You’ve Just Come Back

When I rode up to my apartment building on my bycicyle this afternoon, the security guard smiled and greeted me, "You’ve just come back," he said.  "I’ve just come back," I replied.  That was it.  I chuckled and though of how it is such a typical exchange in China.  You see, the Chinese language has this interesting discursive feature, what I like to term "stating the obvious." No, you won’t find it in any language texts or linguistic treatises, but it’s a staple  of discourse here nonetheless.

Chinese greetings often involve making a comment about something that the other person is doing.  Thus, it is not uncommon, should you meet someone you know on the stairs, for him/her to smile and say to you, "you’re walking up the stairs."  The polite response in this situation is NOT (as is tempting) "well, duh…obviously I’m walking up the stairs."  Rather, it is to smile, nod, and restate the obvious comments:  "Walking up the stairs."

When I first came to China I encountered this phenomenon with my students.  (Keep in mind that I didn’t speak or understand any Chinese then, so conversations were always in English). My students would see me walking in the front gate of the campus with an arm full of groceries and emphatically state: "Teacher, you have been grocery shopping!"  This exchange being in English, it didn’t make any sense to me, and I nearly bit my tongue bloody to prevent from blurting out, "Of course I’ve been grocery shopping!  Why else would I be carrying a bag of groceries??" Fortunately I never gave that response, but I do remember being perpetually puzzled because I really couldn’t figure out what I should be saying in response.  Let’s just say that up to that point nothing in my cultural or linguistic upbringing had prepared me for how to respond to such a statement without it dripping with sarcasm.

It wasn’t until I began studying Chinese a few years later  that I stumbled onto what was happening.  I found that in Chinese, people actually do greet one another with "obvious" statments about the other person.  It doesn’t sound strange when done in Chinese. Only when it gets translated into English is one thrown off balance linguistically!

Combines on the Third Ring

One of the great things about living in China is the unpredictability of things.  Quite frankly, you never know what you’re going to see, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, you see something else that makes you do a double-take and ask, "did I really see what I think I just saw?"

I’ve written this before, but one of the things I don’t like about life in the States is the dull predictability of it all.  We’ve so regulated our lives and made everything so uniform, that there are absolutely no surprises left anymore.  What a pity.

Well, here I am in the Middle Kingdom, and once again I saw something that made me chuckle.  Earlier this evening my teammate and I were in a cab on the Third Ring Road, on our way home from a run to IKEA.  We were chatting away about what I can’t remember, when both of us at the same time caught a glimpse of a strange vehicle up ahead.  As our taxi passed it, we got a good look at it, and at the same time said aloud, "A combine???   On the Third Ring Road????"  Mind you I’ve never seen a combine in a field in China, let alone on one of Beijing’s main arteries!  But the fun was only beginning.  There were, in fact three combines chugging along down the Third Ring Road!  On a Wednesday evening.  Where were they coming from?  Where were they going? Alas, we’ll never know!  Never mind.  We had a good chuckle.

Bingzi Walla

Bingzi_walla_1 Forgive me for mixing my languages.  Bingzi is a Chinese word for flat bread. Walla is Urdu for "man," as in someone who does something or sells something.  When I was growing up in Pakistan, there were all kinds of "wallas" in our life:  the fish walla, the meat walla, the vegetable walla, the fruit walla–all who either sold their goods in the market, or in some cases brought their wares directly to our homes.  I’ve always felt that English was missing something without a simliar word to "walla."  Maybe it’s because our society is now so geared towards everything being mass produced and mass distributed.  There was a time when we had a milk man, but not anymore. 

Anyway, Chinese doesn’t really have a great word either.  Just put the word "seller" onto what is being sold, and you’ve got it.  Fruit seller, meat seller.  But we have to be careful here, because for some unfathomable reason, the words for buy and sell in Chinese are homonyms.  Now if you can’t remember from 8th grade grammar class what a homonym is, I’ll tell you.  Homonyms are two words that sound the same, but have different meanings.  (meet/meat, red/read, for example).  The word for sell is mai, and the word for buy is mai, the only difference being in the tone used to pronounce the word.  But I digress…

We foreigners tend to put "lady" or "man" when we talk about the people we buy from.  Everyone, it seems, has their favorite "fruit lady," or "egg lady," or "yoghurt lady."

Ok, so what does this all have to do with the bingzi walla?  Well, I like the word "walla" so am using it to describe this man who runs his little business about 50 yards down the alley from the apartment complex where I live.  He and his wife are there everyday, with their rigged up oven to sell Henan-style "bingzi" to the migrant workers (mostly from Henan) who live in the nearby village.  The other day I stopped and bought a couple of bingzi from him.  It immediately took me back 20 years to when I first came to China and worked in Henan.  Those bingzi were my favorite discovery because they reminded me of the naan I’d enjoyed growing up in Pakistan.  So you see, it was only natural that I would refer to this man as the bingzi walla.

Now I like to stop at his stall on my way home and pick up a bingzi or two, take them home, and slather them with peanut butter!  Yum!

Note:  For those of you new to this site, please go to for entries prior to August 31, 2005, when I got stuck behind the Great Firewall of China!

Ren Shan Ren Hai

Ren shan ren hai is a Chinese 4 character idiom that means "a mountain of people, and an ocean of people."  In other words, lots of people.  And lots of people is something that this country has!  Whenever I’m engaged in a conversation with a Chinese friend (or stranger, such as a taxi driver) about some social problem that China has, the conversation will invariably end with the Chinese person sucking his/her teeth (a non-verbal that signals that there is a problem) and saying "there are too many people in China."  It always seems to come down to that.

The idiom is a good expression to describe the amount of people here, especially the ocean part.  Crowds here are like water.  Block it in one place, and it will spill over into another place.  Remove the block, and it will flow right back where it was in the first place.  People management here operates on the same principle.  Block the crowd here and it will go there.  Chase the people off here, but as soon as you’re going, they’ll be back.  There are just too many.

I saw this played out in an interesting way yesterday, as I was riding my bike home from work.  The most direct route these days takes me through a highway construction site.  Yes, the workers try to put up barriers to keep the pedestrians an cyclers from crossing, but the barriers don’t last minutes before they are taken down.  Eventually the workers give up and sort of mark a path across the site.

Once I leave the construction site I have to cross a pedestrian bridge that spans a canal.  In the past few weeks, this bridge has become a magnet for vegetable peddlars, who show up to spread their wares to sell to the passers-by.  They are here mostly likely because they were chased out of some other location.  Each new day there seemed to be new peddlars, so by the time Thursday rolled around, it was almost impossible to get across the bridge.

As I was approaching the bridge yesterday, I noticed several police cars parked on either side of the canal, and a squad of officers heading onto the bridge.  They swept across the bridge, confiscating everything in sight–cucumbers, potatoes, radishes, everything that was being sold.  As the peddlars saw them coming, some tried to pack up and run, but that was useless since the cops were stationed at both ends of the bridge.  I kept on riding my bike through, because I was in a hurry to get home, and I wanted to get a closer look at what was going on.  I had my camera with me, and desparately wanted to take some photos but dared not.  The cops were definitely in a confiscating mood, and I didn’t want my brand new camera to get scooped up as well.  I thought about riding down the canal and shooting from a distance with my telephoto, but had noticed a cop filming the whole thing.  The last thing I wanted was for him to film me filming them.  I watched for awhile, then rode away thinking that the next time I ride across the bridge it will be calm and peaceful.

As it turned out, the next time I rode across the bridge was only a couple of hours later when I was going to meet some friends for dinner.  I got to the bridge on my side of the canal and, lo and behold, all the peddlars were back, sitting in exactly the same spots they had been when the cops swept through.  They were smiling, talking, and doing business, as if nothing had happened!

I thought of a stick put across a small stream of water.  It can block it for awhile, but as soon as it leaves, the water just keeps on going, as if nothing had happened.   That’s what crowds are like in China!

Vinegar, Anyone?

I took a little jaunt this weekend to Shanxi Province to visit some friends in a city called Yuci.  Like most cities in north China, it is connected to Beijing by rail, and getting there is an easy overnight train ride.  We pull out at 9:40PM and arrive at 6:20AM.  Get on, sleep, get up and off!  It’s that simple.  A short enough time that, if you don’t drink anything, you can even manage to get through the entire trip without having to make a trip to the toilet, something that is becoming increasingly important to me as my rickety knees become more and more rickety!

This wasn’t my first visit to Yuci.  I had been through the town in 2001 on road trip with 2 friends and my mom.  What follows is the account of the trip that I wrote at the time.  Let’ call it, Vinegar Anyone?

I’ve been in China a long time and have done many things, but over the October holiday I experienced a "first:" — a China Road Trip.  You know the great American road trip, where you pack up the car and drive across country.  Well, be it hereafter known that it can be done in China now.  A friend of mine in Beijing is the proud owner of a bright red Jeep Cherokee, and she and I decided that we wanted to drive to Pingyao, an ancient city in Shanxi, about 50 miles from the provincial capital Taiyuan.  The morning of October 1, Terry, Amy, my mom (visiting for a few months) and I set off to see for ourselves China’s newly built expresway system we’d heard so much about.  It was great, and 7 hours later we found ourselves driving within the city walls of Pingyao.  We explored the city and surrounding countryside for a couple of days, then set off for home.

Our trip home proved to be quite an event.  One of the customs in China is, when one goes travelling, to buy products that are unique that a particular area and take them home as gifts.  Beijing is famous for roast duck, and you can even buy already cooked, vacuum packed duck dinners.  For the province of Shanxi, it’s vinegar.  For some reason (the abundance of sorghum perhaps) venegar is huge in Shanxi.  Hence roadsides feature stall after stall after stall selling vinegar.  Not just your garden-variety vinegar, but expensive vinegar in gift boxes.  Terry and I decided to get some to bring back to our Chinese friends, so we stopped at one of the stalls.  The purchase made, we climbed back into the jeep and started her up.  Well, we tried, but all we heard was that sickening clicking sound.  Nothing. This engine wasn’t going to start for nobody no way! Now what?/We popped the hood and peered in, I suppose hoping that something would jump out at us and thus resolve the problem.  The vinegar sellers crowded around the 4 white womem and the jeep and confidently pronounced "che huai-le!"  The car is broken.  The man we’d bought vinegar from graciously offered to cycle off to find a mechanic, and we gratefully did not try to stop him. About 20 minutes later, he returned with a mechanic in tow.  He tinkered around and told us that the battery was dead and we’d need a new one.  Now was not the time to argue with him.  "Where do we get one?" I asked (we were in the countryside, not in any town).  "I’ll go to town and buy one for you."  Sounded good to us.

He returned about an hour later with a giant truck battery and bypassed the old one to see if that in fact was the problem.  Hooked up to the truck battery, the jeep started right up. Yay!  But silly us, we didn’t notice that the engine was now hooked up to the truck battery lying on the ground, outside of the jeep.  Kind of like an iron lung, I guess.  With the engine purring away, the mechanic confidently declared again that it was the battery and that we would need to buy a new one!  Huh?  Did I miss something?  "I thought that’s where you went– to get us a new battery??"  "Nope, but you definitely need a new battery!"  "Then please please go somewhere and buy one for us!"  Off he went again, this time not to return for a full 2 hours, during which time we devoured a bowl of noodles in the "restaurant" that was beside the road.  All during the meal, of course, someon was trying to seel us vinegar!

When the mechanic returned, he got the battery in and it started like a charm.  Three cheers!  We went into a little shack to settle up with him.  It was a pricey battery, but we decided that since he’d gone hunting for the thing and had put it in, we were in no position to bargain.  As we were leaving the shack, the mechanic grabbed a jar of vinegar and did his part for the local economy:  "Want to buy some vinegar?"  At this point we sort of fled for our lives, never wanting to see a jar of vinegar again in our lives.  We left behind a group of kind vingar sellers who had all gone above and beyond the call of duty to help the four stranded foreigners.  We said our thanks and waved goodbye and hit the road.