About Chinese Toilets, DVD's, Dinners, and Camera Woes

Hey everyone!

This first section is about pooping in China, so if you don't care for scatological exposition, you may want to skip this part.

I had heard about Chinese squat toilets, but I had also heard that western-style toilets were making greater inroads into China, and that in Beijing there is a big drive to modernize the public toilets prior to the 2008 Olympics. I was pleased to discover upon arrival that I have a western-style toilet in my apartment. However, even though my teaching building is brand new, my ventures into the men's rooms at school unearthed an unnerving absence of toilets. Instead, there is a long trough with some dividers along its length. I was not quite certain of its appropriate use until I saw, umm, first-hand evidence that these facilities were, indeed, intended for fecal evacuation. I am for the most part eager to participate in the Chinese lifestyle without clinging too much to my Western proclivities, but this is one practice for which I would be happy to maintain my Western habits.

So, the question I posed is whether I can go an entire year without pooping at work. So far my internal schedule seems quite "regular." I have a cup of instant coffee in the morning, lighten my load, and I'm good to go to school with no worries. However, I don't know if I can maintain this routine, as I am not really in complete control of my biological functions. Also, it is likely at some point that I will eat a bad something-or-other and my schedule will be preempted by the resulting gastrointestinal distress, and I will probably be forced to become quite an expert at this particular Chinese custom. My fear is that (aside from the idea that a giant white laowai squatting in the men's room may be quite an attraction), not being accustomed to this practice, my skills will not be up to par with the locals and I will somehow manage to misjudge the logistics and clearances and such and will end up with unwearable trousers. And my school is a twenty-minute bus-ride from home.

Believe me, if (when?) it happens, you will be informed. Until then, I live in fear.

*** end of poop discussion ***

Now we are entering the Mid-Autumn Festival season. I just this moment got called down to the courtyard to receive a box of mooncakes from my waiban. I also got a crate of apples! I have heard the veteran foreigners here moaning about too many mooncakes, but I haven't tried one yet so I don't know what there might be to moan about. I think maybe that it's just that for the next month or so mooncakes will be around each corner and in every direction, that at every turn people will be celebrating the autumn spirit by inundating each other with bushels of mooncakes. Maybe it's the Chinese equivalent of zucchini, or fruitcake. Regardless, I am interested.

Tonight the school is hosting a dinner for the foreign teachers. I heard that perhaps some of our grousing about bad communication and lack of organization on the part of the school toward the foreign teachers made it up to the Foreign Affairs office and that this might be something of a remedy. Who knows? The complaints are valid, though not too serious. Speaking for myself (this also applies to my fellow teacher Sue, who I met in Bellingham), I pretty much got dropped off at my apartment and that was the sum of my introduction to my new environment. Every so often I get a call from my waiban, Yu Qinwei, telling me I need to go register at the police station or bring him some paperwork, but there was very little introduction to the school, the city or our jobs, and we didn't even get introduced to any of the other teachers at any point. There's a cafeteria we can eat at, but no one ever told us this, let alone where it is or how to use it. No one has told us when pay day is or how it works. Basically, no one has done anything in the way of helping us get settled or answer questions. Now, in my case most of this isn't a big deal because I rather prefer that people leave me to my own devices and I will find out the stuff I need to, but really, some of this stuff would have been good to know, and other people might not be quite so "whatever" about finding themselves in China for the first time. Anyway, so this dinner could be an attempt finally to provide something of a "welcome to Kunming/Yunnan Normal" get-together. Almost four weeks after our arrival!

So, I bought a DVD player. Actually, it plays DVD's, VCD's, SVCD's, CD's, CD-R's, CD-RW's, and probably any other CD-style thing you want to stick in there. It doesn't bother with the country code - that's a Western copyright paranoia device which makes it difficult for us transnationals to watch DVD's we've purchased in various countries, even if they're legal. It had 3 sets of audio outs, S-video, some other plugs I don't recognize, and it runs on 50-230 volts, which means it would work on US voltage without an adapter. Hmmmm…. Anyway, the fun thing is, all Chinese DVD players come with at least one, and usually two, 1/4" microphone jacks and independent volume controls on the front panel. Why? KARAOKE! Yes, DVD players here double as karaoke machines. Along with my DVD player I got a bonus gift which I opened when I got home. It contains two microphones, cables, and six karaoke DVD's. Now I just have to learn Chinese pop music so I can sing along to my DVD player.

I have put the player to good use already. I watched The Wonder Boys, The Sixth Sense and The Mask. It's interesting watching Hollywood movies while sitting on my sofa in China. It's all well and good until I get done with the movie and wander out into the courtyard for a smoke, or look out the window onto my street, then I get this weird feeling of disconnectedness. Same when I play one of my computer games, Myst or Diablo. The worlds in the games and the movies are so unrelated to what I am seeing in my everyday world it can just feel strange. Not that America is like Myst or Diablo (or like Hollywood movies, for that matter), but they seem more to belong in that environment, they have grown from our culture and are something of a reflection of our environment, however warped. They just seem out of place here… even when I see Chinese playing or watching them. I wonder what the Chinese think about when they play Grand Theft Auto (as I have seen them doing in the computer stores along my street)? It must be a somewhat different experience, if only because the majority of them have likely never driven a car. But, this kind of culture comparison gets old pretty quickly and is often stirred up into simplistic "backward Chinese" gruel, so I won't linger on it for long here, just as I don't in my daily life. I generally try to just let the Chinese be Chinese without trying to fit them into my world somehow. Varying degrees of success, of course.

Anyway, there's enough drivel for one afternoon. Hope you all are well, and I'll talk to you again soon!

- Alex

P.S. I have discovered that cameras here are astronomically expensive!!! The camera I want costs $200 USD more HERE than in the US ($350 in US, $550 here), and I suppose others cameras are probably similarly priced. What the -- ??!!?!?. If anyone knows someone coming to Kunming, put me in touch so they can bring one to me from the states. I could have one mailed, but you aren't supposed to mail cameras into China and there is the possibility it might not arrive. Anyway, the upshot is, no photos yet, until I get this resolved. However, I am getting my website situation set up, and once I get something interesting to put up to distract you from this yada yada, I will be up and running and your mailboxes will be safe once again.