months here. The countless people I’ve met in Shanghai and other places around China have each provided their own unique window through which I have seen the reality of their lives. I have gotten the chance to see amazing sights, try amazing food, and simply appreciate living in a truly foreign environment.

I must say that participating in FDANSO, the street dance group at Fudan University, has been the highlight of my experience in Shanghai. Never before have I been in such an environment, one where I knew exceptionally little about what was happening, what was being said, or how things operated. But I quickly learned how to make friends, and through those friendships I was able to understand what being a young person in China is like.

The dancers in that organization are the reason I am thankful to have been in Shanghai, and I feel truly privileged to have been allowed to join them. I learned a great deal about how to work with people, how to communicate, and how to let certain things go. I learned I do not need to know everything that is going on at every moment. I learned that as people we all have similar pressures. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that sometimes the most meaningful communication happens independent of verbal language. When I was dancing with everyone, or when I taught them a phrase that I choreographed, there were no words that could substitute for the message that needed to be delivered. That’s why I have so much belief in the power of dance. In those moments our language barrier was lifted, and we could share the experience of performing as one group, as opposed to just being a bunch of Chinese people and me, the white guy.

Even given all the challenges, all the struggles, and all of the yearning for the familiar, I can say that leaving is especially bittersweet. I feel like it has been so long since I’ve lived in the world that I knew. But what I’ve come to understand is that being here did not exile me, it’s just made “my world” bigger. I go back to the United States now with a better understanding of the realities of modern China and a new appreciation for our increasingly global culture. Not to mention a few new dance moves.

NPR In China

what is the world beyond Tonghe, our international student dorm?

I have several necessary characteristics that change my dorm room into a home: lighting incense, wearing my wool socks, making tea, and putting on NPR. Like any addict, I go through phases where I listen to hours and hours of NPR. I have been known to listen to NPR during the entire drive from Virginia Beach, my hometown, to Davidson College–that is a solid six hours. Listening to the audio in China has been one of my strangest NPR experiences of all, though. I can listen to NPR and sometimes find out what is happening outside my own window in Shanghai.

Listening to NPR is relatively pretentious, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it.

I listen to NPR for endless reasons: to be better educated, to hear about the world, to fill the silence, or to soothe my boredom. Although I know that bias and perception influence any news story, I have never been more aware of that fact than while listening to NPR stories on China. I have only noticed a few stories on China, and most are in the context of the U.S. What does China mean for the U.S. presidential election? What does China mean for the U.S. fiscal cliff? Although I am living abroad in Shanghai, these stories do not mean much more to me than they did before traveling. These stories are written for Americans with an American education and cultural bias, and I easily fit that model.

Other new stories, though, have become exponentially more meaningful to me since coming to China. Stories that I used to ignore now represent and mean so much. For example, there was a very brief recent story on Haagen-Dazs winning an infringement lawsuit in China. General Mills, the owner of Haagen-Dazs, sued a clothing company named Harga-Dazs for name infringement. If I lived in the United States, I would not think twice about such a short snippet. But since living in Shanghai for four months, I can see more and more how small snippets like that one relate to the greater themes of globalization, intellectual property, shanzai (a name for Chinese copycat products), and cultural heritage.

As I thought about returning home to the United States, I reflected on how my study abroad experience will translate to my home life. I realized that studying abroad has changed my life in countless ways, even with small moments like listening to NPR. Studying abroad has widened my perspective on an infinite number of topics, and even  the most mundane details, like eating Haagen-Dasz ice cream, will now have a more global meaning for me.

 

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