Impressions of Dezhou

This past weekend I went on a business trip to Dezhou, a city in northern Shandong province. It’s funny — before heading off to Dezhou, any person I told I was heading to Dezhou had one of three reactions:

  1. Had never heard of it. (Not surprising, really.)
  2. “Texas??” (The American state of Texas is Dekesasi-zhou in Chinese, and often abbreviated to De-zhou.)
  3. “Paji!” (That’s the name of Dezhou’s one claim to (relative) fame: a chicken dish called paji.)

Unfortunately, right before leaving for Dezhou I came down with a terrible cold. The fact that it’s my second time being quite sick in Shanghai in only six months of living here alarms me somewhat. I like to think I’m a pretty healthy individual, and these new statistics aren’t jiving with that. (Why could this be? My imagination takes the idea and goes with it. Maybe I’m an example of a rejected transplant. You know how sometimes a transplanted heart doesn’t take in a new body? Well maybe I’m not taking in a new city. Or maybe the city views this foreign body as a threat and is trying to knock me off with its defenses. The Chinese, however, invariably offer the same explanation: “bu xiguan.” I’m not used to life here in Shanghai. Well, there might be something to that, but really, Shanghai has got to be the easiest Chinese city to get used to. Plus that’s a pretty boring explanation.)

And so it was that Thursday I found myself on a 14-hour train ride to Dezhou, a city in northern Shandong province with no convenient airport. We left at 10am, which made for a looong day on the train. Fortunately I had my cold medicine, a big box of tissues, and my sleeper bunk. I was unconscious for most of the way there.

I woke up around 10pm and decided I had better stay up. All the lights in the train were out, save for a few floating downturned faces bathed in the ghostly illumination of a cell phone’s display screen. I climbed out of my bunk and took a seat by the window. It was storming outside. Every few seconds lightning lit up the desolate countryside for an instant. Farmland, ditches, crude buildings, lonely trees. It all seemed so foreign and yet so China. I thought about how four years of effort to “get to know China” had been successful, but only in my one little corner.

* * * * *

Dezhou is a wholly unremarkable city. It has no famous mountain, or lake, or park, nor is it the “ancestral home” of any famous figure that the locals could boast about to guests. All it has is paji, a chicken dish. Which is very good, by the way.

But Dezhou is a city in Shandong province, and as such, it is populated with Shandong-ren, a much-discussed group in China. I found them to be warm and generous, and although they all had that northern accent, it wasn’t nearly as strong as I expected. One might even call it pleasant. There was only one guy with whom I came into contact whose Mandarin level was sub-par. But holy crap, was he hard to understand! I never thought a speaker of a northern dialect could be as difficult to understand as a speaker of a southern dialect, but I was sorely mistaken. There was no “s/sh c/ch z/zh” pronunciaiton issue like you find in the south. I don’t even notice that anymore, anyway. This time the issue was strictly tones. The man spoke without a shred of respect for the established tones of the words that make up Mandarin Chinese. Foreigners learning Chinese do much the same thing, but they generally have the decency to speak slowly and simply, and they radiate uncertainty. This man had the gall to speak quickly and confidently in his abominable Chinese. Talking with him was certainly an experience.

* * * * *

I went on the business trip with three female co-workers, so I got a cheap hotel room all to myself. Friday night around 11pm the phone rang, and the following conversation ensued in Chinese:

[Me:] Hello?

[Woman:] Hello, sorry to disturb you. Do you need a girl’s services?

[Me:] No.

[Woman:] Sorry to disturb you. click.

This kind of Chinese hotel service is well documented, but it was the first time it had been offered to me. Apparently my female co-workers got a call as well, but as soon as the caller heard a female voice, she hung up. The thing is, this exact same exchange repeated itself Saturday night at 10:15pm, and then again that same night at 11:15pm! It was the same woman calling. Did she think in the hour that had passed I had gotten lonely and changed my mind?? [Telephone conversation in Chinese]

* * * * *

Dezhou was not so bad. It wasn’t as polluted or as poor as I thought it might be. The people were nice, and I actually kind of liked their accents, to my surprise. But it’s still good to be home in Shanghai.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Welcome to the north! I deal with crazy northeastern dialects all the time in my dealings with street vendors and stuff…

  2. sweetpotato Says: June 28, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    amused by ur experience in the hotel. my cousin-in-law was in the same boat when he was on vocation in beijing. 1 hour is pretty enough for a fabulous service,they might have thought. you know what i mean? hehehehehe…
    so the tactic may be, pull out the line after 10pm.

  3. Da Xiangchang Says: June 28, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    Your comments reminded me of a funny story. My mom went back to Nanjing for a visit recently, and she got sick right away. When she came back to America, I asked her what caused her illness, and she simply said, “China! I wasn’t used to the place.” I was like, “You lived in China for like 35 years, what do you mean?!!” She went, “Bodies change.” Ha, ha. Bu xiguan indeed. China is exciting, but it’s definitely NOT the place to go if you want to be physically comfortable.

    Your ho-service call was funny. I wonder if a “girl’s services” entail sex or just a naughty massage. It’s funny, but I’ve NEVER gotten a phone call like that before. Maybe I was just staying in some crappy hotels. If anyone decides some of these services, I’d advise locking the door and hiding the keys. The last thing you need is for the girl to throw the keys out the window to some damn pimp who’d then come up, unlock your door, and beat your laowai ass and make off with your precious RMB! Ha ha.

  4. john, maybe it’s the pollution? a change — esp. an increase — of pollutants in the air can cause respiratory problems. (i got a bad cold, too, remember?) and a lot of people i went to college w/ developed allergies for the 1st time in their lives b/c the local furniture factories caused a different kind of pollution than just the local flora. just a thought.

  5. It entails sex… or at least did for the guy in the hotel room next to mine when I stayed overnight in Tangshan.

    I’d heard about this sort of thing, but it amazed me was how quick to the punch they were. I hadn’t been in my room more than about 5 minutes when the phone rang.

  6. Kikko Man Says: June 29, 2004 at 2:13 am

    Gotta love efficiency!!! That’s good service!

  7. Same happened in Beijing at a four star hotel about a decade ago. They had a karoke bar downstairs before the entrance of the hotel restaurant. At night, you’d walk by and there’d be about half-a-dozen escorts waiting at the karaoke bar. The phone calls were entertaining, they happened within 5 minutes of walking in the door, and my return back to the room was at different times of the evening. Must’ve been the hotel cameras or watchful eyes in the lobby.

    From the apparent transcript, it seems quite efficient, polite and to the point. 5 stars for the approach and it’s a lot better than the horrendous telemarketer solicitations I receive all day at work.

  8. Dezhou is an hour away from where I used to live in Hebei. The accents there are very similar to where I used to live. The scenery is so monotonous. I’ve only been to DeZhou once, but never ate paji.

  9. A friend sent me a recording about the main differences between Dalian dialect and mandarin. Yes, not only is there no distinction between s/sh etc, but also some of the tones change (most notably, there seems to be no flat tone).

    If anyone wants to hear, I’ve put it on my site at:

  10. This is unrelated, and at the risk of sounding like a complete moron, do they have takeout in China like we do in the U.S. I’m thinking that takeout is uniquely American, but I could be wrong. So my real question is:

    Do you ever see those cheesey white cardboard boxes with the asian-style font stating “Enjoy” or “Thank You”?

  11. Da Xiangchang Says: June 30, 2004 at 3:11 am

    I don’t remember seeing many takeout boxes in China. In China, people eat at home or at restaurants; I don’t think many people order stuff to take back home.

    Takeouts are not uniquely American. For example, takeouts are extremely popular in England, though they’re called takeaways there. But since fast food is an American invention, I’m sure takeouts originated in the States–as did “Chinese” fortune cookies.

  12. Just to be super pedantic, ‘takeaway’ is uncountable…

    So John, send me the real answer you gave to the phone call – I fully understand you can’t tell the truth on a public forum… (

  13. Jason,

    Yes, China does have takeout. It’s called waimai (ÍâÂô). Some restaurants even have special windows specifically for waimai customers.

    There are two kinds of boxes typically used. One kind is a thin waxed cardboard (plain white, with nothing written on it). The other is plain white styrofoam.

  14. Da Xiangchang Says: June 30, 2004 at 11:14 am

    Now, if the Chinese could just combine the waimai with the ho services, they’d have a hit. Call it “waimai pie”! Fast, efficient, and government-controlled so you don’t order some breasts and end up with an STD sandwich!

  15. Da Xiangchang Says: June 30, 2004 at 11:19 am

    Of course, since this is 2004, there should be equality for female customers too. Call it “waimai guy.” Again, government-controlled so that women can order custom-delivered xiangchang that’s not overcooked and blistery!

  16. Thanks, John! And thanks Da Xiangchang!

  17. I haven’t seen many people carrying takeaway boxes either, but the service is certainly there. I’m told that most restaurants will also deliver for free if you live in the vicinity.

    Quite often students in my college buy food from the school dining hall but take it back to their room to eat it. In this case there’s not even a box: it’s just in a transparent plastic bag. I gotta say, nothing looks appealing when it’s squashed in a transparent plastic bag!

  18. Staying in Beijing at a low class hotel about 8 years ago I got hit up several times in one night for the girl service by phone. The problem was the guy didn’t speak English, and my Chinese wasn’t good enough to know what he was saying. He kept trying, clear through 3 or 4 in the morning. Had I understood I would have either disconnected the phone or taken him up on it since I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway.

  19. I seem to remember pictures of delivery persons on bicycles w/ STACKS of white boxes (or trays) on their heads, balancing them as they delivered. There was usually another stack on the back of the bike. I thought that they were delivering meals. NO? Or was that not in China?

  20. It seems to me that the term waimai was back imported from the Chinese restaurants in the States (or Taiwan/Hongkong, I don¡¯t know) where dine-in and delivery are distinguished as tangchi and waimai, respectively. The native Chinese (mainlanders) more often call it hefan (boxed meal).

  21. Coincidentally enough, I just spent a few days in Dezhou–which I’d never before heard of–with a TV sponsored English training center promotion. There was a sudden violent sandstorm just after our party arrived. It was impossible to even cross the street! Two men had to hold me upright! I found the people extremely kind and curious, for most of them I was the first foreigner they’d ever spoken to. The food was wonderful. I was encouraged by all the solar energy development I saw and the huge billboard “Dezhou, the Sample Solar City of the Future.” One of my Chinese colleagues told me “it’s a wish not a reality” but where do realities come from?

    I live in Beijing so it was only a 4 hour train ride.

  22. Wow! I have been looking for ages for some “real” info about Dezhou. I am heading there in October from Australlia and wanted to find out about it a bit.

    Liked the story about the motel room. I am sure my 2 team mates who i will be travelling with will be waiting phone cals with much anticipation

    Look out for the STrange Vehicle Games being held there in the last week of October!

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