Sunday, May 13, 2007

Want To Be A Celebrity? Move To China

These days, while people are still impressed that a "lao wai" can speak Chinese, the site of a foreigner is just not the spectacle it once was, at least in Beijing. In addition to Da Shan, there are now several foreigners on TV who speak perfect Chinese, damn them all.

But even a bus ride from Beijing things can be totally different. This weekend Ryan and I went on a volunteer trip to teach english at a high school outside of Shi Jia Zhuang, the captial of HeBei province (where Beijing is located). Shi Jia Zhuang is one of 50 or so Chinese cities that have like 5 million people, but somehow aren't big enough to show up on the conciousness of anyone outside the province. The city itself seems to be booming - lots of new skyscrapers, and lots of luxury brands being sold to the ever-expanding class of Chinese nouveau-riche. But just outside the city, the surroundings revert to the endless expanse of half-countryside half-suburb that is rural China.

The school was huge - more than three thousand students attend, and the main building was a giant four-story courtyard with giant classrooms on all sides. This being China, the facilities were rudimentary - troughs for bathrooms, with sinks constructed of concrete and tile and smells that make you want to rip out your olfactory center.

We sat in the principal's simple office for a bit and then went to a mid-size auditorium (100 or so people) where the students were all waiting. As it turned out, we wouldn't be teaching at all, but would be answers students questions in English, and where we could, Chinese. Our rudimentary Chinese set off rounds of applause, but when they asked if we could sing Chinese songs and I pulled out a little Jay Chou (you don't know him, but they do, oh yes they do), they went crazy. We sat for five classes and in between each one we continually signed autographs for the kids, who apparently don't realize that we're a couple of nobodies. While Da Shan may be cemented at the top, there's plenty of room in the Chinese heart for foreigners who speak a little, especially if you can sing Qian Li Zhi Wai.

We had dinner at the house of the local top dog - not sure if he was a government official or just a local business leader, this being China it was probably both. We had some fabulous dumplings and lamb skewers, and were plied with as much Chinese liquor as they could get us to drink (we still had two classes of students after dinner. . .). Man, not only is most Chinese booz 50+ percent alcohol, but they were drinking out of huge shot glasses, such that when asked to "gan bei" (dry glass) I definitely could not get it down in one gulp and was forced to become more acquainted with the taste of lighter fluid than I'd like.

Unfortunately if I want to do business in China, I'm gonna have to get used to it - refusal to drink is impolite, and is viewed as a sign of dishonesty. Notions of alcoholism as something other than a bad habit have not caught on here. Of course, they want to outdrink you to save face, so maybe I can squeak by with a few shots and then protesting that I'm a lightweight and we Americans just can't drink as much as Chinese people. . . Take that western stereotypes!

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