Tag: classic


19

Apr 2004

When Humor Runs Aground

I think it’s pretty universally true that humor, being culturally dependent, is a tricky undertaking in a foreign language. Just supposing you have the necessary language skills to accurately communicate what you want to, the target culture may not find your “joke” the least bit funny. On the contrary, they might be offended (this has happened to me before), they might recognize you were trying to make a joke in their language and boo your lame attempt (that always happens to me in Japan), or they might just accept your statement at face value, not realizing there was any attempt at humor involved (which seems to happen to me the most in China).

I used to think that sarcasm was unknown in China. For a long time, my every attempt at it in Chinese would fail miserably, and it wasn’t due to grammar or pronunciation. Later I learned that “sarcasm” and “satire” are both translated as one Chinese word — 讽刺 (fengci) — in most dictionaries. Say what? From my perspective, this vocabulary issue pointed to a conspicuous difference in style of humor. This “no sarcasm” issue seemed to add to the “innocent Chinese” stereotype. But was my perception correct? Does such a gaping cultural divide even exist in reality?

Since coming to Shanghai, I’ve discovered that there are plenty of Chinese people that not only understand sarcasm, but find it indispensable in their daily exchanges. It’s been very refreshing. My girlfriend is one such blessed person. The thing is, she tells me that many Shanghainese feel that other Chinese are not nearly as quick-witted in their style of humor. And I know from experience that they’re less likely to “get” sarcasm.

It seems that sarcasm is most likely to “work” here in China when it’s especially exaggerated, e.g. “Oh, THANK YOU, I’m SO HAPPY!” A “wry” style of humor seems pretty much completely unappreciated here.

Here’s an example of a real incident from my workplace:

> HER: What’s a good way to teach the beach lesson vocabulary?

> ME: That’s easy. Just take them to the beach.

> HER: But there’s no beach nearby!

> ME: Stop making excuses!

> HER: (whimper)

OK, I know what I said wasn’t really funny, but the point was that she took my reply seriously when I never expected her to in the first place. My second response fared no better.

A former co-worker of mine has extensive experience telling jokes to Chinese audiences in Chinese. His Chinese is quite good, and in most cases, he is able to elicit the desired chuckles. His advice to me (should I choose to carry on the torch at future training seminars) was: “When you tell a joke to a Chinese audience, you may need to make the ‘punchline’ a bit later than you would ordinarly deem necessary.”

I’ll share the joke he told me. It’s a generic “smart people, dumb people” joke, which he filled in with Chinese and Japanese for convenience (and automatic audience approval).

> Two groups of foreigners were visiting the USA. One was a group of three Japanese businessmen, and the other was a group of three Chinese businessmen. They happened to be taking the same train.

> The Japanese bought their three tickets, but then happened to notice that the Chinese guys behind them only bought one. They were confused by this, thinking perhaps there was a miscommunication, but decided to mind their own business and not say anything.

> Once on the train, the two groups were sitting very near each other. As the ticket-taker started coming around, the Japanese watched the Chinese with interest.

> Suddenly the three Chinese guys sprang up, walked down to the end of the car, and crammed into the small restroom together. When the ticket-taker came by, he could tell someone was in the restroom, so he knocked on the door, calling “TICKET.” The Chinese slid their one ticket under the door. The ticket-taker collected it and moved on, and the Chinese came out shortly thereafter and sat back down.

> The Japanese were duly impressed by the crafty Chinese.

> On the train ride back, as luck would have it, the same two groups wound up on the same train. The Japanese, nervously seated with one ticket among the three of them, eyed the Chinese as they entered. The Chinese didn’t seem to have a single ticket. The Japanese didn’t know what the Chinese were up to, but they were nevertheless glad they had a chance to use the new trick.

> When the ticket-taker drew near, both groups headed for the restrooms. The Japanese crammed into the restroom on the right side, the Chinese crammed into the restroom on the left side.

> After a few seconds, one of the Chinese quietly emerged from the restroom and headed to the one occupied by the Japanese, who were nervously waiting for the ticket-taker. The Chinese guy knocked on the door and called out “TICKET.”

The joke, in its original form, is supposed to end there. My co-worker found it wise to add the following for his Chinese audience, however:

> The Japanese slid their ticket under the door. The Chinese guy grabbed it and went back into the other restroom.

Part of the appreciation of a joke is making the final connection yourself. It seems that the two cultures differ on where, exactly, that “final connection” is.

The Chinese love to crack open nuts, crabs, shrimp, turtles, etc. when they eat. They consider it part of the joy of eating. Many foreigners find it unnecessary work. Could it be that when it comes to humor, the situation is reversed?


25

Mar 2004

Cheerios and Wang Lihong

I saw Cheerios in the grocery store the other day. Not at Carrefour, which has all kinds of imported foods that those foreigners who live in remoter parts of China can only fantasize about. I mean the regular Chinese grocery store.

Its Chinese name is “Guduoduo Cuigule,” which kind of mystifies me. Yes, 谷 can mean “grain,” but why such an unnecessarily long name? I would think that Cuigule (“crisp grain happiness”) alone would be enough. (Any Chinese people want to explain that, please?)

Anyway, the price was only 10rmb ($1.25 US). When I’d seen breakfast cereals before, they had always been around 30 rmb, which is kind of expensive for what it is, in China. So I bought it. Chinese pop star Wang Lihong‘s (I refuse to call him “Leehom”!) smug face was on the box reassuring me that I had made a wise purchase.

Well, the morning I tore into the box I immediately noticed that something was seriously wrong. There were 5 small cereal packets inside. Each cereal packet contained a measly 30g of Cheerios! (To give you an idea, a smallish 11 oz. box from back home has over 300 g of Cheerios in it.) I had to eat two packs just to feel like I had even eaten anything.

(There is only one pack of Cheerios in the bowl in the photo.)

Sitting there munching my ripoff Cheerios, I fixated on Wang Lihong. What a pretty boy. I don’t think he used to be this bad. I didn’t find any images of it online, but in his promo photos for the Chinese McDonalds “I’m lovin’ it” campaign, he looks so cosmetized it’s scary. I think this pic gives you an idea of how lame he is.

The worst part about it is that Wang Lihong is an ABC. He grew up in the States. I can only conclude that (1) he has completely sold out, rejecting any American identity imprint he might have once had, or (2) he is just a shameless money grubbing pretty boy.

Either way, he has my contempt. I wouldn’t have blogged about it until he conspired with Cheerios to rip me off, though.


10

Mar 2004

Shanghai vs. Beijing

Shanghai and Beijing are the two most talked about cities in mainland China, and for good reason. Shanghai is the most populous city in China, a very modern economic powerhouse. Beijing is the capital, the political and cultural center of the nation. Beijing is the emperor’s seat in the north, Shanghai the giant of the south. Comparisons are inevitable.

Obviously, I now inhabit Shanghai, and I want it to fare well in an honest comparison of the two. I’ve been to Beijing twice, but not recently, and never for an extended visit. Today I discussed the matter with an American co-worker of mine. He seemed an ideal, objective observer because he lived in Beijing for a year, and now, after staying in Shanghai for a little over a year, is leaving China. He speaks good Chinese, and he’s a shrewd observer of his surroundings. Here’s the breakdown of his opinions:

Climate. Beijing is colder, but you don’t feel it too much because everyone bundles up like mad, and central heating is quite widespread. In Shanghai the buildings are built with the hot summers in mind, and there’s precious little insulation. That, combined with the people’s strong desire for “fresh air” in the middle of the winter makes Shanghai “the coldest place I’ve ever lived.”

People. Both Beijingers and the Shanghainese feel a sort of superiority toward outsiders. Nevertheless, Beijingers are widely regarded as very friendly, and any sense of superiority is exhibited only subtly. The Shanghainese are not widely regarded as friendly or as subtle in their snobbery.

Culture. Do I even have to say it? It’s all in Beijing.

Language. Beijingers speak Chinese with as much “rrrr” as possible, as if they only “speak with the throat.” Despite the superfluous R’s, Beijingers’ Chinese is quite close to the national standard. The Shanghainese, on the other hand, speak a dialect that could easily be classified as a separate (but related) language. This affects their Mandarin, making it less standard. The Shanghainese, like most places in the south, have much less “rrrr” in their speech, relying instead on other standard variants (e.g. nali instead of nar, meaning “where”).

Western Conveniences. Shanghai’s got Beijing beat hands down. Sure, Beijing has most of the products Shanghai does, but in Shanghai they’re much more readily available. Some things that you can buy in Shanghai’s convenience stores you might have to go to a specialty store for in Beijing. In addition, Shanghai has a lot more late-night and 24-hour stores.

Entertainment. Beijing’s Sanlitun is a bit better than Shanghai’s bar streets. Beijing also has a lot more cheap entertainment options. Going out on the town in Shanghai often will deplete your funds fast.

OK, I think you see the trend. Shanghai is taking a wicked beating in the comparison. I’ve heard other people say it too: “Beijing feels so home-y and special. Shanghai is a soulless concrete capitalist jungle.”

I consider myself a reasonable person. Why, then, when faced with such evidence, do I still feel that I will never even consider moving to Beijing? I want to know this for myself. I think the reasons are:

1. I’m from Florida. That’s the American south (with northern flavor). I like it. I don’t like New York or Boston accents.

When I studied in Japan, my school’s program just happened to be in Osaka — Japan’s southern giant. I like the southern Japanese dialect, and feel Tokyo’s to be boring.

When I came to China, I chose Hangzhou — partly with climate in mind, but largely because I had a Chinese friend from there. Hangzhou was my home for 3 1/2 years. It’s where I learned Mandarin Chinese.

2. I hate the “rrrr” of northern Mandarin. I can’t help it. It sounds really dumb to me. Sometimes I find it amusing (I like hearing actor Ge You talk), but I can’t really take it seriously.

I also feel that it sort of impoverishes the language. The “-r” suffix can go on the end of words ending in a vowel, -n, or -ng. When the “-r” suffix starts going everywhere, you don’t hear the original syllable ending, and it reduces linguistic diversity.

(That’s probably just a dumb rationalization for in irrational dislike of a particular accent, though.)

3. “Beijing” seems so cliche to me. “Oh, you want to learn Chinese? Then go to Beijing! The Mandarin is so standard there. Dashan studied there!”

No thanks. I think I’ll tough it out amongst the hoardes of asshole expats.

4. I like the linguistic diversity of the south. I like that the Shanghainese speak a whole separate language from their northern overlords. It’s badass. It might seem exclusionary or snobbish to you, but then you’re also probably too lazy to learn it.

Somehow, I don’t really think any of this is totally it, though. Everyone says that Beijing is better, but I’m not gonna buy it. I guess deep down, I’m just stubborn. I’m in Shanghai now.

Related Links:
Bokane.org, journal of an American Peking University student.
Kaiser Kuo, a writer in Beijing.
Ape Rifle’s Chinese city comparisons.


12

Jan 2004

Why Shanghai?

A lot of people have asked me why I decided to move to Shanghai. A few years ago I would have laughed at the idea of myself making a home here. But, things have a funny way of working out…. Some of you might be wondering the converse, though — why not Shanghai?

When I first came to China, I chose Hangzhou (over Shanghai) for a number of reasons.

  1. Climate. Hangzhou is not too cold in the winter, and the winter doesn’t drag on too much. [Shanghai’s climate is virtually identical to Hangzhou’s.]
  2. Environment. Hangzhou is surrounded by green hills and wooded areas, and, of course, it also has the famous West Lake. [Shanghai has parks, but it is still the big bity. Concrete jungle.]
  3. Size. Although its population is close to 7 million, Hangzhou is a “mid-sized” city in China. In addition, the actual area the city covers is not really that large. Living there, you really feel that it’s not a big city. [Shanghai’s population, on the other hand, has topped 20 million. It is huge in all senses of the word.]
  4. Language. Hangzhou has its own local dialect which is virtually incomprehensible to those merely versed in Mandarin, but the dialect is not as widely used as you might think. Since Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province and also very much a “college town,” Mandarin is very widespread (if not always standard). This makes it a better place to study Chinese. [In comparison, Shanghai dialect is much more widely used in Shanghai, and knowledge of it is much more integral to success there. Also, there are many, many Chinese people that speak good English in Shanghai, which doesn’t help if you’re trying hard to learn Chinese.]
  5. Girls. Believe it or not, Hangzhou’s reputation for beautiful women was not a factor in my choice of Hangzhou. Furthermore, after being in China a while, I think it’s all a load of crap. Many places in China are famous for this reason (Hangzhou, Suzhou, Sichuan, Dalian, etc.). It’s just a variation on the “the grass is always greener” phenomenon. One thing Hangzhou does have going for it in this category is that it’s a college town, so there are tons of college-aged girls. [Shanghai women know how to dress well and wear makeup. They are hot, hot, HOT. It seems like the hottest ones are often either working girls or out for money, though.]
  6. Pollution. Pollution is a huge issue for foreigners in China, so I wanted to pick one of the cleaner Chinese cities. Relatively speaking, Hangzhou fits the bill (there are some nightmarish cities out there), but it’s by no means pristine. [Shanghai does not at all seem more polluted. I guess it’s because factories are largely located in the countryside (like right behind ZUCC).]

For the reasons above, as well as the fact that I never felt like a “city person,” I chose Hangzhou over Shanghai. It was an excellent choice. My number one goal here in China is attainment of a high degree of fluency in Mandarin, and Hangzhou has been a great place to pursue that dream. As my language proficiency pushes into the “advanced stage,” though, I have had to re-evaluate the situation.

As a university English teacher in China, I can’t justifiy the use of Chinese in the classroom, so my job (with the exception of the minor “foreign teacher liaison position”) was conducted entirely in English.

I’ve never been good at befriending my students, and I always found the language issue problematic. They want to practice English, I want to practice Chinese.

As my Chinese got better and better, I just felt that if my aim was mastery of Chinese, the most logical way to further my goal was to find a job where I could use Chinese on the job, all the time.

Thus Shanghai. Hangzhou has very little call for foreigners that speak Chinese. The fact that jobs in Shanghai pay way better is a small added bonus, but far from a driving factor for me.

Often in jest, expats in China sometimes refer to foreigners living in Shanghai as having “sold out.” I’m sure many do come here for the pay. You can earn a Western salary here (if you’re lucky). And I remember when I first came to Hangzhou and met other expats who had been here longer, I learned about the phenomenon of foreigners abandoning Hangzhou in favor of Shanghai after they’d been in China a while. And I remember thinking to myself, “Not me! Hangzhou is the city for me.” Whatever “the real China” may be, Shanghai is most definitely not it. So I can’t help but ask myself, “have I sold out?”

The answer is, of course, NO. But I have to make sure I keep focused on my goals. I wouldn’t be the first disillusioned Westerner to embrace the mystic, ascetic East for whatever reason, in all its third world charm, merely to get caught up in this new red capitalism. I wanted out of the rat race, not merely into a new “race.”

So I guess that about sums it up. Yes, my girlfriend also lives in Shanghai. And yes, that was also a factor (and a catalyst). But of course it wasn’t that simple. And I will definitely miss living in Hangzhou.


22

Nov 2003

Uncooperative Water

Water flows downhill. This is a simple fact that has been pretty well mastered by the average 8-year-old. Yet somehow it seems to elude Chinese civil engineers. I speak, of course, of the deplorable condition of drainage engineering in Hangzhou. That “the things we take for granted back home just don’t apply here” is a tired, worn-out cliche, but we’re talking about the most basic principles of physics here. Water flows downhill. Place drains in low points, and the water will “magically” drain into them. Is that hard? I don’t know, maybe it actually is. But looking at the drains around my campus, they seem to be almost randomly placed. You know something is wrong when huge puddles and big thirsty drains live side by side in perfect harmony.

Here are some good examples of uselessly placed drains:

Pictures of water on the ZUCC campus not flowing anywhere:

Granted, none of the puddles are really deep. The pavement is reasonably flat. But it doesn’t really drain. If there is an absolute deluge, then the water will find the drains. That seems to be the guiding principle, though, instead of good old “water flows downhill.”

The greatest part is how the stubborn puddles are taken care of. Grounds maintenance staff sweep them into the drains. Yes, they sweep the water. With a broom. (Sorry, I didn’t manage to get a picture of that.)

Come on, China, you’ve got a space program now, for crying out loud. Let’s see a little better display of your mastery of gravity.


03

Nov 2003

Adapting

When a foreigner in China talks with Chinese people, one of the major questions he will be asked about his life in China is, xi bu xiguan? — are you used to it? Annoying as it can be at times to be asked this same question over and over, when I give it any thought, I find the question still relevant after over three years here.

Of course, culture shock is certainly an issue, but I’ve always felt that I’m only minimally affected by it. The first time I went to Japan I pranced in like a wide-eyed child with no idea what to expect, rather than with a list of expectations. As a result, I wasn’t so “shocked.” The same principle applied in China, for the most part. I don’t think it’s something I’ve done consciously; it’s just the way it worked out for me.

Bedroom (1)

1st Apartment

When I first arrived in China, I stayed at a Chinese friend’s empty apartment. It was a broiling Hangzhou summer, but the apartment had no air conditioning. At night I slept on a bamboo mat with no cover. An electric fan made sleep just barely possible, and mosquito coils kept the little bloodsuckers at bay. I washed my clothes by hand and cooked most of my own meals. The toilet flush mechanism was broken and had to be flushed by dumping in a bucket of water. The hot water heater didn’t work, so showers were cold. After a week or two, I accepted that “this is China,” and I felt I had pretty much adapted to life in China.

After only a month, I was given an offer to move in with a Chinese guy about my same age. I could stay for free, and the apartment would have fully functional bathroom facilities, washing machine, and air conditioning. More than anything though, I feared the prospect of loneliness and boredom if I stayed at the first place. So I moved.

Bedroom (2)

2nd Apartment

My second living arrangement turned out to be great for language study. That was the whole reason I was allowed to live there for free, but it turned out to be far from one-sided. I ate meals at school in the cafeteria for about 4 RMB ($.050 US), and at home with my roommate in another cafeteria every night for 3 RMB. The food certainly wasn’t great, but it was OK. After I showered, I used the tiny hand towels that Chinese people use to dry off. My social life was practically non-existent. I didn’t know any other foreigners, and my Chinese wasn’t good enough yet to make many Chinese friends who wanted anything more than English practice. I spent a lot of time studying Chinese and hanging out at home with my roommate. I felt I had pretty much adapted to life in China.

apt-1

ZUCC Apartment

When my roommate decided to move to Canada to study, I moved into ZUCC’s newly finished teacher apartment. The new place not only had all the amenities of my former residence, but it was much bigger and it was all mine. I could cook on my own again. I finally bought a DVD player. No longer content with the Chinese “wash rag,” I bought a large, thick Western-style bath towel. I quickly got used to having my own place, and since I had Chinese friends by that time, it wasn’t so bad being alone. I felt I had already adapted to life in China, so small changes seemed insignificant.

The second semester of my life at ZUCC, Wilson, Helene, Simon, and Ben arrived. It was the beginning of a real foreigner community. Although my Chinese friendships continued, a big part of my free time was shifted to socializing with them. I stopped cooking, and began eating out all the time. We could all easily afford it, and the food was good. We almost always ate Chinese. I bought a desktop computer for my room and started my own website. The little changes continued.

I’ve now been in China for over three years. I’m finding a renewed interest in cooking on my own, applying a sort of fusion approach (cooking Chinese food with olive oil and balsamic vinegar — mmmmm), but I still eat out a lot. I still spend a lot of time with the other foreign teachers. Now my main contacts with the Chinese language are Chinese class and my Chinese girlfriend, although I still occasionally meet my Chinese friends as well. But I’m still adapted to life in China, right?

I find myself wondering what “adapting” really is. At what point in my stay here was I most “adapted to Chinese life”? Is it more important that I alter some part of myself to successfully fit in, or is it more important that I’ve found contentment in a foreign environment? Clearly, adaptation is a process of finding a balance between what you can accept from your new environment and what you must change about your new environment in order to be comfortable. But if that balance keeps evolving, does it mean one has still not adapted?

I guess it’s all just pointless rhetoric in the end, but I enjoy watching the new teachers undergo the process, finding wonder and revulsion in parts of life here that I barely notice anymore. It’s very easy to forget how much you’ve really adapted sometimes. I think it’s equally difficult to be aware of how one is still adapting.


19

Oct 2003

Craptaculars

Matt of the Nanjingren blog (one of the newest additions to the Sinosplice Network) came to Hangzhou this weekend with some of his classmates. Unfortunately I was only able to spend one meal with him because my schedule is rather full this weekend. It’s fuller than usual because I’ve been coerced into participating in Zhejiang University of Technology’s 50th Anniversary Craptacular.

Craptacular Hosts

I don’t pretend to invent the word “craptacular,” but I’ve noticed it’s already in common usage among foreigners in China for one simple reason: China loves the Craptacular. What do I mean by craptacular? Basically, it’s an onstage event containing a rather long lineup of acts, most of which fall into one of several categories. The defining features of the craptacular are:

Craptacular Song
  • Hosts. They always come in gleaming male-female pairs, overflowing with bubbly super-standard Mandarin and armed with smiles that make your eyes ache.
  • Songs. Solos, duos, or en masse. China loves live singing, be it in the classroom or onstage.
  • Dances. Minority dances, folk dances, solos, duos, it’s all here. Whoopee.
  • Comedy. Short skits and crosstalk (相声), a kind of Chinese two-person stand-up comedy. Comedy has a comparatively small role, song and dance hogging the spotlight.
  • Glitz. Everyone wears bright flashy costumes, the lighting is top-notch, and accompanying stage decorations are a big priority. Whenever possible, craptaculars are recorded on video.

Almost without exception, it’s mind-numbingly awful stuff from the foreigner’s perspective, even if he understands it.

Craptacular Skit

The most famous craptacular in China is the nationally televised Chinese New Year Party (春节联欢晚会). Pretty much every Chinese person I talk to agrees that it gets worse every year, ever reaching new depths of raw bore-power. Yet most Chinese households tune in faithfully every year. (This is one reason I’m not a big fan of Chinese New Year, but I won’t go into that now….) There are minor craptaculars going on all the time for various reasons (or no reason), and you can see them on TV in China all the time. If you have a masochistic streak (or if you just get unlucky as I did in ZhouShan) you can even go see them live. Sometimes universities — tools of the state patriotic entities that they are — put on their own craptaculars. Thus we have come back around to the topic of ZUT’s craptacular.

The students in the advanced Chinese class at ZUT that couldn’t come up with an air-tight excuse were forced to get involved in the foreign students’ event in the 50th Anniversary Craptacular. So, yeah, that means me. We have to put on nice clothes and get up on stage in front of a huge audience and speak Chinese into microphones. Some of us even have to try to be funny in Chinese doing skits onstage. Fortunately that’s not me. I’m just a host.

So I was not happy about this because it involves a big time commitment. Memorizing lines, rehearsing, and performing not once, but three times! So this weekend I’m pretty busy performing onstage for ZUT.

All that negative “craptacular” talk and whining aside, there were some good points about being in the performance:

Craptacular Crosstalk
  • I got to meet some of the other performers, some of whom are pretty cool people.
  • Some of the performances really are very good. In particular, I liked two of the songs and the crosstalk performance. Although the crosstalk comedy kind of wore on after a while, it was really easy to understand and quite entertaining.
  • There were so many hot girls involved. Now that’s entertainment!

20

Jun 2003

Fighting Pollution

It’s no secret that “clean air standards” are not real high in China. Some people complain of sore throats when they first come to China, just because of air pollution alone. Dust is no longer that distant, mysterious substance that accumulates in remote places afer several weeks. Oh, you become very familiar with dust here. I find myself not opening the window at times for “fresh air” because fresh air also means fresh dust. Dust accumulates fast here.

So the air quality is pretty bad here, by Western standards. Hanghzou air is not as bad as some places (such as Beijing), but it’s also not the “pristine garden city at one with nature” that it would have you believe. That said, don’t let your imagination go completely wild on you. I mean, if the air quality was really intolerably bad I wouldn’t still be here. One reason I’m here in Hangzhou is that the air quality is pretty good, relatively.

Chinese Pollution Sucks

Hangzhou pollution

Now to my story. ZUCC is located at the north end of town, in a newly created school zone. Unfortunately, the north edge of town was formerly designated an industrial zone. (That means factories are officially allowed to pollute even more out here.) You can see smokestacks to the north of our campus. Usually the pollution doesn’t really seem any worse here than anywhere else in the city, but around the end of April/beginning of May, those smokestacks went to town. In the afternoon we frequently saw lots of thick smoke pouring out of the smokestacks, sometimes even accompanied by a raging flame atop the smokestack. Naturally, a lot of people at ZUCC became concerned.

The school made a formal complaint but was worried that it was being completely ignored, as pollution is often treated as business as usual here. Hangzhou, however, is a popular tourist destination with a reputation for natural beauty, so it has a little more to lose if the pollution gets out of hand. Still, as ZUCC “foreign teacher liaison,” I decided to act on my own with regards to this issue. Sometimes foreigners’ voices can have a special impact here. I wrote a polite letter to the mayor of Hangzhou requesting that actions be taken. 13 foreign teachers from ZUCC added their signatures to mine. The letter I wrote is below:

> I am a foreign teacher of English at Zhejiang University City College, located on East Zhongshan Road in Hangzhou . In writing this letter I represent a small community of foreigners from New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States, all of whom are living and teaching here.

> I write to you out of concern for my health, the health of my colleagues, and, indeed, the health of all those around me. In the past several months (April, May 2003) we have all witnessed incidents of thick smoke emitted from the smokestacks of factories to the north of our campus. Sometimes the smoke is accompanied by a large orange flame, other times it is smoke alone. When the factories emit this smoke, the air around our school becomes hazier and heavier, and a bad smell of burning permeates the area. We have photographed said smoke emissions and include the photograph with this letter. [see picture above.]

> In addition to health concerns, we also feel that this pollution will harm the development of Zhejiang University City College in that foreign visitors will be given a very poor impression of the school when such heavy pollution is evident so close to the school grounds.

> We know that China is working hard at developing its industry, but we believe that this is a serious case of air pollution that cannot be ignored. Our health, as well as the health of all the Chinese students and citizens around us, is at risk. We humbly ask that the government please take actions to curb such blatant air pollution in this area, and that it inform us of what actions have been taken.

> Thank you very much.

It may seem silly and futile to write this letter. More than one teacher who signed felt that it would do absolutely no good, but signed anyway. That’s why it’s amazing that only a month later, I learned of the actions taken by the government.

As the author of the letter, I was invited to a meeting at ZUCC along with the college vice president of general affairs and director of human resources, a regional and a municipal representative from the Chinese Bureau of Environmental Protection, the municipal foreign affairs representative, and several representatives of the factory in question. What went down is basically this.

1. Everyone got introduced.

2. Everyone got tea.

3. The Chinese EPA guy explained that during the month that the incident in question occurred, the factory actually exceeded its emissions limit and failed its inspection for the first time. As a result, it is being forced to buy and install 1,500,000 RMB (about US$183,000) particle filtering equipment. Non-compliance will result in stiff fines.

4. An account of the history of the factory was given. It is the forging plant for a motor manufacturer. It has already moved once. Hangzhou’s industrial section is being moved to the south, across the Qiantang River toward Xiaoshan, so it’ll probably have to follow suit, although this factory is not technically completely under Hangzhou’s jurisdiction.

5. Kind person gives John a simpler Chinese verion of what was just said, as it was really long and complicated with difficult vocabulary, and the guy giving it had horrible putonghua.

6. Tea refills.

7. John is asked to say something. John expresses his appreciation and pleasant surprise at having been promptly and seriously responded to.

8. Our school’s VP gave an impassioned plea for that factory to please get the hell out of here.

9. The factory spoke in its defense, saying zero pollution was impossible, the factory had a right to exist, and there was nowhere good for it to go right now.

10. A few other random pollution issues were discussed.

11. The mayor’s foreign relations representative stressed that the mayor takes environmental issues as well as foreign relations issues very seriously, and that our letter was translated and acted upon immediately after it was received.

12. The EPA guy stressed that Hangzhou takes environmental issues very seriously, and that the matter will continue to be investigated, with proper actions taken. EPA guy also passed out his card and gave us the number for a 24-hour pollution report hotline, adding that anything reported would be investigated within 30 minutes of the call.

13. Meeting adjourned, in less than an hour!

So, basically I’m surprised that such prompt action was taken. Were the actions sincere? Will anything change? That’s hard to say. But I’d say if serious actions were really to be taken, then the meeting I attended would probably be a part of it. I have hope.


09

Jun 2003

Hotel Zhoushan Dong Lu

The main road that runs by Zhejiang University City College is East Zhoushan Road, or “Zhoushan Dong Lu,” as the natives call it. Along this road are quite a few colleges in a comparatively small space. There’s also Shuren University, and the Broadcast/Journalism School (I really don’t know what the English name is — I usually refer to it as the “fine girl school”), and some others. The road is packed with small restaurants, (legit) barber shops*, convenience stores, and other small businesses that appeal to Chinese college students.

It is on Zhoushan Dong Lu that I regularly meet with my tutee, as my school is still being ridiculously strict about who comes and goes from its premises, despite the fact that SARS is not at all a serious threat in Hangzhou anymore. The place that we meet is a small bakery/cafe. We chose it because it’s bright and the drinks are cheap. We can get 2-3 rmb drinks and have our 2-hour session there, no problem. The sleepy staff couldn’t care less.

Anyway, because our usual spot is right in the cafe window, we have a great view of the endless student parade that ambles up and down Zhoushan Dong Lu. It just so happens that the cafe we chose is right next door to a little hotel. This hotel is special for two reasons. One, it’s the closest off-campus hotel to ZUCC. Two, it offers hourly rates.

Don’t get me wrong, this is no redlight district-type hotel. In the two hours that we chat at our table in the cafe, we see all kinds of people going in and out. Many are families. But college-aged couples clearly make up a sizeable chunk of the hotel’s clientele. I know because I’ve seen quite a few either entering or leaving. Some of my former students would probably be pretty mortified to know that I have seen them go in there at around 3pm on a Sunday afternoon with their boyfriends.

But then again, maybe not.

I think in the West, we would imagine that the Chinese are rather conservative, about sex especially. This is certainly not completely wrong, even if such broad generalizations are invalid by default. Still, with modernization and globalization, Chinese society is becoming more and more “open,” as the Chinese like to say. They mean “open” in a good way, in that they can accept new ideas and ways of doing things. They also mean “open” as in “promiscuous.” I would say that Shanghai, in its flashy modernity, is definitely leading the Chinese surge in “openness,” but Beijing and the rest of developed eastern China is trying hard to keep up. Each successive generation pushes the limit a little more.

So I was thinking about the Chinese college students going to hotels on Zhoushan Dong Lu, and comparing this to American college students’ behavior. Maybe a smaller proportion of Chinese college students are sexually active (I really have no idea what the statistics are), but the Chinese students are doing something kind of noteworthy. In the USA, privacy abounds, and intimate meetings are so easy to arrange. If students share a room, there’s usually only one roommate, who can’t be there all the time. It’s a simple matter for the girl to go to the guys dorm, as well as vice versa. A lot of American college students have apartments, which offer pretty complete privacy. Furthermore, there’s absolutely nothing shameful or embarrassing about the girl going over to the guy’s place to hang out. What then goes on behind closed doors is no one else’s business, and the couple can keep their relationship as private as they want to.

Now compare that to a Chinese couple making a visit to the hourly rate hotel. They can’t hang out in the dorms, really. Guys aren’t allowed in the girls’ dorms, and girls generally don’t like hanging out in the guys’ dorms because they’re typically a mess. Since dorm rooms usually house 4-8 students, it’s pretty unheard of to get any privacy at all there. Most Chinese college students don’t have their own apartments. So if they wanna do more than the typical make-out on the campus track after dark or on a bench by West Lake, these hotels are pretty much their only choice.

Even if they tend to serve a similar function, these hotels are not like Japanese “love hotels,” where anonymity is a high priority. There’s no rear entrance. When you go in, everyone on the street sees you go in, and when you come out, everyone on the street sees you come out. Some of these people might be classmates or teachers.

So the fact that college-aged Chinese couples go to these hotels in broad daylight without any sneaking around says something about just how conservative modern Chinese are.

It’s funny, though… in class they all pretend to be such wide-eyed innocents whenever sex comes up.

It’s never quite as simple as “conservative” or “open,” and I don’t pretend to have done more than just barely scratch the surface here…

* “non-legit barbershops” being the ones full of young women in tight clothes that do all their business after dark and don’t actually cut any hair


04

Jun 2003

Studying Chinese in Hangzhou

As I’ve mentioned before, lately I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with my progress in Chinese. I think there are several reasons for this stagnation. One reason I can’t ignore is that I’ve really been having a good time here for the past year and a half, and I’ve just plain been lazy about studying. I can’t deny that. But there’s more to it than just laziness. My spoken Chinese has reached a sort of plateau. I know most of the words for everyday life. If linguistists’ estimate of 10,000 words for a basic vocabulary is correct, then I know those 10,000 words in Chinese, and I can use them fairly fluently in conversation. Remember, though, that’s a basic vocabulary; it is an accomplishment, but it’s nothing to be exceedingly proud about. I’ve gotta keep pushing. Basic conversation is no longer sufficient to help me learn the more sophisticated vocabulary I want to work on, and basic conversation doesn’t help me with reading or writing, two skill areas I’ve definitely been neglecting. My conclusion? I need to take formal classes.

Besides a simple desire for further progress, there’s another reason I want to start taking formal classes. I’ve decided that I need to take the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi – Chinese Proficiency test, China’s “TOEFL”) in order for my progress in Chinese to be formally recognized. I didn’t major in Chinese; I just took a few courses in college, so at this point I have no official documentation to prove that my Chinese is decent. If you throw me into China it’s pretty clear that I can handle myself, but that doesn’t readily work itself onto a resume. The HSK score will provide a recognized standard that I might need for the future.

Also, I think it’s pretty clear that I thrive on competition. (Maybe that’s part of the reason I took up the study of Chinese… It’s undoubtedly quite a challenge, and there aren’t a whole lot of Westerners that can do it, so I could realistically compete with the best if I tried hard and stuck with it.) I think classroom competition in the form of other serious classmates will be a powerful form of motivation for me to excel in my studies.

I have already announced before that I plan to study Chinese at Zhejiang University for the 2003-2004 academic year. This past semester I’ve been putting aside over two-thirds of my income every month for that express purpose. Recently, though, it has come to my attention that Zheijiang University may not be the best choice for me, especially since I plan to continue living on campus at ZUCC next semester (and teaching part-time). Below is my comparison and evaluation of the three main choices for Chinese study in Hangzhou.

Zhejiang University (Yuquan Campus)

Zheijiang University Zheijiang University

Chinese Studies Program: Good – generally considered to be the best in Hanghzou

Students: 500-900, from all over (but especially Korea)

Campus: Pretty large, attractive with lots of trees, but classrooms are a little run-down

Class Sizes: medium (20-35 students)

Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:00am

Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 30 minutes by bicycle, at least an hour by bus (requiring one transfer)

Tuition: US$1000 for the first semester; US$800 for the second semester

Evaluation: A decent program which perhaps charges a little too much because it knows it has the reputation of Zhejiang University behind it. It would be cool to be part of such a big international community of students, but I’m afraid the daily commute (which would necessitate me waking up at 6am for a grueling daily ordeal) would kill me.

Zhejiang University of Technology

Zhejiang University of Technology Zhejiang University of Technology

Chinese Studies Program: Fair – emphasizes listening and reading skills and HSK prep, but doesn’t seem to have much of a clue about conducting interesting conversation classes

Students: about 100, mostly from Korea

Campus: Pretty large, unattractive, classrooms are a little run-down

Class Sizes: small (10-15 students)

Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:55am

Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 15 minutes by bicycle, at least 30 minutes by bus

Tuition: US$780 for the first semester; US$750 for the second semester

Evaluation: I’d prefer to study at a school with a more attractive campus, but I guess that isn’t the most important thing. The school’s reputation isn’t the greatest and the classes might not be the most imaginatively planned out, but as far as what I want to study, it should get the job done. The fact that it’s very close is a huge plus.

Hangzhou Teachers College

Hangzhou Teachers College Hangzhou Teachers College

Chinese Studies Program: Fair/poor – very personal interaction, but doesn’t seem to have an established study curriculum

Students: about 30, mostly from Korea

Campus: Pretty large, nice pond in the center of campus, some attractive architecture, but classrooms are a little run-down

Class Sizes: very small (1-5 students)

Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:30am

Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 20 minutes by bicycle, at least 30 minutes by bus

Tuition: US$800 for the first semester; US$800 for the second semester

Evaluation: I really like the campus, but I don’t think the study program cuts it. First, the classes are just too small. I’m afraid I wouldn’t get the competition I’m looking for, or much of the comraderie. Second, the curriculum is just unimpressive and seems somewhat vague for advanced students.

Hangzhou University of Commerce

Hangzhou University of Commerce Hangzhou University of Commerce

Chinese Studies Program: Fair – very personal interaction, established study curriculum, but doesn’t seem to go into advanced study of Chinese (although it does offer “business Chinese”)

Students: about 50, from all over

Campus: Pretty large, not unattractive, but classrooms are a little run-down

Class Sizes: small (5-10 students)

Class Times: weekday mornings, beginning at 8:30am

Commuting Distance from ZUCC: at least 30 minutes by bicycle, at least 30 minutes by bus

Tuition: US$900 for the first semester; US$900 for the second semester

Evaluation: The first thing that strikes me about the program is that to study for one year it’s the same price as Zhejiang University’s, and it doesn’t seem anywhere near as comprehensive. On the plus side, it’s closer and has smaller class sizes. I worry, though, that the program is not designed for higher level students of Chinese, because an “advanced” class is not even listed in the program description.

So, it looks like my final choice is Zhejiang University of Technology. Zhejiang University’s Chinese studies program application deadline is June 15th. I think I have to count out Zhejiang University primarily because of the commute, but it will also be nice to keep the money I save. Zhejiang University of Technology is a good compromise between convenience and excellence, and it should help me accomplish my goals. I can always re-evaluate the situation after one semester if I don’t like the program.

So, after three years of working full-time at ZUCC, I’m finally going to be a student again this fall. It feels good.


28

May 2003

Vacation Absurdity

In modern China, there are two national “long vacations” a year. On the academic calendar, it conveniently works out to one each semester. The length of each vacation is one week, nominally. In the Fall, it’s in celebration of the founding of the current government (国庆节), and takes place October 1st – 7th. In the Spring, it’s May 1st – 7th, beginning on May Day, the Communist “international working class holiday” (五一). This all seems well and good, but the thing is that these “week-long vacations” are something of a sham, and the Chinese don’t even realize it. (Apparently only the Western mind in its infinite wisdom can see through the treachery. Allow me to explain.)

To elucidate the issue I’ll use the ironic example of this past May Day. (It’s ironic because I, along with many other foreigners and Chinese, did not actually get a May vacation this year due to our friendly neighborhood virus SARS.) Below you will find a partial calendar containing the end of April and the begining of May, 2003. Normally, only weekends are off (these days are indicated in red).

cal-1

Now, since there is a “week-long” vacation every May (always beginning on the 1st), a Westerner would rationally expect the following (days off again indicated in red):

cal-2

Imagine the Westerner’s dismay, then, upon learning that in China, the above calendar can exist only in his fantasies. The actual calendar (copied from my school’s 2002-2003 academic calendar, in fact) looks like this:

cal-3

Inspect it carefully, now. You’ll notice that your Western God-given Sunday, April 27th and Saturday, May 10th rest days have been senselessly revoked. Must be a mistake, right? A misprint for sure. (Clearly, you’re new here.) So you go to a Chinese co-worker or boss-type and inquire about the mysterious missing weekend days. This person nonchalantly replies, “Oh yeah, we have to work those days. Because of the vacation.” Not comprehending such nonsense, you press for clarification. “Well, we have a week of vacation, so we have to make up for it,” the person explains. But that’s a weekend! you reply. We don’t work on weekends! “Yes, but we have a week of vacation, so we have to make it up,” the Chinese person calmly replies, and goes back to work. After having several more carbon copy conversations, the facts are clear. You do have to work that Saturday and Sunday. Somehow those two weekend days are crucial compensation for the 7 days “off.”

I’ve been in China almost three years now, and it wasn’t until this year that I finally understood it. That’s not to say I agree with it, mind you, but I understand it (in much the same way that we can understand the ancient Greeks’ logic behind explaining lightning as Zeus throwing down thunderbolts to smite the naughty). I should tell how my epiphany came about.

At the end of April, a SARS meeting was held at my school. We were informed that we would not get the customary May vacation this year due to SARS. We were also reassured that since we were losing the vacation, we would end the semester early so that we wouldn’t actually be working any extra. OK, so far so good. Well, in planning my forthcoming trip to Australia at the end of this semester, the school questioned my departure date. Wasn’t that a little too early? I had classes, finals, and grades to finish. I smugly reminded them that we got to end a week earlier this semester because we had missed out on our May vacation. The response? But we only end three days early because of that.

Three days early?! Oh yes, I could feel the anger rising. We were promised (by the school president, no less) that the vacation time would be made up at the end of the semester. The explanation that was to follow made no sense to me at the time, but I didn’t really care. I was going to end my semester a week early whether they liked it or not. A few days later I finally got it when my tutor explained it to me in a way that made sense.

It goes like this. The “week off” is not actually completely given. It’s partially a rearrangement of weekend days off. The Communist government, in its benevolence, is only actually giving three days off. (Come on, now, don’t be greedy! You didn’t see Mao taking it easy on the Long March, now, did you?)

cal-4

What about May 6th and 7th then?

cal-5

Well, that’s where the creative rearrangement of the “gift” of weekend days off comes in. Those days are pillaged from the surrounding weekends:

cal-6

Now you can see where the “three day” notion came from. But it still doesn’t really make any sense. There are still so many questions. For example…

> Q. Since the school week is 5 days long, and there are different classes on each day on both teachers’ and students’ schedules, what classes are held on the weekend “make-up days”?

> A. Well, since those work days were originally May 6th and 7th, you can follow the schedule for May 6th and 7th, respectively.

> Q. OK, great. That means out of one week “off,” two days are made up. How about the rest?

> A. Well, those are vacation days.

> Q. So when are they made up?

> A. They aren’t. They’re real vacation days.

> Q. But what if I teach the same class on both Wednesday and Thursday? Then one is made up and the other isn’t?

> A. Correct.

> Q. But then that means one of my classes gets an extra class, and puts those students ahead of the students in the other class. How do I account for that discrepancy?

> A. Well, just don’t teach anything important in the make-up class.

> Q. I don’t teach unimportant things in class! That’s not my job! Why don’t we just cancel the weekend make-up classes, then, if it’s all going to be unimportant content anyway?

> A. No, we can’t do that.

> Q. Why not??

> A. Because we have to make up the days we’re given for the vacation….

You get the idea. It’s pretty infuriating. I usually get out of the weekend classes anyhow. The really ironic part is that even though a “we must work hard” Communist work ethic reason is given for why vacation days need to be made up, the whole reason for the “week off” is purely capitalist. The week off is to encourage travel and spending, pumping big money into China’s tourism industry. That’s not a secret at all. The sad part is that the real workers — food servers, street sweepers, cab drivers, shopkeepers — get no vacation at all. They (or the business they represent) depend upon the revenue that they can earn during the vacation.

So there you have it. Vacation Absurdity. The October vacation works the same way as the May vacation.

cal-3

That’s China. (But my classes end a whole week early this semester. Just because I’ve been in China for three years doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten what a vacation really is!)


15

May 2003

SARS Media Correspondence

Recently I wrote a letter to many different media agencies using addresses I found online. (I won’t go into the spam-related ethical issues at this point…) The basic letter I sent out is below.

> To Whom It May Concern:

> I am a 25-year-old American citizen living in Hangzhou, China teaching English. I love China, and I love my life here. I find it very distressing, then, to see an abundance of hysteria- and hype-driven news stories on SARS. What I don’t understand is why the American media has not gone to one of the most authentic sources out there today – blogs. Yes, blogs (weblogs). There are many, many English-speaking foreigners living through the SARS crisis. What’s more, they are conscientiously WRITING ABOUT IT, and have been since day one. I sincerely hope that you consider adding this angle of the SARS story to your news reports.

> My China blog, Sinosplice, is at:
http://www.sinosplice.com

> I also maintain a long list of China blogs, many of which write extensively about SARS:
http://www.sinosplice.com/chinablogs.html

> The American people deserve to know a firsthand account of the truth which goes beyond hysteria.

> Thank you for understanding.

> Sincerely,
John Pasden

I received disappointingly few replies (one reporter responded apparently solely to inform me that her son is teaching in China too), but the following reply was interesting:

> Hi John,

> I’m a reporter with [a News Service] in [city], California. We are an off-beat news wire and I read how you are a proponent of blogs to tell the true story behind SARS in China. I’d like to hear more about what you have seen and how you feel they would tell the true story.

> What makes them superior than traditional media outlets? Is what is being reported inaccurate? Can you point out some mistakes the media has been making? Have you had any brushes with SARS yourself? Do other English speaking blog writers in China share your view? What are they saying about it?

> Lastly, our service provides contact information to other reporters and editors who subscribe to our news service so that they may do their own interviews with our sources. If I write an article about this subject do you mind other reporters from around the world getting in touch with you?

> Thank you for your help.

> Regards,
[Reporter Guy]

My response:

> [Reporter Guy],

> I’ll try to answer your questions as simply and directly as possible.

> I never said blogs were “superior” to traditional media outlets, but they’re certainly DIFFERENT. Sometimes the traditional media outlets sort of drop the ball, and so it’s important to remember that there are alternatives. But in some cases, what makes blogs different could possibly make them BETTER.

> We’ve all been hearing for years that a killer virus could be on the horizon for which modern science has no cure. That’s unthinkable. It’s horrific. It’s SERIOUS news. Then along comes SARS. How convenient. It’s much easier to report on SARS from the “safer” side of the Pacific, and the majority of Western investigations that I’ve read which actually go into China don’t stay for long.

> Yes, blogs are very subjective, but how subjective is going in to report with an almost predetermined conclusion? I think I trust the subjective viewpoint of someone who’s been living in China for some time, knows how things work, and at least knows what China was like BEFORE SARS.

> Hangzhou has reported very few cases of SARS. I think there really have been very few SARS cases in Hangzhou, although the government has been taking the threat extremely seriously. To my knowledge, I have not had any “near brushes” with SARS itself, but the effects have certainly reached me. My school was on lockdown* for two weeks, and remains in a state of partial lockdown**. Two of my coworkers have been quarantined in their rooms for leaving Hangzhou to go to Dalian (7 day quarantine) and Hong Kong (14 day quarantine). Even though face mask sightings have become a rarity, the city has taken on a whole new edgy feel to it. The vibrant Chinese bustle has been stifled.

> If any reporters want to get in touch with me, I’m happy to talk to them, but as I’ve said before, there are a lot of bloggers out there reporting SARS much more thoroughly than I ever care to. Their blogs are at:
http://www.sinosplice.com/chinablogs.html

> \* “lockdown” meaning no one could enter leave or leave campus without special permission.
** “partial lockdown” meaning everyone can go out, but there is a strict curfew, and only those with proper ID can enter the school.

> -John

> P.S. I’m posting this correspondence to my blog. I’ll withhold your name and organization until you give me permission to include it.

I don’t want to say anything negative prematurely, but I get the distinct impression that reporters would much rather end the “story” on China blogs about SARS with a few quotes from me, not even reading any of the China blogs in my listing.


01

May 2003

Life Under SARS

To be completely honest, I’m totally sick of SARS and don’t really feel like giving it extra attention. It’s been such a major part of daily life recently that I resented its ubiquity and didn’t want to write an entry on it. It’s creeped into my recent entries a bit, though, and I’ve gotten a few questions about it. I suppose it would be misrepresenting my life here a bit if I didn’t at least write one entry on it, though, so here goes.

SARS arrived in Hangzhou last week. There were 3 reported cases. Within 2 days, the city had gone into a mild form of hysteria. Lots of face masks on the street. That soon peaked and has been waning ever since, though. The general populace seems much calmer about it now, despite the fact that the government is taking ever stricter measures to curb its spread. There haven’t been any reports about more cases or any deaths, but there is plenty of quarantining going on. I once optimistically mentioned to a Chinese friend that Hangzhou seemed to have the situation under control, and she replied, “the media is controlled by the government. Who knows if it’s really under control or not.”

It’s interesting to see the Chinese people’s reactions because they know they are not being told the whole truth. I think American media sometimes portray the Chinese as a gullible herd, swallowing whole anything the CPC gives them. It’s just not like that. They know, but there’s nothing they can do. In times like this, when there’s a serious threat but the media isn’t being completely forthcoming, the rumors really fly. Thick. This past week I’ve heard so many rumors it’s crazy. Most of them involve new cases and deaths.

That said, I’ll now share some of the ways that SARS has impacted my life here.

Recently, it seemed like every time I pass a group of Chinese people, I hear the word fei dian. That’s the Chinese word for SARS. For a while it seemed to be the only topic of conversation, but lately people have gotten bored and complacent with the SARS presence. [Note: Originally SARS was called fei dian xing xing fei yan in Chinese. Translated literally, that’s “atypicality pneumonia.” Why they made “atypical” into a noun I can’t understand. Now most people simply refer to it by its first two characters, fei dian. That’s cutting off half of the word “typical” (dian xing), so it’s creating a new word. I noticed in the Manual of SARS Prevention they now call it fei dian xing fei yan, “atypical pneumonia.” That makes more sense to me.]

Manual of SARS Prevention

Manual of SARS Prevention

Last week there was a SARS meeting for the foreign teachers, explaining the situation. They also passed out thermometers so we could all monitor our temperatures, as well as a “Manual of SARS Prevention.” There’s another meeting this Friday.

The supermarket, cafeteria, and restaurant workers are now required to wear face masks. Recently they’ve been slacking on that a little; you’ll sometimes see the mask pulled down.

The sanitation crew around campus has been spraying some sort of chemical around campus, in classrooms, and in the halls of our apartment. I suppose maybe it’s the “0.2% – 0.5% per. per – ocyacetic acid to sprimble [sic] or 1000mg/1 disinfectant containing chlorine to sprinkle (mop)” mentioned in the manual.

spraying the halls

Public buses have been labelled as “dangerous,” so they’re emptier now then ever before.

The most drastic impact was the closing of our school gates. Students are not allowed out, and no one is allowed in without specific, official business. An outside agency under the authority of the government is in control of our front gate (although security is comparatively lax on the back gate). Teachers are bussed to and from our campus regularly, but when we foreign teachers want to walk or bike off campus, we’re now given a hard time. We’re supposed to get a letter from the Foreign Language Department with the official seal every time we want to leave campus. What a pain! I wanted to go off campus to celebrate my birthday last night, but the letters didn’t get stamped before the person went off duty, so we couldn’t get out. (We might have been able to get out the back gate, but we decided to just postpone it until tonight.) Students are getting really antsy being cooped up.

I mentioned that SARS rumors were flying like crazy. Chinese people are crazy about SMS messaging on their cell phones, and they send lots of forwards. Here are two of the more ridiculous ones I’ve received (translated from Chinese):

> From a professor at America’s Stanford University: In the morning drink soy milk. For lunch eat tomato and egg soup. At dinner have yogurt. Drink tea often. Consume more garlic. These remedies will help prevent SARS. Please send quickly to all your close friends.

> SARS Prevention: one white radish, half an orange peel, three slices of ginger, three green onion stalks, a cluster of cilantro! Make into a soup. This should prevent SARS.

I like how it says “this should prevent SARS.” Classic. Besides those kinds of forwards, there are a lot of humorous ones going on, like a parody of the Chinese song Zhishao hai you ni (“At least I still have you”) involving SARS.

Probably one of the most annoying things is Chinese people constantly telling me to be careful. Yes, it’s sweet of them to be concerned, but there’s not a whole lot we can do. I don’t go around licking doorknobs or anything.

So I guess that’s my SARS report for now. Life in China goes on, despite SARS. I really hope that they can get it under control. At least in Hangzhou, the measures to curb the spread seem to be fairly good. Still, I read some bad news on Yahoo today:

> Dr. Alfred Lam Ping Yan, Hong Kong’s deputy director of health, told Reuters… “This disease will not disappear from the world and we need to see how we can control the disease and collaborate in the longer term.”

> Symptoms of the disease include a high fever, dry cough and pneumonia, and there is no effective treatment other than good hospital care.

> In Geneva, WHO officials said the death rate from SARS, currently around six percent, is rising and could reach 10 percent.

> “We are concerned but it is not a surprise to us,” said WHO’s Mark Salter.

> “We are only six weeks into it. There are a lot of people who went into intensive care and do not seem to be getting better and unfortunately a large number of them will die,” Salter told reporters.

> He said the mortality rate appeared to be higher in places with developed health services, such as Canada or Singapore — something he could not explain.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic. I’m not panicking, and I’m not going home. China will handle this, and learn a tough lesson in the process.


13

Apr 2003

English only, please — this is China

SPEAK BOY!

This is one of my favorite cartoons of all time… Multi-lingual, pro-individuals’ clean air rights, anti-animal abuse — all the while taking a jab at linguistic imperialism.

So what’s the China connection? Those who have not had the privilege of coming to China may expect me to decry some foreigners’ attitudes here. Far from it. Rather than foreigners in China expecting to be spoken to in English more than they are, it is the Chinese who expect to be spoken to in English more than they are.

Sure, there are plenty of people here that don’t speak English and have no interest in it, but many Chinese people — especially college-aged — are reluctant to talk to foreigners in any language but English. Your good-natured attempts at the language are returned with a laugh and English only. I don’t want to make it seem like there are no college-aged students that are willing to talk to foreigners in Chinese. That simply wouldn’t be true. But the proportion is heavily skewed in the opposite direction, or at least much more strongly than I had ever imagined before coming here.

As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. I’m not sure, but I think this is a unique set of circumstances in the world today. The Japanese are not like that. It may be partly because the poor Japanese have a bit of a linguistic inferiority complex, but the Japanese usually seem relieved to be able to speak Japanese with a foreigner instead of having to use English. In Thailand I sure couldn’t speak much Thai, but the people were so friendly that I had a ball with my mangled phrasebook command of the language. And there are a lot of Thai people that speak good English. In my experience, Mexicans don’t feel the need to always bring it back to English either… and they know when you’re American. I’ve never been there, but in Europe English seems to be an oft-resented obligatory linguistic routine. So what’s going on in China?

The answer seems to be that the Chinese people have an intense longing to come up in the world. The government — despite its severely flawed English education system — has recognized the importance of English in our increasingly globalized, capitalistic earthly existence, and has instilled a sense of urgency in the young to learn English. True, some are trying to get out of the country, but others just want to learn it. It is because of these very circumstances that I and many others are able to easily find work in China at a university level and live comfortably here.

And yet, the whole situation can be very frustrating. People who come all the way to China to learn Chinese do not appreciate being repeatedly forced to speak English. Yes, English is now the international language, but shouldn’t Mandarin be the default language here? Also, there is sort of a natural linguistic principle which dictates that when two speakers of different languages communicate, the mode of communication settled upon will be the language that both people speak best. This means that if a Frenchman and a Spaniard meet, and the Frenchman’s Spanish is not so hot, but neither is the Spaniard’s French, but both speak English decently, communication will be conducted in English. Natural, right? Similarly, if a Chinese and an American meet, and the Chinese person speaks pretty bad English but the American speaks decent Chinese, the conversation should proceed in Chinese. Why, then, in China, is this so often not the case? At times it amounts to linguistic bullying, and it becomes clear that communication is not really the desired end.

Again, let me stress that this is not always the case, but I’d like to list two of the ruder experiences I’ve had here, which are not isolated incidents, but rather categories of incidents which occasionally are repeated:

– I was speaking with a Chinese friend in Chinese in a public place. My friend didn’t speak English. A Chinese man I didn’t know approached me and engaged me in coversation in English. He refused to switch over to Chinese, even though my friend couldn’t follow the conversation. My friend and I had to leave to get away from the guy.

– I was speaking to two Chinese people who approached me in English. I spoke to them in English, and then added in some Chinese. One of the people got a strange expression on his face and told me he didn’t understand. The other was like, “what do you mean you don’t understand? He said that totally clearly.” The other became flustered because his friend didn’t catch onto his fake miscomprehension trick.

In all fairness, I should bring up the idea of the “psychological block” to communication in Asia. I have had this experience in both Japan and China. Sometimes you’ll speak to a person in near-perfect (if not perfect) Chinese or Japanese, and all you’ll get is a shaking of the head and a “I don’t speak English.” These people will not listen to you at all, because when they see a white face they become absolutely convinced in their minds that communication is impossible. Often it’s the old that suffer from these psychological blocks. In one case a nearby Chinese person, incredulous, told the guy that I was speaking to him in Chinese, but the man still refused to even listen to me. Incredible. That said, I’d like to say that the second example above is not one of those cases. It was a deliberate attempt to block communication in Chinese.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m willing to speak to Chinese people in English. I also understand that the average Chinese person gets very very few opportunities to practice “real English,” and I’m always happy to speak to my students in English. It can also be very refreshing to speak to a Chinese person in English when the person speaks good English. But I certainly resent being deprived of my right to speak Chinese in China.


31

Mar 2003

Outfit Streaks

I overheard a comment from a female student to a male student before class last week: “Hey, you finally changed clothes!” I didn’t want to laugh, but I was just totally cracking up inside. It was one of those “totally China” moments.

So what’s the deal? Put simply, Chinese people often wear the same outfit for several days in a row. At first I found it strange, but before long, I was adapting to this aspect of culture. Allow me to demonstrate pictorially:

clothinginchina

Clearly, this is not a cleanliness issue. Americans frequently wear an outfit for one day, then put it away, “clean,” ready to wear again some day in the undefined, not-overly-soon future. Why can’t we just keep wearing the same outift? Cultural programming. If we wear the same outfit for several days in a row, people might think that we don’t actually have a huge wardrobe. People might think we’re poor! Even if we were to have only 5 outfits, we would cycle them meticulously.

But in China you can wear the same thing for several days in a row, and it’s cool. No one will really look down on you for it (although they might comment if you overdo it).

I kinda like this, being free of a cultural chain that, until China, bound me without my knowledge….


18

Feb 2003

Dashan

dashan

Ray posted a nice long comment to my last entry. Unfortunately, Haloscan seems to have lost it. [Update: the “lost” comments are back.] One thing he touched on, though, was “that big dork Dashan.” Dashan is pretty much completely unknown outside of China, but almost universally known within China. This man has become a real nuisance to students of Chinese everywhere.

Dashan is a big white Canadian. The thing is, he speaks Mandarin Chinese perfectly. I mean really, really well. He basically decided, “yeah, I’ll take on Chinese,” and then just competely kicked Chinese’s ass. He has done xiangsheng for years, a kind of two-person traditional Chinese standup comedy. “Dashan” means “big mountain,” which I always thought was an incredibly stupid Chinese name, but then a Chinese friend explained to me that it’s sort of a joke, and that Chinese people like the name. Ah, Dashan… you win again, with your superior understanding of Chinese “humor” (which really is unfathomable)!

According to the chronology on Dashan’s site, he majored in Chinese studies, graduated in 1988, and has been in China ever since. He was in an independent studies program at Beijing University, and he also served as a public relations advisor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. The hilarious conclusion to the chronology: 1995 – Founded Dashan Incorporated and began full-time career as Dashan. OK, I don’t know whether it’s just me, or it’s a foreigner-in-china thing, but I find that very funny.

OK, so you’re probably wondering what the deal with Dashan is. Why am I bringing him up? Well, there are several reasons. First, he is the bane of caucasian students of Chinese everywhere. About 60% (yes, that’s a hard statistic!) of Chinese people you know here will ask you if you know who Dashan is, as if revealing his mere existence to us might show us the path to enlightenment. On the contrary, it’s just annoying. Yeah, so another whitey could do it — it’s still annoying!

Second, I get told I look like Dashan all the time. I do not want to look like Dashan! When I deny it, they insist, asserting that I’m handsome like he is. Okayyy…

Third, his mere existence is an enigma. What can this man really do? Speak Chinese. Yes, but what can he really do?? Speak Chinese. Really well. In the USA, immigrants get no credit for speaking perfect English, unless maybe they did it in less than 48 hours solely by watching MTV. Meanwhile, Dashan is a national celebrity. Furthermore, he’s not the only foreigner to speak perfect Chinese, but he seems to be the only one recognized. He has the monopoly on Chinese skills. I think the Chinese find it amusing and touching that a foreigner can speak such perfect Chinese, but then simultaneously find his singularity somehow comforting. It goes without saying that the hard work and bitter struggle of any Asian that becomes fluent in Chinese is hardly acknowledged.

A while back a producer of a CCTV show was trying to talk me into being on their show. It’s a sort of showcase/gameshow of foreigners that can speak good Chinese. When I mentioned Dashan, she rolled her eyes. She said Dashan is old news, too perfect, no longer interesting. That’s all well and good, but the grinning spirit of Dashan is alive and well in Chinese society.

Obviously I envy this guy. He speaks amazing Chinese. He must be very disciplined and hard-working. I have yet to really “master” any foreign language, though I’m well along the way in a few. But images and accolades of this dorky guy forced down my throat do not foster affection.

But this is China. Home of Dashan. He was here first, anyway.

Related: Sinosplice’s Derisive Dashan.


19

Jan 2003

"Dialects" in China

[Here’s something I wrote way back in 2000, shortly after coming to China. I still think it’s pretty accurate.]

The linguistic situation in China is truly mind-blowing. Most people with a basic knowledge of China know that Mandarin is the official language, though quite a lot of people also speak Cantonese (in the south, in areas like Hong Kong and Guangzhou). Those people might also know that there are many more languages in China, spoken by various minority groups. All this is true, but this assessment barely even scratches the surface.

In reality, almost every person in Eastern China (developed China, not the countryside) is at least bilingual. China is a vast patchwork of languages, with every single town speaking its own brand of Chinese. Chinese people call these “dailects”, but it’s not actually that simple. When Americans think of dialects, we might think of black English, or the English of the American South, or of England. Though there might be some communication difficulty (with certain dialects in particular), communication between speakers of different dialects can generally proceed.

Chinese “dialects” are not so. This is largely because tones are a vital part of the Chinese language, and tones (as well as other sounds) vary from “dialect” to “dialect”. Neighboring towns tend to speak varieties of Chinese which can be mutually understood, but if you go just a little further away to another town, communication often breaks down completely. Since mutual intelligibility is generally accepted as the basic dividing line between dialect and language, these “dialects” are actually separate languages. Thus, this means that every town in China speaks a separate language! Since most people in China speak their hometown language as well as Mandarin, that means almost everyone is bilingual! Furthermore, many people who have moved from city to city can speak or at least understand more than one local language (and can understand the closely related ones as well).

So what we have here is a vast lingual patchwork with countless patches, and where one patch ends and the next begins is unclear. In addition, Mandarin is laid on top of that patchwork, lending cohesion to the linguistic mess. This is not to say that Mandarin is completely standard (or even necessarily often spoken) throughout the nation. It’s not (though much more so in northern China). This is where the true dialects come in — the local languages of different regions affect the way Mandarin is pronounced and used, but mutual intelligibility is preserved. Thus, the Mandarin of Beijing, of Shanghai, and of Taiwan are not the same. They each have their own dialect of Mandarin. In some parts of China like Guangzhou and Hong Kong, Cantonese is spoken more often than Mandarin.

Thus, China is a land of countless languages, united under one government. Calling the separate languages merely “dialects” and downplaying the linguistic disparity (and individuality) actually serves to help unify the country. It’s easier to consider people your fellow countrymen when they are merely speaking a “dialect” of the same language instead of a separate language. Even more unifying than the government’s psychological manipulation through words, though, is the Chinese written language. Despite the differences in the great array of languages — the differences in word pronunciation, in tone (sometimes even in number of tones), in grammatical usage, etc. — they all use the same Chinese characters in written form, with the exception of some minority languages. Any literate person in China (with the exception of some minorities) can read a Chinese newspaper aloud, character for character, in his native tongue, and it will be understood by native listeners, but not by most people from other regions of China. Read aloud in Mandarin, the official language of China, it will be understood by most people throughout China.

Because China is such a multilingual country, the use of Chinese characters and of Mandarin as the official language of China were crucial prerequisities to China’s modernization. Chinese characters have of course been around for thousands of years, but the adoption of one official language for the country did not take place until the beginning of the 20th century! It is perhaps one reason why China got a slow start on modernization. In selecting one language as the standard for the entire country, China was actually following Japan’s example. Japan underwent the same process as a precursor to its modernization. Perhaps because of its vastness, or maybe also because of its particular linguistic situation, China to this day does not have the linguistic cohesion that Japan does. Japan cannot be said to be a country of many languages (although in addition to Japanese it does have the the language of the Ainu, the aboriginal Japanese). To be sure, each part of Japan speaks a distinct variety of Japanese, but these are merely dialectual differences, and do not depart from mutual intelligibility for the most part.


16

Jan 2003

Sex in the Classroom

sex

The class I teach here in China is Spoken English. I am here this term to improve the spoken English of close to 300 Chinese college students. How does one accomplish that? Well, by making them talk (harder than you think). There are many ways to do this, of course, but at least something done in class has to result in grades given out, which can be very limiting. My semester plan centers around discussions. I won’t bore you with all the details at this moment, but the last discussion we had in class this semester was about sex. It may be regular fare in Wilson’s classes, but it’s the first time I’ve done something like that. After all, this is China.

The results were extremely educational — all around — and a resounding success, if I do say so myself.

A crucial element in my classes is student involvement and initiative, and this concept extends to the discussions. While I pick the topics, the students lead the discussions and think of the discussion questions themselves. I generally just sow a few seeds to give them ideas, and they take it from there. This method can have great results.

So what happened when the topic of SEX was unleashed in the classroom? Reactions spanned the whole spectrum, ranging from the nervous fidgets of students who were clearly uncomfortable with the topic and kind of wished it would go away to the antics of students who embraced the topic with gusto and took it much further than I expected.

It all begins with the questions. Some students were clearly uncomfortable with the topic, so I told them they were free to interpret the topic how they wanted — they could talk about AIDS issues, sex education issues, or gay rights issues rather than getting down and dirty with it. One guy was so uncomfortable with the whole thing that he interpreted “sex” to mean “gender,” and all his questions were lame gender-related questions (and yes, I admit that there are good gender-related questions, but he didn’t come up with any). The squeamish were definitely in the minority, however, which made me feel that I wasn’t doing the wrong thing. I was further removed from any blame by the fact that the students were the ones that actually came up with all the questions. I merely guided and moderated.

Image created by John Pasden (c) 2003.  Sources: confucius.org, some Japanese bikini site.

Anyway, there were some interesting questions. The few discussion leaders who dared ask who in the group had had sex before got no replies. The message was clear: making it too personal was not OK. In the beginning, “do you think sex before marriage is OK?” was one of the more risque questions that got answers (and yes, some students — both male and female — were publicly answering in the affirmative to that question). One question I heard a boy pose intensely to several girls had me really laughing: “All people have sexual desire. Do you??” Based on his logic, the girls couldn’t answer no, and they didn’t disagree anyway, but they still didn’t want to admit it. The students taught me what Confucius had to say on this matter: “食色性也” (shi se xing ye) — “Sex is part of human nature.” Plenty of students got into how they would react if they learned that a friend was gay. Toward the end of the discussion hour, I was shocked to hear that one group had even ventured into the subject of bestiality! Yes, Chinese students discussing bestiality in English in my classroom. Gotta love this job. They did it on their own, I swear!

Perhaps what made the discussion such a success was bringing role play into it. I gave people roles, such as “the promiscuous American” and “Mao Zedong.” I encouraged them to be outrageous by giving hypothetical examples of my own. “I’m a promiscuous American, and I think young people should be having sex every day with multiple partners” got uproarious laughter, and, incredibly, it actually spawned more of the same. I told my students that lying in a discussion is fine as long as they’re doing it in English. Evidently that was enough to get them to them to open up.

Towards the end of class, each group of students seemed much more at ease with the topic, and they were giving straight answers if I questioned them. One group of students was discussing sex among college students. “You mean a lot of college students are having sex in China?” I asked, feigning bewilderment. “Of course!” my student responded. “It’s an open secret.” I love that line, because it beautifully captures a truth about Chinese society in all its paradoxical glory. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I was so impressed that my student had accomplished it, in English no less.

So I was pleased with how that class went. A week, later, though, I was giving oral quizzes on discussion vocabulary we had covered in class. One of them was the term “gay,” intended for the sex discussion. I guess maybe the students got a little too comfortable in class — one of my students, given the word “gay” to make a sentence, promptly replied with, “John and Wilson are gay.”

Hmmm… It seems to me there was a time when the teachings of Confucius were a little more teacher-friendly….


01

Oct 2002

Taxi Incident

On Sunday Wilson and I made a little alcohol run to the Metro. The Metro is a big supermarket with lots of Western food and stuff. It’s one of the few places you can buy vodka in Hangzhou, and the prices are actually decent.

Anyway, we had to get our vodka and a few other goodies that are hard to find elsewhere (Hellmann’s mayonaise, French’s mustard, good bread, canned tuna…). But we were kind of in a hurry, because I was trying to get back to ZUCC to hear one of my students sing at a concert on campus. She has a really amazing voice.

The problem with the Metro is that it’s in the middle of nowhere, on the east edge of town. You have to take a taxi out there and back (unless you want to be on the bus for like an hour each way), and it’s not always easy finding a taxi back. (The other problem with the Metro is that the stingy bastards actually charge for plastic grocery bags! What’s up with that?! It’s not a normal Chinese practice.)

Anyway, we were holding our groceries, standing on the side of the road outside the inconveniently-located Metro, waiting for a cab.

5 minutes went by. A cab pulled up, and some guy further up the road from us flagged it down and got it. Was he there before us? Who knows. He got the cab.

5 more minutes went by. No cabs.

5 more minutes went by. Two guys in suits that looked to be in their thirties came from a sidestreet and stood a little further down the road from us.

5 more minutes went by. Another unoccupied cab finally appeared! Fortunately there was no one waiting further up the road to grab it this time. He approached our frantically waving figures. He kept rolling, coming to a stop by the two guys just past us, further down the road. One of the guys got in the front seat as quickly as he could.

I was pissed. I rushed over there, still holding my grocery bag in one hand and a Smirnoff Vodka bottle in the other. I got in front of the door so he couldn’t close it.

Get out,” I told him firmly, in Chinese. He stayed rooted to the seat, with the stubborn look of a kid who refuses to eat his brussel sprouts. “Get out!” I repeated, as he urged the driver to get moving. He wasn’t budging.

Meanwhile, Wilson was looking on, kind of stunned (hoping I wasn’t mad enough hit the guy with the vodka bottle, he told me later). The partner of the guy already in the cab, apparently made nervous by the tense situation, was making no move to get in the taxi.

My demand was falling on deaf ears, and the taxi finally took off, the door still open. I yelled something I probably shouldn’t have. It was English, but I’m sure he got it. The cab went about 100 meters down the road and stopped. The other guy went to go get in. Apparently angered by what I yelled, stubborn guy in the front seat pretended like he was going to get out and come fight me. I made the manly “bring it on!” gesture, and they promptly drove away.

It was all a ridiculous incident. I certainly wasn’t going to get in a fight over a taxi. It’s just too stupid. But underlying it all is an anger, not just at one guy in one particular incident, but at a whole society.

I’ve never been in a country like this, where people are so “me first!” crazy. There are no lines for buses, just a pushing hoarde. The other day in McDonalds, after I had already stood patiently in line for about 5 minutes, some woman suddenly pushed her way in from the side and placed her order right in front of me! I just stood there and let her. What am I going to do, change a society? It’s the same in banks and at ticket counters. I’ve been living with this every day for two years now.

But still, this incident was just too infuriating. I really believe that in the USA, there are few people who would quickly hop into the taxi instead of doing the civil thing and saying, “you were here first, you take it.” I think that in all the other countries I’ve been to — Japan, Mexico, Korea, Thailand — most people would do the same. What is it about this place that makes people so drivenly self-centered? Why does the concept of a “line” or of “waiting one’s turn” not seem to apply here?

I’ve heard people say China is not ready for democracy, and I think that idea has a lot of merit. China isn’t even ready for the concept of “wait your turn.”


18

Sep 2002

Laowai 4ever!

The other day I had to catch a taxi into town, and pulling off of ZhouShan Dong Road traffic was somewhat congested. As we were slowed to a crawl, the driver frantically looking for a hole in traffic he could dart through, my gaze fell on two women on a bike. One was pedalling, the other was sitting on the rack in back, facing the road. I couldn’t hear her, but when she saw me I could easily read the words her lips spoke to her friend: “There’s a laowai over there.” A foreigner.

Of course, this kind of incident is a daily occurrence. I caught her eyes and raised my eyebrows, communicating, “Yes, I am a laowai, and I understood what you just said.” She blushed, covered her mouth, and tucked her head behind her friend, no doubt recounting this shocking development. I’m getting better at that look.

To live in China is to be constantly reminded that you are a foreigner, that you are different, and that you don’t really belong here. When I say we foreigners don’t “belong” here, I’m not saying we’re unwelcome. Sometimes we are very welcome. It’s just that we don’t belong.

This idea is communicated in many different ways. One way is that it’s difficult to have conversations with new people that aren’t centered on where I’m from, why I’m here, how long I’ve been here, how much I make, if I’m used to Chinese food, etc. If you’re a foreigner, that’s simply what everyone wants to talk to you about. Every now and then I’ll meet someone new and have an entirely normal conversation that is completely unconnected to the fact that I’m a foreigner. When that happens, it’s so refreshing, and I just feel so grateful for being treated not just as a foreigner, but just as a person. And it’s absurd that I should have those feelings. I guess you could say I’m finally understanding what it’s like to be a minority, and that minorities in the USA have similar experiences, but I still think it’s different.

Of course, the other way the idea is communicated is a little more bluntly. The stares. People yelling, “Hello!” and then laughing if you turn to look. People feeling the need to alert everyone in the vicinity that a laowai has entered the scene. People talking about you right next to you on the bus, assuming you understand nothing.

This is all part of life in China, and it must be accepted. But what’s really hard to accept is the fact that China will continue on like this, no matter how good my Chinese gets. I don’t know, I guess it’s stupid, but I know that one day I’m going to be speaking more than good Chinese–I’m going to be speaking kickass Chinese–and that in return for that accomplishment I should get treated normally. That if enough time passes, Chinese people should get used to me. It’s absurd, but somewhere in the back of my mind, there’s a part of me that’s looking forward to that day. And that day is simply never going to come.



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