Saturday, December 27, 2008

One version of a Beijing Christmas

Holidays are slightly daunting here. I suppose they are daunting anywhere if you don’t have a family on which to rely to fill that day on the calendar. But as a foreigner in China, to celebrate is more of a decision than an expectation.

China has picked up on the marketing potential of Christmas. While a Beijing Thanksgiving could have passed without my knowing, the reminders were everywhere for Christmas. Shopping malls have 60ft decorated Christmas trees outside and Holiday season sales. Though, these sales are overlapping and muddled with sales for the quickly approaching Spring Festival (Lunar New Year). Since both holidays are dominated by red it is slightly unclear what is being celebrated. Western restaurants, cafes, bars, and hotels put up English signs featuring their set menus for Christmas dinner and the servers pressure you to make reservations. Businesses of all genres decorate their storefronts with paper Santa Claus cutouts, tinsel garlands, and even fake spray snow in a can. Supermarkets sell fake Christmas trees that come pre-decorated if you want. I am sure that here in Beijing one could also buy a real Christmas tree for a price. Christmas music is common in establishments and unfortunately on cell phone ring tones, but not nearly as ubiquitously as in America.

All this hype gives one a sense of urgency about making some kind of plan. My choices were: shell out 1000 Yuan ($150)a head for a luxurious dinner, pay 200 a head for a Japanese buffet, join some friends for drinks at their apartment and then go out on the town, make dinner at a friend’s oven equipped apartment, or eat dumplings with my Chinese roommate. I chose to spend Christmas Eve out on the town and Christmas day cooking and baking in the much coveted oven.

Chinese don’t spend Christmas with their families and most foreigners don’t have families here, so Christmas has become an excuse to hit the clubs and bars. After all, what’s Christmas without a Rudolf character piloting a Congo line of scantily glad, glow stick waving, Chinese girls around the dance floor to a blaring remix of “Celebration?”

Christmas day, on the other hand felt much more wholesome. My English friend brought his mother’s Christmas recipes and three of us worked together to create a feast of stuffed apples, stuffed peppers, roast potatoes and carrots, salad, and half a turkey. The other half apparently went to another foreigner at Wal-Mart who also seemed overwhelmed at the idea of a full-sized turkey in her toaster oven. We added mulled wine, cheese, and apple pie to the menu and ate and drank ourselves into that familiar holiday digestive state somewhere between fulfillment and misery. The night finished with a scrabble game and a Skype call to my family to share in their real-time holiday.

Just before going to bed on Christmas Eve, I put Santa Claus hats stuffed with goodies and chocolate outside my Chinese and Italian roommates’ doors. My note in Chinese said that it was from Santa Claus (literally “Christmas old man”) but I think my poor Chinese calligraphy must have given me away. My Chinese roommate saw right through it and put a note on my door in English that read: “thank you, nice is young santa claus. I hope you next year more beautiful." I have no idea what that means, and it might be an insult. But, I think she liked the chocolate.

Merry belated Christmas all and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Apartment Hunting

My employer paid for my first week here in a in a modest hotel until I could find an apartment. I used the entire week apartment hunting within a 3 mile radius of the institute. My criteria were simple: close to work and subway, clean, and at or below 1500 Yuan (~200 dollars). I began with the help of a Chinese friend at the institute. We looked at Chinese versions of Craig’s List and also expat websites like Beijinger. Though all the listings were advertised as individuals’ posts, we quickly realized that they were actually “middle companies.” The way my friend spit the out the word, “zhong jie,” made it sound like they were something obscene and abhorred. We scheduled a few visits on a Saturday and hit the neighborhood on foot. After just two calls, my name and number was out. No sooner had we finished one visit when my phone would ring with another company offering to show me a room. The mystery voice on the phone would instruct us to meet him at a certain corner/bus stop etc. We would arrive at the corner and locate a slightly sleazy looking man wearing a cheap suit jacket and black leather shoes. Upon seeing a lost looking blond, he would jump up from his resting squat and lead us to the next room, chain-smoking all along the way. As we walked I struggled to stay close to my friend and the middleman, bobbing and weaving around cars, carts, people, trees, and various gross things smeared on the sidewalk. The first day I mostly listened, memorizing the standard conversation as I knew that the rest of the week would be a solo adventure.

Over the course of a week I looked at about 20 apartments. These places ranged from disgustingly dingy first floor slums, to dazzling newly refinished hotel-like rooms. If the other renters were home I tried my best to size them up quickly. Some were foreign students: Italians, Japanese, Kazakhstanis, Americans, and one German. All of those places were either too expensive or meant speaking to much English. Other prospective apartment mates included an older bachelorette with a hyperactive three year old niece (that told me I was beautiful and then threw candy at me), a young family that swore they would never be home, a middle-aged couple with a chain-smoking husband, and two young Chinese guys with a bio-hazard for a bathroom. One middle company sleaze-ball took me to an apartment and then admitted that he didn’t actually have the keys. He said he would see if anyone was home and I expected him to make a phone call. Instead, I watched in disbelief as he scaled the barred windows and peered into the second story apartment to get someone’s attention. I told him to forget it and left him hanging.

Finally, I met one middle company guy at about 9:30 on the last night of my free stay in the hotel. As we walked he suddenly stopped and pointed to a Jeep Cherokee that seemed to appear out of nowhere, suggesting that we ride to see the apartment. I hesitated; I hate these judgment testing moments! It’s a little like when an unleashed barking dog charges you in a public park while the owner runs after yelling, “He won’t bite!” You think, I don’t want to overact, but I don’t want to get mauled either! I was thinking, I don’t want to freak out and offend these guys, but I also don’t want to lose my internal organs tonight!

I peered in at the driver, a geeky looking college kid with glasses and a friendly grin. He addressed me in Chinese and explained that he could give me a lift to his friend’s apartment with the spare room. “I know where it is…it’s just down the road… I can just walk,” I said. “Suit yourself” he said, “But it's cold and I can’t park here.” A response with any more pressure to get in the car would have blown the whole deal for me. But, that was just enough indifference to make me try it. I got in, one hand on the door handle ready bolt if need be and at the same time thinking that if they were really going to steal my kidney tonight they would have found a way to keep me from jumping out [insert mother’s cringe here].

The young guy turned out to be extremely nice and he was indeed actually helping his friend. The three of us talked about the global financial crisis, NBA stars, and how cold it gets in Beijing in winter. He drove through a security gate and deep into low rise apartment complex to the foot of building number 22. The front was lined with hundreds of bicycles ready for the morning commute. The balconies were decorated with laundry, cabbages, sausages, leeks, and garlic braids, all hanging out to dry. The stairwell was normal for this price range: dirty, dark, unmaintained, and like it might lead to a prison cell. I was comforted that we stopped to get keys from the landlord on the first floor. The door opened to a warm, spotless, well lit, newly refinished, sizable three bedroom apartment that smelled like someone had recently cooked something tasty. The current renter, a young Chinese woman, was away. But a quick glance at her shoes, kitchen utensils, stocked refrigerator, and absence of filth was enough for me to think we might be more compatible than the screaming child or the stinky Chinese boys. The landlord couple came up to visit from their apartment on the first floor. He was a cute reticent old man with a Mao era hat. She was a typical middle-aged, plump, ruddy faced loud mouthed nosey woman, who I am sure would push me out of the way on the bus any day. They asked questions about my experiences in China and complemented my Chinese. They explained that they were “lao Beijing ren” (Beijing born and raised) and their old neighborhood was in the same place before it was leveled to make way for this apartment complex. I took it all hook line and sinker and put down a couple hundred Yuan for the key.

I left feeling a sense of achievement for independently securing a decent room, under budget, and all in a foreign language. I celebrated with a bowl of noodles and a chocolate bar. But, when I contacted the folks helping me at the institute to tell them the good news, my pride and satisfaction turned to angst and dread. They wanted to come and help with the contract signing, meet my landlord, check on the apartment, and barter yet another lower price. I knew what was going to happen. My bubble of ignorant trust was about to be popped! They would tell me that I was paying too much, these people were cheating me, my future roommate was probably not even living there, and I should not have made such a hasty decision. All these things passed through my mind too, but I was tired and trusting and went with my gut.

As predicted, what seemed to me like a simple six month agreement to exchange money for a place to sleep and a hot shower turned into hours of discussion. Voices were raised, teeth were sucked in dissatisfied, and the smiling faces of my landlords were twisted into disgust and distain. But, I know that all this is necessary. Nothing in China is ever as simple as I feel that it should or could be. My friends know this system and can predict the 110 ways I could be taken advantage of later. I know that this flagrant display of skepticism and distrust are normal in these negotiations. But, after almost two years it still makes me uncomfortable! As I followed the fast loud conversation, I wanted to scream, “I don’t care what you think! This location is convenient, the place is clean, I’m under budget, and if things get ugly at least I’ll have something to write about!” But, I kept respectfully quiet until the contractual negotiation/shouting match subsided and I got the cue to sign. I felt somewhat vindicated in that after all that the landlord wouldn’t come down on the price. My friends were not satisfied, but were luckily too busy to insist that I keep looking for something cheaper.

While I am truly thankful for their help and local perspective, I recognize that our objectives are different. I am personally willing to pay a small premium just too keep the pleasant and polite comfort bubble intact. When I see my landlords playing with their grandchild outside, they will smile and ask me if I have eaten yet. And, I can smile back and continue to think of them as a sweet “lao Beijing” couple that may actually have my best interest in mind.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What is Midwest Culture; A call for your comments

All this moving around has sparked some new observations and has me wondering; what is it about trying to maintain a Midwest character in China that is so exhausting and futile?

During college I was convinced that the Midwest was the most generic place on Earth: flat, no wilderness yet no cosmopolitan areas either, strip malls, K-marts, gray skies for half the year, corn fields. Picturing it? If you grew up in rural or suburban Midwest you were stuck being aware of all the extreme hobbies and cultural scenes of the rest of the country, yet had to make do with what the region could provide. You could only go so far into these interests before you either had to settle on something else or bail for one of the coasts or Rockies.

My friends were all from places that I imagined to be more . . . authentic. I listened to my friends' hometown stories with envy. In Marion, Virginia they had southern accents, bluegrass, and hometown doctors that cross-country skied to the office in the winter. I am sure there were grassroots revolutions started in the coffee shops and vegetarian joints in Amherst, Massachusetts. High school students in Seattle, Washington knew how to deal with both glacial crevasses and inner city scuffles. And in the tiny hamlet of Pultneyville, New York, old ladies will interrupt your long run to taste test their homemade cookies. I spent my summers in Alaska, Idaho, and Washington, hoping to gain some kind of character that I thought the Midwest had shorted me on. So, I was surprised and even delighted in China when a friend from California paused after something I said and exclaimed, "God you're so Midwest!"

That got me thinking. What exactly is that Midwest character? I thought there was none. But, the Beach Boys Sing about it: "The Midwest farmers' daughter's really make you feel alright..." So, there must be something distinct there right?

Here are some undeveloped thoughts:

Is it for better or worse, that the Midwest feels a bit generic?
In her song entitled Iowa, Dar Williams sings, "Way back where I come from, we never mean to bother; we don't like to make our passions other people's concerns. We walk in the world of safe people and at night we walk into our houses and burn."

Is it that people are friendly, or that they keep to themselves?
After a flight of unwelcome chatter on a plane, my sister-in-law's friend said that he appreciates Ohioans as seatmates because Ohioans will always say hello, but still let you read your book.

Or, is it some obsession with a constant hyper-awareness in social interactions. With tedious utterances of "Sorry" and "Thank you," a good Midwesterner is continuously aware of how to help others while simultaneously staying out of their business and never, ever, inconveniencing.
Author Jonathan Franzen captures this in The Corrections, as he describes his main character's visit to a museum in St. Jude. I did not bring the book to Beijing so I cannot quote it directly. He explains perfectly the constant awareness with which everyone moved about the exhibits. Each person will pretend to view the display even after they have lost interest, so as to not pressure those ahead of them. If those ahead of them are also good Midwesterners, they have a guilty fear about lingering too long which becomes activated by the tacit signals from the people behind them. The whole system works very well.

Or, does it have something to do with a balance of restraint and indulgence. My friend told me that is his father, a good Midwestern man, could never bring himself to give his cat straight kitty treats, but rather mixed them with the other less decadent cat food.

Here is call for your thoughts and suggestions from Literature/music/films/comedy and your own musings. I need some material. So please, give me Garrison Keillor and the lot. What's your Midwest description? You can email or comment.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Beijing Beginings

After a longer than planned, but wonderful summer and fall in Ohio, I finally made it back to China in early November. I can say with relief that the contrast between the first few weeks here in Beijing and my first weeks in Dalian are positively disparate. I shudder to think back on how I began my first experience in China: heartbroken, friendless, speaking zero Chinese, illegally hired, and having lost my luggage. Any situation here will have to be an improvement on those first lonely and confusing weeks.

In contrast, this time I was met at the airport by some friends of a Chinese friend in America. They drove me to dinner (which was spicy boiled duck heads, duck liver with sour garlic sauce, and beer) and then on to the institute where I will be working as an intern. Still waiting for me there at 9:00PM were two researchers who took me to a nearby hotel. The whole 48 hour travel experience ended with all five people escorting me to the door of my hotel room, and me feeling ridiculous and guilty for all the undue attention.

The institute where I will be working is a full hour by subway from the cultural epicenter of Beijing. But, I am solidly in the university district which makes the place feel alive and young. The street on which the institute is located I have deemed as “recycling row.” It's chaotic traffic is dominated by second hand furniture vendors and recyclable collectors on load bearing tricycles. If it were not so cold, I could stand out there and watch the impressive loads of cardboard, old box springs, Styrofoam, and plastic bottles go by for hours. This stark contrast between the new research complexes with their million dollar budgets and the old neighborhood where it’s still worth one’s time to collect waste materials, seems to encapsulate developing modern China in one city block.

Thus far everyone at the institute has been exceedingly welcoming and helpful and I am breathing a huge sigh of relief! Let the Beijing chapter Begin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

New Perspective on the Midwest

I have been home for nearly two months and had some time to write up stuff that I started but never finished. While home, I've noticed a few bizarre things about Americans as a whole and the Midwest in general.

As I drug my dehydrated sleep deprived body into the Chicago airport, the first thing I noticed was that people were sitting on the ground! In China, the ground is considered dirty. Inside or outside, no one pretends that it’s clean. If you put your purse or bag on floor in a restaurant, there are is immediately a server there to help you move it to a chair or hook. In China everyone squats instead of sitting, or if they must sit, they grab a newspaper or a plastic bag to place below them. And, most importantly, Chinese remove their shoes before entering anyone’s home. I became sensitive to these standards and also feared whatever it was that the locals feared about the ground.

People were not just sitting on the floor, well dressed business men were sprawled out taking a snooze on the floor - where thousands of shoes had passed that day! Outside was no different. A mother was allowing her daughter to sit on the sidewalk while she ate an ice-cream cone! Unimaginable!

While I will be the first to recognize that the ground is cleaner in the U.S. than China, it has made me second guess our comfort with the urban surfaces. It has also made me reconsider our custom of wearing shoes all day, in parking lots, public restrooms, through the yard, through the garage and then into our homes where we eat, sit, lay, and play on our own floors. Just a thought.

Other cultural things to note: We eat raw vegetables that taste like nothing and expect children to like them. I think more children and adults alike would eat more veggies if we fixed them as in Chinese cuisine style.

We stop at red lights regardless of if there is anyone around.

We stop for pedestrians. A woman rolled over the crosswalk line as I was crossing the street, saw me, backed up, rolled down her window and gave me a big Midwestern, "Sorry!" I'm not complaining about this one. Just caught me off guard after the daily battle crossing streets in China.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Chinese Medicine Neophyte

Western medicine and Chinese medicine appear to co-exist in modern Chinese culture. Dalian is fortunate to have one of the most contemporary Western medical hospitals in China. It has all of the normal machines you would expect to see, a pharmacy that deals out pills and injections, plus a ward just for traditional Chinese medicine. Yet, there are also hospitals solely for the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

These were, as far as I could tell, just as popular. I accompanied one of my Chinese friends there for a check-up on her asthma treatment. The moment we stepped out of the bus I could the smell distinct odor of boiling herbs. Once inside, I sat and waited with my friend in the small office of her doctor while other patients received treatment and consultation a mere five feet away. This was slightly uncomfortable for me, the American who is used to a clear cut beginning and end to a private doctor’s appointment. Instead, as my friend was being seen other patients lingered in the room and continued to ask questions as they thought of them.
The doctor took my friend’s pulse on both wrists and thoroughly inspected her tongue. He listened to her symptoms and complaints and began writing a prescription. She took the slip of paper to the herb center where they keep thousands of varieties of herbs, fungi, and dried animal parts. She had the option of taking her prescription home in a bag of dried mixed herbs to boil herself, or she could wait a few days and they could boil the concoction for her. Having no kitchen in her apartment, she chose the latter. Later she showed me her set of smart sealed glass pipettes filled with a thick black bitter liquid that she drank three times a day. When I asked why she didn’t go to the Western medicine hospital, she answered rather frankly, “Because those medicines can hurt you.” I couldn’t really disagree.

My only other experience with traditional Chinese medical thought was in a combination beauty/health clinic, which are as common as noodle shops around the city. This was a small operation run by one Beijing native middle-aged woman named Ms. Liu and two apprentices. I began going there about once a week for facials (don’t judge me, they were cheap). But, I really went to practice my Chinese with these terribly patient women who doted over and pampered me. Often these visits would last hours while these matronly women sat holding my hand, serving me tea and fruit, giving me life advice, and reacting with great enthusiasm to even the simplest of jokes I managed to crack in Chinese. I could always count on them to bluntly tell me if I had gained or lost weight too! It helped that they were never particularly busy!

During one of these routine visits Mrs. Liu set up a large monitor on the wall and asked me to wash my hands. Never sure what is coming next in China, I did so willingly. She showed me a pen with a lit microscope lens at the end that when rolled along the skin could project the image on the screen. She grabbed my left hand and rolled the pen along the surface of my palm and began narrating. She gestured to the chart on the wall that illustrated the points on the human hands that coordinated to various internal organs (thank goodness I had learned the names before in my first hospital experience). As she rolled over my thumb she commented that I was extremely bright because of something about the quality of lines on my thumb. She moved the magic pen to the pad of my middle finger and commented that my “small brain” was also clever. Continuing to the base of my middle finger, she exclaimed that my lungs were exceptionally healthy! But as she moved closer to the middle of my palm, she saw red spots. She grumbled that my stomach was not healthy and warned me against eating or drinking cold substances.

On this particular visit I had brought my friend along to share in the experience. He was also instructed to wash his hands to be checked out. Mrs. Liu took his right hand (being male) and repeated the process as a mirror image of my hand. All checked out as healthy until she reached the outer edge of his palm. When she saw red spots she sucked her teeth with disapproval. She warned him that his liver was in poor condition and that he should drink less alcohol. My friend protested, blaming the red spots on a scar from a recent motorbike accident. Mrs Liu was having none of it.

I dodged the bullet when they asked me if I believed in Chinese Medicine saying, “I’m not very clear on it.” I was dying to ask if the magic pen worked reciprocally. That is, could you look at my organs to assess the condition of my hands? I bit my tongue fearing the sarcasm might not traverse the cultural gap before us.

I have a rough understanding of a few other medical beliefs that both baffle and fascinate me. Many of them center on wind and cold. For instance, for fear of catching a cold, my Chinese roommates refused to sleep with a running fan. Additionally, despite the stifling heat they always slept with a blanket covering their stomachs and balked when I did not. Later another Chinese friend confirmed that it is commonly believed that cold or exposed stomach will result in internal discomfort in the morning.

There is definitely a love hate relationship with air-conditioners here. There was a mother-daughter couple that attended my weekly Tai Chi class. One day, only the mother came to class. When I inquired to the whereabouts of the daughter, the mother answered, “She has diarrhea.” “Oh,” I said awkwardly, “she must have eating something spoiled.” “No,” she corrected, “she slept with the air-conditioner on.”

I fail to see the causal relationship between cold air and unhealthy bowels. Yet, I am sure that each culture has its share of wildly accepted yet loosely proven health beliefs. For instance, is there any scientific evidence to justify the belief that swimming just after eating will actually result in cramps? Not sure, but without fail someone brings it up while snacking next to the pool or on the beach. Or, how about the magic sponge and water in Europe? When I played on a soccer team in France, a girl was injured and everyone started screaming “de l’eau, de l’eau!” A teammate ran over and dumped water on her hurt leg. If anyone can think of others, please let me know.

Other rules that I heard (but don’t fully understand) throughout my time in China are: Don’t drink water before bed or your eyes will be puffy, staying up late is bad for specifically WOMEN’S health, you should not expose your lower back to cold air as the cold temperatures can cause kidney problems, don’t walk while you are eating or you will get wind in your stomach, and eating cold things in general will give you indigestion.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Exactly how does Chinese work?

The Americans I meet ask many questions regarding the Chinese language. For those of you who have an inkling of interest in how the Chinese language system works, I will as succinctly as possible walk you through it. I will try to draw comparisons between English and Chinese throughout the explanation. However, the dissimilarities occasionally make it difficult to draw these parallels. I will put in a disclaimer that there are many exceptions to these rules. So if you are Chinese or you are studying Chinese please understand that this is just for the gist!

First, the Chinese language has “characters.” People often ask me, “Are characters letters, words, or pictures?” The answer is that they are a mixture of all three! But, to think of it like that would be selling short an amazingly intricate 2000 year old language system. Chinese does not have an alphabet in the sense that English has an alphabet. Instead, it has characters which are made up of even smaller pieces called “radicals” which have loose meanings and sometimes phonetic associations. Radicals are similar to our roots, prefixes, and suffixes (e.g. chrono, aqua, or anti). These radicals are made up of “strokes” which are a very specific set of pen (originally brush) strokes that are standardized. Strokes are similar to your understanding of standard English handwriting techniques. For example you know the precisely where to curve the second pen stroke so that everyone comprehends that you meant to write P instead of D. One character itself can be a word alone. Or, it can be combined with another character to make a compound word. Let me summarize. From most simple to most complex it goes stroke – radical – character-compound word. Here is an example with the character for mother.

Basically, think of characters of having some combination of meaning and phonetics. The character for woman is 女, pronounced “nu.” The character for horse is 马,pronounced “ma.” The word for mother is also pronounced “ma.” The character of mother needs to show the meaning of a woman with the phonetics of horse ma. So, the character for mother becomes 妈。Notice the woman part on the left and the horse part on the right.

Let’s try again with the word for fry, like to “stir-fry” as we call it. The character for fire is 火 pronounced “huo (hwo).” The character for a small amount or an amount is 少 pronounced “shao.” The character for stir-fry is 炒 pronounced “chao.” As a beginner in Chinese, I might possibly be able to work this out. I could see that the fire radical meant that there was heat and fire involved, and I might already know the 少“shao” on the right. So, I might be able to guess that the entire character together. Maybe.

Most characters are not this simple. In learning Chinese one rarely has enough time to go through all the radicals in each character and derive a meaning. Because there are 6500 characters, memorization starts early! For instance, the character for electric or elecricity is 电 “dian (deean)” and the character for brain is 脑 “nao (now).” I memorized these cold during separate study sessions. So I was delighted to know that the Chinese language combines the two into a word. That’s right 电脑 “dian nao” means electric brain aka computer!

However, don’t expect to see too many of these simple characters in your local Chinese restaurant, any US China town, or a fortune cookie. “Traditional Characters” are still used in all of these locations, whereas mainland China has since adopted the use of “simplified characters.” While there has always been a history of simplified forms of some characters, the official government driven simplifications occurred in two rounds. The first occurred in the early days of the Communist Revolution (1956 and 1964) to improve literacy. The second further simplification occurred later towards the end of the Cultural Revolution (1977). The final list was adopted as recently as 1986 to be taught in schools. Generally traditional characters have more strokes and are in my opinion extremely difficult to write. Modern Chinese characters are derived from their traditional forbearers but have been stripped down for ease of use.

Now, you may ask, “Ok so if Chinese uses characters, then what are those Roman Alphabet like looking letters in the explanations?” That’s called “Pin Yin.” It is the phonetic representation of each character. That’s right the characters are only loosely phonetic. If you are trying to compare this to English, imagine if you wanted to make a complex code with a forbidden lover. Maybe you two agree that agree that:
˄ = I
˫ = love
* = you

Then you could look at a note from your secret lover that said “˄˫*” and know the meaning without ever having to consider the English phonetics associated with the meaning. In fact if you used it enough, “˄˫*” would become phonetic in your head! Chinese children begin associating the sounds with the characters in the same way. They start early enough that they don’t really need pin yin spelling at all. In fact, I have met some older Chinese people who cannot use pin yin at all because they never learned it in school. They only operate on the sounds for characters based on pure memorization and association. They have no need for a third step of phonetic representation in between.

The problem with thinking and writing only in characters leads me to your next question. “How do they use computers?” I know what you’re thinking. If there are over 6500 characters, how could there possibly be a keyboard that big? Well, the techy geniuses of China have found a more efficient way. They use Pin Yin along side when working with word processing software and even text messages on cell phones. When they are using Microsoft Word for example there is an extra piece of software (made by Google of course) that allows them to type Pin Yin and then change it to a Chinese character.

This leads me to your next question. You are thinking, “Hmm Pin Yin looks a lot like an improvement on those complicated characters. If you have to change to Pin Yin to use the computer, why not change the language for good and forget those confusing characters all together?” Funny, in my moments of illiterate frustration I have wondered the same thing! But, it’s not that simple. Remember 马? If you have already forgotten that’s “ma.” But, it turns out that there are a lot of “ma” sounding words out there. Each has a different meaning and thus a different character. When I type “ma” I a list of choices pops up: 妈 马 吗 嘛 骂 码 麻 玛 么 抹 etc. ALL of these are pronounced “ma” but very have different meanings. One means mother, one means horse, one signifies a question, and one is one half of the word “what” etc. When using the computer each character corresponds to a number that the typist must select thus “typing” the character on the screen. That is, assuming that I, the typist knows which character has my intended meaning. So the only way is to either memorize characters or get comfortable with illiteracy.

Finally in the spoken language (adding one more layer of complexity), Chinese is “tonal.” If you have been reading my updates, you will know that I, the monotone American speaker, am constantly battling this one. Mandarin Chinese has four tones (sometimes five) and the meaning of the word you say changes depending on the tone of your voice. We have this only minimally in English. It is similar to the difference between “a record” and “to record.” That is, the noun “record label” is pronounced differently than the verb “to record.” But, the divergence in meanings due to tones in Chinese is exponentially more dramatic. For instance, consider all of our “ma” words. If you say “ma” with your voice high and steady like you are singing, then you are saying 妈 meaning mother. If you say “ma” and your voice goes down a note or two and then back up (like Tarzan) then you are saying 马 meaning horse! Here’s another one. If you say the word “mai” and your voice does the Tarzan thing then you are saying 买 meaning to buy. But, if you say the word “mai” and your voice goes brusquely down (like you’re scolding your dog), you are saying 卖 meaning to sell. Factoring in the tones in pronunciation gives yet another reason that simply switching to Pin Yin would not be sufficient. Characters wrap up meaning, pronunciation, and tone, all in one package – something that a simple alphabet system cannot handle. Again memorization is the only way out!

If you are overwhelmed don’t let me discourage your dreams of learning Chinese! There is one attractive and endearing feature of this language for the neophyte. The grammar is a piece of cake! There are no plurals, no subject-verb agreements and not really any verb conjugation at all. If you forget your grammar terms in English, that means that you don’t have to worry about when to say “I am,” “you are,” or “she is.” And, you don’t have to worry about when to say “drink,” “drank,” “drunk” or “swim” “swam” “swum.” There is no past or future tense like we know it! In English you have to say, “I had eaten,” “I ate,” “I am eating,” “I will eat,” or “I will have eaten.” But in Chinese you can just say, “I two days ago eat,” “I yesterday eat,” “I now eat,” “I later eat,” “I tomorrow eat.” How’s that for simplicity and efficiency!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Normal Conversation

As the sounds and tones of Mandarin have slowly (ever so slowly) acquiesced in my brain, I have had the joy and sometimes the misfortune to understand everyday conversations around me. I don’t usually have to eavesdrop, as I generally find many Chinese people to be quite boisterous about….anything! I happily discovered that what I had thought was an oral confrontation in the market was actually something like this: “ARE THESE GOOD APPLES?” “YES THESE ARE DELICIOUS APPLES!” “THEY’RE SWEET?” “YES VERY SWEET!” Whew. I was relieved to find out that elevated volume did not always equal conflict. As I studied more, I came to realize that these conversations sounded particularly confrontational because of one aspect of the Chinese language, the fourth tone. The fourth tone is a sharp falling tone. In English we save this tone for dogs that start eating from the table, or toddlers that reach for a hot iron. “NO!” we say brusquely. But in Chinese, this sound is common and may distinguish between the meanings ten and is, or, honest and city. But to our delicate ears, loud volume plus the harsh fourth tone would have us all thinking that Chinese people are in constant conflict with one another.

When I first arrived in China with all of my stereotypes and presumptions from history and rumor, I fantasized that the garbled sounds around me were all bits of conversations pertaining to Mao’s teachings, or some unbelievable propaganda. But, with each passing week, I began to understand more and more which brought me to the realization that daily was conversation was….well…completely normal. This realization was particularly among the children. When I was still in pitiable stages of incomprehension, I wondered if parents were pumping leftist thought or traditional Chinese philosophy into their kid’s right in front of my eyes. Now, I know that kids are kids and parents are parents, and they universally talk about the same simple things. I passed a little girl and her father in Children’s Park in Dalian. Looking at the fish pond the little girl asks, “Dad, what do fish eat?” The dad, pre-occupied but willing to indulge said, “Anything, everything!” The little girl clarified, “Well do they eat tree leaves?” “No, they don’t eat tree leaves.”

Now, when I listen on the bus, or in a restaurant, I find that about 70 percent of the conversations (of those I understand) circulate around food and money. “Have you eaten yet,” is a common conversation starter regardless of if you have any intention of meeting up with the person to have a meal later. I was listening to a one-sided conversation of the young man directly in-front of me on a crowded bus. “Where are you?”……. “Have you eaten yet?”….. “Oh, what are you eating?”……. “What’s the filling in your steamed buns?”………… “Are they good?” ………. “How much?”……… “Not bad, not bad.”

Another topic of everyday public chatter is money, and specifically prices. As far as I can tell, it is not at all rude to ask someone how much they paid for some food item, garment of clothing, even houses, and cars! Remember that bargaining is still the name of the game in many stores, so everyone wants to check to make sure they are getting the best deal around. They particularly like asking me how much I paid, and then telling me I paid too much. While we in America are often happy to brag about a good deal, we rarely ask what someone paid, as we might reveal someone’s embarrassment of being spendthrift or tightwad.

As I mentioned in an earlier update, asking one’s salary on the first meeting is also not taboo. On a flight from Dalian to Shenzhen, I sat next to a couple who starting talking about me. I listened for a while to them trying to decide whether I was Russian or French. I decided to break the awkwardness by letting them in on the fact that I could understand everything they were saying. We went through the normal questions: What country are you from, how old are you, are you married, do you like China and Chinese food, and what do you do? Then the next question was logically, “How much do you make each month?” While sometimes I lie, stating figures far higher or lower just to see what kind of reactions I get, this time I told the truth. “4000 RMB each month with free housing,” I said. This immediately led to a ten minute debate between the couple about my salary and living standards. I was completely cut out of the conversation while they argued. They paused for a moment and turned to ask me, “Do they give you free food?” “None,” I answered. The debate resumed for a few minutes while they discussed my savings capacity, food expenses, and daily spending habits. Then they finally turned to me and announced “Not enough.” I didn’t know whether to be ashamed, offended, or thankful for their financial advising. The couple continued to talk about money for the rest of the trip. I tuned out, but I could just hear numbers and prices for two more hours.

I assume that the conversations that I do not comprehend are far more profound. But those that I do understand reflect a population of thrifty people who take good food seriously!

Monday, May 5, 2008


While I was supposed to be teaching my students (sophomores and juniors in University) “Oral English” and “Advanced Oral English,” I was also serving as a representative of all American and even all “Western” culture and thought. Tough work really. During my first semester of teaching, I could be mid lesson on something like, how to state an opinion, or key phrases to use during phone conversations, when all of the sudden, a hand would shoot up. Delighted that someone was interested in the lesson, I would call on them. But more times than not, the student would stand and ask something like, “Are you married” or, “What do American’s think about Chinese people?” I never wanted to discourage participation, but these questions would completely derail any kind of lesson I thought I had planned.
As a result, I began second semester (same students) by telling my students that each class would begin with “question time.” During question time students could ask any question they wanted of me. Some classes loved question time and we never moved past it throughout the whole two hours. Other classes would sit silently and wait for me to continue the lesson. The questions ranged from seriously political to embarrassingly personal. Though, considering the still conservative nature of the Chinese culture, I never worried too much about getting into topics that would make even me squirm in front of the class. Some were easy to answer and others not even an hours worth of conversation and clarification could patch the cultural and political gaps that inspired the question in the first place.

I have collected as many questions as I wrote down and can remember and put them in the list below. I will add explanations only where necessary so as to allow you to experience the same shock/confusion/embarrassment as me at the moment of the inquiry.

Are you married? [Many Chinese do not wear wedding bands].
Do you have a boyfriend?
Do you live with your boyfriend?
Will you marry your boyfriend?
Do you like Chinese men?
Are your eyelashes real?
Are Americans particular about their clothing?
Are Americans very open minded? [I later found that “open minded” apparently means sexually open minded]
What kind of shampoo do you use?
Do you believe that China should hold the Olympic Games in 2008?
Why do Western countries care about China’s problems, like Tibet?
Can you drive?
What kind of car do you drive?
What is the name, in English, for the occupation in the government that is charge of putting out/ distributing propaganda?
Why aren’t some of the Western countries helping with “One World One Dream?” [Referencing those boycotting the Olympics and the Olympic slogan]
In the US, do you have to use a password when you use your credit card?
At what age do American’s get their first job?
Can you recommend some scenic places in America?
What is North Dakota like? [I learned later that some students are going to a college in University in North Dakota next year]
What do you eat every day? [He meant staple food…basically, what is my rice?]
What does this mean (crossing her fingers)?
Are you afraid to live in America? [She was referring to the fact that guns are legal.]
Do you believe in God?
Are you a WASP? [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant]
Why do black people like rap and R&B?
At what age do most American girls get married?
What time [of the day] does school end in America?
Do American college students have many parties?
Is marijuana illegal in America?
Then why can I see students smoking marijuana in movies?
What do the words “red-neck agenda” mean? [Referencing song lyrics in Green Day’s “American Idiot” song]
If you don’t have chopsticks in America…..then how can you eat noodles?