One thing that consistently fascinates me about cultural differences is how small they truly are, even in a relative sense. We grow up learning about our differences. Racists and separatists admonish our differences, while holidays and traditions celebrate our differences. But, what of our similarities? In reality, we eat different food, we dress differently, we speak different languages, we have some deep seeded cultural norms, and most conspicuously, we look different. But, we all eat, we all wear clothes, we all speak, we all have guiding principles, and we all have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth.
Today is my first time seeing my school, my home for the next two years, SanZhuang Elementary School. I don’t formally start teaching for over a week, but I got here a little early to check the scene. Sidenote: a lot of teacher blogs are going to talk about teaching and cute kids etc. Based on recent Facebook activity, 98% of recent college graduates are now teachers, so I am going try to steer clear of the conventional teacher blog. I don’t think I would be very got at it anyway. I want this to be more of a commentary on life as an American in China.
I digress. SanZhuang is a strikingly beautiful place. The setting feels more like a mountain resort or one of those high-end rehab “wellness” retreats than it does a school. The school building is painted bright pink, a color that basks beautifully in the bright sun. There is a basketball court, many ping-pong tables, an exercise area, and seemingly endless gardens wind and wend their way all across the grounds. In a word: shocking. Well, stunning, beautiful, breathtaking, tranquil, perfect are the correct words for the scene, but shocking is the only word that can capture my thoughts upon arrival. I’m supposed to be teaching in one of the poorest areas in China and this school is infinity times more visually stunning than any elementary school I’ve ever seen. Not only is the view incredible, but the grounds are also meticulously maintained. It’s beyond my expectations to the nth degree. It’s… utterly absurd.
I’m greeted by the few staff that are already at the school. We have Yang Laoshi, Yang Laoshi, and Yang Laoshi (Laoshi meaning teacher). Every single teacher I meet has the same last name. The principle also has the surname Yang. Quite bizarre, I think. I’m informed that people from this town are usually named Yang, much like names often denoted origin in Western culture (think da Vinci or de Carlo). However, these Yangs have probably been living in this area for literally thousands of years. Not surprisingly, everyone who lives here are best friends.
Myself and my co-fellow, YaNan are invited to dinner with the teachers that are already at the school. We descend the mountain in Yang Laoshi’s Chevy and head into the village that lies at the base. It’s a small, quintessentially rural Chinese village with tight streets, courtyard style houses, and tons of different species running around. We arrive at the house of the school’s former security guard (the current security guard is also there). This dude is unmistakably the Chinese Tony Soprano. To a tee. He’s got a big gut, has a slight lisp when he talks, the sly facial expressions are identical, he just carries himself like Tony, like a mob boss. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s impossible to miss. We sit down in the courtyard, men at one table, women and kids at the other. I am one of two people at a table of 8 that doesn’t have the surname Yang. Somehow, none of them are related.
The host promptly breaks out the baijiu. Baijiu is by far the most widely consumed spirit in China. Its literal translation is “white wine,” but white wine it is not. It fluctuates between 40 and 60 percent alcohol, and has the smell and taste of nail polish remover. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of this ubiquitous Chinese booze, it’s because American importers know better. After drinking it for a year in Shanghai, I still cannot understand how it became a cultural fixture. It’s absolutely abominable. In fact, most Chinese people I talk to hate it. It’s like some sort of mass cultural masochism.
Anyways, the Baijiu is in free flow. I’ve been warned about this. Chinese masculine drinking culture is intense. Whereas American kids “binge drink,” the Chinese way is supposedly somewhere along the lines of “Drink until you hate yourself or you’re not my friend.” A slight exaggeration, mind you, but only slight. There are a lot of complex status symbols and “face” undertones in Chinese drinking culture. Especially when it’s done with your boss. I’m ready to dive in, to show the Yangs what I learned in college. But, to my mild chagrin, my vice-principle steps in and tells the host that I’d better adapt to my surroundings before I start getting wasted with locals. Fair enough… I guess. I settle for Sprite.
The guys drink a lot. And smoke a lot. Everyone at the table chain smokes throughout the meal. This includes a few cigarette bongs, a fixture in this part of China. Basically, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Cigarettes are placed, at the filter, on the bowl/airhole that protrudes from the tube. I saw one guy take a cigarette completely down to the filter in one puff. My lungs burned vicariously. I deny at least ten cigarettes.
No one gets too drunk. These guys can clearly booze. However, the party gets a little too loud, and Tony’s wife tells us to keep it down so we don’t bother the neighbors. He retorts, “Come on we’re not loud at all, there are planes flying overhead all the time here. He can deal with it.” She not convinced. He responds, “Well, look I have to deal with him killing his goats at seven in the morning. I will not lower my voice.” (Yes that is a direct quote, I did not make that up). It’s a classic scene, so vividly transferable to an American backyard barbeque, minus some details.
The party rages on. The neighbor clearly does not care one way or the other. Dinner is served. There are about eight dishes, cooked by Tony’s uncle (not old enough to be his real uncle, but that’s what he’s called. It’s too perfect). From where I sit, I can literally see the source of every single dish. “These radishes, they grow right next to you. Those peppers, turn around. That goat? Tomorrow, it’ll be his brother.” At one point, a herd of about twenty goats rushes by. I find out that Tony and his wife raise the goats and sell them. They fetch about $300 each. Do the math, and that’s a pretty damn good supplemental income in this part of China. The meal is delicious. It makes me chuckle to think that somewhere in America, countless yuppies are paying serious cash to get their hands on food like this. This is all these people know. Cut and dry. The supermarket is for Baijiu. If you want veggies, you plant a seed. If you want some meat, you raise it, kill it with your own hands, and cut it up. For them, going to KFC would be a serious financial hit. The system is so curiously out of whack.
The evening winds to a close around eight. I can already tell I’m going to be spending a lot of time with these people over the next few years. The village is incredibly tight knit and I’m going to fit somewhere into the picture. It’s pretty special that I get to be a teacher and a bona fide community member at the same time. It’s true immersion. It’s not some glossy “white guy goes and helps poor Chinese kids” story. I’m going to be held to the same standards as everyone. I’ll be reprimanded when I screw up. I’ll know full well that I am probably, no, definitely the worst teacher at my school. Conversely, I’ll be talked to in Chinese. I’ll fight through shots of Baijiu. I’ll probably kill a pig and drink its blood. As I alluded to once before, that can be nearly impossible to come by as a foreigner in China. But SanZhuang is already giving me that vibe. This place feels so genuine, like the realest place I’ve ever been.
Day one, in the books.