“HELLO”

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I never thought much about the word hello before I came to live in China almost 7 years ago. It was a greeting, but really not even a very natural one – I was more inclined to say “Hey,” or “Hi,” “Yo” sometimes, or even a good “Whatsup?” But China has made me conscious of many things I had previously taken for granted, and one of them is, Hello.

Wikipedia suggests that the word derives from old Old English, German, or French words, meaning more or less, “whoa there!” and used as an exclamation of surprise or for hailing. The usage of the word was shaped and proliferated through Thomas Edison when hello was widely adopted as a telephone greeting. Wherever the word started, I can’t imagine I’d be far wrong in guessing that it is now the most widely recognized English word in the world – there is no doubt in my mind that this is so in China, at any rate.

However, hello has gone a bit astray in transit to China from its native countries. Wikipedia lists hullo, halloo, hallo, hollo, and even hillo as variants and relatives of the word hello, and all of these and myriad others are back in circulation here as people from a thousand Chinese dialects attempt to tackle English phonetic sounds.

Further, the function of the hello in China has fragmented into several distinct usages. First and most obvious, the word is used as it is used by native speakers, as a greeting. Among people who have studied English more extensively or have been exposed more regularly to western customs, hello is a sincere and friendly acknowledgement of meeting and perhaps the initiation of a conversation in Chinese, English, or the ever-popular and practical Chinglish.

The second popular usage of the word is, rather unfortunately, in the function better reserved for “Excuse me”: that is, gracefully and politely getting the attention of a stranger or someone whose attention is otherwise engaged. For lack of fluency in English or initiation into our customs, I fear many sincere and well intentioned Chinese people make a poor first impression by seeming intrusive or forward with a loud “HELLO!” as their first overture to a westerner in the street.

The third (and to me most offensive) usage is as a metaphorical sharp stick for poking. Tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale skinned westerners like myself are certainly a rarity, not to say and oddity, in China. There are an unfortunate number of people who are not content to merely witness this rarity walk by, but feel the need to provoke some reaction. The formula for accomplishing this seems to be to wait until I have walked past them several steps, and then shout “HULLOO” as loud as they can, and see what I will do. It always reminds me of an impatient child at the zoo, who wants to see the sleeping lions do something, now!

When I encounter these three hellos, I do my best to welcome the first, forgive the second, and ignore the last. But these have been 7 long years and my patience is not always what it should be, and I am sure I have ignored or snapped at more than one sincere and friendly Chinese person, and made a spectacle of myself for more than one ignorant individual I should have just ignored.

And I can say with fair certainty that my classmates have had similar experiences, because an effective (but no doubt strange-seeming, to an outsider) coping mechanism has developed among us, and yet another usage of the hello is born. Is hello used offensively or excessively? Then we will use it more offensively, more excessively. We whisper it to each other on the way to training. We shout it at one another in the halls of our dormitory. The more oddly pronounced, strangely accented, the better. Roommates bat the word back and forth like a ping pong ball, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, with every variation in cadence and emphasis. heeello. HEllo. helLO! HELLLLLLO! The word has lost meaning for us. We are inoculated against it. It is our word. It has become the word you can say when there is nothing else to be said.

So if we ever meet, you might hear me say “Hi,” or “Hey, I’m Corey,” or even “Wazzup?” But don’t think me too strange if, at some point when silence falls over the conversation, I give a little twitch of a smile and say, “halloo.”

Teaching in Hunan

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For the past three weeks, I was away from Wudangshan, teaching a summer program for kids at a new Wudang Kungfu school. My younger kungfu brother’s new school is located in Yiyang city, in Hunan province. The summer program is a 40 day session, but because I am still a student and need to continue to work on my own kungfu, my classmate and I agreed to split the time in half. I did the first three weeks, he will do the next three weeks.

It was a pretty interesting experience. Over the last few years I have settled into the rhythm of life in Wudang, where we have a nice expat community to take the edge off of the culture shock of living in China. This assignment in Hunan was my longest period spent alone exposed to China. For three weeks, I saw no foreigners, I had no fluent English conversations, and I had to try to be comfortable with Chinese culture in all its unblunted glory. To make matters worse, Yiyang’s local dialect is completely incomprehensible to me, and colors the local’s Mandarin so strangely that even that is painfully difficult for me converse in.

The teaching itself was fine. I taught basic kungfu and English to a group of ten kids ages 8-11 for four hours a day six days a week. I am growing more and more comfortable as a teacher, though starting out with a fresh batch of students is always hard. They have no experienced students for role models to imitate. Every detail of training and behavior that is so ingrained in me requires real effort to remember to explain them. For example, being ready for class. Often we would start class, and the kids would still be in denim shorts (to tight to stretch or kick in) with no shoes on, and have not eaten breakfast though they had been sitting around for an hour previous doing nothing. In Wudang, the standard is set and understood, that when class starts, you must be ready to train and if you are not you must live with the discomfort. To have to step back and teach that surprised me. This is something that the kids’ parents need to understand as well, but communicating with the adults was difficult for its own reasons.

Honestly, all my biggest problems were with the adults I dealt with down in Hunan. In my observation, mainstream Chinese culture seems at times to revolve around gaining face by pushing food, drink, and other indulgences on other people to demonstrate your own generosity and express your affection for them. The aspect of Chinese culture that I am studying, kungfu and Daoism, is much more healthy, restrained,  and disciplined. As a foreigner, it seemed impossible for me to make the adults I met appreciate these qualities in the way they treated me or the way they approached their children’s studies. I constantly walked a line, trying to be friendly and help promote the fledgling school, and still trying to avoid all the cigarettes, beer, rich food, and excess that was so insistently thrust at me.

As I re-read what I have written, I think it is funny that an American is complaining about the excesses of Chinese people, American life being what it is. What can I say, it’s the kungfu talking 🙂

Squat Virtue

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I’ll start this one off by saying that I hope no one minds a little frank discussion of bathrooms and their function. I am only writing this because in my own transition to Chinese plumbing, a little frankness might have saved me some trouble, and taboos aside, it is interesting contrasting two solutions to this most basic of human problems.

Many people in the US and elsewhere have probably never even seen a plumbing fixture like the squat toilet that is the standard in China. It is essentially a porcelain hole in the floor, rigged to flush (hopefully). I think most westerners, when they first come to China, are a little shocked by this and try to avoid using one as much as possible. Admittedly, China’s sub-par standards for plumbing installation further aggravate the issue, because the squat toilet room is frequently badly built and quickly becomes filthy as a result. But I believe that many if not all of us eventually come to accept the squat toilet for its virtues, and may even prefer them to western seat toilets. As the saying goes, “You know you’ve been in China too long when the footprints on the toilet seat are your own.”

Learning to use Chinese toilets is further complicated by social taboo. When we are children, adults teach us to use the facilities provided. When the available facilities change, however,  a little instruction would be valuable. But as adults the subject is not easily broached. I know I could have used the following hints: First, bring your own toilet paper with you, everywhere. In the West, if you need tissue, you can count on finding something in a public restroom. In China, only the fanciest hotels provide this service, and you don’t want to get caught out. Second, gathering your garments around your ankles gets in the way; gather your garments around your knees. Third, if a toilet brush is visible nearby, it is very good manners to clean up after yourself a bit, especially if you are someone’s guest (squat toilet design is a little inefficient in the flushing department).

As for the virtues of squatting, there are several, of which here are two. For one thing, regardless of the hygienic standards of the bathroom you are using, squatting means you won’t really be touching anything objectionable. You may find yourself in a closet that is a far cry from an interior designer’s dream of an airy, sunlit commode, but you are not actually risking infection if you squat.

Second, the daily repetition of the act of squatting is fantastic for the health, flexibility, and strength of the ankles, knees, and hips. The squatted sitting position is iconic of China; you can see people relaxing in this position on door steps, on the street, and in the park– just about anywhere. Think about the West, however. When if ever do we support our weight with our hips below the level of our knees? This kind of strength is crucial for standing up from sitting or lying on the ground, say, after falling down. But in our culture of chairs, we never exercise our legs past the range of motion defined by 90° angles at the knees and hips. So we reach, say, age 40, and getting up from the ground has become an exhausting 12 step process, prohibitively difficult. We chalk it up to getting old, but that’s just not right. Elderly people here get up and down pretty easily. And I think it all starts with reps in the bathroom.

Moon Festival 2011

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Laying the tables for Moon Festival

This post is going up a little later than planned. Sometimes my internet connection is spotty, and it has been getting in the way of my posts.

Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, or Moon Festival, is one of China’s major holidays along with the Spring Festival and Dragon Boat Festival. In the lunar calendar, it falls on the 15th day of the 8th month, which in our calendar fell on September 12th this year.

The food associated with this festival is called a moon cake. Moon cakes come in different sizes but are generally pastry sized, with a very dense pastry outside filled with sweetened, um… anything. Foreigners like myself usually go for fruit filled ones, but there are also sweetened meat, fish, egg, or nut filled cakes. Some of these flavors are pretty novel to my tastes. A savory shrimp pie might sound good, but wouldn’t you find a shrimp doughnut a little odd? That’s what this is like, and I certainly did find it odd.

Class 3's "Matrix Pingpong" inspired act

For such festivals, our school has some traditions. There is a big meal served, followed by a variety show performed by the students, followed by karaoke on the school’s karaoke system. This year, class three (my class), put special effort into our variety show performance. We took our inspiration from the online video “Matrix Pingpong,” and choreographed a fight scene using the same blackout theme. We were very proud of the way it turned out. Other items in the program included choreographed dances, dramatic skits, and a performance on the traditional Guqin (a many-stringed plucked dulcimer-like instrument). It was a really fun evening that bridged all ages and several cultures.

Family

Before I came to this kungfu academy, I celebrated a few lonely, puzzled festivals in China. I was an outsider and had no idea what the festival involved. I searched for some intrinsic significance to the holiday, and found nothing I could grab ahold of. It made me reflect on our western holidays. Maybe they lack intrinsic meaning as well. The power of holidays comes from community, family, memory, nostalgia, and ritual. It’s not something to be understood, it is something to be lived. It is only with my new family here that I have been able to live these traditions.

For that reason, I think I have some advice for anyone seeking, as I have, to understand another culture: Don’t. I mean, read up, do your research, anything you like, but ultimately you need people who will be your bridge. Find something that is important to you, something that means enough to you that you are able to set aside your own cultural assumptions to get closer to it (this was harder for me than it sounds). Find people who are important to you, and give yourself to them. Only by giving up yourself will the culture you seek to grasp finally be opened up to you.

 

Lion Dance Costume

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A cool opportunity dropped in my lap yesterday. Daria, a classmate of mine, is doing some work on the internet helping people back home in Russia get practice weapons and training clothes from here in China. She just received a lion dancing costume which she is going to forward to her client, but she asked the client if first she could try it on and take some photos. She just needed someone to be the tail. That’s where I got involved :-).

I am not going to try to write anything informative about lion dancing (I know almost nothing about it) but after thirty minutes of sweating under that thick costume material and straining to hold Daria up in some of the poses we came up with, I have new respect for those who practice this art form. I had thought it to be a dying or dead art, but I learned yesterday that there are kungfu schools in Canada and the U.S. where the dances are still practiced and preserved. In my time in China, I have never seen a lion dance costume or seen a dance performed, so I thought it was not done. But perhaps it is a regional tradition and I have just not been the the right places.

As a guy who likes making things, I find the head of the lion fascinating. By coincidence, I have been working on a project using similar bamboo construction techniques, and seeing the craftsmanship on this head is awesome. The outside of the head is beautiful, but for me, the inside is mesmerizing.