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May 2008 Archives

May 2, 2008

Everybody's Xinku (or else)

Part of living in a collectivistic society is making sure to fit in with everybody else—this much is obvious. But I discovered only recently that this means we all have to keep up appearances of being tired and overworked together too.

As I was jogging on the nearby university campus listening to a Chinese lesson via Chinesepod.com, a laugh set me to thinking.

In the lesson, the two Chinese hosts were discussing their experiences celebrating Children’s Day, a holiday that often includes giving children the day off from school. One host explains that her school hosted talent contests for Children’s Day, and then the second host responds:

“So there would be a lot of stress, it would be very tiring, right?”
“At that time, I didn’t think it was tiring. I just thought it was a pretty happy time. [nervous sigh] … We could rehearse in the afternoon and then go home. [laughter]”

In a collectivistic society everyone is expected to contributing and working hard, and it is this pressure which I think has morphed into a general unwillingness from people to say they have it easy.

This, I think, is what is going on subtly in the dialogue. To start off, the first host lobs a softball by saying “it would have been very tiring, right?” making it easy for the second host to agree that it was tiring, and thus fit in.

But more telling are the nervous sigh and the uncomfortable laughter that come when the second host says that she actually had it easy.

I wouldn’t be the first to point out that laughter in China often serves to cover up uncomfortable feelings, and this strikes me as a perfect example. The second host is probably embarrassed to say that her time in school was not tiring, and she covers this embarrassment with laughter.

What I have been describing as ‘tiring’ has a nearly iconic Chinese word that is impossible to miss in China: ‘xinku.’ ‘Xinku’ can be translated as ‘tiring’ but it also includes ‘ku,’ which translates literally as ‘bitterness,’—a word used commonly to refer to the hardships of life (just as ‘to eat bitter’ means in Chinese ‘to bear hardships’).

In Guangzhou, I hear people assuring others that their lives are xinku all the time. It’s so common to talk about work or study being tiring or xinku that these conversations seem to run on auto-pilot. Simply pop in the xinku route and the conversation guides itself for a while.

Xinku is so valued that it’s even used in a common form of ‘thank-you.’ When thanking someone, particularly for works duties, as a patient would a doctor or a student would a teacher, it’s polite to say, “xinku le!” This translates perhaps as, “You’re so overworked!”

On a deeper level, I think the xinku phenomenon has its basis in the fact that Chinese people try to avoid sticking out, for fear of growing a target on their backs. Just as the Chinese say, “The pig that gets fat gets killed first,” it’s popular to try to lay low and avoid sticking out for fear of being targeted by others.

And one way of sticking out is by saying you’ve got it pretty easy in work or school, which is exactly what the Chinesepod host felt uncomfortable declaring.

So it seems that it’s best to stick to your guns in China and insist that we’re all ever so xinku (but don’t worry, it’s easy: most people will open the door for you to fit into the xinku fold, just as the first host tried to do). Just be sure to be xinku, or else…

May 5, 2008

Contradictions and Playgrounds

Living in China, I’m pretty cut off from media, not having quality English-language newspapers available except online (reading newspapers online is a practice that I think I may never get used to).

From time to time, though, I get my hands on the state-run China Daily. Every time I open it up, I thank heaven there’s an entire page devoted to kooky happenings around the country. My grasp of current events is only made stronger by hearing of stupid criminals, marriage proposals gone wrong, and pet parakeets saving their owners’ lives.

But in honesty, the kooky-events page is actually a rich place where cultural differences manifest themselves.

A recent account entitled, “Lovers jump into moat in drunken suicide bid” was no exception. As the title suggests, two lovers decided to commit suicide by jumping into a moat. They were rescued minutes later by police and taken to the hospital.

The interesting part comes when the article explains the reason for their suicide attempt: “The two lovers said they wanted to die together after getting drunk, for they often had contradictions although they were deep in love.”


Now, when I encounter wacky (but ultimately intelligible) English from my students, it can usually be explained in one of two ways.

First, some are Britishisms that I hadn’t previously encountered. I discovered this to be the case after I admonished my students to stop calling the cafeteria the “canteen,” explaining that “canteen” gave me images of cowboys, sasparilla, and the wild west. According to the dictionary, though, “canteen” can mean “cafeteria” in British English.

Second, there is Chinglish. I suspect Chinglish to be the reason behind why my students call the track and environs the “playground.” I’m sure it’s why my students call track meets “sport meetings”—a direct translation from Chinese, which uses “hui” or “meeting.”

“Contradictions” falls into the Chinglish category, and I suspect that it’s usage is telling about Chiense society.

A word that is most normally associated with a logical relationship is used in Chinese to describe human relations. ‘Maodun’ (contradiction) is better translated as ‘conflicts.’

It’s not surprising that in an interdependent society human relationships supercede concerns for strict logical relationships—even the word ‘logic’ in Chinese (luoji) is a transliteration from outside.

I suppose that for now, it’s just important that we all just try to understand each other through the fog of Britishms and Chinglish. This way, we’ll do our best to avoid contradictions in the canteen spilling over into the playground.

May 16, 2008

The Murder and Subesquent Intrigue of the Ferryboat Driver

This week I tried my best to delve into my students’ moral psyches by stealing a lesson that I had had to take when I was in college about moral responsibility. The lesson details a simple fictional story about a housewife who gets involved in an extramarital affair with her piano teacher across town and ends up being killed by a madman in a desperate effort to get back before her husband returns one night:

This is the story of a young couple. They lived in a village near a river. The husband worked in a nearby town. The wife stayed at home. At the beginning they were very much in love. However, the husband had a very demanding job. He rarely came home before 10PM. Sometimes he was away on business for several days. The wife asked him to change his job, but he refused. The wife became very unhappy. She started going to piano lessons across the river. Her piano teacher was unmarried. He was very kind to her and understood her problems. Soon they became lovers. The wife, however, still loved her husband and felt very guilty. One day the wife found herself in a difficult situation. She had spent all evening with her lover and her husband was at home that evening. When she got to the bridge she found a dangerous madman blocking her way. She ran to the ferry boat up the river. The ferry boat driver saw that she was in a hurry and knew that the madman was on the river, so he refused to take her unless she gave him thirty times the normal price. She didn’t have enough money. She ran to her girlfriend’s house, told her the whole story and begged to borrow some money. Her friend disapproved of her behavior and refused to give her money. In desperation, the wife tried to cross the bridge. The madman caught her and killed her.

The students must then rank the six characters of the story in order of their guilt for the wife’s death.

The story is intentionally designed to be morally ambiguous by involving each of the six characters with an integral part of the murder while simultaneously providing some sort of exculpating detail. For example, the madman is directly responsible for the act of killing the wife, but he is a madman and may not know what he is doing.

I was hoping to see some interesting patterns in my students’ responses, but for the most part they seemed to hold each possible opinion in equal measure. Some declared the madman directly responsible; others said he was not responsible at all. Some held the piano teacher responsible for seducing the wife; others, in a romantic twist, said love was uncontrollable and thus exhonerated him completely.

There was however, a surprising number who pardoned the ferryboat driver who, seeing the dangerous madman blocking the bridge, asked the wife for thirty times the normal ferry fare—a sum the wife did not have. As a result, the wife returned to the bridge only to be murdered by the madman.

Despite the fact that he had chosen to wildly gouge the wife while knowing full well the danger at the bridge crossing, the ferryboat driver often came in near the bottom of the guilt list of my students. “He was just trying to earn money,” some students said.

That much was obvious, but more striking was the fact that my students didn’t even bat an eye at wiping the ferryboat driver’s knowing price gouging at the wife’s moment of despair off the radar of moral responsibility.

Even many of those who ranked him a bit more responsible said that it wasn’t wrong that he price gouged, only that thirty times was a bit excessive. “Oh, really?” I replied. “How much is a reasonable amount to gouge someone in a time of need?” I asked. I never got a clear response to that question.

‘Pragmatic’ is the most apt word to describe the Chinese culture that I’ve come to know in my time in China, and a part of that pragmatism is the pressure to try to get ahead and beat the system.

This same attitude is widespread at markets and shops, where prices are negotiable and scales always seemed to be rigged. Just last night, a visiting PiA fellow caught a shopkeeper entering an inflated price into a scale measuring the fruit he had just bought.

Perhaps this pragmatism is understandable in a country where living memory still records widespread poverty and famine. It’s hard to know how you’d act in the same situation if you’ve come from a house in the suburbs.

Yet regardless of the cause, in China a lot of people hold the view that business is business, and people should get ahead whether by legitimate means or not—which is a bit frightening considering the fact that this opinion seems to be held also by my students (relatively well off already), the best and the brightest in the province, who are on a path to becoming leaders of business and Chinese society.

To take principled stands on matters of business and money is an idea that seems foreign to my Chinese friends and students.

Rather, pragmatism rules the day, and is probably responsible for why I’ve been met with incredulous wonder at my refusal to shop at the Wal Mart stores popping up around China. On the other hand, now that I’ve been living in China for so long, those everyday low prices are starting to look better than being tricked in the local markets.

Sex and Business at China's Largest Trade Fair

Guangzhou, the world’s factory floor, recently held the semi-annual Canton Fair, China’s largest trade fair where hordes of foreign buyers descend to make colossal orders of Chinese goods to sell across the world. Despite the fact that you’ve never heard of it, chances are you’ve purchased many a screwdriver, MP3 player, or light bulb that was ordered at the Canton Fair.

David and I decided to seize the opportunity to see how the world’s deals are made, so we showed up registered under “Linden electronics,” a company based in Virginia looking to import MP3 players.

What we discovered, apart from next year’s products, was that the Canton Fair oozes with an undercurrent of sketchy sexuality. The Canton Fair seems to be as much about sexual tourism as business.

As hordes of overwhelmingly male businessmen leave their home countries (and perhaps families) and descend upon a developing country to take from it its cheap goods, the sexual undercurrent starts to swell—first outside the walls of the convention center.

Aside the vendors selling furs on the sidewalk, there stand even more vendors passing out cards in English and Chinese soliciting prostitution services. Thrust upon the curious and unaware alike, the cards soon end up scattering the ground.

Not far from the vendors stand a line of young women waiting for clients in broad daylight. Far from being sex workers, these young women are soliciting their services as English-Chinese translators, but the sexual undercurrent persists.

David and I took a place in the middle of the line to get the stories of some of the young women waiting for employment in the April sun. I talked to a plain-looking college student from a distant city in Guangdong province with a heavy Cantonese accent.

“Why are there no male interpreters waiting in line?” I asked.

“First, there aren’t as many male students majoring in English,” she started, referring to the fact that nearly everyone in line was a college student taking time off from classes to make extra money at the fair.

“But even if guys show up to interpret, no one hires them,” she finished.

This young girl was certainly not offering more than interpreting services, but there is certainly a sexual undercurrent to overweight businessmen coming through to hire only young female interpreters.

Inside the convention walls, the undertones become overtones.

A female friend of ours held a temporary job selling cd’s containing supplier databases at the Canton Fair. She thought nothing at first of the fact that her entire team of sellers were young women—not a single man was in the group of sellers sent to roam the convention floor peddling the cd’s.

Yet soon after she hit the floor, the sexual advances started up. The first advance was the most subtle:

“I can’t buy your cd here, but if you come up to my hotel room maybe I can buy one there,” one businessman said.

In a classically pragmatic way, our friend chose not to rebuke the businessmen, but rather to pursue the sale.

“Oh, I can’t do that. But the cd is really good!” she replied.

Any ambiguity that remained crumbled when businessmen started asking our friend, “how much?” while nodding toward her.

Sex tourism is nothing new in Asia, but the extent to which sex pervaded the Canton Fair was surprising. It certainly raises the question of how much a collision of people who think their culture is dominant and an environment where just about everything else is for sale necessarily entails a sexual undercurrent.

I, for one, have rendered my resignation to the head of “Linden Electronics.”

May 24, 2008

My English, Among Other Strengths

China Communication Breakdown Part One

I’m hopelessly naive. I thought I had reached the true limit of flattery back during Chinese New Year when a cell phone salesman told me my Chinese was better than his.

I thought I had reached the limit. I was wrong.

It all started when Ned, an American friend of mine working in Shanghai, came down to Guangzhou for a visit. Any respectable visit to Guangzhou must include late-night dim sum in the old neighborhoods. The best dim sum is at the amazingly delicious and hopelessly gaudy restaurants that serve up the most authentic dim sum for cheap.

At the “Lucky Man Restaurant,” my personal favorite, evening dim sum doesn’t even start until 9:30, which means the subways were closed when we emerged after filling ourselves with countless small plates of Cantonese snacks. Thus, we were forced to hail a taxi for the haul back across town to the dim sum desert where I live.

Ned, David, David’s girlfriend, and I squeezed into a taxi, boisterous with conversation. We chatted noisily, trying to communicate from the front seat to the back, when suddenly the taxi driver jumped into a brief pause in the conversation to compliment the Chinese I had used to give directions:

“Your Chinese is very good, very good!” the man said, breaking into English for the “very good, very good!”

“Thank you,” I said, breaking the custom of fending off any form of compliment as though it were leprosy.

I continued my conversation with Ned and David, but I could see the taxi driver antsy to get back into the conversation. Soon he saw another opening:

“Where are you from?” he asked in Chinese.

“We’re all Americans,” I replied, then picking my conversation with David and Ned back up. At the price of being rude, I was trying to avoid having there where-I’m-from conversation for the thousandth time.

But the taxi driver came back with a new strategy:

“Your English is very good, very good!” he said, again breaking into English for the “very good,” the second “very good” louder than the first.

I laughed. Conversations about my Chinese are routine, but this was new and absurd.

“Well, English is my mother tongue,” I replied.

“Your English—very good!” he repeated, waving off my attempt at an explanation.

After we left the taxi, David’s girlfriend offered her explanation for why what the driver had said was so disconnected from common sense: the man was just trying to be friendly, to cultivate good feelings and possibly a friend.

As absurd as it is to compliment me for my English, it’s hard to fault the man for such friendly intentions.

And it wasn’t completely shocking. I’ve found that communication in China is often more focused on its social functioning, on sending social signals, rather than purely communicating information.

This is exactly how I’ve gotten into trouble by telling people what I like, unaware that it would be interpreted as a request for these items. Americans, it seems, like to talk about what we like and don’t like almost to the point of vapidity.

And this sharing for the sake of sharing is something I’ve had to try to turn off while living in China. In China, talking is rarely just talking; it comes double-sided, with social signaling at times even more important than the information on the surface.

I’m getting used to this day by day, and, as I do, I’m getting prepared for new heights of social signaling divorced from the rationality of the situation. Why, just the other day I complimented my students for their black hair. They said my English was very good. Very good.

May 29, 2008

Our Washing Machine Goes Kaput, Among Other Oddities

China Communication Break Part 2

China doesn’t believe in dryers. This means I have to dry all my clothes the old-fashioned way by hanging them on my balcony. This also means that having a functioning washer with a spin cycle extremely important.

Mine has since gone kaput and my clothes started coming out dripping wet, but at least I got to witness a beautiful cross-cultural moment in the process of trying to get it fixed.

The repair involved our helpful school liaison, Mrs. Wu. After her second visit with the repairman, she phoned David (my roommate and colleague) while we were at the university next door. The conversation was a delightful taste of our chronic communication breakdowns:

Mrs. Wu: “The washing machine’s been fixed!”

David: “Oh, great! Last time, they said it was the electric board, what happened to that?”

Mrs. Wu: “It wasn’t the electric board. Anyway, that was too expensive.”

David: “So what was the problem?”

Mrs. Wu: “It’s fixed!”

David: “That’s great, but what was the problem?”

Mrs. Wu: “No, it’s fixed!”

David: “OK, OK… . Thanks!”

As David was asking for more information, Mrs. Wu was interpreting his question on a separate level. It seems that she was interpreting his inquisitiveness as questioning whether it had been fixed or not.

Chinese culture has been called subtle, more gentle, by many, including Gu Hongming, author of “Spirit of the Chinese People.” I think a large part of this subtleness, the famed indirectness, is that communication is often not used for conveying raw facts. Instead, words and interactions are scrutinized and read on a different level.

This is a subtle way of communicating and it’s the best way of allowing all involved to save face. However, I’m discovering it’s the opposite of the way my crude and brutish American mind thinks.

It seems that Americans are used to sharing information, even to a fault.

Yet in China communication more often serves social purposes. Just as when the taxi driver complimented my English, what matters is not always the direct meaning, but the feelings and signals being conveyed.

The taxi driver said, “Your English is good!” The taxi driver meant, “Let’s be friends!”

Mrs. Wu heard, “What was the problem?” Mrs. Wu interpreted this as meaning, “I don’t think it’s been fixed.”

And thus we’re slowly learning to tame our inquisitiveness in a culture where “how” and “why” are dirty words.

As it turns out, the washing machine actually was not fixed, and my clothes are still soaked after an afternoon out on the porch. This means we’ll have to approach Mrs. Wu again to tell her it’s broken. But this time I think I know the code phrase. It starts, “What was the problem with the washer?”