China Stories and Conversation

July 24, 2013 | 6 Comments

mcdonalds deliveryStarbucks has saved me again. It’s going to be a punishing walk back to my hotel–only 11am, and it’s already 95 degrees and very humid, but oh, I do love this coffee shop. I’m sitting by the back door, which has a ramp leading to nearby stores and restaurants. Cars and electric motorbikes drive up this ramp every few minutes. Just now, a bike with a red delivery box on the back motored by. It was a McDonald’s delivery bike. Yes, McDonald’s delivers in China. And Chinese Pizza Hut is a fancy sit-down restaurant, suitable for a first date.

Last night, I taught a fiction workshop to Wuhan University students. I gave them several writing prompts, and then they read their favorite pieces out loud. Teaching students who are speaking in a second (or third or fourth) language is interesting–I can’t read facial expressions and gestures the same way I can back in the US. Several students talked to me after class, wanting to know basic things like what “creative writing” means in the US  and are Americans still interested in poetry. One student walked me back to my hotel, asking lots of questions about how to become a better writer and how to score higher on the literature portion of his SAT exam. As I talked to him about basic elements of fiction, it occurred to me how difficult it would be to understand tone or voice in a story in another language, how to catch significant cultural references that are intuitive to a native speaker. Many modern stories turn on a single sentence or phrase–you’re reading along trying to figure out if the narrator’s boyfriend loves her or not, and if you miss that one sentence on page seven that describes the way his eyes linger on another girl, then you’ve missed something crucial to the entire story.

When the student and I got near my hotel, he asked me what is the biggest difference I’ve noticed between the US and China. I stopped and told him to look at the steps near the barbershop, which is just down the block from my hotel. I pointed to the mound of hair trimmings piled by the side of the door, and I said I’ve never seen anything like that in the US. They would sweep it up inside the store, never outside by the front door. Then I pointed to the intersection where the dogs laze about each morning, sometimes wandering into the street. I told him the dogs here seem so relaxed, and if they are in the street, cars and bikes just go around, making room for them. split pantsI pointed to a little girl walking with her mother–toddlers in the US don’t wear pants that are split apart at the crotch. I looked at an older man crossing the street–“There is a lot of spitting,” I said. He started defending things, saying spitting is illegal, saying you must not like it here. I assured him I like it here, that I’m not criticizing. He asked me what is different, and I was showing him. It is interesting that, when you point out differences, it sounds like you are saying one way is better than another.

I know I promised to write about baijiu and hotel rooms and such, but those things are going to make their way into a short story (I think), so I’m going to hold off on describing them here. Anyway, so much as happened since this weekend that I would be days behind if I tried to go back and write about it now.

I met a Chinese man in my other favorite coffee shop, Figaro’s, last week. He asked if I knew German and if I could read the note his friend sent about arriving in Wuhan from Germany. I was happy to help him, and we chatted a little, but it was brief. Yesterday, I saw him again, and he asked if he could join me for coffee. It had been a low morning (more homesickness creeping in), and I was glad for the company. auto gyroIt turns out that Zheng Guilin is a Professor in the Department of Automation at Wuhan University, which means he works on all kinds of cool projects like Auto Gyros and Sea Wave Electric Generators. What an interesting conversation we had. I told him about my experience with the symposium last weekend sponsored by the College of Marxism, and he helped me understand a little more about Marxism in general and Marxism in China. I have now had several conversations with university professors and scholars in China, and each one has been so different, so illuminating. I’m realizing I thought most Chinese would see their economy, their history, and the many changes China is undergoing in a similar way, but with each conversation,  I see that the perspectives of individual Chinese are vastly different.

Guilin invited me to lunch, and since I have no cultural context for judging if he is who he says he is, I asked one of the Chinese program participants to come meet him and make sure it was okay for me to go to lunch with him. She didn’t exactly understand what I was asking (miscommunication, oh that pesky rascal!), but Guilin did. He assured her he would return me safe and sound, and when he said this, her face lit up and she understood, too. A girl can’t be too careful, you know?

Guilin brought me to a new district called Han Street, which was completed only a year ago, but looks old in an inviting, hip sort of way. Han Street is a long pedestrian boulevard of shops and restaurants designed in a western-style architecture. I felt like I was cruising a very international boulevard–shops from many European and US cities were selling chic clothing and jewelry. We ate hot pot, which was a first for me. hot potWhat is Chinese hot pot, you ask? Well, you pick a soup base and lots of raw materials, the waiter lights the burner on your little cookstove, and he fills the bowl on top with your soup base. Then, you go to the condiment table and fill a small three-compartment tray with condiments of your choice (Guilin explained them all to me), and by the time you get back to your table, your soup base is bubbling. Next, you drop in your raw ingredients, just a few at a time. I had prawns and crinkle-cut potatoes, mushrooms, flounder and meatballs (yes!) and pork (yes!) and an unidentifiable leafy green. For each bite, you retrieve a morsel from the hot pot, set it in your bowl to cool, dip your chop sticks in a condiment, then pick up the morsel and eat it. Yum!

Next, we found a tea shop, where I drank the BEST LEMONADE  I have ever tasted. Amazing. All the while, Guilin was telling me about his travels across China (including great stories about Tibet), as well as his thoughts on religion, figuring out what our life’s work is, and the role of government and politicians. Excellent, excellent conversation.

Tonight, I’m off to Hubu Alley for some tasty street food and a little gift buying for friends back home. Maybe I’ll work a foot massage in there, too. Only two more days in Wuhan, and then we are off to Shanghai. More soon…