I’m in Florida on vacation with the family this July. I’ve managed to get my kids to a respectable bilingual state despite them growing up in Shanghai, but American culture is one thing my kids just don’t get a lot of, and it’s probably one of the most interesting aspects of this trip. Kids adapt to new surroundings quickly, but their reactions to new situations and unfamiliar American culture is super interesting.
Unfortunately, it’s not practical to make a big long list (I wish I had one!). One simple example is wading pools, though. My parents never got a pool installed, but the backyard is plenty big, so we can do the old backyard wading pool thing (fill it up with a hose). Such simple pleasures are utterly foreign to Shanghai kids, but still a blast! (Coming up soon: backyard water balloon fight, “Slip ‘n Slide,” and playing in the sprinkler. Classic American middle class fun!)
Anyway, the insanity part relates to a conversation with my daughter (now 7.7 years old). It went something like this:
Her: Is America insane? Me: …. Yes. Her:BWAHAHAHA! Me: …. Her: Why? Me: …. Her: BWAHAHAHA!
I guess maniacal laughter is better than weeping. I mean, “chaos is a ladder,” right?
> Making a left turn just as the light turns green, pulling out before the oncoming traffic. Most people in Pittsburgh allow and encourage this behavior.
> “That jagoff wouldn’t give me the Pittsburgh left!”
“You should honk”
Hmmm, I would have called this a “China Left.” (Usually at a major intersection in Shanghai, the first 2-3 cars in the left turn lane will try to make their turns before the incoming traffic crosses the midpoint. This is totally normal, and no one gets upset about it.)
I’m a pretty analytical guy. Ever since high school, when I was introduced to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I liked the idea that we all go through the same psychological stages of development, which can be diagnosed and predicted. The Kübler-Ross “5 Stages of Grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), popularized by various movies and TV shows, also appealed to me. When studying linguistics, I learned a bit about how babies’ brains develop, as well as how certain cognitive abilities appear first, and others later. I also learned about Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis, which states that learners of a language can expect to master most features of a language in a predictable order, one which is “natural.” This all fascinated me.
The “natural order” propositions I’m more skeptical of are the cultural ones. The one I’m most familiar with is the Stages of Culture Shock idea (and its sequel, the Stages of Reverse Culture Shock). I’m not surprised to see a disclaimer like this preceding the stages on the Wikipedia page:
> The shock of moving to a foreign country often consists of distinct phases, though not everyone passes through these phases and not everyone is in the new culture long enough to pass through all five. There are no fixed symptoms ascribed to culture shock as each person is affected differently.
OK, everyone’s different, and every culture’s different. I get that. Your mileage may vary. Fair enough. I’m just not sure if this is useful to anyone. (Is it?)
But what if you reduced the number of variables to something more manageable? Might the validity of the generalization be improved then?
This idea came to me because over time I seem to be moving through a series of progressive “mini culture shock” stages in my trips back to the United States, and from what I’ve observed among friends and on other blogs, my experiences are pretty typical of Americans who have spent a considerable amount of time in China. These stages are spread out over a period of years, and I only notice the differences on separate trips, usually spaced at least one year apart.
Anyway, I’m just going to throw these out there. I went back through some of my old entries (2002, 2004, 2006, 2008), and there’s partial support there. But I’m curious if any readers that have been living in China a while have experienced something similar:
Stages of Cultural Response to the United States on Periodic Visits from China:
1. So Many White and Black People! (This one is typical of Americans who have lived in small-town China for a while. They can also get this reaction just from visiting Shanghai or Beijing.)
2. Americans are so fat! (This is really cliché, but it’s real. I wrote my own post on this, long ago.)
3. American air is so clean! (Pretty obvious, but perhaps less so than American obesity…)
4. America is so diverse! (I remember feeling this very acutely a few years back. It was a source of renewed pride and appreciation for my home culture.)
5. American culture is so bizarre/lame! (This is when the cultural disconnect really starts to kick in. The stars de jour, the songs, and the TV shows, are almost all unfamiliar now. It wouldn’t seem weird at all if it weren’t so unfamiliar.)
6. American food is so sweet! (I know a lot of people experience this sooner than I do, but I’m a fan of the sweets. I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m getting older, or if it’s the Chinese diet changing my tastes, but on my last visit, the sweetness everywhere was hard to take.)
Honestly, I’m not sure if there’s much universality here (especially in terms of sequence). The only one I feel strongly about is the “Americans are so fat!” stage early on. Are there any other identifiable patterns here?
This Sinosplice silence has gone on for too long! Time for a personal post.
Leading up to Christmas, I was preparing to make a trip back to the USA. This time that involved not only the usual gift-buying, but also getting a good lead in the recordings at ChinesePod, and also making sure that all of my AllSet Learning clients are properly taken care of the whole time as well.
What was meant to be a “short and sweet” visit was turned not so short by the massive snowfall in the northeast, canceling my flight out, and turned not so sweet by a bout of the flu. (I thought maybe the constant exposure to Chinese germs had me toughened up to the point of being nearly invulnerable to American germs, but this time I fell hard.)
It’s been a long and tiring 2010, but an enormous amount of good work has been laid for an awesome 2011. I’ve got lots more ideas for this blog, and I’ll be taking the time to write them up. (Now if only I could eat solid food…)
Learning Chinese family relationship words is a huge headache. It’s way too complicated and tends to come far too early in a typical Chinese course. Really, who wants to memorize the word for “father’s older brother’s wife” before you can even handle a basic conversation?
The reason Chinese family relationship terms are so complicated is because they can take into account (1) relative age, (2) mother’s or father’s side, and (3) blood relative or relative by marriage. In English, on the other hand, if I say someone is my uncle, none of those factors are addressed. The man could be my mother’s or father’s brother, or maybe brother-in-law, and there’s nothing about relative ages at all.
So for these reasons, learning a bunch of different terms to make all these relationships 100% clear feels entirely unnecessary to a lot of students. To be honest, it is unnecessary for them. Unless lots of their conversations in Chinese are going to revolve around family members, it’s just not that important.
I realized this fairly early in my studies. I had learned the family terms well enough to know which were male and which were female, but I didn’t bother with all the other distinctions. And guess what? It didn’t really matter.
There are a few times when it does matter, though. One is when you marry into a Chinese family and you have to know who all these people are. But that’s when a major new factor emerges: you’re no longer memorizing vocabulary, you’re memorizing real people and their titles. It’s the difference between a human face and a bunch of lines and circles on a chart, and your memory appreciates it.
Similarly, when I returned to the States with my in-laws this summer, I knew I’d have to be introducing them to various people from my parents’ side of the family. Rather than digging out the old Chinese family relationships chart, I went through the relatives I knew would be there and gave them Chinese names. For example, my Uncle Marty is my mom’s younger brother, so he’s Marty 舅舅, and his wife is Kathy 舅妈. My Uncle Jim is my dad’s older brother, so he’s Jim 伯伯, and his wife is Dot 伯母. Learning the terms by assigning them to real people makes them easier to remember and ensures that they’re actually useful to you.
When you think about it, it’s how kids learn these words in the first place. In fact, they learn to associate the titles with real people long before they even understand the relationships the titles refer to. Later on, they learn the relationships, and then learn to relate the relationships to other people.
To take it even further, here’s an example of a real conversation I had with my wife recently:
> Me: So my mom’s little brother is my…
> Her:Jiujiu (舅舅).
> Me: Right, jiujiu. So I can call him Marty Jiujiu.
> Her: Right.
> Me: So then my dad’s older brother Jim is my…
> Her:Bobo (伯伯).
> Me: OK, Jim Bobo. And then my dad’s older sister?
> Her: Uhhh… I forgot. My dad doesn’t have an older sister.
This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this kind of “vocab lapse” with native speakers. With a whole generation of only children, more and more personal links are missing, and the nomenclature system just doesn’t carry the weight it once did. You can decry the decline of family values and Confucian ideals all you want, but for the average Chinese student it means this: you don’t have to worry too much about Chinese family relationship titles until it becomes personal. And that’s also when the titles become memory manageable.
It was a great trip to the States. I had been bracing myself for wacky cross-cultural antics, but nothing particularly noteworthy transpired. I didn’t have many surprises of my own, either. Rather, this time I enjoyed seeing my country through my the eyes of my in-laws.
Here are a few little notes:
– My father-in-law cooked himself a waffle at the hotel breakfast buffet and then ate it with salt and pepper, lamenting that there was no hot sauce.
– On the very first day in Tampa, I woke up to my Chinese family all watching TV. Curious what show they had been sucked into, I was amused to discover that it was Jerry Springer. “Why are these people so angry?” they wanted to know.
– When there’s no common language, gestures can be quite misleading. Trying to communicate, “I’m full and it was a great meal, but I need a toothpick” can somehow become, “I have heartburn and I need medication immediately.”
– My in-laws exclaimed at how crisp and sweet fresh American corn is. I was horrified to learn they preferred it mushy and/or chewy.
– American food comes in enormous quantities, and is frequently way too sweet. (My wife demanded to know why American cake always has so much frosting… which she weirdly calls 奶油, a word which more commonly means “cream.”)
– No one would go on the Montu at Busch Gardens with me except for my mother-in-law. That was pretty awesome.
– My father-in-law, who thought he could eat spicy food, has a newfound respect for Mexican chilies, courtesy of a dish called camarones a la diabla, from Del Valle on Fowler Avenue, Tampa (best Mexican food I’ve had outside of Mexico!).
– In the absence of a gas range, an electric wok is pretty all right for home-cooked Chinese food.
– My in-laws were impressed that total strangers kept greeting them everywhere they went. The friendliness of strangers was something they felt they could really get used to.
– No one took much notice of how fat Americans are.
I’ve spent the last few weeks reexamining my priorities and trying to free up a bit more time to do the things I enjoy most. Work remains both rewarding and demanding, but progressing in piano and continuing to work on Sinosplice are important to me. So far in July, however, I’ve needed to spend a lot of my free time just trip planning.
I’m preparing to go back to the U.S. this weekend for a two-week visit, and I’m taking with me not only my wife, but also my in-laws. My mother-in-law has never left China. Oh, and we’ll be attending my little sister’s wedding. It’s going to be an interesting little cultural affair.
Also, at already over a year since graduation, I’ve finally started putting my master’s thesis online. Now that all the pain of the actual writing is nearly forgotten, I’m starting to recall more clearly that my topic was, in fact, pretty damned interesting. It deserves a few posts.
First, though, it’s time for a visit to Obama’s America. I’m looking forward to it.
My blog posts about visas probably generate more e-mails from random strangers than anything else. This suggests to me that a lot of people are out there scouring the internet for more info on the subject, so I’ll share a bit more. In the past two weeks, I have been involved, to some extent, with 5 Chinese visa applications: three to the USA, one to Japan, and one to Thailand.
It’s been a while since my wife and I had to go through the visa ordeal. Now we’re married, and we want to take her parents with us this summer so they can see Florida as well. We were a bit worried that it would seem like the whole family was trying to immigrate to the US, but all three of them got their visas.
Some relevant details:
– My father-in-law has been to the USA once before in 1992; my mother-in-law has never left China
– My in-laws own property in Shanghai and have savings
– My wife was in the USA last in 2005
I haven’t been to Japan in close to five years, and my wife and I have been meaning to make a trip for a while. We finally settled on this May, but realized we had a visa problem: the typical Chinese tourist to Japan must go with a tour group and stay with the group the whole time. I refused to do that, and my wife didn’t want to either. We wanted to hang out in the Kyoto/Nara/Osaka area and take it easy, rather than the typical tour’s “10 cities in 5 days” approach. If we didn’t want to go on a tour, though, we would have to get my wife’s visa “sponsored.”
The process is kind of complicated, so I won’t go into it to much here [Chinese link, Japanese link], but the bottom line is that your Japanese friend needs to supply a lot of paperwork, including:
1. Proof of a relationship with the Chinese visa applicant
2. Acceptance of responsibility if the Chinese visitor remains in Japan illegally
3. Lots of personal information, including tax information
In the end, our visa application failed because our visa sponsor filled out the form with all the tax information but didn’t include full information for their income history. After several mail exchanges between China and Japan (faxes are no good for this procedure), we were already cutting it close time-wise with our application, and we didn’t have enough time to fix the last problem.
Really, though, we didn’t want to fix the last problem! My former homestay family was so nice about sponsoring my wife and filling out all the paperwork — even including their tax information — and I really did not want to ask for even more personal financial information. It just doesn’t seem right. I’m close to my former Japanese homestay family, and they attended our wedding in Shanghai, but asking for someone’s tax and income information is just not cool. What a shitty passive-aggressive way for the Japanese government to discourage Chinese tourism.
I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the brightest and most passionate language educators that my country has to offer. If you will be in attendance and would like to meet up, by all means, send me an e-mail.
I’m not sure what “reverse culture shock” is, really. I never feel a “shock,” or a strong sense of being out of place while I’m home in the USA. Perhaps I never go back for long enough. There are always different things that I notice, though. I’m well beyond “wow, Americans are fat” observations. This past trip, my most poignant “American” experience was on a basketball court.
I’d been meaning to practice my shot. I’ve played basketball precious little since I moved to Shanghai, years ago, and it shows.
There’s a little park with a basketball court in my parents’ neighborhood in Tampa. The park is public, but it’s usually empty. Since all I wanted to do was practice my shot, an empty court was exactly what I was looking for.
My second trip to the park was the last day of my visit. It was great to have the court all to myself while I slowly worked my shot back towards the “acceptable” range. As I felt the first few fat drops of rain, I knew that no one would be joining me.
In Florida when it rains, it rains with a sense of purpose. The rain comes down in earth-drenching torrents, but within several hours the sky is clear again. In Shanghai, on the other hand, the rain dawdles. It rains lightly, in stops and starts, for days, accomplishing little more than the creation of mud and the destruction of mood.
As the rain soaked me on the court, I felt amazingly clean. The ground looked just-washed. The rainwater in the gutter rushing to the storm drain was crystal clear. I walked home, acid-free rain in my eyes, feeling enormously satisfied.
I don’t blame China for what it is, but this combination of solitude, basketball, and rain cannot be had there.
I’m back from the States with a new visa. I realize now it was a much-needed vacation.
My computer here in Shanghai seems to be infected with a virus (it keeps abruptly shutting off, especially when I use Skype or anti-virus software), so I’m reinstalling Windows today. It’s about time anyway… it’s been almost 2 years on this one install. Still, this kind of thing pushes me one step closer to wanting to buy a Mac.
I’m enjoying being home in Tampa without much to do. My dad’s computer doesn’t have Chinese support installed, and the option to add it is grayed out in the appropriate Windows setting screen. I think I can get it installed if I manage to find the Windows install disk, but taking a 10-day vacation even from Chinese characters themselves almost seems like a good idea.
So last night I was having a few $3 pints of Sam Adams (so much cheaper than in Shanghai!) with my sister and her friends, finding out all sorts of new ways I’ve fallen out of touch with American culture, when I discovered the bar served fried dill pickle spears. Of course, I ordered them immediately, and they were delicious in that weird “fried pickle” way that you might expect. (I’d post a picture, but there’s not much point, because they just look like big french fries.)
An old high school friend recently visited me here in Shanghai with her husband. Our chat made the usual rounds of old friends, life updates, etc., and then settled on China. When it comes to discussing life in modern China, one topic I find myself returning to again and again in my conversations with Americans is the whole cell phone thing. Americans are always blown away by how easy and convenient (for the consumer) the system here is.
My own situation:
– Monthly 30 RMB plan with China Telecom, comes with talk time and plenty of text messages. I don’t think I ever exceed my limit, but if I do, I pay very little extra.
– Cell phone bill paid by prepaid card, which I can purchase at any convenience store in increments of 100 RMB or 50 RMB. I only need to do this about once every three months, and it takes 5 minutes to add the money to my account. China Telecom SMSes me when I need to re-up.
– My account and phone number are linked to my SIM card, which I can remove from my cell phone at any time and use in any other cell phone here in China. Upgrading a cell phone is as easy as removing and inserting a SIM card, and takes less than a minute.
– No mail, no credit cards.
I don’t even know the full extent of the hell that American telecommunications companies put their customers through, because I never had to deal with it myself. I got my first cell phone in China. But it all sounds really stupid. The whole concept of “cell phone minutes” annoys me.
The one drawback of not being enslaved by the telecommunications companies is that any cell phone you can steal you can use immediately by simply swapping out the SIM card. Small price to pay, I say. Just be careful.
The worst part about all this is that when Americans come here and realize that even China has a way better cell phone system in place, they are blown away, but they are nevertheless completely resigned to their fate. And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way…
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.
My critical discourse analysis class is getting interesting. The professor has assigned small group presentation topics. All five topics are related to homosexuality. Pepe and I have “homosexuality in the West.” Yeah, pretty huge topic. Other topics are pretty narrow, such as “lesbians in China.”
Just as a reminder about what we’re going to be analyzing:
> Discourse analysis challenges us to move from seeing language as abstract to seeing our words as having meaning in a particular historical, social, and political condition. Even more significant, our words (written or oral) are used to convey a broad sense of meanings and the meaning we convey with those words is identified by our immediate social, political, and historical conditions. Our words are never neutral (Fiske, 1994)! This is a powerful insight for home economists and family and consumer scientists (We could have a whole discussion about the meaning that these two labels convey!). We should never again speak, or read/hear others’ words, without being conscious of the underlying meaning of the words. Our words are politicized, even if we are not aware of it, because they carry the power that reflects the interests of those who speak. Opinion leaders, courts, government, editors, even family and consumer scientists, play a crucial role in shaping issues and in setting the boundaries of legitimate discourse (what is talked about and how) (Henry & Tator, 2002). The words of those in power are taken as “self-evident truths” and the words of those not in power are dismissed as irrelevant, inappropriate, or without substance (van Dijk, 2000). [source]
It’s also important to note that discourse includes not only traditional language, but all forms of symbols contained in advertising, media, fashion, etc.
So my idea was to examine what’s going on with the term “metrosexual.” Here are some questions I think are worth exploring:
– Does the “metrosexual” style, by making stereotypical visual clues of homosexuality ambiguous, serve to bring homosexuals closer into society? (Is it a sign of greater tolerance?)
– Are the “sterotypical visual clues” just ridiculous or are they significant?
– How do homosexuals feel about the metrosexual phenomenon? How does it impact the gay community?
– Why is “metrosexual” strictly a male phenomenon? What’s going on there with the gender dynamic?
I’d be interested in hearing my readers’ ideas on this. Helpful links are also welcome. I haven’t really been in the US for most of the metrosexual phenomenon, and I don’t know how widespread it is either.
The presentation will be a mere 10-15 minutes long, so we don’t need to go super in-depth. We also need to provide visuals with a PowerPoint presentation.
I was never particularly interested in homosexual studies, but somehow discussing it in grad school in China makes it way more interesting to me. (By the way, Pepe says “metrosexual” in Chinese is 都市玉男. I’m a little disappointed that the -sexual (-性恋) got nuked in the translation.)
Note: Hateful, ignorant, and useless comments will never see the light of day.
My friend Shelley used to live in Dongying, Shandong Province. He is now traveling in the States. Here is an excerpt of an e-mail I recently got from him:
> I arrived in LA this morning after 3 nights on a train and couple hours stopover in Chicago. I learned a few things about the differences between US and Chinese train travel. I should first mention that this trip closely mirrors a trip I took just last year in China. It also involved 3 nights on a train with a short stopover after the first night. However, my US train took me entirely across the country, from Washington D.C. to L.A. My Chinese train took me from Kashgar (far northwest) to Xi’an, which would be more like Seattle to Chicago in the US. But I think this had more to do with the speed of the train. Anyway…
> From my half-dozen Amtrak trips between Sacramento and San Jose, I knew that 1) there would be very few people on the train, and 2) there are electrical outlets and tables by most seats. From the info I had gathered from Amtrak’s website, I knew 3) private cabins would cost a bit more than a flight (around $350) but would allow me to travel in great comfort.
> Yeah, well, I was wrong about all that stuff. I must have been looking at the seat prices because my seat from D.C. to L.A. cost me $299. Private cabins cost $1,000 and were booked up “until September” according to one conductor. The train was also overbooked, and I witnessed the familiar sight of people scrambling to get on the train before everyone else. See, I had a ticket for a seat, but not a specific one. Some people got put in the lounge car until seats cleared up in the coach cabins. And finally, you guessed it, no tables or electrical outlets. There were 3, only 3, outlets in the lounge car within an unused snack counter area. I managed to get up early enough one morning to stake a claim on one and charge up my cell phone and iPod. And believe me, I protected my outlet from other power-starved travelers like a lion over its kill fends off circling hyenas.
> Now, a seat on a Chinese train for 3 nights would be an amazing feat of stamina and bladder control. I’ve never done that. The longest I went for was a 26-hour stint which I emerged from as if I had just climbed Everest. A seat on a US train for 3 nights is about a hundred times more comfortable because it’s 1) a bucket seat and not a bench, 2) much better climate controlled, 3) bathrooms are clean and well-stocked with necessities, and 4) the lounge car provides another place to hang out with wall-to-ceiling windows and TVs showing movies in the evening.
> That said, however, I wouldn’t recommend the train to anyone who wasn’t ready to spend a boatload of cash to make it more comfortable. While the seats were spacious, they didn’t fully recline and I never found a comfortable sleeping position. I mostly passed out from exhaustion. Several times I pondered the pros and cons of sleeping in the aisle, but the cons always won out.
> Also, the train is not merely kept well air-conditioned, it’s kept refrigerated. I actually love to crank the AC up, but I was absolutely freezing during the first night. I noticed that everyone else on the train took out thick blankets and heavy sweaters. They had obviously done this before. I shivered all the way to Chicago. During that stopover I bought a hooded sweatshirt, which wasn’t easy to find but I knew my health depended on it. And folks, I’m really not exaggerating. It was amazingly cold. Amtrak might be experimenting with cryogenics. Well ok, now I’m exaggerating a little.
> The food available wasn’t all that bad but keep in mind that my standards for western food are very low. It was definitely overpriced microwaveable stuff. But they really had a great variety of it. Still, this is no advantage over a Chinese train. If I were on a Chinese train the food would come to me on snack carts roaming the cars every half hour or so.
> In conclusion, I would have to say that Chinese trains are better. Really. Because for the same price as my US train seat, I could have bought a super nice cabin (soft-sleeper) on a Chinese train and traveled in great comfort … with an electrical outlet!
> I kept wondering why so many people were on the train at all. “Um, excuse me, doesn’t anyone here realize we could’ve flown for cheaper?” Apparently not.
I have not read a blog entry as funny as “In-Lawed” in a long time. The author describes the various ways that his Chinese in-laws–under normal circumstances “generally reasonable and open people”–are gradually driving him insane during their visit to the US. Just two examples of these “small things”:
> – Dad, I got you the chicken McNuggets. I got you the little cup of ketchup for them. I got you a hot fudge sundae. I then watched in amazement as you dipped each of your ten McNuggets into your hot fudge sundae. I explained that the ketchup was for dipping, the sundae was desert. You slathered each McNugget in hot fudge and ice cream anyway. Dad, you rock.
> – Mom can’t be in the sun. Apparently she is a vampire and the sun melts vampires. Mom can’t be in the car. She gets car sick after 10 minutes. Mom doesn’t like to walk. It is too tiring. Mom doesn’t like to fly. It is too expensive. Mom wants to know where we are going today.
There are 14 more of these, and the above were not the funniest ones. Just read it.
I think part of the reason I am so amused by this story is that I know that in a year or two I will be in the exact same situation. I am pretty sure my in-laws will be a lot more “international” in their behavior, but I could be dead wrong. Hilarity could very well ensue for me as well.
P.S. The 88s is a great blog, and I should read it more often, but I’ve been so busy with work lately that I’ve been reading only about three blogs. So I must admit that I found this article through the Hao Hao Report.
I always think it’s kind of funny when I hear people talking about the “Chinese work ethic.” Usually it’s an American who knows plenty of successful Chinese immigrants in the States and just assumes that China is a nation of the same kind of people. It doesn’t take too much thought to realize that the hard-working Chinese immigrants in the States were able to immigrate to the States because they’re smart and hard-working, and so many of them are successful in the States for the same reason. (There are exceptions though.)
Of course there are hard-working Chinese in China too, but it is by no means a universal cultural trait. I thought I’d give one little story related to just one tiny facet of the complex “Chinese work ethic.” (The more I think about it, the more I think that the idea of a unifying work ethic for a nation as large and diverse as China is almost entirely meaningless, but I’m going to tell a story anyway.)
I left the subway station and took a shortcut down an alley on the way home. I passed by a low wall, and lying stretched out on the wall, sound asleep, was a young man. Judging by his appearance, he was a migrant worker. Next to him on the wall was an electronic produce scale, and just behind the wall was a big cart full of apples. It was late afternoon.
Right after I passed the sleeping guy, I saw another man and a girl coming down the alley towards me with another cart of apples. I guessed that they were working with the sleeping guy, so after they passed me I walked a few steps further and then stopped to observe what happened next.
Life for immigrants to Shanghai is not at all easy. Migrant workers have to work extremely hard for very low wages. I wasn’t sure what the relationship between the two men was, but I fully expected the older man to really let the young guy have it for sleeping on the job.
The older man stopped by the younger man and walked around to the other side of the wall, near the apples. I saw the young guy stir, and he noticed the older man. The older man said something, and I saw a smile spread across the young guy’s face. He slowly sat up, and the two men began chatting happily. The girl looked on, a big grin on her face.
If you’ve never had to buy presents in the USA to bring back to Chinese friends, you probably don’t understand how hard it is. Nearly everything is made in China these days, and quite often those same products are sold in China as well. Quite a few times I’ve bought presents in the USA thinking, “you can’t buy this in China,” only to discover upon presentation of the gift that it is, in fact, available in China. In Shanghai, the issue is even worse. Furthermore, a lot of things that you can’t buy in China the Chinese don’t want (think: most American candy).
Since bringing back gifts is a non-negligible part of Chinese culture, this creates a major problem: what presents do you buy for the Chinese when visiting the USA?
I recently mentioned that I had found a good present to bring back from the USA and give to Chinese friends. Don’t expect it to revolutionize West-East gift-giving; it’s only a minor item. But it seems to have gone over well. I brought back packs of Craisins.
Craisins make a good present for several reasons:
1. If you can even get them in China, they’re certainly not widely available. I’ve never seen them here.
2. The Chinese typically don’t know what cranberries are, and often have never heard their Chinese name before (蔓越莓), giving them a sort of exotic quality. Some Chinese have heard about them (particularly in association with American Thanksgiving), but few have tried them.
3. You can’t bring fresh fruit through customs, but no one wants to eat fresh cranberries anyway. So dried, sweetened, and packaged is good.
4. The dried, sweetened fruit thing is very similar to a lot of Chinese snacks, so they’re easier for the typical Chinese person to accept. (Many foreign foods aren’t.)
Craisins have a special meaning for me as a linguistics student as well:
1. The name “Craisins” is a good example of a blend (cranberry + raisin).
2. Leonard Bloomfield, key contributor to structural linguistics, uses the “cran-” in “cranberry” in discussions of morphology as a (now classic) example of a bound morpheme that exists in only one lexeme (although this status is possibly changing, thanks to modern marketing). The “cranberry” example is often cited by Chinese linguistics professors (I have heard it many times already) even though most of them are not exactly sure what a cranberry is.
Thus I was able to present Craisins to my linguistics professors and classmates as a “souvenir with linguistic characteristics.”
Most importantly, they ate them all up. Nothing says “I’m not just being polite” like devouring the entire bag.