Being Foreign in China Archives

November 9, 2008

Discourses on Western Naming Practices at the Local Bank

Back in August 1985, Papa and Mama Talhelm unwittingly signed newborn Thomas Arthur Croxford Talhelm to a doom of never-ending trouble in China.

My name, with its two middle names, is a mouthful by US standards, but in China the eight syllables and 27 letters of my name are as rare as cheese.

The vast majority of Chinese names are 2-3 syllables long (one syllable per character), as with my Chinese name, Tan Tao (谈滔). Family names are mostly one syllable and names are one or two syllables.

Once in a blue moon there will be a person with a two-character last name, which would put the upper limit at four characters and four syllables.

My 8 syllables—twice the upper limit—causes problem for me every time I order plane tickets, register for things, and go to the bank. My name is simply too long for forms and computer systems, which leads to a confused discussion of which names are necessary and what the possible consequences of omitting two names might be.

I could solve this easily by simply omitting my middle names, as I do in the US, but this frightens Chinese employees even more than seeing all four names. As soon as I had implemented this strategy, I found that I was forced to fill out forms from scratch with my full name.

So I can’t omit my middle names because I have to fill out the forms again, and I can’t use my whole name because it’s too long for computer systems, so I’m forced to discourse across China on Western naming practices every time I want to travel or conduct business, as when I signed up for a bank account last week.

To add to the trouble, name order in China is the opposite of the US. In China, family names come first and your own name comes second. Thus, in my name, Tan Tao, “Tan” is my family name and “Tao” is my own name.

It doesn’t help that English uses the confusing term “last name” to refer to family names. In China, last names are first names, and first names are last names.

During my trip to the bank, I had to point to each name in my passport and explain with copious repetition, “This is my family name, this is my family name! That’s my name. Right, and that’s my middle name. Middle name.”

The end result is that my parents’ original decision to give me four names wound up making my China life a bit more troublesome. Only passing albinism to me could they have led me to more interesting conversations in my China life.

November 26, 2008

Turning Chinese

Psychology studies showed that the few short months American students spent studying abroad in Asia were enough to turn their results on standard cultural cognition tests to look more like East Asians. Even more amazingly, my advisor Yuri Miyamoto at the University of Michigan showed that simply showing subjects unlabeled pictures of Japanese or American cities was enough to make Americans think more like Japanese and Japanese think more like Americans.

So if a matter of weeks or even two minutes is enough to change the way we think and even the way our eyeballs move, how about the nearly two years that I’ve spent in China?

Most of the changes, I suspect, are small enough to be unobservable, especially as I lose the contrast of American thought and behavior to compare it to—noticing how my thought and behavior change in China is like trying to find a butterfly perched upon floral wallpaper. In effect, to notice changes in my thought and behavior, I need to have a picture in my mind of how I would have acted in a similar situation back in the United States that is triggered by a feeling of strangeness at my new behavior.

Yet as hard as spotting changes can be, some changes are obvious as my new fondness for tea:

After I arrived in northeastern Dalian’s train station last Friday morning, I went straight to the ticket office to purchase a ticket in advance for my return trip.

The line was short and the ticket-seller was strangely unharried, yet after I told him when and where I wanted to go, he cut a corner and summed up my order, “Bottom berth, 250 Kuai.”

On so-called “hard sleepers,” there are three choices: top, middle, and bottom bunks. Bottom bunks are the accepted favorite because they don’t require scaling a ladder; they have storage space underneath; and they have enough room to sit up, making them good couches. Despite all this, I really wanted a top bunk, where I could read and sleep out of the action and keep my laptop out of thieves’ reach near my head.

But, in un-American fashion, I hesitated. It’d be too mafan to correct him; he already took the time to anticipate my desire for a bottom bunk; it’ll be awkward to point out the mistake; why should I speak up for my own preferences when he’s already decided a course of action?

I started to hand him the money, but at the last moment I leaned closer to the speaker mounted in thick glass and asserted myself in the most roundabout way: “Uh, are there still top berths?”

“Yes, 240 Kuai,” he replied, thinking nothing of my disagreement.

The cultural moment here was not his attitude: to him, my assertion of preference was nothing out of the ordinary. Instead, what struck me as strange was how afraid I was to assert my own preference and my willingness to follow what someone else dictated, especially when it was supposed to be in my interest to want a bottom berth.

I’m certain that back in the US, I wouldn’t have hesitated to assert my own preference. I also doubt that the ticket-seller would have tried to anticipate my preference.

There’s a tragic lining to the changes in my thought brought about by my time in China: there’s a myriad of changes in my thought and behavior that are so minute I will never be aware of them, and, like a flower in the heart of the deepest jungle, the changes will grow, flower, and wither, all without having been appreciated by human eyes. The top bunk, by the way, was just fine.

December 5, 2008

My Tea Habits and Creating a Third Culture

When I was in Malaysia, I discovered Baba Noya culture, a mix of culture brought by Chinese immigrants with local Malay customs. The result was not that Malays became Chinese or that Chinese became Malays, but rather a third and entirely new culture came out when the dust had settled.

In the same way, I’m finding that some of my thought and behavior are turning Chinese while other parts seem to be coming through in an entirely new Chimerican culture.

The best example I can think of this is my approach toward my new habit of drinking tea. I had never enjoyed tea prior to coming to China, but the great-tasting teas here were entirely different from the fake, processed flavors like lemon, peppermint, and blueberry that are common in the U.S.

But now I like to carry around a big coffee cup with tea in it and drink it casually as I’m relaxing or working at home. The problem, to my Chinese friends, is that I’m basically treating tea as though it were a bottle of Mountain Dew. So my Chinese friends find my tea behavior a little off-putting.

I’ve also been disappointed that there aren’t places to get tea-to-go in China. The US is full of coffee machines, coffee stands, and cafes where you can get tea to go. China, however, has only nǎichá, milk tea, available this way, which hardly bears any resemblance to real tea. Southern China and Hong Kong do have so-called “cool tea” available to go, but that’s not tea to be enjoyed; it’s bitter-tasting tea that serves as a sort of folk medicine.

I’ve asked my Chinese friends why tea-to-go can’t be found in China, a place where getting a baked sweet potato and chestnuts to go is a proposition far easier than a cup of tea. The response has been that tea is something that we should sit down for and properly enjoy. Sloshing it into a paper cup and running down the street with it is simply sacrilegious to the Chinese palette.

I think this gets to the heart of the attitude toward tea in China. I basically want to McDondaldize my experience of tea, making it as large, quick, and convenient as possible, in the form of tea-to-go. This would also explain why my large mugs of tea at home don’t appeal to my Chinese friends either.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps investing in tea-to-go booths is the next get-rich-quick untapped market in China. In any case, I’ll keep enjoying my tea McDonald’s style.

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 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:

firework6.JPG firework4.JPG firework5.JPG

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.

firework1.JPG firework2.JPG firework3.JPG

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.

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.

September 10, 2009

How My Blog Entry Ruined Peter Hessler's Google Life

…and other hyperboles.

In a twist of cosmic injustice, my blog entry on How Peter Hessler Ruined My China Life now comes in 5th when you Google “Peter Hessler.”

Strangely, this puts the Google rank of my rant above all but one of his articles’. Now if I could only get up there on the Google ranking for “Chinese alphabet” like the poor academic in “Oracle Bones”…

September 19, 2009

Hessler Issues Apology

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to find a message from Peter Hessler himself concerning how he ruined my China life. Hessler was gracious enough to see the humor in the article and to give sage advice to aspiring writers.

Ironically, Hessler’s China life seems to have been “ruined” by a popular China writer before him, Mark Salzman and his book Iron and Silk. Read Hessler’s message—which I’ve reprinted below with permission—to find out how.


Not sure if this is the right address for Thomas Talhelm. If not, just ignore this message.

My sister sent me a link to your article about how I ruined your life. Sorry about that … I definitely appreciated and enjoyed the humor. People aren’t always so good-natured about it, that’s for sure.

It’s a funny phenomenon, and one that I remember when I first came to China. There were certain books that everybody read, and the longer you lived there the more you might be inclined to resent them. It’s a natural reaction in a place like China, where you’re constantly learning and discovering. It’s a very personal process, very intense, and a sense of ownership develops. In “River Town” I wrote about how I wasn’t so charitable when I saw a couple of Europeans in Fuling, the first (and only) “uninvited” foreigners that I ever saw in town. I really did not want them there. I realized it was an unfair reaction, very childish; but I also saw that it was quite natural. After a long period of isolation I felt like it was my city.

During the years that I was in Fuling, “Iron and Silk” was the book that all foreign teachers read, and sometimes complained about. When I sent out the unsolicited manuscript of “River Town,” a lot of reactions were clearly shaped by Mark Salzman’s book. Most agents and publishers rejected it, probably because there was already a successful book about teaching in China. Or they wanted to build on it in narrow ways: one agent wanted me to cut my manuscript down into very short vignettes, like Salzman’s book. I’m glad I resisted; over the years it’s become clear that these are very different books and each has its own place. A couple of years ago, I met Mark Salzman at a literary event, and I told him that the foreign teachers now complain about me as well as him. He laughed; he knew what I was talking about. When I was in Fuling, I really benefited from reading his book, as well as Bill Holm’s “Coming Home Crazy.” The fact that they were so different struck me as a good thing. It reminded me that it’s not simply the experience that matters: it’s the writer. And I noticed that these books shared something in common: a sense of humor.

I think that develops more naturally when you live in China as a low-level waiguoren, teaching or studying or doing whatever. You learn to laugh at yourself, and you tend to recognize that the Chinese also have a good sense of humor. I think this is much harder for a foreign journalist, because they arrive in China on different terms, and with different expectations. They’re supposed to cover big, important events, and they feel a lot of pressure from their editors, and often it’s not easy to find a place for humor.

As time passes, it’s more clear that China is such a big country that lots of different things can be written about it. This has always been true, but it wasn’t so obvious back in 1999. When I sent out “River Town,” a couple of publishers responded that they liked it, but they couldn’t offer a contract because, in their words, “we don’t think that anybody wants to read a book about China.” It’s hard to imagine, but there wasn’t this sense of China as such an important, varied, and energetic place. Nowadays there are many books coming out every year, and many of them are good in different ways. It’s much more promising for a young writer.

Of course, it’s not strictly the experience that distinguishes a piece of writing. China has been around for a long time, and experiences have overlapped for years and decades and even centuries. Recently I was reading Archibald Little’s “Through the Yangtse Gorges,” in which he describes a Sichuanese banquet, and then he apologizes because it’s hardly a new story: “Chinese dinners have been described over and over again, but I have narrated this one, as I think few have given an idea of their tediousness and the absence of all that we deem comfort.” Little wrote this in 1887! So I wasn’t exactly breaking new ground with the baijiu banquets in “River Town.”

I had to get beyond this, especially since my goal in that book was to write about everyday observations and experiences. Lots of foreigners shared those things, and there was nothing special about my China background. Fuling wasn’t an important place. Many foreigners spoke the language better than I did, and many people had a deeper knowledge of the culture. But I thought of myself as a writer, not a China expert. My training was more along those lines; before going to China I had worked as an ethnographer in southeastern Missouri, and I had thought a lot about the social sciences and theories of observation. In college I took a lot of courses in fiction and nonfiction writing. I had very few ideas about China, but I had strong ideas about voice, structure, set pieces, story structures. People often don’t realize how technical writing is. It’s a lot harder than learning Chinese or learning about China, that’s for sure. By the time I left Fuling, I had spent only two years engaged seriously with China, but thirteen years engaged seriously with writing. If the ratio had been the opposite thirteen years in China, and two years thinking about how to write that book would not have happened. I might have known a lot, but I wouldn’t have known how to express it, and how to structure it. In any case, that book is more about a learning process; it’s about how language, people, and culture came into focus for me. It’s not about “China” in the strictest sense.

As the years passed, I gained a better understanding of certain Chinese subjects, and my approach as a writer changed. I wrote less about myself and more about the people or subjects I was researching. The second and third books are quite different; they aren’t so much about this learning process. But that’s part of why China is a such interesting place for a young writer there’s plenty of room to grow. You’re trying to figure this place out, learn the language, understand the people; and at the same time you’re trying to learn how to write in English. Two technical processes, hopefully complementary and in balance. One side is quite social and engaged with the environment; the other is much more solitary and individual. I suppose that’s what I enjoyed the most about writing from China, the balance of these combined challenges. I hope it’s going well for you, and that you stick with it.

All the best


September 21, 2009

Get Out of My China Fantasy

I was thrown onto the streets of Beijing in 2006 by chance. I knew little of China, and I had never visited such a strange land on my own.

But I knew I’d have support. It took only a short walk on a Beijing street to find other foreigners. As newfound minorities in a strange land, I knew we’d share an instant bond, just like people living in sparse towns on the edge of civilization do in the US, where they say “hello” to anyone walking by on the sidewalk, acquaintance or not.

But during my first venture onto Beijing’s streets, I noticed that my fellow foreigners didn’t simply refrain from camaraderie. They wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.

It took me weeks to puzzle it all out. These foreigners managed to cross the street without getting hit by cars (not an easy task in China), so blindness wasn’t a good explanation. I eventually decided that they wanted to subscribe to the cushy illusion that China was all theirs, and trying not to recognize my presence could help maintain that comforting illusion. Or perhaps it was just that I hadn’t discovered that Chinese department stores did actually stock deodorant.

When I came to have feelings just like those foreigners, I realized that on the inside, it felt more like animosity. Instead of “I don’t want to see you” the feeling is more akin to “Get out of my China fantasy!”

Peter Hessler reports feeling the same instant animosity toward foreign visitors to Fuling in River Town. Along with the illusion of being an intrepid explorer in a foreigner-free foreign land, foreigners also come to feel a sense of ownership over China and their China experience. The so-dirty-it-must-be-authentic noodle shop hidden on a back street becomes a badge. The hole-in-the-wall goes from being a restaurant to being my restaurant.

Yet the dirty-restaurant badge becomes as worthless as a cereal box detective badge when other foreigners begin eating there. I’m absolutely certain that I’m not the only foreigner to have a twang of disappointment when foreigners waltz into “my” hole-in-the-wall noodle stall. “They found it by accident. They’re not really China adventurers,” I convince myself.

The result is a foreigner-free hierarchy of China cred. The high-scorers are those living in remote villages where the illusion of being a modern day Marco Polo actually approaches reality.

Those of us living in metropolises like Beijing and Guangzhou can often be found apologizing for the fact that we’ve chosen these well-traveled routes. Even I would brag to my Beijing friends that I hadn’t seen foreigners in Guangzhou in weeks. “They’re really just confined to one downtown area. Not where I live.”

Yet, if we can’t claim to be the only foreigner in a remote outpost, we can at least mentally erase the other foreigners from our Chinese city. Darting our eyes away from other foreigners we encounter on the street is simply our eye muscles instantiating this desired illusion.

As my days in Beijing turned to weeks and months, I found my desire for camaraderie transforming into the same animosity toward foreigners that I had decried when I first arrived. At that moment, I became just like all the other foreigners that I was claiming weren’t actually there.

October 31, 2009

Get Into my Africa

In my informal search with Peter Hessler into the Get out of my China Fantasy Effect—the possessiveness foreigners feel toward China and their shunning of other foreigners—we’ve surmised that several causes might be pushing foreigners to feel possessive about China:

  1. The learning curve: learning Chinese is difficult, and after we’ve completed the arduous process, we come to feel like we’ve earned it, and this place is ours.

  2. The hardship factor: living in China can be difficult. As with language, this gives us hardcore points for living without internet, clean air, etc., so we come attached to the place, perhaps like someone who struggles through working to pay for their own college education then thinking that others should do the same.

  3. The adventurer myth: foreigners in China have in the backs of their minds the romantic dream of being an adventurer in a strange land. Whether they’re in a remote place like Fuling or a metropolis like Beijing, the addition of other foreigners dashes this dream, so we want them out.

Yet throughout all of these explanations, I can’t shake my suspicion that things happen differently for foreigners in Africa. To understand exactly what happens when Westerners go to live in Africa, I asked an old friend who is now in his second year volunteering with the Peace Corps in Cape Verde. He responded:

Hey Tom,

I’ve thought about more or less the same question as well, throughout my time in CV [Cape Verde]… . I don’t think many of us PCVs [Peace Corps Volunteers] feel hardcore here, with the main dangers of alcoholism and STDs. Even tourists feel that way, that it’s Africa-lite. That would tend to lessen the possessiveness factor, I believe.

It’s almost like the least involved people think they’re most hardcore. As PCVs we’re deep in our communities and kind of live like locals, whereas other development people make much more money, live in the nice cities, and can’t believe how terrible it is that there are power cuts every so often. We feel different as well because we live here, have lived with Cape Verdean families for two months. We resent it when Cape Verdeans tell us we’re just tourists spending two years visiting.

We at times resent tourists, businesspeople, or NGO workers who are here to play and mess around without respecting or helping Cape Verdeans… .

So I guess in the end, I can’t rule out a sense of possessiveness, but I don’t see it much in CV.

Best, or as we say in Kriolu, fika dretu,


It looks like the answer is tricky. On one hand, visitors and residents in Africa certainly do seem to have the same criterion of hardcore-ness that visitors to China have. The harder, dirtier, and more dangerous the place is, the more hardcore points you have. Conversely, people who jet about the “easy” places with steak houses and fancy hotels become an object of sneering or resentment.

On the other hand, the feelings of hardcore-ness seem to exist in Africa without a feeling of possession. Andrew may judge other foreigners for being tourists and decry his own “Africa-lite” experience, but a sense of possessiveness is not a part of the equation.

That leaves a nagging question: if Africa doesn’t inspire a possessiveness in visiting Westerners, then what is it about China or East Asia in general that does inspire this possessiveness?

April 8, 2010

BP: Before Polo?

I decided a few months back that Marco Polo was the ultimate source of all the mental suffering of all future China writers. But an editor working with me on that article disagreed: surely there must have been someone before Polo, he said.

After a furious bout of research, I still can’t find a Western writer in China before Polo. But I did discover a couple of non-Western China writers before Polo.

A few decades BP, a Mongol monk named Rabban Sauma (拉宾扫务玛) wrote about his pilgrimage that wound through the Middle East and even Western Europe—a sort of reverse Marco Polo. However, most of his writing is made up of bland religious platitudes:

And Abhgha replied, “This purity (or sincerity) of thoughts and conscience is worthy of admiration. And God is with those who seek Him and do His will. This man and his companion have come from the East to go to JERUSALEM; this hath happened to them through the wish of God. We also will minister to the Divine Will and the entreaty of the Christians; he shall stand for them as their head and shall sit upon the Throne.”

But a full 4 centuries before the both of them, a Japanese monk named Ennin (圆仁) traveled to China to study Buddhism. His travels took him to Shandong Province’s holy Mount Taishan, where tourists still hike today. He then meandered over to the imperial capital in Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), leading future researchers to conclude he was being led by the state-run CTS. The government-run monopoly then sailed Ennin down the massive Grand Canal, the ancient water-works wonder-cum-tourist-attraction whose role is now fulfilled by the Three Gorges Dam.

Ennin’s touring must have included ample waiting time (perhaps for the CTS agents), because he wrote over 100 books, including the diary of his travels to China.

However, Marco Polo’s status as the first Western writer in China remains unchallenged. That also means he’s still wearing the title of source of all China writers’ future mental suffering past and present.