Bu Ji Dao

20111115-211054.jpg

In America, one of the fondest words of a young child is, “why?” All of us have encountered the inquisitive child who is incessantly asking the big question. In America, we have been encouraged to ask why, it is an integral part of our society. To question authority is to be American.

I knew that when I moved to China, one of my most frequent questions would not be answered, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent to which I would be silenced. To cope with this, I have learned a phrase in Chinese, and I repeat it often: Bu ji dao, I don’t know.

Some of the major things I had questions about in my first months in Shanghai:

Why do babies wear split pants (pants where their bottoms are exposed at all times?)
Why do babies poo and pee on the sidewalk?
Why do grown men pee anywhere and everywhere?
Why is that dude carrying a purse?
Why is there a large green and white loogie in the elevator?
Why is that old woman “digging for gold”?
Why did that guy just blow a snot rocket onto my shoe?
Why are those girls pointing at me and laughing?
Why did that scooter almost run over me?
Why do I almost get trampled to death on the metro?
Why did the taxi just drive into oncoming traffic?
Why did that guy just push the button for both elevators (Mind you, he is on the 21st floor. One elevator is on the 2nd floor and one is on the 15th).
Why are the yogurt ladies dressed in go go boots and yelling at me through a megaphone?

Why? Why? Why?

Of course there are answers that probably wouldn’t make sense to you or I. For the most part, I just shrug my shoulders, close my eyes, and breathily say, “Bu ji dao.”

There are many obstacles facing those who ask why. In an ever-changing China, which is going through the growing pains of an emerging world power, the question is often met with mixed reactions; some embrace it while others despise it. As one who works at a Chinese school, I often see the division this question can cause. Our school’s student body is a vibrant mix of students from all over China; some from vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia, some from the humid factory lands of Guangzhou, but the one thing they all have in common is that they will leave China to attend university abroad. Our teachers are from China, Canada, the UK, and Oceania, but the one thing we all have in common is that we all want to help the students prepare for an overseas education.

When I was hired to work at my school, I was told, “It is an international school with a British curriculum. Our students are the best of the best, with most of them attending the world’s top universities! Because of this, our number one priority is English.” I thought, ‘Great! This is perfect!’
So, long story short, that is how I ended up where I am today. The reality is, the situation is much different than the picture painted. So, typical me, I asked the question. Many of the new teachers asked the same question, with each of us wearing a most bewildered expression, shrugging exasperatedly. The school’s more experienced teachers put their heads down, did their work, and kept quiet, for the most part.

Fast forward a year and a half, and we are still asking the same question. It is not restricted to the teachers however, as I mentioned in a previous posting, students are asking it as well. The response from the top leaders? “We have to talk about it.” If one has the audacity to inquire again, he or she will receive the reply, “I am not sure, we still have to discuss the details.” Most people never get an answer and just put their heads down, do their work, and keep quiet. The most persistent people will eventually get an answer, that is more or less satisfactory, and go about their lives.

Lesson learned? In China, persistence is a valued characteristic. In any market across the land, buyers and sellers will persist in obtaining the best price for an item. It is not rare for an exchange over the price of a silk scarf to go on for five minutes. The one who persists, within reason mind you, will prevail. This social custom spreads far and wide outside the confines of a local market; it can be found in family relationships, business, education, and government. I have learned that in the People’s Republic of China, it is O.K. to ask why, just don’t expect an adequate response, and expect perhaps that you will have to give up on your cause. This does not apply to everyone however, those with red envelopes and other treats will get appeasing answer.

Well, now that I think of it, isn’t that just the way of the world?

Bu ji dao.

Get Away for Awhile

20111109-113639.jpg

All it takes is one ride on the metro during rush hour to make you question why you live in Shanghai. Today I felt like a rag doll, being shoved and laughed at while I watched a man grab a woman for no apparent reason. She responded by hitting the man in the shoulder while they both yelled at each other. I though the excitement was over when I was finally able to extract myself from the mob and head out of the train. As I headed toward the exit I heard a zealous, “Hello!” and turned to see who it came from.

It came from a short youngish man who wore glasses and a big grin. He said, “My name is so and so, I am from North Korea!” “Nice to meet you, my name is Lindsey!” All the while he kept shaking my hand, refusing to let go. “You are Cinderella and I am Mickey Mouse,” he continued. I thought, ‘He must be taking classes at Disney English,’ yes, it is a real “English school” out here. “O.K. I have to go!” he finally let go of my hand, but went in for the hug. “Oh, O.K.,” I said, and just then he planted a big wet one on my cheek. I quickly let go and hastily said goodbye. Why do I attract all of the crazies? I practically ran up the escalator, but had to stop because some people weren’t following the stay to the right if you just want to stand rule. I didn’t dare look back in fear that Mickey Mouse would be right behind me. I stepped off the escalator, and like a scary movie, the guy was right behind me again. I swerved into Uniqlo, said goodbye again as he shouted, “I am Donald Duck!” ‘I wish I was still in Moganshan,’ I thought wearily.

When you live in one of the biggest cities in the world, sometimes you just need to get away. Although I would love to take a weekend trip to Southeast Asia or Hainan every few weeks, it’s just not going to happen. But the great thing about Shanghai is that the railway system is fast, easy, and affordable. In about an hour you can be out of the gray and gloomy skies in the city and into the ancient water towns of Suzhou and the famous West Lake in Hangzhou.

20111109-113930.jpg
Last weekend we went to Prodigy Outdoors, an all inclusive getaway in the bamboo forest of Moganshan. Moganshan is located about 2 hours away from the Hangzhou railway station. It is amazing, and when you breathe in for the first time, I swear you can hear your lungs saying “Thank you”. It seems like Moganshan is the only place in China that you won’t see a bevy of long necked construction cranes, or traffic, or pollution. Actually, on a clear night, one can see stars. Such a simple thing, but I bet there are children in this country who have never seen a star.

Moganshan has an interesting history. It used to be a very popular place for expats to live before the Cultural Revolution It was a place for families to get together and beat the summer heat. Now, it is emerging once again as a respite for city dwellers, both foreign and Chinese. In fact, wealthy Chinese couples visit places like naked Retreats with their friends. Last weekend I saw three women, in true city fashion, climb the rocky steps of the bamboo forest path in thick heels and skirts. Only in China.

20111109-114126.jpg
Prodigy Outdoors is a no frills kind of place, which is what one usually wants after being surrounded by nothing but frills in the city. There is a fireplace in the common room, 3-4 private rooms, and a large room with bunk beds on the second floor. In case of rain, there is a flatscreen TV and a good selection of movies. The food, cooked by the cutest Ayis, was delicious. Breakfast comprised of fruit, steamed buns, toast, congee, and fermented tofu. If you are brave, try the tofu, after that, you won’t need any coffee, it wakes you right up! For dinner, we had wood oven pizza and barbecued everything. The spread for lunch was just as impressive: egg and tomato, fried poi balls, chicken, beef, fresh peas, carrots, broccoli, and more.

naked Retreats is an eco-friendly venture, and the prices are more steep than those at Prodigy. If you are looking to have a romantic weekend away, this is the place. naked offers private bungalows that are equipped with wood burning stoves and radiators to keep you warm in the crisp mountain air, a fridge stocked with juice, milk, water and more, a basket of wine if you feel so inclined, and kitchenette. In the morning and at noon, an Ayi will come knocking on your door with a basket full of food she carried on a bamboo pole and basket on her shoulders. She comes with fresh bread, vegetables, and baked chicken if you like. If you would rather cook for yourself, you can do that as well.

The location of naked is ideal, as the paths in the forest are well marked and clear. One can take a walk up the stone path to the tea fields. If the season is right, naked will help to organize a tea picking adventure. There are a also a few cool things to see on the various paths, a serene lake where villagers fish with giant bamboo poles, a nunnery, and a small town dotted with a few restaurants. It is the perfect place to get in touch with nature.

Although I am a little sad to be back in the city, I am trying to make the most of it. Still, I look forward to the next getaway…India!

20111109-114418.jpg

Just a Quickie

It’s been quite a while, but life has been crazy lately. That’s OK though, I will have lots to write about (when I have the time). Just wanted to give a quick shout out to the Young Leaders Academy, created by Hans Balmaekers. Hans is starting an online program to help foster leadership among young adults. It is a global program, so all students from around the world can participate, and great young minds can connect. I think it’s fantastic! We are going to face enormous issues in our futures: overpopulation, pollution, food shortages, and climate change, we need young people to unite and get involved.

Oh, and of course I have to mention that l did a guest post on the Academy’s website called, “You are not alone”. Click here to read my story and the stories of other mentors.