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April 13, 2009

Insomniac Logic on a Chinese Sleeper Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 6, 2009

Baby Poet Sighted on a Public Bus in Rural China

I had to parse a wild scrum with my father to get a seat on a bus from the small town of Gongyi, Henan to Zhengzhou today, but the mob scene was soon pushed out of mind by the baby poet I found myself seated next to.

A 3- or 4-year-old boy in corduroy pants covering his diaper young enough to sit on his exhausted mother’s lap the entire two-hour ride passed the time by reciting ancient Chinese poetry he had memorized. And this is normal, just as this clip from Youku, the Chinese Youtube shows (although I cannot explain the nudity).

To get a sense of just how odd this really is, imagine sitting on a Greyhound from Gary, Indiana to Dayton, Ohio only to find the 3-year-old child sitting next to you reciting Beowulf:

Grendel this monster grim was called, march-riever mighty, in moorland living, in fen and fastness; fief of the giants the hapless wight a while had kept since the Creator his exile doomed.

Children across China, from city to country hut are, memorizing ancient poetry just like this young boy, while their American counterparts are watching Sesame Street. If you don’t believe it, ask your nearest Chinese friend to recite some poetry for you. Chances are they still remember some.

Of course, the kids have no idea what they’re saying. Many of the recitations are incomprehensible, since the kids cannot clearly pronounce the words spilling out of their mouths. Like much in the education system here, the emphasis is on task accomplishment rather than comprehension and digestion. However, the Chinese friends I’ve asked told me that memorizing them while their minds were young and flexible helped them understand and appreciate them when they were older and able to understand the complicated language of the thousand-year-old verses.

Just like Ku Hongming wrote in The Spirit of the Chinese People, poetry is a much more central part of Chinese society than it is in the West. Perhaps because of the musical tones of the Chinese language or the terse beauty of the language, my classmates to this day recite to me their favorite poetry, while their rare counterparts in the US are considered eccentric. The upside in China, of course, is that kids are free entertainment for long bus rides.

May 11, 2009

English: Worldwide Graffiti Language

English is already the language of the world’s business, airport traffic controllers, academic articles, and travel. But a recent trip to Laos convinced me that English is also the worldwide language of graffiti, as seen here in the capital Vientiane.

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Judging from the basic grammar mistake, the author of the graffiti above is clearly not a native English speaker. Yet the tagger still decided to use a language he or she was inproficient in rather than his or her native one to insult the police. Why?

Airlines have encouraged the use of English even between two speakers of the native language partly because it allows the pilots to take on new identities. Using a foreign language allows us to escape the limitations of our own culture’s conventions, which could be the appeal for those annoying high school classmates who were way too excited about the German club.

In the same way, cross-cultural psychology studies have shown that bilingual East Asians respond to questionnaires in more independent, individualistic ways when using English, as opposed to their native language. Employees of Chinese companies often refer to their fellow Chinese colleagues by their English names, which probably helps them drop some of the cumbersome aspects of interpersonal responsibilities that Chinese culture requires. Even deciding what to call someone else in China can be cumbersome, since the use of affectionate nicknames or official titles is preferred over given names. But what cute name is appropriate for the secretary? For the sales manager in the corner office?

From an office manager in Beijing to a disgruntled graffiti artist in Vientiane, English allows people to express feelings and ideas that they would be too timid to express otherwise. Hence, English gives the world room for anti-cop graffiti artists in Laos.

June 7, 2009

The Mystery of Chinese Medicine and Moonwalking

My brother Alan arrived sweating back to our small hotel room in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, with a report from his run in a nearby park: “There were more people jogging than walking backwards!”

He added after a brief pause, “That’s if you count the female cadets that were doing drills.” He held his hand as a maitre di would hold a serving platter, with the palm facing down, as though emphasizing the qualification for the sake of accuracy.

Jogging may be slowly spreading in the middle kingdom, but the phenomenon of walking backwards is already firmly established. I had seen it in Beijing and thousands of kilometers south, in Guangzhou, where—at the time—I happened to be sitting next to my friend Confucius.

“Why is that guy walking backwards?” I asked, pointing to the old man shuffling in his slippers around the pond decorating South China Normal University.

“That can cure chronic diseases. That’s a traditional belief,” Confucius informed me.

Chinese medicine can work in mysterious ways, focusing on the flow of qi and the balances of internal and external heat, but perhaps most mysterious is how walking backwards would cure chronic diseases.

Perhaps it’s this counter-intuitiveness that’s made walking backwards shrink to being only as popular as jogging in this small park in Hohhot—but only if you count the female cadets running drills.

June 14, 2009

One Reason why 1.6 Billion People are so Skinny

The arrival of Maidanglao (AKA ‘McDonald’s’) and KFC; rising disposable income; proliferation of sedentary office jobs; and families getting to work and school in private cars. There are plenty of reasons why more and more obese children are popping up in the street’s of China’s wealthy urban centers and why China is seeing its first problems with obesity as a public health problem.

Yet signs of things to come be damned, China’s populous could still whip my hometown in a fill-the-VW-Beetle contest, and there are many reasons why that’s still the case. I discovered one reason frying in the sun on the cement of the Longmen Buddhist Carvings Park in Henan, China’s most populated province.

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China’s agrarian past—and present—might help explain why I found the evidence laying on the ground, rather than in a garbage can, but China’s agrarian culture has also endowed this vast country with snack habits much healthier than the Pringles and Pop Tarts I grew up with. Simply try to imagine anyone in the US, outside of the Greenpeace office staff, chewing on a cucumber for a snack while they take a walk in the park.

Yet like littering, I suspect the cucumber-cum-snack tradition is on the way out. The fact that I’ve never seen local Beijingers chowing down on cucumbers and the fact that I’ve never seen the neighborhood 7-11 stock cucumbers-to-go are probably signs of things to come.

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.