Over the years I’ve noticed some interesting attitudes toward public spaces here in China. One of the most perplexing, from a western perspective, is one where one’s own home is kept as pristine as possible, while public spaces are treated with much less respect. Taken to the extreme, you might even say public spaces are sometimes treated like a dumpster: littering, dumping of liquids, and worse.
What blew my mind about this “public spaces don’t need to be kept clean” (AKA “the world is your dumpster”) attitude was how clearly and finely the line can be drawn. In some cases, I’ve seen apartment residents treat the hallway right outside their own apartments with this kind of total disregard for cleanliness: stacks of garbage, leaky garbage bags, and other jetsam dumped right outside their own apartment doors. (The idea is that it will be disposed of later, either by the resident who dumped it, or by the cleaning staff of the building. In either case, the garbage is kept out of the clean home, and anyone else who has to share the hall just has to deal with it.)
But I’ve also noticed a less common phenomenon that’s kind of the opposite: claiming public spaces for personal use. To use the “public space” of the apartment hallway as an example again, a resident might discover that the building storage closet in the hallway is not normally locked, and then store some of his own (not so valuable) stuff in that closet.
I noticed a pretty weird example (not at all typical, I’m sure) of this “the world is your closet” attitude just behind my Shanghai office building. Take a look at this apartment building:
See the stuff stacked outside the window? Yes, the roof has been turned into a closet.
I’m not sure how well this works, considering how often it rains, but there you have it.
Shanghai Disneyland officially opens for business on June 16, 2016, but Disney has been making a limited number of tickets available for many weeks for “testing” purposes. I actually wasn’t planning on ever going to Shanghai Disneyland (I’m from Tampa, just an hour away from Orlando, home of Disney World), but recently everyone I know has been scoring tickets through their personal connections, and my wife was no exception. She scored some tickets through our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s pre-school connections (those guanxi start early!), so the three of us did the Shanghai Disneyland soft opening thing on a rainy May 29th. 30,000 other visitors still showed up.
I’m not going to do anything remotely approaching a full review; this is just a collection of my own random observations.
Everything Looks Nice
For now, anyway, everything looks nice, meeting the standard I would expect from Disney. I do wonder how well the park is going to wear, with a projected 60,000 visitors shuffling through the park daily once it officially opens. Still, it all looked impressive enough to inspire me to take this lame selfie:
One thing that struck me as really weird, though, is that Disney seems to be dying the water in its artificial ponds and streams. Why?? So bizarre.
The Marvel Presence
Disney owns Marvel now, and while there were no major Marvel “rides” or characters strolling the grounds, there was a “Marvel Cinematic Universe” installation. It was there that I witnessed this impressive display of American soft power:
OK, this is Disney, so expect long lines. At one point, in a very brief period of insanity, I got in line for the Tron lightcycle roller coaster even after being told the wait was 3 hours. (My wife and daughter were going to go do the Peter Pan ride.) After I was told the wait was actually 4 hours, I snapped out of it and went and joined my family for the scant two-hour wait for Peter Pan. (Hey, at least we were together!)
One thing that impressed me about Disney was the ubiquitous wheelchair access that is still fairly uncommon in China. It was good to see people in wheelchairs also getting the Disney experience.
I should mention that there is a “Fastpass” option that allows ticket holders to skip long lines if they show up for the designated ride at the right time. I had thought these were for sale in Disney World (adds a nice class struggle aspect to Disney’s lines), but in Shanghai you just have to line up to get them, until all the time slots are gone for the day. So you have to choose between lining up for hours to get on a ride and lining up for hours to get a Fastpass.
For the first half of the rainy day of waiting in lines, I was sort of regretting coming at all, but two things happened to brighten my mood. The first was a random Chinese high school kid giving me an extra Fastpass for the Tron lightcycle roller coaster. I was waiting in line, alone (the line was down to “just” two hours later in the day), and he targeted me to give away his extra Fastpass, practicing his English at the same time.
Yeah, as modern as Shanghai is, there are still plenty of inconveniences that piss off us cranky laowai residents. But then this kind of thing happens. It really improved my mood, and probably my whole opinion of the day at Disneyland.
The Tron lightcycle ride was a lot of fun.
Thanks, random Chinese high school kid!
The other thing that inexplicably brightened my mood and threw me into a bout of irrational childish glee was running into Darth Vader on patrol with two Storm Troopers. The great thing about him was not that he was tall, or that he was commanding, but that he was in character. He didn’t shake any hands or pose for any pictures. He was all business. There was a little boy trailing around behind him, dying to steal a moment of his attention. Vader brutally ignored him.
Then when Darth Vader reached an overlook, he angrily shook his fist at the park below. I liked to imagine that was him resenting his new overlord, the Disney corp.
OK, so there’s this parade everyone seems to make a big deal out of. It was almost canceled because of the rain. The parade was better than I expected, and I found the Frozen ice monster to be the highlight:
Troops of Chinese girls in blond wigs was also kind of amusing (here’s just one):
I mentioned that I’m most familair with Disney World which is, by the way, quite old already. So it was interesting to see how Disney would make use of new technology in its most modern park. The answer? Liberal use of projectors. Projected images on walls, on ceilings, on water, even on a whole castle. It works well, and it’s even quite cost effective. The final light show, which used to be mostly fireworks, now makes a whole lot more use of projectors and lasers. (Also better for the environment.)
Would I go again? No way. At 30,000 visitors, the park already felt very crowded. Lines were ridiculously long. And the projected visitor volume once it officially opens is 60,000 people. That is insane.
The sad part of this is not only that visitors will feel ripped off by their unexpected visit to LineLand, but also that the Disney staff, so carefully trained, are definitely going to have the cheery enthusiasm pounded out of them by the relentless onslaught of Chinese tourists. My wife observed how most Chinese guests coldly ignored all the Disney-style friendly greetings offered up by the staff.
I wish Disney’s famous service could be a shining example for China, but I’m not too optimistic about that.
I think we’re all familiar with the “claw crane” arcade game, whereby players are suckered into spending lots of coins trying to pluck a stuffed animal or plastic-encapsulated toy out of an enclosed box using a (very hard to control) mechanical crane.
What I’m not familiar with is seeing boxes of cigarettes as prizes (with a fairy Hello Kitty on the machine, no less). I saw this in a backstreet in Shanghai the other day:
The two main domestic cigarette brands in the box are 利群 (Liqun) and 红双喜 (Double Happiness). It’s a bottled green tea box and a instant noodle (红烧牛肉面) box propping up the fun prizes.
I was tempted to use a title like, “You think this guy is just selling watermelons, but you won’t believe what he does next!”
Anyway, on my morning commute, I passed this dejected-looking vendor, eyes downcast, as he shirtlessly watched over his truckload of watermelons. He was staring at his scale, and I imagined he was thinking about how absurd it is that this electronic device determines his income.
As I got closer, I saw what he was actually doing.
Yeah, that’s an iPad. Watermelon guy was watching some kind of drama (but due to bad luck, the screen was black right when I snapped this shot).
One thing that many non-Chinese may not realize is that the average Chinese person doesn’t really care about dragon boat races on Dragon Boat Festival. Sure, we call it “Dragon Boat Festival” in English, but the dragon boats (龙舟) are just the easiest part of the festival’s traditions to translate. In fact, Wikipedia uses the name Duanwu Festival for its English article, reflecting the Chinese name 端午节.
The most visible tradition of Duanwu Festival for me personally has always been the zongzi (粽子), those bamboo-leaf-wrapped, stuffed glutinous rice triangle-ish things. They’re quite tasty (although you might want to be careful if you have an aversion to pork fat; some of them are a little high on fat and low on meat).
One of the traditions I just recently became aware of is the Duanwu Festival use of a plant called 艾草 (Artemisia argyi in English). It’s a strongly aromatic plant, and the idea is that you hang it by the doorway of your home to ward off bugs and disease.
Apparently this tradition is not observed by young people very much (at least in Shanghai), so I’m not sure how long this particular tradition will be around. But today I snapped some pictures of (mostly old) people loading up on 艾草 at the wet market in preparation for Duanwu Festival. (Those bundles are two for 5 RMB, which to me seems to reinforce the idea that only old people buy it.) Photos below.
Here’s what a zongzi gift set looks like:
This one, sold by a Korean bakery chain that pretends to be French (巴黎贝甜), includes 12 zongzi and retails for 158 RMB. (Normally individual zongzi sell for less than 10 RMB.)
Here’s a little puzzle for you. Why is this women’s restroom labeled with the letter “C”?
Here’s another clue: the men’s room is labeled with the letter “W”.
It took me a few minutes to work this out, but eventually I solved it. It’s like this:
1. Men’s and women’s rooms in China, when the traditional “男” for “men” and “女” for “women” are abandoned for a more international feel, are often labeled simply with a letter “M” for “men” and a letter “W” for “women”.
2. Someone noticed this, but only remembered the “W” (and not what it stood for).
3. That same person knew that restrooms in China are often called “WC” (there’s even a hand gesture for it), and assumed that that’s where the “W” came from.
4. The letters “W” and “C” were arbitrarily assigned to the men’s and women’s rooms.
It makes me wonder if all the international quirkiness around us in China has a similarly comprehensible explanation.
Albert Camus was my favorite of the authors we read in high school; The Stranger (《局外人》 in Chinese) was my favorite book. Recently I was reading some of Camus’s famous quotes, and I was struck by how applicable many of them are now to modern China:
“At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”
“Culture: the cry of men in face of their destiny.”
“The society based on production is only productive, not creative.”
“The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably as clouds announce a storm.” [Uh oh…]
“Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.”
“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”
“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”
“The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants.”
“All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State.”
“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.”
“Every man needs slaves like he needs clean air. To rule is to breathe, is it not? And even the most disenfranchised get to breathe. The lowest on the social scale have their spouses or their children.”
“As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.”
“It is a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.” [Many, many Chinese people I know would whole-heartedly agree with this statement.]
“He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.”
“Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.”
In my experience, Albert Camus (阿尔贝·加缪) is not very well-known in China.
You know “the Chinese font“? The one that just screams Oriental, because it looks like it’s made out of bamboo pieces (?), mystically arranged by a wispy-bearded kung fu master?
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me remind you:
Well, the above font is one that, in my experience, you’ll be hard-pressed to find in mainland China, especially in Chinese. (Anyone out there have a different experience?) Most typed Chinese here is in one of about 4 fonts, and “Oriental” isn’t one of them. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose; the Chinese just have no reason to parody themselves.
There’s a place on the way to the AllSet office in Shanghai that actually uses the “Oriental” font, though, in Chinese. This is a rare find. Here it is:
That’s a dry cleaner’s window. The “Oriental font” is in the middle. It says, 八折价, which means “80% of the original price.”
I remember when a big new Carrefour supermarket opened down the street from my Shanghai apartment I was quite happy about it at first. The convenience! Everything I needed, including a few imports, and for reasonable prices, right down the street.
Photo by Ek Chin Tan
As it turns out, that Carrefour was too popular. It was absolutely packed, all the time. I never wanted to go into that madhouse. Eventually I learned that there were certain times when it wasn’t too bad, but that pretty much ruins the convenience factor, right?
The same is true for China’s 7-day holidays. Never mind that the whole “7 days off” thing is a sham for a second — what can you do in 7 days in China? Well, a whole lot, actually. The only problem is that so can much of the rest of the country.
After a few years of experimentation, many of us, both foreign and Chinese, try to get out of China for these 7-day holidays (if affordable tickets can be found), or to lay low and take it easy. An uneventful vacation is better than a crowded, stressful one.
It does make me wonder, though, how well this whole “excessive popularity ruins things when your population is so big” idea is sinking in, and where the problem is going to strike next. (Cars and parking seems like a safe bet.)
Happy National Day Holiday (October 1-7)! I’ll be here in Shanghai.
It wasn’t until after I’d been in China a while that I started thinking about a culture’s “default social activities.” Friends like to get together, and there’s often no special occasion, so they tend to rely on the defaults. If you’re sports fans or gamers, you might have ritual activities, but most people I knew growing up in Suburbia, USA relied on a small number of default activities:
1. Go to a movie
2. Go to a bar
3. Go to a party
4. Go bowling (or mini-golfing)
After staying in China a while, it took some time to realize that most Chinese people don’t go to movie theaters often, hardly ever go to bars, and don’t really do the party thing. Bowling only happens on rare occasions. China’s “default social activities” list looks more like this:
1. Go to dinner
2. Play cards (or mahjongg)
3. Go to karaoke
4. Play 杀人游戏 (“the murder game”)
It wasn’t until recently that I realized the status and ubiquity of the 杀人游戏 (a game usually known as “mafia” in English). A few years ago I thought it was just a fad, but I just keep hearing about it everywhere, from all kinds of people. It’s just not going away. Recently my friend Frank brought to my attention that some players in China are so fanatical about it that they join clubs (with 6000 members), and even pay to play.
Anyway, if you live in China, definitely give it a try. It’s almost certain that all your young Chinese friends know the game, and you can play it almost anywhere. If you ask me, it’s way better than cards, mahjongg, or karaoke, and if you’re learning Chinese (or your Chinese friends are learning English), it’s good fun practice.
I’m not sure how many versions are played nowadays (it’s been a while since I’ve played), but the Baidu Baike page has an extremely lengthy “version history” with tons of different roles. All you really need to get a game going, though, are the words “杀人游戏.”
I just got back from a business trip to Beijing. I was representing ChinesePod at the Hanban’s recent “Exhibitions of Resources of Confucius Institutes and World Languages.” Despite having lived in China for over 9 years, it was my first time in northern China in the winter. Here’s what I noticed:
– Chinese 暖气 (central heating) is awesome. I’m used to winters in Shanghai, to only being warm for short periods of time during the winter, to the floors being freezing for months on end… so I was not prepared for my hotel being “boxers and a t-shirt” warm the whole time. And the floors weren’t cold at all. (Now I also see why visitors from the north are so wimpy here in the winter.)
– Wow, the former Olympic Village is a desolate ghost town (but the “You and Me” theme song is still playing on a loop there). It’s such a huge space; you’d think that it would be utilized a little better post-Olympics. The exhibition I attended was in the “National Conference Center,” but drivers didn’t even know where that was; when I asked to be taken to the 国家会议中心 (National Conference Center), I was invariably taken to the nearby 国际会议中心 (International Conference Center). I guess even the massive new conference center isn’t getting much use yet.
– The world’s largest LED screen at “The Place” is impressive… but it’s kind of sad. That mall doesn’t seem to have a ton of traffic still, and the screen already has more than a few dead pixels. (The screen faces downward, by the way, and it’s only on at night.)
– When I ordered a “Hawaiian pizza” at a cafe, I got a pizza with spam, dragon fruit, banana, apple, and kiwi fruit on it. Yikes.
(Normal blogging to resume soon… Recent spottiness is due largely to lots of time spent on some “new research.”)
I’ve always been good about eating my vegetables, but coming to China was a total game-changer for me, vegetable-wise. Here were veggies I’d long since written off as “nasty,” forcing me to reevaluate them in their new oriental guise. And reevaluate I did! In the end, I found myself growing to love the Chinese version of many of the vegetables I thought I didn’t like. (It’s probably more than just the effect of MSG.)
Of course, then there are also the ones I’d never heard of or seen before coming to China. One of them even made it all the way to #1 on my list. Definitely noteworthy!
The pictures below all come from Flickr, and each photo was taken by someone other than me. Please click through to see the photo on Flickr, and comment there if you would like to praise the photographers. Anyway, in reverse order, here are the top ten vegetables China taught me to love:
10. Cauliflower (花菜)
This one was always disgusting to me in the US, unless it was drowned in cheese. Good old Chinese MSG and spices seems to take care of the issue, though!
I was reading the book Nudge recently, and this passage struck me as odd:
> Visitors to London who come from the United States or Europe have a problem being safe pedestrians. They have spent their entire lives expecting cars to come at them from the left, and their Automatic System knows to look that way. But in the United Kingdom automobiles drive on the left-hand side of the road, and so the danger often comes from the right. Many pedestrian accidents occur as a result. The city of London tries to help with good design. On many corners, especially in neighborhoods frequented by tourists, the pavement has signs that say, “Look right!” (91)
I learned to drive in high school as a 15-year-old through a driver’s ed class. The only really vivid memory I have of that class occurred in a road test. The instructor was in the passenger seat, and he had his own brake. I was stopped at a red light.
When the light turned green, I confidently stepped on the gas. The instructor immediately broke hard, giving me quite a jolt. I glanced up to see that, yes, the light was green. I turned to the instructor, expecting an explanation for his mistake. But no, he was livid.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“I’m going straight. The light’s green!” I replied.
“Did you look to see if there were any cars coming from the left or right?”
“No, but the light was green,” I insisted weakly.
“You didn’t even look, and that can get you killed. I don’t care if the light is green. You still have to look.”
The key part of the Nudge passage was this: “who come from the United States or Europe.” Drivers from those countries have very rigid expectations for pedestrian behavior. Likewise, traffic patterns are so regular and predictable that pedestrians only really need to look one way when they cross the street, no matter what they supposedly learned in driver’s ed.
It’s easy to call traffic in countries like China or Mexico chaotic and uncivilized, and there’s clearly some progress to be made, but isn’t it better for pedestrians to be putting a bit more effort into protecting their lives? Isn’t it better for drivers to be a bit more alert for unpredictable pedestrian behavior?
At the very least, I’m pretty sure after living in China, I don’t have to worry too much about crossing the street in London.
I was at a dinner, listening to the conversation of some Chinese acquaintances. At one table, two young women sat side by side. In the context of their conversation, one of the women said, pointing to the other:
The grammar of this sentence is so simple that any first semester student of Chinese can figure it out. But without the proper context, they’re probably going to conclude that one of the women was actually a transvestite: I’m female. She’s male. (She wasn’t a transvestite, and no one listening found her statement strange in the slightest.)
The two women were talking about their newborn children, when one of their friends asked what sexes the babies were. So 我是 and 她是 were easily understood to mean “my baby is” and “her baby is.” This is totally fine in Chinese.
(You also get lots of statements like this when people are ordering food… I’m beef noodles. You’re dumplings, right?)
I’m not sure what “reverse culture shock” is, really. I never feel a “shock,” or a strong sense of being out of place while I’m home in the USA. Perhaps I never go back for long enough. There are always different things that I notice, though. I’m well beyond “wow, Americans are fat” observations. This past trip, my most poignant “American” experience was on a basketball court.
I’d been meaning to practice my shot. I’ve played basketball precious little since I moved to Shanghai, years ago, and it shows.
There’s a little park with a basketball court in my parents’ neighborhood in Tampa. The park is public, but it’s usually empty. Since all I wanted to do was practice my shot, an empty court was exactly what I was looking for.
My second trip to the park was the last day of my visit. It was great to have the court all to myself while I slowly worked my shot back towards the “acceptable” range. As I felt the first few fat drops of rain, I knew that no one would be joining me.
In Florida when it rains, it rains with a sense of purpose. The rain comes down in earth-drenching torrents, but within several hours the sky is clear again. In Shanghai, on the other hand, the rain dawdles. It rains lightly, in stops and starts, for days, accomplishing little more than the creation of mud and the destruction of mood.
As the rain soaked me on the court, I felt amazingly clean. The ground looked just-washed. The rainwater in the gutter rushing to the storm drain was crystal clear. I walked home, acid-free rain in my eyes, feeling enormously satisfied.
I don’t blame China for what it is, but this combination of solitude, basketball, and rain cannot be had there.
I can recall a time when I desperately wanted to know what Chinese people around me were saying. It was perhaps narcissistic, but I suspected they were talking about me probably a lot more than they really were. When I got to the point that I could eavesdrop and understand what people were talking about, the reality was hard to accept. These people weren’t discussing me, kung fu, or even the mystic qualities of qi. They were just talking about daily life things. Like normal people. Imagine that!
So, listening in on conversations turned out to be less rewarding than I originally imagined. Still, every now and then I hear something interesting. I overheard this “newbie-level” exchange between two old men the other day on a Shanghai street as I passed by:
> Old Man 1: 你的牙齿很好！ (Your teeth are great!)
> Old Man 2: 假的！ (They’re fake!)
> Old Man 1: 假的？ (Fake?)
> Old Man 2: 假的！ (Fake!)
Yes, old Chinese men talk about old men things too!
I recall quite clearly the satisfaction I felt when I first became capable of conducting actual telephone conversations in Chinese. It made me feel I had really arrived, and I relished the achievement. It wasn’t long before some communication issues spoiled my victory, though. Chinese people were saying things to me on the phone that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing, and it didn’t seem very nice. In the end, it was all just cultural misunderstanding, but it would have been nice to be warned. That’s the point of this post.
The “not very nice” things all seemed to come at the end of phone conversations, and often from friends. It made me feel uncomfortable that my phone calls kept ending abruptly, on such unfriendly notes. It turns out that these expressions for ending phone calls are perfectly natural, though… in Chinese, of course.
So here they are, in no particular order, the “hang up lines” you might want to mentally prepare yourself for:
1. 就这样 (“That’s it.”) This one is probably the most common and the most widespread. It’s not meant to be rude, it’s just stating, in no uncertain terms: this conversation is over.
2. 我挂了 (“I’m hanging up.”) Just in case “this is it” is too subtle for your friend, this phrase should get the message across. This one is more likely to be used in informal situations.
3. 我不跟你说了 (“I’m not talking to you anymore [for now]”) Again, an informal one. To be fair, it’s a translation issue into English which kind of makes this one seem like some kind of declaration of anger. It just means “I’m done talking to you for now,” but the unfamiliar phrase in an unfamiliar language can seem a little shocking, even coming from a friend. When I first started hearing this one, I would always question whether I had said something to piss off my friend.
Once you get used to them, these blunt conversation enders do have their advantages; they empower you to swiftly end a telephone conversation that has run its course. They sure make, “well, I better get going now” seem weak in comparison.