"China 2010" story # 3

Yantai, China           March 11, 2010

china, when I got to it, seemed less crowded than Japan.
     A post-grad student at Ludong University had just taken me into downtown Yantai to go grocery shopping, and now we were trying to catch a bus or taxi back to campus. Yantai's downtown featured large city blocks of white, bluish skyscrapers with red or black Chinese symbols, and wide avenues. My guide the student, whose English name was "Frank", resembled many people at our university - he wore glasses, his face had a buttery tannish glow, and his soft black hair was nicely groomed. (The Japanese generally had paler, yellower faces, and it was in fashion for them to wear their bangs over their foreheads.) Caramel-faced Frank said, "If we had a car, it would be much easier, we could just drive home."
     Actually ... at this time, there did seem to be a lot of people in China. It was five p.m., and as a result the buses were squeezed full with girls wearing furry-hooded jackets and short, peaceful-eyed men. Even so, I was happy we didn't have a car, I was happy to be waiting on the cold street with people who had low-consumer-power but who probably had their needs met.
     In the part of Japan I'd been in, it seemed like everyone had a car, even though there was no room for them. In tiny parking lots of apartment buildings, the cars were actually stacked on top of each other, three cars high, thanks to a forklift-like machine that held the cars over top of one another. I think it was due to the cars that Japan seemed so crowded. Japan's population seemed suffocating. China's seemed like a community.
     It seems like as people's consumer power and comfort level reach higher states, they become afraid of life. Japan seemed like the "land of the bourgesie", with people afraid to take risks, trained to follow popular opinion, unlikely to make eye contact on the street or to laugh, probably very afraid of falling in love. Of course, I was only in Japan for five days. So, what do I know?
     People in poorer countries - Russians and Brazilians and Colombians - seem to want to spend as much of their time falling in love, or suffering from a broken heart, as possible. And China, thus far, seems like a very romantic country. At my university, and in town, guys and girls often walk in pairs, giggling softly and embracing. Of course ... I've only been in China eight days. So, what do I know?
     But, people on the street here are always looking at tall, white me, smiling with their friends and laughing. It makes me feel awkward a little, but I like it. Once, a young cutie in burlap boots asked, "Wah waah wah wah waah wah wah?" as I walked past. Linguistically frozen, I just said, "Ni hao" (Hello), and kept walking. Other times, people who speak English have introduced themselves to me and asked, "Do you need help with anything?" and then they generously took me downtown to find a bookstore, or they treated me to lunch.
     Frank, with the exception of his comment about a car, prefers Chinese tradition to Western ways. When I told him many of my relatives live far from our hometowns, he said most Chinese people don't move far from home. Such practice seems to be consistent with the country's three major religious influences: Taoism, living in harmony with the ways of nature; Confucianism, maintaining respectful relationships; and Buddhism, striving only after peace. I hope to learn more about all of these religions.
     Frank also probably supports China's newest ideology, communism. Once he finishes his degree in foreign languages, he'd like to work for a government institution rather than one of the country's private companies. "The companies that are private," he said, "are run by selfish people, and they may not want to take care of their workers, they may want to give them low pay." I said my mom is overworked by a private company in the U.S. that makes threats regarding her job security. Perhaps I should rescue my mom and bring her to China?
     Ha ha. For my part, I've got a pretty sweet contract with Ludong University. The school provides me with a large apartment on campus, and I earn 3700 yuan ($550) a month. Delicious meals in restaurants cost only $2.50, and groceries and books are cheap, so for the first time following three years of poverty I will actually be able to buy most things I want! Maybe I'll buy a Chinese firework to celebrate that. My commitment is for one semester only, upon completion of which the university will reimburse me for half of the roundtrip ticket I came here with.
     Yes, life is good in the city of Yantai - for me and, seemingly, for many people. There are town beggars; people who come to our university to garbage-pick; and advertisements - but very few, for a city of a few million people.
     But, hold on a minute. Did I say, "Delicious meals in restaurants cost only $2.50"? What kind of meals? Have they been better than Japan's hard, purple tentacles? Yes. Yes, in my humble, tentacle-hating opinion, they have been. Frank would be proud. Some examples:
     wide, flat rice noodles w/ swollen, spongy tofu and peanuts and strips of cucumber, with red-pepper seeds to taste
     purple eggplant, potato, and green pea pods, mixed together
     gongbao chicken (carrots, chicken, and cucumber, in a spicy, syrupy sauce) with rice
     pork morsels, in a pink, sweet'n'sour sauce
     dumplings/pasta shells that look like eyes because they contain beef
     strings of potato, grilled to become soft, spiced up with pieces of dark-maroon pepper
     tomato chunks and beef, covered in a beef-based stew
     a salad of tofu, cucumbers, strips of red melon, and garlic, in hot, red sauce
     shredded mutton and onions, stir-fried
     pork in honey-sweet gravy, on top of fried potato fritters, to be wrapped in paper-thin pancakes then eaten
     Sometimes, however, I still have nightmares where I'm being buried in purple tentacles. Aaaahh!
     Thankfully, the Chinese food has given me energy to combat Yantai's weather. Yantai is about two-thirds of the way up China's east coast, at an even latitude with South Korea. Snow fell just before I arrived on March 3rd, and the hills are still white beneath naked, deciduous trees. But, it's Yantai's "feng" (wind) that molests my ribs with its cold fingers, any time it's evening or I'm in the shade of a tall city building.
     A few days ago, I checked out Yantai's windy seaside. Glamorous skyscrapers stood, not distant. Gentlemanly German buildings - stone, two-story blocks with delicate windows of wood - colonised the seaside boardwalk. Orange and albino carp hovered in a cold pool, hibernating until spring. Brides and grooms posed for wedding photos on the beach. And a "fengzheng" (kite), or ten of them, soared with the skyscrapers.
     One kite was a blue, monstrous jellyfish. Another was a tiger, whose butt was his highest point, and whose head and front paws flapped beneath. My favorite kite was a maiden wearing a royal red-and-black blouse, covering herself with an umbrella; the kite's flapping tail was a lo-o-ong, green-and-yellow dress. Watching these kites in the sky was hypnotizing, mesmerizing, addictive.
     My brother, who recently taught for a year in Japan, and my Grandpa Bott, who was stationed there in the navy during the Korean War, will tell you Japan is their favorite country they've ever visited. My brother, in fact, even loves the food! Now, frankly, I don't know if I'll ever go back there. And I won't call you "Frank Lee" anymore. That's not even a Japanese name. It's a Chinese person's English name.
     Anyways, the point is I hope I'll have a lot more kite-watching and pork-and-pancake-eating moments in China. And not so many moments involving hard tentacles.

Modern Oddyseus

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