Tag: personal


Jul 2007

Questions for Yao Ming, and Other Tall People

A friend of mine is supposed to interview Yao Ming next weekend here in Shanghai. The Yao Ming.

He’s a famous guy, so I can understand if she feels a little nervous about interviewing him. Since I have a lot of experience in China and being tall, I thought I’d help her out a bit. These are the questions tall people love to be asked that she can ask Yao Ming:

1. How tall are you?
2. Do you play basketball?
3. What size shoe do you wear?
4. How’s the weather up there?

(Well, 3 out of 4 is not bad.)

I know what you’re thinking: those are the exact same questions we’d ask a non-Chinese tall guy! Amazing, isn’t it? Some facets of human nature know no cultural bounds.


Jul 2007

Do these DVDs look pirated to you?


Actually, the movies above were not pirated. They were purchased in Carrefour, a reputable grocery store, for about 20 RMB each. My point is… how can you tell?

A lawyer friend of mine recently visited China. He wouldn’t buy any pirated DVDs because he had heard horror stories of a friend of a friend trying to bring back fifty DVDs and getting busted by U.S. Customs, and fined something like $1,000 per DVD. Scary.

But if I bought fifty of these legit DVDs at Carrefour and tried to take them back home, how would customs know they’re not fake? You can buy pirated DVD-9 DVDs that look just like these. The way I see it, you’d have to show your Carrefour receipt. Your faded, blurry scrap of paper written all in Chinese. Would that really work?

And if it did work, does that mean that all you need to get your DVDs through customs is a receipt? Those would not be hard to produce. Something doesn’t fit.

Does anyone really get busted for bringing pirated DVDs back into the States? If so, can one also get through with legitimate Chinese DVDs? I really wonder this.


Jun 2007

100% Married

As of yesterday, I am 100% married. I had been “half married” for a year. Honestly, I think it was great to do it this way. We had plenty of time to get used to the idea of being married. I’m usually for jumping into the deep end rather than slowly wading into the shallow end, but in this case I liked it.

My whole family is still here in Shanghai for another week, so expect light posting.


May 2007

How I Learned Chinese (part 2)

So I’ve already explained how I arrived in China with a decent foundation in grammar and characters, but some problems with my pronunciation. So what happened next?

Well, first I should explain my initial attitude. Two years previously I had had a great experience studying Japanese in Osaka. I enjoyed the process of learning a new language in a foreign society so much that doing it all over again had become central to my post-graduation plan. So when I arrived in Hangzhou I was very eager to get out there and try out my Chinese.

I immediately ran into two major problems. Overcoming those two problems were key to my early progress in China.

Problem 1: Pronunciation

OK, so I already knew when I arrived that my pronunciation wasn’t great. I knew I got tones wrong sometimes. I knew I had been fudging Mandarin’s “x” and “q” consonants for two years. But I wasn’t prepared for the end result: people frequently just plain didn’t understand me. At all.

At first I tried to downplay it with “that guy was just not used to talking to foreigners” or “it must be my Beijing-centric pronunciation.” That attitude didn’t really help me. I got through the denial stage pretty quickly and ended up with a firm conviction: the problem is me. I then gathered all my resolve and launched into a relentless campaign of self-criticism. Whenever I was not understood, I made a mental note of which words it was I seemed to be having trouble with. When people repeated what I said, I paid especially close attention, because they would often be correcting my pronunciation rather than merely confirming. I was totally focused on every word* that came out of native speakers’ mouths.

[*I have to make a note here: I initially lived in Hangzhou, a city in the southern province of Zhejiang. Southerners are notorious for their substandard pronunciation of the “sh,” “ch,” and “zh” consonants, but I knew this going in. It made listening comprehension very frustrating at first, but once I developed an ear for it, it became a huge strength. Having all that confusing input also made it absolutely imperative for me to look up in a dictionary every new word I picked up to confirm its correct pronunciation.]

With the help of a Chinese friend and a lot of concerted effort, I was able to finally figure out how to pronounce “x,” “q,” and “j” consonants after about a month of living in China. I also hired a qualified tutor (she had a masters in teaching Chinese) to help me, and under her tutelage I finally got the “yu” sound down. The “r” sound eluded me for longer, but with focused observation and a self-critical attitude, I conquered it as well.

Tones continued to be a major problem for a long time, but they got better with time. The important thing was that I was convinced from my early experiences in China that they were very important and couldn’t be ignored. I was constantly looking up words in my dictionary, frequently just to check the tones. Once you’ve looked up a word about twenty times to check the tones, it usually finally sticks. Certain tone pairs gave me problems for a while, but when I began really focusing on tone pairs, I was able to overcome them as well.

Problem 2: Practice

One great thing about modern China is that foreigners are still rare enough in most places that it’s not hard to find someone curious to talk to you. I soon learned, however, that this does not necessarily mean that they want to talk to me in Chinese. I was meeting people at every turn that just wanted to talk to me in English. This was very frustrating. On top of that, even if their spoken English was pretty bad, my Mandarin was worse. So if our goal was actual communication, speaking in English was much more effective.

This did not deter me. I saw it as a challenge. What I had observed was that the people that wanted to practice English the most were young people, typically university students. Since they were about my own age and had a lot of free time, they seemed like the ideal conversation partners. However, I eventually had to make a decision to reject them categorically because they were nearly all obsessed with improving their English and I was in a hurry to improve my Chinese. It may sound cold, but I didn’t leave my friends and family on the other side of the world to improve strangers’ English. Teaching English was my job and I was dedicated to it, but in my free time I absolutely had to be practicing Chinese. I decided that language exchanges made no sense; I was surrounded by millions of Chinese. I was sure I could find Chinese people that would be willing to do an old-fashioned “exchange” of ideas and information–entirely in Chinese. And if unwillingness to communicate with me in Chinese was the thorn in my side, then inability to communicate with me in English could be my salvation.

So who did I turn to? Well, I reasoned that with my Chinese as bad as it was, if the conversation was going to be all in Chinese I would have to find someone very patient. That’s not an easy trait to spot. But what I realized is that people can be motivated to be patient if they’re extremely bored. So I set my sights on people who (1) were not in an age range or social status that were likely to know (or want to know) English, and (2) had a job which left them stuck in one place with no one to talk to… bored people.

So my first Chinese friends were the guards at the apartment complex where I worked. Those guys were aged probably 30-45, and sat in a guardhouse next to the gate all day long. Their only daytime duties seemed to be opening the gate for the occasional car and handing out residents’ newspapers. There was always one of them in there, just reading a newspaper or sipping his tea and staring off into space. I noticed that they seemed very interested in me. So I took the plunge.

It was weird and awkward to go into the guardhouse that first time and just start talking in my broken Chinese. I could barely form a coherent sentence. But when I made it clear that I was just being friendly, the guard, in typical Chinese fashion, insisted that I sit down while he poured me some tea. That’s how it began.

I started spending about an hour in the guardhouse every evening. I would bring my notebook and my dictionary with me. It wasn’t because I was so studious that I wanted to write down everything I learned; those were essential tools for our communication! Sometimes I would be looking up three words in the guard’s simple five word sentence. Other times I would need them to write down a word so that I could guess at the meaning and look it up later. To be honest, it was kind of painful. I kept the chats to about an hour, because it was all that my poor brain could take. I left every session absolutely exhausted.

Chatting with the guards was a very humbling experience, but it was the kickstart my Chinese needed. I felt awkward every time I went in to initiate communication, but I was making progress, and those guys really wanted to talk to me. They loved my visits. Their faces would light up at the opportunity to communicate (however excruciating the process) with a real live foreigner.

I later moved from that apartment complex and didn’t get to see my guard friends as often, but I had gained important confirmation: I didn’t have to “buy” Chinese practice time with English. There were people that wanted to talk to me in Chinese–regardless of my level–if I would just seek them out.

From there my practice went in a lot of directions. I started frequently chatting with a young couple that ran a tiny burger joint down the street. They were only busy at mealtimes and had almost nothing to do the rest of the time. The more people I talked to, the more I improved, and the more I improved, the more different groups of people I felt comfortable talking to. I didn’t avoid the college kids forever; I found a way around the insistence on English. I found that by chatting online in Chinese I could focus on grammar and vocabulary without the pronunciation pressure. My goal was simple: see how long I could chat with someone without them catching on that I wasn’t Chinese.

My first year and a half I worked really hard at Chinese. I had no foreign friends, and my dictionary was my constant companion. At the end of that time, my Chinese was functional for the basics. I had made it to the “I’m speaking Chinese!” Stage.

Time travel 5 years to the future for How I Learned Chinese (part 3)!


May 2007

How I Learned Chinese (part 1)

Over the years I’ve gotten quite a few questions about this, so I thought I’d write a series of entries that explain everything. I’d like to stress from the beginning that the method I used is not going to work for everybody. It’s not “the right method.” It’s simply the method I used. This post will focus on my formal education in the States.

I decided to start learning Chinese while I was an exchange student in Japan. When I went to Japan I was still a microbiology major. I had to write an essay about why I wanted to go to Japan in order to get into the program, and among my reasons I listed all the advances the Japanese were making in biotechnology, which led to my belief that knowing Japanese would help me as a scientist. It was while I was in Japan that I decided I would abandon microbiology altogether to go the linguistics route. At that point I made a lot of practical decisions which would set the course that I’m still on now.

I don’t remember what all the stimuli were for the decisions I made that night, but I recall vividly the intense excitement for my new course of action. That high made me surer than I’d ever been about what career path I wanted to take. Some of the things I decided that night were:

1. I would change my major from microbiology to Japanese.
2. I would minor in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
4. I would also minor in Latin American Studies.
3. I would take Chinese classes on the side.
5. I would go to China after I graduated to learn Chinese and teach English.

My choices were all very pragmatic. I didn’t major in linguistics because after I got back from Japan I wouldn’t have time to earn all the credits I needed to graduate in four years. I wanted to graduate in four years because my scholarships paid for everything but they only lasted four years. I was also eager to get to China after graduation.

I minored in TESOL so that I would know what I was doing as a teacher in China. I started working as an “interaction leader” at the English Language Institute at the University of Florida, and I loved it. I loved all the intercultural exchange, I loved being a part of other people’s learning processes, and I loved the linguistics of it all.

I minored in Latin American Studies because (1) I didn’t want to lose the four years of Spanish I had in high school, (2) I wanted to continue taking Spanish courses, and this made them count towards something, and (3) I wanted to study in Mexico, and this minor justified that expense.

Anyway, my third year at UF I started studying Chinese formally from scratch. I was 20 years old. I started with traditional characters, but after the first semester decided they were a pain in the ass and a totally unnecessary one since I was planning on going to the PRC after graduation.

I remember clearly how hard I struggled with tones my first semester. We were supposed to go to the language lab and work on the tones, but I never did. I was struggling, but it was clear that I wasn’t the worst off in the class, so I didn’t put in the extra effort. I was of the opinion that it would get easier with time, so I didn’t sweat it too much. I could still make A’s in the class with mediocre tones.

The first semester our instructor gave us a series of “tone quizzes” to force us to work on the tones. She did this by reciting a number of Chinese poems and making us put the tone marks on the syllables. We had no idea what the poems meant; they were just sounds to us at that point. I tried really hard at learning to identify the tones but ultimately sucked at it. I passed the quizzes with flying colors by identifying tonal patterns in the poetry and memorizing a few “marker” syllables to identify which patterns went with which poems.

My first year of Chinese study at UF was pretty unremarkable. We had the typical character-writing homework and classroom exercises. Now that I think about it, my teacher tried hard to get us doing communicative exercises in class. We often did pair work, or exercises where each student only had one piece of information and had to find the other student with the other piece of information by using Chinese. These kinds of exercises became increasingly difficult to pull off in the classroom with each semester, however, as the Chinese class attrition rate is about 50% from semester to semester.

The second year of Chinese class we started using Integrated Chinese. I rather liked it as a textbook. I found the vocabulary useful and the grammar explanations effective. This is the book I really focused on before going to China. I didn’t have time to take Chinese class my last semester, but I was able to keep studying Integrated Chinese. [Note: I think there are now better materials for studying Chinese available, but I didn’t have those at the time.]

I think I got a pretty good theoretical foundation in three semesters of Chinese at UF. My grammar and character knowledge (both simplified and traditional) were pretty solid. What was not solid was my pronunciation. I knew I didn’t have control over my tones, and that my pronunciation of pinyin q, x, j and r were not correct (more on this). I learned enough to pass my classes with A’s, but that didn’t include accurate pronunciation.

The important thing was that I knew before I went to China what my weaknesses were. I didn’t realize how profoundly those weaknesses would impact my attempts at communication. But more on that in the next post in this series.


Apr 2007

Culturally Awkward

Today in my syntax class the teacher was trying to think of a sample sentence which involved a lot of verbs in a sequence. She started off with “I went to Beijing…” but was having trouble thinking of a sufficiently long sentence.

I piped up with, “I went to Beijing to meet a guy to buy a gun to kill a man.” Some people laughed.

The teacher responded, “No, that’s too violent.”

One of my classmates asked, “Are you making a reference to that news about the shooting in Virginia?”

“Huh?” I responded.

I didn’t know anything about it at the time, but I know about it now.

It’s weird… I’m not a violent person, and I’ve never had any interest in owning a gun, but I’m still American, and it came out in class in an unintentionally tasteless context. And just the other day I was explaining the Bill of Rights to a Chinese friend, and what the Second Amendment was, and how it’s really important in the USA.

I’m feeling really culturally awkward today.


Apr 2007

Attempting Redemption

A while back I posted a story I titled “Betrayal.” I visited Yunnan and promised some friends that I would send them a photo when I returned to Hangzhou. But I never did. What’s more, I discarded the address so that I never could.

Well, it turns out I got some of those facts wrong. I moved to Shanghai in early 2004. I have moved twice since then. I am now in the apartment where I will begin my married life. Since I’ll be living with a Chinese woman, it’s necessary that I get rid of a lot of my old crap. I have some packrat genes, and it’s a part of myself that I detest. I never feel bad for having a lot of books, but it’s the other miscellaneous odds and ends that I need to do something about. A lot of it is old papers of questionable value, but I actually have to look at them before I can be sure they’re safe to throw out.

Anyway, I was going through that process recently when I found a familiar-looking old scrap of paper. It was the address of the restaurant in Jinghong, Yunnan! I never threw it out after all… I just packed it with everything else and lost it for over three years.

I have finally printed the photos and mailed them, as I promised I would. It’s been over 4 years, so I’m not sure those people are even still there, or if they’ll remember me at all. But whoever receives the letter will have a photo and a short note explaining it. I hope they see it.


Mar 2007

Satisfying Conclusions

Remember how my visa went 144 days overdue, then when I got it renewed, I only got a 2 month visa? Well, I got my new passport, then I finally got my new visa. Today. Looks like I’ll never need to apply for a student visa again. For me, that is a satisfying conclusion.

Speaking of satisfying conclusions, I’ll soon be able to put closure soon on another story I once told here on this blog. Can anyone guess which one it is? (No, it has nothing to do with me getting married.)

Of course, the real satisfying conclusion will be when ChinesePod finally launches V3. It has been extremely busy these past two weeks, and it’s not quite over yet…

I’ll be blogging more when it is.


Mar 2007

A Conversation with a Wrong Number

I had the following conversation with a woman this morning after she called my cell phone for the second time:

> Woman: Hi, are you Pan Meihua?

> Me: No. You’ve got the wrong number again.

> Woman: Are you sure? What’s your name?

> Me: Yes. My name is Pan Ji, not Pan Meihua.

> Woman: But do you know Zhang Jie?

> Me: What?

> Woman: Zhang Jie! Do you know her?

> Me: Well, I know a “Zhang Jie,” but it’s a pretty common name…

> Woman: The Zhang Jie that sells insurance!

> Me: Oh, yes, I do know a Zhang Jie that sells insurance…

> Woman: Well, I’m her cousin! I’m in Shenyang!

> Me: OK…

> Woman: I’m moving to Shanghai soon!

> Me: Look, I know Zhang Jie, but that’s only because she’s my insurance agent!

> Woman: Oh. I guess I still have the wrong number then.

> Me: Yes.

> Woman: OK, bye then.

> Me: Goodbye.

I felt almost bad, because this Dongbei woman was so excited about moving to Shanghai, and she totally wanted to talk to me about it, but she obviously had the wrong number. I guess maybe my insurance agent gave her my number by mistake.


Mar 2007

Homework Excuse Note

So last week my hard drive stopped working right before the deadline for my semantics/pragmatics paper. I was able to get an extension, but “I had computer troubles” is the “dog ate my homework” excuse of the modern age, so, conscientious student that I am, I felt the need to get documented “proof” of my computer troubles. I had the computer shop that fixed my hard drive write up a note and put the company seal on it.

Yeah, the whole idea sounds kind of silly, but not nearly as silly as it ended up looking. The computer guy used a tiny scrap of paper to scrawl the note. It just looks ridiculous (and yet, somehow… awesome?):

Homework Excuse Note

Anyway, I thought I’d share it because I kind of enjoy the challenge of reading handwritten Chinese. This note isn’t too difficult to read, although a little challenging in parts. If you want help deciphering, though, click through to the Flickr page.

Translation of the note:

> Pan Ji‘s teacher: Hello.

> Due to a computer hard drive failure,

> data could not be read.

> computer company, Chen Hua

> (examined from the 8th to the 10th )


Mar 2007

Forced Break

Wednesday my hard drive died. When I tried to boot my computer, I got this message:

> OS not installed

Yikes! Luckily I had my Ultimate Boot CD, but even that is of little use when your system has decided that your main hard drive (the one with Windows installed on it) is no longer there.

That hard drive was only three months old, so the company I bought from will replace it free of charge, but they can’t do the data recovery. Furthermore, if I want them to replace the hard drive right away and give me the bad hard drive back so I can find someone to recover the data, I need to pay for a new hard drive because they need the bad one to return it to the manufacturer. They’ll refund my money when I return the bad hard drive.

I think I’m just going to pay for the bad hard drive, then when I return it, exchange it for a new one. I’ll then have three 160 GB hard drives. That will be nice (especially if they stop breaking).

Anyway, I am on a short break. Once I get my computer back tomorrow I need to rewrite my 3000 character semantics/pragmatics paper that was due today.

UPDATE: It turned out the problem was that an IDE setting in the CMOS spontaneous changed. I still can’t figure out how that would happen, but anyway, it was an easy fix and no data was lost! The guy showed me which setting to change if it happens again. No charge. I didn’t end up buying another HD after all, and I got a signed, stamped note proving my computer was broken to give to my school. Heh.


Mar 2007

China and Eugenics

China finally came up on my one of my favorite blogs, Sentient Developments:

> When stripped of all its historical and social baggage, however, ‘eugenics‘ can be used to describe two general philosophical tendencies: 1) the notion that human hereditary stock can and should be improved, and 2) that such changes should be enforced by the state (or other influential social groups such as cults or religions).

> These two concepts are not married to one another. Transhumanists tend to subscribe to the first point but not the second, leading to the charge that they are liberal eugenicists. China, on the other hand, engages in a form of eugenics that draws from both agendas; the state is actively involved in the ongoing biological re-engineering of its citizens for ideological ends.

As usual, the article was a good read. In case you’re unclear of what the author meant by China’s engagement in eugenics, here’s a summary:

> [In 1995], China adopted a new law on maternal and infant health care. The law mandates that all persons have a premarital medical examination to detect serious genetic diseases, some infectious diseases, and “relevant” mental disorders. If a detected disorder is deemed serious, the couple is not permitted to marry without committing to contraception or tubal ligation. Prenatal testing is enforced, and pregnancy is terminated if the fetus has a serious genetic or somatic abnormality. [China’s Eugenics Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care]

The thing is, since 2003 the Chinese government no longer requires premarital medical exams. That leads to this kind of situation:

> The abolition of the national system of compulsory premarital medical checkups one year ago has led to a rapid increase in the rate of birth defects in China, and if the government fails to take measures, it could lead to a still more serious pubic health problem within three to five years, medical experts warned. [ChinaDaily]

So where does the Chinese government now stand with regards to eugenics?

Also interesting are some Chinese geneticists’ views on the issues related to eugenics:

> Most believed that partners should know each other’s genetic status before marriage (92%), that carriers of the same defective gene should not mate with each other (91%), and that women should have a prenatal diagnosis if medically indicated (91%). The majority said that in China decisions about family planning were shared by the couple (82%).

You might be surprised that I’m writing about such a “political” topic. Actually, I’m not. I’m writing about a question of ethics, which is also related to a lot of the futurism discussions I’ve been reading a lot about lately.

Also, according to the prominent Chinese view, it would appear that if my Chinese wife and I have children, we’ll be engaging in a form of “personal eugenics,” since around here everyone knows that 混血儿 (“mixed blood children”) are “better looking” and “smarter” than most people. Hmmm.


Feb 2007

10 Reasons I Hate Chinese New Year

I am well known for being positive and upbeat about life in China, but sometimes I just have to vent a little. This one is a special case, because when I first arrived in China I was thrilled to be celebrating the real Chinese New Year, with real Chinese people, the authentic way. With each passing year my enthusiasm has faded just a bit more, until it became this colorless loathing for the alpha holiday of the Chinese calendar.

Random photos

I suppose “hate” is a strong word, but let me just say I’m not fond of the ol’ CNY. (Still, I’m keeping the word “hate” because I’m so sassy.) So now I give you the 10 reasons I hate Chinese New Year, in the order that they come to me:

1. It’s noisy. Yeah, fireworks are fun. Yeah, the Chinese invented them. Yippee. I always thought the best fireworks were the bottle rockets that exploded midair in colorful displays. Well, here in China, the most common kind is firecrackers, or just any kind that isn’t much to look at but makes a lot of noise. This kind is fun in moderation, but “moderation” is entirely out of the question when CNY rolls around. We’re talking non-stop pili-pala (the sound of firecrackers) for days on end. What? You wanted to go to sleep? Too bad. What? You wanted to sleep in past 6am on your vacation? Too bad.

2. It’s dangerous. It should come as no surprise that an environment seething with explosions is not particularly safe. The Chinese aren’t exactly world-renowned for being “safety conscious,” either. If the public pyrotechnics everywhere weren’t bad enough, this is also the time of year when kids have firecrackers too, and they just go around lighting and throwing them at random.

3. It paralyzes the nation. Not being able to get a taxi or go to your favorite restaurant isn’t the end of the world (although, my regular Xinjiang restaurant, I do not forgive you for going back to Xinjiang for CNY an entire month early — I’m pretty sure you didn’t walk back). The problem comes when you try to do anything bureaucratic. Virtually nothing can be accomplished if CNY is even remotely near. It’s all a smile and a mei banfa (there’s nothing we can do). It’s an excuse that’s not only incontrovertible, but one you’re also supposed to be happy about it. You had better hope your visa doesn’t expire right before Chinese New Year, because you’d be screwed.

4. It encourages craptaculars. The Chinese New Year craptacular (春节联欢晚会) is the mother of all Chinese craptaculars. Watching it is not only a family tradition for many, many Chinese families; it almost seems like a patriotic duty. Year after year, I hear people saying, “the craptacular was crappier than ever this year,” and yet they watch it, year after year after year. This horrible TV tradition somehow imbedded itself in the nation’s cultural DNA, and the populace seems resigned to this.

5. It brings out overzealous hospitality. Chinese food is good. Eating is good. But Chinese hosts are infamous for “hospitably” force-feeding their guests, and this is the holiday when that impulse goes into overdrive. You can starve yourself for days, but it will do no good. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “even a large bucket cannot hold the sea.” (OK, I made that up, but it sure makes my point.)

6. It involves lots of Chinese liquor. I like Chinese food, but I will never like Chinese rice wine. This is one of those Chinese holidays where I have to buck up and just drink it. I’d be a dick if I refused. And man, it is nasty.

7. It causes temporal cognitive chaos. I’ve talked about this before. Around CNY, Chinese people refuse to use the solar calendar for a week or two and cognitively switch over to that alternative universe where the moon determines the dates. If you don’t make the temporary crossover with them, you’re in for some serious calendar confusion.

8. It screws over the little guy. At Chinese New Year, everyone goes home to spend the holiday with their families. Oh wait, did I say “everyone”? I meant everyone except for the wage slaves that have to work in the restaurants for the New Year’s Eve dinner because the city folk don’t like to bother celebrating at home anymore. Oh, and except for drivers and operators of essential public transportation. The more commercialized the holiday becomes, the more people that get cheated out of it. This is nothing new to someone from a capitalist nation, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it when I see it happening anywhere.

9. It’s a mass migration the country can’t really handle. It really can’t. One of my co-workers from Guilin will not be spending the holiday with her family for the first time ever because she simply could not get a ticket home. She’s not the only one. It’s just way too many people trying to “go home” all at the same time. It’s the world’s largest human migration, and it’s only getting worse as more and more people move to the big cities to make a living. It’s one hell of a problem for the government, totally cultural in origin.

10. It’s serious pollution. Those fireworks are more than just noisy and dangerous; they’re bad for the environment. Keep in mind that in China there are way more people more densely packed than in the U.S.; the amount of fireworks going off in one night all across the nation is simply staggering. If China didn’t already have such a great handle on its environmental issues, I might be worried. (Oh, wait a minute…)

I have tried for years to warm up to Chinese New Year, but I have stopped trying. My conclusion is that if you didn’t experience Chinese New Year as a child, you’re not going to learn to like it. It’s an exciting holiday for a Chinese kid… you get to see all those fun cousins, eat lots of great food in ridiculous quantities, and receive a hongbao (red envelope full of cash) from all your relatives. As an adult cultural outsider, I really don’t think I have any hope of ever truly enjoying this holiday.

But, here we go again…


Feb 2007

The Poor Man's Soft Bristle Toothbush

When you leave your comfy Western nation for a long stint in China, there are certain things you might want to take with you because you can’t buy them over there. I’m talking dental floss. Deodorant. Size 13+ shoes.

toothbrush selection

Chinese toothbrushes

“Toothbrushes” used to be on my list. This is not because you can’t buy toothbrushes in China; you can buy one at any supermarket or convenience store, and you can even find brands you recognize, like Crest. The reason is that I find Chinese toothbrushes to have ridiculously stiff bristles. I guess I have wussy gums, but Chinese toothbrush bristles tend to fall in two categories for me: hard and gum-shredding. (Seriously, if I wanted that kind of scrubbing power in my toothbrush, I would use steel wool.)

So, I had been importing my soft bristle toothbrushes from the States in order to keep my brushing sessions pleasant. But now I know a better way.

Take a typical Chinese toothbrush. Pour a little bit of extremely hot water over the bristles. Apply toothpaste, and brush. The hot water softens the bristles just long enough for you to brush your teeth comfortably. Toothbrushes and big thermoses of boiling water are fairly ubiquitous in China, so the trick works basically anywhere.

Enjoy this technique, my tender-gummed friends, and may you not lose a single tooth in China.

we love cleanliness


Dec 2006

The Not-So-Secret Ingredient to a Happy Chinese Marriage

Tonight my “wife” and I will attend part three of an 8-week marriage preparation course. The Catholic Church requires all couples that wish to be married with the blessing of the Church to undergo this course. The purpose is not really to educate couples about Catholicism, but rather to ensure that the couples have closely examined the big questions before they officially tie the knot (and by “officially” I mean “in the Church”). One unexpected thing about the course is that it’s jointly conducted by a mainland priest and a Taiwanese nun, using Taiwanese materials*.

Last week’s session was rather enlightening. Altogether, there were nine couples in attendance. The theme was “this is how I grew up.” It was all about understanding how each person’s family background differed, and how that would affect the couple’s life together.

Obviously, there’s a million things that could come up in this discussion. The one that came to mind for us was the difference between being raised as an only child in modern China and being raised in a family of five in the States. (Without going into too much detail, I’m just going to say that there’s no way in hell that any future child of mine is going to glide through childhood without doing any chores, regardless of what culture he grows up in.)

So that’s a serious issue, but it’s one that is largely due to the intercultural nature of our marriage. Still, you can imagine that plenty of equally serious domestic issues would be raised… Money management, in-laws, work issues, bad habits, anything related to child-rearing, etc. So which topic was raised and repeatedly stressed by every single couple except us? You guessed it. Food.

The following are some of the crucial issues raised by the other couples:

1. His family likes bland food, but I’m used to strong seasoning.
2. I like spicy food, but his family can’t eat it.
3. I have to have soup with every meal, but his family never eats soup.
4. My family always makes lots of dishes, but his only makes 3 or 4 per meal and never wastes any food.
5. Her family takes a really long time to eat.

Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to judge these people. But you would think that after all this time I would have at least learned one thing: the paramount importance of food to the Chinese. I really hope I’ll get it one of these days and stop being astonished.

* This is interesting because the Catholic Church in Taiwan is currently in direct communion with Rome, while the mainland Catholic Church in the mainland is still the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which is not officially in communion with Rome.


Nov 2006

Japanese Thanksgiving

Today was Thanksgiving. In years past I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get a bunch of friends together at a restaurant serving an American Thanksgiving meal. It’s always overpriced, but it’s always good, and I like the Thanksgiving dinner enough that having it only once a year is woefully inadequate.

This year, though, I didn’t bother. Work is busy, and I just didn’t feel like calling all the nice hotels in Shanghai and being told of 300 or 400 rmb meals.

So instead, I got together with some friends and we did Japanese all you can eat. Despite rumors of “turkey sashimi” there was not a scrap of real Thanksgiving food to be found. I didn’t even stuff myself as much as I could have.

It’s always good to get together with a large group of friends (we don’t do it enough), but it’s getting harder and harder to “fake” Thanksgiving. I think I might just start holding off on the Thanksgiving festivities until my visits home to the States.


Sep 2006

Busy + Pecha Kucha

Busy week. We’re preparing for the October holiday at work, which means getting an extra week’s worth of work done ahead of time. Plus, I found out those essays I wrote got decent grades, and I’m eligible for a scholarship. I will be pretty stoked if this goes through. I have to hand in the complete application by the end of this week.

This also happens to be the week I got asked to do a presentation for Pecha Kucha Night. I was surprised that I was even asked. I’m not an architect or designer or artist or whatever. But I decided to go ahead and do it. My topic is How the Internet Hijacked My Life in China. If you’re a friend of mine, you might just find yourself in the presentation.

pecha kucha


Aug 2006


Chinaversary n. pl. Chi·na·ni·ver·sa·ries
The annually recurring date of one’s initial arrival in China, especially when of great personal importance, as in the case of a “China expat.”

No, I can’t say I coined the term. I just learned this amusing word last week, which was quite timely because this month I had my 6 year Chinaversary.



Aug 2006

Am I Married?

I haven’t mentioned my “girlfriend” in a long time. This is not only because I don’t like to talk about certain aspects of my private life here; it’s also because I’m not sure what to call her anymore. This is all due to the peculiar features of getting married in China.

You see, we are already legally married, but we have not yet had a “proper wedding.” To her and her family, that means a proper Chinese wedding banquet. To me and my family, that means a proper wedding in a Catholic church. All that will happen next year.

Furthermore, we are not living together. She still lives with her parents as before, and I live with my roommate Lenny. Our lives after becoming legally married remain almost exactly as they were when we were just “engaged.”

(So why did we get legally married so early? It’s largely to simplify the breaucratic headaches that arise from my nationality and her employer, and to save me from having to make another trip back to the States right before the wedding next year.)

I can call her my 老婆 in Chinese and this isn’t strange at all… Many Chinese couples here call each other 老婆 and 老公 long before they’re married (which really kind of annoys me for some reason). But calling her my wife–in English–feels wrong to me, because my whole life my idea of my “wife” has been the woman I spend the rest of my life with after we go through that sacred ceremony in church. And we haven’t done that yet.

In China, the wedding banquet has tremendous social significance for both families, but no legal standing. I know a Chinese couple who waited for years for the wedding banquet because they wanted to be legally married but couldn’t yet afford a nice reception. I also heard of a couple that had the wedding banquet but then split up and were never legally married in the first place. In the US, saying “I do” in a ceremony in front of a priest and other witnesses is a part of the legal process (in addition to the marriage registration).

So basically the feeling I get is that we’re taking that minute or so when the man and woman each say “I do” and the priest pronounces them husband and wife, and stretching it out to about a year. It’s a little strange, but I don’t think it’s all bad. Marriage is, after all, a big adjustment.

Update: Dan Washburn recently had a similar marriage experience.


Jul 2006

Good People at Bad Times

It’s something that’s pretty self-evident, but foreigners living in China easily forget: sometimes when you catch good people at bad times, they come across as quite rude. The sad truth is that when this happens to a foreigner in China, it’s all too easy for the foreigner to mentally toss it into the “Chinese people have no manners” file as further evidence. Chalking up each incident as proof of a generalization applied to the whole population requires less mental effort–and most of all, less tolerance–than remembering that Chinese people have bad days too.

I give you an example. The other day I bought a few items at the local convenience store. It was around dinner time and the store was pretty busy, so there were people in line ahead of me, and by the time it was my turn to pay there were people in line behind me. The middle-aged lady at the register was not one of the three familiar faces I knew, so I figured she was a new hire.

My total came to 30.9 RMB. I gave the lady a 100 RMB bill and the 0.9 in exact change. She made a very irritated face and said to me, “don’t you have smaller change?” (A side note here: not having small change is one of the greatest consumer crimes one can commit in China, and will frequently invoke the ire of the cash handler.)

I told her no, I didn’t have change. Giving her the 0.9 in change was the best I could do. Muttering in Shanghainese under her breath, she pulled out the nearly empty change drawer tray and picked up a stack of bills from underneath. She removed a 20 and a 10 from the stack, slapped the rest of the bills on the counter, and proceeded to ignore me.

Had I been a little quicker, I would have realized that the stack she had pulled out was worth 100 RMB, so the stack on the counter was worth exactly 70 RMB in 10s and 5s. But she didn’t say anything to me and I wasn’t especially quick at that moment, so I asked her, “what does this mean?” (but I didn’t say it in a rude tone).

She then snapped at me, “you didn’t have any small change, so that’s what you get!” I took my stack of small bills and left.

Two days later I returned to the same convenience store, and my new friend was on the register again. It was sort of late, and there was only one other customer in the store, just browsing.

My total came to 13 RMB and change. I slapped down three 5 RMB bills and joked with her, “I’m returning some of those 5s you gave me the other night.”

She remembered me and knew what I was referring to, but rather than smiling at my joke, she proceeded to apologize profusely for that incident, telling me that it had been very busy, and she had no other change, and that she really hoped I understood. I told her it was not a problem.

Leaving the store, I realized that if I hadn’t made my pointless little joke about returning the 5s to her, I would have always considered that woman a cranky bitch. But through that little exchange, my view of her had changed.

Sure, assholes exist too, but we also catch good people at bad times every day. Sometimes it’s our first impression of a person, and sometimes it’s the only time we’ll ever meet that person in our lifetime. China is no different from the rest of the world in that respect.

Related posts:

No, I do not have change. (Talk Talk China)
Overcome by Friendliness (Weifang Radish)
Taxi Incident (Sinosplice – wherein I commit the same mistake that I accuse foreigners of in this entry)

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