Tag: culture


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.


Nov 2004

Versions of Truth

My friend Wayne (no, not that Wayne) is a great source of interesting conversation topics. The other day he and I were eating at a Turkish restaurant by Xiangyang Market with two friends. One friend was a Chinese girl, and the other was a Chinese American girl. Wayne suddenly asked us this question: “Have you ever noticed that the Chinese and Westerners seem to have different concepts of truth?

Of course we wanted to know what he meant by that. His reply: “OK, let’s do a test. Here we have two girls, one Chinese and one Western. I’ll prove my point with a question. Suppose John had two eggs for breakfast. I ask him what he had for breakfast, and he tells me three eggs. Did he lie?

The Chinese girl, after a few moments’ thought, replied “no.”

The American girl immediately answered, “of course.”

We were impressed. His question demonstrated his point beautifully. We concluded what Wayne probably already had: that the Western concept of a “lie” is based on a concept of objective truth independent of human intent, whereas the Chinese (and perhaps Asian in general) concept depends on a human intent to deceive.

To the American, saying I had three eggs when I actually had two is a lie simply because two does not equal three. My intent is irrelevant.

To the Chinese, it’s ridiculous to call this statement a lie because it wasn’t outright deception. I didn’t stand to benefit from the inaccuracy, and no one would be harmed by it either.

I don’t doubt that philosophers and anthropologists have already been all over this issue, but I’ve never paid a great deal of attention to that kind of thing. I think most attempts to reveal how fundamentally different two cultures are amount to mostly a load of bunk. I’m more of the school of thought that believes cultural differences are interesting, not dividing. I believe division comes mainly from ignorance and miscommunication between cultures.

But then something like this comes along, and it’s right in front of my eyes in black and white, and I’m left a little stunned. I wonder what subtle ripples of this “fundamental difference” have affected me. I probably haven’t even noticed.


Oct 2004

Quotes on Religion

I have a small collection of famous quotes organized by theme, each with a Chinese translation. It’s very interesting to see how some of these famous quotes are translated.

In the case of the religion category, I think what’s most interesting is the quotes that were chosen. There weren’t many, so these few say a lot about the Chinese editors.

There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.

-G. Bernard Shaw

It is only fear first in the world that made gods.

-S. Johnson

Religion is a daughter of Hope and Fear.

-A. Bierce

An honest God is the noblest work of man.

-R. G. Ingersoll

All are not saints that go to church.


Man was made at the end of the week’s work when God was tired.

-Mark Twain

Religion is the opium of the people.

-K. Marx

I guess I should have known better than to expect Thomas Aquinas.


Oct 2004

Guanxi Prevails Over Banks

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Nowhere does this ring truer than in China, where guanxi reigns supreme.

Guanxi has been translated in a lot of ways, such as “relationships” or “social networking.” Since it’s so often sort of a shady business (especially in government), I prefer the more colloqiual translation “connections.” That way having my own guanxi makes me feel like I’m in the mob or something.

A while back I wrote about how I applied for a credit card here in Shanghai and was cruelly rejected for reasons not entirely clear to me. I didn’t care too much; I even broadcasted my rejection on the internet, sharing with the whole world my humiliation at the hands of my Chinese financial overlords.

My girlfriend, however, was not pleased. She seemd to take it personally. She really felt that I should have no trouble getting a credit card through China Merchants Bank (ÕÐÉÌÒøÐÐ), and didn’t want to accept my rejection.

It’s exactly five months later today, and two China Merchants Bank gold credit cards just arrived in the mail. I activated them already. One has a visa logo (take a peek), and the other has a MasterCard logo. They have different credit card numbers. I have a combined 15,000 rmb limit (a bit under $2000 US), and I can use my credit cards to buy in dollars as well as in RMB.

How did my girlfriend do it? Guanxi, of course. She met a guy who worked at China Merchants Bank and charmed him into personally overseeing the approval of my credit card application. The only difference was they wanted a copy of my “Foreign Expert Certificate” this time. It expired a year ago, but fortunately the expiration date wasn’t on the same page as the official seal. The guy said it wouldn’t matter. Apparently it didn’t. I still don’t know if my being rejected the first time was a mistake or not, but using guanxi to get the job done was the surest way to get approved.

Very cool of my girlfriend to handle that for me, although I can’t help but wonder if she could possibly have some ulterior motive….


Oct 2004


In my last entry I wrote about Wednesday’s concert and I said that the band I liked the best was 花儿 (the Flowers). Since writing that post I have gone out and bought their latest CD and given it a good listen. What to say? Hmmm…

At the concert, Flowers was certainly the band with the most energy and enthusiasm. They have quite a few fast-paced songs. I haven’t heard their earlier stuff, but listening to this new CD, I think it would be a mistake to think of this band as “punk,” even if it’s only in the most poppy adolescent bubble gum way, like Sum-41 or MXPX. The music on the new CD, 我是你的罗密欧 (“I’m your Romeo”), could probably be best described as fast-paced pop, with some sappy ballads thrown in as well for that broader appeal (the Chinese are all about the ballad).

The article Brad linked to mentioned that the Flowers have toned their sound way down in order to make more money. I don’t suppose I can begrudge them that. This is a group of Chinese kids without much education who are making a living on their music (although it’s questionable how much of the music is really “theirs” now). That’s pretty impressive. In part, the music takes me back to high school, going to $4 punk shows put on by high school bands like Speed the Minnow. Speed the Minnow definitely rocked a little harder, though. (They also didn’t make any money or sell out, which is probably why the band no longer exists.)

Forgetting the whole ideal of “Chinese punk” for a second, I think that if the Flowers are simply a small part of a trend toward faster paced music, it’s progress of some kind. (No modern society’s music can stall in “ballad mode” forever, right? RIGHT?!?)

My favorite song on the CD is definitely “陪你去“. It’s probably the “hardest” of anything on the CD. The song is basically a fun little ghost story. The funny thing is, before looking at the lyrics I had thought the singer was saying “over and over again” but according to the lyric sheet he’s saying, “apparition apparition creep.” Nope, I can’t hear that at all.

So I think it’s safe to say I was a little disappointed by the CD, although in retrospect, this is probably exactly what I should have expected. What was most shocking was the photos decorating the CD. Allow me to give you a progression.

An older picture of the Flowers (during their “punker” days, I imagine):

the flowers

The Flowers as we saw them at their latest show, more or less:

the flowers

The Flowers as they appear on their latest CD (and these pictures aren’t the worst ones):

the flowers

Do I even need to suggest where this frightening trend is going…??

not the flowers

(Note the pants on boy-o in the blue there. …shudder…)


Oct 2004

The Moon Represents My Heart

The moon represents my heart. I wince when I type out this sentence. It’s terribly awkward English, but I really don’t know how else to translate it. I’m no accomplished translator or anything, but I’ve given this quite a bit of thought and come up with nothing better.

月亮代表我的心 (“The Moon Represents My Heart”) is an extremely famous song in China. Most foreigners here know it, and every Chinese person seems to know it. It’s a pretty simple song, but I just can’t seem to translate that line. I’m of the opinion that pretty much anything has a good translation if the translator is clever enough. I’m ready for someone cleverer than I to show me the way.

Even if I can’t translate its title well, after four years of living in China I’ve developed something of an affection for the song. I think it’s sort of a mandatory study for anyone living in this culture.

I feel a bit silly about it, but after searching a bit for a good translation of the song and downloading different versions of it via Baidu’s MP3 search, I thought I might as well put this stuff online for other people to benefit from as well. I even made it kinda pretty, I think.

Check it: Sinosplice’s 月亮代表我的心 page. (Get the MP3s now if you want them — if they drive my bandwidth up much I’ll have to take them down.)


Sep 2004


What makes a person fat? The Chinese have a simple 4-part answer:

The charm of the answer lies in the fact that each of the four “causes” is pronounced in basically the same way, written “tang” in pinyin. Each one has a different tone, though, which makes it fun. When Chinese people hear the answer they have to think for a second, running through their mental dictionaries, matching up the proper tones to the four corresponding concepts.

Charming answers are all well and good, but to a Westerner, two of the four make no sense at all. Let me give you a run-down.

糖 means “sugar.” This idea has been around for quite a while. Eating sweets will make you fat. Nothing strange here.

躺 means “lie down.” Again, it comes as no surprise the assertion that inactivity leads to weight gain.

汤 means “soup.” This one I don’t get. Eating soup will make you fat?? I always thought that the high proportion of water in soup would cause you to fill up on liquid if you ate a lot of it, and water isn’t going to make you fat. This answer goes contrary to that. I talked to some Chinese people who agreed that eating soup does, indeed, cause one to gain weight. I’m kinda baffled.

烫 means “hot.” The idea is that eating hot food will cause you to put on weight. This just seems utterly ridiculous. Sure, heat can denature proteins in food, but come on! Again, I found some Chinese friends who agreed with this viewpoint. I’m mystified.