Lost in Translation

November 1, 2008

Yesterday was Halloween, even here in China.  It was also my first full day as a 30-year old and I want to say thank you to all of my friends and family who called, sent emails, and posted on Facebook their birthday wishes.  It really meant a lot to me, especially being 8000 miles away from home. 
So back to Halloween, which we celebrated by planning and throwing a party for our students.  We were told by the International Program Office (IPO) that we should throw a Halloween party to give our students a taste of American culture and that is what we did.  We scoured the shops near the Haizhu Square metro station.  These shops contain every possible knick-knack you could imagine that you see for sale in stores in the States and are made in China.  There were stores selling all types of digital watches, necklaces, bootleg cosmetics, novelties, you name it.  Tucked in the middle of all of these stores were those selling Halloween supplies, including the wonderfully labeled “geak” kit, which sadly I decided not to buy.  Instead, I dressed up as a soccer player with my Chelsea uniform.  Alexa was a devil, Hanna was a witch, and Celia bought an excellent moustache and glasses combination wit a top hat.
Some students really took to the dressing up part of Halloween, but most came in their usual clothes.  Regardless, it was a lot of fun to see our students outside of the classroom.  Many of our students had a chorus competition that evening and we thought that they could not make the party, but Jack from the IPO coordinated with those students and had them bring Celia and I a cake for our birthday while singing happy birthday as they made their grand entrance.  The kids looked great and it was really terrific to see them, albeit for a short time before they took off for the competition.  We played some games including bobbing for apples, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah staple of Coke and Pepsi, and a game where everyone had to tie balloons around their ankles and try to pop the other persons to be the last person standing with a fully inflated balloon.  Suffice it to say that the kids had a good time and we felt like we at least gave them a small taste of American Halloween culture, unfortunately minus the trick-or-treating. 

This afternoon, Hanna and I embarked on a mini-adventure.  Actually, I roped Hanna into it because I did not want to do it alone.  I was invited to a “free hug” event by a guy named Gusta who attended the LGBT documentary screening last weekend.  He had asked Dr. Song for my email address and then emailed me out of the blue inviting me to this event he was organizing on Beijing Lu (北京路) this Saturday afternoon.  Beijing Lu is a giant pedestrian street with shops closed to all traffic and packed with people on the weekend.  These free hug campaigns were started by a guy in Australia and have been carried out all over the world, so this guy wanted to have one here in Guangzhou because he thought the people needed some random acts of kindness and he was hoping to get them to reject their apathy, both of which are lofty and noble goals.  Hanna and I show up and no one is there.  After about a half an hour, this guy and his friend with a camera show up.  His other friends are supposed to be coming.  Finally, his other friend shows up with some paper and markers to make signs advertising our free hugs.  At this point, I learned that 免费拥抱, mianfei yongbao, means “free hugs”.  Hanna and I are given our signs to hold high and like bees on honey, the crowd begins to take notice and flock our way.  At first some random people come up asking for hugs, but it quickly devolves into “let’s take pictures of the foreigners holding signs that say ‘free hugs'”.  At one point, I looked up and about 200 people had gathered around us with their cameras and phones, snapping away.  Some people actually came up to us and asked us to pose in pictures.  I began feeling like monkeys at the zoo who were being beckoned to sing and dance so the tourists could take pictures to show their friends and family back home.  At this point a guard, presumably from the Municipal Management Bureau, came over and told the guy that we were creating too much of a crowd and people could not walk through, so we would have to disband.  Hanna and I decided this was our exit and we politely said goodbye, but not before snapping some pictures of our own. 

As Hanna and I walked away, we remarked on how bizarre that whole experience was.  I definitely did not expect the people of Guangzhou to be so fascinated by two foreigners holding signs advertising free hugs that they would mob us and start taking pictures.  I thought that snapping pictures of foreigners went out of fashion a decade ago in big cities like Guangzhou, but apparently not.  I am also not sure if posing with the foreigners was what the founder of the “free hug” movement had in mind when he came up with the concept.  Perhaps in our own small way, we were spreading kindness and fighting apathy by getting all of these people to stop and take notice of something beyond themselves.  Perhaps our pictures put smiles on the faces of people who might not have otherwise had them.  Or we were just a spectacle and most humans love to take pictures of a good spectacle for posterity’s sake.  Regardless, here are some pictures from today’s event.  You be the judge. 


I’m Official

September 26, 2008

Finally, I have my Chinese residence permit.  After a month of visa issues, medical exams, haranguing government officials, repeated trips to the public security bureaus, and endless fretting, I am official and can now come and go as I please, as well as do my job in relative peace.  The conclusion to the visa/registration drama was rather anti-climactic.  Last Friday, I was told to return to the main PSB in the “PM”.  Lunch is from noon until 2:00pm, when the PSB re-opens for business.  I was not taking any chances today, so I showed up at 1:20pm and was greeted by a line of about 15 people outside the door, which was chained shut.  Over the next half an hour, the crowd grew to about 75 people.  At that point, they opened the doors and let us advance to the second floor, where there was another barricade.  As soon as the doors opened, I sprinted like an Olympic runner and jumped to number three in the queue.  Finally, at 2pm sharp, the barricade came down and I sprinted up to the sixth floor.  In direct contrast to the two plus hours I spent at this lovely place last week, I was in and out within 20 minutes and the proud holder of a residence permit.

Proud at how well I gamed the PSB system, I decided to roam the neighborhood in search of a Starbucks iced coffee.  I was in Haizhu Square and I knew there was a Starbucks somewhere in the neighborhood because the previous week I had seen someone with a nearly full Frappuccino outside the PSB.  On my quest, I wound up on Beijing Lu (北京路), one of Guangzhou’s pedestrian thoroughfares.  It was a lovely day, sunny and warm, but not as humid as it has been.  However, Starbucks eluded me.  I did pass a branch of the Hong Kong dessert place, Hui Lau San, which is a temple of mango-based desserts and oh so amazing, but I was on a quest for iced coffee.  Yet, the quest for iced coffee turned into a search for a metro stop so I could get to Gongyuanqian (公园前), where I knew I could find a Starbucks.  As I was walking, I saw a metro sign and immediately past it, a Starbucks.  Turned out that I had walked from Haizhu Square to the 公园前 metro stop and was now standing in front of the Starbucks I have come to know so well.  Of course I went in and celebrated by residence permit with an iced coffee.

Now that the excitement of being a resident is dying down somewhat, it’s Friday night and everyone else has taken off for the National Holiday.  In our case, we don’t have class next week, so some of the other fellows are traveling the entire week.  I am going to be splitting my time between Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong.  It’s hard to believe I have been here for a month.  I am a university teacher in China, something that crosses my mind at the most random moments.  Sometimes it is really hard to believe.  Yesterday at the end of my US Constitution class, one of my students asked what “secure the blessings of liberty to . . . our posterity” meant and how such a purpose could be carried out as an improvement on the Articles of Confederation.  It was such an insightful question and I went off on this mini-treatise about how the Founding Fathers were brilliant to design a document that is still relevant and being taught in a Chinese university classroom over 200 hundred years after it was written, not to mention that its powers have expanded and contracted along with the ups and downs of American history.  Being hit with a question like that and able to share any insight I may have with one of my students is one of those things I could not have comprehended two months ago before beginning this adventure.  And now I am officially able to stay in China, at least until my permit expires July 25, 2009.  Until my next post from Shanghai . . .