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October 2008 Archives

October 5, 2008

Low Expectations and the Bottom of the Barrel

George W. Bush, the master orator, actually has a turn of phrase (that he likely didn’t write) that I quite enjoy: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Even though I get no affirmative action in China, expectations surrounding me could not be any lower, and I think it’s starting to affect me.

I’ve been aware of the barrel-bottom expectations Chinese people have of me understanding the Chinese language, history, culture, how to get around, and bus schedules, to name a few, but the bottom of the barrel shone so clearly in an incident recently that the incident has stuck in my mind.

The bottom appeared to me while I was traveling in Guizhou province and needed to book a plane ticket. I went to the travel agent near my hotel, booked the ticket, and handed the money to the young woman helping me.

The woman took the money and called to her mother, who carried the change.

“Ma! Ma!” she shouted out the room; her mother was somewhere around the corner.

Soon mom came in and handed the daughter the change, saying “sep men,” ten dollars.

“You’re from Guangdong,” I said, recognizing the Cantonese word for ‘ten.’

I should have known that my least favorite word was reflexively coming out the barrel: “Zhen lihai!” Amazing!

I sat back in my chair as the praise faded into a steady background music and I let thoughts of my Chinahand awesomeness wash over me. You know? I am pretty awesome, I thought.

But just before the praise got too far, my better judgment got a hold of me. I was being awarded praise for a skill that was incredibly simple.

To understand just how simple what I had done was, here’s an apt analogy: Praising me for understanding the numbers one through ten in Cantonese after having lived in Guangzhou for a year is like praising someone who can speak English and who lived in El Paso, Texas (just imagine that even more people there speak Spanish) for a year for recognizing that ‘hola’ meant ‘hello.’

No one would praise this person in the United States, and I think that’s about right. But the fact that in one year I’ve achieved a fluency that requires ten minutes of class time conflicts with the notion that I’m supposed to understand nothing about China.

It doesn’t matter that my praisers already knew that I had been in China for so long, most of it in Guangzhou.

I think this praise is harmful. Low expectations, even when coated in sugary praise, are still low expectations, and they still encourage me to rest on my laurels. I start to think, My Chinese is already so good, why study further?

In the end, my curiosity for learning languages won’t die, but I’ll have to make sure to brush my teeth. I have a sweet tooth but this much sugar’s not good for my teeth.

October 7, 2008

My least favorite word

Chinese is full of fun words and phrases. ‘Taking off your pants to fart,’ meaning to do something unnecessary, is a favorite of many.

I’m fond of, “Like playing piano to a cow,” and its country flavor suggesting that you’re wasting your time. ‘Dageda’ (大哥大) is a fun word for cell phone, meaning literally something like, ‘big brother big,’ referring to cellphones’ former comically humorous size.

But Chinese has a word that has risen quickly to topping my short list of most-hated words: lihai (厉害).

Lihai’ literally means ‘fierce.’ I still remember the first time I encountered the word when I was bored accompanying a friend shopping and I extended my arm to pet a cat lazing on the store counter.

“Be careful,” the shopkeeper warned. “He’s lihai.” The cat was fierce such that he might bite or scratch me.

On most occasions, however, ‘lihai’ means something like, ‘awesome.’ For example, if I were to suddenly slam dunk during a game of basketball at my Chinese university, I’m certain I’d get a chorus of ‘lihai’s.’

But ‘lihai’ is also used to shut people up. It’s used when people are praising others in that Chinese way that grates on me. People are lihai‘ed when they display any knowledge beyond the minimum standard knowledge (i.e., Chinese people use chopsticks).

For example, if I can state basic facts about history like the dates of the Cultural Revolution, I get lihai‘ed. Part of this is that people have low expectations of my China knowledge. But it’s not just a flatter-the-foreigner phenomenon.

Chinese people can be lihai‘ed too, and when it happens it means something like, “Stop displaying detailed knowledge. It’s making me uncomfortable.”

China’s the home of the saying the fat pig gets slaughtered first and the bamboo that grows the tallest gets blown down by the wind. To survive in Chinese society is an exercise is trying to keep your head down and not stick out.

My students explained to me at the beginning of the year that the most prudent thing to do if you have a talent at an instrument is to avoid performing for others. This way they won’t start to hope for your failure to bring your britches back down to size.

Receiving praise in China is like having a spotlight thrown on you in a prisonyard at midnight. It’s attention of the negative kind and people usually freeze in their tracks before retreating to safer ground.

In China, people respond to praise with, “No, no, I’m not lihai,” which is like the prisoner in the spotlight retreating, “Oh, no, no, I was just getting some fresh air. I’ll be heading back now.”

One problem with all this is that it means that it’s very rare for me to find someone who’s willing to discuss topics like literature or history deeply with me, beyond the prison walls of cliches like, “China has a 5,000 year history.”

And the word ‘lihai’ has come to represent this clamping down, this sheathing of deep interest in the interest of modesty. Thus it tops my word hit list.

So if it’ll get me anywhere, let me start by declaring I’m not awesome. Can we talk now?

October 11, 2008

Strawberry Foreigners

I was in a grocery store in Guangzhou when I paused to pick out the yogurt that I liked. Most Chinese yogurt is so runny that the packages include straws, so it took me a minute to recall the only decent brand I’ve found.

As I was looking over the dozens of brands available, a service person next to me pointed to a cup of yogurt and smiled, trying with a smile and no words (assuming I wouldn’t understand Chinese) to communicate some sort of approval toward that brand of yogurt.

Using her preferred method of communication, I shook my head and continued my selection. A moment later I felt a tap on my shoulder as she used her pointer finger and a smile to endorse the same brand of runny yogurt.

At her persistence, I decided that I should break our silence: “I don’t like that brand.”

“It’s strawberry,” she smiled, as if this were the correct answer to a math question that once I heard I would understand.

“So what?” I said, failing to see her daoli, train of thought.

“You’re a foreigner,” she replied, throwing out another piece of her Pythagorean Theorem.

“And?” I said, still not seeing the light.

“Foreigners like strawberry.” She smiled.

“Oh, but I don’t want that kind,” I said, finally finding the kiwi yogurt I wanted. I headed to the checkout, leaving her disappointed.

I’ve run into lots of frustrating stereotypes about foreigners in China (e.g., foreign men are “lechers” or we can’t speak Chinese), but I’ve never heard that all foreigners like strawberry.

The service person was certainly trying to be helpful, and since my encounter with her I’ve run into more helpful preference heuristics, such as all foreigners like flower teas like jasmine and chrysanthemum. To tea connoisseurs, like a Dutch guy I met who started a Chinese tea business, this stereotype is particularly frustrating because drinking flower teas is like drinking Budweiser or listening to the Backstreet Boys.

I suspect her attempt at helpfulness is related to the Chinese emphasis on interpreting other people’s preferences, which is often seen as presumptuous in the US. In any case, I enjoyed my non-runny kiwi yogurt and declined the straws offered me in the checkout.

October 16, 2008

The China Poop-out

Toward the end of my stay in Guangzhou, I was walking down a narrow alley dodging water dripping from overhead and bikers with massive piles of cardboard barreling from the front and the back; I had just crossed baskets of dyed kittens for sale and smoking roasted kebabs to get into the alley, where I was deciding whether to stock up on fifty-cent DVDs. All of a sudden I realized, this no longer feels weird to me.

The streets of Beijing are lined with orange bubbles that contain pay phones on the inside, and it was these strange orange bubbles that first struck me with the feeling of strangeness upon my first trip to China. But the longer I live in China, the less I have that feeling in my gut of sometimes-wonder sometimes-unease that comes from being thrown into a radically different world.

Sometimes my numbness could cause harm or death, as how quickly I’ve gotten used to riding buses that barrel into the opposite lane around blind mountain bends or having to remind myself that wearing seat belts is something I should do. But mostly, getting accustomed to strange scenes is an innocuous sign that I’m getting into my China groove.

This said, there are still some scenes that always catch my attention and jump out to me as representative of China and the China experience. One of my favorite scenes is what I call “The China Poop-out,” as seen below in the Canton Fair:

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Perhaps it’s because China has a surfeit of cheap labor or because Chinese culture stresses hard work (tian tian xiang shang: day day toward top), but, whatever the reason, walk a Chinese street for long enough and you’re sure to find someone completely cashed out at the helm of small convenience store, set of tools, or guard post. That’s the China Poop-out—a scene that still stirs up the wonderful feelings of Dorothy waking up the land of Oz.

October 17, 2008

Scary New Asian Diseases

Before I moved to Guangzhou, I was happy to learn that southern China was the place where notable diseases like SARS have started. This was where the world moved, where the changes happened, and I was going to be at the center of that.

This could partly explain why my heart would pang with a touch of fear upon seeing people like this man I saw walking on the streets of Guangzhou:


What terrifying new disease leaves one’s skin with horrible circular red marks? More importantly, why was this man suibianly walking down a crowded street—pushing a stroller while his wife touched his infected back no less?

I could only have been more mistaken if I had used my chopsticks to pick my nose or had I not pre-arranged exact change before a purchase. It turns out, these nasty red circles are actually designed to heal this man in a process known as “plucking fire cups” (báhuǒguànr-拔火罐儿) or “cupping.”

Cupping is a traditional Chinese medicine practice which uses fire to heat cups which are then placed on the patient’s back. The heat causes suction, causing internal bleeding, which is supposed to rid the body of toxins and cure ailments from pneumonia to muscle pain.

The suction also causes the patient’s back to look like a májiàng tile and causes foreigners like me to wet their pants.

Traditional Chinese philosophy is known for its emphasis on contradiction (the dao is and is not), and traditional Chinese medicine fits right in with its principal that causing pain and suffering will cause healing. Actually, practices like cupping (as well as blood letting) were used in the Middle East and parts of Europe, as well. Other painful traditional Chinese medicine practices like scraping and acupuncture, though, work on the same principle.

Just like the China poop-out, taking planes sitting next to people with polka-dot backs is not something that a year in China has made me accustomed to. It means, though, that if I come back from China with some strange disease, it might just be a cure.

October 26, 2008

I Trip and Fall; You're Embarrassed

To use another Bushism as an intro, “You fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice—you can’t get fooled again.”

What Bush was stumbling over was the reversal of the shame. It should be that shame is first on the trickster and subsequently on the person being tricked for not learning the lesson after the first time.

Well Hu Jintao hasn’t made this mistake of reversal of shame and it shouldn’t be a problem anytime soon in China. In China, shame is reversed all the time.

I stumbled upon this finding vicariously through David and a sex scandal. Almost as big as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was in the US, the Chen Guanxi scandal exploded across Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland as perhaps the first (surely not the last) celebrity sex scandal. Chen Guanxi was a Hong Kong playboy and actor who had scandalous pictures of him and other stars lifted off his laptop and published when he sent his computer to be repaired.

Looking for a topic that would stimulate our quiet students to have a real discussion, David designed one week’s classes around why the scandal was so shocking and who was at fault in the scandals mess of stealing, indecency, and privacy.

After the titters died down, David discovered that many students thought the scandal was embarrassing. They didn’t mean embarrassing for the stars involved; they didn’t mean embarrassing to talk about in class; they didn’t even mean embarrassing to admit that they might have seen the pictures. No, it was embarrassing for them to look into another’s privacy.

Wait a minute. In my experience, discovering something about someone else’s personal life is exciting for the discoverer and embarrassing for the exposed. But David’s students were saying that they felt embarrassed at seeing someone else exposed.

There is likely no better example of cross-cultural differences in emotional experience. This embarrassment is a collective emotion, felt on behalf of others, especially in regard to what the consequences might be for the relationship involved (even if that relationship is as fictional as that between a movie star and a high school student).

What this means is that if, for example, I choose to share a sensitive personal fact with a Chinese friend of mine, that he or she might be the one to feel embarrassed. So the shame’s on me for sharing—or is it you?