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February 2009 Archives

February 6, 2009

Culture is...

Part I —————- Culture is the best scapegoat there is.

Culture is like one of those “get out of jail free” cards in Monopoly. Any mistake I make, any meltdown, slip, guffaw, goof—I’m covered! Couldn’t be my fault. It’s culture!

I discovered as much on a recent trip to Hong Kong. Having seen the famous Victoria Peak, I headed with my sister to the bus station to get back down the mountain. As I entered the station, the red double-decker bus whipped, crazy-Hong Kong-driver-style, into the station. Great, I thought, no waiting. I made a beeline for the bus—the first one on!

No sooner than I had one foot in the bus and was giving myself an imaginary pat on the back, a young man spoke up behind me in Hong Kong English, “Excuse me, can you queue up like the rest of us?”

I looked behind me and noticed an orderly line of people all waiting to get on the bus—all of which I had just blatantly cut. I apologized in a rushed way, trying to balance the need for addressing grievances with the need to get out of people’s way and sit down, it being too late to back out of the bus.

Besides my newfound rudeness, what surprised me was the fact that I hadn’t even noticed, seen, been aware of the line of people I had walked right by. I felt embarrassed, not only for having angered an entire line of people, but also somehow not having even noticed their presence.

And this is where the magic “get out of jail free” card comes in. I can only reason that living on the mainland has conditioned me to rushing toward bus doors as frantically as possible. From Guangzhou to Beijing, lining up for buses is as unheard of as deodorant in a stick. Even if I chose to try to line up behind the blob that forms around buses (or any form of transportation) in China, I wouldn’t even know which part of the blob to form my one-man line behind. Needless to say, I’d be the last one on the bus every time—if I got on at all.

So as I pushed my lunch back down my stomach while the bus screeched down the mountain slope, I used the Mr. Clean that is culture to explain away my bad behavior. And my conscience was again at ease.

February 7, 2009

Culture is...

Part II ————

Culture is a bully. I’m wearing red underpants right now, which proves that very fact. How I long for America, the land of freedom, where free men wear whichever color underwear their heart desires. But for me now, the list stuck near the door reads as follows:


In China, I’m now a slave to my běnmìng nián. See, I had the fortune of being born 24 years ago. There being exactly 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, my 24th year on earth is therefore a reappearance of my birth year, the year of the ox.

Naively, I had once thought that this would be an occasion for celebration. But under Chinese folk wisdom it is just the opposite. I’ve now come to learn that during my běnmìng nián I might face difficulties—even disaster—and that I should avoid any big decisions.

I learned, however, that there is hope—I can buy my own insurance policy, in the form of red underwear. That’s right. If I wear underwear of the red variety, I should be able to avoid any coming disasters.

Before I went out and forked over hard-earned money (is writing hard?) for a pair of tight reds, I decided it would be best to see whether Chinese people actually followed this custom, or whether I was being taken for a ride.

Yet when I ask Chinese people whether they actually believe in superstitutions, I get responses that seem like hedges, as someone might if he were trying to convince himself to buy insurance. “Well not really, but it’s best not to risk it.”

But there’s always behavior to go by. And so I learned that a friend of a friend got married a year earlier than he had wanted, in 2008, in an attempt to avoid getting married in his běnmìng nián. Apparently this is serious stuff.

But even after I accepted the gravity of the danger that lay in the way, I was still full of doubts.

“I have to wear red underpants every day for a whole year!?”

“It’s best not to risk it,” my Chinese friend told me.

Further asking around left me with yet more doubts. I learned that another friend of mine had worn red underwear in an attempt to avoid her misfortune, but ended up having to undergo major surgery. “I’m done with the whole red underwear thing,” she told me.

So here I sit, wearing newly bought Rock brand red underpants as I type away. I was going to say “screw it” like my friend who ran into major surgery despite her rouge-colored repetoire.

Then I had second thoughts. “Best not to risk it.”

February 18, 2009

Where do characters for abstract ideas come from?

Installment II

As I posted previously, characters for simple things like ‘sun’ (日) and ‘wood’ (木) are easy to explain, but characters for abstract ideas are much more challenging and intriguing.

‘为’ (wei) alternately ‘for,’ ‘because,’ ‘is,’ and ‘why’ fits the bill nicely. First, take a look at the evolution of the character:


The character as we see it now (far right) looks nothing like it’s predecessors. That’s merely because it’s the simplified character. (I’d like to thank the Communist Party personally for saving me from all of those unnecessary strokes, especially for a character so common.)

According to 细说汉字, ‘wei’ started out as a pictograph for using an elephant to do labor (far left). If you squint, you can see the top portion is a hand while the leftovers are an elephant with head up and feet to the right.

Over time, the hand-and-elephant underwent changes. First, changes were subtle; the elephant flipped over and decided to face left (2). But over the years, the character somehow managed to become simultaneously more complicated and farther removed from actually looking like a hand and an elephant.

As the character changed, so did the meaning. ‘Wei’ originally meant ‘do’ or ‘carry out,’ which is still present in combinations like the word for behavior (行为). From there, a myriad of meanings acquired over time through either “borrowing” or extension of meaning, so that now just about common English word can be translated as ‘wei’: for, is, because, why, by, and on.

I, for one, think we should bring back the original ‘to use an elephant to labor’ meaning. I can’t tell you how many times the situation comes up in my Beijing life and I just struggle for a quick and easy word for the elephant labor I’m doing.

At the very least, I can take solace in knowing that ‘wei’ represents the culture and the world at the time when characters were created and how a modern language runs on these age-old inputs. I’ll think of that the next time I say ‘why.’ (Or ‘what’ or ‘is’ or ‘for’ or ‘by’ or…)

February 22, 2009

Urinal Etiquette in Asia

The first time another man touched me while I urinated, I was in Thailand. When the strange man started giving me an unsolicited backrub, I had no intention of making a collection of strange Asian bathroom encounters. How much could you expect from a bar called Spicy? I figured.

The longer I work as I writer, the more I’ve started to look at things with an eye for their potential value as stories. Much as used car dealers view customers walking in the door in terms of sucker or waste of time, I often automatically categorize events as story-worthy or non-story-worthy. Now, for example, when I read Chinese newspapers I often skip otherwise interesting stories in order to look for stories that might inspire one of my own.

In David Sedaris’s recent book When You’re Engulfed in Flames he describes buying the Stadium Pal, a strap-on urine collector that freed him to pee discretely into a bag tucked into his pants anywhere he pleased. Although it’s presented as one of Sedaris’s personal quirks, I couldn’t help but think Sedaris had intentionally bought the urine device so that he could write it into one of his books.

I, however, had no intention of seeking out or keeping track of the odd bathroom encounters I’ve experienced in Asia. Yet I cannot erase them from my mind (as much as I would hope) nor can I seem to escape their ocurrence or explain their mind-bogglingness.

——— During my first encounter at Spicy in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I was out drinking beers with Jared, a PiA fellow posted in the town. I went to relieve myself in the bathroom. After I had started, I felt hands rubbing my shoulders and karate-chopping my back in an attempt at the art of massage in a country known for massage expertise.

As David Sedaris discovered when he tried to pee in his pants while checking in at a hotel, it’s physically impossible to carry out even simple tasks while urinating. After my traumatic experience in Spicy, I can affirm that it is also impossible to urinate while being massaged by a small Asian man in a cheap suit. No sooner had the massage started than I tensed up with awkwardness and turned my head, catching a glimpse of the massage-hawker and his cheap tuxedo, and I asked him allow me to relieve myself in peace.

An earlier, formal Thai massage that I had actually requested had taught me that Thai expertise in massages is a well-deserved reputation, but now I wondered why “do not massage while urinating” had never made it into the Thai book of massage knowledge. Of course, the man in the cheap tuxedo was not an artisan; he was merely angling for a tip. But even a massage hawker should know that massaging a man standing at a urinal is not the golden path to a quick buck.

——— My most recent encounter happened as I dashed into a public restroom late at night on the streets of Guangzhou. As I took my place in front of the urinal, my mind set about pondering why some authority had taken the care to label the different sections of the bathroom, this one being the “xiaobian chu” or “the pee zone.” I appreciated the clarity, but I wondered at why it was deemed necessary.

My thoughts soon turned to why the authorities hadn’t thought to install a sign of bathroom etiquette when a young man with a stylish haircut and wearing leather gloves entered and decided to turn what the authorities had clearly delineated as the pee zone into the English corner.

“Your Mandarin’s quite good,” he said, looking over in my direction over the two urinals separating us. He must have overhead me speaking Chinese to my friend eating barbecue at the shaokao stand nearby. I can only surmise that he followed me into the bathroom to start a conversation. His direct flouting of the pee-zone demarcation was, I surmised, not intentional, but rather secondary to his English language goals.

“Hold on,” I said, my voice straining a bit as I tensed with awkwardness and paused urinating.

In China, I often stress about how to respond to the inevitable compliments a foreigner’s attempts at the Chinese language invite. This time, though, I skipped the debate over the relative merits of (a) thanking him for the praise or (b) responding with Asian modesty by noting that my Chinese had much room for improvement. No, in this case, my response was clear and to the point.

“Lemme finish first,” I said.

The young man either didn’t hear me, didn’t understand, or chose to ignore me, and continued, explaining, “I study in Singapore…”

I decided I would be in the clear etiquettewise if I didn’t respond to his further comments, but I was unable to resume urinating until he had left. I added “being engaged in conversation by a stranger” to the ever-expanding list of tasks I am unable to complete while urinating.

The attention I receive for being a foreigner in China, I’ve learned, doesn’t stop at the bathroom threshold. And the attention I receive in the bathroom doesn’t stop at English conversation. Just as my hairy harms have been deemed more popular than in-flight movies on Chinese trains, I have often noticed men sneaking more than their fair share of peeks at urinals across China—generally the more rural, the more the peeks my better half invites.

Back at the shaokao stand, my Chinese friend had an explanation: “People just haven’t been taught enough etiquette yet in China.”

This explanation leaves something to be desired in my mind. It’s hard for me to imagine any nation undergoing collective training in potty chat and don’t-sneak-a-peak-at-the-foreigner etiquette. As much as I believe in the value of education, bathroom banter seems to be relegated outside its domain. The limits of male task capacity while urinating, on the other hand, sounds perfect for a grad thesis.

February 24, 2009

The Art of Smashing Chinese Pumpkins

China has “Christmas” trees too, and its own version of smashing pumpkins as well. Or so I discovered on a recent trip to Guangzhou.

To smash pumpkins in the US you simply take someone’s dearly carved Halloween pumpkin and smush it. But I discovered there’s an art to smashing Chinese pumpkins—that is, creating mischief with the orange trees placed outside homes and businesses in southern China for Spring Festival. The key lies in the difference between the two Chinese Christmas trees below.


Specimen I, Guangzhou, Yuexiu District


Specimen II, Guangzhou, Dongshan District

The art of Chinese Christmas tree havoc starts with differentiating the two main kinds of trees. One sports golfball-sized oranges that are beautiful but bitter; the other sports baseball-sized oranges that are sweet but not so pretty. Both trees above are of the larger, sweeter kind.

The important difference—and the key to the art of smashing Chinese pumpkins—is knowing which oranges to snatch. Although both trees were photographed on the same day, the tree on the top still has all of its oranges, while the tree on the bottom is missing a few dozen—each white splotch a strip of peel that refused to go, staying behind as proof of the crime.

Opportunists (yours truly included, but for purely anthropological reasons) pilfered only from this particular side of the bottom tree because it faces away from the door and next to an opaque wall, meaning no one’s the wiser—until the owner sees the orange tree’s become naked on one side. By contrast, the tree across the gate remains in perfect form because it sits in sight of the main doors and, by extension, the guards sitting inside.

There is no smashing of Western Christmas trees because they’re placed inside the home. China doesn’t celebrate Halloween, but Spring Festival brings out the Chinese version of temptation dressed in orange. The north sees fewer orange trees, mostly because orange trees don’t grow in the north and because the oranges would turn to orangesicles, and no one likes to eat ice cream when it’s cold outside. In Guangzhou, the oranges remain oranges even when placed outside. This I’m sure of because the orange I pilfered was mildly sweet, with seeds, proving the southern Chinese Christmas tree is more for cosmetics than for cuisine.

As a matter of course, there’s a stigma, a curse of bad luck to anyone caught pilfering oranges from southern Chinese Christmas trees, but I defended my anthropological gastroinvestigation to my Chinese friends by pointing out I wasn’t the first to visit the tree. Plus, I’m still wearing my red underwear.

February 26, 2009

Where do characters for abstract ideas come from?

Installment III

This article is part of a series investigating how Chinese solved the problem of creating characters for abstract ideas like why, what, and how using a pictorial system better suited for earth (土), wind (风), and fire (火).

While Chinese has no word for ‘yes,’ ‘no’ (不) is one of the most basic and most common words in the language, although its roots are anything but common. Below is the development of ‘no’:


Oddly enough, ‘no’ started out as a picture of a flower pot. Its form has changed little over thousands of years so that it still somewhat resembles a three-legged flower stand, although its original meaning has vanished.

Although it started out as a pictorial character, ‘bu’ is now a jiajiezi—a character “borrowed” for its sound and used for an entirely different meaning. The process of borrowing characters is often explained through analogy where we suppose we first create a word for ‘eye,’ say ‘目’ and then we borrow this character for the similarly pronounced ‘I.’

This supplies one answer for how abstract characters were created: they weren’t. They were borrowed from the pool of non-abstract characters. ‘No’ is distinct from ‘because,’ another abstract character that has origins in a concrete object. Whereas ‘because’ (因) was used for the conceptual relation between ‘rest upon’ and ‘because,’ ‘no’ was simply borrowed for the sound—that is unless you can think up some relationship between flower pots and ‘no.’

False etymologies for ‘no’ abound, such as the erroneous etymology provided by the venerated Shuowen Jiezi, a second-century Chinese dictionary—sort of like a 1,600-year-early Webster’s Dictionary. Shuowen claims ‘no’ was originally a picture of a bird flying into the sky. (“不鸟飞上翔不下来也”)

Nowadays, the character ‘柎’ has taken over the original meaning of flower pot, although the fact that it’s buried under 73 rows of different characters also pronounced ‘fu’ in my computer input software is evidence of how uncommon ‘柎’ is. In fact, I’d bet most Chinese today would ‘flower pot’ even know what ‘柎’ means.