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March 2009 Archives

March 4, 2009

The Unluckiest Phone Number in China

Anyone who’s opened a fortune cookie knows that the Chinese are no stranger to lucky numbers. On second thought, fortune cookies are a Japanese invention popularized in California.

But the fact remains. While Chinese hotels routinely have a 13th floor, Chinese people often avoid phone numbers with the number 4, pronounced ‘sì’ which sounds like ‘sǐ’ meaning ‘death.’

Conversely, the number 8 is in hot demand, although the reason is somewhat harder to understand. The story goes that ‘bā’ (8) sounds like ‘fā’ from ‘fācái’ ‘get rich,’ arguably the most culturally sanctioned action in China.

The result is that business numbers tend to be barked over tinny bus speakers, making Chinese sound strange even to locals, “Please call ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba!”

Phone numbers are so meaningful here in China that I, at one point, earned (undeserved) cool points for owning a phone number that ended in 007, as James Bond is known in China. Those cool points ran out either when I changed numbers or back when my Chinese friends realized that I bore no resemblance beyond the number.

Phone numbers full of 8’s abound, but I would guess that China has never seen a phone number made entirely of 4’s. Barring that, the title of China’s unluckiest phone number must fall on a number brought to my attention recently:


In pīnyīn, that sounds a lot like: Yāosānbā! Sǐ sānbā a! Sǐ bā! Sǐ bā!


She-devil! Die she-devil! Die! Die!

It’s astounding that a phone number could convey such information. That’s the magic of a language with such an astounding number of homophones.

The crux of the unluckiest phone number is that 38 ‘sānbā’ is the same as ‘March 8th.’ That particular date was borrowed as a derogatory term for women, probably because that day is also International Women’s Day. 4 is ‘die’ again, while 8 (when not denoting ‘she-devil’) here is now ‘bā’ a particle that makes the sentence a command.

I can only imagine what that would sound like shouted over a tinny bus speaker.

March 9, 2009

How Peter Hessler Ruined My China Life

Peter Hessler, the American writer of bestselling Oracle Bones and River Town, has singlehandedly ruined my China life. I’ve never actually seen Peter Hessler in China, but I live everyday in his footsteps.

I’ve always had an adversarial jealously of Hessler, seeing as how he’s achieved the fame and success as a China writer with Princeton connections that I’d take in a moment. I’ve scoured his writings to find faults and thereby a basis for my rivalry, but I still have yet to come up with anything.

Living in China in the shadow of Peter Hessler is a bit like what a real-life Harry Potter would feel toward J.K. Rowling if Potter were an aspiring novelist and he one day discovered someone had beaten him to the punch—and made a tidy sum in the process. I suspect that nearly every Princeton in Asia fellow has a tinge of jealousy-based grudge-tinged-with-respect for Hessler.

To understand how Hessler has stolen my thunder, it’s necessary to understand one of the most essential benefits of choosing to live in China. That is you get to wrap yourself in the plush, velvety illusion that you’re the first one to experience all of the crazy aspects of China life.

One of the greatest consolations of frequenting squatty potties and buses that drive blindly around mountain corners is that it makes a great story. As much as I know that other Americans have been here and done this, I succumb to the sweet-scented myth just like any other.

Yet my sister’s recent visit to China forced me to shed this self-glorifying myth, and I have only Hessler to blame. In the weeks leading up to my sister’s landing in Beijing, I started a mental store of all of the great China stories I could pretend to be reminded of when we saw sights in the capital.

I had it all worked out in my mind, as I biked to and from my ancient Chinese classes day after day. I’d wait until we saw a sign reminding citizens to beware of pickpockets, and I would pretend to be reminded of the time I caught a thief with his hand in my pocket at a noodle stall in Guilin.

“Did I tell you about the time…” I’d start of innocently, indicating my innocence by adding a high pitch to my voice.

My sister, in turn, would be amazed with both the depth and excitement of my experience, as well as my modesty in thinking of the stories as nothing special.

“Maybe you should write a book,” she’d say.

“Aww, for these little things?” I’d say, checking off another of the stories I’d put on my mental playlist.

In reality, my sister’s response was: “Oh, yeah. I read that in Peter Hessler.” This exact sentence came out of my sister’s mouth so many times in response to my stories that she soon dropped the expression of surprise and then the subject of the sentence. “Read that in Peter Hessler.” After another couple days, the same information was contained in a monotone “Peter Hessler.”

“Did I tell you about the time that a thief broke into my hotel room?”

“Oh yeah, I read that in Peter Hessler.”

“Have I shown you my home in one of Beijing’s poorest, most culturally vibrant hutongs?”

“Read that in Peter Hessler.”

“Did I tell you about the time I was picked up by the police?”

“Peter Hessler.”

Thanks to my arch-nemesis, my China adventure stories quickly became no more interesting than reciting the plots of famous movies.

In the end, I shouldn’t blame Hessler for being an engaging writer, for being an enterprising journalist, nor for being in the right place at the right time, when interest in China started to take off. Then again, if I can’t live in the beautiful illusion of being the number one China explorer, at least I should be able to revel in my jealousy of the person who did it first.

March 12, 2009

China's Ancient Cell Phone Rock

Perhaps more famous than China’s most famous mountain, Huangshan, is the “Welcoming Guest Pine Tree” that graces one of the peaks. This oddly shaped pine tree shot to stardom for the accomplishment of embodying the Chinese value of welcoming guests. Part of the pine bends over as if to provide shelter for weary hikers.


This single pine tree is so famous that it’s reproduced in houses, hotels, tea cups, and t-shirts across the mainland. The park authorities have even had to set up a system for visitors fighting for a picture with the popular pine, where a sign instructs picture-takers where to line up to get their shot.

But the Welcoming Guest Pine was not what shocked me about Huangshan. After all, anyone who’s visited a Chinese mountain has inevitably noticed that the scenery is always labelled in relation to its resemblance to animals and people. Appreciation of nature for nature itself seems to get lost somewhere in the process, although that shouldn’t be so surprising seeing that my Chinese-bought dictionary defines animals in reference to their usefulness to humans.

The result of all of this is that Chinese tours are organized very differently from Western tours. As I discovered by tailing Chinese tour groups to Yunnan’s Stone Forest, Chinese guides to natural areas are well-versed in pointing out the various “natural” wonders:

“If you look over there, that rock looks like a dog.”

“That one looks like a mother carrying her daughter.”

“That’s a man riding a dragon.”

Strange, I think, I thought the rock formations looked like the awe-inspiring beauty of nature in the form of a petrified forest of calcite.

Upon my winter visit to China’s most famous mountain, Huangshan, I discovered just how hilariously out of hand things had gotten when I saw the sign accompanying this rock:



Chinese culture doesn’t seem to share the same streak of Ludditism that has graced America since at least Thoreau. Yet the marvel of the rock that nature graciously had the foresight to shape into the form of a cell phone shocked me still. If China has any qualms about the place of technology in one of the world’s longest continuous cultures, then it’s certainly not showing it.

March 15, 2009

Encounters with Chinese Celebrities, Personally Identified

In an attempt to mitigate it, I’ve never denied my nerdiness. Yet I surprised even myself the other day in class when I heard a familiar voice rise from the front of the lecture hall.

“In ancient Chinese…” the voice was deep and rich. “Zhi means ‘to go,’ ‘to depart.’”

I know that voice, I thought, that’s the second-place contestant in last year’s Hanyu Dasai! I could only see his black hair from my seat toward the back. Yet simply by listening to this man’s voice, I was almost certain the rich voice was emanating from Hua Jiade, who was featured on last year’s televised national Chinese competition, the Hanyu Dasai.

Since at least the early days of Canadian Da Shan, Chinese people have taken immense pleasure in watching foreigners speak Chinese—a phenomenon some have labelled the “talking dog phenomenon.” Nowadays, under the pedagogical guise of a Chinese-language competition, the Chinese are awarded a chance every year to see foreigners speaking Chinese, describing what they love most about China, and performing traditional Chinese skills from singing traditional songs to on-air calligraphy at the Hanyu Dasai (literally, “Chinese Language Big Competition”). I liken it to the confusion of humor and warm feelings that come when seeing a squirrel water ski, a skill that contradicts what we normally think lies within the realm of squirrel capabilities.

I’ve never had the fortune of seeing the competition, but I have listened to it when it was featured on a chinesepod lesson. Fate being what it is, I loaded the Hanyu Dasai lesson onto my cheap, thumb-sized Chinese mp3 player while on extended summer vacation and didn’t have an opportunity to download any new lessons for several weeks. For the next several weeks, I listened to the two featured contestants explain what attracted them most about China dozens of times as I jogged through Hong Kong’s narrow streets.

As a result, half a year later, as I sat listening to a lecture on ancient Chinese, I was able to recognize second-place Hua Jiade by his voice alone. As a result, I was also able to recall a laundry list of his personal details when I approached him after class with a nervousness normally reserved for legitimate celebrities.

“Excuse me,” I said in English, not knowing whether it would be best to address an Iranian Chinese champion in English or Chinese. “This might sound weird…”

I prefaced my query because I had spent the last 20 minutes of class wondering what would happen if I had accidentally stumbled on the wrong guy. If it’s not the real Hua Jiade, what would he think if a stranger came up to him asking if he was the guy from the Chinese competition? Then again, I wasn’t sure whether it was more embarrassing to approach a guy you’ve misidentified as a national Chinese-language runner-up or to recognize that I have the ability to accurately identify him as such.

“…but are, are you the guy from the Hanyu Dasai?”

“Yes! Yes, I am,” he said in a friendly, welcoming voice suited to the stereotype of portly individuals.

“Hua Jiade,” I stammered.

His happiness radiated so genuinely that I was tempted to unload the full arsenal of knowledge I knew about him already, much in the way a fan of a movie star babbles incoherently about how, “I’ve seen all your movies, all of them! You’re amazing.”

As a result of my repeated listenings, I was now prepared to show Hua Jiade an uncomfortable amount of personal knowledge I had memorized about him. I knew he was engaged to a Chinese girl; I knew he was from Iran; I knew his Chinese name is constructed to represent his two homes, Iran and China (华, China, 家 home, 德 for “Tehran”); I knew that the part of China that enticed him most was the food; but I also knew that, in seriousness, as he said, what enticed him the most was his Chinese fiancee. This was unhealthy, and I knew it, so I stifled the urge to rattle off my knowledge as we talked.

In the end, I found the real Hua Jiade to be a friendly, welcoming guy who thankfully seemed not to be put off by my nerdly knowledge. I found he’s been in China 5 years already, and he’s already picked up the habit of reflexively exchanging cell phone numbers so common here. Thus, I left the conversation with his phone number programmed into my phone.

As I walked out of the lecture hall, I exclaimed to my classmate from Costa Rica, “That’s Hua Jiade. Hua, Jiade, the guy from the Hanyu Dasai. I mean, from TV, the national competition.”

My friend just rolled his eyes. “Who cares?”

“Right,” I said. “It’s no big deal,” I lied. Then I made a mental note to call Hua Jiade for lunch.

March 18, 2009

China: The Land of the Free

“Ahh, finally!” I exclaimed, breathing a sigh of relief as I finally set foot on the mainland after having spent much of my summer in Hong Kong. “Free at last! I can finally relax,” I said to myself quietly.

China’s not known as a bastion of personal freedom and liberty, but I decided the mainland was just such a place when I went to have dinner recently with my cousin, who also lives in Beijing. When we talked about our experiences in Hong Kong, I discovered that my midwestern cousin had arrived independently at the exact same conclusion about feeling free and easy on the mainland, and so convinced me of its validity.

From the outset, China shouldn’t feel so free. At the most basic level, living in a collectivistic society means that social behavior has much clearer and more narrowly prescribed guidelines. For instance, I’ve found repeatedly that saying “thank you” when people praise my Chinese ability makes others uncomfortable—perhaps because it implies that I accept the notion that my Chinese is good, where I should resist and say that it’s actually quite terrible. These types of behavioral limitations that I never gave a thought to in the US are most certainly numerous in China, from text message etiquette to beer-toasting rules.

American social interaction, by contrast, is much more tolerant of a diversity of behavior, perhaps as a result of the widespread freedom of movement and short-term interactions with people from all over. So even before talking about “social institutions,” you should already suspect that China would feel more constraining.

But it only took a short trip to Hong Kong to discover the mainland’s unique mix of personal freedom. Hong Kong enjoys freedoms of election, press, and speech, but the pressure to dress like a movie star—oversized sunglasses are practically required—is enforced almost as though through the barrel of a gun. Similarly, civilized behavior like lining up at bus stops is not only more expected, violations are vocally condemned by average citizens. Hong Kongers will openly scoff at people who stand on the left side of escalators, an act that is not even on the politeness radar on the mainland. Even normally meek little old yours truly has been rebuked several times in Hong Kong for a variety of goofs.

Most foreigners find the order of Hong Kong relieving, and the relative jungle of the mainland overwhelming. It’s easy to complain about mainland China’s lack of queuing skills and loogie hocking—I certainly have. But the free-for-all also means that I am free to behave much more freely and naturally without having to worry about how others are judging my behavior.

Looser fashion norms also make me feel liberated on the mainland. Being midwestern, I’ve never been on the leading edge of the fashion curve. Yet even I can sympathize with one friend who described fashion on the mainland as adhering to the “pretty on pretty” principle. This is the only explanation I can come up with for understanding the philosophy behind gluing rhinestones on the heels of leather boots—a practice I’ve seen several times in the past two years. Although I won’t be seeing sporting my own pair of rhinestone boots, I, for one, am perfectly happy with them, since they make me feel freed of the neurotic pressures of Hong Kong.

With all this return to a more natural state of behavior giving me room to be thankful, the shoving on Beijing’s subway cars has started to look a lot different. The last time I was checked by a little old lady on Beijing’s crowded line 2 at rush hour, I couldn’t help but sing to myself, and the home…of the brave.

March 23, 2009

The Unspeakable Magic of Beijing

On paper, Beijing probably ranks somewhere between East St. Louis and Gary, Indiana. So why do so many people love Beijing?

My Beijing friends often complain that my writing is too negative about Beijing. That impression couldn’t be farther from how I feel about Beijing, so in a sense of fairness, I’ve been trying to gather insight into what makes Beijing attractive to me.

My first trip in Asia concluded with a whirlwind tour of Asian metropolises as I visited Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo in the span of two weeks. Seeing three different cultures and metropolises in such a short time allowed me to compare the cities directly, and the scoreboard wasn’t favoring Beijing.

Other than being the cheapest, Beijing swept the worst prizes: worst traffic, worst infrastructure, worst pollution, worst manners, worst sanitation, worst place to ask for directions. Yet of all three cities, it was Beijing that I wanted to return to. A year later as I was graduating from college, I turned down better-paying offers to teach in Korea and Japan in order to return to Beijing.

Since then, I’ve been at a loss to describe what it was that draws me to Beijing. I had hoped that after living in Beijing longer, I would be able to put my finger on it. Yet after a total of ten months in the northern capital, I’m no closer to understanding it than saying it has a feeling, an atmosphere.

I’ve always wanted to write about the ineffable magic of Beijing, but I’ve held back because it seems so effemeral and trying to show it would seem too subjective.

But today I opened an email from a Chinese friend of mine who moved from Inner Mongolia to Beijing for university and then to Tokyo for graduate school. The letter eloquently put into words the feelings of so many who seem drawn to Beijing in a way people don’t talk of places like Shanghai or Hong Kong. (Loosely) Translated, her letter reads:

“Two years ago I went to Suzhou and Shanghai, and after two weeks I already missed Beijing terribly. Last time, I went to Shezhen for over a month, and I missed Beijing. I miss Beijing now too…It’s just that it seems now to give me a feeling that Beijing is moving along without…A friend of mine said, ‘Beijing’s really hard on the eyes, yet nowhere in the world can match the feeling Beijing gives.’ I really agree with that friend.

After I went to school in Beijing, it became my home. When I found I had to leave Beijing, I was terribly sad. Even now I don’t know what sort of fate I have with Beijing—whether or not I will ever be able to return…”

After reading it, I’m no closer to understanding the reason why, but there’s no denying Beijing.

March 28, 2009

Post-Olympic Pirate Hunting

Pirates have been easy to find in the news lately, as eastern Africa becomes the world’s pirating center and China sends its war fleets to cruise international waters. Yet a certain international sporting event has made finding pirates here on the home front into an Olympics of its own.

Of course, I wouldn’t know a thing about how to buy fake CD’s and DVD’s. True, I could have bought the fake stock and justified my favorite “hole-punched” CD store in Guangzhou by telling myself that I earned a Chinese salary. Even if I could find real CD’s in China—which I can’t—I wouldn’t be able to afford them anyway, or so I told myself.

The relative cost of real CD’s is outrageous on the mainland. A $15 CD is equal to a week of eating out in restaurants, a pair of blue jeans, or 50 Beijing subway rides.

But I, of course, would never let me appetite for music and movies fall to the dark side of CD burners and hilariously subtitled dollar movies. So any trip made by yours truly to the pirate shop was made for “purely anthropological reasons only.”

Anthropology being a lifelong discipline, each trip back to Guangzhou inevitably includes a trip in search of the sixth-floor stalls across from my old school that sell all sorts of foreign CD’s. I say “search” because finding the stalls has become more challenging amid the shockwaves of the crackdowns surrounding the Olympics that touched as far as Guangzhou.

The last time I had visited Guangzhou was during the games. At that time, I was accosted on the escalator by a man asking if I was looking for CD’s. Not knowing the man and seeing that following him would involve entering a locked and barred storeroom hidden down a dark hallway, I was faced with either certain death, robbery, or music heaven. I chose to follow the man.

On the way, the man explained to me that he and his fellow CD vendors had been shut down for the Olympics.

“They said we might be able to open again after three months. We’re all nervous, though. If we can’t do business, we’ll all have to go home, and do something else,” he said. “It’s all on sale. I’ll give you a discount.”

Five months later, I returned as a visiting fellow with three other academics studying pirated goods to the mall for more anthropological research only to see the escalators to the sixth floor shuttered. And try as I might, no amount of taking the escalators up and down and up and down was enough to attract seedy men nabbing walk-by customers. Our “research” was doomed.

But based on the vendors’ previous tenacity, I knew not to despair. Instead, I walked with my fellow music-thirsties, repeating in an undeniably outside voice: “Gosh, I wonder where I might be able to buy some SEEE DEEEZ. Yup, just a man in search of some CD’S HERE.”

I was enjoying hamming it up in front of my colleagues so much that I almost missed the clothes salesperson standing at the edge of one of the racks of clothing lining the fifth floor who was holding out a colorful business card. She handed me a business card and said “CD?” with an inquisitive, rising tone.

“Thanks!” I stammered, both relieved to know that my determined efforts had helped save the field of anthropology and amused that my indiscriminate outdoor voice trolling had worked.

“Where is it exactly?” I asked, trying to mentally place the address listed on the front.

“There’s a map,” she said as she pointed to a mini-map of streets with labelled landmarks and an arrow pointing the way to the promised land of CD’s.

After I arrived at the new store, I could see that the pirates had seen better days. First they had been dozens strong, with vendors occupying an entire floor of a mall. During the Olympics, they were down to a handful of closets in a shady converted apartment on the side of the mall. Now they were reduced to a single stall down the street.

As I filled out my research data form and browsed the now-pitiful boxes of CD’s, I reassured myself that these pirates are resourceful. They’re down, but I suspect they may not be out any time soon. And even if they’re on the run, I’ll know how to find them by flashing the bat signal: “Yup, just a man looking for some SEEE DEEES.”