Tag: culture


Jun 2005

Truly Asia

This morning when surfing CNN.com I ran across this ad for travel to Malaysia:

truly Asia

Truly Asia, eh? The implication there is that there are some “so-called Asia” nations that are actually no more than a bunch of posers. Which nations are the posers, I wonder? Anyone care to speculate?

I also began to wonder: does China have any similar tourism slogans, or is it too busy scaring off the rest of the world to bother? What slogans might China use if given the chance?

Here are a few suggestions:

– Asia-er than you.
– More Asia than you can handle.
– The only source of Asian culture.
– The real Asia. (don’t be fooled by imitators)
– Not as communist as you think.

Feel free to add your own.


Jun 2005

The Mummy in Shanghai

The Mummy Returns

The entrance of Zhongshan Park

Ever since the May holiday, Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park has been housing a big The Mummy Returns promotional activity. It’s like a mini Egypt-themed fair. The main entrance of the park is all Egypted out, and a huge-screen (but low-res) TV has been installed which shows nonstop The Mummy Returns clips, interspersed with advertisements for the mummy fair going on inside the park. Each ticket costs a ridiculous 80 rmb per person.

After you pay, you head into the park and find the mummy section. If you’re unlucky there’s a line. (There were really long lines all throughout the first week of May, but there rarely are now.) You’re herded into the mummy’s temple, a sort of Egypt-themed haunted house. The haunted house was actually quite well done. The best part was all the workers inside dressed up like statues (they really did look like statues). They would remain motionless for a while, and then suddenly come to life, totally freaking people out. Good stuff.

carnival games

Carnival games

When you come out you’re in the familiar carnival setting. You are surrounded by booths selling everything from National Geographic videos to The Coffee Bean Tea Leaf refreshments. There are lots of impossible games you can play, paying with expensive tokens for a chance at impossible odds to win a virtually worthless “prize.” The familiar favorites were there: shooting (ridiculously small) hoops, fishing, ring around the bottle, etc. The one game with decent chances was a dart game. You just had to pop balloons with darts to win your crappy prize.

If you’re there at the right time, you may also get to see a live show. Yes, it’s Shanghai’s version of the Egyptian craptacular! When I was there the performances alternated between dances which tried to stay on theme, using Middle Eastern music and costumes, and dances which seemed to appeal to teenagers, using flashy clown colors and pop music. Guess which are which!

The Mummy Returns dancers The Mummy Returns dancers The Mummy Returns dancers The Mummy Returns dancers

All this is somewhat odd, of course, but the big question in my mind is: WHY? The Mummy Returns was released in 2001! Why go to all this work to promote a movie that’s already four years old? (I think the event has increased sales of pirated copies, though.) Is it a coincidence that Shanghai started whoring out Zhongshan Park to carnivals the same year that it stopped charging park admission for a lot of its parks?

P.S. Did anyone think it strange that there were Egyptian designs behind the video Coke machine I wrote about? Didn’t think so. Well, it was at this Mummy Returns carnival.


Jun 2005

Out of the Rice Zone

In China, eating rice is manly. It goes with smoking and drinking. Every time I turn down a cigarette with a “I don’t smoke,” people are disappointed. When I drink with them, they are very happy, nodding in approval. When I don’t eat much rice (like only one bowl), they demand I have another bowl. They don’t want to hear any of that “we don’t eat this much rice in the West, especially not at the very end of a meal” crap.

So I was happy once I got into my “rice zone.” I was capable of eating two to three (smallish) bowls of rice with every meal. Normal whiteys fresh off the boat cannot do this. It took me years to get to that point.

Lately, I’ve lost it. I’m not sure what it is. A few months ago, when Ayi gave me a heaping bowl of rice (and that’s a big bowl, not the restaurant size), I would eat it all in the course of my meal. Now, I take one look at that bowl and I’m sure I can’t finish it. When I put back half the bowl, she scowls in disapproval, the “a big tall guy like you should be eating more rice than that” written very clearly on her face.

Maybe I’m just ready for a visit home.


May 2005

Calling Hours

A while back I met with a professor of East China Normal University to discuss my upcoming entrance exams for grad school (exams: modern Chinese, composition). He told me the exam would be administered at the end of May or beginning of June.

Well, the end of May is quickly approaching. He left me his phone number to contact him if I had any questions, so I’ve given him quite a few calls lately, but there’s never any answer. The phone number is not a cell phone number, so I figured it was his office number. Why is he never in his office? I concluded that he either isn’t in his office much or isn’t even at the university much these days.

When I mentioned the matter to my tutor the other day, she made everything clear. The professor had most likely given me his home phone number. It’s very common for university professors in China to give their home phone numbers out to their students. Furthermore, there’s sort of an unspoken rule: if students need to call their professors at home, they should call between 8pm and 9pm.

That explained a lot. It explained why I could never get an answer. It explained why I frequently got requests for my home phone number from my students when I taught university classes in Hangzhou (I wouldn’t give out my number, though). It also possibly explains why so few students would show up to office hours. Maybe they’re just used to calling instead of visiting the teacher’s office.

I’m not going to call the professor on the weekend, so I’ll have to wait until Monday to finally talk to him about the date of my entrance exams.


May 2005

Bundle of Sticks

Earlier this month my girlfriend and I decided to have a mini barbecue on my balcony. I had gotten her a small grill for Christmas, but we hadn’t used it yet because it had been a bit too chilly. When the day finally came, I was the one with the free time that afternoon to buy the food, so I found myself in the supermarket shopping for grillable victuals.

I was pleased to find that the supermarket had plenty of ready-to-grill items. There were various marinated meats, and some already on a stick or in full-on kabob form with onions and peppers and everything (yes, I’m lazy when it comes to preparing food).

Realizing that not all the food came pre-kabobbled, I started looking around for little skewers. There were none to be found anywhere. Then I noticed that the girls behind the meat counter had little wooden skewers. I asked them where I could buy them. They appeared kind of flustered, looked all around, then replied, “you can’t buy them.”

“You don’t sell those?” I asked, wanting to make sure.

“Here,” one of the girls said, reaching into a bag of the little wooden sticks behind the counter, “just take these.”

“You just want to give them to me?” I asked. “Shouldn’t I pay for them?”

“Nah, just take ’em,” she said, starting to look around for a rubber band for the skewers.

“OK…” I replied, not sure what else to do. The girls were scrambling for a rubber band or something to hold the little bundle together. Then the second girl had an epiphany. In one swoop, she took an elastic ponytail holder out of her hair and slipped it onto the bundle of sticks. Smiling, she proffered the newly bound bundle of sticks to me.

I took it, smiling back and thanking them.

When I got home I discovered that I had already bought a bag of skewers back when I first bought the grill.

The bundle of sticks held together with a ponytail holder remained in my pocket for a few days. I would forget about it until I put my jacket on and shoved my hands in its pockets. I wasn’t about to use them, but somehow just throwing them away didn’t seem right.

It’s little incidents like this that stick in my memory.


May 2005

Laowai Time Warp

The day after posting a link to the great laowai debate, I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker. It was the kind of thing I would probably not have paid much attention to were the matter not already on my mind.

My co-worker is in her late twenties and comes from Sichuan. She has been living in Shanghai for the past five years or so.

I was having a conversation with my co-worker about foreigner teachers. When she got to the word “foreigner” she got as far as “laow-” and then switched to “waiguoren.” I smiled at this and let her continue.

After the conversation was over, I couldn’t let it go. I had to ask her: “Why didn’t you just say ‘laowai?'”

Clearly, she was embarrassed. I anticipated this, but I had to ask anyway. She replied, “I was afraid you would be offended.”

“Why would I be offended?” I asked. “Isn’t it a neutral term?”

“Yes, it is definitely neutral. But I’m aware that some waiguoren don’t like to be called laowai.” [Note: zhwj reports similar exchanges.]

This got me thinking. And I wasn’t taking anything for granted. Call me cynical, but I never completely trust one native speaker’s view of her language, and I thought this case was particularly suspect. Why was it suspect? Well, Chinese can be especially sensitive to how they are viewed by outsiders. If “laowai” does, indeed, carry negative connotations, some Chinese people would be worried that foreigners would consider them racist for using it. In short: Chinese people might lie about the connotations of the word laowai in order to avoid being viewed as racist by foreigners.

It seems to me, however, that most evidence indicates that laowai is a neutral term. Todd has recently done an internet study on it, and came to this conclusion as well. This was also the original premise behind Tom Vamvanij’s post that started the debate. Why all the conflicting anecdotes then?

I posit that the word is in something of a state of transition. As zhwj has pointed out with a Chinese dictionary definition (via the Peking Duck post), the word used to have a more negative connotation than it does now:

> Breaking out the dictionary: 《应用汉语词典》(2000年), published by the venerable Commercial Press, says: “老外…(2)称外国人(现在外国人自己也称自己为“老外”,所以已经不含轻蔑意,而是一种诙谐的用法了)

> The parts I’ve emphasized imply (1) in the past the term had a
disdainful flavor to it, although it doesn’t now, and (2) it’s more
jocular or familiar now.

Why would this negative connotation change to neutral? Probably the biggest catalyst would be real-life contact with foreigners. Naturally, you would expect Shanghai and Beijing to lead the pack in such an evolution, as those cities’ foreign populations are quite large. By the same token, we would expect small Chinese towns with little or no exposure to foreigners to cling longer to the “negative version” of the term laowai.

If we are currently in such a stage of transition, it would explain a lot. It would explain why Hank, living in a small rural town, might find the word extremely offensive, while I, in Shanghai, find it totally innocuous. And it would explain the conflicting “real life reports” of different foreigners’ experience with the word.

Understanding of certain words often varies from individual to individual; I think it’s unsurprising for a lexical discrepancy to arise in a country as large and diverse as China, especially with the widening gap between the “rich east” and “poor west.” This might be just the perfect set of conditions to nurture a sort of verbal time warp effect to which the term laowai could fall victim.

Despite my suspicions regarding native speaker explanations, I still maintain that laowai is a neutral term. If it doesn’t feel neutral in your part of China, it may just be a matter of time. Encourage the locals to watch more TV.

Related blog entries:

Todd writes about seven Chinese words for foreigner.
Tom Vamvanij asserts that “laowai” has no positive connotation.
Richard throws a link up and gets lots of comments.
Todd asks his Chinese readers (in Chinese).
Adam thinks “laowai” has lost its negative connotations.

Kinda Related: 老外的秘密 (in Chinese; scroll down)


May 2005

Gaijin Complex

Remember Marco Polo Syndrome? Well, Marxy of the excellent Japan blog Néomarxisme has recently written about a parallel phenomenon:

>…all foreigners with interest in Japan hate all the other foreigners with interest in Japan. The Colonialists all like their ex-pat buddies and pubs, but the Japanese-speaking foreigner contingent is in constant battle with themselves, vying to prove linguistic abilities, obscure knowledge, and depth of societal penetration. I call this the “gaijin complex,” and I’m only finally finding my way out of it now after a long period of affliction and convalescence.

It’s very interesting to me that the phenomenon in Japan involves “vying to prove linguistic abilities, obscure knowledge, and depth of societal penetration.” That’s something that few expats in China attempt. Sure, there are those with the obscure knowledge (especially political), but all three?

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of creature the “China expat” evolves into. With China’s continued economic development, will he resemble his cousin in Japan someday?


May 2005

The Faces of Shanghai

I found a link to the New York Times Travel Slide Show: The Faces of Shanghai on Micah’s blog. I had seen the link elsewhere, but didn’t bother clicking on it until I saw it on Micah’s blog. He has good “link cred” with me, I guess.

As Micah mentions, there’s definitely a slant to the people who were chosen for the portraits and profiles. To me, the slant seemed a lot like, “the Chinese are no longer the backwards Communists you think they are,” and since there are still people with this misperception, it’s good to keep getting that message out. Whatever the message, and however imperfect, I found the collection really entertaining.

Browsing the photos, it also made me recall that back in the day I once discussed doing something similar with Wilson. Probably out of laziness, I never did. But I’m sure there are other people with nice cameras that could do just as good a job as the NY Times if they wanted to.


May 2005


As in many Chinese companies, from time to time things get pretty hectic at my company, and people are asked to do overtime. There’s no talk of overtime pay; working overtime is just a periodic necessity in the workplace. Chinese workers don’t even complain about it much.

When I’m asked to work overtime, I make it very clear that I expect that time off in the future. I know I won’t get overtime pay, but I don’t work for free.

The worst is when the middle managers try to plead with you: “just this once. Everyone else has to do it too.” And then there’s the three characters you hear the most that burn more than any others: “辛苦了“. This phrase is meant to acknowledge your hard work and sacrifice, but the reality is that this three-character utterance is the only thanks you’ll get.

At one point I felt bad that, as a foreigner, I was treated differently. Why should I rarely be asked to do overtime when the Chinese workers have to do it regularly? I’m no better than them.

Later, I decided that it is my duty to demonstrate what it is to be a worker from the West. To demonstrate that we really do abide by contracts, that employee-employer responsibilities are not one-way, that employees have power, that time is money, and my time–not just the company’s–is valuable too.

Sadly, none of the Chinese workers could possibly follow my example. They could easily and immediately be replaced. As a foreigner with special skills, I’m in a unique position. I can insist that each and every term of my contract is adhered to. And I can provide an example to my Chinese co-workers that will hopefully leave an impression: this is how it should be.


Apr 2005

Micah on Creativity

Just in case it has escaped some of you, Micah is my friend and co-worker here in Shanghai. (If you have a compulsive need to follow “all things John Pasden” (ha!) you should keep an eye on Micah’s blog because my name pops up there from time to time.)

Micah recently wrote a thought-provoking entry on raising children in China as an expat:

> Having gone to Spanish public school for so many years has cocktail party utility, but I blame it for my near-absolute lack of creativity and critical thinking. I just wonder if Chinese school wouldn’t have the same effect on a kid but magnified a hundred times. And even if you think “American parents will mean that the child will be different from their classmates”, well, no matter how much influence you think you have on your kids, the place that you send them for 6 hours of 180 days each year is going to have a strong influence on their mental development.

> The other side of the coin is that not sending your kids to Chinese schools will isolate them from their surroundings in a much stronger way than it would in Spain because the written Chinese language is nearly impossible to simply pick up naturally. And I highly value the cultural education I got from attending a public school abroad, so it is important to me that my kids be culturally conversive (if not fluent) in the country where we live.

A real-life example from my friend Shelley: at one summer camp in China, the teacher was actually dictating to the young kids what color each item should be in their coloring activity. Dissidents were reprimanded.

Through my job I have come into contact with Chinese educational materials for young children which claim one activity which nurtures creativity is allowing your child to color a picture any way he likes. Of course, this one “free coloring” activity is sandwiched between ten other activities which demand strict adherence to guidelines.

It’s not that Chinese education is deliberately against creativity. In fact, they’re always talking about the importance of creativity in education. It’s just that the educators honestly have no clue as to how to foster its development. Like Micah, I find this scary.


Apr 2005

What is One-Finger Zen?

Recently I came across the term 一指禅 in my Chinese studies. I asked my tutor about it. She said it was a mystical kung fu secret developed by the Shaolin monks. Using this technique, a monk can do a “handstand” using only one finger. Supposedly he can keep this up for several minutes.

[source of image]

An English search for “One-finger Zen,” however, turns up a different story. Unsurprisingly, information about Zen in English is normally about Japanese Zen (rather than “Chinese Zen,” or Chán). I found this story, which I remember hearing in Japan when I studied there:

> Whatever he was asked about Zen, Master Gutei simply stuck up one finger. He had a boy attendant whom a visitor asked, “What kind of teaching does your master give?” The boy held up one finger too. Hearing of this, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. As the boy ran away screaming with pain, Gutei called to him. When the boy turned his head, Gutei stuck up one finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened. When Gutei was about to die, he said to the assembled monks, “I received this one-finger Zen from Tenryu; I’ve used it all my life, but I have not exhausted it.” Having said this, he entered nirvana. [full text]

So it appears to be both a badass kung fu trick as well as a full Zen philosophy. I was pleased to discover that the Chinese have yet another interpretation, which was good for a chuckle.


Mar 2005

Bitch Day

Happy International Women’s Day! Ummm, I guess I have some explaining to do about the title of this post. (It may be inflammatory, but it’s in the name of education.)

In China, International Women’s Day (March 8th) is called Èý°Ë¸¾Å®½Ú or, commonly, just Èý°Ë½Ú. That’s “3-8 Day” because of the date. (Quite a few Chinese holidays are referred to this way.)

The thing is, some misogynists took the name of the holiday and turned it into a derrogatory term for women. “Èý°Ë” in China (literally, “3-8”) means something like “bitch.”

The slang term Èý°Ë is special because it’s so easy. Numbers one through ten are one of the first things you learn when you learn a language, and 3 and 8 are especially easy in Mandarin (in my opinion) because the sounds are easy and they’re both first tone.

So there you have it… how “International Women’s Day” became “Bitch Day.” Sorry, ladies.

The “glory” goes to “Benny” for the inspiration for this post.


Mar 2005

Wuhan and Auspicious Beasts

I just got back from a business trip to Wuhan (武汉). I took my fickle camera, which may or may not work at any given time, but I never bothered using it. That’s me being lazy.

I had been to Wuhan once before, just passing through on the way from Shiyan to the airport. It’s really a massive city (or “metropolitan area consist[ing] of… the ‘Three Towns of Wuhan,'” you might say). At dinner on Wednesday, one of our hosts — a native of Hubei — made an interesting comment: There are only two truly big cities in China. Shanghai and Wuhan. I smiled at the comparison. You can bet the Shanghainese don’t make it.

I couldn’t get used to the one-character province abbreviation Hubei uses on its license plates: . Why? Well, first, it makes me think of 鳄鱼, which means alligator. Second, it has that double 口 on top, which makes me think of and , neither of which are very nice characters. It even contains , which in simplified Chinese means something like “to lose”. To make matters worse, Wenlin tells me that 咢 alone is another form of , which can mean “shocking, frightening, suffering from bad luck.” It doesn’t seem like the greatest character to combine with 阝, which here means “city.” These are just musings, mind you… I claim no authority on this. But such are the things I ponder in long car rides in Wuhan.

The sightseeing portion of the trip took me to Guiyuan Temple (归元寺). Our host hired a guide, who explained everything about the temple in detail and never failed to encourage us to (donate) and (worship) at each major Buddhist statue. As a member of another religion I was exempt from that, but it seemed my Chinese companions did a bit more 拜ing (and especially 捐ing) than they originally planned.

The guide also told us a story about the head monk of the temple, 昌明. He had become quite a famous calligrapher, but felt that his hand was only mimicking the works of the greats. In order to let his true nature come out in his calligraphy, he started using his left hand instead of his right. Thus, the various calligraphy works of his were identified by our guide as having been written by his right hand or his left hand.

In the temple gift shop I discovered another legendary Chinese animal of which I had previously been unaware. I knew about dragons, phoenixes, qilin (麒麟, AKA “kirin,” as in the Japanese beer), and even that tortoise with the dragon head (whatever it’s called). I hadn’t ever heard of this one, however.

It’s called a pixiu (貔貅). Dictionaries don’t help much on this one. Wenlin’s definition of qilin as “Chinese unicorn” may be forgivable, but pixiu is defined as “fabulous wild beast.” My big fat Chinese-English dictionary’s definition of “mythical fierce animal” isn’t much better. In the gift shop I picked up a free information card with this description:

It has the head of a lion, the body of a pig, and the tail of a phoenix. It has either a single deer’s antler (天禄) or a pair of horns (避邪).

My Chinese companions got pretty excited about the pixiu figures; three out of four of them bought one. On the way out of the temple one of them told me that pixiu are such powerful charms for financial success that they are banned in all of Macau’s casinos. Whaaat…?

Too bad I had so little time to enjoy it; Wuhan seems like it’s worth exploring.

If you’re curious, try this Google Images link: more pictures of pixiu figures.


Mar 2005

Haggling in Taiwan

My friend Shelley was in Taiwan at the same time I was but had a very different experience. I’d like to share an excerpt from an e-mail he sent me:

One week was just not enough time in Taiwan and one email is just not enough to explain all I saw and did in that one week. But I’d like to leave off on an account of one experience at a Taipei night market that drove home a significant difference between Taiwan and Mainland China. I was looking for a new belt and came across a vendor with a good selection albeit of Taiwanese name brands. I asked the price of one and she answered “190” NT, about 47.5 RMB or US$6. I had bought my previous belt in China for 25 RMB so I said, “I’ll give you 100.” She snatched the belt out of my hands and said something in Taiwanese that didn’t sound so nice. I replied indignantly, “Ok, I’ll go somewhere else.” She responded again in Taiwanese and I only caught “ah-toka,” which is from the Japanese word for “big nose.” It’s the word Taiwanese use for “foreigner” whereas Mainlanders use “lao wai.”

As we walked away Anita looked at me with a wide-open mouth. “I can’t believe you just did that!” “What? That’s exactly how I would bargain in China. The first price is always at least double what it should be, we bargain, and if she won’t drop the price I start walking away until she yells out a much lower price. What did that lady say anyway?” “Well the first comment was ‘We don’t sell Mainland goods here.’” Hmm, I guess Made In China doesn’t count for much in Taiwan either. “And the second comment was just ‘This crazy foreigner doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’” “Well what should I have done?! This is night market, right? I’m supposed to bargain here, right?” Anita looked at me like I was some backwards yokel. “Ok, look, bargaining here means cutting 20 or 30 NT off a price like that. Cutting her price by half was incredibly insulting. And getting surly with them will never help. You have to chat with them like friends. And Shelley, if you walk away they will never ever beg you to come back. Come on, watch me.”

We went to another booth where a guy was selling name brand belts that even I recognized. For this reason his price start at over 600 NT, or 150 RMB, or about US$19. Then Anita started telling him about how I’m visiting from the Mainland, what I do there, what I’m doing in Taiwan, how much I like Taiwan, where we’ve gone and what we’ve done in Taiwan, and even how I had just screwed up with bargaining with the previous vendor. After about 5 minutes of this the three of us were chatting like old friends. Then he turned to me and said, “Ok, I know you can get things much cheaper in China, but the lowest price I can give you here is 400 NT.” Anita: “Wow, that’s a really good price! Thank you so much!” But for me that was still about 4 times what I could get a decent belt for in China. I prepared for our newfound friendship to be suddenly ruptured as I told him, “I’m sorry. I’d like to look around a bit more first. That price is still too high for me.” But he was as friendly as ever, “Ok, no problem. If you change your mind I’ll be here.” What? He didn’t yell at me, call me cheap or some other name? He didn’t curse me for wasting his time? He seemed to have actually enjoyed chatting with us. As we walked away Anita assured me that that was a huge price drop and overall an excellent price. I expressed my amazement at how different bargaining in Taiwan was from bargaining on the Mainland.

See also: Shelley’s Pictures of Taiwan


Jan 2005

Cartoon Traffic

Bruno Bozzetto has managed to create several highly amusing Flash cartoons with only the simplest of drawings. Watching his “Yes and No” (traffic do’s and don’ts) and “Europe and Italy” (general observations of society), I couldn’t help but make a connection to China. Those two are both worth a look.

Via Screenhead.


Dec 2004

Ding Ding Dong

The name of the Christmas song “Jingle Bells” is 圣诞铃声 (something like “Christmas Bells”) in Chinese. But the famous English refrain “jingle bells, jingle bells” in Chinese is the onomatopoeic “叮叮当, 叮叮当,” which sounds like “ding ding dong, ding ding dong” to Western ears. It doesn’t sound at all like sleigh bells ringing to us, it just sounds really funny (or maybe like doorbells). In my experience, every Westerner who learns these Chinese lyrics busts out laughing.

I tried to find a Mandarin Chinese version of “Jingle Bells” using Baidu MP3 Search. All I turned up was a version which I originally thought was Cantonese, but two Cantonese-speaking friends say it isn’t. The refrain definitely sounds like “ding ding dong” though. My guess is it’s Vietnamese. Can anyone identify the language?

I was disappointed because I can’t understand the lyrics, but I think the song may sound even funnier this way. I’m not one to mock any language, but this song — like the Chinese version — just sounds really funny, for cultural reasons, I guess. Give it a listen:

Asian Jingle Bells (1.2MB MP3 file, 64kbps)

I was able to find the Mandarin “Jingle Bells” lyrics, but they obviously don’t match up to this MP3. If you’re interested in the Mandarin version, continue reading below.

Merry Christmas!



Dec 2004

On Fish

Conversation 1:

> Chinese person: Why don’t you like fish?

> Me: I like fish, it’s just hard to eat it with all these tiny bones in it.

> Chinese person: Don’t fish in America have bones in them too?

> Me: Yes, but the chef removes them. That’s his job.

Question: Do Westerners not eat a lot of (otherwise tasty) fish simply because they have too many bones?

Conversation 2:

> Me: I come from Florida.

> Chinese person: Oh, your home is by the ocean. You must eat a lot of fish there.

> Me: No, not really.

> Chinese person: Why not?

> Me: Ummm… I don’t know, we just don’t.

Question: Yeah, why don’t we? Simple economics?


Nov 2004

Eat Poop You Cat

Eat Poop You Cat” is a party game I recently discovered via Metafilter. The premise:

> Each person writes a sentence, such as, say, “The hot soup burned my tongue.” The next person illustrates the sentence. Then the first portion is folded over, and the next person must try to reproduce the original sentence from the drawing. Then the drawing is folded over, and another illustration is produced.

> The mutations can be hilarious. You don’t have to “know how to” draw. You don’t have to “know how to” write. Just keep the papers moving, until the space is used up. They must end with a sentence, not an illustration. Then you can compare.

Just looking through the online game results was plenty entertaining (especially the PG-13 ones), but it certainly wasn’t enough. I wanted to play it. When they visited last weekend Carl and Alf were similarly fired up by the possibilities. We played a lame 3-person game and the results were promising, but it was clear that in order to harness the full hilarity power of the game you need more people.

I also mused about how it might be playing with Chinese people. Carl, Alf, and I have all taught Chinese kids, and we all feel they often lack imagination. Would it be any fun playing with them? What about playing in Chinese? Would I be able to write and read enough to fully participate in an all-Chinese version of the game? Would it be possible to play a bilingual version? These were all just thoughts floating around in my head. I had no idea when I’d have a chance to test them out.

Then last Friday my girlfriend told me she was going to hang out with some classmates on Saturday and wanted me to hang out with them. Oh great, I thought. A day of hanging out with a bunch of people I don’t know, who are all speaking in Shanghainese which I only partially understand, and probably playing Chinese card games which I hate. But my girlfriend is always a good sport about hanging out with my friends despite her limited English ability. I like to think that’s because my friends are especially cool. Still, the right thing seemed to be to go along and not whine.

So I showed up and met them all. I got the usual round of foreigner comments, and then we ate dinner. After dinner someone had the great idea of playing cards. Everyone was speaking Shanghainese. My imagined unwanted scenario had become reality. I hate that stupid card game, so I just sat behind my girlfriend and watched her play, trying to participate what little I could in the conversation.

After they played a good five or six rounds of cards, though, I had had enough. Some of the people there were pretty fun; I decided Eat Poop You Cat stood a chance. I suggested we play a game I knew of. Paper and pens were passed out. I explained the rules. Everyone was enthusiastic about it, and the game began.

I knew it was going to be a hit when people were already laughing hard after the second and third passes of the first round. Looking at the results of the first round, my girlfriend was laughing so hard it must have hurt. Everyone was laughing.

Although we had started playing when the evening was already winding down, we played for a good two hours, switching seats and everything. The game succeeded far beyond my modest expectations. I had no problems with other people’s Chinese, except when someone wrote 在法院审理案件. I knew it was something happening in a court of law, but I was unclear exactly what. I fudged it by drawing people talking in a courthouse. Worked fine. Turns out 审理案件 means “to try/hear a case.” Close enough.

Some sample sentences translated to English from memory (sorry, no drawings), in no particular order:

  • The monk prayed over the dead body.
  • Long live Maoist Thought!
  • The two chickens clucked and blew up balloons with their butts at the same time.
  • Ugly people can find each other without using the phone if they just take off their clothes.
  • The mother got angry because her son brought home a slut and castrated him.

Conclusions? At least this group of Chinese people had more than enough imagination to have a blast at this game. The fear that Chinese didn’t have enough imagination to have a good time with the game was unwarranted. And Eat Poop You Cat is awesome.


Nov 2004

Hunting! Ha ha!

Happy Thanksgiving

My company has been doing some Thanksgiving activities lately. It’s my responsibility to help design the activities to make them educational both in basic vocabulary as well as in cultural content. It’s also my responsibility to execute some of the activities. This involves such excellent speaking opportunities as explaining in Chinese to a group of kids the basic history and traditions of American Thanksgiving.

So the other day I found myself explaining to some kindergarteners about the Indians (my company’s choice of vocabulary, not mine). It seems that the Chinese would be happy to portray them as ridiculous savages, so I go out of my way to make them seem badass in their own way. I tell the kids how the Indians were really in tune with nature, and how they knew all about the plants and animals, and how they never had problems finding food on the land.

During my narration I mentioned that the Indians would hunt. I used the Chinese word ´òÁÔ. A simple translation. But when I used the word, I noticed that one of my co-workers laughed. I was suddenly self-conscious. Did I pronounce the word wrong? ´ò: third tone, ÁÔ: fourth tone. No, no problems there…. So what could have been funny about that?

Afterward I asked her why she laughed when I said ´òÁÔ. Laughing again, she replied, “kids don’t know that word!” I was a little confused. I felt pretty sure the word is not at all formal or complicated. Huh?

I asked for clarification. “What, because no one hunts in China?”

“Right. It’s just not something they ever come into contact with.”

Whaaat…? Were these city kids really that removed from nature? But, when I thought about it, it actually made sense. So then I thought about the USA. Why does “hunt” seem like such a basic word to me, even in modern society? Is it partly because of the role “Indians” still play in our culture? Is it because of the American pioneers? Is it because the word “hunt” has crossed over into so many other areas of the language, like “Easter egg hunt” and “manhunt?”

OK, there’s a really obvious reason: that there are actually large sections of America where hunting is considered a legitimate form of recreation. There are gun freaks and gun shows. “Hunt” is the only acceptable verbal refuge for what they do with their guns. And the USA still has lots of land where animals roam free.

In China, I’m guessing, the majority of “hunting” that goes on is “poaching.” It’s pretty clear that the average Chinese person has seen very little wildlife (in a natural setting) in his lifetime. If you go on a trip to Huangshan or some other mountain, you can witness Chinese people freaking out in glee over a brief squirrel sighting.

But animals and overpopulation: vehicle for linguistic change? Weird thought.

P.S. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I feel unable to write normally due to my recent obsession with Daily Dinosaur Comics. If you read them, you’ll understand why. I must read them all….


Nov 2004

Modesty and Honesty

I had a full weekend, and I’m feeling a bit lazy. So rather than write about one of the new topics bouncing around in my head, I’ll make a sequel to my last entry, which generated an absolute fury of comments. I’m thinking that there may be so many at this point that some people don’t want to read any new ones.

So this entry consists mainly of a comment by Wayne (the original inspiration for the last entry):

John, you neglected to mention that we were also talking about ‘false modesty.’

The Chinese laugh at the concept of ‘false modesty.’

Here is some more food for thought.

Suppose Garry Kasparov (the great Chess champion) walks into the room and a journalist asks him, “Garry, are you a talented chess player?”

And Garry responds, “I am so-so.”

Question: Did Garry just lie?

It is quite obvious that Garry’s chess ability is better than ‘so-so.’ He is in fact not telling the truth because his ability is far beyong ‘so-so.’ Therefore, it is fair to declare Garry a liar, i.e. he is not telling the truth.

However, most Chinese would think it is absurd to say that Garry is lying because being modest exempts one from lying!

Hmmm, I guess the question here is: did the journalist honestly not know how good Garry was, and if not, did Garry know (or suspect) this? That would make the difference between an intent to deceive and polite modesty.

On the subject of modesty, I find Chinese modesty tiring. I know that it’s an important part of their culture, so I do my best to adopt it. But I feel so fake deflecting compliments with formulaic responses every time when I’d rather just smile and say thank you.

Some Chinese people would probably argue that it’s perfectly fine for me to just say thank you, that nowadays some Chinese people do that. But I feel like it’s not the norm, and I don’t want to just play my foreigner card; I’d like to handle these social situations the Chinese way when possible.

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