Push Push, Pull Pull

As anyone who’s lived in China can attest, getting things done can often be difficult — certainly more difficult than WE think it should be. But getting things done can also be difficult for Chinese people; they even have special term: tuotuo lala (拖拖拉拉), which is literally translated as “push push pull pull.”

push push pull pull

I had a tuotuo lala experience in Minnesota last week. My computer suddenly decided that it no longer wanted to communicate with my wireless network at home — no way no how was it going to connect. It took four long phone conversations with perky (yet mildly annoying) customer service reps at Comcast and Apple to solve the problem.

Somehow, at the end of the day, I managed to get through to a technician at Comcast who said “Oh, I know the problem. That’s easy to fix.” He pushed some buttons and said something about “channel 11″ and I was back in business.”

“Why couldn’t someone have put me through to you or someone in your department right from the get-go?” I whined.

“Yeah, that would have been a good idea,” he chuckled!

It reminded me of one of my all-time favorite tuotuo lala experiences in China — getting cable TV hooked up in my apartment in Changchun in 1998. Shortly before Thanksgiving (1997) I decided that I needed to get cable TV. Although I didn’t watch much TV, I was getting tired of not being able to receive China’s main TV station. You know the one I’m talking about — the one that has the nightly weather report and the weather map with flying clouds and smiling suns and sappy music. Cable TV will give me that station and, of course, much more!

Besides, my Chinese level was such that  I could actually understand some things, and there were many shows I could tape to use in my language learning.

So, in the name of language development Catherine (my friend and tutor) and I set off to get me some cable TV!

We arrived at the downtown office of the Changchun Cable TV Company just as it was closing for the afternoon — at 2:45PM!  We begged and pleaded with them to let us be the last ones to register for the day, but they could not be swayed. Come back tomorrow was the answer.

After some serious sucking of teeth and explaining that we had no time to come all the way back downtown tomorrow, they finally relinquished the information that, instead of registering there, we could go to a certain post office near my place and register.

we set out the next day and found the post office right away. Amazingly, it turned out to be a fairly easy process — fill out some forms, pay the money, and wait for the cable guys to show up. We asked when that might be and they assured me it would be sometime in December.

By January 6, there was still no sign of the cable guys. I was scheduled to leave town the following week, so was anxious that this be taken care of before I departed.

When Catherine came over that day, we decided to make it our mission to find out what was going on and when I might expect to see the cable guys.

We tried calling, but to no avail. We suspected that answering phones on Wednesday afternoons had been banned.

Not having any luck with the phone, we decided to go back to the post office where we had paid. When we got there, they of course said their only part in the whole process was collecting the money. We had to go directly to the installation office.

And where, pray tell is that?

At the Old Cadre’s Activity Center!

Off we go again!

Unfortunately, when we got there, we found out that we were at the wrong Old Cadre’s Activity Center. This was the Jilin Province Old Cadres Activity Center; we needed to be at the Changchun City Old Cadres Activity Center.

And where, pray tell, might that be?

They didn’t know.

“Go to the Jilin Province TV Station down the road. They will be able to help you.”

Off we go again!

The folks at the Jilin Province TV station were quite annoyed with us because they said we needed to be at the Changchun City TV Station. Fortunately, this time they could tell us where the place was.

Off we went again!

Sure enough, right there on the grounds of the Changchun City Old Cadre’s Activity Center was the cable TV office. Go figure.

Once in the building, we had to do a bit of hunting to find the right office, but in the end, we were successful. It was one of those typical Chinese government offices–a thick blue haze hanging in the air over 4 totally empty desks around which stood 6 people doing absolutely nothing more than contributing to the blue haze.

The woman sitting at the desk glared at us as if we had a sign over our heads that declared, “We are here to annoy you,” and sort of hissed at us.

For some reason I decided to hang back and not reveal the fact that I was a human foreigner, which is to say a foreigner who speaks Chinese. That piece of information is often best held as a trump card to be played when absolutely needed.

Catherine explained the situation; that I had paid, waited, was leaving soon, and wanted to know when my cable would be hooked up.

More scowling, more hissing; then the evil woman passed the papers to another smoker on the other side of the desk. Lots of chatter, nothing said. Finally the guy told Catherine to tell the foreigner that they’d come tomorrow.

It was time to make my move.

“But I won’t be home tomorrow afternoon.”

I watched as the words floated out and joined the blue smoke hanging in the air.

That got everyone’s attention. Whoah!! This barbarian can talk!!! A few scowls turned to smiles.

“Why not come on Friday afternoon,” I said, “I promise I’ll be home on Friday afternoon.”

“Well, you’ll have to call me tomorrow, then,” he said.

“But we called all afternoon and couldn’t get through. That’s why we’re here! Besides, if you’re going to come Friday afternoon, why in the world do I need to call you tomorrow?” I queried.

“Because I might forget to come!”

“WELL DON’T FORGET TO COME; JUST DO IT,” I replied, quite sternly.

By this time all the smokers in the room were up in arms at the talking barbarian with the (sort of) blonde hair. They are loving every minute of it. Meanwhile, Catherine had faded into the background to watch the carnage!

After some more dickering about whether or not this guy was going to remember to come or not, I finally just blurted out, “I paid 400 kuai 6 weeks ago, and what do I have to show for it?”

And with that, the Barbarian showed her true colors. Not content to handle this in the usual indirect Chinese way (it was getting us nowhere), she went in for the kill and brought up MONEY!!!

Fortunately, that managed to put their faces on the line just enough to make them decide they needed to take care of me today.

So before we could say “how many channels will I have?”, Catherine and I found ourselves in the back of a blue exhaust-spitting three-wheeler careening down the ice-covered streets of Changchun, something that was even a first for Catherine! (Hey, you hang with foreigners long enough and you experience strange things!)

30 minutes later, I had a brand new hole in my house (they drilled through 2 feet of brick), and access to 20 new channels!

In all, we had made 3 trips to 5 different locations on 3 different days to find these guys and get the thing installed!

toutu lala. Push push, pull pull.



Cruising the Yangtze

yangtze river ferry

The website A Luxury Travel Blog recently posted a list of the 4 best cruise ships on the Yangtze River. 

At almost four thousand miles long, the Yangtze is Asia’s longest river and the third longest in the world. Historically it divides the North and South of China providing a natural barrier against invaders and more significantly today, a waterway for transport, commerce, and leisure cruising. China’s coming of age as a true world power was signaled by the colossal feat of engineering, the Three Gorges Dam, a highlight of most cruises. While literally dozens of ships ply the waters, only a mere handful come close to the Western definition of luxury.

I am very disappointed to see that the ‘Three-star Tourist Boat’ Noel and I took during our Esther Expedition in 2012 did not make the list.


Noel and Joann’s Excellent Adventure

A Tale of Two Tickets — The Ferry 

Sailing the Mountaintops 

A Three-Star Tourist Boat



Religious Faith in China

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

As readers of this blog will know, I’m always on the lookout for a new book that will find its place onto my current “must read” list. And while I have yet to actually read  Evan Osnos’ new book “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” (it was released just yesterday and my copy is on its way) I’m reasonably sure it will make the list.

I say that because I have followed the work of Osnos for years, and consider him to be one of the more astute observers of contemporary China. Combine that with great writing, and you’ve got a winning combination.

This morning the website On Faith published an adaptation from the book in a piece titled Five Things You Need to Know about Faith in China. Here is the introductory paragraph:

“Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker, lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2013. His new book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, is an inner history of China’s transformation, told through the eyes of men and women at the center of it. Osnos writes that, beneath the physical changes, China’s rise is a story of spiritual revival comparable to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century, an attempt to fill ‘a hole in Chinese life that people named the jingshen kongxu — ‘the spiritual void.’’ In this adaptation from Age of Ambition, he explains the five essential dynamics in China’s quest for meaning.”

And here the five points Osnos makes about faith in China:

1. Chairman Mao: the accidental missionary:

“The Cultural Revolution destroyed China’s old belief systems, but Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution could not rebuild them. People who had learned to believe in a force larger than themselves were left to set out in search of their own faiths.”

2. After the almighty yuan, what?

“In sprinting ahead, China had bounded past whatever barriers once held back the forces of corruption and moral disregard. People did not trust the institutions around them: the Party, the press, big companies that had failed to provide safe food. People are placing their faith elsewhere.”

3. Christianity: China’s largest N.G.O.

“The Party is under increasing pressure to change the way it regards the desire for faith; China today has sixty to eighty million Christians, a community as large as the Communist Party. Li Fan, a secular liberal writer, told me, “Christianity has probably become China’s largest nongovernmental organization.”

4. The Other Xinjiang: Xinjiang and Tibet are boiling

“China’s ethnic and religious politics are drifting toward a crisis.”

5. The home field advantage

“For new sources of meaning, Chinese citizens are looking not only to religion but also to philosophy, psychology, and literature for new ways of orienting themselves in a world of ideological incoherence and unrelenting competition.”

Osnos concludes the piece with this clear-eyed observation:

“Nothing has caused more upheaval in the last hundred years of Chinese history than the battle over what to believe. Today, the Party is not allowing the growth of faith as much as it is trying to keep up with it.”

Only 48 hours until my copy arrives!

In 2008, the PBS series Frontline aired a 25-minute documentary film by Osnos titled Jesus in China: Is Christianity  Transforming China? Here’s a 2 1/2 minute sneak preview:

You can see the entire video here.

Related Posts

My Favorite Chinese History Books

Literary Journey — the List



Ten Documentaries on China

China from the InsideI’m a documentary lover; given a choice between watching a movie, a TV program (drama or comedy) or a documentary, I will almost always choose the documentary. There are numerous documentaries about China floating around out there so I thought I’d highlight some of my favorites, some of which I use in training/orientation courses for folks headed to China. Others I like just because they are interesting. At any rate, they will all help you understand China better.


1.  The Genius that Was China (4 parts) (PBS) (1986)

This four part series, which originally aired on the program Nova, examines the scientific and technological dominance of China in ancient times, and explores reasons for China’s decline in the 19th century. I remember watching this when it was broadcast in 1990, and loved it because it addressed so many questions that I had accumulated in my first years of working in China. It’s interesting to watch it now because at the time no one really knew where China was headed. (Parts 1-3 are on YouTube)

2.  A Century of Revolution (3 parts) (PBS) (1987)

If you want to get a handle on what the 20th century looked like in China, this is the series. It begins with the Xinghai Revolution in 1911, which overthrew the Qing Dynasty, and goes right up through the Cultural Revolution.

The product description from Amazon:

China: A Century of Revolution is a six-hour tour de force journey through the country’s most tumultuous period. First televised on PBS, this award-winning documentary series presents an astonishingly candid view of a once-secret nation with rare archival footage, insightful historical commentary and stunning eyewitness accounts from citizens who struggled through China’s most decisive century. China in Revolution charts the pivotal years from the birth of the new republic to the establishment of the PRC, through foreign invasions, civil war and a bloody battle for power between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. The Mao Years examines the turbulent era of Mao’s attempts to forge a “new China” from the war-ravaged and exhausted nation. Born Under the Red Flag showcases China’s unlikely transformation into an extraordinary hybrid of communist-centralized politics with an ever-expanding free market economy. Monumental in scope, China: A Century of Revolution is critical viewing for anyone interested in this increasingly powerful and globally influential country.

3.  China from the Inside (4 parts) (PBS)

This is one a number of documentary series about China that was produced in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. They give an excellent glimpse into some of the myriad issues and social challenges facing China. And yes, they all still apply!

The product description from Amazon:

China from the Inside is a series of four documentaries that survey China through Chinese eyes to see how history has shaped them, and where the present is taking them. Episodes include Power and the People, deals with the governance of China, The Women, talks about the past and future for Chinese women, Shifting Nature, looks at China’s environmental challenges, and Freedom, explores China’s conflict between personal freedom and governance.

The documentary website is here.

4.  China Rising (4 parts) (CBC and The New York Times) (2007)

This pre-Olympics series was produced by the CBC, and in some ways dovetails nicely with the PBS series mentioned above. The writing is exceptional!

The description from the series website:

China. The scene of the most extraordinary economic, social, and political transformation of our time. But it is also a nation struggling with an enormous population, a strained environment, and unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity. Four documentary films portray the triumphs and disappointments of remarkable individuals caught up in an epic story.

The episodes are also available on YouTube.

5.  Young and Restless in China (PBS)

This film follows the lives of 9 Chinese young people (urban and rural) over the course of four years as they try to find their way in a changing society.

From the official description:

“These young Chinese are Westernized, savvy about today’s interconnected world, ambitious — and often torn between their culture and their aspirations. Set to an original soundtrack of Chinese rock and hop-hop music, this provocative film presents an in-depth look at what it means to be young and Chinese today.”

6.  The Cross: Jesus in China (4 parts) (China Soul) (2001)

Produced by Pastor Yuan Zhiming (former filmmaker in China), this series was one of the first to give a first-hand account of the explosion of Christianity in China.

The Amazon Description:

This documentary, The Cross: Jesus in China, portrays the little known history of a remarkable people; it is the turbulent 50 year history of Chinese Christians on screen! For the first time, the history of Christianity in China, especially within the House-Church movement, is given in an honest and comprehensive account. The film answers the question raised by many people outside China: how did the number of Chinese Christians increase from 700,000 in 1949 to approximately 70 million today despite communist control? Using live footage and interviews, the film captures the true stories of many people and seeks to answer the most common questions: how does the Chinese government deal with Chinese Christians and vice-versa? How have Chinese Christians developed, survived and grown? What kind of people are they and what influence have they had and will they have on Chinese society?

7.  Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure (4 parts ) BBC)

The description on YouTube:

China – the superpower the world fears, but few really know. Ken Hom, the godfather of Chinese cuisine, and Ching-He Huang, leading chef of the contemporary generation, together undertake an epic 3000-mile culinary adventure across China – not only to reveal its food, but its people, history, culture and soul.

8.  Education Education: Why Poverty (Steps International)

This is a slightly depressing look at education in modern day China.

Description on YouTube:

In ancient times in China, education was the only way out of poverty — in recent times it has been the best way. China’s economic boom and talk of the merits of hard work have created an expectation that to study is to escape poverty. But these days China’s higher education system only leads to jobs for a few, educating a new generation to unemployment and despair.

9.  Please Vote for Me (Independent Lens)

This is one of my favorites – part “Lord of the Flies,” part Cultural Revolution!

The description on Amazon:

Two males and a female vie for office, indulging in low blows and spin, character assassination and gestures of goodwill, all the while gauging their standing with voters. The setting is not the Democratic presidential campaign, but a third-grade class at an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China. “Please Vote For Me”, which is on the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences documentary feature shortlist, packs its fleet hour with keen observations. Chronicling a public school’s first open elections – at stake is the position of class monitor – filmmaker Weijun Chen has crafted a witty, engaging macro-lens view of human nature, China’s one-child policy and the democratic electoral process as the ultimate exercise in marketing.

10.  High Tech, Low Life

This film examines how modern media technology in the hands of citizens is challenging the government monopoly on information.

Description from the documentary website:

High Tech, Low Life follows the journey of two of China’s first citizen reporters as they travel the country – chronicling underreported news and social issues stories. Armed with laptops, cell phones, and digital cameras they develop skills as independent one-man news stations while learning to navigate China’s evolving censorship regulations and avoiding the risk of political persecution.

This film is available on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

So that’s my list. What China documentaries would you recommend?

Note: This post was originally published at ChinaSource.