The Road to China
Smothering with Kindness
Song Chao's very loving and hospitable family. One of several families in which I regained in one evening all the weight I had lost in the previous 5 months.
I was stuffed.
I had consumed more than a reasonable share of salty beef, vegetables, black pickled eggs, and the "Sweet Dumplings", a special food eaten only during Lantern Festival. I even made noise when I sipped my tea or slurped my noodles, the Chinese way to demonstrate how much I was enjoying it. After seeing me eating enthusiastically, putting my rice bowl down, sitting back, making a loud "Oy!" sound and holding my hands on my now-enlarged stomach to indicate that I was indeed full and oh, how delicious the meal was!, the militant grandmother ignored all of this non-verbal communication and immediately refilled my ricebowl and literally commanded me to eat more. A nanosecond later she proceeded to fill my other bowl with 9 more syrupy-sweet dumplings, a food that can easily make you sick if you eat more than three. (Note: And yes, I checked. "Oy!" does not mean "I would like to eat some more" in Mandarin.)
Grandma in her kitchen.
This is pretty much how it went at every visit -- during my six-month stay here I have been enthusiastically smothered with kindness by all the families of my students who had invited me into their homes. Let me tell you, the Jews and the Italians have nothing over the Chinese in terms of using guilt and a smile to impose their hospitality onto you and make you eat more than you should. Although it is generally accepted that the Jews invented this kind of behavior, clearly the Chinese have had sufficient time to perfect it. Normally I don't let guilt influence my behavior (nor do I like to employ it toward others), but here I am in a far-off land and I don't want to be rude or do anything to insult all of these people who seem to be genuinely excited to have a westerner in their home. One family even gave me an honorary name! "Li Rey" -- Li being the family name (you always say the family name first here), and "Rey" meaning "smart, clever, can think through, can know thoroughly". (I'm still blushing.)
Now many of you might be wondering what a traditional Chinese family does after dinner. Do they all talk to each other, or read, or study, or even play music like they all did in the old days? Nope. They watch television. In some cases all weekend long. The whole family. (Their quest to be just like Americans is becoming a reality!) It took me some time to adjust to that, but on the positive side I got a little more insight into the content of most of those programs, as originally described in Chapter 4.
There are many, many (what's the plural for 'miniseries'?) and daily soap operas which take place in a foregone dynasty, and only when I was a guest did I have a chance to really look at them closely and understand their plots. The first thing I noticed is that the lighting director made the olden days look much brighter and more colorful (and in some cases, more dramatic) than they really were. The stories all had the classic themes of power, struggle, love won and lost, and above all, the soap opera trick that no matter how rich and powerful the characters seemed, they still had their problems, so aren't we glad we're just humble workers?
An original illustration from an early Journey to the West book.
Then there were the fight scenes -- and I need to make it clear that this was a common theme with all miniseries and movies in China -- all of which featured a "Gong Fu" (that's what they call it here!) fighting style that raises these ancient skills to mythical levels. Actors would perform superhuman feats while fighting with their hands, swords, feet, and with any object nearby. Fighters would fly through the air (aided by wires), performing a myriad of kicks and sounds and fast edits before landing. Mid-air collisions resulted in explosions. Think of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" type of fighting and multiply it by 100 to get a feel for the Chinese equivalent of an American Western barroom fight. Daily soap operas which contained such fight scenes could not possibly do a good job with the short shooting schedule, and so they try to cheat by inferring certain moves and covering it up with really, really bad editing.
By watching television I also learned about a classic Chinese mythological novel from the 1500's called Journey to the West. It was written during the Ming Dynasty based on traditional folktales. Consisting of 100 chapters, this fantasy relates the adventures of a Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) priest Sanzang and his three disciples, Monkey, Pig and Friar Sand, as they travel west in search of the holy Buddhist scriptures from India. In 100 chapters the foursome overcome 81 calamities and confrontations in the form of supernatural phenomena and monsters before reaching their goal and returning to China with the texts. The story is loosely based on an actual journey undertaken by the monk Xuanzang in the 7th century across the desert wastes of Chinese Central Asia to India (equated with Paradise in the novel) to collect Buddhist texts for translation into Chinese. It is to the Chinese what the Wizard of Oz is to Americans.
Whereas New Years marks the beginning of Spring Festival, so therefore does Lantern Festival demarcate its end. These lanterns are signposts to guide guests and spirits of ancestors to the Lunar celebration. After a sumptuous fifteen-day feast, these lanterns light the way for the spirits back to the world beyond. It literally is a festival of lights and sweet dumplings (see above) and family reunions. Public parks have special events where one can see many light sculptures, there are many specials on TV, and of course, houses are once again decorated. After Lantern festival, the country goes back to work.
One of the Lantern Festival light sculptures in Chao Yang Park.
Since this is my next-to-the-last chapter, it makes sense to start tying up loose ends.
Data Egg Progress
Well, the idea got much further in this country than it ever got in America. After I had given my pitch, and while I was spending the Chinese New Year in Hainan, Mr. Koh and his Vice President tweaked the business plan several times and re-presented it to China Putian, and told me about these efforts later. Both were extremely enthusiastic about the concept (unlike some of the recent comments about it at this slashdot discussion board), as was the General Manager, even after the second presentation! And I must give the Putian folks a lot of credit - after careful consideration they turned it down because if they wanted to create the market down the road it would require a LOT of marketing capital, and since the concept of market research isn't standard practice here the marketing idea was seen as a large risk. Then they wished me luck in the future. As I have said so many times before, "Oh, well!"
English Teacher Recruitment Business
This project is still kicking as I write this. Jim is off on his own, as I have done as much as I could to do help him succeed before I moved on. Mr. Xian and his partners have started looking into the best way to start an English language school, and my final days in China were filled with meetings discussing the details, talking with other potential partners who were already associated with schools, and crunching the numbers on the new plan. Estimates were much more conservative this time around, and the kinds of classes offered were targeted at what the schools and students wanted to learn, not based on what was easiest for us to teach them. This led to needing more qualified and experienced teachers that would be more difficult to recruit from America - in fact, I estimate that 60% of the teachers would have to be recruited from China (for reasons I won't go into here). As of this writing, we have all the funding we need, but it looks like I will have to come back and live in China to ensure that the first year is profitable enough for us to expand to the Adult Education market the following year (that's where a lot more of the money is). More meetings are still scheduled, and a Go/No Go decision will be made by March 15th. We will see what the forces of fate (or free will -- take your pick) have in store.
Until next time....
"Yours Truly, Gary Friedman"
February 18, 2004
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