All We do is Eat
05.04.2008 - 25.02.2008
We have begun to settle into somewhat of a routine. We usually eat breakfast at home, and then do some yoga and exercise before going off to teach. For both lunch and dinner, we eat out in one of the many restaurants in our neighborhood, and by now we have sampled most of them. The locals are starting to recognize us as the Meiguaren, Americans, who are teachers in the local English school. They put up with our incredibly bad Chinese, and it is always an adventure to see if we actually get what we try and order. Nevertheless, everyone is always smiling and welcoming, and seem to get a kick out of us attempting to speak Mandarin.
For example, the Uighur place just around the corner, makes great stuffed pita bread with spinach, (my usual breakfast) and also specializes in long homemade noodles with soup or other toppings, including what tastes like pot roast. The staff always laugh when we try to explain how many pieces of bread we want to buy, and we usually end by holding up our fingers. Unfortunately even that doesn't always clarify things in China. They seem to have a different way of counting with them. It was many weeks before we figured out that we could order a cucumber and tomato salad, something of a rarity here.
They also know us in the Dongbey restaurant, or Northern Chinese, where they make excellent jowza, or dumplings, not to mention whole sea bass with tofu. They speak of us as that romantic Meiguaren couple, as we sometimes eat there by ourselves. That is unusual as eating is such a group activity.
The beer man in the local package store knows us too. As we pass his shop everyday on the way to school, he always waves and says hello. Tsingtao, from Quingdao, the local brew, is dirt cheap though the alcohol content is similar to the beer I used to drink as a freshman in the college bars of Madison. It has been around since the German's first introduced it in the early 20th century.
After lunch, we have taken to sitting on a bench in the middle of our apartment complex to soak up a little sun. Many grannies with their kids come over to us to say hello and good bye in English, and in our building people go out of their way to be friendly and to make contact with us. Unfortunately after the initial ni hao, or hello, we are at a loss , and their English doesn't seem to go much further. Perhaps after another few lessons...Despite our ongoing presence in the neighborhood, we remain something of a novelty. There are few westerners, and little kids in particular, stop and stare quite openly, and then call out to us to practice their few English words. We try and answer them in Chinese.
On several mornings we have gone down to the ocean which is not far from our apartment.
It is a nice place to walk and get exercise. One time we inquired about renting a bike, but it seemed like the concession man thought we wanted to buy it rather than rent it, as he told us the year it was made as well as giving us the price. We didn't have our dictionary with us, so decided to put that off for another day. We did walk down far enough to discover a small amusement park, not unlike the kiddie places near us in Albany. They even had the same carnival music playing, along with shoot em up and knock em down games with balls. The place looked like they were gearing up to open for the spring season. On the way back, we passed several water trucks that clean the streets, all to the tune of happy birthday.
Language misunderstandings remain commonplace. For example an electrician had to come to our apartment the other day to replace a switch that was bad. We spent about five minutes trying to say we were sorry for being late, in a mix of Chinese and then English. Finally he nodded, and also said sorry, in English, perhaps imitating us. This was apparently the extent of his English vocabulary, because when he finished the job, he handed me the switch and didn't say anything. Thinking he wanted me to throw it out, I went to do so when he started vigorously shaking his head. He took the switch out of my hand and put it on a shelf. I still have no idea why, but obviously throwing it out was not a good idea.
It seems like much of our free time is spent eating. This is the primary form of entertainment for the Chinese as well. There are literally 15 to 20 restaurants on every block. One of the ways to say hello in China is chu le ma, which means, have you had your rice yet. Chu la, we reply. Yes, have eaten. Surprisingly, most people are thin, perhaps because they don't eat dessert. Last night we went to an out of the way barbecue place in a downtown alleyway. We would never have found it on our own, but we went with one of the Chinese staff at the school, James, as well as Morgan, the young English teacher who speaks fluent Mandarin. James picked out the food, which was a large selection of veggies, meat, seafood, and tofu, called dofu here, so it is one of the few words we can remember easily. We then sat around a large frying pan heated with gas from below and cooked our dinner. We must have had about 10 courses altogether, not to mention almost a case of beer. After eating, we sat around the table and played liar's dice, not unlike poker. It is based on bluffing about how high a number you have rolled. The loser says gombey, bottoms up, and has to drink another bottle of beer. They went easy on me as I was an old lawai, foreigner. There was real mix of people, some dressed in suits, others in jeans, but all obviously local. It was a great evening, but I had to run more the next day to work off all that beer.
We went by bus by ourselves to Gulanyu. This small island is a five minute ferry ride from downtown, and was settled mostly by rich foreigners in the late 19th century. They built mansions, churches and even music schools. For a time it was known as the piano island because of the classical music that could be heard wafting above the sound of the surf. Although far more touristy now (Chinese tourists that is) it remains charming with old buildings, plenty of which are in disrepair, winding narrow alleys, and blessedly, no cars. It is quite hilly, and we spent a couple of hours just wandering around. And of course, there are lots of restaurants facing the harbor
We have continued to explore other parts of the city on our own as well, and we have been largely successful in taking the buses around town and getting back to our neighborhood, Chow Fu Chen. Only once or twice have we had to resort to taking cabs and showing them the business card from the school, which has the address in Chinese. The buses however do not always go the same route because of all of the construction going on, which confuses things even further. Literally every 15 minutes there is a huge boom and an old building comes down. Seemingly just as fast, a new one goes up, and although Xiamen is relatively unpolluted compared to other Chinese cities, the construction dust in the air is noticeable. Crossing the street on foot can be challenging, as lights seem to mean nothing. Buses in particular routinely go through red lights, and cars often drive and park on the wide sidewalks. This may be one of the few socially sanctioned ways of rebelling.
Life here reminds me a little of the movie Being John Malkovitch. Playing himself, he gets stuck in a elevator between floors, and is forced to live in a topsy- turvy world on floor 7&1/2, where nothing is quite what it seems. He lives like this for quite a while before falling into a hole, and ending up somewhere near the the New Jersey Turnpike not far from the Lincoln Tunnel . I'm not sure we'll end up there, at least I hope not, but life here is similiar to floor 7&1/2. It's always intriguing, but accomplishing everyday tasks you take for granted takes much longer because of the language issues. In another few weeks, we get time off and are trying to decide where to go. Traveling will certainly be an experience, because in many places in China they only speak a local language, very different even from the few words of Mandarin that we struggle with. We have certainly been to many places where English was not widely spoken, but it seems different here, despite the fact that many young people have studied English in school for years.
Chinese, at least to us, is an amazingly circuitous language. It's hard to say anything simply, even harder to pronounce, and of course, impossible to read without spending years becoming a calligraphy artist. I'm sure that the language and its intricacies effect the way people think and act, or is it the other way around? In some ways, China is less different and certainly less third world in Xiamen, then other places we have been, and yet in other ways it is the most different and hardest to comprehend.