I’m Off to Fix Something

Yesterday morning I rode my bike to the office, which was a good thing because the street in front of the school where the office is located was a parking lot. A big bus and a big truck were face to face, completely surrounded by parked cars and cars trying to get around the parked cars.Some drivers were honking their horns (the ultimate exercise in futility in a situation such as this) and others looked like they were just going to settle in for the day.

“That’s funny,” I thought to myself. “It’s not Friday afternoon. Why is the street like this on a Wednesday morning?” Because I was on a bike, I just weaved my way down the street. When I entered the campus I discovered the reason for the traffic jam — there was a school program to celebrate Children’s Day (June 1), which meant parents in attendance, which meant chaos on the street.

Normally this traffic jam appears every Friday afternoon when the parents come to pick up their kids from the boarding school to take them home for the weekend. As long as I have been living and working in that neighborhood (since 1998, to be precise), this street has turned into a parking lot on Friday afternoon. One year it even provided me with an important cultural lesson.

While visiting some fellow Americans at the foreign student dormitory at a university campus in China’s Northeast, we were admiring the great view of the campus from the giant window of a 6th floor room.  We could see the sports field, the swimming pool, a small lake, and hundreds of students going hither and yon on the campus.  In the course of the conversation, we spotted someone walking near the lake and all agreed that said person was a foreigner. We wondered how it was that, even at 6 floors up and across campus, it was possible to make that distinction. We were too far away to see skin color or hair color or clothing styles, but we all agreed that this person was not only a foreigner, but was most likely an American.

A discussion ensued as to how and why this was possible.  Finally, one of my colleagues hit the nail on the head.  “It’s the way an American walks,” she said.  “The walk says one of two things:  ‘I own this place.’ or ‘I’m off to fix something.’”  We all laughed in agreement, instinctively knowing the truth of what she said.

Sometimes Americans overseas are like 3 year olds who drive everyone in the room bonkers by asking a never-ending series of “why” questions.  In most cases, what we are really asking is “why is it like this?”  And what that really means is “It’s not like this at home, so it shouldn’t be like this here.” I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be asking ‘why’ questions; on the contrary, I’m a firm believer in them.  They demonstrate a desire and willingness to learn.  But I think it’s important to make a distinction between two different motivations for incessantly asking “why”.

One motivation is the desire for understanding. Why is the traffic so chaotic (at least by my standards)?  Asking the “why is it like this question” may reveal the fact that until fifteen years ago, private cars were banned in China, and there were almost no taxis.  That means that many of the drivers of those ubiquitous taxis and Mercedes Benz’s are rookie drivers,  none of whom grew up riding in cars.  So the traffic patterns of cars are merely extensions of the traffic patterns of bicycling, which are much more fluid and situational.  I still may be terrified when careening through traffic on the third ring road, but it sort of makes sense.

The other motivation for asking the “why is it like this?” question is a desire to fix whatever it is that is being questioned.  The question gives definition to a problem.  And once a problem is defined, then it can be fixed.  This chaos is fixable, thinks the American. Put in one-way streets.  Put in left-turn lanes.  Institute strict fines for breaking the rules. Put up stop signs. The list goes on and on and on.

Shortly after the conversation about the propensity for Americans to want to fix things,  I was discussing this issue with my Chinese professor. I was describing to him the scene outside the school. I told him how, every Friday afternoon when the parents come to pick up their children, the mother of all traffic jams forms as the drivers of Cadillacs, Benz’s, Buicks, and BMW’s all jockey for position, trying to be the ones to get their car closest to the gate.  Everything else in the neighborhood comes to a stop.

The question I put to my professor was why the school or the local police, or someone couldn’t come up with a way to prevent the weekly traffic jam. Since they know its’ going to happen every Friday, it seemed to me to be a problem that would be easily fixed.

His response sent light bulbs popping  off in my head.  First of all, he pointed out to me that the school probably didn’t do anything because it wasn’t their responsibility.  The traffic jam was on the street, not on the school grounds.

I then pressed him as to why the local “paichusuo” (police station) didn’t do something, and he said that they didn’t view it as a problem either, or at least not their problem. The local police stations handle neighborhood registrations and and deal with petty crime and other activities that affect social stability. To them, as is the case with everyone else, the traffic jam is simply a weekly natural occurrence that will, within 2 or 3 hours, take care of itself. I was the only one who was viewing it as a problem to be fixed!

The following Friday, I stepped out of the gate to watch the traffic jam, this time viewing it through a different lens. I realized that not only was no one bothered by it; in fact, for the migrant workers who worked in the shops that lined the streets, it was a weekly source of entertainment, a weekly happening! Everyone was out, many with grandparents and kids in tow, watching the rich people and their cars. By supper time, it was all over and everyone went back to their regularly scheduled activities.

In their book, “American Cultural Patterns,” Stewart and Bennet discuss this American tendency to “see events as problems to be solved, based on their concepts of an underlying rational order in the world and of themselves as individual agents of action.”  Americans see problems and solutions as “basic ingredients of reality.”  It’s just the way life is.

But it’s not necessarily the way life is for many other cultures.  In cultures (like China) that are predisposed to adapt rather than change, accepting things as they are (chaotic as that may be) is the first tendency.  What a westerner calls a problem may be viewed simply as a twist of fate.  In some languages, the word, “problem” is synonymous with “confusion”, which is defined as “a condition that is best addressed by stopping whatever one is doing and waiting.”  Stewart and Bennet point out that attempts to solve the problem may be interpreted as contributing to the confusion.

This tendency towards fixing (be it personal or societal) can often be a source of cultural clashes when we are sojourning abroad. We look around and see so much that we don’t understand and the “why” questions start bubbling to the surface. When they do, it’s good to check ourselves to see if the questions are being motivated by the desire to fix what we perceive as being broken, or if they are  motivated by a genuine desire to learn how the society is organized and the thinking patterns that lie behind it.

Well, that’s all for now…..I’m off to fix something!

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Bian Lian (Face-Changing)

One of my favorite traditional Chinese peforming arts is Bian Lian (变脸), which literally means “change face.”  As he performs choreographed moves, the performer instantly changes masks– so instantly in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to tell how it is done.

Tradition has it that the art form could only be passed down from father to son, and that this is the reason how bian lian is done is still considered a secret.

At the birthday dinner for my mom last month, we ended up having a private performance of Bian Lian in our dining room.

There is also an excellent movie about Bian Lian called “The King of Masks.”

Set in 1930’s China, it is the story of a Bian Lian master who, not having a son to pass on the art to, purchases a small child that he thinks is a boy. It’s an excellent, but at times heart-wrenching film.











Bells. Found.


We worshipped this morning in a Romanesque style church that was designed by a Russian; built in a Chinese city under Japanese occupation; and has a bell that was cast in Germany in 1883.

How did a bell made in 1883 in Germany end up in a church in China in 1938?

How did this bell survive the Cultural Revolution so that it is still in use today?

We learned the answer to one of those questions this weekend. The other question is another mystery that needs solving.

Stay tuned for stories…..

Bell-hopping Again

You may think that my interest in Chinese church bells is waning. If so, you are mistaken I'm heading out again this weekend with a friend to check out some church bells in the coastal city of Qingdao.  There are two old churches there, (1 Protestant and 1 Catholic) which have bells.

Here's what one local website has to say about the bells at the Protestant Church:

On every Sunday, the pious Christians gather in the church, with melodious bell and dainty chant, pray quietly and listen to priest's preaching. During Christmas holidays, even more bustling people full of jolliness come here.

Looking forward to hearing the melodious bell and dainty chants.

Are they old or newly cast?  That's what we hope to find out.


A Tale of Two Bells

Buckeye Bell Foundry

Mr. Upham and the Bell

1907: The Bell Begins its Journey

Big Screen Bells




The Sun has been Eaten

Yesterday I went out for lunch with some colleagues and we got to talking about the solar eclipse that had taken place in the morning. I missed it ( still trying to get my eyes open), but one of guy had managed to snap a photo of it.

I asked the Chinese gal who was with us what the Chinese word for eclipse was.  She said it was ri shi (日食). I knew that the word ri (日) was sun, but since the Chinese language has 40+ characters that are pronounced shi (and they each have multiple meanings), I asked her which character it was. She said it was 食, which means ‘to eat.’

So the word for eclipse in Chinese is “the sun has been eaten.”

She told us that it comes from the ancient Chinese belief that an eclipse was actually the sun being eaten by the dragon.

Apparantly, this dragon also has a thing for the moon, since a lunar eclipse is called yue shi (月食) — “the moon has been eaten.”

Did you get a glimpse of the sun being eaten yesterday?

(Thanks to AM for supplying the photo)

A Smiling American Fisherman

Last month I played host to a group of new and old friends who came to Beijing for a week of activities to help my mom celebrate her 85th birthday. We had more fun than should be allowed running around the city seeing the sights, meeting people, and of course eating great food.

One of the best parts of the trip for me was having all my friends (many of whom were visiting for the first time) fall in love with China and the people here. One of the teenagers is already planning his future career here.

One of the partiers, Jerry, is a commercial fisherman from California. He sent me a note this weekend telling me of his encounter with some Chinese tourists in Santa Barbara.  It is too good not to share, so here’s his story:

I was on the dock yesterday afternoon, when about ten oriental people crowded around the truck to watch us unload our big catch of Red Rock Crab. Lots of big digital Nikon cameras emerged while the onlookers, between the ages of 40-60, closed ranks on the back door of the truck.

Noticing they were Asian, and didn’t seem to have any regard for overstepping the boundry of the “personel loading area”, I wondered where they might be from.  China perhaps?  I didn’t hear any ‘familiar’ words that I learned after spending a lengthy stay in Bejing this spring, so I carefully observed their hand gestures and determined they were asking me to hold up some big crabs so they could get pictures.

A wave of “oohs and aahs” erupted from the foreigners as I pulled two jumbo male crabs out of the box and I listened as they spoke in their native tongue. Lots of pictures with the friendly smiling American fisherman ensued.

Remembering that a truck needed to be loaded with several thousand pounds of crab, I thought to myself, “OK, back to work!”

I jumped onto the dock with my back to the crowd and managed to pick up a gentle word from one of the men.  “Xie Xie”.  I turned and looked at all of them in the eye and said, “‘xie xie, ni hao” ?

They all looked back at me and said, with loud cheerful laughter, XIE XIE !!!

Oh Lord, you’d think there was a family reunion going on right there on the dock of Santa Barbara Harbor.  Hand shakes, more pictures with crab followed.  Then, as I leaned in to be in a photo, with my long lost “xie xie” brother, one of the oldler women pushed me into him and also leaned in with her arms around me and we had a lovely family photo taken.

After the photo, my new Chinese mother started firing off a series of sentences in Chinese at me.  I panicked!  I didn’t understand.  I looked at her speechless, my mind grasping for any word from Jo’s  book Survival Chinese Lessons.

Then came that awkward moment.  I realized we weren’t related. Silence followed.  She put her hands together as if she were going to lift a soup bowl to drink from.  Then it hit me.  I said, “Da”.  She nodded enthusiastically saying, “da da da da da da da”  (which I believe meant, big) thank Spring for that!

Turns out, they were from Shanghai.

As they walked on, I turned to go about my business and noticed Devin (my crewman) staring at me with a blank look on his face.

I smiled and said, “I never would have thought I’d be speaking Chinese to tourists here on the dock upon my return from China.  I love the Chinese”.

He just smiled back at me.

(image source: ScenicUSA)

All Smiles

Our favorite neighborhood restaurant will soon fall to the wrecking ball as the area is demolished to make way for something that the local government has decided is better than a migrant village. The owners recently brought their uncle in from the countryside to help park cars on the sidewalk. He’s loving his taste of city life.

He may be all smiles, but my colleagues and I are thoroughly depressed at the thought of losing this restaurant that has been a part of our lives for 13 years.

That Was Last Week

This week has seen an outburst of anti-foreign ranting on the internet in China. Recent events seem to have formed a "perfect storm" for this kind of thing: China and the Philippines are in a spat over an island in the South China Sea; video clips of a Brit molesting a Chinese woman on the street and of a Russian cellist being rude to a woman on a train have gone viral; and the city's very public campaign to "clean up" illegal foreigners is asking Chinese to call a hot-line to report suspicious behavior on the part of foreigners.

Some local websites are getting in on the act, urging netizens have their camera phones ever at the ready to film misbehaving foreigners. A famous CCTV anchor even chimed in on his microblog declaring his hope that all the 'foreign scum' would be kicked out. Ouch!

I've seen quite a few of these outbursts come and go in my nearly three decades here.  They are no fun, but they do (so far) tend to blow over.

The diciest outbreak I experienced was in 1999, following the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, which killed 3 Chinese journalists. I remember waking up that Saturday morning and listening to the news  (listening to VOA and the BBC on short-wave radio was our main source of news back then), and thinking "oh no…..this isn't going to be good….."

By the afternoon an angry crowd "had formed" in front of the US embassy throwing rocks and hurling paint at the building.  I say "had formed" because the crowds were made up of students who were being transported  to the embassy on buses provided by their schools. This went on all weekend, and the embassy sent out emails to Americans warning us to stay off the streets.

Later in the week a colleague and I ventured to the Starbucks in the Friendship store (which was down the street from the US embassy at the time) to see for ourselves what was going on, and sat all morning watching as students showed up to the checkpoint in the street, signed their names, picked up a rock from the desk, then went marching off to the embassy.

It was also very disconcerting to see red banners suddenly appear all over town with "Death to the Foreign Devils" written all over them.  "Is is suddenly the 1960s?", I wondered;  I told a driver friend of mine that the signs made me feel very uncomfortable.  "Oh don't worry he said," they're not referring to you. You're not a foreign devil.  You are a foreign friend." That was nice to hear but didn't offer me too much reassurance since I wondered how someone on the street with a brick in his hand would be able to immediately make that distinction.  I told the driver that the signs hurt my feelings. He looked at me funny.

The following weekend, the government went on TV (no text messaging yet) and told the students that the best way to show their patriotism was to go back to class and focus on their studies.  Just like that, it was over.

A week after that I and a colleague were in the Liu Li Chang area of Beijing doing some shopping.  As we were trying to catch a cab at the end of the day, a man with a three-wheeled rickshaw came over and asked us if we would like a ride.  We told him that we lived too far away. Then the conversation proceeded something like this:

Him:  Wah!  You speak really good Chinese.  Where are your from ?

Me:  (not wanting to tell him we were Americans) I would rather not tell you.

Him.  Why not?

Me:  Because if I tell you then you will stop being nice and friendly to us.

Him:  Why would I do that?

Me:  Because we are Americans!

Him: (slapping his leg and laughing out loud)  AIYA!!!!  THAT WAS LAST WEEK!!

My hunch (and hope) is that, like previous such outbursts, this too shall pass.  I am also fairly sure that as soon as many netizens finish posting their anti-foreign rants, they will head on over to KFC or MacDonalds or Starbucks to finish working on their visa applications to go abroad.

And I, as an outsider trying to live well where I don't belong, will take this as a reminder that everything I do is seen or noticed (even if it's not filmed) and seek to live my life accordingly.