Meaningful Conversation

I actually have a lot I want to write about as the last few weeks I’ve had more meaningful conversation with several Chinese than I’ve been afforded in the past two and a half years.

Let me backtrack to a few Tuesdays ago. I went to work at Green Molly as usual. I’ve been training the staff there since the summer. This semester I’ve only been able to work once a week. On this particular Tuesday, Stone, my boss and one of Green Molly’s owners, happened to be sitting outside on the porch Green Molly uses for its al fresco dining. I sat with him for a bit before heading over to Parkqin to meet up with Jason for dinner. I should probably first mention that Stone is also one of the owners of Parkqin, a downtown South Gate bar frequented by many foreigners and Chinese alike.

My encounter at Green Molly with Stone (I know it’s an odd English name but his Chinese surname happens to be 石 which means “stone”) happened to be rather awkward, at least from my point of view. Jason had just gone back to work at Parkqin and had disclosed to Stone that we are an item. I wasn’t necessarily sure whether I needed to breach the subject when I talked to him at Green Molly. Our conversation merely brushed the topic, but he was more adamant to discuss student’s exams, my future plans, and offer me a coffee. It wasn’t until later in the evening that we ended up having a rather engaging discussion.

I took the bus with one of Jason’s coworkers. After a dinner of noodles and a blizzard at DQ, I sat in the bar as they prepped to open up at 8. I intended to leave on the earlier side as I always have a number of items plaguing my to-do list. I ended up being joined by Stone no more than a mere hour later. The chair adjacent to me, was conveniently unoccupied. After his surprise wore off, we ended up conversing about a myriad of subjects. It seemed odd because he’s a few years younger than my father. He’s not married, or at least isn’t married now. He wasn’t pushy about trying to get me to talk about my relationship. This is why I don’t have many Chinese girlfriends, because they are extremely pushy in regards to the aforementioned topic! We delved into politics, religion, business, travel, lifestyles, and other less noteworthy topics. I talked a little bit about my family and friends back home, the challenges of living abroad, and more about the future. I felt, mostly due to his age and his own rather intriguing and multifaceted life experiences, he was able to listen rationally and to see things from a more pluralistic view. I wish I could recall the exact nature of everything we discussed, but all I can recall is that it was a pleasant experience.

This seemed to initiate several other meaningful conversations that presented themselves over the next week or so.

The Friday that followed the Tuesday I just discussed, I spent the afternoon at the new campus. I hold office hours every Thursday and Friday afternoon. Although students rarely come to see me, it gives me a chance to email them, post to the class websites, and begin readings for the upcoming classes. Huili happened to call me while I sat in the teacher’s office. She needed my assistance with iMovie; she’s a proud new owner of a MacBook Air. I went to the business office to give her a hand. Unfortunately, being a Mac owner and knowing the ins and outs of iMovie are not synonymous. I ended up staying in the office with her and two of her colleagues. I’m normally in the teacher’s office alone, so it was refreshing to have company. We all went about our work, with the occasional interlude of conversation. It wasn’t until 4 p.m. rolled around that the conversation took a more realistic approach. Huili and the other teachers were packing it in for the day. The foreign teacher’s bus always leaves at 4:20. I intended to catch it when Huili informed me that would not be at all necessary as we were all going back to the old campus.

So we all piled into Huili’s compact, and I mean compact car. I lucked out in getting the passenger seat. On most occasions, when going places with Huili, I am offered this seat. Perhaps it’s my “VIP” foreigner status? Just kidding! During the car ride, the topic veered into some rather interesting directions. The usual interrogation occurred: “Why would you live in China when you can live in America?, What’s your impression of China? etc.” I even was asked to comment on the student’s abilities, educational interests and some taboo subjects such as politics and religion.

One topic of particular interest that sparked quite a bit of ping-ponging between myself, Huili, and the other two Chinese teachers was milk powder vs. breastfeeding. I still can’t begin to comprehend the craziness that ensues in terms of Chinese women’s refusal to breastfeed. I understand the reasons that make it difficult to follow through with, but there are ways in which breastfeeding could be introduced to appease both Chinese mothers and society’s disdain for it. The reasons the Chinese teachers listed that breastfeeding isn’t conducive to Chinese society is because mothers are out working and cannot feed the child or the child is being looked after by grandparents in the countryside. Maternity leave in China doesn’t include too much time after the child’s birth; I explained that America has one of the shortest maternity leave periods of any developed country. One of the two collegues of Huili’s actually admitted to being told by her doctor that she couldn’t breastfeed. From what I’ve heard, nearly every doctor in China tells this to their patients. She also stated that like most parents, she only trusts imported milk powder as Chinese still don’t trust domestic brands after melamine tainted powder was discovered a few years back in several domestic brands. China has created a vicious cycle of dependency on imported milk powder and has only itself to thank for the sanctions that have been placed on buying milk powder in Hong Kong and Britain, just to name a few destinations that have responded. Since placing said restrictions, Hong Kong is now arresting more milk powder smugglers than drug smugglers! Needless to say, the entire conversation may have not been meaningful, but it certainly proved insightful. 

On the following Monday, after my GRE math class at the new campus, the foreign teacher’s bus ended up being myself and a few other ladies. A young Chinese teacher whom I had not met, named Xixi, happened to bum a ride as well. We ended up chatting, along with Gail and another visiting lecturer, Irene. Xixi and I discovered we had many passions in common. She had studied broadcast journalism in the UK. Herself, Gail, and Irene planned to grab coffee and discuss Xixi’s latest plight in regards to her acceptance into a PhD program in the Netherlands. They invited me to tag along. We ended up at Coffee Compass on Shida Lu. I had been there on one or two occasions. I ended up having a perfectly acceptable cappuccino.

After Irene and Gail had given Xixi their two cents’ worth, they headed out. Xixi and I continued to discuss our future endeavors, journalism, new media studies, and living abroad. We also discussed the possibility of working together in the future as her strength lies in broadcast and mine in print and digital mediums. After talking over coffee, and being joined by Xixi’s friend Lisa, it was nearing dinner time. I didn’t realize I had met Lisa before until much further along in our conversation. She left to meet a friend for dinner so Xixi proposed that the two of us venture out to seek some grub. We mainly talked about our discontent with making friends here, club and bar culture, and the feeling of “limbo” we both equally felt. I haven’t seen Xixi since, with the exception of a Monday bus ride or two, but I’ve had no qualms about contacting her on WeChat (the Chinese equivalent of What’s App).

On the following Wednesday, Ruth, my former Australian neighbor and friend, who now lives in Beijing, paid a short visit to Xi’an. A dinner was organized and some of her former students and friends also attended. Puii, the former resident of my apartment, was hosting her. It was really nice to see Ruth for a number of reasons. First, she’s engaged now and it’s really evident that she’s quite content and happy in the capital. Second, we had the chance to have a heart-to-heart discussion about some pressing concerns I had without the obstructive nature of a mobile phone. Third, a friend of Daphney and Ariel by the name of Miyoko, whom I met nearly two years ago, was also present at the dinner. You sometimes lose sight of the fact that it really is a small world! Additionally, Ruth’s other friends and former students were really dynamic and fun to talk to.

On Friday, April 5 (I know, so long ago!), Huili and I made challah together. This was her second attempt and I left much of the work in her hands. She’s insistent on learning how to make it. She shared some with both the dean of her department, Li老师, and her mother, both of whom I have met, and they both gave commendable reports. While we feverishly worked (challah-making is mostly a lot of sitting around and waiting for the yeast in the dough to rise), we covered a myriad of topics ranging from Huili’s furthering education plans, religion, current affairs, politics, family, marriage, dating, history, culture, and even managed to make time for a truncated GRE tutoring session. I really appreciate that Huili is a mindful listener and can see things from a pluralistic point of view. The conversation is never one-sided and neither one of us is afraid to speak our minds. We sometimes disagree, but the argument always remains that we “agree to disagree.”

The last item worth mentioning coincided with an assignment I gave my Intercultural Communication students. On their respective class blogs, they needed to write about an intercultural encounter they experienced with Americans. I wanted them to point out some cultural differences and then examine how that previous encounter could have been improved or what principles should guide our IC. Some of them gave me very generic differences such as eating with chopsticks vs. eating with forks and knives, but others examined cultural values and other deep-level culture that looks at ideology and other deep-rooted systems that betray us on our path to intercultural communication enlightenment. Although I don’t think the assignment really spurred any amount of transparency in the way they communicate with me, as last week’s classes indicated (that’s another story), I do think it helped them to see that although the textbook may be dull and stale, nearly all of them noted principles derived from the mundane discussions we’ve had about said textbook.

I guess it’s worth summarizing that even after almost three years of living and working in China, there’s still a nook or cranny, person, event, or something else entirely, that unbeknownst prior, makes itself visible, in the strangest and most uncertain of ways.

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