Tag: observations


May 2004

Yangmei are back!

I’m not too keen on some of Asia’s “exotic fruits,” such as durian and lychee. There is one, however, that I love. It’s called yangmei. According to both Wenlin and my big fat awesome New Age Chinese-English Dictionary, the English name is “red bayberry.” Does that help you any? Because it tell me nothing. The New Age dictionary also tells me its scientific name: Myrica rubra. Since most of us aren’t botanists, I better supply a picture.


Yangmei make great finger food.

When in groups, yangmei are not afraid of heights.

Yangmei are about the size of a grape, and somewhat resemble a raspberry on the outside. The taste is similar to a strawberry, I think. Some are sweeter, some are sourer. The fruit is pulpier than a strawberry, and there’s a pit in the middle about the size of a cherry pit. Good stuff.

Can you buy these overseas? I’m not sure. But if you’re in China, be sure to try them if you haven’t yet. It’s once again yangmei season, and it’ll only last for the summer.


Apr 2004

Shelley in Xishuang Banna

My friend and (previously) co-worker Shelley is currently making a long trip through the parts of China he hasn’t seen yet. I’ve posted about Shelley before, because I think he’s a really good guy with a lot of appreciation for Chinese culture as well as an impressive level of Chinese attained in only two years, and with no formal classes. Anyway, Shelley recently sent out an e-mail about his experiences and reactions to Xishuang Banna in Yunnan province. I’m posting an excerpt with his permission.

> I reached the village of Manpo (Bulang ethnicity) by early afternoon on Monday and had intended to push on. But while resting in a sort of community area I struck up a conversation with a man who could speak strained Mandarin. He was busily shaving his 4-year-old son’s head as he insisted I spend the night in his home. At first I politely declined since staying in Manpo would necessitate a second night in the region, but then I wasn’t quite sure if I’d be able to find lodging elsewhere by nightfall. So I followed this man, named Ai Zhai Xiang, up to his house. (The name of every man in the village begins with “Ai”, and every woman’s name begins with “Ni.” So I’ll just refer to him as Mr. Zhai from now on.)

> Before I go on I need to mention that Americans are very well-liked in the village because the recently built school (a cement-and-white-tile eyesore on the edge of the village) was built with 70,000 RMB from an American living in Kunming. Thanks to him and the (so far) polite travelers who have passed through, Americans have an outstanding reputation in the village of Manpo. The school, like all others in China, isn’t free though. It costs 5 RMB per student per day of instruction. It’s a large asking price for these villagers but there’s no cheaper way to get a Chinese teacher out to the village. I learned from another villager that their expenses usually only total 10 RMB per month because they make everything else they need. I never learned how much they make from selling their crops.

> My first impressions of Mr. Zhai and his life were pretty heart-wrenching. Mr. Zhai introduced himself as a farmer and told me a little about the work he does. He was shirtless the whole time I was there, displaying a few scars plus a significant oblong bump the size of a pill in the center of his chest. He explained that this is some sort of tablet with his name inscribed on it that his father inserted into his chest when he was very young. This is apparently not a village-wide custom, and in fact I never quite understood why he had this tablet other than it might have something to do with being raise to be a monk. (He said he “graduated” after a few years.) Mr. Zhai also sighed about how old he was, already having a 4-year-old son and a 4-month-old daughter. I figured him to be around 30. He corrected me, “23.” Almost nonchalantly in conversation he mentioned that his children are actually his 2nd and 4th; the 1st and 3rd passed away. I also learned that the woman he introduced as his mother was actually his step-mother; his real mother passed away when he was 4. He prepared a dinner (his wife went to eat with friends) of spicy fish, scrambled eggs with a weed-like vegetable, and a coarse “red rice.” He explained it was rice from his own field, the kind that Han Chinese don’t like to eat. “They like to turn it into white rice, but I like it better this way.” We also drank this sort of clear whiskey, like Chinese baijiu, but much more foul tasting. Still we toasted with smiles. He then rolled out a mat for me to sleep on that night.

> The second wave of impressions hit me like this: Mr. Zhai said that a few nights ago 4 American women had stayed at his home for two nights. He was encouraging me to stay longer but I explained that I had to move on. He also said that he had seen me on the road earlier when he rode past on his motorcycle. First thought, “Oh that was you?” Second thought, “Oh you have a motorcycle?” Then his younger sister came in with her friends; she had just returned from “the big city” (Damenglong, not actually that big) with some new clothes and was showing them off. She and her friends could speak very clear and standard Mandarin; they study at the new school. I started to realize that Mr. Zhai, a simple farmer, was branching out into the hotel industry. I wondered if the details of his life were mentioned to invoke sympathy and a charitable donation. They may still very well be true, but he might not have otherwise mentioned them.

> These two opposing waves of impressions crashed together to leave me with the following conclusions: I’m glad that Mr. Zhai makes money from tourists. I’m even glad that in a year or two the road through Manpo and the region will likely bring loads of tourists who by that time will be greeted with gaudy hotels, souvenir kitsch, and staged ethnic dances. Sure, there’s a part of me that regrets this quiet rural village being turned into a tourist trap, but that part is the selfish traveler in me. Because life in Manpo and much of Xishuangbanna sucks, a lot. Besides the beautiful natural scenery, there wasn’t one thing there that made me want to stay longer than I had to. I didn’t find it quaint to visit poor villages, see smiling, filthy children, or meet brightly adorned, old women (who were probably only 30) bent under a load of vegetables. Because for me this was a vacation but for them it’s just life, every single day, until they die at around 50 or 60 years old. I’d rather see Manpo as a tourist hellhole instead of an impoverished one. Some might say that tourism will ruin the Bulang culture, and they’re probably right. But if adding a hospital to the village and teaching some basic hygiene (such as, after you cut up that raw chicken be sure to wash the knife before using it on those vegetables) ruins their culture then so be it. Others might say that I’m too set in my ways as a rich westerner to appreciate the simple tranquility of village life, and they would be right too. I couldn’t handle living in Manpo for the rest of my life, but it’s not because they lack a McDonalds. I really don’t know if I could work a field with only my hands and some basic tools, then live for the rest of the year off its yield. But I do know that I really don’t want to. So I was grateful for every swig of my bottled water, every photo taken with my digital camera, and especially for the seat on the bus that took me from Bulangshan (21 miles from Manpo) to the city of Jinghong. And by the way, I paid 10 RMB for the night and two meals at Mr. Zhai’s home.

Shelley will soon be moving to Shandong province where he will be the director (?) of a new English school there. He’s looking for teachers. Watch Sinosplice Jobs for more info soon.

Related: Sinosplice Yunnan pictures (including Xishuang Banna)


Mar 2004

Evil Has a New Home

Take a look at this building:

Evil's new home

I know what you’re thinking: this building radiates pure evil! What on God’s green earth could this architectural abomination be?!

Well, I’ll tell you. It’s Shanghai’s municipal PSB headquarters.

Now I’m not saying that China’s Public Security Bureau is “bad.” All I’m saying is that I think dark forces were involved in the creation of this particular structure.

But don’t just take my word for it. Amy agrees with me. But you must stand before it in the flesh for the full effect.

This building casts its shadow of fear on South Wuning Road (武宁南路).


Mar 2004

Heard at Work

Last Friday I enjoyed a number of interesting little incidents at the office.

One of the directors of the company has been visiting from Taiwan, and I overheard him chatting with someone else in our office. The director seems to take it upon himself to enlighten the mainlanders (according to the Taiwan view). I don’t want to go into specific political topics that came up, but one thing he did say was that currently airplane tickets from mainland China to Taiwan are especially cheap. Why? Because a lot of Taiwanese work in mainland China, and the Taiwanese government is trying to encourage those people to come home and vote in the March 20th election. Interesting….

I spent a good deal of my morning trying to explain to another employee here that some things just can’t be translated. You see, she had some songs that she wanted me to help her translate into Chinese. Among the lines that were giving her trouble were “itsy bitsy teeny weenie” (yellow polka dot bikini), “nick nack paddy whack” (give the dog a bone), and “Auld Lang Syne.” I’m not saying these are completely untranslatable, but they certainly require a creative translation to create the same effect in Chinese that they do in English.

Speaking of communicating linguistic principles, at noon my co-worker and I got in a debate with four girls in the office about grammar. We could hardly believe they weren’t joking at first. You see, these four girls’ contention was that the Chinese language has no grammar. Unbelievable. Their claim was that there’s no “grammar,” it’s just that Chinese people have gotten used to putting words together a certain way. (And what exactly do you think grammar is…??)

Since there were four of them that agreed to disagree with the two of us silly foreigners, they considered themselves victorious. But then at lunchtime three of them went off somwhere, and one of them ate lunch with my co-worker and me. Once we had her alone, we pounced on her (verbally) and tore her argument to shreds. That was fun. I don’t think it did any good, though.

Why would Chinese people think their language has no grammar? Is it because in elementary school they spend all the time in “Chinese class” just learning Chinese characters, and there’s no real need to cover grammar in-depth? I’m not very familiar with the curriculum of the Chinese school system at the primary level.


Mar 2004

Shanghai vs. Beijing

Shanghai and Beijing are the two most talked about cities in mainland China, and for good reason. Shanghai is the most populous city in China, a very modern economic powerhouse. Beijing is the capital, the political and cultural center of the nation. Beijing is the emperor’s seat in the north, Shanghai the giant of the south. Comparisons are inevitable.

Obviously, I now inhabit Shanghai, and I want it to fare well in an honest comparison of the two. I’ve been to Beijing twice, but not recently, and never for an extended visit. Today I discussed the matter with an American co-worker of mine. He seemed an ideal, objective observer because he lived in Beijing for a year, and now, after staying in Shanghai for a little over a year, is leaving China. He speaks good Chinese, and he’s a shrewd observer of his surroundings. Here’s the breakdown of his opinions:

Climate. Beijing is colder, but you don’t feel it too much because everyone bundles up like mad, and central heating is quite widespread. In Shanghai the buildings are built with the hot summers in mind, and there’s precious little insulation. That, combined with the people’s strong desire for “fresh air” in the middle of the winter makes Shanghai “the coldest place I’ve ever lived.”

People. Both Beijingers and the Shanghainese feel a sort of superiority toward outsiders. Nevertheless, Beijingers are widely regarded as very friendly, and any sense of superiority is exhibited only subtly. The Shanghainese are not widely regarded as friendly or as subtle in their snobbery.

Culture. Do I even have to say it? It’s all in Beijing.

Language. Beijingers speak Chinese with as much “rrrr” as possible, as if they only “speak with the throat.” Despite the superfluous R’s, Beijingers’ Chinese is quite close to the national standard. The Shanghainese, on the other hand, speak a dialect that could easily be classified as a separate (but related) language. This affects their Mandarin, making it less standard. The Shanghainese, like most places in the south, have much less “rrrr” in their speech, relying instead on other standard variants (e.g. nali instead of nar, meaning “where”).

Western Conveniences. Shanghai’s got Beijing beat hands down. Sure, Beijing has most of the products Shanghai does, but in Shanghai they’re much more readily available. Some things that you can buy in Shanghai’s convenience stores you might have to go to a specialty store for in Beijing. In addition, Shanghai has a lot more late-night and 24-hour stores.

Entertainment. Beijing’s Sanlitun is a bit better than Shanghai’s bar streets. Beijing also has a lot more cheap entertainment options. Going out on the town in Shanghai often will deplete your funds fast.

OK, I think you see the trend. Shanghai is taking a wicked beating in the comparison. I’ve heard other people say it too: “Beijing feels so home-y and special. Shanghai is a soulless concrete capitalist jungle.”

I consider myself a reasonable person. Why, then, when faced with such evidence, do I still feel that I will never even consider moving to Beijing? I want to know this for myself. I think the reasons are:

1. I’m from Florida. That’s the American south (with northern flavor). I like it. I don’t like New York or Boston accents.

When I studied in Japan, my school’s program just happened to be in Osaka — Japan’s southern giant. I like the southern Japanese dialect, and feel Tokyo’s to be boring.

When I came to China, I chose Hangzhou — partly with climate in mind, but largely because I had a Chinese friend from there. Hangzhou was my home for 3 1/2 years. It’s where I learned Mandarin Chinese.

2. I hate the “rrrr” of northern Mandarin. I can’t help it. It sounds really dumb to me. Sometimes I find it amusing (I like hearing actor Ge You talk), but I can’t really take it seriously.

I also feel that it sort of impoverishes the language. The “-r” suffix can go on the end of words ending in a vowel, -n, or -ng. When the “-r” suffix starts going everywhere, you don’t hear the original syllable ending, and it reduces linguistic diversity.

(That’s probably just a dumb rationalization for in irrational dislike of a particular accent, though.)

3. “Beijing” seems so cliche to me. “Oh, you want to learn Chinese? Then go to Beijing! The Mandarin is so standard there. Dashan studied there!”

No thanks. I think I’ll tough it out amongst the hoardes of asshole expats.

4. I like the linguistic diversity of the south. I like that the Shanghainese speak a whole separate language from their northern overlords. It’s badass. It might seem exclusionary or snobbish to you, but then you’re also probably too lazy to learn it.

Somehow, I don’t really think any of this is totally it, though. Everyone says that Beijing is better, but I’m not gonna buy it. I guess deep down, I’m just stubborn. I’m in Shanghai now.

Related Links:
Bokane.org, journal of an American Peking University student.
Kaiser Kuo, a writer in Beijing.
Ape Rifle’s Chinese city comparisons.


Mar 2004

Busful of Lonely

I finally got my passport back yesterday, so I was able to go open my new Shanghai bank account today. My first payday at my new job comes next week, so I had to be sure to get this done. I’ve been in Shanghai for over two full months without any paychecks yet. I neeeeed that first paycheck as soon as possible!

Anyway, there’s a girl in our company that makes daily runs to the bank the company uses, so I went with her. We took the bus there and back.

It wasn’t yet afternoon rush hour as we made our way back, but the bus was quite full. It was one of those long, electric buses, that works like a glorified, overloaded bumper car (usually with a little less bumping).

It wasn’t until we stopped at a light that I noticed it. There were two older men in the back of the bus chatting. They were at least half the length of the bus away from me, so my first thought was, “wow, those guys are really loud, and they’re not even talking on cell phones.”

Immediately after that, it hit me. Except for those two older men in the back, the bus was dead silent. Everyone was gripping a strap, latched onto a hand rail, nestled in a seat, just staring silently off into nothing.

And I thought, “Wow, it’s so quiet in here. This can’t last.” But it lingered on and on, those two old guys in the back the only dissenters.

“Do you realize that out of all the people on this big long bus, the only two people making any noise are those two guys in the back?” I whispered to her. I think half the bus heard me. She smiled and nodded back.

Then the bus got moving, and it was easy enough to pretend that we were all a part of the energy outside that we were careening through.

Soon thereafter some middle aged ladies got on and started talking. It even got close to a normal Chinese bus scene before we got off at our stop. I think some passengers may even have remembered they were alive.


Feb 2004

"Chinese" Tea

Last week I went to a school and taught some kids. In the few minutes before the class, I chatted with the principal. She asked if I would like a hot drink while I waited, and I gratefully accepted.

From the other room, she called out, “coffee or tea?” Tea, please, I told her. I heard another woman in the office commenting on how “foreigners like Chinese tea.”

Then the principal returned with my hot “Chinese” tea. Lipton.


Feb 2004

The gnomes, the gnomes!

Just yesterday, when I was hanging out with Michael, we were talking about apartment noise. Living in a colossus of a city, traffic is bound to create a lot of noise pollution. Fortunately, neither he nor I suffer from a very noisy apartment location.

One reason Chinese apartments can be very noisy, however, is not because of the noise from without, but rather the noise from within. When you buy a new apartment, it comes completely bare. A concrete shell. Walls, floors, everything — must be constructed. That makes a lot of noise. Hammers, drills, buzzsaws (?) — whatever. And noise travels all too well through solid objects.

Michael is in the unfortunate situation of having a lot of neighbors who are remodeling. He can never sleep in. I told him I was very lucky in that respect, because I rarely hear that kind of noise.

Well, wouldn’t you know it. I jinxed myself.

I made the difficult decision to sleep in today, but the noise started around 9am. I managed to sleep through it a while, fitfully. But it’s been going on all day! (It may be Valentine’s Day, but my girlfriend’s in L.A. I have little better to do than play Gunbound.)

It sounds like there’s a little team of friggin’ gnomes behind my walls, eagerly tap-tap-tapping their way into my room. First they were trying to come into my bathroom from the ceiling. Then they were behind the kitchen wall. Now they want to break in behind my bedboard.

Damn gnomes. I have no choice but to blast my music.


Nov 2003

Clear Skies

I think Hangzhou is a great city as Chinese cities go, but one of the things I really don’t like very much about it is the weather. Particularly the winter weather, not because it’s cold but because it’s basically just rain, rain, rain. Hence my last post, which was basically an elaborate “I hate puddles” whine.

That’s why I am really happy about our weather of late. It’s winter already, but the weather’s great, and doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. Loving it. (Too bad it’s causing a drought.)

Click for Hangzhou Weather (weather.com)


Nov 2003

Uncooperative Water

Water flows downhill. This is a simple fact that has been pretty well mastered by the average 8-year-old. Yet somehow it seems to elude Chinese civil engineers. I speak, of course, of the deplorable condition of drainage engineering in Hangzhou. That “the things we take for granted back home just don’t apply here” is a tired, worn-out cliche, but we’re talking about the most basic principles of physics here. Water flows downhill. Place drains in low points, and the water will “magically” drain into them. Is that hard? I don’t know, maybe it actually is. But looking at the drains around my campus, they seem to be almost randomly placed. You know something is wrong when huge puddles and big thirsty drains live side by side in perfect harmony.

Here are some good examples of uselessly placed drains:

Pictures of water on the ZUCC campus not flowing anywhere:

Granted, none of the puddles are really deep. The pavement is reasonably flat. But it doesn’t really drain. If there is an absolute deluge, then the water will find the drains. That seems to be the guiding principle, though, instead of good old “water flows downhill.”

The greatest part is how the stubborn puddles are taken care of. Grounds maintenance staff sweep them into the drains. Yes, they sweep the water. With a broom. (Sorry, I didn’t manage to get a picture of that.)

Come on, China, you’ve got a space program now, for crying out loud. Let’s see a little better display of your mastery of gravity.


Nov 2003

Muzimei Correction

I made an erroneous assumption regarding “Muzimei” in my recent post about having a cold. Rainbow called me on it. I checked up on it (sort of). Today in my class of 27 college kids (aged 19-20), only 3 had ever even heard of Muzimei. Three! So my “all Chinese people know about her” comment was way off. If the majority of these web-surfing college kids don’t know who she is, then my exaggeration was out of line. Oops, my bad.

Maybe that 27 person sample was somehow ridiculously unrepresentative of Chinese youth, but I really don’t care that much to look into it. Up until today, every Chinese person I mentioned Muzimei to knew who she was (including my Chinese class teacher).

Regardless, China bloggers are going to town over Muzimei. Danwei is grabbing all the stories in Chinese media, the Gweilo is rejecting her, and Brainysmurf is covering it all.


Nov 2003

Wang's Observations

I have a Chinese teacher whose last name is Wang. All her students call her “Wang Laoshi” (laoshi means “teacher”), according to Chinese custom. She teaches my HSK prep class. Since the class only meets once a week for two hours, I see less of her than most of my other teachers, but I feel like I know her much better than the others. For one thing, I’ve known her longer. She tutored me for about half a year during my first year in China. For another, she seems much more straightforward about her feelings than a lot of Chinese people I meet.

Last week she shared with the HSK class a problem she’s been having with another class. She says her current intermediate level Chinese class is simply not willing to talk. At all. When she asks the class if someone can make a sentence using the new word, the whole class just stares down at their books, not daring to make eye contact. She waits patiently and encourages them, to no avail. If she asks a single person, she gets the same response. Trying to get just one sentence out of them is like pulling teeth. Even when she simply asks the class if they understand, she can’t get an answer. The only time the students show definite signs of life is when she writes on the chalkboard. They all magically spring into action, jotting everything down neatly in their notebooks. They seem to prefer it when she simply talks and writes, but that’s really boring for her, and not the most effective teaching method, either.
Wang Laoshi said that in the past she lost her temper and berated the students for their overly passive attitudes, which seemed to help the situation for a while. This semester, however, almost all her students are girls, and she doesn’t want to upset them.

So what’s with this class? Well, for one thing, they’re almost all Korean. Wang Laoshi asked the Korean students in the HSK prep class why they thought her intermediate level students were so incorrigibly passive. The Korean students reponded that it was because of their culture — the traditional Confucian style of education.

Wang Laoshi didn’t buy that. She said that Chinese students weren’t like that. That really made me smile, because I don’t think Wang Laoshi knows how passive Chinese students can be in an English class taught by a foreigner. Still, though, the way she described her students made them more inactive than any Chinese students I’ve ever taught.

Wang Laoshi’s observations on international students of Chinese were thus:

  1. Students from Western countries are much more active in the classroom. Wang Laoshi prefers there to be at least a few students from Europe or the Americas to liven up the atmosphere.
  2. Students from Western countries want to spend classtime mastering a few grammar patterns so that they can feel confident about their usage.
  3. Asian students want to cover as many grammar patterns as possible in class, and review them on their own.

Another thing I think Wang Laoshi doesn’t realize is that a lot of Chinese teachers don’t encourage class participation so much. I think some of the other Chinese teachers wouldn’t be so bothered by the lifelessness of her students. It just disappoints me that an excellent teacher like Wang Laoshi is wasted on such undeserving grammar sponges.


Nov 2003

Just "Box"

I understand that northern China has already received a fair bit of snowfall, but it wasn’t until this past weekend that winter finally announced its presence in Hangzhou. Not that it’s really cold now, but it’s beginning.
One of the telltale signs that winter is here is that “iceboxes” become just “boxes.” In restaurants and some grocery stores the Chinese unplug their refrigerators in the winter and simply use them as storage! It makes sense, I guess, but it still seems strange when you come from a country that dutifully wastes that refrigerator electricity all winter long. (Oh yeah, I forgot — we also have the strange custom of keeping buildings warm inside in the winter.)
Of course, drinks often aren’t kept cold even during the summer here. Newcomers from the West — if nothing else — quickly learn the Chinese word “bing de” for when they order drinks. Cold. You know you’ve been in China too long when you forget to ask for a cold beer but then drink the warm one anyway. Or even worse — when you don’t really care anymore whether it’s cold or not.


Nov 2003

Who's Ed?

A while ago I got an e-mail from a friend teaching not far from Hangzhou, in Shaoxing. Some of the veteran China blog readers might remember her from Shutty.net (R.I.P.). Hers was one of the original 10 or so blogs listed when I first started the China Blog List. Anyway, here’s an excerpt from what she wrote me:

as for me, i learned two new characters this week. ping and yin. meaning taste and print. only because i like ping. i see it all over and think “3 boxes, now that’s a good character. easy on the eyes. memorable. wonderful.” so i asked the kids and they provided answers. not without taking the piss first of course. and yin is because i always think in certain styles of font, it looks like “ED” which is my dad’s name. and i see that one everywhere too. when i told my kids the reason, it sent one girl into hysterics for the next 15 minutes. is it so hard to believe it looks like “ED”? it does!

I rather agree with her. It does look like “ED.”
A note about “ping” though. Many southern Chinese dialects don’t contain the “-ng” final, so when southerners speak Mandarin they often mispronounce that final. Some southerners know they have the southern accent and don’t care; others actively pursue a more standard accent. Some of them pull it off with flying colors, but others never quite do. In fact, some southerners not only pronounce the “-ng” final as “-n” sometimes, but they hypercorrect as well. They pronounce “-n” as “-ng,” trying to sound more “standard,” when “-n” was the correct sound in the first place. I think this was the case with “ping” above. It should be “pin.”

Despite the nonstandard elements of southern Mandarin (also, s/sh, c/ch, z/zh go undistinguished, all passing as s, c, z, respectively), I still think the south is a good place to learn Mandarin for the conscientious learner. It can be a little annoying to not be able to trust native speakers about the pinyin spellings of characters, but soon you learn that when a southern person says “zi” it could very well be “zhi” in standard Mandarin. Thus, learning Mandarin here — and comprehending Mandarin here — requires a greater deal of mental flexibility. I think it’s worth the extra effort, too. I can understand southern Mandarin easily, and that makes deciphering the full-on dialects easier. The best part is that when I go to Beijing, people sound like their speech came straight out of the audio tapes that accompany Chinese textbooks. It’s so crystal clear and easy to understand. It feels like the training weights strapped to my legs have finally been removed. The less standard elements of Beijing dialect take a little getting used to, but I feel it’s not very difficult.

Despite the relative ease in comprehension of northern Mandarin, though, there’s something comforting about being back south, surrounded by “substandard” speech. It feels realer somehow. To me, anyway, it feels more like home.


Nov 2003

This is how it is

– I –
A Chinese friend of mine was telling me that she went to see her cousin across town last weekend. He has just moved to Hangzhou to start college. I asked her if he was skinny and loved computer games. She looked surprised. “How did you know?”
– II –
Unusual circumstances caused me to head over to the cafeteria today at 4:45pm for dinner. No, that’s not at all too early. Dinner must start being served at 4:30pm, or even 4. Every meal seems to be eaten earlier than its Western counterpart. Breakfast at 7, lunch at 11, dinner at 5.
Westerners in China usually continue to eat lunch at 12, dinner at 6 or 7, and sometimes even skip breakfast (to the Chinese’s horror). This is actually kind of nice because the crowds are smaller. If you eat dinner at 5, your Western co-workers jibe you with a “you’re not turning Chinese, are you?”
What I gained from eating at 4:45pm was good, hot food. I forgot what a difference it makes when you get it freshly prepared rather than an hour and a half later.
– III –
A co-worker of one of my friends is afraid she’s pregnant. The girl told my friend that she and her boyfriend never use any kind of contraception. They don’t even practice coitus interruptus. The girl is 18, and her boyfriend a few years older. I feel that this is not so uncommon.


Oct 2003


I’ll be the first to admit that Chinese are some of the most caring, dedicated parents in the world, willing to sacrifice anything for their children. But they also go to the opposite extreme as well, from time to time. I took the picture below yesterday, on the streets of Hangzhou, while riding my bike.

(c) 2003, John Pasden

Doesn’t this lady realize that any sudden stop will send her precious baby careening into the busy street? There was actually much more traffic than it seems from this picture. She was going through busy intersections like this. Also, what you can’t see is the baby seat on the back of her bike, which she elected not to use in her infinite wisdom.

Later I felt kind of guilty for taking pictures of her but not pointing out how dangerous what she was doing was.


Oct 2003

The Anti-Apple

Recently one of my students presented an interesting gift to me from her hometown, Jiaxing (¼ÎÐË). It’s a kind of “fruit” (?) called líng (Áâ) in Chinese. According to my New Age Chinese-English Dictionary, it’s called a “water caltrop” or a “ling” in English. In any case, when she kindly gave me this plant-like alien-spawn, I had no idea what the heck it was.

Below are some pictures I took of the ling.


The first thing you have to do is get the green outer skin off the ling. It seemed to me that the best way to do that would be breaking the ling in half, and then proceed to peel from the rupture. I promptly did so, which earned me a disapproving frown from my student. Oh well, it worked. (Apparently the Chinese way to start peeling is to bite into the bitter outer skin and begin at that point.)

Once you get the skin off, you’re left with this little white lump. It kind of looks like a piece of peeled apple. Then you pop it in your mouth and chew, and discover it has the exact texture and consistentcy of a crisp apple… but none of the sweetness. So instead of that tart appley flavor, you get an almost water chestnut-like eating experience. It’s rather odd.

Thanks go to my student for introducing me to a new weird food. (I suppose I should mention she’s the same student who once wrote extensively for the now defunct ZUCC Blog and now maintains her own blog.)


Oct 2003

Too much DNA

I didn’t have my usual Intensive Reading Chinese class today. Yesterday in class someone from the administration came and passed out special letters of invitation to the “First China Zhejiang Academic Festival” (首届中国浙江学术节). We were told if we went our taxi fares would be reimbursed, and we’d get a free lunch. We all decided to go.

Last week I was walking near West Lake with Russell and we passed a huge lavish meeting hall-type building. We weren’t sure exactly what it was. It turned out to be the Provincial People’s Congress Hall (浙江省人民大会堂), and that’s where the “Academic Festival” was. Today I showed up 10 minutes late and was greeted on the steps of the building and given a ticket and a special pass to wear around my neck (it said “特邀代表证”). Then I was ushered to my seat along with a classmate who happened to show up at the same time.

A word about the Congress Hall. It is massive. Lavish. Lush. Evidently no ordinary four walls and a roof will do when it comes to determining the will of the people. It’s like that place was built just to make painfully apparent the point that the government is squandering the people’s money on displays of opulence. (That said, it was cool to be there for an official function once and to have a “specially invited representative” pass.)

I was seated on the ground floor of the “show room,” but there were balconies on the second and third level which could be accessed by escalator. There were massive video screens on either side of the stage, showing a zoomed-in view of the “important” people seated on stage. This was their day to shine, to blab on and on about boring crap. You know they’re bullshitting when you hear them mention the “Three Represents” over and over.

The “award ceremony” was kinda amusing. This troop of girls in red qipao was parading around with plaques, handing them to the appropriate recipients. At one point sashes were handed out to outstanding scientists, but there weren’t enough to go around, and one guy didn’t get one, on stage, in front of everyone. Some Chinese guy behind me was calling out loudly and repeatledy, “HA! They’re short one!” Tactful.

Next the main speaker launched into an intensely boring and long-winded talk on DNA. I really don’t get it. Why was he talking about DNA? The talk was too basic for anyone in the field of biology, but a little too in-depth for anyone not. The guy was going on and on about Watson, Crick, Franklin, and Pauling, and all the details of the discovery of DNA’s double helical structure. It would have been interesting to hear a 5-minute talk on the subject, as I was familiar with it (my major freshman year of college was microbiology — I once wanted to go into geneetic engineering) and it was kinda interesting to hear it in Chinese, but this guy went on for an hour and a half with his neverending PowerPoint presentation! People were nodding off left and right. I did my best to keep my own drowsiness from getting too obvious, but I think I failed.

The talk did provide lots of vocabulary. I got to hear words like “double helix” and “cytoplasm” and “chromosome” in Chinese. Word of the day: 蛋白质 – protein. As you might expect, the word came up again and again, and I just think it’s a funny word. “Protein” in Chinese, translated literally into English, is “egg white essence.” That’s kinda funny in itself, but I can’t help also associating it with 蛋黄南瓜, a Chinese dish made with pumpkin and egg yolk (“egg yolk” translated literally from Chinese is “egg yellow”).

What redeemed the entire ordeal was the meal afterward. It was in a nice restaurant, and it was really good. Crab, shrimp, mussels, chicken, duck, tofu, asparagus, lotus, dates, nuts, and other stuff I can’t remember — all really good. Also, the waitresses had this habit of refilling my wine glass pretty fast, so I was well on my way to very happy by noon! I had to teach class at 1:30. I was very cheerful in class.


Sep 2003

West Lake & Beer

Last night Russell, Greg, John B, and I took the two new Aussies to West Lake. West Lake’s Nanxian (南线) area, newly renovated, looks very nice at night. If you’ve been to West Lake before but not recently, you have no idea what you’re missing. The newly renovated section, Xixian (西线), is opening for the National Day vacation throngs, and it’s also supposed to be very nice, in the old school traditional Chinese style. I’ll go check it out after the tourist crowds depart and put some pictures up (something I haven’t done in quite a long time, as Wilson kindly pointed out to me).

After checking out West Lake at night, we headed over to a very cheap bar I know of. The name is 西部小镇; Old West Town is their translation. There’s a cowboy hat on the sign. It’s in a prime location, in a string of little bars right next to West Lake. It’s not a great bar. It’s very loud, and the music is always bad. The bar serves little more than beer, despite the plethora of Western liquors on display. The bartender’s job is basically to pull out more beers and open them. The one saving grace of this bar is its beer special: 3 West Lake beers for 10rmb ($1.25). West Lake Beer is not the greatest beer in the world, but it’s always so cheap that in Hangzhou I find myself drinking it more than any other beer. Apparently it’s owned by Asahi now.

So we did what so many Chinese people do in bars — drink and play a dice game called chui niu (吹牛). It’s this game where everyone has a cup of 5 dice, and you have to estimate how many of a given number there are out there, under everyone’s cups. Ones are wild. Bluffing is key. It’s a fun game, but not quite fun enough to warrant its popularity in China, in my opinion. Anyway, it was good for the new Aussies, Ben and Simonne, because we played it in Chinese and they got their numbers down (kinda). We left a little while after the bar ran out of cold beers.

On the way to West Lake, I was given this flyer:

> Restaurant Bar Club
Nothing Comes from Nothing.
Nothing comes from Nothing.

> In celebration Z Bar begins a new chapter, in a new city
that mix our minds and drinks our souls.
We stamped the ground and strung the lights to launch this new theme Restaurant-Bar-Club of modern artistry.
Experience the sight, the sound, the taste,
the energy —
We welcome you to experience our

I think English in China is getting better…


Sep 2003


Here’s a little gem in a newly discovered blog I found through Matt:

But, then, on the street, while listening to a child with her father, I realized something peculiar about learning a foreign language (especially Chinese). You strain to overhear two stranger’s conversation, you delight in what a child says to his/her parents, and each time you understand you’re excited. The most mundane conversations — “No, I’m not hungry,” “Where do we get off,” “Mama, I don’t want to leave” — become sources of delight. In your mother-tongue this all becomes background clutter, but to the struggling beginner it’s pure gold. Reaffirmation that today you’re better off than yesterday.

It’s so true. I remember those days quite clearly. It’s still true for me sometimes; there’s just something charming about a little kid speaking a foreign language natively….

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