September 11, 2010

Unhappy China

NPR ran a story today questioning whether China’s happy. It also mentioned one Jiangsu town that’s experimenting with a Bhutan-style government-mandated happiness program. The results aren’t convincing so far:


But the article equivocates on how happy China really is:

Survey results on happiness in China seem to be entirely contradictory. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey found that 87 percent of Chinese people surveyed were satisfied with the way things were going in their country, making it the most satisfied country by far out of all they surveyed.

But a European Union survey ranked China 128th out of 150 countries in terms of happiness. And one recent survey of 50,000 college students showed a surprising level of gloom.

But the surveys aren’t contradictory at all. China is extremely satisfied with its economic progress and growing power, but these are opinions about the state of the nation.

Surveys of individual happiness—how happy are you?—are much more dismal. In terms of happiness, China ranks near Nigeria and Indonesia—and below Iran.

(Based on the 2007 World Gallup Poll on life satisfaction.)

The NPR story is a lot like the best-selling book Unhappy China (中国不高兴), which confuses happiness in the title with success in international politics. According to this Time article about the book, the book is mostly a freedom-fry-style (or freedom-cucumber-style?) nationalist rant against the French for meeting with the Dalai, protests at the Olympic torch relay, and calls for China to reign in its pollution. (Still number one in the “smoke of progress!”)

Most of my Chinese friends tell me that China is facing a social crisis of happiness, where people feel they can’t trust each other, materialism is clouding out true happiness, and capitalism brings out an ever more dog-eat-dog unease. It’s disappointing to see NPR confusing happiness with satisfaction with the state of the nation.

April 8, 2010

BP: Before Polo?

I decided a few months back that Marco Polo was the ultimate source of all the mental suffering of all future China writers. But an editor working with me on that article disagreed: surely there must have been someone before Polo, he said.

After a furious bout of research, I still can’t find a Western writer in China before Polo. But I did discover a couple of non-Western China writers before Polo.

A few decades BP, a Mongol monk named Rabban Sauma (拉宾扫务玛) wrote about his pilgrimage that wound through the Middle East and even Western Europe—a sort of reverse Marco Polo. However, most of his writing is made up of bland religious platitudes:

And Abhgha replied, “This purity (or sincerity) of thoughts and conscience is worthy of admiration. And God is with those who seek Him and do His will. This man and his companion have come from the East to go to JERUSALEM; this hath happened to them through the wish of God. We also will minister to the Divine Will and the entreaty of the Christians; he shall stand for them as their head and shall sit upon the Throne.”

But a full 4 centuries before the both of them, a Japanese monk named Ennin (圆仁) traveled to China to study Buddhism. His travels took him to Shandong Province’s holy Mount Taishan, where tourists still hike today. He then meandered over to the imperial capital in Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), leading future researchers to conclude he was being led by the state-run CTS. The government-run monopoly then sailed Ennin down the massive Grand Canal, the ancient water-works wonder-cum-tourist-attraction whose role is now fulfilled by the Three Gorges Dam.

Ennin’s touring must have included ample waiting time (perhaps for the CTS agents), because he wrote over 100 books, including the diary of his travels to China.

However, Marco Polo’s status as the first Western writer in China remains unchallenged. That also means he’s still wearing the title of source of all China writers’ future mental suffering past and present.

March 26, 2010

Ruined Life Now on Display in China Daily

The China Daily has just published a revised version of How Peter Hessler Ruined my China Life, along with Hessler’s reply. Besides a few editorial changes, the artist also gave me crazy-looking pajama pants:


In my defense, I own no such pajama bottoms. But if a crime against fashion is the only comeuppance I get from writing the article, I consider myself lucky.

Over a year later, the original post is somehow still coming up on the first page of the Google search results for “Peter Hessler.” Sorry about that!

October 31, 2009

Get Into my Africa

In my informal search with Peter Hessler into the Get out of my China Fantasy Effect—the possessiveness foreigners feel toward China and their shunning of other foreigners—we’ve surmised that several causes might be pushing foreigners to feel possessive about China:

  1. The learning curve: learning Chinese is difficult, and after we’ve completed the arduous process, we come to feel like we’ve earned it, and this place is ours.

  2. The hardship factor: living in China can be difficult. As with language, this gives us hardcore points for living without internet, clean air, etc., so we come attached to the place, perhaps like someone who struggles through working to pay for their own college education then thinking that others should do the same.

  3. The adventurer myth: foreigners in China have in the backs of their minds the romantic dream of being an adventurer in a strange land. Whether they’re in a remote place like Fuling or a metropolis like Beijing, the addition of other foreigners dashes this dream, so we want them out.

Yet throughout all of these explanations, I can’t shake my suspicion that things happen differently for foreigners in Africa. To understand exactly what happens when Westerners go to live in Africa, I asked an old friend who is now in his second year volunteering with the Peace Corps in Cape Verde. He responded:

Hey Tom,

I’ve thought about more or less the same question as well, throughout my time in CV [Cape Verde]… . I don’t think many of us PCVs [Peace Corps Volunteers] feel hardcore here, with the main dangers of alcoholism and STDs. Even tourists feel that way, that it’s Africa-lite. That would tend to lessen the possessiveness factor, I believe.

It’s almost like the least involved people think they’re most hardcore. As PCVs we’re deep in our communities and kind of live like locals, whereas other development people make much more money, live in the nice cities, and can’t believe how terrible it is that there are power cuts every so often. We feel different as well because we live here, have lived with Cape Verdean families for two months. We resent it when Cape Verdeans tell us we’re just tourists spending two years visiting.

We at times resent tourists, businesspeople, or NGO workers who are here to play and mess around without respecting or helping Cape Verdeans… .

So I guess in the end, I can’t rule out a sense of possessiveness, but I don’t see it much in CV.

Best, or as we say in Kriolu, fika dretu,


It looks like the answer is tricky. On one hand, visitors and residents in Africa certainly do seem to have the same criterion of hardcore-ness that visitors to China have. The harder, dirtier, and more dangerous the place is, the more hardcore points you have. Conversely, people who jet about the “easy” places with steak houses and fancy hotels become an object of sneering or resentment.

On the other hand, the feelings of hardcore-ness seem to exist in Africa without a feeling of possession. Andrew may judge other foreigners for being tourists and decry his own “Africa-lite” experience, but a sense of possessiveness is not a part of the equation.

That leaves a nagging question: if Africa doesn’t inspire a possessiveness in visiting Westerners, then what is it about China or East Asia in general that does inspire this possessiveness?

October 14, 2009

The Marco Polo Effect

Some might say that my writing about how Peter Hessler ruined my China life was like a monkey slinging feces. In my experience (of writing the article, not flinging feces), I found that it was actually a lot more like another poop experience: scooping poop out of my cat’s litter box.

When I was young, one of my household chores was to scoop out my cat’s litter box every week. Whenever I set out to the revolting task of putting scoop to poop, I wanted it to be over as soon as possible. Unfortunately for me, cats are fond of burying. So every time I thought I had finished, a little more scooping would reveal another fecal treasure deeper down in the box. The garbage pail trail always ended up leading much deeper than I thought upon first scoop. My discovery of the massive chain of the China psych-out worked exactly the same way.

More than a year into China, I was psyching myself out because I was convinced that I was living in the shadow of Peter Hessler, who had already been here, done this, and published it in an award-winning book. Later, when Pete sent me a message, he revealed that he had been living in the shadow of Mark Salzman, whose book Iron and Silk was read across laowai China, leading some publishers to ask Pete to re-write his book in the style of Salzman’s. Having wallowed in my jealousy and formed my opinions all while Hessler was God, I never imagined that he had been through what I was going through.

But the story didn’t end there. Further digging proved that writers have been psyching themselves out not just for years, but for over a century. Pete wrote about Archibald Little’s 1887 book Through the Yangtse Gorges, in which the author apologizes for writing about Chinese banquets, which “have been described over and over again.”

Crunching the numbers, I realized that foreigners have been psyching themselves out about writing about China for at least 122 years. My psych-out experience was not simply my experience. It was only a reappearance of a cycle that has been repeating itself for a long time.

I knew then that the next step was to point blame. Marco Polo—perhaps the first widely successful western China writer—may be the ultimate source of this phenomenon, so I’ve decided to call it the Marco Polo Effect. That would pin the origin of the China psych-out as early as circa 1350.

After Marco Polo establishes his namesake effect, he does NOT have to psych out each individual writer after himself. Instead, he’s just at the epicenter of a large chain reaction, like a stone falling into a pond, with each wave repeating itself through each successive China author.


The problem with the diagram, of course, is that I am by no means a famous author. But considering how the Marco Polo Effect works, that doesn’t matter. The Marco Polo Effect affects eventual famous authors (who then go on to pass along the effect), and it affects authors who never even put pen to paper. The flu works the same way: some people get it and pass it on, while others just get it.

In the end, it was somehow inspiring to find that I was far from the only turd in the litter box. The Maro Polo Effect has been going on for far longer than I ever imagined, and I see no reason to say it won’t continue on indefinitely. My litter box duty, on the other hand, is now a chore of the past.

September 21, 2009

Get Out of My China Fantasy

I was thrown onto the streets of Beijing in 2006 by chance. I knew little of China, and I had never visited such a strange land on my own.

But I knew I’d have support. It took only a short walk on a Beijing street to find other foreigners. As newfound minorities in a strange land, I knew we’d share an instant bond, just like people living in sparse towns on the edge of civilization do in the US, where they say “hello” to anyone walking by on the sidewalk, acquaintance or not.

But during my first venture onto Beijing’s streets, I noticed that my fellow foreigners didn’t simply refrain from camaraderie. They wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.

It took me weeks to puzzle it all out. These foreigners managed to cross the street without getting hit by cars (not an easy task in China), so blindness wasn’t a good explanation. I eventually decided that they wanted to subscribe to the cushy illusion that China was all theirs, and trying not to recognize my presence could help maintain that comforting illusion. Or perhaps it was just that I hadn’t discovered that Chinese department stores did actually stock deodorant.

When I came to have feelings just like those foreigners, I realized that on the inside, it felt more like animosity. Instead of “I don’t want to see you” the feeling is more akin to “Get out of my China fantasy!”

Peter Hessler reports feeling the same instant animosity toward foreign visitors to Fuling in River Town. Along with the illusion of being an intrepid explorer in a foreigner-free foreign land, foreigners also come to feel a sense of ownership over China and their China experience. The so-dirty-it-must-be-authentic noodle shop hidden on a back street becomes a badge. The hole-in-the-wall goes from being a restaurant to being my restaurant.

Yet the dirty-restaurant badge becomes as worthless as a cereal box detective badge when other foreigners begin eating there. I’m absolutely certain that I’m not the only foreigner to have a twang of disappointment when foreigners waltz into “my” hole-in-the-wall noodle stall. “They found it by accident. They’re not really China adventurers,” I convince myself.

The result is a foreigner-free hierarchy of China cred. The high-scorers are those living in remote villages where the illusion of being a modern day Marco Polo actually approaches reality.

Those of us living in metropolises like Beijing and Guangzhou can often be found apologizing for the fact that we’ve chosen these well-traveled routes. Even I would brag to my Beijing friends that I hadn’t seen foreigners in Guangzhou in weeks. “They’re really just confined to one downtown area. Not where I live.”

Yet, if we can’t claim to be the only foreigner in a remote outpost, we can at least mentally erase the other foreigners from our Chinese city. Darting our eyes away from other foreigners we encounter on the street is simply our eye muscles instantiating this desired illusion.

As my days in Beijing turned to weeks and months, I found my desire for camaraderie transforming into the same animosity toward foreigners that I had decried when I first arrived. At that moment, I became just like all the other foreigners that I was claiming weren’t actually there.

September 19, 2009

Hessler Issues Apology

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to find a message from Peter Hessler himself concerning how he ruined my China life. Hessler was gracious enough to see the humor in the article and to give sage advice to aspiring writers.

Ironically, Hessler’s China life seems to have been “ruined” by a popular China writer before him, Mark Salzman and his book Iron and Silk. Read Hessler’s message—which I’ve reprinted below with permission—to find out how.


Not sure if this is the right address for Thomas Talhelm. If not, just ignore this message.

My sister sent me a link to your article about how I ruined your life. Sorry about that … I definitely appreciated and enjoyed the humor. People aren’t always so good-natured about it, that’s for sure.

It’s a funny phenomenon, and one that I remember when I first came to China. There were certain books that everybody read, and the longer you lived there the more you might be inclined to resent them. It’s a natural reaction in a place like China, where you’re constantly learning and discovering. It’s a very personal process, very intense, and a sense of ownership develops. In “River Town” I wrote about how I wasn’t so charitable when I saw a couple of Europeans in Fuling, the first (and only) “uninvited” foreigners that I ever saw in town. I really did not want them there. I realized it was an unfair reaction, very childish; but I also saw that it was quite natural. After a long period of isolation I felt like it was my city.

During the years that I was in Fuling, “Iron and Silk” was the book that all foreign teachers read, and sometimes complained about. When I sent out the unsolicited manuscript of “River Town,” a lot of reactions were clearly shaped by Mark Salzman’s book. Most agents and publishers rejected it, probably because there was already a successful book about teaching in China. Or they wanted to build on it in narrow ways: one agent wanted me to cut my manuscript down into very short vignettes, like Salzman’s book. I’m glad I resisted; over the years it’s become clear that these are very different books and each has its own place. A couple of years ago, I met Mark Salzman at a literary event, and I told him that the foreign teachers now complain about me as well as him. He laughed; he knew what I was talking about. When I was in Fuling, I really benefited from reading his book, as well as Bill Holm’s “Coming Home Crazy.” The fact that they were so different struck me as a good thing. It reminded me that it’s not simply the experience that matters: it’s the writer. And I noticed that these books shared something in common: a sense of humor.

I think that develops more naturally when you live in China as a low-level waiguoren, teaching or studying or doing whatever. You learn to laugh at yourself, and you tend to recognize that the Chinese also have a good sense of humor. I think this is much harder for a foreign journalist, because they arrive in China on different terms, and with different expectations. They’re supposed to cover big, important events, and they feel a lot of pressure from their editors, and often it’s not easy to find a place for humor.

As time passes, it’s more clear that China is such a big country that lots of different things can be written about it. This has always been true, but it wasn’t so obvious back in 1999. When I sent out “River Town,” a couple of publishers responded that they liked it, but they couldn’t offer a contract because, in their words, “we don’t think that anybody wants to read a book about China.” It’s hard to imagine, but there wasn’t this sense of China as such an important, varied, and energetic place. Nowadays there are many books coming out every year, and many of them are good in different ways. It’s much more promising for a young writer.

Of course, it’s not strictly the experience that distinguishes a piece of writing. China has been around for a long time, and experiences have overlapped for years and decades and even centuries. Recently I was reading Archibald Little’s “Through the Yangtse Gorges,” in which he describes a Sichuanese banquet, and then he apologizes because it’s hardly a new story: “Chinese dinners have been described over and over again, but I have narrated this one, as I think few have given an idea of their tediousness and the absence of all that we deem comfort.” Little wrote this in 1887! So I wasn’t exactly breaking new ground with the baijiu banquets in “River Town.”

I had to get beyond this, especially since my goal in that book was to write about everyday observations and experiences. Lots of foreigners shared those things, and there was nothing special about my China background. Fuling wasn’t an important place. Many foreigners spoke the language better than I did, and many people had a deeper knowledge of the culture. But I thought of myself as a writer, not a China expert. My training was more along those lines; before going to China I had worked as an ethnographer in southeastern Missouri, and I had thought a lot about the social sciences and theories of observation. In college I took a lot of courses in fiction and nonfiction writing. I had very few ideas about China, but I had strong ideas about voice, structure, set pieces, story structures. People often don’t realize how technical writing is. It’s a lot harder than learning Chinese or learning about China, that’s for sure. By the time I left Fuling, I had spent only two years engaged seriously with China, but thirteen years engaged seriously with writing. If the ratio had been the opposite thirteen years in China, and two years thinking about how to write that book would not have happened. I might have known a lot, but I wouldn’t have known how to express it, and how to structure it. In any case, that book is more about a learning process; it’s about how language, people, and culture came into focus for me. It’s not about “China” in the strictest sense.

As the years passed, I gained a better understanding of certain Chinese subjects, and my approach as a writer changed. I wrote less about myself and more about the people or subjects I was researching. The second and third books are quite different; they aren’t so much about this learning process. But that’s part of why China is a such interesting place for a young writer there’s plenty of room to grow. You’re trying to figure this place out, learn the language, understand the people; and at the same time you’re trying to learn how to write in English. Two technical processes, hopefully complementary and in balance. One side is quite social and engaged with the environment; the other is much more solitary and individual. I suppose that’s what I enjoyed the most about writing from China, the balance of these combined challenges. I hope it’s going well for you, and that you stick with it.

All the best


September 10, 2009

How My Blog Entry Ruined Peter Hessler's Google Life

…and other hyperboles.

In a twist of cosmic injustice, my blog entry on How Peter Hessler Ruined My China Life now comes in 5th when you Google “Peter Hessler.”

Strangely, this puts the Google rank of my rant above all but one of his articles’. Now if I could only get up there on the Google ranking for “Chinese alphabet” like the poor academic in “Oracle Bones”…

Update: Left the Building

Better late than never. My China run has (so to speak) run its course for now. I’m now back in the States, at the University of Virginia, studying social and cross-cultural psychology. Hopefully, I’ll be distilling my China experiences into ground-breaking theories that I’ll be sure to cash in on before my next trip back.

In the meantime, I’ll be slowly getting used to the idea of fortune cookies and whatever these so-called “Asian Restaurants” around here are up to. (Sushi and Chinese food under one roof!?) Plus, I will, from time to time, get some stories up that I never got around to while in China. Instead of a failed-studies-go-into-the-desk-for-later file-drawer phenomenon, some of these will be longer, more in-depth pieces that I never got around to.

August 6, 2009

Why Michael Jackson's Bigger in China

Besides the fact that it was my second to last night in China, today was an otherwise unexceptional Wednesday night in Guangzhou in the Baijia Supermarket on Tianhe Beilu where I was browsing with David. Yet as I walked down aisles of clothing and video games, I noticed a large video screen playing a footage of a Michael Jackson concert. I stopped in the aisle, losing myself in his outrageously gold outfit and over the top stage performance. As “Smooth Criminal” wound to a close and the dancers completed their logic-defying anti-gravity lean, I suddenly heard a subtle gasp from behind me. I turned around to see that I was now surrounded by a crowd of Chinese patrons that had gathered to watch the concert, blocking the aisle, if not with their bodies then with their idled shopping carts. The growing crowd spanned middle-aged parents and elementary school children. As I stood watching, I expected the crowd to disperse after the first song ended, but the crowd persisted through another song and then another.

During his lifetime, Michael Jackson made a single, brief trip to China (to visit the children: “我难以抗拒他们对我的吸引” ), and played a total of zero concerts here. But his music set hold in a nation at just the very moment when radio and television made foreign music available—and at a time when listening to such pop music was finally no longer considered a bourgeoise conceit liable to bring denouncement.

His impact on China is large and surely larger than inspiring a generation of security guards to wear black dress shoes with white socks, as one blog suggests. His tabloid-tainted decline was largely overlooked, while his songs like “Heal the World” and his humanitarian work touched a generation. Jackson and his cassette tapes came at the time to remind a billion people that art and music could serve interests other than state propaganda—that music and dancing could be delectably indulgent and apolitical.

Upon his death, newspaper stands here were covered overnight with special issues and magazines devoted to Jackson, while the bootleg DVD vendors on the street—who had always tended to have a Michael Jackson DVD or two on hand—upped their supply in number and range. Newspapers and blogs exploded with editorials explaining that Jackson represented a Chinese era.

I had first learned of Maike Jiekexun’s death when I awoke to a text message a Chinese friend had sent me in the middle of the night. Over a month later and 2,000 kilometers further south, the crowd gathering around the video screen at the grocery store echoed exactly how much the King of Pop meant to the Middle Kingdom.

August 4, 2009

Ritualized Drinking Kills Cadres

Chinese culture suffers little from dangerous college binge drinking like the US, yet China’s ritualized banquet toasting culture managed to take the lives of two party officials this summer.

According to a report in the South China Morning Post and a report on CRI, Wuhan’s deputy director of water resources, Jin Guoqing, died of an alcohol-induced heart attack this July. A district chief in southern Guangdong province, Lu Yanpeng, fell into a coma and later died after a drinking round at a separate banquet.

China’s toasting culture is a way of showing respect to hosts by participating in ganbei’s, cheers, and it reigns supreme at formal banquets. To refuse is considered a loss of face, and generally the higher a person’s rank, the higher the number of subordinates lining up to clink glasses.

According to the report, officials’ “ganbei culture” wastes roughly 500 billion yuan in public funds each year—an expensive way to end two lives.

July 31, 2009

China Reinvents the Toilet

China has invented many objects, but Chinese culture is not known for its creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. No more respected China hand than Peter Hessler argued once that Chinese athletes excel particularly in competitions that involve repetition (e.g., synchronized diving) and struggle in competitions that involve quick off-the-cuff responses to changing situations (e.g., soccer).

Yet a Chinese friend has recently unveiled his alternative theory for the use of toilets. This friend shall remain nameless, although I will add that his reinvention was discovered by another PiA fellow (whose story I am appropriating with permission).

While traveling with this free-thinker, our PiA fellow noticed on multiple occasions that he would often leave the bathroom with urine left on the toilet seat. At first, our fellow assumed the runaway urine to be merely an accident. Yet the runaway urine’s regular appearance on the seat caused him to realize that the maverick urine was actually finding its way onto the toilet seat because the owner had an alternative theory of how toilets are operated.

The alternative theory also explained why the friend often complained that Western toilets have two flaws:

  1. The seat is dirty.

  2. The seat is uncomfortable.

It turns out, these complaints are caused by this alternative toilet theory. As a Western representative, I can say with confidence that the traditional Western theory of toilets is:


The new theory reassigns the various parts of the toilet:


And, in a way, it makes sense. The seat becomes a pee protector, protecting what is now the seat from any rogue urine.

It is perhaps a male-centric theory, but this alternative theory is fascinating for the fact that its internal logic actually quite nearly makes more sense than the way Western toilets are used around the world. Who says China’s not a creative place?

July 30, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Leaving China

When the canned music switched on in my first-class train compartment at 7AM, I was still more than an hour outside of Xi’an, China’s ancient capital—and the music still annoyed me. I sat up, leaned over the bunk across the aisle to the switchboard and turned off the music. This scene has repeated itself on numerous sleeper trains during my China travels, and today was no different.

Yet when the train came to a stop in Xi’an and stepped into one of the three provinces I had yet to set foot in, the fact that I would be leaving China in nine days started to dawn on me. Suddenly, the weight of my three bags and my quixotic quest to bring out my guitar in one piece seemed lighter, easier.

With so many bags to hold on to, I shifted my cell phone into the same pocket that my wallet was in. I used my free hand to cover my pocket from thieves patrolling the chaotic train station as I always have when entering faraway train stations. Yet besides my pre-cautions against thieves, most everything else was changing. Things that for two years ground on my consciousness now seemed funny, cute, in an “Oh, that crazy China!” way.

Soon enough, the man shouting “Laowai!” at the foreigner overloaded with bags seemed to be chirping birdsong instead of singling out a foreigner. As an elderly woman’s flying loogie nearly missed my sandaled feet, I smiled and nodded. “Morning Taitai!”

I’ve loved living in China; I’m sad to leave; and I’m certain I will be back. But that doesn’t change the fact that some of China’s rough edges wear on me. Yet these travails lose their weight and become almost humorous when you face the door.

July 29, 2009

Popped Collars and Other Chinese Inventions

Yesterday I found myself angrily claiming the popped collar as an American invention. Yes, the popped collar, the reviled symbol of bonehead Neanderthalism that my house in university had once mocked for an entire evening at a Popped Collar Party that consisted mainly of Pabst Blue Ribbon and shotgun drinking contests. Yet here I was on the streets of Beijing defending the popped collar from a would-be popped-collar-claim.

It’s easy to pick up a competitiveness over inventions in China. Gunpowder, printing, and paper are integral to the Chinese consciousness simply because they are Chinese inventions—they originated in China, a land where origin is everything.

Origins are so important that British historian Joseph Needham (Chinese name 李约瑟) and his monumental work pinning dates on Chinese inventions earned him a spot as a Chinese national hero and an entry on China’s official Wikipedia, Baidu Baike, that is four times as long as Chairman Mao’s.

Yet you don’t have to travel across China like Needham did to figure out that origins are imprtant in China. I learned as from the 50-year-old man sporting a Beijing air conditioner and sharing a cup of tea with me in a hutong near my home who argued that my Beijing friend sitting beside me was not a real Beijinger—even though she had spent all but two of her years in Beijing—because my friend’s family had moved there. His friend later repeated an argument for rank-ordering of nations that I here often in China: “How many years of history does America have? Just 300? No, less than that. 200.” It’s origin and seniority that count in the Middle Kingdom.

Yet because of the peculiarities of trend setting in the Chinese world, my Beijing friend was convinced that popped collars had originated first in Taiwan, just as many trends that race through the mainland start first on an island not far away. I had assumed that popped collars had originated in a beer-soaked fraternity basement, which I was now claiming as proudly and distinctly American.

Nowadays, Professor Needham isn’t around to arbitrate our disagreement and show that popped collars first saw the light of day under the Tang Dynasty scholar and inventor Ao Lingzi (凹领子) in the 8th century, so I’ll leave the matter undecided.

I think it’s best for all sides to not let matters of national pride rest on dates of inventions. And, for that matter, I take it back: Taiwan can have popped collars.

July 24, 2009

Proving Beijing is New York (Again)

Far be it from me to blow cow or toot my own horn, but a recent post on MSNBC claiming “The New New York is Beijing” reminded me a lot of an argument I made back in November of last year.

I’m clearly not the first to mention the similarity, just as this article argues that Beijing’s changes right now parallel Paris and New York’s, although its posting date is November 10th, four days after the post above. (Not that anyone’s counting)

July 23, 2009

See Spot Run: China's Simple Confusion

As a Luddite-prone American, I’m used to seeing technology as opposed to pure art. Yet Chinese society has no Luddites, and art has is coming of age along with cell phones. The result is that mass audiences have gone so far as to ador a movie about cell phones, called “Cell Phone,” in which a significant part of the dialogue and plot information is conveyed through phone calls and text messages displayed on screen.

Contrary to its text-message image, “Cell Phone” is actually a thought-provoking debate about issues of trust and fidelity in modern Chinese society. As interesting as the social commentary is, I find myself spending more time thinking about one line from the movie and a phrase that I hear just about every month from taxi drivers: “Chinese is the world’s hardest language, eh?”

This idea is popular in China and perhaps other parts of the world, but I see it as propping up the talking-dog phenomenon and the notion that outsiders are almost inherently unable to master Chinese. So I like to disagree whenever my taxi drivers claim that their language is impossibly hard.

Of course, Chinese is a hard language. But the main salvo in my argument is the fact that Chinese grammar is impossibly simple. If mastering English tenses, Spanish subjunctive, Russian cases, and French irregular verbs is like trying to repair a new-fangled computer-run Toyota, mastering Chinese grammar is like repairing a nuts-and-bolts 1960’s Camaro.

Yet Chinese grammar can be so simple, so streamlined that it becomes simply confusing. A sentence from “Cell Phone” demonstrated this clearly and confusingly:

Nǐ zài wǒ zǒu!


In the scene, a young female teacher yells at the famous actor Ge You, saying literally, “You are [here] I go!”

I paused the screen and asked my Chinese friend for assistance. I learned that, translated more fully, the woman’s sentence means, “If you’re going to be here, then I’m leaving!”

What is left out is all of the logical connectors: ‘if’ and ‘then.’ This is a peculiarity of Chinese grammar that students can’t solve by carrying around conjugation tables and memorizing charts of verbs. Rather, this peculiarity is a good indication that Chinese is a receiver-oriented language, where crucial information lies in what’s not said.

Instead of spending time filling my mind with conjugation tables, I spend my time constantly deleting my English grammar from my Chinese text messages. Chinese does have words like ‘if’ and ‘therefore’; you can fix tenses to verbs in Chinese; but the trick in sounding authentically Chinese is to avoid the urge to do so. I take as proof the fact that I was laughed at recently by a Chinese friend for putting too many le’s to indicate tense in a text message. I had used one.

“I knew that was written by a foreigner,” my friend told me later, chuckling.

I might as well have been chewing on a fortune cookie, since I was writing laowai Chinese. To avoid sounding like a foreigner, I suggest avoiding le, yào, rúguǒ, and jiù. In other words, avoid tense and logical connectors like the plague.

Ever since I was corrected by my friend, whenever I’m tempted to put in tense and connecting words into my Chinese text messages, I think simply: you write you strange.

July 20, 2009

The Cutest Character Ever

When I was 12, I bought a bonsai tree in a green ceramic pot and spent hours laboring over the pot with black paint and a brush trying to reproduce the cool Chinese character I had found on the internet. I had no idea what the character meant, but I wanted it on the pot because it felt cool.

An hour later, my 12-year-old self came out with a droopy-looking character—which I scrubbed off the pot—and a realization that I knew very little about this mysterious language.

Over a decade later, I can now understand lectures on ancient poetry and read newspapers, yet my feelings toward characters haven’t developed past the kindergarten stage that most Chinese friends say my hand-written characters are stuck at.

Yet a tip from a fellow PiA member did lead me to uncover more about how Chinese people feel about characters. A fellow PiA member told me his favorite character was . “It just looks cool,” he said. After I heard him say it, I started to think the character was pretty cool-looking; if you look at it in the right way, it kind of looks like a sword sitting on a bomber jet.

Yet when I ran this character by my Chinese friends, they didn’t like it. “It’s unstable. It’s too tall. It looks like it’s going to fall over,” one friend said.

I was blown away by the fact that my Chinese friends were all using an aesthetic standard that hadn’t even occurred to me (and that conflicted with the one I had been using). This revelation led me to suspect that Chinese people have an entire set aesthetic feelings towards the characters they’ve grown up with and that these feelings are different from people who haven’t grown up with the language. This could be why masterful calligraphy still looks like scribbles to me, well into my time in China.

So I will relinquish myself from any judgments of the high aesthetics of Chinese characters. However, I will declare that I have found the cutest Chinese character (click on the character to see my crude Paint recreation):


Foreigners often have different feelings toward Chinese characters—and I’ve yet to run into any Chinese person who has come up with as bizarre an interpretation of this character—but it seems pretty obvious to me that this characters is a cute little bug. It’s got two slanted ears on top, two big eyes, and a boxy little body. The boxy-ness on the bottom makes it look it has stripes, just like a cartoon bee:

Who cares that it means “once,” as in “I once saw Michael Jackson live in concert”? My Chinese friends must mistake me for a lover-of-the-past because I can’t help but smile when I read about things that “once” happened or when I read text messages about what my friends have “once” done. I know what the real meaning is, but I can’t I challenge anyone to show me a character cuter than this one.

Of course, a nod must be made to the world’s second cutest character:

员 (yuan)

This one means exactly what it looks like: person (or employee, crew, etc.). And it looks like a person starting the robot dance while the gun goes off for a 50-yard dash to the side.

July 18, 2009

In Defense of Zhonglish

When the crowded subway train I was riding pulled into Dongdan Station, I flushed red with embarrassment. Cultural psychologists say embarrassment is an emotion more commonly felt in China, but I knew why the blood was rushing to my face: I’m midwestern and this was a transfer station.

Wait, this wasn’t a transfer station. It was, in the words of the English announcement woman, a trænsfer station, a nasal, push-so-much-air-through-your-nose-you-could-start-a-wind-farm træænsfer station. This Beijing Subway Corporation obviously chose to employ a nasally midwesterner to record their English announcements.

All of this would be funny if I weren’t also from the midwest, where the accent turns words like bagel into insufferable nasal soundings. No one likes to be told they have a funny accent, so—even though my Chinese friends can’t hear the nasal “a” in the announcement—it’s still enough to make me blush.

Yet what my Chinese friends do notice is the announcer’s terrible Zhonglish (i.e., Chinese [zhongwen] + English, or a foreigner with bad Chinese pronunciation, akin to Chinglish or an American saying “Kay-suh-dill-uh” for the Spanish ‘quesadilla’). The subway announcer very clearly butchers the Chinese names of the stations, turning “dohng dahn” into “dahng dæn.” My Chinese friends complain: Why can’t they find someone who speaks better Chinese to say it right?

Even though I’m a language nerd, I still defend the woman’s Zhonglish. The English announcements are designed for people who can’t understand Chinese. And to people who can’t understand Chinese, fluent, native “Zhang Zizhong Lu Station” sounds like, “What was that station?” Yet a butchering like “Jayng Zee Johng Loo” is more likely to get the message across.

I’ve seen fluent pronunciation confuse my foreign visitors even with common names that all foreigners know, like ‘Beijing.’ Yet a heavy, toneless “Bay-jing” will always do the trick.

I’m all in favor of foreigners picking up Chinese while they’re in China, but the subway is not the place to make principled linguistic stands and send unwitting foreigners to stations unknown. Up with Zhonglish, I say, but let’s clean up those nasal Midwestern vowels.

July 16, 2009

Hearing The Call: A Mystery Made for Half of the Chinese Population

Part II

The first time I got The Call—at a hotel in coastal Qingdao—it took me off guard.

Someone knows my room phone number already? I thought, pleased with the surprise at my new-found celebrity.

But over time and numerous “no-thank-you’s” later, I learned that the calls were invariably offers for “massage” and not inquiries from rabid fans.

I learned the service was usually only found in slightly larger hotels—ones large enough to fit a “sauna center” to staff the requisite “misses.” But even a question as simple as how much it cost remained a mystery. I helped solve this mystery in Chongqing’s Hotel of Horrors.

David and I had arrived in this central Chinese capital late at night without hotel reservations, so we (regretfully) relied on a recommendation of the hotel service counter at the airport.

The unpleasant discoveries started in the lobby, which was a failed attempt at grandeur with fake marble and clocks displaying the obviously erroneous times of major cities around the world—obviously wrong because cities were different in intervals of 20-40 minutes.

Having taken our room key, David and I called the steel-door elevator to take us to our room. With a whir, the doors pulled open to reveal a carriage full of vomit.

“Let’s take the stairs,” I said.

Dangerously dark with black footprints that somehow managed to find their way halfway up the white-painted wall, the stairs were still more attractive than the vomit coaster ride.

We finally reached our dingy room. I sat down in the bathroom while David relaxed on the bed. Like clockwork, the phone rang.

“That’s the massage call!” I yelled from the bathroom. “Just tell them we don’t want it.”

Wei?” David said in his rising tone of inquiry as he picked up the receiver.

I waited through a slight pause.

Women bu xuyao, xiexie,” David said, declining the offer politely.

“Wait!” I yelled from the bathroom. “Ask how much!”

I was curious to get the answer to a nagging curiosity.

Deng yixia,” David said. Wait a moment.

Duoshao qian,” he asked, speaking the words how-much-money clearly and formally.

“200,” the woman replied.

Xiexie, haishi buyao,” David replied, moving to hang up the phone. Thanks, but I don’t want it.

“150!” the woman pleaded as David hung up the phone. “100!” she blurted out, dropping the price in half and mistaking his curiosity-fueled question as an insistence on pinching pennies.

Many are called, but—judging from the woman’s price-slashing—few choose, and even fewer know it can cost little more than $10.

July 15, 2009

Hearing The Call: A Mystery Made for Half of the Chinese Population


Part I
Stay at the right hotel in China, and you’re likely to get a phone call you’ll never forget—The Call.

The Call is often personalized. If you’re foreign-looking, The Call will often come in English—broken English, but English.

The Call is often self-censored. If you bring a female guest, you probably won’t get The Call. (Although I was lucky enough to get The Call when my sister traveled with my in China.)

The Call often comes in rounds, giant sweeps of the hotel, but it may also come tailored to your arrival. Around 10PM at night, you may hear the phone ring in the room across the hall, followed by the room next door, after which you’ll soon get The Call in your fair turn. At other times, The Call will come right after you’ve checked into your room, underscoring the personal touch.

The Call is one, at most two, sentences long, and it always some version of the following:

Ni hao, ni xuyao anmo ma?”

“Hello, you want massage?”

If the caller is persistent and thinks the offer of an in-room massage is not obvious enough, The Call will continue with:

Ni yao nvhai’r peipei ma?”

“Want a girl to accompany-accompany you?”

All of this I knew about The Call, but a mystery about these calls lingered in my mind—a question that only the Chongqing Hotel of Horrors and a healthy dose of delegation would resolve.