Sunday, 11 November 2012

My Side Job

Riding bikes with Jacky and Mary

About a month ago, I was approached by a Chinese man, Shaw (who I called Sean-whoops), while I was at the gym. He asked if I was interested in tutoring two ten year old children. Like anyone else who approached me in regards to tutoring, I gave him my e-mail and asked him to send me details. For the first time, I decided to meet with a family and give it a try. Girl's gotta pay her student loans.

I met with the parents of the boy, Jacky, along with Shaw at a Starbucks alongside our gym. The parents barely spoke a lick of English, so Shaw acted as our translator. We discussed salary, payment, and what would be expected of me. I already tutor four nights a week for JESIE. It is all lecture/game based and I am becoming tutored-out. To my luck, the parents did not want me to lecture their kids or prepare any type of lesson. Instead, they wanted me to simply hang out with them for two hours every Sunday. They plan on sending their kids to school in America in a few years, and want them to get used to speaking. Teachers and books teach most citizens British-English in Asia. Many parents do not encourage that and so these parents preferred that I teach their kids American slang (to fit in). Awesome. The travel time to get to their house and back takes up another nearly 2 hours of my day. Eh, I decided to do it. $30 an hour to babysit and I could quit at any time. Cash. I'd never have to touch my bank account except for bill payments. Plus, I’m tired of eating rice.

Little did I know that taking on this job would be one of the best decisions I'd make thus far. It went beyond "tutoring" and so far has been rewarding for me. I didn’t realize how much their entire family would teach me about Chinese culture. Working with them has not only educated me on their traditions, but has answered many of my questions regarding the way they do things.

Every Sunday I take the subway 8 metro stops from Gulou to Ruanjiadao. Over time, I would get lost because I did not realize I had to look at a screen and get on the right line. You could head to the Olympic Stadium or the Chinese Pharmaceutical University. Do you have any idea what it's like trying to explain to a person who doesn't speak your language that you're lost and you have no idea how it happened or how long it will take you to meet them? Keep in mind that on Sunday's the train station is packed to death with people (bags/bellies are cramming your whole body and
you cannot turn around). It was a nightmare and I was an hour late. I'd rather cancel than be late. I tried, but HE DIDN'T UNDERSTAND I WAS TRYING TO RESCHEDULE.

My first Sunday, Mr. Zhang (pronounced Jong) picked me up from the metro station so I could save time and money on a taxi. Sweet. Besides Val, this would be the first time I've been in a car, and a nice one at that. Everyone I meet rides motor bikes or takes the bus or train. Mr. Zhang drives some kind of black SUV and it's always shiny and clean. The beige interior smells of leather and was impeccable in maintenance. I have never seen a speck of dirt or trash. The back seat has cup holders, fashionable compartments for your trash, and a gold plated tissue box protector with an intimidating lion head on it. Mr. Zhang almost always wears a fresh suit or sharp blazer and looks clean. He and his car are analogous replicas of each other.

After a ten minute drive, we enter his gated community. We are greeted by a caretaker who always stands with his hand on his forehead and his eyes looking straight ahead. In front of the gate are two flowing water fountains. How do you ask "Got a penny" in Chinese? For the first time I saw houses. Upscale houses. They are not the type of single houses you would find in America. They are all enclosed somehow and are not nearly as wide as they are tall. Compared to the nicest apartments I've seen (and I've seen spacious and spectacular), their place is a mansion. I've been around with the kids and they are always happy to point out the different fruit trees and water fountains. Their community is very green and I've noticed a few foreigners in the neighborhood. Mr. Zhang tells me they are all Australian and European (mostly German).

Entering their home was like entering another realm of China. I was blown away by it. It was rich in Chinese culture and well maintained. Everything was shiny and breakable. Clean aromas filled each room. Every seat secured a leather tush-cushion. There was embroidery in the embroidery. For the most part, I was used to the poorer side of China. I would embark with this family a warmer, more comfortable side of Nanjing.

The first thing they would make me do that Sunday is take off my shoes. Luckily I wore fresh socks! They gave me pink sandals to wear around their home. Every family does this. I have never been given sandals or slippers that fit. My heels hang out of them which the kids were not hesitant to point out their first time meeting me. Their house felt toasty and cozy with a d├ęcor of beiges, whites, browns, and gold’s. The [wood, oak, idn] furniture shined like a new penny, and the classic-style furniture was fashionable. Everything was classic from the furniture to the paintings to the car models you’d find around the house. They even had a white and gold telephone that you had to wind the dials around. I haven’t seen one of those since I was a kid.

Upon entering their home my first Sunday session, I sat down and waited to meet Jacky. The maid offered me hot water or tea and delivered it to me in a cute little China tea cup. I want a tea set, I thought. Jacky was very excited to meet me. I was surprised at how well he could already speak English. He showed me pictures of his family and presented me with his goldfish while we waited for Mary. She also knew tremendous English (for a ten year old). They were so well behaved; I thought it was an act for their parents. It wasn’t. I learned through becoming pretty close with them that they don’t get much free time to play. Like all the Chinese kids I’ve met, their day goes by like a drill. They know exactly what is expected of them and what their consequences are if they mess up. They spend their Saturday's doing homework and Sunday's with me. My job is to play with them. They are very fair and would never go against their parent’s wishes. A part of me wants to argue that they are so spoiled by their family that they don't have to! Two sides of a family spoil one child. The lifelong effects from this are so substantial I am going to write a separate blog about it.

Jacky (not Jackie-he'll freak out!), 10, takes pride in the designs he builds. I’ve seen him recreate the Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square. His favorite colors are green and orange and his favorite holiday is Children’s Day. He loves robots and dominos. We love to act like Transformers. He is a growing magician. He put on a magic show for me and was kind enough to reveal his tricks. The three of us sometimes play games in his bedroom. This is something so innocent, but would not be acceptable behavior in the US. His room is so clean. I’m jealous of his high ceilings and chandelier. I told him how afraid I’d be to have it over my bed and I think I scared him. My favorite part about his room is his toy drawer. He has the coolest little gadgets. I would open a gemstone contraption and it would be full of rocks or colorful stones. He has little toy people I can whack with his nun chucks.

Mary, 10, is just as sweet as she is beautiful. She loves to draw and her favorite colors are pink and yellow. Mary's number one attribute is her adoration for Hello Kitty. Good girl. Her favorite holiday is her birthday because she can give presents out to all of her friends. In China, you either give your friends presents or treat them to dinner! Your parents can give you a gift. Which seems more strange: 1) you GIVE gifts on YOUR birthday, or 2) A ten year old enjoys GIVING so much, it is her favorite holiday? She has her own room at Jacky's house. They do not use the term “cousins” only brother and sister. This really confused me when I first met them. Her bedroom (she has her own bedroom in a house she does not live in) is pink and she has Hello Kitty wallpaper. She also has a gorgeous chandelier above her bed. On top of her dresser is a lovely porcelain ballerina, and the framed artwork in her room is outlined in rhinestones.

We do all sorts of things and talk about everything we are able to communicate. Many times our conversations get lost because we do not understand each other. We draw, play word games on Jacky's easel, and they show me computer games in their movie room. Yes, movie room. This room consists of 7 cherry-brown leather chairs, a big flat screen tv, 7 remotes, and different game boxes. They use their computer on the flat screen. I taught them how to play Bananagrams and Uno. Teaching these games took some time and practice, but now they can play and life is good. I never would have thought I’d be playing Bananagrams with Chinese children. We play random games in Jacky study. He has his OWN study and it is larger than my last two bedrooms combined. Two full bookshelves covers two walls. He has more pencils, erasers, paper, markers than I ever had growing up. I'm pretty sure I could sell his desk and pay off my student loans. He also has a toy room, but it isn't much. He has three crates of toys which are shoved in a corner and the rest of the room consists of a treadmill, grandmother's paintings, and beer. Oh, and he has to walk outside of his house to go in and the door is usually locked. It's also freezing in that concrete room for most of the year. Compared to home, that just seems a little backwards.

My favorite activity is rendezvousing outside. I ride a children's bike that is way too small for me and Mary sits on the back of Jacky's. We ride around their green development full of fruit trees and friendly residents. Once I ran into one of my male students and it was totally BIZZARE (1: it was so random 2: I was hanging out riding bikes with kids HIS age). I enjoy the looks I get when people see me riding a tiny bike with these two English-speaking Chinese kids. We will go over to ponds and feed fish raisin bread. We look around for cool rocks and try to catch fish with crippled fishnets we occasionally find. Once I tried to feed geese with the raisin bread and Jacky said, “No, ducks are angry at us. They will not eat.” I thought he was just scared of them. No plethora of geese I know from home would pass up on bread-and this was RAISIN bread. Fish and ducks were eating better than I was! The boy was right. The geese were scared of us. One of the geese wanted the bread  I hailed so bad, but would not eat it. I bet they thought we were hunting them.

Feeding fish with Jacky and Mary
Big Fish Little Fish

Pumpkin Mooncake

                                                                               Surviving the Table
This past Sunday the children greeted me with pumpkin mooncakes (I will add them to my pumpkin moon cake collection) and could not wait to play Bananagrams. Good thing I brought the banana. I could tell their parents were pleased to see how much their kids were enjoying our two hours together. Now, they would invite me to share a meal with them.

I did not see lunch coming. Had I of seen it coming, I would have reviewed the rules of etiquette/eating with the Chinese. I retrieved a few I read on my flight  and hoped they'd get me through this event without any "Alexa" moments or misinterpreted insults. I could very easily have turned a simple lunch into a circus show.

What arrangement laid before my eyes would have shocked me 2 months ago, but nowadays, seemed quite normal. If I was jolted by anything,it was the high quality of the table and chairs, and the metal chopsticks. I've only used wooden or plastic. There's a difference.

Occupying the center of the table was what we all know as a "Lazy Susan." The Chinese way is to share everything (which I am a huge fan). That's why it is so important to wash your hands prior to your meal. After a  portion of options are laid out in front of you, you slide the Lazy Susan your way to grab what you'd like. They eat plain (usually plain) white rice with every meal. You're supposed to eat the rice last; its point is to fill you up incase the the other courses do not. You grab one or two choices at a time, put it on your rice, and then you eat it. It's rude to just take everything and throw it in your bowl or plate. Equal amounts should be shared. Drinks are not present at any meal. Maybe hot tea...maybe. Instead, a very brothy soup is given. Some have it with their meals, and others save it for last. Even some restaurants will give you complimentary soup that you should "drink" with your meal.

A large bowl of beef (?) and shaved radish soup sat on a second level of the Lazy Susan (the first time I had seen a second level). Beneath it were seven separate dishes to choose from.  The presentation of the dishes was phenomenal. It was a perfect mixture of greens, reds, pinks, yellows, whites, and browns.

The first rule I recalled was to wait to be seated until the head member of the household told me to sit. It was me, the two children, Mr. Zhang, his wife, grandmother, and the maid. Mr. Zhang told me to have a seat. Only the children knew a fair amount of English. Mr. Zhang knew enough to spark a conversation, but not enough to finish it (which is better than none at all). After I sat, Mr. Zhang told me to wash my hands after telling the children. I should have known better! I knew that! There I was, washing my hands with the children; I felt no wiser. I sat down and waited to dig in until everyone else did. I was studying everyone's gestures/mannerisms. In China, you're welcome to put your elbows on the table and chew with your mouth open, but don't you dare let two chopsticks stand upright in your food (symbolizes death). I'm sure they would be understanding, but I still wanted to be careful.

The table looked at me to dig in first. There I was having my first meal with a real Chinese family and desperately wishing to communicate. I could only distinguish a mere fraction of the food I was about to embark on. I  felt so foreign.

I had my palm-sized rice bowl (fine China) in front of me and my thin metal chopsticks. Mr. Zhang asked me if the chopsticks were okay. I thought "sure, I got this" and picked up a red piece of meat. I made a fool of myself. Metal chopsticks are much thinner and make a dense clanking sound when you miss your target. The meat took me two tries, but the greens that were next to it took me three, and don't even get me started on the rice. I looked up many times noticing that they were acknowledging my struggle. Chinese would be uttered every few moments, but nobody would give a facial expression. They're so good at that. Maybe I was self-conscious, but I'm pretty sure they were making comments about me. At one point, the children's mother went to the kitchen and came back with a tablespoon and take-out fork which she unwrapped from its plastic home for me. I laughed off my terrible (metal) chopstick skills and thanked her. The whole table was amused that I now had half of their kitchenware sitting in front me.

I nonchalantly tried to watch how they ate their rice. I read that you're supposed to put your bowl to your mouth and scoop the rice in. Ooooh the slurping noise they make! I wouldn't dare do that until I saw someone else, but I didn't. I didn't see anyone take any rice, yet their bowls were emptying. I was so confused! I continued trying with the metal chopsticks. I grabbed the egg/cauliflower mix and skinned cucumber which was saturated in a sushi-tasting soy sauce (such a variety of flavors-this one tasted like what you'd receive when visiting a Japanese restaurant). The chopsticks sided with me, but when I got to anything thin or noodly, it was as if my chopsticks magnetically forced it away. I thought maybe the repellent force was a sign not to eat their food. Too bad I'm fat and would take my chances.

They wanted me to try everything. The appearance of their first offering looked like thick, shiny slabs of something brown. I asked Jacky what it was and he simply stated "meat." I asked him what kind of meat and, confusedly, he replied "bean." Bean meat? Then I recognized it from the cafeteria, or cantene, food at my school. I bit into it and was happy to recognize the taste. I gave the correct name: dofu. In English it's tofu. Their family all smiled and seemed pleased that I knew what it was. Score. That glazed dofu was one of my favorites. Every day I hope my school is serving it. It has a caramelized/brown sugary taste to it. This style of dofu is a light, spongy texture and sucks in all of the sweetness of the sauce it vacates in. I need the recipe.

They Lazy Susan'd me the tiniest bowl of all. I did not know if it was a vegetable or meat. In the bowl were red and green bits of something. I picked a red one. I always claim red is dangerous and so I should've taken my own advice and avoided the bloody thing. For once I received a straight-up answer as to what it was: pig's ear. It fell quickly from my clattering chopsticks. I stared blankly at Mr. Zhang as if I was not joking around and re-stated what he had just informed me it was. The table, especially the kids, roared at my reaction. They would not take no for an answer when they realized it was my first encounter with a pigs ear. I hastily gave a smile, looked at it, and just ate the thing. Suck it up! It was half the size of my pinky and it looked like an ear, but with a little twist to it. The edges were red and the rest was a dark pink color. The taste was not good nor bad, but the texture would take some getting used to. I could have chewed it 100 times, like an oyster, but it was much more rigid. It was not gooey. I could feel the  cartilage on my tongue....I do not know my ear parts well enough for details on this one. After I forced it's stubborn tissue-flesh down my throat, I said it was "alright" and followed my faint reaction with "yes, my first pig ear!" Nobody laughed, but just continued eating.

They were eating so much faster than me and I really was hungry so I switched to my plastic fork. Everyone laughed, as did I. I decided later that I'd just use my fork for the rice. Once again, they insisted I tried something else. There were 2 large meatballs (later I learned they were bean curd balls) in one small bowl. I had no idea what kind of meat it was. I would only take half so that everyone had a taste, though they nearly insisted I eat the whole thing. It was a big meatball! I didn't know what to do or how much I should take of it. I used my unused tablespoon to slice one in half. Nobody else had anything sitting on the table next to their bowl, so I thought maybe they would think it was dirty if I put my used silverware on the table, and then saw me eat with it moments later . So, I put the tablespoon in my rice bowl. Now I have a fork and a tablespoon in my small palm-sized rice bowl, and chopsticks in my hand. Not to mention the rice parade I realized I made on their table. Can a girl get a napkin? I was a mess.

Everyone had moved onto soup before me and filled up their rice bowls. I hadn't finished my rice. They eat so fast! I did not want to look like a pig. I keep forgetting eating quickly, slurping, and chewing/talking with your mouth full and open is socially acceptable. Thank the Lord I barely heard any mouth noises while they ate. I think they are reading my blog ;]

Jacky guzzled three bowls of soup and we all laughed at how we all knew what his favorite food was: meat. Not many kids reply with "meat." I wanted soup, but my bowl was full of rice and utensils. The kids got up, but their family insisted I have soup so their mother got me another palm-sized bowl. They looked displeased at the small amount I took. I took one piece of meat and 2 of the radishes. I mainly wanted  the broth. They all watched for my reaction to the meat (it looked like mutton). Depressingly, it was all bone. I said "bone" as I used my hand to take it out of my mouth (no tissue) and discarded it in my rice bowl. The #1 rule at all times is to keep your hands clean. Fail. Had that been them, I know for a fact they would have spit the bone right there on their table. It would look barbaric, but their hands would be clean. Not only that, I don't think they knew what bone meant, so I am afraid they thought I spit it out because I didn't like the meat. I just realized that "bone" sounds like "no" in Chinese (bu or boo). Man!

I'll end it with this: this family bought expensive duck from Beijing Duck for me AND grandmother made her own duck for me as well (all because I told them I hadn't tried duck before). Without telling me which was which, grandmother made me tell her which one I liked more. Jacky told me earlier (in English) which one was his grandmother's. Bahahaha. She almost cried of joy when I chose hers. SUCCESS!

The following Sunday I was invited to Mary's birthday dinner. Happy 10th birthday, Mary!
(Take notice there are no drinks, only a large bowl of soup to cleanse the pallet)
Jacky is lighting Mary's birthday candles-which is sung before we have dinner!
(Take notice of all my utensils, lol)

Mary, Me, Jacky

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