Remember the Air Quality Index? The wonderful way of telling everyone just how bad the air we are breathing today might be? It just got more wonderful! Check out this new idea– cute little pixies to tell you the air is so very gross you should just stay inside! Who can feel bad about pollution when confronted with this?
I particularly like how when the pollution gets serious the tears really start to flow. So sad, but still so cute! Horrible.
One of the things that still always surprises me about China is the lack of personal space. By now it should be commonplace to spend most of the day shoulder to shoulder with a million other people, but I am still using my Lamaze breathing at the grocery store. It requires deep breathing for me to hold it together when the person behind me in line has their chest completely pressed against my back. This is especially irritating when they have chosen to position themselves as close as possible merely to belabor the point that they think the line is moving too slowly. As if getting extremely close to me will persuade me to speed things up. The subway is crowded to the point that on more than one occasion someone has sneezed on my back and been so close that my hair flew forward as if a stiff breeze had blown through the car. And, yes, that experience is as horrifying as you imagine.
This lack of personal space also means there is a general lack of privacy about almost everything. There are plenty of things you aren’t supposed to talk about in China, but apparently very few things you wouldn’t do in public. Children, especially the potty training ones, are frequently seen relieving themselves over trashcans and in the gutter. People loudly spit. I saw more men peeing in the bushes here in our first week than I did during an entire semester of wilderness education in college. Noses and ears get picked and the findings closely examined in plain view of everyone. Some of these things are cultural, but many of them are just the result of living shoulder to shoulder every day, all day. When you want to see something special and everyone else wants to see it too, you all go together and stand shoulder to shoulder there. You want to see the lanterns at Yu Gardens? So does everyone else in Shanghai. Should we all go on Sunday? Of course! As my neighbor says, “That’s China.” But he is Chinese so his shoulder shrug is really just my signal to get over it.
As someone who loves to have alone time, China can be disconcerting. For me there is too much closeness—too much bumping and pushing—and not any of the things that I am used to happening with so much touching. There is never the “excuse me” or the “sorry,” only more jostling. My Chinese teacher admits that hugging and touching like the Americans or the Europeans do makes him uncomfortable. It is too familiar. Which makes it impossible for me to understand how he can be fine with the familiarity of having your entire body squashed between two complete strangers and not feel the need to mumble some sort of apology when your elbow whacks one of them in the stomach. Apparently, those are two very different situations.
A few days ago, I was planting primroses in the containers out in front of the house. As I worked, one of the guys who cleans up around the compound kept inching closer and closer. When we were shoulder to shoulder he asked me why I wasn’t pulling out all the old flowers. They were “bu hao”—not good. He pretended to sweep my front steps as he stalked me around the planters giving me advice. I am actually pretty sure they are “bu hao,” but having him insert himself into the situation made me determined to ignore his advice. Why so close? Why so intrusive? I am sure he just thought he was helping the crazy lady who wasn’t smart enough to hire someone to take care of her planters for her. The poor, poor lady who doesn’t know dead flowers when she sees them. “No, no,” I had insisted and made him get even closer to show him the buds and the green leaves coming in on the old plants. “Look here. This is good.” And what could he do but press his face close to mine and examine the evidence. In an effort to have him give me my space I had invited him to get nearly cheek to cheek. “Ok,” he had shrugged, obviously not convinced, but mercifully pretending to sweep away toward the street.
And so it goes here in China. As I push back harder and harder, people get closer and closer. The more I howl and shake my fist, the more China leans in and breathes down my neck. But apparently “that’s China” and China doesn’t mind making me uncomfortable.
Along with the language, there have been a few other things that cause miscommunication here for me in China. I do an obscene amount of shopping here. Sometimes, I am in a nice Western style store with set prices, English speaking staff, and blasting air conditioning in the summer. Sometimes, however, I am in a market or a warehouse, or on the street with vendors who might know a little bit of English, but not enough for me to get by with my extremely imperfect Chinese. I am getting better at communicating, of course, and I am frequently amazed by how much I understand. But the important thing to remember here is that these things are in context. No one ever calls me on the phone to randomly start talking about prices and no one in the markets ever tries to start a conversation with me about things outside the realm of buying and selling. This makes it easier. There is no scrambling around in my brain searching for the few words I know in a sentence to try to guess at meanings. When I am in a restaurant, people talk to me about what I want to order almost as if we were following a lesson in a textbook. When I am buying clothes at the fabric market, people talk prices and quality. I don’t always get it, but I can get by. One thing I didn’t anticipate (an unfortunate theme thus far here in Shanghai for me) is the differences in hand signals and symbols.
I should have seen this coming, of course. As an English teacher I have taught this lesson myself a million times. I choose to focus on all of the vulgar symbols and gestures because those tend to be the ones my students need to know. In Sydney the foreign students were always amazed that gestures they thought were harmless were actually the reason they were getting into so many fist fights. Who knew? Luckily, I have managed to steer clear of accidentally offending anyone (as far as I know!), but I have discovered that my ability to communicate with my Chinese salespeople and taxi drivers has been less than successful because of the way I count on my fingers. I don’t know how to count correctly!
The first time it happened, I was at the flower market and arguing over prices with one of the vendors. I was having trouble understanding her, and she didn’t have a calculator or pen and paper to help clarify things. She kept putting her two pointer fingers together in the shape of a cross as she repeated the same information over and over. Fingers in a cross? What did that mean? The same thing happened a few minutes later when a vendor gave me what I thought was the symbol for “hang loose.” It seemed a little out of place for what we were talking about. Hang loose?! Sure, but how much were the flowers?
Later, my Chinese teacher cleared things up for me. Apparently the Chinese use specific hand symbols for numbers. Symbols that I was seeing, but not understanding. One through five were the same, but I could start with the pointer or the pinky. Once we got to six, things got crazy. There was the hang loose. Seven was like a shadow puppet. Eight was what I would think was air guns. Nine was scrunched fingers that I had a hard time replicating. And ten? There were three possibilities for ten, one of which was the crossing fingers using the pointers from both hands. Or you could cross your first two fingers on one hand. Or you could make a fist. Which one was more common? It depends, apparently. So you might see any of them. Three lukewarm cheers for variety!
So you want to know how to count like a pro in Mandarin? Want to add those quirky hand signals?
You are welcome.
Dear Fellow Gym User,
Please accept my sincere congratulations on becoming a member of this gym. I think you will enjoy your time here. The facilities really are second to none. I am certain you will come to appreciate the abundance of clean towels in the locker room and the varied selections at the juice bar.
Now that we are on friendly terms, I hope you will forgive me if I admit that originally I had hoped you were just a hotel guest. This is, after all, a hotel gym and plenty of people are here only for a few days and then they disappear never to been seen again. So that first morning when you showed up, monopolizing several machines at once, I was hopeful that you were just passing through. Normally, I try not to notice other gym patrons. I try to concentrate on my workout with as little social interaction as possible. But you managed to force me out of my routine. From the moment you arrived on the scene my time at the gym was forever changed.
That unitard you were wearing was definitely a bold choice. I have seen many things here in China, but a large Eastern European man in a tiny unitard is a first. I was half expecting to see some amateur wresting break out on the mats over by the punching bags. Imagine my disappointment when you merely paced around while the rest of us made use of the treadmills. It takes cajones to pull that look off. And you certainly have those. That was difficult to ignore. That outfit was tight. And while I know there are many things in this country that involve extra services and hidden meanings, this is not a “gym” in the way that many of the places you might have recently visited might be “massage parlors.” So those two beautiful Chinese girls? Yeah, they are actually trying to work out. I don’t think they were hoping you would come over to watch the trainer put them through their paces. And the grunting? You weren’t even exercising! That was truly unnecessary. But, to each his own! I hope you didn’t catch the particularly sour look I shot you from over by the elliptical machines. We didn’t know each other then and I had not yet come to understand your special charms.
After that performance, I wasn’t expecting to have you turn up the next morning with an even more impressive outfit! That tracksuit was a thing of beauty—shiny and tight with elastic at both the wrists and the ankles. Amazing, really. Was it waterproof? It was the kind of thing only Borat would wear, but there you were, rocking that outfit like no one’s business. I was hoping you might actually work out. There are weights here, you know. You could lift some, if the mood struck you. Or you could take a class. I hear spinning is popular here. Just a suggestion. It might help with some of what I can only assume is an excess of pent up energy. Or a serious mental disorder. Why else would you have ignored all those fancy machines in favor of standing in that corner panting and sweating? Yes, I noticed you had fixated on some more of those lovely Chinese ladies. They do seem to be everywhere here! Of course, they didn’t give you the opportunity to introduce yourself, what with all that exercising they were doing! But don’t worry! With your new gym membership you will have plenty of chances to bond with them over by the water dispenser.
So let me just close by welcoming you once again. Asia is always in need of more men making confident fashion choices in unexpected places. You are certainly a trendsetter in that area. While I have been less than impressed with your exercise regimen, there are plenty of trainers here that can help you with that! Just make an appointment. And I am sure those ladies you fancy will soon come around to your unique way of presenting yourself. How will they be able to resist your bravado? Your steely gaze? Your sweaty but silent advances? If you keep coming back, again and again, eventually they will get used to you. I am certain the same will be true for me. I am positive it is only a matter of time before you and I become fast friends.
Yours in fitness,