June 2013

Bags are Packed, originally uploaded by bexadler.
Five months ago, when I made the decision to leave China, it seemed like an eternity before I would be able to leave. Now the snow has cleared, the sun is shining, and the streets are lined with trees and grass, and somehow Shenyang doesn’t seem so bad after all. Of course, come November I’d be back to feeling bluer than blue, which is why I had to make the decision during the dreary gray winter. I knew I’d be lulled into liking this place once the weather changed. And so it is that my time here is finished. The bags are packed, all of my furniture has been cleared out and given to other expats around town, and I’ve said all my goodbyes. I’m sad to be saying goodbye to so many new friends, but I am looking forward to the next big adventure. I still have not found a job and do not know what I am really doing, but I know it will work out in the end. Somehow.
P.S. I will be traveling in Mongolia for the next month, which means I will likely not have Internet access, so I have pre-posted some entries for you all. This means you still have to read about China for a bit longer. Hopefully I will find it in me to finally write about India, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines once I get to Switzerland. We could all use a change of scenery, no?

achingEver since I arrived in China I have been interested in the ancient practice of footbinding. I see all of these tiny Chinese women in my town stumbling around town in stiletto heels and platforms and always wonder to myself if this obsession with adding height and making their feet look teensy tiny is somehow leftover from the culture of footbinding, even though the practice has been outlawed for nearly a century. Therefore, when I saw Wang Ping’s book about footbinding, I had to buy it immediately.

The book’s description reads: “When Wang Ping was nine years old, she secretly set about binding her feet with elastic bands. Footbinding had by then been outlawed in China, women’s feet “liberated,” but at that young age she desperately wanted the tiny feet her grandmother had–deformed and malodorous as they were.”

Unfortunately the cover description is about the most interesting part about the book. I was barely able to get through a couple of chapters before I gave up completely on reading it, despite my early enthusiasm for the subject. The book reads like a master’s thesis, which it probably is. I had hoped that it would include some personal insight into the practice. Instead, as is common for students in China, the book borrows heavily from other sources, constantly citing literature and historical interviews with women who had their feet bound. Once I realized this book was more of a research paper about footbinding, I was still on board for awhile. I tried to push through because I wanted to know about the history and culture behind the practice, and I hoped there might even be some analysis or some insight into feminism in China. I do not know if she ever gets to this point because, as I said, I gave up on the book after a couple of chapters. The focus is mostly on the fetishization of small feet and the painful bonding between women that footbinding brought about.

I am still interested in this practice and would like to read more. I think that I will seek out the original sources that Ping borrows so heavily from in her book. I have also read that there is a fictional book about this subject that is much better (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See), which I will probably download on my Kindle. I would not recommend this book unless you are planning to do a master’s thesis on footbinding or the treatment of women in pre-Mao China. Or if you have lots and lots of patience and perseverance.

Golden Gate, originally uploaded by bexadler.
I know we’ve had our differences in the past. I spent my teenage years complaining about how boring life was around you; talking about how we had nothing in common; how all I wanted in the world was to get away from you. In the past few years, however, I have really come to appreciate so much about you. Not just because I miss you, but because I have finally been able to see you through other people’s eyes.
When I was traveling through Australia, I would always get to talking to Aussies about how fantastic their country was. I loved all the awesome, “weird” animals they had. I loved the sunshine and the laid back attitude most people seemed to have. More often than not, they would look at me with a puzzled expression on their faces and say, “But you’re from California!”
Apparently we have cool, weird animals too, namely skunks, raccoons, bears, deer, rattle snakes, road runners, even squirrels. Yes, they were impressed by squirrels. AND California has the infamous Yosemite, a rock climber’s paradise and a destination for more than 4 million visitors per year.
As I have traveled around, this has happened again and again, not just in Australia. Being able to see what other people appreciated about my home state helped me to start to appreciate it too. But then, THEN, I stayed away long enough and traveled widely enough that I learned how truly lucky I have been in my life. So, California, here is a short list of all of the things I love (and miss) about you.
I love your diversity. I love that you translate signs into other languages even though the majority of your people speak English. I love that people of all colors sit together on the bus and it is not weird. I love your cyclists and hippies. Even your vegans!
I love your natural wonders. You’ve got deserts, and mountains, and coasts. I love your blue skies, your ocean views, your rivers, your lakes. I love that I can camp, hike, run, cycle, kayak, climb, ski, and even hang glide to my heart’s content. I love that there will always be somebody not only willing, but eager, to do all of those things with me.
I love your produce. I love that we can grow things almost year-round. Tomatoes, avocados, oranges, peaches, almonds, corn, strawberries: all available, fresh-picked, on the side of the road.
I love that I can drink your water from the faucet. I love that I can carry around my Nalgene and refill it at drinking fountains around town for free.
I love that you have mild winters and hot summers. I love that I can get a mimosa at 10 a.m. and that’s not weird. I love your wines. I love your cheese.
I love so many things about you; so many things that I did not know I would miss and grow nostalgic for. I am so grateful to be from such a wonderfully diverse state, both in terms of people and in terms of landscapes. I wouldn’t be happy to have come from anywhere else.
I miss you so much and look forward to being home again one day. Until then, I will be satisfied with looking through old photos and listening to Joni Mitchell’s “California” when I’m feeling homesick for you.

shenzhen Shenzhen is a graphic novel by Guy Delisle, a Canadian who spent 3 months living in Shenzhen when it was still in its nascence. Perhaps because the storyline so closely resembles my own life in China, I thought this book was clever and witty from start to finish. I laughed out loud, and showed this book to numerous friends here in Shenyang, who then passed it on to others. A number of us have also bought copies to send to friends and family as gifts so that they can see what our lives are like here. However, I am not sure that the humor would translate if one has not experienced what it is to live in a developing city in China.

To me, this book illustrates China to a T. I have had nearly every experience Delisle recounts in his book. I also especially loved the random drawings throughout of buildings being built. And I loved the random “Hello” bubbles that pop up everywhere. This is especially humorous because Delisle is French-speaking, but it is assumed that all foreigners are English speakers. I read the French version of this, but it appears it is available in English as well (Yay for you!). This is one of those books that passes by too quickly and that I had to force myself to put down because I didn’t want it to end. I loved it and have gone back to it time and again for a quick laugh. I cannot wait to get my hands on some more of his books when I get to Switzerland…

Seal of My Chinese Name, originally uploaded by bexadler.

We’ve all met immigrants in America who have chosen to take on an Americanized version of their name. “Hi, my name’s Matt,” they say, and we look at them like, “Really?” If you’re rude like me, you even say, “No it’s not. What’s your real name?” And they are forced to tell me, and I then repeat it back to them while they grimace. They always argue that nobody can pronounce it correctly so they’d rather just not use their real name. It’s easier, they say. But for me, I don’t see how it is easier. People always want to know your real name.

It is for this reason that I have always resisted taking on a different name while abroad. When I was living in Turkey, several of my friends suggested that I start going by a Turkish name to make it easier to introduce myself to people. I responded by saying that nobody would believe that I was a Başak or an Özge. I felt like it would create more questions than just having to say my name twice or having to spell it out so people could sound it out for themselves. And, personally, I like the way my name sounds with an accent added to it. You don’t have to pronounce it right, it’s more charming with a rolled R or an accent on the E’s. More to the point, I just really didn’t like the idea of using a name that was not my own. Even in high school, when I was taking French classes, I refused to take on a French persona just for fun.

When I moved to China, however, I finally gave into the pressure to choose a new name. I had read in “Dreaming in Chinese” that having a Chinese name was a sign to the Chinese that you are planning to stick around awhile and so they are more willing to become friends with you. Most foreigners are sort of drifters here, so learning Chinese and choosing a Chinese name show that you are interested in more than just a short stint in China. Plus, I thought it would be a good way to break the ice with my students, who all had chosen English names. I figured that if I had a Chinese name, they would feel like we were the same somehow.

But how to choose a new name, especially when I didn’t know a word of Chinese? Easy: let my students do it. For their first assignment, I had my students write down their Chinese names and tell me why their parents had chosen it (there is always a story that goes with a Chinese name). I also asked them to tell me their English name and why they chose it. Then I had them each select a name for me and tell me why they thought it would be a good name for me. I had given them a presentation about myself to help them come up with some ideas. The only requirement was that they had to choose a name that had characters simple enough for me to hopefully learn to write them correctly.

I got many suggestions that tried to use the syllables in my real name (贝咔, Bei Ka), and many suggestions that included the time of year when I arrived here (春, Spring), while others included the place where I am living (沈, Shen). Then I looked through the names and chose a few that I liked. I tried a couple out on different Chinese friends of mine to see what they thought. Originally I had planned to go with the name An Chun Mei (peace安, spring 春, beauty/America 美) , but one of my friends told me it sounded like a prostitute’s name, so that was out.

In the end, I fell in love with the idea of using the name Bei Xing (北星, north star).  I liked this name because it had an X in it and it reminded me of my nickname at home (Bex). I also liked that the north star holds so much symbolic meaning in the western world. As I said, all Chinese names have a story that goes with them, and I liked that mine would give me the opportunity to explain what the north star means to northern hemisphere dwellers from the west. I also liked the super sappy idea that the north star is the star that guides you home so if my name was North Star then no matter where I was in the world, I could say I was home (I know you are rolling your eyes, and I don’t care).

However, some of my Chinese friends said this name was a little weird because it had a direction in it (north), which they said isn’t really used in names. This made me hesitate at first, but then I remembered that my students are walking around with English names like Fish, Sheep, Lemon, and Fantasy. Those are certainly weird names to a native English speaker, and so I can have a name that is weird to a native Chinese speaker. What really sealed it for me though was a Chinese astronomist I met in Beijing, named Yudong (昱东, Bright Light from the East – or Eastern Sunrise). When he wrote his name for me, I said, “Your name has a direction in it? My friends told me that is weird.” I then explained about trying to choose a name. He said he didn’t think it was weird, but that he thought it was actually really cool. His only suggestion was that I choose Bei Chen (北辰) instead, which is the formal name of the north star (the Chinese version of Polaris). Good enough. I was in.

Alas, I almost never get to use this name. Just as I had suspected, every time I tell a Chinese person my name, they look at me with a puzzled expression and say, “Dui, but what’s your real name?” And I have to go through the hullabaloo of pronouncing Rebecca six times before I say again, “You can just call me Bei Chen.” I know it’s rude, but it really is easier. I guess now I finally understand how immigrants in America feel.

*Dui = correct/right/yes

china10wordsOne of the best books I have read about China since I have arrived here is China in Ten Words by Yu Hua. The book is a collection of essays, each one based on a commonly used word in China. Each of these words are loaded with historical and cultural contexts that few outsiders will ever truly understand, at least not in the way that the Chinese understand them.

The book begins with “People,” which Hua argues is so commonly used in China today that it has lost the weight of its initial meaning. He goes on to describe his childhood, which took place during the cultural revolution, and then his participation in the student protests that led to the June 4th massacre at Tianenmen Square. He also covers touchy issues that fascinate many foreigners, like piracy and counterfeiting.

What I loved about this book is that it was not written by a foreigner looking from the outside in. So much of what we hear as expats here is how we don’t understand why the Chinese do this or that (I’m guilty of these constant questions myself). There are also numerous books about Chinese history and culture written by expats. But I always get the sense that these books are written by someone from the outside looking in. We can never look past our own culture to just accept China for what it is. We always have to put it in contrast with our own cultures and histories. Hua, on the other hand, has been able to create a book that covers a number of very interesting issues and historical events, as an insider. He uses vivid imagery, wonderful anecdotes, and humor to illustrate a country that has transformed itself over and over in the past 50 years. I was hooked on this book from the second I started reading. It helped me to understand so many of the things I question often here. It also helped me to understand some of the “problems” I see in many of my students – their fear of having an opinion, their constant plagiarism, and their lack of personal responsibility, to name a few.

I am not sure this would be such an interesting book for those living outside of China, but for expats I think it is a must-read. However, it may be difficult to find in China as it was originally banned by the Chinese government (I am not sure whether it is now available). I bought my copy in Hong Kong and I have been told it is available on Kindle.

For more comprehensive reviews with excerpts and such, you can check out The New York Times or Tea Leaf Nation.

dreamingI read Deborah Fallows’ book, Dreaming in Chinese, on my first plane ride to China. Fallows writes about China almost as though she is writing a sort of love letter to China. She obviously enjoyed her time in China and really came to appreciate the people and the culture in her three years here. Each of the chapters is titled using a different Chinese word/character, which serves as a theme throughout the chapter. Fallows, who studied other languages before struggling with learning Mandarin, found that as she learned the language, she also learned new things about the culture.

I really enjoyed this book because it taught me a lot of things I did not know about modern China. It also introduced me to the difficulties I would face in trying to learn Chinese, especially with the anecdote about the stone eating lion. I did not know one word of Chinese when I got on that first plane to China, so this book was a good introduction and taught me some of my first Chinese words. It really gave me an appreciation for the Chinese language and motivated me to try to learn it myself. There were also some good tips in there for expats. Many of her observations are similar to those many other expats make, but I think she is able to convey some of the frustrations expats face here without coming off as negative or mean-hearted. This was an interesting book to read on my way here, although some of the words and concepts were confusing to me because I had never been to China before and did not know what pinyin was, nor could I imagine what it meant to learn a tonal language. Now that I have been living here I am sure I would read this book again without any troubles and would probably laugh at all of the similarities between her experiences and my own.

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