24 February 2012

Everyday Life in China: Making the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange

One of the great pleasures of living in a foreign place is in figuring out how to do the simple, everyday tasks we take for granted at home. For me, this challenge is ramped up an order of magnitude by my total ignorance of spoken and written Mandarin. The painter Paul Klee was fond of saying that art's purpose is, "To make the strange familiar and the familiar strange." I like that as one of the things that makes life worth living. In locating the toilets nearest my classrooms, I found posted these signs that help make my point (I will spare the Germanic Sauberkeitsfanatiker among you a photo of the squat toilets!):

My office, except for the strange multiple deadbolt lock on the door, was immediately familiar. I spent a few hours moving in yesterday, setting up class files on my computer, and enjoying this comfortable and "clean, well-lighted space" (as Hemingway said):

I took a break to walk outside, find a place to sit with good feng shui, enjoy an orange, listen to the strumming guitar and folk singing of an aspiring student-artist, and watch these handsome birds (species, anyone?):

Later, I decided I needed some file folders, notecards, and a pair of scissors. The student books & dry goods store we take for granted on American universities do not exist here. A quick Google search for nearby office supplies/stationary stores proved fruitless. Time to walk!

I journeyed over to the commercial area near campus, remembered a side street where a colleague helped me buy a Chinese phone (turns out my iPhone is the only model every made without a sim card: thank you very much, Verizon), and -- after less than an hour of searching -- found the perfect little shop crowded with an impossible, jumbled, totally delightful array of office supplies. The proprietors, whom I took to be a married couple, waived away my awkward sign language with a friendly gesture that I took to mean, "Go find what you want!" After pawing around through stacks and bins, I found the requisite items (no one, it seems, uses hard copy file folders anymore, so these were in an especially obscure and buried place). My one successful effort at sign language, a scissoring action with my index and middle fingers, produced a box of diverse scissors from which I chose a mid-priced, older pair that might date to the Cultural Revolution. Acquisition in hand, I ventured back out to the street and at a busy intersection lingered to take in the scene and record some photographs:

The latter (above) is especially informative about my new home:

  • Bang-bang men and women are common (left in photo), carrying loads for hire using their strong shoulder poles. Some of the poles are simply bamboo stalks, and others are carefully crafted and wide to be as strong, light and comfortable as possible;
  • Older people tend to dress in dark and fairly drab styles;
  • Younger people tend to dress in bright, gay colors;
  • The streets and storefronts are often brightly decorated;
  • I sense that people do not like to have their photo taken (and generally avoid it); and
  • Everyone dresses in warm layers (note the down coats!) despite the low 50s deg F weather.

I had planned to hike on Jinyun Mountain -- a 3,000 foot high ridge that separates Beibei from Chongqing -- with a colleague today, but alas after a dry week a steady rain has settled in.


Should Fish More said...

When i lived in Japan, those decades below, I quickly learned the ideograms for toilet, coffee, and train. Hope your time there is enjoyable, it sounds like fun.

Richard Gibson said...

Way cool. Thanks for sharing.

Veronica Wald said...

Regarding the shoulder poles and paniers, which were doubtless in even wider use when I was in China in the early 1980s, I'm sure you've noticed that the bamboo stem has the particular advantage of flexibility that allows the user to trot along quickly, gently bouncing the load so that for the second or so when the baskets are at their apogee the shoulder is relieved of the (often considerable) weight of the baskets. I'm glad you're having such a wondrous time!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for showing life there. It is very interesting.

Judy said...

It has been a while, so I just finished reading all your posts. Sounds like you are having a good time! Glad to know that you have internet access, so I will be able to follow you!

troutbirder said...

How fascinating. The Professor seems to be adapting quickly and well. Keep the posts coming, Pat... :)

Loran said...

Wow, talk about a lifestyle change! How fascinating. I had to look and see why you won't be posting Skywatch shots and now I know. I'll come back for more armchair visits of China.

BLD in MT said...

Wow! I just read all the China post and all I can say is wow! It is all so fascinating! I can't wait to see and learn more through your posts. I hope your stay continues to be so enjoyable (smog aside, of course)!

Maria said...

How amazing it is to visit your blog and read all of this exciting news!
What an honor to be in China as a Fulbright Scholar! It will be wonderful for them as well to have you there to share your knowledge!

My niece is from China ~ so much of what you have mentioned here is reminiscent of my sister and brother-in-law's trip there 6 years ago.
I will look forward to reading your posts ~ best wishes and much JOY to you,