Thursday, September 1, 2011

On Your Toes

In my last entry, I lightly touched on the changing face of China from a very global or academic perspective. Today I want to bring the ever-shifting face of China into sharp relief through the microscopic lens of the foreign teachers’ cafeteria. When I first arrived, our cafeteria consisted of a large rectangle room with four large square columns stationed at the corners of an imaginary square on the floor in the middle of the room. Huge round tables occupied one side of the room, with a long table for serving food along the wall. The other side of the room remained bare. The lighting was so completely conventional that I cannot recall the fixtures. This arrangement was completely satisfactory until the returning teachers began to arrive for the official start of the school year: there were not enough chairs to sit even 50% of us. And unlike school cafeterias in the States, here food is put out at noon and runs out about twenty-five minutes later—so to stagger waves of people to fit the number seats meant the last wave got rice and whatever two dishes were the least popular. Fortunately, about four days later six more tables appeared (literally) on the other side of the room.

So that was that, I thought. But no, about two days later those six tables again disappeared. Twenty-fours after this discouraging disappearance, I walk in for lunch and discover several new developments: first, lining every inch of free wall are shiny champagne-colored couches with decorative floral pillows more befitting a karaoke bar than a cafeteria; second, on each side of the cafeteria are suspended golden and crystal chandeliers; third, between the columns in the middle of the room (following three sides of the imaginary square) are metal, very professional-appearing buffet bars; fourth, on the side of the room that was still bereft of our much-needed tables were two new windows in the wall through which cooks could directly serve us. (Now whether these windows had always been there, but simply bricked up or whether they were newly cut, I doubt I will ever discover.) So many of us teachers sat with plates on our laps on our new impressive but impractical furniture. I thought *Wow! They certainly like to keep us on our toes here!* And the fun still was not done. A few dinners later our cafeteria became a literal maze of tables: the vanishing tables reappeared along with quite a few small square tables, making maneuvering around chairs, tables, and people with plates of food quite a spectacle. Now our story is coming to a close (or maybe I should simply say, it is catching up with the present for who knows what may happen tomorrow). The following day, all the round tables disappeared, and the couches and square tables became logical booths or open tables, resulting in an authentic “restaurant” feel.

While photos would have greatly enriched this narrative, I hope you can picture the fun of the foreign teachers’ cafeteria. While hilarious, this progression is by no means an isolated event in China. In fact buildings pop up so fast, that it is common to suddenly discover an oft-used back road or footpath is now a construction zone, if not already the skeleton of a building. Or ask a local child what a specific building is only to realize that they know as little as a visitor because that building is almost brand new (while looking years old). When I lived in Dalian, the expats had a saying for such a time as this: “oinc (the sound a pig makes)”—only in China. 

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