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July 2009 Archives

July 2, 2009

Why it's actually faster to type in Chinese (and how it may make you a pervert)

Keyboards were made for English; the thought of a keyboard of Chinese characters is enough to make your head spin. Yet Chinese can actually be faster to type than English. A friendly phrase like, say, ‘Long live Chairman Mao’ can explain how.

There’s no way around it in English. Typing ‘Long live Chairman Mao’ takes 22 key strokes (not including hitting the SHIFT key).

Using an old fashioned pen, it takes 28 strokes to draw the Chinese characters ‘毛主席万岁.’

Yet in Chinese this phrase takes 5 strokes and a tap on the space key. Simply typing ‘mzxws’ brings up each of the 5 characters and 28 strokes in an instant. The mysterious magic sesame spell of letters is simply the first letter of the pinyin for each word ‘Mao Zhuxi wan sui.’

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Using free downloadable Chinese language software from Google or Baidu, anyone can bring up thousands of commonly spoken words and phrases in an instant.

To choose another example at random, typing up ‘The State Council of the People’s of Republic of China’ takes only 6 strokes (Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo Guowuyuan 中华人民共和国国务院) z’hrmg. That’s 54 strokes in English.

There are, of course, limits. Many phrases are missing from the program. The slogan standing in huge characters to the right of Mao’s portrait at Tian’anmen, “Long live the great unity of the world’s people” is nowhere to be found in my program, which instead brings up “世界人民的条件我是,” “The conditions of the people of the world I am.”

Tiananmen.jpg

Similarly spelled words can bring up long lists to scroll through as well. The commonly used ‘wx’ brings up a staggering numbered list, including ‘I want’ (我想); ‘dangerous’ (危险); ‘smile’ (微笑); ‘limitless’ (无限); and literally hundreds of others.

Upon second glance, “Long live Chairman Mao’s” ‘mzxws’ can also bring up ‘麻醉学万岁’ or “Long live anesthesiology!”

These overlaps make typing in Chinese like catching a ride with an impatient Beijing taxi driver: pleasingly fast, but possibly disastrous.

A Chinese friend recounted to me how her friend got burned by the program. During her conversation with her male friend, he wanted to say something like, “Sure, ok.” A natural way to say for a Beijinger to say this is:

xing a,’ (行啊) which loosely means, “That works [particle expressing agreement or compliance].”

So he typed in ‘xa’ and sent the two characters through cyberspace.

The characters ‘xing ai’ (性爱) popped up on my friend’s screen. There sat the computer’s rendition: “Sexual love.”

As fate would have it, after receiving the mistaken message, she took the time to go to the bathroom, leaving the MSN chat screen idling unattended. Messages popped up on the screen:

No, no, no! Don’t misunderstand me.

I meant “sure thing,” not that.

Trust me, I wouldn’t mean that.

Don’t tell anyone, ok?

Ok?

Where are you? Why aren’t you responding??

Please, don’t tell anyone. I’m not kidding.

Where are you?

It was a mistake.

We’re just friends! You know me.

Soon, his profuse apologies, explanations, and retractions were enough to stem the misunderstanding, but not the hilarity, embarrassment, and, I’m guessing, hurt pride.

“Sexual love” is enough to convince me that typing Chinese can be an amazing shortcut, as long as it doesn’t bring a prison sentence.

July 7, 2009

Unwanted Characters
(A Mystery in Four Parts)

Part 1

On a mild fall day, I sped on my $35 Bdah-brand bike through narrow Gulou Xi Street, with its low-slung tile-roofed hutong homes lining both sides of the street. Though I was speeding dangerously fast down a Chinese street, I managed to notice a consternating character taunting me from the side of the street.

If nerdiness is not defined by having interest enough to make note of Chinese characters you don’t recognize while you’re speeding dangerously down a Chinese street shared by cars, bikes, pedestrians, buses, horses, and carts, then meditating on that same character for the remaining 10 kilometers of the bike ride should be more than enough to qualify. During the rest of the urban kilometers between me and my ancient Chinese lesson, the image of this character scrawled in dark spray paint on a house so dilapidated it looked as though it were about to cough and fall over kept its form in my mind.

Mystery%20character.jpg

Back in Guangzhou, my Chinese ability so astounded my students that I was often asked what the secret to learning language was. As far as I can tell, the secret involves the nerdy persistence to bring a dictionary wherever you go and to care enough to decode everything you see, from greasy menus to safety signs on buses.

Over a year into this battle plan, I was startled to see such a simple character that I couldn’t recognize. By this point, most characters I couldn’t recognize were so complicated that they hinted at their own useless erudition. So to see a character so simple was a challenge—an embarrassing gap in my Chinese equivalent to not recognizing a word as simple as also.

I arrived at school and sat down on the dirty tile hallway in the Fourth Classroom Building, home of the humanities department. I immediately scrawled the character from memory into my $200 electronic Chinese dictionary—the very dictionary whose advertisements had promised me the ability to “zhi tianxia,” to know everything under heaven. The screen now hiccuped, processing my scribbled handwriting, and the character’s entry came up blank.

It was the first thing not encompassed under my dictionary’s promised heaven…(read more)

July 8, 2009

Traditional Beliefs and Market Prices

The Beijing Youth Daily’s hard-hitting, near-daily coverage of the price of watermelons in the capital city has dropped a bombshell: these “western melons” have risen nearly 1 Yuan in price this summer.

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The reason? Floods, hot weather, and … traditional beliefs.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, foods are separated “hot type” foods and “cold type” foods, according to their affect on the body. Lychees, oranges, pineapples, pomegranates, mangoes, green onions, pepper, alcohol, and garlic are all “hot type,” while strawberries, mung beans, watermelons, tomatoes, and bitter melons are all “cold type.”

The classifications are paradoxical at times, as when something with a hot temperature is said to make the body cooler. Hot pu’er tea is supposed to make the body cool, although you’d be hard pressed to drink a steaming cup when you’re sweating through a hot day.

All of this combines to mean that during the recent heat wave that struck Beijing, Beijingers were out in force complaining of having “caught fire” and searching for the nearest watermelon stand. Pretty soon, these traditional beliefs had the price of watermelons doubled—and had me looking to turn my courtyard into a Chinese watermelon farm.

July 10, 2009

Life and (Near) Death on the Beijing Subway

Chinese society is known for understated emotional displays, but at this moment stifled screams and an audible “gasp” echoed above the hum of the AC-less compartment on Beijing’s old red Line One.

Over on Beijing’s fancy new curved subway lines, there are glass screens separating the tracks from the waiting platform to prevent accidents. But this no-nonsense, straight-as-an arrow Line One was built back when Mao was kicking and China was still communist, so it has none of these fancy protection screens or safety devices.

Therefore, the man running toward the carriage had made a grave miscalculation when he extended his right arm through the closing doors to wedge them open. It took only a moment for the man and the entire carriage full of passengers to realize the door—with his arm wedged securely in it—was not going to open.

All of the doors were now closed, and there was clearly no sensor in the door to detect the man’s arm. Visions of the train picking up speed and dragging the man to a brutal death were born in a collective instant. A look of terror flashed across the man’s face, and the wide-eyed passengers onboard gasped and shrieked.

The man yanked his arm with an animal strength that only fear can bring, but black rubber stoppers on the door only yielded to his wrist. He was still locked to the car at the point where his arm widened into his hand. With time running out, the man pulled a second time with greater force and freed his hand from the door’s grip.

As impressive as his feat of strength had been, his next move would outdo it. In a single fluid motion, the man used the momentum of his liberated arm—still swinging from his animal-strength yank out of the car—to swing his body 180 degrees and launch himself like an Olympic speed-walker coming out of the blocks back up the subway stairs.

He had clearly needed to take this subway line to where he was going, but in all likelihood he was now headed back up the stairs to avoid the moment of shame that he would have had to suffer while he stood there as the entire carriage of people stared at him. He’d duck out upstairs and return once our train had left.

His flee is entirely understandable; what is truly astounding is that the man cared so much about his embarrassment that he was already planning his escape while he was facing the possibility of a medievally brutal death. The fluidness of his use of the same arm movement to free himself from death and spin his body means that he must have been worrying about the awkward situation he’d have to face while death was still looming.

In retrospect, a reasonable value set would be:

A: Spend all possible energy and brain power to avoid violent death. After death is no longer a threat, consider how to handle the embarrassment caused by my careless decision.

By inference, the man’s value set at his near moment of death was:

B: Split available energy and brain power between avoiding death and avoiding temporary embarrassment at the same time.

Emotions may not be on people’s faces here in Beijing, but they’re clearly on people’s minds.

July 13, 2009

Monkeys and China's Service Economy

My first three months in China had equipped me with Chinese fluent enough to make the fruit vendors across the street from where I live comment to each other: “Hey, this guy’s only been in China three months and listen to that Chinese!” But the Chinese that came out of my first three months was limited to the only city I had visited: Beijing. And it caused problems.

Yet my second visit to China started in the far southwestern corner, in Yunnan. There, my Mandarin was understood, but I stumbled over word choices I had never heard in Beijing. Mán (蛮) for “pretty” or “very” threw me for a loop at first. Mán is infrequent in Beijing, but I picked it up the first time I heard it.

What truly shocked me was my first trip to a southern restaurant. As I was enjoying a bowl of noodles, the man sitting across from me yelled across the restaurant at the waiters near the counter:

“Little monkey, c’m’ere a moment!”

Soon, another customer rose her voice, “Little monkey, check please!”

The restaurant was awash with customers ordering around the “little monkeys” to do their bidding.

My humble midwestern sensibilities had me appalled. I knew China was not a bastion of politeness toward servers, but ordering around waiters with the epithet “little monkeys” was beyond any nation’s sense of decorum.

Later that night, I talked on the phone with my Chinese friend studying in the US who was originally from the area.

“So people here call waiters xiǎo hóuzi, little monkeys, huh? Isn’t that kind of rude?”

Instantly there was laughter on the other end of the line.

“That’s not xiǎo hóuzi, that’s xiǎo huǒzi!”

Amid the clatter of restaurant background noise and the distortion of yelling, “young man” had turned into “little monkey” in my ears. It was a small difference in Chinese, but a big enough difference in meaning to shock this newcomer into knowing better. If I see ever see those Beijing fruit vendors again, I’ll make sure to let them know their verdict was a bit hasty.

July 15, 2009

Hearing The Call: A Mystery Made for Half of the Chinese Population

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Part I
Stay at the right hotel in China, and you’re likely to get a phone call you’ll never forget—The Call.

The Call is often personalized. If you’re foreign-looking, The Call will often come in English—broken English, but English.

The Call is often self-censored. If you bring a female guest, you probably won’t get The Call. (Although I was lucky enough to get The Call when my sister traveled with my in China.)

The Call often comes in rounds, giant sweeps of the hotel, but it may also come tailored to your arrival. Around 10PM at night, you may hear the phone ring in the room across the hall, followed by the room next door, after which you’ll soon get The Call in your fair turn. At other times, The Call will come right after you’ve checked into your room, underscoring the personal touch.

The Call is one, at most two, sentences long, and it always some version of the following:

Ni hao, ni xuyao anmo ma?”

“Hello, you want massage?”

If the caller is persistent and thinks the offer of an in-room massage is not obvious enough, The Call will continue with:

Ni yao nvhai’r peipei ma?”

“Want a girl to accompany-accompany you?”

All of this I knew about The Call, but a mystery about these calls lingered in my mind—a question that only the Chongqing Hotel of Horrors and a healthy dose of delegation would resolve.

July 16, 2009

Hearing The Call: A Mystery Made for Half of the Chinese Population

Part II

The first time I got The Call—at a hotel in coastal Qingdao—it took me off guard.

Someone knows my room phone number already? I thought, pleased with the surprise at my new-found celebrity.

But over time and numerous “no-thank-you’s” later, I learned that the calls were invariably offers for “massage” and not inquiries from rabid fans.

I learned the service was usually only found in slightly larger hotels—ones large enough to fit a “sauna center” to staff the requisite “misses.” But even a question as simple as how much it cost remained a mystery. I helped solve this mystery in Chongqing’s Hotel of Horrors.

David and I had arrived in this central Chinese capital late at night without hotel reservations, so we (regretfully) relied on a recommendation of the hotel service counter at the airport.

The unpleasant discoveries started in the lobby, which was a failed attempt at grandeur with fake marble and clocks displaying the obviously erroneous times of major cities around the world—obviously wrong because cities were different in intervals of 20-40 minutes.

Having taken our room key, David and I called the steel-door elevator to take us to our room. With a whir, the doors pulled open to reveal a carriage full of vomit.

“Let’s take the stairs,” I said.

Dangerously dark with black footprints that somehow managed to find their way halfway up the white-painted wall, the stairs were still more attractive than the vomit coaster ride.

We finally reached our dingy room. I sat down in the bathroom while David relaxed on the bed. Like clockwork, the phone rang.

“That’s the massage call!” I yelled from the bathroom. “Just tell them we don’t want it.”

Wei?” David said in his rising tone of inquiry as he picked up the receiver.

I waited through a slight pause.

Women bu xuyao, xiexie,” David said, declining the offer politely.

“Wait!” I yelled from the bathroom. “Ask how much!”

I was curious to get the answer to a nagging curiosity.

Deng yixia,” David said. Wait a moment.

Duoshao qian,” he asked, speaking the words how-much-money clearly and formally.

“200,” the woman replied.

Xiexie, haishi buyao,” David replied, moving to hang up the phone. Thanks, but I don’t want it.

“150!” the woman pleaded as David hung up the phone. “100!” she blurted out, dropping the price in half and mistaking his curiosity-fueled question as an insistence on pinching pennies.

Many are called, but—judging from the woman’s price-slashing—few choose, and even fewer know it can cost little more than $10.

July 18, 2009

In Defense of Zhonglish

When the crowded subway train I was riding pulled into Dongdan Station, I flushed red with embarrassment. Cultural psychologists say embarrassment is an emotion more commonly felt in China, but I knew why the blood was rushing to my face: I’m midwestern and this was a transfer station.

Wait, this wasn’t a transfer station. It was, in the words of the English announcement woman, a trænsfer station, a nasal, push-so-much-air-through-your-nose-you-could-start-a-wind-farm træænsfer station. This Beijing Subway Corporation obviously chose to employ a nasally midwesterner to record their English announcements.

All of this would be funny if I weren’t also from the midwest, where the accent turns words like bagel into insufferable nasal soundings. No one likes to be told they have a funny accent, so—even though my Chinese friends can’t hear the nasal “a” in the announcement—it’s still enough to make me blush.

Yet what my Chinese friends do notice is the announcer’s terrible Zhonglish (i.e., Chinese [zhongwen] + English, or a foreigner with bad Chinese pronunciation, akin to Chinglish or an American saying “Kay-suh-dill-uh” for the Spanish ‘quesadilla’). The subway announcer very clearly butchers the Chinese names of the stations, turning “dohng dahn” into “dahng dæn.” My Chinese friends complain: Why can’t they find someone who speaks better Chinese to say it right?

Even though I’m a language nerd, I still defend the woman’s Zhonglish. The English announcements are designed for people who can’t understand Chinese. And to people who can’t understand Chinese, fluent, native “Zhang Zizhong Lu Station” sounds like, “What was that station?” Yet a butchering like “Jayng Zee Johng Loo” is more likely to get the message across.

I’ve seen fluent pronunciation confuse my foreign visitors even with common names that all foreigners know, like ‘Beijing.’ Yet a heavy, toneless “Bay-jing” will always do the trick.

I’m all in favor of foreigners picking up Chinese while they’re in China, but the subway is not the place to make principled linguistic stands and send unwitting foreigners to stations unknown. Up with Zhonglish, I say, but let’s clean up those nasal Midwestern vowels.

July 20, 2009

The Cutest Character Ever

When I was 12, I bought a bonsai tree in a green ceramic pot and spent hours laboring over the pot with black paint and a brush trying to reproduce the cool Chinese character I had found on the internet. I had no idea what the character meant, but I wanted it on the pot because it felt cool.

An hour later, my 12-year-old self came out with a droopy-looking character—which I scrubbed off the pot—and a realization that I knew very little about this mysterious language.

Over a decade later, I can now understand lectures on ancient poetry and read newspapers, yet my feelings toward characters haven’t developed past the kindergarten stage that most Chinese friends say my hand-written characters are stuck at.

Yet a tip from a fellow PiA member did lead me to uncover more about how Chinese people feel about characters. A fellow PiA member told me his favorite character was . “It just looks cool,” he said. After I heard him say it, I started to think the character was pretty cool-looking; if you look at it in the right way, it kind of looks like a sword sitting on a bomber jet.

Yet when I ran this character by my Chinese friends, they didn’t like it. “It’s unstable. It’s too tall. It looks like it’s going to fall over,” one friend said.

I was blown away by the fact that my Chinese friends were all using an aesthetic standard that hadn’t even occurred to me (and that conflicted with the one I had been using). This revelation led me to suspect that Chinese people have an entire set aesthetic feelings towards the characters they’ve grown up with and that these feelings are different from people who haven’t grown up with the language. This could be why masterful calligraphy still looks like scribbles to me, well into my time in China.

So I will relinquish myself from any judgments of the high aesthetics of Chinese characters. However, I will declare that I have found the cutest Chinese character (click on the character to see my crude Paint recreation):

(ceng)

Foreigners often have different feelings toward Chinese characters—and I’ve yet to run into any Chinese person who has come up with as bizarre an interpretation of this character—but it seems pretty obvious to me that this characters is a cute little bug. It’s got two slanted ears on top, two big eyes, and a boxy little body. The boxy-ness on the bottom makes it look it has stripes, just like a cartoon bee:
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Who cares that it means “once,” as in “I once saw Michael Jackson live in concert”? My Chinese friends must mistake me for a lover-of-the-past because I can’t help but smile when I read about things that “once” happened or when I read text messages about what my friends have “once” done. I know what the real meaning is, but I can’t I challenge anyone to show me a character cuter than this one.

Of course, a nod must be made to the world’s second cutest character:

员 (yuan)

This one means exactly what it looks like: person (or employee, crew, etc.). And it looks like a person starting the robot dance while the gun goes off for a 50-yard dash to the side.

July 23, 2009

See Spot Run: China's Simple Confusion

As a Luddite-prone American, I’m used to seeing technology as opposed to pure art. Yet Chinese society has no Luddites, and art has is coming of age along with cell phones. The result is that mass audiences have gone so far as to ador a movie about cell phones, called “Cell Phone,” in which a significant part of the dialogue and plot information is conveyed through phone calls and text messages displayed on screen.

Contrary to its text-message image, “Cell Phone” is actually a thought-provoking debate about issues of trust and fidelity in modern Chinese society. As interesting as the social commentary is, I find myself spending more time thinking about one line from the movie and a phrase that I hear just about every month from taxi drivers: “Chinese is the world’s hardest language, eh?”

This idea is popular in China and perhaps other parts of the world, but I see it as propping up the talking-dog phenomenon and the notion that outsiders are almost inherently unable to master Chinese. So I like to disagree whenever my taxi drivers claim that their language is impossibly hard.

Of course, Chinese is a hard language. But the main salvo in my argument is the fact that Chinese grammar is impossibly simple. If mastering English tenses, Spanish subjunctive, Russian cases, and French irregular verbs is like trying to repair a new-fangled computer-run Toyota, mastering Chinese grammar is like repairing a nuts-and-bolts 1960’s Camaro.

Yet Chinese grammar can be so simple, so streamlined that it becomes simply confusing. A sentence from “Cell Phone” demonstrated this clearly and confusingly:

Nǐ zài wǒ zǒu!

你在我走!

In the scene, a young female teacher yells at the famous actor Ge You, saying literally, “You are [here] I go!”

I paused the screen and asked my Chinese friend for assistance. I learned that, translated more fully, the woman’s sentence means, “If you’re going to be here, then I’m leaving!”

What is left out is all of the logical connectors: ‘if’ and ‘then.’ This is a peculiarity of Chinese grammar that students can’t solve by carrying around conjugation tables and memorizing charts of verbs. Rather, this peculiarity is a good indication that Chinese is a receiver-oriented language, where crucial information lies in what’s not said.

Instead of spending time filling my mind with conjugation tables, I spend my time constantly deleting my English grammar from my Chinese text messages. Chinese does have words like ‘if’ and ‘therefore’; you can fix tenses to verbs in Chinese; but the trick in sounding authentically Chinese is to avoid the urge to do so. I take as proof the fact that I was laughed at recently by a Chinese friend for putting too many le’s to indicate tense in a text message. I had used one.

“I knew that was written by a foreigner,” my friend told me later, chuckling.

I might as well have been chewing on a fortune cookie, since I was writing laowai Chinese. To avoid sounding like a foreigner, I suggest avoiding le, yào, rúguǒ, and jiù. In other words, avoid tense and logical connectors like the plague.

Ever since I was corrected by my friend, whenever I’m tempted to put in tense and connecting words into my Chinese text messages, I think simply: you write you strange.

July 24, 2009

Proving Beijing is New York (Again)

Far be it from me to blow cow or toot my own horn, but a recent post on MSNBC claiming “The New New York is Beijing” reminded me a lot of an argument I made back in November of last year.

I’m clearly not the first to mention the similarity, just as this article argues that Beijing’s changes right now parallel Paris and New York’s, although its posting date is November 10th, four days after the post above. (Not that anyone’s counting)

July 29, 2009

Popped Collars and Other Chinese Inventions

Yesterday I found myself angrily claiming the popped collar as an American invention. Yes, the popped collar, the reviled symbol of bonehead Neanderthalism that my house in university had once mocked for an entire evening at a Popped Collar Party that consisted mainly of Pabst Blue Ribbon and shotgun drinking contests. Yet here I was on the streets of Beijing defending the popped collar from a would-be popped-collar-claim.

It’s easy to pick up a competitiveness over inventions in China. Gunpowder, printing, and paper are integral to the Chinese consciousness simply because they are Chinese inventions—they originated in China, a land where origin is everything.

Origins are so important that British historian Joseph Needham (Chinese name 李约瑟) and his monumental work pinning dates on Chinese inventions earned him a spot as a Chinese national hero and an entry on China’s official Wikipedia, Baidu Baike, that is four times as long as Chairman Mao’s.

Yet you don’t have to travel across China like Needham did to figure out that origins are imprtant in China. I learned as from the 50-year-old man sporting a Beijing air conditioner and sharing a cup of tea with me in a hutong near my home who argued that my Beijing friend sitting beside me was not a real Beijinger—even though she had spent all but two of her years in Beijing—because my friend’s family had moved there. His friend later repeated an argument for rank-ordering of nations that I here often in China: “How many years of history does America have? Just 300? No, less than that. 200.” It’s origin and seniority that count in the Middle Kingdom.

Yet because of the peculiarities of trend setting in the Chinese world, my Beijing friend was convinced that popped collars had originated first in Taiwan, just as many trends that race through the mainland start first on an island not far away. I had assumed that popped collars had originated in a beer-soaked fraternity basement, which I was now claiming as proudly and distinctly American.

Nowadays, Professor Needham isn’t around to arbitrate our disagreement and show that popped collars first saw the light of day under the Tang Dynasty scholar and inventor Ao Lingzi (凹领子) in the 8th century, so I’ll leave the matter undecided.

I think it’s best for all sides to not let matters of national pride rest on dates of inventions. And, for that matter, I take it back: Taiwan can have popped collars.

July 30, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Leaving China

When the canned music switched on in my first-class train compartment at 7AM, I was still more than an hour outside of Xi’an, China’s ancient capital—and the music still annoyed me. I sat up, leaned over the bunk across the aisle to the switchboard and turned off the music. This scene has repeated itself on numerous sleeper trains during my China travels, and today was no different.

Yet when the train came to a stop in Xi’an and stepped into one of the three provinces I had yet to set foot in, the fact that I would be leaving China in nine days started to dawn on me. Suddenly, the weight of my three bags and my quixotic quest to bring out my guitar in one piece seemed lighter, easier.

With so many bags to hold on to, I shifted my cell phone into the same pocket that my wallet was in. I used my free hand to cover my pocket from thieves patrolling the chaotic train station as I always have when entering faraway train stations. Yet besides my pre-cautions against thieves, most everything else was changing. Things that for two years ground on my consciousness now seemed funny, cute, in an “Oh, that crazy China!” way.

Soon enough, the man shouting “Laowai!” at the foreigner overloaded with bags seemed to be chirping birdsong instead of singling out a foreigner. As an elderly woman’s flying loogie nearly missed my sandaled feet, I smiled and nodded. “Morning Taitai!”

I’ve loved living in China; I’m sad to leave; and I’m certain I will be back. But that doesn’t change the fact that some of China’s rough edges wear on me. Yet these travails lose their weight and become almost humorous when you face the door.

July 31, 2009

China Reinvents the Toilet

China has invented many objects, but Chinese culture is not known for its creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. No more respected China hand than Peter Hessler argued once that Chinese athletes excel particularly in competitions that involve repetition (e.g., synchronized diving) and struggle in competitions that involve quick off-the-cuff responses to changing situations (e.g., soccer).

Yet a Chinese friend has recently unveiled his alternative theory for the use of toilets. This friend shall remain nameless, although I will add that his reinvention was discovered by another PiA fellow (whose story I am appropriating with permission).

While traveling with this free-thinker, our PiA fellow noticed on multiple occasions that he would often leave the bathroom with urine left on the toilet seat. At first, our fellow assumed the runaway urine to be merely an accident. Yet the runaway urine’s regular appearance on the seat caused him to realize that the maverick urine was actually finding its way onto the toilet seat because the owner had an alternative theory of how toilets are operated.

The alternative theory also explained why the friend often complained that Western toilets have two flaws:

  1. The seat is dirty.

  2. The seat is uncomfortable.

It turns out, these complaints are caused by this alternative toilet theory. As a Western representative, I can say with confidence that the traditional Western theory of toilets is:


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The new theory reassigns the various parts of the toilet:


New%20Theory.jpg


And, in a way, it makes sense. The seat becomes a pee protector, protecting what is now the seat from any rogue urine.

It is perhaps a male-centric theory, but this alternative theory is fascinating for the fact that its internal logic actually quite nearly makes more sense than the way Western toilets are used around the world. Who says China’s not a creative place?