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September 13, 2007

You Can't Imagine How Popular You Are

China is a dangerous place, but it has little crime. Murder, robbery, assault—these concerns do not keep my up at night. Rather, China is a dangerous place for my ego. Being a foreigner, I am often accorded a respect and popularity unrivaled in the United States, regardless of my true character.

At this Wednesday’s English Corner—which consists of David and me finding a shady patch on campus to have students surround us to practice their English—a sprite of a youngster, clearly too young to be in my classes, came up and introduced himself. He had a wide grin and a brave confidence that flew in the face of the modesty and shyness stereotypical of Chinese students. He grinned widely as he spoke English so fluent it belied his young appearance.

“I’ve heard about you,” he declared. “We’ve ALL heard about you,” he said, grinning with the satisfaction of drawing the center of attention of the small crowd of this week’s installment of English Corner.

“Oh, really?” I said. “What grade are you in?”

“You can’t imagine how popular you are,” he said. “I’m in second year middle school, and we’ve all heard about you. We talk about you every day. We don’t even know your name or where you’re from, but we all know who you are.”

As English Corner concluded, his words grew more unsettling in my mind. More popular than you can ever imagine. He hadn’t taken my class, interacted with me, or even known where I was from before meeting me that day, but he and others in the crowd had come to see me, the new celebrity.

How can this be healthy? But so it is, in China. I breathe polluted air, but I fear more the polluted ego that comes from adulation and popularity that is disconnected from any actual sense of accomplishment or character.

It’s not hard to spot foreigners who are drawn to China by the thick clouds of ego pollution. It’s all to easy to come to China to sport a new, more popular persona. I see it in the fat, balding men who are career English teachers earning next to nothing by US standards, but who revel in being termed “foreign experts.” I see it in bars and clubs, where guys who look like they’ve hopped out of their computer programming classes to shed their personas for a new one which receives praise and respect or coolness. I see these guys with bleached hair spiked way up, wearing sunglasses in dark bars, and I wonder whether the Chinese around me can see their put-on personas.

So it is my job this year to keep my ego grounded and my character based on reality in a school where I’m already famous and a country where everyone will compliment my Chinese or tell me I look like “that one movie star, although I can’t remember which one.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think you’re that great,” my friend Emily said on the phone from the US that night. So do me a favor if you’re in touch or if you happen to visit: bruise my ego a bit and save me from the choking ego pollution before it’s too late.

September 18, 2007

What my Cell Phone Says About Chinese Culture

My cell phone, a chubby, stubby gray motorola W150i, is a window into Chinese culture. My W150i teaches me about Chinese culture because it’s kind of like having a Chinese spouse: it tries to finish my sentences for me.

Chinese is arduous to type, so when I type in a character in Chinese, it tries to guess what I want to type next. When I type in DRINK, my better half suggests ALCOHOL. When I type in EAT, my better half suggests MEAL.

These are straightforward follow-ups to two basic words, but there are other suggestions that strike me as representations of a strange order of preferences. Chances are that the words that we use more often are used so often because they’re central to our life and experience. These stanger suggestions offer a glimpse into Chinese culture.

By looking at what words pop up in my Chinese cell phone, we can see how the Chinese are likely to slice up the world of experience. For example, the word HOME or FAMILY is suggested far more frequently than I would suspect of an American phone. When I type GO, AT, RETURN, MY, LEAVE, or ARRIVE, my phone—perhaps with a tone of admonition—suggests HOME. On the other hand, my phone has never suggested, after typing GO, that I GO OUT. Here, I believe my phone’s suggestions are a reflection of the emphasis placed on the home and family in Chinese society.

Even more telling is what my phone suggests after I type VERY. When I type VERY my W150i cooks up the following:

FAST, GOOD, MANY, TALL, BIG …

Fast? Before good? This way of ordering values seems out of step with how I use English.

More interesting is seeing what happens after I type TOO:

BIG, SMALL, GOOD, EXPENSIVE, LATE, etc.

Of the 19 suggestions my phone gives, TOO FAST is nowhere to be found, yet TOO GOOD is right near the top. This difference in language reflects the fact that, in China, there’s a huge emphasis on speed, often at the cost of quality. Chinese goods are known around the world for being cheaply produced and unlikely to last very long, and it’s because they’re made so fast. In my experience doing research, Chinese colleagues were often more concerned with getting the research done in the shortest amount of time, even when this meant comprimising the quality. In China, if I’m riding my bike on the street and it breaks, I can reasonably expect to be able to get it fixed within the next 10 or 15 minutes by the guy at the nearest street-corner stand. The good part is that I can get it fixed incredibly fast; the bad part is it will probably break again next week.

At first, this emphasis on speed seemed more like a consequence of an economy that is still modernizing. The first time this actually struck me as a ingrained value was when I described my bike repairs to a first-generation Chinese friend of mine in Beijing. “That’s how it should be,” she said. “It’s just easier and simpler that way. People make things too complicated in the U.S.” This was the ideal, rather than an unintended consequence.

I’ve found the opposite to be the case in Japan. In Japan, things are carefully made and done right the first time. This makes things more expensive and things more of a hassle, but it also means I only need to buy things once. Japanese cars last a long time, mostly due to the care that is put into making them. Perhaps Japanese cell phones first suggest CAREFUL as a complement to VERY.

In any event, with my W150i better half at my side day and night, perhaps I’ll start to take its suggestions more often. I guess cultural osmosis is digital these days—and faster than ever before, just like my phone would want.

September 24, 2007

Pearls of Miscommunication

Chinese is a language full of homophones. For example, my dictionary lists 68 different characters pronounced “ji,” with a myriad of meanings such as oar, lucky, book, and even sour jujube and crucian carp. Many phonemes gradually fell by the wayside in the development of Chinese, the result being that there are far fewer possible sounds in Chinese than in other languages. Many sounds in English simply do not exist in Chinese. “Mis” does not exist in Chinese, rendering my transliterated name: “Twoah-mah-sih.” “Aw” and “lit” do not exist in Chinese, rendering the word ‘chocolate’ into “Chow-kuh-lee.”

With so few phonetic possibilities, there are so many words with the same pronunciation that the language developed tones, vocal inflection, to distinguish between similar sounding words. Thus, as every Chinese learner hears on the first day of class, “ma” with a high tone refers to your mother, but “ma” with a low tone refers to your horse. Yet even with four tones to distinguish between different meanings of ji, the number of homonyms with the same tone is still enough to frighten any language learner—and lead to a treasure trove of misunderstandings.

A popular example given to new Chinese learners is that a difference between the tone of the word ‘wen’ can mean the difference between “I want to ask you,” and “I want to kiss you,” a mistake which might explain why I’ve been asked why Americans have the custom of kissing on the cheek when greeting, like the French. Most of the time, though, the context of the situation is enough for people differentiate between similar-sounding words and realize that you would rather find out where the nearest subway stop is rather than proposition a romantic moment.

Yet there are bound to be moments of confusion that border upon the absurd, as happened to David and me while travelling from Guilin to Yangshuo over a 3-day weekend. After taking a bus out of scenic Guilin, we were dropped off near the Lijiang river, home to gorgeous hills jutting out of the landscape—hills so beautiful that they grace the backside of the 20 yuan note. Getting off the bus in a tiny farming village surrounded by rice paddies, we were struck by an unpleasant smell. David took the moment to ask the woman showing the two of us to the dock. Translated into English, his conversation went as follows:

“Excuse me, what is that strange smell? Is that chemical fertilizers?” “Do you mean ‘telephone bill’?” “No, I mean ‘chemical fertilizers’!”

It struck me that even the context of the conversation wasn’t enough to prevent such a ridiculous misunderstanding. Even though the word for chemical fertilizers, ‘hua fei,’ and phone bill, also ‘hua fei,’ is identical except for the tone on the word ‘fei,’ it seems pretty obvious that a telephone bill would not be responsible for such an offensive odor. But then again, in a country where the name ‘McDonald’s’ can be translated back into English as ‘Wheat serving as the fruits of labor,’ perhaps it’s not a stretch to think that China Mobile is responsible for small-town China’s odor problems.