Most of my friends back in the U.S. have long since ceased to write me with questions about China, other than “are you still there?! When are you coming home??” Recently, though, my friend Dan wrote me this question:
so here’s a question for you: you know how in the US 95% of the chinese food restaurants you eat at taste EXACTLY the same? i know u can find a few places that taste different, but for the most part it’s like they all use the same recipes for everything. also, the menus (both printed and up front) are almost always the same too. so my question is: is there like some business start up plan or special school in China where everyone goes to learn american style chinese cooking? and is american style really way different than authentic chinese style? cause if it is then the american ‘chinese’ food places must have learned the american style of cooking somewhere….
as you can see, a very pressing question.
Dan brings up an interesting question, but one which I’m unable to answer. Does anyone know the answer to why Chinese restaurants tend to be so uniform in the U.S.? I suppose maybe it’s quite different in California or New York….
As for the differences between authentic Chinese food and American Chinese food, I’ll make a small list here (commenters feel free to add to it).
The food in China:
is smothered in MSG
often contains lots of bones, bone fragments, and shells which must be spit out or otherwise removed
doesn’t normally encompass “beef with broccoli” (and I sure wish it did!)
includes dishes like chicken feet, pig brains, live shrimp, dog meat, and snails
usually contains no raw vegetables
doesn’t usually include any dessert but fruit (fortune cookies, being a Chinese American invention, are of course absent and almost completely unknown)
varies greatly from region to region, city to city, and restaurant to restaurant
I’m back from Japan and busy once again. It was a great trip, allowing me to catch up with old friends and have lots of great food and great beer. Unfortunately I was feeling incredibly lazy and I hardly took any pictures. The one day I wanted to take pictures — the wedding day — I got up early and was too groggy and forgot to bring my camera! D’oh! Some digital pics of that are going to be sent my way soon, though.
The wedding was really cool, and struck me as almost entirely like a Western one (and unlike a Chinese one), except that instead of having the religious service in a church, we had it in a Shinto shrine.
The bride was in a beautiful kimono, as were both mothers. The groom wore a hakama (male version of a kimono). The fathers wore dark Western suits. All the rest of the men were in black or blackish suits and light ties (except for me), and all the rest of the women were in nice dresses.
The Shinto rituals were interesting. Fortunately there wasn’t too much of the “sitting on your heels” kind of kneel-sit thing going on, because that hurts me. There was some sake drinking in the ritual. Afterward Okaasan (my Japanese homestay mom) asked me if I had understood the ritual at all. I said no. “Neither did we” was her response.
Then there were bride/groom photos and a group photo, and we all headed over to the hotel for the reception. We had a great meal which was an interesting mix of Japanese and Western food. Obaasan (my Japanese homestay grandma) didn’t want her steak so she gave it to me. Niiiiice.
Beer flowed and flowed, as everyone went around toasting each other. I got tons of omedetou (congratulations) practice in Japanese. Speeches were made intermittently throughout the meal. When mine came around I was already buzzing pretty hard, but I pulled it off pretty well. Everyone seemed to like it. It was kind of hard to write the speech because I couldn’t say anything bad about the groom at the formal reception, but the groom is kind of a crazy, gambling slacker kind of a guy. The content of my speech was basically:
Congratulations to both the bride and the groom, and all present. I lived with the Tazawas for a year and got to know the groom pretty well. When I first came to Japan I had only studied Japanese for one year, and I was completely unprepared for Kansai dialect. The groom helped me with Japanese (read: taught me bad words and funny sentences) and helped me learn about Japan in ways that you can’t learn about in books (He was in his fifth year of college when I met him, and was always skipping classes to drink, gamble, and play guitar in his rock band. His major was English, but he couldn’t speak more than a few words of it. He shattered all my preconceptions about Japanese people.). By fostering this mutual cultural understanding, he acted as a bridge (¼Ü¤±ò) between the USA and Japan. Today, in matrimony, another bridge is being forged between the two families. I’m really happy to be here to witness this, and I wish you both the best.
OK, I know the metaphor seems a bit forced, but the Japanese loved it. Shingo (homestay brother) helped me write it, so it wasn’t awkward in Japanese.
Somewhere amidst all the eating and speech-making and even karaoke (yes, in the middle of the reception, instead of a speech, some people sang), the cake was cut and the bride and groom switched into Western style formal wear. Masakazu wore a tux, and Yuki wore a red wedding dress and a nice tiara.
At the end the parents gave speeches. The bride’s father elected to sing a song to his daughter about the bittersweetness of “giving away” one’s daughter to her new husband. The bride was crying pretty hard, as was the bride’s mother. Then the groom’s parents gave speeches, and they were crying too. Obaasan (granny) was crying off and on for almost the whole reception. She was so cute. The groom didn’t cry at all, though.
After the reception there was a casual party for friends at a Chinese restuarant. The food was really good and not at all like real Chinese food. Unfortunately I was still so stuffed that I could hardly eat any of it. There were more speeches. Some of the groom’s friends’ speeches were hilarious.
The highlight was probably the massive paper-rock-scissors contest. Everyone paid 500 yen to enter, and just went through the brackets, single elimination. I was eliminated in my first match. When one guy won the pot (something like 6000 yen, around $50), the groom challenged him to one more match for all of it. The winner accepted. A big hush fell over the room, and friends of each participant whispered their psychological counsel. There was a big drum roll, and then the groom won it all, scissors over paper. He thought it was so hilarious.
One thing I definitely noticed at the party was the hot Japanese girls. The bride had some hot friends, and the groom’s friends’ girlfriends were pretty hot too. I keep trying to tell myself that Japanese girls only seem hotter than Chinese girls because of the makeup and fashionable clothes, but I have been forced to accept that Japanese girls are just hotter. I don’t think it’s because of genetics, although you definitely see some certain face types in Japan that you don’t see in China, and vice cersa. Oh well. The no make-up innocent look (China’s specialty) is cute too.
After that dinner the party moved on to a bar. It was owned by one of the groom’s friends. Definitely a cool place. The bar was a blast, but my memory of all the details is sketchy. All in all, a very fun day.
I had a great time in Japan with the Tazawas, but unfortunately I was kept busy the whole time and didn’t have time to see my other Japanese friends in the Kyoto area. Oh well… the wedding was the reason for my trip. I just hope my Japanese friends didn’t feel like I was snubbing them.
So that’s my account of the wedding. Classes start at ZUCC on September 8th, and my Chinese classes at ZUT start September 15th. This is gonna be a great semester.
It was the year 2000, and I had just arrived in China. I had very few Chinese friends at that point, but I was desperate to practice my horrible Chinese. I had ideas.
I sought out people that couldn’t speak English and couldn’t escape. My first such friends were the guards at the apartment where I lived for my first month. They just sat around in the guardhouse all day handing out newspapers, occasionally demanding toughly where cars thought they were going immediately before meekly opening the gate for them. So they were happy to talk to a walking oddity like me.
I also met a pair who worked at the 1-2-3 Taiwanese burger chain. They were cool to hang out with and talk to at night. I seemed to always come as a welcome relief, since they were bored out of their minds in the shop.
Anyway, it was in the 1-2-3 shop that I got my first good look at a counterfeit bill detector. It looked like a large plastic glasses case or something, stuck half open. You run the bills through it, and the appropriate lights tell you if the bill is real or fake. Employees are supposed to check the money when they’ve got nothing else to do. They showed me fake 100’s, 50’s, 20’s, 10’s, and yes, even 5’s (that’s just over $0.50 US). Until that time I hadn’t realized how rampant counterfeiting is in China.
Last semester I was buying snacks at the on-campus grocery store. I handed the cashier a 50. She looked at it for a second and told me it was fake. I didn’t get it for a sec. You never really expect it to happen to you. She didn’t accept the money, but she let me keep it. (Some places are required to hold on to all counterfeit money that comes into their possession.)
I showed it to my friend who works at the Bank of China. She identified it easily and pointed out to me all the little telltale signs. She also told me a few stories about some of the ways people try to scam the bank. I asked her what I should do with the fake 50. “Well, if it was me,” she said, “I’d just spend it.”
I still have that 50. I’ve kept it as a little souvenir. It’s stuck to my fridge with a magnet.
Wednesday night I was at a coffee shop (OK, I’ll admit it — yes, it was Starbucks) with some friends. Wayne, one of my co-workers here at ZUCC, was late. When he SMSed that he would be arriving late he also mentioned that he had tried to use a 100 and been told it was fake. He was sure it came to him as a part of the pay for summer work teaching at Zhejiang University. When he arrived, we talked about it a little more and decided he should take it back to the people who paid him and exchange it. They also need to know their money source isn’t completely reliable.
We later ended up eating at a dim sum place. When the bill came around, Wayne suddenly asked, “should I try to use the fake 100?” Knowing that Wayne is not always the most decisive guy in the world, I seized the moment for a little nugget of excitement. “Yeah, do it, Wayne!” I encouraged him. (It is, after all, what any ordinary Chinese person does when he gets counterfeit money.)
Feeling a little nervous, Wayne did it. We were soon on our way out, Wayne leading the way. It wasn’t until our group was just out the restaurant doors that I noticed Wayne was a little bit ahead of everyone else. He was already clear across the parking lot, rounding the corner to the street. “What is Wayne doing?” we all wondered.
When we made it to the street, we saw that the gap had widened further, as Wayne had made rapid progress down Yan’an Road in the time that it took us to get across the parking lot.
“Hey Wayne!” I yelled to him. “What’s the rush? Wait up!” He did, although clearly not without a little anxiety.
Wayne was indeed doing his best to flee the scene of the crime. He kept expecting the restaurant staff to come flying around the corner at any second. The funny thing was that I had been on a long walk down that very road the day before, and Wayne had refused to exceed a “leisurely” pace. What’s more, when Wayne was already halfway down the restaurant stairs, I watched the cashier put the hundred away without a second glance. But here was Wayne, trying his best for a compromise between a mad dash and an unconcerned stroll.
We kept joking with him about hearing the search dogs catching up, but he wasn’t fully relaxed until we walked down the block, turned the corner, and got in a cab. Even then, were we really safe…?
I guess there are still those that get excited about it, but counterfeit money is really common here. So is spending it.
OK, so I’m back. It’s good to be back. Australia was awesome, but I didn’t enjoy being so poor for the last few days. I left the country with $1.20 Australian, and not because I went on a mad shopping spree before I left. But now I’m in China, where money is plentiful again.
As some of you know, countries outside the U.S. don’t use real money. It’s not even green. Instead they use colorful “monopoly money” which can actually be exchanged for goods and services just like real money. Australia’s bills are garishly colored plastic, and dollars are cleverly disguised coins. In China the big bill gets to be pink. I enjoy using this monopoly money and playing the game both in China and Australia, but I just have a lot more of it in China.
Regardless of my monetary limitations, I had a blast in Australia. I really have to thank Ben, without whom my trip would have been impossible. He and his girlfriend Kristy put Wilson and me up in Brisbane and were wonderful hosts, even driving us to Byron Bay (pics of this are on Ben’s site).
I forgot how many people I know here in China. Last night and this morning I was positively barraged with phone calls and SMS messages. It’s good to be back among so many friends (and potential summer employers), although it’s sad to think that I don’t know when I’ll see Ben and Kristy again, or Wilson, for that matter.
I have begun my summer job. It looks like other positions may be in the works, as well as lots of Chinese lessons. I’m getting special tutoring this summer from one of the teachers where I’ll study come fall so I can place higher in my Chinese class and learn more.
OK, that’s all the boring updates you’ll get out of me for now. I just hate seeing my blog stale for so long. And so my focus once again turns to China…
It’s no secret that “clean air standards” are not real high in China. Some people complain of sore throats when they first come to China, just because of air pollution alone. Dust is no longer that distant, mysterious substance that accumulates in remote places afer several weeks. Oh, you become very familiar with dust here. I find myself not opening the window at times for “fresh air” because fresh air also means fresh dust. Dust accumulates fast here.
So the air quality is pretty bad here, by Western standards. Hanghzou air is not as bad as some places (such as Beijing), but it’s also not the “pristine garden city at one with nature” that it would have you believe. That said, don’t let your imagination go completely wild on you. I mean, if the air quality was really intolerably bad I wouldn’t still be here. One reason I’m here in Hangzhou is that the air quality is pretty good, relatively.
Now to my story. ZUCC is located at the north end of town, in a newly created school zone. Unfortunately, the north edge of town was formerly designated an industrial zone. (That means factories are officially allowed to pollute even more out here.) You can see smokestacks to the north of our campus. Usually the pollution doesn’t really seem any worse here than anywhere else in the city, but around the end of April/beginning of May, those smokestacks went to town. In the afternoon we frequently saw lots of thick smoke pouring out of the smokestacks, sometimes even accompanied by a raging flame atop the smokestack. Naturally, a lot of people at ZUCC became concerned.
The school made a formal complaint but was worried that it was being completely ignored, as pollution is often treated as business as usual here. Hangzhou, however, is a popular tourist destination with a reputation for natural beauty, so it has a little more to lose if the pollution gets out of hand. Still, as ZUCC “foreign teacher liaison,” I decided to act on my own with regards to this issue. Sometimes foreigners’ voices can have a special impact here. I wrote a polite letter to the mayor of Hangzhou requesting that actions be taken. 13 foreign teachers from ZUCC added their signatures to mine. The letter I wrote is below:
> I am a foreign teacher of English at Zhejiang University City College, located on East Zhongshan Road in Hangzhou . In writing this letter I represent a small community of foreigners from New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States, all of whom are living and teaching here.
> I write to you out of concern for my health, the health of my colleagues, and, indeed, the health of all those around me. In the past several months (April, May 2003) we have all witnessed incidents of thick smoke emitted from the smokestacks of factories to the north of our campus. Sometimes the smoke is accompanied by a large orange flame, other times it is smoke alone. When the factories emit this smoke, the air around our school becomes hazier and heavier, and a bad smell of burning permeates the area. We have photographed said smoke emissions and include the photograph with this letter. [see picture above.]
> In addition to health concerns, we also feel that this pollution will harm the development of Zhejiang University City College in that foreign visitors will be given a very poor impression of the school when such heavy pollution is evident so close to the school grounds.
> We know that China is working hard at developing its industry, but we believe that this is a serious case of air pollution that cannot be ignored. Our health, as well as the health of all the Chinese students and citizens around us, is at risk. We humbly ask that the government please take actions to curb such blatant air pollution in this area, and that it inform us of what actions have been taken.
> Thank you very much.
It may seem silly and futile to write this letter. More than one teacher who signed felt that it would do absolutely no good, but signed anyway. That’s why it’s amazing that only a month later, I learned of the actions taken by the government.
As the author of the letter, I was invited to a meeting at ZUCC along with the college vice president of general affairs and director of human resources, a regional and a municipal representative from the Chinese Bureau of Environmental Protection, the municipal foreign affairs representative, and several representatives of the factory in question. What went down is basically this.
1. Everyone got introduced.
2. Everyone got tea.
3. The Chinese EPA guy explained that during the month that the incident in question occurred, the factory actually exceeded its emissions limit and failed its inspection for the first time. As a result, it is being forced to buy and install 1,500,000 RMB (about US$183,000) particle filtering equipment. Non-compliance will result in stiff fines.
4. An account of the history of the factory was given. It is the forging plant for a motor manufacturer. It has already moved once. Hangzhou’s industrial section is being moved to the south, across the Qiantang River toward Xiaoshan, so it’ll probably have to follow suit, although this factory is not technically completely under Hangzhou’s jurisdiction.
5. Kind person gives John a simpler Chinese verion of what was just said, as it was really long and complicated with difficult vocabulary, and the guy giving it had horrible putonghua.
6. Tea refills.
7. John is asked to say something. John expresses his appreciation and pleasant surprise at having been promptly and seriously responded to.
8. Our school’s VP gave an impassioned plea for that factory to please get the hell out of here.
9. The factory spoke in its defense, saying zero pollution was impossible, the factory had a right to exist, and there was nowhere good for it to go right now.
10. A few other random pollution issues were discussed.
11. The mayor’s foreign relations representative stressed that the mayor takes environmental issues as well as foreign relations issues very seriously, and that our letter was translated and acted upon immediately after it was received.
12. The EPA guy stressed that Hangzhou takes environmental issues very seriously, and that the matter will continue to be investigated, with proper actions taken. EPA guy also passed out his card and gave us the number for a 24-hour pollution report hotline, adding that anything reported would be investigated within 30 minutes of the call.
13. Meeting adjourned, in less than an hour!
So, basically I’m surprised that such prompt action was taken. Were the actions sincere? Will anything change? That’s hard to say. But I’d say if serious actions were really to be taken, then the meeting I attended would probably be a part of it. I have hope.
It’s hot in Hangzhou now, so I’m using the air conditioning.
One way that China and Japan differ from the U.S. is that since they don’t have central air/heating, you have these little wall-mounted units that only affect one room, and they each have their own remote controls. This is convenient, I suppose, but the problem is that my A/C units often don’t read the remote control’s signal. I often have to press the button quite a few times — getting closer to the unit with every push, all the while pointing the remote directly at the sensor — to get it to work.
This isn’t a big deal, except that when you change the thermostat you never know if it really registered, because the remote registers the change in a little digital readout window regardless of whether home base received the transmission. I thought these things were supposed to give off a little beep as a “roger, we read you,” but mine never does except for when it’s turned on or off. Alas, I am in a perpetual state of agonizing room temperature uncertainty.
When I first arrived in Asia, I found the lack of central heating/air barbaric. This particularly applied to winter in Japan and summer in Hangzhou. Now, however, I can appreciate that in China I can be nice and comfortable in my air-conditioned bedroom while my other room is still sweltering. In the USA the whole house would have to be air-conditioned, and that’s a major waste of power when I’m home alone, just sitting in front of the computer.
(NOTE: If you’re really bored, check out the website of my air conditioner’s manufacturer, Midea. It’s completely ridiculous in its extravagance. Keep in mind that it’s just a home appliance company. You can even see my wall-mounted A/C unit in 3D glory! The Chinese really overuse Flash and other plugin apps.)
The main road that runs by Zhejiang University City College is East Zhoushan Road, or “Zhoushan Dong Lu,” as the natives call it. Along this road are quite a few colleges in a comparatively small space. There’s also Shuren University, and the Broadcast/Journalism School (I really don’t know what the English name is — I usually refer to it as the “fine girl school”), and some others. The road is packed with small restaurants, (legit) barber shops*, convenience stores, and other small businesses that appeal to Chinese college students.
It is on Zhoushan Dong Lu that I regularly meet with my tutee, as my school is still being ridiculously strict about who comes and goes from its premises, despite the fact that SARS is not at all a serious threat in Hangzhou anymore. The place that we meet is a small bakery/cafe. We chose it because it’s bright and the drinks are cheap. We can get 2-3 rmb drinks and have our 2-hour session there, no problem. The sleepy staff couldn’t care less.
Anyway, because our usual spot is right in the cafe window, we have a great view of the endless student parade that ambles up and down Zhoushan Dong Lu. It just so happens that the cafe we chose is right next door to a little hotel. This hotel is special for two reasons. One, it’s the closest off-campus hotel to ZUCC. Two, it offers hourly rates.
Don’t get me wrong, this is no redlight district-type hotel. In the two hours that we chat at our table in the cafe, we see all kinds of people going in and out. Many are families. But college-aged couples clearly make up a sizeable chunk of the hotel’s clientele. I know because I’ve seen quite a few either entering or leaving. Some of my former students would probably be pretty mortified to know that I have seen them go in there at around 3pm on a Sunday afternoon with their boyfriends.
But then again, maybe not.
I think in the West, we would imagine that the Chinese are rather conservative, about sex especially. This is certainly not completely wrong, even if such broad generalizations are invalid by default. Still, with modernization and globalization, Chinese society is becoming more and more “open,” as the Chinese like to say. They mean “open” in a good way, in that they can accept new ideas and ways of doing things. They also mean “open” as in “promiscuous.” I would say that Shanghai, in its flashy modernity, is definitely leading the Chinese surge in “openness,” but Beijing and the rest of developed eastern China is trying hard to keep up. Each successive generation pushes the limit a little more.
So I was thinking about the Chinese college students going to hotels on Zhoushan Dong Lu, and comparing this to American college students’ behavior. Maybe a smaller proportion of Chinese college students are sexually active (I really have no idea what the statistics are), but the Chinese students are doing something kind of noteworthy. In the USA, privacy abounds, and intimate meetings are so easy to arrange. If students share a room, there’s usually only one roommate, who can’t be there all the time. It’s a simple matter for the girl to go to the guys dorm, as well as vice versa. A lot of American college students have apartments, which offer pretty complete privacy. Furthermore, there’s absolutely nothing shameful or embarrassing about the girl going over to the guy’s place to hang out. What then goes on behind closed doors is no one else’s business, and the couple can keep their relationship as private as they want to.
Now compare that to a Chinese couple making a visit to the hourly rate hotel. They can’t hang out in the dorms, really. Guys aren’t allowed in the girls’ dorms, and girls generally don’t like hanging out in the guys’ dorms because they’re typically a mess. Since dorm rooms usually house 4-8 students, it’s pretty unheard of to get any privacy at all there. Most Chinese college students don’t have their own apartments. So if they wanna do more than the typical make-out on the campus track after dark or on a bench by West Lake, these hotels are pretty much their only choice.
Even if they tend to serve a similar function, these hotels are not like Japanese “love hotels,” where anonymity is a high priority. There’s no rear entrance. When you go in, everyone on the street sees you go in, and when you come out, everyone on the street sees you come out. Some of these people might be classmates or teachers.
So the fact that college-aged Chinese couples go to these hotels in broad daylight without any sneaking around says something about just how conservative modern Chinese are.
It’s funny, though… in class they all pretend to be such wide-eyed innocents whenever sex comes up.
It’s never quite as simple as “conservative” or “open,” and I don’t pretend to have done more than just barely scratch the surface here…
* “non-legit barbershops” being the ones full of young women in tight clothes that do all their business after dark and don’t actually cut any hair
Apparently, as a foreigner in China it is one of my duties to listen to Chinese people’s opinions about my country, its government, and the various entanglements into which it gets its military. Fortunately, this can be interesting.
Back when the war in Iraq first started (and many Chinese people actually sort of cared), a lot of Chinese people would ask my opinion. I think some of them were looking for a debate, but they generally seemed pleased that I was mostly against the war. I talked about it with my classes, and a few of these discussions turned up some very interesting information. Did you know that some people in China are saying that after Iraq comes North Korea, and then China itself? Our military sure is ambitious. It’s funny, though, how we see our government as often reckless, and our military as high-tech but not 100% competent, but the Chinese see the whole package as a brooding viper, just seething treachery.
Then today I heard something else. I was on a taxi ride home from my night class. Attendance was low due to the SARS scare reaching town, and I was just tired altogether. The taxi driver seemed friendly enough and tried to make conversation, but I sort of brushed him off with minimal replies. As school drew nearer, though, I started to feel bad for not talking to the guy a little, so I asked him if he was scared about SARS. “Of course I’m afraid!” he replied. He then went on talk about the new cases popping up, and to tell me how there was speculation that SARS is an engineered virus created by the USA to attack China! That floored me. The paranoia knows no bounds.
He also asked about the Iraq war, and if I had friends over there fighting. I told him no (although I do have a cousin there). He asked if I would fight for my country. I told him I would certainly defend my country, but I wouldn’t be too keen to fight in a war I saw as unjust. But then the taxi stopped. I had arrived at the school gate. I paid and got out.
As I walked away from the taxi, he got in one last line before he drove away. He almost sounded as if he were asking me for a personal favor.
This is one of my favorite cartoons of all time… Multi-lingual, pro-individuals’ clean air rights, anti-animal abuse — all the while taking a jab at linguistic imperialism.
So what’s the China connection? Those who have not had the privilege of coming to China may expect me to decry some foreigners’ attitudes here. Far from it. Rather than foreigners in China expecting to be spoken to in English more than they are, it is the Chinese who expect to be spoken to in English more than they are.
Sure, there are plenty of people here that don’t speak English and have no interest in it, but many Chinese people — especially college-aged — are reluctant to talk to foreigners in any language but English. Your good-natured attempts at the language are returned with a laugh and English only. I don’t want to make it seem like there are no college-aged students that are willing to talk to foreigners in Chinese. That simply wouldn’t be true. But the proportion is heavily skewed in the opposite direction, or at least much more strongly than I had ever imagined before coming here.
As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. I’m not sure, but I think this is a unique set of circumstances in the world today. The Japanese are not like that. It may be partly because the poor Japanese have a bit of a linguistic inferiority complex, but the Japanese usually seem relieved to be able to speak Japanese with a foreigner instead of having to use English. In Thailand I sure couldn’t speak much Thai, but the people were so friendly that I had a ball with my mangled phrasebook command of the language. And there are a lot of Thai people that speak good English. In my experience, Mexicans don’t feel the need to always bring it back to English either… and they know when you’re American. I’ve never been there, but in Europe English seems to be an oft-resented obligatory linguistic routine. So what’s going on in China?
The answer seems to be that the Chinese people have an intense longing to come up in the world. The government — despite its severely flawed English education system — has recognized the importance of English in our increasingly globalized, capitalistic earthly existence, and has instilled a sense of urgency in the young to learn English. True, some are trying to get out of the country, but others just want to learn it. It is because of these very circumstances that I and many others are able to easily find work in China at a university level and live comfortably here.
And yet, the whole situation can be very frustrating. People who come all the way to China to learn Chinese do not appreciate being repeatedly forced to speak English. Yes, English is now the international language, but shouldn’t Mandarin be the default language here? Also, there is sort of a natural linguistic principle which dictates that when two speakers of different languages communicate, the mode of communication settled upon will be the language that both people speak best. This means that if a Frenchman and a Spaniard meet, and the Frenchman’s Spanish is not so hot, but neither is the Spaniard’s French, but both speak English decently, communication will be conducted in English. Natural, right? Similarly, if a Chinese and an American meet, and the Chinese person speaks pretty bad English but the American speaks decent Chinese, the conversation should proceed in Chinese. Why, then, in China, is this so often not the case? At times it amounts to linguistic bullying, and it becomes clear that communication is not really the desired end.
Again, let me stress that this is not always the case, but I’d like to list two of the ruder experiences I’ve had here, which are not isolated incidents, but rather categories of incidents which occasionally are repeated:
I was speaking with a Chinese friend in Chinese in a public place. My friend didn’t speak English. A Chinese man I didn’t know approached me and engaged me in coversation in English. He refused to switch over to Chinese, even though my friend couldn’t follow the conversation. My friend and I had to leave to get away from the guy.
I was speaking to two Chinese people who approached me in English. I spoke to them in English, and then added in some Chinese. One of the people got a strange expression on his face and told me he didn’t understand. The other was like, “what do you mean you don’t understand? He said that totally clearly.” The other became flustered because his friend didn’t catch onto his fake miscomprehension trick.
In all fairness, I should bring up the idea of the “psychological block” to communication in Asia. I have had this experience in both Japan and China. Sometimes you’ll speak to a person in near-perfect (if not perfect) Chinese or Japanese, and all you’ll get is a shaking of the head and a “I don’t speak English.” These people will not listen to you at all, because when they see a white face they become absolutely convinced in their minds that communication is impossible. Often it’s the old that suffer from these psychological blocks. In one case a nearby Chinese person, incredulous, told the guy that I was speaking to him in Chinese, but the man still refused to even listen to me. Incredible. That said, I’d like to say that the second example above is not one of those cases. It was a deliberate attempt to block communication in Chinese.
Don’t get me wrong… I’m willing to speak to Chinese people in English. I also understand that the average Chinese person gets very very few opportunities to practice “real English,” and I’m always happy to speak to my students in English. It can also be very refreshing to speak to a Chinese person in English when the person speaks good English. But I certainly resent being deprived of my right to speak Chinese in China.
[Lifted from Dave’s ESL Cafe. Non-italicized, non-indented comments by me.]
So, you’re thinking of coming here to teach. Know this advance.
1) With some rare exceptions, your salary at 90% of schools will be no more that $500 US dollars a month, if that. Many schools pay far less than this. China is a poor country. Your accomodation is likely to be on par with what the Chinese themselves would have – a real shocker, by any standards.
This is mostly true. Pay is that low. Accomodations, however, can sometimes turn out to be “a real shocker” for the opposite reason. This was true for me, Wilson, and Jay Peterson (a guy I met in Yunnan).
2) Outside of the modern cities, the Chinese have disgusting personal habits and most provincial cities are filthy shitholes. The Chinese (men and women) spit everywhere and constantly. They piss on the streets and I have seen them shit behind walls. Unless you have a very strong stomach, you may find yourself throwing up. I am not making this up, by the way.
OK, this is based in truth, but it seems exaggerated. You do see public urination a few times a month if you go out, but I have yet to see public defecation.
3) By western standards, they have no ‘manners’. They push and shove. They scream ‘Hello’ at you, snigger and then run away. They stand behind you in Internet cafes – groups of them – and watch your screen. They have no concept of privacy.
Once again, based in truth, but garnished with a liberal helping of culture shock, it seems. Still, the pushing and linelessness is definitely hard to get used to.
4) North of Guanzhou (ie: 90% of China), prepare for savagely cold winters and blisteringly hot summers, untempered by humidity).
Pre-Yunnan me actually wondered if anywhere in China actually had pretty good weather year-round. Now I know.
The people are basically very kind and friendly, but not in a reserved, western way. This is a great country to experience ‘life’, but bear in mind what I’ve said. Personally, I can deal with the downside and am enjoying my experience, but many would not. Nothing personal, but my remarks are objective and I hope, helpful.
Posted: February 19, 2003
I think this is post is a good demonstration that there’s no such thing as objective remarks on China, but it’s a good read and certainly represents how a decent-sized portion of the West would view China.
Although this internet cafe in Kunming is amazingly cheap (1.5 yuan/hour, or $0.19/hour), they have a police force in here! There are these uniformed guards roaming around, looking at people’s screens! Most people in here are playing games, so they’re watching the handful that are actually surfing the net more closely. This is bizarre.
Hey, people in other parts of China — have you seen this before?? I’ve noticed that it’s not only in this internet cafe, but in all of them in this area (I’m in sort of an “internet cafe complex”).
Haha, little do they know that I’m reporting on their efforts at thought control even as they watch me! I’m gonna try to snap a pic on my way out. Let’s hope I make it!
One thing that tends to become an issue no matter what the duration of your stay in China is tissues (and various other paper product variations). Sure, in the U.S. we have a wide assortment of sanitary, disposable paper products, each created for its own particular uses. China kind of does its own thing. It goes something like this:
1. Tissues: Used mainly to blow your nose, possibly to wipe blood or something from your skin. 2. Toilet paper: Used to wipe your bum after you use the toilet. Also used as a tissue in a pinch. 3. Paper napkin: Used to wipe one’s mouth/fingers when eating. 4. Paper towels: Used to wipe up household spills, or sometimes for cleaning. Used as a paper napkin in a pinch.
1. Tissues: Used to blow your nose, to wipe blood or something from your skin, to wipe your bum after you use a public toilet, to wipe one’s mouth/fingers when eating at home, to wipe up household spills, or sometimes for cleaning. 2. Toilet paper: Used to wipe your bum after you use the toilet in a private residence. Not provided in most public restrooms. Also used as napkins in low-budget restaurants everywhere. 3. Paper napkin: Available only in certain restaurants (especially McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut); used to wipe one’s mouth/fingers when eating. 4. Paper towels: Pretty much unknown in China. There is a tissue-like version that comes in individual sheets instead of a roll. This is used much like paper towels are in the U.S.
Foreigners who visit China (especially females) quickly learn to carry little packs of tissues wherever they go. You need these if you want to use a public restroom, and they come in handy when eating, because paper napkins (even toilet paper) are not always readily dispensed to customers. Another difference is that public restrooms in China often have no mirror. Public restrooms in China often serve only their one very primitive function, and they do that at only the bare minimum of functionality.
And then sometimes your own toilet even sucks, but it’s best if I stay off that topic….
I’ve been home for about a week now. I’ve made some observations in that amount of time:
1. Clean air is good. Living in China, you get used to dirty air. But I’m just going to have to go out on a limb here and say it: I think the clean air here is better. It’s good to breathe, and it’s nice to be able to see into the distance without that distortion haze. The perfect Florida weather is a plus, too.
2. American food is good. This includes even Taco Bell. Perhaps especially Taco Bell. Those chicken quesadillas are pretty amazing for $1.99. Had spaghetti for dinner tonight. Awesome. Cheesecake the other day. Incredible. Steak dinner coming soon. Yes. I’m fatter than I’ve ever been and loving it. Mmmmm….
3. American squirrels are cuter. They’re much more abundant here, too. It’s so funny to see Chinese people go gaga over a squirrel sighting, and Chinese squirrels are not even cute! The squirrels here are cute. We’re even immune to the cuteness already. Plus they dance. Look at that guy go!
4. Liquor is expensive here. 89rmb (US$11) for a bottle of Absolut Vodka at the Metro in Hangzhou. That same bottle is $18 here. D’oh!
5. Driving fast is really fun. I don’t remember enjoying driving this much last time I was home. I hope I don’t get a ticket.
Check out those 3.5″ X 5″ real wood picture frames. Note the smooth, graceful curves of the frame on the left and the timeless straight lines of the frame on the right. Classic backing design. All three frames just 10rmb!
No, this is not a catalog. But can you believe that?! Only 10rmb (US$1.25) for all three frames. I don’t know who decided that in the USA frames are allowed to be expensive, but it’s not right!
Speaking of frames, let me change the subject to music. Recently I was investigating what music is currently popular in the States. You know, I’ve been in China for some time now, but I still maintain a scholarly interest in the evolution of contemporary American pop culture. (Ha! Actually, I was starving for new music…) I’ve been meaning to check out more Gorillaz songs off the first album (besides Clint Eastwood), so I snagged a few of those. I also saw that a new band which calls itself The Transplants has gained some popularity in the past few months, and I caught their tune Diamonds and Guns through Shoutcast.com. Man, I can’t get enough of this song! Their other songs are good too! Admittedly, I’m a Rancid fan, but this stuff is different, and good. The punk/hiphop/rap/metal fusion style reminds me a little of Gorillaz. I just wish that it wasn’t so hard for me here to come across new bands like this.
Not long ago I had an IM conversation with Alf. He’s teaching in Xinxiang, and he clearly does not have a foreign teacher community over there like I now have here. He mentioned that his friends that read his blog say that his blog is mostly just a bunch of complaints. We talked a bunch about those complaints. I post occasional complaints, but I haven’t posted many lately. I think having complaints is a natural part of living in a foreign society. I think I need to unload a few more.
First is the toilets here. The toilets ZUCC gives its foreign teachers are horrible. Yes, they are Western style. That’s not the problem. One problem is that the seat is attached with these shoddy plastic screws that break after about 4.6 seconds of actual use, resulting in a toilet seat that slides around instead of remaining respectfully fixed in place. But the real problem is the flushing. These toilets are not so good at it. There’s just no power behind the flush. It’s maddening. I feel blessed and lucky if I can go number 2 without having a big long plunge session afterwards. It wasn’t like this at first. It used to be OK (but never good), and the problem seems to have worsened over time. Now I’m plunging practically every day! I’m a teacher, dammit, not a janitor! (I would include a pic of this “toilet of the damned,” but my latest plunging efforts were a failure. I’m currently taking a break before tackling the problem with renewed vigor, and in the meantime you really do not want to see a picture of that…)
Last month the school held a special feedback session, allowing the foreign teachers to share their ideas and complaints with various departments of the school. I took it upon myself to bring up the toilet issue. They said they would handle it. Last Friday some guys came to take care of it, but after inspecting for a while they said they couldn’t do anything, that the toilets were just like that. Horrible quality. I say the school owes it to us to replace the hellspawn toilets with toilets with actual flush power. As newly appointed “foreign teacher liaison” for next semester, this will be one of the biggest items on my agenda. It will be my personal crusade. I will be the perpetual thorn in their side, quietly whispering “give us good toilets” until they either comply or go insane. I will triumph in the end.
So it’s winter now. In Hangzhou, that means it’s cold and wet. Of course, it’s not Harbin cold or anything, but many houses here don’t have heating. Also, although it rarely snows in Hangzhou, it’s so humid here that the cold penetrates. To make matters worse, a lot of Chinese people even leave the windows open in the dead of winter for “fresh” air. So how do they keep warm? They don’t. They bundle up inside as well as outside. It’s pretty horrific from a Western perspective. Fortunately, we foreign teachers have heating in our apartments, but it’s not central heating. Also, buildings are not insulated here, and leaks around windows and doors are not properly sealed. Warm air quickly leaks out if the heater is not run continuously. The Chinese way of just bundling up inside starts to make a little more sense. But we foreigners are, of course, fighting the good fight and blasting that heat for the cold nights. When you come home to a cold house and crank up the heat, it starts pouring out, but obviously, hot air rises. So as I wait for the room to heat up, I often find myself sitting at the computer, feeling the effects of an upper layer of warm air slowly pushing downward, displacing the cold air throughout the room. First my head is warm while the rest of me is still quite cold, and the border gradually moves down my torso as the rooms heats up. At first a big bedroom with a high celing seems like a great thing, but in the winter the drawbacks become chillingly apparent.
I now have a new weapon in my arsenal to combat winter here. Wilson and I recently bought heating lamps (yu ba in Chinese) for our bathroom. They pulled the ventilation fans and installed the heat lamps (which also have a built-in fan behind the heat lamp bulbs). Heat never really seems to make it into the bathroom in the winter, so these heat lamps feel like an amazing luxury.
Why can’t I access Yahoo Mail anymore? I don’t know. Even when I use a proxy server, about half the time I click on anything it can’t find the page and I have to reload. It’s really annoying. Pretty much at exactly the time this started happening, I switched over to using Outlook (I don’t like Microsoft domination, but it at least has good Asian language support, so I must succumb at last…). I randomly get these weird errors when I use Outlook. Some error with the POP connection. It’s all in Chinese and I hate it.
It’s 2002, and I’m 24. I think this is the year my metabolism finally quit. I seem to have lost the ability to eat continuously without a second’s thought of any possible consequences. I’m not as skinny as I was, and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason for it. I definitely need to exercise more, though.
Note: “Whinge” is an Australian word that means “complain.”
I thought some people might find interesting the answers I gave to some questions my dad asked me recently by e-mail:
> You know, we hear about all the neat times that you have — & we’re glad to hear about them. I’m wondering about the day to day stuff:
Sorry… It’s sometimes hard to think of what day-to-day stuff I haven’t mentioned or what might actually be interesting to you. I’ve lost some of the outsider’s perspective.
I write for my own pleasure as well as my readers’, so I tend to go light on day-to-day stuff.
> What do you have for breakfast?
Hmmm… Maybe this is why I go light on the stuff. A lot of the answers to seemingly simple questions have to be really long because of cultural differences. A lot of the things I eat are Chinese, and not available in the U.S. I sometimes eat rolls or bread, but usually a “roubing” (fried breadish stuff with meat filling in the middle) or a “danbing” (sort of a crepe with egg and chives and sauce). I usually drink milk or juice.
> What’s a typical everyday day like?
Hmmm… I don’t think there’s a “typical” day… I usually have class in the morning. I frequently eat lunch with Wilson and/or Helene or Nicola. I have to plan for class, but only in the beginning of the week. I still study Chinese. I hang out with Wilson quite a bit. Sometimes we watch DVDs at night. I go online, read and answer e-mail quite a bit. I also post new blog entries pretty frequently. Unfortunately, I don’t spend a lot of time with Chinese friends these days. I just don’t feel really close to anyone now.
> Do you eat out most meals?
> Do you cook for yourself?
> Do you guys have “pot lucks” in the dorm?
> Is your cooking a la Chinoise or a la Americaine?
It’s really hard to cook a lot of American things here. Examples… You can buy spaghetti, but the sauce is almost impossible to find at most stores in Hangzhou. Furthermore, just asking if they have it is difficult, because it’s not an item that Chinese people are familiar with. All pasta is referred to as “Italian noodles,” and if you translate “tomato sauce” it means “ketchup.”
The Chinese seem to be fond of lumping unfamiliar concepts together and then applying generalizations. Examples: “Foreigners are tall.” “Western food is bland and simple.” Some of the few American things I can make without too much hassle are ham and cheese sandwiches (only processed American cheese, though), tuna salad sandwiches, and egg salad sandwiches. Even those, though, require special (expensive) ingredients: sliced ham, cheese, mayonaise, canned tuna.
Maybe you’ll suggest I try this or try that, but the simple fact is that going shopping, then cooking, then cleaning up is a big hassle for one person. Coordinating groups efforts is also a hassle. When fully prepared Chinese food is so cheap and ubiquitous, it’s the way to go (except on special occasions).
> Do you go to movies?
No, I buy DVDs.
> Do you have a radio?
Yes, but I rarely use it.
> What kind of things can you listen to there?
I buy CDs (Western and Chinese) occasionally, but I mostly listen to MP3s.
> Do you use your computer to play music?
> Do you take buses, rickshaws, taxis, private vehicles, or Shank’s Mare to get around?
Yes, no, yes, no, and HUH?
“Rickshaws” as you probably imagine them do not really exist in modern China. They were banned by Mao. Pedicabs (big cargo tricycles) are everywhere, both for human transport as well as all kinds of cargo. I rarely ever use those, though. They’re not a whole lot faster than walking, and I’m way faster on my bike.
> Is public transportation inexpensive?
Yes. 1 or 2 yuan ($0.125 or $0.25). Taxis usually range from 10-30 yuan depending on the destination.
> Do you spend all day at church on Sundays?
> Are you still working w/ the kids at church?
No. One hour a week for kids so young seems to do nothing. They don’t retain anything.
[This is one of my first journal entries in China. Note that I no longer live in the apartment I mention in this entry…]
> I am getting eaten alive by mosquitoes here in my own apartment! It’s ironic — I felt like I had just reached a point in the last few years in the USA where mosquitoes didn’t bother me much anymore. Now I’m in China, and I guess I’m some kind of foreign delicacy. They love me! Hopefully it won’t be a year-round problem… The worst part is that they’re really smart! I’m sitting at a table now, and the only place they bite me is on my legs and feet (mostly feet), so I can’t see them, let alone kill them. Then they bite me above the waist when I’m asleep! AAAUUUGHHH!!! I’m trying to use mosquito coils (which supposedly work really well), but with no A/C, I have to use a fan all the time, and I think that kind of reduces the effectiveness of the smoke from the coils. Grrr…
> Bus rides here are really something. Sort of a surreal experience. You know how when you’re playing a video game, or watching a crazy car chase scene in a movie, and there are always certain points at which someone — a man walking, a car, a woman with a baby on a bike — pops out in front of your vehicle, just to keep it exciting? That’s what it feels like! It’s like this bus is part of a well choreographed scheme to give all the passengers a thrillride. The bus slows down only enough to miss other cars, cyclists, and pedestrians by scant inches. I hate to think what would happen if those on the street stopped behaving exactly as the others on the street expect them to. I couldn’t believe it when a man pedaled right across the path of our bus on his bike, with a baby on back, and our bus missed his back tire by a hair. Even some of the Chinese passengers were gasping. The man and baby didn’t seemed fazed.
> Taxi rides aren’t much different from bus rides, except that taxis stop a lot faster than buses and they’re a lot more maneuverable, so the same feeling of helplessness regarding impending accidents isn’t there. One time I actually got a ride with a driver who was actually CAREFUL, and it ended up being a pretty funny experience. She just seemed so out of place, braking instead of swerving, and actually yielding to the traffic that was bearing down on her from the sides.
Haha, I had to share this description of a city in southern China. It’s from a Dave’s ESL Cafe discussion board post again, by “oscar tame” this time. This guy’s evidently been in China a while (maybe too long?)…
Zhuhai – suspiciously pleasant climate, disturbingly broad visual spectrum, the ground unnervingly free of people and phlegm. the atmosphere mundane in the extreme, no swimming through and inhaling the interesting coal-and-diesel-fume soup air substitute that has been so conscientiously and considerately concocted for the inhabitants of many other cities. grim. on the plus side hong kong is very close, so one is able to quickly and conveniently unburden oneself of any excess and embarrassing money within the space of just a few hours when necessary.
Sometimes when you’re overseas you find yourself wondering why you did it. I got this from a post on a Dave’s ESL Cafe message board. I can really relate.
> Posted By: tomas
> Date: Sunday, 5 May 2002, at 4:21 p.m.
> In Response To: Is there freedom overseas? (jaj)
> Remember Janice Joplin’s words: “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. Freedom from the known is the real freedom, to lose complacancy and see things with new eyes. You (we) decided to take the road less traveled perhaps because we needed the freedom from all the noise that goes on in one’s head when involved in the aggressive business of acquiring wealth and status.
> Enjoy your humble but damn interesting life while you can, you might just end up back in the rat race. Stay alert, be here now, and stop questioning your decisions.