Cars In China

When we first arrived in China, most of the roads were relatively empty, with buses making up most of the traffic. Yes, there were a few cars on the road, but they were owned by companies, not private individuals, because at that time (1993) we were told that it was illegal for a private individual to own a car. It appears that several years later, when more and more Chinese were able to afford a car, the law was changed so that cars could be privately owned. And the floodgates were opened.

When we first moved to Beijing (2001) it took about 30-45 minutes to take a taxi from the west side of Beijing between 3rd and 4th ring road to the northeast side of Beijing between the 3rd  and 4th ring road. Three years later, the traffic had become so congested that the same route regularly took 90 minutes or more.

In an attempt to limit the number of cars added to an already overworked transportation infrastructure, the Beijing government holds a lottery each month for people who want to purchase a license for a car (you’re supposed to buy a license before you can buy a car). According to this past Monday’s online issue of the Washington Post World, for the month of March, 970,000 people entered the lottery – for the 20,282 plates available for that month.

This statistic tells us at least two things: 1) there were almost a million people in March who wanted to get a license for a car; 2) more than 20,000 cars are added to Beijing traffic each month!

Uyghur Noruz Party (or, “Is he a Uyghur or a foreigner?”

Today I attended a Noruz party with several of our Uyghur friends. Noruz is the Uyghur New Year, and it always takes place on the first day of spring. Yes, I know, today is April 1, and the first day of spring this year was March 20. However, this is Xi’an, not Xinjiang, and most of the Uyghurs who live here are students, far away from their home in Xinjiang. So they organize their New Year celebration whenever they can.

This particular Noruz party was held at Jiaotong University across town. When I first heard about the party, I just wanted to go see what it was like. But once some of my Uyghur friends knew that I wanted to go, they wanted me to not only come watch but also play my dutar for the party, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer! As if I tried very hard to say no. 🙂

I had attended several events like this while we lived in Kashgar, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to be like. Nope, wrong assumption! The biggest difference that I found was that me and one of my Uyghur friends were the only two people who were wearing a doppa, a decorative Uyghur skullcap. That was a big surprise to me, since just about everyone who attended a party in Kashgar wore a doppa.

Another difference was that I, one of the very few foreigners attending the party in the midst of a sea of Uyghurs, was the only one who played a traditional Uyghur musical instrument. Oh, there were lots of songs performed, but all of the other songs were sung with an accompaniment track (think karioke), no live instruments. Maybe the circle of friends that I had in Kashgar were more musical than most, but I don’t think so.

Since we arrived several hours early, we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and practice outside on the grass. It wasn’t too long before we attracted a small crowd of Chinese students who wanted to listen to the Uyghur music. It was interesting in an amusing kind of way to overhear some of their comments, “Are they all Uyghurs?” “I don’t know.” “I think maybe the old one (referring to me) is a foreigner.” “No, I don’t think so.” The same thing happened when we went to a small restaurant on campus for dinner. Most people just assumed that I was a Uyghur.

It’s hard to describe what I was feeling during the whole day today. For pretty much the whole time that we’ve lived in China, one of the most difficult things to bear, day in and day out, is the fact that I’m always seen as the different one, the foreigner. Most days it’s not a big deal, I can make a joke about it with kids who point at me and say, “Lao wai!” (old outsider, meaning foreigner). I sometimes point right back and say with a smile, “Xiao nei!” (little insider). But sometimes it gets to you, and you just yearn to fit in.

Today, I felt like I almost fit in with my Uyghur friends. Almost.

Saturday Is Monday, And Sunday Is Tuesday (or, “The Chinese education system’s crazy calendar”)

The Chinese educational system is…interesting, to say the least, when it comes to scheduling holidays. Wednesday of next week is the traditional Chinese holiday called “Qing Ming Jie” or Tomb Sweeping Festival, when Chinese people go to the tombs of their ancestors, tidy up the area around the tomb, and pay their respects to their ancestors.

The government has decided to give students a 3-day holiday – Monday through Wednesday – to celebrate this important traditional holiday. However, for some reason unbeknownst to every foreigner that I’ve talked to – and many Chinese as well! – the government has also decreed that the Saturday and Sunday before the holiday, classes will be held to “make up” for two of the days of the holiday.

That’s when it gets really interesting. Not only has the government decided that two of the days of the holiday need to be made up (not sure why they call it a 3-day holiday if two of the days are made up), but on Saturday students will attend classes that are normally held on Monday, and on Sunday students will attend classes that are normally held on Tuesday. So here’s what this coming week will look like: Saturday is Monday; Sunday is Tuesday; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are holidays; Thursday is Thursday; and Friday is Friday. Whew! At least Friday is still Friday!

Who, Us?? Illegal Aliens??!!

Due to a number of reasons that I won’t go into on this blog, several of us foreign teachers needed to renew our visas very shortly after the second semester began. What should have been a relatively straightforward process – wasn’t.

So unless the school gets the necessary paperwork to us in time tomorrow, it appears that we might become illegal aliens when our current visa runs out. Hmm…I wonder how being an illegal alien in China compares to being an illegal alien in the U.S.?

No, Mike, don’t go there!

[March 9 update: At the eleventh hour, we were able to submit all of the required paperwork. Whew! I guess we won’t become “guests” of a different kind of the Chinese government after all!]

Holiday Travel In China

Here’s a quote from the China Daily, one of the two English language newspapers published in China, on Jan. 4, 2012:

“China’s railways are expected to carry 235 million passengers during the coming Spring Festival travel season, a year-on-year increase of 6 percent, which means an average of nearly 5.9 million people will travel by rail every day. However, the average daily capacity of the country’s railway system is about 3.8 million.”

So how much room do you think there’s going to be on the trains in China during this holiday season? 🙂

Don Giovanni – in Xi’an

Wendy and I had the wonderful experience of attending a performance tonight – New Year’s Eve – with Lee and LeAnne, two of our teammates, of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (“Don Juan”) at Xi’an’s Opera House. It was a joint performance of Sha’anxi Normal University’s School of Music – where Lee and I teach – and Tokyo University’s School of Music, which has a close relationship with our school.

(Lee, LeAnne, Wendy and I standing in front of the seal of the Opera House)

It was a great performance, in most regards on a par with other excellent performances I’ve seen in the U.S. However, it wasn’t the performance on stage that received a disproportionate amount of my attention, but rather the “performance” of the audience.

In China, it has historically been normal for an audience to talk, smoke, eat, drink, come and go freely, and generally carry on various activities in the midst of a performance. Contrary to what a westerner might think, this is not indicative that the audience isn’t paying attention, nor is it considered rude behavior. They just have a different idea of normal, acceptable behavior during performances.

Even though I know this, I could feel myself becoming increasingly annoyed at the talking that was taking place in the audience near our seats, especially when it was overly loud talking on a cell phone. It didn’t make me feel any better when I saw that several of the Chinese in the audience were also giving the offending person meaningful stares. He eventually took the hint and went out into the lobby to continue his conversation.

This experience made me realize that my attitude still has much that needs changing before I can say I am charitable toward Chinese when things like this happen. But those changes definitely need to take place, because I know that it’s still MY problem, not theirs!

I Know It’s A Land Of Contrasts, But Really?!

We were shopping in a supermarket yesterday, and as we walked past the liquor section we heard a rather incongruous sound being broadcast through the speakers – “Jesus Loves Me,” in both Chinese and English! The strangest part was that it was being boradcast, not store-wide, but only through the speakers in the liquor section!

I could say all kinds of facetious remarks, like “Well, he DID turn water into wine!” or “Paul DID tell Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach.” But I’m not at all convinced that the person who was in charge of selecting the music to be played in the liquor section even knew what the song was. I have a sneaking suspicion that he assumed that “Jesus Loves Me” was probably a Christmas song (after all, it is the Christmas season), and he just wanted to add some festivity to his section of the store.

Whatever the reason, even though it was rather strange, I have to admit that it was nice to hear that familiar song. And I also admit that it almost caused me to linger in the liquor section. Almost. 🙂


A Fall Choir Concert (or, “How a fiasco became a success”)

I should have known not to make any assumptions. This time it was a whole host of assumptions regarding the purpose of a college choir. I was thrilled at the beginning of this semester when I found out that I would be conducting two classes of choir in the School of Music, rather than teaching English classes. Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy teaching English. But I LOVE teaching music! So when I found out I would be conducting the choir, I was in seventh heaven, especially when they told me that they wanted me to teach English songs and to teach the class using the same methods that I would with a choir in the U.S. Then reality began to set in.

Over the course of the first couple months I slowly learned, bit by bit, that a college choir here is NOT like a college choir in the U.S., at least not the many choirs that I have been involved with. To begin with, I was a little puzzled as to why four different classes of students – for a total of over 100 – were put together to form the Sophomore choir, and another four classes to form the junior choir. The fact that these two massive choirs met only once a week each for two hours was a little frustrating, but I figured I just needed to work with the system and do the best I could to get ready for a semester-end concert.

Shortly after classes began, WAY more students than I had expected were skipping class, week after week. When I mentioned this to the faculty member who had been assigned to assist me, she basically told me that it was a common occurrence in all classes, and I should just grade them down when they skip class. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement! How could a choir adequately prepare for a concert when a quarter of the students don’t show up for rehearsal?! She then told me that the choir class was a required class for all students with a Music Ed. major or a vocal performance major. A choir that was a required class! For five semesters! No wonder so many students skipped class. They didn’t want to be there!

When I asked the dean about organizing the concert and he gave me a puzzled look, I knew we had once again somehow crossed wires. When I then asked him if there was an expectation that the choir would give a concert anytime during the semester, his answer was, “You’re the conductor; you decide!” Hmm…definitely not the answer that I was expecting.

So, choir rehearsals once a week…required class filled with students who are required to attend and don’t really want to be there…no expectation of a concert…I was beginning to piece together a picture of a choir vastly different from the choirs I was familiar with.

In spite of this, I still wanted the choir to perform, because there was still one last piece of the puzzle that I didn’t find out about until after the concert was already scheduled. This last piece of information was that, unbeknownst to me, the choir class was intended to teach the students how to conduct. (A methods class of over 100 students brings up a whole host of other issues!)

It was too late by this time to cancel the concert without harming relationships with several different people who had helped to take care of many of the details in arranging the concert – scheduling the concert in the frequently-used campus concert hall; making posters; putting together an ad for the campus radio broadcast; making a banner that would be displayed during the concert; making concert programs; and last but certainly not least, two faculty members – a flautitst and a cellist – who had agreed to accompany two of the songs. So the show must go on, even when it appeared that the choirs were nowhere near ready to perform!

Oh, was I ever mistaken! They sang the songs for the concert better than they had ever sung them in rehearsal! What an enormous relief!


I wasn’t the only one pleased with their performance. The dean of the school of music, who was in the audience, came to me after the concert and was effusive in his praise, “That was wonderful! I can’t imagine how you were able to get the students to perform like this after only a little more than three months! You must do another concert next semester!” My first thought was, ‘I’m just as surprised as you!’ 🙂

Well, the pressure’s on now. I better go figure out what we’ll do next semester!

A Christmas Program Unlike None Other!

When our team was invited to sing at the Foreign Languages Department Christmas/New Year’s Program, I envisioned past programs that I had participated in, where the foreign teachers were asked to sing. Sometimes it was fun, with everyone just wanting to have a good time to celebrate the end of the semester. (Yes, they may have called it a “Christmas” Program, but the purpose was not to celebrate Christmas!) Sometimes it was built up into a massive production where the presentation became much more important than having fun.

I could never have dreamed of the overwhelming production that was organized for this program! I was told that the department had spent hundreds of thousands of yuan (tens of thousands of dollars) on costuming alone for this production. It was definitely the most elaborate program that I have ever seen a department in a Chinese university put on!

In the midst of all the flash and glitter of the students’ performances, our team sang “Silent Night” to the accompaniment of my guitar and Wendy’s flute. What a contrast!

Since we sang it in both English and Chinese, the packed audience understood the words, and because of some comments made after the performance I’m sure the contrast between the frenetic performances of the students and the peaceful song by the foreigners was not lost on the audience.