Why Foreigners Can’t Squat

I know some of you are all ready to take issue with the title of this post because you are a foreigner and you can squat!  I know it's a generalization but generalizations tend towards being true on the whole, and even most foreigners who can squat do so with difficulty and not a lot of grace.

Last weekend I went with some friends to visit a foster home for orphans outside of Beijing.  We hired one of our favorite taxi drivers, Driver Z. to take us out there. After spending the morning playing with some of the children and visiting with friends who work there, we took one of the Chinese staff of the foster home out to lunch in the nearby town. 

As is customary here, we invited the driver to join us for lunch. It's also customary for him to adamantly refuse to join us, but after we had performed our ritualistic argument, it ended as it should–with him joining us.

When we entered the restaurant, there was a low-hanging cloud of blue smoke in the dining area so we pleaded with the waitress to take us to a private room.  Nearly every restaurant in China has private rooms available, and they're great if you want to escape the smoke or the noise and have a peaceful (and private) meal.

When the tea and da ke le (large bottle of Coke) was served, I faced a dilemma: to drink or not to drink. It's all about the squatting, you see, because four months out from knee surgery, squatting is something I CANNOT do. I knew the restaurant we were in would only have "squatty potties" (as we grew up calling them in Pakistan), and I knew we had an hour's drive back to Beijing. 

As I pondered my options, I asked if we were planning to return Miss S. back to the foster home before heading to the city (I knew there were 'sitters' there). Once it was determined that we were, I could drink the da ke le with reckless abandon.

After we had sorted this out, Mr. W (an American ) asked the Chinese at the table if they knew why it was that foreigners had such a hard time squatting.  By the looks on their faces, it was obvious that such a thought had never, ever crossed their minds, but seeing that the foreigners needed to be humored, asked him to explain.  This launched, not only a riotous discussion of the relative lengths of the Achilles tendons of Chinese and foreigners (theirs are long, ours our short), but of the different exercise regimens that are a part of our respective educational systems.  Mr. W also emphasized that when foreigners squat, we are on our toes, but Chinese have their feet flat on the ground.  This didn't compute with Driver Z so in a flash both of them were out of their chairs demonstrating their squatting techniques.  Not wanting to miss out on the fun Mrs. W and Miss S. were also soon showing off how they could squat.  That got me out of my chair too, and I wowed them with my ability to squat to about 45 degrees!! 

At this point the poor waitress walked into the room, and, upon seeing us all in various degrees of squatting around the table, she ran away!  

Later, as we were nearing home on our way back into the city, Driver Z said to us, "You know this was a really interesting day for me.  I learned something new.  I never knew before that foreigners couldn't squat, and now I know, not only that they can't squat, but why!" 

I guess the adage is true; you can learn something new every day!

Nothing is Obvious

A favorite saying in China, especially among foreigners is "Nothing is easy; everything is possible."

Today, while in a suburban city on the outskirts of Beijing I spotted a giant billboard sitting on top of a building, with a slight variation of this phrase emblazoned for the passing motorists to contemplate:

Langfang 032710 008 (Small)

What I can't figure out is why THIS phrase is on a billboard on top of THIS building in THIS town.

Which only serves to illustrate the point, I suppose.

Pragmatic Religiousity

The folks over at CNNgo recently had a chat with Petter Hessler about his new book "China Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory." As readers of this blog know, I'm a big Hessler fan, and recently had the pleasure of reading this book (my comments and observations can be found here, here, and here).  In this interview, one particular exchange caught my eye:

CNNGo: In "Country Driving," villager
Cao Chunmei turns to religion as a way to deal with the stresses of the
country’s rapid development. Do you think Chinese will increasingly turn to


I think we’ve already seen more and more Chinese taking an
interest in religion. It’s going to continue, often for the same reason that Cao
Chunmei turned to Buddhism — because she was overwhelmed by the incredible pace
of change and the relentless materialism of this age. She wanted some deeper
meaning in her life. I think that a lot of people in China feel this way,
especially middle and upper class people who have already satisfied many of
their fundamental material needs. 

Still, it’s very different from religion in America
or Europe. People in America see the statistics for numbers of Christians in
China, and they envision a potentially deeply religious nation. The Chinese
relationship with religion is pragmatic and fluid; people often change their
faith very quickly. And I don’t see them following religion to a degree where
it’s clearly not in their self-interest. Also, religion in China is very weak
institutionally. It doesn’t matter so much whether a person says he or she
believes in something; what matters is whether that person can become attached
to a serious religious institution that has some impact on the community

I got a glimpse of this "pragmatic religiousity" a few years ago when some Chinese friends invited me to join them for a day in the mountains west of Beijing visiting Buddhist and Daoist temples.  It was a nice weekend and I always enjoy an excuse to head to the hills, so off we went.  Our 'temple-hopping' party included me (the only foreigner) and six Chinese in our little two-car caravan, one of which was a little yellow sports car, but that's beside the point.

What is not beside the point is that all of these friends were thirty-something members of the Communist Party and five of them had fairly lofty positions (for their age) in either the central government or the city government.  When pressed, all would profess atheism.

So as we went from temple to temple (some of which dated back 800 or 1000 years), I became increasingly intrigued by the fact that at each alter in each temple they would buy incense to burn and stand in front of the idols doing something that looked like praying. They asked me to join them, but I politely declined.

Eventually my bewilderment got the best of me and I had to ask them what was going on.

"Wait a minute," I said.  "You're all members of the Chinese Communist Party, right?"

They all nodded their heads.

"But here you are burning incense and praying.  Do you really believe this?"

Practically in unison they responded "No!  We're doing this just in case."

Pragmatic religiousity; right there; on full display.

What’s in the Box?

My mom is blogging about the contents of a mysterious red box she found in her house while doing some spring cleaning. 

Wander on over to Gracewood Cottage to find out for yourself what's in the box. 

And while you're there, subscribe to her blog by email or RSS reader.

Yellow Sky

Last weekend the ground covered with a layer of snow.  This morning it was dirt.  Tons of it.  I knew something strange was brewing this morning when I woke up and saw a yellow glow through my curtains.  That could only mean one thing: a sandstorm had enveloped the capital.

Here's what it looked like (photos from Xinhua): 

Sandstorm 2 xinhua 

Sandstorm 4 xinhua 

Sandstorm 5 xinhua

I went out for a bit in the afternoon, and when I got home felt like I'd swallowed a bucket-full of dirt.

Gracewood Cottage

Well, my mom finally bit the bullet this week and started a blog called Gracewood Cottage.  That's the name we've given to her house.

Yes, this is the same Gracie who came to China 3 years ago to celebrate her 80th birthday.  You can read about that adventure here.

She's also the subject of one of my favorite posts titled "Marxist Mama."

But now she's got her own stories to tell, so click on over to Gracewood Cottage and see what's going on there. I don't think you'll be disappointed.