Monday, December 16, 2013

Ma Lei and the Taxi Driver

Ma Lei was taking a taxi home from the grocery store the other day. In front of her cab was a car driven, very slowly, by a woman. Ma Lei's driver was very annoyed.

"Stupid woman driver!" He said to her. "Women all have pig-brains!" He continued in that vein for some time, insisting that every woman alive is a complete and unmitigated idiot.

China is a place where political correctness has never hit, and sometimes that can be quite refreshing. One doesn't have to tiptoe around people's sensitivities, use only the exact right word ("differently-abled"), or worry that a woman will take offense at being called "Miss Jones" rather than "Ms. Jones" In this instance, though, Ma Lei was not amused.

"Really?" She asked. "All women have pig-brains?"


"How about your mother?" 

No answer.

"How about your sisters?" 

Still no answer.

"How about your daughter? All pig-brains?"

Here, he could have gotten a bit offended if he'd taken her remark out of context as an insult to his own daughter. (I know that wouldn't make logical sense, since she was just using the logic of his own comment against him, but it wouldn't be uncommon for someone to respond in a knee-jerk, illogical way to a remark like that.) 

Somehow, though, her manner was such that rather than getting his dander up he was starting to chuckle out loud.

Like a good martial artist, she pressed her advantage: "And Cixi?" (Former Empress Dowager of China. She's widely despised by the contemporary Chinese as an evil, manipulative genius, but certainly not an idiot.)

"How about Queen Elizabeth? Pig-brain?"

"And Hu Jintao's wife? Pig-brain too?"

Ma Lei has this way of cutting people down to size, but in a manner that is more good-natured than harsh. I've seen it many times. By this time, the driver was red-faced from laughter rather than from anger.

I wish I had her skill of significantly upbraiding people, slicing their whole worldview to ribbons in ruthlessly logical form — yet somehow making their day in the process. I'd be a much more persuasive philosopher and occasional cultural activist, if I did! 

Alas, all I can do is enjoy her rapier wit and, once in a while, report it to the world that needs to know of her awesomeness.

Sub-Prime Comprehension

Interesting cultural details come up when I give my students exams. I had a question about sub-prime mortgages on my biz ethics exam, and the majority of students lost a lot of points.

Why? They defined a sub-prime loan as a loan to "the poors" (i.e., poor people), or to "people who cannot pay it back." In some cases, their description of a sub-prime loan made it sound as if the banks were seeking out bums on the street to give loans to. The answer I was looking for was simply that a sub-prime loan was one given to a person with a relatively low credit rating, but fewer than 1 in 10 got that right.

The reasons for this failure to comprehend were very interesting.

First of all, the American system of credit is quite alien to China. Most people have never heard of a "credit rating" (though a banking insider has told me that they have them). So when you say someone has a "low credit rating," that has no real meaning to my students. Understandably, they unwittingly translate that to "not enough money to pay." Never mind that America has plenty of people who could pay their debts, but choose not to.

Herein lies the second alien concept. China doesn't have much of a credit economy. Almost no one carries a credit card. Even a bill for services is essentially unheard-of in my part of China. The hospital is cash-only, and you pay *before* you get treated. You get loans for two things in this country: a condo, and a car. And the idea that someone would intentionally default on either of those is utterly incomprehensible to most Chinese people.

A car is an enormous status symbol, often possessed as much for bragging rights as for transportation. So if one month you're driving a fancy car, and the next month it's gone, repossessed, you suffer tremendous embarrassment. You would only do that if you suddenly found yourself poor.

A condo is an even more ironclad obligation. In America we call owning your house a key part of the "American Dream." Here it's not a dream, it's a necessity.

As I've mentioned before, social custom dictates that a young man literally cannot get married unless he owns his own condo. No woman worth her salt will think of marrying him. And so, to have a condo and default on the payments is worse than a shame. It would be tantamount to divorce, bankruptcy, and social suicide. No one would do it unless it was absolutely, 100% unavoidable.

With that background, you can see how my students equated sub-prime mortgages that didn't get paid back, with wildly reckless "loans" to bums on the street. Even if they understood the idea of a credit score, the idea that someone with even a modest amount of money would have a low credit rating would enter a Chinese mind like a square peg into a round hole.

If you wonder about the future of the Chinese economy, and especially the housing bubble that many people think exists in this country, one part of the answer lies in my students' inability to understand sub-prime mortgages.

Housing prices will always be sustainably higher relative to personal income in China than they are in the West, because there is so much cultural pressure toward home-ownership. A debt crisis such as hit America in 2008 would happen here only if people's incomes fell dramatically, such that they literally could not pay back their loans. I do think it's possible, or even likely, that this will happen, but it will not happen lightly.

Given that my students seemed to think a sub-prime loan was a loan to someone who literally had no chance of paying it back, my Western mind immediately asked why they wouldn't have asked a question about this seemingly absurd idea. Why would a bank loan money to people it knows can't pay it back?

To be fair, some of my students knew about banks immediately selling the debt upstream, but this really only pushes the question back a step: why would anyone buy obviously bad debt from the banks? I guess in China it wouldn't be unheard-of for a bank to simply lie to upstream purchasers, falsify the loan paperwork, and leave someone else holding their counterfeit loans.

But even more fundamentally, in China one gets accustomed to economic transactions that seem preposterous on their face. It's always someone paying someone else off by accepting a bad deal, or someone moving money from A to B to make B look momentarily better than it really is. It's a political kickback, or stock manipulation, or personal enrichment at the expense of one's company, or whatever. Usually someone — usually the government — sweeps in with some money to prevent the situation from exploding, and the banks and companies stumble forward another day until the next crisis arises or the next bribe is needed. The system has been held together this long, only because of a combination of how universally-accepted it is, and how incredibly crafty the Chinese are at drafting these complicated deals.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Another blog-reader

Today we interviewed a candidate for an Oral English teaching position. (We're still in need for spring semester — qualified candidates please apply!!!)

She gave her teaching demonstration, and we asked her plenty of questions about her background and experience. All well and good. Then at the end, as she was getting ready to leave the room, she asked "Are you, by any chance, Professor-in-Dalian?" I confessed that indeed, I am.

"I love your blog! Oh my god, it's great! It's so funny!" She practically gushed. After her good-byes, she asked me to please "keep up the good work."

When I write the blog, I imagine my friends, FB friends, family members, and perhaps one or two random stragglers happening across it. I'm always surprised to find that I'm slightly famous.

It occurred to me to ask her how she found out about the blog. (It turns out: via a posting on a discussion group she's a member of). Hi, members of that discussion group, whichever one it is! Thanks for the plug!

It didn't occur to me to ask her how she knew it was I. Maybe I've posted a picture or two of myself — such as the one with the garlic hat on my head, from WAY back when — but there haven't been many.

Oh well. I guess I should now expect the paparazzi to be watching wherever I go and whatever I do.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

I've been meaning to post this for a couple of days now. China has made a very minor, qualified step back from one especially brutal form of repression, while maintaining much of the reality of the system in quieter, less-well-known forms.

As with most "reforms" in China, there are two entirely opposite possibilities, and the proof will be in the pudding. One is that this is simply a face-saving move to avoid public criticism, but it literally means nothing. The second is that this is a face-saving way to slowly back away from the system, one baby-step at a time. What's so maddening about China is that it's essentially impossible to know which it is, until long after the fact.

Indeed, the reality may be indeterminate at this point. Chinese officials value "flexibility," the ability to change policies instantly without admitting that they're doing so. If things are going well and there's relative stability within the country, perhaps they'll continue to back away from the policy. If they sense a "need" for the old repression, they'll quietly reinstate it under new names — all the while, never repudiating their original policy of closing down the labor camps.

The proof will be in the pudding, and the pudding bakes VERY slowly. Or, if you prefer this metaphor, China is like a giant Schroedinger's Catbox: the reality of today's event will only be determined later, long after the fact.

Incidentally, one of the dissidents says that the ending of the labor camps is vitiated by the fact that it's not accompanied by an official apology or clearing the records of those who were caught up in it. This shows an astounding lack of understanding of her own country, imo. The Chinese government almost never does such a thing. Rather, they simply quietly and behind-the-scenes restore

Monday, November 18, 2013

Trip to Beijing — Overview

We just got back from Beijing after three wonderful days of vacation with Ma Lei and her folks. I had so much fun watching them! They were like kids, especially Ma Lei's mother. Everywhere we went, she kept saying "Take my picture! Take my picture!" It was as though she couldn't quite believe she was in these famous places, so she wanted a photo as proof. (This is very common among Chinese tourists: foreigners think the Chinese care more about getting a picture of themselves someplace than they do about actually BEING in that place.)

The trip to Beijing was, as far as I know, their first time inside an airport, let alone actually flying. Heck, Ma Lei thinks it was their first time fastening a seat belt. (I had to do Mother's for her on the way to Beijing, because she didn't know how.)

On the way to Beijing it was dark, so they couldn't see much out the windows, but coming into Dalian this morning they had a crystal-clear view. I was reminded of how exciting and strange it was, seeing things from the sky the first few times I flew.

We went to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, and we even stood in line to go see the body of Chairman Mao. (More on that later, of course.) We went to Olympic Park for a bit of more recent Chinese history, and for the first time I sprung for a ticket to go inside one of the venues, the Water Cube. (It was supposed to cost 30 rmb a head, a little less than $5, but we got had by a scalper — again, more later!) We saw the beautiful lake district of north-central Beijing, as well as the fascinating ancient hutong (twisty alleyway) where we were staying.

We did not get to go see the Great Wall, because both days when we could have gone, the wind was too gusty for the cable car up to the top. Ma Lei's mom has a bum leg, so climbing up the stairs is out of the question for her. In fact, she got so tired with all the walking that, every night before she went to bed she said "tomorrow you can go, and I will stay in the hotel." But then, every morning when we were getting ready to go, she couldn't resist.

We ate Beijing-style noodles, which are "meh." Okay, if you like a lot of white-colored starch with a little meat and a hint of green veggies thrown in along the side. We had donkey-meat soup, twice. (It sounds awful to the American ear, but actually it's out-of-this-world good!)

And on our last night, we went to a fancy Peking Duck restaurant that was surely the most expensive meal Ma Lei's parents have ever had. (It came to almost $15 a head, which is really enormously expensive by Chinese standards. And by way of comparison, all taxes are included in the ticket price, and you don't tip — so $15 a head means $15 a head.) The food was phenomenal, and the atmosphere was beautiful.

Last night, I finally got to get a little bit of what *I* love about Beijing: the internationalism of the place.

Ma Lei's parents wanted to buy some packaged Peking Duck to give to some friends and family-members, but the three of them were too exhausted to make the trip down to the district where it's easiest to find it. (They sell it shrink-wrapped in plastic bags, which I find rather gross. Duck-in-a-bag.)

I volunteered to make the trip, partly because I was the only one with any energy left, and partly because it was an excuse to go down to Wangfujing, where there are a couple of mediocre foreign bookstores. Mediocre, indeed, but I quickly spent more than a hundred bucks. Plus found four or five good scholarly books that were over fifty bucks apiece, so rather than buy them in the store perhaps I can find them used on the 'net.

On my way back to our hotel, I stopped at a pub for a good cocktail (very hard to find in Dalian), then I went to one restaurant for a Thai spring roll and another, Spanish-run restaurant for some magnificent hummus and an absinthe cocktail. After all that, I still got home by 10:00.

I'm going to be working overtime for the next ten days to make up for four days away, but I will post more details when I can.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Flying Rubes

It's my contention that we foreigners need to take a huge step back from our condescending attitudes about China, even when there's good reason for those attitudes.

"Oh lord, it's hard to be humble," went the old song lyric, and it's true in China when you come from a culture that produced the automobile — as well as proper traffic control —  the airplane, the computer, the internet, and the handkerchief. (To my friends who think the handkerchief is old-school, just wait till you come to China and see the old men hawk up giant-sized lugies and splat them onto the sidewalk right in front of where you're walking, and ask whether the handkerchief is a technological improvement.) Indeed, it's hard to be humble, when the Chinese frequently act like such third-world rubes.

To me, though, the message of these experiences is how quickly China has advanced. They've gone from Medieval to Modern in half my lifespan, and that should be admired — even as I reserve the right to laugh a little bit at the Medieval remnants that persist.

A couple days ago, Ma Lei's mother gave her a phone call, worried about our upcoming trip to Beijing. They've never flown before, so they don't know how it works, and Mother was concerned that our schedule was too tight. "Are you sure we'll get there early enough to get a seat?" she asked, "And should I bring a little stool in case we have to sit down the aisle?"

You see, on a Chinese long-distance bus or train, there are regulations that say you can't stand in the aisle or sit without a proper seat, but those regulations exist only on paper. Everyone taking a long-distance bus in China (2 hours or more) will either bring along a small fold-out seat or expect the bus operator to have them. A plane is really just a bus with wings, so why not hedge our bets by bringing along little stools?

One of Ma Lei's online friends told her a story, which I don't know the provenance of. It was told to Ma Lei as if it were something that her friend had personally observed, but it could be something she got online. Anyway, I pass it on without swearing that it's the fact...

An old farm-woman got ready to take her first flight. Like someone preparing for his first bullet-train experience, she wanted to get a seat with a view. She saw that there were seats to the right, as she got onto the plane, but then there were these seats off to the left that had the best possible view. So she turned left and plopped down in the captain's seat.

As the story was told to Ma Lei, and then to me, the pilot came in and told the woman she had to leave. But being an elderly Chinese, and expecting people to give up their seats for her, she refused. Who are you, little man, to insist that I give up this super-comfortable chair with the great view out the front window?

Again, I can't swear it's all true. But as told to me the pilot whopped her a few good ones on the head, then she realized she was in the wrong place. She finally got up and allowed herself to be guided back to her proper seat.

I hope that story isn't actually true, but it could be. It's not impossible that a Chinese nongcunren — a rube — would be so ignorant of the norms of air travel. After all, the standards that apply to their train travel are completely different from the way one has to behave when flying. It's fine to laugh at her, but let's not forget what fish out of water we would be if we had to survive in Chinese farm country for a while.

In a way, hats off to China. They've got a population which is still majority-underclass, yet they're developing an infrastructure of modernity. The mere fact that my wife's family — brutalized during the Mao era — impoverished and reduced to subsistence farming — with close cousins who died of starvation while I was a well-fed boy in America — could now be flying to Beijing... That's pretty cool.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Self-Obsolescence, Chinese Style

I got a call a week or so ago from a Chinese administrator in my department, asking if I would be willing to join my good friend Jim in teaching an oral English class to Chinese teachers from all across the university, not just my department. The job pays a fair bit of money (about $100 a week for three teaching hours, not bad for China — though not at the top of the scale).

A little more information has come in since Jim and I agreed to teach the class. As it turns out, the university wants to train its Chinese subject faculty (i.e., those who teach accounting, management, finance, and subjects) to teach bilingually.

When we learned about this, both Jim's and my alarm bells went "Ding-Ding-Ding." Spidey sense is tingling, big-time!

Here's the scoop: Our university wants to provide some form of international education, but foreign faculty are at least three times as expensive as Chinese faculty. A foreign Lecturer might be paid $2K a month; a foreign Assistant Professor, $3K and up. A Chinese Assistant Professor might be paid $800 and think she's just won the lottery. Even if the Chinese has a PhD from the same university in America where I got mine, he or she will be paid as a Chinese.

So to put that in the starkest of terms: I cost my university between four and eight times what an equally-educated and equally-qualified Chinese-born person would cost.

Can you blame the university for wanting more bilingual Chinese teaching their classes?!

So here I am, the foreign teacher, being asked to sign on for $100 a week in order to train-up the very people who would kick me to the curb if they could. I am training my own replacements. I am hundred-dollar-a-week executioner. I am a mercenary killing my own. I am Uncle Tom.

Jim isn't in quite as absurd a position as I am, because he is an English teacher. The people we're training are professors of business and related fields, hence my direct competitors, not his.

But you know, I am for capitalism. I am for competition. I am okay with people looking for the best for themselves, and I don't mind losing out if someone else can do the same work for less money. If I lose, I lose.

Don't cry for me, Argentina. It's not actually as bad as that.

I teach really well, better than most Chinese faculty, and my students appreciate it. So do the administrators.

Furthermore, I've got a pretty high-quality PhD, so I provide my department a lot of "face." I look good on their press-releases.

I'm also infinitely team-spirited, so I've built (I think) important friendships within the department by helping out when help was needed. I don't complain and I don't demand and I don't make trouble, so I'm pretty sure I'm valued.

My students love me and sing my praises to the administration — so I hear consistently through Ma Lei's Chinese spy network of friends in the administrative staff.

And of course, if the university in one swipe threw out all foreign faculty including those with impressive foreign PhDs, I could always go out to the outskirts of Dalian where there aren't very many foreigners. I could teach classes for children twenty hours a week and make two or three times my university salary.

Nevertheless, I fear that things overall are tightening for foreigners in China.

In a country that's not known for its love of outsiders or trust for those countries that invaded it and picked it to pieces 150-ish years ago, there are plenty of people in positions of power who would happily flick the whole lot of us off their back as a dog shakes off its bathwater. Gone, for sure, are the days when one could hop a plane over here with nothing more than an American passport and a clean criminal record and make a good living teaching English or other subjects. Make no mistake about it: China would like to get rid of us all and replace us with its own citizens.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Infantry Teaching

I had a fantastic day of teaching today, in my two classes for little kids out in the outskirts of town.

Chinese kids are kids just like anyone else, but they're so used to being squeezed into a little box. "Listen to this." "Repeat after me." "Don't move in your chair." "Learn the words — don't worry about the concepts."

Today I started with a very simple little game. Students were divided into two teams. I gave out little paired cards with vocabulary words written on them, so one student on each team might have the word "dangerous" or "broccoli" or "pilot." I gave the students a couple of minutes to think of a sentence that used their words.

Then I called out a word, and the two students who had been given that word had to run to the board and write their sentences. Whoever finished writing first automatically got one point. Whoever had a grammatically correct sentence got one point for that. Whoever had an interesting sentence got one point, even if it wasn't grammatically correct. So a student could theoretically get three points for one sentence, though realistically someone was almost always going to steal the swiftness point by writing "knife is dangerous" or some other ungrammatical sentence. But "I like tiger because it dangerous" would also get a point for being interesting. Predictably, there were a whole lot more quickness points than interestingness points given, but that's okay. That's how kids are: like water, they seek the path of least resistance.

You wouldn't believe how well this little game worked. They got to run. The kids got to shout and laugh and be mad and happy at each other. They got to be competitive (which the Chinese are, like no other people I know). They got tired, so that afterwards the little boys were almost as capable as the little girls of sitting still and doing the required boring pronunciation drills.

And here's the really fun thing: the Chinese teacher who set up this class for me was just as captivated, even though it totally cut against her own grain.

She's the type to berate her students in the harshest of voices, to physically restrain a boy who's rocking in his chair when he needs to move, and even to smack a student for the crime of being a kid. Nevertheless, she howled with laughter at their antics during the game, she loved watching them get so engrossed in it — and she strongly suggested that we play the same game every week. She responded to this little game as if it were a gift from a beautiful alien universe.

I don't want to play the exact same game every week. I want to come up with new ones that will keep them off-guard and guessing, and raise new sparks of excitement each time. But I'm glad that the kids had a great time, and their Chinese teacher had fun too.

And the Mommy phalanx that lines the walls of the classroom were also laughing like kids. Some of them whose presence in my classroom in the past has consisted of nothing but scolding and smacking their kids, were shouting like cheerleaders when their little ones ran to the board. The game made them and their kids into allies, rather than enemies, which is the more typical Chinese parenting model. (I must confess, after the game ended I witnessed one mother scolding her boy for doing badly. I felt really bad for that, because it was the game I introduced to them that enticed that woman to dress down a kid who's just trying to do his best. We Americans think we've seen helicopter parenting, but we ain't seen nothin' compared to China.)

Notwithstanding some bad behavior by parents, the game was a huge success. It got the students involved, everyone loved it, and the students learned new stuff. Yet it would never have happened in a Chinese classroom.

What is it about China? I don't understand. They default to this dogmatic, authoritarian, Teacher-is-God approach; they consider it normal to either beat their children or spoil them with candy while the children sit passively; yet when they see someone doing things in the most un-Chinese way, the parents are enthralled.

This is what leads to such massive cognitive dissonance in China. If I felt that what I was doing were completely alien, foreign, and unwelcome, then I would just shut up and do what I was told, or else go home to America. But the Chinese seem in so many cases almost furtively to wish they were something other than they are. On the other hand, they're quick to flip back into Chinese mode, and will fire you in a heartbeat for doing the same thing they loved a moment before.

Those Chinese people are like a repressed Midwesterner who moves to Los Angeles. They would like to be free and open, but they've had the opposite approach so drilled in them that it's as if it were in their DNA.

This week and last, the weaker of my two little-kid classes has been talking about food. Their stupid textbook contains a bunch of words that cannot possibly have any meaning to them, yet they're expected to use them like parrots. "Potato salad" features heavily in the dialogue they're reciting blindly, despite the fact that it doesn't exist in China. They struggled with the word "tortilla," the inclusion of which in our textbook should be grounds for the textbook editor to be shot. (For one thing, it's not English, it's Spanish. For another, it includes the "ll" = "y" which doesn't occur in English except in borrowed Spanish words. Kids this young shouldn't be burdened with such obscurity.)

Next week, I will bring that class a giant batch of potato salad, as well as a package of proper Mexican wheat tortillas and something (I haven't decided what) to wrap in the tortillas. I may also somehow include "pickles," which the idiot textbook editor decided to incorporate into the text despite its having a very different meaning in China.

(There are pickled vegetables here, but they're almost never the pickled cucumbers we know in America, and they're served in completely different contexts. So to just throw that word in there as if it were something easy to understand or translate — well, you'd have to be an American university professor to do something that culturally ignorant.)

All that to the side, I want to give the students some sensory data to connect to the words they're learning, so that they can go beyond the parrot level and perhaps actually gain some understanding. I would like them to slow down, back it up a bit, and learn some concepts, not just empty words.

The really fun thing about all this is that it's bringing the real teacher out in me. As a "professor," one can potentially disappear up into the ether and let the students follow or not as they choose. But as a teacher like this, I'm right down in their context of knowledge. If they get it, they get it. If they don't, it's all on me. The Chinese parents and teachers may love it, but they can't do it. Only the guy who was raised speaking English can bring those expressions and those cultural experiences to them. Only a guy with some Western ideas about education can break them out of their Chinese mode. And who knows? It could really change these kids' thinking methods for the better.

What I was trained for in grad school in America was like artillery teaching: lob information out there, and hope it hits students somehow or other. That's what a "Professor" does. What I'm doing in these classes for little kids is infantry teaching: close engagement, sometimes hand-to-hand, and it's on me to make sure they get it. It's exhilarating! And interestingly enough, it's also making me a better Professor in my university classes.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Defective chopsticks.

Sitting in a Chinese soup restaurant for lunch. The guy across from us was clearly very drunk, and getting agitated. He got up, walked to our table, briefly inspected Ma Lei's chopsticks, then went back to his table.

Next time the waiter came by, the man shouted at him angrily. He was mad at the waiter for supposedly bringing him "bad" chopsticks. What was wrong with them? They were backwards.

I imagine most of my readers know chopsticks well enough to know that they're symmetrical in every respect except that they're tapered: the fat end is for holding them, while the slender end is for holding your food.

The drunk guy had picked his chopsticks up by the skinny end and tried to use the fat end for his noodles, so he complained angrily that his chopsticks were defective.

I'm not making this up. I couldn't make this up!

The drunk guy got really belligerent, threatening to beat up the waiter. Soon the restaurant owner and the rest of the staff were out in the dining area, squaring off with the drunk guy who was still promising to fight them all. The owner pointed to their security camera (which, in truth, probably doesn't even work, not in that cheap kind of restaurant), told him it's patched into the Dalian police department. In the end, they threw him his money back and forced him out of the restaurant without his lunch.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Neurotic parents and a goofy dog

I'm generally a very relaxed and laid-back guy, with very few things that really get me upset. One of the few things that really trips my anger trigger is when people project their inner neuroses outward as if their neuroses were the norm to which everyone else must conform. Clingy girlfriends and jealous boyfriends are in this category, along with many others.

I'm not upset at someone having a neurosis: you can't help that. What I object to is someone acting as if the neurosis were a perfectly normal and healthy response to a situation. Being responsible for two little half-pint dogs in China brings out a LOT of this behavior.

Ma Lei and I had the dogs out for a walk in the early evening, when the courtyards are full of strolling couples, children playing, and families walking dogs. Mimi, the little white puffball dog, loves this time of day because she's got so many people to bounce between, saying hello and accepting attention from everyone.

Tonight Mimi went bounding up to an attractive young expecting couple. Rather than welcoming a visit from the pretty dog, as most do, the woman completely freaked out. She jumped away, causing her belly to bounce like a basketball, while her husband kicked savagely at the dog (fortunately not connecting). "Keep it away!" He shrieked like a teenaged girl in a horror movie. "Can't you see she's pregnant?!"

Now mind you, Mimi is the least scary-looking animal in creation. Short and pudgy, she runs like one of those little toy dogs you see in the novelty stores, walking stiff-legged and going "yip, yip, yip" periodically. She's got a thick pelt of soft fur as white as a cotton ball. She's got one of those tails that curls up over the back and is constantly in motion like an overactive windshield wiper. She looks like she couldn't possibly real — like a stuffed toy rather than a real dog. One might as well be afraid of a cotton ball or a tribble as an "attack" from Mimi.

If the woman had said "I'm sorry, I'm afraid of dogs. Can you keep her away?" I'd have been fine with that. I'd have scoffed inwardly and found it annoying, but tolerated it. But when they shouted at Ma Lei and me, I let them have it.

"You're sick in the head," I told them. "You shouldn't be afraid of dogs, because you've got dog balls for brains." (Don't ask me why, but "dog-ball-brains" seems to be a common insult here. Ma Lei uses it frequently, anyway.) After they came back with something or other, I finished my tirade barking sharply: er... bai... wu... — "250" — which is a Chinese expression akin to calling someone mentally retarded. Ma Lei had gotten in on the conversation by this time, and she followed up with some more eloquent Chinese that I couldn't follow.

We continued our walk, and presumably the neurotic couple scooted home through the gauntlet of scary dogs (of whom perhaps 8 or 10 were out walking at the same time). Everyone out walking had heard our altercation, and I caught quite a few people chuckling at the foreigner dressing down the Chinese couple.

I am a fairly fearless sort, even for an American, so the extreme fear-drivenness of the Chinese has been one of the hardest things for me to adjust to. Chinese parents show their "love" for their children by bestowing upon them a shopping cart full of neuroses, and it stunts every facet of their development. Children aren't allowed to play (they might hurt themselves), so they never learn to navigate the physical world. They aren't allowed to form personal interests or values, for fear they won't study hard enough. They aren't allowed to think for themselves, for fear that their personal opinions will alienate them.

As an educator, I fight constantly against the results of this oppressive fear. As a China-lover, I read daily accounts of the deadly effects of fear on Chinese society. I saw all of that contained in that man's scream "Can't you see she's pregnant?"

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Another China Day

Today on the way back from the Development Zone, Ma Lei and the dogs took a taxi. At Xing Gong Jie, a major transportation hub right at the junction between the main roads of central Dalian and the routes out to the Development Zone and elsewhere, an idiot pedestrian stepped right out in front of the car, walking against a red light, and acted surprised when the driver slammed on his brakes and hammered his horn at her.

"Fucking Chinese!" the driver burst out. "All idiots!"

Mind you, this driver was totally Chinese, and so is Ma Lei. Ma Lei hadn't said a word about her yangguizi husband. This was a completely spontaneous expression of frustration with his countrymen. Ma Lei suppressed a laugh.

An Etiquette Lesson

Just got back from Shenyang on the fast train. (A little less than 2 hours for a trip that used to take 5!) Ma Lei immediately took the light rail train out to the Development Zone to pick up the doggies.

The light rail out to the Development Zone is always crazy-mobbed with people, and they're typically not the most polite or cultivated among the Dalianese.

Today there was a guy pushing a huge Styrofoam container filled with fish or crabs or something he'd caught or purchased at the shore, intended for resale out in the Development Zone. The train was already over-stuffed, and the doors were already trying to close, but he wouldn't wait for the next train. He bumped his container repeatedly into the ankles of those already on the train, until they parted, slowly, enough for the container to make it on.

As soon as the Styrofoam box cleared the doors, they were finally able to close — leaving the man on the platform, running after the train and shouting futilely. Someone else will be eating well for a while on his catch. And I'll bet in the future he won't be so insistent upon banging his way onto a train that's already full.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Those damned red envelopes with cash in them

A woman came to our wedding last year and gave  400 rmb (about $60) as her gift.

The Chinese generally give cash, rather than physical gifts, which makes a certain amount of economic sense. Gift-giving, at random, is a highly inefficient system. Think: "Oh, thank you for that tie with pictures of naked women on it. I'll wear it to work every day..." Giving cash or gift certificates makes more economic sense.

However, as the Chinese practice it this system is complex, overbearing, economically inefficient, and socially divisive.

To start with, at a wedding you don't give money to the couple directly. You give it to a representative of the couple who takes down your name in a big red-and-gold ledger book, like a grinning Scrooge. This book is looked over by the couple's friends and family, and it is committed to memory by the bride. This is how Ma Lei knew instantly how much this woman had given at our wedding, despite the fact that the red-and-gold ledger book is safely stored at her family's home.

A year after the wedding gift, the woman's child has decided to turn 18 and graduate from high school. And, as is the natural course of things, this entails his going to university. And, as is the natural course of things, this entails the mother's holding a dinner party for all her friends to come and give carefully-observed gifts of cash in red envelopes. In this case, it's unlikely that the family will create a ledger (though I may be wrong about that). Nevertheless, they will know and pay attention to how much was given, and they will mentally compare it to how much they gave us a year ago.

So now, when our coffers are a little bit low for various reasons, Ma Lei is going out to the Development Zone to give this woman back the 400 rmb we got last year. There are transactions costs involved, to the tune of 20%, borne by us of course. (The cost of going out to the Development Zone and back again, along with incidentals.)

There's no interest paid on what is for all practical purposes a loan, so the woman didn't really benefit. Economically speaking, she'd have done better to have put 400 rmb in the bank at 3.5% interest. Everyone else would have been better off. We'd have been better able to plan when to spend or not to spend those 400 rmb. The mutual looking-over-shoulders would be diminished (though perhaps that's the real point, after all). In utilitarian terms, the overall well-being of society would have benefited; but that wouldn't have fit with Chinese traditions.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Why I can't adopt a child in China

I've always wanted to adopt a child, and China has an overabundance of children to be adopted. Unfortunately, according to Ma Lei's research, a weird fluke of the law makes it illegal for us to adopt — and believe it or not, for once I at least provisionally agree with the Chinese government.

It's quite easy for a Chinese/Chinese couple to adopt a Chinese baby. It's a bit harder, but still legal, for a foreign/foreign couple to do so. Unfortunately, a Chinese/foreign couple are legally barred from doing so. The reason a concern about abandonment.

A Chinese/Chinese couple are pretty likely to stay put and raise a child, so the adopted infant won't be thrown back into the adoption system. If the adoptive parents have some horrible intentions in mind, they will still be living in China, and therefore theoretically subject to being found out and punished by the Chinese authorities. (Not that legal enforcement is ideal in China, but that's another issue...)

A foreign/foreign couple is likewise in a sense stable. They will presumably be taking the child out of the country, which raises the bar for scrutiny of their intentions, means of support, etc., but they will be doing so together as a couple.

A Chinese/foreign couple, on the other hand, has a certain built-in risk that the other two pairings don't. If they divorce, it's likely that the Chinese partner (usually the woman) will return to China while the foreign partner stays in his home country. The adopted child's support network is therefore also completely sundered, and its status is in question.

If she lives in the foreign country, she will do so without a mother to take care of her. The Chinese, even more so than Westerners, automatically assume that women are better parents than men. Furthermore, the father would be raising the child without any break or assistance from the adoptive mother. While this is obviously possible, it's clearly not an ideal situation.

If she returns to China with her adoptive mother, she will most likely have little financial support. Foreign "deadbeat dads" are a notorious phenomenon even when dealing with their own biological children, and the Chinese government obviously has no means to extract child support from a foreign national living in his home country.

(Those are the problems of more or less honest cases. I'm leaving out the consideration of very real and truly evil scenarios in which a foreigner with horrible intentions bribes a Chinese woman to stand-in as his wife, never intending for her to go to his home country in the first place. It's sad to say, but Chinese law must take into account even the most horrible possibilities, because they will happen.)

The above is not say that I definitely agree with this policy. I am inclined to disagree with it, but I at least understand the rationale for it.

If I were the one writing China's adoption policies, I would want to know some more factual information: what is the divorce rate among Chinese/foreign couples? What actually happens to adopted children in those cases? Is there another way to guard against the potential problems without depriving orphans of loving families? Odds are, the policy was formed on the basis of unsubstantiated assumptions and anecdotal evidence, rather than good social science.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Having a "China Day"

All of us foreigners living in China have what we call "China days" — days when some aspect of life in China just stacks up so high that we want to explode in anger and frustration. It took me two years before I had my first one, and they were very rare for me until the past six months.

What's interesting is that Ma Lei has started having them. They're usually provoked by things she reads about on the internet, rather than by anything that happens directly to her.

Today she read a story about a child who was beaten so badly he had to go to the hospital for treatment, then once he was patched up again he was sent straight back to the loving parents who had beaten him so badly. Then she read about an elderly Chinese couple who refused to acknowledge their own granddaughter, because the father was an American. ("Their minds are stuck in the Mao Ze Deng times," she said bitterly.)

Last night she heard a radio call-in show on which a 50-something man had called in to complain that his son had disowned him and refused to let him see his grandson. The reason was that, when the son was growing up, the father had spent most of his time with his mistress rather than at home with his wife and child. Now — without expressing any regrets for his own actions — the old man wanted advice on how to force his son to reopen communications.

Another caller, a young woman, had married a man who had regularly beaten her while they were dating. The man has recently started beating their child, and the woman wants a divorce. The man won't give it to her, and China allows divorce only by mutual consent. The host of the show told the woman she was an idiot to marry that guy and have a child with him. What the heck did she expect?

After hearing all those stories and some more I'm forgetting now, Ma Lei went on a rant against China. "Why are there so many stupid people in China?" She asked. "This whole country should hurry up and die! China doesn't deserve to live! There are too many people here, anyway; a few of them need to start dying off." (I was reminded of my semi-facetious Rule #1 of China: There are too many of you!)

As she always does, she expressed these sentiments in ways that were more funny than serious, but the sentiment was real. She's getting fed up with her own country.

This actually saddens me a great deal, though of course I totally agree with the reasons she feels this way. I'm glad she has the right values, and I'm glad she is idealistic. Nonetheless, I don't want her to hate her own country or lose sight of the great things about it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

lao shi/ban/po

Chinese is a modular language, with each of those characters representing a syllable that conveys a particular unit of meaning. Many of the most common words in daily use are really compound words composed of two or more of those little units lumped together.

For instance, dian means "electricity" or "electrical." Hence dian hua ("electrical talking") = telephone. Dian nao ("electric brain") = computer. Dian ying ("electric shadow") = movie. Dian shi ("electric look-at/inspect") = television.

You can see where this sort of thing leads to a bit of confusion for the person attempting to learn the language afresh, automatize the proper words, and fish them from memory real-time in conversation. I've gotten better recently, but I still occasionally ask where my TV is, when I mean to ask for my telephone.

Where it really gets troublesome is in the constellation of lao words.

lao means "old," which is usually a term of respect in Chinese. Hence lao shi ("old expert") means "teacher."

lao ban is interesting. A ban is an unbending plank or board, such as might be used in construction. It's the same word used for a ping pong paddle. It can also be an adjective meaning "stern" or "severe." It can also be used as a verb meaning "get serious," as a teacher might tell his students to stop horsing around and get serious. So when you put "old stern plank" together, you get the word for "boss."

The word po means "grandmother" or "matriarch," and laopo is the commonplace term for one's wife. I suppose it's along the lines of calling her "my old lady," but without the pejorative implications the expression has in English.

(Incidentally, the equivalent expression for "husband," laogong, just literally means "old male." You can read a lot about the history of Chinese gender relations in the contemporary language. Interestingly, laogong has become a colloquialism for "eunuch," according to my dictionary.)

So these three radically different concepts — "teacher," "boss," and "wife" — all start with the same syllable, all are about the same length, and are spoken with the same combination of tones.

Last week, I was showing a Chinese friend of mine around my department on campus, when we happened to run into the guy I used to work for a few years ago. My friend's English is a little bumpy, so I tend to keep it in Chinese when speaking with her. Hence I explained to her, in Chinese, that "he used to be my laopo," my wife. She barely kept her straight face as it is. I wonder if she'd have really lost it if she'd known that my former boss is gay.

A couple of weeks ago I was complaining to Ma Lei about a class of not-very-good students at my university. "They ought to pay attention to what I say," I exclaimed in frustration, "because I am their husband!"

I have, once or twice, come home tired from worked and announced to Ma Lei "Boss, I'm home!"

So far I have not made the one mistake that might possibly prove fatal. I live in dread that, one day when talking to Ma Lei, I will refer to my cute Chinese teacher — my laoshi — as laopo.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Tirade on the Train

Yesterday on the light rail train, an old lady asked Ma Lei if she was my translator. No, she explained, she's my wife.

The woman smiled the sort of crocodile-smile that the elderly Chinese are best at, and asked why Ma Lei wanted "one of those" — meaning foreigners — rather than a proper Chinese husband.

I'm pretty casual about such prying questions, but they really piss Ma Lei off. So with a big, good-natured smile on her face, she lit into a tirade about Chinese husbands. Here's the part I understood, loosely translated:

"You really think I want a Chinese husband? If I married a Chinese man, within a year or two he'd have a mistress to go play with while leaving me stuck at home with a baby. And if he had any money, there would certainly be some terrible little Chinese woman waiting to be his mistress."

(By this point, everyone was listening to her with expressions that ranged from amusement, to shock, to intense curiosity from a young woman who was dressed like she might have been some rich man's mistress.)

"And if I had a Chinese husband, I would have a terrible mother-in-law to control and criticize me for everything. The American's family loves me." (That's me, "The American," serving at that moment as a stand-in for an entire nation. One gets that a lot, living here.)

Then she started in on the beatings. "A Chinese husband would hit me," she said. "Foreigners don't beat their wives."

That's painting with a pretty broad stroke, I realize, but beatings are nowhere near as prevalent or as accepted in America as they are in China.

Once when I first got to China I saw a man and a woman engaged in a very violent shouting match while the man was dragging the woman somewhere, clearly against her will. I asked my companions, students of mine, why someone doesn't go fetch the police to calm the situation down before it becomes real violence. "If the police saw," one of the students explained, "they would just assume they are married." Period, end of story, as if "they're married" explains and validates violence, carte blanche.

Back on the light rail, the old woman who'd unwittingly launched Ma Lei's tirade had gone from squirming uncomfortably to laughing good-naturedly. As we got off at our stop, the woman gave me a big, genuine smile and a thumbs-up. Ma Lei has an uncanny knack for upbraiding people in long rants that are so over-the-top that their recipients can only laugh. This she does when she isn't too angry at the person who's set her off. Other times, it's a different story.

A few weeks ago at a bus stop a middle-aged, swaggering man challenged her directly: "How dare you go with a foreigner when there are Chinese men who can't find wives?" This time, a humorless fire lit in her eyes, and the man instantly startled. Ma Lei pointed to his fat, featureless belly, which was exposed under a dirty shirt that had been rolled up to his chest, a common practice among Chinese men during the hot months. "You're so polite," she said sarcastically, "I definitely want a Chinese man so he can spit on the sidewalk and piss in public and disrespect my family." Then she used a Chinese expression that I can never remember, but I know it when I hear it, basically meaning "go fuck yourself."

That man was not laughing, smiling, or giving me the thumbs-up when we got on our bus.

The really absurd thing is that Ma Lei is not a foreigner-chaser like some Chinese women. She knows she's painting the Chinese with a broad brush in these moments, just as she is foreigners. Her own little brother, for example, is a great kid and a real catch for his new wife. If Ma Lei had met a good Chinese man, she would undoubtedly chosen him over a foreigner. Chinese men are seemingly binary: the good ones are moral heroes, great friends, trustworthy partners, and honest husbands; the bad ones are the antithesis. The trouble is, there are precious few of the former and far too many of the latter.

China is notoriously facing a shortage of women relative to men, but China's deeper problem is the opposite: there are far too few good men in this country.

The men of China are largely reacting to the growing shortage of women in their characteristic way. Rather than think logically and adapt themselves and their culture to the changing circumstances, they do the opposite. They withdraw within themselves, become increasingly macho and authoritarian, and try to apply coercion to the situation by shaming and assaulting women who don't comply. Then — again in characteristic fashion — they raid nearby countries for their women.

Then there's Ma Lei, waiting to put them in their place if they dare breathe the wrong sort of word to her. And I'll be there laughing, loving the show, and taking notes.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Two Dead Guys on the Road

On my way in to turn in my final grades, traffic was in a deadly snarl — literally. It was so tangled up, I couldn't even slide my bike between cars. If you've never seen a Chinese traffic jam, it's like some demonic Tetris board, cars jammed in together pointing in every direction.

When I finally crept to the front of the jumble, I saw not one but two dead pedestrians in the middle of the road. The car that had seemingly hit them had stopped right there (which is the norm in China), and a crowd had gathered to stand and stare at the dead guys while traffic snarled in both directions.

I didn't stop to look very closely, but they appeared to be dressed like the thousands of migrant workers currently sprouting up giant apartment buildings everywhere in the district where I live. I was running late to get my grades in, so I continued on up the hill as quickly as I could.

Other than at funerals, where it's more or less expected that one will see a dead person, I had seen perhaps two or three corpses in the first 39 years of life. Then I moved to China and in a little more than four years I've seen a dozen or more.

I saw one on a gurney in the lobby of the Dalian Medical University hospital. ("Welcome to the hospital. This could happen to you!") I saw one from a bus window in Shenyang, freshly hit by a car. I've seen several by roadside, probably traffic fatalities. I saw one migrant worker who'd been killed in a brawl by another migrant worker, who was dancing like a proud ape over his stilled coworker, bragging about his exploits to a growing crowd.

My joke is that in China, Rule #1 is: There are too many of you.

I came back through the same snarled traffic perhaps 45 minutes later. The traffic jam was still there, the onlookers were still there, two giant fire trucks were there, I don't know why. But the bodies had been removed.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Yesterday, I decided to make a nice little tomato/onion/egg curry, but I didn't have turmeric. It's not exactly common in this part of China. I figured, however, that my curry past probably contained turmeric, so I just kind of doubled the amount of curry paste the recipe called for. (I didn't do it just for the turmeric; I also happen to love the taste of spicy curry.)

The result was fantastic, but enormously too hot for human consumption. I love it! (I tell Ma Lei that if I'm crying while I eat, I'm happy.)

She came in and wanted a taste of what I'd made. I told her it was a little warm, but I guess I sort of forgot that she's not as much a fan of the hot as I am. She tasted it, moved it around in her mouth, pronounced it really delicious — and then the napalm effect began to grow, and grow. She drank some Diet Coke to cut the pain, then left the room. A minute later she came back into my office to hit me on the shoulder really hard.

I said "Hey! That hurt." She pointed to her mouth and said "so does this!"

In culinary terms, I really should have gone to spicy Sichuan, in the far southwest of China, rather than meat-and-potatoes Dalian in the far northeast. They eat a lot of white rice in both places, but for very different reasons. In Sichuan, they eat it to quell the agony of red-pepper fire; in Dalian, they eat it because they think white rice tastes good.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Just last week, I had lunch with a very well-dressed North Korean guy who was super-nice. We'd met over lunch the week before, and he was very interested to meet a native English-speaker.

When I'd told him I was American, though, he was visibly deflated. "I can't be your friend very much," he said, "because our countries are enemies."

Nevertheless, he invited me to lunch at a fantastic spring roll restaurant near his university. I rolled in on my bike a minute late, to find him waiting for me in the traffic circle. I was sweaty and dressed in lycra; he was clean and dressed in a tuxedo shirt with brilliantly-pressed trousers.

The last time I met a North Korean was on a bullet train from Shenyang to Beijing, when this guy with his Chinese business partner accosted me and my then-girlfriend with friendly hellos. He'd been born in North Korea, he explained to us in quite adequate English, to ambassador parents who'd brought him to various African nations during his youth. In adulthood, he'd been living in China for 14+ years, so he presumably had see at least some world news.

That guy seemed very normal, but he turned out to be — in technical psychological terms — bat-shit crazy.

The second we climbed onto the bullet train, he pulled me to the food/beer car at the front, along with his Chinese business partner. My American girlfriend at the time didn't care to join us, so she stayed back in the train car missing all the fun.

Upon our arrival at the front  car, my Korean friend spent three increasingly drunken hours (he was an enthusiastic but unskilled beer drinker) explaining to me, 1) how America and North Korea should be friends; 2) how North Korea is planning to make war against China; then, 3) how North Korea would actually win that war, because 4) Kim Jung Il (who was still alive at that time) had personally invented a nuclear fusion device that would kill all 1.3 billion Chinese at a stroke; and 4) if only the fucking United States (his expression) and the fucking China (also his expression) would allow them to do so, the North Koreans would prove to the world that they had the most efficient and productive system. And then, 5) North Korea will nuke the whole United States with one single bomb that Kim Jong Il personally invented and that can kill all people in North America at a stroke.

As George Will might say... Well!

Let me remind you, that man had lived 14+ years in China, where he presumably had some access to world news, unlike in North Korea. That didn't help.

In the past three years or so, I've encountered not one North Korean who led me to believe that bat-shit-crazy was anything but the norm in their country. So when my nattily-dressed lunch partner confessed to being from that country, I was skeptical. But he seemed to be very nice, and his English was barely peccible, so I agreed to join him for lunch.

Within minutes, significantly before any of our food had arrived, my friend accosted me about America's attitude towards North Korea. "What do you think about my country?"

Fuck, man! I don't want to talk about your bat-shit crazy country. I want a damned spring roll. But okay, I for some reason, in a moment of weakness, agreed to this lunch, so here I am.

I told him, as I tell taxi drivers who want to know about America's relationship with Japan, that this is ultimately none of my business and I'd rather know about their feelings. That's more interesting to me.

"You are American, you like having a gun, right?" He asked me, a first since I'd been in Asia. Of course I had to say yeah, though I don't personally own guns I like the idea of them. "If you are North Korea, don't you want to own gun?"

You know, there were a whole lot of things I could have said at that point. I could have pointed out that communism is a ridiculous way to respond to the economic tensions of modernity; I could have told him that absorption into China would work better than crazy foreign policy; I could have told him that his nation's leaders should be locked into loony bins. However, I backed away from all of those possible answers, because none of them would have been particularly fruitful for me.

Instead, I just nodded and said "yeah."

The spring rolls at this restaurant, by the way, were extraordinarily good. I'd almost have promised world peace for another plate of tofu skins with green onions draped across the top, with barbecued pork strips. Ah! God, if you've not had that experience, you need to get to an Asian restaurant where they serve true spring rolls. It will make your life worthwhile.

My friend's Chinese friend, a skinny little guy in a gay pink shirt, begged off from lunch quickly. He is apparently involved in import/export business, and hence is essential to the business my Korean friend is engaged in.

At the end of lunch, with the Korean guy paid for — 230 rmb, akin to perhaps a $100 dinner back in the States — my new "friend" asked me to put him in touch with someone from England or Australia or New Zealand. "I want to work on my English," he explained, "but I can't be friends with an American when you are my country's enemy.

Well, that's sweet of you... Ahem... I'll try really hard to rustle up a friend for you who won't be an offensive American, because you're too loyal to your bat-shit crazy leadership to be friends with an American. Yeah! Tcheah.

The guy was really nice, so I'm going to give him a text message in a week or so and ask him to join me for lunch on my tab. If he can't do it, then that's on his nationalistic bullshit, and I don't really need to introduce him to a Canadian friend.

Monday, May 27, 2013

After a shockingly bad performance in my Chinese tutorial last Thursday, I've finally had time to hit the books again. 

And by "shockingly bad," I mean if it had been a quiz, I'd have gotten maybe 2 out of 10. Not for the vocabulary, because I did okay on that part. But the grammar — of which I've been assured China has none — I got almost completely wrong. "Choose a suitable word for each blank," where the two words are lao and jiu, two Chinese words for "old." Less than 50% right. "Read the following dialogue and answer true or false." Right at 50% right. "Answer the following blindingly easy questions about the dialogue." 100% wrong. (Okay, the instructions didn't say "blindingly easy." I interpolated that part.)

And of course, in the middle of a performance like that, the badness just gains momentum. By the end of it, I couldn't remember simple sentence structures. (Should it be jin tian xue zhe bu hao, or jin tian bu xue zhe hao? Or are both of those wrong?) I felt like Descartes after the evil demon but before the cogito.

One nice thing about studying Chinese. It makes me a lot more sympathetic to my struggling students in English class!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Interrogation

Yesterday, Ma Lei was out with the dogs when an elderly neighbor approached her, friendly-like, to ask about the dogs. "Is that Mimi?" She asked. People always remember the white-haired dog, with her tresses long like snowy silk. I prefer Qizai, the black-and-white papillon dog with inquisitive butterfly ears, but shallow Chinese think pure white is automatically more attractive than mixed black and white.

The old woman, whom Ma Lei didn't know, told her she'd seen "your boyfriend" out with the dogs. Though that might seem like an innocent mistake, Ma Lei's fierce indignancy was instantly activated.

When a Chinese person, especially of the unworldly class (including all of the elder generation and the rural population, as well as many others), sees a foreign man with a Chinese woman, she makes many assumptions. None of them are good, but the worse burden of those assumptions is borne by the Chinese woman. The foreign man isn't seen with great moral admiration, but nothing like the low status of his Chinese partner.

When the man is my age and carries himself with an air of prosperity or  class, chief among these assumptions is that he's surely got a wife and family in his foreign country. The Chinese woman is surely the foreigner's xiao san — "little #3" — i.e., mistress. 

But "mistress" doesn't fully capture it, because this type of mistress expects payment for her regular love-service, and for the fact that she is forgoing her own family prospects and completely losing "face" with her own family and friends. Hence, xiao san is really a species of prostitute, albeit a long-term, single-customer prostitute. 

Automatically assuming that Ma Lei is my xiao san implies a not-very-flattering view of this woman's fellow Chinese woman, but that's how it is in this country. China, like all collectivist societies, carves its people into disharmonious factions who struggle for money and social status. Then they pile on the propaganda about "social harmony," hoping to avoid the inevitable consequences of their own socially-corrosive collectivism.

Ma Lei quickly corrected the woman: "He's not my boyfriend, he's my husband. We married almost a year ago."

The old woman's crocodile smile didn't break a bit as she responded, "Oh, how come he didn't take you to America to meet his parents?" 

Note: Ma Lei hadn't told the woman that I haven't taken her to America, as in fact I have. The woman assumed it, because of course I haven't, because of course I'm hiding my Chinese wife from my American family.

Ma Lei, hating it, smiled just as broadly as the old woman. She told her "he did take me to America for more than two months at New Year time. His parents had already come over to China for our wedding, so I knew them well."

The old woman was adroit. She found the next vulnerability, and complimented Ma Lei on her English. That might be a legitimate compliment, but in this context it was a stab at her as a traitor. 

Ma Lei responded that she has no English. "My husband speaks excellent Chinese," she exaggerated.

"Oh, that's great," the woman came back. "Did he buy you a condo?"

Damn! This woman was fuckin' good!

To the uninitiated, this seems like an innocuous question, indeed an irrelevant one. To the Chinese, however, it's a twist of the knife. You see, it's the mark of a well-intentioned husband that he buy a home for his fiancĂ© before they tie the knot. Without your own home, however humble it may be, to the Chinese you are not tied down; not grounded; not real. You could take off at any moment, leaving your wife and presumably your children destitute. Pianzi — "faker" — is the term for a man who tries to get a woman to marry him without first buying his own home. Sadly, there have been more than a few pianzi in this country.

Ma Lei feels the cultural impetus to buy a condo as well, and many times she has tried to convince me to do so. It's not that she doesn't trust me — her trust in me has been tested too many times for me to doubt it — but she would feel more viscerally stable if we were living in our own condo. Not to mention, in her very Chinese way she sees only two things as valid stores of value: bank deposits and real estate.

It doesn't make good financial sense to buy a condo, though, because I don't know how long I'm going to be in Dalian. I don't have much confidence in the Chinese real estate market, but it's impossible to convince a Chinese person that housing prices could tumble here as they've tumbled in the States. I haven't convinced Ma Lei of any of these concerns, so we're in a state of truce on the issue of buying a condo. Fortunately, she owns her own condo out in the Development Zone, so she doesn't feel rootless.

Ma Lei's standard answer to strangers' questions about why we haven't bought our condo is that we will probably be going to America soon, and anyway she already owns her apartment in the Development Zone. That makes people shut up, but it doesn't make them agree. She knows, and is maddened by the fact that, people talk about her behind her back. She's the dumb Chinese xiao san whose foreign boyfriend won't even buy her a home, and whose ill-intentions are made conclusive by the fact that...

"Your husband is very handsome," said the old woman slyly. "You would have a  very beautiful baby."

Beautiful babies are the summum bonum for the Chinese. Not "intelligent babies," though excelling at studies is also essential to the Chinese. The Chinese still assume that beauty is a sign of virtue and future success, and they also believe that Chinese/Western hybrids are automatically more beautiful than uniracial babies.

Ma Lei accepted the compliment, knowing the hammer would fall: "Why haven't you gotten pregnant yet?"

That's a clincher for traditional Chinese people. We've been married for almost a year, yet Ma Lei isn't pregnant, as far as we know. To most Chinese elders, that's inconceivable (so to speak). What's the point of getting married, if you're not going to start popping out puppies?

Then the woman truly nailed it, when she asked Ma Lei whether I, or my mother, would demand a divorce if Ma Lei "can't give me a baby." And by the way, like the wives of Henry III, that imperative mostly demands a male baby.

Let's pull back and note the progression here, all of it connoted by indirection, none of it denoted by direct assertions.

First: Hello, Ma Lei, allow me to introduce myself and tell you I think you're a whore.

Second: Oh, you think he doesn't have an American family, what a pity you're so deluded.

Third: It's a shame that your husband doesn't care to take care of you in the only reasonable way, by buying you a condo.

Fourth: in two mutually-exclusive parts. A) If none of the rest of this has convinced you that your husband is a pianzi, the fact that he hasn't given you a baby proves that he is. B) Your husband will surely dump you like yesterday's trash if you can't give him a baby.

We foreign teachers sometimes bitch about our Chinese students, because they seem to have no ability at logical thinking. On the contrary, I think, the rank-and-file Chinese have an acute facility for a certain type of highly corrosive reasoning. It's a form of reasoning with a foregone conclusion, such as "Foreign men are evil," which seems to have been supported by some degree of evidence, whether or not it integrates with all the relevant evidence. If it fails to fit, then the evidence must be adjusted, perhaps repeatedly, to fit with the foregone conclusion.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Little altercations

Here's a story I'd planned to blog about when it happened, but I never got around to it.

Several weeks ago I took a taxi in to work on a fine Monday morning, one of the first beautiful ones of the spring. The cabbie was in a good mood, and we spent the ride chatting away about the weather, traffic, recent changes in Dalian, etc. 

As we approached my destination, the driver finally got around to asking me what country I'm from. I told him America, and his demeanor completely changed. He suddenly started using some words I don't know. (I mean that literally, not being coy: I don't know the swear words in Chinese.) He shouted something to the effect of "You bastards are the ones protecting the F*ing Japanese! Get the hell out of my car!"

Well, as it happened it was time for me to do that anyway, but as I handed him my money I took the time to point out to him that it's the US *government*, not the people, backing the Japanese government. I don't give a jot whether the islands end up in China's hands or Japan's.

My argument didn't mollify him very much. As he took my money and drove off, he was still insisting that China should kill both Japan and the US.

I know that anti-Americanism is rising here because of the tussle with Japan, but I seldom see it reach that feverish level. I don't think it's quite time to invest in a Canadian flag lapel pin, but that time could come very quickly if the conflict ever goes "kinetic," as the military guys say.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Ma Lei's parents watched her little doglets while were in America, and on the strength of that experience they, who had never particularly cared for critters that wouldn't eventually end up on their plates, decided it would be nice to get a dog. They recently acquired one who, I am told, bears a passing resemblance to QiZai, our sweet yet problematic black-faced papillon.

Ma Lei's father wanted to name the dog DuoDuo, a very common name for dogs in China, which I think means something like "much aplenty." (I haven't seen it written out, but I assume that's the Chinese meaning. One can't really know until one sees the characters.)

The trouble is, "DuoDuo" is pronounced exactly like "Dodo," as in "dodo bird." I had laughingly explained this to Ma Lei after the second or third "DuoDuo" dog we'd met, and I showed her the pictures of dodo birds, and let her look up the various Chinese websites that explained in great detail the tremendously stupid demise of the dodo bird.

As it turns out, that name might have been appropriate. The dog seems not to be among the brightest of the species.

One day last week, he got into a cabinet where Ma Lei's parents store food. He set to work lapping up a huge bowl of oil, apparently failing to realize that the oil was infused with hot red peppers. By the time they found him, he'd drunk probably a pint of the stuff, and he only realized it was deadly-hot AFTER they'd chased him away. He spent the better part of an evening writhing around on the ground, coughing and hacking.

But the DuoDuo name was secured in my mind about two days later. On that day, Ma Lei's mother was cooking on their giant wok, which is fueled in the standard way, by a fire-chamber filled with flaming corn stalks  underneath the wok.

The dog apparently saw her feeding corn into the little door to the fire chamber, so he figured there must be something really interesting in there. While she wasn't looking, he bounded in eagerly, before he discovered he was in a fire chamber.

The dog bolted out, his face black as coal, his whiskers singed down to little melted nothings, his eyes wild and dumbly frightened.

Now herein lies the cultural difference. I responded to these two stories by saying the dog should definitely be called DuoDuo, but Ma Lei had the opposite reaction. "If you give someone a name," she said, "that will make it so." She went on to explain that if someone has a tendency to stupidity, you must give that person a name that implies intelligence. If a person is unhealthy, you must give him a name that implies health.

So a dumbass dog canNOT, under any circumstances, be given a dumbass name. This is not because it's impolite, or because the dog will lose face, or any of those other things one might expect about Chinese culture. But rather, at a metaphysical level, giving a stupid dog a name suitable for stupidity will cause him to be stupid.

This is why I love being here. On a philosophical level, I come to understand so many things that I could not possible have imagined back in America!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On first read, I thought this article must be fake, because there's no way a Chinese official would go so far "off the reservation" as to say religion can be a force for good in China. However, one must understand the Chinese art of rhetoric. In any controversial issue, the Chinese typically lead with what a nod to they DON'T believe, as a way to be polite, and to disarm opposition.

In essay-writing, it's considered rude — almost barbaric — to have a clear thesis statement and defend it in a linear way. Rather, polite Chinese writers circle around an issue within the envelope of acceptable beliefs, occasionally nudging gently in one direction, and the reader is expected to figure out the author's thesis by understanding those elegant little deviations from standard views.

It is true, as I've seen in my teaching, that more Chinese are thinking about religion than I had expected before I came here. My wife's 94 year-old grandfather is a devout Christian who scratches out long passages from the Bible in beautiful Chinese characters on any scrap of paper or cardboard he can find. Many Chinese students seek out Westerners for information about Christianity, while others are turning to such traditionally Chinese belief systems as Taoism and Buddhism. Islam is strong in China's western provinces, and the guys who run the barbecue stands on sidewalks all over Dalian are mostly Muslims from those areas. (Supposedly, though, their version of Islam is very relaxed, and only the government's suppression has led them to become more overt about their religious identity. I don't know for sure about that.)

In sum, religion is on the rise in this country. So why? And what does Minister Wang intend to tell us about it?

The question of Chinese modernity has been: what went wrong? How did China fall so far from its position at the zenith of human culture, which it held through most of its history?

While I personally view the lack of religious belief as one of China's strengths, I can't fault a young Chinese student for thinking perhaps this is what brought China down. This is a common view among those who are turning to Christianity for answers.

Others complain that China under Mao lost its way. The old Chinese value systems were destroyed, traditional culture cannibalized. Thus I have a number of students who have turned to Taoism and Buddhism to form their value-identities.

Note also that the Minister's comments dealt with religion and superstition. Religion, per se, does not entail superstition. What the Minister was cautioning against was superstition, and I actually tend to agree.

All religions involve some form or other of superstition ("this wafer will turn into the body of Christ," or "I believe a man 2000 years ago walked on water"), but a particular religious believer may not have integrated that superstitious belief into his or her thinking. They may be very rational/scientific all week long, then they go into Church on Sunday and talk about a guy walking on water, and that's just a fun story to them. They don't really think in superstitious terms on a daily basis.

So I would say that, although the West is the seat of Christianity, and Americans in particular are largely religious, superstition is very low in the West. In China, on the other hand, superstition is quite normal even as overt religious belief is small. So if I were somehow to be named head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, what would I do? Probably much the same as Wang Zaoan.

Superstition is rife here, without any particular religious basis.

As I've mentioned before, the germ theory of disease has not penetrated the Chinese day-to-day thought process. If you get sick to your stomach, the Chinese are likely to tell you it's because you drank cold water. If you catch a cold, it's because you slept with the window open.

On the other hand, it's completely normal for someone to make a giant, demonstrative HOAWRCH sound and spit a massive loogie on the sidewalk. It's completely normal for someone to cough, open-mouthed, right out into your face while you're in a public space. It's perfectly normal for someone to sneeze on you. Some people might object, but their objection is seen as being in terms of wen ming — politeness — not the potential for deadly infection.

And yet, when there's a limited outbreak of disease, such as the last couple of bird-flu outbreaks, the Chinese collapse into paranoid solipsism.

Once, when I'd first come to China, I traveled with what I now recognize as a foolish level of unpreparedness — I'd planned to book hotels along the way, which is not usually possible in China at holiday time — but I lucked out, because there was an outbreak of some form of the sniffles which kept the Chinese cloistered in their family homes. In fact, I got some of the best deals I've ever seen on Chinese hotels and travel packages.

So when the government spokesperson in charge of religion says religion "could be a force for good in... China," take that as his initial sop to the religious among his audience. He doesn't really mean that religion could be a force for good, he means that he doesn't plan to crack down on religion at this moment.

Then when he says specifically that the government needs to help people "scientifically" deal with "birth, aging, sickness and death, as well as fortune and misfortune" he's naming precisely those areas in which the Chinese public are the most superstitious.

People will tell you straight-out that if you want to have a boy child (which all Chinese do), you should conceive on this-or-that-day of this-or-that month. If you were born in the year of the this-and-that, you will live to be 100. If you were unlucky this year, it's because you got married on an inauspicious date. Etc.

Note that the foreign reporter immediately wanted to "cut to the chase," such as "what happens after the exiled spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism the Dalai Lama dies, testy relations with the Vatican, or controls of Muslims in the restive Xinjiang region in the west." But to the Chinese, these are stupid and impertinent questions. They don't cover what matters. What matters is that the official in charge of religion has reassured the people that they can follow their religion (as long as it's officially sanctioned), and he has warned people about superstition.

So here's a classic case of "East meets West." The Chinese haven't yet quite gathered the nerve to tell us foreigners to F' off, but they're just about ready to do so.