Winter In Changsha

Now that I have my long introductory post out of the way, I can talk a bit about how things have been since the beginning and especially recently. Well, it’s almost Christmas time, and I’ve been here for about 3 and a half months now. Surprisingly, many people are interested in Christmas here. There are a lot of decorations and Christmas songs being played on the streets. Even all of the McDonald’s and KFC restaurants are putting up a lot of Christmas decorations. I don’t really go into those places a lot back home, but I don’t really remember them doing that much in America, so I was a bit surprised. Nevertheless, Christmas here is still not the same as it is back home, and I have yet to decide exactly how I’d like to spend it. I’ve had several students invite me to Christmas parties, but I really haven’t gotten any specific details yet, so I’m not sure what will happen. Regardless, I shouldn’t be spending it alone, which I was a little worried about at first. Unfortunately, I do have to attend classes still, but only for 4 hours.

Winter here is especially rough… Although the temperature has been more or less around the same as it has been in Louisville, and generally speaking the average temperature in winter is warmer here, it often feels far colder here than I remember feeling back home. The reason for this is that southern China has yet to implement very effective heating or insulation. Simply put, until recent years, it’s been usually warm enough that those things just aren’t really needed that much. So, with terrible heating and insulation, there is really little relief from the cold. There are heaters in the dorm rooms, but a lot of the warmth escapes and the cold still enters. Also, unlike in America, where most of us are used to going outside and getting right in our cars, that doesn’t happen often for a lot of people in China, especially students. We’re forced to be outside in the cold more, which means that we actually have to deal with it, unlike many people in America. Chinese are also much more conservative with their energy, which means that going into a lot of buildings means you keep all of your winter gear on, as the heat isn’t used much. This can be mildly annoying sometimes, such as while eating at a restaurant, but in general it’s not really a big deal, just something to get used to. Students who have been to northern China in the winter, like Beijing, have probably experienced something very similar to this, except that northern China tends to have much better heating and insulation. So while it’s much colder there usually, there is also quite a bit more relief from the cold weather too.

In winter, it is also not uncommon for the water to stop running every so often. Just last night in fact, my water stopped running for several hours. It can be very frustrating because you don’t know when it will shut off, or when it will come back. You can get caught offguard in some very unfortunate situations if you aren’t careful. Usually it doesn’t stay off for very long, and if you really want, you can go down to the first floor with a bucket and bring some water back to your room, but at least for a spoiled American like myself, that’s not very convenient.

Also, this is around the time of year when students start running out of electricity. In my case, I’ve already had my electricity cut off three separate times. The first two times were actually because of a malfunction with my electricity remote. I don’t know the details, but I know it wasn’t my fault. The third time however I had to buy more electricity, which is fairly cheap, but is still a minor inconvenience. The problem is that when this happens, the electric company may not be open and you may have to wait. I’ve spent several very cold nights asleep in my bed, waking up as cold as ice, feeling the cold all the way down to my bones, with no hot shower to revive me. That’s the reality of being here in China during winter, and experiencing the lack of luxuries that many of us in the West are used to.

The classrooms aren’t heated that well either. There is a heater in the room, but it doesn’t always work, and it takes time for the warm air to disperse. Sometimes going to class can be a pretty brutal experience, and for that reason many students skip in the winter. Usually it’s not a problem, but there is one teacher in particular who seems to mind, and while I won’t go into details here, I’ll just say that there have been some times where the office has implemented some strategies that most of us in the West would not agree with very much. So, without much relief from the cold, and with the office occasionally pressuring students to go to class, many students often feel sick here. Thankfully, I’m in a class full of doctors, so I’m always able to get the medical advice that I need.

Aside from all of that fun stuff, there are a few things that I’ve gotten quite used to in China. One of my favorite drinks here in China is milk tea, or bubble tea as we tend to call it back home. For those of you that haven’t had it, it’s a very Asian drink, and consists of some kind of milk and tea mixture, and often has little black balls of tapioca at the bottom, or sometimes other things such as pieces of fruit. It can come in many, many different flavors though, and I’ve learned how to say the names of fruits in Chinese very well from trying to decipher milk tea menus. It’s also extremely cheap, ranging from as low as 2 RMB for a small cup to 4-5 RMB for a large cup, which is roughly the equivalent of about 30 cents to 60 – 70 cents. It’s great anytime of the year, because you can get it ice cold, or really hot, so it’s been especially helpful for me in the winter. My favorite flavor so far is definitely banana, but I also really like peach and taro flavor. Definitely give this stuff a shot if you ever visit Asia, and fortunately, it’s just about everywhere in most Asian countries.

As well as milk tea, I’ve also gotten very used to attention from Chinese people. As I explained in my previous blog post, I’m kind of a rare person in this city, and I’ve gotten very used to being approached by people, students especially, wanting to treat for me dinner and get to know me and practice English. I’ve also gotten used to a lot of funny comments from children or other surprised people. Children especially for example, when they see you, will shout “Waiguoren!” to their parents, which means foreigner. They also like to stare a lot, and some of them will even try to talk with you in English. Unfortunately with children, the conversation usually consists of a machine-like greeting and asking how you are, and after that they usually revert back to Chinese. Older students will often do this as well though, but they aren’t always as obvious. You can often hear girls whisper “waiguoren” to each other, and more often than not, within a few minutes they’re introducing themselves to you. Just the other night I was shopping at Wal-Mart, looking for some tuna, and I entered an aisle and immediately heard the familiar word from a group of three girls that looked to be high school students. As I walked by, one of them shouted “Hello!” to me, and I responded, but they were a bit shy so the conversation more or less ended with that. As I’m quite used to this by now, and since I was on a mission for food, I didn’t dwell on this too much and I went along my way. But as I continued my search, at least for a little bit, they continued to follow me for a little while, whispering amongst themselves.

That brings me to another point. One of the funniest and most enjoyable experiences about learning Chinese is hearing what they say about you. Thankfully, it’s almost always with good intentions, and very rarely offensive. Aside from “waiguoren”, it’s also very common to hear them whisper “shuai ge”, which is like saying “handsome guy”, even from guys. They also really tend to like commenting on our noses, since Asian noses are generally a bit smaller and not as long, and they’re not used to seeing ones that look different. My nose in particular is a bit pointy, and so the contrast between my nose and theirs is obvious. They never mean to be offensive about it, but they can’t help but comment on it either. It’s really funny being with a group of Chinese that you don’t know well and hearing them whisper “da bizi”, or “big nose”, to each other and then a few minutes later leaning over, and while smiling, saying “Oh, I can speak a bit of Chinese, you know.” There was however one experience on a train, when my friends and I were coming back from visiting Yueyang, that was particularly interesting. We had decided to buy the cheap seats since the train ride was only an hour and a half long (and when I say cheap, I’m talking less than $5). However, it’s very rare to see foreigners in that section of the train, and some people will stare even more than normal because of it. So, we were sitting in a large booth with a Chinese couple and an older Chinese man. Well, the Chinese man stared at us like we were exhibits at a zoo. The entire train ride, he didn’t take his eyes off of us. The man even had some short conversations about us with some nearby Chinese. Eventually, we revealed that we could speak a little Chinese, which made the situation even funnier, but the man still kept staring. At one point, to be funny, my friend offered the man a cookie. He didn’t want it, but my friend insisted, and eventually the man took the cookie, only to promptly place it on the table, and turn his head back to resume staring. That was a fun train ride.

Another interesting thing that often happens because of the fact that I’m American is that whenever something tends to go wrong here at the school, or there is some conflict involving the students and some form of authority, if I’m involved, some of the other students tend to look at me as a bit of a shield. Not because they have no regard for my own well-being, but because of the deep respect that the Chinese have for Americans, and in extreme cases, the fear of having to deal with the American Embassy. It’s no secret that Chinese, including the administration here, treat Americans and other Westerners better than they do other foreigners. So often times it’s better for me to be the person talking to someone when there’s a conflict, because of the difference in treatment. In extreme cases, this is still true, because not only is the American Embassy more feared and respected, but most other foreigners come from countries where the embassies are not taken as seriously, or the embassies themselves won’t even do much to help. Sometimes even the threat of contacting the embassy is enough to get things done. While I personally have not had much problems with the administration here, I do know others who have, and I’ve heard stories involving some major problems as well. Even in situations as simple as waking up the lady in charge of the dorm to open the door and let us in during the middle of the night, which is really not a big deal at all, some students prefer me to be the first person seen, as they know that I will be treated better and probably won’t get yelled at. Even in the unlikely event that there is a major problem, there’s always the threat of the embassy to protect me. I’m not too fond of exercising this semi-invulnerability that I seem to have though, but it is really nice to know that it’s there if I need it.

One of the major downsides to life here is that, once again because I’m a young American and a native English speaker, people always want my time, and so I very rarely feel like I have any free time to spare. On the weekends and on some weeknights, I often go to an English school for young children, and give them reading lessons. This is actually the part-time job I referred to being offered in my last blog post, so I’ve been doing it for quite awhile now. It’s a really easy job, and actually pretty fun, but it does take up a lot of my free time. Fortunately, because it is an English school, it helps me to feel very at home there, as all of the teachers know English very well, and most of them are around my age or slightly older. Also, as part of their obsession with American culture, they often learn about many American things, including the holidays. Halloween and Thanksgiving were practically non-existant in the city, but at that English school, for a little while I actually felt like the spirit of those holidays were there, and it really helped me to feel at home, and like I wasn’t missing out on some of those things. Regardless, between this English school and the many, many students and various other people I’ve met wanting to get to know me better, I don’t have a lot of time to myself.

However, when I do have free time, I really like going out into the city and having fun. There’s actually a cafe here owned by an American, called the Fifth Tone, and on Friday nights they have live music. This place has the highest number of foreigners together in one place that I’ve ever seen in this city. It’s the only place where the number of white people actually rivals, or even outnumbers, that of the Chinese. Usually the Chinese that come in are ones that are really interested in learning English, and so it’s a great place to meet both foreigners and Chinese. I’ve met quite a few foreigners there, but as I’ve mentioned, most of them are older and are always English teachers. I’ve also met a few really nice Chinese people too, including a young guy who has just started his second business. He’s a young Japanese major at a nearby university, but he already owns a milk tea shop and just opened a Japanese-style tea house at his university. When he opened his shop around a month ago, he invited me to attend, saying he was having a little bit of an opening party. What he didn’t tell me was that I was going to be one of the only foreigners there, and that upon arriving, there would be hordes of Chinese students waiting to meet me. Needless to say, that was a fun night, and I met a lot of new people and had a chance to improve my Chinese a lot. I’ve been back a couple times, and every time, he always insists on providing free drinks and finding interested students to chat with. His idea is to turn the place into something similar to the Fifth Tone, and has asked for the help of my Brazilian friend (who also speaks near-native English) and I to come by every so often and practice English with interested students in order to help him do that. Being that he’s just an all-around awesome guy, and it’s really a lot of fun being there, we had no problem with the idea. However, we’re still trying to get a normal schedule set up, since my Brazilian friend and I are both extremely busy.

It’s also a bit weird still being in classes now, and seeing on Facebook (yes, it’s blocked in China, and yes, I know how to get around it) that all of my friends are out of school now, and in fact, many of my former classmates are graduating. I delayed graduation by yet another year to come to China, and while I know that it’s one of the wisest decisions I ever could have made to delay graduation and do this, it is a little sad that when I return and finish my degree that many of my friends will be gone. Either way, that’s that, and I can’t change it now, nor would I want to. While most of them are relaxing now and enjoying their winter break, I still have an entire month of class left, followed by finals. I do get a brief break for New Year’s though, in which my friends and I plan to visit Hong Kong. That should be a fun experience, although it will cost a bit of money. Thankfully, things are cheap enough in China that money is really not an issue at all, even during a trip to a more expensive place like Hong Kong.

Well, that’s really all I can think of to write for now, but as I spend more time here I’m sure more will come to mind. As I’ve been asked continuously by many different people about my experiences here, I thought that this would be a good place to write about them, and it should save me some time from having to repeat the same information and stories over and over again. With that said…

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

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