The Chinese Office

I’ve been doing my new job for about 5 months now and I’m mostly getting the hang of it. I have another problem though – Chinese co-workers. Our team is small, only 12 of us, including the boss and a secretary. It’s evenly split between men and women, but I’m the only foreigner. Initially, I didn’t see this as a problem, but now I hate it. Our department has another team in a different city that does the same stuff we do, and the managers are American, as well as most of the team members. Many of them started on my team in Shanghai (before I got here) and ended up begging to move to the other team. I used to think that was weird and assumed it was partly because their Chinese was bad. Now, I’m half way considering asking for a transfer too.

Reason #1: Having a Chinese manager sucks.

Our job requires that we work with a lot of third parties to try and make them do things they don’t want to do. Which means we deal with a lot of conflict, we’re bound to piss people off. This would be fine, except that every time I have an issue with someone (this one asshole in particular) he gets mad and calls my boss because he knows that she will capitulate to him because she wants to avoid conflict and he uses the “we’re Chinese, she’s a foreigner, we’re against her!” card. Even worse, she sometimes does this behind my back without communicating anything to me. How am I supposed to convince someone to do something when they know all they have to do is call my boss and it’ll be resolved? It’s impossible. The American managers on the other team all know better. When a third party calls them to complain about one of their subordinates, they either won’t engage or they tell the third party what they were told to say by their subordinate in order to back them up. I’ve tried talking to my boss about this and she always says she’ll change her approach to my face, but then doesn’t…in order to avoid conflict, I’m sure.

Reason #2: My co-workers exclude me from everything.

They have a WeChat group that I’m not part of, they go out together on weekends and don’t invite me, many of them have not accepted my WeChat friend request. We just had our annual dinner and they all went and got a table with 11 chairs…guess who wasn’t asked to sit with them? You know what? Fine. None of that would bother me because it’s not like I want to go to KTV anyway. Except for one thing. Several of them have gone to my boss to complain about me saying that I won’t take part in group activities and that I’m difficult to talk to. The best part is that my boss attends these group activities that I’m not invited to, hears the feedback, but then never thinks “maybe we should actually invite Whitey too.” How does she not make the connection to the fact that no one invites me, hence I have no chance to participate? Here’s the weird thing…it’s only the women who complain about me. I get along quite well with my male co-workers because they actually try to talk to me. I have a lot more in common with them than I do with the women. The women on my team are mostly what I would call airheads. They’re nice enough (except for when they’re gossiping about me…we’ll get to that), but they only talk about what they bought recently, what they’re going to buy next, their diets, and make-up. Not even kidding. I have nothing to add to any of that. “Oh you’re on a diet?! But you’re so skinny!” That’s all I got. I’ve tried to join in on their conversations, but I always get the feeling that I am not welcome so I give up pretty quickly. I have self-respect, so why would I sit there and try desperately to join a stupid conversation about things I don’t care about with people who don’t want to talk to me?

Reason #3: THE GOSSIP OMFG THE GOSSIP!

So did you know that I’m sleeping with one of my married co-workers? No? Me neither! I found out on Friday. I wonder how long this has been going on…my husband would be so mad if he knew…

One of my male co-workers and I get along really, really, really well. We’ll call him Bob. Bob is the only one of them who has made a genuine effort to get to know me and not make assumptions about what I’m about. We actually meet up occasionally in our down time just to chat. He’s aware of all the struggles I’m having and he does his best to try and make me feel better about it. I’m sure he sticks up for me when the others are saying unfair things. So of course, we’re banging. Because we’re all 5 years old and therefore we know it’s impossible for a man and a woman to have a relationship that isn’t about sex. *eye roll* This is another thing that my co-workers have complained to my boss about, the fact that I am sleeping with Bob. Funny how the complaints were only directed at me though, as if were it true, Bob would have no blame in the situation. But of course, I am a slutty white girl, so what else would I be doing with a man. Bob is being really cool about all of this. He found out about the rumors before I did, because they all approached him and asked what the deal was, but refused to hear his explanation. When he told me what happened, I was pretty sure the next thing he was going to say would be “I’m sorry, we can’t be friends anymore.” Instead, he came to see me in person and tell me not to worry about what others think and that time will prove them wrong. He’s made no effort to hide our friendship from anyone because we both know we’re not doing anything wrong. I think that if I didn’t have his support, I might just quit. At the very least, I would definitely be asking for a transfer to the other team immediately.

My boss told me I need to try harder to make my co-workers like me more. The thing is, I feel like they’re predisposed to not liking me no matter what I do. I don’t feel inclined to bend over backwards or to be someone I’m not to make people like me, especially when they’ve made no effort whatsoever. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with each of them, especially when I first started and they were helping me learn how to do the job. I really thought we were all getting along great. I never felt like there were awkward silences or anything like that…I’m admittedly bad at small talk, but I did what my husband always says to do – just ask them a lot of questions about themselves. I know way more about them than they know about me, I’m sure of that. Bob says that most Chinese and probably my co-workers just feel uncomfortable around foreigners, like they can’t be themselves. I can understand that because I feel that way around many Chinese too. If they just left me out of everything, but didn’t complain about me, I would be fine with that. I’m just going to start bringing food to the team meetings. Maybe I’ll take a cue from “The Help” and shit in a chocolate pie for them.

Anyway, I have this next week off to relax, so I plan on catching up on some posts that I’ve been planning. I hope everyone has a happy Spring Festival!

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Apartment Hunting

The last time I had to hunt for an apartment in China was in 2004 in the city of Kunming. That experience didn’t leave me with a good impression of the process. I remember walking into real estate offices and asking them what kind of fees they charged and having the answers vary wildly. There was no city wide standard and you had to bargain with them. The same went for rent and trying to get your landlord to cover utilities, as well as bargaining over how many months you had to pay in advance. Some landlords would try to make you pay a year’s rent up front, which was a problem because A. What student has that kind of cash laying around? and B. The real estate agencies wouldn’t step in if the landlord decided three months later that they wanted their place back and wouldn’t refund your rent. I knew a couple of people who had this happen to them. One guy had spent a ton of money to remodel/decorate a gutted apartment that he rented for cheap and once the landlord saw how nice it was, he kicked my friend out of the apartment so he could move in himself. Basically, the whole process completely lacked transparency and we all know that foreigners are highly unlikely to come out on top in a situation that requires bargaining.

Even though that was 10 years ago and occurred in a “backwards” city, I couldn’t help but drag my feet on starting the hunt, especially because my company was paying for 6 weeks in a serviced apartment. However, living in a hotel got old quickly and I decided to stop putting off the inevitable. My friends had all told me how terrible the apartments in Shanghai are, either they’re way over priced or really shitty. Many of them had spent a month or more before finding a place they liked. I called an agent that a friend of a friend had recommended. I was prepared for the worst after hearing the stories my other friends told of dealing with agents who tried to get them into apartments that cost twice their budget or agents who were simply stupid. I met up with the agent, who had prepared a list of four places to check out initially. They weren’t bad, but not great. One of them was on the first floor (i.e. noisy) and another one had a landlord that I knew would be trouble. After looking at these places, I went back to the agent’s office and he talked to me about their fees, which were exactly what I’d heard from other people and I was able to look at apartment listings right on his computer that showed how much rent the landlords were asking. It was far more straightforward this time around and I felt like I wasn’t getting ripped off because I’m a foreigner. We looked at a few more places and not being overly impressed with any of them, I asked him to call me if anything else came up and I headed to a different neighborhood to look around. I made the mistake of going to a small, privately owned agency (not a chain). The agent showed me several shit holes and was really pushy about trying to get me to agree on the spot to take one of them. I used the excuse that I was going to take pictures of the places to show my husband and see what he thought. I had no intention of renting anything from this guy. However, he proceeded to call me several times a day for the next few days until I finally answered and he proceeded to yell at me for not renting from him. I just said “嗯嗯,知道了,嗯,挂了啊” and then I hung up and didn’t answer his calls anymore. I didn’t care because the first agent managed to find me a great place later that evening! He found me an awesome little place in one of Shanghai’s traditional style homes, the 石库门. It’s within my budget, recently remodeled, only 200m to a subway stop with easy access to my office and the airport for business trips. There are also a ton of restaurants nearby, which is necessary because I don’t cook.

Finding an apartment was so much easier this time around. Of course, part of it was that I got lucky, but a large part of it is that things have changed so much. Well, actually it’s hard to compare Kunming and Shanghai. I haven’t been back to Kunming in a long time, so I’m not sure if the apartment hunting process has improved to this level yet. However, this experience made me realize that I need to be careful about letting my earlier experiences from over 10 years ago impact my opinions and attitudes now if I don’t have any current experience to back it up. China is funny in that some things change so fast, so much, but other things don’t and seem like they never will.

How to be a Winner at Chinese Ikea

One of the things on my “40 Before 40” list was going to an Ikea store in China. I’ve heard all about the madness that occurs, nongmin gong sleeping in the beds, nai nais showing up and chilling in a living room to chat all day, etc. It sounded really weird and like it would be one of those bizarre experiences that could only happen here. For comparison’s sake, I went to an Ikea in the US earlier this summer. I’d never been to one before, but I found the experience truly rage inducing. The way they have the store set up so you have to walk through EVERYTHING and then you have to find a way to remember what you wanted so that you can go on an expedition through the MASSIVE warehouse to find it. God help you if you forget where you parked. So the store itself isn’t my cup of tea, but what about the people in it? I didn’t see anyone sleeping in a display bed or people relaxing in living room displays as if they lived there. However, I did notice that literally no parent in the store even tried to control their kids. Anyone under the age of 15 was running around like they were in a giant play room, which I guess means they felt at home, which I guess means Ikea achieved their objective with their cozy little displays. I don’t know, but it pissed me off. My experience in American Ikea made me more scared than curious about going to Chinese Ikea. I thought that if a handful (relatively speaking) of Americans acting like assholes in a store could make it so painful to be there, then what happens when you take that handful and multiply it times 1000? That and the fact that it’s still really hot and humid here, so I figured an Ikea filled to the brim with smelly people would make it that much awesomer. I was scared to go. Because I don’t have a death wish, I knew I would not be going to Ikea on a weekend. I made a friend agree to go with me and I had wanted to go in the afternoon, thinking maybe it wouldn’t be so crowded with people at work, but my friend has a job. She was’t able to get off work and meet me at Ikea until 9pm. As it turns out, that, my friends is the secret. There were about 50 people in the entire store, most of them employees and the rest were mostly foreigners who clearly were in on the secret of how to avoid a shit show at Chinese Ikea. It was amazing. The walk ways were empty, we were able to rush right through the displays (pro tip- I’d looked online and already knew exactly what I wanted to buy) and went straight to the warehouse to get the things I needed. I am now the proud owner of a memory foam mattress top and life is good. I kind of feel like I cheated though. I’m sure I’ll have to go back eventually and karma will get me back.

My “China Thing”

Summer is over and I have my work visa in hand. I’ll be heading back to Shanghai next week and I’m actually pretty happy about it, primarily for three reasons.

1. I’m bored out of my mind

I live in a small town, far from everything in the US. It’s incredibly hot here and there are sandstorms almost every day, limiting the time one can spend outside. The last friend I had in this town moved away last week, leaving me with my cat and my husband, both of whom are sick of me. My husband is at work 14+ hrs a day anyway, so entertaining me is a huge burden on my poor kitty. I’ve kept myself busy reading, studying Chinese, working out, and listening to courses on iTunes university. I’m ready to go do something and feel useful again.

2. My back hurts!

I have a back injury and now a hamstring injury (thanks a lot, pole dancing instructor) that I haven’t been able to find any solution to other than traditional Chinese massage. I’ve tried physical therapy, chiropractors, western style oily gross rub-down massage (there aren’t any other options such as deep tissue in this crappy town), medicine and acupuncture. At best, those methods offer temporary relief, but most of them are really expensive. They just can’t compete with 60 RMB blind massage. I haven’t had one since I came home and I’m walking like one of those 400 yr old nai nais that spent her whole life carrying heavy buckets of water on a pole across her shoulders.

3. I feel like a weirdo in America.

You know when people ask you about what you’ve been doing in China and you try to explain and about 30 seconds into it, they get that glazed look in their eyes? Yeah, that’s basically every conversation I’ve had since I’ve come home. I blame my husband. He makes me go to parties and stuff (ugh, people) and he introduces me to people by saying “This is my wife, she just finished a master’s degree in Chinese!” I know he’s trying to help and he’s proud of me, but it just doesn’t go well. WHY CAN’T I JUST STAY HOME WITH THE CAT?!?! I simply try to avoid the topic now. People ask me what I do and I say something like “I’m in between jobs right now” and then ask them what they do. Everyone would rather talk about themselves anyway, right? The few people who try to seriously understand whatever it is that I do, can’t really make heads or tails of it because they don’t know anything about China other than what’s in the news and we all know that’s not exactly putting China in the best light. They can’t (won’t?) understand why I would go there, much less keep going back. I hear questions like “But isn’t the food really unsafe? What do you eat there?” or “How do you breath with all that smog?!” These are valid questions, but even though these issues aren’t the end of the world for me, it’s hard to make people understand why I keep going back. The other reaction I often get is even worse than the usual indifference/confusion – and that is when people think I’m just showing off. I get that mostly from people I went to high school with. Most of my former high school classmates are still at home (small town, population less than 10,000), have a bunch of kids, make minimum wage and/or are on meth. When you run into a person like that and they ask you what you’re doing with your life, it’s pretty damn hard not to sound like you’re bragging. However, I feel like they shouldn’t ask that question of the former Honor Society president and women’s cross country team captain (I know, I know, I was hot shit) and expect to get an answer that’s going to make them feel better about themselves.

At the end of the day, my “China thing” (as it’s often referred to) is none of anyone’s damn business and it really has nothing to do with anyone else, but I just hate never knowing how to deal with these conversations. I like the fact that I don’t have to have this conversation in China with other expats. There’s an unspoken understanding and you rarely get asked about it, much less judged for it. My Chinese friends and my expat friends have more context for understanding my life, which makes it easier for me. I don’t have to go into minute details to make myself understood and I can speak Chinglish. I guess I’m just lazy. No, that’s not all it is…I don’t like feeling like I don’t belong and in a lot of ways, I don’t belong in America anymore. Maybe it would be easier if I was staying here for a few years, but I’m not ready to find out.

追风筝的人 - The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner has been my favorite book since the first time I read it in English. It’s a beautiful, touching story and the author, Khaled Hosseini has a gift with words and describing things that I really think is quite rare. For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s the story of Amir, who grew up in Afghanistan before the Russian invasion and the close friendship he has with the son of the family servant. Eventually, the relationship sours because of some regrettable actions on the part of Amir. Amir and his father end up leaving Afghanistan for the US when the war finally starts. Years later, as an adult, Amir is contacted by an old family friend who is now living in Pakistan and is asked to come for a visit and told that “there is a way for him to become good again.” The book was made into a movie in 2007, but the movie is quite terrible. It seemed as if the director didn’t actually understand the book or only read the Cliff Notes version because the movie skipped over parts that were very integral to the story and important in explaining the relationships of the characters. 

Anyway, this post isn’t really meant to be a book review so much as it is about me bragging that I finally read this book in Chinese. I’ve had a Chinese copy of The Kite Runner for years, but could never commit myself to reading it. I would start, read a few pages, then go do something else and forget about it for a few months. It probably took me 4 years just to read the first 50 pages. For me, reading Chinese has always been somewhat tiring…it takes more concentration, I have to look words up, and it just didn’t seem as relaxing as reading in English. I think I’ve figured out what my problem is. Prior to this summer, when I would read things in Chinese, it was either for school or it was something that I thought I “should” read, ie, something maybe not that interesting, but full of useful knowledge. I had developed some kind of aversion to reading in Chinese because I regarded it as a chore. Once I got back into the story of The Kite Runner, it was like reading it in English – I couldn’t put it down. Hours would go by and I would find that I’d read 30, 40, or 50 pages in one sitting (I still read slower in Chinese), which was a far cry from previous attempts where I would read a page and think “wow! I deserve a break! Time for cat videos on youtube!” By the time I finished the book, I found that not only was my attention span for reading in Chinese much longer, but I was also reading faster and retaining more. I learned a lot of new vocabulary too. This isn’t the first full book I’ve read in Chinese, but it was the first time I actually enjoyed it. 

In the future I will not force myself to read things in Chinese because I should, but rather because I want to. I also think that it helped that the book had been originally written in English by someone with a western background and then translated into Chinese. The book didn’t contain any cultural references to ancient China or something else that would have been difficult to understand or hard to find in a dictionary. 

I have a copy of The Life of Pi by Yann Martel that I am no longer afraid of. I think when I finish that and get back to Shanghai, I will try to find Khaled Hosseini’s other books in Chinese too. 

 

My Crazy White Family in China – A Humbling Experience

Even though I’ve been in and out of China for the last 11 years and taking every opportunity I could to visit or stay for extended periods of time, my parents have always kind of had this idea that “the China thing was just a phase.” After my decision to take a job in Shanghai, my family must have realized that maybe I wasn’t kidding around this whole time and they finally decided to come visit me. Admittedly, I half agreed to it because I didn’t think they’d actually go through with it. If my dad had had his way, the trip never would have happened. My dad is a large man who doesn’t like loud noises, warm weather, airplanes, or crowds. You can already see how this was a bad idea. My mom on the other hand…it’s weird because even though I’ve known her my whole life, I’ve only known her as a mom and not as a person, if that makes sense, so it seemed odd to me her suddenly wanting to see the world and not do whatever it is that she does in the house all day. Her wanting to travel, much less go to Asia seemed so out of character, but I learned that she actually used to visit Europe quite frequently when she was in high school (wut?) and has always had a strong desire to see the world and know what’s out there, but work and family ended up taking up all of her time for the last few decades and it just never happened. I guess me and my youngest sister’s seemingly random wanderlust was inherited. 

My dad had done a lot of complaining and making of excuses in order to avoid this trip, but my mom, getting close to retirement and being able to taste the freedom, wasn’t about to let him ruin this. She went behind his back and applied for passports, applied for visas and bought plane tickets. In spite of his yelling and carrying on after learning of her covert activities, all she could do was giggle and say “he’ll get over it.” My father maintained that he would have the flu the day of the flight or that the customs agents would take one look at his passport photo and not let him into the country on the grounds of being too ugly. 

They started their trip in South Korea where my little sister is living and much to my father’s dismay, they allowed him into the country. I wasn’t in SK with them, but my sister provided me with frequent updates about how difficult our dad was being. He didn’t like Korean food, he thought Seoul was dirty, the subways were torture, etc. Hearing about it from my sister was all quite funny until I realized that in a couple of days, it would be my problem. Initially, I had hoped that I could get them to come to China first and then go on to Korea so as to avoid dealing with the inevitable disappointment that China was all the things my father hated about Korea times 10. I didn’t get my wish and when my parents finally arrived in Beijing, my dad’s nerves were already frayed from the stress of traveling and being surrounded by people he couldn’t understand. My mom was happily taking pictures of everything and pointedly ignoring my dad. My sister arrived with them and the first thing she said to me was “I’m not in charge anymore, this is your party and I’m staying out of it.” I knew I was in trouble. 

Up until my sister said that to me I had been thinking that perhaps we would take the subway to the hotel since it was quite far from the airport and they didn’t have much luggage. I decided maybe they weren’t ready for that and we took a taxi. Needless to say, my father basically went into shock over the fact that China was everything he hated about Korea times 10. I knew it was going to be a long 10 days. 

I had intentionally started the trip in Beijing because I KNEW my dad would positively hate it (they wanted to see the Great Wall). I don’t like Beijing even on it’s best day, but he had no hope. I wanted to rip off the band aid and then head south for Nanjing and Shanghai because I was pretty sure he would like those cities better.  If nothing else, I know my way around them and it would be less stressful for me. My dad struggled to not lose his temper with me. I had been trying to mentally prep myself for this trip for the previous few weeks. I knew that having them visit was going to test my patience because I’m used to being in China, my expat friends are used to it, they all speak Chinese and everyone can take care of themselves and no one needs things explained to them. That was not the case for my family and I really had to try to remind myself what it was like when I first got there and didn’t know anything. I tried to remember the patience with which other expats had answered my questions and how hard it was to understand people, but I only lasted about 30 minutes before my dad and I were yelling at each other over ordering food or some dumb thing like that. What I hadn’t counted on was that my dad didn’t think I knew what I was doing and he second guessed every thing I said and every decision I made. He argued with me about transportation choices, where we should go and when we should go there, what the food was, etc. It really pissed me off and I felt very insulted that my dad seemed to still view me as a dumb kid that needed help doing everything. I voiced my frustrations to a friend of mine who pointed out something that I didn’t have the clarity to realize at that time. My dad was probably very uncomfortable with the idea of me taking care of him instead of the other way around. It bothered him that he had to rely on me for literally everything. He couldn’t get a taxi, ask for directions, or order food without my help! Unlike my mom and my sister who were fine with this arrangement, my dad still wanted to feel like he could handle himself. Also, I bet part of his insecurities were borne of the fact that he has spent my ENTIRE LIFE playing tricks on me and trolling me at every turn. He was probably (rightfully) concerned that I would take advantage of the situation and take 31 years of revenge on him. I didn’t, but only because I can’t stand to be that predictable. I’ll get him…but it’ll be on a nice sunny day in his own home, when he’s least suspecting it. 

This realization made it easier for me to be patient with him, although we still had our share of heated debates over various matters. He calmed down significantly once we left Beijing and we all managed to have a good time. Both of my parents really enjoyed Shanghai. I didn’t know what to do with them there because usually when I go to Shanghai it’s just so I can eat Western food and go drinking with my friends. I’d actually never done any of the touristy stuff there. One of my friends recommended I take them on one of the city bus tours…the ones where you buy a ticket and you can get off and on at any stop you want, as many times as you want. I thought maybe my family would find that tiring, but that was actually their favorite thing from the whole trip. They got to see People’s Square, Yu Garden, Pu Dong, Shanghai old street, the Bund and a bunch of other places without hassling with taxis or anything like that. A few weeks later, my dad even admitted that Shanghai wasn’t so bad and after he forgot about the horrors of the plane ride, he might be tempted to go back and visit me again. I think maybe I won’t be home then. 

A Few More Chinese Learning Tools

I found this awesome radical chart to help explain the different meanings of all the radicals!  I have to admit that I have mostly slacked off on thoroughly and purposefully learning radicals.

I also found a really good family tree chart that shows the different names of each family member in Chinese.  That stuff is really complicated and unless I ever have a Chinese family (little hope of that at this point), I don’t know if I’ll ever actually figure it out.

chinese-family-tree

Kind of unrelated, but I have a silly story about weird Chinese words for oddly specific relationships. I had a (rare) meeting with my advisor (in which he actually showed up) last semester and he had another one of his students meeting with him at the same time. The other student was a male who had been advised by the professor longer than I and who would graduate sooner than I would. My advisor informed me that he was my 师哥 (a word that means “older male student with the same advisor” in some contexts) and they wanted to know how to say that in English. So I told them “older male student with the same advisor” and my prof (who DOES NOT speak English, in spite of telling everyone that he does) insisted that I was wrong and that there was a word for it in English.  Obviously, I don’t know every word in the English language, but I am pretty sure that we don’t have a specific word for such a specific type of relationship…we just don’t emphasize relationships the way that they do, but alas, we argued about it anyway. I think I lost. Come to think of it, I probably shouldn’t have argued with my advisor so much and just let him think he was right about everything.

The last resource I’m going to mention…I won’t say recommend because I find the creator of the site highly annoying is Crazy Fresh Chinese. The site includes a ton of extremely annoying videos made by Bai Jie aka Jessica Beinecke who is loud, screechy and too much like a herd of Jack Russell Terriers for my taste, but the vocab she covers is interesting and useful…if you can stand her.

How to Keep Your Spouse Entertained in China?

So, now that I’ve completed graduate school I suppose it’s time to get a job and be an adult again. As it turns out, my husband didn’t really buy into my plan of being a trophy wife (he says the age difference isn’t enough for me to qualify) and pursue hobbies full-time.  Originally, my plan was to try and find a job somewhere on the US west coast, but it seems that it probably would have taken a very long time to find something suitable and neither of us thought it was a great idea for me to be unemployed for so long. Also, it seems that unless you’re an engineer, computer programmer, or some kind of tech person, finding a decent job on the west coast is very difficult. I found plenty of openings with job descriptions that seemed as if they were written for me, but I didn’t hear back from most of them and the two (yeah, TWO out of about FORTY) companies that did provide any kind of response provided vague emails in response to my applications and I have no idea why I wasn’t considered further for the positions.  Oh well.  At the end of the day, I ended up accepting a pretty solid offer from a very famous American company doing a job that sounds challenging, but rewarding and interesting.  The only problem with it is that it’s in Shanghai.  If I were single, I would have started my job hunt in Shanghai and not have felt any guilt about it, but how could I expect my husband to tolerate me being out of the country again for so long? We’ve been married for four years and between my schooling and his job, we’ve actually only lived together in the same place for one year. After long and thoughtful consideration, he informed me that he thought I should take the job in Shanghai because he couldn’t imagine a more perfect job for me if he tried and he didn’t want to be the reason I passed up such a great opportunity.  What a great guy, right?  It gets better.  A few more days pass and he announces that he’s going to quit his job and go to Shanghai with me because he can’t stand being apart anymore and because he’s realized that his job sucks.  This is fantastic news, but now I’m scared…what am I going to do with him in Shanghai?  Sure, you don’t really need to be able to speak Chinese to get by there, but I am going to be working long hours and will be out of town often. What’s he going to do with himself? I imagine him spiraling into a video game induced black hole.  He wants to get a job or possibly go to school there…there are some international programs, but he wants to do engineering and we can’t find any internationally accredited graduate programs in engineering for him. He has no interest in learning Chinese, so aside from teaching English, I’m not really sure what kind of job he’s going to get…I’m afraid he’s going to get bored and want a baby.

The other thing is…China is tough. I think that in order to survive there, China has to be viewed as a huge joke and you have to be in on the joke. Otherwise, how do people who are used to sanitation, things working the way they’re supposed to, safe food, etc, get by in a country like that? My husband and I actually met in Japan where we were both working for an extended time and he loved it there, but even in Japan foreigners can have “I hate Japan days” and not want to leave their homes.  My husband had his fair share of those and I’m worried that will translate into everyday or most days being an “I hate China day.” I suspect that China is much harder to handle than Japan is for most Americans.

Hopefully I’m worried for nothing and my husband will surprise me with his flexibility and sense of adventure. He has a tendency to do the exact opposite of what I think he’ll do, so I think for now I’m going to make sure he knows I think he won’t handle it well so that when he gets there, he will handle it well just to prove me wrong. I’ve also been having him listen to podcasts about life in China and Chinese culture so that it doesn’t seem quite so daunting. I’m trying to teach him some basic phrases, but he so far will only say “ching chang chong” and insist that he’s speaking Chinese to me and I should understand it. *face palm* Maybe someone out there has some good tips for helping a loved one adjust to life in another country? I would really love to hear any and all advice!

Reflections on Chinese Grad School

This is my cat being extremely unimpressed by me.

This is my cat being extremely unimpressed by me.

I made it!  I got my MA!  That thesis…what a pain in the ass!  I learned a lot from the process, last but not least, that I am not PhD material.  It’s been about five weeks since I graduated and I’ve been back in the US, traveling, visiting family, spending quality time with my cat (she’s sick of me already), and letting my lungs recover.  I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts.

First, for anyone who read my post about having a Chinese advisor…a (not so) quick follow up to that.  To sum it up – it ended badly.  My handsome advisor never once read my thesis.  I literally turned in what was basically a first draft at my defense and defended that. I had written my thesis in English first because a very generous member of the school’s international staff who does not read Chinese was more or less advising me.  I then translated it into Chinese (50,000 Characters when it was done!) and then I went through it once with a proof reader and then had a Chinese student from the Law department proof read it for me as well.  In spite of this, I still got blasted pretty hard at my defense for an inordinate amount of wrong characters.  Additionally, my defense was pretty rough in large part due to the sensitivity of my topic.  My panel was made up entirely of CCP members and during a thesis defense at a Chinese university, there is a member of the administration who’s job it is to take very thorough notes about who said what during the defense, therefore, given how political my topic was, none of the teachers were willing to go on record as agreeing with me or saying it was well written (it was mediocre, looking back on it…I have no law background, it was dumb of me to pick a law topic).  I passed, but not without what felt like a really long, pointless debate about one of the definitions they claimed I didn’t provide in my thesis.  To back it up a little – my thesis topic was about North Korean refugees in China and the rights they are entitled to under international law, namely the 1951 Refugee Convention that China is a party to. The panel professors maintained that I hadn’t included a “widely accepted” definition of refugee in my thesis.  I was confused because I did, on page 16.  They said it wasn’t “widely accepted.”  I pointed out that it was the definition used by the UN and written into the convention, but then I remembered that China claims to have signed a different version of the Refugee Convention other than the one that the UN officially sanctioned.  So, I lost that battle.  Anyway, so my stupid advisor didn’t even go to my defense, but he showed up afterwards and said “oh hey, so I just saw Xiao Jiaoshou out there and now that I’m looking at your thesis, I see what she was saying about the stuff she wants you to add in.” (They wanted me “add a definition.”) It took everything in me to not stand up and punch him in his handsome face at that moment.  He not only openly admitted to having not even read my thesis, but he saw what they thought was wrong with it and could have told me sooner HAD HE READ THE DAMN THING LIKE HE WAS SUPPOSED TO! I remained calm, but he must have seen murder in my eyes because he beat a retreat and then texted me to ask if I was mad at him. The best part? I resubmitted my thesis to him with the “updates” ie I didn’t change a damn thing except the wrong characters and he “approved” it and my thesis is now sitting in the university archives.  However, after all of that, I did go talk to the administration to tell them about how horrible my advisor was and I tried to suggest that his advising privileges be revoked, but they can’t do that for political reasons…of course.  Word must have gotten back to him because the next time I saw him he told me to stop talking shit about him to people and then said he never wanted to see me again.  By this time, the feeling was more than mutual.  I don’t care how hot he is.

Most of my classmates had advisors who weren’t overly helpful, but all of them at least read their theses.  I thought my advisor would read it if for no other reason to make sure I wasn’t writing something that could get him into trouble. His name goes on it right next to mine and if I had just totally lambasted the Chinese government for not abiding my international law (I could have, but I didn’t), he would have gone down and I would have still graduated and gone home.  What an idiot. Everyone passed their defenses, except one Chinese student who plagiarized almost the entire thing…there’s gotta be at least one every year.

Thoughts on grad school in general-

Obviously, this is the only post-graduate program I’ve done or intend on doing, but I really, really enjoyed it.  I liked the material I was studying and most of our professors were pretty decent, engaging, and interesting to listen to.  However, I did hear the common complaint from many of my classmates that the program wasn’t academically rigorous enough.  I thought that was kind of ridiculous, but given that most of my classmates were quite young – all of them had gone straight from high school to college to graduate school and aside from a bunch of internships, most of them hadn’t held a real job.  I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, everyone is there at some point in their life, but I think that it kind of skewed their perspective on things.  First, they take school for granted.  You’ll never hear someone who’s been employed at a real job in the real world say something like “I’m so sick of school! I just want to get out and work already!” LOL. School is a piece of cake compared to most jobs, but they wouldn’t know that.

Secondly, it seems that most of them had never fully caught on to the idea of self-discipline or being self-driven.  They were all motivated by nothing much more than grades.  I don’t know about other schools, but this one had an unspoken policy of basically giving everyone a B- or a B+ for the bare minimum with a C being a failing grade and an A being quite rare (for most professors). Many of my classmates regarded this as an excuse to do basically nothing, show up to class having not done the reading and then make a few inane comments to try and sound like they did the reading.  Most papers were written the night before, not proof read and submitted just minutes before the deadline.  They’d get B’s on everything and blame the school for not being hard enough.  It seemed to me that the emphasis should not have been on the grades they received, but for the knowledge they took away by having done the reading, engaged with the professor in a meaningful way and having spent time to do good research for papers and then the time spent working with a proof reader should have been seen as a chance to improve their written Chinese.  Maybe even after having done all of that, the difference in grade might have been an A- vs. the B+ they would have received otherwise, but if going through all of those steps and having learned more is somehow viewed as a waste of time, then I really have to ask what the hell they were doing there in the first place.  My main point here is that probably most people should slow their roll and take some time in between undergrad and grad school to go work, live abroad, learn a trade, do whatever and THEN go to graduate school.  I can speak for myself and the handful of other students who were in their late 20s/early 30s that we were all more focused, our time management skills were much better, we appreciated the opportunity more, and we definitely got more out of the program than some of our younger classmates who may very well have just been burnt out on school.  I think too many people are viewing graduate school as “something to do because I can’t find a job.” I can understand the frustration of not having a job and feeling pressure to be doing something worthwhile with one’s time, but wasting time and money to go to grad school before you’re ready is maybe not the wisest choice.

Anyway…so this turned out to be much longer than I planned.  I need to work on being more succinct.  If anyone stuck with me this whole time, I appreciate it. I’d like to hear thoughts on the “academic rigor” issue from people who may have gone to grad school in the states.  I suspect it’s more or less the same…professors expect you to be academically rigorous without them breathing down your neck.

 

Honesty with Chinese Characteristics

One of the things I found the most shocking when I first came to China was how appallingly honest Chinese people would be about some things…like telling me how fat I was.  It seemed to come up in conversation so much that it was almost like the Chinese version of talking about some baseball team when you run out of stuff to say.  Actually, comments about my appearance in general were quite frequent – how bad my skin was, the size of my feet (huge, apparently), and anything else the speaker wanted to bring up.  To be fair, nothing they said was wrong…I had cystic acne and was fatter than was probably healthy, but Americans typically just don’t say that kind of thing to one another.  Upon seeing a friend after an absence, the first thing out of my mouth will never be “Look how fat you got!”  A close Chinese friend once told me “Your boobs are too small for someone as fat as you.”  That one still tops my list of “worst insults ever.”  Adjusting to this kind of bluntness was a long, torturous process.  The thing is, Chinese people don’t do this to be rude.  Making a statement of fact like “you got fat” is simply that – an obvious remark about an obvious, true fact.  A Chinese friend may say “Are you sure you want to eat that?  You’ve gained a lot of weight recently.”  They don’t do it to make you feel bad about yourself, they do it to be helpful, out of a sense of “you’re my friend so I’m going to draw your attention to the fact that you’re fat so you can stop pigging out and fix it.”  Now, when a Chinese person tells me I’m fat (I’m not) I just say “yep, you too” then we can talk about how they got fat instead of how I got fat.  It’s all about the art of deflection.

A rather advanced form of the “appallingly honest assessment of other people” is the “appallingly honest (but subjective) comparison between two or more foreigners.”  This is a situation where typically two or more foreigners end up at an event with a group of Chinese people and for some reason, it always happens while everyone is seated around a table.  I specify foreigners because I’ve never seen Chinese people be the victims of an “an appallingly honest (but subjective) comparison.”  What happens is everyone will be sitting there, eating or whatever and suddenly there will be a lull in conversation (we’ve probably already been discussing the fact that we are foreigners) at which point, someone feels obligated to make a statement like “that one is skinnier than that one.”  Then another person follows up with something like “yeah, but that one is younger,” then “that one’s Chinese is better…”  then “I actually think that one is prettier” and so on and so on.  Meanwhile, the two foreigners sit there feeling weird and wondering how to put a stop to it.  You can’t.  There’s no stopping the comparison until the table has come to a consensus as to which foreigner “wins.”  These comparisons suck and have the potential to destroy lives and relationships.  There are a couple of ways to brace yourselves for these situations, which are inevitable, by the way.

1. Never go to events or out with groups of Chinese people with other foreigners, unless you can vouch for all Chinese people involved and know that none of them will be weird about having foreigners around.  You risk being labeled “one of those foreigners who likes to be the center of attention.”

2. Have a wing man – a friend who is fully aware of the risks involved going into a situation like this.  Both people need to have a thick skin and not be the type to take it personally if they don’t win the comparison, or let it affect your friendship.

3. View these opportunities as a Hunger Games kind of thing and only hang out with foreigners who are worthy adversaries.  Aim to win the comparison every time, without regard for the damage done to personal relationships.  The only rule is you can’t be a little bitch about if if you lose the comparison.    This is not recommended.

I personally think that the wing man approach is the best way to go, although finding a qualified wing man can be tricky.  The “appallingly honest (but subjective) comparison between two or more foreigners” gets really personal, really fast. You gotta bring your game face.