Monday, April 26, 2010

solitary solidarity

This may come as a surprise, but about three times a week I go to work out at a gym. Now, I know what you're thinking: isn't this the same Jon that used to throw down cheese doodlez by the bag, the one who would get primed up for his high school basketball games by playing Ready2Rumble on Dreamcast for 3 hours, the same Jon who gained 25 pounds his freshman year of college, not because of booze, but because of, specifically, sour cream n' onion Lays potato chips? And if I'm not out of shape and overweight, the pendulum swings the other way completely. Those that met me at the Dulles airport last June remember a sickly, lanky, pale Jon (the mothers present immediately wanted to feed me). "Figured as much," you probably said to yourselves as you hugged me and wondered how long I had left. This year, however, I'm hoping to bound through that security gate a healthy, fit, pale Jon. But working out can be boring, if it's done alone. Just ask the group of Chinese bros that busted into our gym two weeks ago. Four guys walked in and, without a word, each found his own machine and pounded it. Now, if they had done this alone, who would have been there to witness the measurement of their biceps following the work-out? That's right: after finishing, they huddled together in the corner, pulled out the tape measurer and actually measured their biceps together. I imagine the measuring tape they used had three measurements on it: puny, useless, and massive. You could see the sinister grins on their faces as their biceps were, in fact, massive.

I usually go with Ryan, Tim, and Cameron. None of us are professionals, exhibited by our first destination upon arriving at the gym this afternoon: the trampoline. We burned calories by trying to "bounce" each other as high as we could. After that and a spry run on the treadmills, we pumped several irons, if you will; then we hit the locker room. Locker rooms always precipitate conversation, for better or for worse, and ours today was about Ryan's "70 yuan challenge." Ryan loves solidarity, even more than I do. He has bared with us through seasons 5 and 6 of Lost, even though it was never his idea and he probably wouldn't really care if we dropped the show, even this close to its end. Last year it was Battlestar Galactica, which is not anywhere near his interests. He told me he once he fashioned his own lightsaber in Middle School, but, after knowing Ryan at age 25, it's hard to believe he was ever into science fiction (maybe Star Wars is so widely loved, it doesn't even count as sci-fi). He does these things just to be with us; it's one of the things I love about Ryan. Just two weeks ago, Ryan convinced me join the girls in a class at the gym called "Body Pump." This is an ability and desire I might not be blessed with. As Bethany pointed out a few days ago: "Jon, you don't like doing something you're not interested in, do you?" Astute, Bethany.

Over the last year and a half, Ryan has been struck by his students' ability to live on such a tight budget. We estimated that each student probably lives on about 10 yuan each day ($1.50). That includes all three meals. Ryan has decided to give himself this challenge: spend no more than 70 yuan in one week. His purpose is be better stated on his blog, but Ryan essentially intends to build solidarity with his students. He wants to know what it's like to live like them. Of course, as always, I had my reservations. So, I questioned him in the locker room.

"Have you told any students about this?" I asked Ryan.


"We usually pay for students when we eat with them," I said, "Are we allowed to treat you to a meal?"

"I thought about that. I don't know," Ryan replied.

"I'll tell you what's difficult about this experiment," I said, "you are living the life of a foreigner on a students' budget. We have team dinner together at restaurants. You just came to work out at the gym, the membership for which you already paid for; something a student couldn't afford to do."

"Yeah, I've thought about all this earlier today when I was blogging about it. I'm not sure."

Just like that, without answering all the hypothetical questions and without even telling those he intends to have solidarity with, he started his challenge. While I'm stuck asking too many questions, Ryan tends to shoot first. Today, he bought one bottle of water to drink in the gym (1 yuan), and then we all went to lunch together. Ryan was going to just buy a couple pork burgers on the street for a few Yuan, but Cameron, Tim, and I chose a cheap lunch for all of us: dumplings. We ordered 3 plates of jiao zi (dumplings) with 3 different fillings, each plate containing 20 dumplings. We shared 60 authentic dumplings jam-packed with flavor for 28 Yuan. Split between four people, that's $1.00 each. I'm still in awe of this, even after a year and a half. But the awesome nature of the price dwindled once we realized how much Ryan had to pay: 7 Yuan. That leaves him with 2 Yuan for dinner.

"没事 (mei shi/no problem), I'll just have to get creative," he told us. In the school cafeteria, 2 Yuan can can probably buy Ryan a bowl of rice porridge and a piece of fried bread, but that's it. One of our students who excells at living a bargain lifestyle is our friend, Vince (pictured left). His stomach is a bottomless pit, yet he finds ways to fill it, usually by finishing the entire table's leftovers (and by sweating as he does it. Guaranteed: a meal with Vince is a meal with a sweaty Vince). It's common to let him finish your rice, or even your Coke.

"You should tell Vince about this," I told Ryan, "he would love to give you advice on how to do this."

I didn't finish my 20 oz. Coke during our meal; so, after lunch I left it at the table. As we were leaving, Ryan made a quick cut and ran back inside. He came out with my unfinished Coke in his hand.

"Vince strikes again!" he said, smiling.

It'll be interesting to see how this challenge affects Ryan, and what he learns about his students as he attempts to increase his solidarity with our Chinese friends, even in such a small way. Certainly, it will be tough. But not as tough as running on treadmills. Sure, it's easy while you're coasting, but try recovering from a dropped towel. It immediately turns into a light-speed banana peel you have to dodge under your fight. And one foul step on that thing, just one, and you're a goner.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

facebook stalkers beware!

A couple weeks ago I joined 人人 (renren/everyone), the Chinese version of facebook. I have, so far in my Chinese life, abstained from all Chinese online social networks, particularly QQ. This is basically AIM, but it's updated with twitter and facebook qualities. From conversations with students, it seems that approximately 1/3 of their lives are spent on QQ. They flirt, get angry with each other, make new friends, all on QQ. This could be said about my life at 15 years old, not 21, as my students are. I often hear stories about students getting on QQ to meet foreigners so they can practice their English. Sometimes I react by lecturing on the dangers of this activity, but usually I just smile and nod. When I meet someone new at school, the end of our conversation usually goes like this:

"Do you have QQ?" the student asks, giggling, hands over mouth (if it's a girl).


"What?!" the student asks with a look of utter incredulity. Clutching at straws he asks, "Do you have MSN??" almost as if he's asking, "Do you eat?"

"No, sorry. I can give you my email address." I might as well have said, "No, but I do wear diapers."

So, I've decided to meet them in the middle; I signed up for 人人. So far it's been fun to find my students and friends on there and see what their mysterious internet social lives are like. It's also pretty difficult; the enter site is in 中文 (zhong wen/Chinese), which is actually good for Chinese practice. The most jarring part of the whole experience was entirely one-sided. My second friend on 人人 was a girl I know from Beijing. Strangely, after becoming friends with me, she added me to her top friends bracket on the right side of her profile. I didn't think we were that close, I thought, but it's a nice gesture anyway. A few friends later, I noticed that everbody had done the same thing. Hm. I know people like me here, but come on. So I copied the characters above the "Top Friends" bracket, and pasted them into my trusty Google Translator.

"Recent Visitors"

Ahh!! I quickly exited the profile I was currently looking at. My cover was blown! It was like a searchlight finding a thief in the dark, or like someone yanking the bush out of the ground that I was hiding behind. I feld exposed. Mind you, I wasn't doing anything suspicious. I was just doing what people do on facebook, looking at pictures of people and watching their online activity without them knowing... which in all other facets of life would be known as "stalking."

This has totally shaken my view of online social networks. Now, on 人人, if I check out someone's profile I need to be okay with them knowing about it, or I need to leave a comment so that I had a reason to be there. I don't think facebook would ever adopt "Recent Visitors" because it would scare everyone, but should they?

Click for larger picture.

我 (wo/me)

Friday, April 2, 2010

that's no moon

Our clan of Americans climbed to the tip top of Moon Hill on an unfortunately dreary day. I remember feeling old because there were hundreds of steps to get to the first of two summits, and I actually had to take several breathers, and it wasn't due to the altitude. I'm glad to say that I've recently been training for a 10k (along with the rest of the IECS team) coming up in May in Beijing; so if I had a rematch with the stairs at Moon Hill now, it'd be no contest. This was the third leg of our trip, following Macau and Shenzhen, and it was also a homecoming for me. My first experience in China was in 2002 in this town called Yangshuo in the Guangxi province. Bryce, Mark, Hudson, and Andrew were all there, and it was this trip that catapulted a long-lasting, romantic, and somewhat steamy relationship between China and me. We've been hot and heavy ever since. I returned to Yangshuo two years later, and it was then that I decided to someday live in China. Who knew it would be so soon?

We spent 5 days in Yangshuo, staying at the Bamboo House hostel. It didn't take long for us to notice the Chinese character for righteousness painted on the tiled wall behind the front desk. I asked Annie, the young desk attendant and she proceeded to tell me her testimony. It was quite a blessing to connect with other believers in such a random place, and it wasn't the last time on this trip. Two of the days, unfortunately, were spent knee deep in tissues in my hostel bed. I had a nasty head cold, but on the last two days I had the strength to reunite with an old friend that some of the guys on that early trip would remember: William Wu. He joined our group for dinner the night before we left.

"I've changed my Chinese name," he told me over pizza.


"Because I hate my father," he said without hesitation.

It was this kind of transparency that originally attracted me to William, along with his sarcastic sense of humor. But this time he wasn't being sarcastic, and the next morning William and I met for breakfast and talked about what it would look like to forgive his father for leaving his family and starting a new one. As one might expect, it would be hard; it would be unthinkable, implausible. I told him that forgiveness is possible, but only if you've really been forgiven before. Only then will you pay the price for someone else's debt. Before we left we exchanged recommendations; he wrote several Chinese film and music recommendations on a slip of paper for me and I wrote "Romans 5:8" on a piece of paper for him and told him to look at it later. He thanked me. William is a believer in love and truth and I hope that will lead him to the incarnation of the truth.

Here's a video of us atop Moon Hill, high on altitude.