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.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Yang and Yan

Had a little quasi-fight with Ma Lei today — probably our first one, depending on how you count.

We went to a fantastic little restaurant down the hill from us, where they serve beautiful lamb dishes of all sorts (yang rou, meaning "lamb meat"). The gist of it is this phenomenal soup of lamb, with various lamb bits (including fresh congealed blood, which is much better than it sounds). Then on the side, you can order yang rou pai,  which I think translates as "breast of lamb." It's pan-fried delicately, along with garlic and green onions, and it's truly worth dying ten years early just to get a dinner or two of that type of lamb. The combined bill, for the two of us, typically comes to about $5.

Therein, I think, also lies the problem, because that kind of cheap restaurant is where the ruffians go with their countryside manners (or lack thereof).

So we'd no more than sat down, RIGHT NEXT to the "Please do not smoke" sign (written in Chinese, of course), when the table next to us all lit up like West, Texas. I tried to be polite, but when our food came all I could taste was the nasty cigarette stench from my left flank.

I went over and asked them, to Ma Lei's great embarrassment, if they could please defray their cigarette smoking. I told them I'm a weak foreigner, so my lungs aren't as strong as Chinese lungs, and they all smiled and put out their cigs. Later, I tried to buy them a round of beers, but Ma Lei put the kibosh on that. It would have cost a combined six dollars, more than our combined tab for lamb soup and a side of lamb breast.

Those guys shut off their chimneys, and I was absolutely loving our dinner for fifteen minutes or so. Ma Lei had suggested I buy a Qingtao beer, which goes especially well with lamb meat, and the soup and the breast meat were out of this world!

Then a table near the window, at Ma Lei's 5:00, all lit up. It's a small, enclosed space, and I couldn't avoid the disgusting gutter stench of the stuff, not to mention my asthmatic lungs sending "please run away" signals to my brain.

I'd had enough, by that point, so I was okay with leaving Ma Lei money for the bill while I fled for cleaner air. I took my half-bottle of beer over to the smoking table and told them it was my gift to them. I went outside and waited for Ma Lei.

She came out a minute or two later, livid. "Why did you do that?"

I told her that I couldn't take being there with all that smoke, and I didn't want to waste my half-beer. She didn't buy that for a second. "You should have just taken it to the trash," she said.

"This is a cheap restaurant. They aren't supposed to be polite, they're poor. If I'd done something like that in America, what would you have said?"

Well, she wouldn't have done something like that in America, because we didn't go to any such low-rent joints. And if she had, and she'd bitched someone out for being impolite, I'd have been right there with her egging her on. But I don't think that exactly flew. "China is not America," she said in a huff, "and you can go back there if you don't like it here."

And you know, I can't actually argue with her on that one. I love my life here, I love how much I can buy with my relatively low-end salary, and I'm amazed at the cultural experiences I get. So really, I ought to drink in my bile and shut the hell up. But don't tell my wife that, because to her I swore that I had been 100% in the right!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Cynicism in China

I was discussing some issues about Chinese students coming to America, with a friend of mine from the States who works at a major American university. As I wrote out my email to my friend, I realized that I'd adopted the same cynical assumptions about my students that they have about each other, and about their own local institutions.

As an American, I think the best thing our country brought to the world was idealism — not to mention the contents of our ideals, such as individual rights and freedom of expression — so I'm alarmed to find my own idealistic view of humanity tainted and fading.

Please, students, come forward and remind me of your unsophisticated and non-manipulative passion for studies. Even if you can't do philosophy, you don't know the history of China's exploitation of foreign countries, you don't know the first thing about subtle literary analysis — at least, just remind me of how fresh and open you can be.

Your bosses (which basically means everyone who used to be you, until they got thrust unprotected into the vicious world of Chinese business), will all be crass and evil monsters. But for now, while you're wearing little sweatshirts with bunnies and panda-bears stitched into them, you can be sweet and safe and protected, and I can help you develop yourself as much as is possible in this country's educational system.

And oh, God, how I wish I could send you all to study in America, where your naive innocence could be — not exactly preserved, but also not completely shattered by the evil of life around you. It is still possible in my country, I think, for a good person to live a good life and receive a good living for it, without too many evil hawks and vultures plucking it from him. In China, I'm sorry, the hawks and vultures win.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Apartment-buying drama

Ma Lei's orphaned cousin, who was raised by their grandfather, recently bought an apartment and got married. This was really something, as he's even younger than Little Brother, and as far as I can tell his job's not as good. Everyone but Ma Lei likes his new wife. I haven't met her, so I haven't got an opinion, other than that Ma Lei is usually right about people.

It's been almost a year since he bought the apartment, and it should be ready for him to pick up the keys and start finishing the interior soon. (Recall that Chinese apartments do not come finished, so one typically spends six months after getting the keys waiting for plumbers, drywall hangers, electricians, etc. — or doing the work oneself.) He's paid a chunk of money to the local government for the property taxes, but now there's some hangup with the loan. The builder came to at least several of the buyers, wanting money that normally would have been paid by the bank. Ma Lei doesn't know what's wrong, but she's worried that the builder is not on the up-and-up.

So her grandfather just gave the kid about $2,300 — a lot of money for him — for the builder. Ma Lei was livid that the kid asked their grandfather for help, and livid that he would give money when he shouldn't have done so. It's possible that he just spent both his own savings and a huge chunk of their grandfather's savings on what will turn out to be a scam.

Apparently, too, the kid's wife comes from a family that's loaded. This makes Ma Lei even more angry. Why on earth is the kid begging money from their grandfather, who didn't even have a decent belt to hold up his pants until we gave him one, rather than asking her parents to help them out.

Life inside a Chinese family: always interesting!

The Return of Cao Dan

Last weekend we went to the family house for the tomb-sweeping holiday. Guess who was there, with a big, brave smile on her face? Little Brother's girlfriend, Cao Dan. I have to give both of them some credit for courage, because it can't have been an easy weekend for either of them. 

Ma Lei's father gave Little Brother a major tongue-lashing, which Ma Lei summarized to me as: "Men should be like shi tou (rocks), not like mian tiaor (cooked noodles)." Later, after a bit of biajiu, he gave a long speech to the girlfriend, which Ma Lei did not translate for me. 

There is not going to be any transfer of money, at least not anything above a level Ma Lei regards as appropriate. It's fine with her if our family gives a couple thousand bucks for a ring and wedding dress, because that's considered tradition, but any gift to the bride's parents is right straight out of the question. 

Nevertheless, everyone still sees lots of trouble ahead. If that woman's parents have been this much trouble already, they will only get worse later. 

I've seen enough of aging, greedy Chinese women to know that they're capable of anything. Hell, young and greedy ones will do things that make your jaw drop, but they're at least statistically more likely to be trustworthy. 

Old Chinese women are 99% likely to be con-women.

I don't think Cao Dan is to blame for her family's grabbiness. She seems to be a pure dope, having been groomed by them to be nice and cheery and ingenuous. She's never had responsibility for a choice in her life, so it is — I guess — kind of admirable that she's stayed with Didi and his poor family even when her family tried to sell her to a higher bidder.

So we all made nice with Cao Dan, Ma Lei most of all. Me, second-most of all. None of us except Father could express anything other than regular, normal, we're-treating-you-as-one-of-the-family behavior, because it is his prerogative, alone, to speak the unspeakable. He's perhaps a bit like the chorus in a Greek drama.

As the "wise" university professor and the has-an-excuse-to-be-rude foreigner in the family, I could perhaps voice an opinion, but I'd rather do so only when it's important to do so. This time, I mostly agreed with what I assumed Father was saying, though probably not with as much emphasis as he gave it. I've tried to give Didi (Little Brother) a hand up whenever I could, but on this one I don't think I could have helped.

The week before, I'd bought an apartmentful of stuff from my friend Dawn, who was departing from our university in a very quick huff. One thing she had, I cared about deeply: a ten-inch-deep memory-foam mattress pad, to make my nights comfortable. The Chinese believe that it's "good for health" to sleep on bricks, but it hasn't proven good for mine.

Most of the things I'd paid for, though, were really intended for Didi. There was an entire set of color-coordinated plates and dishes, a box of beautiful glasses, a whole pile of Ikea silverware, a super-comfortable desk chair, and a massive toolbox filled with brand-new high-quality equipment. That toolbox would have been pretty nice to have, and I'd have enjoyed those plates and dishes, not to mention the desk chair, but I preferred that they go to him for his brand-new apartment.

I didn't exactly want them to go to Cao Dan and her hungry-rich family.

The other night, I had a nightmare in which I was buying things at a very high premium, and it was way too much for any of my combined accounts, and yet I kept buying and trying to balance things among accounts. As soon as I bought something, Didi and Cao Dan were there to take them away and ask me for something else.

Within a day, Ma Lei woke me with basically the same nightmare.

I'm with Ma Lei. It's great for us to do nice things for her parents, as we have, but we don't need to become the support network for a whole family of hangers-on. Especially, if Didi wants to stay with Cao Dan and funnel our money to her vampiric family.