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September 2008 Archives

September 3, 2008

A Country Bumpkin in Taiwan

When I arrived in Taiwan on a short visit from Hong Kong, I noticed differences everywhere. But what I was facing in the restaurant was an old scene: customers were few in the early afternoon and the waitresses were spacing out by the register, oblivious to my hand waving.

Besides starvation, the only option left is to shout for their attention.

This is something foreigners often find difficult when they come to China. I still feel strange about it, but I’ve long gotten the hang of the line used: “Fuwuyuan! Dian cai!” Literally, “Serviceperson! Order food!” I shouted across the room.

There were only two other customers in the Taipei restaurant, and they started to snicker to each other as soon as the words left my mouth. It was at that moment that I realized my time on the mainland had made me utterly tu, a real country bumpkin.

It was obvious that I was “from” the Mainland.

My biggest transgression was using “serviceperson.” “Serviceperson” is straight from non-class-conscious directness that was ushered in during the cultural revolution. During that time, class-conscious titles were tossed, like “shifu,” or “master,” as denoting someone who has mastered a skill.

“Serviceperson” can be heard all over the mainland, particularly in the north. It’s particularly direct and devoid of big-headedness, but in Taiwan it’s snickeringly uncultured.

And here was a silly foreigner shouting such uncultured words across the restaurant. To top it off, “dian cai” for “order” is another marker that I’m from the mainland, since “jiao cai” is more common in Taiwan.

Jaywalkers, spitters, and litterers are instantly pegged as mainlanders by Hong Kongers who view them as terribly uncultured. Taiwan is likely no different in its class-consciousness and pride issues, though I’ve discovered these rules apply to silly foreigners as well.

September 15, 2008

The Cheap Trick Phenomenon

Perhaps you’ve heard of Cheap Trick, although odds are it’s only because of their only hit, “I want you to want me.” But instead of deflating faster than MC Hammer’s collection of parachute pants, Cheap Trick was a true pioneer of music, managing to string a decadeslong career on the strength of their wild popularity in Asia—and only in Asia.

Cheap Trick may be one of the first appearances of what I will call the Cheap Trick phenomenon, where a flopped Western product receives widespread popularity in Asia.

More recently, I’ve run into an American show you may have never heard of despite the fact that virtually everyone under 30 in China has watched all 3 seasons: Prison Break.

As a foreigner, I’m not expected to be able to speak Chinese, fend for myself in China, like non-strawberry varieties of yogurt, or use chopsticks, but I am widely expected to love McDonald’s and to have watched every episode of Prison Break. After all, presidential candidates always carry their home state; and things are usually proportionally more popular where they originate.

But in reality, the first time I had even heard of Prison Break was when I started subscribing to Chinese podcasts, two years after the show began. Furthermore, in an jaw-droppingly scientific study consisting of an email to a handful of friends back in the US, not a single one had watched the show.

Because of the name on my passport, my students hardly believed me when I told them I had never seen Prison Break.

This was quickly remedied by a student who lent me her set like a Jehovah’s Witness handing out a free bible. Now I’m two seasons in; the prison is effectively broke; and I’m now convinced that there are cultural reasons why Americans aren’t watching and all of my Chinese students are.

I. Conspiracy: The plot centers around a massive government conspiracy to frame an innocent man through shadowy operatives who use silenced pistols to kill children, women, and men while hiding behind dark sunglasses.

Conspiracy stories like these are so common in American culture that they were already being spoofed 50 years ago in Dr. Strangelove. But China doesn’t have the same media openness to government conspiracy stories, so to watch may be thrilling for Chinese audiences—perhaps more so because the show does not grace cable television, but rather can only be downloaded off the internet.

II. The theme of family: The plot also hinges on a brother intentionally getting himself sent to prison to help his older brother break out. The genius younger brother’s master plan even involves handmade paper swans which, he says, symbolize family duty.

Later on, it’s also revealed that the older brother got caught up in the set up is because he took a dirty loan so that his younger brother could go to college, although he hid the fact from his younger brother. This way of helping family members “behind their back” is classic in China.

These are themes, I suspect, that are much more appealing to a Chinese audience than to an “I’m the best me there is” American audience.

III. The definition of cool: The most intriguing reason, I think, is the coolness of the main character, which is quintessentially Chinese.

Michael Scofield, the handsome and genius younger brother, is in almost every scene sporting an all-knowing, eyebrow-squinched scowl. To adorn his scowl, virtually every line is a veiled reference to his master plan that only he understands and that he keeps secret from those around him.

His tight-lipped scowling is his ticket to coolness in Chinese society, but it seems simply silly and worthy of mockery in the US.

Finally, Scofield is the pinnacle of secretly-work-the-system craftiness that the Chinese uphold, as opposed to the one-man-Rambo, kick-ass-since-I-know-I’m-right American archetype.

It’s no small feat to captivate an audience of 1.6 billion, but the Chinese have the last laugh, since Prison Break’s producers receive no royalties or advertising revenues when the show is pirated, downloaded, and hawked on the street.

September 18, 2008

Is this character difficult: 嚏?

Hong Kong Differences, Part 2

This character, 嚏, is exceedingly difficult, according to the tutors of Chinesepod.com—so much so that most Chinese are unable to reproduce it with pen and pencil.

The character, pronounced “ti,” is used in the word for sneeze (喷嚏, penti) as well as the onomatopoeia similar to “achoo,” pronounced, “ah-ti” (阿嚏).

Hearing of the reputed difficulty of the character, I was reminded of how David and I have seen our college-educated Chinese friends often unable to read or recognize characters on signs and in books, and incapable of writing even more, often common characters.

“The product of using a character-based system!” we concluded.

We were being naive.

First, it’s important to know that Chinesepod is produced on the mainland, in Shanghai.

According to an American friend of mine who is a professor in Hong Kong and who has lived for years variously in Taiwan and the mainland, it’s a mainland thing. In his years in Taiwan and Hong Kong, encountering educated people unable to recognize characters was unheard of.

The mainland has made astounding progress in literacy in the past century, pushing from widespread illiteracy to widespread literacy rates in a few decades.

And the progress is impressive. But literacy is different from mastery, and there’s clearly progress to be made compared with non-mainland China. And we’re not talking about peasants here, but rather big-city, “famous brand” university students.

And this is despite the simplification reform of characters carried out in the 1950’s, making the task of mastery a step easier than in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where the painful (to me) traditional characters are still in use.

This might be a reflection of the attitude that I often see, where people tell me, “Oh, don’t worry about learning that word.” I’m endlessly frustrated when people tell me certain characters “don’t mean anything,” in folk phrases.

Despite people encouraging me not to study so hard, I think I’ll persist. But in the future, I’ll be careful not to sneeze, lest I be required to describe it in writing.

September 25, 2008

Hungry? Not in so many words

David was in a bleak situation: he had just scarfed the measly airline meal given to him on his flight back to China to begin another year of teaching, but he was still hungry. If he didn’t eat, his rumbling stomach and fast metabolism would ensure the rest of his flight would be miserable.

He looked forlornly at the empty meal tray below. Across the aisle he eyed another passenger’s meal. In the time it had taken David to wolf the bun, salad, fruit, and main course, this woman had only made a small dent in her meal. He looked again forlornly at his empty tray.

Suddenly, a hand appeared from across the aisle, offering a bread roll. Embarrassed but still very much hungry, David took it sheepishly. Soon the woman offered up the rest of her meal to grateful David.

It’s no mistake, I believe, that the woman was Chinese. If there’s anything that Chinese culture does exceptionally, it’s reading what other people want.

This skill is practically inevitable in a culture where it’s considered rude to express personal preferences and where the Christmas lists that I wrote as a child seem unimaginably juvenile.

Taiwanese social critic Bo Yang (author of the book that keeps getting me in trouble), writes that in Chinese society, “you need to spend every moment pondering what in the world [others] are thinking. All that is a waste of energy.”

It certainly is mafan, but it’s not a complete waste. One good result is that it makes people good at reading what other people want. It also means that David’s stomach rumbled a little less on his way back to China.

September 28, 2008

Breaking the Modernization-Sexiness Inverse Curve

While teaching at Huafu, I asked all of the student in my optional class why they had chosen my class. “Because your handsome,” is a response I got several times.

I’m embarrassed to admit, but, if I’m to speak honestly, one of the benefits of residing in Asia is receiving an instant handsome boost with the opposite sex. I still remember—how could one forget such praise?—being in less-developed Shanxi province for psychology research when a female student kept repeating, “You’re handsome. Really, really handsome.” She was standing next to her boyfriend.

Besides the awkward issue of experimenter-subject relations (all I said was “thank you” or “no, no”), it fit perfectly with the common theory that the less modern a place, the more interest foreign guys get.

During my recent trip to Taiwan, I ran into this lay theory again. I met a Taiwanese-American from (where else?) California, who told me, “Taiwan girls don’t have a preference for foreign guys. Taiwan’s had foreigners for so long, foreign guys are nothing special.”

It’s an interesting theory, but I’m now convinced it’s dead wrong, and my experience shortly after in Taipei was proof enough.

Damon, a fellow American, and I entered a cafe one night in Taipei. We had spent a half an hour hesitating outside different cafes that line the street, so by the time we finally decided on a cafe, Damon and I strode in with purpose to a table toward the back.

Now, Damon and I are no greater than average-looking guys, not particularly tall or chiseled. But as we walked in, every female head in the cafe turned and watched us walk by with silent interest.

In my year and a half on the mainland, I’ve never experienced female interest so obvious. Furthermore, within the mainland, I receive the most interest in big cities like Beijing.

Of course, I get a lot of stares and “hallo’s!” in the countryside, but there’s an important difference between interest and curiosity.

In the countryside, the cultural gap is so large that any real romantic encounter is completely off the radar. Thus, curiosity is high, but it’s disconnected from any real intention to act.

In the city, people’s staring isn’t so aw-shucks obvious, but I seem to get true interest much more. And it seems to be greater the more experience a city has with foreigners.

Thus, the interest I get in Guangzhou is less than the interest I get in Beijing (with a much, much larger foreign population), which is less interest than I got in Taipei (open to the west for a much longer time).

So I think it’s time to put the old modernization-sexiness inverse curve to rest. Now if I could only get a fellowship to research that.

September 30, 2008

When a question's not a question

When I first came to Beijing, I accepted my cousin’s (who also happens to live in Beijing) gracious offer to stay at her place. It’s been a great help in getting settled down, but in the pancake that is Beijing, her place is quite far from my school.

It’s not that far, though, since there’s a new road with a wide bike lane that leads straight to my university. Almost.

Almost, that is, if it weren’t for the Olympic village built right in the middle, where the road runs smack into the Bird’s Nest.

The Olympic village is huge, and the only way I’ve found to get around it is to go to the highway south of the village. I was going this far out of my way wasting my time, until recently when I found a newly constructed tunnel that cuts right under the village, cutting off the needless 15-minute detour.

This being China, I figured that even though there were barriers to keep cars from entering, the tunnel was likely complete, safe, and with construction long-since ceased.

I guessed right and cruised the 4-lane-wide tunnel in style, with the whole tunnel all to myself. All I had to do was enter on the left side of the street, against the imaginary traffic flow, and lift my bike around the obstruction when I reappeared on the other side.

This worked until yesterday, when a guard was posted at the entrance. When pretending not to notice him failed, I asked him why I couldn’t go in.

“Is it dangerous?” I suggested, hoping to defeat a potential argument for why I couldn’t enter.

“Um, yeah, it’s dangerous,” he said.

“No it’s not,” I replied, guessing his bluff.

“Have you been through the tunnel before?” he asked, suspicious.

Uh oh, I thought. I certainly didn’t want to admit my past misdeed. This being China, though, I had a weapon at my disposal: ignore his question.

I ignored his question, confirmed again that I couldn’t enter, and set out disappointedly for the congested highway south of the Olympic village. He didn’t pursue the question after I veered around it.

Chinese philosophy has a tradition of associating wisdom with contradiction. “Zen,” after all, comes originally from Chinese.

So perhaps it makes sense that in China a question is often not really a question at all. I suspect that if a guard or police officer asked me a similar question in the US, I could not have sidestepped it so easily.

It makes sense with the fact that I’ve long been baffled at how my Chinese friends ignore questions in the text messages that I send them. I’m not talking about highly personal questions, but just questions that they decide not to answer.

It’s a vexing part of social interactions, but I’ve started to get used to using it to my advantage. This morning I came to the tunnel, worried that I might get in trouble for taking it, but this time I was armed with the knowledge that a question’s not always a question.

Let’s just say I made it to class on time.