Cultural (Mis)Insights Archives

October 16, 2008

The China Poop-out

Toward the end of my stay in Guangzhou, I was walking down a narrow alley dodging water dripping from overhead and bikers with massive piles of cardboard barreling from the front and the back; I had just crossed baskets of dyed kittens for sale and smoking roasted kebabs to get into the alley, where I was deciding whether to stock up on fifty-cent DVDs. All of a sudden I realized, this no longer feels weird to me.

The streets of Beijing are lined with orange bubbles that contain pay phones on the inside, and it was these strange orange bubbles that first struck me with the feeling of strangeness upon my first trip to China. But the longer I live in China, the less I have that feeling in my gut of sometimes-wonder sometimes-unease that comes from being thrown into a radically different world.

Sometimes my numbness could cause harm or death, as how quickly I’ve gotten used to riding buses that barrel into the opposite lane around blind mountain bends or having to remind myself that wearing seat belts is something I should do. But mostly, getting accustomed to strange scenes is an innocuous sign that I’m getting into my China groove.

This said, there are still some scenes that always catch my attention and jump out to me as representative of China and the China experience. One of my favorite scenes is what I call “The China Poop-out,” as seen below in the Canton Fair:

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Perhaps it’s because China has a surfeit of cheap labor or because Chinese culture stresses hard work (tian tian xiang shang: day day toward top), but, whatever the reason, walk a Chinese street for long enough and you’re sure to find someone completely cashed out at the helm of small convenience store, set of tools, or guard post. That’s the China Poop-out—a scene that still stirs up the wonderful feelings of Dorothy waking up the land of Oz.

October 17, 2008

Scary New Asian Diseases

Before I moved to Guangzhou, I was happy to learn that southern China was the place where notable diseases like SARS have started. This was where the world moved, where the changes happened, and I was going to be at the center of that.

This could partly explain why my heart would pang with a touch of fear upon seeing people like this man I saw walking on the streets of Guangzhou:


What terrifying new disease leaves one’s skin with horrible circular red marks? More importantly, why was this man suibianly walking down a crowded street—pushing a stroller while his wife touched his infected back no less?

I could only have been more mistaken if I had used my chopsticks to pick my nose or had I not pre-arranged exact change before a purchase. It turns out, these nasty red circles are actually designed to heal this man in a process known as “plucking fire cups” (báhuǒguànr-拔火罐儿) or “cupping.”

Cupping is a traditional Chinese medicine practice which uses fire to heat cups which are then placed on the patient’s back. The heat causes suction, causing internal bleeding, which is supposed to rid the body of toxins and cure ailments from pneumonia to muscle pain.

The suction also causes the patient’s back to look like a májiàng tile and causes foreigners like me to wet their pants.

Traditional Chinese philosophy is known for its emphasis on contradiction (the dao is and is not), and traditional Chinese medicine fits right in with its principal that causing pain and suffering will cause healing. Actually, practices like cupping (as well as blood letting) were used in the Middle East and parts of Europe, as well. Other painful traditional Chinese medicine practices like scraping and acupuncture, though, work on the same principle.

Just like the China poop-out, taking planes sitting next to people with polka-dot backs is not something that a year in China has made me accustomed to. It means, though, that if I come back from China with some strange disease, it might just be a cure.

October 26, 2008

I Trip and Fall; You're Embarrassed

To use another Bushism as an intro, “You fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice—you can’t get fooled again.”

What Bush was stumbling over was the reversal of the shame. It should be that shame is first on the trickster and subsequently on the person being tricked for not learning the lesson after the first time.

Well Hu Jintao hasn’t made this mistake of reversal of shame and it shouldn’t be a problem anytime soon in China. In China, shame is reversed all the time.

I stumbled upon this finding vicariously through David and a sex scandal. Almost as big as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was in the US, the Chen Guanxi scandal exploded across Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland as perhaps the first (surely not the last) celebrity sex scandal. Chen Guanxi was a Hong Kong playboy and actor who had scandalous pictures of him and other stars lifted off his laptop and published when he sent his computer to be repaired.

Looking for a topic that would stimulate our quiet students to have a real discussion, David designed one week’s classes around why the scandal was so shocking and who was at fault in the scandals mess of stealing, indecency, and privacy.

After the titters died down, David discovered that many students thought the scandal was embarrassing. They didn’t mean embarrassing for the stars involved; they didn’t mean embarrassing to talk about in class; they didn’t even mean embarrassing to admit that they might have seen the pictures. No, it was embarrassing for them to look into another’s privacy.

Wait a minute. In my experience, discovering something about someone else’s personal life is exciting for the discoverer and embarrassing for the exposed. But David’s students were saying that they felt embarrassed at seeing someone else exposed.

There is likely no better example of cross-cultural differences in emotional experience. This embarrassment is a collective emotion, felt on behalf of others, especially in regard to what the consequences might be for the relationship involved (even if that relationship is as fictional as that between a movie star and a high school student).

What this means is that if, for example, I choose to share a sensitive personal fact with a Chinese friend of mine, that he or she might be the one to feel embarrassed. So the shame’s on me for sharing—or is it you?

November 1, 2008

Lesson in Essay

I’m ashamed to admit that one of my hobbies during my time at the University of Michigan was, after a long night working on an essay in the fishbowl (so named for its sunken computer floor, surrounded by glass, which makes those working below as watchable as fish in a fishbowl), to troll the abandoned papers in the printer trays for student works that I would find interesting. This mostly involved embarrassing attempts on fiction or poetry or laughably ignorant five-paragraph essays that would brighten my cold, dark walk home.

It turns out, I’m not alone in this hobby; a “left behind at the fishbowl” blog goes about the same entertainment in a way more heartless way than I.

In China, though, my university has no comparable large computer lab, nor do Chinese classes promote the sort of personal expression that can lead to such flagrant displays of ignorance. So I haven’t had any “left behind at the dragon bowl” experiences in China.

However, during my ancient Chinese class, one of my tongxue, classmates, asked me for help correcting an essay of hers. My English is probably good enough to pass a college English class in China, so I accepted the task.

I’m of the belief, like Freud, that nothing is an accident. Thus, when I look at the essay, I see a treasure trove of examples of oddities of grammar or ideas that are clues into the China I know. I don’t mean to ridicule the essay; I think the essay is both interesting and well-written for a young foreign-language student.

Some are grammatical errors that are revealing for their sources in the Chinese language. Others are grammatical sentences that are incomprehensible in English for lack of a Chinese cultural background. Still others are not errors so much as ineffective writing styles that I saw frequently with my students in Guangzhou.

I could teach a class in China on this essay alone. I reproduce it below without the student’s name, which I removed not because the essay’s poorly written, but because if my Chinese classmates are afraid to have their name called in class, I cannot imagine what being singled out like this would feel like. (Click on each picture for an enlarged view.)


A: Vagueness

The mandate of an oral English teacher is just about as unclear as the filling of the streetside dumplings sold near my hutong. So David, my fellow PiA teacher in Guangzhou, designed a series of classes with the goal of improving communication and thought barriers we saw often in our Chinese students and friends.

The melanine of the crop and target number one was vagueness. Nothing makes for more boring writing than vagueness. As much as David tried to encourage students to talk about specific people, places, and events in their lives, his students’ thoughts almost always fell back on safe, boring generalities.

I’m convinced that part of the reason for the vagueness is that Chinese communication hopes to avoid disagreement and the subsequent sullying of relationships that would come from disagreement. By contrast, “you think what you think; I’ll think what I think” is now as American as middle eastern conflicts.

As a result, describing someone as “kind” is as safe as tax cuts in a Chinese conversation or essay. Similarly, “Miss Liu told me something about her and my sister” is frustratingly vague.

B: The authority of the local

Information flow and sharing is weak in China, making things like figuring out bus routes or registering for classes into much more daunting tasks.

As a result, there’s a much more marked tendency to defer to the expertise of locals. Only Beijingers are supposed to know Beijing, so my classmate was so relieved to discover a Beijinger sitting next to her on the plane.


C: If you don’t speak Chinese, it may be hard to imagine how someone could come up with the sentence, “when we finished, it is already 6:00.”

The basis for this error lies in the fact that Chinese verbs are not conjugated and are often not required to show any marking of time. There are, of course, ways to indicate time, such as the character ‘了’ (le) meaning that the action has been completed or ‘会’ (huì), similar to ‘will.’ These characters express time, but they are often not required, although I often end up enforcing my English grammar in my Chinese text messages adding extra phrases like ‘当时’ (dāngshí) or ‘at that time.’

Chinglish sounds strange, but the Chinese of an English-speaker must seem horribly bogged down with superfluous grammatical baggage.

D: “What do you think I should buy?”

I used to think that the Chinese language didn’t have a word for ‘dote’ because I had suspected the thought of care and love infringing upon the freedom of a child wouldn’t register in China.

I was wrong. There is ‘溺爱’ (nì’aì) defined as “pamper; dote; spoil” by my new electronic dictionary.

But this word’s existence doesn’t change the fact that care for children’s every need outweighs the importance of children figuring out how to do things on their own. Add to this China’s tradition of removing any distraction from children (socialization, jobs) while they prepare for the do-or-die college entrance exam, and you get millions of children who struggle to fend for themselves.

E: “She regars me as her younger sister.”

My Chinese conversation partner back at the University of Michigan always used to use a mystifying English word I never understood, saying things like, “My senior told me that he …”

I stumbled through confusing conversation after confusing conversation until I decided to get to the bottom of “senior.” “Senior” was actually an attempt to translate the Chinese idea of ‘学哥’ (xuégē) into English.

Xuege,” is a Chinese term, like those for brothers and sisters, that conveys both gender and age difference. ‘Xue’ is short for ‘classmate’ and ‘ge’ is short for ‘older brother.’ Thus ‘xuege’ means something like, ‘an older male classmate who I am close with, like a brother.’

In “she regars me as her younger sister,” my classmate is trying to convey that, at that moment, Miss Liu formally declared my classmate as her 妹妹 (mèimei), meaning that Miss Liu agreed to help out my classmate and care for her.

In exchange for the help and care, Miss Liu most likely gets someone to flatter her, look up to her, and, naturally, someone who must accept any future tardiness on the side of Miss Liu.

Relationships in China have less of the free-market feel of American friendships, but rather tend to be boxed into different formal categories of relationships. Thus, my friends in China identify others more often as colleagues, classmates, xuege, or other defined relationship types rather than as just friends.

I also suspect that the “brother” and “sister” relationships—which confuse the heck out of foreigners like me, who actually think that the two “siblings” are related—neatly solve the problem of relationships with the opposite sex.

Friendships with the opposite sex are a particularly acute problem in China because, more so than in the US, a guy and a girl simply walking together on the street often implies that the two are dating and draws not only gossip but the ire of boyfriends and girlfriends. To get around the problem, two opposite-gender friends can simply declare themselves “brother” and “sister,” and the suspicion drops.


F: The inspirational ending

Everyone likes an inspirational ending; Hollywood movies almost always end with an uplifting message. But Chinese essays often fall prey to a custom of adding a conclusion of personal resolve and willingness to work hard to advance.

This strikes me—like what I’ve seen in Chinese social expression outlets like speech contests—as politically correct thinking, which in China is more like “I will try hard every day” rather than America’s “I’m not prejudiced” or the college admissions essay “participating in the swim team taught me the value of hard work.”

The problem is that this (like the swim team essay) is formulaic to point of being boring.

I’m certain that some of the problems (e.g., vagueness) that I’ve pointed out occur often in American students’ writing, although I think the Chinese education system results in more of it.

On the other hand, I would hope that the tense issue is not a large problem for American students. I’ll keep my eye on Left Behind at the Fishbowl.

December 1, 2008

My Northern Exposure

The sky was already black, despite the fact that it was hardly 6PM. It was even darker because I was in Dandong, a “small” city of only 650,000 residents on the border of North Korea.

I tend to feel safer walking on the street at night in China than I did in my safe suburban hometown of East Lansing, where I would look twice at cars that seemed to be driving suspiciously slower than normal. So I walked the street with my thoughts on more pressing issues like how to say “Chapstick” in Chinese without inadvertently requesting lipstick.

As I rifled through possible ways to say “Chapstick” on this dark night in Dandong, I noticed the young man walking man walking in front of me step to the left in order to avoid bumping into a taller young guy walking toward us. In the classic move of awkwardness, the taller guy also stepped in the same direction, at which point they both took another step in the same direction and came chest to chest. To my surprise, they both stared hard at each other and looked as if they were on the verge of snarling. Neither man looked like he wanted to fight, but I got the impression that both felt they needed to pump their fists to protect themselves in case the other man wanted to fight.

After a moment of you-wanna-take-it-there? stare downs, the men proceeded along their respective ways, their heads half turning back to make sure the threat had passed. To add to my confusion, both the near fight occurred not in a seedy part of town and between two average-looking guys, not local toughs.

The incident passed in a matter of seconds, but it turned over in my mind for an hour—well after I found a pink strawberry stick of chapstick. The encounter fascinated me because the wildness of the men so exceeded my expectations. Northerners are known as being more straight-to-the-point, but this was almost Wild West manly.

In my time in Guangzhou, I had come to expect slights and bumps to pass with each party pretending like nothing had happened. In Guangzhou, the most important task seemed to be avoiding conflict; there was little concern for appearing tough.

I will always remember my surprise at the old man my taxi driver nearly clipped on my first trip to Beijing after my year teaching in Guangzhou had ended. The man stopped completely and started to yell at the cab driver for stopping in the middle of the bike lane. As I was gathering my bags, the man yelled for so long that he reached the point where he could no longer think of things to yell. He paused, gathering his thoughts, and resumed his yelling.

China, of course, is big. The differences between northern and southern China can be as vast as the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese. People in the north seem more concerned with sticking up against slights and injustices, whereas people in the south seem more concerned with avoiding conflict. Some Chinese people call northerners yeman, wild, which might be a bit of an exaggeration. Exaggeration or not, the fight I saw almost break out on the streets of Dandong was enough to make me hasten my pace back to my hotel.

January 27, 2009

Strange Advertising in Middle China

During my sister’s recent trip to China, we passed through Nanchang, a southern city with little more to distinguish it than wicked pollution and the fact that some important Chinese Communist history went down there, guaranteeing that it’s now endowed with a handful of revolutionary museums. Yet unpleasant cities such as Nanchang that are situated well off the tourist map (the Lonely Planet recommends: “travelers, unless otherwise detained, should hop on the first connection out of town”) have their own share of interesting discoveries that just can’t be found in the big cities. In Nanchang, one of my favorites was a hand-painted ad painted right onto the street. I stopped to take a picture:


The character on the left that looks like a many-legged critter means ‘black’ and the character on the right means ‘car.’ Yet instead of selling cars of the ebony variety, phone number would lead to an unregistered (and thus illegal) taxi—most likely someone’s personal car.

Ads for blatantly illegal services are common in China—anything from fake IDs to bogus receipts to prostitution (those last two are probably linked)—so this wasn’t what made this advertisement for “black cars” so interesting.

Instead, it was the gall with which the advertisement was made. There are any number of ways that they could have proffered their services using innocuous terms, perhaps under ‘taxi’ or ‘personal transportation.’ Yet the ad-maker chose the term for the illegal cars. I still can’t decide whether that proves the ad-makers brave or just over-earnest, but it does mean that Chinese towns you’ve never heard of aren’t without a charm of their own.

February 6, 2009

Culture is...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 7, 2009

Culture is...

Part II ————

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2009

Urinal Etiquette in Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lemme finish first,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

February 24, 2009

The Art of Smashing Chinese Pumpkins

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

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


Specimen I, Guangzhou, Yuexiu District


Specimen II, Guangzhou, Dongshan District

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 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.

May 24, 2009

Business card-related attack in Beijing

The number of norms surrounding different social activities should be proof of how much importance the act carries in society. If so, business card culture is so important in China that it surpasses the oft-written-about everyone-must-cheers drinking culture in Chinese business.

Norms range from handing cards so that the words are oriented so that the receiver can read them without flipping the card to using both hands to extend the card. Yet the encumbrance of all of the rules doesn’t prevent people from sharing business cards; on the contrary, they’re mere reflections of how widespread the practice is in China.

An article in yesterday’s Beijing Youth Daily demonstrated exactly the sort of trouble an unprepared foreigner can get himself into when delving into all the norms surrounding China’s business card culture. The Commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service James Williams, identified in the article only as Weilianmusi (威廉姆斯), was surrounded by attendees trying to get their hands on one of his business cards:

As soon as the speech ended, the Chinese business representatives locked themselves around Weilianmusi. Perhaps Weilianmusi didn’t anticipate he would be so popular as to run out of business cards very quickly. Only under the assistance of an employee was Weilianmusi able to extract himself from the crowd of card-seekers.


The streets of Beijing don’t suffer from muggings and rarely from armed robbery, so I walk the streets—even in the middle of the night—without ever so much as a clip in my step or a look behind my shoulder. I just make sure to carry enough business cards.

June 12, 2009

How a Chinese Character Shows a Nation at Change

Conservative-since-Confucius China is changing, and this single character is proof: 冏. (Those with Chinese-character-blind computers click here)

In ancient Chinese, jiong meant ‘light’ and ‘bright,’ depicting a window with light shining through. Yet like many characters, jiong fell out of use until Chinese netizens rediscovered the character, grafted on a new meaning, and made it easily the hottest word in China. Instead of meaning ‘bright,’ it’s seen now as a grimacing face, complete with pain-slanted eyes and a mouth pried open with desperation. Think of it as Chinese-character-netspeak for ‘OMG!’

After climbing from the brink of disuse, the character now pops up everywhere hip, from chat rooms and online ads, like this ad that riffs on the character for its matchmaking service,


to the names of the hippest stores in the capital city, like this shaokao restaurant in Beijing.


But it wasn’t always this way. Mao’s simplified characters aside, Chinese characters have changed so little that I could easily read 600-year-old Ming Dynasty carvings made by army delegations venturing through Ningxia’s Helan Mountain Range.

Change has often been criticized here in the Middle Kingdom. Even recently, those who played with Chinese characters have been been attacked for it. Most famously, artist Xu Bing brought on a storm of criticism in 1990 for “not respecting Chinese characters” when he created new Chinese characters for his Tianwen art exhibition in Madison, Wisconsin.

Yet only two decades later, the popularity of jiong is evidence that the openness to play with language—without being seen as betraying the integrity of Chinese characters—is on the rise.

Xu Bing’s fortunes, not so coincidentally, have changed too. Once the center of controversy, Xu Bing is now vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, one of the best-regarded art schools in China. 冏!

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.

August 4, 2009

Ritualized Drinking Kills Cadres

Chinese culture suffers little from dangerous college binge drinking like the US, yet China’s ritualized banquet toasting culture managed to take the lives of two party officials this summer.

According to a report in the South China Morning Post and a report on CRI, Wuhan’s deputy director of water resources, Jin Guoqing, died of an alcohol-induced heart attack this July. A district chief in southern Guangdong province, Lu Yanpeng, fell into a coma and later died after a drinking round at a separate banquet.

China’s toasting culture is a way of showing respect to hosts by participating in ganbei’s, cheers, and it reigns supreme at formal banquets. To refuse is considered a loss of face, and generally the higher a person’s rank, the higher the number of subordinates lining up to clink glasses.

According to the report, officials’ “ganbei culture” wastes roughly 500 billion yuan in public funds each year—an expensive way to end two lives.