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November 2007 Archives

November 9, 2007

When a Spade's not a Spade

During my class on idioms and slang last week, I lectured on the idea that popular idioms often express cultural norms. I argued that English expressions like, “Let’s call a spade a spade,” and “The bigger the better,” fit with the Western notion that the outside or appearance of something should be equivalent to its inside or its essence and that we should be direct and honest in social interaction.

Chinese, thought, I countered, more often emphasizes that appearances are deceptive and, more importantly, that in reality the man who looks a fool is the wisest of all or the man. In China, the outside is often taken to be not only inconsistent with the inside, but often to be the exact opposite of the inside.

This same emphasis on contradictions reverberates through Chinese religions, as I found when I visited with my religion class the Daoist Baiyun Guan, a famous temple in Beijing, and was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with a high-ranking priest.

Though his speech was accelerated by his passion, I was still able to understand clearly his teaching that one who seeks wisdom should not seek it inside the temple walls. Instead, the priest urged us to leave the temple, “Go find the man on the street. Talk to the homeless man, the one with long hair who is sleeping on the street. He is the one with real wisdom!”

Yet this wasn’t just a religious thought experiment, I tried to explain to my students, drawing two circles on the white board, one with the outside and inside connected by an equal sign and the other with a black slash through the equal sign.

The difference between outward appearance and inside meaning is very much a part of Chinese society. To make the point, I took an example from Chinese dating. As I learned in my Chinese lesson podcasts, if, for example, a boy brings a Chinese girl flowers, she may often respond by saying with a pouty voice, “Taoyan!” ‘Taoyan’ means ‘to hate’ or ‘to dislike,’ although here the meaning is very much the opposite—the outside words and the inside meaning are exactly opposite.

As convinced as I was that I had made a cogent point, several female students approached me after class and spoke up, “I don’t think that we say ‘taoyan’ anymore. If I like a boy, I’ll just tell him.”

Perhaps my students were right, and this is just another example of how China is changing. As students at an elite high school in one of the most economically developed major cities in China, they would be most likely to be one the leading edge of societal change. On the other hand, it could be another example of a phrase that I hear Chinese people use often to describe others: “their thought is open, but their behavior is conservative.”

In either case, I doubt this tradition of the outside-inside contradiction will die out anytime soon. This, I believe, is because the source of the phenomenon may not be religion, but rather social interactions, as former New York Times’ Beijing Bureau chief Fox Butterfield points out in China: Alive in the Bitter Sea.

Inviting a Chinese friend to his house, he informed his guest that he was now entering American territory and, as such, he must obey the local customs and tell him if he needs anything. Asked whether he was hungry, his Chinese guest replied, “‘No, thank you, I am not hungry.’”

The author continues: “Guessing that he was still being Chinese, I went to the kitchen an brought out a platter of roast chicken with gravy and stuffing, some homemade bread,” a dish of vegetables, as well as some crepes. His guest devoured it all.

November 15, 2007

China: Fantasy Dreamland for Foreigners

When I was young, teachers and parents often told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be in life. If I wanted to be the president, I could; if I wanted to be a football player, I could; if I wanted to be a doctor, I could. I’m still fairly convinced that if I devote enough time and effort, I could probably still become a doctor, lawyer, musician, and, well, maybe not a professional football player. Despite all that possibility, I never thought I could become a model—until I came to China.

Last weekend, I received a cell-phone call from a man who offered me, sight-unseen, a gig modelling. The gig, offered by an acquaintance of an acquaintance, was looking for “a couple of foreigners” and would have offered 2,500 yuan ($333) for a day’s work. Stretched into a full-time job, I could hypothetically earn $6,700 a month or $80,000 a year, without any qualifications in a job that I had to do absolutely no work to find. I could be a model in China pretty easily if I wanted to.

The week before, I was introduced to several foreigners who had started careers as DJ’s in China. A veteran DJ from Australia named Mars explained to me: “It’s really very easy. All you need is about 3,000 yuan (about $400) for your basic equipment and you could start getting gigs,” he told me over the music blasting through the club we were in. As Mars explained it, simply being a foreigner in China buys you enough credibility to be able to get a foothold to get hired in clubs. So I could be a DJ in China pretty easily if I wanted to too.

Similarly, many foreigners, like my friend Ned, have started journalism careers in Asia with little or no experience. As it stands now, I am officially a “foreign expert” in China, although I need no experience teaching and no other qualifications other than fluency in my mother tongue of English to be titled as an “expert” and earn a salary and benefits much higher than my Chinese friends graduating from prestigious universities earn. So I can be a well-paid teacher in China too.

At it’s essence, the China I experience and the China that my Chinese friends experience is very different. To my Chinese friends, the working world is a fierce battle for few positions with middling pay and lots of overtime. But to many foreigners, China is a sort of fantasy career world where we can get dream jobs for which we’re not qualified and earn salaries which our Chinese friends do not, all without much effort.

Foreigners in China are often assumed to be experts in just about any field, as if we have, to use an image from the toy-shop, a magical grab bag filled with various sorts of talents that we can pull out at any moment. Some Chinese claim that foreigners all look alike (as seems evident from the agent who offered me the modelling gig), and I believe there’s a similar positive prejudice toward foreigners assuming that we are all experts of many fields.

All of this makes me feel like a kid again, as I fantasize about becoming a journalist, a DJ, a model, or a college professor—all vastly different positions for which I’m hardly qualified—even while these same opportunities are not as open to my Chinese friends.

In America, we tell our children that if they work hard enough, they can be anything they want to be. I never realized that China, the land of the iron rice bowl and food shortages, is even more the land of opportunity, at least for foreigners. Now we can add, if you come to China, you can cut out that pesky hard work and be anything you want to be anyway. I’ll let you know when the modelling career gets off the ground.

November 21, 2007

Put Your Emotions into Rocks

I was once told that, because throughout evolution, men’s main job was to be active and to hunt, men think best during physical activity. If this is true, perhaps it could explain the flash of insight I had while jogging on a treadmill during a trial visit to the Total Fitness gym.

As I ran, I watched one of the Korean dramas my students talk about all the time on the muted TV in front me with Chinese subtitles. “That’s it!” I said to my roommate running next to me, in a flash of recognition at seeing a pile of rocks arranged on a beach translated from Korean into Chinese and seeing the ideal of East Asian emotional expression so clearly demonstrated on a cold beach in Korea.

In the show, following a boxing match turned wrong between two rivals for a girl’s affection and a hospital visit to the resulting coma victim, the victorious but repentant boxer goes to the beach on a cold winter day to pass his sorrow while staring out in the sea. Soon afterwards, the girl arrives at the beach behind the young man and watches him from a distance. She takes off her hat in a moment of silent empathy and begins to rearrange the rocks at her feet into a message for him.

The camera then cuts to the young man turning around, and I, as an American, expect a tearful face-to-face reconciliation. Instead, the girl has left, and the young man stumbles upon her hat and her stone-written message of reconciliation on the sand. The young man is visibly moved, and the viewer knows that the emotional tension has been resolved in a single stroke of emotional grace.

In the scene that follows, the pair is together with a large group of friends at a picnic, and it’s clear that the couple haven’t brought their feelings up in person—only in rocks.

As much as the show’s plot broke with my expectations as an American, the show reinforced what I have noticed in my experience in China: that strong interpersonal emotions are very rarely expressed openly. Rather, the pinnacle of emotional expression in China is through indirectness or even silence.

The following week I told my Chinese friend I call Confucius about the show, and he said Chinese rarely express such emotions directly. “My mother often calls me on the phone, and I can tell from her voice that she misses me very much,” he related. “But does she tell you that she misses you?” I asked. “Oh, she can never say that, but I just know.” Confucius replied.

At times I see a subtle beauty in the indirectness or even lack of emotional expression in China. Similarly, I feel like I’ve been trumped when Confucius says that he would have no need to tell his wife that he loves her because it’s already understood—she already knows. I wonder whether we’re we so insecure in America that we must constantly remind our loved ones that we really love them.

But I can’t help but feel there’s something lacking if, when I get married, I don’t tell my wife that I love her, even though I perhaps I come off as brutishly direct to my Chinese friends when I give thank-you cards (a practice I’ve not seen in China) or say “love” or “miss” too often. Then again, maybe when I’m married, instead of telling my wife I love her, I’ll scrounge some rocks on the way home from work and leave my message on the kitchen table. And she’ll just know.

November 23, 2007

There Is No Why

I sat down at my computer station in a smoky internet cafe the day after I arrived in Beijing this summer and bent over to hook my mp3 player up to the USB port below the table. No sooner had I bent under the desk than an employee ran over to me shouting in Chinese, “No, no, no! You can’t do that. That’s impossible!”

Irritated, I looked at the computer—3 USB ports, covered a bit in dust, but all in seemingly good condition. “Why?” I asked in Chinese, wondering the ports were broken or whether it was the policy of the internet cafe. “There is no why!” the man responded, using a common Chinese expression that sounds a bit awkward in English. I was no more clued into why I couldn’t use the computer. Apparently the man was fervently enforcing a policy that had no reason. “There is no why? It looks fine to me. Why can’t I use it?” I asked, getting more irritated. “There is no why!” he said again, this time waving his hand for emphasis. The man then returned to the service desk, taking care to watch me to see if I would attempt to use my USB against his will.

This was not the first time I had run into the phrase, “There is no why” in China, and I have even heard the phrase translated directly into English coming out of my students’ mouths since my internet cafe encounter.

“There is no why” is, of course, more naturally translated as ‘there is no reason,’ and I tell my students such in class. But, even if I take it to mean ‘there is no reason,’ I hear “there is no why” on a much more common and frustrating basis in China than I was used to in the States.

At first, I was convinced that the difference grew out of a different look on the service industry that treats customers like impositions onto the sales people. In a country where the government (until recently) most often guaranteed lifetime employment and under a system that upheld industrial production over consumer products—measuring progress by increases in steel and grain production while restricting the supply and raising the prices of consumer goods like televisions, radios, and refrigerators—one could expect unhelpful salespeople unwilling to explain why you cannot get what you want.

Additionally, China was often credited with not only inventing bureaucracy but also “raising it to an art form,” forcing people to deal with denials of housing requests, job transfers, and other disappointments with little explanation or recourse for appeal. These, I thought, were the sources of the persistent distaste for explaining and giving reasons.

However, as I stayed in China longer, I found that “there is no why” was popping up outside of stores and offices. My friends, acquaintances, and even students were using ‘there is no why’ frequently as a conversation stopper, often because they didn’t want to explain something or to cover up the fact that they didn’t know.

When I asked my students, for example, why they enjoy their hobbies or my friends why they hold certain beliefs, I often run dead on into ‘there is no why,’ and I’m more and more convinced that it’s a deeper part of the way the Chinese slice the world, beyond bureaucracy or social planning.

I would not be the first to note that Chinese civilization has placed less emphasis on formal logic, nor the first to note that Chinese philosophy and religion has often emphasized that life is full of contradictions and that the highest form of wisdom integrates a distaste for the oversimplifications of logic. At its heart, I think that in the West we often believe that the universe is inherently understandable—that if we have better and better instruments, eventually we can understand just about everything.

On the other hand, University of Michigan social psychologist Dick Nisbett has written that East Asian traditions often view the world dialectically, as a tension between opposing forces, whereas Western thought has emphasized the linearity of the world and our capacity to understand it. And this, I believe, is the deeper source of these differences and my frustration at cashiers and the lack of explanations I receive in China.

But recently, my frustration has turned into opportunity as I see the advantages of a system that allows for a conversational out, as opposed to the standard I was used to of always feeling the need to give others explanations.

The longer I stay in China, the more tired I grow of answering the stock questions I am asked in nearly every encounter: “Why did you come to China?” and “Why is your Chinese so good?” Now, when I’m feeling tired, I pull out my secret weapon: “There is no why,” and I do as the Romans do. Perhaps if I ever go back to that internet cafe in Beijing, and the service person asks me why I broke the rule and hooked up my mp3 player, I’ll smile and tell him, “There is no why.”

Other People Love You

In the new Ang Lee movie Lust, Caution there’s a romantic scene between a sympathizer with the Japanese invaders and a Chinese agent sent to betray him. She arrives, apologizing that she hasn’t brought any gifts or token of her affection. The man replies, “Ren lai, jiu hao le.” Translated into English on the bottom of the screen, the phrase read, “Im glad that you’re here.”

But any bilingual viewers would have noticed that the translation into English was markedly different from the original Chinese. Yet I think this discrepancy was not a result of hasty or sloppy translating, but rather it was a brilliant result of differences in Chinese and English expression and a peak into the difference between how Americans and Chinese express emotions differently.

The Chinese language has an economy about that makes it difficult to translate the phrase into English, but the 5-syllable phrase could be translated as, “As long as people come, everything’s good.” The important difference is that the original Chinese is expressed in the 3rd person and has no direct relation to the girl standing across from him.

The English, on the other hand, has pared down the indirect meaning to the man’s basic emotion, which is “I’m glad you’re here.” The original has neither ‘I’ nor ‘you’; yet the English has done away with the indirectness and expressed it directly, using “I” and “you.”

Though movies arent always direct portrayals of real life, the same has been true in interactions in China. Inspired by the tropical flowers of during our trip to tropical Hainan province, the southernmost in China, a friend of mine recently sent his girlfriend a rather poetic text message asking her what time of year she blossoms.

After he received a rather terse reply, I informed my friend that his girlfriend might have misinterpreted his use of the word ‘blossom,’ and I encouraged him to send a clarifying text message. Her reply was another example of the nearly philosophical reference to other people or general rules instead of her personal emotion: “Language can really make people misunderstand.”

There’s a poetic beauty in the terse, philosphically indirect expressions of emotions in China that certainly contrasts with the directness of American emotions. The indirectness can sometimes comes off to me as cold, but I suspect that my emotional directness often comes across as somewhat brutish or unrefined.

One Chinese friend once told me that she thought that saying, “I love you,” is rather cheap; instead, one should show this through thoughtfulness and caring.There’s a beauty in that philosophy as well.

In the end, though, there are also times when I find the emotional directness I’m accustomed to as an American raw and touching, and it’s hard to conceive of this directness in American culture being replaced with Chinese indirectness. Imagine Titanic (a favorite with most of my students) ending with Rose floating on debris and Jack near death, his last words,”Farewell, Rose. Men sometimes strongly love women.”

November 26, 2007

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

When I first arrived in China, I basked in the constant praise I received from Chinese people about my Chinese. I was likely to hear “You speak Chinese very well!” even before questions about where I was from and far before giving my name. All I needed to say was ‘Ni hao,’ to trigger effusive praise of my accomplishments, my accent, and my talent.

But as time wore on, my pleasure in basking in their compliments turned into a tiredness at hearing the same compliments over and over. I often wanted to move the conversation forward to ask questions about where others were from, rather than spend time discussing exactly how long I’ve been studying Mandarin. As it turns out, even vanity can grow tiring sooner or later.

Now recently, my boredom at the praise has turned even further into a mild resentment at what I suspect are the low expectations that underlie the compliments. Foreigners, I’ve learned, are expected to know nothing of China. Feats as simple as learning how to say ‘hello,’ using chopsticks, writing simple characters, and cursory knowledge of Chinese history are all greeted with enough surprise to divert the conversation away from content and back to praise.

Other foreigners have talked about “The Talking Dog Phenomenon,” referring to the surprise and fascination that some Chinese have with foreigners who can speak Chinese, especially those Chinese living outside large cities. This, I suspect, is partly the reason behind the success of Da Shan, the goofy-looking Canadian-turned-Chinese-TV-star who speaks excellent Mandarin and now, I suspect, lives a comfortable life off of the advertising revenue from numerous commercials and print ads, not to mention his officially endorsed learn-Mandarn course.

Why I believe it’s a result of low expectations rather than a uniform flattery of others is the stark contrast between the praise I get and the brutal criticism my Chinese American friends get. “Why is your Chinese so bad?” a fellow Princeton in Asia fellow told me she heard from Chinese colleagues in Yunnan province. It’s clear that for those who are ethnically Chinese, the expectations are much higher.

Yet for me, even knowing the names of Chinese leaders impresses my Chinese friends. “Have you heard of the Cultural Revolution?” I was asked yesterday.

Low expectations can at times be preferrable to the arrogant way in which Americans expect everyone else to speak English and be well versed on everything American, but my Chinese friends’ low expectations of what I know about China often limits the depth of what they will bring up in conversation, which makes it harder to get their insight into Chinese history, language, and other interesting topics.

“It’s not fair,” I’ve told my students. “If I come to China and speak one sentence of Chinese, I’ll be praised. But if you go to America and speak excellent English, people will think that’s normal, that it should be like that anyway.”

In the end, although it’s irritating, I’m not sure I’d wish for the high expectations my Chinese American friends have thrust upon them. In all truth, I still get a tinge of enjoyment now and then when people praise my Mandarin and the thought of developing my Mandarin to the point at which I could become a Chinese TV star has crossed my mind more than once. Plus, I’ve heard talking dogs actually pull a decent salary.