Happy Chinese Camp for Sweet Family: Cultivating a Well-Mannered Imagination

More than a week ago, we arrived in Beijing for a program which to our surprise had been named the Happy Chinese Camp for Sweet Family.  It probably should have been called the Grumpy Chinese Camp for Irritable Family, because it turned out that we were staying in a dorm—one that would probably represent luxury for your average Chinese student, but not so much for your typical middle-aged Americans too tall to stand under showers mounted on the wall at a height suitable for a Chinese two-year-old.

Our dorm room came with a service guide that explained that smoking “in elevator, in bed, and in suitcase is prohibited.” It also reminded us that we were not allowed to have a birthday party in the lobby or breed poultry in our rooms. Our teachers were concerned if we didn’t ask for permission to leave campus on our own, and at every meal we had to beg for drinking water before someone finally brought us a pitcher of hot water fresh from being boiled because the Chinese believe that cold water is unhealthy, too much of a shock to the system.

The real shock to our systems was the schedule, eight nonstop days of compressed introductions to Chinese language, culture, and history. A sign outside a museum we visited requested, “Please be self-restraint and be a good tourist to mold a well-mannered imagination.” I tend to think that imaginations should be somewhat ill-mannered, charging around heedlessly, and we did enjoy art projects more when we embraced our friend Lee’s philosophy: “I am not attached to the outcome,” she kept repeating, giving us permission during paper cut class to cut out slightly uneven characters for double happiness and, in my case, a scraggly butterfly. Pottery painting and folk dancing were a lot more fun when we weren’t attached to the outcome, and the tai chi lessons would have been, too, except that the instructor was very attached to the outcome, walking around adjusting our arm positions for fifteen minutes at a time until the children got so bored they were lying on the floor or turning cartwheels.

In some ways, I thought, we were too westernized to fully get the Chinese perspective, since its educational system is all about rote memorization and recitation of facts and sharing and respecting rules, while our cultural values lean much more toward individualism and thinking outside the box.  On the other hand, I’ve noticed that while rules seem to proliferate in China, no one pays much attention to them, leaping up to open overhead compartments while the plane taxis down the runway, barreling right through red lights, eating ice cream as they stroll through exhibits at the Beijing Capitol Museum, smoking beneath no smoking signs. That inspired me, so during the lesson on painting opera masks, when the instructor reminded us every couple of minutes that we must, absolutely must, be sure to stay inside the lines, I followed all directions before succumbing to a little moment of rebellion in which I gave the fierce face of my loyal, brave, and hot-blooded warrior some dangly earrings.

And so the week continued as we took lessons in cooking dumplings and Chinese language instruction in pronunciation, making introductions, telling time, writing characters, and asking acquaintances what their sign is on the Chinese zodiac, which as far as I can tell is mostly a sneaky way of figuring out other people’s ages.  We took a field trip to Olympic venues, where Sophie and her friend Grace, both on western Pennsylvania gymnastics teams, did the splits in front of the Bird’s Nest, bridges in front of the water cube, and handstands in front of the gymnastics gym.

We were late to a colorful show called “The Legend of Kung Fu,” arriving right about when Chun Yi, distracted from his Buddhist discipline by a beautiful illusion, finally manages to demonstrate his strength and courage and free himself of his ego to enter the gates of the temple and achieve warrior monk status. We spent hours fighting crowds at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but the Temple of Heaven was oddly silent.  The folk and ballroom dancers, the ribbon dancers, the tai chi practitioners, the kite fliers, the community groups singing opera, the lively games involving shuttlecocks had all been cleared out of the historic site that once doubled as a park for locals.  According to our guide, the locals were getting in the way of the tourists, so these activities had been banned from the park.  There were many groups of men playing cards and checkers, but it wasn’t quite the same.

A Peking Opera performance involved a sampler of scenes from various classics, tales of loyalty and revenge where there were many tears that fermented the wine, abysses of misery, and years of secret sorrow. As was traditional, men played the female parts, their falsetto voices sounding like chipmunks, making our children giggle. I wondered what our kids would make of these shows, of these intensely male traditions where women are still played by men and in Kung Fu women are nothing but a beautiful illusion. Our guide was disappointed by our inability to fully understand the beauty of these ancient art forms, and I felt torn between wanting to understand and not wanting to fully embrace aspects of Chinese culture that I wouldn’t be willing to embrace in my own culture, either.

I had signed us up for the camp because I wanted a chance to connect with other families like ours while avoiding a traditional tour.  It was difficult for us to adjust to the lack of independence and free time, but in the end, we made new friends and learned a lot about Chinese culture and language—and even more about differences between our cultural mindsets and the reasons that misunderstandings arise.

Sophie was proud of herself for being able to explain to a woman selling fruit that she didn’t understand Chinese and that she and the other girls were Americans and Canadians. And I was proud of myself for making extensive use of my days-of-the-week vocabulary acquired in Guilin when, convinced at dinner one night that it was Wednesday  but told by everyone else that it was Thursday, I figured out how to ask someone at the next table whether jin tian was xing qi yi or xing qi er. Turned out that it was Thursday.  I was pleased at remembering a little bit of Chinese, but then a little sad at how fast the time was speeding by.  In just a few days, we would have to cram six weeks of dirty laundry and souvenirs into our overweight luggage    before heading on to our last stops in Zhejiang Province, Sophie’s birthplace.

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  • Jody Lisberger  On July 26, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Thank you, Nancy, for your fabulous writing and insights to China and parenting. I’ve totally enjoyed your entries. Love, Jody

    • Nancy McCabe  On July 29, 2011 at 12:33 pm

      Thanks, Jody. Sounds like you all had a great time in Italy! I’m looking forward to hearing more about it when I see you–which I’m afraid won’t be till what, maybe May?

  • Ruth Yoon  On July 26, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    “I am not attached to the outcome” sounds like it has Buddhist roots — detachment from all material things to focus on what is really important.

    Why think the Zodiac is a sneaky way to find out someone’s age? In Korea (& I suspect in China, too), the direct question of age is one of the first questions one is asked by a new acquaintance. It’s necessary to know this in order to know the form of address which should be used (older, younger, or peer). English does not demand this knowledge for polite discourse.

    • Nancy McCabe  On July 29, 2011 at 12:24 pm

      Great points, Ruth! “I am not attached to the outcome” has Buddhist roots and was a useful philosophy for us, but it was definitely Buddhism as filtered through American sensibilities. And since we don’t have the cultural background to understand the zodiac–and we zipped through our lesson on it pretty rapidly–the meaning of it is easily lost on us. Most of what I took from it was how old everyone was–but that was MY reaction, not meant as a generalization about its meaning to someone Chinese (or Korean.) (And, in fact, several Chinese people throughout our visit did ask me outright how old I was. It is probably more typical of Americans to be sneaky about obtaining this kind of information.) Anyway, I intended those as illustrations at how difficult it is to inhabit the mindset of another culture despite good intentions

      • Ruth Yoon  On August 7, 2011 at 11:05 pm

        Knowing someone’s zodiac sign is not just about their age, it is also about their temperament & personality. They might be looking for zodiac sign “matches” in terms of whether someone might be a compatible friend or business associate. Several years ago I was with someone I was dating, and we were talking to an Asian (I don’t recall which country) immigrant. She was quite serious when she inquired about our zodiac signs & did the equivalent of cluck her tongue, as our zodiac signs were not compatible. I ended up breaking up with the man in question, so maybe she knew something. Of course, this depends upon stereotypes, but it is a quick way to categorize & deal with the world.

      • Nancy McCabe  On August 17, 2011 at 11:34 pm

        Ruth–how do you see this as different or similar to our zodiac signs and horoscopes and all that? They seem to follow the same premise, that people born at similar times will share certain characteristics, and the Asian forms of the Zodiac, though the animals are cool, leaves me with the same skepticism.

  • Lee McClain  On August 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Great descriptions, Nancy! You brought the “Sweet Family” experience to life. We miss you guys and hope you’re serious about coming to cook dumplings with us this fall.

    • Nancy McCabe  On August 2, 2011 at 10:48 pm

      We’re looking forward to our dumpling weekend! Hope you had a great rest of the trip–I’m looking forward to hearing more about it. Hope you’re recovering quickly from the jet lag!

  • Ruth Yoon  On August 17, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    (I’ve given up figuring out how to put this under the correct comment.) Nancy, the Asian zodiac seems a bit more fleshed out than the Western one, and there are very detailed ways in which various combinations do & don’t work together. The biggest difference, I think, is the degree to which the average person buys in to the concept. In the U.S., I think it’s mostly for amusement & isn’t generally taken that seriously. It’s quite different in some parts of Asia, where it’s taken very seriously by a significant portion of the population. For example, when there were still arranged marriages (not that long ago in my family, both my aunt & uncle had arranged marriages), the compatibility of the couple’s zodiac signs was very important. There were still auspicious days to do one thing or another, auspicious locations for houses, graves or businesses, etc.

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