Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pimped out for Olive Oil

Possibly the Most Degrading Thing of All Time

New experiences are important. Without new stimuli, I think that life can get quite stale and overly routine. Because of this, I decided to do a spur of the moment part time job for someone. Keep in mind that I’m in China... and that the job was non-teaching related.

I was offered ¥500 for 5 hours of work... cooking in a super market and handing it out to people. “Sounds interesting” I thought. Thats basically 1/3 of the monthly salary of some of the Chinese workers at my school... and I like to cook, so why not right? I dont really need the money... but an extra ¥500 would be nice for such a relatively short amount of time, and how hard can it be?

With my limited information, I go to the super market at the agreed upon 915 and meet the person who is to be my translator that day. She and I have our introductions, and I’m pleased because she speaks quite decent English... which is actually shocking considering she is an English major at one of the local universities (yes you read that right... it is shocking). She asks me what I will be cooking today, and I inform her that I imagined the friend of a friend who set me up with the job would inform me when we got to the location.

We go and find the place where I will be working. We find the kiosk type thing... and guess what - I’m advertising olive oil! Hey interesting, I know some stuff about olive oil - I can back this no problem. In this large multi-leveled grocery/department store, the small roofed kiosk is much like you would expect of a kiosk in North America. Products lining the walls, with profanely loud looking advertisements on the side: including a life-sized, overly jolly and slightly pedophiliac looking Italian chef.

There is a western style knife on a cutting board on one of the “cook surfaces” on the inside of the kiosk/booth (Yay no cleaver!). There is also colander of vegetables: carrots, tomatoes (large and cherry), garlic, a red onion and some cucumber. on the edge of the counter was a package of macarron noodles (straight and large-tubed macaroni). There are two other girls who will be working with me, in addition to my translator. These other two girls are completely adorned in green “olivoilà olive oil” garb, with the mandatory hip mounted microphone set-up that is oh so prevalent in Chinese department store marketing. These include a microphone headset that is connected by wire to a battery pack/ speaker on your hip which, as you may imagine, comes across as very aggressive and direct when you are going about your daily business and someone “politely” asks you to sample their yoghurt.

Well... boss lady comes in and gets me adorned in a somewhat knock-off chef coat, apron, toque (chef hat), and some confusing neck tie affair. I slip this on, and get saddled with my own propaganda spouting microphone/speaker set.

I am then told that we will be working at this location until 1 oclock, and moving to another department store at 2:30 and going until 6 o’clock. At this... my stomach rose into my throat and I began looking for my escape plan. My understanding of the day was 5 hours... and I figure that meant that I would work until about 2 oclock... collect my money and stories and move about my merry way.


I am then given the poorly adapted English script. My translator kicks in and tells me the way things are supposed to go down. I am supposed to “cook” using the ingredients provided while explaining all the steps in English “to avoid embarassment” and then serve this as samples to the passers-by while regaling them with the wonders of our Olivoilà olive oil.

Lets recap for a moment. This is China. Everyone speaks Mandarin... and I speak English... with some Mandarin on the side to get myself into trouble with :P

Oil consumption is very high... i’d call that a plus(+). The number one oil of choice is either peanut or blended oils which are sold in 2-3 gallon jugs... a minus(-). Our oil is very expensive... ¥40 for the smallest 250ml bottle.. ¥121 for the 750ml and over ¥200 for our largest 2L size (-- two minuses for volume and price respectively). The Chinese culture is traditional... which means that on a certain level... deviancy is discouraged and routine is promoted. Not only this, but it has been engrained as habit, so buying something that is “off the list” is less likely (-). Chinese love to stare at white people (I wonder how many pluses the olivoilà olive oil corporation thinks this counts as?)

So we effectively have 1 plus against 4 minuses... which makes that three minuses against however many pluses the “Lao Wai” (white folk) staring value gets. Not what I would call prime marketing circumstances.

Next step... what am I supposed to cook?.... well... that question went unanswered.

10 o’clock rolls around and it is time to start the show... uhhg errrm uhh.

According to instruction, macaroni goes into the provided wok with boiling water... again according to instruction, I am peeling vegetables while explaining exactly what I am doing. Fortunately I do know how to cook, and have watched enough cooking shows to generally explain what kinds of cuts I am using (coarse chop, mincing etc)... not that it mattered, because my translator was hauled out of there by Boss Lady because she didnt like the look of it evidently. The other girls who work there spoke so little English, it was really pointless for me to be talking... aside from the passers by being able to listen and notice that I was obviously saying something profound. The girls (not my translator) were “translating” which equated to them giving their own scripts. My Chinese is good enough to know that that poor girl has no idea what I am saying and is resorting to her speech. It went something like this:

ME: Currently, I am peeling the cucumber and carrots.
Assistant Girl: (In Chinese) Olivoilà olive oil it is excellent for your health and full of antioxidents!

Me: I am thinly slicing the carrots and onions so that they fully sautee, and so that the rich olive oil flavours can get to all parts of the vegetable.
Assistant Girl: (In Chinese)... Nega (chinese “umm”).... The olive oil is made from the best olives that are selected in Italy.

Me: Now you want to sautee the carrots and onions first so that they can soften up before you add the tomatoes and and cucumber, otherwise they will become mushy and look awful.
Assistant Girl: (In Chinese... probably thinking... “oh to hell with it”) Buy any product over ¥121 and you will receive a scratch card where you are 100% guaranteed to win!

So here I am... completely improvising my newly dubbed “Pasta Primavera” based entirely on a bucket full of vegetables, some macaroni, salt and olive oil! Macarroni finished, I drain it, and in olivoilà olive oil I sautee my vegetables which have been cut in various shapes and thicknesses based on what I thought was most likely to have good texture given the conditions.

“You should add some salt now” one of the assistant girls says with her very limited English.

Then it gets even more fun. “You are not allowed to eat or drink anything... because you are the cook” I hear my translator say to me in the midst of mental shock and fog that comes from such a last minute effort at trying to make something good under the gun.

Let me get this straight... I was just asked to throw something together without any sort of standardized recipe... salt it... and I cant even taste it to make sure it isnt awful? Well... that made me feel generally awful at my new part-time (1 day only dont worry...) job.

So we slop my “Pasta Primavera” onto some little plastic plates and stab it with a bunch of tooth pics. Wearing my plastic gloves and surgical mask (worn by every food oriented worker advertising in a super market) I was summoned out from behind the kiosk to serve my frankenstein to the layman.

Halfway wanting to bellow “GIVE MY CREATION LIFE!! and BUY MY OLIVE OIL!” I came out from my hovel.

After a while, I was told that I was, “the best one we have had yet. Seriously... were not just flattering you.” My translator was certainly bridging a bit of a gap between myself and Assistant Girl.

My question is... if the rest have bombed... why the $^#@ havent you standardized anything so that they can understand what needs to happen better? Whatever... this is one of the business lessons I’ve learned from the experience.

For the next two and a half hours I watched as people avoided I contact with myself and the other workers. Fortunately by now, boss lady had disappeared to another location and we were able to chat freely. Since so few were really interested in trying a new product... let alone a soul-less “pasta primavera”, I contented myself to chatting it up with my translator who I will call Madeline for the sake of anonymity. I found out that she is one of those rare people who genuinely likes english... as clear result, she had very comfortable conversational english and some quality grammar. She is an English Major at one of the local universities. She also came right out and asked me... “Do you have religion?” It is a question I like to skirt more often than not, because I don’t feel like a simple yes or no truly answers the situation. Feeling a bit of trust with this person I said... the short answer is yes, but not in the way that you might be used to seeing from other foreigners. I really don’t enjoy being lumped into the “Christian” category. Unfortunately the name has grown to encompass much that I am not willing to associate with.

I reciprocated the question, not wanting to give information without receiving in kind. I learned that I now had a new Muslim friend. She was also quick to address the “were not all terrorists” line of thinking that some might paste over Islam. I assured her that I had no such thoughts and that I in fact respected Islam quite a lot. Both comfortable with the situation, we whiled away the time passing out cold and mysterious bits of “pasta primavera” on a toothpick. I was then offered a break by the head assistant girl who had been my (akhem) “translator” during the “production.” I took the opportunity to have some sample cups tracked down, and I shared my flask of coffee with Madeline, and offered to the other two girls who declined my offer.

Madeline and I shared my coffee and we chatted away switching between Mandarin and English. The other girls decided that I could speak enough Chinese, so they joined in our conversation. Between our mutual communication efforts and the general translating of Madeline when necessary, we got along quite well.

She then told me, and the other girls that I had a talent for Mandarin (which made me all warm and fuzzy inside). She tempered her compliment with a token of truth even, saying that most outsiders don’t learn chinese as well as I have, even though they have lived here for years.

Did I mention that I love validation? especially from people I feel have a position that they can accurately judge from (language learners complimenting language learners). And WOW was that a dose.

I realized at that moment that I had in fact gotten the stories and experiences that I was looking for when I took the job. Money I didn’t so much care about... this however, I did.

I started serving again, and Madeline told me, “I have learned two things today: I am far from a good translator, and that life is hard.” I laughed. Then I told her that she actually is a good translator, and that the only way to get better is to keep doing it. I am not a linguistically bound American. I know what it is like to speak another language. She seemed to take this consolation.

Finally.... 1 o’clock rolled around and we were told that we could go for lunch. (I’d been eyeing the exits since about 10 o’clock). I take off costumed garb and microphone and place it in the provided bag. I was planning on leaving the bag there and just not coming back.

It may sound horribly dishonest to you... but frankly I was not pleased with the fact the time frame was WAY larger than I had been led to believe, including a change in venue, and that I had to do this all over again. Being used as a generally useless piece of meat (I was not there to inform (lack of language)... nor to provide deliciousness... (lack of recipe) so really this was just a “dance monkey dance” moment.)

I got my stories, and that is what I set out to do. In my mind... I had followed my task as far as I needed. I had no need nor desire to be flaunted about as a prize any more than I had been. As far as integrity is concerned, I figure it balances out just fine this time.

My plan was somewhat thwarted though. They gave me the bag and told me that I needed to take it to the next place... they would not be the ones going to the new location. Bag of stuff in hand, Madeline and I made our way down the escalators. I started asking her questions... are you being paid for this? “No” she responded. “What!!” quoth I. “Then why are you doing it” I asked. “Same reason as you...the experience”

We got to the ground floor and I said, “Look I need to be honest with you.... I have no intention of going to the next location and doing this for another 3 hours.” “I dont need the money, I dont want to fight for the 3 hours’ pay... I have no intention of cheating them.”

She looked a little stunned and I explained my rationale. She seemed to get it, while still a little shocked. I didn’t want my new friend to feel I was a flake, but the situation was as it stood. We went up stairs, returned the stuff and through a series of phone calls explained the situation. I then offered Madeline ¥100 for her time, and told her that I thought she had earned it. She recoiled from it though, stammering “Noooo, no, no, no no.... No.” And I looked at her all confused like (with a lurking wonder in the back of my head if it seemed like a “proposition” to her). She then explained that the Chinese... or at least herself... would not take money if they do not think they earned it. Well... theres about twenty beggars in Erqi square right now who would beg to differ (sorry for the pun). Regardless, she turned down they money and I reminded her... that if she wanted it - I thought she had earned it.

Anyhow, after the situation was resolved(ish) she seemed to relax and not in fact be put off by my decision. Her friend (the one who had her come to the place to translate) was on his way. It seems that we were both there on behalf of a friend of a friend... of a friend. Evidently her friend is a model. He’s decently attractive, but definitely tall! Whatever...

We go to lunch and he’s not angry or angsty even. On the contrary, given my explanation of the situation he was incredibly understanding. As the story goes... he was actually only trying to track down white males for this job... because it was his friends job to do this... and his poor friend has no foreign friends.

I learned something new about Chinese social obligation. Madeline explained to me that the Chinese dont want to say “no” to their friends, or reject them, so they will just take on the responsibility and get someone else involved. It is more than conceivable to have 5 people working on one friends’ problem. And here I come from a background where you try and do it by yourself the first time. If you have questions... you only know after you’ve tried it yourself.... ok... It’s your culture. However y’all want to do it.

We had Halal (Muslim version of Kosher) noodles at lunch as I got to know the two better, and further developed the relationship with my two new friends, while somewhat lamenting the predicament that the newest member was in. Part of me wanted to go back to help... the other part fully accepted and embraced the fact that I didnt really need to go degrade myself for someone I’d just met. It was now the model’s job to find a replacement for me.. and he was asking me about my friend group (which subconsciously I was pretty reluctant to try too hard... because I didn’t want to wrangle anyone else into that kind of ill prepared situation... regardless of the pay.)

Thoroughly enjoying the fact that I made Chinese friends, almost on my own, I reveled in the lunch time. We were in a grungy delicious Chinese restaurant (as it should be - haha!) code switching between Mandarin and English. They were happy to have a new foreign friend, and I was happy to have Chinese friends I could practice with.

Definitely a productive day. Exhausting and requiring a potent beverage upon return home... but well worth it all.

I found out the next day as a friend and I went for a massage.. that he took the position after I got out of dodge. I was glad that he benefited from my flaking out HAHA. He got ¥400 (¥100 less than the original deal) for half of the working hours. Like I said though... I’m glad.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Knowing just enough to be dangerous

I am sitting in front of my computer this fine cool morning enjoying a nice hot cup of coffee. I love contrast. The light chill gives me just enough of a reason to wear a hoodie, and makes the coffee that much more appreciated. It is now wednesday... part way through my week “off” between semesters. This last semester wound down nicely, and fortunately I can now say that I have a successful semester of teaching English under my belt. BOOM. This next semester starts up on monday... yay. HOWEVER! lets not be too dismal, because this new load of classes plus my abundant whole semester of teaching should combine to make a much better state of affairs.

I will be teaching monday to friday foundations (level 0) reading and level 2 listening speaking, both of which I’m really looking forward to, and Im also teaching level 3 writing and a connections class for the foundations level that meets twice a week. Finally, I will be full time on one program. HUZZAH! I will be busy... to be sure, but I will also have a more regular schedule it looks like.

So there are a few new vistas you might say - some pleasant horizons. I’ll get to hone my skills at teaching (oh and the next thing out of the goodie bag for this one - these are classes that have been taught before and fairly well established it seems... so the work load should be somewhat lesser on preparation MUAHAHA), continue to practice my Chinese and find new adventures... oh yah and read more books.

The testing week of class, I polished off a light 200 page snack called Chinese Cinderella in 1.5 days (yes its in English). I was furious the whole time... so naturally I couldn’t put it down. Anyhow - it got me back into reading, and I am trying to get myself to a more balanced life where I have varied activities for myself.

Status report time. Im in book 2 of a rather demanding Chinese textbook series. Most of the text is in Chinese characters (汉字) with tone marks above the characters... so I attack those texts with pinyin (the latin based written system of Chinese - so words like “ 汉字 ” would look instead like “hànzi”), looking up and referencing the words I dont know as I go through it. Then the book explains grammar points and you move on to the next unit. Its kind of exhausting, but fortunately I’m at a level where I can understand enough that it is not totally exasperating, and it is instead serving as an incredible language learning tool.

What I’m excited about is the near future. I want to continue attacking this book and hopefully finish it in early June. (OOO book 3!!) Then I would like to start working on Children’s books and do the same thing I’ve been doing to my text.... transcribe it into pinyin.

Im basically making the world my practical test HAH. Every time I come across new words - they get turned into pinyin so that I can PROVE! that I know what they mean and how to say them (tee hee). It’s my gleeful nerdy niche.

Proximal vista! As my Chinese improves... and as my co-worker friend becomes more and more abundantly pregnant... she is going to have to take maternity leave. When she does... oh darn... Im gonna have to go visit more often. Fortunately, she and her family like me and her husband is American... so its a wonderful schmorgespord of culture and food. Her dad and I get along right fine... and he’s even offered to teach me how to cook (chinese food of course...). YAY! So we have a sort of communicative bond... especially when alcohol is involved... and im really looking forward to learning how get into Chinese food.

Honestly.... to you westerners who have yet to be fortunate to come to China... Chinese food is nothing like you thought it was.

Ok so next missing whole in the road... is my Chinese really that good? mmm... yes...ish.

So right now it is difficult for me to say something in coherent sentences, but I am very good at eaves dropping, and also at using the words I do know in a functional way.

Mandarin Chinese is basically devoid of what most people would call “grammar”. Granted... many of the people reading this blog are my crazed linguistics friends. Before I get reamed out by them -- the Chinese language survives by almost exclusive use of syntactic constructions. This means that Chinese does not use verb tenses and -ed/ ing endings on words. They just use a completely different word. They also put it those words in a special spot in the sentence... which is kind of difficult to learn. However - its not the end of the world.

My approach to Chinese has been this: gobble up every word you can get your mouth around... and make your mouth bigger so that you can gobble more. My philosophy is that once I have gobbled up enough words - they will start to play nice together (especially as my textbooks particularly point out the grammatical constructs... almost exactly like the linguistic examples that we have done in our LDPs (language data projects) for the past 2 years of university) HAH! Thank God for useful degrees... unlike... art or something :D.

As I am here reveling in all of my new knowledge, pouring over my pages of Chinese characters and translating them into pinyin - I have my friends at work... who are also more or less in awe of my ravenous language appetite. It makes me feel good - to put that as juvenilely as I can. I actually had one friend - who is Chinese... but with an incredible British accent from her 8 years in England (in addition to linguistic talent herself), who after speaking in Chinese with a few other colleagues - turns to me and said with her normal pleasant smile:

“ You know were proud of you Peter.”

Well what a breath of fresh air that was.

I love validation. I know it goes without saying, but there is definitely an art to effective validation - and that was it for me: someone recognizing you for hard work and talent combined.

Its enough to spur you on to greater heights. Thats when it really clicked what it means to “learn a language.” I’ve heard it said before, but this is where it really fit into my paradigm. -- When you learn a language, you look to become a part of a social/ cultural group-- And while I will never “be Chinese” ethnically I will be more capable of advocating for them in other spheres of life because I will understand their context better than most. Without breaking into song or anything now - I want to be a part of their world. Depending on the way this world goes, maybe they will be a part of mine too.

Well - to minimally quote Walt Disney, “keep moving forward.”

For those of you interested, I would appreciate it if you would keep me in mind as I go to teaching this next semester. While I will appreciate the opportunity to schedule myself more consistently - I get stir crazy with too much routine. If you would be praying that I keep looking for new opportunities to keep my teaching fresh and stretching - I’d appreciate it.