The Weekly Weird–March 24-31

It’s time for my favorite part of the week: the weekly round-up of the kooky things I’ve seen from just walking outside of my apartment building.  Whether a WRT (Weird Random Thing) I decided to try in a grocery store, or just an everyday oddity, it’s all part of the Weird that makes up China.

 

If I only had a Parking Ticket

From a distance, it looks like a lone police-man watching over the surging traffic, hand perpetually caught in a salute.  But when you get closer, it’s clear that this isn’t a police-man at all, but a doll propped up in the median to look like a police-man.  It’s in a blue uniform, has a white cap, and dons a creepy smile that doesn’t unsettle at first, but lies in wait like a repressed memory.  In a way, it reminds me of the Automatic Pilot from Airplane!  except that this one is stuck rooted to one spot and doesn’t seem to come with hilarious antics.  Is it supposed to ward off bad driving along the highway like some demented scarecrow?  I’m not really sure, but if that’s the case, then this creature might have to ask for more than a brain once it gets to Oz. 

 

The Hungry Caterpillar

I really thought it was just a children’s stand.  It had mind-games, cute stuffed animals, noise-makers…and then the caterpillar.  It was green, long, and fun to twist around, but once I started twisting it, there was something horribly wrong.  The face was on both ends.   I tried not to think about the horrifying implications, but ultimately failed and had to scoot away from the scene as fast as I could, lest the worm abomination choose to pursue me.  It’s just as awful as “Catdog,” this cartoon about a mutant animal with a cat on one end and a dog on the other, like Dr. Frankenstein’s practice run before the monster.  I mean, I’ve heard “two heads are better than one,” but I also think that a gastric explosion of un-voided food is the worst series finale possible, let alone a child’s play-thing.  

 

And we all float on

All of us foreign teachers were on a wooden boat, melting in the creaks and sloshes of water.  All, of course, except David who was doubled over, cackling to himself.  When we asked him what the matter was, he just pointed to the man rowing the boat and said “look at his life vest!”  And so we did.  It was attached expertly, and all according to regulations, I’m sure.  But we all knew why David was laughing: the life vest was firmly affixed to his butt.  Of course, this is funny enough, but then we started thinking about what would happen should the boat actually sink, and this man would be floating, butt up.  “Maybe it’s punishment if he’s daft enough to sink his own boat,” David suggested.  I guess it was just his way of making sure the world would always see him, best face forward.

 

The Hindenburg Lantern

In the park, a family stood haloed by the light of a candle inside of a lantern.  They were lifting it up gingerly, and I could see that there was writing all over the sides.  Perhaps well-wishes or something like that.  It was a pretty big one, wider than an average person’s torso, so when it ended up buckling mid-air and catching in flames, it was quite a sight to behold.  The family’s silent reverie was quickly replaced with a frantic “Ahh!” as they tried to hook it back to the ground.  A puff of flames that made quick work of the words carefully written along the sides, and a mental image of a very different lantern scene in Tangled.  It was probably a nice family moment, which ended with them all stomping on this lantern to put out the flames.  Precious moments, China style.

 

It’s a small bio-dome after all

I was on my way to breakfast on the foreign teacher’s trip to Xitang, when I saw a flower that looked like a torch.  I never say no to flaming flowers, so went in.  When I came closer, I realized that this was no flower patch, but an entire landscaped greenhouse, made to look as though it was the outdoors.  Swathes of grass with walking steps, entire houses and ponds, a giant wooden boat echoing Noah’s Ark, footbridges…it was eerie, as though the dystopian lore of the world being replicated on places without oxygen was being incubated under our very noses.  There was an area fashioned to look like Africa, and then inside one of the houses (which had an empty crib, by the way), there were Styrofoam vegetables with painted skin missing to make it look like it had been peeled or eaten.  I backtracked to Africa to get away from that, and it was only the person at the desk and the bulldozers hauling dirt that indicated that this was anything other than a weird dream.

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I mean, who doesn’t dream about Noah attacking greenhouses?

 

I look forward to sharing more strange moments in next week’s round-up.  Who knows?  Maybe China will surprise itself and come away without anything strange at all.  But, what would be the fun in that?

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“The Charm Offensive”

In a CNN article called “Charm Offensive: Peng Liyuan, China’s Glamorous First Lady,” Peng Liyuan, wife of China’s new leader Xi Jiping, is introduced with the decorum of a fashion magazine.  The author Jaime L. FlorCruz writes “Wearing a belted overcoat, accented by a stand-up collar and a light-blue scarf, she stood next to Xi…”

It takes no less than 13 words of clothing description before we even get to the subject.

Let’s forget for a moment that this is a historical moment for China.  Let’s just pretend that this was a march down the catwalk.  Let’s forget it all because it seems like the world has already forgotten.  Instead, let’s think about what decades of news reports have told us to focus on. 

Now, I can tell that FlorCruz is making a deliberate choice to mention clothing, given the subject matter.  Perhaps FlorCruz writes this ironically, to emphasize the obsession with appearance in the political realm.  But the fact that this deliberate choice, this obsession, had to be accented in the first place gives me pause. 

We’re alternately told from day one to both never judge a book by its cover and to appreciate or scorn a cover that’s slightly bent or tarnished in any way.  Think of Hilary Clinton and how, no matter what she said, the media focused on the strict cut of her suits.  As if the way she buttoned her jacket indicated her moral integrity.

Why does this matter so much?  Why, in the political sphere allegedly poised to make Great Decisions, are we running commentaries on fashion sense?  Why is Michelle Obama on another cover of Vogue?

It does not escape me that FlorCruz chose to title the editorial “Charm Offensive,” which can be taken a few ways.  Perhaps FlorCruz is making a sly reference to some sort of female agency, as in a deliberate attempt by Peng Liyuan to show the rest of the world how she hopes to reflect China’s dignity.  Or, and this is what I think more likely, FlorCruz sees an attempt to look good as more of a tactic or a threat.  “Offensive” is rarely a neutral term.  My question, then, is: who is she threatening? 

As soon as a woman enters the political sphere, she’s stepping across hot coals.  The length of her skirt, the attention she gives her hair, the way she walks to the podium to give a speech.  Any single malfunction is ruthlessly smeared all over the headlines.  And it’s always the same message: “You are what we see.”    

I shouldn’t have to say this.  And yet, on some level, I feel that I must.

A woman’s value does not come from the clothing on her back.  Let me say that again: a woman’s value does not come from the clothing on her back. 

It does not come from how she does her hair in the morning, nor does it come from the amount of lipstick she decides to wear.  A woman’s value comes from the words that come out of her mouth and what she chooses to do with them. 

Peng Liyuan made a short speech on this trip to Russia.  And yet, when I ask my students what she talked about, no one seems to know.  Only a few say “something about children” before going back to how nice it is to have an attractive first lady.  I don’t consider my students to be shallow.  They’re just presenting the world in the way that the media allows them to see it. 

And before we in America get cocky about how “free” our press is, we need to think of the quality of words coming out of our own mouths.  There’s excellent journalism out there.  There’s also a surge of people waving sticks and falling into the ruts of old syntax.  We have the incredible opportunity to read seven different newspapers every day if we want to, but instead we grab for the closest one and repeat whatever one writer about one set of issues decides to say.  And if this writer chooses to place a woman’s appearance before her quote every time, then it’s only a matter of time before we begin to think that way, too. 

We are what we read.  And so, we need to read carefully.  Deliberately.  Skeptically. 

We need to take away the magnifying glasses and stop counting the dress-seams of whatever woman takes hold of the microphone.  Because every time we do so, we’re deepening the ruts, creating a fast track to a world where we won’t hear voices, but instead the click of a camera.

In the Age of Information, we still don’t know who we’re trying to be. 

Instead, we know the anatomy of the looking glass, this bottomless pit of answers lost in the gloom.

Sedar with Chopsticks

“Well, you know Egypt, right?  At one point, there were slaves, and Moses, this man named Moses, came to the, uh, the king and asked ‘Let my people go!’ and the king, well, he just said ‘no, bugger all them,’ and then the god, I guess he was feeling pretty vengeful, he released all these plagues.  You know plagues?  Like, really bad things…”

We’re all gathered around the three tables bunched together, me, other foreign teachers from Japan, Australia, and America, and then Chinese co-workers from the Office of Foreign Affairs.  Elaine, who is leading the sedar, explains to us why three tables have an egg, a bone, horseradish, coriander, and why one cup of wine is untouched in the middle of the table for Elijah to join (“Though,” she explains, “when we called for Elijah, our dog usually came into the room.”)  She’s handed out a 2-minute Haggadah script for us to follow, and in-between translations and hasty explanations, we follow along.

Elaine’s grown up with this celebration, this story, but for most of us it’s something very foreign altogether.  Tanya and I look at some Haggadah that Elaine passes around, and I figure out (via the page numbers on the bottom) that I’m reading Hebrew upside-down.  She breaks some of the unleavened bread and tells us to put the horseradish on it “because times were bitter.”  Then, since the Chinese guests still can’t translate “horseradish,” she says “well, it’s like wasabi” to which the Japanese teachers cringe, knowing full well how the green paste tastes.  Elaine sings traditional songs and we try to join in the chorus.  Eventually, I and another American teacher Kay sing songs from “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Elaine then tells us to put sweet apple/cinnamon/almond spread onto the horseradish to improve taste.  Shingo (a Japanese teacher) immediately get addicted to it, and whimpers when Elaine asks if she can take it away to use the bowl.  Kay gets one of her bowls and Shingo, like a kid on Christmas morning, happily puts more on his unleavened bread.

Then, we’re eating Elaine’s food, laughing, asking her more about sedar, and how she had to perhaps adjust it slightly to make it work for China (“Well, we don’t normally use chopsticks, I can tell you that…”).  Inside, it’s full of lights.  Outside, dark, damp, flickering with the pulse of neon.

Right now, Japan and China are still on-edge with each other.  And as we celebrate the Jewish holiday of liberation, my thoughts can’t help but dart to all of the years of families hastily trying to sing from their Haggadah in the face of persecution.  But none of this matters, not when we’re gathered at the table, like children, listening with fresh ears to a story lilting like smoke in the wind from the pages of an ancient book.  We leave all of that at the door and it’s like gathering that smoke and using it to bind us all together.

So we had a sedar with chopsticks.  And somewhere in the middle, there was peace.

Laowai Style

Humorous.  So attractive.  Easy-going.  A little bit funny.  So so so so so open.  He dares to express his emotions.  Likes to go to bars.  Can’t understand anything at all.  Doesn’t follow fashion.  Height: at least 170 meters.  Passion without patience.  Having a strange faith on something he/she believes.  Blue eyes. 

I think it’s laowai style.

“laowai” is the Chinese word for “foreigner,” which is sort of the blanket term for anyone not Chinese that Chinese people don’t get, or assume don’t understand Chinese.  Sometimes it’s exclaimed more out of surprise, sometimes with a pointed finger from across the room.  It’s almost always used to refer to whoever sticks out in the black sea of heads bobbing along a sidewalk.  Laowai, at Large. 

“Look it’s a foreigner!  You say hello!”

“No, you say it!”

“She’s coming closer…okay you say it!”

“Hello?  Hello? HELLO?  HELLOOOOOO??”

It’s a funny and complicated situation: living in China, but not being Chinese, but trying to fit in when you know you won’t.  It’s all part of being a laowai.  And, you know, sometimes it hurts when I feel like nothing more than a blonde head walking through a carnival of people wanting me for my tongue.

But mostly, it’s hilarious.

Nothing captures the mad-cap adventures of crossing the street when the whole city’s watching better than this video I found while trolling “youku,” which is the Chinese “youtube.”  It’s this parody of “Gangham Style” (I know, what isn’t these days?) which is instead “laowai style” involving this guy in Beijing singing about what life’s like for a foreigner.  It’s funny, with lines like “I only buy the cheap cell phone” and “I don’t wait for the light to turn green to cross the street!”  He dances in a nightclub while professing his love to the really cheap Chinese beers, and displays his cheap second-hand electric bike with pride.  (One step above me, since I use the public bikes which range from rickety buckets of metal and horror to “hey, this isn’t that bumpy of a ride…”)  I’m sick of “Gangham Style,” but still love this parody for reasons I don’t quite get. 

And really, I had no intention of bringing it into class, which is to say that I did and made an entire lesson revolving around it.

The task: draw me a laowai and introduce it to the rest of the class.  And then, let hilarity ensue.  My students were surprisingly enthusiastic about this one.  Some drew tall, Sideshow Bob-esque figures with canes, some Michael Jackson, one guy drew a guy with a stereo and tattoos saying “Rock you!  Rock you!”  while another drew three, one being a girl with a huge belly jiggling in a club.  Their descriptions (which were at the beginning) made me laugh and laugh long after class was over, because deep down, maybe it’s impossible to define anyone’s style.  I mean, going off of their pictures, laowai have long blonde hair, dresses, are all black, no wait, white, big lips, backpacks, and “dare to express their emotions” on a daily basis while they go to bars and travel all the time.  They are funny.  They are confused.  They are strange.  They are interesting. 

No one knows who laowai are.  No one knows who anyone is. Right when we think we have everything figured out, it all gets un-figured, and whenever things seem like a puzzle chewed apart by a rabid dog, it all comes together. 

And you know, that’s half the fun. 

Because it’s laowai style.

The Weekly Weird–March 17-23

It’s that time of the week (better known as “the end”) which means another round-up of weird things I’ve witnessed to in the P.R.C. or the “Perpetually Random Country” where I now live.

Rabbit Problems

I work in a classroom that has taxidermy rabbits lined up in the back.  It’s not that Elmer Fudd had a field day.  They’re left over by the previous teacher, along with miniature Christmas trees, stuffed musical ducky dolls, Halloween masks, and menus with “conversation—Free!” written on them.  Along the wall are the slightly less odd sayings in English like “Steel sharpens steel,” and there’s also a giant Easter bunny wearing a Santa hat.  This isn’t the weird part.  It’s the language building, so everyone kind of knows that this classroom exists.  Everyone except this class of science majors I teach in there.  No, the weird part is that when I walked into class, all of my students were playing with the taxidermy rabbits, stroking them and lining them up like a creepy army of the damned in the back.  I look up and they’re advancing on the Easter bunny.  Look up again, and Digimon and Abyss (two of my students) are rearranging them into full-out battalion while the Halloween mask leers in the background.  I think maybe I should say something before it escalates, but there’s no negotiating with rabbits.

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Exit, pursued by a flurry of rabbits.

Party Bike

Usually, when I hear pumping music, it means that I’m walking by a KTV or one of those street-concerts with musical midgets.  (You know the kind).  So when I was walking back from the Fireman-themed park by campus (complete with an Optimus Prime-worthy firetruck man) and I heard the music, I didn’t think much of it.  It wasn’t until a small e-bike went by that I realized where the music was coming from.  This unassuming black electric bike, with Christmas lights fringing the bottom and two guys bobbing their heads up and down to the club music.  I’m not sure what effect they were going for, perhaps a deluxe limo on its way to a ritzy party, perhaps the shady dark alley behind a hoppin’ club.  Either way, party bike made its way down Xiasha, and only two people were along for the ride.

When Trees Attack

At the other campus I teach, Xicheng, there’s a room on the same level as the classrooms that has a coalition of dying trees stored inside.  I first noticed it back in November when the building was getting colder, and perhaps the trees were putting up a fight, but as the months wore on, I forgot about it, mostly because they locked the doors to the room and I forgot.  (Peace Corps veteran, I am not).  Well, flash forward to March, and there are the trees, very much wilted and looking worse for wear, and a guy kneeling down next to the propped-open door.  At first I thought he was trying to revive the trees in some ass-backward CPR attempt, when I realized that he in fact had a new victim.  On closer inspection, I realized that it was a sheath of curtains.  Yes, he was folding up beige curtains and stowing them in this Pit of Despair with the trees as the water supply ran out and cannibalism sounded less and less weird.  David, another foreign teacher calls it “our own little Holocaust,” but I like to think that there’s an underground (hah) Green Revolution strategy that will take us all by surprise…once the trees are let out, that is.

O, Shoe, Where Art Thou?

I was out on one of those “I want chocolate, but shouldn’t buy any” walks past a convenience store, when I saw a girl with only one shoe.  She was hopping around on one foot, not wanting to dip her socked foot into the puddles from recent rain, and her mother was yelling “Where’s your shoe?  Where’s your shoe?”  Then it happened in flash.  The mother stalked back into the convenience store and picked up something from the fruit bins.  Wedged in between pineapples, apples, strawberries, and oranges, was this girl’s little black shoe.  The mother and I sort of caught eyes, and what was there to do?  We both started snickering as she handed this shoe to her daughter and watched her hop around as she tried to put it back on.  Sometimes, you don’t need to understand everything there is to know about language for something to be funny.

Tag-a-longs with a Kick

One of my WRTs this past week was this box of chocolate cookies that had angry-looking biscuits on the cover.  The name was half in Chinese, half in English, so what greeted me when I picked up the wrapper was a sinister cookie with “Better” above a bunch of Chinese script.  I’m not kidding about the sinister part.  It has thick black eyebrows in a “v” between its wide eyes and its mouth is open with a peanut sticking out like its tongue.  And I don’t know what to make of this “Better” claim.  Is it half of a threat?  “Better enjoy this, or I will haunt you!” Or is it a veiled challenge to all other cookie brethren saying its better than all of them?  Either way, I opened the wrapper expecting the worst.  It tasted like peanut butter, cookie, and chocolate.  Nothing extraordinary, though as I waited for the kick watching this creature on the wrapper glare at me, I realized that sometimes it’s okay to judge a book by its cover, if the cover looks like it might shank you.

That’s it for the Weekly Weird.  Tune in next week for some more hilariously strange things from the country that never stops coming up with new ways to activate double-takes.

Happiness, explained in 17 steps

1)  Decide to create numbered list to find meaning of happiness (as suggested from online readings by post-graduates and suggested facebook links).

2)  Draw a series of smiley faces to illustrate your point.

3)  Write down things that excite you.

4)  Cross off the bottom 2-3 items.  Decide you can do better. 

5)  Write down things that makes you feel like you’re caught in mid “mmmm,” like a cup of hot chocolate and warm slippers. 

6)  Write down things that surprise you, like when the roller coaster drops down the hill and your stomach stays behind just that moment longer than the rest of your body.

7)  Write a stupid fart joke.   

8)  Write down the things that ruin anything from number 5-7.

9)  Cross off everything from number 8.  Decide they don’t belong.

10)  Hold up written list, and then promptly toss into trash (recycle bin preferable). 

11)  Decide that blog entries and essays and theories can’t tell you how to create priorities.  The list probably changes every day.  Create new Happiness Regime that relies on mantras rather than online advice by post-graduates and suggested facebook links.

12)  Forget mantras.  End up reciting ABCs.

13)  Go recycle-bin diving to retrieve list.  Smooth out onto table.

14)  Revisit things from numbers 5-7. 

15)  Cross them all off.  Too obtuse.

16)  Return to number 2. 

17)  Bask.

 

This had nothing to do with China or traveling.  So, here’s a picture of a fire-breathing chicken, because the word for “turkey” in Chinese (火鸡) literally translates to “fire chicken” which I will never cease to think is awesome.

Imagine passing around this bad boy at Thanksgiving.

The Weekly Weird–March 10-16

Trying to explain what China’s like is basically the same as trying to explain Santa Claus to someone who’s never heard of him before.  “He’s a fat guy who sneaks into your house through the chimney and leaves presents, but only if when he’s been watching you, you’ve been good!”  So I’ve found the best way to adequately view it is to take a look at all of the Weird Things, of which there are many.  I’ve reigned myself in at Wumart, so that I only buy one “WRT” (Weird Random Thing) in a shopping trip.  But every week, I’ll come back with a new list of WRTs and other fun things I’ve been seeing all around this quirky place I now call home.

Gingerbread Jesus

On our way back to our apartments, David (another foreign teacher) said, “Oh, have you seen the gingerbread man?  He’s tied to a tree.”  I confessed that I had not, and so before ascending to our respective lairs, he pulled me over to a tree, where what looked to be a bloated toy carcass was lashed to a tree with a ransom note on it.  The thin string cut into the cookie (or bread, I couldn’t tell), which made what must have been the head droop down.  The note was, of course, in Chinese and when I tried to read it, found that rain had washed it all away, leaving an eerie after-message on the soggy paper.

“Cute, aren’t those little buggers?” he asked.

“Uh huh.”

And then we left it hanging there, trundling our ways up the stairs.  The last time I checked, it was still there.  So it looks like the Gingerbread Man wasn’t running fast enough after all.

Breakfast Sausage Poop

On my very first WRT allowance, I decided to purchase something called “Breakfast Sausage.”  I don’t normally eat sausage in the morning, but I had to try this one, owing to the unsettling cartoon characters on the package.  There’s a fried egg with a look of shock or surprise saying “Good morning!” to a brown, fecal-looking stick, complete with a Mr. Bill-worthy smile and wide, petrified eyes.  “Hey, meal replacement bars eat good spirit!” it replies with its lips faintly parted.  (This was translated poorly from Chinese, the original: “早上好” “嘿,餐棒吃饱精神好好!” if it makes it any easier to understand).  Didn’t taste too bad, though I bit with caution, just in case the illustrations were life-like renderings of a snack gone wrong.

Milk and Meat Cookies

From the wrapper, it looked just like an ordinary cookie, until I looked closer.  No, that was not a strawberry decorating the corner, but a steak.  I opened it up, expecting an awful barnyard stench, but was even further surprised by what appeared to be seasoned crackers.  Apparently, when I saw “肉饼” and assumed it meant “meat cookie” the manufacturer actually meant to say “Imitation steak flavored saltine crackers, ha ha sucker!”  They actually weren’t too bad.  Probably would have been better if I hadn’t partnered it with ultra-sweet milk that I thought was yogurt at the time.  Apart, they were decent.  Together, a monstrosity. Next time I might just splurge and try the fruit Oreos.

Chocolate Mushroom Fronds

To be honest, I thought they were phallic when I first saw them.  But on closer inspection, I noticed that they were just about anything you wanted them to be.  The actual shape is that of a mushroom, the top part a chocolate umbrella, the bottom stick a cracker.  On the bright pink box, they ranged from a little girl’s hat as she crouched down with a smile, or the feathers of a peacock, or the body of a bat, or an ostrich, or a flamingo, or a misshapen bird flying with its beak open.  I mean, it didn’t taste like anything much different from snacks in America, but I appreciated the added attempt to entertain on every box.  Though, at the end of the day, I still snickered every time I saw them.

That’s it for this week.  I’ll keep trying new WRTs when I go grocery shopping (but only one item per trip, or else I’ll morph into the grabby toddler that’s inside every one of us).  I’ll keep my eye out for anything else strange and be back in a week to keep the weird alive and well-trained to confound.

Until then!