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January 2009 Archives

January 2, 2009

Preferred Foreign Pricing

Being a white-faced foreigner in China, I get many benefits, such as guest-of-honor status in small town restaurants, frequent and hearty “helloo’s” when I walk on the street, and effusive praise of my Chinese ability. But not to be lost among the forest of benefits is the preferential pricing for foreigners.

Preferential pricing, like prejudice, is often hard to prove, but I was blessed with the most hilarious example yet on a recent trip to the Great Wall.

Descending the wall on a cold, blustery day, I walked in a group of Chinese and foreigners toward a vendor selling small, gold-colored trinkets to anyone walking past. As the stream of people approached, the woman set in with her melodious pitch: “Liang kuai, liang kuai! Five! Five!”

In other words, the Chinese price was 2 Yuan and the English-speaking price was 5—more than double. When she was pressed on the discrepancy by a (gasp!) foreigner with competent Chinese, the woman explained that the discrepancy was for the different sizes of the trinkets, despite the fact that there was only one size. At the very least giving different prices is something to be embarrassed about. And for most foreign vacationers, paying an extra 3 Yuan would mean far less than it would to the vendor. I, for one, would be willing to pay a 3 Yuan for the chuckle that the woman’s chutzpah gave me.

January 14, 2009

Communication Breakdown in the Mists of Yellow Mountain

My recent trip to Huangshan has proven conclusively that my stellar record at uncovering communication breakdowns is not affected by altitude.

After my sister and I stepped out of the taxi at the foot of the trail on a mountain venerated by Chinese poets and in black brush paintings around China, we made our way over to the ticket counter.

I stooped down toward the thick glass separating the ticket vendor from me in order to ask: “有没有学生票?” “Are there student tickets?”

“没有学生票,” “There aren’t any student tickets,” the woman said resolutely as she eyed me with distrust.

Had this been my first day in China, I would have assumed that there was no student ticket; but my experience in the interpretive art of Chinese service told me otherwise.

“There must be some sort of student ticket,” I replied, turning and finding the words “Full price ticket: 120 Student concessionary ticket: 100.” Knowing that she would be more than happy to recognize her earlier miscommunication, I pointed out the discrepancy to her.

“要买学生票需要证件” “To get the student price you need ID,” she explained testily.

“Like this one?” I replied, pulling out my Beijing Language and Culture University ID from my pocket and sliding it into the silver tray connecting the woman to the outside world.

If I was a little bit cocky, it was because I had the self-assurance that comes with carrying a valid, Chinese student ID, rather than my old Michigan ID and its batting average around .700—good but not a sure bet.

My take is that the woman’s response was all about mafan—a weighty concept in Chinese culture. I believe she was trying to make our interaction the least mafan, troublesome as possible. With my former babyface having succumbed to both age and prolonged exposure to dangerous levels of air pollution, I no longer have the face of a freshman in college. Furthermore, my skin was clearly white, if not purple from the mountain cold, which probably led her to conclude that I would almost certainly not have a Chinese student ID. Thus, to skip the steps of trying to explain that a foreign ID wouldn’t work, the woman had taken a shortcut and told me simply, “There were no student tickets,” despite the fact that there clearly were student tickets.

Unfortunately, in her shortcut, she added to her mafan, because I proceeded to try to make sure the same problem wouldn’t happen again in the future.

“Next time, you shouldn’t say that there are no student tickets when there really are,” I said.

“But you need ID!” she said, sticking to her guns.

She eyed my ID more carefully than it has ever been eyed, flipping through the pages and asking in an angry tone, “Which year are you enrolled in?”

“This year,” I replied as she looked at the stamp validating 2008 and 2009—a Chinese student ID shares more similarities with the Little Red Book than it does with an American student. Instead of a plastic card, a Chinese student ID is a book the size of a playing card with various stamps, dates of validity, rules, regulations, do’s, dont’s, and a picture pasted in, with a stamp through the lower righthand corner.

She handed over the student ticket and defended her original report, telling me, “But you need an official ID.” I believe what she meant was that she had thought I wouldn’t have an official ID.

I took the tickets and started with my sister up the mountain, wondering over the fate of the next foreign student who shows up at Huangshan and wondering whether 20 kuai was worth the hassle. The amazing views of snow-covered Huangshan certainly were.

January 15, 2009

A Clever Clue Concerning Communication Consternation

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book based mostly on cross-cultural research and work by Richard Nisbett from UM’s social cognition covers everything in cultural from its roots in agricultural styles to culture’s effect on airline crash records and communication breakdowns in cockpits.

In his analysis, he says, “Western communication has what linguists call a ‘transmitter orientation’—that is, it is considered the responsibility of the speaker to communicate ideas clearly and unambiguously.” In the West, “if there is confusion, it is the fault of the speaker.”

Richard Nisbett writes: “Asians, in contrast, teach their children ‘receiver’ orientation, meaning that it is the hearer’s responsibility to understand what is being said. If a child’s singing annoys an American parent, would likely just tell the kid to pipe down. No ambiguity there. The Asian parent would be more likely to say, ‘How well you sing a song.’ At first the child might feel pleased, but it would likely dawn on the child that something else might have been meant and the child would try being quieter or not singing at all.”

This could partly explain why I seem to be so confused in China so often, as I was in Dandong.

It doesn’t stop with ticket-takers and school administrators, though. As a graduate from the American higher education system who served hundreds of students with dreams of going to the US for university, I’m often sent requests to look at personal statements for applications from my students in Guangzhou.

It’s hard work, though, since many of the essays have buried ideas and unclear messages. This could be true of the essays of American high school students, but the responses of my students lead me to believe that this has more to with Chinese culture’s receiver orientation rather than sloppy writing.

One exchange I had with a student over his essay is particularly revealing. I read the essay and wrote back:

“I’m still very unclear as to what you’re trying to communicate. The beginning in particular is hazy… . Later on, there’s more confusion… . At it’s heart. What do you want to communicate in this essay?”

The response I got surprised me: “I have to say i to some degree intended the haziness of the mood.”

Essentially, my student was satisfied with the resulting fog and was going to send the fog in with minimal changes. Unfortunately, an admissions officer is going to spend much less time and be much less forgiving in reading essays than your teacher.

These essays come from the same heritage that has produced poetry where a line like “I looked at the moon that night” actually means “I am in love with that woman and her beauty.” There’s beauty and intelligence in reading between the lines like this, but personal statements are read by American admissions officers, and true cultural competence means anticipating your reception in your new cultural environment. In other words, if you want to get into an American college, you’re going to have to write like an American, just like how I’ve had to learn to listen like a Chinese person. Or at least I’m trying.

January 18, 2009

The Upside to an Economic Downturn

Beijing is a giant in the foreign imagination, from the Forbidden City to the modern Olympics. So it came as a surprise when a business and exporting capital not known for its history or its charms won my sister’s heart almost as soon as she had stepped off the plane.

The warmer weather and more civic-minded public behavior were certainly nice counters to the blustery winter winds and flying loogeys that were supposedly eradicated for the Olympics. But the skies that were unexpectedly blue and breezy were also a bright spot and a surprise for perpetually smog-covered Guangzhou.

With the economic trouble those naughty American bankers started taking its toll on economies around the world and shuttering factories that until recently produced goods for credit-dependent US consumers, the skies around Guangzhou seem to be getting a little bluer than they were last year when business was booming in the Pearl River Delta, A.K.A. the factory floor for the world. A former student of mine told me he thought the skies above Guangzhou had been bluer so far this winter.

There’s a famous Chinese folk tale, 塞翁失马, sai weng shi ma about a farmer whose apparent misfortunes turn to fortunes and whose apparent fortunes turn to misfortune. The saying owes its name to the story of his runaway horse—over which his neighbors came to express their condolences—that eventually came back with a second horse in tow. Far be it from me to wish for the global recession to worsen, but at least I, like the old farmer, am enjoying the upturns that come with an economic downturn.

January 27, 2009

Strange Advertising in Middle China

During my sister’s recent trip to China, we passed through Nanchang, a southern city with little more to distinguish it than wicked pollution and the fact that some important Chinese Communist history went down there, guaranteeing that it’s now endowed with a handful of revolutionary museums. Yet unpleasant cities such as Nanchang that are situated well off the tourist map (the Lonely Planet recommends: “travelers, unless otherwise detained, should hop on the first connection out of town”) have their own share of interesting discoveries that just can’t be found in the big cities. In Nanchang, one of my favorites was a hand-painted ad painted right onto the street. I stopped to take a picture:


The character on the left that looks like a many-legged critter means ‘black’ and the character on the right means ‘car.’ Yet instead of selling cars of the ebony variety, phone number would lead to an unregistered (and thus illegal) taxi—most likely someone’s personal car.

Ads for blatantly illegal services are common in China—anything from fake IDs to bogus receipts to prostitution (those last two are probably linked)—so this wasn’t what made this advertisement for “black cars” so interesting.

Instead, it was the gall with which the advertisement was made. There are any number of ways that they could have proffered their services using innocuous terms, perhaps under ‘taxi’ or ‘personal transportation.’ Yet the ad-maker chose the term for the illegal cars. I still can’t decide whether that proves the ad-makers brave or just over-earnest, but it does mean that Chinese towns you’ve never heard of aren’t without a charm of their own.

January 30, 2009

Where do characters for abstract ideas come from?

The story behind 象形 or pictorial characters is simple. ‘木’ (mu) is a picture of a tree and means ‘wood’; ‘火’ (huo) looks like a burning fire and means ‘fire’; even ‘牛,’ (niu) which is supposed to mean ‘cow’ can look a little like an aerial view of a cow if you use your imagination and squint more than a little bit.

But these are all characters that represent real, solid objects that we’ve all seen before. So what happens when you have to create a picture for an abstract or logical connection like ‘if,’ ‘because,’ or ‘is’?

According to Xi Shuo Hanzi (细说汉字), a reference I’ve used before, the story behind ‘yin’ (因), ‘because,’ is intriguing and illustrative of one of the ways we can get a character for abstract concepts.

(If ‘yin’ shows up as a little box on your computer, click here to see a crude reproduction of the character by yours truly.)

Yin’ started as a pictorial character, whereby the ‘大’ in the middle was a person and the ‘口’ around the little person was a mat. At that time, the character meant, simply, ‘mat.’ The beginning is simple enough: a picture drawn of a concrete object.

Over time, ‘yin’ came to mean ‘to rest against,’ and eventually to ‘lean on,’ and ‘rely on.’ Since ‘because’ is similar to ‘lean on’ and ‘rely on,’ the character was “borrowed” to mean ‘because.’

In my mind, I picture an object with a cartoonlike sign reading “Event A” propped up against a rolled up mat. When the mat vanishes in a poof of smoke, Event A falls down—it cannot exist. When you think about it—perhaps in a less cartoonish sort of way—‘because’ is a lot like ‘leaning on a mat.’

In the end, as the use of ‘yin’ changed over time, the original meaning of ‘mat’ and ‘lean on’ were lost. To use it thus nowadays would be as surprising as informing the Chinese comrade next to you of the character’s origins (you can speak Chinese?), which now only scholars and nerds are aware of.

January 31, 2009

Bodily harm, Chinese New Year, and the smell of sulfur in the morning

I love the smell of sulfur dioxide in the morning, I thought. Well actually, the sulfur dioxide reminded me of the harm the polluted air does to my body every day I live in China and how often I get sinus infections. But I did now love Chinese New Year, which puts a fun spin on putting our bodies in danger.

———— Walking out of my hotel still a bit groggy from the hubbub the night before, despite having slept in, the leftover casings littering the ground reminded of the scene from the previous night:


I could very well have taken the same picture that night in just about any direction in any part of the small town I was in: the whole town was covered in shell casings.


It wasn’t like this for me last year, though. As any Chinese person will tell you, to truly experience Chunjie, Chinese New Year, it’s all about where you are.

For my first Chinese New Year, I was in an eerie silence as I wandered the streets of Tianhe, the ultra-modern district in Guangzhou where I lived at the time, looking for a restaurant that might be open. Chunjie is a time for Chinese to return to their ancenstral hometowns and visit their family; that said, no one’s ancestral hometown is located in an ultra-modern district of high rises that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Thus, I spent the night, strangely alone in a city of many millions that was now empty, in my apartment without heat, wondering what the big deal was with Chunjie—I wasn’t seeing any of it.

To ring in this year of the ox (my year), I was in the small town (all right, a “small,” by Chinese standards, town of over 2 million that not even Chinese people have ever heard of) of Longyan, taking a break from my exploration of Hakka villages and their inspiring tulous.

Maybe it’s because of collective thinking, a shared culture in an undiverse land, or simple residential density, but the fireworks I saw sprout and bloom in mere fractions of seconds amid the cracks and ravines of the streets of Longyan for Chinese New Year blew July Fourth out of the water. From my room on the fifteenth floor, perched far above almost all the other buildings in town, I could see out as fireworks lept up from nearly every street in the city. My room was at the corner of the hotel, which let me see that there was no difference between the view out the eastward 90 degrees and southward 90 degrees—the fireworks were everywhere.

In the US, most fireworks cannoned into the sky are put on by local governments and fire departments; in Longyan, they’re launched by indviduals. In Longyan the fireworks were so loud I often couldn’t hear the TV sitting a few feet from me glowing with the yearly New Year’s extravaganza, Chunwan. In Longyan, the fireworks’ shredded paper casings fell from the sky and onto my face as I gazed up at the fireworks exploding above my head instead of off in the distance as when I’m in the US. In Longyan, the fireworks filled the city with a rich smoke that left the room smelling of smoke and sulfur after I ventured outside and left the windows open. In Longyan, the fireworks’ acrid smoke stung my eyes and reminded me it would be best to take a few paces back. In Longyan, the fireworks exploded so close to the my building that I could have reached out and touched the beautiful fire trails:

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A year ago in Tianhe, I had sat harmlessly in my apartment after finding the only restaurant still open—a crummy noodle shop; in Longyan, I unintenionally added to the danger of the evening when I placed my own firework arsenal box in a location that, I discovered only too late, was too close to the building next to it. As a result, the sparks shooting from the fireworks that exploded in the sky showered against the glass of the restaurant I had eaten at hours before. Alarmed, I took a short jog backwards to admire the rest of the contents in the box with the status of a bystander instead of as a responsible party. But who could blame me? Fire hazards are all a part of the New Year fun, right?

There were so many fireworks flying here in China for Chunjie that both Gus, the newest Guangzhou PiAer, and I both had stories of being pegged by flaming projectiles. After my night in Longyan, I learned this much is true: Chunjie is a fun and dangerously exciting time.

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As I walked toward the bus station in the post-Chunjie glow and the smell of sulfur, I reflected on the difference between this year’s Chunjie and last, and I thought—this is a tradition I could get used to.

Having white skin, it’s easy to get praise in China, but hard to actually feel like a part of the culture. Intense language study, I found, can’t remove every barrier either. I learned as much as I sat that evening staring blankly as the jokes of the annual Chunwan xiangsheng comedy performance sailed over my head faster than the fireworks outside. The pounding explosions and colorful sparks in the sky of Chunjie, though, knew no languge or culture.