Tag: culture


16

Apr 2013

Chinese Numbers: Where 4 Meets 6

This post is leading up to another longer post on how the Chinese write numbers. I don’t mean the Chinese character numbers (、etc.); I’m talking about the numbers we call Arabic numerals. In China, they can occasionally be written pretty differently from what an American like me is used to.

An example to prove the point:

6-4

I won’t post my own observations in this blog post. Feel free to contribute your own interpretations in the comments (and tell us where you’re from), and, more importantly, ask your Chinese friends to do it and post those results too.

I’ve done this little experiment with a number of people, Chinese and non-, and have gotten surprisingly varied replies (but with some identifiable patterns).


If you enjoy this kind of thing, be sure to check out Sinoglot’s classic Bowl, Plate, Plowl.


09

Apr 2013

Your Little Sister Is Popular

Over the past year or so the expression 你妹 (literally, “your little sister”) is pretty popular. You might guess that it’s kind of dirty, based on other common vulgar phrases involving mothers or grandmothers, and you’d be kind of right. It’s clearly not a polite phrase, but it seems to be more often used in a flippant way among friends rather than a vulgar way to start fights.

One of the means by which the phrase 你妹 is getting more exposure is through the crazy popular new game “找你妹” (literally, “Look for Your Little Sister,” although that’s not how the name is really understood). I first noticed this game a couple weeks ago while riding public transportation. I’m seeing it played on iPhones and iPads everywhere around Shanghai. It’s especially interesting to me because it looks so lame, despite being so popular. You basically scroll through a bunch of little drawings of objects, and click on the ones you’re told to find. Whee.

It looks like this:

找你妹

找你妹

There’s even a video on YouTube about how a kid played 找你妹 all night and went blind. (Well, I guess there are allegedly more embarrassing ways to go blind…) You can see footage of the game in action in parts of the clip:

As for the recent upsurge in usage of the phrase 你妹, it’s kind of interesting, and Baidu offers an explanation (in Chinese, of course). I’m not going to try to explain it because I’m not personally super familiar with all the nuances of its usage yet, but this is exactly the type of situation where having a group of young Chinese teachers on staff comes in super handy, so I’m going to have to get into this topic in the AllSet Learning office. (Anyone interested in it or have a link to an explanation as good or better than Baidu’s? The other explanations I could find were a bit lacking.)


22

Mar 2013

Classroom Culture Clash

Untitled

photo by LeeTobey

A friend in Beijing recently reported an exchange with his Chinese tutor to me that went something like this (embellished by my own imagination and translated into English):

> Friend: So today I’d like to talk about the air quality in Beijing.

> Tutor: I really don’t want to talk about that. You foreigners come to China, and all you want to talk about is how bad the air is, or how the food is unsafe. There’s really a lot more we could talk about. China is an immense country with a long history and rich culture. We don’t even have to talk about China. There’s so much more we could talk about than just complaining about the air quality here.

> Friend: I’m hiring you to help me improve my Chinese, and I want to talk about Beijing’s terrible air quality. So that’s what we’re talking about today.

> Tutor:

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the greatest tutoring session. But just that little piece of dialog recounted by my friend contained quite a few layers of cultural expectations. (A thoroughly enjoyable exchange, from my perspective!)


01

Feb 2013

China’s Iron Man

Recently the WeChat app was kind enough to alert me to this news story:

> 发改委副主任刘铁男被立案调查

Iron-Man

This, as you know, is an apolitical blog, and stories like this are among the least interesting to me personally. But this guy’s name demands to be noticed. His name is 刘铁男. That’s “Liu Iron Man.” His parents named him “Iron Man.” That’s kind of awesome. I haven’t been forced to take notice of a name like this since I discovered the lovely lass named 黄雪 (“Yellow Snow“).

At this point, I’d also like to give a shout out to a friend who goes by the name of 铁蛋 (“Iron Eggs,” i.e. “Iron Balls”).

Who says you can’t have fun with a Chinese name?


29

Jan 2013

The Shrinking List of Things You Can’t Buy in China

I remember my list of things I needed to buy on my trips back to the States used to be something like this:

1. Shoes (I’m size 13)
2. Pants/jeans (I got some long legs)
3. Deodorant (I like Speed Stick)
4. Anti-diarrhea pills (there are some things you never totally get used to…)

Nowadays you can find almost everything on Taobao, though. I forgot to get deodorant on my last trip home, but thanks to Taobao, I think I can cross it off the list anyway:

Speed Stick on Taobao

Same goes for item #1:

Size 13 Shoes on Taobao

I’m not going to buy my pants on Taobao (yet), and I haven’t seen the type of anti-diarrhea pills you can get in the States here (when you need ’em, you need ’em!), but I imagine it’s just a matter of time before “the list” is gone completely.

Food aside, what items are still on your list? (And run a search on Taobao before posting your reply!)


29

Nov 2012

Japanese Fortune Cookies in China

As most of us in China know, fortune cookies are not a Chinese thing. They’re an American thing. ChinesePod just recently did a lesson on American Chinese Food, and user he2xu4 linked to this TED talk which gives more detail on the issue: Jennifer 8. Lee hunts for General Tso. (ChinesePod also once did a lesson on the fact that you can’t get fortune cookies in China.)

The thing is, it looks like now you can get fortune cookies in China. I took this photo in my local Carrefour supermarket:

Chinese Fortune Cookies!

OK, so it was in the “imported foods” section (they seem to be from Japan), but the packaging is in simplified Chinese. They come in two flavors: “cream” and “chocolate.” It says on the package: 装密语签语饼干, which means something like “Secret-containing Fortune Cookies.”

Probably the best thing about these fortune cookies, though, is that they feature Pac-Man. The Japanese may have had the invention of fortune cookies stolen by the Chinese in the United States, but at least as they introduce fortune cookies to mainland China they’re sneaking Japan’s home-grown video game icon into the mix!


28

Sep 2012

Morphing Mooncake Madness

As Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (中秋节) approaches (this year it’s September 30th), there is a lot of mooncake buying going on in Shanghai. It’s still a tradition to buy mooncakes (月饼), and although some people like them, a lot of the mooncake purchases are for clients, employees, etc. But exactly what the mooncakes are is changing quite a bit, and some of the new forms (like Haagen Dazs’s) have a bit more hope of appealing to younger palates. The traditional recipes are getting cast by the wayside more and more, it seems, as modern corporations muscle in on the holiday market.

Over the past month, I’ve taken various snapshots of the current state of mooncake commercialism.

Just to be clear, we can see the type of traditional mooncake that young Chinese people don’t like much anymore in this Christine ad:

Mooncake Madness

Mooncake Madness

The demand is still fairly strong, and there have been mooncake lines going around Shanghai’s Jing’an Temple for at least a month. But you’ll notice that most of the people buying them are middle-aged or older.

Mooncake Madness

Mooncake Madness

Mooncake Madness

Here’s a Hong Kong mooncake trying to do a more modern take:

Hong Kong Moon Cakes

Haagen Dazs seems to be championing the idea, “if people are going to keep buying mooncakes, let’s give them tasty, pricey alternatives.” And it’s the most visible “traditional mooncake alternative” this year:

Mooncake Madness

Mooncake Madness

I’m really expecting traditional mooncakes to become something of a rarity over the next 20 years.


14

May 2012

China Ammo for argumentum ad antiquitam

The summer between 7th and 8th grade, I went to a somewhat unusual “nerd camp.” I attended a 6-week “enrichment course” at the University of Tampa entitled “Logic and Critical Thinking.” We covered quite thoroughly the different types of logical syllogisms and logical fallacies. It was a singularly eye-opening experience for me, as many of the arguments I’d heard many times before were suddenly and for the first time exposed for what they were. In another sense, it was a new form of power. Adults rule the world, but they’re not above logic. Being able to identify logical fallacies in the arguments of politicians, teachers, and even parents was a potent little trick indeed!

Recently I read the book How to How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic, which is basically a rundown of various types of fallacies, how to recognize them, how to defend against them, and even how to effectively employ them if you need to.

While a good read and quite entertaining in parts, many examples used in the book probably make more sense to a British audience than an American one. It also feels a little outdated at times, such as this passage on the argumentum ad antiquitam (“appeal to tradition”) fallacy and how it relates to China (links and bold added by me):

> Students of political philosophy recognize in the argumentum ad antiquitam the central core of the arguments of Edmund Burke. Put at its simplest, it is the fallacy of supposing that something is good or right simply because it is old.

>> This is the way it’s always been done, and this is the way we’ll continue to do it.

>> (It brought poverty and misery before, and it will do so again…)

> There is nothing in the age of a belief or an assertion which alone makes it right. At its simplest, the ad antiquitam is a habit which economizes on thought. It shows the way in which things are done, with no need for difficult decision-making. At its most elevated, it is a philosophy. Previous generations did it this way and they survived; so will we. The fallacy is embellished by talk of continuity and our contemplation of the familiar.

> […]

> Skilful use of the ad antiquitam requires a detailed knowledge of China. The reason is simple. Chinese civilization has gone on for so long, and has covered so many different provinces, that almost everything has been tried at one time or another. Your knowledge will enable you to point out that what you are advocating has a respectable antiquity in the Shin Shan province, and there it brought peace, tranquillity of mind and fulfilment for centuries.

Hmmm, “Shin Shan Province,” eh? The use of “province” in two different senses in one paragraph is a little confusing, but I would guess that “Shin Shan” is supposed to be “Shanxi” or “Shaanxi.” Anyway, I suspect that even when dealing in fallacies and tradition, it’s still a good idea to use the name of a province that actually exists.

It’s true, though, that China is still a treasure trove for bullshit purveyors of all kinds, whether it’s China’s mystical past, mystical writing system, mystical vocabulary (“crisis” = “danger” + “opportunity,” anyone?), or mystical traditions. I’m curious if my readers have run into many China-centered argumentum ad antiquitam fallacies out there.


02

May 2012

Peking Opera Masks

Recently Brendan put up a post called Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair on the new “Beijing Avengers” group blog, Rectified.name. It’s an insightful take on how contemporary Chinese literature is being represented (and not represented) abroad.

I especially enjoyed the explanation toward the end of his use of “Peking Opera masks”:

peking-opera-masks

> A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.)

Oh yes… you better believe that plenty of Chinese study materials out there are rife with Peking Opera maskery.

(Note: Just in case you have a burning desire to discuss Peking Opera masks in Chinese, these masks are usually referred to as 脸谱 or 京剧脸谱 in Mandarin.)


30

Apr 2012

Mike Sui’s Video

A half-Chinese, half-American actor by the name of Mike Sui (Mike ) has been making quite a stir on Weibo and on the Chinese web with his recent video in which he plays the part of 12 different nationalities/personalities. He does various accents in both English and Chinese (and he’s clearly fluent in both). My favorite is the Taiwanese one (starting at around 7 minutes). Take a look if you haven’t seen it already:

(More details about the video and the Chinese reaction are on ChinaSMACK.)

Interestingly, the video is being promoted in a way that refers to him as a 老外 (foreigner), but Mike is clearly half Chinese, and speaks both English and Chinese natively (or very close to natively). According to various Chinese sources (here’s one), Mike’s dad is a Beijinger and his mom is American. That still counts as 老外?


13

Apr 2012

The Perils of “This Week” and “Next Week”

Sometimes Chinese seems to warp the fabric of space-time. It’s true; culture can warp our perception of reality with Sapir-Whorfian aplomb. I exaggerate, though; I’m talking about interpretations of the phrase “this week.”

At the crux of the matter is the fact that the Western American week starts on Sunday (星期天), whereas the Chinese week starts on Monday (星期一). Most of the time this causes no problems… Unless you’re trying to make plans for the next 7 days on a Sunday. This is such a simple matter; it shouldn’t be so confusing. But if you forget that this discrepancy exists, misunderstandings abound. It’s embarrassing, but I admit: even after all this time in China, if I’m careless in my thinking, I still make this mistake occasionally. (The key is that one doesn’t often make plans for the coming week on a Sunday.)

Here are some diagrams to make the issue clearer:

Understanding "next week" in English

Understanding "next week" in Chinese

So, in the examples above, if I say “这个星期三” on a Sunday, thinking I’m referring to the coming Wednesday (May 9th), I’m actually referring to the past Wednesday (May 2nd).

OK, now here’s the annoying part (for us native speakers of American English): the Chinese way is more logical. Here’s how it works:

1. If you refer to any day of last week (even if it’s yesterday, technically), you use 上个.

2. If you refer to any day of this week (Monday through Sunday, even days already past), you use 这个. It just means, strictly, “of this week.” No ambiguity.

3. If you refer to any day of next week (even if it’s tomorrow, technically), you use 下个.

As long as you remember that the week starts on Monday and not Sunday, it’s all very consistent and logical. The reason this is confusing to non-native speakers like me is that the system that we use in American English is kind of a mess. I hear that many British speakers follow rules that are basically the same as the Chinese ones, but I know from experience that the system used in the USA is much more muddled (examples here, here, and here).

OK, it’s not actually that hard. I’m not trying to add a new item to “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.” But it’s a pretty bewildering experience when it happens to you the first time. The joys of intercultural exchange!

Update: In the original post I said “Western” when I should have said “American.” Apologies for the inaccuracies. The point of the post still holds true (particularly for us Americans).


28

Mar 2012

Awesome Speech Habits of Americans

I’ve been slowly reading through Professor Orlando Kelm‘s book, When we are the foreigners: What Chinese think about working with Americans, and right in the first chapter I was highly amused by this passage:

> Recently, Mr. Jorgensen has been working closely with Xiaoliu Li, the human resources manager for TPC China. Upon entering her office, an aura of competence is immediately apparent. Young, pretty, polished, professional, and easy to engage in conversation, Xiaoliu Li gives the impression that she loves her job. In fact, Mr. Jorgensen usually introduces her to others by saying, “I’d like you to meet our highly competent human resources manager Xiaoliu Li.” Almost sheepishly, she acknowledges the the introduction, always noticing, however, how extraordinary it is to hear “highly competent” when making an introduction. Those types of phrases are, in fact, one of her observations about Americans. “You Americans think everything is great, wonderful, fantastic, amazing, cool, or awesome.” Not only do Americans think everything is awesome; they also say so, using these terms in both casual and formal conversations. That style of speech and feedback seems out of place among Chinese. “Chinese aren’t prone to use those types of words when describing people,” observes Xiaoliu Li, “much less when directly talking to them.” Basically, My. Jorgensen is oblivious to the effect of the way he uses vocabulary. To him, it’s just a matter of having a positive attitude.

My wife has made almost exactly the same observation. She claims that it’s hard to know what Americans really feel about something because everything is “great” or “awesome” or “amazing.” (This is, of course, the opposite of what is often said about the Chinese, who always seem to be “hiding their true feelings,” forever inscrutable to most foreigners.) So to her, it’s not that Americans “think everything is awesome,” it’s that they say everything is awesome, which can, in her mind, only be construed as (at least a mild form of) insincerity. So I guess that’s what we Americans get for being positive and enthusiastic about life: suspicion of insincerity!

Anyway, I’m enjoying this book, because instead of trying to make blanket statements about culture, it takes the case study approach and shares real people’s views on real incidents. (Now if only I had more time to read…)


23

Mar 2012

Ramen by Infographic

I was introduced to this ramen infographic recently by the creator.

Ramen (ラーメン) is actually Japanese, but it has (somewhat unclear) historical connections to Chinese noodles, which could possibly be either lamian (拉面) or lo mein (撈麵 / 捞面).

We Love Ramen Infographic
Created by: HackCollege.com


Interview with Rachel Guo of No Drama Real China

15

Mar 2012

Interview with Rachel Guo of No Drama Real China

Everyone seems to really enjoy No Drama Real China, so I thought I’d follow up my last post with an interview of the creator, Rachel Guo


John: What inspired you to start No Drama Real China?

No Drama Real China host Rachel Guo

Rachel: It’s a long story. My very first trip to America was on July 7, 2011, and the first thing that surprised me the moment I stepped out of JFK airport in New York was how familiar everything was to me! Yes, I watched too many American movies, TV shows, and everything for years, and I even have a little bit of an American accent. What a powerful soft power! And after 40 days of travel in New York, D.C, Seattle, LA, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and a small town two hours from the Canadian border in Washington, I found the other thing that SURPRISED me was that many Americans know so little about China, they asked me questions like:

– “Are there highways in China?”
– “How do you come here? Yes, i know by plane, but HOW?!!”
– “I heard a story that many Chinese families saved money for years so they finally could afford a refrigerator, but then the refrigerators they bought all broke after a while. So the Minister of the Labor Department ran into the refrigerator factory and shot the factory director because they produced bad quality products.”

There’s a lot of drama surrounding China, but where does it all come from? Form the media, American newspapers, and the Internet, which focuses on attracting attention to China’s problems and abnormal things. Some people see one drop of the ocean and think it IS the ocean. It’s not their fault; they don’t get to watch Chinese TV like us Chinese watch American TV, because most Chinese movies and TV shows suck, and the government channels are too cliche. I really want to show something normal to people who want to know a real China, not through a colored lens, no slant, no drama… Oh there WILL be some drama, of course–drama is a part of reality–but not all of it.

John: How long have you been doing No Drama Real China?

Rachel: In September 2011, i bought a small camera and got started.

John: What are your plans for the show, if it becomes more and more successful?

Rachel: 1) Make the program better and broader. If it gets successful, which means there will be sponsors and volunteers, or i can afford to hire somebody, I will get voices from all over the country, which will make it more real. If I could get some better equipment, I could make the production quality better too.

2) Make the program more diverse and more targeted. My group could do interviews in a particular region in China, or focus on particular issues (still no politics though), or do documentary videos, always keeping the style of putting real people’s real lives and real voices in front of the camera, with as little explanation or interpretation as possible. Because once I talk it’ll become subjective, the people will become the way I see them.

3) Use the program to collect data for cultural and commercial research. Maybe it could be a tool for consulting.

4) Actually I just want to keep doing what I believe in and see where it goes. Life always surprises me!

John: Can you describe the process you go through when creating a new episode?

Rachel: Collect questions, interview people, edit, translate, put music in, make an intro video, sometimes I need to find or make some extra material (like the Beat It! Dance). Then, upload, AND THEN do a little marketing. That’s something… it’s so difficult to get people interested in my interviews while sex and drugs stuff get people’s attention. Many thanks to my friends and friends’ friends who helped me a lot by sharing my videos.

John: Are all those people you interview your friends? If not, how did you approach them? (How do you know the old lady?)

No Drama Real China host Rachel Guo

Rachel: Those are my friends, family, people I meet everywhere in my social life, and some random strangers too.
Again, thanks to my friends who support me and introduce people of different occupations to me to interview. It’s so difficult to get strangers to be open to you in China, to be natural in front of the camera, and to share their real feelings. For example, when I travel on the train everyone is stuck together in a small space, so I can do a small warm-up and explain what I am doing, win some trust, and then interview.

The old lady who is a little deaf is my grandma. 🙂

John: Is there a way to submit questions for the show?

Rachel: People usually leave their questions in the comment sections on the ND/RC YouTube page, I check it every day and answer every comment. I’ve also just started a FaceBook page, so please join me there too! I think a lot about the questions people give me; it’s really very helpful. I hope I can have more ways to reach people, so people will feel its easy and fun to ask questions.

John: Is there anything else you’d like to say to your non-Chinese viewers?

Rachel: This channel is actually made for non-Chinese viewers. That’s why it’s on YouTube. I want to say THANK YOU to all people who appreciate it and share it. Your words, your suggestions, your questions and ideas are the greatest support for me. One of my friends works in the U.S. State Department, and he says it’s so difficult to make the right decisions for America-China-Asia issues, because the media only shows the drama, some voters are misled, and they don’t see how important this is. I want everybody to try not to be part of the problem but the solution. That’s what I also want to say to people who hate my program: PLEASE always give truth another chance!

John: 有没有什么想对中国观众说的话? [Is there anything you want to say to your Chinese viewers?]

Rachel: 多谢大家的支持,相信懂得汉语的观众朋友们会看到画面背后更多有趣的信息。欢迎参与与分享。 [Thank you, everyone, for your support. I’m sure viewers that understand Chinese will notice that there are even more interesting details behind the videos. You’re welcome to participate and share.]


06

Mar 2012

No Drama, Real China

A friend of a friend has started a new video series in Beijing called No Drama Real China. The host is a Chinese girl named Rachel Guo. The concept is simple: ask a cross-section of Beijing’s population some interesting questions related to Chinese culture, and present the hodge-podge of answers in all its heterogeneous glory for the benefit of cross-cultural understanding (so, with subtitles, obviously). The result is interesting, funny, and perhaps even educational (especially for all you students of Chinese).

Here are some of my favorites:

Are Chinese People Rich?

Is China a Superpower?

What Are Chinese People Afraid Of?

For the linguistically sensitive, this next one has Rachel dropping what appears to be a few strangely out of place gratuitous F-bombs, but apparently she’s quoting a rather rude online user:

Do Chinese People Eat Everything???

(The video above also has a particularly amusing scene where the old lady can’t seem to understand the clear Chinese of the interviewer.)

No Drama Real China shows a lot of promise! Please have a look at these videos. If you can’t access YouTube, there are also a few on Youku.

Keep up the good work, Rachel!


31

Jan 2012

Three Simple Uses of the Other “Ma” on a Bag

I recently wrote about my personal experience with the particle (not ), and how a dictionary entry helped me get a feel for how the particle is used. That dictionary entry, again, is from the Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary (blog post here):

Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary (2nd Ed.)

> : ma (助) 1 [used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious]: 这样做是不对~! Of course it was acting improperly! 孩子总是孩子~! Children are children! 2 [used within a sentence to mark a pause]: 你~,就不用亲自去了。 As for you, I don’t think you have to go in person.

Not too long ago, I encountered this little coin purse/bag, which offers three very concise uses of our particle :

Money is for spending

The text is as follows (broken into three lines to make it easier to discuss):

> 1:

> 2:

> 3:

OK, now clearly, this is the same particle. But what does this actually mean??

First, “” means something like, “it’s money,” as in, “we all know what money is, and what it’s for.” This could also have been expressed more verbosely by: “” or even as: “就是” (“isn’t it just money”??).

Second, “” quite simply means, “it’s (made out of) paper (as we all know).” Duh. “It’s just paper.” This usage is basically the same as the first.

Last, we have “,” which is slightly different because it’s a verb. Still the idea is quite similar. It’s for spending. You might translate this into English as, “so just spend it!” Another way to put it in Chinese would be, “” (if you feel like spending it, just spend it).

The words on this bag strike me as a Shanghainese, female way of looking at money. But maybe that’s because the bag belonged to a girl I know…


Related Grammar Links:

Expressing the Self-Evident with 嘛 (Chinese Grammar Wiki link)


10

Jan 2012

Dashan on Why Foreigners Hate Dashan

anti-Dashan

After reading this post on Quora, I’m now quite convinced that no one has given the question of “why (western) foreigners hate Dashan so much” as much thought as Mark Rowswell, the man behind Dashan (大山).

I should warn you: the entire answer is quite long, but it’s worth a read. Mark breaks it down into these parts:

  1. Overuse – People are sick and tired of hearing the name “Dashan”;
  2. Resentment (Part A) – Dashan’s not the only Westerner who speaks Chinese fluently;
  3. Resentment (Part B) – Being a foreign resident in China is not easy and Dashan gets all the breaks;
  4. Political/Cultural – People wish Dashan had more of an edge; [I found Mark’s reasons for Dashan’s lack of an edge especially interesting, since they relate to a Chinese tendency toward sensitivity to foreign criticism]
  5. Stereotyping – The assumption that Dashan is a performing monkey.

Looks to me like people can quit asking this question. That’s the answer. But I also feel like we’re getting this definitive answer at a time when all the hubbub about Dashan has finally started to die down.


29

Dec 2011

Shanghai’s Christmas Tourists

The Church

This year I attended the 8pm Christmas Eve mass at the St. Ignatius cathedral in Xujiahui, Shanghai. It reminded me why I normally don’t go to Christmas Eve masses in China. In short, it’s a zoo.

The reason is that Christmas Eve has become a popular holiday in Shanghai, although it’s mainly a date holiday. Traffic was horrible that evening, as couples all went out in search of a romantic winter evening. Many of them went to churches out of curiosity, to see how Christmas is celebrated there.

I imagine the “Christmas tourists” that wound up at Catholic churches were a little bored. Yes, there’s a choir singing Christmas music, but it’s still a Catholic mass, and not a Christmas program. (As I understand it, some other denominations do special Christmas programs to cater to the seasonal tourists.)

For the Catholic Church, it’s certainly a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the church has a rare opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience actively seeking out what it has to offer. (Christian churches are not allowed to actively evangelize in China, so if it’s done at all, it’s normally done quite subtly.) On the other hand, the Catholic Church is there for the faithful, and the Christmas tourists really are a bit of an obstacle to normal worship.

Some examples of how the Christmas tourist disrupt the mass:

– The tourists wander all throughout the church throughout the mass, often talking in loud voices
– The tourists take photos (with flash) and video all throughout the mass, often holding the device up high, distracting everyone
– The tourists take up good seats in a standing-room-only situation, but then try to leave the packed church after 20 minutes when they get bored
– The tourists outnumber the believers, so the priest tends to direct the sermon at them, capitalizing on the opportunity
– The tourists try to receive Holy Communion, even though the priest patiently and politely explains that it’s not for visitors, requiring the priest and eucharistic ministers to do a sort of mini-interrogation to anyone in the communion line that looks suspicious (and they’re surprisingly good at spotting the faking faithful!)

It’s the last one that bothers me the most. In China there’s a serious lack of respect for religion. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given China’s history, but it’s quite startling to be presented with the fact in this way. It also makes me reflect on modern foreigners’ behavior in Buddhist temples (how bad are we?), but I honestly can’t think of anything I’ve ever seen that feels as bad as trying to receive Holy Communion after being specifically asked not to (in one’s native tongue).

Here’s one tourist’s account (from Weibo), which offers a nice (more respectful) perspective:

> 奔波的一天最终归于平静~第二个教堂平安夜,徐家汇天主教堂真的很美,典型的哥特建筑,宏伟壮观,空灵的圣歌,神圣的仪式…就是人太多,挤死了~信仰果真是一种强大的力量。跟着做弥撒时神父在我头上点了几下,没有给我圣体吃,而那些基督徒们在咀嚼圣体时怀着怎样一颗敬畏感动的心~安~

Here’s a rough translation:

> A busy day eventually ended peacefully… My second Christmas Eve at a church. The Xujiahui Catholic Church is really beautiful, with classic gothic architecture, really magnificent, lovely hymns, and a holy ceremony… But there were just too many people; it was super crowded. Faith is indeed a powerful force. Following along in the mass, the priest nodded at me several times, but didn’t give me the Eucharist to eat. But those Christians chewing on the Eucharist were filled with some kind of reverent emotion. Peace.

I assume the priest “nodding” at her was him giving her a blessing. Any non-Catholic can go up in the Communion line and get a blessing, but they’re supposed to cross their arms to signal that they’re not there to receive the Eucharist.

Anyway, lesson learned… next year I won’t be going on Christmas Eve again!


01

Dec 2011

Nicki Minaj’s Chinese Tattoo

Nicki Minaj has one of the more interesting Chinese tattoos out there. It’s not particularly pretty (it was clearly not the ink work of a Chinese calligrapher!), but the traditional characters are correct mostly correct and legible. The tattoo:

Nicki-Minaj-Tattoo

It means “God is with you.”

The tattoo uses traditional Chinese characters:

> 上帝

Here’s the simplified character version (it only differs by one character):

> 上帝

And pinyin:

> Shàngdì yǔ nǐ cháng zài

The grammar, though, seems a little strange to me. The sentence I’m used to hearing (at Catholic churches in China) is:

> 上帝同在

同在 is just a fancy way to say “to be with.” So what’s up with 常在? You’re probably used to taking on the meaning of “often,” “frequent,” or “usually,” as in 常常, 经常, 通常, 平常, etc. “God is usually with you” certainly doesn’t seem like the most confidence-insiring blessing.

Here, though, is used more to refer to a “normal,” unchanging, continuous state. So although neither this sentence nor the Catholic version is everyday Chinese, they both make sense.

When I asked my wife for her impressions on Nicki Minaj’s tattoo, she made the following comments:

– Those characters look like they were written by a poorly-educated elementary school student.
– She should have chosen simplified characters; less ink is less pain.
– Foreigners’ Chinese character tattoos are like our stupid English t-shirts. But at least we can take off the t-shirts whenever we want.


28

Nov 2011

Black Hole for Smart Slackers

Kaiser Kuo posted an article about Beijing last month, entitled Peking Purgatory, Is Beijing a Black Hole For Smart Slackers?

While the article is about Beijing, this paragraph definitely reminded me of some of the things I’ve also felt about Shanghai:

> Beijing, after all, has much going for it in these heady days. Possibilities abound. Opportunity knocks. There’s a buzz here, a palpable energy. It’s a city with edge, full of quirky characters doing interesting things. Change is the one all-pervasive constant. The Beijing zeitgeist is a shape-shifting polymorph, the city a suitable setting for self-reinvention. It’s impossibly big and yet it offers the intimate charms of a small town – that sense of community that many of us found missing back home.

Those that have taken root in Beijing probably might be forgiven for assuming that this feeling is not to be had in Shanghai. I’d say the main difference is that Shanghai is not “impossibly big.” Part of its charm is that the “downtown” city area (obviously, Pudong is not included) is actually relatively small.

But “black hole for smart slackers…” aptly put.



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