Sunday, November 29, 2015

Russians and Japanese

Got on the elevator with the two doglets. A skinny old guy (maybe mid-fifties) was already there, puffing away at a cigarette. He was quite friendly.
"What country are you from," he asked.
I said, as I always do, "China."
He laughed. "No, really!"
I responded: "Of course I'm Chinese. I can read Chinese, whereas you obviously can't." He laughed again.
Then I pointed to the very prominent sign which reads "Please do not smoke here" in perfectly good Chinese. I scolded him for being a Japanese in China, and I read each character out loud. 
(Calling a Chinese person Japanese is like calling Donald Trump a Mexican. YUUge insult!)
He laughed a big belly-laugh, and said "You're Russian?" 
I said yes, I'm Russian. Then the elevator door finally opened and let some fresh air in.

Friday, November 13, 2015

I believe every foreigner attempting to learn Chinese goes through four distinct phases with regard to the inevitable "Ni zhongwen shoude ting hao!" 你中文说的挺好! ("Your Chinese is so good!") 
These are: absurdity, appreciation, acceptance, and annoyance. 
1. Absurdity: You manage to utter a "Ni hao" ("hello") or a "zai jian" ("goodbye"). Or perhaps you manage to speak one or two number words without completely bungling them. "er-shi-ba kuai yuan ma?" ("Is this 28 yuan?") Not truly impressive, but some Chinese pretend that you're the US Ambassador to China.
"Ni zhongwen shouode ting hao!"
C'mon, man, you're just being too nice. I spoke five syllables without completely embarrassing myself, and you're giving me some sort of prize for that? Give me a break! I appreciate the kudos, but really... no!
2. Then there's Appreciation, which comes usually when you speak just enough Chinese that you're sort of full of yourself about it. This is an early stage. It comes when you can order food from a menu without ending up eating bugs, and ask for directions without winding up in the wrong city.
A call this "Appreciation," because this is the phase in which you're lapping it up. "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao." Yeah! It is kinda good! I worked damned hard to get to this point! Thanks for noticing! 
Of course, at this point you conveniently forget that the same people used to sing the praises of your Chinese language skills when all you could say was "Hello" and "Goodbye." Now you're singing your own praises: "Yes, I am fluent in Chinese!!!" When in fact you're really just minimally conversant. But really, who cares?
Stage 2 is partly illusory, but that's fine, because the high you get from Stage 2 is what propels you to reach Stage 3.
3. Then there's Acceptance, which comes when you really are basically fluent in the language, and "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao" is the equivalent of "blah-blah-blah." Great, thanks, but let's get on to whatever deal we're transacting here. This is a brief transitional stage on the way to Stage 4, Annoyance.
4. "Annoyance" comes when you're thoroughly over the pride of having grasped this crazy language, and you really just want to get down to business. Then the "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao" is just an interruption. 
This is also when you first start to focus on the implicit insult embedded in "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao." It contains an assumption that foreigners can't possibly speak Chinese.
Yeah, I've got a pinkish-white face, my belly is round, my nose is larger than yours, and I'm covered with monkey-like hair. Oh, and you probably think I smell like a sheep, because that's what most Chinese think about foreigners. Nonetheless, I am capable of speaking the language of China, The Middle Kingdom, the center of the universe. Please get over it, and talk to me like a normal human being!
The good thing is, they do. When you finally get to this point of understanding the language, you actually start to learn what Chinese people think. 
Most of the time, when they're speaking to you in English, they're giving you the "politically correct" version of their thoughts, or the "tell me what you think I want to hear" version.
But when you're sitting in the back seat of a taxi, and a student is babbling at you about politics and history and current society as if she couldn't quite gasp in enough air to say everything she wants to say, and you're understanding maybe 80% of her Chinese — you're still getting a whole lot more truth than you would get if you understood 100% of her English.
A friend of mine once said that English is the language of classes, and formal lectures, and therefore of "What we're supposed to say." And remember that, in China, you tell the professor only what you're supposed to say. There's none of this Mortimer Adler, University of Chicago, discussion-based method: it's pure obedience.
On the other hand, Chinese is the language that students and Chinese professionals speak while drinking too many beers and shooting the shit at the restaurant a mile away from the university. If we're going to criticize our own government and talk shit about contemporary Chinese culture, we're definitely going to do it in Chinese, not in English. If you want to know what we Chinese really think, you'd better know at least a little of our language.
Mine ain't great, but it's good enough that I've started to get a little bit of personal "vibe" from some of my Chinese acquaintances. I really need to work on it, though, because man, I'd really love to learn what they really think down at the root. It's fun when you start to actually be able to have conversations in this language!

The Monkey

Ma Lei went to the hospital this Wednesday, eleven days after her second in vitro implantation. We both were secretly thinking she probably was pregnant, and it turns out we were right.

She'd been having all kinds of abdominal pain, her skin had been breaking out, she was going to the bathroom with unusual frequency, and she was hungry at strange times. (That last isn't so far out of the normal for her. For a skinny thing, that woman can eat!) Anyway, we didn't talk about her various symptoms too much, because we didn't want to get our hopes up, but I'd been thinking for quite a while that her body was doing something. After we'd gotten the news, when I finally told her about my suspicions, I used the Chinese for "home renovation."

Her numbers were high. Very high. High enough to mean she is definitely not only pregnant, but very healthily so. Her doctor told her to stop taking some of the medicines that other patients have to take for three months.

Ma Lei is afraid those super-high numbers suggest she's having twins. Of course we'll be happy either way, but we would both much rather have a singleton.

As it happens, next year is the Year of the Monkey. This is fitting, since I've always referred to children as monkeys. If we indeed get two, we'll have enough to fill a small exhibit in the Hall of Monkeys at the Dalian Zoo.

I was thinking she's eleven days pregnant, but Ma Lei reminded me about the time her embryos spent in the incubator. In a sense, she's at 30+ days already! I guess that would make her due in July. The doctor actually told her the due date, but she was in shock and literally doesn't remember a single word said to her after that magical number 176. Even though we both rationally thought she was 80% likely to be pregnant, we'd managed to keep our emotional expectations low. The news hit us both like 120 volts.

Whatever else ails the Chinese healthcare system, reproductive health is considered to be a bright point. If there's nothing else the Chinese care about, it's having babies. This is an entirely private, non-governmental system, with many of the doctors trained overseas. They make good money, compared with their government-employee counterparts in the general-purpose hospitals. They're not innovators, but they are excellent practitioners. I've been consistently impressed with their professional level, throughout the process.

If this indeed is the last we have to see of the fertility clinic, I got off with quite a bargain. Ma Lei saved every receipt from every trip to the hospital, every medicine she had to inject herself with. Tonight, she brought out the stack for me to tally up the damage — and we were both pleasantly surprised. Converted from yuan to dollars at the current rate, it came to $5000. It could have cost as much as twice that, if her health hadn't been so good all the way through the process. Even at that, I think it wouldn't be bad, compared to what the same treatment would've cost in the US. Nevertheless, Ma Lei fully intends to present the monkey(s) with a bill at some point in the future. It's the Chinese way!

Now we're trying once again to keep our expectations low. We're well aware that the first three months are perilous.  However, her health has been off-the-charts good all the way through the process. She's promised not to lift anything heavier than an ankle-biting doglet, and to eat plenty of real food (the ramen noodles she loves so much relegated to snacks to fill her belly). We're going to do everything that's in our control to stack the odds in this (these?) babies' favor.

I know there's a lot we can't control, so there may be bad news any time. But just in case everything goes well, we've put ourselves on a waiting list for a cage for four in the Hall of Monkeys at the Dalian Zoo.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Great Firewall of China — Chinese attitudes

Talking with an American friend earlier this morning (yesterday evening in America), I finally found a way to explain the Chinese attitude toward the blocking of foreign websites (such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and others)...

My American friends often think the so-called Great Firewall of China must chafe horribly on the Chinese. I wish this were true.

Imagine that the US government suddenly blocked most of the famous overseas websites or internet services, such as WeChat, Alibaba, YouKu, Baidu, and others. (To match the cutesy name "Great Firewall of China," let's call it The American Civil Wall.)

You've probably heard of WeChat and Alibaba, if not the other names. You've probably never  used them, or if you have, you wouldn't miss them very much.

There are domestic alternatives in the US, so at most you lose some cool functions that the Chinese services have and the American ones don't have. Maybe you lose contact with a few people who use WeChat but not Facebook. Probably those aren't very close friends, anyway.

Now suppose you could install VPN software to get around the American Civil Wall. But you have to figure out where to find the software, which one works best, how to install it and use it.

It's also illegal, so there's a slight chance you could get in big trouble for even having it on your computer.

Not to mention, do you even know you can trust the maker of that VPN? Perhaps it's an NSA front, so everything you do is routed directly to the US government.

Is the hassle worth it? Probably not.

This is exactly how most of my Chinese friends feel about the Great Firewall of China. They know it's there, and they abstractly disapprove of it — but it's a relatively small concern for them. They can do everything they need to on the domestic internet. They are not burning with desire for Facebook and YouTube.

The people who do care are people with strong political interest (generally anti-Chinese-government), or people with strong personal ties or commercial interests overseas, or people who want to get out of China. (Big overlap between that last category and the previous two.)

If you're in America, the US internet is the end-all, be-all of the online world. After all, the 'net was invented and created in America, and probably every website you go to is American. But the Chinese could say the exact same: for most of them, every website they go to is Chinese.

To the Chinese, the US internet is about as interesting as the Chinese internet is to an American citizen. And it's almost as daunting, since most Chinese people's English isn't that great.

So when people think "surely the Chinese people are ready at any moment to throw off this yoke of internet blocking," they're missing the point. The Great Firewall of China is the last thing that will cause unrest, and it's the last thing the government will compromise on.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unintended-Consequence Hell!

Dalian traffic is a nightmare. The city grew from a patchwork of little villages snuggling up against hills and mini-mountains and surrounded by an irregular coastline, so there's nothing remotely resembling a street grid. Indeed, the map more closely resembles a bowl of spaghetti thrown up in the air and allowed to fall to the ground as dictated by chance.

However, up to now I've been able to avoid too much gnarly traffic as long as I refused to drive at rush hour. It's a nuisance when I have 8AM classes, but if I leave home at 5:30 and drive home between 10AM and 3 PM, all has been well. This semester has been a breeze so far, because almost all my classes are between 3:40 and 8:30 PM. It's not fun working that late, but at least I never had to deal with bad traffic.

Until today, when traffic was an absolute war zone even in the heart of what is normally smooth sailing. We left home this morning at 9:00, and I didn't make it to campus until 10:30. Coming home again at 2:45, it took a bit more than an hour. (Should've been 45 minutes, tops.) And the time delays tell only part of the story: that's an hour of constant stress and near-misses, as opposed to a leisurely 45 minutes.

I was scratching my head trying to figure out what was going on. There weren't any accidents anywhere along the route, nor is there any big event going on in town. (At least not that I know of. Government conferences aren't always publicized in this country.)

Then finally, Ma Lei figured it out: I was stuck in two hours of unintended-consequence hell.

You see, the local government recently decided to "solve" the traffic problem on one of the main highways into town by instituting alternate-day driving: on even-numbered days, people whose license plates end in odd numbers will get an expensive ticket if they drive on the freeway. Vice versa, on odd days.

Once she mentioned that, I looked around at the morass I was stuck in the middle of. And sure enough, every license plate I saw ended in an even number (today's date being March 25).

So thanks a lot, Dalian City Government! You sure did a wonderful job on that traffic problem.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


This morning I took the dogs outside. When we got on the elevator, there was already a dog there, along with an old guy who looked like Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride. (To be fair, an awful lot of old Chinese dudes look like Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride.)

The dog was a brown poodle, male, un-neutered. Chinese people never neuter their dogs. He was half-again the size of Qizai or Mimi — but they've studied from Ma Lei, so they know how to put someone bigger in his place.

The poodle hopped over and tried to get dominant with Mimi, till she went "Yipe!" and nipped him in the ear. He responded to this rejection as all men do, by going to the back corner of the elevator and lifting his leg to pee against the wall.

I believe my response-time has been quickened and my inhibitions lowered by living in this particular part of China, because rather than standing there, mouth agape, I instantly whipped out a leg and kicked the dog, just hard enough to stop him from peeing. He only managed to make a little coin-sized mark on the wall before my foot met his butt. (I am not a proponent of kicking dogs, but I'm even less fond of allowing them to stink up a public elevator.)

I shot a glance at Wallace Shawn, who was watching the whole thing with his trademarked grinning equilibrium. Of the two logical responses to this situation — either to chastise his dog for pissing in the elevator, or to chastise me for kicking the dog — he chose neither. He just grinned dumbly. So I figured "hey, that's cool!" and grinned right back at him.

When we reached ground floor, the old man wanted to go one way, while we were going the other. His dog, of course, totally ignored him to go with us. (Neuter your male dogs, people!!!) At the structural column halfway to the door, the dog again lifted his leg before I could call out HEY! and make him stop.

We went on our little ten-minute walk, and as we were coming back toward the building, there once again was the brown poodle with Wallace Shawn. The dog once again tried to make a pass at Mimi, then at Qizai, and once again got nothing but snarls and yipes. 

(Yeah, dog, I understand. I've been there, and I feel your pain. But you really need to stop trying. The third time is definitely NOT the charm.)

The old man, still grinning, said "Your dogs are really lihai."

For my friends who don’t know, Lihai is a word in Chinese that doesn't translate very well into English. It's as multivalent as the word "pride," and can similarly be used as either a compliment or an insult. A man with a well-deserved position of high authority might be described as lihai. A cowardly, nasty man who beats his wife is also lihai. The guy who always comes up with the best ideas at office meetings is lihai. So is the snarky guy in the back cubicle who cusses everyone out for no reason. Women are almost never lihai, except my wife. She’s lihai on steroids.

But when somebody out of the blue says your dog is lihai, it’s almost always in the bad way. Dogs aren’t supposed to be lihai, in this country, unless they’re guarding your front door.

By this point, I'd had enough of Wallace Shawn's dumb loser grin, and I was feeling just a little bit lihai myself, so I unsheathed my rapier tongue. Sometimes it’s nice, but dangerous, to speak reasonably good Chinese. As I used to say of my Spanish, “I know enough to get myself into trouble — but not enough to get myself back out again."

I said harshly: "Lihai?! You think my wife's dogs are lihai?! They don't piss on the elevator, they don't piss in the hallway, and they sure don't bully other dogs. And if they did, I wouldn’t just stand there like a monkey with a smile on my face.” 

He just stood and listened, though his dumb grin had slackened a little with surprise.

Lihai, my ass! As the Chinese would say, fang ge pi lihai! (No good translation, but it basically comes out as “you say lihai, I say fart.”)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bar of Babel

I had an interesting experience on my way home from work today, the first day of the new semester. 

You may know that I’m now living out in the Dalian Development Zone, about an hour’s drive from the university campus where I teach. My drive home takes me right past Five Color City, the bar district in the Development Zone. Today was my LONG day of teaching (8 AM to 8:30 PM), so I decided to stop in for a beer to reward myself and relax a bit. I’ve only been to that district a few times, so generally when I go I like to have one drink at a bar I already know, and one at a bar I don’t know.

The first one I stopped (the bar I know) at was a really nice little bar called Tiffany’s Girl Bar. The name is sadly misleading, as there should be a hyphen between “Tiffany’s” and “Girl." It refers to Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — “Tiffany’s-Girl” — whose pictures are all over the walls. The first time I went there, I was somewhat hopeful that this would be a girl-bar owned by someone called Tiffany. But no, that would have been a very different experience.

The manager is a really cool woman with whom I enjoy conversing in Chinese. In fact, the only reason I went in that bar in the first place, a month or so ago, was that I saw her out front on at opening time on an evening when there’d been an ice storm. She was down on her hands and knees, carefully chipping ice out from between the bricks of the walkway to the bar. That kind of attention to detail is unbelievably, extraordinarily rare in China, a country where the guiding philosophy seems to be “There are too many of you, so who cares if you slip and kill yourself?” I was sufficiently impressed that I decided to reward this fastidious bar manager with a sale. I was even more impressed with her professionalism as I saw how she ran the bar. If I ever had a business that needed a manager, I would try to hire this woman.

Anyway, I had my one beer there, then went to check out the bar just across the street. It was a somewhat intimidating place without any windows, just a big, heavy-looking metal door that looked like it might be the back alleyway door to a warehouse in the Bowery. I almost didn’t want to go in, but I figured what the hell, if it was too scary inside I could always leave.

Inside, it turned out to be a beautiful, inviting space done up in Japanese style, and indeed the only customers were two relatively elderly Japanese guys drinking sake and chatting with two beautiful waitresses. I sat down next to the Japanese guys, and there ensued my strangest Tower of Babel experience to-date.

The younger of the two waitresses (also the prettier — stunning, to be precise) spoke reasonable Japanese, but had forgotten most of her English. The other one spoke a little more English, but not quite as much Japanese. One of the two Japanese guys spoke a tiny bit of Chinese, and a tiny bit more English. The other guy seemed to know little of either language.

The Japanese guys clearly were regulars, and big spenders, but all four of them were happy to have an American join the mix. So the stunner occasionally would interrupt her conversation with the other guys to try to talk to me — but invariably she would bust out with a string of Japanese, the only language in the room that I don’t know. 

The one Chinese guy would then translate her Japanese into broken English. Then the other bar girl translated the first girl’s Japanese into Chinese (which, after all, was BOTH of their native language, so it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier if the first girl had just spoken to me in Chinese!).

All four of them enjoyed trying out little phrases of broken English: “What-a you-ah name-uh?” “Drink-ah wine!” None of them really spoke enough to be conversational, though the one Japanese guy came closest. (He did have that stereotypical Japanese lispy accent, though, with “flied lice” and w’s for r’s.)

I had some reasonable conversation with the two bartenders, especially the one who wasn’t trying so hard to speak Japanese. 

Then the other girl with the good Japanese would translate into Japanese, the guy with some English would take a stab at re-translating it into English and/or do his own Japanese translation, and the bar girl would either confirm or deny the accuracy of his translation. Once in a while one of them would turn back to me and ask a question in English or Chinese, to make sure they’d understood. Or the Japanese guy would ask the Chinese girl a question in Japanese or Chinese, when he didn’t know some of the Chinese vocabulary I was using. It was like a linguistic Escher drawing, or an other-worldly echo-chamber.

“You speak-a Chinee welly fast-uh,” the Japanese guy complained teasingly, with a big, complimentary smile on his face.

I’ve had conversations before that were half in English, half in Chinese, because there was some other foreigner there who didn’t understand Chinese. I’ve had plenty of conversations in Chinese that probably should’ve been in English, because the girl I was chatting with had better English than I have Chinese. (I’m often selfish that way: I’d rather work on my Chinese than help her work on her English.) But this was the first time I’ve experienced that bizarre crosshatch of mismatched linguistic incompetencies.

Actually, it was kind of sweet. Everyone was relaxed and playful and having fun. I was beginning to think I should make this a regular hang-out, until I finished my beer and asked for the bill.

The first bar charged me about $4.50 for a single bottle of Qingdao beer — pretty steep, but not totally out of the question. The second bar charged, for the same beer, a whopping 70 rmb — something like $12!!! So sadly, my new Japanese friends will have to drink without me from now on.