Outer Space

One of my favorite things to do is chat with taxi drivers.  Given the fact that they spend most of their lives stuck in a Beijing traffic jam, they tend to be rather chatty and jolly, especially when they discover that I can actually talk with them.

I've had a lot of fun and bizarre conversations over the years, and one the other night was no exception.

I was taking some out-0f-town visitors to a restaurant, and we got a cab from their hotel.  The driver didn't seem to be all that thrilled with having to haul three foreigners and my initial attempts to make conversation with him were met with grunts.

After I made a quick call to someone and had a short conversation in Chinese, I think he realized that my speaking ability was a bit more than he'd thought, so he started chatting with me.

"Where are you from?," he asked.

"'America," I replied.  "And you? Where are you from?" 

That question usually gets a chuckle or a guffaw, but without batting an eye he pointed into the air and replied, "Outer space.  I'm from outer space!"

Now it was my turn to laugh! 

He made my day.


Red Hats

This is my first ever guest post, written by a colleague who travelled to Chongqing last week to visit some teachers at a university.  When she came back she told me about an interesting ‘civilization’ campaign the school is waging to try to improve the behavior of the students.  It was such a great story I asked her to write it up for my blog. 


Last week I was traveling to visit some teachers at a university in Chongqing.  I can’t remember when someone first mentioned The Red Hats, but they became a frequent topic of conversation while there.

This is not your mom’s Red Hat Club with older ladies laughing loudly in public. Instead, these Red Hats would be very much against that kind of behavior. Or at least they should be.

As with other things in China, the Red Hats are a perplexing weaving together of truth and rumor. Fact and fancy. Reality and perception. Enough fact to keep one grounded and enough rumor to keep one off-balance.

But this much is true:  there was an article written in The Global Times  naming the school in question and addressing student behavior.

The team in Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications (CUPT) was dispatched to supervise students’ “uncivilized behavior”, such as littering rubbish, trampling grassland, hugging and kissing in public.

Yang Jing, chief of Student Affairs Department in CUPT explains that the team is made up of student volunteers. They patrol four times a day, from Monday to Friday.

“We persuade, not force, students to quit these behaviors. But if they repeatedly ignore the advice, we will send them to a quality training course,” Yang added.

I can also verify that there are Red Hats and they will smile and hold up the mandatory “V” when you ask if you can take their picture.

Here’s where things become fuzzy. Supposedly after this article came to the attention of the mayor of Chongqing he required the school to mobilize a squadron of “Red Hats.”  The Red Hats are stationed along popular student routes and at the entry ways of classrooms to “to supervise students’ ‘uncivilized behavior’, such as littering rubbish, trampling grassland, hugging and kissing in public.” But because it’s hard to rat out your littering friends, your trampling classmates, and your hugging roommates, Red Hats are assigned to pathways and buildings not associated with their majors.

I asked some students how someone becomes a Red Hat. Do they volunteer? Are they conscripted by department leaders? Is this their big chance to get back at someone? According to the students there is a volunteer society on campus and the Red Hats come from this society.

I can only imagine that when they first joined the volunteer society they imagined themselves maybe picking up trash, planting trees, or helping in disasters, only to be handed a Red Hat and told to dissuade fellow students from kissing on their way to class!

It was Chicken! It was Chicken!

In 1999 my parents came on a 7-day tour to Beijing.  They had been here a couple of times before, and even though group tours were not really their thing,they couldn't pass up a deal on offer from good old Dayton's Travel in Minneapolis: $900.00 for airfare, 6 nights in a hotel, and 2 days of touring and meals.

 I was already living in Beijing by then, so I went to the other side of town and joined them in their hotel room (China World, no less) and talked my way onto their tour bus.

It was interesing (and a bit depressing) to see first hand what most tourists to China experience: long hours on busses peering out the windows at the locals; politically correct lectures from the tour guide; mandatory stops at 'appointed shops for tourists' where they were expected to purchase large quantities of cloisonnette and lacquerware at ridiculously over-inflated prices; and bad food.  Really bad food. 

Most meals were taken at 'appointed restaurants for tourists' where it seemed the cooks had gone to America to learn how to make Americanized Chinese food, then returned to invent corrupted versions of that! I was appalled at every meal and kept telling the others in the group "Chinese food isn't like this!"  I thought what the China Tourism Ministry was doing to these poor tourists was borderline criminal.

On the second day of the tour we stopped at the Friendship Hotel for lunch.  I was relieved because I had eaten in their restaurant and it hadn't been too bad so was reasonably sure it would be better than the slop we'd been eating up to that point.

It was.  Fortunately they served that dish most loved by foreigners, gong bao ji ding; or as it's commonly known in the States, kung pao chicken (chicken with peanuts). It actually tasted good.

When we got back on the bus the tourists were happily talking about the lunch and how glad they were that they had finally been served a familiar dish.

Then my dad struck.  From the back of the bus, in a very loud voice, he leaned over to me and said "THAT'S THE BEST DOG I'VE EVER EATEN!", whereupon pandemonium broke out on the bus as people began to contemplate the possibility that the delicious meat they'd just eaten was dog, not chicken. A near riot ensued, and it took the poor tour guide screaming into the mic 'IT WAS CHICKEN! IT WAS CHICKEN!" to finally settle everyone down. 

Meanwhile, my dad sat quietly in the back of the bus, smirking.



Beijing! Beijing!

Evan Osnos, a China-based Staff Writer for The New Yorker has just written a wonderful article about Beijing for the magazine Conde Nast Traveler called City of Dreams.  Here's a a bit of a teaser for you:

An outsider might imagine that the novel that captures China's current gilded-age mood would be set in Shanghai, the financial capital elbowing its way into competition with New York and London, or Shenzhen, the megalopolis built on marshland. But Shanghai was punished by the Communist party for the city's history of cosmopolitanism, and is still shaking off the effects of that cultural paralysis. Shenzhen, for its part, is a transient place that sanctifies commerce, not ideas.

Beijing, by contrast, stands alone in China as simultaneously the center of authority and a hotbed of creative thinking. It is home to thousands of apparatchiks in the machinery of the Communist party, as well as to many of the nation's most provocative artists, writers, activists, and filmmakers. (Some are legal; others are underground.) For the last six years, I've watched powerful, often subversive, ideas bubble up in conversations in cafés and offices and at dinner tables, before spilling out across China. These days, Beijing's brilliantly irascible rabble spans the political spectrum: daring environmental lawyers who have pioneered ways to haul powerful polluting factories into court; artists whose quarrels with the police in the name of freedom go far beyond the bounds of performance art; and self-styled young patriots who are equally comfortable criticizing America one day and pivoting to denounce their own corrupt local officials the next. Beijing is bursting with explosive energy, and it's not clear yet which voices will prevail. Arguably the most interesting city in the world, it is a magnet for China's oddballs and visionaries and provocateurs.

Evan is a great writer, so click on over and read the whole thing. You won't be disappointed.

Port-a-Potties at the Wall

This is a photo of the toilets perched atop a terrace at the Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall, north of Beijing.

I remember the first time I saw them– back when they were first installed in the 1990’s.

I had taken some friends to the Wall and of course as we got off the gondola that ferried us up the side of the mountain, one of them announced that she had to use the toilet.  I groaned, knowing full well that there were no toilets once we got off. Most likely we were going to have to ride  back down to use the toilets that we had just passed on our way to the gondola!

So imagine my surprise when we got off and saw these.  Glory Be!  Port-a-potties had been installed on the top of the mountain, just before the entrance to the actual Wall.

That was the good news. The not-s0-good news was that standing between my friend and relief was a fearsome looking woman who was obviously in charge.  I asked if the toilets were usable, and our conversation ensued thusly:

Me:  Can we use the toilets?

She: Yes, but you will have to pay.

Me:  How much will we have to pay?

She:  2 kuai (2 Chinese dollars).

Me:  2 kuai?  Are you crazy?  Public toilets never cost more than 2 mao (20 Chinese cents).

She:  But I had to haul the water to clean the toilets up from the valley. I carried the buckets by myself.  It was hard work.  They don’t have to do that in the city. (She had a point.)

Me:  Yes, but 2 kuai????

She : Ok, will your friend go #1 or #2? (this was an opening for a face-saving solution to the impasse)

Me:  #1.

She:  Ok, then 1 kuai for #1, but 2 kuai for#2!

Now it’s true we often say that in China everything is negotiable, but I believe this was the first (and only, so far) time that I had to bargain to use the toilet.


Have You No Shame?

Two weeks ago the China Real Time Report blog did a post about a campaign by city officials in Wuhan to "improve the behavior of its citizens."

Frustrated at the inability of traditional progapanda and fines to improve the behavior of its citizens, the government of Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province, has teamed with local media to produce a city-wide name-and-shame list. The inaugural list — released over the weekend and teased on the front page of the Wuhan Evening News with the blaring headline "City Reveals First Group of 'Uncivilized Residents'" — verbally tars and feathers 40 people for engaging in one of four unacceptable activities: careless running of red lights, careless parking, jaywalking ("careless crossing of the street") and littering ("careless throwing around of garbage"). The lists and photos have been duly reproduced by Chinese media, including the website of Pheonix TV). The Wuhan Evening News promises a fresh set of lists every week, but the categories could change.  Next time, the lists might include "carelessly dumping sediment," "throwing things from high places" or any number of other inconsiderate activities, Yan Hong, head of the Wuhan Civilization Office, told Xinhua (in Chinese) on Wednesday.

This reminds me of a similar civilization campaign that was launched here around the time Beijing was bidding to host the Olympics. One of the local newspapers, the Beijing Youth Daily, decided they wanted to root out some of the uncivilized behaviors of Beijingers.

For awhile they were particularly going after Beijing taxi drivers, and their habit of pulling their shirts up to cool off their bellies in hot weather (I call it "The Beijing Belly"). The paper sent their photographers around town to surrupticiously take photos of cabbies with their bellies hanging out. Then, to shame the cabbies into covering up, they published the photos in the newspaper each day.

Unfortunately, the campaign backfired, as the cabbies all decided that it was a badge of honor, not shame, to get photos of their bellies into the paper.  The competition was on to see who had the best bellies.

After a couple of weeks, the newspaper wisely and quietly abandoned their campaign, and to this day still, one of the unmistakable signs of summer in the city is the appearance of The Beijing Belly.


Linguistics Lesson in a Gym

Sometimes language learning happens when you least expect it — like while walking out the door of a gym after a late evening workout.

Last night I stopped at the front desk of the gym to try to find out if the gym would be open today.  The reason that was even open to question is the fact that today is a holiday in China — Qing Ming Jie or Grave Sweeping Festival.

Even though this has meant a long weekend in China (Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off), the gym was open on Monday.  I wasn't sure it would be today.

So, with the question 'will you be closed tomorrow' embedded in my brain, I said the following in Chinese: 

ni mingtian guanbi ma? (will you be closed tomorrow?)

Without missing a beat, the gal behind the desk replied:

mingtian xiuxi. (we are resting tomorrow).

Instantly I realized that I had commited one of the most fundamental errors in language learning — simply translating into the second language what I would say in my native language in a given situation, rather than learning to say what is supposed to be said in that situation.

I wanted to know if the gym was closed,so  I just used Chinese to ask that question.  But in this situation, Chinese don't necessarily emphasize open/closed, but more commonly use the word "rest" to indicate they are taking a holiday. 

I should have just said, ni mingtian xiuxi ma? (will you rest tomorrow)?

I had the chance to get it right when I got home and read a text message (in Chinese) from my housekeeper, asking if she should come to work today.

Mingtian xiuxi ba, I replied.  "Have a rest tomorrow."