October 19th, 2009 | Published in China - Cultural Differences
This post is my first dispatch from China. It’s a little bit of a departure from the previous few posts on Having Fun All The Time, but not really, in a way. After all, the reason I came to China is that I thought it would allow me to come a little closer to the eponymous goal of HFATT. And I am here to say, after two months of packing, form-filling-out-ing, moving across the country and then compressing all my belongings into two big bags, tearful goodbyes, one very long flight and then another shorter flight, etc, etc – I am here to say that maybe the eponymous goal has come closer to being achieved. Because China has naptime.
Let me back up a notch, for a sec. I really love naptime. Really love it. And two months ago, while I was still in America (Portland, Ore. to be specific), there was nothing I reviled more about my life than the fact that I was denied the god-given right to nap. And there were some things that I really didn’t like. Like the fact that I stared at a computer screen, zombie-like, for nine hours a day. Or the fact that most of my very close friends were very far away. And then the main thing I didn’t like, which was working so much for corporate interests that I eschew. (Which, by the way, if you’ve seen Michael Moore’s latest movie, “Capitalism: A Love Story”, he really hit home with me when he talked about how when young people in America become buried in student loans they often have to go work for big banks and financial institutions just to get by and pay their student loans….I think the quote from the movie was, “every day, just by existing, they make the world worse”.) Yeah, I think that’s a natural reaction for someone with any kind of conscientious worldview who ends up working for a financial institution.
That was a serious digression. What I meant to say was that I believe that all people should be allowed to have naps, and in the town in China where I now live, the town I arrived at only few days ago (Monday, October 12), many, and perhaps even most of the people, nap.
Classes here start at around 8 a.m., or a little earlier. The students sing songs, and move from class to class in their respective departments for most of the morning. And then, around 11:30 or noon, just about everything shuts down. The students and teachers go get lunch, they chat over food, then they file back to their dorms, offices, homes. They go chill. They go nap, and stuff.
Almost each day I’ve been here until today, I have had lunch with students for one reason or another, and they have invariably asked me, a little after noontime, if I felt tired, if I wanted to go have a rest. Initially, I was a little surprised by this, and thought that maybe the asked me if I was sleepy because they thought I would be worn out, or something, by the immersion in an unfamiliar environment. But now I think it might have been just because they were sleepy.
Today, I got out of class at about 10:45 a.m. and walked back to my apartment without stopping for food. It seemed a little early for food and I wasn’t hungry, and I was a little eager to get back home to change. So, I came home and changed, and then watched an episode of the Wire (as I think is becoming my custom), and read a little, and answered some students’ questions online, and did some laundry, etc, and then by the time I headed out for food it was around 2:30. I circled around the campus and found that, having served lunch to students and teachers, the noodle shop cooks and proprietors had shut down their kitchens and turned off the lights, leaving the doors open but the stoves off. No one was eating in any of the restaurants on campus. I walked out the back gates of campus and discovered that, again, no one was eating or cooking. I spotted the occasional shop keeper, seated at a table in a small dining room, on the little neon-colored plastic stools they keep at the tables, most of them slumped over, their heads on their arms, in states of total rest.
Finally I turned around to head back to campus, thinking that I would rather wait till dinner to eat than spoil someone else’s naptime (my respect for naptime is great), when the security guard for the college hollered at me from the back gate, and jogged toward me. Pointing at the noodle shop I was headed away from, he shouted that I should eat there, which roused the 25-ish-year-old cook, who had been seated in a wide-backed chair with his feet up on another chair, facing away from the door and out a window that looked down on gabled roofs and further mountains, the lights out, drowsing.
I gave in to the security guard and followed him inside, and asked for noodles. The security guard asked me if I wanted an egg. Dan. Yow. After a minute, the cook brought me a big bowl of steaming noodles with radish leaves (I think) and a fried egg on top. He sleepily sauntered over to the television and turned it on, and returned to his chair. The TV sound came on, but the screen was a snowy blue. He seemed unperturbed, but there was no question I had ruined his nap.
But I got lunch, and sleepily walked back to my apartment. I am still, physically, in the Eastern Standard Time Zone of the US, so my clock might be a little off. I have only been here four-ish days. But I like the fact that I can nap if I want to, and I probably will later. I realize that the hour and a half class I taught this morning was really the only thing I had to do today. Everything else is optional. A couple of months ago, that would have terrified me – well, it’s an hour and a half, I would have thought, but it’s still teaching English in China to people who have challenges speaking English when you have never really even taught before. Yes, yes, I would tell myself if I could talk to that former self—but there’s naptime.
The lush, green hills around the university are usually shrouded in a haze that is part humidity, part smog. The air is heavy with water and dust. It is warm. The sounds of campus tend to echo around between buildings and among the mountains around us. It is afternoon. It is time to nap.