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March 2008 Archives

March 2, 2008

My Opium War at the Post Office

Foreigners in China starting from, say, the Opium War, don’t exactly have a track record of good behavior in China, and the afternoon I spent arguing at the post office isn’t exactly helping.

One afternoon a couple weeks ago, I arrived at the post office across the street from my school, entered through the glass doors, waded through the line of migrant workers sending hapharzardly wrapped packages to their hometowns, and handed my package slip to the attendant to pick up the cookies and deodorant my father had sent from the US. Only after I had handed over the slip did I realize that I had forgotten my passport, which is needed to prove you’re not picking up the wrong person’s package.

Faced with the prospect of wasting a half hour to go back home to retrieve my passport, I decided instead to argue with the young man across the counter. I argued with the man that he should accept my student ID, telling him that he was wasting my time until it became clear that I wasn’t going to get my package.

I walked home fuming, my head screeching as I turned over potential vitriol, looking for the wittiest vitriol to tell the man when I returned.

It wasn’t until I reached the post office for the second time (this time with passport in hand) that I realized how petty I was being and decided not to hurl invective at the man. After all, the young man across the counter was merely enforcing a rule that was probably for my own benefit in the first place.

I was certainly being petty, but as I asked myself why my temper had flared so wildly, I started to realize that my anger (and some of the anger I’ve seen flare up in others at banks, train stations, and other institutions in China) was partly a result of how opaque and inconsistent instiutions are in China.

China writers almost as a rule write about how relationships (guanxi) can get people about anything they want and about how people are used to going around rules and regulations, a practice called “zou houmen” or “going through the backdoor.” Yet perhaps we should add, “Throw a big enough fit and you can probably get about anything you want” to the list of China truisms. All of the practices exist because rules, regulations, and especially things that service people say are often flexible if not even farther from reality.

The result of a system that isn’t transparent is that it encourages people to either go around it or throw a fit to get their way. In my case at the post office, I had run up against a rule that actually was consistently enforced, but I had no way of knowing it in the first place.


Case 1

My roommate and fellow Princeton in Asia recipient, David, recently took three trips to the bank to pick up a money wire from the States. David had gone once when the bank was closed, again when they told him a minor detail was wrong on a form he had brought, and now finally he was back, and he handed his receipts to the woman across the counter.

The woman looked them over, and the told David he could now, finally, get his money, but they would have to give it to him in American dollars, the original currency the money was wired in.

Hearing this, David was at wits’ end. He asked them to explain exactly why they couldn’t give him Yuan.

The woman responded with a reason that David didn’t understand. Frustrated and wanting to understand the situation, David asked the woman to put down the reason in writing. Hearing this, the woman sighed, “Fine, you can have it in Yuan.”

David, seeking only to understand the situation, had unwittingly stumbled upon what was likely the woman’s unwillingness to be helpful. Apparently she could have given him Yuan all along, but hadn’t wanted to go through the trouble to do so. Only when David made a fuss about it did she relent.

David walked out of the bank with his Yuan in hand and a new strategy for dealing with service institutions in China.


Case 2

After arriving at the train station only minutes after our train for our weekend trip to Xiamen had left the station, I convinced my father and aunt visiting from the US that we should sneak onto the next train and only buy tickets on the train if they ask us to.

We got onto the train with ease thanks to the ticket-inspector’s carelessness in looking only at our car and seat designation and not at the train number. Once aboard, we found second-class sleepers and settled in.

Soon enough the onboard ticket-inspector had discovered us, and told us that we had to get off at the next stop because the remaining beds were all taken by passengers boarding at the next station.

Had I been in the US, I would have accepted the bad news and resigned myself to trying to get everyone back to Guangzhou for the night. But because I was in China, I put on my fighting spirit instead.

Suspecting that the woman was bluffing, we stayed put at the next station (the last of the night before the long haul to Xiamen), and sure enough not a single new passenger entered our compartment.

Soon after, the ticket-inspector reappeared and made us buy tickets, ignoring completely the inconsistency of her earlier words. In the end, we made it to Xiamen without further incident.


Through these experiences I’ve been heartened in my increasing ability to work the Chinese system to get what I want (or, as in David’s case, what should have been provided in the first place). But at the same time, I’ve been increasingly embarrassed at my temper in situations like that in the post office where I read the opaqueness incorrectly and struggle against a legitimate rule.

At least now I know not to wage another Opium War the next time I forget to bring my passport to pick up a package from the post office.

My big worry now is heading back to the US used to being combative to get my way. So if you see an uppity midwestern guy flipping his lid at the post office in the US, do me a favor and remind me where I am.

March 18, 2008

The Beauty of Chinese Silence

I recently made a foray into the world of Chinese literature. In the process, I stumbled upon a beautiful essay and a great example of how Chinese and Americans express emotions differently.

Deciding that I was ready for something a little more challenging than signs on the subway and the text messages from my students, I set out to read Shi Tiesheng’s “Me, Ditan, and My Mother.” (Called by some the best Chinese prose essay of the 20th century, it goes by different names in Chinese and English)

The essay chronicles Shi Tiesheng’s sojourns of depression in Ditan Park in Beijing after he lost the use of his legs in a car accident when he was 21. Ditan is where emperors made sacrifices to the Gods following ritual fasting. After the the last dynasty fell, it became a public park. The descriptions of Shi Tiesheng’s long trips to the park are mesmerizing, but the way he struggles to deal with his ravaging emotions and his relationship with his mother, I believe, are undeniably Chinese:

“There were a good many trips where I stayed in the park too long and my mother would come looking for me. She came looking for me but she didn’t want me to know. She just wanted to see that I was still in the park like a good boy and then she would slowly turn around and go back. I saw her back like this several times. I also saw her several times looking all around the park. Her vision wasn’t good so she would strain her eyes looking for me as if looking for a boat on the sea. She didn’t see me, but I had already seen her. When I saw her and she hadn’t seen me I wouldn’t look at her. A little while later I would raise my head again to look at her, and again I would see her back slowly leaving. I have no way of knowing how many times she came and couldn’t find me. There was one time I was sitting in a short thicket of trees, the trees being very thick, and I could see her trying in vain to find me. She would walk by herself through the park, pass by my side, passing through the places I often stayed in, walking in the dark, urgently. I didn’t know how long she had been searching nor how much longer she would search. I don’t know why I decided not to yell out to her—but this wasn’t a children’s game of hide-and-go-seek. Maybe it was the the stubbornness of a grown-up boy or maybe it was shyness, but this stubbornness only left me with pain and regret, and not a trace of pride. I really want to warn all grown boys, whatever you do don’t take this stubbornness with your mother. The shyness is even less necessary. I understand this now, but it’s already too late.”

The heartbreaking silence and the bottling of emotions are hallmarks of the lack of emotional expressions in Chinese relationships. Far from being expressions unique to Shi Tiesheng, this passiveness is the same as that of Confucius (as I’ve deemed the teacher I meet with on a regular basis for chats on Chinese culture), who’s convinced that his mother misses him but has never once heard her say so.

Equally enlightening is the mind reading made necessary by the silence between Shi Tiesheng and his mother:

“She wasn’t that kind of mother who only knows how to love her son but doesn’t understand him. She knew my heart was dejected and that she shouldn’t stop me from leaving the house to go around. She knew that staying at home would be even worse, even though she worried about what I was thinking about all day in that desolate and out-of-the-way park. At that time I had an extremely bad temper, and I would leave the house in a fit and when I came back to the house I wouldn’t say a word. My mother knew there are some things you shouldn’t ask, and she would hesitate to ask and finally wouldn’t dare ask because even her own heart didn’t have an answer. She figured that I wouldn’t agree to have her go with me, so she never asked me to. She knew that she had to give me my own time, that I needed a time for this process. But what she didn’t know was how long it would take or what the process would involve. Every time I’d get up and move my body she would help me get ready without saying a word, help me get in my wheel chair, and watch me as I wheeled out and around the corner. And what happened to her after I left didn’t even cross my mind at the time.”

This heartbreaking portrait is perhaps made all the more affecting because this same sort of reticence and guessing at what’s really going on in other people’s minds—even those closest to us—is common in China. Americans are known for being loud, and one of the things we tend to broadcast to the whole world and those closest to us is how were feeling.

But living in China, I find myself embroiled in daily guessing games, trying to figure out what my bosses, coworkers, and even closest friends are thinking (I could never ask!). But for now, at least I’m fortunate enough that Shi Tiesheng managed to share his.


The above translations (and all the inaccuracies) are mine.

March 19, 2008

Why Rap and China Go Together

China and rap are not normally associated with each other. But after coming to China, I’ve found that listening to American rap is an entirely new experience.

Listening to rap in China has proven to me that what music means depends on where you listen to it. For one, in America, if I pop in a Kanye West CD while I’m driving in my car, I roll up the windows. I, the white suburban kid rolling around blaring music from the south side of Chicago, is seen as someone trying to be something he’s not.

But in China, I feel like it’s more legitimate for me to represent and identify with the coarseness and coolness of hip hop. Hip hop in China serves as a great balance for the extremes of Chinese society.

Now, I’m not a particularly cool or tough guy. But then again, I’m in China—a country where even accepting another person’s praise is considered too boastful. Rap, on the other hand, is all about telling others that you have the most money, the biggest car, and the baddest attitude.

In the same way, China is not a country with a lot of posturing or people who think that they’re cool. In a country with too little posturing and attitude, I’ve found myself appreciating the boasting and bragging of hip hop in a way I hadn’t before.

Now I put in Dr. Dre’s 2001 and posture silently on my porch as I look out over the manicured lawns of the school and the track where masses of students do subdued gymnastics as one to blaring loudspeakers.

Rap and China go well together also because Chinese society insists on denying the very dark and crude things that rap extols.

Chinese society is extremely sanitized. My students titter when I even raise the idea of boyfriends and girlfriends. Sexuality is repressed, censored, or presented in a neutered, cute way. Profanity is rare and similarly censored. Even disagreements are often shunned by my students.

In such an environment, I’ve found myself strangely drawn to the crude sexuality and filthy language in rap to remind myself that the world isn’t sanitized like Chinese society says it is. Milan Kundera defined “kitsch” is the denial of shit; there’s more than enough denial of shit in China. So now, when I’m listening to rap, I’m trying to be back some of that shit.

March 21, 2008

The Chinese Skyscraper Village

One day this week, while he was returning from the cafeteria, my roomate David rounded the corner toward our apartment building when he ran into two bras freshly hung to dry. With water still dripping from the bras, it was obvious that whoever had put out their underwear to dry had put it out during lunchtime. It’s also obvious that China—the land of seismic economic growth; the country with more internet users than the US—despite it’s rising modernity, China is still very much a village.

China is a village, but not just because people use the cafeteria to dry their underwear and the track to dry their bedsheets. China’s a village because people in my community in the modern city of Guangzhou still keep their tabs on others, spreading gossip faster than the flu. Not only do my villagers spread gossip, but they spread openly taken up and enforce social mores on others in the community.

This much was clear when David went to the copy room to make copies for class. One of the 30- or 40-something women who makes copies grunted at David: “I saw you with that girl walking on campus. That’s your girlfriend, right?”
“Yeah, that’s my girlfriend,” David replied, referring to his Chinese girlfriend. “Are you devoted to her? Are you devoted to her? We’re very conservative here,” she admonished David with loud enough to interfere with the tones that differentiate meanings in Chinese. What should have been a high, level tone in the word ‘devoted’ was rendered into a harsh, falling tone through her admonishing. With her interrogation interfering with the woman’s tones, David was confused and stumbled to defend his propriety amid unclear accusations.

David tried his best to clear his name in one heart in the village, but the fact that the residents on campus view us with suspicion and as intruders into their village was already made clear.

The Chinese are well known for their graciousness as hosts, but after coming to invade the Chinese village for good I feel the unwelcome stares from campus residents every day. Even during an act as simple as walking across campus, I squirm as the families on campus scowl at me with a look that shows me just how suspicious of me the villagers are, especially the women—the older the greater the suspicion.

The women are suspicious partly because foreign men in China are reputed to be “multi-colored ghosts,” or licentious sex pots. Also, probably because women tend to pursue language study more than men (even at U of M, my Spanish classes were more than two-thirds female), my English corner is routinely packed with more female students than male.

This only goes to prove in the minds of my female coworkers that I’m another licentious foreigner, as they commiserate while we wash our lunch pails in the cafeteria. “Those two always have a big flock of girls around them, huh?” my coworkers say over us in the way that Chinese people speak Chinese to each other around us convinced (or pretending) that we can only understand Chinese when it’s spoken to us directly.

So David and I become more isolated from the village community, which cuts us off from the important news and events of the school which are passed largely by word of mouth rather than through announcements and official channels. And thus when I miss the “teachers’ sports meeting” that my coworkers failed to tell me about, my image as an outsider in the Chinese village is confirmed.

So I try to work my way back into the Chinese village clinging on amongst the modern skyscrapers rising by the day around it. Maybe if I try hard enough, some day I’ll make some progress and be promoted from a “multi-colored ghost” to something more innocuous, maybe just a tan-colored ghost.