05.03.2008 - 05.04.2008
Our day students, mostly in their early 20's, love to hang out with us and have dinner etc., while our evening students, because they are older are generally working. The more advanced group is easy to be with because their English is good enough to have real conversations. All of the students have English names which they have chosen for themselves. At times this makes for a humorous combination. Several of the students including Prince, a pretty 22 year old woman, have chosen to confide in us perhaps because we told them we are psychologists? She wrote a story in which she mentioned the incredible pressure she feels to get a good job, and not to disappoint her family who have sacrificed so much for her. She apparently was sickly as a child and her father, a doctor in a small town, took care of her. He now runs a seafood business because it is more lucrative. She seems to have a very bleak outlook on her life, and has several stress related problems including Irritable Bowl Disease and a constant sore throat.
Larry, one of the best students, is 24, and as the only son in a family with several girls is expected to take over the family business in the next few years. The business is a factory with over 1000 employees that makes inner tubes for trucks and bikes etc. He feels he cannot spend anytime having fun and must be very serious in order to perfect his English before the end of this year. He is also expected to get married and have male heirs within the next couple of years. He complains about chest pain, says he has grey hairs and nightmares because of all the pressure he feels. He wants to know why westerners seem to have happier lives than the Chinese people he knows. He can't talk to his family about these things because he doesn't want to worry them, and he can't talk to his peers because they won't understand. Here is a really bright student, in what most would think of as a very enviable position in China, but even at 24, he can't enjoy his life. No doubt when he takes over the factory things will be even worse. China may have more options for people than in the past, but it seems that even in wealthy families there is pressure to make more money and achieve. Enjoyment seems secondary.
I talked to Larry about the importance of relaxing and doing fun things. Maybe he took it to heart, because the next day he came with us and several other students to the beach to go bike riding and afterwords we made a big meal together. He seemed to enjoy himself.
A Day at the Seashore
Certainly not all the students are like Larry and Prince. Before we got to China we had the sense that all Chinese are hard working and diligent. What we realize now, is that this was an assumption based on the skewed sample we saw in the States. Those students were obviously the best and the brightest, while the others never get to study abroad.
And then there is Marjorie, age 26, who has more or less taken us under her wing. She lives now with her older British boyfriend in an upscale apartment near the water. She has been around the block a few times, has a sense of her attraction to men, and an appreciation for some of the finer things of life. She is a part time WECL student and part time Yoga instructor, but is obviously not killing herself with work or pressure. Her English is only fair, despite having the advantage of living with an English speaker. At the same time she is gracious, self effacing, and very generous.
Marjorie Posing for Nanette
Marjorie took us shopping for a mattress pad when we complained about our rock hard bed. She accompanied me when I had my first Chinese haircut. It was 10 Yuan or about $1.50 US for a process that took well over an hour, complete with washing and scalp massage. Perhaps I was his first lawai (foreign) customer.
She has also had us over for dinner. We went with her to help pick out the food at Shinpo market, more like an outdoor South American market than any we had been to before. There were all kinds of fresh veggies, fruit, and many varieties of fish, almost all alive. Marjorie picked out a dozen clams still spitting water, and shrimp still swimming around in a big tank. She also purchased half a Peking Duck, already cooked, complete with scallions and pancakes. Our contribution to this feast was Nanette's attempt to make brownies from scratch, using chocolate bars instead of baking chocolate. There was no baking soda, which resulted in unleavened brownies. Considering the lack of ingredients, they tasted pretty good. Ovens are practically unknown in China and so are baked goods. We met Frank, her 42 year old boyfriend, who is divorced with two teenaged kids in Britain. He is running the sales department for an American high tech firm. It was nice to talk to a fellow lawei for a change, and drink his imported vodka and wine. It was all very civilized, and they made us feel right at home. After dinner we were joined by another Brit and his Chinese girlfriend. Jim works in the family business making equestrian equipment in China for the British market. Both of these men make foreign salaries and are able to live very well here. While local wages are going up rapidly, party to keep up with inflation which is more than 10% a year, salaries are obviously far less than in the States and Europe. However, it may be that in the future goods from other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia will be cheaper than Chinese goods.
We have taken other excursions with different students. For example we went to Nampo Temple, accompanied by Juna, Nancy and Tammy. Nampo is one of the older Buddhist temples in this area, but rebuilt several times after it was sacked by various emperors. We didn't know that it was Buddha's Birthday, and the place was packed. The incense was so thick it was hard to breath. We climbed the many steps of the hill behind the temple along with hundreds of others to see the view of the city. We were surrounded by throngs of people, a very Chinese experience. After that we had a huge lunch which our students insisted on paying for, and then walked around Xiamen University. One of the oldest and best schools in China, the campus is large and beautiful with a lake in the middle. There were university students sitting on the grass, some studying, and others making out with their girl/boyfriends, something that would not have been tolerated a few years ago. Others were hanging out and shopping on Student Street, a bit like Telegraph Ave in Berkeley, minus the head shops.
Both Juna and Nancy are from nearby cities and are relatively wealthy, whereas Tammy is from Hunan province where her family members are farmers. She only gets to see them once a year, and this year, because of all the snow, she couldn't get back at all. Juna says she is a Buddhist, as is her family, and she was very surprised when she first heard about our interest in Buddhism. She actually knows very little about the sutras however, and was asking us questions about them. It seems as though most of the temple goers, including Juna, are most interested in praying to the fat sitting Buddha, known as the Buddha of Prosperity. He is ubiquitous here.
Left to Right, Rita, Amy, Tammy, Marjorie