This destination has no photos. Upload the first!
Written by hailun on 07 Oct, 2002
THE SMALL VILLAGE OF DALI, HONGSHI TOWN, LIUHE COUNTY, JILIN PROVINCE
For May Day, the Chinese Government gave the nation a one week holiday in order to stimulate spending. I was invited to go to a Senior student’s home in a small village for about a…Read More
THE SMALL VILLAGE OF DALI, HONGSHI TOWN, LIUHE COUNTY, JILIN PROVINCE
For May Day, the Chinese Government gave the nation a one week holiday in order to stimulate spending. I was invited to go to a Senior student’s home in a small village for about a week. I jumped at the chance to see and experience a Chinese village first hand. For me, this was a chance to see "real" China with my own eyes. This was what dreams were made of. I had an image of glorious green rice paddies which stretched beyond the horizon. It was an offer I could not refuse.
My student Shirley and I set off on the hard seat section of a train leaving Changchun at 1:40pm on May 1, 2000. Seven hours later, we arrived at Liuhe station. I must say that the hard seat was decent. Yes, the usual numb bum after a while, but there was leg room because the seats are set up so that people are forced to face each other. The one advantage of that is that your knees are not cut off by the seat in front of you. The drawback is that you are under full gaze of the people opposite you. That can be very unpleasant if the person is a curious, over-talkative type. There was one woman who had the terrible habit of eating everything noisily. And talk about eating! Chinese people seem to average a large bag of snacks each. Everything from sausages, fruits, dried fish, noodles, and bread. As soon as the train trip begins, out come the bags of food.
I was dreaming of green rice paddies, but saw brown rows and unplanted fields. It made the scenery a disappointment. The interesting thing though was that absolutely every piece of land that could be sown was. Even thin plots of land along the rail line were prepared for the sowing of seeds. China is an enormous country, but so is the population. A large percentage of the land is not arable. Crops are grown wherever possible, and that includes up mountains and beside railway tracks.
What also struck me along the way was the enormous amount of plastic pollution. People throw anything and everything out of the train windows, and that means that the countryside is littered with plastic bags and other non-biodegradable waste. The whole world has environmental problems, but in China, the norm is to throw everything onto the ground. And where else can you throw it when in many places rubbish bins are scarce or non-existent? Restaurant owners tip their waste onto the ground outside. You have to avoid getting your feet scalded by boiling water being thrown out onto the street. In summer you can smell the rotting piles of vegetable and meat waste.
Arriving at Liuhe Station, we caught a tuk-tuk which is basically a wagon pulled by a motorcycle. Then we met one of Shirley’s sisters : daughter number three. We stayed overnight where her sister lives. Her sister is married, and was pregnant at the time. Many married people are unable to live together because their jobs are in different towns, so many couples only see each other on the weekend, or holidays.
The toilet was an outhouse. The outhouse consisted of two wooden planks and a pit. I was unable to stand up in it because I was too tall, but furthermore, I was psychologically impaired from relieving myself because I unfortunately looked down the gap between the two wonky wooden planks and saw someone else’s steaming deposit. It turned my stomach and produced a barrier to me going to do what I had planned to do. The need to go evaporated like the steam below.
LIUHE TO SAN YUAN PU
On May 2, 2000, we left Liuhe and caught the train to a small town called San Yuan Pu. This town was where Shirley’s sister’s mother-in-law lived. Due to fear, ignorance, and perhaps some misinformation, the mother-in-law assumed I was going to be American, and what was more, a black American. I have no idea how she came to such an ignorant assumption, but the fact was, she was frightened of my arrival because of these two assumptions. She was shocked, and relieved when she saw me enter the room. Sadly, she was relieved that I was white, not black. She was further relieved when she found out that I am Australian, not American. Racism does not exist in China, eh?
Shirley’s brother-in-law, who works full time with the Forestry Police and is a photographer on the side, and a friend of his drove us in a blue Jiefang truck to Dali. The dirt track to Dali was bumpy as hell, and I thought it would break every bone in my rear! On the way, we stopped to take some photos at a tiny defunct plane landing strip, and Shirley’s brother-in-law told us that foreigners are not supposed to go to the particular region because there is a secret nuclear power plant there. If we were seen by police, there could be some serious repercussions for not only me, but for the Chinese people I was traveling with.
TEACHING ENGLISH MAJORS
My job was to teach students who are English majors, in the University’s Foreign Language College. At "Changda" as Changchun University is known for short, foreign teachers are required to take seven different classes each semester. There are about 25 students in each…Read More
TEACHING ENGLISH MAJORS
My job was to teach students who are English majors, in the University’s Foreign Language College. At "Changda" as Changchun University is known for short, foreign teachers are required to take seven different classes each semester. There are about 25 students in each class, and most classes have around 18 or 19 female students and only six or seven male students. The students adopt "English" names. There are some ever-popular names such as Shirley, Sophia, Catherine, Cathy, Helen, Tony, and Owen. You can guarantee having one of each of these in each of the seven classes you teach, so that when a Shirley telephones you after your first week and asks you if you remember who she is, you have seven Shirleys flashing through your mind. Or, you think you have a Shirley’s face in your mind. Who knows? Perhaps it is a Catherine that you are picturing. Then there are the "interesting" names such as Snowman, Lemon, Cinderella, Schuman, Meteor, Spring, Raisy, or Windy. Perhaps the most comical name I came across was Given. Not Gavin, but Given. His given name was Given! It's easy to remember the male students’ names and to be able to match the names with the faces, because there were so few male students. But the females were a challenge to say the least. What made it more difficult was when they changed their seats every week. The other factor was that you only had each class for two periods a week.
For the first semester, I was given seven classes: two Senior classes for British Literature, and five Freshmen classes for Oral English. I also worked four hours part time at an Architectural College. In the second semester, I was allocated seven classes to begin with, and an extra class at the end of November. The classes were three Junior classes for American Literature, two Freshmen classes for Oral English, and three Sophomore classes for Oral English. I also worked part time at a private school. It is through part time jobs that I was able to save a lot of money, and pay for my travel within China, and for my plane ticket from Changchun to Hong Kong. I was earning 100 Yuan an hour for part time work. That sort of money goes a long way in Changchun.
I had never taught a class before. I had tutored students in Australia one-on-one, though, and I have also studied foreign languages, including Mandarin, myself. So I felt that I understood some of my students’ grammatical and pronunciation problems. I knew the differences between English and Mandarin. I knew what sounds Chinese has or does not have. For example, there is no "v" sound, the "r" is very different, the "l", "n" and vowel sounds such as "ou, a, i, ai, ow" are often difficult for Chinese students to pronounce. Students from different regions had different difficulties, but the difficulties in pronunciation for all was pretty much the same. Perhaps the biggest difficulty involved pronouncing words which combined "r" and vowels, especially "ai" and "ay". I believe that is because of the way in which the tongue is placed in the mouth when forming the "r". Chinese language does not have a comparison tongue position required to create an "r" in English. Therefore, it was almost impossible for all of my 500 Chinese students to pronounce "train" properly. I constantly gave pronunciation drills, and time and time again, no matter how hard they tried, the sounds they made were still incorrect. "Train" was uniformly mispronounced as "treen". The "a" or "ai" was not the problem, because the students could pronounce "pay", "pain" and "day", but they could not pronounce "rain" or "train". The way the Chinese student positions the tongue for the "r" makes it impossible to open the tongue and mouth to make the correct "ai" sound. Then again, the way in which a Canadian, New Zealander, Australian, Scotch, and American pronounce the "r" is also different. Chinese does not have "th" sounds either. Many students had great difficulty pronouncing and distinguishing the sound between words like "thing" and "sing", and "think" and "sink". Some students, particularly those from the south, had difficulty with pronouncing and distinguishing between "sh" and "s" sounds. The "u" sound in English was constantly pronounced as an "a" in "apple", so that "hundred" sounded like "handred", and "number" sounded like "namber". Words such as "fire", "fair", "fear", "train", "thing", "volleyball", "house", "town", "shower", "leisure", "unusual", "number" and "thief" to name a few, were constantly mispronounced, or misunderstood when I was saying them.
Another factor in mispronunciation is that they began to learn English pronunciation from Chinese-accented teachers. There is nothing wrong with that, and certainly the Chinese teachers are excellent at the English grammar, because there is such an emphasis on grammar, but it is best for the students to hear and learn from a native speaker so that they may learn to imitate the native pronunciation. Trying to undo patterns of mispronunciation is much harder than to teach correct pronunciation from the beginning.
I found that the students revelled in debating, role playing, and trivia quizzes. I felt that the text books assigned to the Oral courses were dull and outdated, so I barely opened them. Instead, I created my own lesson topics. They included court room role plays, debating, trivia games, the differences in restaurant etiquette and style of food between China and other countries, Olympic sports, shopping, directions, lectures on Australia, speeches on Chinese provinces, and pronunciation drills. We also discussed some serious issues such as the One Child Policy, sexism, and intervention in foreign countries.
I was very impressed with the level of writing and composition of essays in literature. When students let down their guards and wrote form the heart, I received some mind-blowing work. The way in which some students were able to relate the themes in the literature to their own life-experiences was great and interesting reading. The themes of the texts included justice, crime, love, racism, slavery, tragedy, depression, loneliness, escapism, death, and war.
Perhaps for the better, Changchun is not a tourist destination, but that's one reason why there are virtually no English-language signs or menus. It's quite important to be able to read or speak some Chinese in order to get around, ask for directions, or…Read More
Perhaps for the better, Changchun is not a tourist destination, but that's one reason why there are virtually no English-language signs or menus. It's quite important to be able to read or speak some Chinese in order to get around, ask for directions, or recognize the place you wish to visit.
For an industrial city, Changchun’s sky and air is remarkably clean compared to other cities. There were not many occasions when I smelled pollution. That made me wonder whether I did not notice the smell of pollution because the level of pollution in Sydney is the same as in Changchun? One dreadful pollutant in Changchun and a lot of China is coal dust. Coal is still burned for heating purposes in China. The coal dust glues itself to your skin and clothes. When you enter your apartment the coal dust leaps off your shoes and onto your recently cleaned floor. You do not realize how filthy your clothes actually are until you wash them and see the color of the water. Light colored clothes are a fashion faux pas in China due to the coal dust. You may be reassured to know that one of the points used for the Beijing 2008 Olympic bid is that Beijing is burning "cleaner coal". So perhaps I am misleading you when I use the word "clean" to describe the air in Changchun, but compared to Beijing, the air is not as polluted. The sky and the sun can always be seen, unlike in other cities. If the sky is grey, it's not because of smog and pollution, but because of looming rain clouds. It does not rain very often in Changchun, and it's a dry (not humid) place.
INCOME AND COST OF LIVING
I was told that the average monthly earnings of people in Jilin Province is about 600 Yuan a month. There are a lot of factories, and also a lot of farming villages in the Province. At that time, there was also a lot of unemployment in the Province, as factories were being shut down. There is no welfare in China, and people rely on savings, family assistance, or neighbors for help. Several of my students told me that both of their parents had been laid off work.
In other cities in other provinces, such as the south of China, wages are anywhere from three times that and more. The cost of living may also be higher, however. I was told by a Changchun-born-and-raised woman (whom I tutored privately) who had worked and lived in Guangzhou for five years, that the price of milk formula for babies was the equivalent of over one month’s average salary in Changchun. At the time, I can remember thinking that I bet that so many babies would simply have to go without the formula, and many other things, because the prices are so prohibitive. She said that it was so much cheaper to buy the same things in Guangzhou. So, not only are the prices lower, but the wages are higher down there.
I was later informed by someone else that Changchun is the second most expensive city in China for consumer goods. I am not sure what the reason for that is. I bought a rice cooker and frying pan when I first arrived, but that was about the extent of my shopping for consumer goods, so I cannot comment on the price of consumer goods in Changchun, and I certainly am not in a position to compare Changchun’s prices to other cities’ prices. Changchun is a heavy industry city which is fast being outstripped by other cities. It is not as economically developed as the giant cities. I was told that Jilin and Heilongjiang are known as the nation’s granary because the percentage of people who are farmers is the highest in China. The Provinces produce mainly soy beans and grains. Until recently, however, a lot of fruits and vegetables were unavailable in the north-east.
Nowadays, food is imported from other provinces. Due to the fact that so much needs to be imported, prices are higher. When I arrived in icy February, I was amazed to see street vendors cutting the skin off cart loads of pineapples, and selling them for 5 Yuan for one "jin" in weight, which is half a kilogram. Pineapples in the snow? The miracles of transportation and importation. Such fruits would not have been available in that region a few years ago.
Many people have lost their jobs, and so there is also a large floating population, not only in and from Jilin, but also from the whole of China. People leave their homes and look for any work in any place. The result is that people who are unskilled for a task are employed to do jobs which require training and expertise. They are paid poorly, but they are desperate for the work. The result is that workmanship is often sub-standard and dangerous. Sometimes it is possible to see large groups of men wandering around aimlessly, or sitting around on the curbs. I have the feeling that when China enters the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Jilin Province’s economic woes will be exasperated. Until recently, for the good or the bad of the economy, inefficient factories have been kept open. Recently, many workers have been laid off. Some of my students said that both of their parents have been laid off work. There are no unemployment benefits in China. Changchun’s car factories, for example, cannot compete with Shanghai’s. The economic juggernauts of Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen have the resources and the ability to compete. Foreign investors are either not interested in Changchun to begin with, or will turn towards the larger cities. As China enters the WTO, economic efficiency and competitiveness will be a necessity, and I can see more unemployment in the short term, which will cause more hardship to many families. I am not saying that it is better to keep open an inefficient factory, but I am wondering what will become of so many people, especially if those people are not trained to work in any other field? Freedom of movement to go and get a job elsewhere is not easy in China. People belong to a work unit. Moving between cities, towns, and sometimes work units can be very difficult. On a positive note, it may mean that prices of many goods which are now considered a luxury in Changchun, and China in general, will be reduced and be made more affordable to the average Chinese person.
Changchun is not true to its name "Long Spring". The snow lasts from late October or early November until sometimes as late as late April, early May. I remember still wearing thick jeans and sweater at the beginning of May. In my last week, the mercury hit -35 degrees Celsius. People say that when the temperature falls below -10 degrees Celsius, it is difficult to differentiate between temperatures. I can confirm that theory, but by the time it gets to -35 degrees, and you can see your emerald green scarf turn white because your breath has just frozen, or the severe cold bites your uncovered cheeks, or the tears produced by the cold freeze and cause your eye lashes to stick together, then you know that the mercury has plunged to new lows.
The summer was hot, to my dismay. China really has incredible extremes of temperatures. It reached 35 degrees Celsius in Changchun in summer. The beauty of the Changchun summer was that although the morning was hot, the night was breezy and pleasant, and best of all, there was virtually no humidity. Autumn and Spring were very short lived.
THE TINY VILLAGE OF DALI
At last we arrived in Dali, at Shirley’s home. It reminded me a bit of my Nonna and Pop’s, what with the chickens and ducks. Who would have believed I would be in a small village in China? You could see…Read More
THE TINY VILLAGE OF DALI
At last we arrived in Dali, at Shirley’s home. It reminded me a bit of my Nonna and Pop’s, what with the chickens and ducks. Who would have believed I would be in a small village in China? You could see the hills, hear the roosters crowing, hear the cows bellowing, hear the ancient tractors putting along, but for once, people were scarce.
TYPICAL NORTH-EASTERN CHINESE HOUSE
The typical north-eastern Chinese house in both towns and small villages consists of a kitchen in the middle of two rooms, and a passage way connecting front door, kitchen, and the two rooms. There is no bathroom. The two rooms both have a wall-to-wall kang which is used to sit on during the day, and to sleep on at night. There is usually a telephone and TV in one of the rooms. There is minimal furniture. The kang may also be the place to eat dinner, otherwise a small round table is opened up come meal time. Most houses I saw had identical layout, decoration, and type of furniture, albeit minimal. Sameness to an alarming degree.
SLEEPING ON A KANG
For the first time, I slept on a kang. The kang is the traditional Chinese "bed"/lounge/place to sit on when dining. It is a wall-to-wall, thigh-high, hard, flat surface which is heated by the fire from the fire stove in the kitchen. The more fuel used to cook with, the hotter the kang becomes. The family all lie on it together. So it was yours truly alongside grandma, ma, pa, and Shirley. I usually sleep on my stomach or my side. Apparently that is abnormal, and when I woke up, Shirley’s mother got Shirley to ask me if I was sick, because she saw me lying on my stomach, and normally they will only lie on their stomach if they are sick. I found the kang too hard for me to lie on my back. I never lie on my back as it is.
The Chinese pillows I experienced in Jilin Province are not stuffed with feathers or down, or anything soft. They are filled with some sort of bean, but not the foam beans used to fill some "bean bags" or cushions...real beans! Farm produced beans! It takes some getting used to, to sleep on a bean-filled pillow as well as the kang.
The kitchen consisted of two very large in-built woks, heated by fire, and an in-built "well" for water.
Bathing and hygiene consisted of washing hands, face, and feet in a bowl of water, and brushing your teeth, too, of course. There was no place (or opportunity to be alone, either) for having a full body wash. I am not sure if and if so, how often people in villages bathe themselves. Come to think of it, another village I visited did in fact have a river, and the children were swimming in the river.
Each house has an outhouse. This was an experience I will never forget, but one which I quickly got used to. For privacy, there was a bundle of corn chaff at the entrance of the outhouse. The outhouse consisted of the now-familiar-to-me two wooden planks over a pit. For females, it is a case of balance, squat, and aim. I noticed that the outhouse backed on to an open area. When I visited the outhouse, I instinctively turned around to look at the mountain to make sure that no one on the mountain could see me unless they had super long distance vision and nothing better to do but to stare at the family’s outhouse.
In the village, there was usually no distinction in the type of dishes cooked for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. What ever food was not eaten was recycled for the next meal. There is also no refrigeration. An even number of dishes is always served, otherwise it is considered unlucky.
A STEP BACK IN TIME
Each morning, we woke up at the crack of dawn with the rooster crowing. Shirley’s father and brother would set off to go to their plot of land and prepare the land for sowing the seeds - corn seeds. On May 3, Shirley and I joined the rest of the family on the farm. Seeing the farming techniques is like stepping back in time. Shirley’s parents have had the same tractor for thirty years. The farming methods they use have not changed for centuries. They also use a horse (others use cows), a rusty old horse-drawn plough to create the furrows, and hand tools to create the holes for the seeds to be placed into by hand. One person would lead the horse to create the furrows. Another person would create the holes for the seeds, another would drop the seeds in the holes and another would cover the seed-filled holes with her or his foot. To make the job less monotonous, we were taking turns at teaching each other songs. I am not a willing singer, but what the heck, I taught them "Ten Green Bottles" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" . They taught me "Liangge Laohu" ("Two Tigers"), which is sung to the same tune as "Frere Jacques" ("Brother John"), and another popular song at the time which praises mothers and the importance of having them.
We also visited an uncle’s farm. He was planting apple seeds. He asked me some very interesting questions. He asked me to tell him the differences between Australian and Chinese farming technology. He seemed to know that the horses and cows used to pull the plough had long since been replaced by machines in developed countries, and he wondered if I found China to be strangely backward. He also asked me if we grow crops on the side of the mountain like they do in China. Imagine the saving in time and energy for Chinese farmers if they could afford modern technology?
MODERN THINKING IN AN ANCIENT SETTING
Shirley’s parents were modern thinkers. They have four daughters and one son. All the girls were given the names of birds to symbolise the ability to fly away from the village and create a better future for themselves. They are worried about their sixteen year old son, because he has failed his middle school (high school) exams twice, and looks unlikely to be able to graduate from high school. Without a qualification or an education, he will be unable to have a stable future, and the likelihood of leaving the farm is remote. Shirley said that her parents do not want her brother to stay on the farm, and so they are at a loss now that his academic record is so poor. Although Shirley, the fourth daughter, is now working in Shenzhen, one of China’s Special Economic Zones, her heart is in her small village of Dali. She told me that when she retires, she wants to buy a home in her village. It will be interesting to see if she still has that hope after having worked in a big city after ten, twenty, thirty years.
RETURN TO THE BIG CITY
At 7am on May 6, we left Shirley’s place and climbed an embankment to get to the bus stop. Then we arrived at the local train station where I was noticed and discussed by several women. One woman pointed at my eyes and said that my eyes looked like "doll’s eyes". Another kept marvelling at how white my skin was, and was comparing her hand to mine. It was their first time to see a foreigner.
The whole return train trip was spent with people asking Shirley and I questions about Australia and myself. One man offered me his seat even though he had several more hours to go until his train stop at Siping. I did not want to accept the seat simply because I am a foreigner or because I am a woman, but he was insisting, and actually, it was nice not to have to stand! The (married) man kept saying how "lovely" I was. He was overwhelmed to see a foreigner. His being so overwhelmed overwhelmed me.
Come 7pm, I was able to have a much desired and much needed bath. It felt great.
Shopping in Changchun, China, was something I did not enjoy because of the nightmare of being a "waiguoren", or foreigner, and being stared at incessantly, or ripped off mercilessly.
Have you ever gone into a clothes store which has no change-rooms and tried on a dress…Read More
Shopping in Changchun, China, was something I did not enjoy because of the nightmare of being a "waiguoren", or foreigner, and being stared at incessantly, or ripped off mercilessly.
Have you ever gone into a clothes store which has no change-rooms and tried on a dress with the shop owner holding up a small square piece of cloth which barely succeeds in covering some vital regions from hordes of onlookers crowding in to see the waiguoren do a strip show, meanwhile the shop owner is taking a good look at your body just to make sure that you really are human and that a foreign female has the same female bits as Chinese females? Well if you have not had the pleasure of such an experience, I envy you.
Due to such wonderful shopping experiences, I limited my shopping to bare essentials, that is, fruit and vegetables from vendors at the side of the road, groceries from a little store cheesily named the Happiness Store which had the prices marked on the goods, rice from the grain seller, and most importantly, lots of cheap CDs! Something to watch out for with the fruit is not only quickly learning the price that is usually charged to others to avoid being ripped off despite thinking you have just received the bargain of the year, but making sure that you either select each piece of fruit yourself, or keep a keen eye on the seller so that you do not end up with six fermenting oranges and two rotting bananas.
What amazes me is the way in which some sellers would be in it simply for the short term quick sale. They did not think of the long term at all. Is it not dreadful for the business to cheat a customer by severely overcharging or by giving rotten fruit? Would any customer in their right mind return to someone for more after they have just been cheated? I know myself that if I found a friendly vendor who I felt was not ripping me off excessively, then I would return time and again.
Bargaining is something that I had to quickly become accustomed to. I think the hard thing when you first arrive in China is that you feel that everything is so cheap because you are still comparing everything to your country, and converting the currency in your mind. After a while though, you quickly realize that you are earning Chinese Yuan, and must therefore think only in terms of Chinese Yuan. Very quickly, you become a seasoned bargainer, quibbling with the vendor over two or three Yuan. It seems silly when you think that it's less than $1 in your own country, but you do not want to be taken for a sucker by the nice little old man behind the counter. You want to let him know from the outset that he cannot fool you.
Bargaining is acting at its best. The seller will try to convince you that the gaudy color suits you, and that these are the cheapest, best quality items in town. You can feign heartache at the price the seller has quoted you. You can try to convince the seller that the imaginary store down the road sells the product for less. The seller asks you how much do you want to pay for the item? That is the hard part. You do not know how much is a fair price. You do not want to offer too much money and virtually rip yourself off, but you also do not want to lose the chance of buying the glorious item by offering too little and therefore converting the seller into a Rottweiler which bares her teeth at you. You try to be confident when you cut the seller’s price in half. You watch the mock terror come over the seller’s face. She acts mortally wounded by your demeaning offer. You hear her laugh as if to say "this foreigner has some nerve", or perhaps she is thinking "do you know that the piece of rubbish you want to buy is worth less than half of what you just offered me?" Sometimes if no one is around she will mutter agreement to your price. The deal must be secretive so that she can hope to sell the same item for a higher price to her next victim. If she is having a slow day, she will also cave in easily. Or maybe she agrees so readily because you have unwittingly offered her the best price. You never can tell. That is the hard part.
A WAIGUOREN (FOREIGNER) IN CHINA
I come from a multi-racial, multi-cultural part of Australia and I have Italian, Scottish, and English grandparents. It is quite an experience going to China, and in particular, lesser known Changchun where yes, there are minority nationalities such as Man, Hui,…Read More
A WAIGUOREN (FOREIGNER) IN CHINA
I come from a multi-racial, multi-cultural part of Australia and I have Italian, Scottish, and English grandparents. It is quite an experience going to China, and in particular, lesser known Changchun where yes, there are minority nationalities such as Man, Hui, Mongol, and Korean to name a few, as well as the majority Han nationality, but hardly any foreigners compared to the amount that you see in places like Beijing. In saying that though, foreigners are still a novelty to many Chinese in Beijing, but perhaps that is because many of the Chinese in Beijing are not originally from Beijing, and may in fact be viewing a foreigner in person for the first time. In other words, I stood out like a sore thumb with my natural brown hair, height, fair skin, and light colored eyes.
Every time a foreigner catches a bus in Changchun, or walks down the street, Chinese people say "waiguoren", or in my case "bairen", meaning "white person". I would even hear people call out the Chinese for "Russian" or "Soviet" as I walked past. I also had many experiences of being spoken to in Russian. Why Russian? Because in Changchun and Harbin, the capital of neighboring Heilongjiang Province, there are many Russians. Russia is a bordering country, and Russia also has a historic presence in the region as China became the "piggy in the middle" as Russia and Japan had their little spats. Russia also harbored dreams of building the railway through Harbin, to Vladivostok. Many Russians settled in Harbin, in particular, and in that city, there are many Russian buildings and Orthodox churches. So, the Chinese in the north-east are familiar with Russians. Even a Russian teacher at Changchun University thought I was Russian. Well, that just confirms it then: I must be Russian!
I found being called a Russian quite amusing. However, the assumption is sometimes a negative one. There are many Russians in the area who are either students of Chinese, or some may have even been born in China, especially in Heilongjiang. Unfortunately, Russian women have a reputation for being prostitutes. Several Chinese students told me stories about the Russian students who used to live in my building being picked up and dropped off by Chinese men. What is fact, fiction, jealousy, and reality is only for those Russian females to know, but one reality is that many Chinese think of Russian women as nothing more than prostitutes. So, you can imagine what assumption followed the incorrect assumption that I, too, was a Russian female. It is not the assumption that I am Russian that bothers me. It is the assumption that as a Russian I am a prostitute that bothers me.
If I was not called a Russian, then I was dubbed American. It was not exactly favorable to be considered American after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, not once, but three times in 1999. On the other hand, so many of the younger people want to imitate the American accent, and imitate American fashions and styles. I would not expect anyone to guess I am Australian, but just once, I would have liked someone to be a bit more creative than the usual assumptions that I am American or Russian. Are there not other nations on the planet?
There were several occasions when I was told that I look like the women in north-west China’s Xinjiang province. The majority of the population there are of the Uighur minority. The people look more Arabic, Middle-Eastern, Turkish, or Mediterranean. On several occasions whilst traveling in Xinjiang, which I will discuss in detail below, I was mistaken as a Uighur by Uighur people themselves!
I also had many experiences of having my hair touched and pulled by curious women, or being deliberately touched or bumped into by giggly school children, stared at incessantly, watched as I typed email messages at the wangba (internet bar), had my eyes pointed to because of their color, my skin rubbed and touched because of its fairness, and total strangers lining up to take a photo with me, or asking me if they can photograph me. It's not as if people have never seen a foreigner before. Most people, even in the villages, have a television set. Many students watch foreign movies. But many have either never seen a foreigner in person, or never spoken to a foreigner in person. On many occasions, I "acted Chinese" every time I saw a foreigner, and took a second glance at the person. The curiosity is one thing. Being charged more expensive prices because you are foreign and therefore assumed to be rich is another thing.
I had been there for about a month, and I received a call from the Dean. He asked me if I wanted to come over to his place for dinner. I am sure that he said that his wife would be there. At first he…Read More
I had been there for about a month, and I received a call from the Dean. He asked me if I wanted to come over to his place for dinner. I am sure that he said that his wife would be there. At first he asked me if I wanted to go to a restaurant or to his home. I suggested that we go to a restaurant so that no one is troubled by cooking or cleaning up later. But then he insisted that I come to his place, and what is more, that I come to his place that night. I mistakenly assumed that there would be other people there. I also assumed that this dinner invitation was an example of Chinese hospitality : death by banquet. So, I agreed to go. I was looking forward to the food, too.
When I arrived, I noticed that no one else was there. I nearly asked him where his wife was, but stopped myself, and assumed that I had misunderstood him, and that secondly, there is not really a big deal. I was not going to be suspicious or assume the worst. To me, this was just a kind, hospitable gesture. As we were eating and talking, he kept complimenting me on my "elegant" use of chopsticks. Later on, he said "men love long hair. I have never had a girlfriend with hair as long as yours before." Something in me made me blurt out "well, I am not your girlfriend." Then later, I thought I could feel him touching the ends of my hair - which is very long. I moved away from him, and I also pulled my hair around so that it was out of his reach. It was becoming uncomfortable and embarrassing. Then he said "do you mind if I ask you a question?" I felt that the question would be embarrassing. Sure enough, he said "do you mind if I kiss you? You are so beautiful, and you are sitting right near me." I was horrified, and could not believe it.
Earlier that night he had also been telling me that his wife was pregnant. I reminded him that he was a married man, and told him that it was time for me to leave. He begged me to forget about it. Forget about it? It's a bit difficult for that, isn’t it? I went home, and I felt nervous, restless, and sick all night. I seriously contemplated leaving, because I was afraid that he would make my life hell because I had rejected him. The next time I checked my email, he had emailed me an apology for his "rudeness". Being the lawyer that I am, I kept the email in case of any future trouble with him. Later in the week he telephoned me to request me to do a speech about Australia for the school. I told him that all my classes had already heard me speak about Australia, and I really did not want to do it. He then brought up the incident, and asked me if I had read his email. I pretended that I had not, and immediately launched into a full scale attack over the phone. I do not know where I got the courage to do it. I told him that he had no right to treat women that way, and that in doing so, he disrespected his wife, his marriage, and me. He had abused his position of power. I was shouting, and my cheeks were burning. In the end, he asked "is there anything I can do?" I said "You can leave me alone. We have to discuss school matters, but that is about as far as it goes from now on. I have lost any respect that I may have had for you, and I will feel uncomfortable being in the same place as you." He was silent, so I closed the conversation and hung up. After that incident, he was putty in my hands. Unlike some other cultures where the woman is blamed for such situations, and her life made hell, the Dean was afraid that I would blow the whistle on him. He was worried for his own reputation. Sure, I made him lose face, but he was scared of losing face with others. Face and reputation are everything in China.
BATTLING THE SYSTEM
It's apparently very difficult to enter University in China, but once there, it is very difficult to fail and be kicked out. I found this out the hard way. In the first semester, I had to teach British Literature to the two Senior classes. Come exam time, I had to submit two exam papers to the English Office. The second paper was in case anyone failed the exam the first time. So the students receive two bites of the cherry. I asked "what happens if they fail the second exam?" This question was met with raised eyebrows and an incredulous grin. Fail? Fail once? Fail a second time? Then, I was informed by the powers that be that the final exam for "formal" subjects (and do not ask me what that exactly means) is worth 80% of the final grade, and the Homework and Class Grade is only worth 20%. This infuriated me. Firstly, I was never told such vital information at the beginning, and secondly, such a policy allows the lazy students to do virtually nothing all semester and cram for one exam at the end, knowing that it is worth the bulk of their grade. It also puts a lot of pressure on people in that one exam. I had demanded home work be done, and be done on time. I was also dubbed strict because I gave homework at all. It seems most Chinese teachers do not give students homework. Part of it may be laziness. On the other hand, if I was getting paid such piddly money, then maybe I would not give homework either. On the other hand, I firmly believe that homework is a good way to learn things and to practice the subject. I spat the dummy and criticized the policy in front of three superiors. I also learned that the pass/fail line in China is 60%, not 50%, which we are used to in Australia. No one had bothered to inform me of that vital information. In the end, I failed seven seniors, and then had to read their second exams as my punishment for failing them. If they fail the second exam, apparently they do not receive their degree. If they pass the second exam, they are awarded a grade of 60% regardless of how brilliant the make-up exam was. If they fail six subjects during the four year degree, then they are not awarded the degree. Apparently, it's counted as a fail if they fail that first time. Six subjects? That's a lot of subjects to fail, isn’t it? I am not sure if Departments in other Chinese Universities have the same rules. If you fail a subject in an Australian University, there is usually no second bite at the cherry. You must re-enrol for that subject when it is next on offer. You must do all the course work again. You must pay the fees again. You virtually cost yourself another semester, or a lot of heartache trying to cram all subjects in, in order to finish the degree on time.
We received hot water for only two hours a day - from 7pm to 9pm. That often meant that dinners at restaurants were cut short to enabled us to flee to our rooms to fill up the bath tub. We were not able to have…Read More
We received hot water for only two hours a day - from 7pm to 9pm. That often meant that dinners at restaurants were cut short to enabled us to flee to our rooms to fill up the bath tub. We were not able to have a shower. There was no shower head. One would have to wonder if the University was at all concerned about saving water? To my dismay, we were unable to shower or bath in the mornings unless we intended to use cold water in times when the temperatures outside were sub zero. I therefore developed a morning ritual of mixing cold tap water with hot water from my thermos flask (which I filled every day from the communal dining hall downstairs), in my plastic wash basin, and tipping it over my body, and washing my face.
At times we received no water at all, or no hot water, and for a period of about two months in September/October, we received only filthy hot water.
I was busy traveling from mid July to mid August and was therefore blissfully unaware of the fact that during the summer, all public bath houses in Changchun had been closed, (not that I ever used the public bath houses), and water supplies were extremely low. That means that the students staying at the University would not have been able to go and have a bath for the whole of the summer. The water supply to the University was also cut, and as a result, the University started to supply the foreign teachers with large buckets and delivered bottled water to fill the buckets up with. When I returned to Changchun in mid August, the water shortage was still in effect. It became necessary to prioritize the water usage. Was it more essential to use the water to flush the toilet, wash the dishes, or wash my hair? The question of dishes could be dispensed with by either eating out (at a restaurant which also cannot wash its dishes) or using disposable plates. My hair could not wait much more than a week for a wash, and in desperation, I even went to a hair dressing salon to ask them to wash my hair, but they took one look at the length of my hair and refused to wash it because of the amount of water needed. It got to the point where I would wake up in the middle of the night at the slightest sound of water or air in the pipes. If I thought that water was coming through the pipes, then I would run to fill up my buckets. Baths were out of the question, but I did use my usual technique of tipping a plastic basin full of water over myself.
BLACK COFFEE COLORED HOT WATER
The second dreadful experience with water came in October and November. We only had hot water for two hours per day at the best of times, but in October, the water was the color of black coffee. It was unusable. The Vice President promised us that the problem would be fixed "soon" and that the problem was caused by the pipe being enlarged in order to give us a whole extra hour of hot water a day. "Soon" dragged on until January. The hot water only became clean as I was leaving. Furthermore, the promised three hours a night was in fact reduced to one hour a night. It was almost a comedy of errors. There were compromises prior to January, however. First of all, a couple of the foreign teachers including myself demanded that we be taken to a private room in a hotel for a one hour period, so that we would be able to have a shower. In many hotels in China, it is possible to book rooms for one hour, or two hours. I imagine that with this service, the hotels provide a private venue for prostitution and extra marital affairs. We pointed out that for foreigners to go to a public bath house in China would be a nightmare. We get stared at, poked, and touched enough when we walk down the street with our clothes on! The Foreign Affairs Office reluctantly agreed to pay for each of us to have a shower at a Hotel once a week. Sometimes the English speaking liaison officer acted as if it was a great bother to take us once a week, and sometimes I felt like I had to beg to be taken. If they want teachers to be presentable in the classroom, then offering them showers and basic hygiene would be a good start. After getting sick of taking us once a week to have a shower, the Department finally forked out on the smallest (30 Litre) electrically heated water tank in the range. It was a blessing in disguise. The beauty of it was that we could have a clean hot shower any time we felt like it, even if we did have to crouch down low to create the best water pressure coming out of the shower head because the devices had not been installed high enough on the wall, and even if we did risk electrocution because the way they were installed caused us to end up with cords crossing water. But oh what a pleasure to feel clean again and to see crystal clear hot water.
Electricity cuts and power blackouts were a feature of life at Changchun University, especially in the second semester. I specifically state "at Changchun University" because I am not sure if other places had as many blackouts as we did. If I had a look out my window during one of the frequent power failures, lights would be on in buildings across the road. That was frustrating. I also began thinking that there was some giant conspiracy. The blackouts never occurred when the Vice President was in his office. They always occurred around 6pm when I just happened to be cooking with electricity, or listening to music. I began to think that the Vice President was kicking back at home, pushing a little red button every night which cut the power supply at the University, and laughing wickedly at the thought of us scrambling for our candles and matches and cursing the day we came to Changchun.
The Foreign Teachers at Changchun University receive a two room apartment which includes bathroom, washing machine, telephone, kitchen, and furniture. It was much more spacious than I imagined. I had the mentality "expect the worst and hope for the best." I was quite pleasantly surprised…Read More
The Foreign Teachers at Changchun University receive a two room apartment which includes bathroom, washing machine, telephone, kitchen, and furniture. It was much more spacious than I imagined. I had the mentality "expect the worst and hope for the best." I was quite pleasantly surprised at what we received, even if the furniture was old, wonky, and mismatching, the paint fell off the walls and ceilings in great clumps around midnight every second night, the washing machine’s electrical wiring was faulty, and the toilet constantly broke.
The washing machine was an oddity. It was a brand new old fashioned machine. New for China. Old for the rest of the world. I often wondered how a nation which was leagues ahead of Europe in terms of science and inventions has managed to fall so desperately into disarray? The machine had to be filled by tipping buckets of water into the machine, or by standing at the kitchen sink with a too-short-to-reach hose under the tap, and feeding the hose into the machine. To release the water, you unhooked a hose from the side of the machine and let the coal-dust-blackened water flow onto the floor. It was a recipe for electrocution if you forgot to unplug the cord first.
Furthermore, there was no switch at the power socket. It was simply "on" the whole time. So, as soon as you put the plug in, the device became active. If you wanted to rinse the clothes which were blackened by the coal dust in the air, then you had to refill the machine and repeat the steps again. To spin dry, you had to remove the clothes from the washing section into the spin section, re-plug in the machine, hope the spin-dry was balanced (otherwise it chugged noisily and released very little water), unplug, and remove the spun clothes. I received many zaps, and only managed to have the motor in the machine blow up once, and only had the machine cause my fuse to blow twice. To dry my clothes, I tied a piece of rope from the door of my bedroom to a pipe in the corner which was used to transport the water to the radiator, and pegged the clothes on it, forcing myself to play limbo every time I had washing hanging up to dry.
The kitchen cooking facilities were minimal and not always safe. There was a gas ring provided, but I had to pay 50 Yuan for a cylinder of gas. Every time I lit the gas ring to cook, the flame would jump to the connection with the hose leading all the way to the cylinder. It was frightening to think that if that flame traveled to the cylinder, there would be an almighty explosion, and I would be history. I bought an electric rice cooker and a frying pan, and tried to use the gas as little as possible.
The bathroom consisted of a toilet which constantly needed fixing, and a green porcelain bath tub. At least the toilet was Western style, not Chinese style! You will see what I mean when you reach the "Travel Stories" section.
Changchun is not the most exciting or pretty city in China, but it does have some interesting history. When the Japanese invaded China as early as the 1930’s, they set up their headquarters in Changchun and created the Japanese "state" of Manchukuo. North-east China…Read More
Changchun is not the most exciting or pretty city in China, but it does have some interesting history. When the Japanese invaded China as early as the 1930’s, they set up their headquarters in Changchun and created the Japanese "state" of Manchukuo. North-east China is old Manchuria, place of the Manzu, or Manchu minority nationality. The majority nationality in China is the Han nationality. Over 90% of people are Han. China’s last dynasty, the Qing dynasty, was a Manchu dynasty. The Nationalists overthrew the last Emperor, Emperor Pu Yi in 1911. The Japanese set up the dethroned Pu Yi in Changchun. I read Pu Yi’s autobiography whilst in China, and my feeling from it was that Pu Yi collaborated with the Japanese because they promised him what he craved, that is, they promised him a return to Emperor status. He became little more than a puppet, however. The "palace", which does not seem very palatial at all, where Pu Yi was housed is now a museum. It has a room where photos and information about victims of the Japanese, and methods of Japanese torture are displayed. The Japanese also exported all agricultural produce from the region to feed the Japanese armies and population, leaving Chinese people to starve. There is a large anti-Japanese sentiment in the north-eastern part of China, and some of my students slipped in anti-Japanese comments any time that they could.
Changchun also has bomb shelters and tunnels. Apparently, Changchun was on the US hit-list during World War Two and the Korean War, and so bomb shelters were a feature of the city. Nowadays, the bomb shelters are converted into underground markets which sell CDs for only five Yuan each. I can buy 30 CDs in China for the price of one CD in Australia. Yes, the CDs are pirated, but the quality is great.
FIRST AUTOMOBILE FACTORY
Changchun’s other claim to fame is that it is the site of China’s first automobile factory. Nowadays, the Changchun factories cannot compete with the juggernauts like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, and many factories are closing down, causing many people to be laid off work. German giants Audi and Volkswagon have factories in China. Audi is expensive in Australia. I am not sure how much it costs to buy an Audi in China. Vehicles in China come in very few styles and colors. "Sameness" seems to be taken to a ridiculous proportion. Choice is almost non-existent. There are black cars, white cars, and a few gold cars. Then there are the bright blue Jiefang ("freedom") trucks. Whichever company has the patent on that color paint must be rich!
Changchun also has a FILM STUDIO, and MOVIE INDUSTRY, and if you are lucky enough, you may be chosen to be an extra in a movie or video clip !!