B’s school field trip

Most international schools in China got the Friday before May Day off. Our school limits all weekends to three days, requiring us to work on Sunday if we would have ended up somehow with a four-day weekend. So instead of giving us the day off, they made us take a field trip to a park or cultural site. So the same amount of learning happened (zero), but they got to feel like we were still under their control. Nice.
Anyway, we were given three choices: a section of the Great Wall, a bird sanctuary, or the local steel mill. About 90% of the students selected the Great Wall or the bird sanctuary. About 80% of the Western teachers selected the steel mill. Why? Because the published ending time was 2 PM (the other options weren’t supposed to return to school until 6:30), and when you factor in the terrible traffic that should be expected but is never allowed for (because doing so would be insulting to the nation’s transportation planners, I guess?), we Westerners were going to get our weekend started about five or six hours earlier than those kids. I took this picture during the five minutes that we were actually inside the steel mill. It’s no longer functioning; the hard hat was in case it collapsed on us.

This sign reads, “Don’t spit for the sake of your health.” While I disagree that spitting makes ME unhealthy, and I find laughable the idea that this sign will have any effect at all on a nation of champion loogie hockers, it makes me happy that at least one Chinese person is trying to address the problem.

This is Yongding Tower. We were supposed to mill around it for the last hour of the field trip. Instead, I went to lunch down the road with two colleagues. (“You culturally-insensitive jackal!” Relax, it was built in 2012. Anno Domini.) Beijing’s “crack-down” on indoor smoking was honored by a table of five gentlemen who chain-smoked throughout their meal. Our final bill included a dish we ordered but they never brought to us. When we asked them to remove the charge, they offered to make it real fast. We declined. They got surly.

Chinese Hand Signals: A Guest Post by B

Before we knew our numbers very well, we’d ask how much something cost and instead of writing it down or typing it into a calculator, the clerks would tell us a number and then, if we didn’t understand, use a hand signal.

One through five are straight-forward enough, but six through ten are esoteric. Our local newsstand guy said, “Ba,” then held up his hand with his index finger and thumb extended in the (I thought) universal signal for, “I have a gun.” It turns out that making a gun out of your hand means, “eight.” (Naturally.) And “hang loose” means “six.” And “I’m about to tickle you” means “nine.” It’s all very intuitive.

Anyway, we had to look up the hand signals on the Internet. This was how we became aware that, for simplicity’s sake, multiple hand signals correspond to a particular number. So there are two ways of showing seven, and three ways of showing 10. (Too bad there aren’t 10 ways of showing 10; I think I’d like the recursiveness of that.)

Saturday, January 17, I took three of the kids to lunch. (The other kid was busy doing something else. I didn’t leave him home because I’m a jerk. My jerkiness manifests in other ways.) As we walked past an alley market, we saw a guy selling pineapples. One of our family’s favorite parts of Thailand and Cambodia was street pineapple, so I said, “If he’s still here on our way back, when I have change from lunch, remind me to get a pineapple from him.”

He was still there on the way back, so I stopped and asked, “Duōshao?” He held up a single finger, which, according to everything we’ve seen online, all our previous experiences, and all God-given common sense, means “one.” But one yuan for an entire pineapple didn’t seem like a believable price. Even in Thailand, they start at 30 baht, which is about five yuan. So I said, “Yī yuán?” and the man nodded and held up his solitary finger at me again. He bagged our pineapple and handed it to me. I pulled out some bills and offered him a one-yuan note and said again, “Yī yuán?” Finally, he pointed at the ten-yuan note in my other hand. Because one finger by itself means “ten”?!

As for him not responding with words or responding correctly to my words, I’ve found that many Chinese people are so unaccustomed to encountering a foreigner that speaking Chinese with any accent AT ALL is unintelligible to them. Especially lower-class workers. It’s just like all my frat-boy classmates at Kansas who couldn’t understand any non-American professors. But my pineapple salesman had to know I wanted to know how much it cost, and for some reason he thought one finger was an excellent way of communicating “ten.”

It was really good pineapple.

Chinese Toilets – a post by Brandon

Part 1:

Back when we first got to China and I had technical issues, I wrote this blog post for later use. In the meanwhile, conditions have changed, but for completeness, I will share this mostly as it was written and add a follow-up post later.

I know what you’re thinking: “He’s going to write about squat toilets.” Well, the joke’s on YOU, sucker: I haven’t even USED a squat toilet yet! Because I have no idea HOW, smart guy. I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I drop my pants and squat, I’m still right over top of my pants. I can think of a less-elaborate way to poop in my pants, thanks.

Actually, I’ve watched YouTube videos about how to use a squat toilet, and I think I have a better handle on how to go about my business. (Think “pants around knees,” not “pants around ankles.”)

“Hold on, fool,” you say. “You watched YouTube videos on how to use a toilet?” Yes. What of it? I know it makes me sound like a giant nerd, but YouTube videos can be really helpful. I basically taught myself effective swimming technique from library books and YouTube videos. I had some Indian students who invited me to play cricket with them, so I checked a book out of the library to make sure I knew what I should be doing. (I never ended up going because they rescinded the offer when I gave them failing grades.) People make fun of me when they hear these stories, but isn’t that what libraries and YouTube are for? (Well, libraries, anyway. YouTube is probably for watching this cat massage video.)

So anyway, if I’m not writing about squat toilets, what AM I writing about?

The stink.

We live on the fifth floor, 50 feet above the sewer, but our bathrooms stink like sewage day and night. You see, the shower drains connect to the toilet pipes, and each bathroom has two floor drains that do the same. So we have four holes in our apartment that conduct sewer gas into our place. We’ve taped up the floor drains, but the shower drains are still a problem. I’m thinking of getting plunger heads to set atop the drains when we’re not using the showers.

I was sort of relieved when I learned that it’s not just our bathroom that stinks. Every bathroom I’ve used has smelled like sewage, even in fancy restaurants and offices. The bathroom at church smells like the bathroom in an American bus station, and it is one of the nicest ones I’ve seen so far.

Part 2: 

A strange phenomenon around here is the sexy toilet ad. One I’ve seen in a few different subway stations has a painfully-attractive couple standing over a sleek toilet, giving it sultry looks. The man and woman are touching, but I can’t help feeling they both have the hots for the toilet. Every time I see the ad and want to take a picture, we’re either late going somewhere or the platform is incredibly crowded. I’ll keep trying, though.

When we were in Tianjin, we walked past a store selling home furnishings, and I noticed a billboard with a sexy toilet ad. Then I noticed another one, this one for a different brand, above the first. So sexy toilet ads are definitely a thing here.

My wife speculated that such ads are necessary because western toilet manufacturers have to induce Chinese customers to replace their squat toilets with bowl toilets. In America, they don’t have to convince you that you need a toilet, they just have to convince you that you need a cool one (like this wall-mounted one, which seems awesome until you realize that all the pee that normally ends up on the tank will instead be on your wall). The initial threshold is a little higher here, so they have to use gorgeous people to help get over it.

Part 3: 

It’s about to get awkward up in here.

How many toilet posts can I have before I start sharing things you wish I hadn’t? The answer is “two.”

I decided to be proactive and acclimate to squat toilets before I find myself in a dire situation. When the time comes that I’m rushing to a public toilet after eating some suspicious street food, only to find a solid phalanx of squat toilets, do I want that to be my first attempt at using one? I’ll be much better off if I’m used to them by then.

So one Saturday that I had to work (even though students were not in class–this place makes poor decisions sometimes), I decided to use the squat toilet for the first time.

This is your final warning.

Westerners cannot get into as deep of a squat as easterners because we all stopped squatting when we were two. When westerners squat, our heels come off the ground and we balance on the balls of our feet, still over a foot above the target. Because of this higher placement, aim becomes more important. An easterner can use a squat toilet completely hands-free, I’d bet, but westerners must ensure proper direction. And when you’re hunched over in a squat with a shirt bunched up and some extra weight around your midsection, you can’t always get a good read on what’s going on down there.

I became aware that I had urinated on my own ankle when I felt the dampness of my pants against my skin.

I texted my wife the three words no wife ever wants to receive in a text message: “Squat toilet mishap.” I requested she send a kid over with replacement pants, socks, and shoes. And then I waited in the bathroom until I heard my kid out in the building hallway. I changed in the bathroom and sent my kid back home with a bag of my soiled clothes. And I never explained to my coworkers why I changed clothes in the middle of the day.

Since then I’ve been flawless. My success rate is now over 90%. But it will never again be 100%.

Part 4: 

Amidst the raging debate over squat toilet v. sit toilet emerges a sizable party advocating the Third Way: just go in the street.

China has an open defecation problem that is not adequately communicated by this map. When you see that something less than 10% of rural Chinese poop in the open, you might reasonably expect that the cities have, literally speaking, their sh#* under control.

Tell that to the teenage boy I saw pooping in the planter outside the grocery store yesterday around noon.

The idea of using a store bathroom is anathema here. Although cities have public restrooms (our building is right next door to one), they are less frequent than necessary, and often difficult to find if you are unfamiliar with the neighborhood.

It’s not just a matter of poverty or culture or education. Seemingly-similar countries can have drastically different public pooping outcomes.

No one in our family has pooped in the street (yet), but Little Guy has peed in the streets several times. The first time, we were sitting in a Subway, eating ham sandwiches that smelled of fish, and he had to pee. There was no public restroom in the building on on the block. My wife hoped we could get some sympathy for a small child, and perhaps some business would let Little Guy pee in the employee restroom, but she took him out on the street to stand around and look helpless for a while, then turned it over to me. So we went down the alley behind Subway and found an area of relative seclusion. He resisted at first, but ended up deciding that peeing on a dumpster was better than peeing in his pants.

The next time, I took the boys to lunch. As we approached the restaurant, Little Guy said, “Oh, I forgot that I needed to go to the bathroom.” Since his mother wasn’t there, we didn’t have to start with the false attempts at civilization and modesty; I immediately guided him to an area behind a shrub, on the side of a convenience store near a busy intersection, and told him not to pee on the equipment the store owners were keeping back there or else they would come out and yell at him.

Later in the meal, he had to go again. We were nearly done, so I asked if he could wait until we got home. Since he’s six years old, of course he could not. I told him to go back to the side of the convenience store. He’s our most adventurous child, so he left on his own without a problem. A moment later, he was back. It seemed there were kids hanging out in his pee location. I thought of giving him the keys to our apartment and sending him home, but he can’t unlock the door by himself. I gave him directions to the public restroom outside our building, but it became obvious he would not make it that far. So I told him to suck it up and pee in front of the kids on the side of the building. He came back a little later, happy to report that the kids had left and he had some privacy at his busy intersection.

Chinese counties- a post by Brandon

My wife told me I would not be tracking my Chinese counties while we were here. Sometimes I think she just likes to say things she knows are incorrect.

China has first-level divisions (mostly called provinces, but four municipalities have province-level equivalence) and second-level divisions (mostly called prefectures, but called districts or counties in the province-level municipalities). I am in the process of making maps of our travels, but I have to do some editing of the base files I downloaded which were incomplete. So in the meanwhile, I’ll just use a list.
Aug. 22: Shunyi District, Beijing Municipality (1)
Aug. 22: Tongzhou District, Beijing Municipality (2)
Aug. 22: Chaoyang District, Beijing Municipality (3)
Aug. 22: Haidian District, Beijing Municipality (4)
Aug. 24: Shijingshan District, Beijing Municipality (5)
Aug. 24: Xicheng District, Beijing Municipality (6)
Aug. 24: Dongcheng District, Beijing Municipality (7)
Aug. 24: Fengtai District, Beijing Municipality (8)
Aug. 24: Daxing District, Beijing Municipality (9)
Oct. 31: Mentougou District, Beijing Municipality (10)
Nov. 9: Wuqing District, Tianjin Municipality (11)
Nov. 9: Beichen District, Tianjin Municipality (12)
Nov. 9: Hebei District, Tianjin Municipality (13)
Nov. 9: Hedong District, Tianjin Municipality (14)
Nov. 9: Nankai District, Tianjin Municipality (15)
Nov. 9: Hongqiao District, Tianjin Municipality (16)
Nov. 10: Heping District, Tianjin Municipality (17)
I’ve been to 10/16 of Beijing’s districts and 7/16 of Tianjin’s, with plans to visit one more Tianjin district before we return home on Wednesday. This is, of course, boring to everyone but me.

Kaolengmian – a food post by Brandon

Right after we figured out that our jianbing guy was actually our kaolengmian guy, he got chased off the streets for APEC. Because so many visiting dignitaries were cruising our neighborhood, let me tell you. All the street vendors had to vamoos, but the rotting garbage substation immediately next to our building was allowed to carry on, no questions asked.
Anyway, last night (11/15), in an effort to overcome my anger of having to work on a Saturday (I really should have included our “holiday replacement days” on my list of most-hated things), we went to see if they were back yet. And they were!
We celebrated their return by getting two. And they celebrated their return by making them twice as spicy as normal.
While we stood at the cart, watching the husband-and-wife team work, the guard from the nearby grocery store came over to tell everyone standing around that we have four kids. We don’t know this guard, but he knows us. He told them we have a daughter and three sons. The kaolengmian guy was incredulous.
An old lady wanted to chat us up, but we’d already passed the limit of our Chinese language skills. Like most people we’ve met, though, she was completely undeterred when I said to her, “Wo bu hui shuo zhongwen.” Another customer at the cart started translating for us, and the old lady also cut back some to simpler words we could recognize. She wanted to know if I was a teacher at the local school and if we came from America.
As we walked home, my wife said, “How did that guard know we have four kids? I haven’t taken all four kids with me to the grocery store in a long time. I usually leave at least three home.”
I said, “It’s probably a game to him. He’s like, ‘Here’s that white lady again, and this time with a different kid.’ He probably keeps track of how many different kids he sees you with.”
I had a meal of all the finest things China has to offer: kaolengmian, +C, knock-off Peachy-Os, and a single-serving cheesecake cup. It didn’t make up for my one-day weekend, but it helped a little.

Brandon’s Fieldtrip: Marco Polo (Lugou) Bridge, Wanping City, and Qianlingshan scenic area

B’s school field trip (Oct. 31), his report on it:

It seems my school makes a yearly field trip to a World War Two museum, which, in an effort to produce reasoned dialog and international cooperation, the Chinese refer to as “The War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.”

I had no interest in going. I lived in the Washington, DC, area for four years and made sure I never once entered the United States Holocaust Museum, and I was not about to spend an afternoon looking at exhibits detailing the Rape of Nanjing (link intentionally not included).

I’ve already told you that I hate Holocaust deniers and downplayers. I don’t need to see a murdered Jew to fully understand the severity of what happened. Maybe some do, and so I’m not going to generalize to a condemnation of such museums. I just don’t see any benefit to my life, while I see a giant downside.

Worst of all would be treating these tragedies as a type of entertainment, or manipulating them for political purposes. Holocaust museums aren’t trying to hold something over Germany’s head for the rest of history, they are opposed to modern antisemitism.

I feel I’m making my point very poorly. A partial reason is my tiredness. Another is my reticence to criticize the internal workings of my hosts. And another is my desire to not really think about these things more than absolutely necessary.

Denouement: my school allowed the international faculty to opt for a visit to a nearby bridge instead. It was a nearly-unanimous decision.


Part two, Coming Soon!