Friday, July 4, 2008

4th of July in China

Happy 4th of July! Coincidentally, this is my 100th post, so there's a double celebration in order. My day had a lot to it, so I'll move quickly to fit it all in.

Maybe I had so many things happen because my day lasts so long. I woke up at 6:30 to be at the bus stop by 7:00, wasn't late for school, and only made a fool of myself in class the first time I answered questions. ("I don't understand what you just said," my teacher told me frankly after my attempt to make a sentence didn't fit the realities of Chinese grammar. "Are you even speaking Chinese?" He doesn't play around.)

It was only during one of our breaks that I realized it was the fourth of July. I tried to get in a patriotic mood, but it was difficult when most of my classmates aren't American.

After lunch I got on the bus to go home. It was the hottest day of the week plus that I've been here, and more humid than any day I've seen in Orlando--and that's saying something. I could see the humidity. So when I got on the bus, I wanted a seat but I also wanted to be near an open window. I shifted chairs once when it was available, and then the girl next to me noticed that I was eager to cool off. She offered me a tissue to wipe my face with, I said thank you, she said you're welcome.

That normally is about the most interaction I have with people on buses. You just don't talk to people on a bus in China. So me and this girl next to me sat there for a few more stops until I realized that the booklet she was perusing was the book of all the bus stops in Beijing. "That looks really useful," I said to her. "Where can you buy one?"

She told me, insisted that I take her copy of the bus stop book, and we started chatting. She's about my age, working now after she came to Beijing from somewhere else in China. I think, based primarily on the anti-cancer pink ribbon she had on a flyer-turned-fan and how much she said the word "doctor," that she goes around convincing Chinese women to get mammograms. I think.

I tried to tell her about myself, but often my reach exceeds my grasp. "Sorry," I said one time when I couldn't put together a sentence. "I speak so badly."

"You don't speak badly," she insisted. "I just can't understand what you say a lot of the time."

She was actually a pretty girl, so I enjoyed talking to her for the rest of my ride. Right before I got off, she realized that she was riding the wrong direction, so we happened to get off the bus at the same stop. "Here, take this," I said to her in what I hoped was a playful tone of voice. I offered her the bus route book. "It's very useful." That's right, I made a joke in Chinese. When we got off the bus, I started to walk away, kicking myself for not asking for her number in awkward Chinese. Then she called me back and asked me for mine.

We exchanged numbers, got our names straightened out (hers is Sun Wei), and then I came back home feeling pretty good about myself.

And then I tried to get advice about the situation from my Mom. "What?" she says as she cuts up vegetables to make jiaozi. "You met some girl on the bus? What are you thinking? You don't just talk to people on buses in China."

I was thrown off that she wasn't congratulating me on my prowess.

"She could be a prostitute! And now she knows where we live!"

I said that actually she only knows what bus stop I get off at, but that didn't help very much.

Mom continued to tell me why it was a horrible idea, and I understood practically nothing she said. "Get it?" she would say. I would say no. She'd rephrase and I wouldn't understand that either.

I got really frustrated and confused because I really thought this girl was nice, but the vocabulary I've been learning doesn't include words to discuss the probability that someone is or is not a prostitute. I could only say that there are good people who ride buses, too.

Our conversation was left on that unclear note because I had to leave to hang out with my friends. By the time I got to school, all the precipitation that had been building up during the day was being poured out. I felt like I was in a movie walking from the bus stop to the rendezvous apartment, holding my umbrella in front of me because of the wind, getting the bottom part of my pants soaked and risking my umbrella ripping.

Eventually, a soggy group of eight of us went out. We ate dinner, then went to a bar and tried to play a drinking game in Chinese, then went to a club.

"You know," I told the taxi driver on our way there. Today is an American holiday."

"No, I didn't know," the driver said.

"Yeah, it's when we broke away from England." Somehow that didn't satisfy my need to proclaim America's greatness like fireworks would have.

It was my first time going out in Beijing, and we had a really fun time. It's exhausting to have no idea what's going on all the time. Even when I understand things in class or at home, I still don't really understand what people mean when they say things. My mom had some final injunction about the girl I met before I left, but I hadn't understood that either. It was nice to be with a group of English-speakers dancing to songs in English.

There were several Americans at the club, and one of them finally took it into his own hands to celebrate the Fourth of July. In one of the most awesome, vulgar displays I've seen, this guy taped a small American flag to his crotch, stood on the edge of the second floor overlooking everyone below, and started dancing in the style popular these days where the main component is hip thrusts. All the Americans cheered, and once I figured out what he meant by it, I felt surprisingly patriotic. Now that's prowess! I thought.

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