Archive for June, 2008

Buying medicine in China

The other evening, I (Liz) had to make a stop at the pharmacy to buy some medication. Now, if you think it might be challenging to speak everyday Chinese, it’s even more interesting to try to find the correct medication and dosage. I had armed myself with the appropriate vocabulary (milligrams, dosage, pill, generic and brand names of the drug, etc), and made my way to the back of the pharmacy to talk to an assistant. Happily, they had what I was looking for. However, as I was trying to confirm the dosage and schedule, I realized that I had drawn a crowd (and Leo wasn’t even along for the ride this time!). About ten people had gathered to see what medication the waiguoren (foreigner) was buying and most probably, to hear me try to communicate in Chinese. A couple of people who spoke a little English were throwing a few words out there (“week” one person said, and “six” said another), trying to be helpful. Now, I’m all for community and openness, but when it comes to buying medication, I am accustomed to a little more privacy. I had flashbacks to pharmacies in the US where there are lines on the ground where the next person in line is supposed to wait behind so the person consulting with the pharmacist has enough privacy. Let’s just say, people don’t get into lines very often here, and there are certainly no lines on the ground. I have given up on much of my privacy here (everyone in our neighborhood knows what we pay for rent here, what we do and when we do it, etc.), as we are just too conspicuous and everyone talks to everyone else. In this situation though, I had to draw the line (pun totally intended). I wasn’t having trouble communicating with the pharmacist; I needed a little space and couldn’t quite bring myself to talk about my health with an audience. So I asked the pharmacist if I could just talk to her. She broke up the crowd for me, and we finished our business. I walked out of the store, further amazed at the differences in our cultures and further charmed by the Chinese people I’ve met in Nanjing. They take SUCH an interest and are SO outgoing. And, 99 times out of 100, people are incredibly friendly and helpful. Sometimes, though – it’s too much for an unaccustomed waiguoren like myself!


Saving Face…

Yesterday, after trying on several pieces of clothing at a small shop, I told the shop assistant, “Zhexie bu xiang.” Which, roughly translated, means, “I wouldn’t like these.” I thought that was a simple enough phrase – it did the job and I even used the form of the verb “to want” (there are two) that has a softer edge. Usually, when I don’t want something, I say, “Bu yao, xiexie.” (I don’t want, thank you). This form of want (yao), conveys a stronger meaning, but when said correctly, it isn’t rude – just very direct. I use it all the time at restaurants and in the marketplace with no problems. JM has been encouraging me to try saying, “Bu xiang” instead of “Bu yao” – to be a little less direct. So, I thought I would try it out.

Imagine my surprise when the shopkeeper laughed right out loud! I was a bit taken aback, realizing I must have said something wrong, but not quite certain exactly what could have been wrong with three simple words. I looked at JM, and he just shrugged. The shopkeeper quickly corrected my language, and told me to say instead, “It’s not ok.” So today, during my lesson, I of course asked my tutor what caused the problem. She said my grammar was fine, but my cultural awareness was lacking. By using that form of the verb, I was implying that I didn’t want the clothing, partly because I didn’t like it (which is a bit of an affront to the store), and partly because I couldn’t afford it (which causes embarrassment to me). She told me that I should have made up a reason why I didn’t want the clothing (wrong size, wrong color, bad fit…) – ANYTHING but imply that I couldn’t afford it or that I straightforwardly just didn’t like it.

I’m going to have to get used to this, as my first inclination is to politely tell it like it is. Luckily, here, I have no choice but to think before I talk (since Chinese doesn’t quite come naturally yet!), so I don’t imagine I’ll make this mistake twice.

What we miss (and don’t)

So, you may be wondering, what do Liz and JM miss after 4 months outside of the US? And, what don’t we miss that we thought we would before we left? Well, here’s a short list (we will not be talking about the obvious things like friends and family – YES, we miss you all terribly!).


Our oven! Ovens do exist here, but they’re a luxury that few can afford.

The comfort of blending right into your own culture. Everywhere we go, we are different. In a given setting, we may not always be sure of the social context. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to communicate, and sometimes we long for the ease of being in a group of Americans! We are also the objects of LOTS of second glances and curiosity, which we’ve grown more and more accustomed to over the past 4 months. Nonetheless, sometimes we really would like to blend in!

In a word: YOGA. (This is Liz writing. For the record, JM does NOT and will never miss Yoga.)

Foods we miss: Chocolate, Cheese, Good Wine, Avocados, Good Cheap Coffee (no one sells decaf here, and the coffee they do have is very expensive), Deli Meat, BREAD, Hommos, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Western Spices (Funny though, we don’t really miss lettuce salads.) AND, we especially miss all the fabulous restaurants in New Haven (Thai Taste, Sitar, SUSHI Palace!, Istanbul, Claire’s, Pepe’s and Sally’s, Modern Apizza, The Pantry, etc, etc, etc!).

US Sports Coverage on TV – We do wish we could watch a good game now and then!

Fresh air and clean water: We are coughing a bit more and inhaling a lot more dust, and we buy bottled water every day. We certainly appreciate the quality of American air and water!

A soft bed mattress. As far as we can tell, we are actually pretty lucky to have a mattress. Beds of criss-crossed ropes are not uncommon here.

Space: It is crowded here. There really are a LOT of Chinese people. And we thought New England was crowded.

Toilet paper and hand soap in restrooms; we make sure to bring our own.


Our clothes drier – not a big deal once we got the hang of doing laundry this way… Even with a baby and all the laundry that entails.

Carseats and strollers: Let’s face it, carseats (while admittedly safer), are annoying. We don’t know a baby who loves his/her carseat. We don’t drive our own car, and there aren’t seatbelts in the taxis to hook up a carseat. People do use strollers here, but we don’t know how they navigate the sidewalks and ad hoc construction zones with them. Plus, hauling a stroller up and down 96 stairs to our apartment sounds backbreaking. Not to mention, Leo is more protected from all the attention he gets here while in our arms or in our carrier. So, to heck with carseats and strollers!

Driving our own car – we just don’t need (or want) a car here. Everything we need is within walking or bussing distance. Navigating the streets of Nanjing in a car also sounds a little scary. It’s pretty organized, but still a bit cutthroat.

Endless supplies of hot water: We have a solar water heater on our roof and it heats a certain quantity of hot water for us each day when the sun is out. It saves a tremendous amount of electricity.

Toilets with seats: You may or may not know that Asian toilets are holes in the ground (with plumbing, of course), and so no one sits in restrooms. It is quick and can be clean (as long as you don’t slip on the floor).

For all the things we miss, we are having constant adventures exploring our new territory and are feeling more and more at home here. People are indeed curious, but also very friendly – asking us what kind of food we eat, where we’re from, where we live, what we’re doing here, and – our personal favorite – if we know who Michael Jordan is! Although we may not always be at ease and it takes about 10 times as much energy to communicate, it’s incredibly satisfying to be able to have conversations with people who, just a few short months ago, we could barely say hello to in Chinese!

Eat out or stay home.. or both?

Every day we walk by the shops selling flowers, cigarettes, snack foods, and all manner of household items. They are small sidewalk stores sitting at the base of larger apartment buildings, usually no larger than 100 square feet, just enough room for one shopkeeper and a few counters and shelves holding merchandise.

After passing hundreds of these little shops over the past few months, we started noticing that the shopkeepers were always the same people, all day long. We started to notice that in addition to the small storefront, there was usually a back room where the workers also lived, just enough room for a small bed and some personal items. Talk about no separation between work and home! This appears to be a very common living arrangement in China- even if it’s a larger business like a restaurant, the employees tend to board at the business after hours as well.

One of the small store owners around the corner from us has a wife and small 1 year old son. The parents basically take turns playing with the baby out on the sidewalk in front of their cigarette stall, trying to dodge pedestrian traffic all day long. Their living room is a folding chair set out near the curb, and their kitchen is a few pieces of cardboard surrounding their portable wok skillet, serving as a backsplash as they stir-fry vegetables. An outdoor faucet on the side of the building is where they get water and do laundry in a bucket. We marvel at their forgoence of any conveniences we take for granted, like having a bathroom. The space of our living room alone could house two families of this size. All of a sudden our 7th story apartment feels luxurious.

As we walk by these families, they are always cheerful and greet us. There has to be a different equation to happiness besides the size of one’s home.

Rain rain go away

Ok, so it’s not quite monsoons we’re dealing with here, but we had heard about the periodic rainy season hitting Nanjing every June.  It’s true.  Nanjing has entered a period of 3-plus weeks of cloudy skies and off and on rain showers, making daily life a little wet at times.  Sometimes we’ll come home from a jog having been drenched along the way, and will have to air out soggy sneakers for the next few days.

Nanjing is supposed to be one of China’s ‘oven cities.’  So far so good- it feels pretty muggy during these rainy days, but it’s not a sauna.  Come July and August we’re expecting the 100+ degrees days.  JM thinks it should be no problem compared to years spent in Texas.  Time will tell..

Leo is continuing to grow up fast!  We’re amazed at all the new things he brings himself to do.  But why does he seem to find electrical outlets, garbage cans and the toilet to be the most interesting things to play with?  Maybe those are the basic necessities in a man’s life, and Leo has already clued in.  🙂

But do you really speak English?

As I (JM) left Chinese class a week ago, someone handed out flyers advertising a chance to teach English part-time over the summer.  It sounded interesting, so I followed up and arranged a meeting with them.  It’s a ten-day English camp for middle schoolers, geared towards preparing a creative performance for the students to put on at end of the camp.

I went to the interview and was very interested by their description of the program, and they seemed to like my resume.  In fact, they offered me a position on the staff team of 10 teachers on the spot.  I was thrilled- my first job in China!  The camp will take place in July.

Walking out of the office I entered the elevator to go back downstairs.  The manager came running out behind me, calling for me to hold the doors.  She got in and accompanied me downstairs.  "My colleague just pointed out to me that I hired you for an English teaching job, but, we didn’t hear you speaking any English!"

It hit me that I had been responding to all of her interview questions in Chinese!  To the best of my ability, I avoided using English, and must have only spoken two or three sentences in total that I didn’t know how to express in Chinese.  Wow!  This semester of study has brought me a lot further than I first realized.

I reassured her, in English, that English speaking is not a problem for me!

His name is Neo

Last Friday, Cheng Ayi’s 5th full day working with us, the three of us (Leo, Cheng Ayi, and I) were sitting around our dining room table. Cheng Ayi and I were trying to coax Leo to eat a few more bites of lunch, and I was telling Leo in Chinese to open his mouth. Cheng Ayi looked at me, hearing me call Leo by name, and asked me, “What’s his name?” It seems it’s just as hard for Chinese people to remember Western names as it is for us to remember Chinese names!

I responded, “His name is Leo.” I said, “It sounds just like the number 6.” Which it does – six in Chinese is “liu” – which sounds roughly the same as Leo. Her eyes widened in recognition and she exclaimed, “Neo!”

I had forgotten one important thing – Nanjing people switch their L sounds for N sounds!

I had to bite my tongue from laughing as images of Keanu Reeves from The Matrix began to run through my head.

So, according to Cheng Ayi, his name is Neo. She’s been walking around the house with him, singing songs to “Neo, Neo, Neo!”

Both JM and I have Chinese names, which really are necessary here. Most people will not remember our English names. Even on our formal documents, like cell phone contracts, leases, etc – we sign our Chinese names. It seems it is now a good time to pick a Chinese name for Leo.

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June 2008
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