Excerpt from Beijing Daze

They say getting there is half the battle, but for me, getting to Beijing was all the battle. But unfortunately the battle didn’t end when I stepped off the plane in Beijing. Thanks to the fact that the Incheon airport, sells tailored suits and Johnny Walker instead of a solid meal and bottles of water, I arrived in Beijing dehydrated and sick as a dog. It probably didn’t help that over a 19 hour flight, I slept maybe two hours at best, and it wasn’t for lack of trying (I took 3 Tylenol p.m.’s).
At immigration I went through an incredibly cursory inspection, the guy looked at my passport, took my picture, and waved me through. When I landed in Shanghai two years earlier, they gave me everything short of a cavity search.
I grabbed my luggage, changed my cash, and headed through the arrivals gate. It was here that I first met Josh and Aiken. Aiken was an employee of expertise, who was sent to pick us up. Josh was a fellow a teacher and soon to be my temporary roommate.
We then piled into two cabs, Josh and I each brought two suitcases and two carry-ons, so by Chinese standards we could only put so much stuff and so many people in a taxi. Luckily, I got to be in the cab with Aiken, who was the only one of us who could speak Chinese, or knew where we were going. I picked up some Chinese in Hunan, but not enough to direct a cabbie in a foreign city.
Josh and my apartment was in the ass-end of nowhere, in the Haidian district in an area of town near the bagou subway stop. To get to our apartment from the airport, cost 100 yuan and took over an hour to get to.
The cab ride was crazy, mainly because Chinese people can’t drive (that’s not just a stereotype, it’s the truth). They supposedly have traffic laws, but you’d never know it to look at it. On a four lane highway, there are usually six lanes.
Anyway, the cab ride was also crazy because we had to keep two cabs together, with no form of communication between the two, and the one Josh was in , the driver only spoke Chinese, and Josh didn’t. We weaved in and out of traffic, trying to catch up with Josh’s driver, who didn’t actually know where he was going (Aiken only told him to go to Bagou).
At the Same time, I had to answer Aiken’s questions. I was trying to take in the city, and not vomit, which was only made harder by his incessant questions. His English was good for a Chinese person, but not as good as he thought. I had to keep asking him to repeat the question, which only exasperated him and annoyed me. But, in China, this is a common experience. You will meet someone and they speak good English, but because they were the best English speaker in their class, they expect you to understand them without any trouble, and it doesn’t work like that. If you’re not used to it a Chinese accent can be as impenetrable as Mandarin itself. And even if you are, it can still be hell to decipher.
Finally arrived in Bagou, at what we thought was our apartment building. We up all the way up to the fourteenth floor, when Aiken realized we were in the wrong building. We then went all the way down stairs and across the street, dragging our luggage as we went. By this time I hadn’t had water in8 hours and I hadn’t slept in 48. I’m dead tired, and not feeling. It’s also 11 o’clock at night, and this is when Aiken decides it’s a good idea to Start going over the finer points of our contract, and the apartment.
I finally managed to get some water in me, but I still couldn’t sleep, and Iwasn’t allowed to eat, as Expertise hadscheduled a medical exam for the next day. This should have been my first clue that expertise didn’t really care about their employees, just the money they could make off them. When I worked for the Hunan Provincial International Education Exchange Association, the day after we arrived they just told us to sleep the whole day after we arrived. They didn’t make us do anything, they just wanted us to get adjusted to being in China. In fact, every time I asked a business related question, Jaqlin, my boss in Hunan, would say business can wait til Monday, now you should rest and adjust to China. As a result, I had no trouble getting used my new home.
In Beijing however, that was not. the case. Expertise apparently wanted to kill off the weak, or at least you would assume that from the way they ran us ragged after only being in the country 8 hours.
At 8am, Saturday, after only two hours of sleep (making a grand total of six hours in the past 72), I had to meet an annoyingly cheerful Aiken at the Bagou subway station. From there we went to the hospital and had our kindergarten employment physicals.
This was probably the most invasive physical I’ve ever had (and I’d never had one like this in China before). The overall test isn’t that bad, blood test, vitals, chest x-ray, and an STD check. (the Chinese are very serious about STDs, as they know that the vast majority of westerners are only coming to their country to get drunk and screw the locals, while pretending to teach and find themselves). Anyway, this STD check, was not like any I’ve ever had before, because even though they insisted in taking blood samples, they did not use those to in the STD test. Instead, they chose to rely on an archaic and shoddy method that involves jamming a q-tip in a place I never thought of jamming a q-tip, we’ll just leave it at that.
After that happy experience, I met the other “teachers”(I am a teacher, these other guys are disgraces to their respective nations and detriments to the learning experience). Now this sounds like a harsh judgment, and I assure you that I didn’t jump to this assumption right away, they pushed me to it. When I first met my colleagues, I thought they would all be interesting people to hang with. However, they turned out to be the basic American overseas teachers, in country only to drink, screw, and “find themselves”.
I had the good fortune of being back in the country I love, and the bad fortune of being the only one in the group who had ever left their country of origin, let alone lived in China. I was bombarded by the stupid questions and statements that let a seasoned traveler know he is speaking with an American. “how can I tell if that meat is rat meat?” “do they still bind feet here?” and “could you tell them I don’t want to eat dog?’ (to which the man at the counter, who spoke English, replied: “I don’t want to eat dog either”).
I am an American, and I love my country, I just don’t always love It’s politicians, or my countrymen. We have this hopelessly antiquated view of China, that isn’t helped by the fact that there really is no status quo in China. We are taught things about China, in such broad sweeping statements, that are expected to be true about China in every instance of a given situation.
We are taught from a young age that the Chinese are communist, and that makes them bad. Then we go to college and learn a fancy new word, Human rights abuse, and we start accusing the Chinese of being monsters. So when we get to China, we are prepared to be a most unpleasant place. We come with extra baggage and damaging misconceptions which if we’re no careful can derail our whole experience in China.
The China you’ve been warned about, largely does not exist. It exists only in minds of scared old politicians who are still angry at communist nations for having to put their head between their knees and kiss their butts goodbye during the atomic bomb drills of 1950’s. I know I’ve gotten off topic here, but it seems that we’re good at yapping about understanding others, but not at practicing it.
Anyway, I had the opportunity to teach people who would listen and do the exact opposite of what I told them. This turned out to be great practice for teaching high school.


You Scammed Me at Hello

            One of the interesting things about living in China, especially living in Beijing, is that certain English words take on a new meaning. One such word is “hello”, in Beijing, when a stranger says hello, it basically means give me something rich white man.

 I live in Sanlitun, an area of Beijing very popular with tourists (there’s nothing there in the way of actual sightseeing, but it does have a lot of designer shops, restaurants, hotels, bars, and several “massage” joints). Basically this is area is dedicated to taking money from foreigners, whether it is the overpriced bars serving fake liquor (watered down industrial alcohol, that will leave you with one hell of a headache in the morning, even if you’ve only had one or two drinks), The fake brands at Ya Show Clothing Market (they give everything a 90% mark-up. When bargaining, your first offer should be 10% percent of whatever they tell you), to the rickshaws, beggars, drug dealers, vendors, and other street hustlers who call SLT home.

As walk along the street, you hear “hello, rickshaw, hello” (translation: hey you, with the money get in my rickshaw and I will overcharge you for a three block trip), or “hello, money, hello” (translation: begging is a cottage industry, I make 2,000 RMB a day off gullible Laowai), or “hello, hello, hello” ( this one actually means that the rude and inpatient Beijinger behind you thinks you are moving too slow, and wants you to get out of their way).

There is also a nefarious side to hello in Beijing, whether it is the “hey Bohdi” of the Nigerian drug dealers, the incessant “hello, lady bar, hello” of the touts in front of seedy looking clubs fronting brothels, or the seemingly innocent “hello” of the semi-attractive woman in a tight dress, on an empty street (I guarantee that she doesn’t just want to talk to you).

I actually have a funny story about this, two weeks ago I was walking home from church at about 10pm on a Thursday night. My church is in an area near a lot of large foreign owned business hotels, as such the area near the one hotel is a magnet for prostitutes. For the record I am not one of those guys who thinks that part of the experience of living in China should include a visit with one of these ladies. But since I have to walk through this area to get home, I make a game of it. Essentially I try to observe the people and figure out which one is a prostitute before she inevitably approaches (they are out there looking for white guys and I am a big white guy, so they always approach). Anyway, as I near the area, I scanned the crowd and saw that there was only one women outside, and she looked to be mid-30’s and dressed like a Chinese tourist, so I figured there were no prostitutes that night. I pass the woman and about 30 seconds later, she comes up beside me as I am walking along and says “hello, hello”. I ignore her and keep walking, usually this would be the end of the story. But she continues to follow me, saying “hello, hello”. Eventually, she realizes that I am not a potential customer, and walks away. Now, I sure some of you are reading this saying, how do you know she was a prostitute. That’s easy, for the most part the Chinese go to bed early, so unless you are in an area with a lot bars and clubs, you won’t see too many people on the street. Two, if a Chinese person wants to have a conversation with you while you are walking, they will just start talking, they won’t just keep saying hello.

The point of this post is the thing that really saddens me about Beijing, nobody here really wants to get to know you, they just want your money or what every it is you can do for them. Case in point, I was on my way to church one Thursday evening (no I am not in some weird cult whose holy day is Thursday, My church’s young adult’s group meets then), and I was approached by a young woman who started a conversation with me, and I thought, “whoa, finally a Bejinger who just wants to talk to me”. However, then asked “you in HR?” After I said no, she lost interest. She was hoping I worked in HR for a multinational and would give her a job.

When I lived in Changsha, People genuinely wanted to know me. There was the added bonus for them that I am white, and therefore a status symbol, because they can say, “look, I have a foreign friend. But I was always being invited out by people I just meant. Even if they were using me, it wasn’t apparent.

When I first visited Beijing two years ago, I was warned that in the area near Tiananmen Square it is a common scam for young women to invite young, foreign guys to bars or teahouses (the girls are paid employees of the establishment) were at the end of the night the victim is presented with a huge bill for the very expensive drinks that the young lady ordered. I have actually been approached these women so many time, it  actually becoming funny, because they lurk on streets in such dense crowds that as soon as you say no to one another one is pitching her offer. The thing that sucks about this is that again they start a conversation with you. Most foreign guys are probably just thinking that they have a chance to score with a local girl. But for me, I travel to engage people of other cultures, and it almost hurts when you realize that the people you are talking to have no desire to engage, beyond ripping off.

I am not saying that every Chinese person who talks to you is trying to rip you off. I had a conversation with an old man on a subway train a couple months ago. He spoke terrific English and just wanted to talk to me because we shared a language. He was pretty interesting He had fought against the Americans in Korea and said that he was of the resistance against the Japanese when he was twelve. This is the kind of interaction I crave. This is why I travel. This is why I love China. Even in the midst of what seem like defeat and counterfeit everything, you might find something genuine, you might make a friend. And that chance is worth all of it. 

Excerpt from “Ni Hao Mr. Buffalo”

Dear readers, your ever lazy friend, Mr. Buffalo, has neglected this blog for some time. But now I am back. Today’s post is an excerpt from my book in in the works, “Ni Hao Mr. Buffalo” at this point, it is a very rough sketch, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.

Mr. Buffalo: Our Teacher                   

Teaching came fairly naturally to me. I’m a life-long learner, who loves to talk.  Now that doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared to death the first time I walked into a classroom. I like kids; I just wasn’t sure how to teach them.

        I had no idea where the kids were at linguistically and I didn’t have a good grasp on the culture. I had some training in Chinese culture, but no real understanding of how the idea of saving face played out in a classroom.

You can read all you want about Chinese culture and the dos and don’ts, but you’ll never truly have an understanding of it until you live in it. Saving face is one of those cultural values that are hard to wrap your head and even harder to teach around when your background is that of a Scotts-Irish protestant from the middle of American.

The idea of saving face is one we in the west think we understand. We throw the term “save face around” as if we invented the concept, but I don’t think we truly understand the depth of commitment to the concept that the Chinese have. Saving face essentially means keeping one’s self from embarrassment. This generally translates in the classroom as students being shy and unwilling to talk to their teacher, or answer questions.

 At Nanya, students were placed in either “normal” or “special classes. The “normal” classes were populated with average students (or those whose parents didn’t have enough guanxi), and contained 72 students. The special classes were more advanced and contained only 36 students. They also saw me twice a week, whereas the normal classes only saw me once a week.

         My first day, I got an introduction to classroom life in China. My first class of the day was a “normal” class. The class had 72 students (and American public school teachers complain of overcrowding), no air conditioning, and was deathly silent as they stared at their new English teacher.

I think I was prepared to teach, I was told that the first day; I should just introduce myself and let the kids ask questions about me. However, due to the facts that I’m a giant laowai, that the kids aren’t used to be able to ask questions, and that they were junior ones and new to the school, conspired to completely blow my lesson plan. For most of the class, the kids stared, pointed, and giggled almost uncontrollably. Luckily I had a lesson on greetings ready to go if needed. That lesson, while better, still went over like a lead balloon.

Luckily, the day did get better. My later classes were mainly special classes, which meant that the kids had a higher level of English and that the classes were smaller. I was able to get the kids ask me questions. They were quite surprised to learn that I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids.

My first day was not as terrifying as I had expected it would be. The kids seemed to like me, though it would take another month or so before they really warmed up to me.

I wish I could tell you I remember everything about all of my classes, but the truth is I don’t. Most of my normal classes were a blur, although that is probably to be expected with a group of 72 non-talkative kids that you see once a week. But when it comes to the normal classes, I remember three students, Barbie, Larry, and Meggy.

Barbie was 13, with short hair, glasses, and the biggest eyes I’d ever seen on a human being. Barbie had this way about her, of perpetual confusion. Around the time I met Barbie, Leslie Nielsen died; I read in a tribute to him that he was the “embodiment of quintessential obliviousness”; I felt that this also accurately summed up. Barbie was also never without Meggy; in fact you talk about one without mentioning the other. Barbie was quiet and rarely spoke, unless she was excited about something. Meggy, was the voice of the duo, she was always talking and had many strong opinions, especially about my curriculum. Meggy was taller than Barbie, with long hair always in a pony tail. Meggy also had an obsession with Justin Bieber.

Larry was a rambunctious 11 year old boy, who couldn’t seem to keep his hands to himself. He always sat with two other boys and they were always fighting or touching each other. One day Larry asked me to give him an English name, and because he was sitting next to the other two, all I could think of was Curly, Moe, or Larry. I told him I picked the name Larry because I had a friend named Larry, which is true, but not why I picked the name.

I had a closer relationship with the students in my special classes. Classes 152, 153, 154, and 156. Class 152 was my worst class; the children were super spoiled and kind of dumb. Although in 152 there were boys who stand out in my mind, Roy and Jonathan. Roy was 11 and loved Hair Metal; he was always asking me questions about American metal bands. Roy also had a habit of stealing my English to Chinese dictionary and making fun of all the words Mr. Jon didn’t know. Jonathan named himself after me, I can’t tell if this was an attempt to get a better grade by sucking up, or if he actually looked up to me. 

Class 153, “Crazy Class”, was one of my favorite classes. They actually named themselves “crazy class”; they called me “crazy teacher”.  One of the defining characteristics of class 153 is that they all had nicknames, there was Lisa, a little boy with a strong feminine side (the girls in the class named him this), named Davey (who thought was called Daisy, because his pronunciation wasn’t good). Bob, The girl who led the class in making fun of Davey, and the object of Davey’s affection. Hamburger, a rather plump 12 year-old who had the habit of yelling the word hamburger whenever a question was asked. The Class Flower, a common term in Chinese schools for the prettiest girl in the class. However, in our case he was a boy. And Bobo, a tall, silent girl who tried her best to go unrecognized (the problem with that was that she was best friends with Ana, who was the main instigator of shenanigans in that class).

Class 154 would have been fairly unmemorable, if it wasn’t for Mr. Wu. Mr. Wu was in theory a 10 year-old math Prodigy; he was in fact a holy terror. Mr. Wu was the epitome of Little Emperor Syndrome. He was spoiled, greedy, malicious, and whiney. At the end of the days I had his class, as I was saying goodbye, he would tell he was wishing I would die so he wouldn’t see me again. I usually responded with “same here”.

Mr. Wu’s actual name was Wu Sun (in Chinese the last name is first), but I took to calling him Mr. Wu one day after returning to my classroom from the bathroom (I usually had a 10 minute break between classes), to find that Mr. Wu, upon entering my class and finding me absent, had written on the board, “Mr. Jon is dead, Mr. Wu is teacher”.

Mr. wu had a habit of making up songs, usually to the tune of jingle bells. Songs like “Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon is bad”;” Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon is dead”; or my personal favorite, “Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon, Mr. Jon is dumb”. I would usually respond with a song of my own: “Mr. Wu, Mr. Wu, Mr. Wu gets an F in my class”. 

Stepping Stones and Altar Stones

  Greetings dear readers. I Jon Timmerman (aka Mr. Buffalo) bring you a new blog for your reading pleasure. The Ebenezer project will be much different then The Wandering Buffalo, as it will focus more on my spiritual musings, rather than my travel work. enjoy.

   The word Ebenezer comes from Hebrew and it means “stone of help”, these was the name given the heaps of stones that the Israelites often made to commemorate something that God had done, such as when God stopped the flow of the Jordan river. I have always loved that story. When I was growing up, my Mom always stressed the importance of remembering what God had done for us.

  Today, I hold a view that we should celebrate our stepping  stones by using them as altar stones. In the 17th century, Ebenezer came into the English language, as meaning “Hither hath God helped us” . I see the importance of being able to point at something and say “Hither hath God brought me”. I am not suggesting that we build actual piles of rocks, for me that would be too many rocks. I am suggesting that we make mental monuments or we write things down. 

    In my own life, in the last four years, the monument shave been many. I live in Beijing. I just got a new job working for a company I like, and I am getting a new apartment. God has brought a long way from who I was when I first believed. I am no longer the angry young man with a chip on his shoulder, I am a man who what he’s here for. And for this I wll build altars.

Third World View

    There is one very disturbing thing about living in China, even in Beijing this can creep up on  the unwary traveler. The problem I speak is one that I have termed the third world view. This isn’t a worldview in the traditional sense of the word, so much as an actual view that you might see in the third world.
What I’m talking about, is the frequency with which I see beggars who either have terrible diseases (the kind you read about in Nat Geo) or who were completely mangled in tragic accidents. The other I saw a man whose body ended under his navel. This is something no amount of reading or giving to save the children funds can prepare you for. Because in that instance you confronted with a major gap. If you’re like me, you grew up sheltered, probably somewhere in the Midwest, and you never really witnessed true suffering.
I wish I could tell you I have a foolproof plan for solving the dilemma of the third world view, I am stumped. I don’t know what to tell you about this. You will see it and it will jar you. I think the truth of it all is that no matter who we are and where we go, compassion might be the most important thing we bring. I’m not talking about giving, in fact I have a strict no money policy when it comes to beggars (begging is a cottage industry in China). I am talking about the simple gift of human dignity. I’m talking about looking someone in the eye instead of looking away. I’m talking about love and compassion. We all need to bring it with us when we travel.

Sweet dreams are made of these

   I have a friend, who when asked how things are going, he usually responds, “living the dream”. He has a Brazilian friend who has tried to copy this statement and usually ends up saying ” living my dream”. I think I like the second one better, because I am living my dream. I’m not living the proscribed dream for American males my age, I don’t own a house, I’m not married/in a committed relationship, and I don’t have kids/pets.   
 Instead I wake up every morning in a foreign country. Yes my job sucks and Beijing can be a nightmare. But at the same time I am living an adventure. I don’t know why, but I’ve never been happier than I am now.    
I am happy because deep inside, there is 5 year-old Jon, who is finally going on an adventure. I was probably a very strange little boy. I started reading National Geographic as soon as I could hold a magazine by myself (probably before that, as I believe my Grandma would read them to me as a newborn). One of my favorite stories in the saga that is my life, came when I was in kindergarten. When I was in kindergarten, we had show-and-tell on Fridays. Our show-and-tell each week was based on a different letter of the alphabet. One Friday, it was “M” day. Before “M” day, I asked Grandma what I should bring to show-and-tell. I didn’t want to bring a monkey, I knew all my friends were to bring monkeys (even then I had an urge to go against the flow). So, my Grandma gave a picture from a National Geographic calendar, of two Tibetan Buddhist monks.
So Friday comes and all my little friends get up and show the class their stuffed monkey. About 18 monkeys later, it was my turn, and the conversation went something like this (keep in mind in I went to a christian school. Also I may not totally remember what was said:
ms. Armstrong: “Jon what do you have today?
Me: “These are Buddhist monks, they’re from Tibet.
Random kids: “Miss Armstrong, what’s a booty monk? why are they wearing dresses? My Dad says they worship the devil!
Ms. Armstrong: “that wraps up show-and-tell for today”.
Me:” But I’m not done yet”.
Ms. Armstrong: “yes, you are”.
Random kids:”But I haven’t gone yet”. “When is it my turn”. “What’s a booty monk”
That may seem a bit random, but the point is I’ve always lived somewhere else. I always knew I was destined to see the world. I love the movie, The Truman Show, especially the scene where he is in school and he says he wants to be an explorer, and the teacher pulls down the map and says, “you’re too late. Everything’s already been found. I used to believe that. As teenager, I was scared to death that I was going to end with a desk job. I wanted to see the world, and I wanted to write.
I may not be living the conventional dream, but here in the Middle Kingdom, I’m living my dream.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

 “The journey of  a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

                                                 -Lao Tzu

   This is probably one of the most over used quotes in the world. My Benson High School (my alma mater), in Omaha, Nebraska, class of 2003 used this as our graduation quote, and so did probably thousands of other graduating classes, as well as anyone who has ever made a major life change.

     At first glance, this quote seems played out, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is true. The journey doesn’t began in earnest, until you step out the door. This is sometimes hard for me to remember, I am always getting hung up on the little logistical details of the journey. The journey itself is simple, you just put one foot in front of the other and the rest falls into place.