Tag: culture


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.


Sep 2004

Telling Anecdotes


Overheard in the office:


> Girl A: 索性的索是…?

> Girl B: 索尼的索。

> Girl A: 哦,知道了。

> Girl A: Which character is the 索 in 索性? [索性 is a not uncommon Chinese adverb meaning “simply.”]

> Girl B: The same as in “Sony”.
[索尼 is the Chinese transliteration for “Sony.” Its characters are meaningless, chosen for phonetic value only.]

> Girl A: Oh, got it!


I recently had the 抽油烟机 in my apartment fixed. I’m not sure what it is in English. Literally translated, it would be “oil smoke sucking machine.” It’s more than just a hood and exhaust fan for the cooking range. Because Chinese cooking uses so much oil and the oil goes into the air during the cooking process, this appliance helps suck in that oil and collect it. As I have discovered, if you don’t have a “oil smoke sucking machine” or it doesn’t work properly, the area around the cooking range gets covered with a thin layer of sticky oil residue every time you cook. Nasty.

So yesterday my landlord showed up to collect the rent, and he brought a repairman with him. Some valve in the exhaust duct had gotten stuck shut. Easily remedied.

What amused me was the way the repairman checked to see if the exhaust fan was drawing in the air. In the past I had used a piece of tissue. He just lit up right in my kitchen and used the cigarette smoke to test it. Of course, after testing the fan he also finished the cigarette.


A Chinese friend of mine made this comparison recently:

America’s September 11th is like China’s 1989 incident. When the anniversary rolls around, security gets tightened big time.

I know it’s an innocent (and true) comment about security, but I felt emotional spasms of revulsion inside when I heard a comparison being made between the two incidents. I don’t think I have to go into why.

(Linguistically, there’s another similarity. As with several holidays and other historical anniversaries in China, the 1989 tragedy is referred to in Chinese by the numbers corresponding to its date. It’s called 6-4 — for June 4th — in Chinese. In the same way, the American tragedy is referred to as 9-1-1 in Chinese.)

P.S. Happy Moon Festival!


Sep 2004

My Ayi

A while back I told you about my ayi (阿姨). Now I’m going to tell you some more.

My ayi comes from Hubei province. She has a son there attending Wuhan University. I don’t know more about her particular family circumstances than this, but knowing just this much it sounds like a difficult situation.

My ayi is probably in her early 40’s.

My ayi always calls me xiansheng (先生), something like “sir.” I’ve asked her many times to just call me by my Chinese name, but she forgets five minutes later, once again calling me xiansheng.

My ayi never joins me for dinner. In the beginning I would try hard to get her to enjoy with me the meal she prepared, but she steadfastly refused every time. Chinese people typically eat dinner between 5 and 6pm. I imagine she’s eating at close to 8pm on a daily basis.

My ayi comes 6 days a week. At about 5:30pm she goes to the market to buy fresh ingredients. She then bikes to my apartment, arriving at 6pm. Dinner is ready around 6:30. She leaves around 7pm. She used to stay longer, but she still seems to be getting the job done. I don’t begrudge her a little haste.

My ayi acts as housekeeper/cook for a number of households. She has worked for foreigners before, so she has a bit of knowledge about “what foreigners like” (or don’t like). You might argue that it’s impossible to make such generalities, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that most of us foreigners don’t like chicken feet and things like that. Her experience rings pretty true for me, anyway.

My ayi knows which foods and ingredients I don’t like, and she’s never once slipped up and made something I don’t like after I had already told her.

My ayi always carries a notebook in which she makes careful note of all her employers’ expenses. She periodically gives me these figures so that I know exactly how much I’m spending on the actual food. It comes out to about 100 rmb (US$12.50) per month.

My ayi carries her cell phone around and usually gets at least one call while she’s here. Her cell phone is nicer than mine.

My ayi understood fine when I requested that she not use the kitchen dish towel to clean dirty things. I explained that the dish towel is for wiping water off clean things, and I didn’t want it to get dirty. (When she first came, I lost one dish towel that way.) I guess she decided she didn’t have enough rags to clean with, though, because one day I found that she had ripped my dish towel in half, leaving only one half hanging clean and faithful at its post while the other half was dispatched to explore less pristine regions.

My ayi hates wasting food. I feel the same way, so it’s no problem. Still, every now and then she suspects that I don’t like something, or a dish has been reheated several times, and is afraid I’ll throw it out. She’s not too timid to ask me not to waste it, or to scold me mildly if she catches me throwing something out (which is rare). One time she made something that I didn’t like. She could tell, and rather than let me waste it, she took it home for herself to eat. I didn’t mind at all. She never made that dish again.


Aug 2004


Yesterday I went to a kindergarten to teach a few classes with a co-worker. The kindergarten is inside a walled community. Not the kind of rich walled community you may be thinking of, but rather a big collection of fairly run-down Chinese apartment buildings which happen to be surrounded by a wall.

On the way out, we passed two men burning stuff near the garbage. My first thought was, “Just great. As if the pollution wasn’t bad enough, people also burn garbage for no apparent reason when they could just throw it away.”

Then I noticed a middle-aged woman and a rather old woman, who appeared to be just passersby, arguing with the men. It was all in Shanghainese, and I couldn’t understand it at all. Especially the old lady looked pretty upset about the exchange. I saw that what the men were burning was several large sheets of folded yellow paper. I also saw a bundle of white cloth which appeared to be next.

I asked my co-worker what they were saying.

> Me: What were they saying?

> Her: I think maybe someone died, so they’re burning things. The old lady told them they shouldn’t be doing it because it’s just superstition. The men told her it had nothing to do with her and she should mind her own damn business.

> Me: Why do you think someone died?

> Her: Well, in China, after someone dies we often draw a circle on the ground and place some of their clothes and other belongings in the circle and then burn them so that the person has these things in the afterlife.

> Me: So is that superstition too, or tradition?

> Her: Tradition, I guess.

> Me: Where do you draw the circle? Just on the street?

> Her: Yeah.

> Me: And what do you use to draw it?

> Her: Chalk.

> Me: Just regular white chalk?

> Her: Yeah.

This is the kind of thing you see less often in Shanghai, but you still see it if you go to the right parts of the city.


Jul 2004

China’s Solar Visor Craze

China is currently in the midst of a new headwear craze. It’s like a typical sun visor with a swivel down piece of dark transparent plastic which shades the face from the summer sun’s harsh glare. The protective plastic can serve as an extended visor (up), or sort of a whole-face “sunglass mask” (down). See the pictures below, modeled by yours truly. I’m not entirely sure what to call the new hat-like apparel.

John: Visor Up John: Visor Down

The Chinese just call them 太阳帽, which could be literally translated as “sun hat” and my (normally awesome) good dictionary lists as “sun-helmet.” The thing is, I’ve been in China nearly four years, and I can assure you that this is an entirely new product, so the dictionary term can’t possibly apply in more than a very general way. Anyway, I can’t call these new “sun-helmet” things “sun visors” because that name is already taken by the traditional sun visors without the crazy swivel-down tinted plastic piece. So I’m calling them “solar visors.”

The whole point of this post is that China is going nuts over these solar visors. Like I said, as far as I know, they weren’t even around before this summer, and now I see them everywhere. They’re particularly popular among the bicycling crowd. Russell just got back from trips to Beijing and Sichuan, and he said they were all over there too. These solar visors are taking the country by storm. And they’re just so tacky. But practical. The Chinese go for practical.

Here are a few shots I took last Saturday of the Solar Visor Madness coursing through the streets of Shanghai these days, and, indeed, possibly all of China:

Solar Visor Madness

I hope you’re thinking, “wow, those look really ridiculous.” Because that’s the idea. It’s madness! But it’s kinda fun.

Why do the solar visors look so ridiculous on people in the street? Perhaps they remind you of something? Here are two possibilities:


Of course, it’s not the entire country that has gone mad. A lot of people stick to more traditional (and sometimes quite creative) methods of protecting themselves from the sun:


I just stick to sunglasses, myself. After taking my pictures I gave my own solar visor away to someone who would use it for more than a blog entry. It cost me 7 rmb (less than $1 US).

Have you seen these things before? If not, you probably will soon.

Update: You can buy these on Amazon.


Jul 2004

Poll: Young Thoughts — Chinese vs. American

Rainbow,” one of my former students and fellow bloggers, has recently finished a poll (survey?) of Chinese students. With the help of an American friend, she was able to provide cultural contrast, with the results nicely graphically displayed. Although the sample size was not large, the questions were well-chosen and the results are interesting. Some of my favorite questions were Can you cook, Do you have an idea now about what kind of job to do after graduation, Have you ever had an IV, and How many relationships have you been in so far. There are 20 questions in all. Have a look.

Related: Sinosplice Polls #1 (cell phones), #2 (Who is the greatest person in Chinese history?), #3 (politics, world news), #4 (bicycle, swim, car), #5 (mini-poll mania), #6 (more mini-polls).


Jul 2004

Being a Foreigner in a Small Chinese Town

Being a foreigner in a smallish Chinese town is quite an experience. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you’re a spectacle. Everything is difficult for you. Nothing goes as expected. If you can speak any Chinese, your (near-constant) audience will be amazed and enthralled. Frequently being the center of attention of a group of non-English-speaking people can really spur one to improve one’s Chinese. A foreigner in a smallish Chinese town who can speak Chinese fairly well can quite quickly become a local celebrity, even getting newspaper writeups and TV spots. A big fish in a small pond, so to speak.

My friend and ex-co-worker Shelley is one such big fish. After living in Beijing for a year, then Shanghai for over a year, his Chinese skills are impressive. He decided to take those skills and head over to Shandong province to direct an English school in Dongying, a town which certainly qualifies as “smallish.”

Shelley recently put up a website. Reading the Dongying section, I couldn’t help but be especially amused by what he wrote about the bars there:

> Dongying has a bar street that looks …interesting. Pick your favorite place, teach them how to make your drinks the way you like them, then walk in like you own the place. They’ll remember you because you’re their foreign regular, and they’ll be sure to treat you right because you’re better than a neon sign for attracting more patrons. If we make a bar our group favorite, we can tell them what music to play… and kick people out we don’t like. Does that sound imperialistic to you? Then get out of my bar.

Hangzhou was nowhere near as small as Dongying is, but the phenomenon is nevertheless very familiar to me (and very absent in Shanghai). It looks like I’ll be heading to Dongying soon on business, so I’ll have an opportunity to visit Shelley and then check out that bar street myself and relive the imperalism a bit.

(Also take a look at the nice map Shelley made of all the places he’s visited in China. Although he has done some traveling, a lot of the places were visited working for Melody, where I now work. I don’t think I’m very far behind him in number of places visited, and my job is sure to send me to more soon…. I need to make my own map!)


Jun 2004

Gui Lian

We say, “make a face.” The Chinese say, “make a ¹íÁ³.” Gui lian is kinda hard to translate literally because ¹í can mean “ghost” or “demon” or a bunch of other things. Á³ means “face.” In this case there’s no trouble understanding, though. Below are some of my students’ gui lian. (click on the image for a gallery of cute kids)


There, now some people might momentarily stop nagging for more pictures (you know who you are). I made the “Chinese Kindergarteners” photo album with the very cool Simple Viewer. It uses Flash.


Jun 2004

Qipao Parade


I’m still getting over jetlag and don’t feel like writing much. Instead, I’ll share this little qipao gallery of some of China’s famous female stars. (Note that there are 4 pages in all; the links to the other pages are at the bottom of the pages.) Notably absent is Gong Li. Also, page one is not the best of the lot.

I don’t explore these Chinese portals very much, but I was kinda surprised by some of the content put online when the media are “controlled” and the government tries to always keep a wholesome image. Some of the ones I’m talking about are the “leisure” section’s Christy Chung feature (quite bizarre, and revealing), the creative bust cover-up feature, and the Maxim gallery (gee, I wonder if Maxim’s getting those royalties…).

What’s the strategy here? Give people just enough of what they’re looking for on Chinese sites so they don’t go elsewhere and discover the immense wealth of information (AKA “porn”) out there on non-Chinese sites?

Seems to be.

Update: Micah in the comments has pointed out a similar gallery which has better, higher res images. Very nice.


Jun 2004

America Revisited

This past weekend I helped my sister Grace move into her new apartment in Atlanta. Atlanta seems like a cool city, and the area she’s living in really impressed me as being so green. Trees and grass galore. The really bad part about life in Atlanta seems to be the horrible traffic.


I hear from different people about “reverse culture shock,” a phenomenon experienced after one acclimates to a foreign culture and then returns to one’s home country. Since I’m not home to stay, but only visiting, I don’t think reverse culture shock applies in this case. But after spending almost four years in China, there are certainly aspects to life in the US of A that stand out.

There are two big ones that slam me in the face as soon as I arrive at the airport, and they can be summed up in a word each. Diversity and Obesity.

America: strength in diversity. When I taught a college-level American Society and Culture class in Hangzhou, I used to emphasize the role of diversity in American culture. It really is pervasive. It explains much of our mindset and behavior, and I think it’s something that’s hard to understand if you live in a mostly homogeneous society such as China’s. China’s “56 ethnic groups” really pale in comparison to a society built by people from all over the world.

And yet when I return to the United States and see all the different skin colors and body types, when I hear four different languages spoken within a span of five minutes and it’s nothing unusual, it doesn’t cause me to reflect upon the various achievements of such a diverse population. It just makes me feel warm and cozy inside. Because America is like that — it’s diverse — and diversity is good.

America: land of the obese. This is a topic that’s been discussed to death, but I find it so fascinating to revisit it again and again because it’s so complex. It’s about our advertising industry, our food culture, our image as a nation, our societal subcoscious. Every time I come back to the United States, I’m confronted physically by the same old question: Why the hell are Americans so damn FAT?? There’s no simple answer.

Today in the car on the way back from Atlanta, I was listening to some comedy on tape. The comedian was talking about diet programs, and one in particular that he’d like to market. It was called the “Stop Eating, You Fat Bastard” program. I have to admit, that’s largely the way I feel about the issue after having lived in China for so long.

Besides those two staples, I’ve had some other minor observations. All the greenery in Atlanta was one of them. It was so refreshing.

I am also very unused to strangers greeting me. You know, the random guy you pass on the sidewalk that looks you in the eye, and for no reason at all just gives you a “how’s it going.” In America, strangers say hi to you for no reason at all. Crazy.

And then I was eating in a deli-style restaurant with Grace on Saturday. I was almost done with my drink when I stopped to ask her, “are there free refills?”

Looking at me like I was a bit simple, she responded with, “why wouldn’t there be?” Ah, America, Land of the Free Refill, I have missed thee…

After that meal I got chastised by Grace for leaving my tray on the table. Oops.

In a week I’ll be back in a country where restaurant staff are bewildered by customers who clear their own tables.

But I don’t quite miss it… yet.


May 2004

Preparing for the Cook

Recently I decided to hire a housecleaning ayi in Shanghai. I used to hire one every two weeks or so in Hangzhou to do a thorough cleaning job of my apartment to supplement my own occasional half-hearted attempts at sanitation. It cost 8 RMB ($1) per hour, and they would usually stay for two or three hours each visit.

I’ve talked to some foreign friends in China before who feel bad about hiring someone to clean up after them in their own home, and for such a low wage. I, on the other hand, feel great about it. I don’t feel like I have a lot of spare time these days, so it’s a great way to give myself some more free time without even spending much money. Plus I’m giving someone some honest work. I don’t set the labor prices in China, and it’s not a slave wage. (For comparison, McDonalds in China only pays 3 RMB an hour to start.) Those that engage in housecleaning are usually people from other poorer parts of China who really need work. I’m nice to them and I chat with them, and I usually tidy up along with them as they clean. I see no problem with it. Win-win.

Anyway, I recently had an epiphany. I decided to hire an ayi not only to clean, but to cook for me regularly. She will come every weekday evening for 2 hours and cook a meal and clean up a bit. I will pay her 250 RMB per month, plus the cost of the meals’ ingredients.

My new ayi came tonight for the first time and cooked an awesome simple meal. Stir-fried pork strips and jiaobai (茭白: Wenlin translates this white Chinese vegetable as “water-oat shoots,” whatever that means), garlic mixi (a vegetable which is like pink-pigmented spinach; ayi said it’s written 米西), egg and tomato soup, and rice. It was really good! Not too salty, not too oily. This woman is a genius. She’s from Hubei Province. That meal was 6.2 RMB in ingredients. This new plan of mine is not only going to keep my place a lot cleaner, but I’m going to eat better and save a lot of money!

OK, so I admit I was completely lazy up until now. I never cooked at home. That means yesterday I had to buy all the ingredients for my ayi so that she could cook most dishes. In the USA, you would need to have milk, butter, salt, flour, oil, etc. So what do you need in China? This is what I bought:

  • vegetable oil (very important!!!)
  • soy sauce
  • MSG
  • salt
  • sugar
  • rice (a nice 10kg bag for 41 RMB)
  • rice vinegar

Those things are all pretty much indispensable in Chinese cooking (note: no milk or butter in that list). In addition, I also picked up:

  • black pepper
  • hot sauce
  • ketchup (the Chinese actually use it a fair amount for certain dishes)
  • jiang (some kind of soy paste)
  • starch

I also gave my ayi a list of things I hate eating so she could easily avoid them. My list was:

  • xiangcai (the vile weed cilantro)
  • animal organs
  • chicken feet
  • fish with a million harpoon-like tiny bones in them
  • thousand-year-old eggs
  • stinky tofu

Note that in each case, I determined that I didn’t like the above items after I tried them. Some of them, such as stinky tofu and cilantro, have been given many, many chances but fail miserably to meet my high standards of delectability each and every time.

Anyway, this ayi deal is looking mighty sweet.


Apr 2004

When Culture Lets Go

For this month of April, Wilson has been visiting me, staying at my place. As with any close friend, he’s more than just fun to hang out with; he provides me with new ideas to think over. He inspires me. Our conversations cover a broad range of topics, but they usually center on China. On us, and why we’re here. And on where all this is going.

After staying in Hangzhou, China for a year and a half, Wilson returned to an America he has discovered he’s pretty unsatisfied with. There’s one sentence he keeps repeating. America is culturally bankrupt.


In our many discussions, when Wilson refers to characteristics of life in the States, I can’t help but think that what he really means is life in California. California has a distinct subculture of its own, one that I associate especially closely with materialism and narcissism. But then, I’ve never really spent any time in California, and to be honest, I haven’t spent enough time in the United States in the past four years to be any real authority on current cultural trends. Regardless, one thing is clear: the lives we imagine ourselves living back in the United States right now are unfulfilling.

If it’s merely materialism we’re shunning, however, you’d think that Shanghai would be the last place either of us would want to settle. The scramble for wealth in all its forms here is nauseatingly apparent. But we don’t feel such a steely grip on our souls here. Why?

You could say that living in China has been sort of an “out of culture experience.” We have left our cultural bodies back home to float over here for a look. The result is that not only do we gain an outsider’s perspective on what’s going on in China, but we can view much more objectively what’s going on back home, and how we’re enveloped in it.

Change is unavoidable in any society. In China, it’s coming in a raging torrent, but we actually feel like we can be part of what’s directing the flow. That’s exciting. In the United States, the change feels much more sluggish, but it nevertheless seems to sweep us all away along with it, like drowning rats.

Living outside of one’s home culture just feels empowering to us. We feel much more capable of rejecting the values with which we disagree, both those from back home as well as those from China.

In spite of all these feelings, we can’t deny that it is American culture that shaped us. And we’re grateful for that. But there comes a time when you have to gather what you’ve gained and spread your wings. I like where I’ve come to rest. Like I said, the view is great.

NOTE: Those that like reading about cultural issues regarding Americans and Chinese should definitely take a look at an excellent new blog called Zai Mei Guo. It deals especially with stereotypes.


Apr 2004

When Humor Runs Aground

I think it’s pretty universally true that humor, being culturally dependent, is a tricky undertaking in a foreign language. Just supposing you have the necessary language skills to accurately communicate what you want to, the target culture may not find your “joke” the least bit funny. On the contrary, they might be offended (this has happened to me before), they might recognize you were trying to make a joke in their language and boo your lame attempt (that always happens to me in Japan), or they might just accept your statement at face value, not realizing there was any attempt at humor involved (which seems to happen to me the most in China).

I used to think that sarcasm was unknown in China. For a long time, my every attempt at it in Chinese would fail miserably, and it wasn’t due to grammar or pronunciation. Later I learned that “sarcasm” and “satire” are both translated as one Chinese word — 讽刺 (fengci) — in most dictionaries. Say what? From my perspective, this vocabulary issue pointed to a conspicuous difference in style of humor. This “no sarcasm” issue seemed to add to the “innocent Chinese” stereotype. But was my perception correct? Does such a gaping cultural divide even exist in reality?

Since coming to Shanghai, I’ve discovered that there are plenty of Chinese people that not only understand sarcasm, but find it indispensable in their daily exchanges. It’s been very refreshing. My girlfriend is one such blessed person. The thing is, she tells me that many Shanghainese feel that other Chinese are not nearly as quick-witted in their style of humor. And I know from experience that they’re less likely to “get” sarcasm.

It seems that sarcasm is most likely to “work” here in China when it’s especially exaggerated, e.g. “Oh, THANK YOU, I’m SO HAPPY!” A “wry” style of humor seems pretty much completely unappreciated here.

Here’s an example of a real incident from my workplace:

HER: What’s a good way to teach the beach lesson vocabulary?

ME: That’s easy. Just take them to the beach.

HER: But there’s no beach nearby!

ME: Stop making excuses!

HER: (whimper)

OK, I know what I said wasn’t really funny, but the point was that she took my reply seriously when I never expected her to in the first place. My second response fared no better.

A former co-worker of mine has extensive experience telling jokes to Chinese audiences in Chinese. His Chinese is quite good, and in most cases, he is able to elicit the desired chuckles. His advice to me (should I choose to carry on the torch at future training seminars) was: “When you tell a joke to a Chinese audience, you may need to make the ‘punchline’ a bit later than you would ordinarly deem necessary.”

I’ll share the joke he told me. It’s a generic “smart people, dumb people” joke, which he filled in with Chinese and Japanese for convenience (and automatic audience approval).

Two groups of foreigners were visiting the USA. One was a group of three Japanese businessmen, and the other was a group of three Chinese businessmen. They happened to be taking the same train.

The Japanese bought their three tickets, but then happened to notice that the Chinese guys behind them only bought one. They were confused by this, thinking perhaps there was a miscommunication, but decided to mind their own business and not say anything.

Once on the train, the two groups were sitting very near each other. As the ticket-taker started coming around, the Japanese watched the Chinese with interest.

Suddenly the three Chinese guys sprang up, walked down to the end of the car, and crammed into the small restroom together. When the ticket-taker came by, he could tell someone was in the restroom, so he knocked on the door, calling “TICKET.” The Chinese slid their one ticket under the door. The ticket-taker collected it and moved on, and the Chinese came out shortly thereafter and sat back down.

The Japanese were duly impressed by the crafty Chinese.

On the train ride back, as luck would have it, the same two groups wound up on the same train. The Japanese, nervously seated with one ticket among the three of them, eyed the Chinese as they entered. The Chinese didn’t seem to have a single ticket. The Japanese didn’t know what the Chinese were up to, but they were nevertheless glad they had a chance to use the new trick.

When the ticket-taker drew near, both groups headed for the restrooms. The Japanese crammed into the restroom on the right side, the Chinese crammed into the restroom on the left side.

After a few seconds, one of the Chinese quietly emerged from the restroom and headed to the one occupied by the Japanese, who were nervously waiting for the ticket-taker. The Chinese guy knocked on the door and called out “TICKET.”

The joke, in its original form, is supposed to end there. My co-worker found it wise to add the following for his Chinese audience, however:

The Japanese slid their ticket under the door. The Chinese guy grabbed it and went back into the other restroom.

Part of the appreciation of a joke is making the final connection yourself. It seems that the two cultures differ on where, exactly, that “final connection” is.

The Chinese love to crack open nuts, crabs, shrimp, turtles, etc. when they eat. They consider it part of the joy of eating. Many foreigners find it unnecessary work. Could it be that when it comes to humor, the situation is reversed?


Mar 2004

Making the Chinese Face

When I was little, it was not uncommon for kids to make the “Chinese face.” By this I mean they would pull back the skin on the sides of their faces, stretching their eyelids back, and say, “look at me! I’m Chinese!”

That was a long time ago. At that time, “Chinese” still meant “Asian” to us. Since then, I’ve learned that that kind of behavior is considered rude and offensive. I’ve also grown up.

Recently, though, something made me think of that offensive “Chinese face,” and I started to wonder… what would Chinese people think of it? So I explained to my girlfriend that it was something that American kids used to do, although now it’s considered racist (for good reasons). And then I did it for her.

She thought it was hilarious. She couldn’t stop laughing for a minute or so. When she did stop laughing, she asked me to do it again. And then promptly erupted into laughter again.

My point is not that Asian Americans are uptight. Even though my Chinese experience is very different (and much easier) than that of an Asian American growing up as a minority in the USA, I can now much better appreciate how it feels to be a minority. You become super sensitive to every little way you are treated differently, but at the same time, no one takes much notice of jibes aimed at the majority.

I think that this little experiment also demonstrates that my girlfriend wouldn’t even recognize a lot of the more subtle ways that people are racist towards Asians. Growing up in China among all Chinese, she just never came into contact with it.


Mar 2004

Foreigners' Names in Chinese and Japanese

I recently stumbled upon a fascinating article entitled Japan and China: National Character Writ Large (via Language Log) regarding the way the Chinese and Japanese languages render foreigners’ names in their own scripts. These are all things that I’ve thought about at one time or another, but it was nice to see it all brought together so succinctly.

It’s true: when I was in Japan, I had no choice about my “Japanese name.” My name was simply my English name pronounced according to Japanese phonetic limitations. There was no discussion. In China, however, choosing a Chinese name is a big deal, and it’s sort of a necessary measure for anyone staying in China very long and dealing with Chinese people frequently.

Here’s an interesting quote from the article:

“China is a big continent and has an inclination to think that it is No. 1 and that others are uncivilized,” said Minoru Shibata, a researcher at NHK, Japan’s public broadcast network. “Therefore, they feel that giving Chinese names to foreigners is doing them a favor.”

Give the article a read.


Mar 2004

UNC Buddhist Art

The reproduction of a beautiful sand mandala in the Tibetan/Nepalese Buddhist tradition by two Buddhist monks is photographed in stages at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum. Definitely worth a look. (Thanks to Cindy for the e-mail!)


Mar 2004

Advice for China Hopefuls

By “China Hopeful” I mean someone who is considering coming to China to study or teach (or whatever).

The advice I have to give isn’t as cliche as “bring deodorant” — I hope you all know that you should bring a year’s supply of deodorant if you’re planning to come live in China. It’s also not the “bring clothes if you’re tall or big” thing, because you’ll have a hard time finding clothes in your size here. It’s not even “study Chinese,” because nothing impresses upon you the importance of the issue as actually being here, immersed in the language. It’s something even harder to remedy once you’re here.

So this is my advice to you China hopefuls:

Before you come here, go to a good barber shop or salon in your home country. Go to some place that you know will do a good job. Some place that’s brightly lit. Get your haircut. Now here’s the key. After your haircut, take pictures of your freshly cut hair. From the front, from the side, from the back, the 3/4 angle, etc. Then, before you leave, get those pictures printed. Put them together on a special laminated “haircut card.” Trust me, you will use it.

I’ve been in China for close to four years, and my Chinese is pretty respectable. But how can I be expected to explain accurately in Chinese the kind of hairstyle I want when it’s not even the easiest thing in the world for me to do in English? It’s not just a translation issue. In any case, pictures help a lot.

To this day, I’ve never taken the advice above. That exlains why I keep getting bad haircuts. At least they’re cheap here.


Mar 2004

Foreign Boyfriend, Chinese Parents

I normally am not very interested in reading Chinese online. I just really can’t get interested in a lot of what’s written about. Recently, though, I found something that caught my eye. The writer is a Chinese girl with a foreign boyfriend (who is also very coincidentally named John). When she told her parents about her boyfriend, they were less than supportive. Below is a translated excerpt from the original.

> Friday, I finally mustered enough courage to tell my mom: John is my boyfriend.

> My mom was shocked, this being totally out of her realm of expectations. Without thinking she responded, “No way! Absolutely not! Your dad and I do not approve!”

> Although I had already steeled myself for her response, I never expected her attitude to be so adamant. Worriedly I asked her, “Why?”

> “He’s a foreigner. Your life backgrounds are just too different. In the future how are we supposed to communicate with him?”

> “He’s studying Chinese, so you can speak to him in Mandarin,” I said.

> My mom went on for some time, almost in tears by the end, saying, “What would you have us tell our friends? You’re not a kid anymore, why can’t you just find a nice classmate? I’m begging you!”

> I couldn’t continue the conversation with her; her words had stung me. It was as if John was her sworn enemy, who wanted to steal me from their side, never to return again.

> My mom called my dad into the room, because ever since I was little I had always listened to him the most. My mom hoped he could persuade me. Dad was calm, hoping I could consider the matter practically.

> My dad said, “You haven’t been dating John for very long at all — how can you understand him? Other than what he’s told you, you have no way of knowing about his past or his family. Westerners are too independent. Your methods of solving various problems are going to be drastically different, and your lifestyles are different. A lot of this can’t be changed over a whole lifetime. He can’t stay in China his whole life; he’ll want to leave, and he can leave any time he pleases. Then what are you going to do? There’s a whole string of problems that are going to be very hard to solve.”

> My parents love me deeply, and I’m their only child. They have put their everything into raising me, keeping me from all harm. All their hopes lie in me, and I’ve always worked hard to perfect myself. Nevertheless, their brand of subtle affection can sometimes feel suffocating. It’s like I’ve broken free from the refuge of their embrace to go explore a strange and wondrous world. I’m not my parents’ property. I should have my own life.

What strikes me most about this story, which took place in northern China, is how completely different it is from my own experience. My girlfriend’s parents’ reaction to me was not even remotely similar. They have always been warm and friendly, and talk to me like I’m a normal Chinese person. My girlfriend’s dad loves having a few beers with me. My girlfriend’s mom makes mental notes about any food I particularly like or mention liking, and next time I go to their house for dinner, it’s on the menu. I could go on and on. While I can never know how my girlfriend’s parents really feel deep down, the evidence seems to indicate that their point of view on this matter is worlds apart from the parents of this writer.

All I’m trying to say here is:

1. China is such an incredibly varied place; you get all kinds of people with all kinds of life circumstances and outlooks.
2. Shanghai is a singular phenomenon in China. There is no city like it, for so many reasons.
3. I am really incredibly lucky.

[NOTE: This excerpt has been translated and published with permission from the author. I am grateful to her for allowing me to share such a personal experience with an English-reading audience.]


Feb 2004

Translating, Lantern Festival

When I was having a hard time with my job search a few months back, I briefly considered working as a translator. I even wrote to one company and got the application packet back, which required several qualifying translations. I figured it might be a little boring, but at least I’d be learning more Chinese all day long at work, right?

Fortunately I came to my senses. However good (and perhaps necessary) it is for my language development, I hate translation. Almost always. That satori was bestowed upon me in college Japanese classes by some old chaps named Natsume Soseki, Shiga Naoya, and Honda Katsuichi (Murakami Haruki being the major exception). Ugh.

But this whole translation thing has returned. When my new employers found out that my Chinese is actually pretty decent and includes reading and writing ability, they found a special job for me. You see, the company makes educational series to teach children English. Each book in each series is accompanied by an extensive teacher guide with tips on how to teach vocabulary, how to get more senses involved in the learning process, what games to use, what “homewhork” to give, etc. Obviously, since virtually all kindergarten and primary school teachers in China are Chinese, the teacher guide is 95% Chinese. However, some schools have foreigners helping teach their English classes. The problem is that the regular Chinese teachers barely know enough English to teach the material in the books, much less to explain to the foreigners how to help teach it or what games to use. The solution? Provide English versions of those teacher guides. That’s where I come in.

OK, so I am learning some vocabulary translating this stuff. The books were written for teachers, not kids. But this is a lot of material to translate! I think it’s going to take a long, long time. I welcome interruptions.

The first major interruption is next Monday. I help the Chinese teachers teach a special class on the Lantern Festival. The Chinese Lantern Festival (元宵节 – yuan xiao jie) marks the fifteenth and final day of the Spring Festival (AKA Chinese New Year). It’s traditionally celebrated by hanging a bunch of lanterns and eating some sweet rice-dough dumplings called 汤圆 (tang yuan).

The Lantern Festival was actually today. I had my tang yuan. China.org.cn has a brief article on it. It also has a fairly easy to read article in Chinese which explains the festival in depth. [It seems like there’s nothing but griping about the Chinese news media — and most of the complaints are certainly legit — but I think China.org.cn deserves some credit. It has some good stuff, despite its expected bias. The Chinese lesson on Hangzhou made me smile, and some of these autumn pictures in Huizhou are truly amazing.]

So anyway, the long vacation is officially over, so now it’s back to slaving away. Hmmm, I wonder if I should expect 5-year-olds to be able to learn the word “lantern” in just 20 minutes…

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