Food for thought: working at McDonald's

Another gem from Girls. Hannah has basically been fired from her unpaid internship because the won't pay her and her parents have stopped supporting her. So she is discussing her situation with some friends.

Hannah: So I calculated, and I can last in New York for three and a half more days. Maybe seven if I don't eat lunch.

Jessa: I'm going to find you a job worthy of your talents.

Hannah: Well I appreciate that, but I don't know how you're going to find a job fast enough. I'm going to have to work at like, McDonald's.

Marnie: You're not gonna work at McDonald's.

Jay: What's wrong with McDonald's? You should work at McDonald's. It's great. Fucking incredible. You know how many people McDonald's feeds every day? You know how many people it employs around the world? Plus, they make an incredible product, okay? It tastes tremendous, it's affordable, it's fuckin' consistant. I can walk into a McDonald's in Nigeria, order chicken McNuggets, when I bite into them, you know what it's gonna taste like? It's gonna taste like home.

Hannah: Doesn't mean I have to work there. I went to college.

Jay: Yeah, I went to college too, you know where it left me? I have fifty thousand dollars in student loans, that's how deep in debt I am. I'm sorry, but watching this, this is like watching Clueless. 



A few commandments of happiness

For writer Gretchen Rubin's happiness project, she started a blog as one of her work goals, to expand her identity as a writer and connect with a new community. On this blog, over the course of the project, she shared her own Twelve Commandments for Happiness, and many readers shared some of their own. A great list of them is in the book. I wanted to share. The ones in italics are my favorites.

  • Forget the past.
  • Do stuff.
  • Talk to strangers.
  • Stay in touch.
  • Stop the venting and complaining. 
  • Go outside.
  • Spread joy.
  • Never bother with people you hate.
  • Don't expect it to last forever. Everything ends and that's okay.
  • Stop buying useless crap.
  • Make mistakes.
  • Give thanks: for the ordinary and the extraordinary. 
  • Create something that wasn't there before. 
  • Notice the color purple.
  • Make footprints: "I was here."
  • Be silly. Be light.
  • Be the kind of woman I want my daughters to be.
  • Shit happens--count on it.
  • Friends are more important than sex.
  • Choose not to take things personally.
  • Be loving and love will find you.
  • Soak it in.
  • This too shall pass.
  • "Be still, and know that I am God."
  • Remember, everyone's doing their best all the time.
  • Expect a miracle.
  • I am already enough. 
  • Let it go, man.
  • Light a candle or STFU.
  • Recognize my ghosts.
  • What do I really, really, really want?
  • Help is everywhere.
  • What would I do if I weren't scared?
  • If you can't get out of it, get into it. 
  • Keep it simple.
  • Give without limits, give without expectations.
  • React to the situation.
  • Feel the danger (many dangers--saturated fats, drunk driving, not making deadlines, law school--don't feel dangerous).
  • Start where you are.
  • People give what they have to give.
  • Be specific about my needs.
  • Let go, let God.
  • If you're not now here, you're nowhere.
  • Play the hand I'm dealt.
  • Own less, love more.
  • One is too many; a hundred aren't enough. 
  • Nothing too much.
  • Only connect.
  • Be a haven.

On happiness, and pleasure in failure

From Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project:

One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish. Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened. Losing your job might be a blow to your self-esteem, but the fact that you lead your local alumni association gives you a comforting source of self-respect. Also, a new identity brings you into contact with new people and new experiences, which are also sources of happiness.

On enjoying your failures:

Pushing myself, I knew, would be a source of discomfort. It's a Secret of Adulthood: Happiness doesn't always make you feel happy. When I thought about why I was sometimes reluctant to push myself, I realized that it was because I was afraid of failure--but in order to have more success, I needed to be willing to accept more failure. I remembered the words of Robert Browning: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

To counteract this fear, I told myself, "I enjoy the fun of failure." It's fun to fail, I kept repeating. It's part of being ambitious; it's part of being creative. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly.

The Study Abroad Blues (And a few tricks to overcoming them)

Blues #1: Rice Again?

The first thing to affect a newcomer to China is the food. Very quickly it hits you—when they said China, they meant China. To use a horrible cliché, you’re not in Kansas anymore. Using chopsticks came very naturally for me, but as the meals continued along the path of steamed rice, mystery Chinese meat (I’m not vegetarian, but very selective of the meats I consume), cooked and marinated vegetables, and watermelon (dessert), I began to understand that I would not be eating the assortment and selections of foods available to me in the United States. I have been able to enjoy Pizza Hut every so often, and have had two—count them, two—cups of Starbucks since I arrived, and have also found several helpful things imported from America and tweaked to suit the Chinese market (including the no-calorie Pepsi Light, Oreos in smaller, 10-cookie packages, and Extra brand gum in “herb” flavor).

I miss sandwiches, as the concept of a cold-cut sandwich is very unusual to the Chinese, as are fresh greens and salads. I also miss Mexican food, both authentic and Tex-Mex and American adaptations. The two most elemental things in my diet that have been neglected in my time here, however, are dairy products and peanut butter. Most Chinese are lactose-intolerant genetically, because so few dairy products are consumed in the society, and the Chinese students I have asked about cheese have told me they haven’t ever had it or don’t like it. Personally, I love many kinds of cheese, and drink a lot of milk, and can’t wait for these staples again. I immediately regretted not bringing a container of peanut butter with me, as I have some almost daily at home, whether it be with toast for breakfast (which I also miss—the Chinese concept of breakfast is very different from my own) or as a snack with an apple.

My tricks: Although it’s expensive by Chinese standards, I have satiated my taste buds with western foods like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks on several occasions, and found this delightful. It is also an experience just to visit these places in their Chinese adaptations, as an American. Pizza gives me a much-enjoyed taste of cheese, and I have taken to relishing in a package of peanut butter Oreos every so often—the closest I’ve come to that flavor in China. Since the milk here is not pasteurized, I am reluctant to drink it, and have stayed true in waiting until I return home to down an ice-cold glass of it. I’ve settled and grown to like the instant coffee widely served and available throughout the country, in lieu of the brewed beverage I’m used to. I do enjoy the Chinese food, for what it’s worth, and get my fill of the rice and veggies. There are delightful things in authentic Chinese food that I’m sure I will miss upon my return—the noodles and eggplant being near the top of the list. However, I will drink my sorrows away with a huge glass of ice water with lemon (my first ice-cold drink in 2 months) and celebrate both cultures’ foods.

Blues #2: Do what to operate the shower?

For lack of a good euphemism, the toilets in China are squatters. I’ve lowered my restroom standards quite easily, growing used to using these holes on the floor, and now discern a “decent” bathroom by whether you have to supply your own toilet paper or not.

The other aspect of restrooms that at first frightened me was upon our arrival at Zhengzhou University, around midnight after an 8-plus-hour train ride. Exhausted, I’m barely able to stand up, and catch the phrase, “To heat up your water for showers…,” at which point I nearly burst into tears. I recovered, you’ll be glad to know, and found that the plugging in of the water heater several hours before using the shower is not actually so bad. Our shower was just a nozzle on the wall next the toilet, in the same three-square-feet as everything else in the bathroom without anything to separate it. As one of the professors so adequately put it, “You can shower and shit at the same time!” Indeed, you could.

My tricks: When I enter the public restrooms and catch a whiff, I grin and bear it, remembering that I’m here to experience something other than the way I know life. I have plenty of travel-size tissues to make the whole process of public restrooms a little smoother. I’m actually very adapted to the toilet and shower situations. I also appreciate my own that much more.

Blues #3: “This one is the oldest Buddhist temple…”

Around the time of your fifth temple or pagoda visit, it hits you: these all look the same! Confirming your thoughts are the next twenty temples and pagodas. Differentiated by being unique in their own ways (i.e. the “oldest,” the “tallest,” the “most important in Buddhist development in China,” the “temple with the biggest statue,” etc.), the same architecture and smell of incense can only entertain the traveling student so long. I’ve long since passed that point.

My tricks: I keep in mind that I’m seeing things that collectively contribute to the culture of Chinese people, and impact their history and their current society. When considered in that perspective, one can appreciate the site as part of a larger concept and entity, and not get too bogged down by the details and specifics of each. I also strongly rely on my iPod, and a good book, journal, or Sudoku.

Blues #4: Woes of an internet addict

Coming to China has magnified a personal trait: yes, I am mildly addicted to the Internet. As a form of communication, a form of entertainment, and a means of knowledge and continual learning, I have found that going several days without it literally affects my well-being. In Zhengzhou, we had horrible internet access, and I could feel myself slowly become less content the more days passed without checking my e-mail. I will also never again take for granted being able to have more than one window open on my Firefox browser while surfing the web at home, as I take full advantage of that capability with my multi-tasking American lifestyle. Another odd obstacle of Chinese Internet is the “great Chinese firewall,” or the blatant censoring of the websites one can reach. In Beijing, Myspace is permanently blocked. The New York Times website is blocked through most of China, as are almost all large blog services. (We had enough trouble just finding a site we could use to post these.)

My tricks: Grin and bear it. My standards have dwindled considerably in what I consider “fast Internet.” Fortunately, Gmail is relatively dependent throughout China, as I’ve used it, so I have usually been able to keep up with e-mail. Myspace does work here in Yangzhou, so that is an improvement from my last home, but it is still slow and annoying. I’ve had to learn the hard way to manage the withdrawal effects of my addiction.

Blues #5: The limits of language

China has taught me things and shown me things I could never have learned in a classroom or from a book. In my inept command of the Chinese language though, I feel like I have had, and continue to have, experiences limited only to the extent one can go without speaking to the people. I have my own little China life negotiated, and I can get by doing basic things and getting myself around town and fed. I can also manage a little bargaining and buy things relatively easily. I like my little life, but I also feel like it a bubble, a foreigner bubble, and I won’t escape it until I can communicate with Chinese in their language. This makes total immersion into the society very hard, even more so when you think that two months is a relatively short time to initiate a life for oneself. It’s just long enough to feel fully away from home, but not long enough to settle.

My tricks: For this, I’m trying my hardest to learn the basics of Chinese, during class and through daily living. It is immensely difficult and intimidating, so I constantly have to encourage myself to be persistent. Hopefully someday I’ll have enough of a handle on it to return and be that much more connected.

Blues #6: The frying of a good mind

This is not a vacation. I am getting 15 credit hours for these eight weeks abroad, and it definitely feels like that. I have done enough reading and written enough papers while in China to sufficiently burn me out. Leaving three days after my last final for spring semester, I had no break and jumped right into a full semester here in China. It is increasingly harder with each day to get out of bed (at 7 a.m.) for four-plus hours of class. I lost inspiration for brilliant papers and the incentive to study dries up more and more by the day. I think is laying most heavily on me right now, of anything I am feeling. I’m just ready for a break from schoolwork. I want to read a book I chose and have nothing else to distract me from it.

My tricks: Distractions. This is music, reading non-required things, writing, Sudoku, e-mailing and the Internet, and enjoying China for all of the experiences, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes—not the history, politics, turmoil, and sociology. While all that is both interesting and important to me, when you’re in extreme burn-out mode, it is wonderful medicine to forget it all for a while.

Blues #7: I just want to sing!

I value my personal space and time very much, and maintaining this as a normal occurrence keeps me stable. I find it very difficult, the longer I go, to be around the same group of people in close quarters and at every event for weeks and weeks. I would be hard-pressed to find ten people in the U.S. that I would want to be around for such a long time, and even then, I think I would grow tired of the constant surrounding. Our group here in Yangzhou is particularly dynamic, as we have eleven very different personalities. I would say two of the only things we have in common are our homeland and our language—other than that, we’re quite the motley crew. This has taken some getting used to, for me, because I have had to tell myself to sit back and just let the tension roll of me. For the first several days it was affecting my psyche, I think. It sounds very extreme, but it’s not, disharmony just has a way of getting under my skin and making deteriorating my contentedness.

Also, I love to sing, but others probably don’t enjoy it as much. In the U.S., I, like many Americans, spend a good bit of time driving my car, and this gives me lots of times for jam sessions with myself. Also, having my own room gives me the freedom to follow my own schedule and release the exhaustion that comes from being around a group all day.

Another aspect of the trip that is grueling for an independent person is having the events of each day, week, and weekend planned out. In addition, for the past forty-two days, I have had one morning during which I was allowed to sleep in, and absolutely no days with nothing planned at all. (This weekend, June 22-24 is our “break,” which I am absolutely looking forward to, even if we have to write one last paper.) All this group-oriented activity is taxing on an American with the standard American individualistic approach to life.

My tricks: Removing myself from the group when I need space helps a bit. Once again, my iPod is a life-saver, as I can escape to my own world, full of the music that comforts and soothes me. It might sound silly, but getting lost in my iPod makes me feel closer to my own soul, and keeps me sane in my current orientation.

Blues #8: Keeping it in perspective

It might not sound long to others, but eight weeks feels a lot longer from the Eastern hemisphere than it did from the Western. Life in transit, away from the people I care about and who make me laugh and understand my humor and stories, can get to the best of them.

It’s funny because before I left on this trip, I thought I could handle anything, that it wouldn’t faze me at all being away for so long. I have altered my feelings on that—I can handle anywhere in the world, but I need the right people around me, who can understand why I find something beautiful and appreciate things alongside me, to fully capture the moments as they happen. I was a person who believed firmly that I could handle anything life might give me, by myself. But the plane ride over seemed like an eternity, and getting on the internet just to send an e-mail home two days later settled my frazzled nerves in a way I had never expected. I do need support, and I do thrive on camaraderie to an extent. I need a healthy balance, really.

I’ve been in China long enough now to really feel the longing for home. I’m content in the little life I’ve situated for myself— somewhere along the edge of Chinese and American tourist in China realms—but sometimes I feel like if I could I would throw in the towel. I miss the comforts of my own home, the people and places I know, ordering from a menu that I can actually read. In this same frame of mind, I understand how much of an invaluable experience this trip is for me, how it will affect my perspective for the rest of my life, and in my travels from here on out. I am trying to take each day as it comes, and valuing it for what it is worth, because I know while it seems interminably long now, when I get home it’ll seem like it flew by.

So, I’m glad to be here, but I will be glad to be home again.

Thoughts on History: Part II

Continuing my discourse on history, and what that concept means and entails, I will admit that I am skeptical of the history I have seen in China. A good illustration of my reasoning came with the field trip my history class took to Anyang, an ancient Chinese city and the location of the famous oracle bone inscriptions. Before visiting the site, we were assigned some reading about the meaning and significance of the oracle bones and their messages, the tombs of leaders and their wives, and the human sacrifices and huge graves that were prepared in their names, including the burying of entire carriages with the horses that would “pull” them in the afterlife. Although I found this type of tomb preparation a bit absurd, I felt prepared and was interested to visit these relics.

What I found were some rather subtly announced “recreations” of what the oracle bones might have looked like during the time of their use, which were displayed outside. Inside a little room, the “real” bones lay in a dimly-lit pit, in piles of indiscernible rubble. Owing to the condition of these, I was dubious to believe that even these “authentic” ones were the oracle bones, laying in that condition.

The clincher for my dismissal of authenticity came when looking at the human sacrifices: skeletons laying in pits under round glass enclosures, soaking in the sun so the tourists could marvel over them. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that “ancient skeletons” would be exposed to various weather and temperature conditions for the sake of attracting tourism?

Seems to me that thousand-year-old human remains might have to be contained in proper storage. Upon close inspection, it was clear that some of the skeletons were real. I don’t doubt that—I’m sure some humans were sacrificed, or at least utilized after dying anyway, when this site was being established. Perhaps during the Cultural Revolution? Punishment for political insurrection?

Another example is the Shaolin Temple. It’s beautiful, no denying that, and the site itself has a long and significant history in China and within Buddhism. The tour guide then explains that the temples were destroyed many times, and the most recent ones were built in the 1980s.

Oh, OK. That takes away some of the grandeur the visit may have held for me. I’ve lived in houses much older than that.

The phrase I like to use to explain my process of viewing history now is the old aphorism of taking life “with a grain of salt.” I can absorb the things I see— the temples, museums, mausoleums, relics, pagodas, walls, and their stories—and appreciate what they stand for, and what they mean to the nation who holds them as part of their past. I then move on, knowing that what these stand for is much more important than the actual items or sites themselves. It is unwise and unnecessary to consider these things as more than they are—and placing undue authenticity on them just doesn’t make sense to me.

This process builds on something I learned last fall in a “world language and culture” class. In reading any set of statistics, one can often see the agenda of the publishers of such information. My professor— herself an absolutely brilliant and delightful intellectual—emphasized the importance of also approaching maps and history this same way. Cartographers also have an agenda; they are out to prove their point.

Political maps? Chock-full of biases. Maps detailing which languages are spoken where, or which religions are practiced most? That research changes according to who is retrieving it.

The same is the case with history. As I said in my previous discourse, history is distorted over time, across borders, in various contexts, for different races, religions, and economies

I take it all with a grain of salt. I learn as much as I can with the best use of the resources available, and also keep in mind that I’m storing this information in a western-bred mind. Being outside one’s own culture does emphasize what is not consciously considered when within it—how deeply people are defined by their society.

This resonates with the studying of history; ask a Ukrainian child and American child about the Cold War and you will get two different accounts. Ask a Japanese student and a Chinese student about the presence of Japanese military in Nanjing, China, and you will hear two different tales, with different enemies and reasoning behind the event.

So can I really blame the Chinese for wanting to present a rich, deeply archeological past? There’s no doubt they have this history. Seeing the relics and sites so far, I have established my own perception of all this history, and it has altered the way I see history. It is an important revelation; for the rest of my life, I will see history in other countries and other contexts and take it all in with a grain of salt, stepping away from the biases presented at face value, and appreciating it all for what it stands for.