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.

RG

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.