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Way back in July 2001, I happened to visit Taipei, Taiwan, and spent about a month with my host family who took care of all my diverse needs. I am not a fastidious person, but one easy to please. For most teachers in the United States, summer is the best and the only time you can do some travels or trips to foreign countries. Truer for those who have children in schools. For this reason most school children travel with their parents during the summers, usually, when they are growing up. Most parents travel less once their children enter the universities. I had chosen to migrate in the late 1990s from the hot Texas in the south to live in the Pacific Northwest in Washington State, because it is known for “its mild climate, considerable fog, frequent cloud cover and long-lasting drizzles in the winter, and warm, temperate summers”. To me it is God’s paradise on earth. My own sister in England did not know the difference between Washington D.C., the capital of the United States, and Washington State, when a travel agent in London asked her where she wanted to go to see me. Which Washington, they wanted to know and she was confused. And she phoned me from the travel agency office. Washington State in July would be considered warm and mild. Visiting Taiwan in July would be like riding a camel through the Sahara Desert or driving through the famous Death Valley in eastern California, known as the driest and hottest and lowest area in the whole of North America.
I was grateful for the air-conditioned bedroom the family graciously offered me because Taiwan in July was too hot for my liking, or survival, especially for someone who comes from the American Pacific Northwest. The family would only turn on the air-conditioner in the living room, I observed many times, if they had to entertain guests, and would turn it off shortly after the guests were gone. Most times they would tolerate the summer heat and sleep without the air-conditioner. Strange behavior to me. Why suffer the physical discomfort, I said. In America we are told it would cost more money and electricity to turn on and off the air-conditioner at random to cool down a room. It would be better and more economical to leave the cooling unit on at a certain temperature level for the duration of the day. Open all the windows at night and close them at sunrise and turn on the air-conditioner. I would hear this advice often. A simple lesson in physics and budgeting.
One interesting fact: America once had our military presence in Taiwan, and ended with the United States recognition of the People’s Republic of China, not Taiwan, as the legitimate representative of China in the United Nations in 1971. By 1979, all American forces in Taiwan were withdrawn. Like many women in Japan or Korea or Philippines, women in Taiwan also married American soldiers, and many now live
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with their retired American husbands in the Pacific Northwest, the region closest to the countries in Asia, and also because the United States of America maintains strong military bases here ready for combat duties anytime, anywhere in the pacific Asia.
And I was told specifically before I left the United States by many of my Taiwanese friends now living and working in America to expect a great variety of tempting foods in Taiwan and that I could expect to put on a few pounds easily if I were not careful about my diet and weight.
And everything they told me happened and the first words I learned in Chinese to say to my host family were, “I am not very hungry,” or, “I am not hungry anymore”. It worked again and again. Because my host family would stop or avoid piling more foods on my bowl or plate. If they did, I would not eat it. They got the message. Bad table manners? American stubbornness? Or simple will power at work?
And as a Chinese myself, I am fully aware of the clichés about how guests should behave when invited to a Chinese home for a meal—Chinese or foreigners—that they should always leave some morsels of food on their plates, if too much it might suggest the food is not good or tasty, and if you leave nothing it seems to indicate the host has not cooked enough food for the occasion. Absolutely rubbish to me!
This reminded me long ago when I was doing my summer job in a small town somewhere in southern United States. In fact that was my earliest attempt as a college student to cook and share a Chinese meal with a few young Americans. I got the summer job as a youth worker in that community. One high school student told me without hesitation at the dinner table—lacking proper social or table etiquette—that he hated Chinese food all his fucking life because, in his words, “they suck and stink, and I hate them all.” Words came flying out of his mouth, like water from a broken water hose. In sharing this story numerous times with my college students, Chinese or American, I always tell them one acceptable social behavior at the table, and that is to say, “I have just eaten,” or, “I am not hungry at the moment. Many thanks for the meal.” That is it, direct and simple and you might be invited back again as a guest. Or risk your name forever deleted from the guest list. Luckily I did not have to erase too many names living in America because many of my white American friends and colleagues love Chinese cuisine. That is the absolute truth.
And every morning, without fail, I would take a fast trip to a nearby local 7-Eleven store, popular in Taiwan but slowly vanishing on the American soil, to buy myself an English newspapers to read. In Taiwan I soon learned the Taiwanese government was overly concerned about the problem of “brain drain” because many of their educated
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young men and women were leaving in droves for mainland China, especially to Fujian Province. (It is safe to say many of them are now millionaires in Fujian Province, owning fabulous hotels, international trade and businesses, and luxurious apartments for sale or rent.) Obviously, many others went to China to escape the compulsory military service by attending different Chinese universities. The rich ones, to my knowledge, would buy houses in America and send their sons there, some also to escape from the military service. A smart move, a good investment, I thought then.
And while visiting Taiwan, I made a brief detour to Xiamen City, Fujian Province, geographically located directly across the ocean (Taiwan Strait) from the island of Taiwan, but then I had no choice but ordered to travel southwest to the city of Hong Kong in order to enter mainland China, to visit Xiamen City to see a professor friend and his family. Officially Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to China in 1997. I will never forget an Indian man I met as we were waiting in a long queue for the Hong Kong border officials to check our documents. Something about this Indian got me very curious about him. All he had with him was a dark blue plastic bag, the one you would get at a grocery store. No brief case by his side, the ones associated with lawyers, to show his social standing or position in society or business community. So casual. So unassuming. Why he is going to China, like visiting a relative down the street somewhere. I asked him and I got an answer. He and his parents were involved in textile industry for years back home in India. His parents were operating a textile business in India and he had an office in Hong Kong and he was traveling to China to the city of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province to visit a branch there, a province next door to Hong Kong. You would think he was a common migrant worker, not an owner of a flourishing textile company. He said with a strong Indian accent the future is in China. He gave me his Hong Kong address and phone number and invited me to visit him and his wife and young son. Maybe one day come to visit me in India, he said.
And from Hong Kong I flew to Xiamen City. And what a contrast. In Taipei, I saw thousands of Taiwanese riding motorcycles and mopeds just about anywhere in special lanes in major highways but not a single one in Xiamen. Many women would carry three or four children on mopeds—a common sight and means of transportation for many in Taiwan. The Xiamen government wants it their way. No motorcycles in their streets, my host, John Zhuang, was quick to inform me. First night, he and his wife took me for a feast at a seafood restaurant. Xiamen, like Singapore, is also an island and there are many seafood restaurants at your fingertips. I remember there were too many waitresses interfering with my eating. In America, a waitress will bring each one a class of iced water. In England, a waitress might go to the nearest tap or faucet and fill a glass with water. In China, hot tea will be served in most elegant restaurants. And if you ask or beg, they might bring you a glass of warm water. Not
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cold water because it is bad for your stomach, or your health, Chinese parents always tell their children.
There seemed to be as many waitresses as the people hugging around the table. For them it was being very attentive to the diners, great service but it seemed to me, one new in China, these well dressed waitresses were trying to replace constantly the small plate in front of me with fresh one. I could not finish some food quick enough but now gone with a fresh empty plate. This practice of replacing used plates with fresh ones is Chinese, not American, in almost all expensive restaurants in China. It was very annoying to me, too much service became an intrusion to my enjoyment of foods. Give us some privacy to enjoy our meal, I was shouting inside me. Leave us alone to enjoy the meal. This is China, with smiling attentive waitresses at your service, assigned to your table, some standing by like stone statues lining a wall in a temple. In America, a waitress will come to you if you wave your hand for service. She could be serving ten other guests in other tables in the room. In some Western restaurants, in my experiences, they would place a small flag at each table, and if you want the attention of a waitress you just need to lower the flag.
And one evening, my host had allowed someone important, a friend who was also a local high government official, to take me out to dinner. She was interested if I would consider and accept a job to prepare Chinese high school students to study in America. I was a teacher in America and I did not have the freedom to terminate my teaching contract. The truth was China could not pay me enough to take care of my high mortgage payment every month. The salary was high in China but not enough for me and my financial obligations. I tried not to explain anything about mortgage to her and politely told her I had other responsibilities back in America. I knew she was someone significant because her personal secretary paid for the meal—I learned later from my host family that top government officials had funds for entertainment and sumptuous dinners if they had to make some business deals with people.
And one day at an open morning market just outside the campus, John introduced me to a retired professor who was also there to buy some vegetables from local farmers, and who had taught English for years at the university. This is China, morning markets are common and could spring up anywhere where there are people who want convenience and easy access to buy their daily vegetables and fruits and meats from vendors, who like gypsies, would move from place to place. Night markets are also common and offer different products to the Chinese consumers. The old professor’s English was excellent and eloquent. We had a lively exchange of thoughts and ideas, he about my country USA, and I something about the communist government in China. We were carried away, so to speak. I was behaving like an American
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investigative reporter. Why not, my background was in journalism. My voice was always very loud because of my partial hearing impairment, and my friend placed his index finger to his lips and asked me to tone down my voice. Not because of my loudness, as I would learn later, but he thought I should avoid talking about sensitive subjects in China. To all my Chinese students and expatriates, as I would later learn, anything and everything related or connected to the Chinese communist government would be labeled “sensitive”. His eyes, like a submarine periscope, seemed to survey the surrounding, like a detective for possible government officials in our midst. Soon I got this strange feeling I was being watched because of my booming voice. Like plain clothes policemen were mingling in the morning crowd of busy housewives, fewer men. They might see or label me as one of the subversive intellectuals from the university!
And when John felt I was not understanding or following his silent order, he whispered loudly into my left ear, the bad ear, and said simply, “Steve, This Is China!” The first time anyone ever said this to me. And what he meant at the time was, he explained to me in great clarity later in the quiet of his apartment inside the campus, that the communist government will not tolerate the things some foreigners might say about communist mainland China, anything that might undermine or criticize the past and the present government. That I should be more careful and circumspect with my personal views or opinions when speaking to a Chinese here in China, because that person could be working for the communist government, that I might end up going to jail or sent home to where I came from. I was told time and time again there are spies that look like normal students planted in every major campus in China to make sure there is no student uprising or anti-government thinking among the students. And I should not take lightly what John told me. Say nothing, or little, he warned me. A word to the wise is enough. This is China!