The rough morning kind of continued into a rough afternoon. At lunch, we were talking about sleep and Zhao Yan told us when he went to bed and woke up. You only slept three hours?, I asked. No, he said, 6. Didn’t you go to bed at 2 and wake up at 5? Not a single number was right. I still have no idea how much sleep he got last night.
Then he started asking me which was more round, the moon in the US or the moon in China. I thought they were baiting me, kicking me when I was down as it were, so I was kind of annoyed. Turned out that he was really just trying to make a point to Guo Yang, who kept talking about how much better American computers are. This is a phrase that means, some things are the same everywhere.
The only moment during this conversation where I felt like I knew what was going on was when Zhao Yan said 在中国，月亮代表 (“In China, the moon represents”) and I cut him off with 我的心 (“my heart”, which is the title of one of the most famous songs in China) . But then I had that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day.
Somehow we got to talking about humor, and how American and Chinese humor differs. I honestly don’t think it does that much, if something fails to translate it seems to be a language issue or perhaps a cultural reference, not a difference in sense of humor. To prove this, I told my favorite joke – one that luckily translates perfectly: “What did the zero say to the eight? Nice belt!”
Two people bought watermelon today, so we all had to pull double or even triple watermelon-eating duty. This seemed like an appropriate time to teach them ‘food baby’ and ‘food coma’.
I spent my lunch card down to the last 4毛 (40 Chinese cents). Pretty good timing; I just have to rely on my labmates for the last three or so meals. I asked them how to return the card, and they said I should give to Li Bo. He’s faculty, so his card can’t be used in the student cafeteria and when he eats with the students I guess he has to pay them back. I understand how it could be useful, but I feel really weird giving it to him because the foreign students have to pay a 20% fee every time we put money on our cards. Here, have a card that makes everything cost 25% more! I give the best gifts.
After lunch, I finally watched the escalator video. This story has quickly overtaken the Uniqlo sex-tape (which I didn’t watch) as the most-talked about video here in China. The video is difficult to watch, so if you’d rather not I’ll summarize. A woman and her child are taking the elevator up a flight in a mall in Hubei. After they step off onto the metal panels at the top, one of the panels gives way and she falls down into the hole. With her only her upper body free, she pushes her son to safety before getting dragged all the way in.
It was not what I had expected at all. When I first heard about it, I didn’t realize the woman had died. It also seemed like a lot of the comments were to the effect of “watch this so you’ll be careful when you ride an escalator”, so I actually asked one of my labmates which part of her clothing or body got stuck in the machinery. Like, check your shoelaces before you get on and you won’t die? But after finally watching it, I don’t know what there is to take away from it, what I should do differently next time I get on an escalator in China. What happened was a tragedy of faulty machinery, a lack of safety standards and inspections, nothing that 站稳扶好 (“stand firm and hold the hand rail”, the constant message broadcast on every escalator in China) would prevent. I feel so sad.
It’s also sad because I see accidents waiting to happen everywhere I look in China, accidents that we’ve had in America and we’ve learned from. A lot of, perhaps even most, doors have some mechanical or electrical device preventing you from opening the door from the inside; sometimes you have to have the key to leave your room or house. Most taxis have seat covers, and in the back they cover the seatbelt latches so you can’t wear the seatbelt. No one moves aside for ambulances, and apparently the paramedics are not really trained, so they’re basically unreliable taxis.
I’ve had three friends fall through manhole covers, so we all avoid them as much as possible. It’s hard, too, when you realize how many manhole covers there are. It’s like anytime someone needs to get at something underground they just dig another hole. Here’s a great example, a fairly typical street in Xiamen:
Anyway, in the last few days, I’ve noticed people’s behavior around escalators changing like I have around manhole covers. Another friend said he’s noticed people stepping over that metal plate, unconscious about this adaptation already. Like I said before, while the human body (and mind, and spirit) can accomodate any number of terrible situations, it would be better if it did not have to.
This all seems to point to larger issues, too. The dichotomies that exist within China are incredible. In different situations, I would describe it either as a place where you can do anything that you want to, or as a place where most things are restricted. It’s a suprisingly libertarian culture for a communist country. So the government can’t prevent deadly escalators from being sold, but heaven forbid a foreigner use an internet cafe. It’s like the worst of the far right and the far left at the same time – no personal freedom, and no public responsibility.
Next week we’re supposed to be talking about innovation and entrepreneurship, but I think of the risks I see being taken in Silicon Valley and I don’t know what kind of person would take them out here in the Wild Wild East. The rule of law just doesn’t seem to hold, or doesn’t seem to mean much. It makes it hard to invest one’s money, or one’s time, or one’s life.
In the afternoon, Dad wanted to talk so I went down and Skyped with him for a half hour. It was really nice to talk to him, but I still felt down. And it took 1GB of data.
I finally found a DIY barbecue place place, so I made a reservation there in the evening. When they called, though, they said they don’t allow DIY barbecue when the AC is on. And then it ended up being way out on the other end of CUMTB and we were biking forever in the middle of nowhere and we had trouble finding it and I was convinced this disappointment of a day was just going to continue.
But everything turned out better than expected! Their chicken wings were super good. We couldn’t grill ourselves, but they agreed to roast the marshmallows for us (seriously, how is it of all the things I tried to do today, the one that worked was asking a restaurant to roast 20 marshmallows for me?).
They seemed to like the s’mores alright, although everyone said they were too sweet and started talking about calories. What, am I back in California?
We also had honey whiskey, my gift to 赵岩 that really became communal. I was really amused to watch their faces as they took their first sips. These people drink baijiu, which tastes like jet fuel, with no discernible reaction, but they all made ridiculous faces when drinking American Honey, the smoothest thing I’ve ever drunk.
The girls left after dinner, but the guys wanted to play Catan again, so we relocated to a KFC. I can’t believe we didn’t think of this before! KFC is really the perfect environment for board games – AC, free Wifi, big tables, food and drinks available. I treated everyone to a round, and was really amused to see almost all of them get sundaes. I thought the s’mores were too sweet?
This time was more fun than before, because I didn’t have to explain the rules. There were two new players, but they played on teams with the GuoYangs and they explained the rules to each other. It’s also a great language environment, because they’re speaking to each other more than they are to me, so the language is more authentic, but I’m very familiar with the context and vocabulary, so I can follow it. I loved listening to them haggle over trades or berate each other for bad moves.
The KFC we were at unfortunately closed at 11, so we couldn’t finish our game. I basically built the Great Wall of Catan (When in China, I said . .. ) and had 8 points when we stopped. GuoYang also had 8 points, but my wall blocked him in and he had really no way to get more points. Guo Yang and Zhao Yan had 7 points each. The score was close enough that everyone felt that they 差一点赢了 (almost won); they argued about this the whole bike ride home!