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.