Just "Box"

I understand that northern China has already received a fair bit of snowfall, but it wasn’t until this past weekend that winter finally announced its presence in Hangzhou. Not that it’s really cold now, but it’s beginning.
One of the telltale signs that winter is here is that “iceboxes” become just “boxes.” In restaurants and some grocery stores the Chinese unplug their refrigerators in the winter and simply use them as storage! It makes sense, I guess, but it still seems strange when you come from a country that dutifully wastes that refrigerator electricity all winter long. (Oh yeah, I forgot — we also have the strange custom of keeping buildings warm inside in the winter.)
Of course, drinks often aren’t kept cold even during the summer here. Newcomers from the West — if nothing else — quickly learn the Chinese word “bing de” for when they order drinks. Cold. You know you’ve been in China too long when you forget to ask for a cold beer but then drink the warm one anyway. Or even worse — when you don’t really care anymore whether it’s cold or not.

Who's Ed?

A while ago I got an e-mail from a friend teaching not far from Hangzhou, in Shaoxing. Some of the veteran China blog readers might remember her from Shutty.net (R.I.P.). Hers was one of the original 10 or so blogs listed when I first started the China Blog List. Anyway, here’s an excerpt from what she wrote me:

as for me, i learned two new characters this week. ping and yin. meaning taste and print. only because i like ping. i see it all over and think “3 boxes, now that’s a good character. easy on the eyes. memorable. wonderful.” so i asked the kids and they provided answers. not without taking the piss first of course. and yin is because i always think in certain styles of font, it looks like “ED” which is my dad’s name. and i see that one everywhere too. when i told my kids the reason, it sent one girl into hysterics for the next 15 minutes. is it so hard to believe it looks like “ED”? it does!

I rather agree with her. It does look like “ED.”
A note about “ping” though. Many southern Chinese dialects don’t contain the “-ng” final, so when southerners speak Mandarin they often mispronounce that final. Some southerners know they have the southern accent and don’t care; others actively pursue a more standard accent. Some of them pull it off with flying colors, but others never quite do. In fact, some southerners not only pronounce the “-ng” final as “-n” sometimes, but they hypercorrect as well. They pronounce “-n” as “-ng,” trying to sound more “standard,” when “-n” was the correct sound in the first place. I think this was the case with “ping” above. It should be “pin.”

Despite the nonstandard elements of southern Mandarin (also, s/sh, c/ch, z/zh go undistinguished, all passing as s, c, z, respectively), I still think the south is a good place to learn Mandarin for the conscientious learner. It can be a little annoying to not be able to trust native speakers about the pinyin spellings of characters, but soon you learn that when a southern person says “zi” it could very well be “zhi” in standard Mandarin. Thus, learning Mandarin here — and comprehending Mandarin here — requires a greater deal of mental flexibility. I think it’s worth the extra effort, too. I can understand southern Mandarin easily, and that makes deciphering the full-on dialects easier. The best part is that when I go to Beijing, people sound like their speech came straight out of the audio tapes that accompany Chinese textbooks. It’s so crystal clear and easy to understand. It feels like the training weights strapped to my legs have finally been removed. The less standard elements of Beijing dialect take a little getting used to, but I feel it’s not very difficult.

Despite the relative ease in comprehension of northern Mandarin, though, there’s something comforting about being back south, surrounded by “substandard” speech. It feels realer somehow. To me, anyway, it feels more like home.

This is how it is

– I – A Chinese friend of mine was telling me that she went to see her cousin across town last weekend. He has just moved to Hangzhou to start college. I asked her if he was skinny and loved computer games. She looked surprised. “How did you know?”
– II – Unusual circumstances caused me to head over to the cafeteria today at 4:45pm for dinner. No, that’s not at all too early. Dinner must start being served at 4:30pm, or even 4. Every meal seems to be eaten earlier than its Western counterpart. Breakfast at 7, lunch at 11, dinner at 5.
Westerners in China usually continue to eat lunch at 12, dinner at 6 or 7, and sometimes even skip breakfast (to the Chinese’s horror). This is actually kind of nice because the crowds are smaller. If you eat dinner at 5, your Western co-workers jibe you with a “you’re not turning Chinese, are you?”
What I gained from eating at 4:45pm was good, hot food. I forgot what a difference it makes when you get it freshly prepared rather than an hour and a half later.
– III – A co-worker of one of my friends is afraid she’s pregnant. The girl told my friend that she and her boyfriend never use any kind of contraception. They don’t even practice coitus interruptus. The girl is 18, and her boyfriend a few years older. I feel that this is not so uncommon.


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.


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.

Revolted in Shanghai

Three of my esteemed colleagues made a pleasure trip to Shanghai recently. They managed to have a decent time, but they returned somewhat disgusted with the portion of the expat community that they came into contact with. I listened with grim interest to the recountings of their interactions with other foreigners. This is the city I’m moving to soon!
Greg’s account on Sinobling is verbose (and just a bit crude) but hilarious. Carl’s account was more centered on “the facts” but amusing and telling as well. (Alf fans should also check these out.)
A few excerpts:

Carl: The way I see it, is that all these middle-class, recent college graduates from the western world flood into Shanghai and are instantly flung into the upper echelons of society both socially and monetarily. And how do they react? Like total assholes, that’s how.
Greg: After leaving the bathroom I joined up with Carl and encouraged him to leave (which for the record took very little cajoling). The price, pomp, and pretension was a bit more than I could stand. Furthermore, if being “seen” means being ignored and looked down upon by legions of charlatans content in wallowing in their own mountebankery I’d just as soon stay home and get drunk in my bathrobe.

Of course, I’ve been to Shanghai, so such accounts come as no surprise to me. But even though Shanghai’s bar scene is not one of the reasons for my move, now that I’m actually going to move soon, such accounts linger in my mind a bit longer….
[NOTE: I’ve got a few good possibilities, but I’m still looking for a job in Shanghai that starts in January. Any leads would be greatly appreciated! Please e-mail me.]

Rooftop Halloween Party

So last Friday was the ZUCC teacher Halloween Party at the “Rooftop Bar”:

Halloween Party 2003

The teachers in the pictures are (l-r, t-b): Greg as “Bleeding Face Scream Character,” Carl as “Steve McQueen,” Chris as “David Carradine,” and then in the bottom row John B as “Infinite Loop” (AKA “Guy Drinking Beer”), one of the Australians (I’m not sure which one that is — they’re both tall!) as “a KKK member ,” Alf as a “Drunken Cowboy,” me as a “Badass Ninja,” and Russell as a “Crazy Space Ape.”

The costumes were all thrown together pretty last minute, so some of them came out surprisingly well. I was very pleased with my ninja costume which I made myself out of a 30 RMB bolt of black cloth (of which I only used half).

The party was a mix of foreign teachers, Chinese students, a few foreign friends, and various Chinese friends. The bar let us take over the rooftop for free (including the sound system), and we were even allowed to bring our own liquor! They still sold way more beers than usual. Only problem was the Chinese friends didn’t mingle very well. I would have thought that there were enough Chinese-speaking foreigners and English-speaking Chinese that everyone would have enough people to talk to. Oh well.

ZUCC: Haven of Exotic Sports

John just got his football! That means there is great fun to be had in the days to come at ZUCC. We played soccer a few times (I can’t believe they got me to play soccer — a sport which I normally can’t stand playing), but now John’s football can sweep away such foolishness.

I use the term “exotic,” of course, because American football does not exist here, and to the Chinese, its rules are still a mystery. That’s OK — I think we’d feel guilty sticking our students hard. Poor little guys. I don’t think any of them have ever played a full-contact sport. We foreign teachers will have fun hurting each other in the name of sports, though.

The other “exotic” to be introduced to ZUCC is baseball. One of the teachers has taken it upon himself to teach his English classes baseball and English baseball idioms every semester. So there’s always a day when you can look outside and see his class playing baseball for the very first time, on a makeshift “diamond.” It’s quite cute, and very amusing. The students seem to enjoy trying something new.


I’ll be the first to admit that Chinese are some of the most caring, dedicated parents in the world, willing to sacrifice anything for their children. But they also go to the opposite extreme as well, from time to time. I took the picture below yesterday, on the streets of Hangzhou, while riding my bike.

(c) 2003, John Pasden

Doesn’t this lady realize that any sudden stop will send her precious baby careening into the busy street? There was actually much more traffic than it seems from this picture. She was going through busy intersections like this. Also, what you can’t see is the baby seat on the back of her bike, which she elected not to use in her infinite wisdom.

Later I felt kind of guilty for taking pictures of her but not pointing out how dangerous what she was doing was.



"Catch and Kill Bill"

I was pretty sleepy in Chinese class today. I didn’t get enough sleep last night, and the teacher’s explanations of the subtle differences between 4 different Chinese words somehow wasn’t jolting me into the desired state of consciousness. I desperately wanted to yawn, but that would be really rude to the teacher if she saw it, so I kept trying to sneak one in when she’d turn to the board to write, but then she would always turn around just a bit too soon, forcing me to clamp my mouth shut and depriving me of full yawn satisfaction at every attempt.

Kill Bill

What did wake me up, though, was the teacher’s explanation of the word (劈), meaning “to chop, to cleave.” Somehow she decided a good point of reference was Tarantino’s new movie Kill Bill, in which someone’s head is cleaved in two with a katana, apparently. I was amazed. “You’ve seen it already?” I asked her, forgetting the whole point of the reference. (This was a woman who loved Taiwan’s sappy Meteor Garden — not someone likely to be into such a violent movie.) No, she hadn’t, but she’d seen ads online, and some head-cleaving image had stuck in her mind. Then we went off on a tangent about whether you could buy a pirated copy on the streets of Hangzhou yet. (We decided you could probably find it, but not better than a camcorder copy.)

I’ve never been a Tarantino fan, but this movie sure is creating a stir. It’s even trickled into my Chinese classroom. I’m intrigued.

The English title “Kill Bill” is translated into Chinese as something like “Catch and Kill Bill.” The Chinese tend to prefer a 4-character name over a 3-character name, and since “Bill” gets transliterated into the 2-character Bi’er, the “kill” part has two characters to play with. The translators decided to add the “pursuit” concept that the plot revolves around to the 1-character “kill” word.

So I’ll be watching the streets to catch that DVD release.

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