personal


11

Sep 2020

Why do the Chinese hate Disney’s Mulan so much?

Disney’s Mulan comes out in China today. All indications are that this movie is going to be a huge flop in China.

Chinese audiences hate Disney's Mulan

Now, Mulan isn’t getting great reviews in the US either (it’s currently at a 5.5 out of 10 on IMDb), but it’s doing even worse in China (currently at a 5.1 out of 10 on MTime, China’s IMDb). Some of the US reviewers are saying that the film suffered from trying to appease Chinese censors and Chinese audiences.

But Chinese audiences are not at all impressed with the results, and I’m talking about the buzz before anyone has ever seen the movie. Chinese audiences love Disney movies. Chinese audiences also loved Kung Fu Panda, so it’s not simply a “don’t try to do our culture” reaction. So why all the hate for Mulan in China?

I’ve been asking lots of Chinese friends what they think about Mulan. Everyone hates it (without having seen it), and the reasons are various:

  1. The kung fu choreography is terrible.
  2. The plot is poorly written. (Not sure how they can know this before it’s released?)
  3. Disney arbitrarily changed key, immutable “facts” about the legend of Mulan, who is from Henan, not Fujian.
  4. It doesn’t “feel” like a Chinese movie; the stylistic choices made don’t have a Chinese sensibility and don’t appeal to Chinese audiences.
  5. The cartoon version was better.

One Chinese friend agreed that the American creativity showcased in a movie like Kung Fu Panda goes over way better with Chinese audiences because it’s brand new, rather than co-opting “sacred” Chinese tradition.

I can’t help but wonder if the current political situation doesn’t impart a bit of negative energy to an American film release in China. (It certainly doesn’t help!) But clearly, this movie has been a huge, expensive fail for Disney.

I’m just glad that I can go to the movies in Shanghai again, finally. Going to see Tenet this Saturday! (Chinese friends say this one is good.)


Update: SupChina had the same idea, and wrote a much more informative piece on this topic, published the same day! Check it out: Why Chinese viewers hate Disney’s ‘Mulan’


03

Sep 2020

The Ever-Present Phantom Menace

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in China. There is a phantom menace always lurking. Yes, I’m talking about food poisoning. It got me on Tuesday. Yikes.

Food Poisoning: China's Phantom Menace

After a rough morning, I went into “recovery mode” and slept all day.

There’s a lot I’d like to write about. First step: stop getting sick!


18

Aug 2020

Under-appreciated Undershirts

I will have been in China for 20 years this week. And yet, I still bump into little cultural differences that take me by surprise.

Case in point: the humble undershirt.

Untitled

Fairly normal way to dress, right? But I get asked on an almost daily basis during the summer why I would wear two shirts. “Isn’t it hot?”

I never really noticed until now, but wearing an undershirt to absorb a little sweat is not really a thing here. (Big old sweatstains are, however, most definitely a summer thing here!)


19

May 2020

Masked Statues

A photo I took the other day in front of a (closed) school here in Shanghai:

Masked Statues

When I saw these statues, it was at a time when it was unclear when elementary schoolers would be returning to school here in Shanghai. To me, the masked statues sort of represented a sort of permanence of the COVID threat. And yet, those masks can be so easily removed from those statues… and they will be.

Last Friday, we parents in Shanghai received news that primary schoolers will be returning to school on Monday, June 2. Furthermore, they’ll be letting out for summer vacation only a month later. I don’t think we really expected that.

A funny aside: on WeChat, when I see other parents of young children talk about putting their kids back in school, they frequently use the phrase 神兽归笼, literally, “the magical beasts return to the cage.” (If you do a search, you’ll find a bunch of posts about Chinese parents dealing with kids online learning from home.)


09

Apr 2020

April COVID-19 Updates (Shanghai)

I wrote that post a while back giving a fairly comprehensive account of “Coronavirus Lockdown in Shanghai.” It’s now almost a month later. So what’s different? Only little things.

Here’s a brief rundown:

  1. Almost everyone is still wearing masks when they go outside, but no one freaks out if I don’t. I wear my mask when required, or when in an elevator or other enclosed space. I do it more out of courtesy than anything else.
  2. The mall near my home stopped doing temperature checks about two weeks ago (but most still do).
  3. Where it’s still in place, “hygiene security” is getting laxer. It’s the little things… For example, we’re supposed to sign in every morning on the first floor of my office building, and yet no one says anything if you blow it off. We’re only supposed to go in through one entrance in my compound (where they’re still doing temperature checks), but the “nice guard” will let me in the side gate when he’s on duty. Visitors are allowed, and when my wife had two friends over last night, they said their temperates were not even checked at the gate.
  4. We’ve been hearing this since at least early March, but it looks like school will almost certainly resume in early May. (It’s still uncertain how the missed school is going to be made up… If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on no summer vacation this year.)
  5. My wife is back to full-time in her office.
  6. The big barber shops chains opened in early April, but a lot of restaurants are still closed. I’m sure many of them are “still closed” because they’re never going to reopen, but it can be hard to tell which those are. You do see a lot of shops getting renovated now, as the new tenant prepares to open a new store as the pandemic fades into the background.
  7. Over the weekend, I took my son to the Shanghai Natural History museum. (It’s pretty great; I recommend it!) It wasn’t super crowded, but there were quite a few people there (all wearing masks).
  8. This past Monday was a holiday, and my family and I went to Chenshan Botanical Garden to see the last of the cherry blossoms, and again: it wasn’t super crowded, but there were quite a few people there (all wearing masks).
  9. Our new webcomic Boring 办公室 (Bàngōngshì) continues (there are 11 episodes as of today), and the characters will keep wearing the face masks for now, to reflect the current situation in Shanghai.
  10. Church services are still canceled, so no church-going for Easter.
Shanghai Cherry Blossoms
上海辰山植物园樱花

Finally, on a lighter note, a few observations from someone who has almost made it through the COVID-19 pandemic in Shanghai…

The three most annoying things about wearing face masks all the time:

  1. I keep forgetting my face mask when I go out! Seriously, multiple times a day.
  2. Chewing gum with a face mask does not work. The mask slowly migrates downward. The effect is more pronounced if you haven’t shaved for a few days.
  3. The iPhone’s facial recognition doesn’t work when you have a mask on. Very annoying when you are 100% used to using it all day long, both to unlock your phone and make mobile payments.

Stay safe, everyone. There is a light at the end of this tunnel!


11

Mar 2020

Coronavirus Lockdown in Shanghai: One Month In

I came back from Chinese New Year holiday in Nagoya, Japan on February 10 to a Shanghai already in lockdown over the novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19. I’ve been getting lots of questions from friends all over the world about how things are going in Shanghai (especially as the virus continues to spread globally), so I decided to share a bit more about our situation in Shanghai, one month in.

Work

The official CNY holiday was extended, and we started working from home after that, until February 14th. The following week, starting February 17th, we returned to the office to lots of required face masks, registration, and disinfectant. Very few people were at the office, and one of my co-workers was still in 14-day self-quarantine after returning from Shandong. It was easy to avoid human contact! Only one of my co-workers elected to keep the face mask on in the office.

It’s March already. All the same protective measures are in place, but with a bit less “vigor,” you could say. More and more people are coming back to the office, but the morning line for the elevator is nowhere near what it was yet. (I suppose a lot of companies are discovering that working from home isn’t that bad?)

Tissues for pressing elevator buttons
Tissues for pressing the elevator buttons
Elevator Cleaning Schedule
Elevator disinfecting schedule (hourly)

AllSet Learning‘s face to face consultancy for learning Chinese has definitely taken a hit, as many of our clients are either (1) not back in Shanghai yet, choosing to wait out the virus abroad (not sure that’s going too well!), or (2) dealing with a lot of uncertainty and craziness for work due to the virus, and thus not able to do lessons. One client even left China with his family around CNY and decided not to come back.

Fortunately, AllSet is doing more and more online lessons as well as other products, so we’re able to weather this storm. One thing that would make this ordeal much easier is a reduction in our office rent, but our landlord insists that he hasn’t gotten a break in rent from the office building owner, and thus can’t give us one. Other tenants pushing for it hasn’t helped, either. Situations like this make the economic cost of the virus quite lopsided.

COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
Face mask required to enter the office

My wife has been doing a rotating thing where in the first week, each person went into the office one day a week, and worked from home the other 4. Then 2 days a week in the office, 3 at home. This week it’s up to 3 days in the office, 2 working at home. Seems like a smart, cautious way to gradually increase the numbers of people at the office while also monitoring and controlling possible infections.

COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
Elevator Ad

School

My kids are at home through all this. My son is young enough that the missed school doesn’t really matter, but my daughter in second grade has been doing regular online lessons since last week (with homework). It seems like she’s even learning something!

COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
Online learning

So we haven’t had to pay for my son’s tuition at all yet this semester, but my daughter’s was paid (a bit late, while they figured everything out). It’s unclear how the school semester is going to play out. I had a fun summer vacation planned in the US, but that’s all been canceled. I fully expect the school year to be extended into the summer to make up for missed school (and low efficiency of the online methods tried so far). Canceling summer vacation would be such a China thing to do, unfortunately…

It’s still cold outside, so my kids aren’t super stir-crazy yet, but they’re not getting enough exercise.

Home

The main differences at home are:

  1. The kids are home, all the time.
  2. When you have food or packages (kuaidi) delivered, you have to go out to the front gate to pick it up (the delivery guys are not allowed in).
  3. When you go in or out of the compound, you need to wear a face mask (I tested this going out one morning last week, and the guard wouldn’t let me out of my own compound without a mask on!).
  4. Every time you come back into your compound, your temperature gets taken.

If you leave your own apartment and stay within the compound, no one really says anything if you don’t wear a face mask.

Some pictures of various apartment complexes around the Shanghai Zhongshan Park area:

COVID-19 Apartment Complex
COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
Hand washing instructions at an entrance to a mall
COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
A special trash can for used face masks (the word “recycle” here seems a little… suspect?)

Around the City

I got that haircut on February 19th, but for the most part, barber shops are still closed. The ones that are open are the small independent ones. The big chains like Yongqi and Wenfeng are all still closed.

Most restaurants have gone into “take-out only” mode. Starbucks, one of the first well-known brands to announce store closures, is a good example. After closing for 1-2 weeks, Starbucks reopened in “take-out only” mode. Just to step inside the store, you have to be wearing a mask and have to consent to your temperature being taken (this is the new norm for essentially any public building).

COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
Starbucks health check
COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
Starbucks reminder
COVID-19 Starbucks
There’s no joy in drinking a toffee nut latte with a face mask on…

Still, many of the restaurants remain fully closed. I assume that many of the smaller ones will not be reopening at all.

I haven’t used any taxis (or Didi) at all yet this year, except for the airport taxi on February 10th. But public transportation seems to be working just fine. You just need to wear a mask, and there’s a temperature check for the subway.

COVID-19 Shanghai Subway
The subway is mostly empty still.

Signs related to COVID-19 are everywhere, such as reminders that wearing a face mask is a requirement to enter a building.

COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
Face mask required to go into a bank
COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
Neighborhood propaganda: a happy face mask-wearing family
COVID-19 Mall Mask Requirement
A mall’s reminder to wear face masks.
COVID-19 Mall Mask Requirement
This sign seems oddly permanent.
COVID-19 in Shanghai (2020)
Government requirements

In general, the overall atmosphere in Shanghai is resignation or possibly annoyance. There was some minor panicking going on over COVID-19 about a month ago, and I saw rumors flying around in WeChat, spread irresponsibly. But now things are a lot calmer. Obviously, economic worries are very real as well. We’re just waiting for things to go back to normal… if that’s what’s next.

COVID-19 Corona
Don’t tell anyone!

Related: Download the COVID-19 Vocabulary PDF on this page.


04

Mar 2020

Gal Gadot in the Shanghai Subway

The last time this company’s ads featured Chloe Bennet (star of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Well, it seems they have a thing for female superheroes, because now Gal Gadot (AKA Wonder Woman) is all over the Shanghai Metro.

Gal Gadot + Boss recruiting
Gal Gadot + Boss recruiting
Gal Gadot + Boss recruiting
Gal Gadot + Boss recruiting

I didn’t notice this until I looked up my old blog post, but it’s kind of funny thing that she’s wearing almost exactly the same outfits as Chloe Bennet was.

I’m well aware that little boys in China loooove Marvel superheroes (my own 5yo is one of them). Aside from Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc., they also love Captain America. I always thought this was kind of funny, since China is pretty nationalistic and has a complicated relationship with the USA. No one seems to think anything of it, though. And the love extends well into adulthood… plenty of young men are totally into Marvel superheroes, obviously (those movies sure do well here).

So this ad campaign makes me wonder how into female superheroes Chinese women are. Is that a thing? Or are they just two attractive Hollywood stars that wound up in ads in China?


20

Feb 2020

Not the Usual Haircut

All kinds of stores and shops in Shanghai have been closed for weeks. This past Tuesday, I went for a walk and noticed that a few barber shops were open. Yesterday I decided to finally get my first haircut of 2020.

It was a somewhat unusual haircut.

Unusual Haircut

They took my temperature first. Everyone in the place wore a face mask (which has to be partially removed during the haircut to cut around the ears), and there was lots of disinfecting between haircuts.

Hopefully we’ll put this coronavirus affair behind us soon. March 2020 is looking much better than February!


Related: Download the COVID-19 Vocabulary PDF on this page.


23

Jan 2020

Chinese New Year Quiz Time!

We’ve got lots of new stuff in the works at AllSet Learning, and sometimes it’s even relatively small projects that we can release quickly. The latest of those is our new quizzes. We’ll keep refining the core quiz app, but the first quiz is ready, just in time for Chinese New Year 2020:

Happy Chinese New Year! (Take the quiz, and if you like it, please share!)


16

Jan 2020

Shanghai’s Chinese New Year Melancholy

Recently a Shanghainese friend shared this screenshot on WeChat:

Shanghai-CNY 上海春节的杯具

I’ll transcribe it below as text for you learners:

我们上海人不过年是真的,因为我们没有什么事可以做!过年就是比谁年夜饭的酒店订得早,然后躺在家里看朋友圈欣赏全国各地的人是怎么过年的……我们不怕春运,又不能放鞭炮,也不爱看春晚,没有习俗,也没有土特产,家里亲戚少且关系没那么好,路上没有店也没有人。

And a translation:

It’s true that we Shanghainese don’t really celebrate Chinese New Year because there’s not really anything for us to do! Chinese New Year is just competing who can make the earliest restaurant reservation for Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner [年夜饭], then lying around at home browsing WeChat Moments to see how the rest of the country is celebrating Chinese New Year…. We have no fear of the massive CNY migration [春运], and we’re not allowed to set off fireworks anymore. We don’t like the CCTV New Year’s Gala [春晚], and we don’t have any real traditional customs or local specialty foods. We have few relatives, and the ones we do have, we’re not on great terms with. There are no shops open or any people in the streets.

My immediate reaction was, “wow, this is so true! And sad!” I shared it with my co-workers, and a Shanghainese co-worker’s reaction was:

大实话。有时候我会羡慕赶春运的人们。

Translation:

So true. Sometimes I envy those people crammed into trains just to get home for Chinese New Year.

[I had to take liberties translating 春运.]

This year my family and I will spend Chinese New Year in Japan (again). At first I felt uncomfortable with this. You hear Chinese people say all the time, “Christmas is like you guys’ Chinese New Year,” and while that’s not really true in many ways, it is true in that they both are the year’s biggest holiday in their respective cultures, they both mean a lot to the people of that culture, and they’re both meant to be spent with family. But then how could my wife be OK with running off to Japan (without her parents) instead of spending CNY in Shanghai with them? I would not be OK with blowing off Christmas in similar fashion.

One of the ways I’ve made sense of this cultural issue is reflected in the post above: the Shanghainese really do have a bit of a different take on Chinese New Year, and it has evolved rapidly in recent years (as evidenced by the role of WeChat in the original post). The Shanghainese are different.

My first Chinese New Year was spent in Zhuji (诸暨), Zhejiang Province. It was cold, it was crowded, it was noisy, it was non-stop eating and card-playing and tea-drinking chatting. It was undoubtedly very Chinese. It was pretty fun for me, but as an outsider, it’s not something I would really want to commit to every year (especially if it’s not with my actual family).

Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m not a huge fan of Chinese New Year festivities. But as the traditions have faded in Shanghai and the holiday is left something of a husk of its former self, I can’t help but feel bad for the Shanghainese.


19

Dec 2019

Li Ziqi Deserves the Hype

In the past week or so, I’ve suddenly started hearing a lot about the videos of a girl named Li Ziqi (李子柒). She lives out in rural Sichuan and likes to share videos of herself making stuff from scratch (the traditional Chinese way), which includes amazing cooking videos, but also includes creating other stuff as well.

Perhaps what makes her videos most unique (aside from stunning scenery and interesting content) is how little she talks in her videos. I like that. This is the video I watched that totally hooked me, in which she makes an amazing wool cloak from scratch, starting with just the raw wool:

This one on making soy sauce from scratch (and when I say “from scratch” I mean planting the soy beans yourself) was educational:

Li Ziqi is currently getting a lot of attention on Chinese social media. I discovered her myself through a WeChat post. It’ll be interesting to see where public opinion goes. I’ve already heard numerous cries of both “she’d make the perfect wife” and “she’s a fraud.”

Here’s an interview with her:

Anyway, I still need to watch some more videos. But my opinion thus far is that Li Ziqi makes great videos (equally interesting whether or not you’re interested in learning Chinese) and deserves the hype.


29

Nov 2019

A Revamped Newsletter Approach

I’ve never pushed signing up for a newsletter, but since Sinosplice is only updated once or twice a week, I know it can be hard to keep track of posts on here or remember to check. Not everyone likes the “subscribe to blog via email” option because one email for each blog post can be too much.

I’ve had an AllSet Learning newsletter for a while, but since it’s focused mainly on product announcements, it’s been fairly infrequent in the past.

I’ve decided to do something different, though. I’m combining a sort of bi-weekly “Sinosplice blog post digest” with the AllSet Learning product newsletter and adding some other stuff in as well:

  1. Recent Sinosplice blog posts
  2. Recent You Can Learn Chinese podcast episodes
  3. Recent AllSet Learning blog posts and free study materials
  4. New AllSet Learning product announcements and promo

For anyone who enjoys this blog, it should be a meaty, useful read, released roughly every two weeks.

The signup in the sidebar of the Sinosplice website is for the same newsletter as the signup on the AllSet Learning website.

News Boy

Sign up and keep the useful Chinese learning-related content coming to your inbox!


19

Nov 2019

The Fantastical Creatures of Guan Shan Hai

As a kid, I remember getting my hands on a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. I loved that book! My very Catholic mother would have denounced it as demonic had she discovered it (it was the 80’s, after all), but I just couldn’t get enough of that art.

Over the years, I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed the imaginative creatures featured in Magic: The Gathering or just random stuff on DeviantArt.

Just recently I came across a book in a book store called 观山海 (Guan Shanhai), just filled with very Chinese illustrations of the beasts from the Chinese classic 山海经 (Shan Hai Jing). I was thoroughly impressed and had to buy it. I’m just sharing a few of the images from the book here.

Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"
Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"
Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"
Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"
Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"
Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"
Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"
Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"
Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"
Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"
Fantasy Beasts from "Guan Shanhai"

观山海 (Guan Shanhai) is illustrated by 杉泽 (Shan Ze), edited by 梁超 (Liang Chao), and published by Hunan Literature and Art Publishing House, 2018. (Each page has a passage from the Shan Hai Jing as well as commentary, but I skipped all the commentary for this blog post in favor of the gorgeous artwork.)


30

Oct 2019

New Crosswalk Signals, More Surveillance in Shanghai

I’ve noticed these new crosswalk signal “posts” going up all around Shanghai. At first glance, they seem to be a user-friendly upgrade, highly visible with all those lights, and clearer. (All the jaywalking was going on before because people couldn’t see the tiny red guy, right? Sure…)

Crosswalk Surveillance
Crosswalk Surveillance
Crosswalk Surveillance
Crosswalk Surveillance
Crosswalk Surveillance

The thing is, when you look closer, you notice to things:

  1. There’s a space at the top of each post housing three video cameras: one facing the street, and one facing either side.
  2. There’s a street-facing screen which currently doesn’t have much on it, but kind of looks like a Windows desktop.

Combine these facts with the AI-powered facial recognition craze that’s sweeping Shanghai, as well as the fact that video cameras in Shanghai can already identify and auto-fine automobiles in real time, and it becomes pretty obvious what’s coming: these crosswalk posts are going to start identifying any jaywalking citizens and fining them automatically. (The little blue and white notice in the bottom photo also says as much.)

As for the under-utilized screen? Possibly it will be used to display photos of offending jaywalkers. (When you get auto-fined on Shanghai’s elevated highways, an LED text screen immediately displays your license plate number, notifying you that you’ve been fined.)

Of course, these crosswalk signal posts won’t do much to stop people from traipsing across streets at other locations, and what happens when people start wearing masks, or wrapping their jackets around their heads specifically to confound the technology at these intersections? Unclear.

It’s a brave new world for Shanghai crosswalks…

Nov. 5, 2018 Update: The Crosswalk Posts Have Eyes


23

Oct 2019

One Key Cultural Difference, Demonstrated

You often hear about “the importance of culture” when you learn a language (and I recently did a podcast on that very topic), and a lot of attention is given to “cultural differences” as well. And yet, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t seem very real until you’re deep into it yourself. It’s kind of hard to demonstrate simply, in an impressive way.

Well, no more! This image will do the trick:

Cultural Differences
Image by Kiakili

Recently I’ve shown this image to quite a few Chinese friends and co-workers, asking them, “what do you notice right away about this image? What do you think it means?

With very few exceptions, the Chinese people will talk about the cell phone, and then the gun. The skin color of the person is usually entirely overlooked. Obviously, Americans tend to have a very different answer to those questions.

Then, when you explain how most Americans will view the image, expect a very interesting conversation to follow! Try it.


18

Sep 2019

Recycling and Garbage Separation Propaganda

I’m not sure how to classify “normal” Chinese government propaganda. As a foreigner, it all seems kind of pointless, like background noise. Almost a stylistic choice, rather than some kind of effort at shaping (or just nudging) the direction in which society is developing.

Often, the propaganda is of the “values” kind, cheerily informing the population what values Chinese society holds so dear. Other times, they’re more focused on specific objectives. I guess the recent “Sweep Black, Eliminate Evil” campaign from June of this year is of that type, although for the average Shanghai resident, it didn’t really mean anything.

That’s why the recent campaign for recycling and garbage separation feels really different to me. It feels like meaningful propaganda with a tangible (and achievable) objective! I’m not sure what the locals feel about it, but to me, it feels like a rare effort at actual social progress. Here is some of the “propaganda” I spotted in a local neighborhood or two:

Recycling in Shanghai (Sept. 2019)
Recycling in Shanghai (Sept. 2019)
Recycling in Shanghai (Sept. 2019)
Recycling in Shanghai (Sept. 2019)
Recycling in Shanghai (Sept. 2019)
Recycling in Shanghai (Sept. 2019)
Recycling in Shanghai (Sept. 2019)
Recycling in Shanghai (Sept. 2019)

(More here.)


28

Aug 2019

Mowing a Lawn in China without a Lawn Mower

There’s a nice green lawn (not too small) inside my apartment complex in Shanghai. I always thought it was weird how I never seemed to see a lawn mower anywhere, but the grass was clearly routinely cut. Then I got my answer:

Mowing a Lawn by Weed Wacker in China

Yes, the entire lawn is routinely mowed by weed wacker. When you think about it, it does make sense for China, but I know I’ve seen Americans mowing lawns half this size using riding lawn mowers.


22

Aug 2019

Kids Ordering Food for the Family

There’s a cultural trend I’ve noticed over the years living in China, and it’s recently come into sharper focus as a result of having my own children and interacting with more Chinese parents. It’s the family habit of letting the child decide the menu for meals, or, in the case of eating out, letting the child decide where to eat or what food to order for everyone. I’m not talking about an occasional thing; I’m talking about a habitual practice.

Chinese New Year 2011 – Lunch
Photo by Micah Sittig

I probably first noticed this when I started dating my future wife. She lived with her parents, and would frequently communicate with her mom on the phone. I noticed that I would often hear her telling her mom what she wanted for dinner that night, and that’s what her mom would make. I thought this was kind of weird, but figured that was just her family, she was kind of a strong personality, she was good at choosing food everyone likes, etc.

Over the years I learned that this was quite common, and it starts early. Children of 4 or 5 years old frequently decide most of what’s on the menu for the evening, practically every day. In some homes, the child decides their own menu while the adults eat an entirely separate meal. It’s no wonder that so many kids in China are picky eaters!

When this started happening in my own home with my own kids, I quickly put a stop to it. “Kids don’t get to decide what’s for dinner,” I said. “They eat what they’re given.” Fortunately my mother-in-law and wife were cool with that, but they had already started falling into what seems to be the “default mode” of letting the children (usually the youngest) decide what’s for dinner in a Chinese household.

One awkward thing about comparing this aspect of Chinese and American families is that I really only have my own “American cultural experiences” to compare to, and those are not at all recent! I don’t have regular contact with many American families, so if this same habit is now super common in American families too, I wouldn’t know. I suspect that it exists as well, but is nowhere near as widespread as it is in China, where the One Child Policy has set off a cascade of new family dynamics, often resulting in spoiled sibling-less children.

Talking to other parents in Shanghai, what I usually hear is, “my kid often doesn’t want to eat, and is already so skinny. So I’d rather let him decide what to eat and eat something rather than eat nothing.” My reply to this, of course, is, “he’ll be pretty hungry and less picky the next day after he eats nothing for dinner. He won’t starve. 4-year-olds don’t go on hunger strikes.” This works in my family (I’ve let my kids go hungry when they decide they’re going to be picky eaters), but I get the definite impression that Chinese parents think this won’t work in their families (or they’re just not willing to let their kids miss a single meal).

We’re working on a new discussion course for intermediate learners at AllSet Learning focused on various topics related to raising children. It’s really a very, very rich vein for discussion, and it’s the reason this “picky eater” and “kids ordering food” topic resurfaced for me recently. If your experience (American, Chinese, or whatever) is different, please share!


17

Jul 2019

American Insanity

I’m in Florida on vacation with the family this July. I’ve managed to get my kids to a respectable bilingual state despite them growing up in Shanghai, but American culture is one thing my kids just don’t get a lot of, and it’s probably one of the most interesting aspects of this trip. Kids adapt to new surroundings quickly, but their reactions to new situations and unfamiliar American culture is super interesting.

Unfortunately, it’s not practical to make a big long list (I wish I had one!). One simple example is wading pools, though. My parents never got a pool installed, but the backyard is plenty big, so we can do the old backyard wading pool thing (fill it up with a hose). Such simple pleasures are utterly foreign to Shanghai kids, but still a blast! (Coming up soon: backyard water balloon fight, “Slip ‘n Slide,” and playing in the sprinkler. Classic American middle class fun!)

Slide 'n' Slip
Image via Gordon on Flickr

Anyway, the insanity part relates to a conversation with my daughter (now 7.7 years old). It went something like this:

Her: Is America insane?
Me: …. Yes. 
Her: BWAHAHAHA!
Me: ….
Her: Why?
Me: ….
Her: BWAHAHAHA!

I guess maniacal laughter is better than weeping. I mean, “chaos is a ladder,” right?



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