Posted on November 7th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2009

On the last Friday afternoon of April 1994, David Klos and I walked to the shopping street on Nankai University campus, just behind the wall that separates Nankai from Tianjin University. There, while a street barber gave me a haircut for ¥ 2.50 (or 29 U.S. cents), Klos settled on a stool at a nearby watering hole to inebriate himself with beer. Inebriation facilitated him to indulge in the local custom of spitting on the floor and trampling on the spit. Thereafter, we stopped by at a Western music audiotape shop, and hobnobbed with a few local professionals, including a lawyer and a surgeon who admitted their inability to earn enough money in their professions.

This anecdote highlights two features of China that made an indelible impression on me during my five-month teaching assignment in Tianjin during the first half of 1994:

  • Chinese are accustomed to spitting on the floor no matter where.
  • Chinese professionals like doctors and lawyers do not earn big money.

Klos, a fellow Minnesotan married to a Chinese woman, was one of four American English teachers whom I met during dinner at the restaurant of the International Guest House on Tianjin University campus on the Friday (Feb. 18, 1994) I arrived in Tianjin. The others were LeAnn Patterson from Texas, John Martin from Georgia, and Ben Lee from California. Being from Minnesota, Klos and I felt quite comfortable to join for afternoon or evening walks and excursions. Living at the guesthouse also enabled me to meet with numerous visitors to the Tianjin campus.

The students’ habit of spitting in the classroom bothered me at first. One cold afternoon, I was jogging along a crowded street when my nose started dripping. I stopped to clear my nose in the open when I heard a woman screaming at me in Chinese. Obviously, her gestures indicated her disgust with my action. I could never reconcile her objection with the Chinese tolerance of spitting.

The meager earnings of the professionals in socialist societies represent an attempt to prevent excessive tanhƒÆ’-¾ (craving), vedanƒÆ’-¾ (feeling) and upƒÆ’-¾dƒÆ’-¾na (grasping) leading to more dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) in society.

 Going American

One Saturday evening (April 23), a week before my haircut, three of us””‚Klos, David Dong (a Taiwan businessman staying at the guest house) and I””‚walked to the “English Bridge” on Tianjin campus to make fools of ourselves. Of course, it was Klos’s brainchild. The Chinese students were so determined to practice Yankee English that they gathered on the bridge spanning the large pond in the campus courtyard every Saturday evening to do just that. All conversation on the bridge had to be in English, American style (not the British). They were eager to pick up conversations with any foreign visitor to the bridge.

Klos proposed that I spurt out some gibberish (in an imaginary language), which he would “translate” into Yankee English. So we walked to the “English Bridge” to act out our prank. Our students gathered around us to see our amusing performance. I delivered a nonsensical harangue in Sinhala while Klos rendered it (whatever he imagined I said) in English. Having amused ourselves with this puerile act of deception, we walked through the park on the eastern side of the campus to have a sly look at the romantic couples. Finally, we ended up at a dance hall on the northern side of the campus to become spectators.

I found the “English Bridge” to be a mere symbol of the Chinese longing to go American. On my train trip to Xi’an, China’s ancient capital, on May 18, I met a soldier of the People’s Liberation Army and a chemical engineer both of whom were eager to speak English with me. Thus, I gathered that the desire to learn American English went well beyond the Tianjin University.

These episodes illustrate another feature of Chinese life in the mid-1990s:

  • Chinese were obsessed with learning American English, the language of the superpower.

  Contact with Students

The Chinese obsession with English extended to how they identified their nƒÆ’-¾marƒÆ’-¦«pa as well. Each student had an American name added to their Chinese name. So the four students who paid me a social visit on March 30 identified themselves as Cathy Zhu Yin-hue, Lily Chen Yuwei, Nancy Nan­-lin and Susan Su Jing.  Lily and Nancy had already visited me on March 24 to escort me on a tour of the new and the old libraries. They also picked me up for a celebration of the final day of the spring festival and treated me with dinner and beer at the No. 2 Dining Hall. Cathy and Nancy, together with Sonny Zhung Shi, visited me again on April 8, and took me out on a picnic to Shuishan Gongguan (Aquatic Park) and the zoo. My diary entry says:

We rode bicycles to the eastern gate of the park, which we reached about 2.20 p.m. We walked along the northern edge of the Dongho Lake to the Lotus Pavilion, then south to Culture Square, where we sat down to eat the snacks that the students had brought. Then we walked further south to the zoo to see the peacocks, the swans, the bear and the panda, among other animals.

A week later, I invited Cathy, Nancy and Sonny for dinner at a restaurant. The day before I left Tianjin, Lily and Cathy visited me again to say goodbye.

Many more students, both male and female, visited me for consultation and conversation. I saw only minimal segregation of men and women in China. For instance, on my trip back from Xi’an with Lu He-chuan, section chief of the university’s International Coordination Office, on May 22-23, I was surprised but not dismayed that we had to share our cabin with two Chinese women on the opposite side. Unfortunately, the women did not try to practice their English with me although I greeted them in Mandarin! These observations enable me to see two more highlights of life in China:

  • Chinese do not have hang-ups on having close contacts with the opposite gender.
  • Chinese students want to like and be liked by their teachers

Lu joined me for the Xi’an tour because it was sponsored by the International Coordination Office to fulfill a provision in the exchange agreement between Moorhead and Tianjin. It was an all-expense-paid excursion to a major tourist attraction. Our train left Tianjin at 10.15 a.m. on Wednesday and reached Xi’an at 12.15 p.m. on Thursday (May 19). We checked into Hawaii Hotel.

On Friday, we visited the Tomb of Qin Shi-huang, the first emperor of Qin (246 BCE -210 BCE). Then, we went to the Museum of Chin Pottery Figures to see the 6,000-odd life-sized terracotta figures of soldiers and horses. Next, we stopped at the Huaqing Pool, the hot springs used by Chinese rulers, at the foot of Lishan. Our final stop was the Banpo Neolithic Village.

We spent Saturday doing a walking tour of Xi’an exploring the Forest of Stiles Museum, the City Wall, the Great Mosque, and the Little Goose Pagoda, among other places.

We spent a couple of hours at the Shanxi History Museum Sunday morning. In the afternoon, we went to the Xi’an Railway Station to board the train back to Tianjin. Our train left at 2.20 p.m. Two women from Tianjin joined our soft-sleeper berth along the way. I greeted them in Mandarin. At breakfast time Monday, the two women offered us a banana. I thanked them, again in Mandarin. Lu and I got off the train at Tianjin West station at 2.40 p.m.   

photo11A_SLstudents01The Sri Lankan students in Tianjin 1994: Tachini Aloka Bannaheka from Kuliyapitiya (left) and Anura Gamage from Weligama (third from left) attended Tianjin University. The other two””‚ Sisira Kumarage of Gampola and Laksiri Lokuliyana of Ambalangoda””‚attended Tianjin Medical College.  

Exploration by Self-propulsion

During my stay in Tianjin, I invariably spent the late afternoons walking, jogging or cycling in the campus vicinity and beyond. I located an area of exploration for each day in a detailed map of Tianjin so I could gain a thorough grasp of the city. Often, Patterson permitted me to use her bicycle for my citywide explorations.

Examples: On a Saturday (April 30) afternoon, I took off on a 2.5-hour bicycle exploration of the southern edge of Tianjin city. On a Monday (May 2) afternoon, four of us””‚Stacy Hahn (an exchange teacher), Katie Walker (a 12-year-old visitor from Seattle), Klos and I””‚bicycled to Xigu Park in the northern suburbs of Tianjin. On a Wednesday (May 4) afternoon, I went on a 3.5-hour bicycle tour of central Tianjin. On a Thursday (May 5) afternoon, I took off on a three-hour bicycle tour of the southeastern edge of Tianjin city. On another Thursday (June 2) afternoon, I took the Tianjin underground train from Nanjing Lu to West Railway Station to see the Grand Mosque and tour the surroundings by self-propulsion. I marveled at the thousands of Chinese a-riding their bicycles back and forth every day using self-propulsion as a substitute for petroleum, which they left for overconsumption by the Yankee Doodles. Based on my observations, I concluded:

  • Chinese prefer self-propulsion (by bicycle or foot) to motorized transportation to get around in the immediate vicinity.

Li Xiaozhao also assisted me to make connections with the two Sri Lanka students at Tianjin. On the second Saturday (Feb. 26) after my arrival, I stopped at the foreign students’ dormitory to say hello to Anura Gamage from Weligama (but not from my village of Pathegama) and Tachini Aloka Bannaheka from Kuliyapitiya. They, in turn, paid me a courtesy call on Tuesday, and introduced me two Sri Lankan students studying at the Tianjin Medical College: Sisira Kumarage of  Gampola and Laksiri Lokuliyana of Ambalangoda. All of us joined for lunch at the dormitory the next day. Gamage often helped me overcome my language problem with vendors on our shopping forays.

Next: Part 11B Double-dipping in Tianjin

[The writer is a professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead. He dedicates this installment to the memory of his grandfather, Keliduwa Vidanagamage Charles Appuhamy, village headman extraordinaire of Pathegama.]



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