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April 2009 Archives

April 4, 2009

Chinese Students Turn to Net Friends over Parents:
Heart Problems with the Youth in Asia

No one said being a Chinese high school student was easy, but a new multi-nation report shows just how wunai, desperate things are. The report’s main finding is that more Chinese students would rather confide in their wangyou’s, their internet friends, than their fathers. It’s not only a sign of the rise of the internet in Chinese society, but also how few people high school students here have to turn to—a phenomenon that I noticed as a high school teacher.

While I taught at a Chinese high school, I wrote on how I was amazed at the number of students who chose to confide their deepest psychological problems with me. The confessions ranged from emails about dreams and philosophy, to frantic text messages, to a full-length essay detailing a battle with psychological illness. Student after student lamented that they had no one to to trust, no one they could talk to, so I quickly became Guangzhou’s Dr. Frasier Crane.

When I first wrote about the phenomenon, I could relate only my own experience; now, a four-country study has put hard numbers on what I saw first hand. More so than Korean, Japanese, and Americans, 21% of Chinese high school students said they had no one to share their problems with. Furthermore, Chinese high school students were the least likely to talk often with their parents—only 55% said they often “chat” with their parents.

The lack of communication with parents is probably due in part to the huge generation gap that has grown amid the light-speed changes of Chinese society. Many Chinese students in high school have parents who never had a chance to go to college, let alone study abroad or face the temptation to spend class time sending text messages or playing in the wangba, the internet cafes which are probably more of a widespread harm than the American counterpart—underage drinking. (China has no discernibly enforced drinking age, but I’ve often been ID’ed in internet cafes across China, where users must be at least 18.)

Students probably also feel less able to share with their classmates because of intense competition driven between them for the do-or-die national entrance exam in schools that often publicize class results and rankings.

Not surprisingly, Chinese students reported spending the most time studying (as can be seen in this heartbreaking documentary chronicling a group of students preparing for the national entrance exam).

China also seems to have social norms against sharing problems. Compared with the United States, opening up about problems is more often seen as burdening others and spreading bad emotions.

Amid the generation gap and competition, more and more youth in Asia are turning to anonymous internet friends—and foreign teachers—for mental and moral support.

April 6, 2009

When the CCP Said I Was Cute

Days before leaving for China, a salesperson guessed my age at 16; I was a 21-year-old college graduate—no, I was a despondent 21-year-old college graduate.

By that point, I had spent much of my later childhood trying to will myself to outgrow my short height and baby face—to little success. But on a street in Beijing my anxiety turned to joy when I learned that being cute is now a government mandate.

I know this because I saw the following propaganda sign urging citizens to “Be a cute person”:


In the time it took me to decipher the six characters, my baby face shot from liability to model citizen prerequisite.

Unfortunately, my happiness wouldn’t last long. When I returned home, I learned that “being a cute person” has a different meaning altogether. “Being a cute person” is a revolutionary term referring to someone who makes great contributions to the country. Normally, soldiers, volunteers, leaders, and others who have made great sacrifices for the country count as “cute.” (Here, ke’ai’s literal meaning of “lovable” is probably a better translation; we should love these people because they help the country.)

Learning of the true requirements for model citizens, I was sad once again. Having a young face and teaching English may not be easy, but I still have a ways to go before being officially knighted as “cute.” In the meantime, I’m still trying my best to find propaganda that builds my self-esteem.

April 13, 2009

Insomniac Logic on a Chinese Sleeper Train

The man in the odd red velvet jacket snoring on the bunk across from me was just another obstacle in my quest to set foot in all of China’s 33 provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities, and special administrative regions. The next day, our train would pull into station at an ungodly hour in the morning, so every moment of sleep was precious. But Mr. Velvet was snoring so loudly that I was now awake at 3AM and couldn’t fall back asleep.

In my sleep-deprived mind, my objective was clear: stop this red-velvet man from snoring by waking him up without letting him know I woke him up.

During the sleepovers I had when I was young, I learned to solve the insomnia caused by my friends’ snoring by plugging their noses. I had learned that the brief suffocation would cause them to gasp suddenly and open their mouths like a fish pulled out of water. And for the few minutes that they continued to breathe through their mouth, I could put myself into a deep enough sleep for the rest of the night, all at the minimal cost of momentarily depriving my friends’ brains of oxygen.

But my plan was useless here on the overnight train, since Mr. Velvet was out of reach. So I commenced my first strategy. Plan A started before I got on the train, when I had eaten a spicy onion Turkish sandwich. Thanks to the potent sandwich, I was now equipped with jaw-dropping breath, which I started blowing across the aisle in hopes that it would shock Mr. Velvet into consciousness, at which point I would close my eyes and pretend to be sleeping.

Unfortunately, Mr. Velvet proved too hardy for the mere threat of Turkish onion breath to startle awake, so I was forced to Plan B: whistling. I commenced whistling in short bursts, closing my eyes to feign sleeping after each burst.

But whistle as I might, Mr. Velvet kept snoring soundly, so at last, I was forced to my boldest move, Plan C: clapping. I stretched my arms out into the aisle and let loose what was undeniably an outdoor clap, after which I turned over and shut my eyes. Yet after each clap, Mr. Velvet’s snoring continued unabated. With all of my options exhausted, I laid back and relinquished myself to impending exhaustion.

Soon enough, I fell asleep and time proved more powerful than my best-wrought Plans A through C. When I woke up in the morning, Mr. Velvet had already disappeared without a trace, free to terrorize unsuspecting passengers at will. Meanwhile, I sunk into the anonymity of the disembarking crowds, fleeing the scene of my half-baked shenanigans, free to terrorize future snorers at will.

April 16, 2009

My Chinese Culture Skills Offend Abroad

I needed water in a bad way. I set foot in the shock of Malaysian heat from a flight from Air Asia, whose cheap flights mean free beverage service is skimped.

In town, I dashed into one of Kuala Lumpur’s many 7-11’s and practically threw the bottle of water on the cash register. Yet as urgent as my dehydration was, as soon as I saw the cash register at shine out an odd number, I began to dig through my wallet for loose change.

The total was RM 1.50, so I dutifully handed a 5-Ringitt note along with .50 Ringitt to make getting change more convenient. But the cashier met my prideful change contribution with a look as though I were crazy, refusing the extra .50 Ringitt.

“This is already enough,” she said with impatience.

“No, it’s more convenient this way,” I said, feeling wronged, my voice trailing off as I realized how ridiculous my action had been.

Trust me: this ridiculousness is not my own bizarre creation. Rather, it’s a result of living in China, where paying with a bill more than 10 Yuan ($1.50) greater than the total is an affront akin to not recognizing another’s last name as “expensive.” No, even worse than that.

After moving to China, I’ve gotten used to noticing non-round numbers, and adding bills on top of sums to make giving change more convenient. If I buy a cup of tea for 11 Yuan, it would be normal for me to pay with a 20 Yuan note and add a 1 Yuan note on top for convenience. To not surrender the extra Yuan of pocket change for the sake of convenience would be rude. Paying with anything higher is an offense that I’ve learned to profusely apologize for in advance. I’ve even been called out by various shopkeepers who have spied smaller denominations folded in my wallet, forcing me to concede my smaller change.

Giving correct change is important in China because people are trying to avoid receiving fake bills, which are more common in larger denominations. Most people avoid giving large bills to street vendors and taxi drivers because they’re seen as either sources or repositories of fake bills. (Although people who have had fake bills dumped on them often run to dump the bills on vendors and taxi drivers, keeping the cycle alive).

Another reason for the change culture could be China’s emphasis on avoiding mafan, inconvenience, which I noted laces many of the social niceties that I had to use to get copies in my Chinese high school’s copy office.

But taking my China-learned customs abroad can cause problems, just as I saw in Kuala Lumpur. This I learned first hand, and as I left the 7-11, I let the liberating notion sink in that I could settle into my old, individualistic ways of not considering others’ convenience by digging through my wallet for proper change.

April 19, 2009

The Traditional Superstitions of Car Tires

The hutongs in my historic neighborhood are lined with pieces of tradition that beg for explanation. The drum-shaped stone pedestals by doors are there because they used to be used by residents to climb onto their horses. The fish emblazoned on many doors are there for good fortune because “fish” is pronounced just as the word for “surplus.” But how to explain the cardboard squares tipped against car tires?


After painstaking research, I’ve discovered that the cardboard squares are to prevent dogs from urinating on the tires.

But why should we care whether the odd dog here and there relieves itself on our car tires? The local belief is that the urine contains harmful chemicals that will damage the tires.

Hutongs date back to the Yuan Dynasty; Fengshui beliefs date back centuries or millennia further, probably to folk wisdom for selecting habitable caves. No one knows for sure just how far back these beliefs about the toxic interaction of dog urine and car tires go, but it’s clear that traditional beliefs are getting with the times in China.

April 26, 2009

Why my Name Means "Condom"

English is insanely popular in China, benefitting me by creating a huge market for employing my native English. Unfortunately, English abbreviations are probably even more popular, with the unfortunate consequence that my initials mean ‘condom’ in Chinese.

In China, I’ve bought T-shirts from shop attendants who know not small, medium, or large, but ask me whether I’d like an “s,” “m,” or “l.” The printed Chinese language is incapable of netspeak tht omts vwls lk ths, but the English emails I receive from my Chinese landlord omit vowels as though typing them were as expensive as buying them on Wheel of Fortune.

English abbreviations are so popular that they’re not just used for English. Many Chinese people are so shy about using the Chinese characters for vulgar words that they mostly use their English abbreviations.

Thus, when I watched a downloaded episode of South Park with Chinese subtitles parodying Mel Gibson, I found the translations of the curse words as interesting as the translation of the jokes requiring cultural background. In scene after scene, English abbreviations flashed underneath the crude cartoons: tmd, nnd, sb.

The abbreviations use the first letter of the Pinyin romanization of each character. Thus, (Chinese readers excuse the obscenity) one of the strongest curses, ‘他妈的’ ta made becomes the ubiquitous ‘tmd,’ and so on.

Chinese netizens who are too shy to write the less-than-scientific names for body parts even extend the abbreviations to words that are not actually curse words. That makes male genitalia into “jj,” an abbreviation of ‘jiji’ or “chicken chicken” 鸡鸡 (don’t ask me why a female animal is used to refer to a male body part).

All of this I had learned in my time so far in China. But I was confused when a Chinese friend referred yesterday to how I always avoided using both of my initials when I sign my emails.

“I avoid it? No, it’s normal just to abbreviate our first names, like I do: T.”

“You mean you weren’t trying to avoid signing your emails ‘condom’?”

“My name means ‘condom’!?”

As it turns out, “tt” is an abbreviation of taotao (套套), literally “sheath sheath” or “condom.”

Before I came to China, my Chinese teacher conferred upon me a Chinese name that meant “loves to talk endlessly” without my knowledge, dooming me to endless explanations of my absurd name. Little did my parents know that when they decided to go for a transliterated t in my initials, they were dooming me to perpetually remind my Chinese friends of birth control devices.