Shitty People Being Shitty to Other Shitty People, But Not Always

It can seem like there are days here where I see nothing but shitty people being shitty to other shitty people. Today I saw some girls shove a blind man out of their way. There’s no shortage of cars cutting off pedestrians, cyclists, or other cars because everyone is in a hurry and thinks their own time and safety is more important than others’. I hate when people park right in the middle of the road or on a sidewalk, completely blocking the flow of traffic for everyone else because someone was too lazy to go find a parking spot while they ran into 7-11. Or how about the famous incident of the little girl getting hit by a car and no one stopping to help her while she died in the street a few years back? Seeing shitty, selfish, greedy behavior like this all the time can really bring a person down.

However, I have managed to find a group of wonderful, wonderful people who are the exact opposite of all this. Volunteering is a pretty new concept in China, a lot of Chinese people don’t even really understand what it means. I’ve been working with a couple of animal rescue organizations and a Trap Neuter Release organization in Shanghai and have had the opportunity to get to know some of the most selfless people I’ve ever met in my life. It’s refreshing to work with them and to be reminded that not every single person in Shanghai is a shit bird who couldn’t care less about the people around them.

These people dedicate so much of themselves to trying to ease the pain and suffering of animals, especially stray animals. They spend countless hours and their own hard earned cash bringing stray animals to the vet and then placing them in homes. I work mostly with the TNR organization and one of the members, a guy named Steven has become a bit of a hero to me. He spends most of his mornings before work at the vet checking on his strays, goes to work and then spends most of his evenings catching stray cats in neighborhoods (mine included) where TNR programs are on-going and then goes home to a home full of dogs and cats that he fosters until they can be placed in permanent homes. You’d never think he was anything special if you just saw him on the street. He’s just a regular guy. Him and a few others have spent months pursuing official NPO status for the TNR organization and just recently got it approved. They’ve designed this amazing plan for not only carrying out TNR, but also dedicating time and resources on educating people on proper pet care and how to prevent the growth of Shanghai’s stray animal population. I’ve learned that many Chinese people have some really interesting and sad misunderstandings about pets and pet care that end poorly for our furry friends. They are trying to educate people against this kind of unscientific, superstitious thinking.

Another unsung hero is Chris Lau, founder of ThinkAdoption who at any one time has about 20 pets in his home. Some of them are his own, most of them are waiting for adoption. I myself have two cats and I feel that they take up a lot of my time (they’re so messy!), I have no idea how people like Chris can hold down full time jobs and then manage to care for so many animals! Especially in a large city like Shanghai where you can’t just put the dogs outside in your yard while you go to work. It takes remarkable dedication and selflessness.

Some people have asked me why I spend so much time and money on trying to help stray animals instead of trying to help people. I have two reasons. 1. The situation of all stray animals was caused by humans – people not being responsible pet owners, releasing them when they become a burden and not de-sexing them. I feel like we owe it to them. 2. People indirectly benefit from taking care of the stray animal problem. How? Well, stray animals can sometimes carry rabies. I saw a news report yesterday that said that 10 people in Beijing died from rabies last year because of stray dogs. Stray cats make a lot of noise at night when they’re in heat, so de-sexing them solves that problem and also helps them to lead longer, healthier lives. I am frequently woken up by the cats in my neighborhood fighting or getting it on. I’ve managed to spay/neuter 5 of them already, but I probably have 10 more to go before we have the problem mostly under control.

If anyone is interested in learning more about these organizations, I recommend you check them out on Weibo or WeChat. Search for ThinkAdoption, PPAR (Paw Pals Animal Rescue) or TNR Action at TNRaction.com.

Pretty Woman Spitting By Leanna Adams – A Book Review

First – HEY, MY INTERNET WORKS! So I have a couple of old posts that I’m just gonna put right here right now…hope you like them. My work these days frequently brings me to Chengdu where I get to stay in fancy hotels with uncensored internet. I know, I know…you’re very impressed at how fancy I am. Seriously though, I’m pretty fancy, but moving on. I hope this means I can get back to trying to post a little more regularly. Now, on to the book review!

I would have never read this book except that a friend gifted it to me on the Kindle store. I would have lost interest in it immediately upon realizing that the target audience of Leanna’s book is China newbs, which also made it an odd choice of gift from that particular friend who is the embodiment of “bitter expat.”

Oh well, I read it anyway and it would have been awesome for someone who hadn’t yet visited China. Leanna doesn’t try to pretend that her book is full of deep insights into Chinese culture, which in my opinion earns her a lot of credit. She wrote her book after teaching English in Anhui….for one semester. That’s it. She was in Anhui for 4 months and wrote a book about it. I thought it was strange that she even got a publishing deal since every white person who comes to China thinks “I should write a book about this!” We all think our experience is unique enough that the rest of the world should know what we’ve done and seen! The market is flooded with that kind of literature. I think her angle was maybe a bit unique in that she was specifically targeting China newbs without any pretense of being an expert. She even included a packing list at the end of the book! I shouldn’t be so condescending though. There was a time when I would have read that book and really enjoyed it. For that reason, I would recommend her book to people who haven’t yet been to China. I think she does manage to understand China and Chinese culture better in four months than some of the foreigners I know who have been here for years. One aspect of China that she described very well was the warmth of the Chinese people and how they will treat a guest. She describes going home for a long weekend with one of her students to see his hometown and describes the embarrassment of realizing that in spite of being from a poor family, his parents insisted on paying for her room at the nicest hotel in town and bringing her for meals at expensive restaurants. We’ve all been there! Being simultaneously horrified and deeply touched is something anyone coming here should prepare themselves for because it’s inevitable.

Another aspect of Leann’s book that I give her credit for is the way in which she didn’t shy away from discussing some of the things that bothered her about China, but then again, she wasn’t one of the idealistic foreigners who comes here with a head full of visions of gong fu masters and women in qipaos running around serving tea. The title, “Pretty Woman Spitting” is obviously from the chapter where she talks about the constant spitting and how gross it is. Again, not horribly insightful, but still something to prepare yourself for if you’re not used to it. She also discusses to some degree how disrespectful people can be at times about trying to capitalize off of foreigners. The prime example of this that she uses in her book is an experience that I think most of us will never have here (hopefully). *Spoiler alert* An Australian colleague passes away from a brain aneurysm while in Anhui and because of the rapid progression, there was no time to transport to another hospital or go home. She describes the frustration of trying to get the doctors and nursing staff to be straightforward with them about the woman’s condition. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it and a funeral had to be planned. The colleague’s family wanted to take her body out of the country and have a funeral at home, but the local authorities got involved and delayed the process of getting her body out of the country and decided to hold a TELEVISED open casket funeral in the meantime. The school didn’t bother to notify her students, but instead hand picked a few students who would look good on TV. Leanne seemed to suspect that the purpose of this was to get publicity for the school or the town. There could have been a lot of reasons for televising a funeral in spite of the family’s wishes, but either way it doesn’t change the fact that someone capitalized on this horrible event that should have been private.

Ok, I guess when it’s all said and done, I liked the book more than I would like to admit, but maybe because it was also kind of nice to remember what it was like when I first arrived in China when everything was fresh and new and interesting. Perhaps I should say this book is a good read for anyone preparing to make their first trip here or for those of us who have just been here long enough to forget what that first trip was like.

The Chinese Office

I’ve been doing my new job for about 5 months now and I’m mostly getting the hang of it. I have another problem though – Chinese co-workers. Our team is small, only 12 of us, including the boss and a secretary. It’s evenly split between men and women, but I’m the only foreigner. Initially, I didn’t see this as a problem, but now I hate it. Our department has another team in a different city that does the same stuff we do, and the managers are American, as well as most of the team members. Many of them started on my team in Shanghai (before I got here) and ended up begging to move to the other team. I used to think that was weird and assumed it was partly because their Chinese was bad. Now, I’m half way considering asking for a transfer too.

Reason #1: Having a Chinese manager sucks.

Our job requires that we work with a lot of third parties to try and make them do things they don’t want to do. Which means we deal with a lot of conflict, we’re bound to piss people off. This would be fine, except that every time I have an issue with someone (this one asshole in particular) he gets mad and calls my boss because he knows that she will capitulate to him because she wants to avoid conflict and he uses the “we’re Chinese, she’s a foreigner, we’re against her!” card. Even worse, she sometimes does this behind my back without communicating anything to me. How am I supposed to convince someone to do something when they know all they have to do is call my boss and it’ll be resolved? It’s impossible. The American managers on the other team all know better. When a third party calls them to complain about one of their subordinates, they either won’t engage or they tell the third party what they were told to say by their subordinate in order to back them up. I’ve tried talking to my boss about this and she always says she’ll change her approach to my face, but then doesn’t…in order to avoid conflict, I’m sure.

Reason #2: My co-workers exclude me from everything.

They have a WeChat group that I’m not part of, they go out together on weekends and don’t invite me, many of them have not accepted my WeChat friend request. We just had our annual dinner and they all went and got a table with 11 chairs…guess who wasn’t asked to sit with them? You know what? Fine. None of that would bother me because it’s not like I want to go to KTV anyway. Except for one thing. Several of them have gone to my boss to complain about me saying that I won’t take part in group activities and that I’m difficult to talk to. The best part is that my boss attends these group activities that I’m not invited to, hears the feedback, but then never thinks “maybe we should actually invite Whitey too.” How does she not make the connection to the fact that no one invites me, hence I have no chance to participate? Here’s the weird thing…it’s only the women who complain about me. I get along quite well with my male co-workers because they actually try to talk to me. I have a lot more in common with them than I do with the women. The women on my team are mostly what I would call airheads. They’re nice enough (except for when they’re gossiping about me…we’ll get to that), but they only talk about what they bought recently, what they’re going to buy next, their diets, and make-up. Not even kidding. I have nothing to add to any of that. “Oh you’re on a diet?! But you’re so skinny!” That’s all I got. I’ve tried to join in on their conversations, but I always get the feeling that I am not welcome so I give up pretty quickly. I have self-respect, so why would I sit there and try desperately to join a stupid conversation about things I don’t care about with people who don’t want to talk to me?

Reason #3: THE GOSSIP OMFG THE GOSSIP!

So did you know that I’m sleeping with one of my married co-workers? No? Me neither! I found out on Friday. I wonder how long this has been going on…my husband would be so mad if he knew…

One of my male co-workers and I get along really, really, really well. We’ll call him Bob. Bob is the only one of them who has made a genuine effort to get to know me and not make assumptions about what I’m about. We actually meet up occasionally in our down time just to chat. He’s aware of all the struggles I’m having and he does his best to try and make me feel better about it. I’m sure he sticks up for me when the others are saying unfair things. So of course, we’re banging. Because we’re all 5 years old and therefore we know it’s impossible for a man and a woman to have a relationship that isn’t about sex. *eye roll* This is another thing that my co-workers have complained to my boss about, the fact that I am sleeping with Bob. Funny how the complaints were only directed at me though, as if were it true, Bob would have no blame in the situation. But of course, I am a slutty white girl, so what else would I be doing with a man. Bob is being really cool about all of this. He found out about the rumors before I did, because they all approached him and asked what the deal was, but refused to hear his explanation. When he told me what happened, I was pretty sure the next thing he was going to say would be “I’m sorry, we can’t be friends anymore.” Instead, he came to see me in person and tell me not to worry about what others think and that time will prove them wrong. He’s made no effort to hide our friendship from anyone because we both know we’re not doing anything wrong. I think that if I didn’t have his support, I might just quit. At the very least, I would definitely be asking for a transfer to the other team immediately.

My boss told me I need to try harder to make my co-workers like me more. The thing is, I feel like they’re predisposed to not liking me no matter what I do. I don’t feel inclined to bend over backwards or to be someone I’m not to make people like me, especially when they’ve made no effort whatsoever. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with each of them, especially when I first started and they were helping me learn how to do the job. I really thought we were all getting along great. I never felt like there were awkward silences or anything like that…I’m admittedly bad at small talk, but I did what my husband always says to do – just ask them a lot of questions about themselves. I know way more about them than they know about me, I’m sure of that. Bob says that most Chinese and probably my co-workers just feel uncomfortable around foreigners, like they can’t be themselves. I can understand that because I feel that way around many Chinese too. If they just left me out of everything, but didn’t complain about me, I would be fine with that. I’m just going to start bringing food to the team meetings. Maybe I’ll take a cue from “The Help” and shit in a chocolate pie for them.

Anyway, I have this next week off to relax, so I plan on catching up on some posts that I’ve been planning. I hope everyone has a happy Spring Festival!

The Red Carpet Treatment

I finally started my new job and I’ve been crazy busy for the last few weeks. I spend most of my time in smaller Chinese cities touring facilities and carrying out inspections of security programs at said facilities. For some of these facilities, a foreigner showing up is a big deal. I’ve observed some really interesting stuff the last couple of weeks that has lead to no small amount of embarrassment for me. Let me explain.

First of all, it’s important to understand that I am not high up in the company. I have a team of really fantastic Chinese co-workers who are all doing the same job as me, but they are more experienced at it, as I have just started. I have a background in what I’m doing, but I am new to the company and to their way of doing things, so I rely heavily on my co-workers for coaching and advice. Also, I am the only foreigner on our team. Well, the only non-Asian foreigner. However, in spite of being the same “rank” as my co-workers and far less experienced, I get treated very, very differently when we’re doing site visits. For example, at one point last weekend we had to go through a metal detector screening using hand held metal detectors. My Chinese co-workers went first, no big deal, but when it was my turn, I was asked to “wait a second” and they literally pulled out a red carpet for me to stand on while they did the screening. HUMILIATING. Later (this happened at multiple sites), when it came time to order lunch for me and my team, the facility staff ordered regular old cheap Chinese take out for my colleagues, but ordered something special for me…expensive pizza from Papa John’s. That was also humiliating and actually a huge pain in the ass because they’d already ordered a ton of Chinese food (that was thrown away) that looked fine and I was starving, but they made me wait an extra 90 minutes for the pizza because they didn’t want to give Chinese food to a “foreign guest.” Part of that was obviously their pre-conceived idea that a foreigner can not eat Chinese food or use chopsticks (it was mentioned). I am also starting to suspect that Chinese people think their own cuisine is disgusting (just kidding…). I don’t even eat pizza because it makes me sick! But them going out of their way to order special food for me left me with no option but to eat it because I felt guilty, but it also forced me into a situation where I was proving their point of “see? foreigners love pizza and hate chinese food!” Also, I got super sick from the pizza. Additionally, I don’t like having this divide between me and my co-workers. I’m sure they understand that I didn’t ask for special treatment, but I have to wonder if over time there would be any resentment caused by me constantly being given better treatment than them for the same exact job.

Ok, so I get that Chinese people just really want to be good hosts and make sure I’m taken care of. I get that. On one level it’s quite touching, but mostly it’s just super embarrassing. Nothing makes me happier than when Chinese people just treat me like everyone else. There was this restaurant that I used to go to and when I went in, they’d throw a menu at me and an order pad and say “write your own order down!” Just like they did to every Chinese person who went in there. I didn’t get babied, I wasn’t coddled and they even made fun of how ugly my characters were. I loved it. (My characters are so ugly.)

Another thing that kept happening is something that ALL foreigners have experienced. You open your mouth and say “ni hao” or “xie xie” and the world stops. Every Chinese person in the room is falling over themselves complimenting your AMAZING Mandarin. Even if that’s all you know. At times, the encouragement can be nice, but it can also reach a point where it’s just kind of insulting, even though I KNOW that’s not the intent. Knowing that Chinese people are just trying to be nice when they say things like this hasn’t really kept me from being annoyed by it. I think I finally came up with a comparison that explains why this makes me so uncomfortable: Let’s say you have a small child who goes to kindergarten and then comes home one day and tells you that they have a new teacher at school who teaches Chinese. Your kid then says “ni hao, xie xie, ni hao ma” whatever. Your kid is 5 years old, so you get really excited and you say “Wow! GOOD JOB! You’re so smart!” blah blah whatever people say to little kids who learn something. You’re excited that your kid picked it up so quickly. If we take that same scenario and your kid is an adult who comes home from work or college or whatever and says the same thing, your reaction is probably going to be not so enthusiastic, maybe like “that’s great, keep it up!” And you’ll go on with your day. In fact, you might even wonder if there’s something wrong with your child. Basically, my point is that we have different standards of success for small children and adults. When it comes to foreigners and Mandarin, we all get the 5 year old’s standard of success, which is somewhat insulting. I mean, we all sound like 5 year olds at some point in the learning process, but that doesn’t mean we actually only have the intellectual capability of a 5 year old (in most cases). I think one of the reasons why non-Asian foreigners have such a hard time learning Chinese is because of this. Chinese people won’t raise the bar on us and start expecting more. They don’t tell us when we’ve said something wrong because “awww, she’s trying, that’s cute” and some foreigners I suspect, believe the compliments and don’t realize that Chinese people are just being nice and maybe don’t push themselves as much as they would if Chinese people were less forgiving about it. How many of you have been told “Your Chinese is better than mine!” by a Chinese person? Come on! Who’s going to believe that? I’d almost think they were making fun of me except that most Chinese are simply too nice to do that. Again, even though I know it’s not the intent, I still can’t help but feel a little insulted when a Chinese person freaks out over me saying one word in Chinese. To me, it implies a combination of “we didn’t think you were smart enough to learn this language and we didn’t expect you to respect our culture enough to learn the language.” I think they owe it to themselves to expect that foreigners who come here long term bother to learn the language at least a little.

A Bit of a Touchy Subject

I have something serious I want to discuss, but before I do that, I want to mention that I added another Chinese language learning resource on my Chinese learning page. It’s the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which maybe everyone else already knew about, but I just discovered and I love it. I’ve been reviewing the basics and re-solidifying my foundation in basic grammar.

Ok, so the thing I want to talk about today is sexual harassment, specifically in China. Like I mentioned in my post yesterday, lots of things change very quickly in China and I think that the nature of sexual harassment is one of those things. During my first time in China from 2003 through 2005, sexual harassment happened, but it wasn’t a regular thing that happened every day the way it seems to be now.

Just to be clear, I am not one of those overly sensitive types who thinks that any guy who says anything or looks at me is sexually harassing me. Like most women, I have way too much experience with the real thing and am very clear on what sexual harassment is. I’ve been sexually harassed in almost every country I’ve visited, so this isn’t anything unique to the Chinese either. I know the difference between a Chinese man looking at me because I’m a person who just happens to be in his field of view and people are naturally interested in one another, or a person who’s maybe just looking to see what I’m wearing, or a person who is simply curious or surprised to see a foreigner. I know what that kind of staring or looking is, I know what it feels like. What I’m talking about is the long, up and down gaze that rests too long on the breasts or butt, sometimes accompanied by a lecherous smirk and/or unnecessary commentary. Some men have gone so far as to touch me without permission, follow me, or even just straight up ask for sex. Just a couple days ago, I ventured outside of central Shanghai and was followed down the street by a man who was commenting on how pretty I am and how big my breasts are, while trying to make me look at him. I went into a subway because I knew there would be security guards down there and he followed me until I passed through the gate (I guess I wasn’t worth the 3 kuai ticket) and he stood outside watching me until I couldn’t see him any longer. It made me nervous and I felt very unsafe. We’ve all seen those videos of horrible things happening to people in China where no one helps other than to record the incident on their phone. What if that guy had decided to attack me right in the subway? Would anyone have helped me? I don’t know, but the fact that I even have to wonder if anyone would help me certainly doesn’t make me feel better about those situations.

I was talking about this with some friends the other day and all of my western female friends had similar stories. Our male friends were incredulous, even a little suspicious that we were exaggerating or somehow misunderstanding the situations. Their reaction, to be honest was a little hurtful. I’ve asked a number of female Chinese friends about these situations and they’ve all said the same thing – that nothing of the sort has ever happened to them, that they’ve never heard of it happening to any of their Chinese friends, and that they didn’t think most Chinese men would behave that way to a Chinese woman. There are probably several reasons for that. So why us Western ladies then? Why do we have to put up with harassment all the time? I’ll tell you why I think it is. We’re probably all thinking the same thing by now, which is that Westerners have a reputation for being “more open” than Chinese people. Western people have sex all the time with whoever they want without any social or emotional consequences. We’re all pretty slutty. How do we know this? From movies and TV, of course! If it happened in Sex and the City, it has to be real, right??

(Sidebar – Many English teachers in China encourage their students to watch American TV and movies to “learn about the culture.” This is a great idea, but only if the student has the ability to think critically about what they’re seeing and interpret it. For example, many Chinese people have the mistaken idea that life in America is like the Die Hard series, everyone has guns, we’re all running around shooting everyone and blowing everything up. Combine that with Sex and the City and we’re doing all of that in Christian Louboutin stilettos. The real take away from American TV and movies is that yes, we’re more open to the idea of seeing violence and sex on screen, but really we just love a good explosion and watching ridiculous high rollers living it up in NYC because most of us will never do that. It’s fantasy!)

However, in spite of the unfair conclusions drawn from American media about how slutty I am, I think there is at least one more culprit. In 2003, it was very fashionable for any and all companies to use white people in their commercials and advertisements. It didn’t matter what the product was, white models were required. There were white people in ads for cars, clothing, restaurants, all varieties of products. Now, I think that many Chinese brands have shifted towards using Chinese models because of pride in their product, pride in their country and pride in Chinese beauty. Obviously, I think this is great. I think it sucks that the whole world seems to be leaning towards one standard of beauty – white, tall, slender, blonde, etc that nearly no one in the world can attain aside from those with Northern European heritage. Anyway, so now that more and more Chinese brands are using Chinese models, more foreign brands have even started to as well. I think that fewer and fewer Chinese are willing to accept the message that “white people like it, so should you!” However, the ads that almost exclusively still use white women and not Asian women are ads that are related to anything of a sexual nature…lingerie or condoms, for example. I was in a store the other day and I noticed that the posters and displays around the store used Asian models, except for the lingerie department where the ads featured white women. I saw a commercial on TV recently that struck me as odd from the beginning, but I couldn’t say why. It showed a white couple in their house, she was making dinner and he was reading the paper (very 1950s, I know) and they sat down to eat, but suddenly, the woman ripped her clothes off (at this point the commercial no longer seemed weird), jumped on the man who then lead her into the bedroom. The commercial turned out to be an ad for Jizbon condoms. What seemed weird was seeing a white woman portrayed as a wholesome housewife, but it quit feeling weird when she was being portrayed the way I was used to seeing white women in China. (Of course, women are also objectified and sexualized in American ads too, but we objectify ALL women, not just white women, which of course, doesn’t make it ok.)

I realized that I had somehow subconsciously become used to seeing white women portrayed only in a very sexual light. If that way of thinking could be unknowingly taken on by me, someone who had only really been subjected to these differences for two years, then how does that affect the attitudes of Chinese people, specifically men towards white women? I’m going to guess that perhaps that subconscious relating of white women and sexuality is much stronger. You know what? I think that really sucks. Not just because now I get to walk around being treated like nothing but a one dimensional sexual being (by some people, not the majority, but enough to make me uncomfortable on a fairly regular basis), but also because these ads criminalize sexuality and sexual behavior. They label it as something “foreign,” “not for Chinese” and thereby take away the right of Chinese women to be overtly sexual if they chose to be without being unfairly labeled in the same way that I am. I believe that a person’s sexuality is theirs and theirs alone to decide when to turn it off and on and how they want to embody it or display it. They should get to do this without judgement and without preconceived notions about how sexual they are or aren’t, or how sexual they should be.

I suppose I live in a fantasy land because as of yet, I don’t know of a single country where this is reality.

How to be a Winner at Chinese Ikea

One of the things on my “40 Before 40” list was going to an Ikea store in China. I’ve heard all about the madness that occurs, nongmin gong sleeping in the beds, nai nais showing up and chilling in a living room to chat all day, etc. It sounded really weird and like it would be one of those bizarre experiences that could only happen here. For comparison’s sake, I went to an Ikea in the US earlier this summer. I’d never been to one before, but I found the experience truly rage inducing. The way they have the store set up so you have to walk through EVERYTHING and then you have to find a way to remember what you wanted so that you can go on an expedition through the MASSIVE warehouse to find it. God help you if you forget where you parked. So the store itself isn’t my cup of tea, but what about the people in it? I didn’t see anyone sleeping in a display bed or people relaxing in living room displays as if they lived there. However, I did notice that literally no parent in the store even tried to control their kids. Anyone under the age of 15 was running around like they were in a giant play room, which I guess means they felt at home, which I guess means Ikea achieved their objective with their cozy little displays. I don’t know, but it pissed me off. My experience in American Ikea made me more scared than curious about going to Chinese Ikea. I thought that if a handful (relatively speaking) of Americans acting like assholes in a store could make it so painful to be there, then what happens when you take that handful and multiply it times 1000? That and the fact that it’s still really hot and humid here, so I figured an Ikea filled to the brim with smelly people would make it that much awesomer. I was scared to go. Because I don’t have a death wish, I knew I would not be going to Ikea on a weekend. I made a friend agree to go with me and I had wanted to go in the afternoon, thinking maybe it wouldn’t be so crowded with people at work, but my friend has a job. She was’t able to get off work and meet me at Ikea until 9pm. As it turns out, that, my friends is the secret. There were about 50 people in the entire store, most of them employees and the rest were mostly foreigners who clearly were in on the secret of how to avoid a shit show at Chinese Ikea. It was amazing. The walk ways were empty, we were able to rush right through the displays (pro tip- I’d looked online and already knew exactly what I wanted to buy) and went straight to the warehouse to get the things I needed. I am now the proud owner of a memory foam mattress top and life is good. I kind of feel like I cheated though. I’m sure I’ll have to go back eventually and karma will get me back.

My “China Thing”

Summer is over and I have my work visa in hand. I’ll be heading back to Shanghai next week and I’m actually pretty happy about it, primarily for three reasons.

1. I’m bored out of my mind

I live in a small town, far from everything in the US. It’s incredibly hot here and there are sandstorms almost every day, limiting the time one can spend outside. The last friend I had in this town moved away last week, leaving me with my cat and my husband, both of whom are sick of me. My husband is at work 14+ hrs a day anyway, so entertaining me is a huge burden on my poor kitty. I’ve kept myself busy reading, studying Chinese, working out, and listening to courses on iTunes university. I’m ready to go do something and feel useful again.

2. My back hurts!

I have a back injury and now a hamstring injury (thanks a lot, pole dancing instructor) that I haven’t been able to find any solution to other than traditional Chinese massage. I’ve tried physical therapy, chiropractors, western style oily gross rub-down massage (there aren’t any other options such as deep tissue in this crappy town), medicine and acupuncture. At best, those methods offer temporary relief, but most of them are really expensive. They just can’t compete with 60 RMB blind massage. I haven’t had one since I came home and I’m walking like one of those 400 yr old nai nais that spent her whole life carrying heavy buckets of water on a pole across her shoulders.

3. I feel like a weirdo in America.

You know when people ask you about what you’ve been doing in China and you try to explain and about 30 seconds into it, they get that glazed look in their eyes? Yeah, that’s basically every conversation I’ve had since I’ve come home. I blame my husband. He makes me go to parties and stuff (ugh, people) and he introduces me to people by saying “This is my wife, she just finished a master’s degree in Chinese!” I know he’s trying to help and he’s proud of me, but it just doesn’t go well. WHY CAN’T I JUST STAY HOME WITH THE CAT?!?! I simply try to avoid the topic now. People ask me what I do and I say something like “I’m in between jobs right now” and then ask them what they do. Everyone would rather talk about themselves anyway, right? The few people who try to seriously understand whatever it is that I do, can’t really make heads or tails of it because they don’t know anything about China other than what’s in the news and we all know that’s not exactly putting China in the best light. They can’t (won’t?) understand why I would go there, much less keep going back. I hear questions like “But isn’t the food really unsafe? What do you eat there?” or “How do you breath with all that smog?!” These are valid questions, but even though these issues aren’t the end of the world for me, it’s hard to make people understand why I keep going back. The other reaction I often get is even worse than the usual indifference/confusion – and that is when people think I’m just showing off. I get that mostly from people I went to high school with. Most of my former high school classmates are still at home (small town, population less than 10,000), have a bunch of kids, make minimum wage and/or are on meth. When you run into a person like that and they ask you what you’re doing with your life, it’s pretty damn hard not to sound like you’re bragging. However, I feel like they shouldn’t ask that question of the former Honor Society president and women’s cross country team captain (I know, I know, I was hot shit) and expect to get an answer that’s going to make them feel better about themselves.

At the end of the day, my “China thing” (as it’s often referred to) is none of anyone’s damn business and it really has nothing to do with anyone else, but I just hate never knowing how to deal with these conversations. I like the fact that I don’t have to have this conversation in China with other expats. There’s an unspoken understanding and you rarely get asked about it, much less judged for it. My Chinese friends and my expat friends have more context for understanding my life, which makes it easier for me. I don’t have to go into minute details to make myself understood and I can speak Chinglish. I guess I’m just lazy. No, that’s not all it is…I don’t like feeling like I don’t belong and in a lot of ways, I don’t belong in America anymore. Maybe it would be easier if I was staying here for a few years, but I’m not ready to find out.

Passport Photo Conspiracy Theory!

I’m currently in the process of applying for my work visa and it seems like every time I check my email, I have a message from someone in some department somewhere asking me to mail or email passport photos to them. This morning, I was informed that immediately upon my arrival back to Shanghai, I have to have a medical exam (no surprise there), and the hospital is requiring that I bring NINE passport photos with me! This is starting to get a little suspicious! I’ve applied for lots of student visas, tourist visas, residence permits, etc in the past and I’ve always thought it was weird how many passport photos everyone always seemed to be asking for. Seriously, what the hell are they doing with all these photos? I know I’m not the only one who turns over (seemingly) hundreds of photos to different Chinese agencies each year. There’s only one logical conclusion to be reached here…Chinese people are trading our passport photos like baseball cards. I’ve figured it out, I’m on to them. Every time someone requests more than one photo, it’s because they’re keeping the extras (they probably need at least one for records or whatever) to add to their own collection of carefully curated photos and/or to trade with friends. “Hey, Lao Zhang, I’ll trade you my hot blonde, the Saudi baby, AND the guy with the epic beard for your photo of the fat Korean guy with the mole.” I guarantee that hundreds of conversations like this take place every day across China in various visa processing offices. I imagine that there’s probably a point system for different photos, based on how rare they are or maybe based on how good/weird looking the people in the photos are. Photos of well known celebrities are probably the most prized ones, so I suspect whenever famous people try to apply for Chinese visas (especially NBA players), they get asked for dozens more photos than any normal person. However, they’re rich and have assistants, so it’s probably not as annoying for them. 

 

Welp, that mystery is solved. 

追风筝的人 - The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner has been my favorite book since the first time I read it in English. It’s a beautiful, touching story and the author, Khaled Hosseini has a gift with words and describing things that I really think is quite rare. For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s the story of Amir, who grew up in Afghanistan before the Russian invasion and the close friendship he has with the son of the family servant. Eventually, the relationship sours because of some regrettable actions on the part of Amir. Amir and his father end up leaving Afghanistan for the US when the war finally starts. Years later, as an adult, Amir is contacted by an old family friend who is now living in Pakistan and is asked to come for a visit and told that “there is a way for him to become good again.” The book was made into a movie in 2007, but the movie is quite terrible. It seemed as if the director didn’t actually understand the book or only read the Cliff Notes version because the movie skipped over parts that were very integral to the story and important in explaining the relationships of the characters. 

Anyway, this post isn’t really meant to be a book review so much as it is about me bragging that I finally read this book in Chinese. I’ve had a Chinese copy of The Kite Runner for years, but could never commit myself to reading it. I would start, read a few pages, then go do something else and forget about it for a few months. It probably took me 4 years just to read the first 50 pages. For me, reading Chinese has always been somewhat tiring…it takes more concentration, I have to look words up, and it just didn’t seem as relaxing as reading in English. I think I’ve figured out what my problem is. Prior to this summer, when I would read things in Chinese, it was either for school or it was something that I thought I “should” read, ie, something maybe not that interesting, but full of useful knowledge. I had developed some kind of aversion to reading in Chinese because I regarded it as a chore. Once I got back into the story of The Kite Runner, it was like reading it in English – I couldn’t put it down. Hours would go by and I would find that I’d read 30, 40, or 50 pages in one sitting (I still read slower in Chinese), which was a far cry from previous attempts where I would read a page and think “wow! I deserve a break! Time for cat videos on youtube!” By the time I finished the book, I found that not only was my attention span for reading in Chinese much longer, but I was also reading faster and retaining more. I learned a lot of new vocabulary too. This isn’t the first full book I’ve read in Chinese, but it was the first time I actually enjoyed it. 

In the future I will not force myself to read things in Chinese because I should, but rather because I want to. I also think that it helped that the book had been originally written in English by someone with a western background and then translated into Chinese. The book didn’t contain any cultural references to ancient China or something else that would have been difficult to understand or hard to find in a dictionary. 

I have a copy of The Life of Pi by Yann Martel that I am no longer afraid of. I think when I finish that and get back to Shanghai, I will try to find Khaled Hosseini’s other books in Chinese too. 

 

Book Review – The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui

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The Private Life of Chairman Mao was written by Li Zhisui who claims to have been Mao’s personal physician for 22 years, as well as one of Mao’s closest confidants. I say “claims” not because I doubt Dr. Li’s accounts, but because many other people do, so I suppose that possibility should be taken into consideration. Dr. Li had initially kept journals to record his time working with Mao, but destroyed them when he realized they might be used as evidence against him if discovered. Therefore, the book was written based mostly on his memories after he came to the US. Memories of course, are fallible. Many historical episodes were collaborated and backed up by other testimonies and other historians, but Dr. Li claims that his translator Tai Hung-Chao and editor Anne Thurston took liberties with the information that they added and subtracted. Since the book was published in 1994, Tai has revealed that the publisher went so far as to add sensationalized details that Dr. Li never included in order to sell more books, mostly regarding Mao’s sex life. As one would expect, many of Dr. Li’s co-workers have come forward to denounce the book and state that Dr. Li didn’t work for Mao as long as he claimed, that their relationship was not as close as he says it was and to say that many of the things he wrote were outright lies.  Knowing all of this, I chose to read the book assuming that Dr. Li’s intentions were good and that he meant to provide a historical account of his time with Mao, but that there could be some details that were remembered incorrectly. The stories concerning Mao’s sex life and other juicy details I took with a grain of salt. They’re not important anyway, other than to demonstrate that Mao didn’t practice what he preached, but that’s evident in a lot of other areas as well. The reason why I chose to assume that Dr. Li’s intentions with the book were good is because he included a lot of information that was not flattering to himself, things that he had done that he was ashamed of and showed a lack of courage. Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it.

There were three things in particular that I really liked about this book. The first thing is that the book includes a map of Zhongnanhai from the relevant time period, a chart detailing the organization of the CCP, a chronology of events and a dictionary of characters and their biographies. Yeah, ok so that’s a small thing, but it sure did make it easier to keep track of people who are mentioned on page 50 and then don’t resurface again until page 500. I referenced the CCP organizational chart constantly because I kept forgetting what position everyone held. It’s the little things, people.

The second thing I liked about this book was the insight it provided into so many of the historical events I’ve learned about in various Chinese history classes. It’s one thing to read an article listing an order of events, but it’s a completely different thing to know the background information and what conversations were happening behind the scenes. It reveals a completely new side to events and the motives behind decisions that were made. Many other people I know who study China will examine a historical event from the context of politics, economics, etc etc to try and explain it, but frequently people forget that Mao and the others involved were people, which means that human logic, emotions, or the lack thereof should be accounted for as well. Sometimes people just do things because they’re hungry or angry or both and Mao was no exception.

The third thing I liked about this book was the leadership lessons that could be taken from it. I used to work in a government organization that shall remain unnamed that was basically the same as the upper levels of the CCP insofar as how much everyone sucked at being leaders. It was not a meritocracy, people were advanced based on ass kissing and sometimes to spite others. The people in charge more often than not let their personal problems affect their work and honesty would often get you in big trouble, even if you were right and it needed to be said. The decisions that were made never took into consideration the impact they would have on people at lower levels who had no freedom to speak their minds on the matter. It’s difficult to maintain your integrity and get ahead in an organization like that, as many of Dr. Li’s experiences show. He frequently did things he knew were wrong in order to save his own ass and even though my life was never at stake when I worked for the Department of Ruining People’s Lives and Sucking Up to Incompetent Leadership (that’s what I’ll call it), I can understand that feeling of having to chose between yourself and others. The impact of Mao’s decisions and the way he made them should be an example for anyone who manages people of how not to lead. If it were up to me, this book would be required reading for anyone who is going to be in charge of other people and have the ability to impact others’ quality of life.

The last thing I’m going to say is maybe somewhat inflammatory because I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority of people who think this. I’m not throwing this out there with the intent of starting an argument, it’s just the conclusion I’ve come to over time. A lot of people, most of the history teachers I’ve ever had included, think that Mao was a genius. A master at manipulating people and knowing exactly what to say and what to do at every moment in order to get them to do what he wanted. I completely disagree. I think that Mao was an arrogant, petty man with an unpredictable temper and maybe even sociopathic tendencies. I don’t believe that he was a genius, but I do think that he knew that fear controlled people and he knew how to manipulate people in order to make people fear him and be subservient to him. Manipulation isn’t genius. It’s cheap and lots of people do it all the time. If you ever read copies of any of his speeches you can see that what he says in the beginning and what he says at the end are often contradictory. According to Dr. Li, Mao was addicted to prescription drugs and a lot of what he said was influenced by barbiturates, among other drugs. He was easily swayed by the opinions of the brown nosing people around him, but he rarely took the advice of experts and preferred to rely on his own beliefs and superstitions even in the face of overwhelming evidence. To me, none of these actions seem like the behaviour of a genius. There. That’s my opinion on Mao.