Beijing Manners

China’s main English language newspaper, the China Daily published a story last week on the urgent attention that the city government and Olympic Organizing Committee are paying to the manners (or lack thereof) of Beijingers.  Here’s how the article starts out:

In addition to grand concrete venues for the 29th Olympic Games, Beijing is busy with an immaterial project — to trim its residents’ behavior for the event. The time left for possible improvement seems not enough, though there are still more than two years before the event comes. A recent survey report showed that booing and even using dirty words by audiences to show their discontent with the performance of players is one of the most irritating bad manners that tarnishes the image of the capital. Beijing audiences are notorious for such impolite expressions of disappointment and dissatisfaction at sports games. Other bad habits listed in the report include spitting, littering, violation of traffic regulations, and jostling passengers on buses. City managers worry these uncivil behaviors will also bring shame to the capital or even to the nation if exposed to foreigners in 2008.

Go here to read the entire article.

Let me just say this….I share the concern. 


A friend of mine recently bought a new car. Yesterday she called me up and asked if I wanted to join her and her husband to go antique furniture shopping. Well, that’s something I never pass up, so I said sure. We arranged for a place for her to pick me up and she told me to watch for the "sea foam green" VW Golf! She’s what the locals call a "xinshou" or a "new hand." The best translation is "rookie." What she neglected to tell me was that even though she’s had her license for a few months, and has owned the car for a few weeks, she really doesn’t know how to drive! 30 miles an hour — tops– on the fourth ring road! The cars whizzed by like bullets, all honking madly of course. Twice she stopped in the middle of the Third Ring Road to try and read the signs. The cars whizzed by like bullets, all honking madly, of course! Then, after we had done our shopping, and had loaded her car with MY purchase (a small Qing Dynasty night table—very nice!), I discovered that she didn’t have a clue how to back the car up so as to get out of the courtyard. Let’s just say I was very glad to make it home in one piece.

Nai Nai Hao

Recently while in a nearby park with a friend, we saw two very cute little kids being pushed by their grannies in strollers.  We stopped and chatted, and I said ni hao (hello) to the kids.  One of the grandmothers smiled and prompted the kids, saying, shuo nai nai hao, whereupon my friend broke into hysterical laughter, and I descended into an instant black hole of depression.  You see, shuo nainai hao means "say hello to the granny!!! 

In Chinese culture, the family is very important, and this is reflected in the language.  Within the family, members often don’t use names, but rather call each other "elder brother, younger sister, son, grandma" and the like.   If there are three sons in the family, for instance, the parents would likely call them Son Number One, Son Number Two, and Son Number Three. 

But this use of relationship terms extends outside of the family as well, and can be transferred to friends and even perfect strangers.  Thus, if you meet a woman who is clearly younger than you are, it is polite to call her xiaojie (younger sister). If the woman is clearly a few years older, than you would call her dajie (older sister).  Boys of course would be younger brother and elder brother.  If the person you meet is of your parents generation, then you would call them aunt or uncle. 

When I first came to China, the most common term of address that I heard was xiaojie.  That slowly changed to Dajie.  But nainai!!!!   I certainly wan’t prepared for that!!!!  After I emerged from my depression, and after buying out the anti-aging cream at the local Hypermarket, I told a Chinese friend about the exchange.  She laughed and reminded me that the term nainai had not been used to signal that I was old, but because the difference in age between the toddler and I was two generations!!!  In other words, it didn’t have anything to do with my age!! 

Whew..  That was a relief.  I think……

Wear More Clothes

The day before I left for Kashgar I made a phone call to the Northwest Airlines office in Beijing to make a change on my ticket home for Thanksgiving.  I had called the day before to ask some questions and had talked to a very nice young man who had been very helpful. I told him I’d use the information he gave me to make some decisions, then would call him back.

The next day, while I was at the airport awaiting my flight to Urumqi I called back, and ended up talking to the same guy.  "I remember talking to you yesterday," he said.  I told him the changes I wanted to make, then said that since I was on my way to Xinjiang that I wouldn’t be able to go down to the ticket office until the following week.  He assured me that was no problem. I thanked him, then before he hung up, he added, "by the way, the weather is changing these days, and it is cold in Urumqi.  Please be careful of the cold and wear more clothes."  I assured him I would.

In Chinese discourse one of the ways to demonstrate friendliness (what we Americans might call neighborliness) is to give another person advice, or suggestions, especially as it relates to the health or well-being of another.  Especially this time of year, it seems that someone is always telling you to wear more clothes!  When westerners first come here, they tend to be puzzled by this and to be annoyed.  What business is it of theirs what I’m wearing?? And at home, we certainly wouldn’t ask another if he/she is wearing long underwear nor tell them we think they should nor scold them for not doing so, all of which are regular topics of conversation here. 

Here, friends (and sometimes strangers) will even grab our legs to see if we have the prescribed number of layers on (often up to 5 or 6), to which we want to shout get your hands off me!  But as we adjust and learn the new rules, we discover that this inordanite attention to what I’m wearing isn’t merely being nosey, it’s a way of saying, "I like you.  I care."

So, as fall approaches, and the weather turns cold, please…wear more clothes!

A Yak Attack

On Saturday, Mike, Wendy, Alana, and I got into a hired car (with driver) and headed up into the mountains west of Kasghar.  Our destination was Karakul Lake, along the highway that leads down into Pakistan.  I, of course, would have loved to go all the way to the border, but it’s too far, and the weather this time of year makes it a difficult trip.  So we had settled on going to this lake, with the plan of getting up there early afternoon, hiking around the lake, then staying overnight in a yurt.   

It was a gorgeous drive up into the mountains, but as we got higher, we eventually drove into the cloud cover and the snow.  About halfway up, we had to stop at a border region checkpoint to show our passports and register our presence in the border region. We got to the lake around 1:00pm, and our driver took us straight to some "yurts" along the lake.  I put the word in quotation marks, because they were more permanant structures, obviously built for tourists.  In the middle was a real one, where the proprieters live.   For those of you from Minnesota, think lakeside "tourist cabins" or "resorts" up north!  Only these are yurts!! A  woman met us and invited us in.

We entered what I called the "double wide" yurt.  It had been newly built by the Kyrgyz family, and with the main tourist season having just been closed, they were living in this new structure themselves.   The main door took us into one yurt, which was connected by another door into the other one.  As we entered the "outer" yurt, the first thing I saw was a freshly chopped off yak head, with the brains and guts brightly exposed, and 4 yak feet.  Once I recovered from the shocking sight and smell, I wondered what happened to the rest of the poor fellow!

We quickly walked into the "inner" yurt (the residence part), and my question was answered.  The father was bent over a cutting board, chopping intestines and meat for a stew.  Later he added a couple of onions for good measure.  The two young boys were chewing on slabs of raw yak meat and trying to stick the liver to the side of the coal stove to get it to cook. 

We sat down with the family, drank tea, and chatted.  Our driver was good friends with this family, so obviously this was where we were going to stay for the night.  But of course we had to do some negotiations.  Their first price seemed steep to us, so we sort of hesitated.  "It includes meals," they said.  We looked at the yak intestine stew and the liver cooking away on the side of the stove and responded, "we’ll eat our own food."  That gave us room to ask for a lower price, which they were happy to agree to.  Whew!  Actually, given the fact that it was snowing outside and we could barely see the lake, much less the surrounding mountains, we contemplated heading back to Kashgar after a couple of hours, but decided that we didn’t want to be on the road after dark, and we chose to be hopeful that the weather might clear during the night, so decided to stay. 

We tromped around in the snow for awhile, hoping that the clouds would lift.  They never did.  We were also looking for a toilet, something which we also never found, having to settle instead for hiding behind large rocks.  Ok, enough said about that!

Getting through the "outer" yurt where the yak heads were became quite the challenge for me.  The smell was awful, and one time I honestly nearly lost the soda crackers that had become my diet for the weekend.  Finally, I decided that I just needed to hold my breath as a I walked through.  Well, this flat-lander had a little lesson to learn:  at an altitude of 10,000 feet, taking a deep breath doesn’t get you enough oxygen to walk 3 steps!!  Further, that smell of dead yak had a way of permeating everything, and it began clinging to me like some evil blob from a horror film.  I wondered if I’d ever get that smell out of my brain!

The family were delightful.  Even though they were Kyrgyz, they spoke Uighur as well, so Mike and Wendy were able to converse with them.  I was the complete outsider, because I don’t speak Uighur, and no one in the family spoke Chinese.  The mom spent the afternoon preparing the evening meal, and in general doing all the work, as far as I could tell.  Everything was done on the ground, and all cooking down on the coal stove in the middle of the room, whose function was also to provide heat.  Their two young sons were darling, and we had fun horsing around with them.

As night fell (and the temperature along with it), our host family laid out piles of quilts for us to sleep on and under, and then went off to their yurt (which was a traditional one, made out of felt) for the night.  We were on the ground, on top of one quilt, and under about five (I honestly lost count after awhile).  With layers of clothes on, and lying under about 30 pounds of quilts, we all looked like beached whales.  There is some dispute in our party about what time it was when we hunkered down for the night.  I say it was 7:30, but Mike swears it was around 9:30.  I still think I’m right, but whatever time it was, within 30 minutes our coal stove was OUT!  By morning the temperature inside the yurt was below freezing. 

I got up, took a deep breath, held it, and ran to the door, staggering outside to find a foot of fresh new snow!!  So much for being hopeful about the weather.   After I got some oxygen back into my system I looked around.  The highway was above us, and the car was down at the bottom of a hill.  Now I’m from Minnesota, so I had some appreciation of this predicament.  Car at bottom of snowy hill with no driveway up to highway.  This was not good!  For a few moments I wondered what it was going to be like to spend the winter up here with this nice Kyrgyz family.  Certainly I could lose some weight!  The driver emerged from the family yurt where he’d spent the night, and of course sucked his teeth!  Definitely not a good sign!  Fortunately the family had a shovel.  One shovel.  Not a snow shovel.  Just a shovel.  The driver tromped through the snow, trying to map out a route back to the highway, and then we started to dig.  With one shovel, and taking shifts, and throwing dirt down, we slowly made a path for the car to move forward.  About 2 hours later, we made the last push to the summit where the highway sat!   Of course, the highway was covered with snow as well, and out there things like snow plows and graders simply do not exist.  We all went back in to rest up and wait for more traffic to pack down the higway.  We finally left around 11:30.  The road was pretty bad for the first 20 miles or so, but as we got lower, it cleared up. 

We made it back to Kashgar around 2:30, where the first thing on our agenda was to try to shower away the dirt and smell of yak!  Only then did we go for food!

While up up there, Wendy and I had stood by the lake in the snow and contemplated the fact that there was absolutely nothing that we had done to be the ones chosen to live a life of relative comfort and ease as opposed to the hard life of the family we were spending time with. It was a good reminder that everything that I have is a gift of grace. 

You can go here to read Mike’s account of the weekend.

A Silk Road Oasis

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Kashgar, a city in China’s far far west.  Kasghar is the  major city in the southern part of the the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.  In China, an autonomous region is a province where the majority of the population are a different ethnic group (as opposed to Han Chinese), in this case the Uighurs, a turkic people of Central Asia.  Kashgar’s main historical claim to fame is being a major crossroads of the famed Silk Road trading route that ran from China to Europe and South Asia hundreds of years ago.  From Kasghar’s location on the western edge of the Taklimakan Desert, traders with silk and tea from China could head west across Central Asia, or take the southern route over the Himalayas into South Asia (Pakistan, Afghanistan) and across Persia to the Middle East.  Like all other towns in southern Xinjiang, it is an oasis town, situatated to catch snow melting off the mountains that lie to the north and west. 

Even though Kashgar is a city in the People’s Republic of China, it gives the distinct impression of being in a foreign country.  I grew up in Pakistan, and Kasghar to me feels much more like Pakistan than it does China.  To be sure, there are distint reminders that it IS China (something the government is very keen on):  signs are in Chinese; there are the ubiquitious white tile buildings with blue-tinted windows that have come to define Chinese urban architecture;  all government and official functions run on Beijing time, in seemingly total denial of the fact that Kashgar is 2000 miles west of Beijing.  Officially, it is not in a separate time zone, so there is no such thing as Kashgar time, but the locals know better and adjust their watches accordingly.  Howver, you’d better know the difference because when your plane ticket says your plane takes off at 10:30AM, it means 10:30AM Beijing time, not local time. 

I made the trip to Kashgar for business, so spent all day Friday and Monday in meetings.  Saturday and Sunday were left open for adventure, the details of which follow in the next post!

A City in Fast Forward

A recent article in the London publication The Observer has a great article on Beijing, my adopted home town, and gives an accurate glimpse of what it’s like in a city where someone has hit the fast forward button!  Here’s an excerpt:

Beijing is the capital of the world’s fastest-growing economy, provoking a titanic struggle between a totalitarian political system and the liberalisation that is the presumed product of its economic transformation. By some estimates, half the world’s annual production of concrete and one-third of its steel output is being consumed by China’s construction boom. The second ring road that marked the city limits until the Eighties has been followed by the building of a third, fourth and fifth ring. The sixth is under construction. Cars move around disconnected clumps of newly completed towers. There are now more than 2m cars in the city – already enough to wipe out all the improvements in air quality achieved by the expulsion of heavy industry from Beijing’s centre. The city map looks like a dartboard, with the void of the Forbidden City as its empty bull’s-eye. And with the abruptness of a randomly aimed dart, entire new districts appear arbitrarily as if from nowhere. A city that, until 1990, had no central business district, and little need of it, now has a cluster of glass towers that look like rejects from Singapore or Rotterdam. And these, in turn, are now being replaced and overshadowed by a new crop of taller, slicker towers, the product of the international caravan of architectural gunslingers that has arrived in town to take part in this construction free-fire zone. Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Will Alsop are all building, or trying to build here.

Go here to read the article.

Perils of Direct Translation

While on a flight to Urumqi last week, the woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation.  Like all such conversations here, it began with her asking me where I was from.  I told her, and asked the same of her.  In due time I asked her why she was going to Urumqi.  In English, she replied "I’m going to see my lover."  To someone not familiar with Chinese (and even to someone who is), that was a pretty forward answer, given the connotation of the word "lover" in English.  But she was merely directly translating the Chinese word "ai-ren" (love person), which is often the word used for a spouse.  I smiled, assumed that’s what she was talking about, and said, "that’s nice!" 

Yes, I am back from my Kashgar trip, and I have stories and photos.  But 5 days away from my office means I’m buried in work right now, so posting will probably not happen for a few days.  Sit tight!  I’ll just tease you with this formula:  10,000 feet + Kyrgyz yurt + heavy snow = adventure!