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December 2008 Archives

December 1, 2008

My Northern Exposure

The sky was already black, despite the fact that it was hardly 6PM. It was even darker because I was in Dandong, a “small” city of only 650,000 residents on the border of North Korea.

I tend to feel safer walking on the street at night in China than I did in my safe suburban hometown of East Lansing, where I would look twice at cars that seemed to be driving suspiciously slower than normal. So I walked the street with my thoughts on more pressing issues like how to say “Chapstick” in Chinese without inadvertently requesting lipstick.

As I rifled through possible ways to say “Chapstick” on this dark night in Dandong, I noticed the young man walking man walking in front of me step to the left in order to avoid bumping into a taller young guy walking toward us. In the classic move of awkwardness, the taller guy also stepped in the same direction, at which point they both took another step in the same direction and came chest to chest. To my surprise, they both stared hard at each other and looked as if they were on the verge of snarling. Neither man looked like he wanted to fight, but I got the impression that both felt they needed to pump their fists to protect themselves in case the other man wanted to fight.

After a moment of you-wanna-take-it-there? stare downs, the men proceeded along their respective ways, their heads half turning back to make sure the threat had passed. To add to my confusion, both the near fight occurred not in a seedy part of town and between two average-looking guys, not local toughs.

The incident passed in a matter of seconds, but it turned over in my mind for an hour—well after I found a pink strawberry stick of chapstick. The encounter fascinated me because the wildness of the men so exceeded my expectations. Northerners are known as being more straight-to-the-point, but this was almost Wild West manly.

In my time in Guangzhou, I had come to expect slights and bumps to pass with each party pretending like nothing had happened. In Guangzhou, the most important task seemed to be avoiding conflict; there was little concern for appearing tough.

I will always remember my surprise at the old man my taxi driver nearly clipped on my first trip to Beijing after my year teaching in Guangzhou had ended. The man stopped completely and started to yell at the cab driver for stopping in the middle of the bike lane. As I was gathering my bags, the man yelled for so long that he reached the point where he could no longer think of things to yell. He paused, gathering his thoughts, and resumed his yelling.

China, of course, is big. The differences between northern and southern China can be as vast as the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese. People in the north seem more concerned with sticking up against slights and injustices, whereas people in the south seem more concerned with avoiding conflict. Some Chinese people call northerners yeman, wild, which might be a bit of an exaggeration. Exaggeration or not, the fight I saw almost break out on the streets of Dandong was enough to make me hasten my pace back to my hotel.

December 5, 2008

My Tea Habits and Creating a Third Culture

When I was in Malaysia, I discovered Baba Noya culture, a mix of culture brought by Chinese immigrants with local Malay customs. The result was not that Malays became Chinese or that Chinese became Malays, but rather a third and entirely new culture came out when the dust had settled.

In the same way, I’m finding that some of my thought and behavior are turning Chinese while other parts seem to be coming through in an entirely new Chimerican culture.

The best example I can think of this is my approach toward my new habit of drinking tea. I had never enjoyed tea prior to coming to China, but the great-tasting teas here were entirely different from the fake, processed flavors like lemon, peppermint, and blueberry that are common in the U.S.

But now I like to carry around a big coffee cup with tea in it and drink it casually as I’m relaxing or working at home. The problem, to my Chinese friends, is that I’m basically treating tea as though it were a bottle of Mountain Dew. So my Chinese friends find my tea behavior a little off-putting.

I’ve also been disappointed that there aren’t places to get tea-to-go in China. The US is full of coffee machines, coffee stands, and cafes where you can get tea to go. China, however, has only nǎichá, milk tea, available this way, which hardly bears any resemblance to real tea. Southern China and Hong Kong do have so-called “cool tea” available to go, but that’s not tea to be enjoyed; it’s bitter-tasting tea that serves as a sort of folk medicine.

I’ve asked my Chinese friends why tea-to-go can’t be found in China, a place where getting a baked sweet potato and chestnuts to go is a proposition far easier than a cup of tea. The response has been that tea is something that we should sit down for and properly enjoy. Sloshing it into a paper cup and running down the street with it is simply sacrilegious to the Chinese palette.

I think this gets to the heart of the attitude toward tea in China. I basically want to McDondaldize my experience of tea, making it as large, quick, and convenient as possible, in the form of tea-to-go. This would also explain why my large mugs of tea at home don’t appeal to my Chinese friends either.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps investing in tea-to-go booths is the next get-rich-quick untapped market in China. In any case, I’ll keep enjoying my tea McDonald’s style.

December 18, 2008

When the Police Enforce Grammar

Thank the lord for my university-level education in Chinese linguistics. Without it, I wouldn’t know the ground rules of talking to policemen in China.

This time, the social faux-pas wasn’t mine:

In Tianjin (the heavenly fording), a Chinese friend of mine and I were looking for the historic drum tower, having discovered that Beijing’s is not the only one. As we reached the end of a pedestrian mall, my friend walked up to a police officer and asked him where the drum tower was.

Silence. The policeman maintained his gaze over my friend’s head, a mere foot or two from the policeman’s face.

Perplexed, my friend asked again.

“Excuse me, do you know where the drum tower is?”

The policeman pretended to become aware of our presence all of a sudden, and turned his face with a scowl.


“You didn’t add a subject!”

The policeman nodded grumpily in the direction of the drum tower and we continued along our way.

In explaining what transpired, there’s still controversy. My friend maintains that the original question did include a subject, but there’s still a possibility that, in haste, the sentence came out as “know where the drum tower is?”

What is clear is that the policeman’s claim that he doesn’t respond to questions that lack a proper grammatical subject or are otherwise grammatically deficient is ridiculous.

My friend’s explanation is better and a clue into unlocking puzzling social encounters in China:

The policeman was posted right at the end of the pedestrian lane, where a line of semi-legal taxis were waiting to take passengers. The policeman, my friend surmised, must be friends with the guys there, since he stands there all day. Furthermore, if he tells us how to get to the drum tower, we’re less likely to employ his friends standing nearby. To top it off, as obvious tourists, the taxi drivers are not only missing a business opportunity, they think they’re missing a fat business opportunity, since tourists are easier to rip off.

Just as taxi drivers will always try to convince you that your destination is much farther than you think, I find that I have to be more careful about whom I choose to ask directions from in China. Perhaps it’s a product of being thrown into a foreign country, but people’s social communication in China seems to be much more influenced by reasons that are not immediately apparent. Instead, I have to spend much more time surmising about other people’s strange reactions, anger, and refusals.

Either that or I’ll just have to try to steer clear of the grammar police in the future.