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July 2008 Archives

July 2, 2008

Dating Bill Gates: Final Exam Time

As my time teaching at the mouthful that is The Affiliated High School of South China Normal University comes to an end, this past week brought with it one of my favorite weeks of class: final exams.

People often ask me what my approach to teaching in China is, and I have to answer honestly:

I came to China partly because I’m curious to find out what Chinese people think about anything under the sun, but I soon discovered that curiosity and asking questions are often considered rude in China. But as a teacher, I now have more than 300 captive students who have to answer my questions. As long as I ask my questions in English, I can use my classes to help explore the strange universe that is the Chinese mind and get paid for it.

Finals time is the best time for my questions, since the stakes are high with each one of my students getting one minute to answer any question of my choosing. Their grade depends on it.

Yet finals time is always a time of rare discovery interspersed with the bored re-realization of collective thought in China.

To almost any question I can dream up, there are safe, standard mantras that virtually everyone has mastered and which makes listening to even a handful of one-minute answers seem tedious.

For example, one of my questions asked, “If you could have dinner with any person who has ever lived, whom would you choose and why?” Approximately one out of every three or four of my students responded with Bill Gates.

Bill Gates is an agreed-upon hero in China (his recent retirement—occurring after my exam—made the front pages for consecutive days), but it’s still mind boggling that 33% of my students could, out of any person ever to have graced the earth, wind up choosing the same person. As more and more students told me why they admired the same person, I started underlining the name BILL GATES and moved on to another question.

The next question ended up revealing more interesting answers: “Describe your ideal boyfriend or girlfriend. What characteristics does he or she have?”

Many of the answers echoed a sentiment that seems odd to me that I’ve heard often in China. Many of my students said that they wanted someone they could learn something from, someone who was talented, or an excelling student.

To me it seems like a strangely overpragmatic view towards relationships. To me, the most natural response would involve someone whom you feel a connection with, whom you can talk with, who makes you laugh. But my students preferred someone who excelled or could help them.

When I related the story to a Thai friend of mine and said that a better reason to choose a boyfriend might be, “He makes me laugh,” she responded that to her that sounded like a silly reason.

Pragmatism is a useful concept for one wanting to understand Chinese society; it’s just a little disheartening to see pragmatism replace the ideals of romance, especially in kids so young. But who knows, maybe they’ll make like Bill Gates in his later years and go romantic.

July 6, 2008

Unwanted Characters
(A Mystery in Four Parts)

Part 1

On a mild fall day, I sped on my $35 Bdah-brand bike through narrow Gulou Xi Street, with its low-slung tile-roofed hutong homes lining both sides of the street. Though I was speeding dangerously fast down a Chinese street, I managed to notice a consternating character taunting me from the side of the street.

If nerdiness is not defined by having interest enough to make note of Chinese characters you don’t recognize while you’re speeding dangerously down a Chinese street shared by cars, bikes, pedestrians, buses, horses, and carts, then meditating on that same character for the remaining 10 kilometers of the bike ride should be more than enough to qualify. During the rest of the urban kilometers between me and my ancient Chinese lesson, the image of this character scrawled in dark spray paint on a house so dilapidated it looked as though it were about to cough and fall over kept its form in my mind.


Back in Guangzhou, my Chinese ability so astounded my students that I was often asked what the secret to learning language was. As far as I can tell, the secret involves the nerdy persistence to bring a dictionary wherever you go and to care enough to decode everything you see, from greasy menus to safety signs on buses.

Over a year into this battle plan, I was startled to see such a simple character that I couldn’t recognize. By this point, most characters I couldn’t recognize were so complicated that they hinted at their own useless erudition. So to see a character so simple was a challenge—an embarrassing gap in my Chinese equivalent to not recognizing a word as simple as also.

I arrived at school and sat down on the dirty tile hallway in the Fourth Classroom Building, home of the humanities department. I immediately scrawled the character from memory into my $200 electronic Chinese dictionary—the very dictionary whose advertisements had promised me the ability to “zhi tianxia,” to know everything under heaven. The screen now hiccuped, processing my scribbled handwriting, and the character’s entry came up blank.

It was the first thing not encompassed under my dictionary’s promised heaven.

Part 2

Ask my 20-year-old classmates at Beijing’s Language and Culture University, or any young Chinese person at that, and chances are they’ll say Chinese language reform stopped with Mao’s massive simplification movement in the 1950’s. But if they’d ask their parents, they’d find out the fate of Chinese characters bounced much more radically than thought.

Staying true to my penny-pinching, corner-the-nearest-Chinese-person plan to studying Chinese, I took my mystery character to my classmates in ancient Chinese.

Na zhi shi ge cuobie zi,” I was told—just a “wrong character.” A “wrong character” in English would be something like ‘tyihv,’ a word miswritten so badly that you cannot tell out of context what the writer could have possibly meant.

Thinking that there must be more behind this mysterious character, I persisted and asked two college-educated Chinese friends. “Cuobie zi,” I was told again.

Exasperated, I turned to Dr. Luo, my professor of ancient Chinese whose encyclopedic knowledge encompasses the roots of nearly all commonly used Chinese characters.

The answer, it turns out, lies in the childhood education of my classmates’ parents. In late 1977, about the time when most of my classmates’ parents were in middle school, the Communist government published a second round of simplified characters (er jian zi 二简字), which unleashed several hundred new simplified characters to replace more complex characters. Soon, the nation’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, was being printed in the new characters. Textbooks were changed and a generation of children grew up learning these second-round characters. The sweeping changes brought—says the Baidu encyclopedia entry—confusion and “chaos” into society.

Part 3

The characters unleashed confusion. Some newspapers and books were now being published in the new characters, while other editors and publishers continued to print books and newspapers in the older characters. Even ethnic Chinese countries like Singapore that had followed the mainland during previous reforms, decided to part ways and adopt a “wait and see” strategy for the new round of characters.

Yet despite the confusion, most of the second-round characters were just as logical as the first round of simplified characters. Just like the first round characters still in use today, some of the second round characters simply replaced complicated characters with ones that already existed. This created confusion at times, blending characters with different meanings into each other, like “dance” (舞) which was combined with the character for “noon” (午), making “stage” look like “afternoon platform” (午台) as seen on this propaganda poster:


Other characters were created anew, often combining existing characters, as in the new character for ‘road’ to replace ‘道’:


These changes still seem sensible today, as with the character to replace “cai” 菜, food:


The original character consists of a “flower top” (艹) suggesting the character has to do with plants and a phonetic bottom (采) from the character for ‘pick’ or ‘pluck,’ which is pronounced “cai” as well. In this round of simplification, the bottom 7 strokes are replaced with the 3 strokes of 才, also pronounced “cai.”

The plan was criticized by scholars and much of the public at large, but it turns out this controversial change was only a small conservative portion of the larger plan. The official plan contains a wildly more radical second half that was never implemented. In the more radical plan, some characters were changed to be more sensical, like the character for ‘house’ (家) which originally pictured a pig (豕) underneath a roof but was then changed to have a person (人) under the roof:


The most radical section of changes-never-implemented called for some characters to be based on their cursive form, as though someone were scribbling the characters without lifting pen from paper. This cursification would have changed “高” into the unrecognizable:

Although the movement was new, some characters actually existed long before, having been known before as “vulgar simplifications.” Under the new proclamation, of course, the characters were officially no longer “vulgar,” even though some Chinese today see the second-round characters as just that.

“I don’t like the second-round characters,” a Beijing friend of mine told me when I pulled up the list of the discarded characters. “They don’t have that flesh-and-blood feeling. They don’t feel full.”

Part 4

Amid so much confusion and opposition, the new characters were officially rescinded in the mid 80’s. A new government decree famously resolved that future change should, “from now on keep a cautious bearing.”

Yet trying to get rid of characters once they’ve been released has proven harder than imagined. Many of the characters survive today, turning parking lots from “停车场” into “仃车场” and eggs for sale in local markets from “鸡蛋” into “chicken dawn: 鸡旦.”


Beijing residents are used to seeing the occasional traditional character scrawled on the sign of bike repairmen (修車) and in the names of restaurants (餐廳), but the second-round characters can be even more mystifying. Oddly enough, some hand-painted signs now contain all three types of characters—traditional, simplified, and second-round simplified. The result is a strange mixture, as with this public-safety message in Kaifeng, Henan, urging citizens to attack crime and construct a harmonious Kaifeng:


Here, 7 months and an overnight train ride later, the same mysterious character that had set off my entire quest was staring right back at me. This time, I stared back with the confidence of certainty. The character was 建: to build, construct. “Build a harmonious Kaifeng.”

The sign back on Gulou Xi Street was declaring the sorry-looking house an “illegal building,” soon to be destroyed. I imagine the person who scrawled the character was a worker, perhaps a male migrant construction worker in his forties or fifties whose education had stopped before the new characters were given up.

The original mystery had taken me several days, a series of text messages, and a handful of interrogation sessions to solve. To prove that the key to learning foreign languages was the bookish persistence to decode anonymous signs on the side of the road took me 7 months.

July 20, 2008


I paused to take in the sight of the setting sun rip through the open doors leading to the courtyard of a Tibetan temple in the small town of Tongren when all of a sudden I was startled awake. “Hello!”

Another person wanting to practice their English with me, but here? In one of China’s most remote, least visited, and sparsely populated regions where Chinese is a foreign language—even here I still couldn’t escape people wanting to practice their English on me.

The man, a Tibetan 40-something English teacher at a local school, is a product of a reform-and-opening era government decision to implement English education across the country.

I put my desire to take in the temple on hold and acquiesced to the man’s request (I was a visitor in his small town, after all) and struggled to communicate through his unintelligible English for several minutes.

The English-language program has been criticized by some who would use this very man as an example of the lack of qualified teachers who are spreading poor English despite their best intentions.

Others have questioned the usefulness of teaching English in areas just like this where people may only interact with a handful of foreigners there entire life. But the government has never been shy of taking large and sometimes unrealistic goals in sight (think “Pass the Soviets in 5 years, the Americans in 10”).

National policy and smalltown smalltalk collided as the man and I talked in the temple courtyard until I felt that I had fulfilled my duty and decided to give the man the shake. Just then a student from his school joined us, and spoke to me in English that far surpassed his teacher’s.

In one generation’s time, the change was already impressive. Here on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, I was seeking temples and all things old, but I found myself startled by the face, perhaps, of things to come.

July 21, 2008

Lost in Translation (And I Don't Mean Language)

“Why did you come to China?” the cab driver asks me in Chinese as we near my school.

“I came to China for adventures,” I reply with a smile. It’s the answer I always give to the question I always get.

Besides an unncomprehending nod, nothing is left to fill the awkwardness until my “Bye-bye” as I exit the cab.

And so I’ve discovered that I have a language problem. It’s that I get lost in translation and, like the movie, the source is cultural, not linguistic.

In China, it’s not considered rude to ask a person like me, “Why are you in China?” In fact, I fend the question off several times a week, but I still don’t know how to answer it.

This question is deceptively complex, just like all the other seemingly simple questions I get asked on a daily basis in China. (How long have you studied Chinese? How long have you been in China?)

As complex as the true answers to these questions really are, I’ve long since discovered that people don’t want to hear the real, long version. Thus, I’ve shortened it to “I’m here to have adventures.”

Adventures. It makes sense if you think about it:

As my college career wound to a close, I had three offers sitting in front of me: (1) teach in Japan for up to $50,000 a year, (2) teach in Korea and make enough to save for my future, or (3) work for what wouldn’t be a livable US wage in China.

Now I’m here in China; no it’s not about the money; and I’ve decided it must be because living in China seemed like much more of an adventure than clean, modern Korea and Japan.

But trying to explain this to the people whose country I’m visiting always seems to fail, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because Chinese people think the idea itself is strange.

At first, though, I suspected it was the word for adventure I was using: tanxian.

So I sat a good Chinese friend down, explained what I wanted to convey, and asked, “So what word can I use to express this?”

My friend pondered for nearly a minute until: “There’s only one way I can think to say it, but you’re not going to like it.”

“Go ahead.”

“You can say, ‘I’ve come to China to learn about Chinese culture!’”

My friend was right: I didn’t like it

So I’m stuck with my original word, but I’ve decided to fight through the disbelief of taxi drivers and doormen who tell me I could earn much more in the United States (or at least Hong Kong for God’s sake!). I’ve resolved to stick to the facts: I’m here for adventures. Being lost in translation is just one of them.

July 24, 2008

Q: Why did the car cross the road?

A: Standardized testing

China and its love affair with standardized testing, part I

During the summer of last year, I was waiting on the side of the highway with a man who had sold me a bus ticket from the ancient city of Dali to the ancient city of Lijiang.

As we waited on the highway for the bus to pick me up, I noticed that just down the road all of the cars from my side of the divided highway were being forced to cross over so both directions were traveling on a single side.

I looked as far as I could down the highway and, seeing no accidents nor construction, asked the man waiting with me, “Why’s the road closed?”

“The Gaokao,” he replied, referring to the this-determines-your-entire-lot-in-life college entrance exam taken across the country. The testing center was near the highway, so highspeed traffic was being diverted, risking countless lives, in order to make the testing center quieter.

That was when I realized just how important standardized testing is in a country with a full-blown case of credentialism.

Testing is so important that it’s literally a life-or-death situation for some.

Just after my semester ended and I left Guangzhou, I received a text message from my Chinese friend Confucius, still in Guangzhou.

The evening before, Confucius had been studying in the library at the university next to my high school when heard what he described as a bomb explode outside the library stacks.

Confucius continued studying for another minute until a frightened student came in and announced what had happened: a student had just jumped to her death from the library stacks.

The reason?

According to Confucius, the student had just done poorly on a graduate student entrance exam.

“I’ve got a fear of blood,” Confucius explained to me. So he shut his eyes as he exited the library and cut through the crowd of onlookers.

He dared not look at the gruesome byproduct of life-or-death standardized testing left on the pavement.

July 29, 2008

Q: Why did the newspaper go to print?

A: Standardized testing

China and its love affair with standardized testing, part II

Sweating from the heat, I sat down on the airport bus on my way out of Guangzhou, trying not to notice the extra stares a foreigner gets when he sweats more than the people around him.

To help me distract myself, I found a newspaper in the seat pocket and pulled out a crumpled copy of that day’s Observe Dongguan, a paper about another Chinese city you haven’t heard of, even though it has 7 million residents.

Astoundingly, the front page featured 8 separate articles about minute gaokao (China’s the-rest-of-your-life-in-one-standardized-score college entrance exam) preparation factors. I read, with my dictionary by my side, and with a strange mixture of shock and boredom at the inane minutiae being worried about.

I saved a copy of the paper and reproduce excerpts below (roughly translated by yours truly):

“Two Test Centers’ Test Booklet Transport to Have Police Lead the Way”

“If the test booklets run into an obstacle on during transport, what is to be done? If a testing center unexpectedly loses power, how should it be dealt with? Reporters learned yesterday afternoon that, to ensure the gaokao is carried out smoothly, the Municipal Student Enrollment Department has issued The 2008 Dongguan Gaokao Emergency Plan… .

The Gaokao Emergency Plan provides rules for traffic, electricity, test workers, natural disasters, noise, test-booklet confidentiality, large-scale fraud, critical illness, and large-scale communicable disease, among other potential aspects …

Regarding transport, the Emergency Plan stipulates that test-booklet transport must have special vehicles reserved, as well as back-up vehicles. If the vehicles should encounter a blockage or a traffic accident, they are required to use reserve vehicles to take the test booklets in a timely manner to the test centers. Should they encounter a large-scale accident, they are required to report with haste to the Department of Education and the Municipal Traffic Police Detachment. After receiving the report, the Traffic Police Detachment will, with a moment’s notice, dispatch officers to the site of the accident to undertake clearing the road.

A Municipal Student Enrollment Department official said that the Humen Middle School testing center and the Dongguan Middles School Pinelake Mountain testing center are relatively far from the city center and test-booklet transport vehicles will need to allow for extra time for delivery and will need police cars to lead the way. If the cars encounter obstructions or traffic accidents along the way, causing the cars to be unable to complete the transport, they will be required to use armored police cars to deliver the test papers. To that end, they must provide two or more officers to protect the test papers. If the Humen test center delivery cars encounter obstacles on the way, they must request immediate assistance from the Taiping Freeway Association and think quickly to overcome the emergency and deliver the test booklets.”

This, folks, is front-page news.

Besides traffic jams and accidents, the article goes on to cover the what-if’s of test-center fights (test officials will call the police, obviously), missing test booklets, power outages, and noise pollution.

And that’s just one article. The 7 other articles cover food do’s and don’t’s; how best to accompany students to the test center; how the upcoming weather may affect the testers; rules for factories nearby test centers; noise regulations around test centers; food-and-drink restrictions; and the shutting down of an unlicensed chemical factory near a testing center.

Worrying is a national sport in China, and applied to standardized testing it reaches gigantic proportions.

All of this worrying is placed on the shoulders of my students, who endure 18 years of preparation for a single test. For me, reading the inane details of testing what-if’s is torture enough (apart from my fascination with the grotesqueness of it all).

The imperial exam system was supposedly abolished more than a hundred years ago. Old habits die hard, especially in China.

July 30, 2008

My Hong Kong Diet, and other Observations on Life in Hong Kong

My visa having expired, I’ve spent the past two weeks staying in Hong Kong, an hour away from Guangzhou by car, but a world away in reality. The products of different politics and history have played out on my body and mind these past two weeks, and I can’t help but notice some of the changes:

I. I can breathe

I laid on my back in bed two nights ago and I realized I was breathing through my nose. Breathing through my nose! This is something I haven’t been able to do in over a year.

Living in some of the world’s most polluted cities meant that I often couldn’t smell the food I was eating and that I lost the ability to breathe through my nostrils.

To put things in perspective, I’m now rejoicing about clean air in a crowded metropolis with the fourth highest population density in the world. And it’s a joy to breathe again!

II. I’m on a Hong Kong diet

The air may be cleaner, but prices are through the roof compared to Guangzhou. This is especially true in the Midlevels (半山), the trendy neighborhood where I’m living at a friend’s place.

Fending for myself and coming off a Chinese salary, I’m losing weight from the sticker shock of food prices. A decent dinner by my lonesome in the neighborhood costs about $25 US—not on average, but as a minimum.

That means I’ve been dining on supermarket sushi for 40 HK$ a pop (about $5 US), which is still double what I would pay in Guangzhou to eat at a restaurant rather than alone in my apartment.

III. My doorman is my literature tutor

Hong Kong, with its super-charged economy, has attracted a distinguished crowd.

My doorman in Guangzhou was from the countryside and could hardly communicate with me in Mandarin, the national language of the mainland. A man with gray hair, my doorman in Hong Kong has traveled the world, owned his own business, taught high school chemistry, and now helps me interpret literary allusions in the Chinese novel I’m reading.

Despite the free tutor and other benefits, I’ve decided Hong Kong’s not for me.

The Hong Kong lifestyle is healthier and wealthier (a second elderly doorman who grew up in Indonesia keeps recommending that I teach in Hong Kong because the salary will be higher), but ultimately, I’m looking forward to the comfortable feeling I get as I cross the border and the buildings begin to look more run down and the air visibly dirtier.

The mainland is growing and changing (as much as a cliche as it is, it’s true), and life on the mainland is filled with an excitement and adventure that Hong Kong just doesn’t have. I’ll miss breathing through my nose, though.